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I lack the patience to haunt / Instead, I hunt

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289 AC - THE DREADFORT

Donella will only have a mother for eight more days, but of course she does not know that yet. What she does know is that no one calls her by her full name save her lord father, that he is off fighting the Ironborn, and that Mother, who she loves with all the passion and zeal of a girl of eight, prays daily for his death. Sometimes Nell prays as well, but part of her is frightened he may somehow know, even thousands of leagues away and perhaps wounded or dying or drowned, so often she only pretends to, and closes her eyes so as not to look at the heart tree’s accusing face.

A man cannot lie before a weirwood, but it may be that a child can pretend to pray before one, and Nell hopes desperately and fervently that the gods are not angry with her for this. She only wants to please Mother and not anger Father and not to be condemned to molder in a tomb, rather than join all who came before and after her in the earth and trees and snow and wind. It is summer and has been summer for over a year now, although Nell was born in winter. Mother says it is always summer for little children, they just do not realize it until they are old and grey.

Mother isn’t old and grey; she is beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world, all because Nell wills it so, makes all her mother’s ordinary features extraordinary in her own mind, her long, thin chestnut brown hair that will not curl, her small mouth, her dark brown eyes and pale, prominent brow. She builds her up stronger and haler in her mind, hearty and long-lasting. It is not all imagination. Bethany Bolton, called Beth by those who love her, is not a frail or delicate woman. She was born a Ryswell of the Rills, and the Ryswells do not produce weak stock. She is tall and wiry, long-limbed, long-faced as well, and like all Ryswells, learned to ride before she could walk.

When Lady Beth prays, she does not kneel but crouches on the leaves-covered moss instead, one palm flat on the ground, her pale fingers digging into the earth as if hoping to pry something loose. She closes her eyes and lets her breathing slow and her brow furrow and her mouth pucker slightly, lips pressed firmly together as if in distaste or begrudging tolerance of something profoundly unpleasant, and makes her silent bargains with gods who she has judged to be both deaf and blind since girlhood. Sometimes Nell tries to imagine what she might be saying:

Take him. Take him from me and I will give you whatever you desire. I will spend all my nights sleeping among your roots and all my days glorifying you. I will fast for thirteen days and nights, I will give you my tongue and never speak again, I will spend the rest of my widow’s life tending to your trees and this wood, I will never leave your sight again, only take him from me. Take him from me and I will give you blood and bone and the best of the meat, so you might grow strong and your leaves might grow redder.

Mother is well-equipped to bargain with the gods, for she made one to bring about Nell. The tale has been told many times, although never in Father’s hearing, and since he has ears everywhere, that means it has only ever been told on horseback, with Nell fighting to listen over the wind and hoofbeats in her ears. Mother takes her out riding at least once a week, if not more, and hunts with her just as often. She calls Nell her good luck charm, says any mother creature fares better on a hunt when she can see her child’s face in the distance, hungry and impatiently waiting. It’s true for bears and lions and wolves and it’s true for women too, they’ve just forgotten it. “You make me sharper,” she tells Nell, “as a whetstone does a sword, my Nell. I only have to look at you once and I could go to war, I think.” Sometimes she laughs when she says it, and Nell laughs too, but other times she is not laughing at all.

After Mother lost the second son, once the bleeding had stopped and she was fit to walk again, and knew Father would call her back to his bed every night, she went to the godswood to pray, to ask what she’d done so wrong that the gods would deny her this reprieve. “All women want sons”, Mother had said, “but I wanted a son the way a fox wants loose from a snare. I wanted a son the way dying men want water. I wanted a son or I was going to go mad and walk out into the wood and never return.” She prayed and prayed one day, from sunrise to sundown, and when the sun had disappeared and the dark of night came, she knew what must be done.

Three days later Mother had her favorite steed slaughtered, a fine young stallion in his prime. She might have sent a man to do it and gone away so she would not see it buck and neigh and smell the blood, all that blood spilling out in a sheet across the snowy ground, but she watched instead, and when it was done she took the entrails in a sack to the godswood and hung them on the tree, and sat there and watched them sway in the wind and the crows come to peck at them, and when they had all been eaten, by the birds or the animals or the weirwood itself, she knew she would not lose the next babe.

She did not. But the gods played her false, or else they must have preferred the entrails of a man, not a horse, because when Nell slipped into the world she was no son at all. “I raved and cursed you then”, Mother would recall almost fondly, “and your father had you taken and given to a wet-nurse with orders not to leave you alone with me, for I might have smothered you in a heartbeat. But once I’d calmed and I saw you in another woman’s arms I loved you all at once, and had I the strength I would have clawed her eyes out to get you back at my breast, looking into my eyes. And that is how you know I love you, else I would never have told you the tale.”

A bargain with anyone, be they god or mortal, is only good the once, Mother taught Nell then. None of the babes who came after her had lived. “It’s your father’s seed,” she told her once, “he leeched all its strength out years ago. It’s why he only has the one bastard boy.” Whenever she spoke of the Bastard, Mother’s mouth gave a bitter, savage little twist, as if she were about to laugh, but the look in her eyes was anything but amused.

All Nell knew of the Bastard in those days was that he was a year her elder and his mother had been a miller’s wife. She did not know what had happened to the miller. She had once asked Mother how Father came to know a miller’s wife, if he had already been wed to her, and Mother had simply said that he met many women on his hunts. Nell could not see why that would be. When she and Mother hunted, they never saw any women save themselves. Her parents both liked to hunt, but never went together. She never asked why. When she was out riding with Mother, be it on the road or in the wood, it felt special. Sacred. It would not be like that if Father were there. Mother would shrink back into the shell she became in his presence, the woman who did not speak or smile, the woman who could have been a doll, she sat there so still and silent and unchanging. When they were alone, that woman seemed like a mere ghost, and Mother was shockingly, alarmingly alive, smiling and laughing and talking in that husky voice of hers.

Nell had asked to meet the Bastard once, or one of those hunts, thinking she should quite like a living, breathing boy for a brother, rather than the dead husks underneath the Dreadfort, and Mother had carried on as if she had not heard her. When she’d insistently repeated the question, Mother had turned and struck her so hard her bottom lip split and welled up fat and pink, like a very plump worm. She’d cringed at her own reflection for the next two days. “Keep that boy’s name out of your mouth,” Mother had said, “or you’ll have no supper until you can hold your tongue.” But her voice had shaken like a branch in the wind.

Nell loves Mother dearly and is sometimes dearly frightened, either of or for her, but it is more than she has ever felt for Father. She feels guilty about it still at eight, feels that a daughter should love her father, and told Mother as much once. “Don’t,” Mother had said flatly. “Most men would tell you they would rather their daughters obey them than love them, and your father is chief among them.” Nell knows Mother does not love her own father, Lord Rodrik. She can see it on her face whenever they visit. He embraces her stiffly and she presses a dry kiss to his cheek and very few words ever pass directly between them. Aunt Barbrey once told her Mother has never forgiven him. For what, Nell is too afraid to ask.

But on this summer’s day she is not thinking of the Bastard or her grandfather. She is only thinking of Mother and her silent prayer and how she must every day prove she is worthy of that horse’s entrails on the tree. Nell loves horses, as anyone with a drop of Ryswell blood in them must, and she cannot comprehend ever killing one for the sake of a squalling babe. Horses are beautiful and strong and fast and they can take you as far away as you’d like. Babes are small and weak and ugly and make Mother bleed when they come too early or too late or not at all. They never go anywhere but under the earth.

Finally, Mother rises, brushing off her skirt, and Nell springs up at her side like a particularly eager weed. “Should your father fall in battle, I will take you, and we will go to Barrow Hall to live with your aunt, and one day when you are a woman wed, your second son will come and claim the Dreadfort and be its lord,” she tells Nell, taking her hand in her own. Her palms are hard and calloused from years of gripping reins and whips and bows. Nell’s soft child-fingers slip and stutter against them. Nell loves Barrow Hall and its bustling wooden town, loves Barbrey, although she smiles even less than Mother. Part of her loves the Dreadfort too, but only because she knows it so well, and she thinks if you know something by heart, you can’t help but love it a little.

They exit the godswood, and to Nell’s delight, head for the stables. She likes the stables best. It is quiet and peaceful there, unless a stableboy is being punished for something or a horse is injured. All of the Dreadfort is quiet, usually, but it is seldom peaceful. Her bedchamber, perhaps, and Mother’s rooms, and maybe the great hall when she is the only one in it- she likes to watch the shadows dance on the wall and make shapes with her fingers. Mother showed her. She also taught her that if you stood in the empty hall and screamed, the sound would be swallowed up by the blackened rafters, as if you were never really there at all.

In the stables Mother orders her second favorite stallion, Harlon, saddled for her, and the grey filly they call Wisp for Nell. It is clear and bright as they ride out with the usual guards, the ones Mother favors because she says they are nearly as frightened of her as they are of Father. Nell is never sure if she is jesting or not. The men are silent aside from the occasional murmur about the fair weather, and for the most part Mother behaves as if they were mere shadows, not there at all, and once they are on the open road she urges Harlon to a canter and Nell does the same with her filly, almost ashamed of the fact that Mother is holding back so as not to leave her behind. The guards as well-trained by now to not stay too close, although they keep them within their sight, and one of them lets loose the dogs.

Mother never hunts with more than three or four dogs, and they are all sleek, slender animals that sometimes fade right into the bushes and trees, invisible and oh so quiet until they smell or hear something, and then they are off, barking and snapping and howling, black streaks vanishing through the wood only to reappear moments later, the pink of their mouths and the red of their lolling tongues vibrant against all the green and brown and grey. Sometimes Mother stands right up in the stirrups, notching another arrow to her bow, her hair flung out behind her, and Nell watches, cradling the knife she’s been allowed to carry like a precious gem. An arrow looses, then another, and a deer comes stumbling out, bleeding and baying, before the first dog is upon it, then the second, then the third.

They draw back, whining, at Mother’s sharp command, and Nell scrambles down from the saddle and offers her the knife. The deer is still alive, although not for much longer. “It’s cruel to let them suffer,” says Mother, but she does not move, nor take the blade. The deer is panting and trembling on the ground, eyes dark and glossy. “You are old enough now,” Mother tells her. “Go on.” The dogs are slavering behind them, shaking with excitement. Nell has never been very fond of dogs; sometimes they spook a horse and make it stumble and break a leg.

She takes the knife with both hands, and kneels down beside the deer, and puts a gloved hand on its hot flank.

“You can do it,” Mother urges and her tone says, You must do it, or you are no child of mine, so she sets the blade to the throat and drags it quickly across it. It does not take long at all. The deer is still and silent, and her gloves are wet with blood, and a hopeful smile catches at her mouth when she glances up at Mother, who leans down and kisses her sweaty scalp and says hoarsely, “I knew you could be strong, sweetling.”, and Nell has never felt so loved, she thinks wildly, in all her short life.

Mother does not say much on the ride back, complaining of a sore throat, which develops into a hard cough by the time they sup together that night. Then comes the headache which keeps her abed for the next two days, and the aches and pains. Nell is not allowed to sit by her bedside, lest she sicken as well. The days stretch into a week, and by the end of that Beth Bolton is feverish and will not take any food or water, nor keep it down for long. The maester says they should write to Barrow Hall, and Nell knows it is very serious then.

Mother is dying when they receive word that the Ironborn have been defeated and Father is returning to the North. She is dying for a day and a half until finally Nell’s screeching, sobbing tantrums triumph and she is allowed to sit with her and hold her hot hands. She tries to tell Mother that it will be alright, because Aunt Barbrey will be here soon, but Mother will not listen. Delirious with fever, she is not Roose’s silent wife nor Nell’s defiant mother at all, but a frightened girl who cries out for her own long dead mother, for her beloved younger sister.

Then she looks at Nell clearly and seems to realize she is not anyone who can help her, and closes her eyes and tries to turn away. She never opens them again.

Barbrey arrives four days later, and refuses to leave until Father returns home, more than a fortnight after his second wife has been laid to rest in the crypts. He receives the news with no more than a slight, almost disappointed sigh, has Nell examined for signs of illness herself, and sends her to her room while he and her aunt disappear into his solar. Several hours later, he pushes open her bedchamber door, and Nell scrambles up from the red-eyed, puffy-faced, tangled-hair heap of a child she had been mere moments ago, and stands before him, barely restraining her tears. He regards her for a few moments, says, “She always hated that you had my eyes,” and then tells her that she is going to foster with her aunt.

“I have very little use for grieving children,” he tells her. “Were you a son, I would keep you on, but you would go to serve as a page eventually. You will go with Barbrey and if I call you back, she will send you back to me. Perhaps when you have flowered.” His gaze roves over her plump little face. “Your mother indulged you often. Barbrey may as well, but when you return to my household you will not expect any more than you are given.”

“Yes Father,” says Nell, but it blurs into a muddy jumble. She wants Mother. She wants Mother back so much it hurts. They shouldn’t have put her in the crypts. She never wanted that. She wanted to be buried somewhere the sun could find. She never wanted to be with the dead boys down in the dark. They frightened her. “I dream of them sometimes,” she’d told Nell once, while they visited their remains, the lantern shaking badly in her hands. “I sit down to feast and the boys are sitting with me, and they all have blood in their hair and your father’s eyes.” Nell’s eyes. But Mother loved her. She loved her in spite of everything else. She sent a stallion to slaughter for her. The gods played her false, but she loved her still.

“See to it that you do not waste your time in the company of women,” he goes on, and she feels as though she could melt into the floor and he would not even notice at all. Nothing would change for him. He would go on as he always has, and the Dreadfort would forget her with as much ease as it has his wives. “Your mother neglected your education beyond reading and writing. Out of spite, I assume. You will learn all that is expected of a lady, and when you return to me I will not be disappointed.”

“Yes, Father.”

For most of Nell’s eight years of life, she has known that the only thing she should ever be saying to Father is ‘yes’. Yes, I will. Yes, I swear. Yes, I won’t disappoint you. Yes, I can do as you command. Yes, please don’t know I sat with Mother while she prayed for you to never come back. Yes, Mother is gone. No, you don’t care, she thinks, and a sob leaps up in her throat, but she bites her tongue and holds it in until he leaves her. Then she sinks back onto the bed, and a few minutes later her aunt hurries in, takes one look at her, and opens her arms. “Come here, child.” She looks quite a bit like Mother, and sounds similar to her as well, so that if Nell closes her eyes tightly and does not think about anything save the ringing in her ears, she can pretend Barbrey is her.

She leaves the Dreadfort a week later on Wisp the filly, a few sheared locks of her dead mother’s hair braided tightly around her wrist.

Chapter Text

298 AC - THE BARROWLANDS

Nell has nearly made it to the top of the hill when he catches her. Two hands snag at her waist, just before a strong arm wraps round her struggling form and nearly lifts her off her feet. Her boots slip in the long, windswept grass, and they both go tumbling back down the slope, rolling and sliding. She lands flat on her back, the wind knocked out of her, and the pale blue sky full of thin clouds drifting by overhead, until it is blocked out by a very familiar face. Panting for breath, Nell pretends at shocked upset for a moment longer before she yanks him down by the scruff of the neck to kiss him.

Denys, son of Beron, her aunt’s favored serjeant, is a very good kisser. She knows it is likely because he worked his way through the maids and half the girls in town before he ever dared so much as glance her way, but Nell does not feel slighted by it. He is not her first, either. She smiles against his mouth, before jerking away when one of his hands moves up towards her chest. “You are a wicked, awful boy, treating a highborn lady so,” she tells him in mock disgust. Denys grins lazily back at her, propped up on his elbows, and then slumps down beside her in the grass, the hillside at their backs.

The plains stretch out around them, a sea of gold and brown and green, as far as the eye can see. To the north is Torrhen’s Square and the mountains where most of the northern clans dwell, to the south is the inlet of the Saltspear and below that the uppermost part of the Neck, to the east lies the Kingsroad and beyond that, White Harbor, and to the west is the Rills, and then the edge of the Blazewater Bay. Nell knows her surroundings better than she knows herself, better than she knows bold Denys, who she has been sneaking out to ride and kiss with for near three weeks now.

Denys is tall but slight, a pretty sort of boy with dusty light brown hair and a clean shaven face, although Nell prefers beards. He is not much bigger or stronger than her, and is just sixteen, a year younger. Barrow Hall is the only home he has ever known; he has never been any further than White Harbor. He is the sort of boy who thinks he knows everything, but who is really innocent in such a way that Nell feels a bit wicked herself. Denys may have taken more maidenheads than he can count in the last few years, but he was born here and will likely die here, and so in the ways of the world, he is still just a lad.

“I see no highborn lady,” he says comfortably, daringly, from his position beside her. She rolls over so her head is on his chest; his heart is pounding still, and she smiles to herself to feel its frantic pulse through his jerkin. With Denys there has never been any question as to which one of them is in control. She’s been running him ragged since the first forward smile and lingering stare. “Only a wild girl, tempting poor boys to ruin.” He wraps a lanky arm around her and squeezes until she gasps and vengefully kisses the underside of his chin.

“Am I?” Nell challenges. “I should think you’d want to teach me a lesson, then-,”

She shrieks when he grabs her by the waist and rolls over so he is sprawled atop her, and then they are quite preoccupied. At least until they hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats over the dull whistling of the wind. Nell is too caught up to be immediately concerned, but Denys has a healthy dose of fear to him, as any boy not a lord’s son might, and he hurriedly clambers off her, cursing under his breath. “Your bodice-,”

“Help me, then,” she’s caught between panicked whispers and hysterical giggles, and swears herself when he pulls her stays too tight. “Not like that, damn you!” The hoofbeats are louder now, and they both struggle to their feet, pulling one another up, tugging at clothes and hair, just as two riders come into view. One is Sara Snow, bastard daughter to the long-dead Mark Ryswell, who has served as her governess since she came to Barrow Hall, and the other is Danelle Flint, whose great-aunt Barba married Rodrik Ryswell and gave birth to Bethany, Barbrey, and all of Nell’s uncles.

Sara’s expression is set in an unforgiving, formidable stare that has always made her seem far older than her twenty five years. She was a maiden of sixteen when she first began to instruct Nell, and now she has firmly declared herself a content spinster, and her poor sense of humor remains as unchanged as her virtue. Dana Flint, in contrast, is bright pink with the effort she is making to contain her cackles of amusement at Nell and Denys’ blatant distress.

“Mistress Snow,” Denys rasps out, and then inclines his head at the sight of Dana. “Milady.”

“It’s really very fortunate that you found us just now,” Nell begins with a very convincing look, or so she hopes. She considers herself a very capable liar, although she will admit this is perhaps not among her greatest deceptions. “Denys just saved me from twisting an ankle; I fell down the hill,” she gestures for emphasis, “and had he not scrambled after me, I should hate to think of how I might have been injured- why, that could have put me off riding for weeks!”

Denys has enough sense to say nothing at all; he studies the ground with great interest instead.

“Our clumsy Nell,” Dana finally gasps out, and then squawks with a combination of laughter and fear when Sara Snow glances at her coldly.

“How very fortunate,” she says. “I am sure Denys will not object to bringing over your horses.”

Denys shoots her a panicked look. Nell’s chagrined smile twitches a little. “Well- you see, dear Sara-,”

“I only see one horse grazing nearby,” Dana points out, grinning with all her teeth. The bitch, Nell thinks, equal parts infuriated and fond, for she’d do the same were it Dana caught out in the open like this.

“Then fetch it,” Sara grits out, and Denys bolts off in that direction, brushing grass off his clothes as he goes. “Were I your aunt,” she tells Nell as soon as he is out of earshot, “I would drag you back to Barrow Hall by the hair and belt you until you could not sit a saddle.”

“Please don’t tell Aunt,” Nell bursts out, shifting from faux-earnestness to plaintive pleading with great ease, “Sara, please- it was only a bit of fun, we were hardly gone an hour, I swear-,”

“Of all the idiocy- you left on the same horse!” Sara snaps. “Do you have any idea how many might have seen you? What they might say, to see Lady Dustin’s niece- Lord Bolton’s daughter- riding off with the son of a serjeant! Do you imagine they thought you off to pick some flowers?”

Dana is not laughing anymore, and instead staring off into the distance uncomfortably, out of pity, Nell supposes, as she flushes bright red, more so for being caught than the act itself. “No one of note saw us, I promise you. We did not ride through the town-,”

“That is not the point, you foolish girl,” Sara retorts fiercely. “Who do you think you are? Some innkeeper’s daughter, neglecting your chores to roll around the barrows? You are a high lord’s daughter, a young noblewoman. Would you have people think of you as some common slattern before you see twenty years?”

“I shall be wed before I see twenty years,” Nell mutters darkly, but now Denys has returned with the sole horse, and dutifully holds the reins as she mounts it. Only then does he chance another look at Sara Snow, who raises her chin and says crisply, “I imagine the walk back to town will do you some good, Master Denys. The summer air is very invigorating on a day such as this.”

“Yes,” he mutters, cheeks flaring scarlet, and Nell knows now, to her dismay, that he will never lay so much as a finger on her again, no matter how she coaxes or cajoles. This entire debacle has mortified his boyish pride beyond any repair. To be so thoroughly reprimanded by a governess, and a natural one at that- she will be lucky if he ever speaks to her again, never mind thinks to kiss her. She is not heartbroken; Nell is not dim, she knows well enough that there could never be anything beyond stolen kisses and some eager fondling for her and Denys, and he knew it too, but she is still put out. Upset. Irritated. She leaves for the Dreadfort in six days time, and Denys was one of her few distractions until then.

Their ride back is silent, aside from the wind and the horses. Nell sits up straight and proud in the saddle, refusing to so much as look at either Sara or Dana. She knows she ought to be shamefaced and horrified at her behavior, but finds it difficult to summon up much remorse. The one part of her life she has any control over, and they mean to strip that away as well. She has always felt safe here, free to do as she pleased so long as she did not dishonor House Dustin or Ryswell. Were she a man of seventeen, and not a woman, they’d turn away in amused exasperation and let her do as she liked, so long as she avoided siring any bastards.

Nell knows nothing will ever be fair for her, but will not blame herself for wanting more anyways. It’s in her nature. They’ve always said the Boltons were a greedy, hungry lot, always grasping and clawing, willing to commit the foulest deeds just so they might have a better seat at the table and a larger helping of the meal. There was a time when even the Starks would not tangle with the Red Kings. Nell is no more ashamed of her ancestors than she is of her own desires. She will not waste her time feeling sorry for dead men. Every house in the North has partaken in its own share of savagery and dark deeds. House Bolton is merely one of the few who proudly admit to it.

When they reach Barrow Hall she thinks to tarry by the stables, harassing the grooms over their care of her horses or waiting around to see if Wisp might have her foal this evening, but all Sara has to say is, “Donella, I will await you in your bedchamber,” and she knows she is not going to be easily rid of her tutor. By all rights, she could demand her aunt dismiss Sara Snow, send her back to the Rills or to her smallfolk kin- her mother was a blacksmith’s daughter, hailing from a village along the White Knife, who sought out service with House Cerwyn and met Mark Ryswell at a feast.

Nell is seventeen now, of age and more than ready for marriage. There is very little Sara has left to teach her. But in truth, she is not just a bastard governess, stern and humorless and honest to a fault. She has also been an elder sister of sorts and a dear friend for years now, and Nell would not be parted with her if she can help it. Even when Sara is furious with her, as she is now. So she does not pout or drag her feet and instead makes her way up the wide wooden steps to the interior of the blocky keep.

Barrow Hall is quiet but always busy; her aunt keeps an efficient, active household, and punishes indolence severely; no one dares lounge about gossiping or playing cards in her presence. Nell knows nearly all the servants by name; it is a small castle, and murmurs the usual greetings and polite smiles as she passes them in the corridors and on the creaking stairs. It is a foolish lady who makes enemies of her maids and washerwomen, and a very stupid one who scorns the cooks and bakers, lest she find maggots in her meat and flies in her bread.

Her bedchamber is small but airy enough, the windows open and her drapes fluttering in the stiff breeze. Horses race across her carved oaken bedframe, and axes clash along the black pine outline of her looking glass. In many ways it is still a child’s bedroom, and Nell oftens feel vaguely bemused of late when she steps inside, wondering at how quickly the past few years seem to have flown by. It seems as if just yesterday she were agonizing over spots on her face and waiting for anything at all to happen to her breasts.

There are two women in her looking-glass; one is Nell herself, tall and shapely- she inherited her mother’s height and prominent brow but not her leanness- she is rounded where Bethany was bordering on slender, and her face is much fuller, her chin and cheekbones softer. Roose Bolton’s pale eyes stare back at her, then flicker over to Sara’s shape- Sara is a small, skinny woman, the kind who seems like to splinter into pieces if you hugged her too hard, but her severely plaited hair is so dark a brown it verges on black, and her face has a pleasing heart-shaped point to it.

“Sit down,” says Sara sharply, and Nell steps away from the looking glass and reclines on her bed as if they were about to have a leisurely conversation about the latest court fashions, head tilted to one side. Sara narrows her eyes even further, if that is possible, then gives a tight shake of her head, before sitting down by the cold hearth. When she does speak again, her voice is more despairing than anything else. “Donella, what would you have me say? Lecture you about propriety? Chastise you for your blatant defiance of years of instruction-,”

“It is not as if I have neglected my needlework or my readings,” Nell replies hotly. “I am nearly through with the Sons of Winter, and it was your suggestion that we not finish the maiden cloak until I am at Winterfell, so that Lady Catelyn might see how fair my work is-,”

“You and I both know I will not be accompanying you to Winterfell,” Sara says simply. “You will have no further need of me then. Nell, you have no further need of me now- you insist to me every day that you are no longer a child in need of correction and refinement, and you are right. You are seventeen, you will be wed by this time next year, and you are your own woman. I will not pretend otherwise.”

Nell recoils slightly as if slapped, true as the words are. Wives do not need governesses. That is true enough. But the thought of leaving Sara behind, along with her aunt, with Barrow Hall, even though Dana will go on with her as a companion until her marriage...It will still not be the same, it will still not be this hall, these people, this little room, those plains outside her window, the Dustin banners rippling in the wind, the faint sounds of the lively town.

The last time she visited Winterfell, when the betrothal was announced, was two years past, when she was fifteen and ruddy-haired Robb thirteen. She remembers a stocky, freckled boy who was shorter than his bastard half-brother and who could not have hoped to so much as lift his father’s great-sword. He blushed pink as a maid when they danced and for the most part left her with his sisters, who she only recalls at all because of their incessant squabbling. The Stark children as a whole favored their graceful mother’s Tully looks, which she took at the time to mean that the Stark seed was weak, and that her and Robb’s children might very well look more Ryswell and Bolton than anything else. It would likely please her aunt and father, at least.

She is not too proud to admit that there are far worse matches that could have been made for her. Robb seemed the conscientious, honorable sort, even for the boy that he was- is. She’s met many lads of fourteen going on fifteen. Not one is anything approaching a man. She does not think she will be mistreated, dishonored, or otherwise slighted by the household at Winterfell, beyond the leering smirks of their cocky Greyjoy ward and the occasional whispering about her family’s gruesome history. But it is not what she would have chosen for herself.

Being Lady of Winterfell holds no particular allure for her. Marriage itself does not enthuse her. She saw what it brought to her mother. Part of her is convinced she is tainted the same, that she will know nothing but sorrow in the birthing bed, and even bashful little Robb Stark might turn wary and suspicious of her womb. His sisters will be married off, his younger brothers will prowl around like dogs begging for scraps, resentful of his heirs, Ned Stark and his steely honor will wither and fade away, their vassals will begin to chafe and rustle around once more as all memory of the Rebellion that bound them together in outrage and fury against the Iron Throne, against the South itself, disappears, and then they will find themselves struggling to keep a grip on the reins of the mount that is carrying them to their graves.

Perhaps she is being pessimistic. Nell prefers it to wide-eyed hopes that can never be fulfilled.

“I’m sorry,” she says instead, to get it over with. “You’re right. It was foolish of me to go off with Denys like that. If word had got out-,”

“I am trying to shield you from yourself,” Sara tells her in a more subdued manner. “You are a bold, clever girl, Nell. I have yet to see you intimidated by anything or anyone. But you must begin to act more sensibly. It does not matter that you are still a maid,” she pauses meaningfully, and adds, “I pray you are still a maid-,”

“As if my aunt were not twice as wild in her own youth,” Nell retorts, though she reddens. “We have all heard tell of how Brandon Stark deflowered her-,”

“No one with their wits about them says as much in front of Lady Barbrey,” Sara continues evenly. “She has been a widow and a ruler in her own right for many years now. The people here respect her, even admire her. They would die for her honor. You are not so secure, Nell. You are still unwed, and still at the mercy of men like your lord father, pardon my honest tongue.”

“You are pardoned,” Nell mutters balefully.

“Were he to hear men laughing around the fire about Bolton having a wanton girl for a daughter- whether they were exaggerations or not- what do you think he would do?” Sara presses. “Speak to you gently about your conduct? Reprove you? Forbid you from riding? Does he seem a man who suffers mockery?”

Nell presses her lips together and glances away.

“No,” says Sara. “I may not know Lord Bolton as well as you do. But do not think yourself out of his power just because you are of age and betrothed to the future Warden of the North. Until your wedding day, you belong to the Dreadfort, even before you do to Barrow Hall and your aunt.”

“I belong to myself too,” Nell murmurs spitefully under her breath, but catches Sara’s almost pained look all the same.

“I wish it were so,” she says, rising from her seat, “but you know my opinions on wishes, Donella.”

She hesitates at the door. “It may be that I might travel with you to the Dreadfort, however. I should like to see my mother’s people on the White Knife again, and I have an offer to instruct some daughters of Lady Hornwood’s bannermen.”

Nell does perk up at that. “I should like that very much, Mistress Snow.”

“Very good, my lady,” Sara offers her a rare smile, and takes her leave.

She dines with her aunt that night, as she has nearly every night since she first came to Barrow Hall as a weepy girl of eight. Barbrey is not a kind woman, nor a soft-hearted one, but then again, neither was Bethany. It is not in a Ryswell’s nature to be warm and tender. Her uncles are a temperamental, argumentative lot, and their children, her little cousins, resemble an unruly pack of wildlings. Nell supposes she cares for them, if not loves them, because they are still her kin and have been good to her, but when she thinks of true family, it is Barbrey who comes first.

Her aunt has been in a foul mood as of late, no doubt because of the impending visit to the Dreadfort, and then onto Winterfell, a place she has not set foot in since Rickard Stark was still alive. Nell knows all the stories. Barbrey will never forgive Ned Stark for not returning her husband’s remains to her, and she will never forgive his long-dead father for not agreeing to betroth her to Brandon. For all the good that would have done her, Nell thinks. She would have wound up a widow all the same, and they would never have allowed her to rule the North alone.

When Roose Bolton informed Barbrey of his intent to secure a betrothal to Robb Stark, her fury was palpable, but in time, it has turned to some sort of bitter triumph. Nell knows her aunt considers her a daughter in all but birth. To see her treasured niece as Lady Stark must seem like some sort of belated victory, surely. Once they have finished their meal she sips at her wine and watches Nell with hooded, intelligent eyes. “I will ask you just the once- do I have need to send Denys from Barrowton? Torrhen’s Square is always looking for able young men.”

“No,” says Nell, with a peevish note, pushing back her empty cup. “I am through with him. Sara made certain of that.”

“Good,” Barbrey replies with a humorless smile. “I knew I had not made a mistake when I chose her for you. Catelyn Stark’s girls may have a plump little septa to teach them to chirp about the Seven and flit about a feasting hall, but you were raised a Northern lady, not some southern flower. You will remind the boy of that. Do not let him lead you about as a farmer does a cow to market.”

Robb Stark is always ‘the boy’ just as her father’s bastard is always ‘the Bastard’. Barbrey considers both as stones in the road to be dug out and tossed into the nearest stream, lest Nell stumble over them and scrape a knee. She has always admired her aunt’s quiet, cold self-assurance. No meek or mild-mannered woman could have maintained her grip on House Dustin for so long. She will likely name some nephew her heir eventually. Perhaps little Robb, named to curry favor with Ned Stark, although the thought of Barbrey handing over her niece to one Robb and Barrow Hall to the other nearly makes Nell chuckle aloud.

All of her humor dissipates when Barbrey says, “Your father has taken the Bastard into his household. He had enough sense to mention it in his last letter.”

Either sense or a general desire to not hear Barbrey scream the Dreadfort down, Nell decides. Had Father had his way, her aunt might have remained ignorant of the boy’s existence from the very beginning, but little went unsaid between the Ryswell sisters when Mother still lived.

“What of it?” she gives a small shrug, forcing back the sudden surge of dread. Was it too much to ask for, a quiet, peaceful, and brief visit? “If he wishes to play father to some ignorant lout, it is of no consequence to me. Let him have his amusements.”

“Don’t play the fool with me, girl,” Barbrey snaps. “You know as well I do the threat it could pose. You are your father’s heir. If you do not wish to see your claim to the Dreadfort and rest of your father’s lands slip through your fingers-,”

“If he wants to bring House Bolton to ruin by appealing the king to name some peasant’s son his heir, I say let him try,” Nell curls a lip in disdain. “I will have Winterfell and all the North when I am at my husband’s side.”

“Men die,” Barbrey tells her, bone-white with anger, eyes flashing. “Men die, Donella. Should Stark’s boy not sire a son on you, and if the Bastard has the Dreadfort-,”

“You speak as if Robb Stark were in fragile health,” Nell rolls her eyes. “You’re being paranoid.”

“Willam was in excellent health until he rode off to his death at Ned Stark’s side,” Barbrey hisses. “Do you think he did not promise me we would have children and a long life together before he left? Do you think he did not promise to come back to me? You cannot know what the future might bring. My lord husband survived a war only to die in Dorne. Men and their promises are not your safety nor your refuge. Land is. Power is. Never forget that.”

Nell sulks, feeling like a chastened child; she glances down at the table and away from her aunt’s piercing stare. Barbrey exhales, then leans back in her seat. “Know that I only ever have your best interests at heart, child.”

“I am not a child,” Nell glances up, scowling only because part of her thinks Barbrey has the right of it, as she always has. “I do not see why everyone still insists on treating me as such. You need not worry for me so. I am more than capable of handling a green boy and an illiterate bastard.”

“You sound as your mother did when she was a girl,” Barbrey tells her, pouring herself some more wine. Her eyes are no longer gleaming with anger but with something like sadness, if that is possible for a woman like her. “More stubbornness than sense to her. Until she married your father.”

Chapter Text

298 AC - THE DREADFORT

Nell had thought it might have looked smaller. She has not been ‘home’ in three years, after all. Her father’s keep seemed massive to her as a child, a constant looming presence. She’d always found herself playing in the shadow of one tower or another, and the glimpses of pale sky she’d gotten over the high walls had been fleeting. She is no longer a little girl, but the fortress appears just as large as it did when she was eight, when she was ten, when she was fourteen. If anything, part of her seems to register it as being even bigger, likely because she’s so unused to the sight of it. Barrow Hall seems small and almost laughably fragile in comparison, like a bundle of sticks set beside a stone block.

It’s a dreary, overcast morning, and the Weeping Water behind them continues its dull rush up towards the mountains. She knows she should feel relieved, after twelve days on the road. It is not that the Dreadfort has never felt like a home. It does. It feels very much like her home. That is what unsettles her. This nagging suspicion that her years at Barrow Hall were all a mummer’s farce, a children’s game allowed to go on for far too long. It is not as if she is staying forever, she tells herself, as the gates open. A fortnight, no more, and then she will be off to Winterfell.

But the sense of inevitably is hard to shake. Her aunt has adopted her usual expression of grim endurance, as if settling in for a bitterly cold night in the woods, and Dana is looking around wide-eyed. A Flint of Flint’s Finger, this is the furthest east she has ever been. Perhaps the furthest she has ever traveled at all. “Charming,” she says under her breath as they ride in. “Not ones for greenery, your folk, are they Nellie?” Barren would be one word to describe it. An abundance of cold grey stone and jagged edges. The only green place Nell knows of in the Dreadfort is the godswood.

And as usual, the swarm of men. It is not as though there are no women in the Dreadfort. It is just, Nell thinks as she dismounts, that they make themselves scarce, and with good reason. So do the children. And really anyone that might be perceived as vulnerable or easy prey. This is not a household overflowing with trust and good feelings towards one other. The serving girls are terrified of the guards, the guards are suspicious of each other, the cooks mistrust the washerwomen, and so on it goes, and endless knot of unspoken accusations and simmering grudges and coating over all of it, a primal fear of doing anything at all that might provoke their lord to ‘chastisement’.

Beyond the familiar, such as lanky Steelshanks, her father’s captain, and craven Maester Uthor, who Mother referred to as ‘a worming pink maggot’ after her last pregnancy, she takes note of several new faces, although it may just be that they are men who were scrawny boys when she was last here. Father appears as unchanged as ever. Some men age well, and some terribly, but Nell would be willing to wager that Roose Bolton looks exactly the same at forty two as he did at twenty two. It is not a credit to his looks- he’s not a handsome man, no more than he is an ugly one. He would not be the sort of man anyone remembered at all, were it not for his pale eyes and his position. She suspects he prefers it that way.

“Welcome home, daughter,” he says mildly. He says nearly everything mildly. Nell vaguely recalls him ordering a man’s tongue cut out, very mildly, while her mother heaped more mutton onto her plate. “I trust your travel was pleasant. Lady Barbrey. Mistress Snow.” Barbrey and Sara both murmur the customary greetings while Father pauses at Dana, who has enough sense to stow the japes away and bob into a passable curtsy. Dana is tall and gawky, all sharp cheekbones and a long neck and knobby arms and legs. Her hair is a thick mane of dark curls that puts Nell’s to shame.

“Danelle Flint, my lord,” she says politely enough. “Of Flint’s Finger. My father is Artos. Lyam’s third son,” she adds belatedly. There are so many Flints roaming the North that is often necessary to specify which branch, and whose offspring. Dana had the misfortune to be born the unwanted third daughter of a perpetually drunken third son. ‘They leapt at the chance to be rid of me,’ she often jests, with a grin that never meets her flinty blue eyes. She was named after the miserable song. Brave, dead Danny Flint. Men were singing it in the feasting hall when she came screaming into the world.

“Very pleasant,” Nell cuts in quickly, mindful of her father’s lack of humor- he knows how to amuse himself, to be sure, but she’s never heard him laugh and thinks she might throw herself out the nearest window if she ever did- combined with Dana’s general disregard for authority. Brazen. That is the word for it. “The nights have been nearly warm these past few days, it almost seems a shame to sleep indoors again.”

“Then I pray your childhood bedchamber will live up to your standards,” Father says with a slight, bland smile of some feigned attempt at kindly paternalism. She wonders if he approves of the fact that she is willing to play along. Mother never was. Not that he ever bothered; she has no memory of her parents ever having a conversation in her presence at all. She remembers listening to them quarrel a few times- or more accurately, listening to Mother scream and shout and his low, calm tones- and then the sudden absence of any shouting at all.

Her mother had two states in her father’s presence. Most of the time she was a hollow figurine, and the look in her eyes was that of a crippled animal watching the predator approach with dull acceptance of its fate. Rarely she was an unhinged tempest, spitting and snarling and only settled by what some men might call ‘a firm hand and a quiet word’. She imagines Mother had other names for it. She imagines they had different names for many things.

Father proves correct. Her childhood bedchamber does live up to her standards. It is just as cavernous as she recalls it being as a little girl. She suspects it has something to do with the positions of the narrow windows, but even with a small fire crackling in the hearth, the room seems dark and encroaching. “Let’s share a bed,” she suggests lightly to Dana, trying to mask her unease at the flood of memories that come rushing back. “The guest rooms are always too cold.” Sometimes Mother would come in here and sleep beside her, although she was always gone by morning. She can still smell her perfume, if she concentrates. The braid of hair around her wrist itches suddenly.

“You’ll get no complaints with me, so long as I can endure your snoring.” Dana dodges the pillow Nell heaves at her, collapsing in an array of spindly limbs in the high-backed chair by the hearth. “Will you tell me all the ghost stories later?” Dana responds to anything that makes her uncomfortable, or angry, or sad, by mocking it incessantly. Nell is oddly grateful to her for agreeing to come here at all. Some ladies, whether they hail from savage Flints or not, would have been far more hesitant to accompany a Bolton anywhere. But Dana has been her steadfast friend since the age of fourteen.

“Watch what you say,” Nell advises coolly as she lays out her gown for the evening. “My father always has someone listening.”

Dana flaps a hand at her. “Bah- I’m more interested in finding the bastard boy. Your aunt carries on as if he were a witch plotting some curse to steal your inheritance.”

“Bastards don’t need curses to steal inheritances,” Nell is now rifling through her old writing desk, trying to see if there are any forgotten trinkets from her childhood left. Some pieces of colored glass, a bit of twine, a few pretty pebbles, and a small collection of animal bones- mostly rabbits- she thinks Mother likely salvaged for her, are all she finds. “Just a weak lord and cold steel.” Fortunately Father is not the former, and as for the latter- well, she can only hope no one was fool enough to let a miller’s boy go armed.

“That’s the problem when you’ve only the one,” Dana muses tiredly. “My father’s gotten a whelp on half the whores he’s ever been with. Bet you six silvers I’ve got natural brothers and sisters as far south as King’s Landing.” She closes her eyes and grins at the thought. “And none of us, true or not, expect a damn thing from him. There’s a model for a household.”

Within a few minutes she has, for all intents and purposes, managed to doze off in said chair. Nell knows she’ll be hearing plenty of complaints about a stiff neck and aching back tonight. She decides to leave her to it. She’s sore enough herself after half a day spent in the saddle, and she summons two maids to draw up a bath for her. The last time she bathed was in the White Knife, cringing and squealing with Dana at the cold between gritted teeth, toes deep in the thick mud.

Somewhere in between nodding off in the tub herself, one of the near-mute maids comes hastening over to murmur in her ear that Lord Roose wishes to speak with her in his solar before dinner tonight. Nell considers ignoring the order and pretending there’d been some mistake later, but she’s not cruel enough to drag the servants into it, and perhaps it’s for the best that they get this out of the way now, rather than later. You are a woman grown, she reminds herself harshly as she wrings out her thick hair. Soon enough you will be a woman wed and part of another household entirely. He knows he is losing another plaything.

When they held her mother's vigil in the godswood, she remember standing wrapped in Barbrey’s thick cloak, watching his face. He’d most closely resembled a petulant child, disappointed over a broken toy. He certainly had ample time and opportunity to remarry. Nell is still not sure why he did not. Perhaps after two wives he’d tired of the old game of trying to bleed them dry for a son. And he’s always had his pick of the small crofters' wives and daughters. Maybe a third marriage seemed more trouble than it was worth, when Roose Bolton could simply go out hunting and always be assured of his success.

She is wearing one of her new gowns, a rich wine-burgundy, trimmed with ermine round the collar, when she reaches the solar. The door is closed, and she hesitates before it, that childish anxiety of opening it without knocking clawing at her. Instead she makes a fist and raps on the stained wood, only to jump back when it slams open with enough force to bring up a cloud of dust from the stone wall behind it. Nell has never met the enraged young man who’s just stalked out into the corridor, but she knows him the instant she gets a glimpse of his face.

It would be very hard to mistake the eyes they both share with their lord father, after all.

Ramsay Snow is big, is her first, dismayed thought. She’d been hoping for some sallow, callow, sunken-chested youth who’d inspire very little confidence in terms of physical prowess. It’d make him easier to manage. He stands a good four inches taller than Roose and is nearly twice as wide; she takes in the sloped shoulders and meatiness of his face and limbs. He wears his dark hair long and has obviously taken to dressing above his station- the earring is proof enough of that, glinting redly in the torchlight.

Turn around and walk away, now, a very small and sharp voice in her head says. Go fetch your aunt. Don’t let this one remember your face, your voice. Instead Nell draws herself up, adopts the disinterested gaze of the trueborn daughter she is, and says to her father, who she knows must be just behind the still trembling door, “This is your natural son, then? I hadn’t thought millers could afford garnets, Father.”

Ramsay’s snarl shifts into a truly ugly smile that shows none of his teeth. They must be terrible, she thinks triumphantly. Good. You can dress a pig in silks and parade it about. It does not make it any less destined for the butcher’s knife. “And this must be my sweet sister. I’ve been asking after you for some time.” Oh, she’s sure he has. Asking after the lucky little bitch who slipped into the world a year after him, just in time to claim a title and a hold on the Dreadfort.

“Soften your tongue, Donella,” Father chides her patiently, stepping into view. “I have taken your brother into my household, and should he desire to dress well-,”

“Altogether too well, perhaps,” Nell cuts in sweetly, hackles raised. This is very bad. Very. Had he been skulking about in hand-me-downs and stammering over his words, she’d have been satisfied. This one is altogether too confident for a boy raised among the smallfolk. He should not even have said a word to her before a proper introduction. She’d been willing to begrudgingly tolerate Father putting the Bastard on a lead. Now she sees that it is a very long one indeed.

Still Ramsay smiles, but his eyes say otherwise. They are smaller and closer together than Father’s, than her own. She tries to reassure herself with every deformity or flaw she can detect on his person. No. It should be clear enough which one of them is legitimate, and which one of them was sired on a riverbank. “I am a Bolton in all but name.”

At that Father gives him a warning glance, and he presses his wet lips together.

“You would do well to remember your place,” Nell smiles thinly at him. She is not afraid. She cannot be afraid. He is nothing to her. He is utterly insignificant when she will soon have Ned Stark’s son eating out of the palm of her hand. “I am here because it is my right. You are here at our generous lord father’s pleasure.” At that the snarl all but returns and he nearly takes a step towards her, but Father says quietly, “Be on your way, Ramsay. There are things I must discuss with Donella.”

“Her manners, I hope,” he sneers, but walks away all the same, casting one last hard glance over his shoulder at her. Nell fights the urge to recoil.

The solar is the same as it always has been; richly decorated and cloyingly stuffy. She peers disinterestedly at the stag’s skull mounted over the hearth. When she was young Nell often imagined its eyeless sockets could still see her. The antlers are more yellowed than she remembers. Father sits; she stands. She imagines some men would prefer to project their authority by towering over her, but he is not that much taller than her, and he has always enjoyed being able to give orders without having to so much as move a muscule. She is vaguely aware that she is pouting and biting her lower lip like a distraught child. Oddly helpless and squirming under his gaze. Like a leech.

“I imagine your aunt has put many ideas about your ‘rights’ into your head,” he says once the door has shut with a note of dismayed finality behind her.

Nell imagines she is walking across a frozen pond, the ice as delicate as an eggshell under her feet. “She only wants what’s best for me, Father. You know how she worries.”

He makes a faint noise of assent. “And what do you imagine I want for you?”

The ice is heaving slightly underneath her feet. Her heart begins to pound and she does not take her eyes off the stag’s skull. She is terrified of him and she hates herself for being terrified and she hates him for still having this effect on her. Roose Bolton could be a shriveled old man of eighty, liable to break a bone with every step, and she would still respond like this to him, still stand here rigid with fear and anxiety. She could be a woman wed and bedded with a horde of brats and she would still grow pale and clammy before him, avert her gaze like a guilty dog, and listen to her voice go shrill and girlish and frightened.

“You want me to make a good marriage,” she murmurs.

“And how does one make a good marriage, Donella?” If she was a son, she would have killed him years ago. She likes to imagine that sometimes. She wonders if his blood is the same milky not-white-not-grey as their eyes. Foul and diseased. If she was a son she’d have put an arrow through his throat on some hunt, and she’d be sliding a knife through the Bastard’s ribs at this very moment, and then she’d be well rid of both of them.

“With a good dowry,” she recites, “and a fertile womb.”

“Your aunt assures me that you will not have your mother’s difficulties in the birthing bed.”

At that she tears her dry eyes away from the skull and looks at him, opens her mouth to say something, do something, how dare he, how dare he how dare he- But nothing comes out at all. Her tongue is heavy and still. Like a wet, dead leaf suck to the bottom of her mouth. She gives a jerky little nod. “I am very healthy, Father. I will give Robb Stark many sons.”

“Not too many, I hope. That often causes a great deal of strife.”

Roose Bolton was never an only child. But he was the only child of his parents to see manhood.

“I won’t disappoint you,” she says, in reply to his expectant look. “I promise, Father. Aunt says I will make a fine lady of Winterfell.”

“Let us hope so. Do you think your brother would make a fine lord of the Dreadfort?”

“You can’t,” it bursts out of her not as an angry declaration or a horrified plea, but a little girl’s sniveling whine. Obnoxious and grating and spoiled. “Father-,”

“I agree,” he tells her. “A very poor lord. He is a regrettably slow learner, your brother.”

“He is no brother of mine,” the words slide out of her before she can stop them.

Roose Bolton smiles slightly at that, but there is no warmth or affection to it. “You sound like Bethany. When he was first brought here, as a babe, she was… displeased with me. She needn’t have worried. I had no intention of bringing the boy under my roof. I provided for him, to be sure, but he was never to know who had sired him. I should have had his mother’s tongue out.”

“He’s been here longer than a year,” Nell notes, cautiously. That must be so. The Bastard is altogether far too comfortable. Father does not have moods, because he does not know joy or anger or sorrow. But there are times when he is more… amenable, and she thinks this is one of them. “Barbrey said-,”

“I do not answer to Lady Dustin, much to her regret. Your brother is here because I have no sons, and he serves me better than no son would at all. You will try to forgive his coarser habits. He is not used to being in the presence of ladies.”

Dinner is a sullen, miserable affair. Father does not insist on the Bastard dining with them at the high table, to her relief. Ramsay eats with his group of sneering, poxy admirers. She suspects half or more of them likely report directly back to Father. It is what she would do, were she fool enough to let a brute like that into her household. They eat like wild dogs and spend much of their time around the kennels, from what she has heard.

“You are never to be alone while you are here.” Barbrey tells her later that night, and Nell does not need to ask why. She is never alone. Her aunt or Dana or Sara are always by her side, whether she is sleeping or bathing or walking through the corridors or out riding along the Weeping Water. But for most of the fortnight of their stay, the weather is poor and rainy, and she spends much of her time indoors.

She reads and writes and practices her needlework and sits in the godswood and prays to Mother. She never feels her beneath the weirwood. In a sense it is relieving. Mother would have hated to have been chained to the Dreadfort even in death. She is out running with wild things in the forest, most likely. Two days before they are due to depart for Winterfell, she walks the battlements with Sara.

“You are certain you must go to teach some whinging little whelps reading and writing and sums?” Nell links her arm with Sara, who just barely avoids smiling.

“Education is every highborn child’s right. I consider myself very fortunate that my father sought me out and placed me in his own household before his death.” Had it not been for Mark Ryswell’s generous nature, Sara Snow might have lived an ordinary, ignorant life in some ramshackle village before marrying a woodcutter at sixteen. But it might have been happier, Nell sometimes thinks. She was never one of the Ryswells, not really. Always the bastard girl. Tolerated and educated but never really loved or welcomed.

“I could be with child by this time next year,” Nell begins hopefully, and not for the first time. “If you were to come to Winterfell-,”

“Your children will have far more learned and wise tutors than me,” but Sara dares to press a sisterly kiss to her cheek. “You will be fine. I wish you every happiness in the world. Perhaps I may visit you, when you are settled.”

Nell feels a strange lump in her throat, and blinks hard. “I thought you always said wishes were for little children and dying men.”

“So you were listening to me all these years.” Sara gives a breathy laugh, and it trembles in the cool, damp air as they come carefully down the stone steps. “Very well. I pray you seize every happiness in the world. You have never been one to wait for things to come to you, so I know you will take them without fear.”

They are still chuckling when they come across the yard, and Nell later thinks that was her mistake. She should have warned Sara. No one laughs like that in the Dreadfort. The stones themselves will not tolerate it. It was her fault, what came afterwards. Her fault. Mother would be ashamed of her.

Two of the dogs are snarling and fighting over some scrap outside the kennel. Nell pauses, laughter abruptly dying, and realizes a moment too late that it is a half-dead cat, still yowling in pain. Sara’s cold hand stiffly clutches her own as a few of the Bastard’s boys leer their way. She can smell the one they call Reek from here, more creature than man. One of them, Dane or Damon, she thinks, gives a low whistle in their direction, as if trying to get a dog or horse’s attention. Then he is back to egging on the dogs- Jez and Helicent. Odd names for hunting hounds.

“Don’t stop,” Sara mutters in her ear, and for the first and only time that Nell can recall, her governess sounds genuinely afraid. She can feel Ramsay’s ugly grin on the back of her neck.

Sara relaxes once they’re indoors once more, but Nell does not. The day after tomorrow, we will all be gone away from here, she tells herself. Stop this nonsense. You are not going to be menaced by some half-mad dogs and some half-savage boys. The rest of the day passes without much excitement, to her relief. But she does not sleep well that night at all, even as she listens to Dana’s soft breathing and the faint crackle of the fire.

She has just finished changing that morning when her aunt steps inside her room, the maids hurrying past her. Nell finishes adjusting the scarlet ribbon in her hair, and glances up from the clouded looking glass. At the expression on Barbrey’s pinched face, her heart drops through the ice and into the cold depths of her stomach. “What is it?” She stands up too quickly, blood pounding in her head.

“Sara is missing. One of the guards at the gate swears to me she set off at dawn for Hornwood.”

He swears to Nell as well, but he cannot meet her pale Bolton eyes so easily as he could her aunt’s. She knows, then. She does not want to believe it, but she knows. Sara Snow did not wake before dawn, pack her meager possessions, saddle a horse, and ride off into the gathering daylight. Nell wishes it were so, wishes Sara were the sort to leave without a goodbye and so suddenly, but wishing will not make it true.

The truth is in the laughter and sniggers of Ramsay’s boys at breakfast. The truth is in the broad smile he gives her when she rushes into the great hall to speak with Father, breathless and bedraggled, the ribbon sagging in her hair, Dana pale and tense at her side, Barbrey’s lips drawn into a thin, furious line. This time, her brother shows his teeth when he grins, and Nell believes him then.

“I see no reason to disbelieve my own men,” Roose says, so very mildly, as Nell struggles not to scream and shout and snatch up a knife. “Perhaps you assumed too much of the woman’s fondness for you, Donella. She was a servant, nothing more. It may be she had some man waiting for her, now that her duty to you was done. It pains me to say it, but these natural daughters are often careless by nature, as any lord will tell you.”

You will try to forgive his coarser habits. Bile creeps up her throat. Barbrey is speaking now to her father, low and outraged, but nothing will come of it. Nothing ever comes of anything here. She feels as though the hall were spinning very slowly around her. Dana takes her by the hand, gently, and leads her out. As soon as they are out of Father’s sight- the Bastard’s sight- her supper from the night before comes roiling back up her throat.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell tastes bile in her mouth all the way to Winterfell, even with Barbrey promising her justice upon her marriage- “When you are Stark’s good-daughter, inquiries can be opened, accusations made, and we will all see the Bastard hang,” Barbrey tells her, her long fingers digging into Nell’s spine as she embraces her tightly. “He will not get away with this.” Perhaps she even believes it, for all her blunt nature. Her aunt has never ventured to lie to her before, considering a sour truth better than a sweet falsehood.

But Nell knows better. Even once she is wed to Robb, nothing will happen to Ramsay so long as he proves useful to Father. Unless the Bastard commits a crime in full view of House Stark, he will see no punishment. Roose Bolton has found himself a prize fighting dog in his sole son, and is very loathe to give him up: “A peaceful land, a quiet people.” Nell suspects nothing quiets the people and their woes like the sight of Ramsay Snow and his boys riding through their village or town.

Dana has other ideas. “They don’t dare whisper them in front of you, but I’ve heard stories,” she tells Nell on their first night back on the road, bundled in furs inside their tent, far away from Father’s. “There’s more girls missing. Or found before the animals got to them. All lowborn. When you are a Stark, you could offer their families protection, should they agree to testify.”

Nell does not answer, curled up on her side and staring into the darkness. She feels as though all the rage and grief has hardened in her bones, making her body feel heavy and unwieldy to move or manage. It’s her fault. She may never be able to admit such a thing aloud, but it is. She provoked him, humiliated him in front of Father. Had she simply held her tongue and played the timid daughter, all of this might have been avoided. Instead she goaded the Bastard, the way a boy might a wounded dog, losing a few fingers for his trouble.

Sara is dead because of the both of them. Her for taunting the beast and thinking to dance away unscathed, and him for realizing he might not get the chance to carve that superior smile off her face, and settling for the most available target instead. No one cares. Oh, Barbrey cares and Nell cares and Dana cares, the people who knew Sara best, who claimed her as their own, but no one else. She was a bastard daughter. Baseborn. Insignificant. Discarded. There would be a great outcry, an investigation, had she been a highborn lady, even from a minor house. A slaughtered maiden fair.

But a Snow? They will never sing songs of her beauty or mourn her loss the way the North did Lyanna Stark’s or Danny Flint’s. She will be forgotten as carelessly as she was sired, leaving behind no mother, no father, no husband nor children. Nell will remember, and the memories will die with her. Sara reading to her. Singing to her. Correcting her posture and having her recite the correct greetings and farewells. Teaching her history and geography, looking over maps by candlelight, scratching numbers and letters on her slate.

When she flowered at thirteen her aunt was out seeing to some matter in Barrowton, and it was Sara she went to, pale and queasy and more than a bit frightened of what it meant. It was Sara who rubbed slow circles in her back and brushed back her hair and fetched her tea to settle the pain and cramping. Sara who taught her how to use a needle so deftly, Sara who showed her how to dance, Sara who endured her tantrums and sullen moods and snappish retorts and willful ways.

My fault, she thinks angrily, and has to ball her fist up and bite down on her knuckles so as not to cry.

“He’ll pay,” Dana tells her fiercely in the night. “He won’t get away with it, Nell. None of them will. When you come back as Lady Stark, I’ll help you tear that damned kennel down.”

Her dreams are full of snapping teeth and low growls, shapes rustling through the trees. A woman is screaming in the distance. She cannot bring herself to follow the sounds, knowing what she will find. In her waking hours, with nothing to do but sit in the saddle and stare at the horizon, she sometimes concentrates on her father’s form up ahead, thinks about how she would kill him. How she would make him suffer. He knew. And did nothing. She thinks she would kill him first, then the Bastard. Thinks about slipping into his tent and opening up his throat in his sleep. Thinks about him falling from the saddle and cracking open his skull on the hard, rocky ground.

News travels slowly in the North, and it is not until they’ve crossed the White Knife that they hear the first rumors. Jon Arryn is dead, and travelers are flocking to the usually desolate winter town in anticipation of a royal visit. It is all anyone can speak of, suddenly. Robert Baratheon has not come north in years. Five or more, Nell thinks. She has never met the king, nor the queen, but every soul in Westeros must know by now that Ned Stark was his boyhood friend. It should come as no surprise that they would wish to grieve the death of their foster father together.

“Do you imagine the king comes to Winterfell for a mourning visit?” Barbrey challenges her when they are just two days out from the winter town. “Think, Donella. Arryn is dead, and suddenly, at that. The man already shocked many, to not only survive the war but near fifteen years as Hand, old as he already was when it began. Who do you think Robert Baratheon might name now?”

Nell scowls at the chiding, but answers all the same, “You believe he means to offer Lord Eddard the position. Why not Tywin Lannister? He has already served under Aerys-,”

“Perhaps the king is sick of being surrounded by lions,” Dana ventures with a flippant little smile.

“Or perhaps he is the sort of man who values friendship over experience,” Barbrey says pointedly.

“So a fool, then,” Nell mutters, earning a approving look from her aunt and a bark of laughter from Dana.

“We have all been heartsick as of late,” Barbrey nudges her fine grey stallion up the hillside, looking straight ahead with something like pride on her long face, “but this may be an unexpected boon. Should Stark agree and go south, he will leave Winterfell and the North in the boy’s hands.” Without glancing back at Nell, she adds, “Your hands.”

From the little she recalls of Catelyn Stark during her last visit, Nell does not think the woman the sort to passively step aside and allow her young son and his scheming wife-to-be to manage not only Winterfell but all the North in her husband’s absence. But she declines to mention it to Barbrey, knowing it will just annoy her aunt. Let her have this, then. At present, Nell cannot bring herself to care about much of anything beyond Sara and her own guilt and rage.

Besides, Nell truly cannot see Ned Stark accepting such an offer, if it is even made. He is not an old man yet, with children married off and settled. Why, the youngest boy is but three, and Lady Catelyn is still young enough that she might have more children. And even were he older, after the fates of his father and brother… Why would any Stark wish to set foot in the Red Keep, least of all the man who fought a war to wrench it away from the Mad King? Nell has never had any particular desires to go south herself. She imagines the court is lively and exciting enough, but to be so far from the North, from the old gods and the weirwoods and Mother… It’s never seemed very enticing.

No, she does not think Ned Stark will be leaving Winterfell, nor the North, anytime soon. It is likely for the best. Robb may be near a man grown, turning fifteen later this year, but she doubts he has any real experience ruling beyond sitting in on meetings with his father and watching him mete out a lord’s justice to criminals. Her own father came into his seat at fifteen, but- she doesn’t think he was ever a child, not really. She will admit that she in truth barely knows her betrothed, but unless he is an accomplished actor, he is no Roose Bolton.

She prays not, at least.

Even had they not heard of the impending royal visit, the unusually active winter town should have been a forewarning. In the midst of the longest summer anyone call recall, it ought to be near deserted beyond the tavern and the small market square. Instead there are children running in the streets and dogs barking and traders and merchants setting up shop in anticipation of doing more business soon than they have in years. It reminds her of Barrowton, although the buildings are not nearly as neat and the streets are wider and full of mud and holes.

Winterfell stands tall and strong and foreboding behind the small town. Nell is struck by the sheer scale of the castle. The Dreadfort is not small, but Winterfell is easily twice its size, if not thrice. Barrow Hall is minuscule in comparison. She feels the same brief shudder of trepidation that she did when she first rode through the gates. She remembers telling Sara- telling Sara- Nell blinks hard and then shakes the thought away. No. No sense in torturing herself in every waking moment. She will save that for the long, lonely nights ahead of her. Instead she makes eye contact with Barbrey, who raises her head high as they pass the gatehouse, and feels the weight of Father’s stare upon her. For once, Dana is well and truly rendered speechless.

Nell composes herself, straightens up in the saddle, gripping the reins of her favorite stallion, Roddy, named for Roddy the Ruin by Dana when they were drunk on some smuggled ale, and carefully arranges her expression into a pleasing smile. They will not say Donella Bolton came here cold and angry. They will say she appeared every bit the pliant, hopeful young bride to be. Once inside the Great Keep, she brings Roddy to a halt and waits patiently. Father appears, gloved hand outstretched to let her daintily dismount, while Walton assists Barbrey, and Dana vaults down before any man can reach for her.

And there are the Starks, waiting with varying degrees of welcoming smiles on their somber faces. It has only been two years, perhaps a little less, and Nell takes a close look now, to see what may have changed. Unsurprisingly, what is most obvious is that little Rickon, who had just started walking (and screaming) when she last saw him, is now an apple-cheeked boy of three, with long coppery curls and a suspicious, pouting scowl, clutching his mother’s hand. Brandon looks older as well, with what seems a recent haircut and a restless air to him, fidgeting in place and constantly glancing up and away, as if waiting for something exciting to happen.

The girls are perhaps less overtly changed, although Arya’s face seems even longer and Sansa appears even taller. Nell is certain the older girl will easily be her height within a few years, and her hair is longer as well; thick and lustrous auburn curls and high, elegant cheekbones. That one will be a great beauty, she thinks, without much jealousy. There is more to life than striking looks, and her own eyes are all the ‘striking’ that she has any need or wish for. Arya, the poor thing, is the only child of Catelyn Stark’s to take after her lord husband, and stands skinny and slouching beside Sansa, as if being prickled and prodded by her prettiness.

Her betrothed is shoulder to shoulder with his bastard brother; their difference in height is less pronounced than it was two years ago, but Jon Snow is still slightly taller, and leaner, Ned Stark’s son in every sense of the word. It is even more evident now that he is nearing manhood. His hair is a darker brown than even little Arya’s or his father’s, and he holds himself like a man years older, sober and reserved and perhaps a little proud. In contrast, Robb seems open and unguarded, although his bearing is stiff- she wonders if he is nervous.

He is handsome, at least. One could call Jon Snow lithe and fine, but Robb is traditionally handsome in the way that makes girls blush and fidget. He may not be the tallest or the brawniest, but he has the suggestion of broad shoulders to come, an unmarked, reasonably freckled face, and auburn hair somewhere in between Rickon’s wild curls and Brandon’s straight locks in both texture and color. His eyes are blue and not too small nor too big, his nose and chin are well-proportioned, his brows are even, he carries himself well, not slumped or timid at all. Unlike the last time he saw her, he does not blush fiercely now, although when their eyes meet he does seem to tense a little and glance away, uncomfortable.

She must change that, Nell thinks. They have exchanged the odd letter over the past few years, but she had no real passion for it, nor did he. He does not know her. He may distrust her, even, based on her family’s history. He may have feelings for another lady, or a castle servant, or even some tavern whore. Men are fickle, folly creatures. He must be comfortable around her. She must set him at ease, must convince him that she is half in love with him already, must tread the line between besotted girl and confident woman carefully. Play the innocent fool, it may put him off. Play the coy and knowing flirt, it may put him off. She will have to determine what sort of girl might rouse his interest.

She needs to get to know him, specifically to keep him from knowing her. He would not like the real her. Nell is a spiteful, vindictive, and sometimes terribly sad beast. He would not like that at all. He would not like to know that she most truly feels alive when she is hunting something, when she has some sense of being able to win, to triumph, to take a trophy. He would not like to know that she has kissed more boys than she has fingers to count with. He would not like to know that she is a reckless rider who was once thrown into the Saltspear while racing horses. He would not like to know that her aunt will not rest until Nell holds the North in her pale fist, not him. He would not like to know that Sara is dead because of her pride.

So he won’t know, she tells herself briskly, as Father bows before Ned Stark and presses a kiss to the back of Catelyn Stark’s hand, and Barbrey curtsies, head lowered so as to hide the aggravation at having to pay open respect and fealty, and Nell and Dana curtsy as well, low and humble. “Lord Eddard, Lady Catelyn, thank you again for welcoming me into your home,” Nell says graciously, and then turns to Robb. “My lord, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to begin the preparations for our marriage. I pray I will make you a good and able wife.”

He seems taken aback for a moment, before nodding and smiling politely. “The pleasure is mine, Lady Donella.”

“You must call me Nell, my lord,” she assures him, daring to take a slight step closer, so he might smell her perfume, see how thick and dark her hair gleams in the summer sunlight, watch that same light catch at the garnets at her white throat. She smiles, revealing her good, fairly straight teeth, and she hopes, the contrast of her reddened and only slightly chapped lips. “I hope we shall be good friends in the months to come.”

Soon after that, her father and aunt have retired to their respective corners of the guest house, the children have scattered, and Lady Catelyn has agreed to give her a tour of the castle once more. Nell is much more reserved in the older woman’s presence, sensing charm will only so far in her Tully blue eyes, and does her best to seem every bit the motherless daughter, eager to please and careful with her words. “I am afraid I will be terribly lost these first few weeks,” she ventures to say, as they walk through the ancient First Keep. “I remember the last time I was here, my lady- I was completely turned around on the bridge to the bell tower, and I kept walking past the armory.”

“Winterfell seems massive to anyone,” Catelyn says, not unkindly. She is still a very pretty woman, Nell thinks, with her long hair and her unlined face. Confident as well, and eloquent. She and Barbrey might have been friends, once, had she not been betrothed the only man her aunt ever loved. “I was very overwhelmed when I first arrived, and with a babe in arms as well. But I learned. Maester Luwin will be happy to assist when it comes to any part of our home. He knows Winterfell better than anyone, save my lord husband and Bran, I think.” She smiles a bit wider at that. All mothers have their favorites, and her second son is plainly hers. Nell likes to think Mother still would have favored her, even had her brothers lived.

“Bran?” Nell questions. “How came he to know Winterfell better than all his siblings?”

“He is quite the climber,” Catelyn’s smile turns rueful, and she shakes her head. “No matter how many times I have tried to dissuade him- our Bran might as well be a cat. Or a squirrel.” She pauses and cranes her neck up to peer around the nearest walls and rooftops. “Thankfully, I see no sign of him now. He must be with his pup.”

“He keeps a dog of his own?” Nell’s smile wavers at the thought of the last dogs she saw at the Dreadfort, but she fights to keep her tone light and even. “That’s very sweet-,”

There is a sudden explosion of noise, barks and growls, and she clamps her mouth shut in shock just as two small, furry, snarling shapes come tearing around the corner, footfall echoing after them. “Nymeria! Let Shaggy have it!” A girl is yelling, and Nell recoils in shock as Arya and Rickon appear, panting and red-faced with exertion on the heels of their dogs- no, not dogs, their fur is long and their ears stand erect, their tails bushy-

“Direwolves,” says Catelyn Stark, apologetically, before she turns on her shouting children and the snarling- wolves-

She must have misheard her future good-mother, because direwolves aren’t real, or at least, haven’t been seen south of the Wall in centuries, so they can’t be direwolves, and who in their right mind would let a child raise up a wolf pup-

The Starks, evidently, because that is what she sees, as the pups, already the size of smaller dogs, are wrestled apart, their growls turning into more playful yelps and whines. The one Arya holds close and nestles her long face against is grey-furred and golden eyed, and the one Rickon clutches is licking at his laughing face, pitch black with eyes of forest green. Nell stands perfectly still and horrified, until Catelyn says more sharply, “Children, please take the wolves into the godswood. You’re frightening your good-sister- yes, Arya, run along now, and do change, won’t you? Let’s not ruin another dress- Rickon, don’t pull his tail so, remember what your father said-,”

“Direwolves,” repeats Nell hoarsely as they rush off again, and Catelyn turns back to her, looking more than a little concerned at her pallor. “They… how did they come by two direwolf pups, my lady?”

“Six,” Catelyn corrects her, and she feels quite faint. “And growing quickly, too. I already know will come to regret allowing them indoors, but the children are already very attached, as you can see. And tomorrow is Arya’s name day- I haven’t the heart to forbid her much of anything this week.”

“Six?” Dana’s eyes when Nell tells her as much, late that evening. They should both be abed by now, but are far past the age of Barbrey coming in to scold them to sleep, and are instead huddled up in the window seat, watching their breath mist on the pane. “They have six bloody wolves running around? Gods, how long until they group up and start picking off the servants?”

Nell wants to laugh at that, but all that comes out is an unnerved exhale. “Can you imagine? And no one seems to find it a bit strange- Sansa was feeding hers under the table at dinner!”

“And she’s the delicate one,” Dana observes. “Are you certain they’re really a Tully’s children? Perchance Stark took a wildling mistress. Direwolves in the wolfswood?” She shakes her head. “I’d call that an omen for sure. Six for six.”

“An omen of what?” Nell rests her flushed face against the cold glass, letting her eyes shut for a moment. She saw Robb’s pup, or a glimpse of it at least, a grey blur with wicked yellow eyes. She’s never seen eyes that yellow before. She imagines when it’s bigger they’ll look like twin lanterns in the dark.

“The gods are with them,” Dana says matter of factly. The Flints of the Finger are a superstitious lot, raised on that lonely, craggy stretch of land. They were raided so often by the Ironborn, shrieking demons from the sea, that they had to come to revere the gods of the North all the more. For protection and comfort when the Kraken was sighted off the cliffs. Dana took one look at Theon Greyjoy and hated him on sight. “Good luck for your marriage, then, so long as his wolf likes the smell of you.”

“You don’t think he lets it sleep with him, do you?” Nell tries to imagine waking in the night to find a full grown direwolf curled up beside her in bed. It’d have her head cracked off in its jaws before she had time to scream.

Dana smirks at that. “Your children will have full heads of hair.”

“It’s not funny,” Nell hisses, although it is a little funny. At least, it would be were this not her home. A godsforsaken (or six times blessed, if you asked Dana) wolf’s den. Direwolves are animals, she reminds herself. Just beasts, no different from a dog or wolf- only bigger. Far bigger. In a few months’ time, these ones would make the hounds of the Dreadfort look like mewling kittens. She’s not sure if she should be heartened or terrified by that knowledge.

The next day is young Arya Stark’s ninth name day, and as such, little Arya Underfoot, as Nell has heard the servants and men at arms fondly addressing her, is given leave to do as she pleases, rather than a regular day’s worth of lessons with her old shrew of a septa. The entire family rides out to the wolfswood, a bizarre outing that Nell finds herself and Dana forced to accompany, while Barbrey and her father shrewdly cite a headache and a bad knee, respectively. Nell keeps good pace with the boys, and does not miss the surprised glances that Robb and Jon exchange when Roddy gallops past them.

Arya is too small by her mother’s estimation for a horse, but she pushes her pony hard all the same and looks after Nell with wide grey eyes, sidling over to her at one point to say, somewhat accusingly, “You don’t ride like a lady.”

Nell thinks she’s lucky Dana did not hear that, but Dana is nearby pretending (poorly) to listen to some long tale of Theon Greyjoy’s, as he valiantly strives to get so much as a smile out of her. Thus far, his efforts seem to only be digging a deeper and deeper grave for himself. Dana looks liable to go after him with a riding crop.

“What do ladies ride like?” Nell doesn’t particularly like children. She assumes she will like her own, someday, but she doesn’t have Dana’s patience or indulgence of high-pitched voices, sticky hands, and grating questions. Arya in particular is a chatty little thing, particularly if her septa and sister are both out of earshot. Sansa is nearby, looking for flowers to pick with the steward’s daughter and her direwolf pup, who’s decked out in silk ribbons like a pampered lap dog.

“Slowly,” Arya scrunches up her sharp nose. She has Catelyn Tully’s nose, but it looks sharper on Ned Stark’s long, thin face. “Like Mother and Sansa.”

“I imagine your mother rides slowly because she has your little brother in front of her,” Nell says, removing her cloak. The weather has improved, and it’s nearly warm out. Her gown is a deep forest green that she hopes makes her pale eyes a bit more appealing and less startling. Arya is wearing what looks to be a new blue dress at her mother’s insistence, but her muddy boots and already mussed hair more than make up for the semblance of formality.

Catelyn is being helped down by her lord husband, little Rickon squirming in her arms. They love each other, Lord and Lady Stark. Nell was always aware that theirs was a happy marriage, but they do love each other. Ned Stark’s face does not seem quite so long and solemn when he is smiling at his wife, who still blushes like a girl when he looks at her.

“And I seem to remember horses making your sister nervous,” Nell continues. “Your lady mother should have her spend more time practicing her riding. If she makes a northern marriage, there’s not like to be a wheelhouse for her use. It’s important to have good control in the saddle.”

“Master Hullen says I’m a fine rider,” Arya informs her, following her over to the stream where blankets and quilts are being spread out, children are shouting and splashing, maids are giggling- Nell has never known an entire household to celebrate a child’s name day like this. It seems rather excessive. Arya is not even their firstborn daughter. There was always a fine celebration for Nell at Barrow Hall, but it was always small, just herself, her aunt, perhaps Dana and Sara as well-

“You are a fine rider for a girl of nine,” Nell forces herself to stop thinking about Sara by speaking more harshly than she intended. Arya’s long face falls immediately, and she bites her lower lip, hard. “But you are reckless in the saddle, and you don’t have the muscle yet to make up for it. Keep riding like that, and you won’t be able to keep your seat if your mount is startled or veers off course.”

She feels guilty as soon as the girl has wandered off, although she assures herself that a child’s crestfallen mood won’t last long, and it doesn’t- within minutes Arya Underfoot is running around, shrieking, with little Bran and a few of the servants’ children. To Nell’s bemusement, Dana even joins in, tying up her skirts on one side to allow herself to run and jump, much to the onlooking Septa Mordane’s visible horror.

Steeling herself, Nell approaches Robb and his bastard brother; Greyjoy is a ways down-stream, apparently having stripped to swim. Several girls are staring after him with open mouthed infatuation. Never was there a more fortunate hostage in all of Westeros, Nell thinks sarcastically. Sansa appears to be sketching under a willow tree, head bent in concentration, while Jeyne Poole lies on her back beside her in the long grass, weaving a crown of daisies and bluebells for herself.

“Lady Donella.” To his credit, Robb all but launches himself to his feet when Jon sees her coming and elbows him. To his further credit, he keeps his balance, at that. He inclines his head, and Nell decides for amity over flattery, and smiles instead of curtsying.

“I hope you wouldn’t mind my company, my lord, although I do mind that you refuse to call me Nell.”

“Nell,” he corrects himself, but then smiles slightly, and says, “Then you should call me Robb, Nell.”

“Of course.” She lets herself take his outstretched hand, as if she truly needed his help to take a seat on the ground, and adjusts her skirts.

Jon Snow appears to be considering the merits of drowning himself in the stream. She can understand his aggravation; he has been Robb’s friend and brother for all these years, and now he is being replaced by a wife. A Bolton wife, at that, and one who pays him no more mind than one might an irritating gnat. Nell does not hate poor, motherless Jon Snow. But she will not allow herself to come to like him, either. Barbrey did not raise a fool. Ned Stark was a bold one, to bring up his bastard seed alongside his trueborn children. Most women would have come to loathe him for it. That he and Catelyn still enjoy such a fond relationship is surprising. Even Barbrey has said as much to her, and she cannot stand Lady Catelyn.

Nell certainly hopes he does not intend to insinuate himself into their household even after Robb’s marriage. She will not have it. Had Ned Stark the sense the gods gifted a louse, he would have been reasonable, and sent the boy to foster at an early age. It is hardly a great cruelty. Lord Hornwood did so with his bastard son, so as not to shame his wife, whose name Nell shares. Jon Snow could have enjoyed a reasonably contented life in some other prominent lord’s household. Instead the boy remained here, watching and wanting and waiting for an acceptance that will never come to him. That is far crueler, Nell thinks.

She prays Robb fears his mother’s wroth enough to never so much as think of siring a bastard of his own. She will have no little Snows drifting about Winterfell when she is Lady Stark.

“Your sister seems to be having a fine name day,” she says, to break through the terribly awkward silence that has befallen the three of them. “It was very kind of your parents, to permit so much of the household a day like this as well. Many lords would not even consider such a thing.”

Her father wouldn’t. Her aunt wouldn’t. Nell is not sure that she would. At Winterfell, at times the lines between the high and lowborn seem almost blurred. None of the servants are overly familiar or disrespectful, to be sure, but they are… close. Even haughty Sansa seems to know them all by name, and the cooks and the washers and the maids, none of them so much as hesitate to bark a reprimand at Arya or Bran for running over a freshly cleaned floor or putting grubby hands on table tops.

They’re not afraid. That’s what surprises her. That they are not afraid of their lord and lady, nor their children. In fact, they almost seem to love them, in a way.

“Arya wouldn’t have it any other way,” Robb says. “She makes friends everywhere she goes, and Father could never refuse her. Least of all on her name day. She was born while he was off fighting the Ironborn, and he’s still trying to make it up to her.”

Nell smiles in spite of her nerves, and Jon exhales in amusement. “Arya’s always been his favorite.”

“It’s true,” Robb agrees. “Mother thinks she reminds him of-,” he pauses, then trails off as a grey shape comes loping over. Nell draws back, tense, as his direwolf drops something wet and flopping onto the blanket. A fish, she realizes a moment later, as the boys begin to chuckle. Jon Snow is watching her closely, as if expecting her to pick up her skirts and flee, screaming for help, or faint dead away.

“My apologies,” Robb belatedly says, cheeks reddening slightly, even as he ruffles the wolf’s shaggy neck, “Grey Wind, we’re not hungry-,”

“I am,” Nell says, forcing a smile, and what’s more, forcing herself to outstretch a bare hand to the drooling pup. “But I’ve never been fond of fish, I’m afraid. Could he find us some pigeons?”

Grey Wind, fur damp and yellow eyes gleaming, sniffs her fingers, then drags a wet tongue across her knuckles. She fights back a grimace, and laughs instead, as it were endearing and not disturbing in the slightest. Robb looks somewhat relieved. For her sake or the wolf’s, she can’t be sure.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell sees her father depart a fortnight after their arrival at Winterfell, but her aunt stays on a week longer. No words pass between her and Roose; Nell has barely spoken to him since they left the Dreadfort. She has nothing for him, and he nothing for her. If she forces herself to look and smile obediently at him for more than a few minutes, she will do something rash, she’s sure of it. It is for the best. The quicker he goes, the less time the Starks have to consider that there may be more than the ordinary tension of a cold widower and his heiress between them. She does not think Ned Stark knows what her father does out of his sight, anymore than a child knows what wild animals do in the wood.

If she were better, she might go running to her future good-family the moment Father leaves and confess that she knows him to be a monster, that he has broken the law, that he has let crimes go unpunished and uses his bastard the way a butcher uses a cleaver. But House Bolton is not the only house to go on practicing a lord’s rights to the first night. What good would it accomplish? She has no proof of it, and her claims could easily be derided as a scheming girl’s attempt to see her father removed from power so she might claim her inheritance all the sooner.

And in truth, she does not want justice. She does not want to see Father down on his knees before Ned Stark’s greatsword. She wants revenge. She wants to cut his tongue out and feed it to him. She wants him to feel as helpless and trapped and terrified as she has felt, as all those women have felt. It is selfish. It is more about her than anyone else. Nell doesn’t care. When he pays for what he’s done, he will pay it to her, the most deserving, not to Ned Stark. He will look at her before he dies and he’ll know that he sowed his own reaper. It will be Bethany’s victory.

She says none of this to Barbrey, of course. Her aunt may despise her father, but she does not hate him the way she does the Starks. For her, Roose is an unpleasant but necessary element. Like worms writhing in the ground beneath their feet. Or a bout of miserable weather. Part of Nell is furious with her for not hating him more. Her sister. Her own sister suffered at his hands, and her aunt can still tolerate him. She knows it is for her sake. Were Barbrey vicious and scathing with Roose, he could have easily snatched Nell back from her household as easily as he gave her.

“You are so close,” Barbrey tells her, as evening gathers around the guest house and the servants begin lighting the torches and lanterns outside. “Do not falter now. When the king leaves, Stark will go with him, and by the time you are wed at the year’s end, Winterfell will already know you for its lady.”

“You cannot know that the offer will even be made, nor that Lord Eddard should accept it,” Nell mutters crossly, yanking out an errant stitch from her pattern, needle deftly twisting in her fingers. She enjoys sewing and knitting; it’s something useful to do with her hands, and it goes overlooked by men. If you want a man out of your sight, as her aunt would say, pick up a needle and thread. A lord may encourage his daughters to practice their handicraft, but he will never linger near a gaggle of women sitting by the fire or a window, heads bent over their work. Better to exchange opinions in a sewing circle than anywhere else. Even the comforting sounds of a weaving loom can drown out much.

“I know that Stark is loyal,” says Barbrey. “I know that Stark considers himself a good man. I know that Stark fought a war at the king’s side, fought a war for the sake of Robert’s lost love,” here her tone takes on a brutal twist, and Nell murmurs almost abashedly, “She was still his sister, Aunt.”

“Lyanna Stark no more desired a rescue from Rhaegar than a whore desires the pox,” Barbrey tells her in a low, sharp tone. “They venerate the girl here as if she died throwing herself before an invading army, but I was not much older than her. There was no love between her and Robert. Nor her and her father, I’ll wager, after he made that match. But Rickard Stark had ambitions that could not be met in the North,” she sniffs.

“Just because she did not want Robert does not mean she wanted Rhaegar,” Nell mutters, but lets it go. Now is hardly the time to engage in a heated debate with her aunt over the subject of Lyanna Stark’s virtues or lack thereof. Among the walls of Winterfell, she is beloved. Nell has seen her statue down in the crypts, the sole stone woman. House Bolton keeps no statues of its past lords or ladies, just their names engraved into the stone, and she’s glad of it. She would not want to see her father’s face staring down at her from the darkness long after he is dead.

“Stark will go,” Barbrey continues as if she had not heard her; the light from the hearth mottles her face, making her briefly look years older. “He may take the younger children, he may take none of them, but he will never bring his heir south. The boy is untested; you have seen him in the training yard, haven’t you?”

Nell blushes in spite of herself; she and Dana had made a game of it, to watch the boys and men spar. “He uses blunted steel,” she admits.

“He is a child in a young man’s body,” Barbrey says with no little satisfaction. “He has never seen so much a skirmish, nevermind battle. Brandon Stark was blooded by fifteen. Willam came to me fresh from war; you could smell it on him. Yours will wed you still half a boy. You’ve seen more blood than that one.”

“What of it?” Nell retorts. “Shall I go seek out some wildlings for him to fight?”

“What you fail to see is the advantage this presents,” Barbrey scolds her, gripping her wrist. “Listen to me. What does Robb Stark want?”

Nell grimaces. “I barely know him- how could I, we’re never left alone together, he’s always running off somewhere with his wolf and Snow-,”

“What does he want?” Barbrey snaps. “You know this much, Donella.”

Nell hesitates, then yanks her wrist away, scowling. “He wants to make his father proud. He wants to prove himself. He worries they see him as weak for his southern heritage. His own bastard brother has the Stark look, but not him.” She pauses, then says, “Friends come easy to him. Girls too. He is not spoiled but he is comfortable. He has been comfortable all his life.”

“And has the boy told you all of this? Have you won his confidence already?”

“No,” says Nell through her teeth. “But I know what he wants all the same. He wants to like me. He would like any girl they gave him, so long as she was not unpleasant to look at or listen to. He admires my riding, thinks I am well-spoken and clever.”

“But…”

“But my family name gives him pause, I think- I know,” she corrects herself. “I know it does. My father makes him nervous. You make him wary. And I…”

“Now you have it,” Barbrey says approvingly. “He wants to prove himself, but you have spent these past three weeks striving to prove yourself worthy of him? You, unworthy of a Stark?” She exhales. “Do you truly think his lineage so special, so blessed, that our gods elected them to lead us all? They won the title of king by conquering those who stood in their way, and sheltering those who would fight beside them. And none gave them such trouble as the Red Kings. So tell me, my Bolton of a niece, why are you doing a coddled little boy’s work for him?”

In a rare display of open affection, she grips Nell by the shoulder and presses a kiss to her forehead. “Let him prove himself worthy of you. Let him be uncomfortable. Let him fight for it. It will serve you better than being at his beck and call. Why should it be easy for him?”

“But if I am cold with him-,”

“You need not be haughty and vain,” Barbrey cautions. “Don’t loose all your arrows at once, child. But a little aloofness is oft a good thing. Especially when it comes to men.”

Did you learn that from Brandon Stark, Nell wants to ask, but she is not that stupid. Mayhaps it is true, that Barbrey thinks she could have snared him for a husband had she played coy and modest, had she not given up her maidenhead so freely. This is different. Nell already has Robb Stark brought to bay. But the hunt is not over yet. Barbrey may be correct in advising her to reserve her strength and keep her distance, rather than trying to ambush him at every turn, smiling and laughing and flattering him.

It is the last token of advice her aunt leaves her with, and Nell feels suddenly and unexpectedly bereft upon watching her ride out with her guardsmen and small group of servants. None could call Barbrey Dustin a warm or tender-hearted woman, but Nell loves her all the same, and she was all she had for so long. Her and Sara Snow. She stands beside Dana, watching her go, and then turns away before a hard lump can form in her throat. It is not as if they will never see each other again. Barbrey will return for her wedding, and once they are wed she will surely be able to convince Robb that a visit to Barrowton is only proper. She almost likes the thought of it, returning like a victorious warrior with her husband at her side, all that ambition finally realized.

Fortunately, there is not much time to dwell on it with the anticipation of the royal household visiting. Nell is willingly swept up into the preparations, shadowing Catelyn with a very distractible Dana, trying to take note of how she speaks to the steward, the maester, the servants. The choices in menu, the seating for every prominent guest, the strict instructions to the servants as to who will serve what, and who, and when, and how to address the king and queen and their children.

There is no life of leisure when a castle of Winterfell’s size is entertaining guests for near a month. And certainly not when Winterfell has not seen guests of such magnitude in years. The Starks seem to seldom entertain as it is, which is not uncommon in the North, where holdfasts are far more spread out and distant from one another, but the tension and strain of living up to the expectations of Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister is palpable. A lord may show every courtesy, but it is his lady wife who is expected to guide the entertainments and the feasting, the pace of each and every day, the one who must see it all run smoothly from dawn to dusk.

So when the first of the riders come streaming in through the gates, when the yard is hush with excitement and awe, and those gold banners are flapping in the breeze- well, Nell thinks she could be forgiven for her first feelings towards House Baratheon of King’s Landing. That is, complete and abject disappointment. As Robert embraces Ned with a shout of delight, and the queen steps forward, lifting her skirts in a doomed effort to keep them from dragging through the three inches of snow and mud on the ground, and the crown prince dismounts from his white horse, she stares. Openly.

“But he is fat,” Dana hisses to her in shock; they are standing slightly behind the Starks, alongside Theon Greyjoy and the Pooles. Theon appears torn between admiration for the queen’s admittedly beautiful looks- the singers did not exaggerate about her golden locks nor her tall, regal countenance- and sullen scorn for the king. Somewhat understandably, given it is Robert Baratheon who is responsible for him being a hostage of Winterfell’s in the first place. Jeyne Poole is up on her tiptoes, craning her neck to try to get a better glimpse of Prince Joffrey.

“Well spotted,” Nell hisses back. “Tell me, is the sky also blue today?”

But she can understand the mutual feelings of shock and dismay all the same. It is not that the king is a fat man who looks years older than he should. There are plenty of fat men who’ve held a throne. It is that they have spent their entire lives being fed tales and songs of the Rebellion, of the North’s bravery, of how bold and powerful Robert Baratheon was, of how he never faltered, of how their lord, the Stark, was at their king’s side all the while, it was his family the king was fighting for, not just himself, but for the North, their honor and pride, all of them- Well, some shock and dismay seems justified, in that case. This is what the North helped sit on the Iron Throne? A fat oaf and his Lannister wife, who looks about as happy to be in the blustery North as a goose is happy to be on a spit over a fire.

This is not her first feast as a betrothed woman, but it is her first feast as a maid of seventeen at Winterfell, and since they will have singers from the south and real dancing and at least seven courses, Nell feels some sense of import is bestowed upon the night, however disappointing the king and queen might have been. She has been careful to display her newer and finer gowns until now, to show the Starks how wealthy and well-made she is, how much care she has put into her appearance, but tonight she practically bathes in perfume and has her hair brushed out until it gleams darkly in the torchlight.

She leaves it down and flowing, glad for its length- it comes just to the small of her back- and dresses in a deep, raw shade of magenta. As far as her house colors go, she prefers how she looks in red over pink, but with Lannisters in attendance it is perhaps best to let them have their treasured shades of scarlet and crimson. Her bodice is a mass of sewed silken flowers, dotted with garnets- this is her very best gown, shy of her wedding dress, and she does not wear it idly. The neckline is cut for a woman, not a child, and she admires the swell and fall of her figure in the looking glass for several moments. Nell knows a lady dresses to project power and beauty and grace, that she dresses to secure the appreciation and admiration of others, not herself, but she still feels that she has never looked lovelier, never looked stronger.

“It looks like someone was murdered in a patch of roses,” Dana declares upon viewing it, “but it was worth all the scabby fingers and botched thimbles, I think.” Nell reckons they have both constructed and sewn more than half of their clothing, and the bodice for this dress alone took six weeks of work. It was not ill-spent, to her relief. This is not a little girl’s haphazard fumbling with a needle and thread. Together they sewed Dana’s dress, which alternates grey and black for her house’s colors, with silver ribbons down the sleeves that make her blue eyes glimmer. She has looped her hair up into two bound braids on either side of her head, and rests said head on Nell’s shoulder as they look at their reflections.

“Well, we’re no southern flowers,” Dana says. “But we do clean up nicely for a pair of northern savages.”

“Did the prince-,”

“If Joffrey Baratheon keeps up at this pace, he’ll have insulted three quarters of the castle by midnight,” Dana scoffs, patting her on the shoulder. “I can’t say I envy you your seat at the high table tonight, Nellie. If that one was any more loose with his tongue, it’d be flopping out between those worm-lips of his.”

“He’s handsome enough,” Nell shrugs, “tall, blonde-,”

“You never minded boyish blondes,” Dana sighs with a taunting grin. “Poor, sweet Denys-,” she yelps when Nell swats at her, “but I think you were far fonder of Timotty- remember, the free rider who stayed a sennight- oh, but he was dark-haired, bearded, and short!”

“He had lovely lips,” Nell admits, with a small smirk at the memory. He had made her laugh so often, something not altogether easy for a man to do.

“He had a lovely time trying to feel his way under your skirts, he did!”

She keeps Barbrey’s words in mind when it comes time to enter the hall, and spares no more than a brief smile for Robb, whose blue-eyed gaze appears riveted by the lush colors of her gown, at least until he manages to focus on her face instead. “You look beautiful,” he tells her, and she feels almost sorry about it, because she thinks him honest, and some girlish part of her does so want to be courted and wooed.

“You must mind your tongue,” she tells him instead of a tittering ‘thank you’. “Have you not heard? No other woman can be counted as beautiful when there is a queen in our midst.”

For all her nerve, Nell only dares say such a thing because she saw his face when the queen rather boredly asked his mother to be shown to the guesthouse, and because the queen and king and Lord and Lady Stark are well ahead of them, entering the feasting hall to the hushed murmurs and dull chatter of the waiting crowds, with a few cheers slicing through. Robb stares at her as if she’d begun to speak High Valyrian for a few moments, then says under his breath, “No other woman can be counted as proud when the queen is in our midst.”

He takes her arm in his and Nell has to glance away to fight the smirk from brimming across her face. So there is some bite to this one after all; he is not all gallant words and boyish smiles. Had he taken offense or merely stared at her, befuddled and dim, she would have been most disappointed. Nell thinks she could tolerate many things in a man before stupidity. Better an honor-less rogue than a thick-headed imbecile. Although of course Robb Stark would likely rather be dead and buried than go without his honor. The Starks tend to theirs so carefully, the way a farmer does his crops.

When they enter she holds her head up high and feels briefly all the eyes upon her; she catches a glimpse of Dana in the crowd; afforded a place of honor close to the high table, but not at it. For a split second Nell wishes she were there as well, part of the crowd, where no one would care what she spoke of or how she ate her food or what she looked like. Then she dismisses it; this is her right. She is betrothed to a high lord; she is already considered a high lady. It is a great honor to dine with the royal household, even if their ranks include a Kingslayer and an Imp.

She searches the hall once more, looking for Snow. She finds him sequestered towards the back, likely placed as carefully out of sight of the royal family as possible. Nell does not know how they treat their bastards in the south; perhaps it is easier- a wealthy lord could simply send his natural sons to squire. Some might even shed ‘Rivers’ or ‘Waters’ or ‘Flowers’ for a forged name of their own after attaining a knighthood and being awarded lands for their valor. But she doubts they sit them at the table with their trueborn siblings for meals, as Ned Stark has always done until now. Jon Snow looks ill-pleased at this development; his expression is near a glower, at least until Rickon stops to chatter to him.

As the child is blocking their path, it takes the combined efforts of Robb and Jon to get him moving again. Nell continues on her way smoothly until Robb escorts her to her seat. The feast itself is full of toasts and speeches and the constant clatter and thuds of courses being served and removed from the table. Something is wrong with the elder Starks; Lord Eddard seems tenser than usual, and Lady Catelyn conducts herself as one might when confronted with a wild animal, all quiet words and cautious movements, due to being seated beside the queen, whose anger over her husband’s insistence on a mourning a long-dead girl has yet to abate.

Robert is drunk by the end of the second hour, despite his seemingly impressive endurance for mead and ale, and Cersei appears to be debating the merits of excusing herself early from the meal. The Kingslayer’s smiles never reach his pretty eyes, the Imp excuses himself to wander the feasting hall at some point, Robb’s uncle, Benjen Stark, makes an appearance and then heads off to console Jon Snow, Theon Greyjoy lasts all of three hours before being tempted away by the sight of some wench or another, and Joffrey keeps up a steady and unceasing litany of complaints about the food, the seating, the smells, and everything else that comes to mind.

Nell will give credit where it is due; Sansa shows an impressive amount of commitment already, hanging on the boy’s every word. But she has some sympathy; he is very tall and very handsome, and much can be forgiven when a girl is eleven and infatuated and has never danced with a boy at a feast before. Arya spends more time playing with her food than eating it, while the princess Myrcella looks on in horrified fascination, and Bran and Tommen seem to have struck up something approaching a friendship, talking about cats and dogs and direwolves and birds. Rickon nods off into his stew near the fourth hour, and is rescued by Robb, who yanks him back into his seat with one hand, then sends him off to bed with a maid.

Her legs are going stiff and numb by the time they begin to push back the tables and benches for dancing, but Nell is tired of sitting, and her appetite finally gave out an hour and a half ago. Besides, she does enjoy dancing, even if it will make her think of Sara and her careful measures of every step. Yet she can hardly ask Robb to dance herself, and so she straightens a bit and sighs a bit, and is well-rewarded when he at last asks, “Would you like to-,”

“Very much so,” Nell does not even wait for him to finish speaking; her hand is already in his. And he does look handsome tonight; the crown prince may be taller, but Joffrey takes after his mother in every sense, and is almost too pretty as a result. He is very much a boy, but in this hazy feasting hall Robb Stark could nearly be a man. When he leads her out onto the floor, she knows she is flushed and smiling, despite all of Barbrey’s warnings and Dana’s teasing. He is a good dancer, not a splendid one, but good enough that she is not frustrated with tripping over both their feet. They dance two rounds before the call to change partners goes up, and she spins into Greyjoy’s arms.

“Don’t worry,” he assures her with a crooked grin, “I keep much better pace than Robb.”

Nell has no doubt that Theon would quite like to bed Robb’s wife before him, friends that they may be, but she could do without the frequent reminders. “Yet I still find myself waiting for you to catch up, my lord,” she retorts, and slams the heel of her boot down onto his toes before his hands can wander even lower. She dances with Cley Cerwyn next, then Benfred Tallhart, then Prince Joffrey, who looks as though he expects some sort of reward for deigning to dance at all. His hands don’t wander as much as Greyjoy’s, but she dislikes the way his green eyes immediately narrow in on her breasts. Cley and Benny, buffoons that they both can be, suddenly seem the height of chivalry.

“Will you be coming south to court?” He is five years her junior but speaks as if trying to communicate with a small, stupid child. “My mother tells me Lady Sansa may be my wife, and she must have ladies in waiting.” Joffrey must take after his father, who already has some girl in his lap. Poor Sansa. This one is the sort who, given a few years, will spend half his time with whores, and the other half of his time trying to coax his wife’s ladies into the profession themselves.

“You are too kind, my prince,” Nell says as patronizingly as she dares. Lucky that he seems as slow-witted as the king, even without all the mead. “But I’m afraid the royal court is no place for me. I’m promised to Winterfell and Lord Eddard’s heir.”

“When I am king, Robb Stark will swear fealty to me as his father did mine,” Joffrey boasts, then adds in a voice he likely considers alluring, “I’ll insist he bring his wife south with him.”

Nell has to fight hard not to laugh aloud at that, and manages to scrape out, “So very thoughtful of you, my prince.” Mercifully they switch partners then, before he realizes she’s far more amused than she is awed by his childish bragging. Swear fealty indeed. From the way Robb has been looking at Joffrey, the only thing he’ll be swearing to do is break a practice sword across his slender kneecaps. Uncharitably, she hopes Robert Baratheon is the sort who beats his sons. This one could use a good belting to the royal arse.

By the fifth hour, Cersei has left with her younger two children. Bran and Rickon have been ushered off to bed. Catelyn prowls the feasting hall on the lookout for Arya, who is currently hiding under a table, eating a leg of chicken and insisting she is not tired in the slightest. Robert has vanished, along with several women. And the singers turn to bawdier songs. Nell has sat the last two out, but claps and stomps along when the opening strains of ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ begin.

Improper as it is, she almost hopes Robb asks her to dance to this one, but as he approaches he instead asks if she has seen Jon Snow. “No, should I have?” asks Nell incredulously, but regrets her dismissive tone at the look that crosses his face. It is something between disappointment and anger. Is he truly so upset, that she professes no fondness for his bastard brother? What did he expect? Her to embrace him as family?

He turns away from her, but she impulsively catches at his elbow. “I meant nothing by it, only your brother did not seem the sort for drinking- or whoring,” she adds flatly, with a nod to several of the nearby men groping anyone lowborn and in a skirt that passes them by.

“I thought to have a drink with him before the night was over,” Robb says coolly, but his expression softens somewhat.

“Then might we dance this last one? Women of gentle birth should retire soon,” Nell tucks a stray lock of dark hair behind her ear, and straightens her shoulders.

He hesitates. “This is not-,”

“Oh come, they said, oh come to the fair! The fair? Said he, but I’m a bear!” the men (and a few women) around them roar along with the singers, and she laces her fingers with his.

Music is a chief passion of very few in the North, but while Nell never did learn to play the high harp, as Sara was proficient in the bells and nothing more, she sings along gamely under her breath as he, reluctantly or not, leads her back into the dance. “And down the road from here to there. From here! To there! Three boys, a goat and a dancing bear!”

“They danced and spun, all the way to the fair! The fair! The fair!” Dana has caught Jeyne Poole by the hand, seeing her bereft of a partner, and they are both dancing the lady’s part while gasping with laughter as they evade Daryn Hornwood, who is near as tall and ungainly as his house’s sigil, a moose.

“Oh, sweet she was, and pure and fair!” Nell sings, and for a moment locks eyes with Robb, and the rest of the verses muddle on her tongue. It may be the wine or the smoke from the fires or the joyful, ribald chaos around them, but for that moment she sees the boy and not the Stark, and thinks he may have briefly glimpsed the girl and not the Bolton. Fear thuds in her chest suddenly, and she falters, almost stumbling as she loses her rhythm, but he catches her by the waist, and his hands are too hot, burning through the thick fabric of her gown.

“The bear smelled the scent on the summer air. The bear! The bear! All black and brown and covered with hair!”

Breathless, they step off to the side.

“Are you alright? I thought you might faint." He is kinder than he should be. That too is disturbing.

Nell has never fainted in her life and resents the suggestion that she is even capable of such a thing, but simply shakes her head. “Just more tired than I realized, I think. I should excuse myself. You wanted to find your brother-,”

“I’ll escort you and Dana to your rooms,” Robb says instead, and she feels an almost guilty tinge of victory. “You’re not used to the keep yet, and men can take liberties at a feast like this.” It sounds more as though he’s justifying this to himself than to her.

“They can,” Nell agrees, and only then do they both realize that he is still holding onto her waist, and she to his shoulders. He lets go as if scalded by water, while she busies herself with dragging a giggly, teetering-on-drunken Dana away from the dancing. The walk to her chambers is far too short, and punctuated by periodic throat-clearing and Dana’s tuneless humming: “Oh, I'm a maid, and I'm pure and fair! I'll never dance with a hairy bear!”

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell knows she is being childish, but she cannot help her pinched mouth as she huddles in her furs in the yard, watching the men prepare for their hunt. Were it not for the royal company, she is certain she could convince or otherwise charm her way into joining them. It is hardly uncommon for ladies to ride out with their lords hunting or hawking, even in the south. But the king is here and it is the day before Lord Stark is due to depart for King’s Landing alongside Sansa, Arya, and Bran. Furthermore, she knows by now that it is not Ned Stark’s custom to take even his sons hunting with him; he has no real passion for it, and seems to think a hunt is no place for children.

Nell was hunting with her mother at six, but Robb has only been out tracking deer or boars a few times. It is a small party that leaves this morning; no more than twenty men, and six dogs. They are well-trained hounds, but their furtive eyes and low whines and yelps repel her all the same. She could easily have slept in, as Dana is doing at this very moment, and avoided all this fuss, but as irritated and tired as she may be, one should see their betrothed off on a hunt. Lady Catelyn is here, speaking quietly and soberly with Lord Eddard, presumably about the last-minute preparations for the departure on the morrow, or about the final feast tonight.

Their guests have been here for near three weeks, and while it is a short and altogether uneventful visit, aside from Robb and Joffrey’s bickering and posturing in the training yard, Nell feels as exhausted as the Starks themselves. The servants are dead on their feet from the strain of three hundred extra bodies, to feed, house, and tend to, sleep is hard to come by with men up drinking and singing every night, and the long lines for the privies and the lack of privacy has taken its toll. Nell has found it difficult to continue to get a sense for Winterfell when there is a constant stream of people coming down this stairwell or that, lounging about in corridors, sitting in courtyards.

But Barbrey proved correct, as she often does. By now it is common knowledge that Ned Stark has accepted Robert’s offer to come south as his hand. How long the appointment may last is anyone’s guess- Dana wagers he will be able to endure the capitol for no longer than a few years- but neither she nor Nell have ever been to court. Perhaps it truly is some golden summer oasis, full of lovely balls and grand tourneys. The Stark children are certainly envied around Winterfell for this opportunity. Jeyne Poole shrieked in delight and nearly fainted when she was told she would accompany her father south with them. Hoping to make a good marriage to a minor lord, no doubt, or perhaps an eager young knight.

Nell imagines that is why the Stark girls are going- Sansa, of course, because her betrothal to Joffrey is to be formally announced tonight, and Arya because Ned Stark likely hopes to cultivate something approaching grace in his younger daughter, and seek a match for her with a prominent southern family. Perhaps one from the Riverlands- the Blackwoods share northern heritage. Or the mighty Mallisters, steadfast allies to the Tullys. The wealthy Mootons control Maidenpool, a thriving port and an enviable seat. Or even either of the powerful Vance lines. Nell may not know most of their colors or sigils, but she was educated on all the prominent houses in Westeros, not just the high lords. Sansa can identify even more than her- the girl may seem silly at first glance, but she has a keen eye for detail and a good grasp of lineages.

Or perhaps Ned Stark will wed young Arya to her cousin, Robert Arryn, although ‘Arya Arryn’ sounds a bit absurd, and Nell has heard rumors among the southerners that Lady Lysa is eccentric and strange and the boy weak and sickly. Either way, a southern marriage for both girls is all but assured. Bran and Rickon will marry northern girls and rule fledgling holdfasts of their own someday- perhaps one will be given Moat Cailin to restore. And in fifty years, they may speak of the Karstarks, the Branstarks, and the Rickstarks.

Trying to picture Bran and Rickon as grown men is almost humorous enough to break her out of her mood. She may not be fond of children, but Bran is not easy to dislike, quietly earnest and curious of any and all animals. She’s caught him peering up at Roddy many times now. Perhaps she will let Bran ride him this afternoon, just briefly. He must get used to controlling a horse and not a pony, after all. Rickon is always in trouble of some sort, and half-wild at that, running servants and siblings alike ragged. Perhaps he is Brandon Stark come again. What would her aunt think of that? She nearly smiles.

“Something funny?” Robb has appeared before her while she was busy shivering and brooding on the Starks’ marital prospects. Nell blinks in surprise and adjusts her grip on her furs as the wind cuts through the courtyard. The summer snow may have melted, but it’s still been bitterly cold these past few mornings, although it will likely be much warmer by the time the sun is all the way up. She wonders what the weather is like in King’s Landing. Hot and muggy, she imagines. What do the women wear? Surely they would all be dropping like flies in voluminous skirts or tightly laced stays.

“Only the thought of Theon and Joffrey trying to wrangle a boar while the king drinks himself senseless,” she says, although she is careful to keep her voice down. Not that anyone is bothering to listen; men are either complaining of the cold or raring to ride out, already in the saddle. “Were I to accompany you, I promise you we would have the boar well in hand and be back here before noon.”

Robb does chuckle at that. “Next time,” he suggests. “Father has no appetite for hunts, but perhaps you could show me the best deer trails. It will be quiet enough around here, with all of them gone.” Some of his amusement fades then, and she can hear the slight sadness in his tone; he is genuinely sorry to see his father, brother, and sisters go. Robb is not the sort of boy who will leap at the chance to rule Winterfell and the North in all but name. It makes her feel almost guilty, before she brushes it aside. He will need her to guide him in this. He is just a boy.

“I would be glad to.” Nell hesitates, uncertain of how to see him off. His is not her husband, so she cannot kiss him, and even to embrace him would seem presumptuous. But he is not ‘just’ her lord, either, and a curtsy would be odd at a time like this. Instead she clears her throat slightly, and says more formally, “I wish you good fortune on your hunt.” Robb smiles broadly, inclines his head to her, and goes to mount his courser. His auburn hair is gleaming in the pale, emerging sunlight, and as she watches, Grey Wind comes loping over to join him. The wolf keeps its distance from her, as if it can sense her discomfort and unease. But it is never far. The hair on the back of her neck prickles as Grey Wind’s yellow eyes meet her own for a moment, before she looks away, frowning.

Lady Catelyn sees her husband off with a kiss, then comes to stand beside Nell as they smile and wave and see the men off. Nell has half a mind to crawl back into her warm bed, but is duty-bound to ask her future good-mother if she has any need of her. Assisting Catelyn may be better than yet another few hours spent in some cramped tower room with the younger girls, after all. It is hardly the needlework Nell objects to, but she can never speak freely, with a princess and the septa in earshot, and Sansa and Arya’s fights have been even more frequent since the announcement they would both be taken south.

Sansa protests that Arya will ruin court for her, and Arya protests that she doesn’t want to go at all. The girl would likely be happy to spend the rest of her days scurrying about Winterfell with her wolf on her heels, playing with her brothers in the godswood. Nell has come to realize, without much shame, that she dislikes Robb’s sisters because their childhood offends her. She was not miserable, after she came to Barrow Hall- she was happy, at times, but she did not have the joy they have. She did not have a kind father, a warm mother, siblings to squabble and play with, friends a-plenty. Even on their worst days, the sisters Stark still smile and laugh more than she ever did as a girl.

“I could use your help getting the girls organized,” Catelyn says dryly, and Nell fights the urge to scream and instead nods. She supposes this will be useful for when she is organizing her own family’s travels. She certainly doesn’t intend to spend the next fifty years shut up in this castle, massive fortress that it may be. It was folly not to send the Stark boys- or even the bastard- to foster. Folly not to give their daughters frequent visits to White Harbor or Torrhen’s Square. The Manderly sisters might have softened Arya’s sharp edges, and spirited Eddara Tallhart might have swept away some of Sansa’s haughty ways. Her own children will be more worldly, she thinks. She will send a son to the Dreadfort to remake it in her image and a son to the Vale, to her long dead grandmother, Jocelyn Redfort’s, people.

Then she is confronted with the reality of helping an eleven and nine year old finish up the last of their packing, and suddenly understands why the Starks have never let either girl roam very far. Gods be good, it is like herding chickens with their heads lopped off. Neither are careless with their possessions, but Sansa wishes to bring every article of clothing she has ever possessed, and Arya apparently intends to ride south naked, for all that she rejects every dress before her. Catelyn Stark is a reasonably patient woman, and Nell a reasonably impatient one, and even the added assistance of Dana, Septa Mordane, and several exasperated maids is not enough to settle things.

Sansa’s direwolf, the smallest of them all, looks like Grey Wind in miniature, albeit with grey fur so pale it is more akin to off-white, and flecks of green in her yellow eyes. But she is so quiet and unobtrusive that even Nell forgets she is there after a little while. Lady wants nothing more than to lie down silently in a patch of sunlight, closing her eyes in pleasure, like a cat, whenever Sansa crouches down to stroke her mane. Nymeria, on the other hand, is as energetic as Arya, racing between the two girls’ rooms and up and down the corridors, startling the maids and vexing Septa Mordane.

Arya’s attempts to train the wolf to bring her various items are having limited success. Sometimes Nymeria does bring the scarf or shoe, and other times she seems to take it for a toy. Arya’s laughter and shouts are not doing much to rectify matters, until Nymeria snatches up one of Sansa’s combs by mistake. “Nymeria, bring it here!” Sansa exclaims, holding out a hand expectantly. The wolf does nothing. Lady raises her head sleepily to glower at her sibling, just as Sansa glares at Arya, who is trying to restrain her snickers.

“Girls, really, this is ridiculous,” Septa Mordane scolds waspishly, while Catelyn gives Arya a warning look.

Dana makes a bold attempt to take the comb, and Nymeria jumps back and darts out the door. Sansa huffs in disbelief, folding her arms across her chest.

“I’ll get her!” Arya says gaily, brightening at the excuse to be out of the stuffy room.

“Mother, she’s just going to run off and hide somewhere,” Sansa accuses. “And my comb will be covered with teeth marks! Nymeria chews on everything!”

“I wish she’d chew on you,” Arya retorts under her breath.

Nell is not about to let this opportunity go to waste. She deposits half the clothes in her arms into each of her future good-sisters’ arms.

“Better for you to finish your folding, girls.” She then grabs Dana’s elbow as they rush out after the wolf pup.

“I’m shocked,” Dana snorts as they hurry down the nearest stairwell. “You, willingly spending time around a direwolf?”

“We’re not actually going to find it,” Nell rolls her eyes. “What do you take me for? Their errand girl? We’ll just go for a short walk and come back once things have calmed down a little.” It was as good an excuse as any. A few minutes longer, and she was going to start tearing gowns to shreds and throwing them into the fire. She used to wish for sisters as a girl of nine or ten. Younger ones who she could order to play with her. Now she sees how fortunate she was.

“I’m going to miss them,” Dana says ruefully as they cross a covered bridge. “There were never many children around Barrow Hall.”

“What about Flint’s Finger?” Nell smirks.

Dana’s smile fades some. “None who wanted much to do with me. You’re lucky. They could be little beasts.”

“They are little beasts. I’d much rather spend my married days around the boys than them.”

“They’re far more tolerable when they’re not being forced to spend time together,” Dana points out. “The septa favors Sansa, so Arya thinks everyone favors Sansa.”

“Mayhaps they do,” Nell shrugs, ducking under a low archway, “but the things that girl gets away with- if Sara had ever caught me wrestling around with boys-,” she catches herself, and falls painfully silent, stomach twisting.

Dana exhales slowly, and touches her shoulder. “It’s alright to grieve her, Nell. I do.” She hesitates. “If you told Robb, perhaps-,”

Nell twists away from her. “Stop it. Robb Stark doesn’t care to hear about a dead bastard woman.” The words feel mangled on her lips, and the sick churning returns.

“Must you spit at every good thing given to you?’ Dana snaps, temper roused even as Nell flushes in guilt. “Gods, Nell- will you not even give any of them a chance? They are good people. They’ve welcomed us, they treat you like one of them already-,”

“They do not!” Nell recoils at the thought. “How could you- we barely know them. They’ve paid their proper courtesies and nothing more. Do you truly think- I am not their kin,” she says in a low, forceful tone. “I will never be their kin. I will be Robb’s wife, and nothing more. They may come to like me, but they will not love me. Nor should they. Don’t be such a child. This isn’t some silly love song where the lord takes his lady out riding in the wood.”

Dana’s angular face has anger and shock writ all over it, and underneath that, contempt. She has never looked at Nell with contempt before. It lands like a blow to the gut. “You’re afraid,” she says, frankly and coldly. “You’ve always been afraid. You’re afraid of them, for all you play high and mighty with me. You’re afraid you might begin to care, but you can’t let yourself, can you? Never, because your aunt’s convinced you that you’ve got to wage a bloody war against your own husband in order to achieve anything!”

“At least I’ll have a husband,” Nell sneers, before she can stop herself. “You haven’t had an offer since you were thirteen, is that it? Shall we switch places, and you can roll around with the wolves-,”

The last time they fought like this, they were fourteen and quarreling over who was more deserving of a belting for racing horses through a farmer’s fields and scattering his sheep. It had eventually devolved into hair pulling and slaps. This time Dana just stares at her, hard, then shakes her head and walks quickly away. Nell’s mouth opens slightly, to call her back, to demand she return, to break down and cry and apologize as if they were little girls once more, but no words escape her.

After a few loathsome moments she collects herself and comes out near the sept. The small building is empty at the moment, but its stained glass windows seem to gleam at her accusingly in the bright sunlight. She turns away from it, and stalks forward purposefully, only to jerk to a halt when confronted with a mass of white fur and two queer red eyes. Of all the direwolves roaming Winterfell, it is Snow’s that frightens and unnerves her the most. He looks as though he came out of a heart tree. That should be comforting, but it is anything but. Dana may think these creatures a sign from the gods, but Nell takes them for a warning.

Ghost regards her for a moment, and when Nell stares fiercely and shakily back, bares his teeth in a silent snarl. She tenses, ready scream for help if need be, but then his master is there, albeit not much more welcoming. “Ghost, to me,” says Jon Snow gruffly, and the wolf slinks over to his side, silent as his name. Nell thanks the gods, and not for the first time, that Jon Snow will be leaving for the Night’s Watch in a fortnight. She was not shocked when she heard, but she was relieved. He will take no wife, sire no sons, and most importantly, be well away from Robb and any claim on Winterfell. It is for the best. So why does the boy look as if he’s recently be sentenced to hang? She’s heard it sworn up and down that it was his idea to join up, not some wicked scheme on Catelyn Stark’s part.

“Does your beast bare his teeth at all the ladies?” she asks archly when he does not immediately say anything to her. “Or am I simply special in that regard?”

“My apologies, my lady.” Jon manages to make it sound like a curse.

“Were he to greet the queen thusly, your apologies would not keep her from taking his pelt for a bedspread.” Nell knows she is being cruel. She knows it is not his fault. Just as it was not Dana’s fault. It is her fault. It is still her fault. It is her fault Sara is dead and it is her fault she was not a son for Mother and it is her fault that Robb will never love her because she is Roose Bolton’s seed and she is wicked and jealous and bitter. But she just can’t stop herself. She looks at his dark hair and pale eyes and the furious scowl and although they look nothing alike in truth, Ramsay grins at her in the back of her mind.

“Then I suppose I am lucky I am only a bastard,” Jon replies coldly, “and that Ghost and I are far beneath her notice. As we should be yours. Good day, my lady.” With severe formality, he moves around her, keeping himself in between her and his wolf. He smells of the godswood. Has he been praying all morning? For what? The Wall to collapse overnight and free him from his intentions? There is still time. They can only force a criminal to the Wall. He could ride off tomorrow and forge his own path, had he the gall.

“Wait,” she calls sharply after him, and for a moment it seems as though he will just keep going, but Jon Snow was still raised a lordling, and so he halts. Ghost sniffs at his hand questioningly, as if urging him forward. “What did Robb say, when you told him you were to take the black?” His lean form goes rigid with fury, although that was not entirely her intent, and she almost takes a step backward when he whirls around, white with anger.

“He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder, is that what you want to hear? That he told me to leave with all haste? That he declared me no brother of his?” Jon demands. “Would that satisfy you, my lady? Bring you comfort? No. He did not. He pleaded with me to stay. He called me mad to think of it. He promised me-,” he breaks off, shaking his head. “But that is none of your concern, is it?”

“Robb is my concern now,” she says, more shrilly than she’d like. “You may not like it-,”

“No,” Jon snaps. “I don’t. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll be gone, and you’ll be here.” He takes a step forward, and she is afraid, for a moment, although he is just a boy like all the rest. But he has a man’s anger to him, black as night. A bastard’s anger. “You think him a blind fool you can use as you please. But you’re wrong. Robb sees through you. As do I.”

“And what do you see?” Her voice does not shake, to her relief.

Jon Snow smiles at her, but there is no lightness to it, only a bitter sort of triumph. “A frightened little girl hiding under her father's flayed man. But you’re no Bolton, are you?” His smile vanishes. “No more than I’m a Stark.”

Nell sees red at that, and strides forward- to slap him, to punch him, to call for Lady Catelyn and have him whipped for speaking so impudently to her, a highborn lady, a trueborn daughter- but then Ghost surges forward and opens his mouth. A howl tears out, spilling into the air, and Nell jumps back in shock and fright, just as Jon Snow blanches- before they realize- it is not Ghost howling at all. He is imitating the action, but no sound comes from him. The howl is from another source entirely. It goes on and on, high and keening and mournful, and then there is the distant, responding chorus of barks and howls from the nearby kennels.

“What’s going on?” Nell nearly stammers, to her disgust.

“I- I don’t know,” Jon says hoarsely. The howling continues, ragged and pained. “It’s coming from the first keep. Wait here.” He starts forward, but Ghost runs ahead, a white streak racing towards the howls. There’s the distant beat of wings, and Nell feels her blood run cold as a murder of ravens wings overhead, pitch black against the pale blue sky. Jon runs after his wolf, just as there is a faint scream, then another. “Find Maester Luwin!” he calls over his shoulder to her. “Someone must be hurt!”

But her legs refuse to move, and it is nearly a minute before she can even think to start in the direction of the maester’s turret. By then, there is not just one wolf howling, and she finds Nymeria near the Hunter’s Gate, Sansa’s wooden comb on the ground nearby, as the direwolf paces back and forth, howling and tossing her head as if in agony. Nell crouches down to pick up the comb, her fingers glancing over the carved birds on it. As she straightens back up, Maester Luwin comes rushing out, looking askance.

“What’s happened, my lady? Is someone injured?”

“I don’t know,” Nell says honestly, grip tightening around the comb. She can still hear the ravens cawing and crowing in the distance, even through the howls and growing number of shouts and cries. “Jon went to find out-,” she breaks off as a figure comes running towards them. It is Jeyne Poole’s father, Vayon the steward, a slight, grey-haired man. Nell has never heard him so much as raise his voice before, but now he’s panting and panicked, shouting in between gasps for air-

“Maester, come quickly! He’s fallen! We don’t want to move him, and the wolf won’t let anyone near-,”

“Who’s fallen?” Nell demands, but catches Luwin’s countenance out of the corner of her eye, and then she knows.

“Bran,” he pronounces it like a prayer, and the battered comb slips from Nell’s slackened fingers and falls to the ground once more.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell has very few examples of grief to turn to. There is the loss of Mother, now an old, ropy scar that sprouts from her heart. And there is the loss of Sara, a wound only just beginning to scab over, but liable to crack off and bleed fresh if handled roughly. When Mother died she just remembers the silence. There were four days between Mother’s death and Barbrey’s arrival, and during those four days Nell does not recall eating nor drinking, only silence. She would have spent those four days clutching her mother’s corpse, had it been permitted. Instead she slept in a dead woman’s bed and clutched at empty air and silence. Barbrey, after her arrival, only permitted herself to weep in Nell’s presence the once, in the godswood. Even that, her aunt did silently and proudly, her tears tracking near lines down her severe face.

There is nothing silent nor proud nor neat about Winterfell’s grief. Nell is there to witness each Starks’ reaction to the news, and wishes very much she was not. Not just because it is so painful and uncomfortable but because she feels as though she were an interloper they forgot to send away. As she told Dana, she is not their kin, not their blood, and to be included in this cacophony of shock and anger and horror is overwhelming. It is a labyrinth she can not escape from. Everywhere she turns, someone is crumbling and tearing and splitting, like a tapestry being ripped apart. Everywhere she looks, someone is saying, “No, it can’t be, Bran never falls, never-,”

But he did. He did fall, sweet and earnest Bran, who she has seen scrambling up walls and onto roofs and ramparts many times. He was always so quick, too, and oddly sure of himself for an otherwise shy boy of seven. She’d sometimes thought he’d be an athletic, graceful man someday- he wanted to be a knight, and Nell would have believed it, although she does not think any Stark has ever held the title of ‘ser’. He could have been the first, perhaps. Ser Brandon the Bold. Scaling towers to rescue kidnapped maidens, a sword strapped to his back.

Jon Snow is crouched beside Bran’s body when she arrives with Maester Luwin. Nell assumes the boy is dead because he looks dead; pale and still and bent, his eyes shut. His wolf sits beside him, howling and howling. Jon’s hands hover over his brother, as if afraid to touch him, as though he might break some sort of spell. His face is white as his own wolf’s, and his grey eyes so dark they might be black. “Bran,” he is saying in a low, urgent, tone, as if trying to confide a secret in the child. “Bran, wake up, you’re alright, Bran, come on now, you’ll be alright, just get up-,”

Catelyn Stark arrives with her daughters mere moments later, flushed and breathless, hands shaking as Maester Luwin searches for a pulse. The sound that comes out of her is a low moan of despair, which steadily surges to a howling shriek at the sight of her favorite child prone and still on the ground. The wolves match her in tempo, as Sansa wraps her long arms around her wailing mother and buries her auburn head of hair in her chest. Arya stands stock-still and frozen as if momentarily perplexed into immotion by this chain of events, and then even her solemn little face puckers, and she sags with wrenching, hoarse sobs. Dana puts her hands on the girl’s trembling shoulders, but she wrenches away and reaches for Nymeria instead.

Nell has accepted all of this- children die, sometimes suddenly and horribly- all the time, and a fall is hardly an uncommon cause, even for a healthy, active little boy like Bran- but Maester Luwin’s proclamation that Bran still lives catches her off-guard, like a bucket of icy water dumped over her head. The next few minutes are a flurry of shouting and activity, until the boy can be placed on a makeshift stretcher and carried into the keep, and a messenger sent out to the hunting party to call them back. It is not her place to see whether Bran Stark still draws breath, so she she waits with a distraught Vayon and tearful Jeyne and speechless Dana by the hunter’s gate.

In Ned Stark and his heir she sees death and terror, respectively. Lord Stark has the look of a man who has just seen an axe fall, as though he were somehow waiting and waiting, all these years, for his happiness to be ripped away, expecting something terrible to happen. This is a man, she thinks, who saw his mother, father, brother, and sister all dead before his twentieth name day. He is still more used to grief than he is to joy, all these years later. It is a familiar pattern and the potential loss of his son is just the latest note.

Robb is terrified. There is a little boy’s fear writ all over his face, and for once she cannot fault him for it, because she does not think he has ever lost anything or anyone in his life, and for all the flaws she might pick out of him like seeds, apathy for his friends and family is not one of them. Robb loves, genuinely loves his mother and his father and his bastard brother and his younger siblings and his wolf and Winterfell itself- He loves them all so easily, it seems absurd to her, and now she sees the underside of that. When you love with ease, you can lose it with ease as well. “Where is he?” he keeps asking, voice cracking in half, “Where did they take him? He can’t be- It’s Bran, he can’t be-,”

But he can be. He can be unconscious and possibly dying. Nell does not know. Were she already wed to Robb, she would be crowded around Bran’s bedside with the rest of them, out of duty if nothing else. She is not, so she takes Dana and Jeyne Poole to the godswood and the three of them kneel and sit beneath the heart tree to pray. Nell tries to pretend it were her own child, and prays for what she thinks is best- an end to it. Let the boy wake and recover, or let him die. The waiting will be torture, and were Bran her own son, she would rather have a dead boy than one barely clinging to life, unable to speak or eat or even sit up in bed. They remain there in silence, among the whispering trees, until well after the sun has slunk down below the walls.

“He’ll live,” Dana tells her later that night. She sounds frightened but certain all the same.

“He may not,” Nell corrects her. “His heart may give out, his lungs could be damaged-,”

“How could he not?” Dana demands hoarsely, the firelight dancing across her thin face. “The gods are with them. He cannot die, else they never would have given him a wolf.”

A wolf will not knit bones back together and drag him back on his feet to run and play once more, Nell wants to say, but she is too tired and too cold inside, and she does not want to fight with Dana again. Instead she says, “I was cruel, before. I should not have spoken to you like that.” She reaches out and touches Dana’s sharp elbow. “I’m sorry, Danelle.”

“Be as cruel as you like,” Dana’s words are brusque, but her face softens slightly, “but don’t lie to yourself, Donella.” She hesitates, then adds, “You should go to Robb.”

Nell blanches. “Now?”

Dana huffs gently. “Who’s the silly one, again? No, not now. But tomorrow. Bran is going to be here for a long time. Best Robb knows you’ll have his back for the fight.”

Nell is even more confused, and annoyed by Dana’s dancing around the subject. “What fight?”

Now it is Dana’s turn to regard her as the naive child. “I know he will live because the gods are here,” she says calmly. “But I also know that boy will never walk again. He’s crippled, Nell. They will mourn and pity him now, when he is a sweet little boy, but when he is a man they will mock and deride him wherever he goes, just like the Imp. He’ll never be able to pick up a sword and fight for himself, so Robb will have to fight for him. And you as well.”

The idea of fighting for anyone but herself is profoundly unsettling.

She finds him in the godwood just after dawn. It was not a hard search; Robb Stark may have been raised to honor both the old gods and the new, but Nell has never seen him enter the sept unless accompanied by his mother or Sansa. He is alone, to her relief. She had been dreading the idea of encountering Jon with him, or Theon, but neither seemed the consoling type, although she remembers the way all the color drained from Greyjoy’s face when he heard. Perhaps he is not as unfeeling as he’d have them all believe.

He does not hear her silent approach; Nell knows well enough how to walk through a wood, but Grey Wind does. The wolf turns, tracking her with its yellow eyes, and Robb glances back, face wet and shiny. Nell halts, and bows her head slightly. “I thought you might want some company,” she lies in a low murmur, “but if you would prefer to be alone now, I understand.”

“No,” he says roughly. “No, my lady- I’d be glad for it.”

Nell nods, and approaches. It is extremely inappropriate for them to be entirely alone together, but that is lessened some by the fact that they are in a godswood. In the south, a young couple might treat what to is, to them, merely an overgrown garden as a place to fondle and rut, but Nell knows very few northern boys bold enough to seek to rid a girl of her virtue in the presence of weirwood trees. No one is looking for either of them at a time like this; they are safe enough. Lady Catelyn is with Bran, Lord Eddard is with the King, and much of the rest of the castle is still asleep. But she knows Robb likely did not sleep much at all last night, and the dark circles under his eyes and rumpled head of hair are proof enough. She sits beside him, trying not to think about how they will kneel under this tree to wed each other in a matter of months.

“Maester Luwin did not think he would survive the night,” Robb says in a low voice, not looking at her but at the heart tree’s face instead, “but he did.”

“What does the maester think now?” Nell does not like Luwin anymore than she likes any other maester she has ever met, owing to her aunt’s loathing for them, but she does not despise the man either. He seems a good deal more trustworthy than Uthor, at any rate.

“I spoke with him a little while ago,” Robb’s face is still damp, but his eyes are dry. She is glad; if he were to cry in front of her she is not sure if he would be able to easily forget it. Boys are tetchy about that sort of thing, looking weak in front of women. “He says we will just have to wait and see, but it is a good sign that Bran,” he wavers slightly, “that Bran has made it this long.”

“Dana thinks he will live,” Nell says, surprising him and herself. “She thinks the gods are watching over him through his wolf.” Grey Wind is lying down mere feet away, but alert and awake, staring at her. He raises his head slightly, as if he can understand her. She remembers Ghost’s silent snarl and almost flinches, but forces herself to remain still. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I pray they will restore him to you.” That is not a lie, at least.

Robb finally looks directly at her, and Grey Wind rises silently and trots over to them, brushing up against Robb’s back. His wet snout collides with her arm, and once again she tentatively offers the wolf her hand, holding her gloved fingers tightly together so they do not shake. This time he does not lick at her, but inclines his head against her hand. She can feel his warm breath; he is about the size of a large dog now. For a few moments, she is not afraid, before he circles around and lies down once more.

“Your mother,” Robb says then, suddenly, and Nell tenses. Color rises in his freckled face. “I- I’m sorry, I mean- you lost your mother when you were a girl, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” says Nell thickly. “I... I did. She took ill, while our fathers were off putting down Greyjoy’s Rebellion. It was quick. I was eight.” She starts to close her mouth, then blurts out, “I loved her,” and hates herself for it. What is she doing? Trying to prove to him that she is capable of love? Of caring? That she is not just Lord Leech’s cold and disgruntled daughter?

“I was six then,” he tells her. “Mother was having Arya. I was too young to remember Sansa’s being born. Jon and I wanted a little brother,” he almost smiles then, “but it was hard for her, I think. I remember she was ill all the time, and the babe kicked a lot-,”

“That sounds like Arya,” Nell murmurs, and he does smile briefly at that.

“But when her time came, Father was still gone, and- I was so afraid,” he sounds almost surprised at himself. “I was afraid she would die, and I would be alone. I don’t know why. Nothing went wrong, I don’t think- Arya was fine, my mother was fine. But I was afraid until Father came back, all the same. I think I’d just realized then that- that people could die. Real people, that is. Not characters in stories, or myths and legends.”

He pauses, and then says, “I’m sorry, Nell. It must have been very difficult for you, to lose her, and with your father away at war-,”

“I was glad he was gone,” Nell didn’t mean to say it aloud, and later blames it on her own exhaustion, but she’s said it all the same.

Robb stares at her, and she grimaces, expecting distaste or shock or anger to appear on his face, but instead he just simply asks, “Why?”

Nell knows she should make up some excuse, take back her words, apologize- what must he think of her, a daughter who would openly insult her own father, her own lord? Instead she says very softly, as if in a dream, because she cannot lie when he is looking at her like that with those clear blue eyes, “Because he didn’t love her, nor she him. He-,” but she stops there, because even transfixed as she is, she cannot tread down that dark path. “He’s not a kind man, my father,” she settles on. “I- I respect him, of course, but… The Dreadfort is not like Winterfell.”

Not at all like Winterfell.

“I didn’t think it was,” Robb says, and then, to her shock, he takes her hand. She thinks she could kiss him now, again and again, and he might love her, and never question her after this, and she could rest easy knowing who would rule this marriage. But she can’t kiss him, can’t do something so calculated when he took her hand not to allure or seduce her but to comfort her, as he might his sister or his mother. It would feel perverse, somehow.

“I know we don’t know each other well, but I hope-,” he bites his lip the way Arya often does, and then continues, “It will not be like that for us. Even if we don’t- if we never have what my mother and father do, I swear I will never mistreat you, or dishonor you.”

Boys swear such things often, but she almost believes him, he is so serious and grave, like his father before him. He knows none of it. He knows her parents had a cold, unpleasant marriage, like many others, that her father was unkind, like many others. He does not know about the hunting and the miller’s wife and the Bastard and Sara and the servants who miss their tongues. “Of course you wouldn’t,” now it is her term to comfort, “I know you are a good man.” She does not know that, but she knows there is a wide gulf between Roose Bolton and Ned Stark.

He lets go of her hand. “I should see if my mother or Maester Luwin need help.”

“Yes,” she stands with him. “Please tell her to send word, if she has need of me. I don’t want to intrude-,”

“How could you? You belong here,” Robb says honestly. “With us.”

Again, she almost believes him.

There is no grand feast, of course. The castle’s guests are quiet and reserved; very few are fool enough to be seen openly cavorting about when their host is under such strain. The king seems to be taking it as hard as he would have had it been one of his own children to fall- perhaps harder, thinks Nell. She has seen enough of the Baratheons to know that there is no love at all between Robert and Joffrey.

Which is perhaps understandable- were she heir to the Iron Throne, she would be bursting at the seams to wrest control of it from a man like the king. But he seems no more interested in Myrcella or Tommen, either, who, while spoiled and coddled enough to make the Stark children look hardened in comparison, both seem well-behaved and obedient. Mayhaps it is that they all so obviously take after Cersei. Nell sees no real trace of Robert Baratheon in Joffrey, aside from his violent temper and poor impulse control.

Bran’s condition does not change. He does not wake, but he does not deteriorate either. Catelyn will not leave his bedchamber, and while Nell visits at least once a day, usually with Sansa and Arya, she can never bring herself to stay long. Bran may not be actively dying, but he looks like death itself. Were it not for the shallow rises and fall of his chest, she would think him a small corpse. He is pale as bone and gaunt, his hair greasy and unwashed, plastered to his scalp. From a distance, he could be a scarecrow, a boy composed of sticks and twigs and old rags. It frightens his sisters to see him like this; they hesitate at his bedside as if he might suddenly lunge awake and attack them. Nell for once cannot blame the girls. Were it her brother, she would be sick to her stomach at the sight of him.

They pray. Her days are full of prayer now. Nell has never been the most devout, but she has never questioned the existence nor the power of the gods before, and she is not about to now. She wishes she could pray with the frenzy and want the others seem to. Instead she tries to visualize Bran waking, speaking and smiling again, his hair regaining its luster and his skin the flush of childhood. She imagines him sitting up in bed and eating and drinking and talking with his siblings, imagines him laughing, even. He will never walk, nor even hobble on crutches, but they will find some way to help him, surely. The Starks are not people to sit idly by.

She wonders if this is how her mother prayed for a son. Did she imagine a boy, dark-haired and brown-eyed like her, devoid of any semblance of Roose Bolton? Did she dream of the day that boy would grow tall and strong and carry live steel and wear the flayed man on his cloak? When he might gut her husband like a fish and leave him for the dogs, when he might free her? Perhaps she thought one day her longed-for son would ride out into the wood with her, and she would be happy once more, light and full of ease, and she would look at him, handsome and courageous and powerful, and know she had somehow earned this reward? She has very faint memories of being ill once, when she was five or six, and her mother spending hours in bed with her, telling her stories and stroking her hair.

Were Bran her boy, Nell thinks she would sacrifice much more than a prized stallion for him. She would go out and hunt a bear, if she had to. She would give the gods whatever they wanted, no matter the cost. But she does not think the Starks would take kindly to the sight of her slaughtering some beast and dragging its entrails into the godswood to hang in their heart tree. Instead she tries to be useful and invisible at the same time, saying very little and keeping busy, helping Sansa and Arya unpack and then repack without complaint. She had not been sure if Ned Stark might call off the entire trip south, but after a week has passed it becomes clear that they will still be leaving soon.

To her surprise, she finds herself almost sorry when the day comes. It was one thing when Ned Stark was taking his daughters and second son and leaving her with Catelyn, Robb, and little Rickon. It is quite another now that Bran has been in this state for nearly a fortnight, Catelyn seems a hollow shell of grief and anger, Robb is heartbroken, and Rickon pitching a new tantrum every day. This is hardly the peaceful keep she thought she’d be left to leisurely oversee. And part of her- part of her, however small, can admit that she will miss some things. She will miss Sansa’s eager looks and watchful gaze as Nell showed her how to master a new sewing pattern, she will miss Arya’s challenges to show her how to properly hold a bow and notch an arrow. Perhaps she will even miss Ned Stark’s quiet composure and slow smiles, when he thinks no one is looking.

She has only been at Winterfell for two months. It would be absurd for her to be anymore attached. But however thin and fragile the threads may be, they are still there. She is grateful, she can acknowledge, for what Robb is, even with how aware she is of what he is not. Ned Stark raised a dutiful heir and a kind boy with the makings of a decent man. She is not used to feeling grateful. And perhaps in a few years’ time, she may sit at some feast with Robb’s sisters, a child in her lap or in her belly, and laugh and talk easily with them, for they will all be women grown then. Perhaps Bran will even be there too, sitting with them, and Lord and Lady Stark smiling once again, and they will have proper musicians and venison and boar she hunted herself, with her lord husband.

It is an amusing fantasy, she knows. But her smiles and promises to write when she bids goodbye to Sansa and Arya are not entirely forced and manufactured, either. It is snowing gently, tiny flakes catching in everyone’s hair and cloaks. Sansa is beaming so hard she looks almost in pain from stretching her mouth. Arya is less exuberant but still seems excited for the call of the open road ahead, chattering away with the butcher’s boy, Mycah, and petting Nymeria with one grubby hand. Robb is a little ways away, saying farewell to Jon Snow. Nell knows better than to go over there, and instead curtsies one final time to Ned Stark. “I wish you a pleasant journey south, my lord.” She adds, “Should there be any news of Bran, I will be sure to write, if Lady Catelyn is occupied.”

“My thanks, my lady,” the Warden of the North says gravely, but he looks a little less the imposing man, and a little more the weary father at the moment. No doubt thinking with dread upon three months on the road with the likes of his she-wolf daughters, Joffrey Baratheon, and venomous Cersei Lannister. Nell is hardly saddened at all to see the last two go. Good riddance. They are pure southern, and pure Lannister pride at that. It is one thing to be proud of one’s house, and another to ignore the fact that Cersei’s beloved husband would have no throne at all, and her no gleaming crowns atop her golden curls, were it not for the North’s efforts in the war.

“It is my hope that Bran will recover,” Ned Stark says. “But it is up to the gods now.” He hesitates. “If it proves impossible for me to return to the North for the wedding, you have my apologies. As does Robb.”

“You are his father, my lord,” Nell tells him, sweetly, but not entirely untruthfully, either. “You are with him wherever he goes, I am sure of it.”

He inclines his head to her, then rides off to the front of the column, calling for his daughters. Robb returns to her side, and she glances briefly at Jon Snow, mounting his own horse beside Benjen Stark. His gaze meets hers, but she looks away before she can see the familiar bitter envy in his eyes. She will have no cause to think of him ever again. He is off to the Wall, and there he will stay. She takes Robb’s arm, watching both of their breath mist in the air, and dares to briefly catches a few flakes on her tongue.

Robb takes notice, and smiles as the last of the travelers disappears through the gates. Then his smile fades as quickly as it came. “It feels strange,” he says. “I’ve never been apart from them all before.”

“You’ll grow used to it quickly,” Nell assures him. “And then before you know it, they’ll be back to vex you again. That’s the way of family, isn’t it?”

He exhales in amusement and nods, watching the gates slowly lower shut once more. There is a note of finality to it all. On the other side of him, Grey Wind gives a sudden low, mournful howl. It startles Nell enough that she drops his arm, and before she can recover herself, there are two answering howls from the godswood. Only three wolves left now. That is what feels strange to her, more than anything else. That three direwolves would somehow seem lonely and vulnerable to her. They are beasts, hunters, not lost puppies. But there is something oddly sad about it all the same.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell’s dreams turn stranger than usual after the royal party has departed. A first she attributes it to simply falling into deeper, more restful sleeps, having grown more used to her new bedchamber, but she never had dreams like this at Barrow Hall. And at the Dreadfort she seldom dreamt at all. She dreams she is lost, stumbling through the snowy wood, but despite being clad only in a woolen shift and stockings, she does not feel the cold nor the wind. She ought to be more alarmed, but she is not, only intent on finding her way back home. She is not sure where that is, though, and cannot call up a place in her mind, either.

And then, always, she hears the deep bellow of a hunting horn, growing louder and closer, and in good time riders come streaming out of the trees, reining up around her with shrill cries. Some are on horseback, but others ride on moose and elk, and one clings to the back of a great trundling bear. None have saddles or reins or halters. Mystifyingly, every single rider is female. She cannot make out all their faces; they are more like shifting shadows, wreathed in mist, but she can hear their voices. There are no men among them. A few sound almost like children. They smell like the deepest, darkest parts of the forest, like moss and mud and sap.

They are always led by her mother, the only one whose face is clear to her. Beth Bolton looks as she did in the weeks before her death; vibrant and alive. “My foolish girl,” she always exclaims in exasperation. “I warned you to stay close to me, didn’t I? You should not wander so far, Nell. How am I to protect you? You could be snatched up by a grumkin.”

She knows this is a dream and just silly fancifulness, so Nell says, “I am too big for a grumkin to snatch up, Mother. Take me home.”

“I’ve no mount for you,” Mother replies irritably. “You should have told me. What am I to do now? Give you my steed?” She pats Harlan’s flank, and her bare hand comes away coated in the dust of the crypts. “I think not. You’ll have to walk, or find a beast that will take you.”

“You can’t just leave me here!” Nell always exclaims some version of this, and sometimes she is amused, other times frightened, others, enraged. “I am your daughter. You swore you’d never leave me.” She reaches for Mother, but Harlan shies away, neighing, and Mother just laughs and shakes her head.

“You should never take a mother at her word, my love. We lie to our children more often than not.”

“No,” Nell shakes her head, and sometimes tears prick at her eyes, “no, you wouldn’t. You were always true with me. You told me the truth of Father, of marriage- you never lied-,”

“About your sire, I never lied,” Beth smiles thinly. “But when I held you in my arms and swore to stay with you always, I knew it was not a promise I would keep. My girl, he would have been the death of me, had the fever not taken me first. He is a leech, it is in his nature to take and take until he is sated. And then take some more,” she reaches down, and her bony fingers graze across Nell’s wet cheek. “Don’t cry. Ryswells do not cry.”

“I’m not a Ryswell.”

“You are not.” Now Mother does sound sad, in her own way. “You cannot ride with me anymore. More’s the pity. I would have taken you with me, if I could.”

“You can’t go again.” Nell murmurs, wrapping her arms around herself. “Why come to me at all?”

She has never gotten to this point before. She’s always woken up, or seen the dream shift to something more mundane or absurd. She feels a sudden urgency, an impatience to get it over with. “Mother, why are you here?”

Mother just inclines her head, digs in her heels, and moves Harlan forward. Another rider takes her place, her mount far less impressive, a small mare to suit her small frame. Nell’s breath catches raggedly in her throat. Sara Snow looks down upon her, in her old grey cloak and with a familiar disapproving look on her pale face. “Why are you out here dressed like that? Gods, child, have you no sense at all? Where is your cloak? Your shoes?”

“Sara,” Nell sobs instead, reaching for her, and Sara takes her hand firmly.

“Don’t cry, you’ll make yourself sick in this cold. There’s a good girl. Dry your eyes.”

“I’m sorry,” Nell says, wiping at her nose and stinging eyes. “I’m sorry, it was my fault, I should have-,”

“Your fault?” Sara seems more bemused than anything else. There is something different about her face. Nell peers up at her hooded frame. “What have you done now, Donella?”

“He hurt you because of me,” Nell says with deep loathing, and then regrets it at the shock that blossoms across Sara’s face. A realization or recognition of sorts. As if she’d just remembered something very inconvenient or unpleasant.

“Oh,” her mouth forms a small o, and Sara reaches up, the hood of her cloak falling back. “Oh,” Sara says again, with deep dismay, and Nell sees now that she looks slightly different because her familiar braid is gone. Chopped off at the root, her hair ends in a hacked and jagged bundle along her scalp. She feels at it, and when Sara pulls her hand away, her fingers are wet with dark, old blood. As if it were a limb lopped off, and not a braid at all.

“He cut it,” Sara recalls, and for a few moments she is older than twenty five, bowed with despair. “He put his knee on my back and my face in the ground and he cut my braid off.” She brings her fingers up to her mouth, and then jerks her hand away in disgust. “I don’t know why he did that.”

“I’m sorry,” Nell whispers. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.”

“He cut my braid,” Sara repeats herself yet again. “And then he…” She pauses, and then shakes her head a little. A dull trickle of blood from the hacked braid worms its way down her thin neck. “I am going to see my mother’s kin now,” she changes the subject. “My cousin’s had a new babe. Perhaps I can come visit you, when you are settled.” Underneath the cloak, her bare legs are caked with dried dirt and purpling bruises. A wet leaf clings to her foot. Her nails are broken and bloody-black.

Nell begins to sob in earnest again, as Sara wipes her fingers clean on the cloak, and then she’s awake. The fire has died out in her hearth, and the braid of hair around her wrist itches terribly. The wind rustles at the window shutters, and she pulls the furs up over her head and rolls onto her stomach, closing her eyes once more. Nell tries to grasp at the dream again, to relive it, but it is lost to her, along with Mother and Sara’s voices and the sounds of the hunters and their mounts. In the morning her throat is raw and sore, and her nose stuffed up from sniffling. She takes a very long, very hot bath to clear her head.

Winterfell seems more cavernous now that everyone has gone. The household continues to run at a quiet, even pace, but there is some occasional floundering with Vayon Poole gone and Catelyn too grief-struck to oversee things. Nell knows what her aunt would say: that this is a golden opportunity for her, and she would be a fool not to make use of it. If she establishes herself firmly as the mistress of the household now, even should her good mother recover, the servants will learn to turn to and trust in her first. But it is not easy to wedge herself in place, either. She has no idea what counts for ‘normal’ here, and Robb is hardly much help: he is not dismissive of her or Maester Luwin’s concerns, but he spends his free time training with Greyjoy, more often than not.

Furthermore, there is Rickon, who is often a more pressing (and noisy) matter to see to. Nell wishes the boy were just a year or two younger or older. As it stands, he is too old to be confined in the nursery all day (and it seems the Starks were never the sort to keep their children holed up there in the first place), but too old to have lessons to attend to. As a result, with his father gone and his mother rooted to his brother’s bedside, Rickon Stark is everyone’s child. He spends his days being shuffled from person from person, from servant to guard to cook to lady to lord and back again. It would be one thing were he an obedient, quiet little boy.

But he is anything but. Rickon kicks, scratches, bites, pulls hair, pummels, and screams himself hoarse. Nell had no idea one so small could make that much noise. His freckled little face reddens and purples with exertion, his short limbs flail, he throws himself onto the floor and bashes his head into legs and stomachs and chest, he pinches and prods angrily, he howls alongside his wolf. The more upset Rickon is, the more wild Shaggydog, as he has dubbed the beast, becomes. Nell is not terrified of Shaggydog the way she was of Ghost, but it is clear the wolf is going to grow into a behemoth. Gods help whoever makes an enemy of Rickon Stark by the time the thing is full grown. One of the maids nearly toppled down the stairs at the sight of Rickon riding the creature down the hall, shouting and hollering like a miniature warlord.

It has been a little over a week now. Bran shows no signs of waking anytime soon, and Rickon shows no signs of calming. Catelyn shows no signs of leaving Bran’s side. A spate of dreary weather has taken hold, and the sun shows no signs of shining. To say that tempers are frayed would be to put it gently. Nell is taking her breakfast with Dana and little Beth Cassel, who, in the absence of Sansa and Jeyne, has attached herself to them, when the nearest doors of the great hall slam open, and Theon stalks over to them, swearing under his breath, a kicking, screeching Rickon tucked under one lanky arm.

Dana chokes on her sip of cider, and Beth pauses mid-bite of bacon. Nell puts down her knife with disappointment, having been about to dig into her apple cakes. “Here,” Theon spits out, as if depositing the head of an enemy king at their awaiting feet. He hauls the still fighting Rickon onto the bench, trapping the child between him and an annoyed Dana, and glowers at Nell as if she somehow provoked this. “He got into my arrows again. Broke two of them. I’d just had them fletched yesterday.”

“Perhaps you should take better care of them,” Nell suggests dryly. “Might I suggest not leaving them where a three year old could find them?”

“He climbed the bloody shelf like a squirrel,” Theon hisses, casting a dark look at young Beth, who is trying to repress her giggles. “It’s not funny. Robb and I don’t have time to play nursemaid. You ought to be looking after him.”

“Yes, you’re ever so busy fending off wilding invasions,” Dana rolls her eyes.

“This is women’s work,” Theon pointedly ignores that barb. “You’re neglecting your duties to sit by the fire gossiping-,”

“And I suppose your work is striving to breed a horde of Ironborn bastards in the winter town,” Nell says through her teeth at him. Dana laughs and takes a swig of her cider, and poor Beth flushes bright red and begins chewing loudly on her bacon. Still, she doesn’t feel like spending the next ten minutes arguing with the likes of Theon Greyjoy on whose duty it is to see to Rickon. “Be on your way, then. There’s some gossip in the guard barracks to see to, I’m sure.”

She’s very sure that her status as Robb’s betrothed is the only thing that keeps him from saying something very rude indeed to her. Instead Theon stands up stiffly, snatches up a biscuit, and points sharply at Rickon, as if disciplining an unruly dog. “Stay. Here.” As soon as he’s gone, and the child seems in danger of fleeing, Nell quickly heaps a plate with food and shoves it in front of him. “Beth, pour our little lord some milk, won’t you?”

Rickon spends the next twenty minutes methodically destroying his meal, but at least he seems to have digested some of it. When he is done, his smock is coated with crumbs and stains, and his mouth is colored purple and red from mashed berries. “I want Shaggy,” he says immediately, standing up on the bench and licking his fingers. Nell exchanges a look with Dana, who gets up to fetch a maid.

“You need a bath,” she tells him firmly.

“Don’t wanna bath! I want Shaggy!”

“Baths can be fun,” Beth attempts, picking a flake of bread crust out of his tangled curls.

“I only like baths with Mother!”

Nell sighs. “Your mother has to take care of Bran. We can visit her after your bath.”

Rickon’s outraged response to this is to pick up a handful of eggs and fling them at her. Nell narrowly dodges, considers murder, and settles for grasping him firmly by the back of his smock and hauling him off his feet. “I don’t want you! I WANT MOTHER!” Rickon roars, delivering a surprisingly strong headbutt to the underside of her chin. Her teeth clack together, and she gives his ear a sharp twist, just as Dana returns with Shaggydog instead of a maid, who gives a low growl at the sight of his master in such distress.

“How’s this- you and Shaggy can bathe together,” Dana says lightly. “In the hot springs. You won’t both fit in a tub, I’m afraid. Shaggydog wants a bath, doesn’t he?”

Shaggydog does not seem convinced of this, but Rickon’s lower lip stops trembling, and he gives a jerky nod. Nell sets him down gingerly, and he immediately grabs hold of his wolf and leads the way outdoors. It’s a cold, damp morning, but the heat emanating from the springs is enough to make all of them shed their cloaks and gloves, even if they are not bathing. Rickon strips naked with all haste and jumps into the warm water with a shout and a tremendous splash, and his wolf is quick to follow, with an even larger splash. Beth shrieks as the water crashes over her, soaking her coppery curls instantly.

They end up going down to their smallclothes and dipping their legs in the water, while Rickon paddles around quite happily with his wolf and tells them, in a disjointed, three year old fashion, about how his mother taught him how to swim last year, when he was two and ‘a little baby’. Beth tells them about how horrible it is with both Sansa and Jeyne gone off to be pretty ladies at court and get crowned queens of love and beauty at tourneys, while she is stuck here helping Maester Luwin and her father. Beth shares both Nell’s mother’s name, and Nell’s lack of a mother at all, and so Nell is inclined to vague fondness for the girl, if nothing more.

“Court can’t be all wonderful,” Dana points out, reclining on the mossy earth and positioning her hands behind her head. “Think about how hot it is down south, and how smelly and ugly the capitol must be. They say there’s piles of shit on the street and roving gangs of orphans who’ll slit your throat for a few coins. Would you really rather be there? At least the winter town smells better.”

“There’s nothing to do in the winter town,” Beth mumbles. “And Father is always here, so I never get to go anywhere! I’ve only been to White Harbor once! And I’m nine,” she proclaims indignantly. “That’s almost a woman. Sansa gets to marry the prince, and Jeyne a lord, and I’ll be stuck here forever and have to marry Turnip!”

“Who’s Turnip?” Nell grimaces.

“Gage’s son,” Dana reminds her, then adds, “the cook’s boy. Smells of turnips. Looks like a turnip. Hair sticks up, big head, skinny neck.”

“He’s six,” Beth pronounces in horror. “And once he tried to kiss me! He hasn’t even got all his teeth yet!”

“Beth, your father is a knight,” Nell says in bemusement. “I’m certain you won’t have to marry Turnip. Perhaps a Glover, or one of the Tallhart boys. One of them must be close to your age.”

“Beren is,” Beth says, scrambling out of the way of Shaggydog, who has emerged from the springs to shake his thick black coat dry. “But he’s so loud.”

“Better loud than a vegetable,” Dana mutters, and Nell grins at that.

Rickon stays in the water for near an hour- the boy must truly be half fish, or have hidden gills somewhere- and then reluctantly agrees to be dried off and changed into fresh clothes. Then Nell insists they take a very long walk around the castle, simply to eat up more time and keep the child occupied with running from here to there, showing them things, and after that it is time to eat again, and then they manage to see him off to play with Bandy and Shyra, two of the stable girls, and then Nell shuts herself up in her rooms with Dana, exhausted.

“It’s good practice for when you have your own children,” Dana snickers, as Nell collapses into an armchair and kicks off her boots with a groan. “At least you’ve only got to help look after one of them. One of my aunts whelped eight boys. Be grateful Lady Catelyn only had three. And you were the one who said you preferred the brothers Stark to the sisters! At least Sansa and Arya bathed regularly!”

“Yes, yes, I brought it all upon myself,” Nell mutters. “Your point is made. Gods. I still hold that he’d be much easier to manage were it not for the wolf pitching tantrums alongside him.”

“Good luck seeing them shut up in the kennels,” Dana snorts. “Farlen’s like to resign his position in that case.”

“Robb thinks they might be good luck for Bran. Like you.”

“Didn’t you ever hear Ned Stark lecturing his children about winter? He quite enjoys it.” Dana imitates the man very convincingly, but her blue eyes are deadly serious. “The lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”

“And I call the wolf who travels south to play games with lions a fool,” Nell says irritably. “He should have stayed here. Look at his lady wife- I should kill my husband, were he to leave me with a crippled child.”

“What choice did he have?” Dana stokes up the fire. “Refuse the King? Unthinkable. Baratheon is exactly the sort to take slight over it. And if Sansa is to be queen she would have had to go south either way. Only a true fool would send his maiden daughter to court alone.”

“A Northern queen,” Nell muses. “The court must be in a frenzy.”

“She does worship the Seven,” Dana shrugs, glancing over at the windows as rain begins to patter down, hard and fast. “And she was raised by a Tully and a septa. It’s hardly as if Joffrey is marrying an Umber.”

“She also prays in a godwood, sews her own clothes, keeps a direwolf for a lap dog, and has never been south of the Neck,” Nell retorts. “Cersei must be furious. I’ll wager she wanted to hand-select a bride herself, not bow to Robert’s whims because he could not have Lyanna. A Lannister cousin, perhaps.”

“Pray for the girl anyways,” Dana says. “I’d rather be dead than be a queen. Especially that boy’s.”

“Oh, hush.”

When they come down to dinner, Nell scans the head table but sees no sign of Rickon, only Robb. “Theon’s gone into town,” he says when she joins him, and she does not try very hard to hide her relief. “Rickon’s off sulking somewhere. If he wants to go without supper, let him.”

“He’ll learn quickly,” Nell assures him, smiling her thanks as he pours her drink. Robb seldom touches wine or rum, she’s noticed, and even during the feasts, he was only allowed two cups under his father’s watchful eye. Lord Stark will have no drunkards for sons, it would seem. In some ways it is a blessing. Some men go mild and meek with drink, and are thus easier to sway or influence, but others fly into black rages at a moment’s notice, like she’s heard whispered of the king.

“He’s never gone this long without Mother before,” Robb admits. “He’s too little. He doesn’t know why Father left with the girls, or why she won’t spend time with him.”

“It’s been less than a fortnight since Bran fell,” Nell says. “I’m sure she’ll begin to come back to herself soon. She seems a strong woman, your lady mother.”

“She is, but-,” Robb hesitates, then takes a bite of his food and chews and swallows instead. “She’s always had Father, and he her. The last time they were apart was Greyjoy’s Rebellion. I don’t know how to help her. Bran hasn’t gotten any better…”

“But he hasn’t gotten any worse.” Nell feels strange being the optimistic one for once, but she can hardly tell Robb that she still half-expects Bran to die any given night. The rain has finally died down outside to a light drizzle. “Mayhaps you should try to ease her into it. Convince her to leave him for just an hour or two each day.”

“I’ll try to speak with her tonight,” Robb decides. “Maester Luwin has figures and appointments to go over with her.”

“With you as well,” Nell is careful with her tone; she does not want to come across as nagging or pushing him, or she’ll have a slippery hole to dig herself out of. Men need to be prodded and cajoled while feeling as though it were their idea all along. Barbrey taught her that. “You are lord of Winterfell in your father’s absence. They will try to test you, to see what sort of Warden of the North you may be.”

“My father is still Warden,” he frowns.

“Your father is well into the barrowlands by now,” Nell says. “He cannot rule the North and serve as the king’s hand all at once. He would not have left had he no faith in you to manage his lands and people properly.”

Robb smiles briefly at her, just as two maids come up to the table.

“Milord, we still cannot find Rickon,” the older one says. “He’s not in his room, or in the godswood-,”

“Or the stables,” the younger one adds, “nor the kitchen, milord, beggin’ your pardons, but it might be he will only come if’n you call for him.”

“Lord Robb must meet with his mother and Maester Luwin,” Nell says swiftly, standing up. “I will go with you to search for Rickon. I’m sure he’s hiding somewhere, hungry.” Dana and Beth follow her and the maids out, and begin the arduous process of trying to determine where Rickon might be.

“Let’s split up,” Dana suggests wearily, as she pulls on her cloak. “I’ll take Arla and search the godswood and guesthouse again. He might be playing around in there with Shaggydog. Lorna, you check the bell tower and the kennels.”

“Beth and I will search the crypts and then the library,” Nell takes the young girl’s hand. “He likes to hide under the tables there sometimes.”

The crypts are dark, damp, and cold. Nell fights back any sense of unease about being surrounded by dead Starks, and lights a torch from the wall. Beth holds onto her tightly as they descend down the ancient steps. “I hate it down here,” Beth murmurs. “Once, we were playing hide and seek, and I was looking, and Arya and Bran hid down here and scared me. And I fell and cut my knee…”

“Rickon,” Beth calls into the gloom. “Come out! You’re hungry, aren’t you? If you come out now, you may still have some supper before bed.” There is no answer beyond the faint drip of water and the occasional rustle. They pass by several statues, and Nell is careful to keep her gaze focused straight ahead. No sense in spooking herself. “Rickon!” There is still no answer.

“He doesn’t like the dark that much,” Beth says warily. “He would have come out by now, or Shaggy. Shaggydog smells people before he sees them.”

There is a distant scream, and Beth gasps, bumping into Nell, who nearly drops the torch. “What was that?”

Another shout, more yelling, and the sound of running feet. “I don’t know,” Nell says, with a terrible sense of foreboding. This is too much like- “Let’s go.” She tightens her grip on the torch and hastens back upstairs with Beth, dashing out into the courtyard as men rush by, shouting for buckets.

“What-,”

“Look!” Beth is gaping up at the spire of the library tower. Several of the windows are glowing orange, and the smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air.

“Gods, Rickon-,” Nell can think of several ways a fire might start, and a rambunctious little boy knocking over a lantern or trying to light a candle is one of them. She lets go of Beth and starts forward. “Robb!” Then she sees him, running towards the blaze, the maester on his heels. “ROBB!” she shouts, and he stops to look at her. “Rickon might be in there!”

He nods tightly, and starts running again, shouting for the men to form a chain.

Beth has darted off to find her father, and Nell looks around frantically for a few moments before she spots Dana. Only then does she make out the howling of the wolves again. “He wasn’t in the godswood, but his wolf was,” Dana says darkly. “Scared the maids half to death when they started howling- it’ll be hard for the fire to spread across the bailey, though.”

“Are you lookin’ for Rickon?” A small hand grabs at her elbow. Nell starts and glances down at the boy they call Turnip. Beth was right about his missing teeth.

“Have you seen him?” she demands.

Turnip nods eagerly. “He was goin’ to find his ma.” Then he continues on his way, heaving along a bucket nearly as large as him, brimming with filthy kitchen water.

“Then he’s not in the library,” Dana sighs in relief.

“The first keep,” Nell agrees. “But Lady Catelyn must be beside herself, if she can see the blaze-,”

They quickly start off in that direction, leaving the crowd working to fight the fire behind, and cut through the silent armory and deserted guards hall to reach the circular first keep. “I don’t like this place after dark,” Dana says, as they enter the building. “You always hear about ghosts and the like prowling about.”

“I think ghosts should be the least of our worries when towers are catching fire,” Nell snaps, then stops. “Did you hear that?”

Several loud thuds, as if something had fallen and rolled off a shelf. All the howling has ceased. Nell wonders wildly for a moment if the fire might have woken Bran, somehow. Her and Dana glance at each other, then rush up the stairwell, the sounds louder now. Then there is a low growl, of sorts, and as they reach the corridor Nell just gets a glimpse of a furry shape slipping inside Bran’s room.

Nell flies down the corridor, shoving open the half ajar door, just in time to see Bran’s direwolf come away with half a man’s throat in its jaws. Dana screams, the freshly made corpse on the floor continues to bleed out, a red pool flowing across the stones, and Nell looks from the dagger on the floor to the strange, filthy dead man to Catelyn Stark, white-faced and wild-eyed, huddled against the bed, to the wolf licking blood off her twitching fingers.

“Mother?” There’s a high, frightened voice from behind them. Nell quickly moves to block the bloody view of the room from Rickon, who cranes his neck trying to glimpse around her. “I got lost,” he says plaintively, “but Bran’s wolf showed me. Why’s Mother being silly?”

The wolf has jumped on the bed beside the still unconscious Bran, and Lady Stark has begun to laugh and laugh, on the verge of hysterical sobs. “She’s just had a bad fright, that’s all,” Nell lies to Rickon, and then, without looking back, scoops him up into her arms and runs down the stairs with Dana, shouting for the nearest guards.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell knows a lie when she hears one, and she’s heard many in her life. Never from her aunt, her father, or Sara- Barbrey thought it a disservice to lie to her niece, Father thought it unnecessary, and Sara thought it pointless. But she’s heard lies all the same, from servants and guards and cooks and washerwomen and stableboys- lies from villagers and innkeepers and farmers. Nell thinks herself shrewd and observant, but in reality, most lies are lazy, indulgent things, easily ripped open. Born of convenience or pity or flattery. She’s certainly told her fair share, with varying degrees of success. The best lie, of course, is one that has some shade of truth to it.

So when Lady Catelyn informs Nell that she and Ser Rodrik are paying a visit to White Harbor to seek the counsel of the maesters there for Bran, Nell knows it is a lie immediately. Catelyn Stark is an honest woman, for better or worse, not easily given to deception and trickery. Her clear blue eyes- Robb’s eyes- are shadowed and strangely determined when she lies. Her hands are still heavily bandaged, her hair arranged to cover the wound on her scalp, and her face still pale and gaunt from a fortnight of barely eating or sleeping. But she seems almost stronger, sharper, somehow. As if, absurdly enough, the attack jolted her back to life.

And it is a lie. She is likely going to White Harbor, yes, and taking Ser Rodrik with her, and for Bran’s sake, yes, but for maesters? No. Maester Luwin is a clever, learned man. Nell may not trust him, but she believes his claims that Bran will never walk again, and that he will not sleep forever. She may believe Bran will wake from his slumber only to finally pass away, but the presence of his wolf by his side, day and night, gives her new doubt. How did the beast know he was in danger? Did it follow the stranger’s smell? Or did it have some other sense to warn it?

Catelyn is not going for maesters, so why is she going to White Harbor? What would drag her away from Bran’s bedside now? Answers, Nell thinks. The truth. They will have no answers from a dead man, but she saw that blade he carried herself, before Maester Luwin took it away to examine it. That was finely made, perhaps even Valyrian steel. Poor murderers do not carry Valyrian steel, unless they steal it or rich men give it to them. And the fire in the library tower could certainly be some grand coincidence, but like her aunt and mother before her, Nell does not believe in coincidences. The fire was set to distract the rest of the household and draw away the guards while the man silenced Bran.

So then the only question remaining is who and why. Who would want Bran Stark dead, and why. That too, comes easily enough, although perhaps it is her natural inclination towards paranoia. He knows something that they do not want him repeating. He must have seen something, or heard something, that his would-be murder does not want getting out. Someone who was visiting Winterfell with the royal party. And if that follows, then- well, perhaps Bran did not fall that day, at all. Perhaps that was merely the first attempt to kill him, and once it became evident he was not dying immediately, they left someone behind to finish the job.

“I apologize for the short notice,” Catelyn is telling her, and Nell realizes she is gaping at the woman silently. They are not in Bran’s room, but in Lady Stark’s sitting room, adjoining her bedchamber. The last time Nell was in here, she sat in a corner, sewing with Jeyne and Beth, watching Sansa and Arya, dressed in their very best gowns, sit stiffly together for a portrait miniature for their mother. It was the closest she’d ever seen the two; they shared a velvet cushioned bench, sitting shoulder to shoulder, or shoulder to head, really, given the difference in height.

Sansa had been in snowy white, trimmed with Tully blue, while Arya had been in Stark grey, trimmed with Tully red, their hair held back with matching silk ribbons. Sansa had been practically bubbling with pride, while Arya had looked as though she wanted to scream, but restrained herself for her mother’s sake. Catelyn had had tears in her eyes, and afterwards embraced them both and told them what fine young ladies they would become at court. Nell had tried, very hard, to stamp out the flame of agonizing bitter envy, watching them, and rubbed at the braided hair round her wrist instead.

“You have no need to apologize to me, my lady,” she says now, inclining her head respectfully. “I shall strive to see Winterfell just as you left it, upon your return.”

“You have my thanks.” She can tell Catelyn likely suspects that she suspects that both of them are lying, but both of them are also well-bred women and far too polite and too careful to say it. “I know this has been a difficult time for all of us. I am in your debt, truly, Donella, for the care you’ve shown my sons.” Catelyn hesitates. “Both Rickon and Robb.”

“House Stark shall be my good-family before the year is out,” Nell says with a smile that she hopes does not look more like a frustrated grimace. “Your sorrows are my sorrows, my lady. I shall pray for your safe travel and Bran’s improvement daily.”

“May the gods, old and new, hear all our prayers.” Catelyn nods, then stands. Nell follows suit, smoothing out her skirts. “I have spoken with Robb as well. I leave Winterfell in his hands, and yours. Ser Rodrik and I will depart at dawn on the morrow. You must excuse me for the rest of the day-,” she pauses, and then gives a sad sort of smile. “I should spend this time with Rickon, before I leave.”

The Starks take their meal separate that night; Catelyn and Robb and little Rickon eat in Bran’s bedchamber. Nell eats with Dana in her own chambers, and in between bites of food they come up with all sorts of wild theories and speculations as to what Bran Stark could have heard or seen. “A plot of some sort,” Dana is certain of it. “The boy was climbing the broken tower, was he not? Exactly where someone would go to avoid being overheard. Perhaps a scheme against the king or queen-,”

“Or a scheme put forth by the king or queen,” Nell points out darkly.

Dana wrinkles her nose as she takes a long sip of her stew. “What could they have to plot about? They’re the king and queen. They have everything.”

Nell shrugs lightly. “And both of them seem utterly miserable. The king has no love for his wife or children, the queen has no love for him and his whoring and drinking. I imagine she can hardly wait until Joffrey sits the throne and she’s free to return to Casterly Rock.”

“I imagine the king wishes he’d wed a woman with a smaller, poorer family,” Dana japes, then frowns. “That’s just the way of it, isn’t it? Everyone thinks they want to get their hands on some power, but once you’ve got it, there’s all this nasty duty that comes with it. Isn’t that why they made the throne so bloody uncomfortable? So no man would ever have an easy go of it.”

“When it’s her boy’s turn, Cersei Lannister is like to order a few cushions,” Nell mutters.

In a sense, she pities the Baratheons. She might eagerly look forward to the day when she is Lady Stark, but ruling the North and ruling all seven kingdoms are two very different things. Cersei might seem a supremely unpleasant, vindictive woman, but perhaps she was once light-hearted and sweet. Fifteen years of marriage to a man like Robert might harden anyone. And their children are simply a product of that as well. Even Robb might have turned out as arrogant and pigheaded as Joffrey, were he born into the Red Keep, and not Winterfell.

Later, after they’ve changed for bed, she adds, “If Lady Catelyn isn’t taking a ship to King’s Landing, I’ll strip naked and sleep in the godswood for a month.”

“With a fast horse, she could catch up to Lord Stark before they’ve reached the Neck,” Dana counters. “Why waste the time and take a ship? The Baratheon party will be moving as slow as mud, with that many people and baggage trains.”

“Because whatever she wants to tell him, she does not want within Lannister earshot. Or the king’s,” Nell decides. “She’d rather sacrifice the time and coin to hire a ship and wait in the capitol to speak with him privately.”

“Whatever she wants to tell him,” Dana yawns. “You’d best figure that out quick, before we’re caught up in something nasty. I don’t like any of this. Assassins and plots and politics,” she shudders dramatically.

“You’re free to return to Barrowton at any time,” Nell rolls her eyes, plumping her pillows.

“Oh, you won’t be rid of me that easily, Nellie,” Dana calls over her shoulder as she slips through the doorway.

Of course she intends to get the truth of the matter from Robb, but she isn’t so obvious as to immediately harangue and harass him for information. Instead Nell adopts the patience of ice itself, conducts herself as she imagines any unassuming, blissfully ignorant young maid would, and waits. Of course, she has never been all that patient, ice aside, so she only waits five days, but surely that is long enough to not seem too suspicious or demanding? Barbrey would call this a test, tell her it her duty to try to get the whole truth without ever directly asking for it. If she puts him on the defensive, she could undo weeks- months- of effort. Nell is certain no one believes her to be some spy for the Lannisters, of all people, but that does not mean she has won the confidence of the Starks, either, for all the professions of kinship.

Were she in Robb’s shoes, she certainly wouldn’t be telling him anything. Then again, she would welcome an assassin in the night for the Bastard. She would lead the villain to his room herself, and bid him a merry murder. So perhaps the idea of being fiercely protective of one’s family is somewhat of a foreign concept. But empathy aside, she must know. Not just to sate her own curiosity, but because Dana is right. This could indeed turn into something nasty. Particularly when southerners are involved. This is not some petty feud between northern houses to be firmly stamped out by Ned Stark. If Bran’s death was ordered by a Lannister, and accusations and threats are leveled, Nell is not certain even Robert Baratheon would be able to quell the resulting clash.

To his credit, Robb may not be dishonest by nature, but he is certainly capable of putting on a calm and composed front. He has made no attempts to avoid or ignore her, and makes a point to spend time with her at least once a day, albeit usually in the company of others. Nell has had quite enough of Theon Greyjoy and Beth Cassel serving as makeshift chaperones to protect her virtue. Beth is a child who would marry Robb in a heartbeat, much like every Northern girl, and Theon has never guarded anyone’s virtue in his life. He rides through the winter town and catches the eye of half the girls over the age of fifteen. He has likely caught much more than their eyes.

So Nell catches him coming back from the First Keep, knowing he is likely to be alone after visiting Bran, and hails him from across the courtyard, lifting her skirts and smiling as she hurries to his side. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she chides with a wry smile, hoping to set him at ease with her apparently high spirits. She is still not used to the sight of him in ringmail, carrying steel. Since the attack of Bran, Robb goes nowhere without a weapon. At least he has not insisted on naming his sword. As far as Nell is concerned, the only blades worth names are those of Valyrian steel. Everything else is usually some young lordling attempting to sound menacing, and boys always come up with the silliest names, like Piercer or Heartsbane or something that sounds like a veiled innuendo for their cocks.

Still, were she ever to get her hands on Valyrian steel, Nell thinks she would name hers Bethany. It would seem only fitting.

“Rickon hasn’t gotten into the larder with Shaggy again, has he?” Robb groans.

Nell smiles, but then lets it sag a little, into a crestfallen look. “No, but I did want to ask about him- that is, your mother. Did she tell you how long she thought to stay in White Harbor? I know it is a ten day’s ride down the White Knife, but Rickon asks daily for her. I hope she might make a swift return, for his sake.”

Robb hesitates, and she latches onto that, touching his arm gently. “I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped-,”

“No, of course not,” he shakes his head. “You’ve… I know Rickon is not easy for anyone to deal with, least of all-,”

“Strangers?” she gives that wry smile again, but glances away, as if slightly stung.

To her satisfaction, he takes her arm. “You’re not a stranger to any of us anymore, Nell. It’s just that he’s so young, and there’s been so much change…”

“It’s lucky that he is so young,” Nell looks back at him soberly. “He’s too young to understand the danger we were all in, what with that rogue slinking about, waiting for his chance…” She trails off, as if it is too horrid to even consider, then adds in a hushed voice, “It chills me, it truly does, Robb. Your mother was lucky to escape with her life.”

“Lucky that Bran’s wolf saved them both,” Robb shakes his head, and she can see the pain in his eyes, and feels a stab of guilt. “I- had that man succeeded, we would have lost both of them, and I-,”

“Don’t think about that,” she assures him. “What matters is that he’s dead now, and Lady Catelyn and Bran are both safe, praise the gods. And if she brings back those maesters- who knows, perhaps Bran really will wake soon.” Nell smiles hollowly.

Robb stops walking, as does she. He looks at her, really looks at her, and then blurts out, “My lady, if I tell you something in confidence, will you swear to me not to repeat it?”

I’ve struck true, she thinks triumphantly, and says earnestly, “On my very life, I swear it, my lord. You are to be my husband. My loyalty will always lie with you before any other.”

“My mother did not go to White Harbor for the maesters,” Robb lowers his voice, taking her by elbow and leading her into a deserted alcove. “She went there for the ships. She is going to King’s Landing, to meet with my father when he arrives with the girls.”

“I don’t understand,” Nell murmurs, understanding perfectly. “Why would she not simply send a raven?”

“Because we cannot trust this message to ravens,” Robb tells her gravely. “My mother believes the man who attacked her set the fire in the library, that he was here to kill Bran… on a Lannister’s orders.”

Despite her suspicions, Nell knows she does look a little shocked, all the same. To think it is one thing, to say it is another, even here in the heart of Winterfell. “But who? And why would they want an innocent boy dead?”

“The Kingslayer did not go out on the hunt that day,” Robb lets go of her, and a shadow passes over his face, and he seems taller, older, for a few moments. It unnerves her, to see a glimpse of a man in him. An angry man. A man who might use that sword at his side to avenge his own. “We don’t think Bran slipped. He was thrown, or pushed. And when that did not work-,”

“He sent someone to finish it?” Nell murmurs. “That is a bold accusation, Robb. What proof do you- do we- have that the Lannisters- any Lannister- had cause to want Bran dead? He is just a child. No threat to anyone, least of all a warrior like Jaime Lannister.”

Robb pauses, debating, and then seems to decide that he has already waded in with her, so he might as well start swimming. “Mother received a message in code from my lady aunt. It seemed to imply that Jon Arryn’s death might not have been sickness. That he may have been murdered. By Lannisters, at the queen’s bidding.”

This truly is a surprise; Nell could never have anticipated that Arryn’s name might come up. Her practiced mask of false earnestness and sweet sentiments slides off her agape face; unconsciously, she raises a hand to cover her mouth. Jon Arryn was an old man. Old men die from anything and everything. A slip down some steps, a fever, a nagging cough, a chill, bad meat. To claim that he was murdered- But if Catelyn believes it-

“Does your father know that?” she finally whispers.

“That’s why he agreed to take the position,” Robb’s voice rises slightly in frustration. “He thinks it his duty to uncover the truth of the matter, and see justice done. But he has no idea that Bran’s fall was no accident, nor that there was an attempt on his life. That is why Mother said she must go, and without an escort beyond Ser Rodrik. She means to warn Father.”

“I see,” Nell says, and knows she is undone now, because in the face of her genuine shock, her previous attempts at feigned innocent curiosity and protests of wifely loyalty seem very blatant indeed. She has never thought Robb cunning, but she has never thought him stupid, either, and he’d have to be very stupid not to see through this now.

She is right. He suddenly steps away from her, shaking his head. “I should not have told you any of this. You- you suspected, didn’t you? This was all some ploy to get me to admit it?” He scowls suddenly, and there is a hint of Jon Snow in it, loathe as she is to admit any resemblance. “I only told you because when Mother asked for my oath to never repeat her words, I only nodded. I thought I might need- that eventually, I might have to tell you the truth-,”

“You owed me the truth,” Nell says flatly, refusing to shrink back in the face of his outrage. “You owed me that much, Robb. I understand your reluctance-,”

“Gods, sometimes I hardly know what is true and what is false with you,” he snaps back. “You play the innocent maid one day, the-,”

“The what? The knowing woman?” she demands. “I am. I am a woman grown, not a child to be coddled and shielded from the truth. You know I will not repeat this.” That is a lie. Of course she will tell Dana, just not directly. But aside from her, she will never breathe a word of it.

“I don’t know,” he retorts. “I was trying to- you made me feel the villain, keeping it from you, acting as if you really cared about Rickon missing my mother-,”

Now she is truly stung. Nell recoils as if he’d slapped her. “I don’t care? I was looking for Rickon that night! I found him mere feet away from a blood-soaked direwolf and your mother in hysterics on the floor! Had Dana and I been there a few minutes earlier, we might have been at the end of that dagger.”

He is flushed red with anger, and she is getting there. She should have apologized immediately. She is doing herself no favors with this display of anger, however righteous she feels it to be. Barbrey would shake her silly for leaving herself so vulnerable, so wounded and angry. Being angry with a man and letting him know it gives him power over you.

“How dare you,” she says furiously. “I have given up everything for your sake. For your family’s sake. I left my home. My aunt. My life- No, I don’t love your family. They are not my blood. You are not my blood. But you will be soon enough, and I have tried to make the best of things, and to be better, and-,” to her disgust she feels almost close to tears. She should not care this much. Not at all. “And I still have to prove myself to you. If you don’t trust my silence, my loyalty, then send me back to Barrow Hall, my lord, and summon me back when you wish to be wed.”

“Donella,” he says, still red but his mouth softening, as if heartened by her display of genuine emotion. It only aggravates her more. “I didn’t mean-,”

“I know what you meant,” Nell would rather he cling to his anger stubbornly, or just walk away, than to- to retreat in the face of her explosion, to express pity- “You think me a Bolton and a liar.” His brother’s words are still ringing in her ears. Robb sees through you. He knows what you are. A frightened, manipulative little girl.

Robb tenses. “I know you for a Bolton,” he agrees, and then he catches her by the wrist before she can stalk off, and puts his lips to hers. He is hesitant and unsure and she is shocked all over again, so it is not a very good kiss, but it is enough. They break apart, and he seems to be waiting for her to scream, or slap him. “You may be a liar,” he says. “But these days I think we could use a good liar. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” Nell replies, unsmiling, digs her fingers into his hair, and shows him a proper kiss.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell wakes when Bran does, which is to say that she’s awoken just past midnight by a pounding on her bedchamber door. She’s always been a light sleeper, so she’s up and on her feet, pulling on a fur-lined robe and unbarring the door, stomach clenched with dread- Gods, what could it be now? Another bloody fire or assassin? But when she opens the door she is confronted not with terror but elation. “He’s awake,” Dana hisses, and Nell stares at her in dumb shock and confusion for a moment before the truth sinks in, cold and crisp.

“He’s awake?”

He’s awake, and despite the late hour all of Winterfell has woken with him. The halls and corridors and stairwells are crowded with gossiping, excited servants, and despite the cold chill and the long walk, Nell feels none of it, heart pounding somewhere up in her throat, blood humming in her ears, until they are outside the room with Rickon and Beth. “We’ll wait a little, you go in,” Dana says, nudging a still half-asleep and cranky Rickon over to Nell, who takes his hand. For once he doesn’t wrench away from her, which she decides to take as either a sign that he finally growing to tolerate or her or simply that he is too tired and bewildered to care.

Outside all is dark, but Bran’s room is bathed in light, from the new fire crackling in the hearth to the torches blazing on the walls to the lanterns on the floor. Maester Luwin is examining the boy, and Nell feels rooted to the floor at the sight of Bran awake and moving- his upper half, at least. The heavy quilts and furs have been stripped off the bed and thrown to the side, and at the maester’s hushed commands Bran raises both arms above his head, clenches and unclenches his fists, and follows Luwin’s quill in the air with his wide eyes. The man takes frantic notes all the while, white with shock, but Nell looks away from him and to Robb.

Robb and her have come to what she supposes is an ‘understanding’ of sorts since their… quarrel. He may think her vexing, but he is truly the contradictory one- kiss or no kiss, she had not expected him to warm to her simply because she was completely honest with him for once. Had she known that in advance, she might have saved herself the trouble of the flirting and the quips and the secretive smiles. Of course, they are not now the very best of friends just because they told one another the truth. But things have been easier, she thinks. It is not so stiff and tense between them. Grey Wind seems to reflect his mood; now when she enters a room the wolf approaches her, and if she can work up the nerve to pet his big head, he seems to like it, closing his eyes in contentment.

They have not kissed again, though. There have been a few close calls, but Robb is too honorable and she is too cautious- not for any fear for his or her virtue- what does it matter when they are to be married in five months?- but because she will not risk compromising herself. Not physically, but- she worries that she will lose her clear head. Robb is not the man she envisioned in her girlish dreams of marriage- he does not even turn fifteen until next month- but that means little and less when a handsome boy is smiling at you and running his fingers through your hair. If she is too busy infatuating herself with Robb Stark, she will lose focus, lose foresight. She will grow careless, lazy, and she knows, knows deep in her bones that it will come back to bite and scrape at her. There will be some mistake, on his part or hers, and they will all pay for it. Too much is at stake now. Especially with the threat of war.

Robb is standing in a corner, arms crossed over his chest, pale and glassy-eyed but so frantically hopeful she cannot help but go to him, as though he were a flickering light at risk of blowing out. “You were right,” she says hoarsely, “he got better.” He says nothing but takes her hand in his, and she holds on for a bit longer than is proper before letting go as the maester turns back to them. Bran is silent but seems aware enough, his eyes following them, his wolf curled up around him like a massive cat.

“He has no feeling in his legs,” Luwin pronounces. “But his other senses seem intact; he has his sight, his hearing, his arms and hands, and he is awake and alert. He should be watched very closely these next few days, and we must monitor what he eats- some broth or a very light soup, I think, and perhaps some bread crusts or sliced fruit-,”

“Bran!” Rickon has awoken enough to realize where he is and who he is with, and like a bolt he lets go of Nell’s hand, darts past the startled maester, and leaps up onto the rumpled bed.

“Rickon, don’t-,” Robb starts forward, but Rickon is already clinging to Bran, grinning broadly to reveal a cheeky, dimpled beam. Nell realizes then that she has not seen the boy truly smile like that in months. Not since all the Starks were here together, before Bran fell and the others left. Just as Robb reaches the bed to pull Rickon away, Bran’s frail, gaunt arms lock around his brother in an embrace, and his darker shade of auburn hair intermingles with Rickon’s bronze curls.

“You came back!” Rickon tells him happily.

“I came back,” Bran agrees. His voice is a thin, papery rasp from months of disuse, but he is speaking all the same, and there are tears gleaming in his Tully blue eyes.

“We’ll speak more in the morning,” Robb tells Maester Luwin, and then joins his brothers on the bed. Nell stays a little while longer, sitting on the edge of the bed by the open window and listening to an owl hoot outside and the brothers Starks’ soft conversation and the sputtering and crackles of the torches and the hearth.

There is a palpable sense of relief after that, if only because the waiting is over. There is no longer a question of ‘if’ or ‘when’ Bran might awaken. He has woken, and while the loss of his legs is no small thing, the fact that the boy seems of sound mind and has all his wits is surely a miracle of some sort. When Dana says that the gods preserved him, and little Beth nods sagely, Nell does not disagree. What else could keep a boy of eight alive for that long? He should be dead.

But he does not remember. Nell is not present for the questioning, but Robb tells her later that Bran’s last memory is of climbing the broken tower. After that… nothing. He does not recall how or where he fell or if anyone else was there or if he was pushed or thrown. Robb seems visibly disappointed by this, as if having had the hope that all along, the answers might have been lurking inside Bran’s mind, but part of Nell is relieved. This all may still be forgotten and put to rest if Bran does not remember, if he can make no accusations. And even if he could… the Lannisters and the King could easily dismiss it as the mad ramblings of a crippled child.

Any hope (or dread) of justice lies with Lady Catelyn now. If she uncovers some proof or somehow manages to provoke some confession while in King’s Landing… But if she does not, and it is all for naught, then what? What will they do? Will House Stark brood on this for the next century, the mystery of who or what happened to little Lord Bran? There are far stranger mysteries lost to history. In the long term, it might be for the best. Yet there is still the question of Jon Arryn. Even if what happened to Bran is put aside, what could have led Lady Lysa to believe her husband had been murdered? Why would the Lannisters want him dead now, after years of service to the king?

Perhaps, Nell thinks, he was a casualty of some plot to install Lord Tywin in his place. With the king’s good father as his Hand, House Lannister’s advantages at court would go unchallenged. Perhaps they do not think Robert like to see the next decade- and she could believe that, with the way the man eats and drinks- and simply wanted Joffrey to have as gentle a seat as possible as king. Then Lord Tywin might rule for him, as he did in the time of Mad Aerys. But if that is true, it seems an awfully risky plan. Clearly Robert’s first inclination would have been to demand that Ned Stark replace Lord Arryn.

“Mayhaps it is all a new widow’s paranoia,” Dana suggests one day to her. They only ever discuss any of it in the privacy of Nell’s own chambers. Robb has some measure of trust in her now, and she will not risk it anymore than is necessary. “You heard the rumors- they say Lady Lysa’s been queer of mind for years now. All those lost children. It could be that Jon Arryn died naturally, of some ordinary sickness, or a bad stomach, and she is simply spinning a tale out of hatred for the Lannisters or the queen- she might blame the stress of court for her own misfortunes.”

“Or perhaps the rumors are the work of Lannisters hoping to discredit a woman with genuine grievances against them,” Nell retorts. “That would not be so far-fetched, either. They say she’s holed up in the Eyrie now. Might be for very good reasons.”

But whatever the real truth is, none of them have any hope of approaching it at Winterfell. Nell tries to put it out of her head and concentrate on the more practical matters instead. She spends an hour each day in meetings with Robb and Maester Luwin, an hour each day finishing the needlework on her wedding garments, her maiden’s cloak especially, an hour each day visiting with Bran, an hour each day running after Rickon, and an hour each day seeing to Beth Cassel’s education. The girl can read and write and calculate sums, but in the absence of any septa or other tutors at Winterfell, Nell begrudgingly takes it upon herself and Dana to see that Beth can master the womanly arts as well. They usually focus on something different each day, and occasionally Bandy and Shyra and Palla or even little Turnip might make an appearance, scrawling on slates or stumbling over the words before them.

Nell has heard the familiar warnings that education makes servants impudent and lazy, believing they know better than their lords and masters, but Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn never barred anyone from their library, high or lowborn, and she sees no real disadvantages to at least seeing that these children might be able to read and write their names and simple sentences, if nothing more. Robb does not object to it, nor does he have time to- he is the lord now, and often they are only ever together at meals.

Sometimes he is off visiting other castles and holdfast- never any further than a week’s ride- but it is strange to watch him ride out with Hallis Mollen and Theon Greyjoy and Grey Wind and disappear into the green-and-grey landscape of the North. Once she watched him go and felt as though something were clawing at the inside of her chest, and it occurred to her later that it had been genuine worry. She worries for him now, and she is not even a wife yet. That makes her uncomfortable. She feels as though she waded too far into a mire, and cannot get out. Stuck in thick mud and muck, up to her waist.

Robb is sitting the lord’s seat and holding an audience in the great hall when Tyrion Lannister comes down from the Wall to Winterfell. Nell is playing the lady’s part and listening to the people’s concerns and complaints in the winter town. Inside the simultaneously stuffy and drafty Smoking Log, the village inn and tavern, Nell sits by the blazing hearth with Dana and two guards at her back, a quill and ink and paper before her, and sets about dispensing, if not a lord’s justice, then a lady’s judgement.

“My lady, this here boy’s gone an' stolen chickens-,”

“My lady, my girl’s run off to Cerwyn, an' I want her called back-,”

“My lady, beggin' your pardons, but my husband’s been gone four moons now-,”

“My lady, won’t you take me son into your service? He’s a proper hearty lad, won’t be any trouble, I swear it-,”

“Pardon, my lady, but the innkeep, he’s cut our wages again, an' he’s got no right to, not after the business we’ve had-,”

To be sure, none of them are very ‘serious’ matters- no murders or rapes or questions of besmirched honor- but Nell has been along with Barbrey on dozens of these visits in Barrowton, and knows well enough that it is her duty to put on a stoic, grim face, and treat each matter before her as though it were being recorded for the history tomes by a hundred harried maesters. Her seat is horribly uncomfortable and her legs are stiff and prickling from sitting for so long and she hasn’t eaten in hours and the guards look bored out of their minds, but this is what must be done from time to time. Every lord rules over his smallfolk, his crofters and townspeople and tradesmen, of course. But it is in every lord’s interest to at least keep up the appearance of having a vested interest in them. Lest he start to find himself short of firewood. Or grain. Or servants.

Open rebellion is rare, but this is not the South, where a lord might immediately call upon his allies to aid him in crushing a peasant revolt. A slow death from a hundred small, irritating wounds is just as much as a death as that by an axe through the skull. So Nell stays where she is, tries to keep a cool head, and waves man and woman alike forward to hear them out. Sometimes they resolve it themselves, right in front of her, bolstered by her mere presence and implication of power and authority. Other times, they turn beseeching eyes on her.

“Did you steal chickens?”

“No,” the youth mutters. “And she’s no proof of it, milady, I’m telling you-,”

“Harrett, you gods-forsaken liar-,”

“Were I to order the guards to search your home, I’d not find chicken in the pot over the hearth?” Nell massages her forehead.

The boy hesitates, then gives it up. “Me mam can’t work, milady, and they’d got out- s’not really stealing if her chickens are in the road, please-,”

“You wretched-,”

“It’s not,” Nell agrees, “so it’ll be twenty lashes in the town square, instead of a finger taken for each missing hen. You want work, come to the castle. We could use more men in the barracks. Provided they haven’t got feathers in their hair.”

And so on-

“No, Goodman Morgan, Lord Robb will not drag your daughter back here. A girl of seventeen’s reached her majority, and may wed whom she chooses. Varya here swears they went before a heart tree and made their oaths, so she’ll stay with that man of Cerwyn’s.”

“Goodwife Shenna, you’ll take this woman and her babe into your home. She wed your son before he died, so she’s due a widow’s rights, and the law states a widow may not be put out on the street when she has living kin.”

Nell is in the middle of what has become a rousing debate surrounding whether or not wages were stolen from the ale girls and barkeeps during the royal stay when one of the doors to the inn bursts open, and mutters and exclamations of the ‘The Half Man’s back,’ begin to move through the crowd. Nell stands suddenly- it is not altogether a shock that Tyrion Lannister might be here again, coming down from the Wall- and raises a gloved hand for silence as men in Lannister scarlet, burdened down with heavy furs, shove their way through the packed tavern.

When that does not succeed, Dana hands her an empty flagon, which she smashes down atop the table, and then they have something like quiet.

“Lord Tyrion,” she says as graciously as she can, and curtsies at the sight of him.

“He looks as though he’s seen a ghost,” Dana murmurs in her ear, and Nell keeps her smile tight and poised.

“My lady,” he returns. He does look disturbed; pale and drawn and sweating, and one of his sleeves is torn. Did he meet trouble in the winter town? Has he already been in the castle? They could have come through the northmost gate, the one by the wolfswood-, “If you will excuse my ill manners, I find myself in dire need of a drink.”

The man tending the bar at present does not look particularly enthused at the notion of serving the Imp. “Let’s not tarry, Yors, see to his lordship,” Nell says sharply, and the man reddens, then obeys.

“I thank you for your hospitality, Lady Bolton,” Tyrion has found himself a seat at a conspicuously empty table. “I found the reception from your lord somewhat… savage.”

Gods be good, if Robb was fool enough to threaten him with Grey Wind-

“I certainly hope you are unharmed, my lord,” she comes through the crowd to him, the picture of courteous concern, her hands clasped in front of her.

The Imp just smiles coldly at her. “I confess my spirits and breeches dampened some, but other than that I am quite well.”

“My betrothed offered you the hospitality of Winterfell, surely?”

“In a fashion, yes. I simply had not realized the hospitality included quite so many snarling teeth.” With a drink set roughly before him, he seems to cheer slightly. “I’ll spare you the gruesome tale, my lady. But you might remind your bridegroom-to-be that in the future, when he greets a guest with steel unsheathed, he’d best be prepared to follow through on the promise.”

Nell blinks, dips her head, and says, “My deepest apologies, my lord. I beg of you not to look unkindly upon House Stark’s courtesies in the future. This has been a most trying time for us.”

One sharp look to Dana and the guards, and they are off. It is a very short ride back up the castle, but Nell presses Roddy hard all the same, comes thundering through the gates, nearly flings the reins at a waiting stableboy, and begins her hunt for her thrice-ignorant-obstinate-fool of a betrothed. Sword unsheathed- is he mad? Has he any idea- What kind of pigheaded-

Robb is in the lord’s solar. Alone, aside from Grey Wind, who is lying down beside the fire. And looking near as guilty as the chicken thief did. Nell knows she is flushed red with fury and her hair is a mess and her hands are clenched into fists at her sides, but a tentative friendship or not, he is still her lord. So she restrains herself with great difficulty, and says only, “I had the pleasure of running into little Lord Tyrion in the winter town. He claims- of all things- that you denied him guest right with naked steel and direwolves.”

“It was- I did not think,” Robb admits, shame-faced. “When I heard he was here, I was so angry, I couldn’t… I only thought of Bran, and what they did to him-,”

“As far as we are concerned, they did nothing to him,” Nell says through her teeth. “As far as Tyrion Lannister knows, we suspect nothing. Or as far as he should know. I’m sure he knows quiet a bit more, now that you’ve made your feelings towards him so very clear.”

“I know it was wrong to treat a guest so-,”

“It was foolish,” she says sharply. “And I am not your mother to shame you, but Robb- how could you think to do such a thing? I am not saying you ought to have embraced the dwarf warmly, but to so obviously signal that we have suspicions- What do you imagine he will tell his sister and brother, when he returns to King’s Landing? You could have put your family in grave danger.”

“He drew up plans for a saddle,” Robb is not defensive with her; she will give him that much credit. He simply hands the parchment to her, eyes averted in regret. “I… I misjudged him, I think. It might be he had no hand in Bran’s fall, even if the others did. Why would he do him a kindness like this, then?”

“Guilt?” Nell suggests tartly, but studies the plans intently all the same. “Had you played the open-handed young lordling with him for a night, you might have learned more about Tyrion Lannister and why he does the things he does. You might have gotten a measure of him. But there’s no hope of that now. He’ll drink and wench the night away at the Smoking Log, and we’ll dine here with the crows.”

She hands the papers back to him. “I’d be happy to see to Bran’s riding with Joseth. It would do him good, to feel that he still has some freedom left.”

“You must think me a fool,” he mutters.

In spite of her anger, she can’t help but soften slightly to him. Curse those blue eyes, she thinks savagely. Give her an uglier face, and she’d show him the meaning of anger. But it was honestly meant, what he did, at least. He feels as though he cannot protect his family, any of them, so he took it out on Tyrion Lannister. “I think you love your brother, and I know love makes men do foolish things.”

Robb gives a slow nod, before glancing at Grey Wind. “I didn’t command Grey Wind to attack. He came in with Rickon and the others- they surrounded Lannister before we could stop them. They were- they were almost vicious. They’ve never been like that before.”

“They’re not pups anymore,” Nell sits down beside him, and resists the urge to add, ‘And neither are you.’ “When a dog is uncertain, he looks to his master. When a wolf is uncertain… he decides for you.”

“Father warned us, that they weren’t pets,” Robb sighs. “People see them- see Grey Wind- and they’re afraid.”

“With good reason. A little fear isn’t always a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean you can expect them to behave like people, with thoughts and reason.”

Something strange crosses Robb’s face then, flickering in her blue eyes. Nell pauses and stares at him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “They’re not people,” he agrees, “but they’re not dumb beasts, either. Grey Wind… Sometimes I think he knows things I don’t.”

“Mayhaps he does,” Nell smiles briefly, taking it for a jape, but later thinks that Robb might not have been jesting in the slightest.

Chapter Text

298 AC - THE WOLFSWOOD

Nell is satisfied that Bran can control his new mare well enough to ride out beyond the walls of Winterfell near two months to the day after Tyrion Lannister has left them. The year’s end is fast approaching now. Old Nan swears that they will see autumn enter with the new year, and Nell cannot shake the sinking feeling that they are running out of time. For what or who, she cannot be sure. By all rights, she should be happy. Content. Satisfied. She will be a woman wed in a few short months. Everything she could have ever hoped for, she will have. A handsome, courteous husband. A fine, proper wedding, where she will be recognized by all the North. An enormous, powerful castle and keep that she should be proud to call home.

But she is not. Perhaps she could be happier, were it not for the ravens. First, one from the Wall, from Lord Commander Mormont, informing Robb that his uncle is still missing. Nell had only met Benjen Stark the once, and very briefly at that, but she was struck then by the laughter in his grey eyes all the same. He looked quite like his brother, aside from the eyes. He was the only Stark she’s known to have an easy smile. And now he’s vanished, north of the Wall. Likely killed by wildlings or the cold or the beasts that lurk beyond their borders. Nell has never seen the Wall, and has very little wish to. It is an honor to serve there, to be sure, but all the stories surrounding it are more sinister than heroic.

Throughout the North, they whisper round their fires that the Night’s King was a Bolton, the man who let the Corpse Queen freeze his heart with her icy kisses. Some son of the Dreadfort who built himself and his faerie lover thrones of skulls and bones when they claimed the Nightfort for themselves. They say they sacrificed young maidens and innocent babes alike to the Others, and practiced foul witchcraft to keep the righteous at bay from their fortress, until Brandon the Breaker and Joramun the King-Beyond-the-Wall freed what remained of the Night’s Watch and slew the traitor and his sorceress bride.

But in the Dreadfort, when that tale is told, it has only ever been a Stark. It was a trueborn Stark, a proud warrior, who deserted the Wall to hunt the Corpse Queen, who glimpsed her moon pale hair and her queer, burning blue eyes and longed for her cold touch. It was he who enslaved his brothers and slaughtered thousands of innocents to appease the Others. It was he who ruled for thirteen dark and bloody winter years, who met his own brother in battle at the Nightfort, and who died calling his witch queen’s name. It must have been a Stark, the Boltons say, for why else would the name be lost to history? It was not a Bolton nor an Umber nor a Skagosi, but the kin of their own ruling family.

Nell is doubtful there was ever such a man- the Others are mere children’s tales now, like grumkins and snarks, designed to keep little ones from wandering into the forest past sundown. But all the same, for a Stark to go missing beyond the Wall seems a bad omen. She hardly believes Benjen Stark ran off with a faerie or any other sort of mythical creature. Still, it is fitting that this is the first of the bad news they receive. Shortly thereafter they had letters from both the Eyrie and King’s Landing. Nell has read them half a hundred times; the two are tied together quite snugly.

Catelyn Stark has taken Tyrion Lannister prisoner. Eddard Stark and his men were ambushed by the Kingslayer in the street. The short of it is that Catelyn was recognized by the Imp at an inn, and seeing no recourse and no way to prevent him from returning to the capitol and alerting the queen and the Kingslayer to the Starks’ suspicions, rallied the rivermen there and took him to the Eyrie, to her sister. Jaime Lannister, upon hearing word of this, confronted Lord Eddard and slaughtered three of his guards in revenge. Ned Stark went under his horse and has not woken from the poppy sleep since, his leg shattered.

Nell hardly knows where to begin. She’d been infuriated with Robb for being so blatantly hostile with Tyrion Lannister, but that hardly matters now, with Lannister having no chance of reaching King’s Landing anyways. It would be easy to throw up her hands and decry Catelyn Stark a fool for making such a bold move, but Nell cannot claim she would have done any differently. Let the Imp return to the city, and risk her husband and daughter’s lives. Take the Imp then and there, and risk war. At the very least, they did not bring him back here, or Tywin Lannister would be trying to sail ships across Ironman’s Bay to hack his way into the North. Nell would rather not be staving off an invasion when she ought to be planning her wedding menu.

As for Lord Stark and the Kingslayer- well, that was hardly unexpected. Jaime Lannister struck her as the sort of man who is still somehow eighteen at heart, the type to favor bold proclamations and reckless moves such as starting a brawl in the street like a common thug. Truly, she thinks they ought to be relieved that Ned Stark yet lives. The Kingslayer likely only did not kill him because he knew to provoke Robert’s ire would mean his own head on a spike. They say he has fled the city with his men, to no one’s surprise. Nell imagines Cersei standing forlorn at some window, weeping prettily and trying to slip poison into Ned Stark’s milk of poppy.

But now- she does not see how the king will resolve any of this. Robert Baratheon hardly has a reputation for his diplomacy, and the one man who might advise him reasonably on such matters, his Hand, is unconscious and possibly crippled. Ned Stark is a young man no longer. He may not be old and grey yet, but an injury like that could keep him off his feet for months. It may not just be Bran who has to relearn how to ride a horse now. And Tywin Lannister may be old and grey, but not old nor grey enough to have put away his steel. He will be at court soon enough, demanding that the king demand the Eyrie to turn both Tyrion and Catelyn over.

And then, in the midst of all that, came the two men with Lady’s bones. Rickon sobbed and wailed to see them, and Robb went very still and pale, and touched them gently, and Bran, when he was told, turned his face away and asked to be left alone. They say that there was some incident with Arya’s wolf along the Trident, and that when Nymeria could not be found, the queen demanded Lady’s pelt instead. Nell remembers her words to Jon Snow about Ghost and feels a little ill. She may not be overly fond of the direwolves, but to kill such a creature- especially the gentlest of them all- seems a monstrous thing.

“He should have sent his daughters back with the bones,” Dana pronounced, upon seeing them laid to rest in the crypts, beside the statue of Lyanna Stark. “Direwolves don’t belong that far south. Neither do Starks.”

“It bodes ill for Sansa’s marriage,” Nell had agreed, trying to picture Robb’s sisters at court. She cannot. All she can see is the Red Keep like a giant, slavering mouth, jaw unhinged to swallow them up. Dreamy Sansa and wild Arya- the court will choke on them and spit them back out like chicken bones, and she does not think they will be the better for it. Had the Starks wanted southern ladies for daughters, better to send them to their mother’s kin- Sansa could have gone to the Eyrie with her lonely aunt, Arya to Riverrun with her grandfather and uncle. Their direwolves and their Northern ways would have been far more welcome there.

But today is supposed to be for Bran; the first time he has been out of the castle since his fall, and in the interest of not being a wicked good sister, she is trying to put on a smile and act as though all is fair and fine with the world. She knows Bran would likely have rather it just been him and Robb, but their party is still small; Bran and Robb and her and Greyjoy and Joseth and Maester Luwin and just four guardsmen. They are not going very far, either, but it should still be far enough for a boy of eight. Bran has gained back some of the weight he lost, and no longer looks quite so frail and withered, but there are still dark circles under his eyes, and he seems even smaller, atop the chestnut mare he calls Dancer.

Robb is outwardly calm, but she can sense the distress roiling off him like choppy waves in the Saltspear. He has not told Bran the news about their father yet. And poor Rickon knows none of it; he is too young, and Nell agreed that it would just distress him all the more. The last thing they need are another spate of tantrums, from him or Shaggydog. She tries to forget, as they ride through the quiet winter town, smiling serenely for the people, as though all this were very ordinary. But today she brought her own bow and quiver, despite Theon’s japes and Robb’s concerned glances. She claimed it was because, like Greyjoy, she had a mind to bring them back a deer for supper, but really it was because the wolves were howling again last night.

It may have just been because of the raven from King’s Landing. Or it may be something else. She hopes not to find out. The weather is fair, despite the light snow. She hangs back to let Robb speak to Bran privately as they leave the village behind, and finds herself riding alongside Theon, and already regretting her choice. He’s never been one to keep a still tongue for longer than a few moments.

“Hoping to show me up with that toy, are you?” Theon nods to the bow across her back and the quiver at her side. He is smiling, as always, but she knows the jest for what it is. The idea of a women carrying a weapon around him must unsettle him. She’s heard the Ironborn women are not a dainty and delicate lot, themselves, but then again, he must know little and less of that. Perhaps Robb should find him a Mormont wife, who could put an axe between his eyes if his tongue and cock wagged too much.

“That wouldn’t take much effort,” she says, without so much as glancing at him. “You’d be a better marksman if your prattle wasn’t scaring all the game away.” That is half a lie- she has seen Theon shoot, and he is an excellent archer. She’ll be dead before she tells him that, though. He has quite enough vanity as it stands. You’d think he were the only handsome man north of the Neck, the way he struts about. She doesn’t know when to tell him that the tavern girls of the winter town hardly have very high standards.

“My prattle?” he scoffs. “Let’s hope marriage curbs your tongue. Robb puts too much stock in a spoilt girl’s words.” His tone is light, but that careless grin is gone. His eyes are so dark a brown they are nearly black, and for the first time she sees how hungry they are. Not in their usual way, not for her or attention or acceptance from Robb, but for something else entirely. This one cannot wait to be properly blooded in battle, she thinks. He wants to pay the iron price and go back to Pyke smelling of southern blood and southern women.

“I did not dissuade him from calling the banners, if that’s what you’re insinuating,” Nell retorts coolly. “But I cannot blame him for taking his maester’s advice over yours, Greyjoy.”

“What does a maester know of war?” Theon sneers.

“What do you?” she laughs. “Does it irk you so, nineteen and unblooded?”

“I’ve killed before.”

“Yes, a few cringing bandits and robbers here and there, perhaps a stray wildling. What, do you think to be the Ned Stark to Robb’s Robert? That he might carve you out a kingdom along Ironman’s Bay, all your own?” She is angrier than she thought she would be. It is not even that she is firmly against the notion of calling the banners- were it her in Robb’s place, they would already be here, honing their blades for war. But that Theon is so careless- it is one thing to accept bloodshed, another thing to welcome it, seek it out. Anyone Nell wants flayed and dead, she has good reason for. It is not to soothe her own pathetic ego.

“I see now,” Theon says, “that marriage to a sharp-tongued little-,”

Whatever it is he wanted to say, they are both distracted by a distant call from Robb, and ride up to join him and Bran at the edge of the wolfswood. “I’m going to find the wolves,” he tells them, “wait here with Bran, will you?”

Theon barely disguises an eye roll, but Nell says steadily, “Bran and I shall go for a little ride down stream while you fetch them, then.”

Robb nods and trots off into the deeper parts of the wood, Theon mutters something about finding a deer trail with one of the guards, and Nell takes Bran and Dancer through the treeline and towards the burbling little stream, just wide enough to give a horse pause, but not nearly deep enough to be much danger to anyone. Bran is quiet; she has spent the least time with him, after all, of the Stark brothers, and she knows he does not trust her yet. But he brightens a little at the sight of the rushing water, before his expression crumples.

“What is it?” she asks, frowning. “Are you hurt?”

Bran just shakes his head mutely, then wipes swiftly at his eyes with his gloved hands. “It’s nothing, I just- I only remembered something, is all.”

He fears he may never see his parents again, she chides herself. And you were strict with him, you and Joseth, in training him to lead the mare. Let the boy be for now. The snow is coming down a little heavier now, and she can no longer hear the distant conversation of Theon and the guards, but all is quiet in the wood, aside from what might have been a distant howl. Perhaps the direwolves have found some relatives.

Then she thinks of Sara, for some reason, and feels like crying herself. To distract herself, Nell says, “Let’s cross the stream, why don’t we?” She rides Roddy a little further down, to a narrower point, then leans forward in the saddle and spurs him on with a cry. Despite his whinny of annoyance, he clears the stream with ease, and she grins as Bran stares, wide-eyed. “You can’t jump it, but I’ll help you cross, alright?”

Nell dismounts easily, brushing off the dark maroon velvet of her riding habit, ties Roddy to a tree, and wades through the shallowest part of the stream, no more than three feet deep. She’ll be bitter cold and her skirt will drag, but it should be a much faster ride back to Winterfell than it was going out, and the wind may help dry it a little before she can get herself into a hot bath. She smiles slightly at Bran as she leads his mare across, and after a moment’s hesitation, he smiles back. “Thank you,” he says, “for teaching me how to ride Dancer with Joseth. I- I didn’t think I’d ever ride again. Not ever.”

He gazes up at the snowy forest ceiling with something like wonder, and Nell feels a dull pang of sadness. He is a sweet boy, Bran. He did not deserve any of this. “By the time you are Robb’s age,” she tells him encouragingly, “you shall be the best rider in the family, I’m sure of it. You’ll have a bow and quiver of your own- wouldn’t you like that? You don’t need legs to aim properly, only good eyes and a clear head.”

Bran’s little smile wavers, but he asks, “Do you think I could? Still be a warrior? I’ll never be a knight now, but…”

“Certainly,” Nell says as she unties Roddy and swings herself back up into the saddle, adjusting her skirt. “You’ll just have to be cleverer than the rest of them, to know when to strike.”

They have not gone more than a few yards when the bushes rustle, and Nell sighs, expecting to see Theon and Joseth or the guards. “Took you long enough, didn’t it?”

It is not them. There are six of them, ragged and weathered from wind and snow and rain. Four men, two women, all tall and strong. Nell draws her bow and notches an arrow in two quick movements, cursing herself for taking them over the stream. “Stay back,” she says sharply, moving Roddy in front of Bran and Dancer. “And be on your way. Now.” She is using her aunt’s voice; sharp and hard and crisp, the angry lady’s voice, the voice of a woman in authority and very conscious of it.

“Pretty girl to be pointing arrows at us,” the biggest man growls in amusement.

“Too pretty,” one of the women agrees, twisting a knife into her filthy hand. “Lookit those fine clothes, Stiv.”

“And two horses,” a stubbled man comments. “We’re in luck today.”

“We’ll be taking your mounts, girl,” the bald man tells her coldly. “Be quick about it, and we won’t take turns mounting you too.”

All in black, the men. Deserters, then. Nell has seen deserters before. Just before their deaths. Her aunt has overseen the executions of two, in her memory. She imagines the Starks have seen more, being further north. “You’re all dead anyways,” she says, trying to stall for time. She will only be able to hit one or two of them before they rush her and Bran and the horses. She has no chance of defending against all six of them, and the one woman has a spear, a horse’s bane. “You’re on Stark lands, threatening a Stark of Winterfell and a Bolton of the Dreadfort.”

There’s a smattering of laughter and jeers.

“A Stark and a Bolton?” one of them men crows. “Fools, the both of you. Get down off those horses before we drag you off them.” They draw closer. Roddy shifts under her. “Put down the bow, Bolton bitch.”

“Do it, or I’ll cut the boy’s cock off and feed it to you,” the blonde woman snarls.

“Don’t be stupid,” the taller woman snaps at the rest of them. “Let’s take them both. Send the Starkling to Mance Rayder and ransom the Bolton to her father-,”

Nell looses her first arrow, catching the big man in the shoulder as he comes forward, reaching for her reins. Roddy rears, Bran yells, and a knife swipes at her recklessly, slashing through her thick cloak but missing skin and bone.

“Put down your steel!” Robb shouts as the big man claps a hand to his shoulder. It comes away wet with blood. Nell notches another arrow.

“Robb!” Bran calls out desperately.

“Fuck this,” snarls the bald man, “kill them quick.”

There’s a short whistle, and Grey Wind and Summer come snarling in alongside Robb’s gelding as he rides down the bank towards them, weighed down by the elk slung across the back. Nell takes advantage of the distraction of the wolves to send her second arrow at the stubbled man. It takes him in the side, and he crumples to the ground with a shout of pain.

She is distantly aware of Robb killing one man, Grey Wind dragging another man into the stream, Summer ripping into the blonde woman’s belly. Robb clashes with the tall woman's spear, Nell sends an arrow after the fifth, who is running, but it misses, sinking into the loamy earth, and then the big man has ripped her off the saddle. Roddy shies away, neighing, as they go tumbling to the ground, and Bran screams. Nell tries to wrench herself away, but he has her by the hair, and she can feel his knife against her neck, see their mottled reflections in the water of the stream, churning underneath them.

“I’ll slit the cunt right open, see if I don’t,” he roars at Robb, who lowers his sword slowly out of the corner of Nell’s eyes.

“Kill him,” she grits out. “Robb, do it.” He will open her throat anyways, she thinks, but she’s too angry to care. She just wants him dead, is so angry, the world around her may as well be bleeding with her neck. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She was supposed to live. She was supposed to win. She was supposed to-

The knife presses into her skin, and she feels blood bead along it, drip down into the grey water. The big man’s grip on her hair tightens. “Call off your wolves!” he snarls.

“KILL HIM!” Nell screams, as Robb hesitates. The surviving woman is crawling for her spear. She is going to die for certain, but so will he if this keeps up.

The man yanks at her hair until she screams again, this time in pain. “You shut up.”

“Grey Wind, Summer, to me!” Robb yells raggedly, and she can hear Grey Wind run back to him, twigs snapping and fracturing underfoot. Summer does not move, positioned in between the still mounted Bran and the man and Nell.

“Osha, kill them, and take the boy’s sword,” the man snaps at the woman, who is struggling back to her feet.

She opens her mouth to respond, scowling, but no words come, her mouth twisting in shock.

There’s a familiar hum in Nell’s ears, and then the man holding her gasps as blood spatters across them both from the arrow in his chest. The knife falls from his hand and Nell snatches for it as he topples away from her and into the stream. She gets it in both hands and brings it down hard into his back with a muffled shout, then yanks it back out, trembling, and slams it down again.

“Mercy!” Osha is shouting, and Maester Luwin is calling, “My lady, are you hurt?” as he wades across the stream towards her, and Theon Greyjoy’s voice comes wafting on the wind to her ears.

“How was that for a lesser marksman, my lady?”

Nell stands up in the stream, and kicks the corpse, once, twice, until it begins to float away.

“Are you alright?” The maester and Robb are both at her side now, reaching, assuring, but she scrambles away from both of them, tosses the blood-soaked dagger down and walks shakily over to where her bow and quiver lie. Her bowstring is broken. “Damn,” she says, and then louder. “Damn!” No one hears her; Robb is snapping at Theon, Theon is snapping back, Maester Luwin is still trying to inspect the cut on her neck, and the guardsmen are staring with nothing less than terror at the direwolves, who’ve returned to feed on the corpses.

When they return to Winterfell with the dead elk and the captive wilding woman and her broken bow and a sullen Theon and a silent Bran and a seething Robb, Nell retires to her rooms to bathe. She sits in the bath for a very long time, watching her fingers and toes prune and replaying the events over and over again in her mind. Damn the guards for neglecting their duties to chase after a turkey with Theon, damn Robb for leaving her and Bran to chase after the wolves, damn her for taking them across the bloody stream and being so careless, damn the deserters and the wildlings for being so desperate, damn the wolves for not killing the man who pulled her off her horse first.

She can still see the arrow sprouting from the man she killed, and the corpse facedown in the stream, how it felt to pierce the dying man’s back with the knife. It felt good, she thinks, but she feels a giddy sort of churning in her gut. She exhales forcibly through her nose, then sinks under the warm water. When she surfaces, Dana is slipping into the room, shutting the door firmly after her. “Get out,” Nell snaps, even as she reaches for her robe, but Dana just shakes her head, sitting down on the bed.

“You’ve brooded long enough. Your lordling’s waiting for you in the godswood. But you should look at this first.” She holds up a sealed letter.

The churning increases. “From the Dreadfort?”

“Seal’s yellow, not pink,” Dana says, and Nell is too tired to mask the visible relief on her face.

Barbrey, not Father.

She pulls on the robe and breaks the wax, quickly skimming the letter, then reading it again when she’s certain it’s not more ill tidings of death or injury. Dana brings back a maid to help lay out fresh clothes for her, and Nell presses the letter into her hands. “Keep this safe for me.”

In the godswood, Robb sits under the heart tree, his sword freshly cleaned. He sheathes it as she approaches, then stands. She stops, and they look at one another. “I should never have left you and Bran alone,” he says hoarsely. He’s grown these past months; he’s the same height as her now. The obvious guilt and shame in his eyes irritates her. Had there not been so many of them, she could have held them off alone, she is certain of it.

“We were hardly defenseless. A group of deserters that large is rare-,”

“But you never should have had to defend yourself-,”

“Because I’m a woman?” she snaps. “I should never have to lift a finger, even to save myself? I am not one of your sisters! You should not have spared that wildling bitch!”

“She surrendered-,”

“And when she slits all our throats in our sleep, you’ll thank her?”

“She’s confined to a cell for now!” For the first time that Nell can recall, he raises his voice to her, properly shouts her down, and she recoils for a moment, before easing up some. Good. Thank the gods for a bit of steel to his spine. She cannot always be the furious one.

“I am sorry for what happened today,” Robb seems to be reining in his temper with great difficulty, “I am sorry you and Bran were put in danger, but I am still the lord here in my father’s absence. And she surrendered. If I deem her a threat, I’ll put her to death myself.”

“Fine,” Nell says bitterly, then turns away from him a moment to collect herself.

She hears him sigh, and then he gently touches her shoulder. “Donella.”

When she turns back around, he is kissing her, and while at first she stiffens, after a moment she responds, if not enthusiastically, far from reluctantly. “I was frightened,” she admits when they break apart, breathless. “I was just too angry to feel it then.”

“My father says the only time a man can be brave is when he was afraid.” Robb brushes a lock of dark hair away from her face, and Nell impulsively kisses him again, almost sweetly this time. To her shock, he embraces her, and they stand there like that for a few moments, listening to the trees whisper. Grey Wind comes around the heart tree, whining, and Nell releases Robb, then sinks down into a crouch. The wolf approaches, then rubs up against her, knocking his massive head against her shoulder. She almost smiles and scratches behind his ears, then stands.

Best snare the Boy now, Barbrey has written her. Quickly, before the Young Wolf finds he likes the taste of war better than a wedding feast. You cannot lose him now, niece. See yourself wedded and bedded sooner, else it be too late for all of us.

“Theon thinks you should call your banners,” she murmurs.

“Yes.” Robb sits back down, and she kneels down beside him. Grey Wind lies firmly between them, snuffling to himself. Nell lets her fingers splay deep into his thick fur. “And Maester Luwin reminds me that I have not the authority nor the just cause to do so, yet. I have already sent word to the more powerful houses, warning them to be ready. But until there is more word from Mother or Father wakes-,”

“By the time he is back on his feet, it may already be too late. It may be too late as we speak.” Nell looks at him intently, grey finding blue. “Call them now, the Lannisters and the King may take even greater offense. Don’t call them, and be known as a coward who waited too long before your time as Warden has even begun.”

Robb scowls. “I know that-,”

“And I know another way,” she cuts him off. His brow furrows.

“You dare not call upon them directly. But it will take time to gather all our strength. Yet if you summon them under the banner of war, you risk much. So don’t. Send them a different sort of invitation.” She pauses, then says meaningfully, “A wedding invitation. We are young and reckless- who could blame us for moving our wedding up? Spread the word far and wide. Tell all your bannermen- our bannermen- to come, bring their strong sons and their brash brothers and even their pretty daughters. Tell them to sharpen their feasting knives and polish their finest armor. And when they come we will feed them and entertain them and should we receive more foul tidings, then…”

“Then they all march south,” he says, understanding, and Nell smiles widely.

“It will be their wedding gift to us.”

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell marks the days by their guests, who arrive in a steady stream of horses and wagons. The Cerwyns are present within days; ingratiating Medger Cerwyn, reticent Jonelle, past thirty and still a maid, and energetic Cley, who attaches himself to Robb’s side as moss would to a log. Then come the Tallharts, who are but masters, not lords, but who have held Torrhen’s Square since The King Who Knelt gifted the land to them a decade before the Conquest. Ser Helman is as stiff-necked and bristly as his pine tree sigil, Benfred is as blunt and foolish as ever, and young Eddara marches about snapping orders at her older brother, who hastens to obey as though a child of nine were a commanding serjeant.

Then arrive her own kin; she wonders if there were some silent competition between her father and aunt, to see who could reach Winterfell the quickest, but Roose wins, arriving several days before Barbrey. All the same, they are united in a joint sense of smug triumph. Her father looks rather like a kitchen cat that finally pounced on a particularly willful rat, and her aunt goes about as if in a waking dream, to be in a Winterfell free of both Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully. Nell wonders whether she might have to stop her from changing the drapes and commissioning new furniture. To her immense relief, Father did not bring the Bastard. She knew he would not- a Stark wedding is no place for any natural son- but the fear lingered all the same. Not just of him, that just his mere presence would somehow taint Winterfell forever for her, like a rot in the walls.

The Glover brothers and the Hornwoods follow. Loyal Galbart and ambitious Robbett, and affable Lord Halys and dignified Lady Donella, with self-conscious Daryn, who never seems sure when to bow and when to smile, and usually settles for a sheepish look and jerky nods instead. Then the Ryswells, and Nell is never sure whether to be gladdened or dismayed at the sight of her grandfather and uncles. Her cousins are still young, and were left behind in the Rills with their mothers, but the youngest of Lord Rodrik’s sons, Roose, named for her father, is but nineteen, just two years her senior. They think her haughty and ungrateful, and she thinks them a pack of squabbling imbeciles on the best of days, so in that they are equal.

Besides, if her grandfather so much as breathes her mother’s name or offers up any gruff words about how beautiful Bethany looked on her own wedding day, Nell thinks she will set about him with an iron poker, and knock out his remaining teeth. A good match it was, to be sure. He took the finest mare of the herd and sold her to a butcher, and named the next foal after him. Some regret, she thinks, might be more palatable than his stubborn insistence on pretending that it was a great gift to his daughter. What fine marriages, the both of them. He wed Beth to a smiling leech and Barbrey to an impending corpse.

After them follow the rotund Manderlys, all bursting at the seams save for the graceful daughters, who Nell assumes they must lock in a cellar during feasts. She should not be so cruel; she has spent time with Wynafryd and Wylla before, and they are far better company than most, although it is hard not to gawk at Wylla’s ridiculous hair, and Wynafryd is a disturbingly tactful liar, all cool smiles and soft words. At the same time, the Flints flood in from Widow’s Watch and Flint’s Finger in equal measure, and Dana seems to spend much of her time working hard to avoid running into either branch. Nell can barely keep any of them straight; the Flints are nearly all dark-haired, blue-eyed, wiry, and abrupt.

Foul-mouthed, too; Cregan Widowflint and Ben Fingerflint manage to get into a brawl within hours of their respective arrivals. Harry Karstark and his brothers can be seen making bets before the fight is broken up, and Nell gives her good family’s distant relations a wide berth. To say that Rickard Karstark is displeased to be attending the wedding of Robb to any girl save his own precious Alys would be an understatement of the highest order.

The Umbers, Mormonts, and the mountain clans are among the last to arrive. The Umbers all seem to be straining to reach six and half a feet, even the women, and Nell hears tell that half of them are denied rooms at the inn because the ceilings are too low and doorways too narrow. The Mormonts are a provocation and a delight; Nell has never met a Bear Islander before, and is perhaps a little too pleased that Maege saw fit to bring three of her wild daughters; Dacey, Lyra, and Jorelle alternate between ringmail and leathers and finely embroidered gowns, and on their first night in the castle host an axe-throwing competition, which a cackling Lyra promptly wins with a bow and a wave to the disgruntled crowd.

That same night word comes from King’s Landing, but the letter is not in Ned Stark or even Vayon Poole’s hand. Robb reads it, reddens with rage, and nearly throws it into the fire; Nell has to wrench it from him, tearing off the signature in his hand, Sansa’s. Even without it, Nell recognizes her looping, airy letters all the same, but the words are not hers at all. “Not a word of Arya,” Robb spits, pacing over to the window. “And the King dead, Father plotting treason with Stannis and Renly Baratheon- has she gone mad?”

“Think,” Nell says, without looking up from the letter. “What might compel a girl of eleven to say such things? I wonder. Your father in a black cell? Arya locked in some tower? Don’t act the fool. You know perfectly well why your sister lies. She doesn’t want to see her father’s head on a spike. You’d do much the same.”

“I would never-,” he begins hotly.

“Oh, you would,” Nell says, turning cold Bolton eyes on him, and Robb stops. Grey Wind growls fretfully near the door. They share the news, if not the exact details of the letter, when they break their fast the next day with their guests. But there will be no talk of battle and who will have what command yet, at Nell’s insistence. There is a wedding to see to first, and she’ll be damned to be thrown out of the saddle this late in the race.

“My lords,” she says, addressing the hall, “you must forgive a lady’s frivolities, but I would see my maiden’s cloak shed before we venture south. Mayhaps one of you may be so kind as to fetch me a lion’s pelt for a wedding gift!” When they roar back at her, stamping their feet and snarling for Lannister blood, she beams and sits back down beside Robb, who looks at her as though he’d never seen her before. Despite the wild rumors curdling in the winter town, despite the grim acknowledgement that there is no need for any further deception- they will have war before the year is out, and the Riverlands will burn for it- there is something a little thrilling about the whole thing. Every boy Robb’s age or a little older has grown up on the tales of Robert’s Rebellion, how some lost everything in a day, how others made their names on the battlefield, how the North carved the way for a new king on the Iron Throne.

Why should Robb’s Rebellion be any different? This is the second time in two generations that a king has held Starks prisoner in the Red Keep. This time, they all assuring themselves, it will be different. This time they will be better prepared, this time they will not hesitate, this time the South will learn once and for all not to provoke a sleeping giant. Nell ought to be worried, ought to be terrified, really, and of course, she is, but there is also the small matter of her wedding, which she has been rehearsing since she was fifteen, and really, Tywin Lannister seems a mildly irritating gnat compared to the looming threat of marriage.

She wonders if Robb feels the same, but doubts it. He is likely eager to get the ceremony and the feast out of the way, and turn them all out of the castle and the winter town to begin the long trek south. What is it to him? A few words before the heart tree, a short feast, a romp in bed. He will dismiss her the next morning with a few kind words and a soft kiss, and if she does not proceed with caution she will find herself watching from a window while he rides off. That is what Ned Stark left Catelyn with. A babe in her belly, and a very long wait. Not Nell. It will not go that way for her. Those southern gods might have smiled down upon Catelyn Stark’s wedding night, and seen fit to bless her womb then and there. The old gods are not half so generous.

Nell will not be left with a faint hope. She will not be her aunt. She will not wrinkle and silver into a widow in black. She does not care what it takes. She would stow away in the baggage train before she let Robb Stark leave her to mind an empty castle and wait. And wait. For how long? Years? He could die in battle in three months time. He could fall off his horse and break his neck in three weeks time. And then what? Someone else would take the command of the northern army, likely her father, regardless of who he had to skin to get to it, and she’d be quickly packed off to the Dreadfort and Ramsay, or married to Bran, who aside from being many years from his majority, may not even be able to sire sons himself.

But she knows better than to breathe a word of any of those qualms to Robb before the wedding. There are already daily disputes over the marching order. It was how the Greatjon had come to lose two fingers. Nell was not there when it happened, but she heard the shouting, and glimpsed the bloody stumps on the floor, being fought over by Grey Wind and Summer. The shouts turned to laughter and murmurs, and Theon found her in a doorway and cast aside his usual aloofness to breathlessly repeat what Robb had said- “Doubtless you only meant to cut my meat.”

Doubtless indeed- she saw Robb later that evening, and his voice shook to recount it, and Nell only said, “My lord, you must remember it would be a tremendous waste of rope to hang all those Umbers.” He’d smiled weakly at that, and she was only glad he could play the cold Lord Stark for their audiences. He can threaten them well, of course he can. Whether he could see those threats through is another matter entirely. Grey Wind may not always be there to tear off fingers and knock men the Greatjon’s size to the ground. Robb is brave, she knows that much from the wolfswood. He is also noble, and there is nothing noble about putting men to death, whether they deserve it or not, but it must be done all the same.

She does not sleep the night before her wedding; despite this being half her own machinations, it seems to have crept up on her with alarming speed. It seems too soon. She’s not ready. She’ll never be ready. She was a fool to suggest any of it in the first place. Something will go wrong, she’s sure of it. She’ll disappoint him, offend him somehow, someway, displease him. Father will be angry with her. Barbrey will be disappointed in her. She’ll fail this test. She’s sure of it. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, there wasn’t supposed to be the shadow of war over them, it was supposed to be simple, easy-

Just shy of midnight Dana drags her out of bed, bundles her down to the kitchens, and sits her down in front of one of the smoldering cooking fires with Dacey and Lyra Mormont. Dacey is tall and slim and even-keeled. Lyra is short and thickset and excitable. Nell does not see what advice or comfort two Mormonts who have never been wed and likely never will could have to offer her. Then Dacey pours them all cups of spiced cider and her cheeks go bright pink and her head a bit fuzzy and it doesn’t seem half so intimidating. Dacey tells them tale after tale of childish antics- the time their sister Aly nearly drowned after they built a raft and tried to race it down a river, jumping off of the top of a waterfall and nearly skimming the rocks, high summer dances in the pine groves and Jory’s talent for throwing knives.

Lyra is but nineteen but as experienced, from the way she tells it, as a man twice that age, and her recountings of her many ‘bears’ send Dana shrieking with laughter to the floor and Nell gasping for breath. “And then I said, Varen- no, listen, to me, you bitch-,” she swats at Dacey, who is shaking with mirth, pouring herself another drink- “gods, pass me that-,” Lyra takes a rejuvenating swig, wipes at her mouth, and grins, “I said, Varen, why’s it that you’re dark up top, red down below, and he says- he tells me, me mam always said that it’s on account of touching yourself too much, it changes the color of the hair-,”

“No,” Nell is crying with laughter, “no, he didn’t-,”

“Aye, he did! So I said- ah, alright then Varen, but were you fondling yourself in a carrot patch-,”

“Tell them about Daryle-,”

“The bastard! He tells me he went to the wrong room! Wrong room- Others take him! He ran into Aly in the hall and decided he liked the looks of her better! So you count it as a victory, my lady Bolton, that they’ll be delivering Robb straight to your rooms come tomorrow!”

Her head is pounding and the inside of her mouth tastes awful come daybreak, but she does not dream the night before her wedding, and for that she is thankful. The day dawns crisp and clear. No fresh snow showers, to her relief, although the ground is coated with mud and slush. Robb takes a small party out hunting at dawn, her father among them; it’s supposed to be a year’s good luck if the bridegroom brings back a stag. A decade’s good luck if he brings back a white one. They don’t go far; Grey Wind’s faint howls can be heard on and off all morning.

The women host a formal breakfast where Nell sorts through wedding gifts, smiling tightly. Rich fabrics and rugs and tapestries, two new weaving looms, a carved wolfshead harp from White Harbor, jewelry of all sorts, from carved bone bracelets to gleaming silver pendants, sashes and new boots, thick winter cloaks with pearl buttons. Books and scrolls and leather saddles and hunting horns and plump quilts and fur hats for her and two new helms for Robb. A slender new hunting bow from her aunt. A garnet hilted dagger from her father.

They are bathing in the hot springs when the men return, and there’s laughter and cheers as she is promptly bundled away from Robb’s sight and he hers. Nell cannot recall ever being around this many other women, and despite the comfort it brings to her vanity to be the center of much jealous attention, she is relieved when it is just her and Barbrey shut up in her rooms. Her aunt dismisses the maids, sits Nell down, and begins the difficult work of combing through her thick hair herself, as she used to when Nell was a child.

“They remembered the right flowers, didn’t they?” Nell has not fidgeted like this since her mother died. “Bloodblooms and dusky roses and winter-lilies?”

“Of course,” Barbrey’s sharp fingers work through a particularly bad knot, and Nell winces. “You should not fret so. It’s unbecoming in a bride, child.” ‘Bride’ and ‘child’ seem very ironic when said so close together, and Nell scoffs to herself, watching Barbrey smile faintly in the looking glass. “You must permit me just a little while longer of scolding, Donella. It is not easy to see a daughter wed, and you are the closest I have to that.”

Nell bites at her lip for a moment. They have never been the sentimental sort, she and her aunt, but it seems wrong to let this go by without acknowledging it. They are all the other has. Nell is Barbrey’s legacy. Her only legacy. That she raised up the girl who would be Lady of Winterfell. “You raised me well,” she finally says. “You did not have to take me, after Mother died. I am grateful to you, Aunt.”

“Don’t thank me,” Barbrey sniffs, raking the comb down yet again. “I would have done as much for any child of Bethany’s. She was my sister. Sometimes I hated her, but I would have done anything for her, and she for me.” But she does soften, just a little, enough to say, “She would be proud, regardless. You are every bit her daughter. She was wasted on your father, as are you. But that is over now.”

“Yes,” says Nell. “I shall belong to another man entirely, and him not yet sixteen.” She means it in jest, but it tastes bitter between her lips all the same.

“He may playact the severe lord all he pleases, but the boy is as soft-hearted as they come,” Barbrey tells her sharply. “What do you think would have happened in that hall, had he not a direwolf for a guard dog? Do not humble yourself before a half southern child fumbling at war games.”

“Robb isn’t soft,” the protest escapes her before she can really consider it. “He’s killed before, in the wolfswood-,”

Barbrey stops combing her hair all together. “And had to see his future lady wife saved by a wily Ironborn. I can smell the shame on him still. He is fortunate that most have not heard that particular tale, or they might think twice about letting him lead us into battle against the Lannisters.”

“He is the Stark in Winterfell,” Nell mutters balefully. “We do not ‘let him’ do anything.”

“Is that what you have him believe? Good,” says Barbrey approvingly. “Don’t delude yourself, Nell. You may be fond of him, but he is no Brandon Stark.” she sets down the comb. “He is young, impetuous, and coddled. It was one thing when you were to marry him in peace times. Now we are at war. You must bear a son from him, and the sooner the better.”

Nell reddens. “I know. You have told me many times-,”

“And I’ll tell you again,” Barbrey retorts. “Men die. Winterfell is not truly yours until you have a Stark babe in your arms.” She squeezes Nell’s shoulders. “Flatter and titter for him in bed if you must, but make sure he attends you regularly. Hold your tongue until you have a child in your belly.”

“Aunt!”

Barbrey tsks, runs her hands through Nell’s hair, and presses a kiss to the top of her head. “Good. You look a pretty, blushing bride. It’s time now.” She pauses. “You aren’t frightened, are you?”

Nell tilts her chin up to stare at her aunt defiantly. “Never.”

“Good. Your mother was not frightened either. Smile, and take small steps. Your slippers are new and I won’t see you tripping over your skirts like some oaf.”

Nell’s wedding gown is elaborate, but not extravagant. When Dana looks her up and down and pronounces, “Looks someone got knifed in a snowbank,”, she’s not quite wrong, Nell thinks dryly. But it is pretty enough; sheer white lamb’s wool, with red and pink stitching to accent the tight bodice, and flowing sleeves lined with dark pink samite to match her intricately stitched slippers. She wears garnets around her neck and an amber ring on one finger for the Dustin colors. Two iron stallions bare their teeth on her wrists. But the veil attached to her crown of flowers is the real majesty; crimson red silk flutters down her dark ringlets and across her back, rippling in the wind from an open window. The girl she leaves behind in the looking glass stares intently back at her, a pale figure spattered with blotches of red, particularly the bright patches in her cheeks and lips.

She twists the ring on her finger all the way down the stairs, but by the time she’s reached the bottom, Nell has forced her arms to lie flat and still at her sides, grips her skirts firmly, and faces Father. “You look very beautiful, Donella,” he says, as Dana and the Mormont and Manderly sisters come chattering down the stairs after her. Nell looks at him, pushes back the prickling terror, and simply smiles and takes his offered arm, pretending she is somewhere else, that she is simply watching this happen from afar, a passive observer.

The sky is purpling with twilight by the time everyone is gathered in the godswood. Robb wears a fine woolen doublet of the palest grey possible, just a shade darker than white. He is looking at the weirwood’s grim face, not her, but when Grey Wind, sitting calmly at his side, turns his head, so does Robb, like a mummer’s puppet on a string. Nell glances around at the crowd gathered, the singer from White Harbor strumming his lute, the heads turning to whisper and gossip, and for an instant she sees Sara in the forest of faces, regarding her evenly. Then she blinks, and it is not Sara at all, but Donella Hornwood standing serenely beside her lord husband and awkward son.

She looks back at Robb, who for an instant looks as though he would like nothing more than the ground to swallow him up. Then he straightens, and says loudly and clearly, “Who comes before the god?”

Roose brings her to Robb’s side, relinquishing her arm; his cold fingers leave behind white indents in her wrist. “Donella of House Bolton comes here to be wed. A woman grown and flowered, trueborn and noble, she comes here to beg the blessings of the gods. Who comes to claim her?”

For some reason Nell cannot bring herself to look at Robb’s face during the split second before his reply. She is worried she will see some doubt or hesitation or reluctance upon it; instead she studies the vivid red leaves of the weirwood shadowing them. Is her mother here with them? Would she be proud, as Barbrey said? Or would she turn her face away in disgust, to see House Bolton advance, even if it is through her own daughter.

“Robb of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, heir to Eddard. I claim her,” says Robb, in his lord’s voice, cool and crisp. “Who gives her?”

“Roose of House Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, gives her,” Father says in a voice that is so quietly satisfied she wants to reach back, grip him by the hair, and grind his face into the gnarled white roots at their feet.

“Do you take me?” Robb asks her, and Nell looks back at him so suddenly she feels momentarily light-headed.

“I take you to be my lord and husband,” she says automatically, having laid awake in bed and recited the words to herself half a hundred times.

They kneel down to pray, holding hands, but nothing comes to mind. Nell stares blankly at the dirty slush underfoot, waiting to feel some rush of euphoria or relief or even terror. Nothing. A minute later and they are back on their feet, and Robb is carefully removing her maiden’s cloak, silken skin that it is, and replacing it with his own. The direwolf hangs heavy across her back, and he offers her a small, cautious smile as he pulls back, but Nell cannot bring her lips into any shape at all. She feels frozen. She has been waiting for and anticipating and dreading and longing for this for so long that now that it is real, not a childish daydream, it seems-

He picks her up as the lutist breaks into ‘The Winter Maid’, and Nell focuses on making sure he does not stagger and drop her to distract herself. Robb does not, and they make it out of the godswood and into the Great Hall in one piece. He sets her down once they’ve made it through the doorway, and then they turn back around to face the applause and cheers and well-wishes. Nell quirks her lips up into a passable expression of excitement and delight then, all the way until they are seated at the high table, and then tries to convince herself that this is just like any other feast.

She sits in between Robb and Father, keeps a careful eye on Bran, seated in between Barbrey and Rickon, and watches Theon needle Dana and Beth Cassel glance longingly after Edd Karstark and she says things and drinks wine and eats the food placed before but none of it seems real, somehow. It is as if this were one of her dreams. She sits there and half expects to see Mother ride through the doors on an elk, carrying the Bastard’s head under one arm. Robb and her have no time to speak with one another, which is perhaps for the best, as they are deluged with well-wishers and compliments and blatant flattery and thinly veiled suggestions.

This feast is nothing compared to the one held when Robert Baratheon visited, but Nell had thought six courses was quite enough, really. One did not need to be chained to the table for six hours. Now she wishes it were twelve courses. But of course there is more music and dancing, and she takes Robb’s hand and dances to Fair Maids of Summer and No Featherbed for Me and then she dances with her father to Black Pines and Wolves in the Hills, and then she dances with Theon to Six Maids in a Pool, and with her lord grandfather to The Red Stallion and then each of her uncles, and by the time she has danced with everyone that courtesy demands she dance with, the singers have turned to the bawdier songs, so she must sit back down.

When she was still a maid it was one thing to dash into a reel and come out spinning and laughing on the other side, but she is a woman wedded now, and on her wedding night of all nights, some decorum is expected. She sits back down beside Robb, and turns her attention to his brothers. She recalls Bran dancing with Sansa at that last feast; smiling and laughing while Sansa led him through the steps with all the severity of a master-at-arms. Now Bran will never dance again, and she knows she is only so sentimental because of today, but it makes her sad. Rickon is pouting furiously and picking at his food, working his way up to a tantrum until Dana creeps up behind him with a snickering Eddara Tallhart, scoops him up, and darts back into the fray of dancers.

Nell glimpses them a few minutes later; Dana is spinning like a top, Rickon on her hip, howling like a wolf, while Eddara balances on her big brother’s boots as they dance alongside them. Daryn Hornwood is dancing with his own betrothed, Alys Karstark. He is still a terrible dancer, but even proud Alys does not seem to mind; when she laughs, he flushes, so she laughs all the more. Beth is being led out onto the floor by the youngest Umber brother, Osric, beaming with delight. Joseth has spared a hand for each of his daughters, and twirls them both as they gallop across the floor. Turnip is perched in a corner, drinking stew straight from the bowl. Palla the kennel girl is playing some clapping game with Jory Mormont.

But it does not last forever. Eventually the occasional calls for the bedding grow louder and louder, and the singer bows and starts up ‘The Queen Took Off Her Sandals, the King Took Off His Crown’, and while Robb looks at her with some concern, it only incites Nell to stand up, tear off her veil, and toss it to the first approaching Flint. In the end she and Robb are both surrounded, and Nell braces herself, ready to draw blood if Greyjoy or a Karstark so much as thinks this is their lucky night- only to be swept up and tossed over Smalljon Umber’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

While it is certainly humiliating to be carried out of the hall in such a manner, she supposes it is better than being fumbled and dragged down corridors and upstairs by a group of drunken halfwits. Smalljon may be drunk, but he is so big she doubts he even feels it, and at least he does not let her fall, and his impressive height keeps most of the groping and fondling to a minimum. She gladly drives the heel of her foot into Gawen Flint’s face when he tries to snake a hand up her skirt, all the same.

The bedchamber is almost uncomfortably hot, but she knows that could just be the wine. Nell throws open the windows, conscious of the fact that her gown is unlaced and hanging open to reveal her back, and her shoes and jewelry are gone as well. She resolves to take inventory come morning; if it is not all returned to her by then, she is going to take Grey Wind and go hunting for the thieves. But when Robb is finally pushed into the room by a smirking Dacey and a pink-faced Wylla Manderly, Nell is relieved that his wolf is not with him. She does not think she could stand Grey Wind being a witness to this, at least.

The door slams shut behind him, and then there is just the muffled murmurs and laughter of the people crowded around in the hall. Nell knows most of them will drift back to the feast within a few minutes, already bored of the excitement. Robb is looking at her. His wavy hair is rumpled and he is missing his boots. He follows her gaze and says with an attempt at a wry smile, “Lyra stole them.”

Nell hand goes to her own mussed hair. “Theon stole my crown.”

They both chuckle, albeit somewhat stiltedly, and then he asks, “Are you alright?” and Nell wants to slap him. The gentle concern is not making this any easier. As if she were the young, innocent one. Aye, she may still be a maiden, but she gave her maidenhead up to the saddle years ago. There will be no blood in this bed, and if there is pain, well, what will be more painful for both of them will be his awkward apologies. Gods, she wishes he were older. He is not the child he was when she first came here months ago, he is taller, broader, colder- But some new stubble on his face does not make him a man.

And, despite all her insistence to the contrary, she knows that stolen kisses and bold touches in the barrows and dark corners of stables and behind closed doors does not make her a woman, either. “I’m alright,” she says. There is some wine left out for them, but if she drinks any more she knows she’ll be silly and useless. He is still standing there, as if she were a wild beast he was wary of drawing too close to.

He opens his mouth again, looking furtively from her to the bed to the barred door. “We… We don’t-,”

“Yes, we do,” snaps Nell, incensed that he would even suggest it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to. She knows that he wants to. It’s this feeble last minute attempt at chivalry- they’ve no time left for chivalry. Yes, if these were peace times, his offer to wait would be sweet. She would not accept it, but it would be sweet. He is not her father. He may not even be his father.

There is a long silence, punctuated only by the crackle of the log in the hearth.

“If I should die in battle, Winterfell would pass to Bran.”

“Bran is eight.”

“My mother-,”

“Would tell you to do your duty, as she did hers.”

“Nell,” he snaps in exasperation. “I know this is- I know I’m likely not what you wanted in a husband, I’m younger than you, my father’s just been declared a traitor-,”

“Oh, shut up,” she groans, marches over to him, takes his shoulders firmly, and kisses him. He kisses her back with more ferocity than she is used to, and she takes a step back, bumping into the edge of the bed. Then he stops, although he does not let go of her waist. Nell searches his face for want, and sees it flickering in his keen blue eyes.

“In the godswood, after Bran fell, I swore I would never mistreat you or dishonor you.”

“And I told you that you were a good man,” she says. “So prove it to me, my lord.”

He almost laughs, but kisses her again instead.

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell wakes up to scratching at the door. But mostly, she wakes up frightened- she can’t remember what she dreamed of, but she was running, she knows that much. Her legs burn and tingle as if she really had been, and sweat drips down her back. She takes several deep breaths, trying to calm herself- if she had a nightmare, it was probably due to all the rich food and the wine. But it’s still dark outside; the moon is gone, and she can see the first streaks of light, very faintly through the windows, but that’s all. A glimmer peeking out of the treeline, like a momentary wink of a coin in a deep, dark pocket.

She sits up in bed very slowly, careful not to wake Robb, although she cannot see his face. Nell likes to sleep on her side, facing the window. Robb, as it turns out, prefers to sleep on his stomach, his head practically smothered in his pillow. All she can make out of him in the very faint light in his freckled back and the deep bronze of his hair. She looks at him for a few long moments, waiting for a surge of resentment or disgust or even fear, and is relieved when nothing comes. She doesn’t hate him. That’s good.

It’s not that she’d expected to, suddenly, but- she had this nagging fear that it was all too good to be true, that as soon as they were faced with the hard truth of consummating the marriage, of lying together, whatever tenuous bond there was would splinter to pieces and be replaced with slow, churning bitterness and loathing on both sides. She doesn’t know why. Perhaps it is Barbrey’s fault- Nell feels that if her aunt had never given up her maidenhead to Brandon Stark, she might be presently happier for it. She might have still longed for him, but she would not have felt robbed of him. She could have remarried, after Willam. She did not, in order to keep Barrow Hall.

Or perhaps it is Father’s fault. Nell does not know what happened to her mother, on her own wedding night, all those years ago, but she can surmise enough. She only wonders if Bethany had some lingering hopes, perhaps some determination, that it would be, if not a terribly joyous marriage, not a miserable one, either, only to have it all ripped away from her. She does not think Roose Bolton offered her gentle touches or sweet kisses to ease her into the act. She does not think he offered anything. He took and took and took, and come morning, Beth Bolton knew exactly the sort of man she had married, and knew exactly what she would face from him, every night.

It wasn’t like that with Robb. Nell doesn’t feel hurt or demeaned or violated. It was not like something out of a song and it was not all she had imagined or all she had dreaded. It simply was what it was, and when they were done they kissed a bit more until her eyelids started to get heavy, and then they went to sleep. Very simple. Easy enough, she tells herself. Even if it is never perfect or wonderful, at least she knows what she will get from him. At least it was not all taking. She doesn’t feel as though she’s lost anything precious. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he must have asked at least thrice, afterwards, when she was half asleep, and Nell had not the energy to do much but shake her head and squeeze his shoulder.

He didn’t hurt her and she doesn’t hate him. That will have to be enough for now. The scratching at the door, having momentarily paused, grows louder. Nell slowly eases out from under the furs, and shivering suddenly from the cold, snatches up the rumpled Stark cloak Robb clothed her in, and wraps it around herself as she walks silently over to the door. As she does so, she offers a silent prayer with the direwolf at her back. Please, please, let it have took. Please. Barbrey cautioned her to always lie for a little while flat on her back, unmoving, afterwards, supposedly to encourage conception. And there are certain recipes for teas, said to bring on children, although Nell is not sure how much stock she puts in the brews of wood witches.

She unbars the door as quietly as she can, lets it ease open with a low groan, and stares down at Grey Wind, who stares back up at her solemnly. “He’s alright,” Nell whispers, jerking her head at Robb’s sleeping form. “I didn’t cut his heart out and eat it, see?” She has no idea why she’s speaking to the wolf as though it can understand her speech, but- she jerks back when Grey Wind’s rough, wet tongue laps at her bare leg, resisting the urge to squeal, and then the wolf brushes past her, and leaps up with silent grace onto the bed.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Nell hisses, hurrying after him, but it’s too late, and now all she can do is lamely squeeze herself around his large, furry frame. Grey Wind rests his head contentedly on Robb’s still legs, and thumps his tail once against her. Nell flinches, then remembers Dana’s old jape, about their children having a full head of hair, and suppresses a laugh, in spite of her alarm. She falls halfway back asleep, and when she opens her eyes again, Robb is awake and stoking up the fire. Nell watches him for a moment with Grey Wind, and then gives a faint smile when he turns around and sees her.

“Good morning,” says Robb, reddening.

To Nell’s relief, she does not blush half as badly. “Good morning.” She adjusts the sheets around her, unsure of how they ought to behave now. Should she go to him and kiss him and call him husband? Should he be scooping her into his arms and carrying her down the stairs to proclaim the marriage consummated and lawful? Are they expected to spend all day in here, working hard to make an heir?

“I’m sorry about Grey Wind,” he nods at the wolf, who does not seem sorry in the least. He turns his muzzle towards her, and Nell forces a serene smile.

“It’s alright. He was missing you.”

Robb returns the smile, although his eyes are doubting. “Are you well?”

“Very well,” says Nell, and then adds, “I pray to give you a son very soon, my lord.” The words feel stiff and awkward on her tongue, but it is what was expected of her. She does not want to put him in the position of feeling as though he has to press the issue with her. Nell has heard all the stories, in all their variations, of what occurs between husband and wives and when to lie together. Men insist, women grouse, doors are slammed in faces, women bemoan cold beds, men take to brothels instead- all of it. There is really no way of coyly dancing around it and smoothly wording suggestions of who should visit whose chambers. Not now. “I shall await you in my chambers tonight.”

“No, I-,” Robb seems to give up on whatever he was trying to say, and nods jerkily instead. “I’ll call for one of your maids.”

“Wait,” says Nell, as he starts to dress. He pauses and looks at her, as does Grey Wind. It’s very disconcerting to have two sets of eyes on her. “You are due to depart in a week, are you not?”

Robb’s mouth softens, and he comes over to the bed. “I don’t like it any more than you do. I did not think it would be like this for us, but-,”

“But I must come with you,” Nell says forcefully, and he trails off in surprise.

“You-,”

“If I am not with child when you leave, we shall have no heir,” she forges onward, trying to keep the desperation from her voice. “You must see the sense in bringing me south, Robb. It can take time for a child to get, and neither of us can rest easy-,”

“And I could rest easy, bringing my wife to war?” he asks incredulously. “Nell, be reasonable. The battlefield is no place-,”

“No place indeed, when Maege Mormont and her daughters march with you!” she retorts. “You cannot tell me there will be no women. I know Cerwyn intends to bring his daughter-,”

“The Mormonts are warriors, and Lady Jonelle is past thirty and unwed-,”

“I will be of no use to anyone here,” she argues. “If we knew for certain that I was with child already, it would be different. But until then, it makes little sense for me to remain-,”

“It makes every bit of sense,” he says sharply. “Here, you are safe. Here, I will not have to worry about the worst coming to pass-,”

“But I must?” she demands. “You think I will not worry for you, every day, worry of what will become of all of us, should you fall in battle? Should you be captured?”

“I won’t.” That is a boy’s frightened, lie. Not a boast or a promise.

“You don’t know that,” Nell sits up straight in bed, pushing her hair out of her face. “I am not saying this out of a girl’s petty wishes to remain with her husband. You know I am practical. Hear me now. Your father always counseled you that the pack survives, but the lone wolf dies, did he not? He is a lone wolf now, as is Sansa, and Arya- all of them, separated. You must leave Bran and Rickon behind. You are going south without your pack. But we are wed now, and there is blood between us. And I know these men. Your men. My father’s men. My aunt’s men. My grandsire’s men. Bolton, Dustin, Ryswell. When you must reason and delegate to them, would it not serve you well to have my counsel? I know Roose Bolton. I know Rodrik Ryswell, and all his sons. I know the men of House Dustin my aunt sends with you.”

Robb is silent for a moment, and then he says. “What sort of man would I be, taking that risk with you? You were betrothed to me with the promise of Winterfell for your household. For me to take you on the campaign- think, Nell, of what kind of life that would be. Sleeping in tents. Poor food. Always on the move, no privacy, surrounded by men, not all of them honorable- the dangers from the Lannisters- that is not the life you were promised.”

“It is not the life you were promised, either,” she points out. “No one could have foreseen this. Just as your parents could not have predicted how their marriage would begin.”

“My father did not take my mother with him,” he says flatly.

“I am not your mother, and you are not your father. I give you my word. The instant I suspect I am with child, I will return to the North. You may keep me under guard day and night. You may forbid me to ride out or ever leave the sight of a Stark banner. You may command me to go no further south than The Twins, or Seagard, or Oldstones. I will obey. I will not lie to you, I will not hide things from you, if you give me an order, I will follow it as one of your sworn swords would. But whatever comes, we are wed now. We may have all the years your father and mother have had, we may have very few. But I would face it at your side, or not at all.”

They both go quiet; Robb glances away from her, his jaw working silently. Grey Wind lays his head in her lap, which she takes for an encouraging sign. Nell hesitates, then scratches the wolf under his chin, just as Robb looks back at her. “I will think on it,” he says, in his lord’s voice. She nods, inclining her head a moment longer than usual, and feels a flash of triumph when he presses a brief kiss to her cheek. He will say yes, she assures herself. He will. He may want her safe, but he wants her more. They may not love each other, but they have been together for months now. He has grown to depend on her in some sense, surely, for a sound mind and an even voice. Luwin serves his mother and Greyjoy serves himself, but she has always been his alone. Surely he is selfish enough to agree.

She feels odd, when returned to her own rooms. She supposes they are only partially her rooms now, for she will be spending her nights in his bed, or he in hers. The custom is for the husband to visit the wife’s rooms- few women would be so bold as to directly approach a man’s bedchambers, especially in the first weeks and months of a marriage. Southerners say northern girls are brazen, without the pretty lessons from the Maiden’s Book to instill purity of body and mind. It is nonsense, of course. There are plenty of southern maids who enter their marriages far from innocent, and plenty of northern girls who guard their virtue fiercely. That makes her think of Sara, who would have gladly lived out her life a maid still. Nell once asked her, rather brashly, if she did not ever think of men- surely someone would have her to wife, bastard or not, a guardsman or a tradesman, some merchant’s son seeking an educated bride-

“I have thought of men,” Sara had told Nell, who could not have been older than thirteen at the time, “and I know very well what men have thought of me. They do not guard their tongues around natural daughters as they would a trueborn lady, Donella. But I will not wed. I have a rare enough gift here; a trade without being born into it. Some women are brewers or seamstresses or apothecaries, or even midwives, but nearly all were born or wed into it. I am a governess. I earned the position, it is mine. No man gave it to me, and no man will take it from me. Were I to wed, I would have to put my books and scrolls away, and tend to a home and children. I would rather tend to minds.” She’d tapped Nell on the head with a finger, pointedly.

“Yes,” she remembers saying petulantly, “but if you wed a man, you’d take his name. You wouldn’t have to be a bastard anymore. I should rather a true name than books.”

Sara had looked at her for a moment, then said simply, “I am a Snow, but before that I am Sara Snow, and I shall make my own name when they write of women like you, who go on to do great things.”

And now, she thinks, as she finishes dressing in a gown of fine grey wool, to honor her new house, what will they write of Sara Snow? Murdered by another Snow. Butchered by the Bastard. Robbed of her virtue and her position and her future. And what justice has she seen? None. Nell has given her no justice and no peace, and now Sara haunts her dreams. If she could, she would take all these men gathered here, march them on the Dreadfort, drag Ramsay from it, and hang him from the mill. She cannot. Robb and the North have greater concerns than an errant bastard. And Father- well, Sara was wrong. Nell is not free of him now that she is wed.

She is reminded of that when she rounds a corner with Dana and nearly runs into him. She involuntarily sucks in a breath, and Dana bows her head. “Lord Bolton.”

“Father,” Nell summons up a daughter’s gracious smile, despite wanting to brush past him. “I trust you enjoyed the feast last night.”

“Indeed I did,” says Roose plainly. He glances at Dana. “If you would excuse us, my lady.”

Even Dana is not one to dig her heels in when confronted with Roose Bolton. She shoots Nell an apologetic look, and hurries away, calling after Jorelle Mormont, who is coming down another stairwell. Nell reluctantly follows Father into an empty sitting room overlooking the First Keep. He shuts the door behind them, and her stomach clenches, as much as she chides herself. He has a weaker hold on her now. She is not pinioned to him anymore. She is a Stark now. She is a woman wed and bedded. But when she opens her mouth to speak, no words come. He smiles faintly, a queer initiation of an emotion. “And how has marriage treated you thus far?”

“Well,” Nell finds it easier to focus on something else, other than his gaze. The window, and the morning light spilling through it. “I thank you for making this match for me, Father. Robb has been so good to me, and the Starks so welcoming.”

“Good. And the bedding?”

She physically recoils, tearing her eyes from the window to his face. Nothing. No triumph or smugness or disturbed interest. Just expectation of an answer. “It is not my place-,”

“You will find that as long as you are my daughter, it is your place to answer questions I put to you.” He sounds almost bored. “The bedding?”

“There was one,” she says through her teeth. “I did my duty.”

“And your young husband?”

She swallows. “Did his.” Her face is scarlet now. She resists the urge to wrap her arms around herself, to comfort herself, and instead looks back to the window. “Is that all? You wanted to ensure-,”

“To ensure that I did not waste a dowry, yes,” he says coolly. “To ensure that I will have no complaints from Robb Stark, yes. You will forgive a father’s queries, Donella, but you were raised in Lady Dustin’s household, and it is a crude… but common rumor that she did not go to her own marriage bed a maid.”

There is a white hot flash of outrage at that. “My aunt is an honorable woman, and hearsay-,”

“Consider yourself fortunate I did not have you inspected by Maester Uthor before presenting you to the Starks,” he cuts her off smoothly. “But it would not have mattered, with how much time you spend in the saddle. Many noblewomen do not bleed the first night.” He lifts his chin slightly, and Nell understands him well enough- but your mother did, I made sure of it. He is likely proud of it, the way he might be of the leeches he uses to sap the bad blood from himself.

“Even if Robb had complaints,” she snaps, “you are the last person he would voice them to. He is a good man. He would never treat me-,” she barely stops herself in time, and adds in a low voice, “ill.”

“No,” says Roose. “He is not me, is that what you meant to say, daughter? I take no offense to it. I am not most men. I have been a forgiving and lenient father, have I not? Letting you spend your wild days in Barrowton with your aunt whispering her schemes in your ears. Counting you for my sole heir, despite your sex. Making you a fine match with a good man, as you call him. All I ask in return is a bit of gratitude. And that you see your duties through. I would not have it said that Roose Bolton sold the Starks a dam that will not breed.”

“He is taking me south,” Nell blurts out, to get him to stop, to make it stop, because she will not cry, she is not going to cry, she has not cried in front of him since Mother died, she will not- “He is taking me south, so you may be assured that the marriage will be fruitful, Father. If that is all-,”

“There’s a good girl,” Father says mildly. “Thank you, Donella. You put my worries at ease. Between you and your brother, I am quite content. I have named him castellan of the Dreadfort in my absence. He has taken to the role with vigor, I am told. Mayhaps there is hope for him yet.”

She hears the warning for what is is. Nell says nothing, only turns and walks to the door. She is nearly to it when she feels his grip like a vice on her hair. He is not pulling or ripping, but he is holding her firmly by it, the way one might hold a leash on a dog or the reins of a horse. She bites back a yelp of protest, because inside, sometimes, she is still a child of six who displeased him, and Mother is screaming and you always hear the switch before it hits you, you do, you do-

“Do not forget your courtesies simply because you are a woman newly wedded and bedded, daughter.”

“Thank you, Father,” she says quickly, the words slipping and stumbling in their furor to escape her mouth. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I am so grateful.”

He lets go, reaches around, and opens the door for her. “After you, Lady Stark.”

With the wedding concluded, now is the time for farewells. Husbands and wives, fathers and children- Nell overhears Cley Cerwyn’s outraged quarrels with his father, who will be leaving him behind to rule in his absence, rather than taking him with him to battle. She is surprised to see the boy sitting with his sister later; Jonelle keeps an arm wrapped around him, and presses a motherly kiss to his dirty blonde hair. Nell would have thought Cley would have held a grudge against his spinster sister, that she might be taken south to find a husband, and he must remain here.

She catches a glimpse of Daryn and Alys near the lichyard, saying their goodbyes. Alys Karstark is dry-eyed, but her mouth is puckered in displeasure, and when Daryn says some jest, smiling hopefully, she scowls, makes a fist, and knocks it against his shoulder. He catches it and kisses it, and then they are embracing one another while her chaperoning brothers look on, rolling their eyes and cracking japes.

The Umbers leave behind their three youngest, who will return to Last Hearth. The Smalljon is nearly toppled under the combined weight of his siblings; Osric hangs on one arm, Berena the other, and little Aregelle clutches at his legs, until he manages to shake them off and in turns chases them around the yard, roaring and laughing in turn.

Donella Hornwood spends a good deal of time in the godswood with her husband; Nell wonders that she could still have such devotion to a man who sired a bastard after they were wed. perhaps it is like it was for Catelyn. She can forgive the man, if not the action. Larence Snow will not have the chance to say goodbye to his father and half-brother, tucked away at Deepwood Motte.

And then there is Dana. Nell listens at the door, quite blatantly, while she goes in circles with Artos Flint. Nell had never met the man before he came to Winterfell with Dana’s uncles and cousins, but in her imagination and from Dana’s stories, he’d always been some drunken, hulking brute, a bottle in one hand, an axe in the other. Artos Flint has the sweats and shakes of a man who spends most of his nights drinking until he passes out, but he is not the Robert Baratheon-like oaf that Nell had imagined. The man is wiry, not much taller than his daughter, and composed of hard muscle rapidly wasting with age, although he cannot be much older than forty five. His hands tremble when not holding a weapon, and his voice still cracks like a boy of twelve.

Just as it does now- “You’ll do as you’re told,” he is snarling back at his daughter. Dana, to her credit, seems ready to go several more rounds against him, as though they were fighters in a pit. “I’ve been soft enough on you as it is, sending you off to the barrowlands, when I should have seen you before a heart tree-,”

“You sent me nowhere! That was Grandfather’s doing-,”

“Aye, for he wanted you out of his sight! He would have left you for the fucking giants, girl, if it mean not having to endure your insolence-,”

“I am a woman grown now, and you cannot-,”

“A woman grown, are you? Then get ye wed, you silly wench. Donnel is willing to forgive-,”

“I don’t want his forgiveness, for I don’t want him at all!”

“And you think your sisters wanted their men, d’you? That your mother wanted me-,”

“Gods, who could?”

There’s the sound of a slap, and Nell stiffens, puts a hand on the door, but then a responding crack, and when she slams her way into the room, Artos Flint is rubbing furiously at his jaw with his callused palm. “Did you teach her to hit like that?” he asks irritably of Nell, who simply looks between the two of them, staring.

Dana’s cheek is bright red, but she is not cowering or crying. She folds her arms under her chest, glares at her father, and snaps, “I taught myself.”

“Oh, you did, did you?” he sneers back. It is more like watching siblings than a parent and child. Nell is both appalled and amazed. Why is he not beating her bloody? He may not be a mountain of a man, but aging drunkard that he is, he should still be plenty strong enough to overpower a gawky girl of seventeen. “I blame your mother. It does queer things to a child’s mind, to see a man so shamed an’ derided in his own house-,”

“You shame yourself,” Dana spits back. “I will not marry Donnel. You’d have to chain me to the bloody tree. Grandfather’s the lord, and he’s not here-,”

“Your uncle Beron speaks for him here, girl-,”

“Then tell Nuncle Beron he’ll have to use all his sons to get me into a godswood to be wed! But you won’t, will you?”

Artos raises a hand threateningly in her direction, then spits on the floor, and stalks out of the room, nodding his head to Nell as he does. Dana mouths some curse after him, then slumps down in the window seat, muttering to herself.

“By the gods, what was that?” Nell bursts out, shutting the door. “Is this how it always goes between you two?”

“I’m too much like him,” Dana says with a bitter smile. “Which means I’m his favorite daughter… and his least favorite. Alysanne and Jenny were good girls who wed without complaint. I shamed him- but he was proud, I think, that I dared to refuse Grandfather’s commands in the first place. They would have made me, all the same, but then came the offer from your aunt, so off I went,” she shrugs. “Now my uncles are nagging him to see me settled, but as much as he hates me, I do believe he hates Uncle Beron and Uncle Will more,” she barks a humorless laugh.

“Which Donnel is it?” Nell’s brow furrows.

“Black Donnel, of Clan Flint.”

Nell is surprised. “But that is a fine match- you’d be the chief’s wife, when the Old Flint passes-,”

“I will not wed Donnel, and he knows it,” snaps Dana. “I’ve said my piece on the matter.”

Nell looks at her searchingly, while Dana avoids her gaze, then says, “You’ll come with me, then? You were to be my companion before my marriage, but I am wed now. If you would rather return home-,”

“Of course I’m coming with you,” Dana snorts, finally looking back up at her, eyes hard. “Wed or not, you think I’d go back to the Finger? My kin will pledge their blades to your husband before the gods. I’ve no steel to offer-,”

“Excepting your spine and your tongue,” Nell points out, and Dana grins, showing off her crooked teeth.

“Aye. Who could pass up that? Between the two of us, we’ll tongue-lash the lions to death.”

Chapter Text

298 AC - WINTERFELL

Nell is glad she dressed so warmly; Maester Luwin predicts there are still a few months of summer left, but the day before Robb’s host departs, the sting in the air feels like winter. The heart tree that witnessed their marriage now witnesses an entirely different ceremony; every head of house, or their chosen representative, comes before Robb and the gods, to offer their swords, their loyalty, and their honor for the cause of House Stark. They will not rest until justice is restored in the riverlands, and Lord Eddard is freed from the boy king and his treacherous mother. They will not rest until Robb’s sisters are returned to him. They will not rest, Nell thinks, until they’re growling at the Red Keep’s gates.

And there is something thrilling about it all; she may pride herself on not being easily stirred in emotion, but it would take a stone heart to be unmoved by the sight of so many powerful men- and women- pledging themselves to Robb. He deserves this, she thinks, rather charitably. Surely he does; he has proven himself to her, if not to them. Barbrey would tell her she has gone soft-headed and soft-hearted, won over by some sweet kisses and soft touches in the night, won over by a husband who agreed to bring her south with him, whose kindness may have overruled his good sense.

Nell cares not, so relieved at the thought of not being left behind again. She could face down a wall of bristling spears and lances, if it meant not being left here with children and old women to console, and an empty womb. It has been six days since the wedding, and she got her moon’s blood last night. To directly inform Robb of such a thing was unthinkable, blunt as she can be, but she knows he understood her meaning, when she underscored, once again, how important it was that she go with him. She has never thought much of motherhood before, but now she considers what a child of theirs might look like. A son, she thinks. A son with her dark hair and his bright blue eyes. Would that not be so fair to look upon? They might name him Benjen, for his lost uncle.

When her father kneels before them, presenting his cold steel, and says the words, ending with their house’s- “Our blades are sharp… and ever yours, my lord,” Nell can even twitch her lips up into a smile, thinking of a son. It will happen. It must. She is healthy; her cycle has always been regular, despite all her exercise, and she has good hips and breasts, better than her mother had. Robb’s father sired five children on his mother, three of them sons, and all survived their births and infancies. She will give him as many, if not more, but for now all that matters is an heir. Spares can be worried over later.

As her father rises stiffly, Robb saying, as he has been all this while, “When winter comes, House Stark will not forget your loyal words and deeds,” Nell looks past him to where Bran rests in the basket on Hodor’s back, Maester Luwin at his side. That suits well enough for now, she thinks, but just because his legs are crippled does not mean the rest of him will cease growing, What will happen when he is too big for even Hodor to carry? He looks pale and frightened, but when she catches his eye he chances a small smile, trying to seem brave. Bran thinks he is a man now, eight years old and ruler of Winterfell in his brother’s absence. Of course, that honor will really go to the maester and Lady Catelyn, if she returns, but-

Rickon has vanished; for a brief while he was standing silently, begrudgingly holding Beth Cassel’s hand, but now he is gone, and she is whispering to Eddara Tallhart fretfully. Nell suppresses a sigh, and turns her attention back to the proceedings. They can hunt him down later. Three is too young for any of this, although Bran has reminded her that he will be four shortly after the new year. She had briefly raised the possibility of Rickon going back to Barrow Hall with her aunt to Robb- Bran, unfortunately, is no fit playmate or keeper of him, and at least in Barrowton he might have things to do and people to see.

But Barbrey would never permit Shaggydog to come with him, and while Robb said he was loathe to separate the family any further. Bran is lonely enough as it is, and to leave a wolf behind seemed wrong, near as wrong as sending Rickon anywhere without consulting his lady mother first. “He will be old enough to start lessons with Maester Luwin soon,” Robb told her, “and the quiet here, once everyone’s gone, might do him some good. Besides, my mother will return soon enough.”

Nell has not said it aloud, but she has thought for some time now that chances of Catelyn Stark docilely retreating to Winterfell while her father’s lands are ravaged and her son marches off to war, are slim to none. If Nell had a son of fifteen, newly bearded or not, marching to fight, she would not be content to tend the household either. Managing the North and the people left in it is no small matter, but neither is war, and a poorly plotted war with the likes of Tywin Lannister and the Kingslayer could have far graver consequences. Such as all their heads finding new homes atop spikes outside Maegor’s Holdfast. Or hanging. Or drowning. Or whatever other punishments Lannister picked up from his time as the Mad King’s Hand.

She would like to believe, of course, that the gods are on their side. Dana thinks so; takes the presence of the direwolves and Bran’s miraculous survival as signs that they are fated good fortune in their coming battles. After all, the old gods were once worshipped everywhere, not just north of the Neck. Their power does not wane on the basis of climate and terrain. But to believe in the gods is one thing, and to believe in the frenzy of western swords pouring into the riverlands is another entirely. Catelyn was not acting under the authority of House Tully when she took the Imp hostage, but Tywin Lannister does not care. He would set a house on fire to kill a particularly troublesome rat.

Nell hopes they prove to be very quick and clever rats, if it comes to that. Robb was not exaggerating out of boyish chivalry when he expressed the dangers of her coming with him. She is not so naive to think that, if they fail, she will simply be ushered off to sit on some silk cushions and drink wine with the queen. If she is lucky, she may find herself a new novitiate of the Silent Sisters. If she is not so lucky, she will be waiting on the very long line for the gallows with everyone else. Southerners like to speak so fondly of the reverence the Faith of the Seven instills for the innocent and pure of heart, of the vows every knight swears to protect women and children. In practice, they seem to enjoy murdering and mutilating them just as much as any northman or Ironborn.

Their own dear Ironborn himself says his vows last, so as not to provoke even more quarrels among the lords gathered. Nell has heard many a complaint at how Robb takes his father’s ward into his confidence. Many of them would sooner see Robb leave Greyjoy behind with the women and children, or better yet, threaten to take his head if Balon Greyjoy does not lend aid to their cause. It would be sweet to have the Kraken’s fleet at their disposal, but Nell thinks that about as likely as the sun rising in the west and setting in the east.

“My bow is yours, Lord Stark,” Theon perhaps should have considered a career in the south with a mummer’s troupe; he seems to be enjoying this performance as he takes a knee at Robb’s feet, his quiver in his hands. “We do not sow…and I should be happy to reap some golden scalps on your behalf.” Nell rolls her eyes; there are a few quickly muffled snickers from the younger men and boys, and Robb inclines his head and sends Theon back to his feet and on his way.

When it is finally over he unsheathes his sword, and the rasp of steel is echoed back at him by the crowd, loud enough together to send a chill down Nell’s spine. Robb slits open his palm shallowly and neatly, and she is glad he never did insist on wielding a greatsword like his father’s Ice, for he would have surely caught a vein with that. Blood wells up from his pale Tully skin and flows freely down his hand and fingers, dropping onto the dead leaves and moss underfoot. Robb wipes the rest across the heart tree’s sad face; it looks as though it had painted itself in red war stripes. “I shed my blood for family, for honor, and for the North. Today and all the days to come,” he says, his voice ringing out through the silence. “What say you?”

“THE STARK IN WINTERFELL HAS OUR SWORDS, OUR SHIELDS, OUR BLOOD ON THE FIELD,” they chant back, and Nell bows her head and counts to ten, before she grips Robb’s bloody hand with her own, kisses him as a devoted wife ought to, and holds their joined hands aloft before the upturned faces and raised steel.

“May the gods be with us, and may you bring winter on your blades!” she calls out to them. Robb’s blood is trickling down her wrist and staining the midnight blue of her sleeve. “When you bring Eddard Stark and his daughters home, you will not be forgotten!” They sheath their steel as one, and she steps forward with Robb to lead them out, smiling proudly and flushed with exuberance.

Afterwards Robb goes to meet with the Greatjon and Lady Maege, and Nell resists the urge to spend her last hours at Winterfell sitting in front of a roaring fire with Dana and Beth and the Mormont sisters, and instead sets off to find Rickon. He’s taken to roaming about at night, to the point where his door must be watched at all times, lest he get into some trouble. The sun is low in the sky, and she has to squint or stare at the grey ground as she makes her way through the castle. Many of the guests have already left; those who are not going to fight, back to their respective keeps and holdfasts. The Manderly girls and Cley Cerwyn both departed two days past; Wylla was longing to come south, adventure brimming in her sea green-blue eyes, and Cley was sullen but dutiful, kissing his sister on the cheek and returning his father’s embrace.

She tries to imagine what it will be like, when they have all gone; the winter town will be quiet again until the last harvest of summer comes in. Then she thinks about how, by the time they return to it, Bran and Rickon may not be little boys anymore. She tries and fails to picture them at eleven and six, rather than eight and three. It seems impossible. Then she thinks of Sansa, who may have already flowered- Robb mentioned once that she turns twelve soon- and Arya. If the Lannisters had Arya, Nell has no doubt that letter would have borne her signature as well, however messy or defiant a scrawl. Perhaps Ned Stark was able to smuggle at least one of his daughters out of the city before he was taken. Perhaps Arya is on some ship sailing for White Harbor at this very moment, alongside some exhausted guard who survived the massacre.

Or perhaps, the voice that is equal parts Barbrey and Bethany, tells her coldly and practically, the girl’s corpse is rotting in some alleyway in King’s Landing. What are the chances that a sheltered child of nine could have survived on her own? Robb believes she must still be alive somewhere, that he will see her again, her and Sansa both, that they will still be the same argumentative and innocent children he remembers. Nell thinks that if the Lannisters have their wits about them, they will have wed Sansa to Joffrey already, send Ned Stark to the Wall, and try to broker peace with the promise of a half-Stark heir to the throne. It would likely not succeed, but it is what someone like her father might do.

“Looking for the little one, m’lady?”

Nell stops, and turns on her heel to face Osha. It’s been well over a month since they brought the wildling back, and Nell would have counseled a quick death, the same Osha and her friends had offered them, but Robb asked his questions, got his answers, and set her to work in the kitchens under Gage’s watchful eyes. She is still chained at the feet, so she cannot run or climb, but Nell trusts her no more than she would a bear on a rope.

But she is no longer enraged at the sight of Osha’s tanned and weathered face, tangled hair, and lanky frame. Nell thinks herself enlightened enough to not hate wildlings blindly, although she might had she grown up closer to the Wall, where they occasionally come down to raid villages or steal women. But that doesn’t mean she has any warmth for this one, either. She would have seen Robb dead on the end of her spear if she could, and Nell soon to follow, and then where would they be?

“Yes,” she says, in her cold lady’s voice, every inch Barbrey Dustin’s younger self. “Have you seen Rickon?”

“Saw him come skirting out of the godswood, m’lady,” Osha gives a swift nod, brushing her thick brown hair out of her eyes. Nell can’t quite place her age, but estimates her to be around the same as Dacey; twenty five or twenty six. She wonders idly if she left children behind to flee south. They say wildlings are brutal with their young, that they’ll leave a babe with any deformities or illness out to die in the cold, rather than burden the rest of the group with them. Then again, they also say all wildling women are witches and all the men are wargs.

“Where he did he go?” Nell presses impatiently, but Osha only says, “I’ll show you, m’lady,” and has the nerve to beckon for Nell to follow her, as though they were old girlhood friends.

But it’s not getting any warmer out, and she hasn’t the time to waste with yet another fruitless search. Nell follows the wildling through the guest house and to the kennels, which she might have guessed herself, had she put any serious thought into it. Shaggydog has been chained in there for three weeks now, baying and snarling and setting all the hounds on edge. Nell avoids the kennels if at all possible, but hasn’t much choice now, and so enters with Osha. For once, it’s quiet; most of the dogs are silent or sleeping, whining and snuffling to themselves, and in the loft young Palla is sleeping herself, a freckled arm dangling over the edge.

In the pen near the very back, Shaggy is curled up, still securely chained to the wall, to Nell’s relief, and Rickon dozes atop him, murmuring to himself in whatever dreams boys of three have. One small fist is rooted in the direwolf’s dark fur, and his head is lolling to the side, against his wolf’s. “Thank you for bringing me to him,” she tells Osha curtly. “You may return to your work now.” But the woman does not move, instead shuffling slightly, her chains rattling. Shaggydog stirs in his sleep but does not rouse.

Nell fixes her with a hard stare that she imagines is very like Father’s. “Is there something else?”

“I’ve tried to tell your man, m’lady-,”

“My man?” Nell echoes dubiously.

Osha scowls. “Your- your lord, the Stark, I’ve tried to tell him he oughta be taking all these swords here north, you see, not south. It’s the North that’s wanting the men and their steel, m’lady.”

“No, I don’t see,” Nell keeps her voice down so as not to wake the bloody dogs or worse, the bloody wolf, but finds it difficult to measure her patience, all the same. “Pray tell why Robb should go north.” Of course. The last thing she should be doing right now is standing here in a smelly kennel reeking of shit and wet straw, listening to a wildling prattle on about whatever nonsense is going on north of the Wall. What, some war between wildling kings?

“There’s trouble,” Osha says fervently, so Nell at least knows this is not some demented jape. “Trouble coming on the winds, and they may not blow this far south yet, but they will- men go into the woods and they don’t come out, or if’n they do, they’re gone to wights, m’lady, dead as stone and eyes like blue ice. That’s why I run south, m’lady. Not from the crows, from them. Mance thinks he can push ‘em back, but he’s wrong, and the crows-,” she snorts derisively, “they don’t listen, do they? Too busy putting arrows in us. Or their cocks.”

Nell stares at her, unable to keep her lip from curling slightly. “You wanted to tell me this? That-,”

“That you oughta tell your man to go north with his men, not south,” Osha nods. “Tried to tell him myself, I did, but-,”

“My lord husband,” Nell enunciates the words sharply, “has more important matters to attend to than the ramblings of a prisoner. Why should we believe a word you say? You’re a thief and a murderer.”

“Never stolen when I didn’t have reason to, never killed when I didn’t have to,” Osha frowns. “Why would I lie to you, m’lady? Got me a nice enough spot here, don’t I, saving these irons?” She lifts a foot. “Rather have Gage up my skirt than Stiv. Rather scrub pots and pour ale than spend my days scrounging out there in the wilds. But it won’t last. You don’t go north, won’t none of it last, m’lady. They’ll come for the Wall-,”

“Who?”

“The white walkers, the wights!” Osha bursts out. “I swear to you, they’ll come. Maybe not this year, not next, but soon-,”

“You expect anyone to believe that there’s wights roaming about?” Nell exhales audibly. “That’s a story told around campfires to scare children to bed. The white walkers? The Others, leading a host of the dead? Tell me, have you seen ice spiders as well? Giants? Are dragons falling out of the moon, or rising from the sea?”

Osha sets her jaw tightly and falls silent.

“We’ve shown you mercy enough here,” Nell tells her shortly. “So you’ll keep those wild tales to yourself, rather than scaring the other servants and giving the children nightmares. I don’t know what you’ve seen or heard up beyond that Wall, aye, but we’ve a war to fight, here and now.”

She’s more irritated than anything else. She won’t entirely dismiss the possibility of some dark witchcraft making a dead man walk again, or making him cling to life a little while longer, and perhaps there is war amongst the wildlings and panic over the summer coming to an end. But wights, like the ones from the Tale of the Last Hero? It’s absurd. Any man, northern or southern, will tell you as much.

“Yes, m’lady,” Osha grits out, just as Rickon’s eyelids begin to flutter. She stalks off, near silent despite the chains, as he wakes, ignoring his curious call after her and Shaggydog’s bark. Nell feels a trickle of cold sweat run down her back, but dismisses it.

Robb is expected to dine with his lords, and Nell is expected to dine with Barbrey before she departs for Barrowton, but they both make their promises to see Bran and Rickon before bed. To her surprise, Nell finds herself almost looking forward to it, not the farewell but the ability to give one at all. Mother never got her chance to say her goodbyes to her. Of course, she is not their mother, but she will not pretend to have no care for the boys at all. They are her kin now, after all, and they have been through enough at it is.

“You’re very quiet,” Barbrey observes, as Nell slowly stirs her soup with a dented spoon. She seems to almost hesitates, then says, “You will return to the North as soon as you believe you are with child?”

“Now Aunt, don’t grow soft on me,” Nell huffs, without looking up. “You were the one who has made it abundantly clear-,”

“There will be no child at all if you are dead or a captive,” Barbrey says sharply. “Of course this is not what I wanted for you. You may be a woman now, but in many ways you are a girl still. You have never seen war before. I want your word that you will not take any unnecessary risks-,”

“And you have?” Nell retorts. “Willam hardly took you with him, did he?” She regrets it immediately; Barbrey stops, jaw clenching, mid-sip of her wine, and sets the cup back down roughly. “I’m sorry. That was- please forgive me, Auntie.”

“I had Willam for three weeks,” Barbrey says stiffly. Now it is her turn to avoid meeting Nell’s eyes. “He was not what I had wanted, but we were dutiful to one another. He was… he seemed a good man. I never had the chance to know for sure. When he left, my courses were late, and I was so…” she shakes her head. “I was still a girl then, just like you. There was still some space for silly dreams in my head. Then my moon’s blood came. And eight months later Ned Stark returned his horse to me. But not his bones.”

They are silent, except for the sound of their utensils, and then Nell says, “I promise, I will do my best to keep out of harm’s way. Robb would never let me go defenseless. It may be that I spend the next year cooped up at Riverrun,” she remarks with a dry edge.

“If Riverrun has not been overrun by lions yet,” Barbrey says coolly. Then she leans back in her seat, as if to regard Nell properly for the first time in months. “I tell you often that you are every bit Bethany’s daughter, but you are also your father’s. The Boltons excel at self-preservation. Use it. Bearing Robb Stark’s heir is important, but I would rather see you childless, with your head still on your neck, if it comes down to it.”

“There’s the tender-hearted woman who raised me,” Nell scoffs. To her surprise, Barbrey reaches across the table and takes Nell’s cold hand in her own.

She squeezes it just once. “When you return, I will come back to Winterfell with you. A woman should not be alone during her confinement.”

There are so many goodbyes and explanations one can offer children, so instead Nell sits up with Bran and Rickon and hears all their favorite stories. Mostly Bran’s, since Rickon is too young to have ‘stories’, or at least ones that make any sense. But Bran it seems has a good memory and can be quite witty for a boy of eight, and Nell laughs at his descriptions of mock fights with Robb and Jon Snow, of building a snow castle with Sansa in the godswood, of their lady mother teaching them how to swim and float on their backs in the hot springs. Of going out into the wolfswood with their father, of name day feasts, of Old Nan’s ghost stories.

Nell has no such tales from her childhood. She has some happy memories, of course, of drinking hot cider around a fire with Sara, of going out riding with her aunt to inspect House Dustin’s herds, of being dared to dash down the length of a frozen stream by Dana. But she has no shared sense of family, no one to meet her eyes and laugh at memories. Some day, she thinks. If- when she and Robb have children, it will be like this, only no one will be leaving them. They will all be together and they will be happy and her sons will never go to war.

Rickon is half-asleep once more, nodding off against Bran’s shoulder, when Robb finally comes in. Nell is tired and quiet herself, but she rises from her chair to greet him. “How long will you be gone?” Bran asks, for the hundredth time.

“I don’t know,” Robb admits. “But the riverlands are not so far away. And- and even if I am still fighting the Lannisters for some time, once we free Father and the girls, they’ll come back here.”

“Arya will always beat me in sword fights now,” Bran says, gazing down at his legs, buried under the thick blankets.

“Arya may have outgrown sword fights by then,” Nell murmurs drowsily, muffling a yawn. She would caution Robb not to give his brother false hopes, but there is no point. For a child a false hope may be better than the cold truth, and she does not want to have to dry up tears on their final night. “Robb, we should retire.”

He nods reluctantly, and scoops up Rickon into his arms, bending down to kiss Bran’s head. “Good night, Bran. We’ll say goodbye again in the morning, I promise.” He hesitates, then adds, “Just think, how happy Mother will be to see you awake.”

Bran smiles sleepily, eyes already closed, and Nell carefully blows out the candle on his bedside table. Summer rises from his place by the fire as they leave, leaping up onto the bed beside Bran. The last thing Nell sees before she shuts the door are his eyes, glowing in the dark.

They do say their goodbyes in the morning, under a red sky. “Red sky above head, by dusk men are dead,” Dana quotes cheerfully enough while they mount their horses. Nell ignores her in favor of promising to write to Barbrey, and instructing Beth that Rickon is not allowed to skip meals or spend all his days hiding down in the crypts. “And do practice your needlework, Beth, we’ll be needing it come winter-,” She’s distracted by the rumble of the gates opening.

“I will,” Beth Cassel says earnestly, eyes gleaming with excitement at the sight of the knights gleaming under the red sun, and the banners rippling in the wind. Robb is speaking with Bran, atop his pony. Rickon is still in his room, throwing a fit, likely crying himself hoarse. Shaggydog’s howls can just barely be heard from the kennel in the distance. Summer prowls about nearby, setting horses on edge.

“Be brave,” Nell calls to Bran, waving. “You are the Stark in Winterfell now!”

He waves back, although he looks on the verge of tears. Robb trots his great grey warhorse up alongside Roddy. “Are you ready?”

Nell takes one last quick glance around at the great walls of Winterfell, its outline blurring in her mind’s eyes. “Of course,” she lies. She has never felt less ready in her life, save on her wedding day. At least he is not saying goodbye to her as well. They pass under the portcullis, and she lets out a breath she did not know she’d been holding. The streets of the winter town are full; old men and women and children wave and cheer and scream, sending flocks of birds scattering into the air and horses whinnying in alarm, but the host is moving too fast to stop.

Then they break free of the ramshackle rows of cottages, and the North stretches out ahead of, vast and a pale blueish green this early in the morning. An adventure, Nell thinks. It could be something like an adventure. She does not feel like a hero, though. She feels rather like she were chained to the mast of a ship being set out to drift at sea. For all her persuasion of Robb, as well as she knows the North and its men, what lies beyond the Neck is a mystery to her. She has never been to the riverlands, never seen Ironman’s Bay or the Forks.

And then can be no more posturing or play-acting now. This is life or death. Gods help them if they make one wrong move and find themselves on the losing side. Part of her might want to turn tail and gallop back to Winterfell, but it is a bit late for all that now. She fought to be here by Robb’s side, and she will must not take this lightly. So instead she spurs Roddy to a canter, calls out to Dacey and Lyra Mormont, and sees who can reach the border of Cerwyn lands first.

But aside from some amusements in horse racing or the initial thrill of sleeping under the stars, it is slow going. Their admittedly simple ruse with the wedding allowed them time to gather some twenty thousand men- or at least, they should have that many all together with them by the time they reach the beginning of the Neck- but that does not mean it will be any faster to move them. Riding hard and long every day or not, horses still need to rest and eat, as do their riders, and the wagon trains will slow them all down even more. But that is the price of keeping an army fed and coherent. Robb sends out scouts daily, to keep them appraised of any movements to the south, east, or west, and especially to watch for any signs that his mother has returned. But there is nothing of note to report, not until they first see the ruins of Moat Cailin before them, some twelve days into the march.

Nell is exhausted and bone-sore, in the midst of looking for a place to sleep that is not like to see her eaten by lizard lions, when Robb finds her, a letter in hand. “Word from White Harbor,” he says. “From my mother.” He looks torn between open relief and great discomfort. Nell surmises that the letter was not terrible, but it brought no wondrous news either. She sets down her pack and goes to him.

“Tell me.”

“She no longer holds the Imp,” he says straight away, and Nell barely keeps a groan from escaping. “He was put to trial at the Eyrie, and he won it.”

“The dwarf won-,”

“His sellsword won it,” Robb amends. “My lady aunt will not commit any men save my great-uncle, the Blackfish, for our cause.”

“Your aunt hardly commands your uncle; he is still a Tully of Riverrun,” Nell points out, but it is still a grave disappointment. Had they the knights of the Eyrie at their disposal, this war could be won rather quickly. “It was Lady Lysa who leveled the first accusations, at any rate. Does she truly intend to sit there and wait to see her kin slaughtered by Tywin Lannister?”

“My mother writes that my aunt cares little for any family save her son,” Robb says in frustration. “There’s little to be done about it now, save hope she may have a change of heart when she hears that Riverrun is threatened.”

Nell nods. “Then we should wait here for your uncle to join us- it can only be what, a two day’s ride for a single rider from White Harbor?”

“Two riders,” Robb frowns. “My mother intends to come with him.”

Nell wonders if she should pretend at some surprise, but instead she says, “That is not much of a shock, as much as you may dislike it.”

“Of course I dislike it,” he says, folding the letter back up in annoyance. “She is my mother. She has been gone for months now. I had not wanted Bran and Rickon to suffer any more time without her. By all rights I should command her to return to Winterfell-,”

“Well, you may certainly try,” Nell mutters dryly.

“But I won’t,” he admits. “Not just because she would ignore me, but…”

“A fool would dismiss your mother’s counsel because she is a woman,” remarks Nell. “But you are no fool. She was a Tully before she was a Stark, and she knows the riverlands and its people better than both of us combined. You are near a stranger to your grandfather and uncles and Riverrun itself, but she is not.”

“I would rather she be safe in Winterfell with my brothers,” Robb is looking past her, around at the moss-covered walls and gaping hole in the ceiling, the misty light pouring through it, and the faint scuttle of some rodent through a crevice. “But I need her here, if we are to get past the Twins. She has always said that Lord Walder trusts no one, and no one trusts him.”

“Then we shall simply have to inspire some.” Nell takes his arm, and for a moment leans into a tentative embrace, before they jerk apart from one another, both their names being called in the distance. Robb gives her a small smile, and goes, whistling for Grey Wind. Nell watches him leave, then grimaces as a drop of water strikes her directly on the cheek. Just what they need. Rain.

They spend a very wet and cold night among the ruins, and are awoken at dawn by a raven from Edmure Tully. The Kingslayer has routed Vance and Piper at Golden Tooth and marches on Riverrun. The Mountain and his men have ambushed the knights Ned Stark sent under the king’s banner before his arrest. And Tywin Lannister is bringing a second host up from the south. Whether they sit here until the new year or whether they march south with all haste, it does not matter. They are coming.

Chapter Text

298 AC - MOAT CAILIN

Nell is watching from the fractured top of the Children’s Tower when she sees Catelyn Stark and her uncle’s party approach. They seem to have collected thirty-odd free riders, latecomers to Robb’s cause who will leap at the chance of a southern war and the hopes of northern coin in their pockets. It is late in the afternoon, but the heavy mist and fog that hangs over the marshland makes it seem even later, and she has to set a hand on the slick, mossy stones, and nearly leans over the edge to make out their shapes.

“Don’t you dare fall,” Dana warns from behind her, and Nell jumps slightly, turning, but keeps her footing firm.

“You’re like to make me, scaring me like that.”

“And you’re a proper fool, coming up here alone to play lookout,” Dana retorts, gesturing at the ruined tower all around them. “This whole thing could come down at any moment, even without you squirreling around.”

“Moat Cailin has stood for over a thousand years,” Nell lectures primly, the same lecture Robb gave her not two nights past when she expressed her concerns- That is to say, when she referred to Moat Cailin as just a few decades and a few tragedies away from becoming another Harrenhal. She tries not to hold much with ghost stories, but if any place was likely to develop a few, it’s Moat Cailin. The Twins now seems a far more attractive location, and she’s never even been there before. Freys or water snakes, what could be worse?

“Come on then,” Dana is skirting her way back down the narrow, cramped stairwell, parts of it suffocated by roots, “we’ll pay our courtesies to your good-mother and hope she doesn’t send us packing to Winterfell.”

It’s just a jape, but the thought disturbs Nell all the same as she follows Dana. “No, she couldn’t-,”

“If you don’t think any woman could convince her son that his wife would be safer back home, you really are a fool,” Dana snorts, “but would she? I think she might have more pressing concerns at the moment, Nellie, such as the thought of seeing Riverrun decked out in scarlet and gold.”

By the time they make their way down to the center of the barely-there keep, Catelyn and her uncle have already gone into the Gatehouse Tower to greet Robb. Nell knows better than to go rushing in after them, and instead finds the nearest cooking fire to wait, where Maege Mormont oversees her youngest daughter’s attempts to remove her meat from the spit. “Damn it, Jory, stick it with the knife, then pull- don’t spatter grease on us all, lass!” Jorelle finally succeeds as Nell sits down with Dana across from them, and smiles briefly before taking a bite of her roasted rabbit. The youngest Mormont here is a walking contradiction; Jorelle is fifteen, sweet and shy at times, but also a fierce fighter, carrying short-sword and shield and capable of sending a knife spinning into a tree trunk from an ever-growing distance. Nell had never thought to encounter a shieldmaiden who loves to pick flowers just as much as she does to spar.

“Good, you’re here,” Maege tells her approvingly, “I’ve a proposition for you, my lady.” She hands her a wineskin, which Nell nurses for a moment, then hands to Dana, who takes a grateful gulp, wiping at her mouth. There is something to be said for the largely relaxed formalities on the road.

“Of what sort?” Nell asks, looking to the She-Bear curiously. Maege looks most like Lyra; short and stout but packed with muscle and snarl, although her hair has gone to grey and her face is lined and weathered. Nell sometimes wonders whether all the Mormont girls share a father, or if they were all sired by different men. She is not as repelled by the thought of it as she should be. Some might call them bastards, although never to Maege’s face.

Perhaps it is because they are Bear Islanders that it has always been tolerated, the thought of a Mormont woman choosing not to take a husband. They have certainly made noble marriages at times; Mormont women have been Lady Stark before her. Or perhaps it is because all of Maege’s children are daughters. As far as Nell knows, Mormont, Widowsflint, and Dustin are the only northern houses currently headed by women. Manderly will someday join them, when Wylis Manderly dies and Wynafryd inherits his seat, having no brothers.

“We’ve had no trouble thus far,” Maege looks around Moat Cailin, as if expecting Lannisters to come charging out of the treeline at any moment, “but once we’ve left the Neck- and the crannogmen’s protection- there’s no telling what may happen. Outside the North, we’ve no guarantee of a welcome from the rivermen- or safety.”

“But we’re coming to help their liege lord,” Dana protests. “Surely-,”

“Surely some of those river lords would much rather see the Tullys displaced and themselves appointed in their place,” Maege says darkly. “Nobody likes war with rivermen as much as other rivermen, girl. They’re a quarrelsome people, for all that fingers point at the North or Dorne when it comes to war. Best we all stay on our guards.”

“You speak wisely, my lady,” Nell replies diplomatically, “but I don’t see-,”

“You need a shield,” Maege tells her, blunt as ever. “Begging your pardons, my lady, but that bow of yours was strung for hunting things with four legs, not two. So I propose a sworn shield.” She claps a gloved hand on Jorelle’s slim shoulder, startling her; the girl chokes on her bite of rabbit. “Jorelle’s a bit of a frail one, compared to her sisters, but no one’s faster or quick of wits. You’d do us great honor, taking her as your guard.”

Jory, apparently neglected to be informed of this, flares scarlet, and jumps to her feet, brushing off her jerkin. “Mother! You ought to pick Dacey or Lyra, not me, I’ve not proven myself on the field-,”

“There’ll be plenty of bloody fields to prove yourself on, in time,” Maege says smoothly. “Just not these. Take a knee, lass, and say the words.”

Outraged, Jory’s hands go to fists at her sides, and Nell hesitates, unsure of whether to stop this or not, but Dana gives her a barely perceptible headshake. No. If she rejects this offer, Maege will take it for an insult, and whatever gratitude she might get from young Jory will be fleeting. The woman doesn’t want the girl fighting, that’s clear enough. Jory is fifteen, the same age as Robb, but still not yet of age. Perhaps Maege fears she’d meet a quick end on the battlefield, untested as she is.

Jorelle sinks to one knee in the wet earth, taking her sword from her back, and presents it reluctantly to Nell, who rises graciously. “My sword and my life are yours, my lady. I swear by the gods to shield you from harm while in your service, and to obey your commands. Should I fall in your defense, know that I will rise again until I cannot draw breath.”

“I accept your sword, your life, and your honorable words,” Nell says, inclining her head. “You may rise.”

Maege smiles in satisfaction, Jory stares at the ground, scowling, as she sheathes her sword again, and Dana tugs on Nell’s skirt, standing up herself. A group of lords is exiting the Gatehouse Tower; her father, the Greatjon, and an unfamiliar man who must be the Blackfish among them. There is no sign of Lady Catelyn, who must have remained to speak with Robb privately. Nell nods to Maege, and sets off at a brisk pace, then stops as Jory moves to follow.

“When we are camped, you must only keep me in your line of sight,” she tells the girl in what she hopes is a courteous tone. “I shall be safe enough in the company of our lords, Jorelle.”

Jory bobs her head, then turns back to her mother and Dana, still sharing their wine.

Ser Brynden Tully is as tall as she’d thought he looked from a distance. His hair and brows are deep grey, but Nell imagines they were once the same rich auburn as his niece and great-nephew’s. But his eyes are kinder than she expected; a blue a shade darker than Robb’s. He stops in his tracks politely at her approach, and then, seeing the silver direwolf pin clasping her cloak to her shoulder, bows. “My lady. If I am not mistaken you must be my nephew’s new wife. My congratulations on your marriage.”

“Thank you, good Ser,” Nell smiles charmingly, and adds, “I wish we could have met one another in better circumstances, but I am eager to meet the rest of House Tully as well. Our prayers are with Lord Hoster and Ser Edmure.”

“As are mine,” the Blackfish’s wry smile wavers some, but then he says, “between our appeals to the gods, old and new, I have some hope that Riverrun will endure a while longer.”

“The Tullys are hardy folk, from what I hear,” Nell is quick to reassure, despite her own doubts, “I am certain that together we will be able to turn the tide against the Lannisters.”

“You have a young woman’s confidence, then,” he remarks. “Catelyn was much the same, when she had to see Ned off to fight. I hope you and Robb have as long and happy a life together as they had.”

Ned Stark yet lives, she almost says, but Nell sees an aging man’s acceptance for what it is. What war is this, for him? His third? A lucky man, many would say, to live through so many battles and sieges and emerge unscathed. Others would disagree. She has seen it sometimes in the northmen who march with them. The young ones are eager for bloodshed, but the older ones are already weary. Ready to do what is necessary, but weary all the same. Nell never wants to feel that tired, if she can help it.

They are interrupted by Lord Cerwyn, eager to make the famed Blackfish’s acquaintance, and Nell commandeers a passing squire to help her find some servants to set up camp for Catelyn and her uncle. She expects they will all be marching at dawn, and evening is quickly approaching. They will reach the Riverlands by the new year, she thinks, and the thought is almost startling. The new year. In a few short months she will turn eighteen. She could never have predicted any of this, at the start of the last year.

She does not lay eyes on her good-mother until after she has eaten herself. Jory announces Lady Stark’s arrival, and Nell stands quickly, dishes rattling, suddenly almost nervous, although she has no idea why. She wishes Dana were here, but Dana went off on some lark with Lyra after scarfing down her meal. She hopes they’re not trying to hunt a lizard lion. Dana may have a crannogwoman for a grandmother because Lyam Flint took a Cray to wife, but that hardly awards some immunity to drowning in a bog.

It has not even been a full year since Nell last saw Catelyn, but while Robb’s mother stands as tall and graceful as ever, there are fresh lines in her face, and a hint of silver in some strands of reddish hair, caught by the torchlight. She is dressed far more simply than Nell has ever seen her, as well, the hood of her cloak bunched around her shoulders. “My lady,” she says quickly, “it is so good to see you here, unharmed. We were so concerned that you might meet with trouble on your return to the North.”

“I did, in more ways than one,” Catelyn says plainly, “but you’ve heard about my dealings with Tyrion Lannister by now, I’m sure.”

Nell nods, wary. “And Robb has told you-,”

“That Bran has awoken, that he has summoned our banners, and that we march south again tomorrow,” Catelyn sits down with a sigh, motioning for Nell to do the same. “And of course, of his marriage.” She looks directly at Nell, face betraying nothing. “It is not every young girl, who might agree to wed under such conditions. I was unsure if I would return to find you back at the Dreadfort, or Barrow Hall.”

“I would never put aside our betrothal,” Nell says slowly. “Nor would Robb. A war makes no difference when oaths were made between House Stark and House Bolton years ago. Moving up the marriage seemed the only reasonable thing to do. I pray you will not take offense to it, my lady-,”

“Offense?” Catelyn asks mildly. “No. It was well done on both your parts. By all accounts the wedding celebrations were a success, and you wasted no time in coming here, when word came of my husband’s imprisonment. I would have been angered, had I arrived back at Winterfell to find Robb too preoccupied with enjoying a fresh marriage to march to war,”

Nell relaxes, but only a fraction. The last thing she needs is to be at odds with Robb’s mother, or dismissed as a scheming little girl who only has eyes on Winterfell. But surely, if that were the case, she would have insisted on staying behind and wresting what power she could there. Barbrey would tell her that her quest for approval or acceptance from Catelyn Stark is a fool’s errand. What does she care? Let her be suspicious. But it is not. There must be some accord between them now, or there never will be at all.

“Donella, why did you come here?” Catelyn asks her directly, and she freezes.

It is on the tip of her tongue, of course, the familiar stories and half-lies. Her devotion to her new husband, her new family. Her love of House Stark and the North. Her outrage at the Lannisters’ gall. Her sympathy for the Riverlands, her desire to see justice done. Much of that is even partially true. But it is not the real, hard truth of the matter. And if she lies now, she does not think she will ever be able to regain her footing with Catelyn Stark. The woman was able to smuggle Tyrion Lannister into the Eyrie and evade Tywin Lannister’s claws for this long.

“I came here so that I might have a son,” she says. “Because I am afraid Robb may die in battle, and because I do not wish to be a childless widow at eighteen, my lady. Because I do not wish for all of this to be for naught. Because I have pledged myself to House Stark, and much is expected of me. I do not think it unfair to expect things in return.”

Catelyn says nothing for a moment, and then to Nell’s shock, leans forward and takes her hand. She almost jerks away, but there is something surprisingly comforting in it all the same. She has a mother’s hands, warm and soft and faintly callused. “That is what I had thought, but I wanted to hear it from you.”

“You do not think me cold-,”

“I think you practical,” says Catelyn. “And sometimes practicality demands some ice. Would that I had your pragmatism at eighteen. I was still a child in many ways when Ned and I were wed. I was fortunate, in that. After he had gone, when my courses did not come… I was frightened, of course, but I was also excited. To be a proper wife and mother, to be part of something larger. But had he not sired Robb on me, then, had I gone all those months with no promise of an heir…” She shakes her head. “In some ways, it made things easier for us. When he returned, we had a child together. One he did not know, to be sure, but it was something to bring us together. To bond over. Even... “ she hesitates, “even when-,”

“Even when he brought back a natural son,” Nell murmurs, and Catelyn lets go of her hand, but does not look enraged or disgusted.

“Yes,” she says evenly. “Even then. But had I been childless at his return, and he with… with Jon Snow, I cannot say what would have become of our marriage. We would have gone on to have many children, I’m sure, but… Things might have been very different between us. So no. I do not think you heartless or cold, to think of yourself in this. I think Winterfell would prosper with you there to oversee it, but I have spoken with Robb, and he holds your counsel and support here in high regard.”

To hear it from someone else makes it seem a little more real, and Nell flushes slightly in spite of herself. “I- I am so pleased to hear that, my lady.”

“Catelyn,” Catelyn corrects her. “We are to the point now, I think. Marriage has made us kin. I am not your mother, nor you one of my daughters,” and her mouth creases in grief for a moment, before she continues, “but I hope we may come to treat one another as family. You are a clever, sensible girl. Robb could have done far worse for a bride, and not much better.”

“I am glad you are coming south with us,” Nell tells her, and to her surprise, truly means it. “Robb holds your counsel in high regard as well, my la- Catelyn,” she corrects herself, noting her good mother’s slight smile. “We shall desperately need it, as we enter the Riverlands.”

“Yes,” says Catelyn, smile fading as quickly as it came. “House Frey will be our first obstacle, I believe. They can be negotiated with, but it will come at a price, and Lord Walder is notoriously… demanding.”

Notoriously demanding. Nell keeps that in mind when she reunites with Robb, and he tells her that his mother advised he elect Father to lead the footsoldiers down the kingsroad to tangle with Lord Tywin, and not the Greatjon. The horsemen under Robb’s command will pin the Kingslayer at Riverrun, putting a river between the two Lannister and Stark factions. It is a clever plan, but then again, her husband’s cleverness does not surprise her as much as it would have even a few months ago. Robb is not always wise, but he has never lacked for wits. She only wishes it were him to lead the footmen, and that he let her father take the riders. It would be safer for him, for them all. But she agrees with his mother’s logic there; Nell loathes Roose, would receive the news of his death with a smile on her face, but he is an experienced and cautious commander. And it would serve them well to have the most brutal dog in the fight in between Tywin Lannister and the North.

Besides, a larger part of her than she is willing to admit, leaps with relief and joy at the thought of a river between her father and her. She does not want him to lose, does not want them to fail, but were he to take a grave wound here or there, she would not suffer much grief for him. Perhaps, she thinks to herself, lying next to Robb under the furs in his tent, one of his legs flung over hers, the gods really will smile upon her, and Roose and Tywin will kill each other. If only Father were the sort to fight in the vanguard. Robb will. The thought chills her, hot as she is under the furs and in his arms. He always wants to hold her afterwards. She finds it bemusing, but not entirely unwelcome. Sometimes it is nice. No one has ever wanted to hold her before.

Notoriously demanding, she reminds herself, ten or so days later, when they’ve reached the Green Fork and the Twins. Her spirits would be high, if not for the sight of those two ugly castles, linked by the bridge. Her courses are late. That is not entirely unusual, and could simply be due to the stress and tire of so much travel and excitement, but still. They are late, and today is the first day of the new year. There would be more to hope for had they not had news last night of Edmure’s capture and Riverrun under siege. It’s not an overwhelming shock; they were not going to reach Riverrun in time to assist in any initial clash, that much was clear, but it makes this all the more frustrating. One bloody bridge and four thousand Frey men-at-arms in the way.

She watches the linked castles silently as the lords argue, and glances at Catelyn. “Will they come out and treat with us, or do they simply intend to hold us off long enough for Lord Tywin to get here?”

“They will treat,” Catelyn predicts, brow furrowed, just as a sally port opens from across the moat.

Not ten minutes later, Lord Frey’s eldest son, Ser Stevron, has agreed to take Catelyn in to treat with his father, leaving behind another son, Ser Perwyn, in her place. Nell did nothing but sit there in dull shock the entire time. In her imagination, of course, she would have trotted Roddy forward, and entreated- no, demanded- that the Freys let them pass, or all hang after they’d smashed Tywin’s forces. What sort of bannermen pay such open disrespect to their liege lord? Aye, they owe nothing to House Stark, but a Tully of Riverrun stands before them, and the Riverland’s seat of power is under direct assault. How could this be tolerated?

But the Freys, it would seem, make their own rules, and Nell sat there and watched, only grateful that Robb was not stubborn enough to insist on going in there himself. They’d never see him again; from what she has heard she is certain the Freys would sell him off to the Lannisters in a heartbeat, and then where would they be? Who else could they have sent in? The Blackfish is out with Greyjoy and his other scouts, and the rest are all northerners. Catelyn claims she has met Walder Frey before, so they will simply have to wait and pray for the best. They retreat along the riverbank, making temporary camp, and Nell tries to mask both her and Robb’s blatant anxiety by making conversation with Ser Perwyn around a fledgling camp fire.

To his credit, Perwyn maintains his composure, despite being surrounded by less-than-enthused and currently bristling northmen, although he never takes his eyes off Grey Wind. He is still unwed at twenty six, which is unsurprising for a man who is the fifteenth son of Walder Frey and who stands to inherit precisely nothing. Still, he seems decent enough in a situation where most men would be openly resentful and vindictive, and speaks amiably about his siblings: Benfrey, Willamen, Olyvar, and Roslin, the youngest, a girl of fifteen.

Nell tries to take his relative calm for reassurance. If the Freys meant to betray them or do some harm to Catelyn, surely he would be visibly nervous or disturbed. Yes, there are men like her father, who react to violence as though it were nothing more than a passing amusement, and there are men who crave bloodshed the way drunkards do ale, but most men, Barbrey has always taught her, are no more courageous or brutal than any ordinary woman. Having a cock does not make one feel invulnerable, although she imagines in some situations it certainly helps.

The sun moves lower and lower in the sky, and for the first time it occurs to Nell that she cannot see mountains or highlands in the distance, only trees and hills and streams branching off from the river. It is a very peculiar feeling. This is the furthest south she has ever been, and if- when- they reach Riverrun, that will be the furthest, and so on. The Twins itself might be an ugly, unwelcome sight, but the landscape is pretty, she will admit that much. Certainly green fields and hills dotted with late summer wildflowers is a welcome sight, compared to muck and mud.

Finally, just as dusk is beginning, there is some commotion and noise, and Nell stands next to Ser Perwyn and watches as Catelyn returns to them, accompanied by several more Freys and an entire column of pikemen. Robb calls for Grey Wind, and wastes no time in riding out to meet her; she looks unharmed and calm enough, from what Nell can tell, but she mounts Roddy all the same, waiting for them to return. After what seems an eternity, Robb nods and breaks away from his mother, shouts some commands to the nearest men, and gallops over to her.

“We’re crossing?” she demands, as soon as he is beside her.

“Yes,” says Robb, and a smile of relief cracks its way upon her face.

“Thank the gods.”

“But there were terms,” Robb continues, and her smile vanishes. “We’ll leave four hundred here to fill up his garrison; Frey means to leave four hundred of his own, and the rest will march with us. Olyvar Frey will serve as my squire.”

“But you are not a knight,” Nell points out, then shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. Perwyn spoke favorably of the boy. What else?” Walder Frey cannot have allowed them to cross for the sake of a squire.

“Two of his grandsons, more Walders, are going to Winterfell to foster there, with Bran and Rickon. They’re little boys, Bran’s age.”

“But that is good,” Nell says in surprise. “They could use the company, surely.”

“And if Arya is found and returned to us, she will be betrothed to Elmar, his youngest son.”

Nell blinks. “Arya? But we’ve no idea where she is.” Even so, if by some miracle the girl is found and successfully brought back to them, Nell cannot imagine who is going to break that news to her. “How old is this Elmar?”

“Nine.” Robb frowns. “They would not wed until they were both of age.”

“A long betrothal might be for the best,” Nell says, instead of saying what she would like, which is that even if Arya were the sort of ordinary little noblewoman who would be pleased at the prospect of marriage, the idea of a Stark, a great house, wedding a Frey, and a twenty second son who will have no title nor any lands, is laughable. But if that is the cost…

“That’s not all of it,” Robb says. “Mother has promised Walder Frey my uncle as a bridegroom for one of his daughters.”

Nell wrinkles her nose. “How? Your mother has no authority to betroth a Tully lord-,”

“She thinks Grandfather will agree to it, and that my lord uncle will agree to anything, once we’ve freed him from Jaime Lannister,” Robb states plainly. “It is what Walder Frey really wanted, she says. Lord Hoster rejected him once before for a match.”

No surprise there, Nell thinks, and hopes Edmure Tully is the peaceable sort, who will not start up a revolt of his own at the thought of being pledged to wed a Frey woman. For all that men arrange their own daughters and sisters’ marriages, and obey their fathers blindly, many would rile and roar at the thought of a sister betrothing them without their consent. “Is that it, then?”

“And once we have Riverrun, he means to send some of their women to you, in the hopes you might take them for lady companions,” Robb finishes.

Nell stares at him for a moment. “He means to foist some daughters or granddaughters on me so that I might make them marriages, is that it?”

Robb shrugs. “At least you will have plenty of company.”

They look at each other, and then Nell laughs. Robb cracks a slight smile, then glances around. “We need to start crossing soon. Be ready to ride on. There’s no time to waste, Riverrun is waiting for us.”

“As you say, husband,” Nell kisses him quickly on the cheek, then spurs Roddy on towards the waiting bridge. She has half a mind to be the first one over it, while those beady-eyed Freys watch, cooped up in their grey Twins.

Chapter Text

299 AC - THE WHISPERING WOOD

Nell dreams again of her mother’s hunting party the night before they reach the Whispering Wood. Her vivid dreams (or nightmares) had seemed to fade after leaving Winterfell, but she supposes it was foolish to think she’d ever be rid of Bethany Bolton. This time she follows the sound of the horn and finds them bathing in a black stream; their edges flickering in the wind and swirling snow. The water smells cold and clear and metallic, but the lingering stench of the forest remains. To her surprise, as she approaches them along the bank she can make out more of them now.

Mother stands waist-deep in the stream, methodically washing her hair; it is longer and wilder than Nell recalls it. Sara is perched on a lichen-crusted rock, roughly scrubbing a girl’s back; “Sit still, Jez,” she snaps at the girl. Jez glances directly at Nell, her lank, wet hair hanging in her face, and Nell puts the young face to the dog fighting over scraps outside the Dreadfort’s kennel. Her heart sinks further into her gut. Jez is perhaps fourteen or fifteen, with a heavily freckled face and hooded eyelids. She scoops water up and splashes it down her front, but the slash of her throat continues to weep dark blood.

“Are you too proud to bathe with us?” Mother calls to her dryly. “Come in, sweetling. The water’s warm.” Behind her, another woman rises from her previously submerged position; now that she is standing, Nell can see the distinct swell of her belly, and the scabby wounds on her chest and arms. Nell knows if she looks at her, she will retch and vomit, dream or not, but the murdered woman simply puts a hand to her belly as she climbs out of the stream. Once on the muddy ground, she heaves up the hairy pelt of some beast around her like a cloak, and wanders off into the wood.

“Willow wishes for a son as well,” Bethany tells Nell, who has begun to cry again- why must she always weep in these dreams? “To avenge her, you see. Poor thing. I’ve not the heart to tell her the babe will never be.”

Unbidden, Nell reaches for her own stomach, but the skin underneath her shift is the same as it has always been; not perfectly smooth and taut, but far from bulging with child either. “Will mine?”

“Do I look like a witch?” Mother laughs, washing her hands in the stream. They still come back out slick with blood. “I cannot hand the future to you on a platter, girl. Every woman weaned would kill to know whether her babes might live or die. What makes you so blessed?”

“I will have a son.” If she pronounces it in a dream, then it must be so, she thinks wildly. It must.

“I had sons,” Mother says. “Just not the sort your father wished for. They came to him clothed in their own blood, not that of his enemies.”

“Don’t speak of him.” Nell wonders sometimes; if Father dies in battle, will she see him hear too? She prays not. “I hate him. Tell me, am I with child or not? Have you no care for your grandchildren?”

“I have no grandchildren, nor any children,” Mother retorts fiercely, stepping out of the stream, pushing her hair behind her shoulders. Nell studies the old stretchmarks on her belly and breasts, an old scar on her shoulder that looks like a bite mark. “I am no one’s mother, nor their sister, nor daughter nor wife. In death, we all belong only to ourselves. When will you understand, child?”

“You’re dead, aye,” Nell says raggedly, wiping at her eyes. “But you are still my blood. You still love me-,”

“I did love you,” Mother bends and plucks up her old red cloak, shrugs it over her shoulders and wraps it around herself. “But if you seek warm touches and tender looks amongst the dead, you shall go to your own grave disappointed. Go back to your wolf, and he might warm you, sweetling. He might even love you, if a Stark can.” Her smile twists in bitter humor. “My sister oft questioned whether they were capable of it.”

“Love is all well and good,” Nell snaps. “But he needs an heir. Can you not help me?”

“Can a corpse coax life into your womb? Have I really raised such a fool?” Bethany puts a hand to Nell’s belly, and it bleeds cold, rusty water into her shift. Nell jerks away in disgust. “You can hunt, aye, but you always look in the wrong places, Donella. Life cannot be molded to your demands any more than a man could tame the wilds, or snatch the stars from the sky.”

Behind her, the moon’s reflection ripples on the water, before it splits in half, disturbed by one of fidgeting Jez’s gaunt, freckled legs.

Nell wakes up far too hot; and she can see that it is still mostly dark outside from the glimpse in between the folds of the tent. She rolls over, out of Robb’s arms, and props herself up on an elbow to study him. It is so warm here, south of Oldstones and Ironman’s Bay, that they do not need the furs. His face is contorted in his sleep, his lips move wordlessly, then bare in a sudden snarl, revealing bloody teeth. She recoils in shock, accidentally kicking him, and he jerks away with a grunt.

“What-,”

“You’re bleeding, your mouth-,” She swats at his chest ineffectively, wondering if she should shout for help.

Robb bolts upright, a hand to his mouth, then grimaces and mutters thickly, “I bit my tongue in my sleep.”

“Were you having a nightmare?” she asks blearily.

“No,” he groans, lying back down. “I was-,” he hesitates, then murmurs, “I was dreaming of Grey Wind, is all.”

Nell glances around the darkened tent, but Grey Wind’s slumbering form is nowhere to be seen. He must be out hunting again. She nods, then lays her head back down beside Robb, who is looking at her. In the dark she is sometimes fonder of his face than in the daylight, she thinks, because she can pretend they are just a man and woman, not even husband and wife or lord and lady. It is always safer in the dark.

“If it goes badly,” he says, reaching out and touching her should gently, “Promise me you will ride hard for the Neck with my mother. Don’t wait. At the first sign of trouble-,”

“I know,” she whispers, and takes his hand in her own. Their fingers wrap around each other. She likes the roughness of his hands, the old scar across his left knuckles, she likes it when he runs his hands through her hair when they are together. Somehow his hands seem older than the rest of him, although she knows that does not make much sense. “I will, I swear.”

“Good,” he sounds almost relieved. His mouth is slightly open and she can see his teeth; he’s licked the blood off them. If she kissed him she would still taste it, though. Her stomach roils and she rests her head on his shoulder.

“Now you must promise me something,” Nell says, before they can both lull back to sleep.

“Alright,” he agrees, her amiable husband, even on the day he may die.

“Promise me you will not seek out Jaime Lannister,” she says, and he stiffens.

“Donella-,”

“If you meet him in combat, then by the gods, try your best to take his head off,” Nell whispers fiercely. “But do not leave your honor guard to go charging after him the moment you glimpse gold armor on the field. He’s been killing longer than you’ve been alive. He will want to end you quickly, so no one might say a boy of fifteen shamed him.”

“He’ll be arrogant,” Robb says after a moment. “He’s won all his battles thus far, so he will be arrogant, and he’ll make mistakes.”

“Then make sure you make fewer.” She touches his arm, and he nods against her head.

The wood is very, very quiet indeed. No fires, no shouts, no riding out. Not a single sound. They are waiting up in the hills with the Frey and Robb’s honor guard by duskfall. Nell feels her spirits lower along with the sun through the trees. What if the Kingslayer knows? They can never be sure. A raven may have gotten through. He might have captured and tortured some outrider into confessing the entire plot. Or one of the Piper men harassing the supply trains. He might know, and be waiting for them just as they are waiting for him.

But it is still far, far too quiet to voice any concerns or qualms now. The horns should sound after the first stars have appeared, and then Robb will take these Freys and his guard and go down and kill or be killed, and she will stay here with Catelyn and Dana and Jory Mormont and thirty men. They’ve had no word yet of the forces under her father’s command, whether they tangled with Tywin Lannister or are all slaughtered on some riverbed or are marching down the Kingsroad with Lannister heads on pikes.

Her courses have still not come. That is one month skipped, then. If she misses her moon’s blood again in a fortnight, she will allow herself to truly hope.

He promised, she reminds herself for the hundredth time. He promised to be careful.

Before they reached the valley at midday, she crept off at dawn with Dana, Jory, and a sack. The closest godswood is within the besieged walls of Riverrun, but they settled for the oldest, biggest oak they could find, as deep in the wood as Nell dared go with only one sword and shield, and there she put her bare hand into the sack and coated the tree’s trunk and roots with the entrails of a fox she’d killed the evening prior. The smell was enough to make Dana retch and even Jory grimaced and turned away, a hand on her sword hilt, but Nell did not flinch or blanch.

When she was done, they all knelt and prayed, hoping the old gods dared stray as far south as this. They must, Nell thinks. They are not so far from Oldstones, and some in the North like to say that Duncan’s sweet Jenny worshiped the gods of earth and sky and wood and bone, not the Holy Seven. Then again, when she asked Barbrey about it as a child, still young enough to be enchanted by tales of the Prince of Dragonflies and his witchy common bride, her aunt had only scoffed and told her that the only gods strange Jenny had followed were the voices in her head. The ones that told her she was a descendant of kings and queens, and not a lowborn waif, washing her rags in the river with the rest.

“But she was so beautiful, he had to love her. He knew she was a princess in truth, even if she looked common,” Nell had argued childishly, unable to comprehend of anything else but this profound truth: that men looked at your heart before they ever paid any mind to your face or figure.

“Aye,” Barbrey had said, “and every whore in White Harbor is a princess in truth, or so say the sailors when they’re deep in their cups and weeping for home. The Targaryens were not shining gods who deigned to live among us mortals, child. They were as lusty and stupid as all the rest.”

Whatever faith Jenny had, it did not serve anyone well. Nell prays this will be different. Give me my husband and my child, she had told the bloody tree. Preserve him. Keep his wolf at his side and his steel sharp. If you want to lap up blood from the ground, choose someone else. The Kingslayer. The Freys. Roose. Anyone but him. Do not take him from me now. Let him win this battle, and all the rest, and give me children and Winterfell and when you take him, let it be in another war, or when he is old and grey before a fire.

She tries not to think about how her mother’s pleas went unanswered. How they took her instead of her husband. Nell is not afraid to die. She isn’t, she tells herself firmly. But she can’t just yet, she has too much to accomplish. And Roose and his Bastard cannot outlive her. She will not permit it. She would drag herself, shrieking and clawing from the grave, and follow them like a wraith for eternity before she let herself go before either of them.

Nell is not sure if she has ever felt a night so warm. Even on the sunniest, most gentle days of northern summer, the air always grew cold and sharp after sundown. Here in the riverlands she does not even need a cloak at night, and during the day she is sweating in even her lightest, thinnest gowns. Summer may be rapidly drawing to a close, but you would not know it here. She is sitting on an old stump by the stream when she hears the clink of armor and realizes Robb is approaching. Jory immediately straightens, Dana bows her head as though they were at a vigil, and Nell rises as Grey Wind comes loping ahead.

She would not say she is necessarily yet fond of Robb’s wolf, especially not when she wakes with him sprawled across their legs more often than not, but the wolf seems to have grown fonder of her, at any rate. He licks at her fingers, and she wonders if he can still smell the dead fox on her. “Take care of my husband,” she tells the beast with mock-severity, scratching under his chin like a cat. Grey Wind pants in appreciation as Robb reaches them.

“It’s time.”

“It is,” Nell says, and suddenly it occurs to her, that this may be the last moments they ever have together, the last time she ever sees him alive. If he dies tonight, all she will have to look back on is this. In a week they would- will- have been married three months. It feels more like three days. Does she really know him at all? War does not leave much room for heartfelt conversation. For the first time in her recollection, in his presence she is entirely speechless, faltering at her words like a timid little girl. He seems older than her, somehow, clad in armor in the moonlight.

“If you could give us a moment,” Robb finally says, and Dana nods a little too quickly and goes striding down-stream, Jory trailing after her and glancing back hesitantly, as if the Kingslayer were about to emerge from the treeline and surprise them.

When they are out of earshot, Nell moves forward and puts her hands on his shoulders. His mail is cold to the touch, despite the warm, breezy night. “Please don’t tell me you will come back to me. I can’t bear it when men say things like that to women. It always means the opposite.”

“My father told my mother as much, and he returned,” Robb says evenly, although his brow furrows.

“You are not-,”

“I am not my father, I know,” he embraces her, and her fingers prod at her favor tied to his arm, a scrap of dark pink silk. “I will try to come back to you. Is that better?”

“No,” she huffs, yet she finds his mouth with hers anyways.

They break apart after a moment, color rising in their faces, before Robb almost gently brushes her hair behind her shoulder. “I prayed to the old gods to shield my mother and you tonight, if the worst comes to pass… and to the Seven.”

“The Seven have no care for a Bolton heathen,” Nell smiles thinly, but squeezes his gloved hand until her fingers hurt. “Go before I do something foolish like weep.”

“Alright,” he agrees, and starts back towards Olyvar Frey and his waiting horse. Nell clasps her hands together for a moment, and digs her nails into her palms until she winces.

With his helm on, viewing him from a distance, he is unrecognizable, aside from the wolf at his side and the Stark cloak at his back. Jaime Lannister will be looking for that as soon as he realizes it is an ambush, she knows. And Robb will not hide behind his men or keep his head down. She has never seen the Kingslayer fight, but she has heard the stories. He was knighted at Robb’s age, they say, after killing a dozen bandits and saving some fair lady. He was trained by the likes of Barristan Selmy. If he meets Robb in single combat-

He won’t, she assures herself. He won’t, he won’t, he is impatient and cocky and Robb is more clever than they know. They will lead him a merry chase and tire him out and a lion is not much more than an angry tomcat when a thousand swords fall on him at once.

But she is afraid all the same.

Robb rides down the line with his honor guard, and as she draws near one of the men at his back turns and grins down at her. It is Young Roose, her uncle, named for her father. Nell likes him no more than the rest of his irritating brothers, but at least he may prove useful tonight. “Will you not wish us good luck in battle, niece?” Niece. Young Roose enjoys such japes; they are near the same age, and he still calls her niece. He has been doing so since they were little children.

“Good luck, uncle,” she replies with a sardonic edge, and glances away as Young Roose tips his helm to her and rides on, brimming with pride and eager for the slaughter. Beside her, Jory waves childishly to Dacey as she goes by, ignoring Dana’s low chuckle. Theon Greyjoy is telling Daryn Hornwood something, likely some perverted jest about fucking lions until they piss gold, and when Daryn’s smile looks more nervous than anything else, claps him on the shoulder and smirks.

She glances over at Catelyn, who is speaking in hushed tones with Hallis Mollen. And then, as Robb comes back down the line and assumes his position, she hears it. The deep echo of men and their horses and armor in the woods below. Nell swallows hard, and finally mounts Roddy, as Dana and Jory do similarly. If they have to flee, they will not have time to go running for their horses. She knows she can outride any man, she must remember that, if that is what happens. They would not catch her, she would not let them.

She is almost too disturbed to try to peer down into the valley below them, certain that if she sees them, they will somehow see her, see all of them, and Robb will charging down to impale him and his men on rows of spears turned to face them. She studies Roddy’s dark mane, until she hears the bellow of the Mormont warhorn. Bile rises in her throat, and she almost coughs, but then Grey Wind howls, and while Nell is used to that sound, it sounds different now, carrying through the valley like a wind signaling a storm.

She forces herself to look up just as the horns and trumpets of the Umbers, Karstarks, Freys and Mallisters answer, and then so many men and horses are screaming at once, that if you told her that this was one of the seven hells septons preach of, she would have believed you, northern or not. She sees what seems a thousand arrows go singing out into the night, then fall, and Robb is crying, “Winterfell!” and men are answering, “Winter is coming!” and they are gone, moving downhill, a neat line of death.

Nell could not have told anyone whether it was five hours or five minutes, whether it was a heartbeat or a lifetime. She knows it must have been much longer, because the fighting does not stop until just before dawn. But to sit there just listening and waiting, eyes closed at times as if in prayer, which is what her good mother is doing, is too much to bear. Nell rides instead. Not down, of course, and not up, but back and forth, the length of the ridge, while men stare and scowl at her, and Dana frets that they might be glimpsed. At this point Nell does not care. A glimpse will not kill her. What will kill her is having to sit there patiently and wait to see if her life is over or not.

She must have ridden the ridge a hundred times when at last the screaming stops, and all that remains are Grey Wind’s howls, wafting on the wind. That gives her courage. She has to believe that Robb is alright, or at least not dead, if Grey Wind is still howling. She lets Roddy walk a gentle pace, cooling off, until finally there is movement coming up hill. “What banners?” young Jory is suddenly snapping at Hallis Mollen, a man twice her age, and only sheathes her sword when he announces, “Stark.”

A sound escapes her when she sees Robb’s face, but it is nothing compared to the cry of shock from Dana at the sight of Jaime Lannister being dragged up to them. Nell ignores the stab of exhilaration at the thought of having Tywin’s precious son for a hostage, and searches the faces of the jubilant, filthy men around Robb instead. There is Dacey, wincing and massaging one shoulder, her shield nearly split in half. There is Theon, running a hand through his dark hair, which comes away covered in pine needles. There is the Smalljon, blood-spattered and all but beaming. There is Robin Flint, helping along a limping Daryn Hornwood.

Later, she will hear how Jaime Lannister, when he knew the battle was lost, endeavored to make sure the North still felt his rage, and went screaming like a madman for Robb, smashing through his honor guard. Had Robb had fifteen men and not thirty, he might have. She will hear how his greatsword found a home in Edd Karstark’s pale neck, after lopping off Torrhen Karstark’s hand and leaving him sobbing and spraying blood on his knees, after unhorsing Daryn Hornwood and nearly killing him, where it not for Young Roose, who charged him with a howl and a mace from behind-

How the Kingslayer turned and grinned and cut her irritating, boyish, damnably named but damnably loyal uncle down, just before the Smalljon and Patrek Mallister rushed him and put an end to it all.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell had never seen a battle before the Whispering Wood, but she had at some point assumed that battles were fought, came to a bloody end, and had some sort of resolution- that there would be a point in which the jubilant lady threw herself into her triumphant lord’s arms, and that he carried her off right then and there while the crows pecked at the corpses behind him. Now she knows better, for she has no time at all with Robb before his men have regrouped to flush out the rest of the siege around Riverrun.

She understands that they cannot afford to waste the surprise and considerable advantage granted to them, having taken Jaime Lannister captive, but that does not mean there is no stinging sensation, either, as she watches Robb procure a new shield, a new warhorse, and climb resolutely back into the saddle. All without so much as a glance her way. It’s not that her feelings are hurt, she tells herself irritably. He has far more important matters to attend to than his wife, who is behaving like a fretful child, and not the iron-willed northern woman she ought to be.

When she watches him ride out a second time, the favor she tied to his arm hours ago now stained and crusted brownish-red with blood, she understands that she is afraid. It seems silly. How can she feel more afraid now than she did before they’d won the first battle? If anything, she should be relieved. Grateful. Falling to her knees and thanking the gods. They have the Kingslayer. They have leverage now. And soon they will have Riverrun; Lannister’s forces are not going to be able to defend their own siege without their commander.

But Robb is gone again and she is left in the still very quiet valley, watching the sun rise higher in the clear blue sky and smelling death all around her. Young Roose looks even younger in death; he had chestnut brown hair and did not grow a beard, unlike her older uncles. Roger and Rickard are serving under her father. They may be dead as well. Nell touches the muddied armor and looks at Young Roose’s mace, lying in the ground where he dropped it when he died. They were never close, but she thinks he was a decent man. More amicable than hotheaded Roger and never a whoremonger like Rickard.

At least he left behind no wife nor children; the third son of Rodrik Ryswell was never in high demand as a bridegroom. And he was still young; many men are yet unwed at nineteen. Nineteen. She vaguely recalls being taller than Young Roose when she was twelve and he thirteen, and how he’d tease her constantly instead, to make himself feel better. He threw a clod of dried dirt at her once when she was visiting the Rills; it spattered across the back of one of her new gowns, and Nell had proceeded to ruin the rest of the gown in the process of thrashing him. She’d gotten him by the ear and an arm wrapped around his throat, and had been shoving him face-first into a puddle, screaming and kicking, when Sara and Rickard came running to break them apart.

And she thinks about how she prayed for the gods to take anyone else, anyone but Robb, and how she’d thought, Roose. She hadn’t meant him, of course, she’d meant Father, but she doubted they cared. It could have been Robb. Young Roose could have stayed his hand and spared his own life, let the Kingslayer carve up Daryn Hornwood instead. Or Lannister could have cut down both of them, and killed Robb as well, before he could be put down. It is all a matter of chance, in battle, men say. You could be the greatest swordsman to ever live, and still slip in the mud and lose your life for it.

When she looks back up at her surroundings, she sees the mountains to the north of her and the forest to the south, and beyond that, she knows is Riverrun and if she listens very closely she can still hear the distant echoes of men and horses screaming. Then she starts back toward their camp, to see what can be done for the wounded. It is hot, properly hot, not the mere glimpses of heat she’d felt in the North. She has to braid her hair as tightly as possible and pin it at the nape of her neck, and even then the sun bears down on them all day long. The casualties thus far have been minimal, but Dacey is not pleased that she will need to keep her left arm in a sling for the next fortnight, and Daryn has to be threatened with being chained to a post, to keep him off his sprained ankle.

For the first time in her life, Nell runs to fetch water and wash bandages alongside Catelyn and Dana and Jory. Her hands are bright red by dusk, tendrils of hair plastered to her forehead, and her throat is so parched that she is eagerly gulping down water herself when the first scouts come back with the news. By now the sun has finally sank below the trees, and the heat has retreated, and Nell allows herself her first smile in over a day when she hears. The siege is over. The westermen have scattered, fleeing back to Tywin, no doubt, and Riverrun has been preserved. They’ll cross the river tomorrow.

The prospect of properly cooked food, sleeping in a bed again, and being able to bathe in total privacy is enough to raise everyone’s mood, despite the lingering stench of death in the air. When Robb returns with his guard, he is even smiling himself, although she can see the naked relief in his eyes, when he tears off his helm. He’s done it. Whatever his doubts, his fears, they’ve survived the first two battles- and not just survived, but triumphed. They’ll sing of this- a fifteen year old boy foiling Tywin Lannister’s plans to crush the heart of the Riverlands. Nell does not even think to let her hair down or take off her apron when she embraces him, and only realizes how bedraggled and worn she must look when she notices all the eyes on them.

But Robb is covered in blood and dirt himself, so she supposes it does not matter that they are both far from presentable. War is not pretty and shiny like in the stories, after all. She is starkly reminded of this when she sees Dana greet her own father, albeit it with far more reluctance. Artos Flint scowls at his daughter’s tentative greeting, and barks at a passing squire to fetch him a horn of ale. Dana’s wounded expression flattens on her long face, and she turns away, greeting Maege and Lyra instead.

“I should bathe,” Robb tells Nell, who takes in his face; his hair is slick and darkened with mud and water and blood, and one of his gloves is split open.

“I’ll join you,” she says, impulsively, and is shocked at her own gall. Robb looks as though she just informed him she’d given birth to twins while he was gone. But they are married now. Husbands and wives bathe together all the time. Certainly when on the march. It is hardly a great scandal to suggest such a thing. She thinks. He makes a motion that seems like a nod of acceptance, and she glances at Jory, who has gone bright red, from her ears to her neck, and hopes her new sworn shield does not think she must join them as well in this.

They bathe in one of the many burbling streams coming off of the Red Fork and jutting through the wooded valley. The idea of heating water for bathing in the south is ludicrous, and the water is cool, but nothing like the frigid waters of the Little Spear or the Weeping that Nell so often bathed in as a child. She wastes no time in wading in; it comes up to her hips, and then sinking down to soak her torso and head. When she surfaces, Robb has joined her; she stands up too suddenly, moves to cover her chest, hesitates, eyes him furtively, and then they both seem to realize how ridiculous this is, and get in their looks, admiring or otherwise.

It would perhaps be more romantic were there not guards stationed perhaps forty feet downstream, politely facing away or taking a piss, but there nonetheless.

“Look at your back,” Nell says, when she sees it; his pale, freckled back is a mass of purpling bruises, dappled like shadows in the twilight. Beyond that and some scrapes on his arms and legs and a gash along his jaw, he is unharmed. She wades over closer to him, water trickling from her matted, thick hair. “From when you were unhorsed?” Three arrows took down his prized mount in the first battle. Robb called that stallion Blue, after his roan coat. Hardly the most creative or symbolic name, but then again…

Grey Wind is happily lapping up water in the shallows, or nosing around for fish. She can’t be sure, she only knows he’s very, very big now and very, very wet.

“Yes,” Robb stiffens when her hand finds his spine. “I was lucky to walk away from it.”

“Don’t discount yourself,” Nell admonishes him, cupping water in her hands and pouring it down his hair. It’s getting so long now, past his ears. She’s not sure if she likes it like this, but she doesn’t mind the beard at all. His mother says he looks like a younger Edmure Tully with it, but Nell thinks it makes him look more like his father, makes his eyes look darker and his face look longer, narrower. “It was well-planned and well-executed. You fought using your head, not just your sword.”

“And it could have gone so wrong,” Robb blinks away the water, then takes her gently by the arm and turns her around, away from him. “You’ve got a leech on your back.”

She freezes and squeezes her eyes shut like a child, trying to hide her blatant disgust while he picks it off and flicks it away. “You mustn’t blame yourself, Robb. For… for what happened with the Karstarks, and my uncle. They fought bravely.”

“They died defending me.” The leech is gone but he does not let go of her. After a moment he rests his chin on her shoulder, and she leans against the sodden weight of his head. “Torrhen bled out on me. He was right beside me. A few feet more, and-,”

“Don’t,” Nell tells him. “You can’t. You’ll go mad if you think about it, so don’t. You lived. We won. We have the Kingslayer. All who doubted you, who mistrusted you-,”

“It was more the Blackfish’s plan than mine.” Gods, how can he still be so slow to acknowledge it? She would almost rather he were arrogant right now, cocky and bold and proud. At this rate, Theon will be doing all his bragging and boasting for him.

“But you saw it through,” she extricates herself from his grip to drag him down into the water with her, where they both huddle, up to their shoulders in the light current. “You gave them courage. And faith in our cause. You were right there with them, in the thick of it all. They respect you, now. They would die for you.”

Robb finally meets her eyes, and she sees something like recognition in them, before he says, “The whole time, I was thinking- I was thinking of what would happen to you and Mother, if I failed. If I died. So I couldn’t… I couldn’t even consider it. Do you understand? Everyone is looking to me, now more than ever, and I still feel like a lucky fool.”

“Then be a lucky fool,” she scoffs. “A lucky fool who will be the pride of the North by the time all is said and done. If you don’t feel worthy of their pride, than work twice as hard to meet it.”

He does smile slightly at that, and she thinks he might kiss her, and they might even- might do other things, and for once not out of duty, but then someone is shouting for him, and her, and they hastily clamber out of the water. There’s a raven, apparently, from King’s Landing. Nell is combing her hair, waiting restlessly, while Robb goes with his mother and the Greatjon and Maege Mormont to read it. When she is big with child, she thinks, she will able to press such matters, insist on being present for meetings, demand to be heard and included. When there is a Stark son nursing at her breast, no one will dare tell her otherwise.

But she is not there, and she is only in her robe when she hears the scream. Jory keeps her from bolting out of the tent, instead blocking the entrance, sword unsheathed and shield raised, but there is no danger. When Nell finally insists on being brought into the makeshift pavilion, framed with logs and barrels, she finds Robb helping his mother to her shaking feet. She has never seen Catelyn quite so white; her lips are moving but no words come. Dana comes rushing up with Lyra, looking around wildly, as the Greatjon swears in rage and kicks over his chair; it shatters from one booted blow. Maege Mormont, for a first, is entirely silent and still, the letter in her hand.

“Robb?” Nell finally asks hoarsely. He does not even look at her, escorting Catelyn to a seat; Nell tries to read her lips as she goes, but-

“Lord Stark is dead,” Maege Mormont tells her, her voice hollow and toneless. “He was executed as a traitor by the boy-king’s command.”

“What?” Dana asks dully, as if she hadn’t heard at all.

“No,” Lyra is saying furiously, “Mother, no, that can’t- they wouldn’t-,”

No, she realizes. That is what Catelyn Stark is mouthing to herself in horror. No no no.

She shares a bedroll with Dana in her own tent that night, for the first time in weeks.

Grey Wind prowls around the hills, howling until sunrise.

The following day is far too beautiful. There’s a fine mist and the sun is shining far more gently than it was the day before. The light reflecting off the water makes everything seem vivid blue-and-green. The breeze is gentle, and the river laps softly at the sides of the boat. Nell has never rowed into a castle before, but Riverrun is exceptional in that regard. It is perhaps a third the size of Winterfell, half the size of the Dreadfort- she thinks it comparable to Barrow Hall, but it is stout sandstone, whereas Barrow Hall is long and narrow wood.

Nell sits beside her good-mother and watches the breeze ruffle Robb’s hair and Grey Wind’s fur. Theon perches, restless as a crow, beside him, and Nell gazes up wonderingly at the water wheel churning away, just before they pass under the mud-encrusted gate. She narrowly dodges a splatter, and ducks her head just to be safe until they’ve come to a halt. Edmure Tully is far younger than she expected, perhaps twenty two or twenty three, with a full head of hair and a well-trimmed beard. He does look a good deal like Robb, although Nell thinks Robb may grow to be taller than him within the next year.

She lets Theon help her out of the rocky boat after Catelyn, and stands to the side with Dana, who leap onto the stone dock rather than give Greyjoy the brief pleasure of being able to grip her bodily by the waist. Their introductions are very brief; Lord Hoster is unwell, it would seem, and his daughter is eager to be at his side. Nell wonders when the last time Catelyn Tully Stark saw her father was. She knows Robb visited Riverrun at least once as a child, but that must have been years ago, when Bran was just a babe. Her stomach gives a sharp twist; it has been bothering her all morning, fits of nausea and the occasional cramp, and now she wonders-

“I am going to pray in the godswood with Lord Karstark and the others,” Robb tells her quietly; Karstark is mere feet away, a big man bowed with grief. Two sons dead in one night, the welfare of the other unknown. Nell does not know what might be like, to raise three sons to manhood or near approaching it, to leave a daughter behind, and then to have half of it ripped away. Perhaps she could make a match for Harrion, if he survives, with one of those Freys Lord Walder is intent on dumping at her feet. The Karstarks will need to rebuild.

“We’ll come along,” Nell is starting to say, but a sudden wave of sickness coils up and seeps in her gut, and for a moment she hesitates, convinced she’s about to vomit.

Robb pauses. “Are you alright?” How can he ask her such a thing? His father is dead, and he is standing here patiently inquiring after her health. She should be the one fussing over him. But she does not know what to say. How can she? Should she stoke his desire for revenge? Counsel him to think things through, to be patient and wait the Lannisters out? Demand he take the Kingslayer’s head in turn? She does not know what’s expected of her. She had never anticipated this- none of them had.

Ned Stark was far too valuable as a hostage to be killed, they’d all assumed. Joffrey did not share that line of thought, it would seem. It’s cold and horrible, but it’s true. How old is Robert’s spoilt heir? Nearly thirteen? He is a child, still under a regency. Whose mistep was this, to allow the boy to decide Stark’s fate? The Small Council must be in an uproar. Nell had never thought of the queen as particularly cunning, but even proud Cersei Lannister must have realized how the folly of executing Lord Eddard- what do they have now, to bargain with? Sansa? If they wed her to Joffrey- her father’s murderer- now it will only stoke the North’s rage even further. They once marched on King’s Landing for Lyanna’s sake. They might very well do it again.

“I’m fine,” she says thickly, swallowing hard, but Dana has taken her firmly by the elbow.

“My lady got very little sleep last night,” she tells Robb plainly. “I’ll show her to her rooms while you go to your prayers, my lord. Let the men pray alone first.”

Nell means to wrench away, but she feels so sick and tired that she just nods instead, hoping Robb does not take offense. But he just turns to Karstark and the Greatjon, and Riverrun’s nervous steward leads her and Dana to her new rooms, overlooking the godswood. Birds are chirping faintly outside the opened windows, and her bedchamber is light and airy, with hanging tapestries and an enticing bed. Nell spares very little thought for any of that, rushing into the privy instead. She doubles over and vomits twice, although it is mostly spittle, and then claws at her skirts, pulling down her smallclothes and thin stockings-

Oh.

“Dana?” she calls hoarsely through the door, hunching her shoulders in misery and trying not to look at the fresh blood on her fingers. “I- could you fetch some rags from a maid?”

When Dana returns with them, she shoulders open the door, then takes in Nell’s state. “Your courses came?”

Nell is too busy frantically wiping and coiling fresh linens around her hand to reply immediately, but is infuriated with how her voice cracks when she finally says, “I- I thought… they’re almost never late like this, and it’s so much, I-,”

“Sometimes,” Dana says warily, watching her, “my mother once told me that sometimes, when it’s… off, you know, a woman might lose a babe very early on, and not realize it, because her… well, it’s not much different from your moonblood-,”

“No,” Nell snaps raggedly. “No. It’s not- don’t. Don’t ever say that. I didn’t lose anything. It’s just late, and heavy, is all. It’s alright.” That can’t be it. Even if it was… even if she’d missed three months, not just one, and suddenly this had come, she would not be willing to admit it. She will not be her mother. She will not be a woman who loses more babes than she births. They just have to keep trying.

When she’s done Dana helps her out of her faded grey gown and into a fresh shift to sleep in, and Nell tries to ignore the pain in her belly by counting the fish in the nearest tapestry. All the while, she is worrying that it might suddenly grow much worse, that by even referencing a miscarriage Dana may have brought it to life. She will not be examined by a maester here and have them report back to Robb or his mother- No. She can’t even think about it. The sheer humiliation. The shame. Barbrey warned her, that any man in grey robes was not to be trusted. How easily they could pit a family against one another with their whispered suggestions.

But the pain does not grow much worse, and eventually she dozes off, and although she only meant to nap, the temptation of a soft bed after weeks on the road is too much to resist. Nell sleeps like the dead, and when she wakes the sun is much lower in the sky outside, and there is a soft knocking at her bedchamber door. Jory opens it, permitting Catelyn to enter, and Dana, who had also fallen asleep in one of the cushioned window seats, jerks awake as well, rubbing at her eyes.

Nell is mortified; what must Catelyn think of her, sleeping like this while Robb prays and meets with his men- but her good mother only takes one look at her, and asks simply, “Your courses came?” and all she can do is nod.

“It’s alright,” Catelyn tells her calmly, although despite her even tone Nell can see the deep grief and even anger in her blue eyes, and wonders if she has told her brother about his betrothal yet. “No one would expect a child to be easily conceived during hard travel, Donella. The best thing you can do is to be well-rested and eat.” She pauses, and a strange look is there on her weary face, and Nell has the sudden dreadful sensation that there is new, terrible news.

“I would send for a tray for you, but I came to tell you that Robb needs speak with you.” She hesitates, then adds, “Do you think you are well enough to dress?”

“Yes,” Nell says forcefully, shoving back the bedcovers, ears burning. “Yes- of course, I feel much better.” She does not, not really, she is still cramping and there is a familiar stabbing sensation between her legs, but what can she say? No, and go back to sleep? If something else has happened- to Sansa, or to his brothers at Winterfell, she’d rather hear it from him.

Riverrun’s godswood is much smaller than Winterfell’s, but it is also full of birdsong and the babbling of streams, not the eerie silence and whispering pines she is most familiar with. In some sense the silence might be better. The background noise just sets her more on edge, especially when she sees Robb, sitting on a low stone bench, alone. He’s finally changed out of his armor, and in fresh clothes that must belong to his uncle; the sleeves of the tunic are slightly too short for him. But he is all in black, or very dark blue.

Mourning colors. Catelyn will likely follow the seven months of formal grief as prescribed by the Faith, and Nell will not fault Robb, if he wishes to follow that as well. She does not hate the Seven, for all that she might roll her eyes at septons screeching about hellfire and demons in the trees, and if it brings him comfort to embrace some aspects of his mother’s faith, what of it? Life is often very short, and men should light their candles and hope for the best, whether they are in a sept or a godswood.

“What’s happened?” she asks immediately, as he stands. “Robb? Please, just tell me-,”

The look on his face… she braces herself.

“Nell,” he takes her hands, and she almost wrenches away in her growing, raw fear. “Nell, listen to me. My mother told me you were feeling poorly, and I’m sorry to tell you like this, but I- it is better you hear it from me first. Before everyone is…” he trails off, and shakes his head. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry. Truly. I didn’t know- I didn’t think it would come to this-,”

“Robb Stark,” she hisses through gritted teeth, “gods help you if you don’t tell me now. Please.”

“They’ve named me King,” he blurts out, letting go of her hands, and a shaft of late afternoon sunlight frames him before her, tall and solid, illuminating his auburn hair and his fresh beard and above all, the absolute shock in his blue eyes.

“What?” Nell whispers woodenly.

“The Greatjon- no, I called a council meeting, and we’ve had word that Renly Baratheon seeks the throne.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” she exclaims. “Good, let Renly have it-,”

“Stannis has the right of it,” Robb says grimly. “And I mean to see Joffrey Baratheon dead for what he’s done to my father.”

No, she thinks. No this is not right. This was about rescuing his father, his sisters, not about Baratheons and revenge, and who sits the Iron Throne-

“But the northern and river lords, they’ve rejected both. They pledged themselves to me instead.” He squares his shoulders. “As the King in the North. And not just the North- the river lords all knelt as well.”

“You-,” You can’t be a king, she wants to scream, you are barely a soldier, you are my husband, how can you be a king, you are fifteen, I cannot be wife to a king, how are you to rule- who will you rule-

“I could not reject them,” he tells her, and for a moment she realizes this is it. It is gone. He is a king. He is a king, her king, and she is not speaking to Robb her husband, who she bathed with yesterday and who she wed not three moons ago in a very different godswood. She is speaking to Robb Stark, the King in the North. And there is nothing left for her to say or do, because he is the king. He woke this morning a boy of fifteen, and now he is a king. She wonders if she is dreaming. Or having a nightmare.

“They will crown us tomorrow,” he says. “I’m sorry, Nell. This was never my intention. But we must move forward. It’s as you said, yesterday. They would all die for me, so I must work doubly hard to be worthy of their pride. Of their loyalty.”

“Crown us?” she finally manages to ask. The birds are still singing, and the air is sweet and damp with the smell of dewy wildflowers in the late afternoon sun. “I- I don’t understand, Robb- Your Grace.” She wonders if she should go to her knees before him, but her legs do not seem to be working.

“As my queen consort,” he says, almost mildly surprised by her sudden slow wits. “You did not think- Nell, we are married. If I am to be king, you must be my queen.”

Her lips move, but no words come out.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell had thought a crown might feel heavier, but then again, this one is made of branches and leaves, not iron or gold. The last King of Winter handed over his crown to Aegon the Conqueror on the banks of the Trident, when he chose peace and longevity over a short and bloody war. As a girl she was taught that Torrhen’s sacrifice for his people was always remembered- it is no small concession for a man to give up a crown and the title of king- but so was his kneeling. His own sons nearly rebelled against both him and the Iron Throne. His daughter was forcibly wed to an Arryn, much to her own family’s disgust, for the Vale was no friend to the North at the time. And they say his bastard brother Brandon never forgave him, and always held that he could have killed the Targaryens’ dragons while they slumbered, with magic arrows from a weirwood tree.

She does not know if weirwood could truly kill a dragon, but it seems to make a fine enough crown. Riverrun’s smith is already hard at work crafting Robb’s crown, she knows that much. She does not know if there will be one for her as well. The crown she wears now is as purely symbolic as the one adorning Robb. A stand-in, a promise. The act of crowning him is more important that what he wears atop his hair. Nell bows her head as the mild weight of the wreath settles onto her hair, and remains kneeling at her husband’s feet, hoping the grass stains on her skirt will not be too apparent. This is just the way of it; Catelyn crowned Robb, although she looked as though she were draping chains on him instead, from the grave expression on her face. Now Robb crowns her. He did not have to; they declared him king, not the both of them their rulers.

Nell is queen consort. She understands what that means well enough; she is not ignorant. These lords pledged themselves to him, not her. Had Robb wanted, he could have let her remain a lady. If their marriage were tense, or bitter, he could have taken the opportunity to publicly distance himself from her. She is not blind, nor deaf. All these river lords (and perhaps a few of the northern) know well enough that she is not with child, and while it is still the early days of their marriage, what of six months from now? A year? A barren wife or a fruitless marriage is very easily annulled, and what better to replace it than a tie to a strong house from the Riverlands? A Vance, perhaps, or a Blackwood or Bracken, or a Frey. So she is very grateful, in some sense, that he did not hesitate to crown her alongside him.

But in the other sense-

Robb takes her hands and brings her back up to her feet, amidst the approving shouts and cheers, and Nell turns and smiles, while all along feeling as though she is falling, plummeting, not rising. “THE KING IN THE NORTH!” the Greatjon bellows, and the applause and whistles go on and on, and while there is a small part of her that feels a rush of excitement, the larger part of her shrivels up in dread and apprehension. This is not what she wanted. This is not even what Robb wanted. But it is not easy for a man to refuse a crown, not when men have laid their swords before him, not when there seems no way to press but forward. And they can hardly change their minds now. Kingship is ideally not a temporary position. But gods, if only it had not been so public- had the Greatjon raised the matter in private, not before all those men and women, Robb might have been able to negotiate around it, to politely, firmly refuse, to insist that he would remain Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, as his father before him. But his father is gone. His father is gone, a vicious child sits the throne, and the Riverlands are burning.

Yet all Nell can think is that somewhere out there, beyond the pink sandstone walls of Riverrun, glowing in the morning sun- Somewhere over the horizon sits Tywin Lannister and his army and possibly the Imp and the remains of the Kingslayer’s men as well. And she can only think- here is a battle-tested, skilled man of past fifty, who sits there with the knowledge that a green boy of fifteen humiliated his renowned son in battle, took him captive, ambushed the well-trained western army, and that boy, that child, now stands in a godswood full of cheering men with his wife and his wolf and a crown of leaves on his head. And she thinks of what that might do to a man like Tywin Lannister’s arguably considerable ego. His daughter is queen. His son was- is- a Kingsguard. He was Hand of the King for near two decades.

We are a nasty, jagged thorn in a lion’s paw, she thinks, and he knows he must either yank us out or let us dig deeper and breed rot in his blood. Nell thinks of what her father would do, were he shamed and bested in such a manner. So now it really no longer is a question of ‘if’ they win. They must. They must, or Riverrun’s charming water wheel wheel will be churning blood. Their best chance will be if they can vanquish the Lannisters while the Baratheon brothers tear each other apart over the throne, if or Renly’s supposedly massive army threatens the capitol. Tywin Lannister may want his son back, but he will want Joffrey’s future as king secured more. If either- or both- of the Baratheons threaten King’s Landing, the Old Lion may retreat, and with any luck, either Stannis or Renly can defeat them and they can bargain with who is left.

Nell hopes it is Renly. She knows next to nothing about Stannis Baratheon, but she has heard he is not inclined to compromise. If the younger brother were king, he might leave well enough alone, and let the North have its freedom. For all her considerable anxieties and doubts about the Robb as a king- her as a queen- she does not think the call for succession entirely unfounded. Robert did next to little to support House Stark in the months before his death. Was the man such a fool, to not have foreseen that their might be trouble should he die before Joffrey reached his majority? He was wed into the Lannisters for years. Surely he was aware they would never tolerate Ned Stark as his son’s regent, or even his Hand. So why should they now pledge themselves to either Stannis or Renly’s cause? They owe them little or less.

And should they choose wrongly… it might be all their deaths either way.

She wishes there were a clear path ahead, an easy solution. But there is none. It will be treacherous and shaky wherever they walk. She has no wish to follow Robb blindly, but she has no more of a map of the future than he does. Instead Nell takes his hand, as she did at their wedding, and when they first declared their intentions to go south to fight, and leads the way out of the sun-dappled godswood with him, mindful of every single step and the slightly crooked crown on her head, the leaves brushing her forehead and the twigs digging into her scalp. Riverrun is joyous; people smile and wave at the sight of them, servants whisper and redden when their king and queen walk by, there are fresh flowers in her bedchamber and her maids sink into low curtsies when she enters a room, and only flush and laugh nervously when Nell stares after being called ‘Your Grace’ for the first time. She is not ‘Her Grace’. She was quite content to be Lady Stark. She wanted the North, not an entirely new kingdom.

By the end of the day, they have word from Father of the Green Fork. They’ve lost just under five thousand men. Halys Hornwood is dead, and Medger Cerwyn, Harry Karstark, Wylis Manderly, and Donnel Locke have all been captured. Her father retreated easily enough with the rest back towards Moat Cailin. Robb is reluctant to immediately summon them all back to Riverrun and leave the Neck open for attack. Nell knows it could have been worse. The footsoldiers could have been completely decimated by the Lannisters. There is yet some hope of trading their Lannisters for the hostages.

But out of duty she goes with Robb to tell Daryn, who has been ordered by the maester to remain off his feet for at least the next week, the news of his lord father’s death. Daryn remains very still and very pale in his seat as he hears it, and nods stiffly, his mouth a firm line. “I should write to my mother and half-brother immediately,” is all he will say, and then he cannot even seem to look at them at all, and they leave him be, although when Nell glances back, Jory has lingered to give her condolences, as Daryn’s shoulders begin to heave and shake, and his hands turn to clawed fists in the bedsheets.

Tywin Lannister is said to be retreating to Harrenhal. Nell does not know what anyone would want with that hulking ruin of a castle, but it must be better than an attempt to follow her father’s forces up the causeway and smash through the Neck. With no immediate battle on the horizon, and with Robb more concerned with settling his lords here than making any sudden moves, there is little to do but wait. Nell could stand some waiting now. She would be leery of any rush to go tearing after Tywin Lannister either, were she Robb. They have the Kingslayer, safely confined to Riverrun’s dungeons. Better to approach this carefully and bide their time.

But things are different now. When Nell had the run of Winterfell, that was one thing; she was lady of the keep in Catelyn’s absence, and so her word went unquestioned, and she felt largely free to do as she pleased. This is different. Riverrun is much smaller, much more cramped with so many people coming and going each day, and entirely unfamiliar. She does not know the household servants by name, does not know the history of the castle, does not remember Lord Hoster in his prime or Lady Minisa’s gentle graces. She barely knows her uncle by marriage, Edmure, and Nell admits she does not help matters by inadvertently walking in on him and Catelyn having a formidable shouting match over his pending betrothal.

Hoster Tully, who they whisper has been on his death bed for months now, may have agreed to it, but while duty compels Edmure to obey, it seems he will not be obeying quietly. Truth be told, while Nell might be exasperated by this- of course Catelyn had no right to promise such a thing, but would he rather be wed, or dead?- Dana says she would rather suffer Edmure Tully’s company than Theon’s any day, and Jory is quite besotted with the man, although Nell does not think he has ever looked twice at her young shield. All the same, it would be very fair to say that victorious though they might be, in the wake of an uneasy alliance with the Freys, her father’s losses at the Green Fork, and Ned Stark’s death, tensions waste no time in appearing.

And Robb- Robb is a king now, and does not feel he can cry, so he rages instead. Nell has never seen very much in the way of temper from her husband before, and so three days after their coronation, when she is late to dine with him because she had to settle a squabble between two bickering maids over who had the right to attend the queen before bed, and he snaps in reply to her dry summary of events, she is shocked. Her courses are still flowing and she knows by now what that can do to a woman’s emotions, but she recoils as if slapped all the same at even the suggestion of a raised voice from him. It is jarring. They have not bickered since they left Winterfell.

Robb, to his credit, immediately looks shamed, and Grey Wind leaves his side and approaches her with a snuffle, as if the beast could make amends for a man’s curt words. Nell stays where she is, standing behind her chair, and jerks away from Grey Wind’s wet snout, before asking, very quietly, “Do I have your leave to sit, Your Grace?”.

Robb immediately stands, reddening, for he had been sitting and brooding even before she walked in, a good fifteen minutes late and hardly apologetic about it. An apology is brewing behind her lips all the same. Truth be told, she wants to snap right back at him and stalk out. How dare he take that tone with her. She is his wife, his queen, as he claimed it, and not one of his men in need of a lecture.

But he is also her lord husband, and now her king, and while he may not realize it, she does. True, she was well aware that he had more power than her inherently when he was to be lord of Winterfell. But that has been magnified, if anything, by their new titles. He has gained power, reach, supporters. Has she? Of course not. His title means everything to him. Hers means very little, for it changes very little. Does he not see that? When he was a lord, men still thought to argue with him. Now he is a king, and men may still want to argue with him, but they will spend far more time weighing their words with him. The same applies to her.

Robb makes to pull out her chair for her, as he should have done, in the first place, but stops at the cold look on her face, and simply says, “Yes.”

“Thank you,” says Nell, and she sits, before him, at that, which one should not do with a king, but she suspects some exceptions may be made in this case.

Robb returns to his seat, Grey Wind goes under the table to hunt for scraps, and neither of them say a word for the next several minutes, until finally he admits, “I’m sorry. I should not have spoken to you like that. It was…,”

“Unkingly?” Nell suggests, in between a bite of her chicken. “Your Grace, I must request that you chasten me after I have eaten, next time. It’s difficult to take a reprimand for tardiness on an empty stomach.” She is only daring this much because she knows him, knows he will likely soften at her sarcasm, because it is familiar and sometimes even warm to him. When her father was displeased, her mother never said a word at all in response, because her father was not a man who softened when his wife looked at him or smiled wryly.

Once, Nell recalls, she’d done something wrong, and he’d bid her come to the table but forbidden her drink or eat anything. Nell had sat there miserably for over an hour, stomach gnawing and growling, fidgeting in her seat, casting increasingly desperate looks at her mother, who had barely touched her own food. Finally Bethany had spoken, and asked if he might at least permit his daughter some broth. “She’s learned her lesson,” she’d said, “give her some thin broth and bread crust and send her to bed early, husband.”

Roose had continued eating for a moment as if he had not heard her, and when he was finished chewing, looked up and replied, “She may have learned hers, but you have not learned yours, wife. Go to your rooms. I will join you when I’ve finished here.” Nell was too young then, of course, to know why or how a man might order his wife to bed, and to a girl of seven that seemed a light punishment indeed- she never minded being sent to bed early, for her bedchamber was one of the few places in the Dreadfort that she really felt safe. She did not understand then that nowhere was safe for Bethany. Not the godswood, not the dinner table, not her own bed.

Her mother had sat there a moment longer, rigid and stiff, and then had downed the remainder of her wine, and flung the empty, embellished cup at the wall as she went, like she was a child herself, throwing a tantrum. The sound had echoed so very loudly in the feasting hall; servants had stopped and stared, their own cups to their lips. Nell remembers watching that cup roll to a halt on the floor, badly chipped and dented. Her father had sighed heavily, and ordered her to pick it up and bring it to him. Nell had, carefully avoiding his pale eyes, and he’d inspected it, placed it back on the table, then gotten to his feet and almost ambled out after his wife. It was the leisurely pace of a man in no particular rush.

After they’d gone, Nell had gone back to the table and ate as much as she could before the servers could come to take it away, gulping down hot stew and scorching her tongue and shoving bread in her mouth, and trying very hard to ignore the distant cries from where Roose had caught up to his quarry. It did not really matter, for she’d vomited most of it back up later that night, her conscience rebelling against her stomach.

Robb would never treat her like that, she reminds herself now, as he softens, just as she’d predicted. Never, even if he was enraged, even if he had good reason to want to punish her, he would not. He swore. He swore before the gods. But she knows now why her mother threw the cup against the wall. Because she knew it would make no difference, that no amount of demure obedience would change things for her. So why go quietly at all. And it is funny, but she still feels that mix of guilt and hunger now, all these years later. She still feels it was her fault. If she had been a better daughter, a good girl, he would not have hurt her. It is nonsense, but she feels it all the same.

“I should not be reprimanding you at all,” Robb says now. “I’m sorry. It is just- I didn’t think it would be like this. For us.” It is somewhat of a lame statement, but Nell doesn’t disagree with it. She did not think it would be like this for them either. She had not been anticipating some wedded bliss where they would be embracing one another tenderly and watching the sunset, but a year ago she would not have believed anyone who told her that she would be seeing her eighteenth name day in the Riverlands, plotting their next attack. War would have seemed absurd then, after ten years of summer and peace. The idea of her betrothed leading an army into battle would have induced hysterical giggles from her.

She can almost hear herself now- Robb? Little Robb Stark, with his shaggy hair and freckles and his wooden swords? Then even the idea of being married to Robb had seemed distant and fantastic, some sort of flight of fancy that would never be realized. Perhaps part of her had never really thought it would happen, had been convinced something would go wrong. Well, something has gone wrong. Many things have gone very, very wrong. They’ve had one blow after another. But she still hopes, naively or not, that this marriage will not be another thing to dread or regret.

“Neither did I,” she says, prodding at the trout on her plate. “But these are our circumstances. I know it is important to you that we still see some of each other, beyond in bed.” Robb chokes on his next bite, as she continues impassively, “And I have no desire to sit in on all your war councils, but we should try to keep one another informed. You will be busy with your lords, and I will be busy with my ladies, but I will ask that you-,” she hesitates, then takes a fortifying sip of her mead, “that you keep in mind that I am not just a consort. I can play the part well enough, but I have- I should like to think I have given you good advice, thus far.”

There is a moment of silence, and then Robb acknowledges, “You have. You and my mother both. I am grateful to be in the constant company of two wise women.”

Nell rolls her eyes a little at that, but smiles all the same. “You flatter me, Your Grace.”

“It is the first thing my mother said of you, Your Grace,” he retorts, and that does give Nell pause. Robb clarifies; “When… when my father-,” he freezes for a moment, as if stung, and then says in a quieter voice, “when my lord father first welcomed you into Winterfell, when I was thirteen, and you fifteen, I overhead them a few days later, speaking of you. My mother said you were very clever, and that you should make a very efficient lady of Winterfell someday.”

Nell feels her visibly warm at the second-hand praise, to her embarrassment. “That was very kind of her. I was just a silly girl then. What… what did your father say?”

Robb glances to the fire in the hearth for a moment, then says with a very faint smile, “He said that you were much more well-humored than he’d thought a child of Roose Bolton’s would be.”

She laughs aloud at that, her chuckles ringing across the quiet room, and Grey Wind comes out from under the table to rest his head on Robb’s lap, who just pets him and watches her with an odd look on his face.

A week after their coronation, her bleeding had entirely ceased, to her relief, and the Frey maids have arrived. Nell had known there would be more than a few, but she is still shocked at the sight of a dozen of them. If Walder Frey truly has a dozen girls every generation to marry off, no wonder he is flinging them at any passing hedge knight or upstart lord.

“Gods be good, it’s a horde,” Dana declares, as they watch them all disembark from their boats. “You’ll have to make them pass some sort of test, and send the rest back.”

“This isn’t a children’s tale,” Nell hisses back, ignoring Jory’s snickers. “And you are not to go picking any fights, Dana. I swear. The very last thing we need is one of them crying to their grandfather-,”

“Great-grandfather,” Dana corrects under her breath, “Possibly great-great grandfather. Only three are his daughters.”

Nell dismisses that in favor of stepping forward to greet the women, very conscious of the fact that she still does not yet wear a crown atop her head. Instead she has dressed much more lavishly than usual, and nods graciously at all of them. Most of them attempt some sort of curtsey or tittered greeting. How in the world is she ever going to keep track of all them? Most of them look similar as well, to make matters even worse, although the oldest among them must be Tya the Maid, who is near thirty, and the youngest, clinging to a sister’s skirts, can be no more than seven or eight.

There seems to be some hushed argument among them over who should introduce herself first, but finally one girl is pushed forward. “Roslin Frey, Your Grace,” she says, in a soft, shy voice. She is small- as a rule, the Frey women are all fairly short, but Roslin is indeed petite, but pretty, despite the obvious gap between her front teeth. She has the best skin and nose of the lost, and her hair is long and thick. Nell very much suspects Edmure will choose her for a bride, just on looks alone, although she could not really blame him- he perhaps has the right to be shallow about it, if he must choose a Frey at all.

“My mother was Bethany Rosby, Lord Walder’s sixth wife,” Roslin continues evenly, despite the flush rising in her pale cheeks, “and these are my kin. Tyta, my elder sister-” Tyta is the tallest of them all, although still shorter than Nell, with a skinny, slightly gawky build, and a long nose. Her hair is very dark, just a shade shy of black, and Nell is not shocked when Roslin names Tyta’s mother as a Blackwood, Lord Walder’s second wife.

“Arwyn and Shirei, my younger sisters-,” Arwyn looks very similar in appearance to Roslin, although she has a rounder face and her hair is curly, and Shirei is a miniature of her, a timid little girl gaping at Nell with wide hazel eyes.

“Shirei is very attached to me, Your Grace, but she will be no trouble,” Arwyn is quick to assure her. “I- it is only that I have looked after her since our lady mother’s death, and I could not leave her behind.”

Nell is not sure she would be comfortable leaving a little sister behind at the Twins either, given the rumors among the other river lords of incest and debauchery.

“My nieces, the Waldas-,” Roslin’s nieces are older than her, to everyone’s amusement.

One Walda is slender and hard-faced, the other large and smiling. Both have pin-straight dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. “You may call us Fair and Fat Walda, if it pleases you,” the hard-faced one interjects, and Nell thinks she may end up referring to them respectively as Sour and Sweet.

The rest are quickly rattled off as Alyx, Marianne- who insists she is technically a Vance, despite making her home at the Twins- Zia, Serra and Sarra- who are identical twins with identical voices, to make matters worse- and Marissa. Nell greets them all cordially enough, and hopes they don’t mind sharing beds, for they certainly haven’t enough room for all of them.

As she leads them on a tour of Riverrun, she exchanges increasingly desperate glances with Dana, realizing that she will have a permanent audience wherever she goes now. There are so many of them, and they all talk at once, and there’s always something to argue or giggle over, and suddenly Nell almost wishes she had had sisters, for this is the only time in her life that she’s been with so many other girls at once.

She is only rid of them all after hosting them for supper, wherein all the laughter and whispers die out completely when Grey Wind wanders into the room, and Shirei lets out a muffled shriek and scrambles up onto Arwyn’s chair, nearly knocking them both over.

“My husband’s wolf,” Nell says calmly enough, rising from her seat, and without really thinking about, whistling softly. She has never done such a thing before, and for a moment Grey Wind simply looks at her with his deep golden eyes, and she wonders if he is about to turn his back on her and go. But then he comes over to her side, and the Frey girls gape at her in shock, and Nell allows her hand to settle behind Grey Wind’s taut ears while she smiles serenely. “You have no need to fear him. His teeth are for Robb’s enemies.”

After dinner, she says her goodnights to Dana, lets Jory off-duty to visit with her mother and sisters, and finds her way back to Robb’s bedchamber. Her moon’s blood is over, and she finds her mood improved at the prospect of it being just the two of them once more. She finds him half-dressed, slumped over in an armchair, dozing, although he jerks awake as they enter the room, and turns startled blue eyes on her. “I- oh,” he starts to get up, but she waves him off, sitting down on the bed instead and removing her shoes.

“You will have to make your introductions to my new ladies in waiting tomorrow. They are quite eager to meet with you, after Grey Wind’s stunt.”

He exhales in amusement, still facing away from her. “The little girl was frightened, wasn’t she?”

Nell pauses, confused. “You saw Grey Wind spying on us?”

Robb is silent, then says quickly, “I- I thought that’s where he might have gone. He does like you, you know.”

“Do you like me?” Nell calls lazily to Grey Wind, who jumps on the bed beside her. “Not like that!” she pushes him back down boldly, something she would been far too wary to do just a few months ago. “Great beast.”

But Robb has gotten up and is peering out the window now at the darkened sky. “Come look at this.”

Nell gets up, reaching around to start to yank out her bodice laces as she joins him at the window. “Is a storm coming?”

But the night sky is clear. So clear, in fact, that the great red star cutting through the blackness is incredibly bright. Nell has never seen a comet before, and freezes beside him, watching it slice through the velvety sky, trailing a bloody tail behind it.

“It’s brighter than even the moon,” Robb utters hoarsely.

“It’s beautiful,” lies Nell. It is terrifying. She has seen shooting stars, of course, and every possible phase of the moon, knows her constellations, but she has never seen anything like this. It’s so vivid, it feels like a waking dream.

“They must be able to see it in King’s Landing,” Robb says, and she knows he is thinking of his sisters.

Nell rests her head on his shoulder. “And in Winterfell.” She wonders if Maester Luwin is showing it to Bran and Rickon or Beth at this very moment. Bran would be amazed. Rickon would would want to climb up a tree and try to snatch it from the sky.

They watch it for a minute longer, and then Robb turns away. “Perhaps it’s a sign of good fortune.”

“Perhaps,” Nell agrees, sweeping her hair in front of her shoulders. “Good fortune with my stays, Your Grace?”

“I’ll try my best,” and he kisses her neck, to her shocked delight, and laughs aloud when she gasps.

Good fortune, she tells herself later, when they are finished and he is lying beside her again for the first time in a week. She rests a hand flat on her belly, and still sees the red of it when she closes her eyes. Good fortune for them, it will be. It must be. She wakes a few hours later to find him shaking with suppressed sobs beside her, and does not even fully open her eyes, just entwines her legs with his and wraps her arms around him until he stops holding them in.

The comet and his tears are still there the next night, and the one after that.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell has been coming to the godswood every afternoon since the white raven arrived from the Citadel, but there’s still no trace of autumn to be found. The trees are green, the grass is lush, and the air is as warm as ever. The only sign of summer’s end may be slightly cooler evenings, but she supposes that could just be her growing used to sleeping inside Riverrun’s occasionally drafty rooms, as opposed to the spring-heated stones of Winterfell. She’s surprised by how much she misses it; just as much as she does Barrow Hall and her aunt. And Sara. She’s reminded of Sara more than ever, surrounded by young girls. Is this how she felt, running after Nell and Dana, trying to pound some wisdom or at least good sense into their flighty heads?

To be fair, the only small child among the Freys is little Shirei, who is too shy to be much trouble at all, but only Roslin, Marianne, Tyta the Maid, Alyx, and the Waldas are of age. Good-natured Arwyn is just fourteen, as is cheeky Zia and the twins, Serra and Sarra, and little Marissa is the youngest of them all, thirteen and only flowered a month past. Nell has little interest in arranging marriages for children; aye, she could haggle for long betrothals, which is more effort than most of their fathers would make, but the Frey women are hardly in high demand, particularly the ones who are not even daughters to Lord Walder.

But it is not her duty to act as their mother. If their grandsire wants them wed, they will be wed, whether or not she is the one to arrange it or not. It will certainly not help Robb’s cause for her to drag her feet. The Freys are quick to take offense and would be most displeased to think that their queen was in any way dismissive or neglectful of their interests. Their queen. It has been three weeks since their crowning, and she is still taken aback when addressed as ‘Your Grace’ or referred to as ‘our good queen’. She does not see a queen when she peers in the looking-glass. It is not a matter of shallow insecurity; Nell knows she is no Cersei Lannister, the Light of the West, but she is hardly some homely waif, either.

It is just that a queen should be certain she is a queen, she thinks, and these days she is anything but certain… of anything. Cersei Lannister was born to be a queen. She was not a Targaryen, but her father would have- and did- do whatever he deemed necessary to wed her to a prince, then to a king. It likely came as no shock to her, that she was to wed Robert Baratheon, only a comfortable relief, satisfaction that everything was as it should be. Nell does not look at herself, or even at Robb, ruling over his lords, and think ‘all it as it should be’. What she thinks is what she suspects Catelyn thinks- that they should be back at Winterfell, settling disagreements in the winter town and keeping the smaller houses in line.

But they can’t go home. Not now. Someday, she tells herself, when she is trying to sleep at night. Someday they will. When the Lannisters have been put down by either Stannis or Renly and the realm has some semblance of peace once again, they will go home to Winterfell and everything will be ordinary and expected once more. She would not even care if Robb had to bend the knee and give up their crowns to do so, although she would never dare say such a thing aloud. She would gladly hand a Baratheon her crown in exchange for his sisters and peace and Winterfell. Would it smart at her pride, just a little? Of course. She is hardly a vision of humility and grace. Some part of her does derive a certain measure of smug satisfaction in thinking that she is a queen, that the day may come when Roose Bolton has to kneel to his own daughter, and when he asks for her mercy, she will offer him none. She would jump at the chance to offer the Bastard a queen’s justice. She would make the Dreadfort’s walls dance with men swinging from nooses.

But none of that is enough to counterbalance the ache in her temple from her new crown. It is not even that heavy, really, a slender circulet of iron and bronze, a smaller, sleeker version of Robb’s, but she feels its pressure from the moment she wakes to the moment she falls asleep, even when she has taken it off. Robb insisted to the smith that it be nearly identical to his own, which is itself a supposed close replica of the crown Torrhen gave up to Aegon the Conqueror. No Stark king ever wore a crown of gold or silver, nor jewels around his head or neck. Nell has reluctantly put her own garnets and rubies and pearls away.

She has taken it off now, shining dully in the sunlight, to examine the runes decorating it for the umpteenth time. The godswood is full of women, most of them Freys; Marissa and Shirei are splashing in a nearby stream, giggling and kicking water at each other, while Roslin has brought out her harp to continue the lessons she’s been giving Arwyn. Nell is debating asking for some tutelage of her own; she always did think the high harp was a beautiful instrument, and bemoaned the fact that few northern ladies could play it. The south may often be reviled as thin-skinned and obsessed with shallow decadence, but Nell is of the mind that the North could use a little decadence, once in a while. There’s something to be said for beauty, after all. Look at the Lannisters, who found the tallest rock in the west to sun themselves on.

Marianne, Alyx, and the twins have formed a sewing circle, with Tyta the Maid correcting their stitches, and the Waldas are sitting with her and Dana, gossiping and occasionally exchanging useful tidbits of information. Nell has determined to make them both, along with Roslin, her dear friends, if only because the three of them exert the most influence over the others. Fair Walda’s high cheekbones and long lashes hide a very sharp wit, Roslin’s sweetness rusts away at all indifference and apathy, and Fat Walda’s looks may often be mocked, but she seems to know everything about everyone, often without them realizing it.

“Could you not have at least had sapphires and rubies in it?” Fair Walda sighs, leaning over and brushing her long blonde hair out of her fair. She runs her fingers along the circlet. “For the Tully colors, of course, if you are to rule from Riverrun.”

“There’s no jewels to be found in winter,” Dana says pointedly, glancing over to where Jory is sparring with Lyra under a weeping willow, ducking and weaving around her sister’s blows, giggling and shouting as though they were playing a children’s game. “That’s what the long-swords are for. The Stark kings knew that wealth was no protection at all when the dark nights were long and the wildlings grew bold.”

“And the Others came a-hunting from the Land of Always Winter?” Fat Walda laughs. “I used to love those stories, truly! Walda, you always cried though, remember?”

“They were meant as warnings,” Nell says, although she smiles, because it is easy to forget the cold this far south, and lecturing the Freys about the looming presence of winter.

“Walda was always fond of stories that’d make your toes curl,” Fair Walda drawls. “Although- I suppose you cannot see your toes, cousin-,”

“Is it true that Lord Bracken is sending his daughters here, Your Grace?” Alyx calls over to Nell, nudging at Tyta all the while. “And they sent Hendry out to meet them?”

Robb gave the river lords leave to go forth and reclaim their keeps and lands from the Lannisters shortly after their coronation. Catelyn and Ser Brynden were against it, but Edmure and most of his northern lords were for it. Nell had thought it might be better to let them go; the territory here is far more compact than in the North, it would take much less time than the same movements would in the North, and furthermore, were this the North, no Stark would dare keep his men from reclaiming what was theirs. It is not an easy thing to tell battle-tested men to sit still and bide their time while their people are slaughtered, their lands burn, and their keeps are overrun with the enemy.

Lord Bracken in particular- he’d lost not just his keep but his wife and daughters. Stone Hedge was reclaimed after a short, bloody battle, nearly burned to the ground. All but two towers will need to be rebuilt. It will take years. And his family- the Bracken women survived their brief imprisonment, but they did not go unscathed. Word is quickly spreading that the Mountain raped one of the girls. Jonos Bracken did not admit so much in his letter, but he did ask her to consider taking his two eldest girls on as ladies in waiting. Nell agreed, on the condition that he strongly consider a match between his nephew Hendry, who she’d asked to stay on at Riverrun on some pretense, and Tyta Frey.

Hendry is twenty five, heavyset and dark-haired like his lord uncle, but he is reserved and kind. He will never inherit Stone Hedge- that will pass to the eldest Bracken girl, Barbara, and for certain now that Bracken’s bastard son died reclaiming the castle. Hendry and Tyta can often be seen walking the battlements, despite his Bracken blood and her Blackwood blood. Nell is quite smug about the entire thing; Tyta had long since given up hope of marriage, and Nell does not so much care whether Jonos Bracken only agrees out of greed for influence or love for his daughter or a general apathy as to who Hendry weds, only so long as he does agree.

Which he will, she is sure of it. Everyone is quick to court a queen’s favor and hesitant to refuse her in the early days of her husband’s reign. Give Robb a few more years with a crown and they will all be quarreling and ignoring one another, but for now there is a forcible, taut peace, because if they fight amongst each other from the start, the Lannisters will truly tear them to pieces.

Tyta is bright pink now, although she does not look up from her position hovering behind Serra, correcting her needlework. Alyx grins all the more. She has the most distinctive looks among the Freys, for her mother is Betharios of Braavos, and Braavos is a land where nearly everyone is descended from escaped slaves of the Valyrian Freehold. And the Valyrians, it is well known, enslaved whoever they could, whenever they triumphed in battle, in order to keep their mines functioning (and their dragons fed, some claim). So Alyx is olive-skinned and black-haired, although she has the same smile as Zia and the same ears as Marianne.

“If Hendry marries Tyta, shall he be a knight at last?”

“Enough,” Tyta scolds, swatting at her, but Alyx simply winks.

“If his uncle sees fit to accord him a share of the dowry and he can prove his worth in the next battle,” Nell says evenly. “And yes. Lord Bracken writes that Barbara and Jayne shall join us. We will be very welcoming, of course- they’ve been through a terrible disturbance, to lose their home like that.”

“I heard the Mountain made Lady Lucinda choose which of her daughters he’d ruin,” Fair Walda murmurs to Dana, “as punishment for the rebellion. Isn’t that awful?”

“Horrible,” Nell agrees curtly, “as is speculation. We are very fortunate to be spared the worst of the war, here.”

“Of course,” they are all quick to assure her, ever-so-grateful, so thrilled to be in her company. Nell hates it at times. It is not that she even dislikes them all, it is just exhausting to be surrounded by people who either refuse to speak freely or who she feels watching her every move, debating, weighing their options, eager to know what they can get out of her. She knows this is how Robb must feel, constantly, and it is worse for him because he is the one who must make the decisions, who must take the responsibility when men suffer and die on his account.

The braid of hair around her wrist itches; it has been bothering her for the past several days, but she cannot bring herself to untie it. She’s afraid she may lose it somewhere within the still unfamiliar setting of Riverrun, and never find it again. Nell tugs at her sleeve instead, then glances up at the still visible comet painted across the sky overhead. It no longer unnerves her just to look at it, but she will breathe a shy of relief when it passes, all the same. Many say it signifies red for revenge, red for House Tully, red for Lannister blood. Catelyn confided in her just the other day that she feared it was the reverse- good tidings for Tywin and his men.

Nell is not sure what she believes of the comet. She thinks of it as a half-closed red eye, a god lazily regarding them from somewhere beyond. A parallel world, almost, in the same sense that she will live on in the wind and rain and earth and trees, when she is dead. Not here… but not entirely gone, either. Woven into the fabric, just not touching the other colors. But whether it means them well or ill, she dislikes the feeling of being observed by a passive outside force. The days of the gods granting men magic swords or magic crowns or enchanted castles are long past, but now it seems they are in the days of gods content to watch the bloodshed and do nothing at all.

Her mother once told her the gods saw and heard all, they just did not care to intercede. That they would rather deal with men after death than during their lives. And septons will tell you that the Seven love and care for all, but mere men cannot understand the divine plan that is mapped out for their lives. And if you ask Dana, of course, they have at least one god’s vessel with them currently- Grey Wind. Nell is less sure of that in the mundane light of day than she is when she wakes at night and sees twin yellow orbs watching her every move.

“There’s Lady Catelyn,” Marianne says suddenly, and Nell looks around to see her good mother cutting through the godswood, head down, likely on her way to visit her ailing father. Nell has been in with Robb several times to see his grandsire, but Hoster Tully barely recognizes his grandson, never mind knows who she is. It is almost preferable that way. Nell feels distinctly uncomfortable in there. She’s unused to the very old and poorly as it is- the oldest person she’s ever met was Old Nan, who despite her extreme age and failing sight, was still quite capable of doling out a beating to a mischievous kitchen boy with a ladle.

Because of this she does not go rushing over to join Catelyn, although she knows this must mean that Robb is done holding his audience in the Great Hall. Nell slowly rises, brushing stray leaves and twigs from her skirts. “You must excuse me, but I needs speak with my husband before the day grows any later.” She and Robb have not been able to share a meal in the past two days, and she doubts she will see him much tonight, although they diligently try to make time to climb into each other’s beds, no matter how late the hour. Nell usually does not mind much. At the very least they cannot get into an argument during that.

“Your crown,” Dana reminds her with a snort, as she almost leaves without it. The responding chorus of giggle is far from encouraging.

Nell sets the cursed thing back on her head, calls for Jory, and is off on her way. She finds him in the Wheel Tower, which is where Robb goes when he does not want to be bothered and when he does not want to be overhead. The constant groaning of the wheel and sounds of the water assures that. Jory takes a knee to tussle with Grey Wind, who bounds over to her with a playful growl, and Nell gives their nonsense a wide berth as she slips inside, where Robb can be found, crownless, head in his hands, a steadily growing puddle near his feet.

“The roof is leaking again,” Nell observes, even as she sidles up beside him.

He groans once in response.

“Did it really go that poorly?”

“I thought it went well enough, up until my mother saw fit to remind me that I care nothing for my sisters, am a tremendous fool to have let the rivermen go back to claim their castles in the first place, and that it is madness to send Theon anywhere.” His voice is muffled and cold.

Nell exhales, then folds her arms under her chest.”Did Ser Cleos agree to deliver our terms to the queen?” She calls them ‘our’ terms because that is what they are- it was Nell who told him to give up his hope of getting Ice back- even should the Lannisters ever come to accept a rival kingdom, they would rather melt the sword down and scatter it on the wind than they would deliver it back. It was Nell who told him that asking the Lannisters for ten highborn hostages was pointless. Their main hope was to trade Willem Lannister and Tion Frey for Sansa and Arya, to exchange the hostages at Harrenhal for the hostages at Riverrun, and to see their claim to a new kingdom recognized.

“He did,” Robb acknowledges, “but Mother tells me we will never get back the girls for the queen’s cousins. She thinks I should have offered the Kingslayer.”

“You could have,” Nell agrees, “but it would mean chaos here. Your own lords might rise up against you. Many men would rather see him dead than safely back with his kin. Lord Karstark. Mine own uncles. Edmure. Cersei might have agreed to such a thing, but even then, never independence. She might trade Sansa- and Arya, if they have her- for her brother, but Tywin Lannister is not just going to retreat back to King’s Landing without a fuss.”

“She said I thought the girls weren’t important,” he finally glances up at her, and Nell can see the pain in his eyes.

She squeezes his shoulder roughly. “She should not have said that, but she is still grieving, Robb. Your father… it has barely been a month since the news. She likely blames herself for your sisters going south in the first place. People say things they don’t mean when they’re angry at themselves.” She ought to know that best of all, she thinks with a jab of guilt.

“It was a mummer’s farce,” Robb admits. “The Lannisters will never agree to Northern independence, they will never give us back Father and the others' bones, they will never release my sisters. But I had to make the demands nonetheless. What kind of king would I be, had I not?”

“A trifle more efficient one, but a heartless one,” Nell says quietly. “Even if you could convince Cersei to exchange Sansa for the Kingslayer, it would not guarantee peace. If it comes down to it, I think Tywin would rather see us all dead and ground into the dirt than have his son back with him, if he had to choose.”

“Jaime Lannister offers me nothing but mockery when I visit his cell,” Robb snaps. “So I cannot blame his father for being reluctant to free him from us. I have treated my prisoners fairly, have I not? A far cry from what the Lannisters have been doing- there’s been word from Darry. They’re gone. The Mountain slaughtered them all after retaking the castle on Tywin’s commands.”

Nell draws back in stunned shock, a lump in her throat. “That cannot be- Lyman Darry was nine. He had far more worth as a captive than dead to them.” A boy of nine, who wore a chainmail shirt over his child’s clothing and had a helm specially crafted to fit his small head. He had blonde hair and freckles and a dimpled smile, and before he went back, leading men into battle, a skinny little boy with a squeaking voice, he told Nell that she was ‘the most beautiful queen he’d ever saw’. She’d laughed, and warned him against flattering women twice his age.

“He killed them all,” Robb says bitterly. “And the same with every village he’s come upon.”

“When the time comes,” Nell tells him, “we will see Clegane’s head on a spike on the walls of Riverrun, I promise you.”

“Would that I could promise these people the same thing,” Robb shakes his head, “but we sit here, and we wait. I cannot march on Harrenhal. It is what they want. This is- provocation, almost. They commit atrocities in the hopes that it will force us out onto the field in a hurry, with little to no plan beyond revenge.”

“You cannot go to Harrenhal,” Nell agrees frankly. “It is cursed. Everyone knows it to be true.” She pauses. “But if we had the Ironborn to raid down the western coast… that would see Tywin Lannister leave quite quickly.”

“I must send Theon, or no one at all,” Robb says, grimacing. “Mother is against it, of course. She never liked him, nor trusted him. But- what, shall I send a Frey? A Mallister? Would the likes of Balon Greyjoy and his brothers be impressed with Ser Stevron? With Jason Mallister, who killed Theon’s brother, Balon’s heir, at Seagard? Shall I have war with the Isles as well? Gods, who could I send but Theon?”

Nell does not know. She wants to say there is some excellent suggestion at the tip of her tongue, but there is not. Send a riverman, get nothing, if not more fighting. Send a northerner… gods be true, imagine sending the likes of a Flint or a Mormont. They’d have reports back of Bear Island or the Finger burning within weeks. “I do not think Balon Greyjoy will help us unless you promise him a quick slaughter and a crown of his own.”

“I will regret it eventually, but I would give it to him now if he asked for it, all the same.”

“I think he will reject our offer,” Nell says grimly. “I think he will wait our war out, wait to see who lands on the Iron Throne, and who is ruling the North and the Riverlands when all is said and done, and then he will rebel again himself while the winners are preparing for winter. It may be years from now, but he will. But I am no fortune teller. The only one with anything close to a chance of convincing him would be his own blood. The Ironborn are self-contained. We’re greenlanders to them, fit for conquer or saltwives, not equals. Theon must be the one to ask him. He may be refused, he may be thrown back into the sea, but…”

“I trust him,” Robb says. “He saved your life. He helped save my life, in the Whispering Wood. He has been like a brother to me since we were children. I know he is not…” he trails off helplessly.

“He must learn to curb his tongue before someone yanks it out,” Nell clarifies, and Robb chuckles at that. “But,” she hesitates… “He has never given you nor I cause to doubt his loyalty. You could keep him here, but you would always wonder whether it might have been worth the risk to send him. And our people, the rivermen- they will never accept his command in battle, will never fight by his side without suspicion. He may be worth more in politics than in war.” She pauses, then adds dryly, “Women certainly find him persuasive.”

“He’s already had Alyx,” Robb tells her flatly. “Better you hear it from me than her.”

Nell curses, loudly, ringing off the narrow, damp walls. “Nevermind. I take it all back. I’m going to bloody well throttle him before he goes tomorrow.”

“From the way he told it, it was just as much her idea-,”

“I wanted to betroth her to a Vance,” Nell snaps. “The thirdborn son. Gods. Now I needs make sure she’s had her moon tea, lest Kirth discover a squidling in her arms a few months after the wedding.”

Robb chuckles and pulls her into his arms at that, and they stand there for a few moments, before a few droplets of water hit their heads from the leaking roof.

In the end, her thoughts of the Iron Isles are quickly diminished by the report they have that night from the Blackfish’s scouts. Stafford Lannister is gathering an army at Casterly Rock. Now there is no question at all of engaging with Tywin. Robb will have to move west to meet Stafford’s men before they are hemmed in by the west and south both. Catelyn’s plan to treat with Renly seems an unexpected boon, despite Robb’s reluctance to give credence to the younger brother and not the elder. If they could combine forces with the Reach and threaten the capitol, the Lannisters would immediately withdraw from the Riverlands in order to protect Joffrey’s claim.

Nell holds up her pointed glare at Theon until the very last moment. Finally, as Robb embraces him, she says, “I owe you a debt of blood, my lord. See to it that you live long enough for me to repay you.”

“Is that a command, Your Grace?” If Theon is nervous, he does not show it, smirking widely from his seat in the boat. It is near identical to the look on his face when he saved her in the wolfswood. He must be thrilled, she thinks suddenly. He is a man grown but he has never before been permitted to go out into the world on his own. Unlike every other lord his age, he was denied his majority. Perhaps that explains much, how a man of twenty might still be so reckless and impudent. He was never given the chance to prove himself as anything but a hotheaded boy.

“No,” she answers tartly, “my command is for you to sail back to Seagard with a fleet of longships and a host of your father’s finest reavers.”

He laughs at that, and is still snickering as they row out under the gates. Nell watches him, and briefly takes Robb’s hand before anyone else can notice.

Hendry Bracken arrives with his cousins a few hours later. Nell is introduced quickly to both Barbara and Jeyne, who are sixteen and fifteen and look as though they could be twins. The only difference between the two is that Barbara is slightly heavier, and her hair is thick and long. Jayne’s hair has been chopped off around her ears, and there is a hollowness to her face that Nell has only ever seen in older women. Later, she will learn that her hair had to be cut because Gregor Clegane caught her by the hair when she tried to run, and ripped so much of it out with just one sharp pull that you could see the bloody shine of her scalp.

But Nell does not know this when she meets them, because Jayne Bracken does not speak. She has not spoken at all since that night, and so Barbara speaks for her when she gives their courtesies to Nell, leading her sister in a neat curtsy as if she were a child. When they straighten back up, a door nearby slams shut behind a group of Tully men-at-arms walking by, laughing among themselves, and Jayne grabs both of her elder’s sisters hands in a mute plea. Barbara wraps her arms around her and rests her chin on her head, soothing her with murmured assurances.

When Nell tries to sleep that night, she dreams something very different than usual. She can still hear the hunting horn, but her mother and the other women are nowhere to be seen. She is in the godswood, and she can smell smoke on the night air, but cannot see the fire. She is also naked, save for the crown on her head, and freezing, and bound to a weirwood tree. The ropes bite savagely into her arms and thighs, and the bottoms of her feet are sticky with sap and blood. Leaves are caught in her hair; dead ones, drifting down when she shakes her head. The wind howls through the branches above her, and if she concentrates she can just barely make out shapes in the trees. Men or beasts, she’s not sure, and it may not make a difference.

Nell opens her mouth to shout for help, for Robb, for Mother, for Sara- but she cannot bring herself to form words any more than Jayne Bracken could. Hot tears prick at her eyelashes, and worm their way down her chapped face. Something sharp and heavy settled on her shoulder, clawing at her skin. A mailed fist, she thinks in terror, but then it caws in her ear, harsh and shrill, and she realizes it is a crow. It leans down and pecks at her left breast, hard and sharp. She jerks and shudders in agony, closing her eyes in horror, and when she opens them again the crow has taken flight, winging away into the smoke and mist. Her bonds melt away like snow, and as she stumbles forward, the shapes grow clearer. The dead hang and sway from every tree; men, women, and children. Bethany, Sara, Willow and Jez- Young Roose stares sightlessly at her, and the Karstark brothers share a limb, brushing corpses in the wind.

Little Lyman Darry dangles from a great oak; a man would have to be especially tall to set him that high. She reaches out and touches his blackened feet, then claps a hand to her bloody breast as the pain surges again, driving her to her knees. Somewhere, the crow is still screaming, and the horn grows louder and louder, and the smell of smoke burns at her nostrils and eyes.

When Nell wakes, her eyes are swollen and her nose itching because she has been weeping in her sleep, but her breasts ache something strange and fierce, before finally fading away. It feels as though her bodices had been laced too tightly. Her courses are promptly absent the following week, as Catelyn prepares to leave for Bitterbridge and Robb begins to chart a path west in his maps, and she finds she can no longer eat anything at all in the mornings. It seems too good to be true, so she says nothing, until the night before her good mother is due to depart, when Grey Wind rests in his head in her lap as she sits and sews, his snout pressed firmly against her belly.

Nell knows this is madness, but she looks down at his grey face, and murmurs, “Truly, can you smell it?” and gets her answer in his golden eyes.

Then she feels a different sort of sore aching in her chest, as if she’d been crying or laughing too hard and she has to set her needle and thread down, hysteria bubbling merrily in her throat and her hands trembling. When Catelyn comes into the room, all she has to do is look at Nell and the wolf, and she knows.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell is advised by her good mother to wait a week, then go to Maester Vyman. “I believe you are with child,” Catelyn tells her kindly, “Grey Wind certainly thinks so- but if you are, it is still the early days. You must not blame yourself if it does not quicken, Donella. It’s very common for a woman to lose a babe early on. After Bran I-,” she pauses then, blue eyes dulling, and then shakes her head, “we had thought there’d be another babe, a few years before Rickon, Ned and I, but- it was not to be. These things are natural parts of life. I went on to have another healthy child. So will you, no matter what happens.”

“I won’t lose it,” Nell vows, as if she had any control over such matters. Yet men seem to think so often enough, as if women sat around their witch fires and determined which babes would live and which would not, and which would be sons and which would be daughters. She supposes it is a comfort to them, to blame the woman. They do not have to grieve it so much then, if blame can be neatly assigned to their wives. All the same, she asks, “Don’t mention it to Robb, please? I should like to tell him myself, after the maester’s inspection. Good news has been in short supply as of late.”

“That it has,” Catelyn sighs, warming her hands before the fire. Her good mother’s hands are always cold now, as if her husband’s death leeched both the joy from her heart and the warmth from her flesh. But she looks visibly brighter than she has in weeks, at the thought of Nell’s child. “I am sorry I will not be here to help you, Nell. But with any luck, I will be back well before the babe is due. I will not lie- it will be difficult, at times. Your firstborn always is,” and from the look in her eyes Nell knows she is thinking ‘still is’, “but it will be wonderful sometimes too. Many times. Children remind us what is important, truly.”

“My son will be very fortunate to have you for a grandmother,” Nell says honestly, and Catelyn smiles. She is not smiling that next morning when she leaves for the Reach with twenty men, and she does not look back as the boat grows smaller and smaller on the horizon, drifting down the blue-green stripe of the river. Nell watches alongside Robb and Edmure until it is no longer visible at all, then rushes off to vomit in the nearest privy.

A horrifically long week later, she reluctantly presents herself for examination. Vyman is not a lecher the way some maesters are, but he is old, and wrinkled, with the brittle, at times quavering voice of a man long past his prime. Nell lies flat on her back with her skirts hitched up around her waist, and tries to distract herself by making eye contact with Dana, who is dutifully standing guard to preserve her chastity as a wedded woman. Dana’s increasingly dramatic expressions almost make her laugh, until she winces, then struggles not to jerk or pull away until the maester’s inspection is over. When he steps back, Nell quickly sits up, pulling down her skirts and struggling to look as calm and composed as a queen ought to.

“I believe you are with child, Your Grace,” Vyman says politely, and Dana lets out a mangled cheer that she turns into a cough for the sake of dignity at the last moment.

“Thank you, Maester,” Nell says in her most regal voice, as if she’d been entirely certain of it herself all along, and not terrified just a few moments ago that she’d somehow imagined or conjured it all up in her head. “Do you know how far along?”

“Five weeks, by my estimation. You should expect the soreness, vomiting, and fatigue to continue for some time. Some cramping and even light bleeding is entirely normal,” he warns her, then adds in a more delicate tone, “especially after… relations. It’s important to continue to eat and rest, even if you feel ill at times. And absolutely no riding, Your Grace,” he adds definitively, ignoring the appalled look on her face, “only if necessary, and even then, side-saddle and a very sedate pace.”

“Oh dear,” murmurs Dana in bemusement, as Nell digs her nails into the bedspread, then nods begrudgingly.

“Very well. I should like to inform the King myself, Maester. When further… examination is necessary, I trust you will know where to find me.” She’s hardly looking forward to eight more months of this poking and prodding. It’s a bit absurd; she was so desperate to be with child, that now that she finally knows she is, all she feels is a dull sense of surprise. Perhaps it will be different once the babe has quickened and she can feel it moving about inside her. As of right now, this still feels very strange, like a dream or some elaborate jape.

She keeps up the act until he has left, and then turns to stare at Dana, who is making muffled noises of mirth and joy. Dana wordlessly reaches out, grabs her shoulder, and shakes it, then tears her other hand away from her mouth. “You’ve done it. Gods be good, let them say a single word now- Queen Nell, wedded, bedded, and soon to wean a Starkling. And I’ll be their favorite auntie, of course.” Laughing, she embraces Nell, sending both of them toppling until Nell extricates herself from Dana’s long arms and sits up, flushed.

“Don’t be silly. It’s hardly for sure. I won’t rest easy until I have him in my arms.”

“You can’t think like that,” Dana scolds. “Look at Lady Catelyn- only a fortnight wed, and she went on to have Robb, didn’t she? Of course it will take. You’re healthy enough, and it’s good luck to be here- this is where your husband was conceived and born, was he not? The same for his son. Or daughter,” she adds, although she frowns at the look on Nell’s face. “Oh, come now, even if it is a girl-,”

“A son first, and then Robb can give me as many daughters as he pleases,” Nell says, standing up and straightening her skirts. “A whole pack of she-wolves, if he likes. I’ll call them Catelyn and Arya and Sansa, whatever he wants. But first a boy. I will not have another Serena Stark.” She huffs, then glances sharply at Dana. “And not a word- I mean it! Even once I tell him, I’ll announce it to the rest of the…”

“The court?” Dana offers archly. It still sounds strange. To have their own little court here. Well, perhaps not so little. But it is not something Nell ever thought she’d be referencing so casually- the court, her ladies in waiting, His Grace, Her Grace- she still trips over her own tongue at times. She supposes she will be quite used to it all by the time the babe comes. A little prince. They already call Bran and Rickon such- the princes in Winterfell, and so this one will be the prince in Riverrun.

If they ever did get Sansa back, she’d be so thrilled to learn she was finally a princess, and did not even have to marry a vile creature like Joffrey to become one.

“I’ll announce it to the rest of the court when I choose,” Nell finally settles on. “I could not bear it if I had… to retract it.”

“Alright,” says Dana. “But let me be happy for you, at least. If you cannot be happy for yourself,” she is only teasing, but it stings nonetheless. Nell is not happy. Well, relieved- but relief is not the same sensation as joy. She feels better, of course, is grateful to whichever god decided to grace her, and has already resolved to make a sacrifice to the godswood soon, but she is not thrilled, euphoric, either. She knows she should be. This is the culmination of everything she was ever raised to be- beyond her betrothal, beyond the wedding, this is her purpose, to bear children and raise them to honor their house, but- She does not feel so drastically different as to be smiling down upon her belly, imagining little hands and feet and a mewling infant in her arms.

She has never particularly enjoyed children, especially not infants. Aye, she came to care for Robb’s brothers, but- Nell cannot remember the last time she was around a babe. Perhaps when her uncle Roger had his youngest, little Robb Ryswell, named for her husband. But that was four years ago. Little Robb is a squalling infant no more. Of course she will love them, she thinks. If Mother could love her, a babe begat in a bed of blood and misery, of course she could love this child, a child so desperately wanted, needed. They will have Robb’s blue eyes and perhaps his nose and chin as well, and she will love them dearly.

She just worries that loving them will not be enough. That she will not be good to them. That she will be selfish, and cold, and judgmental, and all the other things she has ever been counted as. Many women love their children. It does not make them good. She imagines even Cersei Lannister loves her children. There is no inherent redeeming factor in motherhood, despite what some believe. A woman is not purified by the act of pushing out a babe anymore than a man is rendered good and honorable by the act of pushing his cock into something.

She does feel for Catelyn at times, truly. It cannot be easy to have borne and raised and loved a son, only to see him succeed his father at fifteen and count himself a man and a warrior before you have even gone grey. It cannot be easy to have to obey Robb the King, when she knew for all those years and years Robb the Boy. Nell does not know what she would do in that situation. It is not easy to accept that children have grown up… certainly not when they are not even of their majority yet. But Robb will be of age by the time the babe is born, not that it matters at this point. He will be a good father regardless, she thinks. He is very used to children, from his siblings, and he would love them immediately, whole-heartedly.

It is all she can do not to hunt him down right then and there, but she forces herself to wait out the rest of the day instead, although she wants to scream when Olyvar Frey reluctantly informs her that His Grace cannot join her for dinner this evening. Instead Nell nods placidly, and eats with Dana, Arwyn, and Marianne instead, discussing the newfound hint of crispness in the air. An autumn child, she thinks. Nell was born in the Year of the False Spring, when the southerners mistook a few months of warmth for the end of winter. When the Kingswood Brotherhood mistook the Kingsguard for fools. And when Rhaegar mistook Lyanna Stark for his wife. It was a year of rash mistakes, all things considered.

When Robb is still not there, when she goes to his rooms, she realizes she cannot wait any longer. She will not sleep a wink otherwise; she will toss and turn, kicking and bumping whoever her bedmate is, all night. Nell straightens her shoulders, and orders her way into the smaller solar that Robb has been using for private meetings with his lords, and to study the maps. The guard posted is hesitant, but far more hesitant to refuse his Queen, and Robb is alone, to her relief, hunched over the desk, squinting wearily in the torchlight. Grey Wind is restless, pacing by the door; at the sight of her, he practically springs to her side, grazing his snout along her legs and belly, even as she pushes him away.

“I know,” Robb says tiredly, without looking up. “I’ll come to bed soon, Nell, I promise.” In the dim lighting, with his long hair and beard, he appears temporarily years older, a man for true and not just in ambition, serious and grave. He looks like his father, truth be told, and it startles her for a moment, until she recovers enough to clear her throat, very pointedly, until he at last looks up, running a hand over his brow. “Nell-,”

“I came to inform you that you need not come to my bed, nor me to yours, unless we wish it,” Nell says crisply, but unable to hide the twitching edges of her mouth, like parchment or dead leaves curling up in the sun. “You’ve secured yet another victory there, Your Grace.”

He stares at her in befuddlement for a long moment, then glances at Grey Wind, who has sat down beside her, refusing to move until she pets him. Then it dawns on Robb; his face shifts as if the sun or moon had just passed directly over it, and he blurts out, “So that is why you smelled different.”

Nell is not sure what she was expecting, but that was not it. “I smelled different?” she demands incredulously, not sure if she should laugh or look affronted. “Robb, when have you been smelling-,”

But she never gets the rest of it out, for he has come around the desk then and embraced her so soundly that he momentarily lifts her on the floor. She gasps, locking her arms around his neck, their foreheads clash painfully together, and Grey Wind barks, startling her even further, but he is kissing her then, and she turns until he has backed her into the desk, and a few maps go fluttering to the ground like fallen leaves when she is sitting on it, still kissing him, and enjoying it perhaps more than she ever has before. It feels almost freer, somehow. Free of expectations, because they’ve met them. She wonders if other things might feel freer now too. Easier. Finally he stops, and to her dismay she is almost pouting at him like a child for it.

“Thank you,” he says, as if she’d just handed him Tywin Lannister’s sword. “Thank you, thank you-,”

“I haven’t done anything,” she laughs, uncomfortable, although she supposes she had, supposes he is thanking her for never complaining nor shying away from his bed, for being the one to initiate more often than not, for not making him feel as though he were fighting a secondary war in the bedroom, trying to coax a wife into lying with him often enough to beget a child sooner, rather than later. But she will accept it nonetheless; she is not foolish enough to reject a husband’s gratitude, whatever shape it comes in.

“How long?” he asks then, breathless, and she smiles almost shyly.

“Five weeks. Maester Vyman confirmed it today. It will not be so very long at all,” she says, like a mother promising a child an eventual treat. “It is I who should be thanking you. You… to give you a son will make me very happy, Your Grace.” That is what a woman says when telling her lord husband- her king husband, she reminds herself sharply, that she is with child. She learned that not long after she had flowered, all the little minutiae and details.

A wife never hides a pregnancy from her husband. A wife never bemoans a pregnancy to her husband, even if it is her eighth babe and she still has one at her breast. A wife never presumes, never complains, nor scolds. She is always very happy, very pleased, very proud, and it is always- it is always a son, when speaking of heirs, particularly when her lord or king requires one with all haste. She does not speak of her symptoms nor her pains nor her true feelings about it- that is for one’s ladies, other women, who understand.

And if to say such things is like chewing ground up glass, then that is just yet another thing to be endured. A women’s war is in the birthing bed. Nell has heard it a thousand and one times. A wife does not speak to her husband of her trials there no more than a man would explain battle strategies nor siege tactics to his wife. It is a private affair, ruled strictly by sex. Gods, some men go into marriages having little to no idea how a woman’s courses work, never-mind the details of pregnancy or childbirth.

But Robb does explain things to her. He told her the details of the Whispering Wood and the Battle of the Camps and although it was not easy for him to speak of it, he did tell her once, in broken whispers in bed, what it was like to feel dying men bleed out on him, both friends and foes. What it felt like to have your shield battered, but to have to raise it again and keep moving. What it feels like when a horse throws you in full armor to the ground. What it feels like when a warhorse is impaled on a lance or spear and shudders and crumples, and you must fling yourself out of the saddle or go under it and die as well. What it feels like to walk through a field, afterwards, and not know where the ground begins and the corpses end. She knows he told her more to assuage his own conscience, to feel that he could speak of it, explain it, justify it, to someone else. It was not all some gracious desire to educate her on the art of war. But he told her nonetheless.

He has never looked at her and seen a simple-minded woman who must be kept in perfect, pristine ignorance, lest some ancient order come undone and the world split at the seams. Sometimes she almost feels that he looks at her and does not see a woman at all. Not that he thinks her a man, but- He has never condescended to her, never patronized her, not the way some- many- men treat their wives. It is not always even cruel, but a sort of- as though they were a little child or a lapdog of some sort, to be patted on the head and complimented on their shiny new ribbons, and then sent off with a treat. Soft of heart and soft of mind.

Well, nothing about Nell has ever been soft, and Robb knows that. Sometimes she thinks he even likes it, even when her manners verge on impudent, even when she is infuriated with him. That is the oddest thing, that makes her feel so strange. That he could like that part of her, and it would not even be- it would not even be the lazy sort of amusement one might spare for a puppy or kitten sharpening their claws, that sort of thinly veiled humor- oh, she thinks she’s in charge, does she- But that he might genuinely appreciate it.

“You have no need to thank me,” he is saying now. “I am just- I hadn’t thought it might happen so quickly. But I’m glad, truly. You’ll be an excellent mother.”

So quickly, she is thinking- it has seemed like eons and eons for her, but for him this has barely been a few sunny days. In reality, they have been wed for not yet four months, and perhaps that is not so long at all. But it feels longer. Part of her is annoyed that for him it was barely a consideration, although she knows he’s had far more important things to worry over, and the other part of her is relieved that he hasn’t been thinking of it half so frequently as her, that he wasn’t beginning to grow impatient or frustrated already, thinking something must be wrong with her, or him.

“And you will be an excellent father,” she replies, and means it, and then they share the same sort of secretive, giddy smile, which she can last recall from that day in the godswood when she proposed they move up the wedding. A smile of perfect understanding. Something has come loose and is rattling about in her chest. She forces it to come to a halt. There’s no need to act like some insipid child over some warm words, passionate kisses, and a shared smile. It is just the emotions of it all. In the morning she will wake and everything will be as it was.

But the next morning she wakes in his bed, and the giddy feeling has not yet faded. She feels good, she realizes with a start. Not just content or satisfied, good, eager, as if there were bees buzzing under her skin. She wants to kiss him awake and feel him smile against her mouth. She wants him to refuse to let go of her, to refuse to leave this bed, this room. She doesn’t care about anything else, she doesn’t want to let the early morning sunlight in, or listen to the birds or the constant rushing of the river, she just wants to lie here next to him in the half-light and watch the shadows play on the wall and feel the rise and fall of his chest under her head. He stirs slightly and roots his hand languidly in her hair, and she takes his other hand in her own and squeezes, hard, almost gleeful.

“Ow,” he mutters, and she laughs.

There are words on the tip of her tongue but she doesn’t want to say them and risk ruining it all, so she swallows them down instead.

“We leave in a fortnight,” he murmurs then, and ruins it anyways.

Nell lets go of his hand, and rolls onto her stomach to brood, face muffled in her pillow. Part of her knew this was coming, of course. Robb cannot just sit here and wait for Stafford’s army to pin them from the west while Tywin grows well-rested and bolder behind the menacing walls of Harrenhal. But that does not take out much of the sting. She is selfish. She wanted him here, with her. She is hungry for his praise, she will admit.

She wanted him here to watch her grow bigger and bigger with child, to tell her that she was still pretty, still wanted, that she was still worthy, even more worthy now that she was bearing him a babe, she wanted- Well, she wanted him here to be the one to admire and applaud her efforts, rather than she his. He has his war, this is hers, with herself. Fighting to bring this one thing to fruition. But men do not tie their favor to women’s arms before they enter their confinement or go into labor. Perhaps they should. Perhaps they should do more than pace in their solar or go hunting.

She remembers her mother’s last pregnancy. She’d been six. The babe had come far, far too early; there was no hope of its survival. The maester had been working to save her mother instead. Roose had returned from his hunt while they were carrying out the soiled and bloody sheets. Nell had been crouched at the end of the corridor, playing with one of the kitchen cats, who had promptly fled upon hearing him come up the stairwell. He had barely spared her a glance as he passed. Nell had stayed where she was, drawing spindly figures in the dust on the floor, listening to him converse with Maester Uthor.

“I’ve stopped the bleeding for now,” the maester had told him. “But she will be abed for several weeks, to give her body time to recover, my lord.”

“It is her riding,” Father had said dismissively, almost exasperated. “She thinks to shake my seed out in the saddle. I ought to forbid her from the stables, but it is endearing at times, I must admit. They warned me she was half-horse when I wed her. Of course, the Ryswells have as little sense as a stallion in heat at the best of times.”

She wonders what he was doing during her birth. Claiming his rights to some smallcrofter's wife? Hunting boar? Each must have measured about the same in entertainment for him. She does not recall her father ever having held her, or sat her on his knee, or even put her small child’s hand in his. Mother was always there, a shield between the two of them. Nell can recall countless times when a look was all it took; her mother sensed some mood of his, or feared some impulse, and would call her over sharply and gather Nell into her arms, smelling of horse and dog and leather and pine needles.

Robb will hold his child, she knows. Even somber Ned Stark was warm with his sons and daughters. Robb would easily put a toddler in his lap or spin a shrieking child around in his arms or let them rest on his back or shoulders. If he is there. If he lives to see them born. If he returns. She rolls back over to face him.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I will- I will try to write, when I can. I cannot say how long it will be. If we have aid from the Ironborn, perhaps only a few months. However long it takes to dismantle Stafford’s host and rouse the Lannisters from Harrenhal. They will come, if we invade the westerlands. They would not be able to bear it- Tywin is too proud.”

“They may decide to pay you back in kind and attempt to take Riverrun a second time,” she mutters.

“The bulk of the rivermen will remain here. I don’t want a massive army on horseback. It will only slow us down, and attract too much attention.”

“Tell that to Renly.”

“I may, if my mother treats with him successfully.” He leans over and gently kisses her brow. “I would rather you went to Seagard, and from there back up the Neck.”

“When you crowned me, you afforded me the rights of a queen consort,” she warns, refusing to fall for this gallantry. “I shall decide where I hold court in your absence. And I will keep it here. You are King of the Trident now, are you not? Should your wife not stay and rule it while you fight?”

“You could still rule from Winterfell. Or even from the Twins. Your father-,”

“I should rather my father not lay eyes on this child before you,” she snaps, and he looks intently at her for a moment. Grey Wind leaps up onto the bed, startling her, but not him. It is always as if he knows what the wolf is going to do just before he does it, now.

“Very well,” Robb finally says. “I’ll not fight with you before I go. Promise me you will not leave sight of this castle.” He momentarily slips into his king’s voice. “No, swear it. The Mountain and his men are still out butchering on Tywin’s commands. I could not- if something were to happen to you and the babe-,” a king’s voice should not crack like a boy’s, but his does. “If anything were to happen to you,” he says at last. “I could never forgive myself.”

“Nothing will happen to us, I swear,” she says, propping herself up on her elbows to kiss him. “Tell me nothing will happen to you, the would be conqueror.”

“I’ll come back,” he vows. “I will, Nell.” He pulls her into his lap, framed by his legs, and they sit there for a little while longer, his hand splayed flat on her belly, his chin resting on the crook of her neck. She closes her eyes so nothing can leak out, and hopes the babe, minuscule as they must be, will remember the sound of his voice, if nothing else.

Chapter Text

299 AC - WINTERFELL

Beth has never seen an autumn before, and now that she has, she’s not sure how she ever lived without it. There are so many things Beth Cassel has not seen nor done- she has never been further south than White Harbor, she has never been further north than Long Lake. She has never swam in the ocean, she has never danced with a prince, she has never been to court and seen the lords and ladies in all their finery. She has never worn her hair up as befitting a woman grown, only ever in tumbling curls tied back with a worn ribbon or tightly braided, looped around her ears. She has never worn stays nor silken slippers nor jewelry round her freckled neck. She has never known a mother nor siblings, only ever Father.

It has only ever been Father and her, the only Cassels left after the Kingslayer killed cousin Jory. Beth loved Jory. She called him nuncle sometimes and he would carry her around on his back and danced with her at every single feast. He told the very best ghost stories, when Father had fallen asleep early, too tired from training. Jory made them scary enough that she wanted to roll herself up under her covers, but he always gave them happy endings. In the end, the monster was always slain, or turned good by a fair maid’s kiss, and the sun always came up again, driving all the shadows and evil away.

She remembers the Kingslayer as a beautiful man in gold, the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. But he was a monster all the same, wasn’t he? The very worst kind of monster. They were supposed to be ugly and horrible to look at, like the Hound or the Imp or the creatures in Jory’s tales. They weren’t supposed to be golden men who wore white cloaks. It seems wretchedly unfair. You should be able to see a monster coming, she thinks. You should be able to hear him growling deep in the thickets and smell him on the wind and see his teeth and claws gleaming in the dark. It’s not fair if they look good, and beautiful, and true. It’s not fair at all.

Beth had cried herself to sleep when Father told her Lord Stark was only taking Jeyne south as a companion for Sansa and Arya. That hadn’t seemed fair either. Jeyne’s father wasn’t even a knight. She was just the steward’s daughter. She was no more a lady than Beth was, sprouted up in the same uncomfortable garden plot- not an elegant lady like Lady Catelyn or Sansa, destined to marry some fine, handsome lord, but not a common servant, either, destined to scrub pots and sweep floors.

Beth isn’t common. Father is a knight, something rare enough in the North. He had to forsake the old gods in order to take his vows, something his own father never forgave, but he is an anointed knight all the same, and surely that counts for something. Even so, Father did not have her anointed in the sept when she was born, for Beth’s mother, his very last wife, was a Burley from the mountains, and Anya Burley would not have her daughter given the oils of the Seven. Beth does not really think of her as Mother, for Anya died when she was three, and Father does not like to speak much of her. Beth was not even sure what she looked like, until Jory showed her a rough miniature sketch, carefully tucked away among Father’s things, when she was six.

She had curly hair, like Beth, and the same round face and snub nose. Jory says her hair was auburn too. Lucky, the wildings would call it. Mayhaps Beth is part wildling. That would be exciting, at least, although she doesn’t think she should ever like to meet one. Osha doesn’t count; she’s not wild at all, not really, now that she’s grown her hair out and wears dresses or skirts like the other serving women. Not that Beth would ever get the chance- Father never lets her go anywhere or do anything. Beth knows it is because all her sisters died young, years and years ago, but she still thinks- well, she is ten now, her name day was six weeks past, and is ten not nearly a woman? To be sure, she has not flowered yet, and Osha says she will not for some years now, but ten feels older all the same. Important. Special.

After all, in all her ten years of life, Beth never did see a season come to an end before now. The weather is not so drastically different, not here in the North, where even summers have their frigid snows and harsh winds, but the air smells different, sweeter and crisper, fresher, almost, and when she looks out her bedchamber window and down into the godswood across the way, the trees are changing, patches of yellow and orange and scarlet emerging through the usual sea of green. Only the weirwoods remain undisturbed, as if they don’t care at all that summer is over. The weirwoods don’t care for much, she thinks. She offers her prayers to them all the same, but they never seem to hear her.

She prayed and prayed that Lord Stark would change his mind and take her south too- it was the only thing she ever wanted, truly, to go to court and be a lady and wear pretty summer dresses- she did not even have to stay, not forever, because the North has always been her home, but she just wanted to see for herself. So she could tell her own children someday about her adventures as a girl, how she was a lady in waiting to Queen Sansa before she was ever a queen at all. How beautiful and lovely and perfect everything was, how lucky she had been to be there. Now she never will get the chance. Father says it was for the best; had she gone, she might be imprisoned, or dead, or worse.

Sansa isn’t queen; she might never be queen of anything at all. Father says the Lannisters are holding her hostage against Lady Catelyn and Lord- King- Robb. Father says they are holding Arya captive too, or she is dead and they will not confess it. She heard him talking about it with Maester Luwin once. And Jeyne… no one knows what has happened to Jeyne. Beth did not always like Jeyne- she was always so jealous, always annoyed if Sansa paid anyone but her any attention, so smug about being Sansa’s best friend, but Beth would run and play with her all the same, for only Jeyne really understood. She had no siblings nor a mother either. Father says the Lannisters murdered Jeyne’s father as well, so wherever Jeyne is, she is all alone now.

Beth thinks that would be the most terrible thing. To be all alone like that. She has promised Father she will never, ever leave him- not even when she is wed. She will make her lord husband- for he will surely be a lord, just not a firstborn son- come here to Winterfell instead, and when Father is too old to hold a sword or shield she will sit him by the fire and tell him stories until he falls asleep every night. And she won’t ever leave. As much as she wanted to go south, Winterfell is home. Winterfell is special. Winterfell is where Father was born, where Grandfather was born, and it has been home to the Cassels since the time of Cregan Stark, the one they called the Old Man in the North, even before he was old and grey.

That is why their house sigil is the wolf as well- or wolf heads, really. Ten white wolf heads on grey, the inverted colors of House Stark. Jory told her it was because they originated from a bastard of House Stark, although no one will admit it. Jory said that when Lord Bennard refused to vacate his regency and allow Cregan to rule the north as a man grown, and there was war within Winterfell, Bennard’s own bastard son turned against his father and trueborn brothers to help the rightful heir take his seat. Turncloak, his own mother called him, but he was well-rewarded for his loyalty, and his own son took the name Cregan Cassel. There have been Cassels in this castle ever since. That is how Jory would tell it, anyways.

Sometimes Beth thinks Father must be sad that he has no sons to carry on his name, but perhaps her husband can take hers, or at least one of their own sons. That way there will still be Cassels. She would name her firstborn son Jory, she’s already decided. She will tell him all about his namesake and how brave and loyal he was, how he died defending Lord Stark, how he was not afraid of monsters, even monsters dressed in gold with longswords. And if she has a daughter she will name her Anya, for the mother she never knew, and she will tell her how she is a descendant of the First Men and the mountain clans and wildlings and bastards but that she is a lady all the same, for her father is a lord.

So because she has never seen a harvest feast before, she wakes up smiling, and is still smiling while she breaks her fast, crunching her charred bacon between her teeth and kicking her legs back and forth under the table. Father is not smiling; he seldom smiles since the news of Jory, seldom smiles since Lady Catelyn named him castellan and he returned to protect Winterfell. They still take their meals together, but he is busy all day now, either in meetings or training the new recruits. Beth does not think much of the new soldiers. They are mostly scrawny boys, not handsome and broad-shouldered the way Alyn was. Nearly all the strong, experienced men went south to fight the lions. Father says they need to be ready for when winter comes, because the cold and the dark steal strong and weak men alike.

Beth has never seen a winter, of course, although she seen countless snowstorms and blizzards. Old Nan tells her that is nothing compared to the true winter, when no one dares set foot outdoors for years on end, when men scurry underground like mice and babes wither and falter at their mother’s breast and little children vanish into the woods and never return. In the old days the people would make sacrifices to the gods for a shorter season. In the old days all sorts of foul and wicked things were done in the winter and never spoken of again once spring came. Maester Luwin called the comet ‘the sword that slays a season’. Beth hopes there will be a sword to slay the winter as well.

“Father,” she says, as she gulps down the last of her cider. “Mightn’t I go out and check the rabbit traps with Turnip and Palla?”

Beth did not spend nearly so much time with the children of servants before Lord Stark took Sansa and Jeyne and even boyish Arya away, but she hardly has a choice now. Who else would she play with? The Walders? Little Walder’s a fat bully and Big Walder scares her sometimes, he’s so quiet and watchful. She trains her eager stare on Father, who sighs around his mouthful of food, then nods. “You may, but be back in time to greet our guests.”

The Tallharts and Cerwyns are already here, although Beth often squabbles with Eddara Tallhart, who always wants things done just her way, and can’t even look wistfully anymore at poor Cley with Lord Medger a Lannister captive. Lady Jonelle arrived back in the North not a month past, and Beth has heard tell that Cley spends all his time training at swords now, longing to go south to fight to free his father, while his sister runs the household for him. Were she a boy, Beth would have wanted to go south to fight too, although she knows Father would never have allowed it. She’s never held a real sword, but he taught her how to break free if someone grabbed her by the arm or the hair. Father says women aren’t meant to be warriors the way men are, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t protect themselves, either.

“I will,” she chirps, dashing into her small bedchamber to grab her cloak. She nearly skids by him, then presses a brief kiss to his grizzled cheek, heeding his call for her not to run on the stairs at the very last moment.

Palla and Turnip are waiting by the hunter’s gate with two of the meanest dogs, the big ones that only really heed Palla or her father’s commands. They are not going very far, but Beth is glad for the dogs all the same. There’s been reports of more wildings south of the wall, although thankfully none near here. Beth knows most of them wouldn’t be nearly foolish enough to stray onto Stark lands, not with news of the direwolves spread well across the North, but it still sends a prickle down her arms. She puts on a brave face instead, as though they were going on some grand adventure for House Stark and not a brief walk to check some snares.

“If’n I saw a wildling, I’d set the dogs on them,” Turnip says boldly as the gate shuts firmly behind them. It’s not cold out, not really, but there is a cool breeze stirring the fallen leaves on the forest floor and plenty of chestnuts and acorns crunching underfoot. Beth giggles while Palla, who is thirteen and tall, her stringy blonde hair confined to a loose braid, just rolls her eyes.

“Aye, you’d set the dogs on ‘em, Nip? Go on, give Dasha a command then,” she prods with a snicker, nudging him towards the grey bitch. “See how well she listens. Might be she’d rather have you for supper instead of rabbit.”

Turnip sticks his tongue out her in response, then yawns and rubs at his eyes. “Me da says we’ll be up all night cleanin’ pots. Lookit my hands,” he shoves his cracked and callused red palms in Beth’s face. “They sting all the time now, from the cold.”

“Ask the wildlin’ woman for a poultice or potion,” Palla suggests. “They’re all wood witches, ain’t they?”

“Witches aren’t real,” Beth says primly; she rather feels it is her sacred duty to educate them, as the closest Winterfell has to a lady at the moment. After all, Palla can barely write her own name, and Turnip can’t even name his letters- he says they all look like blurry shapes to him. “That’s just one of Old Nan’s stories, you know. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.” Jeyne said very much the same thing to her, which is the same thing Sansa said to Jeyne, a year ago. That is the way it always went. Sansa said something and Jeyne repeated it and Beth always felt like the stupidest one of the lot.

Except when they were doing needlework or dancing with Arya, who was always the worst at that. Beth never called Arya names the way Jeyne sometimes would, but she did use to laugh. It was just silly. Who ever heard of a lord’s daughter refusing to act like a lady? She would have given anything to switch places with Arya Stark, to have the very best clothes and dolls and hair ribbons. But Arya didn’t care about any of that. What a waste. She does miss Arya sometimes, though. They used to play together when Beth was little; she remembers making a snowman with her, and how Arya gave it a stick sword and a pinecone nose.

“How would you know what’s real an’ what’s not?” Palla retorts, to Beth’s dismay. She’s just the kennel girl. She should be saying ‘yes, Beth’ and that’s that. Father says Farlen never thinks before he speaks. Palla probably got it from him. That, or her mother. Everyone knows Farlen’s wife ran off with a freerider three years ago. When she’d gone, Palla didn’t leave the kennels for a whole fortnight. Maybe she was just sick of helping to look after the dogs, Beth thinks. She would be. They’re not even pretty, nice dogs. They’re all for hunting or guarding. But Palla acts as though they’re the finest in all the land. She names them all and always has some wriggling puppy in her lap.

“You’re only ten,” Palla adds, with an impudent, lofty edge. “I’m a woman flowered now, you know. Father’s goin’ to wed me to Red Delyn’s oldest boy when I come of age, an’ then I’ll have a farm all mine own. We’ll have dogs, an’ chickens, an’ sheep-,”

“All of Red Delyn’s sons are ugly,” Beth says under her breath- it’s true, they’re all pox-scarred and thick-bodied, everyone knows it. When she marries, he’ll be handsome as any southern knight. And she won’t have to spend the rest of her life working on some miserable farm out in the middle of nowhere, either. Turnip laughs, then yelps when Palla clouts him round the back of the head with a scowl.

“See if I care,” Palla snaps. “At least I’ll get a husband. Who’re you marryin’? An Umber? They’re all half giant on their mam’s side, Old Nan says-,”

“We got some!” Turnip cheers, interrupting their argument as he dashes forward. Sure enough, the snares have landed them three rabbits and two squirrels. One of the rabbits strangled itself to death on the rope, but the other two are still alive and wriggling. The squirrels seem to have accepted their fate, although they begin to thrash again at the sight of the slavering dogs.

Palla undoes the snare and lets one of the squirrels loose; the two hounds tear after into the underbrush, barking and snarling. Turnip pulls out an impressively large knife, and turns to the rabbits with a hungry look, before Palla plucks it out of his hand. “You’re too little. You’ll cut yourself to the bone with this, Nips.”

“Not! Fair!” he growls, jumping to reach it as she holds it over her head in exasperation.

“Beth, get the sack ready.”

Beth hates this part, but she did agree to go, if only to get out of the castle for a little while. She sighs and holds open the stained bag as far as it will go. Palla shoves a still whinging Turnip away, then crouches down and slits the rabbits’ throats, one by one. Then she wipes the knife on her faded smock, hands it back to Turnip, and frees the dead rabbits from the snares, dumping each one into the bag with a solid thud. Beth fights not to cringe away at the coppery smell of blood.

“Don’t you think it’s mean?” she asks when they’re done, and the dogs have returned looking far less hungry, red on their teeth.

Palla shrugs, and looses the second squirrel, which looks far too skinny and shriveled to be good for eating. This one manages to scurry up a tree before either hound can reach it. “Maybe,” she says. “S’not like we’re killin’ them for fun. You think too much, Beth. Lots of things are easier if you just don’t think. Can’t go around cryin’ over every dead rabbit.”

A twig snaps suddenly nearby, and they all tense and look around. Palla reaches silently for the blade, and Turnip grabs at Beth’s hand; she doesn’t immediately shake him off as usual.

“If I was a wildling, you’d all already be dead by now,” Benfred Tallhart tells them bemusedly, emerging from behind a tree.

“Dead, dead, dead,” his little sister proclaims, not three steps behind him.

Beth huffs in annoyance, Palla wrinkles her freckled nose, and Turnip says, “Only ‘cause the dogs know your smell. Otherwise they’d have been barkin.”

“That must be it,” Benfred smirks; he’s big, and blonde, and wears a hare skin around his shoulders- and on the end of his lance, although he’s not carrying one right now. The Wild Hares, Beth has heard Ser Leobald call them. Roaming around looking for wildlings or bandits to fight, since they couldn’t go south to the war. Fools, Father would call them. Reckless young fools.

But not that foolish. “Father sent you to keep an eye on us, didn’t he?” Beth accuses.

“He sent me,” Benfred acknowledges. “Dara just couldn’t stay behind.”

He elbows his sister; Eddara kicks him in the shins in response, then puts her hands on her hips. “I want to go back through the village,” she declares. “They’re crowning the harvest king and queen.”

Beth brightens at the thought of that, despite her irritation. Doesn’t Father know she’s old enough now? She doesn’t need to be watched over every moment. They weren’t in any danger out here; she can still see the grey walls of Winterfell through the trees! Doesn’t he trust her? She’s not a silly girl. She’s always been sensible, or at least she’d like to think so. She’s never blatantly disobeyed him or given him any cause for concern. He’s going to have to accept that she’s not a baby anymore at some point.

“Let’s go see it, then,” Palla grabs the sack of dead rabbits from Beth and pushes it into Turnip’s skinny arms. “Go run back to your da with this.”

“Why can’t you go?” he cries, indignant.

“Because I’m not like to be beat by Gage for leavin’ him to do all the choppin’ an’ cookin’ himself!” Palla retorts.

Grumbling himself, Turnip takes the sack and the dogs, glancing back warily as they prowl after him, and makes his way back towards the gate. Beth settles in for the very long walk around the castle towards the winter town. But after a little bit she doesn’t mind; Eddara finds a long stick to drag along the dusty trail, Palla wipes her hands on her smock and flirts with Benfred, and Benfred prattles on and on about all the gossip concerning their guests.

“The Hornwoods came while you were out catching rabbits,” he says as the distant thatched roofs and ancient chimneys of the winter town come into view. “Well, just the Lady Hornwood and some of her men. She’s having a right fit about the Bolton bastard- so are the Karstarks.” He scowls. “They didn’t come, though, just sent a steward like the Glovers. Lady Hornwood says the Bastard’s tripled his garrison by her reckoning in the past four months, and the Karstark steward’s going on about their hunting parties crossing the Last River and poaching game from Karhold territory. Women, too,” he adds darkly, although Beth doesn’t understand. What does he mean, poaching women?

“If he’s only a bastard, how can he command the Dreadfort’s men?” she questions, kicking a rock out of her way as they come down the hills, skidding and sliding a bit in the long grass and wet mud. “I thought Lady Nell was her father’s heir.” Beth misses Nell; she gave the best advice for needlework and her Flint friend knew the best stories. She wishes they’d stayed. Nell and Robb’s wedding was like something out of one of Old Nan’s tales, the pale bride with the crimson veil and her fair lord and his ferocious wolf waiting for her under the heart tree. It had been magical and beautiful and a bit frightening. She can’t imagine having Lord Bolton for a father; just the sight of him always unnerved Beth. There was no hint of a smile or laughter or even anger in his eyes. No hint of anything at all.

“Roose Bolton named him castellan before he marched south, the fool,” Benfred says blithely. “You have to wonder if the man’s mad, giving a bastard rights like that, without a trueborn son to put him down. They say Snow’s a savage, if you believe the stories.”

“Oh, we don’t believe any stories here at Winterfell,” Palla mutters sarcastically, glancing at Beth, who flushes but maintains her composure.

“Well,” she says in what she hopes is a firm, mature voice, like a proper lady. “He wouldn’t dare try anything, even if he’s got all those men. Not when Lady Stark left my father in charge.”

“Not with Benfred around,” Eddara is quick to correct. “Your father’s not even landed, Beth. Benfred leads a whole group of lances. Uncle Leo says-,”

Beth is about to say something very unladylike, and tell Eddara exactly where her stupid family who are only masters, not even lords, anyways, can shove it, when they reach the village, just in time to see the procession set off for the wolfswood. It’s not even midday yet, but the villagers will stay in the wood, praying and fasting and dancing round the oldest weirwood they can find, until sundown. Then they’ll come back to light the bonfires and have their own feast. Embers will drift up into the night sky, yearning for the yellow harvest moon overhead.

The harvest queen and king lead the procession, riding matching chestnut palfreys, crowned with autumn leaves and salvaged antlers. They pick a different young man and woman every autumn, but this autumn so many of the men are gone that the harvest king is a boy of ten or eleven, sitting stiff and straight as if he were a man decades older, scarlet leaves brushing against his brow. The harvest queen is a plump girl of fifteen or sixteen, her colorful crown in stark contrast to her dark hair. She’s not beautiful, not like the queens in stories; she has spots on her face and big ears, but in the pale autumn daylight she’s striking nonetheless, holding onto an old scythe bound in ribbons and the last wildflowers, because the king isn’t strong enough to carry it himself without falling off his mount.

The villagers are singing Autumn of My Day, and it’s so mournful, somehow, that Beth almost feels like she could cry. Even prissy Eddara is chastened and quiet, and Palla stands shoulder to shoulder with Benfred just behind them, watching the crowd walk by, singing and ringing bells and beating drums and wearing their finest clothes. Beth hums along with their chanting as they pass by, and then it grows fainter and fainter as they disappear into the wood, the dead leaves and snarled branches muffling their music, and obscuring them from view. When they return, hours from now, they will come bearing lanterns and candles dripping with wax and oil and light, and the twilight will shrink away, and the dark will cower from their bonfires and their laughter and feasting, if only for this one night. One final rebellion against the coming winter, Jory once told her. That is what the harvest festival means for the people, both high and lowborn. One last toast to the light, and then a sad acceptance of the encroaching night.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell first sets foot in a sept a fortnight after Robb leaves with the majority of the northmen. She may have never stepped inside Winterfell’s small sept or even glanced in the direction of White Harbor’s during her visits to the city, but she is not completely caught off guard. Sara educated her on the ways of the Faith as well, since she was to marry Robb, a southerner’s son. Granted, Robb went on to favor his father’s religion, certainly when he married her and led the northerners south for war, but he still offered his prayers in this very same sept before he left. Nell had waited outside, a hand momentarily resting on her belly.

She was certainly not showing then, and she is not showing now, but from the occasional glances the Waldas spare her, she is certain at least some of her ladies are beginning to suspect. It is difficult to disguise her sudden aversion to certain foods, and her frequent absences due to sickness. If she concentrates while studying herself naked in her looking glass, she thinks she can make out a slight outward curve of her stomach, but it is completely hidden under dresses and skirts. She wishes Robb had been here long enough to see it. Part of her even misses Grey Wind’s familiar hot weight spread across her covers at night.

Robb had spent the dawn before he set off sitting next to her in bed, for as long as he dared tarry, studying her as if trying to memorize the sight. “You’re not going to return to find me with extra limbs or a pair of wings,” she’d mocked him, then kissed his neck very carefully while he breathed deeply, his hands moving up and down her spine as if trying to pluck out a tune on the harp. “Come back in time for the birth,” she’d ordered him in a whisper then. “I shan’t be able to celebrate a victory without you.”

“Eddard,” he’d told her, solemnly but hopefully at the same time. “If- if it is a son, I should like to name him for my father. We don’t have to call him Ned, but-,”

“Eddard,” Nell had smiled smoothly, to show him how unworried, how calm she was. “Our Edd.” It will be, she’d promised him silently then, and known he’d understood, an Eddard. A son. Robb was going to cleave the Westerlands in two and route Stafford and rouse Tywin and in return she was going to give them a healthy, strong son, a prince. Prince Eddard. It had a certain regal sound to it, she’d thought, and still thinks. And would that not restore some joy to her good mother? Her firstborn grandchild, named for her husband? It would be wonderful. It was going to be wonderful. It would begin to set things right again.

Of course, even with a son, it will not magically cease the fighting and see them all back home before winter comes. Nell knows that. She was raised wiser than to pin all her hopes on a babe with the right parts. But she cannot help but cling to it all the same, the way a drowning man might a raft. She feels so useless sometimes, so helpless, tucked away behind the walls of Riverrun, unable to go out riding and hunting as she used to, unable to see men like the Mountain or Lorch hanged, unable to simply force them all to do what she thinks best, wisest. Her worth cannot solely lie in arranging marriages and sewing new clothes for the winter, surely.

But when she is a mother, she thinks, she will be something to someone, other than Robb’s Bolton wife. She will be the future King of the North’s mother, forever, irrevocably. Friends come and go, marriages fail regularly, even when they produce children, but one cannot unmake a child, unmake a mother. Nell likes the idea of that. She still does not feel much attachment to the babe yet, but that is only natural, since it has not yet quickened. She will soon, she regularly reassures herself. She will, and once she feels them move in her and pushes them out and holds them in her arms, she will love them just as fiercely as she’s ever loved anything. As much as her mother loved her.

All very sweet thoughts to have, to be sure, but it did not stop her from crying when Robb went. Not in public, of course- she’d rather be dead than ever hear whispers about their queen weeping in front of an audience- but afterwards, when she had a few precious moments alone, she did. Embarrassing, heaving sobs. She was almost perplexed by them. Yes, she cares about Robb, wants him to be safe, is afraid for him, but- It’s not love, she reminds herself sharply. It’s not. Love is something safe, comfortable. People can fall in love when they have nothing else to worry about. It’s not like a parent’s love for a child, romance is different, it’s a choice one makes.

She is absolutely no condition to go about ‘falling’ or ‘slipping’ or even ‘easing’ into anything like that. Robb doesn’t love her, and she doesn’t love him. He cares for her, of course he does, anyone can see that, and he is protective of her, enjoys her company, wants her to be happy, but that is because he is a good man, who would feel much the same for any woman he were wed to. He was raised to be like that. If they had ever been free to choose, she knows he would not have been close to her first pick, nor she his.

And that’s alright. But he doesn’t love her. He may, eventually, when the war is over, and she is not adverse to the possibility of it happening for her as well. Barbrey always told her women loved far more easily than men, that it was important to never let yourself love a man whose affections you were uncertain of, to protect herself. He might love her after she gives him a son, and sometimes, at night, she even lets herself dawdle on the fantasy of it all. Perhaps he even told himself he loved her, before he left. But he did not say it, and that is just like Robb, who would never want to lie to his wife. He might have thought it, it might have crossed his mind in the pleasant haze of emotions surrounding the news of the pregnancy, but people think all sorts of things and that does not make them true.

So there was really no reason for her to cry so. It would have been mortifying for anyone to see her in such a state. It has to be the babe. Pregnancy addles a woman’s emotions, it’s well known. She’ll be weeping at the thought of the dead fish on her plate, next thing she knows. She can’t say much for her enjoyment of this much far- neither the pregnancy nor the wedding ceremony playing out before her. But she is the queen of the North and the Trident and all the Riverlands now, and these are her people, and these are their gods, and so she is sitting in the first pew in between Edmure and the Bracken sisters, watching Hendry take Tyta to wife.

Sitting inside a sept itself is a rather curious experience, and she is not the only guest to look perplexed. Dana keeps shifting in the row behind her, and Jory is standing stiffly in the dappled, rainbow shadow of one of the stained glass windows, regarding the marble altars with a mixture of fascination and wariness, as if the statues might come to life at any moment and attack. To depict the old gods in such a form- or any form- would be akin to blasphemy for a northerner. The gods are just that. Gods.

They do not take the shape of man or woman or even animals, although one can certainly find signs of them in a flock of birds winging across the sky at sunset or the rushing of a river or children gathering wildflowers deep in the wood. But they are not- people. They do not have separate identities, not really. They are simply present, numerous and individual all at once. One cannot pluck a single grain of sand or drop of rain or snowflake between their fingers. The same goes for the old gods.

For southerners, their faith must be clearly outlined and delineated, with strict lists of vices and virtues. The old gods revile some acts as well- slavery, incest, kinslaying, broken oaths, be they vows of loyalty or even guest right, but it is not the same as confessing one’s sins to a septon or praying for penance. The old gods do not seek penance. They take their retribution where they can find it, and there is no fiery hell waiting for the men who have dishonored them, only a foul end and a slow rot, ultimately nothingness.

Still, Nell can see a certain appeal to the artistry and solemnity of the sept itself, as much as she is bored by the septon’s dry tones and the whisper of his robes and the smell of the incense. Riverrun’s sept is small, but it is beautiful all the same, and clearly tended to well, with fresh flowers and candles burning brightly beneath every altar. There are even shells and reeds from the rivers left at their stone feet in offering. The bride and groom stand betwixt the Father and the Mother, although to Nell the figures hold no special meaning and seem just a marble man and woman, looking down at a smaller, flesh and blood version of themselves.

The Father is stern and tall, with a mature man’s thick beard rippling down his chest and a set of scales held aloft in one hand as if in warning. The Mother is soft and almost plump in her rendering by comparison, smiling serenely, one hand on the swell of her belly under her flowing robes, the other outstretched as if to beckon a child closer. The Father’s eyes are deep green emeralds, almost black from a distance, and the Mother’s are twinkling sapphires, glowing bluer and bluer in the pale lighting of the sept.

After so long staring at them, it’s beginning to unnerve her. Nell imagines southerners must feel like this in a godswood, although Riverrun’s godswood is little more than a splendid garden, especially in the light of day. Finally, the service concludes as the septon pronounces them wed, and Nell catches her wandering thoughts in time to smile politely, ignore the ache in her temple from her iron circlet, and applaud along with everyone else. There are far more people there for Hendry than Tyta, aside from the Frey women already present, and Nell is glad of it. There is to be a small feast and some dancing, hardly enough to satiate an entire horde that would descend from the Twins.

After the happy couple, Nell is next to leave the sept, taking Edmure’s offered arm. She has warmed to Robb’s uncle; although he often comes across as younger than his twenty four years. She supposes that is due to being born so long after his sisters. They were both women wed sent off to live with their respective husbands when he was still a child himself. Manhood came slow to him, coming of age in peace times, with apparent little pressure to wed immediately from his ailing father. Nell has heard rumors that Hoster Frey was once pushing for a Martell match for him. Perhaps he ought to have pushed a little harder, for then Edmure would not be betrothed to a Frey.

Nell reminds herself, as she half-listens to the chatter around her, that she must press him to publicly make a decision soon, or Lord Walder may grow impatient. She is certain it will be Roslin, judging by how much time he spends around her, often under Nell’s own chaperonage. She thinks that should be a happy enough marriage. Edmure has the Tully pride; he would rile at a more severe, haughty, or even commanding wife. For example, had Nell wed Edmure she is certain it would have been a disaster. Robb is not one to simply roll over and bark for her, but he does listen, is willing to admit he was wrong, which is more than many men could say to their wives.

But Roslin is not all sweet meekness and mild as milk, either. Nell does not think any of the Freys are, even the more reserved girls. They are not a very demure family, after all. Roslin has brothers to protect her, but she can stand her ground when needed. Nell has seen her go toe to toe with Fair Walda or Zia more than once, particularly when it comes to cruel words or gossip. Roslin is honest, above all. Nell almost admires her for it. That girl could not tell a lie if you had a sword to her throat.

At the ensuing feast she dances with Edmure and with Hendry and with Lord Bracken himself, and a few other knights, but it is terribly warm in the hall and she is eventually able to beg pardon to any future partners and resume her seat. Dana is looking at her as if she might faint, which only makes Nell scowl briefly at her and raise an eyebrow in challenge. “Fine,” Dana mutters, shrugging in surrender, “but don’t come crying to me if the room starts spinning round because you wouldn’t loosen your bloody stays… Your Grace.”

Nell debates throwing a roll of bread at her, but is then sidetracked by absolutely insisting that Alyx dance a round with Kirth Vance. She and Alyx came to a quick understanding when Nell helped her brew her own moon tea. “I am not a septa,” she’d told her, and a few of the older girls as well, “women have needs as men do, and I know you are not all trembling maids still. I will not shame you or dismiss you outright if you slip into bed with a squire… or an Ironborn. But if you cannot be discreet, do not expect me to rise to your defense. You will go straight back to the Twins if you wish to play games with stupid boys. I’ll not stand idly by and watch you get with bastards. Do what you will, but do it quietly, sparingly, and for the love of the gods, wash it down with moon tea.”

Their actions reflect back on her, as bothersome as it might be to play the governess. She will not be known for keeping loose ladies around, and she will not have some fool Frey complaining that their queen did not guard his daughter or sister’s virtue well enough. Even now she is careful to sit straight-backed and serene in her seat of honor, trying to pretend as though she does not feel like a child playing make-believe in Robb’s absence.

When she stood by his side as his queen consort, it was one thing. Robb earned that crown, as much as she might dislike it. She has done and little and less to warrant her own. Were she still just Lady Nell, she might relax and laugh and talk with everyone else. Instead she is the only royalty in the room, a title she was not born to and did not snatch up through conquest, either. Many little girls dream of being a princess or queen, aye, but eventually they reach an age where they understand that the list of queens and princesses who got their happy endings is very, very short. Look to Rhaella Targaryen, or Elia Martell, or even the exiled princess, Daenerys. And they were all born to their high titles, yet met such miserable ends.

That will not be her fate, though, she thinks firmly. Not her. She will live to see an, if not happy end, at least a peaceful one. And whether her son is Lord of Winterfell or King of the North, he will know her. She has thought about the birthing bed a few times here and there, but it easier to just glance over it in her head. Most women would go mad if they spent all their pregnancies dwelling and dreading such a thing. It is a battle, as everyone says, and there is no point in brooding over it. One lives or one dies. Her own mother lived through so many doomed births; it was never her death. She will be fine.

One of the few positives of being queen, however, is that one can leave a wedding before the bedding ceremony without it seeming discourteous. Queens are expected to be chaste and gentle-mannered, are they not? They can hardly expect her to join the throng of women trying to yank off Hendry’s clothes, shouting and shrieking with laughter. Since Jory is among said women, pink-faced and giggling, Edmure abstains from the ceremony himself in order to escort her and Dana back to her rooms, ever the chivalrous knight, for all his fondness for drink. Perhaps because of this, Nell softens a bit more towards him as he goes on about how Hendry was so nervous he nearly vomited before they entered the sept, and when they reach her door, she lets Dana slip in ahead to make sure the torches are lit, than turns back to him.

“Speaking of illness, if you find me increasingly sickly these next months, you should not be alarmed,” Nell says frankly, then seeing his confused look, chance a small smile. “I am expecting a child. Your great-nephew, if the gods are good.”

“Truly?” Edmure is almost childishly delighted, although they barely know one another, and she flushes all the same. He moves as if to embrace her, then hesitates, and instead kisses her on the cheek instead. “That’s wonderful news, Donella. Robb must have been thrilled-,” he frowns, “he does know, doesn’t he?”

“He does,” Nell replies dryly. “I am not so cold-hearted as to leave my own husband in the dark, Ser.” Then she exhales in amusement. “I had not wanted to pronounce it to the court until I was a little further along, but many will have seen that I did not touch much of my wine tonight.” Maesters are nowhere near as united on their opinions on drinking during pregnancy as they are about horseback riding, to her annoyance, but Barbrey always told her, on the advice of a midwife, that water or milk was best for the babe, and that she should avoid spiced liquors in particular. Then again, they also say too much cinnamon or peppercorn will make a babe come early.

“In the morning, when we hold audience,” Edmure suggests. “It would be a boon to people’s spirits, surely. Roslin has mentioned that some of the women in particular were distraught to see the northerners go west. Although I’ve assured her,” and here he does straighten with pride a little, “that we shall never fall to the likes of any Lannister. Riverrun is quite secure.”

“It is, but they’re are afraid all the same,” Nell admits. “I cannot blame them- particularly not the Bracken girls. What Barbara and Jayne endured… It is horrific. They are terrified it will happen again, that their security will be ripped out from under them. They felt safer here when Robb and his men remained, when we had a direwolf roaming the halls, frightening as it could be.” I felt safer here, she thinks, and ignores the ache in her chest. Her fretting like an old woman will not bring Robb back any sooner. She should be praying for his victory in battle, not wishing he were warming her bed again.

“But you may have the right of it,” she acknowledges. “It… it is not just my child, it is their future king, someday long from now, I pray. They should know.” It is a risk, she thinks. She is just nine weeks gone. If she loses it… But she can’t think like that, she can’t. The pregnancy has been annoying but normal thus far. She is young and healthy. And there will always be risks. Women lose babes at birth all the time. It will help her as queen, for them to know she is fertile, that she carries an heir. And she cannot deny there is a certain smug appeal to the thought of Tywin Lannister finally hearing news of it in a few weeks time, when they hold his own prized son in their dungeon.

After Edmure has bid her goodnight, still smiling over the thought of it, Nell steps into her chambers, removes her crown with a sigh, and massages her scalp while Dana brings in two of her maids to help them both undress for bed. It is a little odd to go back to her girlish days of having a friend for a bedmate, rather than a husband, but at least Dana does not talk in her sleep the way Robb sometimes does. He says the strangest things, as well. She wonders what in the world he dreams. She hopes they are nothing like hers.

“You think the Vances will agree to take Alyx, then?” Dana asks her once they are both reclining, her in the window seat, watching the river run silver in the autumn moonlight, and Nell lying back on the bed, her hair a tangled mess under her, listening to the breeze occasionally rattle at the roof. “Kirth seemed besotted enough with those Braavosi looks.”

“Alyx is charming,” Nell says mildly, “well-spoken, and clever. I should think that would be enough for him to overlook the fact that her father is a seventh son and her mother a merchant’s daughter.”

“Short betrothals for these Freys, aye?” Dana snorts. “Seems almost preferable, if you ask me. I had to spend years listening to you harp on about Robb Stark and how you were never going to humble yourself for Robb Stark and how Robb Stark had best learn to be a biddable husband-,”

“Yes, your point has been made,” Nell rolls her eyes. “Excuse me for being a bit preoccupied with my future marriage as a young girl. However did you bear it? I know marriage is such a dirty word for you-,”

Dana sucks in a breath at that, which Nell ignores. “You do not have to wed a northman, you know, if none of them have been to your liking. You are my first and foremost lady in waiting. I am certain we could arrange a match for you here in the Riverlands- a firstborn son, truly, Dana, I would not pass you off on some man’s spare-,”

“No,” says Dana shortly. “Nell, I’ve told you-,”

Nell wrinkles her brow, propping herself up on her elbows. “You are hardly getting any younger- neither of us are.” Her eighteenth name day came a few days after Robb left, and Dana will be eighteen herself in a few short months. She has been of age to wed for years now. Nell hardly is of the belief that any woman over sixteen is an old maid, but come nineteen or twenty without even a betrothal, and people do begin to whisper, particularly if the woman does not stand to inherit anything herself. “You could have as long a betrothal as you desire, truly-,”

“I said I will not,” Dana snaps, and the silence between the two of them is sharp indeed.

Nell sits up all the way. Dana is avoiding her eyes, staring out the window, her chin resting on her knees. She looks younger like that, a girl, really, and Nell lets her shoulders relax. “I didn’t mean to pressure you. I only- you are my dearest friend, Danelle, a sister, truly, and I want to see you settled and happy, if I can. You deserve to be lady of your own keep, with your own servants and household, not spending the rest of your days following after me.”

“I should make a piss-poor lady of any keep,” Dana says stiffly. “That was for my sisters, not for me. I am not- you were born to do things like this. Rule. You have the blood of the Red Kings. I’m one Flint of near a hundred, Nell. There’s a dozen girls near identical to me, truly.”

“That does not make you any less capable or wise,” Nell retorts. She rises from the bed and draws near the window, puts her hand on Dana’s skinny arm. “You are too hard on yourself. I know it might seem intimidating, but- But you are a highborn lady, you were raised for such things. No man could count himself ill-favored to have you as a wife. You’re witty, and fierce, and loyal-,”

“I would not be suitable, trust me.” Dana still will not look at her, but then she shakes her head a little. “I’m sorry for my insolence, Your Grace.” She is only half-jesting.

Nell embraces her instead, and after a moment Dana returns the favor. “Your apology is accepted, my good lady.”

She sleeps well enough that night, and in the morning she bathes and sees her hair brushed to lustre and dons her crown anew. They may have little hope from Balon Greyjoy, for Theon ought to have reached Pyke by now, and they may be awaiting nothing but scorn from Tyrion Lannister, who reports say now holds the office of Hand, and Catelyn is still traveling for Bitterbridge, with an uncertain future there.

But for one brief moment Nell feels secure, confident, powerful as queen, when she stands before them all, bleary-eyed from a night of drinking and dancing, and calmly announces that she and His Grace the King are expecting a babe. She sits back down in her high-backed seat as the hall erupts with cheers and applause, spots of color emerging on her pale cheeks, and wonders if this is how Robb felt, whenever men cheered and shouted his name.

Then she begins to think about how to make this a more frequent sensation.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell first feels the babe quicken while negotiating over rights to the village green. How this came to be is simple, really- she cannot go out riding or hunting, Edmure is loathe to let her leave the safety of Riverrun at all, and she did promise Robb she would be careful. But she is not so far along in the pregnancy that they might think to shut her up in some dark room yet, and Nell is determined to make the most of what free time she has. So when she is not reading or practicing the high harp or sewing or writing letters- because regular correspondence is expected from any lady, and certainly a queen- she has decided that, well, if she is to rule, or at least reign, she ought to be able to hold her own audiences.

The trick is how to do this in a manner that is not going to have people murmuring about her shutting her husband’s uncle out of his own hall or solar. She comes to much the same conclusion Good Queen Alysanne did; hold women’s courts. It’s hardly a novel concept; the vast majority of petitioners before any given lord will always be male. Men speak on behalf of their families, villages, or towns. Most women would not dare approach their ruling lord themselves, unless they were truly desperate or prominent widows. At the Dreadfort, willing visits from the smallfolk were very rare indeed. A peaceful land, a quiet people meant that the smallfolk did not approach Roose Bolton for judgment on a matter unless they truly had no other choice.

Gods be good, why would anyone willingly seek out the rule of a man known for taking tongues and maidenheads? Her father was not their protector. They did not respect him; they feared him. Father would say respect and fear are intertwined, and he may be right, but Barbrey taught her that men will obey out of fear. But they will only rise to your defense out of respect. One thousand sullen, reluctant soldiers only forming lines out of fear of being hanged for desertion may make a tolerable fighting force. One hundred fiercely devoted men willing to lay down their lives for you in an instant makes a far better one. Her aunt was never beloved by the people of Barrowton, but she was respected, defended, firmly above reproach in their eyes.

These women may never fight for her, but if they respect her, it is worth more than men might assume. Even women of the smallfolk can wield influence in their communities. Certainly during a war, when most of the men in their prime who would otherwise be leading them are gone. After the Dance, Westeros had more widowed ladies in high positions of power than it knew what to do with. Many of them were reluctant to immediately remarry, and not just out of enduring love for their late lords. Sara once japed, while instructing her on history, that they might have been far better off with each kingdom ruled by widows. Of course, Visenya was a widow while she plotted Maegor’s bloody path to the throne, but Nell still sees the point.

It has been a little over a month since they had a raven with news that Robb is forging a path into the westerlands. He should be passing through the Golden Tooth, but the news was vague, and for good reason, in case the raven was shot down by Lannister men. Nell does not think Robb will stay on the river road all the way to Casterly Rock. He’d be almost immediately waylaid and surrounded by westermen. She suspects he will try to use the mountains for cover instead. It will be a hard, frustrating journey; very few of the men he is with are familiar with the area, and it’s very easy to get waylaid and lost, even with scouts riding ahead. But it is what he will do, she thinks. Robb prefers a quiet ambush to a blatant confrontation. Thus far it has served him well, because the men he has been warring with note his youth, and believe it will make him short-sighted, impulsive, and eager for glory, sure to take the most direct route, the biggest risks. And other boys of fifteen likely would. But he is clever, and patient. Even if it takes them weeks and weeks of hard travel, even if men grow frustrated upon seeing no battle beyond a few skirmishes, he will wait, and then strike when they least expect it.

She is glad of it. Cunning, patient men tend to die much later in life than the ones seeking immediate recognition of their valor.

To further set her guests at ease, she is holding court in the godswood. Far from the view of the heart tree where she sacrificed a young goat not a week past. Such things are not brought up in polite conversation, but there are rumors of Stark’s heathen wife practicing witchcraft to her tree gods nonetheless. Nell is not particularly bothered by them since they have yet to take on a directly malicious slant, only one of horrified fascination or incredulity. She will not deny it, nor will she shout it from the roof tops. The pregnancy has gone well enough thus far; her vomiting has lessened as of late, although her breasts are still tender and sore most of the time, and her back often aches. She will not risk it by abandoning her faith now.

But nor does she wish to develop a reputation akin to Mad Danelle Lothston or Shiera Seastar. Nell is not nearly beautiful enough, she will admit, to counter any rumors of black arts and bathing in blood the way the Seastar could. Lucky bitch. Had she been covered in moles or with sagging teats or had crooked teeth they would have had her charred to a crisp on a pyre within weeks, Targaryen-blooded or not. No wonder she never wed. Look at what they did to Serala Darklyn, who was not even accused of witchcraft, only a silver tongue and a beguiling smile. Shiera likely thought if she wed Bloodraven and he fell against Daemon Blackfyre, they’d have her roasting over a fire or fed to wild dogs before sundown.

So she breaks from her usual mourning black- for it has not yet been seven months since Ned Stark was killed, and she stands with Robb in his grief, even when apart- to wear a more palatable shade of grey-blue, still modest and unassuming, but perhaps a bit more maidenly. Well, as maidenly as a woman thirteen weeks with child can be. She is still not far along enough for it to really show unless she is sitting or standing a very specific way with the light fabric of her gowns flattened taut against her belly, but now that everyone is aware she can hardly go a few minutes without some query or concern or advice related to it. Always ‘have you heard this’ or ‘Your Grace, you might try this’ or ‘when I was with my fifth child, I found that…’

At first it was bemusing, even endearing. Nell is not used to being fawned over so. Barbrey was not inclined towards an overabundance of affection, even when Nell was ill as a child. She was a Ryswell; the Ryswells believed the cure for most ailments, be they physical or not, was brisk exercise and a rousing argument. Now it seems all anyone wants to talk to her is about how she is feeling, her aches and pains, whether her bowel movements are regular, whether she is getting enough sleep, is she carrying low or high? Does she feel flushed more often than not? What has she been eating? Is she moving around too much? Not enough? Perhaps she ought to rest her eyes- reading during pregnancy is unhealthy for the babe. Listening to lively music is unhealthy for the babe. Sleeping with open windows is unhealthy for the babe. Hot baths are unhealthy for the babe. Cold baths are unhealthy for the babe. If even half of this is true, Nell has no idea how anyone has ever managed to successfully carry a child to term, because clearly it is all madness balanced on the head of a needle.

Now, leaning over a rough map of the village most directly under Riverrun’s rule, Nell feels the strange fluttering, twisting sensation, pause momentarily in surprise, and resists the impulse to put a hand to her belly as she straightens up. “We’ve the right of it, Your Grace,” the hardened woman of fifty odd years before her states. Maren is the village headwoman, and the only head at all with most of the men off to fight. She’s diminutive and bony, with greying auburn hair pulled back under a faded scarf, but the vast majority of the common women gathered seem to look to her before saying anything bold. Not counting her own ladies, Nell estimates there are near fifty village women or girls present at the moment, some sitting on blankets on the grass, other standing and chatting, a few timidly approaching Dana or Jory from time to time, who likely seem more personable than many of the Frey girls.

“We’re not about to set them out to the wood to starve,” Maren continues shortly, “but the extra cattle is more trouble than not- the green can’t take that much grazing, we’ll have nothing but dry dust, and the grass isn’t coming in as rich as it was, what with the autumn-,”

“Yes,” says Nell, still unsettled by the movement she just felt.

Any settlement north of High Heart or Raventree Hall has been swamped with refugees from the southern half of the Riverlands. The land around Harrenhal and the God’s Eye may as well be a desert waste. People are always loathe to leave their homes, especially if they are small crofters, but no one is willing to chance an encounter with the Mountain and his men. And the Riverlands is populous as it is, even with the recent thousands slaughtered by the Lannisters’ initial invasion. The village of Riverrun has gone from three hundred to near six hundred alone. Some of the smallfolk were able to move their cattle with them. While it might initially seem like a boon…

“You’ll have to draw straws,” she says, already anticipating the look of distaste on Goodwife Maren’s face. “No one will like it, I’m aware, but this squabbling over who has rights to the green must end, or you’ll have disputes all autumn, and go into winter with ill-fed, weak cattle and people at each other’s throats. Draw straws, and rotate. Hold out as long as you can until it’s time to slaughter and store the meat as efficiently as possible. I will send as many men as I can spare to help with the construction of the new homes and barns.”

“My people wager they ought to have first rights. This is our land,” Maren says stiffly. “We feel for the newcomers, truly, but-,”

“You are all rivermen and women, are you not?” Nell exhales, adjusting her circlet momentarily. “The lost harvests are going to mean a hard winter as it is. We cannot send these people back to burned homes and ruined fields and Tywin Lannister’s pack of reavers. I will not lose any more workers to Harrenhal. And we cannot afford to lose cattle either. Start the slaughtering early if you must. I will ask Lord Edmure to send out a scout to try to locate any meadows in the wood we may have overlooked. Then you could have a north and south pasture.”

“We’d need another bridge to move them ‘cross the Red Fork, Your Grace.”

“Then we’ll build one,” Nell says, trying to sound as if this will all be easily resolved with a few firm words here and there. In truth, she feels as though she is simply making things up as she goes. But what else can she do? They came to her, and she ought to feel some measure of honor for that, that they would show her such trust. She is not sure that northerners would be so quick to embrace a southern queen the way the Riverlands has a Stark and a Bolton, ugly rumors about her heritage aside.

That is not the only matter brought up, of course, just one of the more pressing. After a little while, and with some prodding from the likes of Arwyn or Fat Walda, women or girls come up her, a few heavy with child themselves or with small children in their arms, and… tell her things. Not things they want her to necessarily solve or rectify, just… as if it were some confession. Dead husbands, parents, children. Destroyed homes their family had maintained for centuries. Rapes. So many rapes. One girl describes hiding in a well with her sister to avoid a group of soldiers that spent near two hours amusing themselves with the neighboring women. Another tells her how Amory Lorch found some of her village’s children hiding in a barn loft and set the building ablaze to lure out their mothers and fathers from their own hiding places.

Another tells her that she miscarried after falling down a flight of stone steps running from soldiers. Another tells her that the Mountain rode her father and brother down in the fields where they worked, then set them alight. Another tells her that she and her cousins spent two days being pressed into service dumping corpses into the river until they managed to escape. “They float, Your Grace,” the girl said dully. “But the current don’t take them all downstream, it don’t. So we had to wade in with poles an’ push them.” Yet another informs her that Tywin Lannister came to the Crossroads Inn and hanged Masha Heddle for letting Catelyn Stark take the Imp prisoner, then let his men fall on the guests and workers.

None of this ought to surprise Nell. And it doesn’t, not really. But it is one thing to hear vague reports from the mouth of scouts or men like the Blackfish, and quite another to hear it from eye-witnesses. My fault, some part of her thinks numbly, although how could it be? She is not responsible for any of this. She did not ask for this war, or this position, or these circumstances. Yet she thinks it all the same. She is their queen. They are coming to her and telling her these tales because she is a queen, and that is supposed to mean that she ought to do something about it. She truly understands the trap now. The temptation to raise a host and march on Harrenhal, strategy be damned. The desire for revenge, the burning want to do something, anything, to prove to them that this will not go unanswered. But she cannot. She cannot answer these injustices for them. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

Afterwards, once they have been fed and sent on their way, Nell walks the triangular keep of Riverrun with Roslin and Jory; she has been trying to make an effort to spend more time with the girl who is now formally Edmure’s betrothed, and Dana is off somewhere with Marianne and Alyx, likely not practicing their needlework as they were said they were going to, and instead loitering in the kitchens or trying to spy a glimpse of the Kingslayer down in the dungeons. Nell may be the one with child, but it is Roslin who has been glowing as of late, every step near a dance, looking as though she might burst into song.

“Had I any idea you would be so besotted with Edmure, I would have insisted he ask for your hand much sooner,” Nell says dryly, and Roslin pinkens, but cannot hide her smile.

“He is a good man,” she says simply, as if that explains everything there is to say on the matter. “I- I am grateful that he has been able to overlook the circumstances of our match.”

“His quarrel has always been with Lady Catelyn, not you,” Nell replies. “It is not easy for a proud man to accept that his sister sold him in marriage so we might cross a bridge. Though I daresay he was halfway to forgiving her the moment he laid eyes upon you, Ros.”

“Don’t say that,” Roslin is so pale, she reddens all the more, fidgeting with her hands slightly. “I- I feel terrible about it, as it is. I- I am one of Lord Walder’s daughters, aye, but… He is a Tully. He would normally never have wed someone from my house. I am-,”

“If you tell me you are beneath his favor, I shall have Jory pick you up and throw you into the river,” Nell rolls her eyes.

“I wouldn’t,” Jory calls from behind them, then adds, “begging your pardon, Your Grace.”

“Treason,” Nell mutters, but smirks.

“I am so pleased, of course,” Roslin says quickly. “Edmure- he has never held any of it against me. Not my family, not my station, nor… well, they say things about us. The women.”

“That you are not maids,” Nell is not going to dawdle around the matter. “You know my feelings on the matter. Regardless of whether-,”

“I am a maid,” Roslin blurts out in mortification, then presses her lips together, before allowing, “You ought to know, Your Grace- Donella. Fair Walda loves Black Walder.”

Nell glances at her sharply. “Her uncle?”

“He is… familiar with many of my nieces and good sisters,” Roslin allows, gaze shadowed. “Including Arwyn and Shirei’s mother, before she died.”

“So you tell me that Fair Walda lies with her own uncle, and Wyn and Shirei may be bastards.” Nell keeps her voice low, but casual, so no passing guard or servant might look amiss. “I confess, I do not know whether to thank you or scream, Ros.”

“She thinks that one day, if- if he could inherit the Twins, he might wed her for true,” Roslin says carefully. “That is what I’ve heard her telling Zia, at least. She- that is why she has been most loathe to be here. She does love him, even if…”

“She resents the thought of me attempting to wed her to another. How long have they been carrying on like this?” Nell is irritated, of course, but less shocked than she perhaps should be. She has met the notorious Black Walder before; he is fighting with Robb in the westerlands at present. The thought of the man sleeping with his own kin is not terribly surprising. His temper, though- she would not want to be on the wrong side of that. If the man had a wife, he’d beat her bloody regularly. Fair Walda may not realize her own fortune that she cannot wed him.

“Since she flowered, I think,” Roslin murmurs. “I heard- once her father caught him coming back from her rooms, but- Walton is no fighter, he would never dare openly challenge Black Walder.”

Nell wonders then, if Fair Walda loves the man because he might wed her someday, incest be damned, or because the idea of him wedding her has been something to cling to, after years of him slipping into her bedchambers at night to take his pleasure. She does not see how a maid of twelve or thirteen might have ‘invited’ a man who was at least twenty at the time into her bed. Sometimes people love because the only other option is fear, or hate, or dread, so it is easier to love and obey and pretend things are alright

“If it becomes necessary, I will speak with her,” she says tiredly. “For now, I think we ought to let the sleeping dog lie, yes?”

“Yes,” says Roslin, sounding relieved to be off the topic, as is Nell.

“What say you to the idea of me sending the twins north?” Nell presses, after a few minutes of silence. A dog is barking nearby; for some reason it reminds her of Grey Wind, although he seldom behaved like a kennel hound. She is surprised by the pang she feels. Who would have thought the likes of Donella Bolton, a huntswoman’s daughter, might miss a direwolf? “Serra and Sarra are young, only thirteen, the both of them. It will be difficult to find them matches here as it is, with so much uncertainty, and I should feel badly to part them. My aunt will be wanting for the company of young women to lash into well-mannered ladies. It might be a consolation to her, as I remain here while I am with child.”

“They should welcome it, I think,” Roslin answers honestly, as always. “They are the adventurous sort, the two of them. They have four other siblings, and their mother is like to be with child again soon enough. Their father would not forbid it.”

“Good,” Nell is relieved. “It would not separate them, and my aunt will grumble, but it might do her good as well. Girls that age are still half child, flowered or not.”

“You show us much concern for women who are not your kin,” Roslin says after a few moments. “You have a good heart, Your Grace.”

“I cannot abide the idea of silly girls like that being sold off to the next hedge knight to come riding down the lane, is all,” Nell sniffs, but one corner of her mouth twitches all the same. “Have I not some duty to moral sensibilities? I wish to be known for a prudent match-maker… not necessarily the most efficient one.”

Roslin chuckles at that, her laughter ringing out clear and bell-like against the damp pink sandstone walls around them. The fluttering sensation returns, and this time Nell lets herself stop and smile, put a hand to her belly. “He likes the sound of our voices, I believe. Gods willing he will not be a talkative one, always interrupting me when I am speaking.”

Her dreams are seldom sweet, but that night they are; a little boy of five or six leads her by the hand through Riverrun, although his hair is not the dark brown of her own but the auburn of his father. She does not recall what he is telling her, but in her dreams she laughs and smiles with ease at the sound of his high child’s voice, the feeling of his warm hand in hers, the way he glances back at her, beaming. There is no trace of her father or her brother in his young face. Then something catches his attention, and his hand slips from her own as he darts ahead, laughing and crying out, and she lifts up her skirts to dash after him, grinning, but the dream fades before she can reach him.

When she wakes, crying, for once it is not out of horror or grief. She lays her head back down immediately, closes her eyes, and tries to will the fantasy alive once more.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell is tracing the red spirals on the canopy above her with her eyes during Maester Vyman’s latest inspection. She is alone this time; she did not feel like keeping Dana from breaking her fast, and most of her ladies are busy reading Tyta’s latest letter from Stone Hedge or helping Roslin sew her wedding garments, or finishing off Alyx’s maiden cloak. They have been quite preoccupied as of late, all an attempt, she knows to stave off the swelling dread with no news from the west or the south. No news can only be good news, she tells herself every day, but it has quite lost its reassuring ring by now. She had thought waiting during the Whispering Wood was bad enough, when she could still see and hear the fighting. This is far, far worse.

Were it not for the pregnancy, she thinks she would be going mad with frustration. At least she has something to measure time with, beyond the steadily changing leaves in the godswood and the crisper chill to the air at night. The swell of her belly is clearly visible through her gowns now, and she can feel expectant eyes on her wherever she goes, as if waiting for her to perform some sort of trick. At the very least her sickness has eased; she hasn’t vomited at all this week. Rather, she is ravenously hungry, constantly. The maester tells her that is normal, with the babe growing so rapidly, but it is disconcerting nonetheless. Her stomach seems to growl as soon as she wakes up in the morning, and the next meal can never come fast enough.

Vyman steps back, signaling that she can sit up once more, and Nell carefully rises from her prone position on the bed, massaging her aching back. That too is normal, but it is not very comforting when she is trying to sleep at night, nor are the headaches. Either her stomach is gnawing at her, her head is pounding, or her back is rebelling like an old woman’s. Suddenly thoughts of many more children after this one seem foolish. Surely one is enough. How can they expect women to endure this every few years until their courses stop flowing? Never minding the thought of labor. Barbara tells her that the first babe is often slow to leave the womb. That is the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Everything seems to be progressing normally,” Vyman says as she adjusts her stockings. “You are healthy, I see no reason to feel that the babe will not be healthy. You could stand to get more sleep, Your Grace.” Are the dark circles under her eyes really so prominent? She reminds herself to begin borrowing some powder from Fair Walda. She cannot go around looking on the verge of collapse. “Perhaps a nap during the day-,”

“I am not a child of three,” she scoffs, waving off his concerns. “I need to be present whenever audiences are being held.”

“Yes, but given your current condition, perhaps a bit more care is advisable-,”

There is a sharp rapping at the door, and the muffled sound of voice outside. Nell smooths down her skirts and jumps to her feet, neatly cutting around the maester to open the door, where she finds a guard and an excitable child from the rookery. “Begging your pardons, but there’s a letter for the maester to see to- and you, Your Grace,” he blurts out, dipping in a belated bow, “but the maester sees them first, so-,”

Nell plasters on a calm smile. “Then we shall fetch Lord Edmure and inspect the news together.”

The news is from Oxcross, which is barely a three day’s ride northeast of Casterly Rock and Lannisport. Nell can barely bring herself to look at the words, but stares down at the parchment over Edmure’s shoulder nonetheless, her nails digging into the back of the chair she is clutching. When he lets out a loud whoop and turns and embraces her soundly, she knows, past the initial shock. She knows. Stafford Lannister lost three thousand men and his own life in just one night. Nell doesn’t know what sort of fool fails to post sentries while camped out with men, even on his own lands, but Lannister was just the sort of fool to do so, apparently. Robb sent men down to cut loose their horses in the night, and Grey Wind down after to provoke a stampede. Then the northmen rode down from the mountains and laid waste to the rest.

Stafford is dead. Rupert Brax is dead. Lords Jast, Vikary, and one of Kevan Lannister’s boys were all taken captive, along with fifty or more other lordlings and knights. The rest of the westermen fled back to Lannisport, and gods be true, Robb was not a fool, and did not go chasing after them. He stands no chance of taking the city, and certainly not the Rock itself, with six thousand men. But he can still claw his way up and down the west with six thousand, and there is no reputable force there left to stop him.

Edmure is so thrilled, he kisses her soundly on both cheeks and holds her hands in his own like she were his little sister. “Your husband will win us the war at this rate,” he declares, and Nell tries to smile, but it wobbles on her mouth, she is just so relieved- Robb did not take any injuries, and their own losses were few, although not entirely inconsequential- Stevron Frey is dead, as are a few Flints. She will have to tell Dana herself. Edmure is still loudly extolling Robb’s many virtues, and finally she manages to smile back, widely, nodding, and embrace him in return.

“This is the best news we could have hoped for.”

Better news would have been that Balon Greyjoy descended upon Lannisport just in time to slaughter those who escaped Oxcross, but she will not push her luck. This was extremely fortunate. So many things could have gone wrong. Robb’s army could have been discovered and pinned down in the mountains, trapped in some narrow pass and cut down. Had Stafford not been so careless, the ambush could have gone very differently, and they might have lost many men. Without Grey Wind, much of the surprise would have been avoided- No, she can’t think like this. She ought to be happy. Thrilled, as Edmure is. They have nothing to fear from the west now, she and the babe are well, Robb- Robb will return soon enough, or at least before his son is born, she is sure of it. He promised.

When Tywin hears he will have to march. And if Robb kills Tywin it will be over. The Lannisters are not a pride of lions, they are an assortment of pretty liars with varying degrees of wits about them. See how well Cersei and the Imp fare against Renly’s host without their father’s protection. That is what she should really be praying for. That Catelyn allies them with Renly, that Renly crushes Stannis, and then takes the capitol. That would do quite nicely for them all. They could go home then. Robb would have his revenge and she would have his heir and then they could go home to Winterfell, and put war aside to prepare for winter.

Dana is in the kitchens with the Bracken sisters and Marianne. Barbara is laughing and smiling for once as Marianne presses some sort of tart upon her while Dana eggs her on, and silent Jayne is sitting in a chair in the corner, tentatively petting the kitchen cat that has leapt up into her lap. Their giggles and chatter fade some at the sight of her in her usual mourning black, but the hopeful edge to their looks is all the same. Barbara wipes at her mouth quickly, turning on her younger sister. “Jayne! You’ll ruin your dress like that, get up-,”

“She’s perfectly alright where she is, I only need Dana,” Nell says quickly; Jayne looks like she might cry, although even tears might be preferable to the muteness. She still will not speak. They say she is quite mad. Nell does not believe that; she looks at Jayne and does not see a dumb animal staring back at her, but it is true that Jonos Bracken will not have an easy time seeing her betrothed. And perhaps that is for the best. Men have offered nothing but suffering to Jayne; why should she have to take one to husband? She has many sisters and she is not her father’s heir.

“How bad was the news?” Dana’s flush from the warmth of the kitchens is dying as they step back out into the cool autumn morning. “You have had word, haven’t you? There’s talk about a raven coming in this morning, people think-,”

Nell tells her about their triumph, and then, as Dana’s smile widens, says, “But- I am sorry. There’s no easy way to say it, Dana, but your-,”

Dana stops walking altogether, and the pink drains from her face. She puts a hand flat on the sandstone wall. “Not my father.” It comes out in a child’s high plea.

“No,” Nell says immediately, taking her hand, “Dana, no, your father- your father is well, but your uncle… Your uncle Beron fell in battle, as did one of his sons, Donnor.”

Dana is silent, then exhales shakily. “Good. That is- not good- I care only for my father,” she ends up saying through gritted teeth. “If he is alright- there is no love between my uncles and him, nor them and I. I am not pleased to hear of Beron and Don’s death, but-”

“Of course you are relieved it was not your father,” Nell says slowly. “You have it said it yourself, many times, you were never close with the others-,”

“When I first refused Black Donnel and Grandfather, Beron threatened to-,” Dana cuts herself off, shaking her head. “No matter. He was not a good man. Loyal, maybe. And brave. A good fighter, he and his sons. But not a scrap of kindness or mercy among them. Of course,” her smile turns slightly watery, “my father is not a good man either. Tolerable when he is sober, perhaps. But war is not- He is not most men, he should hate to die on a battlefield. I am glad that he lived.”

“He should hate to die fighting?” Nell is confused. The Flints have all seemed war-happy enough to her, even the ones that aren’t from the mountain clan. Artos Flint certainly never struck her as timid or faint of heart. “Why should-,”

“Because my father is a craven, as my uncles would have told you,” Dana says crisply. “He is a craven who fears battle, and that is why he drinks. Can’t be too afraid to fight when you are too drunk to care.”

“Dana, I’m sure that’s not-,”

“It’s true,” Dana retorts. “But I would still rather a living coward for a father than a dead hero.”

Much of the rest of the day is given over to impromptu celebration. Edmure holds a small feast and there is some drinking and dancing and singing, and Nell knows she perhaps ought to be disapproving of this type of cavorting when they are still at war, but she is awfully hungry, after all, and the babe does not kick half as much when she is sitting down and resting her feet.

And it does not last long, anyways. Three days later there is hastily scrawled word from Catelyn’s party. Renly is dead, under strange circumstances. They are returning to Riverrun with all haste, although they must be careful to avoid Harrenhal’s long shadow. Storm’s End is under siege, and expected to surrender to Stannis sooner or later. Much of Renly’s host will go over to Stannis now- what choice do they have? The brief spark of joy flares out as quickly as it came.

Catelyn calls it murder. Nell had not thought Stannis Baratheon the sort to resort to assassins in the night, but men are capable of much deception when there is a throne at stake, she supposes. It should not be very difficult to play the righteous, rigid claimant by the light of day, and plot murder and kinslaying by night. Although, of course, kinslaying has never been much of a moral quandary for the Baratheons.

She kills a sow that night, to beseech the gods for aid. The Lannisters have not a hope in any hell of holding King’s Landing against Stannis. That is not her concern. Her concern is what may happen after the dust has settled and the Baratheon they did not come to first for an alliance sits the throne. She doubts he would be willing to tolerate an independent North, and it may not be simple a solution as begging his pardon and handing over their crowns. A proud man might forgive rebels more easily than he could the thought of said rebels preferring to parley with his younger brother over him. She has spent all these months fretting over the lion, when perhaps she should have been more concerned about the black stag. They say he has a witch in his service, from the East. It seems to Nell that if Stannis Baratheon were to consort with a witch, she had better be a damnably good one.

So what should she wish for now? For Stannis to crush the Lannisters for them, or for the Lannisters to slay Stannis for them?

“Robert forgave those who stood against him and the rebels when he took the throne,” Arwyn points out over their needlework. Alyx’s maiden cloak is an endless river of grey and blue before them. “Many said it was a mark of wisdom at the time. A king cannot be too harsh when it comes to justice-,”

“You were not even born when Robert took the throne,” Fair Walda scoffs. “Wisdom? He held it for fifteen years. That is a blink of the eye compared to the Targaryens. Did they forgive their enemies? Look to their words.”

“Stannis is not a Targaryen,” Fat Walda wrinkles her nose. “In fact, I’ve heard he is quite bald-,”

“Aye, their lovely flowing locks, a true mark of a Targaryen,” Marianne says snidely. “He does not have dragons, you nitwits. Men do not need forgiveness or mercy when they have dragons. They do as they please. And what happened when all the dragons died?”

“I thought there were still dragons under the sea,” little Shirei pipes up hopefully. “In the stories, the dragons went to sleep under the sea, and when they wake up-,”

“Hush,” Marissa shushes her, “we aren’t telling stories right now, sweetling.”

“Oh, I always loved that story,” Jory cuts in, from her post under the tree whose shade they are sitting in. Shirei beams.

“His grandmother was a Targaryen,” Roslin reasons, steering the conversation back. “That is how Robert claimed the throne, that is how Stannis will. He proclaims Joffrey and his siblings are natural-born.”

Zia claps her hands over Shirei’s ears, and adds wickedly, “Do you mark it true, sisters? I could believe it. The Kingslayer is very handsome, and Robert was a boar, they say-,”

“Zia!” Barbara splutters. “It is a great sin for sister to lie with brother-,”

“Then we were ruled by the most depraved of sinners and their abominations for near three centuries, were we not?”

“Yes,” drawls Dana, “but they had dragons and lovely purple eyes, you see, so it was alright for them to marry one another. The same way it is alright for a rich man to neglect his taxes.”

“I heard the gods cursed their line for it,” Alyx cuts in eagerly. “They say Rhaegar’s blood dripped black as tar when he fell at the Trident. Madness and plagues upon them all. Perhaps it is why Stannis has no sons.”

“Perhaps it is why Stannis slew his own brother,” Fat Walda shrugs. “That is a mark of a true Targaryen, is it not?”

A moment of surprised silence falls over their circle, and then Nell laughs, else she will scream, and so do the rest.

A fortnight after that, red cloaks are spotted coming up the river. They are carrying a banner of peace, and it is quickly known that this is Ser Cleos returning from King’s Landing, but that moment of terror is as sharp and piercing as any arrow through the chest. Riverrun has outlasted many sieges before and could surely withstand another, but it was one thing to think that when they had two combined armies, and not just the rivermen. It was one thing to think that when Robb was here. Nell seldom worries for her own safety beyond the spectre of childbirth, but for a few moments she dwells on Robb returning to find all their bodies hanging from the waterwheel, and she can understand the strange sort of terror he might have felt, to leave her behind.

Then she pushes the thought away.

Cleos Frey was not a very intimidating man to begin with, and despite the one hundred envoys sent with him, he does not seem any more fearsome. Their terms have been rejected unilaterally, of course. The Iron Throne will neither recognize the North and the riverlands as independent, and they absolutely will not entertain the idea of trading the Stark girls for the likes of Willem Lannister and Tion Frey. None of this is very surprising. Their counter offer is truly laughable. Nell has to fight to keep a straight face to hear Tyrion Lannister’s words presented by a man like Cleos. The Imp may be reviled, but he was always very eloquent, she’ll give him that.

Ser Cleos…

“His Grace’s terms are thus,” Cleos says in a thin, reedy voice, glancing around the hall with obvious anxiety. Nell rather wishes Grey Wind were here to express her displeasure, but instead she will settle for the thunderous look on Edmure’s face and the unanimous looks of derision among her ladies, even the Freys who are kin to Cleos and his father. “Robb Stark must surrender-,”

The shouts and exclamations nearly drown out the rest; men jeer, stomp their feet in disapproval, rattle their steel, and call out threats. Nell straightens in her seat, and holds up a hand. It continues until she stands, and they can see her iron circlet glinting in the late afternoon sunlight coming in through the windows. “My lords, I must ask you to restrain yourselves and let Ser Cleos speak. He is merely a messenger.”

“Thank you, my lady-,”

“Your Grace,” Edmure enunciates pointedly, through his teeth.

“Your Grace! Robb Stark must... ,” Cleos swallows, glances back down at the scroll, and continues, “swear fealty to the Iron Throne, and return immediately to Winterfell.”

More angry muttering and murmurs.

“Ser Jaime, the king’s beloved uncle, is to be set free at once, and Robb Stark shall place his host under Jaime’s command, to join us against the Baratheon rebels-,”

“Rebel, there’s just the one now,” Nell says under her breath, but it goes unheard under the second explosion of noise. Does Lannister think them insipid? Aye, Robb will return here with all haste, set the Kingslayer free, kneel at his feet, and hand over his army?

“Each of the northern and river bannermen will supply the court with a son as a hostage. Failing, that, a daughter-,”

Barbara has wrapped a protective arm round Jayne’s shaking shoulders.

“Who will be treated gently, so long as their fathers keep their faith-,”

More shouts of indignation and outrage. The red cloaks at Cleos’ back are looking nervous, especially since they surrendered all weapons upon arrival. Nell insisted they be searched for knives or daggers as well. A man does not need a sword or spear to kill someone.

“We remind Robb Stark that he has no hope of allies… He stands alone against the Iron Throne in a futile rebellion... “ Cleos appears to be skipping some lines now in an attempt to get this over and done with. “And we offer Harrion Karstark and Ser Wylis Manderly in exchange for Willem Lannister, and Lord Cerwyn and Ser Donnel Locke for Tion…” Cleos hesitates, paling.

“Something else to add, Ser?” Nell asks, brimming with sarcasm.

“Lord Tyrion, Hand of the King, reminds… you… that two Lannisters are worth four northmen in any season.” He finishes in a voice barely above a murmur.

Someone draws steel.

“Enough,” Edmure barks, “these men came here under a banner of peace, I’ll not have bloodshed in these halls.”

“Might we take them outside then, my lord?” Marq Piper calls back.

There is scattered laughter, but no one seems very amused.

“Well,” says Nell, leaning forward in her seat some, a hand cradling her belly. “What an… ambitious counter. I would never presume to speak for His Grace the King- my husband, that is,” she adds sharply, with a pointed look to the Lannister men, “but I am certain he will take all this under consideration upon his return. Particularly your… what shall we call it? Reminder of what a Lannister is worth? How novel. I can not say I have ever heard that saying before.”

“Your Grace,” Cleos says desperately, “I would… never presume to- that is, I had no part in these terms, I am only a humble envoy-,”

“Certainly,” Nell waves him off. “We cannot hold that against you, Ser. You have done your duty quite admirably. How proud your cousin Ser Jaime would be, were he present. King Robb shall respond to these terms… with the most carefully weighed force… upon his return from the westerlands. Where Lord Stafford’s ‘great host’ was worth very little, it would seem.”

Of course they are not going to respond to this nonsense. Four northmen to every two Lannisters… really. Did the Imp have himself a little chuckle while writing that line? Still smarting over the time Grey Wind nearly took a limb off?

She stands. “What I will say is that the day my husband swears fealty and surrenders his sword to any Lannister, is the day the Trident and its forks run dry, and the day the strength of the river lords fail us. And I know we will never see that day.” She had to say it, dramatic though it might be- men need to hear this sort of thing, and they are happy enough to hear it now, shouting their approval back at her, grinning broadly, while the red cloaks turn their gazes anywhere but upon her face.

The envoys are given free reign of the castle; Nell does not like it, but she cannot order men who came under a peace banner imprisoned without just cause, and ‘delivering the hateful words of the Imp’ is not ‘just cause’. Still, she doubles the guard around the armory, and Edmure insists one of his men accompany her about the castle during the day at all times, not just Jory.

She will admit to being especially wary the first few days, but she sees no stares of malice or loathing or suspicious whispers among these men. Most of them are just common guardsmen, of low birth, simply happy to be behind castle walls and sleeping in proper beds once more. Edmure is a polite and gracious host, and she plays the part of the sweet-natured expecting mother well enough, she supposes, when she is not humiliating Cleos Frey in front of his own men.

On the fourth day, there are reports of some broken men terrorizing a village across the Tumblestone, and Edmure gamely sets off with a dozen guards, promising to be back by the next sunset at the latest. Nell suspects she should be more pleased at the thought of having Riverrun to herself than she actually is. Instead she feels tightly wound and anxious, somehow, but perhaps that is just the headaches. Nothing of note occurs while he is away, but sleep does not come easily at all to her that night. She knows she is dreaming again, but they are short and scattered, and when she wakes just after midnight, she cannot remember any of them.

What she does know is that her back hurts, the babe is moving about as if he were a little trout inside her, and Dana is gone. Nell assumes she went to use the privy, rolls onto her other side, and tries to sleep. But after several minutes, Dana has not returned, and she gives up. She sits up, pads out of bed, and pulls on a dressing gown, sliding her feet into her slippers. “Jory?” she calls softly into the next room. Jory sleeps very lightly; she is up immediately, a hand reaching for her sword.

“Yes?”

“Dana didn’t come in here, did she?”

“No,” Jory replies blearily. “Why?”

“I just… no matter. Will you walk with me? The babe is kicking and turning about, and I cannot sleep like this.”

“You need your rest, Your Grace,” Jory reminds her dutifully, but seeing the look on Nell’s face, rises and pulls on her jerkin and breeches over her thin shift, jamming her feet into her boots without socks or stockings and fetching her sword-belt. “Coming,” she mutters with just enough fifteen year old reluctance to make Nell smile slightly.

Riverrun is cool and damp and very quiet at night. Nell keeps a watchful eye out, expecting to see Dana hurrying around a corner at any moment, but does not. They make their usual turns, and Nell’s feet begin to ache as well, but the babe is still moving. She rubs at her back with a grimace, then pauses under the flickering light of a torch. “Jory, promise me you will never do anything foolish like take a husband.”

“I shall try not to,” Jory mutters, leaning against a few barrels, then jumping away when one nearly tips over. “Perhaps you should try a bath. When Aly was with child, that always helped.”

“I don’t wish to rouse the maids at this hour,” Nell shakes her head. “In the morning, maybe-,”

She stops. “What was-,”

“Was that Ser Edmure?” Jory is blinking in confusion, then brightens. “He’s returned at a very late hour, hasn’t he? Look, they’re opening the river gate-,”

“No,” says Nell. “No.” She rushes past Jory, pauses at the top of the flight of stone steps that allows for a direct line of sight to the portcullis, and just makes out several figures in the shadows, impatiently waiting for it to raise high enough. Two are already in a boat, the others- “STOP!” she shouts, her voice ringing out into the night air. She may have just woken half the castle, but she cares not. “LOWER THE GATE!” she screams, coming down the steps quickly, Jory at her back. “You fools, LOWER THE DAMN GATE, IT’S NOT HIM-,”

There is a series of shouts, a man curses, and Nell stops at the bottom of the steps, heart in her throat, as the few nearest guards on the walls come rushing down towards the dock. One of the men in the boat leaps out with unexpected grace, another man charges the two closest guards, and she sees a gleam of steel in the moonlight. “Get behind me,” Jory snarls, “Nell, behind me, it’s-,”

“I yield!” one of the men is shouting, and another has fallen into the murky water, spluttering and coughing, but the biggest one is outright brawling barehanded with three guards at once, and the tallest of them is wrenching his blade out from a dying man’s back.

“Well met, my ladies,” Jaime Lannister’s voice rings out just as mocking as it did when Robb had him on his knees at the Whispering Wood. His hair and beard may be wild and ragged now, and his clothes worn and grey, but he wields the short sword in his right hand with an alarming level of dexterity. This is not a man unmade by months of captivity in a tower room. Nell scrambles up the steps behind her, a hand on Jory’s shoulder.

“Come now,” says the Kingslayer, “am I truly so fearsome to behold? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost, Lady Bolton.”

More guards are coming, but not fast enough, Nell thinks, not fast enough, he will be on them in an instant, he will gut Jory like it’s nothing-

“Run, Your Grace, I’ll hold him,” Jory says firmly, and she sounds terrified, but she is not even shaking or trembling. Nell is. Is this what Robb felt, seeing Jaime Lannister cut his way across a battlefield towards him.

The Kingslayer laughs at that, and Nell’s breath hitches in her chest. She can’t run, she can’t. He’ll kill Jory without a thought but he won’t kill her, she’s too valuable, he won’t. “I confess to never having killed a shield-maiden before,” he says dryly. “But I suppose there is a first time for everything. Shall we have a dance, my lady?”

Jory squares her shoulders, adjusts her footing, and grips her blade tightly in the moonlight. “Come and ask me properly, Lannister.” They are at the top of the steps now. Nell looks around frantically as the Kingslayer begins to bound up the stairs, sets her eyes upon the nearest available thing, and shouts, “Jory, left!”

Without thinking, Jory neatly sidesteps left, and Nell slams all of her weight and might into that mostly empty barrel she’d almost knocked over mere minutes before. It goes crashing down the steps, Jaime swears and jumps out of the way, wavers on the slick stone, and just as he regains his cat-like balance, is met with a spear-point prodding at his back.

“Oh dear,” says Nell shakily. “I’m afraid Enger’s cutting in on your dance, Ser.”

Chapter Text

299 AC - WINTERFELL

Beth’s dreams were never strange before the crannogboy came to Winterfell. She knows Jojen Reed is not really a witch; witches aren’t real, and neither is greensight, or whatever the Reeds want to call it. Beth was happy enough when they first arrived, on the night of the harvest feast; they hadn’t had any real guests in ages, after all. The Walders don’t count; they’re part of an alliance between the Freys and the Starks, not here because anyone particularly likes them. Which no one does, not really. Little Walder is nasty to the servants and nearly as rude to her and Bran. And Big Walder only seems to want to talk to anyone if he can get something out of it.

The Reeds are friendly enough, in contrast; Meera is, at least, even if she’s a bit odd, with her roughspun clothes and spear. She’s so small, too, not much taller than Beth herself, that Beth often forgets that she’s a woman grown of sixteen, not still a child. Beth had always assumed she’d be wed by sixteen, and wonders why Meera isn’t. Perhaps she’s waiting for the war to end. Jojen is different, thought. Not mean-spirited like Little Walder or cold like Big Walder, but his bright green eyes frighten her. She’s seen green eyes before; one of Joseth’s twins, Shyra, has brownish green eyes, but Jojen’s are different, glossy and vivid like dewy leaves. Meera seems much younger than her age, but Jojen, although he can be no more than thirteen, seems decades older.

And he does dream. Beth does not really know what he dreams about, but servants like to talk, and Palla says Jojen dreams all sorts of wicked things; death and war and ruin. Nonetheless, she doesn’t seem very concerned; “Just because he can dream it, doesn’t mean it’s for certain.”, the kennel girl had reasoned. “What d’you expect a mud witch to dream of? Happy things?” There is a certain logic to that, Beth supposes. In the stories no one ever bothered with telling pleasant prophecies: “One day you will marry a handsome man and live happily ever after with ten children.” What would be the point? Maybe if he were a happier person, he’d dream nicer things.

Lately Bran has been saying that Jojen dreams of the sea. That shouldn’t be that bad, Beth thinks. She’s seen the ocean before; her last visit to White Harbor was with Father and Jory, two years ago, before Starks went south, before the king died, before the war. Father had some business with a merchant and so Jory took her to the shore. It was a sunny summer day, and although not hot, warm enough that she could take off her shoes and stockings and run barefoot up and down along the damp sand. Jory threw some seaweed at her and laughed himself hoarse when it got caught in her curls, and then found her some pretty shells to beg her pardon.

She still has one of the shells, in a drawer in her bedchamber. She’s sure she could still hear the crash of the grey-green waves if she put it to her ear. It still smells of the sea, salty and fresh.

But she hasn’t dreamt of the sea this past week. No, she’s dreamt a woman- no, a girl, really, she’s never known before. Beth cannot remember what she looked like, not really, only that she had long, dark hair and wore grey. She remembers her voice, though, young and a little raspy, as if she were ill. They were not in any place in Winterfell that she recognized; they were in a godswood, but not the one here. Somewhere else instead. This one was wild and overgrown, dead brambles clinging to the stone walls, and damp leaves crinkled underfoot wherever she stepped. The girl was perhaps sixteen or seventeen herself, lifting her faded skirts as she walked alongside Beth in quiet contentment. “You’ll like it here,” she was saying. “I always do. Listen.” She’d put a hand on Beth’s shoulder, stilling her, and Beth had listened as hard as she could, but heard nothing but the rustling of the changing trees and the distant caw of a crow.

“Listen for what?” she’d asked the girl in the dream.

“You’ll know it when you hear it,” the girl had said, with a little smile, the kind older girls gave when they were telling other girls wicked secrets.

Beth did not know, and she did not hear. She’d woken up a little unnerved, but not so much that she had not been able to roll over in her warm bed, and fall back asleep within minutes.

She could ask Maester Luwin about what it means, to dream of people you have never met before, but he would likely just tell her she did know the girl, had met her once, years ago, and simply forgotten all about her, except in the very back of her mind. That’s not a very satisfying answer, Beth thinks. Surely she would recall someone important enough to dream about. But maybe it wasn’t the girl who was important at all, but the place. Maybe it was Hornwood. If Father weds Lady Hornwood, when her mourning has ended, Beth would go there to live with her like a daughter, and learn to be a proper lady. She might very well marry a firstborn son then, as Lady Hornwood’s daughter by marriage, if not by blood.

By this time next month, Lady Hornwood’s seven months of mourning for her late husband will be over and done with, and Father might ask her to wed him. He did not say as much explicitly to Beth, only implied it, but Beth is a clever girl. Father was not asking her about how she might feel to spend time under the tutelage of a noble lady for no reason. He did not bring out her mother’s miniature and tell Beth that he would never forget her, even if he were to wed again, for no reason. She does not know Lady Hornwood well, but everyone says she is gracious and wise and very kind, and she has been so very alone and bereaved with her husband dead and her son off fighting in Robb’s war.

Beth knows she would not be so lonely with Father and her around. Beth could be an excellent daughter to her, she is sure of it. She would be obedient and polite and ever so charming, and Lady Hornwood would come to love her, just as she would come to love Father. She already likes him, Beth knows that much. When she looks at him the wrinkles around her mouth soften and melt into her pale skin, and they danced together beautifully at the harvest feast four months past. They could never have any more children together, of course, but they would have Beth. She would be like other girls; she’d have a father and a mother both, and a lady for a mother, even better.

She has never been to Hornwood, and she knows it is much smaller than Winterfell, and in the middle of a great forest, at that, full of moose and bears and perhaps even a wolf pack, and it borders the Bolton lands, where all the horrible things happen in Old Nan’s stories… But it is also someplace new, and different, and exciting. And hasn’t she wanted to see new places, to travel, for ages and ages? They would be closer to White Harbor and the sea there. She might very well have been dreaming of Hornwood’s godswood. She still doesn’t know who the girl was- someone of that household, perhaps? One of Lady Hornwood’s nieces? Or Daryn’s betrothed, the Karstark girl? It doesn’t really matter.

So that morning when she wakes from another queer dream of the strange godswood, she tells herself it is simply a sign of what is to come, what she hopes so dearly for. Father will wed Lady Hornwood, Beth will go to live with her, and have lovely gowns and new doe-skin slippers and a fine ribbon or two for her hair, and she will never have to check rabbit-snares or be pressed into helping set a table or play silly games like Come Into My Castle with the likes of the Freys ever again. She would even have a brother, then; Daryn, whenever he returned from war to wed Alys and assume his lordship. Well, two, if one counted the bastard Larence Snow, although of course he would really only be Daryn’s brother, not hers. Think of that, she tells herself, you will be just like Sansa and Arya, a lady’s daughter and brothers as well, one trueborn, one natural.

Then she feels a stab of guilt, as she dresses for the day, with no maids to help her, bundling on her thickest stockings to ward off the chill. She should not want to be like Sansa nor Arya, who are prisoners of the Lannisters, or maybe even dead. They may be ladies, but it has not seemed to bring them any happiness since the war began. She supposes that it because they are too important. Father explained to her once that she should be glad to be a Cassel and not a Stark; she would not have to marry for anyone’s sake but her own. Of course Father would never let her run off with some smallcrofter or blacksmith, but she knows he would never send her to wed some withered or fat old lord thrice her age, either.

That is heartening, at least. She should like to marry someone her own age, when she does. Handsome, too, at least a little. Everyone says she is pretty enough. Not beautiful like Sansa was- like Sansa is, or even as pretty as Jeyne, who had lovely dark hair and big brown eyes- maybe she still does, if she is alive- but pretty enough for a girl of ten, auburn-haired and hazel-eyed and still a bit chubby-cheeked. She cannot wait until she flowers, until she is tall and graceful and can wear her hair like a woman, not a child. But for now she is just plain, pink-faced little Beth, short and freckled and tongue-tied around every pretty boy she sees.

Father is not there at the table for breakfast. He is not training the men in the yard either; in fact, no one is training them, and when Beth ducks into the barracks, one of them tells her they are preparing to ride out by midday for Torrhen’s Square. Something about raiders. Beth does not stay to listen; she dashes back outside and makes straight for the lord’s solar, where Father looks at maps and answers letters in his role as castellan. She does not knock, no matter how rude it is, and is breathless and ruddy in the face, panting, when she bursts into the room. He is not sitting behind the desk; he is standing there in his mail, with his sword at his hip.

“No,” says Beth achingly, because she knows, already, what he means to do, what he must do, but that does mean it hurts any less than it did when he left with Lady Catelyn last year for King’s Landing. “No, please, don’t go-,”

“Beth,” he says, and comes and puts his hands on her shoulders. For the first time she sees his age, the lines and cracks in his weathered skin, the heavy weight of his hands, the white of his hair and beard. She has never felt any younger, smaller, more insignificant. You are too old, she suddenly wants to shout. No. You are my father and you are too old to fight now, so you must stay here and let me take care of you. Send the boys to fight. You stay.

“Ironborn have attacked Torrhen’s Square,” he tells her calmly. “Benfred Tallhart and his friends are missing. They have barely any men left to defend their keep and the town. I must go, and drive them back before they reave any further into the North. You must think of the people there, Beth, how frightened they are. Think of young Eddara. If it were you, would you not want someone to come help you?”

“But you can’t go,” she says desperately, “Father, you can’t, you’re the castellan, that means you can’t leave, you have to stay here-,”

“I will not be gone long at all,” he assures her. “I will ride straight back here as soon as they have been dealt with, Beth. My sweet girl. Don’t cry now.” He brushes at her wet cheeks with a rough finger. “You must be brave. Set an example. Bran and Rickon are frightened as well. These are dark times, so we needs be brave for one another. I know you can do it. You are my daughter. Your mother’s daughter.”

“But- but what if- you can’t,” she repeats herself, wiping at her eyes in useless embarrassment. “Father, you just can’t leave, wait, send for men from White Harbor, or the Karhold, or- or the mountain clans, can’t you just wait-,”

“I cannot wait,” he says firmly, squeezing her shoulder. “You know this, Beth. I am a knight. I am sworn to the Seven and to House Stark. You remember my vows.”

“To- to defend those who cannot defend themselves,” she recites dully, “to protect all women and children, to obey your captains, your liege lord, and your king, and to fight bravely when needed-,”

“However hard or humble or dangerous the task may be,” he finishes it for her, and looks down upon her gravely. “I’ll not lie, Beth. It will be dangerous. Men will die. I may die. But you know that you will be alright, my girl. Yes? Winterfell is your home. You are a Cassel. You will always have a place here, no matter what.”

“I don’t want to be alone,” she bursts out, “what if I’m all alone-,”

“”You are never alone,” Father says. “Never, do you hear me? Even when it seems it, I am with you. Jory is with you. Your mother is with you, and everyone who loves you. As I love you,” he embraces her then, and she clings to the familiar, comforting feeling of his barrel-chest and old cloak, then reluctantly lets go. “Now enough of those tears. Dry your eyes. You’ll see me off with the rest, and gods willing, watch me ride back through those gates a week from now.”

Beth is a good girl, and she has never willfully disobeyed her father, so she does. She sees him off with all the rest, holding a squirming Rickon still in front of her, for he always pitches a fit whenever he sees anyone leave. As soon as the gates are shut he tries to bite down on her hand, and she lets go of him with a shudder of annoyance, scowling when he snarls at her. “You’re not a wolf, Rickon!”

“Yes I am!” he roars back at her, then snaps his mouth open and shut like a dog. “See?”

Little Walder barks at him, snickering, then curses when Rickon aims a kick at his shins. Big Walder sniffs in amusement, then glances passively at Beth, who is crying again in spite of herself. “They’re just raiders. You act like he’s going off to fight the Lannisters.”

“Oh, shut up!” Beth snaps back at him, and is just as surprised as he at her sudden ferocity. But it’s too late to stop now. “Your father’s fighting the Lannisters, isn’t he? Bet you never even cried for him, because you don’t care about anyone!”

“You wouldn’t care either, if you were a Frey,” he says pointedly. “Someone’s always dying or being born.”

“Don’t worry,” Palla tells her later, handing her a mewling pup to cheer her up. “Torrhen’s Square will never fall, everyone says so. Ironborn are craven, anyways. S’why they raid villages, not castles.”

Beth holds the limp mound of a puppy in her hands, tries to summon up a smile as its wet, pink little tongue tickles at palms, but all she can do is stare up at the high walls around them, looking more empty than she ever saw them before. Father has taken six hundred with him; all the fighting boys and men of Winterfell and the winter town, and every farm or holdfast within reach, beyond the garrison of perhaps thirty, if that, left behind to protect them, and Cley will join them, she knows, with however many men House Cerwyn can muster. They will beat back the Ironborn and return victorious, and she will dream again of Hornwood. And everything will be alright. She is never alone, as Father said.

But she feels alone, all the same.

Winterfell is cavernous, the week after Father leaves. There’s no men laughing or muttering in the halls or corridors, even the kitchens are quiet, the barracks practically empty. Beth is nervous, sleeping alone above the guard’s hall, so instead she beds down with Meera, who is warm and nice to sleep next to, although she sometimes murmurs in her sleep. She tells Beth stories about Greywatch Watch, their moving castle, and lizard lions and the curious flowers and creatures of the marsh and bogs, and about the legends of the crannogmen, the spirits who float by with lanterns along the dark peat and water, the whispering lights that bob in the sunken trees, and about her mother, Jyanna of House Fenn, who is descended from the marsh kings and queens, and who can sing a drowned bird back to life when she holds it in her hands.

The week comes to an end. There is no word from Torrhen’s Square, from Father. There is no word from anyone. Beth feeds the crows with Bandy and Shyra, chases after Rickon when he tries to climb up the walls the way Bran used to, and out of sheer boredom, cuts up vegetables in the kitchens with Gage and Turnip and Osha. Beth thinks of Father, and prays, even when she is not in the godswood. If the gods are good and true, he will defeat the Ironborn and come back to her. If the gods are good and true, Winterfell will not be like this for long, this empty hollow of a place.

Without the people, a castle is just stones and wood bracing against the wind and rain.

On the eighth night, the howling is what wakes her.

She knows it is something terrible, because the direwolves seldom howl just to hear themselves. And she knows the terrible thing is happening here, when the kennel dogs begin to bark and howl and bay as well. Beth sits up in bed beside Meera, clutching the quilt to her chest, as if that might help, might ward off whatever it outside. Meera is more awake than she is, already slipping her shoes on, picking up her spear and slinging her net over her shoulder. “Get under the bed,” she says lightly, as if they are just playing a game, “I’ll come get you when I see a safe way out, alright?”

“Don’t go out there,” says Beth in a small, frail voice. “Meera, please. You don’t know who it is.” She can hear distant shouts, running feet on the steps.

“The sea,” says Meera, and prods her gently, jerking her head towards the underside of the bed. Beth gets up and scrambles under it, tucks her legs up under herself, presses her chin against the cold stone, and listens to her slip out the door. She does not have to wait long. A few minutes later there is a sharp cry, someone falls to the ground, and then the door bangs open.

“Anyone else in here?” a strange man asks, or jeers, more like it. “Answer me, bitch.”

“No one,” says Meera in a different, tighter voice. “Let my brother go.” She is not holding her spear anymore, Beth sees. She can glimpse Jojen’s bare feet on the floor, bloody, and wonders what he stepped in.

“No one else? Then why’s it that I see another pair of shoes?” the man snaps, and Beth watches the end of his spear prod at her boots in the corner, her bundled clothes beside them.

Meera is silent. Jojen gives a sharp gasp of pain, the man breathes harshly, and then Meera says lowly, flatly, loathingly, “Beth, come out. Please.”

Beth crawls out from under the bed in mute terror, limbs stiff and awkward, arms wrapped around herself. The man has the tip of his spear to Jojen’s throat. Meera’s arm is blossoming with fresh bruises. “Who’re you, girl?” the ironborn demands. She can barely make out his face in the dark. He's big, and long-limbed. She could try to dart around him and run out the door, but she would not get very far.

“Beth Cassel,” she says, although she has to repeat it because no sound comes out when her lips first move. “I am the castellan’s daughter.” That means something. She’s important. They won’t kill her if she is someone important’s daughter. They wouldn’t dare. When Father comes back-

“Some castellan he was,” the man sneers, and jerks his head towards the door. “Walk.”

She does.

The hall is the darkest she has ever seen it, only a few torches lit, and just one fire blazing, and the tables and benches all pushed back, casting long shadows across the dirty floor. Mud and straw collects on the bottom of Beth’s soles. Meera angles herself so she stands between the ironborn with the spear and Jojen and her. Beth cannot bring herself to lift her gaze from the floor for a long while, shoulders trembling with barely suppressed sobs, but when she does, it is not the man she expected to see on the throne, not the great war chief they claim Dagmar Cleftjaw is, not the man who attacked Torrhen’s Square, but another, younger, familiar man.

She has not seen Theon Greyjoy in months and months. His dark hair is longer, down to his shoulders now, his skin tanner, but she knows him instantly, of course she does, despite the putrid yellow kraken across his chest. She has always known Theon, used to sit and giggle with Jeyne, watching him spar with Robb or Jory or Jon or Cley Cerwyn. She remembers him laughing with Robb over some jape and arguing with Nell and rolling his eyes at this or that or smirking to himself. He is not smirking now, but the shadow of it is still there, across his sharp jaw.

Her sobs are not silent anymore.

“Quiet,” Meera whispers to her, swiftly, “they’ll hurt you if you draw attention.”

Beth tries to quiet herself, but then sees Bran on the ground at Theon’s feet, a huddled little lump of a boy, and Maester Luwin bruised and bloodied, clutching Rickon’s hand, and how badly poor Hodor was beaten, his face gone all red and purple, Old Nan holding his arm tightly, and then she sees Joseth in the corner, his daughters clinging to him in terror, and there is Palla- Palla’s dress is all ripped, straight down the front; she has to hold it closed across her skinny chest with white-knuckled hands, and her father is limping, as she leans heavily against him, wincing every time she takes a wavering step forward.

When Septon Chayle hurries towards them, exclaiming in horror, one of the Ironborn throws him to the floor as if he weighed nothing at all. He lies there, groaning, in his stained grey robes.

Turnip is sniffling quietly, a flour-stained hand on his father's leg. The Freys are standing in the shadows; Little Walder seems almost smug, as if happy to see Bran on the floor and Rickon on the verge of tears, but Big Walder is just watching, eyes darting around the hall. Theon sits the high seat all the while as people weep and cry out in pain and shuffle in, limping or being dragged or looking around blankly, as if this were all some ridiculous jape. When the doors finally slam shut, she jumps, knocking into Meera. Jojen is staring straight ahead, unmoving, directly at Theon, who does not seem to notice or care.

He leans forward in his seat instead, as though this were a mummer’s show he’d been looking forward to for weeks. He raises a hand for quiet the way Lord Stark or Robb might have. Beth looks at his hand and the iron rings on his long fingers in the light from the torches, and imagines Summer or Shaggydog tearing them all off at once. She imagines Father taking his traitor’s hand off at the wrist, the solid thunk the sword would make when it hit the bone. Beth has seen men lose fingers for thieving before, if only from a distance. What ought a man to lose for stealing a castle and a throne?

“You all know me,” he says coolly, and even as Mikken the smith begins to shout and curse, and the people murmur in fear, Beth thinks, liar. Liar. Liar. We don’t. We never did.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell spends the sunrise with the mummer, who she’d judged to be the easiest to interrogate. She is right. The thing about men who tell stories is that they’re oft desperate to believe them, and so Nell spins him a very pretty web of one; sitting across from him wan and exhausted with her hair still rumpled and a borrowed cloak from Edmure spilling open at the front to show the pure white linen of her modest shift and the swell of her belly underneath. He wants to believe a woman growing heavy with child will be slow to hate, quick to forgive, so she lets him, and promises him a gentle mother-to-be’s mercy if he only tells her everything he knows. She does not need a whip or a knife or a hot poker or anything to threaten him with. Hope is much more dangerous.

He tells her they came in disguise on Tyrion Lannister’s orders, he tells her that a mummer, a thief, a murderer, and a poisoner were specially selected, he tells her that neither Ser Cleos nor Captain Vylarr knew anything of it, and most importantly, he tells her the name and appearance of the poisoner, who was busy tainting the larder while the rest of them attempted to trick the guards into opening the gate. “Thank you,” Nell breathes earnestly when he is done- and he is a young man, not much older than her, with reddish hair a bit like Robb’s or Edmure’s, and a freckled face, “thank you for your honesty. You cannot know how grateful I am.”

He smiles almost tentatively. “All I ask for is mercy, Your Grace. I wanted no bloodshed- I had no part in the murders.”

The murders being the dead guards, of course, and she supposes they are technically responsible for the oblivious Lannister men who attempted to free Jaime a second time once the Tully guards had restrained him. By then she was well away, of course, shaking like a leaf in the wind, fighting back vomit, soaked in sweat. Nonetheless-

“Nor do I,” she says. “Only peace and safety for my people and my babe.” She caresses her stomach then, and stands. “Every man shall have his fair judgement on the morrow, I promise you.”

On the morrow, twelve men hang. It is merciful, she thinks, for there is no bloodshed, and it is a cleaner end than the one Jaime Lannister or the murderer gave the men they killed, a cleaner end than any of them would have given her or Jory Mormont or Edmure or her babe. She is back to her usual mourning black and grey, and there is no trace of horror or upset on her pale face. Edmure protested the idea of a pregnant woman attending executions, but he had no real authority to stop her, and knew better than to try, anyways. Nell sits, her hands clasped neatly in her lap, and one by one watches them swing. The mummer is the third to be brought up to the gallows, and he makes it a true performance, screaming and shouting all the while.

“Mercy!” he calls to her. “You promised me mercy! Please! Your Grace, please!”

Nell has seen her share of men hang before, but never on her direct orders. She will not lie; it is not easy to sit there and watch, but she does not look away, as tempting as it is. She does not speak, either. Executions are not the place for pithy remarks or attempts at moralizing. There is a duty to be done, and everyone sees it through. This is how her aunt would do it, how Robb would do it, how Ned Stark did it, if Catelyn Stark were here, this is how she would do it. Her father- well, depending on his mood Father might take his time to get around to it, but they would die by sundown all the same.

It is a mercy, she reminds herself, when she hears them murmur behind her back. There is a reason there are set ways these things are done. Nobles are beheaded, commons hang. There is supposed to be a certain dignity and rhyme and reason to it. Otherwise they are just animals, tearing each other apart. But it takes a long time to hang twelve men. Next time it might be twice that. Or thrice that. And she would still have to sit through every one. There may come a time where there is no noose to hang them, and she might need to pick up a blade herself. She has been thinking about that, how she might do it. She is not strong enough to take off a man’s head with one swing of a sword. She would have to use a knife and slit the throat, quickly and neatly.

For the Bastard, when his time comes, she will not worry about not managing it with just one swing, of course.

Robb’s son kicks steadily all through the hangings, as if in approval of his mother’s justice, and afterwards, once her stomach has settled, she is ravenously hungry again. Unfortunately, they had to empty out a good deal of the larder, so there is only fish, and she is dreadfully sick of trout. But what is more sickening is her ladies’ fussing over her as though she- well, she was in danger, but she feels dirty about it, as though she were claiming some sort of stolen valor. Edmure was right when he told her she never should have been out at that time of night with just one guard, and she was right when she told him he never should have ridden out himself to chase after bandits, if he was going to give Lannister men free reign of the castle.

They are both at fault, obviously. It was careless. A banner of peace means little and less in war. In the worst case scenario, Jaime Lannister with the backing of one hundred men could have easily taken a castle as small and compact as Riverrun in a night. Edmure could have come back to find his own men hanging from the walls, and she might have been the one chained to a wall in the darkest, dampest pit of the dungeons, not Jaime Lannister, who could not stop laughing, even after they’d restrained him.

“You have to admit, I was close, my lady,” he’d told her mockingly while they chained him at the neck like a snarling beast. “You will tell the boy, won’t you? How close I got?”

The boy. She does not how they are going to explain to Robb, who is taking castles with ease, how they nearly lost theirs. But she does not know when she is going to see Robb again, either. He’d said he’d be back in time for the birth. Or he’d try, at any rate. He has to be here. He must, she wants him to be here when his son is born, and if it is- if it is not a son, he needs to be here anyways. Eddard, she thinks. His name is Eddard, and he’s strong, he kicks so much, and he likes music and the night time and hearing justice done. He’s not very fond of fish, though, because her meal is turning her stomach. She sets down her knife, giving up on trying to saw through a bone of the trout before her, and glances up at Jory, who is picking at her own meal.

Dana sighs, loudly. It is just the three of them, and to say spirits are low would be an understatement. Nell’s brow furrows. “Why weren’t you abed, anyways?” she asks suddenly, only recalling it now, in light of everything else- the guilt, the fear, the overwhelming sense of not feeling safe in the place that has been her home for over six months now. “We were looking for you.”

“I was in the godswood,” Dana says, finishing off the last of her cider.

“You were praying that late?” Jory snorts humorlessly. “You’re far more devout than me, Dana.”

“Good thing I was, too,” Dana retorts. “Might be that’s what saved us, my prayers.” She measures the distance with her fingers. “How far up did they raise the portcullis? A bloody goat would have done a better job of raising the alarm.” She sets down her cup roughly, shaking her head and adds bitterly, “And they tried to poison the tarts, too! That was the last good jam of the summer. Damn them all.”

Nell watches her stalk out of the room, decides that Dana is lying about something, although she’s not sure what, and turns back to Jory. “I want you to teach me how to use a rondel. Or anything that will puncture chain mail or go up a man’s armpit.”

Jory chokes on her bite of trout, holds up a hand, swallows, and then says in a strangled voice, “Your Grace, if this- I swear to you, I am still worthy of being-,”

“No, it’s not a jape,” Nell tells her. “I trust you with my life. Most men are not the Kingslayer, and you would have defended me to the death, nonetheless. But I cannot run anywhere in my current condition. And I need to be able to wield something I can put through a man’s rib cage, if it comes down to it.”

Jory’s expressions says ‘if a man who means to kill you is close enough for you to put a knife in his ribs, you’re already a dead woman’ but when she speaks, she says, “Alright. I can show you. Have you held daggers before?”

“Just for hunting and dressing,” Nell says, pushing back her plate. “But I trust I will be a quick learner, given family history. We are rather fond of them.”

Over the course of the next month, Nell learns how to kill a man, or at least badly injure him, with a rondel, sees Alyx wed her Vance, and convinces Marissa Frey to spy on Dana for her. Not all at once, and in between that she feels her hair grow thicker and her nails grow brittler, to the point where half of her finger and toenails are cracking and for the first time she must cut her hair for the third time in one year to keep it from turning into a horse’s mane down her back. Her ankles begin to swell, too, to her dismay, and her legs cramp all night now, even if the headaches have passed and the nightmares seem to have receded. But she peers at herself in the looking glass and does not quite recognize the woman staring back at her.

She wonders if Robb is thinking the same thing to himself; he’s seen multiple battles now, not just an ambush or two. For all of Barbrey’s talk, in the end Nell wed a properly blooded warrior. She wonders if he’s come to like it. The fighting, anyways. He took no joy from securing Riverrun, but she thinks Robb likes the strategy part of it, at least, if not the actual bloodshed. There is something to be said for seeing a plan play out perfectly. She wonders if Grey Wind is any bigger. There are rumors Robb rides him into battle, but she does not take those any more seriously than she does the ones of her husband being a skinchanger or ripping Stafford’s still beating heart from his chest.

Some part of her is worried, though, and she’s not sure why. Before she wed Robb, all she could complain of was how young and inexperienced he was, how sheltered and innocent, how she would have much rather wed a grown man, someone who’d seen death and who was willing to make the hard choices. And now that he is gone off to do exactly she that she finds herself mourning the kind boy who left her, and frightened that the kind boy who only wanted to do what was right will be gone for good when he returns.

She’s a hypocrite, of course. She would begrudge Robb his revenge and bloodier notions, while entertaining her own in private? It’s not fair or wifely of her to demand softness and mild manners from him while she lies awake at night and thinks about slitting throats. Is it not her duty to temper his baser impulses? Is that not what she was taught? Has she not heard a thousand times that women keep men civilized? Yet for all that she can tell, men seem most happy with themselves when doing uncivil things to women. Not Robb, though. Never him.

You are a child, the voice quite like her aunt’s tells her still, as she grips the rondel in her hand. What do you imagine your king is doing in the Westerlands, you silly girl? Feeding orphans? Blessing babes? No. He is killing and burning as he goes, his men are slaughtering and stealing gold and cattle, he is conquering castles. You wanted a soldier, admit it, not a lord or a king, and now you have got one. You wanted someone you could throw up against your father, who would protect you, kill for you, and now you have him. Use him as you will when he returns, or he will use you, and you may not like it.

He will not be so changed, she tells herself firmly, as she drives the needle-like point through the slight gap in the armor Jory painstakingly arranged on a straw-man for her. He will not. He cared for me before he left, he was worried for me and the babe, he will still feel that when he returns. He will not be so changed. He is still my Robb who gave me a crown and apologizes when he’s wronged me and who has never lied to me.

“Nell?” Jory is staring at her. “Is it… stuck?”

“No,” says Nell swiftly, flushing and wrenching the dagger back out from in between the plates of metal, brimming with straw. “I’m sorry, my thoughts ran away with me.” But even as she smiles reassuringly, the tip of the rondel nicks open her left thumb.

“Careful,” says Jory in consternation, blanching as she hisses in pain, “I knew I should have taken it to be blunted first, if Mother were here she’d kill me-,”

Nell puts her throbbing thumb to her lips, then holds it up for inspection. “I think I’ll survive the night, Jorelle.”

But she can still taste the blood on her lips and the sting in her thumb four days later, at Alyx and Kirth’s wedding feast. You would not think they’d hung Lannisters from the walls three weeks past, the mood is light enough, even if there is still not much in the way of bread or cakes due to the ruined flour. Alyx is beaming, and Shirei runs over, giggling, to tell Nell and Roslin that she is holding Kirth’s hand under the table.

“I hadn’t thought her so soft of heart,” Nell muses, while Arwyn takes her little sister by the hand and leads her out to dance. Alyx liked him, that was clear enough, but there was quite the gap between liking a man and wanting to clasp his hand like lovers in a song. Or perhaps she’s just too cynical. Or envious. She has not touched her own husband in months.

“Kirth did promise her a new horse from his father’s stable,” says Roslin hopefully, “and Alyx is mad for horses.”

Nell watches as the bride and groom rise to dance to a song that Alesander, the singer brother of Alyx, has composed especially for the wedding. “Well, they will not say my reign as queen was short of entertainment and merry-making.” She glances around, brow furrowing as she leans forward in her seat, wincing when her swollen ankles and feet ache. “Where is Edmure? It’s not like him to pass up a chance to ask you to dance, Ros. And Dana- gods, where has she run off to now?”

Neither Edmure nor Dana are anywhere to be seen, although she spots Marianne coming back into the hall through a side door, hair mussed and arguing furiously with Marissa. Fair Walda is brooding in a corner, tolerating the flirtation of a bold squire and sipping her wine, and Fat Walda is dancing merrily with Zia, who cheers when Kirth lifts a grinning Alyx up by the waist.

“Your Grace-,” Marissa had started towards her, but Marianne snatches her by the hand, then scowls when her cousin rips it away.

“Rissa, don’t-,”

“Marissa’s never missed a chance to tattle,” Roslin laughs. “Like or not she found Mari kissing a boy in the gardens.”

Marissa’s penchant for reporting on anyone and everyone is why Nell asked her to look after what Dana’s been up to, but Roslin doesn’t need to know that. Nell could care less what Marianne Vance is getting up to. Still, she’d rather not have a fight at a wedding, so she pushes herself up out of her seat, shaking her head. Whatever it is, Marissa can certainly tell her later, in private-

“Your Grace.” She starts; Maester Vyman is at her side. “Lord Edmure requires your presence.”

From the look on his aged face, she can tell it is not for any reason to celebrate.

“We’ve had reports of Harrenhal.”

Roslin overheard; she pales, and Nell lays a hand on her arm. “Please make my excuses, won’t you? I went to bed early, the babe’s tired me out. We don’t want to cause a panic,” she mutters, and Roslin nods tightly. “We’ll have time to prepare, whatever it is.”

Unless Tywin Lannister has spontaneously dropped dead, word about Harrenhal only means one thing.

“They’re marching west,” says Edmure, seated, massaging his forehead with one hand. He’s reddened from the wine he had before he was called away from the festivities, but Nell is unfortunately sober, and so plucks up the missive to scan it a first, second, and third time.

“He must be very confident indeed that Stannis will not hound him.”

“Lord Stannis is still working to take Storm’s End,” Vyman says quietly. “He will not turn his attention to the Lannisters until his family’s seat is fully restored to him.”

“I rather wish he’d deal with them first,” Nell snaps. “What is a castle, to a war? We could have pinned Tywin from the north, Robb from the west, Stannis from the south, but-,”

But a thousand fleeting things. Pride and ambition and fury and revenge. Stannis is not their ally. And Tywin is not there, waiting to be trapped, any longer.

“They’ll fan out,” says Edmure, rousing himself with a groan. “He has enough men to span the riverlands from north to south. To face Robb he must cross the Red Fork, and-”

“He will not march past us with a smile and a wave,” Nell says tartly. “If he can take Riverrun and claw his way back into the westerlands to harry Robb, he will.” She rummages through a drawer, pulls out a map, knocking over an ink well in the process. The sluggish spill could be blood in the dim lighting, she thinks suddenly, then ignores it. “We need to determine where and how he is going to try to cross. My father must bring his men down from the Twins-,”

“And take Harrenhal,” Edmure says suddenly. “If we can cut him off from Harrenhal-,”

“Then he has no base to retreat back to,” Nell smiles at the thought, and at the thought of Roose marching anywhere on her orders, especially to a place known to bring ruin and despair to all who claim it. How fitting. “He has the numbers, but you know the land. We cannot meet his host in open combat. They would crush us. But if they can be divided-”

“His Grace left orders to hold only Riverrun,” Vyman says warily.

“And we shall,” Nell retorts. “But I mean to give the Old Lion more than a few smarting wounds in the process. We’re going to bleed him out as much as possible before Robb returns.”

“The smallfolk cannot take another invasion,” Edmure says. “I cannot- we cannot fail my people again. There will be mass hysteria, when they hear the Mountain and his men are riding out, and Tywin himself as well. They would rather butcher their own babes and slaughter their own livestock before they lived through another assault.”

“Then they won’t cross,” Nell thinks of the women in the godswood, who came to her crying and shaking to tell their stories, of little Lyman Darry, of Masha Heddle hanging outside her own inn. Of the Bracken sisters. Jayne could not come to the feast. Loud noises and the sound of men laughing and shouting terrify her. She is up in her room with her sister, sewing, one of the few things that brings any comfort to her. Not again. Never. Of Jory shaking before the Kingslayer, but refusing to run all the same, sword in hand. How could she face any of them? She has to do something beyond sitting here, waiting for some rescue or salvation or miracle. Robb gave her a crown. She means to earn it.

“They won’t cross so long as I am queen,” she says. “I promise you that, my lord.”

By the time she finally makes it back to her rooms, it is nearly midnight. The bedding ceremony has already concluded, the feast has settled down, the stars are out in full force. Dana is missing, the third time this week. She is constantly slipping in and out, late or early. Nell knows exactly what to make of it; there must be some man, or boy, more likely, but she cannot determine who. Dana is friendly with many men but close to none of them in particular. It could be one of Edmure’s friends, a Vance or a Piper or a Mallister, but-

Why then has she not raised the issue yet? Nell could surely secure an arrangement between her closest lady in waiting and any one of them. Is Dana somehow ashamed to use her influence? Is she really that opposed to marriage as a whole? Is the lord in question promised to another? Gods, is he married? It might explain some things, if it were a married man. Nell mislikes it, mistrusts it. This isn’t like Dana at all, to turn secretive and distant. She has always been so open, so freely affectionate. Of course there were some things she never liked discussing- her family, for one, but Nell could hardly chastise her for that, given her own past. But… Nell has always confided in her about these sort of things, matters of the heart. Or matters of sheer lust, at any rate. What has changed? Perhaps it is because she is with child. Perhaps Dana worries Nell is consumed with other concerns, would not care to hear it.

When Dana does come in, Nell overhears her japing with the guard at the door- Dana is always friendly with the guards, always on the best of terms, teasing them the way a sister might, which she says everyone with a lick of sense ought to do, since it means one never has to argue their way in or out of a room- and it is very early morning. Nell does not move, pretending to still be asleep, and watches through half-lidded eyelashes as Dana swiftly undresses, then pauses, a hand lingering on one wrist. What is she feeling at? A bracelet of some sort? A gift from a lover?

Within minutes, she is fast asleep besides Nell as usual. Nell waits a good fifteen minutes before sitting up cautiously to squint down at Dana’s wrist. It’s not the sort of jewelry a man might give a mistress or a lady he was courting. It’s a girl’s hair ribbon, frayed blue-grey silk, looped around her wrist. Dana has never in her life worn a ribbon in her hair, nor anywhere else on her person. Nell studies it for a little while longer, struggling to place it, and then it occurs to her. Marianne’s mussed hair at the feast, as if someone had- or she had-

Some five restless hours later, Dana stirs to find Nell uncovering a tray of freshly baked honeyed bread. She moans in hunger, pushing her hair out of her face, and beams at Nell. “Fresh flour came in. I thought I was going to die of misery.”

“Yes,” says Nell, “a life without bread- no life at all. You could make them your new house words. That or, bread and ribbons. Like the Targaryens, you see. Fire and blood, bread and ribbons-,”

Dana is staring at her.

“Come now,” Nell wrinkles her nose. “I thought it was funny-,”

“One of the girls dropped it, is all, so I thought I’d return it to whoever. Later.” Dana says in a quick, clipped voice.

“I know it’s Marianne’s,” says Nell. She does not know, she only suspects, but the look on Dana’s face confirms it. She never has been able to lie well. “I’m not angry- I’m just confused. And worried. Dana, what is going on?”

“Nothing,” Dana scoffs. “So what if it’s Mari’s? I was going to return it to her today-,”

“In the godswood?”

There is a long silence, only punctuated by the crackle of the fire in the hearth and the patter of autumn rain on the windows.

“Did you send Marissa?” Dana blurts out, reddening in fury. “Donella-,”

“I sent Marissa after you, not Marianne, but if she’s involved-,”

“Involved in what?”

“You tell me!”

Dana licks her lips, then asks hoarsely, “Is that a command, Your Grace?”

“Should it be?” Nell snaps. “Gods be good, we have known each other for years. Do you mistrust me so, now that I am a queen? Can you not see I am worried for you? So if I’ve no need to be, please, do enlighten me-,”

“You will not like to hear it.”

“I will mislike you dancing around it even more!” Nell catches herself before she completely loses her temper, and adds in a softer tone, “Danelle. If it… if one of you has become… involved with a man who is wed, or who is otherwise not suitable, I am sure- we can find some solution. If there is a child-,”

“You think I’m with child?” Dana spits.

“I don’t know what to think, but I plan to find out. Now, you can tell me-,”

“Or what? You’ll have Marissa follow us around like a little shadow? Could you not have asked me-,”

“Would you have told me?”

“No,” says Dana shortly. “I would not have. Not because I mistrust you, or- or because I am angry with you, because- Nell. I would not have you think of me…”

“Dana, you are my friend. My dearest friend,” Nell raises a hand as if in beseechment, then sighs and stands, taking a seat on the bed beside her. “How could I think badly of you?” Dana looks at her for a long moment, then wipes at her nose, and murmurs something. Nell frowns. “What?”

“We were together,” Dana says, a little louder.

“I know that,” Nell tries not to sound impatient. “My question is what is it that brought you together. Is one of you helping the other with-,”

“Neither of us is fucking a married man, nor with child, if that is your concern,” Dana says flatly. “In fact, a bastard child is not in the least a risk for either of us.”

Nell doesn’t understand. “Then what-,”

“We have been together,” says Dana.

And then she realizes, all at once. “You-,”

“I told you that I would not marry,” Dana is not looking at her anymore, but studying the floor. “You must understand, this is not- I know when they speak of, of- of women- doing such things, it is said to be- games or silliness or- training one another to please men. It is not a game, for me. Nor Marianne. We’ve not- not for long, but- you don’t know… I’ve never met anyone like that before. Like me, who- who feels as I do. As I always have.”

“Always?” Nell murmurs.

“Yes,” says Dana, looking up at her fiercely. “I will- I’ll not be coy with you. My grandsire was negotiating to wed me to Black Donnel when Gawen found us. Me and- a girl, one of our steward’s daughters. We were only- it doesn’t matter. I swore to him we were just playing- I was fourteen, her fifteen, he- he told his father, who told Grandfather, and my father, and my mother- and then everyone seemed to know, or at least suspect it, and-,” her voice catches slightly, “and then her father sent her away, and- well, Donnel had got wind of it, of course, and- and he laughed, and said he cared not so long as I was still maid enough for a husband, but-,”

“I refused and said I’d- I told them I would not, could not, that I’d leave if they wanted me to, but I would not marry, and Grandfather was wroth, and Beron said they ought to- that I should be stripped naked and made to walk through the village, for dishonoring myself so, but… Father would not have it, he said he’d belt me himself if they liked, but the first man who laid a hand on me or tried to strip me nude, he’d kill them, kin or no.”

“Dana.” Nell puts an arm around her, but she jerks away.

“No. It was my fault. There could have- people might have been hurt, all because-” She shakes her head. “And then word came from your aunt, looking for companions for her Bolton niece, and off I went. And I never- never felt like I could again, until now. Here. With her.” She stiffens, pushes her hair behind her ears. “I understand that it’s- that you must act as a queen, not my friend. I do not- I only ask- it is not Marianne’s fault. She had never- You must not blame her. Marissa did not see us, but she suspects. Please, don’t- If Marianne’s kin find out, they will wed her off, to some bloody cousin or- whoever they can find, and it’s not- I cannot have that be my fault as well. I will go home, if you command it.”

“You think I would send you away?” Nell asks roughly, something tugging loose in her chest, like thread unspooling or snow brushed off an evergreen branch.

Dana’s eyes are red-rimmed. “I don’t know. It’s- you do not think me depraved? Or- my mother said I was just being willful, that I was too stubborn to see men’s virtues, but- I have never looked at a man and felt what I feel for a woman.”

“No,” says Nell after a moment. “You are not depraved. Or- unnatural, or willful. Well, willful, yes, but- Dana. I cannot pretend to understand- I don’t know what it’s like. But- you are my sister, truly. You could do all sorts of vile things, and you would still be my sister, to me. But this is not… one of them. I love you. And that you do not love men could never change that.”

Dana hugs her too tightly; Nell inhales and then pats her firmly on the back. “It’s too early to cry on me.”

“Oh hush, my queen,” Dana mutters in her ear, before letting go and wiping at her face. “I’d like that bread now, if you don’t mind.”

Chapter Text

299 AC - WINTERFELL

Beth thinks the dirt in the lichyard is much looser than usual, but perhaps that’s just from the rain. It has poured and sleeted icy droplets from the sky on and off for the past week. Even now, the sky is shuttered and grey and grim far above their heads. It seems impossibly far away, for since the sea came to Winterfell, they might as well be an island of stone, far away from any sight of land or rescue. Beth’s stomach hurts; it always hurts these days. Meera warned her against worrying herself sick; “Crying and fretting won’t help anyone,” she’d told her, just a few days past. “The best thing you can do is keep your head down, watch, and wait. That’s how we win.”

But there’s been no winning for anyone but Theon and his men at Winterfell. Her eyes hurt too; she doesn’t sleep well, even beside Meera, who has her spear always within reach. They barricade the bedchamber door every night, and a few times it has been Beth and the Reeds and Bandy and Shyra, all sleeping in one huddled mass together on the bed. Not Palla, though. Farlen doesn’t let her leave the kennel much, nor out of his sight at all, after what the Ironborn did to her. Beth’s not stupid. She knows how men and women lay together, and she knows that men can rape them, and often do during wars, and not just women grown- little girls and boys too. So she doesn’t sleep very well as of late.

Theon had the men who hurt Palla and beat her father and killed Dasha the dog whipped, but that was all. Beth has seen men whipped for dozing off while on guard, for being late to training, for brawling in the tavern, for thievery. If Robb were here, he’d have put them to death, or send them to the Wall. But if Robb were here, none of this would have happened, and she wouldn’t be thinking about it at all. Palla does not want to talk about it, anyways. She wants to bury Dasha’s ashes, which Turnip is dutifully holding in a linen bundle while she digs.

Drennan the Ironborn killed Dasha because she bit him when he and the others came into the kennel. She was trying to protect Farlen and Palla. Beth knows Dasha was Palla’s favorite dog, even if she was old and ugly and mean. You don’t have to dig that deep to bury a dog, even a deerhound, but Palla is up to her waist in mud and black dirt before she declares it deep enough. Beth helps her scramble out of the grave; her dress is spattered with dirt and grime, and the dampness in the air is plastering tendrils of blonde hair to her sweaty forehead. “Here,” says Beth, handing her a kerchief.

Palla doesn’t wipe off her face or dress; she crumples the white fabric in one fist instead, and then drops it into the grave. Beth liked that kerchief. Sansa helped her embroider birds on it once, a long time ago. At least, it feels like a very long time ago. “Give her here,” she says roughly to Turnip, who hands her Dasha’s remains. Palla stands very still for a moment, clutching the bundle to her chest, wavering.

“She was a good dog,” Beth feels as though she has to say something, anything. “She- um, she was good, and brave, and loyal. And she wanted to protect us. Protect Winterfell.”

“Like a soldier,” Turnip adds in what he seems to think is a helpful tone. “I wish she’d killed them.” One side of Turnip’s mouth is swollen pink-and-purple where one of Theon’s men struck him the other day, then shoved Gage to the floor and spat on him when he protested. Theon said if they obeyed and treated him as their prince, he would be a kind master. No one believed him then, and they do not believe him now. The swelling makes him lisp some of his words. He scratches at the flaky scab forming on his split lip, absently.

“I wish she’d killed them too,” says Palla, and then she closes her eyes, heaves in a breath, and lowers the bundle into the grave. She remains there, on her knees, for too long, hands in the dirt. After a few moments, Beth kneels down beside her, grimacing at the feel of the wet earth clinging to her skirts. A fat drop of water strikes her on the back of the neck. It’ll be back to rain again soon.

“We can pray,” Beth says. “Here.”

No one’s allowed in the godswood, because Shaggy and Summer are locked up there, and Theon said that if anyone was caught trying to open the gate, he’d have them hung. Everyone has to say their prayers outside, because it’s blasphemy to appeal to the old gods indoors, where it's warm and safe and dry. Insulting to them, the oldest of the wild things. So Beth usually prays in the lichyard, since it’s less intimidating than the dark and cold crypts. She doesn’t know if any god at all can hear her here. She even thought of going into the sept, but it’s been chained shut for a fortnight now.

When the sun came up, the first morning Theon held Winterfell, he let his men take Septon Chayle and sacrifice him to the Drowned God. They threw him down the well. And then they made the few men left haul his body out, so he wouldn’t rot and ruin the water supply. Beth didn’t watch Chayle drown, but she heard his shouts when they took him. He was always nice, even if you didn’t worship the Seven. He loved books and always helped people find them if they came to the library, even if they were common. He wasn’t even old; Old Nan said he still had a ‘boy’s smile’, and Beth could see it too, sometimes.

He was a very good swimmer, Septon Chayle, but it’s hard for a man to swim when his hands and feet are bound and he’s in a dark, slimy pit.

Beth has never hated anyone before, but she thinks she hates Theon and his men. No, she knows she does. When a man drowns his whole body goes grey, even his lips. She never knew that before. It took an awfully long time to scrub out the bloodstains on the floor in the Great Hall, where they speared Mikken in the back. Beth never knew that before, either, how long it takes, how many buckets of water and filthy rags, until she had to carry the water and help the other women mop and scrub.

She’s learned a lot of things, and she hasn’t liked any of them.

When Father comes back and takes Theon’s head, she’s resolved to watch. After everything the Ironborn have made her look at, it shouldn’t be very hard at all. She might even like it. Beth knows that’s wrong. But it’s true. She hates- she hates him, she hates his men, she hates the way they tramp around Winterfell, sneering and laughing and drinking, she hates the way they look, their unfamiliar armor, their braided hair and beards, she hates them all, all of them, and while she can’t bring herself to say she wants them to die, she does want to watch, when it happens.

Turnip kneels down too, and the other side of her, and they pray, and fill the grave back up, and pray some more.

“When my father comes back,” Beth whispers, some time later, “I’ll tell him how brave Dasha was, Palla. Maybe he can- we could make a statue for her. And Septon Chayle. And Mikken, and-,”

“Don’t be stupid,” Palla stands up slowly, rubbing at her eyes. “Dogs don’t get statues, Beth. Only lords, and maybe ladies, if they’re really pretty.” But her cold eyes say, ‘we don’t get statues, people like us, because no one wants to remember us’. And Beth cannot argue with that. If Palla died, no one would make a pretty statue for her like they did Lady Lyanna. No one would lay flowers and feathers and pretty pebbles at her stone feet, no one would come and kneel and pray before her.

The same goes for me, she thinks suddenly. She’s not a lady, is she? Even the Reeds, strange though they might be, and the Freys, horrid as they might be, are worth more than her. Lords and ladies get ransomed back, or rescued. No one goes charging off on a white horse to save girls like Palla from monsters, and no one commissions a statue when a smith like Mikken is murdered, even if it wasn’t fair, even if it wasn’t right, even if they’d never done anything to hurt anyone, and they didn’t have to die, it was just-

“We could make a little statue,” Turnip says suddenly. “Out of clay. There’s some clay in the storeroom. We can make a little Dasha, an’ you can keep her-,”

“I don’t want a stupid clay dog!” Palla snaps, and she shoves him, hard. Turnip falls over on his bottom, gapes up at her in open-mouthed hurt. Palla is crying, tears streaming down her dirty cheeks. “You don’t- I don’t want a bloody statue! I want-,” she makes a strange choking noise, and shakes her head. “I want to go home,” she says then, and Beth stares at her. They are home. This is the only home they’ve ever known. It just doesn’t feel like it anymore.

Palla sinks down onto her haunches, like a dog herself, tucks her chin against her chest, and fights back sobs. Beth puts a hand on her shoulder and squeezes. “It’ll be alright.” She tries to sound brave and calm, like Meera always is. Even Bran is braver than her, and he’s crippled and kept locked up in his room all day, just like Rickon. Beth’s supposed to bring Rickon his supper every night, and she hates that too. He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know why Theon is being like this, he keeps asking for his mother and his father, and Beth never knows what to say. Last night he threw his bowl of soup at her; she ducked and it shattered against the wall and spattered, lukewarm, across her hair and back.

“When my father rescues us-,”

“Stop,” Palla has managed to restrain her sobs, for now. “Just stop,” she says, burying her head in her knees. “If they hear you saying that, they’ll beat you.”

“I’m not afraid,” Beth lies. Of course she is. She’s never been so afraid in her life. It feels like some sick nightmare. She walks through halls and rooms she’s been in a thousand times, played in, laughed in, and she is constantly terrified, as if expecting a monster to pop up out of the shadows and grab her. Only it’s real, and the monsters are here, and the biggest monster of them all is someone who wears a face she knows well enough. Lord Stark never mistreated Theon. Robb saw him as a brother. Farlen and Gage were always kind to him; Father taught him how to fight. She doesn’t know why he’s doing this. Why won’t he stop? Even if- even if he felt like he had to help his kin, he didn’t have to come here. He didn’t have to hurt them.

If she were really brave, like Nell or Lady Catelyn or even Arya, if she were really brave she’d stand up for the people here. She is the castellan’s daughter, after all, and ten is nearly a woman. She should- she should beseech Theon, the way Maester Luwin has, to try to… to at least- She doesn’t know what. Surrender? Leave? Of course he won’t do that. But he wants them to call him a prince. He’s not. Even if he is prince of the Iron Isles, he will never, ever, be the Prince of Winterfell. But she knows better than to say that aloud, of course. Palla’s right. He’d have her beaten, or thrown in a cell. Or maybe down a well like Septon Chayle.

She wonders what the Drowned God looks like. A kraken, Bandy thinks. A big kraken that feasts on men’s souls. Shyra disagrees; she says it just looks like a drowned man, only still alive somehow, floating deep down in the darkest part of the sea, with the bodies of all his victims. Theon once told Bran it was a sea dragon, chained to the ocean floor, but he was just japing then, teasing him. That was a very long time ago, too. Bran wasn’t much older than Rickon is now, and Beth was just a little girl. Maybe it’s a man with many arms and legs, and scaley grey skin. Maybe he has no mouth at all. But it’s not true. The old gods have power here, not the demons of the sea. Not the Ironborn. They don’t belong. They will never belong. Winterfell will be here long after them.

It’s just hard to remember that, sometimes.

Beth never did a servant’s work before, but now she does. The Ironborn certainly aren’t pitching in to lend a hand, and the servants on hand were already few; there was no need for a castle like Winterfell to house two dozens maids when the lord, lady, and most of their children were gone. She washes laundry in the court yard, beating it with sticks the way Old Nan shows her and the twins, she brings crates and sacks up and down flights of stairs, she sweeps floors, she helps to clear tables. She chops vegetables in the kitchen with Gage and Turnip; Osha went over to the Ironborn, and doesn’t work there anymore. Beth doesn’t like the kitchens; men tend to hang about whenever they smell food cooking, or come in to dry their clothes before the fire. But she mostly keeps her head lowered and her ears open, as Meera would advise. Even when she cuts open the pads of her fingers or gets a new, smarting callus.

It’s hard. Beth never considered herself blind to the nature of life for the smallfolk- she was not so far from them- but she never realized how hard it was to be on your feet all day, either, having to rush through your own meals to jump back up and work again, how it makes your back ache and your legs and hands cramp, how it feels to be afraid you did something wrong, that you might be punished at any moment. How it feels to be ignored. In some ways that is worse. Beth was never ignored before. Dismissed or overlooked from time to time, certainly, especially when she was forever in Sansa and Jeyne’s giggling shadows, forever the master-at-arms’ daughter, not a lady, not a princess, not special or worthy. But never ignored.

Now she steps into rooms, head bowed, shoulders hunched, and men like Theon stare right through her, or their gaze slides over her without so much as a start of recognition. I know you did not forget, she wants to scream sometimes, don’t pretend, Theon Greyjoy, you grew up here same as I did, I watched my father teach you how to wield a sword and shield, I sat across from you at dinner. But the cruelest thing is that she is relieved, now, when she is ignored. Better to be ignored than recognized as something someone could use, hurt, discard. She slinks around like a kicked dog, as does everyone else with any sense.

“There are no brave men left behind these walls,” Old Nan told her one night, her eyes glassy and grey as she peered at Beth over her knitting. “And there’ll be no brave men beyond them, when winter comes.”

“My father is brave,” Beth had said firmly. “King Robb is brave. They’ll come before winter does, you’ll see.”

Old Nan had just smiled sadly, and clacked her needles together.

She may not eat at the same table as Theon Greyjoy anymore, but often enough she serves his wine. Her and his squire are the usual ones, the mute boy they call Wex. A bastard, Beth heard, born of Pyke. He has wild dark hair and a sharp face. He cannot be any older than twelve or thirteen, Palla’s age. He doesn’t look half as frightening as most of the Ironborn, but Beth knows better. Big Walder wheedled Wex into showing him how to use a dagger. She saw them once, practicing. If Theon finds out he’ll have Wex whipped for putting a weapon in a hostage’s hand, even a little ferret of a boy like Big Walder Frey.

So Wex has to be nice to her, lest she decide to tell, which is not very difficult for someone who can’t speak. Mostly he smiles when he sees her, and once he tried to touch her hair, but she was foolishly brave, and slapped his hand away. Beth had been afraid then, because even if he wasn’t a man grown he was still bigger and stronger than her, big enough to really hurt her if he wanted to, but Wex had just smiled, and pointed at one of the blazing torches on the wall above them. Beth had stared at it, uncomprehending, until he pointed at her hair again. Fire. Right. The wildlings aren’t the only ones who think that, it would seem. Lucky red hair. She doesn’t believe in that at all, as of late.

Sometimes Theon eats alone, sometimes he eats with one or two of his men, although he doesn’t seem to like most of them, and sometimes he lets Kyra eat with him. Kyra is a tavern girl, which Beth once heard was a kind turn of phrase for a whore. She’d make some of her money serving men their drinks, and most of it serving them in bed. Beth doesn’t want to think about that, though.

She’s seen Kyra many times before this; about the village, usually, or whenever Jory would bring Beth into the Smoking Log and let her order her favorite rabbit stew that they served there. Once she found a tiny bone in it, and had gasped and nearly cried, thinking for the first time of the poor little rabbits, and then Jory had laughed, so she’d set it between her teeth and bit down, hard, to prove that she could be strong.

But it’s not hard at all to break a rabbit bone.

Now Kyra stays here. Theon brought her back from the winter town not a week after he’d taken Winterfell. She was smiling and clutching him on his fine stallion, but Beth had seen the flicker of fear and unease all the same when the gates crashed shut behind them once more. When Father takes the castle back, she’d best find a way to slip out a side gate, or she’ll be punished. Palla says women who lay with enemy soldiers always are, that it makes people feel better to have someone to hurt and blame when the invaders have been thrown out.

Beth doesn’t know whether to feel sorry for Kyra or not, although she looks prettier than she ever has before, her hair properly washed and her skin clean and bright. She’s wearing one of Lady Catelyn’s faded old gowns; it’s too tight in the chest, and too long in the skirt. But the dark green goes well with her hair, Beth thinks; Kyra’s hair is light brown and plain, even when it’s shook loose to cascade around her shoulders. Theon likes a woman’s hair down. She knows because she overheard Bandy and Shyra gossiping about it after they fetched Kyra’s bath. Kyra always wore her hair in a thick braid at the inn, but now she wears it down, because she is a prince’s mistress, and that means she has to dress and do as he pleases.

Beth doesn’t ever want to be any man’s mistress. Palla is afraid some of the Ironborn might try to take the women left here back for salt wives. Beth thinks she’d rather be dead than be carted off back to the Isles. No, she knows she’d rather be dead. She’d jump out a window if they tried to take her away, she would. But it’s easy to think brave and defiant things like that, to promise herself that everything will be alright in the end, that any day now Father will arrive with an army to free them, when she is by herself, praying on the damp ground in the lichyard or standing on the covered bridge and listening to the wolves howl in the godswood.

It’s much harder when she is pouring Theon’s wine and keeping her eyes firmly on the table. The food smells good, but not as good as it could. Gage is spiteful with his seasoning and flavors; the Ironborn are just too stupid and hungry to ever realize it. Beth wishes he’d put dog shit in their food. Just thinking the word ‘shit’ makes her feel guilty, but not so guilty that she stops considering it. He could. He could feed them shit and piss and all sorts of awful things and they wouldn’t even know it, they’re so ignorant and evil. That makes her feel a bit better.

“Something funny?”

She had not realized it, Beth thinks in alarm, but she smiled. Just briefly, to herself. He saw. Kyra pauses mid-sip of wine, her gaze fluttering from Beth’s frozen form to Wex to Theon, who has leaned back lazily in his chair to regard her.

“No, my lord,” says Beth, without raising her eyes, the flagon of wine heavy in her chapped hands.

“You’ve been sullen enough as of late,” he comments, not immediately ignoring her once more, as she’d hoped he would. “Do you remember Rodrik Cassel’s little girl, Kyra? Always trotting after Sansa Stark like a lost pup? Her father meant to serve us a defeat, the old fool. Now his daughter serves my wine.” He almost sounds as though he might laugh, although Theon has not laughed at all since he declared himself Prince.

He’s drunk, she thinks, at least a little. Drunk and looking for praise. It’s pathetic. She almost pities him. Almost. It’s hard to pity someone who frightens you.

“It was very clever of you, m’lord,” Kyra says, leaning forward so her hair falls just so, smiling reassuringly. “They’ll sing of your victory here, someday.”

They’ll sing about the kraken who lost his head, Beth thinks, but she takes advantage of the distraction in order to step back from the table, bumping shoulders with Wex. He nudges her with an elbow, jerks his chin slightly towards the table, where Theon is kissing Kyra, rattling dishes, and rolls his eyes. Beth looks at him suspiciously for an instant, still gripping the flagon, biting her lip. Then Wex puckers his mouth, briefly, and she does giggle aloud, mostly at the absurdity of the whole thing than genuine amusement.

She’s standing here in the shadows next to a bastard son of Pyke, who is trying to cheer her up, when it was his master’s own men who are to blame for all of this. It is absurd. It’s stupid. It’s ridiculous. So she laughs. A chair scrapes back. Beth glances back towards the table as Wex straightens, and looks at Theon, who has risen and is giving her a hard stare. “Something funny, Beth?”

Now she’s made him repeat himself twice over the course of one meal. Beth could strangle Wex, because he’s done it now. Or she’s done it, really. Beth doesn’t know anything about war or politics, but she knows people, she does, and she knows Theon. He always liked to laugh, but he was never the sort who could take a jape as easily as he could dole them out.

“Tell me,” he says, a hand still on the back of his chair, the chair carved with direwolves, that Lord Stark used to sit in, then Robb, and now him, a turncloak and a traitor and a fool. “Did Wex tell you a very good jape? Or is it something else?”

“Nothing, my lord,” she says very quietly, staring at the floor. “I was- it was nothing. I’m sorry, my lord.”

“Sorry, are you?” He takes a step closer. Some men get angry much quicker when they drink. He might be one of them. She doesn’t know. Father never left her around drunk men, always sent her off to bed when feasts went long into the night. But Father isn’t here now. “For what? Nothing?” he imitates her, and the back of her neck prickles. “I’m a fair master, am I not, Kyra?”

“Yes, m’lord,” Kyra is not touching her wine now, her mouth slightly open in concern. Anxiously, she tucks a lock of hair behind one ear.

“But I’ll not tolerate insolence, no more than any Stark would have,” Theon’s lip curls. “So won’t you share the jape, Beth? What was so very funny?”

He thinks I am mocking him, she realizes. Or all of us, really. That we mock him, deride him, when he leaves a room. It doesn’t matter who I am. I could be Bandy or Shyra or Palla or Meera or Jojen. He just wants someone to punish for it. Wex is standing stiff and silent beside her. Even if he could speak in her defense, she knows he wouldn’t. He’s still the enemy. She’s still just a prisoner.

“It’s just funny,” she says suddenly, raising her gaze, and for an instant it’s not even her saying it, but some other girl, a stupid, wild girl, not meek Beth Cassel, not obedient Beth, some other half-mad thing, she’s the one saying this, the one speaking up, “when Kyra said they’d sing of you. Because in all our songs about Ironborn, they’re always losing.”

It’s true. That doesn’t mean she should have said it. Beth waits for a stab of terror, shock, outrage at herself. But nothing comes. She feels nothing at all. It’s as if someone else said it, not her. There’s a giddy, floaty feeling in her stomach. How could she- Why would she- She should have ducked her head and mumbled a thousand apologies, cringed and cried until he turned away, disgusted but satisfied, instead she- she-

She’s on the floor, her cheek stinging, hard, the flagon of wine spilling out, drenching her skirt. Beth might have been very stupid tonight, but not nearly stupid enough to get back up and take another blow like that. Theon doesn’t say anything else after he backhands her, just turns back to the table. Kyra stands up quickly, and Beth wonders for a moment then if he means to punish her as well- did she get her in trouble, make Theon think Kyra was mocking him too? Kyra must be thinking it as well, probably wants to slap her herself.

But Theon just says, “Come along, then,” gruffly, and Kyra hurries ahead of him, lifting her too-long skirt.

Beth sits on the floor, sprawled among the spilled wine, cheek throbbing with fire. Wex Pyke helps her to her feet, to her surprise. Then he touches his lips and shakes his head, frowning.

“I know,” says Beth. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” She feels at her cheek with two sticky fingers. The floor was hard and cold. Her legs and bottom hurt as well.

But he makes a fist and raps it against his own chest, and she frowns. “You’re- you’re sorry?”

Wex nods. Beth didn’t know Ironborn were ever sorry for anything.

“You should be,” she says, instead of ‘it’s alright’. She doesn’t owe him anything. He’s going to grow up to be a traitor and a murderer and a reaver, just like the rest. “You made me laugh. You got me in trouble.” She doesn’t know why she even laughed, anyways. Mayhaps she’s going mad.

He nods, then touches his own cheek and lifts his chin towards her.

“I’m fine,” Beth lies. She’s not about to break down in tears in front of the likes of him, even if he’s playing at kindness with her. It’s just a game to him, same as mocking Theon behind his back. “It doesn’t hurt much.”

Wex doesn’t look very convinced, but he shrugs and goes on his silent way. Beth goes to bed that night wedged in between Bandy and Shyra; Meera and Jojen sleep near the door. Despite the pain, Beth falls asleep quickly, for once, and sleeps deeply, at that. She does not dream of anything; not Father nor Jory nor the strange godswood and the strange girl in grey, and she does not even have nightmares of Ironborn breaking down her door and hurting her the way they did Palla. When she does wake, she almost feels rested for the first time in weeks, despite the fact that the sun is not even up yet.

Then she glances around the darkened room, and realizes the door is unbarred, the Reeds are missing, and the godswood outside, for once, is completely silent.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell would have sent the Frey girls back anyways, even without the letter demanding their immediate return, however politely worded. Discounting the force under her father’s command who she and Edmure have ordered to prepare to descend upon the Trident and claim Harrenhal, they have roughly eleven thousand men, and only three thousand of those men will be on horseback. The Lannisters have twice that, easily, and even spread out, it will not be a clean fight.

It is quickly apparent what Tywin means to do; form a many-pronged trident of his own, and neatly pierce through their defenses to bleed into the West once more. If even one of those prongs slips through, it will open up a path for the rest to follow, and then it will be a bloody tumble for control of the river. Once they lose the Red Fork, Riverrun will be surrounded, and Tywin will be free to devote a portion of his forces to besieging their stronghold, and send the rest after Robb.

And if that happens- Nell knows they have supplies enough to last perhaps six months, given how many people are crowded into Riverrun, but it will not come to that. Depending on which commander Tywin leaves to assault them- and it may very well be the Mountain- they will do their best to divert the river, drain the moats, grapple and swing over the walls, and then it will be over. She must come to terms with that. Should they fall under siege, and should Robb not be able to return in time to lift that siege, they will die. All of them will die. Elia Martell was a frail woman with a babe in arms when they broke down her door, and Tywin Lannister’s dogs did not waste any time in tearing her and her children to pieces.

If it comes down to it, Nell knows it will not matter that she is a woman, not matter that she, until recently, did not carry a blade. It will not matter whether she is still pregnant or whether she has a mewling infant at her breast. It will not matter if she commands her defenders to throw down their swords and yield. It will not matter if she prays and begs for mercy. The window for mercy was the ludicrous terms the Imp sent back with Ser Cleos, and even those came with murderers under a banner of peace. It will not matter if one is a Bolton, a Frey, a Bracken, or a Flint. The women of the household are not going to be politely escorted to a tower cell. They will be fallen upon the way wolves fall upon fresh meat still clinging to the bone.

So she readily agrees to send the Frey women back to the Twins, and orders the Bracken sisters and Dana to Seagard shortly thereafter. Dana is two-folds infuriated, of course. Furious to be separated from Marianne, and furious to be packed off to Seagard. “You cannot,” she all but spits, pacing wildly like a caged animal in front of the hearth while Nell plucks out an errant stitch from her sewing frame. “I will not go- we are pledged to you, sworn like any soldiers, you cannot think to send us- to send me away like this, Nell, listen to reason-,”

“Explain to me what reason there is in keeping you all here, taking up room, taking up supplies, which could be devoted to the garrison, to the wounded,” Nell says without looking up from her work. Her neck aches and her eyes burn, but she blinks away the pain and blurriness. The maester assures her it is normal. The babe will be here before three more moons have passed. If Edmure had his way, she would already have shuttered herself up in her rooms for her confinement. Lucky then, that he is not her husband, and she has no compulsion to obey his wishes. There is still time yet. She has convinced Maester Vyman that she is still well enough, strong enough, to have the run of the castle. “Can you reason that, Dana?”

“This is mad, and you know it,” Dana snaps back. “If we are to be evacuated, you must come as well- gods, do you intend to give birth in between issuing commands to Edmure’s troops?”

Nell winces as the babe lands a particularly painful kick to her ribcage. He is a strong one, to be sure. “If the need arises, I would lash this child to my chest and ride out to lead the archers myself. But no. My good brother is capable of commanding his own men.”

“Then why stay?” Dana groans aloud, stopping her pacing and turning to face Nell head-on. “Don’t let your pride compel you, Nellie! Robb would want you safe. You are carrying his heir-,”

“I am not just a vessel for his legacy!” Nell finally throws down her needle, then regrets it as it rolls off her lap and onto the floor. It will be a horrible pain to have to pick that up. Crouching down is not nearly so simple as of late. She wants her body back. She wants her coordination back. She slipped badly getting out of the bath just the other day, and nearly cracked her head. Her maids were beside themselves, fussing and ashen at the thought of somehow being held responsible for any injury to their queen. She exhales. “Go over to the window and tell me what you see.”

Dana’s brow furrows. Nell holds her baleful stare. Dana sighs, crosses to the window, and peers outside. “I see chaos,” she says after a moment, turning back around. “I see green boys and old men picking up swords and shields, I see Edmure running ragged like a headless chicken. And I see every bloody farmer and shopkeep within a thousand leagues of here, filling up the yards and crawling up the walls.”

“Yes,” Nell digs her fingernails into the arms of her chair, trying to straighten her back. She feels like an old woman, sometimes, always hunched over. Her bones ache like it, too. They say second pregnancies are much easier. At this rate, she never wants to find out. Robb shall be content with just one son, surely. Men cannot imagine the torture. “The garrison, preparing. Marching commands being straightened out. And the smallfolk. Waiting. Fearing.”

“And you’re not,” Dana scoffs.

“I am terrified,” Nell says through her teeth, “which is why I cannot go. I’ve had this exact fight with Edmure a dozen times over the course of the past two days, Danelle. He has the Tully temper, need I remind you. Do not think you will sway me where he has failed.”

“He is worried for you! He considers you a sister!”

Nell flushes slightly; Edmure’a acceptance and affection has always been perplexing, almost unsettling in it’s easy fondness. ‘Brother’ has never been naught but a dirty word for her, something to be dreaded, reviled, avoided at all costs. Yet here is a man who she has known for less than a year, who already treats her as if they’d grown up together, as if it was not just his duty to defend and protect her, but-

“And I am worried for him, and all the rest. But as worried and frightened as I am, the smallfolk cannot see it. They cannot see me fleeing. They cannot see me despairing. I am their queen. I swore oaths to protect them, to defend their rights, to shield them from men exactly like the Lannisters. Edmure gave them shelter here, and for better or worse, I will remain here to shelter them. I do not care if the Old Lion sets the bloody Fork ablaze or the Mountain is at our gates, I will remain here with them until the fighting’s done.”

She casts a look down at her own body, and then adds, “Traveling like this would only have slowed them down, besides, and if I know the Freys, they will not let an army leave until their daughters and granddaughters have been returned to them unharmed.”

“”You are a queen, they cannot order you to give up your own ladies-,”

“They are not ordering, they are strongly insinuating,” Nell rolls her eyes. “If it comes down to a siege, they do not want their own kin trapped behind these walls, least of all women whom they can use to make new alliances if the need arises. That is why I wasted no time in sending Roslin and Arwyn and have Waldas and the rest.”

“You doubt their loyalty.” Dana frowns, folding her long arms under her chest. “You don’t think they can be trusted-,”

“I don’t think anyone can be trusted, but I have no choice. They have agreed to assist my father in claiming Harrenhal, and that is no small task. I don’t doubt their current loyalty, I doubt their commitment to the future, and not just theirs- should we fail at this, should Tywin run roughshod over Edmure again, any respect-,” she rubs two fingers together, “gone. I do not have Robb and Grey Wind here to make a fine picture of what a warrior king should be. If we are made fools of, or seen as weak, we are done,” she shakes her head. “It won’t matter if Robb returns or not. It won’t just be the Freys who will jeer and make mockery. These river lords change with the tides. They will question what the point of them swearing allegiance was, if their own lands remain unprotected while the northerners ravage the West”

“Robb might disagree,” Dana mutters pointedly. “He might prefer you hold back those eleven thousand here-,”

“Robb isn’t here!” Nell had not realized how angry she was until she practically yelled it. And she is angry, she realizes with a start. With him, she is. That he isn’t here. That he hasn’t come back. That he is off conquering gold mines to fund their war while she sits here and waits and frets about the babe and the battles and the fact that her good mother has not yet returned-

“He’s not here,” she echoes herself in a more subdued, albeit still curt tone. “And I am not going to sit here and bow my head in prayer with lions outside my door. Nor am I going to run to the Twins or Seagard. But you must go, because you are my responsibility, and should the worst come to pass, I would see you spared it.”

“I knew it was dangerous when I agreed to come south-,”

“Aye, and it is, and that is why you are going,” Nell massages the bridge of her nose. “Gods, do not make me command it, Dana. I am sorry about Marianne-,”

Dana’s mouth tightens, and she glances away. “If you had sent me to the Twins as well-”

“I think it best not to take that risk,” Nell says calmly. “Do you know I had to promise Marissa a betrothal to her choice of the northmen, when they return, to keep her from spreading gossip about the two of you? Let’s not stoke the fire- the Twins has far more eyes and ears than Riverrun, and dozens of them would love the chance to use my own ladies against me. Besides, the Brackens have need of you. It is difficult for Barbara, looking after Jayne on her own-,”

“So now I must play nursemaid?” Dana grouses, although she sits down in a chair, which Nell takes as a sign of begrudging acceptance. “You know they say that girl is mad. It has been months, and she will not speak.”

“She can still hear and understand,” Nell does not want to think of Jayne, to think of the way Jayne shattered a pitch of water in terror when she told them that the Lannisters were marching again. “I cannot see how tucking her away in some tower room is going to improve her disposition. She needs sunlight. Fresh air. She needs to be well away from this. As do you.”

There are a few moments of troubled silence between them, before Dana says, “Mari promised to write, although what we’ll be able to say with maesters peeping over our shoulders… Mayhaps we should think of some sort of code.”

“Lady Catelyn once said she and her sister devised their own language, as girls,” Nell recounts.

“Sounds like something your good mother would do for fun,” Dana smirks slightly. “Alright, Your Grace, decode this-,” she leans over and grips Nell’s hand, hard, in her own. “Don’t get yourself into any trouble while I’m gone. You’ve got a nasty habit of going looking for it.”

A week after they depart they have word from outriders that Catelyn is a few hours’ ride away. Nell is not sure whether to be relieved or anxious. She feels rather like a child caught with their hand in the basket of cakes, truth be told. As if it were Sara come to inspect her handwriting or her sums- the braid of hair around her wrist itches terribly, and she feels a jolt of guilt as she changes into a gown so dark a blue it is a shade shy of midnight. She has not thought of Sara in weeks, too consumed with everything else. She has not thought of Mother, nor Barbrey-

Barbrey, who would be just as incensed as she knows instinctively that Catelyn will be.

But she is distracted from going down to the river gate to greet her good mother with the rest by Vyman, who tells her they have word from her father. He has made good time down-river and taken the Ruby Ford and the Crossroad. He has also taken a wife; he wed Walda Frey the night before he and his men departed. A very spontaneous wedding- the Frey girls could not have returned to the Twins more than a day or two prior to that. Beyond the numb shock of it, and the pragmatic relief that he is closing in on Harrenhal, she thinks distantly, ‘at least it was not Marianne he took to wife’. Dana never would have forgiven her.

She does not even know if it was Fat Walda or Fair. Does it matter? Whichever one it was, the Freys likely leaped at the chance to rid themselves of another bride to be, and to have a secure foothold in a powerful northern house. And Father- Nell tries to imagine her father in the godswood at the Twins- if they even have a godswood, they are such a young house- taking a woman her own age, young enough to be his daughter, to wed. What could have provoked him now, to do such a thing? He had his fair share of offers, throughout her childhood, of potential third wives. It was common knowledge that he had no trueborn sons. Yet for him, the Bastard sufficed. She’d come to assume that he simply couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps he found other men’s wives more enticing.

Yet why now?

The coin, she tells herself savagely, handing the letter back to the maester and struggling to compose her scowl into a neutral look. It was for the coin. They made him a rich offer if he’d only take a daughter off their hands, and he accepted. You know what he is. His motivations have never been particularly complex. When he is hungry, he eats. When he is bored, he hunts. When a man dangles a purse in front of his face, he takes it without question. Gods willing she will never set foot back in the Dreadfort, but she cannot help but-

She should have tried harder. She could have pushed for a betrothal for either of the Walda’s, damn Fair Walda’s affair with Black Walder. She could have prevented this. It’s silly- he could have easily wed Arwyn, or Zia, or even little Marissa. Her stomach turns uncomfortably, at the idea of a young girl of not yet fourteen for a stepmother. You could have saved them, a voice snarls in the back of her head as she carefully descends a narrow stairwell. You could have spared her him. You sent one of your ladies back to wed a monster. And to think Roslin said your heart was good. You care naught for anything but your claim and your babe. Call it responsibility and honor all you like, you know it is pride.

Nell forces the doubts back as best she can, but they surge up with a vengeance when she finally finds her good mother, praying over her husband’s bones. The silent sisters had come with Cleos, but Nell barely paid them any mind at the time, too concerned with the sudden flood of Lannister men in the castle, and then with the escape attempt, had nearly forgotten about them, and her good father’s remains, entirely. More guilt, at that. I barely knew Ned Stark, she reminds herself sharply. Who could expect her to mourn him? Of course she’d grieved, but more so for Robb’s obvious pain and hurt than anything else.

Yet she stands in the doorway and watches Catelyn’s head of auburn hair bowed, her hands clasped before her. She had not even taken off her riding gloves yet. Nell nearly turns to go, feeling as though this is some intrusion, but Catelyn rises fluidly and turns to regard her. It cannot have been so very long since they last saw one another, but Nell sees their shock a perfect mirror; Catelyn is shocked at how big she is with the babe by now, this far gone in the pregnancy, and Nell is shocked by how- Catelyn Stark is still a fair and graceful woman to look upon, but there is a hint of grey to her scalp that was not there before, and the lines of her face are more obvious, somehow, as if she’d aged years in mere months.

“Donella,” she says, and Nell bows her head, unsure of what to say- what can be said?

“I should let you finish your prayers-,”

“Come here,” Catelyn’s voice cracks with raw grief, and Nell looks back up in surprise, before taking a small step forward. She is even more surprised when Catelyn embraces her; Nell has not been embraced by anyone save Dana in a long time, discounting Edmure’s reaction when he learned of her pregnancy. It… it feels nice, she supposes, to be embraced by someone like a mother. Not her mother, of course. Even when Barbrey took her in her arms, seldom as it was, Nell always knew it was an aunt’s affection and care, but not- not what Mother was to her.

“The babe is well? You are well?” Catelyn grips her by the shoulders; she is stronger than she looks, and she and Nell remain equal in height.

“Yes,” says Nell, “it has been- not without its irritations, but things have gone well enough. With the child, that is,” she adds quickly. “I’m sure you saw the bodies-,”

“Edmure told me of the Lannister men who tried to free the Kingslayer.” Catelyn lets go, her face shadowed once more, blue eyes darkened. “And of his plans on the Red Fork. Come. We can speak in my chamber.” She spares one last glance back at the skeleton on the table. Nell is not disturbed by it, but has avoided staring directly at it for too long nonetheless. She is not even sure that is Lord Eddard. Surely they could have dressed up any bones in a dead man’s clothes. After all, they did not return Ice. They never will; the blade is likely melted down, reforged, and named something new by now, all for the glory of House Lannister. Nell learned as a girl that they lost their own Valyrian blade years and years ago.

“You wear it well,” Catelyn says once they are sitting before the fire in her room; Nell is hungry and sends the attending maid for honey milk and bread, and does not immediately realize that Catelyn is referring to her crown. She resists the urge to reach up and adjust it. Queens do not do such things.

“Thank you. It has been… an adjustment.”

“You have borne all that graciously as well,” Catelyn tells her gravely. “I am sorry that I had to leave you here. I know it must have been difficult for you, with Robb gone as well-,” she pauses and swallows hard. Nell wonders if she’d expected, or wildly hoped, to see Robb safe here upon her return. “You’ve had a hard first year of marriage already, and it is not even over yet. I wish I could promise either of us a softer future.”

“And I wish I was still a girl again playing at the part of a lady in Winterfell,” Nell gives a half-smile, “but there is no sense in wishing for what was, a wise woman told me once. We have endured this much, you and I both. Tell me, is it bad- is it as bad as they say, the battlefields? I heard you did not return through Bitterbridge, and that it why you were so delayed…”

“After Renly… after Renly was killed,” Catelyn says carefully, “we thought it wise to avoid risking the wrath of House Tyrell. But yes. It is… carnages you cannot imagine have been visited upon the people, the land. The number of villages we passed that were no more than smoking ruins… Places I knew as a girl, inns I rested in, fields my sister and I would pick flower from-,” she shakes her head. “It will take years to recover, and now that autumn has come, I fear we are all running out of time.”

Nell does not want to think about that. Not at all. “Then you understand Edmure’s insistence on meeting the Lannisters when they try to ford. It is his shame, what has happened to the Riverlands. Not nearly all his fault, but his shame nonetheless. He fears the people think he has failed them-,”

“The people could be provided for without offering them all admittance behind our walls.” If Catelyn is angry, she does not show it. Nor does she look pleased, either, but Nell would not be pleased were she a fresh widow with daughters hostage or missing, sons far from her embrace, and a homeland at war, either. “I understand his feelings, but should we come under siege, they will only get in the way. Most of their fighting men are already gone.”

“When a man begs his lord for shelter, and he refuses it, they call him close-fisted and cold-hearted,” Nell says. “What might they say of me, their queen? Edmure was set on it. And once you admit a few families, you cannot turn away the next mother with starving children, nor the young pregnant widow, nor the girl who has been raped half a dozen times in the past six months. I agree. They will be underfoot and often useless. They will cost us in terms of supplies. We must pray Edmure can avoid a siege, for we will surely have one should the Lannisters be allowed to cross.”

“I would counsel him to hold back the eleven thousand he seeks to set up and down the river, and fully encamp around Riverrun with them instead,” Catelyn replies, as the maid comes in with the food. She waves away the bread, but takes a cup of the milk, and a long draught at that, her eyes briefly closing, before they open again, as keen as ever. Nell chews on a bread crust, swallows. “He has everything to lose by attempting this plan of his. We have everything to lose. If we draw back and hold only Riverrun and the Whispering Wood, a few surrounding villages, no more, we would be better served. In trying to dam up the rivers with knights and archers, we may be laying our own trap.”

“My father has ten thousand men ready to take Harrenhal, but they can be diverted with a raven if need be.” Nell does not want to consider that, either, but she will take the beast she knows well over the ones she does not.

Catelyn sighs. “Edmure told me you insisted he not call up Tallhart’s garrison at the Twins. He meant to send them with your father-,”

“And I was firmly against it,” Nell says, breaking off another hunk of bread to slather with butter and preserves. “Four hundred men is still four hundred men. The Freys have far more, should they break their faith, but when my husband sets a warning, I mean to see it still ring true.”

“That is good,” Catelyn sounds faintly relieved. “You ought not to trust-,”

“I never have,” Nell says simply, and her good mother regards her with something like sadness for a moment.

“Yes. Never.” Catelyn hesitates, then adds, “He also told me you devised some plan for Stone Mill.”

Nell shrugs lightly, as if it is of no consequence. “For certain they will try to cross there, sooner or later. A little further south at Pinkmaiden, as well, and near Mummer’s Ford, I’m sure. They will try to cut northwest around us through the Whispering Wood as well. Stone Mill is only important because of the bridge.”

“The bridge?” Catelyn frowns, sets down her cup. “I know there is a bridge there, by the mill, but-,”

“It’s no bridge like the Twins, no stone giant, but a bridge nonetheless,” says Nell. “Mostly wood, half gone to rot, as well, but still strong enough to hold the weight of the miller’s ponies and little wagons, or the occasional traveler. Edmure thought we might burn it, litter the water with spikes and caltrops, and try to goad whoever comes to risking the crossing anyways.”

Catelyn is looking at her intently now. “But you suggested otherwise?”

“I looked at the maps,” says Nell, “and I decided to pretend I were Tywin Lannister. A dozen places he might try to wedge a finger into, of course, but Stone Mill- why, any man who tries to cross there would have to face House Vance to the west, House Piper to the east. Risky. But a greater risk to not attempt it at all. So if I were Tywin, I would send men there, but not my best or most valuable- I’d send the hardest of the lot, the ones used to brutal fighting, the ones I thought might be able to smash through those combined forces on either side, and get across. And if I lost them, what of it?” she shrugs again. “It was a butcher’s work.”

“So you send a butcher,” Catelyn’s brow furrows, and then she has it. “You think he will send the Mountain there.”

“Mayhaps I’m wrong,” says Nell. “Mayhaps not. I’m a fool if they avoid it entirely. But that is near where Edmure means to make a stand with Marq Piper and Karyl Vance. So I told them not to burn the bridge. Leave it. Station archers on it, fan out the rest of the men into the brush, on either side, and wait. Whoever comes- be it the Mountain or not- they will be expecting trouble. They’d ride hard for the bridge, hope to break the archers. So I think we ought to let them. Let the archers pull back, let them think they might cross the bridge-,”

“You mean to have them bring down the bridge,” Catelyn leans back in her seat, eyes momentarily widening. “You think-,”

“I know that bridge cannot hold the Mountain that Rides, nor any of his armored knights on warhorses,” Nell says. “Seeing our men on it might give them some assurance. And they are used to seeing men turn and run at the sight of them.”

“The water’s always very shallow there,” Catelyn is considering. “Even should the bridge fall, there’s no hope they’d be swept away, although with caltrops, and spikes-,”

“It’s so shallow that Karyl Vance claims he can dam it up a little further north, drain that stretch near dry, and dig pits. Best season for it, I think.” Nell nods to the open window, the cool autumn night outside it. “All those wet, muddy fallen leaves and debris from the trees? You hardly know where you’re riding, nor stepping.”

She is tramping through wet, muddy leaves herself, the next morning, when she first meets Brienne of Tarth. Nell knows who she is by then, of course- the news that Catelyn Stark had returned with an armored woman who was once pledged to Renly Baratheon had made its rounds twice over by then. Nell is no stranger to seeing women carrying weapons or in armor; even now she walks beside Jory Mormont, the one lady left to her, but there remains a world of difference between wiry Jory Mormont, with her long brown hair in a plait down her back and her battered chainmail shirt, and Brienne of Tarth.

From a distance, Nell would have taken her for any other brawny young knight. She knows plenty of tall, stocky women, but none so tall nor so muscular as this one. Even clad in a gown, Nell does not think there would be any disguising her figure. She’s ugly, that’s true enough, with stringy blonde hair, a thick neck, a nose that looks twice broken and a very square jaw, but more so than that, dented armor and faded cloak or not, she is impressive.

Nell does not realize just how young Brienne is; they must be about the same age, until she is standing before her. Or rather, it feels, below her. Nell is not small; she has stood five foot eight since she was a girl of fourteen. And Jory is only an inch shorter. But both of them are dwarfed by Brienne, who is taller than any man or woman Nell has ever met, save perhaps the Greatjon and his sons.

“Your Grace,” Brienne bows awkwardly at the waist, and Nell simply stares for a moment, before recollecting her manners. This woman has pledged herself to her good mother, and she must be a force to be seen on any battlefield. It might seem absurd, but for a second, Nell is almost- envious. She blames the pregnancy. She has never felt weaker or more useless like this, a lump of flesh who has trouble putting on her own boots at this stage, nevermind running, jumping, or climbing anywhere. And yet even at her very best- and she was always in good health- Brienne of Tarth could have slapped her down with so much as a swat.

If she could have accompanied Robb onto the battlefield, were she capable of such things, she would have. That is not her place, and never will be, but- Surely there must be some freedom to it, in a sense? What does a woman like Brienne of Tarth have to fear from anyone, man or woman? Nell pities the man who tries to order her behind castle walls. “Well met, Lady Brienne. I am told you hail from Tarth, my lady,” she says instead. “You must tell us all about it, should you have the time.”

Brienne is looking at Jory, who is gazing up at her in unreserved awe that way a small child might a shooting star.

“This is my sworn sword, Lady Jorelle Mormont,” Nell says, a small smile tugging at her lips. “She hails from an island herself. Her mother and sisters are fighting at my husband’s side. Perhaps you might-,”

“May I see your sword?” Jory blurts out.

Brienne blinks, looking slightly suspicious, as if this might be some jape, then reluctantly unsheathes her blade. After a moment’s hesitation, she lets Jory hold it, although Jory immediately braces slightly for the weight adjustment. “Two-handed?” she demands, as Nell takes a step back, sitting down on a low stone bench with a groan.

Brienne nods, then says aloud, voice slightly hoarse, “Yes.”

“What about a shield? My sister Dacey wields morningstar and shield.”

“I began with a shield when I was ten.” Brienne’s freckled face pinkens some, as if this is far more attention than she’s used to receiving. Perhaps it really is. Nell can’t imagine she’s very used to other women making conversation with her, beyond Catelyn. “But I prefer a morningstar during melees.”

“Like in a tourney?” Jory is firing off questions like crossbow bolts. “How many tourneys have you fought in? Do you always fight in the melee? Do you joust? I should like to learn to use a lance, someday, but my sister Aly thinks-,”

Sometime later, Nell finds herself practicing the harp in her chamber, overlooking a courtyard where Jory continues to follow Brienne around like a persistent gnat, jubilant at the thought of having another warrior woman around. They will be sparring sooner or later, if Jory has her way, although Nell does hope Brienne goes easy on her, as she’d hate to have to tell Maege that her daughter went a round against the Maid of Tarth and wound up with a broken back.

Edmure rides out four days later; the look on Catelyn’s face makes it quite clear what she thinks of the garrison left to defend them, and Nell privately agrees. Desmond Grell is capable, but the old men, boys, and wounded somewhat less so. But five hundred men is still five hundred men, and Riverrun is not very large. Shorter walls to walk, less acres to cover, and the moats beside. Yet despite her schemes of bleeding Tywin Lannister dry in a dozen places each time he tries to cross aside, when faced with the reality of those eleven thousand men riding out and leaving them behind, she’d be a fool not to be afraid.

That first night, the smallfolk hold vigil, spilling out the sept and even into the godswood itself, though very few of them worship the old gods. Nell knows she will not be getting much sleep at all this week, so she sits under the heart tree with Jory, watching the stars come out. The gardens are bathed in light from all the lit candles; Nell would only such a waste of wax this first night, but there is something comforting about it all the same. Distantly she can see the rainbow windows of the sept aglow with golden warmth, and even in the dark of the godswood, the lanterns blaze and the night seems to shrink away.

Nell thinks about the word they received today, that Storm’s End is officially fallen to Stannis, its stubborn old castellan dead. Catelyn told her Stannis had some want for a bastard boy of Robert’s. Nell assumes to make some proof of Joffrey’s illegitimacy, if the child is black of hair and blue of eye. She wonders that he does not fear men might take up arms in support of the boy, not him. A king’s son is still a king’s son, particularly when his mother was of high birth as well, and men have tried to put bastards of all sorts upon thrones. She wonders if Tywin doubts his grandson’s paternity at all, but what man would even be willing to consider the thought of his own children lying with one another? It may have been well and good for the Targaryens, but the rest of Westeros, be they worshippers of the Seven or the old gods, never lost their revulsion for it.

At some point, she must have nodded off, and she could have sworn she’d started to dream again, for it is almost always winter in her dreams, and she wakes shivering, although she’s slept outdoors in the North on a dozen nights far colder than this one. She awakens to find that Jory wrapped an old cloak round her shoulders, and men are screaming in the distance. Nell is in no state to walk the walls, so she sends a passing child instead; the girl, grimy and disheveled, comes running back shortly thereafter to report that the garrison is ‘smashing’ Lannisters, although she claims it is less than a hundred. It lasts less than an hour before the lancers retreat.

The next night, another skirmish, another small force probing at their defenses, quickly vanquished. The screaming, though. She’s gone soft; she’d forgotten what the screams of men and horses and steel on steel sounded like. Her last battle was the Whispering Wood, but this is what lulls Robb to sleep every night, and wakes him every morn, a constant cycle of sheathing and unsheathing swords, mounting and dismounting horses, pressing forward, drawing back, leading the charge. He must have done this half a hundred times by now, testing, feeling, as Tywin is, trying to see how best to take a castle, a river, a hill.

Nell has no hope at all of sleep after that. You pushed for this, she reminds herself coldly. You could have ordered Edmure to draw back to Riverrun, to keep his men close. You are still the queen here. You wanted to play at war, well, this is what it sounds like. Best learn to tolerate it.

The Mallisters send Lannisters reeling, the Vances force them back. By all accounts, Edmure’s plan is working. The lions can gain no foothold, and Riverrun remains well-defended. Nell knows she should try to calm herself. It’s not healthy for the babe; but she cannot. Her appetite disappears, she lies awake, restless, at night, listening to the sound of Jory’s soft snoring. One night she sits up at her window and watches Brienne of Tarth silently move through her sword exercises in the yard below, oblivious to Nell’s gaze. She is as graceful as the finest dancer with a sword in hand.

Other nights she sits up, and turns the rondel over and over in her own pale hands, wonders what it would be like to really use it. She could do it. She stabbed that wildling, in the wood, with Robb and Theon and Bran, although he was dying already. She knows she could kill. She only dreads having the chance. Not like this. If only anything were as simple as slitting a deer’s throat, dressing it down to harvest the meat and skin.

Eight days later, the messenger comes, and Nell digs her nails into her palms so as not to let her hands shake with tremors while Catelyn quickly scans it, then releases a breath. “A dozen attempts, and not a single victory for Tywin,” she says quietly. Jory breaks into a beam; Brienne looks visibly relieved. “Lefford drowned, Strongboar’s been taken, Addam Marbrand pushed back thrice-,” she pauses, not looking at the letter anymore, but directly at Nell.

Nell parts her lips to speak, but almost cannot find the words. “And our own losses?”

Catelyn comes and takes her hand gently, for all the words themselves are cruel, not for her tone or intent, but in their simple truth. “One of significance. Karyl Vance died at Stone Mill.”

Nell swallows around what feels like a dagger point lodged in her throat. “The bridge-,”

“The bridge collapsed,” says Catelyn. “Taking many of the Mountain’s men with it, and Ser Gregor himself. Near a dozen horses felled in the pits, and the Mountain went under his own, onto the spikes.”

Jory goes very still.

“He did not rise again. Edmure writes that he plans to show Karyl’s wife Clegane’s head, before bringing it back here for our wall.” Catelyn folds the letter back up neatly, one-handed, and squeezes Nell’s with the other. “Tywin’s host is retreating rapidly to the southeast. It’s done.”

It’s done, Nell thinks, it’s done, we’ve won, we’re the victors, they’re slinking off in humiliation, smile, come on, you’ve won, think of what Robb will say, such a clever wife, she brought down a bridge and a Mountain at that-

But she didn’t. She wasn’t there. Her words, her suggestions, her ideas, but not her hands that held the swords or axes or bows. Not her that braced behind the shields, nor watched the fighting churn red around her. It was the men there who saw it through, who acted as they’d planned. It was Karyl Vance who died so she might set Clegane’s head on a spike.

Those village women, raped and mutilated, their children butchered, the Bracken sisters, poor Jayne, they might fall to their knees and thank her, but will his wife? His daughters? He was a friend of Edmure’s, although a bit older and quieter than the rest. She remembers hearing him talk about his three little girls. Not a son to speak of, Karyl Vance, yet he sounded as proud as any man, when he spoke of his family.

“It’s done,” she echoes Catelyn, tries to smile, and just shakes her head swiftly instead, eyes burning. It worked. Everything went just as planned. They will celebrate this long and hard tonight. And she will sit up in her chambers and not protest at all the idea of beginning her confinement. It might even be preferable to being down there, among the light and merrymaking, pretending at triumph, when what she really feels is fear that she is balanced on the edge of a cliff, on the verge of overreaching and toppling down into the abyss.

Chapter Text

299 AC - WINTERFELL

Beth has had many jobs around Winterfell by now. She’s made beds and swept floors and washed dishes and clothes, shined boots and armor, carried trays of food in and out of the kitchens, brushed down horses and fetched saddles, scrubbed tables and stairs and wiped away blood and snot and dirt off faces, her own and others. If she thinks of it all simply as work, hard work, it is easier. Don’t think, just concentrate on the task at hand. That is what Father would tell her. He never wanted her to be spoilt or coddled, the sort of girl to turn her nose up at the servants or complain at every little inconvenience. If he could see her now, she knows he’d be proud, he would. She’s been good; she only cries at night when no one can see it.

She doesn’t cry when Theon comes back from the fruitless search for Bran and Rickon and promptly puts Farlen to death. No one really believes Farlen lost their trail on purpose, not even his own men; Beth can see the doubt and even disgust on some of their faces, clear as day. But Theon can hardly admit it’s his own fault they couldn’t find them, can he? Someone has to be punished, and Farlen was as likely to be blamed for it as anyone. Beth stands in the crowd of frightened, hateful servants and watches Theon pronounce Palla’s father a traitor. Farlen spits in his face. Urzen breaks Farlen’s nose.

“M’lord Eddard always did his own killings,” is the last thing Beth hears him say. She wants to run, to hide from this, but there is nowhere to go. Palla is standing rigid beside her, as if frozen, the only thing moving her eyes, darting around desperately, as if seeking some sort of intervention or miracle. Nothing comes. Theon picks up the axe. Old Nan draws in a quick, rattling breath. Maester Luwin tries to speak but his words falter. The kennel on the far side of the castle explodes with noise, as if the dogs themselves can sense it.

Turnip is hiding his head in his father’s stained smock.

Bandy and Shyra are crying; Bandy loudly, Shyra quietly.

“Shut those brats up,” Kromm is telling Joseth, as Theon hefts the axe up, then swings it down.

He misses.

Beth can’t see, she’s too short, but she knows he misses because Farlen screams, and then she hears Theon wrench it back out, and swing down again, and Palla is no longer standing beside her, but on the damp ground, her head locked between her knees, screaming so loudly Beth can’t hear Farlen cry out a second time. Beth kneels down beside her and locks her thin arms around Palla, tries to contain her shaking body, tries to pretend she is somewhere else, and no one is screaming or crying, and those sounds are not the sounds an axe makes when it connects with bone.

She does not see much of Palla after that; Palla locks herself in the kennel, most days, and Gage sends Turnip with some food for her every night. Theon’s men drink and gossip about how Father is raising an army to storm Winterfell. Beth wishes he would come quicker. She’s not sure how much longer they can go on like this. Everyone knows it’s useless now; Theon’s only valuable hostages left are the Freys, and the Twins is a very long way from here, all the way on the other side of the Neck. His only hope is that Bran and Rickon aren’t with Father right now, that he doesn’t know they’ve escaped.

Everyone has a different theory as to where they might have gone, but all of them seem silly in the end, because even if they had tried to run for Cerwyn, Beth doesn’t see how they could have made it there in less than a day, with no horses, no supplies, and a hunting party from Winterfell on their trail. Maybe Farlen really did lose it on purpose.

Mostly she goes around with a hard, hateful little notion of hope, all the same. Theon might still hold the castle, but he’s already lost, and everyone knows it. Wherever Bran and Rickon and Osha and Hodor and the Reeds are, they’re well away from here, and without them he has nothing to threaten the Starks with, nothing to keep Winterfell in his hands. His men can’t hold it for much longer. Even an army of just one hundred men could take it, Beth thinks. It’s not a question of if Father will rescue them, but when. And then it will be Theon Greyjoy with his head on the block. She hopes Father’s first swing misses too. She hopes he cries. Bandy says Kyra told her that he cries in his sleep.

That’s why Beth expects them all to leave, when his sister comes. Gage says it’s for certain they’ll go- what’s the point in staying, without the Stark boys, and a sure defeat on the horizon? Only he thinks they’ll likely try to set the place ablaze first, so the rest of them have got to be ready when to run when that happens. They can get out through the hunter’s gate, Joseth tells them. Be ready. Be careful. You’ll smell the smoke before you see it. Run and run and don’t look back, don’t take anything with you, just get to the gate and go. But not everyone can run, Beth thinks. Old Nan is too old, Palla is too weak from barely eating, what about them?

“He’s wrong,” Palla tells her, while Theon hosts his sister in the great hall, the woman they call Asha, who looks so similar to her younger brother that it’s disconcerting, seeing that shaggy dark hair and that thin face on another person, and a woman at that. Asha doesn’t act like any woman Beth’s ever known, save Osha, maybe. But she doesn’t seem to like Theon anymore than the rest of them. Beth could tell that from the instant she glimpsed her derisive glance at Theon’s ugly crown. It truly is horrible. He’d be better off wearing a shadowcat skull on his head.

“You think they’ll just let us go?” Beth frowns, trying not to grimace at the smell. Palla won’t bathe since Farlen died, says she’d rather get fleas than have to lie under some stinking Ironborn. One of the young dogs is nosing at her skirt; she pushes them away, not in the mood to pet or play. The kennel is dark and filthy, but it’s mostly safe, a cramped sanctuary from the rest of the castle. Beth smells blood wherever she goes now, like copper under her nose.

“No,” says Palla, scratching at her neck. “I think they’ll herd everyone into the hall like they did when they came, an’ kill us all. Then they’ll torch it.”

“I won’t go,” Beth wraps her arms around herself tightly. “No, if- if we fight back, if we run and hide, they can’t- they’ll just go, they won’t waste time trying to find everyone-,”

Palla just looks at her steadily, and her eyes are flat and hollow, like they were painted on her face. “Beth,” she says, and there is something like pity in her voice.

As if she’s sorry, somehow. What has she got to be sorry for? It’s not her fault. It’s not anyone’s fault except Theon’s, because he’s wicked and vile and evil, and his men are wicked and vile and evil, and even if they do kill everyone and run, Father will hunt them down, they’ll lose, they’ll all die traitor’s deaths, they will, and no one will ever think of them again after that, except to sneer and spit. That’s all the legacy Prince Theon of Winterfell will have.

But when Asha leaves, Theon does not go with her.

Beth sees then, that Palla and Joseth may both have the right of it. The only thing Theon has won in this war is Winterfell, and he means to die here as well.

The godswood is empty now, so Beth goes with Bandy and Shyra and Turnip, and they sleep there most nights, after praying. She prays that Father will get here soon with his army and save them, she prays that the gods will see justice done, and she prays that no one else dies, except the Ironborn. She can’t quite manage to pray for their deaths, but she hopes the gods understand what she means anyways. Turnip heard from Little Walder that Maester Luwin is begging Theon to surrender and take the black, but he will not have it.

Beth wishes he would. Then he could go to the Wall and Jon Snow would probably kill him, if he still lives. She always thought Jon was handsome, even when Jeyne would whisper about him only being handsome ‘for a bastard’. Handsome but grim, is what Beth always thought. He never smiled and laughed as much as Robb or- or Theon, back then. Maybe he is a brave ranger now, him and his wolf. Ghost always terrified her in ways that the other direwolves did not. She loved Lady so much. She used to help Sansa put ribbons round her neck. And Summer was always sweet as well.

The days seem to run into each other. Beth does not much see the point in counting. She only wants the waiting to be over. She can’t stand it anymore. It makes her skin itch and crawl and she wants to scream and jump up and down like a little child throwing a tantrum. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. She was supposed to go to Hornwood with Father and be happy, and instead they turned her home into a prison and made her clean up blood and gore and hurt her friends.

And then one morning, it is. There are whispers and murmurs of scouts in the winter town, and they say everyone’s there, or nearly everyone, that her father’s got a thousand men, no, two thousand, no, a whole pack of wolves, that there are men with Cerwyn and Manderly and Hornwood and Tallhart and Flint and Dustin and even Bolton banners. She feels a little spark of joy, or terror, at the excited talk of catapults and scorpions. It will be quick, Joseth swears. A few hours at most. Beth brushes her hair, even gives Wex Pyke a queer little smile of her own when she passes him in a corridor. He stares balefully back at her, but not with the hate or anger she might have expected. He’ll die too, just like the rest. He should have gone with Asha Greyjoy. She shouldn’t even be sorry.

Palla decides to bathe at last, as if in acceptance of whatever comes, and Beth is at the hot springs with her and Bandy and Shyra, washing her dirty hands in the warm water, when Black Lorren comes. Black Lorren is heavy and broad, with long black hair and iron piercings in his ears. He’s not as nasty or cruel as some of the other men, like Drennan or Squint were, before Osha killed them, but he’s still frightening to see coming towards you, even without an axe or sword in hand. Palla sinks down into the water up to her neck, going white as snow despite the heat, and Bandy and Shyra both instinctively back away into a copse of trees, holding hands.

Beth stands up slowly. Maybe he just wants her to do something like get him food or ale from the kitchens, or for Bandy to saddle a horse-

“Come here, girl,” he says coldly, and that is not that terrifies Beth. She is very used to being addressed as such by now. What chills her so much that she feels as though she’d been plunged into a snowbank is the look on his face. The contempt, as if he’d about to do something he’d very much rather not, as if he’s furious with someone. Not her, though, and that’s what is so scary. If he’s not angry with her, and he looks like this, then what has Theon told him to do? Her knees go weak and wobbly, but she knows better than to make him chase after her. She should be brave. Father would want her to be brave.

Beth bobs her head obediently and forces herself to shakily approach him. He takes her by the arm, roughly, but not painful enough to make her wince or cry out, and she has almost managed to calm herself down when she realizes he means to bring her up onto the walls. Beth does not know why, but she has enough of some vague idea that her feet begin to drag, so he is almost pulling her along. “Don’t make me carry you,” he snaps, and makes her go up the steps in front of him, and although she told herself she would be brave, there are already tears in her eyes when he brings out the noose.

Beth stares at it dumbly for an instant, unable, or unwilling, to understand what he means to do with that length of rope, and then then he grasps her by the shoulder with one massive hand and loops it around her neck as easily as one might snare a lamb. And then she really does begin to cry, and they are not silent or dignified or pretty tears at all, but big gulping sobs, bordering on wails, because she doesn’t understand, why her, why are they doing this, she didn’t do anything, she was good, she didn’t do anything wrong, and he won’t look at her at all, just grabs her by the waist and sets her up on the parapet, and then all she can do is stare down, down, down, all the way to the dark ground below, covered in autumn leaves.

She forces herself to look back up, stomach swimming with sickness, tears running down her red cheeks. She can just make out the town square, and the riders there, and then she sees him- not really, she’s too far away to make out anything but the blurry shape of him, but the shape is shaped like Father, it’s him, he’s here, he came, and there is Theon before him, and the banner of peace… And here she is on the wall with a noose around her neck, and Beth knows then, knows what Theon means to do. She’s so stupid. She should have seen this coming. She should have realized she is all he has left to bargain with, not the Freys. What does Father care for the Walders? But her? His only child? His daughter, who he promised to come back to, to keep safe?

She may not be able to hear them, but she knows then. When Father attacks, Theon will hang her. There is no ‘if’. He is sworn to House Stark. He must, or forsake his vows as a knight, and he could never- would never- do such a thing. Not even for you, a little voice coils up inside her ear like a niggling worm. Not even for you, Beth. He didn’t swear anything to you. The tears still come, but her sobs have quieted some. She sags back into Black Lorren’s firm grip. He exhales slightly as if disquieted by the whole thing. But he’d still shove her over the edge all the same, she knows. She’ll hang. She’s going to hang. They’re going to hang her. It doesn’t sink in, no matter how many times she thinks it.

They’re going to hang you, and you’ll die. You’ll be dead. That’s it. Like your mother and Jory and everyone else. You’ll be dead. Do you understand? They’re going to hang you, Beth. There’s a noose around your neck. It might be quick or it might be slow. You’ll probably piss yourself. And Father will watch you dangle off the wall while he rams down the gates. You’ll be so dead, your neck will be purple and your lips will be blue and your feet will turn black and rot off. It might take a long time to cut you down.

If this were a story, she’d be able to say something brave, something defiant, she’d scream and shout and warn them that they don’t have the boys, that Theon’s a liar, a craven, a traitor who’d hang half a hundred children so long as it kept him alive a little longer. But it’s not, and she’s not brave, and she’d swear Theon was the rightful prince a thousand and one times, she’d do anything, if only they took the noose off. And then suddenly, she’s lifted down, and Black Lorren is tugging the noose off; it catches and snarls on her hair, the rough rope, but she’s too busy gasping in and out in relief, falling to her hands and knees on the stones, blood rushing to her her head, to care.

“It’s ill-done.” Black Lorren says. She doesn’t know if he’s talking to her or himself. “This is not the way. Better to die like warriors than this. This is the way of cravens.”

But he’ll hang her all the same, she thinks. He might not like it, might even hate Theon for it, but not because he had to kill her, a girl less than half his size, but because it would smart at his honor, what little these Ironborn have. It’s not even her he cares about, or the idea of murdering a child, it’s that it will shame him to do it like this. Good, she thinks oddly. Good. At least the man who kills her will be shamed. That has to mean something, doesn’t it? She crawls a little ways from him and heaves and retches, but nothing comes up but some watery porridge.

Lorren waits until she’s done, to her dull surprise, and then takes her down from the wall and into the storerooms behind the kitchen. Beth can hear people calling after her, a man shouting, someone crying, but her ears are ringing too badly to tell. She sits on the dusty floor in a pale shaft of light coming from one of the small, high windows, and looks at Black Lorren, who looks back at her. Her neck hurts. He didn’t pull it that tightly but it’s sore, it hurts, it will hurt more when it snaps, or the life’s choked from her- Watching her gingerly feel at her neck seems to disconcert him, so he says gruffly, “You stay here, girl,” and closes the door, leaving her in the murky shadows.

Beth listens to him shifting around outside, obviously ordered to keep an eye on her, and watches the light slowly change around her. It doesn’t really matter. She’s never going to see the sun go all the way down, anyways. She’ll be dead by then. She wishes they’d told her. Wishes she could have prepared, somehow. Maybe it would feel less frightening if she’d had time to say goodbye, to apologize for all the times she wasn’t as nice or as helpful as she could have been, for all the times she turned up her nose at Palla and Turnip or ignored Bandy and Shyra. Maybe she’d feel better if she could have seen Father, one last time, just for a few minutes.

She cries again, then feels like she can’t breathe and has to lie down in a huddle on the floor, pull her knees up under her chin. Then she just lays there, watching dust motes dance in the air, tries to think of happy things. She thinks about catching snowflakes on her tongue and blowing bubbles in her cider to make Jory chuckle. She thinks about how she learned to ride a pony when she was five, she thinks about dancing at feasts with Father, balancing on his boots and hearing his laugh echo through his chest.

She thinks about playing with Sansa and Jeyne in the godswood, running breathless through the trees, hiding in the bushes. She thinks about the time Arya and her tried to draw a dragon in the snow with a big stick. She thinks about how Bran scared her once, perched on the top of the covered bridge as she went under it, and how he laughed until he was bright red at how she shrieked. She thinks about the time Lady Catelyn complimented her needlework in front of Septa Mordane and how proud she was. She thinks about learning to swim in the hot springs, clinging to Father’s back like a tadpole does a frog. She thinks about a hundred good meals and lemon cakes crumbling on her tongue and what sugar and cinnamon and oranges and plums taste like.

She thinks about Jory whirling her around by the arms and tossing her into a giant mound of snow, she thinks about the time she got a pretty new dress for her eighth name day and wore it all the time until it was too short in the skirt. She thinks about slipping and sliding in her stockings on a freshly washed floor, shouting with glee. She thinks about getting to hold Rickon when he was a tiny baby, how peaceful he looked while he was sleeping. She thinks about sitting with Lady Nell and Lady Dana and listening to them gossip while they sewed. She thinks about walking through the wood with Palla and Turnip and kicking up dead leaves and how happy and free she still was, she just didn’t know it.

She thinks about how sad she is to die. She wants to be angry, but she’s just sad. It doesn’t mean anything. She was just here, and then things happened, and now she’ll be dead, like Mikken and Chayle and Farlen. It’s silly, she should be trying to think of some way to escape, to get out of this, but all she can do is sit here and feel sad. She is sad. She thought she’d get to do more things. She thought she’d get to meet more people. She thought- she thought she would live long enough to flower and marry and have babies. She thought it would be longer, life. But it’s not. Ten years is still more than any of her sisters got. They were too little to know they were dying. She envies them.

The light grows fainter and fainter. Beth closes her eyes. She hadn’t thought she’d fall asleep, but she must have, because it’s dark when she opens them again. She sits up suddenly, head pounding. This is wrong. Why haven’t they hanged her? As she staggers to her feet, glancing around, the door swings open, but it’s not Black Lorren at all, but Gage. He’s gaunt and drawn. “What’s going on?” Beth asks tremulously. “Did- did Theon change his mind? Where are they?”

“Come with me,” he says, and grabs her by the wrist when she doesn’t immediately approach him. “There’s no time. Something- something’s wrong, I don’t know, the men- your father’s men, there’s… they were attacked, we could hear it, even when they put us all in the hall, but then-,” he breaks off, shaking his head, as he barges into the kitchens. “Turnip!”

A head pops up. Gage picks up a cleaver, shining brightly in the torch light. “The Ironborn are treatin’ with whoever ambushed your father’s men.”

“What?” Beth blurts out. “What do you mean- they’re not fighting my father?”

“Hell if I know who’s fightin’ who out there, but it’s not- get to the gate,” he orders curtly. “Just get to the hunter’s gate, we’ll figure out-,”

It’s proper nightfall outside now; Beth looks around wildly, eyes adjusting to the lack of light, as Gage ushers her and Turnip out of the kitchens and towards the kennels. She can hear voices in the distance; some familiar, some not. Then the grind of the south gate slowly opening. “Fuck,” Gage snarls, and herds them inside the kennels. Palla is there, with Joseth and Bandy and Shyra. She’s unchaining the dogs under Joseth’s watchful eye. “I’ve got two horses saddled by the gate,” he tells Gage curtly, as Palla swears, hands shaking, while she undoes another chain.

“Two’s not enough,” Gage snaps. “We try runnin’, we’re done. Only way to outpace them is on horseback-,”

The south gate has opened; Nell can hear horses pounding in.

“Two’s better than nothin’,” Joseth snaps. Most of the dogs are unchained and unpenned now, barking and growling in excitement. “That’s enough, Palla, come on-,”

“I don’t understand,” says Beth, “who- what happened to my father’s army?”

Gage and Joseth exchange a look, but before either of them can say anything, the kennel door opens with a groan. Everyone starts, but it’s just the Walders.

“Where’re you going?” Little Walder demands in his high pitched voice.

“They’re running,” Big Walder tells him, as if it should be obvious. Beth supposes it is.

“Without us?” Little Walder scowls. “You can’t leave us-,”

Big Walder grabs him and mutters something, but Little Walder shoves him away. “No! I’m not staying here while they get to go, we’re lords, we should have the horses- Give us the horses,” he demands of Joseth.

“Get out of here, ye little shit, before I bury this cleaver in your fat head,” Gage says plainly. “Don’t think we didn’t see how quick you Freys turned, soon as the Turncloak came-,”

“Enough,” says Joseth. “We’re going. Now. Before-,”

The distant voices are gone, replaced by an all too familiar sound. The rasp of steel, and someone is screaming, and the dogs are baying and jumping, and the Walders go tearing out of the kennel door, it swings wide behind them, and Beth hears running feet and more shouting and the sound of more and more riders thundering into Winterfell, and then something bangs so loud she almost jumps out of her skin. Joseth runs to the other end of the kennel to look, then turns back, blanching. “Horses are riled- they’ve come round, they’re ramming this gate-,”

“Bugger the horses then, east gate,” Gage snaps, and holds open the door for them all to run past him. The dogs go streaming out into the night air, howling and barking, and Beth stops dead in her tracks and stares as a flaming arrow buries itself in the charred top of the library tower, provoking a brand new flame from the old wooden interior.

“RUN,” someone roars in her ear, and so she runs, head down, feet slapping against the ground, as more arrows hiss by overhead and men scream and shout and riders charge past, torches held aloft, and they’re all sprinting across the main courtyard, pass the guest house, when an arrow lodges itself in Joseth’s back. He staggers, then crumples to the ground, his daughters screaming, and Beth skids to a halt, only for Palla to snatch up her hand and propel her forward again.

“We can’t!” she shrieks, “go, just go-,” and Beth is ashamed but she obeys, because they can’t- Bandy and Shyra are huddled over their father’s body, wailing in terror, but her and Palla and Turnip and Gage, they keep running, under the shadow of the covered bridge, but then there’s more men up ahead, Ironborn or not, she doesn’t know- does it matter- and she smells smoke now, she really does, and the guards hall is on fire, the windows glowing orange, and two maids go tearing past them, screaming, and a man is laughing nearby, and the thatched roof of a nearby shed goes up immediately, and Beth trips over something on the ground and only realizes seconds later that it was an arm.

Gage leads them away from the blocked east gate, and points towards the stone first keep- that can’t burn, surely, and no one will think to look there, and once they’re inside the circular tower they all double over, panting and gasping for air. “Take a moment,” Gage grinds out, “no more, we have to move- one of the houses turned, one of them turned-,”

“Pink,” Turnip is licking his chapped and peeling lips. “Pink banners, they said it was the pink one, when they all went runnin’ up to the walls-,”

Then Beth understands perfectly well. “Bolton,” she says hoarsely. “It was the Boltons. They turned on the rest.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Palla snaps. “Why would they help Ironborn-,”

“They ain’t helpin’ them. They’re slaughterin’ them and takin’ the castle for themselves,” Gage has propped open another door. “Let’s go. They can’t have circled around to the north gate yet. Come on.”

Beth dashes out into the night once more with the rest, could cry out with relief when she sees the north gate abandoned, and Gage runs over to unbar it, grunting and straining under the effort to lift what would usually take two soldiers to remove. Palla goes over to help him after a moment, and Beth wraps an arm around Turnip’s small frame. “It’s alright,” she says, because he is just staring at the ground, quiet and numb, “we’re going to leave now, it’s alright-,”

Gage shouts out in triumph as he and Palla manage to unbar the gate, and Beth’s shoulders sag in relief, and then for an instant, her ears ring again like they did on the wall, with the noose around her neck, and some instinct or urge makes her grab Turnip and shove him to the ground, her on top of him. There’s a hollow bang, and when Beth looks back up, still huddled on the ground, Gage is staring in horror at his left shoulder, pinned securely to the wooden gate by a crossbow bolt. The second one takes him in the stomach. Palla yelps and tries to pull the other door of the gate open, hands scrabbling against it, but she’s not strong enough to get it open by herself, and another bolt lands beside her head, making her drop to the ground with a shriek, hands over her ears.

Beth scrambles around on the muddy ground, still clutching Turnip, as Palla begins to sob aloud, “Please, please- just let us go, we’re not fighters, we don’t mean you no harm, just let us go, please-,”

The man on the grey horse, who must have cut through the godswood in order to catch anyone trying to flee through the north end of the castle, dismounts, puts the crossbow back on his back, and smiles disarmingly at them. One hand is raised as if to reassure. The other is holding the end of a long, greased whip. “Let you go?” he asks, and Beth realizes how young he is; she can barely make out his features, but he can’t be any older than eighteen or nineteen. “Let you go where? Out to the wood, to freeze to death by morn?”

“Please,” says Beth, voice rising in hysteria, “we- we just want to leave, that’s all, you can have the castle, tell- tell Lord Bolton he can have it-,”

Lord Bolton,” says the boy, for that is what he is, boyish, and fair, “Oh, he’ll like that. You know your manners, don’t you? Lord Bolton,” he imitates her breathily, and then laughs, his gaze sliding over Beth and Turnip and then to Palla, cowering against the gate beside Gage’s corpse. “Lord Ramsay’s the one who’s liberated you, you see, from Greyjoy and his men. You remember that, an’ we’ll have no trouble at all.”

“Just let us go,” Palla cries, “just- we can just go out the gate, you’ll never see us again, I swear-,”

The boy-man-monster smiles, and unfurls the whip. It cracks at the air, and Beth shies back, dragging a still frozen Turnip along with her. “No, I don’t think so,” he decides lightly, as if they were playing a game. “I think I ought to follow orders, an’ bring you to thank Lord Ramsay properly. He saved you, after all. I saved you. You would have died out there, in the cold. In the dark.”

He’s not going to let them go, Beth sees then, and he’s not going to kill them, either. At least, not right away. Maybe that should be reassuring, to her, when she thought she’d be dead on the end of a noose by now, but it’s not. It’s not at all. No one moves. The whip slashes through the air a second time. Turnip makes a faint whimpering sound. Beth watches their breath mist in the firelight. “You don’t look very grateful,” he says. “Don’t worry. You will. Now get up, and walk. Nice and slowly.”

Beth slowly stands, pulling Turnip to his feet as well. Palla stares at them and the whip for a moment longer, then lunges for the gate again. He only takes two strides forward, and then the whip reaches her, and she crumples to her knees with a scream, clutching her hands together while blood runs through her fingers. “Get up,” he says, still smiling, as if there were some clever jape they hadn’t been told about yet.

Palla is still crying in pain, so he heaves her up by her long hair. Palla tries to jerk away ineffectively, eyes streaming tears. “Bastard! Stupid fuckin’ turncloak bastard!” she shouts at him, kicking, spit flying. “Beth, run! Go!” But Beth doesn’t run. There’s nowhere to run. Before her is the gate and Gage and the whip and the crossbow bolts, and behind her, Winterfell is burning.

“No,” he says, patiently, and squeezes Palla’s bloody fingers, hard, and Palla screams again. “It’s Damon. You’ll learn. Now you can dance for me, cunt, or you can walk. Your choice.”

They decide to walk.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell has to put her needlework aside after the girl comes in with her supper, for she found her throat tightened to a knot at the sight of her. One of the castle’s children, but in the firelight, for an instant, she could have been little Beth Cassel. She’d once heard the saying that ill news came in threes. Well, they’d had their threes: three haggard, exhausted ravens.

Barbrey warned from Barrowton that Ironborn had sailed up the Saltspear and ventured into the Neck; if Moat Cailin had truly fallen to one of the Greyjoy brothers, they were now cut off from the North. It’d be a brutal fight to take it back, even with the aid of the crannogmen. Then word from Rodrik Cassel at Cerwyn; Theon had returned with his promised longships, and promptly raided up and down the Stony Shore before taking Winterfell while Cassel was fighting to protect Torrhen’s Square. And finally, the third blow; Alysane Mormont claimed, in her letter all the way from Bear Island, that Deepwood Motte had also fallen, to Theon’s reaver sister.

None of it should have been surprising, Nell has told herself half a hundred times. Did she not say herself that Balon Greyjoy would likely rise again in rebellion? Only, she had not thought it would be so soon. But it makes perfect sense. They left the North weak, exposed, stripped of many of its ordinary defenses. They had no choice; they needed the numbers to pose any threat at all to the Lannisters, but with garrisons dwindled and every able man and boy gone south…

She could tolerate the news of Deepwood; Nell has never visited, but everyone is aware that the Glovers have always been both isolated and vulnerable in their small keep just a day’s ride from the Bay of Ice, with only the mountain clans to rely on for defenses. She could even tolerate the loss of the Neck, painful though it might be. If the Ironborn hold Moat Cailin, they do not hold it lightly; they are surrounded by the Reeds and their bannermen, and they are not at all familiar with the terrain or its dangers.

But Theon- Theon is her shame, hers and Robb’s. Aye, Balon would have sent forces to raid the North regardless, but to have Winterfell taken in such a manner- overnight! - only Theon, who spent half his life there, could have done that. He is likely proud of himself for it, proud that he was quick-witted and cunning enough to devise a way in, to take Robb’s seat and his brothers and the household he’d been brought to as a glorified prisoner- But gods, how could they have been so blind to it? Nell may wrack her memories as much as she’d like for any memory of Theon’s resentment, bitterness, rage towards Robb, but- Where did it start? When did it begin? She looked him in the eyes when they left, and judged him as trustworthy as any true man.

She was wrong. They were wrong, and now the North is paying for it. That Cassel will retake Winterfell, she has no doubt. However many men Theon may have, or if he has support from his uncle or sister’s forces, he cannot hold out long against the combined weight of the remaining northmen. Their fury will drive them even harder to retake the heart of the North. But the boys- the people- if Theon has any sense, he may have already shipped Bran and Rickon back to Pyke as hostages, and Nell does not want, cannot, think on that, nor can Catelyn. She knows they are likely safe enough, aside from the fright; no one would dare touch them, they are too valuable to use against Robb, against her, but-

The girl who brought her supper looks a good deal like Beth, you see, and that is the root of Nell’s fear. That they have really just been playing at war this entire time, like children, and that she left other children- innocent children- to suffer the consequences of Robb’s absence. Of her absence. It’s been nigh a fortnight since Edmure’s victory at the fords, nigh a fortnight since the Riverlands turned jubilant and joyous again, at the thought of the lions running scared, but Nell thinks she was right, now, to never feel that relief, despite the fact that Gregor Clegane is dead, that they humiliated Tywin Lannister, just as they humiliated his son.

She was right not to let herself rejoice, because now the other hand has been dealt. Robb may have cut through most of the northern half of the westerlands, may have taken the Crag, may have plundered the westermen of their gold and their cattle, but what is a king with half a kingdom? If they do not have the North, they have nothing. They are nothing. She can try to hide the news as long as she likes, but the Freys and the Mallisters must already know it, and it will spill south sooner or later. If the Lannisters know- if the Baratheons know- at best, it will be a humiliation, a temporary setback, a misstep. At worst? Her goodmother does not sleep; says she cannot even think to lay her head down until she knows for certain that her sons have been saved, that Winterfell is restored to them.

Nell thinks of how Robb and she put Rickon to the bed, the night before they left Winterfell. How his head lolled against Robb’s chest and how he smiled in his sleep, unbidden, as they tucked him in. How she’d felt a strange beat of affection, even then, when Robb smoothed back his youngest brother’s toddler curls and kissed him on the brow. How she’d thought, however briefly or embarrassingly, that she should like to see him do the same for their own child, someday. He’ll make a good father, she’d told herself. He’ll sit up with you and tell stories until your children fall asleep, and he’ll always come in to kiss them goodnight. Even if you grow to despise each other, he’ll always love the children betwixt you.

She thinks of how she told Bran to be brave, that red morning when they’d rode out. How she’d told young Beth to practice her needlework. Their courageous little smiles, children trying to reassure the grownups that they would be alright. They are not alright. She left them, and in her place stole the likes of a traitor and his men, men who might be pragmatic enough to not raise a hand against the Stark boys, but Beth, the other children, the old men and women, like Nan, Palla, Turnip, Joseth’s girls- You were their queen, she thinks, and you left the windows open on your way out, and now you are surprised that that sea sloshed in?

She is still their queen. If they cannot be saved they will be avenged. But they must be saved. She must not think like this. Maester Vyman was loathe to see her up and about, if only to hand him a letter to Robb to send off, urging him to return as soon as it was prudent, even before. Even with Winterfell reclaimed, they will still need to go north. The Lannisters will be busy dealing with Stannis; there are reports that fighting has begun in the Blackwater. With any luck, it will be months of sieging the city, and they can take back their home in the meanwhile.

With any luck, Robb will be here in time to see his son arrive. She can feel the babe hiccuping inside her as she uncovers the food before her. She takes all her meals in her rooms now. Vyman estimates she has at least a month before the babe comes, perhaps two, but what is a month, a turn of the moon? He’ll be here soon. It’s still difficult to believe, that she is expected to push this… creature… out of her in a turn or two of the moon. Nell has never seen a woman in childbirth; that is why she needs Dana back from Seagard before the month is out.

Dana’s attended a dozen births, there’s so many Flints scurrying about, and the Bracken sisters as well. The Freys are reluctant to restore their women to her, citing Edmure’s own upcoming wedding to Roslin, and how arduous the preparations will be. Truly, that is the last thing on Nell’s mind. Had she her way, Edmure and Roslin would have been wed months ago, but the Freys want a grand ordeal of it, presumably to rub in everyone’s faces how well they have fared for this war, how their overlords have finally seen fit to honor with them a marriage to a Tully. At least the babe will have been born by then, and the worst will be over with.

She can no longer see her feet past her belly, and her pale legs are mottled with new purple veins. Between those and the burgeoning stretch marks on her stomach and thighs, she finds it easier to just close her eyes while she bathes now. Her body will not be hers once the babe has come, anyways. She does not want to rely on a wetnurse unless she has no choice. Barbrey always said babes were stronger for their own mother’s milk, not that she’s ever birthed a child herself. In some sense she almost envies her aunt. They make it out to be such a simple thing, pregnancy and childbirth, when it is really anything but. Vyman has her counting kicks, for the love of the gods. But this child is almost always moving, as if restless, impatient to be out in the world.

She is still picking at her food when Catelyn enters. Nell’s confinement may be new, but it already riles at her, and she finds herself brightening for company the way a prisoner in a cell might. She can see the sense in it; she’s in no state to be going up and down narrow flights of stairs all day, particularly while wearing skirts, and most midwives agree, be they northern or southern, that rest, prayer, and peace and quiet are the best circumstances to bring a child into the world. If Nell had her way, she’d give birth in the godswood, the rest of it be damned. That’s the only place where she’s ever felt true peace here.

Now that she is limited to just two walks outdoors a day, she’s begun to appreciate her childhood more. Barbrey was not perfect, but Nell spent nearly all day, every day, out of doors. Her aunt felt that keeping young girls inside made them frail and more susceptible to illness and infertility. So long as the weather held, Nell took most of her lessons with Sara outside, or tramped around the barrowlands on long walks while she memorized the order of Stark kings and the sigil and colors of every major house north of the Neck.

“Eat,” Catelyn says encouragingly, taking a seat beside her on the bed. “You must keep the babe’s health up.”

Nell exhales, tries another bite of fish, then grimaces and sets down her knife. “Vyman says he’s like to be big, either way, from how I’ve been carrying.”

“They says boys are carried low,” Catelyn observes, then pauses. “May I?”

The list of people whom Nell will allow to touch her belly is very short indeed, but Robb’s mother heads it. The woman’s birthed five healthy and hale children, without a single loss aside from an early miscarriage in between Bran and Rickon. Nell hopes that sort of luck is contagious. As opposed to Mother’s. But that was Father’s fault, she reminds herself sharply. His seed was weak and corrupted, Mother told it true enough. He brought his lost sons upon himself. He did not sire any children on his first wife, did he? And Walda… She doesn’t want to consider that.

“He’s kicking,” Catelyn does not smile; she has not since the news, but something in her expression lightens all the same.

“I was sick so much,” Nell says, “at first, and Barbara Bracken told me that was a sure sign for a daughter.”

“But you’ve no spots,” Catelyn removes her hand, and adds dryly, “and they say girls will steal your beauty. Swollen ankles, that’s a boy, they told me when I was carrying Robb. But I was always hot with him, and I worried that meant a daughter. They say these things to comfort and scare mothers, especially with the first babe. There’s no true rhyme or reason to it.”

“My mother was certain I’d be a boy.” Nell only said it because she is tired, she tells herself later. She has only ever mentioned Mother once in Robb’s presence, and never in his mother’s. She sees the way Catelyn is looking at her now, the crease of sympathetic pity in her brow. She feels like a child, avoiding eye contact after saying a dirty word. But she just- it would be sweet, perhaps, to have a mother at a time like this. To have someone she could trust unconditionally, whose favor never has to be courted or sought out.

“Your mother’s life was not easy,” Catelyn says after a little while, when Nell has taken a few more bites of her food. “I regret that I never had the chance to know her well. And I cannot imagine the pain she went through, to lose so many babes. My sister Lysa had similar troubles, and did nothing to deserve such suffering. But it seems obvious to me that your mother would be, without question, very proud of the woman you have become.”

Nell exhales through her nose, and then says, “You know, she used to tell me she would take me and run off to live with the wildlings if my father made me an unworthy match. She had more of a sense of humor than my aunt, even when she was-,” she hesitates, as always, “even when she was in poor spirits otherwise. But she would have liked Robb, I think. Quite a lot, really. Not just because he is a Stark, because he is…” She struggles for the word, and then settles on, “True. He is true. I’ve never had cause to doubt his loyalty, nor his sincerity. He says what he means, and he means what he says.”

“He got that from his father,” Catelyn says quietly. “I did not know Ned at all, when he returned from the war. I did not know Winterfell. I had no ladies with me at that time. The people were strange, their customs were strange, even their clothes were different. It was spring but I’d never felt colder in my life, when we crossed the Neck. It was snowing when I got to Winterfell, I remember, and there was a stranger helping me down from my horse, a stranger I was wed to, whose son was at my breast.”

“But you adapted.” Nell will admit this much; Robb might have Tully blood, but she has never really thought of him as anything but northern. Their culture was the same, despite the courtesy he paid to his mother’s faith. Winterfell was new to her, but not wholly foreign. She had Barbrey, had Dana, had the reassurance that everyone there knew her, knew her name, knew her blood. She was a Bolton of the Dreadfort, born of a Ryswell of the Rills, niece to a Dustin of Barrowton, and her paternal grandmother was a Redfort from the Vale, her maternal grandmother a Flint of the Finger. Her aunts on her mother’s side are respectively, a Marsh of the Neck and a Locke of Oldcastle.

She cannot imagine how different things would have been had she been wed to a man from the South, be it a knight of the Vale, a riverman, or even a stormlander.

“I had no choice but to,” Catelyn chuckles without any real amusement. “I was so determined to be a good wife, to be patient, to win their respect- but I was still a girl myself. I was… Ned was not easy to know, then. He was slow to smile, slow to laugh, slow to voice- well, to voice anything. And I tried to understand. He had lost so much. He did not know me, did not trust me. We’d married for the sake of an alliance. But there was fear. If not of him, of… of being alone. When I was a child at Riverrun, everyone knew me, everyone seemed to like me. My father favored me, and I enjoyed it, I think, because it felt like he valued my mind, my convictions, not just my looks or my graces. It was not like that at Winterfell. I was like Arya, I think.”

“Arya?” Nell had been certain she was about to say Sansa.

“Yes,” Catelyn is staring past her, out the darkened window. “Sansa had- Sansa has my look, of course, and I was never quite the trial that Arya was, I should think, but- When I was a girl, I had the run of the Riverlands. I would sit down in the dirt and make mud pies with Petyr and Lysa. I taught Edmure how to ride a horse. I earned my fair share of scabs and bruises, climbing trees and swimming, and I was spirited. Jaime Lannister came here once before, did you know that? When my father thought to snare him for Lysa. He was a cocky and vain thing, even then, and I remember how we’d go back and forth. Poor Lysa was too tongue-tied to say a word. I counted myself intimidated by no man, when I was a girl.”

“And then the war came,” Nell says, and for a moment maybe she does see the girl Catelyn speaks of, a girl with Sansa’s fair looks but Arya’s glint in her blue eyes, a girl who could sing and write poetry and dance so well, but who also had a certain grit to her, who’d been raised up as her father’s favorite, his heir, who was his trusty right hand even after her brother was born. “I suppose things changed then.”

“Even before that. Arya would… Arya would hate to think of marriage, but I was pleased enough at the thought of being Lady of Winterfell. I was naive. I didn’t understand the sacrifice it would mean. I thought that it was a strong, worthy match and that Brandon Stark was something like a god when I saw him come riding down from the hills all billowed in mist. I put childish things away, so I thought. And yes, then came the war. And he was gone. I’d only met him a few times, and he was gone, just like that, and he never returned. I cried, you know, when he’d left. Out of fear for him, and because my own wedding had been postponed so he could storm into the Red Keep and demand Rhaegar’s head. And then again because I felt so selfish.”

“What happened to Brandon was terrible.”

“It was,” says Catelyn, “and I hated myself for thinking of him when I wed Ned. It was more grief for another life, than the man. I’d barely known him. But I’d made up this story, of what life would be like with him. And then he was dead, and we were at war. I was terrified. For myself. For my sister. For my father and brother and my uncle. And there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for Ned to come back, wait for Robb to be born. And Robb was my hero, though he was but a babe. Even when I felt miserable, when I felt that my husband might never come to love me, that he.. That he’d loved another more than he ever could me, I had Robb. My son. My life. He was a Stark but he’d been born at Riverrun, just I had, just as my father had. He was a beautiful babe, and so happy, too. He gave me such joy. To see him grow up... You’ll come to understand. There is nothing sweeter.”

Nell puts a hand to her belly, drums her fingers, and waits for the responding kick. “Thank you for telling me that.”

“I may never see Sansa or Arya wed, never watch them have children of their own,” Catelyn says tightly, “but- to see this one be born, I think, will be a great gift.”

A gift. Nell had not thought of it like that. She finds it hard to think of the child as a gift to herself, or to Robb. A necessary component, maybe. A reprieve of some sort. Certainly she is grateful to be having this child in the first place. Had it not happened before Robb left, she knows she would feel that much worse, for all that she might still have her body and not have the birth to worry about. But to be thankful for the child itself is different. She will know when she sees him, she supposes. She’ll be thankful then. Not as Mother was with her, when she was born.

There comes another raven from the North, near three weeks later. This one comes not by morning but late in the day, after the sun has gone behind the trees. Nell is returning from her evening walk, trying not to think of her swollen feet but of Dana’s return- she is due back from Seagard with the Bracken girls any day now. She had thought she might offer to let them look upon Clegane’s head, although it looks much the same as any other, at this rate. Jory has just opened a door for her when Vyman comes to them. His face is as drawn and pale as Nell has ever seen it. Nell stops, a steadying hand on the wall, her stomach cramping terribly. “More word from Ser Rodrik?”

“No,” says Vyman. “Lady Catelyn has it now. It is…” He cannot seem to go on. “You should sit down, Your Grace.”

She finds her good mother hunched beside the table like a child, wracked with sobs, one hand clutching the velvet seat of her chair, her fingers white against the dark fabric. The letter is still laid out. “My lady!” Jory cries, and tries to help Catelyn to her feet, but she is rebuffed. Nell cannot sit; her stomach cramps again, she grimaces and plucks up the letter, as Catelyn sobs, “My boys… He burned them- he burned it-”

The letter is from Jonelle Cerwyn, now the lady of Castle Cerwyn, for Cley, her brother is dead. Cley is dead, Leobald Tallhart is dead, leaving his own daughter as heir, and Rodrik Cassel is dead. She writes that there was some battle pitched outside the walls of Winterfell, but come dawn, the castle had been burned. Lady Jonelle received a messenger bearing a Bolton banner, who gently broke the news to her that Theon Greyjoy had fought a coward’s last stand, ambushing the northerners with reinforcements from his savage sister, and then, when he knew it was lost, murdered the little Stark boys and put Winterfell to the torch.

The survivors were being escorted back to the safety of the Dreadfort by Ramsay Snow, and as proof of his good will, Cley’s corpse was returned to her, and a letter bore the signatures of not only the Frey wards, the two Walders, but also of young Beth Cassel, now cruelly orphaned by war. There was also a brooch enclosed. Bran used to wear it to clasp his cloak, a direwolf’s head, now warped and mottled from the heat of the fire. There was no mention of whether or not Theon Greyjoy had lived through the battle, but Jonelle Cerwyn offered them her prayers, and asked for theirs in turn, as she was now the last of her house.

Nell has to read it two more times, her vision swimming. Jory has gotten Catelyn seated, but the hoarse fracturing sounds of her sobs continue. “No,” she says. “No, this… Theon wouldn’t- He would not have killed them, why would he…”

“I’m so sorry, Nell,” Jory touches her arm gently. “It’s- it was slaughter, no fair battle, if Lady Jonelle tells it true.”

“No,” says Nell again, but that is Beth’s signature, she recognizes it- she was yet living when this letter was written, but-

“He put my sons to the sword,” Catelyn rasps, picking you up the brooch, and turns red and swollen eyes upon Nell. “If Theon Greyjoy lives-,” she breaks off, and says, “Rickon was just a baby. Bran was crippled. If he yet lives, I will not draw breath easy again until I see Robb avenge his brothers.”

Nell cannot find any words at all, her tongue thick and limp in her mouth. She wants to deny it, to decry it, to denounce it all as lies- the Bastard lies as easily as he breathes, but- Think, the little voice tells her. What would he have to gain by killing Bran and Rickon? If they lived, he would have taken them. As honored guests or hostages, it matter not. He knows well enough the Neck is blocked. He knows well enough with Rodrik’s men slaughtered that no one else can stand against him. They have not the numbers nor the advantage to besiege the Dreadfort, not with Ironborn running loose and winter coming.

There was either one truth or another. If the letter was true, and Theon really had burned Winterfell and murdered Bran and Rickon… If the letter was not true, and Ramsay had burned Winterfell and murdered Bran and Rickon… They are dead, regardless. She does not want to accept it. Wants to scream against it, rage against it, proclaim it all lies. But they must be dead. They could not have run, two little boys, one crippled, the other barely more than a babe. They are dead either way, and Winterfell is burned, and Theon…

They are dead. She will never see them again, never hear them again. She will never take Bran out riding, or brush crumbs out of Rickon’s curls. The wolves must be dead too. Theon may have very well killed Summer and Shaggydog as soon as he took Winterfell in the first place. They are dead. They are all dead. Beth and the other women and children may still live… Or they may be dead and buried as well by the time Robb can fight his way back into the North. What can she do? What can she say? Explain to Catelyn that the only light spot of hope in all this, that some innocent lives may have been spared, may not be true at all? Explain that she knows her bastard brother to be a monster? How? With what proof?

I believe he’s a raper and a murderer, she might say, I believe he is a born liar and an animal, I believe that no one is safe in his company, I believe if he has Theon Greyjoy, he will be begging for death before long. That bit might give Catelyn some peace. But the rest? Nell doesn’t know. She was not there. She will not be there for some time. She could have been there, but she wasn't, she came south instead with all the rest. But if what was done to Sara- if any of that should befall the likes of Beth, or Palla, or Bandy and Shyra- Theon will not be the only one begging for death, when she next gazes upon the Dreadfort. She is still the rightful heir. She will ride through those gates with Robb and make the walls dance with hanged men.

So she does not say anything, and instead holds her good mother, and allows her own tears to come, hot and prickling at her eyelashes. When Robb finds out, this will break him. It may have broken his mother. It may have broken all of them. The godswood- she dreamed a godswood burning once, did she not? The godswood at Winterfell? She dreamed she smelt the smoke but could not yet see the flames. Or was it the one at the Dreadfort? It matters not. She heard the horn, and there was a crow, pecking and pecking…

She dreams the godswood again that night, her first nightmare in months, as if the babe had been offering some reprieve from them. But the trees are withered husks, the ground is ash and cinders, and the smoke still billows. She is not bound to a tree; she is lying prone and naked on the ground, her cloak coiled bloody underneath her, and the sky ripples dark purple overhead. She cannot feel the babe kicking at all; she curls her arms around her belly and chokes back fresh sobs. The wind ruffles at her hair, and her lungs burn with every breath. There is a pile of charred bodies nearby. A child’s skull gapes blindly back at her, only twisted antlers sprout from its head, some deformed creature, a monster.

A cool hand touches her brow, and she blinks through the tears up at Sara Snow. “There’s a good girl,” she says, “dry your eyes, Nell.” Her braid is still hacked off, her neck still wet with blood, her arms and legs are still covered in dark bruises. She wipes at Nell’s eyes with her filthy cloak. It smells of wet, dead leaves and old pelts. “This is no place to have a child.”

“He burned it,” Nell gasps out, “he burned it- it’s my fault, we should have never let him go- I should have made him pay-,” She doesn’t know if she is speaking of Theon or the Bastard. Does it matter? “We never should have left. I never should have left.”

“Had you stayed,” says Sara calmly, “you would not have lived to see another winter.”

“It’s not winter yet,” Nell tries to sit up, but it hurts too much. Her legs feel wooden and stiff. Her feet are numb and purpling. “Not yet, it can’t be winter yet-,”

“Not yet, but will be, as it has been before,” Sara picks a twig from her hair, scrutinizes her. “He’s coming, and you are still not ready.”

“My brother or my son?” Nell asks, and laughs; it crunches like shattered glass in between her teeth. “Tell me.”

“Tell me why he cut my braid,” says Sara sadly. “Tell me why my bones lay in a gulch. Tell me why there is no justice, Donella, daughter of Bethany, daughter of Barba. This is no place to have a child. The gods have gone away, and will not return until the spring rains.”

“But you’re still here,” Nell sags against her familiar grip; Sara was always strong, despite her size. “You won’t leave me.”

“I cannot,” agrees Sara. “But I am not a god. I am just what remains.”

The next day, she has no urge at all to leave her bed, although Jory insists she at least come outside briefly to the godswood, to play the harp and watch her and Brienne spar. Every day Jory prevails upon Brienne until she agrees to spar with her, and every day Nell watches Brienne of Tarth knock Jorelle of Bear Island into the dirt. She apologized profusely the first few times, but now they have found a rhythm, and whereas before Nell would sit and laugh as Jory dances just out of Brienne’s sword’s long reach, light on her feet where the Maid of Tarth is solid and sturdy, today she sits, and does not hear a single note that her harp makes, although she goes up and down the scale and plays the three songs Roslin taught her in perfect order.

She does not see Catelyn. She knows she should go to her but she cannot. When their sparring is finished Brienne hauls Jory to her feet, both of them flushed red, and even awkwardly pats her shoulder when Jory launches into her usual rendition of her own missteps during the match. “Next time, I’ll get in a shield batter,” she says confidently, as Nell rises to go with them. “I should have feinted right, when you came out of that cross-step-,”

Nell does not hear much of their conversation anymore than she heard the music. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Your Grace,” Brienne tells her when they’ve reached her rooms once more. “I.. if there is anything I can do…” She is still bright red, as if any of this were somehow her own fault.

Nell nods briefly and says, “I believe you are some comfort to my good mother. Please, be with her now.”

She retires early that evening, not long after dusk. There seems little point in staying awake any longer. Edmure rode out at dawn to meet with the party returning from Seagard. At least Dana will be here when she wakes. That is something to look forward to. But sleep does not come; the occasional cramp in her belly disturbs her, and she is lying in bed, staring up at the dark canopy, sometime after midnight.

“Your Grace- Donella.” The door has creaked open, and Jory is standing anxious at the foot of her bed.

“What,” says Nell flatly, gaze not leaving the canopy. Her belly twists again. It feels almost like-

“Lady Catelyn sent Ser Cleos out the river gate not two hours past. I found out from Enger when I went to break water. New terms for the Imp, she said.”

Nell does not respond for a moment, and then she says, “Edmure is still not back.”

“No,” says Jory. “Should I raise an alarm?”

“No,” says Nell. “Go fetch a guard, and tell him to check on the Kingslayer. You look for Lady Brienne.” The pain contracts, then seems to stop. “And send the maester in here. I think I’m having contractions.”

She would not be so calm, were it not for the deaths of Bran and Rickon. She feels nothing at all but dull surprise and dull rage and dull agony, as if all her emotions had been weighted with chains and dropped to the bottom of a river. Vyman comes in and inspects her, and by the time he is done, the walls are blazing with light, and men are shouting. Jory comes back in, panting. “He’s gone. The Kingslayer is gone, and so is Brienne. Lady Catelyn-,”

“I do not believe you are in labor,” Vyman speaks over Jory’s ranting, making direct eye contact with Nell, who is now sitting up, her shift hitched up round her waist. “The contractions are the body’s way of preparing for birth. But not yet. You need to drink some water and steady your breathing.”

Nell had not even noticed how her breath was whistling in and out. That makes sense, then. That the contractions are just another trial, and that Jaime Lannister is gone. Of course. Catelyn waited until Edmure had ridden out, until dark had settled, and Brienne- well, Nell did order her to be with her. Of course. She wants to scream, but her throat is too dry. She sees red instead.

“Lying on your left side may help. If they increase at all in pain or frequency, send for me. I’ll have a maid watch over you,” Vyman continues, as if the castle were not steadily dissolving into panic around them, at the thought of having just lost their only truly important hostage against the Lannisters. They’ll take the rivers, streams, and creeks as far as they can, and with someone like Brienne rowing and if the weather holds fair… Even if they catch up to them, Jaime Lannister will not intend to be retaken alive, and dutiful Brienne of Tarth would likely rather die than forsake her lady’s orders.

“Jory,” Nell blurts out, closing her eyes to fight back the wave of fury and nausea, “get Desmond Grell in here. We need to discuss what room to hold my goodmother in until her brother’s return.”

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell is sitting up in bed, writing a letter, when Dana rather noisily enters the room, shoving the door shut behind her and pulling off her dark green cloak. “Well, we had a look,” she announces to Nell, marching over to the table by the fire to pour herself a cup of milk. “I’ll say, when you used to tell me Bolton tales of severed heads, I thought it’d be more…” she shrugs as she takes a long gulp of her drink. “Chilling? Mind you, the smell was chilling, even with the tar-,”

“I hope you didn’t make them look,” Nell says shortly, setting down her quill with a frown. “It was a suggestion, if it might give them peace-,”

“Peace?” snorts Dana, setting down her cup and sitting on the edge of the bed. “No. I don’t think they took any peace from it. Satisfaction, mayhaps. The look on Barb’s face- you’d never seen one colder on a southern lady, I’ll tell you now. And Jayne…” she hesitates.

“I meant to reassure her,” Nell massages the bridge of her nose, “show her that she was truly safe now, not give her more nightmares-,”

“She spoke,” Dana blurts out.

Nell arches an eyebrow. Since their return a fortnight past, she has seen some change in Jayne Bracken; she looks better for her stay at Seagard, freckled and reddened from the seashore, but Nell has not heard her voice a single word. She has no idea what Jayne even sounds like; Barbara has a huskier voice, like herself, but Jayne’s own voice might be as sweet as they claim the Maiden’s was. “What did she say?”

“Well, she only whispered it to Barb,” Dana says, “but lucky enough, we Flints have excellent hearing. She said she was glad it wasn’t bigger.”

Nell wrinkles her nose. “And what do you suppose she meant by that?”

Dana shrugs. “He was a monster. She had to lie beneath him and see that head leering down at her. I’d imagine, in circumstances like that, he might as well have been a true giant, and her an ant. Now he’s dead, like all the other giants. And the head wasn’t so big after all. Just a husk.”

“Just a husk,” Nell echoes her. “I mean to send it to Dorne, with Robb’s approval, of course.”

“News from the capitol was that Highgarden and Sunspear both declared for Joffrey the Illborn,” Dana counters, lying back on the bed with a groan, her long dark hair spread across Nell’s covered legs. “What good will a head do?”

“The Martells declared, but there’s no reports of them having committed troops to that battle,” Nell says. “It’s in name only. Prince Doran wants no war with the Lannisters, that’s clear enough, but he likely does not want their friendship, either. I don’t care if they sent the princess to them. Her grandfather commanded the deaths of their prince’s beloved sister and her children. She’s like to be more hostage than anything else. If we send them Clegane’s head, perhaps it will sweeten them.”

“Aye,” says Dana sarcastically, “and we’ll have our own Dornish spears come up from the Marches to stab Tywin in the back for us?”

“Stannis yet lives. They kept the city, but only by the breadth of a hair,” Nell is telling herself this more so than she is Dana. Reminding herself that all is not loss, to keep the panic and rage at bay. Yes, they no longer have the Kingslayer- but they can come back from this, they can, Robb tore through the westerlands, and is tearing back out again, the Lannisters were on the defensive until the alliance with the Tyrells… Nell likes not the idea of the might of the Reach mustered against them. If they have an opportunity in the future, to treat with Stannis once more, Robb must take it. Even if it means their crowns.

Dana turns her head to look at her, and they share more than an expression, a feeling, all the same. Dread. The Blackwater may have been no easy victory for Joffrey the Illborn, and Edmure says the Imp took an axe to the head and will not see the year’s end, but… Even if Dorne’s loyalty to the Iron Throne is uncertain, they cannot hope to win out against both Tywin’s forces and the Tyrell’s hordes of knights and lances and pikes. Not here, at any rate. They need room to breathe, to prepare. They need to go north.

Dana’s warm hand finds her own, squeezing. “Just think on the babe for now,” she says, with a determined little smile. “Alright? That’s all that matters. Are you excited? It could come this week!”

“Not this week,” Nell groans. “Next, I pray. Robb should be back by then. His last raven had them camped alongside the Tumblestone. They’re making good time, despite his…” He’d taken an injury at the Crag, apparently. Not debilitating, but serious enough to see him laid up for a few days and nights. An arrow to the shoulder or something of the sort. He is lucky he is young. That could be crippling for an older man. Yet if he is well enough by now to write his own replies, that must mean something. He did not directly reference his brothers, and she could not bear to. When they are face to face once more, it will be easier. They have so much to speak of.

“He’ll be very pleased to see you, I’m sure,” Dana smirks. “All that fighting, stirring up a man’s blood-,”

“You are crude,” Nell says, but she cracks a hint of a smile at that. “I’m in no state to settle his blood, you wanton. Besides, I’m sure he’s...” she gives a little jerk of her head to insinuate.

Dana frowns. “You can’t really think he’s had whores, Nell. Not a Stark. Not Ned’s son.”

“What is it to me?” says Nell with forced levity. “So long as he paid them fairly. I’ll not be blind to such things, Dana. Men go to war, whores follow. He is sixteen and blooded, as you said.” She lifts her chin and adds coolly, “It is no matter, truly. He would never dishonor me with a bastard nor a mistress. The rest of it means nothing, so long as he keeps to my bed when not on campaign. Look at your-,” she stops herself in an instant, pressing her lips together.

“My father?” Dana is peeved, but not so infuriated as Nell had feared. “Aye. My father keeps well enough to my mother’s bed when he is home. I wonder how she has not smothered him in his sleep yet. She once threatened to cut his cock off if he ever gave her a pox.”

Nell picks her quill back up, as Dana adds, “Speaking of mothers, your goodmother wants words with you. Utherydes came to me while we were examining Clegane’s head. She begs your audience, Your Grace. Will you indulge her?” Her tart tone makes it quite clear what she thinks of this. To say the mood at Riverrun has been inhospitable towards Catelyn in the wake of the Kingslayer’s flight is to say that fish like to swim. At best, men say she is mad and lost her wits overnight. At worst… well, Dana had some choice words for it upon her return. Nell had some choice words as well, but has not said a single word to her goodmother since that night.

Not out of fear of confrontation, but because she did not think she would be able to speak to her without it escalating to the point where Edmure would have to choose who to stop from throttling the other; his blood sister or his goodsister. Nell understands. That is the worst part. She understands exactly why Catelyn did it. But gods be true- had she the power to turn back time- when Catelyn saw fit to question Ser Cleos upon her return, Nell had not interfered in the least.

Now she sees she ought to have. She was far too content, too comfortable, assured of Robb’s mother’s loyalty to her first and foremost. That was very foolish. Putting her trust in her- seeking out her affection and praise like a dog does a bone- that was foolish. Barbrey would tell her as much. She was thinking like a girl, hungry for acceptance, not a woman, not a queen.

“Let her come,” she decides abruptly. “And the instant I cannot stand to hear her anymore, please go and fetch Grell.”

Dana mutters under her breath, but goes all the same. Ironically enough, Catelyn Stark looks better rested now, after this treachery, than she ever did before. Except for her eyes. Their blue is as muddied and troubled as before. She stands formally at the foot of the bed, as if she were on trial. Nell tries to summon up all of her cold dignity and reserve, everything Barbrey and Sara taught her, for it’s very difficult to come across as intimidating or worthy of caution when one is confined to one’s bed with child. “My lady.”

“Your Grace,” Catelyn bows her head. “You have my thanks for agreeing to speak with me at a time like this.”

A fortnight ago they’d been close as kin, and now they are back to close-lipped courtesies. Well, at least this once it is not Nell’s fault. Catelyn dug her own grave with this one. Even had Nell been a softer sort, to publicly forgive, even privately excuse, such actions would be entirely out of the question. “You’re welcome,” she says. “What would you have me hear from you?”

“Edmure tells me ravens were sent.”

It is just like Edmure, Nell thinks, to still keep up running conversation with his elder sister, even when he has been squabbling incessantly with her for months now. What should betrayal change? Family is always first for these Tullys. She admires their devotion, even when it prickles at her. “Edmure should not have told you that. But yes. I’ll not lie to you, for the respect you are still due as my goodmother. Ravens were sent out. To Harrenhal. To my father. If he can reclaim the Kingslayer, all hope may not be lost.”

“You wrote that he escaped,” Catelyn says, voice breaking slightly. “Donella, do you understand-,”

“I understand perfectly well that I cannot have it circulated that the king’s own mother broke faith and loyalty to release a prisoner of war, our most valuable hostage,” Nell snaps. “Do you understand, my lady? Do you understand what position this puts me in? I am queen. How might it look, do you think, for all to know while Robb was away fighting, I let Jaime Lannister escape?”

Catelyn sucks in a breath, then says, face tightening, “I will claim full responsibility for my actions. The fault is not yours. Ser Jaime was released by my command alone-,”

“A command you had no right to give, a command that will shame me until the day I die, a command you gave to Lady Brienne, carried out through deception, assisted by Ser Cleos- It is a farce!” Nell makes no effort to keep her voice down now. Let them hear her rage and scream. At least all will know where she stands, muffled as it might be through these sandstone walls. “What do you imagine they will do, should your Maid of Tarth get him back to the city? Send Sansa on her way with a knightly escort? Conjure up Arya out of thin air?”

Those last words were cruel, and she knows it from the look that crosses Catelyn’s face. Nell does not care. Things have been cruel for some time now. This entire situation is cruel. “At best, we look utterly incompetent! At worst- at worst, you released the bastard on a dead man’s promise- a Lannister’s offhand remark, which he would likely rather die than honor, if he is not dead already!”

“The Imp may still draw breath,” Catelyn says sharply. “And if the queen sees her brother returned to her-,”

“Aye, she’ll be pleased enough to have him back in her bed! While Tyrion Lannister dodders about with an axe in his bloody skull! Even if he lives, he may be half a man, with half a brain now, to suit! Tell me what sense that makes, then!”

“All the more sense, had you and Edmure not declared it an escape attempt!” Catelyn retorts, voice cracking again, and Nell can see the tears in her eyes. She almost feels like crying herself, and then hitting someone. “If it is not an exchange, they have no cause to give me back my girls-,”

“You created these terms out of thin air,” Nell says coldly. “I care not what Cleos claims Tyrion Lannister said, whether it was before all the court or not. None of it was in writing. Cersei will never agree to it, and now that they have the Tyrells on their side, us having the Kingslayer may very well have been the only thing keeping Sansa safe,” she spits. “Mace Tyrell has a daughter, does he not? Renly’s little widow? What do you think their terms might have been?”

Catelyn stares at her. “Joffrey’s betrothal to Sansa-,”

“Even if she is never to be his queen, they will not let her go,” Nell says in a more subdued voice. “You must know this, deep down. They’ll find some young Lannister to wed her to. If there is even a minuscule chance of somehow claiming the North through her- for if they had their way we’d all be dead and buried before the year is out!”

“And if there is even a minuscule chance of getting my daughters back, I had to try,” Catelyn tells her, blinking back tears but refusing to look away or retreat. Were circumstances different, Nell might admire it. “Yet now I may never see them again, all the same.”

“Then we shall name it both our faults,” says Nell bitterly. “I see I cannot convince you otherwise. Nor do I wish to. You left me very little choice. And Robb even less. His lords may demand he put you to a trial, upon his return. Had you considered that?”

“I can accept his judgement,” Catelyn retorts, although her tone seems to suggest ‘but not yours’. Just so. Mother and their precious firstborn sons are alike in that way. Nell imagines even Father’s mother loved him. “I pray you never know what it’s like.”

Ordering her from the room is on the tip of Nell’s tongue, but she settles back against the pillows all the same. “Treason?”

“No,” says Catelyn. “Having a child taken from you. It is the cruelest sort of pain you can imagine. I feel it like a knife in my belly, from the moment I wake every morning. And it never goes away.”

When Robb returns, the weather is cold and damp and threatening rain. Nell has not been outdoors in near a week, but she can smell it through the open windows all the same. She can also hear it; the dogs are all barking and howling at once, not just because boats are passing through the river gate, but because they can smell Grey Wind. The kennels at Winterfell… and she tastes ashes… but the kennels at Winterfell, they’d eventually grown used to the smell of the direwolves, and the dogs were only upset by their howling. But the dogs of Riverrun never had time enough to grow used to a wolf’s presence.

She wants to jump out of bed, put on her shoes and cloak, and rush down to greet him. Of course she does. But ‘within the next fortnight, Your Grace’ has turned into ‘any day now, Your Grace’. She’s had pains on and off since last night, but nothing serious or lasting, and her water has not broken. Still, she’s been told a thousand times to keep to her rooms until the babe is born, that it is all nearly over, and as much as she hates it, they are too close now to risk anything.

“Don’t worry, Your Grace,” says Barbara Bracken with the easy confidence afforded to the eldest of five daughters. “I’ll insist the King come to you as soon as he is able. We’ll tell him you’re terribly eager to lay eyes upon him again.”

“A man can hardly deny his pregnant wife,” Dana agrees lightly, linking elbows with Jayne, who is as quiet as ever but who manages to summon up a wavering smile all the same.

Nell rather wishes that she would not have to negotiate through secondary parties to see her own husband, but this is the way of things. She cannot physically go to him, so she must wait for him to come to her. She hates it, gods, she hates it. She’s always counted herself as active, assertive- Barbrey did not raise her to be victim to the whims of any man, she raised her to go after what she wanted, what she required. Nell has never waited for Robb when he was within her reach, but now she has no choice, and she loathes how it feels, the helplessness. As though she were somehow at, if not his mercy, then- the mercy of circumstance. Of sex, perhaps. Women are always waiting, always.

But better to be waiting here, with his child in her womb, than to be waiting in the grave for him to join her, she thinks firmly.

Dana and the Brackens hurry out, pulling on their cloaks and chattering about who they will be glad to see again, and Jory takes up her post at Nell’s bedside. “Let’s play cards,” she says amiably enough, as though she were not bursting with excitement at the thought of being reunited with her own mother and sisters, and Nell feels so warmly towards her in that moment that she is tempted to take her by the shoulders and kiss her freckled brow. They play cards for most of the next hour, and then look over the clothes Nell and the others have constructed for the babe thus far. Nell runs her fingers over a tiny hat sewn by Roslin, unwilling to admit aloud how much she’s come to miss the presence of the Freys. Well, most of them, anyways.

Finally, she hears the faint-but-familiar rasp of claws on the door. Jory starts, then dashes over to open the door, and Grey Wind bounds into the room. Nell is momentarily rendered speechless by the sheer size of him; when last she’d seen the direwolf, he’d been about the size of a large wolf. Now he is bigger, much bigger, perhaps the size of a small pony; when he comes up to the bed, she sees just how large his head is. But when she extends a hand he licks at her fingers as he always has, panting happily, and she is struck by how very gold his eyes are, as ever. Like winking coins or twin harvest moons.

“Your Grace,” Jory says almost reverently, as if in the presence of Ser Arthur Dayne himself, or some other fabled hero knight, and Nell looks up from Grey Wind to gaze upon her husband, and-

And at first she does not recognize the man looking down at her at all. She’s known all her life that war changes men, but Father had come back from Greyjoy’s Rebellion exactly the same, to her child’s eyes. Yet this Robb- this cannot be the boy who left her, can it? He cannot be a boy at all. It is not just that he looks taller, or stronger, though he does. When he left her he was still a boy around his mouth, in his cheeks when he smiled, in his sometimes bashful looks. That boy is gone. War has gone to work on him, and like a meticulous seamstress snipped and trimmed away the excess.

There is no softness left to his face, and it is all the more evident with the beard gone. Before, she’d assumed he’d grown it to look more a man, and less a boy of fifteen. Now he stands before her, sixteen and finally of his majority, and he does not need any beard to look a man. His hair is long, though, longer than she has ever seen it, falling to his shoulders, but his jaw is hard and sharp. He does not look like a miniature version of Edmure, he looks like his father, she realizes with a start. His face is no longer, but it is leaner, and she can see it now in the shadows under his eyes and the crease in his brow.

If she stood up, she thinks, for the first time he would stand at least two inches taller than her. His shoulders are broader as well. His armor no longer seems as though it were wearing him, as if he were a boy slipping on his father’s chainmail and surcoat. But what is most telling is the crown. Nell immediately wishes she had thought to wear hers, ridiculous as it might seem to have a circlet of iron round her skull in bed. Because for the first time she feels most keenly as though she were looking upon the King of the North, not her husband, not her friend, not even her bedmate. There is no more hesitance in how he holds himself and the crown atop his head.

“Your Grace,” she echoes her sworn shield, and bows her head. “You cannot know how glad I am to see you once again. I’ve been praying for your safe return these past months. Thank the gods they saw fit to restore you to me.”

“Donella,” he says, as if struggling to contain too much in a single word, and Jory murmurs her excuses and darts out the door as quick as she’d run to open it. Nell cannot blame her. “Are you well?” The door shuts behind Jory with a soft thud. Nell waits for some softening of him, some loosening, some familiar, awkwardly boyish smile or for him to come and embrace her or even take her hands, but he remains standing, not quite rigid, but far from relaxed, either. She is reminded starkly of last year, when she came to Winterfell just before the royal visit. Has she gone so far back with him, just as she has his mother? It gnaws at her, but she cannot- will not- play the insecure woman desperate for his affection or approval. Not now.

“As well as can be expected,” she finds herself struggling to meet his gaze for the first time that she can recall. It is just… he looks so different. He even sounds different. His voice is lower, too, and not out of disuse or ill mood. She has never been careful what she wished for, and now it comes back to smart at her once again. She complained of having to wed a green boy, and now she has a blooded and battle tested man in his place, and does not know what to do with him. “It’s fortunate that you arrived before the babe. Maester Vyman says it should be any day now.”

“He told me as much as well,” Robb says. “I apologize for not coming in sooner, but… I had to see to my mother, and reassure my lords. They are… disquieted with the news of the Kingslayer.” That is certainly one way of putting it, she supposes.

“Lord Karstark and my uncles were furious, I am sure.”

“Lord Karstark named my mother a traitor in front of the court, and your uncles were keen to go hunting for the Kingslayer themselves. I forbid it. Edmure tells me that Harrenhal was alerted as well, since Ryger failed to recapture him. There is little else to be done. I cannot afford to go chasing Jaime Lannister in circles at a time like this.”

He doesn’t sound enraged, so that is something. Nor does he sound particularly calm.

“Did you name her a traitor?” Nell asks very quietly.

“No,” says Robb, scowling. “I named what she did for love, and was as gentle as I could stand to be without currying mockery from my men. I know it was for the girls. For her grief. Should I condemn her as king, there would be consequences I am unwilling to carry out.”

He means it, she realizes. He is not speaking in dry humor. He does not want to have to imprison or hang his own mother for treason. “In time, I pray you can come to forgive her,” she says stiffly. “I confess I have yet to. But I must ask for your forgiveness as well. In your absence, Ser Jaime was my responsibility-,”

“There is nothing to forgive there. That fault lies solely with her.”

Grey Wind is nosing at her hand again, but Nell cannot bring herself to touch his damp snout at the moment. Not when she is so uncertain of where she stands. It is not like with Father, there is no ice heaving under her feet, but it is close enough to make her stomach churn and the braid of hair on her wrist itch and itch. “But you fault me for something else,” she says, oh so carefully, not an accusation, an observation; she glances up at him now, and he may be leaner and harder and colder, but he wears no mask when he is angry, all the same. “Don’t you?”

Perhaps she would not feel like vomiting if she knew what that might be.

Robb hesitates for the first time since entering the room, and then says, “I’ll not be coy about it. I left commands to hold Riverrun, nothing more. I understand Edmure was eager for a fight, but…” He shakes his head. “We lingered in the west so long for a reason.”

“Conquest,” says Nell. “Lord Tywin was away, Stafford’s men were ill-prepared, it was ripe for the taking. And why not? They did far worse here.”

“I didn’t want Tywin away,” Robb snaps. “I wanted him back. We had the mounted cavalry. We needed to force his hand into coming back into the West. The Blackfish found a strong location on the gold road in the mountains. We could have run him ragged up and down the coast, got behind him, and rode them down from the hills, as we did at Oxcross, as we did here. And even if the ambush failed, we still would have had him pinned in the West, while Stannis took the capitol. When Edmure’s men pushed them back, away from the Red Fork, messengers from Bitterbridge caught up with the Lannisters, notifying them of the alliance with the Tyrells. That is why they retreated. They were able to take Stannis’ rear, turn the tide of the battle at the very end. Elsewise, Stannis would have seen the city fall, and there would be a Baratheon on the throne while we had Tywin surrounded on his own lands.”

Nell doesn’t say anything, just looks at him, heat rising in her cheeks, her neck, her chest. Robb does seem to slump slightly after getting all that out, but his rigid posture returns soon enough, regarding her, waiting for her response, her excuse. “You could not have notified us of this plot?” she finally manages. “Robb- you said nothing of the sort before you left, and when your great-uncle found this place to stage your victory-,”

“The last thing I expected was for Edmure to attempt a second chance at glory,” he retorts, “nor for you to permit it. I thought- well, I thought, another woman might be easily bowled over by his talk of smashing the Lannisters, of revenge, but you- no, I told myself, told Brynden, Nell will keep him well in hand, she would not tolerate such a thing, she would never risk it-,”

Is this better or worse than him not blaming her for Jaime’s escape? Worse, she decides. Edmure did not ‘bowl her over’. She not only consented to his plans, she improved upon them, by her reckoning. “You should have informed us-,”

“I should not have had to, nor was I willing to risk the raven being shot down!” he says angrily, furiously, and Grey Wind bristles, at her or him, she cannot be sure. “It was a command. To hold Riverrun, not to try to secure some great victory, not to bring down the Mountain- I was explicit when I commanded Edmure, and with you- well, it was my mistake, then, to think I would not have to tell my wife in so many words that she was not to attempt to play at war in my absence!”

The silence that hangs after that is as swift and sudden as the fall of an ax. Nell would have preferred it had he slapped her, or cursed her. The- she does not know what to call it. Not contempt, they are not that far gone, but the… Whenever they were angry at one another before, it was largely due to circumstances. This is different. Personal. He is not angry because his father is dead, because his brothers are dead, because Theon betrayed him- or mayhaps he is, of course he is, but right now, in this instant, he is furious with her first and foremost, for disobeying him, for costing him his schemes and dreams of cornering the Old Lion at last.

“My playing at war put Gregor Clegane’s head on your wall,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper. “My playing at war gave the rivermen something to fight for, rather than huddling here and waiting for the storm to pass and asking where their king had run off to. My playing at war may have been foolhardy and reckless, but no more so than your own plans. You were careless. Aye, you ought to have been explicit with me, Your Grace. Tywin would not leave Harrenhal until Stannis was preoccupied with Storm’s End. You were not even a consideration. Do you think he was terribly upset to lose some cattle and gold? To lose the Crag? Ashemark? Nunn’s Deep? Do you think he truly cares for his people so?”

She is not whispering anymore.

“He knew you posed no threat to the Rock, nor to Lannisport, the real seats of Lannister power. He only left because Stannis was busy reclaiming his castle. Had we let him pass, he would have taken most of his men after you, again, with no real hurry, and left behind a force to besiege Riverrun. You would have had no reliable support to count on from the rivermen here, then, and if he outfoxed you in the Westerlands- you think he does not know the gold road? You think Brynden Blackfish knows it better than men who were born and bred in the hills and plains? That they never set foot in those mountains?”

She has gone from defensive to accusatory to outraged to venomous all in under a minute, she knows, and she can see it from the shock on his face. No one has dared speak this way to him for months. And perhaps he might have even been chastened, for they are in private, and she is still his wife, after all, had she not added on viciously, “You should have returned as soon as you had word that Winterfell had been taken, that Bran and Rickon were at Theon’s mercy. Instead you wanted to play Lann the Clever come again in the West, while I played at war, as you say, here at Riverrun-”

Enough,” he says, only he doesn’t say it, he commands it, and Nell may not be very good at following his orders in his absence, but she has eighteen years of practice in painful obedience to fall back on now. She stops talking, and clamps down on every thought and feeling beyond the dread-filled sense that she has humiliated him, mocked him to his face, insinuated that he cared more for glory than his brothers’ lives, and now there are going to be consequences for it.

And she is still angry enough to not regret it immediately, for he humiliated her as well, made her feel small, insignificant, like a foolish little girl, as though he were her elder, her superior, her teacher- And she has felt small from the instant he walked in the room, because all she can think is that these past months have brought her low, made her undignified, weak, helpless, not even in control of her own body, but gods, look what they have done for him, like some warrior king out of a song, come into his manhood with a roar. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. She almost hates him for it, and in this instant, she thinks he feels much the same. The look in his eyes is more than just anger. It is betrayal, that she would speak to him in such a manner, that she would drag her nails across an open wound.

Grey Wind whines, low in the back of his throat. Robb seems unwilling to speak for fear of what he might say next. She has some idea of what he might want to call her. But she is pragmatic enough to not ask. Best to get this over with. She’s very tired, all of a sudden. “Your Grace,” Nell says flatly, staring past him and Grey Wind, at the closed door. What must the guards be thinking? How much did Jory overhear? “I must beg your forgiveness. Please excuse my insolence as a young wife’s folly. This babe makes me loose of tongue and short of temper. I disobeyed your commands, and cost you a great deal because of it. Edmure would not have proceeded without my approval. The fault is mine more so than his.” She swallows. “After the babe comes, I will accept whatever punishment you deem just without complaint.”

“Punishment?” he asks, queerly, and she forces herself to look at him, to school her expression into dull acceptance. He’s pale and drawn, with shock and fury, she thinks.

“I disobeyed your commands,” she repeats herself. Does he want to hear her say it again? Is that it? “If you feel that I should be confined to my rooms… or deprived of my ladies…” She feels that she had best suggest something tame enough, before his anger gets the best of him. “I can pray, if it would please you, in the godswood, and fast, or… If you should like me to present before the court and beseech your forgiveness there, as a show of deference before your lords-,”

“No,” he says sharply, and she feels some sting of betrayal herself. She had not thought he would go this way, but- She armors herself all the same, tries to fight back the swirl of panic in the back of her mind. It will not be that bad. It cannot be that bad. He may think he can hold a grudge, but he is no Roose. She will- she will be fine, whatever it is she must endure. She lowers her gaze. That may appease him. If she pretends at regret enough, or even fear, he might even believe it.

“You think I would-,” He takes a step forward, frustrated, and she flinches. Not some dramatic cringe back, but an involuntary start, the barest hint of a recoil. She’s mortified for it, both for herself and him. He freezes as if she’d whipped out a blade and held it to his throat. Grey Wind growls, warning them both, she thinks.

Robb seems about to say something else, then exhales and turns and leaves the room, just like that. His wolf stays, though, and does not move when Robb pauses just outside the door, before shutting it after him. Nell looks warily at Grey Wind, who stares back at her, then goes around the other side of the bed, jumps up, and nestles around her like a giant, damp cat. Nell’s shoulders sag slightly, and after a few moments she lets herself crumple and put her face in his fur and wrap her arms around his familiar, heavy weight.

She nods off like that, and wakes to find that he’s been drooling down her legs. “You beast,” Nell groans, shoving at his mouth without fear, ironically enough, then frowns when Grey Wind rolls over with a muffled grunt and her hands come away dry. Then why are her- she stops, puts a hand under her skirt. It comes back wet with a little blood. “Oh,” she says, moreso to Grey Wind than herself, He turns and looks at her, sniffing, as she takes note of the intense pressure on her lower back, and the pains- well, they certainly feel more regular than ever before.

Nell looks at the wolf. “They’re not going to let you stay in here, you know.” She’s certain he must understand her, for he bounds down from the bed, stretching languidly, and trots over to the door, clawing at it. It swings open, revealing Dana and Barbara. Dana takes one look at Nell’s face and the stain on the sheets, and shouts for a maid.

By the time they’ve got the sheets changed, the midwife in the room, and are moving to close the curtains, the grey skies have turned to evening rain sleeting down from the clouds. “Don’t,” Nell snaps, “leave them be, I want to see the sky. The incense is bad enough.” Her nose is running, and her eyes; she wipes at them irritably. She is not crying. Mother never cried when she went to the birthing bed. She screamed, though, sometimes, but that was not so unusual at the Dreadfort. Nell learned how to block it out easily enough.

“It’s supposed to be calming,” says the midwife impassively, a large woman called Kella, who claims to have birthed thirty babes in the last six months, if not more. Vyman is busy unrolling bandages and arranging his instruments. “The pain will get much worse before it gets better, mind you. If you want to be naked-,”

“Not with him in here,” Nell hisses, scandalized, jerking her head at the maester.

“If you want to be on your hands an’ knees-,”

“Absolutely not!”

“An’ if you’d like somethin’ to bite down on, just tell Genny. Some babes come fast, some come slow. Let’s see how far along you are.”

They make her take a bath. Vyman excuses himself for that, at least. Then Dana comes and makes her pace the length of the room with her, barefoot and sopping wet on the stones, back and forth, back and forth. The pain swells, then lessens, then swells again, and Nell’s fingernails make bloody crescents all the way down Dana’s arms and hands. She drinks water, lots of it, ice cold, and every few minutes asks if she ought to be pushing yet, and every time the answer is ‘not yet’.

“How long could it be?” she grits out to Dana at one point.

She shrugs. “One of my aunts lasted two days.”

Nell pinches her, hard, for that.

At one point, just before they move her onto the bed, she works up the nerve to ask Dana if Robb knows. Dana stares at her. “What did you think he was doing, off hunting? He’s down the hall. Edmure offered him wine, but he’d only take a cup. Brooding with his wolf, that’s what he’s doing. You know Barbara had to stop him from barging in here a few minutes after me?”

Nell shakes her head, closing her eyes briefly. “No man wants to be present for this kind of thing, especially not after we…” she cuts herself off as another pain hits, the most intense one so far.

“So you had a quarrel,” Dana rolls her eyes. “Well, that’s marriage for you, for nobles or beggars. Don’t be so dramatic. He didn’t ride off to the nearest brothel, did he? No? Good. That’s what one of my uncles did, when my aunt was having her fifth. Needed a drink to settle his nerves, he claimed. Aye, a drink and a good rub-,”

She’s cut off by Nell’s shout of pain, and they never hear the end of that particular tale.

There’s a lot of shouting after that, when the pushing begins. The pain is awful, even worse than she expected it to be, and the fear is just as bad. Not fear that she may die, for what is the use in dwelling on that, but fear that it will either never end, or end all too suddenly. Time seems to go very slowly, yet very quickly all at once. Suddenly the sky outside is jet black. Suddenly she’s dripping with sweat, and someone is pulling her hair away from her sticky face and neck. Suddenly she doesn’t know if she’s screaming or just crying, but she can hear Grey Wind howling and howling just down the hall, and muffled voices outside the door. She's very cold; her teeth are chattering and all her limbs are trembling.

“I see the head,” Kella says encouragingly. “Come on, Your Grace, nearly there, breathe-,”

“I can’t,” Nell says raggedly, biting down onto her lower lip to restrain another shriek of pain, because it's too much, she just wants it to stop, she's not ready, “I can’t-,”

“You can,” Dana will broker no disagreement, worming behind her to brace her back, gripping her wrists like vices. “When has a little blood and pain ever scared a Bolton? Push,” she snarls directly in Nell's ear.

So she does, and then she feels something slipping-

“Shoulders!” someone cries out triumphantly, “come on-,”

Then nothing, although she can feel the cord coiled up against her thigh like a rope. “It’s out?” she asks blearily, feeling as if in a haze, light-headed. The room is dark and musty around her, like a cave, and she can feel rain spraying in from a half-opened window. The sheets seem very wet. She smells blood, overwhelming copper and salt just under her nose. “It’s out? Is it breathing?” Please, she thinks distantly, digging her fingers into the mattress. Please, please, please-

“Good,” Dana is saying gently, maneuvering out from behind her, “you did good, just rest now, you’re done.”

“Is that the babe’s blood?” Nell asks distantly, squinting at the red blossom on the white sheets underneath her, feeling as though this were somehow part of one of her dreams. It seems fuzzy, not real at all. Her mouth is so dry, and her throat so raw, it hurts to speak. It hurts to think. Is this what it feels like after a battle? She can’t get a hold on her thoughts, flitting in and out of her head.

“You only tore a little,” Genny, the midwife’s assistant, is praising. “Very good, Your Grace. We’ll get that stitched up after the afterbirth…”

Someone is shrieking. It takes her a minute to realize that it must be the babe. Good. It’s alive. It’s not dead. She pushes once more, at someone’s calm instruction while they knead her belly like dough, and the afterbirth slides out.

“A very healthy girl,” someone is saying, and Nell half-smiles in bemusement, eyelids heavy- surely she is no longer a girl now, now that she’s a mother, now that she has a-

A neatly wrapped bundle is placed in her limp arms, red-faced and screeching, and Dana is saying, “A daughter, you have a daughter, she’s beautiful, Nell-,”

“No,” says Nell, that must be wrong, why does her voice sound so high and girlish, she’s won, it’s over, she conquered the birthing bed, and now she never has to do it again, never- “I don’t… a son. It’s a boy, isn’t it? My son.” She peers down drowsily at the little face, mouth open in a wail as piercing as any of Grey Wind’s howls. She doesn't think the wolf is crying out anymore, just the babe. Her ears are ringing quite badly, all the same.

“A princess,” Dana tells her, smoothing back her hair from her face. “It’s alright. Just rest. They’re going to give you some milk of poppy now, so they can stitch you up. Just a little.”

“A princess?” Nell still does not understand, and then she yanks open the blanket with one clammy hand, and looks herself, and sobs aloud just once before the cup is at her lips, sickly sweet and milky white.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell realizes that the babe’s hair is as ruddy as Robb’s when she nurses for the first time. The rainstorm has passed by then, although the sun is consistently veiled with clouds. Her bedchamber no longer smells of blood and rain; now it smells like mother’s milk, she thinks, and fresh linens. When she woke from her poppy sleep the morning had come and gone, and the babe was in the next room, suckling at Genny’s teats. Nell had not realized she was also a wetnurse when she came with Kella, or if they’d told her, she’d forgotten. Vyman had insisted she eat first, and so she’d picked at a bowl of broth and crumbled her bread crusts into it and tried to forget.

She hurts; they’d stitched her up neatly enough, Dana promises, and according to everyone the birth had been very straightforward, but she hurts. She should be grateful, she supposes. The babe was born living. The babe survived its first night. It has all its limbs and fingers and toes. It is not crippled or deformed in any manner. It can see and hear and breathe and eat. A very healthy girl, they’d called her. But Nell is not blind to the fact that every hour someone comes into this room to check on both the babe and her, feeling at foreheads for signs of fever, checking the rags between her legs for any hint of bad blood.

She hurts quite a lot. It aches something fierce and awful between her legs, it hurt even worse when she got up to relieve herself, and the skin of her belly feels stretched and mottled. Her head hurts as well, all stuffed up and throbbing, and her throat is still raw and hoarse from shouting and screaming in pain. They say it is better to try to breathe through it, but she wasn’t very good at that. One of her nipples is cracked and bleeding while the babe suckles and grunts like a little pig, and the muscles in her arms burn from cradling the heavy bundle.

No frail little waif, this one. Over half a stone, Kella declared. And long limbs, too. She’ll be tall, when she’s older. And as auburn-haired as her father, although Nell knows that could change. Dana was right all along; her firstborn was delivered with a full head of hair. She bathed herself a bit with a washcloth earlier, around her armpits and under her heavy breasts and along the back of her neck, scrubbed her face as red and raw as she could stand, but she already feels filthy again. Her hair is matted and coarse in the braid Dana carefully put it in, and she feels sweat trickle down her back, underneath the clean shift.

The babe keeps feeding, and Nell stares blankly at the window, listening to the distant sounds of the castle. When she first woke, they’d been ringing the bell above the sept in honor of the successful birth. She imagines they all know by now, anyways, know that both mother and child lived, and that she failed all the same. She failed. She promised Robb a son and she did not deliver. She prayed for a son and the gods refused her, as much as they did her mother. Mayhaps she should have seen that coming, a long way off. But she could not consider the possibility.

She would feel far, far worse had the babe died, she knows this.

But she cannot say she is happy, either. She looks down at the infant at her breast and feels no flood of warmth or affection or anything beyond vague curiosity and weary acceptance. It as if it were someone else’s child bestowed on her, as if she were duty bound to care for it, but not love it. Well, she is. She doesn’t know if she would feel differently were it a boy, little Eddard, if she’d have loved it instantly then. She doesn’t hate it. She didn’t rave and scream and curse as her mother did when they handed her a daughter. Then again, Nell did not have to look over the maester’s shoulder at the likes of Father lurking in the doorway, waiting, watching.

Dana says Robb came in to see her and the babe while she was sleeping, but she doesn’t remember, of course. She’s glad she wasn’t awake for that. Better to not be there to witness the first reaction. She still knows him, she assures herself. Even if he is still furious with her, even if he is even angrier with her now, he would never take it out on the child. He loves the babe, loved her from the moment he laid eyes on her. She does not have to worry about Robb not caring for his daughter. That was never in question. He’s a good man.

The babe stops feeding and starts to mewl. Nell glances down at it, then adjusts her grip behind its heavy head. “Shh,” she says, voice cracking from strain. “Shh. It’s alright.” What do people say to their children? She forgets. It hurts behind her eyes, too. She rubs at her mouth roughly, then murmurs to the babe, “I’m here, it’s alright. Don’t cry.” Thankfully, the mewling does not swell into full-fledged wails. Nell hates the screaming most of all. It makes her want to throw something. The babe quiets some, and Nell watches the tiny eyelashes flutter as it fights against sleep.

She thinks she should hum something, so she hums Fair Maids of Summer, although it’s never been a lullaby. “All ye fair maids of summer, when the fields grow gold and green, will you come and dance, a farmer’s reel with me? And when the the sun settles down, to sleep behind the trees, will ye pity a poor boy, and love me as ye please?”

She can’t remember anything but the chorus, so she hums a little more until the babe seems to sleep. Then she lays her down in the cradle carved with dancing fish beside the bed, the same one that served the Tullys as infants, decades ago, and rocks it with a grimace when the babe starts to whine again, until finally there is blessed silence. She is dozing off herself when she hears the soft creak of the door opening, and then she starts awake. Robb and Grey Wind are framed in the outline of it, hesitating. Seeing that she’s spotted him, Robb has no choice but to quietly slip inside the room, shutting the door carefully behind him. He is not wearing his crown.

Grey Wind prowls over to the cradle, and a spark of something curdles in Nell’s gut. She sits up, alert and adjusting her shift, and digs her nails into her palms, ready to do something, she doesn’t know what, if this introduction goes badly. But the babe sleeps on, and Grey Wind simply sniffs at her, then looks up at Nell as if in silent approval. “Good,” she says, although it’s barely audible. Grey Wind does not bound up on the bed, to her relief, but goes to lay down by the fire. The wind has picked up outside, rattling at the windows. Robb draws closer, and she blinks tiredly up at his drawn face. He looks as though he barely slept. She feels as though she hasn’t slept in years. His lips move, but he doesn’t quite say anything for a few moments, until-

“The maester says you should recover well, if… if there’s no fever yet.” Robb reports this to her with visible discomfort, like a scout returning to camp with the worst sorts of news- the enemy on the march, disaster brewing.

“Three months,” Nell licks at her chapped lips.

Rob frowns. “Three months?”

“He wants me abed for the next week or at least not leaving this floor. After that I can go up and downstairs again. Three moons from now, he says we can try again, if it please Your Grace.”

Robb stares at her, then maneuvers around the cradle and sits down beside her on the bed. “Nell,” he says roughly, and when she stares back at him, impassive, he puts his hand on hers. When did his hands become bigger than hers? “I am pleased enough with this. Pleased you and the babe are both alright. Pleased I did not- that my last bloody memory of you wasn’t you shrinking me from in fear-,”

“I wasn’t afraid,” she says through gritted teeth. “Just offering my apologies. As is proper. I was disobedient and disrespectful of you as my husband and my king.”

“No,” he says. “No. I took tones and used words with you that I should not have.”

She almost wants to laugh, but she’s afraid he’ll think her mad. “You were reprimanding me. You were angry. You did nothing untoward or dishonorable-”

“Reprimanding- I frightened you,” he says, hoarse and uncouth and staring at her almost wildly. “I- that you would ever think that I would… would have you on your knees begging my forgiveness before the court, or that I would take your ladies in waiting from you, or order you to starve yourself in penance- Donella. Whatever cause I’ve given you to think me like to do such a thing- to think me like to raise a hand to you in anger, tell me, so I can ask your forgiveness for it.”

“You are the king,” she says thickly, unknowing, unwilling to understand or examine this… This terror in him, or failing that, this anguish she seems to have brought out, like lancing a rotten wound. Is that all it took to crack through his newly forged shell? The thought of her dying in childbirth? Is that a compliment or insult to him? Who is he? Is he Robb the anxious boy, Robb the iron-willed commander, Robb the silver tongued king? “You do not ask for forgiveness. You’ve done nothing-,”

“I should have done something, then,” he retorts. “Had you… I was a fool to leave things like that between us, when you were so close to labor. It is all… all I could think of, when they told me your time had come, was that if you died in there, and you died thinking me… Thinking of me as some kind of jailer, or monster, I would never- Nell, look at me! I would never be able to countenance it,” he says gravely. “Mother would be ashamed of me, if she knew. My father- my father as well. They did not raise to me act like such a craven, that I could not even tell my wife I loved her before she went into the birthing bed.”

Nell tears her hand away from his as if he’d turned scalding hot. “What?” she blurts out, stupidly. Surely she must have misheard him. Or it was some impulsive slip of the tongue. But he does not redden in embarrassment or regret. He will not look away from, as much as she might want him to. The babe makes some noise in her sleep, and he gives the cradle a gentle rock, and repeats himself.

“I should have told you that I loved you, no matter how angry we were. I was a coward. I left you. Believe me when I tell you now that I would walk over hot coals before doing it again, Nell. I won’t ask your forgiveness for it- you’ve been through enough-,”

“You loved me?” It comes out strangled and choked, like vines wrapping around her throat.

“No,” Robb corrects grimly, “I love you.” He seems about to touch her braid, then restrains himself. “I’m sorry. I’ve made a fine mess of it, haven’t I?”

“You can’t love me,” she says, almost pleading. “You… Robb-”

“I don’t expect anything from you for it,” he says hastily. “I know it’s not- it’s likely not the same for you, I can’t demand you return feelings that… that may be mine alone, but I will not lie to you, either. I love you, and I’m a coward for it. I’ve loved you since we came here, Nell, and I should have told you before I left for the West, but I was afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” she mumbles in shock, still reeling. He- he loves-

“Afraid you wouldn’t be able to tell me the same, or that you’d feel duty bound to lie- but it was all excuses. I was weak. I was still a boy, then, and you were this- this woman, this lovely, brutally clever woman who made me want to make a fool of myself for the chance of you smiling at me, and so instead of facing up to it like a man, I took the coward’s way and said nothing at all.”

Nell is speechless; no words come to her lips, but plenty to her mind.

You romantic bloody damned fool, she thinks wildly, what kind of- How dare you say those sort of things to me- Like we’re in a fucking song- The very worst part of it is that she believes him. She doesn’t think he’s lying, or exaggerating, or simply spinning a pretty tale to comfort her, to reassure her. He means it, all of it, and he’d never tell it any other way. He loves her. He has loved her. She drinks in the sight of him like a frozen pool, aching sharp in her chest, in her mouth. He loves her, and he’s not a coward, for he’s told her now.

“You love me,” she says, shakily.

He gives a solitary nod.

“I’m sorry,” she blinks, hard.

“No more apologies-,” he scowls, tries to pull her close-

She puts both hands on his chest and digs in her nails. “No. I’m sorry because I love you too, and I’ve let you hurt like this for so long.”

“You didn’t know,” he manages, before it hits him. “You-,”

“I love you,” she says, desperately, “I do, truly. That’s why- I want to give you a son. I can, I promise, Robb, we love each other, and it will happen, it will- Three moons is all I’m asking for, three moons, and we can be together, and next time it’s sure to be a boy-,”

He kisses her, his mouth hard and then yielding, welcoming, against her own, and it’s been so long that she melts into it for a perilous moment before they break apart, breathless. “No,” he says. “You don’t understand. I love you. I love our daughter. Our babe. I will love you if you give me another girl, I will love you if you give me no more children at all.”

“But we need a son,” her voice splinters anew in fury. “You don’t have to coddle me-,”

“I’m not coddling, I’m telling you,” he says firmly. “Mother warned me when I saw her yesterday. As if I needed to be told- It’s dangerous to have children so close together, even if the woman is fertile. I cannot lose you, and I will not force you back into it for the sake of a son. I love you and I mean to keep you, and for you to keep me, and that will always be the way of it.”

She kisses him again, angry and mystified, and lets him cradle the back of her neck and head with his hands as though she were a babe herself, and then says, in the little space that remains between them, “They’ll talk. They won’t like it. Your lords. That you’ve no son. If you name her your heir-,”

“She was my heir the moment she drew breath,” he draws back, grips her by the shoulders. “In time, if we have a son, then it will pass to him. If not… My mother tells me a woman can rule as wisely and fairly as any man, and I look at you and know it to be true.”

“I am not wise,” she says, almost laughing incredulously. “You said it yourself, when we fought-,”

“You did what you thought was wise,” he says. “You did what you thought was best. I may not agree, I may not like it, I may be angry, but never- I’ve never doubted your ability.”

“You love me,” she says, again, and he kisses her brow.

“Yes.”

A while later, when he has taken off his boots and is lying beside her in bed, his arm dead and stiff under the weight of her back, but refusing to move it or complain, and the babe still sleeping fitfully in the cradle beside them, she says, “I didn’t think you would hurt me, not really. I didn’t want to- You swore not to mistreat me, and I’ve believed that. But I…” She debates how to say it. How much to say. What she can bear to say at all.

“Your father hurt your mother,” he says. “In front of you, didn’t he?”

It lingers in the air around them like smoke, until she gathers up the nerve to say aloud, “When it wasn’t in front of me, it was worse, because I’d… imagine what he might be doing to her. How he might hurt her. Sometimes it was my fault. I didn’t listen. I made her angry with him. He liked that. It was an excuse.” She closes her eyes so as to not have to see his face. “And there are other ways to hurt someone besides raising a hand to them.”

“It was not your fault,” Robb says sharply. “You were a child. A little girl. He had no cause to treat his wife and daughter like that. No one does.”

And it’s on the tip of her tongue, all of it, threatening to overflow, but instead she says bitterly. “You don’t understand. I was- she loved me despite- Had I been a son… I always fail them, the people I love. Mother, Sara, you-,”

He cups her face with his hands to kiss her again. “You could never fail me. You agreed to fight a war with me. Your mother loved you. And your governess…” he hesitates. “Nell, I’m sure she’d be proud as well. You never speak of her, though.”

She debates rolling away so her back is to him, so he cannot see the shame on her face, but if she cannot tell him the full truth of Father, she at least can say this much. “My father’s bastard killed her. To hurt me. And because he knew he could get away with it.” The words sting her tongue and lips like tiny metal barbs. “I cannot prove it. She disappeared. But I know....” She can hardly say; I dream of her all the time, so instead she says, “in my heart, I know he hurt her, and she’s gone. There are rumors about him. I think they’re true.”

She waits for Robb’s brow to furrow, for him to question- how can she know such a thing, how can she say such a thing of her own blood- or for him to insist otherwise, that she must be mistaken, surely this Ramsay Snow who tried to save Winterfell is a good man, truly-

Instead he says, “If your father will not take his head for it, I will.” It is not meant to be a comfort or an angry declaration. It is a statement of fact.

“You believe me?” Nell asks, unable to hide her surprise. She had not thought it would be so simple. But she did not even have to try to convince him, or sway him. She simply told him, and now he means to execute the Bastard. Someday. Someday soon, she hopes. What would he say if she told him about Father? Would he call for his head here and now, set off for Harrenhal at first light? Ramsay is a bastard, common born and easily disposed of. Father is a high lord, and he and his banners have helped Robb win this war thus far.

She could- she could say all of it, she could tell Robb that Father has broken the law, that his offenses are surely punishable by death. But she won’t. She can’t. She’s a queen. They’re in the middle of a war. It might give her temporary peace, even just to see Roose punished, humiliated by Robb before his own men. But it would not stop Tywin Lannister or Stannis Baratheon. It would do nothing but sow unrest and vendettas against their own forces. Robb cannot afford to fight his own supporters, and Father has been nothing but loyal to him.

She holds her tongue, and thinks instead of the Bastard’s headless corpse, facedown on the ground, staining the snow red. That is something sweet to dwell on, at least. It makes all her other pains ache a little less. He’ll look at her before he dies and know that it’s at her command, even as Robb swings the sword. He’ll know it was her. How dare he. How dare he. He is nothing more than a dog allowed to grow too bold, and when the wolf comes home-

“My uncle told me a king who cannot tell when he’s being lied to is seldom a king for long,” says Robb frankly, “and a husband who cannot trust his wife is no better. Of course I believe you. And I would see any man who wished harm on you or yours dead.”

She strokes the side of his jaw with her thumb as if in wonder, then leans back into his embrace, at least until the babe wakes with a sharp cry. Nell groans, moving over to lift the swaddled infant up onto her lap. “Have you held her yet?”

“No,” Robb admits, flushing now. “Before, she was with the wet nurse, and I didn’t want to disturb her sleep-,”

Nell all but thrusts the child into his arms; he starts but immediately adjusts to hold her properly. It’s obvious looking at him that he’s held many babes before, which makes sense for a man with four younger siblings. The last babe he held was likely Rickon, just four years past. Nell thinks of Rickon’s little freckled face, and can almost feel a phantom child’s hand tugging on her skirts, hear his high laughter ringing through the halls of Winterfell. Rickon used to follow Theon around, demanding to watch him shoot arrows. Theon’s face was likely the last thing he saw, before-

She shakes the thought away, shuddering under her skin, as Robb soothes their fretful daughter with a soft, even voice. The love in his eyes and mouth is evident; he softens in a way that he has not at all since his return, and briefly looks almost a boy again himself, smoothing back her auburn hairs. “If you agree,” he says after a moment, “I think my mother should see her. After we’ve named her, at least.”

Nell wants to spitefully snap ‘no’, to deprive Catelyn of this right, the right to gaze upon her granddaughter and love her instantly, love her the way Robb so clearly does, the way Nell cannot, but… A babe is owed as much love as can be afforded, perhaps, and Nell knows even should her good mother hate her now, she would always treasure this child. “Alright,” she says reluctantly. “I have some questions for her, anyways. About… womanly things,” she adds quickly, at Robb’s glance. He immediately avoids eye contact; still a boy in that sense, at least.

Angry as Nell still may be, she cannot deny that a woman like Catelyn likely knows a great deal about recovering from childbirth, and it embarrasses her so to inquire with a midwife and wetnurse whom she barely knows about such things. Besides, Kella and Genny may be already gone; Nell was rather insistent that she alone feed the babe, and she’s hardly an invalid; she’s not feverish or faint from blood loss, and the maester seems to believe she should recover quickly enough, given her good health throughout the pregnancy.

“What shall we call her?” Robb asks, breaking her out of her somewhat grotesque thoughts.

Nell shifts uncomfortably. “Whatever you think is best. You know your family’s history better than me, and she needs a Stark name-,”

“What about Lysara?” he asks, shocking her; she’d been certain he was about to suggest Eddara, for his father, although that would smart at her, after months of dreaming of an Eddard, or even Branda, for his brother- she doesn’t know of any prominent Lysara Starks, although she’s heard of the name before, like Lyarra and Lyanna and Lynara and all the rest.

“Then you might call her Sara someday, if you like,” Robb amends, seeing her obvious confusion. “Lysara Karstark wed Artos the Implacable, who fought the King-Beyond-the-Wall. It’s similar enough to my grandmother’s name, but it’s not Lyanna…” he hesitates, “or my sisters.”

Nell studies the red, wrinkled little face in his arms for a moment longer. It’s impossible to tell whether she’ll grow into the long Stark face or not, or whether her eyes will be grey or blue, but she puts two fingers to her daughter’s tiny chest, feels the faint pulse of a minuscule heart. “Lysara,” she says, and the babe grunts in her half-conscious state, nestled in her father’s arms. “Alright then. Will you take her to the godswood? Tonight? And name her before them?”

“I will,” he says calmly. Grey Wind has roused himself, and comes round the bed now to look at them, sniffing at the babe once more. Robb lowers her so he can press his snout up against the blankets, and Nell watches his long tongue drag against a tiny red fist. Lysara opens her eyes, but does not cry out. She decides to take that for a good sign.

Chapter Text

299 AC - RIVERRUN

Nell introduces her daughter to her good mother three days after Lysara is named. She is not sure if she would have preferred Robb be present or not, but she understands that he must still hold court and meet with his men, even as a new father, and there is certainly much to discuss with the Ironborn invasion, the Kingslayer’s release, and Stannis’ defeat at the Blackwater. Nell thinks she would give just about anything to switch places with him, but instead she is still primarily relegated to her bed; the furthest she has been has down the hall to sit and sew in an alcove. Even that was something of a trial.

No one warned her that it was not over after the babe came. Oh, it is certainly a relief to have the childbirth over and done with- a tremendous relief, the more she has time to really consider it, all the things that could have gone wrong, for either her or Lysara- and some of the physical stress is certainly gone, what with no longer having a child in her womb, but she is still sore, exhausted, and bleeding. The blood. They neglected to tell her how much blood there would be, even after the birth. Vyman says she will likely still be bleeding for the next week, although it should gradually decrease. It’s foul, and it’s not as though she can afford to ignore it- if she bleeds too much, they’ll have to rush to make sure she’s not been steadily bleeding out this entire time since the birth.

Witch hazel, ice, and very long, very hot baths- although even that is monitored, in case it somehow incites a fever. If she’d thought her world had been gradually encroached on by the pregnancy, well, this is hardly the instant reprieve she’d been expecting. It’s much the same, only now she has an infant to care for on top of everything else. Nell knows that she could hand Lysara over to a maid, instruct them only to bring her in for feedings, carry on as many other noblewomen no doubt do, and that’s not counting the ones with wet-nurses. But the shame, at least, is a useful tool to force herself to keep her daughter close. She wishes she could say it was out of overwhelming love or compassion, but really it’s because she pictures the look on Robb’s or- as much as he hates to admit it- his mother’s face upon hearing that she’s passed her newborn off on the servants.

The jape that women in her position barely raise their own children is a common one, but the guilt of the Mother looming over your shoulder is still present, even for those who worship the old gods like herself. She hates nursing, she hates hearing Lysara cry, she hates being tired all the time, she hates constantly changing bloody rags, she hates putting ice on her sore and swollen breasts, and she hates hating all of it. She should be thrilled. Well, perhaps not thrilled, but at least relieved. Overjoyed, even. How many wives can say that their husbands reacted half so graciously, even warmly, to the idea of a firstborn daughter? How many wives can say that their husbands confessed their love to them so sweetly, like something out of a story?

She cannot shake the sense that she should be more grateful. Robb loves her, and he loves her daughter, and she loves him too, that’s the most absurd part of it all, this perfect circle of affection. She is so very fortunate. She had barely let herself hope for such a thing. The idea of a mutual love between her and any man seemed ludicrous and a little frightening when she was a girl, after all her aunt’s stories. And then, even once she had married Robb, it still seemed like a far-off fancy. Did she not think that love was for times of peace and plenty? But there is no peace, and the plenty of summer is already dwindling, and still someone loves her, not because she gave him a son but because he simply loves her, and she him, and it should be wondrous. It is wondrous, really. She just doesn’t feel wondrous. She wishes she could somehow skip ahead. Surely it will be easier, simpler, when Lysara is no longer a squalling newborn, when she can smile and laugh and sit up in the cradle.

“It gets easier every day,” Catelyn says, as if she’d heard her thoughts. Nell is sitting by the fire, not that it is much different from sitting up in bed, but she forced herself to bathe and dress and have her hair combed out and arranged today all the same, although she is not going to concede to the crown in private just yet. It feels rather ridiculous to be cradling your child in your arms with a metal ring round your temple, particularly in one’s own chambers. Perhaps she will never grow as comfortable with it as Robb has. Mayhaps she just does not have the necessary experience. She’s only ever felt like a queen in the terribly tense moments without it.

“I promise, it does,” her good mother adds, at the look on Nell’s face. They are not on what Nell would call ‘speaking terms’, although they are to the point of acknowledging one another, and Nell willingly gave her daughter over to her grandmother. Catelyn paces back and forth with a whining Lysara in her arms, shushing every her so often under her breath. She looks more calm and at ease with a Stark child in her embrace than Nell has seen her in months. Perhaps if the babe had been born earlier, she would never have stooped to release the Kingslayer for the hope of the girls. Or perhaps not.

When Nell does not immediately respond, Catelyn sighs slightly, and says, “Robb was my easiest recovery, and Bran my hardest, but I felt far better a fortnight after each of my children’s births than I ever did whilst I was carrying them. You’ll see. This is still the early days.”

Nell told herself she was going to remain calm, composed, and decidedly cold when it came to Robb’s mother, but it is hard when she is holding her child and it is late at night, the castle quiet around them apart from the faint strains of one of Edmure’s singers in the hall. “I would have thought Arya would have been your hardest.” She is in dangerous territory, referencing the girls like this, but she thinks rather childishly that Catelyn brought up the matter of her own children in the first place. “Robb mentioned it once to me, that you were very sick with her. He was frightened, he said.”

Catelyn nods after a moment. “Yes. He was, I remember. He would come in every day after his lessons to curl up next to me in bed and tell me about everything he’d learned and done that day. And he was never very good at hiding his worry, much like his father. But he was so brave, I thought. Looking after Sansa and listening to his elders while I was ill. He was always a good-hearted child.”

Nell admits she has difficulty picturing a young Robb throwing a tantrum or sulking in a corner, although she supposes it must have happened at some point. Perhaps it was because he had Ned Stark for a father. Imagine being insolent to the Lord of Winterfell. Fear of one’s father is one thing, she knows that well enough, but fear of disappointing them is often even worse. She always thought of Ned Stark as being soft with his children, but even soft does not necessarily mean lenient. She wants to be able to be soft with Lysara, someday. She wants so desperately to be someone her daughter brightens to see when she walks into a room. And she wants that for Robb as well. Of course their babe will adore him. She likely already does.

“But Arya came quick, at least,” Catelyn reflects. “It was dusk and storming something fierce, with her. I remember hearing the rain sleeting against the windows, and the wind howling, and there she was- Measter Luwin was barely in the room and she was out already. My fastest birth, her. Bran was my longest. He wanted to stay a little while longer,” her look grows distant and faded, somehow, like a worn piece of stone or metal.

“It was hell, pushing him out. I didn’t want to scream and cry and frighten Ned, but I was so afraid something was going wrong. And then he was born quiet, the cord round his neck, but they cut it in time, and I started crying myself when I heard his first wail. My little boy.” Her voice cracks slightly. “And he was a good babe; he slept so much we thought something was wrong with him, but he was just… peaceful. He was born in the middle of the night, I remember, but the sky was so very clear; I could see the moon hanging low out the window, and all the stars…”

Lysara whimpers again, and Catelyn presses a kiss to her downy head. “I apologize. You like don’t wish to hear an old woman’s ramblings.”

“Anyone who calls you old is a profound liar, grandmother or not,” Nell says dryly, pretending as though it meant very little to her. Mother never told those sort of pretty or fond details of her own birth. Just blood, pain, and rage. So much anger. Sometimes she could still hear fragments of it in her tone when she spoke of it, as much as Nell knew she’d grown to love her. It would have been nice, she thinks, to have the sort of story one could curl up on their mother’s lap to listen to.

Lysara’s will be a good one, she’s already decided. However much she has to lie or gloss over things, she’ll make it simple and sweet and pretty, speak of how they loved her from the very start, how wanted and longed for she was, and there’ll be no mention of heirs or sons or crowns at all, just her and her mother and father, as it should be.

“But you loved all of them at once,” she says, a few moments later. “Didn’t you? Even the ones who hurt or were fretful or slow.”

Catelyn comes over and puts Lysara back in her arms, “I loved them,” she says carefully, “of course, but that does not mean I always enjoyed every moment of it. Being a mother was one of my greatest wishes, from the time I was a little girl.”

“Yes,” says Nell, “of course, it- it is every little girl’s wish, to give her husband children someday.” She is lying through her teeth, of course, but sometimes there are other stories that need to be repeated so women don’t go mad and throw their babes out windows or smother their husbands in their sleep.

Catelyn exhales. “Wishes or not, I fear we do a poor job of preparing those girls for what they will face, both in the birthing bed and afterwards. It is either stories meant to frighten them away from a man’s embrace, or the sort of…,” she trails off, “well, seven babes for the Seven, all borne with ease and grace. And far too many are far too young when they are put into that position. I thought of eighteen as old when I wed, but what did I know then? Better eighteen than fourteen. When I think of-,” she catches herself, and presses her lips together.

Nell knows what she is thinking of, all the same. Sansa will be thirteen in a few months’ time. If she has not flowered yet, she likely will be soon, and without her mother or any kinswoman there to guide or support her, to explain such things to her. And if she has flowered… whether Jaime Lannister ever turns up in King’s Landing again or not, Nell thinks the girl’s chances of remaining unwed are slim to none. She tries not to dwell on such things, but at the very least she can say that no one forced her into wedding Robb, that she did not fear their wedding night, that she was not ignorant to what happened between a husband and wife, nor newly flowered and barely adolescent.

But because she cannot say any of that, and because it is difficult to summon up the energy to be cutting or cruel with her daughter heavy in her arms, instead she says, “You will be here for Lysara. You’re much better at explaining these sort of things than I ever will be, my lady. I was not raised with a gentle tongue. In time, she may turn to you when I offer her little in the way of womanly advice,” she tries to smile wryly, but it seems more like a grimace on her lips instead.

“She will adore you all the same,” says Catelyn in a matter of fact tone. “I’m afraid there’s no avoiding it. All little girls idolize their mothers. I certainly did mine.”

Nell has heard little and less of Minisa Tully; Edmure has no memories of the woman, of course, and Lord Hoster has been near his deathbed for months now, in no state to recollect much of anything. Robb brought Lysara in to see him earlier today, and reported to Nell that he thought Robb to be Brynden and their daughter to be an infant Catelyn. “How old were you when she passed?”

“Newly twelve,” Catelyn sits down across from her, as they have sat together half a hundred times, however thick the tension between them now. “And newly flowered. It was… a very difficult time for all of us. She was here and then she was gone, and my brother… My father could not bear to even hold him for weeks, it seemed like. I felt more his mother than his sister, and I was distraught myself. Lysa even more so. She clung to our mother, and without her… I do not think any of us smiled or laughed again for months, not until Lord Stark came south with his heir, and my betrothal was announced.”

“Did she want you to marry Northern?” Nell isn’t even sure why she is asking this. Because she feels some renewed connection with the woman, to have both lost their mothers as girls? It is hardly uncommon. Among the nobility, widowers are far more common than widows, everyone knows this. The men of the smallfolk are exposed to far more dangers, more likely to fall off a roof and break their neck, or lose a hand and their life while trying to cut down a tree.

But for the highborn, certainly during peacetimes, it is childbirth that stalks through the corridors, waiting to reap what it has sowed months before. Had things gone even a little differently, Robb might be a widower himself at this very moment. A widower with a very young daughter. She does not think his lords would have waited more than a month before presenting him with their own sisters and daughters. The worst part is her shade would not even be able to hate him for remarrying; it would be the only sensible option.

“She was a Whent, and they were ever ambitious, as was any family to ever lay claim to Harrenhal,” Catelyn says thoughtfully. “No, I do not think she was at all opposed to the idea. She would have been thrilled to think of me as Lady Stark, Lysa as Lady Lannister, and Edmure as lord consort to the Martell girl- Father made an offer, I recall, but Prince Doran politely refused it. Although they say Princess Arianne yet remains unwed, and she must be past twenty by now.”

“Perhaps she found a consort among the smallfolk of Sunspear,” Nell mutters.

She will not lie. The presence of the babe makes thing easier. Neither of them could ever forget, but it can be temporarily overlooked for the sake of comforting a crying infant. Nell has no mistrust or unease when it comes to Catelyn’s affections for her granddaughter; those were evident enough the instant Lysara was placed in her arms. Perhaps Lysara’s auburn Tully hair helped that love to boil over, perhaps not. But Nell believes her when Catelyn tells her that she looks just like Sansa did as a babe. Sansa would love having a niece, most likely, although she might not enjoy being spit up on.

Nell thinks of Robb’s siblings, living and dead, crowded around the cradle in some mirror life. Sansa would sing the babe to sleep; Arya would tickle her and make her laugh. Bran would carry her around Winterfell and show her all the best hiding places. Rickon would be like an elder brother to her; they’d grow up to play and fight together, racing horses and tussling in the godswood with Shaggydog. But that’s just a fantasy. None of them will ever lay eyes upon this child, their niece. She thinks of Jon Snow for an instant, who ironically may be the safest of them all, tucked away at the Wall. She wonders if he would smile to look upon his brother’s heir, and then pushes the thought away. Best not to consider such things.

Yet it should have been that way. Lysara should have been born at Winterfell, with a large, joyous family around her, in a peaceful realm. She should have had both her grandparents, all her uncles and aunts, the run of Winterfell. It’s not right, that it should be like this. And I should have lived to see my daughter wed, but the gods do not bow to your demands, her mother’s voice says in her ear. Nell has never been in the habit of living on wishes and dreams; she cannot begin now. She’s a mother, the breed of men most bound by practicality. Lysara will have Winterfell, someday, and younger brothers and sisters, and a mother and father and grandmother who guard her fiercely, and that will have to be enough. She will have peace, too, and springtime. They say winter babes are solemn and grave, for they often spend the first few years of their childhood in the dark and cold. But they live to see spring, all the same. They must.

The second week is better. Physically, at least, the soreness has abated some and the bleeding lessened quite a bit. She never thought she would relish the ability to step outside into the open air, but that is exactly what she does, as soon as possible. Nell bleeds out a goat in the godswood in thanks for a safe delivery and a healthy child, her resentments and bitterness aside, and offers up her prayers with Jory and Dana. She prays for a child who lives to see a month, who lives to see six months, a year, a second year, and so on. So many babes are lost so early. She may have avoided a stillbirth, but there is a particular dread every morning when she checks on Lysara, swaddled in her cradle, a sharp slice of terror that she may find her cold and stiff. Sometimes seemingly healthy babes die in the night. They don’t know why.

As much as she would like to leave her daughter behind in her rooms, she was always taught that babes should be brought out early, to expose them to the elements so they might grow strong and hearty. That is likely less a concern in the south, but the days are cool and often damp now all the same, so Nell reluctantly binds her daughter to her sore chest, and when she cannot stand it any longer, usually passes her and her sling off to Dana or one of Brackens. Even that is not without its irritations; Dana takes to wearing an infant in a way Nell never could. She is utterly enchanted with Lysara, cooing and crooning over her little face and hands and feet, constantly humming and murmuring to her.

Babara is less devoted, but still cares for Lysara with a comfortable sort of confidence that Nell is envious of, as if is no great matter, just another simple task, like needlework or folding clothes. Even Jayne, gods, traumatized, near-mute Jayne, has an easier time getting Lysara to settle than Nell. Her one solace is that Jory, who has a young niece and nephew herself, is not terribly enthused about infants either. She smiled and praised Lysara’s healthy look upon seeing her, but she politely declines any and all opportunities to hold her, and Nell is rather more relieved than offended.

Her first real pleasure is to draw back her bowstring once more. She has not practiced her shooting since she was six months pregnant, and she is terrible for the lack of it; nearly all her first arrows miss the target completely, but Jory runs to get them and teases her all the while. “I had thought you were a great huntress, Your Grace,” she says in mock dismay, “but now I think they must have meant you were hunting new wool dyes, or doeskins in the market-,”

That is all the incitement Nell needs to send her next arrow through the strawman’s chest. “I’ve hunted bears, too,” she smirks at Jory, who simply laughs as Nell hands her the bow to try.

“Aye? So do my sisters, although they aren’t the ones doing the sticking.”

“That is completely improper for a young maid to be discussing,” Nell says dryly, “what sort of ladies do I have in my service?”

Jory’s arrow strikes the shoulder; she turns and bows. “Passable archers, that’s the sort.”

But now that the Mormonts have returned along with Robb’s men, her sworn shield is somewhat less available to her, not that Nell could blame her for wanting to savor this time with her sisters. Dacey and Lyra are battle-hardened, but they are Mormont women, and so seem much the same for it, full of tales of westermen wetting themselves after dodging a blow from Dacey’s morningstar, and Lyra’s exploits in stealing (or reclaiming, as they call it) cattle with her mother, driving it out of the west and into the east to replenish the rivermen’s herds.

It is through them that Nell hears of Jeyne Westerling, and although she might ought to take offense that Robb had not mentioned it directly, there is something to be said for the way Dacey tells it. “Alright,” she says to Nell one evening, gathered in front of the fire with cider in hand, “If I tell you, you must swear not to make it a quarrel with Robb- he’s my king and my friend, and I’ve sworn to defend him, even from the wrath of his wife.”

“You’re scaring her,” Lyra rolls her eyes. “Really, Dace, carrying on like he went to bed with the lass.”

Nell arches both eyebrows at that, and Jory chokes on her drink.

“He didn’t,” Dacey says swiftly, flushing red as if it were her own virtue in question, and not Robb’s. “I’d tell you true if your man was disloyal, Nell, you believe that, don’t you? Robb’s as true as they come.”

“Aye,” says Lyra, grinning, “he only ever went to bed with his wolf.”

“Well, I knew that,” Nell rolls her eyes to hide any visible signs of relief.

“He took an arrow at the Crag, it nearly unhorsed him,” Dacey recounts, “but he stayed in the saddle, though the pain must have been something fierce. He bled a good deal, though, and he was white as snow by the time the garrison had surrendered to us. Not one to show it, our Stark, of course, so he speaks with the Westerlings with the bloody thing still in his shoulder, nearly swaying on his feet, and no sooner have they scurried off then he faints.”

“Gods be good,” Nell mutters. “These men are fools.”

“So he’s tended to by their maester, of course, and the Smalljon’s in the back, the whole time, just watching, a hand on his sword, in case the old man tries anything, and then who should come creeping in- one of their bloody daughters,” Dacey says incredulously, “the elder one, Lady Jeyne. Sweet thing, she was, ever so polite, even with Jon glowering down at her and the maester rambling on with nerves, and she says her stitches are the neatest, neater than his, and what would you know, she stitches him up.”

“Perhaps I should send a letter of thanks for her skill with the needle,” Nell intones flatly.

Dacey snorts. “So the maester’s gone by dawn, and Jon declares he needs a drink, and I’m sitting by the door, because just because we’ve won the castle doesn’t mean we’ve won the household, and I won’t have it said that Robb bloody Stark was smothered in his sleep by some steward with balls of iron, and she’s fixing up the bed- and he wakes up and thanks her, of course, because he wouldn’t take milk of poppy and it must have hurt like hell-,”

“Get to the good part,” Lyra says through her teeth.

“Alright, alright, so I’m half-asleep myself, I’ll not lie, and I’m listening to them speak, and all of a sudden I hear- ‘Dacey, if you could see Lady Jeyne back to her chambers, she must be exhausted from her work.’ and so I jump up, and there he is, sitting up in bed half dressed, looking cross as anything, and her red as a Lannister cloak, standing there looking like she wants to sink into the ground.”

“She tried to kiss him?” Nell thinks she should be outraged, but really, it is a little funny- it wouldn’t have been funny had she been present for it, but to hear about it now, and from someone as frank as Dacey Mormont, does lend a certain amusement to the whole thing.

“Very chastely, he said, but aye. He was thanking her, and the girl summoned up her nerve and took her chance,” Dacey seems to be struggling to maintain a neutral expression. “That’s what they always do in the stories, give the wounded hero a token of their love, and I’m sure she thought of herself as very brave-,”

“Mind you, the noble hero had just killed half her family’s garrison in battle,” Lyra adds dryly. “Spare us, Dacey. She had a mind to be a king’s lover for a few nights, and you know it as well as I do. If that mother of hers didn’t suggest it, I’ll be damned. Entirely too willing to turn over the keys to the castle, those ones.”

“They thought they might get more favors and freedoms if they played us sweet,” Dacey shrugs. “It’s common enough. But I don’t believe any scheming of the Westerling girl- just foolishness on her part. The look on Robb’s face! It was as if she’d stung him on the nose!”

“Well, so long as she didn’t stow away in the baggage train, I suppose I can forgive it,” Nell says flippantly, although she won’t deny the kernel of possessiveness all the same. It’s not even jealousy- she has no cause to doubt Dacey’s telling of it, or Robb, and she would never believe it of him, anyways- just the idea of some girl tenderly bandaging his wounds and then sweeping his hair out of his face to kiss him is ludicrous. Had Nell been there, she likely would have been bickering with him about his recklessness all the while, snapping and hissing while she sewed and wrapped things up just tight enough to hurt. She wishes she had been there, just as she wishes he’d been here to feel the babe kick.

“You caught a rare breed of man with him,” Lyra advises her, raising her cup to her. “Don’t ever let him get away, Your Grace.”

“I don’t intend to,” retorts Nell, just as Barbara bustles in with her daughter, who needs to be fed yet again.

They present Lysara to the court when she is a fortnight old and showing no signs of illness or frailty. Nell wraps her daughter in grey silk and loops a string of freshwater pearls around her plump infant’s neck. Lysara smells sweet, her ugly cord stump has fallen off her belly, and she doesn’t bite so much when she tries to latch at the breast. Nell watches her daughter’s new eyes flit around the great hall, while close to a hundred men raise their swords in her name. She wonders if their cheers would have been more exuberant than polite, were she a son. She kisses her daughter’s warm head as the receiving line begins and tries to pretend she can unfurl some banner of love within if herself if she playacts at it enough.

If Robb suspects that Nell is not consumed with passion for their babe, he never says a word. They are usually only all together in the evenings, and now they often go for walks together through the castle, and if Robb is self-conscious to be seen holding a babe in his arms by his men, he does not show it. He even talks to her, the babe, telling her about his day and pointing out the people they pass by. Nell wishes she could do that. She can sing to her daughter, but she feels like a fool carrying on conversations with a newborn, all the while wishing someone would appear to magick Lysara into an older, more independent child who could talk back.

Her real fear is that it will never get any easier, that she will never feel a rush of love and warmth for her, that even when Lysara is one, two, three, it will still be all toil and frustration, while everyone else seems far more fit to care for her.

Her uncles come bearing gifts; a richly woven blanket in the Ryswell colors and a miniature pair of deerskin slippers, lined with satin. She’d expected Roger and Rickard to be more dismissive of an infant, and a daughter at that, but they do, after all, both have wives and children of their own, and Roger holds Lysara with ease, while her tiny fist clenches Rickard’s finger. “Big babes are a Ryswell tradition,” Roger infirms Robb, who stands with Grey Wind at his side, looking somewhat skeptical. “Don’t let Bolton tell you otherwise- aye, it’s our side you have to thank for such a healthy child. My Serra’s a wee crannogwoman, and she gave me two strong sons and a daughter to boot!”

“Bee’s only a few years older,” Rickard is telling Nell gruffly, referring to his sole child, little Barba, called Bee by those who love her, named after her deceased grandmother, “might be they’ll be fast friends someday, your girl and mine, niece.”

“I’m glad she’ll have cousins a-plenty by her side in the years to come,” Nell says diplomatically- it may be she has to put her distaste for her mother’s kin aside