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Once, when her mother was still alive, Catelyn stole away from her septa and spent an afternoon slipping through the mud and sticky sand of the rivers surrounding Riverrun. Hours later, her mother found her- balanced, all ungainly limbs and awkward grace, on a single stone halfway across a rapidly-rushing river.

Catelyn had been afraid. She had balanced- and if she hadn’t, then she’d have been washed away, never to be seen again. Years later, she’s sure she was terrified; but the only memory she has is of her mother, her proper, perfect mother, tracing the same paths that led Catelyn there, telling her daughter to jump backwards, telling Catelyn that she’ll catch her.

The only memory Catelyn has is of her mother’s warm arms, and the surety that she’ll catch her.

Now, she stares into her son’s cot, traces her perfect red curls. Robb, she named him, and in the wake of all that’s happened it seems utterly foolish for her to have hoped for a happy ending.

Catelyn’s mother had brought her back to Riverrun, muddied, shaking. She’d scolded Catelyn the entire way, but she’d also caught Catelyn up in arms as tight and unshaking as a rooted tree.

There is nothing of safety Catelyn can offer her son.

When Howland Reed brings Ned’s bones to King’s Landing, Catelyn weeps.

Not, entirely, for her husband- they’d scarce known each other when he placed a blue and white cloak around her shoulders. There is not even any of the affection she’d held for his brother between them.

It is sadness that makes her eyes fill- that, and fear.

Robb has not even seen one nameday. He is the heir to the North, and with Ned’s claiming of the Iron Throne, he is the rightful king. But an infant is so fragile- Catelyn cannot give him safety, cannot give him even the rights to his own life. All she has is her love, and if there is one thing these past years have taught her, it’s that her love is not enough for anything.

She locks herself in Robb’s nursery and cries, for a night and a day and another night.

Her husband is dead. Catelyn is alone, all save for Robb, whom she cannot hope to protect. She has not yet seen seen twenty namedays, but she has already failed every aspect of her family’s words.

On the second morning, there is a thunderous rapping at the door. Catelyn considers ignoring it, but then the person starts to say, loudly, “If you don’t open it I’ll knock it down, don’t think I won’t-”

There is a familiar timber to the tone, and Catelyn is curious; she runs a hand through her hair and grimaces at the state of her gown before standing and undoing the latch.

Lyanna Stark spills into the room, her dark hair unbound and wild, her pale eyes flashing.

“You can’t stay here,” she says, before anything else.

Catelyn bristles. “No?” She asks. It’s been many years since someone tried to command her- Catelyn’s quite unused to it.

“No,” Lyanna says. “You can’t. Do you know what’s happening out there, since Howland brought Ned’s bones back here? If you stay here, if you stay quiet- gods know what the Lannisters will do!”

“What do the Lannisters have to do with anything?”

“Tywin Lannister wants power,” Lyanna says. “He’s pushing for power. If you give in to him, we’ll be lucky to survive. And you being locked up in here is doing just that.”

“You’re telling me he wants the Iron Throne,” Catelyn says flatly. “Why should I believe you?”

Lyanna’s mouth quirks, just slightly. “Because I’ve got enough secrets of my own. And I don’t want any man like him near children, if you understand what I mean.” She tips her head, minutely, towards Robb’s cradle.

For a long, tense moment, Catelyn is speechless, wondering how Lyanna’s found out her deepest fears; and then, she is angry, heat like a wildfire sparking through her breast.

She slams the door shut and whirls on Lyanna.

“Robb is mine,” she says fiercely. “Whatever your plans are, I don’t care. But you keep him out of it, do you understand me?”

“I won’t hurt him,” Lyanna replies, even and level as a blade. “But do you truly think a door will be enough to hold against Tywin Lannister when he decides your son is a threat? That you will be enough, against an army?” She steps closer, and her hands catch Catelyn’s in her own. “Ned would want you to survive,” she tells her. “Ned would want Robb to survive. And right now, Tywin Lannister is far too dangerous.”

Catelyn grips Lyanna’s hands back, just as tightly. “What do you want me to do?”

Her eyes are softer. Not much else is when she says, “There is to be a small council session today, at noon.”

Ned would want you to survive. Her father is in Riverrun, and her sister is in the Vale, and Catelyn has no one here in King’s Landing she trusts, not a single soul, not even this pale-eyed, dark-haired goodsister. Ned would want Robb to survive.

“Then,” Catelyn says, “I’ll be there.”

She wears a gown of light blue. Only later does she recognize that it is Stark blue- and only after that does she realize that it makes her look delicate and dangerous as ice. When she picks it out, she can only think that the fabric feels like a sort of armor.

Her maids wash her body, powder her face, lace her into her gown. But when they get to her hair, she waves them away.

Catelyn knows, precisely, the way she shall wear her hair today.

When she’s finished, she straightens and walks out the door.

A gown of Stark blue, jewels of Targaryen black; Catelyn knows, precisely, the image she strikes when she enters the small council- Queen Alysanne, after all, was said to have hair the scarlet of sunlit copper, for all her Targaryen heritage. Catelyn’s clothes are her armor, as they have been for all the queens before her. But it is the braid she has plaited against her scalp that finishes the ensemble: dragonglass and pearl glitters against her hair, and it is as close as one can get to a crown without wearing one.

The servants whisper. Catelyn walks calmly, slowly, and doesn’t let herself shake, not an inch. When she turns from the throne room and heads for the small council, the murmurs get louder.

She pauses in front of the door. For a heartbeat, she only stares; when she speaks, her voice is sharper than it has ever been all her life, as if the girlishness has been sheared away.

“Open it.”

The servants leap to her bidding.

Catelyn remembers the way Ned brushed his hands over her body before leading her to their bed, the gentleness of him. She remembers the pain that brought Robb into the world, the joy that followed after. She remembers her father and Lysa and even Robert Baratheon, and she tilts her head back, pride as unbending and unending as a river’s rage flooding through her.

She enters the room, and takes in the irritation writ across Tywin Lannister’s face, the confusion on Jon Arryn’s; Mace Tyrell sits across them, and Doran Martell beside him. Young men, old men; Catelyn can all but taste the power in the room. She has no intention of letting this go any further.

For Robb, she thinks, and opens her mouth.

“I will see her hanged,” Tywin thunders from his solar.

Cersei winces, her fingers tangling in her embroidery. Jaime is in the solar, straight-backed, and however much Cersei might have wished to be standing there beside him, when their father gets in such moods- the only thing to do is bear through it.

Whatever Catelyn Tully- no, Catelyn Stark- did, in the past afternoon, has left the castle aflutter. It has absolutely infuriated her father, and at the soonest possibility Cersei will shrink into the wall, will find out the exact words, the exact intonation.

But that will still take time, and all that she’s found out thus far is that the power the Lannisters had gained by coming so soon after the Northern forces has been effectively erased by Catelyn Stark’s actions this afternoon. That Catelyn Stark walked into a small council meeting, mobilized the Northern forces, released Jaime from the Kingsguard, and then claimed- something. Cersei still isn’t sure what, but it’s enough to have her father raging louder than she’d ever seen him.

“No woman has sat on the Iron Throne,” he snarls, just loud enough for Cersei to hear through the thick wood. “If the Tully wench thinks she deserves it, the Westerlands shall show her how wrong she is. I will see her hanged, don’t you think that I won’t!”

Oh, thinks Cersei, and it is admiration that has her lifting her brows- admiration, and shock. The sheer gall- if she’s gone and mobilized the Northern forces…

And, right on cue, her father all but shouts, “Go back to Casterly Rock! As if I were a particularly irritating gnat!”

Cersei bows her head, hiding both the smile and the surge of outrage.

Sheer gall, indeed.

The Northern forces had been weary of the south, left there for long months by Ned as he journeyed into Dorne. They’d been complaining, and each week it had been a little louder. Catelyn could not give them snow or their families, but she could give them work- and the Lannisters, for all that they had been a threat not quite a day ago, were still outnumbered three-to-one by Ned’s forces.

And it seemed that Northern men did nothing better than appear threatening.

Lyanna had gone to Howland Reed, and he’d done a remarkable job of presenting a hundred men the next morning, at least half of whom must have been sleeping off the wine from their excesses the night before. But the effect was startling; within three days of her entrance into the small council, she had a full, constantly rotating guard, and the City’s Guard had been temporarily disbanded- with the Northerners taking up those duties- and best of all, the Lannisters were being sent packing with alacrity.

She was, again, in Robb’s nursery, when Lyanna enters- though this time, the door isn’t bolted, so she entered easily. Catelyn doesn’t turn around until she hears an infant wail, until she realizes that Robb is still sleeping soundly.

In Lyanna’s arms is a small boy, hair North-dark, face a perfect echo of Lyanna herself.

“Oh,” says Catelyn, hand pressing to her chest unconsciously. “Oh, that’s what you meant.”

Lyanna arches an eyebrow. The boy roots around her chest, searching for food; when Catelyn nods, she locks the door behind her and slips her gown under her breast, feeding him with a sort of self-conscious grace.

“Your secret,” Catelyn elaborates, palms falling to grip Robb’s cradle. “The thing you’d keep from Tywin Lannister. It’s him, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Lyanna says, and that’s it.

Catelyn doesn’t know her- she’s a girl, just a girl; almost three years younger than Catelyn, with a war already fought in her name, with two brothers and a father dead to it, with a little son to show for her griefs. Catelyn doesn’t know her, and she trusts her even less, but Lyanna came to her when Catelyn was too tired to see the world, and Lyanna dragged her out to meet it. Catelyn knows next to nothing about her, but she rather thinks she wants to learn.

“He’s- who’s is he?”

Lyanna blinks up at her, and then her eyes dip away. “You can tell no one,” she says. “I will not- I will not let you hurt him.”

“I would never hurt children,” Catelyn says, horrified. “I would never, Lyanna, and I would hurt my nephew even less. I am a Tully, am I not?”

“You are a Stark,” Lyanna says, and there are no tears in her eyes, not even grief; just the awareness, Catelyn realizes, that she ought to feel sad- not sadness of itself. “Brandon would have dashed his head against stone and called it justice. You are a Stark, Catelyn- and surely you are no fool. He can be only one man’s son, don’t you see?”

And, abruptly, Catelyn does. Little wonder that Lyanna has hidden this son of hers if Catelyn’s suspicions are true. Even less surprising that she has been so careful; what is startling is that Lyanna has been able to do so very effectively, despite having so many eyes on her.

Oh, Catelyn has been a fool.

A Targaryen prince, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen; the only heir, now, to the North if Robb remains in King’s Landing. Catelyn looks over her shoulder at Robb, still asleep in his cradle, and then back at Lyanna, who is tracing her son with her eyes, hands cradling him as if he is the most precious thing she owns.

They are so young, the two of them, to be mothers and rulers.

But Lyanna is correct: Catelyn is a Stark, and she must be a wolf, here at the end of all things. No; there is no must.

Catelyn will be a wolf, and Westeros shall bend to her and Robb or they will face her claws.

“Of course I do,” says Catelyn, stepping forward, kneeling before Lyanna, hand coming up to brace the boy’s tiny head. She swallows, and smiles. “Why, I think his jaw might well be a replica of Arthur Dayne’s, wouldn’t you?”

Lyanna looks up at her, startled. Catelyn holds her eyes and waits, the knowledge weaving between them; after a moment, Lyanna smiles.

“Yes,” she says. “I would.”

When Ned raced the Lannisters to King’s Landing and won, he also claimed the Iron Throne. He sat on it, he crowned himself- Catelyn suspects, now, that the only reason he did so was to protect Elia Martell and the two children behind her. Ned Stark never wanted a crown, but he would have worn one to protect three innocents from an army of Lannisters galloping into King’s Landing.

It is not the only thing she suspects of her husband, but it is the thing she is most sure of.

He sent for her, after all of it, told her to bring Robb and come to King’s Landing, and she’s certain most of that is for Elia; brave, sharp Elia, who placed her son and daughter behind her and stepped between them, a shield as fragile as a pillar of salt; as strong as a mother’s rage.

The world called Elia weak. Catelyn had watched her son play with Robb, had seen the way Elia held Rhaenys close to her as if to save her; she’d watched, and she hadn’t known a single word for her but strong.

Not brave, not exactly, because bravery was hard to find in those who didn’t bear swords. But strength- that was an entirely different beast.

Weeks later, Doran Martell entered King’s Landing. After him came Mace Tyrell, and in another few weeks, Stannis Baratheon ought to follow. Catelyn’s own father will arrive in a fortnight, accompanying Lysa. They are trying to name a King, trying to find stability after overthrowing a dynasty.

Catelyn holds Robb tight and kneels in the sept and stares up at the stars, not sleeping. When the world gets overloud, she goes to the godswood and runs her hands against the rough bark, breathes in the cold, damp air. She has known loneliness, known fear- but back then, it was fear for others, the repercussions of their actions.

Now, it is fear for her own.

Fear, and the same, cold rage that had entered her as she spoke to the small council.

Catelyn speaks to Elia that afternoon. It is one of Elia’s better days; the bright sunlight doesn’t make her head hurt, and under it she looks lovely as a star. Rhaenys darts between them, offering vividly colored flowers in her fat fists, and Catelyn accepts so many that she starts braiding the stems together to form a crown.

“You are worried,” Elia says, after a long silence that Catelyn hasn’t been able to break.

Catelyn startles, and then sighs a laugh. “I have been worried,” she says. “I’ve been worried, and afraid, for so long- I think I’ve forgotten how not to be.” Her hands don’t twist the next stem so much as rip it apart, and she sets the flower away before she shreds it. “How do you do it?”

Elia looks at her, and the sunlight is bright in her eyes, like a candle’s flare. “We are women,” she replies, with a quick shrug of her shoulders. “Our inheritance is fear, is it not? We learn to move through it, I think. Because we cannot lose our lives to its mindlessness. Because we have too much to lose from keeping silent.”

“You’ve spent years keeping silent.”

“And when I saw your husband,” Elia murmurs, “I stood taller than I have ever stood before.” She leans forward, and her hand brushes Catelyn’s knee, light enough that it could have been mistaken for a stray wind. “Whatever your plans, I shall support them. And with me comes Dorne.”

“Just like that?” Catelyn asks, startled.

Elia smiles, simultaneously wry and warm. “You came to this city because your husband ordered it, and in all your days here you haven’t once been cruel to me or my children. Not even thoughtlessly cruel- and that takes much effort when our cultures are so different. I do not believe you mean us harm.”

“If Aegon tries to take Robb’s crown,” Catelyn begins, hating herself for even saying it.

“Then I will teach him that he is a fool,” Elia says calmly. “And I will teach him that his father was a good man, but a foolish man; that his inheritance is half madness and only half greatness. You have nothing to fear from him, that I promise you.”

“Dorne shall answer to you,” Catelyn tells her. “I do not care for whom the ruler is. But all summons from the Iron Throne shall be sent to you.” She smiles, watery and soft and real. “I shall miss you.”

“I shall not miss this place,” she says, looking around her. Then Elia smiles back at Catelyn, and takes the flower crown sitting abandoned between them, and places it on Rhaenys’ head when the dark-skinned girl runs close enough. “But I shall miss you, I think.”

The first thing Catelyn sees when the Tully forces enter King’s Landing is her sister’s hair, brighter than any banner. The second thing is blurred through her tears, but she’s already biting them back; it is her father’s gleaming bald pate. The laugh that comes from her throat is wavering.

She avoids Lyanna’s questioning glance and steps forwards, placing a gentle kiss against Lysa’s brow, then her father’s cheek.

“The Starks welcome you to King’s Landing,” she says, graciously. “Come, Father, Lysa- freshen up. We shall talk more once you’ve washed the dust off and rested.”

Catelyn leads them into the keep, and directs some men to take her father to the portion of the castle she’s had reserved for him and his bannermen. Lysa, of course, is placed close to her husband- close to the Arryn contingent, which is almost diametrically opposite the castle. She leads her sister there, personally.

In her rooms, Lysa can scarce hold onto her excitement. Catelyn is glad; when she’d left Riverrun, Lysa had been quiet, withdrawn, her eyes both sullen and yearning as she watched Robb. Here, however, she’s as flushed and alive as she hadn’t been before.

“Tell me everything,” she commands, as soon as the door closes behind them. Catelyn frowns, and Lysa’s voice turns slightly impatient. “You walked into a small council meeting, didn’t you? Everyone’s talking about it. What did you do, Cat? What did you say?”

“I- don’t understand,” says Catelyn, before sitting beside Lysa, tucking her feet under herself as if they are still children. “Who’s talking about it?”

“Everyone,” Lysa repeats. “The smallfolk. The bannermen. They’re calling you the- the- water wolf, I think, or something similar. The first woman to overrule a small council’s decisions in almost a hundred years, as powerful as Alysanne herself- and she was a dragonrider! You’re just the widow of a man who barely sat the Iron Throne for a month before heading south in search of his sister; and here you are, claiming the throne for yourself.”

“For my son,” Catelyn corrects, gently. “And my husband may be dead, Lysa, but he was a good man. I haven’t claimed this throne for myself.”

Lysa’s eyes narrow. “But you’re going to name yourself regent, aren’t you?”

Catelyn gazes into her palms, and doesn’t tremble even an inch. Robb deserves to sit on the Iron Throne, and she will do all she can to give him that. The only person she trusts to protect her son is herself; the things that happen, the atrocities that occur, when such power is at stake are well documented in Westeros’ history.

“You are,” Lysa whispers, blue eyes wide. “You’re going to- oh my gods, Catelyn! Father’s going to be furious. Everyone is going to be- they’re going to be so angry.”

“I know,” says Catelyn. “But I cannot trust them to do this. I cannot trust them to love my son enough to give up the Iron Throne for him, and it is for Robb that I’m doing this.”

“You’re going to need help,” Lysa says lowly. “All the help you can get.”

Catelyn nods, wordless, and then says, quietly, “I will. From you the most, I think.”

“From me?”

“Yes. Because you will go to the Vale,” Catelyn tells her, “and all the correspondence from the Iron Throne shall be addressed to you. I do not know Jon Arryn; I have never known him. But you are my sister, Lysa, and there are few people I trust more. I am asking you to rule a realm.”

Her sister is pale, her eyes wide. The number of times she has been asked to be responsible for something can be counted on one hand, and here Catelyn is, asking for more than anyone else. Catelyn waits out her surprise, and then her wariness, and then her fear- she waits, patient and unyielding, and is rewarded when Lysa turns to her, excitement and acceptance sparking in her eyes.

“Yes,” she says, and Catelyn reaches out to embrace her tightly.

“You are my daughter,” Hoster says, quietly. “But surely you must see that a woman cannot sit the Iron Throne.”

“Not even for her son?” Catelyn asks.

She had not wanted to have this conversation, but it is necessary. And in the end he is her father. Catelyn feels a twinge of guilt of the room in which she has chosen to speak to him- the room closest to Robb’s nursery, small and sunlit and furnished with a large table across which she now speaks to him- but it is small, and the defensive slant of her shoulders is easier missed when blinded by sunlight.

“Cat,” he sighs.

Catelyn remembers the weight of Elia’s hand on her thigh, the blaze in Lyanna’s eyes, the life in Lysa’s cheeks. She looks at her father and thinks, you have no idea what power we women have.

“I will not let my son become a pawn in other’s games,” she tells him. “I will love Robb until the day I die. And I will do all that I can to protect him. What guarantee do I have that the man who sits the Iron Throne will do the same?” She shakes her head. “Stay,” Catelyn says, and though in her head it sounds like a plea, it comes out as an order. “Be the Hand of the King. I need you, Father. Robb and I both need you.”

Hoster watches her, and then looks away. Catelyn waits, more patient than she’d ever been with her sister.

Finally, he nods.

“We are family,” he says, and breaks into a smile. “It an honor to serve my duty, Daughter.”

Catelyn smiles, too, and it is relief that curls down her spine.

Elia to the south, Lyanna to the north, Lysa to the east.

Catelyn swallows all her bile and all her fear and smiles at Cersei when she enters the room. The other woman is lovely, lovelier than Catelyn ever will be. The wariness in her eyes is thick enough to cut with a knife.

“If I sent you back to Casterly Rock,” she says, “would you be happy?”

Cersei blinks, thrown. “I don’t- what are you talking about?”

“You do not like court.” Catelyn tips her head to the side. “I shall extend the same offer I gave to Lyanna Stark and Elia Martell and my sister: go home, and rule over your realm.”

“I’m not certain what realm you speak of,” Cersei says, “but my father will never let me rule over the Westerlands, not for anything.”

“If all the ravens sent to the Westerlands from the Iron Throne are addressed to you,” Catelyn murmurs, “how do you think he can stop you?”

Cersei pauses. “He will find a way,” she says, but it is unsure, faltering.

Catelyn smiles, thin and wide as a wolf’s snarl. “Then I recommend that you stop him, for you are to be my Wardeness of the West. You are a lion, are you not? Do not find meekness now, Lady Cersei.”

It is a long silence, the one that stretches out between them, but Catelyn is content not to break it. Cersei doesn’t smile, or give in as Hoster and Lysa did; but when she flips her hair over her shoulder and nods, the razor-sharp flare of greed in them is as good as any other answer.

“I shall ready my bags,” she says.

“Of course,” says Catelyn, lips kicking up wryly. “And, Lady Cersei?” Cersei pauses and turns, and Catelyn lets herself nod coolly. “Your father might not rage at you if you were to tell him that the Queen told you to leave.”

Queen, Catelyn said, not Queen Regent.

Cersei’s eyes widen, and then she nods, once, spearing through air as if a bird’s beak. When she leaves, Catelyn sinks against the wooden chair and rubs her face.

Elia to the south, Lyanna to the north, Lysa to the east.

And, now: Cersei to the west.

She has a long, hard struggle ahead of her.

Catelyn knows this. It is a stitch in her side, a phantom pain that only rears its head when shifted the wrong way. It’s going to be difficult, and if she isn’t careful, it will be impossible- but then, no woman has ever spoken to the small council as she has, and even that had once been named impossible. She has already done has been named impossible before, and she’s done it without even thinking on the impossibility of it.

And there are years ahead of her; Robb is still a babe, barely walking on his own feet. Catelyn has years to forge this new kingdom out of the Targaryens’ ashes, with the unconditional support of at least three of the seven kingdoms: the North, and the Riverlands, from her marriage and her blood; and then Dorne, from her kindness.

If lords rebel- no. Not if, but when.

When lords rebel, she will hold to her strength. They can rebel, and rage, and scream; but in the end, they will bend the knee to her and to her son. Catelyn will bear down on them if they don’t with every ounce of river-tempered ice-fury she can, because she is a Tully and a Stark and a mother of wolves and a bride of winter.

She will forge a kingdom, and it will survive. She will make a mark on Westeros as deep and abiding as Aegon the Conqueror’s, because anything less will not be enough to protect her son.

The crown they place on her hair is bronze, as the Kings of Winter once wore, with red and blue stones for her Tully heritage.

The throne room is full, and Catelyn walks into it calmly, evenly, precise as a sword thrust. As she walks up to the throne, she watches her court watch her; the greed, the envy, the awe. These are the men and women who would kill her and her son to advance their ambitions. These are the people Catelyn rules over.

Sunlight spills across the floor, and it lights the throne like a spotlight. Catelyn seats herself against the swords carefully, and the blades seem almost to welcome her. When she lifts her head, the light blinds her.

She has never wanted a throne, she thinks, suddenly; Catelyn never wanted to be a queen, nor a ruler. Now she is both, and it is more bittersweet and fearful than she’d ever imagined.

For Robb, Catelyn thinks then, and straightens her spine, presses her lips together, nods to the High Septon beside her. My son shall survive.

“Long live the Queen,” they cry, and it is heard across the city; across the realm; across the continent. “Long live the Queen,” they cry, and watch history make itself. “Long live the Queen,” they cry; and soon, soon enough, do not name it a novelty.

“Long live the Queen,” they cry, and a woman who is also a widow, who is also a mother, becomes something more.

She lifts her chin, proudly. There is a crown braided into her hair, a son at her hip, seven kingdoms watching to see her falter. Catelyn straightens her back, and becomes the queen she’d never imagined herself to be.

(For another five hundred years, Starks rule Westeros.)