I'll dress you all in yellow silk
and on your head a crown.
The stars were guttering out, like the fires by the soldiers' tents. The sky was a sheet of fading colors bleeding lackluster into one another, moldy peaches and sallow yellows, above them greying streaks of navy and indigo.
Catelyn Stark stood, bareheaded and alone, on the bridge that had given the castle its name. Beneath the ancient stones, the Mander flowed cold and swift. Bitterbridge - ah but that had not always been its name. Nigh on three hundred years before, Wat the Hewer's men had been slain on this very bridge, ambushed by six lordly hosts. Nine thousand Poor Fellows, simple men who had left their ploughshares for cracked begging bowls, armed only in brown homespun and their faith militant. The river had run red for a year and a day, so the stories said. Catelyn did not believe that. What she did know was that each of those six proud lords, down to the last man of them, had died within the year. Their deaths had been as grievous as they were untimely.
No man can rend asunder what the gods have given, not without a reckoning. Renly Baratheon, who would have gone to his brother's slaughter on the morrow, had been dead three hours.
Part of her had no other wish but to mount her horse and ride swiftly away, away from the carnage that must surely follow. Another part, the part that had been Hoster Tully's daughter before Ned Stark's wife, cautioned prudence. A king's death, even of one without a throne, was always followed by reckoning of some form or the other, whether for good or ill.
Knowledge is power, she thought, remembering what Petyr had liked to say. And I can do more for Robb by waiting out this day than by taking tail like a scorched cat.
Her men though, she had cautioned them to be ready to ride at a moment's notice and to keep her palfrey saddled. Prudence cut two ways. They had not liked waiting a moment longer than necessary - they were northmen, of course they had not - but they had not grumbled.
A gangly squire, his livery stamped with golden roses, approached her. "Lady Stark?" he asked, bowing. "I am Alyn Ambrose. If you would please, a lady would like to speak to you. I would direct you to her apartments."
"A lady?" she asked sharply. "And which lady would that be?"
The boy, who looked to be in his early teens, was clearly uncomfortable with her question. He glanced this way and that, to make sure there was no one about, and leaning towards her, whispered a name. Catelyn's brow furrowed but after a moment, she nodded and let him escort her to the castle.
The major part of Renly's host had camped out in the fields around the castle. Even the king and his queen had bedded down in tents. Luxuriously accommodated, true, but tents all the same. But the queen's grandmother, on account of her years, had been hosted in Lord Caswell's castle. An eerie calm reigned in keep and bailey, few servingmen and maids about at this hour. On an ordinary day there would have been a small army of them around, banking up the fires, sweeping the rushes, emptying the pisspots, serving breakfast.
Catelyn felt as though she was walking into an ambush. Uneasily, she drew her furred cloak tighter about her. "Where are they all?" she asked, her voice muted to match the silence.
The Ambrose boy said, in all seriousness, "Hiding, my lady, I think. I would too if I could."
Olenna Tyrell's quarters were on the first floor, easy to reach for an old woman. Her guardsmen, stalwart six-footers, were at her door but they let her and the squire pass through without a murmur. Clearly she was expected. The antechamber was empty, the tapers worn down to putty. The fire in the main chamber was more ashes than embers and Lady Olenna sat by it, rocking herself in a wicker-chair and nursing a flute of wine.
"See to the fire, there's a good lad. And show yourself out as soon as you're done," she bade the squire peremptorily and rising, she curled a small, clawed hand around Catelyn's arm. "Come, my lady, we have much to speak of and not much time to speak it."
There was a small repast set out at a table by the window - figs, sugared almonds, bread and cheese and wine. Lady Olenna poured out the wine herself and smeared cheese on a loaf with her own knife, handing both to Catelyn with a busy air. "Sit, child," she said curtly and Catelyn would have been amused, if she were not so tense. She had not been called a child for many years, not since she had last been at Riverrun - and that had been almost fifteen years ago. Robb was nursing at my breast then. "You look as though you could eat a bull, madam. My bread's not poisoned, nor my wine, so eat up."
Catelyn took a cautious sip of the wine. Arbor gold, the sweetness melting on her tongue like honey from the meadows. Drawn no doubt from Olenna Tyrell's own casks - only the best would do for her.
"So," Lady Olenna said, without preamble, "That boy playing king is dead and my queenly granddaughter is a widow, just as you are and just as I am." She grimaced. "Widowhood sits poorly with you, Lady Stark, but it would sit even worse with a girl of my granddaughter's tender years. Margaery and Loras might weep for fair Renly but their father will weep for her crown. Stannis Baratheon has a queen and so will Joffrey, the moment your daughter flowers." Lady Olenna pinned her in place with a piercing eye. "Your son though, I hear he is unattached."
"You have heard wrongly then," Catelyn said calmly. "He is betrothed to Lord Frey's daughter."
"Oh? Which one?"
"The one he chooses," Catelyn said. "It was the price we paid to cross the Twins."
Olenna snorted. "My lady, with all due respect, you would make a very poor fishwife if the gods ever called you to it. Have you ever bargained? No, don't wrinkle your dainty nose at me, a thousand years ago your Tully grandfathers were fishermen on the river."
Just as you Tyrells were stewards and peasants. And the Redwynes were, and still are, wine-mercers. Catelyn let the unspoken words curdle between them but she held her peace.
"A king for a crossing. The richest toll that the weasel will ever collect. Walder Frey will not hold you to it, I am sure - not if we can come to other, more suitable arrangements. A queen for a king." Her lips curved into a smile and briskly, without giving Catelyn time to think, she added, "But surely you would want to see the grieving widow for yourself?"
"No, that will not be necessary," Catelyn said, with an air of feigned coolness. It did not deceive the Queen of Thorns she was sure. Her mind was racing with the sudden ramifications of Olenna's offer. "I am sure your granddaughter is distraught."
"She's asleep," Olenna snorted. "She's a healthy girl, my Margaery, eats and sleeps like clockwork. She's your son's age too, down to a few months - born while her father was laying siege to Stannis' castle. Pretty, if I do say so myself, a good pair of birthing hips. A maiden too, as Stannis bellowed for all the world to hear yesterday. And her dowry is generous - ten thousand spears and the gold of Highgarden against a crown for a Tyrell girl."
"A poor crown measured to the one she wore before," Catelyn said, measuring Olenna, "My son is only King in the North and as a southroner must know, the North is rock and ice and barrenness."
"My good woman, what else are you his mother for but to guide him?" Olenna said with a shade of impatience. "My own son is greying, with grown sons of his own, but he knows when to listen to his mam. Yours is scarcely out of tailclouts."
"I had no wish for war." Catelyn looked away. "Not even to avenge Ned, though I loved him dearly. War only brings bitterness. My son only wants what is his, he has no wish to reach for a hollow crown that will never bring him happiness."
Olenna said nothing, letting the moment drag out. Finally she said, her voice like flint, "Within the hour, Renly's levies will melt away like summer snow. Some back to their own lands with their tails between their legs. A handful, those whose lands skirt the Crownlands, will clamber over each other like crabs in the net to swear their fealty to Joffrey. But the greater part will turn to Stannis. Loras and Margaery and I are bound for Highgarden. No doubt my son will offer Margaery to Joffrey, if he will have her. Two kings will benefit from this day's bloody business and neither will be your son. Robb Stark will be crushed between them like grain between the mortar and pestle.
Renly might have been content to leave him be but Joffrey and Stannis will not, you can be sure of that. Once they have offed each other, the victor will turn to your son and swat him like a troublesome gnat. Your girls in King's Landing will be dead by then - who would suffer a traitor's discarded daughters to live? Your boys in the north will be your consolation - if they are not taken away from you as hostages and if they are not slaughtered before they come to manhood. Sons of a traitor, brothers of a traitor - best nip the wolves while they're still pups, eh? But of course that will all be of your choosing, my lady. May it bring you much joy."
A girl was coming down the stairs. In her white gown, with her hair loose and without her crown Margaery Tyrell looked like the girl she was. Only fifteen. She wore a grave expression and seeing Catelyn, sank into a curtsey. "Lady Stark," she said, without a flicker of hesitation, "I am pleased to see you. I apologize for my state of dress. May I offer you something else to drink? Hippocrass, summerwine..."
Catelyn tried to compare her with the cowed and sullen girls she had seen in Walder Frey's hall and could not.
"Lady Stark was just leaving," Olenna said curtly, "Go back to bed, girl, you'll have botheration enough soon."
Catelyn took a sip of the wine. "No, my lady. I think I will stay."
Lady Olenna's thin brows rose by a fraction. "Margaery, my love," she said over her shoulder, "be so good as to summon your brother and Lord Tarly for me. Oh, and ink and paper and a maester. And put on the darkest gown you have and sit with us once you're done - you must make up for the brevity of your widowhood with the blackest mourning you have."
"We shall have another wedding soon, wait and see. Margaery will marry Tommen. She'll keep her queenly crown and her maidenhead, neither of which she especially wants, but what does that matter? The great western alliance will be preserved… for a time, at least."
The noontime sun blazed white-hot on the castle roof, cooking her in her heavy widow's weeds just as it would a man in armor. Sweat soaked her armpits and crawled down her face and back in salty tendrils. She licked her cracked lips and shading her eyes with a hand, looked down at the flat plains.
The keep was not tall, but the low land around it made it seem higher. From here she could see the Mander, bright as a mirror, where it met the Roseroad. Already, as her grandmother had predicted, Renly's armies had begun to trickle away. And the trickle will rise to a flood if we do not make our own arrangements. They had been lucky in that only the Stormlords had begun to leave, and few of them at that. Not many were bound by loyalty to Stannis, fewer still by love as they had been to Renly. Most, more cunning and cautious, would wait the day out, circling like buzzards over carrion for what pickings they could claim before fleeing.
Lord Tarly held the men of the Reach, her father's men. He had knelt to her grandmother as though she were a queen herself, and sworn that while there was breath in his body he would hold his lord's levies in his absence. Her grandmother had thanked him graciously and made Margaery, suitably clad as befitted a young widow, do the same. All through the long hours of that morning she had sat, wedged between her grandmother and Lady Stark, and tried to be attentive, as was expected of her, while armed men flitted through their apartments.
But she could not and at the end it had been Lady Stark who sensed her distress and sent her to take the air. Grandmother had not been best pleased, she would have expected her to deflect the suggestion - a queen's place is in the council chamber, Margaery, not the nursery or the bedroom - but she had gladly accepted the excuse to flee. The roof, seldom visited, was her refuge and she took a savage joy in melting under the sun till her face and gown were nowhere near presentable.
"I loved him," she told the heat-hazed air and it was the truth, though her grandmother would be disappointed to hear. How often had she told her that love for a man or a babe at the breast was a futile, joyless endeavor? There was only one love that could stand the test of time and that was love for gold or love for a crown. "I loved him since I was eight."
How could she not love Renly Baratheon? The first time her father had hosted him at Highgarden, he had come to take Loras, nearly ten then, to be fostered in his household as a squire. He had been in his late teens then, as strange and lovely as a mirage. He had sung of Serwyn the Mirror Knight to her and plucked peaches for her from the orchard with his own hands. He was Lord of the Stormlands, had been since he was Loras' age, and that night, at bedtime, her mother had told her of the white marble castle, twined with ivy and roses and set by the sea, that he ruled.
Her mother had always wanted her to marry Renly. Her father had other plans though - the Lannister queen was old and despised, her sons little-loved. She had not borne a child for seven years. And Margaery looked like Lyanna Stark, or so her father was deluded enough to believe...
And now they would marry her to another king. A fearsome northern boy who rode with a man-slaying direwolf, the son of a cold-eyed, brusque woman whom her grandmother privately called a proud fool. And when he is dead, they will marry me to another king, she thought. She had wept out all her tears in her bedroom, when her grandmother had bidden her sleep. She had been listening in when Lady Stark had met her grandmother, as she had been instructed, and arrived on cue at the perfect moment.
How could any mother resist you for her son, sweetling? When she begins to balk, you will sweep in. her grandmother had said, patting her cheek. You will wear white and leave your hair loose, like a maid on her wedding day. Dry those eyes now, suck a sweet and look the part of the bereaved widow. But not too bereaved. Don't fret. He's your age, he's a charming boy I'm sure. You'll be a happy bride again. Soon.
But she wouldn't. Renly had been her love, though he would never have loved her as she wanted him to. Sometimes she had hated Loras for stealing him away from her, for never giving him a chance with her. No, she thought, feeling guilty, remembering the hollow blank of Loras' face, the way he had shed no tears even when she had folded him in her arms and begged him to cry with her. No, I would never want to love Renly as much as he did. Not Renly, not anyone. Love is poison, just like grandmother said.
Her golden crown, with the roses twining round the antlers, had been packed away in a coffer - to be melted down in time. Her wedding ring and signet band, with Renly's seal, had been locked away too. But her grandmother had not seen her slip her troth ring out of the chest. It was a plain band of rose-gold, slipped on her finger only a few months ago, in her mother's solar at Highgarden. Loras had been the first to kiss her afterwards, no bitterness in his face, only joy for his sister and his lover. It was a little loose for her finger and only later had she figured out that it had originally been Loras', gifted by Renly himself on the day he had won his knighthood.
Ever thine, ever mine, it said. If Loras ever asked her what had happened to it, she would tell him to ask their grandmother. He wouldn't dare.
The day was hot but she felt cold all over. Sliding the band over her finger she gathered all the force in her arm and flung it over the battlements. For a moment it winked in the sunlight, as bright as her girlish dreams, and then it was gone forever.
Like barley bending and rising again,
So would I, unbroken, rise from pain.
Stars studded the darkness and whispers, like strings of little wildfires, raced through the camp. A fair-haired maid, her advances spurned by Lord Renly, had slain the king with a poisoned cup of wine. The king had choked while eating the self-same peach he had mocked his brother with, that very morning. The Lannister queen had sent a Faceless Man to dispatch of him. His brother's sorceress had summoned a shadow to throttle the life-force from him, while he prayed alone in his pavilion.
"Which story should we spread, m'lady?" a drab little man in boiled leather and homespun asked her. A peacock of a singer stood next to him, in gaily-dyed but patched robes, strumming a lyre lightly.
"The last," Olenna said. "Cersei Lannister is leagues away but Stannis Baratheon is here. She will never win the Stormlords to her cause easily and besides, they say that she lay with her brother to bear her children. Stannis however... the gods will not stand a man who would kill his own brother. Make sure you point that out. Quote from the Seven Pointed Star if you must." As Renly would have killed his brother on the morrow, but no one will remember that.
"Just as you say, m'lady," the men said in unison.
Good thing I insisted on coming to Bitterbridge. Mace and Alerie had tried to cozen her out of it, relentless in their inveighing. It was too far, she was too old, it was too dangerous, who would give her the care and attention she required? I've never seen a battle with my own eyes though I've lived through too many. Catelyn Stark was writing to her son, Margaery to her mother. Within the hour, the ravens would go west and south with their letters and within the hour, she hoped to bring Loras back to his senses.
"Come," she told Arryk - or is it Erryk? Dear, dear, she never could remember - briskly. "No good in waiting, what's done must be done." Pinning her cloak with her emerald brooch, she let the guardsman hoist her up in the saddle. They were riding for the village hard by the castle. While Bitterbridge was shrouded in a silence as deep as that in a fairy story, the camp was writhing with tension and whispers. The air was thick as lard, waiting to be cut through with a sword or a scream.
And so it begins again.
In the sept at Highgarden, the walls were stained glass, colored sunlight streaming through them and fracturing into a thousand patterns on polished oak in the daytime. In the village sept, the seven walls were crooked and cracked, spotted with lichen. In the sept at Highgarden, the gods were gold and silver, their ivory altars winking with fragrant candles. In the village sept, the gods were faces drawn on the walls in chalk, with nothing of grace or beauty to recommend them.
Of all her grandchildren, Olenna reflected, she was the least close to Loras. Willas and Margaery had been reared under her eye, Garlan fostered close by at Cider Hall by with the Fossoways, with her Janna to look after him. But ever since he was ten, Loras had lived in the Stormlands, seeing his family only once a year - if that. Renly was his lover, his brother, his father, all together, by then.
Loras had brought a candle of his own, to set beneath the Stranger's face. She found him kneeling in the dirt - Alerie's proud, pretty boy who would have a thousand blooming forget-me-nots sewn into the velvet nap of his cloak for tourneys. She dropped the hood of her cloak and said quietly, "You should have stayed in the castle. They have a sept there too." Her heart ached for her grandson, but her voice was measured and even.
"I can take care of myself, lady grandmother," Loras said coldly, patting the sword at his side.
"I do not doubt that, so you needn't be waving that big stick of yours at me." It was too dark to make out, but she had no doubt that he was glowering at her. Young men were all alike - unless it had a tight cunny, or in Loras' case, a thick cock, they had no time for it.
"Have you come to spy on me?" he gritted out.
"Hardly," she said, "you're not a prince to be guarded or a pup to be watched - or are you? No, I came to make my own peace with the gods as any old woman might." And to demonstrate, she set her own beeswax taper, as thick as a man's forearm, before the Warrior. Taking out her embroidered prayer cushion from her bag, to save her gown from the dirt, she knelt and gabbled her prayers in her head.
As she prayed, her thoughts inexplicably drifted to Prince Daeron. She had not thought of him for many a long year. Of how the sept at the Arbor had smelt of cinnamon and spices on her ninth nameday, of all eyes on her and how Queen Betha had smiled at her. Of Daeron Targaryen's high childish voice as he slipped the troth ring over her finger and promised to forsake all others for her. Even then she had thought him too beautiful to be real - and the same thought had struck her when she had seen Renly. You might not think much of Catelyn Tully's boy, Margaery my girl, but you'd rather have him than some of the monsters that were offered to me.
It had been a stroke of luck that Luthor Tyrell had fallen in lust with her, her sister, who had been chosen as Luthor's bride after Princess Shaera shunned him for her brother Jaehaerys, spitefully said. What she did not know was that it had not been luck at all, only Olenna herself. Oh I was good, I was very good.
Finishing her prayers to her own satisfaction, Olenna rose and settled her cushion neatly inside her bag. "Would you care to walk with your grandmother, Loras?" she asked, with a quaver in her voice. To her surprise, the boy rose without a murmur - she had expected a fight of some sort, but then the idea of being alone in the dark little sept with only his thoughts for comfort was too daunting even for him.
She took the boy's arm and they walked out a little ways from the horses and the groomsmen, on the still, dark moor. He was sixteen years old, the most beautiful of Mace and Alerie's children, and he towered over her like a giant.
"I remember your birth as though it was only yesterday," she said softly, "It was the Year of the False Spring, the year that Rhaegar Targaryen crowned the Stark girl at Harrenhal. I dabbed salt and honey on your toothless gums myself, so that you would know only the sweet things in life thereafter. I brought you to your mother. She was fit to burst with joy - three sons in a row. Her mother had borne only one and so had I - what a triumph for her. Garlan, bless his little heart, was more interested in the new blocks your father promised him but Willas adored you. He was big enough to understand then, he loved to rock you when we let him. Such a gentle little boy he was, still is, - but of course Margaery was his pet."
"I grieve for you, my darling love," she said, reaching up to stroke his face with soft, worn fingers. "I never had anyone to love before you children - I was too hard. Cold as a crypt, my own sister said of me. I never loved my girls that well, I was always too hard on them though they were good daughters to me and craved for my love. As for your father - well he's an oaf and it's a weary business loving him, just as it was loving Luthor. I cannot tell you what it feels like to lose someone you loved, because I never have, not yet. With luck, I will not survive you four. That is what I pray for - that I will not survive my grandchildren. I love you too much."
"Grandmother." He squeezed her fingers, relenting somewhat.
"Will I though?" Olenna smiled crookedly. "Aerys Targaryen did not. He lost his grandson and granddaughter in the war and there is another war brewing over us now. Catelyn Stark says that she does not want vengeance for her Ned, but those are the words of a fool or a liar. Your sister is still a child, she does not want another crown or another husband though Robb Stark is as good as anyone. And you, Loras? What do you want, now that Renly is dead?"
"Vengeance," the boy said, his hands brushing his sword-hilt. "Stannis' head."
"You will have both," she promised him, "as soon as your sister has a crown."
A/N: Book!Margaery and TV!Margaery are very different for me. TV!Margaery looks like she's in her mid-twenties, a schemer through and through. Book!Margaery is in her early teens, still relatively innocent and unspoiled - at least in A Clash of Kings. I always thought she had a crush on Renly, no matter what Olenna warned her, and was very sad - if not devastated - when he died.