"Robert for king!"
"The bloody wall will melt before I'll bend the knee to that lack-wit boy!"
"Watch your tongue Umber!"
"Or what Carron?"
"I'm with Jon! Lord Eddard for King!"
"Lord Robert has the claim!"
"The only thing Robert Baratheon can claim is the itch that fishermen's wife gave his cock at Stony Sept!"
As the young slender youth exited the overcrowded small council chamber there was roar of laughter from many and a few protests at the jape the young man's bannerman made.
His shoulders slunk as his boots scrapped the polished floor of the Red Keep. He had never seen the capital before. He had heard of it from his father and Brandon. They had gone twice, once when Prince Rheagar was born and then with Prince Viserys. Even Robert and old Jon had been here more than once.
But this was Eddard Stark's first time in the castle. Maybe if he had been here when the Targaryen's where still ruling than it might have been more majestic, mean more to walk its halls as Maegor's conqueror. But the grand red fortress was nothing more than just another castle he took, one more hollow victory. None of this will matter till Lyanna was in his arms again, till she was safe back at Winterfell, with him.
He knew that Robert would want to marry her the minute she was to safety, but things have changed. The man that Eddard's father thought his daughter was going to marry when they made the pack was not the man who stared at the bodies of two dead babes and their mother wrapped in crimson cloaks and nodded in approval.
Eddard Stark swore a vow not a fortnight ago that Lyanna would never be his wife. Whatever pact or holy bond Robert had with the Stark's it died with Princess Elia and her children.
"Anything I can do for you my lord?"
Jory Cassel was a good squire and a good lad to have in the thick of the fight. At fifteen, he was only several years younger than him but there was not a better sword north of the Neck.
The young knight rubbed his shoulder tiredly. "No, no thank you, Jory." He commented walking down the corridor and out into the throne room. It was dark inside the expansive hall. The Lannister massacre of the entire castle from landed knight to scrubbing woman left the castle understaffed. Meaning there was hardly anyone to light the torches in the throne room.
"There's a lot of yelling in there my lord …" Jory pointed out at they walked down the steps.
Ned noticed that the boy's stare was constantly drawn to the iron throne that sat high in the room. Outside the moonlight was spilling through the stain glass reflecting odd shapes and colors on the floor and giving the old melted swords a glint as they paced away.
Ned snorted. "Word of advice, when they say "Lords' Convention" what they really mean is old men yelling and shaking family trees at one another." He laughed.
"Your name came up quite a bit my lord" the squire pointed out.
A groan escaped his throat. "I didn't come down here to win a crown …" he said sternly, a little too stern it seemed judging by Jory's cautious steps afterward.
He stopped at the entrance and placed his hand over his face and sighed tiredly. Across the hall Great Jon Umber's voice was ringing clear as day.
"AND WHERE DO YOU SUPPOSED YOU CAN STICK YOUR LANNISTER GOLD, SER KEVIN?"
He heard Jory chuckle under his breath.
Ned looked up at the youth, there must have been something his eyes, because the boy went silent the minute they fell on him.
"I'm sorry, my lord …" He cleared his throat.
With a sigh, Ned shook his head. "No, don't apologize … gods know someone needs to have their spirits up." He clapped a hand on his squire's shoulder and shook him friendly.
Jory nodded. "I don't blame you; I'm worried about her too." He empathized.
There was something about the statement that made him pause. He sometimes forgot that he hadn't been home but once in many years. He hadn't thought that many of his bannermen and their children probably knew his sweet sister better these days than he did.
He could see her in his head, her long brunet curls and slender body dancing around laughing, playing keep away with his helmet as he chased her through the great hall. Her brown eyes how they looked so soft and gentle as she listened to Rheagar sing at Harrenhal. Suddenly an anxiousness welled in his chest as he listened to the arguing over who should take the crown. Ned could hear his own words echoing in his mind.
"I didn't come down here to win a crown."
"We're wasting time."
"My lord?" Jory broke his concentration.
Ned rubbed his stubble thoughtfully. "When that mummers farce is done in there, tell the boys, Ser Brynden Tully, and his command that we're moving out on the morrow." He ordered walking away.
"Aye, my lord … but where are we going?"
"The Tyrell's are besieging Storms End, I intend to end this war … then we go to Dorne"
"What's in Dorne my lord?"
Without turning around he answered over the echoes of his footfalls.
"Three members of the Kingsguard are missing … it's time we find them."
This was a place where a Stark could be a Stark.
The garden was beautiful at night and peaceful. Amongst the flowers and roses grown around the stone walkways toward the Heart tree, millions of fireflies circled the rose buds and vines that interwove through the stone. There was a peaceful sloshing of a fountain that sat in the middle of the path with a circular bench surrounding it.
Out of all the places in the two hundred and fifty year old city, it wasn't the Sept of Baelor, or the old dragon skulls, not even the iron throne, it was the god's wood that Ned was most taken with.
Walking past the glowing bugs and the rain of cherry blossoms carried on the warm southern wind of the night; it was hard for there not to be a moment of peace inside his chest.
Stopping in front of the fountain he looked into the serene sloshing water and stuck his hand inside, surprised at the coolness of it despite its exposer to the heat of the day. Blossoms tickled his face as they floated by.
His mind was suddenly a million miles away. Back north to Riverrun, back to a wife he knew only through Brandon's ravens. It was hard not to remember the day he met Catelyn Tully for the first time in her black silk gown with the skirts ripped in mourning. She had been crying according to her sister Lysa, who looked just as miserable as Catelyn did but for completely different reasons.
Everything about their wedding day was forced, from the breakfast, to the ceremony where they couldn't seem to synch their glances with each other or find the right head incline for their first kiss. Then at the feast he truly felt bad for his wife when Lord Holster Tully kept pushing Catelyn to do things for Ned, as if to show him what he married wasn't defective. Then when he bedded her that night …
Ned shook his head and for a moment. He could still hear her quiet sobs when they were done. Both apologized to one another afterward, Brandon was too fresh for both of them and it just didn't seem right. Rather than sleep, he took a seat on the balcony and looked out over the river, his wife in his lap. Together they gradually got use to one another's company.
"It wasn't meant to be like this …"
Removing his hand out of the water he walked slowly to the stone bench near the fountain and lay back on it without a thought. Placing a hand behind his head he looked up at the fields of twinkling stars, like a million perfect snowflakes on a Night's Watch banner.
"You look like a fish my uncle Gerion caught once …"
The exquisitely beautiful face of a girl with long blond locks blocking the moon above him took Ned by surprise. He was startled that someone had been sitting on the bench the whole time and he had failed to notice them. His head was so near to a pink silk skirt he was nearly inches from laying his head on her lap.
Ned sat up quickly and cleared his throat. "I'm sorry … Lady Cersei, I didn't see you there." He addressed Lord Tywin Lannister's eldest child by seconds and only daughter.
The girl gave a sly grin and bright a sack of wine up to her mouth to drink. "That was the point …" She replied taking a gulp.
Ned had seen her once already. When he and Ser Brynden Tully arrived at the newly captured stronghold he had caught sight of a beautiful maiden with golden hair watching him. She had been surrounded by Lannister guardsmen when he reined up. When she watched him with those bright green eyes as he sat above her eight feet high there was something in them that held his gaze. It was a true moment in time when it seemed there was nothing but the two of them in the burning city.
Since then he hadn't seen her. Lord Tywin kept her and Jaime out of sight and under guard. The caution that a bloody battle could erupt between his men and the Lannister army was always on the back of everyone's mind, ever since the murder of Rheagar's children.
"What are you doing out here?" He asked looking around.
She studied him with cool annoyance. "Getting drunk, I thought it would be quite obvious, my lord." Her voice sounded slightly slurred with condescendence like she's been talking down to high lords her entire life.
There was something about the way she addressed him that produced a chuckle and a shake of his head.
"Do you find me funny, Lord Stark?" She asked perplexed taking another drink from the wine skin.
He began to laugh again, this time bowing his head in his hands. The girl made a noise through her nose as she swallowed down the wine with an unlady like gulp.
"Maybe I should sell my title, forsake my family, and join a mummer's troop …" She replied in annoyance, but for reasons unknown there was a smile on her face that only his laugh could bring out of her.
Ned sighed and scrubbed his face. "Forgive me my lady … it's just my title." He returned his gaze to her as she watched with interest.
Cersei lifted an eyebrow. "Yes?" She asked.
Ned looked at the fountain listening to the water slosh. "I've heard it a thousand times … but I never thought that it would be me that people would be addressing." He snorted. "There're times when someone calls me "Lord Stark" and I … I call out for father, or move to push Bran for his attention … but, uh, they're not there." He shook his head and sighed sadly.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder. He found green eyes studying him with a glint of sympathy. In Cersei's other hand she offered him her wine skin. It had been no secret what had happened to his father and Brandon only several months earlier and even then her twin brother had actually been in the room when it happened. Somehow Eddard Stark figured she probably knew more about the incident than he did.
He gave her a nod and took the wine skin from her, their hands brushing slightly. For a moment they paused and stared. "Thank you …" He cleared his throat apologetically and swigged, closing his eyes. He felt the burn on the way down, it was a good tingle and it seemed to settle his nerves. He sighed and opened his eyes watching the moon reflected on the rippling dark water of the fountain.
When he turned he found that Cersei was still watching him, her eyes never left. They seemed to sparkle when a firefly flew between them. He gave her a nervous smile and turned away from the piercing stare.
"Do I bother you, Lord Stark?" She asked in a suddenly husky low tone.
Ned turned back and looked her in the eyes. "No, my lady … just puzzle me." He replied with a studying look.
She tilted her head with a smile. "You surprise me, Lord Stark. Most, if not many men have claimed to know my sex, like they know a wild animal they hunt in their woods. But you're the first man that admits the truth of the matter."
"Which is what?"
The Teenage girl got a sly grin. "You no nothing, Eddard Stark." She took the wine skin from him and drank.
The laughed at her tone, caused Cersei to cough on the wine from her own.
"You have me there … I understand how to move a formation of Knights on the battlefield, but not a woman's mood." He rubbed his stubble thoughtfully with a smile.
There was a long comfortable silence that followed as the two sat in the god's wood listening to the fountain and watched the fireflies dance around them. Finally Ned looked around and back at her. The girl had such sad eyes as she watched the little orbs of light make strange patterns of their reflection on the dark water.
"What troubles you tonight my lady?" Ned fought the urge to take the girl's hand in his as he spoke gently.
Cersei's cheeks where flushed and her eyes were like emerald glass wetted by rain. She looked out across the yard toward the throne room.
"I've come to Kings landing to be wed …" She said sadly as if not knowing or remembering that he was even there. Ned was surprised, Cersei Lannister was considered the most beautiful woman in all Westros, surely if Tywin Lannister had made the girl a match, her betrothed would be bragging of it to anyone who would listen.
The frown he gave her wrinkled his brow. "To who?" He asked.
She shrugged. "To whoever the convention decides I must …" She turned back to him.
It all made sense to Ned now, everyone knew that no one amongst his friends and fellow Rebels would ever consider Tywin Lannister king. But that didn't mean that he couldn't provide a queen for the new lord of the seven kingdoms.
There was a rage on her as she began to rant "I'm to be auctioned off like a Meeran bed slave. Treated like some prize warhorse that some great knight can show off in parades, have his servants brush down and feed carrots during the day so that he can mount me at night and ride me into battle!" She flung the now empty wine sack in frustration. Angry helpless tears slid slowly down her cheeks.
There was a kinship to the girl that Eddard Stark couldn't believe he found. When he was to marry Catelyn, he was also furious and frustrated. He thought that Holster Tully would be behind them after what had happened to Brandon, but the man swore that his bannermen were mostly loyalists and that Ned had to reassure him that his part in the rebellion would be worth his wile. He remembered old Jon and Ser Brynden holding him back when he rushed at Holster willing to kill the older man.
Cersei lowered her head in her hands and let out angry sobs as she cried drunkenly next to him. There was a weakness that overcame him and cautiously he placed his hand on her shoulder, the way a soldier would comfort another.
But suddenly the girl leaned into his chest uninvited, sobbing into his boiled leather surcoat. With a shaky breath he gently took her in his arms and held her.
"We all have a duty to our family … to our responsibilities." He comforted her with the words he told himself the morning of his wedding day. "In the end, it's all we have." He cleared his throat.
The girl lifted her head from his chest and studied him. It was the most intimate look he had ever been given from a woman in his entire life. A strange feeling overcame him, like he was naked, like she was naked, naked together hiding nothing from each other.
"Take it …" She whispered.
Ned saw nothing to lose; no boundaries anymore when he lifted his hand gently stroking the tears off her smooth cheek.
"Take what?" He asked quietly.
The beauty leaned into his touch. "The kingdom, the iron throne, and … me. Take me Lord Stark." She whispered nuzzling his hand.
The humanity of Eddard Stark would have kissed Cersei Lannister with all of his soul. He would sweep her off her feet and carry her to the small council chamber and declare himself king. With Lannister's on his side and their freshest forces, all the lords would bend the knee to Ned. He would wed the girl in his arms and live in all the glory and love forever and ever.
But there were responsibilities, oaths, and other duties. Catelyn waited for him at Riverrun, the North was leaderless and Benjen was nothing but a boy with the Nights Watch on the brain. Then there was Lyanna … the reason he was there in the first place.
"I didn't come down here to win a crown … nor to fall in love with someone I can never have."
Ned looked to be in physical pain. "I'm sorry … I'm sorry, Cersei …" It was the only time Eddard Stark ever called her by her name.
"No, Ned, Please …" She begged in fear of the uncertainty of tomorrow. She held on tight to him, all dignity lost.
"I didn't come down here for that damn iron chair." He shook his head.
Cersei was crying again and kissing his cheek. "Please" She got more aggressive, crawling into his lap trying to find his lips. "Take me!" She begged.
She was no longer a maiden, nor a highborn lady, just a frightened girl who made the first real connection with another human.
"please!" He cried out in emotionally pulling her away from him. She looked broken and frightened, trembling with emotion pent up for years. Eddard Stark hadn't been a boy in months, but he was now.
"I'm married …" It felt like broken glass in his throat trying to fight the words out.
He couldn't win, all he could see was Catelyn alone at Riverrun, abandoned by both Starks. She was his wife wither he wanted it or not. She had done nothing to harm him, only be the daughter of an opportunist.
There was a light in Cersei's eyes that began to die. Even in his arms he could feel coldness spread inside her, like an open pool of water in winter at the Wolfs Wood.
She closed her eyes and slowly he felt a soberness overcome her. Ned Stark had held the body of his uncle at the Battle of Stony Sept as he died, suddenly he felt that way holding Cersei Lannister.
"One" She asked, her eyes closed, her voice hardening.
"Just one, just to know what it would have been like."
"My lady …"
"One … just one, please."
He nodded and took a deep breath. He pushed away Winterfell, the face of his wife, Lyanna, and the battles he fought, and will fight in the coming fortnight. He was a boy, just a boy, holding a beautiful girl who liked the way he smiled.
The minute he pressed his lips to hers he knew it shouldn't have happened. There wasn't a word for how those few moments felt, her wet lips pressed to his, her hands touching his face. But he knew, in a minute of clairvoyance that had he not married Catelyn Tully, had he fought the war alone and gotten to this moment in his life and took Cersei Lannister as his wife. Terrible things won't happen.
Their lips smacked when they broke apart and after that he felt Cersei Lannister finally die in his arms. When she opened her eyes a cold ferocious stranger met him.
"Thank you, Lord Stark …" He let her go and she stood.
"For what?" He asked visibly pained. Whither or not it counted, he had just betrayed Catelyn, not by flesh, but by heart, by love.
"For helping me understand …"
The stranger lifted her skirts and walked away, leaving a hardened soldier with the bodies of a boy and girl, dead and intertwined.
"You should have taken the throne for yourself, Lord Stark."