The men in her life had always made her wait. "Look out for me, little Cat. I will be back," her father had promised. "I will be back soon, my lady, and we will be wed," Brandon had pledged. "We will be reunited at Winterfell soon," Ned had assured her, in his last letter.
Her father was the only one who had kept his words. Not Brandon, not even Ned. Catelyn reproached herself severely for that disloyal and unworthy thought. Gods be good, Brandon and Ned would have come back if they could.
She lit candles and prayed for both of them, and for their sister and father too. She prayed for Benjen Stark as well, the last of that family now.
No, not the last, my Robb is a Stark too.
She could not wait for uncle and nephew to finally meet.
And I am Lady Stark.
At least for a little while longer. Until -
"Why not Benjen?" Catelyn had asked her father. "He is a Stark. Surely that would be more fitting."
"He's only a boy," her father's voice echoed in her head. "King Robert needs a strong Lord Protector, until Robb comes of age and can rule Winterfell and the North on his own."
"Cat. Sweetling." It was her father's voice, but not in her head this time. How long had he been there? Catelyn had not noticed him walking in. The sept was empty but for the two of them.
"Are you praying for guidance?" Her father asked, his hand resting on her shoulder. She longed to rest her head on his shoulder, to lay down her fears and her worries for a moment, just a moment. But her father looked weary, and years older than he did at the start of the war. The war had taken its toll on Hoster Tully.
"I'm praying for Ned and his family," she replied. "And … for courage," she continued, unable to meet her father's gaze.
He raised up her chin gently, to look her in the eyes. "You have never lacked courage, my child. Never."
Catelyn smiled gratefully. Yet deep down she wondered; she really wondered. She had always done her duty, true, but was there courage in that?
"What is worrying you, sweetling? Our journey tomorrow?" Hoster Tully was going to King's Landing with his two daughters and his grandson. Lysa would be reuniting with her lord husband, and Catelyn was to meet the man who would be her new husband.
She chose her next words carefully. "We would be two outsiders, two southerners in Winterfell."
"Aye, aye," her father nodded.
"Ned never had the chance to bring his bride home. They have never seen me as Lady Stark, and yet I will be coming to Winterfell with my new husband, the southerner who will rule Winterfell until Robb comes of age." She hesitated. "Wouldn't it be better for the Lord Protector to be a man of the North? The northmen might take to that more readily, Father."
Her father smiled, a broad and proud smile. "Sharp and astute as always, Cat. That's what I told Jon Arryn as well."
She waited for her father to continue, which he did with a frown on his face. "Jon made some good points in opposition to that. The main difficulty according to Jon is, which northman? Which of the lords of the north, and from which House? It will end up causing dissension and envy amongst various Houses in the North. Better to have a complete outsider altogether, someone with no power base of his own in the North, someone who will not cause trouble for Robb later when it's finally time for him to give up the rein to Robb."
Someone whose loyalty to the king is assured, Catelyn added silently. Who better than the king's own brother?
"You will learn the way of the North, I'm sure. Both of you," her father said, with a confidence she did not really share. "This is all for Robb's sake, Cat. Remember that."
"I know, Father," she replied gently. She had always done her duty to her father, now she would do her duty to her son as well. That night, she fell asleep sitting on the chair next to Robb's crib.
He's ours, Ned. Mine and yours. We made him, together, that first night. She dreamt of telling her husband this, but the somber, solemn stranger she had never really known disappeared into the mist, and then it was Brandon's laughter she heard. She ran after them both, frantic, but never caught up with either. Lysa's hand shaking her shoulder vigorously finally woke Catelyn.
"We are leaving," her sister said, her voice shaky. Lysa had been full of excitement about finally seeing King's Landing at first, but as the day of their departure neared, her excitement had seemed to cool, even souring. Catelyn thought she knew why, but she did not know how to broach the subject with her sister. Lysa had grown more guarded and more reticent, even with Catelyn, since her wedding to Jon Arryn. And sadder. Infinitely sadder. Her laughter rang so seldom at Riverrun these days, Catelyn had almost forgotten the sound of it.
It was Lord Arryn who greeted them when they arrived at King's Landing, with a tall, gaunt stranger standing next to him. The stranger's eyes - deep blue pools carved into a face so fleshless and cheeks so hollow it looked like a death mask instead of the face of a living man - were studying each of the Tullys intently, as if he was trying to memorize not only their features, but also their entire reason for being. Even Robb, sleeping soundly and peacefully in Catelyn's arms, did not escape his intent scrutiny.
"This is Stannis Baratheon, Lord Tully. King Robert's younger brother," Jon Arryn made the introduction.
"Hoster, please. We are family now, Jon," Hoster Tully said to the son-in-law twenty years older than himself.
"My lord husband," Lysa curtsied, and blushed. Jon Arryn's face reddened as well, as if he had only just remembered how young the woman he had married was. "My lady," he said awkwardly, and then was at a loss for words. It was Stannis who took charge, telling them of their accommodation.
Catelyn panicked. "Would it be possible for me to stay with my sister at Tower of the Hand instead?" She asked, directing her plea to Lord Arryn.
Stannis frowned, and replied before Jon Arryn could. "The king has commanded that the bride and the bride's lord father shall be housed inside Maegor's Holdfast until the wedding," he said.
The king. The bride. The wedding. He said those words as if they held no personal connection to him whatsoever. Never mind that "the king" was his brother, "the bride" was the woman he would soon wed, and "the wedding" was his own.
Jon Arryn interjected swiftly. "There's no harm in it. Lysa will need help settling in, I'm sure Robert will understand." And so the matter was settled.
"He is so very plain," Lysa whispered to Catelyn later, as they toured Lysa's new home. "Stannis Baratheon."
This is your home, Lysa. You are the mistress here, Lady Arryn. Why are you whispering? Catelyn did not say this to her sister however, for fear of hurting her feelings.
"I hadn't noticed," she said instead. Truly, she had not. She was much older now, in experience if not in years, compared to that childish girl who had felt a slight disappointment at the sight of Brandon's younger brother. Ned Stark was not the younger version of his dead brother that Catelyn had expected; he was shorter, plainer, more somber, with none of Brandon's mirth and glee. Or rage.
But Ned was a good man. And he would have been a good husband and a good father, if Arthur Dayne's sword had not cut him down before his time.
"They are saying it is a punishment, for letting the Targaryen prince and princess escape from Dragonstone," Lysa's voice was even softer this time. Catelyn was shocked out of her reverie.
"A punishment? What punishment? Who is being punished?"
"Lord Stannis," Lysa said. "Banished to the frozen wasteland of the North instead of being appointed lord of Storm's End. The youngest brother will have Storm's End now, a mere child."
"The North is not a frozen wasteland," Catelyn protested vehemently. It was Ned's home, and Brandon too. And Robb would rule over that land someday. Another thought struck her. "I suppose … marrying me is a punishment too?" A widow instead of a maiden. A woman raising the child of another man. How else would Stannis Baratheon see it except as a punishment?
Lysa looked horrified. "No, of course not. I never meant … and anyway, it is only the servants gossiping."
Catelyn sighed. "You must not encourage them, Lysa. You are the mistress of this household, you will not have their respect by being too familiar with them."
Lysa sulked. "I was only trying to be friendly. You will leave soon. Father too."
And Lysa would be left with her elderly husband, older than her own father. Catelyn was anxious for her sister. She smoothed over Lysa's hair with her fingers, like she often did when they were young. "You will be happy, won't you, Lysa?"
Lysa looked like she was about to weep, her upper lip trembling and her eyes glistening. But the moment passed. She embraced Catelyn tightly and said, "Of course I will. King's Landing is wonderful! More than I could ever hope for." It did not escape Catelyn's notice that Lysa had not mentioned her husband. "And in any case, it's you I'm worried about. The stories I've heard about Lord Stannis … they do not bode well, dearest sister," Lysa continued.
Catelyn thought of her sister's warning the next day as she made her way to the king's solar. "The king commands that you are to bring Lord Eddard's son with you, Lady Stark," the squire sent to fetch her had said.
My son as well, Catelyn thought. But Robert Baratheon would not see it that way, she knew. Ned was the one who mattered to the king, not Catelyn.
Robb was finally sound asleep after a long, restless night, and Catelyn was loathed to wake him. But she did not dare make the king wait, so she picked him up carefully, trying to make as little noise as possible. Robb stayed asleep the whole journey from Tower of the Hand to the king's solar - even the noise of the men-at-arms practicing in the courtyard failed to wake him. But the king's voice berating his brother finally roused the babe.
"Seven hells, Stannis! Why do always have to defy me?"
Catelyn was trying to soothe Robb and stop his cries. The three men in the room – the king, his brother, and his Hand – had not noticed her presence as yet.
"I am not defying you," Stannis' voice was not as loud as his brother, but sounded just as angry. "Merely pointing out that so soon after spending a fortune on your wedding, the crown could ill-afford to pay for another lavish wedding."
"It's your wedding. My brother. The king's brother," Robert replied, fury stamped all over his face.
"Exactly. My wedding. And I do not want a lavish wedding, with wasteful spending," Stannis said, his jaw grinding from side to side.
"It is also Catelyn Stark's wedding. Ned's widow. I owe it to Ned to honor her," Robert said, his voice softer this time, with a melancholic edge.
"Lady Stark has been married before. She is not a maiden in need of a grand wedding," Stannis retorted disdainfully.
Jon Arryn cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should consult Lady Stark on the matter?" He said, his gaze directed to Catelyn, who was still standing near the door.
"Come in, come in!" Robert greeted her enthusiastically. His attention swiftly moved to Robb, still fussing in Catelyn's arms. Robert stared at the babe so intently Catelyn thought his eyes would bore holes in Robb. "May I?" He finally asked, holding out his arms. Catelyn hesitated, but noticed Jon Arryn nodding slightly through the corner of her eye. She passed Robb to Robert's waiting arms, staying close in case –
"I won't drop him. Don't worry," Robert said, laughing and winking at her. In that moment, he reminded Catelyn of Brandon, even though the two men looked nothing alike. But Robert's laugh swiftly turned to tears, as he spoke to Robb as if the babe could understand him. "Your father … he … he was the happiest man alive when he heard of your birth. I can't wait to hold my son in my arms, he told me. You must grow up knowing your father, child, and what a good man he was." Robert's voice broke. He sniffled, cleared his throat, and said, "He was the best brother any man could ever have."
Stannis was in Catelyn's sight, and she saw how his shoulders stiffened when Robert mentioned brother. But he turned his face away before Catelyn could see his expression. Robb started crying, and Robert quickly handed him back to Catelyn.
"We were arguing about the wedding," Robert said, after Catelyn had managed to soothe Robb.
"Discussing," Jon Arryn interjected.
Robert ignored him. "My brother seems to think the Great Sept of Baelor too grand for the occasion. Even a feast for six hundred guests is too much, according to Stannis. What say you, Lady Stark?"
Great Sept of Baelor? Six hundred guests? For a widow with child? Stannis probably thought it excessive. Catelyn replied, careful of her words, recalling all she had heard of Robert Baratheon. "I would defer to your good judgment, Your Grace."
Robert smiled. "No wonder Ned spoke so highly of you. Well, it's settled then," Robert announced.
Stannis was about to protest, when Jon Arryn interjected again. "The poor babe seems very sleepy. Perhaps you would escort Lady Stark and her son back to Tower of the Hand, Stannis?"
"The guards can do that," Stannis replied. "I have another important matter to discuss with Robert."
"The Others take your important matter!" Robert exploded. "I have heard enough from you today."
Was the rumor true, after all? That it was meant as a punishment for Stannis? Catelyn's father had put in a more complimentary term - the need for a strong lord to rule Winterfell and the North until Robb comes of age – but watching the interaction between the Baratheon brothers had sown doubts in Catelyn's mind.
She stole a glance to the man walking next to her, who was staring straight ahead as if he was walking alone. We are to be married, in less than a week. And she did not know the first thing about him, except that he seemed furious. With his brother? With her? With the prospect of their marriage?
He coughed suddenly, a loud, hacking cough that shook his entire body.
"Have you been ill, my lord?" She asked solicitously.
"No," was his terse reply, and continued walking as if naught had happened.
Catelyn took in his hollow cheeks, his pale face, his gaunt frame and fleshless body, and finally remembered. Of course. The siege at Storm's End that had lasted almost a year. "They were down to rat bones at one point," Ned had written her, on his way to Tower of Joy after he had lifted the siege.
On his way to his death. No, she would not think of that.
She should say something to Stannis, she thought. But what? I'm sorry you and your people almost starved to death? All the words she could think of seemed trite and pointless, so in the end she said nothing.
Stannis was the one to speak. "I'm sorry for your loss." The words were blurted out as if he was trying to get rid of them as fast as possible. Catelyn turned to look at him, too surprised to reply.
"Thank you," she said, at last. He nodded stiffly and quickened his pace.