The woods were full of whispers.
Moonlight winked on the tumbling waters of the stream below as it wound its rocky way along the floor of the valley.Beneath the trees, warhorses whickered softly and pawed at the moist, leafy ground, while men made nervous jests in hushed voices.Now and again, she heard the chink of spears, the faint metallic slither of chain mail, but even those sounds were muffled.
“It should not be long now, my lady,” Hallis Mollen said.
He had asked for the honor of protecting her in the battle to come; it was his right, as Winterfell’s captain of guards, and Robb had not refused it to him. She had thirty men around her, charged to keep her unharmed and see her safely home to Winterfell if the fighting went against them. Robb had wanted fifty; Catelyn had insisted that ten would be enough, that he would need every sword for the fight. They made their peace at thirty, neither happy with it.
“It will come when it comes,” Catelyn told him. When it came, she knew it would mean death. Hal’s death perhaps . . . or hers, or Robb’s. No one was safe. No life was certain. Catelyn was content to wait, to listen to the whispers in the woods and the faint music of the brook, to feel the warm wind in her hair.
She was no stranger to waiting, after all. Her men had always made her wait. “Watch for me, little cat,” her father would always tell her, when he rode off to court or fair or battle. And she would, standing patiently on the battlements of Riverrun as the waters of the Red Fork and the Tumblestone flowed by. He did not always come when he said he would, and days would ofttimes pass as Catelyn stood her vigil, peering out between crenels and through arrow loops until she caught a glimpse of Lord Hoster on his old brown gelding, trotting along the rivershore toward the landing. “Did you watch for me?” he’d ask when he bent to bug her. “Did you, little cat?”
Brandon Stark had bid her wait as well. “I shall not be long, my lady,” he had vowed. “We will be wed on my return.” Yet when the day came at last, it was his brother Eddard who stood beside her in the sept.
Ned had lingered scarcely a fortnight with his new bride before he too had ridden off to war with promises on his lips. At least he had left her with more than words; he had given her a son. Nine moons had waxed and waned, and Robb had been born in Riverrun while his father still warred in the south. She had brought him forth in blood and pain, not knowing whether Ned would ever see him. Her son. He had been so small . . .
And now it was for Robb that she waited . . . for Robb, and for Jaime Lannister, the gilded knight who men said had never learned to wait at all. “The Kingslayer is restless, and quick to anger,” her uncle Brynden had told Robb. And he had wagered their lives and their best hope of victory on the truth of what he said.
If Robb was frightened, he gave no sign of it. Catelyn watched her son as he moved among the men, touching one on the shoulder, sharing a jest with another, helping a third to gentle an anxious horse. His armor clinked softly when he moved. Only his head was bare. Catelyn watched a breeze stir his auburn hair, so like her own, and wondered when her son had grown so big. Fifteen, and near as tall as she was.
Let him grow taller, she asked the gods. Let him know sixteen, and twenty, and fifty. Let him grow as tall as his father, and hold his own son in his arms. Please, please, please. As she watched him, this tall young man with the new beard and the direwolf prowling at his heels, all she could see was the babe they had laid at her breast at Riverrun, so long ago.
The night was warm, but the thought of Riverrun was enough to make her shiver. Where are they? she wondered. Could her uncle have been wrong? So much rested on the truth of what he had told them. Robb had given the Blackfish three hundred picked men, and sent them ahead to screen his march. “Jaime does not know,” Ser Brynden said when he rode back. “I’ll stake my life on that. No bird has reached him, my archers have seen to that. We’ve seen a few of his outriders, but those that saw us did not live to tell of it. He ought to have sent out more. He does not know.”
“How large is his host?” her son asked.
“Twelve thousand foot, scattered around the castle in three separate camps, with the rivers between,” her uncle said, with the craggy smile she remembered so well. “There is no other way to besiege Riverrun, yet still, that will be their undoing. Two or three thousand horse.”
“The Kingslayer has us three to one,” said Galbart Glover.
‘True enough,” Ser Brynden said, “yet there is one thing Ser Jaime lacks.”
“Yes?” Robb asked.
Their host was greater than it had been when they left the Twins. Lord Jason Mallister had brought his power out from Seagard to join them as they swept around the headwaters of the Blue Fork and galloped south, and others had crept forth as well, hedge knights and small lords and masterless men-at-arms who had fled north when her brother Edmure’s army was shattered beneath the walls of Riverrun. They had driven their horses as hard as they dared to reach this place before Jaime Lannister had word of their coming, and now the hour was at hand.
Catelyn watched her son mount up. Olyvar Frey held his horse for him, Lord Walder’s son, two years older than Robb, and ten years younger and more anxious.
He strapped Robb’s shield in place and handed up his helm. When he lowered it over the face she loved so well, a tall young knight sat on his grey stallion where her son had been. It was dark among the trees, where the moon did not reach. When Robb turned his head to look at her, she could see only black inside his visor. “I must ride down the line, Mother,” he told her. “Father says you should let the men see you before a battle.”
‘Go, then,” she said. “Let them see you.”
‘It will give them courage,” Robb said.
And who will give me courage? she wondered, yet she kept her silence and made herself smile for him. Robb turned the big grey stallion and walked him slowly away from her, Grey Wind shadowing his steps. Behind him his battle guard formed up. When he’d forced Catelyn to accept her protectors, she had insisted that he be guarded as well, and the lords bannermen had agreed. Many of their sons had clamored for the honor of riding with the Young Wolf, as they had taken to calling him. Torrhen Karstark and his brother Eddard were among his thirty, and Patrek Mallister, Smalljon Umber, Daryn Hornwood, Theon Greyjoy, no less than five of Walder Frey’s vast brood, along with older men like Ser Wendel Manderly and Robin Flint. One of his companions was even a woman: Dacey Mormont, Lady Maege’s eldest daughter and heir to Bear Island, a lanky six-footer who had been given a morningstar at an age when most girls were given dolls. Some of the other lords muttered about that, but Catelyn would not listen to their complaints. “This is not about the honor of your houses,” she told them. “This is about keeping my son alive and whole.”
And if it comes to that, she wondered, will thirty be enough? Will six thousand be enough?
A bird called faintly in the distance, a high sharp trill that felt like an icy hand on Catelyn’s neck. Another bird answered; a third, a fourth. She knew their call well enough, from her years at Winterfell. Snow shrikes. Sometimes you saw them in the deep of winter, when the godswood was white and still. They were northern birds.
They are coming, Catelyn thought.
“They’re coming, my lady,” Hal Mollen whispered. He was always a man for stating the obvious. “Gods be with us.”
She nodded as the woods grew still around them. In the quiet she could hear them, far off yet moving closer; the tread of many horses, the rattle of swords and spears and armor, the murmur of human voices, with here a laugh, and there a curse.
Eons seemed to come and go. The sounds grew louder. She heard more laughter, a shouted command, splashing as they crossed and recrossed the little stream. A horse snorted. A man swore. And then at last she saw him . . . only for an instant, framed between the branches of the trees as she looked down at the valley floor, yet she knew it was him. Even at a distance, Ser Jaime Lannister was unmistakable. The moonlight had silvered his armor and the gold of his hair, and turned his crimson cloak to black. He was not wearing a helm.
He was there and he was gone again, his silvery armor obscured by the trees once more. Others came behind him, long columns of them, knights and sworn swords and freeriders, three quarters of the Lannister horse.
“He is no man for sitting in a tent while his carpenters build siege towers,” Ser Brynden had promised. “He has ridden out with his knights thrice already, to chase down raiders or storm a stubborn holdfast.”
Nodding, Robb had studied the map her uncle had drawn him. Ned had taught him to read maps. “Raid him here,” he said, pointing. “A few hundred men, no more. Tully banners. When he comes after you, we will be waiting”—his finger moved an inch to the left—”here.”
Here was a hush in the night, moonlight and shadows, a thick carpet of dead leaves underfoot, densely wooded ridges sloping gently down to the streambed, the underbrush thinning as the ground fell away.
Here was her son on his stallion, glancing back at her one last time and lifting his sword in salute.
Here was the call of Maege Mormont’s warhorn, a long low blast that rolled down the valley from the east, to tell them that the last of Jaime’s riders had entered the trap.
And Grey Wind threw back his head and howled.
The sound seemed to go right through Catelyn Stark, and she found herself shivering. It was a terrible sound, a frightening sound, yet there was music in it too. For a second she felt something like pity for the Lannisters below. So this is what death sounds like, she thought.
HAAroooooooooooooooooooooooo came the answer from the far ridge as the Greatjon winded his own horn. To east and west, the trumpets of the Mallisters and Freys blew vengeance. North, where the valley narrowed and bent like a cocked elbow, Lord Karstark’s warhorns added their own deep, mournful voices to the dark chorus. Men were shouting and horses rearing in the stream below.
The whispering wood let out its breath all at once, as the bowmen Robb had hidden in the branches of the trees let fly their arrows and the night erupted with the screams of men and horses. All around her, the riders raised their lances, and the dirt and leaves that had buried the cruel bright points fell away to reveal the gleam of sharpened steel. “Winterfell!” she heard Robb shout as the arrows sighed again. He moved away from her at a trot, leading his men downhill.
Catelyn sat on her horse, unmoving, with Hal Mollen and her guard around her, and she waited as she had waited before, for Brandon and Ned and her father. She was high on the ridge, and the trees hid most of what was going on beneath her. A heartbeat, two, four, and suddenly it was as if she and her protectors were alone in the wood. The rest were melted away into the green.
Yet when she looked across the valley to the far ridge, she saw the Greatjon’s riders emerge from the darkness beneath the trees. They were in a long line, an endless line, and as they burst from the wood there was an instant, the smallest part of a heartbeat, when all Catelyn saw was the moonlight on the points of their lances, as if a thousand willowisps were coming down the ridge, wreathed in silver flame.
Then she blinked, and they were only men, rushing down to kill or die.
Afterward, she could not claim she had seen the battle. Yet she could hear, and the valley rang with echoes. The crack of a broken lance, the clash of swords, the cries of “Lannister” and “Winterfell” and “Tully! Riverrun and Tully!” When she realized there was no more to see, she closed her eyes and listened. The battle came alive around her. She heard hoofbeats, iron boots splashing in shallow water, the woody sound of swords on oaken shields and the scrape of steel against steel, the hiss of arrows, the thunder of drums, the terrified screaming of a thousand horses. Men shouted curses and begged for mercy, and got it (or not), and lived (or died). The ridges seemed to play queer tricks with sound. Once she heard Robb’s voice, as clear as if he’d been standing at her side, calling, “To me! To me!” And she heard his direwolf, snarling and growling, heard the snap of those long teeth, the tearing of flesh, shrieks of fear and pain from man and horse alike. Was there only one wolf? It was hard to be certain.
Little by little, the sounds dwindled and died, until at last there was only the wolf. As a red dawn broke in the east, Grey Wind began to howl again.
Robb came back to her on a different horse, riding a piebald gelding in the place of the grey stallion he had taken down into the valley. The wolf’s head on his shield was slashed half to pieces, raw wood showing where deep gouges had been hacked in the oak, but Robb himself seemed unhurt. Yet when he came closer, Catelyn saw that his mailed glove and the sleeve of his surcoat were black with blood. “You’re hurt,” she said.
Robb lifted his hand, opened and closed his fingers. “No,” he said. “This is . . . Torrhen’s blood, perhaps, or . . . ” He shook his head. “I do not know.”
A mob of men followed him up the slope, dirty and dented and grinning, with Theon and the Greatjon at their head. Between them they dragged Ser Jaime Lannister. They threw him down in front of her horse. “The Kingslayer,” Hal announced, unnecessarily.
Lannister raised his head. “Lady Stark,” he said from his knees. Blood ran down one cheek from a gash across his scalp, but the pale light of dawn had put the glint of gold back in his hair. “I would offer you my sword, but I seem to have mislaid it.”
“It is not your sword I want, ser,” she told him. “Give me my father and my brother Edmure. Give me my daughters. Give me my lord husband.”
“I have mislaid them as well, I fear.”
“A pity,” Catelyn said coldly.
“Kill him, Robb,” Theon Greyjoy urged. “Take his head off.”
“No,” her son answered, peeling off his bloody glove. “He’s more use alive than dead. And my lord father never condoned the murder of prisoners after a battle.”
“A wise man,” Jaime Lannister said, “and honorable.”
“Take him away and put him in irons,” Catelyn said.
“Do as my lady mother says,” Robb commanded, “and make certain there’s a strong guard around him. Lord Karstark will want his head on a pike.”
“That he will,” the Greatjon agreed, gesturing. Lannister was led away to be bandaged and chained.
“Why should Lord Karstark want him dead?” Catelyn asked.
Robb looked away into the woods, with the same brooding look that Ned often got. “He . . . he killed them . . . “
“Lord Karstark’s sons,” Galbart Glover explained.
“Both of them,” said Robb. “Torrhen and Eddard. And Daryn Hornwood as well.”
“No one can fault Lannister on his courage,” Glover said. “When he saw that he was lost, he rallied his retainers and fought his way up the valley, hoping to reach Lord Robb and cut him down. And almost did.”
“He mislaid his sword in Eddard Karstark’s neck, after he took Torrhen’s hand off and split Daryn Hornwood’s skull open,” Robb said. “All the time he was shouting for me. If they hadn’t tried to stop him—”
“—I should then be mourning in place of Lord Karstark,” Catelyn said. “Your men did what they were sworn to do, Robb. They died protecting their liege lord. Grieve for them. Honor them for their valor. But not now. You have no time for grief. You may have lopped the head off the snake, but three quarters of the body is still coiled around my father’s castle. We have won a battle, not a war.”
“But such a battle!” said Theon Greyjoy eagerly. “My lady, the realm has not seen such a victory since the Field of Fire. I vow, the Lannisters lost ten men for every one of ours that fell. We’ve taken close to a hundred knights captive, and a dozen lords bannermen. Lord Westerling, Lord Banefort, Ser Garth Greenfield, Lord Estren, Ser Tytos Brax, Mallor the Dornishman . . . and three Lannisters besides Jaime, Lord Tywin’s own nephews, two of his sister’s sons and one of his dead brother’s . . . “
“And Lord Tywin?” Catelyn interrupted. “Have you perchance taken Lord Tywin, Theon?”
“No,” Greyjoy answered, brought up short.
“Until you do, this war is far from done.”
Robb raised his head and pushed his hair back out of his eyes. “My mother is right. We still have Riverrun.”