As the host trooped down the causeway through the black bogs of the Neck and spilled out into the riverlands beyond, Catelyn's apprehensions grew. She masked her fears behind a face kept still and stern, yet they were there all the same, growing with every league they crossed. Her days were anxious, her nights restless, and every raven that flew overhead made her clench her teeth.
She feared for her lord father, and wondered at his ominous silence. She feared for her brother Edmure, and prayed that the gods would watch over him if he must face the Kingslayer in battle. She feared for Ned and her girls, and for the sweet sons she had left behind at Winterfell. And yet there was nothing she could do for any of them, and so she made herself put all thought of them aside. You must save your strength for Robb, she told herself. He is the only one you can help. You must be as fierce and hard as the north, Catelyn Tully. You must be a Stark for true now, like your son.
Robb rode at the front of the column, beneath the flapping white banner of Winterfell. Each day he would ask one of his lords to join him, so they might confer as they marched; he honored every man in turn, showing no favorites, listening as his lord father had listened, weighing the words of one against the other. He has learned so much from Ned, she thought as she watched him, but has he learned enough?
The Blackfish had taken a hundred picked men and a hundred swift horses and raced ahead to screen their movements and scout the way. The reports Ser Brynden's riders brought back did little to reassure her. Lord Tywin's host was still many days to the south . . . but Walder Frey, Lord of the Crossing, had assembled a force of near four thousand men at his castles on the Green Fork.
"Late again," Catelyn murmured when she heard. It was the Trident all over, damn the man. Her brother Edmure had called the banners; by rights, Lord Frey should have gone to join the Tully host at Riverrun, yet here he sat.
"Four thousand men," Robb repeated, more perplexed than angry. "Lord Frey cannot hope to fight the Lannisters by himself. Surely he means to join his power to ours."
"Does he?" Catelyn asked. She had ridden forward to join Robb and Robett Glover, his companion of the day. The vanguard spread out behind them, a slow-moving forest of lances and banners and spears. "I wonder. Expect nothing of Walder Frey, and you will never be surprised."
"He's your father's bannerman."
"Some men take their oaths more seriously than others, Robb. And Lord Walder was always friendlier with Casterly Rock than my father would have liked. One of his sons is wed to Tywin Lannister's sister. That means little of itself, to be sure. Lord Walder has sired a great many children over the years, and they must needs marry someone. Still . . . "
"Do you think he means to betray us to the Lannisters, my lady?" Robett Glover asked gravely.
Catelyn sighed. "If truth be told, I doubt even Lord Frey knows what Lord Frey intends to do. He has an old man's caution and a young man's ambition, and has never lacked for cunning."
"We must have the Twins, Mother," Robb said heatedly. "There is no other way across the river. You know that."
"Yes. And so does Walder Frey, you can be sure of that."
That night they made camp on the southern edge of the bogs, halfway between the kingsroad and the river. It was there Theon Greyjoy brought them further word from her uncle. "Ser Brynden says to tell you he's crossed swords with the Lannisters. There are a dozen scouts who won't be reporting back to Lord Tywin anytime soon. Or ever." He grinned. "Ser Addam Marbrand commands their outriders, and he's pulling back south, burning as he goes. He knows where we are, more or less, but the Blackfish vows he will not know when we split."
"Unless Lord Frey tells him," Catelyn said sharply. "Theon, when you return to my uncle, tell him he is to place his best bowmen around the Twins, day and night, with orders to bring down any raven they see leaving the battlements. I want no birds bringing word of my son's movements to Lord Tywin."
"Ser Brynden has seen to it already, my lady," Theon replied with a cocky smile. "A few more blackbirds, and we should have enough to bake a pie. I'll save you their feathers for a hat."
She ought to have known that Brynden Blackfish would be well ahead of her. "What have the Freys been doing while the Lannisters burn their fields and plunder their holdfasts?"
"There's been some fighting between Ser Addam's men and Lord Walder's," Theon answered. "Not a day's ride from here, we found two Lannister scouts feeding the crows where the Freys had strung them up. Most of Lord Walder's strength remains massed at the Twins, though."
That bore Walder Frey's seal beyond a doubt, Catelyn thought bitterly; hold back, wait, watch, take no risk unless forced to it.
"If he's been fighting the Lannisters, perhaps he does mean to hold to his vows," Robb said.
Catelyn was less encouraged. "Defending his own lands is one thing, open battle against Lord Tywin quite another."
Robb turned back to Theon Greyjoy. "Has the Blackfish found any other way across the Green Fork?"
Theon shook his head. "The river's running high and fast. Ser Brynden says it can't be forded, not this far north."
"I must have that crossing!" Robb declared, fuming. "Oh, our horses might be able to swim the river, I suppose, but not with armored men on their backs. We'd need to build rafts to pole our steel across, helms and mail and lances, and we don't have the trees for that. Or the time. Lord Tywin is marching north . . . " He balled his hand into a fist.
"Lord Frey would be a fool to try and bar our way," Theon Greyjoy said with his customary easy confidence. "We have five times his numbers. You can take the Twins if you need to, Robb."
"Not easily," Catelyn warned them, "and not in time. While you were mounting your siege, Tywin Lannister would bring up his host and assault you from the rear."
Robb glanced from her to Greyjoy, searching for an answer and finding none. For a moment he looked even younger than his fifteen years, despite his mail and sword and the stubble on his cheeks. "What would my lord father do?" he asked her.
"Find a way across," she told him. "Whatever it took."
The next morning it was Ser Brynden Tully himself who rode back to them. He had put aside the heavy plate and helm he'd worn as the Knight of the Gate for the lighter leather-and-mail of an outrider, but his obsidian fish still fastened his cloak.
Her uncle's face was grave as he swung down off his horse. "There has been a battle under the walls of Riverrun," he said, his mouth grim. "We had it from a Lannister outrider we took captive. The Kingslayer has destroyed Edmure's host and sent the lords of the Trident reeling in flight."
A cold hand clutched at Catelyn's heart. "And my brother?"
"Wounded and taken prisoner," Ser Brynden said. "Lord Blackwood and the other survivors are under siege inside Riverrun, surrounded by Jaime's host."
Robb looked fretful. "We must get across this accursed river if we're to have any hope of relieving them in time."
"That will not be easily done," her uncle cautioned. "Lord Frey has pulled his whole strength back inside his castles, and his gates are closed and barred."
"Damn the man," Robb swore. "If the old fool does not relent and let me cross, he'll leave me no choice but to storm his walls. I'll pull the Twins down around his ears if I have to, we'll see how well he likes that!"
"You sound like a sulky boy, Robb," Catelyn said sharply. "A child sees an obstacle, and his first thought is to run around it or knock it down. A lord must learn that sometimes words can accomplish what swords cannot."
Robb's neck reddened at the rebuke. "Tell me what you mean, Mother," he said meekly.
"The Freys have held the crossing for six hundred years, and for six hundred years they have never failed to exact their toll."
"What toll? What does he want?"
She smiled. "That is what we must discover."
"And what if I do not choose to pay this toll?"
"Then you had best retreat back to Moat Cailin, deploy to meet Lord Tywin in battle . . . or grow wings. I see no other choices." Catelyn put her heels to her horse and rode off, leaving her son to ponder her words. It would not do to make him feel as if his mother were usurping his place. Did you teach him wisdom as well as valor, Ned? she wondered. Did you teach him how to kneel? The graveyards of the Seven Kingdoms were full of brave men who had never learned that lesson.
It was near midday when their vanguard came in sight of the Twins, where the Lords of the Crossing had their seat.
The Green Fork ran swift and deep here, but the Freys had spanned it many centuries past and grown rich off the coin men paid them to cross. Their bridge was a massive arch of smooth grey rock, wide enough for two wagons to pass abreast; the Water Tower rose from the center of the span, commanding both road and river with its arrow slits, murder holes, and portcullises. It had taken the Freys three generations to complete their bridge; when they were done they'd thrown up stout timber keeps on either bank, so no one might cross without their leave.
The timber had long since given way to stone. The Twins - two squat, ugly, formidable castles, identical in every respect, with the bridge arching between - had guarded the crossing for centuries. High curtain walls, deep moats, and heavy oak-and-iron gates protected the approaches, the bridge footings rose from within stout inner keeps, there was a barbican and portcullis on either bank, and the Water Tower defended the span itself.
One glance was sufficient to tell Catelyn that the castle would not be taken by storm. The battlements bristled with spears and swords and scorpions, there was an archer at every crenel and arrow slit, the drawbridge was up, the portcullis down, the gates closed and barred.
The Greatjon began to curse and swear as soon as he saw what awaited them. Lord Rickard Karstark glowered in silence. "That cannot be assaulted, my lords," Roose Bolton announced.
"Nor can we take it by siege, without an army on the far bank to invest the other castle," Helman Tallhart said gloomily. Across the deep-running green waters, the western twin stood like a reflection of its eastern brother. "Even if we had the time. Which, to be sure, we do not."
As the northern lords studied the castle, a sally port opened, a plank bridge slid across the moat, and a dozen knights rode forth to confront them, led by four of Lord Walder's many sons. Their banner bore twin towers, dark blue on a field of pale silver-grey. Ser Stevron Frey, Lord Walder's heir, spoke for them. The Freys all looked like weasels; Ser Stevron, past sixty with grandchildren of his own, looked like an especially old and tired weasel, yet he was polite enough. "My lord father has sent me to greet you, and inquire as to who leads this mighty host."
"I do." Robb spurred his horse forward. He was in his armor, with the direwolf shield of Winterfell strapped to his saddle and Grey Wind padding by his side.
The old knight looked at her son with a faint flicker of amusement in his watery grey eyes, though his gelding whickered uneasily and sidled away from the direwolf. "My lord father would be most honored if you would share meat and mead with him in the castle and explain your purpose here."
His words crashed among the lords bannermen like a great stone from a catapult. Not one of them approved. They cursed, argued, shouted down each other.
"You must not do this, my lord," Galbart Glover pleaded with Robb. "Lord Walder is not to be trusted."
Roose Bolton nodded. "Go in there alone and you're his. He can sell you to the Lannisters, throw you in a dungeon, or slit your throat, as he likes."
"If he wants to talk to us, let him open his gates, and we will all share his meat and mead," declared Ser Wendel Manderly.
"Or let him come out and treat with Robb here, in plain sight of his men and ours," suggested his brother, Ser Wylis.
Catelyn Stark shared all their doubts, but she had only to glance at Ser Stevron to see that he was not pleased by what he was hearing. A few more words and the chance would be lost. She had to act, and quickly. "I will go," she said loudly.
"You, my lady?" The Greatjon furrowed his brow.
"Mother, are you certain?" Clearly, Robb was not.
"Never more," Catelyn lied glibly. "Lord Walder is my father's bannerman. I have known him since I was a girl. He would never offer me any harm." Unless he saw some profit in it, she added silently, but some truths did not bear saying, and some lies were necessary.
"I am certain my lord father would be pleased to speak to the Lady Catelyn," Ser Stevron said. "To vouchsafe for our good intentions, my brother Ser Perwyn will remain here until she is safely returned to you."
"He shall be our honored guest," said Robb. Ser Perwyn, the youngest of the four Freys in the party, dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to a brother. "I require my lady mother's return by evenfall, Ser Stevron," Robb went on. "It is not my intent to linger here long."
Ser Stevron Frey gave a polite nod. "As you say, my lord." Catelyn spurred her horse forward and did not look back. Lord Walder's sons and envoys fell in around her.
Her father had once said of Walder Frey that he was the only lord in the Seven Kingdoms who could field an army out of his breeches. When the Lord of the Crossing welcomed Catelyn in the great hall of the east castle, surrounded by twenty living sons (minus Ser Perwyn, who would have made twenty-one), thirty-six grandsons, nineteen great-grandsons, and numerous daughters, granddaughters, bastards, and grandbastards, she understood just what he had meant.
Lord Walder was ninety, a wizened pink weasel with a bald spotted head, too gouty to stand unassisted. His newest wife, a pale frail girl of sixteen years, walked beside his litter when they carried him in
. She was the eighth Lady Frey.
"It is a great pleasure to see you again after so many years, my lord," Catelyn said.
The old man squinted at her suspiciously. "Is it? I doubt that. Spare me your sweet words, Lady Catelyn, I am too old. Why are you here? Is your boy too proud to come before me himself? What am I to do with you?"
Catelyn had been a girl the last time she had visited the Twins, but even then Lord Walder had been irascible, sharp of tongue, and blunt of manner. Age had made him worse than ever, it would seem. She would need to choose her words with care, and do her best to take no offense from his.
"Father," Ser Stevron said reproachfully, "you forget yourself. Lady Stark is here at your invitation."
"Did I ask you? You are not Lord Frey yet, not until I die. Do I look dead? I'll hear no instructions from you."
"This is no way to speak in front of our noble guest, Father," one of his younger sons said.
"Now my bastards presume to teach me courtesy," Lord Walder complained. "I'll speak any way I like, damn you. I've had three kings to guest in my life, and queens as well, do you think I require lessons from the likes of you, Ryger? Your mother was milking goats the first time I gave her my seed." He dismissed the red-faced youth with a flick of his fingers and gestured to two of his other sons. "Danwell, Whalen, help me to my chair."
They shifted Lord Walder from his litter and carried him to the high seat of the Freys, a tall chair of black oak whose back was carved in the shape of two towers linked by a bridge. His young wife crept up timidly and covered his legs with a blanket. When he was settled, the old man beckoned Catelyn forward and planted a papery dry kiss on her hand. "There," he announced. "Now that I have observed the courtesies, my lady, perhaps my sons will do me the honor of shutting their mouths. Why are you here?"
"To ask you to open your gates, my lord," Catelyn replied politely. "My son and his lords bannermen are most anxious to cross the river and be on their way."
"To Riverrun?" He sniggered. "Oh, no need to tell me, no need. I'm not blind yet. The old man can still read a map."
"To Riverrun," Catelyn confirmed. She saw no reason to deny it. "Where I might have expected to find you, my lord. You are still my father's bannerman, are you not?"
"Heh," said Lord Walder, a noise halfway between a laugh and a grunt. "I called my swords, yes I did, here they are, you saw them on the walls. It was my intent to march as soon as all my strength was assembled. Well, to send my sons. I am well past marching myself, Lady Catelyn." He looked around for likely confirmation and pointed to a tall, stooped man of fifty years. "Tell her, Jared. Tell her that was my intent."
"It was, my lady," said Ser Jared Frey, one of his sons by his second wife. "On my honor."
"Is it my fault that your fool brother lost his battle before we could march?" He leaned back against his cushions and scowled at her, as if challenging her to dispute his version of events. "I am told the Kingslayer went through him like an axe through ripe cheese. Why should my boys hurry south to die? All those who did go south are running north again."
Catelyn would gladly have spitted the querulous old man and roasted him over a fire, but she had only till evenfall to open the bridge. Calmly, she said, "All the more reason that we must reach Riverrun, and soon. Where can we go to talk, my lord?"
"We're talking now," Lord Frey complained. The spotted pink head snapped around. "What are you all looking at?" he shouted at his kin. "Get out of here. Lady Stark wants to speak to me in private. Might be she has designs on my fidelity, heh. Go, all of you, find something useful to do. Yes, you too, woman. Out, out, out." As his sons and grandsons and daughters and bastards and nieces and nephews streamed from the hall, he leaned close to Catelyn and confessed, "They're all waiting for me to die. Stevron's been waiting for forty years, but I keep disappointing him. Heh. Why should I die just so he can be a lord? I ask you. I won't do it."
"I have every hope that you will live to be a hundred."
"That would boil them, to be sure. Oh, to be sure. Now, what do you want to say?"
"We want to cross," Catelyn told him.
"Oh, do you? That's blunt. Why should I let you?"
For a moment her anger flared. "If you were strong enough to climb your own battlements, Lord Frey, you would see that my son has twenty thousand men outside your walls."
"They'll be twenty thousand fresh corpses when Lord Tywin gets here," the old man shot back. "Don't you try and frighten me, my lady. Your husband's in some traitor's cell under the Red Keep, your father's sick, might be dying, and Jaime Lannister's got your brother in chains. What do you have that I should fear? That son of yours? I'll match you son for son, and I'll still have eighteen when yours are all dead."
"You swore an oath to my father," Catelyn reminded him.
He bobbed his head side to side, smiling. "Oh, yes, I said some words, but I swore oaths to the crown too, it seems to me. Joffrey's the king now, and that makes you and your boy and all those fools out there no better than rebels. If I had the sense the gods gave a fish, I'd help the Lannisters boil you all."
"Why don't you?" she challenged him.
Lord Walder snorted with disdain. "Lord Tywin the proud and splendid, Warden of the West, Hand of the King, oh, what a great man that one is, him and his gold this and gold that and lions here and lions there. I'll wager you, he eats too many beans, he breaks wind just like me, but you'll never hear him admit it, oh, no. What's he got to be so puffed up about anyway? Only two sons, and one of them's a twisted little monster. I'll match him son for son, and I'll still have nineteen and a half left when all of his are dead!" He cackled. "If Lord Tywin wants my help, he can bloody well ask for it."
That was all Catelyn needed to hear. "I am asking for your help, my lord," she said humbly. "And my father and my brother and my lord husband and my sons are asking with my voice."
Lord Walder jabbed a bony finger at her face. "Save your sweet words, my lady. Sweet words I get from my wife. Did you see her? Sixteen she is, a little flower, and her honey's only for me. I wager she gives me a son by this time next year. Perhaps I'll make him heir, wouldn't that boil the rest of them?"
"I'm certain she will give you many sons."
His head bobbed up and down. "Your lord father did not come to the wedding. An insult, as I see it. Even if he is dying. He never came to my last wedding either. He calls me the Late Lord Frey, you know. Does he think I'm dead? I'm not dead, and I promise you, I'll outlive him as I outlived his father. Your family has always pissed on me, don't deny it, don't lie, you know it's true. Years ago, I went to your father and suggested a match between his son and my daughter. Why not? I had a daughter in mind, sweet girl, only a few years older than Edmure, but if your brother didn't warm to her, I had others he might have had, young ones, old ones, virgins, widows, whatever he wanted. No, Lord Hoster would not hear of it. Sweet words he gave me, excuses, but what I wanted was to get rid of a daughter.
"And your sister, that one, she's full as bad. It was, oh, a year ago, no more, Jon Arryn was still the King's Hand, and I went to the city to see my sons ride in the tourney. Stevron and Jared are too old for the lists now, but Danwell and Hosteen rode, Perwyn as well, and a couple of my bastards tried the melee. If I'd known how they'd shame me, I would never have troubled myself to make the journey. Why did I need to ride all that way to see Hosteen knocked off his horse by that Tyrell whelp? I ask you. The boy's half his age, Ser Daisy they call him, something like that. And Danwell was unhorsed by a hedge knight! Some days I wonder if those two are truly mine. My third wife was a Crakehall, all of the Crakehall women are sluts. Well, never mind about that, she died before you were born, what do you care?
"I was speaking of your sister. I proposed that Lord and Lady Arryn foster two of my grandsons at court, and offered to take their own son to ward here at the Twins. Are my grandsons unworthy to be seen at the king's court? They are sweet boys, quiet and mannerly. Walder is Merrett's son, named after me, and the other one . . . heh, I don't recall . . . he might have been another Walder, they're always naming them Walder so I'll favor them, but his father . . . which one was his father now?" His face wrinkled up. "Well, whoever he was, Lord Arryn wouldn't have him, or the other one, and I blame your lady sister for that. She frosted up as if I'd suggested selling her boy to a mummer's show or making a eunuch out of him, and when Lord Arryn said the child was going to Dragonstone to foster with Stannis Baratheon, she stormed off without a word of regrets and all the Hand could give me was apologies. What good are apologies? I ask you."
Catelyn frowned, disquieted. "I had understood that Lysa's boy was to be fostered with Lord Tywin at Casterly Rock."
"No, it was Lord Stannis," Walder Frey said irritably. "Do you think I can't tell Lord Stannis from Lord Tywin? They're both bungholes who think they're too noble to shit, but never mind about that, I know the difference. Or do you think I'm so old I can't remember? I'm ninety and I remember very well. I remember what to do with a woman too. That wife of mine will give me a son before this time next year, I'll wager. Or a daughter, that can't be helped. Boy or girl, it will be red, wrinkled, and squalling, and like as not she'll want to name it Walder or Walda."
Catelyn was not concerned with what Lady Frey might choose to name her child. "Jon Arryn was going to foster his son with Lord Stannis, you are quite certain of that?"
"Yes, yes, yes," the old man said. "Only he died, so what does it matter? You say you want to cross the river?"
"Well, you can't!" Lord Walder announced crisply. "Not unless I allow it, and why should I? The Tullys and the Starks have never been friends of mine." He pushed himself back in his chair and crossed his arms, smirking, waiting for her answer.
The rest was only haggling.
A swollen red sun hung low against the western hills when the gates of the castle opened. The drawbridge creaked down, the portcullis winched up, and Lady Catelyn Stark rode forth to rejoin her son and his lords bannermen. Behind her came Ser Jared Frey, Ser Hosteen Frey, Ser Danwell Frey, and Lord Walder's bastard son Ronel Rivers, leading a long column of pikemen, rank on rank of shuffling men in blue steel ringmail and silvery grey cloaks.
Robb galloped out to meet her, with Grey Wind racing beside his stallion. "It's done," she told him. "Lord Walder will grant you your crossing. His swords are yours as well, less four hundred he means to keep back to hold the Twins. I suggest that you leave four hundred of your own, a mixed force of archers and swordsmen. He can scarcely object to an offer to augment his garrison . . . but make certain you give the command to a man you can trust. Lord Walder may need help keeping faith."
"As you say, Mother," Robb answered, gazing at the ranks of pikemen. "Perhaps . . . Ser Helman Tallhart, do you think?"
"A fine choice."
"What . . . what did he want of us?"
"If you can spare a few of your swords, I need some men to escort two of Lord Frey's grandsons north to Winterfell," she told him. "I have agreed to take them as wards. They are young boys, aged eight years and seven. It would seem they are both named Walder. Your brother Bran will welcome the companionship of lads near his own age, I should think."
"Is that all? Two fosterlings? That's a small enough price to - "
"Lord Frey's son Olyvar will be coming with us," she went on. "He is to serve as your personal squire. His father would like to see him knighted, in good time."
"A squire." He shrugged. "Fine, that's fine, if he's - "
"Also, if your sister Arya is returned to us safely, it is agreed that she will marry Lord Walder's youngest son, Elmar, when the two of them come of age."
Robb looked nonplussed. "Arya won't like that one bit."
"And you are to wed one of his daughters, once the fighting is done," she finished. "His lordship has graciously consented to allow you to choose whichever girl you prefer. He has a number he thinks might be suitable."
To his credit, Robb did not flinch. "I see."
"Do you consent?"
"Can I refuse?"
"Not if you wish to cross."
"I consent," Robb said solemnly. He had never seemed more manly to her than he did in that moment. Boys might play with swords, but it took a lord to make a marriage pact, knowing what it meant.
They crossed at evenfall as a horned moon floated upon the river. The double column wound its way through the gate of the eastern twin like a great steel snake, slithering across the courtyard, into the keep and over the bridge, to issue forth once more from the second castle on the west bank.
Catelyn rode at the head of the serpent, with her son and her uncle Ser Brynden and Ser Stevron Frey. Behind followed nine tenths of their horse; knights, lancers, freeriders, and mounted bowmen. It took hours for them all to cross. Afterward, Catelyn would remember the clatter of countless hooves on the drawbridge, the sight of Lord Walder Frey in his litter watching them pass, the glitter of eyes peering down through the slats of the murder holes in the ceiling as they rode through the Water Tower.
The larger part of the northern host, pikes and archers and great masses of men-at-arms on foot, remained upon the east bank under the command of Roose Bolton. Robb had commanded him to continue the march south, to confront the huge Lannister army coming north under Lord Tywin.
For good or ill, her son had thrown the dice.