Part the Fourth
Ilse had kindly refused the Queen’s invitation to ride in the litter. Instead she put the britches on along with her new boots and her simple gray gown that had a silk material to cover up the low cut of the gown. She wore the same material in a scarf around her head so only her face showed, her braids even tamed on the back of her head.
A horn sounded and Ilse held tighter and Edmure clasped her hand, their fingers intertwining although they were each wearing gloves along with their dark gray cloaks. “The battlements have been seen,” he told her. “We’ll be there by dinner.”
There were several more hours, but soon they were standing before the Winterfell party. The King was speaking to the children and then the Queen approached. They clearly had words and the man, who must have been Lord Stark, left with the King.
Edmure swung out of the saddle and lifted her down. He put a hand around her waist and approached a woman with red hair and blue eyes. This was Catelyn Stark, she realized, and she tried to smile, although she was absolutely terrified.
“Brother,” she greeted, kissing his cheek. “Is this your new bride, from House Ever?”
“Yes,” he agreed. “Lady Ilse, may I present Lady Stark, my sister?”
Ilse curtsied and accepted the embrace from the woman. “May I meet your children?” she asked, surprised that her voice didn’t waver.
“Of course,” she said, leading her down the ranks. Ilse smiled especially at Sansa, although she was five years younger than she was. The girl blushed. “Your gown is beautiful,” she complimented. “You have a very accomplished handmaiden.”
“My daughter made it herself,” Lady Stark said proudly.
“Then perhaps we can sew together sometime,” Ilse suggested. “My handmaiden has been making me clothes in the Tully fashion, and I really must learn.”
“Darling, perhaps you should retire,” Edmure suggested, as he came up and kissed her cheek. “We’ve been riding for several hours—“ And they had made love twice that very morning, once in a nearly frozen lake which they hoped was far enough away from the camp.
“Indeed. Lady Stark, I hope you do not think me impertinent, but I received a rather singular wedding gift from a Petyr Baelish and I cannot make anything of it. As you are a woman and grew up with him, I thought you might be able to give some insight to it. There is no rush, but I would be much appreciative.”
“Of course, my dear,” she said in slight confusion. “Robb,” she said. “Show your aunt to her room. Perhaps she can impress upon you the sanctity of marriage.”
Robb led the way and she followed behind him. “I do hope I did not stumble upon a contentious topic,” she began carefully. “Marriage is rather personal, I find.”
“You married for love,” he stated, turning around in a hallway.
“I did, cousin,” she said, only partially lying. Edmure had married for love. She married for fear of what might happen to her and because she wanted him.
“I wish to marry a Northern girl.” He looked angrily at the wall as if he were about to strike it with his fist.
Ilse moved forward and squeezed his shoulder before walking past him. “A girl of rank or anyone in particular? Is this a hypothetical lady?”
He fell into step next to her. “Forgive me, Aunt Ilse, but I do not believe—“
“You need say no more,” she said as they stopped at a door. “Of course it is personal. However, I would tell you to go with your feelings in this, which is perhaps not what Lady Stark was hoping I would say. Lady Cerzainya had a reputation for being cold, which did not endear her to Lord Edmure, especially as he had already fallen in love with me. He followed his heart. Perhaps you might like to watch us together. It might help.” She gave him a small smile and then opened her door, where she took in a room of stone with sheets of warm blue, a looking glass, and a dresser. There also was a privacy screen and a window that looked out into the woods.
With a bow Robb left her and they shared a quick smile as if they were allies in a secret war.
Lalie was sitting on the window seat. “I’m going to need those patterns,” Ilse told her. “I’m going to be sewing with Lady Sansa at some point. It might be better if you join us to help me with the new style.”
“I’ll give you a gown to adorn,” she suggested. “I have three at those stages. Now, I take it you should rest. These dresses are fortunately able to accommodate that.”
Ilse put herself in Lalie’s hand, where the dress was unlaced partially in the back, her headscarf taken off and her boots and britches taken off.
“I will return in time for changing you,” she promised before leaving.
She wasn’t even aware she was sleeping until a hand began to stroke her braids that were once again falling to her waist. “Your hair,” Edmure whispered as soon as he was aware she was awake, “is intoxicating. All day I’ve imagined it beneath that damn scarf.”
“Blame the styles of your land,” she murmured back, turning toward him. “You’d never find a Westron girl, married outside of the Lannister lands, dressed thus.”
“I take it I’d have to put up with Cerzainya wearing it, then, though she never did in front of me or my men.”
Ilse laughed. “Of course she didn’t. She was trying to woo you with your midland ways. She confessed to me that she would probably marry you as she did not like the idea of Ser Loras as he couldn’t balance a budget or defend a keep.”
Edmure chuckled, his hand still stroking her braids. “It’s strange how intoxicating I find them.”
She rubbed her nose briefly against his, so close to almost touch and yet not quite. “Then perhaps you would like to undo them tonight after the festivities.”
“Perhaps I would like to tangle my fingers into them,” he suggested instead.
Her eyes gleamed a pale blue. “Perhaps you would.”
That night was a dress that Ilse stared at. The cool fabric ran along a thin piece of each arm, a section of her bodice and then, once again, the bare area of her chest to pretend modesty. Edmure surprised her with a blue jewel that had belonged to his mother, saying that he had brought it with him as an engagement present, but he hadn’t wanted to overwhelm her before now, their wedding having been barely a week since they had met.
While she wore green with blue sheer material, he was dressed in silver, mottled with blue. They went down before the royal party, and Edmure took the seat next to Catelyn, the brother and sister smiling at each other.
“My dear, you look beautiful in our dresses,” Catelyn complimented, “and I see you wear our mother’s necklace.”
“I hope I don’t cause offense, but Edmure gave it to me just before we were to come to the Hall.”
“Hardly,” she said. “Edmure speaks so highly of you, and even I can tell my brother loves you, and after all these years I have promised I will show him the underground springs as he has disclosed your love of water.”
A smile spread across Ilse’s face. “Thank you, Lady Stark. You cannot know how much that means to me. Edmure believed when he first met me that he’d never be able to separate me from the sea, though in his proposal he did promise to bring me back once a year.”
Of course, the Royal House could not be ignored, especially when Joffrey claimed her for a dance, and then sat with her complaining on having a betrothal between him and Lady Sansa being planned.
“I know she’s perhaps not to your taste,” Ilse began carefully, “but it is a good match in the face of politics. Your cousin may not have been brought up in the feminine arts. She was brought up in the customs of men so that she could run the West. That may not be ideal for a King who requires a Queen, not another King, to be his wife.”
Joffrey listened to her and then looked at Sansa. “She is pretty,” he finally admitted. “Her hair does not offend.”
“I would agree, but I am married to her uncle,” she reminded the crown prince. “Perhaps you should ask her to dance. She looks over here every other minute, thinking that we will not notice although we keep on looking at her.” She smiled slyly at the prince. “Perhaps she is half in love with you already. That is a great advantage in wooing a woman, your grace.”
“How did Lord Edmure woo you?”
“He didn’t,” she declared. “I accidentally did all the wooing without any knowledge that I was doing it.” Ilse laughed happily and caught her husband’s eye and smiled at him.
“And he wishes you to go to him, even when you’re drinking mead with the crown prince. Doesn’t he know what favor I could give you if I made you a royal mistress?”
“I would never willingly accept that lofty position,” she replied coldly. “Do not speak to me in that way, your grace. Many high born ladies would find that offensive.”
“You are not high born. You are high married.”
“I am a lady either way,” she answered. “Go, dance with your future Queen,” she urged him and Joffrey reluctantly stood and made his way over to Sansa, who wore a large smile.
Ilse made her way over to Edmure, whom she let pick up and kiss her hand. “The prince is mad. It’s hard to believe he’s related to Lord Stannis Baratheon, however lacking that man is in manners.” She entwined their fingers and moved closer to him on the bench. Picking up her ale, she took a long drag, wishing she could undo the last two hours. “I want to return to Riverrun. The prince just suggested I should become a royal mistress. For him—not the King.”
“I’d challenge him in a duel,” Edmure declared hotly, kissing her hand again. “I’ll have Lalie and a guard by your side at all times.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. “Shall we dance?”
And they danced, again and again on the floor, ignoring anyone who wanted to cut in, the Heir to Riverrun and his lady just forgetting the world. Steps forgotten, steps made up, she twirled in his arms, until he picked up her up and carried her away out of the hall and back to the door that led both up to the keep and to the outside.
“There’s someone out there,” Ilse commented in surprise.
Edmure listened. “They’re talking about the Wall,” he told her. “It’s none of our concern. Come, wife. You promised I might lose myself in your braids.”
She laughed happily as he took the stairs two at a time and then nearly kicked the door down in his haste to be alone with her. “I love how you don’t wear shifts, even though it’s colder at Riverrun.” He was unlacing her now and helping to pull off the dress in one movement.
“Well, we could never show off as much as we do with shifts,” she said decidedly. She leaned forward and kissed him before she pushed him down on the bed, fully dressed, and undid the buckle of his britches. When he made to get up, she pressed a finger to his lips. “All you can do, Lord Edmure, is place your hands in my hair.”—and that’s all he did do, as she made love to him, and kissed him senseless.
Afterward, they had both changed and Ilse attempted to take down her braids from their complicated hairstyle.
“Let me guess, you sent Lalie away so we could have our privacy,” he assumed.
He looked at her hair, and started pulling out long pins. “You like our privacy.”
“I do,” he agreed as her braids began to fall to her back. “I think we’re getting rather good at this.”
“You’re better than me, certainly. I think there’s only one braid left.” She put her arm at a peculiar angle and pulled it out quickly so that she was free of all pins as far as she knew. “Edmure,” she began carefully. “Father always had his preferences, and at Casterly Rock they never taught me how to read or write. It’s why I was always trusted with the ravens. I couldn’t even tell you where they were being sent.”
“My darling, why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he asked with sympathy in his voice. He took her hands and pulled her to the bed where they sat comfortably.
“I thought if I told you when you wanted to marry me, that you wouldn’t anymore, and that I would lose my position and—“ she sobbed. “And then there just wasn’t the right time to mention it. I could read your maps. Not the words on them, but I’m very good at maps and where one should put troops and the like. I played games like that with a young man in the Lannister army for about two years when he would come and go from the Rock when I was about thirteen. I thought he was actually going to ask for my hand, but nothing came of it.”
She was now looking at the covers and following the pattern with her finger. “This can easily be remedied,” Edmure told her. “We’ll begin on the morrow.”
“You’ll keep it secret? You won’t tell Lady Stark or your father?”
“I give you my word,” he swore, sealing the promise with the kiss. “It may be difficult getting a primer from here in the castle, but we can go down into Winter Town and find something. Claim it’s for a cousin or something.”
It was then, however, that Lady Stark came. Edmure let her enter and Ilse went to her trunk and carefully got out the ornamental box. “Petyr Baelish said your sister Lysa Arryn gave it to him. She believes, he says, that someone murdered her husband, most likely through poison.” She stood in her silk shift and handed it to her goodsister. “Neither of us has opened it nor read its contents if there is a letter hidden in it,” she promised. “I’ve been pretending it was a wedding gift.”
“I thank you,” Catelyn said. “May I ask what the crown prince was speaking of? He and Sansa are soon to be betrothed—“
“He’s a young man,” Ilse confessed. “Three years younger than I am and I believe that in many ways I am a bit young for marriage. His mother is from the west, and he views her as the most beautiful woman in the world. In his mind, he thought he’d always marry to the west. He just needs to adjust his ideas a little. He finds Lady Sansa very pretty. We spoke at great length about her hair as I’m an expert in the subject.” She gave a small smile.
Edmure fortunately changed the topic of conversation. “Cat, is there a bookseller in town? I need to pick up a simple book or two that any bookseller probably has.”
“Indeed,” she answered. “I can take you and Lady Ilse there tomorrow if you like.”
Struggling for words, Ilse spoke next: “Please, call me ‘Ilse,’ Lady Stark. I am your goodsister.”
The other woman smiled at her warmly. “Catelyn then. I wish you a goodnight, Brother, Sister.” She took the box and left the room.
“I’ll distract her from the bookstore,” Ilse immediately said. “If she suspects anything, we’ll say it’s for one of the younger guards who recently joined our ranks and we just learned he never had any schooling.”
“Very well,” he said, coming close to her, wrapping her in his embrace and kissing her forehead.
She was strangely the first one to wake the next morning. She turned in her husband’s arms and watched him sleep. He was so peaceful. It was the same look he gained after they had made love, a look he only ever seemed to share with her. Carefully, she traced the curve of his jaw and the line of his nose. He shifted at her movement, but she didn’t cease, moving the back of her hand along his cheek and then over his sleeping eyes. A finger moved against his lips, and then she reached forward and gave him a whisper of a kiss. When she pulled away it was to see his dark blue eyes looking at her.
“If only I could wake up every morning to such sweet torture,” he murmured before he drew her close and kissed her passionately until she could barely breathe.
“Edmure,” she gasped, but then he was whispering, “By the Seven, I love you, and only you. I’ve never loved another woman and the Seven somehow blessed me by giving you to me. I thank all that is holy that my father forced me to go to Casterly Rock.” Then he was kissing her again, deeply, passionately, this all encompassing feeling, and she reached up to cup his cheek as she kissed him back.
“Promise you’ll never regret me,” she said, pulling back a little, but he followed her.
“Never,” he swore as he kissed her again and again and again, until there was a knock on the door and Lalie and Georj entered. “Fuck!” he muttered, removing himself from his wife.
“The King has asked you to dine,” Lalie apologized.
“The King is awake?” Ilse asked in confusion. She pulled down her nightgown which had ridden up a bit and got out of bed, going behind the screen to be put into some blue dress that was without modesty fabrics. The blue jewel had been put away and the krone were once again around her neck. Her braids were left in tact and she walked around only to see that Edmure was waiting for her.
One thing could be said for Robert Baratheon: he ate and drank a great deal at every meal. He was at a table with only Ned Stark. Edmure and Ilse bowed and were bad to come to the table. “What’s wrong with this niece of mine?” King Robert bellowed.
“There’s nothing wrong with her, per se,” Edmure began, but Robert interrupted him.
“I wasn’t asking you, I was asking the girl. You’re here for propriety’s sake. Eat, man, have some ale.”
“I think my wife and I will have some water if it’s available,” he said instead, serving them both fruit and a bit of bread as Ilse was a little bit in shock.
“Your grace,” she began, “why would I know anything about Lady Cerzainya Lannister?”
“Because you were her handmaiden.” He took another swig of ale and it came down around his beard. It was disgusting and was beginning to put Ilse off her breakfast.
“I think you’re mistaken,” Edmure began. “She is the only daughter of House Ever—“
“Which never existed and never will exist. Your father is a man who likes to fuck other men and he pays them for the privilege. I have my spies, girl. You are a girl kept because of your sewing and because you can’t read so you are given tasks that are sensitive such as sending and receiving letters or moving correspondence within the keep. You were beaten last year because a boy asked to marry you, although you were never told why.”
She blushed at that, remembering the baker’s son who had been so kind to her, sneaking her extra bread, and then he just disappeared. Naturally she, Charla, and Lalie had gone hungry for a month after that.
“I see you know of what I speak.”
“Your goodfather is a disgusting man,” she said. “He starved us for a month.” She threw her bread in his face. ”Lock me up if you dare to. Prove that you’re Lord Lannister’s copy.”
There was silence for several moments before King Robert let out a booming laugh. “This one’s got fire, Ser Edmure. I see why you married her instead of some Lannister cunt. Then again, from what I hear she is a Lannister cunt herself. Are the rumors true, girl? Is your father the natural born son of Ser Kevan?”
Ilse sat there and closed her eyes momentarily.
“Now, what’s wrong with Cerzainya?” the King asked, fortunately dropping the subject.
“She’s cold, she’s false, she cannot love—I need not go on. Are you happy, my King?”
“But she can read and write.”
“Obviously,” she stated.
“Why don’t you eat, girl?” Ned Stark asked.
“I think I’ll be ill. I mean no offense to your hospitality, Lord Stark. Perhaps some fresh air.” She looked to the window in the room, which was high up but letting in light.
“My son is obsessed with the idea of the Lannister wench,” the King said, clearly not caring that she was feeling unwell. “I heard from his mother that you’ve been trying to change his mind. Something about the Stark girl already being half in love with him and the allure of her hair.” He chuckled at Edmure’s hair. “I suppose you’re an expert on that subject.”
Ilse looked him straight in the eye. “I’m an expert on many things.”
A plate handed to her and she saw that an apple had been cut for her. She looked over at Edmure and smiled, taking a small bite, followed quickly by water. Then she felt it, the sickness. She turned from the table, covering her mouth and barely made it to the outside door before she was vomiting.
“That one’s with child,” the King said to Ned. Edmure had run to his wife. “Send for the Maester.”
Of course, Ilse didn’t appreciate letting any man other than her husband near her. She actually cowered in a corner of the bed until Lalie brought Edmure in to calm Ilse down. Ilse wouldn’t at first answer his questions about bleeding, because she found it a waste of her valuable time, but she finally admitted that it was about a week and a half before she had met her husband, and they had been married now for six weeks.
Then came the order. She’d have to ride in a litter back to Riverrun. A raven was sent, and one was being carried to them from Riverrun and would be available by the time they left. Ilse thought it all ridiculous. She would not be confined to bed, however, and she went with Catelyn and Edmure to the bookstore. “She’ll find out if she doesn’t already know,” she murmured to Edmure as they went into the shop. She browsed the books, looking at the strange letters on them, when Catelyn asked her if she liked books on anatomy, which she was certain she did not.
Edmure secured a reader and a guide to writing. He showed them to her to gain her approval, but she looked at him with a confused look. He took her hand and kissed it before he purchased the two books.
“Good lord,” Catelyn said as they walked out. “The rumors can’t be true. Ilse can’t be the former illiterate handmaiden of Lady Cerzainya.”
“The King speaks too much,” Ilse replied. “At least we know that Lord Lannister will be displeased. He wanted no one to know that his daughter was passed up for her own handmaiden. Think of the scandal. Her reputation could even be destroyed. The shame! The horror!”
“I don’t think her reputation will be ruined,” Edmure replied as if she were being serious.
“One can dream,” she responded. “I used to have three dresses, not just the two. She ruined one out of spite because my hair was longer than hers. She was thirteen and I told her that her hair would grow and would easily be longer than mine, but that didn’t really seem to matter. At least she didn’t cut my hair like she did Lalie’s just before she kicked her out of the keep.”
“Lalie?” Catelyn asked.
“We were handmaidens together. Lalie was blamed for Edmure’s and my romance and was punished for it. We were close friends so I offered her the position of my handmaid. She’s made all of my clothes.”
She walked forward again, not looking back at Catelyn. Ilse did not want to look in her eyes.
It was on the day of the hunt that Ilse was finally able to write “Lady Ilse of House Tully.” Edmure had kissed her soundly and had promised her a treat. When everyone had gone, they had run up to the highest tower. “What are we doing here?” she yelled in happiness. She was wearing a simple riding garb, which she didn’t need to wear until she and Lalie were transported back to Riverrun in their litter.
“I thought you might approve of a particular view,” he told her as he pulled her up the stairs, and then he leaned down and whispered, “while I make love to you.”
He then began running up the stairs again, and she shouted, “Edmure!” just as the door was opened.
The last thing she had expected to see was the Queen and her brother, Ser Jaime.
“Forgive us, my Queen,” Edmure said with a bow. Ilse immediately curtseyed. “We did not realize this room was occupied.”
“Not at all,” the Queen responded. “I’ve always liked towers since I was small. I used to look out onto the sea and clear my head. However, I see that you have promised your lady this view, and my brother has helped me see reason in this particular matter we came to discuss.—Come, Jaime. Let us leave the lovebirds.” She moved past them, not acknowledging them at all, and Ser Jaime didn’t look at either of them. The door closed behind them.
Ilse just looked at them in shock before looking at Edmure. “They’re as peculiar as Cerzainya,” she murmured and then she looked out the window, seeing two hands come up to the sill and then a boy push himself up. “Is that your nephew?”
“Bran!” he called in shock as he went to the window and pulled him in. “What are you thinking? You could have fallen and died!”
“I can climb anything!”
Edmure held his nephew to him. “Let us bring you back to your mother,” he declared, following Ilse out the door. All she could think was what a peculiar day it had been.