The royal party arrives at Winterfell, and Ned is forced to confront the fact that his beloved friend Robert has become grossly self-indulgent since he became King. We also get some backstory on the civil war that put Robert on the throne and a fateful offer from Robert to Ned.

Of great interest to me as a member of the Kingslayer fan club: we see Jaime first through Ned’s eyes, though his initial thought about Jaime isn’t particularly pejorative (“Ser Jaime Lannister with hair as bright as beaten gold”) and Jaime is interestingly introduced in the same sentence as Sandor Clegane, which leads me to believe these two men are also linked in the narrative (I’ll talk more about that when I get to Bran’s dream.)

Robert seems “almost a stranger to Ned” - we learn that Ned last saw him during the Greyjoy rebellion which was “only” nine years ago, but Robert has changed a lot physically since then. Cersei’s wheelhouse doesn’t fit through the gates of Winterfell so she enters on foot - which has to be humiliating for someone as proud as she is; then she is further humiliated by Robert’s immediate request to go and see Lyanna’s grave in the crypts.

Robert complains about how huge, empty and cold the North is and talks about how ripe and luscious everything is in the South at the tail end of a long summer. There’s a real emphasis on the size and separateness of the North - foreshadowing/remembrance of the Starks as Kings in the North.

As Ned walks past the graves of the earliest Starks, he remembers that “By ancient custom an iron longsword had been laid across the lap of each who had been Lord of Winterfell, to keep the vengeful spirits in their crypts.” I find this SUPER interesting, because what are those spirits vengeful about? Is this just a sort of bone-deep memory of the Others and the Starks as one of the outposts of humanity against them, or are we subtly being told that, for all the current generation of Starks seeming to be pretty decent fellas, their ancient ancestors were far more of a mixed bag? There’s a mention of the Starks as Kings in the North before the Targaryens came.

(OK, so this is one fantasy trope that I think Martin also falls guilty to - I’m annoyed by how fantasy dynasties are always totally static, the same families rule for thousands of years until the Targaryens arrived, which is really not the case in any kind of real-world setting.  If you look at any real-world history, it’s enormously unlikely that the same political structures will be in place for thousands of years, let alone the same dynastic rule: families don’t have children or everyone dies of the Black Plague or there are only daughters so they end up changing the family name, or they’re overthrown by their disgruntled vassals or whatever. It seems highly unlikely to me that the Starks have been the overlords of the North forever and that the Umbers/Boltons/Manderlys/etc. have been their underlings forever without jockeying for position - same thing with the other dynasties in the series. The only change seems to have come with the Targaryens as overlords, and the end of the River Kings dying out at Harrenhal and being replaced by families that were never royal, like the Tullys and in the Reach, the Tyrells.)

We get backstory on Brandon and Rickard’s deaths (and of course, having read Jaime’s account of them, we know that Ned never knew the full horror of how they died. Maybe he would have felt differently about Jaime if he had, who knows?) Ned still thinks of Brandon as “the true heir, the eldest, born to rule” even after fifteen years of ruling the North rather well. On the show, I missed this sense of diffidence from Ned, of almost being an impostor in his brother’s shoes (as Lord of Winterfell and as Catelyn’s husband); Show!Ned is considerably more self-righteous than Book!Ned and much more insulting of everyone who isn’t a northerner. More on this later too! He also thinks that Robert loved Lyanna more than he (Ned) did, but I’m not buying it. Robert seems to have loved an image of sixteen-year-old Lyanna, of course, but it’s not his love for Lyanna that Robert dreams of, but punishing Rhaegar - he says he kills Rhaegar every night in his dreams and a thousand deaths wouldn’t be enough punishment for what he did to Lyanna.

The first inklings of Lyanna’s fate and the secret Ned is guarding: Martin cleverly makes us think that Ned’s remembrance of the promise he made to Lyanna is about her being buried at Winterfell, but there is the mention of a room that smelled of blood and roses (we don’t know about the roses from the Harrenhal tournament yet and how the blue rose will symbolize Jon Snow, but we’ve already got little subtle hints that there may be more going on with this story.

Robert tells Ned that Jon Arryn sickened quickly, they discuss Lysa and how she’s seemed a little unhinged after Jon’s death and we learn that Jon had agreed to foster Lysa’s son with Tywin Lannister (Ned sourly thinks that he would “sooner entrust a child to a pit viper than to Lord Tywin” with a cryptic remembrance that some old wounds never heal -  he’s clearly thinking of Tywin’s sack of King’s Landing and the murder of Rhaegar’s children and the real source of his dislike of the Lannisters.)

And then Robert drops the bomb he came all the way to Winterfell to deliver - he wants Ned to be Hand of the King in Jon Arryn’s place, and as a bonus, he wants Sansa to marry Joffrey when they are both old enough. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Ned for agreeing to the betrothal, but a) it doesn’t seem like he has much choice (Robert is pretty wilful and Ned himself thinks that he doesn’t know the guy that well any more, even at this early stage of Robert’s visit); b) he doesn’t know Joffrey at all; c) Robert has just offered up that Ned’s daughter will be Queen of Westeros (as his sister Lyanna would have been had she married Robert, although I suppose there would have been no rebellion so Robert wouldn’t have been King anyway. In fact, I’ve kind of wondered about Lord Stark, Warden of the North, betrothing his only daughter to the Baratheon heir, because until the rebellion they seemed like a fairly minor house at least compared to Hoster Tully’s house in the Riverlands. Was it just Ned’s friendship/Jon Arryn’s fostering the kid that made Robert a suitable bridegroom for Lyanna?)
Anyway, Ned doesn’t want to be Hand at all, and asks for more time to consider Robert’s offer - although I dislike Robert, I do find the fact that he openly admits that he doesn’t want to do the work of being King and his honest appraisal of himself rather hilarious. At least he is conscientious enough about being King that he’s tried to find the best guy for the job. “If I wanted to honor you, I’d let you retire. I am planning to make you run the kingdom and fight wars while I eat and drink and wench myself into an early grave.”

Memorable lines: “The King eats… and the Hand takes the shit.”