The body of the King had been laid in a tent. The story for the moment was that he had fainted, and required the attentions of a maester. The truth would be out soon enough, but even a small amount of time was invaluable. An army needed leadership, needed direction. If news of Robert's death spread to the army before the rebellion's leadership collected itself, the only result would be panic.

Dark thoughts filled Ned's head as he looked upon the massive corpse that had been Robert Baratheon. There was a maester poking and prodding it, checking for evidence of poison, treachery, and all other unnatural causes. Ned was familiar with death. His father, his brother, his sister in all likelihood, and now his best friend as well. This war had cost too much. The prince, Rhaegar, had died too. Robert might have found comfort in that fact. Ned only felt cold.

"Too much blood lost." The maester's grave face turned to Ned. He gestured at Robert's battered armor, and the blood-soaked coat that had gone underneath. "His Grace had been bleeding internally for hours, in addition to his other wounds. Stab wounds from his fight with Rhaegar, aggravated by Robert's own strength, a bruised rib from where he fell off of the horse… most of the damage was hidden by his armor. A deep wound often hurts less than a shallow one, it is likely His Grace didn't believe himself to be mortally injured. Even if he had sought help immediately..." the maester spread his hands apologetically. "His Grace had lost so much blood."

He died of his wounds. That was not so surprising, really. More knights died after the battle than during, after all. Every knight knew to have his wounds inspected as soon as possible, but so often there were other priorities. In the heat of a fight, a man could ignore any number of injuries, and Robert had been a tough, stubborn bastard. Gods, after killing Rhaegar the man must have felt invincible. Everyone else in the rebellion had fixated on Aerys but for Robert, Rhaegar might as well have been the Other himself. A dull smile tugged at Ned's lips a moment. At least his friend had died without regrets.

"The pain would have been little enough, I'm happy to say," The maester said with a cough. "However-"

An armored form parted the tent and the maester's voice trailed off. The man who entered was tall, straight, and dressed in plain gray armor. "Leave us." The man stated, and so the maester did. "Tell no one yet."

Jon Arryn. The Lord of the Eyre and Ned's second father. The man had been as good as a father to Robert these last few years, and without his planning the rebellion would have been impossible. "Ned..." the man breathed, a deep sympathy suddenly coming into his voice. "I came as soon as I could. I hardly believed it when I heard, but..."

"Aye." Ned stated. There was nothing else to say. This wasn't the first friend they had buried together.

Silence ruled for a minute. Jon went to the body and touched Robert's face with his hand, saying a silent prayer to the Seven, Ned supposed. Jon took a deep breath, and Ned realized that the old man was crying.

The tent flap opened and the towering, heavy figure of Hoster Tully moved in. He did not say anything for a moment, letting the men grieve. Several minutes passed, and when Hoster finally spoke, it was with a voice like gravel. "We need to decide on a path forward, Ned, Jon. With respect to the crown, I mean. Mourning must come after."

Other take him, did it always have to be about the bloody crown? Robert had been a king, but he had been a friend first. Others take the crown too. The bloody thing had hardly done Ned any favors.

And yet… he was right. Ned sighed. There were tens of thousands of living men who needed their attention at the moment. The dead could be buried later. "Aye." Ned stated again. "I have thought about that some. It has to be Stannis or Renly next, we don't have any other option. If we hadn't already killed Rhaegar, or if we hadn't crowned Robert, or if..." If Robert had not died, "...we might talk, but as it stands, Stannis is our king, if he lives."

"I don't know that we have to declare for him." Hoster rumbled. "We declared for Robert, because of who he was, not because of his bloodline. We never properly crowned him, though so it isn't the same as it might be otherwise."

"You're speaking of a regency." Jon's voice was very soft.

"Well, I am, I suppose. That's what we were trying to do to begin with, and as mad as Rhaegar and Aerys were, there have been good Targaryen kings before. Catelyn already has a child upon the way, and Lysa may as well for all I know. Marry the Targaryen children into our families and we will all be tied together. Tully, Arryn, Stark, Targaryen, and Martell. Five of the Seven Kingdoms, united to the throne by blood and covenant."

Ned did not say anything at first. His goodfather had not been as taken with Robert's bid for the throne as others had, and Stannis was a total enigma. Robert's character had made men follow while he was alive, but would it be enough to make men follow his brother while he was dead?

"If we had Aegon here, that might be one thing." Jon's voice had turned hard again. "But he is currently with his grandfather in King's Landing, or in some other loyalist holding. If we state publicly that we mean to replace Aerys with his own grandchild..."

Hoster swallowed. "Aye. Stannis is with the Tyrells, though, and even more distant than Aegon." He paused, as though a sudden though had struck him. "Just say to the men for now that we're fighting to depose Aerys, and that if Stannis is still alive when we find him, we can hold a Great Council of the Realm, with all the seven kingdoms represented."

"And what will we do, at such a council?" Ned stated flatly, his eyes fixed on Robert's corpse. "We've spat upon the Targaryen dynasty in every way we could have. We killed Rhaegar and we will kill Aerys before we're through. We broke our oaths to the Targaryens and acclaimed Robert as king. Are we going to go back on those oaths to Robert now, and swear to a baby while his father's blood is still upon our hands? All men would despise us as craven opportunists with no sense of honor."

"There's also the matter of alliances." Jon's eyes had narrowed. "You cannot rule the seven kingdoms without support from either the Westerlands or the Reach. Neither of them bear us any love and while a regency might make the Martels favorable to us, we would still have to court Tywin's favor. "

All the men in the room tensed. Tywin had been a looming, enigmatic threat throughout this whole war. The man held the second largest region in the seven kingdoms with an iron fist, and he had been ominously inactive throughout the rebellion.

Ned frowned. "We will have to make peace with him regardless."

"And if Stannis is king, Tywin has a daughter." Jon's smiled tightly. "What was it you said, Hoster? Binding our houses to the Throne? We are already bound to the Baratheon line, by covenant if not by blood."

Hoster nodded slowly. "Yes, yes… I see it now." The big man paused. "But, what sort of man is Robert's brother? He's scarcely left the Stormlands."

Stannis Baratheon. Ned had seen the frowning man only a few times. He was in form much like Robert, huge and imposing, but in temperament he was as sour as his older brother had been genial. Robert had trusted and despised Stannis in equal measure, and to all appearances Stannis had returned the sentiment. Ned cleared his throat. "From what I've seen of him, he's both responsible and serious. He'll manage the administration of a kingdom fairly. He's also very strong-willed." Ned added almost as an afterthought. "Without his determination in holding onto Storm's End, the Tyrell host at the Trident would have been half again as large."

"In any case, he's a young man, and hopefully can listen to good counsel." Jon added, earning a nod from Hoster. "Good. Glad we are all in agreement. If the man still lives, he is king."

"King Stannis Baratheon." Hoster breathed, nodding to himself.

"Aye." Ned added. "This changes little in the short term. We cannot break the siege at Storm's End without first taking King's Landing."

Jon shook his head. "We need to break the siege as soon as possible. Setting King's Landing to order might take weeks - weeks in which our king might starve to death. Or Mace might attempt something foolish, like storming the castle."

"A doomed enterprise."

"But Stannis might still die." Hoster rumbled. "If he's anything like his brother, he'll be manning the battlements with the rest of them." He laid a hand on Ned's shoulder. "How fast could you get to our King?"

Ned frowned, maps and names and numbers flitting through his head. "The Kingsroad is the fastest route, and we'll be fighting along it all the way to King's landing. There are lesser roads, which would allow a smaller force to evade the Crown's main army and move more quickly, but they are only simple dirt roads. I can move at most five thousands that way, or perhaps ten if we split into two groups. We would move quickly, since we would not have to fight and we would not have to set King's Landing to order, but..." Ned shook his head. "It is a play fraught with danger. We'll have a hard battle to break the siege at Storm's End, and we'll be incredibly exposed along the road. If the main army turns on us, or someone rallies a local army..."

"Would you get to Stannis more quickly?" Jon's eyes met Ned's.

"Weeks, maybe a whole month." Ned stated, letting out a breath. "We'll come within a day's ride of King's Landing, but we could avoid the main force." He paused. "Is this worth it? If the remnants of Rhaegar's army turns on us..."

"Stannis is our king, Ned. He takes priority over everything else." Jon scolded. "Besides that, the Crown's army is leaderless and will likely remain so. Who will rally them? The Kingsguard are dispersed, captured, or dead. The Lords of Dorne and the Reach hate each other, and the Stormlanders are viewed with suspicion by everyone. The army is bleeding hundreds of soldiers every day, and dozens of minor nobles have already defected or surrendered. By the time we get to King's landing we'll be facing mostly goldcloaks." Arryn paused. "In any case, that will be my problem. I'll cut down their scouts and pickets; they'll be as blind as they are disorganized."

"I'll need the freshest of the Northern soldiers." Ned stated firmly. "The Umbers, Karstarks, and Glovers."

"Done." Arryn stated. "You will lead half the army south, I will lead the rest to King's Landing. Hoster, if you could gather the lords for an announcement?" Hoster nodded and left the tent. As soon as he was gone, Jon shot Ned a wan smile. "My apologies, Eddard."

"You gave reasons for Hoster to support Stannis." Ned stated "They weren't your reasons. I understand that."

Jon nodded, and Ned could now see the tears in his eyes. "Robert's memory is all the reason I need. Regret is a powerful thing Ned, and I… have many things to regret."

"Aye." Ned said. His father, his brother, his sister, and now Robert too. They had all died and left him alone. "I am the same."

"Regret, anger, and a hunger for vengeance, that is what has guided us, yes? And we have found more of it along the way for our trouble." Jon laughed coldly. "But Hoster, Tywin, and Mace are motivated by different appetites. Their concern is the future, their own legacies and reputations. We have to speak their language, Ned. We must keep the Realm together. Now come, we have to announce the death of the King."