Night crept in over Winterfell, and Robb Stark could just barely make out the figure of his Father seated in the middle of the Godswood. Eddard Stark was still a relatively young man, but years of rebellion and living in the harsh conditions of the North had begun to take their toll on him. The news of the King's coming arrival had done nothing to ease his Father's burdens, and Robb could see the stress that weighed down on the Lord's broad shoulders.
His Father sat on a large stone next to one of Winterfell's many hot springs, restlessly spinning a small dagger in his palm as he stared at the haunting face of the heart tree. Robb had searched for his Father to bring him news that scouts had spotted the King's party camped a day's march from Winterfell, but he hesitated at seeing the man so burdened. Robb stepped backwards one step, then another, and was about to turn back towards the keep when his Father's voice stopped him.
"There is more than enough room out here for the both of us, Son. Am I needed somewhere else?"
Robb stopped mid-turn and slowly made his way over to where his Father sat, taking a seat next to him. "No, Father. The King has been spotted. They'll be here by tomorrow. The rider said it seems King Robert has brought the whole of the South along with him."
Eddard managed a small laugh, but his heart was not in it. "That is Robert Baratheon for you, Son. He's never done anything by half. It is fortunate that the one thing that we do have in the North is an abundance of open space. We may run out of food, but the land will always be plentiful."
Robb hesitated before asking his Father the question that had been troubling his own thoughts for the past day. "Why does the King's visit trouble you so deeply? I understand that he means to ask you to become Hand of the King, but surely he would not hold it against you if you refused. He is your friend."
"Robb, when one day you are Lord of Winterfell, you will learn that it is no easy thing to deny a King anything, even one who you were great friends with in your youth."
"There would be no crown on his head if it was not for you," Robb needlessly reminded his Father.
"Another one of those things you will learn is that you should not rely on things that a King may owe you," Eddard advised, looking seriously at Robb. "It is a King's prerogative to remember or forget things as he sees fit. From what news I have heard out of King's Landing of my dear friend Robert over the years, he has developed an adeptness at forgetting his responsibilities."
"Is that what troubles you? What the King has become?" Robb watched as his Father looked away from him, staring into the heart tree as if seeking guidance from the Old Gods. They were silent for a long moment before the Lord of Winterfell spoke again.
"Many things bother me about recent events Robb. I was there in King's Landing when the Mad King fell, and I could have easily have sat on that ugly throne and called myself King. I had the North behind me and Robert would have supported me. I had a choice between that life and the North, and I chose the North. It's what I am, a Stark of Winterfell."
"It was the right choice," Robb interjected, even if his own opinion was selfish in nature. He had no doubt his Father would have been a better King than Robert Baratheon, but it would have deprived the North of his attention and forced Robb to grow up in the pit of filth that was King's Landing.
Lord Stark nodded. "Aye, it was the right decision for me, but it had consequences for everyone else. The Rebellion tore apart the realm, and we had no plans for afterwards. Robert was a warrior, not a King. Now Robert sits on the throne and makes a mockery of the man he once was. Jon Arryn was the only thing that kept Robert from completely neglecting his duties, and now I fear what the King will become without his guidance in King's Landing."
"And you feel it is your duty to fix the King's mistakes?"
"Part of me feels that way."
Robb respected his Father's sense of duty and honor, but at the same time he could not imagine the man leaving Winterfell, likely forever. Robb was not prepared to run Winterfell on his own. He knew it was selfish, but his Father belonged in Winterfell. The Mad King had killed Robb's Grandfather and Uncle in sickening fashion, and what had happened afterwards was not Eddard Stark's responsibility.
"Have you decided for certain?" Robb asked, dreading the answer.
"Not for certain." Eddard Stark was quiet once more before he set his hand on Robb's shoulder. "Come, enough of this dreary talk for tonight. Let us go and make sure your Mother hasn't run the inhabitants of the castle ragged preparing for the Queen's arrival. It won't reflect on us well if no can rise after they bend the knee for the King."
Robb had not known what to expect when the news of the King's imminent arrival had come, but it had not been the Robert Baratheon that rode through the gates of Winterfell. The ruler of the Seven Kingdoms was as fat as a boar, and when he had greeted Robb, the smell of wine on his breath had been almost overpowering. The fact that this man was supposed to have been the same one talked about in songs and stories he felt to be absurd.
However, Robb eased his judgment of the King when he got his first glimpse of the Lannisters that he was surrounded by. The Queen, the Kingslayer, and Joffrey Baratheon looked to be the group of the most pompous individuals Robb had ever laid eyes on. The way that they had looked on in contempt at Winterfell had made Robb bite his lip to stop himself from defending his home. The only thing that eased his furor was when he saw the same look on his Father's face, especially when he was forced to kiss the Queen's jewelry-laden hand.
The day went by swiftly as the whole Stark household tried to accommodate the entirety of the King's party that numbered at lease three hundred. There were knights, ladies, servants, and all manner of others who had decided to attach themselves to the King's host. Robb was relieved when he was finally able to take his seat next to Theon in the Great Hall and indulge himself in drink.
"It looks like our King is enjoying himself," Theon noted from beside him, picking at a piece of meat on his plate.
Robb looked up and saw the King, drink firmly in hand, laughing uproariously with a group of women around him, practically in his lap. Robb cringed when he saw the look on the Queen's face, she, who was sitting right next to her husband as he debauched himself. "All of this work to try and impress the King, and we could have just taken him to a brothel."
"Think Cersei would have sat there and watched with that same look on her face while he fucked the whores?" Theon questioned, and Robb almost spit out the sip of wine he had just taken.
"He likely wouldn't have cared either way from the look of him."
"Speaking of pieces of shit, I'd love to bash that prick Joffrey's face in," Theon sneered. "You should have heard him today, complaining about everything he set his eyes on and acting as if his every word should be written and spread throughout Westeros. Do you think if we left the door to his room open tonight, your wolf would tear his face off?"
"I wouldn't want to risk the taste of pampered prince making Grey Wind ill."
"I'll tell you what makes me sick, is the look your Sister is giving him. I can't believe your Father is going to let her marry him."
Robb looked over and saw Sansa and Jeyne Poole making simpering noises in the Prince's direction, ones that he seemed to be fully aware of. "I'm not sure that he had much of a choice. What was he supposed to say, 'sorry Your Grace, but I think your son is an evil shit.' No chance of that going over well," Robb stated.
Theon shrugged, "I maintain the direwolf face-eating plan is a sound option."
Robb ignored Theon, and was about to reach for a refill of wine when he saw the figure of his Uncle Benjen make his into the hall. Robb immediately stood and made to intercept the black-clad ranger of the Night's Watch.
"Robb," Benjen greeted his nephew, pulling him into a brief embrace. "You look more like a future Lord of Winterfell every time I see you."
"And you haven't changed much at all since the last I saw you. How are things on the Wall?"
"Increasingly worrisome, I'm afraid," Benjen frowned. "That's really the reason I'm down here, although the King visiting Winterfell and seeing my nieces and nephews was a convenient reason as well. There has been increased activity beyond the wall, and we simply don't have the manpower to investigate...especially when our rangers keep running south."
"The man who Father executed," Robb began, remembering the ranger's genuinely terrified appearance, "he was talking of running away from white walkers. Was he just talking nonsense?"
Benjen leaned forward so only Robb could hear him. "Ponder this Robb. The Lords of the Seven Kingdoms built castles like Winterfell and Riverrun to keep their enemies out, because men can be stopped by thick walls of stone. Wildlings are uncivilized and lawless, but they are just men, who could be kept out by the same walls we are behind tonight. Knowing that, now ask yourself why eight-thousand years ago, our ancestors felt the need to build a wall of ice seven-hundred feet tall."
That question threw Robb, for he couldn't think of a reasonable answer. Living in Winterfell he had grown up on tales of Others, White Walkers and the Children of the Forest, but they had always just been stories meant to entertain restless children. The fact that his Uncle Benjen was implying they actually existed was terrifying. He barely noticed that he was lost in his own thoughts, until Benjen patted him on the shoulder.
"I'm going to see if I can go put that same look on your Father's face. Maybe then he will convince the King to take our request for aid more seriously. After all..."
"Winter is coming," Robb finished for him, his family's word flowing off his tongue with barely a thought.
Benjen smiled. "A true Stark." The man turned to find the Lord of Winterfell, but looked back at Robb suddenly. "Talk to your brother Jon. He means to follow me back to the Wall and I've run out of reasons to deny him. I know your Mother doesn't look on him fondly, but he shouldn't swear unbreakable vows over it."
Robb never got the chance to speak with Jon, as he was forced to extricate Arya from the Hall before Sansa did her serious bodily harm. He honestly couldn't imagine two sisters being any more different than his own. After escorting her to her room, he hard retired to his own for the evening. He could still here the revelry going on outside, but he did his best to ignore it. Grey Wind was curled at the side of Robb's bed on a warm rug, and the direwolf barely paid him any attention as he began to doze. Robb removed his cloak and boots before sliding into his bed, luxuriating in the feel of the furs against his skin. He had only been asleep for what felt like minutes when he heard something that stirred him awake.
There entering his room stood his Father, dressed in simple clothes and covered by a thick cloak. Lord Stark softly shut the door before he walked across the grey stone floor and sat down in a chair next to Robb's bed. Robb pushed himself up and looked questioningly at his Father. He quickly looked outside and verified that it was still dark out. Something was wrong.
"You are man now, Robb, and as the future Warden of the North, you need to know the things that will affect the people you are responsible for protecting. I had considered keeping this to myself, but I have faith that you are ready to hear it." Robb unconsciously straightened his back, sitting taller at his Father's words. He tried to mold himself after Eddard Stark, and having his Father's trust was something that he cherished beyond anything.
"A raven came from your Aunt Lysa tonight. She said that Jon Arryn was murdered and implicated the Lannisters as the ones responsible for the crime."
"Do you believe her?"
"I don't know what to believe Robb. I've never thought the highest of Lysa, but to risk sending such a thing accusing the Lannisters has to mean something. That, and after watching Jaime Lannister put his sword through the Mad King, there is little I would not believe the Lannisters capable of. And now Robert had led a hoard of them under our roof," Eddard finished.
"You believe the King's life to be in danger?" Robb questioned, yet he already knew the answer.
"I do," his Father sighed loudly, running a hand through his long hair. "Robert may be King in name, but Tywin Lannister and his vaults of gold lurk in the shadows pulling invisible strings. Jon Arryn was always there to look out for the interests of the realm, but with him gone no barriers remain. Tywin may seek to prematurely put Joffrey on the throne, which means Cersei Lannister would hold complete sway over the Seven Kingdoms."
"And now you feel even more compelled to follow the King back to King's Landing?"
"More so than I did after our conversation yesterday."
"And what if Aunt Lysa is right?" Robb offered. "What if you go to the Capital and the Lannisters find out that you know? They obviously had no trouble killing one Hand, wouldn't it mean little to them to do it to another?"
"They would have difficult questions to answer, but unfortunately gold is the answer to many of them," Eddard responded grimly. "I would not be alone, though. I would take a portion of the guard with me."
"I don't think the guard would be of much use against the might of Casterly Rock. If something were to happen in King's Landing, Tywin Lannister would stand between you and our bannermen. And what of this business with Sansa marrying Joffrey? If you go to King's Landing she will want to go with you."
Robb watched as his Father growled in frustration, and he felt the need to try and reason past some of the man's inner conflict. "Father, you said that you felt the need to tell me about Aunt Lysa's warning because I'm the heir to Winterfell, so will you listen to my opinion as the same?"
His Father looked at him somberly, but nodded. "I will."
"I think we don't know for sure that the Lannisters mean to kill the King. They may have killed Jon Arryn for some other reason we don't know. But if you follow him to King's Landing and start looking into his murder, it may encourage them to act."
"You believe it will provoke them. But if I don't accept his offer, Robert will name Tywin Lannister Hand of the King and they will have what they want."
"The King may be safer if Tywin Lannister is named Hand," Robb argued.
"How so?" his Father questioned.
"If you were to become Hand, the Lannisters would have to remove you, which would likely lead them to having to remove the King as well. Losing two Hands to sudden deaths would likely draw even Robert Baratheon's attention. But if Tywin Lannister is Hand, then the Lannisters get what they want without the need for anyone's death. You said it yourself, Jon Arryn was running the kingdom as Hand."
"If the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn, Robb, then they must be called to answer for it. It cannot simply be cast aside. Justice demands that we act."
Robb shook his head, "I agree with you Father, but the truth is that we simply may not be in a position to deal it out. If it comes to meting out punishment, you would be much more effective leading an army of Northerners against Tywin Lannister then seeking justice in King's Landing surrounded by people who line their pockets with Lannister gold. I'm not saying we forget their crimes, I'm saying we wait until the time is right."
They fell into another heavy silence. Robb had worked himself up and restlessly strode towards a window, looking out into the night. He was six and ten years, and before the news of the King's arrival, he had been concerned over simple things...riding, hunting, practicing with his sword and bow with Jon in the tiltyard. Now he was closed in his room in the middle of the night discussing the future of the Seven Kingdom with his Father.
"It must be the Tully blood in you," his Father said from across the room. Robb turned and stared at his Father in confusion. "All of this political posturing has always been beyond me. Soldiering I understand. Your enemy is always in front of you and it's clear whom you're fighting. Now we have Lannisters plotting and Night's Watch running from things that we talk about in stories to frighten children."
"You spoke with Uncle Benjen?"
"Yes, we spoke of the struggles on the Wall."
"And what did you make of it?"
"I think Benjen believes in everything he says," Eddard answered, stepping around the true intent of Robb's question. "Robert wouldn't hear a word of it of course, but I've promised Benjen I would send ravens to our bannermen seeking aid. Unfortunately, I doubt any will take the message seriously until wildlings start crossing over in greater numbers. Most of the Northern Lords are more concerned with stocking food with winter coming than they are with making sure the Wall is properly manned."
"Another reason you are needed here. I'm not ready to manage Winterfell through a winter on my own," Robb confessed, trying not to sound like a child begging for their parent's help.
"Robb, no one is ready to manage a winter in the North. You'll learn that someday. Winter gives no warning and it shows no mercy. All we can do is survive the driving snow and bitter cold and help as many of our people survive as well. That is what it means to be Lord of Winterfell." His Father stood from his chair and walked back towards the chamber door. He reached for the handle but did not turn it. "You remember yesterday when I told you it was no easy thing to deny a King?"
"Aye," Robb affirmed.
"Tomorrow I intend to try," Eddard advised, though he looked sick at just the thought of it. "Robert means to hunt in the Wolfswood, and I will give him my answer after he has had an opportunity to release his aggression on the northern game. Although I may have more cause to worry from your Sister if Robert decides to break her engagement."
"We could only be so lucky," Robb muttered as his Father stepped out of sight.