Before the day started for their guests, Arya was up and already in the kitchens meeting with Osha, and all her staff. In addition to her duties in Winter Town, Osha took on overseeing the kitchen staff, for the duration of the Council, the associated feasts and the two weddings. She’d worked in the kitchens during the last harvest feast held while Robb was still alive. So she was familiar with how things were done. This time round many of the women of Winter Town joined them to prepare for the feasts.
They were expecting people from the entire North to converge in the castle all at once: Free folk, First Men, Andals, Crannogmen, the Children of the Forest and, for good measure, a Dornish party. Arya had never seen Winterfell this busy, not even when the king came to visit. According to Meera, Beth and Osha, even the last harvest feast held in the castle was not half as busy as what they were managing this time round. Everywhere Arya looked there were a motley of colours and banners.
The white knife in a blue pile on white of House Norrey, the black battle axe on silver of House Cerwyn, all the different coloured horses of House Ryswell, the sunbursts of Houses Karstark and Thenn, the pily flame on black of the Crowls of Deepdown in Skagos, the merman of the Manderlys, and the silver fist of the Glovers were just some of the banners that lined the castle walls as Arya ran about doing her duties.
Everywhere they could possibly house people they had. The Great Keep was all but full of lords and ladies. They cleaned up the lower parts of the Broken Tower and housed lesser lords, knights, jugglers, singers, free riders, all sorts of other retainers and the free folk in the empty houses in Winter Town as well as in tents that were set up all around the castle grounds and Winter Town itself. Osha and Beth were indispensable in working out where to place different parties. Without them, Arya wouldn’t know who needed to be kept apart from who. Beth knew the intricacies of Northern alliances and Osha knew the same for the free folk.
Uncle Brynden and some of the lords he fought alongside during the War of the Five Kings oversaw the guards. When the Greatjon bellowed, most northmen listened while Tormund kept the peace among the free folk. Given their combined efforts, they had little trouble.
Thankfully for them, most lords and ladies brought provisions with them. Otherwise Arya was not sure they could feed everyone themselves. The most generous, as always, was Lord Manderly, though Sansa sent food and gifts congratulating Bran on his historical council. She was ‘ unable ’ to attend herself.
These days, Meera waddled around the castle with swollen feet trying to do the duties of the Lady of Winterfell. Half the time, she stole Bran’s wheeled chair and was pushed around the castle by Rickon (whenever he wanted to escape his lessons), Branda or any child she could find to do her bidding. There was always a sweet or coin associated with this duty.
With Beth Cassel a new mother, Sarra took over many of her duties although Beth remained partial to tying her daughter around her chest and helping out - something they were all grateful for. She’d been managing Winterfell for longer than any of them.
It was an hour before dawn when Arya groggily came down to the kitchens with Sarra to help Turnip, their new head cook. He’d taken on his father’s role like Harwin, Tom Too, Calon, and Palla had taken theirs. Gage was Winterfell’s cook in father’s time and Turnip a friend of theirs as children. Their parents were all dead now but they remained together, keeping the memory of that old Winterfell alive. Harwin in the stables like his father Hullen, Palla in the kennels like her father Farlen, and Tom Too and Calon as guards like their fathers Fat Tom and Cayn who died in King’s Landing protecting Father.
This part of the morning reminded Arya of her time in the kitchens with Umma at the House of Black and White, chopping onions, frying eggs and sharing the odd joke with those working with her. Dawn came and went by the time they began distributing food for those breaking their fast. They started with the Great Hall and then set up stations all around the grounds.
Even at this early time of morning, there were musicians singing in courtyards. Somehow Arya remained partial to Tom after all those months on the road together.
Arya was walking to take Bran his own food. She knew he’d already be in Father’s solar. Somehow it didn’t feel right calling it anything else. Bran had endless meetings from dawn to dusk each day, trying to get to know his bannermen. He said Ser Rodrik once told him, “ A feast makes a pleasant pretext but a man does not cross a hundred leagues for a sliver of duck and a sip of wine. Only those who have matters of import to set before us are like to make the journey .” Judging by the numbers that had made the journey it was clear many had requests and grievances.
Sometimes, when she sat and watched him sit on Father’s chair she’d feel a pang in her heart thinking of Father sitting in the same place. She’d imagine Father making those same judgments and imagined Bran became the sort of leader Robb had become but Arya had never seen.
These days her brother had a newfound confidence. His new horse listened well to his commands such that Bran could go riding, and then have the horse sit so he could slide into his wheeled chair without help as long as it was positioned near a wall for him. He also sometimes used his sleigh pulled by Summer or Ghost.
With all the guests in the castle, Nymeria spent most of her time with her pups in the Wolfswood, around the den. The pups were growing fast. Arya was already seeing them go through stages of development she had missed with Nymeria.
As they broke their fast, Bran spoke of how different this feast felt to the last one - the one he had met Meera at. He spoke of his despondency back then, when his agemates had been tilting at quintains, playing games and calling him broken in their whispers.
“And look at you now,” Arya consoled him, “Lord of Winterfell, a soon to be father and the most powerful man in the North.”
Her brother smiled shyly. Whenever he smiled her heart sang because she never thought she’d see him alive again. These days when Bran smiled she could see how genuine his happiness was. She could hear it in his voice and see the mirth in his eyes. His happiness was infectious.
“Father knew, you know?” she told her brother .
“That you’d achieve great things. When you woke from your accident, I asked him whether you’d come to live with us in King’s Landing and what you might do when you came of age. He said you could be the lord of a great holdfast,” she gestured around the room, “and sit on the king’s council. He said you might even raise castles like Brandon the Builder, which you are clearly planning to do with this council, he even said you might sail a ship across the Sunset Sea. If you do, you better take me with you,” she added, pointing a finger at him accusingly.
“But he also said you might enter mother’s Faith and become High Septon, somehow after everything, I don’t think that particular prediction will come to pass.”
Her brother smiled. “You should know Jon is expected to arrive today.”
“Did you see that too?” she asked jokingly, though she felt excitement surge through her.
He produced a scroll instead holding it between his fore and middle fingers. “I got this from Ser Wendel Manderly two days ago. They spent a day in White Harbor.”
“You’ve had this for two days? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What would you have done differently, other than be as jittery as a maid before her bedding?”
“You may be Lord of Winterfell to everyone else Bran, but you’re still an annoying little shit to me.”
True to Bran’s word, Jon and his party arrived just after the noon meal. She saw him enter through the Hunter’s Gate, riding his fine black courser. She resisted the urge to run to him while their household, minus Rickon who they couldn’t find, stood in a line to welcome the Dornish party and the man that could only be Lord Davos.
Riding in with Jon were the Dornish, Harwin and guards who were no doubt sent out with horses to the tributary of the White Knife that flowed through the Wolfswood. Arya watched Jon and his companions dismount. Her heart fluttered and she felt like the maid Bran had described, bedding aside...or not aside.
She was happy to see him again. He looked road weary but otherwise healthy. He walked straight to Bran as custom demanded, hugging him in greeting. He then introduced Lord Davos to Bran after greetings were exchanged with the Daynes. The Daynes then did the same for their people.
Jon moved over to her to embrace her, holding her a beat too long for a public greeting but not long enough for all her pent up longing. “I missed you, love” he whispered in her ear, before stepping aside to begin introductions.
Lord Davos wore simple leathers and gloves. She could see the shortened fingers through his gloves. At first Arya questioned why he would stay with a king who took his fingers before she realised the House of Black and White had taken her eyes and she still stayed, determined more than anything to prove herself. Lord Davos was clearly not much different in that regard. He had a genuine warmth in his eyes that she decided she liked.
“Lord Davos, I am pleased to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. Thank you for being by his side when we could not.”
“It was no trouble at all. If I’m honest, the lad looked after me!” Lord Davos laughed cheerfully.
He had a fatherly look to him that made Arya miss her own.
The Sandsnakes were an interesting group. Uncle Brynden had told her about Prince Oberyn Martell: his flair for fighting, hatred of Lannisters and knowledge of poisons. From what she heard of him, Arya decided she would have liked the man. After all, he’d killed The Mountain, well nearly. Uncle Brynden said the man somehow lived a while longer without a head thanks to Qyburn. Perhaps he really would have been dead if Arya killed Qyburn herself in Harrenhal. Whatever the answer, whatever The Mountain became was killed when King Aegon took his throne. Arya thought it fitting he be killed on the orders of the man who proclaimed to be Elia’s son with Oberyn and Elia’s true niece by his side. Uncle Brynden also told her of what truly happened to Elia and her children. It was clear there were a lot of horrors from that period that Father hid from them.
Prince Oberyn’s daughters were no less interesting than him. They presented Bran with gifts from Dorne
Nymeria Sand had an elegance that Arya had only seen in the most beautiful courtesans in Braavos. But from the tiny bulge around the place her boots met her breeches, Arya saw a dagger. She greeted Arya warmly, and had a devious smile about her but Arya could not see an immediate threat to her or anyone in Winterfell in it. Still, she’d stay vigilant. Nymeria asked if her namesake was around. Arya told her Nymeria had been avoiding the castle for the most part but occasionally came around. She’d introduce them soon.
Nymeria and her sister Tyene looked as different as day and night. Where the first had black hair, dark eyes and olive skin, the other had blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin. Tyene had an innocent look about her - Uncle Brynden said her mother was a septa. Arya tried to imagine the man who made a septa break her vows. Yet when the girl took off her gloves, from the discolouration on the top of her middle finger, Arya could see the girl dabbled in poisons. The waif had a similar mark from using Greycap.
Elia Sand resembled her olive-skinned sister more. From the ease with which she dismounted her horse, Arya could see the girl was half horse herself. She had an easy smile to her.
Arya was greeting the youngest of the party, the shy Loreza Sand when Branda came scampering into the yard, shouting, “Jon! You came back!” Everyone’s eyes turned to their winter storm but Branda remained unaware all but tumbling into Jon when he bent down to catch her. Still breathless, “Jon! We went to the Wall! Arya said you lived there! And then we saw giants!!”
Arya saw Jon’s eyes widen in wonder, encouraging the girl’s story.
“They were so big Jon you wouldn’t believe how big they were!”
“How big were they?”
“So big, nearly as tall as the ceiling of the Great Hall! I’m not sure they could walk inside the Great Keep at all! Bran said they’re coming here and Osha said she used to fight them when she lived beyond the wall but how can a person fight giants? Anyway, I’ll show you when they come! I made friends with one. He carried me on his shoulders.”
“Please do,” Jon replied, still kneeling in front of Branda, “I would like to see a giant. What else did you do?”
“Arya bought everyone presents, she bought-“ The girl gasped. “I’m not supposed to tell you. Arya said it was a surprise.”
“What did she buy?”
“I can’t tell you. Arya said it was for the wedding.” Branda paused. Her eyes widened. Everyone was silently watching her. “Jon?” she said shyly. “Can I come and live with you and Arya when you marry?”
And there it was. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone stood silent to stare at the two people in the middle: the man on his knees and the standing girl with the petals in her hair.
“Do you want to live with us?” Jon asked Branda amusedly. His demeanour was calm as still water compared to the panic and embarrassment that surged through Arya. No one outside of their family and the Mormonts knew and now some southron guests knew before their own people.
Branda nodded enthusiastically.
“Arya and I would like that,” Jon smiled at their winter storm.
After a pregnant silence,“Why didn’t you tell us?” Allyria demanded of Jon.
He only gave her a sheepish smile that made him look a boy again.
“Congratulations brother,” Ned said before pulling Jon in for a hug and doing the same for Arya.
“Oh how I would love to be a fly on the wall when the Queen of Thorns hears this news,” Nymeria chuckled. “Someone must tell Leona Tyrell her efforts were in vain!” Nymeria and her sisters seemed beside themselves in laughter as they said something about a Targaryen dress.
“Who is Leona Tyrell?” Arya asked no one in particular, keeping her eyes fixed on Jon’s. All of a sudden he looked as guilty as sin. She raised her eyebrow at him, awaiting an answer.
Meera sensing the tension, broke in. “Right! You must all be tired from the road. Sarra, please offer our guests bread and salt. Please,” Meera motioned to their guests, “follow me I’ll guide you to your rooms, and order baths drawn for you. Food will be sent up for you as well.”
As their guests began walking to The Great Keep, Arya leaned in to Jon, to whisper harshly, “Who in seven hells is Leona Tyrell?”
“Later,” was his only response before he rushed away to push Bran’s wheeled chair into the Keep.
Later he says. I’ll show him later!
She asked him thrice more while they sat in Father’s solar waiting for the rest of their family. “Later,” he said, a warning in his voice.
“Just some girl in King’s Landing,” was his second response.
“Some girl whose efforts were in vain, ” she jeered from her seat. “What exactly were those efforts Prince Aemon?” She never called him that before but Jon was her person and he would not be Jon until he gave her answers.
Bran watched the entire thing as silent as a shadow that was thoroughly enjoying itself.
“Why would her efforts be in vain Jon?” she insisted. “Why would Olenna Redwyne care who you marry?”
Jon was rescued by Uncle Brynden’s arrival while Arya was left to stew in her questions.
“Welcome home, boy!”
Next came Rickon, Shaggy and Ghost. All while Arya sat there scowling at the prince who for some reason looked tickled by the situation.
Meera came in with food, followed by Maester Elric.
She glared at Jon while they ate. He on the other hand, did not look at her at all. Ghost was the one who gave her attention, placing his head on her lap so she could scratch between his ears.
Jon spoke to Rickon about the progress instead. The maester and Uncle Brynden spoke of castle affairs and Meera had her swollen feet on Bran’s lap. Her brother sat across from her on their father’s oak chair. Between them was the long plank-and-trestle table they’d sit at whenever they ate with their father here. When he wasn’t sending concerned looks to his wife and stroking her swollen belly, he was sending shit eating grins to Arya. Lord or not, Bran was still Bran.
When the food was cleared, Maester Elric began laying out maps of the North. Given all the plans they’d made, and had yet to make, Arya was sure they’d still be sat here well into the night. And poor Maester Elric would have to write it all down.
“Before we start, I’d like to congratulate Arya and Jon on their betrothal,” her annoying brother said in his lord’s voice.
“My niece’s father may no longer be here but you remember she’s not alone,” her uncle warned. “She has two uncles who love her dearly.” Arya felt tears spring up in her eyes at the earnest look in her uncle's face. When she put her hand in his, he kissed it.
“I will never hurt her,” Jon vowed.
“I will let you know if he does,” Arya said scowling at Jon who simply smiled at her. What was funny about this?
“I remember the day your mother married your father,” her uncle went on. “She did not expect to be married to him, but toward the end of her life, she loved no one more. I wish you even more happiness than your parents shared. May your love be as strong.” Her uncle thought their marriage was an arranged match by Bran and thought Jon and Arya shared a similar fate to that of her parents with one sibling standing in for the other as part of an alliance. Although in their situation, Sansa was alive. Arya wondered how she would react to the betrothal.
“Thank you,” Jon replied to her uncle, “I hope our love is even stronger. The queen has approved of our match.”
“What?” Arya exclaimed. “Why didn’t you write to us?”
“I thought I’d tell you when I saw you,” he shrugged.
“Why did you tell her without consulting us? What if she’d said no?”
“She wanted to arrange a match for you. I couldn’t stay quiet could I?” He had a satisfied smile. Arya narrowed her eyes at him, resisting the very urge to stick her tongue out.
“To who?” Rickon burst in.
“Some Redwyne or other.”
“Why didn’t the queen ask me?” Arya wondered out loud. “Perhaps I would have accepted,” she added for good measure. It earned her a low growl.
“Would you rather Hobber or Horas Redwyne, my lady?”
She started laughing. “Sansa and Jeyne used to call them, Ser Horror and Ser Slobber.” Arya remembered the twins they were homely youths with orange hair and square, freckled faces. The last time she saw them was the day her father was killed, they and their guards nearly ran her down as they galloped past.
“Well,” Uncle Brynden said, “I suppose I owe you both congratulations for escaping the clutches of Olenna Redwyne. I did not think she would let you slip through her fingers again.”
“What do you mean again?” Meera asked (the relevant question). Bran continued massaging her feet.
“The woman wanted Jon for some Tyrell or other. When the betrothal with Sansa happened that was that but I thought...with you unmarried and heir…”
“Was that Tyrell, Leona Tyrell?” Arya prodded.
“I do not remember the poor girl's name, child.”
Arya glowered once more at Jon.
“How were things here?” he asked them all.
“How were things in King’s Landing?” Arya bit back before anyone could answer.
“Not great.” Jon sighed. “The queen wants to go to war to Braavos.”
“Why? What’s Braavos done to her?” Arya liked the queen when she met her. The Dragon Queen spoke warmly about her own time in Braavos.
“She does not believe she should have to pay the debts of the kings before her.”
“What do the Tyrells have to say about that?” Her uncle asked.
“Her entire small council either supported or stayed silent.”
“And you?” she asked him.
“I told her it’s a stupid idea obviously. She didn’t listen to me. Perhaps if the Volantenes refuse her she will decide to hold back from war.”
“What does Volantis have to do with this?”
“She’s promising to forgive the debts of Volantis and Pentos with the Iron Bank for their assistance.”
“No fleet gets past the Titan.” Arya remembered the fortress at the entrance to Braavos. From inside it watchmen could steer enemy ships to crash into the rocks while burning pitch was poured onto ships that made it past that stage. “It would end in disaster for any fleet that tries to breach the city. At least Volantis has distance between it and Braavos. Pentos is right next door and has been beaten thrice in their five wars.”
“They did not have a dragon,” Jon countered. “Dany is keen to remind everyone that Volantis, the more powerful of the two, once threatened Pentos and Aegon the Conqueror flew Balerion to their aid, pushing back the Volantenes.”
Arya thought this was the silliest thing she’d ever heard. “She wouldn’t get the chance to burn a thing if she’s dead.”
Her uncle gave her a queer look.
“No one threatens Braavos and lives long enough to see it through.”
“What do you mean?” Meera asked, slipping her feet off her husband’s lap.
“Braavos doesn’t engage in war often. They kill the leaders of their enemies. An army without an effective leader is just a bunch of disorganised men with swords.”
“Dany’s Pentoshi Magister would tell you if Braavos was that powerful, Pentos wouldn’t have won a battle at their city gates. The faceless men cannot kill every leader of an army as big as Daenerys’ and she has dragons.”
“I thought you said they’re too wild to live in King’s Landing?”
“The Grand Maester says their constitution has improved and Dany agrees, she feels her dragons in much the same way we feel our direwolves.”
Arya looked at Bran, “Even if the sky falls down you will not sign the North to this.”
“Thankfully, she’s not asked for any Northern assistance in this war,” Jon answered. “Let’s just hope the queen listens to reason when we go to King’s Landing. She does listen to smart counsel if she’s challenged enough...Anyway, forget about King’s Landing. Tell me about the progress.”
Rickon filled him in while Arya thought about all the ways the queen’s campaign could go wrong. Was that why Jaqen was here?
“How long was Pate working with the Grand Maester?”
“Since before the War for the Dawn, why?”
“I wondered whether he could help us...learn how to make Valyrian steel,” she lied.
“I don’t think he can help anyone he’s dead.”
Arya knew whatever he was up to did not bode well. He told her on the night Bran and Rickon came home that he was here to watch. For now she pleases the House but there are concerns, he said. Arya thought he meant her. What if he didn’t?
The Game isn’t played on just one side of the Narrow Sea, lovely girl, and a man has been busy. Watching. Waiting.
“The Queen cannot go to war,” Arya blurted. “They’ll kill her.”
“Who?” her uncle asked but Jon and Bran’s faces told her they understood.
“The faceless men. The Sealord doesn’t have to go to war if he can just send her an assassin. She will never know who it is because they can change their face to be anyone and they could make anyone’s death look natural.”
“I would love to meet a faceless man,” Rickon proclaimed wondrously. “Have you ever met one?”
“How would you know though if they can change their face?”
“Thank you Maester Elric,” her brother announced in his lord’s voice with respect to the now laid out maps. “Shall we begin?”
And so they did.
“Rickon,” she boomed at the brother who decided whatever was happening outside was more interesting. “What were our two main industries?”
“Wool and wood.”
“And what else?”
“Maybe silver, stone and horses.”
Arya then detailed the main industries of each region before returning to the potential of Moat Cailin.
“We have a main customs point at the port in White Harbor but no similar one for overland trade.” Arya remembered the Titan’s Daughter having to stop at Chequy Port for half a day. Braavos generated a lot of money through the port.
“I know just the man to oversee the port,” Jon added before making the case for Lord Davos. They’d initially offered it to Uncle Brynden who refused, saying that he came to live with his family, not take on new responsibilities half a kingdom away.
They then moved on to speak of the need to better connect the regions of The North. Theirs was the largest of the kingdoms and people lived and died without seeing all of it. For trade to flourish they would need to make it easier for people to travel throughout the land.
“We have enough rivers and two seas on either coast to make the creation of canals easy for us. In Braavos that’s how we got around.” Arya then stood up to mark out routes across the map with the stick Maester Elric gave her.
“We could create a main canal going from White Harbor, where most of our oversea trade comes from, to Moat Cailin. It’s a relatively short route too and given our lack of coin is cheaper than most other routes.”
“No.” Jon said taking the stick from her and keeping his hand over hers a little too long, “Doing that would allow the Ironborn to capture Moat Cailin and White Harbor one after the other before we could send aid to either. It would also make the Manderlys more powerful without adding anything to us. The North has been in Stark hands for thousands of years because the Starks made themselves indispensable. Yours is a good idea,” he said smiling at her, “but the new North we build must retain House Stark at its heart.”
“Instead,” he pointed, moving the stick down the map, “the main canal should be from Torrhen’s Square to the White Knife. It’s a long route sure but the canal passes directly through our lands, it is more secure, has connections to the King’s Road, and will make the Manderlys more money. We want them to make more money because it makes us more money as well but the control of the canal being ours makes them dependent on Stark favour.”
Arya hadn’t thought that far. Both the Maester and her uncle looked impressed at his reasoning. Robb was right to choose him as his heir, and Arya saw the king he was as he explained his thought process. He smiled at her when he caught her staring. She nearly even forgot about Leona Tyrell. He handed her the stick again, asking her to continue.
“We need smaller canals too. The White Knife goes through the Wolfswood but we should extend further with a canal that would make it easier for river runners to transport lumber to White Harbor for overseas sale.” She moved the pointer further north. “We should also link the Long Lake to the Last River. That way we can move up The White Knife to Long Lake before joining the Last River and then the King’s Road. It would ease travel between Winterfell and the Gift as well.”
When she looked up, the way Jon was looking at her made her cheeks burn.
He moved next to her, holding her hand in his to move the pointer around. “And if war ever comes, we can send aid to Deepwood Motte and Bear Island quicker and end Ironborn raids before they can really take hold.”
“You will need a chain and fortresses to stop the Ironborn using the same canals to attack.” Her uncle pointed out.
Jon let the pointer go so she could continue, keeping his gaze on her lips while she spoke.
“Our wool region is concentrated mainly in the south. A canal connecting Torrhen’s Square to the Stony Shore would do for the wool industry what the northern canals do for the lumber trade.”
Her brother then chimed in. “This is less of a priority now that spring is here but we’ll also need to build in sledges so that when the canals freeze we can still use the canals.”
“We can use the same designs they have in Braavos,” Arya pointed out. “During the early winter, I suppose when you were fighting the War for the Dawn here, in Braavos we used sledges to travel through the frozen canals.”
They then turned their focus to their weaknesses along the West Coast.
Arya recommended a new navy and port on Sea Dragon Point. “It has plentiful forests that would make it a good place to build a fleet as well,” she pointed out.
“If we do that,” Jon said, leading her hand across the map again - it was obvious he enjoyed doing that since he couldn’t do anything outwardly flirtatious with her in front of their family. “The Ironborn will concentrate their raids on the Barrowlands and The Rills along the Saltspear and Blazewater Bay. We should keep ships along Sea Dragon Point, if they get that far, but the port and navy should be at the mouth of the Saltspear preventing them from attacking us inland. We can send support up the West Coast then and prevent them from getting reinforcements.”
Her uncle agreed saying that an attack from the north at Saltspear and one from Seagard in the Riverlands would have the Iron Isles surrounded.
Once they decided on where to place different parts of a new northern navy, they began talking about the need to reward their bannerman for their roles in the wars. Many of them had ridden south with Robb for Father and lost limbs, loved ones and years of their lives in captivity. Yet they never betrayed House Stark and remained loyal. As for those who did betray them, their time would come too.
“Robett Glover fought bravely in all the wars,” Jon said, “He also sent Davos to Rickon along with Lord Manderly. His wife recently died, leaving him a widower with two children. We should arrange a marriage for him.”
“We should do more for him,” Arya insisted. “We should find wives for both Glover brothers. We’ll need loyal men to hold lands.”
They then discussed options for both brothers and the new lands they might give Robett Glover, raising him to a lord.
“Lord Willam Dustin has a recently widowed niece,” Meera pointed out, “I met her at the feast.”
“Where would you give them lands?” her uncle enquired, on behalf of the man he fought beside in the War of the Five Kings.
“I thought the point was to reward Glover with lands,” Uncle Brynden stressed.
“Shall we ask Lady Dustin to pack up?” Jon laughed. “I suppose she’ll have a lot to say about that.”
“We won’t have to ask her anything. In any case, I listened to your words Jon about the Starks of old granting lands around The Dreadfort to their allies. We should do the same in the Rills and in the Barrowlands. The lands are fertile and empty. We could make a lot of money there and generate food for people in winter. Lady Dustin and her father were the first to swear fealty to the Boltons. They should not feel safe in their castles.”
“Arya, Lady Dustin returned Father’s bones to Winterfell,” Jon interjected.
“Without Hal, Jack, Shadd and Quent who my mother sent north with his body!”
“Beth and Anguy should also have their own keep,” Bran announced. “The last time I sat in this seat with Ser Rodrik, he was worried about Beth’s prospects. Ser Rodrik died for us,” her brother said, his voice thick with grief. “We should grant Beth good lands so House Cassel can continue in security.”
They all agreed. Ser Rodrik was an important member of their household growing up. He taught the boys how to use swords and told Arya stories whenever she ran away from the septa and he wasn’t too busy.
“We’ll need to reward the Umbers too,” Bran added. “The Greatjon lost his heir and spent years in the dungeons of The Twins. According to Arya both his uncles want wives as well.”
“Jonelle Cerwyn is looking for a husband,” Arya recalled. “It would be a handsome reward for the Greatjon to have children that would inherit both Castle Cerwyn and the Last Hearth and Jonelle would have a child that carried on the Cerwyn name.” It was not unknown for children to take on the name of the family whose castle they inherited. Bran told Arya how Sansa’s own husband changed his name from Hardyng to Arryn.
They then spoke about candidates for Mors and Hothar Umber selecting ladies who were slightly older but still of child rearing age, widowed and seeking someone to help protect their lands. They had told Arya they didn’t care who the man was as long as he would protect them and be good to them. As ancient as the Umber brothers were, they fought alongside Stannis and then Jon when they marched for The Twins to free their nephew.
They carried on speaking well into the night about trade and appointments. Rickon fell asleep in his seat first, followed by Meera who left for her and Bran’s rooms.
They sat and spoke until they were stiff from sitting in the same chair and night was about to give into day. They broke for a brief recess before dawn when they would begin speaking to select bannermen. She left the room first not looking behind her while Jon carried Rickon to his rooms.
He was soaking in a bath an hour later when she burst into his chambers. She barred the door, while he leaned back into his bath and watched her with a burning gaze. It nearly distracted her.
“Who is Leona Tyrell?”
He started laughing like she asked a funny question. And then he stood up and walked toward her, water dripping off his muscled skin, a smile on his face. He looked bigger than she remembered.
“No one important,” he sighed before pulling her to him and kissing her hair.
She pushed him away. “You got my dress wet!”
“You should take it off and lay it by the fire,” he teased in a low voice, moving his lips to hers. His arms were on either side of her head and planted on the door. He surrounded her.
“I’m doing no such thing until you tell me who in the seven hells Leona Tyrell is,” she growled back.
“A stupid girl who wanted to marry a prince. She doesn’t know a single thing about me.”
“And what about the dress the sand snakes said?”
“She wore Targaryen colours to a feast. I’m sure someone told her she would marry me. The girl is not bad she just has her head in the clouds. Now can we stop talking about Leona Tyrell. I missed you Arya,” he whispered against her lips.
She pushed him off her again. “Not bad?”
“Arya,” he growled, pulling her hips into him. “I don’t want the girl. Let me show you, you’re the only one I want.”
And he did and her dress was currently hanging near the fire to ‘dry .’
Her head was lying on his chest. She looked up to him. His eyes were closed but he had a smile on his face.
“Hmm?” he didn’t open his eyes.
She sat up. “Jon, Daenerys won’t survive a war against Braavos.”
“I’ve warned her. We’ll warn her again in King’s Landing. Perhaps she’ll listen then. She hasn’t declared war, she’s merely floated the idea. She won’t go until after her council and that’s three months away.”
“That’s three months she could die in.”
“She’s currently making payments to the Iron Bank. I don’t think they will attack her without her giving them reason.”
“Enough. You are naked in my bed, we have to go back down to meet with Bran in a few moments. Can I just lie here with my bride without talking of a war we won’t fight in?”
He pulled her back down.
“Are you sure we won’t fight in it?”
“Good. Because I plan to have Braavos as our biggest trade partner.”
Osha sent food to Father’s solar so they could break their fast. The early fingers of the sunrise were prying their way through the clouds. Uncle Brynden had changed his clothes, Meera looked slightly more rested, Rickon’s hair had been brushed and tied up neatly. Jon looked great as always and Bran had the direwolf of Stark printed proudly across his chest.
Lord Howland Reed and the Children of the Forest arrived earlier that night. When the doors were opened to let them in, Arya could hear the whispers of people gawping at The Children of the Forest.
Lord Howland was accompanied by three of them. They were slight in stature, a little shorter than the lord they accompanied. They had brown skin spotted with lighter spots. Their hands had three fingers and a thumb each with long black claws for nails. Two had golden eyes while one had eyes as red as the leaves of a weirwood. Something about them reminded Arya of the Ghost of High Heart.
Meera ran to her father pulling him into a hug, though her stomach got in the way. Her father laughed with tears in his eyes at his pregnant daughter and smiled at his goodson before bending down to hug him. The joy in his eyes made Arya think of her own father. Lord Howland had once saved his life against Ser Arthur Dayne. She wondered whether he would have been as happy as Lord Howland was to one day see her married after her insistence that she would never marry and settle down. She missed him every day even now.
Jon and Rickon were next to embrace Lord Howland while Meera and Bran moved over to the Children.
Lastly, Jon took her hand and walked her over to Lord Howland whose eyes widened when he saw her.
“Lord Howland,” Jon said proudly. “This is my betrothed, Lady Arya Stark.”
Lord Howland took her hand in greeting and kissed it.
“My lady. You look so much like your aunt,” he said in a voice that held grief.
“I am pleased to finally meet you Lord Howland. I’ve heard a lot about you,” she replied. “It seems everyone in my family loves you already.”
“As I love them all.”
Bran then introduced them to the Children.
“This is Ash,” he said gesturing to the first of the Children.
“It’s not really Ash’s name,” Meera pointed out, “His true name is too long for the Common Tongue so this is the name we chose for him.”
So this one was a him.
Next was Snowylocks, no doubt due to her white hair. Again this was the name Meera chose for her.
And last was Black Knife. Again a name chosen by Meera and Bran.
They’d just sat down when Branda burst in.
“Jon the giants! Oh-“ she said, turning to the Children.
She moved away from Jon entirely.
“Hello. I’m Branda,” she said, holding out her hand for them to shake. “I’m Rickon’s friend. He said he was going to introduce me to you.”
The Children looked at each other and then each shook her hand. The smile on her face could have blinded everyone in the room.
“Why don’t you show me the giants later?” Jon asked, smiling at her.
“Alright,” she conceded. “I’ll go show Loreza!” and with that their storm was gone.
Bran pointed out to the Children the settlements that had been set aside for them. He told them that they would have to cut some trees so they could trade in lumber but promised no weirwoods would be cut and that no trees would be cut in the areas set aside for them. He also told them of how their uncle had agreed to let them settle in the island on the God’s Eye where the original Pact was signed. As he spoke, Arya stole looks at the Children. She couldn’t believe that she was in the same room as the descendants of peoples powerful enough to cut lands into two. People who had fought the War for the Dawn twice and won. She wished Old Nan was here to see them.
Bran also detailed how each of the castles on the Wall would be manned and that the North would never forget again. This time they would remain united for prosperity with their allies the Children of the Forest.
The Children seemed pleased with Bran’s proposals.
After their meeting with them was done, Meera guided them to an adjoining room away from prying eyes.
Lord Howland stayed in the room with them as a member of their family now. He would sit in the rest of the meetings alongside Edd Maester Elric, and Uncle Brynden. The latter two, like Arya, kept stealing looks at the Children even though Uncle Brynden had fought in the War for the Dawn.
Their first meeting was with Anguy and Beth who were over the moon with their new lands. Beth even cried, repeating her thanks.
“Ser Rodrik was a member of our family,” Bran consoled her. “And the pack looks after one another.”
Her brother’s words were a nod to the Cassel sigil of ten white wolves on grey with a black border.
Arya found herself repeating her father’s words. “ When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives . Father said that to me once. Ser Rodrik died protecting his pack. Now we protect one another.”
Her friends smiled.
“Who knew the day you captured me in the Riverlands we’d be sat here?” Arya teased Anguy. “I wanted you dead that day.”
They both chuckled at that.
“I’d never have guessed Eddard Stark asking me to serve in his household guard would bring me here.”
“To House Cassel!” Bran announced.
Their next meeting was with Lord Davos Seaworth. Arya liked the onion lord.
“Lord Davos,” Jon started, “You became like family to me when I thought mine was gone.”
The sailor smiled at Jon earnestly. “I was only trying to do the right thing, lad. You did me the greater favour by keeping a smuggler from Flea Bottom by your side.”
“I think you stopped being just a smuggler from Flea Bottom when you became Hand of the King,” Jon corrected goodnaturedly.
“We are also grateful to you for all you did to try and find Rickon as well,” Bran added.
“I’m sorry for hiding,” Rickon blurted. “I didn’t know you.”
“You did the right thing,” Ser Davos replied.
“Lord Davos,” Jon continued, “Everyone in the seven kingdoms knows that you are the best smuggler this land has ever seen.”
Uncle Brynden and Lord Howland laughed.
“We plan to rebuild Moat Cailin and establish a customs point there. We’ll need someone with your skills to hold that seat for us as castellan. The position will come with a sinecure in customs and we believe with your knowledge you’d bring in more than anyone else we can think of. In addition to the pay of the position, we know that you have three sons left,” Jon said. “Devan will inherit Rainwood after you but Stannis and Steffon as your younger sons will need to find their own way in life. We would like to betroth them to Northern girls and grant one lands in The Rills and the other lands near Sea Dragon point. Given their sailing experience across the narrow sea, we’d ask you to choose the son with the better experience to hold Sea Dragon Point for us. It will be a small naval port aimed at defending the northern west coast, while our main navy is at Saltspear.”
The former Hand of the King was emotional when he accepted the offer. Their father always looked for loyalty in his men and Lord Davos had proven himself ten times over from the things Jon told her of him.
After Lord Davos were the Umbers.
“Jon Umber,” Bran declared in his lord’s voice, “You served House Stark with distinction. You lost your son and heir protecting Robb at the Red Wedding and remained imprisoned for years. First, you have our thanks for that-“
“House Umber has stood behind House Stark for thousands of years. We only did our duty.”
“And for that you deserve a reward. If you are agreeable, Arya has spoken to Lady Cerwyn. We would like to arrange a match between you and Lady Jonelle Cerwyn. Through this match we hope one of your children will inherit the Last Heart and another Castle Cerwyn.”
They then broached the subject of marriage with Crowfood and Whoresbane Umber both of whom were delighted with their new brides.
Next came the Glovers who were also happy with their arranged matches.
And after them, they invited their Karstark kin: Harrion, his bride, Allyria and Alys and her husband Sigorn Thenn.
“Loyalty deserves a reward,” Bran said to their cousins.
“Harrion, you languished in the south for marching with Robb. We are honoured to be hosting your wedding here in this castle of our ancestors to the new Lady of Karhold.”
Harrion echoed the Umbers before him saying that he was only doing his duty.
“And you, Alys, ran away to Jon rather than be used as a pawn against House Stark. We are happy that you found happiness with your husband when you did. You have proven yourself a capable Lady of Karhold and for the loyalty of House Karstark to House Stark, we would like to award House Thenn The Dreadfort as a sign both of the vision of the North we destroyed and the united North we wish to rebuild in its place. They are good lands and your lands would remain adjoined.”
Their cousins were appreciative of the gesture and hugs were shared all around.
They also extended their thanks to the chieftains of the Mountain Clans and the free folk by sharing details of the new canals they wanted to build that would make travel easier throughout the North. They extended an invitation to foster their children at Winterfell and broached the subject of arranging matches between their two people, awarding second sons amongst them some of the castles along the wall. Every one of them was thankful. The free folk to the wolves and the mountain clans to The Ned’s children for continuing in his way of never forgetting his men in the mountains.
With Lady Mormont and her daughters they shared their plans for a new navy on the West Coast to protect Bear Island from Ironborn raids.
Arya noticed her uncle and Lord Howland whisper to each other with proud looks on their face throughout the meetings.
Their last meeting of the day was Lord Manderly.
Meera had his special chair brought in.
“Lord Manderly, I will be honest with you,” Bran began. “We will rely on you more than any other Lord.”
“House Stark has no more loyal servant than Wyman Manderly, my lord.”
“But loyalty also deserves reward. We have heard of what you did to the Freys and the Boltons and we heard of Wylla and Wynafryd’s actions as well. Your sons Wendel and Wylis marched south with Robb and Wendel died with him. Arya has told us how the prisoners at Harrenhal were treated. We can only imagine how Ser Wylis suffered on behalf of his support for Robb.”
Again Arya heard talk of people doing their duty.
Jon was next to speak. “Wynafryd married a second son of Lord Locke so that she could take her place as Ser Wylis’ heir at New Castle. Lady Leona has given birth to a son. Please accept our congratulations to you, Ser Wylis and Lady Leona.”
Lord Manderly smiled, no doubt aware where this was going.
“I promised you that we would find a solution my lord,” Arya continued. “Unfortunately we do not have the inheritance laws of Dorne here - would that we did.” She couldn’t help herself.
“The birth of Wynafryd’s brother now means that she is no longer the heir to New Castle. But as you will find and I’m sure know, House Stark does not allow goodness, bravery and loyalty to remain unrewarded. Jon has told us all about how he married Wylla to Larence Hornwood so that Wylla could take her place as lady of Hornwood after her great aunt Donella-“
“I remember how you seized those lands on behalf of your cousin and planned to wed her yourself,” Bran smiled.
“I thought she would like to be a Manderly again,” Lord Manderly chuckled prompting everyone else to join in.
“You and your family have been a great supporter not only of House Stark but of our people when we were unable to do our duty,” Arya said with a voice soft with thankfulness.
Bran then took the pointer to the map.
“We plan to create a new city in Saltspear by the harbour. Given House Manderly’s expertise on the sea, and House Locke’s location on the coast, we believe Wynafryd and Gared should have a new castle to head up the new town. For your loyalty, House Manderly would control two harbours in the North.”
Lord Manderly repeatedly expressed his thanks and congratulated them on their plans, declaring that he would support their plans to rebuild the North - forever a loyal Stark man.
Now their loyal bannermen were aware of their principal plans. Tomorrow, they’d hold their historic council but first, a trial.