They arrived at the set of dark, the perimeter of Riverrun well guarded, and the nervousness in her gut at an all-time high. There weren't many of them in her entourage- her pack of course, her sworn sword, and a few members of The Brotherhood open to negotiations with her brother. She might have counted on their support before, but the time spent respectfully setting the prostitutes to rest had not endeared her to them any further.
It had taken a long time for the bodies to burn down fully, the piles of ash frozen in the form of the skin they once had; like powder imprints of what they once were. It felt important somehow, to grant them peace first; before she found her own. The smell was thick, she felt it cling to her skin and hang on her clothes. It seemed her stomach would never settle. They eventually continued on, but much later than they intended. The rest of the journey was quiet, the others looking at her strangely, not understanding her reaction. She didn't care to explain it to them.
As they got closer, the shuffle and neighing of their horses alerted the castle to their approach. Her stomach churned in time with the stir of the guards. They were ready, alert- good. She was glad to know her brother's men were well guarded; but tense at proving herself to strangers.
"Ho! Who goes there?" A young guard asks, birch hair to his shoulders, looking over each of them carefully. His eyes did not linger on her, and she believes he hasn't determined her sex yet. Her mind goes blank, unsure what to say.
"The Brotherhood Without Banners. We mean no harm, only a meeting with Robb Stark, The King in The North." Thoros boasts, saving her the trouble, to Arya's gratitude.
"And why's that? What business 'ave you got with The King?" The soldier asks.
These were her people; she should address them herself. Her back straightens and her chin rises; her eyes seek out the guard who spoke, looking him directly in the mossy eye.
"His sister, Arya Stark has come home and demands an audience." She says, voice appropriately clear. She feels every eye snap to her; and the soldier's jaw drops open.
"Princess, I…" The guard starts, but the other heavier guard interrupts him.
"How do we know you're the princess? What proof 'ave you got?"
"Find someone who knows the Starks. Bring 'em out. They'll recognize her sure enough." Anguy interjects. After a moment, one goes off to do just that while the other stays to stand guard. His gaze makes her uncomfortable, but she doesn't flinch. They're frozen for near a quarter hour before they return.
An enormous figure stalks towards them, bigger than The Mountain even, followed closely by the guard, having to scurry to keep up with the large gait of the man before him. Sandor tenses behind her, but she feels still. The closer he gets, she finally recognizes the man. It's The Greatjon, Lord Umber. He was loyal to her father, or he had been. A great beast of a man, he loved to spar with her brothers, and was always loud at feasts; she remembered he was kind to Jon too, despite his being a Snow.
"You say The Stark girl is here, show her to me!" He demands, his voice originating from his great chest and booming out for all to hear. Stealing her nerves, she hops down from her horse and approaches.
"Do you not know me, Greatjon? Surely it was not so long ago. Only six or so years." She says, not letting her nerves show.
He steps closer until they are before each other; almost nose to chest, Brotherhood watching attentively behind her. Inspecting her closely, a giant grin spreads across his bearded face.
"Little Arya Underfoot. By The Gods, girl… however did you make it all the way here?" He asks dumbfounded, before grabbing her into a hug. He's big, and he easily picks her up and holds her to his chest. He doesn't hurt her though, and she can sense how close to her people she actually is.
"It's a long story, Greatjon. I'd like to see Ro… The King, and my lady mother, please." At her request, he seems to shake himself off and remember himself.
"O' course, o' course. Right this way, come along then." With a great hand on her shoulder, he leads her away.
"Wait, wait. What about…" She looks back at Gendry, Sandor, and Lord Beric.
"They'll be taken care of. But your brother'll want to see you alone first, I expect. We'll deal with that lot later." He pushes her along, but she digs her feet in.
"They're my friends, they're coming with me. I promised Robb would meet with them, I…" She glances over at Hot Pie guiltily. Sandor looks very displeased with being separated from her.
"We'll see to them, get them settled, I promise." Greatjon says. She takes one final look at Gendry, and he gives her a warm, but sad smile until she follows dutifully. The others are escorted a different way, but Lord Umber directs her through the front hall and up the main stairs.
"Gods, girl, it's good to have you back. It'll hearten the men for sure. And Gods know you wolves need each other after everything." She couldn't quite concentrate on small talk with Umber, not when a tie to home was so close. It hadn't escaped her notice that it was only her brother she was going to see.
At the door to her brother's chamber, Lord Umber knocks loudly on the fine wood, before opening the door and leading her in. Inside, is a large rectangular table, fine lords seated around its edges, near twenty she counts. Each gawking at her like some exotic animal, she studies each face quickly, ignoring their judgmental stares one by one, before settling on the head of the table, a chair being scooted out. The tall auburn haired man with his simple but regal crown, fine clothes adorned with a direwolf sigil across the breast that fit him well, and Tully blue eyes, stood to greet her. A large creature rises from the floor and hurtles towards her, for an instant she's frightened; until she recognizes the color of the fur, which distinguishes Grey Wind from its brothers and sisters. She pets the huge wolf fondly, both equally glad to see each other.
"Sister." Robb says simply, a disbelieving watery smile gracing his features. And then she's running, running into his arms and holding him tight. The sensation of his arms tightening around her, and the Northern scent surrounding her threaten to make her legs give out. But he holds her up, and the tearful chuckles and joyful sobs flow from both of them freely and she lets herself breathe; caught up in the feeling of Home.
"Robb, oh Robb." He pulls away from her to get a closer look, taking in all the ways she's changed, seemingly forgetting the important men watching their every move.
"Look at you. You look more like my brother than my troublesome little sister." He jokes, fingering the shorter strands of her hair. She laughs, giddy at the proximity to her own blood, soothed by the comfort of hard-earned safety.
"And you look more like a King than my obnoxious brother." She jokes back.
He hugs her once more and whispers in her ear so no one else can hear. "I still am your obnoxious brother, just don't tell anyone. Promise?" She chuckles and nods against his shoulder.
He laughs, and so do the other lords, charmed by their banter. Their mirth reminds the siblings of their audience, and the spell of their reunion is broken. Anything too personal would be best in genuine privacy, and would have to wait. Robb feels the same, and she can pinpoint the instant that he reverts to Kingly form. She needs to catch him before he switches over completely. "Where's Mother?" The Lords go silent and tense at this question. Robb pauses at that, but quickly recovers.
"She's well. But Arya, you must be tired. I still have some business to finish here, we can discuss everything tonight at dinner. We'll celebrate." She can see the men getting anxious; waiting for her to leave so they could get on with their meeting. Robb wanted her out too, not readily answering her question. Did he really think she'd be so easily distracted? Of course he did. Well, she wasn't about to undermine her brother openly before his supporters, but she would assert her place as a Stark, as an asset, as a player in this game of thrones they were all stuck playing.
"I'm not tired at all." She lies. Actually, she's quite exhausted. "What sort of business are we discussing?" She asks innocently, making her way over to the table beside her brother's seat, leaning against his chair.
"Don't worry about that. You should get some rest, clean up, and get changed. I'll see you there safely." The Greatjon 'suggests' in response to a look from Robb, making to take her arm.
Before he can, she scurries out of his grasp to the other side of the chair, and plucks a document from the table. Inventory lists, tracking stores of weaponry, supplies, men, etc.… The paper is taken from her, but she can recognize it easily enough- she'd certainly seen enough of these kinds of records in King's Landing to recognize what it was.
"Is this current?" She asks. She's answered with tired sighs.
"Princess, you needn't worry yourself with these matters. We're all just glad you're back safe." Lord Karstark responds, clearly proud of himself for his own patience.
"Safe? Those guards out front suggest otherwise. The River Lands are awash in death, and demons terrorize the land." She hears a few uncomfortable coughs. "Some of which are Stark men." This gets their attention once more. "I saw bodies hanged up beside the road, raped and killed. Those were innocent women hanging there, slaughtered by our men." She bites out through clenched teeth, thinking her threshold of patience far beyond Lord Karstark could ever dream of. "So yes, I believe I do need to worry, Lord Karstark; and you should welcome any help offered, including mine." The Greatjon sniggers, and Lord Karstark humphs in offense.
Robb rubs a hand over his face in response, upsetting the dark copper curls by his brow. When he looks at her there is a new coldness there.
"I am aware, Arya. We are doing what we can; now you need to trust that, and not question me. Trust me, your brother, your King." A few lords raise their eyebrows at the increasingly uncomfortable scene.
"Of course, Your Grace." She says, bowing her head in a sign of respect. He sighs, and speaks again.
"Now, run along, and I will see you tonight at dinner, we can talk more then." He's clearly dismissing her as he sits down in his seat of honor. She should leave, she knows. She'd challenged him just then, in front of his followers; but she hadn't meant to, she hadn't wanted that. She could follow his order, apologize, and it would be forgotten. She could have a much-needed nap and take a bath already. Part of her wants to do just that.
But she can't, not after everything.
"Father would have let me stay. He would have heard me out." She says, against her better judgment. One of his eyebrows raises at that.
"I'm sorry, Princess, but your father is gone. If The King in The North tells you to wash up, you bloody well do it." Karstark scolds, belittling her, and the other lords laugh at her expense, humiliating her. She has to clutch the table's edge to keep from strangling the pretentious bannerman.
But Robb holds up a hand, and the others fall silent. He's all authority as he stares down the others.
"He would have. That's true." He strokes his chin. "Very well, Arya. You have something to say, let's hear you out." Robb says.
The silence continues, and The Lords all stare expectantly at her. Under their scrutiny, she forgets herself.
"Well, Princess?" Umber prompts kindly, making to take his own seat.
"How many men did we lose at the battle of Stone Hedge?" She asks instead.
"How did you…?" Karstark starts before Robb interrupts him.
"A little over a hundred men." Robb answers cautiously.
"And Raventree?" She asks.
"Less." He answers, intrigued with where this is going.
"Good." She says, pleased." That means we've lost only a third as many men as The Lannisters. And The Kingslayer. Tywin's feeling that loss, I can tell you. Second-guessing himself, getting reckless, impatient. Another push in the right place, and he'll make a mistake, he will fall." She says.
The Lords start talking all at once, questioning the validity of her claim, the numbers, exclaiming excitedly what such a statement would mean if it were true.
"How would you know something like that? The Kingslayer's capture, how many men our enemies lost… How would you know any of it?" Robb asks seriously. She wonders how much to tell him, what he'll accept at face value, what will lead to questions she doesn't want to answer. The others are equally intent on her response.
"I know The Lannisters well. I know them better than anyone here. I spent months and months and months among them; serving them, kissing their asses, and making their lives more difficult whenever possible. I know things, important things, and I can help us win. Just let me."
"We've done just fine up until now, Princess. Whatever you know, we can get along just fine without." Karstark remarks. A few clear their throats in agreement, but others mutter their dissent.
"And that's partly down to me." She boasts. "I've already been helping. How did you find out about The Tyrells and The Kettlebacks? How did you know Lannister forces would be coming from The East, or that the supply train coming through The Fingers would be so lightly protected?"
Robb sits up straighter in his chair and stares her right in the eyes.
"You?" He clarifies. She nods simply. He covers his mouth with his hands, shaking his head in disbelief. She continues on, on a roll.
"And I can do more. Just let me." She pleads, begging with her eyes and her bottom lip the way she used to. "Father would have wanted it that way." She's nervous for his response.
He pauses a long time, too long. She feels the rug is about to be pulled out from under her. And then he laughs.
"Lord Karstark, move down so my sister can have a seat." He orders with a smile. Arya feels the corners of her own mouth lift up in delight. Karstark sputters, but after a moment's hesitation rises angrily from his seat; leaving his place wide open for her. With more pleasure than she should openly display, she gingerly sits in his vacated seat by Robb's side. She peers around at the other faces expecting more irritation, but finds extreme interest in the scrunch of their brows and eager hunches of their shoulders.
A proud, firm clap on her shoulder brings her attention back to a smirking Robb.
"Well, Sister. Please, do tell us what you know about these damned Lannisters. And then maybe you can tell us how you manage to continually sabotage them right under their noses without their being aware." He requests good-naturedly.
And with that, questions coming pouring forth from the Lords. She answers the best she can, adding snippets while remaining as vague as possible when it came to personal details. She's tired, stressed, and overwhelmed by all their questions, stares, and attention. In the back of her mind she wonders about her mother's absence, and worries what her friends are getting up to. She's looking forward to a bath and whatever feast her brother's planning, if not the event itself.
But more than anything, she's relishing the unabashed awe coming from these grizzled Northmen, these valiant lords, their respect. Her father couldn't have asked for more loyal men; strong men, esteemed. And for once, she was seated amongst them, counted as an equal, listened to, included. But would it hold? She would need their regard, her brother's included, for whatever came next.