He hated the books. His father had made it look so easy, had made all the numbers dance, had been able to recall the most astonishing details of all the trade and administration of the North. But he was not his father and he hated the books, the ledgers, the endless administration. But it had to be done. The North wouldn't run itself.
And besides you could tell what was happening when you looked at the ebb and flow of goods around the North. More trade going to Bear Island meant that the Mormonts were getting paranoid about the Ironborn again. More requests from the Wall for, well, everything, meant that the plight of the Night's Watch was getting worse and he sighed and made another note to remind Robert that something had to be done to bolster the Wall before the Wildlings paid another visit. More complaints from the Dreadfort meant that Roose Bolton was getting worried about something. Yet more complaints from the Karstarks meant that they were getting ambitious again. Well, they all had their concerns. Winter was always coming.
Knuckles rapped on the door to his solar and he looked up. Luwin was standing in the doorway, clutching at his chain and looking concerned. "What is it Luwin?"
The older man walked in and closed the door behind him. "Your pardon for disturbing you Eddard, but I am getting very worried about Robb. Something is very wrong with him."
Ned Stark put his quill down and straightened up from the books with a sigh. "I know, Cat and I were discussing it last night. Yet whenever I ask him what is amiss he just looks at me with that strained look and makes an excuse and hurries away, I know not where too."
"I think I have an answer to that riddle, or at least a part of it. I just found him in the Godswood, praying before the Heart Tree. He's always been devout, but never have I seen him pray as fervently as I just now witnessed."
Ned looked at him. "Did you hear his prayers?"
"A snatch of them. He was asking why he had been sent back and what he was to do now."
"Sent back?" Ned frowned. "Sent back from where?"
"I know not. He must have heard me coming because he looked up, smiled a smile that was more a grimace and then left." Luwin paused and then seemed to come to a decision. "I think that Robb is also the one who has been in the Library so much of late. I knew that someone was looking through the books a lot, but I did not know who until I overheard Robb muttering a piece of doggerel from the books about the Old Gods. And Old Nan told me that Robb has been pestering her for more of the old tales."
This really took him aback. "The Old Gods? Why would he be seeking knowledge of the Old Gods?"
Luwin spread his hands in bafflement. "I know not Eddard. As I said, I am concerned."
Ned stood and walked to the fire, where he warmed his slightly stiff hands. "Whatever is amiss with Robb, it started ten days ago. When he entered the Great Hall to break his fast."
"I agree," Luwin muttered. "But what could have happened?"
Ned thought back. He had been breaking his fast that morning with Cat and his family, along with Jon and Theon. Robb had been missing and he had been about to irritably order a servant to go and find his eldest son when all of a sudden he had arrived. He had looked as if he had dressed hurriedly and then run as fast as he could, because his chest was heaving. And his reaction on seeing Ned had been a strange one – he turned white as a sheet and then reeled. "Father." He had said the word as if he had been stunned. And then looked around the table and staggered forwards to it. He had hugged Bran and Rickon (both of whom had wriggled and squirmed and protested), hugged Arya (who had gone bright red with fury) and Sansa (who had rolled her eyes) and then stood and stared again at Ned.
"Robb, are you quite well?" Cat had asked in some startlement.
"I am quite well Mother," Robb had replied, still in that stunned tone of voice. "Father. It is good to see you again."
Ned had frowned. "I was here last night," he had said carefully. "I haven't gone anywhere."
Robb paused, seemingly choked up about something and then had caught sight of Jon and Theon. A great smile had split his face at the first, followed by a murderous glare at the latter. "Theon." He said the word in a low, equally murderous, tone that made the Greyjoy boy blink in bafflement.
Robb had then paused, collected himself visibly and then sank into his usual place, before eating quickly and as if his mind was on anything but the food. And then he had left, leaving everyone staring after him worriedly.
"Your children have been asking after him a lot, Eddard. He brushes them off, but they are as worried. He avoids Theon Greyjoy as if he is diseased. And Jory Cassel has told me that he found Robb staring from the outer wall of Winterfell in the direction of the Wolf's Wood, muttering under his breath. And…" He broke off, obviously reluctant to speak.
"Go on Luwin," Ned prompted. "Tell me."
"Rodrik Cassel tells me that his fighting style has changed. He swings a sword with the eyes of a man who has fought in battle, Rodrik says, the eyes of man who has killed. And I do not doubt him. His eyes are different Eddard. He has the eyes of an older man."
Ned Stark looked at his old friend and adviser. "I had thought that no-one else had noticed that. Had hoped it. What should I do? Every time I try to confront him he makes an excuse and leaves."
Luwin nodded thoughtfully. "I had noticed that. I suggest that you talk to him in the Godswood. He seeks solace there. Perhaps you can talk to him there."