Character: Runa Stahlhardt
House: Stahlhardt
Kingdom: Westerlands

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After miles on dirt roads the horses’ hooves clacked loudly against the stonework of the courtyard, echoing off the ramparts like bells warning of Runa’s trespass. The castle was hidden above the mountain’s cliff face, but Runa knew exactly where it loomed. She had watched the stronghold for five days as the army marched North. The image was perfectly encapsulated in her mind.

She watched the sun eclipse over the crag as her mount trotted to meet a stablehand. The shade ate at her bare skin, it’s chill painting all it touched grey and blue. Lord Stahlhardt had found her clean clothes: the smallest man in camp’s shirt, which she now wore as a dress. Runa wasn’t cold though, despite many of the men wearing their heavy coats, for her back was warmed by the nobleman who had saved her five days prior.

Five days prior she had lost-

“Papa!”

A bright haired child ran out from the Keep, her red curls flying and her arms outstretched. Her adolescent face was round with baby fat, but she was taller than most girls her age. She reminded Runa of her closest cousin, Caitie.

The nobleman passed his reigns over to a young lad and dismounted with ease. He swept the fiery haired child into a twirling embrace filled with squeals and giggles. Their smiles and love were phenomenal to Runa in wake of the war; their happiness a strange and alluring warmth. But Runa was numb. For every inch the family embraced, a barb of memories gnarled into Runa’s soul. Runa knew if she touched a barb her whole existence would be scoured by the memory. Uncle Robert had always said, “The mind controls the body. Your strength of will is your strongest weapon.” Runa’s will was all that was holding her together, but the harder Runa worked to protect her mind, the less she perceived from her body.

“Child?”

She turned to the nobleman, her eyes focusing from their haze of war.

“Would you like to meet my family?” he said kindly, but authoritative.

The family had joined them: a woman, a septa, a young child, a maester, and the Lord’s heir. His Lordship waited patiently for her answer, but it was so hard. Her words hooked in her throat, the slightest movement threatening her the greatest pain. Runa had sealed every emotion and every memory so deeply inside herself she feared cracking open her mouth would cause an irreversible fissure in her mind.

The nobleman’s family stared at her in confusion and disdain and distrust. All she could do was stare into the eyes of the man who had traded his own self for hers. He didn't smile, but he nodded respectfully and began introducing. His wife Lady Galena Stahlhardt was a picture with her kind blue eyes and her elegant lines. His sister Septa Katarina stared at Runa with pity and his daughter Alixendria’s hair flickered in the wind like fire and her eyes twinkled with mischief. His heir, Richter II, had the scar of war in his young eyes. Runa had seen it hundreds of times while growing up on battlefields. His Lordship's second son, Liam, was younger than Runa and small of stature.

Lastly, his Lordship introduced Maester Benedict, whose glare made Runa’s chest clamp and lurch simultaneously. The simple look of contempt in his eyes made her come to a sudden realization.

No one loved her anymore.

It didn’t matter how many times her mother had told her she loved Runa with all of her heart or that she would kill even the King for Runa’s safety because her mother’s heart was only filled with dirt now. And it didn’t matter that Runa's father was jelly in her hands because his hands were rotting. And it didn’t matter that she had brothers who teased her because Michalis’ throat was slit and Jameson’s lungs were waterlogged. It didn’t matter that she had uncles and aunts and cousins because they were dead or gone and Runa was lost. It didn’t matter anymore because they were all gone. So gone. So truly gone.

Runa’s chest began to tremble as she looked back to his Lordship, but she refused to cry. He admired her for her strength. He was the only one who was left. She couldn’t cry. She couldn't cry. This was just all mental. Her power of will was strong. She wouldn’t cry. She sucked through her nose with every shudder.

“Mmp,” Runa whimpered, as she tried to keep the tears inside and the memories at bay. Her lip quivered and her brows furrowed and then she fell apart. “Mmmnn.” Runa turtled; her body constricting in on itself. Her heaving breath convulsed her body as a darkness wrapped around her. In the shadows Runa released her sobs.

She was swooped off the horse and carried off by strong arms. His Lordship’s voice surprised her as his commands vibrated through his chest under her ear, “Get back to work! Has war made you monsters, to pleasure in a child’s pain?”

Runa had to be strong. She gasped in and out, choking on snot. She couldn’t. She couldn’t be weak. She had to survive. She had to live. Her mother, if nothing else, had taught Runa to survive no matter the consequence (until Runa herself had children, then she had to make sure they survived no matter the consequence).

But Mama...Mama.

It doesn’t matter anymore.

Runa shook with wracking sobs and Lord Stahlhardt squeezed her tighter. The compression was soothing like being a babe swaddled in her mother's arms. The air underneath the cloak was thick and hot and the wool lining scratched her wet cheeks. Her ankles and feet poked out the bottom, her toes occasionally skimming rough stone walls.

Mama...Mama, why‘d you save me? Why’d you leave me all alone?

Runa was sat down on something soft. His Lordship began to pull the cloak off of her, but she clamped her little hands into it’s fuzzy fabric like a safety line.

She wept and pant and held on to that cloak. “I am not weak,” she wheezed, then coughed to clear her throat. “I am not weak,” she begged before dry heaving and gasping for air. “I am not weak,” she prayed as she curled her shoulders in and dragged her legs up under her blackness, finding safety in her tent.

Lord Stahlhardt placed his hand on Runa’s cloaked knee and knelt before her and said, “You are a child-” Runa tightened her grasp on the cloak. “-but you are stronger and braver than my best warrior.”

Runa inhaled deeply.

“You saw your family brutally slaughtered, but when I found you, you were as silent and watchful as a serpent ready to strike. You did not break when everyone else would have, no matter their age or station. You did not break even when hope presented itself. You stayed focused in an enemy territory. You survived at any cost and that impressed me so much I was not even angry when you fled.”

His soft laugh filled Runa’s ears. Her breathing was still shaky but her body was quieting. He squeezed her knee.

“And then you came back,” he whispered in awe. “You, a child, came back by yourself, hours later, in the dark. Whether for vengeance or for rescue, both are equally formidable. Your power of will is mightier than the Seven Gods themselves.”

She dipped her head, her dark veil hiding her embarrassment. He suddenly gripped Runa’s little shoulders.

“You survived the murder of your family, kidnapping from Iron Island rebells, and then returned to slay two seasoned warriors with an ease and a ferocity I haven’t seen in years. Even the Stranger didn’t dare take you from this world.”

A silence passed where they sat looking in one another's direction, Runa slowly quieting her breathing.

Then he softly raised the cloak off of Runa. Her face and neck were splotched red and her fine white curls stood in disarray. She stared into his hazel eyes with her chin slightly tucked. He stared back as if his soul was open wide to see; as if every blue and green speckle was a precious memory that constructed his being. He reached out and placed his hands on either of her cheeks. “You have lost your blood family, but your strength of character has found you a consolation prize: a new family. My grandfather raised me a religious man, but I have never felt the presence of the Gods until I met you.”

Runa’s unsteady breathing shuddered for a very different reason. Was this man true? She was so confused, but the way his hands held her face and his eyes held her gaze, he made Runa realize he would never let her go. He meant what he said.

His Lordship leaned forward and rested his forehead on Runa’s. “What is your name, child?”

Runa breathed in...

“Runa.”

...and out.

He leaned back, his hands lowering to her shoulders, and the way his eyes shifted, she felt as if he were forever committing the word and her face to his memory.

“And yours, my Lord?” she whispered. A frown quickly came and went from his mouth, startling Runa and worrying her.

“Richter Stahlhardt,” he introduced sincerely, bowing his head. “But you child-” He stopped to correct himself. “-Runa, will never need to call me that. For my friends call me Richter and my friends that have saved my life call me Ric. Can you say Ric?”

His tone was severe, but his eyes were friendly and compassionate. Runa’s face felt stiff with dried tears as she snuffled out, “Ric.”

He nodded approvingly. “My father named me Richter because it means ‘powerful leader’. ‘Runa’ is an unusual name. I am unfamiliar with it. What is its meaning?”

Runa blushed, suddenly feeling inadequate to her name. “It means...mmp--It means...secret magic sign.”

His eyes widened before he burst with a chortle and his first smile swept across his face, lighting up his eyes.

With an awed grin illuminating his face, Ric asked her, “Will you, Runa, honor me by taking my name and becoming Runa Stahlhardt: my family, my friend, my trusted advisor?”

Runa felt the alien sensation of a smile slip onto her lips as she nodded at the nobleman who saved her life five days ago.

Mama...I don’t think I’m alone anymore.