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Lady Winter and the Red Wolf

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"The North Remembers. Winter came for House Frey."

Kitty Frey watched in shock as the Lady wearing her husband's... her husband's... who had just killed every male Frey walked out of the great hall with an even, controlled pace, barely even noticing as she stepped over the bodies gracefully and exited the hall.

After another few minutes of being in shock once the door had closed again, she looked down at her cup of wine, remembering her husband... that Lady... dismissively telling her 'not you'. She started, one hand reaching out to knock over the cups before her quickly, her own and her husband's silver goblet, both untouched.

The three serving girls that had seen everything looked up at her for direction. To her! Just her! She shivered again, not ever having seen this many dead men before. Her chest felt tight as she looked out and thought, strangely enough of the future, not what was before her.

The castle still had a garrison, mostly of smallfolk and a few bannermen, now without the Freys to direct them. There was a small contingent of Lannister soldiers who had their own ravens. The poor serving girls looked to her. Her own Ladies would look to her. None of them had husbands anymore to keep them safe... for whatever safe meant.

They couldn't stay. They couldn't go anywhere in the Riverlands without being caught. They couldn't go North, not after the Red Wedding...

She blinked, looking out at the scene before her. The great hall's doors were closed now that the Lady had gone, no-one would enter. There hadn't been any shouts, any screams. Lady Winter had already come for House Frey, had already avenged the Red Wedding and had spared the maids, had spared her. Had forbidden her to drink, personally.

Perhaps she had also spared other servant girls, her other Ladies.

There was only one thing to do.

She hoped it worked.

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Sansa looked up from her paperwork as one of the gate guards entered her solar, looking quite disturbed. She spoke smoothly and steadily, her voice raised slightly over what she would have preferred to ensure she could be heard clearly over the sounds of the construction and preparation below, "Yes, what is it?"

"M'Lady, The Twins, err, Freys, umm..."

"Is there more news of what happened at the Twins? The raven wasn’t very helpful," said Sansa.

"Er, yes. The Lady of the Crossing is at the front gate."

Sansa stood, her face going cold and blank, "And no alarm was given?"

The young guard flinched back, reminded of the tales that Lady Stark had fed Lord Bolton to his dogs... alive. For all that she was beautiful and kind, she was a Stark, and dangerous. "No, milady, it's just her and some women. No men, no guards. Umm... horses! They have horses. And packs. And carts. And some children. Young ones. Umm... maybe some chickens? And..."

"Thank you, I will visit them myself. Call for another set of guards to escort me," said Lady Stark, cutting him off and gesturing for the guard to precede her out the door as she headed down to the gate. She paused briefly to look down at the gate from a high window, verifying the guard's tale, and looking out at the horizon to make sure she couldn't see anything else. The raven they'd received had mentioned only that the Freys were 'destroyed', whatever that meant, and the Lannisters were heading up to the Twins.

Not for the first time did she wish she'd spent more time cultivating a spy network when she had the chance, rather than being a silly girl waiting for others to rescue her. What she had now was poor compared to Littlefinger's, but sufficient to get immediate word of at least major events and force Baelish to divulge a little more of his own information. Knowledge is power, Littlefinger liked to say. She knew it was true, just as she knew there were many other kinds of power. Brienne's kind, Jon's kind... her own kind.

Approaching the gate just ahead of the contingent of hard-eyed veteran Vale and Northern forces, she looked at the group gathered outside of the gates. A pitiful group, really, small and nervous and scared; certainly not appearing to be a threat. A teenage girl was at the front, reminding Sansa rather strongly of herself in King's Landing, surrounded by those who wished her ill, forcibly married to a man she did not choose. She called up the many lessons she'd learned from Cersei and Baelish, and gave a small, courteous smile, "Lady Frey, what a surprise. I'm sorry that my brother the King is unable to greet you himself; he left some time ago on a journey. Could you please tell me why have you come, alone, to the North?"

Kitty visibly gathered herself together, looking up at the tall, strong Lady of Winterfell, and replied, "Because you're our only hope. After the... after... after, we knew that someone would come, the Lannisters or the Mountain. We've been married off before, and... and we were still alive, even though the North remembers. So we knew we could come. It's just us; most of my handmaidens and Ladies, a few of the servant girls, and our children." She brightened, turning briefly to gesture to the back, where a few of the girls flipped back the ratty cloth covering a heavy cart, then opened the lid of one of the many chests, holding up a handful of mixed gold and jewels. The Lady of the Crossing continued, "We won't be a burden, I swear to you. This is all the treasure we could take from the Twins, as our repayment for what the men we were married to did to your family. We just want a place to be safe."

Lady Stark looked at the chests, and turned to speak softly to her guards, "Bring bread and salt. Have chambers set aside for Lady Frey and her entourage as our guests. Put the gold and jewels in the treasury, and see that they're given warm baths, clean clothes, and a hot meal." She turned back to Kitty, "Lady Frey, if you don't mind, I would be pleased if you would speak with me in my solar after your bath and meal."

 

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Lady Stark smiled, more comfortable now that she'd had time to think a bit, and gestured the clearly warmer Lady Frey to a chair, "Sit, please, Lady Frey. Are your new chambers to your satisfaction?"

"Yes, thank you, Lady Stark."

"I'm pleased to hear that. Now, tell me, what happened at the Twins? Start at the beginning, please."

Kitty's face paled dramatically and she grasped the arms of the chair tightly for a few seconds before she said, "After Ser Jamie left, Lord Frey ate alone with Black Walder and Lothar, became cross and sent them away towards Pinkmaiden on some sort of errand. He wouldn't tell anyone else what it was, but he was out of sorts. A few days later, he called for a feast. All... forgive me, my lady, all the men who... at the Red Wedding were invited, except Black Walder and Lothar. They... they're all dead. All of them are dead. She said... she said to say The North Remembers. She said Lady Winter came for House Frey."

Sansa tilted her head, puzzled. While she quite sure that the girl was either Cersei's long lost sister, or was telling the truth, that really didn't answer much. While she felt a slight sympathy for Kitty - Lord Tyrion had certainly been kind to her, as Walder clearly had not - she felt mostly a great satisfaction at the idea that her mother had finally been truly avenged. Well, except for two, but without their family and the Twins, Black Walder and Lothar were little threat. "How did they die?"

Kitty looked up at Sansa seriously, "The North Remembers. Lady Winter came for House Frey. That's what she told me to say."

"She told you? Who was she - what did she look like?"

"I don't know who she was. She looked like the very face of death."

Kitty Frey would say no more than that on the subject, then or ever.

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In the crypts beneath Winterfell, Sansa’s steady voice continued their conversation, an undertone of sadness clear in her voice, "Arya," she said as they released their embrace, "Bran’s home too."

Arya smiled, though as she watched her sister’s expression, her smile slowly diminished. Arya watched carefully for another moment, thinking, then spoke quietly, "And he didn't come with you... no, you didn't invite him, or even send word to him. We need to talk, then, Sansa, don't we."

"Yes, we do," Sansa said as they turned and headed deep into the crypts, Arya picking up her saddlebag and Sansa taking but a single candle for light as the sound of Sansa’s light footsteps echoed quietly, Arya’s own stride nearly silent beside her. Arya tilted her head slightly at the spot Jon had once jumped out covered in flour, miming a punch, and Sansa returned a slight, wistful smile, murmuring, "We were so young, then. I wish I had been a better sister to you, to Jon, to Bran and Rickon and Robb. But that we can talk about later."

Some minutes later, their steps came to a halt in a cavern far beneath the surface, past the statues of the Starks throughout the ages. Sansa spread her cloak atop a large rock to make a clean seat for them in the warm temperatures of the deeps, near the source of the more commonly used hot springs that bubbled up in caverns far above them. She reached out to clasp Arya’s small hand, feeling her calluses, mentally comparing them to Brienne's hands as she spoke in a near-whisper, quieter than the dripping of water from stalactites into the underground lake before them, "Your dancing lessons, in King's Landing. You didn't come back bruised because you were clumsy, you came back bruised because you were learning to fight."

Arya nodded, clasping her sister's soft hand, watching her in the flickering light as she assessed the changes her sister had been through herself, "I was studying water dancing with Syrio Forel, who was once the First Sword of Braavos. He died, protecting me from Meryn Trant and four other knights with naught but a training sword." She paused, then pointed at Sansa's nose with a smirk, "You've learned to rule your face, Sansa."

Sansa paused a moment, then laughed quietly, happy they could laugh and joke together now in a way they never could when they were young. "I did. I was trapped with Cersei first, then with Littlefinger, then... then with," she paused briefly, closing her eyes and remembering the sight of Ramsay, his jaw torn off, the sounds as he was eaten behind her, "Ramsay. I learned quite a lot from Cersei and Baelish, and even - gods curse him - from Ramsay. Littlefinger, though, is the first reason we need to talk. He's gotten himself declared Lord Protector of the Vale, and has declared for House Stark... for me. He wants to rule, and he wants me as some sort of prize, though I know he wants power more than he wants me."

Arya took her sister in her arms, hugging her as she whispers in her ear, "I'll add his name to my list, then. My sister is not a prize to be wanted like that. Would you like him dead in public, or as a quiet accident?"

They looked at each other for a moment, Sansa thinking furiously, kept her voice curious as she asks, "As a quiet accident? What do you mean?"

"I left Westeros and spent the last two years training at the House of Black and White, in Braavos, to become a Faceless Man. I'll kill him for you however you like," said Arya with quiet confidence and utter sincerity.

"A faceless man? Was it you then, at the Twins? Did you kill the ones responsible and scare Lady Frey near to death?"

"I did. Every Frey who killed Mother and Robb and our good sister is dead, now. How do you know about Kitty, though?" Arya asked, curious, "You sound like you know her. Is she here, then? She is, isn't she. And you were surprised it was me, still. She's a good girl, who only wanted to be a good wife and mother, the poor thing."

Sansa nodded, "She is here; I've taken her as a handmaiden. She showed up looking broken and lost with carts full of treasure, a few dozen women and children, and a very strange, very short tale," she said as she remembered the precise wording of the tale, then giggled, "You still don't want to be called Lady Arya, do you?"

"I'm not a Lady. You are."

"Well, as Lady of Winterfell, I will make sure that you aren't called Lady Arya or Lady Stark, or any title of Princess, though I don't think that will be a difficult task," said Sansa with a slight smirk, "I want Littlefinger dead, but we can't afford to lose the allegiance of the Vale, nor shake the faith the Lords and Ladies of the North have in Jon. And he has spies everywhere - all over the North and the South both, more than Lord Varys has, though I don't know why Varys still has any, he's been gone for ages."

Arya shook her head, looking up at her sister, and nudged her with a shoulder, "You Westerosi, so provincial! The Spider still has spies because he joined the Dragon Queen in Meereen years ago and serves as her Master of Whisperers, alongside your ex-husband Lord Tyrion, who's been Hand of the Queen for even longer. Really, I don't think any of you would last a month in Braavos during the Choosing of the Sealord, when you have to see the knives in the dark just as much as the knives in the light, even the ones you don't know about... even the ones across the Narrow Sea."

Sansa gaped for a moment, then giggled, setting Arya off as well, "Arya! You're just as much a Westerosi as I am! It seems you've learned some politics in your travels, even if you're still not a lady. I've missed you, you know. It's so good to have you home."

They were quiet for a moment, for the first time taking true comfort in the other's presence, as they had never done as children.

"More pressing, Baelish must have known about Tyrion and Varys both through his spies, and he didn't mention Varys to us at all. Tyrion signed the note from Dragonstone, so we knew about him just before Samwell Tarly discovered proof of dragonglass under Dragonstone and Jon set off." She huffed, remembering the council sessions where Jon refused to discuss his plans with her first, forcing her to try and give advice, and ask questions, in public. She loved her brother, but he was exasperating as King.

As Sansa's expression dimmed, Arya narrowed her eyes, "I have learned some politics, though I'd rather leave them to you, along with the sewing needles. You advised Jon not to go, didn't you? You did. Good. Jon can be stubborn, though, and he doesn't like to take advice, he likes to act, like me." She nodded quietly at Sansa, "I've learned I need to take advice sometimes, too, and hear the words between the words, and in the silence. Has Jon told you how he's doing? Asked how the North is? Asked your advice?"

"No. He landed at Dragonstone, he's been seen on the battlements and the cliffs unguarded and safe, sometimes alone, sometimes with Tyrion, sometimes with the Dragon Queen. He's sent no word of any kind. I'm worried."

"I am too, but there's nothing I can do to help him, here. I couldn't help Father or you in King's Landing, I couldn't help Mother and Robb at the Twins, or Rickon at the Battle of the Bastards, but I can help you now. You've learned to lie, to act, haven't you? Well enough to fool Littlefinger and his other spies?"

Sansa smirked, "I have; as long as he doesn't see a chance to gain power while I dangle myself outside his reach, he won't see what I don't want him to. He can't get more power in the Vale... and he can't get any in the North without me. You mean for us to fool him while we find his spies, and take them from him, don't you? And his brothels, too, with his books, whores, and money. If we can contact Lord Royce, we can keep the loyalty of the Vale... yes, that'll work. He has more than spies, Arya - he has cutthroats, too, like the one that attacked Bran. Brienne swore to protect me - to protect both of us, both of Mother's daughters, but she's only one knight, and I don't want her stabbed in the back or poisoned."

Arya's face grew blank and her body still, her eyes empty in the candlelight as she spoke quietly, without emotion, "Don't worry about the cutthroats, even if Littlefinger hires those pathetic Sorrowful Men. No One is the best in the world, and no one is going to be killing anyone I don't want dying today."

"Arya?" Sansa asked, worried.

The shorter girl blinked, emotion returning to her as she heard her name in her sister's voice, "It's all right, Sansa. There are different kinds of spies - spies for money, for loyalty, for power, for revenge, for glory, for fear, for excitement, for sex, for love. I'll take the fearful ones and those who want vengeance and excitement and their own power. You can take the ones who want money and glory and political power. We'll have to kill the loyal ones, but with Littlefinger, there won't be many of those. We can split the ones we can turn who are in it for sex or love. Most important, we have to fool him until we're ready, then we kill him in a way that leaves the Vale loyal to you."

Sansa nodded, "He killed Aunt Lysa after he married her, because he wanted Mother, and now me, more than her... and because he wanted to be Lord Protector of the Vale, even more than that. I lied for him at the Vale, but if you can contact Lord Royce without Littlefinger knowing, we can prepare him for the killing and what comes after, and keep the Vale, with stronger ties than now. I can't talk to him without Littlefinger knowing... and you can't be seen by anyone. There are some secret passages, but Littlefinger and Varys both have spies who use them. You must be very careful of Littlefinger - he sees every small detail."

Arya shook her head slowly, squeezing Sansa's hand, "Sansa, you aren't understanding what I've trained to be. I won't be seen when I don't want to be, and when I want, I won't be noticed even when I am seen, because he will see what I have presented myself to be first. I'll show you more, but later; we'll need to be careful any time we may be observed." Arya's face grew still again, and she spoke softly, without emotion, "I will say and do things to hurt you, to make you afraid. Know now that is just a face I wear to trap Littlefinger, but know then that you are hurt and afraid."

"Of course, Arya," Sansa said, returning the squeeze, "I've been learning, too, from Littlefinger, and Cersei, though I hate them so. What do you mean, a face you wear?"

"Don't worry about that yet," Arya said, then laughed, and smiled, delighted by an idea she'd had, "We can do something other sisters do; have a set of secret signs. Not for talking about boys, but for our work, and as reminders of what's the truth, and what's a lie until it's time to end the game and kill Littlefinger."

Sansa glanced at the shortening candle, and nodded, "We need them to be subtle, unobtrusive, even in front of many people; we have to have several to choose from for the most important ones. All right. We can start with this..."

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Chapter Text

Sansa strode from Arya's room late the next morning after finding her sister had already left, a pair of bundles in her hands, footsteps echoing past the guards and through the empty halls. Her sister had of course been given quarters next to Sansa's, but she had also requested a... workshop... in the remotest room in the castle, so Sansa made her way there. She strode past the storerooms full of food, salt, furs, leather, and other supplies for the winter and past the rooms still empty, their previous contents looted or burned, and she worried how she was to feed the North through the long winter to come. Defeating their enemies only to starve would not be the fate of her people.

She paused, then, looking up at her sister and remembering her, smaller, happier, in the same pose in the Red Keep, though back then when Arya was standing on one foot at the top of a set of stone stairs, she would hold her arms out and move around unsteadily to keep her balance. Here and now, Arya was on one foot, moving smoothly and precisely as she practiced some sort of sword drill.

One one foot. At the top of the stairs. With her eyes closed.

She loved her sister... but there was no denying it, her sister was very strange.

After a couple of minutes of Sansa watching her, Arya spoke, though she never opened her eyes, "Hello, Sansa. What did you bring me?"

"New clothes. You can't go around dressed like a poor sellsword anymore. Come to your workshop and let's get you outfitted properly," said Sansa, her voice carrying. She deliberately let more of her desire to see her sister dressed properly as a princess of the North and her irritation that Arya wouldn't bother to dress herself properly color her emotions.

Arya gracefully finished her current set, then sheathed her sword and once Sansa had made her way up, walked together with her to her workshop. She had not sensed any strange air currents at that location, and given that this floor and those above and below were entirely devoted to storage, she did not believe there were any secret or forgotten passages here that even a cat could get through. Sound traveled far through stone passages, though, so even here, she was proud that Sansa was wearing a face of mild disapproval.

Arya opened the door to her workshop slowly, watching carefully for the two tiny fragments of dark hair she'd planted to be revealed and fall, showing the door had not been moved since she'd closed it. Once the door had closed and been locked and barred as was Arya's new habit, Sansa turned the bundle of fine leathers and thick cloth around, handing it over before placing her sewing kit on her sister's workbench.

She had folded the clothes specifically so that only the soft outside had shown while she carried it, where now the strips of leather armor she'd sewn on the inside were visible, "Come on, let's get you out of that awful outfit and into something proper. You can't go around Winterfell letting people see a Stark dressed like a beggar. Try this on, let me see how it fits."

Arya took the clothes to a table she had set against a wall, shifting her whetstone aside and unfolding the clothes, setting the soft under-layer aside as she flexed and rubbed the jerkin, watching it flex easily. The armor strips were sewn in a cunning arrangement she'd never seen before that kept good coverage while not being obvious on the outside. She felt them carefully, and noted they were indeed extremely good quality, and definitely selected and cured to be armor for protection, not for show.

"I didn't know you worked leather," she said as she ran a finger over the neat stitches in the thick, hard strips of armor. There was no-one who could see them here and now, so they only had to be careful with their sounds. She'd tried sewing leather as a child, to see if she could use the lessons she hated so in the stables, for something she'd considered worthwhile at the time, and she'd found that even normal leather was quite difficult to work with. Her sister could have done the soft outsides easily, but the strips of armor was a different story, both the placement and the sewing itself.

"There's a lot of things you don't know about me anymore. There were also are a lot of people that were lost to the Greyjoys and the Boltons, and even to the South. We have all stepped up to do our parts. The Vale has generously provided some craftsmen to make armor, but I had to point out that up here they needed leather over their plate, and wool underneath. I've been putting my skills to good use - there's no reason to have idle hands when discussing things in private. We must all pitch in." She made the one of the signs they had worked out for truth, a subtle and natural positioning of the fingers, made briefly and without drawing attention.

Arya returned another variation of the same sign, then stripped down, since her sister had provided a complete outfit. They were both still getting used to using them naturally in conversation, and knew that while they were rarely necessary now, at the beginning of the game they were playing with Littlefinger, they would be vital later, and they needed practice. Arya had specific training to notice tiny details that might spell a lie from her time at the House of Black and White, and she had seen that Sansa must have learned to notice the minute as a survival skill as well.

Sansa took in a breath at the scars she saw on Arya, her lips thinning briefly. She recognized gut wounds that looked very similar to Jon's, one a rather gruesome, twisted scar, not just a straight cut, as well as a long slash Jon didn't have. They were clearly scars from battle, and her sister had been so confident under the keep, but still she worried.

"Arya, where did you get those?"

"In Braavos. Being stupid, and relaxing when I shouldn't have. Don't worry, I killed them after I got patched up," said Arya, making sure to phrase it ambiguously as she made the sign for truth. She hadn't heard anything, but she didn't yet know how sound carried here, and there were no other sounds to mask their voices. Everything had to be carefully considered in light of Baelish's spies - she'd spotted two of them last night, and she was sure they were the least skilled of the lot.

Sansa watched Arya start putting on the outfit, and reached out to help her make sure it went on correctly, giving Arya's shoulder a gentle squeeze as she did so, "Jon has battle scars much like that, from when some of the Night's Watch killed him after he let what was left of the Wildlings, the Free Folk, through the Wall. Lady Melisandre raised him from the dead somehow, before Theon helped me escape."

"Melisandre? The Red Woman - tall, creepy, priestess of the Red God like Thoros is? I was there when Thoros raised Beric Dondarrion from the dead for the sixth time, you know, after the Hound killed him. I'm not sure how, though it was very fast - a few words, and Beric's shoulder wasn't split open down to his heart anymore. All three of them are on my list, you know. Only death can pay for life. Where is she?"

Arya made the sign for truth as she waited for Sansa to step back, and then she went through a simple training drill briefly, pausing and pointing to the areas of the new outfit that weren't quite right for fighting in. When she had heard the tales on her way North, she had certainly expected Sansa to try and dress her in nice clothes, but hand-made armor overnight was not what she expected.

Sansa tugged on it briefly, stalking around Arya, then said, "All right, take it off again, I need to adjust it. You're a little bigger than I thought you were," as she patted Arya on the biceps with a slight smirk. She continued, "Jon banished Lady Melisandre after Ser Davos found out that she'd burned Princess Shireen at the stake to get King Stannis a victory. She went south, I don't know where."

Sansa thought back to when Brienne had told her about finding Arya and fighting the Hound. Perhaps soon she'll hear more of what had happened on the road. She watched as Arya took the outfit off again, pulling out a needle and settling herself on a chest to adjust the outfit right then. Arya herself started flipping the cutthroat's knife around casually, tossing it from hand to hand, spinning it, whether to play with it, as a habit, or to be able to better fight with it Sansa didn't know.

Sansa found herself looking at Arya's scars from time to time, comparing them to her own. While she didn't care nearly as much about being beautiful as she had when she'd last seen her sister, she did find herself caring about the scars. Arya's scars were borne of combat, of fighting back, of honor and of action. Her own were scars of shame... of being Joffrey's toy, of being Ramsay's toy, of dishonor and inaction.

She looked up when Arya stopped moving to see Arya watching her intently.

"When I was coming back North, you know, I heard stories of what happened to the North, to Jon, to you. You've told me what I heard of Jon is true. You're looking at my scars. Why? They aren't something I'm proud of; I got them by being foolish, by letting my guard down when I shouldn't have. They remind me of that, and I don't let me guard down anymore."

Arya set the knife down and hugged her sister quietly, then reached down to pull Sansa's sleeve up for just a moment, so she could see the fine scars laid on pale skin, and so Sansa could watch as she saw. She looked at her sister steadily, looking for the truth hidden beneath, what Sansa wasn't willing to talk about yet, but which was hurting her.

"I've traveled far, and seen a lot of different people. I've seen a lot of different scars, too. From burns, swords, axes, arrows, knives, fists, clubs, whips, belts, fingernails. I've seen them on lords and ladies, on courtesans and fighters, on people who have been freed from slavery. No scar I've ever seen has been shameful," Arya reached down to pull Sansa's sleeve up again, making the sign for truth as she made sure Sansa watched her look, "none of them. Not those from slavery. Not those from accidents. Not those from evil men like Sandor's scars. They simply show that you have survived. They can help you learn."

Sansa drew in a deep breath, then nodded. She still felt that her scars were shameful... but perhaps her nosy little sister had a point that she should consider. She finished the adjustments on the front, and turned the outfit over.

Arya continued speaking, her voice louder, her tone sharper now as she made the sign for eavesdropper, "I don't know why you're so insistent on this. I don't care about fancy clothes. I'm a fighter. Clothes like this don't mean anything to me," she made the sign for lie.

Sansa let her tired irritation rise up, encouraging that inside herself. She'd stayed up all night working on this, and her sister wasn't saying she was grateful to be dressed as a Stark of Winterfell, she was complaining about it!

"You are a Stark, Jon's sister, and third in line of succession of the independent kingdom of the North. You need to be dressed appropriately," Sansa fingered the strip of armor she was repositioning, looking at Arya seriously, though her voice was sharp, "and I will not allow you to go so much as one day in those merchant rags you arrived in now that you are here. You need to step up and make yourself useful. We need to prepare for the dead, prepare for Cersei, and if Jon fails, prepare for the Targaryen and her armies and dragons."

Arya handed Sansa some travel bread from a cabinet she'd stocked, then picked up the Valyrian steel knife again, resuming her drill. The knife was far lighter than it should have been, and she needed to spend some time ingraining exactly how it moved and balanced in every position into her reflexes.

While she did this, she spoke seriously, getting down to the business of protecting the North, "I heard Jon ordered everyone, without exception, to be trained to fight. The smallfolk I passed were trying, but no-one knew how the enemy fought. I know how knights fight, how the armies here fight. I know how a water dancer fights, how the Unsullied use their spears, how the Dothraki screamers fight. I even know some about how dragons fight, and I've seen what they did to Harrenhal. Who do we have who can tell me how the dead fight?"

Sansa settled down as well, her mind turning to business, "Tormund Giants bane is up at Eastwatch. I'll have a raven sent immediately. We have some w... Free Folk here. Always call them Free Folk, never wildlings. They do not kneel to anyone, but all of them have seen the army of the dead. I'll take you to them as soon as we're done here and have eaten."

"All right. What do we have for weapons, blacksmiths, armorers, steel, leather, shovels, pitch, tar, arrows, ballista, scorpions, trebuchets, horses, particularly garron, ships, sleds, and wildfire?"

They each continued doing their tasks while discussing matters of logistics, which turned out to be an area where their skills crossed. Sansa had the current information, and knew what could be done and exactly what would have to be sacrificed to make more of each of them. Arya knew their martial value and tradeoffs, and what kinds of enemies each might be best against. Fire was best against wights, but useless against dragons. Scorpions could be used against dragons, but were a waste against wights, and so on.

One thing was clear to both of them. They didn't have enough of anything, and time was short.

When Arya put on the new outfit for the final time, she spoke, "It looks like Father's."

"You look like Father. Like a Stark."

"Thank you, Lady Stark."

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Later that week, Arya padded up the ravenry, her steps quiet, but not silent... her Littlefinger step, as she thought of it sometimes. She had spoken with soldiers and lords, with the Master-at-arms and Brienne, with the wil... the Free Folk, and with Sansa. They'd worked out everything they could made, and the best few options could be.

There was no option with a real chance of success that the North and the Vale and the Night's Watch could manage by themselves.

No option that included the Dragon Queen and her armies as they were now would likely succeed either. Arya had spent weeks studying a little bit of every fighting style that the House of Black and White had access to, for even No One needed to know how to act, how to walk, and how to fight enough like whatever face they were wearing to not give away that they were No One and not the face.

The North had few natural resources - what they did have was ice. Lots of ice. Lots of trees. Fresh water in plenty. The best furs in the world, but there were none to spare. The best garron in the world, but no-one else needed them. Silver from the Manderlys, more valuable now that it was clear the Lannisters were conserving their gold for a change for reasons unknown. Beer and ale, of course, thick leather, and other goods, but not enough of what they needed for these wars.

Arya had listened to the Maester as he sent off Sansa's messages long enough. Now, she slipped into the ravenry behind Maester Wolkan, her left hand resting idly on her Valyrian steel dagger, and spoke softly, "If you ever open any message to me, or from me, you will die. If you try to read them in any way, you will die. If you send them to the wrong place, you will die. If you try to use a bird that isn't the best available, you will die. Do you understand what I am telling you?"

The Maester had jumped and spun around before she had spoken her third word, and continued looking at the finely dressed young killer before him while he listened to that deadly voice speak to him, "What? Yes! Yes, I understand!" He'd been the Maester for both Roose and Ramsay Bolton, and whatever those Maesters who stayed at the Citadel might think about his lack of logic, he'd learned to trust his instincts. Those instincts told him that this girl was dangerous, deadly... and completely serious. She'd do it herself, without telling anyone, without any warning, he just knew it. She'd sneak up behind him like she just did and just stab him, right here, or shove him off the tower, or take that Valyrian knife and flay him alive!

The Maester closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened his eyes, the killer continued.

"I have five scrolls. I've already put them in cases. Do not open them for any reason. Do not shake them, pull them open, or twist them. Do not let the wax seal be broken for any reason. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my... yes." He'd already been told by Lady Sansa not to call Lady Arya Lady Arya or my lady, or any type of Princess. He wasn't about to ask either one of them why not.

"This one goes to the Sealord's Palace in Braavos, for Qarro. This one goes to the House of Black and White in Braavos, for No One. This one goes to Eastwatch, for Tormund. This one goes to Castle Black, for Edd. This one goes to Sunspear, for Sarella."

She watched carefully as the Maester sent the messages, noting every detail of what was done. She watched the ravens leave, one at a time until they were out of sight. None were shot down, or even shot at.

She'd get the answers soon enough. She knew she'd get answers from Eastwatch and Castle Black, and that the First Sword would provide her the introductions the North needed. Sunspear's answer was for Sansa, who was hoping that Arya being a deadly killer would play well with who they thought was the new Dornish ruler.

What the House of Black and White would say... what Jaqen would say, that she did not know. He'd told her she was truly No One and nodded when she'd announced her true self and intention, but what that meant now... No One would wait, and find out soon enough.

Maester Wolkan shuddered at the utter lack of expression on the girl's face, the stillness of her body, and tended to the ravens until she turned and left, quiet footsteps fading quickly. She sometimes seemed like a frightening, deadly killer of a girl... and then there were the times like this, when she seemed like a statue of the coldest ice come to life, moving without any trace of humanity or emotion. Or, perhaps, she was like no one at all.

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Sansa faced her sister in her new chambers after another frustrating meeting with the Lords, noting the brief moment Arya's fingers made the sign for eavesdropper before her sister accused her, "You always liked nice things," and made the sign for truth, "made you feel better than everyone", the sign for lie. She felt herself start to smile as the childish insult amused her now rather than angered her, so she turned to put her papers down and present what Baelish's spy needed to hear as their argument intensified and became political.

Arya turned the argument to Sansa's ambitions, which they both knew were real enough, though not the threat she made them out to be for their unseen audience. The greedy maid down the hall should just be able to make out the voices and pass the argument on to Littlefinger for his coin, keeping him focused on what he sees and hears, just as her training with Brienne showed him that she was one of the deadliest fighters in Westeros. That first impression of her as a fighter appeared to be shaping his perception of her, and he wasn't looking deeper. His thinking she was a warrior foolishly and poorly playing at being a spy would cost him everything, in time.

Meanwhile, Sansa lectured sternly, "Winterfell didn't just fall into our hands, we took it back. And the Mormonts, and the Hornwoods, and the wildlings, and the Vale. All of us," she made the sign for truth, "working together." She made both the signs for truth and lie, while she let her voice turn sarcastic, "Now, I'm sure cutting off heads is very satisfying," she hesitated a moment, and then made the sign for truth, "but that's not the way you get people to work together."

"And if Jon doesn't come back, you'll need their support, so you can work together to give you what you really want," said Arya, making the sign for truth.

"How can you even think such a horrible thing?"

"You're thinking it right now," said Arya as Sansa stood still, "you don't want to be," the sign for truth came from Arya as she continued, "but the thought just won't go away." Sansa reluctantly made the sign for truth.

They had somehow fell into the habit of baring their souls to each other, of not hiding themselves from each other. Neither had the kind of honor their father had learned in the Vale, so there was no censure from the other, no shame, no judgment. They lied to each other every daily, of course, but always made sure the other knew it was a lie.

"I have work to do," said Sansa, her voice rough as she let the pain wash through her. She'd become well acquainted with pain over the past years, physical pain, emotional pain, the pain of hopes destroyed over and over. This pain cut deeper, delivered as it was by her sister, and deeper still given she knew her own mind, her own selfish desires. Yet this pain could be washed away easily enough - Arya was stating painful truths to be hurtful, true, but it wasn't to punish, or to enjoy the pain they cause, or because Arya actually disapproved. Valar Morghulis, after all, as her sister had told her more than once. This was pain caused for a purpose, to serve their family, not to destroy it, and Arya was not judging her, not looking down on her, just speaking truths.

Sansa knew, too, that they could do now what they never could manage as children. Both sisters made a final subtle sign to each other as they parted, the last sign they'd worked out, and the only one not directly required for their plan to work.

The sign for forgiveness.

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Chapter Text

Arya followed Baelish in her own face, even the echo of her Littlefinger step footsteps loud in her ears after being blind for so long during her training, though they would seem quiet to those of normal hearing. Someone where Littlefinger was, she estimated, would be able to hear one step in five. One step in four, if he had exceptional hearing... which it appears he did, at that. What would be a liability in most cases actually make this a little easier and more believable, since she was here specifically so he thought he knew all of what she was doing.

He approached a few people while she watched him in his own face... but when he knew she was out hunting, surveying the new watchtower system, checking on Winter Town or any of the other outlying settlements, planning out the defensive rings or otherwise somewhere he was sure he knew where she was, then he visited other people, left other messages, said other things.

And right now... yes, he was leaving. Well, 'leaving', unless he intended to take a nice easy nap while standing up on the stairs, and he was too soft for that. His footsteps were about as quiet as hers were now, and had she normal hearing, she would have heard them fade away naturally.

So, she took the bait, and noisily and slowly picked the ancient and simplistic lock, then clumsily searched his room, as a warrior without true patience might, her steps even louder now that she was 'safe' from being caught.

She left no traces left for the unobservant, but plenty if he'd left any little traps behind, as she was sure he had. Perhaps he'd not find the tiny piece of dark hair she'd seen fall as she ran her fingers over the mantelpiece where he left it. Perhaps he'd notice the slight alteration to the angle of the cabinet door when she'd closed it. Perhaps something she hadn't even noticed; this type of search, done properly, would take hours of exquisite care.

Still in her own face, she had to hold back a blatant Arya Stark sigh at how blatant Baelish had made the bed covers in the corner, and then she had to hold back from a smirk, since that gave a clue as to his estimation of her skills. The ruffling of the bed covers was so out of place that her 11 year old self would have noticed it!

Checking carefully for any hint of poison or other dangerous trap, she pulled out the raven scroll and exited, planning out how she'll take the bait.

Once back in her workshop, she unrolled the scroll and read the message from her sister to her brother. It wasn't what she expected, but was clearly written before her father died. She'd reclaimed Needle, killed the stable boy, and was living alone on the streets in King's Landing then. Her sister had been unable to flee, held captive by Cersei... as she herself had been held captive by Tywin and the Hound.

No, it wasn't the same, indeed. The Hound had been a good enough captor, helping to teach her how to get by on her own in the world, and generally providing for her as best he could. She would have truly had a worse time after she'd left him to die without his teachings. He'd never beat her except to train her. All good training hurt, every hurt is a lesson, and every lesson makes you better. He'd made her better.

Tywin, too, never beat her. He'd never let others beat her, or put rats against her chest to chew on her, or let his men rape her. He'd taught her in his own way, too, not dismissing her from hearing range during his war councils, not preventing her from reading the maps. Sometimes even asking her questions for a time, or using her as a sounding board for his thoughts. She'd learned every lesson she could of the war between Robb and Tywin, remembered every success and mistake Robb and his men made, and every success and mistake Tywin and his men made.

Sansa, though, was held by Cersei and Joffrey and Meryn Trant. She knew very well what Meryn Trant was, she'd used it to trap him, to cross his name off her list, after all. He would never have taught Sansa anything. Nor would Joffrey, the cowardly little cunt, as the Hound might have said.

Cersei, of course, would have taught Sansa quite a lot, as Tywin had taught her, but Cersei would never have interfered beyond the minimum required to keep a hostage alive.

No, whatever Sansa wrote to Robb, it was little different than when she herself served Tywin and his generals food and drink while they planned to defeat Robb's Northern army.

Arya re-rolled the scroll and 'hid' it in a cabinet under her collection of arrows, as she was sure Littlefinger expected. She then sat and thought of precisely what he expected her to feel, how he expected her to act... and how the face of Angry Distrustful Arya would, in fact, feel and react, for that was the face she'd need to wear when she confronted Sansa with this scroll.

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Arya followed Maester Wolkan up to the ravenry, her steps loud and solid, the steps of a warrior, of a great killer of the sword and bow. He'd come to fetch her so she could remove the raven scrolls herself, as he was too wary to so much as touch them. Perhaps he showed some wisdom after all.

Eastwatch and Castle Black had already responded, detailing their collective knowledge of the dead - of wights and White Walkers and how they different, of how fast they moved, of how they attacked, of what paths they liked to take. They'd both sent messengers throughout the North to the farthest Northern holdfasts, villages, and farms. She and Sansa had worked it out together - now that the snow prevented the land from producing food, everything north of Winterfell was to evacuate. They were to do so carefully - everything of real value for surviving either the wars to come, or the long winter to come after, was to be moved first, dependents next, and soldiers last. The far North and the coasts were evacuated first, since both the dead and the fleets of their enemies and possible allies were dangers.

Dorne's response would go to Sansa when it came - after Arya's initial contribution, they expected it to be politics, though Arya or Lady Mormont would be consulted each time, since their outlook was remarkably similar to what the Dornish sand snake Sarella's outlook would likely be, they thought.

When they approached the ravenry, Arya was surprised to see not one or even two ravens, but five, all from Braavos. One from Qarro, three from the House of Black and White, and one from the Iron Bank?

"Thank you, Maester. You may go."

After he'd somewhat hurriedly left, she carefully collected the scrolls. The ones from the House were certainly poisoned in at least three different ways, and she assumed the others were too, and treated them as such. She went back to her workshop, carefully checking each room around her before locking herself in and carefully opening the scrolls.

The First Sword's reply stunned her. He opened by greeting her as the First Sword of Westeros (not, she mused, that she had any competition for the title, being the only Water Dancer in Westeros in the first place). He wished her well, expressed his confidence that she was improving herself as a Water Dancer, and listed a contact at the Arsenal, and several merchants, all of which he had gone to on her behalf already. Weapons, ammunition, tar, pitch, arrows, and components for defenses were all available.

One surprise was that it appeared there were Meereenese merchants with a huge surplus of naval trebuchets they would certainly be willing to sell at a discount! After the Dragon Queen had burned a couple slaver ships and convinced the rest to surrender, she had landed both the weapons and the fiery ammunition to use the ships for transports. To the Meereenese, they were simply taking up space they could better use for other things, and the Dragon Queen's own armies had no interest, since neither Dothraki nor Unsullied used siege engines.

Qarro had consulted the Sealord, too, who had given his approval of trade with the North as long as No One approved as well. Further, if No One assured them that a particular trade was primarily for stopping the army of the dead, then there would be no taxes, no tariffs of any kind. Braavos was the bastard child of Valyria and did not doubt that magic existed, and could be turned to evil ends.

The House of Black and White's missives were next on her list. The first she read had been trapped with Jaqen's favorite poisons.

A woman has always been a poor servant. A god, like a man, does not only want servants. A man once told a girl she had many names on her lips, names she could offer up to the Red God one by one. A woman has been doing so, but not as a servant of the Many-Faced God. A woman learned something that was not taught. A man tried to teach a girl to become No One, and put on the faces, for the faces are as good as poison to someone. A woman instead learned to be someone who could put on No One's face, and then put on the other faces over that.

A woman cannot be a servant of the Many-Faced God, for she does not serve. Yet a woman offers up many deaths to the Many-Faced God, and the Many-Faced God accepts them gladly. The House of Black and White in Braavos has no place for those who do not serve. The Many-Faced God, then, would be well pleased if a woman would don the face of No One when she represents the House of Black and White in Westeros, and accepts those who wish to serve the Many-Faced God in a way that the woman who wears No One's face believes is pleasing to the Many-Faced God, who shows a different face to a woman than is shown to a man.

As a woman cannot serve, a woman must lead. A woman knows the faces of death well.

A woman will know who to give the gift to, who not to, and how to determine which is which.

No One

The second case from the House contained two scrolls. The first listed many, many examples of prices that had been charged for death, and how they had been determined, with explanations of how the means of the requester or set of people requesting the death played in, how the target played in, and how other factors played in. Examples of those attempting to cheat the House were also listed, with the penalties that had been assessed in the past.

The second scroll was for Sansa. Even with the Waif killed by her hand, clearly what she'd told the Waif about her family had been recorded, for the first drawing for Sansa was the exterior plan of a copy of the House itself so that a suitable amount of land could be set aside. The second drawing was a pattern of the hooded robes of a Faceless Man for Sansa to craft for Arya.

The third case held summaries of the latest intelligence available to the House of Black and White across the entire world. There was considerably more detail regarding Slaver's Bay than on other areas. Arya thought that indicated that both they knew she was concerned about the Dragon Queen. and that there had been more names from that area of late than the others. There was also considerable detail on the Golden Company.

The note ended with a both a condemnation that the dead living forever was an affront to the Many-Faced God... and a warning that fighting only the enemy in front of you was a good way to have your name given to the Many-Faced God by being stabbed in the back.

The Iron Bank offered its customary line of credit at its best rates to the House of Black and White in Westeros. The Iron Bank also offered a line of credit to the Kingdom of the North at moderate rates, with one exception. There was a separate line of credit available for the specific purpose of fighting the army of the dead, at extremely preferential rates. Instructions on how to provide a draft on the bank, particularly for international trade, were included.

Arya slipped these messages carefully back into their cases and hid them in her belt. No one could be allowed to find them. She wasn't comfortable with this sudden responsibility, and yet she did want it. She'd not liked the way the House of Black and White in Braavos took jobs - the thin man certainly deserved death, but Lady Crane did not. She could change that here, in her House.

She wanted to discuss her new position with Sansa, who had been put in a similar situation, suddenly responsible for the North. She'd overheard the tale of how Jon put her in charge without warning and left for Dragonstone right after, and Sansa had coped. Arya shrugged slightly, as Jaqen liked to. She couldn't discuss or show anything about the House to Sansa until Littlefinger was gone.

For now, she had work to do - the weather was cloudy but without snow, so she could make good time on a public round of the outer ring of watchtowers, and check on the other defenses. She'd make some detours instead of actually sleeping the night through, and check on the last of Littlefinger's spies that she'd be able to get to.

She'd tell Sansa about the Iron Back link of credit for the North and for the war against the dead first, as well as the list of merchants and wares Qarro had told her about. Sansa would work out the quantities of each they could afford, and how much food was required before they could think about buying gear for war.

They hadn't received a reply from Dragonstone, yet. One of Sansa's ravens had been to Jon, and the other to Tyrion, with detailed lists of what was required to survive and fight in the North in winter. Arya had described the uniforms of the Unsullied and the outfits of the Dothraki, and the climate they were made for. Sansa had drawn up patterns for how to supplement them and the options for types of cloth, leather, and furs that would work. They'd also listed what kind of food was required - men and animals both needed to eat more in the cold, and southrons were perpetually surprised by that. They had sent the information on to Jon and Tyrion with the news that Arya was alive, and were hoping for a response soon.

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Sansa crept into Arya's room carefully. Her sister had lied about going to train in the courtyard before she'd stalked off after the last meetings of the day, and there was still a little time before dinner. The invitation was obvious... and the elder sister had been very curious ever since their first conversation, so she'd taken the bait and strode towards her sister's room soon after Arya had vanished. While she was taking the shortest route, if Arya went up a level and over, her sister could easily be there first.

Could be here already.

Sansa strode quickly through the room, trying to open the trunk - no good, locked. Wait. There, half-under the bed, a saddlebag, in open invitation She opened the bag and reached in; that wasn't parchment, it was some sort of thin, soft leather. Pulling the first one out, her face paled, and she felt a shock of fear as she found it was a man's face cured as if for a mummer's mask, and there were more.

The fear was almost comforting, in a way, clean and sharp, putting her on edge. Her sister had told her she wore faces, and with this, she didn't mean it figuratively, she meant it quite literally. She felt the leather, thin, naturally smooth despite the wrinkles... Ramsay had had leather like this. Leather made from human skin he'd flayed off of people. Sansa looked down at an old man's face when she started, interrupted.

"Not what you're looking for?" asked Arya coldly, somehow standing in front of the closed door, making the sign for 'eavesdropper'.

Sansa stood and deliberately brought up the memory of Ramsay stalking towards her with the Bolton flaying knife. She let her fear flow through her as she replied hurriedly, keeping her thoughts on holding a man's face in her hands, not on the sister she was facing, "I have hundreds of men here at Winterfell," the sign for truth, "all loyal to me," and the sign for lie.

They'd each made a practice of identifying loyalty and motives in those around them, taught by painful lessons indeed. They knew their soldiers, those loyal to the Northern Throne, those loyal to the Stark family, those loyal to Jon, those loyal to Arya, those loyal to Sansa... those loyal to their pay, to their food, to the North, to their lord or lady in particular, to Bran, to themselves, to Littlefinger, to Royce, to others.

 

"They're not here now," said Arya menacingly, running through the subtle signs to indicate she'd identified the last of Baelish's agents and spies that she was going to be able to any time soon. She'd been as far as a week's hard ride on a garron from Winterfell once, and it was time for the final preparation to give the Many-Faced God another name.

Sansa felt her heart racing... it was to be one of those conversations. Her breathing quickened as she deliberately let herself continue the flash of thought that her sister might, in fact, harm her. She'd spent years learning to present what people wanted to see, and then what she needed them to see, and the best way, the only way she had to genuinely fool experts was to genuinely feel what she needed to show in the moment she needed to show it, so she did as the tremulously asked, "What are these?" while making the sign for more.

"My faces," said Arya's words, as her signs indicated 2 for Sansa, 1 for herself, and 2 to kill. Sansa understood this, and underneath her fear felt pleasure that they were working together even now... and, selfishly, that she was getting two spies allocated to her compared to Arya's one. She was also grateful that she could trust her sister now, and grateful her sister clearly returned her trust - Arya was doing more of the allocation of spies than she was, and it was not uncommon for Sansa to get more.

Sansa knew part of that was the means by which Baelish recruited his spies and agents suiting her better than her sister... and part of it was them trusting each other. She knew her sister well enough by this point to realize that killing those they could not turn would please her sister, and being truthful with herself, she was happy to kill their enemies, too.

Dead enemies didn't come back to haunt you. Well, if you burned them, and burning all corpses had been one of the first rulings she'd made once Jon had left her the North.

"Where did you get them?"

"In Braavos, while I was training to be a faceless man," and the sign for lie.

Sansa ignored the hint that Arya had carved them off people here in Westeros, and instead asked the question she'd been wanting to ask for weeks, "What does that mean?"

"Back in Braavos, before I got my first face, there was a game I used to play, the game of faces. It's simple. I ask you a question about yourself, and you try to make lies sound like the truth," the sign for truth, "If you fool me, you win. If I catch a lie, you lose. Let's play."

"I don't want to play," said Sansa as she made the sign for lie. Under her ebbing fear, she wondered how just a game like that could have turned her outspoken, wild sister into the skilled liar she was today. She suppressed pride in her sister, and in herself, as she realized that not only did she and Arya now have some skills in common, but they could actually play a simple game together, as sisters, even while playing a much more serious game with Littlefinger. For all their differences, they had both turned out to be exceptional liars, far from their roots as an outspoken, wild girl-child and the worst liar in King's Landing.

"How do you feel about Jon being king?" asked Arya as she strode around a table... a table with her weapons on it, silently pointing out that she was, apparently, unarmed, and that her questions would be sharp instead of her blades, "Is there someone else you think should rule the North instead of him?"

Sansa enjoyed the slight relief for a moment, then pulled her fear up again, "Those faces, what are they?" She was retreading familiar ground with these questions, which meant she needed to be more strident.

It was time to bait the hook.

"You want to do the asking? Are you sure," asked Arya, "The game of faces didn't turn out so well for the last person who asked me questions," as she made the sign for death.

"Tell me what they are," demanded Sansa, determined to get an answer from her sister, both for herself trying to understand Arya, and for the eavesdropper to report to Littlefinger.

"We both wanted to be other people when we were younger. You wanted to be a Queen, to sit next to a handsome young king on the Iron Throne. I wanted to be a knight, to pick up a sword like Father and go off to battle," said Arya, making the sign for question to Sansa, who replied with the sign for truth.

"Neither of us got to be that other person, did we? The world doesn't just let girls decide what they're going to be," Arya continued as Sansa made the sign for truth again.

"But I can now. With the faces, I can choose, I can become someone else, speak in their voice, live in their skin. I could even become you," continued Arya quietly as she picked up the Valyrian steel dagger their brother had given her. Sansa shuddered; the eavesdropper must be close for Arya to be that quiet, and while that blade hadn't ever cut her, and she hadn't been cut in this room, what Ramsay did was still too near for her to bear easily.

She was a Stark, though, and a load did not have to be easily borne to be borne. Sansa kept her eyes on the edge of the blade as Arya approached, the blade held casually by her side. Sansa stayed focused on the fact that casually by her side was not how Arya held it when she fought, or trained, or whatever it was she did with Brienne.

"I wonder what it would feel like to wear those pretty dresses, to be the Lady of Winterfell. All I'd need to find out... is your face," continued Arya, pausing for a long moment so Littlefinger's whore, acting as a maid and crouching by the door could, if she had good ears, hear Sansa's frightened, rapid breathing.

Sansa made the sign for lie, then the sign for truth, and Arya then flipped the knife around, curling three fingers in and holding it between a finger and thumb only, her right hand making the signs for agreement and forgiveness as she turned and strode to the door once Sansa took it, her footsteps echoing over the frightened escape of the spy.

Sansa looked down at the knife in her hand, then over at the faces, and mastered her fear. That was her sister, another Stark. She knew more of what her sister was, now, and was glad of it. Her sister had a different kind of power. Some of her sister's power was like Brienne's, the power of direct combat at the highest levels. Some of her sister's power was in attacking from stealth, misdirection and deception. Some was doubtless like Littlefinger's, poisons and indirect combat. Some like... Ramsay's... the power of fear, though somehow cleaner and more pure than how Ramsay used fear. Lady Frey had been afraid, yes - but of the act itself, of the swiftness and thoroughness of the retribution, not of 'Lady Winter' in particular.

Each of them would use what skills they had so painfully learned, and they would show what it meant to be the Starks in Winterfell, holding the North.

They were going to be able to take as much of Littlefinger's as they could, now. There was no more reason to delay.

It was time for the end of Petyr's games.

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Chapter Text

Arya left the corpse of Littlefinger's messenger atop the snow, stripped of his clothes and his face, his horse tied up. Both were left for the wolves to feast on; there would be no evidence if anyone came looking. She'd gotten what she wanted from him, and now she needed to make up time. She moved her saddlebags to the garron she had been riding, and mounted the second, bringing both up into a very quick trot. It wasn't quite dawn yet, so she'd bring the horses down to a walk five or six miles before they'd be able to first see her.

Just after noon, she shifted partway out of the shade of the trees, automatically noting the time it took before a horn was blown. The outer ring of watchtowers was only partway completed, as Sansa had to allocate not enough men and women to far too many tasks, and only so many were available for so long to do this work. Arya herself had set the priority, with the North and South towers first, as well as the rule that those clearing the forest were those who were best suited to fight with axes and hammers regardless, so the work could at least pretend to fulfill her brother's rule of training everyone for warfare.

The spotters and archers at the top of the watchtower had better see her soon - four people should be able to watch four directions all the time. A blind Faceless man would have seen her by now at this distance! When she got there, she swore she was going to... there was the horn. Immediately upon hearing the start of the blast, she turned her garron out of the shade entirely to stand still, broadside to the tower while she raised her arms, waving back and forth four times.

Arya watched the tower, and as no second blast rang out, she turned and continued on her journey as the faint call of the next watchtower ring's repeating the signal rang out over the snows. She reminded herself the guards here were new and mostly untrained... still, none of their enemies would care about that any more than No One did. She'd have to talk to Sansa about budgeting for more of those fancy Myrish far-eyes in addition to glass-makers for more glass gardens. While they weren't of any use when visibility was bad, Arya felt there were enough clear times to make it a worthwhile military expense.

She tied up her garron, surveying the men and women working here - all were adults here on the outer ring of watchtowers. The few wil... Free Folk, dressed in a little less than she herself was wearing, while the other Northerners were dressed in about the same as she or a bit more. No Southrons here - they were obvious when they either bundled up as if they were in the Land of Always Winter, or were freezing to death.

Here, in the frozen lands of winter, with the snows three or four feet deep in most places, and twenty feet deep in drifts, she felt like a Stark. These men and women, too, they were Northerners - tough, stubborn, argumentative, and willing to sacrifice of themselves in winter. She could see several of them were older, or had old injuries. Those men and women would, if they survived the army of the dead and made it to the winter to follow, 'go hunting'. It was the death of the Old Gods - freezing to death. A pleasant face of death - one of the most peaceful forms of the gift, in the end.

Soon enough she would provide an alternative for those who wished it. That was her duty as the only priest of the Many-Faced God in all of Westeros. She mused for a moment on this - she had found her role in the world, finally, or perhaps the Many-Faced God had found her. She was Arya Stark of Winterfell, yes. But she also wore No One's face, and when she did she was the representative of Death in the world, here to give the gift by the rules of the House of Black and White of Westeros. She knew the one true god well, and knew deep inside herself what she could and could not change. She sat in the snow, still and without expression, eyes closed and neither cold nor asleep as she planned.

The men and women of the watchtower stayed well away from the King's sister for the hour she sat, still like winter air before a storm. The remaining Starks were very strange, it was true, but they knew the Starks were theirs. No other lands could boast such as their leaders, it was true.

After a time, she put No One's face away, returned to Arya Stark's face, and turned her thoughts to her discussions with Sansa. Her sister's new handmaiden had shown up with carts - more than one - of treasure, so it looks like poor Kitty did a masterful job of looting the Twins. Old Walder liked to check and make sure his damn moron sons weren't stealing anything, so she had a good idea how much it was. She'd heard Kitty was doing well, which pleased her, though Sansa was arranging things so she and Walder's former wife never crossed paths, and she trusted that it was for a good reason. Probably something to do with Littlefinger.

Between that treasure, the lines of credit from the Iron Bank, and the stores her family had made the Northern lords keep, they could feed the North for years. They could also work out some trade and be able to make enough to survive indefinitely... if not for the wars. In Westeros, the Riverlands usually had some food, the Reach always had food, even Dorne might have some, if they could trade for it. The Riverlands were under Lannister control, the Reach was allying with the Dragon Queen, so Dorne and Essos were all they had now.

Worse, Winterfell and Winter town's stores had been looted and burned. Many of the other stores had been spent on Robb's war, and the war had taken valuable workers away at the end of autumn, just when the last harvests needed them the most. They had two to four wars left to fight, back to back or all at once - the war against the dead, the war against Cersei, the war against Daenerys, and the war against Euron.

A concern for when she returned. She stood suddenly and climbed the watchtower, gave three hours of instruction on what to watch for and archery, then climbed down. It was a calculated risk - these men and women were stationed out here for at least a year, so it was doubtful Littlefinger would hear any of this, but it was possible... on the other hand, his days were numbered.

The logging crew was doing well - trees were being felled quickly, roughly stripped of major branches, and a few made into rough-cut sleds. The rest of the lumber was bundled onto the sleds for the convoys going south to White Harbor in anticipation of trade. Arya pointed out a few prime trees, good for masts, and one tree the crew thought was prime that had a flaw which would crack a mast... Salty had learned much about ships, and had seen a cracked mast once in port, being repaired.

She spent another three hours training them on purely fighting axe skills, modified based on what she'd learned from the Free Folk at Winterfell and had the Free Folk here tell the others as much as they could. She went over basic tactics, the warning signals with the horn, and their preparations - everything must be ready all the time. The first scorpion would be mounted atop the watchtower in a few days, and the second hidden nearby in a few weeks when it was ready.

Night had fallen, and she'd spent enough time with this crew to know they were safe to sleep around, so she lay down with her garron to take a few hours nap. She'd wake at the hour of the eel, make one last check of the pathetically narrow, shallow moat of pitch surrounding the camp, and continue on.

In winter wars, there was no time to waste.

************************

Sansa handed Lady Frey the raven scroll she'd finished to roll up, encase and seal while Sansa herself started on another. The Lady of the Crossing had turned out to be a pleasant companion, and willing to do anything to help out. Sometimes Sansa wondered just what had happened at the Twins, but never for long; she'd be able to ask her sister soon, after Baelish was gone.

Carefully doing the sums, Sansa showed no sign of the frown she felt inside. A ruler of multiple kingdoms should have a Master of Coin to do much of this work, and other Small Council members to do other work. Instead, Jon had naught but a Hand skilled at convincing strangers, and Jon had taken that very Hand with him, leaving Sansa to handle the North by herself.

Not entirely by herself, now, she reminded herself. Arya had taken on the military side of the logistics entirely, simply delivering summaries to Sansa regularly. Her sister had also given her some raven scrolls, and an hours long briefing on the various trade goods in Essos, what a ship could hold, travel times... enough that she and Brienne could plan while Arya went out to inspect the defenses and do whatever it was she was doing to trap Lord Baelish.

"Lady Stark, Maester Wolkan is here to see you."

Sansa straightened herself slightly, pulling a much more innocent set of papers over the trade plans she was actually working on, then glanced at Lady Frey, who had flipped Sansa's current sewing project over, before speaking in her typical calm voice, "Send him in."

Maester Wolkan entered, looking around a little nervously before he relaxed. With only the three Ladies present, he wasn't worried, even delivering bad news like this. King Snow was a good man, but Arya Stark scared him as much as Roose Bolton had. Lord Baelish was one of the most dangerous men in the Seven Kingdoms, and the less he thought about Lord Bran, the better.

"My lady, I am sorry, but I have received ravens for you. The Archmaesters at the Citadel have received Bran Stark's raven, but the only action they are taking is to request further information. There is no warning going out, and they are not doing research of their own. I'm sorry, my lady. Those Maesters who stay at the Citadel do not always understand what it's like to live in the real world."

Sansa shrugged slightly, "As I expected. People aren't willing to see what they don't already expect to see unless it's of clear benefit to them. Those hidden away behind thick walls and layers of servants even less so, until it attacks them personally."

She smirked internally, her face placid as she briefly thought on how she and Arya were closing in on Littlefinger, and how, as far as they could tell, he had no idea whatsoever... and would not, right until they attacked him. Personally. It would be soon - she'd given Arya approval to talk to Lord Royce. She didn't trust him to be able to keep from asking questions where Baelish's spies could hear for very long, but he wouldn't give any sign of what he learned, as long as she confirmed Arya's words.

Maester Wolkan continued heavily, "You also have a report from the South, my lady. Lord Jamie and Lord Tarly attacked Lord Tyrell, and sacked Highgarden of both gold and food stores. Lady Olenna is dead, along with the rest of the Tyrell family."

"Cersei... she has an Iron Bank debt that needs payment, badly, and without Casterly Rock's gold, she needed another source. She got the gold, is now prepared for a siege, has a new, powerful ally, and eliminated both her own enemy and turned an ally of the Targaryens to her own ally," said Sansa, her voice colored with rueful admiration for a bold, successful move by her enemy.

Maester Wolkan shifted uncomfortably, "Forgive me, Lady Stark, but there is another part to the message, written later, though before the agent was able to send a raven. Lady Targaryen sent her Dothraki to attack the supply train at the Blackwater Rush, as well as attacking herself on one of her dragons. It is certain that a large part of the gold had already made it to King's Landing, perhaps all of it, but the food stocks were destroyed by dragonfire, as well as thousands of Lannister and Tarly troops by her cavalry. Lord Tarly and his son were killed afterwards, by dragonfire, as they would not bend the knee, and the Targaryen would accept nothing less. There is no word of your brother."

Sansa narrowed her eyes in careful thought even as Lady Frey gasped in shock and horror at the loss of life. Arya had lectured her on the strengths and weaknesses of the Dothraki, raiders of the Grass Sea, and on the strengths and weaknesses of dragons. Clearly, Cersei's forces had not been properly prepared, nor have they found a good Master of Whisperers yet. Or, perhaps, they were desperate. Arya would do the specific military analysis when she returned and they could learn what Bran saw.

For now, Sansa considered carefully. Kings Landing had the same amount of food that it had before, but less mouths to feed with the deaths of the Lannister soldiers and removal of their short-lived Reach allies. Cersei was in a better position for a siege and for winter, and a worse one for attacking the North. The gold had made it, so the Iron Bank would play no favorites, no more than they were already. The North's own treasure, supplied primarily by Lady Frey, was secure, and their own freshly forged ties to the Iron Bank unchanged.

The Targaryen was in a better position to attack anywhere... but she'd lost a strong ally in Lady Olenna, and replaced her with weak allies borne of fear. Her Dothraki, too, would make her no friends, even if they were perfectly behaved by Westerosi standards. Arya had assured her that if left unchecked they would be as bad as when Lord Tywin unleashed the Mountain on the Riverlands, and Arya had described scene after scene of that in hellish detail.

Sansa spoke quietly and calmly, "Maester Wolkan, thank you. Please send a reply and see if an estimate of how much food is left in the South, now that the Reach has lost theirs. A large part of the South depends on food from Highgarden and their vassals, ex-vassals, and if too much of that was burned, they're going to learn what winter is truly like even without the army of the dead. That will make them desperate, which I need to know about as soon as possible without endangering any of our agents."

Maester Wolkan smiled a little, happy to be able to deliver good news as well, and hoped it made the Lady of Winterfell happier with him, "There is one more raven, my lady. Lord Manderly reports the first shipment of dragonglass has arrived. As you had instructed, two barrels stay in White Harbor, half the rest is continuing north to Eastwatch, and the remainder is on its way here by the fastest sled teams available."

At Lady Stark's polite thanks and dismissal, the Maester bowed and left the ladies, who waited for Brienne to re-lock the door before uncovering their previous work.

Sansa reached out to put a hand on Lady Frey's shoulder, "Do you want to go to the kitchens and have some bread to settle yourself? You seem uncomfortable."

The Lady of the Crossing looked up at Lady Stark, marveling at how composed she was, at how quick to react and how certain in her response. She was of an age with Sansa, and yet felt younger - the Starks were truly a different breed than the Riverlanders she'd grown up with, harsher and colder, but willing to take her in after what her family had done. Lady Sansa was gentle and soft-spoken with others, though she had a sharp tongue in private, constantly focused on the North and their allies. Lord Bran was cold, creepy - the Three-Eyed Raven, he called himself.

She hadn't seen the younger sister, but the rumors she'd overheard... almost as strange as Lord Bran, though in the North women warriors were apparently welcome. Lady Brienne wasn't scoffed at, here, and Lady Mormont was an imposing, if tiny, figure. If any woman in her husband's domain had dared to do what they did... well, none had.

They all had such strength... she just had to find her own.

"I'm all right, Lady Sansa. I don't need anything"

Sansa set her papers aside and picked up her new sewing project, turning it over and picking up a strong needle and white thread, "Very well. Thank you again, Lady Frey, for coming North and bringing the treasure you did. I cannot express how grateful King Jon and I are for both your generosity and your willingness to help me here. If you do need a moment, or need to talk about it, I have time."

"You're very welcome, my lady. It was the least I can do after what my husband did. What do you need of me?"

"Take these messages to the finished pile, and tell me how the Free Folk are doing, if there are any complaints about them, and if we've asked every one of them about their wargs, experts on the dead, and dragonglass craftsmen yet."

Lady Frey picked up the messages Lady Sansa was done with, wincing from her sore muscles as she stood to put them aside until it was time to send them. She was in the North herself, now, and in the North, every man, woman, boy, and girl trained to fight, and they trained hard. She just wished it wasn't so cold.

"Of course, my lady. I'll start at Winterfell and work outward, as usual. We have found..."

************************

Lord Royce stood still, hidden behind a small hillock, listening as the sounds of the mounted knights came closer. Lady Stark had come to him just after an argument with her sister, and asked him to send a letter to the other Vale lords. As she passed the letter over, she had very quietly instructed him to be at this place, at this time, under the pretense of checking on some of the Vale forces outlying Winterfell.

He respected Lady Stark - she'd come a long way from his first glimpses of her in the Eyrie, and he'd come to realize that even then those glimpses had shown only the tip of the mountain, not the richness hidden in the valleys beneath. Her sister was a terrifying girl - he knew Brienne was an incredible swordsman... woman, the equal of the best he'd ever seen. And then came Lady Stark's sister, many years younger, a tiny little thing, vanished for years, and Brienne's equal in single combat in that foreign style of hers. Jamie Lannister was the last person he'd seen to be so skilled, so young.

Terrifying, too - she'd often just stand there, her face as if carved from ice, staring ahead. She was never surprised, never caught off-guard, and ghosted through the castle. The rumors of her being a Faceless Man had seemed ridiculous, like the stories of snarks and grumkins... then he'd seen her watching him, once, her eyes as empty as if she were the Stranger himself. Just then, he'd remembered that the Night King was real, Wildling wargs were real and here to help Jon Snow, and Lord Bran had visions, true ones. A Faceless Man... he could believe that, now.

It scared him. Lady Arya - not that Lady Stark allowed anyone to call her that - sometimes was heard to argue with Lady Stark, and it was getting more vicious. Sisters often had their differences, and brothers too, but to argue like that where it could be heard by a passing servant? Clearly what he'd heard about Arya when she was young was true. What would that mean now?

Other times, she seemed different. A few times he had seen Arya laughing and japing with the guards and servants in the stables or kitchens. The younger Stark woman almost seemed like a different person at times - it puzzled him. Then again, it wasn't his place to say, or to judge. He was here to support Lady Stark, to fight for the living, and to represent the Vale as best he could while that scum Littlefinger was pulling young Robin's strings.

He stepped out of the shadow when the four knights were almost to him and hailed them, "Hold there, men. I need to see the messages you carry."

They all looked at each other oddly, and he placed his hand on his sword hilt, "Show me the messages, Ser Robert." They were far from the best of the knights of the Vale, but four to one with them mounted were poor odds indeed.

Ser Robert and the others drew their swords, and he drew his, slashing at Ser Robert's horse, unseating the traitor as he stepped around towards the oth... Lord Royce watched as Ser Bradley sidestepped his horse as he drew with his characteristic swirling flourish, but faster than he'd ever seen before. That very flourish, combined with the sidestep neatly decapitated Ser Mandon and then turned into a unusual thrust into the back of Ser Hugo's neck, quick as a snake. He'd seen that thrust and that speed before, from Lady Arya, when sparring with Lady Brienne.

Ser Bradley began cleaning his sword, his body language suddenly shifting to be cold and still, without any wasted motion, or pretense of emotion. He spoke in a flat tone, "If you'd like to ask Ser Robert some questions, read the messages, and carefully inspect the contents of the secret compartment in Ser Mandon's saddlebags, I'm sure we'll be able to have a more productive conversation. If you want to be sure, the next time you see my sister, she'll step forward with her left foot and use her right hand to brush her hair back. Her thumb will be curled in as she does so."

Lord Royce suppressed a shiver. He knew very well he wouldn't be able to survive fighting her... him... the Faceless Man before him.

"The secret compartment contains a diluted poison, intended for my cousin Robin, to keep him from being a threat to Littlefinger. Ser Robert knows the dosing... don't you, Ser Robert? I promise I'll send you to the Many-Faced God painlessly if you answer fully and truthfully."

Lord Royce began to ask questions.

************************

Chapter Text

Arya inspected the two guards outside Bran's room. One was loyal to Bran in particular, the other to the Starks as a whole. They still weren't very good, but they were at least attentive and serious - with Littlefinger still alive, she couldn't train them properly, but they were good enough for her to visit. She strode into Bran's room, smiling briefly at Sansa as she closed and barred the door, and then sat beside her sister in the dark shadows in the corner where they usually sat, far from the fire, warmed only by the hot water flowing through the walls. They were Starks of Winterfell, and the castle needed no hearths to be comfortable to them.

This corner happened to be quite dark, out of line of sight of any eavesdropper at the keyhole, and for some reason, the water flow here was much louder than normal, masking soft voices. A skilled eavesdropper could still make them out, but they could speak without the Northern lords hearing, at least.

Arya enjoyed the darkness, using the sound of water to train her hearing and other senses further, while Sansa could relax just a bit even with Brienne away. When she was protected by her sister, sitting with her brother, her flashbacks to Ramsay were fewer, shorter, and weaker... and she didn't have to hide them.

Bran's chair was before them, far from the fire as they listened to Bran speak. Sansa thought his voice was nearly as dead as Arya's when she was being a Faceless Man. Sometimes she mourned the man he could have been if he hadn't gone beyond the wall, if he'd grown up to be the knight he'd wanted to be. Even then, though, she knew very well that he'd almost certainly have been killed - climbing was his skill, not fighting. Arya and Jon had been the most skilled of all of them for their ages, better than Robb, better than Theon. And now, with the wars happening, without the Three-Eyed Raven, they would never have had the knowledge they needed to survive.

"The Dothraki galloped forward, covering the land, in no formation. The Lannisters and the Tarlys formed a single line of shields, with a single line of archers behind. Daenerys rode Drogon directly over the Dothraki, about twenty yards over the ground. Drogon's wingspan is about fifty yards. The archers did not fire. Daenerys said 'dracarys', and Drogon breathed orange fire, burned them. She turned Drogon along the road, burned the wagons. They were full of food. There was only one wagon full of gold, in the middle. Jamie Lannister gathered two dozen archers in formation. When they loosed at a hundred and twenty yards, Drogon turned. The arrows bounced off his chest. They had one scorpion in a covered wagon, hidden. Bronn loosed, missed, Drogon circled. Bronn reloaded, loosed again, hit Drogon in the wing. Drogon landed, still able to breathe fire and fight. Jamie charged him. Bronn saved Jamie from being burned alive, threw him in the river, went underwater."

Arya rested her hand on Sansa's knee, hidden in the shadows as they were, with loyal guards at the door and no secret passages around, above, or below the room Bran had chosen. She knew her sister often had a hard time hearing Bran. Arya herself, well, she knew she wasn't quite what she had once been, either, being both more and less now, changing depending on which face she was wearing, even only in her mind.

Arya thought back to Harrenhal, to the damage the castle had, and to the many lessons she'd learned from Tywin. She spoke, quietly, matching Bran's lack of inflection, "Describe the fire. How long was each breath, how long was it, how wide?"

The Three-Eyed Raven, who remembered everything he'd ever seen, closed his eyes and spoke, "Drogon was sixty to eighty yards away when he fired. The fire was narrow. When it hit the road, it spread out to be a little wider than the Rose Road. It was hot - men in the middle were turned to ash. It lasted three to eight seconds per breath."

"And the river, what happened to it? To Jamie and Bronn, underwater?"

"Nothing happened to the river. They came up and left."

Arya narrowed her eyes, "They weren't scalded?"

"No."

Sansa looked at her sister, "What are you saying?"

"Harrenhal's towers were melted like a candle in a torch's flame, but unevenly. A few seconds of flame that doesn't heat a river enough to scald can't do that without taking quite a long time. Birds can't spend a long time like that, but flies can. Can dragons hover? Does Daenerys hover?"

Sansa smiled, remembering when they had been children. Mother had not been happy with Arya's 'clever' solution to lighting dozens of candles for a feast more quickly... by using a larger flame to do so. That memory warmed her - memories of Arya and Jon that she cherished today were many, but much fewer were the memories of them she had appreciated when she was a child herself. Those memories she could enjoy without any regret whatsoever.

"Yes. Yes, sometimes, but not often," said Bran quietly after a moment.

"Can you write up a list of count of men each Lannister and Tarly lord lost, Bran?"

"Yes. I'm the three-eyed raven, now, Arya. I've told you that forty-three times," he said, the faintest shadow of his old smile on his face for barely an instant. Sansa reached out to smack her brother lightly on the shoulder with a smile as she saw that change in his expression. Her sister had managed to do what she herself could not, and started to get a hint of reactions from Bran, and she was grateful for it.

"Thank you, Bran. I'm going to ignore that for the forty-third time - you're our brother," Arya said, smiling with shades of both sadness and hope. Bran's face had completely changed, it was true, but so had her own. The difference between them was that she'd learned to put the face of No One on and off when she needed to, she'd been trained to become another face, and then take it off, after. Bran, perhaps, needed to be shown how to take his new face off again, or at the least to put his own face back on. He was connected deeply to the weirwood face of her god, so he would never manage more faces than that... but she would help him regain his own face as best she could.

She continued, "What about the trade ships?"

"The ships from Braavos are nearly to White Harbor, with cargo and guests. The first mate says he's going to see Salty again. A set of sleds are ready on the White Knife, and another set for overland. There aren't enough horses for all of them. One ship from Myr is coming, very fast. The Meereenese ships are slower, but coming. They took their payment from the Iron Bank already. Dorne is sending two ships, one with food and one with yew bows and fletched arrows without heads," said Bran, his voice flat again.

Sansa spoke to Arya, "I'll send a raven to Barrowton for more horses, any that are trained enough to move sleds at all will help. Who is Salty?"

"Thank you, Sansa. Salty is the name I used on the ship to Braavos - she learned the names of every crew member, and as much about seafaring as she could. Now, the two most important things in a long war are useful knowledge and transportation. That's how Robb captured Jamie, you know - he fooled Tywin's scouts, led the main army astray. We're gaining the intelligence, now, but we have to get the supplies and people to the places that matter in time for them to matter. Those arrows will help, too - we can produce a lot more if we're simply making and attaching dragonglass heads and truing them."

Arya squeezed Sansa's knee. She'd heard enough now on the military situation around the world, fleets and armies both, and on their trade. It was her sister's turn, now, to cover the other important aspects they needed to know, the first of which would doubtless be Jon.

Sansa spoke now, "What about Jon? Is he still with Daenerys on Dragonstone?"

"No. He, Davos, and Gendry have arrived at Eastwatch. You'll get the raven later today."

Sansa smiled, deep in the shadows of Bran's room. The Starks would be together again, soon enough, but the King did need to see the men and women defending the North, even before family - the Stark blood was stronger, after all, than her own Tully blood, and winter was here.

The elder sister said, "Did our dragonglass get there before he did? Were there weapons ready? And who is this Gendry?"

Arya visualized the map in her head, travel times and elapsed time simple enough, and spoke up quietly, "Yes, our dragonglass must have been there first. They should have had enough time for their Free Folk dragonglass craftsmen to start on the arms before Jon arrived. Gendry is someone I traveled with from King's Landing to Harrenhal, and after. Did the Red Woman kill him and bring him back?"

Bran spoke up, "He's King Robert's bastard. He never died - Davos freed him before she could."

Sansa peered at her sister with exaggerated interest, her voice still quiet, "So... Gendry, hmm? Did you.. like... him?"

Arya shoved at Sansa lightly, "He was a friend when I was alone, along with Hot Pie and Lommy. I told him he could be my family, but he chose the Brotherhood without Banners, he chose Thoros and Beric and the others, and they sold him to the Red Woman. I thought he died. Hurry, now - we don't have time for memories."

"If he was a friend of yours, I'm glad he lived, whether or not King Robert was his father. Bran, how is the Faith of the Seven doing?"

"They are trying to recover, but Cersei isn't allowing the Faith Militant to exist anymore. The Sparrows are not recovering. The outlying Septons do well where they work to help the people."

Arya was silent for a moment, focusing fully on all her senses, then asked quietly, just at the limit of Sansa's hearing, "Why do you care about the Seven? You don't believe in the gods anymore, just magic, and certainly not the Seven."

Sansa leaned in, murmuring quietly - Arya swatted at her every time she tried to whisper, "The Faith and the Crown are the two pillars on which the world rests, Cersei once told me, though she meant only the Seven Kingdoms and the Iron Throne. She tried to use the Faith herself, and then started its destruction when it did not act as she wished. She has an iron grip on the Crown, but only where her armies reach. The Faith cannot be allowed to regain the power to support the Iron Throne again, and thus we have to watch it, and work to prevent it."

Arya replied in that same barely-audible tone, "That won't be a problem. You handle their politics, and I'll handle their faith - that face of the Many-Faced God provides no power, sends no miracles, uses no magic. For that religion, it's only the people and their belief that matter."

"You're going to have to show us your magic someday, little sister."

"I can't tell who you are or where you are when you use it," said Bran.

"Soon," replied Arya with a smirk. She hadn't known Bran couldn't see her when she wore her faces, but that when he said it, it seemed right. The Many-Faced God gave that gift to hide No One, and the Faceless Man had started deep in the slave mines of Valyria, who depended on magic. The Faceless Men have given the gift all over the world - to all kinds of people. Priests and priestesses of the Red God, sorcerers, dragon-riders, dragons, giants, Children of the Forest, wargs, greenseers, and others. It felt right, that the greatest single magic of the Faceless Men, whose only purpose was to disguise the priest using it, was able to do so against any of the other magics of the world.

"It had better be. Have any of the Targaryen forces begun equipping themselves for the cold?"

"Yes. Some of the Unsullied and Dothraki have been given new uniforms. The Dothraki are nearly refusing to even try them on. They're using wool and thick cotton."

"Cotton? Tyrion went to the Wall, he should know better. I'll send another raven. They can wear them or freeze to death, but we should at least warn them if they come to assist us. Who do we have that knows Dothraki?"

"I know enough to get by, and I know enough about their culture to know how to phrase it. Remember, the Dothraki are like even more savage Iron Islanders - you need to bare your fangs to them, Sansa. Your pretty courtesies will be taken only for weakness, and Dothraki hate the weak."

"Thank you for the lesson, Arya," said Sansa as she smirked, poking her sister in the side, "I'll leave the Dothraki to you and Lady Mormont, then. Bran, what's happening in the Reach?"

************************

Arya watched Lady Mormont and her house very carefully as her sister greeted the lady and her Maester with bread and salt, welcoming them into Winterfell. The girl reminded her of herself as she had wished to be when she was that age - a fierce warrior, ruling a demesne, trained to lead her bannermen in a fight. Arya had time to watch - Littlefinger had stayed in his rooms in the castle tonight, and guest right was sacred.

Much more interesting right now was how Lady Mormont's house had arrived. The Umbers had arrived in a big group, and the Glovers had arrived in a long column like the armies that the Targaryens had butchered, but the Mormonts... they arrived in three main groups of sleds with a wide ring of mounted scouts around them and each group had a sled with an empty post in the middle, a dozen scorpion bolts, two dozen pieces of shot, some barrels with pitch stains, and the framework for a scorpion awaiting the critical pieces. They were all well armed, the dependents were in the center with the supplies, dragonglass had been distributed to all, and while they had only a score of veteran soldiers, quite a few smallfolk looked very comfortable with their spears and bows, with the rest of the smallfolk having spears, longswords, and crossbows.

Arya strode down the stairs and headed out to meet up with her sister. Not for the last time, she wished Brienne was still here. She couldn't be certain without testing it, but she knew Brienne was one of the deadliest fighters in Westeros, and she thought that Brienne might have the true seeing, and her sister would need that. But needs must, and even if Sansa would ever leave the North again, she would never go south of the Riverlands, and Jon was going to the parley and still wanted another representative of the North.

As the smaller Stark sister approached them, the even smaller Lady looked her over without fear, clearly assessing her weapons, outfit, and skills. Arya maintained her water dancer walk, light and if it had been on stone instead of snow, loud, enjoying how the girl was clearly attempting, and failing, to place exactly what fighting style produces a walk like hers.

"Is this your sister?" asked the small bear bluntly.

Sansa turned to look at Arya without so much as glancing at any of the other people in the courtyard. The game they were playing was very difficult and deadly now, like dancing on the blade of a knife. Brienne was gone, so they had one less buffer for Littlefinger's spies. On the other hand, Brienne was, quite rightly, beginning to suspect too many things, and she hadn't learned to be a liar capable of fooling Littlefinger or his better spies.

Sansa put on an expression of hidden irritation masking even more hidden fear underlying her professional Lady of Winterfell face, calling up the appropriate memories to aid in her lie, "This is indeed my sister, Arya Stark, returned to us after training across the Narrow Sea. It is her contacts in Essos that are selling us the parts and flaming ammunition for the scorpions, and she has been handling all the logistics and training plans for our banners. Arya, this is Lady Mormont. Her troops will be next to the Umber camp, on the opposite side of the Glover camp."

Arya nodded briefly, getting straight to the point, "Have your scorpion sleds brought to the armory tomorrow morning for weapons fitting and an additional issue of dragonglass. The craftsmen will take your scorpion frames and fit you with one fully completed scorpion. We'll provide the other two scorpions after the Braavosi caravan arrives. Tell me, why did you alter the scorpion design?"

Lady Mormont raised her voice and called a girl and a young boy over to show their crossbows to the younger Stark sister, the girl's first, "These are winch-wound, like the scorpions. The original design is like this one, quicker to winch, quicker to fire, but it requires more strength. Now see this one. Maester?"

The Mormont Maester pointed to the winding mechanism, "The changes made for Liam's design use the principles of leverage to make it just as powerful as the previous design even while requiring less force. Naturally, they take longer to winch, but these allow Bear Island to put every skilled man and woman on the field, using the very old and young to man the scorpions and use the crossbows."

"When can your men train with us?" asked Arya.

Lyanna held up a hand to stop her Maester's attempt at giving advice in its tracks and spoke without hesitation, "We have traveled from Bear Island with as little rest as we could. We are not at our best, but our enemies would rather attack when we are weak than when we are strong. The men and women of Bear Island do not submit because we are tired or hungry! We will train now."

Arya considered the girl she'd heard so much about, and clearly a girl with the disposition to lead who had worked hard to do so as a child... and who was doing better than Arya herself had at her age. She'd listened to Syrio, yes, but hadn't led anyone until she had led Gendry and Hot Pie into the Brotherhood's hands. The girl wasn't a politician like Sansa, or a killer like she herself was, but was perhaps the greatest example of a truly Northern leader she'd seen yet.

Sansa, too, both respected and approved of the young girl, counting her as a solid political ally of the Starks, as fierce a Northerner as any, and as both cunning and clever. Lyanna had lost the rest of her family, believing herself the last Mormont, just as they had each thought they might be the last Stark. Lady Mormont's pain had only made her stronger, just as their own pain had made them stronger.

Arya turned her head to look at Sansa's moderately well hidden polite boredom and made the signs for learn and recruit, a combination that had come to mean see if someone was worth recruiting. Upon receiving Sansa's response, she sniffed slightly and turned her back on her sister, listening to her walk away with her guards as Arya pointed at what appeared to be the most tired group of Bear Islanders, "Bring that entire group out to where the Hornwoods are camped, then turn northeast and continue just as you traveled here. Your scorpion crew will pretend they have a working scorpion, and everyone is to be careful to do no more than bruise. Any fighters who aren't skilled enough for that with their training weapons will call out their actions without making them - this training is in working together and tactics, not in individual fighting. I will watch and judge who is injured and dead."

Arya turned and jogged over to the gate, giving instructions that resulted in a pattern of drumbeats from atop the wall, and then a repeat of it from much further away a few seconds later. She mounted her garron and rode down to observe how the islanders reacted to the discontent imposed by expecting food and rest by a fire, and instead being turned around and sent out immediately, not for an attack, but for so-called training by a girl who hadn't been in the North for years.

As Tywin had said, this was war. No one was content in war.

She observed the entire exercise of fake wights and white walkers attacking, listening and watching. The veterans were quite impressive, but they weren't who she was here to evaluate. It was the smallfolk that truly impressed her, not because they had suddenly become as good as a passable warrior like Pod, because Pod would have killed them, one on one. It was because they fought within their strengths, because they planned to fight within their strengths, and because they were led to cover their weaknesses. The scorpion team had two winching teams of the eldest and youngest who would be of little use on the field, and the teams traded off since they tired so quickly.

Lady Mormont stayed near to her scorpion and her archers, directing the scorpion fire herself while giving broader instructions to the leader of the archers and crossbowmen. Overall, they had a solid system set up and plans to deal with both wight mammoths and wight giants. While Arya could see some changes that should be made in general, and the entire setup was clearly designed to combat the army of the dead rather than their other possible enemies, it was impressive.

Best of all, there was no pretense of honor or hope of glory crippling it or weakening it. What Lyanna Mormont had forged was a system designed to bring death, true death, to their enemies as well as they could with what they had. This wasn't some tournament, or combat for reputation and political points, this was a war for survival. Scorpion and ballista bolts, flaming shot, crossbows, poison, burning moats, wildfire, the faces of death were many, and all had their place now.

Sansa had a better eye than she knew when she had noted the small girl for recruitment, but Arya had first dibs for the war. Arya ended the exercise, judging it a costly Bear Island victory against overwhelming odds - they had fought off three waves of Free Folk and Glovers pretending to be the dead with increasing numbers of wights and White Walkers and increasing speed and intelligence. They'd made many mistakes, but had recovered and learned from each of them - not just the Lady, but the soldiers and even smallfolk as well.

Arya spoke, her own voice carrying clearly to the exhausted islanders, "Come back to camp. You fought well, all of you, and will all have a place in the Great Hall tonight. We don't have a feast, but we'll have stew and ale and hot, fresh bread. You should be proud of your house - you've done better at this exercise than any other group so far," said Arya, then turned to face the men and women, boys and girls of Bear Island, raising her voice for effect as Lady Crane had on stage.

"You have all done better than any other group. You work together well, use the right weapons on the right targets, reload quickly. Releasing your skilled hunters to loose arrows and throw spears at the enemies that might overwhelm your lines is excellent, and will be needed when we are attacked. You came a long way, were directed directly into this training, and still gave it all your effort. You are all a great credit to the North, and to your Lady."

Lady Mormont nodded curtly, "An islander is worth 10 mainlanders, and everyone on Bear Island has worked as hard as any ten men to be ready for the dead."

"Lady Mormont, you are invited to join us at the Stark table tonight to discuss your trip and our preparations. Bring along your steward and Justin. Sansa will go over the supplies during the meal, and after dinner, you, Justin, and I will discuss the military situation," said Arya, using just enough of her sister's courtesies to avoid simply ordering Lyanna and her scorpion commander around. Sansa was the diplomat of the family, while Arya knew herself to be the great killer. This was wartime, a time for great killing, and until Jon was done putting Eastwatch to rights and returned, she was in charge of the military. That said, the little Mormont was shockingly straightforward herself, even for a Northerner.

"We'll be there," said Lady Mormont in her clear, serious voice with a small nod before turning and directing her people back immediately, wasting no time and no words.

They would have great need of leaders, and after dinner, Arya would offer the small girl overall command of all the siege engines of the combined army. She couldn't do everything herself, and she could clearly see that she would have other pressing needs soon enough, both in her own face and in No One's face. Others would need to handle the army, and she would not make the Lannister mistake of appointing people with the right name even when they were incompetent.

The North and the Vale had never used large numbers of crossbowmen and siege engines before, but if they were to fight hundreds of thousands of the dead, including giants and mammoths, they would need all they had and more. They would need leaders without preconceptions, leaders who were willing to study and learn, leaders who wouldn't slack off and complain about benefiting from some sleep when there was no time to waste.

Later, when the younger sister made the offer, Lady Mormont accepted, and spent until the hour of the owl meeting with her new subordinates, being trained on her new duties and tactics by Arya and the various siege engine unit commanders.

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Chapter Text

Sansa stood atop the battlements, looking out at the growing host of all the houses of the North, alongside their Free Folk allies and the growing hosts of Vale forces. The first shipment of supplies from Braavos was almost here, along with whatever mysterious 'guests' Bran wasn't telling them any more about. She was glad Bran was back, truly, and his visions were invaluable, but the Three-Eyed Raven was a pain to deal with. Glimpses here, glimpses there, and then back to the Night King.

She'd seen Baelish heading back from Winter Town, and on her morning rounds of the castle she'd asked the one gate guard loyal to Baelish himself on duty to bring Littlefinger directly to the Great Hall when he arrived. She remembered the instructions she'd given Lady Frey this morning, and suppressed a smirk.

That memory led to the memory of her conversation with Baelish last night. His trying to lead her to believe Arya was going to murder her to wear her pretty dresses and be Lady of Winterfell had been almost more amusing than anything else. Arya didn't want political power to keep herself and the North safe - that was what she herself wanted. Arya didn't want to wear pretty dresses and be admired for her beauty - that was what she herself had wanted as a stupid little girl, true, and part of what Brienne wanted as well, but never her sister. Never mind that while she didn't fully understand Faceless Men, she was quite certain that her sister wouldn't need an elaborate charade to murder anyone, though, it's true, she might enjoy the drama.

More concerning was the raven from Jon that he'd bent the knee to the Targaryens. She and Arya and Bran had all been working for months to prepare for the wars and for the winter after. They had all been working together to survive, all the houses of the North, and the Vale, and the tribes of Free Folk, and even others in Dorne and Braavos and Myr, and Jon threw it away without so much as consulting her!

And for what? Southron spearmen without a clue as to how to survive in the snow? Hordes of savages famous for slaving, raping, and pillaging on their grasslands horses? Dragonglass they were already getting? Another shipment had arrived just before the raven from Jon's ship, and they had used their Iron Bank line of credit to hire sellsail traders go to Asshai and purchase dragonglass there, as well as others to find dragonglass in Valyria and elsewhere Bran had seen it.

The wealth the Lady of the Crossing had brought was disappearing like wine at a Lannister reunion.

Three dragons, yes, but the reports Arya had brought from Essos were that those very dragons were wild and uncontrolled, eating whatever meat they found, including at least one little shepard girl. Daenerys Targaryen had apparently locked up only two of the three dragons after that, for a time, but then let them loose later. They were fearsome, to be true, but without a rider they were far less of a threat, not even trained like Ramsay's hounds had been trained. With a rider... well, that was her sister's bailiwick.

She looked over at the battlements, then up atop the tall round towers at the three ballista Winterfell currently boasted. Those few holdfasts which were still populated, like Barrowton and White Harbor, had a few ballista as well. Many of the smaller scorpions were out in the army beyond on sleds, and more still at the two rings of watchtowers surrounding the area she and Arya had designated as the last stand of the North. The North and their landless allies would gather here, and then they would either win, or they would die. There was no middle ground.

She'd spent enough time thinking on the future. Sansa turned, looking down at the Great Hall, and saw that Littlefinger had just come into view. He hadn't had time to go anywhere else, since not long ago she'd had the bread at the gatehouse fed to the animals and the platter returned to the kitchens for fresh bread and salt, since the caravan was due soon. She watched Littlefinger enter, then she turned to approach the single guard near her, conveniently easily visible through the windows in the hall.

He had them right where he wanted them, and he knew it.

"Have my sister brought to the Great Hall," she told the guard, who she knew was loyal to Lord Baelish. The guard went on past her, while she strode down the battlement to the opposite tower, descending the stairs to the ready squad of guards. These wouldn't do - there were two whose loyalties she wasn't sure of, so she continued on to the next tower. These would do very well indeed, a mix of those loyal to the Starks, to herself, and one to Arya for interceding in some smallfolk matter that helped his wife.

"Say nothing to anyone. You six go to my sister in the Mormont camp and do anything she commands. It doesn't matter what she orders, or who she orders you to do it to, you are to do as she asks instantly and without question - we will explain later; there is no time now. You two, run to the northern gates and circle west - Winterfell is to be sealed, no one is allowed in except my sister and these six guards. No one at all is allowed out until a Stark orders Winterfell opened again. You two, the same for the southern gates, also circling west."

She watched them just long enough to see their confusion dissipate with no signs of hidden betrayal and snapped, "Go!"

Arya was right, she did need better guards.

Sansa strode towards the Great Hall, Ghost rising from the snow and padding along beside her. She wondered just what it was Arya would do before the trial, and after. She knew her sister, and when Arya was being more human, she showed a few of the tells she had as a child that a grand prank was in the making. Deliberately, to be sure, but Sansa and Bran were the only people in the castle who could possibly know what those tells meant, so she knew Arya wanted her to know something was up.

For a moment she imagined how Arya would react to her own little 'prank', and then she was in sight of the Great Hall again, and it was time to be angry, fearful, heartbroken, determined, and unjust. Luckily a sullen silence would work well enough, and Littlefinger wouldn't break it first... he'd want to savor the suffering he'd caused and the power he was consolidating.

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Lady Mormont was in the middle of telling her new siege engine commanders and Arya Stark her thoughts on how trebuchets should be used differently than the ballista or scorpions so they could critique her ideas and use that as a basis to continue her education in the new field of siege weaponry when Lady Stark's sister stood and drew her blade Needle so fast none of them could follow the motion, right hand gesturing for silence, then freezing in place as if turned to ice. Lyanna spent a moment processing this, noting that the castle-forged steel had been drawn, not the Valyrian steel. Men, then, not the dead or dragons.

Arya listened to the sounds of six men approaching - tall, heavier men, armored in leather... weapons in sheaths, still. The next sounds were of Lady Mormont standing and drawing her steel hatchet without a word, the other warriors in the tent following suit at the small bear's gesture, standing in a small circle behind the tent door she was facing. Again she approved of their actions - if they closed ranks with her, or tried to get in front of her, they'd only get in her way, so they prepared themselves behind her.

The veteran islander guards posted outside the command tent announced a party of six Stark guardsmen. At Arya's tiny nod, Lady Mormont spoke without changing her stance, her voice clear and carrying as always, "Send them in."

The tent flap opened, and the Stark guards paused in shock at the scene before them, dominated by the deadly presence of the young Stark for a moment before humanity bled back into her eyes and she sheathed her weapon in one sharp movement, speaking in a quiet, menacing voice, "Come in and stand on the east side. Who sent you here, with what orders?"

The lead guard explained, his voice trembling a bit. When he was done Lyanna Mormont settled her hatchet in her belt, across from the dragonglass shard hatchet, and with a single gesture her commanders followed suit.

"It's begun. The official messenger will be next, probably one of Petyr Baelish's, knowing Sansa. Lady Mormont, if we could get those two bedrolls spread out across the ground, I'll have them replaced after. As soon as the next messenger leaves, spread the word - we are having a surprise drill today. We will pretend the army of the dead is surrounding us on all sides, use the ring defense. Also, we will pretend enemy dragons have already landed in Winterfell behind us. No messengers, no drums, no horn calls, and any raven coming out of Winterfell is to be shot down for real. Anyone coming in is to be let into the inner defense ring and kept there for the duration of the drill politely, but with force if need be. Anyone leaving is to be captured if possible and killed otherwise. Only a Stark can alter these orders, be it myself, Sansa, or Bran."

Lyanna Mormont narrowed her eyes in thought. Six guards, told by Lady Stark to do literally anything her sister commanded. Winterfell sealed off, people and messages let in but not out, no attempt to hide this from herself or any of her commanders, who were each of a different House of the North or the Vale, or her one wilding commander. It was, therefore, not treason of the army or their Houses, and yet the next messenger was somehow Lord Baelish's...

Lyanna asked, "Lady Stark is finally going to deal with Lord Baelish?" even as one of the Vale knights shifted uncomfortably, the other glancing at the Northerners all around them.

"We are," said Arya as she smirked darkly, the tips of her teeth showing as she drew her lips back and reached beneath her fur cloak, withdrawing a sealed letter, which she handed to the more nervous Vale knight, "I spoke with Lord Royce recently, and he supports these actions, as he has written here. I presume you recognize his hand and his seal? Lord Baelish has betrayed the Vale, and Bronze Yohn will be present at his trial, alongside Ser Arnold, Ser Lymond, Ser Elbert, and other knights of the Vale."

The Vale knight laboriously made his way through reading the note and was comforted by having it, unaware that No One could have forged it easily. Her words, confirmed by the assurances in the letter she'd given him, resulted in a solid nod from him. If Lady Stark and the Lord of Runestone trusted her, he could do nothing less on his honor as a knight!

The next time a messenger was announced, he was invited straight in and given no chance to do anything but repeat his message. At the end of his message he looked around at the solemn reaction he was getting, caught sight of the other Winterfell guards, and started backing up. The next thing he or anyone else knew, he was clutching at the slender knife which had sprouted in his throat while he collapsed on the bedrolls. Arya yanked the throwing knife out, wiped it clean with some snow and the bedroll he was bleeding out on, then replaced it somewhere beneath her cloak.

Lady Mormont watched the wolf leave the bear's tent at a steady jog, followed closely by the six Winterfell guards Lady Sansa had sent. She hadn't even noticed the knife until the traitorous guard was dead on his feet - that was no honorable death in combat. There was no trial, no defense, no accusations, no chance to prepare or fight back fairly, not even so much as a single word.

Then again, her family and bannermen had been killed dishonorably at the Red Wedding. The Tarlys had been roasted alive in the South even after an honorable surrender, not sent to the Wall. The Valyrian dagger she had yet to see drawn had come from a dishonorable cutthroat sent to kill Lord Bran. Cersei Lannister had dishonorably destroyed the Sept of Baelor and a large swath of her own capital city. She'd heard what Stannis Baratheon had done to his own daughter and to his own brother from Ser Davos and Brienne of Tarth themselves, and had no words for kinslaying like that.

She looked over at the Northern and Vale commanders, and saw they were coming to the same conclusion she was. Her wildling commanders looked like she thought they were all slow, which infuriated Lyanna for a moment. Then again, Fjornel was a cunning tactician, a fantastic shot with a scorpion sled on the move, and her crews respected her. Perhaps her thinking they were slow was a bit deserved, at that.

"I do not believe they have their father's honor, Lord Jon Arryn's honor, but I do believe they have honor all the same. They are our Starks, and they will make our enemies shit themselves," declared the small bear.

"When Mance had to deal with one tribe or another's leader causing problems, he would go to them with many other leaders of our tribes. Everyone could see they all stood together as a group, and that settled everyone down right fast," said Fjornel.

"All right. You're all with me," said Lady Mormont, while she stepped over the warm corpse and strode into the light snow while calling out orders, her commanders joining her.

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Sansa watched as Arya entered, flanked by two guards. Both were loyal to Arya herself, which meant they were likely some of the best fighters available. Her sister had her sword and knife sheathed, but her hands were behind her back, just as she liked to have them when she waited for Brienne to attack.

Sansa breathed deeply, once, both to let Littlefinger see, and because she was relieved. She had been a little nervous until Arya arrived - there were some with loyalties to Lord Baelish in the room, and he himself was still a dangerous man, but she would be as safe as she could be now that her sister was here.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" asked Arya just loud enough for the guards in the back to hear.

"It's not what I want," said Sansa as she made the sign for lie, "it's what honor demands," and the sign for truth.

"And what does honor demand?"

"That I defend my family from those who would harm us, that I defend the North from those who would betray us, that I defend the Vale from those who would betray them."

Arya cocked her head to the side for a moment, listening to the sounds coming through the open windows, hearing the sounds of her orders being followed without trouble. She'd killed the few truly dangerous agents of Littlefinger who were in the castle already, and set extra guards on the ravenry and the gates. A few of the guard units had been moved around to ensure his people couldn't collude together.

"All right then, get on with it."

"You stand accused of murder, you stand accused of treason. How do you answer these charges... Lord Baelish."

Sansa watched Littlefinger blink in confusion, look up at her slowly, turn to see Arya watching him with the smuggest little smirk she'd ever seen, and then turn to glance at Lord Royce. For all that he talked about imagining every battle in your mind all the time, every possibility happening all at once, it was quite clear he hadn't thought this possibility possible at all. She met his eyes as he turned back to her.

"My sister asked you a question."

And then he stared at Arya again. Sansa thought he understood, now.

"Lady Sansa, forgive me, I'm a bit confused."

Sansa leaned forward, posture and tone chosen to imply she thought he was being a bit slow, "Which charges confuse you? Let's start with the simplest one. You murdered our aunt, Lysa Arryn. You pushed her through the moon door and watched her fall. Do you deny it?" She watched him looking at Lord Royce, who she had once lied to about that very incident. Her sister had handled that already, though she didn't know when or how, and it was clear Lord Baelish didn't have the slightest hint about that either when he didn't get the reaction he was hoping for.

"I did it to protect you."

Sansa hid her surprise. Of all the ways this could have gone, she hadn't expected him to fail to defend himself against the very first statement of the very first charge. He'd admitted guilt, in public, right here... she realized he was going to appeal to her personally. He was throwing the dice one last time and hoping she, Sansa Stark, Lady of Winterfell, would personally pardon him.

She was going to enjoy this.

"You did it to take power in the Vale," she said, pausing as Lord Royce stepped forward. She sat back to let him have his say - it was his right and his duty to tell whatever he'd been shown or told. That, and she was quite certain he hated Lord Baelish after being slandered in his own home while she was a captive of the Boltons. Allowing Lord Royce his say was to her advantage on every level of this game.

"I encountered Ser Robert, Ser Hugh, and Ser Mandon on the road. When I commanded them to show me the messages they carried, they attacked me. Once I and my companion defeated them, I was able to interrogate Ser Robert. He and other knights of the Vale have been passing secret messages from Lord Petyr Baelish to certain Lords of the Vale. Worse, they have, on Petyr Baelish's orders, been dosing Lord Robin Arryn with the intent to stunt his development and render him vulnerable to Lord Baelish's vile manipulations and slanders," said Lord Royce as he approached the table, set a small vial on the corner of the table by Bran, gave a long look at Petyr Baelish, and returned to his place.

Maester Wolkan stepped forward to pick up the vial, opening it and inspecting the contents, "It is definitely poison. I can identify two different poisons, but I don't see how they would do what you say they said. Do you know what the dosing was?"

"One drop in a cup of water. One seventh of that cup every day with his nighttime drink," said Lord Royce even as Lord Baelish smirked at the Maester's refutation of Yohn's accusation.

Arya strode up to the table, picking up the vial, rolling it in her hand, holding it up to the light gray snow clouds out the window to see the color, and opening it long enough to wave the scent towards her nose, "These two by themselves would not, no. But when combined with one other substance, they would, in the way some slavers use it in Volantis and elsewhere. Tell me, who puts sweetsleep in my cousin's nighttime drink?"

Sansa said, "My aunt, Lysa Arryn had always given my cousin sweetsleep each night. Her husband, Petyr Baelish ordered that to be continued. Ser Elbert, while I was at the Eyrie, I saw your son has been a guard to my cousin at night. Did he ever mention the sweetsleep?"

Ser Elbert stepped forward to respond, "He did, three drops before bed every night."

"Lord Baelish, you do favor poison, don't you? Earlier, you conspired to murder Jon Arryn. You gave Lysa Tears of Lys to poison him, do you deny it?" asked Sansa.

"Whatever your aunt might have told you, she was a troubled woman. She imagined enemies everywhere."

Arya spoke up, "A small dose of Tears of Lys would exactly match Jon's symptoms - a fever that burned through him, leaving no trace afterwards. Correct, Maester Wolkan?"

"Exactly," replied the Maester, a little uncomfortably. Arya stared at him for a moment... he should indeed feel uncomfortable, since he had certainly read the raven scroll he found for Littlefinger, recognized the handwriting, and yet handed it to him anyway, instead of giving it to her sister directly.

"You had Aunt Lysa send a letter to our parents telling them it was the Lannisters who murdered Jon Arryn when really it was you. The conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters, it was you who started it, do you deny it?" asked Sansa sharply. They had no hard evidence of this, and it wasn't worth asking Bran to get visions of, but this wasn't necessary for Littlefinger's trial itself. It was, however, necessary to set the stage for hosting Tyrion in the North or the Vale, as well as for dealing with him as the Hand of Daenerys Targaryen. Blame needed to be shifted, with or without proof. In a happy coincidence, shifting the blame to the actual perpetrator was actually possible in this case.

"I know of no such letter."

Sansa recognized the technique; he wasn't issuing an actual denial that not enough people would believe, he was simply attempting to sow doubt as much as he could.

"You conspired with Cersei Baratheon and Joffrey Waters to betray our father, Ned Stark. Thanks to your treachery, he was imprisoned and later executed on false charges of treason. Do you deny it?"

"I deny it," said Lord Baelish, for the first time issuing an actual denial rather than the circumventions he'd been using so far. Sansa noted he was using a stronger voice, striding out onto the floor now. For whatever twisted reason, he appeared to care much more for the charge of treason against the North than against the Vale.

Lord Baelish continued, "None of you were there to see what happened. None of you knows the truth."

"You held a knife to his throat. You said I warned you not to trust me," said Bran in the Three-Eyed Raven's flat, factual tones. Sansa watched the reactions, satisfied that the rumors of his greenseer powers had spread wide since Meera Reed, the Free Folk wargs, and others had spoken of them. Jon having been raised from the dead, and Arya's own strangeness only added to the mystique. The wargs, she thought, had turned the tide on that first, and now there was no doubt that Bran's visions were trusted.

Top military leaders received regular summaries of the reports the wargs made. As Arya had put Lord Royce in charge of all cavalry, he had received them, and as a good leader and a trusting man, he had made sure the various commanders under him also received them. Since this had happened, the army's views of wargs and greenseers had shifted from being tales of snarks and grumkins to statements of fact.

Now that very fact put another piece of wood on Littlefinger's pyre, and she was glad of it. His expression was also amazing to behold, and she committed it to memory carefully. His showy style may have worked well in court at King's Landing, but here among Northerners and knights of the Vale with the blood of the First Men, who had seen the results of wargs for months, had heard recountings of Bran's strange visions... no, these people believed her brother the Three-Eyed Raven.

"You told our mother this knife belonged to Tyrion Lannister, but that was another one of your lies. It was yours," said Arya as she drew Valyrian steel.

Baelish strode towards the table only to stop as Ghost stood between Sansa and Bran, growling, warning him to keep his distance and clearly showing the direwolf's own opinion. He paused, rethinking his words given the distance and the volume of the growl, "Lady Sansa, if we could speak alone, I can explain everything."

"Sometimes when I'm trying to understand a person's motives, I play a little game," said Sansa as she made the sign for lie, and as she watched Lord Baelish close his eyes in acknowledgment of her gaining a point, as he had when she reminded him she was the worst liar in King's Landing... according to himself, "I assume the worst. What's the worst reason you have for turning me against my sister. That's what you do, isn't it, that's what you've always done, turn family against family, turn sister against sister, that's what you did to our mother and Aunt Lysa, and that's what you tried to do to us. I'm a slow learner, it's true, but, I learn."

"Give me a chance to defend myself. I deserve that."

Sansa sat back and cast her gaze down to his hands, just in case, even as Arya spoke, her voice cold as death itself, "I am not Uncle Brandon, Littlefinger, but I'll gladly kill you and your champion, if you can find one, in a trial by combat, in this room, right now. Know that if you truly wish to defend yourself, then you're going to make a lot of people very angry, because I will make sure you and your champion don't die until supper is cold and hard. Are you sure you want to do this?"

Arya cast her gaze about the room, the Valyrian dagger in her right hand spinning from finger to finger so fast it blurred. Those few of Littlefinger's supporters were clearly rethinking their loyalties, and considering how they might have a future past tonight. He promised nothing that would last beyond his death, so with his death before them, their loyalty withered and died too.

As she spun the dagger, she saw Lord Royce looked to be quite enjoying the show, underneath his stern exterior. For some reason she did not yet know, he was also feeling just a bit proud of Sansa, a little like Jaqen had been proud of her when she took No One's face off and left him in the House of Black and White after killing the Waif.

Littlefinger looked over at Bronze Yohn briefly, then turned back to Sansa suddenly, a new way to buy time occurring to him, "Guest right is sacred under the old gods and the new!"

Sansa pursed her lips, and spoke, her tone reluctant for a moment, "It is, as Walder Frey found to his family's detriment. However, you seem a bit confused. You are not a guest, Lord Baelish."

"I sleep under your roof and eat at your table, do I not?"

Arya turned casually to a knight of the Vale at the end, "Ser Nicholas, tell us, when you were visiting Rosa at the brothel last night, did you see any Lord Protectors of the Vale there? At about what times?"

A shorter knight stepped forward, waited for a slight nod of approval from Lord Royce even as his cheeks grew red, then answered, "I saw him in the common room at dinnertime, and then I... wasn't in the common room for some time. When Rosa and I went back out for a nightcap and a snack, I saw Lord Baelish go from the privy to the back room."

Sansa then spoke up, her voice curious, "Michael, you were the gate guard on duty this morning. Describe when Lord Baelish arrived, and everything Lord Baelish ate or drank once he set foot inside Winterfell."

An older Stark guardsman stepped forward, "Begging your pardon, m'lady, but you'd already sent the platters back for fresh bread for the caravan, you did, before he arrived, and he came right here. He din' eat or drink anything!"

Arya casually rested the naked blade of the knife across her thigh, "You are not a guest, Littlefinger."

Sansa watched him finally start to panic, and like Joffrey had along the river so long ago, he nearly collapsed in on himself, his strength gone. Despite how long he'd played the game, how many times one of his maneuvers had failed and he had to recover, he'd never found the kind of strength her sister had. The kind of strength she had found within herself.

His voice broke as he spoke, "I beg you. I loved your mother since she was a child."

"And yet you betrayed her."

"I loved you. More than anyone," he sobbed.

"And yet you betrayed me. When you brought me back to Winterfell you told me there's no justice in the world, not unless we make it. Thank you for all your many lessons, Lord Baelish. I will never forget them," said the elder sister, looking to her left and receiving a tiny nod from Bran, then looking to Arya, receiving another tiny nod, "I judge you guilty of capital crimes against the North, the Starks, the Vale, and the Arryns."

Arya strode towards Littlefinger, speaking in the same tone she discussed whether the snow had a crust on it, "I sentence you to death," even as she angled the blade just right and swung, slicing through his neck as she stepped to the side to wipe it off on his clothes and sheath it. Gore didn't stick to the Valyrian blade; it was unusually easy to clean, almost as if it wanted to be clean, to be ready to kill again.

Lord Royce watched the scum soak the stones in blood stoically as he thought about three things that were significant about the end of the trial.

The first, of course, was the unusual split between the judgment and the sentencing. He wasn't entirely certain if this was a Northern custom, a Stark custom, or a deliberate callback to the old ways, but he could see several advantages. There were now at least two judges required - not counting Lord Bran's subtle agreement - to sentence a man to death, which struck him as a wiser course than allowing addled boys to throw people out the Moon Door on a whim. Additionally, they had set it up so the girl who treated killing a man like another might treat taking a drink of water was the one to make the kill.

The second was that regardless of who made the kill, Lady Stark watched the entire event with open eyes and a hint of a smirk. She was a much harder woman than he remembered from the Eyrie, though she had lied right to his face about Lady Arryn's fate, then. While he wasn't pleased by that lie, he'd had some time to consider what Lord Robin had almost done to him based on Littlefinger's own lies. It remained to be seen how often death was handed out when other punishments were available, and he would withhold judgment while he served. This was, he suspected, the harsh justice of the ancient Kings of Winter returned in these new, equally harsh times.

The third thing he'd noticed is that Baelish was lying in a puddle of blood, with a small pattern of splatters around him, like you'd see from a much smaller wound to the neck than he'd gotten. Despite that, there was not one drop on Lady Arya's clothing, not even on her hand. He wasn't sure how he felt about having shared meals and battle planning with a Faceless Man, but if it resulted in this, and in Lady Sansa being so well supported, he could live with it. By the grace of the Seven, perhaps he would be able to live with it, even through the battles to come.

Arya strode up to the table to stand beside Sansa, who had watched Littlefinger's last breaths carefully, listened to the garbled attempt at, presumably, saying Sansa's name. Once he ceased breathing, Sansa spoke.

"We are Starks. We are not Baratheons, not Targaryens, not Freys, not Lannisters, not Martells, not Greyjoys, not even Tullys or Tarlys. Starks do not turn on one another. We have different lives, different experiences, different skills, and even different opinions, but Jon, and Bran, and Arya, and I do not turn on each other. While my brother Jon, King in the North is away, Arya is justice in the North."

Arya glanced across the gathered bannermen. There were two here who would be good candidates for a trial, and a few outside. They would be short trials, since they had quite a few more to do after this that they must get through today, following up on the support Sansa gathered with how she conducted Littlefinger's trial.

Those disloyal men and women who they could not reclaim needed to be rooted out now, one after another, as an example to all. The Starks would see supposedly secret betrayals, would root them out, would never forget, and would forgive only to a point. Some of these would go to the cells, some to the Wall, and some to the pile of corpses they'd leave over the next hour or two. Arya thought that Tywin had been right, that a house had to be feared, though Cersei had shown another truth, that a house could not afford to be hated. Their father, too, had shown that it was good to be a house that was loved.

Arya spoke, "Ser Elbert, please take four knights and bring Ser Lyncan. Michael, bring us water. We will be here for some time."

************************

Hours later, Arya and Sansa rode back through the gates after having briefly visited every encampment within the inner defensive ring to personally invite the Lords to gather in the Great Hall. Tens of thousands of their people who had been worried were now reassured, they had been seen by every house, hearty and well, and they'd both gotten a read those they didn't often deal with.

Sansa had seen and interacted with, albeit briefly, hundreds of the smallfolk defending the North, which she had left to Arya before. Arya had spoken to members of every noble house on the inner ring, those that Sansa was usually the one to speak to. They had made it clear to each house that Arya was not to be called my lady, Lady Arya or Lady Stark, and that there was no snub or slight intended or taken - Arya did not like using those names for herself.

Arya dismounted from her garron in one smooth motion, watching Sansa dismount from hers as they passed the reins to a stable boy and strode towards the inner gates. Arya leaned over to Sansa, murmuring quietly, "Did you know you've got blood on your dress? When you stopped to talk to Lord Royce, some soaked into the hem at the back and coated the sole of your boots."

"Arya! Why didn't you tell me?" asked Sansa, shooting a look down at her smirking little sister.

"Because you just went through the entire camp, graceful and with all your little courtesies, while your dress was soaked in the blood of your enemies. What do you think they're saying about you now? No, nothing like that, nothing bad. They're proud of what you've become, Sansa, and so am I," said Arya softly as she made the sign for truth and clasped Sansa's arm, squeezing lightly. Sansa looked across the courtyard where a chambermaid wearing a wooden dagger with dragonglass shards on the edge and tip was staring down at a few red dots in the snow from where Sansa had passed through.

Passing through the gate to the next courtyard, Arya caught sight of Kitty and many of the Riverland women she'd arrived with, waiting for them. Three of the serving girls from the Twins and Kitty herself started to greet Sansa when they got a good look at the younger Stark, at which time they dropped instantly to one knee.

"Lady Winter," Kitty whispered even as the women and girls from the Twins who had not seen the massacre dropped to one knee as well. They drew their weapons, placing them point down as they saw for the first time the one who had destroyed the entirety of Walder Frey's male descendants.

Arya narrowed her eyes at her sister, taking in the slight smirk and the dancing light in her eyes as the eldest surviving trueborn child of Ned Stark watched what she had arranged for so long come to pass. Sansa spoke, her voice warm, filled with pride, "That name you earned yourself, by your training and your deeds. It is about Winter coming for those who break the most sacred laws of the gods, Winter in the form of you. Lady Winter."

Arya looked back down at those swearing fealty to her, personally. She'd imagined a scene like this as a child, herself as Lord of a holdfast, soldiers bending the knee to her for her valiant actions in battle. To be sure, they were in armor, not dresses, and armed with swords, not a collection of goat's foot crossbows, daggers, staves and spears with dragonglass bolts or shards or heads. And somehow they had been all men in her dreams as a child.

Arya pitched her voice to carry across the courtyard, "Rise. Thank you, Kitty. You and yours did nothing wrong, committed no crimes, made no betrayals. You did your best to be a good wife and mother after your parents married you to Walder. You came north to my sister, provided the gold that is paying for a mountain of supplies for these wars, and have been a loyal handmaiden for her. Even when she's having fun with me," she smiled at Sansa for a moment, watching Sansa make the sign for truth.

"I am not a Lady like my sister. I do not need handmaidens, or other ladies to attend me, or even soldiers. I am a Faceless Man, No One, and you would all be better off serving me by continuing to help my sister, rather than traveling across Westeros and Essos with me like a troupe of mummers, pretending to be other people while I kill."

Lady Frey inclined her head deeply, then rose, bracing her staff between the inside of her arm and her side as she took a large bundle of dark leather from another girl before she approached Arya and offered it with an intensely earnest face, "Lady Winter, Lady Stark asked me to bring this to you. She's been working on it for weeks."

Arya heard the name and glanced at Sansa's amused little smirk and dancing eyes, then looked back at Kitty and took in the tone of her voice, her posture, her expression, and even the expressions of the other Riverlanders and Northerners in the courtyard. She decided that she did not, in fact, have the heart to refuse this name from this girl, nor did she have the same gut-level instinctive refusal she did of other lady this or lady that or lady the other titles.

This title she was being offered wasn't about her being expected to bear children, or marry, or run a household on her husband's behalf, or even about who her father or the House she was born in was. This was a name given to her in the same spirit as names like the Red Viper or the Bold, for deeds performed, for how she'd used the training she'd received from Syrio Forel, Jaqen, the Waif, the Handsome Man, the Kindly Man and many others.

She took the bundle with a nod, dismissing her... bannerwomen, she supposed, as she turned to ascend the steps to the battlements with her sister, waving off the normal complement of guards until they had a section to themselves, facing southwest that hadn't yet had work started on the hoardings, the wind whistling through their hair from behind, muffling their already quiet voices.

"I promised you wouldn't be called Lady Arya, Lady Stark, or my lady," said Sansa, smirking slightly, "And you deserved it, after not telling me I was dripping blood all over."

Arya set the bundle down, unfolding the top item, a new tunic, armored on the inside as before, but with embroidery this time. She held it up to herself, looking down at the intricately detailed image of a winter storm with the clouds in the middle of the storm hinting at the shape of a direwolf's muzzle and eyes, "I suppose you just whipped this up on the walk through the courtyard, then, after I mentioned that?"

They both laughed with each other, Arya giving Sansa a tight hug before Sansa nodded at the next item in the bundle, tall and thick when folded, thick brown leather on the outside. As Arya opened what turned out to be a full length hooded leather cloak, she frowned, turned it over and stopped cold at what she saw.

Sansa reached out to hold it up, turning the edge back and forth to show both sides, "The raven your Faceless Men sent with the pattern, I modified it. I've watched you, you know, and I want you to always remember than whenever you're an assassin, you're still Arya inside, just as I know when you're Arya, you're always an assassin inside - a deadly and cunning warrior I'm proud of. There are some little hooks hidden in the fabric, and small loops - there's a couple inches more than it needs, so you can fold the edge and use the loops to hold it, hiding the inside, so you should only the outside you want to, Arya's side or the Faceless Man's side. I hope your god doesn't mind the alterations?"

Arya swirled it around in a flamboyant move, causing Sansa to half-step and lean back with her much improved footwork, recovering easily to see Arya in the traditional robes of a priest of the Many-Faced God, hood up, hands folded inside her sleeves as Varys used to stand, a hint of brown leather showing here and there as Arya hadn't tried to use the hooks or loops. The younger sister's face stilled, and she spoke, her voice flat, "God has many faces, as do I. Clothing that can change its face as well is a fine present indeed."

Sansa pointed subtly at each place brown leather was showing where the fabric hadn't fallen quite right, not quite hiding her smirk "Perhaps you'd like some help finishing changing your cloak's face?"

Arya looked down, and the stillness fell away as she again flipped the cloak around herself quickly, settling it leather side out, then tried to fix the garment to show nothing but leather. She laughed out loud, "Sansa! I'm not an acolyte, I can dress myself!"

Sansa raised her eyebrows, "So you don't want help?" she asked before she laughed as well, then started helping Arya - there were only a few loops, but she'd hid them as well, and they had to line up just right.

"Congratulations, Sansa. You've successfully made a cloak that requires training to use properly!"

"Just for you."

"Thank you. It's the nicest clothing I've ever had."

"You're welcome. You are going to tell the Lords and Ladies when we return, aren't you?"

"I am."

"Good. Try not to be too frightening."

"You think a joke would help?" mused Arya.

"A joke? Now you're frightening me instead, Arya," Sansa said teasingly, pressing her shoulder up against Arya's companionably as they looked out over the camps and the growing defenses.

"Are you feeling all right after killing Littlefinger?"

"You did it. You passed the sentence, you swung the dagger."

"Father always said swing the sword. Are you making fun of my size?"

"Of course not, I was married to the Imp," She leaned in and bent her head to look down at Arya, "You'd know if I was making fun of your size."

Arya poked her in the side, "All right, Wun Wun. In recognition of your great improvement, of your keeping Kitty hidden until just now, and of a sudden inexplicable absence of Littlefinger, you're graduating to full contact training. Tonight we speak with the highborn and the caravan arrives, tomorrow I need to ride out and deal with as much of Littlefinger's spy network and whorehouses as I can in the time we have. Kitty will escort the first set of new spies for you to run to you tonight."

"I've meant to ask - why do you call her Kitty?"

Arya half-smiled, shrugged, and picked up the bundle of clothes, "That's a tale for another time. Let's get me redressed at my workshop. We can speak of the other news you have there. By the time you're done playing dress-up with me, the Great Hall should be full."

They descended quietly, enjoying each other's company, each with a small smile and a definite and unusual air of happiness about them. Arya narrowed her eyes upon seeing that new banners were standing up along the walls outside her workshop, the previously bare halls now decorated with the heraldry Sansa had created for Lady Winter, "You've had far too much time on your hands."

"I've had a lot of intelligence reports to sort through. I prefer to keep my hands occupied."

Arya sent the guards, both loyal to her, to the far end of the hall and set the bar across the furs that covered the door to help insulate and muffle sound both, before she stripped down and stared to put on the new outfit Sansa had made, one layer at a time. When she tried the tunic, she paused to feel the strips of boiled leather on the inside, "You sewed castle-forged steel rings into some of these, one at a time?"

"Yes, to keep it lighter, the rings are only sewn in over your heart, lungs, and down your spine, everywhere else is just strips of leather armor like the one you've been wearing. The padding is a little thicker there, too; Brienne showed me where they should go, and I sewed them in one at a time so they wouldn't make any noise to give you away," Sansa said quietly, then continued in a lighter tone, "Remember, that outfit took as long as six of my gowns, so I don't want to hear any comments about my clothes being excessive!

Arya pulled the taller girl into a tight hug for a minute, then continued the comfortable exchange of trying the clothes on, adjusting them, and trying them on again. Sansa passed a raven scroll over to Arya before taking up her needle, murmuring quietly, "Jon's bent the knee. I don't know any more than that, yet - we'll see Bran before we go to the Great Hall."

Arya narrowed her eyes at Sansa's statement, then read the scroll carefully, closing her eyes as she felt disbelief, disappointment with Jon, anger at Sansa, at Jon, and then let them all bleed away, leaving her calm as still water. She thought back through all the many lessons she'd learned, through truth and lies and in between.

"Did he?" Arya asked calmly.

"That's what it says," replied Sansa with irritation. Here with only her sister, a locked and barred door covered in furs protecting them, Baelish dead, and guards loyal to a member of her family on the hall far away, she felt safe showing her actual feelings. She reached out to clasp Arya's arm briefly, reveling in being able to do this without hidden meanings, without hiding anything, then returned to adjusting the outfit to accommodate her little sister's amazing flexibility.

"When I was in Braavos, for a time I was Lana, an orphan selling oysters, clams, and cockles along the docks. There was a man there, a gambler of sorts. Sailors would bet with him, bet that they would die on the voyage. If they live, they lose. If they die, they win, and their wife could collect. At least, that was what the gambler said, but often he didn't pay. The bet, you see, was very specific," said Arya, her voice low and steady.

"While I do enjoy hearing about your journey, what's the point?"

"This doesn't say Jon bent the knee. Nor does it mention the North or even the Vale. It says 'I pledged to fight for Daenerys Targaryen'," said Arya, winking at her sister, "That's different. There are no words about 'now and always', or 'forever', or 'in perpetuity', or 'and all my family and descendants and bannermen and horses and dogs and ravens and field mice and even my annoying little sisters'. Just Jon. What did Littlefinger say when you asked him?"

"What?" asked Sansa, a little startled, then glared briefly before she smirked, "He thought Jon might want to marry her, said she was beautiful, young and unmarried, and Jon was young and unmarried."

Arya rolled her eyes at her sister, then spoke in a teasing tone, "That doesn't make him want to marry her, silly, that makes him want to fuck her. Haven't you ever been in a brothel or talked to a courtesan before?"

"Arya!" exclaimed Sansa, then tossed the finished tunic at Arya's head, "Of course I've talked to a courtesan. I'll have you know I not only am half-owner of a chain of brothels across the entire Seven Kingdoms, but I also kept a whore as a handmaiden in King's Landing. He's always hated being a bastard... because of me, and of mother, so I didn't think he'd be risking having a bastard of his own. Now, what were you doing in a brothel yourself? Do you often patronize brothels? Are you going to use up all our profits for your own pleasure?"

Sansa watched the faint traces of surprise and amusement on Arya's face and in her eyes at their teasing, seeing that both of them were showing their true reactions to each other. It was strange that they could be comfortable with each other now, tease each other now, as adults, the way they never could as children.

"I never patronized them, but once I pretended to be... Sansa, do you really want to hear? No man has ever touched me like that, but I don't want to hurt you, and you might not like hearing this.."

"Avoiding things only lets them grow stronger. His words will disappear. Go on."

"All right, then. I pretended to be a young whore after I saw Meryn Trant go into a brothel and ask for younger ones. He switched me, not very hard, really, broke a thin stick on me, and punched me in the belly... then I showed him my face, cut both his eyes out, and stabbed him in the belly and the back several times before I told him he'd killed Syrio Forel, my dancing teacher. I listened to him whimper, and then cut his throat. My training with the courtesans is another matter entirely, though I suppose I could teach you a dance or two someday, after the wars."

Sansa's eyes widened at Arya's tale, a dark smile growing on her face at the description of how the man who had beat her on Joffrey's orders had died whimpering, "Ser Meryn? The Kingsguard? You killed him?"

"I did. I was punished for it - I wasn't supposed to kill him, but someone else entirely," said Arya, watching Sansa carefully for any signs of flashbacks, of which there were none this time.

"Thank you, Arya. He beat me for Joffrey, tore my clothes in front of the whole court for Joffrey. I'm glad he's dead," said Sansa, then bent down to kiss her sister's forehead, "I'm glad it was you who killed him."

Arya settled her various weapons about herself, ran through an acrobatic drill to make sure she knew how the cloak would work and to ensure she knew to compensate for the different armor, then strode to the door, unbarring it to escort her sister out after replacing her little traps and locking up, "Let's see what Bran can tell us about just what happened when Jon 'pledged', and why he did it."

"Of course, Lady Winter."

"Saaaaansa!"

"Lady Wiiiiiiiiiiinter!"

Their laughter carried through the stone corridors.

************************

Chapter Text

Sansa and Arya strode into Bran's room after the guard on the door announced them and opened the door, closing it behind them.

"She gave it to you," said their brother.

"You could have told me, you know, Bran," exclaimed Arya, swatting at his shoulder.

"I could've," said Bran with a fleeting expression of amusement, giving Arya and Sansa just a hint of the Bran they remembered.

"See? He likes me better," said Sansa quietly, leaning over to press her shoulder against Arya's as they sat in their normal shadowed corner. Littlefinger was dead, his spies removed or turned, spies for others removed or turned, but that was no reason for them to forget basic precautions.

Arya gasped, looking between the two quickly, an expression of shock on her face, "A conspiracy! Conspiracy in the castle!"

Sansa laughed quietly, "You started it!"

"Oh. I did, didn't I?"

"We need some more signs, but that's for later. Sansa, what do you think about how to approach this with the conclave?"

"I think we should do something that Littlefinger never did, that Cersei never did. I think we should show the scroll, tell the truth... carefully."

"Are you sure? That will work with many of them, but there are some that won't like it at all, and they'll be loud. We'll have to head them off quickly."

"We can. This way, we won't have to fight the same battle again, and it can't be held against us. Bran, here's a raven I got from Jon. We need to know more about what's happened with Jon that caused him to send it. Was he forced to write this? Does Arya need to rescue him?"

"He wasn't forced. He wanted to. He's with Daenerys on the way to Cersei's parlay. He has a wight in a box. He's not injured seriously."

Sansa and Arya glanced at each other, then Arya made the sign for you. Sansa recalled Arya's tale of the gambler, and asked, "How did he tell Daenerys Targaryen that he 'pledged to fight for her', exactly?"

"He said 'How about 'my queen'? I'd, uh, bend the knee, but... ' She said 'What about those who swore allegiance to you?' He said 'They'll all come to see you for what you are.' She said 'I hope I deserve it.'"

Arya rolled her eyes. Bran's Three-Eyed Raven face, for all its powers, was frustratingly literal most of the time, had a one-track train of thought, and rarely considered context, "Describe the physical area and actions."

"He was in bed on a ship sailing south past Eastwatch. She was sitting by his bedside. Two dragons were flying above. He woke up, turned his head a little to look at her. They spoke. He went back to sleep."

"Who else was there?" asked Sansa.

"No one."

"Very funny."

"Has he said anything about bending the knee, or made any of the physical motions of bending the knee? Mentioned the North owing fealty?"

"He send the raven to you. Nothing else."

The sisters looked at each other. This time Sansa made the sign for you to Arya, who spoke, "What happened to injure Jon? Why did he call her his queen?"

"He went to capture a wight. The army of the dead chased them. They sent a man to send a raven. They were stranded on a small island. Daenerys Targaryen rode Drogon to save him and the others. The Night King threw a White Walker's spear and killed Viserion. Jon attacked the dead while the others brought the wight onto Drogon. The Night King was handed another spear. Jon told Daenerys to go and was thrown into the lake. Drogon took off. The Night King flew. Drogon banked and dodged and flew off to Eastwatch. The Night King and the dead walked off slowly. Jon emerged from the water. Uncle Benjen rode to him, gave him the horse. Jon rode to Eastwatch. Uncle Benjen attacked the dead with a flaming ball on a chain."

Arya went still and silent while she thought for a moment, "Viserion was killed while Drogon was on the ground. Was Viserion on the ground?"

"No. He was attacking the dead from the air with his fire."

"What happened to Viserion?"

"The Night King had him pulled out of the lake and raised him as a wight."

"What."

"MESSENGERS!" shouted Arya in a commanding tone Sansa had never heard before as she strode to the door, yanking it open and breaking into a jog as the children serving as runners came quickly, "Bran, find Viserion! Sansa, with me. You two, walk to the horns, sound for White Walkers and armies both. Drums to sound prepare for dragon attack, one dragon, unknown location. You two run to the Maester, one take him to the ravenry to prepare all the ravens, the other to bring as many quills, ink pots, and raven scrolls to the great hall as possible. Everyone else, the wargs are to search for a wight dragon! Go!"

Sansa jogged just behind Arya, grateful for both her longer legs and the training she'd been participating in every day since Jon ordered it, "Why are they not running to sound the alarm? Why are we sounding an alarm? What Bran saw was beyond the Wall!"

"We'll get to the Great Hall first - we need the literate to write raven scrolls, not scatter to their fighting posts. With a wight dragon, the Night King could be overhead right now! Or over Eastwatch, White Harbor, or Moat Cailin, or Barrowton, or he could have flown to King's Landing and have an army a million strong in the South already, or in Essos. Dragons could fly White Walkers over the wall - good thing you already ordered corpses burnt."

Sansa marveled at her little sister - jogging down steps while talking and she wasn't even breathing hard. More than that, Arya had just taken command of two kingdoms without a second's hesitation... and, as usual, without asking permission. Sansa kept her words short to save her breath, "What do you need from me?"

"We need to concentrate our people in as few places as possible - Winterfell is necessary. Moat Cailin is necessary. White Harbor is necessary. In the Vale, we need the Eyrie, Gulltown, and the Bloody Gate. We have to concentrate our ballista and scorpions around our people - nothing less can handle a dragon of any kind, and they'll be destroyed very quickly once they're seen."

They jogged through the courtyard, drawing sharp looks and whispers. While Arya had been known to move quickly from one place to another, Lady Stark normally had a graceful, controlled gait and a steady walking pace.

Arya slammed the doors open, Sansa on her heels as she vaulted atop a table and spoke, her voice clearly heard throughout the Great Hall, "Stay here when the horns sound! Everyone who can write legibly, to the tables! Everyone who can't will prepare for a wight dragon - load dragonglass plate-cutters and spread out so you won't all be hit by one breath! Prepare flaming bolts and anything else that might take down," the horns started sounding outside, followed by patterned drumbeats. Arya simply raised her voice further, "an undead dragon. This is a precaution; we are not under attack yet, and may not be for weeks - Bran and the wargs are looking for it now. Everyone with necessary duties should continue them. Keep knapping obsidian, storing food, fetching arrows and bolts, making shields, logging, and so on. When your people are settled and steady, return here to continue the conclave. Go!"

A few of the lords and ladies reacted with hesitation or confusion for a few seconds, while the rest started moving instantly. Fjornel had been sitting at the front of the room with Lady Mormont, who gave her second in command a nod. The spearwife stood, looking at the mass of people trying to exit through the doors, then was the first of many to jump up on a table and leave through an open window.

A runner came in through a window with blank scrolls, ink and quills even as the last lords were leaving, and then it was Sansa's turn to speak, "Everyone will write copies of this message: One wight dragon has been created, location unknown. Prepare for attack from the air or ground from anywhere. Total evacuation should start immediately. Bring perishable food, leave nonperishable for later use. Raven to be returned immediately."

Arya spoke up, "Raven to be returned as soon as fresh raven available." They couldn't afford to lose ravens, and even rested ravens had a hard time in bad weather.

Sansa nodded sharply, designated each table to write a different specified destination on their scrolls, then turned to the map Arya had unrolled. The sisters quickly worked out exactly which scroll would be sent to each place they still had groups of people, communicating with little but subtle gestures, facial expressions, and pointing fingers.

After the excitement of earlier that day, the obvious close coordination was not missed by the lords and ladies of the North and the Vale. Nor was the instant, decisive action being taken on both the military and civilian fronts. They didn't even need to look up, they could hear a steady stream of quick, clear orders being issued one after the other. Through the windows the sounds of hasty preparation died down. There was some confusion, of course, but here in the castle it was very brief.

Undead dragons? This was the North, and their ancestors had faced the Long Night before, and won their battle. Their ancestors, too, had been led by Starks, for eight thousand years, complaining generation after generation about how much food the Starks wanted saved away, about how they had to eat the older grains first, even in summer.

They themselves had complained, if quietly, about having to train to fight the armies of the dead, Lannister armies, Ironborn armies, Frey armies, Tyrell armies, cavalry armies, infantry armies, and even damned dragons. Now, with reports of dead dragons flying the undead over the Wall, there was fear, certainly, but no panic, no indecision.

The sisters wrote a few scrolls themselves - Eastwatch was to evacuate immediately, one ship to watch the castle and the Wall while a warg hid further south with a Winterfell raven to provide warning of what happened, since the ship could be obliterated by a dragon in seconds. That scroll was sent by the fastest raven available, then the rest, north to south until all the remaining settlements had been warned.

When the last scrolls had been sent to the ravenry, the sisters sat at the head table, Sansa's staff leaning beside her. They spoke to the gathered nobles and leaders about what they'd learned of the wight dragon. Everyone had already been given lectures on the capabilities of dragons, so there were few questions there, but many on what the Night King might do. Arya fielded those, as usual, repeating that the Night King could be anywhere, but the bulk of his force was probably still marching slowly on Eastwatch as before.

When the last of those who had gone to see to the troops had returned and readiness reports had been given, Sansa looked out at the hall. A leader of nearly every House in the North, and many of the Vale, was present, and representatives from the rest sat among the Lords, and Ladies, as well. The Free Folk had their own leaders attending, much more casually, but attentive all the same.

This was not the court of her childhood dreams, dressed in finery, the men handsome and the ladies beautiful, everyone dancing and eating fine foods as minstrels played in glittering halls. This was the Northern Court, rough, crude, uncultured, fractious, scruffy and plain... but also fierce, independent, caring, decisive, diligent, and willing to positively eager to get their own hands dirty.

She wouldn't trade them for all the beautiful, perfumed vipers in the world.

"My lords and ladies, thank you all for coming. The Three-Eyed Raven will not be joining us, as he is searching out the wight dragon Viserion. My sister and I called this meeting to discuss Lord Baelish, his crimes, and what will happen after his sentencing and execution," said Sansa, watching carefully. If anything, concern over the army of the dead having a dragon had resulted in this part of the meeting being much more relaxed than she'd expected.

"Lord Royce and the soldiers and knights who were present can provide more specifics to any who wish to know, but in short, Lord Baelish engineered Jon Arryn's murder, my father's murder on false charges, the War of the Five Kings, the death of my aunt Lysa Arryn, the slow poisoning of my cousin Robin Arryn to stunt his growth, the Purple wedding, and many other crimes, all for his own selfish reasons."

The lords spoke to each other briefly, the hall filling with conversation and then falling silent again, allowing Sansa to continue.

"Many of you have seen or heard of my sister and I arguing, with your own ears, general gossip, or for some of you, your own spies. I am happy to report that the reports of our arguments are entirely true," said Sansa as she smiled slightly, "Allow me to re-introduce my sister, Arya Stark of Winterfell, Lady Winter, No One, Justice in the North, First Sword of Westeros."

Arya smirked out at the assembly, pausing a moment before continuing the explanation, "Sansa knew what Littlefinger was, how he worked, and many of his spies. You've all seen or heard of my skill as a dancing master of the Water Dance, the sword style of Braavos. That is what I showed to focus the attention of Littlefinger and his spies. As he had the truest sight of anyone except Brienne, and the best spies, we had to show the same things to all of you."

"We are sorry for the confusion and doubt we sowed. It was, regrettably, necessary - we had to keep our plans secret from Lord Baelish, who was one of the most cunning politicians in all of Westeros, and who had an extensive and skilled spy network across the seven kingdoms," said Sansa evenly.

Arya gave a proud smile at Sansa, not large, but enough to be noticeable to the audience, knowing the redhead was on the short list of most cunning politicians in Westeros. Arya continued, "As a result, together we have identified many spies, a few pathetic excuses for local cutthroats, as well as much of his finances. The most dangerous I killed before they could cause damage. The rest were given trials, the results you've seen," she gestured to the prominent bloodstain before the head table, "some sentenced to death, some to the Wall, and some to the cells."

Sansa glanced at Arya, who made the sign for yes, both judging that this was the best chance they had to tell the truth and get the results they needed, "There are no more trials for those in Winterfell, or any of your bannermen. Lord Baelish's brothels are ours now; there will be no change except a ten percent discount for all those working against the army of the dead, taken out of the house's cut, and that a very few services are no longer provided."

Sansa made the sign for you to Arya. The younger sister would provide a strong opening for many of the individuals, but to turn the group to the consensus they needed was better done by Sansa. Arya spoke, her voice colored with honest regret.

"Many of you have spoken with Littlefinger and his spies. None of you knew his true evil or his purpose. Many of you supported Jon and my sister when they brought the fight to Ramsay Bolton, and for those, we thank you for your purity of purpose and faith with House Stark. For those who joined with House Stark later, we do understand. After I escaped the Red Keep and was smuggled out of King's Landing, my friends and I were captured by the Lannisters."

Arya saw with her eyes the reactions of those of the North and Vale and from beyond the wall, all reacting differently. So far, so good - the ruffled feathers would be smoothed over shortly, "I did what I had to do to survive. I pretended to be a highborn from Barrowton who was pretending to be a lowborn daughter of a stonemason. Tywin Lannister took me as his cup-bearer, and I served his meals and fetched for him while he was fighting my brother Robb. I thought about killing him, planned how to kill him, but I did not - I chose my own survival, chose to be a prisoner but not a corpse or a hostage."

She glanced at Sansa, who made the sign for forgiveness and the sign for you, so Arya continued, "Had I not fetched for him, someone else would have. Had I not brought his meals, he would have eaten his fill regardless, so I told myself. I did survive, though, and I learned how to fight wars. I learned out to organize an army, a supply train, handle morale, how to scout, how to lay traps, from both Robb and Tywin, because I was there for every meeting Tywin had with his generals. That is how I know how to organize all the forces of the North and the Vale and the Free Folk, because I learned from Tywin Lannister, from his victories and his failures, from his wisdom and his folly, before I escaped from Harrenhal some time after Littlefinger visited Tywin, offering to help him. I led a group out, was captured by the Brotherhood, escaped them, captured again by the Hound, and then left for Braavos."

Sansa let them talk briefly, let them just barely start to come to terms with the idea of Arya as a child compared to Arya the general they knew well. She carefully gauged the mood and how the little groups were leaning, then gathered her courage, pushed her fears down as she'd seen her sister do, and stood to command their attention.

"You have all heard tales that I screamed for Ramsay, no doubt, those that did not hear my screams yourself. I screamed when he cut, and burned, and did other things, but I survived, just as my sister did alone and without family or bannermen or anyone of the North or the Vale to help her. Just as I had before, a hostage in King's Landing, a plaything for Joffrey to torment, to be beaten with swords. I sang pretty songs for the Lannisters, told them what they wanted to hear, what would keep me alive. I wrote a note before my father's execution to my brother Robb as Cersei dictated to me. I begged for my father's life, and saw the so-called 'mercy' Joffrey Waters gave myself."

She looked over at Arya, who made the sign for forgiveness and you, as well as a small supportive smile and a tiny nod for their audience to see.

"Just as my sister did, I learned, too, slowly, but I learned. I learned how the Southrons lie, and manipulate, and stab each other in the back over pointless rivalries. I learned, too, different ways of ruling, of maintaining strong alliances. I learned some from Lord Tyrion, who was kind to me, who never touched me. I learned some from his stories of his father, Tywin Lannister. I learned some from my handmaiden, who listened well, and from Margaery Tyrell. I learned much from Cersei, who is as evil a woman as you will ever find... but who is also as dangerous as anyone still alive today. I learned from Lord Baelish after he stole me from King's Landing and hid me in the Vale, as Alayne Stone, where I hid and lied as I must to survive."

The room was quiet, now, though many of the lords of the Vale looked to Lord Royce and were reassured by his clear support for Lady Stark. They knew he was a truly honorable man, that he had helped investigate Lysa Arryn's death, and that he had been present at the trial. If Bronze Yohn supported her, that had weight enough that they would listen.

Arya spoke, now, "Fear cuts deeper than swords. Joffrey threatened by pointing a crossbow - a blatant, visible, obvious threat. Ramsay threatened with a smile and nice words that everyone knew meant he wanted to flay you and your family alive. Cersei was similar. Littlefinger threatened even more subtly than that. There are no honorable means to fight men like that, because men like that twist honor's rules. It is a crime to strike a king, but what of when a king harms the innocent? Littlefinger only once ever gave a reason for an honorable duel. Cersei blew up the Sept of Baelor rather than be tried. The Mad King killed our grandfather and our uncle when they made honorable protest."

"When honorable men," Arya nodded to Lyanna Mormont, "and honorable women disagree, they use honorable means. But the world is full of dishonorable men and women, great and small, and to win against them without great cost one cannot always have perfect honor. Even to survive them requires compromise. Jon Arryn was honorable, and he was killed for it. My father was so honorable he warned Cersei that she should take her children and as many men as she could, and flee as far as she could, for when Robert came back from his hunt, my father would tell him his children were bastards. My father was killed for his honor, for his very honor gave Cersei time to prepare."

"When those with honor want to fulfill their ambition, they better themselves, they better their families, they better their bannermen and their smallfolk and their lands. The sad truth is that there is no justice in the world, not unless we make it. And we cannot always make justice by adhering to all the rules of high honor, because our enemies will not, though I have said things and done things to survive that I regret," said Sansa, looking at Lord Glover, "A woman can only admit when she was wrong, and ask forgiveness."

"I, too, have done things I regret," said Arya, then with a fleeting, wistful expression that only Sansa noticed, said, "A girl can only admit when she was wrong, and ask forgiveness."

This was the crux - they'd weighted the scales as best they could, and now they would see the results. Lord Glover stood.

"There's nothing to forgive, my lady, Lady Winter," he said.

As he sat, the hall was quiet.

Lady Frey stood nervously, shifting her cloak back to display the change in the embroidery on the front - the Twins were exactly as they were before, with a single addition, a winter storm-cloud which hung over the tops of the towers. She looked out at the assembly, seeing a mixed reaction. Many of the older lords were looking at her with disdain, though others were neutral. Alys, Ned Umber, and a few others she'd trained with regularly seemed to give her supportive smiles as they listened to her. To her! Her small voice trembled slightly as she addressed the hall.

"My Lords, my Ladies, I know I have no place here. I am just a girl from the Riverlands whose father married me to Lord Frey after the Red Wedding, but I know the shame of that treachery. Lord Frey was proud of it - proud of his victory," she risked a glance up at the high table. Her voice strengthened as she saw two looks of approval.

"Then, one day... The North remembers. Lady Winter came for House Frey. House Frey is gone, now, but I am not. My ladies are not, the servant girls who had no part in the treachery are not, and their children are not. The smallfolk were not raped and slaughtered, the Twins were not destroyed, the towns and stocks of grains were not burnt or stolen."

Lady Mormont stood even as Lady Frey sat, and Sansa knew the small bear would be the deciding voice. She had no particular rapport with Lady Mormont, but she knew Arya did, and that the siege engine commander had been studying battles, and leadership. Sansa did, however, believe that majority of the Northerners felt that the leader of Bear Island was perhaps the single most purely Northern person in the room, giving her voice great power to sway the entire North. She herself would never be that pure, or that Northern, and never was. All there was now was patience. She and her family would survive either way.

Lyanna gave a brief description of what had happened in her tent earlier, and then looked up at Arya directly and continued, "My family, my bannermen were butchered at the Red Wedding. Lady Winter gave us vengeance, and delivered retribution for breaking the laws of the old gods. She did it without armies, or wars, or harming innocents. She killed a man in front of me in cold blood, and others without a trial. Yet which of us was fighting the battle Littlefinger brought among us? I was not. Which of us knew his plans, his spies, his assassins? I did not. Which of us would have seen his treachery before it happened? I would not. We must learn from our mistakes. I'm proud to be a Northerner, but we must have leaders who can fight Southron ways on their own terms, or we will lose to dishonorable attacks again and again."

She gave a small nod to Sansa, and then another to Arya, then sat. The sisters looked out at the hall, signing yes to each other as they watched the consensus form. It was quieter than it was for Jon's coronation, despite the larger crowd, but solidly behind them all the same.

Sansa and Arya stood together, Sansa staying behind the head table as Arya strolled casually to the side, closer to the decorative changing screen at the corner by the fireplace, farthest from the windows. The half nearest the fireplace and the head table had her new heraldry on it, the other half was that of the House of Black and White, though only Arya, Sansa, and Kitty knew that.

"As Lady of Winterfell, in the absence of both our King and his Hand, I have named my sister Arya Justice in the North. We are of the North, and in the North we follow the ways of the First Men. I will judge crimes, and decide if a crime is a capital crime, but I will not sentence. The Justice in the North will decide if a capital crime merits death, or if the Wall or even a lesser punishment is merited, and pass the sentence. She will kill by her own hand, right here where she and I can both look into their eyes and hear their last words. The men she killed without trial we had discussed in secret, and I believe were both guilty of capital crimes and too dangerous to let live during Lord Baelish's trial."

Bronze Yohn stood, "I am not of the North, but I am of the First Men. My House goes back thousands of years, before the Andals invaded, and we still use their runes on our armor. I believe that having crimes judged by the Lady of Winterfell and sentenced by the Justice in the North shows wisdom, and I have faith in their decisions."

"Thank you, Lord Royce. Your faith honors us. Speaking of faith," said Sansa as she turned to Arya.

"When I went to Braavos, I studied at the House of Black and White. After some time, I became No One, a Faceless Man. We will be building the House of Black and White in Westeros on the large hill to the northwest of Winterfell after the war with the Night King is finished. Anyone who needs the gift of death can see any priest or acolyte of the Many-Faced God, and we will grant it. We will care for the bodies of the dead, as well. If anyone gives you a coin like this and says Valar Morghulis," she said as she passed her iron coin, which was once Jaqen's iron coin, to Clay Cerwyn to pass around, "then you are to take every effort to get them to the House of Black and White, either here or in Braavos, whichever they request. The House will repay any legitimate expense. Priests are called No One."

Arya took this chance to consider her decision one last time. For any of the many so-called assassins of other groups, this would be suicide. For a Faceless Man, well, that was a different matter entirely. She'd risk people trying to attack her personally in her own face, or in any other face she showed in this way... a small enough risk, since at least some of the most dangerous people in the world wanted her dead in her own face regardless. She had a few other faces already, and would be get more naturally enough as people came for the gift of death, or corpses were brought to be taken care of by the House.

What she was doing wasn't exactly normal, but wasn't unheard of in and of itself, either. The Waif had taken her face off on the bridge in plain sight, Jaqen had shown her another face just outside of Harrenhal, and she herself had already shown Kitty and the girls her changing faces. There had been Faceless Men for thousands of years, even, and it has always been known who to contact for the gift of death. Long ago, by slaves in the deep mines of Valyria, they were of course kept secret from the dragonlords. Then, when the Faceless Men moved to Braavos, they built a vast temple, and walked about in public - Jaqen moved through the hall of the gods in his own face, as she had, and had changed his face on the front steps when he invited her into the temple.

She reached deep inside herself, to the place where she kept her list, her earliest prayer and deepest connection to the Many-Faced God, and thought of what she had planned. She thought of how it was the same as what had been done before, how it was different, and of the various plans she had for the House of Black and White in Westeros, of how it would be different than the House in Braavos, of how it would be the same. Then she was calm as still water, and knew a face of her God she had not known before, a face of humorous acceptance, and she knew she had her answer.

While Arya was quiet, Sansa listened to the fragments of conversation carefully, with unseen amusement.

"What, like a Silent Sister?"

"They're assassins!"

"That's a bit creepy."

"Like a Septon?"

Sansa interrupted, her voice tinged with amusement and pride, "A High Septon, in Arya's case, actually."

While they were paying attention to Sansa, Arya stepped silently behind the privacy screen, swirling the cloak around and fastening it properly, striding out of the black and white side and watching the lords and ladies notice the change. Her face smirked as Sansa's eyes widened briefly, while the rest of the lords and ladies started, jumped, explained in shock, were puzzled, gaped in disbelief, and even drew their weapons in a few cases. Kitty, alone of all, simply gave a deep nod.

"What, you never saw a Faceless Man before? Heh. Heh. Heh. Close your mouths, you look like a bunch of damn morons," said No One in Walder Frey's rich, deep voice.

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Chapter Text

Sansa suppressed her surprise, returning to a calm and still expression even as her sister taunted the conclave. This was clearly the first face that she'd found in her sister's saddlebag, and judging by the age and Lady Frey's response, it was her husband. The cloak was that of a priest of Death, the hem inches farther off the floor than it had been before Arya had disappeared behind the screen, showing that her footwear was the same leather she'd sewn herself.

Ever since her sister had first returned, hints had been there. Sansa remembered their trip deep into the crypts, when she had heard only her own footsteps, when Arya had confirmed she'd been at the twins. The Lady of the Crossing had called her the very face of death, and here was yet another show that her sister, like her brother, had returned not just very different than when they left, but also with strange powers.

This was no mummer's trick, no tall boots or high heels or faker's skill, it was true magic. She knew makeup and cosmetics, how to change the look of a face. She'd learned from her own mother, from Shae, even from Cersei herself. She knew how to change color, highlighting certain features, to look more or less attractive, she'd even learned how to hide bruises from Cersei one night the queen had been particularly drunk and was dwelling on her earliest days with her late husband. All those took many cosmetics, great skill, and above all time.

Her sister had had no cosmetics and only a scant few seconds, was inches taller, looked ancient, had a completely different voice. There was no trace of any of her normal mannerisms, or even the cold stillness she fell into often. The expression was different, the cadence of the words were different... and her sister was eyeing up Lady Frey with familiarity and Lady Karstark with apparently fresh interest, in a way similar to what she remembered King Robert doing.

Well, that was a little disturbing.

"You didn't believe in magic, not truly, not even after all you've heard. No no, that was your mistake. Doubt no longer - there is only one god, and his name is Death. He has many faces. If you are willing to pay the price, you may approach the House of Black and White in Braavos with a name, or the House of Black and White in Westeros for just vengeance. Make no mistake, if you need No One, the price will be high," said No One.

"This is the face of No One. This is the vestment of No One. When you see this, you see No One, you hear No One. No One is the priest of the Many-Faced God, and that is No One's interest. Not the interests of men, or women, or holdfasts, or kingdoms, but the interests of the many faces of death, whether giving the gift of a peaceful death to those who ask, or providing the services of the only truly professional assassins in the world."

"Sansa Stark, the Red Wolf, will see to the interests of the living, as will her sister when she wears Arya Stark's face. We do have shared interests, however, the living and the Many-Faced God. Valar Morghulis, the common greeting, is often translated as 'all men must die'," said No One as he winked at Lady Frey, "by men. We of the House translate it as 'all must die', just as the response Valar Dohaeris is best translated as 'all must serve'. The Night King profanes the sanctity of death - he is a blasphemer that neither dies nor serves, and must be destroyed."

With that, No One turned and slowly walked behind the black and white side of the screen. Arya Stark strode out to return to her sister, shrugging a little in a 'what are you looking at' manner at Sansa's subtle head-tilt and hidden exasperation.

"My Lords and Ladies, we have called you all here for another reason as well. We have received a raven from our brother Jon. As Lady of Winterfell, I ask that we discuss the contents here, in conclave with our allies of the Vale and the Free Folk, as is our custom in the North."

"Once Sansa reads the raven, you will all have a chance to see it as well. Before that, I would like to hear some of what happened before I returned. Alys, which weapon did you use when you bent the knee?"

"My sword," said Alys a little uncertainly, still unsettled by the old man's gaze a moment before having come from the small girl before her, a girl only a year older than herself.

"Ned, which knee did you bend when you bent the knee?"

"My right knee."

"Just so," said Arya, "And when Jon was declared King, who brandished their unsheathed weapons and declared him King in the North here, in conclave, in the sight of god and men?" Arya made the sign for you.

Sansa watched the response for a minute, then spoke, her voice calm and relaxed, "My brother wrote, in his own hand, 'I pledged to fight for Daenerys Targaryen', from his sickbed after the Queen of Meereen flew north on her dragon, based on a raven telling her he and a small group of men were trapped by the army of the dead. My brother is alive and well, thank you for your concern."

Arya stood before the exclamations and various conversations could really get started, pitching her voice to carry in the way she'd heard Tywin's carry, "Bran has not seen Jon draw his weapon to bend the knee before he sent this note. Bran has not seen Jon kneel before he sent this note. The note says 'pledged', not 'bent the knee' - that word is very different. In Braavos, for example, that would mean a personal oath, not the oath of a ruler on behalf of their people. Remember, Bran only sees small flashes of vision, and my brother is not here to answer in full the questions that will determine which he actually did."

Sansa watched as Wyman Manderly stood just after her sister sat, his clothing starting to show a few signs of being loose on his frame. She was glad to see he was both following her orders on rationing, and choosing to wear clothes that were still tailored to match his previous girth. That, by itself, would do more than a dozen speeches and two score side conversations to enforce the rationing - all knew how much he loved to eat, and when all could see he was eating both in public and in private little enough that he was losing weight for the first time in decades, there would be a great shame in failing to follow his example. She resolved to thank Lord Wyman for his not just setting, but showing off the example to all who saw him, lords and smallfolk alike.

"The Manderlys came to the North from the Reach, as all know, in the time of the Gardener kings. Our family alone came North, those with the name Manderly, and we brought with us our faith, our industry, our expertise with ships and commerce. Our bannermen did not come with us, and we did not hold them to need to do so! The oath we swore here in the North to be always be loyal subjects to the Starks of Winterfell did not bind those who had been our bannermen south in the Reach!"

"Most of you know the laws and history of bending the knee in the North far better than I do," said Sansa as she made the sign for lie, "so it is the duty of this conclave to discuss and determine what is required to bend the knee on behalf of your bannermen, and what is simply a man, or a woman, pledging their personal loyalty and abdicating their previous responsibilities as is done when one joins the Night's Watch, a responsibility which supersedes previous ones. As Lady of Winterfell, I welcome what our Vale and Free Folk allies have to say as well."

"We will discuss this for an hour, and then leave for supper in the camps. My brother is sailing south with Daenerys Targaryen to Queen Cersei's parlay, so we have time before any decision is required. We do not have to decide today, my Lords and Ladies, we only need to speak of the different points we must all consider. The Great Hall will then be left to those of the Vale for their supper, for they have lost the Lord Protector of the Vale today and are owed time to decide important internal matters of state," said the Lady of Winterfell, leaning forward to listen intently to the next to speak up, her sister sitting tall, but not entirely still. She wondered if having been openly a Faceless Man in front of all had been good for Arya, as she felt being Lady of Winterfell was for her herself.

During the next hour, they watched the various Lords and Ladies debate with the usual Northern... enthusiasm... each of them stepping in from time to time to bring the discussion back on topic from the inevitable digressions, or to resettle overly heated arguments. This was the normal course of any conclave in the North - without any particular time pressure, they'd never come to agreement on their own.

Lyanna Mormont was silent, listening intently to the various opinions. Fjornel and the other Free Folk said little, merely bringing up the way the various tribal leaders or the King Beyond the Wall had been named, and how those who hadn't died a King had been unnamed or abdicated the position. The small bear watched the Stark sisters do little but keep the discussion on track and make it clear they supported their brother, as their brother.

They, however, made no real statements at all about their opinions on King Jon as King, on bending the knee or abdicating. She wondered why that was - both women had strong opinions about nearly everything, and had just gotten done corralling the conclave regarding Littlefinger. It was the same tactic Arya used in military discussions, picking a partner and going back and forth, verbally attacking the flanks of the herd. A tactic she'd used herself with Fjornel as her partner when a set of new Houses arrived and were being idiots about siege weapons. Lyanna resolved to think further, and see if her Maester had any information that would help her make her own decision.

At the end of the hour, Sansa stood, "Thank you all for your frank discussion. It is time to leave the Hall to the men and women of the Vale for them to decide their own future. Before that, though, I have one last request for you. Many of you have long-standing arguments with other houses or tribes. If you can, try to forgive each other. We are all here, working together to defend our peoples. All our peoples."

Arya stood as Sansa finished, thinking of the best example she could, where she was sure that mutual respect had formed and solidified, "Bronze Yohn, I hear tales that you were upset at the idea of fighting with the Free Folk before my brother left for Dragonstone. Your cavalry has trained with Skamund and his ice-river clan dogsleds for months, now. Would you rather fight the Night King with them, or with Southron knights or Dothraki horselords?"

Bronze Yohn stood, turning to the Free Folk man who had been named leader of the Free Folk 'cavalry'. He thought of the knights he'd seen in the South, of the tales of Dothraki he'd heard his whole life. He thought even of the marvelous Dornish horses he'd seen, perfectly suited to a parched desert environment with light riders. He thought of the mountain tribes of the Vale, who had women fighters just as the Wildlings did. Then he thought of the training he'd done, hour after hour, day after day, week after week with the Wildlings, in the day, during the night, in the snow and sleet and blizzard winds.

"I was angry, and insulted, and I said so, for we have been enemies for millennia. Since then I have trained with them most days, and my forces have done so every day without fail. Skamund, you and yours are no knights, nor do you follow the Seven or our code of honor. You and yours are fierce, cunning warriors who hit and run, who do not charge directly, who do not strive for honorable one on one combat during a battle," said Lord Royce, looking across the hall as he raised his voice slightly.

"You have taught me and my cavalry, all our cavalry, a great deal about how to fight enemies who care not about honor. Enemies like ours are now! You have taught us about the dead, about how they fight, and how they never break and always attack. You have learned tight discipline, and we have both learned to work with each other. I would rather fight with you than with any knights of the Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Riverlands, the Reach, the horsemen of Dorne, or the Dothraki screamers!"

Skamund rose, made his tribe's sign of respect to Bronze Yohn, and sat. He could understand the tongue spoken south of the Wall better than he could speak it, though he was quite fluent in the horn calls the combined cavalry forces used. What he didn't understand of the speech, the cavalry commander's tone of voice and expression told him. They were the edge of the blade and he the back of the blade, without both there would be no cutting down the dead.

Sansa noted that neither Lord Royce nor Skamund had mentioned the stealing of women or the raids which had been part and parcel of the hatred for millennia, and mentally thanked both for avoiding the topic. They needed unity, not dissent - dissent and redress could come after the wars, when the unity and bonds of mutual interdependence were stronger.

Sansa dismissed the gathered Northerners and Free Folk, then caught Arya's attention, glanced at Lady Reed, and made the sign for recruit, the closest sign they had for what she meant. At Arya's return sign of yes, Sansa approached her, "Lady Reed! I'm very pleased to see you again. If you have some time, I would like to invite you to supper in my chambers. There is a small matter I would like to propose to you for your consideration."

Arya clapped Bronze Yohn on the shoulder affably after telling him where she'd be if he needed her to provide any testimony during the meeting for the Vale, then followed a Free Folk man out the window with a slight smirk. The Red Wolf had decided to be a bit more free with her japes, it appeared. That her sister was willing to do so with Meera was certainly a good sign.

Arya headed out to the closest camp the Northern wargs and skinchangers who could handle birds used at her usual jog to get an update on what was happening. She expected they'd be able to call an end to having everyone ready for an attack, but they couldn't all do so. They'd need to rotate, just as night watchmen do, and keep a substantial presence available in case a wight dragon appeared.

Once she gave those orders, she'd head back to collect Sansa.

************************

Arya entered Sansa's solar after having been announced and sending the guards to the ends of the halls, closing the door behind her as she saw Meera Reed looking uncertain, worried, and sad in the chair across from Sansa's divan. Sansa looked up and smiled, making the signs for recruit and you as she said, "Arya, welcome back. Do you think we have a little time to talk?"

"There's no sightings of the wight dragon at all, and the caravan's just passing the outer watchtowers. I have time," said Arya in the soft voice she used with visitors to the House of Black and White, sitting down next to her sister on the divan, leaning against Sansa.

Meera looked up at the younger girl she'd spent time training with, teaching about the wights and the White Walkers, and discussing how the archers should best be used against different enemies. The young Stark had been a mystery, a great fighter with all kinds of weapons and a true prodigy with her little sword, skilled in wide-scale military matters. She was usually an intense, driven person, though occasionally she became creepy, cold and still in a way Jojen or even Bran had never been.

And then half an hour ago, she'd seen why. She hadn't heard much of them in her life - while Greywater Watch was less than a hundred miles from the sea, few sailors came through to tell tales of the Faceless Men. Still, she'd heard some, and they were frightening. She'd thought the Night King was the god of death... apparently not. That didn't help her with her difficulty in resolving the tightly controlled but warm person before her and the deadly killer she'd glimpsed, and even the old priest, the old male priest, she'd seen.

"You act one way, then the same, then different again. Then you're a man. Then you're the same again. Bran didn't become the same again, he got more and more different, stopped caring about anything but the Night King. Jojen, even," said Meera, her voice breaking at the end.

"We know what it's like to lose a brother. I'm sorry his death hurt you," said Arya in that gentle voice, then leaned forward with her usual intensity, "You'll keep what is said here private, won't you? Just between the three of us, not spoken about except with us. Yes, you will. Not even with Bran - he has no sense of others listening. Good. Thank you, Meera."

Arya waited a moment while Meera processed that 'exchange', then continued quietly, "I am a Faceless Man, trained specifically to change my face, inside and out. I spent years before that training on the same kinds of skills, being other people to survive, to hide who I was. Part of that was my learning to be who I am underneath, to not lose myself entirely in the new face, to be able to take the face off again. My brother never had that training, that practice. He was always himself, climbing and happy, and then crippled and devoting himself to the weirwood face of the Many-Faced God. He needs to learn how to find his own face again, to put it on again."

"Arya's good for Bran. They jape with each other, and I can see Bran's joy. It's well hidden and only appears in brief flashes, but you can see it shine through if you've learned how and you know him. Remember, we're not asking you to spend your life doing nothing but caring for him - you may do as you like. Arya says you're a good archer, respected by the others. You can continue that, or turn your hand to whatever else you choose. We take care of our family."

"Jape with each other? You're the one he conspires with, hiding things from me for weeks on end," said Arya with a playful nudge at her sister before speaking.

"Meera, Sansa spoke for both of us. You're a good archer, good fighter, and you care about our brother and the North. The Three-Eyed Raven isn't all he is, but even if he never learns to put his own face on again for more than a moment, you can be our family as well. We're not quite so stuck-up in private," said Arya with a smirk directed at her sister, then her expression saddened, "but we and Bran are the last. I never wanted children, never wanted babies, and after being wounded, I can't have them anyway."

"After what Ramsay did, I have no desire to bed a man, and will never. I do not wish to marry again, and will never marry again; I will die as I have lived, a Stark."

The sisters stood, heading for the door as Sansa gave one last comment, "Some of us are still very strange and annoying, of course. Stay here as long as you like, Lady Reed, if you'd like to spend some time thinking. It is, of course, entirely your choice. The guards will let no one in, and this No One and I will be busy with the caravan for some time."

Lady Reed watched the two Starks rub their shoulders together as they left. In a way, they were the last two Starks who had any measure of themselves left. She settled back in the chair, pulled her legs up, and pondered what they had asked of her... offered her, in a way.

************************

Arya and Sansa waited; the horns and drums had signaled the caravan's arrival time to be about now. The leading edge of the caravan's scouts had come in already, and the main body of sleds was approaching, a few with passengers as well as cargo moving to the front.

Sansa watched her sister carefully, seeing well-hidden, restrained eagerness shown to her briefly before it vanished entirely from Arya's bearing. This would be her first time meeting any of their foreign allies, or perhaps her sister's friends. Some of them were simple business partners and allies, but some of them were those Arya had sailed with, who had been her friends when she was calling herself Salty.

The first group which approached them was easily recognizable by their vestments, two people in the garb of the House of Black and White without a hood, and three with a hood. The one in the lead had a hood over distinctive red and white hair, and greeted her first, followed quickly by the others.

"A man greets a girl."

"A girl greets a man."

"No One."

"No One."

"Valar Morghulis."

"Valar Dohaeris."

"No One! It's good to see you!"

"And you, No One!"

"No One, thank you for receiving me."

"Thank you for coming, No One."

Arya turned from the second acolyte to Jaqen, "A girl wasn't expecting guests from the House."

"A man is only visiting to complete a girl's training. The others will be more comfortable serving the Many-Faced God's Westerosi face than his Braavosi face, and so they will stay with the House to assist you. A man also brings gifts for the House, and a loan until the blasphemies have had their names returned to the Many-Faced God."

Jaqen led her back to the sleds they'd come on, showing her briefly the gifts - a full stock of poisons, an assortment of weaponry, two score ancient Faceless Man coins for future Faceless Men, a selection of faces from dozens of cultures going back to the very first Faceless Men, and lastly a selection of copies of scrolls from the House. Scrolls about magic, and dragons, about how to kill dragons and dragonlords, and about the mysteries of the Many-Faced God.

He then beckoned to Sansa, inviting her closer, "This is the loan. This will be provided to you until the Night King no longer profanes Death. Then it must be returned, though what face it wears matters not."

He opened up a chest, within which was a set of metal slave collars, manacles, and thin chains. Sansa watched as Arya lifted one out reverently, stroking a finger across the collar. When her sister tilted it so it caught the light, Sansa suppressed a gasp. These were made of Valyrian steel - a literally priceless treasure, if they could find someone to reforge it as Ice had been reforged.

"A girl thanks a man. A wight dragon has been raised, and this may be what is needed to send it back to true death."

"A man is aware."

Sansa wasn't sure just what was going on, though she thought she understood Arya's expression earlier as 'a girl' asked forgiveness. She wondered if Lord Glover had quite known what he was saying when he said it, then dismissed the thought, guessing at the odd syntax in her head, "A woman thanks a man, and assures him that they will be weighed carefully, and the same weight returned."

Jaqen made his characteristic slight nod of approval, then gestured behind him, "A girl has more guests to greet."

Next strutted up a young man in the most bizarre outfit Sansa had ever seen, tight-fitting furs overlaid with thin, colorful finery, with a thin sword at his waist. Not quite like her sister's, the scabbard was a little wider and much longer, while the hilt lacked the extra section of guard. She watched Arya stalk forward with more than a hint of aggressive swagger, flicking her cloak behind her sword hilt, though without placing her hand anywhere near her sword.

"Valar Morghulis," said Arya after looking him over carefully. Not as a woman looks a man over, but as a fighter looks another over.

"Valar Dohaeris, First Sword. I am Irresso Hestar. The First Sword of the Sealord has sent me with a letter of introduction," said the bravo as he withdrew an envelope with Qarro's seal from inside his furs, offering it to Arya with a bow.

Arya inhaled subtly, then reached out with her gloved hand to take the envelope after scenting nothing. She wouldn't put it past Jaqen or one of the others to have set this up as a test, though she wasn't detecting any falsehood. She inspected the letter carefully, looking with her eyes, smelling with her nose, feeling with her skin. It was, indeed, an introduction - he had sent Irresso to her, though he did not say why. She refolded the letter and stowed it.

"Why would Qarro send you here, to me, rather than another dancing master?"

"Because my father was a good friend of Syrio Forel, and you are his greatest student. And because my father was killed by two of his rivals. It is said you understand vengeance. That is why I was sent to you."

"Just so. You'll have to pay for lodgings, or work for them. I have duties to attend to for some days; until then, you are to catch cats in Winter Town."

Irresso nods, leaving Arya and Sansa to continue through the others.

A pair of Braavosi in fine, darkly colored furs were next, the Iron Bank representative for Sansa and a representative from the Arsenal for Arya. The Arsenal had built and sent the first order of ships that the North had purchased, as well as the large numbers of torsion springs, universal joints, and fletched artillery bolts they'd ordered on Iron Bank drafts. The Arsenal representative also informed them that three score artillery ships from the Braavosi navy had been provided as allies against the dead.

In Braavos, the dragons of the Valyrian Freehold and how they fought and could be fought were still remembered well indeed. When the House of Black and White says there is evil magic beyond the wall, the Sealord listens. When the First Sword agrees that the source is reputable, the Sealord acts.

From Myr came two pyromancers, several glassblowers, three score far-eyes, several sleds with barrels of wildfire packed in snow, and a full hundred glass spheres sized for scorpions and very carefully constructed to contain that wildfire and burst upon impact, not upon launch.

Sansa stood back, thinking that she'd traveled to King's Landing and the Eyrie and back to the North on carriage and ship, and had been well known in Westeros then by her family's name, then by being a frequent spectacle in court. Now she was well known everywhere in Westeros north of the Twins on her own merit. She'd remembered the wildfire Tyrion had used at the Blackwater well, but Cersei had every pyromancer in Westeros working for her.

The Lady of Winterfell looked at her sister as Captain Ternesio Terys and his first mate greeted 'Salty' warmly. Arya had been on a different, much farther journey than her own, one with only a few stretches of time where she had been truly on her own. Now Arya was back, and with only whatever she did to slaughter the Freys and a few ravens had set in motion events that moved half the world to their aid. With Frey gold and Iron Bank loans, yes, in many cases, though even then Arya's unsupported word was enough to move dozens of armed ships and more Valyrian steel than she'd ever seen. Arya had known where to get pyromancers, wildfire, far-eyes, artillery, and had contacts that were providing even more.

Sansa felt her own envy rise, and turned away from their discussion of ship's rigging for use getting to and from artillery engines in high places. She herself had endured much, and come out stronger - even Arya had recognized that, showing both pride and love in her own way. Sansa looked back at the lights of fires from all the many camps behind the inner defensive moat, and the lights in the windows of Winterfell's towers.

That, she reminded herself, was her own doing - Jon may have brought the Free Folk and Arya those from Essos, but bringing the Vale and keeping them and the North working smoothly together with each other was hers. Keeping the Free Folk in the mix with the rest of them was hers. Keeping two entire kingdoms - and foreign guests - fed and warm despite conditions not seen since the last Long Night, that was hers.

She stilled herself for a moment, as she'd seen Arya do, then turned back, in control of herself again. There was work to be done - it was up to her to talk to the merchants from Essos about trade deals for food, for citrus fruits, and for the long list of military supplies Arya had compiled for her to add in to the winter supplies.

Sansa strode through the snow with a welcoming smile towards the merchants.

Behind them, the next group of sleds were being directed elsewhere as they came in with their cargoes of hundreds of barrels of pitch, tar, oils, and the worst rotgut in the world.

************************

Chapter Text

Maester Wolkan waited at the gates, checking on the inventory of the supplies pouring in from the terrifying young killer's contacts across the Narrow Sea. Pyromancers, even - she'd hired pyromancers from Myr! Foolish foreign fakers preaching nonsensical mysticism... he stopped himself from continuing that thought.

He was a Maester, and he'd always been taught that magic was nonsense, that the tales of the North were nonsense. Yet here he was, watching the largest system of fieldworks he'd ever heard of being constantly enlarged to hold off not only dragons returned, but dragons returned and raised from the dead along with wights, white walkers, wight giants, and probably other magical enemies they hadn't seen yet.

Nonsense, the Archmaesters had said. Send more evidence, the Citadel's reply had sanctimoniously stated. He'd never seen a wight himself, but he'd conducted extensive interviews, and the stories were consistent. Free Folk of twenty three tribes had used six different languages through fifteen different translators, the Lady Reed had spoken at length, and members of the Night's Watch had corroborated. The dead did rise, did have glowing blue eyes, and tens of thousands could be raised all at one, over a huge area, with a simple gesture at most.

The testimony was overwhelming and consistent. Worse, he'd seen direwolves and giants with his own eyes. His King had been brought back from the dead, by reliable testimony and scars that should have been, were, from fatal wounds. He'd seen a tiny killer become Lord Walder Frey.

He'd seen magic. It was real, here and now.

The Archmaesters were wrong.

Had always been wrong.

Well, the Starks required he work with the pyromancers to determine the best weapons and delivery systems to defeat white walkers, wights, wight giants, wight mammoths, wight dragons, and plain old everyday dragons. Perhaps he could introduce them to a disciplined, rigorous testing method. Yes, they could plan it all out properly, find out exactly the best options!

He'd have to get some time with a scorpion, and then a ballista and a trebuchet - the big enemies should be taken out as far from the castle as possible, so range was essential. They'd need to do trials on accuracy, too - did lighting a bolt on fire change where it hit? What about different heads, or fletching? He'd have to talk to Lady Mormont about taking a scorpion and crew away from her training schedule. Lady Lyanna wasn't as frightening as the young Stark sister, no.

He should find Lady Lyanna and ask her to interrupt her training. She'd understand, surely. Yes. He should do that soon.

The Maester spied Lady Sansa returning, her staff cradled elegantly in the crook of her arm, the ends with their sharp dragonglass shards kept away from her thick Northern gown. That's right, he had important news for the Lady of Winterfell! News that should not wait another minute!

"Lady Sansa!"

"Maester Wolkan, what is it?"

"The order you gave to burn all the corpses in the North and the Vale is almost complete."

"Good. What's left, Maester?"

Maester Wolkan swallowed once, then continued, doing his duty to the Lady of Winterfell, "Your ancestors. The lichyard has been exhumed, burned, and the ashes reburied, but in the crypts... the men didn't feel it right to touch your ancestors in their tombs. The others are all ashes, and the tombs were opened, oil drizzled on the remains. There's more oil and torches at the entrance for you."

He watched Lady Sansa nod, her expression steady as she replied, "When my sister returns, let her know and send her to me."

"Where should she meet you?"

"She'll know where I am."

He turned back to the dark night outside, looking for the faceless killer. Sometimes he wished he'd stayed at the Citadel to do research.

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Sansa stood before her mother's empty tomb, and her father's bones, the . When she first heard the faint rustling of cloth, she spoke quietly, in remembrance of their reunion in this very spot months ago, "Do I have to call you Lady Winter, now?"

"Yes," murmured Arya from right next to her, setting a large jug down with a faint clink, wrapping an arm around her sister's waist as Ghost padded up as well. One of the still rare, difficult to craft solid dragonglass daggers had replaced the Valyrian steel dagger on her belt, though Needle was still present.

Sansa put her arm over Arya's shoulder, "Thank you for avenging them. I could never have done that."

"You can uphold father's legacy as a great leader, and mother's as a woman and a great lady. Jon has father's honor, and Bran has the legacy of the magic of Bran the Builder," said Arya. She could look at each of her siblings and see the Stark in them. When she thought of herself, she could see Arry, and Salty, and Blind Beth, and No One. She had not her mother's looks, nor her father's honor, nor the magic of her ancestors.

Sansa squeezed Arya's shoulder for a moment, not having thought her sister couldn't see the Stark in herself. They were all, she supposed, a little damaged. She was proud they all stood tall despite everything, or perhaps because of it, though it appeared all of them doubted themselves sometimes. Oddly, that made her feel a little better herself, about her own doubts.

"Remember when Maester Luwin taught us the history of the Starks? I always hated the older stories - they were dark and terrible, burning villages and bringing back heads to put on spikes, killing other kings and taking their daughters to marry. Massacres and warfare and cruelty is all I saw then, though now I see ruthless rulers who attacked their enemies to protect their people. You uphold the legacy of the Starks of old, our ancient ancestors."

"Perhaps you're right. Sometimes I wonder what father and mother would have thought of what I've become and done. I don't think they'd approve."

"Mother would have. You've grown into a beautiful woman, and she was a Tully at heart - family comes first, including avenging family. Father... his honor, Jon's honor, is a noble idea, but it has little place in this world. Still, we're together again, protecting the North, and our loyal allies. He'd approve of that, even if not of how we do it, either you or I."

Arya gave the briefest hint of a smile, then picked up her jug, carefully using a Myrish glass rod to spread a few drops of glowing green liquid on their father's bones, "I brought some wildfire to make sure there's nothing left to be profaned."

Sansa waited for Arya to recap the jug and move it away, then ignited the bones. As they began to burn green, Arya solemnly intoned, "Valar Morghulis."

They watched in silence for awhile, then moved to Rickon's tomb, Arya treating his broken, trampled remains, and saying the words as Sansa touched torch to wildfire. They were silent but for Arya's prayer through Robb's, and Talisa's, and their mother's empty tombs as well. As they continued on more quickly through tomb after tomb, they started to speak, just loud enough to be heard over the crackling flames.

"I'm sorry about Lady."

"I remember you fought for her. I'm sorry about the butcher's boy."

"His name was Mycah. I put the Hound on my list for him, I got the Brotherhood to try him for murder. He won, killed Beric, then Thoros raised Beric from the dead in front of me with just a short prayer to his Red God. After the Hound lost to Brienne, I left him for dead. The Many-Faced God didn't take him then, though, and now he's with Jon. God likes his little jokes, I suppose."

"Arya... I'm sorry I lied, sorry I got Nymeria sentenced to death. If you hadn't sent her away, Cersei would have killed her too."

"She's doing well, you know. She found me when I was on my way back to Winterfell, she and her wolves. I asked her to come with me... but that's not her, not anymore. She's a leader, now, responsible for her pack," said Arya, falling into silence for a time, remembering when she had been first presented with her pup. She remembered immediately thinking of the name of her favorite ruling warrior queen, no hesitation, no doubts as to the name of her direwolf. Nymeria had never learned to fetch for her, she had been a killer, a wolf, not a servant or a lady, just as she herself was a killer. All killers need to keep the environment in mind, where the threats were, who the allies were, how much food and water there was, where was safe and where was not, who and where the scavengers were. Who would support you when you were strong, and turn on your when you were weak.

Arya came back to the present, set the jug down carefully, then pulled Sansa into a tight hug, "I'm sorry I didn't understand the politics. There was nothing you could have done to prevent it. Robert didn't think Father, or I, or Lady was worth a word against Cersei and Joffrey, for all he claimed father was his brother. You didn't lie about what happened, you just said you didn't know. Cersei would have poisoned both of our wolves, or burned them like the tower was set afire as a distraction for the amateur they sent to kill Bran, or killed them some other way, because she couldn't control them."

Sansa held her sister tightly for a time, then they separated and continued down the tombs. The statues here had crowns on their heads, old Kings in the North, from before Torrhen's time when the Starks truly ruled.

"I'm sorry I didn't try to help you escape," said Arya sadly.

Sansa made the sign for forgiveness, and asked, "Could you have?"

"Now? Easily. Then? No. Syrio held off Meryn Trant and I ran to get Needle, then to the tunnels beneath and out into the city. I killed pigeons to survive in the alleys of Flea Bottom, then when I went with the crowd to father's execution, Yoren of the Night's Watch smuggled me out as a boy, using the name Arry."

Sansa was the first to reach out this time, wrapping an arm around Arya's shoulders as they opened the gate to a slope down to the next level underground. Her voice was understanding as she spoke, "Then I'm glad you didn't try. I'm glad you survived."

"Gendry was with the Night's Watch - he was a blacksmith, apprenticed to Tobho Mott of Qohor. He talked about blacksmithing, sometimes, like Hot Pie talked about cooking all the time. Castle-forged steel needs to be tempered properly to be good - the better the temper, the better the steel. Heat it properly, quench it properly - none of it sounds good to the steel. Heat too much, or too fast, it doesn't work. Quench too fast, it's brittle and breaks. Do it just right..." mused Arya.

"And you get what, us? Just enough suffering, just fast enough?"

"More or less. I'm home, you're home, with the capacity to change the world of men. We're not going to break, are we?"

"No, we're not. It's still a terrible analogy; Septa would have hated it. Maester Luwin would have made you find a better one."

"Yes, they would have. Now you have Wolkan, the timid Maester who gives scrolls to your enemies."

"He's too trusting, more than a bit foolish, and easily terrified by obvious threats... like you, as you well know. I'll thank you to not scare him entirely to death - he's actually quite skilled and very smart in a bookish sort of way."

Arya made a soft humph noise and a little shrug, "No promises. Kitty's storing up a collection of raven scrolls she's writing by herself, you know, waiting to send them."

"I know. She's actually very sweet."

"She is, more than you know. She had dreams like you did, once, of being a good wife and mother, I think. She used to cry at night, as quietly as she could," said Arya, before her expression shifted slightly to one of hidden frustration, easily apparent to her sister, "Mother sold me for a single trip across a bridge. I would have been married to a Frey boy, under Walder's rule, with nowhere to go, surrounded by his sons and grandsons."

Sansa tightened her arm around her sister's shoulders, feeling her shift closer, "I'm sorry, Arya. I'm sorry about what she did. We'll never let anyone do that to either of us again."

"The worst thing is that it didn't even matter," said Arya as her tone and expression showed honest anger, "Selling me didn't matter at all, and would have gotten me killed, or imprisoned like Uncle Edmure, only forced to bear one child after another! Robb could never have won in the long run, not if he kept trying to go South with only the forces he had. Robb and Mother's deal didn't even get the Frey bannermen, just a trip over the bridge. The rest of the Riverlanders weren't able to do more than occupy the northernmost Lannister forces. The other kingdoms and forces were aligned with Tywin or one of the other kings, until those kings were killed, and none of the rest would have joined Robb regardless."

"Leaders start wars for insults to their own wives, daughters, sisters, and betrothed, but they never join someone else's war unless there's something in it for themselves. I told Jon he had to be smarter than Father, smarter than Robb. Then he did this, sailed away by himself. I love him, but," said Sansa in a tone as annoyed as her sister's had been angry, shaking her head. Here, with only her sister, Ghost, and the bones of their ancestors they could be open with each other.

"Did he learn politics? Do you think he phrased it exactly this way to give us an out?" asked Arya. She remembered Jon well as he had been before she left for King's Landing. Subtleties and precision like this would be beyond him, though it was likely enough that once he'd said something once, he'd keep saying the same thing the same way. She also remembered Sansa as she'd been before she left for King's Landing, and if her sister could change, perhaps her brother could have too, fooling all those she'd heard stories of him from.

"No, he didn't. He made his decisions on the spot, in front of all the Lords and Ladies, without consulting me, without consulting anyone. Without thinking of the effect his words would have, his decisions would have, except for the one effect he wanted," Sansa said, exasperated at his constant refusal to listen, to think, to consider all the ramifications.

Arya rubbed her back, replying, "I wish we knew more about what he was like in the North, before he was killed. Beric said he was 'a little less' every time he was raised from the dead by the Red God's power. Jon was raised by that same power, so in some way, he is less than he was, too."

"What do you mean, less? Jon seemed fine to me, if single-minded, though I never paid him enough mind when I was a child. You'll see him soon enough, if he can escape Cersei's so-called parlay. Dragons can fly, that might help."

"I don't know what less meant; that face of the Many-Faced God is closed to me. Just... less, somehow. If you didn't notice anything, it can't be too much, I hope. I'll keep an eye on him when he returns, especially since he clearly needs a minder! Now, back to business, Sansa. We have time, but not time without limit."

"All right. I'm sure the conclave will settle on his having abdicated his throne to personally pledge himself to the Queen of Meereen, though what they'll do after is less clear to me. They might declare you Queen in the North, you know. Lady Mormont idolizes your military skills, and she has the most powerful voice in the North. You've taken command of the entire war effort, and this is a time of war, so this might be your time to be like that Rhoynish queen of yours," said Sansa warmly, reaching out to try and ruffle Arya's hair, remembering Arya's little lectures about why she'd picked the name Nymeria.

Arya bent swiftly to avoid the vile attack, sticking her tongue out at her sister as she replied, "I left behind my dreams of being a warrior queen like Nymeria or even Visenya long ago. You'd be a far better queen than I, though I may end up with no better choice than to sit a throne, depending on how things go. If so, I'll need a Hand to do the actual ruling, and I can think of no better Hand, and official heir, than you."

"Thank you for your kindness in the unlikely event you reach a social standing worth your breeding," said Sansa with her nose in the air and a haughty voice, "When I am queen, I'm sure I'll find something menial for you to do. Listen to whispers, mayhaps, or grub around in the dirt with all the common soldiers."

Arya narrowed her eyes, "Keep that tone up and the queen will smell of shit every morning when she wakes up."

"I already smell badly enough that it wouldn't be noticeable, Arya, thanks to your infernal bathing schedules," muttered Sansa as she nudged Arya, then pretended to wipe her hand off on her sister's cloak.

"They're Tywin's infernal bathing schedules, so blame the Lannisters, not me, I just stole them. We're packed in tight enough now that disease is a serious threat. When we have to pull everyone we can behind the walls we'll be packed in like sardines in a fisherman's hold, and then it'll be just as vital to stay clean enough as to have food," said Arya, turning her head to look up at Sansa, remembering a few of her happier memories with her sister from when they were young children. A hint of hope crept into her expression, and she let it remain for Sansa to see clearly, "We can bathe in the pool we plotted next to when I arrived, after we've burned the last of the bones, if you like."

Sansa smiled in the light of their one torch and the wildfire flames on the bones of whichever ancestor had been in this tomb for millennia, "I'd like that. If they elect no queen, nothing changes. If they elect me Queen, little changes - I continue as I have been, as do you. I'll name a Small Council to help with the administration, of course, though I'll keep duties minimal for your major commanders."

"You're not going to let them elect anyone to rule until Jon returns, are you?" asked Arya.

"Of course not. We need to get a better idea of just how this Daenerys will react before we let them commit us to any one course. She likely thinks that at least the entire North has bent the knee already, if not the Vale as well, though I'll bet Jon never mentioned them. He never does. I'm concerned about how she'll take the news that the North and the Vale have not bent the knee. When a toy they think they already have gets taken away, it makes most rulers, most men angry. If it makes her angry, too, and she had two dragons and thousands of troops..."

"We aren't in Torrhen Stark's position, Sansa, knowing nothing about dragons or how to fight them, with no time to prepare and the full might of five kingdoms arrayed against us. This isn't the Sept of Baelor, either, where we can be wiped out all at once. If we can keep her armies outside the gates, or at least cooped up in the baileys, perhaps the broken tower now that you've rebuilt it, or if we must the first keep. That'll keep them out of the main areas and cooped up where a good shield and pike wall will hold them while the archers kill them."

Arya continued, "The dragons are deadly on the attack, but that's what we've been planning and building for - Lyanna's crews can handle them. If Daenerys doesn't attack immediately, I'm sure some of the books No One brought will help deal with her dragons quietly. Daenerys herself is as easily killed as any other person except by fire. She hatched the dragons and frightened the Dothraki into submission, by being fireproof and killing all their Khals, their leaders who relied on strength of arms to lead. The unburnt, they call her."

Sansa thought through the conditions of Winterfell briefly, then replied, "The tower's not good enough, but I can have the first keep readied just in case easily enough and with little effort - we haven't had enough supplies or smallfolk brought in yet to have used it for storage or bunking. We aren't providing the luxury of a Southron court, after all - this is the North, and we are at war. I'll leave the military works to you, though what are we to do with the Valyrian steel your House brought to fight the Night King's army with? I didn't think we had anyone who could work Valyrian steel, and getting a slave collar on the toe or tooth of a wight dragon seems strangely difficult."

"Gendry can work it - he told be about his master showing him how once or twice, and he's a truly gifted smith. He'll be here in the next couple days, too, so I've left a small chest for him in your room. Please see that he gets it and follows my instructions. Please have one of Kitty's ladies read the letters and instructions I left for him, don't do it yourself. Treat him well, Sansa, he was like my family on the road, like a brother I chose."

"All right, but you do have to tell me... a brother you chose? Only a brother? Blacksmiths are usually strong and in good shape. Are you sure you don't want more from him than his Valyrian steel?" teased Sansa.

"Only a brother. When he told me he knew I was a girl he started calling me m'lady, so I shoved him into the dirt," said Arya steadily, with a smirk, "He reminded me of Jon, a little, defending the weak and trying to do the right thing, always worried about being a bastard."

"Well, bastards can be King in the North - there will be no worries for your brother by choice here, though you know I will watch him as well as watch over him. Now, you pushed him into the dirt? Where were you when you did that to him, hellion sister mine?" asked Sansa with a matching smirk.

"With Yoren, heading North to Winterfell for me, and to the Night's Watch for the rest of them," said Arya with a slight, wistful smile, "I had some good times on the road with them, before Yoren was killed and we were captured by the Mountain's men. I learned anything can be a prayer, if it comes from the heart and matches what the god can give from Yoren, you know. He had a name he'd done that with, without a god... I had my list, and the Many-Faced God listened."

They were nearly silent for a time, setting one tomb's contents after another alight with green flame, 'Valar Morghulis' the only words said as Arya remembered her times on the road sadly, Ghost rubbing up against one side while Sansa stayed close on the other, lost in her own memories.

After descending the next set of steps and starting the next set of tombs, Sansa spoke up thoughtfully, "Assuming, as I expect, that the conclave judges Jon to have abdicated and is willing to wait until we can talk to him to name a new ruler, we need to work out how to present ourselves to Queen Daenerys and her court initially. You can't avoid showing some of your fighting skills and all of your leadership of the military, just as I can't avoid being Lady of Winterfell and managing the food stores and winter preparations. Beyond that, while our people aren't going to hide things for us, they won't share freely with outsiders, either."

Arya chuckles dryly for a moment, "The stories they'll tell will conflict with each other wildly, of course, especially if we encourage them to tell taller and taller tales now. They'll only do more with foreigners than they do with themselves. That'll keep Varys guessing for a time, but we'll need to cripple his ability to build an intelligence network here. Daenerys is reputed to be hotheaded, prone to hear petitioners in person and make a decision on the spot."

"Sounds like Jon. Tyrion must have his hands full! That's good and bad for us, then - she won't be inclined to take her time and ask advice in private as her first option, so she'll make poorer decisions. However, it'll be more difficult to predict what she does decide, since she does so alone and not always in the best service of a steady long-term plan. Does she ever change her mind after she makes a decision?"

"Yes, sometimes. In Braavos, we heard quite a lot about her outlawing slavery in the cities she conquered - she was very popular for awhile. Then she allowed slavery again, with some sort of so-called time limit - a year was the most popular rumor," said Arya, letting her sister see she was hiding more. The deeper details of the intelligence reports of the House of Black and White were not for this face, only for No One. Arya could see Sansa understood that, so she continued easily.

"She wasn't very popular among the Braavosi after that, of course. You already know about the dragons and the shepard girl from the reports. I'll take the lead on reading Daenerys, then, whatever we decide. You can watch Varys and Tyrion, you know them better, and we'll consult together on them as a whole."

"All right, though I don't actually know Varys. He only spoke to me once, telling me Father was an awful traitor, when I penned the note Cersei dictated. Do we try and put all our political cards on the table first, or do we simply avoid mentioning much? If so, how?" asked Sansa.

"If Jon's with her, we can greet him as family instead of a formal reception, especially if I take the lead, not having seen him in years. If not, it's difficult - we can't afford to make them feel too slighted, or cause them to start digging too early. He hasn't seen me, probably hasn't heard anything of me personally, and probably didn't believe it if he did. I do have an idea I'd like your help with - I want to get Daenerys to sign a contract hiring No One to kill Cersei and her people at standard rates in golden dragons. I can be fully up front with it, make sure she knows it's totally serious, or I can sneak it in; if Jon's there, during the family reunion would be easy enough. I'll tell the truth, certainly, but in a way she won't believe. Anything Jon told her about me would be about how I was as a child."

"Dangerous. Very dangerous. You're certain you want to assassinate Cersei and some of her people?" asked Sansa, looking down at Arya, letting her worry play across her features and in her voice naturally, despite how odd it felt to set aside her control, "Are you sure you can get out of the Red Keep again, after? Bran's said she has many more guards now, and has locked down the keep. It's not like it was, and Qyburn's creations won't turn on her even after she's dead."

"Quite sure, thank you. That's what I do, you know, assassinate people and leave afterwards. Cersei's on my list, of course, but that's no reason not to get paid as well," said Arya with a mercenary smirk.

"Of course not, Lady Winter. I'm glad you learned that your fancy toys cost real money," said Sansa with a pointed look at Needle and her eyebrows raised.

"Oh, yes, my toys cost real money compared to owning a huge castle, Red Wooooooooooooolf!" howled Arya, laughing.

"Laaaaaady Winter!"

"I'm not a Lady!"

"Just a season, yes, yes, I know. Why do you want that contract so much? How important is it to you?"

"That's a secret. It's not important enough to sacrifice anything serious for, either politically or materially, but if we can manage it in a way that doesn't cost us much, I'd really like it," said Arya as she gently shoved Sansa, smirking, "How did you get Kitty to call me Lady Winter, anyway?"

"What do you mean? You told me you killed the Freys, those are your own words. 'The North remembers. Lady Winter came for House Frey' is what you told her to say. The only other thing she'd answer me was that you were a she, and you looked like the very face of death."

Sansa smiled slightly as her little sister actually growled for a moment. Arya replied after taking a breath, "I said Winter came for House Frey. Winter, just winter, not Lady Winter, not lady anything," she said as she sighed, lighting more wildfire, saying the words, and moving on, "I suppose the poor girl was in shock. She didn't look entirely lucid when I left, and she was so earnest when you finally let me see her that I couldn't just reject her, not in this face, anyway. I owe you one for that, Sansa, don't think I won't get you back."

"Letting me tour the camps with blood on my dress and naming me the Red Wolf wasn't enough?" asked Sansa, laughing.

"No," said Arya as she laughed as well, then returned to the more serious topic, "What do you think?"

"If we're fully up front in other matters, we should be on your little side contract too. If she seems stable enough, and we're downplaying quite a bit, trap her with enough of the truth that the words can be said to have warned her sufficiently in retrospect. Above all, we have to make sure to let her save face. It's the same with the conclave - they'll hate Jon if he really did pledge the entire North, because that means they made a foolish decision naming him King. Lady Mormont's words would lose quite a lot of their power, too, in that case, since she was the kingmaker. If he only pledged himself and abdicated the throne, though, they'll be happy - they obviously made a good choice. They can't predict a man changing his mind later, but they can, and will, simply find someone else to rule."

"We'll have to work out our options in more detail later, and when we'd pick each of them, so we're ready. We don't have but a handful of ravens left now, but when we get them back we need to send warning to all the houses and all the Free Cities. I'll leave that in your hands, since I need to get to Littlefinger's spy network quickly - you know the best words for each of the houses. They need to know about the wight dragon, about the night king, even if they don't believe yet. We can have the Arsenal and Iron Bank representatives sign them as well as Lord Royce. I'll be ordering a segment of the combined fleet north past Eastwatch to scout, strike at whatever of the dead are on the shoreline, and, if we're lucky, give the foreigners a good view of the enemy. Even now I see doubt on many faces."

Sansa looked down at Arya's darkened expression, "I'll take care of it, though if you can write a few notes about the various rulers of the Free Cities, and handle Braavos yourself, that would help. We'll have to follow up later after more people see the army of the dead with their own eyes. Arya... do you think we can win? Truly?"

Arya sighed, going through a few more tombs before answering, "Before idiot girl gave the Night King the ability to fly? Maybe. We're still trying to catch up from the mess you had before I got here. Honestly, the only reason Westeros isn't overrun is the same reason we still have a chance even after he can fly. The Night King's army moves very slowly outside of battle, and he moves with them. Why that is we don't know, but I've spoken with the Free Folk. If the Night King had moved faster, he would have gotten to the Wall years ago."

"So, if he keeps doing what he's been doing, he'll get to the Wall soon. It's winter now, he can just walk around it on the ice at Eastwatch or Westwatch. His spear went through a dragon, will it go through the gates on the tunnels? Or can his dragon just melt the Wall?" asked Sansa.

"I don't know, but we can't count on the Wall stopping his army at all, and him and his dragon even less. If we have another week or so for your craftsmen to put together the rest of the scorpions and ballista we have springs for, and our ammunition actually works against dragon scales, we can handle the dragon. In a few hours we'll have the outer lines ready to be lit on fire and kept on fire for a lot longer. It's not much longer till the Dornish arrive with their arrow shafts, a little after that and we'll be able to hold out against what hit Hardhome for as long as we can bring in supplies."

Watching Arya carefully spread droplets of wildfire on the last set of bones on the deepest level of the crypts, Sansa let her determination show in her voice, "That reminds me. Arya, I want half the glassblowers working on new glass gardens. I know you want more of your wildfire balls, but we need them for two reasons. The first is morale - our people need to see that we believe there will be a future. The second is less solid, but I don't believe we call it the Long Night because it was short. We need to be ready for the long night and then the winter after, so we don't all starve to death."

Arya carefully placed the rod back in the jug, capped it, then carefully cleaned her fingers off with cloth, then sand, putting all of that in the tomb next to the bones before she lit them and answered, "Are you sure about the morale? Only some of the people will notice, and only some will care."

Sansa nodded, heading towards the pool, noticing a few additions - there were small barrels of supplies, a few unlit torches in holders, quills and inkpots and parchment, a few weapons, and some furs over some of the flatter rocks. She stopped, hesitant, and answered instead of undressing to bathe, "Yes. They'll talk about it to each other, and others will hear. Our military morale's much better now than it was before you came, but the civilian morale's important too. We need everyone working together for however long the war is, and for all the winter after."

"All right, you can have half the glassblowers," said Arya, then she paused, watching Sansa's hesitation to disrobe. She'd undressed herself when Sansa was fitting her armor, but she'd never once seen Sansa undress.

She was glad Ramsay was dead.

Arya spoke quietly, gently, "Would you like... no, you wouldn't. It's all right, I'll light one candle and then douse the torch, Sansa. I'm the only one here, there's not anyone else to see. If anyone comes, I'll hear them long before they arrive."

Arya put actions to words, setting the single lit candle away from the pool and undressed herself, quick and efficient. Once Needle and the dragonglass dagger set on one side of the pool, and a couple other weapons of dragonglass shard and steel were set out around the pool, Arya submerged herself, asking quietly, "Did you have any good times, Sansa, before you met Jon again?"

Sansa hesitated a moment more, then slowly started disrobing. Her sister wasn't trying to hide what she was doing, which helped her push down her feeling of shame and distract herself with answering, "A few. Shae, my handmaiden, once told me to tell her if Tyrion ever touched me, and she'd make him stop. I think Margaery Tyrell propositioned me, once - she talked about bedding all kinds of different men, and then looked at me and mentioned pretty girls, too. I was too naive to understand, then, so I asked her if her mother taught her that!"

Sansa giggled as she remembered her own silly response to Margaery, carefully laid her clothes on the clean furs, and slipped into the water next to Arya. She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling again the patchwork of scars over nearly her entire body, reminded of her shame. She shuddered briefly at Arya's hands on the scars covering her shoulder blades, guiding her deeper into the pool.

"It's all right, Sansa, it's just us, just family, just me. You were strong enough to survive, to keep yourself, to take back Winterfell and kill him. You fed him to his hounds already, he's gone. His hounds were like his family to him, weren't they, and you fed him to them," murmured Arya to Sansa.

"His words will disappear. All memory of him will disappear. His words will disappear. All.."

Arya listened to her sister repeating the phrases over and over, calming slowly even as Arya kept rubbing her back gently with callused hands, cataloging the scars by touch. Blade and rope, wax and flame and dog's teeth, the scars were many and nearly everywhere - she didn't think Sansa would ever be willing to wear a Southron dress again for any reason. It had looked like she'd have a hard time feeding a babe now, too, if she'd ever want that, either. Arya closed her eyes, mourning the perfectly poised, well-praised, nearly Southron bitch of a sister she'd known before.

When Sansa's was calm and silent again, Arya spoke up, "I fed Walder two of his sons, baked in a pie, before I cut his throat. He liked it so much he asked for a second slice, even though I didn't know I should have browned the butter before making the crust. He must have had shit cooks."

"You really, truly enjoyed killing him like that, making him suffer, didn't you?" asked Sansa, curious. She had the brief thought that once this would have horrified her, which she dismissed immediately. She wasn't that stupid little girl anymore.

"I did. One of the best moments of my life," Arya answered, watching, feeling, hearing her sister's reactions, "Just as you enjoyed killing Ramsay. That doesn't make you Joffrey, you know."

"Killing is the sweetest thing there is. Sandor told me that, once, in King's Landing. He said killing gave him joy, that Father lied when father said he did it for duty. I've never felt so good as when the knights of the Vale rode in to kill the Bolton army, as when I heard the sounds of the dogs eating. I don't want to become Joffrey or Cersei."

"For the Hound, it did, and it did not. The fight gave him joy, I think, and the victory and triumph. I don't think he would have found much joy in being an executioner or a torturer. He's not like me - he cares about the fight, while I care about killing and vengeance. You care about political power and vengeance," Arya said as her sister made the sign for truth beneath the water's surface, "Joffrey was a pathetic coward who cared about cruelty and torture. Cersei cared only about herself, not about others. She could never have the knights of the Vale actively wanting to be loyal, she could only make them afraid."

"One of us will very likely be Queen in the North and the Vale, and we both enjoy killing. How do we ensure we don't become monsters ourselves, Arya? How do I make sure I don't become a monster? Everything I do now, I learned how to do from monsters. That's how I keep the knights of the Vale loyal, you know - they don't stay that way without my help, nor do the Northerners."

"No, they don't, but what you do isn't evil. You aren't torturing them, you aren't taking their food to feed the North and let their children starve. You don't threaten them with assassins or creepy religious fanatics," said Arya as she laughed briefly at herself, turning serious again immediately after, "despite having a creepy religious fanatic priest as a sister. I've heard some of the men talk about Robb, and Mother cared about vengeance, too, about killing all the Lannisters, very deeply. She was no Joffrey, no Cersei, and yet it is from her we both got our love of revenge from."

Arya wrapped her arms around Sansa, holding her as she reached inside herself to where she could feel the Many-Faced God, then murmured quietly in the cave, testing what her sister truly felt to see if the one offer she could make would be welcome, "Are you satisfied with your vengeance against Ramsay? Do you want to ravage the rest of the Boltons? Men and women, boys and girls on Bolton lands, Umber lands, Karstark lands? From what I have heard, you wanted to dispossess the Karstarks and Umbers, give their castles to new, loyal families, but you didn't want to slaughter them?"

Sansa made the sign for truth, prompting Arya to continue, "I was satisfied by killing every Frey who was directly involved in the Red Wedding, yet I let Kitty and the others alone. You wanted to dispossess those whose families were disloyal but who were not personally involved, not kill them. I am a priest of Death; death is all I can offer."

Arya released Sansa, moving around in front of her, still and cold in the candlelight without so much as a ripple of water from where she was, "If you like, the House of Black and White in Westeros will entertain an ongoing, long-term contract to give the gift to an unjust ruler of the North and the Vale whose people cry out for vengeance. Another Faceless Man would have to be selected, if the time came, though that is easily possible now. The Many-Faced God cannot prevent you from becoming a monster... but Death can prevent you from being one for very long."

Arya suddenly lost that stillness, "Should I become a monster, of course, there are different problems, though raising a rebellion against me should be easy enough. I do not believe the Many-Faced God would allow me to be the kind of monster you fear, though. Nonetheless, the House of Black and White in Braavos would certainly accept my name, for an appropriate fee. Only they would truly have a chance at finding me."

Sansa smiled a small, wry smile, "Death is your only answer, isn't it? You're right - only death has stopped any of the monsters I've known. Perhaps the certainly of death would help remind me that I must take care to act for the best interests of the people, not just myself."

Arya smirked, "Death isn't my only answer."

Without warning, Arya swung her arms across the water at Sansa, soaking her entirely. Sansa yelped and splashed back, knowing they had the time to play for just a bit, now. Perhaps that, too, would keep them from becoming monsters.

Ghost looked back and forth between his pack members, then threw himself into the pool as well.

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Chapter Text

Sansa strode from her sister's room towards her workshop the next morning, carefully running through staff moves as she moved through empty corridors. Arya had arranged for her to start full contact training practice in the inner bailey today, and Sansa was nervous. She had never been a fighter, had never wanted to fight, had never wanted to learn the sword or spear or bow.

She'd done all right compared to the others she trained with, neither very good nor very bad; she knew she had a good reach even compared to the men, and she was fairly precise. She wasn't very strong or fast, though, and soon she would be forced to put all those weaknesses on display for whoever Arya had training her, whoever else was being trained, and anyone that came by to watch.

Well, at least there wouldn't be many onlookers. Between Arya and herself, there were very few idle hands anymore, certainly not in the castle. Anyone able-bodied was working when they weren't training, and training when they weren't working. Dragonglass crafting was in full swing, at the cost of some of the less skilled of those who had been fletching arrow shafts now knapping instead, since they had boatloads of shafts coming in from Dorne already. That had been an easy discussion with Arya, since careful allocation of men and material was a common concern of running castles and running armies.

The discussion on her doing her live training in private had not been so easy. Sansa hadn't been comfortable with even the drills and exercise she'd been doing so far being done in groups, though that wasn't much different than Septa Mordane's needlework lessons in the circle. The criticism was public, to be sure, but it was delivered for the purpose of fostering improvement and helping others, and there was no direct winner or loser.

Live melee training, however, was different. She'd seen it often enough, sometimes between experts like Arya and Brienne who gained respect whether they won or lost or fought to a draw. Sometimes she saw the novices, who made mistakes, lost their heads and made the wrong moves, cried out like babes as they were hit with the heavy, lightly padded training weapons, even threw up in the bailey to great laughter and ridicule after they got hit in the belly. Novices like she was.

She knew very well she'd never fight on the same level as her sister or Jon, much less as their equal. The ridicule, above all else, was what she knew she feared. Bad enough that she'd screamed for all to hear when Ramsay tortured her, but to do so in the training yard when others did not? Never had she been struck with real weapons or even played at fighting - she could only imagine how it would hurt, differently than what she'd grown used to.

Worse, probably, than being beaten in the Red Keep had been, since then all she had to do was fight back the pain and sing pretty songs. Now she had to keep her demeanor up, show the right expressions, mind her footwork, mind her weapon, mind her opponent's weapon, figure out how she was 'wounded' and compensate for it, determine how she could counterattack, decide if she should try, plan out and execute the next steps, and be careful of the next stroke from her opponent as well.

Just thinking about it made her nervous. Still, her sister had insisted that she would do better than she thought, and that it was necessary for her training to advance, since battles would by nature have audiences. Sansa repressed a huff of annoyance; at times like this she regretted putting Arya in charge of all things military. Anyone else she could have overruled, but not her stubborn little sister!

She slung her staff into her normal carry position; unlike a purely wooden staff made for training, or even one with metal caps on the ends for battle, the dragonglass shards embedded in the ends of her staff and secured with pitch meant it could not ever be used as a walking staff, since the fragile material would shatter when the staff hit the stone floor.

As Sansa turned the corner on the staircase, she recognized the man set as the very first guard to the area Arya's workshop was in as loyal to Arya, which she expected. He was posted on the stairs themselves, holding a set of bells loosely in one hand. Clearly her sister had expanded security on this area; Sansa assumed her fellow House of Black and White clergy were now inside along with the treasures they had brought, though she was sure she'd never get a direct answer on that. He looked up and greeted her loudly, "Lady Stark! I'm afraid your sister has already left, m'lady."

"Is No One who might sometimes wear my sister's face in?" asked Sansa, guessing at the particular phrasing that might work, watching the guard carefully for clues in his reaction as to how good her guess was.

"No? I don't think so, m'lady. That is, no, she's not in, m'lady."

Sansa nodded gracefully, "Excellent. I'm sure you heard that Kitty and the others from the twins bent the knee to my sister, who asked them to stay with me rather than travel across Westeros and Essos with her like a troupe of mummers, pretending to be other people. I'm seeking out volunteers to do just that for her whenever she needs to leave - to do whatever she needs doing, to help her blend in, to guard her on her travels and do whatever else she needs."

The guard looked slightly confused. Clearly he wasn't going to be suitable, but he wasn't her only candidate here, so it mattered not. Her sister had always been quick-witted, and she knew from experience that the most important trait in pretending was a quick mind under stress. She herself had had to think up lies and stories quickly as Alayne in the Vale, when her life was on the line. Guards gossiped the same as maids, she'd found, so this would do well enough for now.

"Please tell anyone who serves Arya and who is interested in this duty that they are to come to the chambers two floors above this one immediately after the midday meal for a lesson in hair coloring and other makeup, and a discussion on what this might mean. I'm sure anyone who desires to attend can find someone to fulfill their normal duties," said Sansa. She would give them an evaluation of her own then, see who was worth offering to her sister first. Arya hadn't said, but it seemed likely she'd deal with Winter Town first, then return for mounts to head off to White Harbor. Perhaps Moat Cailin, but right now White Harbor was much more critical to them.

So, Arya's workshop guards had been informed, Lady Frey was making the overture to her own people and gathering the makeup supplies. She had time to inspect the guards on the wall, check on those stonemasons adding crennelations to the walls which needed them, and continue to pass along the offer to those loyal to her sister before her training started. After her inevitable embarrassment, lunch and the hair-coloring session.

The Lady of Winterfell pushed down her discomfort at what will happen soon, put a small serene smile on her face, bid goodbye to the guard, and strode to her next destination, Blackfish-style armored dress swishing as her staff moved once again in the drills she'd learned while she was still in empty halls. Whatever her performance in the training, she could and would set a good example for her people.

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The old beggar one-armed Harry watched the new beggar who'd taken his spot. The unknown beggar was small, and sat huddled in a corner - his own corner - of Winter Town, pus-stained rags wrapped around his feet and lower legs instead of boots. One leg was twisted oddly, a couple inches shorter than the other. His hair was unkempt, dirt-filled, small lines on his face, his facial hair short and patchy, oozing sores peeking out from under the rags he was using to ward his face against the cold.

This arrogant newcomer had shown up this morning and settled into one of the prime begging spots before he himself had crawled out to claim it. The winds in the dark of morning were fierce and chill, and one-armed Harry knew there wasn't enough of a take at that hour to make it worth risking real frostbite. The newcomer, though... he'd gotten a couple coppers in his bowl already.

Well, he wasn't going to let some up-jumped out of towner take his spot! That was one-armed Harry's spot, it was, and he'd arranged with the Beggar King for it years ago. The tithes had gone up with this being one of the places the entire North was coming to, just as they did every winter.

The old beggar waited for a break in traffic, and then approached his corner, pulling out his old iron knife. It wasn't too big, but it was certainly better than the little piece of branch with a single shard of dragonglass on the end he'd been given by the guardsman 'in case of wights'. There was still bark on it! Just like the new beggar's knotted, twisted staff, a single piece of dragonglass stuck in the end. Up close, he could see the rot on that staff - that thing would likely break apart if the squatter ever tried to use it.

The newcomer was probably in his forties, small - perhaps from the Neck by the cast of his features and the slenderness of his frame. The leg twisting wasn't real, but it was really well done - by the size of the wrappings, the short leg was probably mummery as well, also very good, but he'd been around, he'd seen the tricks. Those sores were first rate, too, but the flesh underneath was too smooth.

He'd never tried getting the flesh under the sores right - almost no one would ever notice, and the materials you needed were too expensive to be worth the extra little bit from a healer or someone who might notice and provide medicines. Those medicines were worth a pretty penny to fence, sure, but were very hard to get even in summer, so you'd starve to death paying for the makeup.

The little beggar was looking up at him with cold gray eyes, now. He wouldn't stand for that!

"You're in my spot. I don't know what it's like where you come from, but here we have rules! That spot's mine. I paid for it! I still pay for it - that's what my tithe is for," said One-armed Harry, pointing, "Out there in the camps is where you newcomers can stay, unless you want to buy a spot from the Beggar King with your tithes."

"You too lazy to show up, you lose you spot! I got here first, it's mine, you lazy old cunt. You can go into the camps yourself," said the little beggar. The spot-thief was definitely a crannogman by the accent, and probably from Greywater Watch, given his skills with makeup. He had no skill at acting, though - disrespectful and unpleasant, he was! Probably kept his mouth shut and mewled piteously at the suckers.

Harry raised his knife up so it was visible, then stopped. The newcomer hadn't moved, hadn't said anything, but there was something... unnatural about how he was staring up icily. Harry lowered his knife slowly... maybe he was a little too old to be evicting squatters himself.

Yes, he paid his tithes! The Beggar King owed him, he did! Maybe the new blood just didn't understand that they had to make sure everything was in order here, something they'd learned when the Boltons were flaying anyone who stood out!

Harry spoke harshly, "You don't get it! We here is organized, we are - you start out and you prove yourself to be quiet, to be no trouble. If you're also a good earner, then you get a little better spot, a little higher tithe. Then you keep doing that. We survived the Boltons that way, you know, and they was right vicious, flaying people left and right whose made a fuss. Youse makin' a fuss right now, you are, taking a prime spot like mine. You'd best move on, or Beggar King's gonna make you."

That icy stare continued for a long moment, then the new beggar responded, his voice cold and rough, crannogman accent distinct as he spoke very slowly, "Tell the King he can go fuck himself."

"Youse gonna get it, then. Beggar King don't tolerate no disrespect like that! Youse gonna see - he'll school you proper, he will! Git, before he sends for ye!"

The small beggar just stared, his face still and evil as he sat in the stolen spot. One-armed Harry shuddered a little, then turned to go. He was no cutthroat, no enforcer, no brawler, no thief, not even a cutpurse, just a beggar. He turned to go. The Beggar King would hear of this, he would, and set things to rights!

Behind him, as he expected, the sound of a pain-filled moan sounded, then coins rattling lightly in the wooden bowl as the squatter stole his rightful earnings.

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Sansa strode into the inner bailey deliberately, placing her war staff against the wall near a long, wide-bladed spear and taking up a training staff with light padding on both ends. She then lined up with the others, who had their own armor on, either what they wore normally, or padded armor for this training. Her own armor should be enough - Arya trusted her work, and she trusted Arya. She looked over the instructor, a hard-faced woman in good leathers with a steel knife at her belt and a training staff in her hand.

Arya had chosen one of the mountain tribeswomen of the Vale - Chella, daughter of Cheyk, leader of the Black Ears. The Black Ears were one of the tribes the Lannisters had rewarded with gold, solid armor, and good steel for helping Tyrion, and were allied closely with the Moon Brothers clan.

None of that boded particularly well for her dignity in the new couple of hours, though, she supposed, it did bode well for the quality of training. She'd heard Chella's name spoken with respect even by the men of the Vale for her skills with a spear, and Arya had carefully gone over the similarities in wielding a short spear and the staff she was learning now.

She was in a line with the others of her skill level, all learning the staff. There were a few early teen boys and girls, several wives and mothers, a few merchants, and several guards who were learning a more appropriate weapon than the sword, and a couple of Lady Frey's girls. She waited patiently, doing her best to set a good example for the others, both for her own dignity, and because this truly was important to the wars to come.

And, she supposed, because her brother had issued his command without so much as talking to her about it first, regardless of what her counsel would have been in the end.

Sansa watched as Chella swaggered forwards, scowling at each of them, "You lot are the latest set of valley cunts, then? Any one of you sods think you're good enough to take me?" The clan leader twirled her staff once, briefly, though Sansa's eyes were well enough trained now to see that it was well controlled. It seemed like Chella was looking to find the most uppity person among them, goad them, and then take them apart to show her competence.

Sansa maintained her quiet, unchallenging but unwavering demeanor as Chella glared right at her. While she admired the effectiveness of the technique, she wasn't about to either volunteer herself or cower back.

While a guardsman in his early twenties, too young to have fought in Robert's rebellion, stepped forward she indulged in a quiet little daydream of using this very technique on Daenerys Targaryen, first in politics and then in training. She knew she wasn't very good at fighting, would never be good like Arya or Brienne or the Hound... but all their intelligence reports showed Daenerys to be completely untrained herself. Beating the girl who'd led her brother to drop them in this mess black and blue would be quite fun, she thought.

The cocky young man was off in the corner puking, now - Chella clearly held back only enough to avoid lasting injury, and had tagged him twice in the belly. That was enough for her to determine that she'd do her best and would take her lumps with dignity. They needed every advantage, and hard training gave the best results. She remembered in King's Landing, Arya had come back from her dancing lessons bruised and sore day after day, and look at her now. She did need to remember that this was the North, not the South - bruises from training weren't going to lower her standing with the lords and ladies... not with Lady Mormont in the conclave! Everyone but the very best fighters were bruised and sore often enough.

The next guardsman lasted long enough to get smacked on the arms and legs first, crying out once even as Chella used the opening his pain provided to sweep him off his feet entirely, leaving him groaning in the dirt as she stepped on him to get over him. After that, one of the merchants limped off from a hit to his thigh after only a few exchanges, still coughing from a precise hit to his solar plexus.

Then it was her own turn. Sansa stepped forward into the circle, holding the padded staff defensively. Chella struck twice, testing her basics, and she blocked both before she found herself falling backwards. She rolled back as she'd been taught and stood quickly, knowing her ankles would end up with a mild bruise - not anything she needed to worry about. Chella jabbed at her face, which she moved sideways even as she interposed her staff to block the sideswipe, but pushed too far. She was out of position as the Vale woman jabbed her in the shoulder, then the side before she could recover.

Sansa thought Chella must be going easy on her - she'd just seen the reactions the others had had to Chella's strikes, and these didn't hurt any more than Ramsay's lightest warm-ups. Nonetheless, she was doubled over without breath the next moment. Sansa remembered how Chella's staff had come in, and stepped back, moving her own staff to try and block what she thought would be the next blow... only to be again swept off her feet, rolling away from Chella and up again.

Chella came at her twice more, the attacks quick, but only strong when she blocked. If they hit here, it was for light bruises at most - not disabling blows. Sansa was panting after a few minutes, having had to recover her breath several times already, when Chella sent her back to the line and called up one of Lady Frey's girls.

Sansa rested the training staff in the carry cradle she'd grown used to, knowing that to lean on it like she wanted to, like some of the others had, was to show weakness. She was Sansa Stark of Winterfell, and she would not show weakness here. As she caught her breath, she started listening to the murmurs around here now that she didn't have to pay her full attention to losing with as little embarrassment as possible.

What she heard surprised her. Well, parts of it - she certainly wasn't surprised to hear her skill, strength, and speed were mediocre at best, but the others didn't think Chella had been going easy on her. On the contrary, they thought she was tough, that she could take a hit very well, that she was determined. She suppressed a proud smirk as she overheard one guard quietly comment to his buddy that the Red Wolf was a damn tough bitch.

That had gone better than she'd expected, though she still wasn't sure if they were correct or not. Watching Chella train the others, she realized that no, she really hadn't gone easy on her... either her armor was much better than she thought, or she'd learned to deal with pain. She let no hint of being reminded of what Ramsay did to her show, then shifted her staff to the other hand. She used that to remind herself that while she would never match Arya or Jon at fighting, she was already better than Joffrey ever had been. Arya and Jon, too, would never be the politician she was, though they were each leaders in their own ways.

Sansa learned everything she could watching the others train while she awaited her next turn.

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Arya heard a group approaching; four heavy treads and one light one, traveling together in her direction. It was time, then, finally. They weren't as quick or as prepared as their Braavosi counterparts... then again, they didn't know who they were dealing with yet, either. While in Braavos the beggar training was known well enough - staff training in the streets was hardly subtle. Here, though, not only was it as yet unknown, but her brother's order meant even beggars were expected to have some weapon against the army of the dead.

She touched up one of the fake sores just before they arrived; they'd notice and appreciate it. This little outing would serve several purposes; aside from the obvious, there would doubtless be rumors of her new working face from the conclave - an older man. She'd used nothing but the mummery she'd learned here, though at different skill levels, layering the mental faces she was wearing just as she layered the mummery.

This would produce rumors, too, that would provide anyone looking for a more... conventional... explanation with one they would more readily accept. Competing rumors could only be to her advantage - rumors could not be suppressed, not without wholesale slaughter, of course. Wholesale slaughter was within her reach and her god's domain, of course, but it was wasteful - not a face of her god that she wanted to see often.

Thus, her current plan - acquire a better spy network, and sow competing rumors for anyone and everyone to hear, all of which were unbelievable to one extent or another. Spymasters like Varys would catch many of the rumors, of course, once they had a chance to talk to people in the area. Which would Varys think more likely - that independent little Arya Stark had learned some mummer's skills while on the run, skills likely exaggerated by the beggars and rumormongers... or that the youngest Stark girl could literally wear Walder Frey like a set of clothes because on this continent, she was High Priest of the God of Death.

Little did Varys know. She hoped, at least, since being underestimated just enough was quite useful, and gave Sansa more options.

When the group came into view, she stood as a middle-aged man in a hard-worn body pretending to be slightly deformed stands, the wooden platform under her 'longer' leg's foot hidden by the rag wrappings, while the rag she used as a scarf concealed her lack of an Adam's apple without arousing suspicion during a Northern winter. She leaned heavily on her 'rotten' staff, the single dragonglass shard on the top as she put her 'twisted, shorter' leg down, the pebble under her foot altering her gait. Not for the first time, the wind brought her own stink to her nose.

"Wot's all this? One arm not good enough, so you bring nine to do for me?" asked Arya in the accent she'd studied in the Reed camp.

"You dumb little shit, you're coming with us to see the Beggar King."

Arya glared at one-armed Harry, and then as the four cutthroats spread out around her, glanced nervously around at them, her best impression at a rough crannogman's voice quavering a little, "I was here first! It was empty! It's mine! Your king can piss off!"

She'd already assessed their skills. Even the best of the cutthroats available to the Beggar King weren't a threat to her in a group of four, up close, and these weren't the best. They were, for beggar standards in Westeros at this time, decent to good... but that was after many of the thugs and cutthroats had already been pulled into one of the many military forces fighting the Army of the Dead. By Braavosi or King's Landing standards, they were no threat as long as she didn't let her guard down.

Of those that were still on the streets, a handful of the very worst had turned up missing in the last few months. Strange, that, but no one had been seen to kill them. No one had seen anything at all, they'd just vanished, as had a few more this morning, before they'd had time to pass on word about Baelish's fate, given the continued 'exercise' she'd ordered impeding outbound news.

Evaluating the four more carefully, Arya saw that the swaggering beggar was moderately strong, but clearly used to the life of an enforcer - vicious with his club, but not deadly, and not much good in a deadly fight. The stinky beggar was no more than that - probably good at sneaking by the standards of normal beggars, but not more. Clubfoot beggar looked to be the most dangerous of them - he moved like a knife fighter, and carried four decent knives in addition to the dragonglass shard he'd been issued. Young beggar was a couple years younger than she was - he could probably run pretty quick, but in a fight, he'd swing for the face like any green boy, wide and easy to counter.

For now, though, she let them 'intimidate' her, her head whipping back and forth rapidly as they tried to menace her. Really, they'd have been better off with a few crossbowmen from across the street, though the alley behind her would let her escape had that been the case.

"You don't have no choice, see? You come with us right now," said swaggering beggar, grabbing her upper arm as she let him, clubfoot swiping her staff at the same time, the soft, rotten wood and bits of fungus she'd put on the outside smearing on his hand.

She let them manhandle her some, keeping up her limp, her twisted leg, and the many other aspects of her layered disguises. This was the most critical part of the long-term ploy; if she could convince these people that whatever rumors they heard, of her becoming a taller man, were all mummery, then they would do the rest of the work for her. Letting them see through the top face she'd put on but not the face underneath was critical to this, and difficult when she was using nothing but mummery - no faces, no glamour.

Through the twists and turns of the back alleys they went, her abortive, futile, fumbling attempt to twist out when she caught sight of a pair of town guards earning her a quick punch to the side, a filthy hand over her mouth, and two blocks of being carried. Arya thought the local beggars were almost cute - they had a secret knock pattern! And a password! A pointless one, to be sure, but a password nonetheless. It must be, she thought, like watching a small child earnestly dressing up like their parents and pretending to go off and work like mommy and daddy.

Any real professional would be able to tell who was on the other side of the door by their gait approaching, their breathing, the sounds of their clothing, where they placed their steps on the ground or the rubbish covering it, the height of the knock, the particular way the door vibrated for each person, the scent wafting through, and so on. So many, many more effective ways, and yet they were so proud of themselves.

Arya noted two unusual breezes once she was brought in, and sure enough, there was a trapdoor under a pile of rags. She put up a feeble struggle, then a stronger one, abandoning the 'twist' on her leg and using the wooden platform she knew they'd already spotted to kick one in the shins. The beating they gave her after was haphazard - not nearly as strong as the punch Meryn Trant had given her in the brothel, just before she took his eyes. All she really had to do was make sure they didn't notice that her body was much fitter than it should have been, and that she was a girl.

Easy enough - Faceless Men were the best in the world, and that wasn't just due to the Many-Faced God allowing them to wear people's faces. Wearing faces by itself was nearly worthless; it was all the other skills required to act as someone else, the state of mind required to truly be someone else, to be no-one before you were someone else, those were the keys. Without those skills, wearing a face was no better than putting on a uniform and a helmet and hoping nobody noticed.

While she was 'recovering', they brought her into a final room and shut the door behind them, so she could have even less dignity upon meeting the Beggar King of Winter Town.

"Ere's the new one that don't get the rules," said the swaggering beggar as he shoved Arya towards the desk behind which the fat beggar sat. Clubfoot beggar was behind and to her left, while the other two stood on either side of the door.

At the fat beggar's gesture, the swaggering one went for a kidney shot, which Arya took with a hoarse shout of pain, turning just enough to avoid the kidney itself getting hit. The next two blows to the belly drove much of the breath out of her, but weren't placed quite right either. Clubfoot joined in with a few hits to the ribs with the hand not claiming her staff as she gasped for breath, keening in pain as she knelt on the floor.

"Stop. E's learned 'is lesson, hasn't he?" asked the Beggar King, "Git to the camps, beg there. Two coppers a day tithe. Ye pay a month without missin', you get a spot in the town. We gots to stick together, we do. Boltons be gone, but we's still here, see. I's the Beggar King here... who be you?"

Arya coughed up a glob of phlegm, hacking it onto the floor, and whispered roughly with her Neck accent flavoring her speech, "You didn't give me bread and salt."

"Wot? Ye ain't a guest! Ye's a dumb cunt needin' another lesson!" exclaimed the Beggar King as he gestured for another beating.

Swaggering beggar hadn't quite processed the order from his boss before Arya was in motion, her right elbow slamming into clubfoot's crotch as her left claimed her staff from him. She spun to stand up nearly directly under him as he hunched over, sending the most dangerous of her opponents to the ground even as she spun the staff, catching the swaggering beggar properly in the kidneys.

She took two steps towards the door, then held the staff just below the dragonglass tip, slipping the staff through her right hand to slam the end into the belly of the young beggar. As the stinky beggar lowered his hands to defend himself, she carefully smashed the end into his ankle and then his solar plexus.

Turning, she spun the staff again, cracking clubfoot across the head enough to daze him, ending up with the single small shard of dragonglass resting at the hollow of the Beggar King's throat before he'd been able to open the drawer with his own knife.

Her voice rang out strong and cold in the room as she stood up, quiet and still, "I am Arya Stark of Winterfell, Lady Winter, and you will be speaking to me with more respect."

"Wot?"

Arya kept the point at his throat as she stalked closer and shifted the primitive spear to the crook of her right arm, freeing her left to reach up and remove her mustache and scraggly beard to show smooth teenage skin underneath, opening up the rags over her neck to expose the apparent skin of a middle-aged woman. She reached behind her and fiddled with something under her rags, suddenly gaining a female figure.

"My sister won't bother with the likes of you, but I'll take the time to. You will report everything you and your people hear back to me or those who I tell you to in the future. I don't need or want your money, but I do require your information. All of it. You will continue to care as best you can for the beggars and outcasts who cannot or will not accept any official help. You will convey this message to the rest of the underbelly of the North."

Scooting back even as the sharp dragonglass tip nudged his throat, the fat man growled, "Ye gunna keep them guards off us? Pay us?"

"No. I will let you live, and have the worst of the stored grains moved apart from the rest, under a guard suitable for the least valuable of all our stores. Anyone caught stealing food in winter will face the usual punishment," said Arya as she heard the others getting up and carefully stepping back to the walls. She watched the Beggar King's expression and body language shift to greedy acceptance as he understood the word 'caught' exactly as she'd meant it.

Arya withdrew the staff, resting it in the crook of her arm while she pulled out an old, small, ragged little pouch she'd had on a tie under her rags, applying the makeup inside to the freshly exposed skin of her lip and chin carefully with twigs and scraps of cloth she'd kept in it, applying her new face.

The Beggar King watched as the flaws in the image of an old woman were wiped away one after the other, and nodded slowly, "Done."

Arya leaned forward and caught the second wooden shoe platform from where it fell; she'd attached it with her chest binding, after all, and with that loosened, it had to fall. She suppressed a smirk as she undid the coverings on her 'short, twisted' leg, dropping the pebble on the ground and gaining a couple inches of height from the platform, and more from proper posture and rearranging the rags she wore atop her head.

The beggars murmured indistinctly, unwilling to risk a second bout with Lady Winter, while the Beggar King asked, "Wot're you doin' now? Gonna keep beggin'?"

Arya scowled at him fiercely, leaning heavily on her staff, and growled, "A woman is not a beggar anymore," as she turned her back on him, striding to the door irately. She pulled out the coins she'd begged, making sure they were seen as she withdrew them, and clapped them to clubfoot's chest with a clinking smack, shoving him farther back as she swung the door open and left.

Striding to where the more organized of the thieves hid, she wondered when he'd notice his best knife was missing.

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Chapter Text

After the midday meal, Sansa climbed the stairs past the guard on Arya's floor and the floor above, nodding graciously to his loud greeting. Lady Frey and those who came with her who wished to serve Arya behind her. Sansa had spoken with them each from time to time already, especially when the Lady of the Crossing had just arrived, learning of them. She'd left selecting the candidates to Lady Frey, who had earned her trust with quiet, diligent work; even the raven scrolls Lady Frey was sending on the side were of a nature to make her more trustworthy, rather than less, a rare thing after her experiences since leaving Winterfell. These selections she could rely on - it remained to be seen what the others who volunteered would be like.

Turning the sharp corner, she tilted her staff to avoid banging the stone with it. She mused that those little motions were second nature now, just as she could now recognize how the men who wore swords had always walked a certain way, shifted their weapons as they moved, turned, sat, stood.

Just as her father had with Ice, as Robb had, as Jon and Arya still did, she had that same habit now, too, as a Stark who fights. Poorly, true, but she can fight nonetheless, just as many of the women of the Free Folk could, and Dornish women, women of the mountain clans of the Vale, and, naturally, the women of Bear Island here in the North.

She'd been pleased at the change in the looks of respect from some while she was eating - she'd chosen correctly when she didn't try to cover up the bruise on her cheek from being thrown to the ground by a body-check. While she still had the respect due the Lady of Winterfell, the Red Wolf who had fed Ramsay to the dogs, she now had respect as a person willing to train hard, too. No longer was she a girl of summer.

Arya's little fiefdom within the castle was another new thing that had worked out well for them both. A section of a castle that was essentially under separate rule wasn't something that was common or well known in Westeros or even Essos, though Arya had told tales of similar things she'd heard of in Asshai. Sansa, however, knew she no longer cared about propriety for the sake of propriety. She did care about the actual effects on her bannermen, but in this case, it enhanced her sister's status as a leader, confirmed her power, and was a clear statement that the House of Black and White was in Westeros in a very real way and was quite separate from the government of the North, all of which was useful to her as Lady of Winterfell, and would be when she was likely crowned Queen in the North.

She smiled quietly to herself, letting just enough show to present herself as kind and approachable when she entered the large chambers she's selected for the session, the others behind her. There were two others present, both men, as she'd expected based on who and how she'd passed on the invitation, which was fine - all but one of the riverlanders were women, aside from Deranna, who hadn't flowered yet, and her twin brother Donovar.

Lady Frey and the others took the bundles they were carrying over to the tables set out in the various rooms here as Sansa moved over to the men, "Only two of you are here?"

The tall one answered, a veteran spearman in his mid-twenties who'd fought with Robb, "Yes, m'lady. Seven of us wanted to, but Korb here," he gestured to the other man, nearing forty with a bit of a paunch. Sansa could see with her newfound experience that he was still a dangerous man, "said we should make sure only to send the men best suited, and since she picked him to guard her workshop, we listened. We talked a bit, and only five of us were ready to drop everything and follow her anywhere, then Korb took us to the floor below this one, and one of them No Ones, the one with red and white hair, came out and picked the two of us, so here we are."

Sansa nodded, thinking that her job had just become much easier. The Faceless Man with the red and white hair had been wearing a hood, marking him a full priest. If a priest of Arya's god had picked these two men, she suspected they could pass her little tests. She would test them anyway, of course - her sister's life was not something to treat lightly.

"Thank you all for agreeing to come today. While I am neither an assassin nor a mummer, I do know that my sister will not remain in Winterfell forever. She has duties elsewhere, for the North and our allies, for our house, for her vengeance, and for the House of Black and White in Westeros. Sometimes she will be able to lead our banners as Jon does, with an army at her back. Sometimes she will not. During those times when she will not, I would like to know she has skilled and loyal people to do anything and everything she needs doing."

She watched them carefully, making sure to hide her inspection just enough to make it difficult to spot, noting that Korb noticed first, as expected of someone Arya chose to guard her area. The blonde girl, Mariya noticed just after, which surprised her - she was an attractive, if lowborn, maid from the Twins, not quite twenty.

"Lady Frey and Lady Cox will help with everyone's outfits - I've every faith in their skills as seamstresses," Sansa gestured the Lady of the Crossing and to Lady Emilee Cox, a very plain woman in her early thirties who had come with Lady Frey, and who disdained and hated to be called a Frey, despite having been married to one for twenty years. Sansa remembered her first encounter with Lady Mormont, where she too had claimed her maiden name was her true name; she had sympathy for poor Emilee, who had also had little choice in her husband or his name.

"Outfits?" asked the younger guard who'd spoken earlier, Connas Snow, a guard whose loyalty to Arya had been gained by her distinctive leadership in preparing for the wars they were in, and in how she's rearranged the guards for Winterfell to be an effective force.

Lady Frey pulled out a long golden dress, raising it up to hold it against the tall, wiry guard Connas, nodding to herself, "Outfits. This should fit you well - Lady Stark has decided to see how well you can all act as mummers and pretend to be someone else, as that's what she expects Lady Winter to need." She did not say that she had realized that Lady Winter had pretended to be, had actually been, her lord husband for many days, day in and day out, and she had never noticed any change at all in Walder. She knew very well they would need to learn to be other people, or they would be of no use to her.

Sansa motioned to the room across the hall, "Lady Cox and I will also be working on your makeup and changing your hair. As some of you may have heard, I myself had to become Alayne Stone and dye my hair black when I first came to the Vale to avoid attention. Lady Cox, would you mind introducing yourself to those you may be traveling with for some time?"

"I'm Lady Emilee Cox. I grew up in the Saltpans, and was married off to a Frey, a beast of a man. I spent years making myself uglier, bit by bit, so he'd turn his... attentions... elsewhere. Lady Winter killed him off. Good riddance, I say. I'm not as good at making people pretty, but Mariya here knows a bit about that."

The young maid winked at Connas, dipping into an unnecessarily deep curtsy that showed off her ample bosom to the young man, saying "I do like to be pretty! You like pretty girls, don't you?"

"Your outfit is in the chest in the corner. It's not very good, but it's the best we have on short notice. The sword, at least, is real enough. You'll be happy to know that this time, you still get to be pretty," said Sansa with inner amusement as the girl opened the chest, pulling out shiny tin pauldrons, a breastplate with molded designs, cloak, sword, and other accouterments.

One by one, outfits were assigned, makeup was put on, and lessons and questions were both handed out freely as Sansa evaluated each of them as best she could. She didn't know if Arya had much skill in mundane mummery, but she'd do the best she could.

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Ser Bradley strode into Littlefinger's brothel, brushing the beaded curtain out of the way with almost his usual flourish; he was moving a little faster than usual, his eyes darting back and forth until he spotted the brothel-keeper coming out of his office, heading over and giving a fancy bow, holding out a small pouch that clinked enticingly, "Darvin, my old friend! I've been on the road too long, and thus I desire the special! I can afford it, you see!"

Darvin smiled reassuringly, despite his worry. The events had put him on edge - it had been altogether too long since word flowed freely, and the rumors he had started to hear the last few hours were worrisome. Still, Ser Bradley was well known to him, both as a customer and as another in Lord Baelish's service. He opened the bag, glancing inside as he did with every bag of supposed gold, one finger stirring the coins to make sure there were no coppers dressed up as golds... and turning the paper hidden inside over, tilting the bag just enough to let some more candlelight in, as if to see coins.

Captured. Rescue.
All loyal to stables now.

"Very well, Ser Bradley, we'll give you a special room for a special night. Follow me," said the brothel-keeper, pointing at two of the girls, then calling an older woman over.

"Kiyana, find Tila and have her sent along to the back room with the special toys - the ones in the red box. Ser Bradley here has paid for a very special night, and won't want to be disturbed - the two adjacent rooms are to be kept empty."

"Of course, Darvin," said the matron who was, effectively, the woman who ran the brothel directly under him.

Once they were in the large back room, he jerked his chin at the window, which looked out on the back of the stables.

The third girl came in with the red box, assessed the faces she saw, then pulled out one device, crying out playfully, "Oh, no, not the gag! How could you mphgh," as she slid it into her mouth just long enough for the sound to be heard before handing another to each of the other two girls for them to replicate the performance and explain to anyone listening why the room would be so quiet. She then dumped the box out on the feather-bed so she could open the bottom, taking a slim dagger for herself.

"You're in good hands, Ser Bradley," said Darvin as he left, closing the door and locking it. The girl who was napping in the next room, he kicked out and sent off to the kitchens to work, locking the adjoining rooms. After instructing the girl he used as a second to keep all the girls away from the back room, he slipped out a side door and made his way to the stables, where a pair of horses were ready to pull a small carriage he'd kept ready.

The door opened, a dagger pointed at his eye for a moment before he was allowed to enter, squeezing in tight between the two unarmed girls, across from Ser Bradley and Tila. Ser Bradley took his hand off his sword and wrapped it around the dagger-wielding spy, fondling her casually, as the prostitutes knew well was his habit. The man was even less honorable inside the whorehouse than he was outside of it, after all. The coachman set off at a sedate pace, just as normal, as Darvin quietly asked, "What happened to Lord Baelish?"

The knight's sword was between his knees, a long dagger across his lap as he answered, "I'm not sure; I went to the Vale with Robert, Hugo, and Mandon, carrying the messages you gave me. When we returned, we were let in, but they were keeping everyone in, which is why we didn't hear anything on the way. We split up to try and figure out what was happening - I drew the lucky card, so I visited the tavern first, then got ready to come see the girls," he winked, "while the others went elsewhere. Hugo found out Lord Baelish ran afoul of some plot of the Stark girls, and he's in the eastern cells. Mandon got inside, found an invitation for a carriage in one of the secret passages from Lord Royce - it looks a little old, but there's no date on it, and the seal's good."

Darvin took the extended invitation; it was just as described. The paper wasn't crisp anymore, and when he held it up to a candle in the carriage, the ink was just starting to fade... but while the guards at Winterfell were unfortunately shaping up under the little Stark's eye, they were no forgers, nor were they going to spot the subtle signs when it had a high lord's seal and was carried by a knight, "Should work. Tila, hide that knife well, you two are just working girls here to brighten up the lives of some guards for a few coppers. I'm here to make sure Cira, here, is on her best behavior. Bradley, you can get us in through a secret passage close to were Lord Baelish is?"

"I can," said the knight.

The knife-wielding girl tilted her head so the knight couldn't see her eyes and glanced at the brothel-keeper, since Bradley's hands were, as expected, getting steadily bolder. At Darvin's nod, Tila giggled and leaned into him, ostensibly so she could tuck the knife and sheath down the small of her back where her cloak would cover it as long as she wouldn't bend over.

In line with their hopes, Darvin heard the Winterfell guards examine the invitation's seal and pass them through to an outer bailey turned stables where they were able to slip through another gate. The guards on the outer baileys were much more attentive than they had been a few months ago, but still were clearly not enough to stop some of Lord Baelish's best! They'd get him out and spirited away to the Eyrie where he was safe - the Starks were no match for the Boltons, and he'd been working for Lord Baelish since Lord Baelish raised him out of the alleys in the Fingers himself.

They slipped into a low passage, crawling along until they could climb up, pushing a floor stone aside and entering a lower room with a barred door. Ser Bradley crept to the edge of the bars, listening, while Darvin and Tila, who was the strongest of the girls, moved to put the floor stone back.

Darvin was bending over to grab it with her he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and heard a sickening crunch and a girl's scream from the girl in front of him. As he stood quickly, the pommel of a dagger hit him in the side of the head, sending him down in a heavy daze.

Ser Bradley turned back to Tila, his fist flashing out to hit her throat with the dagger's sheath carefully. He turned, foot slamming into into Cira's solar plexus without even looking, then striking forward to send his heavy boot into the side of the remaining girl's knee. Two stomps later, and each of those loyal to Baelish were permanently crippled.

He searched each of them extremely thoroughly, collecting everything of value or interest, taking a good feel of the girls as he did so, just as he usually did on his visits to the brothel. When he got to the coin pouch he'd handed the brothel-keeper, he chuckled and smacked Darvin on the shoulder, "Well, at least I got my coin back! I can buy a nice night with another set of whores with this."

He opened his own coin pouch, not caring that Darvin and Tila each got a glimpse of the previous contents as he added his reclaimed coins - Meereenese and Yunkish gold, the kind of gold, in fact, that Lord Varys would have access to now... and clearly did, since this very gold had belonged to one of his agents sent to recruit other spies earlier that same day.

The knight then shoved the floor stone partially over the hole, carefully squeezed down, and pulled the stone back. Once it was fully in place, three quick strikes with the dagger's steel pommel to the bottom of the stone rang out over the sobs and screams of the crippled spies.

In the tight passage, Arya tucked Ser Bradley's face away; these tunnels were much too tight for such a large body. She stayed for a moment, listening to make sure the Stark guards did as instructed and put them into separate cells without secret passages once they heard the noise of metal on stone, three times, and then went back down the passage.

They'd hopefully learn something from them when they talked to each other when they didn't think guards were present, especially under the influence of milk of the poppy. After that, well, they'd have to interrogate them properly. Regardless, escaping may not be all that hard for someone with the right skills, but even for a Faceless Man, escaping with a smashed knee was more difficult than it was easy.

She'd stashed her own clothes in the unused corner stall of that stable before leaving, so it was time for her to handle the coachman, check in with Sansa, eat something, catch a short nap, and then head out to White Harbor.

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Lady Winter strode towards the inner bailey where Sansa had left word she'd be. It was one of the most awkward and remote, stashed between two towers which had been built directly next to each other for a reason that had been lost thousands of years ago. She certainly had never seen anything like it - a bizarre, inwardly curved area that was just too small for any practical use, and without a through passage - a dead end. The towers should have been flanking a gatehouse, but no, some Stark after Brandon the Builder's time had decided that he liked towers right next to each other, as close as fingers on a fist.

As she turned the final corner, she very nearly stopped dead in shock - only the well-trained reflex of continuing on in her current persona, of not betraying anything out of character kept her going as what was a bailey filled with the slightly nervous breathing of six people and the calm breathing of her sister and Kitty and one other revealed its contents to her. One of the nervous ones was breathing too shallowly for a reason that was now clear.

Arya watched the group in the middle spring to life as she strode in, her sister making the sign for you from the sidelines with a mix of pride and amusement hiding much deeper amusement showing on her face. Kitty was smiling, and Irresso was clearly trying not to laugh. The bravo's presence was easily explained - Korb was dressed up in a golden prince's outfit, sitting hunched over to try and hide his gut, rubbing the belly of a cat sprawled on his lap while murmuring quietly to 'Ser Pounce', his brown hair colored blond.

Across from them, Emilee was wearing a golden crown of thick antlers and a purple and gold tunic and pants, her plain face graced with a bushy beard and mustache, her hair now brown. She was arguing violently with Connas, whose long golden locks were clearly from a wig, and whose slender figure fit quite well into the golden dress he was wearing over his corset.

"I should wear the armor, and you the gown!" snarled a very cleanly shaved Connas in a squeaky falsetto.

The bearded lady's hand swung to crack into his cheek - she could tell that blow wasn't faked. He really would be wearing a bruise from it, though it'd be easy enough to claim it was from training, "Quiet, wench! All I ever wanted was Lyanna, and all I got was you! Go cover that up before the feast."

"I will wear this as a badge of honor," said Connas in as high a pitch as he could manage, turning and doing a very credible Lannister stalk as he left 'King Robert'.

Mariya stepped away from the wall, the sounds of her sword's sheath scraping the stone causing her to wince slightly as she chased after Connas, "Cersei! Sister!"

Arya tracked the fake twins as they hurried towards the actual twins; Donovar was also in a pretty golden dress, unable to hide his grumpiness at the dress and wig he was wearing, and the other dress he was admiring. Next to him, Deranna was dressed in a red leather tunic with golden embroidery.

She looked up at the approaching duo, quickly downing her wine and exclaiming, "I need more wine," as she grabbed the pitcher, pouring a generous portion and filling another cup with the last of what was in the pitcher. As the two appeared, she handed fake-Jamie the other cup, took a drink of her wine, and exclaimed, "Sweet sister, I'm afraid we're all out of wine!"

Mariya snuck a genuinely appreciative look at Connas, corset and all, and stroked his arm once, her voice as low as she could manage, "Come, sister; I know where you can get what you need."

Robert's cry of "Why am I surrounded by Lannisters!" marked the end of their little performance; the six then lined up as if receiving an important guest.

Arya looked between then, glanced at Sansa, who was smiling a genuine smile, and then broke out laughing in a way she hadn't since she and the Hound had heard his last plan, to sell her to Aunt Lysa, had fallen apart. She applauded as well to make sure they didn't take her laughter wrong, then asked her sister, "All right, Lady Stark, just what is your cunning plan now?"

"To make sure you don't go off alone when you do go off. Lady Frey and I vouch for the ladies and young Donovar, while your red and white haired associate has apparently vouched for the men. As you can see, with only a few hours to prepare, they're willing and able to follow you around like a troupe of mummers while you kill people."

Arya approached them. Mariya she knew well - she'd served as a maid alongside her at the Twins before taking Walder's face, and the maid had helped serve the Arbor Gold during the final feast for the Freys. Emilee, too, she recognized even without her 'warts'; Arya knew exactly where her loyalty had come from. The children, though... Arya rethought - they were a year older than she'd been when she was living in the alleys of King's Landing.

"Why do you two want to follow me, then... Tyrion? Myrcella?" asked Arya, keeping her voice quiet and comforting.

They looked at each other, the boy, Donovar, stood tall in his dress as he replied, "Lady Frey said you killed Black Walder. Not for us, no, but he liked to rape our mother. That's why we're Rivers, because we came from that. He beat her, too - a few years ago after he beat her, she took fever and died. A few months ago, he was lookin at my sister like he was waitin for her to flower so he could rape her, too... then you killed him. Killed them all. We're bastards, Lady Winter, and you avenged our mother. We'll follow you anywhere."

The girl next to him nodded sharply, then took another sip of wine, clearly a little nervous... but determined, Arya could tell, all the same. Arya glanced at Sansa, who made the sign for you, then back at the twins. They, like Kitty, were almost painfully earnest. She nodded seriously at them both, "I'm sure you'll learn mummery and other skills quickly, and work hard. I'm pleased to have you in my service."

Deranna Rivers spoke up, "I cook well, Lady Winter, and my brother, he's good with horses and dogs and suchlike."

Arya gave them a smile to reassure them, and thought of the others. She'd taken Korb as one of her workshop's guards because he was skilled, and his sister had been raped and killed by a mixed Frey and Lannister force at their home in Palisade Village, because the Vale hadn't supported the Iron Throne, and that village was right next to the Riverlands.

Connas, she knew respected her leadership, but she'd never spoken with him casually. She turned to him, reaching out to straighten his dress slightly, "Stand up straighter - you're the Queen! Cersei was always, always very sure to make sure everyone knew. Connas, I know you're excellent with spears and pikes, but why are you willing to drop everything and follow me around the world?"

"Begging your pardon, m'l... Lady Winter, I don't have nothing else to do. I'm a Snow, and the Boltons flayed my whole family alive because they wouldn't tell where I was hiding. Lady Stark put paid to them, well, and the Free Folk and the Valemen like Korb. After that, though, we was kind of lost - King Jon did his best, but he weren't here long afore he went out after the dragonglass we need to fight the dead, and weren't anyone taking charge of the army till you did. I figure you're what gave us all a fightin chance to live, so I'm gonna be whatever it takes to give you a better chance to live."

Arya made the sign for dog. She saw Sansa returning the sign for you, and she gave Sansa a clear smile and nod for all to see. That answered that; the dogsleds should have left that morning, but she'd heard no mention of them returning to White Harbor, and no mention of trouble.

Sansa spoke up, her voice warm, showing her care for her sister to those loyal to Arya, "I asked Skamund and his dogsled teams to wait for you to return before setting out, and he agreed. He'll be ready to move out with plenty of space for passengers and cargo as soon as you'd like - there's three sleds worth of dragonglass heads for arrows, spears, and siege engine bolts going back to White Harbor, and twenty of the oldest and grumpiest Northerners we have who can still work. The rest of the cargo sleds are empty."

"Thank you, Sansa. Even with garron using showshoes, I'll arrive... we'll arrive far sooner," said Arya. She raised her voice and changed her tone to the same tone she used to command troops, "All right, you lot, you're miserable royalty. Change out of that crap, get some food, and be ready to leave in two hours. We're going as fast as possible - you'll learn to keep up soon enough. Since we're going with Skamund, we've all got a priceless opportunity which we dare not lose. We're all Free Folk of the ice-river clans now, not Southron kneelers like those so-called 'Northerners' south of the Wall. Be at the gate dressed, armed, and acting like Free Folk in two hours. Go."

To their credit, they all took off at the same steady jog she used when she wanted to move around the castle and camps without wasting time, the same jog she'd taught the guards and commanders. A jerk of her head sent Irresso out as well. When it was just the sisters and Kitty left, Arya gave her sister a tight hug, then gave Kitty a brief hug too.

"Thank you, Sansa, Kitty. Once I get them into shape, I'll be able to wear many more faces when I need to, and have more options."

Sansa wrapped her left arm around Arya's shoulders, feeling the lack of give characteristic of her sister; no soft lady she. Conveniently, too, that Arya being left-handed meant neither of their weapon arms were tied up like this. A strange thing, Sansa thought, always being aware of whether her right arm was free, and maintaining an awareness of other people's sword arms, but it was something both Brienne and Arya had been teaching her.

"Your red and white haired priest apparently picked the men out - Korb said he'd narrowed them from seven to five, and then took them to the priest for the final selection. Kitty did the same for the girls. What you did to the Freys gained you a great deal of respect, you know," said Sansa, her voice warm as she made the sign for me.

"That wasn't why I did it," said Arya as they started moving towards the kitchens. She didn't have time for the production that dinner in the great hall would be.

Kitty spoke up in her soft voice from just behind the Starks, "We know, Lady Winter. The Tullys have not been good overlords to the Freys, and some of the other houses - Darrys, Rygers, Mootons, the others that fought with Rhaegar on the Trident. Still, they were not bad overlords, either. The Freys, too, harm little when they're in the castle... but when Walder was made Lord Paramount, and worked with the Lannisters even after what the Mountain has done to the Riverlands, that was bad for all the other houses of the Riverlands. What you did changed all that, Lady Winter. You helped the Riverlands wipe clean the stain and the same of all of us."

"Thank you, Kitty," said Arya. She hadn't spent much time considering that before - the Riverlands weren't a significant factor in any of the wars they were expecting just now, mainly canceling out a small portion of the Lannister forces. She'd slaughtered the Late Walder Frey and all his grown sons and grandsons because they'd betrayed, killed, and desecrated her family, because they'd broken guest right.

After japing briefly with the kitchen staff, Arya headed to her room, eating as she walked. Sansa had sent Lady Frey to prepare her solar for her next meeting, but had stayed with her. She swallowed her current bite of bread, then asked her sister, "Why are you sending the grumpy oldsters to White Harbor? Are they to be a gift for Daenerys, like my mummers troupe is a gift for me?"

Sansa smirked down at Arya, "In a manner of speaking. When you get to White Harbor, please arrange that whoever is likely to be at the docks if Daenerys arrives by ship is unlikely to tell her much of anything at all. I had Lady Frey and her girls find the grumpy ones - you know better than I, but those old men and women who care about nothing but the North and their own little section of it. She's inexperienced, but not an idiot. She'll have Varys and Tyrion trying to find out how the North feels about her, but all our reports say she's impatient. She'll want to get here quickly, even if she's already compromised speed by coming by sea, so they won't have long."

Arya laughed, then paused a moment to listen and feel the movements of the air and the stone before carefully opening the door to her chambers. As everything was as it should be, she invited Sansa in, closing and barring the door, "So, you're going to tempt her with a quick overland route - garron with snowshoes, or dogsleds, or both, and we make sure the people she and her people have easy access to in that limited time are all grumpy oldsters and children who have no wider cares. She gets the choice of splitting her people up, moving fast and not gathering useful intelligence, or missing the caravan and waiting around White Harbor."

Sansa smirked, reaching out to tear off a small chunk of Arya's bread, dipping it in the stew and eating it herself, "Yes."

"Hey! That was mine!"

"Not anymore. It's not like you're a growing girl anymore, you know, Arya."

"Yes, yes. Well, it's fine, you wouldn't want to be tempted by the food in the brothel, anyway - it'd make a bad example, the Lady of Winterfell gorging herself on fine food in private after making a public show of sharing the rationing everyone else has at normal meals," said Arya as she raised her bowl and slurped, her eyes watching Sansa's reaction. She wasn't able to do as much for Sansa as her sister was doing for her, but at least she could tease her. Better still, this would be followed up by her sister actually needing to go down into Winter Town and interact with the smallfolk in person more, which she needed.

"And why would I be in a position to gorge myself?"

"Because a terrible thing happened to our brothel. It seems the brothel-keeper, two whores, and one spy who doubled as a whore, all loyal to Littlefinger, were betrayed by their companion who sold out to Varys - well, probably, his coins looked like they were from Varys. They snuck past the guards and took a secret passage into the east cells before they were betrayed. It must have been awful for them... but now the brothel's in Kiyana's hands, and she reported only to Darvin, the previous brothel-keeper. No special loyalties to Baelish. You'll need to straighten them out and make sure they know about the discount and that it's to come out of our cut."

Sansa narrowed her eyes, "Your rush to leave seems very convenient all of a sudden. You go to town, enjoy yourself in our whorehouse, apparently enjoy yourself again in our dungeons, and then suddenly have to charge off on another set of travels while I have to go sort out the dirty business of Littlefinger's businesses?" She made the sign for lie.

Arya finished downing the stew, drank the water she'd brought, and then sat down on the floor, "Of course. You're Baelish's successor - you should have the fun of finding his books. It'll be safe enough now for you and a couple of your guards, Kitty or some of her ladies too if you want. There will be a few girls there that were forced - you can be the kind Lady who offers them places elsewhere, more to their liking," she said as she made the sign for truth.

Sansa's smile was small, but had a vicious edge to it as she replied, "I suppose I am the heir to Littlefinger's businesses and political intrigue... and Cersei's too. Joffrey never understood any of the balance between power and persona, while Tommen and Myrcella didn't want to. All right, sister, you have your revenge - I'll visit the whorehouse, and see the smallfolk, too. I know you want me to."

"Good. I'll see the Ladies at White Harbor - Leona, Wynafryd, and Wylla, I believe. You're welcome to stay, Sansa, but it might not be very interesting for you. I need to be with Death for a bit, then sleep," said Arya quietly before she closed her eyes and stilled completely.

"Correct - Leona was widowed at the Red Wedding and they all got on well with Wendel, so you should have a very warm reception," said Sansa quietly, watching her sister for a bit. Sansa couldn't even see her breathing, though she knew she was.

This wasn't something she understood, that Arya was, truly, a priestess, a priest, now, that she prayed regularly. Their mother would have considered religious orders a valid choice, if not as good as an advantageous marriage, of course, but she would have only thought of being a Septa or a Silent Sister. The Old Gods didn't have roles suitable for a highborn girl like Arya. Sansa supposed that Arya took care of the dead like a silent sister, but she also made people dead with great frequency, and mother would have only approved of some of them. Arya as the High Septon of Death in Westeros, their mother would not have even have imagined.

Their mother hadn't prayed to the Stranger that Sansa could ever remember. Arya was sitting as if a statue had taken her place, so Sansa set the plate of bread and the rest of the water on Arya's small table, then picked up the tray and set it outside. Turning back in, she took the smaller of the two door bars Arya had, very carefully balanced it atop the brackets as Arya had shown her once, then kept a hand on it as she exited, keeping it balanced as she withdrew her hand and pulled the door shut smoothly, steadily faster without upsetting the bar. The door slammed shut and she could hear that the bar fell into the brackets instead of onto the floor. Sansa used her key to lock the door, then left the tray for a maid to collect and headed for her solar. The merchants would be there soon.

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Chapter Text

Sansa sat in her solar, having changed into one of her usual severe northern gowns. She shifted slightly as she stitched yet another thick fur cloak, the bruise on her hip from when she'd hit the cold ground harder than she had intended irritating her more than the one on her face or her ankle. She mused that only a couple of years ago she would have been horrified to have voluntarily accepted a bruise, and to wear it in public, no less.

She smirked to herself, thinking that she 'wore it as a badge of honor', just as she'd just told Connas to say in their little mummer's farce. She remembered that Cersei had once said she wore her own bruises in that way, and indeed, she'd given every sign that provoking Robert to strike her was a victory.

The sound of the guards outside tapping their spear butts against the floor was clear through the door, so she, Lady Frey, and the other two of her handmaidens make sure to reach a hand out to their own weapons. The three guards inside the room straightened, shifting their feet for a stable fighting stance. All were quiet, listening. Sansa reflected that it was somewhat bothersome, but taking some responsibility for her own protection also gave her a strange sort of pride in herself. She would not go quietly should anyone come for her, never be willingly helpless again.

The elder sister remembered how Arya had made the changes to how she was guarded, how her little sister had been quite insistent with Brienne gone. Her little sister had talked about the 'true seeing', whatever that was, and then selected sets of guards for her, all with known loyalties to the Stark family as a whole or to Sansa herself, who were diligent, perceptive, and not prone to dozing off or growing bored easily. As soon as anyone approached, they'd make enough noise that those inside knew something was happening; like the first call of the warning horn, it could be benign, or could be followed by further sounds of alarm.

"Lady Stark, the merchants and the... er... Keyholder, are here to see you," said the guard outside the door.

Sansa and the ladies returned to their sewing as Sansa replied, "Thank you. Send them in, please," quickly reviewing the memory of her instruction in the ways of Braavos and the Iron Bank. A keyholder was a descendant of the original founders of the bank, they were not addressed as lords or ladies, and they focused on numbers and what was very likely to get them repaid. Being Lady Stark would have no sway with the foreigners, but being in charge of a well organized, well supplied pair of kingdoms would, even without the title.

She held back a wince - one of the merchants would have that strange way of speaking that the priest who brought the gifts had. Arya had said to refer to oneself directly was seen as discourteous to the Lorathi, so she would need to be careful. A lady's courtesies were not, as she had found out very painfully, armor... but they were still valuable diplomatic aids.

The nearest guard inside the room stepped between her and the door, then unbarred and opened it, allowing a set of merchants to enter. From the North were those representing the Forresters, Glovers, Manderlys, and Boles. The merchants included representatives of a trading fleet from Braavos, fishing fleet from Lorath and an mining representative from Ib. The one representative she had personally asked for had not yet arrived, but she had faith they would show up in time. Sansa suppressed amusement, thinking that they'd probably show up just in time.

"Welcome. Please forgive my ladies and I for continuing to work; there is little time and much to do. What brings you all here today?"

Tormo, the Iron Bank keyholder, stepped forward confidently and spoke in a quiet but severe tone, "We are here because the story the numbers tell is not favorable to the long term repayment of a loan. The North is at war with at least three factions, and has recently demonstrated significant infighting and instability. Contract between merchants which are not immediately successful are abandoned at a shockingly high rate, resulting in the Iron Bank having difficulties collecting on the debt. It was suggested that you might be able to provide additional insights to the story."

She saw that the merchants were in general agreement, not just within the sets from different continents but between the continents as well. She glanced down at the cloak, flipping it over and continuing as she replied.

"The Starks have returned to Winterfell. The North is no longer at war with itself, nor are our allies; the primary instigator of instability has been executed. You may interview whoever you like to confirm that those... numbers have changed. My sister is the best one to address the continuing wars. While she will be unavailable for some days on business, her commanders can address things at a general level as well, though any detail must come from Arya."

She paused in her needlework, looking at the merchants, making her evaluation obvious before asking them as a whole, "Are you all fully invested in a long term trade agreement?"

There were general nods and murmurs of agreement, though Tormo replied, "I will investigate the story you tell. However, the numbers regarding the viability of international merchant contracts cannot be changed by mere words. I believe there is a saying here, 'words are wind.' That is the feeling of the Iron Bank as well."

Sansa smiled gently, "I had the opportunity to speak with my sister about a similar long-term confidence issue recently as well, and she told me a story about a gambler. This gambler bet that if a sailor's ship sunk, the widow or heirs would be paid a sum. I understand that the House of Black and White in Westeros operates somewhat differently than the House in Braavos. No One announced recently to the leaders of the North, the Vale, and the Free Folk that just vengeance was what would be offered, at a price."

She continued before they had a chance to voice their doubts, "I believe the Faceless Men would be willing to discuss a long term contract on anyone who unjustly breaks a contract. Perhaps a portion of the revenue from each trade could be given to the House of Black and White as payment - the more successful the business, the more temptation to cheat or be unjust there might be, and the more money is provided to the Faceless Men to pay for their deaths. Which of you is willing to swear an oath that they will deal with their trade partners justly, with your life on the line?"

Sansa let her gaze rest on the bravest appearing of the Northern merchants for a moment, hoping he would speak out of his own pride.

"I don't cheat or steal, and you won't find anyone that says different. If Lady Stark trusts these Faceless Men folks, I'll trust them too," said the man, going even farther than she had hoped.

The Braavosi trader spoke next, "I am no bravo to challenge anyone in the streets, but there will be no accusations that I trade in anything but good faith, or I will see them put to rest in a duel! My life already backs my words."

"The Iron Bank has been disappointed by the House of Black and White zero times. This is an excellent number. However, the House has only ever accepted names, never anything else.

The sound of the spears tapping the stone again came through the door, and Sansa consciously chose to not reach for her staff, though she did keep a careful eye on the merchants, just in case.

"No One is here to see you," said the guard through the door.

"Send them in," replied Sansa, thinking that her sister's choice of religions and allies was quite annoying sometimes. Titles almost everywhere in the world told you about a person, about what kind of courtesies they expected, about who they were and how to refer to them. Lord, Lady, King, Queen, Khal, Khaleesi, Septon, Septa, Spearman, Spearwife, with any of these she could tell how to greet a person. Then there were the other titles - Keyholder, No One, that told you little. Keyholders could be anyone, though at least they were always the same anyone. No One could be anyone at any time, so she supposed it was an appropriate enough title, as it at least did not deceive you.

The person entering was a middle-aged man, brown of hair, with a well trimmed beard and of unremarkable features. Sansa was pleased to see... it occurred to her that she actually had no idea whether this was a man or a woman before her, regardless of the man's body she saw. She brought her thoughts back on track with the general decision that No One was a he at the moment, so she would use the male pronoun. He, then, was wearing a full hood, meaning he was a full priest, which is exactly what she needed.

"Valar Morghulis," he said.

"Valar Dohaeris," said Sansa, grateful that Arya had worked with her on the precise pronunciation of the ritual response, as she couldn't afford to offer any slight to their allies by failing in her courtesies, "Thank you for coming, as we were wondering if you could help answer a question about the types of contracts the House of Black and White in Westeros will accept. I believe I've heard that your House 'shows a different face' here?"

"Just so. The Many-Faced God has instructed that we who serve the god here shall require that contracts taken be for just vengeance. A name, however, we here do not require to give death to another," said No One.

Sansa was about to reply when she noticed the banker lean forward very slightly. Upon seeing that, she leaned back slightly to indicate she'd let him speak.

Tormo spoke with the same quietness, but with a greater degree of respect and deference than he'd shown so far, "No One, the question we have is whether or not the House of Black and White in Westeros would be willing to entertain a contract to give death to whoever takes action that adds significant risk to the long-term stability of a multilateral international set of trade agreements, whether it be cheating, stealing, lying, reneging, or otherwise acting in a way that degrades the future of the trade agreement. We would, of course, ensure that there are contractual ways to terminate the contract in mutually agreeable fashion. In return, a percentage to be determined of the total revenues of trade will be provided to the House of Black and White in Westeros for the duration of the agreement."

"We would require a significant payment of one of the usual types at the beginning, in addition to the long term revenue," said the priest with a slight inclination of his head. Sansa hadn't seen the priests for more than a few minutes, but she had seen her sister. Anything and everything anyone noticed a fully fledged Faceless Men do was something that was intended to be noticed, the show of respect for the Iron Bank included. There was a deep message there, and she was seeing only the top of the snowdrift.

"If the House of Black and White in Westeros will take the contract, we will offer a loan for the up front payment at preferential rates if other payment is not selected. This would suffice to ensure that even at the start of the contract, death would be provided as required?" asked Tormo respectfully.

Sansa suppressed a choked laugh, letting none of her reaction show. A loan, from the Iron Bank, to ensure that anyone upsetting the trade contract was killed by the Faceless Men. It would take an extraordinarily foolish, confident, or brave man to risk angering either the Iron Bank or the Faceless Men. To anger both at once with the same act... even Lord Baelish would not have done that. Not without a lot of thought to how to survive it, at least. She could see the merchants from Essos had picked up on that rather quickly, while many of the Northmen had not yet worked it out. She'd make sure to arrange for them to be gently educated later, by someone they could feel comfortable with.

"Keyholder, I cannot give the Many-Faced God's answer at this time. However, I believe that, with an appropriate initial payment which you have just guaranteed would be available, this would be acceptable. We will not give the gift for minor misdeeds or petty thievery."

"Of course."

Sansa glanced around the room, then stood, setting the cloak she was working on aside. She simply smiled as the merchants and even the Keyholder straightened up and made to leave. No One gave almost no response, though she thought she saw a flicker of a wink. Perhaps not, though she wondered if they had been a bad influence on her sister, or if that went both ways. Or, more likely, the ones that came here were the ones that shared traits with her sister.

"If you'll please excuse me, I have other duties to attend to. Please let one of my ladies know if I can be of any further assistance, though it appears you all have things well in hand," said Sansa. She watched as Lady Frey deftly and subtly waved them all out ahead of her; she'd apparently learned that trick well when dealing with her husband and his family.

She exited after them with Lady Frey and the guards, heading for Skamund's camp. Arya wasn't going to slip away in the night, not this time.

 

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Arya strode towards Skamund in her ice-river spearwife furs, lightweight ones with pants instead of the skirt some spearwives preferred. She carried a long spear with a short dragonglass head in her right hand, bone-handled bronze knife in her belt opposite a quiver of mixed arrows, with a short horn bow on her back. She had a bulky bundle in her other hand, striding casually across the snow in her rough leather strap snowshoes. She'd already spotted her mummer's troupe; they'd done their best, but they stood out like the Hound in a group of dwarfs, awkward and hesitant.

Well, there was only one way even a minor leader of the Free Folk ice river clans would handle that kind of thing.

She lengthened her stride, altering her direction to head for her little troupe, scowling fiercely, tossing the bundle onto one of the smaller, empty dogsleds as she approached. She could tell the other Free Folk had been watching with irritation at not only ferrying a bunch of Southrons around, but Southrons who were very poorly trying to pretend to be Free Folk, and clansmen at that.

When she reached easy conversational distance, Arya spoke, her voice loud and angry, easily carrying over this entire section of the camp, "What are you worthless lazy louts doing? You think you're kneeler lords and ladies, standin' around and watching everyone else do work, do you? You, you started this, didn't you?"

She'd timed it so she reached Connas just as she finished her sentence. She shortened the last stride to have her feet in just the right position to draw her fist back, quickly, then just as quickly send a vicious punch out and around into the furs covering his jaw, sending him to the ground. While using her knuckles on his jaw wasn't good technique any more than the wide roundhouse punch, it was how the Free Folk fought and disciplined their people, and right now she was wearing the face of a Free Folk spearwife leader through simple disguise. Setting herself to using the full power of her body in the blow, of course, was good technique - anything less and she would have had a hard time putting the tall man on the ground with a single blow.

"You, tend to those dogs, make sure they've eaten enough. You two, pack the things on those two sleds. You two, check the harnesses," growled Arya as she reached down to yank Connas upright, "And you, tell me why there's some bizarre Southron contraption attached to our perfectly good Northern dogsleds?"

She listened carefully; this was the true test of how the journey would go. She heard a few muffled exclamations of 'wildlings' from those kneelers who were in the area and saw what she'd done, and the slight changes in posture from a few of the Free Folk who heard... defensive postures, which was a good sign.

Better still was the near lack of reaction from Skamund's clansmen, aside from a few grunts of approval from those who'd been irritated by the Southron folk their leader had agreed to transport standing around looking lost while wearing clothes similar to theirs, as if mocking them. Her action had not gained her their approval... but the action itself, both the punch and setting her people to work, had met with approval in and of itself.

She'd marked a few already that would likely be willing to show her and her troupe all they didn't know about the true North, and how to deal with real winters. They'd be short, hard lessons, with the teachers about as interested in upstaging the Southrons as in watching them fail and as in actually teaching them. That was good! Every lesson would hurt, every hurt would be a lesson, and every lesson would make them better, just as Syrio had taught her when she was a child.

Connas rubbed his jaw a couple times, tilted his neck, then answered, "They're the banners of Lady Winter... er, that Lady Winter girl the... kneelers have. Yeah. Lady, umm, the elder Stark here paid us to show them as we left, since we're carrying her sister, who they're for."

Arya suppressed a smirk in favor of a vicious scowl, her own face and even chin open to the elements as the actual ice river clansmen were. She was a little cold, Stark blood or no, but Skamund's clan was from nearly as far north as the Thenns, and being this far South meant that many of their normal layers of furs were packed on the sleds. She could handle the cold easily enough; she was merely uncomfortable, which was of no import. The only important things were that she didn't allow any hint of frostbite, that she didn't sweat, and that she learn.

"Oh? And how much did she pay, this Stark, that we have to pull those things out and hold them under any tree limb we pass? Look around! This isn't like home, there's trees fuckin' everywhere! Big ones! With big limbs I should fuckin' beat you with! Did she pay a crust of moldy bread? Some rotten dog meat? A rusty iron arrowhead that'll fall apart if it hits so much as a snowdrift? You better not have taken any of their stupid coin crap either - metal they use ain't even as good as bronze, you idiot," she ranted, her voice carrying clearly as she berated him, using the knowledge she'd picked up listening to scores of tales of how the wights and white walkers came, how they were fought, what the terrain was like, and what she'd observed and heard Free Folk life was like.

She watched as he opened and closed his mouth a couple times, trying to respond while also clearly trying to use what she'd just told him. She was nearly certain he'd been about to claim he'd been paid some number of golden dragons, which is why she'd headed that off. The Free Folk who didn't trade had little enough use for gold - it was too soft, and too heavy. Every ounce counted - every ounce was another ounce that took food to move around, food for the men, food for the dogs. Food was scarce, precious, and not to be wasted, especially in the far north.

She shifted her quiver slightly and took a half-step closer, aggressively raising her fist, hoping he'd take the hint, even as she heard the distinctive sounds of her sister and her small entourage of girls and guards entering the camp area, behind one of the tents.

"Arrowheads! She promised fifty castle-forged steel arrowheads if she sees Lady Winter's banners until we're out of sight of the highest tower of the castle!"

"And how many are we getting in advance? Words are wind, and poor wind at that," said Arya irritably as she glared at him, "Those damned Southrons aren't known for keeping their promises, and their leaders change every damned year. I won't have us cheated!"

Connas's eyes widened as he caught sight of Lady Stark's distinctive gown from the corner of his eyes, then looked at Arya. As he saw she was maintaining that same angry glare, he continued on the path he'd started, despite knowing full well the only thing that had happened was that the Lady of Winterfell had given them the banners. They'd raised them because they were proud of the Stark they served, and now it seemed there was another lesson to be learned, "Twenty! Twenty now, thirty when we get back."

Arya glanced at the banners on their weirwood poles, two sleds bearing one each, the distinctive sigil of winter storm-clouds and the hint of the direwolf sewn in exquisite detail, flying in the breeze. She then glanced at Sansa, made the sign for you, and lightened her expression slightly, "All right - go fetch the twenty and give them to Skamund to give out. Good arrowheads are worth a few miles of making sure this stupid shit doesn't catch on every branch. You, personally, are taking them down as soon as we're out of sight... and we aren't stopping."

He made an odd little jerk of his chin then rushed off towards the armory at a quick job, having clearly decided that being between the two sisters wasn't quite the best place right now. He'd looked, however, proud when she'd assigned him the duty of taking the banners down himself, as if it was an honor. She was curious how he'd react when he figured out they really, seriously weren't stopping the sleds to let him do so easily.

Sansa approached her, and they embraced in a tight hug. Arya murmured to Sansa, "Listen to the guards when they advise you. Don't let them get complacent about the training; we still don't have solid commanders for the infantry. You'll handle the logistics just fine. Treat Gendry well."

Sansa replied in the by-now habitual murmur, "I will. You pay attention to your health, Arya, and your safety. Do what needs to be done, but take only the necessary risks."

They broke apart, each recognizing that they could truly trust the other. Trusting others personally, they knew about - they could trust Bran, they could trust Jon, they could trust Brienne. Trusting others professionally, as leaders, rulers, commanders... that was new and welcome. Each of them knew very well that the other would make different decisions than they would themselves, which was tempered by the fact that they knew the other's decisions would also be solid and workable. Sansa would rely on the advice of Lord Royce, Lady Mormont, Lady Reed, Skamund, and the other military leaders. Arya would rely on the advice of Emilee and the Ladies Manderly, who Lord Manderly had spoken highly of to Sansa, and the other political leaders.

Arya clapped Sansa on the shoulder and returned to checking the sleds assigned to her people, speaking with the Free Folk assigned to make sure they didn't cock up entirely.

Skamund came towards them just as Connas returned, hastily presenting the arrowheads to the clan leader who simply took them with a grunt and handed them to another man as he continued on to speak with Arya as best he could with his limited knowledge of her language, and her limited knowledge of his, "Hit good. Hit more! Move fast. No stop. Hardsno," he reached down to pat the packed snow, then pointed out to the south where they'd travel to reach the frozen-over White Knife river, "Knarrsno. Ice. Light sleds. Five, six day. Feed dogs fish soup now."

Arya watched as he cupped his hands near to each other, showing the amount of meat and fish required; then he pointed to two of their sleds with heavier loads, holding his hands a little farther apart. Doing the military logistics, she'd had a keen awareness of just how incredible the requirements to feed the dogs were - each dog weighed a little over half what she herself did, and ate as much as three or four full grown, heavily active men. Each sled had an entire team of these dogs - a twelve dog team ate about as much as a four horse team... except the dogs needed lots of meat and fish, which was hard to come by. They had a little meat, here, but the dogs could really only be used where they could catch fish, so the Winterfell to White Harbor run was ideal.

Arya knew that as much as some of the men grumbled about their subsisting on mostly bread and grains with only a little meat while the dogs ate like kings, Skamund's dogsled teams could make the run, more than four hundred miles, in five to seven days one way depending on the load, weather, and snow conditions. A horse team, even in snowshoes, would take much longer. Horses without snowshoes, well, much longer still.

Most importantly, the dogsleds could outrun, by far, their best estimates of what wights and mounted White Walkers could do, so as long as they could fend off attacks long enough to get past, and they weren't blocked entirely... or facing dragons... they were as safe a means of transport overland as they had. Likewise important, Arya knew the only ways news of Baelish could reach White Harbor before she did was by raven, by dragon, or by warg. The dragons weren't here and the wargs and greenseers would never work for Southron politicians, so the only danger was ravens, and they'd done their best there - hundreds of archers were still watching to shoot down outgoing ravens during this critical time, as well as their falconers and their birds being on watch for outbound ravens.

Arya called her troupe over and brought the bowls for the dog's soup to the communal pot, where she paused and made sure they all watched exactly what, and how, the other sled teams were collecting the food and feeding their dogs first. She then went first and accepted a cuff to the head and a correction from her the white-haired trainer on precisely how much broth to get over the fish. Each of her troupe did the same, and accepted Winterfell's gift of bread for themselves, as well as two frozen oranges each, to ward off the winter sickness which sailors called scurvy.

A short time later, Sansa watched the caravan depart, smaller one-man sleds bracketing the larger group just outside of a pair of scorpion sleds, and the cargo sleds in the middle, transporting a few goods and some people. To the Free Folk, the people of the North and the Vale were nothing but cargo, except, she mused, for Arya and her little group, who were apparently following in Jon's footsteps for a time and joining the Free Folk. Well, it would do all of them good to know and respect each other more; perhaps her duties would be just a little bit easier each time her sister did something like this.

She watched from atop the wall as they passed through the rings of defenses, until she could no longer make out the sigil on the banners which uniquely identified the caravan to all who saw, announcing that Arya Stark, Lady Winter, was heading out into the world again.

Let the world beware. Her sister was coming for it.

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Chapter Text

Arya awoke hours before predawn, maintaining the same breathing she had been taught she had when asleep as she assessed the sounds, the feel, the scents, the movement of the air around her. Her weapons were as she had left them, there were two dogs curled up on each side of her legs, while Korb was snoring softly with another set of dogs surrounding him next to her, also near the entrance. Mariya and Emilee were deeper in the little shelter they'd dug in the lee of a snowbank and lined with furs, Mariya tossing lightly in her sleep, while Emilee was sitting up, murmuring to herself quietly. The lamp was still burning gently, and by the smell, without smoke.

Arya opened her eyes and shifted very slowly to a kneeling position, her head pressing against the fur on the roof, the only noise caused by her movement that of the dogs rearranging themselves.

"My... leader?" asked Emilee in the soft murmur that she'd been trained to use over the past few nights. Arya smiled a little, reaching out to smack the black-haired woman on the leg twice, but gently because her people needed to not be woken for casual discipline. She was Arya, spearwife of the Free Folk, and Emilee needed to remember more than just her tone of voice and what sounds people notice most and least. She needed to remember there were no Ladies here.

Arya spoke softly, her voice just loud enough for the woman to hear, however sharp her words were, "Just Arya, Emilee, you're not a fuckin' kneeler! Quit tryin' to copy the stupid-ass pompous Southron cunts, all my greasy this and my laddie that. Have some pride in yourself! Look at you, you're still awake and alert, not snoozin' like some idiot that'll get us killed or stolen away. You know stayin' alert takes dedication and training - it's no mean skill, and worth more than bein' good with spear or bow."

"Thank you, Arya. I don't sleep much anyway," said Emilee with only a slight hesitation before using Arya's given name. Arya knew she'd spent decades trying to avoid giving offense to her husband and his brothers and uncles, and a few days wasn't enough to be comfortable being so familiar with, as the ex-Frey saw it, a high lady of a great house. While that was ideal for most of the faces she might need her troupe to wear, travelers and merchants, common soldiers and farmers and so on, it was no good for the faces of the Free Folk, most criminals, the disaffected, Braavosi, high lords and ladies, or many others. Still, of all those following her, Emilee needed the gentlest touch - the woman not sleeping much was because of nightmares, flashbacks, and fear.

"Speak quicker! What, you don't remember my name? Had to pause to remember it? Whatever kind of woman you were before we started, whatever you'll be after we arrive, right now you hold your head high! You're certainly a more eligible Free Folk woman than I; how long ago ago did you adjust the lamp?" asked Arya, giving an approving pat to her leg.

"I can't tell if it's the hour of ghosts or the hour of the owl yet, so two, maybe three hours ago, when Connas woke me. It's so dark outside, even if it has stopped snowing. At least it's warm in here. Would you mind checking if the clothes are dry?" murmured Emilee in her soft voice.

Arya scowled, then stuck her tongue out at the older woman, "Gahh, you're as polite as a kneeler - just tell me to do it, I'm just a spearwife. Not much choice, I guess, I can't get more than an hour out of the fuckin' thing before it smokes, so not like anyone's want to steal me away. Getting the moss just right so the wick doesn't smoke must have something in common with that fancy-ass Southron sewing. They're both women's work, and I'm complete shit at both of them."

She watched Emilee smile, a small fragile thing, so she threw in a quiet chuckle of her own, laughing at herself as she patted the fur they all knew hid Needle from sight, "This is what I'm good at. Swift and sudden death, or staying still in ambush, giving the gift, riding. I suppose I'm not bad at cooking. Walder was certainly happy enough to have a second slice! Hah!"

"Arya?" asked Emilee, puzzled at the mention of the late Lord Frey even as Arya grinned, a wide, self-satisfied smile, full of remembered joy at the pain of her enemy, at her own triumph, at fulfilling one of the cornerstones of her vengeance.

"A story for another time," said Arya with a wink, taking down the now-dry clothes hanging over the lamp, replacing them with the last of the damp ones from the previous day's long ride, their smallclothes. Those they'd been taught to leave for last, both because they dried the fastest and since they, being rich, actually had a second set to wear!

While Emilee folded the now-dry furs into tight bundles, Arya put dry wraps over her feet, then her clan boots over the wraps, and reached out of the tent flap to feel the snow. She now knew this was called kramsno, the soft, easily compacted snow that was perfect for the snowballs and snow forts she'd loved playing with in the baileys and outside the walls as a child - even Sansa had loved playing in the snow, making elaborate constructions.

Taking up her snowshoes, she adjusted the straps to tension them for the day, tying them precisely to match the fresh snowfall before putting those on, too. She had almost finished when Emilee spoke again.

"You're a good leader, too, you know, like your sister. Rough, like the Free Folk, but we all see that you care, that you make wise choices, that you learn from others, and that you don't hurt us to cause pain."

"Thank you, Emilee. Wisdom is bought with pain, as you know, having wisdom of your own," said Arya, then reached outside with as little movement of the flap as possible to gather fresh snow for the melting pile next to the lamp from the left of the entrance, where walking, pissing, and shitting of man or dog was forbidden. Once the snow pile was high enough again, she swapped the catch-bowl for melt water with a fresh one, drank her fill and handed the remainder to Emilee before she took up her spear and bow and left.

She passed a scorpion sled just inside the outer perimeter, listening carefully. Each of the small, lightweight scorpions had been concealed under a large cloth, thin and bright white, which had been draped over a set of pike poles driven into packed snow.

The crew inside at this hour were the least well trained they had, but they were awake, apparently playing some sort of quiet game with each other. That was good enough - they simply had to be ready to respond instantly to an attack and hide well enough to not be the first targets if any of their enemies appeared, most importantly dragons.

The outer sentry she passed silently, moving towards a small hollow between snowdrifts a couple hundred yards farther on, where she sat down in the snow and draped her own thin white cloth over her shoulders and around herself, laying a smaller, long cloth over her spear and bow. She sprinkled them with snow from beneath the snow cape where the digging would be covered, then pulled the hood over her head entirely.

She'd have to thank her sister; while sewing something like this had been child's play for Sansa, her sister had taken the time to speak with the Free Folk, their hunters and scouts, learn what a snow cape was, and have them made for men and siege engines, making Arya's own herself.

White cloth they had and to spare, coming from white wool from white sheep - they had plenty of sheep, even now, and shearing them was much more productive for a long winter than eating mutton more often was. It wasn't even expensive, since the dyes and the weaving were what drove the price up. Arya supposed it might be cheaper after the wars, with dye imports from their allies in Essos coming into the North regularly.

Why her particular snow cape had a hint of the styling of a Kingsguard cloak was a question she put aside as she closed her eyes and stilled her body and her breathing, sinking into her mind. Jaqen had taught her more of how to listen to the Many-Faced God, had shown her patterns used within the temples, to consecrate the grounds and the water in the pools. He'd shown her the patterns of power for glamour like had been used by the Faceless Man that had pretended to be a dead Jaqen while she took off face after face until her own stared back at her.

That level of glamour may be beyond her abilities yet, but she had both her mummer's skills and the faces. For now, she held a bit of snow in her hand, under her arm until it melted, then worked through shaping the magic of her god into the patterns required to consecrate the pools in the temple for the various purposes they used it. That same water, from the same pool, in the same plain bowl had blinded her, restored her sight, and given the gift gently to those who truly wished for it.

An hour later, opened her eyes, lifted the water to her lips and drank. It did not feel cold inside her cape, as the wind was only just starting to pick up this morning and the sheet held the warmer air she breathed out well enough. Starks did not fear winter, and she was still a Stark.

She knew there were a pair of the men pissing twenty yards away, their torch crackling merrily. Arya smirked, waited for them to be retying their furs afterwards, then stood, smoothly gathering her snow cape and bow in one hand, her spear in the other.

"Where's Skamund?" asked Arya casually as she strode towards the camp, just as if she'd been walking the entire time, smirking widely at how they jumped and their heads swiveled immediately as she spoke.

The smaller, younger man scowled fiercely, taking quick steps atop the snow in his own snowshoes as his eyes tracked her prints in the fresh, soft snow to the indentations she'd made where she'd prayed, turning his head to stare at her for a long moment after he'd realized how close she'd been. The older man just pointed towards where the soup for the dogs was being made and grunted approvingly at her.

Arya nodded shortly, striding off towards the camp kitchen. Once she arrived, she shook her head at yet another set of smokeless lamps with well-diminished blubber reservoirs lighting and heating the large tent. She planted her spear next to her and stood with the clan leader as she took a pile of fish for herself, cutting them into the right size chunks for the dogs.

"White Harbor i deg, today?" asked Arya, including a few words of the ice-river clan's language that she wasn't sure of her pronunciation of.

"I dag. Afternoon. Cut good," he said, gesturing to her shrinking pile of fish, at the way her left hand drew a fish toward her with a single motion, her right making a few economical cuts, then scraped the pieces to the side while her right was reaching for the next, "Cut snabbt... quick! Arrow quick. Learn quick. Not wick! You quick quick woman. Mairay tired?"

Arya laughed as she returned the clan leader's exaggerated leer, "Thank you - the wicks need a trick! A trick I don't have, the trick of being a wife, not a spearwife. Yes, Mariya came in late - she fucked Esson."

Skamund grunted, "Men happy Mariya, women happy Mariya. Fuck good. Fuck many!"

"She likes bedding, yes. She liked the clan very much, lots."

"Free folk no slaves. Must learn make happy! Or alone," said the clan leader to the laughter and obscene gestures of the others in the tent. Arya laughed with them; she'd found she liked being with these rough, crude people very much. They led hard lives in terrible conditions, and had no time for elaborate courtesies or rituals or hiding the true face of being human.

The practice of stealing wives was a face of their people she didn't like, but she knew that face had more nuances to it than it seemed. Stealing wives had ingrained the practice of families keeping watch during the night in their culture, of constantly being alert. Also, unlike elsewhere in the world, the Free Folk had a very simple attitude towards nearly everything - fight! Women were expected to fight back when stolen. More importantly, if a man who stole a woman ended up with her knife in him as he slept, well, that was his own damn fault. The woman was never blamed, and there was no tolerance for keeping anyone locked up as a prisoner - they still ate and needed to be moved by dog, and the clan could never afford that.

Arya continued chopping, fish after fish after fish, food for the hundreds of dogs the clan had. Outside the kitchen tent, the normal sounds of the camp awakening arose. Inside, however, something was different. The elders were present, preparing for the day in the relative warmth as was normal, but they usually were also discussing clan matters.

Today, though, they were watching her a little more often than normal, a little more sharply, without the usual discussions. Instead, they were glancing at each other like she and her sister did to communicate without words. One by one, the elders in charge of the various activities of the clan spoke up, each sentence prompting a smattering of nods, headshakes, and shrugs from the others.

"Donaver bra med hunhund," said the elder who cared for the dogs, praising Donovar's skill with them.

An old woman spoke next, "Emilee tjana lykta." Arya smiled, nodding slightly but strongly to convey that she agreed very much, but that her word was less important than theirs, as she wasn't clan. She did know having a lamp, earning a lamp was a central part of being a woman of the clan.

"Korb, Connas, Arya kampa bra," said Skamund, which prompted quick and solid agreement from the other warriors in the tent as he lauded their fighting ability.

"Mariya meddelande detaljer," said one of the women. Arya knew that was something about details, probably seeing them. The pretty blonde had turned out, with a little training, to be even more perceptive than Korb. Mariya may not have the true seeing, but she was far better than most, and her path was not that of a warrior, either.

"Deranna laga och fiska bra," was the final proclamation of the cooking and fishing skills Deranna had. Arya watched the last set of looks and nods between the elders of the clan, and knew the decision had been made. The younger men and women in the tent looked more approving than not as well; while they wouldn't interrupt their elders lightly, they didn't have any fear of showing their opinion when they had one, either, unlike the nobles in King's Landing even under King Robert.

Arya let a slight aspect of being pleased show on her face. This was what she'd hoped for, what she'd pushed and prodded and cajoled and cuffed and punched her troupe for during these past days. Dealing with being a little cold during the day was nothing to her compared to being a beggar on the streets of Braavos, but for those following her it was a serious sacrifice. They'd thrown their all into learning to be like their hosts, and this was the reward for their efforts.

"You good. You people learn. You all ride again. You clan," said Skamund.

"Your clan has been good teachers. Tack, thank you," said Arya proudly, then tried out the phrase she'd been practicing in her head for when she'd be able to use it, "Vi kommer vara stolta att rida med isflodklan. We will be proud to ride with the ice-river clan."

There was little response to that, as she expected - of course they'd be proud to ride with the clan. Who wouldn't be? Arya continued, "We'll ride as clan when we can, but sometimes we need to pretend to be other people. Then I ask that you all treat us like we look, like we're dressed."

The lead trader translated for the others, then Skamund rolled his eyes and clapped her on the back with a powerful, friendly blow, "You look clan, you clan. Call you Snabbis, Quick one! You look Southron, you Southron. Call you Arya. Curse lazy Southrons!"

Arya laughed, already considering what it meant that not just she herself, but also any or all of her little troupe would be able to go with the dogsleds at any time, and be as safe as anyone could on the long journey. A few minutes later, Arya finished the last fish and the woman in charge of the soup called out, "Snabbis!", then made a sharp, flat gesture at her throat. Arya took the signal to stop and get out for what it was, scrubbed her fish-covered hands with just a little snow which she then dropped into the soup pot, and strode out.

Skamund came out just behind her, catching her by the shoulder with a large hand as he gestured out to the expanse of the frozen river. Once they arrived, he spoke quietly, a familiar sadness clear in his voice; a tone she'd heard many times before, serving in the House.

"Snabbis, you witch?"

"I have magic, yes, the magic of the Many-Faced God."

"You death witch, witch not witch, death," Skamund stopped, frustrated by not knowing the word, then made an exaggerated pantomime of a follower of the Seven praying.

"That's right. I am a priest of the one true god, Death," replied Arya, her voice quiet and compassionate. She may not know any of the details, but she knew that tone of voice. She waited, patient and still, for a couple minutes as he stared out into the darkness, the camp behind them rapidly being packed up, waiting until he was comfortable speaking. Or, perhaps, until he'd found the right words to use.

"Father lives, hurt Hardhome. Hurt lots, all hurt. No leg. One arm. Not... not... He know lot. He teach. I learn. All learn. Learn all. He no die. He hurt. White Harbor. You help?" asked Skamund, his pain and grief showing clearly as he asked Arya if she could help. As best as she could tell, his father was just too stubborn to want to die - if he was like his son, he cared deeply about his tribe and worried that the clan might not survive either this strange Southron land, or the wars and changes to come.

"I hijalpe. I help, but his choice, he must choose death, or he must choose to not die today," said Arya, her body still and quiet, dipping her head.

"Thank you. Hjalpa. You hjalpa."

"Hjalpa. I will see him. I will need a translator, my ice-river is terrible. I speak bad," she said with a brief hint of a smile, trying to help him put his grief aside so he could face his clan with his normal face. There would be time for that after they arrived, whether or not she would be able to help his father accept the gift.

Skamund looked out at the still-dark sky, then nodded sharply, "I sister help. With him White Harbor. Teach you seal blubber!"

Arya nodded, clapped him on the shoulder, then returned to her troupe's area of the camp, proud to see them all awake, tearing down the shelter almost as well as the worst other group in the clan was, but much better than they'd started. She spotted the bundle of her things on a smaller sled, the others loading up three large cargo sleds, keeping the loads spread out and light. Above all, the loads needed to be balanced on the sled after the driver was accounted for - they'd all been cuffed more than once for unbalanced loads!

Sansa and Jaqen had selected her troupe well - they were all learning. Korb was halfway inside the shelter, pulling out the last of their things, so it was Mariya who spotted her first and called out, "Arya! Your bundle's on the four-dog there today - Meras didn't tell us why, but we figured you might want to move around on your own when we arrive."

Arya smiled easily, having seen the one-man dogsled with her things already, and replied easily, "Thank you, Mariya; I hope you had enough fun with Esson last night to make up for being tired today."

The young woman laughed, "He was good! Not too big, but slow and ooohhh what he could do with his tongue! I may have him again someday."

"Well, don't fall off when you're daydreaming, girl!" said Arya as she chuckles warmly, checking over each harness, each sele. They needed to be inspected every morning before the dogs were put in sele; as leader of her little group, any flaws were her responsibility. Once that was done, she made sure each bundle was firmly attached to the correct sled while the others went to get food.

After giving the dogs their food, they stood in the lee of one of the packed sleds, all turning their backs to the slowly stiffening breeze to preserve body heat while they ate from their bowls. The fish porridge was bitter with the taste of grass and moss, but filling. Beyond the Wall, the clan had to get nourishment where they could - they didn't have lemons or oranges or apples to ward off scurvy, meat was rare, and trees nonexistant. Fish they had from river and ocean, some grasses and seaweeds, and plenty of moss.

"Snabbis! Torch duty, lead left! Rest in center!" barked Meras from four shelters over, the elder who had been their primary trainer, glaring at them as Arya raised her hand in acknowledgment.

Arya took her bowl, tipping it back and swallowing rapidly as she turned her head to watch her troupe with amusement as they started looking at each other, clearly working out who was going to be the first to ask her. Mariya and Deranna set each other off giggling while Emilee just shook her head. Connas was nudging Korb, who was apparently elected, and he smirked at her.

"Snabbis? You're Snabbis now? What's a Snabbis, anyway?"

"Quick, dummy! Snabbis means something or someone quick, like Scabs and One-ear," said Donovar, referring to the fastest of the dogs they'd been assigned.

Arya smacked Korb in his belly once, took another large swallow of her breakfast, then replied acerbically, "I am Snabbis and Snabbis means me! You lot should be grateful, since the elders think none of you are total wastes of dog food! Anyone wants to look down on you for being clanless, or not being a true Northerner, you hold your head up high. You're ice-river clan now, all of you, with or without me! You'll have a home here any and every time you need it."

She scarfed down the last of her food, watching to see their reactions. As she expected, Emilee and the Rivers twins were the most affected. The soldiers knew they had a solid place with her and in Winterfell, and they'd never had that kind of worry. Mariya was sure of her ability to find a place when she needed to, and right about it, too.

The twins, though - as a pair of orphaned Frey bastards, they'd had a hard time even before she wiped out the family. Now that the Freys were gone, they'd been scared, and nervous, unsure of themselves and where they might end up.

They still weren't sure, but they'd been able to use their skills and be respected for their work by her, by the troupe, and by the clan; different faces of respect from each, yes, but respect all the same. Being told they had a place they could go back to meant a lot to the two orphans, though the Stark didn't think they'd yet worked out just how rough clan life would be in the long term. Then again, she didn't know how rough their life had already been; it was clearly a topic they wished left alone.

Emilee, too, was looking around with damp eyes. She'd been denigrated for so long that she was having a hard time understanding that she really was someone that people would want, especially people that carefully considered the cost of everything and everyone they brought with them. Arya nodded decisively for them to see - she had something for that!

"Skamund says you dress as clan, they treat you as clan. You dress like dumb Southrons, they treat you like any other helpless know-nothing Southron cunt!" announced Arya, sneering in the direction of the other side of the large camp, as far from their area as possible, where the Northerners, the Braavosi Arsenal representative, and her sailor friends were kept.

Mariya made an obscene gesture as she snapped back, "I might want to dress like a dumb Southron, you know! I seen what they're eatin', seen they've got wine and ale and extra layers to be toasty warm!"

Deranna took a large swallow of water, swishing it around her mouth and swallowing. Even the twins had learned that any kind of warmth was of great value - water was everywhere in the form of snow or ice, but once enough heat was put into it to melt it, it became precious. They may be atop a river now, but bad habits lead to death very quickly in the far north... or, perhaps, during the Long Night to come.

"You just want to attract different bedmates! You don't have frostbite, so if you can feel your hands and feet, you must be warm enough," said the thirteen-year old girl as she snorted and gestured with all the crudity of any other young clanswoman, handing a stack of empty bowls to Mariya and striding away quickly towards the ice-fishing lines they'd left overnight, fur skirt swinging as she called back, "I got to pull in the metrev. Donovar, I got dibs on driving the good fourteen-dog today!"

Arya laughed and called out, "Only if you get back before Mariya does," before she turned to the girl her own age, "You want to be warmer, work harder! You may not have been born into the clan, but Deranna's right - you ain't getting frostbite, you're warm enough! Dress like a Southron and you get put on the sled they're training the youngun's on, bounced around and dumped out when they tip over. If we need to look Southron, then we will, but never without need! When we can help, we do it as clan."

Arya chuckled as Mariya shrugged and winked while collecting empty bowls from man and dog alongside Connas, those two scrubbing the bowls out with snow. Arya jogged off to fetch torches and dip them in one of the barrels of Braavosi pitch they were using on the return journey, while the others began hitching dogs to sleds, Donovar checking their work and the dogs with all the seriousness a thirteen-year-old boy could muster.

The clean bowls were returned to the kitchen sleds at a run, then they drank their fill and brought back full waterskins, all returning just after Deranna passed them with the night's catch, to Mariya's consternation.

When Arya saw several of the older women approaching alongside Deranna as the clan was nearly ready to move out, she clasped Emilee gently on the shoulder, raising her voice, "One more thing. We must celebrate! Emilee, a woman of the ice-river clan, has earned her lamp in the eyes of the elders! Bitch knows her food, knows her furs, knows her people, knows her lamp!"

Arya produced a short, slender castle-forged steel knife and sheath, handing it to the older woman, "Congratulations, Emilee, I'm proud of you. You deserve a good blade of your own - remember, if you wake with a man you don't like enough too near, stick him with the pointy end, in the ass if he's good the rest of the time, and in the neck if not! Boys, take the two twelve-dogs to Meras to check again."

"We gotta worry about them trying to steal our women now, don't we?" asked Connas as he and Korb went off in search of the old man.

"Hah! Just like any other clanswoman, probably, so we best protect each other," said Mariya before she cupped her hands around her mouth and called out loudly, "Unless you want to be stolen, eh, Connas? You look right pretty in a dress!"

The troupe all laughed together for a moment, quieting as the elders stood before Emilee. The lead trader's wife stepped forward and presented a fresh-made lamp, carved from the hip bone of a polar bear, to Emilee, "You good woman, make good wife, mother when find man you let steal! You care for clan, dogs, keep lamp lit good, protect food and water and blubber, check hands and feet and ears and nose, make all stay dry, stay warm. You earn lamp - this lamp yours. When you die, we burn lamp with you."

One by one, the women gave Emilee an embrace, then set off for their own sleds.

Arya worked as she waited for Connas and Korb to return, making sure the other people the clan was transporting were out of earshot, then spoke up more seriously, her voice just loud enough so the Free Folk close to them would be able to hear clearly as well.

"Troupe! If we need to be clansmen in front of Queen Daenerys and her people, even if she has the Spider and Tyrion Lannister and my brother with her, then we're clansmen, through and through; Emilee can help with a little makeup, then, to change your looks just a bit. You stay away from the Southrons when you're of the clan! You use those words of ice-river you know and nothing else - grunt like Meras when he's grumpy if you must, since your accents are too different from any Free Folk accent. Jon never dealt with the ice-river clans, so he won't recognize how terrible we all speak as long as we use the right language," said Arya, then raised her voice further, "You hear me?"

Her troupe gave a muted "Yes, Arya!" before returning to their sleds. Arya fixed the torches to the small sled, then attached the thin wooden light-shields meant to preserve her vision. She'd been slightly surprised when she was put on torch duty - it was a new job, made possible by the plentiful wood and pitch available to the clan now, but dangerous and important. The torch sled was a small four-dog sled, kept empty but for the torches and driver, the torches fixed on each side at an angle, outward, the driver blocked from seeing the flame directly.

The torch-sled went first, lighting the way in the dark, picking out a safe path for those behind. It required keen eyes, absolute attention to the path ahead, and great reflexes - the dogs moved fast, and dangers appeared in the path suddenly. Arya was quite confident in her seeing and her reflexes, and even her ability to drive a sled. The experience to recognize those dangers and pick the safest path around for the sleds behind to follow, though, was still a challenge for her.

Meras came up in a four-dog of his own, growling as he dismounted to check her work, "Quit grinnin', Snabbis! You still take dumb path sometime. Ten minutes! Kramsno ahead, maybe we get flister soon. I ride behind you. I check sele now."

The sky had not yet started to change color when they set off over the soft snow, the runners quiet and the dogs not even panting yet. She no longer strode through the snow like a Southron, pushing with brute force slowly with boots or a horse. Now she rode over it on her own personal dogsled, leading the left-hand column of the caravan, keeping a wary eye out for the safest paths to travel, watching for the next snowfall, which the elders of the clan thought would be snow like hard grains of salt, called flister in the tongue of the ice-river clans, snow that hurt when it hit your face.

She hadn't encountered flister on a dogsled yet, though as a child she'd put a scarf over her face to protect herself. Now she'd do what the clansmen around her did; she expected a lowering of the hood to keep the snow out of their eyes, and little else.

The Free Folk were proud, and wouldn't cover up any more than was actually necessary, particularly in the presence of the grumpy old men and women that were one of Sansa's ploys. Invitation to act as clan or not, she knew she and her people were well behaved and welcome adoptees, but outsiders who had never seen the true north still, so the native-born clansmen would want to show them up as well. That was all right - she was wearing a face of the Free Folk, and she had her own pride, Stark pride, too!

************************

Sansa stood just inside the gates of Winterfell, the Lady of the Crossing and others of her guards and household to her left, while Ghost sat panting happily to her right, waiting for the combined Night's Watch and Free Folk force returning from Eastwatch. Her weapon was leaning against the wall, resting against and on thick, ratty leather rags to protect the dragonglass alongside the other weapons of her household.

Never in known history had this much of the Night's Watch been so far South, and she was determined to ensure that they felt welcomed and honored for their service, no matter their previous lives. Likewise, it needed to be seen that they were, Night's Watch and Free Folk both, honored by her personally; that alone would cut down on the friction between factions by a fair amount, making her life easier and helping everyone work together more smoothly.

"Men of the Night's Watch, men and women of the Free Folk! Please take bread and salt and be welcome under our roof. We are grateful for your defense of the realms of men, of the living," she called out, her voice carrying easily as she'd learned from Cersei, offering a platter of bread and salt out, Lady Frey pouring the wine.

"My lady," said the watchman in the lead, taking some bread, scraping up some salt, and eating. Sansa saw the column looked tired, but not malnourished or wounded, some of the men pulling sleds with crates and barrels lashed to them. It was as Bran had said, they had been able to leave without a rush, able to strip Eastwatch of all the supplies they could carry.

"Lord Commander Tollett, a pleasure to see you again," said Sansa courteously as Ghost licked him across the face happily.

"Acting, I'm acting Lord Commander. That'd be your brother's fault. Where can we bunk? We'd like to get some sleep before the wight dragon burns us all to a crisp," said the acting Lord Commander as he scritched Ghost behind the ears.

"There are three rooms set aside in the castle for you and your main commanders, and a campsite has been prepared for you southwest of the Hornwoods inside the inner moat," replied Sansa with a small smile. Jon had told her of Edd's dourness, and it seemed he'd only undersold it. She'd have to arrange for him to be next to Lyanna Mormont some time; they might get along very well. Or, perhaps, not, in which case they could happen to end up separated in the future. Lady Mormont, at least, would be direct in what she said, and would not engage the man in his gloominess.

"My lady," said Dolorous Edd as he turned, quaffed a large gulp of wine, then headed back out to the campsite. Sansa chalked up a confirmation in her head - he either cared for his men or he was uncomfortable in great castles. Either way, he would be a help.

"Tormund, it's good to see you again," said Sansa warmly as she stepped forward to embrace him. The man had gone beyond the wall with her foolish brother; she had no fear of embracing the smelly near-giant... and to be fair, she knew she didn't smell of roses herself.

"Ginger girl! You finally got a real dress!" shouted Tormund exuberantly as he grabbed her around the waist and picked her up like she was a child. Sansa easily held the heavy platter out to the side with one hand while she was lifted, her other hand waving once back and down in a large gesture to settle her guards, then she shoved the largest piece of bread from the tray into his mouth salt grains first, trying to think of what her sister would say to a man like this. With the Free Folk, none of her lessons from Cersei or Littlefinger were suitable, though she was learning.

"We redheads have to stick together," said Sansa with all the enthusiasm she could muster, curtsying as she was set down, showing off her fish-scale patterned boiled leather armor, pattenered in part off of what Bran had drawn of her Uncle Blackfish's armor, "My sister insisted I start getting used to real armor as well as real weapons. With the dead coming, we must all be ready to fight. Have some wine - there's food inside."

Tormund laughed loudly, proceeding to hold Ghost's paws on his hands, accepting his own licks before taking a swallow of wine and going inside.

Sansa spotted a change in the groupings; a large, strong young man stepped out away from the others, looking around with bright blue eyes... Baratheon eyes, in a Baratheon face. This was Robert's bastard, then, Arya's brother-by-choice Gendry, looking around like a lost little baby deer. She continued greeting the Free Folk and Night's Watch courteously. Once, when Gendry looked to be getting back in the receiving line, she mentioned her sister would be happy to see them to the man she was greeting. She suppressed her smirk as the boy instantly stepped out of line again to look around.

As Gendry finally approached her, she put on the gentlest smile she could, "Gendry, I presume? Please, have bread and salt and be welcome in our home."

She watched him take the piece farthest from her on the platter, his eyes firmly on the bread. She glanced sideways at Lady Frey with a wink, seeing her friend failing to conceal a smile at his response. He ate the bread, then looked up, "M'lady, your mentioned your sister?"

She handed the platter to a maid, gesturing to the wine Lady Frey was offering him as she collected her staff and returned to take him by the arm, leading him inside, "Arya left something for you, Gendry. Knowing her, of course, it's about killing people."

She kept her expression pleasant as he looked down at her left hand wrapped around his arm with something between panic and puzzlement overlaying the longing underneath. She took in a deep breath of cold air, letting that substitute for the sigh she wanted to give. Yet again, Arya was suspiciously absent, leaving her to deal with the boy's puppy-love for Arya.

She supposed this was vengeance for a thousand spiteful comments about Arya Horseface when she was a dumb child. She felt his muscles relax a bit as she led him towards the sound of hammers on anvils, and thought of her mother. She'd never had the chance to talk to her mother as a woman flowered, but she'd at least had Shae and Margaery. Even Cersei had given her what she nearly had to call kind advice on love and motherhood. Arya would have been out with Sandor then, so Sansa supposed that as the eldest Stark woman remaining, she could count this as her duty.

The boy spoke, his hope clear to her in his voice "Left something for me? Arry did?"

She spoke softly, her guards and one of Lady Frey's girls several paces behind her, "She did. She talked of you to me, you know, said you'd traveled together to Harrenhal and beyond, before something about the Brotherhood and Lady Melisandre."

Sansa watched him, assessing him carefully, with all her skill... people change over time, and she needed to be sure of the boy, despite Arya's protestations. To her satisfaction, he went through several emotions, joy and hope, a boy's clear desire for the unattainable, regret and longing.

"I chose the Brotherhood. Said said I could be," said Gendry before stopping himself, looking up at her, at Lady Stark of Winterfell.

"You are her brother, by her choice," she said as she watched his face fall, continuing softly and with as much warmth for someone her sister loved as possible, "You have a place here, always, Gendry, and a seat at the high table with the family any time you want it. Arya has adopted you, so you're one of us, now. Around this corner is the forge, and there's the chest Arya left for you. Lady Keath will help you with the note; Arya has forbidden me from doing so for some game of her own that she's kept to herself."

"I'm... I'm just a bastard, m'lady," said Gendry before looking down at her the ground again.

She stopped just inside an interior gate between baileys, releasing his arm to put a gloved fingertip under his chin so she could look into his eyes, which were nearly at a level with her own.

"This is the North; until he pledged himself to Daenerys Targaryen, our king - my brother - was a bastard. I spent time acting as a bastard in the Eyrie, doing what I had to do to survive. Being a bastard doesn't matter to my sister, or to my brothers, or to me. If you're a good man, then you're far above many men I've met. Come along, Gendry; your forge awaits. Arya and I made sure you'll have the best tools available."

"Thank you, m'lady," said Gendry, nearly reflexively.

"There's no need for that - call me Sansa. You're family," said Sansa as she escorted him the last few yards to the small forge Arya had picked out for Gendry. She'd had the Barrowton smith who had been using it moved to the main forge area earlier that day, preparing for the arrival of her sister's favorite smith.

Lady Keath came up to his side at Sansa's gesture, the somewhat chubby woman's long black braid waving back and forth atop the goat's foot crossbow she wore as she walked into the forge.

"The package my sister left is in the chest in the far corner," said Sansa, giving Gendry a light push.

With that, Gendry hastened past the guard at the entry and into the small, well-equipped forge he'd been brought to, not even stopping to enjoy the heat it still held from recent use. He went directly to the chest in the corner, barely paying attention to the lady behind him, or the tools that were here, some of which he'd only ever seen in Tobho Mott's shop.

Opening the chest, he reverently took out the pair of Valyrian steel blades within, the first a tapering, slightly curved dagger of moderate length with a fantastically crafted dragonglass and dragonbone hilt, tapering to a sharp point. The second was a medium length, wide blade with a pronounced curve, the point an inch and a half higher than the hilt, a skinning blade with an X shaped sigil on the hilt.

The rest of the weapons in the chest contained were a two castle-forged steel spearheads, one narrow and only six inches long, the other of moderate width and a nine and a half inch long blade. Also in there were four castle-forged plate cutter heads of different sizes and designs - good ones those, one was probably from Essos based on the hollow-grinding of the four faces, two very slender knives without a separate hilt and with no quillon, and a few lengths of leather straps.

Under the straps were some long, slender needles with feathers on the end; those he'd never seen before, though they were clearly castle-forged steel as well. He'd never seen castle-forged steel needles before, certainly not ones that straight, but he supposed some rich girl might have had them. The feathers... he had no clue.

Aside from those, the chest had a letter and a wooden knitting needle with a tiny ring on the end so it could be attached to a chain, just like the chain Lady Stark had worn, he realized. The letter, he opened, staring at the sight of Arry's, Arya's handwriting and diagrams for a long time before he handed it to the Lady behind him, "I can't read, m'lady."

Lady Heath nodded; the boy reminded her of one of her brothers, an eager young man. He'd been killed in the fighting, or so she'd heard. For now, she looked down at the note and read,

Gendry,
I told you that you could be my family before you joined the Brotherhood, before they sold you to the Red Woman. You're in my home, now, so you get to be my family - you're my brother by choice, as my father was the King's brother by choice. Bran's told me you're alive, healthy, coming back from Eastwatch. I'm sorry I'm away, but Sansa will take care of you - she's your sister now, so treat her like family, you dumb lump! She's much better now than she was as a child... so, I suppose, are all of us that survived. You told me about your master smith forging Valyrian steel; well, it's your turn, now. The catspaw dagger is mine. I've enclosed drawings of what I need.

Try to make as much with the Valyrian steel as you can. It's the only thing we have that can face a White Walker's weapon without shattering in a few blows. From Catspaw, I need a twelve inch dagger, long and narrow and as thin as it can be and still be strong enough to punch through armor - like the bravo blades, but proportionate. Put a quillon on it like Longclaw has, but with a sharper curve, so I can catch an enemy's blade with it. You remember Needle - that ring on one side to protect my hand? Make it on both, but covered in castle-forged steel.

Irresso can help with the dagger.

My hands are a big bigger now - use the strings.

With whatever's left, make a small spearhead, narrow, two of the slender throwing knives, then figure out how many plate cutter arrow heads you can make from the rest. Make all but one - the rest of the steel, use for blowgun needles - they've got to be perfectly straight, as sharp as can be. Meera can help you with the arrowheads - Valyrian steel's much lighter than castle-forged, so she'll need to work out the right balance and what arrow shafts work. Trust her - she's one of us.

The skinning knife is the Bolton's - don't tell Sansa that, or let her see it before you've changed its face. She needs a spearhead - narrow and thin and ladylike, but long and strong enough to punch through a giant's armor or clothing and strike flesh - ten inches at least.. Tormund can tell you about the giants - you know him well enough, by now. Then she needs a weapon to carry - like my Needle, but tiny enough to fit inside a knitting needle, so she can always wear it. If there's enough left, make plate cutter heads for scorpion bolts first, and arrows next - use just enough Valyrian steel for each to puncture dragon scale.

You told me about how spearheads and arrowheads had sockets to fit the shaft in, how it took time to change shafts. We make wooden threads with iron, right? If anyone can put threads in castle-forged steel, you can. Make me threads in castle-forged steel, tight-fitting and solid, fitted to scorpion bolt shafts, regular and long spear shafts, and pike shafts. And do a short spear shaft with fittings at both ends for the spearheads. We don't know what we'll be facing, so if we can mount Valyrian steel heads to different shafts, we'll be better off - you fit your weapon to your enemy just as you choose the right hammer for each part of forging.

Make these like you make your hammers, not like you made that bull helm. They're for war, not for show, just like me. Well, except Sansa's. You can make hers pretty. She won't admit it, but she still likes pretty things.

Lyanna can help you with the balance on the scorpion bolts for the spearheads and the plate cutters. You'll like her! She's very skilled, and won't care at all where you came from if you help her crews kill giants and dragons better.

Get Maester Wolkan involved too - tell him I said to, that we needed to see what'll punch through dragon scales, hard as iron.

See you soon.

Your sister by choice,
Arya Stark of Winterfell.

P.S. Don't be a bull-headed idiot, sit at the high table with our family. There's no fancy food to be scared of, not in winter.

Gendry watched the Lady carefully lay out the letter, then a set of diagrams Arya had - rather crudely - drawn, with a set of leather straps for each to show exactly the sizing she wanted.

He couldn't help but pick up one drawing - a careful sketch of her right hand, apparently for him to use for the dagger's grip. He stared at it for a time, remembering the girl who had told him that if he was going to practice, he should do so properly. He shook himself once, then reached for the knives to start disassembling them so he could see if they were full tang.

He hoped so - his lady, well... his family was a bit demanding, just as he remembered. He wanted to do his best for her... for them, even if he was a bit confused by the whole thing... and even if he wished he'd left with her when he first offered. Maybe then he could have been a different kind of family for her, somehow.

"M'lady, could I have someone to help me with the bellows in an hour? I'll need some other materials, too."

************************

Arya led her column of sleds over the hill, glancing up with red cheeks briefly to see White Harbor below, the bay full of ships, then she had to look back down at the snow. While it was well past noon, her duty hadn't changed, merely gotten easier as it got lighter and she gained experience. While she hadn't flipped her sled, she had earned several ice-loaded snowballs to the back of the head over the course of the morning as she made mistakes Meras had to correct.

She'd figured out what she'd watched but not seen, and hadn't made those mistakes again. Approaching the city, she led the column towards one of the streets that had two feet of hardsno, left there quite deliberately for the sled teams to use, heading for the main staging area for the harbor.

Once there, she brought her four-dog over next to the buildings the ice-river clan were using for their camp in port, right next to the harbor as befitted the clan who ran the fastest land transport in the world. She dismounted quickly, taking the harnesses off her dogs and collecting food and water for them from the clansmen who'd readied it when they saw the approaching dogsleds in their far-eye. Once the dogs were taken care of, she pull her small bundle off her sled, slung it over her back, and made her way through the early arrivals to look out at the ships in the harbor.

Arya saw the Dornish had arrived, and very recently at that - some of them, bundled up like snowmen, had come to gape at the clansmen. She was amused to see the clansmen were ignoring the gawkers entirely - they'd been back and forth more than enough it was all old hat to them... and, yes, her troupe were following suit, taking care of dogs and cargo in a businesslike manner.

A soft voice with a Dornish drawl caught her ear; something in the quality of it suggested command. She bent over a dog, eyes glancing over towards it... a slender girl, skin the color of teak, much darker than the usual Dornish, dressed in snowy men's furs, clumsily layered - all of them were put on in the same direction, so an opposing wind could catch them all. The girl wore thick boots, at least, and a man's hat pulled tight.

More interestingly, two score yards behind her were a set of Dornish guards with bows and well maintained quivers, also over bulky layers of clumsily applied furs, watching her like hawks with a chick out of the nest.

Well, she might get to have more than one kind of fun in White Harbor, after all.

For now, Arya picked up her spear and bundle, striding over to Skamund with a serious, compassionate expression. It was time to wear No One's face, and do the Many-Faced God's work.

************************

Chapter Text

Alleras looked around the busy port city with excitement, pulling the furs tighter around herself; it was bad enough aboard ship, but here in the street the sea breeze wasn't refreshing like it was at home, but brutally chill. She was rather surprised to see so many weapons in evidence - practically everyone was carrying something, from young girls to old men, and nearly everyone had something with an obsidian blade!

Why were they all carrying obsidian, called dragonglass, she wondered? The raven had mentioned fire, dragonglass, and Valyrian steel as what was needed to fight the dead, but to have armed the entire population? Or was it just the people at the port, which was clearly on a war footing? An aspect of Northern culture, perhaps?

There was so much that was new to her here, so while the ships were being unloaded, she took the time to explore without attracting attention, and perhaps she could manage to buy passage farther North, so she could see the fantastic mysteries with her own eyes. And... well, if the Maesters had never noticed, she was sure she could play her game here, too.

Glancing back at her bodyguards, she amended her thought; without attracting too much attention. They were sweet to try so hard for her, but who was going to attack poor Alleras, acolyte of the Citadel gone North to learn of mysteries that had been hidden for thousands of years? Just because her sisters... she shook her head firmly, striding on, shaking out her gloved hands and wiggling her cold feet.

Following a fishy sort of meaty smell, she passed a long building, went up a ramp of snow that came to mid-thigh on her, and beheld a new sight - scores of dogs and puppies surrounding some people wearing almost nothing! Well, not almost nothing like Tyrene wore... had worn... at home, but almost nothing like why are they not frozen solid like the hanging ice she'd seen at the corners of buildings with just one or two layers of those mottled furs? The women even had fur skirts, some of them! This must be like the differences in animals in different regions of the world - these people were used to the cold. Unlike her.

Looking again, Alleras saw that all - literally all - of the people in those outfits were on one side of the large square, facing the same direction... the side most protected from the wind, and they put their backs to the wind as well! She turned that way, too, pausing in the lee of a building, holding a cold, gloved hand out from under her furs to cup her nose and mouth, breathing out and enjoying how it warmed her nose as she stood on packed snow, watching some old men and women stirring pots of delicious-smelling seal soup.

At a new sound, she turned to watch as a pack of large dogs approached at a run, groups of them in harnesses pulling low, wheel-less carts, sliding over the snow! The lead cart was smaller than the others, with only four of those dogs with the pointy ears pulling it, and had little but a small bundle of furs, bow and arrows and a spear, two snow-covered sticks, maybe torches, sticking out the sides, and a short, slender woman dressed in what looked like a single layer of furs on the back.

Behind it, another small, nearly empty cart driven by an old man with four dogs, and then... that was really a lot of dogs! Six, seven, eight much bigger carts sliding atop slats, piled with people and supplies, pulled by a dozen or more big dogs each. Alleras looked around at the entire area coming alive with calls and greetings, adults and children piling out of the building to greet the newcomers.

Some of the carts had people sitting, some had people standing, all had a steersman standing at the very back. One coming in had a youngster driving it, with a pretty girl in a fur skirt lounging on it! No, not lounging - her head was moving back and forth, slowly, just like a lookout's would on watch in a crow's nest, but she was only looking up? Maybe she was watching for birds for the archers to shoot for dinner? Maybe she was looking for dragons - she'd heard the Targaryen queen had three dragons, after all!

Looking back at the lead sled, the rider and her sled were covered in snow and tiny pieces of ice like rough sand or fine gravel. Even her face was bare to the wind, though she could only see the middle because the edge of the hood was covered in thick fur, which was also full of snow! That bow she had was of medium size, made of horn - not as big as a longbow, but not as small as a bow for a mounted archer. It was probably designed to be fired while riding on those carts, she thought. What people could come up with was fascinating!

Other travelers - some from Essos, even - and what looked like locals were also gathering to watch the strange procession. The lead rider had already freed her dogs from the traces and was going to get some food, no, wait, she was feeding the dogs, not herself. Alleras approved - a woman who took care of her mount first was a woman whose mount would take care of her, as her father had taught her.

As the entire column started doing the same things as well as unpacking and calling to each other in a language she'd never even heard of, she turned to some children who were watching wide-eyed and used the deeper voice she'd perfected in Oldtown to ask, "Do they do this often? Where did they come from?"

************************

Arya clapped Skamund on the shoulder, squeezing tightly for a moment, nodding a greeting to the lean, broad-shouldered woman he was talking to, who looked much alike - a full sister, she thought. His sister cocked her head at him, and he let a bit of his grief show through, gave her a rough hug, and led them into the building. Arya followed silently, tilting her spear blade down to slip through the door into the darker interior, following them through room after room towards the back corner.

Once they were past the rooms where the sleds were being unloaded into, the woman led them to a nearly full storeroom where she and Skamund spoke in low tones. Arya couldn't make out everything, though it seemed like a normal enough question and answer about what he'd asked her here for, about their father, and about her. She heard 'Snabbis' a few times, and then the woman turned to her.

"I'm Karette, Snabbis. This one," the woman said, thumping Skamund on the chest, "says you're some kind of priestess of death? You can talk to our father?"

Arya's face was still and quiet as if she was made of ice herself. She answered quietly, "Valar Morghulis. I am a priest of the Many-Faced God, called No One when I do the work of the one true god, Death. The very first priest's first action to answer the call of the Many-Faced God was to grant the gift of death to a slave of Valyria who prayed their life to end, for they were in pain. Do you believe your father prays for death?"

They looked at each other for a long moment as Arya waited patiently, feeling the patience of the Many-Faced God within her. First the brother, then the sister nodded to each other, the one with certainty, and the other with hesitation.

Karette blinked a few times, then continued dry-faced, "My brother believes so. I am not sure. I know he is in great pain; that he hates being helpless. We see he worries about the clan, about the army of the dead, about our being tangled up in Southron matters. Every day, for as long as he can, he teaches, and we learn... but there are no more great lessons, only the small ones we will learn in time, and for every week that passes, he can talk for less time before the pain is too much. He should be able to talk, now; we've let him rest today."

Arya nodded, a tiny, short tilt of her head, "I will speak with him, offer him the gift. Only if he truly prays for death will the gift be accepted. Such is the way the gift is given to those who wish it for themselves. Karette, will you please translate for me? I will need but a moment first."

As Karette agreed, Arya gestured to the one door in the windowless room. After the siblings left and closed the door to speak quietly with each other, Arya quickly opened her bundle and dressed in the newest outfit Sansa had made for her, layer after layer, soft leather over hard armor with hidden steel. Truth be told, she felt better wearing the armor, not just because it was some of the best armor she'd seen that would still allow her to use her full flexibility, but also because her sister had made it for her.

She put on Needle and the dragonglass dagger, bundled up her ice-river clan gear in a bundle she tossed atop the supplies with her spear, bow and quiver, then donned the face she'd chosen for public work. No One exited the room through the only entry and smirked broadly as he watched the two jump when they saw him in his enclosing robes.

"Heh. Heh. Heh. What, my old face scared you? When I wear this face, I am No One, doing the business of the Many-Faced God. Take me to your father," said No One in Walder Frey's strong, age-roughened voice, following them with slow, careful steps.

Skamund entered first, embracing his father tightly, speaking quietly for a minute. With one last look, Skamund left them, his eyes suspiciously shiny. The man laying on the furs was much as No One had heard; his right arm and both legs were gone, the scent of pus, blood, shit and piss was clear in the air. His forehead was slightly damp with sweat, explaining why he so far indoors with a lamp dedicated to his room.

"This is Naike, my father, who has led our clan since I was a child."

As he looked up, his eyes were sharp, though his face pinched with pain, his voice weak and thready, interrupted by wet, hacking coughs. No One strode stood a few feet away, having been leaning back slightly to admire Karette's ass while she was attending to her father, having made sure his leer was visible only to the man.

His daughter clasped his left shoulder, translating rapidly, "You're the witch, here to take me away from my clan so you can steal my daughter?"

"Heh heh. I'm too old to steal her away, and if I did, your son wouldn't have her good advice, wouldn't have her running half the clan by herself, would he? No, I'm here to see what you think of how your children and your clan have done since you got mauled at Hardhome," said Arya. Stubborn men like this didn't want or need sympathy... they needed to see that they had accomplished what was required, that they had left a strong legacy behind.

The wounded man looked up at his daughter, his one hand covering hers atop his shoulder, and No One shifted his weight to his other leg, wrinkled face turning to take another look at the woman while they spoke, then staring off into the distance absently. This would be a familiar pattern to Naike, one that hadn't changed since he lost his limbs, that of men far too old to steal a woman away who enjoyed looking anyway, then lapsing into memories of the past.

Karette translated again, clearly practiced at the duty. No One was quiet, merely offering a cloth from a nearby bowl of clean water when he broke out in his wet coughing fits, "Nine children my woman and I had. Five lived long enough to be named. Three survived to adulthood, and two are left. They are strong, and wise, and lead the clan well, but they are of the North, and now we are in the South. The dead come for us, the ways are different, our allied clans are weakened. Mance, who understood Southron ways and kept the clans from fighting, is dead."

No One gestured to the hallway leading outside, then patted Karette on the back, "Your son and daughter lead the clan well even in the South. Here, even where the waters are full of fish and seal, despite wolves in the woods and dogs in the kennels, there are no dogsleds... except for those of your clan and the other ice-river clans, whose leaders are working with you. Your children, your clan have offered help that is unique in all the world, help seen by the leaders of two Southron kingdoms, by the representatives of great and powerful kingdoms from across the Narrow Sea, by all the other clans who cannot offer as much in the fight against the dead. It is your son, your daughter the other ice-river clans look to when they wish to know which way the wind is blowing."

No One stepped forward, resting his own hand atop theirs, speaking quietly, "The future is hidden to all, with only faint, deceptive glimpses available to a few. Your clan and your family is in as secure a position as it has been in all of history. We will win or we will die, and if we win, all will know that the ice-river clan was vital to surviving the Long Night come again, with histories written and stories told to be passed on for thousands of years, just as we still know of the last Long Night even today."

"You are sure the Southrons will not turn on the clan after?"

"If we win the wars, I am, and we are in a good position to win - your clan, able to move people and supplies from White Harbor to Winterfell in as little as five days, is a key part of that. The Southrons that live near the Wall are stubborn, most are honorable, most are loyal, and my sister leads them with great wisdom. She recognizes the value, and the independence, of the ice-river clan."

Naike coughed wetly, then spoke for Karette to translate, "She as old as you?"

No One laughed. Only a truthful answer would do, and bringing up the discrepancy between age and face would do the man no good.

"No. She's nearly twenty. The next in line to lead also recognizes the ice-river clan as allies to treat fairly with; a fighter, that one."

The man's hand squeezed his daughter's, then relaxed into trembling, his face drawn even further with pain. He closed his eyes for some minutes, opening them to look at his daughter for a time, then turned his head towards No One, "All right. It's time to go hunting, one last time."

No One nodded, then crossed the room, picking up a clean bowl and a waterskin, pouring a splash of water in and replacing the waterskin next to the lamp. He crossed the room silently, feeling the familiar face and pattern of his god's power as he offered the water. Karette helped her father drink, handing the bowl back without letting go of her father's shoulder.

No One set it down with the remains of his last meal, watching Naike's face relax a bit as the pain left him, "You have a few minutes before the gift is done. I'll send your son back in; he's just a few rooms down."

Suiting actions to words, No One left the room silently, letting his footsteps scuff on the floor a bit as he entered the room he'd been listening to Skamund crying quietly in. No words were needed, he knew, so he simply offered a scrap of cloth, a squeeze on the shoulder, a nod and a slight push towards his father's room.

After Skamund left, No One whispered, "Valar Morghulis."

************************

Sansa approached the forge after darkness had fallen; it came earlier and earlier now, as she'd been told her entire life that it did in winter. Months ago, she'd directed that supper be held late, since nearly everyone was busy through the evening hours, making every use of the light they could. Too, a single late supper let the candles, fires, and torches be used for as short a time as possible, serving as many people as possible during that time. They couldn't afford to be wasteful - winter was here, after the longer summer in living memory, on the eve of the second Long Night.

She heard the sounds of quiet cursing as she entered, and smiled, shaking her head - of course Arya would prefer a man who worked and cursed, like this, even from the South. The royal blood was a surprise, as was how handsome he was, though she suspected Arya cared little and less about either. Truth be told, she cared as little about either now herself, except as she had to account for how others would respond. Joffrey had been beautiful, and Ramsay handsome, both monsters. King Robert let Lady be killed without so much as a word.

"What did that poor piece of metal ever do to you, Gendry?"

She watched him look up from the anvil and the piece he was working on, startled, and smiled at him while wandering over to a table covered in sketches, organized by type. Arya had told her not to read the note to Gendry, but hadn't said anything else... her poor sister, even now too direct and straightforward.

She heard him clear his throat before replying, "Arry, Arya... she asked me to work castle-forged steel, put threads in it. You can't put threads in something without something harder, and the only metal harder than castle-forged steel is Valyrian steel. I tried sand casting it... not good enough, the sand I have isn't quite good enough."

"I'll make sure you have the finest sand, mortar, and clay we have tomorrow morning. Now, however, you need to come eat; I have no doubt that if I let you starve Arya will sheepshift my bed again. If you don't come, I'm sure she has something equally obnoxious in mind for you," said Sansa, casually not noticing Gendry's expression change, picking up one set of drawings - a slender blade that reminded her of Arya's needle, casually asking, "Arya's asked for a new sword?"

She looked up then to see Gendry's expression change as she asked directly of Arya, though he was still clearly uncomfortable in her presence. Well, she knew how to work with rough men well enough, and this one needed a distraction, and badly, but not yet. She'd handle that as soon as she got some answers on what Arya had tasked him to do.

"No, she wanted knives and a few small things. That's for you, to put in a knitting needle for your chain. I might be able to put threads in that, too, though at that size a compression fit might work better. You also get this longer spearhead here; the drawing's plain now, because... oh... never mind. Ahh, say, what kind of designs do you like to wear? Arya said you sewed really well."

She moderated her smirk into a slight smile as he tried so hard to keep a secret from her, looking around at anything but her, "Just wolves these days, I'm afraid - Lady for myself, Nymeria in a stormcloud for Arya, Summer for Bran, Ghost for Jon. For the family as a whole I add Shaggydog and Grey Wind. I'll have one of my ladies bring you some designs after supper. Did Arya ever tell you about sheepshifting my bed?"

"No, m'la...," he started, only to trail off as she looked at him sternly, "No, Sansa. I don't even know what sheepshifting is."

"It's what a sheltered highborn girl was told the vulgar word for sheepshit is. Now, when we were children..."

************************

With a swirl of cloth, Arya Stark rested her hand on Needle's hilt and strode out into the cold to collect her troupe; the lightly loaded sleds had been unloaded fully, so her troupe should be Northerners and Riverlanders again. She followed the sound of Deranna's excited voice telling the others how she'd driven the sled so close to a rabbit one of the clansmen on another sled had shot that her passenger could pick it up without the dogs even slowing down.

Arya went around a building to approach silently out of both Mariya and Korb's line of sight; she was pleased to see Emilee spot her and simply point quietly, alerting the troupe without making a commotion. The young storyteller stopped talking immediately upon spotting her, however, a clear sign to anyone who could hear that something had changed.

"Good work on the trip, all of you! Deranna, when you get a subtle signal like that, you keep doing whatever it was you were, exactly as before - don't let anyone else notice something changed. I know you're sore, but we didn't have the ice-river clan get us here only five days after we left so we could waste time resting!"

Arya smiled at the mix of nods and rude gestures she got, then continued, "All right. Korb, Connas, you're with me; you're skilled, loyal guards, obvious and watching everywhere all the time, ready to kill anyone who comes after me. The Dornish have sent someone interesting and Baelish or Varys may yet have left a trap behind; your job is to make sure you're the obvious threat, keep their attention. The rest of you, find the Ladies Manderly. Tell them loudly that after I've spoken with the ships the Dornish have sent to help us against the dead that I'll sup and sleep at New Castle, though there is to be no feast - I'll eat whatever the men are having."

Emilee and Mariya narrowed their eyes at her in unison, the younger girl speaking in a murmur, her voice conspiratorial, nearly teasing, "And what do we tell them quietly, Lady Winter?"

"That I will neither sup nor sleep with them; I'll be going about other business tonight. I'll see them at breakfast tomorrow. You spent five days with the clan and the clan's cargo; based on your memories, by tomorrow morning, as a group you all are to tell me who the messengers or spies in the people Sansa had shipped were... and who they worked for," said Arya with a wicked grin, "If you get it right, I'll let you pick one day's training subject. If you get it wrong, I pick."

With mixed expressions, Korb settled his sword and bow, Connas brushed the snow off his sword and spear, and the rest of the troupe clustered around the two, efficiently straightening and brushing off their clothes from top to bottom. Arya then handed Connas a small wooden cup in the hopes that she could arrange things to match one of the most memorable, and important, meetings of her life.

With a slight nostalgic smile and what was now, with the passage of time, a fond memory she murmured just loudly enough for her guards to hear, "Straighten up, use your best Lannister posture."

She then strode off towards the soft voice arguing with the increasingly strident Northern guards barring the road to the allied naval forces preparing to depart on the morrow. As she approached, back straight and head high, she saw what she expected - the girl from before, dressed to hide who she was, in a place she didn't belong, trying to get to the fleet.

As she exited the alley behind the girl, she spoke curtly, "What's this?"

The guards scowled, turning towards her, then straightened suddenly, eyes widening as they saw both her guards and the stormy wolf sigil on her chest, "We didn't know you were here yet, my lady!"

"Evidently not, and do not call me my lady. Call me Arya, or if you must, Lady Winter will do. Why is this person standing in the street here, not with their Dornish companions?" asked Arya sternly.

"I want to buy passage on a ship that's going further north! To go with the fleet and see the White Walkers and the wights, if there are any by the shore." said Alleras enthusiastically, waving at the docks past the guards. Arya could hear the Dornish guards making a bad pretense of leaning against the walls a few buildings back shifting uncomfortably, their weapons scraping against the wooden walls.

The Northern guards looked at each other, looked at Arya, then said, "We'll send the boy off immediately, Lady Winter!"

Arya suppressed a smirk; they'd responded to her phrasing as she'd expected, "Are we so well believed that we can afford to discard the chance for well spoken young people to learn the truth of the army of the dead and speak on our behalf? You'll do no such thing. Also, this one's a girl."

She narrowed her eyes at the guards, "You idiot," she said, then a moment later looked at the girl and continued, "Dressed as a boy. Why?"

Alleras, who had had a slight smile with a hint of laughter, responded even as her smile dimmed slightly, her voice not quite so deep now, "Maesters only allow boys."

"Smart. More than I can say for this lot. Come, girl, I need a new cup-bearer," said Arya with a sharp nod as she turned and headed towards the Dornish ships with a quick stride. She had a good view of the Dornish guards step out away from the walls to prepare to act as Connas went directly to the disguised Dornish girl, handing her a small wooden cup and gesturing towards Arya's retreating back.

Arya kept walking, the long strides of her guards quickly accompanied by the quicker patter and scraping of the girl's heavy, bulky boots hitting the ground differently than the footwear she was used to. Arya waited until she was closer, then spoke, "Who are you, girl?"

"Alleras, acolyte of the Citadel, sometimes known as the Sphinx," said Alleras, voice returning to her earlier tone.

"Sphinx... sphinx... I've heard of a sphinx, I know I have. That's a kind of snake, right?" asked Arya, waiting until Alleras was just about to speak to look back at her with a knowing grin, cutting her off before she could get a syllable out, "Like a viper?"

Alleras was about to correct this Arya Stark on what a sphinx actually was when she heard the next part and nearly choked. Like a what? Surely Arya couldn't know that she was the Red Viper's daughter... what kind of snakes did they have in the North? Were vipers common here? She saw Arya's head turn again to look back briefly with teasing sort of look.

"No, Lady Winter, it's a mythical creature with the body of a lion, the wings of a hawk, and the head of a human. It's not like a viper," said the acolyte with a slight smile

"I see," said Arya, striding rapidly along, "Well, lessons are everywhere, if you look for them. I've come a long way; pour me a drink, girl."

Alleras looked down at the plain cup she'd been handed, then around as she walked along just beside and behind the Stark girl who wasn't a lady except when she was Winter. Glancing back, the pair of Stark guards behind her of no help when she glanced back at them, merely giving her amused looks... sympathetic, too, if she was any judge.

"What would you like?"

"Whatever you have in your wineskin will do," said Arya, glancing back with that same teasing smile. Alleras was beginning to mistrust that look somewhat, though she had a ready answer; give the Stark what she'd asked for. A Dornish girl would normally have water or sour wine, not what she actually drank herself! Alleras clumsily moved her furs around, shivering, as she pulled her wineskin up to open it and pour the moving cup half-full. It struck her, doing this, that some of the exercises in grace she'd had mixed in with her other lessons could be even better when done quickly, on rough streets.

With a knowing smile of her own, she handed the short Stark the cup, watching carefully to catch how she'd react. Arya raised the cup - steady as a rock, no less, despite the pace and the uneven, rough cleared street, inhaled briefly, and then took a sip.

"A good vintage; very good. Not from Walano, either, the undertones are different.; this is from one of the smaller Summer Isles," said Arya, looking over at Alleras with sharp eyes, taking another sip, "Possibly Omboru... no, Jhala? Yes. You have a rare pocketbook for an acolyte of the Citadel... Alleras."

Alleras took a drink of her wine herself, then managed to get it put away despite the bulky furs, retorting calmly, making sure to use the feminine instead of the masculine. Those at the Citadel had tried just the same thing on her, after all,, "The wine's a gift from my mother, a trader captain from the Summer Isles. I'm no Lord's daughter."

"Of course you're not a Lord's daughter. A Princess, perhaps," said Arya, glancing back again at Alleras even as the dark-skinned woman's eyes widened, again continuing with a knowing smile after but a moment, "The Summer Isles are ruled by princes and princesses, aren't they?"

Alleras narrowed her eyes briefly. She was nearly sure Arya was playing a game with her now, and she thought she was beginning to understand how it might feel to be on the other side of hidden knowledge and secret japes. How did Arya know so much? Her disguise as a man hadn't been given so much as a second's consideration, and now one pointed jape after another!

"My mother's not a Princess, just a trader captain, as I told you already!"

Alleras watched as Arya kept the same quick stride as they approached the Dornish ships, simply curling the right half of her dark leather cloak in on itself and tucking it over her shoulder, showing the heraldry on her chest as well as that slim sword on her hip. Her stride wasn't hurried, or rushed, or frightened, or angry, but it wasn't just quick, either... Alleras watched the Manderly guards straighten and step to the side at the approach, and then the Dornish guards looked at her, at the Stark and her guards, at the guards she had following her, then back and her and did much the same.

Arya, she saw, hadn't changed her gait one whit and would have plowed into the Dornish guards had they not moved. Inevitable, she thought... Arya moved with quick inevitability, as if she would end up where she was going on her own schedule regardless of the machinations of the world.

The disguised girl was mildly surprised as Arya climbed up the slender crew's gangplank with alacrity despite the swaying, just as surely as she herself did. The Stark guards slowed down like landlubbers, as did her own when they boarded a few seconds later.

Looking back, Alleras spotted Arya's head disappearing down to the cargo hold, and hurried to follow, receiving the empty cup for her troubles as Arya spoke, taking a lantern from the wall and lighting it, looking at the barrels critically, "I see Dorne has sent quite the set of cargo. What does Dorne expect for payment?"

Alleras blinked at the blunt question, then answered in her pronounced drawl, "I'm not an envoy, but I heard they were a gift for the North."

Arya turned to look her in the eye, giving a small, serious nod with a peculiar tilt to it, saying "On behalf of my sister the Lady of Winterfell, the lords and ladies of the Vale, the Free Folk, and all the living, I thank Sarella Sand, ruling Princess of Dorne, for her gift."

"I'm sure she will appreciate the thanks of the North," said Alleras gallantly after recovering from being directly addressed by title. Surely that was simply Arya using her courtesies in a diplomatic way... though the evidence was mounting that the girl, a bit younger than she herself, quite possibly had penetrated her disguise entirely.

"If you say so, it must be true," said Arya with that same knowing smile.

Alleras closed her eyes briefly at yet another barbed comment and even more evidence that she was being made fun of.

She then watched Arya clambering atop the packed barrels like a sailor in rigging, nearly flat so she could squeeze between the top of the barrels and the deck above. Arya was apparently prying open a few barrels in the middle and near the back with a short knife, then inspecting the contents. Once she did that, the Stark called out, "Connas, get one from the top, Korb the bottom. Bring them up top and open them. Looks like we've got shafts of slightly differing weights and tapers, with wooden fletching; two each, so we can use them for crossbows. We can try a few as blunts, see how they work."

Remembering the rest of what she'd brought, she looked over at the shorter, stockier Stark guard, the man with the bow, and decided this was a good enough time to give the rest. She hadn't expected to be doing this herself, but it might just distract Arya, as active as she was, from her constant references to Sarella!

"There was another gift from Dorne I saw on the voyage, to be given to the Starks in particular. Since you're here, perhaps you'd like to see it, Lady Winter?"

"Lead the way, Alleras," said Arya with a smile.

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Sansa climbed the stairs with Gendry and Meera early the next morning in silence. He hadn't participated too much in the conversation last night, though with she and Bran as the only two Starks present, it was up to her to speak the most regardless.

She'd selected a talkative miller to join them to set Gendry at ease last night, which seemed to have worked. On the times Gendry had spoken up, he'd displayed a surprising knowledge of how grains could be used in baking; apparently, Hot Pie was a mutual friend of his and her sister, and had taught them quite a bit about baking.

For now, though, she was taking them to the ballista emplacement atop of the tallest tower in Winterfell, where Lady Mormont had made her lair. He apparently needed to talk to both Lyanna and Meera about some critical aspect of forging Valyrian heads for bows and crossbows, scorpions and ballista. While Sansa knew little enough of archery even now, she did know that all but bows were essentially the same, and the arrows were similar enough except for the fletching.

She arrived to quite a full platform and made sure Gendry stayed well out of the way of the ballista itself. Meera had said she was to meet the other commanders here in the dark predawn hours as well - Lord Royce was a solid and comforting presence, and the others were well known to her. Maester Wolkan was also present, along with the Mormont Maester and the Myrish pyromancers, having a lively discussion.

She'd noticed everyone was standing on the eastern side of the platform... seeing the glass balls sitting in buckets of sand, glowing a virulent green on the western side explained that well enough. Wildfire was dangerous at the best of times - she'd heard Tyrion speak of it often enough, before and after the Battle of the Blackwater.

"We loosed a test ball with water yesterday and had no troubles, we must try the real thing, to learn what the splash is like!" exclaimed a pyromancer.

"Wildfire is less dense than water; we'll have greater speed off the same weapon, which means greater stress. We should fire one full of alcohol - a strong drink would be closest," argued Maester Wolkan.

"We can't even see the fires of the camps yet, much less the target. The morning fog is too thick," said Lord Royce, calmly.

Lady Mormont was standing next to Fjornel, who had the grips of the ballista in her hands, the both of them staring out to the northeast, ignoring all conversation. Sansa watched without speaking for a time; the argument continued until all fell silent as Lady Mormont spoke sharply, pointing "There! Ware weapon!"

Fjornel swiveled the large weapon a short distance, the others on the platform close to the ballista ducking as instantly at the phrase as sailors would when 'Ware boom' sounded on a ship's deck. Sansa watched with interest; she hadn't been up here before, having left this to Arya. With her sister gone, however, she felt the need to attend some of the military meetings herself, to learn, to show the Stark banner, and most importantly to ensure that anything that could be done to help was being done.

"Sound ready to loose, Umber giant, marksmen, round," said Lady Mormont, causing a patterned drumbeat to sound from the 'deck' of the platform just underneath the top deck. Her crew immediately loaded a round stone onto the ballista, while Fjornal kept staring into the shifting fog, holding the ballista steadily out into the grey nothingness. A few drums sounded from the other emplacements, the ones with expert marksmen aiming.

"Loose," said the small bear calmly, long practice only adding to her personal self-confidence as a loud TWANG announced the rapid departure of the stone, followed by three other rapid twangs and Lyanna's disappointed comment of, "Straight, but I can't tell."

Another set of drumbeats came sounding back from outside the castle walls, leading to Lyanna nodding gravely, "Two out of four hits, one close by, one a medium miss. Good shooting!"

Sansa looked at Gendry; he looked confused. Meera answered him as the other conversations resumed

"That's Fjornel; she's a sorcerer on any size crossbow; she caught a glimpse of the campfires as the wind blew the fog about and used that to aim at where she knows the giant target is. The drums are to convey messages much farther than a shout, like we and the Night's Watch use horns, but with many more than three messages. Lady Mormont ordered only the best archers, the marksmen, to fire round stones at the wight giant target near the Umber camp; half the stones hit. To be fair, the cart the giant target is on wasn't moving yet, either - that would be impossible without being able to see."

Maester Wolkan spoke up, "Not impossible, my lady, merely an exercise in mathematics! We can calculate how fast it's moving and in what direction, and then aim where it will be when the shot arrives."

Lyanna growled, "If I had a better way of aiming than relying on only the best marksmen's eyesight and skill at aiming from memory and holding steady, we could have more than a score bolts loosed into the target, not just a handful. Darkness, fog, or snow make most of my crews more dangerous to our own than the enemy, and we don't want to skewer our own defenders when the enemy gets inside the outer defenses."

Sansa approached the weapon, reaching out to nudge it up and down smoothly on its mounting and that 'universal joint' that made it so quick to aim compared to the trebuchets they'd bought. She thought back to her childhood, to her lessons with Maester Luwin. She'd been just old enough to stay up late at night with him in the year before she left for King's Landing, seeing the stars through his far-eye.

Sansa spoke thoughtfully, "During my astronomy lessons as a child, Maester Luwin was able to aim his far-eye at things in the sky that couldn't be seen by using some notes he had, markings on the mount and a circle, and a water clock."

The two Maesters stared at each other, "Setting circles?"

"Setting circles!"

"My apologies, Lady Stark, we had never considered that! Neither of us having our bronze links, you see. Maester Luwin was an exceptional Maester indeed, to be teaching such a complex subject to children! We can devise a circle to go underneath for azimuth, and then a half-circle for the elevation. Then we can take measurements and construct a chart to show where to aim to fire at each area!"

Meera snorted, "We're on a round tower; mark your circle on the railing. We don't need anything fancy - everyone knows where the camps are, so we can use them to point. My archers are training for volley fire past the walls; we can use the same thing there, put banners on the walls for the archers to use for aiming."

Lady Mormont wore her characteristic scowl as she pondered, "Each engine's offset by so much they'll all need their own corrections. They're not like your archers all packed together, Lady Meera. Maester, you'll work out the best way for the crews to aim when we get messages from the fighting men."

After another few minutes of discussion, Sansa stepped forward, speaking in an approving tone, "I'm glad to see everyone working together to defend ourselves against our enemies. This is Gendry; who many of you saw at the high table last night and this morning. Arya traveled with him after escaping King's Landing years ago, and has chosen him as her brother by choice, so please welcome him as a member of our family. He's been working Valyrian steel and needs to speak with experts on some weapons my sister has asked him to make."

She watched Gendry's eyes widen as the collective attention of the gathered leaders turned to him. He'd have to get used to that - members of the Stark family were always going to attract attention. For now... yes, as she expected, he was diving into his work to give him familiar ground. He pulled out a very large, blunt four-sided bolt head with a queer construction, the top third a little larger and of a different color than the rest. Holding it up, his voice gaining confidence as he spoke.

"Arya told me to make Valyrian steel plate cutter bolt heads for the war, and I've seen the army of the dead, and I've seen dragons. Even the Night King missed one while it was flying, so I know we need a lot. This is a first try at a two part head - the tip, here, is Valyrian steel, with a short tang like a knife's to mate it with castle-forged steel for the rest of the head. This one's spear sized to test."

She watched him look around; while there was a little muttering, he definitely had their attention.

The Lady of Bear Island asked bluntly, "Good. What do you need?"

"Arya said someone called Lyanna could help with the balance of scorpion bolts, Lady Meera would do the same for arrows, and she said to ask Maester Wolkan to help with testing what'll punch through dragonscale the best."

The small girl held out her hand imperiously, leading Gendry to give her the bolt head. Lady Mormont tossed it up and down in her hand briefly, stuck her thumb into the socket opposite the Valyrian steel, then handed it off to Fjornel and selected a particular ballista bolt from the stacks behind her, handing it to Gendry, "Replace the head on this one and we'll see how it flies."

Sansa waited patiently, listening to the conversations as the assessed the general tone of approval. The approval for the weapon was solid, and with it the approval for Gendry, for Arya's naming him her brother, and for her own support of that choice.

The Valyrians may have had Valyrian steel bolts before, she didn't know. She was, however, quite sure they would have made far fewer with the same amount of metal Gendry's design would make. Any disagreement the lords and ladies might have had about a lowborn man - or, when they found out, a bastard - being named as a family member to the Starks would be easily overwhelmed by the wondrous weapons he was forging, at least for until the war was won, or lost.

They wouldn't have many, but these would be the best chance they had to penetrate dragon scale, wight giants with any kind of armor, or wight mammoths... and it didn't risk burning the crew and the castle alive like wildfire did. They'd continue to work with wildfire, of course, but it and dragonglass-encrusted steel plate cutters weren't their only good options anymore.

She may not know warfare, but she knew politics, and in both you needed to have plan after plan after plan, because when you ran out of plans that worked, you died.

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Chapter Text

Arya snuck another look at the magnificent double-curved goldenheart bow Korb was carrying, which Alleras had gifted to 'House Stark' as she pulled out sets of fletched shafts from each barrel, inspecting them carefully. The scents from the barrels in particular brought back memories; Maester Luwin's old storage room deep in Winterfell and many rooms in the House of Black and White had smelled like this. She could tell the wood was old, barrels and arrows both, but seemed sound enough.

Arya took off her gloves to run her fingertips down a few shafts, some from each barrel they'd brought up, then over the pair of wooden fletchings on each shaft. Holding them up one at a time, she sighted along them into the sky, verifying how straight they were and that the fletchings were angled slightly in opposite directions to spin the arrow correctly. Most were thicker near the head, good for penetration strength, while a few had the thicker section farther back.

Arya was just slipping her gloves back on when she heard Alleras echo what some of the crew had already been whispering, "How do you do that?"

"Do what, girl? Check if the arrow's straight? You hold it up..." said Arya innocently, noting the reactions of the Dornish sailors to her casual address of Alleras with amusement. She casually slipped her gloves back on, her hands not cold enough to need to tuck them under her arms to ward off frostbite yet. Flexing her fingers regularly would do well enough with the current light breeze, and the gloves Sansa had made were quite flexible, except for a section over the back of her hand that was much, much tougher.

"No, not that!" interrupted Alleras, "Don't you feel how cold it is? You're wearing a quarter as much as me, and I'm freezing! Then you take off those gloves, and don't even blow on your hands!"

"I am a Stark; the Starks are of the North. The wind's barely blowing, besides. You should never blow on your hands in the cold, girl, you'll only get them damp and lose even more heat. You're also cold because your furs are on wrong," said Arya as she selected sets of arrows, "You need to alternate directions, so the wind can't blow through them all at once. Fetch me two quivers, girl, so we can try these ancient relics out."

"Hey! Those are in perfect shape! Wood doesn't degrade like feathers do!" said Alleras as she jogged off to a small door on deck, glaring at those member of her crew that were giving the Stark unfriendly looks. She'd told them that Alleras was not a princess and to be treated like any other acolyte, but some of them were still upset by their princess being ordered around.

For herself, she thought, other than the references to 'girl', it was comfortingly familiar to her time at the Citadel, before her sisters had been captured and... before she had to be a princess again. She opened up her layers of furs, then tied them as Arya'd told her to. Then she slung her own bow, dumped out two quivers of arrows, picked up a third of good flight arrows, and exited.

Alleras went back to Arya, handing her and her tall guard, the one not carrying her gift to the Starks, a quiver each. Looking at the arrows Arya was selecting, she frowned and asked, "Are you going to have a lot of different people shooting, or use several different bows?"

Alleras watched Arya look up with a clear expression of interest, "Just Korb and I," she said, then Alleras saw her add that infuriating knowing smile, and continue, "We'll try out the bow Princess Sarella handed me. I mean gave to the Starks of Winterfell, sorry."

The acolyte narrowed her eyes at the alleged mistake, then looked at the small Stark, assessing her capability as an archer. She looked... remarkably fit, actually, and certainly wasn't bothered by carrying that Braavosi blade she had. Then again, archery was a very different discipline than swords or spears or whips, and used different muscles. She could foresee two likely outcomes to this experiment... either Arya would be entirely unable to correctly draw the warbow and she could have a good laugh, or she would learn something different about her host, who she would need to deal with for many years to come.

For now, though, it appeared that the Stark was not a connoisseur of the bow. Alleras picked up the longest, most flexible and the shortest, least flexible arrow before her, holding them up to demonstrate as the Maesters did with examples while lecturing their students, "Look at them! These aren't matched at all! If you've only got two archers and one bow, you should have two sets of arrows, matched precisely to all the variables of each. Let me see your draws!"

Alleras watched as the stout man drew the double-curved bow back and held for two seconds. He drew as a hunter draws, held the bow that way. She could see he was clearly experienced with heavier bows, since he was perfectly comfortable with this one, overdrawing it slightly before recovering.

The bow she's selected had a moderate draw for a warbow, a bit lighter than her own greatbow, making up for that with the added flight speed of the double curve design. She'd selected it based on what little the raven from the North had given her to work with - the scroll had claimed the younger sister to be a warrior. This was a rare bow indeed outside of the Summer Isles, and one that even a small woman could, with dedication, train up to using properly.

Alleras watched Arya take the bow and arrow, tugging the string back a few inches, then nearly a foot; she had a good grip, though her stance was a bit odd, similar to one her father had shown her after returning from Essos, but not quite the same, and not really suited to a short woman with a bow. Looking up, she saw Arya had been evaluating her as well... then, suddenly, Arya was just past full draw on that bow, recovered the inch or so she'd gone too far, and held that for half a second. She saw the wolf girl returning to a resting nock this time. Seven hells, Arya was quick!

Alleras thought for a moment. They both had good, solid technique, good draws, and most importantly did so with a familiarity that spoke of very consistent form. She knew archers and she knew archery, and so selected two from the pile before her, "If you truly want to shoot these as blunts, find some like these. The rest need heads to fly correctly with that bow."

At Arya's quick nod, they quickly sorted through the arrows to find those matching the two she'd selected, one set into each quiver. She saw as Arya glanced up at the street, shouldered the bow and strode towards the gangplank with but a glance over her shoulder, "Time to meet our hosts. Come, girl, bring the quivers and refill my cup - I'll need a drink to deal with the politics. It's always a pain dealing with lords and ladies; though I suppose princesses with guards following them everywhere must be more difficult still. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Alleras?"

The Dornish woman slid the last of the matching arrows into the quivers, slipping the three over her left shoulder easily as she followed, Korb and the other of Arya's guards following her in turn. She could see what had caught Arya's attention now - there were a pair of ladies with an escort of their own coming around the corner towards their section of the docks now.

She recognized the green-haired one, Lady Wylla - she was the merman in charge of the harbor, and had come personally to greet the captains of the Dornish ships and welcome them to the North. The last thing she needed was a diplomatic incident, so she gave a small gesture, then a larger one to stop her own guards from following. They had a point, she knew, when she was trying to poke around on her own, but meeting highborn families while being a Stark's cup-bearer? She'd be better off with her wits than with her guards. Glancing back at the two Stark guards following her, she replied.

"More than I did this morning... Princess Arya," said Alleras with her own knowing smirk.

Arya spun around to walk backwards and gave a short nod with that little twist Jaqen liked to use to Alleras, "Do not call me Princess... even if I still was one. Since Jon pledged to fight for Daenerys Targaryen, I'm no princess, not anymore."

Arya winked at Alleras, then spun back around, assessing the group approaching. The green-dyed blonde in her early twenties would be Wylla, and the brunette in her mid twenties Wynafryd. Both carried spears with full dragonglass heads, not just shards of dragonglass, though that was clearly a status symbol, as neither of them was nearly good enough to merit that amount of dragonglass on skill alone. Behind them were a few other lords sworn to House Manderly, almost all younger, all looking at her. Marriage bait, Arya thought, to trap the foolish and unwary.

Arya kept to the quick commander's gait she'd been using at Winterfell in public, that was an easy face to take, consistent in the North, and well suited to completely ignoring some of the politics. Sansa had insisted she couldn't ignore them all, however, and it looked like the Manderlys were definitely players of the game if they wanted her married into a family of their vassals. Behind her Korb and Connas were stopping at the right distance, and Alleras was pouring another cup of sweet wine, more than close enough to observe what happened here, and for Arya to hear her reactions.

She saw Wynafryd's eyes flick over her little party, lingering only briefly on Alleras as she dropped into a graceful curtsy, "Welcome to White Harbor, Lady Winter. We're delighted you've taken the time to visit our city, and we're all very much looking forward to seeing you at New Castle tonight. We hope Lady Stark is well, as well as Lord Jon and Lord Bran. Per your orders, my mother, Lady Manderly is overseeing the normal repast. Is there anything we can do to help you?"

"Anything at all before the feast? We're so honored to have you here!" added Wylla excitedly, looking at Arya's sword and dagger combination with undisguised interest.

Arya added a small smile on her face as she nodded a greeting of her own. Clearly her little troupe's messages had been passed on to only the elder daughter. Wynafryd was lying, and lying skillfully, while Wylla was near-painfully open and clearly unaware of the actual plans, as she herself had been before King's Landing. The rest of them knew nothing, as it should be. The Manderlys were clearly a very dangerous family... and, so far, one that appeared dangerous on behalf of her family. She approved.

"There is. The guards and dock workers need to have more training in what is and is not expected of them; Sansa sent a score men down with me to add to the guard on the docks and the main travel lanes for those going to and from Winterfell, see that they're put to work. Have anyone without the right qualifications reassigned to other areas."

Wylla nodded sharply, her eyes bright, and gestured to the oldest of the men behind the Manderly sisters, "I've put Lord Mitchar Woolfield, here, in charge of the defenses of the harbor. Lord Woolfield, see to Lady Winter's orders immediately."

Arya turned her head to look at the watchtowers and the other scorpion and ballista mounts atop them and upon the castle and other high towers in the city, taking the time to make it clear to those who paid attention that she was inspecting their crews as well, then let her smile turn dangerous, "Lady Wylla, Lord Woolfield, good work. Your siege engine crews are alert, and the engines themselves are placed well and have a good field of view - I believe Lady Mormont herself would approve. Girl, you arrived aboard ship recently, tell me what you saw of how the harbor is handled?"

Holding out her hand, she accepted the cup from Alleras, taking a sip as she watched the reactions to her asking a lowborn commoner's opinion. A couple of the younger lords would be unable to hide their disdain even from a casual inspection, but overall... good enough.

"We were spotted quite leagues away and given an escort closer. The harbor pilot was skilled, and the harbor itself well organized. The path in isn't the quickest when there's only a pair of ships entering, but it'll be quite good with more vessels," said Alleras confidently,

"My sister Lady Wylla is in charge of the harbor," said Wynafryd gently, "She's always been running about the ships, and she's done a remarkable job handling the fleets we've had dock recently."

"Well done, Lady Wylla. You, your harbormasters, and your crews are a credit to the North and should be proud of what you've done! Only well organized, well defended harbors can give our allies a place to unload the amounts of supplies we're going to need to win the wars we're in now. Even just the first caravan of goods from Braavos was an incredible boon; with that, Winterfell was able to fill the defensive moats with pitch and tar for the first time, which will let us hold off the greater army of wights while the archers whittle them down with dragonglass-tipped arrows."

"Thank you, Lady A... Winter!" said Wylla with a deep blush.

"You did it, not me, Lady Wylla. You've got crews ready to unload the hundreds of barrels of fletched shafts Princess Sarella of Dorne has sent?"

"They'll start in three hours, Lady Winter. All crews are busy loading up the fleet heading north to search the coastline past the Wall. Unless you'd like me to unload the arrows now?"

"No, that'll be fine. The shafts are fletched, but it'll take weeks to fit them all with dragonglass heads. Have shifts working on that constantly, but another three hours won't make enough difference to matter, while making sure we get better intelligence and allies who have seen the dead with their own eyes might. Where's the nearest training ground? Princess Sarella also gifted the Starks with a magnificent bow, and I'd like to try it out," said Arya, turning to show the bow she was wearing to the Manderly group.

She saw the two Manderly sisters look at each other briefly, glance at the men behind them that she'd been near-ignoring, look at each other again, exchanging some very subtle facial gestures. Clearly the two were close even with the secrets the elder was keeping, not like she and Sansa had been before she'd returned to Winterfell. Just as clearly, they weren't fools - they'd very subtly offered men, and she could see they weren't going to press the matter. Sansa, she thought with a mental smirk, would be enjoy having some other girls to play friendly games with. Should they ever turn out to be not so friendly, well, she had games she could play, too.

The green-head looked back at Arya and stepped forward alone, gesturing to the harbor road, away from the Braavosi fleet, "Half a mile along here is a training ground. Lord Mitchar, see to it that the training range is cleared for Lady Winter."

The man in charge of defenses dipped his head deferentially, "Lady Winter, would you like any particular type of training?"

"Surprise us, something challenging for four, including three with bows. Include every type of wight - my cup-bearer's curious, and I need to see what you've come up with for training."

"Yes, Lady Winter."

Arya drained her cup, handed it back to Alleras, then smirked, "You're obviously proud of that bow, girl. Are you in good shape, too?"

"Of course! At the Citadel, we have to go up and down hundreds of steps each day."

"Good. I'll see you at dinner, Lady Wynafryd, Lady Wylla," replied Arya, nodding courteously to the Manderlys, then set off at her usual brisk jog, Connas and Korb following immediately. To her credit, Alleras's footsteps started moving nearly as quickly as her men's had, even without any warning. A half-mile jog wasn't really long enough for real training, but it was probably more than enough to start Alleras off with. A minute later, staccato, rolling drumbeats sounded behind them and then before them.

Unlike Winterfell, she didn't recognize all the patterns, but the specific ones they'd sent out by messenger were clear and distinct. Any of their allies, trained in the basic signals, would recognize them instantly, as she had intended. They needed to be able to move people where they were required, and that meant a common set of basic commands. She couldn't set everything the same, but the core messages, yes, those were identical. Hopefully she'd see the same at Gulltown in a few days.

Once they arrived at the training ground, a young boy directed them away from some shoddily built shacks, past some giant haystacks towards a pier a couple hundred yards away, upon which were a few boys and girls at the end with a set of drums and some complicated apparatus involving pulleys and ropes, and in the middle a clay firepit with a pile of wood, and a table set with weapons - a few bows, sets of arrows with little bags of tightly wadded cloth for heads, and some spears, daggers, pikes, shields, and so on, all with light padding.

As soon as the boy pointed, Arya shouted, "Begin! Wights don't wait! Run for the weapons," and shifted from a jog to a sprint towards the table. From the shacks emerged two dozen men and women wearing thick padded gambesons, helmets, and the characteristic dark headbands with two bright blue circles of cloth sewn on to represent the eyes of the dead, running at the four with an assortment of training weapons, mostly knives and swords, a few shields among them.

From behind a haystack on their left came a creaking sound as a cart was pulled out suddenly by a rope with a set of pulleys, the twenty-five foot tower of straw dressed in ragged cloth indicating exactly what this was supposed to be - a representation of a helmet was pulled low over the crudely drawn face with its bright blue eyes. Shifting her path a little to the right to stay out of its 'reach', Arya shouted, "Alleras, giant, eyes!"

She unslung her new bow, selecting a blunt arrow from the quiver she'd taken from the Dornishwoman while jogging here, and turned to fire while running, pulling back to her cheek; her first arrow flew faster and higher than she'd expected, even with as heavy a draw the goldenheart bow demanded of her; her arrow stuck into the 'helmet', and she called out, "Helmet! Miss!"

Behind her, Alleras, looked to be having a little trouble with firing while on the run, looked behind her at the approaching wights... then skidded to a stop, loosed an arrow, and began running again, now at the back of their group, though her arrow drove flawlessly into the moving 'giant's' left eye, despite her panting.

"Hit! Giant down! Run, girl, run!" shouted Arya as her feet hammered onto the wooden pier while she took a set of the cloth-tipped arrows in her left hand, setting her goldenheart bow down and taking up a small, lightweight selfbow turning to loose arrow after arrow at the chests of the 'wights' closest to her her team. Connas skidded to a halt next to her, taking up a training spear and standing in front of her to the left even as a splash sounded behind them.

She could hear ropes sliding through pulleys and into the water along both sides, dripping, splashing... she'd fired again before she recognized it - small haybales were being dragged as fast as a running man both behind and in front of them!

"Connas, rearguard, Alleras, up on the table! Priority on dragons, white walkers, giants, and mammoths, farthest first!" Arya commanded, continuing to fire six more rapid, weak shots at the 'wights' before she passed the training bow off to Korb, reaching behind her to grab a long 'spear' from behind her without looking, stepping up and to the right to give Alleras a clear path through.

She took on the 'wights' and hay bales skittering towards them from the land with efficient jabs as Connas did the same to the ones approaching from behind them. Alleras and Korb fired arrow after arrow, and she could see that Korb missed farther targets twice, both hay bales that were bouncing around more than the others. Alleras didn't miss at all, though she was firing irregularly and aiming for the bales so she could use her greatbow safely.

This wave was down to a scattered few wights still charging individually, so Arya took the time to set her spear down and shed her cloak carefully, making sure to fold it so only the dark leather outer side showed, "Alleras, anyone crawling is 'dead', leave them alone. If you 'die', stay down yourself. Take off two layers before you kill yourself. Korb, get that fire started, or we'll die of sweating too much in the cold. Connas, close guard, that was just the opener - it'll get harder from here on out."

At the edge of the pier, the young crew was resetting their equipment with the same kind of windlass they used on the scorpions, something Arya thought she'd have to bring back to Winterfell. She picked up the goldenheart bow and laid out sets of arrows from the two Alleras had selected, proud that her breathing was steady and even after the exertion, particularly in front of the others. She was the commander, and could not afford to be seen as weak.

"You need to train more, girl - you're out of breath. Look, they're coming again - wights charge, and never break, never stop. White Walkers are on horses or have big ice weapons that shatter anything but Valyrian steel in a handful of hits, they're fast and deadly. The Night King could throw a White Walker spear like a ballista bolt, killed a dragon through its scales hundreds of yards away, we don't know if the White Walkers can do that too. Raised the dragon, too, so watch out for wight dragons - not sure what kills them yet, so shoot them in the eye with Valyrian steel or dragonglass, maybe fire, or hit them with wildfire. Wight giants and mammoths can have thick furs or hides; hit them in the flesh with dragonglass or fire or Valyrian steel if you can. Fire doesn't work on White Walkers, so it won't on the Night King - wildfire we don't know yet."

A motion to her side drew her attention, and she grabbed for the goldenheart bow, starting to shout, "Dragon! Eyes!" even before the deep TWANG could be heard from the ballista which had fired an old barrel out over the pier.

Korb called out, "I'm on wights!" and Connas called out "Giants!" even as Arya and Alleras both loosed arrows at the bright blue circles fastened to the tumbling barrel, each the size of the top of a man's head, their best estimate of the size of a dragon's eyes. The second wave had begun.

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Sansa smiled as Gendry entered her solar carrying what appeared to be a set of training spears of various lengths wrapped in dusty cloth. He was followed by Meera, who had a large satchel by her side, dusty with ashes from the forge, and a large crossbow on her back rather than her usual bow. Sansa gestures, and one of her girls cleared off a large table for his use while she set the leather helmet she was stitching aside.

She watched Gendry looked uncomfortably at the guards and other ladies in the room, then turned her head to the Lady of the Crossing, glanced at the guards and other ladies, and gave a subtle nod towards the door. As she stood to cross over to the table Gendry and Meera were at, she spoke gently.

"Family time, everyone; ladies, you can continue in the room across the hall. Men, please join the guards outside."

Sansa put her and on Lady Frey's arm as the last of the others were leaving, keeping her in the room. The best way to keep loyalty and trust was to acknowledge loyalty and trust, and Lady Frey had been exemplary and unwavering for months, all day, every day.

Well, she supposed if Arya and Jon could arbitrarily add family members, then she could too! Lady Meera, too, had been loyal to Bran, and while he was no longer capable of truly returning that, she was capable. Their family was capable.

Once the bar was set across the door, she allowed a smile to spread across her face, the smile she reserved for family, keeping one hand on Kitty's arm, the other reaching out for Meera's arm, "Well? Move aside, sisters, brother, and let me open my presents!"

She gave Lady Frey's arm a squeeze, then stepped up and without hesitation opened the up the covering of the spears. She picked up one that was almost the size of her normal staff, with a normal castle-forged steel cap at the base, encrusted with dragonglass, while the fitting at the end was also good steel, but was hollow, threaded like the wooden screw of a wine press.

"Wonderful! Sticks! Just what I've always wanted," she said with a bright, clearly fake smile, then laughed genuinely at Meera's eyeroll, Gendry's confusion, and Kitty's fond smile.

Meera unfastened and threw open the satchel with a huff, reaching in and withdrawing a rolled up sheet of leather, which she opened to reveal two slats of wood, between which were four arrows, two long, tall feathers on each, with what Sansa could now recognize as plate cutter heads like the ones Gendry had shown the other day, Valyrian steel tips.

"More sticks for you, Sansa," said Meera with her own little smile, "Not guaranteed against dragons... but at close range, from a windlass-wound crossbow, it's the best penetration I've ever seen."

Meera took the crossbow off her back, placing it on a small table. The weirwood crossbow was finished smoothly, but without any gloss in its finish, simple wood showing through. Even so, Sansa had to close her eyes for a moment, a vision of Joffrey aiming his own little crossbow at her in the throne room passing through her mind briefly. She opened her eyes, and turned deliberately to pick up the crossbow herself; it was larger, heavier, not glossy, not prettied up, though it was also finely made.

"Thank you, Meera. You talked to Bran, I presume?"

"I did. This is the best I could have made that was as little like the other as possible. Here's the windlass for your crossbow - I'll show you how to use it later, when we have time. Gendry, the rest are all yours - you made them, you get to show them off!"

Sansa set the crossbow down to see Gendry lay out several items. One Valyrian steel spearhead, an inch shy of a foot long, narrow and slender just like the drawings... and decorated, not at all like the drawings. Four blunt steel training spearheads in various shapes, one exactly like the Valyrian steel one. Several castle-forged spearheads, deadly sharp, a few exactly like the Valyrian one, the rest of differing shapes and sizes, all with threads on the end.

She picked up the weapon, shifting it as she realized it was much heavier at the castle-forged steel base than the threaded socket end, and looked down at the longer spearhead. Direwolves ran up and down the blade, three on each side, chasing each other - Lady, Nymeria, and Ghost on one side, chased by Summer, Grey Wind, and Shaggydog on the other. Gendry had done a remarkable job tracing the outlines from the materials he'd been given. She'd been expecting the weapons, but to have them in Valyrian steel, decorated for the Stark family? That she had never expected.

"This is beautiful, Gendry, but I don't understand. Arya gave up her dagger for these? For me?"

"No, I haven't finished her dagger yet. This came from the other... Valyrian steel she gave me. There was enough for the spearhead, one scorpion head, the four arrowheads, and this," said Gendry as he held up a polished, castle-forged steel knitting needle with a small ring on the end. With a slight twist and pull, he was holding the hollow top of the knitting needle in one hand, the other holding the bottom half as the hilt to a tiny Valyrian steel replica of Arya's sword.

"Arya wanted you to have a weapon to carry, and designed this for you. I did my best to make it just like she said," he continued.

Sansa slid the chain from her necklace through her hands, drawing the needle she had attached to it up to look at it. She'd meant it as a representation of Arya's Needle, and either her sister had recognized that... or Arya simply wanted to ensure she had a hidden, secret weapon few would suspect. Or, more likely, both.

She handed the end of the chain and her current needle to Gendry, who only looked a little uncomfortable at her not having even taken the necklace off as he pulled out a few tools and replaced the symbolic decoration with her new, more practical one. Looking at it more closely, she saw Gendry had included decorative etched rings along the needle's length, which served to disguise the join between hilt and sheath.

Sansa accepted two more steel knitting needles, both for training, one sharp and one blunt, which she tucked away into an inside pocket of her cloak, "No one outside us, Jon, Bran, and Arya is to know about my new needles. If anyone asks, they're nothing more than a nameday gift and recognition that I've graduated to sparring and a bit of a jape from Arya - steel needles to show I'm no longer as soft as I once was. Now, how do the spearheads work?"

Gendry grimaced slightly, "Your... our... sister has high standards. What will be her dagger is currently a set of tools to put threads in castle-forged steel, so if you want any more spearheads, ask now. Once I melt them down, I'd have to remake the entire set from scratch to add another. The shafts have one or two sockets and the heads have matching threads - you can fit each of them together, like this."

He picked up one of the two spear shafts most like her own current one, and with a few quick twists attached the Valyrian steel head to it, bringing it back to the length she was used to and handing it to her. The other, he put the matching training head on.

She stepped away from the other and spun the spear through a few exercises, getting a bit of a feel for the change in balance, then admired the wolves etched into the surface and the pattern of the steel, "Thank you, Gendry. I've no doubt this will be a treasure of House Stark for millennia to come."

Meera held up the single heavy steel scorpion bolt with its Valyrian plate cutter tip, "There wasn't any need to put fancy threading on this; the tests the Maesters ran were as I expected, the high weight is necessary for penetration. I'll take it up to the Scorpion Bear before she starts the all-army exercise."

Sansa let her eyes widen; this was the first time anyone had used that nickname in her presence, though she'd heard reports of it before, "Lady Lyanna is the Scorpion Bear, I presume?"

Lady Reed cracked a smile, "That's what her crews and half my archers are calling her, yes. Seems appropriate to me - powerful, blunt, growly, with a sting that'll surprise you from much further away than you'd expect."

"Yes, please do present it to her with my compliments. Now, I'm afraid I have a brothel to visit, so I'll see you all at lunchtime at the high table, I hope, before I have to hear about the Boles and the Branches not having brought enough food. If not, I will find you afterwards and feed you whatever was left over! Kitty, if you'd like to accompany me? Arya said it would be safe enough."

"Of course, Sansa. I've never actually been in a brothel before," said Kitty Frey, marveling a little bit at having been adopted into this strange family. The Lady of a great house, going to a brothel. Owning a brothel, even! She'd believe it of the Dornish, easily enough, but in the North?

Not long after, they approached the brothel, Sansa internally debating about the sigil on the door. She wasn't happy to see it, though she was fairly certain she didn't want to see a direwolf on the front of a brothel, either. Perhaps it was best to leave it the same. If she lived to be as old as Olenna, maybe their takeover might be forgotten as well.

Entering, followed by Kitty, Maester Wolkan, two other woman and her usual guards, she did not set her new spear into the alcove where it was encouraged that patrons store their weapons prior to drinking and debauchery. Looking around, she saw some confusion on the employees and patrons, mild fear on a few, and hope on still others.

"Lady Stark, what can we provide for you?"

"I'll be in the office; have Kiyana sent in immediately to discuss the books and the staff. We'll need some water, as well."

"Yes, my lady."

She turned the corner and strode directly up the private stairs to Littlefinger's suite, glad she'd checked with Bran before coming into town. Not only could she avoid any hint of confusion, she also knew just where Lord Baelish's hiding spots were. Entering the office, she stopped abruptly, gesturing for Kitty to enter while the Maester and guards stayed outside.

This wasn't an office. Well, part of it was - there where shelves, books, a desk atop a raised area which reminded her - intentionally, she was sure - of a throne room, but there were also divans, nooks full of pillows, erotic art, a large feather bed, rings mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling.

More to the point, there were two girls in one of the nooks, the younger one moaning while the older used a deeper voice, "Bet you've never seen a man this big, huh?"

Sansa tapped the plain, castle-forged steel just below the tip of her spear against the stone wall twice after having checked to make sure the butt of the spear wouldn't hit anything or anyone, ignoring the scents and sounds pervading the room with some little effort, "What are you doing in my office?"

The girls, startled, scrambled to their feet, though without making any attempt to preserve their modesty. Sansa kept her expression blank even as she turned to give the nod as a tall older woman identified herself as Kiyana to the guards. Kitty was wide-eyed, her gaze alternating between the artwork and the girls with a delightful sort of innocent, shocked fascination.

The assistant brothel-keeper took in the scene and her new visitors with remarkable aplomb, her gaze sharp as Sansa met her eyes evenly, asking deferentially, "The girls were training. Would Lady Stark like the girls to leave, or would the Lady of the Crossing be interested in some entertainment?"

Sansa smiled gently at Kitty's sudden bright blush, shaking her head slightly. She could see why Arya hadn't suggested replacing Kiyana; she'd certainly discerned both her own lack of interest and her indulgence of Kitty's fascination quickly enough.

"The girls can dress and take Maester Wolkan to a quiet room for medical examinations. All the girls are to be examined; Lady Keath will supervise and ensure that there are no liberties taken by anyone. Please ensure that the message is passed on in the strongest terms possible - the Maester will not perform any unnecessary steps, unlike Grand Maester Pycelle, and the girls are not to treat him as a customer while he is here on my orders. Leriah here," said Sansa, gesturing to the sharp-eyed, strong Northern girl that had followed Lady Keath in, "will be interviewing all the girls as well, and reporting only to myself and my sister Arya. They are to be honest with her - there will be no punishment for truthful answers."

Sansa shut the thick door after they'd gone, the sounds from the rest of the brothel cutting off immediately, leaving only herself, Kitty, and Kiyana in the room. She climbed the two steps and settled herself behind the desk, tossing a mockingbird pillow to the floor to set her spear on as she leaned it carefully against the side of the chair. Kitty stood behind her, still blushing, as Sansa put on the smile she wore for the conclave.

"Lord Baelish has been executed for treason. Davin and his... associates... have been arrested after attempting to break into Winterfell, and have named Ser Bradley as a prior accomplice. Should you see any of them again, you are to report to the guards immediately, though only Ser Bradley is still at large. In the absence of any known heirs, and given the severity of his crimes, Arya and I have assumed ownership of all of Lord Baelish's brothels."

She watched the older woman carefully, catching fleeting signs of her reactions. She was a little surprised, but not very much, and there was an undercurrent of relief and satisfaction present. As she expected, the one Littlefinger trusted to be the ultimate authority was not well loved, though Kiyana seemed to be cut of different cloth - or, as Lord Baelish might have said, she served a different use, as Ser Dontos had.

The woman took a moment to collect her thoughts, then asked carefully, "What is to become of the girls?"

Sansa leaned back slightly and nodded, "A wise choice of question. You are now the brothel-keeper here, Kiyana. As the truly dangerous ones are now in cells, the girls have four choices. They may continue to work here as they have before. They may join the army and my sister will find a place for them, or they may come work in Winterfell and I will find a place for them. They may leave entirely, with a sum of silver and passage on the next caravan provided as our apologies for not dealing with Lord Baelish sooner."

"Thank you, m'ady, you are very generous. Some of the girls will want to leave, I'm sure, if there's a place for them to go. They weren't all here... willingly. We've heard a few rumors of a discount already... it is your right, of course, as the owner, but are you cutting wages? Some of the girls are supporting their families, babes and elders, and need what they can make."

"Wages will remain the same until the books are examined. There is to be a ten percent discount for all services for those participating in the war against the dead, taken from the house's cut. Yes, I'm aware of how common that will be, but you and your girls are more important to the morale of the North than my purse is. Any customers that hurt the girls will not be tolerated; those services are no longer offered for any amount of money."

Sansa watched, puzzled, as the new brothel-keeper changed from pride in her girls being praised to reluctance to cease those kinds of services. Did so much of the brothel's business rely on that? Had she misjudged the woman so grievously? Well, if she had, it was an easy mistake to correct... though Arya hadn't mentioned anything of the sort. Then again, Arya hadn't had to endure the same tortures, so perhaps her sister was simply unaware of how it felt.

She took the moments Kiyana was thinking in to compose herself internally, not letting her expression waver.

"M'lady... I've heard of what happened to you, and I am truly sorry... but... some girls, and some customers, have desires that are not gentle. Not like what happened to you, of course, but not the gentle touches of the songs, either. Not all our girls like that at all, but some like to give, some to receive, and some like both. Likewise our customers have a similar spread, why, I could tell you tales, as could the girls! You'd see, some of them truly enjoy it."

Sansa thought back for a moment, and them spoke softly, reminiscing, "Tall men, short men, hairy men, bald men, gentle men, rough men, ugly men, pretty men, pretty girls... very well, Kiyana, you are the expert on desires here. Nothing that hurts the girls more than they like - no exceptions, no matter who the customer. Arya is part owner, and I'm quite certain she'd be very interested indeed in anyone hurting your girls... and that they would never do so again."

"Thank you, m'lady. I'll change the list of services immediately, and inform the girls of your command."

"You mentioned telling tales, Kiyana. That will continue - your girls hear many things from customers in their beds, their arms, in their cups. Those tales of import are to be collected in secret and relayed to myself, Arya, or my sister by choice Lady Frey, and no-one else at all. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Of course, Lady Stark."

"That will be all for now, Kiyana. Please have an early lunch for two sent up, and send a runner to the castle to inform the kitchen that Lady Frey and I have already eaten. Close the door behind you, please."

Sansa stood while Kiyana left, then strode over to a bookshelf right next to the door, handing Kitty a statue of two men and a woman, "Now for a little fun. Secret chambers!"

"Secret chambers?" asked Kitty, turning the statue back and forth to get a better view.

She thought back to exactly what her brother had said, then thumped the far back right corner of the shelf that had held the statue, pulling the front left straight out. With that, the shelf came out and she lifted a stack of thick books out, then replaced the shelf, "Secret chambers! Fun's over. When you're done admiring the art, put it back as it was, take a book and let's get started reading."

"Sansa! I'm not admiring the statue!"

"Then why are you holding it like that?"

************************

Alleras huffed along behind Arya as the guards who had given her so much trouble parted before Lady Winter like the ocean before the prow of a great ship. She was tired, and knew her legs would hurt tomorrow, though she had some satisfaction that Arya had switched to a bow with a lighter draw after twenty or thirty shots with the goldenheart bow. Arya'd also laid off the princess japes during the fight, the training.

That had been incredible - just as good as Archmaester Killaen's lessons in healing, jumping right in - literally, in her case, as she'd spent the entire fight either atop the table or by the small fire. Despite the pile of wood, the fire was made very carefully, to burn the wood at the minimum rate required to provide enough warmth to avoid frostbite, thus extending the total time they'd be able to survive!

The girl would be a very good archer if she dedicated some time to it, despite being even shorter than she herself was.

"Where did you learn to shoot, Arya?" asked Alleras between breaths as she jogged along towards a fast Braavosi trader with neat lines and an orderly deck.

"I taught myself at first, with some tips from Jon and Theon. Ser Rodrik eventually taught me a little, and I spent a few hours here and there with Anguy when I was with the Brotherhood."

"Anguy? The champion from the Tourney of the Hand? That's where you learned to shoot so fast - I heard he always shot on instinct," said Alleras, and then swallowed once; that was the tourney held for her father. It had been insensitive to bring it up - it'd be as if someone brought up Tyrion's trial to her. Arya hadn't looked back or made any sign she'd heard, but she couldn't just leave it lie.

"I'm sorry, Lady Winter, I didn't mean to bring that up, I..." started Alleras until she was interrupted by Arya, looking back with a calm, steady expression.

"It's all right. Joffrey's already been killed, so there's only two names left on my list for killing my father. Ser Ilyn, Cersei. I'll kill them soon enough."

Alleras shuddered slightly, and not from the cold. She'd grown up knowing her father and his thirst for vengeance - it ran hot in him, made him pace and plot with emotion in his eyes. She understood the name Lady Winter now, having experienced the bitter cold wind and seen those cold, cold eyes, heard Arya talk about a list of people to kill as if looking forward to a pleasant dessert.

Striding up the gangplank like a sailor, Arya replied to greetings of 'Salty' and 'No One' cheerfully, approaching the captain as if she belonged aboard this ship. The crew was clearly Braavosi, and just as clearly did not regard Arya herself as an intruder, though she, Korb, and Connas were getting the kind of looks she'd expect.

Arya called out loudly, tossing a clinking pouch to the captain, "Ternesio, this is my friend Alleras, a master archer and acolyte of the Citadel, here to study the army of the dead from the sea, who needs a nibac! I mean cabin! And two lanterns - we were training, so the furs need to be dried."

Alleras groaned as the captain handed the pouch to one of his crew without so much as opening it.

"He can use the same one you used; it's still set up the same, use as much oil as you need. Galley'll be open late."

Alleras winced as she was led to a luxury passenger cabin; once the door was closed, keeping the guards outside, she glared at Arya without much heat as they each lit one lantern, setting them for a high flame and leaving the thick, wavy glass open.

Arya smirked at her, opening a chest and pulling out a pair of thick woolen blankets, "I never used to do that, you know, say words backwards. Not once before my brother was named King in the North did that happen... Alleras. Do you think the title of princess makes it more likely? Take off the furs, you need to be dry and warm when you stop moving."

"Fine! Fine! I'm Sarella, I admit it! Enough with the japes, it's not funny anymore," whispered Alleras fiercely, tossing the furs onto the bed and standing close to her lantern while Arya brought the other over, setting it on a chair on her other side instead of hanging it. Why she thought using that hint was a good idea she couldn't remember anymore - leaving herself open to this kind of punishment wasn't nearly as much fun as watching her friends get annoyed at 'his' being the favorite of the girls at the Quill and Tankard.

Arya strung a pair of lines and rearranged the furs so they were spread out to box Sarella in with the lanterns on the inside corner of the cabin, then clapped her on the shoulder, one warrior to another, "A pleasure to meet you, Sarella. I'll make sure you're welcome at Winterfell no matter what face you choose to wear - your face is safe with me, though you have a lot of work to do if you want it to be better than a cheap mummer's mask."

Sarella stretched her arms and back, then turned to Arya with curiosity. Now that she was warming up and was past the near-constant needling, she felt more comfortable with her host.

"A pleasure to meet you too... Salty?"

Arya changed in a moment, somehow; her stance shifted, her posture, the way she held her head. In the light of two bright lanterns, Alleras could see the small habitual movements had shifted, too, entirely in accordance with a seasoned sailor. The outfit was the same, the features the same, but her mouth and eyes were held differently, ready for the sea spray, legs bent just enough to easily adjust to a sudden pitch of the deck.

"You're not the only one to wear a different face, Sarella, daughter of the captain of the Feathered Kiss. If it helps any, I once pretended to be boy, just like you, and was seen through at a glance even after fooling dozens of men for weeks. Start with your walk!"

"My walk?" asked Sarella. What was wrong with her walk? As Alleras, she kept her feet flat, didn't roll her hips. She walked like a sailor, sure, but she was a sailor's daughter.

"Your walk. I'll introduce you to someone in Winter's Town if you truly want to learn. You wouldn't want to pay the price of my teachers. For now, I'll have three score dragonglass arrows and four ravens loaded aboard before the tide turns. Alleras will be welcome on any dogsled run to Winterfell; I've got an in with land-ship crews. You'll enjoy them."

"Thank you, Arya."

"You're the one that chose to come here, to answer our raven. I'm not the diplomatic one in the family, for that you need my sister Sansa, but without knowing any of us, without knowing anything about us, you came, with bows and arrows to fight the army of the dead, with the intent to learn the truth. I can't give you the pretty words Sansa can, but I can set up the training you need to fight the dead, either with us, or after we've died," said Arya, dropping the body language of a sailor as suddenly as she'd donned it.

Alleras didn't quite know how Arya'd taken such a dark turn so quickly, though the Stark was definitely serious in her appreciation.

Arya turned to the door, tugged the furs on the lines fully closed behind her, "I have business to attend to now, and you have a choice to make. You can send a message to your ships that Alleras will be sailing aboard this ship alone, you can call your guards and risk your Alleras face further, or you can call your guards and be Sarella. Regardless, you should take a nap after you dry off. I'll return at the hour of the wolf to hear what you can tell me of the people you know at the Citadel."

With that, Sarella shivered as the door let in a cold wind briefly, then closed behind her host. Arya was perhaps the most intense person she'd known since her father was killed, and to her surprise, it didn't hurt quite as much as she thought it would.

Pulling the chair with the other lantern closer, she thought over the lessons she'd learned that day, and the decisions she had to make for herself, and for Dorne.

************************

Chapter Text

In a tunnel beneath the city, between the brothel and what was once empty shore and now led to a storage field for horse fodder, Lord Baelish cleaned off a fine dagger's blade with his precise little motions, taking the time to do it right, to get every spot of blood and gristle off of it. It wouldn't do to leave traces behind, after all.

The bodies, he lay on oilcloth, fastened carefully calculated weights to their feet, and dragged out one at a time to slip into the deeper water off the side of the pier, to be carried out to sea by the receding tide. Once that was done, he returned to the tunnel, stripped down, and removed his face.

Arya hid the face carefully, then began applying makeup, layer after layer to build up the image, again, of the old thief woman. She looked forward to seeing exactly how the Winterfell Beggar King's messenger had been received by the underbelly of White Harbor. She'd seen Stinky in the group of Northerners on the caravan; clearly the Beggar King of Winter Town was taking her words quite seriously. Stinky hadn't recognized her, but she was quite sure he hadn't expected to recognize her, either, since he hadn't really been looking.

Once she was ready, she brushed the marks out of the dirt and sand, walking backwards until she could exit at the rocky coast and then slip past the guardpost atop the largest of the pyramids of hay-bales, then head towards the poor section of town, leaning on her spear with its single shard of dragonglass, heading for where Bran had located the local leadership. She almost felt like she was cheating, asking him before coming out here, but time was short... and, as Sansa liked to say now, knowledge was power, and one of the more important kinds of power. She was here to serve the North, to serve her family, to serve the smallfolk, to serve her vengeance, to serve the Many-Faced God. If she was cheating, well, Valar Dohaeris.

It was kind of nice to be a few inches taller, though without the faces of the Many-Faced God, she had to rely on fancy shoes. She let her smirk widen as she imagined putting Sansa in a set like these - she'd be of a height with Brienne, then, and that'd be an amusing sight to see. Probably still graceful, too, after just a bit of practice.

Accidentally bumping into a drunken soldier, she growled at him, "Watch where yer goin', ye dumb cunt! Ye knock yer muther around, too, do ye?" as she swiped his coin pouch... not a perfect, but just poorly enough that the sharp-eyed beggar on the corner and the 'drunk' staggering along behind her both noticed. That beggar woman squinted up at her, then opened her eyes wide and gave what Arya was sure she thought was a subtle jerk of her head down the street.

Three coin-purses later, she slowed her pace, then turned back down an alley when everyone in eyesight happened to be looking at something else. Entering a dilapidated outer door, she leaned on her spear, glaring at the two rough-looking guards inside without a word, feeling the air. There were men behind the door with good steel, and a hint of salt here, in the air, and the scum of stagnant salt-water, trapped at high tide or in tunnels. This far from the sea, that meant tunnels, and long ones. Dangerous terrain, for soldiers to storm - tight tunnels are a bad place for wide Westerosi swings of long Westerosi swords, axes, and hammers. They were, however, great places for chasing cats, for the more linear styles of water dancing, and for knife-work.

The one on the left started to glare back when the other thumped him on the chest to interrupt him, "You the one causin' all the uproar, high muckety-mucks all awaitin ye? The Underfoot?"

"I am," answered Arya, smirking a bit at the very old nickname, one she hadn't heard since she left Winterfell. Looking back, it seemed obvious enough that the nicknames of the very unsubtle second daughter of the Lord Paramount would have spread widely, but for it to be used here was interesting. Perhaps someone was being funny... and perhaps the Beggar King of Winter Town was wiser than she'd thought, using a nickname that would mean far less to those not of the North... and was not as insulting as Horseface. This name was also clearly distinct from her more noble faces, enough to introduce even more doubt into her activities and abilities.

"Ye'll be knowin' whose spot ye stole, then, won't ye?" asked the smarter guard.

"I didn't steal nothin'! Least of all some damn spot that lazy idiots like One-Armed Harry don't bother showin' up at till the sun's nearly done comin' up!"

The guards both bowed low, rapping a different 'secret knock', after which the men on the other side unbarred the thick door and opened it, offering a platter of bread and salt as soon as she'd crossed the threshold. She carefully inspected the offering, then when she could detect nothing but that it was a bit stale, she ate some. Clubfoot's knife twirling in her right hand, she nodded at the door, "Put a layer of iron plate on it, then another layer of ironwood; wights won't be stopped by just a wooden door for long."

"Er, yes, Underfoot," came the response, "The muckety-mucks are waitin' fer ye. This way."

She followed for nearly a thousand yards, taking precisely measured steps, marking the rare branching tunnel and door in her memory, matching them as best she could with her memory of the city above.

They approached a set of six guards; three distinct pairs, who she assessed carefully with all her senses. Thieves with more scents of foreign ports than they should have, so fences too, the first two, and beggars, the last, while between them... whores, and ones with reasonable fighting skills by the way they stood. None of the six were as good even as Connas, but for what they were, their skills were respectable indeed.

It looked like the underbelly of White Harbor had profited from the Southron founding, the foreign trade, or both. She kept flipping the knife between her fingers in that same steady pattern, so all could tell she wasn't concerned, and so the threat was clear in case they planned on betraying her. Just a hint of their intentions would be enough for her to notice, and so she kept the knife moving to encourage them to slip up, should they plan such a betrayal.

A beggar guard tapped out the same secret knock they'd used before, and when the door opened, waved her in and announced raspily, "The Underfoot."

There were several people within; the expected leaders behind a rickety table, another set of guards, and the last were a set of prisoners trussed up on the ground, one Pentoshi, a few Westerosi smallfolk, and a young highborn, trying to sneer at her around the gag until he caught sight of the knife. Stinky, too, saw it, though he just smirked - it wasn't his knife that she stole, after all, and he had guest right protecting him, now.

She leaned heavily on her spear apparently poor excuse for a spear, hawked, and spat in the highborn's face, "What, ye high muckity mucks run out o' sheep? These cunts look like bad eatin'. "

"We got yer message from Winter Town, Underfoot," replied the Thief King from his seat in the middle, with a stress on the last word that he must have fondly thought was emphasizing her new moniker without being obvious about it, "So we did our civic duty and cleaned up the town. These un's don't believe in a free North, ye see. Some o' Littlefingers, one of the eunuch's, and one highborn ass think e' deserves to rule, worked for both o' them. Those worked for the Boltons already gone - them had no friends high or low after Lady Stark fed 'er dogs right and good. Ye can do what ye like with 'em; want 'em cooked, we gots a big pot!"

Arya smiles a sharp, vicious smile, one she'd practiced in this disguise, and was pleased to see the prisoners react with fear. More importantly, the others did not - they clearly had been told who she was and what she could do, which indicated either they were being up front with her, or they had a much, much deeper plan in the works. They might, after all - this tunnel system clearly dated back to the founding of White Harbor, so they knew how to plan. They'd assigned a 'clever' name to her, and were repeating it to get it to sink in, so they knew how to manage rumors. And, perhaps, they knew how to manage their own pride - she'd never heard tale of the underbelly of the North bending the knee to the Starks when she was growing up, not even from Old Nan, so this might be something new... or traditional, if they always granted a new name to a new overlord who was wise enough to know they were important.

Either way, this was what she'd hoped for in the near term, and she needed to give them a display of her own trust as well. A favor for a favor, as it were, so future favors flowed.

Arya stilled the dagger in her hand, holding it so the tip was steadily circling in front of one prisoner's eye, and spoke menacingly, "I'll take yer gift, but ye know, I likes me some singing, all pretty like. Ye mind I make 'em sing here, so e' can all hear? Then ye can lemme know what other songs ye heard."

************************

Lord Royce sat quietly, observing the gathered military leaders, covered in mud and snow, exhausted and disgruntled, grumbling and glaring. Well, most were grumbling - one wasn't grumbling, but speaking outright.

"That was the worst set of fuckups I've seen since I left Bear Island. We fucked up because the big drums sound like the watchtower drums, the small ones sound like the ones the infantry use, and because some of the calls for support were wrong in the first place. Why'd the rest of you fuck up?" asked Lady Lyanna shortly, her face drawn and tired. As little as she liked it, she needed more sleep than the older soldiers, and she'd been up quite early to prepare her troops, and had been up and down stairs and the rigging they'd put on the outside of the towers and the inside of the walls all day, checking on her crews.

Lord Royce closed his eyes briefly. The young siege engine commander had a way of getting to the heart of a matter that exceeded even Lady Arya's, especially when she was irritated, and everyone was irritated. Her summary, unfortunately was quite accurate, if somewhat lacking in courtesies, though now they'd hear from Lady Reed and the other commanders or their delegates, since not just Skamund but also his second were also away, leaving the Free Folk 'cavalry' in the care of others.

"The archers are trying to guess at where to aim from memory right now; I saw my troops fire incorrectly several times, and had the drums give them corrections; that worked until the infantry had to manuever, and then it was too confusing. The infantry relayed incorrect targets several time, too - either the signals were wrong or they were confused, as Lady Mormont said" said Lady Reed, still calm and collected, if a bit tired.

Meera had been beyond the wall, had fled wights for days while dragging Bran. A little exercise wasn't enough to exhaust her, not by a long shot, not with as much bread as she could eat every day, and a little meat or fish besides. She was, she guessed, in the best shape of anyone here, even after running all over the castle, the walls and their hoardings, and the inner defensive ring all day.

After that, the rest of the commanders chimed in with their thoughts, if shortly. This wasn't the conclave, where lengthy discussion was welcomed, this was a military discussion. Arya Stark had set the tone for this - everyone must speak up with what they needed or saw, but nobody was to waste time. Even with her gone, the discipline held.

"Same thing, too many drums using the same signals."

"Cavalry got in the way of the pike wall! They charged through and left us open!"

"When the shield-wall was pressed, we called for arrows and the archers shot elsewhere."

"Attacks from three directions are too confusing!"

"Free Folk cavalry attacked the wrong place!"

"I couldn't hear a damn thing over the shouting!"

Lord Royce stood. As the senior commander in Winterfell while Lady Arya was away, it was up to him to make this work by the time she got back. This was the natural extension of their training similar units together, and he'd been left orders to incorporate simultaneous multiple attacks with different types of enemies for the very first full scale, all-army exercise. He was on his own, now, though she'd been very clear that only the first had to be that complex.

"Battle is always confusing, and the drums are new. Our shield-wall is well coordinated on the defense and the attack, but the commanders are new and maneuvering with other troops still needs work. The Boltons were the best at that in the North, and they're dead, so we need to make up the lack, and quickly. Lady Meera, the archers are excellent when they can see their targets. Maesters, the archers and siege engines need your setting circles quickly, and marks from the castle all the way to the outer defensive ring for where each begins and ends as well. In battle, we can't tell which camp is which and what the direct line is."

"We'll have the first sets done by tomorrow morning, Lord Royce," said Maester Wolkan.

Lord Royce noted Lady Stark straightening to speak, and held back his own comment. The Lady of Winterfell participated in the military discussions sparingly, and only to contribute. The questions she had to improve her battle skills were always asked afterwards, in private, to him, to her sister, to Lady Meera or Lady Mormont, never in public where they might delay the meetings or take the time of more people than was necessary.

Lady Stark spoke steadily, "I'll have all the Maesters not working directly on wildfire or sending ravens assist in whatever ways they can. I believe you said there would need to be experiments from each location - many Maesters can conduct many experiments at once, can they not?"

"Yes, my Lady," replied Maester Wolkan with a deep nod.

Lord Royce continued, "Thank you, Lady Stark, Maesters. Lady Mormont, the cavalry's signals were clear because we use horns, smaller than the great ones on the watchtowers - the sound is distinct, even in battle. Once, when I was young, Lord Eddard and I were at a feast at the Eyrie where a group from Asshai was also attending. They brought great bronze plates, hung from ropes, and used them very like we use drums but with a metallic ringing sound."

He saw Lady Mormont narrow her eyes in her typical thoughtful scowl. He didn't know if it was happenstance, her natural disposition, or a result of such responsibilities at her age, but nearly all of her expressions could be described as fierce. Her decisions, though, were always thoughtful, always honorable, and always among the best she could make with the knowledge she had available. She needed experience, to be sure, but she was already a great and honorable leader of the North.

"You and Lady Winter have plans for all the bronze we expect to have, don't you, Lady Stark?" asked Lady Lyanna.

"Yes, Lady Mormont, we've allocated the next year's worth entirely. Quite a lot is going to certain parts of your siege engines, as you know," replied Lady Stark.

Lord Royce took one last look at Lady Mormont, reaffirming the decision he'd been coming to. His daughter by law hadn't been doing well since his son's death. While she was doing her duty as best she could, the future of his House was at risk of going extinct, or worse, of straying from the path his ancestors had trod for thousands of years. The longer he'd been here in the North, the more he'd grown comfortable with the strange types of honor practiced here, including Lady Sansa's and Lady Arya's.

Still, while he could appreciate them being used on the Vale's behalf, they did not fit what House Royce remembered. There were other houses of the Vale, of course, that would be worthy, but it was clear that the ties between the Vale and the North needed to be cast in stone now, while they had such common enemies, and there was one northern House that had honor comparable with the greatest houses of the Vale.

He looked into Lady Mormont's eyes, and said, "Lady Lyanna, House Royce would be pleased to provide our stores of bronze ingots, passed down from generation to generation of our House for millennia, since the time of the First Men, perhaps even from the first Long Night. I ask a favor of you in return, however."

"What do you want?"

"My sons are dead, and even should I survive the wars to come, I may have little enough time left. My good daughter has twins, two years old, a boy and a girl, the last of my House. I ask that in a few years, they be fostered with you at Bear Island, that you teach them all you would teach your own children. Teach them your leadership, your skills, and your honor, and I will know Runestone is in good hands, for We Remember," said Lord Royce, noting the words of his house.

It seemed he'd accomplished one more great deed in his life, for he had apparently found the one thing able to render Lady Lyanna speechless, since she was simply nodding her assent.

************************

Arya knocked on the cabin door a second time, slipping inside as soon as it opened, handing a sleepy and cold Sarella a cup and pouring some warm ale in from a thick, furred wineskin she'd taken from the brothel that until recently was Littlefinger's on her way back and kept inside her cloak, murmuring quietly, "Here, drink this and warm up, Sarella."

She watched as the smartest of the Sand Snake drank, grimaced, and drank deeply, the warmth clearly more important than the flavor to her. She and Sansa had never expected a national leader to come up themselves - that was a very odd thing indeed, she now knew, having been one of the two running two entire kingdoms. Not just that, but two kingdoms who had fought together, bled together, already gifted the worst of those who would cause internal instability to the Many-Faced God, and even then, with massive external threats all understood and believed in, it was a tremendous amount of work.

Dorne did not have that kind of internal stability, nor did it have the same degree of well-believed, imminent external threats to bring them together. She couldn't even imagine how much constant, delicate effort was required to keep a nation like that together after what the elder Sand Snakes and Oberyn's woman had done. Why, then, was the eldest remaining child of House Martell not only in the North, but also posing as an acolyte of the Citadel?

It was almost time to find out, but before that, she had a story to tell; Sansa would have her head if she didn't explain her little jape to Princess Sarella Sand of Dorne and make sure to smooth over any offense that might have been taken!

"Years ago, the day Cersei sent her men to take my father, Sansa and I hostage, they slaughtered everyone else who came with us from the North while I was in a far corner of the keep with my dancing master, who fought off Meryn Trant and four other knights to buy me time to escape. I left the Red Keep by the tunnels, and lived in the alleys until my father was to be beheaded. A man of the Night's Watch who had come to see my father about recruits found me, cut my hair, and told me I was a boy, Arry, joining the Watch. I was Arry from then until Harrenhal, with only Gendry noticing I was a girl."

Sarella wrapped her cold hands around the warm drink, listening quietly. The Stark seemed quieter, more somber than she'd seen her - no longer rushing about, making things happen, but reminiscing.

"We got almost to Harrenhal before we were all captured, the entire group of us taken inside Harrenhal and kept in a pen, plucked out one at a time to have a metal pail of rats strapped to us and a torch put beneath it. None of them noticed I was a boy, either, until Tywin Lannister himself arrived at the castle and ordered his men to stop the torture and put us to work. One of the guards threatened me, and Tywin said 'this one's a girl... you idiot' and took me for his cup-bearer. I learned a great deal about leadership and warfare, being his cup-bearer for so many months while he was fighting. He noticed I wasn't lowborn, as I'd pretended, and noticed I wasn't from Maidenpool, but he never learned I was a Stark. His coming to Harrenhal saved my friends and I from being tortured to death. If the Mountain's men had noticed I was a girl, raped to death."

Arya raised her cup to Sarella in toast, "And so when I saw you pretending to be a boy, I decided I'd do as Tywin had, at least for a few hours, take you as a cup-bearer, and teach you a bit about warfare. And, of course, have a little jape now and then. I meant no offense, Sarella."

"None taken, Arya," answered Sarella with a soft smile, "After some sleep I can see how it is a little bit funny... but you didn't have to needle me so hard!"

"That's the only way a Needling is meant to be," said Arya with a wink, patting Needle before continuing.

"Well then, to business, Princess Sarella, though I'll make it quick. You came North yourself, in person, after we'd sent a raven to you as the expected next in line for leadership of Dorne. You must have a great deal of faith that all the Houses of Dorne support you and each other. No, that's not it. The smallfolk are behind you. No, not them either. You left a trusted and feared second behind. Almost, some trusted, none truly feared. You have hostages, like my father kept Theon. Those loyal to you have the Water Gardens and the children of all the Houses of Dorne, then. Yes. You're confident that will make you safe, that they won't backstab you, replace you. No, you're not. You need allies. Yes."

Arya saw Sarella take another quick drink, her face turning to showing sadness and some fear more clearly at the end, once she'd gotten over the rapid fire interrogation. Not the fear of Arya herself, but fear for her family, for her people. The princess slumped a little, now, too, tired not just from the training, but from what her life had become of late, from week after week of stress, tired as Sansa had been tired when Arya'd returned to Winterfell.

"Yes, Arya, I need allies. Father taught me to think, to question, to fight, to learn. My uncle and my parents all taught me to lead, to understand the politics around me, but I never expected to need that, never expected to rule Dorne, never wanted to. I was happily taking classes at the Citadel, ignorant of the news of the outside world when the messengers came. Not only were my sisters... gone, but my uncle as well, and Dorne at the edge of civil war. A coalition of lords and ladies hold the Water Gardens, but they're not all loyal to me, though they all want me as the public figure, and as the easy target for others to shoot first, and my younger sisters next."

Arya took her cloak off, folding it in on itself and setting the leather bundle on a table as she settled into a chair, pouring herself a cup as well, taking a sip, her expression compassionate.

"And so you came North with military stores dating back to the Dance of the Dragons, to the leaders of two isolated kingdoms not completely tied up in the mess that Cersei and Daenerys are making, for your own safety and to see if you can gain allies to increase your standing. Sansa's the expert there, she'll tell you what you need to do if she believes helping you is in the best interest of the North and the Vale and the Free Folk. Dorne is far from us... but so is Braavos, and they're a valued ally and trading partner. Sarella, tell me what you want?"

Arya smiled sadly as the other girl thought and remembered her own worries for her family, her fear that she might be the last Stark alive.

Sarella set her empty mug down, wrapping the thick woolen blanket around her, and sat across from Arya, trying to keep her sadness and fear under control, composing her words for a minute before speaking carefully. This wasn't quite the chance she'd hoped for, being able to make her case to the Lady of Winterfell directly, but it was perhaps better still. Arya had taken the time to show her much, and was very clearly a major player in the North. And the Vale, too, since she'd mentioned heading to Gulltown next, for that matter... and she was here, right now, to talk to her as herself, and in her role as putative ruler of Dorne both.

"I want my little sisters to live and to learn why what Ellaria and my older sisters did was foolish, learn how to rule wisely, like my father and Doran did together. I want Dorne to be stable enough for me to be able to take time to study sometimes. I don't want us to bend the knee to any throne; I don't know Cersei or Daenerys except by rumor, but Dorne has always been different, like the North, and being entangled in the Seven Kingdoms has brought us more detriment than benefit. I want to have children someday and watch them grow up and have children of their own," said Sarella, her true belief in her words showing through clearly to Arya.

Sarella took another drink as she finished; she hoped she hadn't overstepped mentioning Dornish independence... but she didn't think that she was wrong, there. The people here, what she'd seen of them, hadn't seemed like those who wanted to conquer other nations, and she'd looked the heirs of House Manderly in the eye earlier that day in the presence of Arya Stark.

Arya watched the Dornishwoman settle back after she'd finished, and sipped her ale, thinking back over the intelligence reports she'd had from the new spies and from the House of Black and White's network both. Current information was limited, but she knew enough about how Dorne got to this point, and what Dorne could offer. Sarella was a viper, to be sure, but a smart and caring one, not one like those other Southrons from other kingdoms she'd seen in King's Landing; gasping, greedy and uncaring of their smallfolk, of their bannermen, sometimes of their own families.

"While the vengeance your father sought was just, that which your older sisters sought was unjust. Just vengeance is worth dedicating your life and your death to, but to do one is to do both, for god's gifts are freely given even in the most peaceful of times. Sometimes it's better to pay the price for a real professional to give the gift; your father knew the names he wanted, but he wanted more than simple death for them, and gave his death to cross a name of his list, the one he'd sought in particular that day. I've put my death on the line for just vengeance as well; I respect what your father tried, and that he did kill the Mountain, who was on my list as well. Your elder sisters, I'm sorry to say, sought unjust vengeance by the wrong proxy. I'm sorry their loss hurts you. I know what it's like to lose father and siblings both."

Sarella looked inquisitive for a brief moment as Arya spoke of her own list, but closed her eyes soon after, at the mention of her sisters. Sarella spoke, not trying to hide the pain on her face and in her voice, "How do I protect my sisters? How do I survive being pulled into this? How do I keep my people from war? I never wanted this, but if I leave, my younger sisters won't survive... they're too much like Ellaria and my older sisters were."

"All right, first lesson. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Long term, you need someone trustworthy to stick your enemies with the pointy end, and to be known to be the one that will do so. Your father, the Red Viper, was that for your uncle, who handled the politics. The Mountain and her brother Jamie are that for Cersei Lannister and were that for Tommen. Her dragons are that for Daenerys Targaryen. Joffrey was too stupid to rule anything on his own. Tywin Lannister didn't need one, he dealt with the politics and armies both. Lord Varys and, at a remove, Tywin Lannister were that for King Robert. The Free Folk don't worry about politics much, or rather, their politics are the pointy end," said Arya.

She then smirked widely as she continued , "I am that for my sister. You're amazing with the bow, but you'll never be the one to make your enemies fear to act against you, fear to even speak against you, and you need that, especially in Dorne after what your sisters and Ellaria did. You'll need to be more like Sansa is, or your Uncle was, but that's not enough."

"Even if I find someone like that, how can I know they're loyal?"

"That lesson you cannot pay the price of tonight, Princess, though you do need to learn. Rest assured it's important, especially for an independent kingdom. Sansa wouldn't need me for the North, not anymore, but when dealing with other kingdoms? Death and fear both have many faces, and people see different things in each. Some people fear social and political dangers, some fear physical dangers, some fear emotional dangers. Some fear nothing. Regardless, all must die," replied the Stark priest.

Sarella sat for a moment, casting her eyes up as if reading some invisible book on the ceiling of the cabin, then replies, "Fear like the fear of Cersei, of dragons... of wights?"

"Just so. There will be no serious political dangers in the North or the Vale until the current wars are over. The Starks are as safe as we can be in war, for now. Jon is a great leader, and Sansa is a great ruler - there are none left of any import who would want to oust us from ruling, for we are trusted to lead during these wars. Sometimes even loved. Never hated... not by any major powers in the North or the Vale left alive."

Arya saw her fingers twitching as she thought for a few minutes, resting in the chair as she unstrung her new bow, pulling out a small vial and treating the bowstring carefully with the contents, taking the occasional sip of ale as she waited for Sarella to respond. The girl was smart, cared, liked to plan, and was about to be deep in their debt as a personal matter. More importantly, she would almost certainly stick to her deals and honor her debts unless there were very serious circumstances preventing her from doing so. That, she could work with. If Sansa judged her a worthy ally as well, they'd do what they could for the girl, even if she had to visit Dorne personally after the wars.

Sarella spoke slowly and carefully, as if before an Archmaester, answering a difficult question during an examination for a new link.

"If I could devise a way to capture wights or White Walker, they could be studied here and at the Citadel. They could be sent back to Dorne, to show that the threat is real. They could be sent to every kingdom and port, across the Narrow Sea, to gather support. That would help me with my troubles, you with yours, and give all of the living a better chance to stay living."

"Just so. Will you do so?"

"I'll do my best, Arya," said Sarella seriously.

"I'll leave orders with the fleet that you be given every aid for the taking and keeping of wights. Don't try for White Walkers yet - their swords shatter both bronze and steel and they're stronger than men, so it's unlikely you'd be able to hold them. If you capture any, there are to be four diligent guards on duty, able to see the wight or wights with dragonglass weapons at all times, no exceptions. Have a list of who and what you might need by morning for Lady Wylla "

Sarella nodded absently, already working on the problem.

"Now, I have two hours before I must move on, and much to learn. Alleras, tell me about the Archmaesters."

************************

Sansa waited, listening to the latest round of bickering about precisely who did what to whom, about who was starving because, through absolutely no fault of their own, they had failed to provide the required three years worth of food in order to draw even minimal support from the central stores.

Conclave was one of the few times she could spend simply sitting, without doing anything with her hands - the Northern and Vale lords were prickly enough normally, and seeming to ignore them would only inflame that insult to their pride. She knew that very well, since many of them had taken to following Tormund's example and eating during the sessions, or doing other quiet work like cleaning armor. Sometimes quite pointedly, as was the current case where Lord Mollen's particularly enthusiastic, if quiet, polishing of his helmet happened only when Lord Whitehill was speaking.

Whether or not she cared much for hearing the tiresome bickering, she did need to attend carefully to the conclave as a whole. Who sat near who took only a moment, but the changes in expression, who whispered or spoke with their neighbors, how those neighbors reacted, who paid attention to what, who didn't... and how they did or didn't, all those details were powerful knowledge. Even more important were the groupings and patterns she saw, the small areas of consensus, how they built up, shrunk, or moved. It was from those that the larger consensus formed, and the lords and ladies of the Vale were much the same as those of the North, she'd found, if somewhat more political and much more concerned with the Seven, though she'd seen that faith starting to fade over the years since she'd come to the Vale.

Sansa spoke at the next natural pause, carefully choosing her words to let the conclave save face, and to avoid giving direct orders. Her sister could do so, and did, but the expectations the conclave had of the commander of the military during wartime were different than the expectations they had of the Lady of Winterfell, even in winter. Wars came and went, and the power of the military commanders with them. There was always a Lady of Winterfell, so ceding power to her was much more threatening to them.

"Many of you have the same difficulties, which I understand and acknowledge were contributed to by the emergency evacuation after we first heard of the wight dragon being raised. As of last night, the Night King still had the wight dragon with him, approaching the Wall at Eastwatch together with a large army of mixed wights. Lady Mormont, would a few well defended large caravans seriously hamper our ability to defend Winterfell or our other cities? Could they defend themselves from raiders or the Night King and his dragon?"

"No. We've only got the one Valyrian plate cutter for the ballista so far, which will stay here. The sleds are all finished, and we've enough dragonglass plate cutters, full dragonglass head, and normal bolts for sleds, ships, and stationary engines. Wildfire's short, but we've enough at Winterfell and White Harbor to give up three balls, and two from the others, no more," said the Scorpion Bear without hesitation, her voice clear and confident in a manner somewhat similar to Arya's.

"Lord Royce, Skamund, how many caravans can we safely escort?"

Lord Royce looked at the recently returned Free Folk leader, and Sansa watched with mild amusement as they spoke briefly in the strange pidgin that had somehow come about over the months they'd trained together, several times resorting to tapping out drumbeat patterns on the table to get some military point across clearly. They weren't using the simpler patterns Sansa knew, so it must have been something of fine detail.

"My Lady, we can defend two from each stronghold except at the Eyrie, which can only defend one caravan. The Free Folk are the critical ones; we need their scouts and the speed of the dogsleds to lead the horses safely. Between the Vale, the Manderlys, and the other houses of the north, we have enough horse cavalry to provide close escort. We should be able to provide one or two wargs per caravan as well, though some will be limited to land animals," said Lord Royce, summarizing the discussion for those lords and ladies, like her, who hadn't followed their conversation.

Lady Mormont, she saw, had followed it - the little bear was ferocious in pestering her Maester and others to catch up to the knowledge the other military leaders had. Had she grown up in times of peace, she would have found the serious girl of 3 and 10 either endearingly cute or unladylike and nearly as annoying as her sister. As it was, she was simply grateful to have a Lady so eager to increase her ability to defend the North.

Sansa assessed the conclave, then spoke sternly, "Very well. Any houses who wish to join in a caravan together will speak with Lord Royce, Skamund, and Lady Mormont after the conclave. Many of the colts from Barrowton are now ready to pull sleds; Deepwood Mott and the houses sworn to the Glovers have extra sleds. I'm sure you can all come to some arrangements to share what you have in plenty so food and other vital supplies can be brought in before the Long Night truly falls. If there are shortages of one thing or another that you cannot settle yourselves, I'll be in my solar for two hours before dinner. Is there anything else of import?"

As the conclave started to turn from bickering to horse-trading, she stood, returning to her solar, fashioning helmets and hearing several other small groups of merchants, traders, smallfolk with concerns relevant to the larger efforts, and highborn, one after the other. As the latest group was leaving, one Braavosi in charcoal grey stayed behind and asked hesitantly, "Lady Stark, may I ask who your seamstress is? This is the coldest winter Braavos has had in living memory, and my wife would enjoy a fine warm gown with embroidery as exquisite as yours."

Sansa smiled; even as much as she was sewing armor and clothes for warmth of late, she still enjoyed embroidery and making something beautiful with her own hands, "Certainly; I sew and embroider them all myself, as I do for my brother Jon and many of my sister Arya's outfits. I could certainly make one for your wife, if you were interested. Here, Kitty has some gloves I just finished that you can inspect. You ship mostly bulk goods, I believe - grains and fruits?"

The mans eyes widened as she told him she did her clothes herself; he was clearly surprised by that. He then glanced at the door then back at her, his eyes narrowing briefly, then clearing, looking at her and her guards briefly before taking the soft, fine woolen gloves, embroidered with a delicately stitched merman. He looked like he'd had a thought and then another, but not one that she felt was a danger to her.

"My Lady, you honor me greatly. Your time must be as precious as the Sealord's, and to offer an gown made by your own hands! I would trade a shipful of fresh fruits and two shipfuls of grains for each gown for my wife. She would be the envy of all Braavos, to be the first to wear a gown made by the Lady of Winterfell herself," exclaimed the merchant, his voice turning self-satisfied at the end, "She'd quite like being the envy of all Braavos, actually."

Sansa thought briefly. She'd been slowly learning each person would eat two to three barrels of grains a year in winter when they were active, and needed a steady supply of certain fruits to ward off scurvy. Maester Wolkan had taught her that it couldn't even be the same kind of grains all the time, or there were other diseases!

She'd worried so much about making mistakes in storing food before Arya had brought in the Braavosi and the Iron Bank; with them in the game, Sansa knew she would be able to make up for mistakes now with trade later. Proper planning was better, but her mistakes wouldn't be fatal to her people anymore.

She intended to make as few mistakes as possible, however, and food for nearly a thousand for a year was not just a queenly price for a gown, but a public statement of what she valued. It could only help to make such a statement, so those less perceptive than this merchant would notice as well; she hadn't missed that food, not gold, was his opening bid.

"One shipful of oranges, apples, or lemons, two of mixed grains and one of mixed dry beans each year, in exchange for a gown sewn and embroidered by me personally each year. If you would care to provide any specific designs, I'll use those," she said, increasing the price she demanded and the value of what she offered at the same time.

Lord Baelish would have advised increasing the price alone, of course, but she need good relationships with merchant traders more than she needed a single ship's worth of grain or a few hours less time; fair and happy trading partners were a worthwhile kind of power, too. She also wanted to establish the reputation for fair dealing from the start - she, and the North and the Vale, could not be seen as greedy, nor could they afford to be seen as easy marks.

The trading alliance she built now could help feed hundreds of thousands of men and women and their animals for centuries of winters; one ship of grain now wouldn't feed them for very long at all. Too, even a winter gown was more delicate than boiled leather and thick furs outer layers, and she'd enjoy that while still serving her people, should anyone foolishly question her embroidering dresses for merchants.

"Done!" said the merchant.

Sansa smiled, "Wonderful. You can give Leriah here her measurements and palette, and I'll start on it tomorrow."

"Her measurements?" asked the merchant as he was led out by the stocky, black-haired girl. Sansa waited for the door to close, then turned to Kitty, laughing quietly at the clueless question he had.

"Poor Leriah. I believe we should have enough ravens back to start sending out the messages and affidavits to the other kingdoms and cities, Kitty," she said with a friendly, if somewhat mischievous smile.

Kitty watched Sansa carefully... since the Lady had announced her adoption, she'd seen something of a different side of her, or perhaps just more of her, as if the very announcement had allowed the eldest Stark to let her hair down more, as it were. That smile, she'd seen before, though primarily directed at Lady Winter. At Arya. To see it directed at her... well, she supposed this was inevitable.

The Starks liked their little games and japes at each other, and she was to join in soon enough. This was nothing like her own family had been, nor Walder's, and she did like it very much indeed. All she'd done was try to do her best not to be a burden, and now she'd been made part of a better family. She felt safe, here, despite the wars to come and the many enemies, because Lady Sansa... because her sisters worked to make it so, worked in public and in secret to keep the North and all its allies stable and prosperous and alive.

Walder had worked in secret, but to undermine and tear down, to exacerbate frictions between his sons and grandsons, to make them angry with each other, distrustful. As his wife, she'd dreaded the day he died - as awful as he was, he was merely a moderately bad husband, nothing like Sansa's husband Ramsay, or Emilee's husband, or some of the others. As a pretty young widow when the Freys would have been torn apart by his sons and grandsons trying to claim power in his wake... it would have been hell.

Never again, though - Sansa and Arya would never allow any of that to happen. Now, however, she had the other side of this strange family to deal with. She stood and stretched, then crossed the room to pull the largest drawer out of the dresser, lifting it up and setting it on one of the smaller tables in the solar, replying cautiously as she did so.

"I'm sure she'll get a good description out of him, one way or another; she's good with that sort of thing. Everything's here, as we discussed - do you want to change the order the messages go out in?"

There it was... more mischievousness from the redhead. She mentally braced herself for what was surely to come.

"Yes. Use one raven in three to send your own messages, Kitty. I think it's time, and Arya was quite complimentary when she noticed on her own as well."

"Sansa! You never said anything!" exclaimed the Lady of the Crossing. She thought she'd hid those well enough. She'd been running portions of the Stark spy network even before she worked up the courage to start writing those scrolls! Even then, not one but both Stark sisters noticed what she was doing and said nothing.

"Of course not, Kitty, that would take all the fun out of having another sister to tease! It's a good idea - I'm proud and pleased you thought of it," said Sansa with a smirk and a wink.

Kitty felt her face flushing, deciding that a counterattack was her only option. While Sansa may know everything that happened in the castle, the Lady of Winterfell hadn't set foot in the brothel since the first time, more than a week ago, while she herself had spent time there every day. The girls, and boys, were really quite nice if you actually got to know them, and they appeared to be quite happy to be out from under Littlefinger.

They also knew a great many things about a great many people, from the important to the mundane... including who could make alterations to the brothel quickly and with a minimum of fuss. They'd had a lot of space, and with the new ownership the brothel had needed... well, Lady Winter would say it had needed a new face, Kitty had thought, so she'd had a large room on the ground floor turned into a dining hall, and hired another few cooks to add foreign dishes to the menu, as best they could be done within the limits of the rationing.

Thankfully, Sansa had only rationed food itself, not the spices required to prepare it, and only in major categories, so with a full spice rack, plenty of time for fancy preparation, and a very limited number of people to feed she'd managed to create something new in Winter Town. The new room was separated from the rest of the brothel by thick walls and three furred doors, which were opened only one at a time. She had hoped to attract more of the Ladies to her new business, and separating the area for food from the area for sex had seemed like a good first step. Getting her sister and another great Lord to partake of the food would be the second.

Getting Sansa out of the castle to a place she can relax and perhaps enjoy herself a little was a side effect.

"Thank you, Sansa, I will. I'm sure you've been looking to reward Lord Manderly for being so supportive of the rationing..." she trailed off.

"Yes," said Sansa, now watching Kitty with a combination of interest and pride and a slight hint of anticipation.

"If the Lady of Winterfell would see fit to escort the Lord of New Castle to the brothel's eastern entrance tonight, I believe just that appropriate reward can be provided in a public venue."

************************

Chapter Text

"Jamie said I pledged to ride north. I intend to honor that pledge. Cersei said then that will be treason. Jamie said treason. Cersei said disobeying your queen's command, fighting with her enemies, what would you call it. Jamie said doesn't matter what I'd call it. Jamie turned to leave. The mountain got in his way. Cersei said no one walks away from me. Jamie said are you going to order him to kill me. I'm the only one you have left. Our children are gone, our father is gone, it's just me and you now. Cersei said there's one more yet to come. Jamie said give the order then. Cersei nodded. The Mountain drew his sword. Jamie said I don't believe you. Jamie walked past the Mountain. Cersei stood and followed him to the edge of the map room. The Mountain didn't move. Jamie left for the North by himself on a horse," said the Three-Eyed Raven.

"Thank you, Bran. Gods, he is such an idiot," fumed Sansa from her usual seat. Hearing Bran narrate the conversation between Jamie and Cersei for the second time didn't make it any easier, even days later; all it made her think about was that she could have, should have lost another brother, if Cersei wasn't playing a longer game than usual. She still didn't know what he'd been thinking, going to King's Landing like that - he knew what happened to their family there, he knew Cersei was responsible, and he went there anyway.

She shook her head and took a drink of water. It was the hour of ghosts, deep into the night, and she'd been woken by her sister's arrival. With only the three of them in Bran's room, she was free to indulge in her actual emotions for a time. After a couple of minutes of indulgence, she suppressed her irritation again; it felt good to let some out, but that only helped for a short time, and in the right company. She felt better now, with her sister returned.

Arya took another bite of bread, leaning against the warm, gurgling wall behind her and her sister beside her, Ghost laying atop their feet. She'd returned to Winterfell not an hour before from a much longer journey than she'd anticipated, and was deeply tired herself. Her little troupe was back in a room in the outer section of her workshop area, outside of the area she'd claimed for the House of Black and White. Arya scowled as she replied.

"Both of them are. Trusting Cersei? Did he learn nothing from what you told him? Does Daenerys not listen to anyone with sense?" asked Arya, equally irritated at Jon throwing himself at the Many-Faced God for what should by all her expectations have been nothing. Jamie Lannister, she'd need to re-evaluate; what she remembered of him, what people thought him was not someone who would be riding towards his enemies alone. Since he was, they were wrong.

"No. It looks like Brienne was right about Jamie, though, if he's defying his sister to ride up to fight for the living," said Sansa, closing her eyes and enjoying her sister's presence after weeks apart, "I'll have to tell her so when she arrives. She'll huff, but she'll be pleased anyway. Then she'll be embarrassed, and you two can go off and have a good training fight."

"She and the Hound are the best Westerosi swordsmen I know; I'll enjoy training with her again, and with him. I think he'll be surprised at what I can do, now. As for Jamie, I'm glad he's not bringing an army of Lannisters. We'd never be able to trust them, and we're going to have enough trouble dealing with Daenerys and her forces without even more Southrons who might turn on us in a heartbeat in the mix. Jamie, at least, I can use, if I can trust him enough. Tywin taught him warfare, and he knows how to handle both logistics and mixed forces," said Arya tiredly.

"Brienne sings his praises, you know. She'll keep him in line, too."

"I bet she will. She fucked him yet?" asked Arya, poking Sansa in the side and taking a bite of the single chicken leg she'd been allotted for dinner with a lascivious wink she'd learned from a low-class whore in Braavos.

"Arya! No, she hasn't, but she's certainly fond of him, and she hated him at first. Being captured, failing to escape, losing his hand, losing his children - he's a better man now than he was before, she truly believes, even after he threatened to catapult Uncle Edmure's baby over the battlements."

"Valar Morghulis," was all Arya had to say on the baby, "Well, we'll see what he's truly after when he gets here. If he's not here to help, I'll kill him quietly and we'll have to make due with who we have now," said Arya pragmatically.

Sansa held her sister tighter for a moment. That total dismissal of the threat to the life of a baby struck her - all must die, indeed, and she knew well that babes die more often than anyone, of all sorts of things, even south of the Wall where they named their babes on their name day, not at age two as the Free Folk did. Still, she'd thought the threat was cruel on instinct when she first heard of it months ago.

She'd thought differently soon after, of course. Their father, hadn't protested any more seriously at the deaths of the Targaryen babes than before Lady's death - a few words, then nothing more. He'd taken Theon hostage when Theon was still a child to keep the Greyjoys in line, which meant he was fully prepared to kill Theon should his father rebel.

Moreover, once she'd considered it more seriously, she knew she herself would make the same sort of threat, and carry through with it, as Jamie would have, as her father would not have in that way... but would have had the babe have been a legitimate hostage. That was the way of the world, and by any sort of rational thought, it was hard to argue the numbers alone.

She was related to the babe, distantly, but she'd never heard anything good of Uncle Edmure, and the babe had been raised by Freys to begin with, so the babe didn't really fit into her own personal family. She was no Tully, to put family over duty without exception or consideration, she was a Stark. Winter is coming, and in winter, she would need to choose who would die, time and again, for not all could live. She wasn't Arya or Jon or Robb, to send men to die in battle, but she was the Lady of Winterfell, and so she must send them to die in the cold or of starvation.

It was just that her sister didn't have any remorse at all, no sadness or contemplation over the possible death of a babe, no guilt, no sense of injustice, not even for an instant. Just... all must die. Well, she supposed with a mental shrug, that was Arya now - she simply needed to keep in mind what Arya did and did not value now.

"You're the military commander - use him where you can, if he's genuine. Speaking of which, while we've improved while you were away, you were away for a long time. I didn't think you were going to visit all five other strongholds?" asked the eldest Stark.

"I didn't think so, either, but I got lucky. With the steady wind from the north we've had, I had a quick trip to Gulltown, and the Dragon Queen's trip north was slowed enough that the dogsleds could make far better time than a close hauled ship. Since the Night King's dragon hadn't even started working to melt the Wall by Eastwatch and his army was still shambling along, I had time. The ice-river clan at Gulltown may be smaller than Skamund's clan, but when they'd gotten the raven Karette sent, they'd pulled together their best long-distance teams for me, took me all over the Vale just as fast as Skamund's teams, then to Moat Cailin where Skamund had sent Meras to meet me with another set of dogsleds."

Sansa thought for a moment while Bran simply watched the fire, his eyes showing white.

"Karette is his sister, isn't she? Manages the ice-river clan in Gulltown? On good terms with Lady Leona?" asked Sansa. She'd met Karette only once, when she'd come to Winterfell to handle some intra-clan trading deals with the Thenns and the Frozen Shore men. She was much easier to understand than Skamund had been, and was as polite as any other spearwife she'd met - imagining them like Arya had been a useful technique, at least before Arya had returned, though by then she'd grown comfortable with the Free Folk. Their courtesies were different, but present nonetheless - just shorter and sharper than south of the Wall. Very much sharper - learning to fight or not, she wasn't able to handle the more physical side of their... politics. She'd leave that to Jon and Arya... or cajole Tormund into it, she supposed. Or Brienne or the Hound.

"That's the one. I helped give the gift to their father. He was a true Northerner, too stubborn to die until he was sure his clan would be cared for, would survive," said Arya, glancing up at her taller sister and smirking, "When I told him my sister respected the ice-river clans, he asked if you were as old as me."

Sansa thought for a moment, then scowled down at Arya, "While you were wearing Walder Frey's face? He wanted to know if I was older than Olenna Tyrell?"

Arya nodded seriously, patting Sansa very gingerly on the cheek, "Of course; I think he was worried about the succession, since you were obviously an ancient crone and the damn kneelers try to change rulers once a year! Don't worry, Sansa, we can change the shaft of your spear for one you can lean on in your dotage without cutting your poor shin on dragonglass or falling and breaking your fragile bones!"

"I'm not old! Just experienced. You're the one with all the wrinkles!" exclaimed Sansa, laughing.

"Of course I have wrinkles - you would too, with a sister like you worrying you all the time! I hear you took Lord Manderly to a brothel, you know. I didn't think he was your type," teased Arya. She knew full well her sister didn't really want that kind of thing anymore, and likely wouldn't for a long time, if ever again - she wasn't an expert on what that kind of mutilation did to girls, though she knew on men it varied somewhat, based on what the Unsullied had gotten up to in Slaver's Bay. What Ramsay did... well, Sansa'd fed him to his own hounds, which was vengeance enough even for her. They survived, their trials having honed their sharp edges well enough.

"Of course he is," replied Sansa with a smirk of her own, "He's a pleasant dinner companion with a very astute mind. Lord Manderly was quite taken with the eggs, so I traded him mine for his soup. As it happens, Kitty arranged for a section of the brothel to be purely a dining area, finely prepared foods, for those who can pay, though the portions are still in line with the rationing. Some of the girls are fair minstrels, so we'd sewed them some much more conservative outfits for when they're playing in the dining area."

Arya made the signs for sister and recruit when Sansa mentioned Kitty, seeing Sansa's signs of yes and sister even as she continued talking. Arya smiled upon hearing that Kitty was family now, then replied dryly, "Scandalous. And how did he show his astuteness?"

"Lord Templeton was attending as well, and we heard him making a few comments about the portions while we entered. Kitty was behind us, which I presume is why he felt willing to speak so loudly - he always knew enough to be quiet when Lord Baelish was around, when I was in the Vale. When Lord Manderly's plate was served, though, he took the daintiest bite I've ever seen him take - you know how eagerly he usually eats - and said, just loud enough for the room to hear, that the pork pie was so sublime, he was sure that he wouldn't be able to finish it before supper, for food of that quality was meant to be savored properly, every bite an experience worth losing weight over."

"Well, that was very blunt of him. He must have been talking with Lyanna while I was away," said Arya as she laughed, took her last bite, then quaffed down water and wrapped her arm around her sister. They sat together quietly for a few minutes, enjoying each other's company until Bran's eyes returned to normal.

"Bran, what has Jon been talking with Daenerys about?"

"Jon said you're beautiful. Daenerys said tell me. Jon kissed her and said your neck is beautiful. Daenerys pulled her furs open and said just my neck. Jon put his hands inside her furs and..."

"Bran! Stop!" cried out Sansa. That was not what she needed to hear about her brother! That was not what she needed to think about when she met Queen Daenerys and her brother, either. That was going to be a very delicate meeting, and a critical one.

Arya looked at the aghast expression on Sansa's face, then broke out laughing. After a moment, she took control of herself, "What, Sansa, isn't this just like all the tales you liked to read before we left? A handsome man and a beautiful noblewoman together, all alone at sea, lost in each other? Your books were rather explicit - did Septa know exactly what you were reading in your bedroom?"

"Arya!"

Arya laughed, then hugged Sansa close for a moment, "I'll have to help Kitty take you to the brothel more often, Sansa; you deserve to enjoy a little luxury sometimes, and you need to let your hair down sometimes. I still have a dance to show you, you know, and I suppose Kitty and the girls, too. Even if you don't like sex, you can still enjoy some of the entertainment. In Braavos, you know the courtesans aren't just there for sex - they do all kinds of entertainment, too - dance, music, art, just like Kitty's doing here."

"I suppose I might like to hear the harp while I go over the books and the reports; that could be done without the player being able to see anything at all. Kitty's apparently heard the same kinds of things about brothels; she spoke with some of the Braavosi before she started on the work to clarify, but she had the idea before that," mused Sansa. From time to time she did miss the simple pleasures of childhood, the pleasures of any wealthy highborn lady.

She'd not thought to take any of them up again in wartime, in winter, but Kitty'd brought in the first reports of the brothel after Littlefinger's death, and the sums it accumulated were impressive, even after taking out the expenses required to keep it running. Too, if her own Lords and Ladies were attending, she could do so without undue repercussion, especially as the half-owner... and in a small, refined atmosphere, she could more easily have certain conversations than in the conclave or the camps. Sansa decided she'd consider that more carefully, later - good food had a way of smoothing over certain conversations, especially if she paid for it herself, and made sure it was what the other person preferred. Her spies could find that out easily enough when she didn't already know.

"You need to be able to control your face when Jon gets here with his Queen lover , as well, without having to make an effort of it. They're obviously close now, and in tight quarters, under stress, they'll cling to each other more closely. Daenerys likes her men, and she's been alone since she left Meereen, since she likes her power more. You know Jon - once he's got an idea into his head, he won't let it go unless his duty compels him to... and he's made her his duty as well, so he's not going to stop" said Arya, concerned. That would make things much more difficult in some ways, and easier in others.

Sansa nodded seriously, returning to the larger issues rather than deal with that just now. Jon's bedding the Dragon Queen they had plenty of time to deal with. Making sure the preparations were complete before they reached White Harbor, making sure they had as much knowledge as possible before Varys was set loose in the North, that was what they needed now.

"Bran, what did they last talk about that wasn't personal?"

"That was early this morning. Davos pointed to the west and said that'll be the start of the Bay..."

************************

Ser Davos pointed out through the rapidly thinning fog to port as they sailed north north-east, "That'll be the start of the Bay of Crabs, your Grace; see how we can't see the shadows of the shore anymore? Gulltown's another seventy miles farther north, but inside the bay, too far to see even from the crows nest. It's the main port city of the Vale, though a lot of the smugglers like to use Sisterton up near White Harbor instead."

"The Vale are our allies against the dead, and against the Boltons. Littlefinger's the Lord Protector, and he brought the knights of the Vale north to fight the Boltons for my sister. Saved my life. Gods, I hate that - don't trust him, Dany. He's a slimy little man, and I swear he's going after Sansa," said Jon, worry in his voice.

"You should be wary of Lord Baelish, Lord Snow. He's one of the most dangerous men in the seven kingdoms," said Lord Varys from his position behind Daenerys in his usual relaxed pose.

Daenerys stepped up to Jon, very close, and trailed her hand down his arm, "We'll deal with him, Jon. I know you want to protect your sisters, and I want to protect your family, too. He won't be able to stand against his Queen, will he?"

"I suppose not," said Jon just as a single long, low horn note sounded across the water, causing Jon to straighten fully and jerk his head around quickly, looking for wights, just as he had in the far north, time after time.

"What's that?" asked Daenerys, more concerned about Jon's reaction, though she did turn to make sure the ship crew was reacting. Grey Worm charged out of his cabin, slamming his fur-covered helmet atop his head, spear in hand.

"What was that?"

Jon, seeing nothing and hearing no more horn blasts, wrapped an arm around Daenerys's shoulder, laughing quietly and explained gently, relief in his voice, "That's an announcement we're friendly. One horn call for friendlies, two for enemies, three for White Walkers, that's what we use in the Night's Watch. Well, now - I was taught it was one for rangers, two for wildlings, and three for White Walkers, but I changed that when I let the Free Folk past the Wall."

"SAIL HO! FOUR POINTS TO STARBOARD AND CLOSING FAST! BURNING TOWER ON A BLACK PILE ON RED!" called out the lookout from the crow's nest, finally spotting the other ship's mast through the last wisps of fog.

Davos relaxed visibly at the announcement, even as a faint single horn call, deeper than the first, sounded over the water from the port. "That'll be the Graftons, your Grace. They rule over Gulltown and manage the Vale's fleets. Looks like someone's got them patrolling the sea, looking for the Greyjoys, or for that wight dragon. Sorry, it had to be said, your Grace."

"Well, that's a good idea. I'm surprised to hear the horn, though. Last time I heard it was at the Wall," said Jon.

"You didn't know about it being used by the Vale?" asked Tyrion.

"No. I've been down here with you all, you know that. You've been with me since I got back to Eastwatch."

Tyrion looked thoughtfully at the tip of the mast peeking up over the horizon, approaching them, "So it's not something you set up before you left, then?"

"No," replied Jon over the sound of drums coming from the ship approaching them.

"Nor something you were aware of?"

"No, Tyrion, it was not something I was 'aware of'," said Jon shortly.

"Well, then it appears someone has been busy," said Tyrion, "I remember the horns from the Wall. I don't remember the drums, though. What do they mean?"

"I don't know," said Jon, "We didn't use drums in the Night's Watch. The Umbers do, though. At least they used to - I imagine Ned Umber will continue that," replied Jon with growing irritation.

"SAILS HO! SIX POINTS TO STARBOARD AND CLOSING! EIGHTEEN PURPLE! TWO BURNING TOWER ON A BLACK PILE ON RED! TWO MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN!"

Ser Davos frowned, his expression puzzled, "That'd be a bunch of Braavosi, two Graftons and two of House Manderly's. That's very odd, they haven't ever sailed together that I recall. The Braavosi usually stay near home or patrol the trade routes their traders use, hunting pirates. They might be hunting Euron, I suppose. They don't like pirates, not one bit, but that's not a force that could take Euron's fleet, either, if it was together, and if they were hunting Greyjoys, they wouldn't have Manderlys with them, not this far south."

Daenerys looked over at her advisors, raising an eyebrow pointedly at Lord Varys.

"I've heard whispers that the raven we were sent about the unfortunate raising of Viserion by evil magic wasn't quite the same as other ravens that were sent. There were whispers that these ravens were sent far and wide, and sometimes carried not only Lord Snow's sister's words, but also words from Bronze Yohn Royce, several Maesters, the Iron Bank, the Arsenal of Braavos, Myrish pyromancers, and other notables. It would appear that the whispers of the Arsenal are indeed true."

"Why didn't you know they were true before now?" asked Daenerys, her expression stern. She was tired of being surprised - surprised by her enemies, surprised by her allies, surprised by everything.

"I only hear whispers, not proof, and my little birds have been having trouble flying in the cold, I'm afraid. Few whispers ever come from Braavos; little birds are very popular there, and hard to keep. They tend to flutter away to a sunnier perch. Braavos was also never of much interest to the realm before, though if that has changed, it is certainly possible to purchase more little birds," said the eunuch softly. His tone turned to one of mild curiosity as he asked, "If the fleets of Braavos is working with a great Northern house like the Manderlys, perhaps the man who was once King in the North might know something?"

Daenerys turned her head to gaze at Jon, her expression softening as she remembers the surprise he'd been to her, "Jon, what do you know?"

"I know that the only thing that matters is the war against the Night King. Sansa got the knights of the Vale to help, maybe she found some other people to help, too. Maybe she met someone from Braavos in King's Landing, I don't know. I'm just happy to see we have more allies!" he said, the irritation in his voice waning as he put his arm around Dany, tucking her in close as they watched the Vale ship approach. The ships from Braavos and White Harbor maneuvered to keep their distance while staying nearby.

Daenerys tucked into Jon, "Yes, I'm happy too."

Ser Davos commented on the fleet seaward of theirs, "Look at the Braavosi, the purple sails - you can see how deftly they maneuver. There, right there! The lead ship started a tack, and the rest followed in seconds. That's a well drilled fleet, even including the mermen. Now, the Braavosi have an easier time of it because the Arsenal of Braavos makes ships the same, so they sail the same if you load them right. I've seen it - the shipyard's enormous. If the Lady Stark managed to get allies like that, that's a good sign."

He strode to the rail suddenly, peering out, then pointed, "See that? The Manderly and Grafton ships were both built by the Arsenal, too, they're identical - you can see the silhouette clearly when they tack. They're all real warships, a ballista on the bow and a scorpion aft. Good design, that. Put a ballista aft and you'd lose speed and maneuverability, it'd be too heavy. I'm glad they're on our side - the Braavosi navy's nothing to fuck with. Always best avoided if you're a pirate, or in the slave trade - Braavosi are death on slavery. Those ships'd make a real mess of this bunch of tubs, too, for that matter."

Daenerys scowled, "Scorpions? Like the one that hurt Drogon? Why are there ships carrying the weapons that hurt Drogon sailing here?"

Jon shrugged, "They're with the Manderlys, so they're with the North, on our side. They're probably here in case the Night King comes down past the Wall on Viserion, like Davos said. See, they're keeping their distance from Rhaegal and Drogon, Dany."

"They're between us and Euron if he attacks us from the sea, your Grace. Of course, they're also pinning us between them and the shore at the same time, but they're too far for even those ballista to hit us," said Davos.

The approaching Gulltown ship made a neat turn to parallel their course, continuing to close the distance.

"Why doesn't that one have any scorpions?" asked Daenerys as she got a better look at it.

"It's a smaller ship, a different design. A big scorpion'd be hard to find a good place for on that hull, and would slow it down too much - look at how far forward the mainmast is. A small one'd fit, I suppose, but it wouldn't be able to overtake us at two to three knots if that were the case. Look at 'er go - she's running light and fast. See how high she is in the water? You can even see clean hull where they scraped barnacles off. She's used to running with a heavy cargo, and they must have scraped her hull recently to get her speed back up."

"Ahoy Targaryen! Got messages for Queen Daenerys Targaryen, Lord Tyrion Lannister, and Lord Jon Snow! You got them aboard?" came the faint shout from the Grafton ship.

"Aye, on deck!"

"Message reads Lord Jon Snow, please confirm that you did choose to pledge to fight for Queen Daenerys Targaryen of your own free will, as you said in the raven you wrote! Lady of Winterfell sends!"

"Aye, I did pledge to fight for Daenerys Targaryen of my own free will!" shouted Jon in the voice he used to be heard in battle, prompting a smile from Daenerys.

"Message reads Queen Daenerys, welcome to the Vale! Please proceed to White Harbor in the North for the fastest route! Dragonglass spears and arrows crafted from the supplies you have graciously been providing us await your forces there! Thank you again for the many shipments of dragonglass you have sent! Please also be aware there is no food to spare for men or horses during winter! We await you, your children, your Unsullied, and your Dothraki archers! Lady of Winterfell sends!"

"Message heard!" shouted a sailor aboard.

"Message reads Lord Tyrion, please refer again to the ravens I've sent and ensure adequate provisions and transport! Winter is here, and while you have made great strides, I wish to ensure that our valued allies are not put in extra danger by being ill-prepared for the conditions of a Northern winter! Lady of Winterfell sends!"

Daenerys looked at Tyrion pointedly, "Ravens? Many ravens?"

"A few, your Grace. It appears the Lady of Winterfell likes to be quite certain the important bits are followed. Not without some truth behind it, of course - Grey Worm's Unsullied are following her instructions precisely, but the Dothraki are less than willing to wear the garments, or make preparations for their horses as I have asked them, and some of the garments that we purchased were not of the correct materials," replied Tyrion carefully.

"You've corrected the garments, of course?"

"Of course."

"Qhono, ensure the Dothraki wear the proper garments - though as cold as it is, I don't know who wouldn't be already. As for the horses, are you an expert horseman, Lord Tyrion? My Dothraki know more about horses than anyone in the world. Qhono, are the horses prepared properly?" came the steady reply from the Dragon Queen.

"Yes, Khaleesi."

"Message heard!" shouted the sailor after Daenerys was finished.

"Message reads Jon Snow, please carefully consider consulting with me before putting your head in the lion's jaws! I'm happy you survived meeting Cersei! Welcome home! Home means Winterfell, not past the Wall! Sansa Stark sends!"

"Message heard!"

"Message reads Jon, you fucking idiot, if you try to head towards Cersei again, I'll string you up by your balls until you quit trying to get yourself killed for the second time! If you ever go back to hunting wights on foot you'll wish I had only strung you up by your balls! Arya sends!"

Tyrion 'casually' took a step back from Jon towards Grey Worm, changing his posture to ensure his legs were closed tighter, whispering loudly, "Well, at least some of you are safe!"

Qhono gave him a nod, while the others simply glared at him.

"Message heard!"

"Message reads Queen Daenerys, thank you for flying up to rescue my brother. He's an idiot, but I love him. Arya Stark sends!"

"Message heard!"

"Message reads Queen Daenerys and commanders, Night King approaching Wall with wight dragon and main army of the dead, shambling wight pace! Slowed by taking narrow winding paths! No sign of wight dragon south of wall yet! No sign of White Walkers past wall yet! Cersei armies not coming! Jamie Lannister coming! Euron fleet approaching Volantis to onload Golden Company for Cersei! Lady Winter sends!"

"Message heard!"

"End messages! Head East North East for fifty miles, then turn two points West of North! Good sailing to ye!"

With a much fainter "Ware boom!", the Gulltown ship swung outwards to turn fully around and return to its original southerly bearing, not saying another word.

"They seem very abrupt," commented Missandei.

"They have no time to waste," replied Grey Worm.

Daenerys wrapped her arm around Jon's firmly, "Jon, was there something you wanted to tell me about your sister Arya? She seems to be even more straightforward than you, and much more violent. I'm afraid I won't allow her to follow through on that particular threat... though I'm sure I can help her come up with something else suitable, should you try to risk yourself capturing wights again! I don't want to lose you, too!"

Jon nodded absently. Dany looked up at him, shaking him a little, "Jon?"

"She's really alive. I'm really going to see her again," said Jon in a tone of wonder.

The Dragon Queen held his arm tight, pressing up against him, her voice softer now, not teasing anymore, "Of course she's alive. You've asked the Hound about her, you've asked Gendry about her, you've asked Brienne about her. They all told you she was fine, and Brienne even told you she still had that sword you told me you gave her, Needle. Why are you so stunned?"

"I just... I thought she and Bran and Rickon were dead for so long, and then Rickon was alive, and Ramsay had him. I was going to rescue my little brother, and he died right in front of me - I got there as his last breath left him, couldn't even say a word. I guess I just didn't believe Arya was alive until I heard her words. That's definitely my sister."

"Come on, Jon, let's get some food and celebrate your impending reunion," said Daenerys softly, leading Jon towards the galley.

Lord Varys exchanged a look with Tyrion, then led the way to his quarters, where he closed the hatch and spoke quietly, "Euron's fleet is approaching Volantis?"

"So Lady Winter says. My sister's armies are not coming, but my brother Jamie is. I'm glad he's escaped Cersei, at least, though I don't think our Queen is going to be very happy with me for our little trip."

"Not for awhile, I'm afraid. The Starks seem dangerously well informed; Lord Baelish is being more free with his information than usual. Perhaps you should be careful, in case they also learn that it was your idea to send her brother on that little trip to capture a wight, and take them into the lion's jaws," said the eunuch quietly.

"There's really nothing I can do about them learning anything now, though it seems you'll have your work cut out for you, too. Why do you think Littlefinger has changed his ways?"

"Because Sansa Stark has what he desires." Varys asked with his characteristic expression of curiosity.

"Very helpful, old friend. The ravens from Sansa have taken on an entirely new light now," replied Tyrion thoughtfully, with a little worry showing on his face.

"What light is that?"

"I got the reminder about making sure that cotton was never used not long after the makers had started using it. I had thought her just nagging, or nervous, but in light of hindsight it seems to have been timed rather well. She sent one reminding of the amount of food required just before we left, as well. How do you think she knew we were about to leave?"

"How indeed. Moving even a small army is still thousands of men whispering to each other, my Lord."

"And yet you didn't find Littlefinger's little birds."

"I rather think you'd know more about his preferred spies than I, old friend," said Lord Varys, cocking his head as he looked at the Hand of the Queen with a slight but fond smile.

Tyrion looked back with a small, worried smile, "I'll look very closely at all the whores the next time I'm at a brothel, I assure you. I have another question for you, though. Who is Lady Winter?"

Varys frowned slightly, "Something of a mystery, I'm afraid. There are whispers that Lady Winter is who came for House Frey and destroyed the house, leaving the message that the North remembers. Now we know she's also powerful enough to have the same ship delivering messages from the Starks deliver a message to us, and one revealing the movements of our mutual enemies."

"One of the Mormonts, perhaps?"

"No. Maege Mormont died during the War of Five Kings, leaving a girl behind, Lyanna. She'd be just three and ten now."

"Someone from the Vale, perhaps? One of Littlefinger's?" asked Tyrion thoughtfully.

"Possibly. Lord Baelish did employ a few spymasters in addition to spies and a few cutthroats, some of them women. More importantly, they're hearing whispers from King's Landing, Volantis, and north of the Wall. Lord Baelish did have a few people in the Free Cities buying whores, but not a real spy network there, but no. What truly interests me is the news of the Night King."

"Maybe they've befriended the snarks and grumkins, wargs and skinchangers, or they're using magic! Or, perhaps, they're simply using this new fleet; when they were approaching, I saw a glint of sunlight from the quarterdeck. They might be using far-eyes - we know from Jon Snow that the dead don't swim, but if they're approaching Eastwatch, they might be near the shore. A lookout can see a long way from the crow's nest of a ship that big," said Tyrion as he thought through the ideas that logic led him to.

"Using far-eyes does seem possible, yes. That would explain the fleet, too; forty giant crossbows with the flaming or dragon-glass headed bolts might be enough to keep a wight dragon away," said Varys thoughtfully.

"They might also be enough to keep our Queen's dragons away, too, which won't help our Queen's cause. It's a good thing Jon Snow bent the knee - but even so, we should be watchful."

"Indeed."

************************

Sansa and Arya exchanged their own look as Bran finished, then burst out laughing, startling Ghost briefly.

"Thank you, Bran. That was wonderful," said Sansa.

"His little birds are having trouble flying in the cold, are they? I wonder why that could possibly be?" asked Arya, enjoying the results of her vigilance and her reputation. She'd been quite surprised, and pleasantly so, by the reception she'd received everywhere except the Eyrie.

She owed the Beggar King of Winter Town a favor, she supposed, and favors were the true currency of an upstanding underbelly, a currency which could be relied upon because it had to be to have value. The Eyrie, well... that was sorted out now, even if there had been a bit of a mess to clean up. Littlefinger had had a free hand there for too many years, and it showed... though Sansa had earned respect there, even as Alayne.

"They're having trouble with Lady Winter," said Bran, a faint proud smile appearing on his face for a moment before fading back into the Three-Eyed Raven's expression.

"And with our brother the Three-Eyed Raven, without whom we wouldn't have been able to hear that," said Sansa, equal pride in her own voice, both for their accomplishments and for the most Bran had been himself for some time, and for longer.

"Arya, Sansa knows my name. I only had to tell her once."

"Shut up, Bran."

Sansa spoke slowly, thinking furiously about what they'd heard, "We're not going to be able to keep the Three-Eyed Raven a secret at all, not with Jon so close to Daenerys. He won't be able to keep the secret, so that's settled - we have to do full disclosure there. Not that there's much reason not to, given how the army and the lords all know. You're a very public figure, too, Arya, though we can use that. I worry about Bran, though."

Arya patted Sansa comfortingly, "I'll recheck his guards - I've been away, but if you show me the ones with a solid loyalty to Bran who aren't already guarding him, I'll pick out the best ones and add a perimeter around this floor, like I have for the floor the House is on. Bran, you should check regularly for hidden loyalties on your guards too."

"I have to look for the Night King."

"Once a week, then, Bran. You can't look for the Night King if you're dead, and you can't do anything about what you see if you're stolen away in the night."

Her siblings nodded, lapsing into quiet contemplation for awhile. Bran returned to his visions, and Arya closed her eyes and rested with her family until heavy footsteps in soft shoes came up the stairs and down the corridor outside, triggering the guards tapping their spears loudly, just as the man came into their sight. When Samwell Tarly was announced, Sansa made the signs for quiet, recruit, and brother, and they stayed still and silent in their corner.

"Come in," said Bran, "Samwell Tarly."

"I wasn't sure if you'd remember me."

"I remember everything. You helped us get beyond the wall. You're a good man."

Sansa held Arya a little closer; that flat tone Bran had when he was the Three-Eyed Raven was back in full, not a hint of her brother left. She'd hoped his opening up would continue... but no, it was still only flashes, and only with family or, rarely, with Meera. They were getting longer, and stronger, though, and for that she was grateful. She'd focus on what she had, now, more than what she wanted, for she had more than she'd dared hope for in her years of captivity.

"Thank you, but I'm not sure that I am. What happened to you beyond the Wall?"

"I became the Three-Eyed Raven."

"Ooooh," said Samwell, then continued, his voice puzzled but entirely unashamed of his ignorance, "I don't know what that means."

"I can see things that happened in the past. I can see things happening now, all over the world. Why did you come to Winterfell?" asked the Three-Eyed Raven.

"Um. Jon's the one to lead the fight against the dead, I know he is. He can't do it alone, so I've come here to help him," said Samwell, his voice strengthening quickly.

"He's on his way back to Winterfell, with Daenerys Targaryen."

"You saw this in... a... vision?" queried the novice of the Citadel.

Bran held up the raven scroll they'd just gotten. Jon had sent it, as expected, after he'd already set sail and thus was unable to receive a raven in response, "He needs to know the truth."

"The truth about what?"

"About himself. No one knows, no one but me. Jon isn't really my father's son, he's the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and my aunt Lyanna Stark. He was born in a tower in Dorne. His last name isn't really Snow, it's Sand."

Arya let herself squeeze Sansa close briefly, deliberately not suppressing her shock entirely. That had not been something she'd expected to hear, nor had she expected Bran to tell it to someone she'd never met, even if Sansa had told her he was Jon's brother by choice. She supposed she'd be able to blame some of his idiotic rashness on his Targaryen ancestry now, whether or not she'd had any signs of rashness herself when she was but a child. She'd grown out of that, at least. Bran's idiocy, though...

Sansa returned the pressure. Jon was her cousin by blood, but still her brother - his being a bastard had never bothered Arya as children, and hadn't bothered she herself since she was at the Eyrie. As a bastard, he still didn't have a legal claim on the Iron Throne.

"No it's not," said Sam quietly, but with confidence.

"Dornish bastards are named Sand," said the Three-Eyed Raven pedantically.

"At the Citadel, I transcribed a High Septon's diary. He annulled Rhaegar's marriage to Elia, he wed Rhaegar and Lyanna in a secret ceremony," said Sam, pausing for a moment, considering before asking hesitantly, "Is this something you can... see?"

Sansa rethought quickly. His legal claim on the Iron Throne was better than Daenerys's, but that was based on the state of the seven kingdoms four regents and two major wars ago, not the state today. Lord Baelish would have considered that useful only insofar as he could use it to motivate those loyal to the Targaryens, which was nearly worthless, or as he could use it to sow chaos and distrust. Cersei... would have killed Jon as a threat to her power, however faint that threat was.

"Rhaegar didn't kidnap my aunt, or rape her. He loved her. And she loved him. And Jon, his real name is Aegon Targaryen. He's never been a bastard, he's the heir to the Iron Throne," said the Three-Eyed Raven.

"How do you know she loved him?" asked Sansa, rather enjoying being the one to make a grown man jump like a frightened rabbit. He was quicker than she'd thought, pulling out a dragonglass dagger, much slower than Leriah would, but about as fast as a poorly trained guard might... by her new standards. The guards really had improved drastically since her sister had taken over.

Arya had kept an arm casually around Sansa, palming a dagger well before Samwell finished so much as laying a hand on his weapon. A curious choice, going for dragonglass when someone spoke. Between what she'd heard of Samwell from Alleras and what she'd heard from Sansa and Bran, she pegged him as someone whose fear of White Walkers and wights was stronger than his training, though his courage was to his credit. To be afraid and to still turn to face the enemy with a weapon in your hand, that was what her father had spoken of when he talked of being brave.

"She was smiling. She said I am his, and he is mine. They kissed," said the Three-Eyed Raven as Sam sheathed his dagger again with an apology.

"Sorry! Sorry. You startled me," Sam said, then paused, "Who are you?"

Sansa's voice was incredibly dry, her shoulders tight under Arya's hand as she spoke, "We're his sisters, Sam. Bran, you said I looked beautiful at my wedding to Ramsay. If you look at my time in the Red Keep, you'd see me smiling and saying all kinds of things to Joffrey, to Cersei. Words are wind; how many family members were with Lyanna? How many guards loyal to House Stark? Who was present?"

"Rhaegar, Lyanna, the High Septon, three Kingsguard."

"Then we know nothing of what she felt. Kingsguard are just bannermen in white cloaks, nothing more. No better and no worse than any other man might be, and at best they stand by and do nothing in the face of evil. At worst they are evil themselves," said Sansa, her voice cold and dark, leaning forward in the gloom, expression fierce, softening only when Arya rubbed her back in slow circles.

"Jon's our brother, no matter what," said Arya firmly, "Even if he wasn't half Stark, just like we've always known, he'd still be our brother because of who he is. Sansa's right, though - glimpses here and there tell us nothing of the feelings involved."

"Jon is not the heir to the Iron Throne, either," said Sansa in a voice equally firm, "He might have been in the line of succession a quarter century ago, but the throne has passed through three other kings and a queen already; there aren't even any houses loyal to the Targaryen family left, much less to Jon himself. This is dangerous knowledge, even so; there are many puppet-masters looking for puppets, like Olenna Tyrell and Renly Baratheon, and Jon has never learned politics like they practice in the South."

Arya continued for her sister, "The Red Woman used Stannis like that, and he was far older and more experienced, but still, like Jon, focused on what he saw his duty to be. Anyone who can phrase what they want in a way that makes it seem to be his duty, that's someone who can use Jon."

Sansa's voice softened slightly, "The current heir to the Iron Throne is Jamie Lannister, Gendry, or anyone with power, depending on whether one is loyal to Cersei, one remains loyal to Robert, or one wants a new ruler on the throne for their own reasons. In that case, 'rightful heir', as the Keyholder has said, is just a story open to interpretation. Only power matters. Anyone from Westeros supporting Daenerys in her attempt to win the throne by right of conquest wants something from her, and Jon won't be able to give them what they want."

"I... see, my lady," said Sam.

Arya and Sansa exchanged signs briefly; they'd seen his very open reactions, his body language, heard his tone of voice, observed his interactions with Bran. Bran may not have human judgment anymore, but he and Jon had both spoken highly of Samwell, as did Samwell's own actions.

Sansa stood, remembering what Jon had told her about Samwell, knew that Bran would certainly tell Jon when he returned, and then strode over and embraced him briefly, "Thank you for protecting my brother. Jon's claimed you as a brother, so you're our brother too, just as Gendry is because Arya claimed him as her brother, just as Kitty is because I claimed her as my sister. We'll tell Jon when he gets back, but for now, only family is to know. None of us will talk about it anywhere other than here, in Bran's room."

Arya patted him strongly on the back, "Welcome to the family, Sam. You came with Gilly and little Sam, right? We'll train tomorrow after dawn."

"Of course I'll keep it secret," said Samwell, agreeable even if puzzled, "I know what my father or the Tyrells would do if they knew something like this."

"Sam," asked Sansa, looking at him with concern, "You haven't heard about your family yet?"

"No. Should I have?"

Sansa gestured to a chair, sharing a look with Arya even as the elder sister sat Samwell down and the younger opened the door and sent a messenger girl to ask for Gilly and little Sam. This news wouldn't be easy for him to hear; they both knew it was best he had his family with him when he heard it.

************************

Sansa and Arya lay on Sansa's bed as they talked quietly after Gilly had taken Sam off to their own chambers to recover from the news his brother and father had been burned alive for refusing to bend the knee, without being given the chance to serve in the Night's Watch. They'd promised to send a ship to collect the rest of his family, if they could - there was another duty in that area they needed to have done as well; Bran had located Vigilance, so they could send a team for it and one for the Tarly women on the same ship.

Sansa spoke softly, "I've heard reports from my spies that despite your efforts to beat Wynafryd and Wylla black and blue, you made a good impression."

"Oh? You did? How interesting," said Arya blandly, "And do you believe them?"

"I believe you beat Wynafryd and Wylla black and blue, of course," said Sansa with a snicker.

"They were carrying spears with full dragonglass heads, and long ones, not just shards. I just wanted to train with someone so good they deserved such a rare spearhead, made from a pristine, flawless piece of dragonglass by our best knappers," replied Arya in a tone of complete innocence, "Imagine my surprise when they weren't actually as good as I expected!"

"You're a terrible liar," said Sansa with a naive child's utter truthfulness.

"I'm a great liar," replied Arya indignantly.

"Not when you tell such an obviously false tale! Fess up, now, tell me what actually happened, so I know whether the Manderlys are going to come for our heads soon, or if they're so angry they're going to come tonight!"

"All right. I'd just finished breakfast..."

************************

Arya finished another piece of bread, then ate the last of her portion of fish, looking out over the great hall of New Castle from what would normally have been Lord Manderly's seat at breakfast. The seven-pointed star rose over her seat on the wall behind, Lady Leona to her right with her daughters Wynafryd on her left, with Wylla one seat down from Leona. Past that were various highborn sworn to House Manderly, though she'd been amused to see that most were women this time.

More bait, cast out by fishermen who didn't understand precisely what kind of shark swam in their waters, but gently so. They were offering, only, with not so much as a single subtle comment made about it. More precisely, Wynafryd had engineered the situation - Leona looked to be willing to let it happen, though she was keeping a close eye on things even as Wynafryd had deftly taken the conversation away from two of the others at the table who looked unduly interested in her, before they could say anything which might have possibly raised offense.

Wylla, however, had little restraint herself, and Arya was amused to hear the point-blank question from the young woman, three years older than she herself was.

"Lady Sansa sent a raven saying you were a high priest of the Many-Faced God. What does that mean? Why aren't you a priestess?" asked the green-haired Manderly.

Arya smiles gently, wiping her lips carefully, mindful of appearances here. She needed to present this carefully to the one major stronghold of the Faith of the Seven in the North, who was also a staunch Stark supporter. Keeping the Faith weak as Sansa had advised her was her problem to deal with, not Sansa's, though she did not want to cause undue political issues, either. Too, this was a public event, and excellent for spreading rumors and truth both.

"I am a priest of the Many-Faced God, yes, and one who is charged with creating the House of Black and White in Westeros. There is only one god, and his name is Death. He has many faces - Stranger in the Faith of the Seven is just one face; a popular face, here, though it grants no magic, no powers, no visions as some of the other faces do," said Arya, assessing not just the head table she was at but the rest of the hall, which had quieted somewhat at the bold, and loud, question.

Seeing no serious problems, she stood and strode towards a pillar as she continued, her voice not too loud, but carrying all the same, "It means I and the other Faceless Men have the duty to provide a painless death to those who wish death for themselves, the only price being their own life. I and my fellows will be happy to do so to any who would prefer that to going hunting, when winter descends, when a disease cannot be treated, when life becomes too painful to bear."

She swirled her cloak inside out as she passed behind the pillar, her own face hidden deeply within the hood, unlooped the laces running down the inside of her trouser legs to let the extensions at the bottom down, and rose up on the balls of her feet to add a couple inches of height through simple tricks, scrunching the fabric inside these boots and grasping it with her toes to carry the boots and give the impression she was truly taller.

No One came out the other side in the regalia of a working priest of the Many-Faced God, though still with Arya Stark's physical face deep in the shadows of her hood, and flipped her iron coin easily to Wylla, who caught it as she stood still before the hall, cloak not so much as swaying as her dispassionate, cold, empty voice carried out to the entire hall.

"If anyone in the North or the Vale is given a coin like this and says 'Valar Morghulis' then everyone is to take every effort to get them to the House of Black and White, either here or in Braavos, whichever they request, the coin returned to them immediately. The Braavosi will do the same, and the House will repay any legitimate expense. Pass it around, please."

Arya cast her gaze out over the gathering, enjoying the sudden silence and the shock of those here, highborn and smallfolk alike. They'd had ravens, of course, and rumors from travelers, but this was the first time they'd seen a face change, even one based on mummery. She knew there would be many rumors after this.

"If you are willing to pay the price, you may approach the House of Black and White in Braavos with a name, or the House of Black and White in Westeros for just vengeance. Make no mistake, if you need No One, the price will be high. Anyone who needs the gift of death can see any priest or acolyte of the Many-Faced God, and we will grant it. We will care for the bodies of the dead, as well."

There were a few murmurs, now, though far fewer than in Conclave. Most of those here were younger, the senior leaders either long dead in the recent wars or in Winterfell with Lord Manderly. Those who remained were easier to shock, at least for a moment. A moment, however, was all she needed, and so she continued on while there were quiet.

"This is the vestment of No One. When you see this, you see No One, you hear No One. No One is the priest of the Many-Faced God, and that is No One's interest. Not the interests of men, or women, or holdfasts, or kingdoms, but the interests of the many faces of death, whether giving the gift of a peaceful death to those who ask, or providing the services of the only truly professional assassins in the world. No One is how a Faceless Man is addressed," said Arya, turning and striding behind the pillar again, emerging out the other side with a normal walk, leather cloak around her, hood collapsed behind her head, trousers at their normal length, ignoring the now-bunched up fabric in her shoes continuing to speak.

"There are only Faceless Men, not Faceless Women. Death cares not how you were born, man or woman, Valar Morghulis. All must die. Thus there is only one title; for we can change our faces as easily as you can change your scarf," said Arya, her expression still and eyes cold, then let the face of No One slip away, winking at Wylla and then turning to Leona, "Ladies Manderly, I would like a few hours of your time, now. There is much to be done to protect the North, the Vale, the Free Folk, and our other allies."

Arya waited until the three women had stood, then led the way out of the hall. Unsurprisingly, the hall became quite noisy indeed as not just she, but also the liege ladies left. Once in Lord Manderly's solar with Connas on the door and her troupe, unknown to her hosts, on the floors above and below, she took the bag Connas handed her and waited until Lady Leona gestured to Lord Manderly's chair, then sat, changing out her mummer's shoes for a nearly identical pair without the trick fabric.

Leona watched the young Stark with curiosity. She and her daughters had received many reports from her about the Starks that had returned to Winterfell, and to be honest, she had felt them exaggerated, both what the men had said and what she read in the ravens. She and her daughters had obeyed, of course, and she had seen their city and their lands change almost beyond recognition. When Jon Snow had been named King, things had changed somewhat, but after he'd left, the real changes began.

Wildlings, not just passed through the Wall, but entire tribes of them sent to White Harbor, lichyards emptied, the dead burned, and the ashes reburied. She had tea twice a week with a wildling herself, to plan out supply shipments with Karette over a hot drink! Never would she have imagined that, nor that her daughters would have stepped up to take on the burden so well, even unmarried as they were still.

For a girl of twenty to be the Lady of Winterfell and rule the North in all but name, and a girl of eight and ten to be in charge of all the soldiers and ships of the North? She'd passed her fortieth nameday years ago, and had never expected to do even as much as she was now herself, handling supplies for soldiers and ships in addition to well over a third of the entire population of the North, and a more active port than she'd ever seen in all her life.

Leona sat quietly in the middle chair, her daughters on either side of her. She glanced at Wynafryd, as her daughter was better at the politics than she herself was.

"What do you need, Lady Winter?" asked Wynafryd politely.

"Wylla, tell me about how you divide the work of ruling White Harbor among yourselves," asked Arya directly, with an inquisitive tone.

Leona had heard of the actions she'd taken since she arrived unseen. The Justice in the North showed the bare minimum of courtesies, not like how Lady Catelyn had been, but the Lady had been very direct, too, when she felt the need, and that shone through clearly in Arya Stark's quick, decisive actions, just as she'd heard Cat had gone from sitting down to a meal on the road to arresting Tyrion Lannister in a matter of seconds.

"My mother handles all the supplies and transport, as well as the long-term planning and plans for winter. I handle the harbor, with Lord Woolfield reporting to me for the army. My sister handles the politics," said the green-haired girl in a rush.

"Lady Leona, why do you divide the work in this way?" asked Arya Stark.

"Because, Lady Winter, Wylla is her father's daughter as Wynafryd is her grandfather's. I've been the Lady of White Harbor, and responsible for the survival of my people in winter, for nearly thirty years - it's what I know. With the additional people and the military preparations, it is a full time job. I thank the Mother I have two capable daughters," said Lady Manderly, smiling affectionately at her daughters. She was truly lucky to have them.

Arya smiled, giving a nod of approval, "Good. You've come to a very capable arrangement. Wylla, the harbor is in excellent shape, quite efficiently set up for large convoys, which is what we'll need. Your military setup has some excellent ideas for training - the designs of the pulley systems for the hay bales are to be sent out by raven to the other strongholds today. I'll cover what needs to change with Lord Woolfield after I'm done with the three of you. Well done."

"Thank you, Lady Winter," said Leona. She still didn't understand how Arya could dislike being called Lady Arya or Lady Stark and yet respond to Lady Winter, but there it was; she trusted her good father implicitly, and he and Lady Sansa had given the same warnings. She watched Wylla smiled broadly and Wynafryd smile reservedly, then she met Arya's eyes at the Stark looked at her.

"Lady Leona, I'll go over the logistics after your daughters are done training. While Sansa handles the civilian side entirely, I may be able to give you some assistance on the military side, and if there's anything you need that you do not have, tell me. White Harbor, under your leadership, has been remarkably worry-free for us, so if you have needs, we'll do what we can to fulfill them."

"Of course, Lady Winter. We are happy to serve House Stark once again," said Leona. She was, too. Even if she didn't quite understand the dynamics of the remainder of House Stark, a few things had been confirmed at breakfast. King no longer, Eddard's bastard was still well loved by his siblings, and those siblings fully supported each other.

That had calmed her more than anything else - the last thing they could afford now was more divides in the North, or even between the North and their new allies. She had intimate knowledge of the thousands upon thousands of tons of supplies they'd already received, and how many more were in transit right now, much less those to come later. Even then, there were more - she knew from Karette that many of the Vale's supplies came overland, too, like the cargo of shields they'd received the week before.

Arya spoke, starting off with a slightly rueful tone, "Wynafryd, highborn politics are Sansa's strength, not mine; if you need advice, you can send her a raven asking for a time to talk to her. She'll reply with a day and hour. Be somewhere perfectly private at that hour, and then speak your concerns. Be as brief as you can while being thorough; the Three-Eyed Raven can tell Sansa what you said without any chance of it being intercepted, and she will send a trusted messenger with her reply. Now, though, tell me about your most pressing political problems. Be blunt; I need no fancy words or courtesies - you can be the most courteous to me by giving me the essential detail without spending extra time."

Leona saw her daughter glance at her briefly, so she nodded at her daughter very slightly. Wynafryd returned her attention to her mother and sister, then looked back at Arya. Her eldest was, understandably, a bit taken aback. Arya's being even more straightforward than her youngest, and the content of her words were something from an ancient story; the Three-Eyed Raven indeed. Wynafryd recovered very quickly, however; Leona smiled a little bit at her expression, the same expression Wendel had had when dealing with Wylla.

"Some of the younger sons of Lords have been recently knighted, and talk much about taking the field instead of staying behind walls and moats, and about the dishonor of crossbowmen, archers, and siege engines. Of those, Lord Locke's second son is a real problem. He wants to take over House Locke, and I know he's not loyal and hasn't been since before Littlefinger came North, but he's careful - I've nothing I can use without causing more problems, since he's popular among that set," said Wynafryd, using the same directness Arya was using. Leona could see it was the right choice by Arya's response. Neither of her daughters was quite the traditional lady she was, but the world appeared to be changing, even here in the North.

"You and Sansa have the same problem; you only look at the highborn, not the smallfolk. Locke has been working for Varys for years, and was giving Littlefinger information as well, trying to play both of them for his own gain. He used smugglers to send messages... sadly for him, White Harbor's smallfolk are more loyal to the North than they are to his coin, and so the care you all and your father and grandfather have shown for your city has reaped rewards. You won't have to worry about him anymore, and he hasn't been able to send reports about Littlefinger's death, either."

"You captured him?" asked Wylla, excitedly.

"He was killed," replied Arya casually.

Wylla's face lost its excitement as she said, "Without a trial? Did he die fighting back?"

Leona put a hand on Wylla's leg. Her youngest, for all her fierce and headstrong ways, for all that she dealt with sailors and soldiers daily, for all that they'd survived the Boltons, still had romantic notions of honor, and of right.

Arya replied gently, "No trial, no fight, not even one septon, much less seven. A brief... investigation... that showed his guilt. When Sansa and I executed Lord Baelish, we had a trial for him, and we held trials, if short ones, for many of those working with him. Sansa rendered the verdict of whether their crime merited death, and I chose and carried our the sentence with my own hand while we both looked into their eyes, heard their last words. That took months to arrange in a way that wouldn't send him fleeing elsewhere to continue his machinations from afar. It took months of very delicate and skillful work to arrange in a way that left the North and the Vale stronger, rather than weaker."

"But it's not honorable!" exclaimed Wylla.

"Not by the honor of the Vale, or my father, or even the more honorable of the Northern houses, no. By the standards of the cut-throat underworld he'd involved himself in, it was excessively honorable, however. Would you expect a cut-throat to come to your court to press a grievance about the target having been misrepresented? A thief arguing that their fence deliberately undervalued their loot? A spy that the one who hired them paid in fake gems?"

"No, but he was a Lord, still. Lords deserve at least trial by combat."

"A Lord and a spy, yes, for more than one master, and one who was desperately trying to take over his own house. Had he played politics in the open, he could have been handled with political rules, and your sister would have handled him. Had he made open challenge to you, Lord Woolfield would have carved him up like a turkey on your family's behalf. He chose to work with the underbelly of the North to serve others, and he died in the underbelly of the North by its rules. I killed many the day we executed Baelish, some with a trial, some before the trials, some after the trials, and more since. I killed one in front of Lyanna Mormont, and she questioned the honor of it, too," said Arya, then nodded at Leona and Wynafryd.

Leona turned her head to her elder daughter; she'd tried to talk to Wylla many times, perhaps her sister would know the right words to explain what Lady Arya had done, or had had done.

"Sis, you remember what I told you about what we were planning for the Boltons? Lady Winter works like that, too, sometimes. The Starks rule the North again, thank the old gods and the new, but even then there are repercussions to consider. Had we accused him, he would have brought up other things, or fled, and his allies could make trouble even now. That won't happen with him vanishing the day Lady Winter came to town. You heard what Lord Woolfield said about the training yesterday; Lord Locke would never have survived a trial by combat."

Wylla thought about that for a few seconds, then asked with what was, for her, a careful tone, "What could he have brought up that would have repercussions? No-one would care what we planned for the Boltons, especially not now."

Lady Leona sighed upon receiving Lady Arya's knowing gaze. It was time, it seemed, to come clean herself.

"He could have brought up my working with smugglers, for one," said Lady Manderly.

"Mother!" exclaimed Wylla.

Leona could tell Wylla wasn't truly upset, but her mother could see she was certainly surprised and a little shocked as well. Perhaps that was good for her; as a woman of one and twenty, she needed to learn how more of the world worked... and since Wendel was gone, she would take that duty herself. Wynafryd knew, of course, as deep in her grandfather's council as she was.

"Your spearheads came from that, you know, so don't complain too much, Wylla," said Leona a little more strongly, "We needed dragonglass, and we weren't going to take more than our share from the supplies King Jon had arranged, so I talked to some people I knew, and bought it for us and for our bannermen and soldiers. If we need dragonglass to fight the dead, dragonglass we will have, bought from whoever will sell it to us."

Arya smirked, "And you overpaid for it, to boot. Strange, after so many years of working with smugglers, Lady Leona, that you would lose out on the haggling. Your deal for genuine Arbor Gold to replace the counterfeit stuff they tried to sell you is legendary, you know. Did you perhaps have another reason for spending so much gold for that amount of dragonglass?"

Leona smiled with satisfaction, remembering the Arbor Gold incident clearly. That had been when she was new to her marriage, and trying to arrange a surprise feast to announce that she was pregnant to her good father and her husband. For Lady Arya to know of it, though, put a very different light on her total absence last night.

"Of course; traders who take advantage of customers once will either try to take advantage of them again, or brag about it to others. Either way, that brings more dragonglass to the North for anyone who wishes to buy it from legal traders and smugglers both. We have plenty of coin, but coin is worthless without merchants with the right goods in the right place at the right time," said Leona. This was a lesson that she'd learned in greater detail in the past months than ever before.

Wynafryd took up the conversation then, "See, sis? Mother got us these spearheads with her contacts and our money, which helps our prestige, got more dragonglass for your troops which helps us fight the dead, and spread the word that dragonglass is better brought to White Harbor than left in storage or sold somewhere for a lesser profit, all at once. Lady Winter killed a highborn traitor, prevented any complaints to us about his death, maintained the stability of our bannermen and allied houses, and scared his allies into either being less foolish or using the underworld less, all with one death after an investigation."

"And I proved to the smallfolk and the criminals both that high birth is not going to protect those who betray the North, and that normal crime, when it's not overly harmful, will be treated with normal measures... but that there are lines that shall not be crossed. There are always assassins, cut-throats, thieves, fences, whores, beggars, spies, loan sharks, smugglers, and the like. When they police themselves, it's better for everyone. When they fail to do so, then they will be dealt with," said Arya.

"Normal measures?" asked Wylla, her forehead scrunched up.

"Whatever you've been doing, keep doing. Try to catch criminals the same as you have before. Those you catch, punish as you would have before. Three changes, though. First, take the absolute worst of all your stored grains, and store them somewhere in the city, somewhere with cheap rent. Guard them for what the worst grains you have is worth, no more and no less. Northerners are stubborn and prideful, and some won't accept charity, but they're our people still. Second, if a little grain is stolen for the low to eat, spend the normal effort to catch them and punish them. If stolen grain is hoarded or sold, and the underbelly of White Harbor doesn't put a stop to it within a week, crush those doing so without mercy."

Arya gave a wink, then, "Third, Leona, talk to your smuggler friends. Find out what they need to reinforce their tunnels and boltholes against the dead, and see that they get it. They don't need castle-forged steel, but they will need iron, bronze and ironwood at least. If the city is breached, they'll be able to shelter thousands in their tunnels."

Leona watched Wylla lean forward, excited again, "The tunnels are real?"

"They are, and they're deep enough to help against dragonfire and narrow enough to be nearly impossible to assault without crossbowmen. Keep in contact with the underbelly; remember that Daenerys used a small team of elite soldiers to sneak into Yunkai and open the gates from within. Remember that Cersei will do anything. If the smugglers, fences, whores, thieves and beggars refuse to help those from outside the North, the city is much harder to take. Make sure the grumpiest people are on the harbor and on Jon and Daenerys's path, and that fast transport is available, but limited. They need to be tempted into going to Winterfell with as little knowledge of anything except the army of the dead as possible."

Arya stood and continued, "Now it's time to train. You're carrying a weapon that likely took one of the best knappers nearly a day to make; they could have made a hundred arrowheads in that time. Show me you take it seriously, that you'll train with it. If Sansa can train hard and wear her bruises with pride, so can you. Leona, Wynafryd, you two too. And a couple of your guards, they need the work as well. Let's go."

************************

After Arya's tale, she and Sansa had fallen asleep in her bed together. The next morning, they were eating in Sansa's solar, having been going over the preparations and reports together for more than an hour as the sky outside the window slowly lightened.

Maester Wolkan frowned as he hurried up the steps, past the guards on the door to the hallway who had announced his party's arrival. He had to talk to Lady Stark at once. They needed to know, and know now!

Once the door had opened, he nearly stumbled; the young killer was back, sitting side by side with the Lady of Winterfell and Lady Frey. No matter, he had no time to waste. He hurried up to Lady Stark, standing on the side nearest Lady Frey, farthest from the young killer, catching his breath. He may be tired, and old, and even afraid, but this was too important to wait!

He turned to the other Maesters he'd spent the night with, gesturing them in quickly. They'd been a great help with the setting circles, and once they'd finished the last, they'd gotten to talking about astronomy, and it turns out Maester Russal had a truly excellent water clock and a chart of adjustments for use with oil instead of water, in the cold. He had Maester Luwin's notes, the others had their own notes and their predecessors. There, the door was shutting after the last of them had come in, the Maester of Bear Island coming up to stand beside him.

The Lady of Winterfell was greeting him, and the young killer was staring at him, too. He looked at Lady Stark.

"Yes, Maester Wolkan? What is it?" she asked.

"My Lady, the dawn. It's late."

"What do you mean, it's late. It's winter, days are always shorter in winter, I thought," said Lady Stark.

"They've never been this short before, my Lady. Never in any records. The Long Night isn't just a fanciful name, it's real, and it's here" said Maester Wolkan, his voice deathly serious.

************************

Chapter Text

No One and No One slowly strode out after crossing the outer defensive moat, the sun barely over the horizon as the guards pulled the narrow bridge back and set it aside as they continued northwest on silent snowshoes, each carrying a long, straight roll of cloth, a small shovel, and a large hammer.

"A man has one more thing to teach a woman," said the red and white haired No One.

"A woman is ready to learn," said No One in Walder Frey's voice.

"It has been nearly a thousand years since a House of Black and White has been consecrated to the Many-Faced God. A woman must do this thing. The Many-Faced God will show her."

The elder-appearing No One nodded, "Does a man know why the days are getting shorter?"

"This a man does not know. The first Faceless Men consecrated the first temple thousands of years ago, in a small, half-flooded cave in the mines of Valyria. It was thousands of years before Valyria was founded that the Children of the Forest created the blasphemer," said the No One wearing Jaqen H'Gar's face, "A woman has many questions."

"A woman serves, but a woman is not a servant."

"Just so," said Jaqen H'Gar with his characteristic combination of head tilt and nod.

Falling into silence again, they finally reached the crest of the large hill which No One had claimed for the House of Black and White in Westeros, nearly two miles away from the nearest person. Unrolling the bundles, they each uncovered two narrow, four foot long stakes of Valyrian steel.

"A woman must meditate upon the steel. The Many-Faced God will show what the woman must see."

The No One wearing Walder Frey's face sat comfortably on the snow at the peak of the hill, one stake in each gloved hand, point-down in the snow, and closed his eyes. Arya settled her mind until she was calm as still water, then prayed the prayer closest to her heart.

"Cersei. The Red Woman. Beric Dondarrion. Thoros of Myr. Illyn Payne. The Mountain."

She felt the Many-Faced God within her; she had given him many deaths, and would give him many more, until it was time to give him her own death, for her face to join those of all the Faceless Men who came before her in the Hall of Faces.

She kept her eyes closed, feeling for the power of the Many-Faced God, feeling the patterns it made around her. Patterns inside herself, a priest of the god, and inside the priest before her as well. Patterns in the world around them, in every death that had happened here. Blades of grass and insects beyond counting had died atop this hill, each death small, but vast in number; a comfortable swelling sea. Within the sea were other small deaths; birds and beasts, great and small, who had died upon this hill.

Men and women, too, had died here. She watched the patterns, striving to truly see. Some had died violently, some of old age. Some at peace, some lonely, some in pain. Some sad, many afraid, some angry, many unknowing. She could not tell any hint of who they were, how long ago they died, or even where they died in detail, but she could see which face of death had come upon them.

No One turned her sense of death upon the stakes in her hands; small, narrow, long, tiny compared to the entire hill... but different, somehow. All of a kind, smooth and uninterrupted... the deaths of many hundreds of men and women, peacefully. Willingly.

The deaths of those who had come to ask No One for the gift for themselves, and only those deaths.

"The peaceful deaths of men and woman are bound to them," said Arya.

"Just so. Only death can pay for life. A woman knows this."

"Valyrian steel is alive. A woman felt the dagger wanted to be clean after she gave the gift with it."

"It is a strange thing, this steel. It is alive, yet it is not. It is not alive as a woman or a man, or as a bird, a beast, a fish, an insect, even a tree or a blade of grass, yet only many deaths can pay for it."

Arya let the patterns in the steel become more familiar to her, then cast her senses out over the hill again, overlaying her memory of the floorplan she'd been sent, as well as her memory of the House of Black and White in Braavos. Standing, she strode to where the southeastern corner was, then walked what would be the perimeter of the temple of Death in Westeros. On her second circuit, at each corner she dug a hole down to the dirt, then pounded the stake into the frozen ground until it was completely buried.

She returned to her seat, sitting across the Jaqen, the spot at the precise center of the corner-stakes between them, and reached out to the patterns of death atop the hill. With the stakes acting as beacons, she reached out to the Many-Faced God's power, trusting to her instincts and her god's guidance.

************************

Sansa strode next to Arya as the sun's first rays illuminated the siege engines and defenses at the top of Winterfell's tallest towers, their personal guards behind them, absently shifting her spear out of the way of the spear one of a passing set of maids carried, the maids pushing wheelbarrows full of fresh supplies from the Vale that had come in with Arya towards a storage room. Both sisters inspected the three carefully, making sure that each was one of the people specifically allowed to be in this section of the castle.

Arya or Sansa greeting them each by name, just as they did the guards; it was a crossing over of their respective habits. Sansa made it a point to know everything she could about the lords and ladies and their primary advisors, while Arya did the same with the soldiers and smallfolk. They'd agreed to do their best to both know the names and loyalties of everyone, lowborn and highborn alike, rather than continue to overspecialize as they had been doing.

"You know he still pines for you, Arya. He's like a puppy - a big puppy, but an innocent puppy nonetheless. Don't encourage him, please. He might take it wrong, and he'd be hurt when you had to correct his misunderstanding," said Sansa as they passed by one guard tucked into the corner of the gate, invisible from the outside, then through the gate into the bailey, then the outer guard, all of the guards attentive.

"I'll treat him like I would Jon, like I did before. You can stop lecturing, Sansa; I don't have anyone else from my travels years ago waiting to pop up for you to handle other than the Hound, and we've already talked about him. Hot Pie's happy enough at his inn at the Crossroads," said Arya, then made the tactical decision to change the topic entirely, "How do you like your spear, Sansa? Even Tywin Lannister couldn't buy Valyrian steel from anyone."

"It's wonderful, though it took a little getting used to - it's so light, and I keep catching myself trying to prevent it from getting damaged, even when I know it's not brittle. Gendry's quite an artist; the direwolves are truly exquisite. I do worry that I'm not good enough to deserve to carry it, though now I suppose I know why you've make sure there's a spear expert in each shift of my personal guards; we've practiced trading spears if there's an attack," said Sansa, then asked a question she'd had on her mind for weeks, "I didn't think there was enough Valyrian steel in Littlefinger's dagger to make all this, though, and I thought slave collers from Braavos were only to use against the dead."

"There wasn't, and they aren't. Your weapons didn't come from the Catspaw dagger or from the House of Black and White's stocks, they came from your stocks," said Arya, reaching out to grasp Sansa's shoulder, squeezing comfortingly.

"But I don't have any... " said Sansa, having to force herself to continue without faltering or showing any sign of the pain she felt, even now, "The Bolton's flaying knife. Ramsay's knife, that he cut me with."

"Your knife, by right of conquest, wearing new faces of war and protection, not its old face of pain and suffering. It's yours, Sansa - you beat him. You brought up the knights of the Vale to defeat his army, you fed him to his hounds. Sansa, you won your vengeance and his death, and with that you won his castle, his lands, and his Valyrian steel," said Arya steadily, looking up into Sansa's eyes, making the sign for truth.

Arya felt Sansa's shoulder tighten under her armored dress, and squeezed firmly until Sansa relaxed again a few seconds later, the elder Stark looking over the direwolves running along the leaf-shaped spearhead, then back at her with a grateful expression over vicious satisfaction, "I've already thanked Gendry, but I owe you thanks, too, Arya. No One would have thought to reforge a knife into so many different weapons... and this makes one more piece of their legacy disappear. History will remember the new Valyrian steel weapons of the Starks, forged during the second Long Night... but will never know, or care, where that steel came from."

As the two and their retinue entered the courtyard, they heard more clearly the sound of a heavy hammer making steel sing. Kitty looked up at them enter and finished winding the crossbow Meera had had made for Sansa, leaving the training bolts in the target across the yard and slung it on her back, hooking the windlass to her belt.

Kitty nodded to the guards nearest the workshop, sending them to stand outside the bailey and close the gates, speaking quietly to Samwell and Gilly as the sisters entered the forge building, "Come along, then. We're all welcome here, and little Sam too. This is a time for family, and to them, family means whoever they say is family. You're not alone, not in Winterfell or the North. Now, let's go in and help make this less awkward for poor Gendry; he's still not used to being adopted, and he hasn't seen Arya since before she was a Faceless Man, years ago."

Gilly passed little Sam to Samwell, wrapped her arm around his, and led him into the building. A tall, well built man was working at the forge, with a curly-haired woman Arya's height in fine armor with a bow slung on her back was inspecting some long metal spears with curiously blunt heads. It was too hot in there for her, truly, but for all Sam had been in the true North, he was a Southron boy, born and raised, and he'd like the heat. She knew holding little Sam would help keep his mind off his own brother... and even his father, too, as much as they hated each other. She'd feared and hated Craster, but she still thought about him sometimes. He'd been nearly the only man she'd seen her entire life until Samwell and the rest of the great ranging had come into her life, and for all his faults, he was her father.

Noting Arya's footsteps had changed from very quiet to silent just before they'd opened the door, and seeing Gendry was working, as usual, with his back to the door, Sansa waited for Kitty to come in behind her, then called out chastisingly, "You missed breakfast, Gendry. I told you, Arya asked me to make sure you ate at the high table with the rest of us, and neither of us wants our bed sheepshifted."

"I know, Sansa, I'm sorry. Just a minute; I'm almost done with this Death's Head," said Gendry absently as he shaped the castle-forged portion of another Valyrian tipped scorpion bolt head.

The eldest Stark was happy to see he kept working until the piece was ready to be put back into the forge. In the weeks since he'd arrived, he'd gotten used to not having to jump up and stop working when a highborn entered his presence, which was mostly herself, Lady Keath, Lady Mormont, and Meera. She was also happy because it gave her some time to watch Arya, who certainly looked relieved to see him... and, Sansa was fairly certain, was definitely only interested in him as a brother.

She'd spent enough time working on preparing Gendry that she would have been quite irritated if Arya had misjudged her own feelings. As she'd expected, Arya was quite familiar with her own emotions, just as Sansa herself was, the ones she was proud of and the ones she was ashamed of. Knowledge was power, after all, and knowing yourself was important indeed.

When Sansa heard Samwell and his family enter and saw Gendry start to move out of the corner of her eye, she tilted her head at him to make sure Kitty, at least, didn't miss any of the show. After he'd put the Valyrian steel and his tools down, he turned and finally saw her sister, the smith freezing in place, staring at her.

Foolish boy. Sansa knew very well you never conceded the initiative.

"I told you so, you stupid bull, but you wouldn't listen," said Arya sharply, stalking up to him.

"Arry. You're here," said Gendry, still half-stunned at the sight of her.

Sansa noted the set of Arya's feet, how her little sister was balanced, how she'd placed herself with a length of empty floor behind her, and suppressed her smirk. She couldn't do anything like this to the boy, but Arya could. Gendry would, by the look on his face, think he was a lucky man, as she'd seen Tormund tell Podrick more than once.

"Of course I'm here, you idiot," snapped Arya, "This is my home. You took your sweet time about getting here! Since you somehow ended up going north, on foot, past the Wall to try and catch a wight without the slightest clue of how to escape with your life, you're lucky you're here at all!"

Several of the others winced at that, both for his going past the wall, and for the scolding that was the beginning of the reunion.

Gendry looked down at Arya; she hadn't grown more than a couple of inches since he'd last seen her, but she was just as fiery as he remembered. She'd filled out as a woman and a warrior, and was more graceful, but still had that ferocious spirit he'd seen, like when he'd first told her he knew she was a girl.

"I'm sorry, m'lady," said Gendry, just before he saw her start to duck down. The next thing he noticed was her hand tight around his bicep, then his feet weren't on the ground and the world was spinning over him. He crashed down onto the wooden floor of the forge, looking up at Arya staring down at him while trying to refill his lungs.

"Do not call me m'lady! And don't go off like that again, you hear me," said Arya, then reached down to take his hand and pull him up smoothly, continuing sharply, "I don't want to lose another brother."

Gendry stood, marveling at the power he felt in her, and couldn't help but respond as he'd imagined he would, "That was unladylike!"

He turned rueful as he continued somewhat differently than he'd dreamed he might, "Jon was with me. I just followed along, really, because I couldn't keep hiding in King's Landing making weapons for the Lannisters while the dead came for us. For all of us."

"He'll get his, too, don't you worry about that," growled Arya, then let the fierceness fall from her face and clapped him on the shoulder once before stepping back to look around the forge. She could tell now that, as she'd feared, he'd been keeping an idea of her too close to his thoughts, though she could see a flash of guilt here and there, as well. He'd been with other women, then, and she was glad of it. He'd be able to get over this silliness quicker, she hoped, and then it wouldn't be awkward anymore. Perhaps a visit to the brothel would do him some good; Sandor could drag him there when he returned, or maybe Podrick could.

"If you'll kindly try to avoid breaking our brother quite yet, Arya, he has quite a lot of Valyrian steel still to forge to fight the dead," interceded Sansa, letting her amusement show, looking over at Samwell and Gilly's shocked expressions, "You're also setting a bad example for little Sam. Now, Gendry, I believe you had one or two things for Arya?"

He gestured to a table with another set of spear shafts with threaded sockets set before a wide, narrow steel chest with a lock set in the front, a wide lip marking the join of lid to chest. Arya clapped Gendry on the shoulder, then slipped her hands under her cloak briefly before standing in front of the chest.

"A box! Just what I've always wanted!"

"I'll get the key," said Gendry, turning to a corner of the forge.

"No need," said Arya, two picks already inside the lock, her eyes closed, "Three tumblers, well oiled, not loose... there we go. Don't give up your day job to become a locksmith, Gendry. You've got a lot of work ahead of you before you'll be ready to replace the locks in Winterfell."

She slipped her picks back where she'd had them, opened the chest and then turned to look at him fully, asking "How much did you make for me?" as she pulled out weapon after weapon.

A blunt training copy of Needle with a ball at the tip came out first, then a dozen blunted throwing knives, two dozen sharp steel ones, and the two Valyrian steel ones of the same size and balance. The roll of leather around wooden slats to protect two arrows with different designs of plate cutter heads, as well as one quivers with a full set of two sheaves of twenty-four arrows each of various types, plus two quivers of dragonglass head arrows, for a total of nearly forty four and a hundred arrows.

"Ooooh," said Sam, whispering to Gilly as he watched Jon's small sister make a pile of weapons on the table.

Meera came up beside her, lightly plucking the bowstring on Arya's goldenheart bow and letting it smack into her back when Meera released it, "We'll have to redo the arrows entirely, I see - these are like Sansa's, with long, tall fletchings that'll stabilize quickly from a wide variety of bows. Since you've got that double-curved bow now, we can get you arrows built for just how you fire it, Arya. Where'd you get it, anyway? The Summer Isles don't sell goldenheart to outsiders, even though it makes the best bows of anything other than dragonbone."

Arya lifted out seven Valyrian blowgun needles, two score steel needles, and three blowguns of different sizes and materials, raising her eyebrows at Meera, who grinned and nodded, having supplied the blowguns. Her father was an expert with them, as were many crannogmen, though they typically used larger ones for hunting or war. Assassin's weapons, these, slender and small, easily concealed.

"People just like to give me weapons, I guess. I like to think I'm likable like that! Jon gave me Needle, Syrio gave me a training sword, the House gave me... all kinds of weapons, Bran gave me Catspaw, Clubfoot gave me a knife, Skamund gave me a spear, Alleras gave me this bow on behalf of Princess Sarella of Dorne as a present to House Stark, Gendry's giving me a wheelbarrow full of weapons, and you gave me the blowguns. Very nice, these," said Arya, suddenly popping a needle into the shortest blowgun, raising it to her lips, and giving a sharp puff of air. The long needle punched through a rat's eye, lodging itself deep in opposite wall of the building, pinning the rat's corpse in place.

Sansa shook her head chidingly, "You're cleaning that up, Arya. You make a mess in your brother's room, you clean it up, you know the rules. At least you're not throwing food at me in public, I suppose. Yet. That's not an invitation!"

Arya smirked, lifting out a blunted training dagger a foot long, narrow, with a ball at the tip like the training copy of Needle had. There was a larger sphere of steel at the end of the hilt, just over a hollow ground pyramidal spike, neither of which had been on her drawing, though the rest was identical.

It had rings on both sides to protect her hand from Westerosi slashes, and a sharply curved quillon to catch and trap blades with, while the blade was narrow and of the right shape for the Braavosi weapons she was used to. Made of good steel, it'd block any weapon a man could wield. Made of Valyrian steel, it'd block anything a White Walker could wield, or so she hoped.

"Why've they got little balls on the ends?" asked Gilly in a whisper.

Arya spoke before Samwell could, "I'm a water dancer, Gilly - my best fighting style uses a lot more thrusts than cuts, so for a training weapon, the end needs to be safe for whoever I stab with it. The balls are big enough to not penetrate, and won't cut or scrape."

Flipping it around her hand a few times, she found the balance perfect; it felt nearly weightless in her hand. She set it down, then withdrew two sharp, castle-forged ones of exactly the same design; they were each very slightly lighter, but had exactly the same dimensions and balance.

Finally, she pulled out the much lighter Valyrian steel one she'd requested - this one looked exactly the same until it came to the blade, which was thinner than the steel ones. As she'd hoped, the rings and quillon was Valyrian steel covered in castle-forged steel; that she could tell by the weight and balance. She ran through a few practice moves, defending against imaginary strikes and killing imaginary opponents, finishing with a sudden lunge to her full extension, recovering immediately.

Setting the Valyrian dagger between the other two sharp daggers, she compared them, then said with a smile, "This is amazing, Gendry! The balance is just right - Irresso did a wonderful job setting that up; he used a pendulum as a reference, didn't he? Yes, of course he did. How'd you get balance the same with hilts the same size, even with the Valyrian one being so much lighter?"

Gendry rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged, "I just made hollow balls like the glassblowers were doing for wildfire, only I filled the castle-forged ones with lead until it balanced. I filed the one for the Valyrian blade out until it balanced right tip to pommel - that one's hollow at the base of the pommel, except for a little bronze I put in to balance it perfectly around the long axis. It's still strong enough for me to hammer on my anvil with, so don't worry about it breaking."

Arya clapped him on the back with a wordless look of appreciation, then took up one of the medium length spear shafts, shod in a foot of castle-forged steel at each end, though only one end had a socket. She took out the last of the Valyrian steel weapons in the chest, a seven inch long spearhead, just as thin as Sansa's, but five inches shorter and lacking even the mild leaf shape of Sansa's; no part of Arya's spear blade was wider than the socket. Like Sansa's, the Valyrian steel flared sharply out at the base; looking down at the point, no castle-forged steel was visible at all.

"Why's that one so much smaller than the other?" asked Samwell, curiously.

Gendry looked at Arya, who shrugged and jerked her chin at him, then he answered, "Because she's too damned demanding, and nobody knows how to make more Valyrian steel anymore. She left two Valyrian daggers for me, and this is what I could make out of the one. Whoever made them in the first place used too much metal, made them too thick, like they had as much as they could ever want, or just were showing off. Valyrian steel's harder than the hardest castle-forged steel, and tougher than the toughest castle-forged steel, both at the same time, so you need a lot less to do the job. I can make them thin, but only so much - this is the best I could do."

Arya spoke then as she was screwing the priceless spearhead into the socket, "Sansa's spearhead is made for war; the leaf shape's a good one, though it's usually a bit wider at the base, and I asked for Gendry to make it long enough to punch through armor made for giants, in case we see that. Mine's what Gendry could do after making my daggers - they had to be exactly the right size and shape. Sansa's is made for war. Mine's made for me, and I'm not a soldier, not really. I'm a Faceless Man, an assassin, and I don't need anything that big to kill a man, a wight, or a White Walker with."

She ran through a close-quarters exercise at close to full speed, then slammed the tip into a beam, the entire blade sinking in even though she'd hit against the grain. It slid out easily, too easily. Arya winked at Gilly's awed expression, noticing Gendry had a matching one. Planting the base of the spear on the floor and taking the large Valyrian dagger in her right hand, she closed her eyes, face stilling as she turned her senses to the steel.

"Is she all right?" asked Samwell

"She's fine; she does this, sometimes. You can ask her more, but later," replied Sansa softly.

Ignoring the audience, Arya continued in her task. She hadn't felt the deaths in the steel before with Catspaw or the Bolton dagger, but she was closer to the Many-Faced God's power now than she had been before, she knew the feel of the deaths of the past. This metal, too, had been made with many similar deaths.

Paying more attention to it, she could tell that these deaths had not been uniform as those of the House's stakes, and that the similarity was in pain, fear, hatred, and anger. While it was not within the powers god granted her to know anything about who died, she knew the lore of the Faceless Men, and the obvious answer was that the Valyrian smiths had slaughtered slaves in their thousands, probably through torture or dragon's fire. The knowledge of how to forge Valyrian steel would remain lost to those outside the House; it was too great a temptation to remain in the realms of men, for she knew all too well what men would do for an advantage in war.

Arya let the face of No One slip from her mind again, setting the weapons aside. She was a priest of the Many-Faced God, and all the faces of death were sacred, no matter what face it was, or who had died. That the weapons contained painful deaths was no different to her than had they contained peaceful deaths, and, in a way, it was appropriate for her to wield weapons with death forged into them.

Letting her musings fall away, she flipped over a layer of linen in the chest and stopped for a moment, surprised. This pair of swords, she hadn't asked for, or expected. Pulling out the training blunt and the true sword, she looked them over.

Both were of castle-forged steel; flipping the true sword around and planting the tip in the wooden flooring, it bent and returned to true just as she expected. These were Braavosi blades, narrow, about twice the length of Arya's arm, a tiny bit over half again as long as Needle overall, with the blade being three quarters again as long as Needle's, with the same type of quillon and hand protection as the dagger. With a few tests, she confirmed the balance was excellent, just over a fifth of the way from the base of the pommel.

"I didn't ask for this," she said to Gendry, looking him in the eye, letting true appreciation for the blade show clearly on her face, "Irresso gave you the design and proportions. Sansa gave you the length of my arm and the idea for it... no, that's not it, just my measurements. Meera, you gave him the idea for it. Yes, you did. Thank you, Gendry, Meera, Sansa."

Arya ran a fingertip down the flat of the strong, sharp, narrow blade, then wiped it with an oiled cloth once before setting it down gently. She'd carried Needle for years, now, and it was a part of her, and always would be... but she didn't need to have it with her to reminder her of her family anymore. Looking around the warm room, she saw her family was all right here, all of them but Jon and Bran. Sansa was wearing that soft smile she never showed in public, Kitty was clearly enjoying Arya's own reactions to the gifts, Gendry was... still getting over his infatuation with a memory of her, Meera was sitting on a table, casting the occasional envious eye at the Valyrian steel arrowheads, despite having been loaned one of Sansa's to carry. Samwell and his family were watching with honest curiosity.

She didn't need to carry Needle; she had her family again. It had been a good sword, had served her well, but it was, in the end, a sword forged for a child. She could beat Brienne with it more often than not, and fight to a draw much of the rest of the time, but the lack of reach was a serious weakness. The longer blade was heavy, as heavy as any longsword, but she was strong now; that wouldn't impede her any more than it would impede any other dancing master. Needle would hang above her door, and in time, she hoped she'd be able to gift it to a niece or nephew who had a talent for dancing.

She gave Gendry a brief hug, just as she used to give to Robb or Jon, then did the same to Sansa and Meera.

"What made you suggest the blade, Meera?" asked Arya, "You knew I'd already asked for all these other weapons, didn't you?"

Meera shrugged a little, and Arya could see she was a little uncomfortable with her thanks, "You're not any taller than I am, so I look ridiculous getting beat every time by that tiny little sword of yours. Now I can blame it on how long the new one is."

Arya cocked her head, "Oh? That's all?"

"And I watched the other bravos fight your Braavosi student. You're going to want something longer fighting them. You made me feel at home, you and Sansa and Kitty and everyone. And... and you helped Bran when I couldn't. Thank you, Arya," said Meera.

"Thank you, Meera," said Arya as she clapped Meera's shoulder and gave a squeeze, then asked, "What other bravos were fighting Irresso?"

Kitty chuckles, pulling a long purple feather and a length of thread out, handing them to Arya as she said, "Apparently some of the students of other First Swords aren't happy about your new title. We've had pairs of bravos from Tyrosh, Lys, Myr, Ib, and Volantis show up, all looking to defeat the girl your friend First Sword Qarro gave the title of First Sword of Westeros to. The first night some of them met after drinking in a tavern, they made such a mess Sansa issued a ruling that those bravo duels would only be allowed between people both wearing swords and with a purple feather in their hair."

Arya turned back to the chest, taking out the first of the leather goods in the box, a pair of sheaths of the same dark color as her outfit, clearly made by Sansa. Attaching them to her belt, she sheathed the new sword on the right and the Valyrian dagger on the left. While she was doing this, Sansa came up behind her, braiding the feather into her hair.

Once she was done, she was glad to see the dagger now gave no hint of any metal other than good steel. Lifting out several more arrangements of leather of varying lengths and complexity, she raised her eyebrows at Sansa.

"More clothing that needs training to wear, Sansa?"

Sansa laughed, stepping forward and sorting out what was in the chest, what was meant for the family to know and Arya to wear, or not, in public. She'd made others while Arya had been away, late at night in her chambers, to be as unnoticable as she could make them. Those she would give to Arya when they were alone. She didn't entirely trust anyone other than Arya anymore, and she didn't know how well Samwell and Gilly and Gendry could keep secrets. People learning things she didn't want them to know wasn't always from a deliberate betrayal; often, it was simply from an observant person watching those who hadn't learned the same hard lessons she and Arya had. It could be a simple slip of the tongue when drunk or in a moment of emotion. It could be a skillful observer watching a person who lacked the skill to truly control their expressions, where their eyes glanced, their voice, their posture and body language.

Sansa set those thoughts aside, taking the longest piece and sliding it over Arya's arm under her cloak, then over her head so it crossed her chest, tying little ties to her belt and to the ties of her top to keep it from moving even when Arya fought, taking the dragonglass dagger Arya had just replaced with her new weapon and slipping it into the larger loops at the top of the strap, above many smaller ones, "A bandolier so I don't trip after your knife collection ends up all over the place. There; that one any child who can dress themselves could have handled, Arya; do try to handle that on your own next time. Leather armguards that hold two knives atop and two below, so the steel helps protect you as well. A pad to thread your needles through. The straps are made so if you tie them right, even if one or two get cut, they'll stay on correctly and not flap around or get in your way."

Once Sansa was done and Arya had loaded up almost entirely with training weapons, she picked up the blunt steel versions of her new sword and dagger and smiled.

"All right, everyone, thank you all for coming, and for the gifts. The sun's up, now, it's time to train. Gendry, get Sam and Gilly whatever they want and bring that hammer of yours. I'll make this fair, we'll have teams. All of you with whatever weapons you're used to against me with brand new weapons."

Samwell and Gilly looked at each other, puzzled, then Samwell simply went along with the flow. That didn't sound fair at all to either of them, one girl against everyone else... though everyone else except Gendry and Arya was taking up training weapons and looking quite grim.

Gendry and Arya were both smiling.

************************

Arya closed the door and put the bar down, patting the furs over the door to where they weren't quite snug enough, then returned to her seat on the opposite side of Sansa from Kitty, patting her sister on the knee as they looked over at the only other two people in Sansa's personal chambers. Howland Reed was waiting patiently, having been talking quietly with his daughter, who like Sansa was wearing a few marks from Arya's training that morning.

Sansa spoke first, inclining her head deeply to Howland and Meera, her voice serious and steady, "Lord Reed, Lady Meera, I'd like to thank you for you and your family's many years of service to House Stark, and honor your many sacrifices on our behalf, from the sacrifice of the credit for your killing Ser Arthur Dayne to Jojen's valiant sacrifice for my brother Bran, and all the many in between and before."

Arya relaxed on the divan, seeing how Meera responded to her father; how her father listened to Sansa, how both the Reeds paid attention to the three across from them. Meera was more comfortable now; she'd clearly settled into her role as a leader, and had come to terms with their offer. She'd challenge, and test... and then she'd accept, Arya could see, because they could answer with the truth, and that truth would satisfy her concerns.

She saw that Howland was judging them carefully; he had a calm face, kept his thoughts to himself, and was loyal to the Starks as a whole, to his family, and to his bannermen. At Sansa's sign for you, Arya took up the conversation, her tone factual and sincere.

"Your taking command of Moat Cailin, and Meera's leadership of the archers here only does your house more credit. Both tasks have been performed with great skill and even greater results; both I and the other commanders I've spoken to are glad to work with the both of you. I have a great deal of trust in the performance of your soldiers and the leaders you've trained under you."

The sisters saw the father and daughter take in their words, glancing at each other as Sansa continued, "We owe you our lives, Lord Reed; had you not killed Ser Arthur Dayne, we would never have been born. Lady Meera, we owe you and Lord Jojen, as well as Hodor and Osha our brother's life."

Howland sat forward, his form upright, almost as tall as Arya as he replied solemnly, "Since the day the Last Marsh King lost both his crown and his daughter to the Starks, the Reeds have held faith. We do so to this day; what would you have of us, Lady Stark, Lady Winter?"

He looked across at them. Arya could see he was clearly curious about Kitty's presence, but was taking his cues from Sansa's acceptance. Meera, in turn, was taking some of her cues from him and Sansa; this was good, in general, though she'd have to talk to Sansa about it later.

Part of helping Sansa with her fear of becoming a monster was making sure to have around you those you trust who both could and would intercede and argue with you while it was still easy to correct your course. Cersei didn't want that, Joffrey hadn't wanted that. Robert had that, to a point, but hadn't listened. Daenerys, Arya wasn't sure of yet, but of her advisors, only Tyrion might be able to, and he'd clearly been diminished in his exile.

Sansa, on the other hand, had the Scorpion Bear in her conclave.

While Arya could not, and would not, kill Sansa herself, no matter what she might become, she could and would assign the task to another Faceless Man who did not know Sansa, if she had to. Arya loved her sister, and she would make sure that she did not ever have to. Sansa had the ruthless streak necessary to be a monster, and the intelligence and training to be a very successful monster indeed... but now she also had a growing family to keep her grounded, just as Arya herself had the Many-Faced God to keep her grounded.

"First and foremost, have you made a decision, Lady Meera?" asked Sansa, gently.

Meera glanced at her father, and at his subtle nod, spoke sadly, knowing the answer but feeling an inescapable need to ask regardless, "Arya, will I ever have the Bran I knew back?"

Arya leaned forward, showing a softer, sympathetic face, letting her genuine care of her brother show through, thinking for a little while before she responded quietly, "Perhaps for as much as half an hour at a time, after some years, if he can meet what I expect. He's delved too deeply into the weirwood face of god for him to take it off again, and wearing his own face is, and always will be, a tremendous effort for him. But he isn't dead, his face isn't dead, just hidden under the Three-Eyed Raven's face. He's worn his own face around you when it was just the two of you, while I was away, hasn't he?"

"Yes, he did, but only for a second, to smile, or make just one comment," answered Meera, her sadness apparent to everyone.

"Bran grew up with Arya and I his entire life. For him to be able to be himself for you, too... he's only done that with Arya, and me, and you, Meera. Just us. Even if he can't be himself forever, what I can see now with him is more than I'd hoped, for years," said Sansa.

"Why me?" asked Meera, "Why would you pick me?"

Arya and Sansa exchanged a small smile as they recognized they had the answer they'd hoped for, letting the happiness they felt show through, but not the triumph.

Arya answered, "Because you truly care for Bran. Not for his powers, not for the lack of connection he has as the Three-Eyed Raven, making him easy to use for those powers. Not for the inheritance he's given up. For Bran, our brother. That you've learned to fight on your own, lead soldiers into battle on your own is a nice benefit in a good sister, of course. That you know how to run a castle like Greywater Watch or Winterfell is another nice benefit, as is your heritage. You and Sansa may not have obvious magic, but it's in your blood as it is in mine, and Bran's, and as it was in Robb's, and Rickon's, and Jojen's, and the Starks and Reeds of the first Long Night."

"Arya's right, Meera; you love our brother. You're loyal to him, and to recognize and value loyalty is a lesson I've learned very thoroughly indeed. That you're the eldest daughter of the loyal and powerful House who supported our father so steadfastly, that defends now and has defended the entire North from land invasion for so many centuries makes the politics easier for us, for you, and for your and Bran's children."

Sansa shrugged, allowing a self-deprecating expression to show through, feeling slightly ashamed of herself as a child, "We would make this offer were you lowborn, or foreign, or of the Free Folk, because you'll be a good sister we're happy to have, because you'll treat Bran well, because you'll rule Winterfell and defend the North will skill and pride, because you'll be a good mother to our nephews and nieces, because you'll teach them those qualities that will make them Starks of Winterfell," said Sansa, with Arya nodding her agreement at each point.

"Yes. My answer is yes," said Meera, finally relaxing a bit as she announced her acceptance, without, this time, taking any cues from her father. She knew his mind well enough, and her own, but she'd needed to hear their answer before she gave her own.

"Welcome to the family, Meera," said Sansa, "We'll announce the engagement at dinner tonight, after the all-army exercise Arya's arranged. That makes ten of us again, as there were ten of us before father was murdered. Now we have Jon, myself, Arya, Bran with you, Samwell with Gilly and little Sam by Jon's choice, Kitty by my choice, and Gendry by Arya's choice."

Arya stood, moving to a corner table to pour glasses of ale, passing them out to the other four herself, "Let's have a drink in celebration of Meera joining the family! Now, before my poor elderly sister tries to bore us all to death with her lessons, Sansa and I have a present for my newest good sister to be."

The young Stark pulled a small, slender weirwood box engraved with a lizard-lion from the inside of her cloak, handing it to Meera, continuing, "It's not much, but the crannogmen are our first line of defense against the South, and the only people in Westeros who make a practice of using blowguns. We are proud to entrust to the newest fighting member of Houses Stark the ancestral Valyrian steel weapons of House Reed, to be passed on to the heir to Greywater Watch when she judges the time is right."

Meera opened the box, showing the plate cutter head and two blowgun needles inside to her father. They were unadorned and plain, and yet still a priceless treasure, the moreso for having been given to her as a Reed, not as a Stark; the Starks were permanently giving up some of the two daggers worth of Valyrian steel that was all they had left, an act nearly without precedent since the doom of Valyria. Families guarded their Valyrian weapons jealously, and yet Sansa and Arya were giving House Reed some of theirs.

"Thank you," said Meera, her eyes watering slightly. She was entirely certain that she'd always be welcome to bear whichever of the Valyrian weapons that she asked for, so she knew this gift wasn't practical, it was a statement of the value of House Reed as a whole, and of their appreciation for Jojen's sacrifice.

"Now that that's done, it's time for the important things in life - lessons. Arya, don't scowl; it's not my fault you didn't listen closely enough to Maester Luwin and Septa Mordane and Mother when they spoke of politics! It's to be remedial courses for you, and I'll assign you double lessons if you keep disrespecting me, Arya Underfoot!" said Sansa, glaring fiercely at her scowling younger sister. Neither of them were going to let Meera be sad on the day of her engagement, not for long, anyway.

"Do you really want double lessons with me in return, Sansa? I may be bored now, but I assure you that you won't be so pretty after I smack you into the ground a few dozen times," retorted Arya sharply, returning the glare with interest.

Kitty rolled her eyes, taking a sip of water, "This kind of thing happens all the time; ignore them, please. Unless they're plotting something big, of course, and then paying close attention to them is the only way you might stand a chance. As is counter-plotting; I could use some help with that, actually, Meera, if you're open to an alliance. Lord Reed, did your children ever act like this?"

Howland answered as he watched the ongoing staring match, "When they were about ten, yes. They outgrew it a few years after. More or less."

After another minute of glaring and sniping at each other, Sansa and Arya broke down laughing, rubbed their shoulders together, then turned in unison to stick their tongues out at Kitty.

Returning to business, Sansa held up a hand for silence and turned to Arya, who stood, her face falling still and cold, not even seeming to breathe for a minute as she listened, then two more minutes as she paced slowly around the perimeter of the room, stopping for a moment every few steps. After completing a circuit of the room, life returned to her features and she sat back down and spoke.

"Keep your voices down, just in case, but we should be able to talk for a few minutes. Howland, thank you for keeping Jon's secret for so long, and so well. We know because Bran knows, and Samwell and Gilly found an annulment for Elia and a secret marriage by the High Septon for Rhaegar and Lyanna, before Jon was born. He's a trueborn Targaryen... and is still our brother. Even if he is an idiot."

"And even if he's bedding Queen Daenerys, which he is. Meera, if you could manage to instill some level of tact into Bran over the next few years, there are some things sisters are not meant to know. You may be hard pressed to find the time, of course, as you're likely to be Lady of Winterfell very soon," said Sansa ruefully.

Sansa and Arya both watched the two across from them carefully while Kitty looked between the other two pairs fondly after a brief time with a thoughtful expression. This was the first time they were bringing others into their confidence, and into their planning sessions, but if there was one great lesson Sansa had learned from Cersei, from Baelish, it was that plans made without input from anyone else were inevitably flawed in ways the person composing them could not see.

Father and daughter glanced at each other again, then Howland spoke, "How long have you known?"

"Since last night, the heritage and the bedding both. For Targaryens, of course, that's pretty normal, and marriage between cousins is normal enough. As long as she treats him well, and he's happy, well, it's his choice," replied Arya.

Kitty spoke, her tone simply inquisitive, "So... he's half Stark by blood on his mother's side, not his father's, and he's bedding his aunt?"

"Lyanna passed on her birthing bed in Dorne; I saw her and Jon as a babe myself. I wish things had been different, but even if we'd fought harder, we didn't have a Maester with us," said Howland sadly.

Sansa smiled sadly, nodding to Howland, "Because of you our father and brother survived. That's what matters, Lord Reed."

"My name is Howland, Lady Stark. As your brother's future good father, I'd be honored if you'd use it."

"Of course, Howland. Mine is Sansa; everyone here should use it," said Sansa.

"Sansa, what did you mean I'm likely to be Lady of Winterfell very soon," asked Meera, before a look from her father made her consider more deeply, thinking about the answer herself, "You expect to be named Queen, and to step down as Lady of Winterfell, then?"

"You were right, Sansa, they both figured it out, and quickly. Good choice!" said Arya, laughing and raising her glass to her sister before answering Meera's question, "That's what we hope. I certainly don't want to be Queen, though my being next in line is a good threat in and of itself for anyone who thinks they can kill Sansa; I'd almost certainly be the next one named, and that wouldn't end well for our enemies."

Meera winced, imagining the hells her commander would rain down upon those who had killed her sister. Lady Winter had eradicated a great house in a single night the last time a sibling of hers had been killed, and she'd been alone, then. What she'd do now... A great threat indeed.

Kitty had a slight smile, and Sansa's expression was serene as she spoke.

"Of all the family, Kitty, Meera, you are the two that understand politics the best. It is you who will need to manage the North, as Lord Royce, Lady Waynwood, and Lord Corbray manage the politics in the Vale."

"Not Arya?" asked Howland Reed.

"My strengths lie elsewhere. I understand individuals well enough, but gently guiding people to choose, on their own, what is good for entire kingdoms as a whole isn't my skill. Seeing the true faces of those not known to us, that I do better at. I'll handle outsiders."

"For our upcoming guests, I know my ex-husband Lord Tyrion as he was in King's Landing quite well, and I've heard much about Lord Varys as he was then, and Bran has filled us in on much of what they've done since. When they come, I'll be paying attention to them. Arya will focus on Queen Daenerys; we'll all follow her lead there. Meera, if you'd like to have the ceremony as soon as our brother Jon returns, so he can attend, I think that would be a wonderful gesture for the family. He can invite Queen Daenerys as his guest."

Howland looked at the daughters of his old friend and liege lord, then turned a fatherly, chastising look upon Lady Stark, "You would use my daughter's wedding as a political ploy?"

"Father!"

"Of course; a happy event to distract and grant time for people to think and talk in a more... family... environment may help smooth things over," answered Sansa without hesitation, "Do you disapprove, Howland?"

"It's not what I expected of Lord Eddard's children... but little of this is what I expected when I was young. I do not disapprove, Sansa; using a happy event to help settle a peace is something to be proud of."

"If I am named queen, as seems likely, I will offer my sister the post of Hand," said Sansa, keeping an eye on Meera and Kitty to make sure they were following along with her reasoning and strategy, "She will refuse, of course, but the offer needs to be made out in the open to ensure that all know of my trust in her, and that they'll speak of that trust to others. After she accepts the post of Master of Whisperers instead, I would like to offer you the post of Hand."

"What would you expect of your Hand," asked Howland, his voice turning dry, "in the event you are indeed named Queen?"

"To give me honest counsel, to argue with me when I am wrong in execution or intent. I intend, overall, to rule as the Starks have always ruled - with respect for their people and their traditions, except when preparations for survival are at stake. I'd like to hear your thoughts on a few new traditions for us, for instance," said Sansa, pausing to take a sip of water just before Meera did the same, "naming Princess Meera Stark the Lady Paramount of the North, and Prince Yohn Royce the Lord Paramount of the Vale? I think the Dornish titles convey more respect for the rulers of the kingdoms."

As Meera inhaled rather than drank her water, Arya had a pillow in front of her nearly faster than could be seen, while Sansa leaned back with a small but happy smile, reached behind a pillow and offered Meera a small towel to dry herself with as she lectured.

"Father always said Northerners were different, more loyal. He was only partly right - there are a few families who have truly continued to support a single house for thousands of years, but even those test those who they give their loyalty to. I would say more than anything, Northerners are stubborn; when they decide to support someone, they do. When they decide not to, they do. When they decide to hide in their castles, they do. When they decide to name a King, they do. That said, they're also both fractious and prideful, like Lord Mollen and Lord Whitehill. Meera, how do you handle them?" asked Sansa

"Only when you have to? Let them bicker and argue when there's time for it, like Jon and Daenerys. Sic Arya on them when there's no time," said Meera, exchanging smirks with the younger Stark, who bared her teeth and snarled viciously, dodging Sansa's swat and snapping at her hand.

"Good! Both houses are sworn directly to House Stark, so right now, the Lady of Winterfell is both the final and the only authority who can arbitrate their disputes. Listening is important, making sure they both feel you hear them. If other Lords are involved, or have similar disputes, you can bring them into the debate, or not, as you need. But you missed the very first thing - you must control when they start the debate. Don't insult them, don't cut them off - that's Arya's job - but make sure they don't speak up until the time is right," said Sansa, pausing and waiting.

"I've seen you do that... but I don't know how you always know what to say. I can learn the postures, the little things you do to cue people to speak when you want, but how do you know what to bring up? How do you know who you should pick?" asked Meera, a little frustrated. She'd paid very close attention in conclave since the offer had first been made, had seen Sansa set things up over and over, had seen Arya cut through to the heart of things sometimes. She'd seen them trade off the conversation seamlessly, sometimes with a glance, sometimes without anything she could see, but she didn't know how she could step into those shoes. She was a leader, a warrior, but not a politician like Sansa.

Arya chuckles, "I don't know how she puts up with them for as long as she does, but she knows because she has many spies."

"You have spies?" asked Meera sharply.

"I have spies? What a terrible accusation!" said Sansa, her expression appalled.

"I'm your spy!" said Kitty, laughing.

"No, you're not. You're my spymaster; that's completely different!"

Arya poked Kitty in the side, then Sansa, her voice condescending "Enough, girls. You're both very, very sneaky girls."

Arya looked at Howland, then at Sansa, and continued quietly, "Your father has military spies in and around the Neck; you're familiar with them and with the military reports we get. You know not all of it comes from Bran; some is from other sources. Of all the spy networks in the North, Sansa has one of the largest and most capable, focused on highborn politics. She knows their petty feuds because she gets reports on them."

Howland wrapped his arm around his daughter, "You took more than just Baelish's brothels, I take it. How many networks do you know of?"

Arya and Sansa looked at each other and laughed, then Arya answered, "In the North? Sansa's, of which large parts are run by Kitty. Mine in my own face, more dangerous, more rooted in the smallfolk and the criminals. The House of Black and White's, of course. Lord Manderly's is Sansa's main competition; his daughter Wynafryd is a worthy - and loyal - opponent. Kitty's started a little side network of her own, of course. The various criminal Kings and Queens, of course, spying on each other, their customers, and the guards. Baelish's spies and cutthroats, we turned or killed; that's part of why we had to play his games for so long, but we need that information. Cersei's got some informants, of course, but nothing major, not anymore. Varys is coming, and while I've kept him pruned down, he'll be much more dangerous in person."

Arya paused for a heartbeat, then continued, "Your father, of course, mostly spies on the other houses of the Neck and the northern parts of the Riverlands and the Vale, though he's been expanding northwards slowly since the Boltons took power."

Meera turned to stare at Howland, "And you didn't tell me we had spies, Father?"

Howland shrugged at his firstborn child, "You weren't ready. Now you are."

"Father!" exclaimed Meera, then thumped him upside the back of the head with a small pillow from the divan.

"So, Lady Stark, is the future Lady of Winterfell of sufficiently high social standing to be allowed to beat on the future Hand of the Queen without fear of retaliation, or is the future Hand of the Queen within a range of standing sufficient to strike back, and if so, with what level of retaliation?" asked Arya superciliously, with perfect posture except for her nose being just slightly too high.

************************

Chapter Text

As breakfast concluded, Tormund approached the head table alongside the Frozen Shores man who'd asked him to translate. The ginger was still up there, and the tiny one that looked like King Crow in miniature if he was a she and had as much of a taste for weapons as the Lord of Bones had had for bones. He'd heard talk she was a witch and beat the big woman more often than not, even as small as she was. Maybe he'd get to fight her - that'd be fun!

"Ginger girl! Aleksanteri here has some presents he wants to give you! He's the dog-master of the Frozen Shores tribe," he said exuberantly, then leaned in, asking in a loud whisper, "Is the big woman back yet?"

The little one was watching him with an unblinking stare while he reached down to take Ghost's furry cheeks between his hands and rub vigorously, leaning in so Ghost could lick his face properly, "Hello, Ghost! Who's a friendly boy? Who's a very friendly wolf? You are, yes you are boy!"

The ginger traded a glance with the little one, then stood, taking up her spear. Southron that she was, still, she was really starting to act like a real woman! Not a spearwife like her sister, but a good woman who was willing to defend hearth and home, not afraid of hard work like so many Southron women were. Well, maybe not - he'd heard that, sure, but he'd been in the South for a long time, now, and their women didn't seem to be very afraid of work after all. Hah - the stories lied!

Sansa answered him pleasantly, "It's good to see you again, Tormund, and a pleasure to meet you, Aleksanteri. What do you have for us, and why do you come bearing gifts? While we're always happy to receive presents, I wasn't aware we were expecting anything from the Frozen Shores clan, and I know there is nothing you owe us."

Tormund laughed. He wasn't going to be the one to ruin the surprise, so he answered, "He's got what's to be yours in one of those clearings in the castle, but you've got to come see it, ginger girl; it's not for me to say, and it'll be funnier besides - you should have been expecting it, he's more than old enough! Got a good eye, too! Aleksanteri here said he's sorry he took so long - Skamund had a talk with his clan leader, said he'd be angry if they didn't honor the split, after you Starks welcomed us all like this. You coming too, winter girl? We can fight after! With Jon gone it's hard to find a good fight when I want one. You like swords, too? Jon likes swords."

The little winter girl was already out of her chair and behind her sister when he noticed her again, and he hadn't heard a thing. She'd make a great hunter, this winter girl would! He scritched Ghost behind the ears as he led the way out of the hall, striding through the busy castle, still amused at how the Southrons all greeted the ginger girl. At least they weren't kneeling all the time, he supposed, though the gaggle of guards and other folks following along was a bit silly.

As they approached, Tormund grinned at the sound of barks and whines ahead. As they entered the courtyard, the young boy in the gaggle following them darted forward with a cry.

"Puppies!"

The boy was looking over the puppies like he knew dogs as Ghost bounded into the middle and nearly vanished under a pile of excited pups.

Arya laughed and said, "Puppies, Sansa. We're being given mostly white puppies with a few patches of brown and gray. Enormous, mostly white puppies with triangular ears and long faces. Aleksanteri, I take it this is our half of the pups Ghost sired? Were all the bitches the big ones the Frozen Shores clan keeps?"

Tormund reached out to clap winter girl on the shoulder, only to miss as she ducked down and picked up one of the bigger pups, grabbing the muzzle when the pup bared its teeth at her, then letting go a moment later, scritching behind its ears.

"They are! Ghost's got good taste, he and I both like the big women! Look at those pups - strong and big and healthy, just like the big woman's babes will be! The little un's are about two months old, and the big un's are about four months!"

"Just how large are these going to grow up to be?" asked the ginger girl, a pair of the smaller pups daintily putting their paws on her knees as she kneeled down to pet them gently. The smaller of the two licked her nose softly, prompting a giggle.

Tormund turned and asked the dogmaster, "Kuinka suuret ne ovat?"

"Nelja, ehka viisi jalkaa. Ole vahan villi, kun kasvaa."

"He says four or five feet tall, and they'll be wild when they grow up. Frozen Shores dogs are as big as direwolves - that's why Ghost likes them so much, he knows big women make the best babes! Not like Jon - he likes the little ones, like Ygritte!"

"Tell him that's fine; we are Starks of Winterfell, and we've raised direwolves before. Wildness and managing the wild ones is in our blood, no matter how we conceal it," said Arya with a wink at Sansa, "Donovar, stay with them for now, make sure the kennels are set up properly and check on the plan for their training. Connas, fetch the kennel master, and make sure he knows that Donovar's in charge - he knows what they need to be trained to be sled dogs. These aren't pampered pets, they're pack, and they need to work just like all the rest of us. Tormund, you're ready to fight?"

"I'm always ready to fight!"

"Good! I've got a new dagger that I need to learn the balance of, and the only way to do that is with live steel; the training blunt's too heavy. You think you can keep up, you big slow fucker?"

"Hah! Let's see what you got, winter girl!" said Tormund, drawing his sword.

Arya shrugged her cloak off with a single now practiced motion, only the leather showing as she passed it to Kitty and drew her new sword and dagger, pointing to the gatehouse to a more inner bailey used for training with the sword.

"Oooh, that one's even longer than your brother's! But too skinny - you sure it's not going to break, girl? You've got some muscles on you for such a short one, and I swing hard!" exclaimed the large man as he strode through the gatehouse.

"Gendry made it for me. It won't break, and neither will I, so don't hold back."

"I like you, winter girl! You sure it won't? Your lad thought a giant great hammer was good to fight with, not a little sword like that."

"He's learned better, now. That hammer's too damned slow, leaves him open every single time he swings it whether he hits or not. We trained and Sansa killed him. Kitty killed him. Deranna even killed him, a half-trained girl of three and ten. Gendry's too slow, too predictable," said Arya, running through a brief warmup, "I told him if he was going to practice, he should practice right. Looks like he didn't listen, before. He will, now."

"You're supposed to be quick, winter girl. Show me!" said Tormund as he took his sword in both hands and swung, starting the battle. Arya's dagger flashed out to sweep his sword aside, her hand twisting to trap the big blade in place for just one moment as her own sword halted just at his armpit.

"Dead."

************************

Arya strode into the war room, her eyes seeking out the table, seeing the varying shadows cast by the flickering candles, her nose smelling the scents of hard labor in heavy armor, of horses and dogs and oils and unguents for weapons, her ears hearing the sounds of two hearts beating, two people breathing, one more quickly than the other, of other men and women coming up the stairs behind her. All was as she expected. One more lesson for her commanders before the Night King and the Spider got here.

Scraps of conversation came from behind her as the commanders filed into the room, followed by Sansa and Kitty. Arya sat at the head of the table, quietly listening to their conversations while they entered, as was her custom.

"The setting circles are working well, aren't they?"

"The Scorpion Bear likes them."

"They're good for my archers, too, but we need more lanterns or torches on the wall to see the markings in the dark. The courtyards beneath the walls are darker than your towertops atop them, Fjornel."

"Aye, towers colder and windier too. Do banners help adjust for wind?" replied the spearwife.

"Yes, we can see the wind direction when your people light them up each time the wind changes. Does it hurt your night vision?" replied Meera.

"Close eye when uncover lamp," said Fjornal as she sat at the table next to Lyanna's usual place, looking past the last people coming in to see if she could find her commander.

The military leaders took their seats at the table while Sansa and her guards sat in the corner, against the wall, near this room's stash of defensive equipment. It was a well used room, deep in the castle, and was designated as a shelter in case the dead made it in by land, tunnel, or wight dragon.

Like many other rooms both near the many entrances to baileys and deep inside, there was some equipment here that was too cumbersome to carry normally and which they were finally starting to get enough of - large shields, pikes, long spears, and so on. Crossbows were still too dear to sit idle, and the Dornish bows were all in use for training.

"Where's Lady Mormont? She's usually here early?" asked Meera.

"Scorpion Bear left after inspection," replied Fjornel.

Under the table, Lyanna slowly, quietly pulled her foot out of the loop that had been suspending her just under the top and set her foot down quietly just as Arya Stark had shown her, then her other foot as they spoke, two training daggers in her hands, then lunged forward, her right-hand blade tapping Arya's leg, the left, which she was concentrating on, tapping Lord Royce in a gap in his armor at the upper thigh.

At Arya's flamboyant act of standing with a screech of "Dead! Drill! Drill!" and dramatically falling to the floor, the room exploded into action. Lord Royce clasped his thigh and growled, "Hit! Dying!"

Lyanna dove for Fjornel and Meera next; her own second overturned her chair and raced backwards out of the girl's range, Meera scampering back as well, drawing her sword to parry the training dagger's thrust, calling out loudly, "Wight! Messengers, sound wight inside drill alarm!," as she saw the blue-eyed headband Lyanna was wearing.

Lyanna turned from the two who had seen the far North and fought wights, instead tackling an infantry commander bodily and tapping his neck with the training dagger even as Fjornel and Meera advanced together to 'kill' her with their 'dragonglass' weapons. The commanders and their seconds raced to take up shields and form a thin shield-wall at the room's only door, facing outwards to prepare for the wave they suspected was coming, led by Meera and Fjornel.

At the start of the action, Sansa and her party stood, the Lady of Winterfell turning to the guard on her right flank, extending her spear with her left hand while taking his in her right seamlessly before taking up her own shield, spear held overhand above it as they formed their own shield-wall.

She had only been training in group fighting for a little while, and the one-handed overhand grip still just didn't feel right to her, though she still settled into her position in the middle-left of the four spears abreast they formed in their corner, Kitty frantically winding the windlass, sheltered behind them, Leriah with daggers out beside her, also behind the shield-wall, her back pressed against the wall to give Kitty space to work.

"Behind you!" cried the guard to Sansa's left as Tormund Giants bane strode out from behind a planning chart on an easel, carrying a training staff whose top half was wrapped in bright blue cloth over the light padding, that 'ice sword' already swinging at the full extent of his great reach to tap Fjornel on the back. With a step forward, he smacked it against Meera's blade.

"Fjornal dead! Meera sword shatter! Meera dead!" called out Arya, judging that the staff would have hit Meera after going through her sword. They weren't sure how or why, but the few reports from Hardhome on the Walkers themselves were certain and consistent - the weapons the White Walkers used had shattered every weapon they'd hit in a single blow, all except Longclaw. Arya had chosen to assume that the blow would continue unimpeded - that would teach the most caution, and lead to the best trained responses in her people.

Outside, the undulating tones the warning horns used for drills sounded out three wavering tones, and the drums sounded White Walkers inside the castle, followed closely by White Walkers multiple directions - the larger attack Arya had arranged had begun.

As soon as Arya heard the tones for the attack outside, Arya called out, "Dead rise!" even as Kitty's unloaded crossbow twanged while Tormund hit another man's sword with his 'blade'.

"Shatter, dead! Walker dead! All human corpses rise!" called out Arya implacably.

The new wights rose in a rush, overwhelming those at the door immediately, then turned on the spearwall in the corner as Kitty frantically attached the windlass and started winding for a second shot.

Once the 'battle' was done, Arya spoke seriously, "You're all dead for the rest of the exercise. Observe only, do not speak except to say you 'died'. You all need to pay more attention to your surroundings - we know the dead can fall hundreds of feet onto rock and many will stand up and fight after. That means that the Night King could fly above us in the clouds and drop rocks or blocks of ice atop us, or drop White Walkers and wights atop the rooftops, to climb in windows and creep inside, as Tormund crept in here overnight. Everyone needs to check rooms, check corners and check blind spots all the time."

After receiving a round of nods and giving time for her words to be translated for the Free Folk leaders whose common tongue was rough, Arya continued, "There are other cutthroats and spies who would sneak in, too. Perhaps even pathetic fools who pretend to be real assassins, like the Sorrowful Men. Euron Greyjoy killed his brother on a bridge between the castles of Pyke, when his brother didn't even know he was on Pyke at all, much less in the castle. Littlefinger arranged for a foreign cutthroat to get all the way up to Bran's room after my brother fell, even as he arranged for a tower to burn, here in this very castle with the King's party still present. Varys and Cersei's Qyburn have been trying to get their 'little birds' into the North for months. Qyburn's clumsy and obvious, but Varys is another matter - everyone must be on guard, for we have many enemies."

Sansa exchanged glances with Arya and Kitty, then at Arya's nod, said chidingly, "Should the Night King try this for real, you might not have the Lady of the Crossing to kill the White Walker! Do we have enough of the Dornish bows to put one or two with each supply cache?"

"We do. I'll see to it immediately, Sansa" said Meera.

"Aye! You kept your head, girl!" said Tormund to Kitty with a grin, "You Southrons are beginning to act like real warriors, now. Good thing you had us to teach you, hah!"

The sound of drums, gongs, and horns rose louder outside as the attack was pressed in earnest from the North, the East, and the South all at once. Lord Royce listened; even with all the commanders and their seconds struck 'dead', the response was strong and orderly. The infantry was still a bit rough, but overall, the defenders were a coherent force.

The defense wasn't complex, wasn't difficult, wasn't inspired, but he and the other commanders shared respectful nods with each other as they all listened to the battle move inside the fifth, outermost defensive ring, as was planned. The scorpions were still silent, and the archers, but the big ballista had started loosing with their characteristic deep twangs, and the rush of movement and shouted commands inside the castle died out as the last of the 'White Walkers' and 'wights' Arya had arranged to be inside the walls were 'killed'.

Arya continued with a smile, meeting each of their eyes in turn, letting her pride in them show, "Sit, everyone. They need to stand on their own for a time before you show up, so they and the soldiers know that the training you've all done while I was out, the advances you've made work, and that it all works even without you there to lead them! Now they know that each group can handle themselves, and can work with the others. As Sansa likes to say, they're all working together, down to the unit level, because all of you have shown them how to work together. I'm proud of your leadership, of the troops, and of what you've accomplished while I was traveling. Good work, everyone!"

"The Night King's dragon has finally melted through the wall at Eastwatch as of a few hours ago; Bran gave us the warning, and we expect confirmation and greater detail by raven from the warg watching the ship off Eastwatch soon. Here, the children too young to train will be bringing water up to the walls and icing them down, to help protect from dragon fire and climbing both," continued Arya.

"Whose idea was that?" asked Lord Royce, "They should be commended."

"Robin Arryn, actually, who poured his water on a snow castle he was trying to make in the shape of the Eyrie," replied Arya, looking over at her sister, "He said he wanted to make one like the one Sansa made of Winterfell, but it kept falling down."

"Hmm," replied Lord Royce dubiously, "Did he suggest applying it to castle walls himself?"

Arya chuckled, glad he'd pushed forward on his own to find the true source of the innovation. Sansa, she knew, was also pleased to see he was getting past his loyalty to the last remaining Arryn, "No. Deranna did, actually, when she heard Robin speak of it. She'd played with snow forts with her brother when winter came, and they iced down their forts to make them last. She hadn't thought of her play until reminded. So, the children will ice the walls, and the snow ramparts will be iced down as well."

"Yes, Lady Winter," said the infantry commander whose troops did most of the fieldworks.

"Jamie Lannister's been picked up by a dogsled team out of the Bloody Gates and is coming North by himself, to his credit - so far, it looks like Brienne's right about him. Patrek Mallister's also been picked up by the dogsleds heading North, along with some of the remaining leaders of the smallfolk forces of the Frey army, ahead of their larger forces coming to join us," said Arya, continuing the conference.

"How many?" asked Lady Mormont.

"Are they supplied adequately?" asked Bronze Yohn Royce.

Lady Meera simply looked over at Sansa and Kitty, both watching with well-satisfied expressions, showing no surprise, just the face of a person who's done an important job well and thoroughly. Sansa clasped Kitty's knee, and gave her a small nod for those in the room watching, and for Kitty herself.

Arya answered the military questions, "Three thousand ride already with five and twenty thousand barrels of provisions allocated, all to join the Night's Watch. They've been issued small pieces and fragments of dragonglass at Moat Cailin and are making their own spears on the march - much like the ones we give to the civilians now. Thousands more are still gathering food and preparing to come North to aid us. Once they arrive, we'll know more about them, and can issue them better as we judge them worthy, though I have faith in Kitty - she wrote persuasively to them, and they've responded in honesty as far as Bran and the wargs can tell. The Mallisters are sending only Patrek from Seagard and two hundred barrels of provisions."

Sansa stood, stepping forward to ensure she had their attention, "The Mallisters stayed in Seagard and took no part in the Red Wedding, instead they rose up against Walder Frey along with the Blackwoods. Their forces stay there to defend Seagard from the Greyjoys and the Lannisters still; they've broken from the Iron Throne in full. The others coming include men who've done nothing, men who only fought the Lannisters, and many men who fought for the Freys, including those who murdered our family and friends at the Red Wedding under the orders of their Frey lords. They will all join the Night's Watch as they seem to intend, or they will die. The Justice in the North will see it through."

Arya's body stilled into motionlessness as she spoke, her voice and face cold and empty, "They are living men yet, coming North of their own free will to give their lives and their deaths to the Night's Watch, as has been our tradition since the first Long Night. The Boltons are gone, my sister fed the last to his own hounds. The Umbers and Karstarks are purged of all those who supported the Red Wedding, the remainder pardoned by my brother when he was King. The Manderlys hid their loyalty from all, and remain true as they always have been. The Freys who murdered our family are dead by my own hand. Littlefinger was executed in our own great hall by my own hand. Tywin Lannister is dead, Joffrey Waters is dead. Cersei Lannister will be dead soon enough. Those joining the Night's Watch on their own have their crimes forgiven in exchange for pledging their lives and their deaths to defend the realms of men, as has been done since the wall was built after the first Long Night."

The other Northerners in the room looked to each other; they'd been the ones most affected by the Red Wedding and its aftermath. The Free Folk and those of the Vale stayed quiet, judging it an internal matter, watching as the eyes, one set at a time, landed on Lyanna Mormont, who had lost more family in the Red Wedding than anyone else in the room except the Starks.

Lyanna watched Arya, then Sansa, then stood and spoke, her voice sure and strong, "If they come well supplied to join the Night's Watch as the second Long Night begins, to fight on the side of the living as Fjornel, Skamund, and other Free Folk who've killed many Northerners on Bear Island and elsewhere in the North in the past, then if the Justice in the North judges them honest, I welcome them to the fight against the dead. We will need soldiers to kill the dead who cross the lines. If they wish to regain their honor, then this is the way. This has always been the way."

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"Not happy with you, is she?" asked Varys.

"No, but she's coming around. Jon Snow is good for her, tempers her, counsels mercy," replied Tyrion, peering out into the slowly brightening dawn.

"And did counsel of mercy help when you spoke for the Tarlys?" asked Varys quietly.

Tyrion looked up at his old friend, then out into the greyness, his face pensive, "No. It didn't. I hope Jon helps more - she listens to him, more than she does us."

"For now. She listened to us once, too, for a time," said Varys, worry in his voice.

"She listens to us still... sometimes," replied Tyrion. The two fell into silence, alone at their section of the deck, neither wanting to either sleep or be alone as they approached White Harbor at last.

"SAILS HO! TWO POINTS ABAFT THE STARBOARD BEAM AND RETREATING SOUTHEAST! THIRTY FIVE OR MORE RED DRAGON ON BLACK OVER BRONZE HARPY ON WHITE!" called out the lookout.

"I can't see a thing," complained Tyrion.

"Neither can I; they must be quite far away. What are Meereenese ships doing leaving here, do you think? They should have been coming from White Harbor, by the course, I do believe?" asked Varys

"Well, the merchants need to buy and sell something other than people, and trade often means sailing, so perhaps they were selling to White Harbor, or buying from there. That's the only port close to here, by the maps."

Varys considered, "What do you think they might be selling? And do you think the maps are still accurate?"

"Well, the North isn't buying silk. They have the Saltpans, so they won't be buying salt either. Definitely not slaves; they won't buy and our Queen forbade it in Meereen. Food, probably, or copper to make bronze with, I suppose. As for the maps... I'm beginning to think that our maps are indeed wrong."

"Mmm," said Varys just before a now-familiar horn sounded once from the left, followed by drums.

After a few minutes of their futile staring into the lightening gloom, the lookout called out.

"WATCHTOWER HO! TWO POINTS ON THE PORT BOW! MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN!"

Looking hard along the bearing, they could see the boxy shape rising over the waves.

"That's new," said Varys as Ser Davos joined them on deck, followed by Grey Worm and Missandei.

"It appears to have a scorpion on top," said Tyrion.

"Ballista. It's too big to be a scorpion, that far away. That's a tall tower, too - it'll outrange anything a ship could carry. For all its size, it'll be hard to hit from a ship, and it's on steady land - I'd avoid its entirely were I still a smuggler, or even with armed ships if I could," said Ser Davos.

"Does everything in this country fly banners?" asked Missandei as she looked out at the tiny banner flying over the tower in the distance.

"Every pile of shit by the side of the road, according to a learned man I know," replied Varys, looking down at the dwarf next to him.

"Thank you, old friend, for remembering everything I ever said," replied Tyrion.

"WATCHTOWER HO! ONE POINT ON THE PORT BOW! MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN!"

Jon and Daenerys strode out on deck, close together, perfectly composed. Too perfectly, Varys thought; she always took such care with her appearance, whether it was appropriate at court, or would work against her here in the North. Daenerys stood on the starboard side, peering into the distance to look for the Meereenese ships, the last of which was disappearing over the horizon.

"SAILS HO! BROAD ON THE STARBOARD BOW AND CLOSING FAST! TWENTY MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN! FIFTEEN PURPLE! TWELVE BURNING TOWER ON A BLACK PILE ON RED!"

"Jon?" asked Daenerys, her arm wrapped around his, looking up at him, shivering even in the thicker dress she'd had made before she left. She was the blood of the dragon, and had though the dress would be too much; she'd asked what Jon his sister wore, and she'd had her seamstress match it.

It wasn't enough.

Jon shrugged helplessly and wrapped his cloak around her as he answered, "I ordered everyone from 10 to 60 trained to fight, men and women alike, and left the North to Sansa. I guess she's been busy, she and this Lady Winter she found. I've been with you; I've shown you my ravens, and you know what I've sent."

"Ware boom," sounded on their own deck as their fleet tacked to continue working their way against the cold wind from the North.

After they all ducked by habit and stood upright again, they continued the discussion.

"How long it take to build those?" asked Grey Worm, pointing at the armed watchtowers on the coast.

Ser Davos answered, "If you have enough men, not long to assemble. Making a siege engine isn't hard if you have the parts - Stannis had them made on campaign, just as the Tyrells did during the siege of Storm's End. Making the joints and the springs for those is harder, but you can buy them, too - the Arsenal can turn them out very quickly, for instance. Their navy's always been armed with them, ever since the Uncloaking of Braavos at least, and probably since their founding. Towers are far easier to build, of course."

"WATCHTOWER HO! ONE POINT ON THE PORT BOW! MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN!"

Ser Davos called up, "ENOUGH ABOUT THE WATCHTOWERS! LOOK FOR SHIPS!"

"Sorry, your Grace," said Ser Davos as he looked over at Jon and the Queen, chagrined.

"It's all right; I'd rather not have to shout myself," replied Daenerys after Jon squeezed her arm, "I suppose we can assume there will be more watchtowers."

Tyrion looked at the towers carefully, "There are quite a lot, and they're placed on cliffs or other high points. Enough to make any fleet wary of the price they'll pay for assaulting the coast, if they were cautious, or exact a heavy price if they try anyway. Do the dead have a fleet, Lord Snow?"

"No; they stop at the sea. But the Ironborn under Euron do, and Sansa was always very concerned about Cersei. As, it appears, she was right to be if the only Lannister forces coming North is just one man," replied Jon.

"Yes. We've wasted enough time on your family, Lord Tyrion," said Daenerys coldly, "Jon almost died, we spend weeks traveling, we lose our allies and gain nothing, and all the while Jon's sister prepares the North for what is coming."

Once again, the military fleet seawards of them executed a neat turn to parallel their general course well outside of range of either weapons or words.

"Look how close hauled they are, how they tack more often than we do. The Arsenal builds a fast design, that's for sure, and that's a month's production for the Manderlys and the Graftons right there. That's not cheap, you know," said Davos, watching the fleet maneuver, comparing it to the overloaded bulk-haul merchant tubs they were currently using to transport the first set of the Queen's soldiers to battle the army of the dead.

"That's a good point," said Tyrion, "Just how can the North afford so many ships, so many watchtowers and siege engines?"

"I'm sure I'll be better able to answer that after I have time to listen to the whispers the little birds have to say. Unfortunately, few birds fly aboard ship to sing to me, though I do notice that the Graftons have quite a few banners showing, and we haven't even sailed within sight of any of their cities. Lord Baelish was quite rich from embezzling the Crown as well as his many... other activities," said Varys, "Perhaps he is supplying some of the gold required."

"His whores, you mean," said Daenerys scornfully. She'd heard quite enough about Lord Baelish in the past few days - her advisors sounded almost jealous of him, she thought.

"The man preys upon desire," replied Varys, shaking his head with genuine sadness, remembering Ros, and how Lord Baelish had sold her to Joffrey as a crossbow target, "Even the darkest desires, I'm afraid. He is not to be underestimated, my Queen. Be wary of him, of his words and deeds both. He is a master of both lies and truth."

"You sound like you admire him," said Jon.

"I do. He is one of the greatest players of the game, and while he was highborn, he was from the lowest of the highborn. He rose high on his own skills, as low as his means were when he started, and has been a worthy opponent. I admire men and women who rise on their own skills, as much as I despise many of his methods."

As it neared noon and they had passed watchtower after watchtower, now hearing drums roll in sequence south to north and north to south time after time from both port and starboard as they headed North, already past Oldcastle on the Bite, they heard the lookout call out again.

"SAIL HO! DEAD AHEAD AND CLOSING VERY FAST! MERMAN WITH TRIDENT ON BLUE-GREEN!"

"That'll be the harbor pilots, I expect; look how small she is, and she's unarmed, riding light," said Ser Davos.

A few minutes later, another call sounded.

"SAILS HO! TWO POINTS ON THE STARBOARD QUARTER AND CROSSING TO PORT SLOWLY! FIFTY PURPLE!"

"Fifty more? How many ships do they have up here?" asked Tyrion.

Ser Davos peered out at the fleet , "That's a trading fleet, my Lord, with an escort. Looks to be thirty traders and twenty warships; they'll come in behind us, two, maybe three miles back. Probably carrying trade goods, maybe food or parts for those scorpions and ballista."

"SAILS HO! ONE POINT ON THE PORT BOW AND STEADY! TWENTY EIGHT TALL GOLDEN HEXAGON ON DARK GREY!"

"Asshai," said Varys in a low, menacing hiss, "Sorcerers and magicians."

"Asshai?" asked Missandei, "Why would ships from Asshai be here?"

"What does Asshai have?" asked Queen Daenerys.

Tyrion thought for a moment, then answered, "Silk, amber, gold, food, magic... and dragonglass, according to Exports of the World by Maester Wollikins."

"Dragonglass?" asked Jon Snow, "They have dragonglass?"

"That's what Maester Wollikins said," replied Tyrion.

"That is a lot of those weapons," said Grey Worm as White Harbor came into view, walls sparkling under the snow, surrounded by pyramidal white hills of now, the tallest of which had groups of men atop them, or small scorpions with crews.

Above, Drogon and Rhaegal soared, the siege engine crews on the watchtowers, the gatehouses, the white-covered pyramids and tall rooftops not tracking their weapons, but all were fully manned and ready. The small ship sailing from dead ahead had already turned, matched course, and offloaded one small boat, several others being lowered off booms already.

"WHITE HARBOR HARBOR PILOT REQUESTS PERMISSION TO COME ABOARD!"

Ser Davos looked at Jon and Daenerys; receiving a graceful nod from the Queen, he replied, "PERMISSION GRANTED!"

"THIS SHIP GOT ALL OF QUEEN DAENERYS' PEOPLE?"

"AYE"

"WHICH SHIP'S GOT BRIENNE OF TARTH AND THE HOUND?"

Ser Davos leaned over and pointed; those two and her squire had somehow struck up not just one, but several conversations about Jon's sisters, both of them, and various Lannisters as well, sometimes to Tyrion's chagrin. Despite that, they'd chosen to sail in another vessel, one they could train on freely, without tripping over high and mighty cunts every step, as Sandor Clegane had put it when the old seaman had asked why.

"WHICH SHIP'S GOT DRAGONGLASS?"

Ser Davos pointed to two ships, the latest of many that had been sent over the previous months.

"WHICH SHIP'S GOT FOOD?"

Again, Ser Davos pointed to various ships. The others on deck waited while the arcane rituals of seamanship were carried out as the small boat docked and an old man scrambled spryly up the ropes and to the rudder, the other small boats spreading out to the indicated ships.

"Message from harbormaster! Yours and those first, then the Asshai, then those of your forces with adequate supplies, then the Braavosi. Sail on starboard side only, docking slips with Targaryen banners are yours. Only water for resupply. Ships to wait will anchor by training camp seven. Sheep and water for dragons at training camp seven. Welcome to White Harbor, Queen Daenerys, Lord Snow, and forces! Lady Wylla sends!"

"Message heard!"

"The harbormaster is a lady?" asked Daenerys, her voice amused as she looked at Jon, "Is that usual in the North, like Yara Greyjoy and this Lyanna Mormont you've spoken of?"

"I believe that's Lord Manderly's youngest granddaughter. He had two. Their father died for my brother Robb at the Red Wedding. It's not exactly usual, but it's not new, either," replied Jon.

"Strong women in the North, like this Lady Winter that ended the Freys. I approve - you'll have to introduce her to me. Though Lady Wylla does seem to be giving orders to her Queen, doesn't she? I want all my ships docked so the Unsullied and Dothraki can disembark," asked Daenerys, disapproval edging into her tone.

"Pardon, your Grace, but I've never seen a harbor this busy in all my years. Best to let the harbormaster handle things her way. Look, they've got a pair of Dornish ships, three Tyroshi, and a Pentoshi ship all outbound to port of us and those fleets inbound on the starboard, with a clear channel for us past the Asshai ships. If anyone tries to change up anything now, it'll just be a big mess. Ships don't turn as easily as horses," said Ser Davos in the tone he took when highborn pride was getting in the way of their common sense.

Tyrion and Varys both nodded as Daenerys checked on them, as did Grey Worm and Missandei.

Qhono merely spat over the side and grunted, "Wooden horses shit."

Jon looked at the busy port, then turned to the cabin he'd started sharing with her as he said, "Let them take care of us, Dany. We need to get ready; it's a long trip to Winterfell."

The harbor pilot took them in skillfully, but without replying to any of the questions Davos had for him in anything other than a grunt.

As they approached and the Queen and Lord Snow were still tucked away in their cabin, Tyrion and Varys watched the harbor grow larger before them, more details standing out. There was a wall, twelve to fifteen feet tall, separating the city from the dock area - the height varied because crews were actively working on it even now. Thick wooden gates controlled the entrances to the main thoroughfares, mostly closed, while the docks were divided into two sections. The ships in the docks before them were leaving, and a set of small figures were running from dock to dock putting up Targaryen banners as each dock was made free.

"Is it just me, or does this seem abnormally busy for a Northern port?" asked Tyrion, "I haven't been to a port in the North before, but I did go to the Wall and back, and there really wasn't much trade on the Kings road.

"The port is certainly quite cosmopolitan now. Look at those small docks there; no fleet, but a dozen ships belonging to no particular nation. I would suspect that if we asked Ser Davos, we'd find he was familiar with no small few of the captains. I had heard whispers that Lady Manderly was known to acquire the odd trade good here and there, under the table, as it were," said Varys.

"Anything particularly risque?"

"Years ago, when Aerys was still on the throne, she had a slight disagreement over the quality of some Arbor Gold with a smuggler. She pressed her claim rather fiercely, and received what she wanted on time," said Varys, "A formidable woman."

"A woman after my own heart! I do hope she enjoyed the wine. I know what it's like to not have proper wine... while living in a box, I might add."

"And yet you lived. She didn't drink a drop of it, though, on the advice of her Maester, she said. It was served at the feast announcing her firstborn," said Varys, looking down at his companion, "Do many of those dock workers look unduly small to you?"

"Are you finally making dwarf jokes?" asked Tyrion with a smile.

"You tell me."

Tyrion looked closer at the dock workers, "Perhaps you aren't after all. The guards, too. Most are running around like children, and the rest aren't moving much at all, and slowly when they do, like they're elderly. I don't think there are many men of military age on the docks. Or the scorpions, either Those two there, those are women! So's that one... and there, unloading that ship, those are girls."

"How can you tell?" asked Varys.

"I can always tell," said Tyrion with a melancholy expression, "Even if I don't partake anymore."

Once they'd docked, the others joined them to disembark as a party approached their ship at a rapid pace through the closest gate. Two well-dressed women lead, followed by a collection of others, some of which split off to approach the other vessels with their black and red Targaryen livery. As the main group approached another four people jogged down the docks to join the greeting party, a young woman with green hair and a veteran soldier followed by two very dangerous looking guards.

"Elders and children. This is who fights here?" asked Qhono scornfully as they debarked.

"We were just commenting on that topic. It appears the North is sadly lacking in manpower. It's a good thing we're here, though perhaps we should have brought more men. I do see the Ladies Manderly have several men and women of military age with them," replied Tyrion to the Dothraki.

"We lost a lot of our fighting men in the wars. That's why I ordered every man and woman from age ten to sixty to train with weapons daily," said Jon, his eyes looking over the people on the docks, "It looks like Sansa really made things happen. Everyone's armed with dragonglass - your dragonglass, Dany."

"They not uniform. Many different weapons," said Grey Worm as he inspected the variety evident before him. The Dothraki carried bows and arakhs, the Unsullied spear, shield, and blade. The uniformity let them form a solid shield-wall, fight properly as a single unit. That was how they could kill their enemies. If the Queen's newest man's people didn't know that, he was concerned they wouldn't be dependable in battle.

"Khaleesi, do you remember what I said about one man with a crossbow? Look over there - a full unit of crossbows. The Lady Manderly has one, too, a big one, and down the docks there. Are you certain you won't fly to Winterfell, Khaleesi?" asked Jorah.

"I am quite certain, Ser Jorah. I need to see the North, and it was only luck that let me find Jon beyond the Wall - it's all white under the snow," said the Queen, looking across the docks at the snow tucked against the base of the wall, where feet and wheels hadn't trodden it down completely. Behind the Lady Manderly's party, a gate opened and a large number of dockworkers came out, each set turning to a particular dock, wheelbarrows in hand as they started calling out commands to get the goods aboard each vessel unloaded.

"Welcome to White Harbor, Queen Daenerys. On behalf of the Lady of Winterfell, I would like to present to you this token, in the hopes that it keeps your warm during your stay in the North," said Lady Manderly as she handed a thick pile of silky black furs to the silver-haired woman.

Daenerys handed the stack to Missandei as she settled the thick hat over her head, hairs from the furs around her face tickling her even as the flaps covered her ears, blocking the northerly wind. She next unfolded a thick fur cloak with, settling it around her shoulders and wrapping it over her chest before she opened up the next garment, finding it to be an even thicker cloak, one with a soft leather outside with embroidery of three dragons soaring through the sky on the back. Daenerys touched them, one at a time, whispering, "Viserion. Rhaegal. Drogon."

She settled it over the other cloak, then put on the thick gloves, smiling gently up at Lady Manderly as she spoke, "Thank you, Lady Manderly, for presenting me this gift; I can feel myself finally starting to warm up again. Dragons aren't made for the cold, it seems! I'll pass my gratitude on to the Lady of Winterfell in person; her having had this made for me was very thoughtful."

The Manderly ladies exchanged a brief glance, and then Wynafred spoke quietly, "Pardon me, Queen Daenerys, but Lady Stark didn't have it made for you by someone else. She made it for you, with her own hands, just as she made Lord Snow and Lady Winter's clothes herself. It's a great honor - she's one of the best with a needle in all of Westeros, and for her to spend what little time she has not devoted to making sure everyone in the North and the Vale and the Free Folk are working together effectively is a singular honor."

Daenerys turned to look at Jon's cloak more carefully, running her hand down the stitching on his black cloak, comparing it to her cloak, "Your sister made this for you? She made these cloaks for me? Are the women in your family all this talented with a needle?"

"Aye, she did. Sansa's always loved sewing, same as Lady Catelyn - they were both very good. Arya... well, you were there when I asked Brienne and the Hound about Arya's Needle. When I gave it to her, she said 'Sansa can keep her sewing needles, I've got a Needle of my own.' She always hated sewing lessons, sneaking out and playing with us any chance she got. That was almost the last time I saw her, when I gave her that sword," said Jon wistfully, shaking his head in disbelief, "I still can't believe she's alive. Why is Sansa making clothes for Lady Winter?"

The green-haired young woman answered excitedly, "She's definitely alive and healthy; Lady Winter, your sister Arya, came through not long ago to inspect the military preparations before the army of the dead arrives. By the Seven, she's amazing! She took on all three of us at once, plus two guards, and beat us every time! I learned so much from training with her, and from watching when she tested how we were training for the army of the dead! It was incredible - she showed up, ran half a mile to the training yard with her two guards and a Dornish archer, and they fought for hours and never lost once! Our last training set was a fifty and a hundred wights, eight walkers with throwing spears, ten wight giants, eight wight mammoths, and four wight dragons and they killed them all!"

Tyrion rolled his eyes, taking a drink from his wineskin. Forty five to one odds, and a young Stark, two guards, and an archer from Dorne won. Yes, yes, it make for a wonderful story, and he wasn't about to challenge it while a guest in their city, but it was either nothing more than a story, or someone had been going very easy on the underdogs and the young lady before him had been unable to tell. Jamie had had that problem before - people were too afraid, or too worried of his father's reactions to actually train with Jamie at their full skill, so it looked like Jamie was the god of swords, rather than simply exceptional.

"And my daughter's been running around everywhere telling the story since then," interjected Lady Manderly, "If I may handle the introductions? I'm Lady Leona Manderly, and these are my daughters Lady Wynafryd Manderly and Lady Wylla Manderly. This is Lord Mitchar Woolfield."

Jon remembered his own first meeting with Dany, then hurriedly straightened up and did the introductions himself, before Missandei could try out her speech on Northmen in their own city, "This is my Queen, Daenerys Targaryen, who I have pledged myself to. Her Hand, Lord Tyrion Lannister. Her advisor Lord Varys, her advisor Lady Missandei, her advisor Ser Jorah Mormont, the commander of the Unsullied, Grey Worm, and the commander of the Dothraki, Qhono."

Varys and Tyrion noted a slight tightening of many of the expressions of the Northerners as Varys was mentioned, and a pronounced amount of distaste for both Tyrion and Ser Jorah. Tyrion stood his ground, not reacting at all as his family's deeds once again came to haunt him. They were a little surprised at any reaction to Ser Jorah at all, especially as the welcoming party wasn't showing reactions, only those northerners who were close enough to hear as they started the work of unloading the ships. It was apparent that the North remembered, indeed, even when those deeds were many years ago and done in another part of the kingdom besides.

"A pleasure to meet you all. Please forgive me, but did Brienne of Tarth and the Hound travel with you? I have specific instructions from Lady Winter to have them sent to Winterfell immediately upon arrival by the fastest available dogsleds, and the dogsled caravan's due to leave in less than three hours, just as soon as they finish securing the cargo," asked Lady Wynafryd.

"We're here," called out Lady Brienne, the Hound next to her, looking no more grumpy than was usual for him as they approached from a ship on the far right.

"Over here," called back Wylla, "Come for the news and then I'll take you to Karette so she can get you over to Winterfell within the sennight."

"Wylla!" whispered Lady Leona chidingly, then spoke more normally, "Queen Daenerys, if it pleases you, my daughter would like to follow our usual practice and give you all an update on the dead and a rundown of how we do things here in the North. We've found that with so many newcomers, it reduces unpleasant incidents to lay things out clearly at the start."

Daenerys wore a charming smile as she nodded, "Of course. I would be happy to learn more of my people in the North."

The only reaction to that was that Lady Wylla stepped up on a barrel so she could be seen easily, her spear held casually as she spoke, her voice pitched to carry as she recited her welcoming speech yet again, "Welcome to White Harbor! Docking fees are twenty silver per ship, but are waived entirely for any ship bringing in sufficient quantities of necessary supplies! Fresh water is available free of charge! Barrels are not available! Timber, furs, and real cold weather clothing is available for export! No food of any kind is available! Ships may trade with each other; ask for adjacent berthing! Gulltown is the next nearest port and is only open for supplies for the Vale! Every other port between Eastwatch and Maidenpool is closed and abandoned! Do not approach any other port!"

Missandei translated for Qhono and the other Dothraki leaders that had come out to join Queen Daenerys, while Tyrion watched the Manderlys present Lady Wylla with polite attention.

Varys spent the time watching the crowd around them. Most were carrying on with their work, but there were gawkers gathering, including, as he noted, pickpockets and prostitutes plying their trade. One of the latter, a stunning blonde, was paying a little too much attention to their group. He'd heard her description before - she worked for Lord Baelish, and gathered information for him as well as her more... normal... services.

The green-haired woman paused a moment to draw in a breath, then continued, "Actions on your own ships by your own crews are yours to judge! All else is for the North to judge! Reaving, raping, raiding, robbing, hoarding, poaching, stealing, stealing women, stealing men, stealing children, stealing wives, salt-wifery, slavery, bondsmanship, maiming, murdering, eating people, and all like practices are forbidden! Foraging and hunting are forbidden in each stronghold except with written permission from the Lord or Lady of that stronghold! All food and fodder is rationed! All firewood is rationed! All manure and night soil is to be collected and turned in to the farming crews! Providing three years of food is required to be eligible to draw from our food stores! If at least three years of food for every person and every beast is not provided you must make due with what you brought! At least three months of food for every person and beast exiting the city gates is required!"

Ignoring the scoffs from a few of her audience, particularly the horse-lords, she continued with her speech, "Duels of honor are allowed only with supervision by a member of the city guard! Bravo duels are allowed only between two people wearing swords who also have a purple feather of permission in their hair! Purple feathers are available for five silver from guardhouses of the city guard! Loser's feather is to be destroyed immediately! Bravo duels are to be to a point or a scratch if possible - all deaths will be looked into by the guards! Everyone is to carry a dragonglass weapon at all times! No exceptions! You carry it when you walk, when you talk, when you eat, when you bathe, when you sleep, when you..."

Wynafryd suppressed a smile as her little sister finally realized that her typical rough speech might not be the one she wanted to use in front of a foreign queen and their mother, then nodded to Lord Woolfield, who took a step towards the barrel, then stopped as Wylla shook her head and continued herself despite her brief embarrassment.

"Cold is deadly! If you get wet, you must stop, warm up, and dry off immediately! That includes sweating! You get wet and get cold, you lose fingers, toes, arms, legs, or your life! Wear layers - take them off to work, put them on to sit or stand! Move your fingers, your toes often! Check your nose, your ears! You lose feeling in anything, you get numb, you tell a Northerner immediately, or you'll lose more bits!"

Tyrion murmured quietly to Grey Worm and Missandei, "Make sure your and Qhono's men do all that. I've been to the Wall, and even then it wasn't this cold. She's quite right - if the men aren't careful, they're going to be frozen to death, or be unable to fight."

Lady Wylla had continued her speech, ignoring the dwarf's conversation, "Dragonglass spears for the Unsullied and arrows for the Dothraki archers will be issued at the Eastern end of the pier! The Night King's wight dragon has finished melting the Wall at Eastwatch! Wargs report his army is marching South slowly as a large body! White Walkers have spread out ahead of the main body, moving faster and raising whatever dead they can find! Beware wight animals - wight bears, deer, and elk have been spotted! Wights have unnatural bright blue eyes! They charge! They attack at the sprint, they never stop, they have no fear! Fire to the flesh kills wights! White Walkers put fire out by their presence! Dragonglass kills White Walkers and wights alike! Dragonglass is brittle! Treat it gently or it shatters and you die!"

Qhono muttered, "If the Khaleesi had not seen, I would not have believed."

Wylla gestured, and the ironwood gate behind them opened, a double line of soldiers walking backwards, spears and shields both out. Grey Worm's hand tensed on his spear as they came closer, backs to the Queen's party, until they parted, revealing two sets of ropes and chains, each held by four other troops, securing the two wights held between the four troops holding them in place and dragging them along.

Varys took a step back as he beheld the unnatural creatures; one had no arms and only half its ribcage left, while the other had one arm and no legs at all, the bones of the pelvis clearly visible and half shattered. Both were clearly mindlessly trying to attack the living despite their bondage.

As they were revealed, the Hound drew his dragonglass axe at the same time as Jon drew Longclaw, an action taken without thought after having faced the dead already.

"Wights. You have wights," said Jon, stunned, "How did you get them?"

Lady Wylla and Lord Woolfield exchanged glances, and she hopped down off the barrel, striding towards the wight without legs, her spear now held in a ready posture, her hands spread wide on the shaft with the point held out in front towards the wight, pointing at the shattered hips.

"Lady Winter left orders for all aid to be provided to Alleras the Sphinx, an acolyte of the Citadel who came up with a way of harpooning the wights along the shoreline with naval scorpions. It smashes most of them up pretty badly, but if they don't fall apart, the ships reel them aboard like whalers do. Normal weapons can smash wight bones, and if they fall apart, they're a lot less dangerous, but the disembodied limbs still attack!"

As Jon had done in the Dragonpit, one Manderly soldier held a wight's disembodied forearm and hand by the elbow joint, showing that the hand was still moving and grasping. Lord Woolfield took up the lesson, his voice deep and resonant as Lady Wylla's spear pointed out the relevant parts of the wight while he spoke.

"Wights will run right up on your weapons. The bones will shatter dragonglass if you hit them too hard, and all weapons can get stuck in the fleshy parts just as they can in a man. Some wights are wearing armor, mostly bronze armor from the First Men. We'll see more with leather, iron and steel armor from the dead they're raising now, but even unarmored wights are often wearing thick Free Folk or Northern furs. You need to hit the flesh with dragonglass just hard enough to scratch them. Any harder is a waste, and less and they kill you," said the White Harbor military commander.

Lady Leona added, "We have Maesters working on other wights to learn more about them. You're all free to examine the wights, but please don't kill them. We have a limited supply, and we can't afford to waste them."

"No, I guess not," muttered Jon as Daenerys wrapped an arm around him comfortingly.

Lady Leona smiled, gesturing to New Castle, "If you'd like, my daughter will see Brienne and the Hound on their way while we enjoy a feast. We don't have extra food, but I'm sure my cooks can provide something unusually tasty for you and your party, Queen Daenerys. The horse caravan should return in a week, so we should be able to get you and your men to Winterfell in a month or so."

Lord Tyrion narrowed his eyes for a moment, then asked, "I thought I heard that the Hound would be at Winterfell in a week?"

"Lady Winter asked the ice-river clan to make sure they had space - they're only two people, after all. I'm afraid the urgent supplies we have for Winterfell will nearly fill up every available dogsled, and you've brought thousands of troops. The horse caravans can accommodate much larger loads, and are still much faster than trying to get through the snows on foot. With more than a few people, that's the best that can be done, I'm afraid - there aren't enough ice-river clan to go around."

"Jon?" asked Daenerys.

"Mance didn't have any ice-river clans in his inner circle. I know some of the Free Folk clans had dogs, but that's all I know," said Jon, sheathing Longclaw but keeping a hand on the hilt as he watched the wights carefully, his eyes not straying from them.

Tyrion looked around the bustling city, one with everyone from children to oldsters armed with weapons against the dead, weapons which worked just as well against the living, such as Lannisters and Targaryens alike, and turned to Jorah, "Ser Jorah, in your professional opinion, is our Queen safer if she waits here and then travels through the North on horseback with the caravan, or if she travels quickly, now, as soon as she's arrived?"

"The Khaleesi is much safer if she travels now, and quickly," answered Ser Jorah immediately, turning to Daenerys, "Khaleesi, you'll see the North this way, as you wished, and still arrive at Winterfell in a quarter the time. I urge you to consider traveling ahead with a few of us. There are White Walkers scouting ahead of the Night King; if you're to travel, you should do so before it becomes even more dangerous."

Daenerys glanced over across the harbor; she could see Drogon and Rhaegal had landed and were eating together, then turned back to Jon, "Jon, you want to see Arya and Bran again too, don't you?"

"I do. My place is with you, now," he replied, causing her to smile.

"Very well; we will travel with Brienne of Tarth and the Hound," announced Daenerys.

Qhono strode forward, arakh in hand, pointing at the closest wight, "Sword not kill?"

Missandei spoke to him for a minute in Dorthraki, then turned to Daenerys, "Your bloodrider Qhono would like permission to test his sword on this product of witchcraft, to see if it truly cannot be killed."

Wynafryd spread her hand open in a subdued gesture to her sister even as Wylla had started to respond, subsiding at the warning.

"Go ahead, but don't damage it. I'm going to agree with Jon's sisters; he is not to have to go beyond the Wall to fetch a replacement if you break this one," replied Daenerys.

"Would you like the wight to be able to move a few feet?" asked the green-haired woman.

After Missandei translated, Wylla stepped back, commanding her troops, "Let the Dothraki and the Unsullied leaders take one stab each at the one with legs! When they approach, give the wight four feet of slack, and take it up as soon as the wight's hit! As you're ready, Qhono, Grey Worm, but one at a time, a single stab only into the flesh - no slashes, no twisting. Heart, gut, whatever you like as long as it's covered in flesh and you don't damage the spine - the Maesters haven't tested that yet."

Qhono went first, arakh in hand as he approached the armless wight, snarling to match it as the soldiers on the ropes and chains took one long step closer to the wight and it charged at him instantly. The bloodrider stepped to the side quickly, his arakh swinging in a graceful curve, embedding itself point-first in the wight's gut with the man's full strength behind it. The wight opened its mouth, lunging for his hand, the closest living flesh, with its teeth as the soldiers around it stepped back, the rope around its neck keeping it away from him as he yanked his arakh back unsuccessfully once before it came free of the dead flesh.

"Lord Woolfield?" asked Wylla.

"The weapon's too short; the wight would have bitten into his wrist before he could pull it out. The other wights would have killed him even without that, with his weapon stuck for that long, and if it were dragonglass, it would have broken off entirely," reported Lord Woolfield immediately.

Qhono scowled fiercely as he heard Missandei's translation, then returned to the Queen's side, cleaning his arakh off with a scrap of cloth.

Grey Worm took up his shield and leveled his spear next, approaching more carefully than the Dothraki had, stabbing forward as soon as the soldiers stepped in to give the wight a few feet of room to move, the long spearhead jabbing into the wight's heart through the rotted cloth covered it and pulling back again immediately as wight tried to charge at him, ropes and chains pulling taut once again.

Grey Worm looked to Lord Woolfield, asking briefly, "And that?"

"Much too deep; with a dragonglass head you'd have lost several inches of the tip at least half of the time. The Maesters have tested the dragonglass on pigs quite extensively - even the best pieces are quite brittle, and it's not always the part inside the body that breaks," replied Lord Woolfield directly.

"This didn't break," said the Hound in a growl, hefting his dragonglass axe.

"Then that's one of the most flawless pieces of dragonglass I've ever seen, Ser Clegane, and it's enormous - you wouldn't have noticed if pieces were flaking off every hit. Normal pieces are full of flaws, especially the Dragonstone dragonglass, and can't be used in that size. That's also enough dragonglass for dozens of small spearheads or hundreds of arrows and flakes for attaching to wood to make simpler weapons," replied Lord Woolfield politely.

"Not a Ser," grunted the Hound.

"If there's nothing else, let's go see how many extra people and their supplies Karette can add to the caravan to Winterfell," said Lady Wynafryd, "Remember, the Free Folk are our very valuable allies of their own free will, but never knees and owe no loyalty to anyone south of the Wall. Queen Daenerys, who will be in charge of your forces while you're away? We've allocated a campsite on the second defensive ring for your forces just outward of House Locke's camp, that's about six hundred yards to the east of the main gates. We'll move your food supplies there..."

An hour and a half later, the Manderlys had, at Tyrion's insistence, left the small group that would be joining the dogsled caravan to their own devices to rest for an hour before the time of departure. Varys and Ser Davos had gone off on their own, the one to hear whispered birdsong, the other to visit a tavern, both promising to be back on time. Tyrion was sitting with Jon and their Queen, watching the working very, very carefully loading barrels wrapped in furs onto large sleds and tying them down far more than even ships would need to.

 

Brienne and the Hound were off as well; the Lady Wylla had prevailed upon them to demonstrate their skills and for the Hound to talk of the army of the dead. Grey Worm and Missandei had borrowed a room to spend some time together after helping Qhono and quite a few of the senior Dothraki make themselves clear to a member of the town guard, who had taken the horse-lords to a guardhouse so they could buy their purple feathers and have duels.

"Lord Snow, do you know what kind of cargo it is that deserves such treatment? They seem cautious almost to the point of being afraid of whatever it is," asked Tyrion.

Jon sighed, yet another question he had no answer to pressing him past the limits of his patience, "No, Tyrion, I don't know. I don't know what's in the barrels. I don't know about the dogsleds. I don't know about the scorpions, or the defensive rings, or the rationing, or the drums, or the metallic sounding drums, or the bravo duels, or anything else. I know nothing! Just like Ygritte told me..."

Daenerys giggled at the beginning of Jon's exasperated tirade, and settled into leaning against him, the ear-flap of her new hat resting on his shoulder, "You know nothing, Jon Snow. I'm here for you now, Jon, you don't have to be sad anymore."

Jon grunted, staring off absently into the activity, only startling a little to another single horn call echoing over the city as they had been repeatedly since they'd arrived.

Daenerys narrowed her eyes, "Jon?"

"If you're going to be like that, you can be like that by yourself. I'm going to go find some better company," she said at his lack of response, huffing as she stood and stalked towards a set of workers who were leaning against a wall, drinking from bowls that had been filled from a kettle set next to a low fire over which a second kettle hung, clear on the other side of the clearing from the barrels they'd been loading. Tyrion watched his Queen's retreating back and straight posture after she'd slipped once on the packed snow, back ramrod straight even as she took shorter steps, and decided to stay where he was.

Behind her, a younger Free Folk girl of perhaps three and ten with a pinched face drove an empty sled with fourteen dogs up, dipping a stack of large bowls into each kettle one at a time, apparently mixing the contents before placing them before the dogs. One of the old men doing the loading smacked a couple of boys on the back of the head as they stared at the Queen or the Free Folk girl, or both, chiding him sternly, "Drink, don't stare, boys. We've got another three loads to go."

Daenerys waited for a moment, but after that, nobody was actually paying her any attention. Most of the younger ones were in their early teens, a mix of boys and girls, and the others were in their late fifties or more, though still strong. The children were talking among themselves, apparently trying to goad a boy of perhaps four and ten into approaching the girl with the dogsled, while the elders were sitting on mounds of snow or leaning against walls, resting.

After an awkward moment, an old man asked Daenerys gruffly, "You here for water, or you just gawking, m'lady?"

"Water," answered the Dragon Queen reflexively. She was too surprised to react any other way; none of these people knew who she was. None of them had been told, these were just people moving goods from here to Winterfell, and not even from her own ships - the food and dragonglass on her ships which had docked already were simply being counted and piled up near the docks.

"The hot pot's simmering, the other's getting pretty cold. Take what you want."

Bemused, she took up a rough wooden bowl, collecting a large scoop of water from the hot kettle and taking a long, deep drink before scooping another bowlful out. She hadn't felt quite like this except when she was with the Dothraki, before she she ate from fine china prepared by servants, making failed plans around tables while trying to rule people who never understood that she wanted to leave the world better than she found it.

"Are you glad that Cersei Lannister's days are numbered, and that the Iron Throne will be reclaimed by its rightful ruler?" asked Daenerys conversationally, taking another drink, feeling herself warming up from the inside out. The garments Jon's sister had provided had helped, but this... this was what she'd needed. She could warm up and get a good feel for how her Northern subjects felt at the same time.

The man shrugged, seemingly uninterested, while an older woman replied disparagingly, "Southron concerns are none of ours."

"It's not your concern who your ruler is?" asked Daenerys.

The old woman laughed harshly, her voice hoarse, then said, "Them kings and queens ain't here. King Robert came up to Winterfell, got Lord Stark and his girls, went right back South. Before that, nothin'. They don't bother us, and we don't bother them. The Manderlys, they's the rulers here - that's their castle, right there. The Starks, they's come here sometimes - we saw King Snow, and Lady Winter, and Lord Stark, and the Lord Stark before him, but they's come and go, too. This is White Harbor, and the Manderlys, they's the rulers who live with us, who make sure there's food and fire in the winter, who keep the peace. Or as much peace as we gots with half the North in here with us! Gods, the sounds keep going all damn night long, every damn night - it used to be quiet at night, but no, not anymore. What I wouldn't give for a good night's sleep."

"You haven't had a good night's sleep in twenty years, Glenda!" called another old woman, "On account you're all up in everyone's business!"

"I'm a concerned citizen!"

"Is the Iron Throne really made of swords?" asked a young boy.

"Is it rusty?" asked another boy.

"Does it cut you when you sit on it?" asked a girl, resting with the other dock workers.

"Why would you make a chair out of swords? Were they bad swords?" asked a girl of seven, watching the Free Folk girl putting the stack of bowls she'd used to water her dogs back.

"Because Southrons are too fancy and suchlike to use normal chairs," said another old man, answering the youngsters, "They want a bunch of crap to show off with. Can't eat it in the winter when your family's starvin'. Can't burn it in the winter when your family's freezin'. Useless fucking thing."

Daenerys drank some more as the conversation moved on without her, watching the dogsled moving smoothly off without a word from the girl driving it, replaced by another driven by a hideously ugly middle-aged woman, her face covered in warts. Neither of the Free Folk had paid the slightest bit of attention to any of the people or the conversation. Jon had mentioned there were seven different Free Folk languages, so perhaps she didn't understand the words. Setting her bowl down where the other used ones were, she started crossing back to Jon as she heard one last exchange from the Northerners behind her.

"All right, everyone up, break's over, let's go! Wildfire won't load itself! Miels, that means you too, you lazy ass!"

"At least this stuff doesn't leak like that garbage from Lys. Took fuckin' forever to clean that mess up."

************************

Chapter Text

Sansa and Arya strode through the castle easily with guards, Samwell and his family, and other Maesters behind, quickening their pace to pass a group of men and women with wheelbarrows who were waiting to carry half-finished bunk-beds up the stairs to be assembled in the rooms designated for housing the people of the North.

"You've got almost the final counts now, with everyone who isn't going hunting being recalled from the watchtowers with their supplies. How many are going to be left in Winter Town, and will they be able to keep it running?" asked Arya as they made their way towards the main gates to greet their next visitor and the cargo they'd brought with them. She was really quite looking forward to seeing Sansa's reaction to this particular visitor.

The gaggle of Maesters behind them, of course, was interested only in the cargo. They were days behind on the most important research of the millennia, and were eager to catch up to their brethren in White Harbor and Gulltown. That the weather was worsening, causing the caravan to be delayed, hadn't helped any.

"You're leaving the watchtowers empty?" asked Samwell Tarly.

"Not quite, Sam. Northerners and Free Folk have had the tradition of elders, cripples, and anyone who is a drain on the food supply in winter 'going hunting' one last time, heading out to seek their deaths so that the food left behind lasts longer, that their family may live. It comes from the same traditions as guest rights, the sacred bond between host and guest that allows both to live out a night, a blizzard, or even an entire winter together, even were they in the midst of a blood feud with each other," replied Arya.

"Oooh. So, the people left on the watchtowers..."

"Volunteered to give their lives for their people, yes, Sam. They'll be left enough food to last until a week or so after we expect the army of the dead to reach them, just in case. I won't allow them to spend their last days hungry this early in winter," said Sansa quietly as they walked.

This was the task she'd dreaded most as a child, that she hadn't understood then. In the North, when winter came, people died, of starvation, of cold, of disease. Often enough, people had the food they started the winter with, supplemented meagerly by what they could hunt or gather from under and atop the snows.

If all the food was gathered together, and feed to everyone equally, everyone would starve equally, and the North would return to the beasts, so choices had to be made; there was no happy ending for all. Yet now, as the Lady of Winterfell, while she did not enjoy the task, she did it as best she could, reaching out to their new allies for aid, yet knowing that in the Second Long Night, everyone may be facing the same hard decisions the North was used to. Foreign aid couldn't be depended on in future years; without enough sunlight, there wouldn't be enough growing season to feed everyone. She'd asked the Maesters to look into that, too... but a few weeks would make no difference to the long term food supply, while they would make all the difference against the army of the dead, with the Night King past the wall already.

"Could I have a copy of their names, please? I'd like to make sure they're added to the histories. One of the problems we've had is the most of the records of the first Long Night were thought to be fables, or lost. Or both. If future generations have to deal with this again, we should make sure they have as much information as possible, and that it's obviously not a fable or a story of snarks and grumkins, but history that truly happened, and a warning that it can happen again," replied Sam, seriously. He'd spent a lot of time on the trip North thinking about what he'd found, and hadn't found, and about how the Archmaesters had dismissed his warning, Jon's warning. Even if they won, there was no guarantee they'd end the threat forever; their forefathers hadn't, after all, and they'd known much more about the enemy.

"I'll have some of the literate pages sent out to record the names of those who stay when they pick up the rest of the people and supplies. They'll also be helpful offloading the tar - we had a request from one of the watchtowers for enough tar to cover the ground inside the trench, so we're going to supply that much to all of them, now that we've had another shipment come in," answered Arya. She didn't need to say that the intent of the watchtower crew who'd asked for it was to take as many wights with them as possible, while also ensuring their own bodies didn't get desecrated by a White Walker as well.

"To answer your original question, Arya, between far too many people being too stubborn to come in before and finding space for the foreign supplies, we're going to have quite a population left in Winter Town and the camps. We also still need space in the castle to do work in case Winter Town is lost, you know, so we can't pack it as full as we could if we didn't need to keep making arrows and so on. Babes, children, pregnant women, and those with necessary skills for the war and the winter are being brought into Winterfell first. I know the town wall isn't as tall as ours, so we'll have to depend on your fieldworks and the fighters," replied Sansa tiredly.

"The stonemasons finished with the crennelations awhile ago. Those who aren't shoring up siege engine positions or the gatehouses and gates have joined those working on machicolations and towers now. We've got a moat eighteen feet deep around the wall now - that's where a lot of the rock the masons are using came from, that's why it's shallower than the next two rings. I could take fifteen thousand and put them to digging for two or three days, particularly around winter town - we can get maybe another foot overall and top up the stone stockpile at the same time. Maybe more if the Ibbenese share some of their tricks - they're said to use wildfire and ice to fracture rock and pick out the pieces. Or I could put them to felling trees, and we'd be able to top up on raw wood before it becomes too dangerous to go out past the third or fourth ring without a large guard, and only for a short time."

"Your people will be happy to get back to training after two or three days excavating rock or felling trees, won't they?" asked Sansa as she gave her sister a small grin. That, she thought, was something Arya might even have learned from her. It wasn't something she'd said Tywin had done, and it wasn't something Father or Robb had done, but when Sansa asked for things to be done, she tried to make sure there were duties that were relatively pleasant required after the less pleasant duties.

"Why? Do you have a few Lord and Ladies you'd like to send out to wield picks and shovels for a day or three," asked Arya with a teasing smirk, "Another foot of moat isn't going to make a real difference, and the Ibbenese way would use up some of our limited wildfire and not provide stone blocks. The trees are more useful, and more important. Furniture, arrows, bolts, spears, firewood, towers, hoarding repairs... we can put up some more towers on the Winter Town walls, build a few taller building in the middle and clear out some of the buildings next to the walls."

Sansa made the sign for yes as she answered, "Of course not, though I think Lord Glover might find manual labor far more fun than his next council meeting with his bannermen. All right, wood it is - your decision. I'll get Winter Town ready for more changes. You've got another pair of Free Folk marriage duels, by the way. One willing with an outraged father, and one not willing at all."

Sansa hated the Free Folk custom of stealing wives. She didn't understand why the Free Folk women almost entirely actively approved of it, though she suspected it was due to strength being so necessary beyond the Wall. Regardless, she wouldn't stand for it on her watch, but a suitable substitute had to be found, one which let a woman's family, or champions, defend her, and one which let the suitor show off his strength and cunning.

The formally announced marriage challenges were that way; most were handled internal to the Free Folk, but when they 'raided' the Northerners and those of the Vale, she and Arya and the other leaders often had to get involved. Sansa suppressed a chuckle at the memory of the challenge for Chella's hand in marriage; the Vale tribeswoman had soundly trounced the man in single combat, then dragged him off to bed after anyway... and kicked him out the next morning.

"Raped?" asked Arya coldly.

"No. He's followed the rules and announced his intentions, not actually stolen her, nor touched her. I think he's hoping a show of strength will change her mind. It won't work, not with her, but... he's a Thenn, and he's made his intentions public, so his pride is on the line, too," said Sansa. The Thenn had set his eye on the very lovely daughter of an architect. In normal times, of course, he would have stolen her away in the night.

Here and now, in the North and the Vale, she'd put a stop to that months ago. No women would be stolen away while she could prevent it, and she could very certainly do so. To stop it from happening in the first place, rather than punish the guilty after it was too late, she'd spoken with Tormund after they'd retaken Winterfell. The theft of a woman itself wasn't important to the Free Folk, not really, but the fighting, that was very important on both sides. The family to fight for her, to always maintain watchfulness, and the... fiance... to show his intended and her family that he was willing to risk his life for her were he not a great fighter, and to show that he was a great fighter if that was the case, able to protect her and sire strong children, children who had a chance of surviving beyond the wall.

Arya, as Justice in the North, had taken up the role of champion when necessary, on behalf of the women who weren't able to fight on their own, and who didn't have family willing and capable of doing so for them. Just like the stealing, these duels were only to the death in the rarest of cases - the purpose was to show intent, to show capability, and to show off, not to remove more of the scarce population.

"So, one duel on behalf of the young couple against her father, and another to knock a Thenn unconscious. And in both I have to make them look good," said Arya, putting an expression of exasperation on her face as she made the sign for lie, "I should have stayed with Qarro or just gone to the fighting pits in Meereen! At least there's a purse for the winner!"

As they passed into the daylight, Sansa hip-checked her smaller sister, "You know you love it. The father's not even that bad - Chylla said he was barely passable with a staff, so you can have some fun with that. The Thenn likes poleaxes. Please try not to put him down too quickly; his uncle's the Magnar of the Thenn, and needs to have pride in his nephew's strength... if not in his judgment. The Magnar's proud, but he and his people are taking to living here very well, and I'd like to avoid any insult. The boy is following all the customs - he even brought her a present before announcing his intentions."

"What was it?" asked Arya, curious. The Thenns were different than most of the rest of the Free Folk, both more civilized and more brutal, in their own ways. She got along very well with most of the clans of the Free Folk, at least after having fought several of them, and having Meras, Skamund and some of the others of the ice-river clans vouch for her. Beating Tormund didn't hurt, either, of course.

"He'd asked for a writ to go hunting, and once I granted it, he bought a garron and went off to the northeast. He came back with three brace of rabbits, two small deer, and a bear all neatly skinned and butchered on a sled made of frozen deer meat pulled behind the horse, if you can believe it."

"I can believe it - Meras showed me how to make meat sleds on the way back from Moat Cailin, and the Thenns are from even farther north and away from rivers, so they must be great gatherers and hunters to survive. That's actually a very impressive marriage offering, you know, and possibly three less animal wights for us to face to boot. She's sure she doesn't want him?"

"Quite sure. Meera and Kitty talked to them both after I did, and they agree as well. Her father agrees with her, too, so there's no question of the answer, unlike the other couple. That one's father is outraged over his daughter actually wanting a husband of the Free Folk, and willing to take the beating you give him to show his daughter how strongly he feels. She's nine and ten years, a widow from the Boltons, and wants a husband who can and will fight anyone and anything for her, not be taken meekly like her prior husband, who her father chose for her, was," said Sansa.

Sometimes Sansa wished her own father had fought when she claimed to want to be Joffrey's Queen and have his babies - surely he'd seen that she was but a child, with childish songs in her head... but who would he have fought, and what would have been the result? She looked down at her sister again, seeing a faint shadow of a tell Arya had had as a child, and spoke softly.

"Just what mischief are you hatching, Arya? Tell me now and tell me true, and perhaps I won't have your head for treason against sound minds everywhere."

Arya looked up earnestly, her eyes wide and innocent, "I'm not hatching anything! We're just here to meet the Sphinx! Well... you know, not an actual Sphinx Sphinx. The Sphinx isn't actually a magical beast. Not like Bran or me!"

"He's quite a soft-spoken young man, Sansa," interjected Samwell earnestly, "You'll like him."

They were both laughing as they entered the outer bailey, coming to stand by Sam and Gilly while the drawbridge was being lowered, the outer and inner gates swinging open ponderously as both new portcullises were winched up, massive counterweights lowering to allow the small party in and the Maesters out, crossing on the drawbridge with the sound of hearty greetings from the learned men.

"Congratulations, Acolyte Alleras! You have done the Citadel very proud indeed, even if the Archmaesters aren't willing to acknowledge well documented reality. Be a good boy and tell us where they are?"

Alleras handed over a notebook and turned to point, "Three rings out, two radial divisions to the east. I bought back one of the very best wights, and several partial wights. Here's my notes on the behavior of the wights, and on the results of the experiments conducted by the Maesters at White Harbor, as well as those I conducted aboard ship and on the trip here."

"Wonderful, wonderful! This is a great day for science - we will learn more about the higher mysteries than any Maester before us, I have little doubt, and in large part because of your ingenuity and quick thinking! Come find us when Lady Stark is done with you - we practical Maesters value the knowledge gained from real field experience, not like those academics at the Citadel, and you've observed wights in their natural habitat!"

"Thank you, Maester. If you'll excuse me, I see I am keeping Ladies waiting," said Alleras in a clear tenor.

"The small one, with all the weapons; that's Lady Winter. Never call her Lady in any other capacity, though - she doesn't like it. A killer, that one, and the leader of all the armies gathering in the North and the Vale - she misses nothing, young man. Remember!" said Maester Wolkan quietly, glancing back at the young killer briefly. Still as a block of ice once again, that one was.

Alleras raised a hand to the Maesters and replied, "I know she misses nothing very well indeed, Maester, thank you - I had the good fortune to train with her at White Harbor, and she was kind enough to order any assistance I needed to capture the wights, so we must credit her as well. If you'll excuse me..."

"Of course, of course."

Sansa watched the young man approach with a group of others now that the Maesters were on their way. The others, a group of Dornish carrying bows and other dragonglass-tipped weapons in addition to good steel, had all waited while Alleras spoke with the Maesters, then when the acolyte moved, they did as well. Very interesting, that; even Grand Maester Pycelle hadn't had a single guard or assistant, much less a gaggle of them. Beside her, Arya poured a cup of whatever drink was in the odd bottle she'd doubtless bought from one of the foreign traders, into the cup.

Sansa didn't let herself respond, but as the acolyte approached, she noticed more about him - his skin was darker than the other Dornish here or the ones she remembering seeing in King's Landing, the ones who came with Prince Oberyn for Margaery's wedding. He had a sailor's walk, and carried a bow, longer than Arya's new one and of the same material - goldenheart, very rare and valuable, the same wood Loras's lance had been made of. His hair had a prominent widow's peak, which made her think as she looked down into his eyes, eyes very like another set she'd seen years before. She offered the acolyte her platter, gave the sign for you and the new sign for jape to Arya, her voice pitched to carry without seeming to, a trick she'd learned for Lord Baelish.

"Welcome to Winterfell, Alleras the Sphinx. You've done the North, the Vale, the Free Folk, and all the living a great service by not only capturing the wights, but also by working out the means by which it can be done and teaching it to others. You will be welcome to stay in Winterfell as long as you like, and your food will come from our stores or purse. Please, have bread and salt, and be our guest."

Sansa watched the Sphinx eat and drink, now fairly sure, but not yet certain, that she was who she thought she was. Arya, of course, hadn't said anything; probably some courtesy of the Faceless Men about not revealing others who were pretending to be someone else. Suppressing her annoyance, she realized she'd have to rework her plans on where the Sphinx was to be housed and have some of the supplies cleared from another pair of chambers, enough to make space for one person and clear up a certain patch of wall her sister had shown her.

Well, at least she'd get to sew another style of nice dress; she could easily see how to adapt Obern's outfit to work on Sarella's frame, though she'd need to see her inside to be able to fit it to her figure; like all the Southrons and the foreign guests from anywhere except Lorath, Ib, and Braavos, she was bundled up in layers so thick little could be seen of her at all. Smiling internally, she planned just how she'd reveal her knowledge to Alleras, since she was quite sure the acolyte hadn't notice her noticing.

Arya clapped Alleras on the shoulder, then offered the small wooden cup, very like the one Alleras had used in White Harbor, "Good work, Sphinx! You got the wights, and without having to get stranded in the middle of the army of the Night King on foot, too."

"Thank you, Lady Winter. Who would be foolish enough to go after wights on foot? I watched them for hours, and they never stopped, not once. Even if they're slow on the march, we did a time trial on the most intact wight in White Harbor, and they're pretty quick on the run, as fast as a sprinting man of the same build," answered Alleras, taking a small sip from the cup so as to be polite, then a much longer drink as she tasted her preferred Summer Isles wine. Not quite her favorite vintage, not even from the same island, but a taste of her mother's homeland nonetheless, and quite close to what she'd been carrying when Arya had taken her as a cup-bearer.

"Good to see you again, Alleras," greeted Korb, while Connas gave the Sphinx a manly shoulder clap and a wink, "You saw the army of the dead? The real one? Shot some of them with that greatbow of yours?"

"I did, and brought some back! The most intact for study, and the rest to send out to the rulers of the world and the Citadel. Between traveling north and south, we observed more than seven and thirty thousand wights, six and forty wight giants, and three and thirty wight mammoths, without being able to see either the end or the beginning of the column, nor anything not visible through a far-eye from a ship along the coast. We saw zero white walkers and zero dragons, so simple deduction tells us that there are more forces that we didn't see, in unknown quantity," reported Alleras.

"You know Samwell Tarly and his family, of course," said Arya, handing the wine to another guard before bringing Alleras over to Sam and Gilly , "my brother's adopted him, so they're our family now, too. Sam came back to help my brother Jon, to fight the army of the dead."

"Alleras! Arya said you'd come North. Did the Archmaesters send you? Are they mad at me for leaving?" asked Samwell.

"No, I came on my own. You know me - I like seeing with my own eyes. I believe they're rather more angry about the books you stole, Samwell," said Alleras, leaning over little Sam, reaching out with a slim, gloved hand to tickle under his chin as he cooed up at the Sphinx, "Hello there, little Sam, you've gotten bigger, haven't you? Yes you have! You're lucky to have Gilly and Samwell as your mommy and daddy!"

"It's good to see you again, Alleras," said Gilly kindly, "Did you have a good trip? Did you bring back any more books I can read? Look, little Sam's happy to see you!"

Alleras smiled and played with little Sam for a moment. The babe had his face bare to the cold, and was no more red-cheeked than he had been at the Citadel. Gilly was wearing no more than Arya or Lady Stark, while their guards were wearing similar outfits or a single additional thin layer. Samwell, however, was bundled up in layer after layer of thick black cloth. Interestingly, Samwell and especially Gilly were wearing a much higher quality of clothing than they had before, easily the equal of Arya's or Lady Stark's.

Standing again, the archer answered Gilly, "I did, very much so. A scare or two with the wights, a few with icebergs - huge chunks of ice floating, mostly underwater, with just the tip showing! One with a sandbar we almost didn't see until it was too late. Other than that, it was very educational! I got to loose the scorpion, which was fun. Might want to try that again. There's just something to shooting a shaft that big, eh Sam?"

"I've never used one, but Lady Mormont seems to enjoy them," replied Sam, "Will you be staying long? Gilly and I could use some help with the Maesters - you know how the older Maesters get. They need to be kept on track. Maester Wolkan, the Winterfell Maester, he tries, he does, but he's, well... he's a little timid. Maester Russal does a lot better - he's the Bear Island Maester. Those two are the ones who took the measurements that proved that the Long Night is here!"

"All right, little Maesters, enough. If I let you two get started you'll be at it all day, so I'm stepping in now. I would like to know the answer to Sam's question, though - will you be staying long?" asked Arya, smirking and giving Gilly a wink, Sansa coming up to stand with them after the last of Winterfell's new guests had been given bread and salt, spear casually in hand, the elder sister standing so she could keep an eye on the Dornish guards, though she was clearly listening to the Sphinx's answer.

"If you're sure it won't be any trouble, then I'd like to stay. I'm a good archer..."

"A master archer," interrupted Arya.

"... and I'd like to help as best I can, Lady Winter, Lady Stark, and learn what I can while I'm here, if you'll have me," said Alleras, "There's so much new knowledge here, a priceless opportunity to discover, or perhaps re-discover, knowledge known by no-one else in all the world."

"This is the North, Alleras. When we say we'll do a thing, we do it, as Tormund Giants bane once told my brother, so when we say you are welcome, you are. You know Arya already, so she can do her duty as a hostess for once and show you around - you'll want to meet Lady Meera, of course, who is to be our good sister soon - we just announced her engagement to my brother Bran. You can go up the... rigging, I believe it's called, on the tall tower there and see Lady Mormont, if you're interested in the scorpions and ballista. The Maesters are up there often enough. I'm sure she'll be interested in how you catch wights with scorpions," said Sansa, nudging Arya forward gently, but obviously. Arya clearly both liked and respected the master archer, and Sansa had some work to do shifting rooms around and making sure everything was in order.

"Hey! I did my duty as a hostess - I served the wine, remember?" retorted Arya, looking over to wait for a moment when the rest of the Dornish visitors were distracted, "And showed the Sphinx the most exciting entertainments there was in White Harbor, besides! Well, the best before Alleras here upstaged me with actual wights, the cheater. Not fair, Alleras, not fair. Come on, race you to the Scorpion Bear's lair!"

With that, Arya spun and ran for the tallest tower, not at her full speed, but quick enough to press Alleras to her utmost, and make sure they were both beyond a corner before the Dornish guards realized they were in motion. Arya led the other girl up several flights of stairs, through a small window, across the top of the hoardings and roofs, slowing down some when she heard Alleras start to slip, speeding up again after, and then with a flying leap grabbed onto the rigging along the side of the tallest tower, scrambling up twenty feet and then waiting.

A moment later when Alleras joined her, Arya murmured, "One of your so-called guards is very much your enemy, you know. Deal with it quietly before I can offer your little sisters the opportunity to pay for just vengeance."

"Tiilyan, I know," whispered Alleras.

Arya started climbing up the ropes again, calling out, "Guest coming, Lyanna! That archer with the big bow I told you about! Now you get to show her yours is bigger!"

************************

Daenerys and Jon held onto the ropes stretching across the big sled, their backs to barrels and piles of supplies it was carrying as the sled raced through the snow-covered town street towards the opening inner gates, large pulleys lifting cold rolled steel bars four inches in diameter out from the slots they sat in to bar the door as the right-hand ironwood gate ponderously opened in time for the dogsleds to dart through in single file. The left-hand gate was invisible, enormous blocks of ice stacked both in front and behind, formed into a solid mass with hot water, while above them hundreds of men and women with bows and crossbows manned the walls, the stone machicolations on the walls and the wooden hoardings on the towers.

Once through the inner and outer gates, they crossed over a drawbridge over the moat adjacent to the castle walls, black dragonglass visible atop wooden spikes protruding from the inky black bottom of a twenty five foot deep, twenty foot wide moat, a much smaller trench full of a shiny black substance immediately beyond it.

The area just in front of the main gate was clear, other moats perpendicular to the walls on both sides a hundred yards to the left and right of the doors receding into the distance, heading directly away from White Harbor, camps on the other side of those divisions stretching as far as could be seen, while ahead of them a group of guards had slid a long wooden bridge out over the even wider moat of the inner defensive ring, two much narrower, tar-filled trenches on each side.

Reaching above the camps, but not as high as the walls stood wooden towers with a floor for archers, and above that a floor for a scorpion, just as the big towers inside and on the wall had the same setup, but usually with the much larger ballista. Above each was a canvas tarp stretched tight on a wooden frame - when one of the crews swiveled a siege engine, they could see the tarp moved with it, protecting the mechanisms from snow and sleet. They'd passed trebuchets deeper inside the city, visible in glimpses as they passed, through side streets or atop lower roofs, too, so they knew there were more engines than could be seen.

Once they'd passed the bridge, they could see Targaryen banners flying on a large patch of ground in the seventy five yards between the first and second defensive rings, empty except for two enormous piles of firewood in the second ring, a small pyramid of barrels, and two long low 'walls' of stacked logs just inside the trenches running by the moats, dragonglass-tipped spears pointing both out and up, reaching twelve feet forward of the wall, and eight to ten feet up into the air. Past that bridge three more moat rings awaited them at fifty yard intervals, the ground between littered with short hedgehogs of wood covered in pitch, spears with sparkling dragonglass shards planted all over sticking out in every direction, short, thick walls of gleaming ice with yet more spears dividing them further.

"There, Dany, by your banners. Lady Manderly's got wood and water for your army, to keep them warm. They're in good hands; relax. They'll be along as soon as the caravan gets back," said Jon, Dany's head bouncing on his shoulder as the sled bounced over a piece of ice-covered stone just under the snow.

"I wanted to arrive with my army, to show that I'm here to save the North, Jon. I didn't want to arrive like a piece of cargo!"

"I know, I know," he said, squeezing her tight, "You're still going to arrive with two dragons! We haven't seen dragons before, and we know they can burn the dead. And the weather's turned, too. It's not just the cold, but the snow under us now is probably twelve feet deep, maybe twenty, and it'll be higher in drifts. Southron armies just aren't made for the North; your men wouldn't be able to march through it, even if they could find their way. Garron are better suited to winter than other horses, and with White Walkers on the move, it's better to be able to move fast."

"I'm not... oh. Not foreign armies, but Southron armies?" asked the silver-haired woman.

"Southron armies, yes. The North is different - bigger than the other six kingdoms put together, and rougher, even in summer. We get snow in the summer, you know - it melts after a few days or a few weeks, but it's common enough. Southrons don't understand now - you don't see that south of the Neck. Stannis came North, you know, beat Mance and the Free Folk when they attacked the wall, but that was before the snows came. He was in a hurry, wanted to attack fast, before the snows penned him in. He was smart enough to know he couldn't maneuver or march in the snows, not like Northerners can."

"What happened to him? I didn't hear anything about him, really, so I presume he's dead," replied Daenerys.

"Aye. Most of his army froze to death even before the snows came, and the Boltons killed them of his army didn't die in the cold. That's what Davos said. Didn't seem a happy memory. You feel cold now - imagine what it'd be like for your men if Sansa hadn't sent those clothing designs, if you hadn't had Dragon's Bay make them and ship them in."

 

On another sled, Grey Worm squinted as he and Missandei faced backwards on the sled they'd been allocated to ride on, the sunlight from the west hitting the city walls and reflecting off the ice even more brightly that it did off of desert sands.

"Steel bars on the gates, two portcullises, bigger than Meereen's. One, two, fifty and two hundred bows, with fit archers on the walls and towers. One, two, three hundred crossbows with elders and children, just on the walls and towers around the gate. Trebuchets, scorpions, blocks of less fit archers inside the walls," said Grey Worm to himself as he inspected the land-side defenses for the first time.

"Six giant moats that can be set on fire," said Missandei.

"On fire?" asked Grey Worm.

"That's what I heard some of the guards say. They were talking about a test burn on the third ring - I believe that's the middle one of those not next to the walls, from the context, and the Maesters were trying a mix of tar and pitch. It sounded as though they were trying different combinations, one at a time," explained Missandei over the swishing noise of the sled moving over snow, peering around the pre-adolescent boy of perhaps one and ten who was driving their sled to see the rest of the caravan form up into three main columns, weaving in and out of the scattered hedgehogs and around interleaved ice towers five to ten feet high.

"Archers and scorpions on sleds," said Grey Worm, grasping the rope as their sled swerved suddenly, tilting to one side before righting itself again, the driver frowning as he overcompensated. A few seconds later, a clump of snow shattered on the back of the boy's head.

"What?" asked the translator.

He pointed out to the left, then the right, "One there. Two there. Maybe more. Smaller than ones on towers. Bows, spears on sleds, smaller, no cargo. Army people looking up, watching for dragon. They no joke, no play like Dothraki. No stare at women like Dothraki. They more like Unsullied, keep formation, mind on job."

"They're scared," replied Missandei. She shivered despite her layers, sliding closer to Grey Worm, who wrapped his left arm around her even as his right rested lightly on the new spear he'd been issued at the Northern city. He had been surprised to see that all the Unsullied had been given spears matching their previous ones very closely, except that instead of the long steel spearhead they were used to was a short, irregular shard of dragonglass. They'd been given a place to pile up their original spears with the promise that those would be returned after the dead were defeated... if the dead were defeated.

At yet another set of drum sounded from somewhere in front of them, Tyrion looked pleadingly at Varys, who rolled his eyes and leaned out carefully to see around the pile of cargo they were laying on and against, "A line of towers, as usual with ballista on top. How far would you say we are from the city walls?"

"A few miles - it's hard to judge when everything's covered by snow, and there aren't even any trees, you know. I would estimate, in my learned opinion, that we are precisely one drum-distance from the city," replied Tyrion, scowling, "That was not entirely what I expected. From Jon Snow's descriptions, the North was in dire straits, desperately needing our Queen's help, bereft of allies and incapable of facing the threat on its own. That's what it sounded like to me, at least. Perhaps I was a bit too drunk at the time."

"That is indeed what it sounded like, and I assure you, he was being quite honest. One of these must be true; he was completely unaware of what was happening while he was King, he is the best liar I've ever encountered, his understanding of how to prepare for a war is very different from what is actually happening, or all of this started after he left for Dragonstone," said the Spider, resettling himself to try and get both more comfortable and more stable as their sled bounced and tilted yet again.

A few miles later, they passed another watchtower, with others visible in the distance, not quite a straight line, but curved in a shape that had White Harbor in the center. In the miles after that, they saw a couple small troops of a dozen horse cavalry trotting atop the snow, then a few pairs of small dogsleds with four to six dogs each... and then there was nothing but snow and ice around them, the land treeless and desolate, like a vast, shining white desert.

On the last sled, Qhono thought about the moats he'd seen. None of the Free Cities had anything quite like that, ditches too wide to jump a horse over, too deep and steep to ride a horse in and out of, and many of them. Those strange walls, some gleaming, some white or of wood, all with spears sticking out, too high to jump over. Many, many archers. The Dothraki had archers, too, but he was an experienced bloodrider, even before the Khaleesi chose everyone as her bloodriders, weak and strong alike, and he'd seen many cities, many settlements, many who thought they could fight a Khalasar.

He'd seen the little man's brother's soldiers on the road with their wagons, seen that they couldn't fight. They were cowards - a little charge, some fire, and they fled like any other city army. How much courage did it take to fight from atop tall walls? Not much. How much courage to use bows that could shoot farther than anything a man could use atop his horse, then hide behind stone? Not much.

Even then, he'd seen the distance, seen the giant bows up high. Good archers on those walls could put arrows past the outermost ditch, and could hide behind the stone whenever they wanted, like the cowards and women and old people they were. Still, if this was what the cities across the poison water were like, what was to be the fate of the Dothraki? Cowards they might be, but they wouldn't flee until a Khalasar was already inside their walls. If the Khalasar couldn't get to the gates, it wouldn't matter. Bribing one or two guards to open a gate wasn't hard, but so many? That wouldn't work.

"Shit," said Qhono quietly. The fate he saw for the Dothraki in this strange cold land across the poison water was not one he wanted for his people.

"Shit," replied Davos. He and Tormund had one spoken on not putting their trust in Kings. Perhaps they'd been right - Jon Snow hadn't been a King then, but after he was made one, well. Yes. Well, he'd give advice as best he could - he'd lived to be a ripe old age, and at least sometimes he was listened to.

He was just thankful that if the fortifications Winterfell had were anything like what White Harbor had, he'd have a pretty good chance of seeing his family again.

Only a few hours later, after several short stops to feed the dogs, night fell, the small dogsleds in the lead lit their torches, and the caravan continued on into the darkness. Hours after that, in the freezing cold, Daenerys waited with Tyrion while the other men of her little group worked to put up the tent she'd brought along. That tent and the five barrels of food that would have to feed them were all the supplies she was traveling with, reminding her a little of Drogo's Khalasar. Well, the food would have to feed all but Jon, until the rest of her supplies arrived. Jon was allowed to draw from the shared stores of the North, being a man of Winterfell, as were Brienne and, for some reason, the Hound, though none of her own people were.

"I appointed you to be my Hand so you could help me succeed. Can you explain to me exactly why I have to send hundreds of men and their horses back to Dragonstone, rather than bring them to Winterfell to fight, as I had intended?" asked Daenerys, huddled close to the fire; she'd taken her gloves off so she could warm up her hands without risking the fur burning. Their guides had provided a beggar's portion of wood, and there were no trees in the valley the frozen river they were traveling on top of went through.

"No, my Queen, because Grey Worm and Qhono both were given the very specific instructions the Lady of Winterfell passed on to me. Grey Worm followed the instructions precisely, and so we have all the Unsullied we brought. Qhono did not, but I am not the man in charge of the Dothraki! I will acknowledge that I should have done a better job keeping the suppliers in Meereen, Astapor, and Yunkai from sending us substandard goods, but I've corrected that mistake," replied Tyrion.

"See that you don't repeat that mistake. At least your former wife seems to have a good head on her shoulders. I don't want my people to freeze to death; it seems a needlessly cruel way to die," said Daenerys, falling into a silence after, watching Tyrion add more snow to the pot over the small fire.

An old man of the clan transporting them had yet again come by, made them close their eyes while he poked each of their fingers, toes, ears, and noses, checked to be sure they were dry all the way through, then he'd given a brief lecture on how to handle the weather at camp, how to melt water and drink before making soup or stew in the same pot, then left them to their own devices.

She'd noted that he'd checked on the other people being transported first, as if she was somehow less important than they were! Maybe being the last to be visited was a sign of honor in their culture, she thought darkly.

Some time later, the tent was finished, and at Jon's insistence snow had been piled high around it, even some spread across the top, to keep them warm, he'd said. As they huddled around the fire, eating the plain boiled grains, Jon cut up three of the lemons from the one barrel of fruits they'd brought based on the ravens Sansa had sent, squeezing the fruit into a cup until it was dry. Jon then passed them out, tilting his head back and draining his cup dry in one long drink. Once the rest of them had tried the surprisingly sour liquid, he'd smiled at their expressions.

Daenerys took a sip of hers to hide her own smirk at Tyrion's expression, then drank hers as she'd seen Jon do. It wasn't nearly as bad as the horse heart she'd eaten, and she was a Khaleesi, not some pampered girl. The drink was quite strong and sour, but not bad, really. She might even like the bite if it were spread over some fish or chicken.

Grey Worm didn't show any reaction, while the rest of them weren't fond of the strange drink. She took another spoonful of the bland porridge they were having for dinner after taking a small bite of her salt pork. Jon was eating from a bowl one of the Free Folk had handed him; his was much darker and more watery than theirs was.

"Is this some kind of Northern delicacy, Jon? Sour fruit juice and bland porridge, or that soup you have?" she asked with a fond smile. She enjoyed teasing him when he was in the mood; he wasn't like Daario, full of humor all the time, but he had his moments, between his bouts of brooding.

"More like a feast, really. It's winter - we need the juice to prevent the winter sickness, scurvy, as Maester Luwin called it. For the food, well, it was either just you and nine barrels of food so you can enjoy what I'm having, or the rest of us and enough food for three months, plus the lemons," said Jon, staring into the fire for a moment, "Sansa always loved lemon cakes. I haven't seen her have one yet, not all the time we were in Winterfell. You can't cook the juice, she said, and that was that. She cares about feeding our people more than herself."

Jon offered Daenerys a bite of his soup; she accepted, finding his meal to have a very sharp bite to it, sharper than she liked. Not hot, but bitter, and the darkness came from what appeared to be moss in the water.

"What do you remember most about your other sister, Arya?" asked Daenerys as she returned to her own porridge, "What do you think she's like now?"

"She was always getting in trouble with Septa Mordane, and with Lady Catelyn. Running around in breeches, trying to get people to teach her to fight, riding horses. She was a great rider, you know. She'd have liked being a horselord, I think," he answered, "Sansa wasn't anything like she used to be. Apologized to me, insisted I forgive her for the way she treated me as a child. I'm not sure what Arya's like - if Sansa changed so much, and Arya was on her own for so many years..."

Lord Varys spoke up quietly, "I did hear a few whispers of Arya, your Grace, Lord Snow, before we departed the port. As we heard on the docks, she arrived at the same time as Lady Winter, and was seen at breakfast in New Castle the next day. The whispers I hear say she is a priest now, of the Braavosi god of Death."

"Excuse me, but don't you mean a priestess, the feminine form?" asked Missandei as she huddled close to the fire even after Grey Worm had fetched her blanket from the tent and draped it over her.

"I wondered as well, but the whispers were quite specific. A priest of death, of the Many-Faced God, as his followers call him. A Faceless Man," replied Varys, "She had the coin, and the whispers of its description were quite specific. There are few certainties in the world... but one is that there are only two possibilities for those claiming to be Faceless Men. Either they are... or they vanish soon after. Or, perhaps, both - the Faceless Men haven't stayed anywhere but Braavos in living memory, that that has changed, or so the whispers say."

"A faceless man? Like Old Nan's stories - assassins who can look like anyone? They're real, like the White Walkers?" asked Jon, his full attention on the Spider. Grey Worm, too, the Queen and her Hand were paying attention now.

Lord Varys took another drink of his lemon juice, carefully not watching those waiting on his answer, letting the anticipation build for a few more seconds before he answered, "The whispers were consistent and specific both; your sister changed her appearance in seconds before the court of the Manderlys, wearing the hooded vestment of the priest of death the whispers say she claimed to be, becoming two inches taller."

"And do you believe them?" asked Tyrion, "That she used magic to change faces?"

"No, my Lord. Any of the actors I grew up with could have done the same. An impressive skill, in one who grew up in a great house and couldn't have started training until only a few years ago when she disappeared, but not a rare skill in the world," replied Lord Varys.

"My sister... is a priest?"

"I do not know that, my Lord. I have only whispers," replied Varys. He didn't say any more; he hadn't survived this many regents and royals without a keen sense of what not to say. Saying that none of the little birds he'd sent to recruit more little birds had been where they should have been wouldn't be wise. Saying that many little birds who had worked for him for years had vanished suddenly the day Arya Stark and this Lady Winter came to town wouldn't be wise. Saying that someone called the Underfoot had a firm grip on the thieves he relied on for some of his whispers wouldn't be wise.

Saying that the one long-perched little bird he'd found had been a frightened wreck after the others had vanished, who knew little because he'd been hiding since the Boltons took the North, who had wanted nothing but to leave the North entirely, that wouldn't have been wise either.

"I don't know much about whispers, my Lord, but I do know taverns, and sailors, and smugglers," said Ser Davos, having finished his meal already, having eaten quickly while he listened, a habit left over from his youth, "I got a drink, talked with some sailors I knew. Word's out the Manderlys are buying dragonglass, they'll pay good silver for high quality, be it raw or weapons, but they won't buy jewelry. The stuff from Dragonston's shit, apparently - breaks easy or something. Pardon, your Grace, that's what I heard."

"You hear about city? About soldiers, army?" asked Grey Worm. While the Unsullied didn't go to bars, and Daario was not someone he trusted, the Second Sons had proven more able to find the Sons of the Harpy than his Unsullied had, and Daario had attributed that to drinking and whoring.

"Well, no. That was the strange thing, really. I'd just gotten another drink when I asked something I prob'ly shouldn't have, and next thing, I heard the serving girl say the Underfoot wouldn't like that, and the tavern keeper said the tavern was closed. Usually that'd cause a big fuss, but not there - all the locals finished their drinks, stood up, and left. Just like that. Weirdest thing I've seen men wanting a drink do. The lads left, too, wouldn't talk to me anymore. Can't say I blame them, they've got to do business, after all," said Davos. He'd asked if the tunnels were still where the locals lived, and that had ended that. He supposed he could understand. These people were prepared for an attack, and he'd come into the city with a bunch of barbarians and soldiers loyal to someone they hadn't seen before.

Jon smiled for a moment, remembering Arya's old nicknames. Underfoot, Horseface... he stared into the fire, reminiscing. It'd been so long since he'd seen Arya, and by the Hound's tales, she'd been very keen on reclaiming Needle. The way he'd described her fighting... that wasn't what he'd wanted for her, but if she was alive, she was alive. Brienne, too, had spoken of how fierce she was, though Brienne didn't have much to say about how Arya and Sansa were getting along. They never had before, he supposed.

"I heard about your sister," said Missandei, with a small smile. She couldn't fight, didn't know things about the rest of the world, but languages... she knew more about languages than anyone else she knew.

"You did? From who?" asked Jon, "Did you talk to Brienne again, or the Hound?"

"No, more recent than that. I was speaking to a Tyroshi guard when the dogs were being fed, the one in bright colors. He's been to Winterfell already, guarding people, and was sent back to make sure the new arrivals were told how things were done and to keep them and their cargo safe. The people he's guarding are working with the northern Maesters, and everything has to be done in a certain way - something important enough to merit the dogsleds. He doesn't speak the local language at all, but when he was in Winterfell, though, he told me the tale of when he saw your sister fight."

"She fight in Winterfell? Fight who?" asked Grey Worm, worried about attacks like the Sons of the Harpy.

Missandei gave him a warm smile and wink; she'd known he would be very interested, and Jon Snow also, so she'd been sure to ask for as many details as she could.

"She fought seven duels in Winterfell, yes, all in one night! Would you like to hear the tale?" asked Missandei.

"Yes," replied Grey Worm and Jon in unison, with even Qhono nodding agreement, prompting Daenerys and Missandei to meet each other's eyes and giggle together

"Men," said Daenerys as she rolled her eyes, then nodded to Missandei, who set her bowl down and sat in Grey Worm's lap, shifting a little... to be comfortable... while she told the tale she had heard. Part of her training had been as a storyteller, and she wanted to do this tale justice. She could tell her Queen wanted to hear it, too, just as much as the men, though for different reasons. Queen Daenerys was quite taken with Jon Snow, and was worried about meeting his family, which Missandei couldn't help her with, not having been taken as a slave at such a young age.

"It starts in Braavos, where the First Sword of the Sealord of Braavos announced that he acknowledged Arya Stark as the First Sword of Westeros, a title which had never been granted before. He sent out ravens far and wide, announcing the new First Sword to the First Swords of all the other Free Cities in Essos and beyond. Some of these respected his judgment, for he was known as a great dancing master, one who sees true. Others had feuded with him in the past, or did not believe girls could deserve such an honor, or did not believe Westeros was deserving of the honor, for Westeros had no bravos, no great dueling traditions. For these reasons and others, pairs of bravos from Tyrosh, Lys, Myr, Ib, and Volantis boarded ship and sailed to Westeros to give challenge to the newly named First Sword."

She paused to take a drink and judge her audience's interest, then continued, falling in to the cadence she'd been taught, giving as many details as she could; the Tyroshi had fancied himself quite a bravo, and had spoken of the duels in great detail, even pantomiming the important bits.

"While they waited to face her, they dueled her only student, who defeated three of them in single combat, but lost to the other seven. Then, one day, the young First Sword came out to accept their challenge. She was but a small young woman dressed in a fine leather tunic and breeches, a white storm cloud with the shape of a direwolf inside it embroidered on the front, wearing a sash covered in knives, with a long leather cloak, and leather arm guards with yet more knives. Her dueling weapons were a long, thin sword and a dagger, with dual rings on their hilts. The least skilled of those who had defeated her student stepped out to challenge her first."

************************

Arya swaggered through the streets of Winter Town and into the town square, her cloak flowing behind her as she approached, wearing the new gear she'd been given in Gendry's workshop, and stopped before the well in the center of the square. Irresso had spent the day spreading the word that she would be by the well at dinnertime. It wasn't as elegant as her training by the Moon Pool with First Sword Qarro had been, nor even the room in the Red Keep she'd trained in with Syrio... but this was the North, and this was how things were done in the North... because she was the First Sword here, and she had decided it to be as close as she'd find to where Syrio and Qarro trained and dueled as she'd find in Winter Town.

As she'd expected, a large crowd had gathered under the moonlight. There were pickpockets working the crowd, and men and women making bets... some of whom were quite attractive indeed. Kitty's work, most of those, though it appears Ser Nicholas had engaged Rosa to accompany him to watch her fight; he'd either been to the Free Cities or heard stories of the courtesans there, then. She'd given Kitty quite a bit of the money she'd returned from Braavos with, to place bets on herself winning all seven matches in the same night. Either she would win, or their family would lose nothing, and betting one oneself was quite normal, and showed confidence.

One of the Mryish bravos was far too intent; he was here for something personal... for vengeance, and for her specifically, as she'd heard. Well, she'd face him when he challenged her, as was right. All but one Volantine had fresh purple feathers in their hair; he had been the winner between them, then, his feather showing faint signs of the wind and winter weather wearing on it.

A Tyroshi strode away from their little pack first, his footsteps quick but loud, footwork not quite right for any style she knew, and not consistent, either - a quarter inch off one step, and an eighth of an inch off the other way the next. She took her cloak off flamboyantly, tossing it to Irresso as she stood sideface to the challenger, her left hand next to her dagger, right next to the new sword, but touching neither. It was not for her to give challenge, but to be challenged. It was, however, for her to taunt someone so obviously unskilled.

"You are not ready, girl," said Arya, her voice carrying to the crowd of Northerners, foreign guards and traders, knights and squires of the Vale, and Free Folk. She could spot Tormund's head above the crowd, and she saw Sansa, Gendry, Kitty, Meera, Bronze Yohn and the Scorpion Bear watching from an upper window of the Smoking Log inn and alehouse. Korb, Connas, and Donovar were all in the crowd as well, dressed as merchants, she was amused to see, and placing bets on her.

"I'm a man, and you don't deserve your title, girl," the Tyroshi retorted, coming to a halt a sword's length away, far too close unless he was extremely fast on the draw.

"You should be a sword, nothing more. Challenge me, then, if you have the balls to fight instead of talk."

Arya watched his eyes, the rest of her senses on alert. Look with your eyes, hear with your ears, taste with your mouth, smell with your nose, feel with your skin. The instant his hand touched his sword, she was in motion, moving forward a good bit below her best speed, right hand already starting to draw her new dagger before her feet had moved, which in turn cued him to start drawing his blade.

He started too late and his feet stayed in place, her left hand clamping down on his wrist and stopping his draw before his sword had fully cleared his scabbard, the tip of her dagger already past his cheek, a one inch long razor-thin cut showing on his skin even as she released his wrist and stepped back, wiping her dagger off with a small cloth and returning it to its sheath quickly.

"Dead. Your footwork is clumsy, and you came far too close to draw a sword of that length against a knife," said Arya factually, giving a quick piece of instruction to one who had challenged her, as Qarro had, as she'd heard Syrio had, as even Brienne did with Pod and the guards she helped train for Winterfell.

"Bring out the real fighters!" called out Tormund's loud voice, "That one's even slower than me, and he's half my size," prompting laughter in many of the crowd, particularly the Westerosi.

Standing exactly where she had before he'd touched his weapon and thus delivered a bravo's challenge, she waited while the less determined Myrish bravo came out and stopped a considerably longer distance from her than the Tyroshi had, an eight inch buckler held in his left hand. His footwork was clumsy as well, and his partner had already lost to Irresso; the First Sword of Myr had been spoken of respectfully by Qarro, so these were probably not his direct students, but simply other bravos looking for fame, with the pockets to buy passage on a ship. He'd turned before moving in a perfectly straight line to his position opposite her, then turned again. A linear style, then.

As he touched his blade, she drew her new sword, advancing directly towards him with a thrust; he stepped back as he drew with a fraction of a second's delay after she'd started her own draw, gaining the distance he needed to complete the draw and counter with a thrust of his own to her face. She stepped back, sword coming up to meet his, then tipped hers down to keep his off-line while she advanced directly towards him and thrust for his left thigh. When he countered, she stepped straight back, and he lunged forward as she'd expected.

Smirking, she stepped to the left side and forward, twisting her body to avoid his blade by a bare inch as her gloved right hand grabbed his blade, yanking him forward as the tip of her sword scored a line across his forehead.

"Dead. Too linear, predictable. And your footwork's sloppy."

She again cleaned her sword and returned it to its scabbard as she returned to her starting position.

The Lysene who hadn't lost to Irresso came forward next, a slender curved blade by his side, his footwork very different than the previous ones, more precise, but of a different, more circular style. He nodded to her briefly, then tapped his hilt with a fingertip, drawing his sword immediately as she drew hers, circling in towards her with a flurry of cuts. The first few she ignored, thrusting at his face, which he deflected in a smooth motion; his sword didn't have the reach to hit her, but it was lighter than her own, and quick besides.

Her own new blade wouldn't be able to cut a man's arm off, but it was over half a foot longer than his, and had one of the most protective quillon she'd ever seen; Mikken had been a genius, to come up with the ring on Needle and make it strong enough to protect her hand. Only a few smiths in the world had made a quillon like that - anything other than a simple straight or slightly curved crossbar was very rare.

She stepped in, tilting her hand to drop her blade and parry his cut to her leg, tilting up to parry a cut to her chest, then she stepped in again as he cut at her head. When he slid his blade down the side of hers, she stepped to the side, keeping his blade against hers, letting the castle-forged steel rings protect her hand from his blade as she kicked him in the knee, instantly freeing her blade and delivering a carefully shallow draw-cut to the his thigh with the edge of her own blade.

"Dead. Be wary of an opponent with a blade that can cut who gets in close," she said, wiping down the edge and returning to her place as she had before, sword sheathed again.

The intense Myrish bravo strode forward next, the other bravos looking on with undisguised interest as he whipped off his cloak, wrapping it once around his arm and letting the rest fall freely. Against the Lysene she'd just fought, he'd have wrapped more of the cloak around his arm, but he didn't believe her sword was a serious cutting sword, so one turn of the thick winter cloak would do.

"My father once sailed to Braavos. Syrio Forel killed him by the Moon Pools, and I will have the blood of his student for that! Only your death with satisfy me, student of Syrio Forel. Acknowledge the terms or show yourself a cowardly girl-child, playing at fighting!" said the man intensely, staring fixedly at Arya, his left hand holding his cloak, right by a sword three inches longer than hers, which was fitting enough, since he was nearly a foot taller, and weighed easily twice as much.

She waved one of the guards over, "Johannes, observe this duel of honor," she said, not looking away from the bravo. His cloak was thick wool, but clearly not armored. Nothing anyone anywhere in the world would bat an eye at, and he moved gracefully, with great determination... but without the look in his eye that the Mountain had had, that the Hound had, that she herself had. He wasn't a killer, not a real one.

He followed the forms well enough for a bravo in a duel to the death, a fingertip flicking the base of his hilt in the same single motion of grabbing and drawing; he was the fastest one yet. As soon as his fingertip had touched his weapon, Arya drew both sword and dagger for the first time during these duels, her sword flicking across and up to deflect his long blade past her head as she took a long, fast step in and lunged with the full power of her body and legs, her slender Valyrian blade punching right through his cloak, his wrist, and out the other side of his cloak as his arm was forced up and back against his chest, her dagger punching between his ribs into his heart, then withdrew just as quickly as she stepped away from the dying man.

"Valar Morghulis," said No One as she stepped back, sheathing her sword, wiping her dagger off and sheathing it as well while he fell, bleeding out on the dirt. As before, the blood and gore came off unnaturally easily. She watched quietly until he breathed his last, then spoke quietly.

"He fought bravely for his vengeance. Johannes, get his feet, and be careful with him; we'll put his body on the bench for now. I'll care for his body myself, once it's back at the House's chambers," she commanded, squatting to take him under the armpits, moving him where she'd indicated before she took up his sword, handing it hilt-first to the other man from Myr who'd used his buckler against her.

"His sword should go to his next of kin. Tell them he died bravely, fighting for his father's honor, and that the House of Black and White in Westeros cared for his body with respect after he was killed," Arya said. When the man nodded silently, she returned to her spot, raising her voice to speak to the crowds, to teach them what bravo duels were about... to bring the culture of the bravos to the North and the Vale, and make sure it was a true and pure legacy of Syrio's teachings to her.

While Arya spoke, Johannes pulled out a small leather pouch, opening it and selecting a dragonglass flake; too small and thin to be useful even glued to a staff with pitch. He slowly and gravely rolled the corpse's sleeve up and inserted the flake into his arm, pressing it in deep enough it would break before it came out. There would be no chances of wights raised within the walls; not on his watch!

Arya continued steadily, "In the Free Cities, bravos duels are fought at night, between those wearing blades. The duels are swift, and sudden! A simple touch of a weapon with a fingertip is a challenge; there are no words needed. When fighting happens, it is not a time for words! Duels in the Free Cities are often to the death, for honor, for pride, to demonstrate one's skill and bravery, to impress a girl or a boy. In Braavos, many duels are fought, many to the death, to support their political candidates, or to impress the best courtesans, who are often of famous families, for in much of the world that is an honorable, sometimes sacred, profession! In some cities, the streets belong to the bravos and courtesans at night, because it is tradition, and because no bravo ever bothers anyone who is unarmed, nor do they attack without challenge. Any who violate these rules are no true bravos!"

She reached up to point at the feather in her hair, "One difference to remember! In the North and the Vale, a purple feather is required to duel as bravos, and the loser's feather is to be broken. Guardhouses sell the feathers, five silver each!"

Next came the smaller Ibbenese man, dressed in blue; unlike the rest of bravos, the Ibbenese were wearing similar numbers and thicknesses of layers to the Northerners, though, of course, in bright colors. Arya suspected that they'd dyed polar bear fur - one was in a bright green, the other a brilliant light blue.

He nodded respectfully, taking off his cloak and handing it to his taller companion to reveal a long dagger with a simple crossguard opposite his sword, and said, "We have come to test the skill of the one who would be the third First Sword of the north. The First Sword of Ib is well respected. The First Sword of Braavos is well respected. One who knows the taste of true winter who claims to be the First Sword of Westeros must be well respected, as well."

Arya nodded. This one moved well, and quickly; she was finally through the chaff and to the wheat. The corners of her lips curled up slightly as he tapped the pommel and drew both the long, slender thrusting sword and dagger, just as she drew both her own weapons.

A few exchanges later, he blocked her thrust with his dagger as she did his with her dagger. She shoved both his weapons upwards as her boot slammed into his leg just below his knee; as his leg slipped back on the patch of ice just behind his foot, she sidestepped, freeing her sword as he sought to keep his balance, delivering a shallow draw-cut to the side of his neck as she pulled her blade back.

"Dead. Hands aren't the only dangers, and in winter, footing is ever treacherous."

Instead of going back to the starting point, she went to the well, using the long pole to break the ice before lowering and raising the bucket. She took a few drinks of ice-cold water from one of the bowls that were nearby before offering the bucket of water to the rest of the bravos. She was, after all, their host.

She was also in need of a few minutes of rest; the next two opponents would be much more challenging, and while she certainly could fight without rest, she wouldn't be perfectly precise. There was a difference between standing on one toe for hours and fighting at the fullest measures of her speed and power. Syrio Forel had taught her to be swift and sudden on both the attack and the defense. Qarro and the House of Black and White both had continued that trend, for it was what was required to be a master dancer, and a master assassin both. Limited targets, limited time, no mistakes, no second chances, no heavy armor to protect your life.

Hers was not the way of the Knight's dance, the battlefield melee, even of the shield-wall. Hers was the way of incredible speed and sudden power without warning, so fast that even the true seeing was insufficient in and of itself, for there was nothing to see until she was already in motion. While she rested, pacing slowly around the area the crowd stayed clear of, she listed to the betting. The odds had shifted radically.

Too, an acolyte and the new novice of the House had appeared with a stretcher and were carefully moving the Myrish corpse over to the stretcher. She murmured "Lay him out and prepare him; I'll wash him myself when I return," in a voice so quiet as to be imperceptible to anyone without the right training.

Once those who had wished had drank, she returned to her starting position. As she'd expected, this custom was attaining the force of ritual. The First Sword of Westeros would stand at this spot, and the challengers would approach, least skilled to most, and issue the challenge in the expectation that she would instantly accept. It was not the same as what the First Sword of the Sealord of Braavos did, but he, too, had a ritual, and those who wished to make challenge followed the steps he presented them.

The taller Ibbenese approached, buckler in his left hand and a sword of medium length on his belt; wide enough to be capable of cutting through flesh and bone both as hers would not, if his was balances for it... and she was sure it was, by the stance he took.

Again, she drew both blades as soon as he'd touched his sword. This one stepped forward as he drew, that single motion a vicious slash at the tip of her nose which she deflected down with her dagger, while his buckler batted aside her own thrust to his throat; she withdrew the long blade, tilting her blade down to thrust towards his ankle, which he moved as his sword thrust out at towards her thigh, which she sidestepped entirely, her dagger ensuring he couldn't turn the thrust into a cut and draw her blood.

Four exchanges later, they were standing in each other's starting positions, clashing again. This man was both fast and skilled, moving readily on the cold ground... but he wasn't quite as fast, and his height worked against him, there, his longer arms not quite compensating for the length of her sword; thus, in the end a thrust he deflected from his heart nicked his knuckle, the simple crossguard failing to protect his hand.

"Hand useless. Every time you strike, you offer your hand and arm to your opponent and your opponent's weapon. This is doubly so when their weapon has more reach than yours," intoned Arya.

He saluted her with his sword, then ceremonially reached up to take the feather from his hair, breaking his feather as each of the others had done much less flamboyantly... and then he offered her the fresh, broken feather.

She strode to the well again, taking another short drink, offering water to the senior Volantine, a man of perhaps four and thirty, with a long, slender sword and a dagger, both with a spiral quillon.

He shook his head slowly, and said, "Would you like to take a short rest? I will not have it said that I have fought a duel when my opponent was at a disadvantage; it is known to all that I have always dueled on only the most honorable of terms."

Arya smiled slightly, nodding as she took another drink, then clasped her hands behind her back, standing still as she tensed sets of her muscles for a few seconds each, then relaxed them, replying, "You are the best in Volantis after the First Sword himself, are you not?"

"I have that honor for eight years now. I am proud to say that I can best the First Sword of Volantis one time in seven, and bring him to a draw two in seven! I did not believe a girl from Westeros who hasn't even seen her twentieth nameday could be worthy of the title of First Sword; we shall see if I was wrong. Either way, I see that I must also challenge the First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos, for it is through difficulty that we grow," said the premier challenger to the First Sword of Volantis.

"I agree. Every hurt is a lesson, and every lesson makes you better, as Syrio Forel taught me. Give me three minutes, and then we can continue. Who designed your blades?" said Arya, continuing to cool down and relax her muscles.

"I mean no challenge," said the Volantine as he carefully made a fist, hooking his little finger in his dagger's quillon, drawing and offering the blade to her, "Master-smith Tindak designed and forged these blades for me, and they have served me well for many years. Please, see what you will. Yours, too, are unique; I have rarely seen rings like that, and never on both sides."

Arya took the other man's dagger carefully, drawing her own using only her little finger, as he had, offering it to him in turn, "Master-smith Gendry reforged this for me, and forged my sword; the quillon is an adaptation of my first sword, Needle, which Master-smith Mikken made for me as a child. The two rings are somewhat uncomfortable to carry, like yours, but for a duel, protecting your hand is important. I was made to fight, not to be comfortable like a Lady."

"Protecting your hand is very important!" laughed the Ibbenese, holding up the hand she'd just nicked.

She examined the Volantine dagger's quillon; it was certainly more elegant than her own, perhaps a little more protective on the sides of the blade, though the crosspiece didn't have the sharp curve hers did to easily bind another's blade. The blade was a little thicker, a little heavier than the steel versions of her dagger, but the man was strong and quick both, so that wouldn't impede his use of it.

"Valyrian steel!" exclaimed the Volantine, "Lord of Light, you carry Valyrian steel! No wonder you're so quick."

"Just the dagger; the sword is no different than any other of its type," she said as they carefully traded weapons, again avoiding touching their own with their hands. This showed both that they took the letter and spirit of the code of the bravos seriously, and also made it quite deliberately awkward to use their own weapons without due challenge.

And, Arya knew, she had many more blades easily accessible than he did, never mind the Stark guards and Northern and Vale soldiers in the audience.

Finishing her exercise, she returned to her starting position. The duel started suddenly as he touched his sword, the first two exchanges moving them clockwise, the next three counterclockwise, each advancing and retreating over the measure of a dozen feet until they broke apart for a moment, both selecting a different stance as they gained the measure of the other, then moved in again.

There were no lunges, no high-risk moves, just a blindingly fast series of cautious probes and thrusts, with the occasional quick cut with sword or dagger. Arya saw through his feints, as he saw through hers; he had the true seeing, was fast and skilled, had great footwork, and didn't leave openings. That was good! She hadn't been pressed like this since she'd last trained with Qarro, and she was exhilarated by the challenge. For all Brienne's skill, she was Westerosi, and her hacking and hammering just wasn't the same. This duel, this was the water dance in its purest form... and it was time to end the dance.

Arya blocked one thrust she could have dodged, then bent backwards and to the left suddenly to avoid the next attack, leaving herself in a position where if she dodged again she'd leave an opening; he attacked as she expected and hoped to throat and heart, expecting to force her to commit to the defense with both her blades; from there he'd likely plan to keep her on the defense.

Instead of pulling her right hand back so as to not interfere with her sword, so both could parry effectively, she reached even farther over with the dagger and lowered her sword, blocking and binding his sword with the dagger even as she slid her leg forward, dropping down suddenly while one of the throwing knives in her arm-guard deflected his own dagger's blade, thrusting upwards with the sword until she felt the change in resistance, the tip drawing a drop of blood from his armpit. Had he chosen a different target, she knew she might have been the one who had lost, but he had not, and she had upheld Syrio's legacy and Qarro's belief in her skills.

"Dead. Because I had armor, and a long fucking sword," said Arya, smiling widely, standing up straight and saluting him with her sword as he saluted her in the same fashion before presenting her his broken feather after she'd cleaned and sheathed her blades, likewise smiling, "Well fought. I have no doubt you will someday be First Sword of Volantis."

"Thank you," replied the Volantine, standing straight "It was an honor to duel with you, First Sword."

Arya gestured to the assembled bravos with one hand, the other gesturing to the alehouse, "Come! You have all fought with honor, and I find I've not only skipped my dinner, but also worked up an appetite! I'll buy you each your first round, and your dinner if you haven't eaten yet!"

At the roar of the crowd, Arya called out loudly, "Not you ingrates!. None of you stepped up to duel me. You want me to buy you a round, get yourself a purple feather and beat one of these men in a bravo's duel, then you can challenge me!"

She looked up at where her sister and her party were, beckoning them to come down and join the crowd for the meal.

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"And that is the tale of how the First Sword of Westeros became a title respected by bravos the world over," finished Missandei.

"She killed a man? And just kept going?" asked Jon, still a little stunned at hearing his feisty little sister was killing men not in war, not on the battlefield, but as, as, as some kind of entertainment, almost.

"Is how bravos fight. Only thing... different... is not more killing," said Grey Worm.

"The word you mean is strange," corrected Missandei, "Or unusual."

"I'm afraid Grey Worm is correct. There are bravos in all the Free Cities, and they duel to the death much more often than not. For so many to duel with only one death is quite unusual," added Lord Varys, "Though Westeros has never had bravos duel in the streets before, either, so that's unusual all around. Thank you for a wonderful retelling, Missandei. You are a truly gifted storyteller."

"I'm curious, Missandei. Who was this guard guarding, that they merit a trip on these dogsleds? It's clear that fast passage is valuable," asked the Hand of the Queen.

"He was originally guarding some Myrish pyromancers until he was sent to White Harbor to meet the new Tyroshi and Pentoshi pyromancers, so they can be taught how to work with the Maesters before they arrive. Apparently the Maesters and the pyromancers have come to a mutually beneficial arrangement in Winterfell, and they don't want to see that interrupted. And, it seems, making sure no one bring a flame near the barrels of the substance on the sleds over there," she said as she pointed at the sleds of fur-covered barrels on the other side of the camp.

"Wildfire," said Tyrion, stunned. He'd spoken with pyromancers enough to know they called wildfire 'the substance'.

"Wildfire," said Daenerys smugly, "You didn't know, Lord Tyrion? I knew before we left."

"Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? We could be incinerated at any moment!" said her Hand sharply.

"What do you mean?" asked Daenerys, "I know my father the Mad King burned people with it, but how is a fire over there going to hurt us over here?"

A wide-eyed Tyrion began to explain the many dangerous properties of fire given form, and Ser Davos told of how he'd been literally blown off the deck of his ship as if by an immense wind when the wildfire ship had been ignited, of how other ships had been smashed as if with the brilliant green hammer of the gods.

Not one of them complained about how young their drivers were, or how bumpy their ride was for the rest of the journey.

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Following the page to the quarters which had apparently been set aside for herself and her guards, Alleras passed the girl a copper for her troubles and opened the door to a large room, passing by the two Northern guards that were apparently protecting the room. Half the room was full of barrels of supplies, behind which were piles of clothing... light or cotton clothing, she realized, for the summer. The outer half, in particular, based on where she thought she was in the castle, which was interesting. She wondered if it was deliberate, and if so, was that for additional insulative properties?

Though this room had no windows, indicating that that probably wasn't an exterior wall. The rest of the room was nearly filled with one large set of standing shelves, one small chest with its key in the lock, and three bunk beds; two with four beds spaced very close together each, and one with three beds and a little more headroom, and two chairs... one of which was occupied.

"My sisters finally let you go, I see?" said Sansa from her seat in the corner, small skeins of orange, red, and yellow cloth beside her as she finished off a section of the scarf she was knitting, slipping it and the skeins into an embroidered leather bag as she stood gracefully, her spear leaning beside her.

Alleras now understood why there were guards not only at the end of the hallway but also outside this room; they were Lady Sansa's guards... and her own Dornish guards were off getting trained on how to fight the dead, at her own insistence while she was the guest of Gilly and Lady Reed, soon to be Lady Meera Stark. If Sansa had any significant measure of Arya's skill with the spear, she was at Sansa's mercy.

Of course, since she was in the heart of the North, she had quite deliberately assessed that she would be at their mercy anywhere within more than four hundred miles of here, so there was no change to that situation whatsoever. It was still safer for her here than in Dorne... at least until the wights she'd sent home had arrived and been examined. Alleras didn't think Sansa had the nearly unnatural gaze of Arya, but her gaze was intense all the same.

Alleras bowed, "Lady Stark, I'm quite surprised to see you again!"

"Of course. As a special guest of my sisters, a representative of Dorne, and the one who worked out how to safely capture wights, I'd like to make sure you have everything you need that we can provide," said Sansa with a small smile.

Not quite the teasing smile Arya had, thought Alleras, but once again, altogether too knowing for her comfort. The acolyte wondered if that was a trait of all Starks... or, she thought morbidly, if it was a trait of all the Starks who were left alive.

"This will be more than enough; it's all I can expect and more, Lady Stark. Your sisters were both gracious and kind. If you don't mind my asking, I've been wondering if it's a custom of your family to adopt so many others in, or a Northern custom," replies Alleras, starting to get the feeling she was, again, being toyed with. Then again, she had the Lady of Winterfell in a room, alone, after Arya had already clearly given an approving report to her... and, by the looks of it, possibly a quite complete report.

"If you mean Gilly and Meera, they are certainly both. Arya has many other qualities, and I love her, but gracious she is not now, and has never been. The adoptions... well, I suppose you could say they're a Stark custom now," said Sansa with a small smile and a glint in her eye, "I understand there are many customs in Dorne that are foreign to us. I hope that Princess Sarella might someday grace us with her presence, and have had the room down at the end of the corridor set aside for her use. It's nearly full of supplies, of course, but there is a small dresser for anything she might need, and what Arya called a hammock, in case she arrives... suddenly."

Alleras closed her eyes. Of course Arya had told her sister who she was. She hadn't really expected otherwise, but, foolishly, she had hoped otherwise after Sansa hadn't made any sign of knowing at their meeting earlier.

"So, in the case Princess Sarella has some... special need... for an acolyte of the Citadel, I've placed you two rooms down, at the only other entrance to this particular secret passageway, just in case the Princess desires your presence... or not, as she chooses," Sansa continued, her voice tinged with amusement as she now stood in the narrow space left between the end of the stack of barrels and the corner, placing one foot flat against the wall dividing this room from the other and both hands on the second stone down from the ceiling, clearly pressing hard... until the corner of the room opened up to a narrow passage on the wall that ran behind the barrels.

"She told you," said Sarella, her tone resigned as she approached Sansa, peering into the secret passageway. The fairly narrow, and remarkably clean passageway, in which was a sturdy, thick wooden door, which was open, on the other side of which was a three inch thick bar of precisely the length to bar that very door. Past that was a small iron hammer, a shortbow and a quiver on pegs, then another bar and wooden door, then the end of the secret passage, counterweight mechanisms barely visible in the darkness.

Sansa giggled quietly, "No, she didn't; another of her little japes. I saw your father several times before Joffrey's wedding, you know. You have his eyes, his bone structure, his widow's peak, and his intensity, Princess Sarella. I apologize; because my little sister failed to warn me, I haven't been able to prepare for you properly. I'll have a dress suitable for the Princess of Dorne finished soon, certainly before the Dragon Queen arrives with Jon."

"Just Sarella, Princess Sansa," replied the Dornishwoman with a grin of her own, squeezing past Sansa into the secret passageway, noting the arrowslit in the wooden door, then turning to inspect the recently oiled counterweight mechanisms on this side, "Otherwise this will be even more ridiculous than it already is."

Sansa joined her in the passage with a single candle for light, closing the stone door on its cylindrical bronze rollers, gesturing Sarella to the small area of passageway between the wooden doors, closing hers while Sarella did the same. Sansa could see that Sarella also had all of Oberyn Martell's curiosity, though the share he'd directed at what could be found in brothels, she directed elsewhere.

"Then call me Sansa, please. Arya's had several of our secret passages set to rights recently, but this one she had the doors changed on as soon as she returned. I found it curious, at the time, but now I understand; Meera and Arya both agree that you are a master archer. Sarella, you are not now, and never will be a hostage here, not to us, not to any of our bannermen or allies, and not even to your own guards. Arya did mention you would consider directness a greater courtesy, so, tell me, what are your plans, what do you have to offer, how certain are you that your offer will happen as you expect, and what do you need?"

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Chapter Text

"There! Lookit, the Fenn's coming out with 'em! There them are! I told ye, I told ye! That's the Stark, the Red Wolf herself, see the hair under her helmet? And Lady Winter, with the sword and all them knives! Ooohhh... theys with the Bronze Yohn and the Scorpion Bear, the little one, too! They's comin' too! 'et's go, 'et's go, we can meets them, see that Valyrian steel they's got. I told ye they'd come through again when the chief says the dead are past the Wall, didn' I? Told ye they'd see our goats, drink our milk, din' I?" said Adog, rememberin' not to point at the chieftain lady while he made his way through the goats towards where the bridge between the inner and second ring was waiting. He also remembered to keep his trap shut about the word he'd heard that Lady Winter would be by the well again; Umman had already agreed to watch the flock while Adog went into Winter Town to trade.

Umman wasn't all that bright, but he was good with the flocks of goats the Flint clan kept, ever since they'd been children together in the Northern mountains, just south of the Gift and the Wall. Adog resolved to give him both their rations of ale when he got back from Winter Town, since he wouldn't have a chance to see the fight. They'd missed the first one, out shovelin' snow so the goats could eat what was underneath until the army of the dead came, and gatherin' up anythin' that the goats could eat that would last until later in the winter.

He didn't know much about the army of the dead, but he did know how tough wildlings were, and anythin' that scared though fuckers was somethin' he was glad to be on this side of the wall for. They were past the wall now, it was said, but he could look out and see that the Stark hadn't been sittin' around jabberin, she'd been makin' all this happen. Now she were comin' here, probly to see the goats.

"Hey, Adog, get some milk! They's gots ta want fresh milk!" said Umman excitedly.

Sansa strode out side by side with her sister; she'd put the crannogmen of House Fenn and the mountain clan of House Flint in the same section of the inner ring, since their home lands were so far apart that they'd never feuded. The crannogmen, too, were very practical people, as were the mountain clans, and those who trod the treacherous narrow paths of the mountain cliffs didn't look down on the small men of the Neck.

Here, among these clansmen and clanswomen, she was called the Stark, of clan Stark, by their custom, while their leader was in turn called Lord Flint of House Flint, by the custom of the Kings in the North. These little titles, these courtesies between liege lord and bannermen, these, too, were the legacy of the ancient Kings of Winter. A legacy of granting the proud mountain clans the respect of their own titles, and accepting their own ways of addressing their own leaders in turn, even making it their own to the extent of her family referring to whichever of them was 'the Stark' in Winterfell. Her ancestors had been proud, had conquered, but hadn't tried to replace all they ways of those conquered, their religion, their leaders, and their pride, and in turn, they'd been Kings in the North for generation after generation, with few rebellions compared to other kingdoms.

She continued into the Flint camp with Arya, Lord Royce separating to speak with their cavalry and infantry, Lady Mormont already scrambling nimbly up the rigging on the outside of one of the camp's scorpion towers. The Stark in Winterfell spoke loudly, her voice strong, knowing that with these people, softness was seen as weakness, but rudeness was also unwise, "I wish to meet with Lord Flint!"

"Aye, I'm the Flint," said an old man, coming out from under one of the tents. The Flints, like many of the mountain clans, had piled up blocks of snow and ice to surround their tents, protecting them from the weather. As with every camp, the tents were sheltered under pitch-covered wood roofs, to protect them from not just months or years of winter weather, but also arrows falling short and other battle debris. Also like many of those she was visiting now, the bows they gave in respect were both deeper and much more sincere now than they had been the first time she'd met them.

"Thank you for calling in the rest of your clan and your herds, Lord Flint. I came to see you to pass on some news, and to make sure you had what you needed. Your clan has contributed much more than only three years of winter stores; you should be very proud of that, and in turn, you are entitled to the fullest measures of supplies from the central stores," said Sansa. They were one of the few houses to have contributed so much food, fodder, and so many animals.

"Eh, some more combs. My stupid brother-in-law didn't bring the basket, and the goats, it's past time some of them need to be combed."

"Of course; I'll have combs made immediately, so you can gather the wool as soon as possible," said Sansa, making the signs for you and question for Arya, who returned the sign for no, "Would you mind providing a sample comb, strong and simple? I'm afraid I don't know enough about combing goats to know what will work best."

"Not really differen' than combing sheep," he replied easily, then, at the shake of her head, he squinted at her oddly, "You never done combed goats or sheep? Not even once? I heard the Stark was a great needlewoman. How'd you know you gots good cloth if you don't feel the wool yourself? You don' sew that foreign silk shit, do you?"

Sansa ignored the faint hint of a smirk from Arya, replying easily, "I'm afraid I start with cloth, leather, thread, and yarn, though I do have a gift for you in my saddlebags, to show my personal appreciation of you and your clan's diligent preparation for the winter, and your outstanding contributions to all of our survival. Before that, though, the comb?"

He waved her on, striding away from the castle with her, his clansmen ahead of them taking up the handles on the long wooden bridge and sliding it out over the fire trenches and the moat between the inner rings and the second ring on wooden rollers, heavy counterweights keeping it from falling into the moat. On the other side, a pair of the clan's shepherds were staring at the two Starks crossing the bridge behind their chieftain with excitement... at her face, and her spear, and her dress, she noted, even more than they stared at Arya.

Adog approached with an entire set of combs, which he used one at a time, showing Sansa and Arya how to use each, then giving them that comb so they could do so themselves. Sansa followed the instruction politely, mildly interested in the different kinds of wool which came even from the same goat, and how that translated to different quantities and qualities of cloth on a personal level, as well as with keen interest for her new role as a facilitator of trade. Arya, of course, was paying close attention, getting along with the clansmen easily.

Patting the new goat, Bessie, that Adog had brought her, Sansa carefully pulled the comb through, this one made to gather and the undercoat in particular. She took a few strokes, then looked at the wool she'd gathered more carefully; she held it up and brushed it against her cheek, her eyes closed as she did so; it was indeed different than the other wool she'd combed, the top of her comb held a different type of much softer, finer hairs than the rest.

Umman smiled widely, having come back with two rough cups of goat's milk, "Ooooh; tha's Bessie, all righ'! She's got the sofes' undercoa' in the east flock, she does! 'Ere, hav sum o' Caeri's milk! 'est in the North, it is!"

As Arya intercepted the cups, smelling them and pouring the milk back and forth between cups, swirling them to ensure she'd notice any poison on the cup itself before she took a sip and then handed Sansa her cup. Sansa ran a gloved finger through the softer hairs caught on one part of the comb; even in the clump she'd pulled out, they were still mixed with the longer, coarser ones, but she knew her fabrics, knew them well, and the fine ones were the finest she'd ever seen, which gave her an idea based on her many hours of listening to trade agreements and brokering deals, so she took a drink of her milk, noting that she'd have to make sure to arrange for some Flints to speak to Tormund about fermenting goat's milk, and spoke.

"Thank you, Umman. Lord Flint, if your clan can separate out only these fine hairs, and only from Bessie and the other sheep with very soft undercoats, then I believe you can sell these for a very considerably higher price than the undercoats of your other sheep. This is, truly, exceptional wool. I would also like the opportunity to make an offer for the final fabric after you've heard other offers, to use for my personal projects."

"More? Like twice? Three times?" asked the Flint.

"If it's made into woolen cloth and yarn that retains this softness after it's dyed, ten times or more," replied Sansa. Luxury exports, especially ones from both sharply limited and living sources like goats, rather than limited like gold mines, would strengthen the North in the future. She continued, praising the clan's goat with much more sincerity than she'd once praised hairstyles and dresses in King's Landing, "Bessie's undercoat is truly exceptional, a credit to your clan."

Once they'd finished, Adog handed her the entire set of combs, some of wood, some finer ones of metal, and the Flint spoke again, "There; sets like these. Four o' those to three o' these to one o' those for a set. We gots ourselves good and snug, if'n the dead don't get to us, so we don't need more from the Stark. We've prepared proper, we have!"

With a look at Arya, he continued, shifting topics to the military, "Only thing, men, soldiers need better leaders. Still doing stupid shit in trainin', gettin' in the way. My clansmen'll be killed doing stupid shit like askin' for archer te shoot and then sum other bastard walkin' right where they's landin'."

Arya glanced at her sister, who made the sign for you. As was their habit in these matters, Arya answered first, "Is that primarily the infantry? Not the archers, the cavalry, the Free Folk?"

"Aye, the foot soldiers ain't got good leaders."

Arya nodded, "Agreed. As we speak, two more leaders are heading towards us that I believe will resolve the situation. Jamie Lannister was trained by the same man whose table I learned large-scale warfare at, Tywin Lannister. He faced Dothraki and dragons both, and not only held his ground with his men, but also made a lance charge on horseback against a dragon grounded by a scorpion bolt when the battle was lost."

"The Kingslayer! A Lannister!" exclaimed the Flint.

Sansa took up the conversation, "Men of your tribe owe him your life. When you were fighting with my father and Robert Baratheon, you defeated Rhaegar Targaryen and were entering King's Landing, where the Mad King had put wildfire under the city, and as he ordered his pyromancers to 'Burn them all!' just before Jamie Lannister killed the pyromancer and then killed the Mad King."

Sansa watched the clansmen's faces; she'd been telling this story to every House of the North and the Vale and every clan of the Free Folk, and universally there were winces and shudders here. The men and women in and around Winterfell had all seen wildfire tests, all seen the results, all been warned in the most vigorous - and violent - terms to keep fire and heat of all kinds well away from the Substance. To hear it had been planted under a city they or their fathers or grandfathers, uncles or brothers or sons had been in or even near... that wasn't something to generate happiness. It was, however, something to generate gratitude to mitigate decades of hatred and scorn.

"The Three-Eyed Raven saw it?" asked the Flint, "He said so?"

"Yes, he did," answered Sansa, "We do not trust Ser Jamie the way Brienne of Tarth does, so we will test him, and watch him, but if he passes our tests, he should be trusted as much as any Southron from south of the Vale. The other coming is the Hound, Lord Sandor Clegane, who we trust much more. He came back out into a riot from safety, alone and without orders, and saved me from rapers during a riot in King's Landing when Joffrey was King. When he broke with Cersei and Joffrey during the Battle of Blackwater, he risked himself to offer to take me with him."

Arya continued, "The Hound taught me how to survive during a war, alone in the country, taught me about killing and surviving being hunted, about how the world really works, how so many men and women really are. He put himself between me and those who would have killed or harmed me, when I was still just a girl with a small sword, shared his food with me when we were both hungry, even when neither of us got enough. He won't admit it, but he tried to do his best for me - tried to sell me, but only ever to family, never to Cersei, never to Walder Frey, even though we arrived at the Twins during the Red Wedding; he got me out again, unharmed and unnoticed. He's one of the greatest Westerosi swordsmen, and trained as a leader in warfare besides."

Upon Arya's receiving a terse nod, Sansa continued, "I have also made final arrangements for space and housing within Winterfell and Winter Town. Based on the supplies your House has provided to the central stores, in addition to those of your clan who are already living behind the walls, there are an additional six places within Winterfell, and eight in Winter Town, for whichever of your House you wish to send. Please send whichever you believe will be able to best rebuild your clan if the camps are overrun, even if either Winterfell or Winter Town falls. I urge you to split your people between the two with care; Winter Town's walls are shorter, while Winterfell may be a more attractive target for the wight dragon."

Sansa didn't mention the many camps of people, outside all the walls, or the flocks and herds outside even the camps, all at far greater risk than those inside the walls. The sisters watched the man take in a breath, trying to hide his relief. He'd clearly been worried about the survival of his clan, as all the Houses were concerned. Unwilling to admit it, of course, but fearing all the same. This was the best she could do - there was only so much space, only so much food behind walls even stacking people in four high bunk beds to make more space for supplies, only so many places they could defend against a siege that included giants, mammoths, and dragons.

In the end, after discussion with Lord Reed, Lord Royce, Lady Meera, Lord Manderly, Lady Mormont, Kitty, and Arya, she'd decided her first instinct was indeed correct - the places remaining after babes, children, pregnant women, and those with necessary skills for the war and the winter were taken in would be allocated to the houses solely based on food contribution. The Flints thus got more places behind walls than some Houses twice their size; something they'd argued in conclave yesterday, and something she could only hope to be arguing in conclave for many years to come, for it would mean they lived.

Thankfully, she'd been able to set things up with the food-gathering caravans such that those poorer houses which wouldn't have been able to make the required contributions had their gathering parties alongside those houses willing to give them loans, or with the Iron Bank, and the richer houses who had failed to contribute enough had found themselves next to the many foreign traders who had brought in nonperishable foodstuffs to sell at meals. No house of the North or the Vale, no clan of the Free Folk had, in the end, failed to contribute at least three years of supplies, even after years of war. The Sealord of Braavos had even cut a deal with some of the Free Folk for sled designs and trainers to help the city out when the fresh water supply froze, as was expected.

The clan leader gathered himself to ask, "Bessie? The other goats with the softest undercoats? Flocks in second ring. Before rest of clan gone, flocks gone first. Without flocks, no future for the clan. Whoever left will need the best of our goats to rebuild with."

Suppressing a wholly inappropriate giggle at the thought of what her younger self might have thought at the prospect of arranging shelter for the right goats to rebuild a House with, Sansa replied calmly, "Certainly. I'll see to it that three of the sheep inside the walls in Winterfell, and three in Winter Town are moved out to the flocks to make room for six of your clan's goats. Put a necklace with your clan's sigil on them, so all know to eat them last."

"Valar Morghulis," said the Flint.

"Valar Dohaeris," said Sansa. More of the Northerners and those of the Vale had picked the expression up both in conclave from Lady Winter, and from the many discussions and deals made with foreign merchants. She'd heard the Flint himself had thought it darkly appropriate to their current grave situation, and even heard Lord Mollen and Lord Whitehill using it to greet each other; by the rather vicious undertones, she suspected they felt it was more appropriate to their feeling toward the other house than wishing each other well in any capacity, and as a common greeting, it was an almost Southron means of wishing ill on the other.

Arya put her fingers to her lips and let out a complex whistle in the same pattern as the horn calls for 'Prepare to advance', at which Lord Royce began to make his goodbyes, while atop a different tower a small figure in black strode calmly off the edge of the upper platform, wrapping an arm around a single hanging rope and sliding quickly down, cloak flying out behind her, as smooth as any sailor descending from the crow's nest. Landing solidly on the cleared ground of the camps, she jogged up to the Flint.

"Melaane and Jaycobb; they can plot trajectories," she said, then restated it for those not as familiar with the arcane language of siege engines and master archers, "They could use the setting circles at different ranges even before the Maesters made the more detailed charts."

"Yes! They are very smart; know their numbers, and have fighting instinct too!" said the Flint proudly.

"Send them into Winterfell on the morrow; they will report to Gilly for classes. I want them taught to read and write better, and taught the mathematics to create the setting circles and the charts," said the Scorpion Bear, "We don't have enough Maesters, and every difference in the siege engine or the ammunition needs either a Maester to create a new chart, or someone who knows to work it out on their own."

"I will have them there after they break their fast," said the Flint with a smile. When their clan returned to the mountains, they would be stronger than they left, and smarter, however many fewer they were. War was becoming harder with these new weapons, and the clan would rise to the challenge. They were Flints! But... that was not enough, not anymore. These new weapons were wondrous and terrible for those with the skills to use them, but there was more to a clan than that, "Maesters study many things; will they teach more, too? Healing? Building?"

After the details were quickly worked out, Sansa presented Lord Flint with the leather breastplate she'd made in recognition of his and his clan's efforts and loyalty, then mounted her horse and trotted over the narrow strip of land between the radial division moat and the ring moats.

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Sansa murmured quietly, so only their immediate party could hear, "I hear the Night's Watch is to hold elections tonight, after they swear in their new recruits. Strange that the endless jobs and training you've been scheduling for them suddenly had a break in it."

Arya murmured back, "It's not strange; we had work that needed doing. Now we have less, and Edd's been moaning about not wanting to be Acting Lord Commander ever since he got here. Pure happenstance."

"Mmm," was Sansa's reply, barely audible over Kitty's quiet giggle.

Arya stood on Sansa's right, hands behind her back, hidden under her cloak, throwing knife half out of its sheath in one hand, blowgun likewise in the other, both Valyrian. Their best intelligence reports all said that the newest arrivals were entirely genuine, but even the best information could be flawed. That intelligence, after all, only reflect what people, warged animals, and Three-Eyed Ravens saw, so a diligent person could fool them all simply by never taking off their false face of helpfulness.

No Faceless Man using a face from the Hall of Faces would be caught by anything they could do, since a Faceless man wouldn't take their face off, either the magic or the mental face. A glamoured face depending on the magical skill of the person, of course, while mummery needed to be touched up quite often; Bran would have seen that easily enough.

She could hear the unusual quiet in the courtyard; the archers on the walls the normal crews - the wall was reserved for their best sharpshooters, and Meera herself was looking down, bow in hand, Valyrian plate cutter arrow nocked. The towers that could see into the courtyard likewise - their crossbowmen on the platforms below the siege engines were always among the best. The ballista crews, though, had been supplemented by Lyanna on the left-hand gatehouse and Fjornel on the inner scorpion with a courtyard view to the rear and on the right.

Hidden, of course, were additional units of the best archers and spearmen they had, though Arya doubted that any treachery would require them. The siege engines were very accurate indeed, and even normal crossbows and warbows with the right arrows could punch through armor often enough at this range. Their best archers, and Fjornel, weren't using normal plate cutters, though; the ancestral Valyrian bolts and arrows of the Starks had been distributed already.

Patrek Mallister approached first, the others waiting at the gates. When he'd left, he'd thought Seagard to be a well defended castle. They had the normal moat by the walls and one additional moat with a wooden palisade behind it, and had constructed four ballista and five scorpions for the towers and gatehouses of their castle, but this, this was another level entirely, as Moat Cailin had been, and there were people everywhere logging and working and training, smallfolk and highborn alike.

He could barely imagine the entirety of the undertaking. They'd needed thousands of men working for weeks to dig Seagard's second moat, to build their palisade, and it was a far cry from the fieldworks he saw here. Feeding the workers, too, had been challenging, and they'd had to deal with dysentery in the workforce and the soldiers alike.

Then, Patrek thought, there was the welcoming party. Lady Stark was in what he thought was armor like the Blackfish had worn, but in the shape of a ladies gown, with a fine boiled leather helmet in place of a fur hat. She was accompanied by a young woman with the Stark look, wearing a ridiculous number of blades. He didn't know why - maybe she was like he'd heard some of the Northern women were like, or the Dornish, and was showing she thought she could fight. Throwing knives wasn't honorable; no true man would fight like that! And... well, he'd tried as a boy, and it wasn't anything you could use for real, either.

Sansa watched him approach, offering him bread and salt as Kitty again offered wine, Leriah on Kitty's other side, Lady Keath behind her, as Korb and Connas were behind Arya and herself, just in case.

Should Jamie or the Freys prove false, her own job was to hold the large, heavy platter in front of her face and neck while moving backwards to the gatehouse as fast as possible. The platter was quite heavy - castle-forged steel, direwolves running around the rim, with a thin layer of silver disguising what was really a small steel shield as a decorated serving dish. She wore only a thin cloak, the thick padded backing to her armored dress keeping her warm enough while she was sheltered from the winds. It certainly impressed some of the men, too - either the thinness of the cloak, or her wearing true armor, the same as they were.

"Welcome to Winterfell, Lord Patrek. The stories of the brave men and women of Seagard defying Walder Frey and Cersei Baratheon have reached the North. Please have bread and salt, and be our guest," said Sansa with her best courtly smile as she curtsied, offering the platter steadily. Heavy for its size it might be, she'd been training with much larger shields for long enough to grow used to them.

"Thank you, my Lady. I bring one hundred barrels of wheat, and one hundred more of salt beef. Were we not prepared for siege ourselves, we would have sent more food and men besides, but we're barely seventy miles from the Lannister forces at the Twins, and must defend our home," replied the heir to Seagard as he took a small piece of bread, rubbing it into the salt and eating. He hadn't really seen guest rights taken quite so seriously as they were in the North, though with the rumors he'd heard in Seagard, and worse, what he'd heard from his traveling companions, he supposed he could understand taking such things seriously. No one wanted Lady Winter coming for their house, whoever or whatever that was. Every Frey who'd participated in the Red Wedding, dead in a single night, no one knowing how. The why was obvious, of course - the North remembers. Well, that was why he was here - the North did remember, so answering the raven they'd received would be remembered, too.

"I thank you for your generous gift, Lord Patrek. This is my sister Arya. She's quite adamant about not wanting or liking to be called Lady Stark or Lady Arya, so you may address her as Lady Winter," said Sansa in a carrying voice, gesturing to Arya, who gave a small nod as not only Patrek but also the Freys froze for a moment, their eyes drawn to the small Stark. Jamie, too, was looking at Arya, but with more interest than fear.

Patrek looked at the short young woman; he'd thought the armguards, the bow, the thin sword and the many knives to be an affectation, but now, looking into her cold, amused eyes, he thought he could imagine her carving through more than two score men. Probably while she smiled. Well... good riddance to bad Freys, and a curse upon them for all they'd done, and all they'd failed to do. He wouldn't want to marry the girl, certainly... but that was his father's decision, not his, and he'd do as he was bid.

With a deep nod, he spoke, "It is an honor to meet you, Lady Winter. You have done the Riverlands a great service, one which can never be truly repaid, by removing the Late Walder Frey and the men he raised to follow in his dishonor. You've done Seagard a great service with that same act; with the Lannisters needing to garrison the Twins, and the Frey armies vanishing as far as the Lannisters know, well, other than Lord Jamie, Seagard has gained a reprieve."

Gesturing to her left, Sansa continued the introductions, "You know of our sister by choice, the Lady of the Crossing, of course."

He accepted a sip of wine from Lady Frey, "A pleasure to meet you, Lady Frey. I'm glad to see you've prospered in the North."

Sansa gestured to the castle, "You're welcome to take a meal in the Great Hall; I would be pleased to meet with you in my solar after dinner and learn what brought you so far from Seagard at this critical time."

"Thank you, my Lady," said Lord Patrek with a deep bow, heading in as she'd indicated, a messenger girl rushing to intercept and lead him.

Too deep, Sansa thought, for the circumstances as she knew them. Something more was happening with the Mallisters. Well, she'd find out soon enough, one way or another.

Jamie Lannister approached next, with the sign for you from Sansa, Arya strode forward as they'd planned, intercepting him before he got within lunging range of Sansa. He wasn't nearly as dangerous with one hand as he'd once been with both, but he was still a dangerous opponent, and losing his overconfidence had reduced one of his main weaknesses.

"Jamie Lannister, thank you for coming North as you said you would. What are your intentions here?" asked Arya, her voice flat.

"To fight for the living," says Jamie immediately, then looked back at the Riverlanders he'd traveled with. He'd had ample time to listen to them on the big dogsled they'd been put on, and what they'd said and planned had made him think, too, of his own honor, of what Brienne saw in him, and of what he admired in her. Returning his gaze to the Stark that got away, the one who'd approached with her hands behind her back, and excellent footwork. Braavosi footwork, quick and precise. None of the Freys were good soldiers, and most of them had been old by any standard but Walder's and Olenna's, but still, to kill them all in one night was a feat. One Cersei would have loved to perform herself, once upon a time.

Arya waited, still and quiet, simply assessing the man with every measure of her skill. He had more to say, more he wanted to say, and she'd make sure he said it.

"And to return what is yours," continued the Kingslayer, unbuckling his swordbelt and offering Widow's Wail to the warrior woman before him, holding only the sheath in his left hand. After coming all this way, he'd rather not be shot by some skittish guardsman mistaking his gesture as an attack. Guardsmen who hated him for what he'd done, for what Cersei had done, well, nothing he could do about that.

With a lightning quick step, she'd taken the blade from him by the sheath with her right hand, holding it out as a boy ran up, taking the sword and darting off deeper into the castle. Still, she said nothing, waiting without interrupting him, without prompting him. Brienne had been eloquent in her praise, and she'd make sure all those listening would hear what he said of his own free will.

He looked down for a moment, then at Sansa's cold gaze, and Arya's colder one. He knew what Brienne would say to him, had heard it in his head the entire trip up. Well, if he was to die for it, at least he'd die with some honor, tarnished may it be, "And to apologize for pushing your brother out the window, for crippling him."

Arya spoke, her voice without inflection, without warmth or feeling of any kind, "Bran forgave you."

Jamie looked down at his golden right hand for a second, "He's a better man than I am. I'm glad he lived. Am I to die, now? If so, let's just get on with it."

"What will you do if you are not?" asked Arya, betraying nothing.

With a deep breath, Jamie straightened up fully, pride in his posture again, though without the arrogance that had once been so obvious. He'd come to this conclusion days ago, and now, prepared to say it out loud, not knowing if he'll live or die... well, at least he'd regain some portion of his honor.

"I will join the Night's Watch, and fight for the living," said Jamie Lannister.

"And what can a right-handed man without a right hand offer them?" asked Lady Winter.

"My life. A poor left-handed swordsman, now without a sword. My father did try to teach me war, you know, so there's that. Well, he tried to teach me a lot of things, but war was the only one I really learned."

"Oh? Then why did you have nothing but a shield-wall only one line deep, a single line of spearmen, and a single line of archers when the Dothraki charged?" asked Arya without inflection.

"My orders were to get the gold to King's Landing as fast as possible. The food was... not very important to my sister. The best troops, the best scouts all went ahead with the gold. The food column was a lot longer, and with green troops, stretched out. To keep it tighter would have meant halting the lead elements, or letting Randall whip everyone. The gold made it. I fulfilled my orders."

"And after your lines were breaking, why did you gather archers and lead them to fire on the dragon, causing it to abort its attack run because Queen Daenerys didn't want to be pierced?"

"Because I'd forgotten we had the scorpion until after," said Jamie, pointedly looking up at the gatehouses and towers around him, "Which I can see was a mistake. You really have been busy."

"True, but I meant you'd already seen the dragon burn your men alive, less than a hundred yards from you. Why were you still fighting instead of running? You had a horse; you had a better chance at escaping than nearly any of your men," continued Arya, giving no hint of her feelings on the matter. The audience needed to hear this, needed to know that he really did face a dragon with nothing but a few archers, instead of running. Those rumors would spread, would let him be effective, as she needed him to be.

"I won't abandon my army. I gave the orders, it was my responsibility," said Jamie, remembering the screams of men as they burned to death; something he'd hoped not to hear again after he killed the Mad King. All fire burned the same, it seemed.

"And after Bronn grounded Drogon, why did you mount a horse and charge its rider with a spear?"

Jamie held his golden hand up, smiling wryly, "Because it's hard to shoot a bow with only one hand."

At Arya's sign for you, Sansa spoke, "After our mother captured Tyrion Lannister, you attacked our father. Killed Jory in combat, fought our father in single combat until one of your guards speared him from behind. Why didn't you finish our father off then?"

"It wouldn't have been clean," said Jamie, looking down for a moment, then up into Sansa's eyes, "I wanted to fight him, man to man. It wouldn't have been honorable after he was wounded by a soldier who disobeyed his orders."

"Yes, you struck your soldier to chastise him, after. You weren't wearing your plate armor when you fought our father, either. Why not?" asked the eldest Stark.

Jamie cocked his head, a little puzzled by the way the questioning had gone. He'd imagined far worse on the long ride north, "Lord Stark didn't go around the city wearing armor. It wouldn't have been clean if I was the only one in full armor. Your father was an honorable warrior; he deserved an honorable battle. I suppose, too, I was fighting because my brother had been taken, so wearing the King's armor seemed... wrong."

Looking around the courtyard, at the men and women watching, Sansa saw what she'd expected. As much as the Northerners and many of the Vale loved her father, fighting man to man was a long tradition; it was the old way, as Jon had said when he offered single combat to Ramsay. For Jamie to offer single combat in return for her mother's taking his brother... that was different than an ambush.

Arya held out her right hand casually, at which sign a page rushed out to place a sword-belt in it with a sword in a plain black scabbard on the right, and a wooden dagger with dragonglass shards on the left. She held it out to him; the sword had a simple, functional hilt. The blade itself was castle-forged steel, a copy of the blade of Widow's Wail made by Gendry based on Bran's drawing.

Arya spoke, her voice warmer, now, welcoming, "You'll need the dagger, if you're to join the Night's Watch. Don't bother with the sword against wights or White Walkers, it'll be no good. You'll need the sword, though, if you're ever to fight a duel. Try not to lose; left-handed swordfighters don't need that kind of stain on their reputation."

She returned to her sister's side, and Sansa now held out the platter of bread to Jamie Lannister with a small nod, "Have bread and salt, and be welcome in our home, Ser Jamie Lannister. Hurry; Micah here will take you to the Night's Watch. They're gathering in the Godswood, and Lady Meera will need it back for archery training soon enough."

Jamie put on the sword-belt, then took and ate a piece of bread with salt, took a large drink of wine, turned to leave, then turned back for just a moment, to say, "I'm sorry."

As Jamie broke into a jog of his own as the boy ran off towards where the Night's Watch was about to induct new members before the election, the last group approached, the smallfolk from the northern Riverlands, lands which had been under the control of the Twins.

Kitty Frey strode forward, weirwood crossbow on her back, smiling widely, "Welcome to Winterfell. On behalf of Lady Stark, the Red Wolf, thank you for answering my ravens, for coming north, for bringing men and provisions. Please, come and have bread and salt and be guests of the Lady of Winterfell; Leriah will take you to the Night's Watch after you've accepted guest right."

They still looked scared, but approached slowly, keeping their heads down and bowing before they started moving, glancing up at Sansa, who gave a small welcoming smile, and especially looking at Arya, who simply nodded and gestured them forward.

************************

Two days later, they'd already long passed a fork in the river that Jon had said led to the Lonely Hills. Daenerys looked up as she bounced along as the dogsled she was riding on once again swerved suddenly. She was tired, not having slept well in the cold, heavy air of their campsite, and now the winds were even higher than they'd been before. They'd endured the old man's angry tirade at how slow they were to pack up her tent; as a result, they were at the very end of the caravan today, having had to catch up. The main caravan had left without her!

On the other hand, their new rear position was quite far from the wildfire. She shuddered a little. Hearing about that hellish substance had been an unpleasant revelation! She hoped they wouldn't have to use it; her children were far less likely to suddenly burn everything in sight! Yes, her children were much safer. They didn't have to be treated so gently, be kept far from heat and flame.

She turned to look at Jon, who was pensively looking up into the low clouds moving quickly above them, "Jon? Did you see Drogon or Rhaegal?"

"Aye; they flew west a few minutes ago, and I think they landed on that hill over there."

"That's a hill? It looks like a mound of snow. Everything here looks like a mound of snow," complained Daenerys.

"Aye, but that's a hill" chuckled Jon, then pointing to another mound of snow, "Over there, that's a snowdrift."

Dany gave a huff, then smiled, "You're feeling better? You looked... lost in thought."

"Not really. I was just thinking that it smells like snow."

"Of course it smells like snow, Jon. There's snow everywhere!"

"No, I mean it smells like it's going to snow. You know, like you can smell when a storm's coming? Like that."

"A snow storm?" asked the silver-haired woman.

"Aye. We could end up buried in snow, you know," replied Jon, grinning, "Old Nan said there were snows more than a hundred feet deep, in winter, you know. Even Drogon could be buried so deep he had to dig his way out!"

"That sounds awful," replied Dany, giggling at the thought of a sour-faced Drogon emerging from a white landscape, shaking himself like a horse, snow flying everywhere like water off a horse's mane after fording a deep river, "How do you Northerners survive weather like that?"

"It's actually quite cozy, if you have decent shelter first," he said.

"And if you don't?" she asked. She expected she knew the answer - it'd be no different than getting caught in a sandstorm in the Red Wastes. The lands here were just as barren - she'd seen some of the Free Folk chopping through the ice to set fishing lines, just as a few of the Dothraki with desert experience had been able to catch a lizard here or there, or find a plant to eat and get juice from.

"Then you freeze to death," Jon answered seriously, confirming her expectation.

"Ah," she said quietly, then changed the subject entirely. Death by cold, being kept away from the warmth of life, that sounded like the worst possible way to die to her, "Are you all right, after hearing about Arya?"

"It was a bit of a shock, I'll admit. Not the duels themselves; she'd talked about fighting in a tourney, so that's no surprise. Her killing someone, just like that... that was a shock. I've fought people, killed people, but I never liked it. Never enjoyed it. Never did it for fun," said Jon quietly. He knew he was good at fighting... at killing... but it wasn't what he wanted to do. Arya'd always wanted to learn to fight, and it sounded like their father'd found her a good teacher; a great teacher, even. Though what kind of man was he, if a man had come to Westeros to challenge his sister in a fight to the death over being his student?

Daenerys replied, her voice soft and thoughtful, "I've seen bravos, growing up, you know. Missandei's story is right - they aren't dangerous to anyone but their own, and all over Essos, they follow their own code of honor. I even saw a duel once! Viserys didn't allow me out often, but sometimes, when we were moving between houses, I was able to be outside more. We were in Norvos; I remember because the views of the hills were amazing. I was late getting home, and two bravos met in front of me; one touched his sword, and then they were fighting, right there. Once the one hit the other in the arm, they were done, and they both left. Neither threatened me, nor did any other bravo I ever saw."

"So, they're like knights?" asked Jon.

Daenerys laughed, "No! They don't run around in armor, or fight in big battles, or get anointed by some particular god. They're... bravos, who like to fight."

"I've never been to Essos. The only times I've been south of Winterfell is to see you, or with you, even! You've seen so much; tell me, what were the hills around Norvos like?"

"They were steep and tall; I imagined flying over them on a dragon! Well, I thought I did; actually riding on a dragon is the most amazing feeling, to see the world stretching out below you, the wind on your face, flying through clouds. Or above them, even - they stretch out below you in an unending sea of white," said Daenerys, her voice full of remembered joy.

"You really love flying on Drogon, don't you?"

"I do. Perhaps I'll have to bring you along; you missed the ride to Eastwatch, after all," she said with a teasing smile, then shifted again as the caravan slowed, coming to a halt on the frozen river, between the shelter of two small hills, once again beginning the process of feeding the dogs, small one-man dogsleds getting the first of the food for their dogs, then darting off in pairs to check the area, a considerable distance between the members of each pair.

While most of the dogs were finishing their meals, a high-pitched, staccato drumbeat sounded faintly across the quiet landscape from a hill to the north, followed by two tiny specks descending the hill quickly and a loud shout from the caravan's leader.

"Snostorm inkommande! Full fart mot stenhalan!"

Immediately, more than half the entire caravan started moving out without hesitation, the rest, including their own sled, simply loading the sleds with anything that someone could hold in place by hand. The old man who gave the passengers instructions came to them after they'd started, coming into place besides them.

"Blizzard coming, and fast! We go to Rocky Hollow, wait it out! You dig in, do not use stupid tent! You Night's Watch, yes? Been in North?"

"I was!" said Jon, "To the Fist of the First Men!"

"Good! This real Northern storm! You dig, dig as small as you fit in, fit very tight together! Use dark man spear for air, four holes, four times each hour, or you die! Use canvas line hole! Small fire only if lots air!"

"Aye," said Jon, watching the small dogsled move off again.

"Jon?" asked Daenerys, worried.

"You know that snowstorm I was worried about? We're getting one, a big one. We'll all have to sleep together for warmth; all of us. He wants us to use Grey Worm's spear to poke air holes and keep them clear," said Jon.

"Air holes?"

"You can't breathe through snow, Dany. We'll need to have someone awake all the time to keep the air holes clear."

"I'm sure we can all stay awake for a few hours, Jon."

Jon chuckled wryly, "I hope it's only a few hours. More like a few days. Could be a few weeks, even, though it seems awful early for that. Winter is here."

"Weeks!"

"That's what Father said, and the men of the Night's Watch. Deep in Winter, the storms last for days and weeks. You didn't think Sansa said carrying at least three months of food was required to leave a city for nothing, did you?" asked Jon, "She's the Lady of Winterfell. It's the Lady's duty to manage the supplies and keep everyone in Winterfell fed and warm for as long as she can in winter, just like it was Lady Catelyn's duty before her. Just like it's Lady Manderly's duty in White Harbor."

As they moved north, the sky before them turned black even as they could still see the sun setting in the west. The caravan split, then, some sleds staying atop the river, while the rest went up a steep hillside on the shore to a very rough plateau, crowned with great boulders and rock formations around what turned out to be a basin, covered in thick snow.

Jon saw an sled pulled by eight dogs moving slowly up the hillside, uncoiling a rope that stretched down to the sleds down on the river, already turned on their sides and partly buried to make a windbreak.

The old man came by again, accompanying a large cargo sled, which dropped off a small pile of wood, a barrel of pitch, a package of dried foods for Jon, and a small kettle. They stuck a stake with a wide, deep set of fins at the end and in the middle deep into the snow, looping the middle of a long rope around it, one knot in the rope on the right of their entrance they'd come from, and two on the left side.

"You Southrons, dig deeper! Pack snow, like this," said Meras as he took up a piece of wood from the pile, showing them briefly how to dig, how to pack the snow on the walls and into large bricks, "Make walls. Make turn at entrance, keep wind out. Put furs or canvas over entrance. Keep warmth in! Air holes here, here, here, here. Bigger! Feel sleepy, put fire out! Angle like this. Use wood when got air, when need to dry. Bring food in. Bring all furs, all cloth in. Sleep in pile, like dogs, stay warm. Stay dry! Keep rope at entrance! Piss, shit on right, one knot, five paces! Keep hand on rope or die! Use kettle, melt snow from left, two knots!"

The old man left them to it.

As the sky darkened quickly above them, all around, Tyrion could see clansmen were digging quickly, much more quickly than their group. Fifteen or so yards away, he saw a small, pinched-faced girl of perhaps three and ten dive into their hole with a flatter piece of wood, followed by a scarred young woman of perhaps one and twenty who started handing snow blocks to a rather hideous, wart-covered middle-aged woman who set them around the entrance.

Tyrion selected a flat, short piece of wood, and said, "I'll go in first and start the hole. Grey Worm, Qhono, if you could come in after me and enlarge the hole? Jon, Lord Varys, pack the snow and make walls. We might be here for some time. At least it'll smell better than the sewers, even if it's smaller."

Daenerys looked up, then smiled as Drogon and Rhaegal came in for a landing next to them, Drogon's tail carefully held inside the boulders that were behind them, one wing stretching over their small party as the wind began to blow snow as well as air.

"Or we could ask my children to help, rather than having to dig so deep," said Daenerys, rubbing Drogon's cheek fondly.

************************

Theon stepped out of the small boat, followed by his crew. Euron had part of his fleet patrolling the entrance to Blackwater Bay quite vigorously, so he was going to portage around the patrols. They were far enough out he didn't think the Lannisters would have many people here, so he could sneak in to rescue Yara, or die trying. Yara'd come for him, so he was going to come for her... that was the least he could do, after running when Euron boarded their ship.

He jerked, startled, as a whisper cut through the darkness ahead of him, "The lone wolf dies."

"Who's there?" demanded Theon in a harsh whisper as his crew drew their weapons behind him.

"The lone wolf dies," came a repeat of the saying... but with a clear question in the tone, not a threat.

"But the pack survives," whispered Theon, hoping he was right. He'd heard that, often enough growing up... and so he hoped. A man emerged from the darkness before him, striding over the cold ground with a bag on his back, walking very carefully, dressed as a sailor.

"You the Greyjoy? Theon?" asked the man.

"I am. Sansa sent you?" asked Theon.

"No One sent me, but I reckon Lady Stark's the one what wanted you to get some help. Gods, boy, you think carryin' boats ain't gonna be noticed? Put that shite down. Got three boats in a cove, mile down along the coast. Look for a cave near three gnarled trees in a line. Here, take this shite - be careful! You gots some Lannister armor in there, can make as captured spies, if'n you be seen. Here, gots a map - you look at it in the cave, don' be lightin' up in the open. Gots your Uncle's patrols... and his passwords, too. Might change, might not, but good tonight, I 'eard em myself. You Iron Islanders are awful loud, you know. Half of you don't know nuthin', looks like."

Theon took the sealed leather tube the man was offering, while the man took the time to set the bag down carefully, "Thank you, and tell Sansa thank you."

"Ye saved her from the Boltons. She's gots Bran and Arya back, now. I figure she wants you to have your family back, too. You be careful with this bag, you hear! Them bottles, all wrapped up? That's wildfire, that is, ifn' you boys ain't any more quiet than them aboard those ships," said the man, "I gots to go. If'n you get stopped, whichever of yous in the Lannister armor, the Lannister password is 'Mines of Casterly Rock'. Old gods help you."

With that, the man faded back into the darkness, leaving behind the tube of papers and the bag.

************************

 

Late at night, Sansa was sewing as Arya strode by Sansa with a feather-duster, saying, "Pardon me, m'lady" as she passed. Once she'd passed Sansa's line of sight, the assassin dropped the duster, reaching up under the thick layers of the dress she was wearing to draw a slender, blunt training knife, striking for Sansa's back and missing as Sansa'd dropped her sewing project and used her long legs to open the distance, keeping the heavy wooden chair between them as she went for the set of emergency gear across the room with a quietly murmured, "Screaming."

Arya stepped over the discarded sewing project and launched herself off the chair towards Sansa, knife leading as Sansa deflected with a steel knitting needle and a push to shove Arya off course; by the time Arya, using a reduced measure of her speed, had come up, Sansa was already jabbing a spear with a blunt training head at her carefully, yanking it back before Arya's left hand could grasp the haft below the blade. A few exchanges later, and Sansa's spearblade poked Arya in the side after Arya 'fell' for her feint.

"Good feint, good use of your precision. You're getting a little quicker, too, sister, and your footwork was solid. Good placement when you threw your sewing down, right where I'd rather have stepped. Why didn't you go for the crossbow? You and Kitty always keep one ready, now, as hard as that is on the string." asked Arya quietly.

"It's only one shot; if I miss, or even hit without doing enough damage, both my hands are occupied; I'm not fast enough to recover from that," replied Sansa easily.

"Good! Your freakish reach is an advantage; using a medium spear like that makes it very hard to close the distance intact, as long as you don't let it get grabbed," smiled Arya, hiking her dress up to replace the blunt.

Sansa struck suddenly, one finger reaching out for Arya's shoulder, and missing as her sister ducked, while they giggled together before settling down on the divan, Arya pulling the dress up again so Sansa could adjust the thigh strap.

"How are the new knitting needles?" asked Arya. She and Gendry knew weapons well enough, but using needles was not her skill, and she was quite sure Gendry had never even tried.

"They're good; they catch less than the wooden ones, though they're a bit heavy. If I hadn't been working on leather armor so much, it might have been harder to use these," said Sansa, steppiung back and spinning the heavy needle through her fingers gracefully before tugging the 'sheath' part of it off, revealing the training blunt inside.

"Well, I'm glad they work for your knitting as well. People will question them less that way, and it's very easy to overlook something used in plain sight, if it's used the way you expect. What did Bran mean earlier, when he said the Manderly ladies liked the gloves?"

"You remember Bessie Flint, the goat? Well, I'd found some wool, almost as soft as hers, but just a bit in mixed colors, so I made up gloves for the Manderly ladies. They've done very well for us, so a bit of personal attention is the least I could do. You met them; what would they want from us?" asked Sansa. She knew very well she needed to pay attention to her bannermen, to all the people in the North and the Vale. She'd learned about fear from Cersei, about uncertainty from Littlefinger, about maneuvering and politics from them and others... but she'd learned about fostering loyalty from her father, and from her mother, and that was a tradition she intended to continue.

Arya considered; she'd spoken with the girls, and heard more about them, both here and on her journey, "More than anything, Wylla and Wynafryd want to make sure White Harbor stays in Manderly hands, and under the Manderly name. They're shrewd, all three of them, in their own ways. Wynafryd's definitely her grandfather's heir, but I don't think she'd mind if it was Wylla who kept the name. They follow the Seven, but only to a point - Wynafryd had a bunch of young men with her when they first met me, and then mostly young women at breakfast when I joined them the next morning! All loyal to House Manderly, of course."

Sansa laughed, nudging her sister, "And did any of them catch your eye, Arya?"

Arya glared at Sansa, "Do you think me an addled idiot? No, I'm not going to respond to bait in a trap like that. Marriage isn't for me; the Many-Faced God is who I've made my commitment to serve, not some man or woman who wants my loyalty given to them."

Sansa held up her hands palms out in mock surrender, "All right, all right, who am I to offend such a dedicated priest, unwilling to even entertain the prospect of marriage. If you're done deflecting..."

Arya smirked, "Drat. Foiled in my cunning plan to distract you from your evil purpose of consolidating all power in your own hands. They'll want to see if Jon's interested in them, of course - a highborn Stark bastard would be exactly what they wanted, letting them keep their own name and rule White Harbor, now that he'd not King anymore. Without him, they'll keep looking, so if you can arrange a match with a good bastard, or a Free Folk or smallfolk man who wants to settle down here in the South. Maybe even a second or third highborn son willing to give up his name, though I suspect they're both too strong-willed for that to work out well."

"So, like Gendry?" mused Sansa.

"Hmm... he might like Wylla. She'd certainly keep him on his toes, and she's got that same simple honor. They aren't ready for the Mormont way"

"Oh? Just don't say anything about the father of their children? Maybe in a few years; for now, they're likely still too invested in the Seven, so they'll want a good marriage."

Arya nodded. Sansa was the Lady in the family, so she'd leave arranging marriages to her, "Well, if you're going to appoint a Master of Ships, once we're ready to run caravans through the army of the dead, we can have Wylla up with a dogsled team along with a Braavosi representative, since the Braavosi are leading the naval side of things. Introduce her to Gendry, see if she catches his interest. Maybe even send the Scorpion Bear back with her to inspect White Harbor's siege engines; I bet they'll get along well."

"Well, we'll see what happens," said Sansa, "We're really ready for the dead? White Harbor's going to start stockpiling now; Jon's the last dogsled caravan in, and there's only the one horse caravan north of Moat Cailin. Gulltown's taking over supply of Moat Cailin and the Vale; they're still far enough from the dead, and Cersei's dealing with the loss of the Reach's food and lords to Daenerys. We've got the herds and flocks in, the hunters have taken anything they can which they can't drive south."

"We are, as much as we can be right now. We've got a solid set of fieldworks, Lyanna's crews can loose even in snow and fog, the archers too. The camps are as good as we can manage; they've got solid walls and roofs to protect against the weather and bolts or arrows that fall short. The animals in the second ring are the most at risk," said Arya, "We can always learn more lessons, but we're as good as we're going to be until we have to deal with untrained new forces, and we've got plans for that."

"The Long Night worries me. We've got as many edible mushrooms and sprouts growing in the crypt tunnels as the Maesters identified and the hunters and foragers could find, but that's not nearly enough to really cut down on the rate we're eating through our supplies," said Sansa with concern. The new glass gardens that were under construction would help, but being under siege, in winter, perhaps without enough sunlight to grow crops anywhere, all for years at a time?

Arya nudged her sister, "Cheer up, Sansa. All the peoples of the world have stories of the Long Night. We may not have the kind of magic they once did other than the Three-Eyed Raven and the wargs, but we do have things they didn't; foreign allies, modern siege engines, wildfire and Valyrian steel and two thirds of the dragons in the world."

Sansa's lips quirked upwards slightly, "Stay with me tonight?"

"Of course," replied Arya. She, too, was concerned about their chances, but they'd done everything they could in the time they had. They would win, or they would die... but they would not die alone, and what they'd set in motion would continue after their deaths, in the North, in the Vale, in Braavos and Dorne and many other great cities and nations across the world, so she was quite comfortable with either outcome. All must die... but she would tell her god not today once again, as best she could, for herself, and her sister, and her family and peoples.

************************

Chapter Text

Arya felt Sansa wake the next morning, taking off the face of No One and standing smoothly, handing Sansa a cup of water, greeting her sister brightly, "Lady Stark, I hope you enjoyed sleeping in so late while the rest of us were slaving away to serve you! If you'd grant your glorious permission, I'll call in two dozen maids to help you dress."

"You are the most annoying sister in the world," complained Sansa, making the sign for jape, taking the chill water and nearly draining it. She hadn't even lit the hearth last night; a candle was enough for her to train with, and the chambermaids telling tales of the Red Wolf's being perfectly comfortable without a fire was both amusing and useful. She stood, stretching, then poured the last bit of water carefully onto a scrap of cloth, washing her face vigorously.

"I can't be. You exist, after all," replied Arya with a grin, settling down and lighting a candle before taking a stack of raven scrolls from one of the many bookshelves, glancing through the reports from the other strongholds, reading the military ones and setting the civilian and political ones aside for Sansa.

"Oh? I happen to have heard some strange things, you know. While you were out traveling the kingdoms, it seems Lord Stout died, tragically," said Sansa leadingly, wiping herself down with the rag and dressing. She wouldn't have done that with anyone else present, but her sister, she felt safe with. Arya, too, knew enough to have busied herself looking at papers, rather than at her scars, and she was grateful.

"Oh? Was he very old?" asked Arya blandly, showing no sign of interest, or knowledge, whatsoever, "Did he challenge a bravo to a duel to the death?"

"He drowned after falling in the privy, upside down and stuck, after spilling his ale and slipping," said Sansa equally blandly, watching her sister closely, seeing nothing.

"Perhaps he should have drank less. His heir... that was Robert Stout, wasn't it? Do you like him better?" asked Arya, a trace of boredom in her voice as it usually was when discussing highborn politics with her sister.

"Strangely enough, Robert disappeared. The younger son, Edward Stout is Lord now. He seems to be doing well for losing so much of his family in such short order," replied Sansa, moving closer so Arya could help lace up her armored dress in the back. Arya clearly wasn't going to give anything away, so all she had were suspicions... and a little more.

"Father dead, brother vanished. Should I pay my respects?" replied Arya, rubbing Sansa's scarred back gently before starting to lace her up carefully. As she'd expected, No One hadn't left any evidence behind; No One was well on the path to being a full priest of the Many-Faced God.

"And his mother, who died just before you left. Apparently of sickness, according to her husband, though I did hear he'd had her body burned with... very commendable speed," said Sansa dryly, sitting down and starting on her own stack of raven scrolls, continuing.

"The vanished Robert Stout, though, you should remember. He bore quite a resemblance to the young man of the House of Black and White who took away that bravo from Myr you killed. Strange, that."

"The world is full of strange things, Sansa. You should see more of it; Braavos, at least - it's farther North than most of the Vale, and you don't mind that," replied Arya. Westeros was just going to have to get used to the way the House of Black and White in Westeros did things, and avenging a mother who was beaten to death was very much the kind of just vengeance the House was here to provide... for a price. That both sons have loved their mother, and that the elder son had truly wished to grow up and be Lord was good; the price of devoting his life to the House of Black and White was heavy enough.

"That's a discussion for summer, Arya. Robert Stout wasn't a great fighter, not even a good one; I've seen him train, even beaten him in training matches myself. He wasn't very bright, either, for all that he was a better man than his father... far better, from what I hear, but his father's bannermen didn't respect him. They respect his little brother even less, and are making trouble," said Sansa, getting to the core of what she needed to tell her sister, making the sign for truth. Killing monsters was well and good, but there were real consequences to it, and not just for the monsters and their victims.

"Summer travels it is, my provincial sister. Valar Dohaeris; his bannermen must serve. They can respect the lad or not, as long as they don't show it on their faces, but if they're being a problem... I'll pair him up with Lord Glover for awhile. Unless you think Lady Winter should pay them a visit?" asked Arya.

"Gods no! Lord Glover will do fine. I just wish there was some way I could have a warning when I'm about to have a mess like that on my hands, Arya! You were away, Lady Stout had been burned two weeks before, then suddenly the man was dead and the boy was missing. If the younger son had been the one missing, I'd have been dealing with his bannermen accusing Robert of assassinating his father to become Lord! As it is, it's still too close to kinslaying for comfort."

"Valar Morghulis, Sansa. Valar Morghulis. There is a price to be paid for everything. Perhaps you should send a raven to the Sealord; he might have some advice you'd find useful."

Sansa glared at Arya, angry at her sister's immediate dismissal of not just the trouble the actions her men, women, whatever had done were causing Sansa, but at the time she'd have to waste now, the tensions that this kind of thing would cause, now and in the future. Watching Arya's calmness, Sansa closed her eyes and pondered the rest of what Arya had said.

Everything had a price; that included the trade with Braavos, free of tax and tariff for that part of the trade that was part of the war against the dead. They'd bought a small fleet of ships, and the Sealord had voluntarily given up quite a lot of money with his decision. The Faceless Men had gifted enough Valyrian Steel to make dozens of the 'Death's Head' scorpion bolts, as they'd been named. Her sister was alive, and well, and an enormously capable assassin... who did, in fact, assassinate people, and have them assassinated.

Even when it was inconvenient for her elder sister.

Sansa crumpled up the raven scrolls she was done with, crushing them tight in her hand, suppressing her anger, letting it diminish and be overwhelmed by her love for her sister, her gratitude... and her simple exasperation, as she flung the entire handful at Arya, whose dodge turned into a cartwheel, then with a wicked grin Arya took up a lightly padded staff, twirling it around as she stepped into the center of the room, "Cheater! I wasn't ready!"

"That's not my fault," said Sansa as she let her own grin show, exasperation falling away as she took up a training staff with a precisely controlled twirl of her own, then slipped it through her leading hand, striking at the maximum extension of her reach at Arya's face, conveniently on the level of her shoulder.

Some time later, as the eastern skies were a bare shade less black than in the west, they walked through dark streets to the brothel's dining room together with a large group, guards following behind.

Sansa led the procession, greeting many of those they passed by name, highborn and smallfolk alike, as did Arya.

Meera paid attention, watching how natural Sansa's greetings were, how Arya asked about family members. Meera exchanged a glance and a small smile with Lyanna Mormont, who she'd found to also be a keen observer of the Starks, though more of Arya, just as Meera herself paid more attention to Sansa. She watched as Arya took Alleras aside with a wave and a promise to join them shortly, the two disappearing down an alley while the rest of the group approached the brothel.

They ascended the stone steps, Kitty opening the door, decorated with an engraving of a platter of roast chicken, just as they reached it and greeting each person with a broad smile. Meera could easily see where she'd picked that up from; the influence of the Stark sisters was everywhere, if you knew what to look for.

"Sansa, Meera, welcome back! You'll be in the large table in the back. Lord Reed, it's good to see you again. Lord Royce, a pleasure to have you with us. Lady Mormont, welcome to the dining room; we hope you enjoy your breakfast. Lord Manderly, we have a wonderful new recipe for eggs in a spicy Braavosi sauce I think you'll enjoy, if you'd like to try it. Maester Wolkan, thank you for seeing Petunia, she's doing much better now," said Lady Frey, ushering them in one at a time, then joining them at the table, food already coming out on individual plates, each meal tailored to each person's tastes.

Meera looked at her own plate, then the others, and realized that this, too, was an application of Sansa's spy network, and a subtle warning just as much as it was a reward and a kind gesture from their liege lady. She was supplying, though Kitty's hands, favorite meals, which was good. She also knew what their favorite meals were, and that was, now that she really thought about it, something she was done deliberately to show her knowledge, what Sansa would call the power of her knowledge.

Meeting Sansa's eyes, Meera saw a flicker of a wink. Kitty gave her a subtle nod, and her own father tipped his cup to her slightly. Lord Manderly and Lord Royce looked at each other, then both smiled at her! Was she really nearly the last to figure this out, and that obvious about it besides? Or were they all that good?

Well, at least she beat the girl of three and ten and the Maester, she supposed. Meera carefully tried to even out her expression again as Sansa had been teaching her, taking a drink and starting on her breakfast as Sansa asked the merman about taxes, wondering if everyone in King's Landing was this good, and what that said about Southron politics.

Lord Manderly savored a small bite of egg he had lavishly dipped in the sauce provided, closing his eyes to savor the new flavors as he ate, then answered Lady Stark, "The Keyholder has confirmed that our payment arrived; our interest rates remain steady. I believe taxes will be easy enough to collect, as long as they're what people brought with them. There's no telling what the army of the dead, or the other armies will do while they're in the North or the Vale, so we may have quite substantial rebuilding after the winter."

The large man patted his belly, his clothes clearly loose on his frame, and laughed, "We will have substantial rebuilding indeed! As will I!"

"Lady Mormont. I believe you are investigating the history of abdications of Kings in the North, and the laws and customs of bending the knee?"

"I am, Lady Stark. I've found three Kings in the North who abdicated their thrones to join the Night's Watch; the records the Night's Watch brought with them corroborate the other records, showing two to have become the Lord Commander. The only recorded instance where a King in the North ever bent the knee, of course, was Torrhen Stark, son of Theon Stark. There are clear records that he, facing the combined might of the South and three dragons with experienced riders, and having no scorpions or ballista, no Valyrian steel bolts or arrows, put his left knee on the ground, and presented his bared sword, as is custom," replied Lady Mormont strongly.

Meera listened to the normal speaking tones they were all using, in a public room, and compared them to the slow, careful way Arya had paced around the room in Winterfell, doing whatever it was beyond just listening and smelling and feeling the air that she did, to the low voiced they'd used even then, behind a door covered in furs to muffle sound. Meera knew herself to be an exceptional hunter - she could sneak up on game, had even been able to sneak up on Osha, but Arya seemed to have something beyond that, and those abilities had been used for minutes before they discussed dangerous, secret matters.

Having these discussions here, in public... this was training from Sansa, to her, too, in how to lead, to rule, to manage spies and rumors, in how to be the Lady of Winterfell. Sansa wanted these conversations known, spread by rumor and word of mouth. She wanted spies to hear of them, and Lord and Ladies personally, and even the serving staff... serving staff who worked for her. She supposed this was a little like baiting a game trail in the Neck, to encourage the game to come to where it was easier to hunt.

Meera knew Sansa could have made announcements, could have ordered messengers to call out to the people what she wanted them to know, could have organized spectacles. Even used spectacles that were already happening - the military meetings, the trips through the camps, Arya's bravo duels. But Sansa chose to do this instead, to let rumors spreads, to use them for her own purposes. To show that she did not do everything in secret, that she listened to many people - particularly to show the Lords and Ladies of the Vale that she, not just Arya, included Lord Royce. To show that she shared the concerns of their people about food, about the winter to come, and to show that they had many allies, that they were not alone.

So many messages in a single act! If this was what the South was like, then it was a complex place indeed.

"Maester Wolkan, how about the Long Night?" asked Sansa, her voice even and controlled.

"My lady, we've had confirmation from all six strongholds of the North and the Vale as well as Braavos, Lorath, Pentos, Seagard, and Darry. Every response confirms the days are too short, though there is a clear North to South effect; the father North, the shorter the days, just as is normally true, though not, of course, as short as now. We also received ravens from White Harbor; a fleet from Asshai has offloaded not only Red Priests and sorcerers to join the fight against the Night King, but also large supplies of food which grows in near complete or complete darkness; mushrooms, edible moss and other fungus, sprouts, some seaweeds, and cave fish."

"Please make sure No One is informed of the Red Priests and sorcerers; as long as they are truly here to help against the army of the dead, they are welcome; bringing exactly the food we believe we will need, as they are, they are very welcome," said Lady Stark, her voice pitched for their table... and for anyone else in the rapidly filling dining room who was listening carefully.

Sansa continued, "Meera, you visited the new glass gardens the Myrish glassblowers are helping us build yesterday. How are they coming?"

************************

Arya led Alleras through the alleys of Winter Town unerringly in the dark, lit only by the three-quarters full moon high above, speaking quietly, "So, Archmaester Marywn, Marwyn the Mage, was starting to have more success in the past few years?"

"Yes; he was very excited about it - he's a great Maester, though the higher mysteries aren't respected as a field of study, even before the Citadel heard about Qyburn's continuing research into the forbidden field of necromancy," replied Alleras, looking around eagerly. She'd been out in Sunspear, and Oldtown, and even the Summer Isles, Tyrosh, and other port cities many times, and in each place the nightlife was different.

Here was an interesting study in how cultures change - there were obvious signs of old Northern winter culture, when most of the outlying settlements packed up and moved to the great Northern hubs, like Winter Town, Barrowton, and others she'd heard of. The winter was a time for gossiping with neighbors, for seeing distant friends and extended family again, and for shared hardship.

Like a veteran fleet's crew, being together and suffering the same hardships forged strong bonds, not just within each ship or House, but between the Houses or ships as well. The bonds varied, of course, there were rivalries aplenty as well as friendships and kin-bonds, but compared to the vitriol of many other lands she'd been in, it was different.

Too, there were many signs of other cultures - she could see that the many newly constructed buildings were different - taller, like some of great cities of Essos, constrained by their walls, though the construction itself was quite different - much sturdier, built to shed snow, to be easy to sweep the roof clean, or, in the tallest of the new construction, to bear up under the weight of scorpions or ballista and their crews. She'd heard that some of the architecture had been influenced by the Free Folk, from beyond the Wall, where there were even harsher winters than these.

They continued on, Arya continuing her line of questions about the Citadel, and the Maesters, and the Quill and Tankard, and everything about her time in Oldtown, twice interrupted by meeting a bravo in the streets, as if Winter Town had been a city in the far north of Essos! The bravos had each looked at her, and seeing no weapons but her greatbow, ignored her entirely. Arya, on the other hand, they'd dipped their heads to with a mutter of, "First Sword," and continued on.

"Is there anything more you've remembered about Qyburn?" asked Arya, continuing her line of questions, nodding and greeting people as they passed, from guards to beggars.

"No, nothing. I am curious, though, how many titles do you have?" asked Alleras of her companion with a wink.

"Too many," answered Arya with a grin, "Far too many, and each title or name has a meaning all its own, doesn't it, Alleras, The Sphinx, Acolyte of the Citadel, Captain... and so on?"

Alleras grinned back, "I don't think I'm an acolyte anymore, Arya, so that one, at least, doesn't count. I've been away too long, was too obvious in leaving, surely they'll have heard by now," replied Alleras, turning serious after a laugh, "I wish I could, of course. It was a great time, and some of the Archmaesters are wonderful teachers! I have other responsibilities, now, so the point is moot."

"Perhaps, and perhaps not. Enjoy your time with the Maesters here, while you can. You're a favorite of theirs, you know - and they believe you'll be a truly excellent Maester in the field, once you have a few more links. Things are changing, with the Maesters, you know."

"They do? Many of the Maesters at the Citadel seemed to look down on some of the Maesters that went out to serve in holdfasts and castles... especially the ones in the North, and at the Wall, who didn't do much research. Most of them didn't want to be away from the great library, to be away from the Archmaesters... but they didn't want to do anything truly novel, either, or risk themselves - I remember Samwell talking about how he'd cured a man of greyscale! Greyscale, even advanced greyscale, can be cured! But because it's risky, the Maesters won't do it. Not even Archmaester Killaen."

"Cersei doesn't risk herself, either. Nor did Joffrey, or the Mad King. Tywin did; he rode to battle with his men. Even Maester Wolkan, here, as scared as he is, he acts. Foolishly, sometimes, but he stood right by the scorpion on the very first wildfire test, taking measurements. Some research should be encouraged - death by greyscale is a face of god, the same as others, but it does cause great suffering in others. Necromancy, like Qyburn studied, is forbidden by man and god both, like kinslaying and breaking guest rights," replied Arya, coming to a halt quietly in an alley, a dozen yards before the alley opened up to a much larger, well traveled street.

Alleras came to a stop with her host, and looked around with interest; there was little enough here, no side-doors opening on the alley, nothing before them but the bustle of a very busy city coming to life, of the night-shift guards and soldiers getting off duty and heading to eat, sleep, drink, work, whore, or see their families as they could before their next shift, just as any crew members with only a few hours of liberty in their home port did.

"What's here? Why did you stop? Is there a secret door? Is there a danger?" asked Alleras, sto;; using the deeper tenor tones she used in this guise.

"Your teacher is coming; behold, even now he approaches, majestic in his finery!" replied Arya seriously, without a hint of a jape.

Across from them, an old, maimed beggar was crossing the busy street in front of a scorpion crew heading to the tavern, the old man spotting them only once he'd entered the entrance to the alley himself. He greeted them enthusiastically.

"You again!" exclaimed One-armed Harry, pointing at Arya.

"Not me. This one," replied Arya shortly, jerking a thumb at Alleras.

"What about her? Youse puttin' her in my spot? Leavin' me to starve?" asked the beggar acerbically.

"No. Just introducing you. Alleras, this is One-armed Harry, a fully paid up beggar of the beggar's guild who has earned the rights to a prime spot. One-armed Harry, Alleras the Sphinx, acolyte of the Citadel, master archer."

"Hello," said Alleras, looking back and forth between the two, then inspecting the beggar more carefully. She took a half-step forward, looking at his sores; they weren't real! She recalled that Archmaester Killaen had gone over that precise type of lesion, and the flesh beneath shouldn't look quite like that... the color was a little off, too, now that she looked more carefully, even adjusting for the quality of moonlight in the alley.

"Piss off," growled One-armed Harry, "I ain't gonna get any coin with youse girls jabberin' all day."

Alleras reached up to start to point at his 'sore', so she could comment on the flaws when Arya clamped a hand firmly over her wrist, stopping her from pointing with a shake of her head. Arya spoke quietly, "Alleras here is pretending to be a man, you see."

"No she ain't. I's seen thieves. I's seen beggars. I's seen those likes run the con," assessed the professional beggar, then looked at Arya, "I's even seen the Underfoot, I has, them's that can look like anyone! She ain't pretendin' ta be a man."

"Exactly," replied Arya, unruffled, "Which is why she needs a teacher."

"A gold dragon a day, for the best teacher," said One-armed Harry, then rethought at a sudden glare from Arya, "One of the best teachers in Winter Town."

"Ridiculous! You can't be worth more than a copper penny a week, look how smooth your skin is," replied Alleras sharply. She'd been in more than enough ports to know when someone was trying to take advantage of a foreign sailor, and this man? A gold a day? Someone thought she was as rich as the Lannisters... of course, she was in high-quality clothes, accompanying Arya Stark, so he may have been using well-reasoned judgment for his starting bid, after all.

"You two work it out between yourselves. I have breakfast to attend," said Arya, turning and jogging off down the main street, back to the brothel, grinning as the two continued haggling behind her.

"Twenty silver moons a day! I's the best teacher youse ever find, better than youse deserve!"

"A halfpenny every two days; you'll die of inflated ego within the fortnight! You couldn't teach the greatest student in Westeros to tie their laces!"

"Seventy silver stags a day! Youse voice is risin' already, youse gonna need lessons until youse grandchildren got grandchildren!"

************************

Mariya swapped the melt water bowls in the main chamber of their little shelter gracefully, passing it to Emilee and Deranna after drinking her fill. They'd managed to create quite the little shelter in the past three days, a double-dogleg entrance just big enough to crawl through keeping the wind and snow out, a pile of supplies set to fall over and give warning if anyone else tried entering, some of the bells Arya'd given them mixed in, others on white yarn stretched across the path before lines of slender, lightweight dragonglass shard stakes set in the packed snow, all of which had to be taken apart and then reset every time they went in or out.

Their main chamber was larger than any the three of them had used before, requiring considerable time from Emilee to keep it maintained properly, but they had their entire team of fourteen dogs and all their gear in here with them, so it was still quite warm and cozy. The small, thin bronze kettle they had was just starting to bubble merrily over the lamp. Deranna'd added not just a little fish from her trip down the safety rope to the river, but also some of their salt pork and a bit of spices Mariya had gotten as a present from one of the pyromancers two days ago, so they'd have another good meal soon, hot, tasty and filling.

Deranna and Emilee were working on preparing the fish for the dogs, carefully putting some of the fat to the side to use; the dogs didn't need to eat as much, particularly not as much fat and meat when they weren't working, so Mariya left them to it and started the process of clearing the passage to bring the dogs out one or two at a time to relieve themselves, depending on how well behaved each dog was. At least she didn't have to worry about getting lost if she failed to keep hold of the guide rope, not when she had one of the dogs with her.

"You need anything else before I listen again?" asked Mariya quietly once she was done and all the dogs were back in and settled, snow brushed from their fur between the two doglegs in the entry tunnel so they stayed dry. Receiving two headshakes, she scritched and patted the dogs as she moved them out of the way, then pulled the packed snow blocks at the back of the shelter out of the way, carefully folding the thin cloth that prevented them from sticking together as she opened it up.

She then squeezed into the small tunnel, crawling forward as the flicker of the lamp behind her cut off when Deranna put the blocks back in place, all but one for air. By feel, she turned down the dogleg and continued slowly down and forward until she reached the end, even the constant howling and occasional sounds of thunder from the outside world fading away as she crept deeper.

She picked up a spear shaft, found the rough notch for her hand that indicated the correct length, and felt the wall, finding the hole immediately, and poked the spear carefully up at the correct angle, clearing it out again as quietly as she could until she could just hear voices coming from the Dragon Queen's shelter. They'd gotten lucky - the dragons had favored the opposite side of the dragon queen's shelter, by the boulders, for their landing spot. She hadn't wanted to die by being stepped on by a careless dragon, after all.

In the next shelter over, Tyrion was complaining, "Why didn't we pack more wine? If I'm to die, suffocated and frozen and crushed under a ton of snow, then I'd at least like to die drunk."

"Must you?" asked Varys.

"I must! I've had nothing but water and cold gruel for three days, trapped in this tent. I'd prefer the wheelhouse, I think," replied Tyrion, "But, again, why is there nothing to drink?"

"There is drink," said Missandei, "Just not for you. Two score barrels of it. Meralyn's Rum, I believe it was."

"Meralyn's? Meralyn's! That's not a drink, that's liquid fire! It'll turn you blind, besides - that's why it's so cheap. Why is the North buying Meralyn's? I thought they drank ale!"

"Enough!" said Daenerys, cuddled up with Jon on one side, the Dothraki leader up against her other arm. There wasn't enough room to move, not even enough to sit. They'd tried making a bigger hole, and then Rhaegal had moved and it had collapsed, so now they did as they'd been advised and stuck together in a small shelter dug into the snow.

Tyrion had started bickering first, Varys had responded to him, then Grey Worm had started sniping at her Hand, and Missandei, of course, had joined in with him. She was glad for Jon and Qhono; Jon was simply matter of fact about the whole experience, even if he was brooding some of the time, and Qhono was treating this as a sandstorm, something to be waited out patiently until it was time to act again.

Jon had been a wondrous blessing to her! Not only was he able to keep her warm, but as long as she stopped her advisors from asking him the same questions over and over, he was calm and collected. Moreover, he was the only one of them with any ability to cook with the tiny amount of firewood they were allotted, which he did for them. While the food was bland at best and bitter at worst, it wasn't undercooked, it wasn't burned, and the fire rarely grew high enough they got sleepy.

Had she been alone with him in the shelter, she supposed she could have quite enjoyed herself, as she had with Drogo so long ago. She didn't need the trappings of wealth she'd become used to in Meereen; she needed a family. Children of her body may be denied her, unless Jon was right and the witch had lied... and Daario had been unable to father children too... but she had Missandei, and Jon, and Drogon, and Rhaegal. And she'd meet Jon's sisters, soon! Drogo hadn't had any relatives, nor had Daario, so she was looking forward to spending time with his sisters and brother. Jon's stories of them gave her hope; perhaps, just perhaps, she might have good sisters and a good brother someday.

She was jostled as Qhono shifted, taking up Grey Worm's spear and starting to clear the air-holes again without a word, then she shifted herself, pulling her cloaks tighter around herself, crawling around the tiny fire and out the entrance, emerging under Drogon's wing, the sounds of the blizzard much louder, here. She leaned against her son's neck, stroking his scales, feeling the heat of his body, smiling at his eye opened lazily to look at her.

She'd stay here for a little while, she thought. None of this trip had gone as she'd wanted, but she had Jon, she had Missandei, she had Drogon and Rhaegal and Grey Worm, she had Ser Jorah with the portion of her army she'd brought and been allowed to keep here. Allowed!

Daenerys listened to the howling wind, remembered how she'd been cold on the dogsleds, in the wind, even in the additional clothes Sansa had sent. How Grey Worm had been stoically ignoring the cold, even in the 'Northern' Unsullied uniform. Her dragons, even, weren't happy in the cold, lethargic and sleepy in the blizzard, even after eating well at White Harbor.

Three days the blizzard had raged, and no one knew how long it would keep raging. Had she brought her entire army, by ship or by land, without any preparation, as if the North in winter was no worse than a cool Pentoshi day, or a night on the great grass sea, the Dothraki would be eating their horses now, dying and being maimed by frostbite.

Had she flown, and gotten caught in weather like this? She'd have had to fly higher, and it got cold up there; she'd have been looking down at an endless expanse of cloud-tops. That... might not have ended well, either, if the blizzard extended out over the sea; she'd never have even been able to find the coast. If she descended into the blizzard over water, Drogon might have hit the surface. While her dragon might be fine diving into the frozen Northern ocean, she would not; that much had been made abundantly clear to her by experiencing what it was like to get damp in real cold.

She owed Sansa Stark a boon, it seemed, and Lady Manderly and her daughters as well. They'd done a better job of advising her than her own advisors had! Perhaps she could replace Tyrion with his former wife... but no, Sansa wouldn't know how to advise her on how to take back the Iron Throne, not as well as Tyrion, though that hadn't been working out as she'd wanted.

She'd at least had the chance to see Rhaegal play with Jon, which had been quite amusing to her, watching him nuzzle his cheek up against Jon's belly, looking up plaintively. Drogon wasn't so happy with Jon, but Rhaegal was happy to to nuzzle up to him and beg for scritches; Jon's expression the first time that had happened had been priceless. She was happy she'd gotten the chance to see that - bringing it up with him was fun, too.

It gave her hope for, perhaps, having a family again, as she'd had with Drogo - a supportive family, not like Viserys had been. She missed Drogo and what they'd had, sometimes. Viserys had seemed good, when she was a small child, but as she grew... perhaps he changed, or perhaps she hadn't seen him for what he was, as she hadn't seen that evil witch for what she was, which had cost her Drogo.

The next day, Dany woke, cramped, her knee smacking Jon and her other foot hitting Qhono as she tried to stretch in the tight confines, with Qhono's knee in her back. She'd been cooped up in this miserable hole for four days! Four days of howling winds, cramped quarters, endless grumbling... wait a minute, that wasn't the wind. There was no wind; the faint rumbling sound of Drogon snoring, but no more than that.

"... an hour!" came the voice of the old Free Folk man, clear in the unfamiliar quiet.

"Your Grace, we're to continue the journey to Winterfell in less than an hour," said Varys softly, "The storm ended just a little while ago; they seem quite eager to get back on the road."

"As am I," proclaimed Daenerys, poking Jon in the side with a subtle tickle, then reaching over to shake Missandei awake, "Wake up, time to pack! We leave in less than an hour, and I don't want to be left behind again."

She snugged her winter gear tight, making sure her ears were well covered, and crawled out as quickly as she could, eliciting a squawk from Tyrion as she pushed his leg aside to get past. Once she emerged from the entrance tunnel she stood, rubbing Drogon under his wing-root where he was soft and warm, then spoke, "Drogon, Rhaegal, jioragon be!"

When they didn't move, she ducked down to stay under his wing, shoving at his head until he finally woke up. They weren't going to be able to move until her lazy children got up, and they needed to stretch their wings, anyway.

"Jioragon be!"

The dragons opened their eyes, slowly moving their heads; she'd scolded them quite severely when they'd brought the shelter down, and they'd been more careful after that. Daenerys gestured up, and they raised their heads, opening their jaws wide in a yawn before getting carefully to their feet with a mighty crackle as the rivulets of ice on their wings near their body cracked; their backs were clear of snow, the dragonfire inside keeping them warm, but their wings were another matter entirely, and the dragons twitched a few times, wings not moving.

With a mighty roar, Drogon and Rhaegal suddenly flipped their wings high to clear them, then tucked them in and looked down at her, pleased.

Until the many feet of snow that had accumulated atop their stretched out wings came down on the dragons, Daenerys, and Jon, who'd just come out behind her... and who was laughing at her as he came up to brush snow off her.

"What's this? You're trying to invent a new Northern fashion, Dany?"

She scraped snow off her face, glaring at him sourly, "You think this is funny, Jon Snow?"

With that, she pounced, smearing her handful of snow into his face.

Later that day, after the sun was high in the sky, they were again bouncing around on the sled, wind rushing over them, though Daenerys was still in a good mood. They had managed to pack up more quickly this time, not having any dogs to care for, and were only in the rear third of the center column of the caravan.

She'd had time to recover, holed up in the shelter, and had had quite a lot of time to think. There were no decisions to be made, no endless streams of petitioners, not even planning for war. The times she'd spent with Drogon during the blizzard had been peaceful; sometimes Jon had joined her, and that had been nice.

The cramped quarters full of endless bickering had not; the lack of any time alone with Jon had not, but she could imagine years of this; endless snows and winter, with no great activities, just waiting it out. Her Northern subjects did have reason to be different, if this was half their lives. She would be protecting them soon, and she could hope they'd see she deserved their love for it.

Suddenly a shout came, even as a horn started sounding the first of three long notes.

"Gengangare hoger! Gengangare hoger! Valnad kolla!"

Jon had drawn Longclaw and sat up, looking around frantically and grabbing a rope as their sled sped up, jerking as it turned sharply to the left, their young driver intent on his duty. Behind them, three medium sized sleds carrying Free Folk and only a few supplies sped up and peeled off to the right, the passengers standing easily despite how fast the sleds were going, long spears pointed out at the front and back, archers pulling white cloth off their bows and crossbows, arrows with tiny dragonglass heads nocked as those dogsleds moved forward and to the right, disappearing from her sight behind a snowdrift... or a hill, she couldn't tell.

"Where are they?" asked Jon frantically, keeping Longclaw pointed out over the side of the sled, complex horn calls echoing before and behind them as the caravan reacted, "Where are the White Walkers?"

"I don't know! Where are my dragons?" replied Daenerys. In the sled behind her she could see Grey Worm's spear was out and ready, even from his seated position, and Missandei had a little wood and dragonglass dagger out on the other side, poking past the barrels. Belatedly, she pulled out her own dragonglass dagger; there hadn't been time for her to get herself a better one, not and leave with the dogsleds, but she wouldn't go down without a fight.

Looking up, she spotted her children, flying in happy circles far behind them, well and truly out of earshot. She sat, then grabbed Jon's shoulder tightly in a gloved hand and stood, bending her legs as she'd seen the Free Folk do, waving her free arm rapidly, shouting anyway, "Drogon! Rhaegal! Mazigon kesir! Mazigon kesir!"

They were too far away to hear, so she stopped shouting, continuing to wave, trying to get their attention so she could get into the fight. Three notes meant the army of the dead was attacking; she had no armies here, no Unsullied shield-wall, no Dothraki archers, only her dragons. She needed them to protect the caravan, to come here so she could mount Drogon and burn the dead! Unless this was a trap for them...

"Do you see the Night King? Viserion?" she asked, suddenly worried even as faint sounds of crossbows twanging echoed over the snow. Her children were out there, riderless, vulnerable to the Night King's thrown spears, to poor Viserion's body, controlled by the Night King.

The skies were clear! Why wasn't she on Drogon? She'd wanted to spend time with Jon, true, and she'd started getting used to riding on the sled, but that wasn't important now. Her children needed her, and she couldn't do anything to help them, not from here. She resolved to mount Drogon as soon as she could, though that left Rhaegal riderless, since she was the only dragon-rider in the world.

Viserion had been riderless when the Night King had killed him; without anyone to watch for threats, without anyone to guide him, to help him when he fought the dead. She'd been there for Drogon, but she couldn't be there for both her children at the same time.

Behind them, the three sleds were returning, slotting back right into the places they'd been, crews triumphant.

She turned to look at Jon, who was still turning his head back and forth, scanning land and sky rapidly for any signs of the army of the dead.

Rhaegal liked Jon.

***********************

Chapter Text

Samwell huffed as he followed the page down the stairs rapidly, then through the castle at a jog, dodging around groups of others new to the castle being led by their own pages as they got used to their new quarters and where everything was, or those old hands who could find their own way.

His father might actually have approved of that, he thought. There was no lollygagging, no idle hands, only purposeful motion, by everyone. His father wouldn't have approved of the lack of threats, whippings, or the way the women were armed. And in charge! That was the strangest thing, really. He'd come North to help Jon, and Jon wasn't here. Bran was, but he was the Three-Eyed Raven now, though some strange magic.

It was Jon's sisters that were in charge! Not just of the castle, but of the entire North, and the Vale, too, he'd heard. Maester Wolkan and Maester Russal were the senior Maesters here, and the other Maesters of the North and the Vale listened to them. They, in turn, listened to Lady Stark, who took the roles of the stewards of the Night's Watch, and Arya Stark, who led the fighters, the rangers. The responsibilities of the builders were split between them, military and civilian.

It was very strange; his father would never have allowed it, his mother and sister and Gilly would never have wanted it, yet here, with these people, it worked. Everything here was very strange. When he'd left, King Stannis had just left Castle Black, Jon had just sent messages to the lords begging men, even from Roose Bolton, and only a handful of men of the Night's Watch remained, and Jon had just let the wildlings past the wall, after Hardhome. Winter hadn't even come, yet.

Now, winter was here, the army of the dead was already past the Wall, another great army was defending Winterfell, with wide moats, stonemasons raising walls and towers, carpenters building everything everywhere, people and animals all brought in as close as they could to the castle for protection. The Night's Watch had withdrawn from the wall, before the wight dragon, thank the gods.

Edd had been... not happy, but a little less dour, once he wasn't Acting Lord Commander anymore. And then the new Lord Commander promptly assigned him to be First Ranger and sent him back to doing what he'd been doing before, naturally.

The page sped off in her wildling furs as soon as the forge was in sight, and he paused to catch his breath before continuing inside.

"Gendry?" he asked the smith between rings of hammer on anvil.

"Just a minute, Sam," came the reply from Gendry, hammering on a long iron pole, "Second table."

Sam looked at the second table, then with a muted "Oh," turned to the second table from the other side. On it was the remains of Heartsbane; he'd never have been able to wield it, and Dickon... Dickon was dead, too. Lady Stark and Arya Stark had promised they'd send men for his mother and his sister, but Horn Hill was thousands of miles away, the Dothraki was roaming Westeros, and those loyal to the Tyrells would want vengeance for his father's betrayal. Even of those who hated the Tyrells, some would have hated his father even more, so... he was scared for them.

"I'm done," said Gendry, putting the shaft back into the forge and coming around to Samwell's side, easily picking up a long iron shaft with a steel and Valyrian steel tip, turning it to show the sketched figure of a man with a bow on the side, a stand-in for the huntsman on green of the Tarly sigil.

"Oooh, you put our sigil on it. Like you have the empty hood for the Death's Heads?"

"Yeah, just like that. You've got the most Valyrian steel dragon-killers of anyone other than the Faceless Men now, you know. You're their family now, and you've got brothers in the Night's Watch, so that's like a family too... is it always like this when you get a family?" asked Gendry, knowing he didn't need to tell Sam who 'their family' was.

"Well, in the Night's Watch, we all swear the same oath. I spent more time with Edd, Grenn, Pyp and Jon than most of the others. Well, until the wildlings killed Grenn and Pyp. And some of my brothers mutinied and killed Lord Commander Mormont. And the other brothers that beat me and tried to rape Gilly until Ghost stopped them. I suppose it's really kind of different. Some things are the same, though."

"That sounds... bad. What's the same?"

"The training's the same. Jon trained us at Castle Black, and Arya, she trains like that, corrects your mistakes, shows you how to do it right. Well, she's a bit harsher, really, and teaches more than just sword fighting, and really likes it... but it's sort of like the difference between how my father and my brother were - the same techniques, just applied a little differently, and one of them likes it more."

"I tried to pick a family, once. They sold me to the Red Woman for magic rituals."

"Oooh. I'm sorry."

"Yeah. Me too. The training - is it always like this, getting corrected and bruised and beat over and over by everyone? I've fought wights, thought I was pretty good. Turns out I was wrong."

"That's the same, yes. Don't worry - you get better. Somewhat better. Well, a little better, at least," replied Samwell, "Don't worry. I killed a White Walker, and I still get beat by everyone. It's about using the right weapon at the right time... and hitting the White Walker in the back when they're ignoring you, honestly," said Sam, "I'd rather be doing the research, really."

"Sounds like home," said Gendry, remembering seeing the corpses in Flea Bottom alleys with wounds in their backs, "Gods, I just wish it wasn't so cold, though."

"Yeah. You get used to it, after awhile, and wearing the clothes Lady Sansa made helps a lot, too. You shouldn't complain so much, staying in the forge all day!"

"I suppose you're right. See you at dinner? We're in the Great Hall again, right?"

"The Great Hall, yes," replied Sam, turning to leave as he heard the messenger girl Johnna returning with some men and a cart to load the Heart's Banes on. They were identical to the Death's Heads except for the sigil - dedicated dragon-killing bolts for siege engines, with combination Valyrian/castle-forged steel heads and case-hardened iron shafts. Tests had shown that even ironwood shafts broke or shattered outright on a solid impact with the thick iron plates they used in place of dragonscale, and when that happened, penetration was poor at best. Thus, dragon-killing bolts were hard to make and heavy, whether tipped with Valyrian steel or regular castle-forged steel.

As he watched the men loading the bolts onto the cart to distribute as the Scorpion Bear commanded, he thought that, just possible, his father would be proud to know that the Tarly family owned more Valyrian steel dragon-killing weapons than any other family in the world... and that he fully intended to make sure a dragon was killed, one way or another.

***********************

"No, not like that. A little to the right; hold your hand looser. Rotate a little, like this. Tilt your head a bit; more casually, but still aloof. There; that's how Cersei drinks," instructed Sansa, watching her sister in the body of a woman of Cersei's height and build, wearing a dress similar to what Bran had described the holder of the Iron Throne wearing over the past few weeks.

Sansa waited until her sister was about to start another drink of one of Cersei's favorite vintages before she continued, "Lord Patrek passed on a message from his father; it seems Lord Mallister has offered his son's hand in marriage to the second-born daughter of Lord Eddard Stark. Would you like to be Lady Mallister?"

"What," came Arya's flat reply after she nearly choked on her wine.

"It seems Lord Mallister wants a serious alliance with the North, and feels - correctly - that the Lady of Winterfell is an unduly favorable match for his son, and thus is asking for the much more reasonable match of the somewhat wild second-born daughter of a Great House. The Mallisters aren't as great a house as the Tullys, or as rich as the Freys, but it's still a good match. What would you like me to tell him?" asked Sansa, smirking down at Arya.

"Anything you like, as long as it means no," growled Arya.

"I'm sure he'll be happy to hear that. He was determined to do his duty to his family, you know, but... scared. I think he'd thought that once he arrived, he'd put to rest the fanciful tales he'd heard on the trip up, only to find even more violent and disturbing rumors once he arrived," said Sansa, bumping Arya with her shoulder, "You're never going to find a good man while you keep encouraging all those rumors, you know."

"Just so," said Arya, bumping Sansa back, then finished her wine as Cersei would, disappearing behind a screen and emerging a couple minutes later in her own face and attire. She half-smiled at Sansa ruefully and continued.

"I don't mean to make the diplomacy so difficult, Sansa. I know we need a real port on the western coast; Flint's Finger doesn't have the facilities for real fleets. If we can get both Seagard and the Twins on board, we'd have ready access to the Blue Fork river as well as control over the Green Fork river via the Reeds and the Twins both, and the port's barely 70 miles from the Twins, which in turn is right at the edge of the Neck; it's actually just a bit farther north than the Eyrie, so you might be able to visit there if we can keep the Iron Islands friendly, or pacified."

"You are, of course, but I'm not going to suggest marrying you off. He doesn't deserve you."

"Of course he doesn't!"

"I meant he deserves better than a madwoman like you," said Sansa repressively, making the sign for jape, "The Riverlanders need more time to get used to you. Perhaps a few hundred years would do."

"Bah, Death will have me long before then. I'm no Red Priest to try to pay to extend my life."

"Well, try not to die soon; I don't want to have to break in a new commander. Speaking of the military, if we were to get both the Twins and Seagard, between them and the Vale, we'd have a very strong position north of Lord Harroway's Town at the Trident, wouldn't we? Seagard's very close to the Twins and the Neck, the Bloody Gates are just south of there, and Greywater Watch isn't very far, either, most of the time, isn't it?"

"Correct, Sansa. You'd get another powerful House, and don't forget the naval side - Seagard was built to keep the Iron Islands in check, but it's also in a good position to support a fleet to defend us from Westerlands or Reach fleets, as Gulltown is for Stormlands, Crownlands, or Riverlands fleets. Trading wise, it'd be good for trading with the Frozen Shores clans, too, though we really need a Northern port as well; then we can have sea trade from the North to the Riverlands on both coasts, with the Kingsroad down the middle."

"Well, things to worry about after the wars, most of them. I'll pass on your very gracious refusal... though I won't say it's reluctant. You're a great actor, but I don't think Patrek would believe it, and I think he'll be relieved. He seems the type to want a more... traditional lady wife," said Sansa. Patrek Mallister did seem gentle and strong, and was brave enough to come North by himself as he had, which is what her father had wanted her to have. He seemed a boy of Summer to her, though, as much as he'd been defending Seagard from the Lannisters with his father, and his wide-eyed study of the fieldworks, the castle improvements, the bathing schedules and foodstores... and Northern notables like Ned Umber and Alys Karstark, much less the more formidable Lyanna Mormont, or their guest Kitty didn't help.

"Quit feeling old, Sansa. You can find someone if you like, or not as you like. You've arranged the succession, and the future of the Starks; you're fine as you are," said Arya, "We know Daenerys got Jon up on a dragon. I'm not sure what she was thinking, doing that, but he's getting along well with Rhaegal and Daenerys both. What do you think; we go out beforehand? Any first meeting in the castle is very risky."

"Very risky indeed; I cannot and will not tell her Winterfell is hers. It's not, and never will be, and she may notice the lack. Likewise, we can't distract her inside the castle for long, and while you told the conclave that Jon wasn't here, we're not going to be able to separate him from her. Bringing her into the conclave thinking the North has bent the knee would be a monumental mistake if we wish any chance of keeping her as an ally," responded Sansa thoughtfully.

They could certainly bring Daenerys into the conclave and then, in the Targaryen's eyes, snatch the North and the Vale away from her, humiliate her in public, preventing any chance of her ever being taken seriously in the North or the Vale or the northern Riverlands, or even in western Essos. That would make them an enemy - and they couldn't afford that. It also put Jon at risk; there was no telling how far her infatuation with him went, nor how her anger would play into it.

Arya nodded. Pride, fear, anger, hatred; all these were things that could keep a person going, and all of them, in this case, could lead to her having to explain to Jon why his lover and her party had died in a tragic wildfire accident and the dragons went berserk and had to be put down, or that she had been killed after ordering her dragons, or armies, to attack the people of the North.

"Just so. If she does get too upset, she still can't do anything about it; her Northern forces are in White Harbor in the second ring. We've got more Valyrian ballista bolts and crossbow bolts than I'd expected, and plenty of castle-forged ones with dragonglass shards for ballista and scorpions both, so every engine has a good chance on a landed dragon if they can get a square shot or a weak target. She's got no chance here... though I'm not sure she realizes that, which makes her dangerous, unpredictable," said Lady Winter.

Arya knew that arrogance led many to their deaths, and the dragon queen was full of it. Yet, she had potential, too. She'd started freeing slaves, before she went back on it, and had granted them dragonglass easily enough. A very poor showing as the self-proclaimed 'Protector of the Seven Kingdoms', true, but better than Cersei's, given that at the time Jon hadn't pledged himself to anyone but his own people.

"It seems we must. It'll take very careful handling, but we need to get enough of the story out of them first in front of witnesses for the conclave to be comfortable and to fulfill the forms. We also need to arrange to get her alone nearly as soon as she arrives officially, to smooth things over," said Sansa.

She expected that the Daenerys they'd been hearing about would doubtless be irate that her 'diversion' from the war she was waging to conquer Westeros wasn't immediately leading to her desired result. She'd bring up her coming North, her sending dragonglass, her relationship with Jon - never mind she hadn't married him, and whatever else she thought of. She'd at least left most of her forces in the South, countering Cersei, though why she'd brought both Tyrion and Varys to the North, Sansa couldn't begin to fathom. The dead didn't talk, and had neither little birds nor whispers.
"Not quite alone. She needs someone else to keep her composure in front of - the translator, ideally - the warriors are a problem, Tyrion would confuse things, and Varys is too dangerous. We'll leave tomorrow, then. They should be close enough; Bran said they were flying pretty far ahead of the caravan. As long as the wight dragon doesn't start flying ahead of his main army, we'll be fine. I'll arrange an escort with Lord Royce and the Scorpion Bear; it'll have to be primarily horse cavalry with dogsled scouts, but we'll have Heart's Banes loaded."

With that, Arya fell silent, making the sign for person approaching as she heard short, fast, fierce footsteps approaching, but not quite in their normal even rhythm as the guards outside slammed their spear butts into the stone floor to warn of entry, first the guards on the stairwell, then those outside the room.

"Lady Mormont to see you, my lady."

"Send her in," called Sansa loudly, as Arya herself unbarred the door, the guards inside the room having been sent out while Arya practiced.

Sansa watched Lyanna carefully, standing and approaching her as she entered. She and the small bear had been getting more comfortable with each other, particularly since she'd started included Lady Mormont in her unofficial circle of advisors, though this was still a very unexpected visit. And, if she was any judge, the girl was nervous, which was... extremely odd.

Lady Mormont came in, and after Arya'd closed and barred the door, spoke.

"Mother told me this would happen, but never had a chance to tell me what do to. I'm bleeding. What do I do?" asked Lyanna even more sharply than usual.

"You take a clean linen rag and tie it on. Have a few - you need to change them often, and boil it after", said Arya as she reacted first, speaking as she walked quickly behind the screen, emerging with a few clean rags, handing them to Lyanna as she unbarred the door and exited rapidly, "I'll go see to the exercise."

Sansa shook her head as she barred the door again, taking Lyanna by the arm and leading her to the divan. This would have been a lot easier if Arya hadn't turned tail and fled, just like a man would have.

"You'll have to excuse Arya. She was probably being raised by the Hound when she flowered; I'm surprised she knows that much. Congratulations, Lady Mormont; you've become a woman. It's not always very pleasant, I know, but I'll be happy to help. How do you feel? Do you have cramps? Back pain? Are there any other differences, or is anything else concerning you?" asked Sansa, careful not to ask if there was anything the small bear was afraid of.

***********************

Jon held tightly to Rhaegal's spines as he flew through the cold winter air, looking around for any sign of the Night King, then down for White Walkers and wights. He was starting to recognize the land, he thought, though from the air it looked very different indeed, and the glare from the ice-covered snow and trees below wasn't helping, even as much as he was getting used to flying.

The world stretched out below him as he passed below a gyrfalcon. The ground below looked just as it did from the top of the Wall; the day was clear and crisp; he could see all the way to the horizon. Seeing the forest thicken, he turned Rhaegal a little more east of north, turning to wave at Dany, gesturing her over. She, as he was used to, raced ahead of him on Drogon, though as they'd agreed, she went where he'd indicated; he knew the North, the area around Winterfell, and there were no man-made signs.

Well, none but a long break in the trees ahead and to the left; a clear strip of white as far as he could see until it met the wide open plains, with a line of black dots on the strip. As he continued north towards the strip of white, he could see the line of dots stretching out to his right past the forest, curving gently away across the plains, like he imagined the towers around White Harbor would have looked after they'd passed them. On the horizon beyond, another strip of white came into view even as Dany waved at him from atop Drogon, pointing down.

As he looked where she pointed, dots resolved into animals pulling a couple dozen sleds across the open plains, heading south in two circles, one inside the other, with a few very small sleds much farther out. He tugged on Rhaegal's spines, hesitantly calling out the word Daenerys had taught him, "Ilagon!"

With that, Rhaegal tucked his wings in and dove sharply, Jon holding on as tight as he could. Rhaegal, he'd found, liked to dive, and dive fast; even then, Drogon and Dany passed him with wide smiles; at least, he hoped Drogon was smiling. Below, two horses broke out or the center circle, cantering out overtop the snow towards the outer circles and past it, into the area what he now recognized as dogsleds, much smaller than the horse-drawn sleds, were bracketing.

Daenerys smiled at Jon as Rhaegal landed next to Drogon, she'd landed about a hundred yards in front of the two riders who were coming to meet them; one quite tall and one rather short, she could see as she squinted into the bright glare even as she sank into the snow up to her waist. She patted Drogon, who was rather unhappily trying to avoid sinking father into the snow himself, then went over to where Jon was dismounting.

Arya looked back, making sure the out