Chapter 1: The Wall
As the troop came over the final hill of their approach, Arya was stunned as she looked up and out across expanse of the Wall for the first time, ice built up hundreds of feet into the sky and stretching as far west as she could see that she felt so unbelievably small standing in its shadow. How, she wondered, had the Watch ever managed to build such a thing? The magnitude of its height alone was breathtaking, skirting the clouds themselves, and she knew it stretched across the entire north, from the Bay of Seals all the way west where the land emptied into the Bay of Ice. She clearly wasn’t the only one so affected by the sight of it because the rest of the troop had drawn to a halt as well.
The crunch of boots in snow alerted her to his approach and then Jon stood beside her, looking out at the Wall with a familiarity none of the others possessed and which she couldn’t fathom even with the knowledge that he had lived there for years—because how could anyone ever get used to such a thing no matter how much they saw it?
“I imagine I looked something like that the first time I saw it too,” he said and the amusement in his voice made Arya think she must look more amazed than she realized.
“I’ve heard the stories,” she mused, thinking back to all the times their father had spoken about their Uncle Benjen up on top of his Wall of ice so high that you couldn’t see the top through the clouds, “but…”
“Nothing really prepares you,” Jon agreed to her unfinished thought.
And it was true. Arya highly doubted there was anything she could have been told beforehand to truly ready her for the reality that was the largest construct known to man. It was breathtaking and humbling and so much more than she had expected.
It also begged one very important question.
“You really think he can get past that?” she asked, staring up to the top, reportedly more than seven hundred feet high.
She would be lying if she said the thought of that, of this dead army finding its way south despite the existence of this colossal barrier, didn’t cause her genuine worry. As she’d told Gendry a week earlier, only a fool wouldn’t be afraid. She was no fool. The answer to her own question, she already knew deep in her bones, but hearing it aloud was altogether different than knowing it deep down.
And that was it. The dead would come and they both knew it. They could probably find some way to scale it. As Jon had told her, the Night’s Watch was terribly understaffed and, if the army of the dead was as large as her brother proclaimed, they wouldn’t be able to hold them back indefinitely. Barring that option, the Night King and his army could simply wait for winter to freeze the waters at the coast far enough out that they could bypass the Wall entirely. They couldn’t die of starvation, so they could wait for as long as they needed to. If the warnings were to be believed, this winter would be long and harsh.
Sooner or later, the army of the dead would be coming for them. All they could do was try to gather and arm as many combatants as they could before that happened.
Arya wasn’t yet ready to truly appreciate why it was this thought of their impending doom which had her glancing back, searching out one of the few faces familiar to her in this company. She spotted Gendry in short order, standing with Ser Davos several paces behind as they, along with all the others, stared up at the Wall in much the same fashion she had been just a moment before. And as she looked at him, she felt a very potent fear creep into her bones, stealing her breath away for the thought that, very soon, he and her dear brother could be just two more people she’d lost. She had to wrestle the air back into her lungs and turned her eyes squarely away from the smith and back to the Wall before them to center herself once again.
She knew then that she would need to be honest with Gendry, truly honest, before she lost her chance. She’d tried to express to him several times that he was important to her, but she knew there was so very much she still needed to tell him, a lot she needed to come clean about, before either of them faced their potential end.
Of course, first she would need to actually be able to speak with him, which had proven difficult thus far. He’d been keeping his distance ever since they’d met up with Jon. At first, she’d been grateful, thinking the smith had been doing so to give them space to reconnect after the siblings’ many years apart, but she had since begun to wonder how much of it actually had to do with his adherence to the ridiculous beliefs of station that were rife within the kingdoms. Arya, of course, didn’t care who had borne him or under what circumstances, but it had always been clear to her that he didn’t share her apathy towards the ‘way things were supposed to be’. But, Eastwatch was enclosed and she was sure she’d get the chance to speak with him properly before they set out north.
Then they would just have to catch a wight, make it back to Eastwatch alive, and prepare for what was sure to be a bloody and devastating battle once the dead marched south.
Arya felt Jon’s arm go around her shoulders then and was pulled from these distant thoughts to find him smiling at her, though she noted a ghost of worry for the future hidden deep in his eyes as well. She didn’t want to drag them up to the surface, to add to the burden of that weight on his shoulders, so she smiled back.
“Come on,” her brother said as he started them towards the Wall once again, and Arya heard the troop follow along behind them a moment later. “I’ll show you around.”
“I was under the impression you spent your time a good deal west of here.” This jest was just a distraction, really, but humor slipped easily into Arya’s words anyway because she’d really missed him, her dear brother, and it was good to talk of things other than the dead.
She reminded herself that they hadn’t come this far, been through so much, just to die on some fool’s errand for a queen who couldn’t be bothered to give up her footholds in the mainland for the only war that truly mattered.
When Jon chuckled in response to her calling him out on his lack of familiarity with this particular castle on the Wall, his breath puffing out in little white clouds, Arya couldn’t help but laugh as well and she snaked her arm around his back, feeling a bit lighter for his smile. He gave her a good-natured shake for her cheek and kept them moving.
Chapter 2: Words that Need Saying
A few tense reunions. Arya comes clean about some things.
Of course, it had to be them, didn’t it? That was just Gendry’s luck, he mused bitterly as he looked in on Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, two of several prisoners who had been captured trying to head north of the Wall and two of the people he hated most in the world. While there was something satisfying about seeing them locked in a cage—a cage not unlike the one he’d been shipped off to at their bidding—he was fairly certain they wouldn’t be staying in there if the group’s lackluster response to his warnings were anything to go by. Thoros was just as much of a drunken twat as he’d been before and Beric was just as holier-than-thou as he remembered, seeming to have yet to find any fault in his actions for selling Gendry away on the order of his God of Light.
As the smith felt a presence move along behind him, however, there was a very noticeable shift inside the cell. More than anything else, it was watching the light of humor leave Thoros’s eyes that made the smith turn, his curiosity outweighing his disdain, to find Arya had cross behind him and was now standing beside him in front of the cell. And while her posture remained calm, hands clasped loosely behind her back, there was a definite weight in the air as she stared down at the cell’s occupants.
In that moment, Gendry was almost afraid for these men he despised.
While none of them were aware of the circumstances which lead to it, everyone else present seemed to have sensed the same tension he did, for they all fell silent and remained that way, the silence dragging and hanging thick in the frigid air. Arya said nothing. It didn’t seem she intended to and Gendry felt that was somehow more terrifying than if she’d yelled and cursed, professing her hatred for these men loudly and with as much malice a person could muster. She no longer needed to threaten with harsh and angry words, barking loudly just to be heard for her small size. Now her eyes did most of her talking for her.
Nothing they said in that moment was kind.
“The Seven fucking Hells are you doin’ here?”
This gruff and angry voice cut right through the tension and everyone, including Arya, turned to look at the man down at the far end of the cell. For his stature and the large burns on his face, Gendry recognized the man in an instant: the Hound. He could still remember the impressive and rather terrifying display when the man had nearly cut Beric clean in two with a single swing of his sword and, as Arya made her way down along the bars, he also remembered how much she had hated him, going so far at her then young age as to pick up a knife to try and gut him herself when he had claimed victory in his Trial by Combat.
As she made her way over, the Hound stood from the bench he had been laying on, and then they stood on opposite sides of the bars. She was barely even half his height, but Arya’s eyes didn’t waver in the slightest as she stared into the eyes of a man who was probably strong enough to break her in half. Honestly, he wasn’t sure what a fight between them would look like and he wondered for the tension in the air if they would all find out.
“I thought you were dead,” his sister said, her tone even and flat as she spoke to a dangerous man so much larger than herself, and Jon felt his entire frame go tense.
He had never met the Hound himself, although he remembered seeing him once or twice during King Robert’s visit to Winterfell all those years ago. Arya, of course, actually knew the man and Jon would wager based on her tone that there would’ve been no love lost if the man had died as she’d apparently believed he had—possibly after that fight against Lady Brienne Sansa had told him about.
“No thanks to you.”
The Hound all but snarled this and Jon felt himself scowl, a protective anger boiling up in his chest as the man glared down his crooked nose at his little sister. Yet, despite the man’s tone, Arya remained calm and Jon marveled again at how different she was now.
“It looks like you should be thanking me,” she said, and Jon thought there was almost a bit of humor to the words, a humor which only seemed to rile the Hound up further.
“For leaving me to die?”
“But, you didn’t,” Arya corrected him ever so simply. “If I’d killed you, you would be dead.”
The Hound wasn’t amused, the lines of his scarred face drawing harsh and jagged as he frowned.
“Perhaps I would’ve been better off if you had. Now look at me, stuck with a bunch of fire-worshipers. Just my luck.”
How long, he wondered then, had the two known each other before the Lady of Tarth had found them? Of course, when Arya set her hand on the intricate dagger at her hip, Jon’s curiosity over the past left him as he found his own hand settling on Longclaw’s hilt, a mere instinct.
“If you’re that miserable, I could always remedy my mistake.”
The tension which had pervaded the space before as Arya had stared at two of the cell’s other occupants had reached full force once again as Sandor glanced down at the dagger at her hip and then back up at her.
“I’ll give you one try. If you miss, I’ll gut you with that little dagger of yours.”
Jon eased his way between the people crowding the space outside the cell, stepping through to stand near Arya and her adversary. With Longclaw drawn a couple inches, he was tense, poised to attack at the slightest move from the large man. He was anticipating a number of things, many of which included an assault, but if the Hound so much as reached through the bars for Arya, he would quickly find himself without a hand and, shortly thereafter, his life.
But, Jon’s sister kept on surprising him. Of all the things he expected her to do, she did the one thing he hadn’t.
The tension in the air slipped away as she dropped her hand from the knife at her hip and returned it behind her back.
“You wouldn’t get the chance, I’m afraid,” she said and there was a baffling simplicity to the words, spoken as fact rather than theory.
Possibly more surprising than anything his sister had just done or said was when the Hound actually snorted in amusement.
“No, I probably wouldn’t.”
There was almost a sort of kinship to the words, like it was a joke between long lost friends, and Jon simply couldn’t fathom it. His eyes were wide for his surprise as his sister stepped casually away from the bars.
As she passed him, she asked, “Shouldn’t we be going?” in that same simple manner.
And while Jon was at a loss, finding that he’d surely missed something. Still, he tucked Longclaw away with one final glance at the Hound before turning as well because Arya was right. They had a mission to see to and none of this was important at the moment. If these men were willing to join them north of the Wall and none would pose them any threat, then Jon couldn’t really refuse their offer to help.
They would need all the hands they could get.
Not feeling terribly amicable towards those who had once sold him off despite his desire to join them, Gendry had made sure to sit away from the rest of them as they all prepared for the journey north in a hall presumably designated for eating. Thoros, however, had claimed the seat beside him not long after he’d sat down, settling down casually as though it had been left open for him. The drunkard was rambling on now about the will of his Lord of Light, something about Gendry ending up where he’d needed to be, but the smith had stopped listening almost the instant the man had sat down. He focussed instead on finishing his preparations, starting to fasten the thick boots he’d been provided, more fit for walking in the deep snow north of the Wall than those he’d been wearing previously. Thoros had no idea how just lucky he was because it was the Smith’s forced concentration on this task which kept him from picking up his hammer to bash the man’s face in.
It was only when Thoros finally shut up that Gendry looked up from his boots, finding the man had apparently done so only because Arya was now standing in front of them—he hadn’t even noticed her approach, but that was hardly something which surprised him anymore. Her eyes were fixed on Thoros and Gendry thought it fortunate for the man’s sake that a look couldn’t actually kill.
Still, he seemed to believe himself in some rather immediate danger because Thoros rose and said, “I’ll take my leave, then, shall I?” before he scurried quickly past as though he feared his furs would catch fire if he didn’t move fast enough.
Gendry quirked his brow, amused as he watched the man retreat, and then he turned his eyes to Arya whose expression was now calm and passive and un-murderer-y once again.
“Do you enjoy scaring people?”
“Maybe a little,” she said, but the little smirk she wore said she enjoyed it more than just ‘a little’.
Gendry grinned with a little laugh as he got back to fastening his boots, and he glimpsed Arya smile before she stepped forward to set a small bundle of extra furs next to him on the bench.
“More padding?” he asked.
When she sat down on the bench across from him, he glanced quickly around but found no one seemed to be taking any interest in the bastard blacksmith talking with the Lady assassin, and was relieved.
“Use it for your chest,” Arya said. “You southern boys don’t do so well north of the Wall, I hear.”
Gendry found himself grinning again, despite the fact that the joke had been made entirely at his own expense, before he turned back to his work on his boots.
“I should probably be offended by that, but thanks. For the advice, I mean, not the insult.”
A long pause followed, during which time he finished with his boots and started to add the extra padding she’d procured for him beneath the furs of his tunic. He’d thought she was just biding her time before they left, pleased that she’d chosen to do so in his company but also wondering if it was just because her brother was busy, until she spoke again.
“I need to apologize.”
Gendry glanced up at her but couldn’t come up with a reason for why Arya would need to apologize, alternatively finding nothing in her expression that was of any use in sussing the information out.
“Why?” With nothing else to pin it on, he offered a well-humored, “I’ve heard a lot worse before, believe me,” thinking she somehow felt contrite about her previous jab at his inability to handle any sort of cold—to which, in his defense, he did spend an awful lot of time around heat.
Although, she really had never seemed to find issue with such things before, speaking her mind with ease no matter the blow to anyone’s pride, so he couldn’t imagine this was what she was getting at.
Then she hesitated and this more than anything else took his full attention. Gendry abandoned his task to look at her and Arya seemed to be struggling with her words, so he sat quietly while she sorted them. She didn’t turn her eyes away while she pieced it all together and he could see something swirling around in there. It wasn’t the first time he likened her grey eyes to the gathering of storm clouds, but the expression seemed particularly fitting in that moment and he wondered what sort of things were running around in her head. He also wondered if he would get to know or if this would be another thing she left unsaid.
He was surprised when she voiced those thoughts he could see roiling under the surface, but Gendry was more thrown by what exactly she had chosen to speak on.
“When I joined the Faceless Men,” Arya began, “I had to set it all aside, everything that made me… me.”
Mostly, he was surprised because, after so long with little more than two words said on the matter of her time in Braavos, the smith hadn’t expected she would talk about any of it.
“They say only No One can wear the faces,” Arya continued. “It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to let it all go. That would mean letting everyone go, all of the people I needed to kill but also the people I missed, the people I wanted to see again… and those I never would.”
Her father was the first person that came to Gendry’s mind here, but he knew her mother and two of her brothers were also gone. Arya, he realized then, had lost more people than he’d ever had the privilege to care for.
He wasn’t sure which was worse.
“But, I wanted to learn, so I did. I let the Faceless Men tear me down and I set Arya Stark aside and I learned how to be No One. I didn’t expect it, but it made it all... easier. None of it… hurt anymore. I wasn’t Arya Stark, so I didn’t need her pain. I didn’t need to miss the people she missed. I didn’t need to lie awake at night hating the people she hated.”
It was a painful notion that Arya, who had always been so very much her own person that not even the rules of the world had been able to hold her down—certainly not something he himself could boast to—had been swallowed up by so much grief and hat that she’d been willing to lose herself. But, it was something Gendry couldn’t refute, that this training had helped her. He more than most knew how tormented she’d been, and that had been when her father had been the only one taken from her. He’d heard her whisper her list of names every night, heard them so often that he would probably know them to his dying day. She’d been through so much more since then and he imagined that list had grown, but he didn’t ask on it, feeling like that would be an intrusion into something much too personal to her.
He wondered if she’d had trouble sleeping during her time in Braavos or if this training had managed to push all of that pain of hers aside enough for her to finally get some rest.
“But, I had to come back. I could never stay No One,” Arya continued and that fact, he felt, was a given because he couldn’t imagine her ever just letting herself disappear, not for good, “and when I packed it all away I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to let it all in again.”
She glanced down then, suddenly even more unsure and that put Gendry right on edge, wondering if he would have the strength to hear what might come next.
Then she said, “When I’m with certain people now… Jon, Sansa, Bran… you…” admitting that last part just a little more softly it almost sounded like, for the weight in that one word, she was admitting something to him.
It wasn’t something she said outright and it was something Gendry wasn’t yet able to allow himself to believe, in part because he hadn’t even allowed himself to realize it in himself yet. But, one thing he knew was that his place in her life was more significant than he’d realized, not least of all because she’d listed him alongside her brothers and her sister.
Alongside her family.
Would she still let him be a part of it if he asked? This wasn’t so much a thought he had as it was a feeling. It filled him up in an instant so quickly that he couldn’t stop it, a feeling of hope and appreciation and- and he was quick to push it aside.
Gendry knew he couldn’t ask.
“In those moments,” Arya continued, allowing him the chance to silence the words before they reached his lips against his bidding, “all of those little pieces of me are pulled back into place and it… it hurts , so much sometimes that it’s… easier if I just let myself slip into the emptiness of being No One.”
There was a shift in her grey eyes then, those storms churning with something he would almost dare to call vulnerable, and he knew that what followed was her entire purpose for coming to him, for saying all of this.
“The first time I saw you in King’s Landing, I was so relieved. I’d been sure you were dead, that the Red Woman would have seen you burned for Stannis and his war. But, when I saw you again, alive and well… I couldn’t bring myself to approach you. Not as me.”
Those last three words were said in a particularly loaded fashion, laden with implication, and only in that moment did Gendry finally remember.
He knew he’d seen that man somewhere before.
“That man from the village…” he said with a bit of wonder in his voice, thinking of the man whose scarred face Arya had worn to kill the raiders in that village just south of her home.
He could read it in her eyes that he was right. That man, as he recalled, had come into his shop not once but twice.
“That first day I came to you,” Arya elaborated, her tone laden with that same vulnerability from the onset of this admission. “I’d been working up to that for three days.”
Gendry could only share her stare for a moment following, not sure himself what to do with this knowledge.
“Working up to it?”
Because, he’d never known her to hesitate much at all. What did it say that she’d hesitated to visit him? He couldn’t even fathom a guess.
She told him.
“That first time I saw you, that time I was so relieved you were alive… I had a fleeting thought that maybe I could just… stay disappeared. You’d hidden yourself right under their noses and I thought… perhaps I could do the same. And when I came to see you wearing the face of a stranger, I thought that maybe I could join on. You could teach me how to work a forge and I could help out and then… I don’t know. I didn’t let the thought go any farther than that. But, I shouldn’t have even considered it.”
Those storms in her eyes surged again and Gendry knew just how profoundly she meant it when she said, “It terrified me that I did.”
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to take from that either.
“But, I still wanted to see you, so… In the end, I bought two daggers. You told me it wasn’t your trade, but I was insistent. I’ve been told I can be quite stubborn.”
Gendry found himself smile here, perhaps just for his own familiarity here because if it was one thing he knew about Arya Stark, it was that one of her primary descriptors was ‘stubborn’. And when he smiled she actually laughed, a little breath of a thing that seemed mostly to be an expelling of nervous energy as she looked down at her hands, running a thumb along one of the scars on the back of her other hand, scars she didn’t used to have.
“I told myself I needed them, but I’ve made due with less. I could’ve even stolen a couple of daggers if I really needed them. It was just an excuse for me to come see you again. So, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let you believe that I don’t care, that I wasn’t happy to see you, because I do and I was. I wanted to come to you as me, but I knew that if you recognized me I might… reconsider what I had to do.”
She’d said something similar before, when she’d left Winterfell to return to King’s Landing. Even Gendry, with all of his many doubts birthed from a lifetime of being looked down on as ‘less than’, knew it was no small thing that she believed he could have such sway over her decisions, this decision in particular. Quite honestly, he still at a bit of a loss for it.
“Why are you telling me all this?” he asked, unsure for a moment about whether or not he could trust his voice, but it held steady. “Why now?”
There had been literal days filled with silence between them since they’d set out from her home, hardly ever an unpleasant or awkward silence but a pervading one which could have been filled all the same, so he couldn’t help but wonder at the timing.
The ‘something’ which took hold in her eyes as Arya stared at him didn’t make him wonder any less.
Then she said, “Don’t die out here,” and the words were loaded with a meaning he couldn’t define and an order he couldn’t refuse.
Gendry pushed swiftly aside a fleeting curiosity about whether or not she would gut him if he tried to kiss her.
After a beat, during which time he tried and failed to identify that ‘something’ still swimming around in her gray eyes, he dipped his head and said, “As Milady commands.”
The words weren’t filled with the same humor they had once been, now the words of an earnest vow. He thought that something in her eyes may have shifted a bit, but then it was gone before he could read anything from it, gone so fast in fact that he wasn’t sure it had ever been there to begin with. Arya stood after that and then he watched her walk away, left alone to silently ponder over everything she had said—and everything she hadn’t.
He found he couldn’t recall at which specific point his heart had begun to pound so heavily.
Chapter 3: Not Today
Jon Snow knows nothing.
Jon trudged down the steps to the main courtyard, Longclaw feeling remarkably heavy at his waist for being such a light and familiar blade. He loathed what it might do to their relationship, but he wanted to at least give his sister a chance to discover for herself just how outmatched she would be on this venture north. And if afterwards she still refused to be left behind, then he would have Edd take her into custody until after they departed.
She may hate him for the rest of her days, but she would be alive and that was his only concern.
So, Jon waited until Arya stepped out into the courtyard, already set to leave just as he was. Edd and Ser Davos were already there, the latter waiting to escort them all down to the gate and the former waiting to, if it became necessary, ruin Jon’s relationship with his dear sister. Ghost lingered around the periphery of the courtyard, ever silent as he observed them all and Jon wondered briefly if Arya would stay if he asked her to do so in order to look after his old friend. But, he knew it wouldn’t work. His sister was no longer a naive little girl and she would see right through the ploy in an instant. So, drawing Longclaw, Jon turned to face his sister, setting the tip of the blade in the mud underfoot to rest both of his hands atop the wolfshead pommel.
At his request that she join him, Arya stood passively across from him, her hands clasped behind her back in that same relaxed manner which seemed to have become her custom during their separation. When several others of their troop, those who were also set to leave, joined them at the periphery of the courtyard to watch, Jon muttered a curse under his breath because he had hoped to keep this matter as private as possible. With witnesses, Arya’s embarrassment would only be added to, which would surely only make her hate him more.
But, this needed to be done. If he handled the matter carefully, then perhaps something of their raport could still be salvaged, but if it was a choice between her life and her love, he wouldn’t hesitate to give up the latter for the former in a single heartbeat.
He would die a thousand more times to keep the rest of his family safe.
“I need to see what you mean when you say you know how to fight,” he said, turning his attention squarely onto Arya. “If I’m going to let you come with us, I need to be sure you’ll be able to handle yourself.”
Jon hoped that phrasing it in this way would make her think he hadn’t already decided on the matter. Still, he expected her to be offended as she once surely would have been.
Instead, she only said, “Are you sure? We’re wasting daylight,” her manner ever as cool as the frigid air around them.
He dipped his head in a curt nod.
“Humor me, if you would?”
Arya returned his nod in much a similar fashion, giving her consent.
“If you insist.”
Jon held his breath a moment for what might happen next and realized he was, for his anxiety, gripping Longclaw’s pommel rather tightly.
“Where are your weapons?”
And then, in a move which was so baffling and maddening and terryfying, Arya pulled the Valyrian steel dagger from her belt, the same one she’d threatened the Hound with in the cells earlier, and nothing else. Needle, Jon only noticed then, wasn’t even on her person. Of course, he knew the weapon would be useless on this venture, but surely she could find something to bring besides just a dagger , Valyrian steel or no.
“Is that all you intend to bring with you? Arya, you can’t be serious.”
To his mind, it was just more proof that she shouldn’t join them because what did she hope to accomplish with one little dagger?
Arya only smiled.
Jon was hesitant now but agreed, breathing out a sigh through his nose.
“Are you sure you want them all watching?” his sister nodded to the troop behind her, which had already grown some since he’d first taken stalk of the spectators, now including Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, and the smith she’d brought with her, among a few others. “Won’t it be embarrassing when I put you on your ass?”
And despite himself Jon smiled because, while he was unaware about how well she would be able to follow through with that threat, it was good to know she still had that same bite to her personality that she used to, that underneath that collected exterior burned the heart of fire he remembered.
“Just ready your little dagger.”
The shrug Arya gave was a little lopsided and Jon didn’t think to question this or why she had the dagger in her right hand.
“If you’re sure. Don’t hold back, big brother.”
Arya tucked the dagger away behind her back and then stood still, waiting. It took Jon a moment to realize this very passive posture was her being ready and then he hefted Longclaw, ever anxious about the fallout of what was to come. Gripping the sword firmly in both hands, Jon stepped forward and slashed sideways as he would to cleave her across the shoulders. But, the swing was slow because he wanted to make sure he would be able to stop it himself if Arya couldn’t.
That was his second mistake, which he realized only a moment later.
His first was not taking her seriously to begin with.
Arya ducked and swiveled beneath the arc of the swing and, before Jon was even sure what had just happened, she’d swatted his sword onward with her dagger and kicked his knee out. He didn’t even have the time to take stock of just how quickly his little sister was able to move until he had one knee in the mud and she had that little dagger of hers at his throat.
There was a roguish sort of amusement in her eyes, as well as in the little smirk she was wearing, when he looked up at her and Jon was fairly certain his expression was as oafish as he felt as his entire perspective of his sister was tipped right over.
While unaware of it himself, his expression wasn’t all that different from the one Arya had worn just that morning when she’d seen the Wall for the first time.
“I told you not to hold back.”
She pulled the dagger away and twirled it around her fingers several times, surely just for show he thought, as she brought the weapon behind her back once again and stepped away behind him. Jon looked to those watching from the sidelines and spotted several different reactions. Many of the spectators looked as surprised as he felt. Ser Davos looked impressed. The bloody Hound almost looked, dare he say, a little proud. The smith, Gendry, was the only one who seemed as though he’d expected this.
And Jon felt rather like a fool.
She had warned him, after all. He’d simply been unwilling to listen.
“I’d do as she says,” Gendry the smith offered in his two bits from where he was leaning against an overhang post and Jon would swear in that moment that the man looked to be almost as amused as Arya.
Rising to his feet, Longclaw in hand, Jon turned to face his little sister, finding that smirk of Arya’s was still well in place as she retook that same passive posture from before. He had never expected this spar might just become a serious matter, that his own initial claim to see what she could do would prove true.
And now, perhaps, there was just a little bit of curiosity to it as well.
“Are you sure?”
Still, he needed to know this, that she was absolutely sure she could handle herself in a real fight because, no matter how silly she’d just made him look, she was still his little sister and he would hate himself if he ever hurt her.
But, when she gave a simple, mute nod, he returned it because he wouldn’t doubt her again.
“Alright. No holding back it is.”
And so, Jon moved in for another swing, but this time Longclaw cut through the air quickly. Arya was quicker as she stepped back and out of the way. He planted his swinging foot and pressed in again with another slash, not giving her the chance to close the gap between them like she had last time. He expected her to dodge this one and she did, ducking and swivelling on her feet like she had before, but she kept her distance this time. It was as he went in for his third strike, an overhead slash which she bent out of the way of, that he realized his once impatient little sister was studying his movements with a careful calculation he once never would have thought to look for in her. She would keep her distance for now, it seemed, as she catalogued his moves and whatever tells which may precede them, but if he let himself get too complacent she would surely make her own move.
So, he changed it up as he went, throwing at her every curveball he could conceive of, but this wasn’t like most of the sword fights he’d been in, which was really only because Arya didn’t have a sword. There was very little parrying involved and no grappling at all. She spent most of her time evading his blade—and making it look remarkably and frustratingly easy to do so, he thought. He’d never seen footwork like hers before, steps so swift and winding that he would’ve surely tripped over his own feet by now in her place, and she read the movements of his body almost as quickly as he made them. It was equal parts impressive and annoying.
He was hitting a lot of air.
After another swing in a long string of them hit nothing, Jon groaned out loud and lamented with a half-frustrated and half-amused, “Damn!” because he had never expected his sister would be one to give him this much trouble.
It was difficult not to laugh for the grin she sent his way.
“Getting tired, brother?”
To be honest, he was breathing a bit heavily, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of admitting it.
“Don’t dream of it!”
He pressed in again and she continued to stick primarily to evasion, only resorting to diverting his much heavier blade with her dagger when left with no alternative; even then it was only to make up for what little her movements lacked, never a full on parry. There were a couple times when Jon feared she might not be moving out of the way fast enough, but Longclaw never so much as grazed her clothing or cut a single dancing hair on her head.
He slashed. She ducked.
He lunged. She stepped out of the way.
He turned the downward arc of a slash into a rotation of his own and slashed horizontally, but she was already rolling under the swing as he turned. The tap of the flat edge of her dagger on his calf told him that if this were a real fight he would’ve just been maimed and Jon groaned out loud again.
He’d never had such a hard time hitting something before.
In the end, it was his wealth of experience over hers which won him the bout, a triple feint which brought him close enough to his prancing sister to shove her with his shoulder.
She was thrown off of her feet, at last rendered still as she hit the mud underfoot, and Jon was relieved for his own panting breaths that the duel had come to an end. With a grin down at his little sister, he extended his hand in an offer to hoist her up.
But, Arya was fast and he once again failed to completely register her movements as she swept his leg out from under him, failed to realize it until their places were reversed. Flat on his back, spots dancing in his vision for the hard fall, Jon stared up at his little sister, who’d been back on her feet even as he was landing in the mud.
She was wearing that same smug little grin from before as she bent over him.
“I told you I’d put you on your ass.”
She offered him her hand as he had done and Jon once again failed to question why she used her right rather than her dominant left, although this time this lapse in judgement may have had something to do with the harsh landing.
“Not before I put you on yours,” he jested goodnaturedly, but they both knew that, if it had been an actual fight, he wouldn’t have been in the position to do so with a maimed leg.
With a grin, he accepted the offer and she braced her foot against his to hoist him up with a strength he hadn’t expected from one so small.
“Seven Hells, Arya! Where did you learn to move like that?”
The way she said, “Nowhere,” made him think it was some kind of a joke, but he was pretty sure he’d missed the punchline.
All the same, this short bout had made one thing irrevocably clear.
“I suppose I can’t really ask you to stay behind at Eastwatch anymore, can I?”
The smile Arya gave him made Jon wonder if she’d suspected his motives all along and he was relieved because she didn’t seem to resent him for them. Perhaps, he hoped, she understood that his caution stemmed only from a desire to protect her, a brother’s undying concern for his sister.
He followed as she made her way over to the group of spectators, noting as they approached that Tormund had since joined them all and the man looked far too excited, sporting that same look of barely subdued mania Jon remembered seeing before they’d climbed the Wall.
“Is that that dancing shit I found you practicing?” The Hound asked as they drew nearer and Jon wondered not for the first time in the last hour how a man who had reportedly captured Arya for ransom could act as though there was anything but animosity between them. “Well, fuck me, you might actually be able to kill people like that now.”
And just as baffling as it had been before, Arya smiled at the man.
“Want to test that out?”
And despite the words themselves, there didn’t seem to be a real threat behind them. Sandor Clegane smirked.
“Think I’ll stick with ’no fucking way’. I already lost to Brienne of fucking Tarth. There’s no way I’m going to put myself in the position to lose to you.”
For his little sister’s speed alone, Jon wondered if she would actually be able to outmaneuver the man. All it would take, after all, was one well-placed strike.
“Can I try?”
Tormund seemed much too eager as he held up his curved blade, that same mania skirting around unabashedly behind his eyes, and Jon jumped in on instinct with an insistent rejection because, no matter what she’d just proven of her skills, Arya was still his little sister and he would always be a bit protective.
Because he didn’t want to offend her, he added, “Time is wasting and we need to be going,” but the look Arya gave him, with one eyebrow turned slightly upward, told him he wasn’t fooling her
He could only assume she let it go because they had a lot of ground to cover in less time now.
As the others started to move out, Jon lingered only briefly as Arya paused in passing by the smith.
“Any more concerns?” she asked him, a question from what he could only assume was an earlier conversation.
The smith shook his head and there was amusement in his eyes as he replied with an earnest, “No, I’m good.”
Before she turned away to follow the others over to the lift, the two shared a weighted look and Jon thought then that he definitely needed to ask the man for those details Arya had mentioned the morning they’d set out for the Wall.
They had all gathered down in the tunnel and were now making one final check that they had everything they would need and Arya stood by, waiting.
Off to the side she heard the man, Davos, bid farewell to Gendry with a clap on the shoulder and an earnest, “Be careful out there, lad,” to which Gendry offered only a mute nod and a tentative smile.
Arya had to settle a sudden disquiet in her heart with a breath as she turned to look at the smith, unsure about what that disquiet was but finding it wasn’t altogether unpleasant despite the fact that it had stolen her breath away. She was glad she had told him what she’d needed to and the way he’d looked at her as she’d said it all told her he had needed to hear the words, probably as much as she had needed to say them.
She could plainly see that Gendry was anxious for the coming expedition. Afraid, as he had admitted to her on that beach a week ago, but she held to her stance that only a fool wouldn’t be. With where they were going and what they were trying to do, it would be more likely that they would all die than not, no matter what she made anyone swear. With this company were a few of the only remaining people she still cared for and she hated the thought that, by this same time the following day, their existences could be wiped from the world just as so many others had before them. She could only hope that, were that to happen, she would actually get the chance to join them.
The alternative was to be alone again and she didn’t think she could-
“If you have something to say, just spit it out,” Arya found herself snapping, her frustration finally boiling over because she really was growing tired of being stared at.
Thoros of Myr stepped up beside her. Because, of course, he was one of the few people still alive after all of these years.
“You aren’t supposed to be here, little Stark,” he said, and something in the way he said it made her think he might actually be sad, a deep melancholy on her behalf which she hated to see from someone she hated so much.
Quite honestly, though, it was the only thing that kept her from snapping at him again, but the last thing she would ever want in the world was the pity of, in the words of someone who had a truly unique way with them, Thoros of fucking Myr.
“None of us should be here,” Arya said and she didn’t wait for what the man might say in response.
She walked away from him before he could even open his mouth and went over to join her brother at the gate, passing by the Lord Commander, a man named Edd who seemed to be on good terms with her brother, as he was heading in the opposite direction. Jon smiled at her as she approached, that same smile which had been infused into the sword he’d given her, the one she’d carried with her for years and the only thing, for a time, which had kept her grounded as Arya Stark. She returned it as his hand fell on her shoulder, not with any intent to start a private conversation with her or to turn her attention towards something but rather, it seemed, just to touch her, to solidify once more in his mind that she was alive and standing there with him. Largely, it proved the inverse for her, that her brother had somehow returned from the dead.
It was foolish because he couldn’t make such a promise, but Arya wanted to ask him not to die, just as she had done earlier with Gendry. The words wouldn’t come in that moment when they were there on that precipice of potential disaster, but they weren’t actually needed, she thought, because she could see a similar plea in Jon’s eyes. Surely he could read the words in hers as well and that was enough.
And so, one by one, the others joined them. Beric Dondarrion looked as grim as ever as he stepped into the front line. Thoros took a swig from a small flask tied around his neck. The Hound frowned at him, but she thought that may have been only because the man didn’t seem about to share his drink. She didn’t know the man who stood on Jon’s other side personally, though he’d been previously introduced as Jorah Mormont, a former night from Bear Island currently serving the Dragon Queen from Essos. He was a tall man who was quite obviously past his prime, though not so far as Ser Davos, although he carried himself as a warrior still and he seemed appropriately grim as well, all things considered. The large ginger, Tormund, was perhaps the only one who seemed largely unaffected by their task ahead, but, a Wildling, he was the only one of their company who called the lands north of the Wall home. And then there was Gendry, stepping up on Arya’s other side. His jaw was clenched tightly shut, his entire frame stiff for the looming unknown ahead of them all.
It wasn’t a conscious action when she reached out to grip his hand briefly, easing his fingers from their tight fist, but when Gendry looked at her she found she didn’t regret the action, not when he took a breath that seemed to settle him and gave a little nod, a gratefulness shuttered behind his still hesitant blue eyes. She returned his nod before dropping her hand again, reminding herself that they weren’t allowed to die.
A deep boom resounded through the tunnel, drawing Arya’s attention as the gate before them slowly began to rise, the chill of the air beyond rushin in to greet them in a flurry. As it started on its slow ascent, she glanced at Jon, but she came up short when she found a deep sort of longing in his eyes as he watched the gate rise. That longing couldn’t be mistaken for anything but what it was and she realized in that moment that she’d been wrong before. She feared in that moment that, even if they survived against all of the odds stacked against them, if they captured the wight they sought and ultimately defeated the Night King and his army and took the Seven Kingdoms back from Cersei… she would probably have to say goodbye to her brother anyway.
His home, Arya realized in that jarring moment, was no longer in Winterfell. She had the fleeting and painful thought that perhaps it never had been, not as it had been hers, at least. She hated the completely unmerited jealousy that filled her because she should want for him whatever he wanted for himself.
Even if it meant they would have to part ways.
“You never told me what we’re supposed to say.”
This comment from Gendry cut right through the suffocating hush which had claimed the group, as well as the painful realization she had just come to, and Arya turned.
He took a deep breath to settle himself and clarified, “Back on the beach. You said, ‘there’s only one thing to say to Death’, but you never told me what that something is.”
And she was thankful in that moment because this turn of thought allowed her to slip back into that empty place inside of herself, the one she would probably need before this venture, and everything that would come after should they be fortunate enough to survive, was over. She could feel her brother turn to look at her, could see Beric and Thoros and the Hound all looking at her from behind Gendry, and she knew the smith wasn’t the only one waiting.
The gate had finally risen high enough that the sun reached her eyes and Arya turned, shielding her face from a flurry of snow that rushed in, and shortly thereafter found herself looking out over the frozen wasteland north of the Wall. They would have to cross that expanse of snow, capture a dead man, and then return, all without being swallowed by the army of the dead. Those words Syrio had once imparted to her, she found, seemed more fitting than ever before.
With the danger looming ahead, Arya steeled her resolve and said those two words which had always given her so much strength, hoping to impart some of that same strength to the rest of them.
Each one of them would need it before this was all over.
Chapter 4: It's Not the Wind
The troop treks through the frozen tundra north of the Wall.
Oof, where does the time go? I swear, I meant to get this out a couple weeks ago, but I kept finding half-finished thoughts that I missed.
I altered the timeline here as well. Assuming I spotted it correctly on the map, there's no way they would have reached that mountain in a day.
As a side note, this is the first time I have ever intentionally thrown in a typo. I dropped a minor bird related joke in the form of a homonym during Sandor’s piece (because we all know how he loves chicken!). Do let me know if you find it!
They had been trudging along for over an hour when a distinct, roaring cry sounded from the south. It was a sound unlike anything Arya had ever heard and she turned alongside the others to search out its source. Her gaze was quickly drawn upward to the movement of a very large creature landing on top of the Wall and even before it was joined by two others, before a couple of the northmen in Jon’s party started talking amongst themselves about never getting used to ‘them’, she knew what it was. Even from this far out, they appeared large, larger when she considered just how tall the wall hey were perched on was.
“Are those-,” Gendry asked from somewhere to her right, although he seemed to already suspect the answer to his own query.
“Dragons,” she confirmed for him all the same, unable to tear her eyes away from the beasts of legend.
All her life she’d wanted to see one, ever since Nan had first told her the stories of the old Targaryen riders. She wondered at which each of them was, aware of their names but unable to discern the color of their scales from so far away to put those names to any of them—although she assumed the middle one was likely the alpha, Drogon.
It was the tone in her brother’s voice more than anything else, a wonderment and something deeper, which finally pulled Arya’s scanning gaze from the living legends in the distance and she turned to find in his eyes a very mirrored emotion, like he was equal parts surprised by the turn as he was unsurprised.
“Daenerys Targaryen,” she said, for surely there was no one else who could have come with the dragons, and Jon turned to face her.
Whether he was aware of the presence of that lingering ‘something’ in his eyes, she didn’t know, at least until he failed to school his expression enough to hide any of it from her practiced and searching eyes. Arya knew then that she would need to speak with this Dragon Queen he’d been gone so long treating with, to speak with the woman who had enraptured her brother so. She liked to believe Jon was a good judge of character, but the heart could be a foolish thing, yearning for things it shouldn’t.
Arya said none of this out loud, letting her brother believe his fondness had gone unseen, and turned back to observe the dragons still perched on the Wall.
“She’s come all this way,” Gendry spoke up again, this time sounding a bit perturbed. Arya noted how tight his fist was and wondered if some of his snark had to do with the cold. “Why couldn’t she just fly out there and grab one of these things herself?”
But, that was a fair point. A dragon would make the journey in much less time.
The only man present from the Dragon Queen’s company, Jorah, spoke up in her defense in this regard. “Dragons are noticeable,” he posed, certainly a true fact as their attentions had all been drawn to the three legendary beasts from miles off. “They would see her coming.”
“Yeah, but it’s a dragon .” Gendry argued, certainly a strong point even before he added, “ Three dragons!”
“We don't know if they have any way of killing dragons.” Jon cut in. “It’s an unnecessary risk.”
And while his point was indeed true, because losing even one dragon would stack the odds against them that much more, Arya wondered for the first time at his motives for saying so. Had he, she considered, elected to put himself in this very dangerous situation just so Daenerys Targaryen wouldn’t need to?
“And risking the life of a king isn’t?” she posed.
Jon gave her a look as though surprised that she had taken an opposing side to his argument, but she wasn’t about to apologize for thinking of his life over that of some Targaryen Queen she’d never met.
“We’re going to need her dragons to win this war. I know these lands and I know our enemy, and if all goes well we could go entirely unnoticed.” Jon said, although Arya highly doubted things would be so simple. “The Queen is here in case things don’t go well. If we’re out here for more than a week, she’ll come find us.”
‘If there are any of us left’ went unsaid, but the words hung heavy in the air anyway, conjuring a silence which lasted several beats.
The spell was broken when Jon pulled an ignitable arrow from a satchel slung around his shoulders and indicated a bow he’d brought with him and added, “And if we run into trouble before then and we won’t be able to make it back, then we send someone to fire off a signal and she’ll come find us early.”
It wasn’t the most ideal of plans, Arya had to admit, but it was probably their best workable plan at a moment’s notice. She could only hope this ‘trouble’ they ran into would be the kind that let one of them get away with the aforementioned arrows while giving the rest of them enough time to wait for said person to run the many miles they were sure to walk before firing off a signal which would be visible from the Wall.
“Are you just going to stand around talking all day like some fucking cunts, are are we going to go gnab us a corpse?” the Hound cut in, sounding his usual coarse and aggravated self as though none of this really troubled him.
Honestly, it was a little comforting to know that some things never changed.
“Big man’s got a point,” Tormund, the large Wildling, agreed. “All this talking ain't getting us any closer to that mountain.”
"Alright, alright," Jon said to appease the men. "Come on, everyone, we've got a long journey ahead of us and it's only getting longer."
And so the troop, spearheaded by Jon, started on north again, turning away from the dragons which could very well be their only salvation in this expedition. Arya let her gaze linger, wondering if she would get the chance to see one up close or if she would meet her end before then. When she finally did turn away, she found Gendry had also lingered. She could see the uncertainty in his eyes as he turned to look at her and, quite honestly, she didn't feel great about this plan. But, it was all they had, so she turned to follow her brother and the rest of the troop. As Gendry came up alongside her, she eyes the large hammer slung across his back, wondering not for the first time just how much it weighed.
It was the tightness of his shoulders which made her ask, “Are you sure you can carry that thing the whole way there? It’s massive.”
Despite the shivers he was suppressing, Gendry managed a smirk at her prodding jest and she was glad when his frame loosened for just a bit. But, the cold settled back in a moment later.
“I’ll manage,” he said, and while she was certain he could carry that hammer as far as he needed to, she also knew the dead weren't the only threat they had to contend with out in that frozen wasteland.
Conditions willing, it would take them three days to reach their destination, a mountain from a vision the Hound had in the flames.
It was only going to get colder after the sun went down.
Gendry had never liked the cold, had spent too much of his time around the heat of a forge to get used to it. And this was most assuredly the coldest he'd ever been in his life. He tried not to let it show, if only because the others in the troop didn't seem to be faring as poorly. Tormund Giantsbane had lived out here all his life, so that at least was expected. Gendry was fairly certain the cold was too afraid of the Hound to dare try wrapping its icy fingers around him. Thoros, he suspected, was too drunk to care about the weather. The Starks, supposedly born to the winter, seemed hardly phased as they all continued their seemingly endless northern trek. As he understood it, Arya’s brother had spent half a decade up here in this frozen wasteland, so it was probably just like any other day for him, just as it was for the Wildling. If Arya was bothered by the frigidness of the air, she didn’t let on. Gendry had yet to spot a single shiver of her small frame and he envied her that because the soreness in his gut had been getting progressively worse throughout the day as he shivered like a little lamb—and tried with more frequent failure to suppress those shivers.
Those extra furs didn’t seem to be doing much for him, but he would’ve been worse off without them. He knew Arya would probably tease him about having been right in this regard, but he reminded himself to thank her later anyway.
He hoped desperately that it would offer a distraction from the cold when her brother backpedaled to walk beside him.
Gods, he needed a distraction…
“Your Grace?” Gendry asked, curious because it had clearly been the man’s intent to strike up some sort of conversation.
All the while, he hoped the mumbling nature of his words, as he struggled to get his lips to move properly for his inability to feel them, hadn’t been as apparent as it had sounded to his own ears. His teeth clattered together quite loudly as he closed his mouth again, however, so it was probably a lost cause.
“It gets easier.”
There was a kindness in the man’s eyes as he said this, as well as an understanding which implied Gendry’s plight was as forthright as he’d feared.
“I keep hearing that, but it seems no matter how much time I spend up in the North, it never really seems to happen.”
Arya’s King brother smiled, his breath puffing out into a cloud of vapor as he laughed.
“The key is not to focus on it.”
“Easier said than done, I think,” Gendry groused as he resisted another shiver that threatened to shudder through him.
It, and several others, got the better of him as they trudged along.
“My sister tells me you’re a smith.”
Gendry bobbed his head up and down in a numb, graceless nod.
“Aye, Your Grace, I am.”
“Have you heard of dragonglass?”
Jon Snow was the second Stark to ask him this very same question. He wished he had a better answer, but alas that which he had to offer was the same one he’d given to the man’s other sister.
“Heard of it. Never worked with it myself.”
The King nodded, not surprised but perhaps a bit disappointed.
“To be honest, I’m not sure anyone has, at least not to make actual weapons, for a very long time. Every smith I’ve asked has said something similar. If I hadn’t seen the daggers myself, I’d have never thought it possible to make one from something so brittle.”
“I don’t suppose you have one of those daggers?”
“I don’t, I’m afraid. We lost them when the Night King took Hardhome.”
Along pause followed as he considered how else he might suss out a means of fabrication. With it being so brittle, a hammer was surely out of the question, so there would be no forging. They could always try casting the weapons, but it would take time, first to make the casts and then to get the process right, and he had no idea how strong the weapons would be.
But, perhaps he shouldn’t look into methods of shaping metal, he finally considered.
The smith had gone quiet, silently pondering, and Jon let the silence be because this problem was one they desperately needed to solve. Time was running sorely thin and if they took too long, they would have no way to fight back when the Night King and his Walkers came for them. Dragons were impressive to be sure, but he had doubts as to whether they could destroy the entire army of the dead and it’s leader.
“What did they look like?” Gendry ultimately asked him next and Jon turned, unsure.
The daggers? Well, they had looked like daggers made out of Dragon Glass, but Jon was fairly certain the smith was fishing for more information than that.
“What exactly are you looking for?”
Gendry considered a moment and then posed, “Did they look forged or were they more jagged, almost like someone took a bunch of bites out of them?”
Now, Jon had held one of those daggers quite a bit as he’d contemplated on ways to combat the Night King and his army: the only real threat in his mind. All the same, it had been over two years since the tragedy at Hardhome and he had to ponder a moment to remember more than just a dagger of black glass.
“I suppose they were jagged” he ultimately said and turned back to the smith. “Does that mean something to you?”
The glint of recognition in Gendry’s eyes held a promise of the first good news Jon had received on this front.
“Aye, it does,” he said. “Knapping.”
He didn't seem to realize how this had sounded to Jon's ignorant ears until the man asked, “I suppose you don’t mean we should all take a break in the middle of the day to nod off for a spell?"
It was a joke and, despite the cold and the looming nature of their task, the frozen smith might have cracked a smile there.
“No, it’s a technique to shape weapons out of stone and things like it,” he supplied. “You just sort of chip away material until you get the shape you need. It might work for this and it's not difficult. We could even have a lot of hands working on daggers and spearheads and arrowheads at the same time. Don't need to know how to work a forge to do it or nothing.”
And that was it, the first piece of information Jon had received on this front which instilled in him more than just a fleeting flicker of hope.
“Do you think we’d be able to make enough of them quickly enough?” the King in the North asked, his eagerness slipping easily into his tone.
“Depending on the number of helpers and how many we’re outfitting… maybe a matter of weeks.”
Jon was nearly floored by the intensity of his own relief by the knowledge that they might just be able to arm up in time after all. It was hardly a victory in this war, which would be hard-fought and wrought with sacrifices. They may not even win.
But, it was a damn good start.
“That… is some of the best news I've heard in a long time.” The King in the North extended his arm towards the smith and, when he clasped it in a shake, Jon gave an earnest, “Thank you, Gendry.”
The man seemed surprised, rendered seemingly speechless as he offered only a mute nod.
And then a light of some nostalgia lit his eyes as he mused, “She said you were different.”
Jon wondered again at just how this smith knew his sister, for that was surely who he had meant. Of course, he knew, it was hardly unlike Arya to build her relations in unlikely places.
He himself was proof of this.
“I ain’t never been thanked by a King before,” Gendry thought aloud and as an afterthought he added, “Not that I’ve met a lot of Kings, mind you,” and Jon felt himself smile.
“Well, I just sort of fell into the position, as it were. It wasn’t exactly my first choice when I left the Watch. I didn’t think anyone would even want a bastard for a king.”
And yet, on the contrary, they'd seemed more willing to accept it than he himself was.
“I’d like to think bastards aren’t so bad as most people think,” the smith beside him mused and Jon turned a curious eye on him because those words had been laden with a weight of meaning.
Of course, Jon expected Gendry to tell him that he too was a bastard, for why else would he say such a thing?
Still, he very nearly tripped over his own foot when Gendry said, ever so simply, “I’m Robert Baratheon’s bastard son," and he had to stop walking just to ensure he would keep his feet.
Gendry paused alongside him and, as Jon searched for it, nothing in the man's gaze hinted at any sort of fabrication or falsehood. He studied him in the new light of this news. He tried to spot a resemblance, but he'd only seen the late King Robert briefly and from a distance during his one visit to Winterfell years before. Aside from the dark hair, searching for any further resemblance would be a fool's errand on his part. Still, Jon knew Gendry would have no reason to lie about this, especially not after that apparently only attempted extermination of all of Robert's illegitimate heirs.
And so, here they were, the bastard sons of the two men who had ended the tyrannical reign of the father whose daughter with whom Jon now sought an alliance.
He wondered how many people knew.
He then wondered if Arya knew. Of course, with the way she'd refused to speak on Gendry's past, he supposed she had to.
“I figured you should know. Our fathers were friends, weren’t they?” Gendry asked.
Jon could see a slight hesitation there. Did he expect some form of anger from him? It had been Gendry's father who had stolen Jon's away from his home, to a position which he hadn't even wanted and which ultimately claimed his life? Perhaps Gendry expected there to be some ill will there.
But, a man was not his father, so Jon extended his hand to the man and said, “They were.”
Because, whatever had happened in the end, this much at least was true. Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark had fought a war together, had put an end to the monster of a man who had sat on the Iron Throne.
Perhaps together Jon and Gendry could put an end to the monster to the north.
Gendry seemed taken aback, and perhaps a little stunned, by Jon's simple response, but he returned the gesture all the same, grasping Jon’s forearm in a firm shake.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Gendry, son of Robert.”
The smith smiled, no longer nervous, and dipped his head in a nod.
“Likewise, Your Grace.”
“Please, call me Jon.” He'd never liked the title.
Sandor bit into his second strip of jerkeyed meat rather harshly. It didn’t take much to irritate him and this particular day’s annoyances had gotten an early start. How was it that, surrounded by men from the northern reaches of Westeros, he’d been forced to overhear a seemingly endless stream of whining complaints over how ‘cold’ it had gotten their first night beyond the Wall.
They were in a bloody frozen wasteland. Of course it was fucking cold. But, they wouldn’t hear him prattling on about it. It was only fortunate that the inane chatter had died when their march had begun anew with the sun’s timely arrival in the sky. If he’d had to endure any more of that whining, Sandor could hardly have been held accountable for his own actions.
Perhaps the only one among them with a right to complain was the Stark girl. As the Summer child, not terribly familiar with snow, stepped into an errant snow drift with powder so loose that a shelf of it gave way beneath her. She slipped down the hill a few paces before she lost that insufferable balance of hers and toppled over right into the thick of it. It was deep enough that she all but disappeared and, for the surprise and the chill of it he presumed, she swore quite loudly. Sandor smirked, finding it in himself to be half-amused despite his fowl mood. It was entirely at her expense as she struggled to find purchase on the powder she’d become submerged in, flailing about in an uncontrolled manner he now knew was completely unsuited to her. She almost managed to find solid footing a couple of times, only for the disturbed snow to give way beneath her again even as she started to rise.
Further ahead, as the whining twats from earlier turned to find out what the disturbance was, the girl’s bastard King-brother turned and started on his way to assist her. He didn’t make it more than two steps before Sandor stepped up beside the girl, hardly even sinking down to his knees in the powder which had all but buried her whole. He stooped and grabbed her by the scruff of her fur tunic with his jerky-free hand and plucked her out of the snow with nary an effort. She set a withering glare on him as he stepped back onto the path they had all been trudging along. He wondered as he set her on her feet which event in particular had aggravated her most: her lack of grace caused by the unpredictable nature of so much snow or the fact that he’d picked her up like nothing more than a sack of potatoes.
Sandor ripped off another bite of jerky with his teeth and turned to keep walking as he grouched, “You’re welcome,” at her over his shoulder.
She didn’t thank him as she stepped in pace beside him, brushing herself off of some of the icy residue from her stumble, but he’d hardly expected her too. Cordial had never been something they were, particularly with each other. All the same, it was good to know she was still kicking around and throwing those glares like daggers.
Honestly, after she’d left years before, no small part of him had expected she would’ve landed herself in far more danger than she could get herself out of. With a mouth that was much too large for her sword, she’d always had a penchant for drawing trouble. But, Sandor dared trouble to find her now and scowled at the bit of pride he felt upon noting this.
He wasn’t her fucking father or anything.
Still, there was something he felt he should ask.
“So, where’d you go?”
It was the one thing he’d wanted to ask the moment she’d walked into that frozen cell block the day before.
She didn’t even look at him when she offered a curt, “Braavos,” in reply.
He waited for more of an explanation, but none came and he turned his scowl down on her.
She didn't break her forward gaze.
His irritation was quickly resurfacing.
“You leave me to die at the bottom of some fucking cliff and the only answer I get about where you scurried off to is ‘Braavos’?”
And she meant it, for, as they continued to trudge along, silence prevailed. It actually made Sandor yearn for the days she would shout at everything, even the wind on her most charming of days. Because, damn it, he wanted some answers. In the end, he let it drop because he knew she wouldn’t be inclined to say any more than she had. Still, she was alive and she was a force to be reckoned with in her own slippery way.
That didn’t mean the silence wasn’t aggravating.
“How is it you’re more annoying now than when you wouldn’t shut up?” he asked and perhaps he was trying to see if he could get a rise out of her, if that calm of hers really was so all-encompassing as it appeared to be.
She didn’t utter a single syllable.
Victory to the Stark girl.
He was actually almost surprised when, moments later, she spoke up unprompted.
“What are you doing up here?” she asked him.
Quite honestly, Sandor had been asking himself that very question a lot. Having taken up with a group of fire-worshipers to work against an army of the literal dead, he’d wondered more than once if he’d fallen off of his saddle somewhere along the road.
He should’ve been on some farm somewhere, having his fill of chicken.
“Seemed as good a thing to do as any,” he ultimately said and Arya fucking Stark turned to look at him at last.
Sandor’s first thought as he got his first proper look at her was to wonder if she’d slept a single wink in the past three years. She looked just as tired as she had back then, haunted by the demons who had eviscerated her life and the ghosts of those she’d been foolish enough to let herself love. Still, her eyes seemed alert, no lack of sleep a match for the cutting steel of her iron will.
“You were that bored?” she asked and he was reminded that she’d posed a question to him.
And he frowned because, really, there was no reason he shouldn’t be there.
“I don’t fancy the dead coming to kill me anymore than the rest of you,” he growled.
She didn’t let it drop and, for the first time, he caught a glimpse of that stubborn little girl he’d once known.
“You could always leave,” she posed, a very reasonable alternative, and he turned his glare back on her.
She’d never balked at his harsh looks or his even harsher words and she certainly didn’t start now, returning his glare with a steady, apathetic gaze.
“There’s probably good work for a man of your size across the Narrow Sea.” There was a weight behind her words when she said this, the weight of a point she wasn’t saying as she added, “Instead you’re here.”
Sandor nearly gave a literal growl.
“If there’s something you’re trying to get at, just spit it out already.”
The silence stretched for a beat before she offered a simple, “Just that people change.”
He cast her a sidelong look, this one more contemplative than any of his previous glares, and perhaps, he allowed, he had changed. He couldn’t say he was the same selfish man he used to be. That man would’ve watched this country burn, or in this case freeze, and happily slipped away to another part of the world without a care so long as there was money and food and ale.
He certainly wasn’t the only one to change, he mused as he observed this once brash, easily angered girl, although perhaps that penchant for wrath was still there, just buried beneath an exterior of calm.
“It’s good to see you.”
Sandor turned to the Stark girl again when she said this, none of the bite left to his mood as he studied her profile for an insincerity he didn’t find.
That, more than the words themselves, surprised him.
“I thought you hated me.”
She had every reason to. She even paused, like she had to consider the thought.
“I did and I didn’t,” she ultimately said. Then she turned to look him in the eye when she reiterated her previous sentiment. “And it’s good to see you.”
That time, he was fairly certain there was something underneath the words, a depth of meaning of a sort like the words carried more weight than their casual nature implied. Deep down a part of him was touched, the same part of him which had bidden him to rescue a little bird from a group of vicious rats and to take under his protection the little wolf he had intended to sell for ransom. He’d be damned if he ever let her know that, though.
“Yeah, I’m glad you’re not dead too,” he said it with a groan in his words, like it was some bothersome thing to admit, but despite his tone it was one of the most honest things he’d ever said—and he’d never been a man for bullshitting. “But, don’t go falling into any more snow drifts because I won’t bother pulling you out next time.”
It was a lie and Sandor knew it. He was pretty sure Arya knew it too, even before she said, “Pick me up again and I’ll stab you.”
She said this with such a straight face that he actually wondered if she was being serious. He let himself be amused because whether she was being serious or not, and he honestly believed she was, it was good to be reminded that fire of hers hadn’t been extinguished from the world.
“You can fucking try, but you won’t be dancing around if you’re stuck up in the air,” he jabbed. “Think you can stab me without dancing around?”
“Pick me up again and we’ll find out.”
This time, he was pretty sure there was a little bit of a smirk there when he turned to look at her, one he found himself mirroring.
“Cold little bitch,” he mused with humor in his words.
He got no reply and they continued to walk in silence after that. It was a silence he might dare classify as companionable.
She might not let on, but Arya wasn’t impervious to the unforgiving cold they’d all been plunged into. It was biting and unforgiving and it was always there, but she could ignore it, turn her mind to other things and trick herself into believing she wasn’t actually freezing. It certainly wasn’t the cold which had kept her awake that night. A storm had swept over them a couple hours before the sun had gone down, slowing their trek and eventually forcing them to take shelter in a shallow dip in the snowy hills. They built themselves a nice little wall and huddled against it, keeping close together to share their collective body heat. The wind wasn’t quite so bad then, although it did kick up enough snow to leave visibility sorely lacking.
It was the noise which had kept Arya from any hope for rest.
They must’ve been getting closer because carried on the howling of the wind were screams, distant, screeching wails, and they were more than haunting enough to keep her mind alert and her hand at her dagger. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw a sea of blue eyes surrounding the walls of Winterfell. She saw a deserted keep under a grey sky. She saw weapons buried in the snow, but the bodies were all gone, gone off to walk and run and hunt long after they had no right to rise. And when one of the Walkers’ screams carried on the wind, she saw her brother, or rather the blue-eyed husk of him her sleeping mind had been so cruel to impart on her weeks before.
That image struck her hard and Arya rose, a yearning deep in her bones to replace it with the sight of a Jon who was still very much alive. She spotted him in short order, sitting at the edge of their troop and perched against the marginally effective barrier they’d all constructed to ward off the icy chill of the wind as it swept over the hills. He was already looking at her when she turned, his gaze surely having been drawn to the movement of it when she sat up, and that fear constricting Arya’s chest eased up a little because his eyes were his own.
She wondered if those unearthly cries were the reason he too had failed to find any rest.
Arya was about to rise to make her way over to her brother when, bracing a hand in the snow, her attention fell upon a slumbering Gendry beside her, shivering still while he slept. The southern bull was having a worse time of it than any of them, she knew, although he’d said little about it. He didn’t stir as she draped her blanket over him, much too tired surely, and she watched the furrow of his expression relax a little a moment later as his shivering became less severe. Appeased that he wouldn’t freeze by morning, she rose and set back upon her original task.
Jon held his arm out as she approached and Arya sat beside him and tucked herself into that open space under his own blanket, which he’d draped around himself like a cloak.
“You should be resting,” he admonished her gently. “Despite this set back, we should reach our destination tomorrow. You’ll need your strength.”
“I don’t know how anyone can sleep with all of that noise,” she mused and he turned a curious eye on her.
At first, she thought it merely a jest because it had been a terribly long time since she’d sought the refuge of his company against the howling of the wind outside the walls of Winterfell, on those scarce few nights that a summer storm enveloped the Keep. Then she thought that perhaps he was trying to convince her the wind was their only company that night, to lull her into a false sense of security that she might find some rest.
“The screams,” she corrected him simply because she would never be able to lie to herself convincingly enough to actually believe otherwise. “It’s them, isn’t it?”
She couldn’t make out much of anything, anything at all really, as she peered around into the haze of the blizzard. It took a moment before she realized Jon was staring at her and when Arya turned she found compassion and grief waiting for her in his dark eyes.
“You can hear them?”
Of course, she already knew what this meant, but a part of her had hoped she wasn’t alone in this haunting night. Yet, it would seem she was doomed to it.
“Can you not?”
Perhaps that was how the rest of them were actually managing to sleep, fitfully as they may be doing so.
Jon pulled her to him and Arya let him. He held her to his chest and kissed her hair before muttering a soft apology. She wanted to refute it, to tell him he had no reason to feel sorry. He, after all, wasn’t the one uttering those terrible screams. But, he wasn’t offering a hope for recompense, he was merely offering his sympathy and his earnest compassion for her plight.
It was something she’d gone so long without that she’d very nearly forgotten what it was.
The warmth of him was comforting, if only because it was further proof that her waking night terrors were nothing more than her own fearful imaginings. Arya tucked her arm around him and settled into that comforting warmth, and with one ear muffled as she pressed to the patchwork furs of his tunic, she could almost block out the noise.
And so the time passed slowly by while they sat and waited for a sun they would be unable to see through the blizzard, should it last that long. The snow continued to flurry, the winds continued to howl, the Walkers continued to wail. And through it all they sat, sharing naught but time and company, and Arya very nearly found herself slipping into that slumber which had been so intent on eluding her that night.
Until she heard it.
She thought it a figment at first, conjured by her tired, overworked mind, detecting the sort of sound she’d been anticipating just as she was losing her focus in her dreary state. It was a sound carried not from the wind or the Walkers but from something else entirely, something more subtle and closer, and she stilled, trying to pick it out of the din they’d been shrouded in all night.
“Arya?” Jon asked because she had gone stuff beside him and she held up a hand for him to keep quiet as she turned this way and that to listen.
Arya stood, the gusts hitting her and sweeping her hair and the furs of her tunic wildly about as she rose above the barrier they’d built against the wind. Jon followed suit, rising beside her with a hand on his sword. With the haze from the blizzard, she knew her eyes would serve little purpose, so Arya closed them. She felt Jon’s disapproving stare as she rendered herself seemingly more vulnerable, but she held her hand up to him again before he could chastise her for it. She needed to listen, to see what her eyes could not.
And it worked.
The sound was like the crunch of snow beneath something quite large. She hadn’t known what to think of that sound before then.
Because she’d failed to account for the fact that the dead had no need to breathe.
Whatever it was was running right for them. Arya pivoted and threw herself at her brother just as she heard him start to pull his sword and call out a cautious warning to the men—both of which were much too late. Her shoulder collided with his chest and she shoved him from his feet, his purchase in the shifting snow just as lacking as her own.
They hit the ground just in time for the dead bear to charge past them with a guttural, undead roar, and its jaws only narrowly missed catching Arya around the middle.
But, the rest of the troop was left entirely at its mercy.
Chapter 5: Brought a Dagger to a Bear Fight
As promised, a quicker but shorter update! I would’ve gotten this up earlier today, but I’ve been taking my cat to the vet all week for tests and found out she has diabetes. If anyone’s got any experience with this, I’d greatly appreciate any advice.
It was a bear. An undead bear. Jon had failed to even consider they might run into something like this and it was a costly mistake. It tore threw their little camp in an instant and disappeared back into the blizzard. One man’s leg had been trampled and crushed. Another man was now missing.
Gods, he couldn’t even tell who had been dragged off.
Many of the men were in shock, failing to do more than stand and stare into the flurry around them. Of course, he could hardly fault them for their distraction.
The screams of a dying man being ripped apart were difficult to ignore.
“Ready, men!” Jon bellowed over the wind as he rose beside Arya, who already had her Valyrian steel dagger in hand.
Swallowing his fear that it was her only means of defending herself against such a foe, he pulled Longclaw from its sheath and it was the metallic ring of the weapon being drawn that finally snapped the troop into action. Jon couldn’t make out faces in this weather, but the Hound’s large frame and Tormund’s red hair were difficult to miss. The flaming swords to his right told him Beric and Thoros were still with them as well, but he couldn’t focus on trying to pick out the faces of the rest.
Their man out in the blizzard had gone silent.
“Form up! Make a circle!” Jon ordered, putting his back to their wounded man on the ground.
They followed through with his command in swift order, forming that circle with their bodies acting as a shield for the hobbled man in the middle. He’d managed to get to his feet, Jon glimpsed, but the amount of blood in the snow at his feet left the northern King uncertain about his long-term condition.
This cry from Arya, hardly audible over the wind as it picked up, drew Jon’s rapt attention forward just in time for her to dart ahead from her place at his side. His immediate instinct was to pull her back in line, but his nimble little sister was already out of his reach before he could even get his hand up.
He glimpsed the blue eyes approaching low in the flurry just as Arya jumped into the air. It seemed she had anticipated that the beast would attack low because she landed on its head as it has made to snatch her by the legs. The bear roared and threw its head back, however, and she was sent rolling over its back and into the snow below. Jon snarled as it made to turn on her and he charged in, shouting as he went to draw its attention away.
It reeked of decay, he noted as he drew closer, reeked of death itself just like all the rest, but it was larger, the stench so potent that it was nearly suffocative. His ploy worked, fortunately, drew its attention from his sister, but the bear swung its large rotten paw at him even as Jon made to lunge at it. He cried out as one of its claws sliced his arm open and the force of the hit itself sent him careening. It was the timely intervention of another that saved him from the bears jaws, an arrow piercing one of its blue eyes, but it only startled the beast. It barrelled past him, knocking Jon down in the process, and it roared again as it charged into the thick of the troop. From where he’d landed on his back in the snow, Jon cast a glance over at Arya to check on her, but once he saw she was at least well enough to rise from the snow, he shoved himself back up to his feet to chase after the beast.
The Hound buried his large ax in the bear’s side, but it shoved him off, the weapon then useless as it remained clamped between its ribs. Jon knew he was too far away to assist the man, but he was hardly the only one capable. The crunch of splitting bone sounded before the bear could turn on the Hound and it staggered from the heavy hit of the hammer, which had caved in the side of its skull—Gendry, it seemed hadn’t been the unfortunate soul it had dragged off. Still, the husk of a bear didn’t waver in its want to slaughter them all and, when one of the Brotherhood made to pierce it with a flaming sword, it grabbed the man by the arm and carried him off into the blizzard.
“Beric!” a man, presumably Thoros as he held his flaming sword aloft, shouted before giving chase.
“Thoros!” Jon called after him as he finally reached the rest of the troop, but it was no use and the man kept on running. A few others, including the Hound, Tormund, and Gendry gave chase to assist and Jon turned to the rest and pointed to their wounded soldier and ordered, “Stay with him!”
Ser Jorah gave a solemn nod before ushering the remaining men into a smaller defensive line around the man. Appeased, Jon took off running, noting as he did so that Arya was right behind him.
The two flaming swords acted as beacons, guiding them into the flurry. The men had caught up to the bear, it seemed, because the two weapons had been reunited. It couldn’t have been Beric wielding the second, he knew, not after the beast had gotten hold of him like it had. This point was proven true when they passed a prone form in the snow.
Beric Dondarrion had been eviscerated, his blood and guts spread about the snow around him. The man wasn’t even dead yet, choking on his own blood as he suffered through a pain that was surely worse than any Jon himself had lived through—or rather died through.
He couldn’t even stop to put the man out of his misery.
It was Tormund wielding Beric's fallen sword. The four men had the bear flanked at the sides and in front. The bear was hunkered low, taking turns swiping at each of them as they advanced in turn, trying to create an opening. Jon stepped between Tormund and the Hound in front of it, his stance steady and Longclaw gripped firmly in his hands despite the pain in his arm from the nasty slash his previous bout with the beast had left him with.
After a few more failed advances on their part, Thoros moved in to try and stab the bear through the middle, but it turned on him. A vicious swipe sent the man to the ground with a shout of pain and that surely would have been the end of Thoros of Myr if the Hound hadn’t taken the opportunity to advance and rip his ax free from its ribs.
As Tormund made his own advance, Jon moved around him and ran over to Thoros. The man’s shoulder had been ripped open, he noted, but he couldn't focus on the severity of the damage as he grabbed the collar of the prophet’s tunic and pulled him out of the way of the dead bear to keep it from stepping on him as it battled with the others.
The loud crunch of another heavy hammer hit sounded as Gendry smashed the bear’s jaw and the undead beast reeled. Jon’s eyes went wide as he saw it was about to fall on top of him and Thoros. In a last ditch effort, he tossed Longclaw away to grab Thoros with both hands and he gave one final heave, his foot slipping in the snow at the last moment. The only reason Thoros’s legs weren’t crushed as the bear landed was because he’d managed to pull them up and out of the way in time.
Jon inhaled a breath he didn’t have time to take and turned to scan the snow for Longclaw. The beast was down and vulnerable, so this was their chance to kill it. If it weren’t for the damned flurry obscuring his vision he was sure he would see it right there at his feet, but alas… The beast was rising already because it was dead and it felt no pain even as its jaws swung free, attached by naught but a single strip of rotting flesh. It reared its ugly head and, still, Jon was struggling to pinpoint exactly where his sword had landed in the snow. Thoros had risen, his sword now grasped in his non-dominant hand, and Jon just reacted, moving to push the vulnerable man out of the way and to take the sword from him. But, the bear went still just as he reached the man and it collapsed back to the ground.
It was only after he saw the blue of its one remaining eye fade away that Jon noticed the Valyrian steel dagger sticking out of its neck.
On the other side of the beast, Arya stood a short ways past the hammer-wielding smith, who had also turned in her direction to investigate, and was just lowering her arm when Jon looked. And despite the fact that she’d just killed an undead polar bear with such a masterful throw in the middle of a blizzard, he found she was angry.
And it seemed she was angry with him