Arya Stark has spent years not getting to the places she set out to reach. Years spent with loss, lessons, and longing. Longing for those she lost and the one she set out to reach above all others.
The one who was in her thoughts the day winter visited her for the second time. The day when the Lannisters slaughtered her friends and first broke her family. When she found Desmond’s body and stood by Hullen as he died. The day that started with Syrio smilingly saying “when we reach this Winterfell of yours, it will be time to put this needle in your hand.” It was Jon she couldn’t wait to show the progress she’d made by practicing every day like he’d told her to. Who’d have thought the day he gave her Needle she’d get good enough to impress the First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos a few (long) months later! Little did she know then how long it’d be before she saw him again.
Even when she set out with Yoren for Winterfell the day they killed father she yearned for the comfort of her true home. In Winterfell he was the one who comforted her when she was sad, accompanied her when she was lonely & helped her forget her worries and fears. He was the only one who truly understood her. The one who’d muss her hair and hold her even if she wasn’t sure he could fill the deep pit of desolation that took hold in her heart.
She searched for him in everyone she met and was so happy when she found glimpses of him in the one she took for her truest friend in her darkest time. The stubborn boy who kept her secret and finished her sentences with her. The Bull she thought would follow her to the ends of the world as steadfast as he had on the Kingsroad, at Harrenhal and then through the Riverlands. Expecting anyone to love her like he had was her first mistake. She should have known. It was why when The Brotherhood wanted to ransom her back to Robb and Mother she’d comforted herself with Jon will want me even if no one else does. How could she have expected Gendry to choose her over knighthood and the opportunity to ring the bells of prettier girls when she didn’t expect her own mother to want her of the calloused feet, tangled hair and muddied face back?
It was his gift to her that had saved her life countless times and his words that had saved her the first time and the many times that followed. Stick them with the pointy end he’d told her.
It was him she sought to reach that day at Saltpans after she’d left the Hound and his wounds to fate. And him she wanted to return to when hope blossomed in her heart the day she met the fat boy from the Wall in Braavos. If only he’d have been returning to Eastwatch and not sailing on to Oldtown.
In the intervening time it was the companion he, Robb, and Bran brought back that reminded her every night that she was a Wolf of Winterfell and the memory of his smile that kept Arya Stark and all her grief alive when no-one and her clean slate was offered as a destiny.
It was the news of his death that had finally broken her. That day on the barge with the Merling Queen when she heard passing traders talk of the Black Bastard of the Wall stabbed by his brothers. The day when she wept for the loss of the one thing that kept Arya Stark standing: the knowledge that despite all she’d lost, her dearest one was alive and that she’d one day find her way back to him. Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle. Except not for me it would seem.
She remembered Dareon and his stupid song about the stupid lady who should have avenged her stupid prince’s death then. She retrieved Needle and the coin she’d been saving, made her way through the crowd lining up to see the mummers at Izembaro’s, down the Canal of Heroes, past the Temple of the Moonsingers and across the bridge over the Black Canal to Ragman’s Harbor. She’d spent the afternoon trying to find a ship to Westeros. She didn’t care which port. Wherever she started she promised to make her way through the lands and bring winter upon all those who’d hurt her family. She couldn’t believe her luck when she found a Lumber trader supplying the Braavos fleet making his way back to White Harbor. He had white whiskers that reminded her of Ser Rodrik and the gruff Northern voice of home. They would leave in the morning and then she’d make those so-called Black Brothers wish for the Others in the face of her fury. She’d make sure the betrayer Freys never forgot the story of the Rat’s Cook and she’d flay Roose Bolton like the man on his banners. She’d see just how sharp his blades were. She might even make herself a cloak from his skin like his ancestors had done to her own. Old Nan had told her the story once. She’d take Ilyn Payne’s head for Father, and avenge Syrio with Meryn Trant, and make Cersei pay for Lady and Mycah and for Sansa’s screams that day at the Sept of Baelor. It’d be a bonus if she had to face the Kingslayer to get to her. She’d kill him for Jory and Wyl and Heward. She’d hurt The Mountain for everyone at Harrenhal, for Gendry and even Sandor. Valar Morghulis.
But when did Arya Stark ever find the places she sought out to reach? She stood on the painted bridge looking down at the rows of statues of the Sealords of old and up at the Titan when a smiley old lady asked her for directions to the Gardens of Gelenei. As she walked with her down the bridge and through an alley Arya found herself lost in the old lady’s gentle toothless smile and her balding head as she remembered the lazy afternoons she’d sit at Old Nan’s feet with Jon, Robb, Bran and even Sansa and Theon sometimes. In doing so she forgot the lesson Syrio had taught her all those years ago. The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. While she was too busy finding pieces of her home in the old woman, Arya failed to see the knife that was twisted in her gut and then again between her ribs before the waif removed it to stab her once more. In her panic Arya found herself seeing through the eyes of five cats in the alley who’d descended at once upon the waif clawing at her face and body. The Waif’s screams were the last thing Arya remembered before she woke up back at the House of Black and White being tended to by the kindly man.
Arya Stark was a wolf and had been done with wooden teeth for a long time now. Never mind that she couldn’t stand. She decided that day that if they were going to kill her she’d die as a Stark of Winterfell and not no one. She told The Kindly Man she didn’t regret hurting the waif, she’d do the same to the next person they sent after her. Defiantly she declared, “If you want me dead you’ll have to do it yourself and you’ll have to do it before I can stand again.”
As if he didn’t hear her he suggested they’d play a new game. She wouldn’t offer him three things anymore. Instead he’d ask her three questions. “Where were you going? How long have you been able to control the actions of animals? Would you like to learn how to serve while having the option to return home?” Taken aback Arya only wanted to know the answer to the third question but the kindly man wouldn’t relent until she answered the first two.
“My brother was killed at the Wall” she whispered before the anguish took hold of her once more. Without knowing why, she began unloading her years of pent up grief on the kindly man. She sobbed through all the losses of her short life, mumbled through how she found out about Jon’s death and lamented that she couldn’t stay in Braavos while those who killed her Jon still walked. He listened quietly to her, once he even rubbed her back as she wept through her hurt. When she was done he asked her the second question again. She recalled the wolf dreams and seeing through the cat’s eyes as the blind girl and honestly added that she didn’t know how she managed to connect with the cats.
It was then that the kindly man told her she could serve the House with the promise that she could leave in five years’ time without the need to look over her shoulder. Arya chewed her lip and debated whether she could afford to give the people on her list five more years. In the end she decided to accept the deal. She’d only get better in that time and when she came for those who hurt her family they wouldn’t know what hit them.
And so she spent the next 5 years serving with honed skin changing ability that made her the best source of information the House had ever produced. She apprenticed at the Iron Bank, refined her command of a number of languages, made a name for herself as the courtesan Nymeria of Braavos, played her part in the Braavosi elections and made friends with some of the most powerful men and women in the city that, like her, had hid itself for so many years. In that time, she learned that she was apparently the wife of the traitor Roose Bolton’s son, that the North had risen in her honour with King Stannis Baratheon. When her father used to tell her that she reminded him of his sister Lyanna she never in a million years thought that like her she would become a battle cry for the people of her homeland. The day she heard of that news was the closest she’d come to leaving Braavos again but Arya was always held back from that which she longed for. A few more years she reminded herself instead and lost herself in her work.
In the interceding years, she learned of the lost prince Aegon Targaryen who’d removed the Lannisters from power with his Dornish Queen. She beamed when she heard of Cersei’s death in a pit of vipers and felt sorry for the man when she heard the Dragon Queen had sailed from Meereen to take his throne. Arya had a good opinion of the Breaker of Chains who’d killed masters instead of slaves but couldn’t help feel an affinity for the man who’d brought Cersei to justice. She chuckled when she was told of another lost prince of House Targaryen, Aemon, who united Westeros with his aunt and flew a dragon into battle with the Others. It sounded like a story Old Nan would tell and she wished she could tell it to Jon and Bran who loved tall tales as much as she had.
While the stories of the Others and the news of Westeros may have been of interest to her, the defeat of the Others meant that she would never have the opportunity to avenge her heart. And so she carried her sorrow like an ever-present stone in her heart and continued directionless.
When her five years of service were up she was presented with the option to leave or to stay and become a Faceless Man for true. The choice wasn’t as easy as she might have thought five years previously when she had her list of people that were alive. Now she was just a girl as lost as ever who used service as a distraction from her aimless life and all the losses she suffered.
That night she dreamed the wolf dream again for the first time in a long time. She loped freely through the woods with her white brother and their cousins. And when he caught her he nipped playfully at her ear and settled with her at the head of their pack. He felt so much like home.
When she woke she told herself she’d start a new journey for herself. First, she’d sail across the narrow sea like Queen Nymeria, and then if she couldn’t make herself a new home she’d sail away like Elissa Farman and the Hightowers. Perhaps she’d do even better than they did and find new lands. Arya Underfoot always wanted to see the world, even if she wanted to do so with her Jon of the sullen looks and the hidden smiles he saved for her.
And so Arya found herself at Castle Cerwyn, half a day’s ride away from Winterfell on a sturdy horse with Needle on her hip and hope in her heart. She’d heard when she landed at White Harbor that Sansa was home. Now a powerful Lady of the Vale she was at Winterfell for her betrothal to the Crown Prince Aemon. Arya couldn’t help but smile. Sansa finally found her prince. Arya could only hope he was better than Joffrey. Although when they’d last seen each other Sansa and Arya only spoke when Father made them, Arya was determined to make up with her sister, the only family she had left. She heard in passing that the lost prince Aemon was her aunt Lyanna’s son. Tickled by the never-ending surprises of House Targaryen Arya continued onwards keen to meet this alleged dragon-riding princely cousin who was to become her good brother. He sounded too much like someone out of Sansa’s stupid songs.
It was sunset when Arya reached the gates of Winterfell. The guards took one look at her weathered clothes and windswept appearance and asked her if she was here to serve in the kitchens for the wedding. Amused, Arya simply nodded. A servant in the kitchens was a step up from the stable boy Lords used to take her for when she was a child. The talkative guard guided her to the stables and told her he’d walk her to the kitchens. She recognised the looks he gave her as the ones men used to give Nymeria of Braavos and wondered what Jeyne Poole would have to say to Arya Horseface who’d become admired for her beauty.
Winterfell was full of people. Wherever she looked she saw labourers and servants, none of who she recognised from childhood, lords and ladies and the banners of so many Houses of Westeros. It was in this perusal that she found the shiny auburn hair that she’d recognise anywhere. Sansa glided graciously over to a tall brown-haired man who hugged her and kissed her forehead. Arya couldn’t see his face but couldn’t avert her eyes. Tracing the object of her interest the guard offered, “That’s the Lady Sansa and her betrothed Prince Aemon Targaryen. Did you know he was once a Snow like me? Lord Stark raised him as his bastard to protect him from King Robert.”
As the guard droned on over the ringing in her ears, Arya stood frozen in her place watching her Jon walk away with her perfect sister. Arya couldn’t name what she felt. Surprise that Jon was a prince? Relief and glee that by some miracle he was alive and that she finally found him? All she had to do was call out and she might find herself in his arms once again: the home in his heart that she’d spent years trying to find.
No. She could only stand there stunned with a familiar tug at her heart. The same sinking feeling that had kept her company all these years. The feeling of hope followed by loss. When did Arya Stark ever find the places she sought out such that she’d find it today? Her Jon was alive, at home, a prince and marrying Sansa in a few days. What place did she have between them? It was clear that his heart was to become a home for Sansa not her. Perhaps it was enough that she knew her family were alive, alright, at home and together. She swung round to leave and return to her horse when she heard two howls from the direction of the gates of the Inner Castle answered by a chorus of distant wails from the direction of the Wolfswood. Howls that silenced everyone in the courtyard. Turning to locate their source, Arya found herself facing two wolves as big as ponies. The red eyes of the white wolf staring her down and the amber eyes of the grey wolf warming her soul but it was the stunned grey-eyed man’s look of astonishment that made her heart drop and then soar as he ran over to her.