On the morning of the feast, just after dawn, Arya made her morning ablutions and dressed in her now washed Braavosi breeches; she was thankful Sansa hadn’t had them thrown out. She donned a tunic she brought with her from Braavos, took Needle from the desk by the window and went to the training yard.
As she walked under the covered bridge connecting the Great Keep to the armoury, Arya imagined for a moment hearing Theon’s laugh while Ser Rodrik bellowed commands at Jon and Robb. She imagined Bran practicing his archery while Rickon sat upon Alyn’s shoulders. Alyn, who always wanted to be a knight, would be telling Bran not to slouch “stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart, Bran,” he’d be saying. Quent, Jacks, and Shadd would have just finished their guard duty and would be replaced by Cayn, Desmond, and Fat Tom. Fat Tom would be walking slowly as always snacking on something he’d pilfered from Gage the Cook in the kitchens. Arya herself would probably be running away from Septa Mordane and would crash right into Father as he stood watching the boys. He’d ask her where she was running to and she’d show him her crooked stitches saying, “My stitches are crooked again. Septa Mordane would rather talk about my blacksmith’s hands than teach the left-handed girl how to sew.” Father would tell her she should return to her class but she’d run to the brothel in Winter Town. The girls there had told her it was just a tavern with girls. Whenever she went there they’d give her sweets and she’d play with their children. Arya Underfoot. And when Mother came looking for her, Father would kiss her forehead and tell her he hadn’t seen Arya at all.
But that was summer. Winter, the hard times Father warned her about, had come for her family. Theon betrayed Robb, The King in the North, the King in the North! Mother died with him. A wolf with a fish in its mouth? That’s stupid! The Boltons killed Ser Rodrik and despite all the stories about spotting Rickon, Arya was sure Bran and Rickon were dead as well. Alyn never became a knight but his actions at the Battle of Mummer’s Ford against The Mountain and Tywin Lannister’s forces saved a third of the Brotherhood’s men so at least he became a hero worth singing about. No one would remember Alyn, she thought sadly; But I will. The North Remembers. Fat Tom and Cayn would have died protecting Father when he was arrested. Arya herself had found Desmond’s dead body the day she escaped the Red Keep. Desmond always made time for her and Fat Tom was always the easiest to fool but he never allowed her to be upset without trying to cheer her up. He was the one who first called her Arya Underfoot.
Winter Town was practically empty now, the Boltons killed the smallfolk, and those who survived fled to White Harbor for fear of starvation. Arya never did find out what happened to Quent, Jacks, and Shadd. As for Father, she was there the day that thrice-damned Joffrey had Ilyn Payne take his head. Sometimes when Arya tries to sleep at night she remembers the last look Father gave her when she was standing on Baelor’s statue but those are the soft-hearts of women. And Jon... Jon would marry Sansa the day after tomorrow.
Arya tried to forget all this, losing herself in her training. Swift as a deer. Quiet as shadow. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Quick as a snake. Calm as still water. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Strong as a bear. Fierce as a wolverine. Fear cuts deeper than swords. The man who fears losing has already lost. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fear cuts deeper than swords.
“Fierce girl! You sure you not one o’ mine?” Arya turned round to see a red-haired man with tufts of white in his hair. Next to him was a younger blonde woman, holding a boy’s hand. They started walking over to her.
“You must be the one the crow marched us for. I am Tormund Giantsbane, also known as Tall-Talker, Horn-Blower, Breaker of Ice, Tormund Thunderfist, Husband to Bears, the Mead King of-” The woman interrupted him.
“We’ll be here until the sun sets if you list all your names to the girl, Tormund. He has more names than your Dragon Queen,” she smiled. “I’m Val, and this little monster here is my nephew Aemon. We’ve seen enough of Benjen Stark and Jon Snow to know you’re the girl that brought the kneelers behind the wall together.“ Val said.
Arya introduced herself to them and found she liked the two Wildlings. Their company had helped her forget her pain for a moment. Then Jon arrived to tell her Queen Daenerys would be arriving later that day, a few hours before the feast. When Arya said she looked forward to meeting her, Jon asked, “Her or her dragons?” Jon always knew Arya well.
Together the five of them went to the Great Hall to break their fast and were joined by some of the Northern lords and ladies and more of the free folk, as they preferred to be called. Arya found it novel that Northerners and free folk would be breaking fast together when in her childhood they were sworn enemies. Then again fighting the dead would bring people together.
After breaking their fast, her uncle Edmure arrived with his wife Roslin Tully and their son Hoster. They were joined by Arya’s great uncle Brynden The Blackfish Tully who Arya took an instant liking to. He reminded her so much of Father. The last member of their traveling company was Lord Olyvar Frey. He expressed his condolences to Arya for the death of Robb exclaiming that he was her brother’s squire and had been arrested before the Red Wedding as his family knew he would have warned his king. He spent years in the dungeons with the Northern lords after the Red Wedding. Arya found his words truly earnest and accepted his condolences.
At noon, Queen Daenerys arrived, to Arya’s disappointment, without her dragons. She came riding in on a silver horse and with a small entourage of Dothraki bloodriders - a true Khaleesi. Jon later told her the majority of the Dothraki had returned East shortly after the Queen’s coronation and that her dragons now lived on Dragonstone. After the War for the Dawn, Euron and Victorian Greyjoy tried to take one of her dragons using a dragon binder horn and while Daenerys managed to defeat the two Greyjoys, the incident made her two smaller dragons increasingly harder to control. Jon said the Queen never fully got over losing her biggest, most loyal dragon, Drogon, to the Others.
The Queen was also accompanied by a contingent of her royal army composed of Unsullied soldiers as well as her advisor Missandei of Naath, a very old Ser Barristan Selmy, the Queen’s husband Willas Tyrell of Highgarden, his mother Alerie Hightower, his brother Garlan Tyrell, now Master of War and Commander of the Queen’s Westerosi forces, and Dickon Tarly who the Tyrells had fostered in his childhood. He remained a close friend to the family.
Curiously, the Queen was also traveling with the fat boy from the Wall Arya had met in Braavos. As soon as he plopped down from his horse he rushed over to Jon to give him a hug.
And when they exchanged their greetings, Jon turned round to Arya to introduce his friend, “This is my friend Samwell Tarly, but everyone calls him Sam” he began.
“I know you. You were the girl who helped me in Braavos. The two bravos accused me of dressing above my station and you told them I was a brother of the Night’s Watch. You gave me your clams. What are you doing here?” He asked in exclamation.
“Hello Sam, my name is Arya. Arya Stark,” she replied.
Sam’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “What?! Why did you tell me your name was Cat? Jon talked about you non-stop. If you told me who you were I’d have found you a ship back to Eastwatch!” Sam exclaimed.
“I found it hard to trust people and you said you were going to Oldtown,” Arya responded.
“Wait. The two of you have met?” Jon asked belatedly, a bewildered look on his face.
Sam began to tell Jon the story when the girl who was traveling with Sam joined them. Her hair looked less tangled than the last time Arya had seen her and she looked much better too. They were joined by a full cheeked man, with a shadow of a beard, a scar on his right cheek, a hooked nose, and dense black hair that curled tightly around his ears. He introduced himself as Pate, “ like the pig boy ” he added. There was something familiar about that man but Arya couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Sansa joined them then and after introductions to the Queen and her company were completed, everyone went their separate ways to get ready for the feast.
Once inside the hall for the feast that evening, Arya spotted Anguy, Lem, Tom O’Sevens, and Harwin who had permanently settled in Winterfell after the war. They were sitting with Ned Dayne who arrived for the wedding. Given the loss of Robb, Bran, and Rickon and Jon’s relationship with Ned as milk brothers, the two became fast friends over the course of the wars.
Arya was pleased to see Harwin back home even if his proclamation that he was no longer her father’s man had saddened her once. She spent her time with the Brotherhood catching up on old friends and happenings in Westeros. Arya noticed they were eager to avoid talking of the time between her departure and their arrival to Winterfell.
Instead, she found out Lem Lemoncloak wasn’t called Lem at all. He was Richard Lonmouth, the Knight of Skulls and Kisses, a friend of, and a squire knighted by, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. He told Arya of how he met her aunt Lyanna at the Tourney at Harrenhal and how as both a man of the Stormlands and a friend of Prince Rhaegar’s, competing loyalties between his liege and his friend forced him to become Lem Lemoncloak. He refused to choose between them and spent the years since Robert’s Rebellion living among the smallfolk. When he reunited with Howland Reed however he found that he was presented with another opportunity to serve his friend Rhaegar by watching over his son.
“How much trouble could have been avoided if I didn’t try to out-drink Robert Baratheon at Harrenhal that night? The two of us drunkenly wagered to unmask the mystery knight and King Aerys ran with it, declaring the Knight of the Laughing Tree a traitor and sent out Rhaegar to find him. Still, who else can say they lit the spark that brought about The Prince that was Promised ?” he said wistfully.
During their conversation, Arya learned Jack-Be-Lucky, Likely Luke, Notch, Mudge, Beardless Dick, Puddingfoot and Thoros of Myr died during the War for the Dawn but not before Thoros of Myr summoned an army of Red Priests to the Wall, all of who, according to the Brotherhood, turned the tide in favour of the living.
Arya asked Tom why he wasn't singing at the feast and learned that Sansa brought her own singer from the Vale. “I haven’t seen this many trouts in one place since I penned the floppy fish. I have no need to show the Tullys I’m here. Your sister is as Tully as they come and doesn’t like me - it’s a Tully trait you see. Thankfully the Blackfish was gone for most of my time in the Riverlands but your uncle Edmure there has hated me since I took a girl he was too drunk to get it up for. Me making a song about it started his own hatred of music. Your Aunt Lysa, on the other hand, forced me to walk naked through the Vale after their mountain clans robbed me. The only reasonable Tully I ever met was your mother and-“ Lem clapped Tom on the back of the head. He told him to respect the dead but Arya thought they were hiding something as well.
While she sat with the brotherhood The Hound came over to them. “Still got me on that list of yours?” he asked in that gruff voice of his.
“No.” Arya replied.
“Good,” he nodded.
“You here for revenge?” she asked him in turn and he told her he wasn’t.
Arya found it odd that Sandor Clegane was now her sister’s sworn sword. The gruff man had nothing in common with the knights in the songs Sansa once loved and while Arya had taken him off her list she still felt ambivalent toward him. She hated him for his part in Mycah’s death but had a grudging appreciation for his role in helping to keep her alive in the Riverlands. He told her during their conversation how he survived after she left him for dead. He received help from a Septon and had laid the Hound to rest to try and become his own man.
At the feast, Arya spoke briefly to Queen Daenerys and her company and also spoke to more of the lords and ladies of the North. That night the Hornwoods were keen to express their relief that Arya had never suffered what Donella Hornwood had in the hands of Ramsay Bolton. The man had forcibly married her for her claim of Castle Hornwood and had starved her so much she ate her own fingers. They had been forced to feign siding with the Boltons but were glad to see their destruction. They told Arya how Lady Dustin found a passage into the castle through the crypts after visiting them with Theon Greyjoy who the Boltons took for a prisoner. Upon her instruction, they opened the passage for King Stannis’ men during the Battle of Ice. While the mountain clans marched with Stannis, the Hornwoods told Arya of the Northern plot within the castle, of lords and ladies all acting in secret, often from each other, to support the return of the wolves. The North Remembers they vowed to her.
Arya also met Alys Thenn, formerly Karstark, of Karhold. Alys told Arya of how she fled to Jon when her uncle sought to grab power through her and how Jon joined her in marriage to her Thenn husband. She beamed when she talked about her husband and Arya found Jon’s eyes on her from across the room. He was smiling at her with a burning gaze in his eyes, it made her feel warm inside. Despite the new feelings for Jon that she tried to ignore, being around Jon also made her feel like the girl she used to be again so she scrunched her nose and stuck her tongue out at him at which both he and Alys, who watched their exchange amused, chuckled.
When Alys walked away with her husband, Sansa moved to Arya’s side. “You really shouldn’t be so childish with Jon in public. The two of you are already so affectionate as it is. I saw him dragging you to the glass gardens yesterday hand in hand and saw you return well past supper from wherever you rode off too. I know you still see him as a brother but he’s not your brother, Arya. People will talk if they see the two of you still acting like children,” Sansa admonished in a voice that immediately made Arya feel guilty. She lowered her gaze, looking at her feet instead.
“Still, I must say you look beautiful tonight, sister. I’m glad to see you’ve grown out of many of your unladylike behaviours.” Arya was surprised at the compliment but she should have expected the but that followed.
“Although a lady of your status really shouldn’t be seen cavorting with outlaws. Anguy is his name, isn’t it? Beth Cassel’s husband? He and his band of outlaws are not good company for a lady, Arya.”
“He is an old friend of mine,” Arya replied. “We were catching up and talking about friends we lost.” Anguy had told Arya how much Gendry regretted not going with her to Riverrun. How he was so concerned about his status as a bastard and worried he would never be good enough to be allowed to remain friends with her that he agreed to accept knighthood. He saw it as an opportunity to be on a footing with her. Anguy said Gendry had been searching the Riverlands for her long after everyone else stopped looking. Apparently Gendry rarely smiled after The Red Wedding. “Arya would have died with her family. She came back for me when The Mountain caught me and I was a stranger when compared to her brother. I should have gone with her.”
According to Anguy, Gendry came to Winterfell because it was “what Arya would have wanted,” and he waited for her to come home until his dying day. Arya felt sad at that, she spent years telling herself that Gendry never cared for her. She wished they could have had a chance to have one last conversation. She would tell him how he wasn’t that stupid or maybe she would tell him he was. She never cared that he was a bastard. With Jon and Sansa about to marry maybe if Gendry was here, she wouldn’t feel so alone. Arya found herself revisiting an old dream of hers. Of her and Gendry traveling around like Wenda the White Fawn. The thought made Arya both happy and sad. She’d never see Gendry again.
Unaware of Arya’s tumult, Sansa continued on, “You are newly returned home Arya and every lord and lady of the North, as well as lords and ladies from all across Westeros, are here for the wedding. All eyes are on you. You shouldn’t shame us.” Arya felt like she was nine years old again then. Never good enough.
“I saw you speak to Lord Edric Dayne. The Sword of the Morning they call him, I remember you and Bran always being fascinated by Ser Arthur Dayne, are you still interested in fighting with swords?,” without waiting for Arya to respond, Sansa continued, “I hear he’s looking for a wife, he’s very gallant and a good friend of Jon’s besides. Jon would be happy to see you marry such a good man.”
Arya declined to tell Sansa that Ned Dayne and Jorelle Mormont had left the hall together earlier, while Harrion Karstark was exchanging shy, flirty, smiles with Allyria Dayne. Instead, she said, “I met Ned around the same time I met Anguy. Did you know he’s also a former outlaw?”
Arya saw Sansa give her a blank expression that suggested she didn’t. “Why is it that me talking to Anguy is bad but marrying Ned Dayne is proper?”
Sansa gave her a look that suggested that she should know the answer to that question. Reminded of Sansa’s attitude to Mycah once, Arya felt herself start to anger. Calm as still water. Instead, she said, “I find it curious to hear that you lived through the War for the Dawn, one would think different people uniting against the Others would be enough to change your attitude.”
Sansa’s lips formed a line before she smiled a practiced smile that told Arya she wasn’t about to drop her point. “Well, speaking of attitudes I hear they’re more permissive of some of your preferred activities in Dorne. Are you still a fan of riding horses like a man? I hear sand steeds are the best.”
When Arya told her she wasn’t interested in marrying Ned Dayne, Sansa continued unphased. “Well, I believe you’re familiar with Samwell Tarly, his brother Dickon is not that much older than you. I’ve seen him at quite a few tourneys. He's polite and very good with a lance. I think you’d like him instead.”
When Arya rolled her eyes, Sansa tried a different approach. “Perhaps you’d want to stay in the North. Beren Tallhart is also of an age with you and Torrhen’s Square is not far from Winterfell just say the word and Jon and I will be pleased to speak to him and his mother. They’re sitting over there.” Sansa said, pointing out Beren and his mother Berena Hornwood in conversation with Berena’s nephew Larence.
“I have been home for two days Sansa!” Arya nearly shouted.
“And I’m so pleased sister,” Sansa said, threading her arm through Arya’s and beginning to lead her around the Great Hall. “I only mean to remind you of your duty to House Stark. Still, I’m sure there will be plenty of time to find you a husband. I’m so happy to have you here for the wedding and Jon is even happier. He won’t leave you alone at all.”
Sansa smiled then but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I had planned to name a daughter after you to make him happy but you returning is even better. You’ve always been his favourite.” Arya wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
When they walked past where Lord Manderly was sitting with Lady Barbrey Dustin, Greatjon Umber and Galbart Glover, Lord Manderly waved them over. “You look beautiful tonight, Arya,” - Arya told him the previous night not to call her Lady Arya - “the Hall is brightened by your presence.”
“A true Northern beauty,” he said looking straight at Sansa.
When they exchanged greetings with the Lords and Lady and walked away from them, Sansa began whispering, “You’ve only been home for two days and I hear the man is already bothering you with talk of trade. He is a sour sort. Nothing I do ever pleases him. He wasn’t happy when Jon and I were betrothed. If he wanted Jon for his granddaughters he shouldn’t have married them off first.”
“I don’t mind speaking with him. Braavos has a new Sealord who is keen on expanding the Braavosi fleet.” Arya responded. “No one is in a better position to provide wood than the North. White Harbor is close enough to Braavos to provide a steady supply of lumber and the Braavosi Arsenal is capable of building a warship a day. Of course, we’ll have to replant as we go along to ensure the trade is sustainable. Beyond lumber, the North is one of the richest regions in resources in Westeros. We just haven’t been able to exploit these effectively. Better trade links with all Free Cities could help us to do that. After everything the North has lost, helping Lord Manderly think about ways we can rebuild the North is the least I can do.”
Spotting her uncles then Arya said, “on that note, I’d like to speak to Uncle Edmure too about how rebuilding is going in the Riverlands. They suffered the most during the war.” If she could, Arya would want to ensure no child would ever have to eat worms like she and Weasel did because of hunger again and given her time at the Sealord’s Palace, and with the Iron Bank, she felt more comfortable speaking about financial matters than the topics of her conversation with Sansa so far.
“Well, I’m sure Jon will be grateful to have someone with a handle on such affairs. Perhaps now you have returned he will leave you to manage things here. I’d like to show him the Vale and it would give us a chance to get to know each other as husband and wife. Ah, Myranda is here, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be sure to introduce you later. She's a very good friend of mine.”
“Remember, tomorrow is the final fitting for your dress. Like I said all eyes will be on you at the wedding, best we give them something to admire.” With that Sansa floated off to greet her friend.
Seeing how excited her sister was about her wedding made Arya feel guilty about her weird feelings for Jon. How foul a sister must she be to desire a man who until two days ago was her brother and who was betrothed to her sister? Sansa was clearly in love with Jon and Jon was only trying to be kind to Arya Horseface when he joked about stealing her for a bride. The two of them are clearly happy together, all these lords and ladies are here to celebrate that with them. In a room full of people, Arya felt alone.
She found herself revisiting her short-lived plan to retrace Elissa Farman’s steps and sail off into the West. Her own ancestor Brandon the Shipwright had sailed West never to be seen again, and in spite of the risk Arya found herself considering leaving anyway. She had no place between Jon and Sansa. Brandon the Shipwright's son Brandon the Burner burnt the Stark fleet in grief after his father's unfortunate voyage but Arya found herself thinking that no one would really miss her if she left. Maybe Jon would but now he was marrying Sansa she wasn't so sure. Most of those she belonged with died. Fat Tom wasn’t here to cheer her up and Jory wouldn’t be able to hide this disgusting secret of hers nor was Father here to give her a hug and a kiss. Arya decided to leave the feast then, wishing Bran was here. He was two years younger than her but Bran was everyone’s friend and could make anyone happy.