Arya stood at her room’s window.
Down below, squires practiced their aim against the two quintains in the yard. Castle staff milled between the kitchens and the Great Hall with preparations for the feast. Lords and ladies in the insignia and colours of their different houses talked and laughed with one another as they made their way to the hall. They were followed by gruff rough riders in wool, leather and mail, courtly knights in their heraldry and free folk in their furs.
She heard the clinks of Pate’s acolyte links before she saw him. Sam’s heavy breathing normally gave him away and the castle maester’s chain made more noise. No one else would have the audacity to just walk into her room without knocking first either.
Not looking away from the window, she remarked, “I never knew you to be so loud. Those links make you a shit assassin.”
“A good thing a man is not here to kill,” he responded, in the soft velvety voice of Jaqen.
She turned around to see Pate’s face gone and replaced with that of Jaqen H’ghar - the face she knew. He was dressed in a woolen cloak and riding leathers. Behind him, her door was barred shut, never having made a noise. He’d clearly moved his links around to bring his presence to her attention. He was sitting on the chair beside her desk, legs splayed open, head resting on the top rail, his red and white hair flowing over the back. He had a bored look on his face as he stared at the ceiling, sitting there as if he belonged in this room and she was the trespasser.
“Where are you going?” she asked, referring to his travel clothing.
He sat up, not looking at her. Instead, he poured himself a glass of wine.
“A man has duties elsewhere,” he replied, before sipping his drink, appraising her. Waiting for the questions he knew were coming.
She sat at the window seat, analysing him in return. She missed this part, watching another faceless man, trying to spot the most imperceptible of movements. He smirked when he realised what she was doing.
“A girl has changed. She has learned patience,” he drawled when she didn’t speak.
“Why are you here?” she finally asked.
“A friend is leaving, he is here to bid a lovely girl farewell.”
Knowing he wouldn’t tell her where he was going, she tried to find out what he had been doing at Winterfell and before that in Westeros.
She sauntered away from the window and toward him, drinking from the same glass he had just put down. She sat on the desk, looking down on him.
“And what has my friend been up to since I last saw him?”
He smirked, again, in the mocking way he was always wont to do. “A man was here to learn at the citadel, then he helped in the War of the Dawn and then he watched. A man has done that and now he must leave.”
“Do you expect me to believe you were here to just learn? You?” she asked skeptically.
He scoffed at her and took the glass back from her, taking another sip. “A girl has spent time at the Sealord’s Palace and at the Iron Bank. Why is it right for her to learn and wrong for a man?”
“How do you know what I have or have not done?”
“After everything a girl has seen, that is her question?” he mocked.
“I was an acolyte, you are not,” she threw back.
He took another sip and shrugged. “A man has already told a girl the truth. If she does not believe it, a man can do little.”
She looked down at him from her vantage point, reading his face closely. He returned her gaze, his eyes mocking her. Look all you want, they seemed to say, you won’t find anything here.
So she tried a different tact. She walked away from him, back to the window, her back to him. Jon and Rickon were now in the courtyard below, Rickon was mounted astride his shaggy unicorn.
“What’s to stop me from telling Jon a faceless man is walking around Winterfell?” she asked
He moved to stand next to her, turning his face to look at her once he reached her, tutting. “A man was wrong. A girl has not changed. She threatens when she does not get her way.” he tutted again as he shook his head, unimpressed.
She decided she would not rise to his challenge. The silence waned over them.
In the yard below, Rickon began charging against the quintain, lance in hand. He struck the shield and managed to avoid the rotating arms to remain seated in his saddle. Jon clapped for him before those still in the yard joined in. Arya smiled.
Finally Jaqen spoke. “A girl has a lovely brother, he is even fiercer than a girl was at his age.”
He wore a smile on his face but Arya heard the threat all the same: it would be a shame if something happened to him, he seemed to say. Perhaps I’ll give him a coin.
She turned to him, with a smile that rivalled his. “Give Rickon a coin and I’ll kill you...even if you change your face every hour of every day, I’ll still find you and I will kill you. Do you understand?”
He smiled wider, “There’s the girl with more courage than sense.”
They returned to their silence, both standing sentinel.
He broke the silence again. “A girl’s lover is liked by his people,” he said, looking at Jon who was now talking to The Flint and The Wull. “A girl has done well.”
She rolled her eyes at him, refusing to engage with his barb. Instead, she decided to ask him the question she’d been wanting to ask since they separated all those years ago.
“How did you know I was a Stark? In Harrenhal.”
He continued smiling. “A girl pretends to be a boy, the man called Yoren knows and pretends he does not. She says the gold cloaks are looking for her, she bears castle forged steel and shouts Winterfell in battle. She prays to a heart tree - help me get those men out of the dungeon so we can kill Ser Amory, and bring me home to Winterfell she prays. Then she threatens a man to free those Northmen all while the lions fight the wolves. The man called Yoren would not risk what he did for a lowborn girl who pretends to be a boy. And a lowborn girl in Harrenhal would neither care nor have the bravery to break out men from a dungeon. But a she-wolf of Stark? Well…” He let that hang. “A man simply hears and sees what is in front of him.”
“How did you know I was Arya specifically.”
”A lord of Stark had two daughters, one betrothed to the crown prince and the second, younger. This girl called herself Arry, a man only needed to look to see.”
“You could have told the Lannisters who I was and been given a reward.”
He studied her. “A nobleman’s daughter, a girl of ten, travels in the middle of a war. She hides in plain sight. She is fearless enough to jump into a burning barn to save three criminals even though two threaten her. She is merciful enough to save a child in the middle of battle when she could get further without her, manipulative enough to order a dangerous man to do her bidding and distrusting enough not to reveal herself to men she saves until she makes a decision about them. Such a girl is meant for greater things than what Tywin Lannister could offer.”
“Like being a faceless man?” she asked. “I’m sure you know by now that I failed to become no one.”
“To be a faceless man is only one way to serve, lovely girl,” he replied. “Perhaps a girl did not fail. A girl learned many things in Braavos did she not? Perhaps the best way for this girl…” he poked her in the chest, “to serve is not to give the gift but to simply be what she is.”
“A lady of Stark... A man did not just give a girl a coin and the House did not just let a girl go. A man watched and a man saw. So did the House.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“A girl will have to be patient.” He tucked a hair behind her ear.
“Farewell, my lady of Stark,” he added, before striding for the door.
“Wait,” she blurted. “Will I ever see you again?”
He stopped at the door, turning back to her. “A girl might,” he answered, before Jaqen made way for Pate.
For the feast, Beth helped Arya dress, picking out a light grey woollen gown trimmed with white lace and a white hip belt that accentuated her waist. The sleeves and bodice were sewn with pearls and on her feet she wore fur lined boots above her stockings although Beth had suggested grey doe-skin slippers. Her hair was in a northern braid the length of which fell over her left shoulder. The bruise on her neck was covered by powder and a pendant necklace Beth had found in Winterfell upon their return. It might have belonged to her mother.
She found her family waiting by the entrance of the Great Hall. Bran was seated on his wheeled chair, dressed in grey woollen breeches and a white doublet with his sleeves and collar trimmed with fox fur, a silver direwolf brooch by his heart. Meera was dressed in a green gown, parted at the sides to reveal black breeches - it was clear that like Arya she felt more comfortable in breeches than she did dresses. Her brother also dressed in their house colours while Rickon, wore the white and grey of House Stark. Jon, was in all black with the direwolf of Stark emblazoned upon his doublet beside the three-headed dragon. Their uncle Brynden was dressed in the blue and mud red of House Tully, a black trout brooch clipped upon his doublet. Osha on the other hand wore a simple woollen brown dress that Arya was sure someone found last minute. Osha didn’t seem to mind though.
Their arrival was announced by Lem’s loud voice. Long rows of trestle tables filled the Hall, parted by a central aisle for the guests to walk through. At the front of the room, one side of the steps to the dais had a ramp to ease Bran’s access.
Bran and Meera were the first in. Bran’s chair was pushed by Jon who was followed in by Rickon and Osha, while Jojen twinned his arm with Arya’s. Their uncle was the last to walk in. Rickon had insisted on bringing Shaggy attending the feast until Osha talked him out of it.
“Stark! they chanted in unison, punctuated with shouts of Winterfell! Bran was the first up the dais, he sat in his chair and kept the Seat of the Kings of Winter to his right empty for Jon to sit upon. They’d agreed before they entered that Jon would sit there not only because he was a prince but because he was the last King in the North, and his older brother besides. Arya saw how sitting with pleased Jon. When they were children, their mother used to insist he sit on the benches, preferably as far from the dais as possible. She’d sneak away to sit next to him whenever she could. The more fun people sat at the back of the Hall anyway.
This night, she sat to Jon’s right, with Rickon to hers with Osha at the end. On Bran’s left were Meera and Jojen and their uncle Brynden.
Below the dais sat Lord Manderly on his special wide chair, alongside the Greatjon Umber, Harrion Karstark, Lady Cerwyn, the young Beren Tallhart and a few other lords and ladies including Maege Mormont, Tormund Giantsbane and Val.
Jon bid them all welcome as Warden of the North and the acting Lord of Winterfell.
“My lords,” he began, “I am honoured to welcome the return of Lord Eddard Stark’s trueborn heirs, Brandon Stark, the rightful Lord of Winterfell, his wife, Lady Meera of House Reed, her brother Jojen Reed of Greywater Watch and, finally, the heir to Winterfell, our youngest, Rickon Stark. May their years with us be plenty and their achievements many!” he declared, raising his goblet to cheers from the guests.
One by one, each lord and lady, with the exception of the freefolk, stepped forward, swearing their fealty to Brandon of House Stark. Lord Manderly’s son Wylis bent the knee with great difficulty in place of his father.
During their meeting in their father’s solar earlier that morning, Arya asked Jon whether he should get permission from the queen about declaring Bran the Lord of Winterfell. He said that he would write to the queen to inform her of Bran’s return. He was insistent that Winterfell was the home of the Starks and he refused to usurp its rightful lord.
Once the lords had sworn their fealty, Bran declared his intention to call a Great Northern Council.
“I am aware many of you have been speaking to Jon and my sister Arya about the needs of the North. Given her time in Braavos, Arya,” he said turning to her with a smile, “proposes trade with the Free Cities as a way of building our economy and our lands.” He gestured to her for her to speak.
She arose, raising her voice. “My lords and my ladies, many of you remained loyal to House Stark in our toughest times. We have all heard of the sacrifices you made, in wealth, in blood and livelihood for our house. It is now our turn to show you that House Stark has not forgotten that loyalty.”
“In Bran’s name, I intend to make a progress of the North. To remind you that we have not forgotten you and to hear of your needs and of your grievances directly. We want to appraise your lands with a view to develop trade links and to enrich you.”
“For too long we have been known as a people of scarcity. We are a harsh people who live in a harsh environment. It’s true. But the North is as bountiful as it is beautiful. After all you’ve suffered, it is time for us to serve you. It is time for you to taste the fruits of your loyalty.”
The crowd cheered at that. Stark! Winterfell! could be heard all across the Hall.
Robbett Glover stood then, raising his glass. “A toast,” he declared, “to Lady Arya of House Stark.”
“While the Young Wolf routed the Lannisters at every turn on the battlefield, the She-Wolf of Winterfell fought a battle of her own. Tywin Lannister’s foreign sellswords turned tail when they saw how the tides turned against the Lannisters.”
“As you know, they feigned a capture of northmen, myself and Helman Tallhart among them. They took us as prisoners to the lightly garrisoned Harrenhal where we would capture the castle from within. Unaware of this plan, seeing captured northmen. Men of her father and her brother. Valiant Ned’s, valiant girl broke into the dungeons before the sellswords with three men of her own, burning and blinding the guards to ease our escape. It was thanks to her that the direwolf of Stark was raised over Harrenhal with no injury to a single northman.” The crowd cheered once more, this time in her honour.
The she-wolf, they chanted.
Once they quited, “Why did you not make yourself known, my lady?” he asked.
“The only northman I knew at Harrenhal was Lord Cerwyn,” she answered. “He was captured at the same time as you, Ser Wylis,” she said, turning her head to the heir of New Castle. “I wanted to make myself known to him but he died before I could. Ser Helman and you, my lord, left before I could make my mind up about whether to trust you. And the more time I spent with Lord Bolton, the more I realised I could not trust him.”
“What do you mean?” Lady Mormont asked.
“He threatened to have my tongue for asking him questions and he was regularly violent to the people in Harrenhal. My father taught us to judge a man by how he treats those beneath him.”
“That foresight kept you alive, child,” her uncle said. “If only we had your discernment.”
“That shrewdness saved you from the bastard of Bolton,” Lady Dustin added. “The poor girl they sent in your place suffered heavily.”
She noticed Jon’s jaw tense at the mention of Ramsay Bolton.
“Where have you been my lords?” Lord Manderly asked, turning to Bran and Rickon.
“When the Boltons captured the castle, my brother Rickon escaped to Skagos with Osha, while I went beyond the Wall with my wife and good-brother,” Bran answered.
“I sent a man to Skagos my lord,” Lord Manderly added.
With pride in his voice, he continued, “House Manderly never once broke faith with House Stark. I wanted to oust the Boltons and return Rickon to his father’s seat. I never once gave up the quest to find him.” Arya knew that was true as he spoke about sightings of Rickon to her the first time they saw each other again.
“I’m sorry for hiding,” Rickon blurted. “I didn’t know who to trust.”
“That was smart of you,” Lord Manderly agreed, with a grandfatherly smile.
“Why did you take so long to return?” Lady Mormont asked Bran.
“I had many things to learn beyond the Wall,” he answered cryptically, “...from the Children of the Forest.”
Once upon a time that would get him raised eyebrows and murmurs of incredulity but it was accepted by everyone in the Hall as if it was the simplest of explanations. Arya supposed it was natural for people who fought against the Others beside dragons and the Children to accept as fact what they’d previously dismissed as old wives’ tales. She wondered what Maester Luwin and Old Nan would have had to say if they were here now. Maester Luwin spent most of her childhood belying the existence of magic in the world while Old Nan would swear Maester Luwin knew nothing.
As the food and drink began to flow, beside her Rickon blabbered speedily to Osha in what Arya presumed was the Old Tongue while Bran and Jon conversed with one another about the War for the Dawn. Arya found herself looking at the benches remembering the feasts of her childhood where Jory would jest with Alebelly and Farlen from the kennels, while Mikken debated heavily with Hal Mollen about whatever came to their minds and Fat Tom ate whatever he could get his hands on besides Maester Luwin who spoke busily, even during a feast, with Vayon Poole about household affairs.
All of those people from her childhood were gone.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were still signs of their old Winterfell in the room. Palla the kennel girl, Farlen’s daughter, was here as was Tom Too, Fat Tom’s son and Cayn’s son Calon. Arya used to run amok with them and Bran when they were children.
On another bench, Beth sat with Anguy and the brotherhood, Ned Dayne and his sister nestled between them. The free folk had a bench of their own while Sam sat with his wife and his once black-brother Eddison Tollett. This combination of old and new - the people from their childhood coupled with their father’s bannermen and the packs they made along the way were their people now.
Jon’s hand squeezing hers under the table broke her contemplation. His warm smile felt like a balm.
It was then that Greatjon bellowed for the music to play and the dancing to begin. “Where is this outlaw singer I’ve heard all about then?” he blared. Prompting Tom O’Sevens to start plucking his strings while the food was cleared and tables moved to the sides.
Tom began with Two Hearts That Beat As One, in honour of Bran and Meera’s marriage followed by Wolf in the Night, which was composed following Robb’s victory at the Battle of Oxcross and sung at the feast in honour of its living veterans.
On and on the music went.
Arya danced with her uncle as well as Lords Manderly, Glover and Karstark, as well as the Magnar of Thenn, The Flint and The Wull. Bran made his way down from the dais with Meera, making an effort to talk with the guests, much as Father once had.
Jon danced with Alys Thenn and the Mormont and Manderly sisters.
Taking a break from dancing, Arya found Sam sitting alone and made her way to him, taking the opportunity to question him about Pate.
“Where’s your friend Pate?” she inquired, taking a sip of the Arbor gold.
“He had to return to the Citadel,” Sam replied.
“He is a little weird isn’t he?” she baited.
“He helped Archmaester Marwyn and I work out how to forge Valyrian Steel,” Sam protested, in defence of the man he thought of as his friend.
“And was he a close acolyte of this Archmaeater?”
“He studied under him, my lady, same as me but I am the Archmaester’s chief acolyte. Pate took longer to move from novice to acolyte.”
A faceless man is not slow, she thought. If he’s pretending to be so there’s clearly something else going on. She couldn’t work out what it was.
Bran joined them then. She learned that Sam had met Bran before he met her and had helped Bran cross the Wall.
“Ah. Sam, you’ve met my brother,” Jon interrupted, sitting next to her.
Arya and Bran exchanges sheepish looks as Sam stuttered.
“Well...err…” he stumbled. “Bran and I, that is Lord Stark and I..err had met before.”
They recounted the story of their meeting.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jon demanded.
“It’s not Sam’s fault,” Bran said. “I asked him not to tell you, you’d only have taken me back to the Wall.”
“I suppose you’ve met Rickon as well then,” he deadpanned.
Sam craned his neck, in good humour, to look at Rickon he stood across the hall, laughing freely, with Tormund and Osha.
“No, I can’t say that I have,” he finally said.
As the small group spoke and were joined by others, Arya sent him smiles that were at turns, shy and demure, cheeky and teasing and at times, when she was sure no one was looking, wicked grins promising something more...well, more.
He returned each one with his own answer- a burning gaze under his dark eyelashes. He only once fixed his ogling eyes when he spotted Bran looking at him.
Arya excused herself and made her way to the rear door, known as the lord’s door, hoping Jon caught her come hither look.
She waited for him in the courtyard of the Inner Castle, all giddy from the drink and the looks he kept sending her. The moment her appeared, she pulled him down to her, conveying all her need in a desperate kiss.
When she finally pulled away, Jon’s head darted in all different directions, looking to see if anyone might have seen them.
“Have you taken leave of all your senses?” he whispered, disparaging her although his voice held no real coldness to it.
“If anyone sees they’ll think I’ve dishonoured you,” he said.
“Perhaps it is me,” she pointed at herself, “...who has dishonoured you,” she said, poking his chest.
He gave her a loaded look and she took a hold of his hand all but dragging him across the castle to the First Keep where they wouldn’t be bothered. The sounds of the feast faded away behind them as they ran, laughing like the children they’d been a lifetime ago.
They ran through the dilapidated stairwells of the First Keep, dashing into corners to kiss, mouths seeking each other, tongues exploring, hands caressing and groping with a desperation they felt unquellable, pressing into one another as if they could climb into the other’s skin to truly become one.
In their desperation, they stripped one another, clothes forgotten in a pile at their feet.
Once they’d given into their need, he held her on his lap, staring longingly into her eyes, the moonlight filtering through the broken windows of the keep was their only source of light.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said, tapping her nose, “just how did you manage to coordinate an escape from the dungeons in a castle that you yourself were held prisoner in?”
“I prayed,” she told him. Jaqen appeared after her prayer.
“How did you convince those men to help you?” he asked.
“When we travelled for the Wall, Yoren was transporting three men from the black cells in a cage. When the Lannister men attacked our party, that cage was in a burning barn and the men screamed for my help. I helped them.”
“And they helped you, is that correct?”
“Well...only one helped me. The others were scared of him.”
She bit her lip and felt a sudden need to tell him not everything but something, a truth.
“He was a faceless man,” she spouted. When he looked blankly at her, she continued.
“An assassin, I didn’t know it at the time. He said, I’d stolen three lives from death so I had to give three in return. He said he’d kill anyone I named for me.”
Jon started laughing then, to her surprise.
“What?” she asked, confused.
His laugh turned into a snort.
“Only you would make friends with an assassin,” he managed to say between his fit of laughter.
“You’re not disgusted?”
“Why would I be? Your assassin may have kept you alive and in the Great Hall, men think you a hero,” he said.
She felt a burden lift at that. He might not hate me if I tell him what I did in Braavos, she told herself. Yet, somehow the words wouldn’t come out.
“Who did your assassin kill for you then?”
“Two Lannister men. One who raped a girl and was proud of it and the other who beat me.”
“And the third?”
“I asked the faceless man to help me free the prisoners or I’d name him as my third name.”
Jon started laughing again. She watched him, confused by his reaction yet warmed, and before long she started laughing along with him at the ridiculousness of her story.