In the week since Bran’s departure for Greywater Watch, Arya has thrown herself wholeheartedly into her duties as the acting Lady of Winterfell. The Stark in Winterfell. The playful girl he knew gave way to a sombre woman whose focus was entirely on her duty.
Jon kept telling himself she was trying to step into her mother and father’s shoes and that she didn’t want to fail in her responsibilities. Jon himself had been in her position and struggled to meet the needs of all his people.
But a part of him knew she was avoiding him. Ever since their conversation about her scars she has been brusque with him only talking to him when he spoke to her and never speaking more than a few words to him at a time. The only time she’d seek him out would be to talk about the castle’s affairs. Whenever he tried to find out more about her time about Braavos she’d be vague and any mention of her scars earned him silence after she said “ It’s nothing to worry about. I’m fine.” He didn’t understand why she was shutting him off. He only wanted to know if she was in danger. Why couldn’t she see?
He didn’t understand what her connection with these assassins was. Most people don’t even meet one assassin and she told him about two. How many more were there? He just wanted to know if he should be looking out for anything. She didn’t seem worried about anything but he couldn’t help but worry. He decided to let her be in the end. Arya had never stayed angry at him for a long time before. Perhaps they’d return to normal soon. He just hoped that his Arya was still in there when they did.
This Arya, he learned, had an uncanny ability to rid her face of any expression, seemingly at will. The girl of his childhood whose every emotion played out on her face and even the woman who he could read so easily upon her return disappeared to give way to a blank face with no light in her eyes.
She spent most of her time with Rickon. The two of them had become as thick as thieves, either riding out into the Wolfswood with their wolves or sneaking away into the deepest nooks and crannies in the castle. Occasionally Ghost would join them which was the only time Jon would see her laugh freely.
Whenever he sought her out she’d make some excuse or other. “ I’m meeting with the steward,” she’d say, or “ I promised Uncle Brynden, I’d have supper with him,” or she’d give him some excuse related to work with the household staff. Her new favourite excuse was, “ I have to meet with the maester.”
When they were children, his strongest suit was military strategy and knowing the histories of the northern houses. As a bastard he knew he would never be Lord of Winterfell yet he never wanted to be inferior to Robb in the things he could manage. He couldn’t change his status as a bastard but he could be good at everything that didn’t depend on his birth. That’s not to say Robb wasn’t better than him at most things but Jon exerted himself in this area.
His knowledge of the northern houses and the North helped Stannis in his campaign to recapture Winterfell. And his knowledge of strategy helped him countless times as Lord Commander and even before. Arya, on the other hand, was never educated in military strategy as a girl. She was strong at sums and knew her letters well enough but she was never good at learning sigils and house words. Perhaps it was because she never got on with her septa or because her septa was not of the North. She was good at all the subjects she learned from Maester Luwin so he decided it must have been the septa.
Given her weakness in this area, she tried hard to make up for it by spending hours each day locked in the Maester’s Turret with Maester Elric, educating herself on the North, both for the purposes of her progress as well as her role as the Lady of Winterfell until Bran and Meera returned.
This morning she would be presiding over her first petitions. Under Lord Stark petitions were heard every three weeks. Since Jon became Lord of Winterfell, he tried to ensure petitions were hard twice a week. The people had just lived through extraordinary circumstances and he wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had as many chances as possible to be heard. However, with all the events over the last three weeks, first due to the wedding planning and then the pursuing fallout, no petitions had been heard in Winterfell from the small folk for more than three weeks.
She was nervous, he could tell. She kept asking the Maester questions, babbling endlessly in the way she always did when she was nervous or excited. She would confer with The Blackfish whenever she wanted to double check the punishment for certain offences. She even asked Jon some questions about the type of cases he regularly dealt with and asked him to sit next to her as she heard them. “I don’t want to mess this up,” she confessed. Her request for him to be by her side thrilled him. Perhaps it was a sign that the coldness between them was beginning to thaw.
The day’s petitioners were already in the Hall when Jon arrived. Maester Elric and Edd were seated on the dais to the right of the stone seat of the Kings of Winter. To its left, were two other seats, for Jon and Rickon. Up at the gallery above the Hall, Osha and The Blackfish sat with some of the household staff- all of whom were keen to see a lady’s justice delivered in Winterfell for the first time in their lifetimes.
Rickon came in next, sulking. Arya had forbidden him from bringing Shaggydog with him after the direwolf bit a man in Winter Town the day before. Rickon insisted the man deserved it but wouldn’t tell anyone why. He plopped himself in the seat next to Jon, arms crossed, lips pouted, eyebrows in a frown.
“This is stupid,” he began. It reminded Jon so much of Arya as a child. Everything she disliked was stupid.
“This. I don’t even need to be here. Arya’s the one who’ll be dealing with them. Why couldn’t I just stay with Shaggy?,” Rickon grumbled.
Jon leaned over him, “You have to be here because Arya needs you.”
“Well, look over there,” Jon motioned across the seat of the Kings of Winter to where Elric and Edd sat. “Arya has the Maester and the steward here to advise her on money and accounts as well as any legal matters related to the castle’s household and it’s estates and the delivery of the queen’s justice. And she needs me and you-“
“For what?” Rickon interrupted.
“Our advice. You’ve been the Stark in Winterfell with Bran before and you were so brave to survive what you did. Maybe you’ll know something she doesn’t. And...you’re also the heir to Winterfell. One day you might have to sit on that chair so you’ll have to learn.” Jon remembered coming to watch Lord Stark listen to petitions when he was a child. Sometimes Robb would sit beside Father while Jon had to watch proceedings from the gallery.
The heavy oak and iron doors were opened then. There she stood in between two columns of guards, Nymeria by her side and Lem behind her. Anguy, the Captain of Winterfell’s guards, had travelled to Greywater Watch with Bran so Lem had stepped into the position.
With her wolf by her side, Arya had the presence of a true Queen of Winter. As she walked to the dais, Jon’s eyes, like everyone else’s judging from the murmurs that took hold in the Hall, fell upon her clothes. Every aspect was carefully chosen. For one, she hadn’t worn a dress yet no one in that room could have mistaken her for anything but a woman. She wore a square cut tunic with breeches, typical of a man’s dress, but to remind all she was a woman, as if her beauty would not tell them, her breeches were fitted and worn under a knee-length skirt - her own style and a marker of how she wanted to present herself to the people in the Hall. She was a lady delivering justice in her father’s Hall. Her hair suggested as much. She had the front half of her hair tied up while the back flowed over her back, in much the same way as her father would tie his hair when he heard petitions. And as if anyone would forget she was a Stark, her brooch depicted the snarling direwolf on the sigil that hung all around the Hall, while its living embodiment would sit at her feet for the remainder of the session.
Her tunic had a woolen collar, rather than the fur women of her standing normally wore. Something told him she did without a wolf pelt collar because she took Nymeria’s pack to be her own but he also knew her choice of wool was deliberate. The small folk stuffed their collars with wool. It was all they could afford and wool was something the North had in plenty. She knew people’s eyes would fall upon her clothing. The smallfolk who realised what she had done would be heartened by the woman who dressed like them and if he knew people, he knew it wouldn’t be long before even highborn ladies tried to emulate the dress of the practical daughter of Ned Stark. It would only bode well for those who reared sheep and traded in wool. Around her waist, she wore a sword belt holding Widow’s Wail , which Bran had renamed Winter’s Justice, and to his surprise, and delight, she had her hand around Needle - the sword he gave her. The sword she told him reminded her of him. Perhaps she wasn’t so mad at him.
Rickon broke him out of his daydream. “Why does she get to bring her wolf while Shaggy is stuck outside with Ghost?”
“Because, Rickon, it's her first time doing this and maybe she’s nervous.”
“Maybe I’m nervous!”
Jon didn’t know what to say.
Arya began to ascend the steps to the dais with Lem behind her. Lem took his seat on the other empty seat on the dais. As she sat, her face was a still pool. No emotions were etched on it but hardness that was more reminiscent of stone. Just how she managed to make her face sit so still confused him. Being Lord Commander, King and Lord all required him to manage his expressions. He’d always been a sullen child too so brooding came easier to him than smiling yet even he could not hide emotions on his face half as well as her.
She took her seat on the seat that sat a long line of her ancestors before her - a line that until recently ended with him, the last King in the North. He spent so long wondering about where his future would be and whether he would ever find a place to belong. A part of him still coveted the title of Lord of Winterfell, yet as he watched his woman sit on that seat he found that he felt no jealousy, only pride.
She turned her head to the maester who stood to read Bran’s decree.
This is the decree of Brandon, son of Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell. I am pleased to return to my home and to my people.
I am grateful on behalf of myself and the people of the North and the seven kingdoms to the Hero of the War of the Dawn, my brother and cousin, Aemon of Houses Stark and Targaryen who I grew up calling Jon. The Prince of Dragonstone, Jon, has been the Lord of Winterfell we needed in times of war and of strife. He has done his duty with honour and unwavering justice. He is now leaving his position with us in the North to return South to do his duty to the realm at large as the Crown Prince of the Seven Kingdoms. His departure will sadly precede my return.
Given this state of affairs, I, Brandon of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, do hereby command my sister Arya Stark to rule in my place with my full authority until my return, when I hope to do my duty to you.
Jon heard some mutterings but none of this should have been a surprise to anyone. The decree was pinned at the gates of Winterfell and at the doors of a number of establishments in Winter Town while a crier read out the decree across the town.
Jon turned to look at her as the decree was read. The stone-like look on her face was reminiscent of Father’s lord face. Arya would sit in the gallery with Jon to watch proceedings when she got too old to sit on her father’s lap as he heard petitions. Yet even their father’s face had never been so still. The look on her face almost made him overlook just how small she looked sitting on that throne but her face and the way she sat straight upon the seat, with her shoulders raised, made her look bigger than she truly was.
Rickon pulled Jon’s sleeve then. Leaning over, he whispered, “That’s her serious face. She taught me how to do it too. Look.” He then wiped the smirk off his face to reveal a serious look.
Arya looked over at them.
“What?” Rickon muttered. “I’m ruling my face. What do you think, sister?” Rickon put the look back on his face and Jon saw a ghost of a smile pass over Arya’s face before she stood to speak to the gathered crowd.
“I, Arya, daughter of Eddard Stark of Winterfell, swear to hear your grievances and to deliver justice according to the laws of those who have preceded me. Please,” she indicated to the steward’s assistant in the crowd, “Bring forward the first petitioner.”
And so the hearings began. If he was to judge the rest of the day by the first petition they heard he knew he should prepare himself for the session to be filled with the most mundane of requests.
The first petition had two petitioners: the inn-keeper at The Smoking Log, the ale-house in Winter Town, and Winterfell’s brewer, Bedric - the son of Barth who was Winterfell’s brewer during their childhood. The crux of the case rested on the death of the ale-taster two weeks ago - a week since the last hearing Jon held. The ale-taster’s job was to test the quality of bread, ale and beer and to ensure that they were sold at a price that reflected their quality.
Since the death of the ale-taster, the inn-keeper complained, Bedric had been selling him low quality ale for a high price. He requested that the price be lowered and that he be compensated for the difference in price between the old (good) ale and the new (bad) ale.
“Without an ale taster my prince, we are being swindled by this man,” the inn-keeper said, complaining to Jon while Arya sat on the seat of the Kings of Winter.
Not a single muscle on her face moved at the man’s blatant disregard of her.
Then the brewer bit back, again directing his speech at Jon. Arya’s face remained a blank slate of emotions, all her attentions focused on the two men in front of her.
“My prince, I have served as Winterfell’s brewer for years and I have never been accused of such a thing!” Bedric decried.
Arya spoke then, but only to ask the inn-keeper his name.
“My name is Alaric, my lady,” he answered.
“Bedric,” she said, addressing the brewer, “have you changed the way you brew your ale?”
“No, my lady, I use my father’s method.”
“Have you been adding water to your ale?”
“No, my lady.”
“Will the appointment of a new ale-taster satisfy you, Alaric?”
“Yes, my lady but-l”
“Very well,” Arya interrupted, “the position will be filled in the next week, Edd, please see that it is,” she commanded before turning to the two petitioners. “You may leave.” Her words were courteous but no less an order. The brewer began to move to the door but the inn-keeper remained in his place.
“My prince, what about the money he has charged me for his bad ale?” Alaric objected.
“You will address me while you are here,” Arya interjected, voice level though he could tell she was annoyed by how she grabbed the arms of the chair.
“What about the extra-coin he has charged me, my lady?” the man drawled.
Arya smiled then. Her first smile since she entered.
“When did you become the inn-keeper of The Smoking Log, Alaric?,” she inquired. “I’ve never met you.”
“I’ve been the inn-keeper for six, nearly seven, years, my lady.”
“What did you do before that?”
“I had a small tavern near The Dreadfort, my lady.”
“And the Boltons made you the inn-keeper in Winter Town is that correct?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Did you know Roose Bolton then?”
“I did, my lady.”
“Did he often come to The Smoking Log?”
Jon didn’t understand where her questioning was going and turning up to the gallery he realised neither did The Blackfish but that didn’t make it any less interesting.
“He did, my lady. He came often to my inn. He knew just how good the ale I served was. My lady, I would love to host you as well now that you are back in Winterfell.”
“Thank you, Alaric. I would be honoured to visit your establishment. How would you describe Lord Bolton?”
“He was a most fearsome man, my lady.”
She smiled at him. “And you thought now that Jon was no longer Lord of Winterfell, a young girl and her even younger brother as Lord of Winterfell with a ten year old for an heir would be easier targets for your attempt to make easy money. Is that it?” she asked, leaning forward. Jon realised she used Jon and not Aemon then. For some reason the sentiment made him smile.
“My lady, I don-”
“Lord Bolton scarcely drank, Alaric. I would know. I was his cup-bearer for a time. The next time you want to make some coin from the opportunities presented by the misfortunes of others, do try not to be so obvious by lying,” she spat. “Because the next time you come here to make a false accusation, I may just grant The Smoking Log to a more honest inn-keeper.”
“You cannot do that!” he jeered before Nymeria’s low growl ate the rest of that sentence.
“Lord Brandon will be back and I will return with my petition then,” he muttered in a lower tone.
“You may do that,” she conceded, face painted with a smirk, “But believe me, Bran is even more difficult than I am. I do not have the gift of being a green-seer. If you’re offended by a girl’s judgment, perhaps you’d like to speak to Rickon here? He-.”
Refusing to engage further with Arya the man turned to Jon. “Perhaps, Prince Aemon, I can give you the ale he sold me for you to taste,” he pleaded.
Arya smiled and spoke again before Jon could respond.
“Some liars blink incessantly when they tell tales, Alaric. Others stare, some smile while their eyes do not, some lick their lips as if to ease out their lies. Some look away just before they do, and the most obvious, like you, have eyes that dart around as if they know not the direction from which they will be caught. But what gives every bad liar away are the muscles at the corners of their jaw and the muscles where their neck joins the shoulders,” she artfully explained.
“If you would like to prove me wrong, there’s no need for you to fetch ale from The Smoking Log. Barth’s brewery is within this castle. If your accusation is that Bedric has been brewing and selling bad ale because there is no ale-taster to examine his wares, then he will not mind me sending a guard to bring back ale for me to taste. Will you Bedric?” she asked.
“No my lady.”
“So, shall we taste Bedric’s ale, Alaric? If his ale is shown to be of bad quality I will ensure you are paid what you are owed. If his ale is alright, then…” she left the sentence unfinished but the menace in her voice was unmistakable.
“Or you can tell me you are satisfied with the appointment of a new ale-taster and we can move on from this. Which will it be, Alaric?”
“I am satisfied with the appointment my lady,” he grumbled.
As the man walked out with his tail between his legs Jon realised how wrong he was. This day was already proving to be far from mundane.
Three more petitioners addressed Jon with their complaints instead of her. Each time she stayed silent only correcting them if they did so after she spoke to them. She listened to every case closely, examining each person.
She consulted with the maester, Edd and Jon whenever she needed advice on a matter but handled most of the cases alone. Jon noted how as the day went on each petitioner began to speak to her with more reverence, and some with more fear, than the one who came before them.
The last hearing of the day was from a resident of Winter Town. While the town was relatively bare for winter, there were people there. The woman told them that her daughter was sick and needed healing. These sorts of cases were routine. Arya asked the maester to attend to the girl.
When the hearings were done, she was the first to leave before the audience began to pour out of the Hall.
“I did not expect that,” The Blackfish commented, as he came to stand next to Jon.
“Neither did I,” Jon concurred.
Her mother once told me, “ A woman can rule as wisely as a man,” The Blackfish said.
Jon smiled, it reminded him of Arya once vociferously proclaiming the woman is important too!
I told her mother then, “The right woman can rule, and that girl there is the right woman for that seat,” The Blackfish added with pride, pointing to Father’s seat. Jon couldn’t help but agree.
He found her in the yard, by the stables, with Rickon. She was guiding Rickon’s fingers around his face, while explaining something intensely to him.
“Arya is teaching me to lie better,” Rickon announced with Arya’s hands still around his face.
“I’m teaching you how to be more courteous, even when you don’t feel like it,” she corrected, turning his face back to hers.
“If I’m pretending to feel like something I’m not, then I’m lying,” Rickon countered.
Arya rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“You should rule your face, sister. Smiles and scowls should be your servants,” Rickon mocked, mimicking Arya’s voice by emphasising words he’d no doubt heard from her.
Arya snickered before she burst out laughing, the smile on her face didn’t disappear even when she looked at Jon. That made him join in with her laughter. Her smiles for him had become so rare. He put his hand in hers then and squeezed. She squeezed back and he could have sworn his heart took flight.
“You did well,” he told her.
“Thank you, I was scared I was going to fail,” she said earnestly.
“You could have fooled me,” Rickon broke in.
“Well, you can do it too if you learn to rule your face.”
“Where did you learn how to read lies so well?” he asked, eager to keep her talking to him and to keep her hand in his.
“In Braavos,” she replied and took her hand out of his. As always Braavos remained a gulf between them.
As a consolation she added, “I apprenticed with a justiciar.”
She sold cockles to a brothel, cooked with a woman called Umma, apprenticed with a courtesan and a justiciar. Jon found himself wondering how one person could do so many roles without settling on one. When did she even find the time to learn all the languages she knows?
“Are all hearings like today’s?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you have mostly men attend?”
“Women do sometimes. I’ve never counted, but when I first arrived I made sure that I held the petitions twice a week to give as many people to attend.”
She bit her lip and had a look of contemplation on her face before she turned to Harwin. “Harwin, please get my horse ready and Osha’s as well,” she requested. Jon had gifted her the grey, spotted, palfrey mare she rode the first night he took her riding. She named it Sun Chaser after Elissa Farman’s ship. She told him one night that she considered sailing west once.
“Rickon, find me Osha and ask her to bring a cloak with her, we’re going out.”
Rickon sped off in obedience to her request, while Arya made her way to the Great Keep. “Where are you going?” he asked when he fell in step with her.
“Perhaps the women are scared to come here because you’re a man. If they won’t come here, I’ll go to them.”
Jon felt chided by that. He tried his best to be a fair judge and to be available to his people when they requested.
It seemed Arya read his mind as she stopped and put her hand on his shoulder. “Jon, I didn’t say that to disparage you. Sometimes women feel more comfortable with a woman, that’s all. There’s every chance I’m overthinking this but I would like to see anyway.” And with that she was off.
He wouldn’t see her until she rode back in on Sun Chaser late that night with the maester and Osha in tow. She promptly made her way to her rooms and left him to find out what she had done with her day from the maester. She held court in Winter Town and decided to set up a full-time infirmary. There was a small house where the maester went to see people once a week and Jon regularly encouraged people to come to the castle whenever they were ill to request treatment as well. But Arya wanted to ensure that the Winter Town infirmary was open every day. Apparently, she said that she would work there when her duties allowed, assisted by Osha and other women in the town who had a healing background. And when Meera returned she said that the new Lady of Winterfell would join them there. Jon knew there were no maesters in the moving castle so the crannogmen taught themselves how to do basic healing. He was more interested in where Arya learned how to practice healing. I bet it’s one more apprenticeship, his mind whispered. The maester answered the question in his head, with a look of amazement in his face. “Lady Arya, tells me she apprenticed at the House of the Red Hands, it’s one of the greatest healing centres of the world!”
How many apprenticeships did this girl do? Jon asked himself.
He also learned that some of the women complained about their husbands dying during the wars leaving them as widows and without protection from men who harassed them. They told Arya that Jon had always taken strong action against rapers but that there were men who still engaged in low-level acts that put fear in them without turning violent. They said the fear of violence was just as insidious. The maester told Jon that Arya agreed to set up self-defence classes in Winter Town for women. Apparently she’d lead those too.
Just what did Arya do in Braavos?
At the next petition that week, more women turned up. Most of them came only to watch but others presented their cases. Some were run-of-the-mill complaints about debts and tenancies while others were farmers complaining about their neighbours' sheep grazing in their fields.
Again, there were the odd men who addressed Jon instead of her, despite Bran’s decree being read again. One particular man even had the audacity to question why a girl was sitting there.
“If the Lord of Winterfell isn’t here, it should be Lord Rickon sitting upon that seat,” he droned.
Jon answered him before Rickon could say something rude. After that no one referred their cases to him or spoke down to Arya.
Others came expecting lenient judgments from her, clearly unaware of what happened to Alaric a few days prior.
Then came the turn of an old crone named Tanda. Grey-haired but strong, she told Arya that petty theft had increased in Winter Town with thieves rejoicing that Prince Aemon was no longer Lord of Winterfell. “Prince Jon,” the woman said, choosing to refer to him by his Northern rather than Targaryen name, “ensured that our wealth and properties were safe in the same way Lord Stark ensured before him. Are we to expect less from you, my lady?” she enquired.
“No,” Arya said. “I speak for myself and for your lord when I say you should expect no less from us.”
From then on the direwolves began nightly patrols of Winter Town. Any thieves caught sometimes lost a limb if Shaggydog was feeling particularly peckish. Nymeria and Ghost, on the other hand, would normally drag them to the gates and to the guards on night patrol, although they too were known to leave thieves with more than a few bumps and bruises. Reports of stealing decreased shortly after.
From then on, he noticed more women come to court from both smallfolk and highborn alike. Lady Cerwyn even made the half-day journey to attend court. As Jon predicted, a few women both from the smallfolk and the highborn began to dress just like her. A braver few even began to wear a weapon on their waist.
More women also began attending her self-defence classes which Jon heard consisted of Braavosi water dancing drills. He hadn’t seen her in action himself as no man but the maester was allowed in her women’s courts.
It had been two weeks since he got the letter from Daenerys and he had not yet had an opportunity to talk to her of his impending move. He didn’t feel as if he could talk to Arya about such a big topic when they were still only having the most cursory of conversations.
At the first hearing of her third week as the Stark in Winterfell a man came in to complain that his wife had decided to carry a sword around with her. Jon saw Arya’s eyes smile, the rest of her face donned the stone mask she wore at every one of these hearings.
“Does she fulfill her duties to her family?” Arya asked.
“Yes,” the man answered.
“Then what is the problem, kind ser?”
“She doesn’t really mean he’s kind,” Rickon whispered to Jon.
“It is unnatural for a woman to fight!” the man hissed.
Nymeria’s growl helped him rethink the tone of his voice.
Arya turned away from him entirely to focus her attention on the wife. “Why do you carry a sword?” she asked her.
“I want to protect myself, my lady.”
“From whatever life throws at me,” the woman answered. Arya actually smiled then.
“Do you begrudge your wife that, ser?” Arya asked the complainant.
“My lady, I can protect my wife-”
“Are you always with her?”
“No, my lady I work as a labourer in-”
“So, naturally, you cannot protect her yourself at all times. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” the man conceded.
“So what is the issue?”
“Women are the weaker creatures, my lady. She would do more harm with that sword than without it.”
And that’s when Jon knew the man was in trouble.
Arya stood, removing her sword belt to place it on the table in front of her with a clatter. She placed Winter’s Justice on the table but removed Needle.
She turned to Lem. “Ser Richard, please can you provide this kind ser with a sword. Joren, please clear the floor” He knew from her use of Lem’s real name she was very serious in her request. Everyone in the hall began murmuring. Joren, one of the guards began the process of pushing people back to the sidelines while The Blackfish all but jumped from his seat on the bench below the dais, that he was sitting on, to begin to caution his niece as she made her way down the steps. Jon left his seat to join them to try and talk her out of the madness she clearly intended while Rickon grinned with pure glee on his face. Edd looked confused and the maester scandalised.
The man in question on the other hand was confused.
“Arya, don’t,” Jon warned, pulling her arm back when The Blackfish gave him the tired look of a man who tried to control his child and was rebuffed. It was a look Jon had seen on Father’s face many times where Arya was concerned.
“Do not make me look weak in front of this man Jon,” she implored before pulling her arm from his grip.
“Let’s make a deal, ser,” she said, turning to the man, “If you beat me with your sword, I will agree with you that women are weak creatures and a sword will do nothing for them. But if I win, your wife will continue to carry her sword and attend my lessons.”
“I cannot fight you, my lady, it is treason to bear live steal against your liege. Lord Brandon left you in charge. Raising my sword against you would be a kin to raising it against him, my lady,” the man protested.
“I’ll excuse it in this instance.”
“My lady, I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’ll try my best not to do the same to you,” she replied with a smirk on her face. Jon found himself cursing the wolf blood as he stood by Lem’s side. He refused to return to his seat. If he had to he would step in. Her desire not to look weak be damned.
“My lady, if I hurt you, even by mistake, I fear your wolf would not be able to separate our spar from danger.”
“Nymeria, outside,” Arya said. Nymeria left by the rear door.
Arya took the sword out of Lem’s hands and handed it to the man hilt first, holding the blade herself. The man took it with the smile of a man who foresaw his victory.
Arya stood sideways with Needle in her left hand and her right arm behind her back. Needle looked tiny compared to the long sword the man held with both his hands. She was so small compared to him, something he was sure the man did not fail to note. Even if he was just a labourer his size gave him an advantage over her. Jon clenched Longclaw’s hilt. Why must she be so stubborn?
The man began to move toward her. She did not wait for him to reach her before she began spinning around him, striking and retreating. Jon had not seen her raise her sword against anyone since her return. In fact he hadn’t seen her use Needle after that morning he saw her practice and even that did not prepare him for what he saw this day.
She held Needle as if it was an extension of her arm. Her movements were swift and sudden...and elegant! Faster and faster she moved forward and retreated, harrying and tiring the man. Jon would say he was a great swordsman. After defeating the Others he would allow himself the opportunity to say that about himself without feeling conceited. Yet even he did not move as swiftly or as gracefully with a sword as she did. It was artful. It was as if she was dancing not fighting while the man hacked inelegantly.
Finally, “Dead!” she proclaimed as she stopped Needle right before it pierced his neck.
“Let’s go again, ser, I will not have it said that a weak woman won by chance.”
And then the dance began again. Jon was less nervous this time. The Blackfish had an impressed look on his face. His praise, he did not doubt, would astound Arya. The Blackfish was known for his prowess as a knight.
Rickon’s mouth was agape, Edd looked confused, and the maester looked horrified. As Arya moved in fluid, water-like movements around the room, Jon felt himself having to readjust his breeches. It had been ages since he last shared her bed - it had been since that damned day she left him without an idea of what he did wrong.
“Dead!” she said again. This time even the man was smiling. Everyone in the crowd was whispering in excited tones.
“Let’s go again,” she demanded before spinning away again, clearly enjoying herself.
As she maneuvered around the room, Jon noticed that her steps made no sound. It was why the man never knew where to expect her next hit to come from.
Beside him Lem, in contrast to everyone else in the room, had the look of a man who’d seen it all. Jon supposed he would. Arya broke his nose when she was only ten. It only made sense to him that she would only get more deadly with age.
She continued her graceful movements, ducking, diving, dancing, until after one attempt to spin around her the man found himself stop to find his hands empty. When he turned around Arya was dangling his sword and hers in her hands.
She walked up to him. “Dead,” she said, holding each sword at a different part of his neck.
“Still think women are weak?” she asked.
The man who had begun their spar with the smile of a man who foresaw his win, smiled the smile of a man who had respect for his opponent. “No, my lady,” he said sheepishly.
Arya handed him his sword. “I have to say, ser. You tired me out. I haven’t trained in a long time. If we went one more round, I’m sure you would have beaten me but good for your wife that if she continues her lessons she would never have to go so many rounds against an opponent.” Jon wondered why she didn’t ask him to spar with her if her lack of training was such an issue.
The man thanked her for her kind words and made his way to stand next to his excited wife who would be continuing her lessons.
Arya walked back to the dais standing with Needle in her hand.
“When I was a child my maester told me stories about Visenya Targaryen and Queen Nymeria, warriors who did not let the fact that they were women stop them from doing things most people never achieve. And Jon,” she began, pointing at him with Needle, “gifted me this sword when I was a little girl because he saw how much I wanted to learn how to fight with a sword.” Jon could have marched up that dais to kiss his woman with the sword he gave her all those years ago in her hand.
Unaware of his desires Arya continued. “And my father, Ned Stark, did me one of the greatest favours of my life when he got me a teacher to help me learn how to use this sword. Those lessons are what saved my life time and again during the War of the Five kings. After everything you know befell House Stark is there anyone who would say that my father was wrong in the decision to find me a teacher?” she challenged.
The murmuring crowd of earlier became as silent as the grave.
“Fear cuts deeper than swords,” she said. “A woman learning to protect herself is not a crime. If a woman is fulfilling her duties to her liege and her family, I do not see any issue...unless there is someone here who will tell me I am wrong?”
An old gruff man stepped forward, “If you put weapons in the hands of women, what is to say they will not begin aggrieving others?” he demanded.
“Justice does not discriminate,” Arya answered curtly.
“If no one else has anything to say, my lessons will continue on as normal tomorrow.”
When the session was over, Jon saw The Blackfish smile with approval as he spoke with his niece. Rickon was tugging her sleeve no doubt asking for his own lessons to start with immediate effect.
If the man she called Syrio Forel taught her all this in just her time in King’s Landing, Jon decided he would have to have been the greatest swordsman who ever lived but something told Jon that if he scratched far enough he’d find one more apprenticeship under even this.
And he was proven right. He later learned from Rickon that she trained with two First Swords to the Sealord of Braavos. One in King’s Landing and one in Braavos. Jon did not get an opportunity to ask her about this. She spent all her time in Winter Town teaching her classes and working in the infirmary she helped set up, and no doubt avoiding him.
It was not until the last petition of her second session in her third week as the Stark in Winterfell that Jon saw the extent of Arya’s dedication to delivering justice to her father’s people.
A beaten and bruised woman appeared before the court. In all his years and in all the wars, Jon had never seen a woman beaten the way this woman was.She sported serious swelling and bruises on her face, her nose was broken, her lip was split and she even had bite marks on her hands and neck. Bites Jon was sure were not given in a moment of love.
Jon saw Arya lean forward, clenching Winter’s Justice, her father’s sword, as she waited for the woman to begin speaking.
“Your father was always good to us,” she started. For all her vulnerable state, the woman’s voice was strong.
“And the people called Prince Aemon just. The covenant between the smallfolk and their lords is that we owe you obedience so long as you grant mercy to the weak, help to the helpless and justice to all. Can I expect this from you?” the woman asked.
“Yes, you can,” Arya vowed. “Please tell me what you require of me.”
So the woman told them the story of her life. Her name was Sarra. She married her husband at the age of 12. She spoke of how he started beating her not long after he married her and of how she withstood those beatings. When she finally had a child, the ten year old girl next to her, she tried to focus all her energies on her child while her husband whored and warred and drank his time away. She told them how his beatings caused her to lose two pregnancies and of how he blamed her for her inability to give him sons who would work with him.
When she finished, Arya asked her why she didn’t leave.
“I was not raised in a castle, my lady, I do not know how to read or write. I was married off when I was two and ten. I am now five and twenty. I do not know anything but my husband and if I were to leave him, I would have nowhere to go. My father is dead and if he were alive, I am sure he would tell me back to my husband. I came here expecting justice but tell me if I won’t get it here, I’d rather kill myself than return there.”
“Did he let you come here?” Arya asked.
“He was out whoring.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“He is a butcher.”
“And you want rid of him, is that right?”
“I want justice.”
“And if justice in this case means his death. How will you feed your daughter.”
“If I have a safe roof over my head, I will find myself a job.”
“Do you have any talents?”
“I can do whatever is required of me, my lady,” the woman said, warming to Arya for the first time since she appeared before her.
“Good,” Arya said. “It just so happens that I am looking for a chambermaid.” Arya hated anyone fussing around after her which made him appreciate just what she was doing for this woman. It made him love her even more.
“You will need to come to live in the castle for this position though, as will your daughter. Is that something you are willing to do?”
“Thank you my lady,” the woman chimed in excitedly.
“Our steward, Eddison Tollett, will see that your name is put into the ledgers as a member of our household staff, and will ensure that you are shown to your room. I trust you are ready to start with me tomorrow?”
“Yes, my lady,” the woman said gratefully, with tears in her years. “Thank you.”
“It is my duty as you said,” Arya told her as she climbed down the steps of the dais to make her way to the little girl.
Kneeling, “Hello,” she said. “My name is Arya. What’s yours?”
“Branda,” the girl replied before grabbing her mouth, eyes wide. “My lady!” she added.
Arya smiled at her. “It’s alright I was never good at courtesies either,” she winked.
“Do you like flowers Branda?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Call me Arya.”
“Me too,” Arya volunteered. “When I was a little girl I used to love collecting flowers.”
“Me too!” the girl said.
“I know Arya replied, you have a petal stuck in your collar, look.” Jon saw a small white petal from a snowdrop flower on the girl’s brown collar.
The girl smiled shyly.
“We have some glass gardens here with all sorts of flowers, Jon planted a lot of them,” she added looking over to him with appreciation in her eyes. “Would you like to see them?”
The girl nodded and Arya took her hand in hers.
“Sarra, Branda and I are going to look at some flowers. I will be sure to bring her back to you later.”
The mother walked over to Arya, took her hands in her own and said, “Thank you, my lady. I was scared you would turn me away.”
Arya said something back to the lady that Jon could not hear.
He realised he loved the woman in front of him more than he could have ever imagined.
The next day he’d fall in love with her even more.
It was sunset and he was at The Smoking Log with Edd and Lem. The latest consignment of grain had arrived from The Reach earlier that day, and they left the castle after they oversaw the delivery and storage. It was then that he heard a bell ringing and the loud voice of a woman. Arya.
He rushed outside of the ale-house, Lem was directly behind him, both of them had their swords drawn.
Arya was atop Sun Chaser and she had a rope in her hand. She was dragging a badly beaten man. She stopped right in front of the gathered crowd outside the Smoking Log.
“This man beat his wife for years and no one stood up to him,” she began, in a loud voice that reverberated in the way Pyp’s would when he spoke in his loud mummer’s voice. She pulled the rope then and the man fell to his knees.
Jon realised there were no children in the crowd. Just women and the few men who were in The Smoking Log. He saw then that none of the women looked surprised. They knew this was coming. He let out a bitter laugh when he realised she planned this. She planned to get a dangerous man herself. A man who beat his own wife the way they saw just the day before and she did not tell him. Damn the day I put that sword in her hand, he thought.
“Did you know she was going to do this?” he asked Lem.
“I was just about to ask you the same question,” his father’s friend replied.
In the background Arya continued, “He abused her and debased her and beat her senseless and as if that was not despicable enough he abused his own child.”
This news confounded Jon. Sarra did not say this in court nor did the child, Branda.
His trial will take place here now and if found guilty he will be executed tonight.
“Ser Richard, please call the guards...and fetch me a block,” she ordered, before turning to the man, “One never knows what we will hear, but keep the block hidden from view. I will let you know when to bring it out.” Jon realised then that she only ever called Lem his real name when she was ordering him to do something.
Jon wanted to march up to her and drag her off the horse. What he would do after he did not know. Part of him wanted to shout and lock her in a tower for good while the other part of him wanted to fuck her senseless. Perhaps he’d do both. She drove him absolutely mad with her disregard for her own safety. How could one person be this stubborn?
The man’s trial was over in no time. Sarra was already in Winter Town as was Branda. They gave their evidence and Arya held Branda’s hand as she told them the things her own father had done to her. It was clear the child did not fully understand the severity of some of the things her father had done to her when she was younger. Arya then asked her mother to take her back to the castle with a company of guards.
And then Arya pulled out Winter’s Justice.
He moved beside her, “Arya, you don’t have to do this,” he implored. “I can do this for you. I am older than you and-”
“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword - that was Father’s way and his father before him going back eight thousand years. I will not deviate from this while I can deliver this justice myself,” she asserted. The light of the torches around her bounced off her face.
“Do you have any last words?”
“Go to hell,” the man replied. Jon wanted to throttle him to death instead then. Arya did not react. She had the look of stone back on her face.
“In the name of Daenerys of the House Targaryen, First of her Name, Queen of the Andals, and the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lady of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Arya of House Stark, Castellan of Winterfell, I do sentence you to die,” she announced right before Winter’s Justice came down upon his head. Blood sprayed all over the floor as the man’s legs twitched a few more times as life left him.
Valar something, Jon heard her mutter in a foreign language right before she climbed up on Sun Chaser again. Then in a sudden flash of fur, Jon saw Nymeria, Ghost and Shaggy come down upon the man’s body, ripping apart the limbs that remained. Arya watched them do this until there was very little left of the man. Arya ordered dirt to be poured over the area before turning to the crowd atop her horse, bloodied sword still in hand.
“House Stark owes you the duty to grant mercy to your weak, help to your helpless and justice to you all. This man preyed on the weak and helpless and today he met with Stark Justice. I want you to know that so long as a Stark remains alive you will have recourse to justice. Those who take advantage of the weak and the helpless should take this opportunity to change their ways, or that,” she said pointing with the bloody sword to the place where the man had died, (it was now being covered with dirt by women from Winter Town) “will be their end. They will have no grave and they will not be given the honour of a funeral. They will be no more than food for wolves. Let those of you who are present tell those who are absent that the departure of your prince will not mean the departure of justice from these lands!”
The crowd began to cheer her name along with cries of She-wolf, she-wolf, she-wolf, which the wolves joined in with their howls. Awooooooooooo! their chorus rang out. Not long after Nymeria’s pack joined in from the Wolfswood.
Suddenly Jon remembered Melisandre of Asshai. The night is dark and full of terrors, he thought, for those who prey on the weak.
But as he watched her gallop off into the castle, he wanted to do nothing other than shake her. How could she risk her life in this way?
When he finally got to the castle, she was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t in the godswood cleaning the sword in the way her father would do. She wasn’t in her rooms. Sarra confirmed that. She said Arya had come in to check in on her and then left. Edd hadn’t seen her although she would normally have a meeting with him at night. It was the maester who finally told him she was in the maester’s turret making a salve. She’ll need a salve after I’m done with her, he thought. Maybe if he fucked her so hard she’d be too unable to walk and might actually stay in one place for once.
“Make sure no one enters this tower,” he commanded a guard before running into the room.
He smashed into the room only to find Arya there with Branda. The little girl jumped and he felt guilty. She told him to apologise to the girl with her eyes.
“I’m sorry for scaring you Branda,” he said consoling the girl. He bent to her eye level and said, “My name is Jon.”
“I know she said, Arya told me. She said you gave her, her sword,” the girl exclaimed wide eyed.
“I did.” He smiled at the girl and whispered “I wish I did not,” as he stood making sure Arya heard him. She looked at him again with the stone-faced look that he decided then that he hated.
Arya was mixing some herbs. The squelching of the herbs she was grounding in a mortar was the only sound in the room but the girl still sat in the room, clearly looking comfortable.
“Branda and I are making a salve for a friend of ours who scraped her knee,” Arya offered, not once looking at him.
Scraped knees and tangled hair were the defining characteristics of her childhood. Of course she would know what to do for such a child even without a fancy apprenticeship at whatever the name of the healing centre she went to was called. She spent half her childhood here being tended to by Maester Luwin.
“How long will you shut me out?” he whispered at her as Branda looked out of the window.
“I’m not shutting you out.” she replied, unflappably. The hell you are not.
“How did we go from lying with one another to you not sparing me a single thought?” he ground out, keeping his voice low. “How could you risk your life to apprehend that man alone?”
It was then he realised she’d changed her clothes. There was no sign of blood splatter on this tunic at all.
“I did not risk my life,” she squelched. He had to restrain himself from throwing that mortar against the wall. Squelch, squelch, squelch, the sound went.
“You’re going to Dragonstone in three weeks,” she finally said, pouring some potion into the mortar before returning to her squelching. “Have you prepared yourself for your move?”
“Is that what this is about? You’re not speaking to me because of Dragonstone?” Are you not speaking to me because you will miss me, he meant.
“I was just asking to fill in the silence.” He wanted to drag her to the top of this tower and fill the silence with her screams. How could one person be this infuriating?
Instead he showed her weakness. “Tell me to stay,” he whispered, turning her to face him, and moving close enough to bump his nose with hers as Branda was distracted but before he could she moved away.
“Branda, why don’t you go and call Alarra so we can fix her knees,” she said, voice pleasant and face smiling to the girl.
The moment the girl left running, she turned to him. “Do not dare shout at me. That child will be back here in a few minutes and I will not have her walk into this room to you shouting at me. Not after all the things she’s lived through. Do you understand me?” she snarled.
“Yes,” he responded, feeling admonished.
He sat down. “How did you know he abused Branda?” he asked. “Sarra did not mention anything about him abusing the child.”
She sat opposite him, emotion etched on her face. Finally that mask is gone!
“I knew an ugly little girl once. She wasn’t always that way, her father abused her until her face was permanently disfigured. She sought out her own death to escape his abuse. I got to know her well enough to know what to look for. If you know what to look for it’s easy to see. One only needs to look with their eyes.”
“As opposed to what?”
She smiled at him. “A long time ago, someone taught me that the heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. First look at everything with your eyes, he told me. Hear it with your ears, taste it with your mouth, smell it with your nose and feel it with your skin. Then” she raised her index finger, “comes the thinking, and then knowing the truth.”
“Was this another one of your apprenticeships?” he spat, sick of learning about her life through others. It had been three weeks since she last spoke to him properly.
Before she could answer they heard shouting.
“Arya! Arya! Arya!” Branda was shouting, with who he assumed must be Arya’s new patient. For someone who joined them just the day before, Branda had taken to Arya like a house on fire.
“They won’t let us in!” she complained. “I told them you had to fix Alarra’s knee,” she added for good measure.
“Joren, please let them in,” Arya asked.
“My lady,” he said sheepishly, “Jon asked me not to let anyone in.”
Arya looked over her shoulder at Jon, who took the opportunity to wrap his hands around her waist. Enjoying the intimacy.
“Joren,” he shouted, leaning over her to reach the window, “Please let them in.”
When the girls arrived, he watched Arya laugh with the girl with the scraped knees as she put the salve over her injuries. Watching her with them even made some of his anger dissipate. When they were done she gave each one of the girls sweets.
When she closed the door behind them she turned to face him only to find his lips crashing into hers. He missed her so much. He was so angry at her.
His touch on her came suddenly and without warning, his tongue plunging into her mouth with an overpowering urgency, sweeping against hers with hunger. For a few moments she did not react and suddenly her fingers were laced in his hair pulling him into her, returning his kiss with a pressing need.
Before long, he cleared the maester’s desk of papers in a single stroke, throwing her on it and taking her rough and hard, covering her screams with his mouth, putting all his rage, his love and frustration with her into the act. She returned every thrust and before long their coupling turned into a battle first of tongues and teeth and then an outright battle for dominance.
When he was done, he moved away from her to return to his earlier seat. She was still splayed across the maester’s desk. The whole place was a mess of papers and ink. They’d have to clean up before they left.
Part of him wanted to apologise but he decided he was too angry to do so. So he watched her scramble up to look for her breeches. Once she put them on he blocked her way to stop her from leaving.
“Jon, move,” she scorned.
“No,” he sneered back. “Not until you talk to me.”
“I’ve spoken to you now I have duties elsewhere, move!”
“You will talk to me and you will tell me why you are avoiding me, Arya, and you will tell me what in the seven hells happened to you in Braavos. You will tell me tonight or I swear to you Arya Stark, they will find our dead bodies before I let you out of this room.”
“I can expedite that process for you,” she said, pulling out a finger knife from her sleeve. Where the hell did she store that? he found himself wondering about the knife to his throat.
A smile made its way to her face.
“Kill me,” he dared her, knowing she never would. “It’d be easier than living like this.”
She blinked, looking distracted and before she knew it, he had her disarmed, an arm behind her back.
“Don’t start fights you cannot win. I’ve faced worse than you,” he whispered against her ear, holding her own knife against his throat.
She threw her head back violently, almost breaking his nose, and escaped his hold of her. When he looked up she had her knife back in her hands and between his legs.
“I never start a fight I cannot win, my prince,” she sneered back, amused smile on her face. “I would hate to have to geld you after all the enjoyment your little friend has given me.”
“I didn’t think you’d actually hurt me!” he snapped.
“I didn’t break your nose Jon, I moved my head to the left to concentrate the force on your cheek. You’ll have a little bruise but you’ll be fine.”
Jon bent down to the floor, holding his nose and as he expected, “Jon?” she said, her voice sounding worried. He smiled into his hands but did not look up.
“I-I can’t see properly,” he said in a weak voice.
“Jon!” she panicked, throwing her knife and dropping to her knees, bringing his face up to look at her and running her fingers across his face.
“Where does it hurt?”
“Here,” he said, moving her hand to his heart.
“What’s so bad that you would risk hurting me for it Arya?” he asked, all the tears he’d been holding back pooling in his eyes. Her eyes mirrored his.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, raining down kisses on him in the way she always did as a child.
“Jon, I’m so sorry,” she agonised, tears flowing down her eyes. She placed her forehead against his. Both of them were on their knees, holding the face of the other.
“Talk to me, Arya. Whatever it is, I promise you I’ll still be here,” he whispered, voice thick with emotion. “Please.”
“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep Jon,” she pleaded.
“There is no promise I wouldn’t keep to you,” he told her. “I promise that whatever you tell me, my hand will still be in yours at the end,” he added, twinning his fingers with hers and sitting against the door. She moved to sit next to him and so she began the story that would change his life and would explain all of her actions and her fear.
She told him of how the faceless Lorathi assassin gave her a coin as a reward for her deviousness when she named him to himself.
She disclosed how feeling she had nowhere else to go, after the Red Wedding, she handed the coin to a ship captain from Braavos. As she continued her story, he felt like an idiot for not putting things together. She told him on her first night back in Winterfell, how a Lorathi had helped her and told her to say words to any man of Braavos. Jon just didn’t know the significance of those words or the fact that the Lorathi was supposed to be a faceless man!
She told him of how she learned how to spot and tell lies, which explained how well she read Alaric, on her first day hearing petitions, and it helped him understand just how she managed to make her face sit so still. She told him of how she learned Braavosi from some waif and practiced the language when she sold cockles on the job. She spoke about this early part of her time in Braavos with fondness.
Then she began talking about how all faceless men had to be no one and of how they had to leave their true names and identities behind. Her voice grew progressively more harried.
“I could never do it, Jon,” she cried with tears overflowing from her eyes. She told him of how Needle was the only thing she kept with her; she spoke of how Needle was Winterfell, their people, the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree and the glass gardens. She fondly said how Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father and even Sansa, who she hadn’t spoken to since Sansa left. “But most of all,” she added, “Needle was your smile. You used to muss my hair and call me little sister, I missed that most of all. Even without all this,” she gestured between them, “You were my favourite person ever.”
Next came the story of what truly happened to his black brother Dareon. Arya delivered her father’s justice half a world away when Dareon abandoned Sam and Maester Aemon. He heard most of that story from Sam when they reunited. Jon did not begrudge her for that. He would have done the same.
It was what came next that broke his heart. They blinded her for not leaving Arya Stark behind. That’s what she meant when she said she used to help a cook when she could not see properly before.
“You couldn’t see at all!” he shouted when he realised.
“I couldn’t see with my eyes,” she corrected, squeezing his hand, as if he was the one who needed comforting after everything she went through. “I could hear and feel everything even better than before. Now I can move in the dark and have an advantage where most people do not because all of my senses are sharper.”
“And anyway,” she added “It just felt like a punishment, I’m not sure it was. All acolytes had to be blinded as part of their training but it normally happens much later in the process than it did for me. In their own curious way, I think they did it as a reward,” she explained, with fondness. How could she smile about this?!
She then told him the parts that she was sure would make him hate her, of the faces and the targets. She explained why Branda’s case affected her and how she had been the ugly little girl for a while when she took her face. When she did so, she had the girl's nightmares. Jon didn’t understand exactly how the faces thing worked but believed her nonetheless. The world had shown him many more unbelievable things. When she finished speaking she wouldn’t look at him, she even tried to stand and leave. He refused to let go of her hand.
“Look at me Arya, they blinded you!” he appealed. “What other choice did you have? When you tried to leave they tried to kill you!”
“To be a faceless man is a commitment for life,” she asserted.
It was then that he realised he was killed for trying to return to her and she nearly died for trying to avenge him. He pulled her in for a teary kiss then, whispering words of love and regret to her.
“You don’t hate me?” she asked in a small voice.
“Never. I hate that you had to do those things. I hate that I failed you.”
And so she continued the story, this time trying to comfort him. “It wasn’t so bad!” she assured him.
“The Kindly Man patched me up-”
“The Others take him,” he spat.
“They can’t,” she laughed, “Thanks to you.” That made him smile.
“What did he do then?”
“He found out I could skinchange and got me even better jobs than before. He didn’t send me out for kills anymore. He got me apprenticeships and oversaw my education in languages himself. He used me to collect information, something I’d been doing since I first arrived but this time I did so with more high profile people. That’s how I met the First Sword to the current Sealord of Braavos. He’s the one who trained me in water dancing while I was trained in the House of Black and White in how to use knives and daggers effectively. The Kindly Man told me that I could go home without having to worry about anyone following me if I served for five years. That’s why I took so long to return home.”
“Why did they let you go?”
“I ask myself that question everyday. I suppose it’s because they never had a faceless man who could skin change before and I got them information they would normally struggle to get.”
“How’s anything hard for a faceless man? They can change their face!”
“Sometimes people do things when they’re alone that they wouldn’t do in front of others. They’d do it infront of a cat or other animal but not where people can see them. Information is priceless,” she explained.
“Do you seriously not hate me?” she asked with an unbelieving look.
“Let me show you how much I love you,” he whispered. “Let me take you to your bed.”
“We can’t,” she whispered. “I’ve given Sarra the small room next to mine.”
He wanted to rage but couldn’t find it in him to do so, she did the right thing.
“Jon, I’m so sorry,” she apologised, kissing the place where she had hit him earlier. “I thought if I pushed you away you would hate me. It was so hard for me but I told myself you’d be leaving for Dragonstone and I thought you might forget me and move on.”
“You thought wh-”
“Let me finish,” she interjected. “I thought you’d hate me for what I became, so I told myself if I pushed you away anyway, the distance would pull us away from one another and in any case, the queen would find you a bride. You are her heir after all.”
“Would you move with me?” he asked, hopefully.
“I don’t want to live in the South,” she whispered.
“And if I stay here will you let me?”
“This is your home!”
“You are my home, Arya. Wherever you are is my home. Ask me to stay.”
“What about the queen?”
“I told you before, we can do whatever we want with our lives. Show me Braavos, let me show you the lands beyond the Wall, let’s see the world together or if we want we’ll never leave Winterfell again. The choice is yours?”
“For true,” he said, bumping his nose against hers. “I’ll go to King’s Landing, I’ll do this final duty to Dany and I will return here, to you.”
“Don’t tell her yet,” she blurted. “Not until after Bran’s Great Council. She’s the queen. She will need to approve whatever we decide. She might not if she learns we took away her heir.”
He asked her then if he could see her change her face.
“I don’t have any faces with me,” she smiled, climbing into his lap, “I’d have to take yours but I’d have to kill you first. I like your pretty face just where it is,” she said, bumping her nose against his. He decided this was even better than a kiss and he loved her kisses. She gave him one right then.
“Pretty am I?”
“Stop fishing compliments, Jon,” she said before lowering her face again.
After that they fell into an easier, closer, companionship than they ever had in their lives. Even in their childhood they hadn’t been that close. She started sharing more with him about her time in Braavos, citing each of her apprenticeships. She even worked as a clerk in the Iron Bank for a time, but the banker she worked with only managed Lorathi accounts.
In turn he told her about the struggles with and against Melisandre as well as the internal struggles he had when Stannis offered him Winterfell. He even told her about the dream in the crypts he used to have and how Bran told him the Kings of Winter were not decrying him. The dream only meant that he would find out that he was not a Stark in those crypts.
She then told him about how her Lorathi assassin had been at Winterfell. He was dumbfounded.
“There was an assassin in Winterfell?” he roared.
“There were two,” she sniggered.
“He could have killed anyone!”
“No one’s turned up dead.”
“What did he say?”
“That I was still impatient and undisciplined.”
They also began sparring together. Most days he’d let her win, although she’d swear she won on her own merits. Most mornings Rickon would join them, boasting to everyone how his siblings were the best warriors in the North.
As for their couplings, they had to learn to be creative. Arya refused to do anything anywhere near weirwood swearing Bran could see them or near Shaggy because then Rickon might see them. She didn’t even trust their own wolves saying Bran could be warging into them without their knowledge.
And to his despair and her amusement, little Branda followed her everywhere. She had a wooden sword made and wore it on her waist just like Arya. She’d tell anyone who asked, or didn’t ask depending on how she felt, that she was an assistant to the castellan of Winterfell. The already confident girl Arya took under her wing blossomed to be even more underfoot than Arya ever was.
Arya also began consulting him more on the running of the castle and began to involve him more in her work at Winter Town, asking him to help her hand out alms and teach some of her new lessons. She decided people should learn how to read their letters and do their sums too. And whenever they had spare time he’d help her plan for her progress, telling her who she should trust and who she shouldn’t even though he knew she could read people better than he did.
Women would bring any thieves, rapers or abusers directly to Winterfell and she would assure everyone who came that her brother, Bran, was even more just than her and that his wife, Meera, was a warrior and healer in her own right.
During this time she got a raven from Bear Island congratulating her for all her work with women. Lady Mormont reminded her that Bear Island had been doing this very thing for generations.
There is a carving on our gate, the letter said, of a woman in a bearskin, with a child in one arm suckling at her breast. In the other hand, she holds a battleaxe.
The letter delighted Arya beyond measure and her delight was infectious. He was proud of her. And she had been doing the things the woman Lady Mormont described herself over the past few weeks, bar the suckling part but if he had anything to do with that it wouldn’t be long before she did have a child in her arms. Her wolf was already swollen with pups. The only thing that prevented him from swelling her was the fact they weren’t married. But it wouldn’t be long before that came to pass he decided, judging by how open about her feelings she became with him.
He already knew how good a mother she would be by how well she mothered Rickon. If Arya had a touch of the wolf blood, Rickon had nothing but the wolf blood in his veins and yet she managed him with ease. And their wild wolf increasingly resembled the little lord Osha regularly called him.
One day, she found Rickon running around the castle with his wolf instead of being in his lessons with the maester. She pulled him aside, while Jon watched them from the stables.
“Why are you not in your class?” She asked him.
“There’s no point,” he spouted. “They don’t have maesters in Skagos and people are just fine. I just have to learn how to fight and no one will ever bother me!”
“Come sit.” She motioned to a bench in the yard, right in front of where Jon stood. She winked at him which told him she knew he was there the whole time. Why did he think he could sneak up on an assassin?
“You’re right,” she told Rickon, “You’ll be a great warrior. But you also have duties outside of that. You are Bran’s heir and a Stark of Winterfell besides. People will look to you.”
“Until Bran and Meera have a baby.”
“Even if they do, you still have to learn your letters and your sums. One day you will run your own keep and be your brother’s bannerman and if war ever comes, The North will look to a Stark. Bran will be the brains. He may even be the heart but so will you. You will be his legs as well. Your brother will need you, I will need you to protect me, so will the North.”
“You don’t need me!”
“I think I know who I need Rickon. Anyway, if the North is attacked from the South where would you need to fortify to protect the North?”
“The Maester can tell me,” Rickon answered.
“And if something happens to your maester?”
Her little brother remained silent, biting his lip just as she does when she’s deep in thought.
“The right answer is Moat Cailin,” she censured, before telling him the reason why.
“That’s why you have to study history with the maester so you can learn from the lessons of the successes and failures of those who came before you little wolf,” she said, mussing his thick auburn locks.
“Another question,” she added. “Now imagine you’re at war, being the great hero you are, and Bran sends you a letter. How will you know what it says?”
“Someone there can read it for me.”
“But how will you know they’re telling you the truth?”
“I’ll look with my eyes,” Rickon taunted.
“Reading with your own eyes is even better than looking with them, Rickon. That’s why you have to learn your letters so you can be an even better warrior.”
“Now imagine you’re at war. How will you decide where to place your troops?”
“No one is born knowing that either. That’s why you have to study strategy. Did you know Uncle Brynden is famous throughout the seven kingdoms for being one of the greatest knights alive?”
Rickon’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“I’m sure if you ask nicely he can teach you how to use your mind to be an even greater warrior.”
Now, she had Rickon’s full attention.
“One day you’ll have your own keep,” she continued, “People will rely on you for food and provisions. How will you ensure your people don’t go hungry?”
“I’ll go hunting.”
“You told me in Skagos people started running out of food. Sometimes that happens and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. But the Lord of a castle has a duty to do their utmost to ensure they have enough provisions. You will need to know your sums to ensure your people don’t go hungry,” she explained.
“Jon and Bran and I will teach you whatever we remember from Father and along the way you will teach us things we don’t know. With all your teachers you can be one of the greatest warriors to ever live. Wouldn’t you like that?”
Rickon nodded, eagerly.
“Good she said, I’d also like to ask you a favour.”
“What?” he asked suspiciously.
“Nymeria is having pups as you know,” she said. “So I can’t take her with me on the progress. I will need you and Shaggy to protect me. Can you do that?”
“You don’t need my protection,” he said skeptically.
“Everyone needs protection sometimes, Rickon!” she breathed. “So...what do you say, will you get to know the North with me?”
Rickon agreed. And from that day on he did not miss any of his lessons.
As the time she spent in Winter Town increased, she asked Jon to help deal with some of the tasks of the Lord of Winterfell. He was in the solar when the letter arrived.
He dragged Arya out of her infirmary, threw her upon his horse and galloped toward his mother’s laughing tree.
“Read it,” he snapped, throwing the letter at her.
It was from Lady Berena Tallhart to Bran. She was proposing a marriage between her son Beren and Arya. The thought made Jon see red. The boy was pleasant enough but this was his bride.
Arya smirked when she read the letter.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” she announced.
“Look, Arya,” he said, moving to stand in front of her. “I don’t want anyone but you and I trust you do not want anyone else...right?”
She smiled and he was sure she was going to tease him, but instead she nodded.
“So what’s the issue? If it’s being a prince, I’ll give it up. If it’s your history, I don’t care. Just be with me. We’ll choose what we do with our lives. We’ve earned that right many times over. I want to grow old with you. I want to raise children with you,” he confessed, shyly. She smiled at that.
“I want children who look like us. I want wilful daughters like you and Stark sons who love the North. I want to raise them like Father raised us. Please Arya, just say yes. I’ll wage a thousand wars for you if I have to.”
When she nodded, Jon was sure his heart was going to stop. He picked her up and spun her around making her scream before he put her down to put all his gratefulness in a kiss. He looked at his mother’s laughing tree and wondered if she could see him.
Finally, Arya spoke. “I’m not moving to Dragonstone, I’m telling you that now.”
He felt like taunting her. “But what about the Queen?”
She rolled her eyes. “You will need to remind her you are more wolf than dragon. Your home is here with your family.”
“What will you do if she brings down fire and blood on Winterfell?” He teased.
“I suppose I’ll have to remind her that ice burns just easily as fire,” she shrugged.
He looked at her amused. “The Queen is quite fond of her title as the unburnt and her dragons are fire made flesh. Tell me she-wolf, what can you do against that?”
“The winds of winter snuff out even the hottest fires my prince,” she drawled. “As for her dragons if she dares to try and take you from me, I’ll show her what little threat a dragon is to a skin changer.”
As she dragged him down to her for another kiss, Jon decided he loved this possessive Arya the most. Come what may in King’s Landing, his home was in his arms.
It was then that they heard Bran’s voice coming from the tree.