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For Want of a Better King

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What Kind of Life, What Kind of Lady?

Arya

She grew up in the North, closed off from the rest of the world, hidden away. Her father was Lord Ned Stark, Warden of the North, and her own personal hero. To her, and many who met him, he was the most honorable man that ever lived. He was a busy man, running Winterfell, raising her brothers to follow in his footsteps, and so she never saw him as much as she'd like. While he was teaching her brothers archery, sword fighting, proper riding, and hand to hand combat, she was stuck inside studying and learning courtly manners. She studied history and geography harder than any of her other subjects, and could almost picture herself in Bravos, Essos, or Dorne.

She spent most of her formative years with her mother, a stern woman who insisted her daughter be perfect. Arya learned to be a proper young lady, tutored to be courteous, graceful, supportive, submissive, and beautiful. Well, she was taught, but it didn't really sink in. She was pretty, with a heart-shaped face, freckled pink skin, grey eyes, and dark brown hair. They said she would be more beautiful than her mother, and that she took after her aunt, but talk like that always made her uncomfortable. And her mother would quickly change the subject if she was within hearing. Eventually she was told the truth, about the promise made, the one that would eventually bind her to her sickly little cousin in The Vale. She had never met Robyn Arryn, or been to The Vale, but that didn't seem to matter at all. Because of that, she dreaded becoming a woman and receiving her moon's blood. She claimed openly that she hated being a lady, would never marry, and that no power in The Seven Kingdoms could make her.

But, she was a happy child all in all, and couldn't dwell on the future forever. Eventually she figured out how to avoid her lessons and sneak out of unpleasant tasks, usually in favor of spending time with Jon, her favorite brother. Admittedly, she had more freedom than most highborn ladies were allowed, but always to a point. While she could ride horses, she had to ride sidesaddle and she couldn't go anywhere alone. She did it anyway. She was allowed to read, except the more bawdy poetry. She could play in the mud, but only until her clothes got too dirty. Which was always. She could stay up late and sit with the men in the hall, but only until the jokes got too rowdy. She heard quite a bit though.

She grew up stubborn, prone to tantrums, and hopeless at the womanly arts. But she was kind, clever, and treated everyone the same unless given reason otherwise. She was endlessly curious, and never backed down from a challenge if provoked. She could barely sew a basic stitch, let alone embroidery; she couldn't cook, and her High Valyrian was stilted at best. She had a decent singing voice though, was natural on a horse, and was second best only to Bran when it came to climbing. Despite the general disapproval, everyone would laugh upon retellings of her misadventures, in between stuffing roast chicken down her throat and gulping great mouthfuls of the ale she'd stolen from her brothers' cups.

She ate with her family and was watched like a hawk by her septa. Maester Luwin taught the siblings the important subjects; always from a different perspective, encouraging his students to put clues together and make their own conclusions. He singled out Robb a lot, which made sense because he would be Lord of Winterfell, but he was quite impressed with Arya and challenged her when he could. Theon usually said something stupid or gross, which had no bearing on the conversation. And Jon when he spoke, which wasn't often, was very insightful.

She had fun exploring Winterfell, reading, teasing and tickling Bran, playing with the direwolves, and following Robb and Theon around. Whenever she saw her father, he'd have a warm smile for her, ask her about her day, andlaugh at her antics. She loved him dearly, but she always felt he was more distant with her than her brothers.

But most often, she was with Jon. With Jon, she could talk about all the adventures she wanted to go on, all the things she wanted to experience. They made up new stories, some of which they would go on together, pretending to be brave knights, rangers, dragon riders, witches, and wildlings.

Her mother didn't approve. Well, she didn't approve of anything Arya did. But all ties with Jon were met with a deep scowl.

The day she finally received her moon's blood, a month before her thirteenth year; everything changed.

Catelyn, on a rare emotional outpouring, confided in her only daughter.

"So many men. Everywhere I look. But only one daughter. When I first had you, I knew the Gods had finally answered my prayers. Don't get me wrong, I love my boys, and thank all that will listen for their health and happiness, but a daughter. You are my blood, the only one who can understand... It's a heavy burden, I know. But I love you no less." That was the moment she felt closest to her mother. It would also be one of the last.

She saw her brothers practicing with wooden swords out through the window, and snuck out to watch. She couldn't run as fast with her dress, but she made it over in record time. Suddenly Jon and Theon started fighting, with Robb waiting nearby. And it was over quickly, not more than a minute after she arrived, Theon was flat on his back, with Jon breathing heavily from exertion and anger, his back tensed.

"Jon?" She looked to him and touched his arm, he relaxed slightly. Robb helped Theon up.

"For fucksake! I didn't mean nothing." Theon said, rubbing blood from his nose. "Can't you take a joke?"

"Relax, Jon. He's not saying anything that isn't true." Robb stated amiably. At that, she could guess exactly what the fight had been about. Jon ran off as he usually did, and Arya trudged after, but not before giving the other boys a reproachful look that actually looked a bit like Catelyn.

He had run to the Weirwood, it's where one or the other usually ended up when upset.

Once inside, she immediately felt the holiness of the ground, how ancient everything was. There was power here, omniscience.

He looked up when he saw her enter, then away. She sat down beside him.

"Robb was right, you really do get too sensitive about it." She said, but thought better of the tack as soon as she said it.

"What would he know about it? Or Theon? Or you?" And he wouldn't look at her, the same grey eyes staring at some invisible point on the ground.

"Nothing. But I don't see what the big deal is. It doesn't matter a whit to me. The only person bothered by your being a bastard, is you."

"Really? You think Lady Catelyn isn't bothered by me?"

"Well." She had noticed her mother's attitude towards him and found it unfair, how could the woman be so warm to her own children, and sweet kind Jon simply an annoyance? "Father loves you, just the same as Robb and Bran."

"That's not true." He says and kicks a pebble with his boot.

"Well, he loves you a hell of a lot more than Theon, so there's that." He laughs at that.

"Stop trying to make me feel better." He says, a hint of a smile remaining on his face.

"I won't then. I'll tell you how stupid you were for getting into a fight with Theon of all people. You're better than that. I mean at least pick someone who is more a challenge. Me, for example."

"If I fought you, little sister, I would surely lose." His smile is bigger. "I kicked his ass though."

"You did." She agrees with a smile. "Hey, maybe you broke his nose permanently." And they both laugh to imagine it.

He says he's ready to go back and apologize, but she opts to stay there, enjoying the peace of the Weirwood, liking the sensation of protection. It would all be ripped away that very night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The Sept

Arya

Now that Arya was a woman, officially, she was to be sent off to The Sept of the Seven, a sisterhood of women devoted to the New Gods, shunning all contact with men, and a safe haven for girls. While her mother claimed it was for her own good, to give her perspective, to force grace and modesty into her, she suspected it was a punishment. An attempt to break her.

Her mother still followed The Seven, but The Starks held to the Old Gods. Furthermore, Arya resented being forced to do anything against her will, and felt nervous to leave the sanctuary of her homeland. She threw a fit, the likes of which none of them had ever seen. But Catelyn held firm. There were tearful goodbyes, promises to write weekly, and general dismay. Nymeria was not allowed to come, a travesty as far as Arya was concerned. Worst of all, Jon refused to come wish her a proper goodbye, sulking in the Godswood instead. That was the first time her heart broke. All in all, it felt to Arya like a death sentence.

But there was one upside; she would have the chance to spend time alone with her father, who would see her there safely; learning about his past, and connecting with him the way her brothers did on hunts and important duties. On the road, she wasn't a daughter he had to keep at a distance; she was like any other of his sons. And for this trip alone, no one would criticize her for slouching or leaving her hair uncombed.

Whenever they settled for the night, she watched her father and his men start the fire and clean rabbits for supper. After a few nights of watching, she was allowed to help, under his supervision, receiving advice here and there. They heard a few far-off howls in the night, wolves from deep in the woods. The guards tensed, but not the Starks, they only smiled at each other. She was enjoying the trip immensely, and told her father so.

"I think I like sleeping out on the road. The sky is so big, and it smells so green."

"I'm glad you're here with me sweet girl, I will miss you." As she looked into his large grey eyes, eyes like her own, she saw how sad he looked.

Arya wrapped her arm around his shoulder.

"Then don't make me go. Bring me back. Tell mother I'm better off in Winterfell." She pleads. Her father only sighs.

"You don't understand, Arya. I don't want to send you away any more than you want to go. But your mother is right. It's different for girls. Harder in a way. You have to learn that somehow, some way. The Gods know I can't stomach it. If it were up to me I'd let you run around filthy through the woods. But it's not the way of things. We all have our duties, our responsibilities. I've mine as well. Just, try to make the best of it, yeah."

And she doesn't argue with him again, not wanting to ruin the fragile perspective they'd just gained on one another. There was no point in fighting. She knew too that most likely, when she'd served her time at The Sept, she'd be shipped off to her cousin in The Vale. This could be her last free moment as a Stark. Winterfell well and truly behind her.

Parting from her father was tearless, determined to show him her strength and not have him remember her as a weak child. /he hugged her close, wished her well, and left her there.

In the Sept, there was women everywhere the eye could see, dressed in white habits, all hair covered, each intent on their tasks, busy ants put to work.

They put her to work, scrubbing floors at first. She took too long. Then, helping in the kitchens, where she found she couldn't cook anything passable, and the laundry where she turned a few dozen white habits gray. The Sisters didn't scold her; they just came up with new tasks for her. Next, taking care of the orphan girls, given her education. She loved the girls, and managed the patience to teach them reading, and music, but she found it difficult to instruct them in their prayers, the words not wanting to move past her lips. Try as she might, she couldn't make herself believe in their teachings, and had to fake sentiment at mass. These were not The Gods of her father. The Head Sister noticed, and suggested another task.

Once she proved herself willing, they let her help with the midwifery. She began by watching, all the blood and screaming. When she didn't faint or run off, they deemed her able. Then they let her feel around, pointing out different aspects, asking for observations. They brought out powders, teas, and salves and had her smell each then demonstrate their uses; warn her away from certain poisons, laxatives, and hallucinogens. She saw death and miracles alike. Anyone can die, there is no curse or secret, no way to tell who or when. Some women came to undo their pregnancy; the Sisters said it was far preferable to the woman accidentally killing herself. She learned the secrets of herbs and elixirs for preventing a baby, all the while being lectured about the consequences of lying with men. Those pitiful women's faces swearing that he'd promised forever, the sorrow of giving the baby away or worse when there were complications. She was a Lady, expected to remain pure until her wedding, she would never think of ruining her family's honor for a moment's mistake. She couldn't see how these women could be so stupid either, but she was only thirteen, and just barely flowered.

Actually, despite its intent as a punishment, she quite liked her time there. She was meant to have disobedience beat out of her, and she did learn obedience, but not the way her mother wanted. The work was grueling, but rewarding, and not exactly what Arya would call lady-like.

Around the age of fourteen, news from the capital rocked Westeros. It even made its way to The Sept. The place was abuzz with talk of The Hand's death. Jon Arryn, her father's friend, her betrothed's own father. There was much speculation as to the means. It was said he was poisoned, but the next question was why.

Though she couldn't care less about any of that when she learned the last part of the news; Ned Stark was named to take his place.

The Sisters gave her a choice, to stay on amongst them, rising through the ranks, and perhaps become head of their order one day; or involve herself in the problems of The Realm. While terrifying, she loved the idea of it being her own choice.

In the end, she chose to go help her father. Many of the girls cried, and a few of the sisters said it was a shame. Part of it was about honor, upholding a family promise, but Arya felt the Sept was not for her. She couldn't hear the New Gods speaking to her, calling her to their service. So off she went, putting up a brave front of the perfectly schooled lady her mother hoped she had become. But knowing, she never would be.

The sisters had quite a taste for wine, so she didn't have to wait long for an entourage. She hitched a ride with some merchants passing through. They thought she was an actual sister, and she didn't disabuse them of that error. As a young lady, it was not safe on the road, but as a holy sister; she was afforded respect and a fair amount of distance. The men were from everywhere in the seven kingdoms, and some from across the sea. They told her of their lives, and she almost felt as though she had lived them. So many adventures locked away in her head, and she meant to live all of them. What was it about the road that was always so freeing? She felt different outside the walls of Winterfell and The Sept, and people treated her differently too.

Though she felt nervous to enter the viper's nest that was the capital, she knew her father needed her. If Lord Arryn was murdered, the next Hand might not be far behind. Something was telling her to go too, voices. She might have imagined it to be the Sacred Seven speaking to her, as the Sister's sometimes claimed, but no. All that time in the Holy Sept, and she'd felt nothing, not one divine touch. And now, she felt a tangible pull directing her South to King's Landing. The Old Gods had plans for her, and she would listen.

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Chapter 3: Court Life

Arya

The Gates were looming and suffocating, and the air inside was stifling. After over a week on horseback and making camp on the road, she was ready for civilization. Crowds of people wandered this way and that, stopping to look at pieces of jewelry or a vase. Shouts erupted in Lysian, and colorfully dressed boys did flips and jumps to the applause of a few. It smelled of spices baking in the sun, and piss and shit as well. She couldn't breathe, and flicked her eyes in every direction, memorizing every detail to include in her report back to Winterfell.

The entire court came out to greet the small retinue, minus the merchants. Somehow they knew about her arrival. The palace was impressive, you could almost imagine how every stone was placed, how many people it took to build, how many years. King Robert Baratheon was at the front of all. He was big and fat and black bearded. She didn't find him terribly impressive with his tunic stretched so tight over his belly and the way he mostly waddled when he walked. But he was huge, and he was laughing as he embraced her father joyfully, so she decided he couldn't be so bad.

The Queen was beautiful, blonde, tall, and delicate. She looked the picture of regality, with a look of boredom and distaste upon her lovely features. Arya thought that anyone who worried so much about proving themselves with fine silks and jewels probably wasn't spending enough time doing things that were actually important. Her own mother always looked nice, but she didn't have to try so hard.

The Prince was next; he took after his mother in looks as well as temperament, despite his medium height. It was obvious he didn't want to be there, and had a sneer on his fine face. Yes, he was handsome, but in a fragile way. She grew bored quickly, and continued her perusal.

Ser Jamie Lannister, the Queen's brother and famed warrior cut quite a dashing figure, he seemed more a King than Robert, but clearly she knew far too little about royals and what use they were.

The other Lannister was quite fascinating, little and disproportionate, eyes mismatched, and hair even lighter than his siblings, practically white. He however had good cheer and smiled at all present, seemingly enjoying the sweltering heat.

Lady Catelyn had picked out the perfect dress for the occasion; black for mourning, and Arya herself had done a simple braid in response to the sweat on her neck.

After a proper warm greeting from her father, it was Arya's turn to be introduced. Arya executed a curtsy the way her mother had drilled into her, and gave a respectful "It is an honor, Your Grace."

The King stared at her, jaw hanging open. She was unsure if she'd done something wrong. She looked to her father for answers, but he just shook his head sadly.

"Lyanna." The King muttered hauntedly, looking through her more than at her.

"No, it's Arya, Your Grace."

The King shakes himself out of it, breaks his gaze away, and demands that her father come to a small council meeting immediately.

The Queen and Prince showed them the proper respect as well and exchanged pleasantries, but they were over quickly. Ser Jamie kept silent, and the imp, Lord Tyrion, came around and formally introduced himself to her, bowing theatrically, and amorously kissed her hand, commenting on how she was a truly striking beauty and how all of King's Landing was sure to be enchanted with her. She smiled and thanked him sincerely, though couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the flattery. She remembered her mother's words, and the faces of those women desperate to undo past mistakes.

After being shown her room, Arya bathed and dressed with the help of a serving girl. She wouldn't shut up about the Queen's outfit and the handsome prince, but she couldn't find it in her to tell her to shut up, instead remarking that she would prefer to dress herself and dismissing the talkative thing.

The feast, which Arya had been looking forward to, ended up being a tense affair. The King flirted shamelessly with kitchen maids and whores alike, all within view of his Queen, making lewd comments to her father, who japed back, but was clearly uncomfortable. A Lady Arya didn't recognize tried to engage the Queen in small talk, but made no progress. Arya found herself between the Lannister brothers, she didn't get the chance to speak much, but listened intently to their stories and good-natured ribbing. They acted the way she did with her own brothers, and it made her truly homesick for the first time. She thought about what she would be doing in Winterfell at that moment, perhaps wrestling with the direwolves with Bran, stealing lemon tarts with Winterfell's ward, or captive depending on whom you asked, Theon Greyjoy. Or most likely she would have snuck out to go explore with Jon. She missed him terribly already.

She was interrupted from her musings by the Queen.

"You look lovely, my dear. Your hair is so much nicer now." The Queen remarked, obviously a bit drunk. The serving girl the Queen insisted on had done Arya's hair the same way as the Queen. Of course she'd like it.

"Thank you, your Grace."

"Truly you are quite pretty. My husband seems to think so." She took another drink from her goblet and gestured with her eyes to the King. Sure enough, the King was looking her way, but then got distracted once more by the dark haired prostitute wriggling on his lap.

"I don't invite his attention, Your Grace, nor is it welcome." Arya decided to be blunt.

The Queen chuckled and nearly spit out her wine, but didn't get one spot on her light green dress.

"Oh, of that I've no doubt. But that's hardly the point. We women are often blamed for the things men do. And we are most certainly the ones to pay the consequences." The Queen daintily wiped the wine off her chin with a table cloth.

"Yes, I take your meaning." Arya tread carefully. She received a shrewd look in response.

"Do you? Have you flowered yet?"

"Yes, Your Grace."

"And yet you are not yet wed. Perhaps you could yet marry my son." The Queen raises one perfect eyebrow in question.

"I am betrothed to my cousin Robyn Arryn, Lord of the Vale, but the wedding will wait until we are both old enough." She had never been gladder in her life for the arrangement with her cousin.

"A pity. A cousin is it? You will only get lovelier, and it will only make things worse. You'll see." The Queen switched to water and began chatting once more with the unidentified noble woman.

Arya took that as her cue, searched out her father's eye, and made a motion to signify her intent to leave. Lord Stark nodded his consent, mouthed goodnight, and returned his attention to the King.

Arya inconspicuously pulled out her chair and made her way to the exit. Before she could return to her room, someone blocked her path.

"Ah, My Lady, would you leave so soon, we've hardly had a chance to speak." Prince Joffrey smiled at her.

"My Prince. I'm sorry but I really am very tired, maybe a bit too much wine?" She had had only one cup, but he didn't know that.

"Ha ha ha. Women really shouldn't drink, they haven't the strength for it." She pretended to agree and tried to continue on her way.

"I would think it more a matter of wisdom than strength, My Prince, something men and women alike may easily lack."

He grabbed her hand and squeezed hard, much harder than necessary.

"Well, I suppose so, in their own way, women have their own kind of intelligence." She smiled in a way she hoped didn't convey her true disgust at his 'Princely Manners'.

He brought the hand he had not let go of to his lips and kissed her deeply on her pulse point, making her want more than anything to pull her hand back.

"As you say. Goodnight, My Prince."

His soft soft lips and flowery perfume made her feel as though she were choking on feathers. She managed to get her hand free only to have a guard take it instead, leading her to her chambers. The Prince was polite and well polished, but she had no idea what lay beneath. She would rather keep it far away from her. As he had looked up at her with sparkling green eyes, eyes like his mother's, she was reminded of Maester Luwin's whispered warning, 'The Red Keep is a nest of vipers.' He certainly seemed more a snake than a lion, even with the bright yellow hair.

She suddenly realized how lonely this place would be, and made a vow to help her father in any way possible.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Court Life Continued

 

Arya

 

The capital. The fierce fortress, once home to dragons, center of all Westerosi life. Peacocks prancing around, having lavish dinners, speaking in riddles, sick games, the false alliances, the betrayals, and the perversity had taught Arya more than she ever wanted to know about human nature, about what men were capable of. It was like pretending, playing the part of the Queen, that got her through.

 

She spent the first few months stuck in the Red Keep, sitting in on lessons with Tommen and Myrcella, sneaking in to see her father when she could, watching the Kingsguard practice in the yard from a secure hiding place, and trying to sneak out and explore the city. They kept close watch on her though, so she couldn’t manage.

 

She did look around the castle, the library, battlements, towers, the drawbridge, and even a few hidden passages. She did her best to avoid the Queen, never saw the King, and luckily the Prince seemed preoccupied and so was completely uninterested in her apart from intimidating her that first night. Her father was always busy, in meetings with one lord or another, or meeting with petitioners, merchants, masons, sailors, or whoever else sought the King’s ear and got the Hand’s instead. This was quite fortuitous for the honest men, but the deceitful ones were disappointed with his rulings. She was impressed with his fair hand, the way he listened closely to both sides of an argument, explaining his decree clearly complete with reasons. Even when Arya was not sure if she agreed with his ruling, she admired the calm, confident way he delivered the edict.

 

Maester Pycelle was nothing like Maester Luwin, he was old and he acted old. He spoke too slowly and with too much pomp, Arya found it hard to pay attention to what he was saying, and even harder to take him seriously.

 

Renly was her favorite, he was good-natured like Tyrion, but was handsome in a way that made you want to be around him. No one disliked him, except maybe his own brother the King.

 

Varys was unsettling, she heard talk about how his balls were chopped off amongst the soldiers in the yard, and spent way too much time trying to picture it. Everyone said he was sneaky and untrustworthy, and Arya found that to be true. He usually spoke to people in such a way as to make them feel naïve, ignorant, and outmatched. But he had a tone of respect that seemed genuine when conversing with her Lord Stark, and she appreciated that. Any man who saw the Northerner’s worth was worth something in her book.

 

Lord Baelish, or Littlefinger, was an old friend of her mother’s, and always smiled and doted on her when he saw her. He shared rumors about people at court, and the game for her was figuring out which statements were true and which were lies. He was small, unassuming, and always backed down from every confrontation, but he also had too much pride, and kept score of every little slight leveled against him. He was always happy to see her, a glowing look would enter his face, and she was reminded of a musician in the Vale who also paid her too much attention.

 

One day she was up in the Tower of the Hand, but she had to wait because Lord Stark was meeting with Maester Pycelle. Her uncle looked pleased to see her, and motioned her to come in and wait. Pycelle seemed reluctant to speak in her presence, though Ned insisted.

 

“Yes, quite a tome. I can’t imagine why he would bother with such a thing.” He spread a book out on the desk.

 

“Thank you Maester, you can go now.” He dismissed Pycelle, and they were alone.

 

“Is that… Did Lord Arryn read that book?” She tried to sound only mildly curious, while inside she was more than interested.

 

A History of the Great Houses: a Genealogy of the Great Houses

 

What a monster of a book, and so boring. Names, hair, skin color, eyes; lists of physical characteristics to mark each line. The Targaryans marrying brother and sister, the Lannisters, The Baratheons, what could he have wanted with that?

 

“According to Pycelle. I’ve no idea why though.” Curious.

 

A few days later she went again to visit her father, only to find he had gone down to the city with Jory, and no one knew why. She took the time to read the book still laid open, reading about her own line, Stark and Tully. Lord Eddard seemed to be looking at the Baratheon line. She went into a trance reading the monotonous writing, black hair, blue eyes, black hair, blue eyes, black hair…

 

Her concentration was broken by the arrival of a man in black. He was weathered, rough, with a scruffy black and gray beard and shifty eyes. The guard announced him as Yoren from the Night’s Watch. Upon seeing the girl in the Hand’s place, the guard looked unsure how to proceed.

 

“I’ve a need to speak with the Hand of the King.” Yoren said.

 

“He’s away, but will return shortly. You may leave us.” She directed toward the guard. He bowed and left, and the crow looked at her strangely.

 

“You Stark’s girl?” He asked.

 

“Yes, how did you?”

“You remind me of him.”

 

“I look like him. Everyone says.”

 

“No, not just in looks, per se. You got that same look a sizing people up. Smart but not sos you got to prove it right away, like.”

 

“You're friends then?”

 

“Aye. I come once a year to pick up new recruits from the wall, and me and Ned laugh over a pint.” He smiled in remembrance. Once a year.  She was jealous of their connection, and felt a bit guilty for it.

 

“Is that what you need, more men to take the black? I’m sure my father will…”

 

“Aye, I need more men. But that’s not all. I’ve news. There’s Wildlings organizing, planning a run for the wall. The Kingdom needs to know.” Wildlings? It gave her pause.

 

“And. Excuse me, but might you know any of the new recruits? Do you happen to know a Jon Snow? Is he alright?” She hadn’t intended to ask, but when he began describing the situation at the Wall, she was worried.

 

It took a while, but eventually Jon had written back. He apologized for being a craven on her departure, and said he’d miss her for all time. She thought that was a sweet if strange sentiment until she read the rest, he had decided to join the Night’s Watch. He said he would be a ranger like their uncle Benjen, and that he hoped one day to see each other again, though he doubted it. She was sad for him and his choice, knowing her own mother had had a hand in his decision, but not until now had she really felt worried.

 

“Ah, Jon. Yes, he’s a right good lad. Doing fine. Fighting circles around the others.” She was proud of him for that, but not surprised.

 

“Good. Thank you. Oh, I’m sorry. Can I get you anything? Water, wine, food…”

 

“No girl, thanks just the same. It’s the men I’ll be needing.” She thought about leaving a note for her father, or perhaps even staying around to wait, but then had a better idea.

 

“You’ll have your men, I’ll see to it personally.” She told him with utmost conviction. He was silent for a time, and then nodded his head.

 

“Thank you, m’lady. I’m happy to continue a long-standing tradition with the Starks.”

 

He left, not inviting her for a pint, and she smiled. Blood was so important in Westeros; most were defined by their family lines or lack thereof. She was a Stark, and to have someone see that, to trust her as capable, she felt a new world of possibility open up, one she intended to hold onto with all her might. Yes, many had told her she was beautiful, especially since her curves had grown more pronounced, they flattered her while devouring her with their eyes. She didn’t like it; it made her feel naked, small. But the few times someone had noticed her intellect, had commented on it, encouraged it; those were her proud moments. That was how she wanted to be seen. And now it felt almost within her grasp, here of all places.

Chapter Text

The Sewers of Fleabottom

 

Arya

 

She made it a point to go down to the dungeons to inspect the prisoners, claiming it was a mission of goodwill. She came with little breads filled with cheese. Yoren wanted men for the wall, and she would find him some, but she would also check to make sure it was their choice. The guards were skeptical, but allowed her through. It helped that she gave them each some bread as she passed.

 

Some of the prisoners whistled at her and made kissing noises, others loudly exclaimed their desire to ‘fuck the shit out a’ her’ and she was almost sorry she had come. But she promised to undertake this task, and so she would. Lately she’d been doing more and more for her uncle, double checking numbers, proofreading public announcements, and organizing paperwork. And here she was doing legwork, a grand start in the dungeon; she wore a hood to cover her face, but it did not hide her figure.

 

She was nervous, but got down to business. She announced the offer with only a slight shake in her voice- ‘Any man may choose to take the black.’ Some were hesitant but most were anxious to leave the dungeon. She took names, asked backstories, made sure they truly wanted to take the black, and promised to notify and remaining kin if there were any.

 

In the far back were three men. One was missing part of his face, another had teeth that stuck out at odd angles, giving him a rat-like appearance. The third though, he had two toned hair, half white and half red, a darker crimson than her own, with striking eyes, he sat calmly, and introduced himself formally.

 

“This man has the honor of being Jaquen Haq’ar. And what name could possibly come to signify the lovely girl before me?” He asked as he bit into a bread roll.

 

“Arya.” She was put off by his courtesy.

 

“Well lovely girl, it is truly a privilege to gaze upon a face such as yours before being sent off to the icy wall, surrounded by men. And the bread is even warm.” She had forgotten about keeping her hood in place.

 

He was so well spoken. She thought he’d do quite well against Varys, Tyrion or Littlefinger in terms of riddles.

 

“They have good food at the wall. Do you mean to volunteer?” She clarified.

 

“Take the black or they take my head, not much of a choice really. But still a choice.”

 

“Yes, I suppose.” She didn’t ask him any more questions, and left it at that. The other two agreed as well. And while most of the recruits weren’t particularly promising in terms of valor, she had a good number pledged, and was glad to send word to Yoren.

 

That night she was invited to dine with the royals, she was pleased to see her father there as well, she was even seated next to him. For the occasion, she had chosen a dark green dress, the serving girl said it looked very nice with her hair.

 

The King was already mostly drunk, and grumbled about the pressures of the throne. Myrcella picked at her lemon butter trout with braised asparagus, she didn’t like asparagus. The Queen asked her children what they learned in their lessons.

 

“We learned all about the rebellion of The Iron Islands. Why would they even try something so stupid?” Tommen asked, flabbergasted.

 

“They’re impulsive, they lack the appropriate sense of consequence.” Ned remarked.

 

“That’s one way to put it. More balls than brains, is what I say. And that ward of yours, Theon. Is he as cocksure as the rest of them?” The King questions, pieces of something sitting in his beard.

 

“He is cocky, Your Grace, but a good lad. We raised him since he was small. He and Robb are like brothers.”

 

“Like we were?”

 

“No, no two boys could get in as much trouble as we did.” The King laughed heartily at that.

 

“You met the boy, didn’t you girl? What did you think?” The King directed the conversation towards her.

 

“I don’t think he’s dangerous. He’s not cruel, just stupid. I would imagine that would make for ineffectual rebellions.” Ned smiles over at her for their shared assessment.

 

“I heard an interesting rumor about you today, My Lady. They say you went down to visit the dungeons.” Queen Cersei interjects.

 

“Is this true?” Prince Joffrey asks. Arya panics internally, one wrong word and they can forbid her from any further involvement. She doesn’t want to lose her newfound responsibility and purpose.

 

“What in the Seven Hells were you doing down there for?” The King bellows. Things are going down hill.

 

“She was completing a task for me. I asked her to help out with the recruitment list for the Night’s Watch. She’s been a great asset.” Her father asserts.

 

“Well I won’t have this sweet young creature exposed to such horrors, you will find a suitable replacement, I trust.” The Prince orders, focusing on the Hand in the last.

 

“Of course My Prince.” Ned agrees.

 

“Of course.” Arya repeats, but inside is irritated. She had been pleasantly surprised when her father had covered for her, even though she hadn’t expressly asked his permission, and she was going behind his back.

 

At the end of the meal, Arya made a point of following her father, she meant to thank him despite the outcome.

 

“Father. I, thank you for your quick thinking. I know I should have spoken with you about…”

 

“Nonsense. I saw how perfectly you wrote the ledgers, the care and detail you included, you’re doing very well, I’m thankful to have one less thing on my plate. I was hoping you might continue with the work.” She is taken aback.

 

“Of course, but what about the Prince?”

 

“Don’t worry about him too much. He’s not king yet, or maybe ever.”

 

Arya looks around suspiciously, checking for possible ears. He probably hadn’t meant it, but such words were treason.

 

“Be careful, Father. People are always listening. Did you know Varys has at least five spies amongst the kitchen staff alone?”

 

“And where’d you hear that?”

 

“From Littlefinger. He says Varys knows everything before you do. He might have told the Prince.”

 

“I doubt it. The Eunuch is the one who told me about your extra activities, he seemed impressed. If anything, I’d be more worried about Lord Baelish.” She agreed with him on that.

 

“I’m sure they all know. I’ll just have to be more discreet.” She smiles.

 

“Aye. Perhaps you can take care of a few more things for me, here and there. You’ve a head for numbers. I just don’t think one can do all this. I’ve even more respect for Lord Arryn than ever before, I’m not so sure he was actually human. Would you mind? Taking on even more responsibilities?”

 

“No Father, I would not mind.” And for the first time she doesn’t imagine a happy ending in Winterfell, but instead, a pin of the Hand of the King on her breast. The first woman to hold such a position, one not based on marriage, and she could imagine girls across the kingdoms wondering if they too could one day be in the same place.

 


 

She hadn’t seen her father in a few days. She was starting to wonder if he was avoiding her, though of course he was just busy. And so was she. There was a particularly nasty backup in the sewers near Flea Bottom, and she had been coming up with proposals, and was going to give a presentation on sewer schematics. Except when she got there, he was already flying down the stairs, in a hurry somewhere.

 

Out the door he went, and Arya followed him, determined to give that presentation. She was not going to throw hours of planning down the drain. She laughed out loud at her own joke. She stayed back just far enough to follow, but out of sight. When they reached a brothel, Arya was shocked. Not to be misunderstood, she had nothing against whores, and she had become somewhat desensitized to them from being around King Robert. But Ned Stark? She thought him the most honorable man she’d ever known. She decided she wouldn’t tell her mother though, or anybody. Men.

 

Just then, a hand grabbed her, the other wrapping around to cover her mouth. She was dragged out of sight to behind the brothel. She kicked and screamed and bit, and she prayed to the Gods.

 

“For fucksake, girl!” The hands released her, and she came face to face with Ser Jory, Lord Stark’s most trusted guard.

 

“Why did you have to grab me?” She straightens out her dress and bends to pick up the maps she’d dropped.

 

“Well what were you doing following us girl? You’re not any good at it you know, didn’t even try to be cautious. I saw you leagues back.”

 

“What? I was definitely being sneaky.” He tsks through his teeth.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“I wish to speak with my father. Perhaps I’ll wait.” He expels air out his nose in a huff.

 

“No, you won’t. This ain’t no place for you.”

 

She sits down against the wall. Jory shakes his head and says ‘fuck it.’

 

Ned Stark emerges soon after, and is surprised to see her there. He doesn’t look guilty exactly, but he does seem cautious. She loses the nerve to scold him or ask him and instead says.

 

“I wanted to talk to you about a new sewer system.”

 

“Love, it’s not what you think.”

 

“It’s none of my business.”

 

“I swear it.” He says it with such conviction that she instantly believes him. “It’s to do with something else, never you mind.”

 

“Does this have anything to do with the Genealogy Book?”

 

“What? How?” He sighs. “This could be dangerous, stay out of it alright?” And he kisses her brow. “Let’s get back to the castle.” She pulls out of his hold.

 

“I think I’ll remain here, the blockage isn’t far from here, I’ll check it out myself.”

 

“Blockage?”

 

“Yes, the sewers. Remember? I was supposed to present you with some possible solutions to the problem.”

 

“Ah, yes, well. I’m a bit busy at the moment. Maybe tonight, or tomorrow then.” And he’s in a hurry to get away. No one cares about the sewers.

 

“Of course.”

 

She does go to the sewer blockage, but doesn’t really come up with any magical solutions, she’s too busy pondering her father’s secretive behavior. Lord Tyrion said Lord Arryn had been acting the same way before the end. She did believe him. And both were looking at that book. She couldn’t actually go in the brothel, if she did all of King’s Landing would know about it. The Hand could explain away his presence, but she could not. She wouldn’t push her father, she respected him too much, and didn’t want anything to strain their relationship. She knew drawing attention to the brothel would shed a spotlight on him as well, she would stay silent. Though she was disappointed he couldn’t trust her. But, if her father knew, then chances were Varys would know, and Littlefinger as well. An hour later, she emerged from the sewers completely filthy and ready to return to the Keep, with the intent to dig harder.

 

Author’s Note: Next Chapter- More intrigue, and hopefully Arya will figure this mystery out.

Chapter Text

Arya

A Hard Won Truth

 

Arya

 

When she emerged from the sewers covered in grime and human filth, she found a good many people watching the spectacle of her ascent. She asked a few some specifics on the issue; how long there had been a problem, if they had any possible solutions, and so on. Some ignored her, dismissing her immediately, a few even looked at her with scorn, however one older man answered her questions thoughtfully, and when she thanked him, he thanked her. And while she was frustrated with her lack of a solution, and her father’s secrets, she felt her efforts had been appreciated, and so headed back for the castle in lighter spirits, the odor wafting off of her notwithstanding.

 

Before being able to clean up however, she came across Queen Cersei, and cursed her appearance and timing. The Queen took one look at her, choked a bit in disgust, and quickened her pace in her direction, purple robes brushing the surface of the fine palace tiles, leaving the guards to scurry after her.

 

“What is this?” She hisses at Arya, not standing too close, and careful not to touch her, she places an ivory hand delicately to her nose.

 

“An accident, Your Majesty.” Best not to go into too much detail.

 

She sighs before saying, “This is unacceptable.”

 

 “I apologize, Your Majesty, I didn’t mean to offend. I was just on my way to clean myself up.”

 

“Clean yourself up from what, may I ask?” Though obviously she may ask, and has. Of course she expects an answer as well.

 

“I fell in some mud. It was really rather unfortunate.” The Queen raises a single eyebrow in disbelief. Maybe Jory was right; she really wasn’t very good at this.

 

“You, do not smell like mud.” The Queen points out, red bow lips pursed in annoyance.

 

“Well, I’m not sure it was mud.” She’s sure it isn’t.

 

She sighs, as though deeply pained. “Arya, this is about more than just today. You never seem to put enough effort into your appearance. Are you satisfied being merely plain? You have so much more potential than that.” It’s meant as a compliment, or so she thinks, though she does not take it that way. She has to dig her nails into her palm to keep herself from snapping. “You’re very pretty, and as the daughter of The Hand of The King you must keep up a certain image. Do you understand?”

 

“I do, Your Majesty. I apologize for any embarrassment I might have brought upon you or my father.” She crosses her fingers behind her back to offset the utter sincerity she successfully portrays.

 

“Yes well, you must do better. The prettier your smile, the better you bat your lashes, the more enticingly you display your curves, the nicer you smell, the less likely people are to smell the bullshit.” The Queen says without emotion, and goes back the way she came, a gentle practiced sashay in her hips. Arya is left speechless.

 

After a thorough bath, which involved a painful scrubbing, she took greater pains to choose a new dress. She suddenly hated everything she owned. Cersei. She wanted to be angry with the regal woman, but found she could not. She wondered about the validity of her advice. The Queen was far cleverer than she let on; knew how to distract the eye, and say as much as possible without actually saying anything. Did she want to be like that herself? To be false, secretive, ornate? Every woman she’d ever met had told her that was a woman’s strength, that her survival and ‘success,’ depended on it. She’d practiced it, thinking secretly that it would only be temporary, only in public. But the more you pretended, the more real it all became.

 

At the bottom of the bag she found the pair of trousers and a tunic she’d stolen from Bran, hidden so low she had forgotten she had even brought them. Fingering it lovingly, she felt something hard and heavy sequestered inside, folded up tight. Unwrapping it slowly, she felt tears come to her eyes. Inside was a little blade, a dagger, small enough for her hand, easily hidden.

 

“Oh, Jon.” She whispered aloud between her tears, feeling fully for the first time how lost her carefree childhood actually was. How far away Jon, her blood, her family, and her soul really were. The adventures they’d dreamed up together were well and truly dead. To be a lady, she could never be a knight, a dragon rider, or a wildling. No matter what was inside, people would only ever see what was in front of them; a pretty, perfumed idiot.

 

But then she remembered the old man, a few teeth gone from his head, whitish hair wispy and uncombed, thanking her for her efforts, and she gripped the blade tight, tight enough to draw a drop of blood. No, she wouldn’t let her dreams die. And she would see Jon again; she vowed it to The Old Gods and The New by the blood welling up in her palm. And with that she carefully wrapped the blade back up, placed it back in its place, and proceeded to continue getting dressed. She would look pretty, but she would never be an idiot.

 


 

 

No sooner had she crossed the hall than she ran into none other than Lord Petyr Baelish. She was startled, but did not show it.

 

“Ah, Lady Arya, so good to see you this afternoon. You’re looking lovely, pink and fresh.” She found that a strange comment, but didn’t remark on it. The lovely redhead standing a few feet behind him and to the right did roll her eyes however.

 

“Good afternoon Lord Baelish.” She greeted back.

 

“And tell me, what did you get up to this morning?” He asks her, angular eyebrows cocked. But she knows the difference between a genuine question and one where the answer is already known.

 

“I decided to explore more of the city. Really, quite enlightening.” She kept the story as close to the one she told Cersei as possible.

 

“I’m sure. Tell me exactly, where did your ‘explorations’ take you? To the more unsavory parts of the city, or so I’m told.” He wears a little smirk in his well-trimmed beard.

 

“Well, I wouldn’t know. I just started wandering, I didn’t really know my way around.”

 

“Well then please, I urge you to let me know beforehand. I hate the idea of you out and about unescorted. A lovely young girl of noble birth has no place ‘wandering’ about on her own. The capital can be a very dangerous place.” No place, no rights.

 

“I was unharmed, the people were very kind if not overly welcoming.”

 

“It is not only bodily harm I’m referring to My Lady. You might be exposed to the wrong sort. There are some things not meant for eyes such as yours, lovely though they may be.” He goes to brush a strand of hair away from her face, and she tilts her head back out of reach, camouflaging the movement to seem natural.

 

“I thank you very much for your concern, Lord Baelish. I will most definitely let you know should I require an escort in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my father.” She makes to continue walking, but he stops her.

 

“I’m afraid your father isn’t here right now. But I believe I saw him earlier, in an establishment of some ill repute I believe it was. But perhaps I am mistaken.” He knows.

 

“Oh Lord Baelish, I had no idea you frequented such places. But I suppose that would explain your intimate knowledge of said establishments. Well, if you see him there, please tell him his daughter wishes to speak with him.” And with that she scurries off, not giving him a chance to block her again. She passes the pretty red head, dressed not at all conservatively in a silk dress, which accentuates her sinful curves. They lock eyes for a moment, and in that instant Arya recognizes exactly what kind of woman she is, and wonders what kind of man Lord Baelish truly is.


 

She flees to the garden, looking to escape. Ugh, these people. No one ever says what they mean. She wants to be alone, but she also wants to shut her brain off tired of her own company as well. But her mind won’t stop spinning. She takes some comfort in the setting of the sun, the sky beginning to change colors.

 

There are no footsteps, but the swish of cloth of robes alerts her to another’s presence. She doesn’t turn around, but it doesn’t matter, the figure comes to stand beside her.

 

“Good afternoon My Lady, or is it evening?”

 

“Lord Varys.” She says simply. What is it about today? She’d gone weeks without being noticed, and now everyone in the castle was seeking her out. The one person she wanted to talk to was clearly avoiding her, and she felt more alone and frustrated than ever.

 

“Am I intruding My Lady? I do apologize. I just thought we could chat openly.” She snorts at the word openly, but still doesn’t turn to look at him.

 

“The day has been long so far Lord Varys, whatever you wish to ‘openly’ discuss, can it possibly wait?” Her arms are crossed, a classic signal to ward people off.

 

“Yes, I heard.” At this she does look at him, his bald pudgy head completely earnest. “I have ears everywhere.”

 

“You and Lord Baelish both.”

 

“Yes, Littlefinger has his methods as well. But I can assure you, our sources are quite disparate.”

 

“As long as we’re being ‘open’ I must be honest, I don’t feel much like discussing this with you just now. I apologize for my abruptness, but…”

 

“Please do be honest. And I perfectly understand. So for the sake of ‘openness’ I will say that I have heard of your work in the dungeons, and the sewers. Dirty work that. I greatly admire your efforts.”

 

“Are you mocking me?”

 

“Not at all. I’m completely serious. Too many in power have forgotten how to get their hands dirty.”

 

“More than my hands I’m afraid, and not a thing to show for it.”

 

“Oh? I heard the cells are practically picked clean, the highest number of volunteers for The Wall we’ve had in more than a year. That is not nothing.” If he’s trying to flatter her for ulterior purposes, he’s doing an excellent job. He hasn’t mentioned how pretty she is once. She stupidly wants to unburden herself.

 

“The sewers are still clogged.” She admits.

 

“Quite an undertaking for only one person.” He didn’t mention her being a woman. “I hear quite a lot has fallen to you given your father’s extra curricular activities.”

 

“Whatever you’re about to say, don’t. I already know. So if you mean to slander my father’s good name, you can go whisper it in someone else’s ears.” She means to leave, even though the sun is only partially set.

 

“No, no please. Don’t misunderstand me. I never meant to offend you. I know your father well enough to know that he is completely incapable of anything untoward.”

 

“He didn’t. I mean. I know he didn’t. He’s an honorable man.”

 

“I do not doubt it, My Lady.” He clasps his own hands within his long gaping sleeves. “In fact, I know for a fact that he did not dishonor the pristine Stark name.”

 

“What do you know?”

 

“I know Jon Arryn before him visited that very same brothel, that very same ‘business woman,’ that very same child. Lord Arryn was no less honorable than he. Maybe more so, as far as I know he had no bastards running about.” She visibly flinches at the word bastard, and thinks of Jon. The sky is bleeding red and orange now, golden where it meets Blackwater Bay.

 

“Can you get to the point, Lord Varys? I’m extremely tired of riddles. I’m afraid I’ve reached my limit today.” He sighs, but smiles kindly.

 

“Of course, My Lady.” He speaks no further, but does not leave, staying to watch the sunset change again to purples and blues. She has almost completely relaxed, when he speaks again.

 

“Lord Tyrion. He once held the position of Master of Sewers at Casterly Rock. They say the toilets have never flushed better before or since. Perhaps he can shed some light on your little problem.”

 

“Thank you.” She says, surprised.

 

“You are most welcome, My Lady. Perhaps I will see you at dinner.”

 

“I look forward to it.” She says, and means it. She also hopes to see her father as well. The sky turns black before she heads in, rubbing her arms for warmth.


 

A/N: Okay, so she is slowly discovering the mystery and her place in court. She wants to trust her father, but he keeps pushing her away, which plants seeds of doubt. Varys is trying to give her some clues, but he is worried for her should she learn too much. 

Up next- Tyrion, Joffrey, The King, more Ned, more Jaquen, a glimpse of the Smith’s apprentice, and maybe a redheaded prostitute. Then, we’ll probably return to book territory, though it will definitely have a different spin.

 

Chapter Text

A Hard Won Truth Continued

 

Arya

 

She sat down to dinner, wearing a lilac dress that reminded her quite a bit of one of Queen Cersei’s gowns. She even did her hair the way she had seen the servant do it once before. She purposely chose a seat next to Lord Tyrion, hoping to discuss important matters. Unfortunately, on her other side was The Prince, so she could not broach such matters in public. Her father was seated across the table from her, but was so occupied with The King that she hadn’t been able to catch his eye, let alone speak with him. Arya was stuck listening to The Prince describe a particularly brutal sounding hunt he had gone on, though not actively participated in. His favorite part seemed to be the animal’s fear; it’s sense of hopelessness.

 

Oddly enough, it was The King who steered the conversation towards something more acceptable, though no less uncomfortable for her.

 

“Lady Arya, that truly is a lovely color on you.”

 

“Thank you, Your Grace.” She replied politely. The Queen glared daggers at her and Arya played around with her creamy risotto baked in a tiny squash, spiced with paprika and salt. She refused to drop her gaze, however.

 

“Uh, yes. Quite beautiful, in fact.” The Prince remarked, and she could feel his breath against her ear, that’s how closely he was seated.

 

“How old are you now, dear? Fifteen?”

 

“Yes, Your Grace.” She clarifies.

 

“And you’re betrothed, is that right?” The King asks, taking a healthy gulp of his wine, a few drops sticking in his beard. He signals a skinny, feminine looking cup bearer to refill his goblet. The blonde boy/man runs quickly to comply. The King holds out the cup, but never once takes his eyes off her.

 

“She is Your Grace, to Jon Arryn’s boy, Robyn in The Vale.” Wonderful, a reminder she didn’t need.

 

“A shame that is. The Vale? She belongs at court. Look how she’s blossoming here. This is where she belongs.” The King says graciously, but the looks he gives her are not at all welcome.

 

“Ah, well. We gave our word; we can hardly insult The Vale. I made the deal with Jon myself.” Her father says, leaving no room for argument.

 

“But Jon is dead.” The King insists, which causes her father to flinch. “Besides, I heard the boy was a weak little thing. It’s possible he won’t even live that long, am I right?”

 

“Yes, perhaps he will die after all.” The Prince says hopefully, unnaturally pleased at the idea.

 

“Not at all. They say he is in a very stable condition.” Her father explains, barely restraining his anger.

 

“Still, the will of The King is law. I can order her to remain here.” While she might want to be rid of the engagement, she knows enough to worry about The King’s will, especially where she is concerned.

 

“But why would you, Your Grace? Her presence here is only temporary, I will not break a contract written in honor.” Her father insists.

 

“You will not?” Joffrey asks snottily.

 

“And if I do order it? No one could truly complain should she be betrothed to my son instead.” The King suggests. Her eyes and her father’s jump and fix on The King. She feels a clenching in her gut.

 

“Your Grace, I…” Her father begins but is interrupted by Cersei.

 

“What do you think, My Sweet? Would you like the pretty Stark girl as your queen?” She asks Joffrey as though she is offering him a new puppy to play with.

 

“Yes, I think the Lady Arya will be more than adequate.” He answers simply, digging into his saffron chicken pastry.

 

“But you can’t just…” Her father tries again.

 

“Of course I can. I can do whatever the bloody hells I want.” He laughs at his own joke, the table shaking from where his big belly keeps slapping the underside of it.

 

“Our houses can finally be joined, as they were always meant to be. Besides, your daughter would be queen. There is no downside to this, old friend.” Arya suddenly feels as though she can’t breathe, and she wonders idly if she is allergic to anything in the food.

 

“Perhaps the lady does not want to be queen.” Tyrion suggests helpfully.

 

“Nonsense, all women want to be Queen. What else could they hope for, Uncle?” Joffrey asks smugly, pretty pink lips quirked up in a condescending smile.

 

“Not all. Just as not all men desire to be King.” Her father continues.

 

“I know I would not.” Tyrion agrees.

 

“No one would want you as King anyway, little brother. The whole of The Seven Kingdoms would rebel.” The Queen responds unkindly.

 

“True enough. And I myself would lead the rebellion.” Tyrion responds, clever as always. Arya wants to laugh, truly she does, but can’t force in the necessary breath to do so.

 

“What say you girl. Want to be Queen?” And The King is staring right at her, the others as well.

 

“Speak up, girl. This isn’t the time for being timid.” The Queen prompts. Joffrey smirks at her, sure she must be flattered to be chosen by him. And in that instant air rushes back into her lungs and she knows that she would choose anyone, a complete stranger, over this blonde boy who makes her skin crawl.

 

“I would not break an engagement. After all, without honor, we are nothing more than beasts.” She repeats a saying her father has retold many times before.

 

“You bloody Starks and your bloody honor. We shall see, won’t we? I quite like the idea of enjoying First Rights.” Her father nearly chokes on his water at this, and Arya quite loses her appetite.

 

“We will take our leave for the night, Your Grace.” Her father says, not asks.

 

“I haven’t dismissed you yet.” But her father only pulls out her own seat and escorts her out. They leave right before the frozen pomegranate topped with cinnamon cream is served. Once they reach The Tower of The Hand, they sit opposite each other.

 

“Arya…” He starts.

 

“No. Things are getting complicates. It is us against them, Father. Surely you see that now. No more secrets from me if we’re to keep our ‘bloody honor’. Together we’re strong, Starks, of the North; apart we're vulnerable.” She says, more than a little shaken. He notices and takes her into a hug.

 

“You’re right. Very right. Things are spiraling out of control. I’m drowning here. I’m sorry I came, and even more sorry I brought you here, Love.”

 

“I’m not.” He looks at her surprised. “You need me. And I can help. But first, tell me what’s going on.”

 

He sighs, resigned.

 

“I will.” He says. “I promise. But, first I have to be sure. Now don’t look at me like that, I will tell you. Just let me gather more proof and put some insurance into place. I have one more thing to do and then it will be finished. I will tell you everything, and we’ll find some sort of way out.”

 

“For both of us. Right Daddy?”

 

“If I can.” And he kisses her on the forehead and leaves her to herself; presumably back to his office to continue working. After everything, he still hadn’t told her anything. On top of all that, she never got the chance to question Tyrion. She feared for her sanity, her safety, and her father’s very soul. What was this place? Who were these people? She had thought it was a game here, playing pretend, but it was much more sinister than that.

 

She needed to move, to do something, to not feel so helpless. She tried to go out for a walk, but the guards told her she was restricted from exiting the palace at night, for her own safety. Fine. Instead, she went to the dungeons. Seeing the squalid conditions, the hopeless nature of the prisoners, she started to wonder which side of the bars she was actually on. She wasn’t fooled; they had not settled the argument. And if The King wanted her to marry his son, or wanted her for himself, it would be so. There was every chance she could be locked away in The Red Keep, forced to pop out blonde little babies with that annoying little shit.

 

And her father, he’d never been so secretive before. She still believed him when he said he was not frequenting the brothel for his own pleasure, but now she really began to worry that he was into something dangerous. She heard the guard on duty finally come down to complete his rounds and panicked, knowing being found down there would result in even less freedoms.

 

“Psst. Lovely girl.” She looked over. It was the most mysterious prisoner, the one with the red and white hair. The one who’d been polite. Jaquen was his name. “This way.” She did not trust him, and was not about to enter his cell, despite his companions sleeping fitfully within. But he wasn’t suggesting any such thing, he was pointing to the opposite wall. She looked and found a sliver of a stairway, mouthed ‘thank you’ and slipped out. It led of course, deep into the sewers. Irony.

  

Once down there it was very dark, save for torches upon the walls. She kept to the shadows however, and felt herself going round in circles, like a maze. She was hopelessly lost, until she heard voices. She snuck into a dark alcove and waited for them to pass. She heard only a snippet of their conversation, and could barely make sense of it.

 

“Yes, he’s found the book, and the bastards.”

 

“Which ones?”

 

“The one in the brothel, one in the tavern, and the smith.”

 

“And what does he plan to do about it?”

 

“I don’t know. But I doubt he will be successful. It’s his honor which will get him killed.” And they walked on, their whispered conversation cancelled out by the heavy beating of her heart.

 

When she eventually found her way back she had discovered two things.

 

One, she had a new idea on how to solve the sewer problems. She thought a more complicated, maze-like drainage system would more efficiently remove the human waste, and clean up the streets, provided there was fresh water to flush it out. It could even be used to more efficiently disperse drinking and bathing water.

 

She also realized that, yes, her father was in danger. He had discovered a secret. For who else could they be referring to with regards to the honorable man, she knew no other within the castle walls. He’d found the book and the bastards. The brothel, The Tavern, and The Smith. She would look into it on her own tomorrow. And she would make sure her father didn’t get himself killed as she suspected was the fate of poor Jon Arryn before him. While she did doubt herself, she knew failure wasn’t an option. Viper’s Nest indeed.

 


 

A/N- So yes, she figured it out, mostly. Next she will go see Gendry, learn more than she ever wanted to about Joffrey, and make hard sacrifices to try to save her father. Please review so the story can continue on course. I really want to get to her travels with The Night’s Watch.

 

Also, shameless self-advertising. If you’re enjoying this, please take a look at my other story called On the Way There which is also an Arya/Gendry story, though quite different.

Chapter Text

 

Discoveries

 

Arya

 

It was quite late when she reentered her room. But when she did she got a fright, there was someone already there. She heard sniffling and found a pretty young woman huddled in the corner, red eyed, face puffy from tears. Her face was very different due to the tears, but after a few moments, she recognized her. It was the redhead from earlier, the one with Littlefinger. As Arya approached, the girl flinched and visibly rolled herself tighter.

 

“It’s alright. I won’t hurt you.” She tried to console her.

 

“I know. I’m sorry, I just…” Her voice sounded strange, her nostrils were obviously clogged affecting her cadence. Arya grabbed the top sheet from her bed and wrapped it around the girl, who tensed upon feeling the material on her skin. Arya backed away a bit, and the girl clasped the blanket tighter.

 

“It’s alright. I’m Arya.”

 

“I know. The Stark girl.” Her voice was becoming stronger.

 

“And you are?”

 

“Ros. I’m one of Littlefinger’s girls.” One of his girls. She actually worked for him, not just…

 

“Oh."

"And before that, I worked in Wintertown." 

"You're a Northerner?" She nods. Yes, she remembers now. Theon had mentioned a Ros before. "How did you get here? Why are you..."

"Thought it'd be warmer down here. And it is, but..." She trails off, wistful.

"Are you okay? Do you need anything?” She laughs, but there is no humor in it.

 

“I just. I just needed to hide for a little while. I’ll leave, just…” She looks as if she’s about to stand.

 

“No, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” And she relaxes a bit at that.

 

“Thank you, My Lady.”

 

“It’s Arya.” She gets up to pour a glass of water from a pitcher on the nightstand and hands it to the woman.

 

“Thank you, My Lady.” She says as she shakily drinks. She doesn't correct her again.

 

“What happened?” The woman doesn’t answer, just continues to drink.

 

“Whom are you hiding from?” She tries instead. “Littlefinger?” The woman shakes her head, no.

 

“I saw you, ya know?” The woman says suddenly.

 

“Yes. I saw you too. Yesterday.” She says calmly, as if speaking to a frightened child.

 

“No. I saw you outside the brothel, walking past covered in shit.”

 

“Oh, yes, well.”

 

“I didn’t tell Littlefinger. I didn’t tell anyone you had been there.”

 

“Oh. Thank you.” The woman only nods.

 

“Are you hurt?” Arya asks. “Because I can…”

 

“I just, I just need a moment.”

 

“What happened? Tell me. Littlefinger may be the Master of Coin, but my father is The Hand. I’ll protect you.” She violently shakes her red curls.

 

“It’s silly. I’m a whore, I’ve been hurt much worse, but…” She bites her lip and swallows. “The things he made me do. What he wanted. I feel sick.” She finishes off the water. Arya is becoming increasingly alarmed.

 

“Who?” She asks again more sternly. She had no idea Littlefinger was capable of something like this.

 

She only shakes her head. And just like that, Arya feels sick herself. How many times had she passed by him? How many times had he smiled at her or kissed her hand?

 

“Let me see.” Arya requests. Ros refuses. “I spent some time in The Sept of the Seven, I’m not squeamish around blood or women’s issues. Let me see.” And the woman nods. All along her body are bruises; fingerprint shaped, some still red, others already turning blue. There was a tiny sliver of blood on her throat, obviously from the edge of a blade pressed against the delicate flesh. And on her wrists were harsh rope burns. Arya did have to concentrate very hard on not vomiting, though more from intense anger, and perhaps some fear.

 

“It’s okay.” Arya soothes. “We’ll just get you cleaned up, okay? Wait here.”

 

Arya pads to the door to find a servant, she’ll need something to clean the wounds besides water, the rope burns looked particularly painful. By the time she recovered all the necessary supplies, the woman, Ros, was gone. The only evidence of her presence the blanket lying in a heap on the floor. Arya says a silent prayer to The Old Gods and The New to keep the woman from further harm.

 


 

After, she collapsed on the bed and instantly fell asleep. She forgot to close the curtains, and so the rising sun woke her up only a matter of hours later. She couldn’t actually remember her dreams, but she awoke feeling unsettled and trapped.

 

She dressed quickly, but chose her simplest dress; it started out light grey and got darker toward the bottom. Without a painful corset, it didn’t accentuate her curves, but nor did it hide them. The cloak she placed on top hid that. Her hair was put simply in a bun, and she had her most comfortable boots on her feet.

 

She’d been to the brothel already and didn’t fancy running into Littlefinger, and hoped sincerely that Ros had not gone back there. And she had no idea which tavern it could be; there were hundreds in King’s Landing alone, not to mention the outlying provinces. But the smith, she had passed the Street of Steel the other day, and meant to start there.

 

It was early enough that she was almost able to sneak out without incident. The King was on a wild boar hunt, and so most of the palace was out with him. She almost made it without incident, almost.

 

The Hound blocked her path, an imposing figure, burned face set in seriousness.

 

“Where are you going, girl?” He asks, gruff voice startling her. As with most people, Arya was more than a little frightened of the man.

 

“Good day, Ser Clegane. I’m just running an errand for my father. I’ll be back before midday.”

 

“I’m not a knight.” He insists with a slight growl.

 

“Oh, uh, sorry Lord Hound…” He almost cracks a smile at that.

 

“Have a care, girl. Look after yourself.” He says and lets her pass. She is surprised, but nods respectfully, and hurries on.

 

She weaves through the streets and various shops. The smell of heated steel alerts her to the desired street before she actually sees anything. There are almost a dozen shops, and she feels a bit overwhelmed in her search.

 

The first few she walks into are what one would expect from a smithy. The forge is alight, swords and blades line the walls. When they see she is a woman, they ignore her, thinking her not a real customer. It’s at the fifth shop that the man, tall and thin with kind brown eyes, actually pays attention to her, showing her his wares, telling her the prices. She’s not sure what she’s even looking for. This Smith her father had found, the one the voice in the sewers had spoken of. She had no way to find him, and couldn’t ask.

 

“Do you have any sheaths? Something small, for a little blade?” She asks instead.

 

He leads her over to a display case. “How big is it?” He asks.

 

She shows him the size with her hand and he picks something simple for her. It’s very plain, but looks functional enough.

 

“It’s high quality leather, that. You put it on your belt, like this.” He shows her.

 

“How much?” Though she will most likely pay it anyway; she doesn’t really know how to haggle, nor does she have the patience for it. This will be her last stop if she’s to make it back for lunch.

 

“Not much at all. It’s a good deal. That thief Tobho Mott’ll charge you two, three times as much.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, robbery that is. Will you take it?” She agrees and has a little leather sheath, feeling quite glad with her purchase. On impulse she asked about this Tobho Mott’s shop. He pointed her to one of the last shops on the street, and warned her again about the prices, promising discounts. The Smith, the voice had said, maybe that meant the most expensive shop.

 

She didn’t enter, merely looked from across the street. She saw an older man, medium height, with longish salt and pepper hair. There was nothing much special about him, and she was resigned to leave disappointed once again. The sizzle sound of a sword being touched into cool water made her stay put. In the back she could make out a tall outline, large arms and shoulders working steel. It was dark, and she couldn’t see well, but the figure went to stoke the fire higher, and it was then she got a look at him. He was handsome. Only a few years older than herself. He had thick black hair, high cheekbones, and the way he hit the steel spoke of immense strength. He looked up, as though sensing he was being watched, and she ducked behind an alley. But before she had turned completely away, she’d caught a glimpse of his eyes. Bright blue. And she knew. She knew who his father was, whose bastard he was. Is this what her father had been doing? Did the boy know? Most likely not. He was an impressive figure, and as she did the math, she realized he was older than Joffrey. Dangerous indeed.

 

In the alley, she stepped backwards and heard a crunch.

 

“Oye! Watchit, Lady.” There a young redheaded boy with matching freckles was sitting beside a blanket laid out with junk for sale. She’d stepped on a small toy, but not broken it. She gave him a coin for his trouble and made her way back, not wanting to cause any trouble at the palace, already late.

 

 

Back at the gates to The Red Keep, there was a commotion. The few guards standing watch took a bit to convince of her identity, but eventually let her pass, they looked quite flustered.

 

Once safely inside, she learned the reason why. The King had been gravely injured by the boar he was hunting. It was thought he would not survive. The palace was chaos, servants running around like chickens with their heads cut off, barking orders, physicians discussing treatments. On her way past The King’s quarters she saw a serving girl leaving, blood soaked rags in a basket, a slightly green tinge to the girl’s face.

 

“Arya.” She heard from behind her; her father hugged her tightly to his breast and kissed her forehead as he always did, before rushing forward to enter the room. No sooner had the door closed than she heard a bellowing “Out!” and another servant exited, leaving the door ajar, and she snuck in. Why, she was drawn in, she could not say. The room smelled of herbs and decoctions, and the underlying aroma of decay. She knew that smell, metallic and rotten- death.

 

“Ah, Ned. I am glad you’re here. I couldn’t die without a proper goodbye, now could I?”

 

“You won’t die, Your Grace. You’re far too stubborn.” Her father tried to joke but was visibly upset.

 

“Not as stubborn as the boar, it would seem.” And he gave a deep laugh, which ended in a painful cough, the wound in his gut raw and open. “I got the bugger though. I told the kitchen girl to make it into a pie or some such for tonight’s feast. I want everyone eating the fucker that killed their king.” His gaze flew over to Arya herself, and she was startled.

 

“Arya, Love, leave us.” Her father instructed, though not angrily. She made to do just that.

 

“No, girl, stay.” The King ordered, skin and beard soaked in sweat, eyeballs bloodshot, and skin a waxy yellow. And she did, for even despite the wound and his immobility, he was still quite intimidating.

 

Her father looked like he wanted to protest, but held his tongue.

 

“Come closer girl, unless you’re too afraid.”

 

She did.

 

“Brave girl, that one. Not afraid of death.”

 

“You are not going to die, Robert.”

 

“Yes, you are.” She said. And The King laughed again.

 

“See. Honest to a fault, just like Her. Bloody annoying, that.” He makes a noise somewhere between a cough and a moan. “It’s time to settle things isn’t it? You’re The Hand, use one to write this down.” Her father reaches for a quill and parchment, intent but troubled.

 

“At your command, Your Grace.”

 

“No no, none of that. Robert, remember. First, I was wrong about the Targaryan girl. Rescind the order, make it so.” A Targaryan? And a girl? Interesting...

 

“I will, Robert. You do yourself honor.”

 

“Yeah yeah.” He waves the comment away. “And I don’t want the Lannister bitch to have too much power. She’s too glad to see me dead, that look on her face was one of utter relief. Can’t say as I blame her, I was a shit husband. And not much of a king. But she’d be even worse. You’ll need to rule until Joffrey’s old enough. Whenever that is. Maybe never.” Her father looked up for an instant at the name Joffrey but dutifully wrote something down, and Arya realized this meant her father would be as king. He quickly scribes a second copy and has The King sign both documents; he does so without reading them.

 

Her father then reaches for a stick of golden wax, lighting one end, and letting it drip on the parchments. He places it before The King and helps his old friend to press his signet ring into the waxy puddles. A moment later the seals are dry, the documents official, and The King visibly relaxes.

 

“I’m counting on you Ned. You have to fix this bloody kingdom. I’ve made a mess of it. I’m paying for it now though, aren’t I?” Her father reaches for The King’s hand, offering him comfort.

 

“I’ll do what I can, I swear it.” Her father had just sworn an oath; it could not be taken back. A Stark’s vow could never be broken. The King coughed again, clearly in immense pain.

 

“Well, you can start right now. End it, Ned. I don’t want to linger, I’m a warrior, and I want a clean death.” Her father takes his sword in his palm, but hesitates.

 

“I can’t, Robert. I’m sorry.”

 

“Damnit you sentimental fool, don’t leave me like this.” The King demands.

 

Arya comes closer and removes the bandages holding his intestines in their places, releasing a new wave of stench, and letting the blood drip down onto the mattress. As she does, The King sighs in relief, he grabs her hand tight, tighter than she would have thought he was still capable of. He is looking at her, but his eyes have gone glassy, she can’t be sure he is seeing her at all.

 

“Lyanna. Oh my Lyanna. You’ve come to take me, finally. I’m ready, I’ve missed you.” Her father motions her to play along, pleads with her more like.

 

“Robert. Rest now.” She said, as she might have to one of the women at the Sept bleeding out before her. Her father looked shocked, maybe even a little frightened.

 

“Please Lyanna. Say you forgive me for what I’ve become. Say you understand. In my own way, it was for you, all for you.” And just like that, her disgust towards the fat, whoring, drunkard disappeared into pity. What a miserable way to live; holding onto ghosts and poisoning himself with wine and women to meet the dead faster. She hoped she never ended up like that. And just like that, she was sorry for him again.

 

“I… Yes, Robert.” His skin is even paler, and she knows it won’t be long.

 

“Sing to me Lyanna, please.” The request seems strange, even to her, even in this moment. But she does it. She sings “The Night that Ended” a Northern song she knew well about The Battle for The Dawn. She thinks he will like a song about battle, any self-proclaimed warrior would. She sings until his grip goes slack and her father has to keep back tears. She finishes regardless and slips her hand free, moving to the wall to give her father his privacy. Not twenty minutes later, the door slams open and The Queen enters, followed by ten guards.

 

“He’s dead then.” And the guards fan out, surround Lord Stark.

 

“Yes. And he named me Protector of the Realm until his Heir comes of age. He signed this.” Her father says with conviction, holding up one of the documents; the other sitting unmolested and unseen on the table.

 

The Queen looks amused at that.

 

“You think a piece of paper means anything?” She plucks the parchment out of his hand and rips it in two, then four pieces. And for the first time, Lord Stark looks completely lost. It pains her to see her own father look helpless.

 

“What you’ve just done is treason. And worse.” He asserts.

 

Arya casually grabs the other parchment and stuffs it down her bodice, hoping no one will notice the outline of the paper through the fabric.

 

“Now who’s to vouch for you? Your own daughter? Guards, this man is guilty of treason against King Joffrey Baratheon and is to be taken to the dungeons.” She instructs.

 

They grab a hold of him and force him forward.

 

“No!” Arya yells and a single guard steps between her and The Queen. It is at this that The Queen turns her attention to Arya, signaling the guard to step back. Bright green eyes pierce into her, pin her in place, and steal her breath.

 

“What are you doing here exactly?” The Queen asks.

 

“The King requested her, he said she comforted him, reminded him of Lyanna.” The Queen visibly flinches at that.

 

“Of course, I should have known. Take her back to her room, she will be dealt with later.” Ned Stark locks eyes with his daughter, trying to convey love, hope, and caution with a single glance. They roughly drag him from the room, and two more gently escort her back to her chambers, where she finally lets herself breathe, though each intake of breath is erratic and painful.

 

Arya concentrates on getting her breathing under control first, the shallow breaths pushing the sharp edges of the paper into her ribs with each inhale. Oh Father, what do I do? But there is no answer.


 

A/N: Yeah, it went in a totally different direction than I thought. But I like it. Next chapter- Arya will do whatever it takes to save her father, but will her sacrifice prove worth it? Review please.

Chapter Text

A True Sacrifice

 

Arya

 

She stayed in her room like a good girl. Well, actually, The Queen kept her locked away until she had need of the young she-wolf. The servant who brought in her meals, freshened her bath water, and emptied her chamber pot would tell her nothing of her father, or when she could leave her incredibly gilded cell. The first meal was a savory puff pastry of rich herb-encrusted goat cheese and the boar in-question, a Dornish style delicacy. Well, The King had one of his last decrees followed; the very same boar that killed him was not baked into a savory pie. While the intricate combination of spices smelled delicious, it only reminded her of a fetid open wound, guts and viscera exposed to the air.

 

She was actually hungry enough at the next meal, a spinach and cured boar quiche, to eat, but stopped herself. She was determined not to be a model prisoner, to be as difficult as possible. By the creamed artichoke soup with breaded salmon crust came that afternoon, she had already counted how many steps around the perimeter of the room, how many across and diagonal. She even eyeballed the drop to the ground, and deduced that it was far too far; the fall would definitely kill her, or at least break bones. Next she searched the room for possible weapons before remembering the blade Jon had gifted her sitting in the bottom of her bag. What took her the longest was figuring out where to hide the parchment. She would hide it in one place, then think twice, and put it somewhere else. After a bath, she was a hostage not an animal, she realized there was only one safe place, on her person. She ripped out a bone from one of her corsets and hid the paper inside, rolled around a bone, then messily restitching it. She shoved that down by her blade. The one and only time she regretted her lack of feminine skills.

 

By that evening, when a lamb stew was brought, she had to entertain herself by picking out the different herbs used, and their medicinal purposes. She picked out cayenne for reducing inflammation, coriander for intestinal issues, ginger to reduce nausea, mustard to increase circulation, and salt of course. She was glad to know she still remembered something from her time in The Sept. It was delicious, she thought, crying with each spoonful. Her attempts to ignore the fear for her father and her own fate had completely stopped working.

 

The next morning she woke up puffy, sore throated, and looking horrid. She vaguely remembered crying herself to sleep. When she heard her door opening, she assumed it was the servant girl who wouldn’t answer questions or even tell her her name; but instead it was The Queen.

 

Arya scrambled up and tried ineffectually to fix her hair. The Queen enters looking flawless, golden dress, golden jewelry seemingly choking its way up her throat. Her eyes immediately take on that look she only gets when looking at Arya, that of disappointment.

 

“I want to see my father.” Arya says, not bothering with pleasantries any longer.

 

“Your father is well, for now.” Like a fish on a hook.

 

“I want to see him.” She demands.

 

The Queen actually rolls her eyes at her. Rolls her eyes.

 

“We need to have a talk.”

 

“Of course, Your Majesty.” And she sits slowly down on the bed. Let The Queen feel taller, the one in power. The Queen does seem pleased by this and smiles warmly, though Arya feels her blood run cold.

 

“Tell me. Do you know what your father has done?” Arya only shakes her head.

 

“He has betrayed the crown. He went behind The King’s back to undermine our legacy.”

 

“No. Of course not. He loved The King. He would never…”

 

“Shh.” She holds up a hand to silence her. “There is no arguing with facts. His guilt and fate are sealed. The question is, will you join him?” The uncomfortable smile is gone, replaced with a cold stare.

 

“I would never betray my king.” Arya says, carefully.

 

“Were you aware of your father’s scheming? And I will know if you’re lying.” Her jewel eyes piercing.

 

“My father didn’t tell me any specifics of his dealings.” This was true. Her father hadn’t told her anything, what she did know she’d figured out on her own.

 

“I believe you. But it doesn’t really matter either way. What I need to know, is where your loyalties lye in this moment. Your answer is very important, so think carefully.”

 

“I will do whatever you want, say whatever you want me to say… I…”

 

“Enough, calm down, child. That is exactly the right answer. Okay, listen to me, and we can come to a mutually beneficial solution.”

 

“Just, tell me what you want to let my father go free.” She clasps her fingers nervously.

 

“If only it were that simple. But it’s not up to me. Joffrey is King, and he is not pleased with your father’s actions. It’s him you’ll need to convince. Not me.”

 

“As you say.” Though it physically pains her to say it.

 

“You’ll wear this.” And she chooses a green dress from the closet. “He likes this color.” Arya thinks the dress looks like something The Queen would wear, the color reminds her of Lannister eyes, the neckline is low, and it’s tapered at the waist. “You must do your best.” The Queen instructs, fingering Arya’s unkempt hair. “I know you think you’re clever. And you are. But being overly clever isn’t always a good thing. In this instance, I think your other attributes will be better suited, don’t you?”

 

“I… As you say, Your Grace.”

 

And she rolls her eyes at Arya’s simple repeated answer. “Yes yes. I do believe you’ll make a good match for Joff, and a good queen when the time comes.” She is confused at this.

 

“But, Your Grace. I am already betrothed.”

 

“Yes, to your cousin, that sickly thing in The Vale, correct? But this is much more important than some silly promise. You did agree to do ‘as I say,’ correct?” And she raises one perfect brown blonde in question.

 

Arya only nods, feeling her life spinning out of control.

 

“I thought you’d see it my way. Now, my serving girl will get you prepared, you do need quite a lot of work.” And she tsks. “Do something about those bags under her eyes, will you?” She asks the serving girl. “And the redness around her nose.”

 

Cersei leaves looking quite pleased with herself, and the servant girl gets to work. Arya hears The Queen giving orders to the guard outside, “She has free run of the castle, but she may not leave under any circumstances, and the dungeons are restricted.” And Arya feels her heart sink further as the girl rubs lotion into her skin.

 

When the girl finishes her work, panting from her efforts, she proclaims Arya perfect, beautiful. Arya herself can’t bear to look in the mirror.

 

No matter how much she begs, the guard will not allow her to visit her father, too afraid of The Queen to dare disobey.


 So she heads to the gardens first, the fresh air helps her clear her head, and put off the inevitable. She’d meant what she said; she would do whatever was asked of her to keep her father alive; freedom for either father or daughter seemed quite far-fetched at this point. According to The Queen, being too clever would not serve her well in this endeavor, she was inclined to agree. Or at least, the situation required more of it than she currently possessed.

 

The serving girl said she looked perfect, she saw the guard eye her interestedly, and others stare after her as she passed, circling round the gardens. However, that might have to do with all the gossip surrounding her family at the moment. But she could definitely agree on one thing, she would need to use every weapon in her arsenal. The Queen seemed to think her looks could be used in such a way. Her face and figure had seemed more a curse than anything to Arya, but now she would have to rely on them to get what she wanted. She could do this, she had to.

 

Joffrey had quickly moved into The King’s old quarters. She hoped they’d given the place a thorough cleansing first. At the door, waiting outside obediently was The Hound.

 

“Good afternoon, Lord Hound.” He is startled at her greeting, but not at her presence. She thinks she detects the unburned side of his face turn down in a frown.

 

“I’m no lord either.” He says gruffly, but she detects no real malice behind the words.

 

“Well, I don’t know what else to call you.” She explains.

 

He’s silent for an overly long while. “Sandor.”

 

“Very well, Sandor. Would you please let His Majesty know I’m here to see him?” She waits patiently for him to do so, playing absently with the emeralds The Queen had gifted her, smoothing down her dress, but he is frozen.

 

“You don’t want to do this, Milady.”

 

“I don’t believe this is any of your business, just do as I ask.”

 

“This won’t turn out the way you want. I can promise you that.”

 

“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Sandor.”

 

“Milady…” He tries again but she cuts him off by knocking loudly on the door, too afraid she’ll lose her nerve.

 

“What is it?” She hears a whiny voice ask from the other side of the door. Sandor sighs, but opens the door wide.

 

“It’s Arya Stark, Your Grace.” He doesn’t bother to look up from where he’s fiddling in the corner.

 

“Come in.” She does. “And shut the door.” Sandor does with a look of disapproval. Joffrey finally looks up at the sound of the door shutting. He’s dressed to perfection in a crisp black tunic, Baratheon colors, he has on his father’s crown, and his light blonde hair is combed neatly. He is the picture of a handsome prince, if not a king.

 

“My Lady, Arya. What a pleasant surprise.” He looks her over and seems interested in her appearance, letting his gaze linger on her hips and cleavage for quite some time. Arya wastes no time and falls to her knees.

 

“Your Grace, I humbly beg for the life of my father. Whatever his crimes, I’m sure he meant no harm. I only wish him to live, nothing more.” She risks a glance up from her place on the floor to see him smiling widely.

 

“I do appreciate your contrition. However, your father’s crimes are most grievous. Treason is punishable by death.”

 

“No, Your Grace. You’re mistaken. I…” He stands taller at that, an angry furrow to his light brows.

 

“I am not mistaken, and you will not question me!” She looks back at the floor once more.

 

“Of course, Your Grace. I apologize Your Grace.” She feels nauseous, but has nothing in her stomach.

 

“You’re forgiven, I know you’ve been out of the loop recently.” He laughs at his own wit. “So you must not be aware that he has made moves against me, spread vicious lies and sought to overthrow me.”

 

“Of course not, Your Grace.”

 

“Do you think, as King, I can afford to let such heinous slights against my person go unpunished?” It’s then she must make her suggestion.

 

“No, and that’s why I beg of you to punish him accordingly. He should be sent to The Wall in disgrace, with the other criminals.”

 

“The Wall.” He curls his lip in disgust. “I want his head.”

 

“But that would be so obvious, and short-term. A lifetime on The Wall would mean eternal punishment. And it would mean a lot to me, as your future Queen.” As she awaits his answer, she worries she won’t be able to hear is response over the sound of her blood pumping in her ears.

 

“Queen? That sounds like my mother’s meddling.”

 

“It was her idea. However, at dinner the other evening, you expressed interest in such a match.” She reasons.

 

“True, but that was more to make my father happy more than anything. But he’s dead now. What he thinks no longer matters. Marrying The Traitor’s daughter seems a mistake.” For an instant, she can see The King’s rotting corpse lying on the mattress. “And honestly, you’re not my type. A bit too plain, no matter how you truss it up.” He gestures to her disinterestedly. A part of her is incredibly relieved, but she can’t think only of herself.

 

“Please, Your Majesty. I will do anything, anything to see this set right. Just tell me what you want from me.”

 

“I don’t know if you’re pretty enough to marry, but you’ll do for a more base purpose.” She swallows the gasp threatening to escape. In the back of her mind, she thought it might come to this, though she still felt unprepared.

 

“Your Majesty, I am from a proud house. What you’re suggesting…”

 

“You did say, anything.” A sickly grin is plastered on his face. Clearly he enjoys her dilemma, the wait.

 

She knows she can say no, it’s part of his fun, for her to choose her own ruination. What choice did she have? Her father’s life was on the line, and it was such a little thing. One piece of her really. She wouldn't even miss it, just a tiny piece of skin between her legs. And on the bright side, she’d never have to marry her cousin, the invalid. Perhaps she’d be sent home in disgrace, never to marry anyone. Though people would know, they’d look at her like she was broken, and they might even be right.

 

She was reasonably sure that her father would not want this, would advise her against it. But she couldn’t let him die, she would never be able to live with herself, never be able to look at herself in the mirror. Well, she doubted she would be able to either way.

 

The last light of day falls below the horizon, one last beam gleaming off something in the corner. The ring. Hmmm. Just because she was giving in in this moment, didn’t mean the fight would be over. She would sacrifice now, and fulfill Stark promises later.

 

“And you’ll pardon my father?” She asks.

 

“I will give him mercy, as you requested. But you must complete your side of the bargain.”

 

“It's a deal then.” She says, and swallows. The wicked look he was sporting engulfs his entire face, and Arya knows fear. She regrets the decision as soon as she’s made it. But it is far too late now.

Chapter Text

A Useless Sacrifice

 

Arya

 

It was done. Throughout, she had tried her hardest to let her mind wander, to be somewhere else. But then he’d do something particularly painful or degrading, and she was brought right back into the moment. Every thrust, every bruising grip, every painful twist and awkward angle; she felt it all. All the while he had such a delighted grin on his face, he enjoyed her pain immensely. At first, she had been determined not to cry out, but she couldn’t help it. It only spurred him on. He was careful though; he left no marks, except for the fingerprint shaped bruises he left behind, but nowhere visible. He made sure of that.

 

She slowly picks up her clothes, Joffrey lying back on the bed contented. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the glint of metal in the corner; the signet ring. She quickly stuffs it down by her breasts without his noticing. He is boneless and relaxed, eyeing her awkward ritual of dressing and creeping towards the door amused. He stays blessedly silent, undoubtedly enjoying her discomfort and shame.

 

She opens the door to see The Hound waiting for her. Joffrey calls to him, but he shuts the door behind her. She’s too numb to look him in the eye, too distant to try to take in the empathy and pity on his badly burned face.

 

“Come along now, Little Lady. I’ll see you back to your room.” He reaches for her elbow but she pulls away. He understands and simply walks forward, slowly enough to allow her to follow. She puts one foot in front of the other, but would never have found her way back without guidance.

 

“There you go now, we’re here.” He says gently.

 

“Thank you Sandor.” She says emotionlessly. She simply can’t bring up any feeling now. One would lead to another, and she’d never be able to process it. He looks as though he wants to say more, but keeps his mouth shut. She enters her room before he can muster the courage to say anything more.

 

Her room looks different than before, like it belongs to someone else. Or she’s someone else. That must be it. Everything has a darker sheen, feels farther away, less real. It all smells less vibrant, feels less solid, and seems out of time, displaced.

 

In a daze, she strips off her dress, letting it fall to the floor. She washes off her skin with a wet cloth, scrubbing until her skin turns red and she’s satisfied that she’s as clean as she’ll ever be. She puts on another dress, not even bothering to look at which.

 

A knock on the door startles her, makes her want to run and hide in the corner.

 

“My Lady. It’s me.” She recognizes the voice of Ros immediately, but still hesitates in opening the door. She opens it and stands back against the wall, out of sight of the open door.

 

Taking in her slight shaking and inability to meet her gaze, Ros quickly closes the door behind her.

 

“Oh, My Lady…” She coos piteously. When Arya doesn’t respond, Ros immediately starts tending to her.

 

“It will be alright, My Lady. I promise, over time, it will seem less real.”

 

Arya looks at her disbelieving, but says nothing. She doesn’t want to be talking about this.

 

“What are you doing here, Ros?” She straightens up at that.

 

“Varys sent me.” She knew it.

 

“What? Why?” Ros hesitates.

 

“He knows.” She says, not needing to ask.

 

“He knows everything.” Ros agrees.

 

“Just him, or does everyone know?” Ros doesn’t answer.

 

“He visited your father in the dungeons, he says Lord Stark is well and unharmed.” Arya breathes out a sigh of relief, nodding her head in thanks for the information.

 

“I should have told you about him before. I let you think it was Lord Baelish, but, I never thought…”

 

“It wouldn’t have mattered. I would have done it anyway.” Arya answers honestly. “It’ll be worth it.” But she is telling herself more than Ros.

 

When Ros gives her tea, she absently smells it out of habit. Moon tea. She gratefully gulps it down, uncaring at the way it burns going down her throat. Ros gives her another full pouch of the preventative herbs with instructions to take some every six hours for the next few days, but not to take too much. She didn’t pay much attention though, already knowing about measurements and dosages.

 

Instead she imagines her father walking chained under Yoren’s care, named a traitor, but alive. He would join Jon at The Wall; he would be back in the bosom of The North. And while Arya may never again get to see him, perhaps her mother and brothers could visit him often. She could imagine the look of relief and sadness on his face as he’s pardoned, perhaps understanding what she’d done. She would feel shame, but he would be safe, that was all that mattered.

 

She feels Ros’ stare, and realizes she’s been silent for a long while.

 

“Thank you, Ros, for the tea. And thank Lord Varys as well.”

 

“I wanted to come. You were kind to me, I volunteered.” She says genuinely, lashes lowered.

 

“I do appreciate it, I just…” And she can’t put it into words. The way nothing matters the way it should, the way she keeps wondering if she will ever feel anything deeply ever again, or if she even wants to.

 

“I understand, My Lady.” She says with a small smile. And of course, she does understand, better than anyone else ever could.

 

“Call me Arya.”

 

“I don’t think I can do that, My Lady.” Arya nods in understanding, unsurprised.

 

“And you, Ros. How have you been?”

 

“I…” Ros swallows deeply.

 

“What is it?”

 

“It’s nothing, just… it’s nothing to do with you. Never you mind. You’ve enough to worry over.”

 

“No, please. Tell me. I might prefer a distraction.” She tries to make her voice sound appropriately concerned.

 

“Well. There’s a woman at the brothel, she had a baby girl, Barra was her name. Beautiful little thing, a full head of dark hair, pretty blue eyes, hardly ever cried. Some soldiers came in yesterday, they killed her, took her right from her mother’s arms. Why would they do such a thing? She was just a baby. And the mother, she can’t stop crying.” Ros gets choked up at this. Arya sees things more clearly.

 

“Have there been any other strange murders?” She inquires.

 

“Yes.” She responds surprised. “A tavern as well. How did you know?” Arya gets a churning in her gut, knowing exactly what it means. The bastards are dead. And she does feel; sadness and guilt, especially when she thinks about a boy, strong cheekbones, covered in soot, blue eyes glinting in the light of the forge.

 

“Just a guess.” She says, not wanting to put the caring whore in any more danger. She lets Ros help her finish getting ready, knowing she needs to look perfect for the upcoming trial, Joffrey will want her pretty, and she wants her father and the people to know she’s strong and unbroken.

 

 

It seems all of King’s Landing has come out to watch the spectacle- The Hand of the King, a great lord from a great house, tried for treason, chained, cowed, dirty, but still proud. She feels her heart will burst with how much she loves him, the strength radiating off of him. She takes in every detail- longish hair peppered with gray, the wrinkles around his eyes, the strong set of his jaw; every inch a Stark.

 

Joffrey is eating up the attention, the power. Some people can only feel strong by making others look weak, she tells herself. Joffrey grins at her with his perfect white teeth, and she can’t believe she thought even for a moment that he was handsome. She wants only to punch him in the face, wring his neck. But she must get through today first.

 

“Lord Eddard Stark, former Hand of the King, is charged with treason against King Joffrey Baratheon and House Lannister. How does he plead?”

 

Lord Stark swallows before making eye contact with his daughter. She nods in encouragement, a small forced smile to help him along.

 

“I plead guilty, Your Grace, and deeply regret my hateful actions. I am ashamed and humbly beg your forgiveness. I ask to join The Night’s Watch.” She can only imagine how much it must pain him to speak those falsehoods; no Stark would ever surrender easily. Empty words would be stuck in the throat, painful to dislodge. But he’d done it, and from the way his gaze locked with hers, she suspected it was for her benefit.

 

“I promised My Lady I would show mercy. And I shall. A quick death, painless, no need to draw it out. Ser Ilyn Payne, would you do the honors.” Joffrey orders.

 

Lord Stark is led to the block, Ser Ilyn stepping towards him menacingly.

 

“No.” Arya whispers. Then louder. “No!” She jumps forward but is restrained by The Hound. “No!” She screams again.

 

“Hold still girl. There’s nothing you can do.” He rasps in her ear. She can smell a few days worth of dirt on his skin.

 

Her father kneels before the block, steady and sure. He doesn’t flinch or shake, doesn’t protest or plead. Ser Ilyn brings down the blade, quick and precise.

 

“No!” She keeps screaming, until her voice runs out and her arms turn numb from where Sandor holds her back.

 

His head falls to the ground, bounces once, twice, and then rolls a few feet from where she stands. She fights harder to be free, eyes near blinded with salt water, but still Sandor won’t let her go. Her father’s eyes seem to stare into her, dead eyes looking into hers and not letting go. Finally the world gives out and her vision turns black, she drops down like a puppet with its strings cut into blissful oblivion.

 

 

She awakes to a cool cloth being applied to her forehead. Slowly, her surroundings come to her. She’s back in her room, thirsty and disoriented. She has no idea how much time has passed, but she knows one thing for sure- her father is dead, she hadn’t saved him. She’d sacrificed all she had, and it had all been for nothing. She wished very much that she could go back into that dark abyss from which she’d awoken.

 

It takes her even longer to recognize who is applying the cold compress, and another few minutes to believe it. Lord Petyr Baelish is near the bottom of the list of people she would expect to see.

 

Once it settles in, she pulls herself up into a sitting position, stopping him from touching her further. His perfectly trimmed goatee pulling into a frown.

 

“Woah, woah. Easy, there. Don’t push yourself.”

 

“Why are you in my room?”

 

“I was worried about you. You’ve been through something quite traumatic. I do care about what happens to you, Arya.” He says, stroking the ends of her hair lovingly.

 

“Please leave. I’d rather be alone just now, Lord Baelish.” He sighs, disappointed but not deterred.

 

“I can’t do that. They want you downstairs for dinner.” A panicked hand clasps her gut.

 

“No. I can’t.”

 

“You must, My Lady. They expect it of you. You must prove your loyalty.” She feels herself sniffling but doesn’t cry.

 

“Why do you care? You said you do care, right?” She looks at him suspiciously.

 

“I cared for your mother once. Did she tell you that?” He seems very concerned with her answer.

 

“No.” He looks utterly disappointed. “But I’ve heard. They say you were in love with her.” He looks away at that, but not embarrassed.

 

“That was a long time ago. Did anyone ever tell you, you look like her?” She’s startled at that.

 

“No. People always say I look like my…” She can’t say it.

 

“You do though. Not the eyes, or the shape of your face. But you have a few strands of her lovely hair within the brown. And you’re growing into her shape.” She ignores his observation.

 

“I can’t go down there.” She reiterates.

 

“But you must. Just get through tonight.”

 

“And how long until I can go home?” She asks.

 

“Oh Dear, he’ll never let you go. Not that he’s found a new pretty toy to torture.”

 

“So you know. Does everyone know?”

 

“Well I know. And I’d imagine Varys does too. Most likely The Queen knows much, but not all.”

 

“I’m stuck here then, in this Hell.” She murmurs, though not to him.

 

“Perhaps not. I could help you, if you but trust me child.” His fingers find their way from her hair to her shoulder, the touch all too intimate in a way she could now recognize for what it was.

 

“Help me how? Why?” She inquires.

 

“Something could be arranged. And as to why… Some might think you ruined. I would say you are newly ripe.” She swallows at this, uncomfortable.

 

“I must get ready. Please leave me to do so.” She’s being cold. And she knows it. But while she’s apprehensive about what is to come, she cannot bring herself to trust Littlefinger, she recognizes what his gaze means.

 

“Of course, My Lady. I look forward to our next meeting.” He kisses her hand and exits. She cannot bring her blade, so she must use her other weapons. She puts on her black mourning dress, the one she wore upon her arrival. But she dresses it up with jewels, mimics the hairstyle she’s seen the handmaidens complete a dozen times, lines her eyes with kohl, and her lips with berry stain. They won’t see her weak, she won’t cower and hide, she won’t weep in their presence. They want a broken toy to further shatter; they’ll find a vicious wolf that bites back.

 

 

The dinner is a grand affair, in honor of Joffrey’s triumph over his betrayers, his swift justice and his deep wisdom, so remarkable for such a young king. She immediately feels ill, but holds it back with a sickening smile, bordering on crazy.

 

She makes a grand entrance, fearless and cold as winter, dying inside. They all look up at her, shocked at her raised chin and defiantly icy eyes. They expected a mess, which made her even more determined to keep her pain at bay. Joffrey looks pleased at the chance to taunt her; The Queen looks particularly surprised at her proud posture.

 

It is Tyrion Lannister who bids her sit beside him. She would be grateful for the gesture, if she weren’t all too aware of his Lannister heritage. She says nothing as she sits beside him, though he smiles at her kindly, filling her glass with fine Arbor wine. She drinks deeply, wanting bravery and composure. She does so before ‘The King’ and receives uncomfortable looks in response.

 

“To the Valiant King, eradicator of injustice and rightful heir to the throne. Long live King Joffrey.” Maester Pycelle toasts. There is a chorus of ‘here, here’ and everyone sips from their goblets. Arya has not stopped her gulping and continues long after the others. She receives more strange looks, and stares each of them down in turn.

 

The other lords take turns congratulating Joffrey, and out of the corner of her eye she seems him soaking up the praise, pleased with himself, retelling the details of her own father’s beheading that very morning. She drinks more.

 

“I am truly sorry for your loss, My Lady. Lord Stark was an honorable man, Westeros is a poorer land without his presence.” Tyrion says in all sincerity, mismatched eyes earnestly burning into her. She takes a moment, and another half goblet of wine, to respond.

 

“Oh yes? I’m sure you did everything you could to stop it.” She says sarcastically. The Imp has the grace to look ashamed.

 

“I’m afraid my word has little sway around here. As little as my stature.” He responds.

 

“Oh I’m so sorry, Lord Tyrion. Is it my pity you seek? I’m afraid I’ve none to give just now.” She knows somewhere in the back of her mind that her harsh words are misplaced, but he is the safest and closest target at the moment.

 

“No my Dear, you’ve no need to assert yourself. Hate me all you like if it please you. I don’t mind really.” She can’t decide whether to be pleased or feel guilty, so instead she feels nothing.

 

She drinks more, but doesn’t touch her roasted chicken in orange sauce. Nor the honeyed lemon rolls with ginger and sesame seeds. She does continue to drink, unfortunately, ending up quite drunk.

 

After the dessert and the accolades had finished, Joffrey grew bored, and decided to turn his attentions to Arya, an assured source of amusement.

 

“My Lady.” He says, directing his attention to Arya. “You seem to be quite enjoying your wine. Not hungry I take it?” At this he laughs at his own joke, a few others laughing along with him like mindless sycophants.

 

“I suppose not. Perhaps I don’t care for chickens.” She says pointedly. Some of the others stop laughing, but Joffrey obviously doesn’t get it.

 

“Well, we’ll have to get you something more to your liking. I can’t have you getting sick, My Lady.”

 

“I’m surprised you’re so concerned for my well being.” She says. “I would think it would be quite convenient for you if the Traitor’s daughter starved to death.” She intones bitterly.

 

Joffrey obviously senses the venom behind her words and looks at her with malice. Tyrion puts his hand lightly atop hers in warning, she flinches away.

 

“I believe you to be innocent of any wrongdoing My Lady. But perhaps I am mistaken. Do you have anything you wish to confess?” He asks.

 

“No, Your Grace. Do you?” There are a few gasps, and she becomes aware of just how much she’s had to drink. She can’t seem to bite her tongue, and doesn’t want to.

 

“How dare you speak to Your King in such a manner. Retract your question immediately.” He demands, a petulant child.

 

“Of course, Your Grace. After all, we all know the answer.” A servant actually drops their tray at this.

 

“How dare you. What exactly are you accusing me of?” And his pale nostrils flare out at this.

 

“Nothing. The girl is clearly grief stricken and has drunk too much on an empty stomach. Ignore her.” Tyrion attempts to clear the air.

 

“Quiet, Imp.” Joffrey orders. “Now, explain yourself, My Lady.” He demands with a snarl.

 

Now Arya does know she should be quiet, but can’t seem to help herself. She had intended to sit quietly and bite her tongue, but the wine had loosened her lips.

 

“Only that your idea of mercy seems to be lacking.”

 

“That’s enough. Get the girl to bed.” The Queen bellows.

 

“Or perhaps you misunderstood your place here. You hold no sway, you do not tell me what my words mean.”

 

“I understand the confusion, you say one thing and do another. How can anyone take you at your word?” She says placing her cup down ungracefully, staring right at Joffrey.

 

“You name me a liar?! It’s not my fault you chose to hear what suits you.” His fury transitions to a smirk. The battle suddenly loses all subtext. “Perhaps I could teach you to listen better. I have found there is only one real way to get my point across. Hound.” He calls. “Hold the Lady.”

 

Everyone gasps at this, clearly uncomfortable with where this is certainly going, but no one says anything.

 

“I will not.” The Hound says.

 

“What was that, Dog? I said…”

 

“Aye, I heard you well enough. But I don’t strong arm ladies.” He growls. In her drunken state it seems particularly poignant that out of all the fine lords and ladies in attendance, it’s The Hound who has scruples.

 

Not wanting to show his surprise at the clear disobedience, he switches tactics. “Ser Meryn, then.”

 

“As you say, Your Grace.” Ser Meryn has no problem following orders; he grabs her roughly and pulls her up, her chair falling over from the force. Joffrey walks over to look her in the eye.

 

“Now, what was that you were saying, My Lady?” He raises one eyebrow, smugly confident that she will retract her statement and beg his forgiveness. And she should, but she can’t.

 

“I said you have no honor, and it seems you’ve killed the last man in Westeros who does.” His satisfied smirk falls, and he motions to Ser Meryn, a gesture that looks practiced and well-used.

 

Ser Meryn releases her only to strike her sharply in the face. Arya had never been hit before, and ‘The Knight’s’ steel gauntlet came at her so hard she fell to the ground, grabbing the edge of the tablecloth and causing a few random pieces of silverware to scatter to the floor loudly. The sting was nothing she could have prepared for, the whole right side of her face a pulsing mess. She can’t find her balance, and is utterly disoriented. She thinks she may hear protestations, chairs being pushed out, and servants scrambling to clean, but she’s not sure of anything just now. But she supposes that the pain should be even worse; the drink must be numbing it some.

 

After a few moments, Joffrey’s pleased face swims into view in front of her. “Ser Meryn, do be so kind as to help the Lady up.” He instructs. Ser Meryn goes to do so, but The Queen steps in instead.

 

“Joffrey, My Sweet, if you damage the girl too much the people will see it.” She reasons in a pleasant tone, her crystal earrings jingling.

 

“Let them see. Let them see what treason in any form will grant you.” He speaks quickly, sexually excited, the way he’d been when he’d taken her last night. Maybe more so.

 

“And so you have, her face will swell and turn colors, and remain so for quite some time. Any further and you may break something, causing permanent damage.” Jaime Lannister interrupts.

 

“Well, we can’t have that. Very well, let her get pretty again, then we’ll start all over.”

 

Jaime helps her up gently and guides her back to her room, pity plain on his lovely features.

 

“I’m sorry My Lady. If there is anything…” She shuts the door in his face.

 

The first thing she does upon entering her room is to ingest more moon tea, taking a bit more than necessary, the nauseating idea of a Lannister in her belly making it difficult to keep the tea down. She finds it difficult to get her jaw to work, the flesh and jaw both tender and stiff. She looks in the mirror and sees that Ser Jaime was right; the skin is puffing out around her eye and the corner of her mouth, already red. She finds it ugly, and gains a sick satisfaction from the thought; she’s not so pretty now. She tries to take in every color, every nuance forming, but her swollen eye makes it difficult.

 

An idea from her days at the Sept sends her to her bag to retrieve the dagger. With a steadier hand than she would have thought she still possessed, she makes a small cut below her eye and presses hard with a cloth to allow the built up fluid to leak out, removing the swelling so she can see properly. There will be a scar, and she is glad for it. She grips the knife tight, pretending the slowly warming steel is the warm hand of her brother comforting her. It’s then she notices an inscription, something she’d missed in her first perusal. It says- ‘To protect you, when I cannot.’

 

“No one can protect me.” She whispers into the quiet air of the room. “Oh, Jon.”

 

The only thing she wants in that moment is to see him, she knows she’ll never feel safe again until she does. Not here. Not in this ‘Viper’s Nest’ as Maester Luwin rightfully called it. But he was so far, so very very far. They’d never let her leave, never give her peace, never let her be. Their promises meant nothing and their threats were understatements. She could trust no one, even those would help her were too cowardly to do so. And they were all Southerners, not her own people. The only one…

 

Yoren. The Watch. The Wall. Jon. If she could get there…

 

But how? So far, so dangerous. And she was too recognizable, a girl, alone. But if she could do it…

 

The blade was now the temperature of her own skin, it almost felt a part of her flesh. She could do it. And with that, a plan was forming, one she was determined to carry out.

Chapter Text

Just One of the Recruits

 

Arya

 

It wasn’t hard to find the means of her escape. She knew the dungeons and the sewers, she knew the schedule of the guards, and she knew the shadows. It was the other part that she found difficult. She told no one, not sure who to trust. She gathered very few supplies- the rest of the herbs, a large ruby from her mourning necklace, so red it was almost black, the blade of course, and the official document and ring.  She dressed in her dark pants and tunic, covered all with a hood, and slunk down in the dead of night to the secret passage she’d found before, well, the intriguing prisoner had shown her. It was only when she was in the pitch black of the sewers, prepared to break into the depths of Flea Bottom that she came across her first real obstacle.

 

Why did she hesitate to cut her hair? It was such a silly thing. After everything, all the risks, all the planning, all the steps; but it felt like she was truly giving up herself. Her hair had been with her from the first. She tried to tell herself it was worth it, for her life, for her family’s honor, but still she couldn’t. It wasn’t until she rationalized it would make her less beautiful, that no one would look at her with lust again, that she sprang to action. She cut, well mostly sawed, and hacked at her hair in uneven clumps, shaving her head near bald in some spots. It even hurt a bit, but pain meant almost nothing to her now. She couldn’t quite see the tresses fall into the muck, but she knew they had fallen. Binding her chest was suffocating, but the effect of her shirt lying flat was worth it. Next, she rolled around in the mud, dirtying up her brother’s fine clothes in an attempt to disguise their good quality. She dipped her boots as well, and kicked them against the walls to scuff them as best she could. She meant to pass for a pauper, an abused orphan boy, dirty, poor, lost.

 

She wandered for a bit. More of a need to than because she was actually lost. She would be glad to be out of King’s Landing. She had tried to help the people, in her way, and failed. All that mattered was getting out of the city unseen, the last avenue the royals would expect. She couldn’t quite predict how long it would be until they noticed her absence and came looking for her, or if they would. But she knew she would have to be the opposite of herself. A poor recruit from the Night’s Watch was as far from being a disgraced lady as she could imagine. And Yoren, the kind crow who had treated her with respect, was headed North.

 

As she came upon the group of recruits, she was a little concerned someone might recognize her. She’d kept her hood up when visiting the dungeons, and her breasts were bound painfully tight now, but a part of her still worried. But no one looked twice at her; a dirty, stinky young boy, skinny and of average height. The pouch that held all her valuables she kept in her crotch, it felt strange, but had the added benefit of the appearance of a decent appendage. She thought it could only help her position.

 

She recognized some from the dungeon, and was careful not to look any of them in the eye. But there were more, making it a rather large group, twenty she counted, which she was quite thankful for. Her eyes landed on Yoren, and she felt something in her gut settle. She stared for longer than she should have, but eventually he gazed back at her. His face showed surprise briefly, then a nod, before he turned away. She calmed further, Yoren knew, and he knew not to draw too much attention her way. She felt she had made the right choice. Still, she was anxious to exit the city walls. She would feel much safer away from the Lannisters. Past that, well, she really couldn’t think that far ahead.

 

She noticed two boys approaching out of the corner of her eye; they looked a bit younger, but quite a bit bigger. One was rather fat, the other blonde and fair, with greenish hands.

 

“Oye! Boy.” The fat one says. It takes her a moment to realize he’s speaking to her. She doesn’t respond, not even sure if her voice will work. Also, she’s concerned about how it will sound.

 

“Hey, we’re talking to you, boy.” She ignores the other one too. The fat one bumps into her, hard, knocking her over.

 

“He can’t hear too good, I think. Look, he’s got a blade. What’s a gutter rat like you doin’ with a blade?” Still, she doesn’t respond, even as they push her about.

 

“Maybe he’s a squire.”

 

“He ain’t no squire, he looks like a girl.” She starts to panic, but tries hard not to let it show.

 

“Let’s have a look, then.” The blonde one suggests, and the fat one shoves her over.

 

“I could use fine steel like that. Give it ‘ere.”

 

“Youse better give it boy. He’s killed before.”

 

“Aye. I’ve kicked a boy to death. I’ll kick you to death.” She’s pondering the embarrassment of dying here, now, by this lot. “Give it me.” And he reaches for it. By an instinct, which she can’t quite place, she pulls out the steel and points it at his fat belly.

 

“Don’t test me. I will gut you. I don’t mind. I might even like it.” She might. The terrified look on his face brings her a kind of sick satisfaction. She wonders if this is what Joffrey must have felt. She has the power. She wants to see him bleed a bit. She hasn’t stuck him yet, but with each step he takes one backwards, until they run into a hard surface. A brick wall almost, but no, it’s a man. No, it’s a boy.

 

“You like picking on the li’l ones do you? I’ve been hammering an anvil these past ten years, when I hit that steel, it sings.” He has a dangerous look. “You gonna sing when I hit you?” He asks. The fat boy stumbles away, about ready to piss his pants. He turns his gaze to her, and she has to clench her jaw to stop from gasping. Those eyes. He’s alive. She doesn’t know whether to praise the Gods or to curse them. Indirectly, he’d caused her father’s death. And in this moment, she wants nothing to do with him.

 

“Alright?” He asks. This makes her angry. How dare he ask that? How dare he make her feel weak? How dare he have those eyes?

 

“Fine.” She says testily.

 

“Don’t get mixed up with them lot.” He warns, looking at her strangely, greasy black hair hanging over his eyes. She knows why the others fled. She can see his muscles rippling, the leather vest he’s wearing missing sleeves.

 

“They started it.” She explains, trying her best to emulate a deeper tone.

 

“Well, be careful, yeah.” Why did he help her, what does he want? His kind blue eyes only remind her of what he’s indirectly taken from her, so she just says.

 

“I can take care of myself.” It’s more a growl than anything, and she storms off, putting the blade back in its sheath. She thinks she might feel his eyes on the back of her neck, but she keeps walking, determined to put as much distance between them as possible. Either he’s bad luck or she is. Either way, she doesn’t want to anger The Gods any further. She doesn’t think any of it is his fault, not really. But he’s a part of it. Being near him can’t be good fortune. Besides, if anyone saw them together they might put two and two together. She wants the whole mess behind her. Getting home, seeing Jon, that’s all she can focus on right now. Not bright blue eyes, not a sweet gutter accent. Get through the gates, be a boy, be anyone but yourself.

 

“Alright you sorry sons of whores, it’s a thousand leagues to the wall. Move your arses!” Yoren shouts. They all file out, and somehow she’s wedged between the two bullies and the smith. Her breathing is a bit shallow as she passes the guards at the gate, but she makes it through without incident. She breathes, the first hurdle crossed. Now there’s just the thousand leagues.

 


 

They walk and walk and walk. She suspects this will make up the bulk of the journey. She doesn’t mind so much, only she isn’t really used to it. The two boys start to hassle her again, but the bastard boy gives them a warning look, and they change their minds. She’s not sure why he’s bothering, but it annoys her. She wants distance from him, so she walks faster. If she thinks about him, she’ll think about her father. And she can’t right now. She won’t let any of them see her cry. She’s relatively sure she can’t anyway. She hasn’t decided if she’s glad he’s alive or not, and she definitely doesn’t want to delve into those complex emotions on Day One.

 

That first day is tough, though she doesn’t complain. A few do, whining and asking for breaks, but she bites her tongue, for once, she’s learned her lesson. When they finally settle for the night, she drops where she stands. The physical exertion unlike anything she’s ever felt. On the trip with her father, they’d had horses and frequent breaks. Actually, the closest was the long hour shifts at the Sept, which allowed no breaks, babies creating their own time tables. She really does fall, unmindful of comfort, warmth, or nourishment. Her eyes flutter closed, relieved from the many miles distance she’d put between herself and the capital; that the blue-eyed bastard has to shove her roughly to get her attention.

 

“What?” She asks annoyed, more than exhausted.

 

“Here.” And he hands her some bread and stew. She eyes it for a few moments before accepting the bowl. She slowly sips the contents, pocketing the bread, but all the while eyes him suspiciously. What does he want? What does he know? He’s managed to keep those assholes at bay though.

 

She nods, as much thanks as she’s willing to give.

 

“They’ll forget about you soon enough.” He placates. Her initial reaction is that he’s exhibiting simple kindness. But she knows that’s impossible. The bowl is empty, but she’s still ravenous, so she licks the inside of the bowl, uncaring of etiquette. It’s only after she finishes that he introduces himself.

 

“I’m Gendry by the way.” And he sticks out his hand for her to shake. She notices layers of dirt beneath his fingernails. She wants to ignore him, or better yet tell him to go fuck himself. But she thinks it will draw even more attention to her awkwardness. It takes her another few moments to choose a name for herself.

 

“Ari.” She tells him, shaking his hand in turn. She notices how strong and callused his palm is. He holds her hand longer than necessary, looking at her strangely, and she pulls her hand back violently. She can’t help how soft her hands are, how high her voice is, but she is trying to compensate as best she can.

 

“Stew’s not bad.” He says, by way of small talk.

 

“I’ve had worse.” She agrees, though that is certainly a lie. She can already tell that making her voice low will be a challenge, and she’ll have to be careful not to speak overly educated.

 

He’s looking at her, well, studying her more like. She turns her face; careful to keep her bruised and battered side in his sight.

 

He looks about to say more, so she gets up abruptly, where the strength comes from she cannot know, and brings her dish to the boys tasked with the washing for the first shift. Then, she runs off to a secluded spot to relieve herself, before finding a soft place to lay her head. The others settle in, and before she can let herself relax, she sees an infinitesimal signal from Yoren for her to follow. She does so eagerly, calling upon a store of energy she hadn’t known she possessed.

 

They retreat to a secluded part of the woods, far enough away from the others to ensure privacy.

 

“What are you doing here? How did you manage to…” She doesn’t answer, only goes up to him and hugs him tightly. He smells of the North, and his beard is rough, she can almost pretend it is her father giving her comfort as his arms wrap about her.

 

“Yoren. I didn’t know what to do. I panicked. I just, want to go home.”

 

“And you will. I’ll see to it. But this is a dangerous road. And these aren’t exactly genteel travelling companions.”

 

“They can’t be much worse than the lords and ladies at court.” She comments.

 

“Well, you’ll need to be careful. Hold your water ‘til you’re sure you’re alone. Tell no one, trust no one. I won’t be able to help you or give you any special attention. It’ll only mark you out. You’ll be on your own, but I’ll get you where you need to go. For your father, and for you. Do you understand, boy?”

 

“Ari.” She says. He nods in understanding.

 

“Aye, Ari the orphan boy then. So it is. Watch yourself. We won’t have much time to talk after this.”

 

“Thank you Yoren. Thank you, thank you.”

 

“Thank me when I’ve got you home safe. And be smart, as I know you can be.”

 

“My family will reward you for your loyalty, I promise…”

 

“Stop that. I don’t want no reward. Just to get all of you back safe, no more, no less.”

 

“And what if? I mean, some of them might know me, even recognize me…”

 

“They won’t. Men are stupid. They don’t notice anything unless they know what it is they’re looking for. Sometimes, not even then. You play the part right, none o’ them will ever know the difference. That is what you must count on. For if they do, they’ll sell you to The Queen. But first, they’ll rape ya. And I won’t be able to stop it.”

 

“I will. I’ll do all I can. Thank you, Yoren.”

 

“Think nothing of it. Now run along now.” And she does leave, recognizing the dismissal for what it is. Most are settled, there’s a hush all over the camp as all are too exhausted. She sees a cage with three men, and instantly recognizes the one with red and white hair, but she’s careful not to look too long. A ways off she sees the fat one, already asleep, and makes a decision. As quiet as she can, she sneaks up to where he lays, and presses her blade to his throat. He wakes with a start; fear plain in his black eyes and fat cheeks.

 

“Threaten me again and I will kill you. That's a promise.” She says by way of warning, making her voice as low and menacing as it will go. “Understand?” She asks, pressing the blade down harder. And he nods vigorously, neck fat bobbing. She gets a blanket from the wagon, pleased, and sets herself up close enough to the fire to stay warm, but far enough back to be able to keep a safe distance from the others. Gendry lays his pallet down beside her, and she feels a mixture of confusion, annoyance, and safety that she simply can’t deal with right now. She closes her eyes, but doesn’t sleep, her muscles get the chance to rest though, and she can feel each twitch in turn.


 

Again the royal bastard walks beside her, and the two idiots keep their distance, the fat one throwing concerned looks her way. She takes it in with satisfaction. If Gendry knows about her nightly warning, he doesn’t show it. She peeks at him when he isn’t looking, and she wonders if she’ll ever be able to look at him without feeling irrationally angry, without blaming him. But still she can’t seem to help it, she keeps looking over, he catches her once and smiles back, aw dam nit. Her legs and feet ache, her face still stings, and her chest feels squeezed tight. She’s glad; it takes her mind off of painful thoughts. Though it’s dull, not half as scenic and pretty as the first time…

 

She shakes it off and tries a new tack. Left. Right. Left. Right. The trees. The trees down here are simple redwoods. She can’t wait to see her own trees, the trees of The North. No, stop. Right. Left. Right. Left. She focuses on the birds instead. There are birds chirping, but she doesn’t know what kind. It’s pretty though, she can almost pretend it’s the chorus of “The Roadside Rose” a love song some of the girls used to sing. She steps extra hard on a rock and pops a blister to stop herself from humming.

 

This time, when Yoren calls for them to stop for the night, Arya rushes off to make water as the others get food, grateful for their distraction. She goes to the line late to pick up her food herself. She does need to eat, and she won’t have that overly sweet giant of a boy bringing her food again. It’s squirrel in broth, bland and tasteless. One of the recruits is handy with traps. Maybe a bit thinner portion due to her place at the end of the line. But she still has the bread from before. It’s fine. She sits far off from the others and receives a nod and an almost smile from Yoren before he turns to other business. The boy, Gendry, sits beside her again, and despite herself she’s glad for his presence, that is, until he starts speaking again.

 

“What’d you do to the boy?” He asks. She just stares at him. Unperturbed, he continues. “He looks like he’s about to fill his pants, that one.” He motions over to the fat boy in question, who looks away quickly at the attention, whispering heatedly with the skinny blonde. A corner of her mouth quirks up at his obvious fear, but it causes pain to shoot through her face and she immediately drops her face back to normal.

 

“What happened there?” He asks, and she mistakes his pointing for an attempt to touch her, so she tenses up. “Looks painful.” He says dropping his hand.

 

“Got hit.” She explains. He nods.

 

“I can see that. Looks painful though. What’d you do?”

 

“Asked too many stupid questions.” She answers sarcastically. He nods amicably.

 

“Yeah, gotta be careful ‘a that.” He smiles around his mouthful, and she can’t be sure if he takes her full meaning.

 

“Why do you keep hanging round me?”

 

“’Cause you’re just so friendly, that’s why. And ‘cause I’m dyin’ a boredom. I’m used to workin’ day in, day out. Now I’m just walkin’, lost in my thoughts. I gotta have somethin’ to distract me.”

 

“Just find somewhere else to sit, yeah.” She suggests.

 

“The others might be better to talk to, but I can’t exactly trust ‘em. Rapers and murderers and the like. At least I can tell you don’t like me, you don’t exactly hide it. The way I figure it, there’s no where to go but up.” He says good-naturedly.

 

“And what am I to make of you? I can’t tell what you want.” She reasons.

 

“I just told you. And if I wanted to hurt ya, I would have already.”

 

She knows it’s the truth, and she doesn’t have a real reason to dislike his company except that she doesn’t know how to be around anybody just now. He must take her silence for acquiescence because he goes on.

 

“You’re a thief then, eh.” He says.

 

“I’m not a thief.” She responds angrily.

 

“Oh yeah? Did you buy that little blade? That’s castle-forged steel, that.” He asks one eyebrow raised.

 

One thing the court had taught her was how to speak without saying anything. To lie, you needed to include partial truths, easier to keep straight. And from what she knew of him, he hadn’t yet lied to her. There were enough falsehoods running around her brain, she might as well stay as true as possible.

 

“It was a gift.” She admits. He smiles at her.

 

“Nice gift. Can I see it?” He asks politely. She hesitates. “I’m not gonna nick it.” Still she hesitates, but realizes the longer she waits, the odder it must seem. So she does, reluctantly.

 

He fingers it carefully, lovingly. She sees him finger the words her brother had had engraved for her and has to squeeze her fist to keep from reaching for it back. He hands it back without incident, and she breathes a bit more easily.

 

“Beautiful steel, balanced. Whoever gave that to you, cared a lot.” She swallows at that, putting the blade away carefully. “So if you’re not a thief, which are you? Raper or Murderer?” He’s joking, she’s reasonably sure.

 

“Neither.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes. What about you?” For the first time since she’s met him he looks uncomfortable.

 

“My master got sick a me. Told me to head for The Wall, that I had no place with him. I could go with The Watch or take to the streets. I chose to freeze my ass off. Stupid, eh?” He shrugs it off like it’s nothing, but she can tell it upsets him.

 

It’s then she knows it wasn’t his master who’d gotten sick of him. Her father must have arranged it, to save him. He must have cared, must have wanted the boy safe. The oldest son of his oldest friend. Perhaps her father’s death was because of Gendry, but that didn’t make it his fault. Her father had wanted the boy to live; it’s what he’d wanted. And just like that, all the animosity is gone. But none of the caution.

 

“My brother’s at The Wall.” She tells him. He looks surprised at the personal tidbit.

 

“Oh aye? You’re lucky. You know someone there, I don’t got no one there.”

 

“You’ve got a skill, I’m sure they’ll be glad to have a smith at The Wall.”

 

“How’d you know I was a smith?” He questions. Think quick, Arya.

 

“You said so yesterday, didn’t you?” He accepts her answer.

 

“I’m not a smith, just a ‘prentice.” He’s modest. She’s always liked that quality.

 

“You make that helm?” She asks.

 

“Aye.” And his face lights up. She holds her hand out, a clear request to see it more closely. He’s as reluctant to hand it over as she’d been earlier, but he does so. She can tell it’s fine; her brothers would have loved work like his. She hands it back.

 

“It’s well-made.” She says simply. He’s very pleased, a big toothy smile lighting up his face.

 

They’re interrupted by the two bullies, and immediately she puts her guard back up. Gendry doesn’t move, but his posture stiffens and his gaze turns dangerous.

 

“Oye, umm, hi. I’m Hot Pie. And this is Lommy.” The fat one says. She’s confused as to where this is going. If he’s waiting for an introduction from her, he’s mistaken.

 

The blonde stutters on. “We're sorry, ‘bout the other day. We didn’t mean nothing. Just wanted to look tough and all that. We don’t want no trouble.” He says. They don’t want their throats slit, she reasons.

 

“Have a seat.” Gendry invites. She turns to glare at him, but he doesn’t look back at her. The boys gratefully sit down by them. “I’m Gendry, this is Ari.” He introduces. For fucksakes. The boys smile warmly at them, and then she has to sit through dull talk and monotonous drivel. How was this happening? She’d wanted to stay alone, unnoticed. They all settle for the night, the two boys seeming to think they can sleep near her and Gendry.

 

Gendry nudges her with his elbow. “We’re better off together.” He says.

 

She wants to run off into the woods, to huff and move her blanket to a far away corner, to be free of warm smiles and friendly conversation. Letting herself like Gendry was already a horrible mistake, the other two would only be an annoyance. And a weakness. But as she looks around camp, she can see they’re all scattered into smaller groups. It’s normal, what’s expected. It would look more suspicious to stay alone she rationalizes a little too easily. As she lies down, surrounded by the body heat of the three others, more comfortable, and more relaxed, she feels her eyes water a bit. It’s harder, she thinks, to let herself be human. Luckily no one can see; it’s too dark. No tears actually fall, anyhow.

 

Chapter Text

On The Road

 

Arya

 

She sleeps lightly, too afraid of nightmares and revealing too much. And like the night before, she finds herself less exhausted than when she’d laid down in the first place, but not actually rested. The three boys are still asleep around her, Hot Pie snoring not quite loudly enough to wake the others. For the second time, Gendry is curled up nearest to her, taking up as little space as possible given his large frame, like he’s used to sleeping on a tiny mattress, not yet used to the ample ground. With his eyes closed she’s not distracted by the blue, and she can see how long his lashes are, how his ears stick out a bit, and how soft his lips look. He’s a kind giant, she’s officially decided. What to do with him was another matter entirely. Her father had felt responsible for him. So now she was too, especially since she couldn’t seem to be rid of him anyway. And he did serve as a kind of friendly guard dog, or maybe a bull, like his helm. In actuality, a stag, but he didn’t know that.

 

She got up to make water before the sky was fully light, taking the opportunity to unwrap her chest, scratch to her heart’s content, and redo the wrapping. She also readjusted the pouch to a more manageable position. She felt her face too, it didn’t hurt so much, but it was quite stiff, and still slightly swollen. She had no mirror to inspect her reflection more closely, but it was a few days in, so she could imagine it would be turning blue and purple around the edges. If she were so inclined, she might make a compress of rosemary and cinnamon to place on the swelling, but it wasn’t available, and besides, she would rather slow the healing than quicken it. The ugly marks were a godsend; they added to her tough persona, reduced the chance of being recognized, and made her undesirable.

 

Breakfast that morning was to be biscuits and salted squirrel. A few of the older recruits were already waiting in line; she took her place, and with a quick glance back at her little group, took enough for each. The man handing out the portions looked suspicious, but told her if she was lying, she’d go without for the next few days. Hot Pie woke immediately to the smell of breakfast, and smiled as he took the shares for the three of them. He hungrily scarfed down his portion, and looked longingly at the rest. She gave him such a nasty look; hand on her sheath that he put the food down gently. She walked off satisfied; she’d already reached her quota of nice for the day.

 

Apparently, The Gods must have seen her reluctant good deed, because after midday, Yoren announced that her little group would have a turn riding in the wagons. Lommy climbed up fine, but Hot Pie had to scramble up. Her and Gendry watched, then looked at each other, before chuckling at the scene. Gendry climbed aboard the second wagon, and while she could have gone with the two idiots, when Gendry held his hand out to her, she clasped it and let him pull her up. While her feet were glad for the reprieve, she worried about the consequences to her sanity. Too much free time, led to too much thought. She needn’t have worried though, after a few bumpy stretches of road, the sun shining down, she fell into a deep sleep.

 

In the dream, which she knew was a dream, she was riding on a horse, black as night, through the same King’s Road. On her right, her father, alive and well, if a little pale; just the two of them. She takes in every detail, focusing primarily on his warming smile, the soft grey of his eyes.

 

“Will we make it home?” She asks. Though there’s so much more she wants to say and ask, it’s all that comes out.

 

“I won’t, I’m afraid.” And he pats his speckled mare lovingly.

 

“But then, where will you go?”

 

“Don’t worry yourself yet, love. I’ll ride the roads with you as far as I can.” There’s a particularly rocky stretch, and her horse hobbles and whinnies.

 

“How far is that?”

 

“Well, it’s not so much how far as only some of the time.” He explains, or tries to.

 

“But, what about the rest of the way?”

 

“Well that’s why there’s the boy.” He explains.

 

“I know. I’m to look out for him, and I will, but…”

 

“No, my daughter. I sent him to look out for you.” The horse rears and she loses her grip, caught unawares, tumbling to the ground, before his grip keeps her upright.

 

Only the hand holding her up isn’t that of Eddard Stark, it’s Gendry, keeping her from falling off the wagon.

 

“Woah there. Alright?” He asks. She hadn’t wanted to wake. There was so much more she wanted to ask him, if she could she would sleep forever.

 

“Did I say anything?” She asks Gendry, worried about what she had given away in her sleep.

 

“Nah. You was just smiling for a bit.” She nods, assured. He hands her some water, and she drinks almost all of it before it occurs to her he might be thirsty too. She offers it to him, but he shakes his head.

 

“I already drank my fill. You go on.” She’s drinking the rest before he’s finished talking. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, the cool water feels good on her bruised cheek.

 

“Looks better.” He says. “Should be almost normal in a couple days.” He comments on her face. That’s not what she wants, not what she wants at all. “Where do you reckon we are now?” He asks conversationally.

 

“Near Hayford territory, I expect.” She answers, having been wondering the same thing herself. He looks at her surprised.

 

“Ya think? How da ya know?” Crap.

 

“I don’t. It’s just a guess.” True enough, she can’t be sure.

 

“Where are you from, Ari?” She’s trying to come up with a lie but he keeps talking. “I know you’re not from King’s Landing. You don’t talk like it.”

 

“Maidenpool.” She says, feeling a bit guilty for lying.

 

“Maidenpool? And a brother on The Wall. What you doin’ all the way down ‘ere?”

 

“Bad luck.” She jokes. He snorts at that.

 

“I never been outta King’s Landing. I may be givin’ up my freedom, but at least I’m seein’ a bit o the world. Not much, but. Well, it’s somethin’ innit?”

 

“I always wanted to travel across The Narrow Sea. Bravos and Essos.”

 

“Across the sea? You’re braver than me then, I’d be too afraid. I can’t swim.” He says.

 

“Well, you won’t need to swim at The Wall. All the water’s frozen.”

 

“Aye, suppose you’re right. And Maidenpool, what’s ‘at like?”

 

“Not so crowded. Nor so hot. How do you stand it?” She asks, feeling the sweat accumulating in her pits, unable to escape through the bandages tied tight.

 

“I’m used to it. It’s ten times as hot in the forge. I’m worried about the snowy North, to be honest. I’ll prolly freeze my bollocks off. Oh well, won’t really need ‘em anyway.” It had been a long time since anyone used such language with her. Her brothers used to, then they’d get a slap from her mother, and they’d be more careful. More than anything else, it endeared the boy to her. And she finds herself laughing, genuinely laughing for the first time in who knows how long. He laughs along with her and it’s a pleasant ride in the wagon from then on.

 

They set up camp while it’s still light, Yoren wanting the chance to do a bit of hunting before dark to replenish their stores of meat.

 

Gendry hops down, and helps her out too. He walks to the nearest tree, and starts peeing, a strong, heavy stream. She tries not to, but does peak for an instant. He doesn’t notice, and she quickly wanders off with some story about collecting wood for the fire.

 

After a satisfying piss, she sets about on her task. She finds many twigs, thick and little, older and new. She’s not sure which kind is best, so she grabs a variety. A bit farther on she sees seeds scattered, and apple cores pecked clean. She looks up to see a huge tree, maybe ten times her height, within its leaves she can make out green orbs, apples. The lowest branch is still too high, and she curses in frustration.

 

Heading back into camp, arms laden with branches and the like, she hears a whisper.

 

“Psst. Boy. Lovely boy.” She looks up and finds it originated from the cage. It’s the mysterious man; the overly polite one. “A man has a terrible thirst. This man would be grateful for a drink of water.” She hesitates, but she remembers a time he was kind to her, he showed her the secret passage, and spoke to her with respect. Denying him something so simple seemed to go against who she wanted to be. No, she doesn’t want his discomfort on her conscience. She sets the bundle aside and fills a cup for the man.

 

He takes it without incident, eyeing her the entire time. She makes to turn away, but he says. “You are called, Ari.” She nods, turning the unmarked side of her face away. ”Do you remember a man’s name, boy?’ He asks, one eyebrow raised. She hesitates.

 

“Jaquen Haguar.” She says.

 

“Just so. From the free city of Lorath. A pleasure.” A Lorathi, what was he doing down here?

 

Another in the cage shouts. “Give us a drink too, you little shit. Beer. Wine. Now.”

 

“I ‘aven’t got beer.” She says, voice as low as she can make it.

 

“Then come ‘ere. A little thing like you. I’ll fuck you bloody, fuck you proper.” And he sneers at her, tongue wiggling so lewdly it makes her stomach churn.

 

“What do you think you’re doin’? Yoren said to stay away from that lot.” Gendry says from behind her, steering her away from the cage, her discarded bundle in one arm.

 

“A man begs pardon for his companions, they lack common courtesy.” The Lorathi says to their backs. She turns around against her better judgment and looks him in the eye; he lifts the corner of his mouth in response. Gendry turns her round again.

 

“Stay away from them.” He warns.

 

“They’re in a cage.” She responds. She’s not sure why she’s making excuses, but she does feel drawn to the Lorathi, and she’s relatively certain she won’t stay away from him.

 

“Yeah. ‘Cause they’re dangerous.” She can’t argue with that. And she doesn’t want to fight with him. She has a better idea. He deposits the branches near the team in charge of the fire, and she motions to him to follow her. He does so without question.

 

At the tree with the apples he understands without her having to tell him, his face lighting up at the prospect. He laces his fingers together like a stirrup, she steps in, and he boosts her up to the nearest branch. It’s still quite high, and she has to stretch to reach. It takes all of her strength, but she pulls her body up ungracefully, and steps onto the thick branch.

 

“Alright?” He calls up.

 

“Yeah.” She calls down. Carefully she climbs higher until she’s within reach of the fruit.

 

“Oye!” She shouts, looks down for his black head of hair, plucks an apple and tosses it down as far away from him as she can manage. Not far. He gets the idea though and moves out of the way. She picks as many apples as she can reach, six total, though one is rather tiny.

 

Slower than the climb, she makes her descent. One branch at a time, slowly lowering herself little by little.

 

“Just jump Ari, I’ve got ya.” She’s only half way down, but the idea of jumping, of Gendry catching her, causes her to continue her downward climb.

 

“Come on, it’ll be dark soon.” His voice startles her, and her boot slips on a smoother patch of bark. She feels herself fall, the wind knocked out of her chest by the drop, but she’s caught before she hits the ground. “See, I got ya.” And he’s smiling at her, all smug. She is relieved, but quickly sets herself upright, mutters a quick thanks, and starts to collect the apples.

 

“You’re welcome.” He says. On closer inspection, the apples are under ripe. She points this out to Gendry crestfallen.

 

“They just need more time.” He says rationally. She smiles back at his good sense. He stores the apples in his shirt, and hands the good one to her. “Here. This one’ll do.”

 

“I’ll cut it.” She suggests.

 

“Nah, it was your idea. Your hard work. You have it.”

 

“You helped. Besides, I’d feel bad.”

 

“Ari, you don’t have ta…”

 

“Eat the fucking apple.” She insists. He chuckles and nods. She cuts the apple up with her blade, the third time she’s used it in as many days, and thanks Jon once more for his thoughtful gift. They both eat in silence, the fruit is a bit bitter, but neither minds. It’s sweeter from the effort, and the sharing. They decide on the way back to give the teeny one to Hot Pie and Lommy to share. The boys are actually thrilled with the apple, and she suspects they’ll be loyal from now on. They hide the rest in his helmet, eat the roasted pigeon, and settle in for the night. She yawns and stretches, her shirt rising a bit to reveal some of her stomach, too excited to sleep, hoping to see her father again in her dreams. She feels a prickling on the back of her neck, and becomes aware of the proximity of the other men and boys. When she looks over, all eyes are closed, but she feels self-conscious, naked.

 

She’d let her guard down. Thinking about her skin showing, knowing how small and delicate she looked, remembering the other murderer’s interest in fucking her bloody, she sets off from the group. She goes off once more to make water, though she doesn’t really have to go. Her breasts are secured, but she can’t do anything about the curve of her waist and hips, and the possibility of someone noticing.

 

She feels her face; the pain is at a minimum now. The light of the moon allows her to see the forest floor, where she finds a few pebbles. She picks them up in her palm, and harshly rubs them over her damaged face, the rough edges disturb the healing flesh, making the muscles of her cheek and jaw scream out in pain, and reopening the cut by her eye. There, she thinks, it’ll swell once more, and take a few days longer to heal. She’ll be ugly, she’ll be safe.

Chapter Text

On the Road 2 

 

Arya

 

It had been over a week, and she felt like they had a routine going. She’d timed her piss breaks perfectly, her accent was more authentic, she hadn’t any more confrontations with Jaquen, or Yoren, or the figure of her father in her dreams. She was always anxious to sleep, though she had yet to see her father again. But she had faith he would return, he’d said he would, and he always kept his word.

 

She was even more comfortable with her immediate companions, she felt herself smiling and laughing more, not often, but more. They’d finished all the apples and they were the best she’d ever tasted. Once she accepted that Lommy and Hot Pie were just idiots, young and naïve, she began to find them amusing. Some of the things they said were just so stupid and unfounded, that rather than try to argue with them, she let them talk in circles.

 

“The food’ll be better at The Wall.” Hot Pie states assuredly.

 

“Yeah, what makes you so sure?” Lommy questions.

 

“Well, they’ll have kitchens, anyway. Maybe they’ll act’ally let me help. That’ll be something.”

 

“Who cares about the food? It’ll be bloody cold.” Lommy complains, to which Gendry grumbles his ascent.

 

“Maybe not. They must got fires and warm coats and the like.” Hot Pie suggests.

 

“People have survived for generations on The Wall, and generations more. If you’re strong, work hard, you’ll be fine.” She says.

 

“You won’t need a coat, you gots all that extra fat to keep warm.” Lommy jokes, shoving Hot Pie and then running away.

 

“Oye, fuck you.” Hot Pie defends.

 

“You’ll be fine, you’ll be in the kitchen.” Gendry says.

 

“And you’ll be in the forge. But Ari and I will for sure freeze, we ain’t got no meat on our bones.” Lommy worries.

 

“Everyone fights, no matter what. Every man is expected to defend The Wall.”

 

“From what?” Gendry asks seriously.

 

“What do you know ‘bout it?” Hot Pie asks at the same time.

 

“Ari’s got a brother on The Wall.” Gendry explains. She glares at him, but he doesn’t notice or pretends he doesn’t.

 

Lommy and Hot Pie look at Ari with newfound interest.

 

“Oye. Don’t hold out on us.” Hot Pie says.

 

“Yeah, what’s it like?” Lommy asks.

 

“I’ve never been.” She defends.

 

“Still, ya gotta know something.” They plead.

 

“How’s the food?” Hot Pie asks again.

 

“I dunno. There’s fewer animals up there, ‘cause the cold.” Hot Pie’s face drops at that. “But the surrounding districts give something during the coldest months. No one’ll let The Watch starve to death. Without them… us, the realm would be lost.”

 

“But what’s up there? What’re we fighting?” Gendry asks.

 

“I heard stories, that’s all. But, I don’t know.”

 

“Well, one thing, I know there ain’t no women up there.” Lommy whines.

 

“Damn shame, that.” Hot Pie laments.

 

“What do you care? You ain’t never been with a girl.” Lommy teases.

 

“How do you know? Have you?” Hot Pie counters.

 

“No, but I saw plenty naked.” Lommy says. Both Hot Pie and Gendry look doubtful at that, but interested. Even Arya is attentive, this story should be good. “Most of the women would get naked while dyin’, to keep their clothes clean. I remember the sight o’ their titties bouncing as they worked, pink nipples, sometimes brown. I touched one once, Merilee was next to me, she turned and hit me in the face with one. Best moment of my life.” He has a wistful smile on his face, but the others are laughing. Arya might have found such a story crude once, but now she just finds it sad. The best moment of his life, and he’ll not get another like it. It won’t be long until she starts to feel sorry for herself and her own abysmal history.

 

“I kissed a girl.” Hot Pie says, not to be outdone. “Her name was Trudi, she was a seamstress down the road from me. I gave her a lemon tart ‘stead of throwin’ it away. She kissed me right on the lips.”

 

“What’d she look like?” Lommy wants to know.

 

“She had blonde blonde hair, and she was nice and plump. Her lips were so soft, like juicy summer cherries.” Everything’s food with him. And no one’s surprised that he prefers chubby girls. Without knowing why, Arya speaks next.

 

“And you, Gendry?” He looks surprised she’d asked.

 

“I’ve kissed girls.” He says. She believes him, she’s sure he’s done more than that.

 

“Yeah, but. Have you done more, gone all the way?” Lommy prompts. Apparently, they were of one mind.

 

“I… yeah, I’ve done more.” Girls must have thrown themselves at him, she’s not surprised.

 

“Well, details, come on man, don’t hold out on us.” Hot Pie pushes.

 

“None of your business.” Gendry answers, a deep blush creeping up his neck. Cute.

 

“What about you, Ari?” Lommy asks her. And just like that, all the attention snaps to her. Damnit.

 

“No, I never been with a girl.” She answers honestly.

 

“And you ain’t never kissed one either?”

 

“No”

 

“Never? Nothing?” Lommy exclaims.

 

“Seriously Lommy? A girl accidentally hit you in the face with her tit. I don’t think that counts either.” Hot Pie interjects.

 

“He’s got a point.” Gendry jokes.

 

“You know, you’re boring, Ari.” Lommy complains. “And you’re even worse, Gen. I mean, have some pity. We ain’t never gonna get the chance now. A few details won’t kill you.”

 

“That’s not entirely true.” Arya says. “There are whores in Mole’s Town.” She says. They all look at her expectantly.

 

“The Night’s Watch can’t have no women, everybody knows that.” Another recruit nearby hears their conversation and interjects. Daryn, she thinks his name is, he’s older.

 

“We can’t take no wives or have no children.” Gendry says.

 

“There’s whores though. As long as you’re not stupid about it, and you’re back for your shifts, no one gives a shit.” At least that’s what she’d overheard her uncle Benjen say on his last visit from The Wall.

 

“Your brother tell you that?” Hot Pie asks.

 

“Yeah.” She lies.

 

“Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” Daryn remarks, clapping her on the shoulder. The others cheer up as well.

 

“You got any money though?” Gendry asks seriously. And everyone looks more sullen.

 

“Prolly ugly anyway, those Northern girls.” Another man, Penn maybe, adds.

 

“You ever seen a Northern girl?” Daryn asks him.

 

“No, never been past Fairmarket. But cold weather breeds hard women, everyone knows that.”

 

“I bet they’re still plenty warm between their thighs though.” And they both laugh.

 

“Just turn ‘em around, it don’t matter as long as you don’t gotta look at ‘em in the face.”

 

“I dunno about the whores, but I saw one o’ their highborns though.” She perks up at that, but schools her features to remain blank.

 

“Yeah, when? Ain’t no highborn Northerners in the brothels.” Penn jokes.

 

“Nah, I ain’t said I fucked her. I saw her in the dungeons.”

 

“Ain’t no highborns in the dungeons, stupid.”

 

“There was. She came in, all curves and silk, smelling like fresh bread, and girly smells.” Arya tenses.

 

“What was she doin’ in the dungeons?”

 

“Talkin’ me into comin’ on this gods-forsaken march. She coulda talked me into anythin’ at that point, full belly, and that soft voice. I wouldn’ta minded buryin’ myself in that.” The two men laugh heartily, and the others chuckle, a little unsure exactly why. For her part, Arya feels nauseous.

 

“Fuckable, then?”

 

“Aye, I tell you I just gotta picture those moist pink lips and that firm little ass, and I’m cummin’ in no time. Looked like she could suck the black off a crow, that one.” They laugh again, and Arya fakes a limp, hopping, slowing down, then proceeds to take her boot off, shaking it out for a nonexistent pebble.

 

On the one hand, they clearly hadn’t recognized her, which was a relief, but on the other… Uggghh.


 

The monotony of the day, and of the march itself, is broken up when Yoren lets them stop midday. They unload, unhooking the horses first thing, but then they’re led to a pond not far off, if slightly hidden by trees and bushes. No one would know it was there from the road, but of course Yoren knew the roads as well as the back of his own hand, as he would say.

 

The little pond is inviting, sparkling under the sun, water nice and blue. The men don’t even hesitate as they strip and jump in. She sees more saggy guts, hairy balls, pimply asses, and scraggly chests than she ever wanted to in her whole life. If the talk from earlier wasn’t enough to put her off men in general, the current display would just about do it. What she wouldn’t give for the chance to bathe, to be free of the too-tight binding around her chest, to wash under her armpits and between her legs, to scrub her scalp raw; but she can’t. It’s cruel almost, to watch them enjoy themselves, cool off beneath the sun, rid themselves of stenches and woodsy creatures. She pretends to busy herself with setting their things to rights, caring for the horses, sorting belongings. But the others notice her absence.

 

“Oye, Ari, come on in.” Hot Pie yells cheerfully.

 

“Yeah, the water’s great!” Lommy adds.

 

“I can’t swim.” She says.

 

“Don’t matta. It’s not deep. Anyways, we’ll not let ya drown.” Gendry offers.

 

She can see how deep it’s not, Gendry’s standing and she can see quite a bit of him. Whereas with the boys and old men, she couldn’t look away fast enough, she has trouble turning away from Gendry. She does, but out of the corner of her eye she misses nothing. When she’d first met him, she’d seen his eyes and hair, that coupled with the context; she’d quickly deduced who his father was. But the more time she spent with Gendry, the farther apart the two seemed. The fat, drunken, bearded king, and the kind, shy, Gendry. Gendry was tall and broad, his hair was wet and stuck to his forehead, little droplets of water hung in those long eyelashes, he had no fat, only muscle from pounding steel; she understood why he intimidated the others.

 

The King loved whores, and made no secret of it. Gendry had said he’d been with girls, though she couldn’t imagine he had much money to spend. Or that he would need to pay. When the women at The Sept, the ones who’d come frightened and alone, begged for help to undo their mistakes, Arya had thought them foolish. To fall for men’s lies, to let themselves be weak, to ignore the consequences, well; she hadn’t had as much pity as she should have. She could understand now wanting to be held, wanting the feel of a warm body to keep you safe, to feel less alone. And more and more lately, her eyes would wander to Gendry, she slept closer to him than the others, and she enjoyed making him smile. She’d seen him piss often enough, but always turned away, mostly. Here she watched every water drop drip down his hair, cheekbones, and the grooves in his chest, shoulders, and stomach.

 

“Ari, get the camp ready for the night, and keep your eye out on our stuff, yeah.” Yoren instructs, giving her a plausible excuse not to bathe, and she gratefully runs off, trying not to look too rushed.

 

She feeds the horses, then collects wood, many armloads before she’s satisfied. She finds some bushes with wild nuts and picks as much as she can carry, bringing her treasure back to camp. She’s always looking for new herbs and plants on her forays into the woods; she’d already found sage for fever, burdock for rashes, buckthorn for digestion, and she had a bit of the moon tea left, just in case. She gets to work on the nuts, placing them in a sturdy bowl, and pounding them with a nice-shaped rock. It takes quite a while but she manages to get through the hard shells to the meat underneath. She tries one and moans out loud in pleasure. Up North these were a delicacy, and she wouldn’t waste a single one.

 

“Hey.” It’s coming from the cage. For an instant, she assumes it’s Jaquen, but as she looks up, she can see it’s one of the others, the one who’d asked for beer. “Come closer boy, let’s have a look at you.” He requests. The one with the grotesque face seems to be staring at something on the horizon, listening jealously for sounds of splashing and laughter she supposes.

 

“No.” She says. She imagines that however hot and uncomfortable she is, the men in the cage must feel it ten times worse. So she ignores them rather than take offense.

 

“Pretty boy. So pret’y. I know you. I know you.” He says louder, more sure.

 

“The boy brought water, nothing more.” Jaquen says, and she’s grateful to him.

 

“No. Pretty pret’y. I know you. From before. Bread and grey eyes. Not a boy, but a girl.” She drops the rock she was holding, nothing she can say, she hopes to ignore him. No such luck.

 

“Girl. Girl.” He repeats. “Come ‘ere then, girl. I promised to fuck you.” She begins to panic, she stands as if to run, but doesn’t know where to go. “Girl, girl. Come ‘ere, girl!” His shouts are so loud, she’s sure someone else must hear. As he keeps screaming, she looks around behind her, checking for approaching recruits, imagining all the possible consequences, what she’ll do when someone hears. But the shouting suddenly stops. She spins back around to find him on the floor of the cage, unmoving. The third man, the one with part of his face missing, is huddled back in the corner of the cage, and Jaquen is standing calmly, looking directly at her. She walks closer, her feet moving without her permission. As she gets closer, she sees the man on the ground’s chest isn’t moving, and his dim eyes look empty. He is dead, she realizes, and all the while, Jaquen’s gaze hasn’t left hers.

 

Eventually a few of the others stroll over, and she backs up slowly from the cage. One notices the body, and shouts for Yoren. Jaquen and the other are questioned, so is she.

 

“What happened here?” Yoren asks.

 

It’s the quiet one, mutilated face, cowering in the corner who answers. “We ain’t had water all day, or yesterday. It’s hot.” He explains, looking frequently at Jaquen for confirmation.

 

Yoren doesn’t look completely convinced, but accepts the explanation eventually. They position six men around the cage, all pointing swords at the two prisoners within. Two more open the door and pull out the body, before shutting it again. They check him, and sure enough, he’s dead. But they find no mark to explain why. Arya looks back at Jaquen, who nods slowly as if to say ‘you’re welcome.’

 

They need to bury the body far from camp, and Arya volunteers to be one of the four, to her group’s surprise. The man is dead because of her, but she hadn’t done it herself. As her father would have. The least she could do is clean up the mess. The dirt gets under her fingernails and the smell of the newly rotting corpse in the hot sun clings to her skin.

 

Everyone is in a strange state, refreshed from the swim, but uncomfortable with the very real death of one of their own, even one who’d made them uncomfortable.

 

Just then a lone howl fills the air, a wolf keening low and long, perhaps smelling the corpse and getting hungry. There’s some tensing around her, a few mutters, and more curses of fear. Not her though.

 

“No one goes off alone, hear me?” Yoren warns before taking his post as watch. Everyone agrees, and clumps even more tightly into groups. Even Gendry, Hot Pie and Lommy sleep close, despite her stench. These men are tough, and they’re afraid. There are twenty of them, some grizzled, criminals, with weapons and pasts. But this one lone wolf, bold, and unafraid; that scares them.  She’s a wolf too, she can be bold. She smiles at the reminder.


 

She waits until everyone is asleep, even Yoren. Then waits just a little bit longer for the night to turn so dark nothing is visible beyond a few feet. Her boots are kept off, and she tiptoes more quietly than she ever has before. She’s sneakier than when she’d escaped out her room before dress fittings, stole pies from the kitchens, or hid during embroidery sessions.

 

This is all so dangerous, the pond isn’t that far from the road, but at least it isn’t plainly visible. She goes around to the farthest side, and finds a good spot with a lot of moss and other covering. She knows it’s stupid, but can’t make herself turn back. She sets her pouch beneath some leaves, and sticks her blade into the moist ground near the edge, ready at a moment’s notice, just in case. She strips at lightening speed, and leaves it all in a heap by the edge. She carefully wades in, not making much noise. It feels strange after so long, but her body quickly acclimates to the temperature.

 

Once in, completely covered by the surface of the water, she grabs the clothes and the bar of soap she’d pilfered, she’s careful to only get the dirtiest parts wet, to make sure they dry fast. She scrubs at the stains near the collar of the tunic, goes over the creases in the pits and the groin of her pants repeatedly until the smells are at an acceptable level. Her breast binding she soaks and scrubs, it’s frayed and darkened with body oils and sweat, so it still smells strange when she’s through, but she hangs the lot up on a nearby branch she can reach. Finally, she can clean herself, her head has dried flakes of skin between the hairs, and she can feel the shortest pieces growing out unevenly. She’s careful to do behind her ears as her mother always used to remind her, and takes the time for her most intimate places. She hasn’t been in long, she’d promised herself no more than ten minutes. She hears a rustling in the bushes and immediately goes on alert.

 

The wolf, she wonders? Surely a Stark need not fear wolves. There’s more rustling. She grabs for the blade and holds it out in front of her. The rustling’s stopped, but she’s sure she didn’t imagine it. She steps out quickly, bare, unmindful of the noise, and peels her eyes in every direction. Her breaths are shallow, and once more she wonders what her fate will be. She sees a shadow, but can’t make it out, it’s no animal. Without taking her eyes off the movement, she bends down to pick up her clothes, blindly groping with her left hand she comes across the tunic. Rather than let herself lose sight of the threat, she only holds the damp shirt against her front before confidently addressing the figure.

 

“Show yourself.” She demands, gripping the steel. Though she has no idea what she’ll do in response, there are only a few of them she could overpower with the blade, and even then, the noise would likely alert more people. Not even Yoren could protect her then. Her only real course of action would be to make an offer or…

 

“It’s me.” Says the voice, coming closer, footsteps sheepish. She lets out a big sigh of relief.

 

“Gendry.” The hand clasping her shirt flattens against her chest, feeling her heartbeat slow. “What are you doing out here?” She asks.

 

“I was looking for you. Yoren said not to go off alone. I thought the wolves would get you, or…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, his eyes are too busy roaming along her body, head to toe and back again, mouth agape.

 

“For fucksakes.” She mutters, swinging the blade round emphatically. He puts his hands up in a gesture of surrender, the shock mixing with a bit of fear. “Well…” She looks at him expectantly. He doesn’t move. “Would you mind?” She opens her eyes wider and gestures with the blade.

 

“Oh. Yeah o’ course.” And he turns around. “I’ll keep watch.” He stutters.

 

She lets out a disbelieving huff. She puts the blade between her teeth and wriggles into the damp top. She grabs for the rest, but finds them still quite wet. Stupid. She hadn’t thought this through well at all. If it had been anyone else…

 

“You’re a girl.” He says, still turned away from her.

 

“Clearly.” She only has herself to blame and shouldn’t take it out on him, but she hates how helpless she feels, almost naked in the dark. “Damn.” She curses.

 

He turns at this, makes to turn back again, but she motions him not to bother. “It’s alright.”

 

He obviously has more he wants to say, but he’s still having trouble concentrating enough to get words out. His gaze is particularly locked to her chest, to which she looks down and realizes how see-through the material is, even in the dark. She crosses her arms over her breasts uncomfortably. But she finds she can’t make eye contact with him either. She sighs, and sits on a flat surface, and motions him to sit with a shift of her head. He does, but looks even more flustered sitting next to her, it’s easier for her though sitting side by side.

 

“How… ummm…” He swallows and tries again. “What’s a girl doing travelling with The Watch? Girls can’t take the black, can they?”

 

“Of course not.” She wrings out a wet clump of hair. “Yoren’s taking me home, it’s on the way.” He does look at her face then.

 

“So Yoren knows?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Who else?” The dead prisoner from the cage. Jaquen. But she keeps that to herself.

 

“Now you do.” She makes herself look him in the eyes. “You can’t tell anyone. Not Hot Pie, not Lommy, not anyone. Please Gendry.” She begs.

 

“Of course not. I wouldn’t. I swear it.” She lets out another huge breath of air.

 

“Good. Thank you.” She’d never really thought she would have to worry about him. It hadn’t been long, but she knew she could trust Gendry. She stretches away to wring out the breast binding. His eyes travel to her legs. “Gendry.” She says to get his attention.

 

“Sorry. How long… I mean. How didn’t I know? How?”

 

“Men are stupid. No offense.” He just nods.

 

“I knew there was something.” He says and she looks at him expectantly. “Well, I didn’t know. I mean, when I first met you, you smelled so nice and all. And your skin’s so soft, but then after a while…” He trails off once more, and she rolls her eyes.

 

She decides things will be better once she gets dressed, no matter how wet her clothes are. She uses his shoulder to lift herself up and pulls her pants up behind his back.

 

“Still, it’s not safe.” He continues his thought.

 

“Well, it was the only way I could get out of King’s Landing. This is practically the last place they’d look for me.” She defends.

 

“Who?” Who indeed? The Queen. Joffrey. Lord Baelish, perhaps.

 

“The Queen.” She says simply. His eyebrows shoot up at that.

 

“So you’re important then?” He asks.

 

“Yes, in a way. If she got her hands on me, it would be… very bad.”

 

“You’re important. That’s why you’ve got soft hands, and you talk like you do.”

 

“Talk like what?”

 

“You don’t talk like the rest o’ us, I noticed that straight away.” Ah, so he wasn’t completely oblivious. Still, she had thought she had managed a passable accent. “You rich?” She chuckles at that.

 

“Not at the moment.” She answers honestly.

 

“You… a highborn? A lady?” He seems a bit frightened.

 

“I don’t feel much like one. But yes, I...”

 

“Ah shit. You’re a lady. And I’ve been pissing in front o’ you and everythin’, I…”

 

“Quit it!” And she shoves him hard in the shoulder, causing him to mock wince in pain, and snicker. “Don’t make a big deal out of it. That’s the last thing I need, you treating me like some noble lady and everyone getting suspicious. I’m just Ari, understand?”

 

“Yeah, yeah. O’ course. Sorry.” Though he’s smiling so she can’t be sure he does understand.

 

“Forget it. Look, we should get back. You go first, I’ll wait a few minutes. It won’t look as strange.” He nods in understanding, and reluctantly heads back. She walks behind another bush and reties the bindings before heading back too.

 

He’s on his pallet, the exact same spot, eyes clearly open in the moonlight, searching for her. Something about it makes her chest loosen, to have someone know about her, and wait up for her. She lays down beside him, like always, and falls asleep easily. She doesn’t feel Gendry breathe in her newly cleaned hair and skin.

 


 

In her dream she’s sitting upright watching the stars, the constellations easy to recognize from her time in Winterfell.

 

“Hello, love.” It’s her father, seated beside her eating a few of the nuts she’d cracked. She wastes no time this time and hugs him tightly. He hugs her back tightly. “Everything alright, love?” He asks into her shorn hair.

 

“I was careless, but it’ll be fine. I’ll be better from now on.”

 

“Don’t worry so much. You’ve always been too careful. Your mother’s fault, I’m sure.”

 

“Well maybe you weren’t careful enough.” And there’s a bite in her words. She immediately feels guilty.

 

“Aye, you’re right.”

 

“I’m sorry. Forgive me, father.”

 

“Of course, love.” And he strokes her hair.

 

“Is mother alright? Jon?”

 

“Yes.” He says with a sad smile. “Everyone is alive and well. Rest now, love.” And he lays her down, and tucks a thick blanket around her. She feels safe and warm, whole, digging her fingers into the fabric and rubbing her face into the fibers.

 

Light and scattered voices rouse her from slumber. She awakes to realize her fingers have dug into Gendry’s shirt and her face is pressed intimately against his bare chest.  She scrambles up ungracefully and mutters an apology.

 

“S’alright.” He says, looking at her affectionately. She goes off to make water, very glad her clothes have dried in the night, and though she smells better, she still feels the clothes sitting strangely against her skin. Upon her return she sees her little pack talking over breakfast, and she has a stab of irrational fear that he’s told them. But when Hot Pie holds up her food invitingly, and Lommy doesn’t even look up, she feels ashamed for doubting Gendry.

 

Unfortunately, Gendry is staring at her funny. She gives him an annoyed glare, and he quickly looks elsewhere. They begin the day’s trek, and Gendry tugs on her sleeve to signal that he wants to walk in the back, presumably he has more questions.

 

“Sleep well?” He asks. She blushes.

 

“Sorry about that, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

 

“I don’t mind.” They walk for a few more minutes in silence, the slower pace grating on her nerves a bit.

 

“What’s your name, your real name?” She considers lying, telling more partial truths, but now that she’s decided to trust him it seems almost counterproductive.

 

“Arya.” He repeats it in a whisper. “Of House Stark.” And she bites her lip.

 

“Stark?!” He says too loudly, she quickly determines no one heard, but glares at him. He only makes it worse. “Your father was The Hand of the King, the traitor…”

 

“He was never a traitor! He was the most honorable man that ever lived. Joffrey’s a liar. That cunt Cersei too. Don’t you ever say that again.” Her voice is dangerous, not loud but controlled.

 

“Sorry, sorry…” He was just repeating what he’d heard she knows.

 

“He was never a traitor.” She says more calmly.

 

“The Queen would kill you, wouldn’t she?”

 

“Doubtful, I’m much more valuable as a hostage.” She bites out.

 

“And you need to get all the way to Maidenpool?” Maidenpool? Oh, right.

 

“No, that was a lie. I’m going home to Winterfell.”

 

“Winterfell? But that’s almost as far as The Wall? If anyone else finds out… If it had been anyone else last night…”

 

“I know.” She’s embarrassed at her mistake.

 

“Shit!” Then he looks over at her. “Pardon.”

 

“I’m no different than yesterday, Gendry. You’ve been cursin’ and pissin’ in front of me the whole time, you’d better not stop now. Nothing can be different, understand.” He nods that he does, but she’s not sure he’ll be able to keep to it.

 

“So what else was a lie? Your brother?”

 

“No, that was true. My brother Jon is at The Wall. I’d give anything to see him now, but, well… I have to make it home to Winterfell first.”

 

“But why would a li’l lord join The Watch? I sure wouldn’t take the black if I had anythin’ better. I mean everyone knows The Watch is a joke, a punishment for shitheads. Oh, er, criminals.” She’s annoyed at his ignorant assessment.

 

“The Night’s Watch is an honorable tradition that has been around for generations. The Watch mans The Wall and keeps the realm of men safe. Up North we believe taking the black is a worthy sacrifice.” He looks at the thieves and rapers walking the road in front of them and still seems doubtful. She elaborates. “Also, when my father and I left for King’s Landing, there wasn’t really a place for him there anymore.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“My mother was, well she was a right bitch to him.” That felt rather good to say. “She blamed him for something that’s not his fault, treated him like shit all his life.” At his curious look she keeps going, glad to express all her frustration on the subject finally. “He’s a bastard, like you. My father went to war and came back with a babe. It’s him she was mad at, but she took it out on Jon. He never did anything, tried harder than anyone. He gave me this blade, these are his clothes I borrowed; he’s my favorite brother.” She smiles sadly, and he smiles back at her, something unreadable in his eyes.

 

“Your favorite brother, eh? How many’ve you got?”

 

“Four.” His eyes widen at that. She laughs a little at his surprise.

 

“Aye. There’s Robb, he’s oldest. He’s Lord of Winterfell now, but he’s up to the task. Father’s been training him all his life, or he was. Then Jon. Then me.” He interrupts.

 

“How old are you?” He’s studying her so closely, she’s sure she must be reddening.

 

“Ummm.” She has to think. She was fifteen when she left, but. “What month is it?”

 

“Dunno, late autumn to be sure.” She nods.

 

“I’ll be sixteen in a few moons give or take. You?”

 

“I turned nineteen not long before I left.” She nods in acceptance, then continues on.

 

“Bran. He’s like a monkey, always climbing. Always used to get so frustrated whenever I beat him at anything. I can’t help it that I’m a much better archer. What was I supposed to do, let him win?” She asks rhetorically.

 

“O’ course, not.” He smiles.

 

“And baby, Rickon. He’s only six. He won’t understand what happened to Father. Won’t believe it.”

 

“I met your father.” He says suddenly, seriously. She’d known that once, but she’d forgotten. And she didn’t know all the specifics.

 

“What… what did you talk about?” He scratches his head, collecting his thoughts.

 

“He asked me about my mum, what she was like. Same as The Hand before him. Wanted to know if I was alright.”

 

“Anything else?” She prompts, desperate for any information on her father.

 

“He liked my helm.”

 

“Did he?” She asks with a smile.

 

“Aye. He wanted to buy it, but I wouldn’t sell it. I swear, I thought my master would skin me alive. But Lord Stark, he said it was fine. I think he respected me for it. He told Master Mott that if I ever wanted to swing a sword rather than forge ‘em, to let him know.” He finishes. She’s silent for a time.

 

“Ari…”

 

“He liked you.” She states simply.

 

“I dunno. I guess so.”

 

“Of course he did. Why wouldn’t he?” He seems pleased by that.

 

“I liked him too.” Of course he did. What had her father wanted with him, why go to all this trouble for him? In the end, intentional or not, her father had died for him. She’d have to ask him the next time they met. “Weird though. I don’t know why he’d bother with the likes o’ me.”

 

And now she was torn. She’d told him most of her secrets, and he’d taken it all well. But he’d already slipped up a few times, and she could imagine keeping his own secret might be harder. She decided to test the waters.

 

“What about your father?”

 

“I’m a bastard Arya, a, Ari. You know that.” He’s still embarrassed about it.

 

“Yeah, but, do you know anything about him, or…?”

 

“I don’t know, don’t care.” Okay.

 

“But, if you could find out, would you want to know?”

 

“The bastard left me and my mum. She got sick and died and he did nothing for her, for me. He can drink himself to death in some tavern for all I care. It’s prolly where he is right now.” He looks angry, jaw clenching. Well, that little revelation can wait.

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

 

“S’alright.” And just like that, he’s back to good-natured Gendry. The funny part is, he’s not far off. The King had drunk himself to death, to be sure. But Arya was pretty sure he’d never known about Gendry’s existence. She’d leave it for now.

 

When Yoren finally calls for them to make camp she can’t believe it, she hadn’t even felt the time go by. Talking about her family, talking openly with Gendry, her good night’s sleep, the fresher smell coming off her person; it was a good day.

 

Sitting down, enjoying their meal of rabbit stew and biscuit, talking about nonsense with her boys; Arya feels herself finally relax.

 


 

As the sky darkens, they hear horses approach their scattered party. The horses’ gaits are heavy, and there is the distinctive clink of armor. Soldiers, goldcloaks, The Queen. She freezes, unable to move. Gendry looks from them to her, eyes wide, and jumps to action where she couldn’t. He pulls her up and settles her into a ravine; he uses his large frame to block her head from view.

 

“Stay down.” He whispers. When the soldiers get closer, he instinctively tries to turn towards them, but she grabs his arm to stop him. He was in danger too. Between her teeth she hisses.

 

“No, stay still. Stay with me.” He does as she asks without hesitation.

 

“You in command here?” The soldier asks, and she knows the voice immediately. It’s that of Ser Meryn, the one who’d beat her on Joffrey’s command.

 

Yoren walks up to him calmly. “Aye, but you could try asking with manners next time.” Ser Meryn ignores him and she hears paper crinkling.

 

“I’ve a warrant for one of these gutter rats you’re transporting.” He says. Gendry looks at her, clearly frightened on her behalf. Truth be told, so is she.

 

“The thing is.” Yoren responds. “Once they join the Night’s Watch, they’re beyond the reach of Kings and Queens.” She couldn’t be more proud of Yoren than in that moment. She hears steel being drawn.

 

“It’s a funny thing, people worry so much about their throots that they forget about what’s doon low. Now I sharpened this blade before breikfast, I could shave a spider’s arse if I wanted to. Or, I could knick this artery in your leg; now once it’s nicked, no one ‘round here knows how to unknick it. We’ll just keep that.”

 

And she hears a sword being unsheathed.

 

“Good steel’s always needed on The Wall. Now it’s your choice, you can die here at this crossroads, or you can go back home and tell the Queen ya didn’t find what you were lookin’ for.”

 

There’s a long pause, the goldcloak weighing his options, before he shouts, “We’re looking for a boy named Gendry, he carries a bull’s head helmet.” Gendry stops breathing, but doesn’t take his eyes off her. “Whoever turns him over, will earn the King’s reward.” The horses neigh as they’re reared on. “We’ll be back, with more men, and we’ll be taking your head along with that bastard boy.”

 

The soldiers ride off, leaving an uncomfortable silence in their wake. Arya can sense the others staring at Gendry with new interest, and she wonders how many will run to Joffrey and collect a reward. She catches Yoren’s eye, who motions with his head for her to follow him, she nods in understanding. She looks back to Gendry to find he hasn’t taken his eyes off her. She expects fear or confusion, but instead finds anger and hurt. Great, just great.

Chapter Text

On the Road 3

 

Arya

 

“Well what you lot waiting for? Clean up, go about yer business.” Yoren instructs, taking a long swig from his flask. Arya waits for everyone to get distracted before making to follow Yoren, except Gendry stops her.

 

“Ari…” He starts, looking so confused, so lost. And she imagines he must be going crazy, being left in the dark. She remembers following her father around, snooping through his things, just wanting to be let in on the secret. And this is even about him.

 

“Come on.” She invites. He follows, but he’s nervous, she can tell.

 

Yoren is quite far out, not wanting to take the chance of being overheard. He turns at the sound of their footsteps, and looks unsurprised that Gendry is there too.

 

“They’ll be back, ya know. Make no mistake.”

 

“I know. Yoren, I’m so sorry. I never meant for this to happen, to get you in trouble. I…”

 

“You’re trouble enough. But when your father asked me to take him, I didn’t expect any o’ this. Whatta they want with him?” He asks motioning to Gendry. Gendry looks at her expectantly. She opens her mouth to respond. “Never mind, I don’t want to know. The less I know the better.” She nods, thinking that wise.

 

“What, exactly, did my father say?”

 

“Just to take him, keep him from taking the black.” Well, that’s news to her. Gendry straightens up as well.

 

“Does The Watch do that?” Gendry asks.

 

“No, we don’t. We’re meant to stay outta the affairs o’ The Realm. I’ve broken that now, twice.”

 

“Thank you, Yoren. I promise, once we reach Winterfell, I’ll repay The Watch with whatever we have to spare, I swear it.”

 

“It’s war now, Boy, you’ll have nothin’ to spare. And I can’t take you to Winterfell, too far, too dangerous.”

 

“I understand; I don’t want to endanger you or the others.” She says calmly, although inside she’s more than afraid of the idea of making it on her own.

 

“I’m goin’ with her.” Gendry declares. She’s not sure if he’s worried for himself or if he’s going for her, but she thanks The Gods just in case.

 

“Of course you are. When we reach the next town, you’ll sneak off into the night. You were never here, we don’t know you, got that?” They both nod vigorously. “Good luck, then. We won’t have another chance to say goodbye.  Take care a yourself, Milady.” He says with a kind smile. She hugs him tight, missing him already. Yoren walks back out to the others, and they just stay, silent.

 

“What aren’t you tellin’ me?” He gets down to it.

 

“Lots of things. Too many things.” She’s suddenly so exhausted.

 

“Why would your father ask The Watch to take me? Why did he give a shit about me?” Well, that was simpler, he’d narrowed it down for her.

 

“Why do you think?” She’d rather he figure it out on his own, it would be too crazy otherwise.

 

“No, no. Don’t fuck around with me. You knew your father came to see me, didn’t you?”

 

“I wasn’t sure. I thought, perhaps, probably. But no, I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t know what he said to you.” He calms a bit at that, but doesn’t let up.

 

“Why would he though?”

 

“Gendry, I… I don’t know how to do this. I tried to talk to you about it earlier, but you didn’t want to hear it. Maybe we should wait a bit for you to calm down…”

 

“What? When did you try to talk to me about this?”

 

“You made it sound like you’ve never even wondered about your father.”

 

“My father. What does that have to do with anything?” He’s exasperated now, and a little desperate.

 

“Come on, Gendry. Hasn’t anyone ever stared for too long? Remarked on similarities? Why would my father, The Hand, and The Hand before him come to see you? Why would The Kingsguard come all this way to look for you? You must have known, or suspected.”

 

“I’m nobody. I’ve always been nobody.” She gently places her palm on his cheek.

 

“You’re important, Gendry. I’m not sure exactly how, but you’re not nobody. My father never meant for you to take the black, he must have had something planned. Of course he never told me anything. I had to go snooping around to figure it out, and even I’m still missing some of the pieces.”

 

“Tell me.” And his request is so clear and plain, she does just that.

 

“Your father was King Robert Baratheon.” Whatever reaction she expected, she did not get. He starts laughing hysterically.

 

“Fuck off.” He says, still laughing.

 

“It’s true. That’s what my father and Jon Arryn wanted with you. They were checking in on the son of their oldest friend. Lord Arryn most likely paid your apprenticeship fee.” He stops laughing at that. “You look like him Gendry. Well, sort of. Black hair, blue eyes, and you’re big and strong…”

 

“So what? Lots of people have black hair and blue eyes. That don’t mean…”

 

“No. Lots of people had black hair and blue eyes. Joffrey had them all killed. That’s what the Goldcloaks want. Joffrey’s having all his father’s bastards killed. And, he had quite a lot of them.”

 

“That’s not…” But he doesn’t finish what he’s going to say.

 

“I heard about it before I left. All over King’s Landing, bastards were being murdered. Even the babies.” She says, thinking of Ros mourning the little girl.

 

“Babies?”

 

“Well, I didn’t know of most of them. Only two for sure. But there was a small child in a brothel. Her name was Barra, your sister, I guess. He had her killed, right in front of her mother.” She says disgusted.

 

“But why?”

 

“Who knows? Joffrey has no morality, no conscience. Killing a small child would be nothing to him.” And she says it with such venom that he is at a loss for what else to say.

 

“This is impossible, Arya. You know that right?”

 

“Do you believe I’m Arya Stark?” She asks.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you believe I’m lying?”

 

“I believe you, but….” He looks down at that.

 

“I know it to be true. I went to the Street of Steel, looking for… well, I didn’t know what. I saw you, and I knew right off.” This gets his attention again.

 

“This is crazy.” He shakes his head. He’s silent for a long time, thinking, putting pieces together. “Well, what do we do next?” And now she’s in a state of shock. He’s accepted it, or more likely pushed it aside, but he was calm.

 

“I don’t know, I have no plans, I didn’t even know you would be here, I swear. I was sure the Goldcloaks were after me, not you. I don’t know, I really don’t.”

 

“We’ll figure it out at the next town, like Yoren said.” Ivy Inn, she thought, half way to Harrenhall. “You decide where we go, and we’ll go.” She wraps her arms around him and hugs him tight.

 

“Whatever happens, I’m glad you’re with me, Gendry.” She tells him honestly, a confession she might not have been able to make if she weren’t pressed up against him.

 

He wraps his arms around her too. “I’m with you.” He promises.

 


 

They try the same trick again, one heading back before the other. She uses the time to finally read the document her father had thought would protect him. He’d written down what The King wrote word for word, careful with his penmanship, and helped his friend to seal it officially with his ring, the wax hot and pliable. She’d been keeping it intact, for what she wasn’t sure. She’d wanted to show someone important, her mother, the next king, whoever she could, to clear her father’s name. But now, with the Goldcloaks, it was too dangerous. She had a clear picture in her mind of The Queen ripping up the other copy like it was nothing. Only paper, she’d said haughtily.

 

She scans through it, most of it she remembered. She wanted to memorize it, to be able to recite it upon request. It was as she remembered, until the end. Her father was indeed named Protector of the Realm, but only until an heir could be named. In her memory, which could be wrong, The King had specifically said Joffrey’s name. Did her father not want Joffrey to rule? Who did he have in mind in his stead? What other secrets did he hold? Dam nit!

 

She certainly agreed with her father, Joffrey should in no way sit on the throne. But he couldn’t have meant Gendry, could he? Gendry wasn’t raised to rule, had no aptitude for it, and would most likely hate it. Then again, anyone would be better than Joffrey. And he’d saved Gendry at the cost of his own life, even going so far as to request he never take his vows on The Wall. What did it all mean? She walked back with more questions than answers, the paper in shreds in her gullet. The unharmed seal she left on the ground.

 

Everyone was staring at Gendry, burning holes into him with their eyes, and she could tell he was deeply uncomfortable. Of all the possibilities, she never imagined it was Gendry who would have to be careful amongst the rough recruits. She could probably take off her binding and no one would even notice. Her face was almost healed, only mottled yellow.

 

Hot Pie and Lommy had many questions, but Gendry didn’t respond to them. Based on his reluctance, they assumed the absolute least plausible scenarios. They decided he was an infamous murderer or a Dornish spy or a hired sword. He and Arya didn’t bother to correct them. In fact, Gendry was particularly quiet, and she was worried about him. She couldn’t imagine how much his world had changed in the space of a day. Finding out she was something more must have been a shock, then to know powerful people wanted him dead, and that deadbeat father he’d been hating all his life, was actually a king… There was no possible way he was dealing. That is if he actually believed her, which she suspected he still didn’t. Maybe she should have said something sooner, but no matter when or how; it still would have sounded crazy and hurt. And as selfish as it sounded, she was glad for the time they’d had as just Gendry and Ari, no pretentions, and the way it forced them on the same side; they were indeed a team. He’d offered to go with her, even before he knew the whole truth.

 

That night she laid down first, though much too pensive to sleep. Later Gendry laid down beside her, obviously thinking furiously, she could almost hear it. Sneakily, she squirmed backwards until she was touching him, until she felt his warmth through her tunic; she’d done it gradually, but he must have noticed. She wasn’t sure why, or what she expected, but it had felt right. She sighs softly in contentment as he puts his arm over her, after much deliberation, and she lets him pull her in close. She feels him fall asleep and follows soon after, uncaring of prying eyes.

 

In her dreams, her father walks over to her sleeping form, Gendry is there with them, but asleep and unresponsive. She frees herself, and stands to address her father. Is Gendry actually with them, or is it just a symbol?

 

“You never meant for him to take the black?” She asks him immediately.

 

“Hello to you too, love. It pleases me greatly to see you well.” He jokingly scolds. She laughs and grabs him for a hug.

 

“Are you really here?” She asks, smelling his unique scent.

 

“I can’t answer that.” She sighs deeply.

 

“Well, what can you tell me? Anything, anything at all?”

 

“I should have told you more, before. If I had trusted you, maybe things would have turned out differently.”

 

“Maybe.” She agrees.

 

“Fight, sweetheart. That is all I can tell you. Fight.”

 

“I am, I will. But, what…”

 

“Fight.” He says again before disappearing.

 

She awakes to shouts and clashing steel. Gendry wakes up at the same time, and instantly they’re on their feet. The fighting is in full swing, and as her gaze locks on Yoren, she watches arrow after arrow pierce his chest, and it’s only Gendry’s arms, which stop her from rushing toward him. Apparently when the soldiers promised they would return, they’d meant immediately.

 

Many of the recruits, men they’d walked beside for weeks, were fighting for their lives. A few had already fallen. She mourned them, even the worst of them.

 

Gendry led her to some thick bushes and made her promise to stay put.

 

“Arya, stay here, promise.” She nods in agreement, though means to do no such thing. He gets up abruptly.

 

She pulls on his hand, trying to drag him down beside her.

 

“I can’t Arya. I can’t let anyone die for me.” He says with conviction.

 

“You’ll die. And I need you.” She reasons. He looks at her sadly for only an instant before kissing her lightly on her temple. It’s not long, and it’s over before she realizes what’s happening, and then he’s running out to fight. She’s furious at him. How dare he risk himself? Did he understand nothing about their current predicament?

 

She watches the fighting from relative safety behind her makeshift cover. It’s killing her to sit still as she watches more fall, valiantly fighting for their lives, and Gendry, and her. It’s not right. She sees Gendry, with no weapon, only his size and muscle, take one out from behind, grab the man’s weapon, and use it. Apparently forging swords had given him at least a basic understanding of wielding them. She watched on as he fought another, clumsily killing him, blood spurting out messily. He was doing well. But there’s so much going on, she loses sight of him.

 

She turns her attention back to the others, and sees Hot Pie dodging blows, surprisingly spry given his weight. She moves from the bushes in case she’s needed. Fire catches her attention out of the corner of her eye. The wooden cage is aflame, Jaquen and the other trapped inside.

 

“Boy.” Jaquen shouts. “Lovely boy, help us.” He pleads. She’s not sure why, but when she sees an axe wedged in a stump she pulls it free and hands it to the Lorathi, who looks at her before handing the weapon off to his companion. Rorge, she believes his name is, starts hacking furiously at the bars.

 

“No, please.” She hears, and turns around to see Hot Pie falling to the ground. She can stand still no longer, she rushes to his aid. No one messes with her pack, not even the fat and weak ones. The soldier has Hot Pie cornered, hovering over him, prolonging the kill out of amusement. From behind the soldier, she focuses and jabs Needle into his right kidney, then twists, the blood gushing out onto her hands. He falls in a gasping pain-filled heap.

 

The shock of killing freezes her in place, and she meets Hot Pie’s scared and dazed eyes. It snaps her out of the stupor; she wipes her bloody hands on the soldier’s shirt, and gets up, only to be knocked in the stomach violently. She lays on the ground, trying desperately to catch her breath. The panic of not being able to breathe is excruciating. She feels hands take her precious blade, but can do nothing. She’s weak, defeated, perhaps about to die.

 

“Up.” The soldier says, voice gruff and demanding. She wants to, but she can’t. Hot Pie reaches down and helps her. She’s dizzy. He slaps her on the back, and suddenly- precious air. She can stand. Her and Hot Pie are shepherded forward, amongst the others. She searches frantically for Gendry and Lommy, but sees neither, she feels herself start to panic once more.

 

Eventually her eyes catch blue, and the relief is so sudden she nearly falls over, Gendry’s there, a little battered, but alive. He smiles upon seeing her as well. But their relief is short-lived.

 

“We’re looking for Gendry. Send him forward, or we’ll start taking eyeballs.” She doesn’t doubt their threats. And as she looks around, she wonders who will be the first to break. She can see the wheels turning in each of their minds, is it more honorable to stay quiet or speak up? Even if no one gives him up, all eyes are on the large smith, and it’s only a matter of time. Only Hot Pie’s gaze is fixed on her, eyes taking in her panic for her friend.

 

“You want Gendry?” He starts. No! No, no no. He can’t. Gendry for his part looks betrayed. “You already got ‘im. He loved that helm.” And he points to Lommy’s dead body not far off, bull’s helm clutched in his stiff dead fingers. The soldier looks satisfied and urges them all forward with threats and sword points in their backs.

 

She looks over at Hot Pie, truly surprised, and gives him a look of deep respect, mouthing thank you. He’d proved honorable, brave, and resourceful. She would not forget his actions that day. Gendry and her find each other and walk so their sides touch, taking small comfort in each other’s presence.

 


 

If she thought walking the King’s Road with The Watch was grueling, she was dead wrong. This was so much worse. And the jewel and ring sliding around in her boot did not help in the slightest. The pace was impossible, they were chained, watched, taunted, and were not given water. To make matters worse, many were injured, including Gendry, who had a nasty bump on his head too, and badly bruised hands. Hot Pie seemed fine, and while her head ached, she could manage. In terms of herself, she was more worried about relieving herself, and how she could sneak off without arousing suspicion. But Gendry’s presence was comforting, and she had to be thankful for small favors. Lommy was gone, his death proving fortuitous, no matter how cold that sounded, and she missed him. Hot Pie was even closer to The Dyer, and she could only imagine his pain. He kept up though and never complained; she saw him in a whole new light.

 

When they did eventually stop, late into the night, she told one of the soldiers that she had to shit. He let her go off with one guard, which Gendry was not happy about, and they went behind some bushes. The guard did not pay attention to her, thinking her little and therefore no threat. She dropped trow out of sight, and relieved herself. To her horror, and morbid amusement she found she had started her period. She had to bite her lip from laughing out loud at her bad fortune. Ripping the end of her tunic, she used it as a makeshift internal sponge, but dreaded the next obstacle.

 

Many were asleep, having had their ration of water. Gendry and Hot Pie were waiting, and she took her portion before joining them. When no one was listening she felt free to speak. But in truth, she was at a loss as to what to say to Gendry. She turned to Hot Pie instead.

 

“That was very brave. I owe you, Hot Pie, truly.”

 

“You saved my life. It was nothing.”

 

“It wasn’t nothing. And I won’t forget it.” She says in all seriousness, which only serves to make him uncomfortable.

 

“Thank you.” Gendry says, and Hot Pie nods in response.

 

“I told you to stay hidden.” Gendry scolds her.

 

“Shut the fuck up.” She says simply, and a corner of his lip quirks up at that. They all fall asleep huddled together, stomachs growling.

 

After another insanely long march, they make it to their destination. She had long since bled through her pants, and the disgusting feel of it, combined with her helplessness and fear, brought her the closest to tears she’d been since she’d started the journey. She has a story ready for if the soldiers notice, but no one does. The hunger and the cramps mix together to turn her stomach into a mound of dough being perpetually kneaded. She does her best to ignore it. They arrive. She is both awed and scared shitless upon their arrival. Harrenhal, all burnt black stone, melted and twisted.

 

“Where are we?” Hot Pie asks.

 

“Harrenhall.” She answers.

 

“What happened here?” Gendry asks.

 

“Dragons.” She responds.

 

“There’s no such thing as dragons.” He doubts her.

 

“But there were. What else could melt stone?” She reasons. This place housed evil, true horrors, she could smell the death, and she had no way to prepare for it. Her weapon was gone, part of her pack dead, and the rest chained.

 

They’re brought to a pen, an actual pen for livestock, and fenced in amongst other clearly terrified and battered souls. She can see the dead look in their eyes, most likely reflected in her own. There’s no privacy, no blankets, no food, only mud. The soldiers disappear and she goes off to a fetid corner to relieve herself and change her bled-through cloth. She doesn’t want to speak too soon, but this seems the new lowest point of her existence, which was saying quite a bit given her time with Joffrey. Afterwards, she checks Gendry’s injuries, prodding gently at his skull, and decides it’s nothing serious; he has quite a hard head.

 

Someone begs for food and receives a kick to the face. Later, a woman, middle aged, is dragged from the pen by two men; they can all hear her cries. Tears do fall from her eyes then, for how useless she is. If only she could stop this. It reminded her of her time with Joffrey, which wasn’t fair, as what this woman was suffering was far worse. After all, she’d gone willingly to her fate; she’d suggested it. This woman was dragged kicking and screaming out, she could hear her fighting; strength, where she’d had none. Gendry wraps his arms around her, she flinches at first, but then lets herself melt into him, trying hard to block out the sounds, trying hard not to remember her own screams. The woman is brought back in when they’re done with her, and she’s deadly quiet. But Arya can see a twitch in her eye as she stares at nothing, rolling herself into a ball. No matter what tomorrow brings, she is scarred beyond repair. Arya thinks about all the soothing things she could say, perhaps holding her tight, promising vengeance. But she can promise nothing, and she knows from experience the woman won’t want to be touched.

 

It’s the next morning when things get even worse. She finds herself constantly surprised, she believes things to be the most miserable that they can be, and then a new angle tips the scale. The people here, they torture them for information, information they don’t have. No one survives, and the means of their death is excruciating. It’s only a matter of time before its her, or someone she loves.

 

The Mountain picks one villager, then they’re placed in a chair, a rat in a bucket tied to their chest. The Tickler asks them questions- Where's the gold hidden? Where’s the Brotherhood? And so on and so forth. No one knows, or at least they all claim not to. She certainly has no clue what they’re talking about. Without fail, the person is eaten alive; fire forcing the rat to chew its way to freedom; both the vermin and the prisoner dead. How long until it’s her? Her father doesn’t visit her in this place, though that might have more to do with her inability to sleep. Instead of dreams, she recites a list. The names of those she will make suffer.

 

The night her period finishes is the night they choose a young girl, too young. Arya sits still, fingers clenched, sick with herself. She can imagine it’s her, innocent and naïve. She doesn’t believe the girl has yet become a woman, but she will have to suffer the indignity all the same. The question becomes very simple, and her hand unclenches- Can she live with herself if she does nothing? The answer is a resounding No.

 

“Hot Pie.” She addresses him, and he gives her his full attention. “Protect this with your life. And never call him by his name.” She gives him the ring and shakily gets to her feet. Gendry notices too late and tries to pull her back down, but she’s already stepping forward, entire body shaking.

 

“Leave her be.“ She says, Gendry grabbing at her ankles to pull her back. “Take me instead.” She orders, but her voice cracks on me. They laugh in her face. What exactly they find funny escapes her.

 

“We don’t want boys, we ain’t that desperate, we ain’t faggots. When we finish with all the girls, then we’ll see.” She’s not deterred.

 

“I am a girl.” She proclaims, not as loud as she’d meant. They stop laughing, but the grins haven’t left their faces. One with light brown hair, black eyes, no chin, and rather stocky shoulders grabs her roughly, and Gendry rushes him. She tries to tell him with her eyes to sit quietly, but he doesn’t look at her. The other, whitish blonde hair and the lightest shade of brown eyes she’s ever seen hits Gendry with the hilt of his sword, hitting the exact same spot where his bump was. She flinches, but the brunette one is holding her so tight she can barely move. He slides his hand beneath her shirt and feels the tightly wound bandages over her breasts.

 

“We’ve got a ripe one, boys!” He exclaims, excited. It’s he and the white-haired one that take her away, she can hear struggles in the pen, but can only focus on her current predicament. A far away part of her is glad she’s being taken away from the others, that her indignity will be private.

 

Her mind immediately starts analyzing- no help, no weapons, 2:1 odds, and possible death. She will fight through the fear until her last breath, no more being a willing victim. She struggles, making it hard for them to keep her still. They get her stripped, cutting off her binding with her little blade, barely avoiding cutting into her flesh. The one with no chin rips her pants open and gets atop her. She nearly heaves at the feel of his hands on her, vision swimming. She squirms until she has more movement and then kicks her knee up as hard as she can onto his swollen member. He curses loudly and she takes the time to turn over, crawling out from under him. The light blonde grabs her, and her fingers fruitlessly search for purchase in the dirt. She can feel his hands prying her legs apart, ragged nails digging into her flesh, but her fingers never stop their searching. Eventually, she feels a large rock beneath her fingertips, clutches it, and with a force she didn’t know she possessed, she smashes it into the side of his head.

 

He lets go immediately at this, but she doesn’t stop. She winds up, and brings it down again. She keeps hitting him, keeps going until his head is mush, until she feels the bloody pulp grind into the dirt; red and pink and gray spreading on the ground, a pool of blood forming.

 

But the first one, the chinless black-eyed soldier grabs her; having recovered form the severe kick to his balls. She screams a battle cry and swings wildly with the rock. He easily incapacitates her arm, but she keeps thrashing for freedom, wild with adrenaline, and whenever any part of him gets close to her face, she bites viciously at the air. She catches his lip, bites hard enough to draw blood, and at his yell of frustration, she rears back and head butts him with all her might. The impact leaves her dizzy, but he is completely disoriented. Naked she gets up shakily, and crawls back to the soldier she’d killed. She reaches for his sword, brandishing it more steadily than she knew possible.

 

At this she runs back towards the pen, not at all sure it will offer safety, but instinct leads her back to her pack. The man, limping painfully, stands in her path. She points the sword at him, a few of his brothers in arms stand by his side, lowering her odds considerably, now 3:1. But she doesn’t back down, doesn’t loosen her hold of the sword, standing naked and tall.

 

“Put that down and crawl back to your corner.” A tall skinny blonde soldier says, motioning her back in. She looks over at him quizzically and notices his armor and insignia are more intricate, cost more. He’s higher ranking than the others. He reaches out tentatively to grab the blade, and the other opens the gate. She steps in and loosens her grip on the hilt; the superior officer easily takes the blade from her as the other closes the gate behind her. The soldier she’d personally injured looks as though he wants to tear her apart with his bare hands, but the higher up holds him back. “Tywin will want to deal with her personally.” He says, and while the stocky brunette looks at her with pure hate, he follows orders.

 

She walks past the other sheep; terrified prisoners all, staring at her in wonder, never having seen someone fight back and return unscathed. Gendry immediately places his shirt atop her shoulders and helps her to pull it down, covering all, barely. The little girl with lovely auburn hair, looking even younger than she’d thought, clings onto her sobbing. She strokes her hair and comforts her telling her it will be alright. Gendry asks her if she’s hurt, not looking her in the eye. She knows what he’s really asking.

 

“They didn’t get to do much. They touched me, but I made them regret it.” She answers proudly.

 

Hot Pie is looking at her in amazement, obviously having no idea she was a girl. He simply says.

 

“That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.” The girl is still crying, but Arya can no longer stand her tears, afraid she’ll dissolve too. She disengages the girl and passes her to Hot Pie. Gendry looks an even bigger mess than before, covered in bruises.

 

“Don’t you ever, ever do anything that stupid again. Imagine if they… You don’t know what could’ve happened to you, but you…” He’s utterly terrified, she can see; still traumatized from his beating and watching her get dragged away, hearing her screams, watching her get returned naked.

 

“I knew what I was doing. Better than you.” She answers simply, coldly.

 

“Fine, I don’t know what I would have done if…” He doesn’t finish, swallowing painfully.

 

She doesn’t know how to feel or what more to say. She had been terrified too, and the remembrance of it made her skin crawl. But she’d fought this time, choosing a possible death over weakness. And she knew she’d do it again, knew what she was capable of. And when she’d had the sword in her hands, it had all come back to her, playing pretend with her brothers, knocking sticks, pretending to be knights. That was before her mother put a stop to it. Imagine if she’d learned properly. But she’d done her brothers proud all the same, and her father too, she hopes.

 

Still, she’d made an enemy tonight, and she hadn’t missed the mention of one ‘Tywin’ who she could only speculate to be the one and only Lannister patriarch. But just the same she scoots back against Gendry, and lets him hold her tight, tighter than he ever had before. She feels furious eyes watching her, and doesn’t need to look up to know it’s the soldier she’d beaten, the one she’d humiliated. She couldn’t guess if she would sleep that night or not; or if she did, what her father would have to say.

Chapter Text

Harrenhall

Arya

No, her father wouldn't show his face in this hell. Instead she found a dreamless half sleep, one which she could only bring about by thinking of revenge. Instead of picturing the faces of those she loved, it was those she hated. Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, Ser Meryn, The Tickler, Polliver, The Mountain, Raff the Sweetling… She'd already killed one, she could kill the rest. She would, with her own two hands.

Though she found some comfort in being held by Gendry at night, the days were filled with screams, pleading to be spared, and sobbing relatives. She asked Hot Pie for the ring back, but he looked embarrassed when he told her he'd swallowed it to keep it safe. She laughed then and hugged him tight, he didn't return it, clearly too surprised to react. When no one was looking, she buried the ruby deep into the dirt beside a the fence. It was safer there. They kept away from her, the blonde in charge of the prisoners had ordered her to be saved for Tywin, and Gendry never went farther than a few inches from her in hopes of deterring them further. And if they tried again, she would fight again.

But they didn't take her or the little girl who was named Dayra, who Arya found out was eleven, but just barely. No, the one thing that could possibly make it all worse happened instead.

At the choosing, The Mountain pointed just above her head. It was in slow motion that she realized to whom he was pointing- Gendry. They dragged him off, and she screamed, grabbing at the monstrous creature. Gendry looked back at her, and shook his head no, that she should do nothing, then to Hot Pie. The fat boy tried to hold her back, but she slipped out from him easily. But then something strange happened, the others in the pen formed a tight circle around her, keeping her from fighting, keeping her from getting herself killed. She looked each in the eye in turn; there was some pity there, but there was resolve as well. They meant to keep her alive, they felt she should live. She wanted them to mind their own damn business.

"Is there gold or silver in the village?" They ask him, and she thinks about the single ruby hidden in the dirt, contemplates if it would be enough to save him. Knowing it will only doom them both.

"I'm not from the village." He says, breathing in panicked breaths. She can't see him, the villagers blocking her view, but she can hear it all.

"Where is the Brotherhood?"

"I don't know what that is." She hears the rats squeaking, straps being buckled.

She drops to her knees and digs her fingers into the earth, too far from the trees. She pray to The Gods. Please, please save him. Please save him. Please save him. Please.

A gate is raised and horses gallop through. The villagers disperse then, and she can see an imposing older man, thinning blonde hair, pure golden armor emblazoned with a lion. Tywin Lannister.

The torturers scramble to greet their lord. "Lord Tywin, we didn't expect you back so soon." One says.

"Clearly." He replies drily. His keen eyes take in the scene immediately, including Gendry. Arya can see he's still alive, if shaken, and she breathes. "What are you doing with these prisoners?"

"The cells are overflowing, Milord. But this lot won't be here long. After we're done interrogatin', we usually just…" The Tickler assures him.

"Are we so well-manned that we can afford to discard able young bodies and skilled laborers?" He turns his attention to Gendry then. "You there, do you have a trade?"

Gendry looks over at her for an instant before answering, struggling to catch his breath.

"Smith, Milord." She sighs in relief, finally. The Gods had listened.

"There you have it. Untie him and get him to work, that goes for the rest of them as well."

"Milord." It's the blonde soldier, the one who'd ordered her be untouched. "There's something else that might interest you." Tywin looks intrigued. "This one." And he's pointing at her. "She killed Denby, and took his sword. It took three of us to get it back and shove her in with the rest."

"Oh, and how did she manage that?" Though he has clearly gleaned the answer from her state of undress.

"Well, she…" It's the black-eyed one who responds. Tywin laughs.

"Did you do that to her hair, too?" He asks. But he doesn't wait for a response. "Bring her to my chambers, I'll deal with her personally."

She takes one last look at Hot Pie, then Gendry's worried face, before she's dragged along to treat with Tywin Lannister. Had he recognized her? What did he want with her? The Gods give and take away.

He takes her up to his private rooms, and she's struck by how clean it is, and how finely decorated. There are tapestries, large books, silver, and fine wood. It hadn't really been so long since The Red Keep, but it felt a lifetime ago, the grandeur of the room was disconcerting.

He directs her to a basin of water in the corner and instructs her to wash her face and hands, and drink if she is thirsty. She does drink, and scrubs her hands and face, the back of her neck too, the water turning near black.

"What's your name, girl?" He asks before she'd finished washing.

"Nan." She says, before remembering. "Milord."

"And where are you from Nan?" He takes off his gauntlets.

"Maidenpool, Milord." He nods at that.

"And now, in your own words, tell me about the soldier, one of mine, that you killed." He sits comfortably, clearly attentive for a good story. She needs to be careful, he's clever enough to pick up on her speech patterns.

"They was takin' girls off to the side, one every night." He nods, signaling his understanding. "They was gonna take a li'l one, I volunteered to take her place."

"Why would they choose a young girl over you? You're flowered, are you not?" Why were these Lannisters so interested in her monthly flow? She nods. "Why then?"

"They di'nt know I was a girl, Milord." He smiles at that, taking her in properly.

"Fools. It's plain as day. You're smart, girl. Well, it would have been smarter to stay hidden, but, smart."

"Thank you, Milord." Pushing the words past her throat is difficult. He nods dismissively.

"Get cleaned up properly, find something to wear, something a girl would wear this time, eat something, and then report back."

"Milord…?"

"I'll need a new cupbearer. Now go one, you're wasting time." She runs off to fulfill his requests.

What had just happened? A cupbearer to a Lannister? It seemed he hadn't recognized her, and she was reasonably sure he wouldn't, the bruise was almost gone already.

Shelby, one of the serving girls showed her to a cold bath and cropped her hair until it was even. Tywin had told her to choose clothes that showed she was a girl, but he hadn't specified a dress. She chose pants and a tunic once more, but they actually fit her frame, and she no longer had to wear the breast binding, which she was glad for. Shelby made her wear a belt around her waist to accentuate her figure. She kept Gendry's shirt though, telling herself she'd return it to him, but wanting it more for herself.

She went to the kitchens next where they gave her a pasty filled with chicken, peas, and gravy. She ate it so fast, she was nearly sick. Then it was back to Tywin for inspection, a more complete meal for His Lordship. He laughed at her chosen ensemble but deemed her acceptable. He had a long list of chores he needed her to finish in the morning, and expected them done efficiently. She was to sleep in his chambers from now on, on soft cushions in the corner; the fire close enough to keep her warm. He told her it was merely to keep her close should he need anything in the middle of the night. She slept with one eye open, clutching Gendry's shirt. Tywin didn't touch her, and she figured he must be telling the truth.


Getting Lord Tywin's breakfast the next day she found Hot Pie, who had been given a job in the kitchens. The fat boy cried when he saw her and initiated the hug this time. He said he was fine; that the head cook was impressed with his baking and treated him well. He said Gendry was in the forge, but distraught because he was worried sick about her; having heard where she was sleeping.

She'd known Gendry was fine, Tywin had ordered him put to work, but of course Gendry would assume the worst. She longed to see The Smith, but Tywin was keeping her incredibly busy, not a moment to herself so far, and she knew it would be impossible. She asked Hot Pie to take him a message, but she had so much to say and the boy couldn't remember it all. Finally she settled on- 'I'm well, don't worry. I hope they're feeding you. I'll come see you when I can.' Before she left she inquired as to Hot Pie's bowel movements, to which he said there was nothing yet, but he promised to keep a close eye out for the ring.

After a time, Tywin trusted her enough to pass along messages, fetch documents and books, sort records and numbers, attend him at council meetings, delegate instructions to lesser lords, and mostly keep him company. She was livid at having to serve a Lannister, but at the same time found herself quite enjoying the nature of the work. It would be a challenge for her mind, for once.

She listened attentively of course, and found out some truly vital information. One, and most importantly, her brother Robb had named himself King of the North. Her brother, a king. He was winning battles, and Tywin was nervous, though he didn't display it outwardly. She could tell though, as he'd always clench his fist whenever he read about news concerning Robb.

He wanted battle plans and strategies sent out by raven and tasked her with this. The first few times she did her job perfectly, following his instructions to the letter. But as the master of the ravens grew more comfortable with her, and more distracted with her flirting and unlaced tunics, she purposefully mixed up the messages, and even managed to send some duplicates to bannermen loyal to Robb. She thought about adding in something personal, just to let him know she was alive, but decided it couldn't be risked. All in all, she was quite pleased with her spying and entirely too confident in her abilities.

While returning from her latest errand, she heard a whisper. "Boy, lovely boy." She knew who it was in an instant. Jaquen, he had survived the fire. He was even more impressive now, clean and upright, dressed in Lannister colors, the gold offsetting the red.

"You're alive." She says stupidly. He smiles.

"Yes, thanks to a friend. Are we friends, Ari?"

"Nan." She corrects immediately.

"Is it? Whatever a girl says, this man will go along. Friends, yes?" Were they friends? She hesitates.

"I… I suppose." He smiles wider at this.

"And a friend owes another friend. You helped a man, showed him kindness, and saved his life. For these three, he will gift the girl three."

"Three what?"

"Three deaths, to be paid to The Red God."

"Dead? Who else is dead?"

"That is for you to say, lovely girl. Who would you have this man kill?" She found it difficult to understand his riddles; his habit of speaking in the third person was confusing. But she could almost decipher his meaning.

"You'll kill who I say?" She asks carefully.

"Just so."

"Anyone?" She clarifies.

"A man has said. Would you have it so?" He asks expectantly. She only nods, not really sure what she's doing. He grins again. "When a girl is ready, she will speak the names, and it will be done. Until then." And he bows to her, before disappearing. What just happened? More than anything she wanted to talk to Gendry, or her father, or even Hot Pie. But she never seemed to get the chance, there was always too much to consider. And she was late with some chore or other.

The next day, she brings Tywin his lunch, mutton in a garlic sauce and roasted potatoes with dill. Mmmm, dill… He tucks in, but gives her no further instructions. She just stands to the side awkwardly as he eats everything, knife and fork scraping the porcelain. He keeps shooting her odd glances out of the corner of his eye.

"Why are you hovering, girl?"

"Sorry, Milord. Whatta you want me ta do?" He looks impatient; she thinks he probably has to take a shit. He sure ate that mutton fast. For a moment she wonders if Lannisters really do shit gold.

"Nothing just now, go run along." She doesn't need to be told twice and dashes out, right to the forge. Finally, no other place she needs to be.

She finds it easily enough, the sound of hammering her biggest clue. She walks in to find he's alone, his back to her, hard at work. His white shirt clings to him in certain sweaty patches. She's content to just watch him for a while. And honestly, she feels shy towards him. After weeks together on the road with The Watch, days plastered to each other's sides, and then days more without even a glimpse of him, just an old smelly shirt; she doesn't really know how she should act around him. But she's a Stark, not a coward.

"Hi." She greets. But he can't hear her over the hammering. "Hey." She says louder. At this he puts down his hammer and turns to her. At the elated look on his face, she smiles widely and feels less confused. She runs into his arms, and being held by him again, it feels like home.

"You alright?" He asks into her short hair.

"Fine. Didn't Hot Pie give you my message?"

"Yeah, but, who could believe him? How was I to know for sure? But you're fine?" He caresses her cheek.

"Yes. Tywin has me running all about, this and that. But I think he likes me, I'm well-treated."

"Hot Pie had a message for you too." Really? She pulls away to look at him. "He said he finally shit. What the hell is he talking about?"

"Oh." And she chuckles a bit. "Never mind, don't worry about it."

"Ary…" He starts, but stops himself just in time. "Whatever you're doing, be careful, you never know…" She cuts him off with a wave of her hand.

"I know. And you? Are you alright?" She feels his stomach where the rat was, but there are no scratches or marks.

He swallows at her touch. "Fine. They're feeding me. Work's hard, but…" She interrupts.

"I have so much to tell you, but I don't know when I'll get the chance, I..."

"Shh, Ari. Everybody's listenin', all the time."

"Nan." She tells him. At his confusion she explains. "I go by Nan now. I thought Ari was too close to…"

And she doesn't get to finish because he's kissing her. All the fear, all the loneliness, all the pain and ugliness gets pushed aside. His lips are as smooth as she'd thought, his hair is soft between her fingers, and before she knows it her palms are gliding down his neck and onto his shoulders, clasping at his back. His hands are around her waist, splaying on her lower back and stomach, bringing her closer until her chest is pressed up against his. She tastes sweet apple, from the tarts she'd had for breakfast.

"For fucksakes! Are you mental, boy?" The master of the forge interrupts them rudely, and they spring apart. "She's favored by Lord Tywin, you think he'll want your hands on her?"

"Ben…" Gendry starts.

"I won't say nothin'. You lose a hand and I'm short a worker. We got too much to get done. Get your head outta your ass, boy." Ben Blackthumb warns.

"Yes, Master." Gendry says and hangs his head.

"And you better head back." He tells her. She listens, she runs. She finds a secluded spot to hide, to think.

What's wrong with her, what's she doing? It was like her mind completely shut down and all thought of consequences just flew out the window. The smith was right, His Lordship would not approve, and very well could punish Gendry for touching what 'belonged' to him. They'd gotten off easily; she could just imagine what else could have happened. What's more, she did not need anyone looking too closely at Gendry, Tywin especially. He'd known Robert well, Gendry's lowborn status was all that kept the Lannister from getting a good look at his blue eyes. Fuck!

Not to mention the not so small matter of her betrothal. When she'd first been told, she was furious, promised to a stranger, she could only focus on how unfair it was, how trapped she felt. Then, in the capital, she'd been grateful; she'd thought to use it to keep Joffrey away from her and stop The King from sniffing around. That hadn't worked too well, and she'd ended up leaving King's Landing ruined. Getting home seemed the most important thing, the only thing; any wedding far down the line.

Would the deal still stand if they knew she no longer had her maidenhead? Could she keep it hidden? Did she want to? Maybe it could be a way out. But would that mean an end to the support of The Vale? Her brother would need those men against the Lannisters.

And she never expected to find Gendry, to feel… anything. None of this was fair to him, and he was still in the dark about so much. He had no idea the scope of what he was now caught up in. She knew she needed him, but in what way? What exactly did he want from her, for that matter? So many questions, but the one thing she knew was- she couldn't afford distractions.

By dark, she had to be back in Tywin's quarters, one of his rules. She makes it back in time to set out his things for the next day. As she lays down for the night, her mind blanks into blissful oblivion. Then, remembering the kiss, the way they'd both desperately clutched each other; she falls asleep with her smiling face pressed against her new favorite shirt.

That night she saw her father; he was standing in the doorway and beckoned her to follow. She did eagerly, padding on bare feet.

"Daddy." She says, hugging him with all her strength. Everything since Yoren's death had been weighing on her, and she still hadn't gotten the chance to deal with it. First and foremost before the questions, she's just so thankful to see him again.

"You're alright, my girl. You'll be fine." He says as he releases her.

"Did you see what happened? I was just trying to…"

"I'm proud of you, love. Of everything you've done. I know you meant well." He tells her earnestly, grey eyes looking into her own. And she feels a weight lift off her shoulders.

"But what now? Who do I kill? Jaquen has said I can name anyone. Who should I choose?" His bearded face turns stern.

"In the North, we believe you must take a life with your own hands. What Jaquen offers is unnatural, you should turn him down."

"But there are too many names, too many who deserve death. I can cross them off my list, our list, Robb's enemies too."

"You'll do what you see as right, I suppose. It's kept you alive. You and the boy both." She looks down at that, embarrassed.

"About Gendry…" And he smiles once more.

"I'm not surprised." This is too weird, even for her. "You must take him and go. Find safety in family."

"But go where? With The Watch, we blended in. Alone, we'll never make it all the way to Winterfell."

"I never said, your family." He smooths out her hair, the fire crackles, and she's awake.

She has a few more answers than before; she just hopes she understood her father correctly.


Her first duty of the day is to check for new ravens from The South.

There are two letters, one must stay untouched, and she chooses the one from Stannis Baratheon. An omen, she thinks. She reads as she walks, but as the content sinks in, her feet stop moving. All the rumors proven true. She's blocking the narrow corridor, but doesn't care. A few grumble and squeeze around her. One violently shoves her aside, causing her to lose her balance and fall forward to the ground, her hands coming up to protect her just in time. She looks up to see the ugly smirking face of the Tickler, bulbous lump protruding from his neck. She remembers the way he'd put a rat to Gendry's chest, to many chests, delighting in their screams and fear. She immediately seeks out Jaquen, decision made.

"Has a girl decided what she would ask of a friend?"

"The Tickler." She says, no pleasantries. He smiles.

"It will be done."

She wanders off first this time, a new destination in mind, the kitchens. There she finds Hot Pie, who is delighted to see her and hands her a fresh roll. When she makes no move to leave, a look of understanding comes across his face and he reaches into his pocket, hand shut tight, and places the object in her palm, all without letting anyone see what's inside. He promises he washed it thoroughly, but she still doesn't like touching it. She stuffs it down her shirt, thanks him, and delivers the undisturbed message, stone-faced, to Lord Tywin. All the while contemplating the news she'd just read.

Joffrey Lannister was actually an illegitimate bastard; a product of incest. She was inclined to believe it. Stannis' proclamation not far-fetched at all. It would explain everything. Her father must have believed as well. Tywin, however, took the other letter and ripped it to shreds. Typical Lannister. The Lord is clearly distraught. She hadn't had the chance to read that one, perhaps she should have. She digs up her courage and asks.

"What does it say, Milord?"

"My son, he's been captured by the wolves." She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling.

"I'm sorry, Milord." She lies, careful to squint her eyes in sympathy.

"My son, my heir. He's alive, but who knows for how long. Those fucking Northerners." She'd never heard Lord Tywin curse before and she was glad he was so out of sorts. He was losing, and now he was starting to know it.

"Yes, Milord." At that he looks at her more closely.

"What do you know of this?"

"Nothing, Milord. You jus' tol' me." Careful, Arya, rein it in.

"Still, You must have heard something around the hall. What are the small folk saying about the war?"

"I'm not sure what ya mean, Milord." She scrunches her face up in confusion, playing dumb.

"You're not stupid girl, so stop acting like it. Tell me the rumors you've heard." He demands.

"Well. There's some talk, 'bout your grandson, Milord. His father and..." He looks disconcerted at this, and she's sure the 'talk' is absolutely true. He quickly changes the subject, unwilling to entertain the rumors.

"And this self-styled 'King in the North', what do they say of him?"

"They say he has ice in his veins and that he rides a giant direwolf into battle. They say he can't be killed."

"And do you believe them?" He is truly interested in her response.

"No Milord. Anyone can be killed." He looks at her strangely then, and she curses her damn pride and reckless nature. Luckily, an interruption saves her from any more scrutiny.

There's a knock. "My Lord." The tall blonde bannerman enters, his name is Brent she'd found out later, and he had Lannister blood.

"Yes yes, what is it?"

"The Tickler is dead." He says. Well well well, the day just keeps getting better.

"So? Why should I care?" He asks frustrated.

"It's just, he was murdered, My Lord." This Tywin does find interesting. He leaves to investigate, and she tags along.

His body is splattered on the cobblestones, making it obvious he had fallen from a great height. It might have seemed an accident, but his neck is twisted clean around, and its obvious not even such a fall could be the cause. A wicked grin spreads across her face. Tywin notices.

"You find this amusing?" He asks.

"I didn't like 'im, Milord." As always, lie with as much truth as possible.

Tywin humphs in dismissal, officially uninterested. And she had been in his chambers the entire time; he had no reason to suspect her.

He orders the servants to clean up the mess and be done with it. Among them, Dayra, the young girl whose virtue she'd saved. The girl smiles at her, but goes about her task diligently. If she hadn't stepped forward, the girl might not be able to muster that smile now. The Gods knew she had a hard enough time smiling these days.

On to the next name, she decides. That fucking rapist Raff the Sweetling. Just waiting for his chance to make Arya pay for his humiliation. She meant to put an end to him. When she found Jaquen later, she gave the name, and he said it would be done.

The next day, a washerwoman finds Raff's body floating in a large tub of lye, and Arya is elated.

But the third name will be the most important. She won't have another chance. The obvious choice would be Tywin, but something in her rejects the idea. She tells herself, with him gone, she will lose out on vital information and the safety of his protection. But the fact was, she'd come to like the old man a bit, he valued her intellect, and that was rare indeed. Even as she hated herself for the traitorous sentiment. She could kill The Mountain, but apart from being despicable, he also has no brains, and his death will not influence the war in her family's favor. Polliver stole her blade, but he was nothing, no one. The other members of her list weren't present, and besides, she quite wanted to end their lives personally. It would have to be Tywin.

But she took too long, he rode out to battle the following day and she lost her chance. The Mountain was now in charge, and things were even more violent and chaotic than before. She avoided him whenever possible, hiding out in dark corridors for as long as possible, sneaking in with Shelby at night.

Eventually Jaquen found her, wanting the third name.

"A girl must name a third and it shall be done." She didn't want to name a third. She still needed his help.

"I don't need another death. This place is full of death." He nods but looks confused. "Help me and my friends escape." She requests instead.

"This was not the man's promise. Three deaths was what the man said."

"I know, but. You said we were friends. I need a friend, help us escape."

"A girl would leave a man?"

"You can come too, a true friend will be welcome." And she means it. He looks truly touched at her offer.

"What a girl asks is complicated, it was not part of the deal."

"Well then we can make a new deal." She says.

"The girl requires many deaths. This a man can do, but he must have it's like in return."

"You want me to kill?" She asks. He nods. "But if I could do it myself I wouldn't need you. I'll repay you somehow, someday, but I need your help now. Please, Jaquen."

"A man can do this thing. But a girl must fulfill her promise. One day. The lives that are taken here, must be taken by your hand when you are able."

"Whose lives?" She asks suspicious.

"No one you know, no one you care for."

"When, how?"

"Time means nothing, death is death. And as for how, a man will teach a girl." She knows she should think it over, but she's getting antsy living within the walls of this hell. Her father told her to go too. She worries about continuing to avoid The Mountain, and misses her brother; she knows she must fulfill her promises and somehow resolve the chaos in the Seven Kingdoms.

"Fine, I'll do it." He smiles from ear to ear.

"The deal must be made official." He says.

"We never needed anything like that before."

"Before was no deal, those were favors. This is something more, a promise, an oath, a vow."

"Blood then? Shall I prick my finger, or…" He chuckles.

"No blood, there is enough blood spilt. No, a kiss." He says. And it's the last thing she thought he would say. She wants to refuse, thinking of Gendry's kiss. But a deal is a deal. Too late now.

"Fine." She says. He doesn't move, apparently it's her that must initiate it. She presses her lips to his and finds his lips are normal. He doesn't run hot, but she'd expected ice-cold flesh. And just like that it's over, not unpleasant, but not quite real.

"A girl and her friends will walk out the front gate at midnight." He promises and walks away. There's much to plan.

Hot Pie is easiest; the kitchen is so accessible that no one thinks twice about her presence there. She tells him to be ready tonight with as much food as he can safely bring, too much will look suspicious. He agrees but looks frightened. Next she digs up the ruby at first dark. Gendry is more difficult; she has no valid reason to be in the forge. So she sneaks in through the tiny window in the forge.

Upon Gendry's arrival, Ben Blackthumb had been given small quarters in the castle, and Gendry was given the tiny bed above the forge. When she enters he is already dead asleep on the little bed, sheets pulled low, and she notices he's nude beneath. Distractions. Silent as a cat she approaches him and puts her hand atop his mouth to stifle any noises. His eyes pop open in alarm before he sees its her. She removes her hand and he whispers rather loudly.

"What are you doin' here?" His dark hair is all ruffled from sleep and she finds it adorable.

"We're leaving tonight, get your things and some swords." He holds onto her forearm to stop her leaving.

"What? Leaving where? What are you talking about?"

"We're escaping tonight, I've got it all figured out."

"They'll catch us, they'll kill us."

"They won't. Trust me." His eyes drop to her lips, and without her brain's permission, she kisses him. He kisses her back, and she has to brace herself to keep from falling on top of him. She could get lost once more, but knows she must stay focused. This is too important, she's not dead yet. She reluctantly pulls away, a thousand thoughts warring for dominance in her brain. She's breathing heavily as she says, "Before midnight, be ready."

Sure enough, Hot Pie and Gendry are waiting for her patiently, and she feels her chest swell with relief and affection for her pack. They trust her, they're loyal, she can count on them.

"I got rolls, cheese, dried meat…" Hot Pie starts listing before she shushes him.

"Did you get us weapons?" She asks Gendry, and he nods, holding out one to her. He looks unsure though. She kisses him on the cheek, at which he blushes prettily, and they all continue forward in a line three wide.

At the gate they see the way is open, but there are guards blocking their path. Hot Pie and Gendry freeze, certain they will be killed.

"Ari…" Hot Pie says, frightened.

"I thought you said you had it all figured?" Gendry asks.

"It's fine, he said we could just walk out." She answers, more than a little unsure herself.

"Who said?" Gendry asks, eyebrows creased.

"Jaquen." His nostrils flare and he looks angry.

"The murderer from the cage? You trusted him? What else does he know?" He's incredulous. Arya hasn't taken her eyes off the guards, she's noticed they haven't moved, not one inch; not to scratch their balls or shake out leg cramps or yawn. She keeps walking forward, and they follow reluctantly. The guards do not stir and as they pass they see gaping wounds across their necks and puddles of blood beneath their feet. They pass through the gate without incident, and Arya is wearing a huge wolf grin on her face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Arya

They had made it, they were free. But there was a strong air of fear, always looking over their shoulders, waiting for Lannister soldiers to find them. They steered clear of the road, but that meant Arya was less sure of where they were going. In fact, in the mad rush of escape, she's sure they're lost. But she won't admit it, they both had faith in her, and she wouldn't disappoint them. By the time Hot Pie is wheezing from exertion rather than simple panting, she decides they can rest in an outcropping of bushes.

Hot Pie is thrilled and takes out their water, drinking some before passing it around. Gendry is going out of his way not to talk to her. In fact he won't take the water when Arya hands it to him, but when she hands it back to Hot Pie, Gendry asks the boy for a drink. Great. She's hurt, but lets him vent his frustrations. It's clear as day, she'd kept things from him, still was, and he didn't trust her any longer.

Hot Pie notices the tension and does his best to diffuse it.

"So, do you reckon we're far enough away, yet?" Arya shakes her head.

"No, we need to get farther. Tywin's off on some campaign, it'll be The Mountain that finds us, and he won't be so forgiving." She grimaces.

"I can't believe we got out at all. Who killed all those guards?" Hot Pie asks.

"A friend." She says simply.

"A friend? He's not your friend, Arya." Gendry says angrily. She ignores him this time.

"Who, what friend?"

"Jaquen." She says.

"The one from the cage." Gendry specifies.

"The one without a face?"

"No, the Lorathi. With red hair and the shock of white." She tells him.

"Oh, well aren't you two close then."

"Would you just stop? He got us out of there, what difference does it make?"

"What difference? What difference, she says. There musta been at least six dead guards in there. Six! Why'd he do that, Arya? What'd he want in return?"

"Nothing." She lies." He's my friend, that's all."

"Well, he wouldn't do all that for nothin'. He musta wanted something." Gendry reasons.

"And you, why are you helping me, Gendry?" He says nothing and looks away. "You're my friend aren't you?"

"Of course." She lets out a breath and turns to Hot Pie. "And Hot Pie, are we friends?"

"You're my only friends. But I have no bleedin' clue what's goin' on." Hot Pie admits.

"It's different with us, we've been on the road together. Been through Harrenhall." Gendry answers for him.

"So has he, remember? Just drop it." But he won't, why is he so intent on this?

Hot Pie is looking back and forth between them, looking lost.

"The night The Goldcloaks attacked, the cage was on fire, they would have burned to death. I helped set them free. He said he owed me." She explains. Gendry is a little less tense at this.

"But why would you do that, why would you bother?"

"Because before that he helped me. And before that I helped him. It's as simple as that."

"Sounds like friends to me." Hot Pie comments.

"So he knows about you then? Do you know how dangerous that is? He could tell them or…"

"He won't." She says, and she's sure.

"I can't believe you told him."

"I didn't, he just knew. He recognized me, or he figured it out. I don't know."

"Wait, knew what? Who are you?" Hot Pie asks confused.

"No one." Gendry answers quickly.

"I know you're important. That ring was expensive."

"What ring?" Gendry asks.

"The one she asked me to swallow."

"I did not ask you to swallow it. You did that all on your own." She points out.

"You told me to protect it wit my life. I was jus tryin' to…" He huffs.

"No, you did well. I'm very thankful, Hot Pie. Truly." She reassures him.

"What ring?" He asks again. He's suspicious of everything now.

"It should be worth a lot. Maybe we could buy horses."

"We're not selling it." She says angrily. End of discussion.

"But, we're not with The Watch anymore, event'lly we'll run outta food. Wid jus a bit o' coin, we could…"

"We're not selling it. But here." She says and produces the ruby to which both of their eyes get huge.

"'Ave you had that all this time?" Gendry asks, scandalized.

"Yes."

"Great! We can stay in Inns now, proper baths, food…"

"How did you manage to 'old onto that all this time?" Gendry's skeptical.

"Not important." She says grimacing.

"You're the best Ari, a good little thief."

"She didn't steal it." Gendry defends automatically.

"Actually, I did." She smirks.

"From where?"

"The Queen."

"For fucksakes!" Hot Pie exclaims. His brown eyes sparkle.

"There's so much you still 'aven't told me. So many secrets." Gendry rubs at his jaw.

"Too many. Remember? I can't tell you everything. And some you don't want to hear."

"Well, you know more than I do. I don't know anythin'. I only thought you was a boy named Ari." Hot Pie points out.

"My name's not Ari." She starts. Gendry signals her to stop talking, but she pushes on.

"It's alright, we can trust him. He's loyal. We're a pack." Gendry's face softens at this statement.

"I'm Arya, of House Stark." The words sound good.

"Stark?!" The poor boy has turned pale white, he looks like he might actually faint.

"Breathe, Hot Pie. Jus' breathe." Gendry advises him. He seems to be taking pleasure in knowing more, in lording it over Hot Pie.

"Stark, as in…"

"The Hand of the King." Gendry answers simply, calmly. Happy to be in-the-know for once.

"And Robb Stark, King in the North." Hot Pie continues.

"King?!" Gendry shouts and turns blue eyes to her. Oh yeah, that part hadn't come up yet.

"So you're a princess then?" Hot Pie asks, not helping.

"Do I look like a princess?" She asks sarcastically. He looks her over carefully; short brown hair and the tunic of a serving boy.

"Not really." He says with a snort.

"This is one o' those things I didn't wanna hear, innit?" Gendry says, looking a little pale himself.

Gendry's reactions worry her greatly, he was doing so well. But each new piece of the puzzle seems to upset him and make him retreat. He would have to face this.

"Well, should I swear fealty or sumthing?" Hot Pie asks seriously, to which Gendry laughs bitterly.

"Not to me." She says. Well, there's only one way to rip off a bandage. "To him."

"Whose he?" Hot Pie asks completely thrown.

"Don't start." Gendry warns. She ignores him.

"The only son of the late King Robert Baratheon." She states. Hot Pie is round eyed, staring at Gendry like he'll sprout another head.

"Wha?"

"We don't know that for sure…" She rolls her eyes at him. "And I'm not the only son, don't forget Joffrey, the actual king."

"He's not a Baratheon. His father is Jamie Lannister, which makes him illegitimate; he's no right to the throne." She says.

"I heard that. They said he's born o' insist." Oh, Hot Pie. Incest, and to think, she could still remember his touch all over her. Evil, unfit to rule others. Gendry startles her out of her thoughts.

"But…" Gendry starts. "That's just talk."

"My father knew. When he wrote down the King's last words, he didn't name Joffrey as the next ruler, he only put Robert's heir."

"Meaning me?" He is truly frightened.

"I don't know. It could. It could also mean Stannis, or maybe Renly. I liked Renly. But you have a claim, a good one." Hot Pie looks flabbergasted. Gendry looks sick. "People hate Joffrey. He's unnatural. He has no real right, and now everyone knows it. The Lannisters are hanging on by a thread, we just have to give the people a better choice."

"That's crazy. That is crazy, Arya. Even if I have his blood..." One victory at least, he'd accepted that bit of information. "I'm still a bastard, no matter whose blood I got. No one wants me on no throne. Me least of all. At least Joffrey was raised in a palace, with servants, and learnin', and…"

"And kills without conscience, tortures for fun, cares nothing for his people." She swallows to compose herself. "He, and his mother, and his whole Gods damned family cannot rule this kingdom. I won't allow it."

"But that still doesn't mean..."

"Gendry. I have faith in you and so did my father. He told me that. He trusted you." Well, he hadn't said exactly that. But the sentiment was the same.

"He told you that?" Oh yes, he'd told her in her dreams. No sane person would understand completely. Leave it be. She nods.

"It's what he believed, what he wanted. Why else would he have gone to so much trouble?" After she says the words out loud, she wishes she hadn't. He sucks in a breath like she'd punched him in the gut.

"The Hands of the King came to me, askin' me questions. No goods ever come from it. They could have left it, left me be. None o' this woulda happened."  

"Maybe not. But he's dead now. Just like your father." She reaches into a pocket. "I took this from his bedside, before the Queen could get her hands on it. I didn't know why, but... well, here. I don't want this anymore. Do what you like with it." She puts the ring in his hand. He takes in the stag insignia, and then drops it like it burns. Her heart drops.

"I'm just a smith, Arya. Nothing more. Stop trying to make me something I'm not." He walks off out of sight, clearly wanting to be alone. She doesn't follow. That hadn't gone well. 

"Wow. I thought he was a Dornish spy." She laughs, but it sounds bitter even to her.

She busies herself with taking inventory. The food won't last long. They each had a sword, but Hot Pie couldn't use one, and hers was awfully heavy. Couldn't he have grabbed her a smaller one? Where was he? She goes through the food again, trying to ration.

"He just needs some time." Hot Pie reassures her.

"We're running out of time." She says somberly.

"That's not fair. You can't just force it on him all at once."

"He's known for months. I'm only reminding him of the truth. He's running away from it."

"Still, it's a lot."

"Yes, it is. I deal with it everyday. But I don't get a break. I don't get to pout in the bushes." She'd like that though. A chance to freeze the pieces, the players on the board; leave the fight until the following day.

"I mean, are you really sure he'd make a good king anyway? He don't even want it." He scratches at his belly absent-mindedly.

"No, he doesn't. He would be miserable and suffocated. He would hate it, all of it. Like I do."

"And that's what you want for 'im? I thought he was your friend."

"Because I need him, alright!" She pulls at the hair on her scalp. "I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm afraid it's all falling apart. I need..." an ally, a partner, a friend. That's what she'd come to hope for from him. Someone who she can count on to share her burdens with. Or at least, someone to kiss her and make her forget for a while. "I just, I'm doing everything wrong. Nothing's going right, I..."

"Did you tell him any o' this?"

"How can I? He just..." She motions with her hand the direction he'd gone. He's been gone a long time.

"He'll be back."

"The pressure is only going to get worse. If he can't handle it now, how will he handle what's coming?" She wasn't even sure she could handle it. Surely not alone. Her head aches.

"He needs more time."

"It's been too long." Too long. What if he really couldn't handle it? What if he was done with all of it, with her? What if he'd just taken off?

She tells Hot Pie to stay put and prepare something small to eat, and then she goes off in search of the stubborn smith. Only, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that she isn't good at following trails, and she's lost. She can't even get back to Hot Pie, because technically that's 'lost' too. She goes round in circles, passing bushes and trees which all look the same. Curse her stubbornness, curse her life.

"Was a girl searching for a man?" How had he found her, how had he snuck up on her without a sound? He looks not even out of breath.

"Jaquen, I… Thank you. For helping us."

"The deal was struck." He says simply.

"And my payment, do you mean to collect now? I can't yet, but I promise…"

"Time doesn't matter. The day will come. But not yet. But a man and a lovely girl will see each other again. It is so."

"I promise." She reiterates. He nods, not having questioned her.

"A Stark always keeps their promises." He says. "Take this." And he hands her a coin, steel, strange markings along its edges.

"What's this?"

"When a girl is ready to fulfill her promise, she will take this to any captain of Bravos and say these words- Valar Morghulis."

"Valor Mor-what?"

"Valar Morghulis, say it!"

"Valar Morghulis." She repeats. He nods, satisfied. He turns to walk away.

"Wait!" She shouts. But when he looks back at her, it's with a different face, less striking, easy to forget.

"How did you…?"

"A girl will have to cross The Narrow Sea to find out."

"Ari!" A shout from far off.

"But…"

"Arya!" The voice is closer and bordering on panic.

"Once more." He instructs.

"Valar Morghulis." She says.

"Take care, lovely girl." And he's gone.

She follows the sound of the shouting and finds Gendry looking frantic. He grabs her and holds her tight.

"Where were you?"

"I… I was looking for you." She answers honestly.

"I'm sorry."

"I was worried you would just leave without saying goodbye." She says, tears pricking her eyes. She wipes them away quickly.

"I just needed to think is all. I wouldn't do that." He assures her, kissing her hair. "I'm sorry."

"You need more time to think, I get that." She blinks back the tears. "Or I should have."

"Thank you." He says sincerely. "I just... Yeah, I need more time. Come on. Let's get back." And he leads her back to Hot Pie, who has a fire going. She immediately dumps dirt on it, stomping it out.

"Oye!" Hot Pie shouts, annoyed.

"No fires, they'll see it." Gendry answers for her.

They eat bread and cheese and have a bit more water.

"Where to now?" Hot Pie asks.

"Where to?" Gendry repeats.

"I don't know." She answers honestly.

"We'll just go North, then." Gendry suggests.

"All the way to Winterhell? Are you mad?" Hot Pie asks.

"If you've got a better idea Hot Pie, I'm sure we'd all love to hear it." Gendry remarks sarcastically.

"How 'bout your family? The Baratheons must hate The Lannisters too." Funny, that's what she was thinking too.

"I don't think that's a good idea." Gendry says.

"It is though. Your uncle Renly is a good man, the only one I actually liked at court. He'll help us."

"Yeah, that's a good idea." Hot Pie is trying so hard to be agreeable.

"Storm's End is the other way. We'd have to go backwards, and cross Harrenhall territory." Gendry points out. Hot Pie loses his color at that.

 

"Dragonstone then. My father always said Stannis was an honorable man. He wouldn't turn me away. Any of us. 

"We should get you home." Gendry suggests instead. 

"But it's so far." Hot Pie whines, already imagining the long trek.

"It is far." She agrees. "Well, I have family in The Riverlands." She settles on.

She'd never met her uncle or grandfather, but she was sure they'd take her in or at least give them supplies. 

"Alright." Hot Pie seems excited. 

Gendry nods his assent.

"We should get some sleep. Who will take the first shift?" She asks.

"I will." Hot Pie offers.

She lays down huddled into herself, and Gendry lays down too, close but not touching, unsure. She doesn't curl herself into him the way she wants to. She sleeps, but doesn't dream.


 

Her shift had been last, which meant it would be up to her to wake the others. She went off to piss in the woods first, then set out a meager breakfast for the three of them. She woke Hot Pie and told him to wake Gendry. After a solid rest beneath the open sky, Arya was able to think more clearly. The pressure of having noble blood was suffocating, and if Gendry didn't want it, then she needed to respect that. How many times had she wished she could escape her destiny? If that's what he truly wanted, then she would help him. But who would help her? Hot Pie? Pfftt. She couldn't quite count on Gendry anymore, at least not forever, that much was clear. But she couldn't let it get to her. There were many more important things. Like the war. She'd need more allies. And a better plan. She hurries them both, anxious to move forward.

"Let's play a game." Hot Pie suggests out of the blue.

"No." Both she and Gendry say in unison. Hot Pie looks crestfallen. Oh Hot Pie, she really was glad for his presence. She takes pity on him, and really does want to take her mind off things.

"What sort of game?" She asks. Hot Pie lights up.

"Well, I'll think o' something, you ask me questions, and I'll say yes or no."

"That's stupid." Gendry remarks. Hot Pie obviously thinks he just doesn't understand the game.

"No, no, you just gotta guess what it is I'm thinkin' 'bout."

"Ok." She says. He takes a second to think of something before he nods.

"Ok, got one."

"Is it bigger than a horse?" She asks. Hot Pie giggles.

"No." She's already sorry she agreed to this.

"Is it bigger than my hand?"

"No he says again."

"Can you eat it?"

"Yes." He's excited now. Of course.

"Is it food?" Gendry participates.

"Well, yes, but…"

"There, I win." Gendry announces.

"No, it's gotta be more specific than that. It's a kinda food." Hot Pie explains patiently. Oh, this will be a long leg of the trip.

"Is it a tart?" She asks.

"Yes, but..." He answers with glee.

"Cherry?"

"No?"

"What kind of tart, Hot Pie?" Gendry interrupts.

"A different kind, all I'll say."

"Apple?" She guesses.

"No."

"Hot Pie!"

"It was sour cherry." He giggles. She seriously considers killing him.

"Your turn." He says.

"I don't think I like this game." She admits.

"Well you suggest something then." He demands.

"My brothers and I used to list off the names of the great houses, their sigils, and mottos. It passed the time." She suggests. This is met with no enthusiasm whatsoever. Well, she'd tried. They end up just walking in silence.

"Gendry, you come up with a game." Though it's obvious Gendry does not want to play games. He's been deep into his thoughts all the while.

"What did you mean earlier?" He asks her directly.

"What?"

"You said your father had faith in me. What did he say to you?"

"Oh, well, I don't remember exactly."

"What did he say?"

"Just what I said. That he liked you."

"What else?" At her non answer he grabs her arm to stop her. "Arya! For fucksakes! If he said something else, I should know about it. Tell me."

"I told you, I don't remember." His glare is murderous. Real or not real it's none of his business.

Hot Pie is looking on in interest. 

"Well..." She swallows. 

Out of nowhere, they hear whistling. She recognizes it immediately as 'The Rains of Castamere' and she shudders at the thought of who would sing such a tune idly. On the other hand, it did take the attention off her and her questionable sanity. They all scramble out of sight behind a wall, trying their best to keep their shallow breaths silent.

An arrow whizzes past, startling all three. "Who's there. A lion maybe, or a wolf."

Gendry mouths 'Lannisters' and she just shrugs.

"Come on out, or I'll loose another arrow." A voice warns. Before she can pull him back, Gendry steps forward, sword raised. She silently curses to whoever is listening and follows him out. He likes that not at all.

"Put the sword down boy."

"You go on down the road. Just keep on singing so we know where you are." He demands, sounding more confident than he felt.

"Just leave us be, and I won't kill you." Arya reiterates.

"Oh, very generous. You're a dangerous person. I like dangerous people." The scraggly leader responds with a laugh.

"And the fat one." Hot Pie sighs and comes out too.

"Three young ones on the run, carrying castle-forged steel. You from Harrenhall?"

"Who are you?" She asks.

"Thoros of Myr." From across The Narrow Sea. "And the archer is Anguy."

"No, who do you fight for?" She clarifies.

"The Brotherhood Without Banners. We don't serve no lords, we serve the people."

"The Brotherhood." Gendry repeats in a whisper. Arya thinks, a brotherhood, a family of sorts?

"Now come along. I wanna hear how two boys and a very dangerous girl escaped Harrenhall." Thoros more than requests. Gendry grips his sword tighter at the mention of her sex.

"We're not goin' anywhere with you." Hot Pie states. Where he got his courage from she's not sure. Anguy shoots an arrow up in the air, and he has to step forward to avoid getting shot.

They follow along, disheartened at getting captured once more. Gendry and Hot Pie both stand on either side of her, like protective shields. She wishes they wouldn't, she won't have either one dying in her stead, but Thoros has already noticed, and it would draw more attention to make a scene.

The archer keeps stealing glances her way, and she thinks, too easy.

"Anguy, right?" She asks.

"Aye."

"Where you from, Anguy?" She asks, attempting a shy smile.

"The Riverlands o' course." He responds, smiling back. Gendry elbows her in the side.

"And the rest o' you?" She asks. He doesn't answer this time.

"Seems like, the Riverlands, you must serve The Tullys, of Riverrun."

"We did once. But no more. We serve the people now. The ones too helpless to help themselves." Thoros answers without turning around.

They served The Tully's! Not now, but, once. As if reading her thoughts, Gendry shakes his head at her. She keeps silent, but already her mind is working furiously.

They're brought to an Inn in Darry. Thoros treats them as honored guests, and gives them brown bread and stew. They all dig in, using only their fingers, greedily shoveling in mouthfuls.

"Some ale?" Thoros offers. Gendry declines, but she and Hot Pie accept readily. It has the desired effect, Thoros stops looking at her quite so suspiciously.

"So, you were going to tell me how three children…"

"We're not children." She insists, drinking deeply.

"Three young persons such as yourselves, managed to escape Harrenhall with fine weapons no less." She takes a deep breath, here we go.

"Jon's a smith, he stole us weapons." Gendry looks queerly at her for the false name but says nothing. Thoros looks interestedly at Gendry then.

"A smith? Where'd you train boy?" He looks at her, but Thoros notices.

"King's Landing." He settles on. She might have hoped he would lie, but at least they didn't know his name.

"And you?" He looks to Hot Pie.

"I'm from King's Landing as well." He answers.

"And you, girl?" He asks.

"Same." She says. "They're my brothers." Hot Pie looks confused, Gendry looks annoyed, and the others accept it readily. All except Thoros.

"They're your brothers? You don't look nothin' alike."

"Yeah, well tell that to our mum." Hot Pie answers for her. Sometimes he was clever, or maybe it was the ale. Thoros chuckles at that.

"And where are you headed now?" He asks.

"We heard about The King in the North, figure he'll need armorers, cooks, and cupbearers too." She responds.

"Aye. I'd imagine he will." He's suspicious still. "Though I don't see why you're so anxious to suck up to them lot after Harrenhall. But go if you like. But before you do, have another drink, on us." And she does. It feels good to drink, a kind of escape. She was still lying, and she didn't think for a moment they were safe. But still, they were of The Riverlands, her mother's people. And they were a family of sorts, maybe this was what her father had meant.

They didn't seem to see the distinction between her brother and The Lannisters though, and that worried her. Maybe she could sway some opinions, they had quite a reputation themselves. Thoros excuses himself to drink with some friends, and they're left alone at the table.

"What was that?" Gendry hisses.

"What?" She asks, taking a sip.

"Brothers?"

"It makes more sense that way. What should I have said?"

"Nothing. That's what you should have said. Nothing." She rolls her eyes.

She takes a drink of Gendry's forgotten ale as well. He pries it from her fingers.

"It's better this way. The archer keeps looking at me; maybe I can get some information out of him. The presence of a husband or some such might have stilled his tongue."

And he's so shocked she easily takes back his tankard.

"You scare me sometimes." Gendry confesses. Hot Pie pretends to be a little too interested in his drink.

She says nothing.

"Let's go. No one's keepin' us here." Gendry suggests. She doesn't want to.

"No. They're feeding weary travelers, they help the people. These are my bannermen. They're honorable men." She says firmly.

"No, these were your bannermen. They said they don't serve Lords anymore. And they were honorable. War changes people." He insists.

"Well, I'm not through. You can go if you want." Hot Pie knocks his mug with hers at that.

"I'm not going anywhere without you, you know that." She smiles warmly at that, brushing her fingers across his hand.

Gendry puts a near shoulder length strand of hair behind her ear. And just like that, the mood is lighter.

"Arya…" He says, and she looks deeply into his eyes. Tom Sevenstrings interrupts.

"Girl, we're badly in need of some amusement. Entertain us." This is met with hoots and hollers.

"I'm afraid I'm quite boring actually." She jokes, and they laugh.

"I doubt that, you look plenty interestin' to me." Anguy comments, looking her over. Gendry stares him down, holding the archer's gaze.

"Now now. I only meant a little dance. As payment for our hospitality." He counters, holding a hand out. She doesn't like the idea of being caught up in a stranger's embrace so she comes up with an excuse.

"I've a better idea." She says. "How about a song?" She suggests. This receives many more cheers.

"But are you any good?" Tom asks.

"I'm good enough." She responds to laughter.

"Do you know…?"

"Yes." She answers simply, earning more laughs.

"You choose, girl." Thoros encourages.

She chooses a dirty funny one, her brothers used to sing it on special occasions. There are cheers and laughter and requests for more. She starts another one, and can see Hot Pie joining in, and Gendry laughing along finally. Good, maybe they could all take a break from the misery. At the end of the second song, she requests a break.

They even lift her up to stand on the tables.

"What next?" She asks, taking a sip to ready her throat.

"Bessa the Barmaid." Someone shouts.

"No, The Queen Took off Her Sandal." Another suggests.

"No A Cask of Ale. It was one of Robert's favorites." There are shouts of agreement.

"How about The Dornishman's Wife instead?" She suggests, trying to change the topic of conversation.

"Nah, A Cask of Ale. He loved that song, almost as much as his drinking. To the fat old king, may he rest in peace." Gendry lifts his mug up for a toast and a few others do as well.

"Now now, let's not speak ill o' the dead." Thoros says. She's grateful. "Unless you tell it true. He was fat, and drunk, and he loved his whores." They all laugh, Gendry cringes.

"But he led a rebellion against The Mad King. He saved the people." Hot Pie points out, bless him.

"Pfft. Everyone knows it wadn't about no Aerys Targaryan, he didn't give a fuck about the people." Gendry is listening intently. "It was all about that Stark bitch." His eyes meet hers. She looks away. Why does everything always backfire?

"How do you mean?" Gendry asks.

"Ain't you never heard the story o' Robert's Rebellion?" They ask him, incredulous at his lack of historical knowledge.

"I didn't get out much." He says by way of explanation. All the while, she's purposely not looking at him.

"Well listen up Lad, this is a good one." Tom starts. "Once upon a time, Robert was betrothed to his best friend's sister. Lyanna she was called. He loved her more than anything, obsessed they said." Hot Pie's looking at her too. "She was beautiful, but fierce as anythin'. She was better on a horse than any man," She does smile at that. An embellishment for the sake of the story no doubt. "And she fought in Tourney's and the like, armor and all. But one day Rhaegar sees her; he's married mind you, and wants her for himself. He kidnaps her, and Robert, Lyanna's brother, and Jon Arryn go to war, tearing apart the whole of The Seven Kingdoms to get her back."

"What happened to her?" Gendry asks, transfixed.

"She died. They say that's when Robert gave up, married The Lannister cunt, beggin' yer pardon Miss, and drank himself to death." And he puts a hand atop his heart. "The loss of his lady love broke him."

"And he was a shit king. Though his son will be worse." Thoros comments.

"I heard it ain't his son at all, just a Lannister bastard." There's murmuring about this particular subject, and she's surprised the rumors have made it so far. Good.

"That's not the story I heard." Thoros pipes up.

"What? It is so, I didn't leave nothin' out. I mentioned Cersei, and The Tourney and all." Tom looks offended at being questioned.

"I heard, she wasn't stolen at all. I heard she ran off with that Targaryan. She chose him over the Stag." What, was that possible?

"And the Targaryans was no better, crazy lot." Another adds.

"Then who is the rightful king?" Gendry asks, pretending not to be too curious.

"I say no more Kings. We'd all be better off."

"And what, people govern themselves? How would that work?" Arya pffts. She gets a few weird looks.

"Why not? What do them lot know we don't? They're no better, they just got more money and lands." Thoros states.

"Yeah, but." And Hot Pie signals her to shut up. She doesn't listen. "Without them there'd be chaos."

"Look around girl, this is chaos."

"Only for now. And that's down to the Lannisters. Sorry excuses for Nobles. In Harrenhall they put feral rats to people's chests, pulled little girls aside to be raped. That's evil. The Northerners would never stoop so low."

"So sure about that are ya? We seen evil on both sides, don't think otherwise. I'm tired of fightin' for someone else. I'd rather fight for my own land and my own kin." Tom says, and many of them cheer.

"Here. Here." She cheers along. They had a point, but they clearly didn't understand politics.

Tom starts up A Cask of Ale without her. She carefully gets down from the table, mug safely grasped in one hand. Gendry helps her the rest of the way and leads her to the corner. Yeah, she's feeling it. She grabs for another tankard.

"Ok that's enough." Gendry says, trying to take it out of her hand. "Was that another thing you forgot to tell me, or were you just waiting for the 'right' moment?"

"I thought you knew."

"Everybody in the whole Seven Kingdoms knows." Hot Pie says coming up beside them.

"Except me. It's insultin' and it's frustratin'. I can handle the truth you know."

"Actually, you've only proven you can't handle it. You either don't believe me or don't want to believe me."

"I'm trying okay! You've had your whole life to get used to this shit. I've had what, a couple months?" She's annoyed now, and the drink takes over.

"But it was always true. Whether you knew the truth or not, those Goldcloaks still would have been after you. They'd have killed you by now. You still have his blood after all."

"Royal blood. Some destiny. What am I even supposed to do with it?" He looks forlorn and she feels pity.

"Whatever you want. You can actually change things, make a difference. Make the world better." He shakes his head. She wants to scream.

"You mean like my father? They said he was a horrible king. Doesn't inspire much confidence."

"He wasn't so bad. Anyways, that has nothing to do with you. You're a different person. You're..."

"I thought you said you were going to give me more time."

"I know. And I am. I just need you to..."

"To go along with whatever you want, like always." He grunts.

"Okay, I'm gonna go over there." Hot Pie escapes.

"What I want? Since when has it ever mattered what I want? I never get it. I wanted my father to live, and instead they killed him right in front of me. I wanted to be a great knight, and instead I have to be a lady and put up with stupid stubborn men everywhere I turn. I wanted peace and safety for the North and my family, and instead we're at war."

"That's not down to you. I know that. It's not your fault, none of it. I'm sorry I said that."

"I know that. It's your fault." He looks horrified.

"What?"

"I tried to stay away from you, remember? That first day, I told you to fuck off, but you wouldn't listen. You could have just left well enough alone then."

"No I couldn't. I still can't."

"But you were so, kind when I needed it. And warm, and you always have that stupid adorable look on your face. It's not fair. I thought I was supposed to look after you. But Daddy said he meant for you to take care of me. I don't know what I'm gonna do, or what I'm gonna tell my brother about you. I just... I can't." He puts his hand on her shoulder, thumb caressing her skin, bringing her closer.

"What do you want me to do, Arya? Tell me, and, I'll do it." He says sincerely.

"I already told you."

"No, you told me what your father wanted. What my father wanted. What the people will want. But I don't know what you want." He pauses. She opens her mouth to speak, then shuts it.

And they just stare at each other, the energy intense between them. An electric current between his palm and her arm. She can already taste him on her lips before he leans forward.

"You're not brother and sister are you?" Anguy asks a few feet away, breaking them up, clearly amused.

"Fuck off." Gendry warns.

"That's some tension between you two. A few more minutes and you'll either come to blows or start fucking." Eyes going back and forth between her and Gendry.

"Which one are you hoping for?" She asks, to which Gendry pulls her back a little and Hot Pie gasps.

Anguy laughs raucously, "I like you." He says. He gives them a mock bow before walking away. She rolls her eyes, and when Gendry lets go of her she nearly falls over. Gendry fights off a smile as he helps her stay upright.

Out front, there's a commotion, a large prisoner is being brought in. She can see the burned face, the limp hair, and the grimace. It's The Hound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Arya

Stragglers are filing into a cave, lit by torches. It takes her longer to weave her way through, still quite intoxicated.

Inside, they're all gathered round, The Hound at the center. She can only see him because he towers so far above the others. Before even getting too close, she can feel the hateful sentiment in the air. Once closer, she makes out a figure, not so large, a bandage over one eye, an imposing presence. After a few moments of scrutiny, she makes him out as well. Ser Baric Dondarrion. She could clearly remember her father entrusting him with a noble task, to protect the people. The reverence with which the others are treating him lends credence to her first theory; he is their leader. The Brotherhood is noble and just, acting under her father's orders. She was right.

"We were once farmers, swineherds, tanners, and masons. But that was before." One of the men says.

"You still are. You're a pathetic lot. It takes this many to keep me down? Pathetic." The Hound boasts.

"They're soldiers now, the war has seen to that." Lord Beric says, his voice echoing with a kind of strength throughout the cave.

"Beric Dondarrion." So The Hound recognizes him too. "You've seen better days." He quips in an attempt to cover his discomfort.

"And I won't see them again." He answers calmly.

"Stark deserters, Baratheon deserters." Deserters, it can't be so. Gendry finds her gaze then and slowly makes his way over. "You're not fighting in a war, you're running from it." That can't be right. Her father's men wouldn't do that.

"And last I heard you were Joffrey's lap dog. But here you are far from home. Which of us is running?"

"Leading green boys, what do you think you're playing at?"

"Lord Eddard Stark ordered me to bring your brother to justice, in King Robert's name."

"Lord Stark's dead. King Robert's dead. My brother is alive. You're not doing a good job, are ya?"

"We're not finished yet. We're far from finished. We will strike down those who wish to bleed these lands and its people, in the name of the one true God." Gendry's still making his way through the crowd.

"Gods." He scoffs. "I believe in what I see. It's men doing the evil, The Gods don't give a shit."

"You would believe too, if you'd seen the things we'd seen." One God? What nonsense are they spouting? Both men saying the most confusing things.

"Are you going to put me to sleep, or do you mean to get on with it?"

"We're not going to murder you, it'll be justice. At the Mummer's Fort, children of six years were raped. Babes on the breast were cut in two while their mothers watched." Anguy asserts with venom. Horrible things, and she believes.

"I wasn't at the Mummer's Fort." The Hound responds, looking nervous. And she believes him too. He'd helped her, been kind. He said he didn't strong-arm ladies, he'd not hurt a child.

"House Clegane was built upon dead children."

"Do you take me for my brother?" There's desperation there. "You want to slit my throat, get on with it! But don't accuse me of things I haven't done. And don't pretend you're not murderers too."

"Can you prove you were not? Can you prove your innocence?" He looks down at that. "Would anyone speak for you, care if you were put low beneath the ground?"

What should she do? These are her father's men, her men; just men. But they're wrong, and she knows they're wrong. Anything she might say would expose her, should she risk that for one man's life? Not a pure man to be sure, but not the worst of the lot or even close. Gendry is finally beside her, she feels a bit stronger with his presence.

"You stand accused of murder." Lord Beric interrupts her thoughts. "But no one here knows the truth of that charge. It is not for us to judge. The Lord of Light will do that now. I sentence you to trial by combat." One of them will die, though she doesn't like the thought of either.

They unshackle The Hound, and he rubs his wrist before reaching for a blade. Lord Beric takes his own blade and slices his own palm, then lights the steel on fire; causing a look of pure panic to cross the Hound's features. Of course, his greatest fear, the flames. A cruel trick, beneath truly honorable men. She makes a sniff of distaste and Gendry notices, and reaches for her. She grabs his arm for support, and he covers her fingers with his own. Whatever weirdness was before, he's here now.

"Do you know him?" He whispers. She can only manage a nod.

The fight is intense, The Hound is huge; but Lord Beric has more grace. The Hound's natural composure and bravado are off for fear of the fire, but still he fights for his life. They crash around the room, and it's only Gendry pulling her out of the way that she is not injured from the fallout.

One blow from The Hound's great long sword cleaves Lord Beric's torso near in two, the result, The Lord drops to the ground. Gasps and cries follow. Thoros runs over immediately, puts his hand to The Lord's forehead and recites a prayer, impassioned, desperate, louder and louder. Lord Beric breathes in life and rises, as if from the dead. If she hadn't seen it with her own eyes, she wouldn't have believed it. The wound was fatal, from shoulder to belly, and yet he stands on his own feet, single eye crisp and intent.

The Hound too looks shocked, unable to believe what had happened. He steps forward on instinct. The others point their blades at him, and Arya can stand by no longer.

"Leave him be." She orders, voice loud and clear. They hear her and look at her confused. The Hound also looks her way, and his face goes slack, before a smile lights his face.

"Little Wolf." He says, as though he's forgotten about the others within the cave.

This causes the newly-risen Lord Beric to look at her as well.

"My Lady Stark." He greets. Everyone else stares at her as though she's a ghost. Many bow. Damn.

"The crimes you accuse him of are his brother's. He has been tried before your Lord of Light, and been proven innocent." No turning back now. "I demand you let the verdict stand." Gendry sighs beside her, but stands tall in support.

"The Lady is right. He has been found innocent, he is free to leave. To find his own master. Minus his purse, that is." Lord Beric decrees.

The Hound grunts, but his eyes keep drifting back to her. The others disperse, dissatisfied, unsettled. He leaves with one final glance her way. For Arya's part, her stomach is a mess and she wants only air. There is death here.

Outside the cave, Lord Beric, Thoros, and a few others are waiting for her.

"Apologies, My Lady. I should have recognized you right off. Lord Stark's daughter. I'm very sorry for your loss." She's taken aback at his empathy. It had been some time since anyone had commented on her grief. And just the same, to her, she felt like she'd seen him not so long ago; her dreams so real.

"Lord Beric, I thank you. And thank your men for your hospitality, we'll just be going now." She turns to leave.

"No, no. We could never let Lord Stark's daughter wander on her own. We'll see you home safe child." Could she trust a dead man's promise? He was dead, she knew what death looked like. This man was brought back, she'd seen it. Apparently, death followed her.

"You'll take me to Winterfell?"

"No, as it happens, you're brother and mother are in The Riverlands, Tully lands." So close.

"Mother, Robb…" She feels her eyes getting glassy. "Perfect, thank you." She wipes at her eyes. "When do we leave?"

"Not just yet. We have to go through some formalities."

"Formalities?"

"Yes, it should only take a few days, then we'll be on our way."

"A few days?" She didn't like the sound of that at all.

"Actually, you needn't go to so much trouble. Perhaps you could give us some directions, even a horse, if you can spare one. How many days ride is it, a bit West, right? We'll go there ourselves. I promise I'll find some way to repay your generosity…"

"I told you, we can't let you do that." She straightens.

"Are you taking me to The Queen?"

"No, no. O' course not. We mean to get you home safe, like we said, but there's a small fee to attend to."

"You mean ransom." Gendry bites out through clenched teeth.

"It's war time, we just want a little somethin' to feed the people and ourselves. But we'll be reunitin' family. What's a little money matter for something like that? You understand." Thoros gives an apologetic smile.

"How much?"

"A hundred."

"How about two hundred?" She counters.

"Aye, Milady. We'd take that, if they'll pay it." He says with a grin.

"I will. It's settled then." So tired, she wants only to find a clump of grass to sleep on.

"You? Just the same, Milady, I'd rather have an agreement with your brother."

"You don't believe he'd pay it?"

"No, of course not. It's not that. We just want to make sure…"

"I can pay you myself, I'm all full of surprises. Resourceful." She quips.

"Oh, of that I've no doubt."

"But I want an armed escort to see me safely back."

"Done."

"And I want you to join us against The Lannisters."

"This we cannot do. We serve no Lords, only the people."

"We serve the people as well. We'll help however we can."

"Again, these are your words, not your brother's."

"Well then speak with him, hear him, perhaps an agreement can be struck. That's all I ask."

"You negotiate well, Lady Stark; you've a good head about you. Fair enough, now let's see that gold."

"No gold." She wiggles off her shoe and takes out the ruby. "It's worth at least as much as I've promised." Their eyes dilate in delight at the jewel.

"We'll get you there in one piece." Thoros remarks. "We take great care of our guests, especially when it's in our best interest." He kisses the jewel.

"When do we leave?"

"We'll move on when we can. Until then sit tight, relax, get some rest." Thoros suggests.

"You're our guests, relax. I promise, no harm will come to you under our care." Lord Beric does a little bow and walks away.

"Assholes." She says aloud, to which Anguy chuckles.

"Do you think they'll join us, join your brother I mean?" Hot Pie asks.

"If they see we're honorable, stranger things have happened." And somehow she makes it to that comfortable stretch of Earth to lay her head down.


"You're drunk." Her father comments, amused. He sidles over to where she's stretched on the ground.

"So? If I were one of my brothers it wouldn't matter. You'd all cheer me on."

"You think so?" He's doubtful. "Mayhaps. And then come the morning, when you feel awful, I'll laugh in your face and force you to remember the consequences."

"What consequences? Like an armored gauntlet to the face?" She says sarcastically, lifting herself up.

"Like that. Mostly, it's called a hangover." She can't laugh at his joke. "You usually learn your lesson after the first time. What's all this about?"

"I just, wanted to stop thinking, stop worrying. I'm always planning our next move, staying careful, keeping watch." He gives her a sad smile. "And trying to make him a King is a lost cause. He doesn't want it. Fighting me on it and hiding out." She turns serious, eye to eye.

"I'm sorry I can't help you more. I wish I'd included you more from the start. The truth is, I didn't do any of this right."

"You did the best you could. I know that."

"I tried to do what was right. I meant for him to be safe. I wanted Robert's legacy to live on."

"He will. I'll make sure of it, Father."

"And I always meant to unite our houses. Joffrey wasn't worthy of you from the first."

"What?!" She squawks.

"Baratheon and Stark."

"But, but... you promised me off to my cousin in The Vale." He looks guilty at that.

"Yeah, and I regret that. Might have been a bit hasty. The Vale boasts an impressive force, but they never leave their bloody land. They've broken their agreement before we ever broke ours." If that was true...

"I want a better match for you. The right alliance could end all of this mess."

"Ah, I see. You want a bigger army for Robb; ships, territory, bannermen... But Gendry has none of those things."

"I think between you and your mother you'll be clever enough to figure something out."

"So you want me to trick him, force him into it?"

"No, love. Just ask him. He'll say yes."

"You don't know that. He doesn't want this. You heard him. He doesn't want any part of it. He'll leave me alone, like you did."

"Arya..."

"You're dead. You're not even here." He doesn't answer that. "I made you up because I'm lonely and scared. You tell me what I want to hear as a comfort. You know nothing of what's coming, and have no real advice to give. You're not real, I'm going mad." He grabs her hands and holds tight to get her to calm down.

"I wish I could comfort you, Arya. But I don't know how. Not anymore." He holds her chin in his palm. "And you're right, I don't know what will happen. I know the way I had planned it, but everything's different now." She looks at him. "Make your own choice, Arya. I trust you'll figure it out, eventually."

It sounds like something he would say, or something she had always wanted him to say. She hugs him tight.

"I don't care if I am mad. It doesn't really matter does it."

And she wakes up, not pleasantly. Her head rests atop a fleshy pillow, and her mouth feels like a desert. A helpful hand gives her a cup of water. She takes it readily, and gulps it down. Ah, the secret to life. She looks up at her savior. It's Hot Pie. Makes sense. He's really very comfortable.

"Morning." She greets, not willing to add the good part.

"Morning." He says, looking the same as always. She's extremely jealous. She's glad to see him, and the water, but where's… "Gendry had to help out." He explains.

"What happened last night?"

"You don't remember?"

"Some. I just want to make sure I didn't do anything…"

"Well, you sang a lot. Some of it was dirty." Huh, yeah, she remembers that. "And you and Gendry fought again." Yeah, she actually remembered that too. "The Hound was here, he killed Lord Beric, but then he rose again." What, oh yeah. "They all know who you are by the way." Well, she certainly had a pattern. When drunk, she couldn't shut the fuck up. "And they've promised to help you home. They took your big jewel though."

For fucksakes, what a headache.

After a few tries, and a little help from Hot Pie, Arya stands; everything a bit spinney. Hot Pie has to go to the kitchens, Gendry's already in the forge, and she has fuck all to do.

Lord Beric is true to his word, they are treated well; but the men's earlier hospitality only heightened with her 'royal' status, or sack of gold more like. They are all nice enough, and respectful, too respectful. When they call her Milady or Little Lady, she feels set apart. She dresses as she likes now, still in pants but with an unadorned tunic, and she had no need to bind her breasts or cut her hair. There was comfort here, and a kind of strange peace. She liked these men; no hiding, but no pressure to be a true lady either. The relative freedom she had now, felt hard earned. They knew her, but they could sense she wasn't fragile.

But she would leave them soon enough, go back to the scheming; it created a hollowness inside her.

She goes out for her archery lessons with Anguy to take her mind off things.

"Go on then. Show us your skill." She aims carefully, sighting the very center of the target. Circles drawn on various places on the dummy. She wanted the heart. With an exhalation of breath she releases the arrow, and it hits almost in the center; but still quite a good shot.

"You're not as good as you think you are." He taunts.

"I did alright." She says affronted.

"Yeah, but you took your sweet time about it. Enemies don't stand still for you."

She was rusty at first; it had been so long after all. But after some hands-on instruction, she was smoother. Faster. More relaxed. He was truly amazing to behold. He notices her appraisal, and is proud.

She knew he was flirting with her, and she also knew he would never go past the boundaries of station. Not that she would let him.

"What kind of lady shoots arrows anyway?" He jokes, dark eyebrows arched, resting his dimpled chin on his bow. "Oh yeah, and knows the dirtiest songs? And hangs around us unworthy lot? Doesn't seem proper."

"Are you trying to insult me? Because you're doing a terrible job of it. I actually like all those things."

"I think it's bloody brilliant." He gets a predatory smirk on his face. "You know My Lady, I'm happy to offer my services in any way you see fit. You can use me, however you like." He has a lewd grin on his face, leaving no question as to the nature of his offer.

"I'm only interested in your skills with a bow, Anguy, sorry but thank you." She teases back.

"Ah, you wound me." He places a hand against his heart in overdramatic fashion. "Well I had to try didn't I?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

She goes off in search of Gendry. She knew it might be complicated and awkward, but she also missed him. Gendry was in his usual spot, forever in the forge, fixing weapon after weapon. Seriously, there seemed no end to their need.

"Hi." She says.

"Hi." He says, not looking up from his work.

"You look busy. Too busy for the likes of me." She says. He does look at her then, and she has to look away at the intense look in his blue eyes.

"They've just got so many shit swords. I'm surprised they didn't shatter afore now. Most need new ones. All their armor's dented." He lists off.

"Oh good. I was worried I'd said or done something the other night." He stops completely at that.

"Don't you remember?"

"Not really. Hot Pie said we fought. But I can't remember exactly what about." He smiles then.

"Aye, you did." Damn his smiles. "You told me I was stupid and adorable." He says casually, amused.

She looks away, but nods, feeling a blush color her cheeks. "Oh." Yeah, that sounded about right. She changes the subject. "What do you think about, when you're working?" She picks up some tool and plays with it.

"Nothing." He says eyeing her.

"I don't believe you."

"No, it's true. It's kind o' the point. When I work, there's nothing else. Just steel, the hammer. I don't have to think." She smiles at that.

"I envy you that then. It seems I'm always thinking."

"When I'm not working, I just wanna be back in the forge. It's best not thinkin' at all. Or even worse, dreamin'."

"Exactly." He puts his tools down and gives her his full attention.

"You talk in your sleep you know?"

"What..." She swallows. "What did I say?"

"I couldn't understand all of it. It's like you were talking with someone. Who?"

"What did I say?"

"It wasn't clear. But I think I heard Baratheon and Stark. Bigger armies. Something about love and tricks." Clearly he'd heard too much.

"You know, someone with manners wouldn't keep listening to a lady's dreams."

"Well, I heard my name, so... I couldn't really help it." He smirks.

"Just dreams, nonsense." It would be embarrassing enough to have him hear the nature of her thoughts, but to know she also spoke to the ghost of her father? Too much.

"Right. Like a bastard boy imagining what his father was like only to find he was a king. Or being pledged to a cold life on The Wall, but finding something more important to fight for. Just dreams." He muses. She feels her chest tighten and her skin grow warmer. Something so romantic from the usually taciturn smith, it was almost painful. She says nothing.

"Lord Beric asked me to stay on, be a part of the Brotherhood." Her sharp intake of breath echoes throughout the forge. Oh, the 'something more important to fight for' "He says that I could rise here, be a part of something." He puts his hand over hers. "Arya, say something."

"They're honorable men. And they'd be lucky to have you." She says, looking down. He tilts her face up to look at him, but she still doesn't meet his eyes.

"They'll knight me, Arya. I won't just be a bastard, I'll be more." She meets his gaze then, a little angry.

"Since when do you care about titles?"

"Since I started listenin' to you. Lemon tarts, feather beds... I need an army right; ships, men. That's what you said. Baratheon and Stark."

"I wasn't... Talk to my brother, I'm sure he could..."

"Right, I'm sure he'd love me begging him for recognition, protection, a position, and his sister." He says sarcastically. "I pledge myself to The Brotherhood, earn my title, pick up some men. Your brother might not mind me being near you. He might even let me keep you." He says the last shyly.

She's speechless again, she doesn't know how to answer, not any of it.

"Would you… would you want that?" He asks. Keep her... It's romantic, but it sounds, wrong.

"I don't know what he'd do. Knighthood or no. Brotherhood or no." Her family, the war, her betrothal... His face falls. "You might resent your choice. resent me."

"I could never resent my life if I had you." He cups her face gently in his large hands. Had her...

"I can't promise anything."

"Then why did you kiss me?"

"You kissed me." She corrects.

"The first time. And you kissed me back. The second time was you, you started it. Why did you?"

"Because I wanted to. Because I was selfish. I wanted you with me, to just, be there. I wasn't thinking, for once, and..."

The way he's looking at her now, she feels heat course through her to her very toes and it feels like hot springs bubbling through her. She can't finish her sentence. He kisses her, and it's like the first time when he'd interrupted her, but somehow different. She knows she shouldn't be doing this, but can't bring herself to care. Not when she finally slides her hands beneath his shirt and hears him groan. This is freedom, she thinks. Here in this place. So when his hands splay across her back she moves his hand to her front, where she wants his touch even more. His groan turns into a growl, and she stops thinking completely. The steel, the hammer; just like he said. She feels the wall against her back and the sinful pressure of his knee between her legs.

He pulls his lips away; both out of breath.

"Arya." He whispers, it sounds like a prayer to her ears.

"Hmmm." She half answers, half asks. He puts more space between their lower bodies.

"We can't. This isn't…" He sighs. "I don't want you to do anything you'll regret." He says.

"I won't. I'll regret it if you stop." Her mind is still scrambled and she tries to pull him back. He puts her hand on his chest.

"You're still a lady. I won't ruin you." He counters. The heat in her gut turns to stone. Ruined. She already was that. She lets her arms fall to her sides. "I want all of you, Arya. I won't settle for less. This, would be less." She hadn't cared; she had wanted him to ruin her again.

"I understand." And she did. She knows it's not fair to be angry. But by The Gods, must she keep paying the same price over and over again? The sacrifice wasn't but once, yet it would haunt her forever. She hadn't thought through the consequences, not really. She didn't know she would want to be wanted. She hadn't known rejection could sting in this way. It wasn't a fairytale marriage she craved, just the heat of his flesh and the smell of Gendry. Why must even this simple pleasure be so complicated?

"They'll know. And I'd rather your family didn't hate me on sight. If I'm to have a chance with you…"

"They won't hate you. They'll see an honorable man. If nothing else they'll see that." He is.

"Not so honorable." He smiles and goes to kiss her again. But she creates more distance between them.

"No." She says.

"Just a kiss. I won't go too far. I promise."

"No, I said no. There's no chance. Don't take the vow, not for me." He leans back against the wall for support. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm late for a party being held in my honor." She slips out, hurt, embarrassed, and more than a little flushed. She had wanted him, she imagined feelings like that were completely lost to her, and she rejoiced at the knowledge alone. And yet still The Gods held back, tinged it with shame.


Though it's meant to be a goodbye of sorts to her, the Brothers had begun their drinking and partying early without her. A drink is shoved into her hand. She barely sips it, not in the mood.

And still, she spins stories with Tom, reminisces with Hot Pie, and laughs at one of Lem's jokes; but in the back of her mind she thinks of her family and the future. When she thinks of them now, it brings a tightness in her chest. She misses them, so desperately, it had been so long. And even then, she would miss these men, this place, and the relative freedom she'd enjoyed for so short a time.

A hush falls over the crowd, as the hulking figure of The Hound pops up on the periphery of the camp. Many draw their swords, but Arya only remains seated by the fire.

The Hound stalks towards her, large steps moving him closer in the blink of an eye, Arya holds her breath when the large figure towers before her.

But just as suddenly, The Hound stops before her.

"My Lady." He says, in deep respect.

"Sit." She requests, patting the space beside her. He does, gracelessly and with a clank of his armor. The others reluctantly look away, frowning, as Arya shows no sign of distress. She gives him the half full drink in her hand; having had enough anyway. He drinks it gratefully.

"What are you doing here, Sandor?" He stops drinking at the question, or at the use of his name perhaps.

"I came to get my money." He brushes a strand of greasy hair away from his scarred forehead.

"And?" She inquires. He changes the topic.

"And nothing. Bloody robbers. This pathetic lot treating you with respect then?"

"They've been very kind. To me anyway." He grunts in response. "Was there something else you wanted Sandor?"

"I… Little Wolf." He gets onto his knees before her. "Let me serve you. I would give my oath to you." She's silent for a moment, utterly surprised.

"Why would you want that?"

"To make up for my sins, many though they are."

"I'm afraid I can't help you do that. I have my own to work through."

"But if I could make up for the wrongs I've done you."

"Me? You've done me no wrongs." She remembers how he'd tried to warn her, how he'd been gentle as he escorted her back to her rooms.

"I have. I should have done more; I should not have turned away. Allow me to do so now. I would serve you, My Lady." On the other hand, he might be a constant reminder of her own foolishness, of her own ruin.

"You would serve the Starks?" Hmmm.

"No, I'd serve you." Still. A loyal dog is nothing to throw away. She'll need it now more than ever, now that she'd just shoved Gendry away especially.

"Yes, Sandor. I accept your pledge." He rises, deeply honored. Sandor Clegane will be loyal, this she trusts. His nickname is apt. Only, she won't abuse the loyalty.

"I'll not let anymore harm come to you, I promise." The air around him is different now, more at ease.

"Good luck with that." She jests.

"I swear, I will never let anything like that happen again." And then he goes and ruins it.

"I don't want to talk about that. Ever." She looks away.

"Of course not. Apologies." She plays with the frayed edge of her tunic. She speaks anyway.

"I just... I just want it to be okay. Like it never happened."

"But it did, My Lady. Wishing won't change that."

"Right, I'm already ruined." Gendry seemed to think so. And he'd think her all the more wicked for wanting him to make her forget about it.

"You're not ruined, far from it. Where'd you get a stupid idea like that?" He smiles at her, and she can't help but smile back. Who was to say what ruination was? No one else could call her that, not if she didn't let them. And her betrothal, she'd have to see about that as well.

 

Chapter Text

Burnt Trail

Arya

Lady Smallwood wanted to find her a dress to wear for the upcoming family reunion. She was an awkward woman, all angles and bones; but kind. She brought Arya back to her chambers and held out the chosen frock. It was rather ugly, little acorns hanging off it, a dull shade of brown. It fit her well enough, she supposed.

"Is the dress alright, Princess?" She just stares at it.

"Yes, it's very kind, thank you." It felt like a lifetime ago that she'd worn one. Not since The Queen, and her mother before that. Not to mention being called a Princess, she didn't care for it much.

"Are you alright, My Lady?" The older woman asks. Her first instinct was not to trust her; the last woman she'd been around was Cersei. It was mostly men nowadays. But The Lady was gentle, and she meant well.

"Yes, thank you."

She'd have to practice remembering herself before seeing her mother. She was close to her family, her mother in particular. Her mother who she hadn't seen in so long, and who would judge her, and find her wanting.

"It is a happy thing, being with your family after a time apart."

"I hope so."

Looking in the mirror, she felt the dress wouldn't look right. She couldn't make her hair grow faster, the strands reaching exactly to her shoulders. Apparently she'd taken up some very boyish mannerisms as well. She'd had to, amongst the recruits, but some of it had become engrained. The way she walked and sat, for instance, even the way she was standing now. She fingers the cut by her eye, the one where she'd cut to reduce the swelling. So many marks, no hiding.

But she couldn't find it in her to be ashamed. To survive, she had done many things, some she was not proud of. But it felt like a lie to dress up again as if nothing had happened. Another costume, another disguise, for the sake of her family. It all felt wrong, too much. Strangers, enemies, and allies- she understood pretending and putting your best foot forward. But for her blood, she doesn't want to play pretend.

She clasps Arya on the shoulders in comfort, meeting the girl's gaze in the mirror. "I envy your mother. What I wouldn't give to have my own daughter back."

"What happened to her?" She asks hesitantly. Imagining a gruesome death.

"We had to send her away, for her own protection. It's not safe here. She's with my great aunt in Oldtown." She was safer almost anywhere else, true enough. Well, except the capital.

"So it's a good thing then." She was a bit jealous of the girl then.

"Yes. It only matters that she's safe. But were she to walk through that door, I wouldn't care a wit what she was wearing, or about her hair. I just want to hold her and tell her I love her. Just as they love you. Nothing else will matter." She appreciated the sentiment, she really did. But Arya was not so sure that would be true for her own mother. She took comfort in the woman's confidence however.

She couldn't wear the dress while riding however, so she packed it up in a satchel, along with a pair of shoes, a few apples, and a pretty comb for her hair. It was Carellen's, but the Lady said her daughter was kind, and would want her to have it. Arya liked it more than all the fancy jewels she'd been slathered in at the palace. The kind woman also made sure her standard pants and tunic were crisp, her hair was clean and even, and that she smelled nice. She was ready as she'd ever be.

As she and the men gathered for their journey to return her to her family, she was ready. Finally. Today would be the day. And where was Gendry? It seemed she was always thinking that. Just like Jon, who had hidden rather than say goodbye once upon a time. If he wanted to stay, or leave her, she wouldn't be selfish. She wouldn't fight him or guilt him. But to not even say goodbye?

She shakes those thoughts loose. She had promised herself once upon a time to never let a boy spin her head or influence her choices. She couldn't forget her duties. She couldn't change her past, nor could she guess what the future would bring. She had no control over Gendry, her brothers, her mother, or anyone else. Only herself.

Hot Pie was there, he meant to follow her home; bless him. Lord Beric, Tom, Anguy, and Lem were accompanying her as well. She'd promised a meeting with her brother. She would make it so. Of course, Sandor was ready as well, a very serious look upon his brow. It was strange how strange it wasn't to have him along. He knew her darker secrets, and he seemed to still like her, respect her even. He'd said she couldn't be ruined, or broken.

"Morning." She greets him, but with a smile. He returns it, though it looks pained with the unnatural way the flesh pulls at his lip. Still, progress. Hot Pie gives her a warm 'hullo'.

At the last moment, Gendry emerges from the forge, Thoros with him. Gendry looks over for her, and something clenched in her gut releases at the sight. A proper goodbye at least. Though she would have preferred something more private. It's then he notices Sandor and his tone is cold.

"What's he doing here?" She's about to answer when Sandor does it for her.

"I'm her protector now, I swore an oath to the Princess." The Hound seems smug, though why exactly she can't guess.

"Him?! You can't be serious! He's a criminal." His blue eyes flash with fury.

"So are we." Hot Pie answers for her.

"We're all on the same side." She placates patiently.

"He near cut a man in two. How can you feel safe with him?"

"I've known her longer than you, Boy. And I know her better too. You're leavin' her to join these cowards, she needs me."

"Fuck off. I'm not leavin' her. I wouldn't do that." He answers, clearly angered by the comment. Something flashes in Sandor's eyes at that. But Gendry's looking only at her then. She's indescribably glad.

"You're coming then?" She asks, nerves buzzing.

"Aye, Milday. I was always coming with you."

He mounts his horse is none too graceful, but not half so awkward as Hot Pie's earlier hijinx, so he gets no mockery. Well...

"The Ox is coming? What's a matter, Brotherhood wouldn't have him?" Sandor asks, trying to provoke a fight. Gendry wisely stays silent. She's proud of him.

"Gendry. His name is Gendry. And he can't join The Brotherhood 'cause..." Hot Pie clarifies helpfully, before realizing what he's almost said.

"Gendry, right. I forgot. One o' the King's bastards." Sandor remarks loudly, loud enough for the other Brothers to hear.

"That's right." Gendry eyes her, incredulous. Sandor notices.

"She didn't need to tell me nothin' Boy. I served your father for years. He stuck his cock in whatever he could find, left little bastards all over the Kingdom. He called it 'Makin' the Eight', he's fucked women from each of the kingdoms. I think I should know what you lot look like by now. I thought the blonde headed shit killed you all though." Gendry sneers.

"Lord Stark saved him on purpose." Hot Pie answers for him.

"Why can't he answer for himself? Are you his serving boy, then?"

"He's my friend." Gendry says, finally answering. A calm about him she hadn't expected.

"I do serve him. I'm... his squire." She flinches, expecting Sandor to laugh outright. But he only smirks. Huh. He didn't seem to have anything against Hot Pie.

"Except he ain't no knight. Are you Boy? Think her brother's the ticket to being a Ser? Pathetic." He's goading him.

"I'm here 'cause she wants me here. I been with her since the beginning. Funny how you show up right as she's almost home. You're real loyal, as long as there's no danger to you." Gendry points out, to which Sandor growls, like a dog defending its territory.

"Think she's safe yet? Fool."

"I can take care of her." Gendry asserts. Great, now they were metaphorically pissing on her.

"You saw me cut up Dondarrian. You don't think that's worth something? I'll do that for her too. She's smart enough to appreciate that. Even if you're not. This one's a survivor, and she'll feel safer with me along." This was true. He did know her well.

"Yeah, Gen. He promised himself to Arya, that's a good thing." Hot Pie points out, neck fat bobbing as he nods.

"I'll keep The Lady alive or die trying." The Hound reiterates, his scarred brow twitching. Guilt is a powerful emotion, almost as powerful as hate.

"Here's hoping." Gendry grunts under his breath.

"Enough!" She shouts. They both look to her, and she's reminded of disobedient pups. "Both of you, acting like children. Perhaps we could have a proper duel. Or a drinking contest. Maybe you should pull your cocks out and see whose bigger..." Their shoulders droop a bit, looking truly pitiful. "Or, you can both get used to each other and get over it. I need you both. And none of this squabbling."

"Sorry." They both grumble, looking properly contrite. It creates an awkward silence, and she's almost sorry.

"So, what's new in the capital?" She bites out, anxious to start a new conversation.

"Not much. Same corruption. Same stink." The Hound answers, ready to bury the hatchet.

"The sewers still clogged then?"

"I wouldn't know, Princess."

"Ugh, don't start. I'll not have any of you refer to me as Princess, clear?" He chuckles in response. "Well, I hope someone gets on that. I spent a fair amount of time down there, I'm sort of invested now."

"You hung out in the sewers?" Hot Pie asks.

"A bit, good place to hide and get around the city. Messy though."

"By the gods! That was you!"

"What now?" Gendry asks. Hot Pie just starts laughing.

"That girl, crawling out of the sewers all covered in shit. That was you?" Hot Pie says. She nods.

"Oh yeah, I remember that. I thought for sure the Queen's face would freeze that way, all sour." He laughs too, trying to do an impression but failing miserably.

"What is the evil bitch up to these days?"

"Hah. Scrambling to please her little monster of a son."

"So he's stopped listening to her completely then?"

"He does what he likes. He's worse than Robert, if you can believe it." He looks pointedly between Arya and Gendry. "I guess you can. There's riots in the streets, the people are hungry and scared."

"Riots?" Hot Pie parrots.

"I left rather than raise my sword against smallfolk. They wanna kill that blonde haired little shit, I say welcome to it." She laughs heartily at that.

"Oh no, he's mine." The Hound grins at that, and she has an urge to pat his head like a dog, a good dog.

"Aye, Milady. He is that."

"Is he scared then? Cowering in his castle?" She asks hopefully. The others are listening, but don't join in. They've nothing to contribute anyway.

"Not much, and anyway it hasn't stopped him. He sentences people to death for sneezing wrong, whores 'cause he likes it." Her eyes widen at that.

"Whores?"

"Aye, he goes through five whores a week. He killed that pretty redhead, Littlefinger's favorite and..."

"Ros?" She cuts him off, her voice a desperate croak.

"I dunno her name. Pretty though, shot her full a arrows. Thought it was funny. Sick little fuck." She feels the world spin around her, but says nothing. She suddenly occupies herself with fixing her posture and resettling herself on the horse. She tastes bile in her throat.

"Friend of yours?" Hot Pie asks, concerned.

"Not really." She says. A pained smile forced on her face.


They continue onwards before coming to a crossroads, a thick thatch of trees. It's only when they get closer that they can make out bodies hung from the trees. And a smell to go with them.

"What…" She starts.

"Stay back My Lady, it's not for your eyes." Thoros warns her, but of course she ignores him. She rides up as close as she can, to find they're women; the fronts of their dresses ripped open, skin caked in dirt, throats slit, and wrists tied to sturdy branches- three in all. She can tell they were pretty underneath the bloody streaks. One with light brown hair, short, around her mother's age on the left. Another, thin, tan, bare to the waist on the right. And a tall woman, curvy, hair like her own between them.

"Who did this?" She growls, imagining how painful their deaths, and the moments leading up to it, must have been.

Anguy rides up beside them to look more closely at the markings carved into their foreheads. Deep 'W's etched bloodlessly, inflicted after death.

"Whores." Anguy says simply.

"That's their crime? Why should they be punished for…" She starts disgusted, before coming to the natural conclusion. "Fucking Lannisters."

"This is Stark work. I recognize the sentiment." Tom points out solemnly.

"What? No. We would never…" She insists, chin trembling, not at all sure as she takes in the angle of the knots, the viciousness of the slashes along the throat. Looking around at the men she sees pity. Not for the women, but for her; imagining her own people above such things and to see the truth before your eyes.

"It's true Princess. Starks men are still men. To the people of the Riverlands, the banner makes no difference." Lord Beric says gently.

Arya has no answer to this, and finds herself shamed. True or not, it changed nothing. They lead their horses in a circle, clearly ready to continue on. But she's not. Too many dead and left behind; corpses rotting, restless. Her father. Yoren. Ros. Lommy. These innocent women. She couldn't save them.

Shoving past the men she makes her way to the bodies, tugging furiously at the first prostitute's curvy hips to bring her down, but her lack of height makes it impossible. Many frustrated attempts later and she's nothing to show for her struggles.

"Princess…" Lord Beric starts, but she cuts him off.

"Help me." She demands instead. Not liking the sound of pleading in her own voice. Whores. Women. No matter which house they served, who they fucked, they were just women. Seeing them hanging, it wasn't difficult to picture herself among them, hanging on the far left, filthy and bare. It wasn't hard to imagine the faces of those she loved hanging in a row, each hanging heavily by dead wrists.

The others stand around, confused at her vehemence, uncomfortable with the raw emotion coming off her. The Hound doesn't hesitate though, he hands her his blade, and when Arya feels the cool steel in her grip, she's lifted up upon his enormous shoulders. With an exaggerated grunt, he positions her beside the rope, allowing her to saw through the threads. It's not as easy as it looked, and it takes a long time to cut through; by the end her arm is sore. Wordlessly, Gendry and Hot Pie are there to ease the body to the ground. She goes towards the second victim, but Sandor slides her off his back instead.

"I've got this." He takes the blade back, and finishes the job. A thought occurs to her, and she's rustling through her pack. The acorn dress. She fits it atop the thin one, covering her nudity. Her arms only hurt more from maneuvering the stiff limbs, working her dead arms into sleeves. But it's worth it. A small kindness. This woman definitely needed the dress more. Lady Smallwood would most likely agree.

"Now what, Princess?" Tom asks, more than a little annoyed at the delay, at the inconvenience.

"We bury them." She says affronted. There was no question in her mind.

"My Lady." Lord Beric tries. "We've nothing to dig with, and there's no way to bury them deep enough so the wolves don't get them."

She sees the sense in this, they're right. She wants to honor these women, to bring them peace, but…

"Your Red God. You burn the dead, don't you?" She asks Thoros.

"Aye, My Lady. The Lord of Light demands a cleansing fire." He says carefully, eyes squinted.

"We'll burn them then." She suggests, confident in her decision.

"But My Lady…" Lem starts, but trails off at the look in her eye.

"The burning will take hours. We'll not make it to The Riverlands before nightfall if we do this." Tom warns.

"Then we won't make it before nightfall. We burn them, however long it takes to do it properly. We'll wait however long it takes."

She starts picking up various sized twigs, cradling them in her arms as she searches for more. She can barely feel them, the muscles having gone nearly numb. A few others join the search, and another of The Brotherhood starts the blaze. Gendry's the one who gets it burning high, and the sky is turning orange and red by the time they're ready to add the bodies. Each woman is given to the flames, a cleansing smell covering the dead flesh. Crackles echo through the night, wisps of thick smoke snake their way up to the setting sun.

Hot Pie smiles kindly at her, but she ignores him. She watches the flames, entranced. She can faintly hear Thoros' chants, funeral blessings in High Valyrian. A true devotee to his religion. She can't focus enough to decipher the words, but she feels them just the same. A beauty, a finality, a peace to the flames.

The Seven preached similar teachings- death as a blessing, a respite. A paradise.

Take them. Keep them. Show them mercy. Grant them peace.

Her father's Gods welcomed the dead among them, to live forever among the trees. In the world, but not quite a part of it.

Watching their lovely hair sizzle and burn, looking into their hollowed eyes, frozen in pain and fear, she couldn't help but imagine an eternity of that. But as the flesh melts off the bones, she sees it for what it is. The end to their stories, their miseries, their exhaustion. It takes a long while to shake off the glimmer of envy she feels. But as she stands and stretches, she regains feeling in her limbs, a delicious burn in her joints. Ah yes, still alive. She had too much to do yet.

 

Chapter Text

Arya

Family Reunion

Arya

They arrived at the set of dark, the perimeter of Riverrun well guarded, and the nervousness in her gut at an all-time high. There weren't many of them in her entourage- her pack of course, her sworn sword, and a few members of The Brotherhood open to negotiations with her brother. She might have counted on their support before, but the time spent respectfully setting the prostitutes to rest had not endeared her to them any further.

It had taken a long time for the bodies to burn down fully, the piles of ash frozen in the form of the skin they once had; like powder imprints of what they once were. It felt important somehow, to grant them peace first; before she found her own. The smell was thick, she felt it cling to her skin and hang on her clothes. It seemed her stomach would never settle. They eventually continued on, but much later than they intended. The rest of the journey was quiet, the others looking at her strangely, not understanding her reaction. She didn't care to explain it to them.

As they got closer, the shuffle and neighing of their horses alerted the castle to their approach. Her stomach churned in time with the stir of the guards. They were ready, alert- good. She was glad to know her brother's men were well guarded; but tense at proving herself to strangers.

"Ho! Who goes there?" A young guard asks, birch hair to his shoulders, looking over each of them carefully. His eyes did not linger on her, and she believes he hasn't determined her sex yet. Her mind goes blank, unsure what to say.

"The Brotherhood Without Banners. We mean no harm, only a meeting with Robb Stark, The King in The North." Thoros boasts, saving her the trouble, to Arya's gratitude.

"And why's that? What business 'ave you got with The King?" The soldier asks.

These were her people; she should address them herself. Her back straightens and her chin rises; her eyes seek out the guard who spoke, looking him directly in the mossy eye.

"His sister, Arya Stark has come home and demands an audience." She says, voice appropriately clear. She feels every eye snap to her; and the soldier's jaw drops open.

"Princess, I…" The guard starts, but the other heavier guard interrupts him.

"How do we know you're the princess? What proof 'ave you got?"

"Find someone who knows the Starks. Bring 'em out. They'll recognize her sure enough." Anguy interjects. After a moment, one goes off to do just that while the other stays to stand guard. His gaze makes her uncomfortable, but she doesn't flinch. They're frozen for near a quarter hour before they return.

An enormous figure stalks towards them, bigger than The Mountain even, followed closely by the guard, having to scurry to keep up with the large gait of the man before him. Sandor tenses behind her, but she feels still. The closer he gets, she finally recognizes the man. It's The Greatjon, Lord Umber. He was loyal to her father, or he had been. A great beast of a man, he loved to spar with her brothers, and was always loud at feasts; she remembered he was kind to Jon too, despite his being a Snow.

"You say The Stark girl is here, show her to me!" He demands, his voice originating from his great chest and booming out for all to hear. Stealing her nerves, she hops down from her horse and approaches.

"Do you not know me, Greatjon? Surely it was not so long ago. Only six or so years." She says, not letting her nerves show.

He steps closer until they are before each other; almost nose to chest, Brotherhood watching attentively behind her. Inspecting her closely, a giant grin spreads across his bearded face.

"Little Arya Underfoot. By The Gods, girl… however did you make it all the way here?" He asks dumbfounded, before grabbing her into a hug. He's big, and he easily picks her up and holds her to his chest. He doesn't hurt her though, and she can sense how close to her people she actually is.

"It's a long story, Greatjon. I'd like to see Ro… The King, and my lady mother, please." At her request, he seems to shake himself off and remember himself.

"O' course, o' course. Right this way, come along then." With a great hand on her shoulder, he leads her away.

"Wait, wait. What about…" She looks back at Gendry, Sandor, and Lord Beric.

"They'll be taken care of. But your brother'll want to see you alone first, I expect. We'll deal with that lot later." He pushes her along, but she digs her feet in.

"They're my friends, they're coming with me. I promised Robb would meet with them, I…" She glances over at Hot Pie guiltily. Sandor looks very displeased with being separated from her.

"We'll see to them, get them settled, I promise." Greatjon says. She takes one final look at Gendry, and he gives her a warm, but sad smile until she follows dutifully. The others are escorted a different way, but Lord Umber directs her through the front hall and up the main stairs.

"Gods, girl, it's good to have you back. It'll hearten the men for sure. And Gods know you wolves need each other after everything." She couldn't quite concentrate on small talk with Umber, not when a tie to home was so close. It hadn't escaped her notice that it was only her brother she was going to see.

At the door to her brother's chamber, Lord Umber knocks loudly on the fine wood, before opening the door and leading her in. Inside, is a large rectangular table, fine lords seated around its edges, near twenty she counts. Each gawking at her like some exotic animal, she studies each face quickly, ignoring their judgmental stares one by one, before settling on the head of the table, a chair being scooted out. The tall auburn haired man with his simple but regal crown, fine clothes adorned with a direwolf sigil across the breast that fit him well, and Tully blue eyes, stood to greet her. A large creature rises from the floor and hurtles towards her, for an instant she's frightened; until she recognizes the color of the fur, which distinguishes Grey Wind from its brothers and sisters. She pets the huge wolf fondly, both equally glad to see each other.

"Sister." Robb says simply, a disbelieving watery smile gracing his features. And then she's running, running into his arms and holding him tight. The sensation of his arms tightening around her, and the Northern scent surrounding her threaten to make her legs give out. But he holds her up, and the tearful chuckles and joyful sobs flow from both of them freely and she lets herself breathe; caught up in the feeling of Home.

"Robb, oh Robb." He pulls away from her to get a closer look, taking in all the ways she's changed, seemingly forgetting the important men watching their every move.

"Look at you. You look more like my brother than my troublesome little sister." He jokes, fingering the shorter strands of her hair. She laughs, giddy at the proximity to her own blood, soothed by the comfort of hard-earned safety.

"And you look more like a King than my obnoxious brother." She jokes back.

He hugs her once more and whispers in her ear so no one else can hear. "I still am your obnoxious brother, just don't tell anyone. Promise?" She chuckles and nods against his shoulder.

He laughs, and so do the other lords, charmed by their banter. Their mirth reminds the siblings of their audience, and the spell of their reunion is broken. Anything too personal would be best in genuine privacy, and would have to wait. Robb feels the same, and she can pinpoint the instant that he reverts to Kingly form. She needs to catch him before he switches over completely. "Where's Mother?" The Lords go silent and tense at this question. Robb pauses at that, but quickly recovers.

"She's well. But Arya, you must be tired. I still have some business to finish here, we can discuss everything tonight at dinner. We'll celebrate." She can see the men getting anxious; waiting for her to leave so they could get on with their meeting. Robb wanted her out too, not readily answering her question. Did he really think she'd be so easily distracted? Of course he did. Well, she wasn't about to undermine her brother openly before his supporters, but she would assert her place as a Stark, as an asset, as a player in this game of thrones they were all stuck playing.

"I'm not tired at all." She lies. Actually, she's quite exhausted. "What sort of business are we discussing?" She asks innocently, making her way over to the table beside her brother's seat, leaning against his chair.

"Don't worry about that. You should get some rest, clean up, and get changed. I'll see you there safely." The Greatjon 'suggests' in response to a look from Robb, making to take her arm.

Before he can, she scurries out of his grasp to the other side of the chair, and plucks a document from the table. Inventory lists, tracking stores of weaponry, supplies, men, etc.… The paper is taken from her, but she can recognize it easily enough- she'd certainly seen enough of these kinds of records in King's Landing to recognize what it was.

"Is this current?" She asks. She's answered with tired sighs.

"Princess, you needn't worry yourself with these matters. We're all just glad you're back safe." Lord Karstark responds, clearly proud of himself for his own patience.

"Safe? Those guards out front suggest otherwise. The River Lands are awash in death, and demons terrorize the land." She hears a few uncomfortable coughs. "Some of which are Stark men." This gets their attention once more. "I saw bodies hanged up beside the road, raped and killed. Those were innocent women hanging there, slaughtered by our men." She bites out through clenched teeth, thinking her threshold of patience far beyond Lord Karstark could ever dream of. "So yes, I believe I do need to worry, Lord Karstark; and you should welcome any help offered, including mine." The Greatjon sniggers, and Lord Karstark humphs in offense.

Robb rubs a hand over his face in response, upsetting the dark copper curls by his brow. When he looks at her there is a new coldness there.

"I am aware, Arya. We are doing what we can; now you need to trust that, and not question me. Trust me, your brother, your King." A few lords raise their eyebrows at the increasingly uncomfortable scene.

"Of course, Your Grace." She says, bowing her head in a sign of respect. He sighs, and speaks again.

"Now, run along, and I will see you tonight at dinner, we can talk more then." He's clearly dismissing her as he sits down in his seat of honor. She should leave, she knows. She'd challenged him just then, in front of his followers; but she hadn't meant to, she hadn't wanted that. She could follow his order, apologize, and it would be forgotten. She could have a much-needed nap and take a bath already. Part of her wants to do just that.

But she can't, not after everything.

"Father would have let me stay. He would have heard me out." She says, against her better judgment. One of his eyebrows raises at that.

"I'm sorry, Princess, but your father is gone. If The King in The North tells you to wash up, you bloody well do it." Karstark scolds, belittling her, and the other lords laugh at her expense, humiliating her. She has to clutch the table's edge to keep from strangling the pretentious bannerman.

But Robb holds up a hand, and the others fall silent. He's all authority as he stares down the others.

"He would have. That's true." He strokes his chin. "Very well, Arya. You have something to say, let's hear you out." Robb says.

The silence continues, and The Lords all stare expectantly at her. Under their scrutiny, she forgets herself.

"Well, Princess?" Umber prompts kindly, making to take his own seat.

"How many men did we lose at the battle of Stone Hedge?" She asks instead.

"How did you…?" Karstark starts before Robb interrupts him.

"A little over a hundred men." Robb answers cautiously.

"And Raventree?" She asks.

"Less." He answers, intrigued with where this is going.

"Good." She says, pleased." That means we've lost only a third as many men as The Lannisters. And The Kingslayer. Tywin's feeling that loss, I can tell you. Second-guessing himself, getting reckless, impatient. Another push in the right place, and he'll make a mistake, he will fall." She says.

The Lords start talking all at once, questioning the validity of her claim, the numbers, exclaiming excitedly what such a statement would mean if it were true.

"How would you know something like that? The Kingslayer's capture, how many men our enemies lost… How would you know any of it?" Robb asks seriously. She wonders how much to tell him, what he'll accept at face value, what will lead to questions she doesn't want to answer. The others are equally intent on her response.

"I know The Lannisters well. I know them better than anyone here. I spent months and months and months among them; serving them, kissing their asses, and making their lives more difficult whenever possible. I know things, important things, and I can help us win. Just let me."

"We've done just fine up until now, Princess. Whatever you know, we can get along just fine without." Karstark remarks. A few clear their throats in agreement, but others mutter their dissent.

"And that's partly down to me." She boasts. "I've already been helping. How did you find out about The Tyrells and The Kettlebacks? How did you know Lannister forces would be coming from The East, or that the supply train coming through The Fingers would be so lightly protected?"

Robb sits up straighter in his chair and stares her right in the eyes.

"You?" He clarifies. She nods simply. He covers his mouth with his hands, shaking his head in disbelief. She continues on, on a roll.

"And I can do more. Just let me." She pleads, begging with her eyes and her bottom lip the way she used to. "Father would have wanted it that way." She's nervous for his response.

He pauses a long time, too long. She feels the rug is about to be pulled out from under her. And then he laughs.

"Lord Karstark, move down so my sister can have a seat." He orders with a smile. Arya feels the corners of her own mouth lift up in delight. Karstark sputters, but after a moment's hesitation rises angrily from his seat; leaving his place wide open for her. With more pleasure than she should openly display, she gingerly sits in his vacated seat by Robb's side. She peers around at the other faces expecting more irritation, but finds extreme interest in the scrunch of their brows and eager hunches of their shoulders.

A proud, firm clap on her shoulder brings her attention back to a smirking Robb.

"Well, Sister. Please, do tell us what you know about these damned Lannisters. And then maybe you can tell us how you manage to continually sabotage them right under their noses without their being aware." He requests good-naturedly.

And with that, questions coming pouring forth from the Lords. She answers the best she can, adding snippets while remaining as vague as possible when it came to personal details. She's tired, stressed, and overwhelmed by all their questions, stares, and attention. In the back of her mind she wonders about her mother's absence, and worries what her friends are getting up to. She's looking forward to a bath and whatever feast her brother's planning, if not the event itself.

But more than anything, she's relishing the unabashed awe coming from these grizzled Northmen, these valiant lords, their respect. Her father couldn't have asked for more loyal men; strong men, esteemed. And for once, she was seated amongst them, counted as an equal, listened to, included. But would it hold? She would need their regard, her brother's included, for whatever came next.

 

Chapter Text

Family Reunion Continued

Arya

She shuts her eyes for no more than a few minutes, barely any rest at all. Of course, she’s only allowed an hour or so of rest before there’s an intrusive banging on the door, maids intent to make her presentable for the feast no doubt. Seven Hells!

“Gods, leave me in peace.” She mumbles, shutting her eyes and attempting to go back to sleep. The soft covers and warm pillow too much for her to resist.

But the rustling and clanking of the maids proves too loud, and she sits up crankily.

“Good evening Princess.” Two say in unison, setting up a bath in the center of the room. They look like they could be related, mother and daughter perhaps. The same dark blonde hair, similar pushed in chin. But the mother is twice as round. A third follows in behind them, taller, dark hair, pretty. “Welcome, truly.” She says with a wide smile. She’s dressed more nicely and stands taller. She’s not a servant.

“Thank you.” She says sincerely but groggily, eyeing the steaming water, and inhaling the scent of… lemon. There’s a fuzzy towel beside the tub, for drying off after. “And you are?”

“Jeyne. Now, we’ve no time to waste. Robb wants you in attendance as soon as possible. Please, get in.” The brunette suggests warmly, and makes to help her undress. Arya flinches at the contact and steps away. She unclothes, keeping her back turned to the woman, neck craned unnaturally.

“You called my brother Robb.” She mentions.

“Oh, he didn’t tell you.” She rolls her eyes, but flushes a bit, and it looks nice with her dark blue gown. “I’m your brother’s wife.”  She beams.

“Oh.” Arya says stupidly. No, he hadn’t mentioned that.

“I wanted to meet you, without everyone watching.” She dismisses the other women, and the younger stops to pick up her soiled clothes before exiting. “You should have heard him, going on and on about you.  What it must have taken for you to get here. A miracle he says.” A miracle? It didn’t feel that way. “He’s very much looking forward to speaking with you further at the feast, showing you off.” Jeyne looks back at her when she hears flesh hitting water, and trails off whatever she was about to say. She still doesn’t like the idea of being bare before a stranger, even one who was family.

She lets out an audible sigh as her skin is submerged in the hot water completely. Cupping water in her hands, she scrubs at her skin. The water turns darker, and her skin gets pinker.

Jeyne begins rubbing soap into her short, grungy hair, and Arya flinches once more at the unexpected touch. Her new good sister freezes at Arya’s discomfort, obviously at a loss as to what to do. Arya forces herself to relax, not wanting to be rude, and yet still distrustful of the tenderness. Lathering her hair, Jeyne fingers the short strands, wringing them out; the water turns even muddier and she feels embarrassed despite herself.

“I had to cut it.” She defends unnecessarily, curling into herself. Her good sister freezes in her movements.

“Arya.” She starts, unsure how to proceed. But the use of her familiar name, rather than a title relaxes Arya anyway, and her fingers loosen from their death grip on the edge of the tub. ”I can’t imagine what it must have taken for you to get here. I’m very impressed; I know Robb is as well. I can only imagine what the other lords who don’t know you must be thinking.” Arya can practically hear the smile in her voice, and feels her own lips imitating the gesture involuntarily.  Jeyne takes a small towel and begins drying her hair. “You’ll receive no judgment from me. Not ever. What family is left must stick together.” The hand that was massaging her scalp squeezes her shoulder, and Arya has to painfully bite the inside of her cheek to keep from sniffling.

“Here.” Jeyne breaks the spell, holding out the overly large towel in invitation. Up she gets, quickly wrapping herself up in the material. “Now, let’s get you dressed.” She says, all business now, averting her gaze once more out of respect.

“I don’t have anything, perhaps you could scrounge up something simple, some pants, or…”

The brunette smiles and takes out a fine grey dress, a shimmer in the material, fur-trimmed around the collar, holding it up. Arya is stunned speechless.

“You don’t like it.” She looks crestfallen. “Robb told me you wouldn’t, but then I thought it would suit you so well, with your eyes. I can find you something else, if you like.” She hadn’t meant to offend her.

“No, it’s lovely, truly. I actually do like it.” The woman’s face lights up once more.

“Your Lady Mother chose this, especially for you. Though she won’t actually get to see it on, she…”

Jeyne shuts her mouth quickly, busying herself with setting out the shift and corset, untying the closures on the fine dress to keep from speaking further.

“She’s alright, isn’t she Jeyne? Robb won’t tell me anything. I’m worried. And…” Jeyne is staring at her with empathy, and for the first time Arya is completely uncaring of her nakedness. “Please, Jeyne. She’s my mother.” She sighs and holds the shift open to slip it over her head, and she lets her.

“She’s fine. I promise you, she is unharmed. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I swear it.” She does believe her. In truth, she knew her mother was fine; her father had assured her of that in a dream. And Robb would never let any harm come to their mother. But her absence was worrying, more so compounded with Jeyne’s cryptic response

“But where is she? She knows I’m here. Doesn’t she want to see me?” That was possible. Perhaps a daughter truly ranks lower in importance than seven kingdoms at war. Or maybe she’d heard the gossip from the capitol. Rumors spread quickly, especially when true. And Joffrey was a favored topic these days, why shouldn’t that include her?

“Of course she does. It’s just…” She sighs deeply. “I’m not allowed to say. Ask Robb, maybe you can make him see sense. The Seven know I’ve tried.” Her brown eyes are so earnest, that she doesn’t push her further. There are many ways to learn secrets, the least of which is asking.

On goes the corset, but Jeyne is gentle in tying it. She doesn’t need to do much anyway, she’s far too skinny from all her time on the road. However, the breasts she has left are pushed up as far as they can go, and the room does appear smaller, the air thicker. But the fur brushing against her collarbone soothes her, and she’s back. Jeyne pins her hair up, twisted in such a tricky way that it’s hard to tell how short it is or isn’t.

There’s an uncomfortable silence though, so Arya sets about breaking it.

“How do you know about hair? I have no idea how to do anything complicated. I can braid it, but anything more and I would need a diagram or another set of hands.”

“I had to do for myself growing up.” Jeyne’s reflection smiles back at her in the mirror.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Volantis. From an insignificant house. I was never meant to be a queen.”

“And I’m hardly a lady, less so a princess. If it were up to me, I might just cut all my hair off.” She says, even as she traces the twists in her hair. No make up this time, her skin nice and pink from the hot bath. Jeyne chuckles warmly at that.

“You look, lovely. They’ll be fighting themselves to dance with you.” Arya grimaces at that thought. “I must enter by my husband’s side, but there’s one man outside who insisted on escorting you tonight.” Gendry? They hadn’t even spoken properly since the forge and her awkward attempts to seduce him. But perhaps that was behind them. So, with a nervous readjusting of her skirts she opens the door.

Sandor Clegane waits on the other side. He looks startled at her appearance for a moment before a kind smile takes over his face, a little lopsided on his scarred side.

“You look nice Princess.” She tries to scowl, but he’s so cute with his hair combed back, exposing the burns; a clean shirt and jerkin that she can’t.

“And you. You look like a proper lord.” She teases. He almost loses his smile at that, and offers his arm out to escort her. She takes it, and they steadily walk down the corridor, closer and closer towards the joyful feasting in the main hall, small talk and laughter spilling out under the doors and out into the hall. She immediately has second thoughts. Well, fleeing was her first thought actually.

“Sandor, I…”

“Too late now, Princess.” The doors swing open to reveal partygoers drinking and laughing, raucous music going, and a fine array of food laid out. Lords, outlaws, servers, and bastards; all enjoying themselves. Everyone stops talking at once to stare at her. This is what she was dreading.

As she walks through the doors, she feels each and every eye upon her. She questions why she let herself be talked into this damn corset, which was clearly the reason why she couldn’t breathe, not her nerves.

“Arya.” Robb greets, it’s not loud, but everyone can still hear them over the new quiet. He’s come up beside her, real tenderness in his Tully blue eyes. He takes her hands in his and pulls her along, she can hear The Hound clomping behind her, and she’s grateful.

Facing them towards their attentive audience, Robb addresses the crowd. He looks a King tonight, dressed in grey and white as well, a direwolf emblazoned on his breast, and even a crown atop his head. It’s strange to see, and not completely comfortable for her.

“My sister Arya has been returned to us.” He announces, to loud cheers. He waits for the shouts to die down before continuing. “The Lannisters lied, and told us they had her imprisoned.” What? She hadn’t known that. “They must really be grasping at straws. Must be all the battles they’re losing.” He gets some laughter at that. “But the Gods have brought her back to us. And what’s more, she has critical information which will aid us in winning this war and avenging my father.” Everyone cheers even louder at that, a few of the men banging half empty cups on the tables. She can’t help but smile then. The energy, the loyalty. There was power here, force; these were her people.

“Welcome back, Sister.” He says, and squeezes her hands tight, telling her he’d like to say more, express more; but can’t in public. The time for overly emotional displays has passed, he needs to be King in front of them. She squeezes back in kind.

“I am pleased to be back, My King.” She says, and does a little mock curtsy, at which Robb rolls his eyes, causing all to laugh. She tries to think what more to say, but her mind goes blank as a fresh sheet of paper. The silence seems to drag on, and still no words come. Robb saves her by ordering everyone to ‘feast and enjoy the hospitality of the North’. A few echo- ‘The King in the North’ and then finally they’ve all turned around, and gone back to their drinking and chattering. To her immense relief.

Robb leads her to a raised table, finely set and a distance from the din of the rest of the hall.

“And my Queen, my wife, Jeyne.” He introduces proudly. Her new Good Sister had risen from her seat to greet them.

“We have met, Husband. At your insistence. Remember?” She teases, nudging him in the ribs, playful chocolate eyes sparkling.

“I’m allowed to forget things, you know. I have a war to win, I do have other things on my mind.” Arya rolls her eyes at him, which he notices and cracks up.

“What happened to my dirty ragamuffin of a sister? You are so lovely.” He’s sincere and it physically hurts.

“Don’t expect this all the time. Special occasions only.”

“As you say. I’m only happy to have you back. You will bathe regularly from now on though, won’t you?” He grins wide.

“As much as possible. I think I’ll take another before I retire. And maybe you’ll actually let me sleep this time.” She teases.

“As you like.” He agrees pleasantly enough. “Sit, sit. And eat.” Robb of course sits in the most prominent seat, Jeyne to his left, And Arya herself to his right.

She takes a goblet of wine, holding it up to clink with Robb’s.

It’s delicious, with undertones of apricot and blackberry and she drinks it down a little too fast. It’s refilled all-too quickly, but she pledges to be more careful after this. Well, she’ll try. A slurping draws her attention, and she spots Sandor Clegane, her own sworn champion perched at the nearest table, relishing his Arbor Gold.

She pauses at the reassuring sight. She’d forgotten about him, about everyone. Gendry. Hot Pie. The Brotherhood. Her mother.

“Robb, my friends.” She brings up.

“Yes, they’re here somewhere I believe. They’ve all been invited. I’d like to meet them later. But until then, I want you all to myself.” He pats her hand where it’s holding the napkin in her lap.

“And Mother?” She treads carefully.

He loses some of his cheer at that.

“Arya… She’s… indisposed.” He sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose.

“What does that even mean?” Robb looks to Jeyne in reproach, obviously assuming she’d said too much. “I’m not stupid Robb, I can see for myself something’s amiss. My own mother should be here to greet me. It’s been years Robb.” She scolds. 

“She went against me, Arya. She went against a direct order. In front of the Men! What was I supposed to do?” She'd made him angry now, pushed too far.

“You didn’t… You didn’t put our Mother in the dungeons!” She doesn’t yell, but the words are bitter against her clenched teeth.

“Of course not. She’s relegated to her rooms, quite comfortable in fact. And yes I will let you see her. But my Bannermen can’t see her out and about, doing as she pleases, feasting and given free rein.” Not the dungeons, but her very own suites. He had no idea how they could so easily be the same thing. It seems she and her mother had much in common these days.

“I need to see her.” She insists instead of scolding him further. Politicking always.

“I know, and you will. But first let’s just get through tonight, alright? We need this, all of us.” He says, pointing to the men- being merry, relaxing. He refills her wine, placating her. Her grip on the goblet’s stem tightens, her resolve as well.

“What could she possibly have done?” She sees Jeyne pinch his elbow out of the corner of her eye.

“She set Jaimie Bloody Lannister free from the dungeons.” He all-but growls.

“She wouldn’t… Not without good reason, she…” She starts, horrified; though his tone left little room for doubt

“Oh yes, she had good reason alright. But it doesn’t excuse her. I can not let this go.” He all-but shouts. The serving girl nearly drops her tray she’s so startled. “I promise, I’ll let you see her in the morning, under controlled circumstances. But for now, I need you here. Please Arya, don’t be angry with me now, not tonight, not when I’ve just got you back. I need you.” She nods with what she hopes is a reassuring smile. And the girl finally places the first course down in front of her.

They’re in the Riverlands, so of course each dish contains fish. Little pies filled with lamprey, cream, peas, carrots, onions, cabbage, butter, and sage. She stuffs a huge spoonful of one in her mouth before realizing, first- its really hot, and second- it was definitely not lady like, and third- it was indescribably delicious. The rest she ate slowly, forcing herself to count to ten for each bite. Mmmm, though. She so missed rich foods, warm in her belly. Next, a trout cooked in garlic, lemon, capers, and salt. The luxury not lost on her. She wondered idly if Gendry had even tried the valuable spice before, she’d quite like to see his reaction. She looked around the room for a while, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of him. She concluded he must not be in attendance, as she’d surely not miss his tall frame. He, Umber, and Sandor were all of a height with giants.

She only picked at her trout, starting to feel a bit sick. Was it the rich fish, or the wine? Water only she promised herself, must stay sharp. There were ice chips in her water goblet, and the clink against her teeth cleared her mind.

She needed to find her mother first, not at all sure Robb would let her visit in the morning. Dessert came, lemon cakes, and she lost her resolve. So she valiantly fought through. She almost tears up at the tart and sweet flavor of lemon on her tongue. She remembers this well enough, happier times long gone. Robb watches her with a smirk, glad to see her enjoying the feast.

She’s pulled out of her reverie by none other than Greatjon Umber, cheerfully requesting a dance. She looks to Robb for a way out, but he oh so graciously passes her off to him like he’s trading a goat. She goes so as not to be rude, but truly she can’t remember many of the steps. Of course, the big lug remembers even less. And from then on it’s more a series of being dragged around and a few turns. His awkward steps remind her of a certain blacksmith, so she finds herself enjoying the dance despite herself.

Unfortunately, this gives the other Lords the idea to dance with her as well. She dances with one who is quite portly, and not much taller than her, he has not much hair on the very top of his head, and eyes that are a bit small. He’s keen to compliment her though, and he has no compunction against leering down her dress. He’s more pleasant towards her now though, now that’s she’s dressed as a proper princess, a mere woman. Actually, she doesn’t mind the dress as much as she thought she would. The men are more accepting of her like this, and more willing to listen. Well if a skirt and a bit of cleavage is all it takes, then so be it.

He’s quite talkative, and she can infer a lot about the morale of the camp by reading between the lines.

They were winning battles, true, but after the very public disagreement with his mother and the loss of their invaluable hostage, they questioned her brother’s leadership abilities. No one said that of course, but a few kept referring to him as a boy king and no one would say a thing about her mother’s transgression specifically. Only that she was a meddlesome woman. Could Manderly be any more degrading?

She feigns a pebble in her shoe, and it works just as well as the last time, but it backfires. In her vulnerable state away from the others, pretending to empty her shoe, Lord Karstark takes the opportunity to approach her.

Lord Karstark, dark grey hair down to his shoulders, and a full beard the same color near covering his mouth; she can’t outright refuse without being rude. Damn.

“You look very nice tonight, Princess.” He forces out, obviously not too pleased to be in her company either.

“Thank you.” She bites out, leaning back heavily against the wall. He sighs at her prickliness.

“Please believe, we are all glad to see you safe and well. Truly.” He isn’t lying. It’s not a Northern trait; they’re usually brutally honest.

“Well you’ll have to excuse me if I have a hard time believing that.” No, no, stop talking. “I believe it would be more convenient for you if I died along the King’s Road.” Damn her tongue, no more wine ever. Unlikely, she admits moments later.

“Not true. If you hadn’t appeared, we would go on thinking the Lannisters had you. A worthy bargaining piece indeed. You’re valuable to us, the King’s only sister.”

“I didn’t ask to be. I didn’t even know I was. And as for the Lannisters, they could never hold me. Shame on you for thinking otherwise.” She scolds, still fired up despite herself. He quirks a brief smile at that, before extinguishing it.

“Quite.” He clears his throat loudly. “And how is it being back?” He’s making an effort, so she’ll do the same.

“Strange.” She tells him, somehow tricked into being honest. “So many familiar faces, but they’re all strangers.” She admits. “And the ones who should be here, aren’t.” He sighs deeply, as if pained.

“You mean your mother, don’t ya?” He asks, to which she whips her head around to look at him. “That’s… complicated.”

“I know what she did.” It’s his turn to whip his head to meet her gaze. He sighs again.

“Then you can see why she must be punished.” Arya doesn’t verbally respond, but she nods slightly. His shoulders ease at that, and then the words come from his thick beard without further pause. “I have sympathy for the woman as any other. To lose her husband, her own daughter captive; a desperate mother is capable of anything. Of course, during times of war, we can hardly break the rules. A valuable hostage for a girl, even a princess- it’s insane.” He chuckles as though the ridiculousness is obvious.

“What do you mean?”

“That fucking Lannister killed my boys. Fair is fair, his head belonged to me. Your mother wanted to trade him for a false hope, an empty promise at best. It will not stand.” She sees him clenching his fist, reigning in his anger.

“Trade?” At her questioning look, his jaw flops open.

“Forget what I’ve said, Princess.” But as her gut settles around a solid feeling mass, she understands all too well.

“She released him for me.” She answers herself.

“Yes.” He admits.

“Where is she?” She has to see her, immediately.

“I said to forget it.”

“I don’t want to help her escape or cause trouble. I just want to see her. That’s all.” He sighs once more.

“She’s being held in her father’s chambers, until he mercifully passes on. A handful of guards stand watch at all times.” He tells her. Of course, it was never going to be easy. “If you go now, with everyone distracted, you might be able to catch the shift change.” At her quizzical look he adds. “Fewer guards, there may not be another chance.” She wastes a moment to stare at him in shock, his kind deed completely unexpected. Another peek towards her brother, and she finds him talking to some of the Brotherhood, his back to her. Lord Karstark stands in such a way that her small frame is blocked from view. Without another hesitation she slips out down the hall, searching for Lord Tully’s chambers.

A heavy clomp has her duck to the side, ready to run off if necessary; only to find her protector Sandor Clegane standing before her. He’d followed her from the feast, she shouldn’t have expected any less.

“C’mon Milady, get moving before they notice.” She thinks about sending him back, but finds herself relieved to have company. It’s not the guards or the sneaking about that has her worried; it’s her mother that has her stomach all aflutter.

Only two guards stand before an ornate door, emblazoned with the fish synonymous with the Tully name, and she’s sure she’s found it. The guards stand up straighter at their loud approach, and one reaches for his sword. Before he can draw his weapon, Sandor knocks him in the temple so hard he falls instantly. Sandor really was a beast. The other looks a bit frightened, keeps his hand off his weapon, but doesn’t move from his post. She puts a hand out to keep Sandor at bay, then attempts to reason with the guard.

“Please. I just want to speak with her. She’s my mother.” His face has pity written all over it, but still he doesn’t budge.

“I understand Princess, but I can’t do that. You must understand, I have orders. No one goes in or out.”

“Please!” She begs. “I’m not gonna hurt her, or help her escape.” He flinches. “I just want to speak to her. I haven’t seen her in years. I…”

“How about this? I won’t kill you if you open that door now.” Sandor growls. The guards brows furrow in anger at the threat. Great.

“Mom! Mother! Mother!” She calls out, running towards the door.

“Arya?” She hears from the other side, a hint of disbelief coloring her whisper.

“Mother!” She shouts in response. With the guard distracted, Sandor grabs him by the throat and shoves him against the door, putting pressure on his windpipe.

“Go on, Princess. I’ll keep watch.” He says, not even breathing hard from the effort of keeping the smaller man pinned. One hand keeps him in place, the other fishes around on the man’s belt for the key, handing it to her with great pomp. She takes it carefully, the man’s fidgeting drowned out by the sounds of the key in turning in the lock, tumblers clicking into place, metal scraping and adjusting, and her heart pounding. Her mother was on the other side of that door, their reunion moments away, so why was her hand shaking and her brow sweating? A final click and the lock springs open. A push, and the door swings wide open.

Here goes nothing.

Chapter Text

A Mother’s Love

 

It’s her. Same auburn hair. Same sophisticated features with a few more wrinkles around her blue eyes.

 

“Mother?” She breathes it, worried that if she calls out too loudly the dream will shatter.

 

“Arya!” Her mother calls back as she rushes to her, enveloping her daughter in her arms. Her mother’s embrace is so tight; she can feel the warm, soft skin of her mother’s neck against her cheek. Fat teardrops drip down Arya’s face and collect in her mother’s bosom, getting stuck there and adding a salty scent to her mother’s familiar smell

 

Catelyn’s own tears drop onto Arya’s head, cooling the scalp where her hair is parted so tightly. Her own makeup must be a mess.

 

It’s a dream she kept worrying.

 

I’ll awake back in Harrenhall she thought.

 

I’ll stay asleep then she decided.

 

But no, this wasn’t a dream. Her mother was squeezing too tightly; she was having trouble breathing from where she was pressed against crushed velvet.

 

She pulled back, looking up into her mother’s tear-stained face.

 

It was her. It was!

 

Hair that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or auburn. Fine nose, less masculine than her own. Soft, pale skin, so lovely.

 

Her own mother had put Arya’s face between her hands, studying her just as intently.

 

“My daughter. My girl.” She kept murmuring that, repeating similar sentiments over and over.

 

Arya had no better idea what to say. She was content to revel in this moment. She had felt safe once more when she’d seen Robb. But her mother made her feel younger, less weathered. If she pretended hard enough, she was a little girl back in Winterfell again, watching her mother get ready for a feast and hearing stories about Catelyn’s own childhood in the Riverlands.

 

“My girl. How you’ve grown.” She’s smiling, and sniffling. “So beautiful.” The words brought a new lump to Arya’s throat. Hearing her mother think her beautiful, felt more surreal than any of it. She laughs without her own consent.

 

“Not as beautiful as you.” Her mother did look beautiful, she always did. Even locked up in a room, she still held herself as the mother of a King. The new creases suited her. They both laugh, eyes shining anew.

 

“Seven Hells.” They hear behind them. Arya turns to see her brother behind them, trying to look angry. He had tried to forbid her. “I told you to wait.” He doesn’t seem angry though as he smiles in on them.

 

“Hush now. My daughter’s come home. You have no say in that.” Catelyn scolds, returning her attention to her daughter.

 

He’s not alone, a number of guards, a few bannermen, his wife, and of course Gendry, and the Hound were there as well, looking on still as stones. A good lady should always maintain an air of decorum. Arya couldn’t seem to make herself care that they were watching.

 

“I was so afraid. I feared I would never see you again.” Catelyn admits. Her eyes turn sadder, unrested. “I should have known to trust in you.” She strokes her daughter’s hair, some strands coming loose. “Your father tried to tell me how capable you were.” This causes Arya’s own breath to catch; the dress impossibly tight. She’d found her mother, but would never have this moment with her father. She could never truly be a child again.

 

“They killed him. I tried to stop it. I did everything I could. I’m so sorry.” She starts, not sure what she’s trying to say. But unable to stop.

 

“Of course you did. I’m sure you fought like a demon. It wasn’t your fault.” Catelyn kisses the top of her head. “He told me how glad he was to have you with him in that horrible place. One of his last letters.”

 

Arya nods in answer. Not able to say anything to that. Feeling the relief of forgiveness she hadn’t known she’d been seeking.

 

“We will make them pay. They will regret the wrongs they have done us.” Catelyn promises so intently Arya can feel the steel of her mother’s jaw. Perhaps that’s where she got it from.

 

“We will kill them all for what they’ve done.” Robb says from beside them, having included himself, letting go of his stern pretext. “With Arya we have an even better chance. She has valuable information. She was Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer.”

 

“What? Did he hurt you? What did he do?” Concerned mother, it’s familiar and comforting.

 

“He didn’t do anything.” Some strange part of her finds the question funny. Tywin, in his way, had protected her. She had been past hurting long before that. “He thought I was a common girl. I got good at pretending.” She would leave it at that. She wasn’t sure she even could explain it. It hadn’t made any sense as it was happening.

 

“So clever. And brave.” High praise indeed. Arya wasn’t sure she deserved it. “We are stronger together.”

 

Arya smiled anew at that. Strange that she didn’t feel stronger. She felt vulnerable, and it made her stomach churn.

 

Or perhaps it was the rich food she’d grown unaccustomed to, or all the wine.

 

“Now maybe my son will listen to me.” Catelyn asserts, looking pointedly at Robb, the King of the North, with reproach.

 

“Mother…” He warns, more annoyed than angry.

 

“She’s home, isn’t she?” Catelyn counters. Arya was unsettled by factoring into their disagreement.

 

Robb sighs painfully, having had this same argument many times before.

 

“Yes, thank the Gods. But what you did was dangerous and poorly timed. You might have lost us this war.”

 

“And what’s the point of winning if there are none of us left?” Catelyn demands, pushing Robb further.

 

“Enough.” Arya interjects. “Enough. With us bickering the bloody Lannisters can sleep easily.” She remarks. “We are stronger because we’re not crazy. Or brother lovers.”

 

And with that, some of the tension is released. Robb snorts, and her mother smiles, tsking.

 

“She is right. I’m holding my daughter in my arms again. No fighting tonight.” Arya smiles back, wishing Bran and Rickon could be there as well. “Tomorrow the war can resume.”

 

“And talk of fault and strategy as well.” Robb adds.

 

“Yes. Perhaps the Freys will lose some of their bitterness towards us when we can keep one of our promises.” Catelyn says, reprimand in her tone.

 

“The Freys? What?” Arya asks. What did the Freys have to do with anything? They never left their bridge. They were like trolls that way.

 

They both get quieter at her question, and she can’t quite catch their gazes as they look away.

 

“What?” She asks again, getting more anxious by the second.

 

It’s Robb that answers.

 

“I promised to marry one of Lord Frey’s daughters, to make her a Queen.” Robb explains. Arya looks back and forth between he and Jeyne.

 

“I see.” She says, though she doesn’t. She can imagine the Freys being upset, insulted even. “I doubt you can smooth things over then.”

 

“Yes, well, we also promised you would marry one of his sons. A little Walder who I’m told…” Her mother begins.

 

“What!?!?” She screeches, the sound grating to her own ears. Both mother and brother visibly flinch in response.

 

“Well, your cousin was unacceptable. And Lysa is not the sister I once knew. She refuses to send aid…”

 

“Of course I’m not marrying Robin!” She yells, affronted. “I’m not marrying some Frey! I’m not marrying anyone!” She screams it, watching as her mother’s face goes from pity to irritation.

 

“Arya.” She takes a breath, settling herself. “Now is not the time. We just got you back. We can discuss this later…” There it is. That tone she remembered so well. Her mother thought her a brat; she found her daughter’s dissent distasteful.

 

“We can discuss it all you like. I’m not marrying anyone.” She feels it now, the absolute conviction. After all she’d seen; all she’d done- marriage was out of the question. In some ways she hadn’t changed.

 

“Arya.” Her mother no longer hides her exasperation.

 

Robb cuts in.

 

“We needed to cross that bridge.” His throat quivers. “I meant to save Father, to make the Lannister’s pay for their offense.” He’s remembering. Jeyne looks on in concern or possibly guilt. “I would have promised anything, not knowing what it meant.” He swallows. “But I fell in love, and I insulted them, deeply. That’s my wrong, my recklessness.” He looks over at Jeyne with tenderness. “I don’t know if I’d make the same choice again. But it’s done.” He moistens his lips. “And now we’re asking you to sacrifice in my stead. I’m sorry, but that’s what we’re asking.”

 

It pained him to ask her this, she could see it. But not as much as it hurt to hear. She suddenly didn’t feel as safe as she once had. The warm relief of having family close was ebbing already. Home had seemed so close, and now they were trying to tell her she’d never see it again. They were so happy to have her back, only so they could sell her. They wanted her to cease being a Stark, and become a troll.

 

“I understand.” She says. Her mother breathes a visible sigh of relief. But too soon. “I understand, but… no. My answer is no.”

 

“You don’t have a choice!” Her mother screams, all patience gone. “We, women, we don’t have a choice. You will do this. For your family.” She considered the matter settled.

 

“For my family? Am I not part of this family?” Her voice is shaky. “Why do I get traded away? Why am I to be sacrificed?”

 

“Shame on you, Arya.” Catelyn says. “You saw, first-hand what they did to your father. I thought you, of all of us, would want to make them pay.”

 

“I do. I will… But not this way.”

 

“This is how. Right here, right now. You can get us that army and keep the bridge open. You want to help this family, this is how. This is what we need. Please.” Robb is pleading. His begging makes her lip shake, her gut churns at what she’s doing.

 

“I will help. I have helped. I know the Lannisters, I know their weaknesses, I know their allies, and I know what drives them. And I can fight. I know you don’t believe me, but I can fight. I can’t have made it all this way just to....” At her mother’s heavy stare she continues on. “Put me on the battlefield and I’ll bring the lions low. Send me to my aunt and I will convince her to fight with us. Just find me something worthwhile. I am more than a broodmare.”

 

“Still a spoiled child, I see.” Her mother had officially dismissed her. Catelyn had decided the matter was solved. Once her headstrong daughter was put in her place, it would be settled. There was only one way to end this conversation for good. Not just this suitor, but the next, and the one after that.

 

“Not a child any longer, Mother.” This was it; there was no going back. “Not a child. I’ve killed. ”

 

Robb isn’t surprised, she’d already told him as much. Her mother clutches the simple pearls around her neck.

 

“Oh, Arya. I’m so sorry…” Catelyn makes to cup her daughter’s cheek.

But Arya backs away, having started and needing to finish.

 

“I’m not. I had to. I know I will have to again. That’s the kind of person I am now. I kill, when I need to. And I’m not the girl you promised Frey. I’m not a little girl.”

 

“Let’s talk about this more tomorrow.” Robb suggests, trying to ease the tension. But she keeps going, unable to stop now.

 

“I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m not even a maid.” Her mother’s gasp is loud enough to fill the room and then some. Her brother’s disbelief palpable- stinging.

 

“That’s not amusing, Arya.” Her mother scolds, scowling, more little lines forming around her lips.

 

“Not a joke. You thought I made it all the way here unscathed? It took everything I had to get here. My maidenhead included.” She all-but snarls.

 

The slap is so hard and fast she doesn’t see it coming. Her cheek cracks as her head spins. Her mother had hit her.

 

The Hound growls and comes to stand beside her, hand at his sword. Robb’s men come to her mother’s aid in answer.

 

Arya holds up a hand, signaling the Hound to stand down. Robb’s men follow suit.

 

“You hit me.” Arya says, accusatory.

 

“After what you did?” She shakes her head in disbelief. “How could you do this to yourself? How could you do this to me?” The look, it’s disgust now. Her mother was disappointed, repulsed. Of course. She should have expected that.

 

“To you?” She asks in shock. “Go on, try to sell me to the Freys, insult them further with a ruined bride.” Arya spits, eyes burning. “I’ll slit my new husband’s throat while he sleeps.” She threatens, breaths shallow with fury. “And if you hit me again, it will be the last time.”

 

“Enough!” Robb orders. His powerful voice booms and they both fall silent, looking to him. “We are not arguing about this here, now.” The King had spoken. The fight was ended, but nothing settled.

 

Suddenly she feels the eyes on here, everyone listening, watching.

 

“Come with me.” Robb orders, taking her by the shoulders and leading her out the doors. He pushes past the onlookers, and she keeps her head down. She makes eye contact with no one. She pays no attention to her feet on the tile, doesn’t feel her brother’s hand on her shoulders.

 

Before she knows it, she’s back at her room, staring at an open door. She’s startled back to consciousness.

 

“I’ll leave. I’ll leave if you want me to.” She’s choked up. “I didn’t mean to undermine you in front of the others, I just…”

 

“Arya.” He interrupts. “Arya look at me.” No Kingly rancor, his voice is calm. She dares to look up.

 

“I don’t want you to leave.”

 

“But your bannermen, and Mother…”

 

“I doubt your virginity will affect my bannermen’s loyalty. And as for Mother, she’s not King. I am. And you're my sister. I love you.” He offers her a tiny smile, one of understanding, acceptance. Some of the wetness in her eyes spills onto her cheeks. He pulls her in, his embrace soothing her tattered nerves. “As long as I am King, you are always welcome beneath my roof. No matter what.” She manages to smile, though it’s a bit watery.

 

“I love you too.” She answers back.

 

“Now get some rest. Tomorrow will be better.” He kisses her on the forehead, says goodbye, and then heads back to the feast.

 

Alone in her room, warmly lit by candle light, she stares longingly at the bed. But the tightness of her bodice is squeezing her insides. She unlaces the material as quickly as possible, eager to be free. With the night over, the truth told, and her corset off, she can finally breathe.

Chapter Text

Stripped Down

 

Arya

 

She was so tired. The wine, the fight, the cloying jewels and cloth having taken their toll. She had started the night feeling young once more, a carefree girl back in Winterfell. But she had aged years since then; she felt every kill, every long march, every meal that wasn’t enough, every cold, wet ground she’d slept on. She felt it all, and by the soft candlelight in her chamber, she went to see the toll it had taken in the vanity mirror.

 

Her mouth falls open at the sight, the shock beyond what she had expected. Her make-up had run in ugly splotches beneath her eyes and down her cheeks, the lip stain long-gone. She was a fright, a chewed-up version of herself. Worse though, were the pins sticking into her scalp like needles in a pincushion. Deftly she removes the pins, feeling keen relief as each clatters to the floor, her hair falling loose above her shoulders, wavier than normal, strands still braided together in some sections. Next, the jewels. Lovely though they were, the heavy earrings drag on her lobes, causing the sensation of ripping before the clasps finally give.

 

She rubs the sore shells of her ears, the tingles dying down blessedly quickly.

 

The jewels about her neck are like dozens of tiny fingers strangling her about the throat. A pinch and she’s free, the heavy piece dropping loudly onto the little table. Her sigh of relief burns in her mouth, so she takes a long, slow drink from the pitcher laid out, the swallowing painful, excess sliding past her lips. With the accompanying cloth, she dips the fabric into the basin, wrings out the material, and wipes at her dark-rimmed eyes. It’s thick with ochre, sticky against her fingers. She dips the cloth once more and rings it out before wiping at her face. She continues until her face is bare and the water is muddy.

 

Her dress and corset are the real problem. She hadn’t gotten into it by herself, getting back out would prove a challenge. She could fall asleep regardless. But come the morning her ribs would be aching, sore from the bones sewn into the bodice.

 

Only a flicker of guilt as she uses her knife to cut the laces. It’s an awkward angle, and her wrist must twist in an unnatural way. But she manages, letting the tight torture device land in a heap on the floor. More layers shed and finally she is down to her shift, beyond ready for sleep, unsure whether she hopes for a dreamless sleep or not.

 

A tentative knock on the door sounds almost immediately after her head hits the pillow. Jeyne had probably sent some poor servant girls to come help her undress. Damn her thoughtfulness. She can’t stand company just now.

 

“I don’t need any help.” She says, the words muffled against the pillow. The knocking sounds again. She cranes her neck out and tries again. “I don’t need any help. Go away!” She’s past decorum. She needs rest.

 

The knocking grows louder, more instant.

 

“For fucksake.” She mutters beneath her breath.

 

Another loud knock rings out. Blasted servants.

 

“I said...” She yells out, heart beating fast. ‘Just go’ she silently wills.

 

“Arya,” the voice calls out hesitantly. “It’s me, your mother.”

 

She can’t take this, whatever it is. Arya doesn’t answer. The sound of her own breathing filling her ears.

 

“Please, Arya. Please, I…” Her breath catches, and if Arya’s not mistaken, she can hear tears in the woman’s throat.

 

“Goodnight, Mother.” She calls out, an air of finality. Her mother was a proud woman, she would not stay after such a rude dismissal. Not that Arya felt guilty. Of course not.

 

“Arya.” She’s begging. Her mother is begging. It makes her heart hurt anew to hear this proud woman pleading. “I need to speak with you, Arya. We can’t leave it like this.” No, no. She couldn’t take more. “I’ll stay here all night, if I have to.”

 

More pain lay right outside her door. Arya slumps back against the wood, releasing a breath as the full weight of the situation presents itself.

 

A slow knock on the door, but this time from down low; her mother is sitting on the floor, resigned to wait there all night as she said. She can’t leave her mother out there all night; she’ll have to face her.

 

“Mom?” She calls out, though she knows her mother is out there.

 

“Arya?” Her mother calls back, tone so hopeful it stabs another needle into her gut.

 

“I’m opening the door.” She warns her, giving her proud mother enough time to scramble off the floor first. Arya does her best to fix her hair and smooth out her own shift as well. Though she shouldn’t care, she tells herself. She won’t give the woman the chance to hurt her anymore.

 

Her mother is there, eyes red rimmed, face paler than usual. She hadn’t changed, hadn’t even washed her face. She looked as though she’d been traveling the road for weeks herself.

 

“Arya, I…” Catelyn starts, then trails off. Her mother looks nervous and unsure.

 

It dawns on her that her mother had come to her, begging her. No matter what happened, Robb had promised she could stay. He’d said she was valuable, while Mother had been locked up like a mischievous child. She had the upper hand here; her mother had come to beg her favor. She would hear her out quickly before sending her on her way. Then she could finally get some fucking sleep.

 

“Come in.” Arya offers a little too formally. She wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. She would guard herself well.

 

Her mother passes through hesitantly, footing unsure. She eyes the clothes and accessories strewn on the floor with disapproval, but says nothing. Arya had to remind herself that a little Catelyn Tully had been raised here. Her mother crosses over to the bed, changes her mind, and just stands there, ringing her hands together. Arya sees wrinkles there, new marks. There are a few strands of grey in her mother’s beautiful auburn hair. Her light eyes have more lines around them. And even so, as she stands there nervous, Arya recognizes the child her mother must have been once. Had she ever had a conversation like this with her own mother? Arya knew very little about her grandmother. Why was she thinking about this now?

 

“You wanted to say something, Mother?” Arya accuses. She’d rather have it all out in the open, she hated the court style of word play- it took forever to get to the point.

 

“Did I hurt you?” Her mother asks instead, catching her off guard.

 

Of course, a scarred up bride was even worse than a ruined one.

 

“It won’t leave a mark, don’t worry.” Arya hisses back.

 

Her mother sniffles.

 

“I’m sorry, Arya. I shouldn’t have.”

 

“Well hit harder next time. Though you won’t get the opportunity.” She bites.

 

“Gods, Arya. I’m sorry. I reacted poorly.”

 

“Poorly?” The word makes her chuckle, the imprecision of it. Arya is determined to stay angry, so much easier. “Well that’s an understatement. I doubt a single guest at the feast missed it. Any chance of discretion is lost.” Her mother’s lip trembles.

 

“I didn’t mean what I said. I didn’t mean it. You’re home, and you’re alive. That’s all that matters. All I care about. I…” The woman’s eyes are watering, cheeks puffy and swollen.

 

“Did Robb force you to come apologize?” She snorts at the question.

 

“He forbade me to upset you further, he spoke of extending my seclusion in my quarters.” She sniffs.

 

“And you didn’t listen?”

 

“Would you have?” Arya doesn’t answer. “Of course not. You never do.” Another slight. “You listen to your own mind. You always have. I suppose that’s why you’ve survived.” And she’s smiling a bit, not without pain.

 

“I…” Not what she was expecting. Not at all. She’s at a loss for words. “I tried.” She gets out finally. Very confused.

 

“I know. I never should have doubted that. I’m sorry.” She’d apologized again. So it wasn’t a fluke. She’d heard her correctly.

 

“For airing our family business in front of everyone?” Arya asks to clarify.

 

“For judging you. Everything is different now. Seeing you again after so long, I had forgotten that- you remind me of home, of how we used to be.” She’s tearing up again. “But that’s gone. I know that. Having you back means it’s not all lost. I’ll have you back however I can.” And with that, Arya falls back into her mother’s arms. She understood now. Upon their reunion, Arya had felt younger too, had forgotten the pain it took to get there. Her mother had forgotten too. Perhaps they were more alike than she thought. She could forgive that.

 

“Thank you.” She was grateful for the apology, for the meager acceptance. Still, the hug was not as tight as their last, both still cautious. Arya still questioning her mother’s motives.

 

“You won’t… leave?” Her mother asks nervously.

 

“You’re my family. And I’ll not leave Robb, he needs all the help he can get against the fucking Lannisters.” Catelyn flinches at her vulgarity, but doesn’t comment. She was trying.

 

“Indeed.” Her mother agrees.

 

“But I won’t marry that Frey. I won’t marry anyone. I won’t be part of some agreement.” Her mother hadn’t brought it up again, but Arya meant to make her point clear. This fact was nonnegotiable.

 

“Robb married who he wanted, why shouldn’t you.” Her mother concedes, sitting down heavily on the bed.

 

“Well I won’t marry anyone. No one would want me now anyway, so that’s one upside.” Her mother visibly cringes at the callous response. But it was how Arya kept herself sane whenever certain memories crept back in. One positive at least.

 

“Arya, I… I know I have no right to ask, and you needn’t tell me. It won’t matter. But…” The pause is long, she’s steeling herself. “This man. Did you love him?”

 

Fucking Hell.

 

“What does it matter?”

 

“It doesn’t, it doesn’t. But I’d like to think, you made the choice for the right reasons.” She could actually hear every word her mother wasn’t saying. What could have possessed you to make such a terrible mistake? How could you ruin yourself?

 

But she appreciated her mother’s efforts, she was trying damn hard to be civil. But her curiosity got the best of her. Her mother would never let this go, not without elaboration.

 

Now the decision- tell the truth or make up a lie. Her usual impulse was to lie, it had served her well in the past. She was also very good at it by now. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure there was any fiction that could improve upon the truth. Or conversely, she couldn’t imagine the truth being any harder to swallow.

 

“What would be the right reason?” Arya arches a brow.

 

“I don’t…” Oh, she didn’t have an answer ready, very unlike her mother. “If you were… forced- I suppose...” She finishes.

 

An uncomfortable, unladylike snort comes out of her; she puts a hand atop her lips to prevent any further sound. Was rape preferable to her?

 

“Arya?” Her mother prompts, confused. Another ugly snicker comes out involuntarily.

 

“No. Not that.” Unreasonably, she’s offended at her mother’s assumption. As if she were weak. No, not raped. Though she had come close. No, it was much worse than that.

 

“No?” Catelyn breathes out a sigh of relief. A wave of love comes over her. Her mother did care for her, however she showed it.

 

“No. I came close, some soldiers on the road.” Her mother’s jaw drops open. “I beat one’s head in with a rock.” A small smile forms on Arya’s lips, remembering how shocked they’d been. Her mother gasps, and she wishes she’d kept that to herself. “No one touched me after that.” Her mother’s jaw seals shut, lips pressed firmly in resolution.

 

“You asked.” Arya responds. Her mother’s lip curls up just slightly.

 

“You misunderstand me, Arya.” She shakes her head. “You always did. It’s why we used to fight so.”

 

“Me?” Arya asks, incredulous. Ready to spar once more.

 

“You thought I wanted to beat the ferocity out of you to make you a lady. But I never wanted you to lose yourself, or the ice in your veins. To learn to still your tongue when necessary, then cut with its sharp edges when called for.”

 

Arya has no words, thinking back. Perhaps she had remembered it all wrong.

 

“I don’t know how you made it back, what horrors you’ve faced. I never could have survived it. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me fully. That you somehow managed to stay your Father’s fierce little wolf.” Her mother brushes hair away from her daughter’s face.

 

A lump forms in Arya’s throat, it takes considerable strength to swallow it down. Come to think of it, her mother’s words hadn’t fallen on deaf ears. She’d learned from her father and mother both on how to survive in this world.

 

“I’m glad you never had to face such an atrocity, a small favor. Not all women may choose whom they lay with. Especially not during times of war.”

 

There was peace between them now. It was as if they’d never fought, never been apart. This was how she’d wanted her mother to see her. The bond she’d always desired. Her mother seemed to have the power to absolve her of all her sins, and suddenly, she wanted to confess them to her.

 

“It was my choice. No one forced me.” Arya admits solemnly.

 

“It’s alright. You took Moon Tea didn’t you?” She whispers the last, as if the words themselves are dirty.

 

“Yes, right away. No child. Thank the Gods.”

 

“Well there you go then. No one need know.” Her mother covers Arya’s hand with her own, patting lightly. Arya hates to burst her bubble.

 

“Mother, at least a dozen people heard us. They must have told everyone by now. Secrets don’t stay that way long. Everyone knows our shame by now.”

 

“Oh let them talk. Your maidenhead is the least of our worries now.”

 

“Mother!” Arya exclaims, scandalized.

 

Her mother gives a small smile in response.

 

“I’m being serious. A passionate tryst with that strapping boy downstairs isn’t the end of the world.”

 

“What?” She’s sure she misheard her.

 

“The dark haired one, couldn’t keep his eyes off of you…”

 

“What? Um…”

 

“There are worse choices, I certainly see the appeal…”

 

“What? No Mother, it wasn’t him.” Off her mother’s incredulous look, she continues. “Gendry is too scared of Robb to even touch me.” That was mostly true.

 

“Then who?” Her auburn eyebrows scrunch together.

 

It takes her a long time to be able to speak. To say the name, but she can’t.

 

“I thought I could save Father. Such a little thing.” Stupid, she whispers under her breath. “It didn’t work, obviously. He’s dead anyway.”

 

Her mother wraps her tightly in her arms, stroking her hair, and soothing her.

 

“My brave, brave girl.” She whispers, kissing the top of her head. “Stark and Tully both.”

 

It’s cuddled tight that they fall asleep on top of the covers, curled close together.

Chapter Text

The Arrangements

 

She awoke feeling rested and comfortable. She and her mother were on good terms, and had agreed to meet up later for a leisurely breakfast. Her mother had more little details to see to, and Arya was happy to be left out of it. She was also happy to be back in her old style of clothing, her brother had had a fine pair of trousers and tunic repurposed for her needs. Of course, there was no need to bother with binding her breasts. She quickly got used to the new routine, the relative comfort and freedom. She walked the grounds freely, no real place to be, no pressure to speak with anyone. It was refreshing. She only looked over her shoulder sometimes, and she hardly missed the others. Truth be told, she could almost forget if she tried hard enough. The Brotherhood had left, choosing not to pick sides, despite her best efforts. And her friends were seemingly avoiding her. Even her father hadn’t visited. However, she was not alone. Off to the side, Sander was always watching, knowing better than to intrude on her solitude.

 

She had a routine around the grounds. It felt the war could not touch them here. She had told her brother everything she knew, and he’d been grateful. He even came to her with certain matters to ask her opinion. But some of the pressure was off. They were meant to be together, as a family.

 

So of course, something had to come along and shatter that. In a few days time, she was meant to marry some Frey. Of course, she flat out refused. And her family had reluctantly come around to her wishes. But they would still have to deal with the fallout if they were to salvage the relationship. She had no idea how they were meant to do that.

 

“Arya, there you are. We need to have a talk.” Her mother ambushes her around the corner. Catelyn looks well put together in a well-made brown and green dress.

 

“Of course.” Though she can’t imagine it will be good. Luckily, she no longer feared their disapproval or disappointment. Her only real concern was betrothal.

 

She would not marry.

 

So there was no real danger.

 

“We leave soon to parlay with the Freys. It will be… trying.”

 

“I’m certain of it. But then, I didn’t make the deal in the first place.” She points out unkindly.

 

Her mother laughs humorlessly, adjusting her sleeves about her wrists.

 

“Yes, all the same, we feel your presence might make things more tense.” Her mother puts lightly, though her intent is clear.

 

“I concur.” Arya admits readily. It seems a useless point, common knowledge.

 

“We have decided you should not attend.” Her mother states more bluntly.

 

Arya is stunned for a moment. Not at her mother’s suggestion, she had figured the same. But now her mother was agreeing with her, giving her an out.

 

“Well, yes, but...” Why was she arguing exactly?

 

Oh yes, because otherwise she would be left out of everything again, forced to stay behind- waiting and worrying.

 

Her mother offers a pained sigh.

 

“Arya, please don’t argue. This is for the best. I believe you see that.”

 

“What shall I do? Knit scarves and prepare ledgers?” She replies nastily.

 

“If you like. Or you could prepare correspondence and keep the information channels running. We will need your eyes and ears here.”

 

Bullshit!

 

But actually, she appreciated the attempt at making her feel needed. What her mother didn’t fully realize was- she did need her daughter to win this war.

 

“And what if something happens?” Arya asks more reasonably.

 

“That’s why we are bringing the young Baratheon smith. He will watch our backs and show Baratheon support. Not to mention, earning a reputation with your brother.” Her mother drops casually.

 

“What?!?”

 

“It was his request. We believe he will prove useful. Your brother thought it a good way to get to know him.”

 

For fucksakes!

 

“He asked?” Arya is fully incredulous. Why would he do that? How had he done it?

 

“Yes. He means to ingratiate himself to us. I can’t imagine why he cares to impress us.” Her mother smirks sarcastically.

 

“What does that mean? Baratheon or no, he’s a smith as you say. Can he do anything to impress you?” Arya asks in earnest.

 

“He has impressed us. He went right up to Robb and demanded a place, a chance to prove his worth. His sights are set on you.” Her mother relates solemnly.

 

“He said that?” She’s suspicious.

 

“Why else?”

 

“And so you’re using him. Stringing him along. Why let him serve you if you have no intention of elevating him?”

 

“Arya, you think so little of us?” Catelyn does not wait for an answer. “We keep our promises. We’ll give him a name, as promised. The rest is yet to be seen.”

 

Arya only shakes her head in disapproval. Despite not even asking her what she wanted, she got the distinct impression Gendry was being taken advantage of, on some level.

 

“What exactly do you need him for?” If her brother had any sense, he’d know Gendry could barely handle a sword and wouldn’t be much protection. She didn’t think he’d give out a title for forging steel.

 

“He’s a Baratheon. I’m sure he’ll prove useful.”

 

Arya is disappointed, though she shouldn’t be. This was something Arya herself would have done, had done, in a sense. It was a sound strategy. And at least her mother was being honest with her. She had to appreciate that.

 

“Of course.” She says sarcastically.

 

“I only meant...” Her mother quickly tries to backtrack, but it’s too late.

 

“You’re right, it makes sense. It’s heartless, but smart.”

 

“Arya...”

 

“I’m not angry. You’re still my mother. I’m just glad to know you’re still as sharp as ever.”

 

“I do believe you got that from me, however.”

 

“I know it.” Arya smirks.

 

Arya checked the forge first, but Gendry was not there. The kitchens held Hot Pie, but he had no idea where Gendry was specifically, only generally. Still, it did her good to see Hot Pie again and know he was well. He didn’t know how to speak to her anymore though, it made her so lonely, she moved on rather quickly.

 

Gendry was in the training yard, focusing so intently on his opponent she thought his eyes might pop out. He was excited, intent, beads of sweat gather by his brows and dripping down the opening of his tunic.

 

She was reminded of how lovely he was. Not like a girl, not like a lord, it was something else. He was open, earnest, sensitive, keen, loyal, and gorgeous as fuck. Blue blue eyes, dark hair, and arms that could make you feel safe.

 

He did his best, he took direction well, and he was imposing enough. He was certainly not embarrassing himself, though he wasn’t setting himself apart either. She felt a swelling of warmth. She was so glad to have him here, on her side. And she thought it could be a good idea to prove himself to her brother, and more importantly, her mother. For his own sake, for his future.

 

But she’d realized much in the time between the rejection at the Inn and her confession to her mother. She didn’t feel regret. And she didn’t miss her old life, her old self.

 

She had no intention of marrying any lord, even a new one.

 

Marriage wasn’t for her. Just as sitting with her thumb up her ass waiting, wasn’t for her.

 

She’d tell Sander when it was convenient. Once the retinue left, she would make herself truly useful. They could always use more allies, more men, more resources- she’d have to scare some up. It looked like it was back on the road for her.



Chapter Text

Parting Ways




It was relatively easy to sneak into the forge. The guards knew her well enough to know she wandered where she pleased, they were used to it. They would not approve of her current destination, however. She could give a shit.

 

She felt so much better in her trousers and tunic, free to move around, much less of a lady. And that suited her. 

 

The forge was alight with flames, sparks spurting out the door, the hammer of metal ringing through the air. Of course he was still working the night before his departure, of course.

 

Before entering, she counselled herself not to be distracted by his sweaty, heaving back, or the sight of his well-formed arm beating the steel. She tried in vain to ignore that intoxicating scent that was all Gendry. She managed to push such thoughts way down low, then cleared her throat to let him know she was there.

 

The look of shock on his face is so stark, she is unable to discern any other emotions. Was he glad to see her? Was he sick of all the complications that went with her? What had her mother told him?

 

“Arya.” 

 

This meeting felt so familiar, but she felt so far away.

 

“Gendry.”

 

“I… I’m leaving tomorrow.” He blurts out, swallowing hard. Nervous, that was another emotion he had.

 

His departure was why she had come.

 

“Yes, that’s why I came.” 

 

At her words, a hint of a smile breaks free on one side of his face. He thought this a purely pleasant visit.

 

“Whatever my mother told you, don’t believe her.” She decides to be blunt, it was a strength of hers.

 

The smile drops from his face.

 

“What…?”

 

“She’s using you.” She explains calmly.

 

He sets the fire down low, mindlessly, then gives her his full attention once more.

“That’s what you highborns do. You use people. I’m pretty used to it by now.” He hadn’t taken her directness wll then.

 

“I only meant to warn you. Do as you like.” She’s angry at his jibe. He had no place to judge her. She’d just let him leave then. She turns to go.

 

“I didn’t mean… I didn’t say I minded. I’m sorry. I been waiting to see you all this time. I didn’t mean it.” He looks so apologetic that she stops in her tracks.

 

“So why are you leaving for The Twins? What do you think you’ll find there?”

 

“It’s important, I mean to serve your brother.” He answers.

 

She outright rolls her eyes. 

 

“I haven’t promised anything, I only mean to earn their favor.”

 

“This desire to serve is new. Where was your sense of duty on the road?”

 

“Things have changed.” He answers, swallowing hard.

 

“Not really. I’m the same as when you met me- ruined. Just as you’ve always had King’s blood. What’s the difference?” She points out none-too-kindly.

 

“You could have told me.” He challenges, rubbing the back of his neck.

 

“I don’t care what you think, or my mother for that matter. It’s my business.” She snaps.

 

“I only mean, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t think that.” 

 

At his apology, she feels her traitorous eyes water, but she blinks it back before he can see.

 

“It’s fine.” She says instead. She does forgive him. She wasn’t really angry, just embarrassed, and hurt. 

 

“It’s not. I don’t even know why I said it. You make me so nervous. Like I’ll never be good enough.” He’s not looking at her now.

 

“What, but I...”

 

“It’s not you, or anything you’ve done. It’s just how I was raised, what I was taught, how I’ve always felt. I only meant- I know I’m not good enough.” He finishes, eyes downcast.

 

“Shouldn’t that be up to me?” She counters.

 

He smirks at that.

 

“It should. You’re a hell of a lot smarter than me.” She goes closer to him, willing him to look up.

 

“What did my mother promise?”

 

“Anything I can do to get them to trust me, to like me. These last weeks without you have been terrible. If I need to leave you for a bit longer to make sure I can stay in your life, then that’s what I’ll do.” His blue eyes look into hers, completely naked.

 

She can’t help herself then, she hugs him, his sweat seeps through the fabric of her tunic. He wraps his arms around her tight. She had missed him. And in her heart, she didn’t want to argue. She couldn’t make any promises, and she couldn't explain that fact anymore than she already had. She would enjoy this moment, this night.

 

“You will always be in my life, there was never a question of that.” She whispers into his hair.

 

He pulls back to address her- pure longing, raw in his face.

 

“I don’t care. I don’t care about before. I still want you.” He professes.

 

Oh, what the Hell. He’d be gone to the Wedding with her mother and brother on the morrow. And shortly after that, she’d be onto the Vayle to argue more soldiers to their cause.

 

“As what? You want me for what?” She teases, a wicked gleam in her grey eyes.

 

“I, I… I...” He stutters over his own tongue.

 

“Good.” She fits her mouth to his, kissing him for all her might. He welcomes her, doesn’t fight.

 

She goes as far as she dares, and he lets her. With no moon tea at hand, she can’t be completely restless. She’s still not sure her heart can stand it.

 

She wakes up long before he does. For all her talk of independence and respect, she doubted very much her brother would be okay with finding her in Gendry’s bed. She got back to her rooms very quickly and quietly, able to dress appropriately for the day in no time flat. She was on time to wish her mother and brother well, give a heartening speech to the retinue, and hug Gendry just long enough to make a few raise their eyebrows in their direction. He notices the attention and blushes red around the collar, she has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

 

More than the resentment she felt from being left behind, the pit of her stomach let her know just how much she would miss them. Robb, trying hard to follow in their father’s footsteps, who accepted her as she was and valued her opinion. Her mother, who seemed to love her no matter what, yet practical and hard. And Gendry, foolish boy who cared for her, but couldn’t see past his own eye line to the bigger picture. She would miss them all. Even Sandor looked sorry for her.

 

A few hours after they had gone North toward the Twins, she and the Hound went East to the Eyrie. Robb was going to ensure the bridge stayed open, Arya was going to gather more men.

 

Her mother had said Aunt Lysa had refused to offer aid, choosing instead to cower in her castle. But after all the court games she’d played, and the deaths she’d caused, Arya felt she might succeed where her mother had failed. She wouldn’t be going as a niece, self righteously demanding support out of duty. Arya would use cold reason, pointing out their shared enemies- her Aunt could not possibly refuse.

 

Oh, she would not ever marry Robin. She wouldn’t marry anyone. That was the promise she had made to herself, the same one she had pronounced to her mother. And she meant it. But of course, she had much more to offer than her hand in marriage. The Vayle would see that.

 

The journey on the road with Clegane proved dull and predictable. While devoted, he was a terrible conversationalist, and they seemingly had nothing in common. They had tried, but beyond where to camp, how to catch dinner, and debating the passing of time, there was nothing else there. But they were a good team. They traveled from sunrise to sunset, were light of foot, left no trace, and were cautious of other travelers. She traveled sparsely but not uncomfortably. She wore trousers and a tunic, but didn’t bother to bind her breasts. A loose cloak covered her figure well enough for her liking. She tied her hair back, and wore her hood up often.

 

Most of the time, she thought over what she would say again and again. How she would phrase it, how to respond to all possible objections and misdirects. How much to offer, and how much more she was willing to negotiate. She thought about what she would wear, how she would address them upon her arrival.

 

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the most eventful stage of the journey was at the crossroads once more. A few men were sitting around a campire, drinking, laughing, telling bawdy tales and boasting of perverse atrocities. Among them- Polliver.

 

The fucker had taken Needle. Now she would get it back. 

 

She felt Sandor try to hold her back, but he could not. She walked in, loudly, hood down, tunic just so to show the top of her breasts. They notice her all at once and the joking dies down. Then the laughter picks up, taking a dangerous turn.

 

“Good evening, good sers. Would you share your fire with me?” She asks innocently. She hunches her shoulders in submission, batting her eyes shamelessly. She has to hold back the full-on grin when it’s Polliver who gets up to lead her over into the trap they thought was set.

 

Not two steps in she takes out a dagger and stabs him viciously in the gut, again and again. The others are shocked, frozen. Before they can rush her, the Hound takes out the other two. It’s bloody, but quick. They’re dead. And once more she had Needle in her arms, she was almost whole. The Hound looks at her in astonishment and pride, not having seen the depths of her brutality before. Well, he knew now.

 

They ate the rabbit roasting on the spit, and drank what was left of their bitter wine. It was cheap swill, but it tasted sweet to her. Not far from the camp, there was a decent sized watering hole. Sandor kept watch out of sight as she cleansed herself and washed the blood off her clothes, putting on a spare.

 

They made it to the Eyrie in the early hours of the morning, the guards looked half asleep still. Though they came-to upon their arrival.

 

She presented herself, making her position and parentage clear. They did not doubt her, she was that self-assured.

 

They took them up the perilous ascent, her heart beat a fierce calm. She was ready.

 

Upon entering the grand chamber, she is stopped short. Her Aunt is there, her nephew by her side. And on the other, dressed richly, was a smirking, pleased Lord Baelish. She had not prepared for this eventuality. 

 

Fucking Littlefinger.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Bonus Chapter (Flashback- 1 Day Earlier)

 

Gendry



The Forge.

 

He knew this place. No matter where he was, no matter who he served. He had his tools, the steel, the fire.

 

And that maddening, beautiful woman who had caused him nothing but trouble somewhere inside the castle.

 

Of course he couldn’t see her. Wouldn’t let him within 10 feet now. He couldn’t even talk to her, ask her anything. And Gods he wanted to.

 

He pounds the steel. Over and over.

 

Will he ever get to see her? 

 

He beat the metal further into submission.

 

What would he say?

 

He’d fucked everything up. After learning about his blood, he’d acted like a craven. She’d tried to confide in him, and he’d kept his distance. Too afraid to overstep. And when she’d looked at him with pained eyes, he’d said nothing. And now here he was, hiding. No other word for it.

 

He couldn’t say sorry and he couldn’t be what she needed. He was stuck. So, he kept working.

 

He pounds the steel until it makes his arm and shoulder ache. He welcomes the pain.

 

“Ahem!” A loud throat clear breaks his concentration. 

 

He’s startled enough by the unfamiliar voice he smashes a finger. At the last moment, he loosens his grip, so it’s not as bad as it could be. But he yells out, it stings something awful. He won’t be able to grasp a handle properly for a bit.

 

He turns to see none other than Lady Stark, Mother of the King in the North. And worse, Arya’s Lady Mother.

 

She winces at his damaged finger, but works hard to keep a look of civility on her face.

 

If he hadn’t already dropped the hammer, he would have smashed something else.

 

“My Lady.” He gets out, too stunned to manage anything else.

 

“Good day. Gendry, is it?” She’s smiling, full of kindness.

 

He’s charmed and uncomfortable. That’s where Arya must have learned it.

 

“Aye, MiLady.” His tongue slips. He couldn’t think or talk. She was so finely dressed, but more than that, the way she held herself. So much confidence, she knew who she was, it felt as though she could see right through Gendry himself.

 

“I heard you’re doing some fine work here.”

 

“Uh, thank you, MiLady.” He manages. Above all else, he never forgets his courtesies.

 

“You’re a Smith by trade, then. It’s a fine skill.” She praises. He gets the distinct impression of being buttered up.

 

He only smiles and nods, not sure how he’s meant to respond.

 

“And you’re from King’s Landing, correct?” She asks casually, eyeing his tools and half-finished swords.

 

“I… Yes.” He answers unsurely. Surely, this wasn’t what she had come here to discuss with him.

 

“And you are Robert Baratheon’s bastard. The last.” Ah, there was the point.

 

“Seems so. Though I didn’t know ‘til a few moons ago.” He admits. He knows he’s not smart enough to even try lying to the likes of her. She simply raises an eyebrow at his admission.

 

“Yes. And do you know what that means?” She asks kindly, more directly than before. He thinks he grasps what she’s asking, but can’t be sure.

 

“I know it means some people out there want me dead. Beyond that, no fucking clue.” He releases the air he’d been holding, then remembers himself. “‘Scuse me, MiLady.” He apologizes after the fact, wiping his brow.

 

“It’s quite alright. Yes, there are those who would prefer to see you dead. And yet more who would take advantage of your unique position.” It seemed the Starks were in that camp.

 

“Don’t see how, exactly.” He confides.

 

“Your blood is powerful, your father’s name still means something. You could do some good yet.” She smiles encouragingly at him.

 

He says nothing, knowing she will go on without him prompting.

 

“Your uncles have both made claims for the throne.” She explains patiently.

 

“Arya mentioned that as well. I still don’t see why it matters. I don’t care who sits on the bloody throne. I sure as hell don’t want it.” He reasons.

 

“There, see. Exactly. No one would support your claim, but perhaps your support, directed the right way...” She trails off.

 

“And which way is that?” He asks pointedly. 

 

She smiles knowingly. 

 

“We must exhaust every option. My son and I will go to make peace with the Freys, keeping the bridge open to us. I tried to form an alliance with Renly, but he was killed tragically before that was possible.”

 

Killed?

 

“So, it makes sense to form an arrangement with Stannis. We need his support, as he would need ours.”

 

“Alright, but...”

 

“He would be more willing to support our cause if he knew you were on our side.”

 

“Me?” He aks, baffled. No one cared what he thought.

 

“Renly had no heirs. Stannis has a daughter, but she is inflicted with Greyscale, he cannot name her. Robert had no true heirs. Cersei has seen to the death of all your brothers and sisters. That makes you the last. Stannis will want to hear what you have to say. He will respect your connection to us.” She puts gently.

 

“You want me to speak for the Starks?” He asks plainly.

 

She sighs deeply, but nods.

 

“He may be my uncle, but I’ve never met him. I never knew my own father.” He isn’t feeling sorry for himself, simply stating a fact. “We have no common ground. I wouldn’t know what to say to him. Arya’s the closest to family I’ve ever had.” He can’t take the words back once he’s said them. Not that he believes them false, or even that he’s embarrassed, but he didn’t need her to know that.

 

“That is what I’m suggesting, yes.” She responds simply.

 

And after this whole strange conversation, he’s shocked all over again. He never expected her to say that.

 

Wait, what was she saying?

 

“You’re saying that...”

 

“No.” She cuts him off. “Arya made quite clear her stance on arranged betrothals, and I can’t entirely blame her. However she feels about you, I would never force a match.” He’s listening, but only taking in every other word. “However, if you secure an alliance with Stannis and his army, my son will gift you a name and a title. You would have a chance. You would be one step closer.” Was she still talking, he was quite sure his head had swollen up past sense. Off the look on his face, she presses him.

 

“What say you?” She questions.

 

What could he say?

 

“I… yes.” He answers, not sure what he’s done, not sure what it will mean.

 

She speaks on, explaining how they will embark together so it will seem he is accompanying the Starks to the Twins, then break off and head to Dragon Stone with a small contingent of guards and diplomats. She offers suggestions on how to approach Stannis. She warns him not to tell Arya for fear of interference. He nods and agrees, still stunned.

 

Closer to Arya, that’s all she’d promised. Nothing more. 

 

It happened to be all he wanted. Somehow she’d known that. Starks.

 

Bloody fucking hell.