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The Butterfly Effect

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The Butterfly Effect

~*~*~*~

The cold felt like a familiar old friend as she stepped off a ship and onto dry land for the first time in a moons turn. Of course, the cold could be felt on the Narrow Sea as well as on land, but the sight of endless snow somehow made it seem even more so. Still, she was farther South than she would have preferred, docking in Gulltown rather than Oldtown as was her desire. Ships, it seemed, weren’t going that far north often enough for her to be able to wait- not under the circumstances in which she’d fled Braavos and the House of Black and White.

It took a surprising small amount of coin to secure a hot meal of watery stew, a room for the night, and a horse come morning, but she supposed the ongoing war made desperate men everywhere and a little coin was better than none at all. She also managed to trade for a pair of thick woolen black trousers and a plain spun black cloak with a deep hood. When she saw the beast she’d purchased the next morning, she felt a mixture of annoyance and pity for the scrawny thing, but she supposed grass was as hard to come by as anything else that grew under the snow.

Feeling a small surge of gratitude that she was still light enough to not cause her horse much of a burden, she mounted. The motion was odd, like stepping into a shoe that didn’t fit quite right anymore. She hadn’t been on a horse in years, after all. She turned it around and set off towards the Kingsroad, hoping it might make for easier passage than the deep snowdrifts she could see all around.

The first week passed by easily enough. She dared not camp on the road at night alone and so instead would move off and find a secluded clearing to rest against the nag for shared warmth. On the fourth night, she was lucky enough to find a small and broken house with most of a wall missing. Even still, it provided her and her mount both with more shelter than they’d managed thus far, and even more luckily, she found a half-dozen bundles of hay stacked away that still seemed dry enough for it to eat.

She took the quickest route north, a burning need to get to Winterfell and join the King of the North and the great gathering of troops that was being spoken of even across the Narrow Sea. They said the Crown and the Lannister/Tyrell alliance were marching North after having declared a formal cease fire so that they may join forces with the King in the North and the army of Wildlings that had passed through the wall in order to defeat the enemy that threatened them all. With them was the Dragon Queen, said to have an army of freed slaves, sell-swords, and Dothraki savages at her back, alongside the aforementioned dragons.

Most in Braavos considered it a flight of fantasy- tall tales bore of dullness and monotony often found in the deep winter, but she knew better as soon as she caught the whispers. Jaqen had just offered her a second chance at proving herself after her previous failure and so she’d made her way back to the Theater to observe the Lady Crane. It was there she heard her brother Robbs name- something that never failed to grab her attention despite her lingering unhappiness with him and her mother- and even more so when they whispered of her bastard brother and his army of wild men and cannibals.

She had already been faltering in her will to kill the actress- for why would a good woman die simply for the petty jealousy of another? She had truly accepted the teachings of the house and vowed to service the Man Faced God however she might- but she found she couldn’t be a mindless assassin, killing anyone without question over a bit of coin. Perhaps it was her Stark blood, or the voice of her deceased father she still heard whispering about honor in the back of her head, but when she heard the outlandish talk her decision was settled in an instant.

The thought to warn the Lady Crane of her impending assassination crossed her mind, but she knew it would be pointless- ‘once a name is spoke a man is dead already, he simply doesn’t know it yet’- echoed through her mind and she knew the Lady would meet the May Faced God one way or another. Better to allow her to live out her numbered days in blissful ignorance than for her to spend them looking over her shoulder and waiting deaths call.

No, instead she broke discreetly from the crowd, unaware of the Waif watching her go with calculating eyes, and made her way back to the front of the temple. She found where her sword was still hidden inside the rocks and began to dig it out. She retrieved it quickly and then made her way to the harbor to find a ship going West. There was but one ship sailing for Gulftown and none going farther North, so she settled for a longer foot journey once she arrived and made her way aboard.

Hardly more than a month later and she was back on familiar grounds, making her way back home. It was almost difficult to believe- she’d been close once before but had turned away in the pursuit of Jaqen and the teachings of the House once she heard the Northern Bannermen talking in pity of her betrothal to one of the Frey men.  

She knew the Hound had heard them too, as they trudged their way past the smaller camps trailing behind the main troop, because he’d shot an indecipherable look at her before turning his chin away riding on. Her mind had raced at the new knowledge and she’d kept her ears open as they sought shelter for the last night before they’d meet up with the bulk Robbs army. The Frey’s had wanted Robbs hand to join with a woman from their own to join their families in marriage, it was said, but he offered his youngest sister and uncle both as a substitute for an alliance instead of himself. 

She’d been so angry that night. She hadn’t seen her mother or brothers in so long- hadn’t truly known if she’d ever get to see them again- and yet their only concern for her was in bartering her absent self off for a handful of men to add to their numbers. She knew the Hound had every intention of trading her back to her family in exchange for a payout, and that he likely wouldn’t agree to turn away from their course, not when they were finally so close. The knowledge that she was naught but a price to all who knew her for her name left her choking on her bitterness, and so she did not let her captor turned savior know she was leaving before she did. Instead, she snuck away in the night and had fled to White Harbor on a stolen horse, where she found passage to Braavos.

A bit of her was still angry, but she couldn’t allow it to drive her away from her family anymore- not with what was apparently happening all around them. She needed to return, needed to keep them safe. They couldn’t afford for her to be selfish or bitter any longer. That brought her to now, and the faint sound of horses she could hear as she approached the Crossroads and the Kingsroad true. The snow was becoming too deep and dangerous to navigate off the main path and so she was forced to press onward, hoping the men ahead were friendly.

When the noise was loud enough that she knew they would soon be in sight, she dismounted and secured the horse to the skeleton of a bare overhanging branch and crept farther forward to investigate. She found row after row of crimson and gold armor riding by, the Lannister flag scattered throughout the ranks leaving no question as to which army she was looking at. She could see the gold of the Baratheon flag being flown beside the Lannister red, and farther back the green and yellow of the house Tyrell. There were others, but she couldn’t quite make them out from the distance. She must have met them as they moved to join the Northern ranks, she realized with an odd feeling.

Deciding she couldn’t bare wait for the large force to pass and then to travel slow enough to remain behind them, she moved to retrieve her mount and was soon back in saddle. She pulled her hood farther over her bowed head, sharp eyes hidden in the shadows, and pressed forward. She waited and watched until there was a small gap in the ranks and then nudged her horse to join them. It was impossible to not be noticed in her all black clothing, the white blouse she’d been wearing since she left the theater was hidden beneath her cloak, with no sigil or color to identify her as one of them. Her frame looked petite, despite the skinniness of the black mare she’d been given, and it was fairly obvious she was either a woman or child. She would’ve preferred a white horse to better blend in, but it hadn’t been an option and she would rather a black mount than no mount at all.

She nudged the mare forward and into a pace just slightly faster than the armored troops, keeping to the edge and moving steadily so that she could try to outpace the army without grabbing their attention. Despite her efforts, she could see the looks being sent towards her as the men questioned amongst themselves where she had come from. Still, no one bothered her and she was able to make a small amount of progress before it began to grow dark.

The troop stopped and began assembling tents at a wider swatch of the road. She had already decided that she would press on and try to clear the army before the nights end. The slow pace they were forced to maintain meant her horse wouldn’t drop if they didn’t stop, and she hoped the noise of camp would cover the sound of them still moving.

She made it clear to the head of the troop before she was stopped, and she curse silently in her head as she considered her options. She could see the clear road ahead, but she wasn’t sure her mount would be able to outrun the much healthier looking destriers the army had and, for all her improvement, she wasn’t so confident as to think she could take on an entire army by herself.

“What’s your business here?” The armored man closest to her demanded as two more took place behind her.

“I’m just passing through.” She replied calmly. “I don’t mean to bother anyone here. If you let me pass you won’t see me again.” She assured, taking a chance and nudging the mare forward to see if they would let her pass with that but of course it wouldn’t be that easy. Swords were drawn and drew the attention of even more men.

“What’s the meaning of this?” A stern voice demanded from nearby. She glanced over to see none other than Tywin Lannister himself standing before a grand tent, his Kingslayer son standing beside him and looking over the scene boredly, dressed down and stripped of his armor for the night.

“We caught this one sneaking through camp, My Lord.” The man reported. “She says she’s just passing us by .”

She held her tongue, knowing the elder man would likely recognize her voice from the hours spent in her company whilst she acted the part of his cupbearer. Tywin looked at her with piercing eyes, clearing waiting for her defense. “Well?” He demanded at her continued silence. "Anything to say?" 

“I’m just passing through, My Lord.” She responded when it became clear she would have to. Still, she kept her answer brief and voice bland, hoping he might not recognize her. The hope was moot, for his eyes sharpened further and he searched over her person.

“Remove your hood.” He ordered briskly. His son glanced at him and then at her, slightly more intrigued. 

She closed her eyes for a moment, mind still racing. She honestly couldn’t decide if she was pleased to see him or not. When she last had, he’d been riding off with his army and she’d been sure he was going to slaughter her brother. But here they stood, years later, houses soon to be aligned, her brother still alive and her sister also so because of the trade of hostages that would be spoken of in song for decades to come- the golden Lannister son for the fire kissed beauty of the North, once betrothed to a prince.

He cleared his throat pointedly and she knew she couldn’t delay any longer. She reached up without further hesitation and lowered her hood. The top of her hair was pulled back to keep it out of her eyes, but it was otherwise loose to help better trap her body heat against her neck. It had grown longer, longer than he had ever seen it, reaching past her shoulders. Her face had matured and sharpened and she held the beginnings of a dark beauty she hadn’t in her youth, but she still remained herself. “Lord Tywin.” She greeted at the recognition lighting his eyes. “Ser Jaime.”  

Lord Tywin had never met her before Harrenhal, having been ruling Casterly Rock when she resided in the Capital and so had no point of reference for who she might be. Jaime, on the other hand, had spent a significant amount of time studying the girl and her family for suspicion after he’d pushed her younger brother from a tower window, and so recognized her features immediatly. “Lady Arya?” He questioned, taking a step forward, the befuddlement in his voice clearing showing his own confusion at the girl who’d been missing and considered dead since the beheading of her father turning up randomly in their camp years later.

Lord Tywin’s eyes shot over to his son and then back to the girl, peering closer still. “Are you sure this is the missing Stark daughter?” He questioned, voice light.

“Positive.” Jaime responded, still sounding confused. “I remember her face from Winterfell and from the Red Keep. She was always scurrying around underfoot when her father was hand. But I thought her dead?”

“Everyone thought her dead.” Tywin corrected, an odd note to his voice. Arya wondered then if he had suspected who she was all along. How many high born girls from the North could go lost and unclaimed, after all? She had denied being high born, of course, but she knew he never believed her lie. Still, he’d been kind to her, had taken her under his personal protection and had kept her fed and warm as well as he could considering their location in the ruins of the once great keep.

He’d spoken to her without looking down upon her, listened to her and showed her a sort of attention she hadn’t felt since her fathers death. She’d become fond of him, as much as she would deny it, despite the fact that he’d been actively working to kill her brother and cull her remaining family as a threat to the crown. That fondness wouldn’t have stopped his death had Jaqen been in the city when she needed him, but had lingered all the same.

“Come, My Lady.” He offered, gesturing to the tent they’d exited from. “Sup with us.”

Arya glanced around one more time before giving in and dismounting. A squire moved forward to take her horses reins and she allowed it after a longer hesitation. She could get by without the mare if need be, all her belongings were on her person after all, so the only loss would be the horse itself. She stepped forward silently, not even the snow crunching under her boot, and moved to join them in the brazier warmed tent.

She felt too hot almost immediately after a week surrounded by ice and soon had to remove her cloak, leaving her in her fitted white blouse, thick pants, and almost knee high boots. Whilst a normal and acceptable outfit in Braavos, the Lords of Westeros were unused to seeing a lady dressed so- only a thin white shirt covering her chest whereas most Westerosi ladies would wear thick and heavy dresses built of layers of ornate fabric.

The lack of layers allowed the curves of her newfound womanhood to be visible despite the blockiness of her pants and she noticed Jaime casting her discreetly appreciative looks as he settled off to the side of the tent. She turned her attention away and back to the one who had first gained it. “I am glad to see you still live, My Lord.” She stated quietly, having accepted it as truth the more she thought about it.

“Are you?” The man questioned with a raised brow. “I was fairly convinced you wanted to kill me yourself most days.”

A smile came to her lips unbidden. “Most days I did.” She acknowledged. “It seems things have changed for the better in my long absence.” She continued, hinting at the large scale alliance in the works.

“You might see it that way.” He agreed with a small nod. “Have you eaten? We’ve stew left from supper.”

“I haven’t.” She replied and then watched in surprise as he rose himself to gather a bowl and spoon out some of the mix from the pot sitting aside the brazier. “Thank you.” She uttered when he handed it to her without a word himself. She began eating slowly, not allowing her hunger to drive her actions as it once would have. She’d been far hungrier blind on the streets before she managed to adapt after all.

Father and Son resumed their previous conversation and she filled her belly and only turned back to her when she had finished. “I wondered what had happened to you in my absence.” Tywin stated from his own seat, cup of wine in hand as he observed her. “Our Army was recalled to Kings Landing before we could return to Harrenhal. I sent for you to be brought to the capital but my men reported your disappearance soon after I left.”

“Does it truly matter where I’ve been, so long as I am here now?” She questioned in turn, feeling unwilling to share her recent past with anyone just then. 

He seemed to sense her stubbornness, for he responded in the negative. “I suppose not. Still, it is late. I assume you are headed to the same place as us. Why not take your rest here tonight and then travel with us to Winterfell. It is much safer than a young woman traveling the Kingsroad alone in these times.”

“I’m safe enough on my own.” She disputed and then hesitated. “But I suppose I can travel with you for a time. I may not want to keep to the pace of the army though.” She finished in warning. Perhaps she could use the time to gain a better understanding of all that had happened since she left so that she might be better prepared before reuniting with her family.

“For tonight then, at least.” He bargained.

“For tonight.” She agreed.

“You can use my tent.” Jaime spoke directly to her for the first time since she'd joined them. “I won’t be using it myself tonight and it’s close enough that the men won’t bother you. I’ll show you to it.” He pushed himself from his seat. She rose instinctually in response, turning to keep him in her line of sight. She glanced at Tywin and he nodded at her to follow his son.

She followed without argument and the tent was indeed close enough- neighboring to the right, in fact, the entrance less than a dozen steps away. He held open the leather doorway for her to pass but did not follow her inside. “Pleasant dreams, My Lady.” He rumbled like the lion his family was known for and then left her be. She found herself standing alone in the richly made tent that was only slightly smaller than his fathers. It was bare for the most part, holding naught but a thick bedroll, another brazier, and a small traveling writing table with a folding stool. The mans armor was settled to the side of the bedroll, a large leather pack lying beside it. His weapons he still wore, she knew.

She removed her boots but settled otherwise fully clothed into his bed, the scent of masculine musk hitting her strongly but strangely pleasant to her nose. She was more comfortable than she’d been some time and she attempted to get some real rest. Unfortunately her instincts kept her too on edge and the noises from the camp kept startling her awake seemingly every time she managed to drift off.

After what felt like hours, she gave in and sat up to pull her boots back on. She moved her small dagger back from it’s position under the thin pillow back to it’s proper spot built into her left boot and then moved from the fading warmth of the tent. Most of the men had settled in to rest themselves, but she could still hear various conversations drifting on the breeze.

She moved further away from the camp and into the woods beside the road, more easily able to navigate the now on her own than she had mounted. The cold of the night numbed her face almost immediately and she kept her hands tucked together beneath her cloak as she moved through the moonlight night like a dark ghost.

The crunch of snow came from over a rise before her and she moved cautiously closer to investigate, fingering Needle’s hilt without drawing it free. As she came to the top of the rise, she saw a small heard of deer standing below, nosing at the snow in an attempt to find grass hidden beneath. They were as scrawny as her horse, and she knew most likely wouldn’t survive the winter. Wishing she had a bow, she instead drew her dagger silently back out of her boot and gripped it carefully in her hand.

She waited what felt like ages for just the right moment. Eventually a male wandered closer to her position, head tilted just enough for her to get a good shot. A moment later her knife was buried hilt deep in the animals eye, blade piercing it’s brain and causing it to fall immediately like a puppet with it’s strings cut.

It happened so suddenly that the other animals didn’t notice immediately- didn’t notice until an arrow pierced the heart of another. She jerked her head around to spot none other than Jaime around the other side of the small valley, watching her watch him. She huffed silently and then moved over the rise to retrieve her knife and her kill, the others now gone in terror.

The Lannister son joined her from his own position, lifting his own kill over his shoulder with an ease she envied as she worked out the best way to transport her own with her much smaller frame. He turned away to take his back to camp and she settled on grabbing it by its hind legs and dragging it across the frozen snow, wishing she had her horse with her as she normally would have while hunting. As it were, she wasn’t sure where they had fenced the mare for the night, and she hadn’t felt like traipsing through the camp to try and find it.

She was almost half way back when the blond returned and grabbed her kill the same way he had grabbed his own. “Hey!” She exclaimed in surprise. “I don’t need your help.”

“Perhaps not, My Lady, but my way’s faster.”

“You don’t need to call me that, you know. I haven’t been a lady since I was a little girl.”

“You’re the trueborn daughter of Eddard Stark and Catelyn of house Tully. You brother is a king. You’re a lady if there ever was one.. Unless you’d prefer Princess?” He sounded pleasant enough, but she could hear the hint of mocking beneath his charming veneer. She shot him a glare that let him know she saw through his facade.  

“I prefer Arya.” She refuted, though even that seemed odd. She hadn’t been Arya in a long time either, not openly.

“As you say, Lady Arya.”

She shook her head at him and picked up her pace. He matched her step for step, his own longer stride making it easy for him no matter how much she sped up. They were quiet the rest of the way back and they handed off the second carcass to the men responsible for feeding the Lannister army. She ensured they would return one of the hide’s to her, for she had need of it and didn’t want it to be claimed by whomever broke down the animal. One of the men assured her it would be returned and so she found herself being led back to the Kingslayers tent.

“How did you find me?” She finally asked as he moved over to stoke the near dead fire.

“I followed you.”

“I would have noticed you following me.”

“I didn’t follow from behind, I followed from the front.” She glanced at him and their eyes met for a long moment.

“I see. That's clever.  I won’t miss seeing you again.”

“Of that I have no doubt. You should try and get some more rest, Lady Arya. It’ll be light soon and we’ll be moving out.”

“How long do you reckon it’ll take to reach Winterfell from here?”

“Three weeks, maybe, depending on the weather.”

Three weeks. Three weeks until she would see her family again.

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

The camp was being broken down before the weak sunlight crested the hill the next morn. Arya had attempted to get some more rest, but did not have any better luck than she had before. Thus, she was risen and helping the men break down the camp before she saw either of the Lannister men. The deer hide had been returned to her as promised, scrapped clean and ready to be treated for use. She was also given a handful of meat strips she could eat from her horse along with all the men and did so lazily while she waiting for the troop to be ready. Luckily, they were as eager to get off the road as she and they were soon moving.

She soon found herself riding beside a man named Sir Bronn of the blackwater, who was gifted at using an excessive number of words to seemingly say nothing at all. Despite the pointlessness of most their conversation, she found herself enjoying his company and observing how he and Sir Jaime played off each other. They were clearly friends and it was interesting to get a perspective on the man she only ever saw guarding the king or posted blandly along a wall. The flagon of wine shared between the three helped keep the chill from setting in, and the day passed by surprisingly fast.

Lord Tywin rode further back, side by side with some of his councilmen, so she didn’t really interact with him. They rode through the day, pressing forward until it was once again getting dark and then settling in to make camp. Arya decided to ride ahead and scout while the troop settled in. She hadn’t gotten far when she heard noise behind her and saw her two daytime traveling companions drawing back even with her. “Haven’t enough of riding yet today?” Bronn questioned as they pulled up to match her pace.

“I like to know what’s ahead.” She responded easily.

“Fair enough, I’m that way myself. Mind if we join you?”

Arya shot a look at them both. “Do I have a choice?” She questioned.

“Of course you’ve a choice, My Lady.” Jaime answered her, shooting her that overly charming smile. “We simply don’t want anything to happen to you before you rejoin your family. It wouldn’t look good on us for you to die in our company after surviving for so long alone.” She mentally reminded herself that they had no idea where she’d been or what she’d been learning and doing. No, they still considered her to be a helpless lady who needed their guard, despite the years of survival they spoke of.

They’d learn soon enough, she supposed, and she learned long ago that insisting alone never convinced anyone of anything. “You can join me if you wish.” She allowed dismissively, nudging her mount “If you keep up.”

They broke into an easy canter and the sounds of the camp soon faded behind them. They rode in silence for some time, eventually slowing to a walk when the reached a long open straight of road. The wineskin made another pass as their breath cloud thickened with the dropping temperatures of the coming night.

 Arya pulled her mare up and dismounted, handing her reins to Jaime and then moving once again off the road. She gestured them both to stay behind and made her way to a tree a few steps into the wood. It was the first of it’s kind she had seen and she’d been about to give up and turn around. She retrieved her dagger and used it to skin several strips of the dark bark from the bare trunk- making sure not to take so much as to kill the tree itself. The airy skirt she’d been wearing when she left Braavos was rolled up tightly in a pocked sewn into her cloak and she pulled it out to lay the bark in. Once she’d taken as much as she dared from the first three, she moved deeper to its twin nearby.

She turned to head back once she had enough to serve her purpose. On her way, she spotted a felled log that was held at an angle, leaving a rare patch free of snow hidden beneath. The clear patch beneath sheltered an abundance of a particularly hearty mushroom native to the area. She picked through the patch to take the ones ready to eat- you had to wait until they were a certain size or else they were much too bitter to stomach- and then added them to her neat pile. Once finished, she wrapped the excess fabric around it to make a bundle, which she secured to her saddle once she was back on the road. Task complete, she mounted and then reined her horse back toward the camp.

The return trip seemed to pass even faster and they were soon coming upon the clamor of the troop. The night promised to be cold- new frost already creeping across the frozen ground- and so large campfires had been lit in a neat row down the middle of the camp, the men gathered tightly around them. The same squire from before came to take her horse and she thought briefly to argue before deciding it wasn’t worth it. Instead, she freed her hard-found bundle and made her way to the camp cook she spotted on arrival.

“Pardon, My Lord.” She stated to gain his attention.

He looked up in surprise and then frowned. “My name to Tolden, My Lady, but I’m not a lord. What can I do for you?”

“Ah, apologizes. I wondered if you might have a large pot you could spare for the night?”

Tolden didn’t look surprised- he’d been the one to give her back the raw hide, after all. “Aye, I thought you might ask.” He moved around the wagon that was always stationed nearby him and retrieved a large and dented soup pot, plenty big and sturdy enough to serve her purpose.

“This is perfect. Thank you. I’ve something for you as well. It’s not much, but they add good flavor to rabbit stew.” She set down and unfolded her bundle, plucking the mushrooms from the top and handing them to the now smiling man.

“Thank you My Lady.”

Arya nodded, toppling the bark shavings into the empty pot and then shaking out her empty skirt. It was stuffed back into her pocked thoughtlessly and then she gathered the pot and took it to the campfire nearest the head where Tywin and Jaime’s tents had once again been erected. She set the soup pot right next to the flame and then scooped snow in until it was half full of bark water. She settled in and watched until the water began to simmer. Once it had, she stood and retrieved the neatly folded hide from her borrowed tent. She unfolded it and then carefully submerged it until it was fully covered by the bark tea.

It would need to soak a day so she was hoping the cook would afford space in the wagon to carry it flat when they set off the next morn. A bowl of stew appeared in her peripheral, the wrinkled hand giving away who held it before she ever glanced up to check. “Good ride?” He questioned as he sat himself beside her.

“Fruitful.”

“So I see. Might I ask what you plan to make?”

She finished her bite before responding. “I need a pack. Didn’t bring one with me.”

“Are you a leather smith now? Interesting skill to pick up on the road.” He said casually, blue eyes watching and expression giving away that he was still curious of where she’d been, even if he’d passingly agreed to let the subject go.

“Not a leather smith, no. I only learned enough to get by.”

“Shame.”

Arya glanced at him with a brow slightly raised. “Why is that a shame, exactly?”

“Jaime broke his sword belt. Not the first time he’s done it, either. You’d think he would have learned better by now.” Tywin informed her with the long suffering exasperation only a parent could convey.

“How’d he break it? It seemed fine earlier.”

“He broke it days ago during a small scuffle while he was scouting. He has it tied to hold it in place.”

“Risky solution.” She commented.

“Not a lot of options out here.”

“You’ve each a squire, someone to set up your tent, a cook, a cupbearer, and even a farrier in your envoy, but you don’t have anyone who can work leather?”

The smallest hint of a smile curled one corner of the man’s mouth. “I’ll add it to the list next time we march.”

“Probably a good idea if your son’s so hard on his gear.”

“His problem is that he’s so used to buying a new one when the old get’s worn that he’s not very practiced at making last what he already has.”

Arya turned to look at him, brow raised further than before. “You do realize how sad that sounds, right?” 

He raised his own brown in turn. “Aye, I know. Too much privilege growing up.”

“He joined the Kingsguard when he was sixteen, right? The youngest knight to ever do so. That’s quite the feat- you must have been proud of him.”

“It was the proudest moment and worst day of my life.” He continued at her look of confusion. “Jaime was always a good with a sword, near unbeatable despite his young age. He deserved his spot on the Kingsguard. That’s not why he was selected.”

“It’s not? Why then?” Her voice was hardly more than a whisper, lost on the wind.

“The Mad King was paranoid. He feared everyone- enemy and alley alike. He feared I would use the might of my family to destroy what was left of his. He needed a way to keep me in check, so he took my heir under his oath.”

“I, I didn’t realize.” She uttered, though it made sense even as he spoke the words. “I’m sorry.”

“Why would you be sorry? You weren’t even born yet.”

“I can still be sorry it happened. I am sorry it happened.”

Their eyes met and he nodded his head, slower than before. “Thank you.” He finally replied, voice heartfelt. “But it’s no matter now. He survived the ordeal, hale and whole, as you can see.”

“Is that why he killed him?” Arya questioned hesitantly, unsure if she could ask- unsure if she should.

Tywin’s neck twitched slightly and he shook his head. “That’s not my story to tell. You’ll have to ask him yourself if you want to know his reasonings… I will say, though.. There were days I’d have rather him been dead that have to stand and bare witness to the atrocities committed by the Mad King during his rule.”

“Valar morghulis.” She murmured, drawing his gaze once more.

“Aye, all men must die.” He agreed.

~*~

Another week passed by in the same manner. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t broken away from the army and ridden ahead, but something seemed to hold her back. It was late and she sat inside the Kingslayers tent once more, putting the finishing stitches on the task she was working on with a heavy needle borrowed from one of the men.

Satisfied with the job she’d done, she pulled her cloak back around her shoulders and headed to the entrance to find the man she sought. She tried the Lords tent first and found him as expected along with the councilmen who usually spent at least part of the evening in Tywin’s company. He glanced up at her when she entered but otherwise paid her no mind as she inched her way around to his sons side.

“My Lady. What brings you to this most dour meeting?” He greeted her with the damnable little smirk.

“Will your father mind if you leave?” She questioned, ignoring the first as she’d started doing.

Jaime glanced over at the man to see him already watching the two of them. He raised a brow at the older man only to receive a hand raised to dismiss them. “I don’t think he minds.” Jaime responded sardonically and then pulled himself from his seat as she stepped back. “Where shall we go?”

“Your tent.”

“An invitation to my own tent? How generous!”

She shot him a look from the corner of her eye. “You needn’t have offered me your accommodations. I’d have been fine in the open as I have been. Where have you been sleeping, anyway?”

“Bronn offered to share his tent. To be honest, I’m starting to think I’d rather sleep in the open as well. The man snores something awful.”

“Why not share with your father?”

A huff of laughter escaped the blond before he was able to stop it, incredulous mirth in his eyes. “For some strange reason, you seem to find my father’s company tolerable. You’re one of very few who could honestly boast such a thing. And more than that- you’ve somehow managed to make him like you in turn.” He sounded confused again, but she thought he might have been putting it on for his dramatic act. “Tell me, how did you achieve such a feat? Many before you have tried and failed.”

Arya rolled her eyes as she ducked inside, deigning not to respond. “Well regardless,” He continued as he followed her. “I get plenty enough of my fathers company during my waking hours. I couldn’t bare spend my sleeping hours with him as well.”

They were facing each other, so he actually saw her roll her eyes the second time. She scooped up the long stretch of finished leather and held it out without ceremony. “What’s this?” He questioned, not moving to take it immediately.

“You father told me your sword belt snapped and that you tied it to make due. You can’t afford a critical malfunction in battle. It’s risky enough that you’ve been using it as long as you have like that.”

“You made me a new sword belt?” He questioned. “Simply because my father mentioned in passing that mine was broken? Why would you do that?”

Arya studied him for a long moment, trying to decide how to answer but knowing she no longer had the option to postpone. “Don’t think too much into it,” She finally began. “your father saved my life, I owe him a debt… More than one dept, really. I know he cares for you and I know it would hurt him if anything happened to you. If I can help prevent such a thing I will. And-…” She trailed off, sounding unsure.

“And?” He prompted.

“And I’ve grown used to your company. I fear I would miss you if I you were no longer here. Who else would I talk to on the road if not you? Plus, you’re too good a knight to be taken out by something so silly as not taking proper care of your gear.”

“Bronn’s company’s not on par with my own, I know.” He joked, taking the thick strap. “This is nice work.” He commented then, tone more honest as he studied it closer. The bark she’d used to tan it left it the color of dark walnut, so it would match the rest of his gear quite nicely. It was plainly done- she was hardly the type to add fancy embroidery or design, but her cuts were even and her stitches neater than she’d ever had the patience for as a child. It would serve its purpose and that was the most important thing. 

He reached down to unknot his old one and slid his sword free, swapping the old leather for new with a well practiced hand. Once done he ran his fingers across it, testing it’s give under the weight of good steel. “Thank you.” He finally said, looking up to meet her grey eyes.

“You’re welcome.”

~*~

The days continued to blend together and they eventually reached the Neck. Arya was growing more and more impatient with the slow pace. Those closest to her were able to pick up on the change. When they set up camp less than a days ride from Moat Cailin, Arya announced her plan to travel ahead.

“Take my son and his sellsword with you, along with at least two other men.” Tywin ordered brusquely from his place at his more elaborate writing table inside his tent.

“I’ll be fine on my own.” She argued, feeling a flair of aggravation at having to do so once again. “I was on my own a long time before I came to be back in your company, if you’ll remember. I’ll continue to be fine on my own after I’ve left it again.”

“I’m sure you will be, but we haven’t received word from Moat Cailin in some time and we have no idea what we might find when we arrive. There is safety in numbers, however much you seem to despair the idea.”

Arya met his steely gaze, her own eyes just as suborn as they stared each other down for an uncomfortable amount of time. She could have pressed longer, but concluded it really wasn’t worth the energy arguing with the man would take. “Fine,” she caved. “but I pick the men.”

“Fine.” The elder lord mocked her.

She huffed at him and rose from her place to take her leave. She did understand why his Jaime found being in his presence so exasperating at times, she thought to her self as the cold hit her. She glanced around the camp and men who’d become familiar to her over the past weeks. She’d made a point to speak with as many of them as possible, wanting to know their story as much as their names. She’d always found talking to strangers enthralling, but she had a new appreciation for storytelling than she ever had in her innocent youth.

She approached a pair of brothers who sat two fires down and took a seat across from them uninvited. “Lady Arya.” They greeted her with a welcoming smile.

She smiled back. “Good eve. We’ll reach Moat Cailin tomorrow, have you heard?”

“Aye, we have. Not much further now.” The brother on the left- Herrath- answered.  

“No, not much farther at all.” She agreed lowly. “I plan to ride ahead in the morn and wait for the troop in the town. Lord Tywin asked that I take a couple of good men with me. You needn’t say yes, but would you care to journey ahead with me?”

“We’d be honored, My Lady. We’ll be ready to go at first light.”

“Thank you.” She stayed for some time speaking with them, Herrath’s brother being Samurel. It was full dark when she entered Jaime’s tent and she settled down to rest. She’d gotten better at sleeping with the noises of the camp that never fully faded, but she still woke more often that would be normal for anyone else.

~*~

Chapter Text

They didn’t make it to the city.

Four hours into their journey, a clamor could be heard coming from further down the road, clearly identifiable as sword on sword to all present. They sped up slightly, but remained cautious as they approached a blind curve.

A scream suddenly pierced the air, still sounding a fair distance away. Arya nudged her mount into a canter, holding her reins with her right hand and laying her left atop Needle. She could hear the others just behind her as they rounded the bend to a scene of carnage. A small caravan had been set upon by a band of thieves and several bodies were already strewn across the snow, crimson stains growing larger by the second. A few remained alive, but likely wouldn’t remain so for much longer if they didn’t act quickly.

She reached instead for her dagger, gripping it surely and moving with the gait of her mount as she drew her arm back and flicked wrist, burring the small blade in the back of a mans neck who was bent over a young sobbing woman, severing his spinal cord. He fell forward limply and the woman shoved him off, movements jerky and hysterical. A child younger than three cowered nearby and she drew the small girl into her arms as soon as she’d shoved her skits back over her exposed legs.

Arya didn’t pay her any further mind, a second man turning to face her gaining her focus. He had a sword in his hand but didn’t managed to get it raised in time to block the slender steel before it pierced cleanly through his heart. None of the bandits were mounted and so she dropped gracefully to her feet, feeling more confident being fully in control of her movement than she did with the height advantage.

She twisted around to retrieve her knife from the fallen man, noting coldly that seemed to still be alive, if paralyzed and bleeding heavily, reddened cock still hanging out of his open pants. She opened his throat for good measure before facing the third man coming towards her. This man was larger and had time to prepare for her. He was on the offensive and his blows had plenty of strength behind them. She bowed over backwards to avoid a low sweep and then used the swing of her arm to help bring her body back around.

He’d put too much force behind his last blow, not expecting her to be able to doge it, and so his body spun slightly around as he recovered. She used his position to her advantage and sliced cleaning across the back of his knees, dropping him immediately to the ground. Another flick of her wrist open throat and she moved on. She was faintly keeping track of her companions around her but the task became all together more difficult when a surge of a dozen more men appeared from further ahead.

Still, she didn’t allow herself to lose focus, keeping her eyes open and senses on alert as she moved with the flow of the unexpected skirmish. She spun clear of a blade swipe, but had to pull up short as a second man attempted to trap her from behind. The hesitation cost her and she felt a line of fire score across her upper back. She hissed quietly through her teeth and ducked, using her dagger to open the inside of the man’s thigh and severing the artery she knew was there. Blood flowed immediately and he stumbled back, trying pointlessly to staunch the pouring of red liquid. He’d be dead in less than a minute she knew, and so didn’t waste any more time delivering a second blow before she moved on.

She noted a wolf howl in the distance, the rest of the pack following a moment later. It sounded far enough away that she didn’t pay it much attention, to focused on her next movement. Duck-parry-dodge, and so the cycle continued. Her heart was pounding with rush of adrenaline and her face twisted into grin as she moved gracefully atop splashes and puddles of red-stained snow.

A man interrupted her twist and she’d run her dagger clean up his front, disemboweling him with a horrid squelching sensation before he knew what had happened. His scream competed with an terrified horse nearby as he stumbled back with his hands shakily pressed over his gaping stomach to try and contain his spilling intestines. A flick of her wrist and a blade in his throat brought him to his knees and the splash of lifeblood added to the thick coating already covering her hands and arms.

The press of bodies slowed and tricked to a stop. Only when no others were in sight did she stop to take in the remaining scene. Dozens of bodies lay scattered across the road and the woman they’d first rescued could still be heard crying from her hunched position against one of the wagons, daughter bundled tightly in her lap. The third survivor seemed to have perished since their arrival but Arya wasn’t moved. What was one life compared to so many?

She found a clean patch of snow and scooped some up to rub on hands. She repeated the process until most of the blood was gone and then dried them as best she could on the inside of her cloak. The four soldiers accompanying her were thankfully all still standing, if not a bit worse for wear, and were making their way through the carnage to check for other survivors. Assured of their continued wellbeing, she approached their sole known surviving pair and knelt beside them.

She began speaking in the same soft tone she had developed in the Sanctuary of the House of Black and White and used to sooth those who came to her for mercy before she fed them the poisoned water and led them to their deaths. “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay now. What’s your name?”

“Nalia.” The woman whispered in a raw voice.

“It’s nice to meet you, Nalia. My name is Arya. What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Trysta.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“Yes, but she’s not my daughter. When we found her, her parents had already gone with the Stranger. She’d have died if we left her there, so we brought her with us. We thought she would be safe with us.”

“You did keep her safe- you’re the only two left alive. Where are you coming from Nalia? Where were you going?”

“I, we, we came from Greywater Watch. We were supposed to take supplies to the north. We don’t have knights to send, bu-but my Uncle wanted to support the alliance as he could. We’re really the only two?” She pleaded.

“Yes, I’m sorry. Your uncle?” She led, needing more information still.

“L-Lord Howland Reed. My father is his brother.”

“I see. I’ve heard a lot about Lord Howland. He was friends with my father. We are heading to Winterfell ourselves, though we left the rest of our troop some ways back. You could join us if you wish. We could keep you and Trysta safe for the remainder of the journey.. Unless you’d rather turn back home?”

“No,” She denied, sniffling once more and then straightening her spine. “No, I don’t want to turn back, I want to press on. May I accompany you? Please?”

Arya glanced at Jaime first and then the others, seeing no argument from anyone. “Of course you may. There’s one thing I need do before we leave this place. Perhaps you can gather the horses?” She requested, looking at her company. Jaime shot Bronn a look, who rolled his eyes exaggeratedly but turned to stroll leisurely towards them anyway.

The blond watched him go and then turned back to her with a slight shake of his head. “We should scout ahead and then wait here for the rest of the troop. We won’t be able to drive the carts along with our own horses, let alone protect them if we’re ambushed. Not on our own. We need more men.”

Glancing around again and taking note of the number of wagons present, she had to agree. “They had to have come from the North. I should be safe enough here. Go, I’ll wait for your return.”

“I’ll leave the brothers with you.”

“No, we already know what’s behind us and you’ll be in front of me. If you run into any friends, you’ll have more need of their blades than I. Take them with you.”

Bronn wandered back, holding their mounts by the reins bundled in one hand. “You’re a demanding little cunt, aren’t ya. We goin’ then?”

Jaime shot him a glare first before turning it on her. “You need at least one of them.”

“I don’t. This isn’t for others to see, anyway. Go, I’ll be fine.” He still hesitated and she shot him a cold glare of her own. “Go, before a second wave surprises us for your stalling.”

His gaze sharpened further but he finally mounted his horse with an annoyed huff that she barely heard. The other three men followed in his wake, having been able to hear the conversation on the otherwise silent air. They spurred their mounts and broke into an easy canter immediately.

Arya didn’t waste any time in moving back over to the woman who’d managed to quiet her sobs. The young girl lay silently in her arms, gazing at a bloodied corpse nearby with a vacant expression that spoke of far too much violence for one so young. “You should wait in the wagon, My Lady. Our company will be here soon and we’ll move on.”

Nalia didn’t seem to hear her at first, looking lost in her head, but finally nodded. Arya helped her to stand and cross the bloodied snow to the wagon built more akin to a chariot than supply transport. Arya suspected it was where she had ridden before the ambush. As soon as the two were out of her sight, she jumped into action, unsure of how much time she’d get before the men returned.  

She started with those lost from the caravan, dragging the bodies to a flat and clean stretch of snow to the side and clear of any nearby trees. She paused at the end of the straight and knelt beside the first body. Using a handful of snow, she quickly cleansed the young mans face so that it was free of blood ad filth, and then moved down to his neck, wrists and hands. She stripped off their boots and tossed them beside one of the wagons and cleansed his feet and ankles as well. Their weapons followed, forming a second, smaller, pile beside the first.

Finished as best she could be with what little she had, she moved onto the next body and repeated the process. She was just finishing the attackers when a noise from the wood she was facing caught her attention. She paused in her task, looking up and around the woods surrounding her as she heard another noise come more from her left.

She stood slowly, wiping her hands on her pants and then drawing her sword. She creeped forward, only to hear a noise behind her as well. She circled slowly, eyes sharp and scanning for the cause, senses prickling in warning. When they attacked, they did so all at once. Six men emerged from farther in the woods, rushing her from all directions and entrapping her between them.

She considered herself to be a fairly skilled swordsman at this point, but she knew the odds were very much against her as she moved in a circle, looking for a break in their line or a way out of the mess she found herself in. They seemed to consider her an easy target because they attacked without hesitation. One man reached her just before the others and she was able to step into his reach and duck under his swing, bringing her small sword up to pierce him through the underside of his jaw and through his skull, killing him instantly.  

The others grew angrier and two more moved in tandem to attacked, the other three remaining only a step back. She parried their blows well enough but knew something needed to give or they would manage to find an opening in her guard eventually. She ducked down and grabbed her boot dagger in the same motion, gripping it in her free right hand and then letting it loose after less than a half-second pause to aim.

Despite being her less dominant hand, the blade flew true and was soon embedded in one of the men’s throats. He fell back with a choked gargle and freed her to move in that direction. She could see the other three get angry and all four remaining men moving towards her. The one farthest to her right managed to get past her guard after nearly a minute of her somehow managing to hold them off. She felt another line of fire score across her stomach and curve around her hip.

Her blood felt scalding against her frozen skin, but cooled and grew tacky quickly exposed to the conditions, making her clothing stick to her oddly and tug as she moved. She was vaguely aware of the wolves howling again, closer than before, but didn’t let it distract her.  She managed to dispatch another, leaving her with three. She could feeling fatigue settling into her limbs, and she wasn’t sure how much blood she might actually be losing between her back and stomach.

A branch snapped and she glanced over as she dodged, heart sinking as another two men cleared the foliage. Where were they all coming from? There weren’t any villages close by, so they must have either been traveling through or had taken residence in the surrounding woods. She swept her leg and tripped the man closest to her. Needle pierced the man’s heart a hairsbreadth later and then gutted the fifth in the next motion. The newest two had arrived and she could see yet another approaching quickly.

She couldn’t keep up the pace, there was just no way. Apparently, a month onboard a ship and a further three weeks traveling by horse was a bit hard on one’s stamina, she thought to herself sarcastically. She allowed her body to drop into roll and then used the momentum to pull her back to her feet a few steps away from where she’d been.

The carriage horses spooked before she saw it. In fact, her first warning was the growl that split the air less than a second before a scream pierced it. The men she was still fighting hardly had a chance to glance around before they too began to scream. She watched in shock as an entire pack of wolves descended from the forest and congregated on the Kingsroad and just inside the tree line.

The shrieking didn’t last long before it too was silenced. The wolves were still surrounding her, panting clouds of white breath into the air around her. A deep growl came from directly behind her and she turned slowly to look. Her sword was still clutched in her hand, but hung limply to her side as she took in the great beast crouching before her, teeth bared.

“Nymeria?” She whispered in disbelief. “Is that really you? I’m me, it’s Arya.” Nymeria stopped growling and pulled her massive head back a foot. Arya sheathed her sword carefully and then reached out an almost tentative hand towards the magnificent creature most would name a monster. Nymeria eyed her for a long moment before she stretched her nose out to sniff and the offered hand.

Arya didn’t really worry about Nymeria taking off her hand in truth, but still the thought remained lightly in the back of her head for her girl was clearly wild. She found herself holding her breath in anticipation when the wolf took a step closer, moving from her hand to nose lightly at her stomach. Arya could hear the huff of her breath as she took in her scent. Her large tongue came out to lap at the blood that had saturated a spot of her cloak and was beginning to drip.

The girl brought her hand slowly to rest atop Nymeria’s coarse fur. When she didn’t get a negative reaction, she lifted her other hand to mirror the first, so they were both resting just behind the large furry ears. She moved her fingers and scratched her the same way she had liked as a pup. Nymeria’s tail twitched and then swayed back and forth in a lazy wag of enjoyment.

No longer feeling any trepidation, she dropped to her knees and buried her fingers in the thick fur of her neck. Nymeria dropped her head slightly so that they were on the same level and nosed her shoulder and the underside of her chin. “I’ve missed you girl.” Arya whispered. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

The wolves that had been surrounding them calmly enough tensed almost at once and turned their heads. She followed their gaze to see the her small Lannister guard had come into sight without warning, the snow muffling the noise of their hooves completely. Most of the pack that had settled onto their bellies or hind ends rose back to their feet and turn to face the strangers with a collective growl. Nymeria paced several steps away, crouching almost protectively between her and them.

Arya could see the looks of shock and worry on the men’s faces and she pushed herself back to her own feet, feeling foolish for not already having done so, though naught more than a second or two had passed. The two brothers drew their bows and took aim, but it would do little good against such a large pack she didn’t know why they bothered. “No!” She spoke, pitching her voice to carry. “Don’t shoot them. Just- don’t come any closer.” She ordered.

They exchanged looks but she didn’t pay them any further mind. Nymeria had turned her face back to her at hearing her voice, one ear pitching as she listened. “No girl.” She said quieter and more soothingly. “You can’t hurt them. They’re my friends.” Arya continued as she stepped forward to lay her hand upon the rise of the her shoulder.

She didn’t know how Nymeria could possibly understand her, but it almost seemed as though she could. She turned her head back to face forward and bared her teeth in a short but fierce warning snarl. Seemingly satisfied with herself, she lifted her head and let out a loud howl that was quickly picked up by not only the wolves visibly surrounding them, but by what sounded to be an even greater number remaining unseen in the woods surrounding them all.

The haunting noise seemed to go on for an age before it trailed off and their heads lowered once more. They didn’t waste any time fading back into the woods with hardly a sound, though Nymeria paused on last time to press her great head gently against her wounded stomach. “I’ll be okay. Go. Be with your pack.” She urged, scratching behind her ears once more in turn. Nymeria stepped back and then followed her brethren back into the trees, disappearing from sight a second later.

The others arrived by her side seconds later, looking her over before glancing around at the cleaner and neatly laid out corpses, the piles of boots and swords, and the carnage that had befallen her since their departure not long before. “What happened?” Jaime demanded, though the scene pretty well spoke for itself.

“There were more men in the woods. They surrounded me before I knew they were there and then they attacked. The wolves killed what was left of them.” She explained concisely, starting to feel a bit dizzy. She realized the pain from her wounds was gone and her body more frozen than it normally did from the cold, and she wondered how much blood she’d lost.

She reached down to feel her cloak and was surprised at just how saturated the black material had become with the viscous liquid. She unfastened it and pushed it aside to view the now almost completely red shirt she wore. A gash was visible starting on the lower left side of her rib cage, crossing down under her belly button and then ending in a small curve around her right hipbone. She wasn’t sure what her back looked like, but the line had felt to be at least the same size. “Oh.” She murmured. “Well shite.”

She swayed lightly before tensing her body and forcing herself back straight. Jaime and Bronn both reached out to steady her but it wasn’t necessary and she shrugged them off. Knowing what needed to be done she moved back towards where her mount stood and retrieved her borrowed needle and left over thread she still had from her newly finished pack.

 It certainly wasn’t going to be a pleasant task with such a large needle but she didn’t have any other options with how deep part of the gash looked through her sliced shirt. She didn’t particularly want to sit in the snow and so made her way over to the seat left on the back of one of the wagons. The men trailed after her slightly, but remained several steps away as Jaime approached alone.

She peered up at him through some tendrils of hair that had escaped at some point during one of the fights and fallen in her face. He reached out and tucked it behind her ear, seemingly without thought, before taking the needle from her much smaller hands. “I don’t-“

“-Need help, I know. All the same- I know how unpleasant this feels. It needn’t be done by your own hand. Let me help you, it’ll go faster and you won’t have to focus on it as much.”

She did always hate doing stitches. Sure, she’d forced herself to learn well enough to get by, but it was still one of her least favorite tasks. That she would be stitching her own flesh was even less appealing, though she suspected she might not actually feel it all that well. Probably best to get on with it before her head got any more foggy. She nodded her head and handed the thread to him as well.

Bronn approached with his wine flask. It was a strong mix and would do well enough to sterilize the needle, even if she would have preferred rum for the task. He splashed it over the threaded needle and then handed it to her for a drink. She took a generous pull and gave it back before she pulled back her cloak and lifted her shirt, exposing her smooth stomach still smeared with watery blood.

He gestured her to lean back against the supplies, which she did with a hidden grimace. He prodded at the edges of the wound, testing it’s depth and seeing how much damage had been done. The pain flared past the numbness but she didn’t show any of the discomfort on her face. It was nothing compared to what was coming next, she knew.

The Sellsword held the flask out again anyway and she accepted it with a grateful nod, taking a larger gulp than before. While she was drinking, the Lannister son moved away to scoop up a large ball of untouched snow and then brought it back and set it next to her. Taking a much smaller handful, he used it to cleanse the skin around the wound with care and then poured another splash of wine across her stomach to sanitize the source of concern.

“I don’t understand, why not just burn it?” Samurel asked further away.

“Too deep.” Arya replied shortly, unsure just then if she’d prefer the sudden intense pain of a burn, or the slow and steady jab after jab of a wide needle piercing though raw open flesh forcing it back together with course thread and then tying it off tightly. She suppressed a shudder at what was coming. It was hardly the worst she’d endured, but it didn’t make her dread it any less.

“What does ‘deep’ have to do with anything?” his brother asked next, honestly sounding confused.

Jaime spared a moment to send them a disgruntled glare but didn’t move to answer. She could have ignored them as he did, but thought it might help distract from the discomfort. “The wound’ll fester under the skin and split back open eventually- no way for it to drain past seared skin. The stitches leave enough room for liquid to pass if it does start to fester. Lets it heal better.”

Jaime caught her attention from where he was crouched before her. He had the needle in hand and was clearly waiting for her go-ahead to get started. She breathed deeply through her nose and nodded, keeping each inhale and exhale perfectly rhythmic and steady.

It was every bit as unpleasant as she expected it to be, but she still kept her expression even and body still. She found herself watching him work- the entirety his own attention caught on the task at hand and so he didn’t catch her observations as he normally seemed to when she found herself distracted by him or something he was doing.

She wouldn’t have expected his large and calloused hands to be as graceful as they were. He completed the task steadily and without waiver, the stitches placed like the beat of a drum making it as bearable for her as he could. She allowed herself a deep breath and harsh exhale after he finished tying off the end, but didn’t otherwise allow herself to delay the next.

He had stood already and so she had room to push herself up and let her shirt drop for the moment. She unclasped her cloak, wanting to wash the blood out of it anyway and not wanting it to be in the way. No one spoke up until she crossed her arms and lifted her shirt up, sliding the fabric up to rest on her neck. It left the expense of her slender and lithely muscled back on display to the world.

The movement inadvertently exposed her stomach again as well, but considering she’d just had it bared while he sewed her back together in front of the same men who stood watching, she didn’t see why it made any kind of difference. She kept her shirt bundled over her breasts, hiding them completely from view, so that wasn’t even a concern. She still heard a slightly strangled “What are you doing?” from Jaime before she turned to show him the second wound.

He hissed through his teeth and the sight and then guided her to sit back down in a new position and lean on the supplies with her least injured side. “Why didn’t you say anything? I wouldn’t have told you to lean back if I knew.” He asked as he began prodding her again.

“It made no matter.” She dismissed.

Bronn wandered back over from wherever he’d gone and whistled as he saw what they were doing. “Fucking ‘ell, girl! Here, have another drink. You need it more than I do.” He thrust the wine towards her again as a chunk of snow scraped against the skin of her shoulder where the wound started its descent downwards.

“I’m fine thank you.” She denied, already feeling the first couple drinks more intensely than she had expected, though she figured it was likely do to her decreased blood levels.

He sent her a disbelieving stare before looking pointedly over her. “’Fine’s’ not quite what I would call it.” He argued. “But as you will I suppose. What do I know? I’m just a lowly sellsword.”

“You’re an anointed knight.” Jaime corrected. “That’s quite a difference.”

“Aye, knights don’t get paid.”

“You get paid.”

“But do I get paid enough?”

“You’re the best paid knight in the Seven bloody Kingdoms. What more could you want?”

“Your brother promised me a castle and a pretty wife.”

“That was my brother’s promise, not mine.”

“Don’t you Lannisters pay off each other’s debts?”

“Not really how it works.”

The two kept going back and forth until her second wound was sewn and tied off. She was so grateful of their efforts in keeping her entertained and distracted because it seemed to make the second stitch job go even faster.

She pushed herself slowly back to her feet once more, testing how much balance she had. Aside from still being a bit dizzy and chilled, she felt fine. She didn’t really want to pull her bloody cloak back on just then, but it was far too cold to go without any longer.

She reached for it but was stopped before she could lift it. “Here.” Jaime said, offering her his own white cloak.

She looked at him, surprised at the offer. “I couldn’t, really. You’re a Southerner, you’ll need it more than me.”

He sighed loudly through his nose. “Why do you always have to be so bloody difficult? I have layers of leather and mail on, you have a wet and torn shirt and you must have lost half your blood already. Take the fucking cloak before I tie it onto you myself.” He demanded firmly and clearly annoyed at her refusal to accept help without turning the offer into an argument.

Her eyes grew slightly wider at his tone before narrowing at him in warning. Still, she didn’t argue, knowing he was right once again. Her previously white shirt was still bloody enough itself to be tacky so she turned her back and stripped it completely off before grabbing the cloak Jaime held out in a, his own green gaze as frozen as the arm holding it out in his surprise.

Arya dropped the sodden red fabric to the ground and the wrapped the cloak over her bare shoulders as quickly as she could, pulling it tight around herself though she truly didn’t feel that cold anymore. She suspected her sudden warmth was a bad sign but hoped she was simply being paranoid. Still, there was nothing to do but wait. She didn’t dare drag any more bodies around for risk of tearing her new stitching, but she was glad when the two brothers finished that task for her, even if they didn’t care for the bodies as they moved them.

They needed to burn them, she knew, but it needed to wait until Tywin arrived so they could look over the culprits to see if anyone might recognize who they were or where they were from. She wondered how long until he arrived and hoped it wouldn’t be much longer. She steady ache settling into her bones didn’t help her impatience and she was ready to get on the road if only so they could set up camp and she could sleep.

She heard Bronn start whistling a tune from across the snow and wondered vaguely how much longer it would go on before he switched to signing. She had the feeling it was going to be a long day.

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

Another three hours passed before they could hear the noise of the company approaching their location. ‘Finally.’ She thought to herself. She was more than ready to get back on the move, and if not for the value of the supplies they stood guard over, she might have gone on ahead anyway. She stood to await their arrival on her feet, feeling odd to still be draped in the white cloak of the Kingsguard with naught else but her breeches and boots beneath.

She’d gotten up and cleansed her soiled shirt and cloak with more snow when the tedium of sitting had gotten to be too much. She managed to get most of the blood and filth off the fabric of the cloak though the shirt was a lost cause. Jaime promised her one of his spares when the company joined them and he had access to his bad that was loaded in the wagon carrying his tent. The wet clothes had frozen over before they’d even started to dry and so she still found herself unable to put them on. A fire would have much helped the process, but they were hesitant to build one before the others arrived for fear of drawing another wave of bandits to their location.

And so they waited, until the first of the army appeared around then bend. Lord Tywin wasn’t the first man in sight, but he was never one to ride very far back and so was soon in sight himself. When he saw them stopped there, he nudged his horse into a trot and approached much more quickly. “What happened here?” He demanded when he pulled up between his son and Arya where they waited for him. Jaime explained the events and reason for their delay succinctly, gaining his fathers thoughtful nod once he had finished.

The elder man dismounted and moved across to look at the line of dead men, studying them closely. Arya moved to stand beside him, waiting for him to speak. “This is an Ironborn raiding party.” He finally announced. “See this sigil?” He asked, pointing at lone patch sewn into a single cloak bearing a sigil,  a white scythe against a black background. “It belongs to house Harlaw of Ten Towers.”

“We’re quite far from the Iron Islands.” Arya commented, trying to pull what she remembered of Westeros geography after so many years had passed since she’d studied the maps and house seats with her Septa to try and judge the distance in truth.

“Mmm, they likely sailed up Blazewater Bay and the Saltspear. It comes out just west of here. Common enough play for the Ironborn. It’s lucky you arrived when you did. Supplies are always needed. They will be useful to the gathering alliance- much more so than they would have been to our enemies. Dare I ask why some of these men seem particularly torn apart?”

“They were set on by a pack of wolves, it was the oddest thing.” She explained calmly, tone innocent of any further knowledge. Still, he shot her a piercing look before his attention to drawn away.

“Why remove their boots?” Tywin’s brother questioned from behind them, taking in the scene with distaste from his mount’s back.

“Good boots are always needed in the North.” She responded. “As is good steel.”

“You would have us steal from dead men?”

“Dead men have no possessions. Possessions are for the living. The dead have no need of boots or swords or gold.” Arya replied coldly. “We do.”

Kevan scowled down at her from his elevated position and then looked to his older brother to see if he would back him in shunning the idea. Tywin was obviously listening to their conversation but he didn’t immediately speak up. When he finally did he said, “The girl is right. We’ll take it with us. No point in losing good leather or steel. Have them men load it where they can in the wagons and prepare to move out. I don’t want to linger here any longer than we have to. Burn the bodies.”

 The younger spun his horse around and moved to give orders, though he clearly still wasn’t happy even as he relayed his brothers words. Tywin glanced over at her and then paused to take in what she was wearing, though she suspected he had noticed immediately had had simply focused on the more important matters first. “My son’s cloak suits you.” He quipped with a raised brow before he too turned away. “Even if it is white.”

~*~

The remainder of the trip passed much the same as the rest had, and they were soon only days from Winterfell. Arya had noticed Jaime watching her even more closely than he had before and it caused something of an – uncomfortable feeling to settle in her belly- a feeling of which had been present since Tywin made his comment about his cloak.

Though she didn’t think that she’d ever actually attended a Westerosi wedding, she of course she remembered the symbolic custom of bringing a woman under the man and his families protection by cloaking her in the symbol of their House. It brought her mind back to her own family and the knowledge that she was still technically betrothed to a nameless Frey. She wondered how her mother and siblings would react when she arrived with the Lannister army. She wondered what she should tell them, how much of her life she should share. A thousand stories she could tell crossed through her mind and she became even quieter the further north they travelled.

Finally came the night before they would arrive and Arya hadn’t spoken since they’d broken their fast. She was sitting beside a brazier further down the camp than she normally wandered in hopes of remaining undisturbed. Her hope was moot as a familiar gait approached and a body dropped heavily beside her. A wineskin was held out to her and she accepted it with scarcely a glance.

“Whatchya doing all the way down here? Lots of unsavory sorts this far from the head. If you’re not careful, you could be marked unsavory by association” Bronn commented blithely, accepting it back after she had taken a drink and using it to gesture towards one of the nearby whores who traveled with the camp.

She smiled slightly, but remained gazing blankly at the fire, mind a thousand miles away. It wasn’t her family that she thought of just then, she’d decided stubbornly to shut them out of her thoughts until at least dawn the next day. No, she instead was thinking about the warmth of Braavos, of the scent of exotic spices and roasting meat in the air, the feel of sand under her bare feet as she learned to truly swim in the sea, of the gentle crash of waves against worn cobblestone and of the quiet stillness of the House of Black and White.. She allowed herself to wonder, just for the night, what her life might have been if she hadn’t come back home, if she’d killed the actress as she’d been bid and then returned to Jaqen for her next instruction.

 “I’m just thinking.” She finally replied quietly.

“Bout anything important?”

Her life as an acolyte had been difficult and challenging, often leaving her to feel like she simply existed to undertake one test or trial after the next, constantly judged and critiqued, never praised for her successes but rather often struck for her failures and imperfections. It was a grueling life, one filled with pain and hardship, of adaptation and determination, strength and skill, failure after failure and then eventual hard won success.

 She needn’t have worried about feelings of betrayal or upholding one alliance or another. She needn’t worry about honor nor dishonor, for when one lived a life dedicated to serving death, dishonor held a different meaning than it had for her as a child, daughter to the ever honorable Ned Stark. Her perception was different, her many lessons having chiseled away at parts of her and shaped her down until she resembled someone else almost completely.

She’d grown used to discomfort long ago and had accepted it as her norm, but there she learned to use every hurt as yet another weapon in her already expansive arsenal. There, she didn’t have to worry about avoiding strife nor seeking personal happiness, for every part of her had belonged to He of Many Faces. The only things she need worry about were improving herself every moment of every day, and the next name she would offer to her God. It had been a difficult life, but somehow also a simpler and more honest one.

 “No, it’s not anything important. Not anymore.”

He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes, humming quietly in understanding and passing the skin over again. “Tell me, ‘Sir Bronn of the Blackwater,’ why are you part of this fight? Why do you serve the Lannisters?” She questioned, turning the conversation on him.

“They pay well.” He responded automatically.

She turned to head to face him fully for the first time since he joined her. “Liar.” She denied shrewdly. “You could make more selling your sword in Essos and be warmer besides. Why are you here, why with them?”

“Aye, that’s true.” He admitted, not answering the ladder part of her statement. “Why’re you heading back then? Why not stay wherever it is you’ve been hiding out all this time?”

“My family is here.”

Liar. There’s more to it than that.” He taunted back, taking another swig. Still, he didn’t press, instead continuing on himself. “I hated my own family. Bloody awful people they were, toasted when they died, I did.” He paused and tilted his head. “Well, my brother wasn’t too bad I suppose. When he was around at least. He was older than me, see, and hardly ever at home. Dunno whatever ever happened to the bastard- He split before ma was even in the ground, left me to deal with the unsavory sort they owed money to.”

“That doesn’t make him sound too good.” She remarked, watching him.

“Meh, he didn’t know any better than I until they showed up. Da had left a bottle of Run and I was three sheets to the wind already when the knocking came. I stumbled my way over to the door- I was only five, mind, hadn’t ever been properly drunk before- and I stumbled my way over to the door and pulled it open, and I saw the craziest looking bitch I’d ever seen before standing in the rickety doorway, two men twice her size standing behind her.”

“What happened?” Arya asked when he didn’t continue.

“She asked for my da. Wasn’t much pleased when I told her he croaked two days before. They forced their way in and tore up the house. Weren’t any more pleased when their search turned up empty. She decided the only action to take to get her money back was to sell me. I wasn’t much inclined to cooperate. Don’t quite remember what happened, but the next thing I knew she was coming for me throat with her ax. I grabbed my da’s sword, managed to stab her in the gut. Got free of the house and never looked back.”

“That’s awful.” She commented, still watching him thoughtfully.

“That’s life. Life’s awful. Most of the time, anyway. When you manage to find a piece of it that’s not awful, you should hang on to it.”

Arya dropped her eyes back to the fire. The skin passed twice more before she spoke up. “I was one and ten the last time I saw most of my family. It doesn’t sound like that long ago but it feels like a lifetime. The girl I was then- I haven’t been her since they killed my father and called it justice. A friend of my father’s found me in the crowd and took me from the city. For months I though of nothing but returning home to Winterfell, of running away and finding the Northern Army, finding my brother Robb.”

“I almost made it once, did you know?” He shook his head silently. “We were less than a days ride, camping just past Castle Cerwyn. Some men from the Northern army were camped nearby. They were talking about the Starks and the war when we rode past. I heard one of them mention how much of a shame it was for the youngest Stark daughter be given to the Freys... See, it was always assumed that Sansa would wed a more distant family to form a new alliance and that I, as the second daughter, would be married to one of sons of Father’s loyal bannermen- one with a Lordship, obviously. They felt cheated that I was being wasted on a family so lowly and disgusting, a family who had only gained their seat through treachery against their former liege lords and my Mother’s family, House Tully.”  

“I was so angry when I realized what they were speaking of. I’d spent so long trying to get home, it was almost devastating to know they planned to ship me back off if I ever actually made it. I figured, if they planned to send me away anyway, why should I bother going home in the first place? I surely wouldn’t agree to marry a Frey, so I decided to choose my own destination. I waited until my traveling companion was asleep and then I snuck away, stole the Northern soldiers horse and left to make may way in new direction…. Now that I’m here again, I don’t really know what to think about it all. A part of me feels like turning and running away again.” She finished softly, knowing she could trust the man who’d become a friend to her over the past weeks spent in close company.

“No one knows you’re with us.” He offered, voice just as soft. “They wouldn’t know if you left.”

She smiled, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes, and shook her head. “I need to go home, I can’t keep putting it off. It shouldn’t feel this difficult though, you know? I’m not a scared little girl anymore, so why do I feel so much trepidation at knowing I’m going to see them again tomorrow?”

“Anything that feels easy isn’t worth the effort to do it. Things that really matter are always the most difficult to do.”

“You’re just full of insight tonight, aren’t you?” A familiar voice spoke up from behind the both of them. They tilted their heads in sync to see Jaime standing behind them with a hand resting lazily on the hilt of his sword, the other clutching a fresh skin. He took a seat on the other side of her and held it out in offering.

“I don’t think I should have anymore.” She declined, waving him off. “My head’s already a bit buzzed.”

“Why not?” He questioned back. “Got somewhere else to be tonight?”

“Hardly,” She scoffed. “but I know better than to get too far in my cups. It’s a thoughtless risk to take.”

His blond head tiled and gleaming green eyes flashed to her with a hint of mischief. “Have you every actually been drunk?”

“I’ve been tipsy enough for my taste.”

“But not drunk.”

“Not drunk, no.” She was forced to admit, feeling a rush of embarrassment despite herself. Not getting drunk wasn’t anything to be ashamed of- drink made men stupid and slow, so why would she want to over indulge? Especially considering she almost always felt the need to look over her shoulder?

He held the wineskin out again and she accepted it with an eyeroll but still didn’t move to drink. “You’re meeting your family again on the morrow, but tonight you’re under the personal protection of Lord Tywin Lannister, in the center of the biggest army in Westeros, sworn tell death to serve my family, and you have the two of us by your side. There’s no safer time for you to get well and truly sloshed at least once.”

She glanced around at the pockets of soldiers sitting together on all sides of them and knew it was true. She didn’t know how many more peaceful and safe nights she would be granted, so why not try it at least once? She should at least know what it felt like should she ever need to know in the future. Plus, it might help get her out of her own head and depressing loop of thoughts if nothing else. She opened the skin with a mental shrug and took a deep swig, only to choke and cough on the horrid burning. “That’s not wine.” She managed, voice almost sounding normal.

“Rum. Thought you could use something stronger tonight.”

Perhaps she could, indeed.

~*~An hour earlier~*~

They watched the slender woman move through the soldiers like a wisp, deeper and deeper into the camp and farther from the safety of their swords. That wasn’t to say the petite Lady didn’t pack a punch of her own, but war made men do crazy things and they preferred to keep her within sight for their own piece of mind if nothing else.

“You know,” The sellsword began. “you should probably stop staring’ at her so much if you don’t want everyone to know how much you want her.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The blond dismissed without hesitation, gaze never wavering.

“I’m talking about you wantin’ to fuck her.” Bronn responded bluntly and rather louder than Jaime would prefer.  

“I don’t want to fuck her.” He retorted, pointedly quieter. Bronn scoffed in turn and Jaime corrected his previous statement. “Okay, I wouldn’t say no to fucking her, but it’s never going to happen so there’s no point in talking about it.”

“Why won’t it ever happen? I see her looking at you too you know. She’s better at hiding it than you are, but I’ve still seen it- She’d fuck you too I’d wager. Why not give it a go?”

Jaime shook his head and shot him a dark look. “She’s a highborn lady- a princess, if you want to get technical, she’s not the kind of woman you just ‘fuck.’ She’s the kind that’s expected to save her maidenhead for marriage like it’s some grand gift for her highborn husband on their wedding night.”

“I don’t think she’s that kind of lady.” Bronn stated doubtfully.

“Ladies don’t really get a choice in the matter.”

“I’d like to see you tell that to her.”

Jaime shook his head again and turned away. “I’m getting something to drink. Watch her, won’t you?”

“Aye, I’ll watch her.” He promised and watched him go.

When Jaime returned he found the two sitting side by side, carrying on what seemed to be a serious conversation- odd for the two of them, who more often fell into insults, banter, threats- or a combination of the three- when left alone. So distracted were they that he was able to approach them both without being noticed- a feat that hardly ever happened with either of them. Not wanting their last night free of dealing with the Northmen, who weren’t at all fond of himself or his family, to be marred by seriousness, he convinced interrupted their talk and convinced her to get sloshed with the two of them for a change.

It might not have been the best idea considering the conversation that led up to it, but as long as he controlled himself it would make no matter. He’d been forced to control himself his entire life- this should be no exceptional challenge. And he truly hadn’t spoken false- they were likely sitting in the safest place in Westeros just then, surrounded by so many loyal soldiers and approaching a truce rather than expecting a battle. There was no better time, and so they began passing the much stronger flagon of alcohol between the three of them.

The atmosphere lightened the more they drank, and they spent what felt like hours talking and trading stories. “-… an’ the poor bastard was hoping around with an arrow sticking out of his arse yelling ‘not the daisies, not the daisies!” Arya tipped her head back with the force of her bright laughter, feeling tears of mirth pool in the corner of her eyes at the story she’d just heard. It took her several long moments to calm herself and she had no idea how flushed her cheeks were nor how bright her eyes glowed in the firelight.

It seemed to grow late all too soon and then men surrounding them began to disappear into their tents to take their rest. The rum was gone and the fire burning low, so they decided perhaps it was time for them to turn in as well. When she stood, Arya found she had a hard time walking in a straight line, no matter much she thought she had her muscles under control. Jaime graciously accompanied her back to her tent- though in truth he wouldn’t have risked letting her go on her own with how drunk she clearly was, even had she tried to turn him away.

They were talking quietly when they arrived and so it felt natural for him to duck through the door behind her. One of the servants had lit the smaller brazier and so it was pleasantly warm inside. Arya immediate stripped her cloak off and lifted a leg to wrestle off her first boot. Her balance was more off than it’d ever been- even when she’d been blind- and so she ended up having to plop down to manage the task.

Seeing that she was still having difficulty, Jaime dropped to his knees before her to assist, much more practiced at maneuvering under the weight of the alcohol. She wiggled her toes once her feet were finally free and then lay backwards across the bedroll his her arms stretched up above her head. “Thank you.” She slurred slightly as her eyes closed, though she remained awake and drifting slightly in the buzz. 

Her eyes opened and she glanced over when she felt his much larger bulk lay down beside her, though his own hands were folded behind his head and his gaze rested on the fabric above them. “What will you do when you see your family?” He asked her, tone curious, in a low voice some time later.

“I don’t really know yet.” She admitted in scantly more than a whisper. “This should be a happy occasion, I should be ecstatic to be going home, shouldn’t I? Despite everything?”

He hummed lightly and took a moment to think before he responded, hearing a true note of unease in her tone. “I think you’re a different girl that the one who left gods, was it really almost eight years ago?” She nodded beside him but didn’t speak up and so he continued. “Mothers always seem to consider their children to be children, no matter how old they grow. You’ll simply have to show them the woman you’ve become. If they’re smart, they’ll be proud of you. I don’t pretend to know all you’ve endured, but not many could have survived the bits I do know about.”

“Because I’m a woman?”

“No, you being a woman has no bearing on my opinion of you. I’d be just as impressed by you if you were a man- … Though you wouldn’t be nearly as nice to watch if you were.”

She elbowed him for the last remark though she felt a buzz of warmth at his words. “Are we friends Jaime?” She asked in contemplation.

“I like to think so, though I can’t speak for your opinion on the matter.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had any friends, I’m not sure I remember how to do it.”

“You’re doing a pretty good job so far. There aren’t really any rules, you know.”

She smiled slightly and turned onto her side to face him, propping her head up on one hand and gazing at him, needing to see his face for the next. “I’ve been in Braavos.” She admitted in the quietest whisper yet. His head turned to look at her in turn and she could see the surprise in his green eyes. “Training at the House of Black and White to be a Faceless Man. I left for home when I heard of the Great Gathering of armies.”

“Well…” he began clearly at a loss for words, though he didn’t seem disgusted with her as she thought he might- for the Faceless Men had a certain reputation throughout all the realms. “That explains quite a lot, actually.” He settled on, waiting for her to continue.

“I’m… worried of how my family will react if they find out, once they do see the woman I’ve become. I think my father would have understood to a point, but my mother and sister won’t. I’m not sure about my brothers, really. Eight years ago I think they would have supported me, but they’ll be men grown themselves and will likely have the thoughts of men grown on the place of a woman.”

“You don’t have to tell them you know.”

“But you knew there was something off, even before I told you. You don’t think they’ll be able to sense it, too?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘off,’ necessarily.” A note of teasing taking residence in his voice before he sobered again. It took a moment for him to continue, trying as he could to organize his thoughts. “You’ve heard the story of the Mad King, haven’t you?” She nodded at him and he encouraged her to lay back down, not wanting her perceptive eyes to observe him so closely as he shared this piece of himself with her. “My father told me he spoke to you about it a little already? Of how I came to be a Kingsguard?” She nodded slightly still gazing up at the side of his face as she could from where she’d lain her head back down to rest beside his.

“You’ve heard of wildfire? I’m sure you have considering where you studied?” She nodded again and he continued. “The Mad King loved wildfire. He loved to watch people burn, watch the way their skin blackened and blistered and melted off their bones.. He burned everyone- he burned lords he didn’t like, he burned hands who disobeyed him, he burned everyone who was against him…. Before long, half the country was against him.”

“He saw traitors everywhere, so he had his pyromancer place catches of wildfire all over the city. Beneath the Sept of Balor, in the slums of Flea Bottom, under the houses and staples and taverns… Even beneath the Red Keep itself. Finally the day of reckoning came. Robert Baratheon marched on the capital after his victory at the Trident, but, my father arrived first with the whole Lannister army at his back, promising to protect the city against the Rebels.”

“You know my Father better than that- he’s never been one to pick the losing side. I told the Mad King that, I urged him to surrender peacefully but he didn’t listen to me. He didn’t listen to Varys, who tried to warn him, but he did listen to Grand Maester Pycelle, that prayer-sunken cunt. ‘You can trust the Lannisters,’ he said. ‘The Lannisters have always been true friends of the crown’. So, he opened the gates… and my father sacked the city.”

“Once again I came to the king, begging him to surrender. He told me to.. bring him my fathers head.. And then he turned to his Pyromancer. ‘Burn them all,’ he said. ‘Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds..’ Tell me Arya, if the king you were sworn to serve and obey to your last breath told you to kill your own father and then stand by why thousands of men, women, and children were burned alive, would you have done it?”

He shook his head slightly and she could see the lines in his forehead as he remembered the scene he was describing to her, dying fire casting eerie shadows to dance across his weathered face. “I.. killed the Pyromancer first, and then when my King turned to flee I.. I drove my sword into his back. ‘Burn them all,’ he kept saying. ‘Burn them all.’ I don’t think he expected to die… I think he wanted to burn the rest of us and rise again reborn as a dragon turning his enemy’s to ash. I slit his throat to make sure that didn’t happen. That’s where your father found me.”

“No one seems to remember how despised the Mad King was by the end, the horrible way he slaughtered his enemy’s, the awful things he did for his own entertainment.. I still see them sometimes when I close my eyes at night. It doesn’t matter what he did, it doesn’t matter what he planned to do, I was a Kingsguard sworn to protect him with my own life if need be and instead I took his with a sword through his back.”

“Kingslayer, they call me now. Oathbreaker, coward, a man without honor. It’s been seventeen years, and the only thing the people seem to remember of the Mad King is my part in his death… All except my Father. Say what you will about the man, but he loves family. He took me back to Casterly Rock despite those calling for me to answer for my treason and he betrothed Cersei to Robert to strengthen the Baratheon/Lannister alliance even further. He saved me and then he guaranteed me my freedom and my life. I should have hung for what I did. He called me a fool for swearing myself to another fucking king, but I couldn’t let my sister go live in that awful place without me there to protect her.”

He shook his head again and continued in a forced lighter voice. “The point is, family is there for you when no one else in the world is. Your mother’s a Tully: ‘Family, Duty, Honor’ in that order, yes? I think you owe it to them and to yourself to at least try and reform those bonds. If you find you can’t than you can’t, but at least you won’t spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened if you tried.”

He trailed off and seemed to be done speaking, so Arya moved slightly closer. She found herself at a loss of words, unsure of the correct thing to say after the raw emotion he’d shared, but needing to say something through her tight throat. “Honor isn’t always an easy thing; it can be more than a word spoken or an oath given for some. It’s rawer than that, more visceral and authentic. I don’t think what you did makes you a coward, I think you choosing to break a single oath to a madman to save thousands of lives makes you one of the bravest and most truly honorable men I’ve ever met.”

“You actually mean that, don’t you?” He questioned in disbelief, looking over at her.

“I do.”

He smiled at her and shook his head, turning on his side to mirror her and then brushed back a strand of hair to tuck behind her ear. He stroked his hand over her hair and then cupped the back of her head to hold her while he pressed lingering lips to her forehead in expression of his thanks, however much he’d rather have pressed his against her own lips instead. He pulled away a long moment later and moved again to his back where he closed his eyes. Alcohol still infusing their veins, they both eventually drifted off to sleep atop the Knight’s bedroll, tucked close together.

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

The alcohol kept them both in a deep stupor through the rest of the night and into the morning. A throat clearing woke them both up and Arya was surprised to find her head resting comfortably on Jaime’s shoulder, body tucked up against his side and sharing in his warmth as they slept. She pulled herself away, glancing around to see who had found them. She was relieved to see Bronn smirking down at them rather than Tywin or someone who would report back to him. She had the feeling he wouldn’t let this little mishap go should he know about it.

“Time to rise and shine, cuddle bugs. The camp’s breaking down as we speak and daddy came knocking looking for you already.”

The mention of Tywin was enough was enough to rouse Jaime as well, though he looked bleary eyed and almost vulnerable in a way she had never gotten to see him before. They quickly rose and began moving through the familiar motions of packing up the camp, despite the headache’s they all bore that morn. Tywin found them when they were getting ready to mount, looking them both over suspiciously and then pulling his son aside for a private word.

Jaime was frowning lightly when he reappeared but she didn’t ask and he didn’t offer explanation. They set off in somber silence, the cheer from the night before faded with the coals and everyone well aware that they would arrive that their destination just after high noon. The day passed both quickly and seemed to take an age, but they were soon riding upon Winter Town and the churning in her stomach was worse than ever.

She started to drop back further in the company to fade into the background but Tywin froze her with a frigid glance as he nudged his mount beside hers. When he spoke, his tone was stern but also encouraging, and pitched to not carry. “You are of Stark blood and we approach your home. The only person here capable of making you feel cowed is you, yourself. How you present yourself when you meet them again for the first time will stick in their minds for the rest of their days, and of yours. It is up to you, here and now, to decide how that presentation will occur-  what impression will you leave them with? Will it be of you slinking around like shade and hiding with the common foot soldiers, or will you be sitting tall and proud as you meet them head on, a woman in your own right, tested and experienced, and more than capable of standing before them on your own feet?”

She swallowed hard and then nodded, squaring her shoulders and remaining at the front where she’d ridden since joining their company. Jaime squared up on his father’s other side and they road three abreast through Winter Town and to Winterfell proper. A few others of their party broke away with them to form a second line just behind theirs, while the rest of the army formed ranks in an large stretch of open field.  A messenger had already ridden ahead to give word of their coming, and so a party waited to welcome them as they passed through the gates.

Her breath caught in her throat as she took in her family awaiting in a line across the courtyard before the keep. A man grown with Robbs features stood in the center, her aged Mother standing to one side of him while an unfamiliar woman stood on his other side, young child hiding behind her skirts and another on her hip. Sansa stood beside her mother, red hair gleaming under the dull winter sun, tall and perfect and more beautiful than ever.

Bran was seated in a chair beside her, thick fur over his legs to fight the chill. He was staring at her already, she realized, despite the fact that he couldn’t yet see her face. Her hood had been up since it had begun snowing quite heavily a couple of hours past, and so no one else seemed to take any notice of her immediately.  

A boy who looked like a miniature, more wild version, of Robb rounded off the line, a plain faced woman with dark uncombed hair standing at his shoulder. The direwolves lay scattered around them on the ground unbothered by the newcomers.

They all moved to dismount, leaving them on equal footing. “Lord Tywin.” Robb greeted, sounding forced. “We welcome you and your companions to Winterfell. Thank you for answering our call. We have quarters prepared for you and your council and bid you join us for supper so we might welcome you more formally to our halls.”

“I thank you for your welcome, but I will continue to reside with my men. My council may decide themselves as to they will where they sleep. We thank you for your invitation to dine with you and will happily accept.”

Robb nodded, looking unsurprised and perhaps even a little relieved that Tywin wouldn’t be sleeping within the keep. The required formalities continued. “Allow me to introduce my family. You know my mother, Lady Catelyn of House Tully. This is my Lady wife, Talisa of House Maegyr, my heir, Prince Eddard, second of his name, and my daughter Aenela. You’ve met my sister, Lady Sansa, already, I believe? And these are my younger brothers, Bran and Rickon.” The courtesies were observed as they went down the line and then it was Tywin’s turn.

“Please, allow me to introduce you to my Grandson by Law and Member for Dorne of the Kings Small Council, Prince Trystane Martell. Most of you have already met my son and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Ser Jaime Lannister-“ and didn’t it still burn a little to not be able to name him his heir in turn. “-my brother and the Master of Coin, Kevan Lannister, Lord Mace Tyrell, Master of Ships, and..” He allowed his voice to trail off for a moment, eyeing her pointedly. “I don’t believe my last companion needs introduction, actually.”

His odd statement led to all eyes resting curiously upon her and she cursed him slightly in her head even though she knew she hadn’t left him with many options, shrouded as she still was in her black cloak and hood. She took a steadying breath and stepped forward, lowering her hood in the same moment so as not to give herself any more time to delay the inevitable, her cloak falling open with the upward motion of her arms and leaving her petite frame visible, and with it the obvious curves of her womanhood.  

She knew she must look a sight after two months of travel in comparison to their own freshly scrubbed skin and clean clothes. She knew her hair was a mess and that her cheeks were likely flushed from the cold. Her lips were chapped and the black plain spun shirt she borrowed from Jaime who typically wore them beneath his armor hung too large on her frame and made her look disheveled despite its high quality. That she wore men’s pants and scuffed traveling boots with it didn’t help the situation in the least.

Her features had matured even if she hadn’t gained much in height, her body had become strong and toned whereas before it was slender simply because of the skinniness of youth. Still, her large grey eyes were the same, as was her nose and the shape of her mouth. Her cheekbones had sharpened but still cut the same line across her face and the bend of her jaw remained unchanged despite the loss of its remaining youthful softness. She wondered in the moment if they would even recognize her. She wasn’t sure how she might respond if asked to explain her presence before the King in the North

Luckily, if a bit surprisingly, her sister spoke up before their mother. “Arya?” The redhead gasped, pale hand rising to cover her mouth in her shock, clear blue eyes filling immediately with tears as all polite stoicism fell away from her face. She broke away from the neat line of her family and hurried across the ground to reach her, wrapping her immediately in her long and graceful arms. Arya felt even smaller and more out of place as she noticed her sisters beautiful blue dress become smudged from her own dirty clothing but there was naught she could do about it beyond forcing herself free, and she wasn’t at that point quite yet.

She realized she ought to do something in return as she heard her sister sob that she thought her surely dead. Her own arms rose more slowly to return the embrace, though any time she thought of saying something in turn she found the words sticking in her throat. “I, I’m glad to see you as well, sister.” She finally managed. She managed to look past her taller sister as she spoke and locked eyes with Lannister green. Jaime sent her a half encouraging, half sympathetic smile

At the sound of her voice she heard her mother breakdown where she stood beside Robb, leaning most of her weight on the strong arm of her eldest son. “Arya?” The aging woman whispered weakly, stumbling forward and drawing her attention back. Sansa pulled away, reaching up to dab at her eyes as she stepped back to allow her mother access. “Oh, my sweet child!” She practically moaned and she draped herself in a hug around her youngest daughter. “I thought you lost to us, I thought I’d never see you again.”

Had she not been so fit, Arya might have grunted under the weight of her mother. Instead she was able to shift her stance to provide her more stability and then offer her an embrace back. Catelyn dissolved into sobs, though she could still be heard mummering something every few seconds. Arya began to feel more and more uncomfortable the longer the scene went on, a fact of which was clear to those in attendance who knew her best and was quickly becoming clear to those who no longer did.  

Thankfully, Sansa began prying Catelyn free just before Arya thought she might have to do so herself, if only to breath freely for a moment. Her good-sister hurried forward to help and they supported the near hysteric woman between the two of them. Robb approached her next, smiling down at her and drawing her into a strong hug of his own. Luckily his didn’t last nearly as long and she was released after just a few moments, though he paused to press a thankful kiss to her forehead, whispering ‘Thank  the gods for your return’ as he did so.

She turned her head to see Bran smiling at her softly, even if his eyes didn’t seem quite all there. She glanced around briefly before approaching his chair-bound form, finding herself actually wanting to give an embrace of her own for the first time. The last time she’d seen her little brother, he’d been still and unconscious in a featherbed much to large for his small, broken body, and they’d been unsure if he’d ever wake again even as they rode from the city.

She leant over to wrap him in her arms and felt one of his rise to embrace her in return. “Sister, I am pleased you finally decided to return home.” He murmured in her ear. She pulled away and glanced down at his too-knowing tone but her attention was soon drawn to his side and too the wild looking boy watching her suspiciously. Rickon was only six when she left, would he even remember her- she wondered to herself as she stepped closer, hyperaware of the silence of the courtyard behind her save for her mother’s continued sniffles.  

Despite his young age, the boy already stood more than a head taller than her and he seemed to feel even more out of place than she did, judging by his discreet fidgeting and uncomfortable expression. He mumbled something she couldn’t quite grasp and drew Bran’s eyes to him in slight reproach. Rickon dropped his eyes for a moment before glancing back at her stubbornly. “Sister.” He finally said quietly in greeting, voice curing around an odd accent she couldn’t quite place.

“Brother.” She replied, hearing the soft Braavosi burr she’d acquired from so long primarily speaking the language come through in her own tone. She wasn’t quite sure why she allowed it, fully capable of controlling her voice down to the smallest detail, but perhaps she did so to show him that he wasn’t the only one in their family out of place in Winterfell- that she was, too. She’d heard that Theon had sacked Winterfell in the name of the Greyjoy’s whilst Catelyn was with Robb and the Northern Army, but she hadn’t heard what had happened to her two youngest brothers who had remained in the keep when it happened.

She didn’t try and hug him, sensing he might not be open to the gesture. Instead she held out a hand, smiling slightly when he grasped it in one of his own and squeezed before dropping it again. She glanced to the woman standing almost protectively behind him, watching her guardedly. “Hello,” She greeted the woman who had gone unmentioned, despite her physical closeness to her family. The woman glanced down at Rickon and then across at Lady Catelyn before looking back at the one addressing her.

“M’lady.” She murmured, voice raspy.

“Please, my name is Arya. What’s yours?”

“I’m called Osha, M’lady.” She replied.

“Where are you from, Osha?” she questioned, tilting her head curiously.

The woman glanced up at her from her lowered gaze, an almost challenging gleam in her eye at the question. It made Arya even more curious before she finally responded. “You won’t have heard of it.”

“How do you know?”

“Do you know the names of many villages beyond the wall, M’lady?”

Arya’s smile grew larger and truer than it was before. “I wish I did.” She responded, practically glowing at the realization that she was speaking with an actual wildling . It had been a dream of hers as a girl, after all. “I’ve always wanted to go beyond the wall. It’s probably not the best idea right now, obviously, but perhaps once the fighting is done mayhap you can teach me of your villages so I might visit.”

“Mayhaps.” The woman allowed, though her own face had softened at the honesty in Arya’s tone.

“Well,” Robb interrupted, drawing her attention back to the rest. “That has been a rather unexpected turn of events, though perhaps the best we’ve had in years. If you’ll excuse us, I believe our family needs some time. Please, if any of you would like to take our offer of a room inside our walls, let my Lady Wife know and she will see you to them. I do hope you see you all at supper.”

Her mother and sister somehow appeared beside her and began leading her away despite her reluctance. At least her mother had gathered herself enough to be smiling at her with damp eyes, sobs seeming contained. She glanced back over her shoulder before she was tugged through a doorway to see the Lannister father and son watching her go with matching conflicted expressions.

~ *~

She was marched inside to her mother’s solar and pressed down until she sat on a sofa and surrounded by her family. Her mother sat just beside her, clasping her hands and flittering in her seat. “Arya…” She began, still sounding dazed. Arya couldn’t help but notice the grey beginning to streak her copper hair and the deep-set wrinkles that marred her once ageless face. “My sweet wild-child. I can’t believe all my children have come home, praise the Old Gods and New. Where have you been? We though you perished years ago.” Desperation to know tinged her mothers voice and she felt a jolt of guilt pierce her.

Part of her wanted to tell her tale true, but she knew she couldn’t tell everything and what she could tell would simply lead to more questions. “I’ve.. I’ve been all over, Mother. Most of it passed unremarkably, to tell you the truth. Nothing very exciting at all.”

“Why didn’t you come home?” Her mother pleaded, not sounding at all appeased. “Why didn’t you come back to us?”

“I.. I couldn’t..  I had things I had to do first, but I came as soon as I could.”

“What things? Nothing is more important than our family. You should have been here with us!”

Arya shook her head, unsure what to say. She pulled free and rose from her mother’s side, turning to Robb and his wife who had just joined them, where they were standing together nearby. “Robb said you are a Maegyr?” She asked lightly, turning the subject to on she was not the center of. The woman nodded gracefully, darting a glance at Arya’s brother as she did so. “I met a Maegyr once- a Sulvan Maegyr, but it was a quite long way from here. I wonder if there might be a relation?”

Sulvan Maegyr was one of the three Triarchs of Volantes. The elected rulers were considered so honored that it was said their feet wouldn’t touch the ground a single time during their rule. They rode elephants or were carried in a litter through the city if they had a need to leave their palace. Though only one with knowledge of the workings of the Free City of Volantes would likely recognize the name, she was still surprised that none in her family seemed to. She thought war, if nothing else, might make them more aware of the world outside of Westeros and Winterfell specifically.  

Her new Good Sister nodded, watching her cautiously. “Sulvan is my Grandfather, though his company is hard to come by. I would wonder how you found yourself in it?”

In truth, it hadn’t been her who’d found herself in his company but Jaqen. A man in a position of such power in a city of such wealth- was it any wonder he had an almost, amicable, relationship with the House of Black and White? She’d been tasked with shadowing him for a time and learning everything she could from her observations. Volantis was one of the more… interesting… cities she discovered in their year of travel. “The winds blow all directions.” She replied vaguely rather than giving any sort of answer.

Sansa spoke before the resulting silence could drag. “We’ll have to have a feast to welcome you home! Things aren’t so tight that we can celebrate your return. We’ll have to give the hunters until tomorrow, at least, so we won’t be able to host it tonight. But that’s alright- it’ll give the seamstress time to sew you a gown that will fit you properly! I don’t imagine any of your girlhood clothes will still fit you, even if you haven’t grown much in height.” She continued. Arya could hear the forced note in her voice as she prattled on, and she appreciated the effort her sister went to in order to avoid further awkwardness than what was already felt naturally so nodded along appropriately as her mother joined in and the two of them discussed her wardrobe.  

Appreciation or no, she could only take talk of colors and fabric for a limited time before she snapped and so she turned back to her present older brother. “I heard Jon was here, but I haven’t seen nor heard of him since I arrived. Where is he?” She asked.

Robb darted a quick look at their mother before answering. “Ahh, he stays with his men most days. Come, I’ll show you to his camp.” She could see her mother scowl at the mention of her half-brother even without turning her head and felt her heart sink at knowing he was still likely facing her ire for simply daring to exist in her home.   

She nodded her thanks and hurried across the room, not meeting their eyes despite Tywin’s words echoing in her ears. What sort of impression might she be leaving them with, indeed? Never before had she felt so out of place and, as much as she tried to pretend otherwise, she feared the others might have picked up on her obvious discomfort.

She followed Robb back through the keep and out into the open. She could see the familiar outline of the Lannister camp taking shape in the distance, but they turned the other way. They soon came upon rows and rows of tents made of naught but rough prepared white and grey animal hide and fewer of the plain black fabrics the Night’s watch was known for. They approached a tent that looked like all the others surrounding it and Robb knocked his knuckles against one of the wooden supports before he ducked inside.

Arya followed a bit more hesitantly and looked across the glare of a warm fire once she was inside. Jon- her favorite person in the world- stood across from her, staring in shock. “Arya?” He mouthed almost silently, recognizing her immediately, before he crossed the canvas in a few large strides. He swept her fully into his arms in a bone crushing hug until her feet her dangling clear of the ground and then spun her around in one, two, three circles. She embraced him just as tightly, clenching her eyes closed as his familiar curly hair tickled her face.

“I missed you too, brother.” She replied, pulling back as he set her on her feet.

“I wasn’t sure I’d get to see you again. Everyone was convinced of your death, it was hard to remain positive at times.” His warm, sword calloused hand cupped the side of her face and his warm chapped lips pressed a heartfelt kiss against her forehead.   “Gods, I can’t believe you’re here!”

“I think I might be too stubborn to give in to the Gods.”

“Aye, I think you might be right!” He agreed with a choked sounding laugh. “May that trait remain true here as well.”  

“What are they like?” She asked.  “The dead men? I’ve heard stories, but not from anyone whose actually fought them.”

He peered down at her curiously but didn’t dismiss her outright like many would. “And why would you need to know that?” He asked instead. She saw Robb shift uncomfortably to the side of the tent, but he didn’t move to interrupt.

“I know a thing or two about fighting now.” She answered softly. “And it’s always better to know your enemy than to not.”

“Well I can’t argue with that logic. They’re formidable, to be honest. They feel no fear, they never tire, and they have numbers that make it seem almost pointless to cut one down..”

“How do you kill them?”

“Valerian steel works. Dragon glass. Fire. Killing a white walker also kills all the wights it’s raised, but they’re not east to get to.”

“Those are the only ways?”

“They only way’s we’ve found so far.”

She nodded, looking down at the ground. “I’m sorry I stayed away so long.”

He smiled at her again, fondly. “I’m just glad you’re okay. You are okay, aren’t you?”

“’Course I’m okay.”

“How’d you get here, anyway? Did you make the journey on your own? Where have you been?”

“I arrived with the Lannister Army.” She answered honestly, watching for his reaction. “I knew Lord Tywin a long time ago, and when I met his troop at the Crossroad, he offered me to travel with them. Safety in numbers, and all that.”

“The Lannisters?” He sounded dismayed but hid it for the most part. “Did they treat you well?”

“Of course they did. Lord Tywin has always treated me well, as has Sir Jaime.” She told him honestly. “I very likely owe Lord Tywin my life.”

He nodded slowly but didn’t argue. “Where were you before you met him at the Crossroad?” He tentatively pushed. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

She looked up at his features, so like her own, and the words came easy where before she couldn’t manage to bring them to life. “I was in Essos- In the Free city of Braavos, where I went to meet another man who saved my life once, and who offered to teach me his ways.”

“His ways?” Jon asked, sounded suspicious again at her vague story.

She felt the urge to bite her lip but didn’t allow herself the tell. “As a Faceless man.” She whispered the words for the second time in a day.

“A Faceless man?” He questioned, tone shifted. “As in, the order of priests who warship Death as the one true God… The Assassins Guild ?”

“One in the same.” She whispered, wondering what she would do if he reacted badly. Jaime had taken it well enough, but he was plenty enough fucked up in his own ways that he was more on her level. Jon and Robb were honorable men, if they were still anything like their Father- and she was sure they were, being now a King and the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch…  

“Gods, Arya. You never choose to do anything easy, do you?”

“Nothing easy is even worth doing.” She repeated back the words that had been spoken to her so recently. Her brothers exchanged a long look and Robb moved closer to join them.

“Arya,” Her eldest brother began cautiously. “If you joined the order of the Faceless Men, how are you here now? I thought their service to Death sworn for life?”

She dropped her eyes down to her hands, small scars dotting their surface from hours upon hours of weapons play. “I left before I swore myself to the House- When I heard of the Great Gathering, actually. I knew I couldn’t stay away any longer so I boarded the next ship sailing for Westeros and I came home.”

“You just left?” Jon questioned next, sounding concerned. “Arya, most places like that don’t care for their members just leaving. Do we need worry about them coming after you?”

Her shoulders tensed into a shrug. “Ask me again if we live longer enough for it to matter.”

“You might have been safer in Essos.” Jon told her, tone regretful.

“Valar Morghulis.” She told him firmly. “All men must die. I am not afraid to meet Him if my time comes to a close.” She translated at their looks of confusion. “Though, speaking of Essos- where is the Dragon Queen? I heard she sailed for Westeros with her army months ago. I thought I would meet her here.”

“Part of her army is out scouting the wilds. The Queen took her dragons South to warm them for a few days. Seems they don’t care much for a Northern Winter. She’ll be back any time.”

“I see. I should like to meet her, I think.”

“You’d like to meet her, or you’d like to meet her dragons?” Robb teased knowingly and she felt, just for a moment, as though no time had passed at all.

“Can I only have one or the other?” She returned playfully before sobering once more. “I am glad to see you both so well. Could you…”

“Could we what, little sister?”

“Could you not tell the others what I told you? I’m not ready for everyone to know where I’ve been just yet.”

“Your secret’s safe with us.” Jon swore.

~*~

Eventually Sansa came and fetched her from Jon’s tent, bringing her back into the keep and to her childhood room where a hot bath had been prepared for her. Her room was just the same as she had left it, and it made her feel like an intruder to the girl she’d once been. It seemed her sister had no plan of leaving immediately and so she began stripping her filthy clothes off despite her continued presence, having lost any shyness long ago.

She stepped into the steaming tub with a blissful sigh, feeling the lingering ache of cold leave her for the first time since somewhere midway across the Narrow Sea. She wasn’t one to spend ages soaking in the tub and so she soon began to scrub her skin clean. The water was brown before she was done, but her skin felt fresher and her scalp no longer prickled, so she was grateful all the same.

Sansa handed her a drying cloth once she was done and she wrapped the bulk of it around her petite frame while using the end to wring out her lengthening hair. Her sister sat her down on a stood and began running her slender fingers through the wet and tangled locks. Arya allowed the motion reluctantly, if only because she wasn’t sure how to put distance between them just then, not when her sister seemed so honestly happy to see her.

The taller brought a second cloth to her hair once the worst of the knots had been released and began toweling it free of moisture herself, less roughly than Arya had been doing. Once as dry as she could get it, she gathered the small vial of oil she used on her own hair and spread some between her palms to work into the thick dark locks. More manageable than it had been, Sansa grabbed the comb on the mostly empty vanity and began to work the smaller knots out, brushing it until it fell smoothly across her bare shoulders.

Sansa gathered up the tops of her hair, knowing her little sister didn’t care for it falling into her eyes, and weaved it into a braid that wrapped around the back of her head in a half-crown pattern. The rest of her hair fell loose, and the hidden wave in it emerged as it dried. Arya watched her work silently, thinking on all the wasted time women spent pointlessly trying to make themselves look more beautiful. She held her tongue as her sister began to groom and sculpt her eyebrows into something sleeker with a touch more of the oil on a course brush.

She drew the line at powder being applied to her face and Sansa bowed her head in acceptance with more grace than Arya might have expected. A knock came on the door only moments later and her sister hurried across the room to allow their mother entrance, a dress clutched in her hands. “Talisa sent one of her gowns for you to wear for supper tonight. We’ll have the seamstress here in the morning, of course, but this’ll do for now.

Arya frowned immediately but forced her face to clear just after. She’d known this would be one of the things required of her and she had already decided she would choose her battles more carefully than over what she wore to supper. She was pleased to see it a slate grey, lines of lighter shades cutting through the fabric and lending it an almost sleek sheen despite its simple monochromatic design.

The neckline dipped into a slight point but was fairly modest all things considered and showed little beside her sharp collarbone and the barest hint of the swell of her breast once she pulled it on. It was still too long, but she was wasn’t entirely displeased with the choice when it was all said and done.. Soft slippers were handed to her to cover her feet and made scarcely a noise when she walked. It seemed she’d only just finished dressing when her Mother and Sister were leading her to the door, insisting they would be late if they didn’t leave immediately. She didn’t even get the chance to arm herself and she hoped it didn’t come back to haunt her.

They entered the dining hall a few minutes later and Arya was surprised at how many people were crammed at the tables- more than she’d ever seen in the room at one time before. She felt her spine stiffen as all eyes in the room seemed to turn towards them, several of the men breaking into applause at the sight of her returned. She was stopped every couple of steps and hadn’t yet been able to make it to her seat when a hush fell over the room. She glanced across to see the Lannister party that had accompanied her earlier in the day enter the hall, faces as stoic and composed as they always were in the company of others.  

She felt an almost desperate urge to join them, and why shouldn’t she? It wasn’t a secret that she arrived with them, why shouldn’t she check how they were settling in? Not giving herself time to debate, she excused herself from the Lord offering her well wishes and then moved out of her Mother’s reach before the woman could grasp her or pull her back.

It was technically Talisa’s place to welcome their guests as the Lady of the Keep, but Arya hoped her good sister wouldn’t mind her overstepping considering the uniqueness of the situation. “My Lords, Your Grace,” She greeted formally. “Please, allow me to show you to your seats.” She led them across the room from a position within their ranks, taking advantage on the knowledge that fewer present would dare call her into conversation whilst she stood beside the gruff old Lion himself.

She was able to make it to the head table with them as a buffer, and she gestured them to take their seats as the table of high honor sat just beside the Stark Family’s own. She started to turn towards the open seat her family had clearly left for her, but she was called back before she could walk away. “If you’re able, come visit our camp later. I have a gift for you.” Tywin told her quietly.

She eyed him curiously but nodded without questioning him just then. “I’ll make my way there.” She promised. Her eyes darted quickly to Jaime, who winked at her once their eyes locked. She smiled slightly despite herself and then forced herself to turn away and take her place without further delay, knowing she was still being observed. She had the feeling it was going to be a long meal, indeed.

~*~

To be continued





Chapter Text

They were half-way through eating when the large wooden door swung open and the man she least desired to see entered as though he had some power within the halls, glancing around dismissively and then beginning to stride towards the head table. She tilted her head slightly, glancing around the room. She hadn’t given away her knowledge of her betrothal and she was almost morbidly curious how the scene would play out. Would they try and cover it to tell her under more controlled circumstances? Would they admit their arrangement outright? Would they pull her aside? Would it be public?

Her mother rose from her seat, seeming just a bit more pale in the candlelight. “Lord Walder.” The woman greeted the latecomer. “You do not normally join us for meals. I did not expect to see you this night.”

“As I hadn’t expected to be here.” He responded gruffly, not sparing her a glance as he zeroed in on Arya. “But I heard some news I wanted to confirm with my own eyes.”

“Ah, yes, joyous news indeed.” Catelyn replied. “Would you care to sup with us? We can find a seat for you, I’m sure.” She offered then, clearly trying to get him to turn his attention from her daughter to herself.

“No.” He replied gruffly. “It appears I have some things to put into motion. I think I’ve waited patiently enough, there’s no further reason to delay and the wedding will happen within the fortnight.., Unless you disagree?”  He challenged, sneer in his voice.

Lady Catelyn paled a shade further, hands clasped so tightly Arya could see the whites of her knuckles. “My daughter only just returned home a scant number of hours ago. We’re holding a celebration to welcome her home tomorrow. We will discuss this afterwards.” She told him sternly. Arya could still hear the waver in her voice.

He sneered again, though Arya thought it might’ve supposed to have been a smile from the flash of yellowed teeth he showed. “We can discuss it on the morrow if that is your wish, but it won’t delay my decision.” He warned.

“I wish you a pleasant Eve, Lord Walder.” Her mother announced in clear dismissal and sat back in her chair, reclaiming her utensils calmly.

Arya watched curiously as the greasy old man left the hall and then turned back to her mother, who was attempting to go on as though nothing odd had happened. Whispers had picked up throughout the room but it remained much more quiet than it had been before the interruption. She felt hundreds of eyes watching her and she turned her words over in her head before she spoke them. “Is someone getting married?” She queried innocently, widening her eyes slightly for added effect.

Looks were exchanged amongst her family and she watched them all in interest. No one answered immediately and a further hush fell over the room. She pressed further, seeing their discomfort grow as the conversation reluctantly continued.  resisting the urge to smirk as she took a bit of petty revenge for the situation as a whole. “You know, I was actually just thinking that I couldn’t remember ever attending a wedding before. What fortuitous timing!” she exclaimed, allowing her lips to curl in a joyful smile.

“Now isn’t the appropriate time to discuss this, Arya.” Her mother shushed her quietly. “We can talk more after the meal.”

“Is it anyone I might know? Perhaps they wouldn’t mind my attending for curiosity’s sake.” She continued, ignoring the attempted brush off.

“We will discuss this after dinner.” Catelyn told her firmly, and then pointedly turned the subject away by speaking with Robb about something else entirely and thus removing the option for her to press on. Her brother shot a brief uncomfortable look in her direction but went along with the change all the same. That was okay, she was patient enough to wait. She acted as expected, following all of her courtesies and making small talk with her siblings. In all honestly, it might have been the longest and most uncomfortable meal of her life, but she’d learned to hide her emotions very well indeed.

It wasn’t wholly unenjoyable, she supposed, for she truly did relish being close to her siblings once again. It was the feeling of her every movement being observed and picked apart by the overly attentive masses that was driving her to distraction. It make her skin itch something fierce and it made her long for the bliss being No One once held for her- to exist in the shadows and never the center of attention. Now, every time she glanced towards the room she found eyes locked upon her, watching her like some exotic specimen.

She knew it wasn’t entirely their fault. She had been gone for a long time and no one knew where she had been- only that she had appeared unexpectedly after almost seven years without a word from her, accompanying the Lannisters of all families. She’d known there would be curiosities and questions, and she’d accepted all that came with her decision when she decided to return home. She could hardly change her mind at this point in the game. So she sat through dinner in it’s entirety, a perfectly poised Lady of Winterfell, and when she was bid to once again follow her family from the room she did so eagerly.  

She found herself again in the same room she’d spent so much time as a child observing her family as they clearly shored themselves up for the coming conversation. They clearly expected her to express her disapproval in some loud and obstinate way as she’d have done as a child, and she wondered to herself how much it would throw them off when she didn’t.

“Arya, child..” Her Mother began, sitting beside her. “I never meant for you to find out so soon or so suddenly…”

“Find what out, Mother?” She asked innocently, hands clasped neatly in her lap.

The woman’s blue eyes dropped from her own and she didn’t meet them again as she explained. “War… War instills desperation in us all. It makes us do things we otherwise wouldn’t ever do.. and this war particular was has lasted quite a long time.”

She seemed to steel herself, lifting her eyes back to grey. “But, somethings we always knew would happen eventually. Things like marriage and starting a family of your own. When you became of age to marry, a betrothal was put into place between you and an.. ally of ours.”

“Oh?” She quired, tone still calm and curious. “Which ally? If I might ask?”

She saw her mother’s jaw clench for a moment before she answered. “With House Frey.”

“I see.” They were watching her as though they expected an explosion and she could see her sister wringing her hands across the room. “House Frey is rather large.. Do you know which of his sons or grandson’s I’m to marry?”

Their apprehension turned more to confusion and she saw her Mother and Robb exchange another look.  “Lord Walder has not seen fit to share that bit of news with us yet. The terms were left open until you were found.”

Her anger flared briefly, but she was able to keep it covered. They couldn’t even be bothered to find out which of his horrible spawn she was to be stuck with? “I see.” She said instead. “You’ve given me quite a lot to think on Mother. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll call it a night. It’s been a long journey, I’m sure you understand.”

“Oh! Yes, of course. I suppose we will see you in the morn. Arya, sweetling-“ the woman paused before she could clear the door. “are you truly okay with this union? You’re not going to do anything rash, are you?”

Arya smiled, turning back so her mother could see her guiltless expression. “Of course I won’t do anything rash, mother. As you said, we always knew this would happen eventually. I will do my duty and marry whichever of Lord Frey’s family he wishes me to, as soon as he wishes me to do so. I know my duty.” She vowed, watching the surprise once again flair on their faces before she took her leave in truth.

~*~

She only returned to her room long enough to pull on her boots, arm herself and draw her cloak. She would have changed back into her traveling clothes, but they seemed to have been removed from her room, much to her dismay. A warm nightgown had been left in their place across the foot of her bed. She paused to look down at it oddly, for she hadn’t even seen anything like it since fleeing Kings Landing so many years before. It seemed like such a frivolous thing to dawn such soft and flimsy clothing, used to slumbering in the clothes she wore, so as to always be prepared to move if need be… But she supposed such things would begin to seem normal to her again eventually.

Feeling a bit nostalgic, she sat down on the featherbed and glanced around the room, taking in all the odd little bits she had left scattered around. She could see the small pile of unique rocks scattered across the windows edge that she had collected with her siblings along the river as a girl, a leather-bound book on the history of the Targaryen’s she’d borrowed from the Maester and never returned sat atop her bedside table, the small carving of a wolf her father had made sat beside it…

Suddenly feeling like she was sinking into the too soft bed, she nearly lept up and headed for the door. She moved through the halls that had once been so familiar and comforting until she came out into the open courtyard before the keep. The sun had lost since sunk past the horizon, but the moonlight across the snow, along with the torches and fires glowing across the landscape, was more than enough to see by. She took a deep breath, enjoying the sting of the cold air after so long being indoors.

She made her way though the yard and past the main gate until she could see the expansive camps sprawling out in the three visible directions. She thought briefly of heading back towards Jon’s tent, not having seen him at supper, but decided she needed a bit of a break from the emotional upheaval that her family as a whole had been.

Instead, she turned the opposite direction and headed towards the red banners that had become so familiar to her over the years. She arrived to find the setup just as she had grown used to and she made her way casually to Tywin’s tent, nodding to a few of the soldiers as she went. She ducked inside without hesitation, familiar enough with his routine to know he would likely be sitting at his writing desk poring over some letter or other at this time of night.

True to habit, he glanced up at her as she entered and then gestured her to take the seat across from him. She sat at his bidding and was promptly ignored for the time it took him to finish penning his letter. “How do you fare?” He questioned as he rolled the parchment, pale eyes fixing on her to take in her minute expressions as he’d learned was necessary in determining truth from lie with her.  

“I fare fine.” She replied easily, not giving away any of her feelings. “How fare you? Enjoying Winterfell’s hospitality?”

His eyes narrowed at her just slightly but he didn’t deign respond to her inquiry. “I am somewhat surprised to see you still in a dress. I thought for sure you would have changed back into your rags before you showed yourself again.”

“My ‘rags’ were removed from my room whilst I was at supper. I do hope they find their way back to me else I’ll owe your son a new shirt.”

“I’m sure my son can make due with one less. You on the other hand..”  He gestured at a small bundle of cloth set nearby. She reached for it slowly as he bid, assuming it the gift he had promised her when he asked for her presence. “…seem to have a shortage. I hope these will suit?”

Neatly folded were two pairs of finely woven black men’s style pants along with three shirts designed almost exactly as she’d borrowed from Jaime though quilted to be thicker and sized to fit her slight frame. One was black, one dark grey and the other a deep red, all with unique and almost invisible patterns sewn in for decoration, subtle enough not to bother her. Folded beneath it all was a much finer cloak than the one she wore, made much thicker and warmer, with a warm black fur collar and several more pockets. “These are wonderful.” She remarked. “Thank you. Where did you get something so fine on the road? This can’t all have been made today?”  

“I had them commissioned from the Princes’ personal tailor. He has been working on it for several days.”

“Trystane brought his tailor on the road with him?” She questioned in disbelief.

“Along with enough fabric to sew him an entire winter wardrobe twice over.” He replied dryly.

“It’s truly no wonder the company travels so slowly.”

“You’ve no idea.”

“Do you mind if I go change? This gown is driving me crazy.”

He shook his head and gestured her off. She shot him a quick smile and ducked out, somehow forgetting that Jaime would have taken his tent back over, obviously expecting her to move back into her childhood home now that they’d arrived.

“Oh! I, I’m so sorry, I-“

The bare chested blond sat on his small folding stool beside the warm brazier, hair still damp and clearly having just washed and shaved down his beard growth, running an oiled cloth over his gleaming sword. “Arya!” He exclaimed in surprise. “I wasn’t expecting you to come here tonight.” She saw his naked toes wiggle and he looked almost embarrassed to be caught in naught but his trousers.

“I didn’t think about it. I am sorry, truly, I, your father gave me some clothes and I wanted to change. I suppose I got used to using your tent without thought. I’ll have to break myself of the habit.”

He shook his head, standing to his feet and sheathing his blade. “You may use my tent anytime you please- no forethought necessary.” He told her, pulling his shirt, cloak, and boots in short affair.

“Oh, you really needn’t-“

He shook his head and shot her a smile. “Anytime.” He insisted before ducking out and leaving her privacy to change. She found herself smiling after him but wasted no time in stripping off the dress and pulling on a pair of pants and the grey shirt she’d been gifted. The quality was undeniable and they fit her well despite the tailor not having her measurements- the cut of the tunic emphasizing her small waistline and the curve of her bust while still looking sleek and elegant and allowing her free movement. She pulled her new and thicker cloak over her shoulders and tucked the discarded dress into a ball in one of the larger inner pockets.

Feeling much more herself, she ducked outside and made her way across the short distance back to Tywin’s tent. She found both men inside, Jaime clearly conscious of showing his presence so as to not be accused of impropriety while she was undressed. She wondered again what his father had said to him when he pulled him aside that morn. She wondered if the man somehow knew they had slumbered together the night before.

If he did know, she hoped he continued to play ignorant around her at least. She would much rather his son have to deal with those awkward conversations than her, though she would prefer him to remain ignorant in truth, even if nothing had happened beyond a restful sleep. “They suit you.” Jaime remarked, looking her over quickly.

“They do.” Tywin agreed with a short nod.

“Yes, thank you- they’re perfect.” She said again, truly grateful for the gesture.

The man nodded his head silently and gestured her back to her seat. She noticed his letter materials had been removed from the small writing surface and a game board set up in it’s place. She looked at it curiously as she took her seat, recognizing it as Cyvasse though she’d never had the chance to learn it. “My son tells me you wish to learn.” He commented blandly as though reading her mind, gesturing towards it casually.

“There’s no one better to teach you.” Jaime spoke, it sounding like a complement though his stifled grimace told her otherwise. “Although to be honest, I’ve witnessed plenty enough of these lessons already in my life and have no desire to watch another. I’ll leave you to it- have fun.” He nodded his head to them both and disappeared as quickly as he’d come.

She steepled her fingers together and looked carefully over the pieces lay out quite obviously for that purpose. She had the feeling he would be as exacting a task master in this teaching her this as he was in anything else, but it didn’t turn her away from the prospect. No, instead she allowed her lips to curl as she glanced across at him, waiting for her first instruction.

~*~

She stayed for nearly two hours before Tywin shooed her out. Unceremoniously dismissed, she wandered over to the nearby fire where she could see her two familiar traveling companions sharing a drink. Jaime held out the wineskin as soon as she joined them, glancing at her inquiringly. “So? How’d the lesson go?”

Her brows furrowed thoughtfully as she took a draw and handed it on. “I think your father might be the most intelligent military commander alive.”

The man’s son chuckled. “Aye, he very well may be.”

“And?” Bronn spoke up. “How’d the family reunion go?”

“Ahh, that.. it was... Good to see everyone again.” She replied slowly.

“It was ‘good?’  Well that’s not exactly high praise.”

“No, I, it…” Her brows furrowed as she tried to explain. “When I was a girl, there was a lot about Winterfell that bothered me. After I left, I began to think perhaps I was bothered out of childish righteousness and ignorance in the ways of the world. I though perhaps my own perception was the cause of my unhappiness and not because of anything really wrong or unusual. Compared to the other places I’ve been and the types of people I’ve met.. Winterfell seems like it should be a dream.  But now.. after naught even a day, I’m starting to feel bothered again.”

“Bothered by what?” Jaime asked next.

“Several things, really. The way my brother is treated for daring exist in my mother’s household, held solely accountable for the sins of my father undertaken in times of war. The way expectations are established without discussion or even regard for logic, the sheer blatant ignorance as to the going-ons in the rest of the world.. I don’t know, things here just seem so.. limiting, I suppose. So stagnant. Dull.”

“You a traveled woman now. Most of the people here have never left the North. They don’t have your experiences to open their eyes.” Bronn piped up, arguing logically.

“It seems a shit way to live.” She remarked quietly. “That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? This is my home and yet the prospect of spending the rest of my life here seems almost unbearable after less than a day back.”

“I always did think the North the most dreary place in the Seven Kingdoms.” Bronn commented, handing her the skin. “Don’t think you’re alone in that now that you’ve seen more than it.”

“Where would you live if you could- anywhere in the world?” Jaime questioned looking honestly curious.

Her head tiled as she thought about it. Where would she choose, if the choice was hers? If she wasn’t runny somewhere or other? She’d enjoyed Braavos, but she likely wouldn’t be able to go back, not with how she left. She didn’t think she’d be safe, never knowing if the faces watching her were true or a lie. Volantes had been interesting, but she decided she would never live in a Slave City after witnessing it firsthand. The Dothraki sea was unique, but rather to bare for her tastes. Dorne might be nice, but she hadn’t yet gotten the chance to visit that particular kingdom.

“Somewhere warm.” She said generally instead of naming any one place. “Somewhere warm enough to swim in the sea. Somewhere with traders and merchants and markets and lots of people. Somewhere that’s easy to travel from.. There’s still so much of the world I have left to see.”

“You should visit the Summer Isles, if you ever get the chance.” Bronn advised. “White sand beaches as far as you can see, villages built right up to the water, foliage you’ve never seen before. Animals in colors you wouldn’t believe. Gorgeous, it is, nearly every day, no matter the season.”

“It sounds nice.” She agreed, picturing it in her head.

“Aye, it is.”

“And you?” She asked the Lannister son. “Where would you live?”

“I rather miss Casterly Rock, actually. It sounds dreadfully boring, I know, to name my childhood home, but it’s my favorite place out of everywhere in the world I’ve been. It’s been far too long since I’ve been back. You might like it there actually- it’s warm- on the Southern edge of the Westerlands, right on the Sunset Sea. We have sea trade, but it also lies just at the crossroads of the Riverroad, the Searoad, and the Goldroad, so there’s always plenty of traders and merchants moving through.”

“It sounds nice.” She agreed before she glanced up to see how far the moon had moved. It was farther across the sky than she expected and she decided she should likely head back to the keep to get some rest. She pushed herself up with a sigh and wished them both a pleasant night before she made her way back towards the keep.

In the quiet of the night, she heard the rhythmic pounding of a hammer upon steal of a smith and allowed her feet to veer off towards the sound. She peeked in through the window and saw the long stretch of bare back and ripped arms working the red hot steel, shirt stripped from the obvious heat in the forge and hair sheered practically down to the man’s scalp. It sent a note of nostalgia through her as she remembered finding Gendry the in the same state many a times before. She shook her head, pulling away from the window and continued on her way, wondering what might have happened to the apprentice smith who’d been sold by the Brotherhood to the Red Witch.

She made it back to her room without further interruption and tucked her new clothes away in her drawers. She ignored the sleepwear, stripping herself of her boots and cloak and then settling into the bed otherwise fully dressed.

… Where she sunk immediately into the feather filled mattress even more deeply than she had when she sat on the edge of it earlier in the eve. She lay still at first, waiting several minutes to see if she would become accustomed to the lack of support beneath her. When that didn’t happen, she shifted from her back to her side… Then to her other side, and then further, laying mostly on her stomach. She tried every variation of every position she could possible consider and spent far too long shifting around before realizing how futile the attempts were and standing in a silent huff. She pulled the blankets and pillow free and lay them out on the cold stone floor closer to the fire, folding most of the fabric beneath her in a makeshift bedroll.

She felt herself settle immediately and only hoped she would wake herself before anyone else attempted to the next day. It might seem a bit odd where she to be found, otherwise. Still, if needs must, and she would rather sleep well, if somewhat unusually, and retain her wits than to remain where it was considered proper for her to rest out of some inconsequential fear of being discovered and, what? Considered bizarre?  Why was it even crossing through her mind?

So things to consider… so many pointless decisions to make…

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

It felt like no time at all had passed when she was woken by a knock on the door of her bedchambers. The echo of flesh on finished hardwood was so unusual it sent her sitting up with her dagger immediately in hand, confused fog lifting quickly despite her lingering tiredness. She pushed herself up with a sigh and shuffled across the room, pausing to pull her boots on from sheer habit.

She opened the door to find her sister and two unfamiliar women waiting. “Oh! You’re already dressed!” Her sister exclaimed, brow furrowed the slightest bit like she couldn’t decide if she approved of her wardrobe or not.

Arya glanced down at herself in turn, noting that the thick fabric of her tunic hadn’t wrinkled from her sleep and still looked fresh and new. “So I am.” She agreed, still a hundred times cleaner than she’d been in some time.

Red hair swayed with the shaking of her head. “No matter. Allow me to introduce my companions. This is Jaida Purell, our Seamstress who will begin sewing your gown for the celebration tonight and any you need in the future. And this is Mariela Wyne, she’s to be your Handmaiden.”

“I don’t need a Handmaiden.” Arya replied bluntly, not yet feeling up to dealing with others so early in the day.

Every Lady needs a Handmaiden, Arya.” Sansa replied, it sounding almost like a reprimand. “It’s proper and it’s expected for a woman in your station.”

“Okay, then I don’t want a Handmaiden.”

Her sister glared down at her, seeming just as frustrated as she in turn. “You haven’t even done your hair. At least let her tend to that, if you can’t be bothered yourself.”

It was Arya’s turn to glare and she did so openly. “I haven’t yet been awake long. I can manage my hair on my own, as I’ve been doing nearly half my life now.”

“Arya, please. This is Mother’s insistence- I’ve no more choice in the matter than you. You must simply accept it. Let Mariela brush your hair.”

The younger of the two took a deep breath, centering herself into a better state of self-control. “Fine. Ladies, please, be welcome.” She opened the door further so that the two strangers could enter. “You, I will see in the dining hall. Good morn, sister.” She dismissed the taller woman and shut the door in her face before she could retort. She could practically feel Sansa’s silent outrage at the uncouth action from the other side of the thick wood and it did nothing but cause satisfaction to swell for a moment.

She turned her attention away from Sansa and to the two women standing before her. “What exactly are your instructions here?” She questioned, tone perfectly civil, looking to the Maid first.

“To serve you in whatever way you require, Princess.”

Arya’s façade broke in disgust at the term. “We’ll start by my requiring you to not ever call me ‘Princess’ again.” She ordered immediately, lip curling.

“Yes, My Lady.” The young woman stuttered as she dropped to curtsy.

Arya eyed the timid doe in annoyance and pulled her eyes to look at the decade-older seamstress. “And you?” She demanded.

“To take your measurements and have a gown ready for you to wear at the feast this night.”

“That’s it?” The woman dipped her head. “And have you been given any instructions on what type of gown I should wear?”

“Only that it be ‘appropriate,’ My Lady. And that it bares the insignia of your house, of course, but that goes without saying.”

“Of course. Alright, let’s get this over with so I can get on with my day.”

~*~

Near an hour passed before she was able to escape the two women. More annoyed than she was willing to show, she bypassed the dining hall completely and escaped into the training yard, hoping she might find someone to spar with and work off some aggression.

Her silent prayers were answered, but not by her two brothers, who moved around each other off to one side. Instead her eyes remained on the very last man she might have expected to see in the keep but who could definitely hold his own against her. She saw a beast of a man fighting two younger warriors, scared side of his face mostly hidden by a fall of hair and annoyance on his own face as he took one the first and then the second of his opponents in quick order. “What fucking good are you to practice with it you can’t keep your blade more than a minute?” He growled at the sprawled bodies in disgust.

She wandered closer, moving into place and drawing Needle before he noticed her there. His eyes widened, but only slightly. He’d clearly heard of her homecoming, even if she hadn’t heard of his own presence in the keep. She took her starting stance, sword vertical behind her back and completely invisible in one didn’t already know it was there.

He scoffed at her, squaring up against her. “Well if it isn’t the little wolf bitch.” He greeted as roughly as ever. “Back from her self-imposed exile at last.” She could see her brothers stop and turn at the loud words, but she paid them no mind.

“Dog.” She responded, lips curling in a challenging smile. She glanced as his defeated opponents again, seeing that they’d moved clear and joined the quickly growing ring of people watching them. She could see Prince Trystane, who’d accepted a room within the keep, standing to the side mummering to a Lannister man as he observed the scene. The soldier left quickly towards the camp and she had a feeling they would soon have an even larger audience. No matter.

She darted in quicker than most men could move and tapped him on the side of his thigh with the flat of her blade, quickly spinning out of his reach and resuming her stance, practically swaying back and forth as she moved like liquid in human shape. “See you still haven’t learned to keep your fucking blade up.” He commented as he attacked with his broadsword that was nearly as long as she was tall. She knew she was still almost comically small compared to him, but she’d gotten much better in the years since she’d last see him- a fact that was quickly noticed.

Any time she had tried to stand against him in her youth, he’d taken her down with hardly an effort. That she was even standing against him for the handful of seconds that had passed was likely more than she’d ever been able to do before. She ducked under his swings, dodged around his advances, and swept aside his blade when it did come too close. He got past her guard and she had to block him- causing her arm to reverberate painfully from the sheer strength behind his own arm. He pressed her back one step, two, three before she managed to twist away and break to re-center herself.

She twisted her sword around once to loosen her wrist and then raised it behind herself in preparation for his next move. “You gonna quit noncin’ around and stand your ground anytime today?”

“And try to match you strength for strength?” She laughed incredulously, not yet winded. “You wish.”

She dared back in and dipped around his back before he could turn to face her, kicking his knee out from under him and dropping him, though it still left them more or less at even height. She stepped forward to bring her blade to his throat, but he twisted his torso and brought his elbow up viciously to knock her back. Still, she could tell he pulled the blow for the fact that she remained more or less standing. Even despite the lack of full strength, she felt her lip split and an ache in her cheekbone that she knew from experience would quickly bloom into a vivid bruise.

Expressions of anger could be heard in the background, but she ignored them all as she grinned and then fruitlessly licked her lip to try and slow the dribble of blood forming a trail the side of her chin that had quickened when her smile pulled at the tear in the flesh. He’d risen to his feet already and then met again, just as viciously. Their blows began to meet more often as the speed of their exchange quickened and she soon passed her blade to her right hand to give her left a break.

Her shifted stance threw him, but only for a moment before he adjusted to the new angle. She was nearly as good with her right hand but nearly as good wasn’t quite good enough when against a man as renowned a fighter as Sandor Clegane. She realized she wouldn’t be able to match his blows with her less dominant hand and so switched back to her left after only a minute or so.

Her simple single plated hair had come loose when she’d been struck and had continued to unravel as they danced. It blew into her eye and she missed his booted foot come out to trip her as she attempted to spin past him as she’d done a dozen times by now. He was clearly waiting for his chance because his blade caught hers as she stumbled, and he ripped it from her hand with a firm and sudden twist of his wrist.

She allowed her buckling leg to collapse but used the shift in her weight to spin into a crouch facing him, small dagger held at the ready in her hand. “The fuck are you gonna do with that?” He goaded her, stepping closer and kicking her sword further away as he passed where it had landed.

Her free hand pressed flat against the cold ground as her leg came up to connect with the inner side of his knee. It was his turn to stumble with another curse and she lunged into the opening he left. She started to bring her dagger up but his left hand came up to catch her wrist and he squeezed it viciously, forcing her to drop it as her fingers went temporarily numb. He shoved her backwards and away from both blades, cocking his head. “Surrender yet, girl?” He asked, stepping closer.

“Not really my style.” She commented, still in a fighting stance despite her lack of weapons.

He cocked his undamaged brow as if to ask ‘really?’ but raised his arm anyway. He swung at her almost lazily, aiming his armored sword hand to deliver a backhand to her abdomen rather than intending to hit her with his blade. She dodged easily and scoffed at the pathetic attempt, dancing around him in an attempt to exchange their positions so that he was no longer between her and her own steel.

She managed to get a quarter of the way around before he realized what she was doing. She tensed to drop into a roll that would bring her closer to them more quickly, but he reached out as she moved and grabbed a fistful of her hair, intending himself to bring the edge of his blade to her throat to force her surrender. She cursed silently in her head as she realized she wouldn’t be able to make him release his hold without losing a significant amount of hair from her scalp.

Thinking quickly, she reached her left arm behind herself to his hip and lifted her right up to wrap around behind his neck. It left her front open to attack, but she defended herself by using her hold on his neck to lift her weight from the ground and use her booted feet to keep his sword arm at bay. She used the added leverage to kick off of and flipped her slight frame clear over his head. He still had a fistful of her hair, but he hadn’t been expecting the move and she was able catch herself as gravity grabbed hold of her once again by griping his waist with her knees.

The dagger she held in her hand came to press against the soft skin beneath his jaw and the courtyard was silent save for their heavy breathing. A single drop of blood dripped from the point before she pulled the blade away and dropped back to her feet as he released his hold on her.  

He turned to face her, bringing his hand up to wipe the blood from his skin as it tickled his beard. “You’ve gotten better.” He acknowledged, sounding almost impressed.

“Or you’ve gotten old.” She rebutted wickedly.

“Cheeky shit.” He said, shaking his head. “Where’d you get the second knife?”

She smiled at him, eyes gleaming. “From you, of course.” She twirled it around her hand as she held it out to him.

He looked at it in surprise and reached down, huffing what was almost a laugh as he felt empty sheath. “Crazy bitch.” He muttered quietly as he tucked it back into place.

“Arya!” Her mothers shrill voice came from the direction of the keep, sounding absolutely scandalized. “What on earth-!” She couldn’t even finish her sentence, so great was her ire. Her cheeks were flushed with her temper and she was eyeing her competitor with almost as dangerous an air as her children often carried, family resemblance obvious in that moment. Her sister and youngest brother stood with her, Sansa watching her with an expression similar to her mother.

Rickon, on the other hand, was looking at her as though she was suddenly much more interesting to him. His eyes were darting between her and the Hound as she moved to retrieve her own weapons. She wiped them both on her pants to clear them of the ice crystals before she tucked them both back into their place on her person. Only then did she approach her family, spying both the Lannister men and Bronn now standing beside the Prince, along with the soldier who had obviously gone to retrieve them and a couple more besides.

Her elder brothers approached from their own spot, Jon hanging back a couple of steps behind Robb, though his own expression was just as dark as the eldest’s. “Mother?” She enquired calmly as she came within range to do so without needing raise her voice. “You shrieked?” She pressed at the woman’s continued outraged silence.

“Arya!” Sansa scolded her with a frown.

“This is hardly becoming of a Lady of your station.” Catelyn finally spoke up, voice tight. She’d always been the disapproving one of her parents when she’d been a girl doing something meant for ‘the boys.’ Her father would turn the other cheek if he caught her, but her mother could get furious depending on the situation.

Arya had never heard her yell as loudly as she did the time she’d snuck from her chambers when she was supposed to have been practicing her writing to climb the towers with Bran. They’d made it nearly to the highest point when their mother had come upon them and Arya was sure all the keep heard that bellow. “You will come and get cleaned up, right now.” She ordered hotly, keeping her voice under control after her daughters’ comment.

“Why for?” Arya questioned in turn, frankly unwilling to do so quite so soon after escaping the walls. The elder woman seemed to swell, edging closer again to rage. Her flush darkened and lips paled as she pressed them together, seeming to hope her sheer presence would be enough to cow her daughter into doing what she was told as she would have in her youth. Her mother was one of the least threatening people she’d met in the last eight years, however, and the play no longer worked. She shook her head, continuing herself. “I’m no longer a child in need of being watched over by a septon, Mother. I am a woman grown and I will spend my days as I please. I will return in time for my welcome home feast, I assure you.”  

She spun on her heal and strode the other direction, not looking back at the angry stuttering she could hear along with the hushed whispers of her siblings. She stopped before the Lannister party, who watched her approach curiously. “I hear there is to be a hunt in preparation of the feast tonight. Would any of you care accompany me?”

Jaime and Bronn spoke in favor immediately, as did Trystane. The others declined, though wished them good fortune. The foursome started to leave the area when they were interrupted quite suddenly. Arya startled as a blur approached quickly from behind her. She turned to see her youngest brother and glanced up at him curiously. His bright blue eyes were watching her keenly. “Can I come hunting?” He asked in his accented voice.

She cocked her head at him and then looked to her companions curiously before turning back to the redheaded boy. “Can you stay quiet?” He nodded. “Can you shoot a bow?” He nodded again, smiling. “Alright.” She finally agreed, unable to turn him away and not really wanting to.

“Rickon!” Catelyn shouted from behind them. “Where on earth do you think you’re going?!”

The boy shook his head in annoyance as he ignored his mother, muttering something under his breath. “Is that the old tongue?” She asked curiously. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and nodded slowly. “Where did you learn it?”

He didn’t answer immediately, even as he spoke up. “You’ve been gone a long time.” He remarked instead. “No one knew where you were.”

“That’s true.” She agreed with a nod.

“Where were you?” He asked bluntly.

She glanced at him first in surprise, and then to those who stood around them. Thankfully, they hadn’t been followed out of the courtyard and they were nearly back to the Lannister camp and so not in hearing range of anyone else. Jaime knew where she’d been, and she thought Bronn might have known or suspected. Trystane didn’t, but he was technically Jaime’s nephew and so could be considered trustworthy to some extent. And really, did it really matter if others knew she’d in in Braavos? Robb and Jon already did and so increased the possibility of other’s finding out despite her. It wasn’t like she would admit to what she’d been doing there, but there was nothing unusual about fleeing to Essos. Some people must have considered it as a possibility, at least, considering how long she’d gone unseen on Westerosi soil. “I went to Braavos.”

“Braavos?” He asked, sounding confused. “Where’s that?”

She glanced over at him, wondering again where he’d been. She’d been forced to learn world geography when she was far younger than him. It hit her suddenly how differently her brothers had spent their young childhoods than she and her older siblings. Did Rickon even remember their father? Did Bran? Did they remember what it was like to have a rare family meal when someone wasn’t fighting with someone else? Did they have any pleasant memories at all of the time before the war? “It’s in Essos.” She answered softly. “To the South-East of here, across the Narrow Sea.”

“Oh.” He answered, rolling his lips thoughtfully. “What were you doing there?”

“I was with a .. friend. He taught me how to fight, how to survive this world.”

“You’re a good fighter.” He complemented.

“Thank you. Do you know how to fight?”

He nodded. “Not as well as you.”

“I’m older than you are.” She reminded him with a small smile.

He nodded again, still looking thoughtful as they reached the camp and waited for their mounts to be retrieved along with one for her brother to borrow. “Osha took me to Skagos when Bran went beyond the wall.” The boy told her after she was sure the conversation at an end.

“Skagos? Beyond the wall? That’s where the two of you went when Theon attacked Winterfell?”

Another nod. “There’s a lot of fighting on Skagos, but I think it’s because people are bored.” He confided.

“Is it boring there?” She asked, honestly curious. There were so few stories of the Northern Island, said to be home to giant unicorn riding cannibals. The Maesters denied such stories of course, but they weren’t willing to travel to the island for proof and so many still questioned what bizarre beasts might inhabit the rocky frozen hunk of land jutting from the Bay of Seals.

He shrugged slightly. “Not much to do.”

“I suppose not.” She agreed. “Did you like it there at least?”

Another shrug. “I miss it, sometimes.” He told her.

“I miss Braavos sometimes, too.” She whispered back to him with a secretive smile.

She looked away from her brother as the horses were led up to them. As her eyes scanned around them, she caught green eyes watching her fondly. He kept her gaze once he had it and didn’t look away again until his squire came to a stop at his side.

The group of five mounted easily and were soon riding away. Rickon had been distracted by a tale Bronn had begun telling him and Jaime fell back beside Arya while the others pulled slightly ahead. He had a square of cloth and held it out to her with a small pile of snow melting from within. “For your lip.” He explained lightly.

So used to pain was she that the discomfort had already faded into the background and she had nearly forgot about the blood now nearly dried on her skin. “Thank you.” She murmured, bringing it to the tenderest spot first and then working her way down until she thought she’d gotten it all off.

“You missed a spot.” He murmured when she dropped her hand.

“Oh? Where?”

Still not looking away, he reached out to take the cloth gently from her hand and then reached up to run it softly over the flesh beneath her jawline where the blood had run sideways at some point.

“Thank you.” She nearly whispered, feeling his finger brush just slightly across her flesh without a barrier between them. He saw her shiver lightly and he couldn’t help but run his eyes over her. She was still watching him with her own expressive grey eyes, and they looked almost as conflicted as he felt. He’d never been so drawn to another as he’d become to her, even only knowing her in truth for less than a moons turn.

Her cheekbone had already turned blue and purple from the elbow she’d taken and her lip had swollen quite far. It didn’t make her any attractive to him- if anything it made his blood more heated to know that such a deceivingly tiny and innocent looking woman could be so very lethal as to take down one of the best swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms. The thought of it alone was enough to stir his loins despite his rigid self-control. It was only fortunate that the way he sat hid any movement that may have occurred.

His mind naturally turned to his conversation with Bronn. He was right in thinking Arya wasn’t a typical Lady of high birth. Hell, Jaime himself knew that her life experiences already outweighed what most people knew in their entire lifetime, despite her young age. He even considered that she may already have lain with a man, Essos being much freer in such matters and even more so considering the associations she kept while living there.

Her eyes were searching his face and he realized he’d been silent far too long. A throat clearing before them stopped him from rectifying his mistake and he looked ahead to see her tall, wild looking brother shooting him a dangerous look of his own, despite his still somewhat childish features. Arya too saw the look and nudged her mount forward to catch up with the boy, shooting Jaime one last searching glance before she turned away.

He ended up riding beside Bronn, watching the two in front. They’d left behind the noise of the camp and so needed to be quiet now so as to not scare off any game. It was time to find some game lingering in the barren frozen wasteland, they needed every advantage they could get.

~*~

The day ended up a pleasant experience all around. They’d managed to get a stag, a boar, seven rabbits, three pigeons and be back in the keep by mid-afternoon. Someone must have had people waiting for their arrival because she was besieged by her newly required Handmaiden before she could even help hand their catch off to those preparing the feast.

She sighed in agitation, good mood fading almost immediately. “What happened to choosing your battles?” The blond man beside her questioned lowly, looking between the two and inferring from there.

She glanced over at him in slightly surprise, not having realized he was watching her. She was becoming less and less aware of it, actually. She should be more concerned at the loss of her instincts, but as it only seemed to be around a few select people and so she didn’t worry overly much. She might regret that thought if they were to betray her in some way, but she didn’t really think they would. “Is that your less than subtle way of telling me I’ve rocked the boat enough for one day?”

“Never.” He assured her. “I’m simply reminding you of your own words.”

She frowned at him lightly but had to admit he was right. She was sure the feast itself would draw enough ire her way, no need to add to it before the festivities ever even started. She rolled her eyes before she gave in and walked toward the nervous looking woman. “I assume my mother asks for me?”

“Yes, My Lady. Without delay.”

“She’s in her solar, I presume?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“I know the way. You’re dismissed.” Arya started to walk away but stopped when the woman followed closely behind. “I said you’re dismissed.” She repeated, slower.

“I’m sorry, My Lady, but the Lady Stark insisted I accompany you the whole way.”

Arya bit her tongue out of sight and pressed on without another word. It was going to be a long night.

~*~

It was an hour before she was free of her family, and only then after allowing the seamstress and handmaiden both back into her chambers to help her ready herself for the feast. Her mood improved slightly once she was dressed and she reminded herself that she was in control of herself, no matter how helpless her mother still had the ability to make her feel. She wasn’t a dainty or perfect little Lady who would go quietly into married life. She’d shown that earlier by defeating the Hound, and she would show it with the dress she had chosen to wear.

It was more Essosi in design than Westerosi, but the seamstress had done a good job despite her unfamiliarity with the pattern. The fabric was a deep charcoal grey, with the nearly invisible silver swirls stitched into it. The top was a tie around her neck that widened down into the front of the gown. It dipped deeply between her breasts, reaching almost to her belly button. The fabric pulled around her waist, leaving the expanse of her back bare, though a thick belt around the narrowest part of her waist served to both hold the dress in place and emphasize her slenderness. The skirts fell in layers to her ankles, hiding her feet and the fact that she wore her boots beneath rather than the slippers she’d been given. They also hid the dagger strapped higher up on her thigh and the ease with which she could retrieve it through the overlapping layers.  

She allowed her hair to be pulled up into an elaborate braid that cascaded from the corner of one temple, across the back of her head, and resting down the front of her right shoulder until it ended soon after. More important to making her statement, it left most of her scars and her bruised face all on blatant display, further emphasizing her undesirableness as a Lady Wife, should any of the other Lords catch any ideas after the events to come.  

True to form, a couple of small strands of hair had already escaped and were pushed behind her ears, leaving her large eyes and shapely brows on display. She once again refused any powers be applied to her skin, save for the small amount of oil on her brows and a tiny amount more on the tips of her lashes, making them stand more prominently from her face and drawing even more attention to the uniqueness of her stormy grey eyes, already highlighted by the colors of the gown.

Mariela had been trying to get her out the door for nearly ten minutes, but she didn’t give in until a knock came accompanied by her sisters call. She finally left the room and joined Sansa as they made their way to the Great Hall, though she’d had to wait for her modestly clad sister get over her shock at the sight of her. The redhead had tried to convince her to at least dawn a cover or cloak, but she had refused.

She’d worn such clothing before and had long been accustomed to keeping her poise despite the feeling of exposure, and so she walked confidently with her back straight, shoulders back, and head held high. All eyes were immediately  on them when they entered the already full room. Sansa kept her eyes straight ahead while leading her across to where their family waited buy Arya glanced around curiously at all the faces. She recognized some of the people in the crowd but the majority seemed to be strangers.

Her Mother and elder brothers looked as scandalized as her sister had, but neither Bran nor Rickon seemed bothered. The reaction from the crowd was varied, but she was pleased to see many of the Northers looking disapproving and whispering amongst themselves. She was led to her seat and pressed firmly down, warning looks shot her way. She smiled innocently, seeming ignorant of the uproar she had caused already.

The meal itself passed mostly in silence at their table and she spent the majority of it listening on the conversations nearby. It wasn’t until the food was cleared that things got interesting. She had left the table once people began to mingle, not wanting to get caught in conversation with her mother just then, now that there was much more noise to cover their words.

She found herself drawn towards a particular group as had become familiar to her, both because she felt comfortable in their company but also because they served as a natural buffer to most others. Tywin seemed to take the gathering and her attention as an opportunity to quiz her on the names of those present and the houses behind their names.

Jaime and Bronn had long since gotten bored and had wandered off to find ale, so the two of them stood alone when they were interrupted in a most unpleasant way. The sensation of a gnarled hand squeezing her arse was almost enough for her to draw steel, despite the location in which she stood. She might have regardless if she didn’t already suspect who it was. Tywin obviously caught the tensing of her frame and looked past her to see what had caused it. “Lord Frey.” He drawled in distaste, eyeing him with his icy blue gaze.  

“Lord Lannister.” The greasy man replied. “I’ve come to have a dance with my new good-daughter. Pardon. Come, girl.”

Tywin’s eyes practically frosted over in their intensity, though his face remained still. “She’s not your good-daughter yet.” He reminded the other man.

“Bah, semantics. A few days will make no matter.” He laughed, wrapping his hand around her wrist and almost deliberately squeezing over the hand-shaped bruise she’d received from her spar that morning. He used the firm grip to pull her away from the other Lord and to join with the other couples already on the floor.

She allowed the motion, feeling almost gleeful to get her opportunity so quickly in the night. A small bit had been worried she wouldn’t get the chance at all, and she had to resist the urge to smirk. She shot a quelling look across at the still rigidly standing lord, who was watching them with such a cold expression it caused those surrounding him to give him an even larger berth than usual. He must have caught the flash of mischief in her eyes, because his own expression eased slightly and became tinted with curiosity.

The first minutes of the dance passed easily enough. He made a few little comments to her that she answered easily enough. She ignored his dipping hands and the lustful gleam in his eyes as she took in the full scope of his disgusting personality at length for the first time. She’d wanted to see if he were truly as despicable as she had heard, and it seemed he was all that and more.  She shuddered as he pulled her close enough that she could feel his manhood press into her belly. “Perhaps I’ll marry you myself. Bout time I got a new wife anyway. Don’t know that my sons would know how to handle a woman like you.” His breath was sour and she could smell it even as he breathed the words into her ear.

“And what type of woman is that, Lord Frey?” She questioned lightly.

His eyes dropped briefly to her split lip and colorful cheek and his own lips twisted. He leaned in close and could feel him inhale against her ear. “I like a woman who’s not afraid to get a little marked up.” He whispered, it sounding almost like a threat.

She smiled up at him, twirling in time with the rest of the dancers and moving easily back into his arms, despite the nausea that had crept up her throat at the very thought. “I wish you would.” She responded, causing him to pull back in startlement at her words, not having expected her to agree to his perverted musings.

“Know the value of a strong man already, girl?” He sneered. “You’re worth less if you’re not pure.”

“Humm, no. It would make my job quite a bit easier, you see.” She continued pleasantly as she continued to move faultlessly.  

“What job would that be?” He demanded, frowning suspiciously. 

She smiled at him her sweetest yet as she leaned closer to whisper slowly in his ear in turn. “You see, my dear Lord Walder, I have something of a problem with betrothals. I have a problem with disgusting old perverts who get off on the pain of others. Even moreso, I have a problem with people who have betrayed my family, no matter if it took place in the past… Perhaps you can see why we might have something a conflict here? Differing in our positions as we clearly are?” 

“I don’t care for your ‘conflicts,’ girl. You’ve already been bought and paid for, and you’ll damned well do as you’re told.” He rumbled back at her with a scowl.

“Oh, I’ll do as I’m told.” She agreed with a soft nod, still speaking quietly and for his ear alone, lips almost brushing against his skin sensually and distracting him from her actual words at first. “Have no fear about that.. I’ll marry whichever of your despicable spawns you pair me with. I’ll say my vows, and I’ll accept their cloak, and I’ll call them my husband, and I will do my duty as expected. I’ll be the perfect bride and I’ll preform every obligation faultlessly… It’ll be so very tragic though, when they don’t even make it to their own bedding ceremony to meet Death. Rotten meat, you see, or perhaps tainted wine… Don’t worry, I’ll make it good, whichever method I choose.”

She paused slightly for effect but continued before he could gather himself to reply, still holding him close. “I know in those sad times, it’s common enough to marry the unconsummated widow off to another in the family- a brother, perhaps, or a cousin. I understand you have several to choose from. The first won’t make it to the bedding, the second won’t make it through the night. Oh, I’ll make sure to kill them in some other way- a drunken tumble down the steps, perhaps, or un unfortunate riding accident, so as not to make it too suspicious.” She admitted blatantly, enjoying the play of emotions across his withered face.  “As I will the next, and the next, and the next, until there’s not a single living Frey left for you to try and pair me with.”

Her voice was a deadly threat and he clearly picked up on her seriousness for the ways his pupils dilated and sweat began to bead his forehead. “Right now, you’re probably thinking my sister would make a much more manageable bride than myself, but know this: If you try to trade me for her, the only thing you will accomplish is allowing me to destroy your family without the eyes watching me- I’ll be able to get much more creative. If you speak of this conversation to anyone, I will destroy everything you hold dear and then I come for you. It won’t be a nice death; it won’t be painless, and it won’t be quick. And if you use this little conversation to try and break faith with my family or betray them in any way, I want you to know that there are not enough miles on this earth you could put between us that would save you from my wrath.”

“If you do anything beyond being showing how pleased you already are to have my uncle as a member of your family I promise you that you won’t see me coming.”

“Now, do we have an understanding, or do you need a demonstration of how firm I am in keeping my word?”

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

She felt someone approach from behind and pulled away from the man who was still struck silent at her words. Her brother’s voice came along with a warm hand pressed lightly against her shoulder. “May I cut in?” Jon asked. “I’d like a dance with my sister.” He voice was firm and when she glanced at him it was to see his matching grey eyes locked on the man she’d just threatened so thoroughly, unaware of the words just passed.

“Take the crazy bitch.” He spat, face still even more pallid than it normally was. He spun around and left the room, muttering to himself as he went. She watched him leave calmly, not giving away any of what she was feeling. It was only once he was clear of the room that she turned to the man who looked so much like her. He stepped into place as her dance partner faultlessly, still remembering his own lessons from childhood.

They danced silently for a minute before Arya spoke up. “What was it like at the wall?” She asked quietly.

“Cold. Hard.” He answered simply. “What are you doing, Arya?” He asked, changing the subject.

“Dancing? I thought I was doing a pretty good job at it, actually, considering how long it’s been since I’ve moved through the steps.”

“You know what I mean.” He told her, but continued when she didn’t speak up. “You’re home for the first time in years and yet you seem determined to drive everyone away before we’ve even been able to celebrate your presence back in our lives. What are you trying to accomplish with it all? Why even come home, if only to be as difficult as you can to everyone at every turn?”

She flinched slightly in his arms and he must have felt it, for his expression softened slightly. “I only mean that everyone is worried for you. Robb and I won’t speak of what you shared with us, but everyone else still has questions. You shouldn’t be so harsh on Sansa or your mother, they just don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them without using your words.”

“I don’t think I have the words to tell them… not in a way they will accept.”

“Than you can’t get angry at them for not understanding.” He told her gently. “You must be patient with them.”

“Did you come over here solely to scold me?”

“Of course not. I came because I couldn’t stand to watch that repulsive leech touch you any longer. The scolding is happenstance.”

She rolled her eyes at him lightly. “You needn’t worry about Lord Walder.” She told him. “I can handle him well enough.”

He looked down at her seriously, his own brows furrowed. “You know Robb didn’t have a choice, don’t you? He needed men anywhere he could get them, we were outnumbered ten to one and the Frey’s hold the Twins. It was too important an alliance for him to pass up.”

“He had a choice.” Arya told him seriously. “The world is built upon choices, Brother. You made the choice to join the Nights Watch; Joffrey made the choice to have Father beheaded; Sansa made the choice to stand with Joffrey; I made the choice to flee the Capital and then Westeros entirely; Robb made the choice to rally the North into war, he made the choice to trade myself and Uncle Edmure in exchange for four thousand men and a strategic crossing; Theon made the choice to attach Winterfell when he knew it was most vulnerable; Bran made the choice to go beyond the wall, he made the choice to come back; I made the choice to come back. I would rather we speak the honest truth than pretty lies.”

“Do you regret coming back?” He asked, narrowing in on the way she spoke the last, sounding honestly hurt.

“No,” She told him, frowning thoughtfully. “I don’t. I simply need to remember how to be Arya again.”

“You’ve always been Arya. You needn’t remember anything, you need only be yourself.” Jon told her quietly.

“As you say.” She said simply, neither agreeing nor arguing with him, though she remembered well the beatings she had taken until she could convincingly proclaim herself to be ‘no one’ at all and fool the best liars in the world.  

“How did you know House Frey brought us four-thousand men? That’s not well circulated knowledge.”

“Lord Tywin told me. He said it was a needed alliance for the North. A sound strategy.”

“You talk of warfare with Lord Tywin?”

“Sometimes. We talk of many things.”

He didn’t seem to know quite how to respond to that and was quiet for several seconds. “That was some pretty impressive fighting this morn.” He commented then. “Not many could fare near so well against the Hound, let alone be able to claim victory.”

“He was easy on me.” She confided.

“You call that taking it easy?” He asked incredulously.

“He should have knocked me out cold with the blow to my face. He held back his strength, else he would have had his victory then.”

“It was pretty clear you know him. How did you meet? In Kings Landing?”

“Well, I knew who he was in Kings Landing, and he I, but only because of Father. He was always guardng Joffrey if I did see him, and I tried to avoid his presence as much as I could. I.. I traveled with him once, though, after everything.. when I was trying to get home the first time.”

“You traveled with Sandor Clegane? Alone?” He questioned more firmly, sounding concerned. “How old were you?”

“I did.” She told him easily, not seeing the problem. “I was probably three and ten when I joined him, four and ten, mayhap, when I left his company. I might have been the safest girl in the Seven Kingdoms, traveling by his side.” She commented then pointedly, seeing him still looking angered at the thought. “Back before I could take care of myself nearly as well. Back when I was still just a silly little girl.”

“I suppose you would know best.” He agreed dubiously, not questioning her further but clearly still not convinced. “Though I’m not sure you’ve ever been a silly little girl.”

“No, I have.” She told him seriously. “I had a lot of growing up to do. How did he come to be here, anyway? I wouldn’t have expected him to be welcomed in Winterfell.”

“We met him at the Wall, attempting to go beyond it with a couple of men from the Brotherhood Without Banners.”

“The Brotherhood?” She asked. “Why did those fuckers want to go beyond the wall?”

“You know of the Brotherhood as well?”

“Oh, yes, I.. I was with them before I came across the Hound, actually. I exchanged their company for his.”

“I see.” Jon responded lowly, frowning deeply. “The two men who accompanied him said they were driven to their location by visions from the Red God, though they didn’t yet know why. They joined our company and helped us retrieve a wright to bring back and show the crown. In doing so, they helped gain us the support we need for the true war to the North.”

“Which two were they?”

He looked at her searchingly. “Priest Thoros of Myr and Lord Beric Dondarrion. Do you know them, too?”

“Yes, I do. I owe them a debt.”

“You owe them a debt? You’re starting to sound like a Lannister for all the time you spend with them. Though how you could have traveled with so many of my men without them mentioning it…” It began as a tense jest but ended with him shaking his head slightly in befuddled annoyance.

“The Brotherhood sold a friend of mine to a Red Witch for some coin. They were supposed to be bringing me to Riverrun to meet up with Robb and his army, but they decided hunting a Lannister raiding party was more pressing a priority. I’m not surprised they didn’t mention me to you. Are they here now, too?”

“Aye, they are, but they are friends to us now, whatever they might have done before. I could not have survived without them at my back. They returned to Winterfell with us after we succeed in our task and they’ve remained here to stand with us through the end.”  

“How did you manage it? Capturing one of them?” She questioned, turning her thoughts from those she once liked and then hated so passionately for a time.

“With much difficulty. One wandered away from the army and got stranded on a bluff. It called the army towards it and we ended up in a skirmish with almost too many of them. I’m still not sure we would have succeed without the Brotherhood and the men Robb sent with us. It was still far too close for my tastes.”

 “Do you still have it? The wright?”

“No, we destroyed it after it served it’s purpose. There was no point in keeping it alive any longer.”

“Oh. I should like to see what one looks like.”

“It looked like Death, flesh rotting off its bones but somehow still on its feet and fighting. They’re terrible beings and I wouldn’t like you to be around them.”

“I know Death, Jon. It doesn’t scare me.”

“It scares me.” He admitted to her, brows furrowed once again. “You should take it seriously Arya- there’re so very many of them, you can’t imagine how far their army spreads..”

He seemed so solemn that it brought a flash of guilt to her heart, though she hadn’t said anything untrue. “You sound so much like Father now.” She told him with a sad smile, changing the subject once again. “He would be proud of you- of the man you’ve become. Lord Commander of the Nights Watch before you even reached twenty. That’s quite impressive.” She complemented him, drawing a small sad-looking smile of his own in return.

“There’s something I need to tell you about father, actually, but not tonight.” He told her just as the song faded away and another began. They came to a stop and he pressed a brotherly kiss to her forehead before passing her hand to their elder brother next, not allowing any of the hovering lords to step in just yet.

The next song was livelier and she had a harder time remembering the steps. Luckily, her brother led her true and she doubted anyone else picked up on her small missteps. “It’s been some time since I danced in truth.” She excused herself quietly as she forced herself to keep her chin raised so as to not look down at their feet.

“I can imagine. Have no fear, I find myself dancing far more now than I ever thought possible- especially in wartime. Apparently celebration helps keep morale high.”

“I suppose it’s a good thing you have your wife to accompany you, then.”

“It is, yes.” He agreed, smiling down at her with his sparkling Tully blue eyes.

“How did you meet a Volantes woman anyway?” She asked curiously.

“On the battlefield, actually... She was uh, getting ready to saw a man’s leg off.”

Arya’s head tiled back slightly as a sudden pearl of laughter broke free. “Yes, I suppose that would catch one’s attention. She seems nice. She’s very pretty.. As are your children..” She complemented.

He smiled at her again, twirling her around. “You’ve become quite beautiful yourself, little sister.”

She rolled his eyes but didn’t argue, not wanting to encourage him to argue back in turn. “I’m happy for you- that you’ve been able to find such happiness in such poor times.” She told him simply before the pace increased. Because the song was so much faster, they didn’t have as much time to talk and it was soon time to change partners once again.

She found her hand caught by one of the Northern lords, and the warning look she caught her mother sending her helped her decide to endure the next few minutes. It wasn’t just a few minutes though, because he had was passed off to another Northman, and then a third. By then she was thoroughly done being courteous and had planned to duck off the floor before should could be grabbed again, but unfortunately she didn’t quite make it.

Bronn stepped in front of her, shooting her an amusing look as he held out his own hand to her. She felt herself smile, knowing he at least would be more entertaining than the strangers who’d been holding her the last however long. True to his personality, his moves were slightly more showy than was typical and he hummed and sung under his breath to the beat of the music. He spun her faster around, twirling her until she was nearly dizzy and then held her firmly enough that she didn’t stumble before her head stopped spinning. She laughed more than once during and it was easily the funnest dance she had thus far that night.

Feeling parched, she again planned to duck off the floor when the music changed, but she felt the hand rest on her upper back instead. She intended to shrug him off before his familiar scent caught her nose. Her body moved to join his without active thought and she soon found herself moving across the floor once again. Unlike the others and even more obviously after the looser dance she’d just had, Jaime held her just the slightest bit closer, his hands lingering just the slightest bit longer on the bare stretches of her back and shoulders as they moved together through the steps.

“You seem to be having fun.” He murmured in her ear as he held her close during a slow part of the melody.

“Dancing’s a bit like fighting, just without all the violence. It’s not the worst thing in the world to endure, I suppose.”

“Mmm. That’s good, but it’s not what I meant.” He whispered in her ear, bring her mind back to her earlier conversation with Lord Frey. She smiled at the memory, pulling back to look into his curious green eyes.

“We were just clearing the air.” She said blithely, lips still curled but expression otherwise innocent.

“Walder Frey isn’t the type of man to take loss quietly.” He warned her. “You should be careful how you handle him.”

“I’m always careful.”

“Arya..”

“Jaime.”

He shook his head at her but let it go. “Where were you trying to escape to before I caught you?”

“Just to get something to drink.” She admitted easily, not in a hurry to leave his hold now that she was in it.

“You have been dancing a surprisingly long time.”

“The longer I stay away, the less time my Mother has to question or scold me.”

“Very clever. It does appear that she’s waiting for you to return.” He commented, peering over her shoulder in the direction of her families table. “You’re going to have to talk to her eventually, you know.”

“I have talked to her. I’m not ‘not’ talking to her.” She defended herself.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What was the last thing you’ve said to her?”

“That I would see her at the feast.” She replied tartly, rolling her eyes.

He shook his head at her again and then pulled her aside just before the song trailed off, so that they were at the edge of the dance floor on the opposite side of the room already when the couples began changing partners. She followed his lead as he ducked away and made his way over to a side table holding several pitchers of wine and extra glasses. He poured them both a generous serving and they stood in the shadowed corner sipping at their full cups.

It had grown quite warm in the hall and her cheeks felt flushed with it. She leaned against the cooler stone of the wall as she glanced around the room and enjoyed the break. Her glass was empty when her senses prickled suddenly and she glanced around again, slower. She found three familiar pairs of eyes watching her and she thought her heart might have skipped at the unbelievable sight.

She pushed off from her lazy stance and began striding around the room with purpose, setting her glass on a nearby ledge without care. Jaime followed, though he wasn’t quite sure what had caught her attention so suddenly. They made it clear to the opposite corner and far to near her family for her liking before she finally stopped. “What in the seven hells are you doing here?” She demanded, voice edged in disbelief.

His Baratheon blue eyes took her in and he looked almost embarrassed- like he wasn’t quite sure where he should look with so much of her skin on display. “You once told me I could smith for your brother. Figured ‘ere was as good a place as any.” He told her, forcing his gaze to stay above her neck, though it kept wandering to her bruised cheekbone with a small frown.

“Then why the fuck are you with them?” She asked next, gesturing to the two men watching the scene without bothering to hide their amusement. Gendry glanced behind himself to look at the two men from the Brotherhood, Thoros quite obviously drunk as was his norm, while Beric watched them all with his knowing little smile.

“Oh, well, I-“ He stuttered, unsure how to respond in the face of her ire.

“It’s good to see you again, little lady.” Beric spoke up, saving him from having to respond further.

“You sold him like an animal.” She stated, tone angry. “Am I the only one who remembers that?”

“No,” Beric told her, smile dimming. “But a lot’s happened since then. A lot’s changed.”

She looked back to the man she might once have called her closest friend. He looked at her almost sheepishly and then nodded. “We went beyond the wall together.”

Frowning, she replied “Jon told me the Brotherhood went beyond the Wall, but he said they were only two plus the Hound- he didn’t mention you being with them.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t actually. I was one of the men with your brother when we met up with them at Eastwatch. We had to get over our differences pretty quick like out there. Not much room for squabbles.”

She turned from him to the two older men, conflict still tearing her mind. “I thought you hated wolves and lions? They were trying to burn down the country side- and you were trying to save it?”

“We’re not the only one’s who proclaimed to hate lions only to find ourselves in their company, dangerous girl.” Thoros spoke up then, voicing the irony and looking pointedly over her shoulder at the Lannister son standing at her back.

Beric sent him a quelling look and spoke up. “There are no Lions or Wolves anymore, girl. Nothing from the past matters anymore- not alliances, not enemies.. There’s only us and them- the living and the dead. If we hold onto our past squabbles instead of moving forward as one, we’ll all face the long night on the side we don’t want to be on.”  

She nodded, knowing he was right but wanting to hear it from them. “Jon said fire kills them.”

“Aye, seems one of the ways.”

“I don’t have valerian steel or dragon glass. Can you teach me to light my blade the way you do?”

Beric and Thoros shared a look before turning back to her as one. “You need serve the Red god to learn that trick, girl. It’s his power that brings the flame. Do you serve the Red god now?”  

She tiled her head at him and allowed her lips to furl in s small smile, eyes calm. “I serve R’hllor, same as I serve the Stranger, same as I serve the Drowned God, the Black Goat God, the Weeping Woman, the Lion of Night, and the nameless Old God alike.”

Thoros’ eyes sharpened and he looked at her more closely. She nodded to him, watching his expression tighten. “You serve the Many Faced God now, girl?” He murmured quietly, still studying her.

“Valar Dohaeris.” She responded just as quietly.

He brought his hand up in a gesture of acknowledgement. “Aye, and Valar Morghulis.”

“Valar Morghulis.” She lowered her chin in agreement. “Except maybe him.” She continued, nodding at Beric.

Thoros smiled at her, though he still looked thoughtful.

It was Beric that spoke again. “I can teach you the way, it’ll be up to R’hllor to decide whether or not to answer you call.”

“That’s all I need.” She told him, for if R’hllor was Death and Death answered her call already by granting her the power to change her face, by taking her sight and giving it back with the same poisoned water that would kill anyone else who drank it, why would He not also grant her the power to light her sword and slay such unnatural death?

“Tomorrow, then.” He promised, tilting his head in acknowledgement.

“Tomorrow.” She agreed with a small thankful smile.

“Rum?” Thoros offered, holding out his flask.

He’d offered it to her before and she’d always turned up her nose at the sheer smell of it. That night, she accepted a swig and managed to keep her nose from wrinkling at the burn of it. It warmed her belly and made her cheeks feel even more flushed. She suddenly wished for the cold of the night air and glanced towards the door, wondering if she’d behaved long enough to make her escape.

“Different than you thought, being back?” Beric questioned with a sympathetic smile when he caught her look.

“Nothing stays the same.” She responded.

“No, nothing does.” He agreed.

And somehow, a scant few minutes later, she somehow found herself with the three from the Brotherhood, Jaime, Bronn, and somehow the Hound who they had come across on the way, seated at the top one of the abandoned towers, sharing the numerous flasks they had on their persons and passing the remainder of the night with the sound of festive music on the edge of the air whilst the rest of the keep continued to drink, dance, and indulge in merriment without them.

~*~

The next morn didn’t start as it necessarily should have… that was to say, she was woken by a pair of Northern soldiers finding the group of them passed own in various positions around the remnants of the fire they’d lit in the empty room sometime during the night. The men were apparently part of a much larger group deployed to find them, for Daenerys had returned and a war council had been called for within the hour.

The six hung-over men and one woman forced themselves to their feet at the words and made their way slowly down the winding stairs that seemed much greater in length than they had climbing them. Arya broke away from the others and headed in the direction of her room, finding her Handmaiden already frantically waiting for her. “My Lady!” She exclaimed thankfully when she appeared. “Oh, I was so worried you wouldn’t make it in time. Come, you must wash and dress!”

A bath had already been set up, though it seemed to have cooled in the time it took for them to be found. Still, she hoped it might help ease the ache in her head and so stripped herself of the dress she still sore and sunk gratefully into the tepid water, immediately submerging herself completely.

She remained under the water until her lungs began to ache and only then came back up for air. Feeling more awake if nothing else, she moved to scrub herself clean and then stood to dry. Mariela had another borrowed dress waiting for her but she shook her head and moved to her drawers instead, pulling out the fresh pants and black shirt she’d been given. She might have grabbed the top with dark red woven throughout, but the Targaryen color were red as the Lannister’s and she didn’t want to inadvertently show support for the foreign queen by wearing it to meet her.

Once dressed, Mariela cloth dried her hair and then twisted it into some sort of order before sending her on her way. Her sister didn’t arrive to accompany her that morn, and she found her already mid-way through eating when she arrived in the dining hall. “Please pardon my tardiness.” She excused herself without giving any justification to the much smaller gather of people than had been present before- the majority of them related to her in some way or other.

Her family had obviously been told that she’d been found, and doubtlessly in what state and of her interesting company. Her eyes went to Jon first, who was watching her with a look that clearly asked ‘really?’ They moved to her mother next, to see her lips pressed tightly together as she held her silence.

It was Robb that eased the moment by speaking up in turn. “Good morrow, Sister. Please, allow me to introduce her Grace Daenerys Targaryen,  Queen of Meereen. Your Grace, my youngest sister, the Lady Arya.”

“Your Grace.” Arya greeted as was expected, falling into a shallow curtsy.

“Lady Arya, I am so pleased to meet you.” The woman replied, words measured and even. “Your homecoming is a joyous occasion indeed- I am sorry to have missed your celebration. Had I know, I would have returned sooner.”

“You are kind to say so, Your Grace.” Arya told her with a cool smile. As eager as she was to see a dragon in life, she’d heard far too much of the notorious woman and her rule in the East to trust her or the words she spoke- stories of victory through treachery, of mass executions and of her dragons feeing on children and livestock alike.

The silver haired woman glanced over at her in interest, eyes lingering on her wardrobe and visible blade. “Will you be joining us in council after we break our fast?”

She began to nod in the affirmative but her mother spoke before she was able to finish the motion. “No, she will not.” The woman stated firmly. Arya’s brow raised slightly as she turned her head to meet her stern blue eyes. “A war council is no place for a Lady.”

Arya saw the Dragon Queen glance coolly across at the elder woman, clearly as displeased with the statement as she herself was. Though curious what the woman might say, she decided to head her off quite pointedly “And yet I hear you’ve been attending Robb’s council meetings for years.” She reminded her.

“My attendance and yours are not the same thing. I am widow to the former Lord of these halls. I bore the King in the North from my own womb. I have more right than any to council him now, without his father here to do so himself.”

Her brow raised higher and she turned towards said brother to see which stance he would take in the discussion. He looked between his mother and his little sister, brows pinched. He looked like he might argue against their mother for a moment before he met her matching blue eyes and seemed to falter. “Please, Sister, join us to break your fast. We can discuss the council once we are done eating.”

Though he didn’t come right out and say it, it was clear he wouldn’t stand against their mother in this. Unfortunately for them, she hadn’t come all the way back to the North to be left in the dark when it came to the planning. She glanced around to see how the others were taking it. Sansa was looking down at her plate, also clearly unhappy. Jon was looking at her with his own request to behave unhidden on his own features. Prince Trystane was also in attendance and was watching her with a cocked brow, waiting like everyone else to see how she would respond- the Dragon Queen included.

She decided no response was the best response of all and so she simply took her seat and began filling her plate without a word. She ate quickly, not engaging in conversation but taking the time to listen to what the others were discussing amongst themselves in small groups. Finding nothing of interest, her attention was instead drawn to one of the men standing guard at the wall behind the Dragon Queen- obviously a Dothraki from his coloring, dress and weapons of choice.

She’d known the Horse-Lords were in the city, but she hadn’t actually come across any of them while their Queen- or rather, their Khaleesi- had been absent. She wondered if she might be able to convince or barter with one of them to teach her to shoot her bow from a crouch on her horses back as they were famed for in the far East. She’d had the chance to see it, once, and she’d wanted greatly to learn the skill ever since.  

Once she’d finished her quick meal, she stood and bowed her head in acknowledgement of those present. “Begging pardon, your Graces’. I shall take my leave for now and see you all later. Good morn.” She said politely before leaving the table. She could feel the eyes watching her back but no one attempted to stop her. Perhaps they were simply happy she hadn’t pressed about the council. If so, they would soon be disappointed.

Introductions done and plan in mind, she veered off back to her room to quickly exchange the black shirt of the black and dark red and then made her way to the Lannister camp. It was already bustling when she arrived and she could see Tywin, Kevan, Lord Tyrell, and Jaime separating themselves from the bulk of men in preparation to make their way within Winterfell and to the council chambers.

She walked up and took a stand between the Father and Son, gathering their attention as she approached. “Good Morn, My Lords.” She greeted with a small smile.

Polite salutations were returned by all and then Tywin turned to face her directly. His eyes scanned over the choice of clothing but he didn’t say anything about her willingly dressing in the colors of his house. He had honestly wondered if she would even wear that one but had given it to her anyway. He was pleased to see it on her, and the color combination suited her dark features even better than he had imagined they would.

“I had thought we would see you inside.” He remarked, question in his voice. “What brings you back here?”

“I should actually like to arrive as a member of your party, if you don’t mind having me there with you.” It wasn’t phrased as a question but he heard it all the same and raised a brow in response.

“Why not with your hosting family?” He questioned directly, well aware of the implications of what she was requesting. “I had thought you would want to attend along with your Brother’s Bannermen.”

“My lady mother does not believe it to be my place to attend.” She answered him honestly, knowing he wouldn’t agree if she gave him anything but the truth.

“And so you thought you would join us instead? Trying to start the war again so soon, My Lady?” He asked, but she could hear the acceptance in his tone, even before he actually gave it.

“Of course not.” She denied anyway, playing along. “But I returned to the North for a reason and it wasn’t to be kept in the dark while the Lords planned without me. If you do not wish me to attend with your company to avoid further tension with my House and yours than know that  I understand and accept your decision, but I will still be present in some other way.”

“What other way would that be?” He asked, sounding more curious than anything. She didn’t respond, face remaining calm and resolved as she watched him to see what he would say. “Oh, very well then- I invite you to join the members of my council as we convene to discuss our war efforts this morn.” He invited her formally.

She smiled, accepting with a pleased ‘thank you’ as she turned to take her place amongst their ranks, falling into line with them as they made their way inside.

~*~

To be continued 

Chapter Text

It was much darker back in the halls and it took their eyes a moment to adjust. They made their way to the meeting room along with representatives of all of the Houses and Armies stationed around their walls. No one was talking as they made their way to a group of empty chairs close to the head table- a place of honor, considering their position and the numbers they brought with them.

Because others were still entering in waves, Tywin’s sudden pause went largely without notice. Those at his side, however, noticed immediately. Arya glanced up to see his expression frozen in a glare and followed his gaze to land on the man sitting at the Dragon Queen’s side- the imp, Tyrion Lannister. Jaime caught the same exchange and his own eyes widened as he looked back and forth between his father and little brother.

Instead of immediately taking his seat, Tywin strolled slowly the last few steps until he was stood before his son. He nodded to the rulers sitting beside him as was expected of him and then turned the full power of the icy blue eyes on the ones that were much kinder. “Tyrion.” He stated, voice composed if not for the chill it gave off.

“Father.” The imp responded, keeping his own composure well. Arya was watching with rapt attention, lingering a few steps back by their seats, though none had yet actually sat.

“So this is where you’ve run off to? To join a foreign invader against your own family- against your own Nephews crown? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after what you did to your last Nephew who wore it. Hand of the ‘Queen’ indeed.” He sneered, eyes catching on the pin he wore so reminiscent of the matching on resting on Tywin’s own breast.

Tyrion took a deep breath and glanced around the room himself to see how many were watching the exchange. It seemed everyone towards the front quarter had noticed, but those further back were more concerned with shuffling in and taking their places. Queen Daenerys spoke before her Hand could reply, speaking up in a sharp tone of her own and drawing the Lords attention.

“’I’ve long wished to meet you, Lord Tywin.” Though she didn’t name him, her angry violet eyes glanced past him to pause on his eldest son, making it clear the father wasn’t the only one she was eager to meet. “You’ve quite the history behind you- quite the position you’ve gained for your family. And yet, here you now stand, father to Kin and King-slayers alike, no grandchildren of your own to continue your line once they are gone. How very proud you must be, of your legacy has become.”

Everyone watching saw the minute flinch from the youngest Lannister, who opened his mouth to respond before his father could utter the words he could already see coming, but the man waved him off with a gesture very familiar from his youth that quite clearly told him to cease and desist immediately.

Looking down at the white haired woman as those she were little more than a child playing a game of pretend, he allowed his lip to curl in an almost invisible sneer. “My Legacy will always be remembered- whether it continues past the next generation or not. I would bid you remember Your Grace, what my Legacy did to the last Mad Targaryen who threatened to destroy these lands.”

“Is that a threat?” She asked, voice sharp and foreign accent coming through thicker on the words.

“The only threat you need worry about now is the army to the North.”

“And after?”

“I suppose we will decide that if we find an  ‘after’ to worry about.” Arya heard Jaime sign beside her and saw him look as if he had to stop himself from pinching the bridge of his nose. She watched as his eyes came up to meet those of his brother and the two share a long-suffering look at the tense exchange, despite the different sides they now apparently sat on. “A word of advice to leave you with- if I may,” The queen’s gazed at him stonily but he continued anyway. “Lord Tarly was something of a friend of mine, as he was to many others. His son a good man. If you continue burning the Lords and their Heirs of these lands on a whim- continue to express this fiery impulsivity your Grandfather was so renowned and despised for- and the only thing you will succeed in will be rallying these lands against your own rule with no help needed from me.”

Daenerys glared at him even more angrily than before, and Arya saw Robb turn to give her a curious look and Jon a shocked one and she realized tbe woman might not have shared that action with her new allies. Icy blue eyes moved over dismissively to his son, shooting him a look that seemed to say ‘and this is who you’ve allied yourself with?’ Tywin didn’t wait for a response from either of them and turned instead on his heel with all the scornful dismissiveness he’d built over the years.

Luckily the council was called to order only seconds later and so everyone still standing quickly either took a seat or moved against the wall to clear the line of sight down the long rectangular room. Robb stood and began by addressing those in the room, thanking for coming together under such circumstance and despite the events that occurred in the past.

It was really a very good speech, delivered with the same fervor his men had gotten used to hearing from him on the battle field, and had caught the attention of every man-and woman- in the room. It was only once he settled back into his seat and opened the floor that the discussions began in truth.

“We can’t beat them in a straight fight.” Jon said stoically. “There’s too many of them, even with our reinforcements.”

“So what can we do?” Jaime spoke up.

“The Night King made them all- they follow his command. We’ve already seen how the wrights fall as one when a White Walker is felled. If we could take down the Night King, they might all fall as one… getting to him may be our best chance.”

“If that’s true, he’ll never expose himself.” The Lannister son stated.

 “’Might,’ ‘may.’” Tywin spoke up scornfully. “I’m not one for planning battle strategies around what we think might happen. What are the facts, what do we actually have to work with?”

Robb frowned at him from the front of the room. “You want the facts?” Jon asked firmly, hand resting on the pommel of his sword. “The facts are this: They out number us a hundred to one, no matter how many men we find to fight on our side. If we fall, we will raise as our own enemies, forever adding to their numbers. We can’t beat them in a fair fight- we can’t meet them in open battle, or they will march over top of us and leave nothing behind.”

“Who said anything about open battle?” Tywin questioned back. “There are strategies we can utilize that will increase our chances beyond that of a single long shot that might not even work if you do manage to pull it off. By all means, target the Night King if that is your wish, but we still need to throw everything we’ve got in their way on the off chance your plan doesn’t work.” He finished in a drawl.

A cupbearer making the round attempted to pour wine into the empty glass beside the Lord while he was speaking, but Arya stopped her with a silent hand over the top, gesturing her instead to pour water. She gestured the same for herself, as did everyone within their council. Tywin’s distaste for drink during such times was very well known. The action still caught more attention than she expected it would, eyes lingering on their party, and on her and the Lannister Lord specifically but she attempted to pay them no mind beyond remaining aware of them. The company they currently sat amongst would doubtlessly have him even more on edge and not wanted to risk his wrath.

“Alright.” Robb agreed, nodding his head once. “You’re right. We need to give ourselves the best chance possible. What do you suggest?”

“Tell me, Your Grace, do you know of the great battle of Tiqui? …  I can tell you don’t. Does anyone here?” He glanced around the room as if already knowing no one would. Silence followed, for even if someone thought they might know the information he was seeking, few would dare bring his attention to themselves. Cold blue eyes moved across his eldest son but clearly didn’t hold out hope he would know either. Tyrion may have, but he didn’t speak and his father didn’t look at him.

Instead, his eyes settled on Arya, a brow raised. She knew the history- they had discussed it just recently when they’d played Cavasses for that first time. She had been the one to mention it while she’d been examining the different pieces of the game- one of them being a delicately carved elephant. She was intrigued by the different methods of warfare fought throughout the world, and of the defenses against them. She glanced back up towards her family as she answered. “Tiqui is a city in Yi Ti. It’s neighbored by a fortified city of Warrior Maids, Bayasabhad. The warriors of Bayasabhad raised and used elephants in combat, for whilst it was much too dry for horses to survive, the elephants could find and use their trunks to dig for water. It made them nearly undefeatable in combat.”

“Tiqui was connected to Bayasabhad by the Sand Road. Some three hundred years past, they insulted the Warrior Maids and brought their wrath down upon the city. They marched with every warrior and elephant in their army. Familiar with the strategies and might of Bayasabhad, Tiqui knew they couldn’t defeat them face to face- the elephants would surround them and then trample them all as they closed in-  so the dug a great pit fifteen feet wide and just as deep all the way around the city. The lined the bottom with spears and then they covered it all with tar. They used a thin woven mat to cover the pit and then spread enough sand over the top that it couldn’t been seen.”

“The mats extended far enough past the edge that there was counter weight holding them down when the elephants marched on the city. When the mat gave way under their feet and they were sent into the pit, the sands shifted and collapsed with them, pulling down the Maids following who were on foot. Once they went down, Tiqui sent flaming arrows into the tar, lighting it and burning those that were still alive along with the dead. So much of the army was lost that those who survived retreated to Bayasabhad and the war was ended before it began. They remained behind their walls for two decades before they were even seen again.”

The silence continued for a few seconds after she finished and it was the young Lady Mormont that spoke first. “There are too many of them to all fall into a pit at once.” She stated, watching Arya expectantly as she waited to see what she would say.

“Yes, but if these creatures are truly as mindless as they’re said to be, we could dig more than one. We would obviously need to line the bottom with dragon glass instead of steel tipped spears, if we want to make it as effective as possible. Beyond that, it is simply one strategy we may employ. There are many more.” She ended, glancing back at Tywin to see him looking almost smug.

The elder man nodded his head regally. “So, would you like to spend more time talking of a one long-shot idea, or would you like to discuss strategies that will actually make a difference in the coming battle?”

“You still disbelieve?” Jon spoke up. “After everything we’ve seen and know?”

“We know next to nothing. We don’t know that killing one will kill them all. What we do know is three ways to kill them, and we need to use those three ways to the fullest extent we’re able. Now, perhaps you do things differently in the North, but in the South we base our strategies around fact, not fantasy or guesswork.”

Many in the room looked angered at his words and tone alike, but they held their silence as Robb raised a hand towards the room. “Alright.” He agreed, meeting the Lord eye to eye. “We improve our trenches. What else?”

~*~

The council seemed to last an age before they were finally released. Arya stood to leave once they were adjourned, but was called back by her Mother. The Lannister party paused with her but she waved them off and waited for the room to finish emptying, striding slowly back towards the dais with her hands clasped behind her back. “Yes mother?” She asked calmly once she had come to a stop after the heavy wooden door had shut behind the last man.

Catelyn looked down at her from where she still sat at the head table, her own hands clasped in the same manner as her daughter, but lay before her resting on the table, knuckles stark white from how tightly she held herself. “I thought I had made it clear that I did not want you to attend this council.” She stated after a moment.

“You did.” Arya agreed simply, not moving.

“And yet you are here anyway?”

“I am.”

“Why?” The redhead demanded, agitation rising in her voice.

Arya tilted her head at her mother curiously. “As I told you- I did not come back to be pushed to the sidelines. If you do not wish me to join as a representative of the Stark family, I will do so in another way. Why does it bother you so much? My will to fight never bothered Father so, and he would have had more reason if it had.”

“Do not speak of your father in this-“

“Why not?” It was Arya’s turn to ask. “I have as much right to speak of him as you do. Did he tell you in his letters? I never really knew for sure.”

Her flush of anger turned to a frown of confusion. “Did he tell me what?” Catelyn questioned, still sounding stern despite her change in countenance.

“About my lessons? I suppose he didn’t. No matter.” She stated dismissively. “May I go?”

“No, you may not!” Her mother exclaimed, standing from her seat. “Where has this insolence come from? You were always a willful girl, undoubtedly, but this? You’re never before shown such blatant disregard for my word!” Arya watched her pace the room, feeling almost sorry for the woman who was so clearly frazzled. Her cool expression cracked just slightly, but her mother caught the shift. Catelyn strode closer to her on the next turn and stopped just in front, reaching out to place her slender hands upon Arya’s shoulders and then moved up to cup her neck, looking her in the eyes. “Why won’t you talk to me, Arya? Why won’t you tell me where you’ve been or why you’re so.. so…”

“Why I’m so what?” Arya asked, honestly curious.

Catelyn studied her closely, eyes a mirror of Sansa’s observed her closely from an older countenance. “Distant. Cold. I know you’re home, I can see you standing before me, feel you under my hands... but it’s like you’re still not even here.”

Her mother’s voice was hardly more than a whisper but it stung as if it’d been shouted. Her hands came up to press atop her mothers, feeling the cold settled into her bones. “I’m.. sorry I’m not the same girl I was when I left. Not because I’m ashamed of who I’ve become, but because I can imagine how disappointed you are and I’m sorry to have caused you that hurt when you’ve already had so much. But.. This is who I am now. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve lived through… the things I’ve done..” She shook her head, using her hold to pull her mothers hands free and tucked them against the women’s stomach. “They’ve shaped me irrevocably. This is all I am now. I’m sorry it’s not what you prayed for.” 

She stepped back as she saw a single tear roll down her mother’s cheek and turned to hurry from the room, seeing Robb move towards their mother from the silence vigilance he’d taken when the room cleared. She was glad the distraught woman would have someone to lean on who was capable of doing so.

~*~

Arya ended up back in her room just long enough to change back into her old cloak and the folded travel clothes she found when she arrived. She headed immediately outdoors, knowing the plans they’d discussed would already be being put into place and figured they couldn’t possibly have too many people digging the  large trenches.

She gained some looks when she arrived at first, but when she grabbed a spade and jumped into the shallower lines that had already been scored into the frozen earth, none complained or tried to send her away. And so she worked, side by side with the men until they’d all become covered in a frankly disgusting mixture of frozen sweat and dirt. She remained when Jaime appeared in her vision, pointed in her direction by those surrounding her. She remained as he joined the line beside her and they worked in silence through the mid-day meal of hard bread and watery soup brought by servants from the keep to help try to warm them from the inside.

They remained after, until their section of the trench was deeper than the both of them were tall and their arms had long since grown numb to the pain. They remained until the night was called and the men began shuffling in for the eve meal. Arya lingered behind after she had pulled herself out of the trench, glancing around at the progress they had made. Jaime pulled himself up behind her and rubbed his forehead as he straightened.

She glanced over him and then down at herself. They were both truly filthy, but she didn’t feel quite like going back amongst people quiet yet. They still hadn’t spoken and she wasn’t really in the mood to, but she found she didn’t mind his company despite her disquiet. She gazed at him consideringly before turning away slowly and heading further away from the city. He didn’t follow immediately- not until she glanced back over her shoulder at him.

He used his longer stride to come even with her and they walked side by side into a crop a trees that quickly thickened. The terrain became more uneven and the snow deepened until she questioned whether or not it had been a foolish idea to try and come here so late into winter. Just before she turned back they broke through a cropping of thick shrubs and felt the air warm.

She glanced over at him and picked up her pace. He followed, growing more and more intrigued as the snow became thinner and thinner until it disappeared completely. The trees completely encroached them and it was near dark beneath for a few dozen steps. Eventually though the trees opened up and a serene clear blue hot spring rose to meet the air. She used to come here as a girl, it had been a secret spot to her siblings and the oft escaped there during the long summer days.

Hesitation settled low in her stomach for a moment before she shook it off stubbornly. She’d spent countless hours in the company of naked people- both alive and dead- and she was sure the other had as well. There was no cause to be shy over their bodies, and they could both use the cleansing of the mineral rich water.

Her hands were steady as she stripped down at the edge of the pool, though she didn’t turn her head to look at her companion. She slipped into the water as soon as she was bare and sighed in pleasure at the heat that immediately began to penetrate her chilled flesh. Hearing no motion she spared a moment to shoot a pointed look behind herself at the frozen man before she ducked herself beneath the water to scrub at her prickly scalp.

She kept her eyes closed when she felt him enter the water and didn’t open them again until after she had surfaced and wiped the excess from her face as best she could. She blinked her eyes opened to see him watching her with a peculiar expression from across the small pool and she wondered what he might be thinking about.

“You were brilliant today.” He complemented her softly as if he could read her mind, meeting her eyes.  

“I don’t think everyone would agree with you on that.” She remarked, one corner of her lip curling. She should feel the weight of water trapped in her lashes and she blinked once to see if it would fell.

He shook his head slightly. “You more than earned your place. No one present could doubt your contributions.”

“My mother could.” She remarked. It didn’t come out cross or bitter, it actually came out rather neutral, but he frowned at her all the same.

“Then your mother is a fool.” He told her simply, as it that was all she needed to know.

Their eyes met and she waited a moment for him to continue but he didn’t. She couldn’t help but let out a huff of laughter.

“What did she say?” He asked only after getting that reaction.

Arya didn’t answer right away, glancing up instead at the gap in the tress above them showing the colors creeping across the sky in the wake of the setting sun. “That I’m… Distant. That it’s like I’m not even really here..”

His frown deepened, though she wasn’t sure why he was so concerned. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that.” He told her softly, moving a step closer and then visibly stopping himself. He must have dunked himself when he’d first gotten in because his shorter-than-it-used-to-be blond hair was mostly slicked back from the water, though a few strands had fallen forward and out of place.

“It doesn’t matter.” Arya told him, sounding uncaring. “I’m not the daughter or sister they lost. They are right to mourn her.”

Jaime did step closer that time, and he didn’t stop himself until he was only a few steps away. “It does matter.” He told her. His voice was still soften the evening air even as it was firm. “You are grown and experienced and evolved in a way none but you will ever truly understand. That doesn’t make you less of yourself, it makes you more.”

The fluttering feeling came back in a rush though altogether more intense. She’d admitted to herself weeks ago that he was attractive, but hadn’t intended to let herself get attached. It was a crazy idea to even consider- The former Lannister heir, now sworn to the Kingsguard, and a daughter of Winterfell, trained in Braavos, once lost and now returned. It sounded like one of those silly stories her sister would read when they were young and perhaps she resisted the idea at first based upon that notion.

But what did it really matter? She was bound to disappoint her family no matter what she did, simply for being whom she was. Why did this matter? Why resist when the very idea of it seemed so satisfying? She knew they were as alone as it was possible to be and that no one but them would know what happened beneath the darkening purples and pinks that covered the sky above them, the first of the stars just starting to become visible.

She took the last two steps forward and tilted her head up to see him. He himself looked torn as he watched her come even closer and she could tell he was stubbornly keeping his eyes on her face. “Jaime..” she whispered on the night air as she reached a wet hand up to trail along his slightly scruffy cheek. He gave in with the slightest amount of pressure and ducked down.

Their lips didn’t meet immediately like she thought they would, but rather he took a moment to study her further, so clearly torn. “You are a betrothed woman. This isn’t appropriate.” He murmured finally.

“The betrothal won’t stand.” She argued just as softly.

“We can’t know that for sure.”

“We can.”

“Arya..” She didn’t allow him to come with any other arguments and instead pressed her lips to his. He remained frozen for only a second before he seemed to groan deeply from his throat in surrender. His own hands rose from the water to cup her face and he shifted the angle of their lips just slightly so that they fit together better than before.

The kiss started tentative and remained almost chaste. Jaime pulled back after an almost indeterminate amount of time and Arya blinked up at him upon the loss of his lips against hers. “We should head back.” He told her softly. She frowned but he shook his head and pressed one more, much shorter, kiss to the corner of her mouth. “We are likely already missed. We can’t stay out here all night.”

 Her frown deepened at knowing he was right, though she might have preferred to camp right there on the warm ground beside the spring until morning. They rose slowly from the water and moved to pull their dirty clothes back on with reluctance. It was only once they were both dressed that they came together again. Jaime brushed a strand of wet hair back behind her ear, running his fingers across her cheek as he did so.

Arya lifted herself to her toes as he ducked lower, their lips coming together once again. He was the first man she kissed, though she’d seen enough to know the gist of it. She’d always thought it was kind of a pointless exchange- what was even the point, really? But now, standing there with him beneath the starts, she’d never felt closer to another person in her life. That feeling remained even as they broke apart and began making their way back towards the keep. They had a fire priest to find anyway.

~*~

To be continued…

Chapter Text

They found Beric and Thoros camping with Jon’s men. Jon himself hadn’t stayed in the council chambers after the dismissal, but she still didn’t feel quite up to another run in with family and so make a wide arch around his own tent in her journey. The Hound was with them when they arrived, if seated back further from the flame than the other two, but them as a trio had become a familiar sight in the past days and she felt comfortable in approaching them.

“Evening.” Beric greeted them as they sat across from the duo. They both nodded silently in return, words seeming unnecessary just then, although Jaime did accept and pass an offered skin when one was handed across to him. Thoros had remained silent himself, but was watching them closely, a wicked gleam growing in his eye at whatever it was he saw. Jaime sent him a challenging look back, knowing better than to act otherwise defensively, but the attempt did naught but gain him a drunken wink in return.

The skin made another pass but the group remained rather listless despite their newest additions. The Hound barely cared enough to spare them a glace, lost as he apparently was in his own thoughts that night, tucked away as he was in the shadows. “So, will you teach me?” Arya spoke up after only a few moments, looking across at the only one who had spoken aloud since their arrival.

Beric laughed, glancing at her from his one good eye. “Still not one for patience or quiet contemplation I see.”

“Never much saw the point in wasting time.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Sandor grunted, finally speaking from his own seat a bit further away.

“Aye, you would.” Beric agreed with a quirked grin. “Alright girl, come stand clear.” He ordered, gesturing her to join him a few feet away. She did so without protest, watching him closely. “I told you when you asked that this isn’t a sly ruse I can teach you. It’s not a slight of hand or a trick of alchemy, nor anything I myself am doing. You say you follow the God of Many Faces?” He asked and waited for her acknowledgement. “How much do you know of R’hllor, specifically?”

“I know enough.” Arya told him confidently, holding back a smile as she thought of the hours she’d spent reading of or listening to stories of the Red Temple of Volantes and of the Red Priests and their dedications. He shot her a look and she let it curl one side of her mouth. “Everything fundamentally important.”

He didn’t look as if he believed that claim but he didn’t argue. “Than you of the common practices? That the Red God prefers a blood sacrifice?”

Her own expression shifted minutely as she replied. “I know that men worship as they will.”

He tilted his head at her in acknowledgement. He drew his sword and brought it up to cup the blade with his other. He pulled the blade smoothly across his flesh, undoubtedly splitting skin and staining the edge of his blade with his own blood. “Âeksiō ōños [Lords light]” he murmured clear enough for her to understand and flame immediately danced across the steel with the same sweeping path his blood had stained it.

Arya stepped closer, examining the blade and then to his hand which somehow seemed to have healed over enough to stop bleeding in those moments. She supposed it wasn’t so far fetched a thing to consider when one to into account that the God had sent Beric back from His realm many times before. Why shouldn’t he also be able to heal on a lesser level when his name was invoked? The man in question submerged the tip of the blade into the snow bank nearby to extinguish the holy flame and then gestured her to try it herself.

She drew her much smaller blade from its sheath hidden beneath her cloak and she’d watched him hold his own less than a minute before. Whereas he didn’t take any time before performing the familiar action, she paused first for a long moment, closing her eyes and take a deep frigid breath of air as she calmed her mind and body fully.

She thought back to her days in Braavos, to the years she’d spent serving in the House of Black and White. She thought back to the earliest beginnings, when she still dressed as herself and proudly declared her name with asked. She thought of the countless hours in the dark temple, spent sweeping those expansive stone floors day in and day out. She thought of being asked to give up her identity- to throw everything that remained of Arya away so that she may dedicate herself fully to her God. She thought of the people she had comforted before she fed them the  poisoned water to in order to grant them the mercy the were so desperately seeking. She thought of cleansing the corpses as a rite of passage to the realm of the dead. She thought of the rows and rows of faces preserved hidden within the halls, she thought of the men she herself had sent to greet her God outside of her service a Acolyte, but in a way that had become all-encompassing of who she was over the years…

And she drew Needle across the tender flesh of her hand as she repeated the words in High Valyrian exactly as he had, down to the pitch and intonation. A wave of heat passed beneath her hand just before a flame appeared suddenly from nothing but a trickle of her lifeblood. She pulled her right hand away quickly and glanced down at the shock of burning that seemed to sear across her flesh, leaving behind nothing but a thin scar laid over her palm.

Her eyes moved up to her blade, studying the flame closely enough to feel the heat of them on her face, watching as the colors twisted and danced together across the gleaming steel beneath. Satisfied and secretly a little thrilled, she mimicked him in dousing the fire in the snowbank beside her. When she glanced up again she found them all watching her with varying expressions. She suspected none thought it would work, but she herself hadn’t doubted, not really. Duty to her family may have driven her home, but it didn’t change the beliefs or faith that had been shaping her, or perhaps had been being shaped by her, since she was a little girl.

She nonchalantly retook her seat beside Jaime, not giving them the satisfaction of reacting to any of their looks. Thoros held out his skin of rum across the flame with an entirely new expression on his face as he studied her, and she accepted it with a nod of thanks.

“Just what I need- another burning fucking blade swinging by me in battle.” Came the gruff complaint suddenly from the hush. It broke the lingering tension and a couple of quiet gruffs were heard. Conversation inevitably sparked and resumed, and it continued for some time.

It continued, in fact, until she heard a startled “Arya?” From the walking path nearby their campfire.

She glanced up to see her two elder brothers walking past, both looking at her and her company in surprise. “Brothers.” She greeted them without standing.

They stepped closer, both with matching expressions of displeasure that they half-heartedly tried to hide for the sake of unstable politics. “We looked for you earlier. We could not find you.” Jon told her.

“Because I did not want to be found.” She told him in turn, not offering an explanation nor justification beyond that simple statement.

“Can we.., would you join us? We’ve something we want to talk to you about.”

Her first reaction was to simply turn them away, not sure she was up to any more familial upheaval that night, but she held it back by the skin of her teeth... or perhaps her training. “Oh? What about?” She asked instead, still not rising.

“It’s not something we want to discuss amongst company.. It’s something of a family matter.” Robb spoke up for the first time, glancing pointedly at what must have seemed an unusual blending of companions to him. She supposed it was easier for Jon to overlook her being comfortable in their company- he’d been at the Wall and largely removed from the fighting, but he’d taken these men all on as his own- men no other Northern commander trusted or wanted at their backs. Robb, on the other hand, had been killing Southerns and Lannister soldiers for years- it had to be odd to see his baby sister sitting amongst them.

Arya finally rose to her feet with a neutral expression, her surge of reluctance buried and well hidden. Perhaps this conversation would go better than the last had? One could only hope. She followed the two of them across the grounds and to Jon’s tent that she had done so well avoiding on the way in. It was empty save for Bran when they arrived. Robb and Jon initially looked surprised to see him sitting there, but it didn’t last and they all soon took a seat around the small table set up inside after greeting him. “So, what did you wish to speak to me about?” She asked, not wanting to linger in silence.

They didn’t answer immediately and from the look they exchanged she wondered if they were having seconds thoughts about telling her whatever it was they brought her there for. She continued to watch them expectantly but did not try and pressure them into talking. If they didn’t feel as if they could trust her with this ‘family matter,’ well, that was their decision to make- though if that were the case they really shouldn’t have insisted on her company. She saw Jon glance at Bran, but the younger simply replied “It is your decision.”

Jon turned back to her and leaned closer, resting his wrists on the table between them as he did so. Still he did not speak, nor did either of the other two men. “What is it, brother?” She finally asked, growing concern audible on her voice.

The man flinched as though she struck him, turning his eyes away. “That’s really the thing of it…” He murmured before continuing, stronger, “Arya, what I’m going to tell isn’t known by any outside of our family and Sam- it can’t be known, yet.. if.. well, if ever.”

Arya nodded her head but didn’t speak up, knowing she would likely get information more quickly that way than if she interrupted his train of thought.

“Eddard Stark wasn’t.. Arya, he wasn’t my father. He was my uncle. My mother was his sister, Lyanna.. My father was Rhaegar Targaryen.. I’m not your brother.”

Arya continued to watch him silently as she processed what he had told her. The childish part of her wanted to refute what he claimed, but she didn’t have a logical argument to throw back at him. It made since, really, the more she thought about it. Of course her father wouldn’t have begotten a bastard- he was the most honorable man she’d ever known. Knowing what she did of Robert, she knew he would have ordered Jon’s execution, as he ordered the execution of the other Targaryen children.

Her father had loved his sister- he would have done anything she asked of him, even taken her child as his own to protect him from his best friend’s bloodthirst, whether it was begotten of kidnapping and rape or not. Nodding slightly as she accepted the notion, she met the eyes that had always been a mirror of her own and said “You may not be my brother, but you’re still my blood; you’re still a Stark.” She told him simply but firmly.

He smiled over at her and reached out to ruffle her hair as he’d done when they were children. She felt a surge of annoyance at the gesture, but it was a fond echo from years long passed and so she didn’t argue or pull away.

“Arya.” Bran spoke, pulling her attention to himself. “There’s something I want you to have.” He continued, reaching into his cloak to draw a sheathed dagger with an intricately carved handle. She accepted it, looking at him curiously.

She brought it closer and drew the blade free, drawing a quick inhale when she realized what she was looking at. “This is Valyrian steel.” She spoke reverently as she ran her finger over the curve of the blade just shy of cutting herself.

“It is. And it’s yours.” He told her in the monotone she was becoming familiar with.

“What?” She stated, tearing her eyes from the red ripples to questioned him in disbelief. “Why?”

“It will be of more use to you than to me.” He replied.

“It could be of some use to you. You should always carry a knife, anyway.”

“A knife is useless to a cripple.” He told her simply, as though it hadn’t once been his greatest dream to be a Knight. He continued. “This is the knife that was meant to end my life. Now I want you to have it.”

She frowned at him as she asked, “How did you come by this blade?”

“Petyr Baelish gave it to me.”

“Baelish? What’s he got to do with anything?”

“He’s married to Aunt Lisa now. He’s Lord of the Vale.”

“What?!”

“It matters not. Keep the blade close, I bid of you.”

“Alight.” Arya finally agreed, re-sheathing it and hooking it to her own belt hidden under her cloak. “Thank you.” She felt a wave of tiredness come over her and her arms were heavy from a long days work. “I think I shall retire for the night. If you’ll pardon me, I wish you all pleasant dreams.” She excused herself, standing.

Robb stood at her words. “I’ll accompany you back to the keep.”

“No, that’s all right.” She denied, stepping back, suddenly feeling even more disconnected from her family than she had been, despite her words. Jon was the one she still felt the closest to, even if she hadn’t seen him much since arriving back home. That he wasn’t even her brother.. it felt a hollow ache in her chest, even knowing he was still her cousin. “I’d actually like a few minutes to clear my head, if you don’t mind. I will see you in the morn.”

“Alright..” He agreed reluctantly, settling back across from his brothers. “Pleasant dreams, then.” He bid, echoed similarly by the other two. She took her leave, grateful for the fold breeze hitting her as she exited the stuffy tent.

~*~

She truly did retire back to her room. She tried to go to sleep, but even in the more agreeable nest she’d made for herself beside the fire, she found she couldn’t quite drift off. She felt as if something was going to happen and it left her feeling twitchy and on edge. Some time mid-night she gave up in her attempts and rose. She had her boots on her feet and her cloak around her shoulders in an instant and was out the door without a whisper of sound.

There were far too many well-trained guards in the family halls now a days for her to be truly comfortable anyway, but it was worse that night. She wasn’t sure if it had been that way for years,, or if the numbers had increased with the influx of outsiders gracing their halls, but it was a change from her youth undoubtedly. As such, she made her way to the main area and then out into the courtyard as quickly as she could without appearing to rush.

Once outside, she found herself at something of a loss. She allowed her feet to wander forward without any real direction and she soon found herself passing through the gates and into view of the fields and fields of soldiers. Faced with the decision of left or right, the right was far easier. She continued on until the red banners were overhead and the familiar layout sprawled before her.

She didn’t see Jaime, Bronn or Tywin, but she did spot Samurel further down the chain of lowly burning fires, playing dice with his brother and some of the Lannister soldiers. She made her way closer until they noticed her approach and greeted her cheerfully. They offered her to join them and she did so with a small smile, seeing no reason not to. She still had a few coins tucked into a hidden pocket sewn into the inside of her boot but it was too little to really spend on anything meaningful- a meal or two, perhaps, at an inn, but she could replenish it easily enough if need be.

The game they played was one she had dabbled with before, and involved cards and a bit of strategy as well as dice. They continued their conversations as they had been-the words and stories typical to most soldiers- and thought they weren’t things typically spoken of in front of a High-Born Lady, she was familiar enough and fit well enough that they no longer censored their behavior nor their language around her. She observed them while they finished their current round and then joined them at the start of the next, feeling slightly better for the distraction, though still on edge.

She’d been with them less than an hour- and had more than tripled her money- when she heard footsteps approaching from behind herself. She glanced over her shoulder to find a familiar face frowning at her lightly as he came closer. He stopped several steps away and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword in a resting pose she’d seen him take many times before. She turned away and refocused her attention on the game, playing through until the end of the match.

Collecting her winnings, she bid them good night and rose to join the blond man she knew still stood behind her, even if she hadn’t looked back at him again. She met his eyes as she approached him and cocked a brow in question. He tilted his head back towards the head of the army and then began walking.

She fell into step with him, though he kept his silence until they were a bit beyond the farthest tent and likely out of hearing range of anyone, if not yet out of sight. “What’s wrong?” She asked, frowning up at him.

He shook his head slightly. “Why are you here this late? You should be resting within the keep.”

“I couldn’t sleep.” She told him, feeling a surge of defensiveness try to tighten her shoulders. She forced it away through sheer habit and then asked, “Is there a problem with me being here? I thought myself welcome.”

“Of course you’re welcome.” He said, backtracking slightly, tone lighter. “But the sun is closer to rising than setting. I’m not sure your family would be happy to know you were gambling unaccompanied with Lannister men so late in the night.”

“My family’s opinions don’t hold much sway with me at this point in time. I was not aware it did with you either.”

“I only worry for how it will affect you.”

“That’s kind, but unnecessary. I will handle my family in my own way, you need waste not time in worrying about their opinions.”

“And what of the opinions of my father? Should we disregard those as well?” He asked, tone dripping with acerbity.

“I do not claim know the opinions of your father.” She rebutted.  

“His opinion on the matter is that your reputation remained untarnished amongst us. He’s not told me more, but I’m sure he is scheming about something or other. He always is. Still, he made me agree not to do anything that would bring your honor into question.”

“Is that what he told you the morn after we fell asleep together?” She asked shrewdly. He looked almost embarrassed as he nodded and she wondered what else might have been said that he obviously wasn’t going to share. “If Tywin has some plan that that requires me to fall into line, he should discuss it with me directly. I’m not fond of hidden mutterings nor these types of games.”

“Nor I, but you should know by now that it’s simply how my father’s mind works.”

“All the same, there is nothing shameful in my being in the presence of men to do something as mundane as playing dice.”

“That’s not the opinion shared by all and you know it.” He reminded her pointedly.

She knew he was right but she wasn’t likely to admit it. Instead she responded “None of that changes the fact that I can’t sleep and I refuse to be driven out of my mind in my room simply because some may consider it the proper thing for me to do.”

“Gods your quarrelsome tonight.” He spoke, tone edging towards frustration.

She almost crossed her arms but she refused to give in to the expressive gesture. “Spar with me then.” She challenged.

“Isn’t that what we’re already doing?” He remarked wryly.

“Har har. Seriously though, spar with me. We could both use the outlet.” Her tone was slightly more appealing as she finished, peering up at him earnestly. Perhaps she would burn enough energy to be able to rest afterwards.

“What, here?” He questioned, looking around a bit incredulously.

“Well, no, not right here. We can go into the courtyard. The walls and snow will muffle the sound, but there’ll be a guard or two posted in sight that can verify our lack of indecency, since you’re so concerned for the opinions of others on the matter.”

He sighed and rolled his eyes at her ending jab before giving in and turning towards the entrance to the courtyard. The moon was shrinking, but was still large enough to illuminate the ground by reflecting off the abundant cover of snow. She didn’t waste any time once they were in place, drawing her blade and going on the offensive immediately- before he’d even had the chance to wrap his fingers around his own weapon. He still managed to draw and parry her- he wasn’t considered one of the best knights in the realm for naught, after all- and then return her strike with one of his own.

They traded blows and danced around each other in circles and spins for what felt like an hour. They both eventually began to grow tired and sweat beaded their flesh despite the freezing chill and occasional flurry of snowfall. Arya was pressing him back and he’d come to the edge of the courtyard, under the wooden deck frame that held the walk above. It left them essentially hidden from sight of the guards they had indeed spotted upon their arrival.

Their blades were still crossed, each of them panting thick clouds of white breath into the air between them. Their hearts were pounding equally hard from the prolonged exertion and their adrenaline was flowing from the close calls with live blades. They both tentatively lightened the force behind their holds until they felt that the other wouldn’t inadvertently overpower their withdrawal and cause an accidental injury.

Arya didn’t move back, even as she lowered her blade to hang loose at her side. She found herself remembering the kisses they’d shared before and her eyes found his lip covered in a layer of scruff from nearly a full day and night’s growth. He seemed to sense the turn in her thoughts for he shook his head at her with a brow raised almost warningly.

His free hand came up to rest against her shoulder, intending to push her a step away from where she was almost pressed against his front. She ignored the weak attempt to resist and stood on the tips of her toes for a couple of inches of added height to press her lips against his for only the second time. His eyes clenched in what could have been resignation before his left hand came up to cup the back of her head, his own sword arm also held akimbo so that he blade remained pointed away from them as he gave in and returned her embrace.

It only last a handful of heartbeats before he stopped himself and pulled back forcefully. “No.” He denied weakly despite how firmly he’d leaned back. “We can’t do this, especially not here.” He continued in a harsh whisper.

“Especially not here?” She repeated back at him coyly. “Somewhere else then? Where shall we go then?”

“We’re not going anywhere else.” He denied, looking down at her sternly. “Arya, we just talked about this.”

“No we didn’t,” She argued, voice lowering close to a whisper. “We talked about my dicing with Lannister Soldiers. We didn’t talk about my.. interactions, with you.”

“I am a Lannister Soldier, least you forget.”

“You’re a Lannister Son, that’s not the same thing.”

“Still so contrary?”

“So shut me up.” She dared him.

He sighed through his nose in helplessly desirous despair as she continued to tempt him before he mentally saying to hell with it and spinning them around so that she was the one pressed back against the wall and pinned where he wanted her.

He took less than a second during the motion to sheath his sword, watching as she did the same. He used one arm to wrap around her waist and the other to bury in the back of her hair as he kissed her for all he was worth right there in the shadows of the night and their position.

He pulled back slightly so that he was able to talk in short bursts between the presses of their lips. “We’ve.. been.. out’ve.. sight.. too long..” He managed. “Someone’s.. bound to get.. suspicious.”

“I don’t care.” She replied, her own arms having wrapped around his neck at some point, holding them closer together despite their differences in height. Their lips met again and again, the space between them shrinking to impossibly less. He grew tired of bowing over and so lifted her quite sudden from her feet to press back harder against the wall.

She let out a gasp at the motion and the new angle in which his body molded against her own, bringing her legs up to wrap around his waist for better stability and leverage. Finally at equal height, the exchange grew even more heated.

Footsteps on the wood above became audible from the direction of one of the guards stations and the both pulled back at the same time, glancing up to ensure they were still out of sight. Jaime set her back to her feet silently and they quickly separated, their inappropriateness of their location once again becoming apparent.

They took half a moment to righten their mussed clothes and then stepped casually back out into the open with a shared glance of agreement. Arya accompanied him across the yard and to the gates so they’d be completely out of hearing range and then they both paused.

Arya glanced up at him, disappointed that they’d had to part so quickly after the fighting ended. Her blood was still up and she wouldn’t have minded continuing on in the least, but his own expression clearly showcased that he wouldn’t be distracted again just then. “Thank you for the spar.” She told him instead, meaning it.

“Anytime.” He replied. “There’re few who can keep up with me nearly so well or for so long.” He continued honestly.  

Her lips curled in pleasure and she nodded slightly just once. “Good morrow, Jaime.” She said softly.

“Good morrow, Arya.” He replied just as quietly, glancing down at her swollen and reddened lips, and wishing they weren’t in such clear sight. He turned and walked away instead of giving once more into temptation and instead refused to look back as she left her, until he was once more enclosed in the relative privacy of his tent, alone as was typical for him.  

~*~

Arya watched him until he disappeared into the distance, lips tingling and a heat between her legs and that growing more and more familiar to her. She wondered what might have happened if the guard hadn’t come to investigate what had happened to them. She wondered what might have happened if Jaime hadn’t pulled away from her at the hot spring..

She’d never been overly interested in men or sex before- she’d of course had a clinical interest when she’d spent time in flea bottom and later when she’d been assigned to a Braavosi brothel for several weeks to observe the courtesans and clients alike. Still, she knew there was nothing to be done for it in under such watchful eyes- eyes who would undoubtedly report their findings back to her family, she knew as she turned around and saw one of Robbs men watching her from his position above where they had hidden. He was clearly the source of the footsteps that had split them, but she refused to pay him any further mind as she dropped her eyes and made her way back indoors.

As she stepped back into the warmer air of the keep, the hair on the back of her neck prickled and the calm she had managed to obtain began to drain away like sand in an hourglass. Her brows furrowed as she glanced around in suspicion- she’d long ago learned that it was better to be overly cautious than underly.

Not seeing anything, she silently began to make her way back through the halls until she reached the family wing. She should have felt better once she arrived to see the same guard standing at attention in even intervals at each door lining the hall. She didn’t.

Her sense of trepidation grew as she approached her door, until she almost wanted to turn around and return to the ease of being outside and away from (most) people. She refused to give into such childish notions or fears however, and so pressed forward regardless.

She opened her own door just slightly slower than average, so as to give her a bit of extra time to search for and assess potential threats. She didn’t see anything at first and so she entered more fully, grateful that her someone had tended to her fire and kept it burning despite her absence in her room.

She didn’t notice him at first- didn’t notice anyone or anything out of the unusual aside from how on edge she felt. It wasn’t until she closed the door behind herself that she saw the shadow move.

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

She didn’t notice him at first- didn’t notice anyone or anything out of the unusual aside from how on edge she felt. It wasn’t until she closed the door behind herself that she saw the shadow move.

~*~

Her hand was already hovering near her new dagger and so it was easy for her to draw as she peered deeper into the shadow, trying to make out who it might be. “A girl is worried.” A familiar, accented, voice came from the darkness.  

She stopped in shock, unsure what she should say in response. She had wondered if they would truly allow her to leave unchecked, but she’d hoped they would wait to find her until after the battle had happened. She wondered why he was there specifically- Did he come to bring her back into the fold? Did he come to punish her for running from her duty? Did he come to give her the gift so that she may not ever share the Order’s secrets with outsiders?

He stepped forward and she could finally make out his face. He looked as blank and serene as he ever did and it gave nothing away for her to know his thoughts. She pulled on every skill she had in her considerable arsenal to blank her own face in turn, knowing she was likely giving far too much away already. “Jaqen.” She greeted simply.

He tilted his head in acknowledgement but did not speak immediately. His ever watchful eyes scanned for closely and he considered her for several long seconds. A bit of Arya wanted to speak, if only to break the tense silence, but she held her words stubbornly back. She’d long since learned better to speak when he looked at her in such a penetrating way. “Where you expecting me?” He finally murmured, accented voice bringing an unexpected flair of nostalgia.

“I was expecting something.”

“Are you surprised?” He sounded curious. Perhaps he wondered if she kept her tightly honed observation skills in use after her departure, for it almost seemed as though he was testing her responses.

“No.” She told him honestly. “I wondered if someone might come, and you were one of several names I considered.

“And how do you feel now at knowing it’s me?”

 “I’m not sure, yet.  I suppose that will depend on why you’re here.”

He paused to her thoughtfully once again, seemingly able to read every nuance of her expression as he’d always been able to do, no matter how blank she thought her face to be. “A name has been given.” He told her after a silence.

“My name?”

“No.” He told her with a head tilt. “But one once oft upon your lips.”

Her expression edged towards curiosity despite herself and she stopped herself from stepping closer. “Which name?” She prompted when he didn’t continue on his own.

He hummed. “I’m not yet sure if it’s your concern. It’s not every day a man’s apprentice flees her assignment and disappears without a word. A girl has toed a very fine line in what is allowable. She is lucky she did not stumble any further than she did.”

Arya bowed her head in acknowledgement, knowing she had nothing to argue against and knowing she deserved whatever was to come of his presence and line of questioning. She held hope her life wouldn’t be given that night, but if it was, she at least knew she’d had an effect on the war effort, if she wasn’t able to offer her own blade as well. She spent some time visiting men and women from all parts of the world and would often manage to lead them into conversation in which she could try and soften them towards whichever of their allies they were the least fond of for some reason or other.

It often seemed tedious and pointless, standing for an hour or more in conversation when she’d rather be anywhere else, but when she’d seen Smalljon having a pleasant conversation with one of the Lannister men- a feat that had seen impossible from the Smalljon’s less than quiet grumbles on the subject- she’d know the words she spent hours carefully combing over and crafting had paid off.

She knew the greatest threat to their army was unrest between the previously waring factions, and sometimes she felt as though she was the only one who understand just how doomed they would be if the fell to fighting amongst themselves if the wrong words were uttered around the wrong ears. She had done what she could to sew seeds of comradery, however much it had pained her, and she was willing to accept whatever fate might now await.

She was curious enough on one point to finally break the lingering silence.  “If I might ask- The Lady Crane?” She questioned, tone carefully light.

“Taken care of.”

Her head bowed slightly further before rising in a nod. “I am sorry for abandoning my duties.” She told him remorsefully. “I wish it hadn’t come to that.”

“Why did it? What could cause a girl to give up so suddenly on something she worked so hard for, for so long?”

Her tongue darted out to wet her bottom lip before she could quell the nervous tick. “Have you heard the stories of what is happening here in the North?” She asked him first, knowing he must have but needing him to acknowledge it. The stories were quite odd, after all. He tilted his head again, this time in acknowledgement. “It’s all true. An army of dead men march on the wall, the North, the South, and Dorne have all come to together in an alliance that hasn’t occurred for more than three hundred years. This- what’s happening here- it’s bigger than me, bigger than what I want. I have to be here, no matter how much I may wish it otherwise. My family needs me.” She told him, despite knowing she was supposed to have shed her identity, despite knowing she was admitting to her own failures.

“And what will a girl do once the war is done?” He continued relentlessly, though his tone never shifted from it’s normal accented drawl. “Does she plan to return to the House of Black and White and her swear herself to our God, or does she plan to remain here and forever be known as Arya?’”

She blinked, but answered without allowing herself to hesitate. “A girl doesn’t know yet.” She further admitted. “I haven’t thought of what comes next, my focus has been on helping the world survive the coming night. Jaqen, if we can’t stop them and their army continues to grow, they’ll overtake all of Westeros eventually. I can’t predict what is going to happen or spare time to consider the possibilities. All’s I can do is now is focus on the present and what we can do to increase our chances of surviving this. There’s so many questions, there’s so much I still don’t know right now.”

“Indecision is more of a death sentence than a bad decision. Still, a girl is right in one thing- An army of dead men seems something that needs dealt with, if the stories are indeed spoken true.”

“I’m glad we agree on that point at least.” She paused, before continuing in a tone that most people wouldn’t notice had changed just slightly- quieted, in a way. “What would happen if I didn’t return to the House?” She queried, doing her damnedest not to show how on edge asking that question left her, but always preferring to know than to not.  

He shrugged lightly, not giving any of his own thought’s away just yet. She thought he might have appeared disappointed for the slightest of moments, but it disappeared before she could be sure. “That will depend on a girl, on a man.. on many things.” He told her. “On occasion, there are Faceless men who live outside of the House of Black and White for some reason or another. Most of us live outside for years at a time whilst on assignment, but there are some who live outside from the completion of their training until Death take them. Valar Dohaeris, but the ways in which men may serve are many.”  

“What does that mean for me?” She asked, forcing her body to remain still.

“It may mean nothing or it may mean everything. A man is not yet certain.”

He didn’t outright ask if that was still sure in her devotion, but his open suggestion clearly showcased his desire for a more firm stance than she’d given thus far. It was his right, she supposed, he’d done so much for her. If anyone deserved her honesty, it was him. She finally stepped closer, moving past him and showing her back without worry while she shed her cloak and sword in the warm room.

Jaqen continued to observe her as she turned back to him and moved to the small table situated in the room, gesturing him in an offer to join her. He did so silently, stormy eyes flashing with his curiosity as he waited serenely for her to speak. “My faith has not wavered,” She told him after gathering her thoughts and deciding what she wanted to say, what she had once most wished he could have heard. “and my life still belongs to He of Many Faces, though I owe it to you. You have my loyalty, and my gratitude, and you will continue to hold it for the remainder of my life, however quickly and it whichever manner it may come to an end.. But.. This is my family, these are my people and our lands.. I’m a Stark of Winterfell, I owe myself to them as well, however much I may resist the idea. Now that I’ve returned for a time, I’m not sure I’ll be able to leave the country again as I did before, even if we manage to survive this. I don’t.. You shouldn’t expect me to return, and you deserve to know that, whatever may come of it.”

“I had suspected as much.” He replied, seeing that she was done. “Do you still desire association with our Order, or do you wish to live out your life in anonymity?”

“I owe everything I am to the Order, to you.” She told him honestly. “I would hold onto any piece of it that I’m able. As it stands, I’m feeling something of a sense of loss at the thought of returning so completely to the isolated life I led before. What would it be like to be one who is allowed to live outside the House?”

He shrugged lightly, almost careless. “That can vary by the day. Usually, if a name is given near an Outlier, the assignment is given to them by raven and they carry out the deed without anyone needing be sent. Occasionally other tasks are given. It’s not typically a common occurrence.”

“That sound’s.. reasonable.” She commented thoughtfully, considering it.

“Entirely.” He drawled.

She studied him, wondering at his motivation. She’d expected a much harsher reception from him, and she wasn’t usually so far off in her expectations. “Have you been in Winterfell very long?” She questioned. With how slowly the army had traveled, it would have been well within the realm of possibility for the Faceless to beat her to her destination.

“A man has and he has not.”

“Where have you been when you have not?”

His lips curled and he seemed pleased with her observations. “Only where it was necessary to go.” He told her cryptically.

“What will you do now?” She shifted her question, recognizing she wouldn’t get any more information from him than what she had already on that topic.

“A man will be near for a time.”  

~*~

Bronn besieged him without notice the next morn were Jaime sat alone beside the frontmost fire. The blond glanced across at him in acknowledgement but didn’t move to speak. The silence apparently wasn’t meant to last, because Bronn spoke sooner and on a subject he didn’t anticipate before he was prepared for it. “So where’d you two lovebirds sneak off to in the night?” He asked slyly.

Jaime glanced at him again, sharper than before. “What do you mean by that?” He questioned sternly.

“Saw you.”

“You saw me what?” Jaime asked, growing exasperated at dealing with his grating personality so early in the morn.

“Leave came with the girl late last night- later than most decent folk are up and about. The one you wouldn’t mind fuckin’.”

Jaime shushed him harshly and glanced around to endure none were close enough to have heard him. “We just spared.” He told him, glaring. “In full sight of the Northern guards, mind you- absolutely nothing to get worked up over.”

“Humm.” Bronn hummed doubtfully. “Don’t see many men with the look you’ve got on this early in the morn after a night of simple sparing.”

Jaime considered, just for a moment, confiding in the man who’d become something of a true friend to him. That one moment of indecision was apparently legible on his face, for Bronn’s own expression grew shocked. “No! You didn’t, truly?”

“No!” Jaime exclaimed, barely remembering to keep his voice muted. “I didn’t.”

“You did something.” Bronn told him, tone certain and challenging.

“I-“

“Hah! You did! What did you do?”

“Would you keep you fucking voice down?” Jaime told him harshly. Bronn remained silent, lips puckered and brown pointedly raised as he waited for him to continue. “I didn’t- we just, we truly did spar.” He finished, weaker.

“And after your spar?” The brunette pressed astutely.

“And after… We may’ve.. had a bit of an exchange.”

“An exchange. The fuck does that mean?”

“Why are you so damned curious anyway?”

“I live vicariously though you and your golden cock, as always.”

Jaime scowled at him only to receive a narrowed eyed look in turn. “We.. might’ve kissed, a time or two.” He admitted.

“‘You kissed?’” He repeated, deadpanned. “That’s it? You just kissed and then, what? Went about our business? What are you, a blushing boy of ten?” 

“Har Har.” He mocked the sellsword for the slight. “You’re so funny I don’t know how you even stand to live in your own head.”

“I don’t know how you live with yourself. You managed to get close enough to that dangerous little beast to kiss ‘er and then you didn’t even bother to do anything actually worthwhile? I have to admit, I’m honestly a bit disappointed in you.”

“However will I survive, knowing I’ve caused you such disappointment?”

“I’m sure you’ll manage somehow. How did this little exchange come about, anyway?” Bronn asked then, truly curious.

“That’s none of your business. I’ve said all I’m willing to say on the matter.”

“Really? You’ve hardly said anything at all!” The sellsword complained halfheartedly, but he already knew the blond was resolute from the stubborn expression that had overtaken his handsome features. "Oh fine," he sighed. "What say you we go find a drink to warm our bellies?" 

"Aye, alright." Jaime agreed and rose to his feet. Nothing further was said on the matter that morn, though there were still questions hovering heavily unasked in the air. 

~*~

To be continued

Chapter Text

Three days passed by in a similar manner. Arya took the morning and evening meal with her family and their honored guests whilst she continued to take her midday meal with the men digging the trenches beside her. 

Jaime was kept back by his father on the third day and so she slipped out through the shadows on her own that morning. She took her place in the line that had progressed quite far in such a short amount of time. She didn’t pay attention to who took the place to her right that Jaime had occupied up until then. She didn’t notice him, if fact, until some hours later when she twisted her body to help toss the loosened, though still frozen, soil out of the deepening trench and caught a glimpse of him out the corner of her eye. 

It was Jaqen, digging beside her with the same single-minded determination she herself had been using to ignore the burn in her palms where the rough wood had rubbed raw spots, and the tired ache in her arms and back form the repetitive motion. She had quickly come to realize that not even she was used to continuous motion from near sunup to sundown, coming up on three full days without rest except come night. 

She didn’t let on that she had noticed him. They didn’t speak when they broke for lunch, or even once a bell finally rang to signal that it was time to quit for the day. Arya didn’t move to pull herself out of the deep score in the land, but rather remained standing until they were fully alone and the voices above had faded into the distance and then disappeared completely. She finally turned to face him to find him already studying her with an expressionless face. 

“A girl still shows dedication.” He stated calmly and then paused. She knew he didn’t require or want a response and so she kept her silence until he continued. “It is good to know time has not softened your will nor your stubbornness.” He continued in more of a mummer, not using his normal term of address and catching her attention more fully than anything else could have. “You will need to hold those close should you choose to accept a Man’s offer.” 

 “What sort of an offer?” She questioned quietly when he did not continue. She felt blood drip down her palm from one of the deeper sores and he curled her palm to keep it from dripping onto the ground below- it was an old habit, one taught to her by the man standing before her, the habit to never leave a sign that you had been there behind if you could easily prevent it. 

“A test. To show a man whether or not a girl still truly desires to serve the Many-Faced God.” He told her, reverting to his normal way of speaking. Still, she knew such a shift did not erase the seriousness of the conversation he’d already displayed, and so did not waver in her focus of him. 

Even so, she felt her heart jump beneath her breast and had to maintain control of her expression. “What sort of test?” She questioned again, even quieter. 

“A name has been given. The brother who sought this name before perished in the Red Waste.” 

Essos, she thought to herself as her heart sank right back down. “I cannot travel to the Red Waste right now. I can’t leave Winterfell, not before this battle is won.” She told him honestly, a little surprised herself at the amount of disappointment she felt. 

“This person is no longer in the Red Waste- nor in Essos as a whole.” He told her, seeming to read the thoughts straight from her mind. “They are much nearer than a girl can imagine. Will a girl accept this test? Or shall a man gift this name to the Many-Faced God with his own hands?” 

“A girl accepts. Whose name has been given?” She told him with no further, visible, hesitation. 

The corner of his lip pulled into a familiar curl and she could tell that he was pleased. “Daenerys Targaryen.” He told calmly as he observed her face for a show of emotions. Her brows furrowed slightly, for a Queen surrounded by armies of men was more than anything she could have imagined. Her mind immediately began to race with plans and ideas as she thought it through. Though not a name she had expected to hear, it made sense that the Faceless Men would have been called in for such a person. 

Her thoughts were interrupted suddenly when he unexpectedly continued. “The price for her name ways paid more than four years ago by a man named Petyr Baelish at the behest of King Robert Baratheon. The price was for herself and her child both, but her child perished at the hands of a witch her people had taken as a slave- the same witch who was responsible for taking the life of her husband.” 

Arya looked at him for a long moment before she responded. “Why are you telling me this? I’ve never been given any information beyond the name itself before.” 

“A Man wants a Girl to take this test knowing all of the facts, so that there may be not lingering questions as to whether or not the test was carried out due to dedication to our ways or ignorance that will lead to regret.” 

“I did not leave because I regret.” She told him, catching the deeper meaning behind his words. “I left because I had to. I left because I could no longer allow myself to be selfish and take the path I desired over the obligations left over from my past.” 

He nodded his head in acknowledgement but did not address her words just then. “Does a girl have any questions? If so, let them be answered now.” 

 Arya resisted the urge to bite her lip and considered what questions she truly had. In the beginning, she'd had many. She had fewer as time passed- partially due to finding the answers on her own and partially due to the knowledge and acceptance that not all answers where hers to know. “King Robert is dead.” She spoke finally. “If the Faceless Man hunting her is dead already, as is the man who named her to begin with, there lies two lives in exchange for her own. Why does that not settle the debt? 

“It is not to us to know when a debt is settled. A name was given, a price was paid, and we will continue to do our jobs until the one named meets Death.” 

Her head bowed slightly in a nod of acceptance. “The Queen is important to the war efforts here. We won’t be able to win without her soldiers and her dragons.” She said next, no further questions coming to her tongue save for her timeline. 

“Death in certain, the time is not.” He stated, repeating the words he had spoken to her so long ago in Harrenahal. 

Though he didn’t explicitly say it, the permission to wait until after the battle to claim her name was clear to her in the words spoken. Her chest lightened but she still felt at a loose end. “What would you have me do in the meantime?” 

“A girl who was so determined to remain Arya Stark should be Arya Stark, now that she has the opportunity.” 

“A girl has spent so much time trying not to be, she’s not sure she remembers how.” She confided in him quietly. 

He studied her for another long moment before he replied. “Arya Stark is not someone a girl needs to remember how to be. People change, experiences shape us, we naturally evolve over the years. There is nothing wrong in that. A girl does not need become Arya, Arya is a girl, however different of a girl she might have become over the years.” 

“That’s not what you said at the House.” 

“A girl had a different goal, then.” He told her as if it were that simple. “And now things have changed.” 

“Will you stay in Winterfell?” She asked after a thoughtful moment of quiet. “Until a name is given? Even if it takes months?” 

“That is not certain. A man is here now- that too might change. Only time can tell.” 

“Will I see you here again?” 

The corner of his mouth tugged up again. “Well now, that is up to a girl- has she still the skill to see a man when he does not wish to be seen?” It was a challenge she knew, mayhap another test entirely. He continued before she could formulate a response. “A girl is missed. She should return to her family.” 

Arya glanced in the direction she knew the keep to be, though she couldn’t see it over the deep trench walls. She nodded in agreement, knowing it was likely true. She turned away from him and moved closer to the wall. She jumped slightly so she could grab the top and levered herself over the edge. It was only once she was standing on the flat edge that she glanced back down. “Thank you, Jaqen.” She uttered softly before turning and beginning to trek back to the gates, surrounded by darkness and silence. 

~*~

It was full dark when she finally arrived back in the keep and, though she knew she still had time to join her family and their guests for part of the evening meal, she was filthy and smelt of a disgusting combination of mud and stale, frozen sweat. Thus, instead of seeking food, she headed directly to her room to find the hand maiden waiting outside her door as expected. She was pleased to see the woman for a change and sent her immediately off to fetch hot water for a bath. 

She entered her room and wandered over to the window while she waited, thinking back over what had just happened. Her mind moved to the insurmountable task before them- a task of which the woman named could mean victory or defeat and could determine whether or not her family survived the coming battle. 

It seemed somewhat twisted to be plotting the death of the woman so near to her own age in the wake of such an unbelievable victory, but the Many-Faced God had already been waiting years. She knew the House would want to make good on the transaction as soon as possible and that they wouldn’t tolerate her delaying any further than was absolutely required. 

Not that she necessarily wanted to delay such a thing anyway. The woman who held such delicate fragility in her features was anything but gentle in her own right. No, in truth she was cold and bloodthirsty, as she’d already proven despite her young age. Arya had been hearing whispers about the Targaryen madness returned to the world once more for quite some time now. 

She wondered if her family knew of some of the things this woman had done in her conquest- of the cobblestoned streets stained red in her wake, of the innocents slain indiscriminately along with the guilty- for if they didn’t wear a collar themselves, they were just as guilty as the slavers in the Dragon Queens mind- of the children she’d allowed her dragons to feed on along with the goats, of the men she’d burned without mercy… She wondered if her brother knew, as seemingly smitten as Jon was with the blood thirsty woman.  

She wondered if he would be upset once she was dead. Oh, she wasn’t worried that he would be upset with her, for she was far too good at what she did to be found out unless she wanted to be. No, she wondered how upset he would be with her death in general. She wondered if she would feel guilty when the time came for causing him that pain, but she did not yet know the answer. 

Instead, she turned her mind back to the parts that made sense to her. She would have to use the utmost caution to be successful in this task. She would have to be discreet and leave no evidence behind that could possibly lead back to her. It couldn’t be bold or outright, she would have to have a plan and several backups for good measure.  

Her best bet would be to use a natural remedy to bring about the Queens death in a way that would appear as if she had caught some illness, or have a wound fester if she was lucky enough for the woman to become injured at some point in the future. She would have to rebuild her supplies, for she hadn’t brought much in the way of poisons or tonics from the house and so she would have to start from the beginning. It would be easier now that she had her pack to use. 

She heard the maids finish and depart- she had made in clear in the beginning that she did not require assistance to bathe- and so she moved to latch the door locked so no one could intrude and then stripped on her way back to the sizeable tub. Her mind continued to twist and churn as she stepped into the hot water and then lowered herself without allowing time to adjust to the temperature, sinking down and down until she was fully submerged and the sounds of the keep became muffled beneath the waters weight. 

~*~

The next morning, she rose early and made her way to the armory to find a bow to practice with. It had been some time since she’d been able to practice and she wanted to make sure her skill remained honed before attempting one of the things on her list. She spent a good hour practicing with the targets before she was satisfied enough to head inside to break her fast. 

Her cheeks were rosy from the cold when she arrived and it was clear that she was coming inside and not from her room. She could see the disapproval on her mother’s face, but what for she wasn’t sure this time. “Good morrow.” She greeted the room politely as she took her seat and began filling her plate from the meager but hearty offerings laid out before them. 

“We missed seeing you yesterday.” Sansa spoke after her greeting was returned. 

“You saw me for breakfast yesterday.” Arya reminded her sister. 

“Yes, but not all day or for supper.” 

“I was not hungry.” She replied easily. “I retired early.” 

Her mother cleared her throat and they cut their conversation in a manner very similar to when they were children. The rest of the meal passed by with sometime tense conversation to be had on occasion. When the meal was over, Catelyn asked for her presence before she could escape the room. Robb and Sansa remained as well, though everyone else took their leave without comment. 

“Would you care to tell us where you have been spending your days?” Catelyn asked once they were alone. 

She thought briefly of not answering truthfully but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “I have spent my days in the trenches, preparing for the battle.” She told them instead. 

They seemed surprised by her easy response but her mother still frowned. “The trenches are no place for a Lady. There are plenty of men to do the digging without you having to strain yourself as well.” 

“It was not a strain. I wanted to do my part.” She responded calmly. 

“Alone?” Sansa asked from beside their mother, tone pointed. 

“I’m hardly alone when surrounded by our men.” 

“Not just our men.” 

“Could we stop with the pretense and talk about what you have actually brought me here for?” Arya asked, starting to become annoyed. 

“The same could be said to you.” Sansa returned. “You know of whom I speak.” 

Arya smiled coldly at her elder sister. “Jaime was not with me yesterday, he remained in the Lannister camps.” 

“And before that?” 

“We’ve spent much time together. We traveled the Kingsroad together, if you’ve forgotten.”  

“It’s not proper for you to spend time alone with a man.. Especially one of his.. repute.” 

“We haven’t been alone.” Arya defended, which was only a small lie. “You need not worry for my virtue.” 

Catelyn cleared her throat, drawing all their attention. “Yes, your virtue. I trust it is still intact?” The woman asked, only sounding slightly uncomfortable. 

Arya froze deeper from her already still stance. “The state of my virtue is hardly your concern, Mother. Again, I am a woman grown.” 

“You are a betrothed woman, and the state of your virtue matters to all involved.” 

Arya’s lips twisted as she fought to contain her scowl. She kept her silence, choosing not to respond rather than say something that would likely offend or upset the woman who was already flushed in the face with her own heightened temper. “Lord Walder has requested you be checked by a Maester to ensure your purity is still intact.” Catelyn continued more delicately. “He wishes to proceed with the wedding within the fortnight.” 

“And when did Lord Walder make this request?” She asked coldly. 

“This morn, by raven.” 

“And if I decline?” 

“You do not have an option to decline. He has the right to make such a request under the old rites.” 

“And if I am not pure?” 

Catelyn’s face paled and became blotchy at the points the blood still simmered beneath the surface. Her lips pressed tightly together. “Lord Walder has stated an impure bride is not worthy of his better sons. He did not specify just what he meant by that but I don’t imagine it to be anything good.” 

“And yet you would still give me to him?” Arya asked curiously, tilting her head. 

“The deal has already been made, Arya, there is nothing we can do.” 

“No… There’s nothing you can do. Do not worry, Mother, I will take care of myself, as I always do.” She told the woman and turned to leave despite the voice demanding her back. She had things she wanted to do this day and it did not include some wrinkly old Masters fingers examine her womanhood. 

~*~

The day ended up being productive, despite its rough beginning. She was able to find several of the herbs and plants she needed to add to her pack and she had them rolled carefully into a pocket so that she could dry and process them once she was back in her room. She’d made her way to the kitchens to gather a couple of components from there as well, and back to the armory for a reserve of oil to use for her tonics. 

She visited the Lannister camp and had another match of Cyvasse with Tywin, where she confided in the man that she was to be married within the coming weeks. The Lord already seemed to know, for his face scarcely twitched as he considered his move. He didn’t respond until he took his turn and she was considering her own move. “And here I thought you already took care of that.” 

“How did you hear that?” She asked, peering up at him to see an unimpressed expression staring back at her. “Right.. I will take care of it. I won’t let him win.” 

“And what if you had another option?” He asked her seriously. 

“What do you mean?” She questioned back as she moved her own piece. 

“An option that did not require you going to war with the old Frey. You’ve already laid the groundwork- shown how difficult and unfitting you are. It’s likely only his stubbornness and desire to have a Stark woman in his house that continues to drive him.”  

“What sort of option would force him away without a fight?” 

“As with all men, Money tends to be very compelling.” 

“Why would we give him money?” She asked, confused. 

“I could, potentially, buy out his contract.” 

“I still don’t understand.” Though she thought she was beginning to. 

He gave her a look but explained anyway. “I could pay off the debt your family has to his in exchange for control over your marriage contract.” 

“Why would you want control over my marriage contract?” She asked, even quieter, equal parts eager and dreading to hear what he might say in response. 

“I want you as my good-daughter.” He told her bluntly, as was his way. “You would marry Jaime, give him an heir of his own and one day help him rule over Casterly Rock. You would remain loyal to him, guide him in his stubbornness, and watch out for the wellbeing of the Lannister name once I am unable to do so myself.”

She drew in a sharp breath- it was one thing to suspect such a plan, but quite another to hear it spelled out so definitely. “Jaime is in the Kingsguard, he cannot marry.” She told him weakly. 

“That can be corrected, should you do your part in convincing him to give it up. It is only his stubbornness that keeps him there.” 

“What makes you think I can convince him of anything?” 

He sent her a droll look. “You think me so ignorant that I don’t know what you and my son have been getting up to when you’re left alone?” 

She felt herself flush and it was an odd sensation with how in control she normally was over her responses. “And what if I can’t marry?” 

“And why can’t you?” he asked, clearly humoring her, though she knew such goodwill was limited at best. 

“I.. I’ve always sworn I wouldn’t subject myself to such nonsense.” 

He considered her thoughtfully, features still stern but less so than she might have expected. “You’re going to marry eventually, whether you will it or not.” He told her simply as though it were an indisputable fact. “Such are the times we live in. Marriage itself, however, need not be the terrible fate you seem convinced it is. You parents had a good marriage, I hear. It is surprising that you are so resistant to the idea.” 

She dropped her eyes back to the gameboard, though Tywin made no move to take his turn. “I know that my parents learned to love each other with time.” She told him. “That’s not my problem… I’ve been told that I would be married one day since I was a little girl- that it was my place to bare some lords’ children and run his household somewhere far from my home. I’ve never wanted that. I’ve fought the idea for a long time.”  

“Which part?” He questioned her, drawing her gaze back to his own sharp blue eyes. “That you would leave your home? You’ve already done that- at your own behest and at theirs.” He spoke, referencing when she’d been so close and yet turned away before. "That you could bring yourself to care for a man? Take him to your bed? You’ve been close to doing that already as well.” He told her; tone slightly more scolding than before. 

“Mayhap I simply don’t want to bare any children. Why would I want to carry a babe for nearly a year and then tear my body apart bringing it into the world?” She questioned bluntly in turn. She felt bad when she saw him flinch slightly, though she wasn’t sure what had caused it. 

“You are young yet.” He told her; tone unchanged despite what his face had given away just a moment before. “But marriage is not all you think that it is. It’s not just ‘running some lords’ household’ or baring his children. It is a partnership, it is having another person at your side through times of challenge and joy both. Tell me, has my son ever spoken to you of his mother?” 

Arya shook her head, not breaking her own silence in a desire to hear what he had to say. No one had every spoken with her so frankly about marriage before and it was intriguing to gain another prospective. “Joanna was… so much more than simply the mother of my children. She was my confident, my council, the counterbalance to my stubbornness and temper. She was the true strength of my family … As you will one day be of yours. You remind me a bit of her, you know. She was intelligent too, and stubborn to a fault in her own way.” 

“What happened to her?” 

His jaw clenched and unclenched before he answered. “She died in the birthing bed with Tyrion.” 

It was on the tip of her tongue to point out further evidence as to why she shouldn’t allow herself to become with child, but she couldn’t bring herself to be so needlessly cruel when he’d shared something so personal with her. She knew he wouldn’t appreciate pointless platitudes and so she did not offer any. He continued before the silence could linger, changing the subject back to the main point of their conversation. “Agree to marry my son and you have my word that your future won’t be the tragedy you think it will be. You will have more power as a member of my house than you can fathom.” 

~*~

Chapter Text

When Arya left Tywins tent, her head was abuzz and she felt too tight in her skin. A part of her- a growing part of her- wanted to flee Winterfell all together, return to a nameless, faceless state where the only expectations of her were of her Service to the House and He of Many Faces. 

She wasn’t ready to return to the keep or interact with anyone she knew just then, and so instead she decided to pursue another task on her list which would take her far from both parties. She did have to duck back into the Armory to retrieve her borrowed bow, but she did so from the shadows and went unseen. She headed toward the thus far unexplored Dothraki camp at a sedate pace, using the time between to take deep breaths of the frigid air and trying to regain the innate sense of calm that she was so desperately missing. 

She began to hear the Army before she could see them, situated as they were farther from the gates of the keep. She wasn’t sure why their placement had been determined in such a way, but she suspected it was their own preference to remain as isolated from the bulk of the foreigners as possible, not that she would blame them. 

She’d seen a Dothraki camp before and so the rough-hewn tents were familiar to her, as were the guttural words being spoken over the general hubbub of a such a large grouping- though it seemed almost unnatural to experience such a scene atop fresh fallen snow rather than the warm sun-stained sands of the far East. 

She entered the camp unobstructed, but could see the hard brown eyes watching her every move as she began to make her way deeper amongst the horse-lords. While she knew the general nature of the Dothraki, she’d hoped that their Khal being a woman of similar stature to herself would have shifted their mindset slightly away from ‘take’ and ‘mount’ as was normal for them when it came to their women. 

It was so far holding true, but she knew those camping at the head of the army were going to be those of a higher rank, so likely more loyal to their Khaleesi and thus more likely to report her presence. No, she would be better served making for the middle of the Army, and so that’s where she went. Her eyes were sharp and constantly scanning her surroundings, for despite her relative confidence in her plan, she was very aware of the danger surrounding her and of her odds of success decreasing, should things take a turn against her, the further in she wandered. 

She eventually came upon a group of three lounging near a campfire and roasting what looked to be a mangled rabbit. It caught her attention enough to wonder how they’d caught it, for she knew the Dothraki typically survived on what they could pillage, steal, trade, and their horses- both in their milk and their meat. They definitely weren’t hunters in the traditional sense and, though she knew they could shoot a bow and swing an Arakh, the rabbit appeared to have met a much more.. blunt… end to its life. 

She shook the thought free and stepped closer to gain their attention. “Mathchomaroon. [Hello.]” She greeted them roughly, though she was fairly sure she had gotten the pronunciation correction. 

M’ath [ Hi ].” The man furthest from her responded, being the one also facing her head on. She thought he might have been mocking her, but she pressed on regardless. 

“Anna hake ajjin Arya. Anha tikh allayafi tat jerat. Tikh yer? [My name is Arya. I would like to trade. Would you?]” She said slowly and carefully shaping the words. 

The man’s large head tiled. “Athchomar chomakea Arya, anna hake ajjin Razhako. Fin tat ato zala tat jerat? [Greetings Arya, my name is Razhako. What does one wish to trade?]” 

“Anha zala tat tiholat hash at vorsa jin kohol kininosi akka ki Dothraki. Anha tat vo tiholat hash san me ajjin tat yer che fin yer tikh zala ser jerat. [I wish to learn how to fire a bow in the way of the Dothraki. I do not know how much it is worth to you or what you would want in trade.]” 

The man’s head tilted further, eyes boldly scanning her from head to toe. He said something but it was too fast for her to make out. Whatever it was, it caused his companions to laugh and some of the closer surrounding men to glance over at them. He spoke again as he met her eyes. “Yer? [You?]” He challenged as he leered. 

She kept her face blank and composed. “Anha laz hadean ha yer. Anha tiholat jin rhaesh chek. [I could hunt for you. I know this land well.]” 

The man’s face lost most of its mirth and became thoughtful. “Anha allayafi hare . [I like hare .]” He stated, over-pronouncing ‘hare’ like it was a word he had only just learned, glancing down at the deformed lump of meat cooking over their fire. 

“Ato anni davra. [One of my specialties.]” She told him easily. 

“Sen hare ha kasha, ha anna akka anna qoy. [Three hare for each lesson, for me and my blood.]” He offered after a pause, gesturing at the two men beside him.

“Sek. [Deal.]” She confirmed easily, for she only intended this to take one lesson- three rabbits were more than a fair price for such a skill. He likely expected it to take longer- but his experience was also likely with young Dothraki who hadn’t her already honed skill to rely on. 

The man glanced up at the weak sun filtering through the overcast sky. “Hazze ajjin san asshekh elat. Yer elat ajjin akka kisha laz asshekh. [There is much daylight left. You go hunt now and we can start today.]”

She nodded her assent, for she had expected that they’d want to be paid upfront. “Anha tih tikh irge ahhaz. [I will be back soon.]” 

She still didn’t wish to go back to the keep, so instead of returning for her horse, she made her way on foot for the cropping of woods that was  nearby the Dothraki camp. It took some time for her to get far enough for the sounds to fade again, even despite the muffling effect of the snow, but she eventually reached a quiet spot that had a thinner covering of show across the ground thanks to a thick cropping of trees above. 

Arya moved silently over to a spot that gave her a good vantage point and readied her bow, though she did not yet draw the string. Then, she waited. Food was becoming scarce both from the winter and from the large number of people residing nearby, so she expected it would take some time, but she was patient. 

In the end, she was fortunate and it took just over two hours for her to get the three promised rabbits, plus two extra, and she make it back with a good hour or so of light left. It was easy to find the three men again and when she did, she found that one of their mounts had been readied and stood lazily nearby, ready for her lesson. 

She received a smile from the men when she placed her bounty beside their fire. Razhako pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the reins of the mount waiting and began leading him away without a word. She followed without hesitation, not wanting to lose him in the bustle of the camp, and they soon came to the clearing beside the furthest tents. Rough targets had been set at random distances and intervals along a relatively straight stretch of land that ran from one end of the camp to the other. 

It looked well-trod, the snow having been ground down into the dirt until it was just one long line of brown amongst the stretches of white snow. She listened intently to the few brisk instructions he gave her and watched even more intently as he leapt up on his horse to show her firsthand. She watched as he started in a normal riding position and then pushed himself up in one swift move to situate his feet instead on his horses back, weight evenly distributed while his legs remained in a crouch so that he really wasn’t all that much taller than he’d been fully sitting. 

He showed her first at a standstill, and then at an easy canter passing by in front of her. He circled around her, still in his stance, and then drew his own bow from his back to take aim at the nearest targets. She watched as his legs flexed to keep him balanced, his knees absorbing the shock, she watched where he let the reins fall and how his horse responded to the action, watched as he shifted his stance slightly while drawing his bow, watching how he counteracted the pull and release to keep his aim steady despite the motion. 

He circled around a final time and came to a stop in front of her, dismounting easily and then holding the reins out for her to take. She stepped forward and accepted the leather, looking up at the steed that was larger than any she had attempted to mount before, but she would not ask for assistance. Instead, she stepped back so that she level with his withers, body facing his hind end and left hand holding onto the top of the saddle. She moved suddenly, putting all of her strength into her arm and legs as she leapt off the ground and pulled herself up and over the animal that was much larger than she. 

What she felt was the biggest obstacle accomplished, she nudged the mount into a walk, getting a feel for his stride. The stirrups were too long for her to use, but she wouldn’t really need them anyway and so did not bother with trying to adjust them, instead ignoring them as they hung loose beside her legs. She could see now that she was sat upon it that the padding of the unique saddle had a ridge built upon it on either side where he’d had his feet positioned. She practiced transition herself to a crouching position while at a walk until she felt comfortable with the motion and where her feet needed to land. 

She eventually nudged the horse into a canter and rode a full length down and back normally to get used to his long and easy rhythm. Only after she circled Razhako did she attempted to stand at the increased speed. Her first attempt was a failure as her foot slipped during the transition and she sat down hard again upon the saddle. She learned from her mistake in timing, however, and was able to get on her feet the second attempt. 

Unlike Razhako, Arya continued to hold the reins as she got used to balancing upon her feet atop the moving animal. She learned to minutely shift her weight with each stride to keep her equilibrium steady as she rode. She went down and back twice and was feeling a burn in the top of her thighs before she was satisfied. She dropped back into her seat as she circled the horse around again and reached up to feel her bow’s position after all the movement. 

She looked back over at her teacher to see him looking somewhat impressed with her quick progress. He nodded at her somewhat questioning look and so she led the mount back to the far end of the path. She nudged him again into a canter and popped immediately to her feet, holding the reins from her crouch and giving herself the first length to match his stride. She took him in a wide circle at the end of the path and the dropped the reins with a deep breath once he was pointed back down towards the camp. She reached up and carefully drew her bow along with an arrow and then focused back on her balance until the first target was closer. It almost seemed as though she might miss her chance when she drew and released suddenly and without pause to aim, firing once, twice, thrice, and taking out the first three targets in a couple of heartbeats. 

Arya paused and checked herself while they drew closer to the fourth target, which was the last that was somewhat even before they began to space out in distance more sporadically.  She drew a deep breath as she drew the fifth arrow and then released it, and a sixth, seventh, and eight arrows in succession. She made her way down the full range of targets and hit every single one, though a couple of the shots were more off center than she would normally like, she was pleased with her success as she reached the end. 

She could feel herself smiling as she dropped into the seat and regained the reins to pull the mount around to head back, only to spot the Dragon Queen herself standing the head of the camp, her brother standing at her side and both of them watching her from the short distance away. Her smile faltered slightly in surprise but she nodded to the two of them regardless before riding away from them and back to her teacher. 

She dismounted gracefully before Razhako and moved around to pat the horses neck gratefully. It snorted a cloud of breath into the cold air and stomped at the ground as it tossed its head. “I should have asked for a better price.” The man told he in his native language, sounding amused and impressed both despite the harsh quality Dothraki. 

“Mayhap we’ll do business again and you can make up for it.” She told him with a smile. “And you did get two extra rabbits to go with the one you already had.” 

“Aye, that is true.” He told her. "Until next time, then." She thanked him for his assistance and moved to gather her arrows with a lingering sense of success as he turned back towards his camp and disappeared amongst the crooked paths within to supp on his boon. 

~*~

Arya did return to the keep for supper in a half-hearted attempt to keep the peace despite knowing her lady Mother was likely already going to be irate with her for disappearing for another full day and in the face of the old Frey’s ‘ request .’ She did wait until the very last minute that could be considered polite, however, in a slightly more likely bid to keep the silence whilst in the presence of their guests. 

As expected, sharp blue eyes fell on her as she took her seat, but the woman’s lips remained pursed and silent for the time being. She would take all the reprieve she could get- honestly, she knew dealing with her family would be tiresome and require patience, but she hadn’t expected it to be so exhausting . Still, she would not allow another tense meal to ruin her regained good mood and so she played ignorant to the tenseness of her family while eating just slowly enough to not be considered rude. She was ready to retreat for the night and was determined not to be kept behind again. 

~*~ Jon’s POV ~*~

Jon watched his little sister from his own seat farther down the table. He didn’t make a habit of taking supper within the keep, but had decided to join Daenerys after seeing Arya at her camp. He hadn’t yet decided if he would tell Robb of what he had seen, he wasn’t yet sure of how he felt about it himself, without bringing someone else’s opinion into it. The only comment the Queen had made was “Your sister is very talented.” In a somewhat bland tone of voice he had grown use to when she wanted to keep her thoughts guarded. 

He wanted to see if she acted any differently than she had the last time he saw her, but he could find no difference in her persona. She was still tensely polite, much more so than she’d ever been in her youth. It seemed she’d learned to cull her loose tongue at some point, for now it seemed every word she spoke was carefully considered beforehand. 

She was nearly impossible to read, all of her tells of youth lost in the winds of her past and he found himself mourning for the girl that was so changed from when he left her all of those years ago. His step-mother caught his attention as she whispered to one of the men waiting nearby to take care of their needs. He watched as the man walked further down the table and leaned over his sister to quietly deliver his message to her alone. 

He watched as Arya’s eyes darted over to her mother before looking away dismissively. Arya had always been a wild child, but now she seemed almost scornful of her family. Surely it couldn’t all be because of the betrothal? Of course he’d been furious himself when he found out- not that she’d been betrothed, for that had always been expected, but of whom she’d been betrothed to.  He couldn’t believe Catelyn and Robb, who toted Family above all else, would marry off the youngest Stark Daughter to the very family who had betrayed the Tully’s some years before. It had seemed outrageous at first, but war made for desperation everywhere, he supposed, and he'd hardly been in a position to protest on her behalf from the Wall. 

He wondered how Arya would deal with such a marriage, not to mention married life in general. He couldn’t imagine her taking to it gracefully, even had it been someone she was more fond of. He thought back to what she had confided in him and Robb within his tent, of training to be a faceless man, only to abandon all they stood for to return home. It all seemed so.. fictitious, so unbelievable, and yet… He hadn’t sensed any mistruth in her, which was something he’d become rather practiced at himself over the years. 

He would find himself watching her at times, to see if she gave anything away that could prove or disprove her claims, but she was always so in control of herself- even when she was upset, angry, and annoyed. He’d been tempted to push her himself, to see if he could get some kind of honest reaction out of her, he was ashamed to admit. He never did, of course, he could see she got more than enough of that from her Mother, sister, and even from Robb at times, when he got pulled in despite himself. 

Still, what he had witnessed today, what he had witnessed when she took on the Hound and walked away victorious, despite her claims that he let her win, the way she held herself and interacted with those around her, he was finding it harder and harder to figure her out rather than it becoming easier over time as it should have. Perhaps he would try to get some time with her away from everyone else- Stark and Lannister alike- he mussed as he watched her finish her food and politely excuse herself as her Mother was caught in conversation she couldn’t easily dissect herself from just then. Maybe then he could find some of the girl he remembered still within the dangerous and guarded woman that had returned in her place. 

~*~

The next day, Arya ducked out of the keep before even her hand maiden could arrive to get her ready and managed to avoid her family until high noon, when another shipment of goods arrived just before the trenches were announced to be finished in full. The combination of the two things apparently meant they needed yet another celebration, though Arya couldn’t fathom why they would waste the resources. She found, however, that these festivities were much quainter in nature than her homecoming had been. Truly, it was little more than the Keep’s residents and visitors taking a slightly more hearty than normal supper together in the great hall and then partaking in heavily watered down ale and song. 

She kept her distance once again until just before it would be impolite and then slipped in just before the food was brought. She’d decided against changing, and so still wore her pants and tunic under her cloak rather than one of the dresses that had been commissioned and delivered to her room without so much as her knowledge that such a thing was taking place. 

The dinner portion of the evening passed by easily enough, but she was stalled when she tried to slip away and join the crowd. It seemed her behaviors were becoming predictable, for Sansa laid a hand on her leg to stop her as soon as she moved to rise. The music coming to life muffled the conversations and created something of a cover between them and the noise from the rest of the room. 

“Please, sister, join us in Mother’s solar for a time.” Sansa bid, though it did not sound like a request. She glanced past her sister to see the stern expression on her Mother’s face, and then further to see her eldest Brother’s uncomfortable expression and his wife’s almost pitying one. Sansa rose gracefully and placed and hand on her shoulder to help her rise. 

She stood reluctantly, deciding to see what this was about before making a scene of herself. She allowed herself to be led through the more discreet door by the head table and through the halls to the room her Lady Mother spent so much of her time in. She was sat down in a chair, though the three members of her family remained standing around the room and she very quickly felt almost pinned in the center of them. “Might I ask what this is about?” She questioned tensely as the room felt to silence, obviously waiting for something else to occur. 

A quiet knock came upon the door before anyone responded, and Catelyn moved immediately to open it. A elderly man wearing Maester’s robes entered the room, a small bag holding some unknown supplies held at his side. “Are we ready to begin?” He questioned quietly, glancing directly at her and confirming everything she needed to know. 

“We’re still waiting for one more.” Catelyn told him, offering him a seat of his own. 

Deciding she definitely didn’t like where this was going, Arya rose from the chair despite the stares that immediately pierced her at the motion. “Mother, what is going on?” She asked again, more directly, wanting the woman to actually admit to what was happening. 

“You’ll see soon enough. Sit down, child.” The woman told her without answering anything. 

“I’m sure I can guess, even if you won’t speak of it freely.” Arya stated, disgust entering her voice at the lack of confirmation. How ignorant did the woman think she was? “It was only two days ago you threatened me with a Maester, after all.” 

“It’s hardly a threat, Arya, there is no need to be so dramatic about this, it’s all perfectly normal.” 

“No need to be so dramatic about being forced bare in front of my family so that some wrinkly old man can examine me against my will?” ‘I’ve killed men for less than this,’ she wanted to say, but she held herself back with a hard-won wash of self-control. “Tell me, Mother, who else are we waiting for? I suppose the Lord Frey wants to bare witness to this as well?” 

She saw her mother’s eyes close from where she stood, but she did not speak up to confirm or deny the words Arya spoke like an accusation. Arya turned away in disgust and attempted to make for the door, but was stopped by a strong hand on her shoulder and her brother’s sympathetic eyes staring down at her, even as her prevented her escape. “I’m sorry, sister.” He told her softly. 

“You’re sorry?!” She exclaimed before allowing her head to fall back slightly as mocking laughter burst from her throat. She suddenly couldn’t contain it anymore- all of the anger, frustration and hurt she’d been holding back out of some misguided desire to keep the peace, at pretending some part of her was still the same so that her family wouldn’t, what, turn away from her? They’d already done that, hadn’t they? Why was she the only one trying to hold it all together? What cost was she willing to pay to do so?

“What part is it that you’re sorry for, Brother?” She demanded, shaking his hand off her shoulder and turning to face him in full. “Are you sorry for this? Sorry that it’s happening so suddenly? Sorry for selling me in the first place?” 

“Arya, we didn’t-“ 

“Spare me, won’t you? Don’t worry- this isn’t sudden or unexpected for me. I’ve known about your little deal for years now.” 

“Wh- What?” He stuttered, glancing over at their mother in confusion. 

“Surprised?” Arya mocked, feeling even more scornful at his reaction. This man, her brother, was supposed to be a King and couldn’t even face her- face his own decisions, head on? He had to look to his mother for guidance, even now as a man grown and a husband and father in his on right?  

“Do you remember when I told you that I had traveled with the Hound? That he was going to bring me home after the Brotherhood became distracted in hunting the Lannisters? Well, what I failed to mention before, what you failed to ask about, is that we made it home. We were less than a days travel from the keep when I heard about it- about my betrothal to a nameless Frey in exchange for a one time bridge crossing.” Her voice had quieted, but into a cold anger as she let loose everything she’ been wanting to say since she’d returned, since all those years ago when she overheard a conversation. “It’s interesting though, isn’t it? That the second daughter is betrothed and to be married before the first even had a prospect? Especially considering the circumstances...” 

Sansa paled slightly and glanced down at the ground, though Catelyn spoke up in her defense. “Sansa went through a very traumatic ordeal in Kingslanding-“ She began, but Arya cut her off quite rudely. 

“Sansa went through a traumatic ordeal?” She repeated back incredulously. “Did she, locked up in a lavish keep like a caged bird? I’m sure it was very traumatic for her with her featherbed and her hot meals, attending the royal courts just like she'd always wanted.” She mocked childishly and, though she felt somewhat embarrassed by her outburst, she didn’t stop. 

“You’ve no idea what I’ve been through, the things I’ve done and the lessons I’ve learned. I didn’t have a room in a keep with a handmaiden to tend to me. I survived this world on my own for years , I fought to get back to this family and succeeded by my own power when I was naught but a child. I ran, I hid, I lied, I starved, I bled, and I killed to get back to this family, only to find- what? That I would be sent away again? To live with a family as despicable as the Freys? That the news of my impending marriage would become a mockery to the Northmen before I could even reunite with my lost family?”

“No, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice myself just to see this 'family' again and so I turned away, I left by my own choice and under my own power. I continued to learn how to survive this world on my own, I spent years honing my skills and bettering myself, becoming the woman that you see before you now. The only reason I returned here was because I heard news that there was an unimaginable threat coming from the North that was so great it drew an unheard of alliance from all parts of Westeros and I knew I had to return to help face such a threat.” 

“And what do I find? You just can’t get rid of me fast enough, can you? You would subject me to this ridiculous practice? Hold me down and violate both my body and my trust, simply because some twisted old Lord demands it? Part of me wonders why I ever came back, if this is all that’s left of my so-called family. Perhaps I was better off remaining across the Narrow Sea in the first place? Better you thought me dead than subject myself to this horrible fate.” 

She could see the shifts in their expressions as she continued, but she didn’t let it stop her from finishing what she needed to say. “You all may be my blood, but you’ve more than proven you are no longer my family. I will remain for this fight- I’ve invested too much coming back for it, but I will never trust you with my personal wellbeing again, and I surely won’t remain in Winterfell once this is all over. You may pursue this if you wish, but know that I will never bow to this quietly. If Father were still alive, I am sure he’d be ashamed of all of you for letting our family fall to the state it’s in now. Everyone else may have managed to survive, but to call us a family is a joke.” 

Catelyn approached her in a flurry and raised her hand to strike her, but Arya was no longer content to play along and caught her wrist harshly when she tried. She scoffed aloud, turning on her heal to make for the door once again. Her name was called as she reached it and swung it open harshly. She took a step back in surprise to see not only the old Frey reaching for the door to knock, but also Tywin and Jamie at his side.  She frowned in confusion and was pushed further back as they entered. 

Jaime shot her a look of confusion, eyes questioning if she knew what was going on and clearly reading into the angry flush she could feel in her face, though he did not speak aloud. Clearly his father hadn’t included him in his scheming, though she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised- he had told her it would be her part to convince him to leave the Kingsguard so he could legally marry at all, but she though he would have at least spoken to him about it before whatever was about to happen. She  herself hadn't expected him to move so quickly nor so boldly and wondered if it had been planned or if somehow heard about her impending examination and interceded on her behalf.

Either way, she felt more reassured with their presence and no longer felt the overwhelming urge to flee the situation and so simply shrugged subtly at him as she waited to see what was going to happen. 

“Can I help you, Lord Lannister?” Catelyn demanded, tone confused but angered all the same by their presence in her solar without her say so. “I do not believe you were invited here today.” 

The smug grin the spread across the old Lions face would have made anyone nervous, and the Lady Catelyn clearly took notice, as did Robb, who immediately stepped closer to his mother and the two elder Lords.

~*~ Tbc ~*~ 

Chapter Text

When Tywin spoke, his voice was level but coated in the superiority the Lannisters were so well known for throughout the world. “I’m here to notify the head of the Stark family, King Robb, of a change in condition regarding the marriage contract he signed on behalf of his youngest sister.” 

Catelyn flushed further at the intended slight and responded despite the dismissal. “What involvement do you have with my daughter’s marriage contract to know of any changes in terms?” She demanded to know, darting her eyes once to Lord Frey, who stood to the side with a leer on his withered face. 

“The price for Lady Arya’s hand in marriage was the crossing of 8,000 Northern soldiers, give or take a few, their horses, and some supplies. I have paid off your debt to Lord Frey, at the cost of one gold per man, and an extra fifty for the wagons. You are welcome.” He drawled, knowing full well the reason marriage had been bartered and accepted was for a lack of other tradeable resources to be had at the time. 

Catelyn’s eyes went wide though Robb and Sansa looked confused and the slightest bit worried at seeing their mother’s reaction. “And what have you received in return for such generosity, Lord Tywin?” She asked, tone more polite but tight, as if she’d had a hard time getting the words out. 

“I’ve received transfer of the original payment, of course. Lady Arya’s contract will receive a new match, and she will soon become a member of my family.” He announced without further ado. To those who didn’t know the man well, he sounded almost bored. To those who did know him, well, the smugness and victory in his tone were clear, more so when glanced over at his son as though the whole thing was a done deal. 

“We never agreed to that!” Robb finally spoke, temper sparking at the audacity of the lord standing before him. 

“You didn’t have to. Lord Frey accepted payment already. Do not fret, I have a bride price prepared for you as well, it will be delivered by the end of the day.” 

“There will be no bride price!” Catelyn exclaimed, “This cannot happen- I won’t allow it!” 

“It is not for you to allow any more than your son.” Tywin drawled distastefully, though in truth if anyone could have intervened it would be the Northern King. 

Arya glanced over at Jaime as the chaos reigned only to find him looking almost glacial in his own stiff and carefully controlled anger. She recognized it in him, but wasn’t sure which part he was so upset by. She felt like thins were spinning out of control and she wasn’t sure how to bring it all back in. The emotions in the room were rising in suffocating amounts from all sides and she felt caught in her own indecision. 

~*~ Jaime’s POV ~*~

Jaime froze as soon as his father glanced his way with that smug gleam in his eye. His plotting had been becoming quite visible already, but that look was clearly aimed at him and gave away his end game quite well. He’d know the man had been planning something- he’d been far too pleased with himself, but he hadn’t expected it to involve himself. The man had been trying to force him to marry for years, both in outright and underhanded ways. 

His father was a master-manipulator, he knew well, and he should be past feeling slighted when those ways were used against him, but it still always seemed to sting as fiercely as it had in his youth. He knew it did for his siblings as well when such manipulations were used against them, for none of them were safe from his scheming mind.  

This though… How long had Arya been working against him? She clearly wasn’t surprised at the turn of events so she obviously knew of this plot ahead of time. Had she been working with his father from the very beginning? They clearly couldn’t have planned her meeting up with the company, for traveling was far too unpredictable in the winter for of any real accuracy in timing. Still, she spent quite a bit of time alone with the man while they were camping on the road, and even sense then who knew what they could have spoken about and when?

While his father’s scheming stung, Arya’s involvement felt almost like a betrayal. He’d liked spending time with the unpredictable woman who could swear and spew filthy jokes like a sellsword whilst in her cups, fight like a seasoned tournament champion on her off days , and who had a sense of humor as twisted and sometimes dark as his own and yet could laugh brightly enough to lift his own spirits from the shadows they oftentimes lingered in.  

To know it was all a lie- a set of carefully structured steps to get him to finally marry and produce a heir to continue his bloody lineage – was just.. indescribable. Was any of it real? Hunting together? Sharing secrets from their dark pasts? The night they’d gone to the hot spring and kissed for the first time? Was that why she’d been so confident her betrothal wouldn’t stand? Why she had been so insistent on pressing for the physical intimacies so quickly after that first touch? 

He watched in a state of numb anger as tempers continued to spike in the room. Any other time he might have gotten offended at the obvious slights against his family and Arya both, but he just couldn’t find it in himself to soften his stony exterior in that moment, never mind the fact that his father had taught him to maintain his composure from a ridiculously young age- taught him to lock himself down the more emotions tried to take control of his mind and body. 

His head turned towards her without thought when he finally made some noise from her own still and silent state just a handful of steps from him. The noise she made wasn’t anything spoken, not at first, nor was it any sound he had heard from her before. It was laughter, but dark laughter full of scorn and twisted anger, and from the reaction of her family, it wasn’t the first time she’d made such a sound that night. 

He watched as her brother turned towards her, face pained, and reached out a hand that was refused acknowledgement. “Sister…” He pleaded. 

She cut him off viciously, grey eyes dark and stormy with her own contained emotions. “No, I can’t believe-“ She cut herself and took a deep breath, eyes closing momentarily. When they opened again they were sharper, more focused, but still stunning in their rage. “You are okay with everything else I’ve argued against being forced upon me under my protest, but you outright reject the idea of my marriage being to someone more palatable?” 

“More palatable?” Sansa spoke in a sharply pinched tone, blue eyes gleaming and pale cheeks flushed. “Arya, please! You don’t know what his despicable family did to me in Kings Landing. You can’t trust them- any of them! They’re all monsters at heart!” 

“More monstrous than the Frey’s? No Sansa, you dealt with Joffrey- who I warned you about from the beginning! You’re the one who chose to follow him around like a pathetic little girl regardless, even after he got Lady killed! Your own Stupidity does not make a family of monsters, it makes you an Idiot.” Arya told her harshly. 

Sansa looked stunned and her eyes filled further, threatening to spill over. “It wasn’t just Joffrey..” She whispered, but was drowned out by their mother. 

“No daughter of mine will become a Lannister!” The elder woman exclaimed hysterically against all reason. “Over my dead body!” 

His father glanced over at the woman just as dismissively as he had before. “I suppose the state of your existence at the wedding will be up to you, it however, bears no importance on the event itself.” Jaime shook his head just the slightest bit, incredulousness growing the longer the argument continued. 

They were interrupted, however, when Lord Frey spoke up for the first time. “The deals done.” He told them harshly, cutting through the protest. “The bitch was already proving to be a problem- now she’s his problem.” He paused and glanced over at Arya lewdly and then at the Maester who stood frozen off to the side of the room. “Still, never know where she might have been- girls been gone a long time after all. Maester’s already here, might as well do what we came here to do, no?” 

Jaime’s frigid gaze locked on the lecherous old man but his father spoke up again before he could act rashly. “No member of My family would ever be subject to such a humiliating and archaic practice. You would do well to hold your tongue- this matter no longer concerns you.” He warned the other lord coldly before looking over at the Maester with his own frozen glare. “You can go.” 

The Maester bowed his head and shuffled around to the door silently, looking grateful for the opportunity to escape the room. Deciding there was no reason not to follow him- at least none that he particularly care about just then- Jaime turned to follow him into the hallway. He could feel his father’s glare on the back of his head before the door shut behind him, but knew the man would wait to scold him until they were alone. He turned the opposite direction of the Maester and headed for the exit in the shortest route possible that didn’t take him back through the great hall. 

He heard the door shut a few seconds later but did not glance back before turning a corner. He was forced to stop however when a much smaller hand clasped his upper arm and tugged him back. He turned suddenly, incensed at his retreat being foiled so quickly and by the last person he wanted to speak to just then. 

The petite woman seemed surprised at having the full force of his anger directed at her, but she’d put herself in his path and he only had so much self-control in the face of such blatant manipulation. “Are you okay?” She asked him falteringly, seeming to lose some of her steam.

His hard gaze focused into a glare and he shook her hand free as he turned away again. The woman was stronger than she seemed however, and put that strength into tugging him back. “Jaime! What’s going on? … What’s wrong?” 

It was his turn to laugh, but his was pure viciousness, gleaming teeth on display as he realized that this is similar to how Tyrion must have felt when his own wife betrayed him under the direction of their father and then further humiliated him to teach him a lesson that would stick 

He certainly felt humiliated at knowing his feelings and emotions for the woman before him had been so planned out for him. “What’s wrong?” He repeated mockingly. “Tell me, Arya, how long have you been conspiring with my father to finally force me into marriage?” 

“Wh-What?!” She demanded, almost convincingly. “What are you talking about?” 

“Oh please, spare me. Aren’t you the one who’s always toting on about how we should all stop playing words games and just speak the truth? Please, let’s hear it. What's the truth?” He challenged.  

“I am telling you the truth- I’m not-“ 

“It was very clear that you knew what my father was going to say before he said it. Unless the plan is for you to marry a different Lannister? Tyrion, perhaps?” He added scornfully, knowing his father would never give his younger brother anything remotely good in the world. 

“I, no, of course not, but-“ 

“But nothing! Hard as he might try, whatever tricks he might  attempt to pull, my father cannot force me to leave the Kingsguard! He cannot force me to marry anyone, and I sure as fuck wouldn’t marry anyone who schemed with him to try and force my hand.” He finished coldly. “The games up, thanks for playing, better luck next time.” He shook her hand off again, more forcefully, and strode away from her with strides she couldn’t hope to match unless she ran after him, and he was sure she was too proud to display such desperation. He made it to the door unhindered, and he couldn’t have honestly said whether he was glad for it or not. 

~*~

It was the second time in two days that Arya felt like her skin was too tight. She strode quickly out of the doors and into the courtyard where snow was falling anew. It was mostly abandoned, being so late in the day and with the lingering light quickly fading away and she was grateful for the reprieve. 

She walked out into the open, slower, but still fueled by emotion. Nothing had gone as she would have expected when she agreed to Tywin’s proposal just the day prior, she couldn’t believe how quickly it had all fallen apart. She hadn’t expected him to have such an extreme reaction to the idea, though clearly it could have been better delivered to the man. 

 Even still, she had her pride and that pride was a bit hurt at the cold and unwavering rejection so clearly displayed. She refused to chase after a man, any man, and she surely wasn’t about to start then, no matter how skewed things seemed to have gone. She felt restless, like she had weeks’ worth of energy she needed to burn or she might burst. 

Almost as if he could read her mind, a figure appeared across the courtyard dressed in a Lannister uniform. She couldn’t make him out through the snowfall at first, but recognized his silhouette before she could actually make out any features. “What are you doing out here?” She asked, surprised to see him so blatantly out in the open. 

“A man has heard of a feast in the Great Hall.” He told her with a curl of his lip. 

“You’ve missed the food, only dancing and bad ale left.” She told him, glad for the distraction. 

“No matter.” He told her with a careless shrug and she thought he might not have been going to the Great Hall at all. He shifted to remove something from his back and she could see it was a slender sword near the same size as Needle once it was held before him. “Would a girl care to spar?” He asked, twirling the slender blade around his hand with perfect control before holding it out to her hilt first by the blade. 

She took it from him reverently, looking down at the beautiful metal work and small details inlaid into the design. The symbol of the faceless men was embossed just beneath the guard and barely visible to the naked eye, but slightly moreso when she tilted the blade towards the light. 

Seeing that Jaqen had drawn the matching pair of swords she sometimes saw him use, she drew Needle beside the new blade and found them to be a near perfect match in balance, though how he had managed such a thing without the other for comparison was beyond her. 

They’d only ever practiced two blade fighting with short staffs, as it was a much more precarious dance than fighting with a single sword, not to mention that it had been  quite a long time since then. Still, she didn’t refuse, and even welcomed the knowledge that she would have to focus herself fully on the match to avoid injury, and so would have no time to think about the events that had just occurred, nor the events from the days prior. 

He moved to take his stance and she followed after unclasping her cloak and tossing it to the side, not wanting the excess fabric to hinder her movement. He started slowly, by tapping one of his blades against hers and then granting a gradual increase in speed until they were exchanging blows at a rate that most would find impressive, even if it wasn’t the fastest they could move if need be. 

She missed a block by a scant second and the blunt edge of his blade smacked harshly against the flesh of her upper arm. He didn’t pause or allow her time to recover, but continued his skilled swings and forced her to respond on mostly instinct and muscle memory as she fought to keep up. 

He made it through her guard again and then a third time before he spoke up. “A girl is distracted.” He commented, and it sounded like a chastisement despite its lack of inflection.

They continued their lethal dance and she could feel more bruises, along with a few small nicks, forming across her body for her mind that kept wandering despite her best efforts. “Focus!” He commanded her as he had to pull a swing to avoid a more serious injury to her side as she failed to block him yet again. “A girl must focus or she will die. Such is the way.” He told her as he pushed her back several steps and she stumbled over a divot in the snow. He watched her fall to her back and lay in the snow with her chest heaving rapidly as she tried to catch her breath. 

“Mayhaps a girl is not as ready as a man thought.” He told her, looking down at her fallen form in disappointment. 

“A girl is ready!” She argued, pushing herself back to her feet despite the numbness creeping into her limbs, determined to prove herself despite all else. She took a starting stance, which he matched with a frown still tugging at his mouth. She made the first move then, and managed to keep on the offence for a respectable amount of time before he turned it back around on her. 

“Better.” He told her simply as he pressed her back again and she managed to sidestep and turn them around so that his back was to the edge and hers to the open courtyard. 

They continued exchanging blows and blocks on nimble feet and Arya did a better job of shutting everything out through sheer stubbornness than she had in the beginning. Or at least, she did until they were interrupted. “What, in the name of the Seven, is going on here?” A familiar voice demanded. Arya’s step faltered and she felt the blade that was already close open a small nick on her cheek before he was able to adjust himself to her shift in motion. 

They disengaged a moment later and Arya turned to face a cold Tywin Lannister staring them down, and resting on the pommel of his own sword strapped at his waist. Arya glanced over at Jaqen, but he ignored her gaze to watch the man and so she assumed this was up to her to explain. “A spar,” She finally told him after a short pause. “with a friend.” 

“A friend.” He drawled, stepping closer. He examined Jaqen with sharp, narrow eyes. “You wear Lannister colors but I don’t recognize your face. Who are you?” 

“A man is Jaqen H’ghar.” He responded, using his most commonly called upon name for the face he wore. “Do you know the faces of all your many soldiers, your Lordship?” Jaqen taunted in return. 

“Most of them. How long have you been with my company?” 

“A man has worn Lannister colors since he joined with the army at Harrenhal.” 

“Who is your commanding officer?” He pressed suspiciously, glancing sharply at Arya. 

Jaqen’s lips curled dangerously but she spoke up before the back and forth could continue. “Do you need something, Lord Tywin?” She asked pointedly, some of her lingering upset still aimed at him for his own part in the events prior. “I’m quite busy at the moment, you see.”   

“Quite.” He repeated back to her, icy eyes taking in her mussed state and the blood she could feel trickling down her cheek from the last misstep. She wondered if any of her bruises had bloomed yet but didn’t think any of them would be visible to his observant gaze. “I would like a moment of your time.” He told her, not phrasing it as a question. He turned towards the dangerous man disguised as a soldier and dismissed him carelessly, unaware of the fire he stroked so blasely in his arrogance. 

Arya watched him consideringly before turning back to Jaqen for approval. Tywin caught the motion and frowned deeper as Jaqen nodded just slightly before bowing shallowly and taking his leave without argument. “Would you care to answer me truthfully as to who that was?” He questioned her once they were alone. 

“I was not untruthful, nor was he.” She told him unwaveringly.  

He did not look as though he believed her, but he moved on to what he truly wanted to speak to her about. “You spoke to Jaime.” He stated simply. 

“I did.” She acknowledged, mind flashing back to those few moments the exchange lasted and the bitter taste of rejection still lingering in the back of her throat. 

And ? What did he have to say?” 

Arya looked up at him, anger sparking to life once more despite the tiredness now weighing her down. “What do you think he had to say?!” She asked him boldly. She wanted him to answer for his poor choice- Afterall, how could a man so smart make such a bad judgement call regarding his own son’s reactions? “He was furious, he thinks we’ve been ‘conspiring’ with each other.” 

“Haven’t we?” He drawled in that same tone she was quickly beginning to hate that night. 

“No!” She exclaimed. “I agreed to your offer yesterday, I thought you would talk to him! Why would you let him find out that way? What did you hope to achieve? Surely you had to know he would react poorly to such blatant posturing and manipulation, especially considering he said this isn’t your first attempt at gaining this result.”  

He seemed honestly surprised at her scolding, for he blinked at her silently in a moment that seemed to stretch. She wondered how often he was called out on his shite after his wife died if this was his reaction to it. “You know what? Never mind.” She told him when he seemed to be forming his defense. “I think I’ve had my fill of Lannisters and lies for now. Pleasant Eve, Lord Tywin, I’m sure I will see you on the morrow.” She told him, voice like saccharin and thrice as poisonous.

She turned on her heal and left the courtyard herself, disappearing quickly into the shadows beyond the gate, despite the brightness of the moon reflecting off the snow cover. Though she hadn’t had a destination in mind when she left, the path to the hidden spring stuck out in her mind and sounded blissful to her cold and sore body, for she hadn’t taken the time to gather her cloak before she’d left- a choice she began to regret when the winds started to pick up. 

It took her nearly half an hour to make it through the thick snow barrier built up around the entrance, but it was worth it once she was inside and the air became filled with warm herbal steam. She had plenty of light to see by and made no hesitation in stripping down and entering the shallow pool formed amongst the naturally smoothed stone. 

The heat of the water was painful on her frozen skin at first, but she ignored the stinging until she had thawed and it began to feel pleasant. Finally alone with her thoughts and nothing else to distract herself, her mind began to wander. Everything had changed so suddenly and she wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. Jaime was right, no one could force him to leave the Kingsguard against his will, no one could force him to marry unless he agreed to it and resigned his oath to King Tommen.  

She felt selfish in thinking it, but what would happen to her if he refused? She would hardly bring herself to beg him, a man- any man, to marry her, but where would that leave her with an active and open marriage contract? Would Tywin truly marry her to Tyrion as a second choice if it meant he still got her as a good-daughter like he wanted? With Jaime in the Kingsguard, Tyrion was technically first in line to inherit after Tywin met the Stranger. 

But his distaste for his youngest son was well known and Jaime had seemed rather mocking when he mentioned it, so she didn’t think it was truly very likely. Where did that leave her though? She knew there were many Lannisters more distantly related to the Lord- would he try to marry her off to one of his nephews or youthful cousins? 

What should she do if he tried? It felt like she was right back at square one and hadn’t really gained any relief from her fate at all. She’d reluctantly agreed to a marriage with Jaime because she could see herself finding some kind of contentedness with that life, if not happiness with marriage itself. But if it wasn’t Jaime? If it was some random stranger she was to be paired with? 

Should she give in and accept that she would be married one way or another, sooner or later, whether she willed it or not? Or should she continue to fight the idea, disappear if necessary to remain an independent woman free to make her own decisions? What was that freedom worth? What was this life worth? She was finding it harder and harder to determine, but the answers to those questions were worth everything to know, if only she could grasp them. 

~*~ Tbc ~*~






Chapter Text

Arya strode lazily up the narrow staircase to the empty room she’d shared company with when they’d abandoned her welcoming feast what felt like eons ago, though she knew it had only been a week. She had attempted to go back to her room once she’d decided to return to the keep, but she’d heard movement inside when she had approached the door. She wasn’t sure if it was the Handmaiden, Mother, or Sister, but she didn’t feel up to a confrontation with any of them and so turned away and had made for the steps nearby instead of entering. 

She hadn’t expected anyone else would be there but found herself corrected once she entered the silent room. A man stood before one of the windows, one with a recognizable stature much lower in height than any other man she knew of in Westeros. He turned to look at her from where she’d frozen upon her entrance, only part way through the door. “Ah, I apologize.” She told him “I did not know anyone was here- I will go.” 

“Please, don’t leave on my account.” Tyrion Lannister told her. “You may join me, if you wish. I have wine.” He told her, gesturing with the full cup he held in one hand at the flagon resting nearby. 

Her immediate notion was to decline, but she paused and looked at him consideringly, feeling intrigued by the opportunity. She had so many unanswered questions regarding this man- the information she’d gathered had been vague and disjointed, and no one in her current company ever seemed to speak of him, not in past or present tense. She’d considered asking Jaime, or even Bronn, but it had never seemed the right time. 

“Lord Tyrion-“ She started to introduce herself formally, for they’d never actually spoken or interacted directly, not even when he’d visited Winterfell on his way to the Wall all those years ago, not when they passed company in Kings Landing.

“Not a Lord anymore, Princess. Definitely not in these lands.” 

“Not a Princess.” She argued in turn, but entered the room anyway, walking slowly towards him. He moved to the nearby table and grabbed the wine and poured her a serving in an extra glass.

“Pretty sure you are, by the rules of succession. Unless they’ve somehow changed in the short time since I left Westeros, after nearly a millennia of remaining the same?”  

“They haven’t changed.” 

“Then you’re a princess. It’s just a title, anyway, nothing to get so worked up about.” 

“It’s a title I don’t want.” She told him. “I could barely be considered a Lady by most, let alone a Princess.”  

“You are what you are, whether you want it or not. You could claim not to be a Princess just as much as I could claim not to be a dwarf- it won’t make a bit of difference for either of us.” He told her bluntly, raising his glass as if in a toast. 

She conceded to his point with a shallow tilt of her head, raising her own glass in turn and taking a small drink. “I am surprised to see you in the keep this late in the eve.” Arya spoke after a moment of watching the snow fall in the darkened night. “I thought you normally kept you the Queen’s camp unless in council.” She told him, speaking only from her own observations. 

“That I do.” He agreed with a hum. “The Queen is in a private council with King Robb at the moment. I was dismissed and am waiting her presence to depart back to camp. And you? What has you wandering the halls, looking for empty rooms, so late at night in your own keep?” 

“Avoidance.” She told him, returning his honesty with her own, self-degrading smirk curling the corner of her mouth. 

“Ahh, yes. I imagine your family is taking the news quite hard.” He mussed, glancing at her sideways. 

“Has the word gotten out already?” 

“Aye, but only to certain people thus far, hence my presence here tonight. The Queen may be a bit nervous at the thought of the Northern and Southern alliance gaining permanence through marriage.” 

“I’m surprised you would tell me that.” She told him, and it was true. Such information, however innocuous it may seem, could be used against the woman whose mere presence was already standing on precarious grounds. 

“Well, you are soon to be my good-sister, provided the rumors are true? I’d love to hear how you got my stubborn ass of a brother to agree to that?” 

She peered over at him and he seemed to read her response despite her lack of words. “Ahh.” He sighed, “That make’s more sense.” 

“Why do you say so?” 

“Jaime’s had something of a vendetta against marriage for a long time. For more than one reason, but it’s been that way for a very long time.” He looked up at her to see her watching him silently, hoping he might go on so she could have some greater understanding of where all of that rage had come from. “It’s not a pleasant story.” He told her at her probing look- the only story he had any business telling the woman, he couldn’t cross the line into Jaime and Cersei’s sordid mess. 

“Most of the stories I know aren’t.” She rebuked. 

He acquiesced with a slight shrug and deep drink from his glass before he spoke again. “I was ten and six at the time, Jaime was twenty. We were riding when we heard a scream. A woman came running out onto the road, clothes half torn off, with two men on her heals. Jaime dealt with the men easily enough while I wrapped her in my cloak. She was too shaken to send off on her own and so while Jaime took off after the rapers, I took her to the nearest inn and fed her..” 

“Her name was Tysha. She was a Wheelwright’s orphan, and she was hungry. Together we finished off three chickens and a flagon of wine. Impossible as it seems, there was once a time that I was unaccustomed to wine. I forgot how afraid I was around girls- how I was always waiting for them to laugh at me, or look away embarrassed, or ask me about my tall, handsome brother… I forgot about everything but Tysha, and somehow I found myself in her bed.”

 He glanced up at her again, seeming almost embarrassed himself. He cleared his throat harshly and continued. “Anyway, by the next morning I found myself deeply in love and asked for her hand. A few lies, a few gold coins, and one drunken Septon, and there you have it, man and wife… For a fortnight anyway, until the Septon sobered up and told my father.” 

“The first thing he did was have Jaime tell me the truth: the girl was a whore you see. Jaime had arranged the whole thing- the road, the rapers, all of it. He thought it was time I had a woman. As soon as Jaime told me the truth, my father brought my wife in and gave her to his guards. He paid her well- a silver for each man- what kind of whore can a command that kind of price?” 

He was silent for a moment and she almost thought he was finished, but he spoke again before she could bring herself to say anything. “He brought me into the barracks and made me watch. By the end, she had so much silver that the coins were slipping through her fingers and rolling onto the floor. Jaime told me after that he never intended for any of it to happen. He was angry with our father for his callousness and cruelty for a long time after that.”

“He couldn’t understand why father was so angry with him for forfeiting his right to marry, but would treat my own marriage- however unknowingly false- with such disregard. It might not have been honest, but it was true beneath the Seven. The Septon burned our record and from there on my having a wife appeared to have never existed. My brother’s always been a bit naïve at times though, especially concerning me.” He finished, a fond note in his voice. "He's never seen me the way the rest of the world does."

“What happened after?” Arya asked in quiet voice, wondering if some good might have come out of it in the end. 

“After? Nothing.” 

“And you’ve never married again?” 

“Ha, no, I doubt I ever will.” 

“What will you do once the battle is over? Assuming we survive, of course.” 

“I don’t really know.” He confided. “When I left this land, I thought I would never return. Queen Daenerys is attempting to make long-standing allegiances of her own, so I suppose what I do in the future will depend on her successes.” 

“And what of your family?” 

“What of them?” 

“Do you wish for them to be part of your future?” 

“I’m afraid that ships already sailed.” He told her, sounding wistful. “What with my killing my nephew the King, and all that.” 

“Did you?” She asked him bluntly. “Kill your nephew?” 

She didn’t expect him to smile, but he did. “Not very many people have actually asked me that, you know? They usually just assume it to be true.” 

“I never assume anything.” 

“Smart girl.” 

“You didn’t answer me.” 

“You ask a lot of questions.” He rebuked. “Why should I answer all of them?” 

“I don’t think you did it.” She told him, though it was more of a statement than an answer to his question. 

“Don’t you? Why not? I was heard threatening him more than once. I struck him more than once, and in public at that.”

“Joffrey was a little shit- of all the people in the world who likely wanted to kill him, I doubt his uncle would actually be the one to do it. If anything, your discipline of him shows that you were trying to make him a better man. Why make such an effort if only to kill him? It just doesn’t make any sense.” 

 “My father has already declared me guilty. That should be enough for you- it’s enough for everyone else.” 

“Being declared guilty by someone with their own agenda in a position of power doesn’t make you guilty, it makes for convenience.” 

“My father is a very dangerous man. You shouldn’t underestimate him.” He cautioned her at her bold words. “Not if you want to keep in his good graces- they’re quite hard to come by, you know.” 

“It might be too late for that.” She said, mind flashing back to earlier when she’d left him. 

“All the same.” 

“There’s still something I don’t understand.. Even before all of that, when you were free and Jaime sworn to the Kingsguard- why didn’t your father ever force you to marry? You would have been next in line to inherit- would still be next in line, if your innocence is proven. Why try so hard to force Jaime when he has another option?” 

“Ahh, well, I believe his exact words were, “ I would let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking the family name and making you heir to Casterly Rock .” 

“That seems harsh.” 

“My father is a harsh man. Still, it is late. You should head off- you wouldn’t want to be found in my company.” Considering he had been the one to invite her into the room, the warning seemed like more of an excuse than anything, but she recognized that she’d been poking at sore points and so let him have the retreat. 

“It is getting late, you’re right. I will take my leave- Good Eve, Tyrion.” 

“Good Eve, Princess.” He told her in farewell.  

~*~ 

There was another war council the following day to plan for their next steps, now that the established work was done. To say that the Lannister party was tense would have been quite the understatement. Rather than coming out to meet them at their camp as she had done previously, Arya instead waiting just outside the keep, to join them as they entered to show a united front to their allies. 

She couldn’t have said whether father and son had spoken at all, or what might have been said, because neither was looking at the other, nor directly at her. Though in truth, she may have been avoiding looking directly at either of them and so could have missed something. She caught sight of her family already seated at the head of the room before pointedly turning her eyes away. She’d managed to avoid them all since the events the day prior and she wasn’t in a hurry to rehash things by opening the door to conversation. 

Luckily, the council began relatively quickly and everyone was soon focused on the ideas being shared and how they could best hope to survive the coming threat. It was a lucrative meeting and a few more decisions were made- a small troupe would travel to the Last Hearth in order to help evacuate those who were left, while a few individuals would remain there afterwards to hide amongst the endless underground caves and springs in an attempt to come out behind the army and have a better shot at taking out the White Walkers, perhaps even the Night King himself, God's be good. 

Finally, it was decided that the woman and children who were unable to fight would make their way to Castle Cerwyn, rather than hiding in the crypts as would have been the go-to in any other situation. It was brought up, however, that if these beings could truly raise the dead, what would stop them from rising the hundreds of years’ worth of Starks and setting them upon the most vulnerable of them all? 

Instead, they would travel to the nearby Castle  and remain there until word of victory or defeat came. If they were victorious and stopped the army at Winterfell, all would be well. If they failed, the women and children would continue South and would attempt to make for the Eyrie, where the Lady Catelyn’s sister still ruled and with a location that would hopefully keep them safer than any other in Westeros, considering the difficulty in getting to it.

Of course, they were all hopeful that such plans wouldn’t need come to fruition, but better to plan for all eventualities than end up without a plan at all. The council lasted hours before it was finally called. Some groups lingered, but most departed immediately. Arya trailed after the Lannisters, but only to pull Jaime aside once they were free of most the crowd. 

She’d already felt uncomfortable with how things had been left between the two of them, but her little heart-to-heart with Tyrion the night before made her feel even worse about the whole thing. Those she’d already known, logically, what kind of a man Tywin was, the more she found out about how he was as a father, the more disappointment came along with it. Truly, for someone who focused so completely on the state of his family’s good name, he had quite the large blind spot for how he actually treated that family. 

She waited until they had almost arrived at the gate before reaching out to gently grasp his arm- not trying to physically stop him, but rather requesting it of him and allowing him to decide whether or not he would pause. She could see his jaw clench as he seemed to stand indecisive for a moment. She thought he would continue on regardless, but he finally turned towards her before she could decide to pull away and retreat. “Can we talk? Just for a moment?” She requested at having his attention. “Please?” 

He glanced up and around. Though mostly alone, there were still several people going about their business within hearing rage- it was midday still after all, and so he gestured her off to the side, where a path through the snow followed along the inside of the gate-walls. She knew if you followed it further and made a turn, it would lead to the Godswood, and so that’s where she led them. 

They walked in silence until they reached the silent wood, and then for a bit beyond. “Well?” Jaime spoke up, breaking the lingering quiet. “What was it you wished to speak to me about so urgently?” His voice wasn’t as frosty as it had been before, but it wasn’t warm nor friendly either. If anything, it was rather indifferent and she found herself longing to know how he was really feeling. 

She found herself at a loss for words now that she had him alone, but she knew his patience wasn’t infinite and so attempted to express herself. “I, just, I need you to know that I haven’t, that your father, I-“ She paused and sighed quietly through her nose in frustration with herself. “It wasn’t a lie.” She said finally. “None of it… I haven’t been conspiring with your father to force you to do anything. I’m sorry it seemed that way.” 

“You haven’t been conspiring but still managed to come to an agreement with him that you and I would marry, all without my knowledge or my consent.” He told her blithely. 

“It wasn’t like it!” She defended. “Two days ago, I spoke to your father about my upcoming marriage. I, I thought I had managed to delay it farther than I had, and I suppose I was a bit upset at the continuation of the demands they were making… He.. offered me another solution. He said he could buy my marriage contract from Lord Frey and that he wanted me as his good-daughter. I agreed, eventually.” Her eyes dropped to the snow dusted ground, feeling ashamed and embarrassed for the whole situation. “I just, I don’t have time to go to war with the Frey’s right now and, I, I thought the idea of being married to you seemed a much more agreeable fate than what I was facing already.” 

“But that wasn't fair to you. It doesn't matter that I didn’t know you would be so angry, or that your father would reveal it in such a way, and I’m sorry, truly, but this hasn’t all been a game to me, no matter how it seems to your eyes. I’ve never wanted to get married, I’ve fought against it for a long time, actually, and I understand why you don’t want to either… I wish it were as easy for me to become unmarriable as it is for a man, actually.” She attempted to joke, but knew it fell flat. “Regardless, this is my own mess, and you don’t owe it to me to fix it, especially not at the cost of your own happiness.  I just want you to know that I’m sorry, for all of this.” She finished, unable to bring herself to vocalize all of the individual things she was sorry for- most of all that she had lost him before she’d truly gotten to know what it was like to have him- not physically, not specifically, but on a grander scale that stolen kisses and hidden feelings.  

She finally glanced up to meet his eyes, needing to know what he was thinking in return. He studied her, seeming just a bit softer, but still holding back most of his emotions. He smiled, but it seemed sad. “Whether this was your scheme or my fathers, it’s one I still can’t allow myself to fall prey to.” He told her gently. “I’ve fought against this for too long to give into it now. I am.. Sorry, for your circumstance.” He said before pausing with a slight grimace at the knowledge that she would still be required to marry, even if it wasn't to him. “But I won’t leave the Kingsguard. Not for anyone.” 

~*~ Jaime’s POV ~*~

He watched admirably as the woman steeled herself in the wake of his statement. He shouldn’t feel this guilty for rejecting this ridiculous idea, for rejecting her. He had no obligation to this woman, none whatsoever. She was hardly the first woman he’d gotten close to on the road- though perhaps the first he hadn’t bedded immediately and then promptly forgotten about. 

She was a highborn lady, she should have been prepared for such a fate from childhood, as all highborn woman were. His sister had been, despite her own scorn for the idea and events when they finally came to be. Marcella had been, when matched with Prince Trystane. Though, perhaps those weren’t good comparisons, considering the differences in their upbringing and the challenges they’d faced. Still, she’d had a fairly normal upbringing until the unfortunate events that took place in Kings Landing, so surely she had been prepared to some extent. 

He watched as she nodded her head gracefully. “I understand.” She told him in an unbroken voice. She stepped towards him, more hesitantly, and he watched to see what she would do. He wasn’t prepared for her to rise to her tip-toes so that she could press cold lips to his cheek. He felt another flash of regret but didn’t let it cross his expression as she dropped back to her booted feet and spun on her heal without another word, walking rather quickly back the way they came. 

He wasn’t quite sure how he made his own way back to camp, but he found himself approaching his tent not too much later. He thought about ducking inside, but instead and his way deeper into the mass, searching until he found Bronn playing dice with some of them men a few fires down. He took a seat heavily beside him, ignoring the narrowed eye looked he gained from the man. “Where’ve you been?” The sellsword asked, glancing back down at the table. 

He looked over again when Jaime declined to answer. “Ahh, I see, spending some quality time with the bride to be?” He asked, wiggling his brows. 

“There is no bride to be.” Jaime denied, only to continue after a moment pause. “Or, I suppose there is, but not mine.” 

“No?” 

“No.” 

“Why in the seven hells not?” He asked incredulously. 

Jamie shot the man a look, maintaining his silence.

“Out of your bloody mind.” Bronn murmured to himself, though clearly meant to be heard. 

“Excuse me?” Jaime demanded. “What business is it of yours, exactly?” 

“No business of mine, I’m just saying. If I was offered a woman like that to take as my wife, you can sure as fuck bet I wouldn’t pass her off to the next man passing by. Who’s next in your family, eh? That ponce, Lancel, innit?  Bah. I’d like to see him try and handle that one. Boy probably couldn’t please a woman if given step by step instructions and an extra set if hands besides.” 

“Must you be so crude?” 

“Why not?” 

“ You're disgusting.” 

“Only because it’s her. Any other woman and you’d jump right in. Shouldn’t that tell you something by itself?” 

“I’m not getting married.” Jaime stated, slowly. “Not to her, not to anyone. If that means she marries that cunt Lancel then so be it. It’s not my problem.” 

Bronn shot him a dubious look. “If you say so.” 

“I say so.” Jaime confirmed sternly. 

~*~

When Arya left the Godswood, she ran almost immediately into Jon, who was walking alone for a change. She almost veered off, but he spotted her before she could and moved to intercept her. “Arya, how fare you?” He questioned, for they hadn’t spoken at all since everything had happened, and she assumed Robb had filled him in. 

“I fare fine. How fare you?” She asked in turn, forcing down anything that may have been lingering from the short conversation she’d just had. 

“I fare fine. Truly though, how are you?” 

“I’m not sure what you want me to say, Jon. I’m fine, there isn’t much more to say than that.” 

“’Fine’ isn’t the same thing as being happy, sister. I know you and Ser Jaime are friends.. Are you truly happier with this match than with the Frey’s?” 

“There is no match.” She told him quietly. “I will marry a Lannister, but I’m not sure yet which one. Jaime is in the Kingsguard- he can hold no lands and take no wife- that has not changed.” 

She watched as his brows furrowed and he appeared to want to say something, but she wasn’t sure what it would have been because he seemed to change the words entirely. “I only want your happiness, sister, in whichever form it holds.” He told her instead. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.” 

“And what of your own happiness, brother? I’ve seen you with the Queen… Might there be a story building there?” She questioned, both wanting to change the subject and wanting to get a better feel for just how attached he was to the woman. 

He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He glanced around to see them relatively alone before he responded quietly. “You know she’s my Aunt in truth, sister.” 

Arya shrugged lightly. “The Targaryen’s have been wedding brother to sister for centuries. I’d rather say an aunt/nephew pairing to be a step up.” 

“Beyond that, everyone believes me to be Lord Eddard’s bastard son and nothing more.” 

“Not everyone.” 

“Most everyone.” 

“Why don’t you speak up, anyway? By rite of blood, you have a greater claim to the throne than she does. Wouldn’t that solve this whole conflict?” 

“I have no proof of my claims and she has two armies and three dragons at her back. How would you expect such a challenge to end?” He asked her, knowingly. 

“You think she would kill you?” 

“I think she’s a Queen in her own right, who has been fighting her entire life to get back to these lands and claim her father’s throne for her own. I think desperation makes people do things they otherwise might not do, and I think we are all better off if I continue to remain as naught but Lord Eddard’s bastard.” 

“But you could be so much more than that…” 

“I’ve made peace with who I am as Jon Snow, Arya, I don’t need to be any more than what I already am.” 

And that was just… Well, it was everything, wasn’t it? He made it sound so easy, but was it? It was as Tyrion had said- She could deny being herself as much as she wanted, but it didn’t make her someone else at her- was it not the same for him? He was a born prince, it was his birthright to rule, however much that birthright might have been a thing of the past. Surely such a secret would come out eventually, one way or another? 

~*~ Tbc ~*~