She was crouched in the shaded corner of a back alley, a crust of stolen bread clutched in her grimy fingers, when she heard the two men who stank of ale, talking in overloud voices. Still, she wasn't really listening until one asked about the Hand of the King, and that was when she stiffened, dropping the bread and closing both hands around Needle's hilt.
" Former Hand," said the other man. "Way I hear it, he's a traitor now."
"I heard they're to take off his head on the morrow," the first said, and Arya's breath caught in her throat. She stumbled to her feet without thinking, fingers tightening on her sword, as if she was going to poke holes in the man just because he claimed her father was going to die, the way she had that stable boy. Her throat went dry, almost pained at the thought, and she wanted to shout that it wasn't true, that they couldn't kill her father, but she found she couldn't speak.
The other man laughed. "Where the hell'd you hear that?" He thumped the man on the back of the head. "Can't execute 'em when we're on the brink of a war. They're exiling the traitor, across the Narrow Sea. Tomorrow morning down at the Mud Gate, they're sending him off. Suppose they think letting him keep his life will keep the peace."
They were already most gone by then, but Arya had heard every word. She was moving before she could think about it, the bread forgotten, Needle shifting in her hand as her feet pounded the stones. She barely stopped by the two drunken men, shouting, "Where's that? The Mud Gate?" and then she was moving in the direction of the first man's crooked finger as fast as she could go. It took most of the night to find it, but she got to the right place just as the sky began to turn pink.
She sat against a wall and waited, holding Needle in the crook of one arm, trying to plan and unable to think of anything besides to get her father away from here and cut down anyone who stood in her way. He couldn't leave Westeros and she couldn't leave King's Landing, much less make it all the way back home alone. Besides, she wouldn't go alone and leave her father behind, leave him alone to be exiled or killed. So they would have to go home together. She sat and repeated every lesson Syrio had taught her under her breath until daylight came, and a crowd began to form around the gate.
It was hard to see over the heads of the smallfolk, but Arya could hear the conversations shift when the royal litter approached. She balanced on a loose stone in the wall to gain some height, trying not to think of Bran, and she saw them, the horrible Joffrey and his mother, surrounded by the Kingsguard, and still more guards behind, walking down to the gate as it opened. And finally, at the back of the line, was her father. He looked smaller from this distance, still limping, his hands manacled in front of him. The crowd roared at the sight of him, surging forward as they cursed and jeered, hurled rotten food.
Arya's jaw tightened with indignation and she began to shove forward, pushing towards the gate. People were packed too tight together, and they only cursed at her or shoved her away, or didn't even turn to look at her. " Move, " she snarled, kicking at people's shins. She moved forward only a few feet before someone pushed her again, harder than usual, and she slashed out with Needle, unthinking, not too hard but hard enough. She was about to shout again, when a hand came down on her shoulder and held her hard. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
She was yanked back and saw the armor and knew she was caught; she kicked back on instinct, trying to slash out again, but another guard grabbed her, took her by the arm. They were taking Needle away, and she thought in a rush, No, don't, Jon gave that to me, and she screamed, "Let go of me!" at the top of her lungs, and sank her teeth into the hand of one guard. He howled, and yanked his hand back as if to strike her, but a shout split the sound, shocking everyone into silence. It was her name— Arya! —sounding almost as if it was being wrenched from her father's throat. He sounded afraid.
Arya froze, shaking, her hands empty. They'd taken Needle, but that didn't matter, because they were all looking at her, everyone. There was her father, looking so sick and frail she almost didn't recognize him, and there was—there was Sansa, almost hiding behind him, her hands unbound but knotted before her. They were both staring at her with wide eyes. And standing above them, the queen and Joffrey. The queen's eyes were cool, calculating as if she hadn't expected this, but Joffrey was smiling. He looked delighted. Arya loathed the both of them with everything in her.
"Bring the traitor's whelp forward!" Joffrey shouted, almost cheerful, and the guards began to drag her towards them. Arya stumbled along with them, but she didn't struggle, she couldn't run away and leave her father, or even Sansa. She told herself that she was a wolf and wolves were brave, that she could face them without faltering as she had done before.
The guards were pulling like they were taking her to the queen, but her father stepped in front of them and they just let go, like he wasn't in chains. For a moment, Arya was almost worried that he would be mad, but he didn't seem mad; he took her face in his hands and leaned forward to kiss her forehead. "Arya," he whispered, and she knew immediately that he was not mad. "Thank the gods you're all right." He smoothed tangled hair away from her forehead clumsily, chains rattling, and as he stepped back, staying close to her, Sansa lunged forward to throw her arms around her. Arya couldn't even move to hug her back, standing stiff in her sister's embrace; she couldn't understand it because Sansa hated her, she never hugged her. She squeezed her tight, sniffling loud in her ear, before stepping away and standing close to their father's side. He had a hand on her shoulder, gentle and protective, and though it was irrational, Arya felt safe.
"Isn't this convenient, Lord Stark?" Joffrey said suddenly, and her father turned towards him immediately so Arya could see him. He was still smiling, the same way he had when he held the sword to Mycah's throat. "Your wild daughter, returned just before your exile. It is unfortunate that you were only promised the one."
Her father's hand tightened on her shoulder, and he said in a rough voice, "Your Grace, I would have both my daughters…"
"You were gifted only the one," Joffrey replied, his teeth glinting in the sun, and Arya thought of her stick coming down on Joffrey with a whack, of Nymeria's teeth tearing into his flesh. She wished that Nymeria had killed him. "Perhaps Lady Arya should remain in King's Landing, so we are sure that you will not return and raise arms the way your son has." He smiled at Sansa over Arya's head, in an entirely different way that sent a chill down Arya's spine. "Or perhaps… Lady Sansa and I should renew our engagement."
Her father made a dangerous sound low in his throat, and Arya expected him to lash out, but the queen spoke before he could. "Your Grace, I think it would be wise to let Lord Stark keep his daughters with him," she said. She was smiling, too, but Arya knew it was false. "We have no use for traitor's daughters as wives or hostages. Our exile of Lord Stark is a gesture of goodwill to the Stark family, to end this war before it has begun. We can hardly appease Robb Stark if we are keeping any of his family in the capitol."
Joffrey seemed reluctant, but he nodded, looking like a scolded child. He turned towards the crowd and began to speak over the roar of the crowd, addressing them like a king would, but Arya knew he was no true king. She remembered the way he had cried on the ground that day, like a scared child. She looked over her shoulder instead of at him, at the small ship bobbing in the river past the gate, and felt a lump building in her throat. It was real now, they were being exiled, and she knew now that she would never go home again, never see the looming towers of Winterfell. Never see Robb or Bran or Rickon or Jon or her mother again. She was losing her family, all except her father and stupid Sansa, and she had lost everything that reminded her of home, her trunk and her clothes and Needle, her gift from Jon that she had lost. Her throat was thickening, and she felt like she was going to cry, but that was stupid. She couldn't cry, not in front of Joffrey and Cersei. She looked back out at the crowd, at the guard holding Needle in his fist, at her father's still face and Sansa's pale, tear-streaked one, and drowned out Joffrey's words until he turned towards them. He turned towards them, his face full of cruel glee, and said quietly, "I'll warn you, Stark, not to forget the family you're leaving behind, and to remember them if you ever wish to return and take revenge. Because if you or your daughters ever step foot in the Seven Kingdoms again, it won't just be your head adorning the spikes above the Red Keep." His teeth were bared as he smirked at them, like a rodent ready to attack. "It will be the heads of your lady wife, and your sons and daughters."
Beside her, Sansa gasped, and her father took a sharp breath, subdued and almost inaudible, but still there. But Arya just felt numb, her vision crowding, her muscles tensed and angry. They'd threatened her mother and her father, her brothers, her whole family, and she had heard every word. And she knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going to return to Westeros someday, and she was going to kill them both.
After Joffrey was finished addressing the crowd, the guards began to move the three of them towards the ship. The crowd was roaring again, but she couldn't tell if they were cheering or protesting. The guards were dragging their father, being too rough with him, and shoving at Sansa and Arya. Sansa tripped over her skirt again and again, tears pooling in her eyes. A guard grabbed Arya's arm hard and she tried to squirm away, to run up to her father or back to the king, to promise that they would be back. He yanked her hard and she shouted for him to let go, kicking him hard in the shins, and Sansa shouted, "Arya, stop!" and she sounded the same way she always did, indignant and scolding, but there was something different there. She was afraid, really afraid, and it was enough to make Arya really stop.
The guards pushed them up the gangplank and onto a ship, towards a cabin in the opposite direction from their father. They were separating them, she and Sansa were going to stay together, but they were putting their father somewhere else. "Father!" Sansa cried out just as they were pushed through the door into a small cabin, but if he answered, Arya didn't hear. The guards slammed the door behind them, and the two sisters were alone.
They didn't say anything at first. Arya wouldn't have known what to say. Sansa collapsed into one of the bunks, bursting into tears immediately, of course. Arya sat on the floor, suddenly feeling weak. She couldn't remember the last time she ate. She lay her head against the wall and closed her eyes as the ship began to move. She still felt like she might cry and she didn't want to. She didn't want to be weak, but she didn't want to be here, either. She wanted home. She wanted her mother, and she wanted her brothers, and she wanted Nymeria, and she wanted Needle. She wanted people to know her father wasn't a traitor, and she wanted Mycah and Syrio to still be alive. But she knew she couldn't have any of that, and she could feel teardrops pricking underneath her eyelids, and she was alone now except for Sansa, so it didn't matter. She let her head fall forward and the tears trickle down her cheeks.
Later—she wasn't sure how much later, but the ship seemed quieter, like they were away from King's Landing—when Sansa had stopped crying, Arya lifted her head to look at her sister and said simply, "What happened?"
Sansa sniffled, scrubbing at her face, pushing hair away. It wasn't fixed in the Southern style, but was down around her face instead, the way she'd worn it in Winterfell. "What do you mean?" she said softly.
Arya shrugged roughly. "Thought you were supposed to marry him."
Sansa's face crumpled at that, and she wrapped her arms around herself. "He's awful ," she whispered. "Joffrey, he… he… he was going to kill Father."
Arya went rigid immediately, her spine straightening against the hard surface of the wood. She could still hear Joffrey’s stupid voice, saying that he would kill her whole family if they came back, the way he’d killed Mycah, or sent the Hound to do it, and he would’ve killed her father, she knew Sansa wasn’t lying. Sansa was a bad liar, anyway, and Arya had known it was true when the man had said it last night. She had believed they'd kill her father. Her hand fell, reaching for Needle, before she remembered it wasn’t there.
“He told me in private,” Sansa went on miserably. “I-I went before the court to ask for mercy, for Father, because I thought he loved me, and he was kind… I thought he would do it for me if I asked. And he said he would .” Her voice went sharp there, and she twisted her hands in her frilly skirt. “But he came to me later and said that I was too merciful, too weak, and traitors didn’t deserve mercy. He said that he would take his head, like every other traitor out there, and Robb’s head, too, and that I was a stupid girl and I should learn my place.”
Arya was clenching her fist, so hard that her fingernails bore into her palms and left marks, and she was picturing hacking off Joffrey’s head, and knew it would be a thousand times better than the stable boy, because the stable boy hadn’t done a thing, but Joffrey deserved to die for what he had done. “So why didn’t he?” she bit out, and her nails bit into her skin.
“Queen Cersei found out,” Sansa said, and Arya wanted to laugh at that. Joffrey was still just a stupid little boy whose mother told him what to do, even if he was a king. “I guess exiling him was better than killing him or sending him to the Wall. Someone pointed out that Father could have deserted and went to go fight with Robb, since he's the one who controls the deserters.”
“If they killed Father, than Robb would kill them all,” Arya said furiously. “Jon, too. And they might kill them anyway now. When we get back to Westeros, Father will go to Robb and they’ll…”
“We’re not going back, Arya, didn’t you hear?” Sansa snapped. “They’ll kill everyone if we go back. They’d kill Mother , and our little brothers.”
“We wouldn’t let them!” She kicked the floor, furious.
“We couldn’t stop them, they’re everywhere! They got Father, and they got you, too, you didn’t get away."
"What about you? You're so stupid, why would you go to Joffrey? You know how horrible it was! He killed Mycah and Lady because you lied, why do you think it'd be any different this time?"
"Lady would still be alive if it wasn't for you!" Sansa almost screamed.
"And if it wasn't for you, Nymeria would still be here, and she would've killed them all, and we wouldn't be on this stupid ship !" Arya shouted right back. She'd gotten to her feet, she didn't even remember that, and she kicked the wall so hard her toes ached. She kicked it again, the words still spilling out of her mouth—"It's your fault, you trusted him, it was you…" and she was ready to throw something when she heard a fist pounding on the door, someone shouting for them to keep it down or he'd come in there and make them. Arya shut her mouth. She didn't want them in. She'd rather be alone with Sansa than see any of them.
When she turned back, she saw Sansa was crying again. "You're right," she said, wiping her eyes.
Arya could feel the energy leaving her and she was suddenly exhausted, weak from hunger and lack of sleep. " What ?" she said, incredulous, clenching her fists tighter. She had never, ever heard Sansa say that.
"You're right," Sansa bit back, angry again. "It's my fault, I shouldn't have trusted him, I'm stupid , just like he said…"
"Shut up ," Arya snapped, sitting back down in a rush. She unballed her fists and saw a smear of red on the end of her palm where her uncut nails had pricked her skin. "Joffrey's the stupid one. Not you."
Sansa looked as shocked as Arya had felt when she'd said that Arya was right. She didn't say anything, so Arya kept going. "He's stupid, and craven, and he didn't even win . He didn't kill Father. We're not dead, we're leaving."
Sansa clenched her jaw and nodded, quietly, looking down at her lap. Arya looked away, too, her head slumping forward. She didn't know what to do now. They were leaving, but they were alive, their father was alive. They might never go home, but their father was alive.
Finally, Sansa spoke again, her voice small. "I didn't know you had a sword."
Arya nodded, looking up. "Didn't tell you because I know you'd tell Septa Mordane," she said. Sansa's mouth twisted in the smallest smirk, and Arya knew that she was right. It made her want to laugh, and she almost did, but then she remembered that it was gone, her present from Jon. "Jon gave it to me," she said softly, unaware she was even speaking out loud until she heard her voice. "Before we left. It was from him."
"Oh," said Sansa. She spoke awkwardly, like she didn't know how to talk about this. "I'm… I'm sorry they took it."
"Me, too." Arya let her head drop, scuffing her fingernails over the floorboards. She knew she was dirty, she'd been called a boy dozens of times in the past few days, and with her fingernails this long, she could practically hear her mother's chiding. She'd say she looked like a wolf, a real one.
"I'm glad you're alive," Sansa said suddenly, her voice tight. Arya looked up at her and she looked up again to see Sansa watching her with wide eyes. She sniffled. "After they… came after Father's men, they took Jeyne away, and I was alone, and I thought Father was going to die, and I… I forgot to ask about you, and… I'm glad you're alive." She swallowed hard.
Arya had forgotten her sister, too, when she was hiding on the streets. She was thinking about Father, and Syrio, and the boy she'd killed, but she hadn't considered Sansa. She felt the shame lumping in her throat, and she swallowed it back, and said, "I'm glad you're alive, too." And she meant it. Every word.
The trip wouldn't be long. Sansa knew that they were going to Pentos, and Arya knew that the trip to Pentos wouldn't take more than a few days. But they weren't allowed to leave their cabin. There was a rotation of quiet servants and jeering men that brought them food and changed the chamber pot, but aside from that, nothing. They couldn't see their father; they wouldn't allow that, either. They both argued against that furiously, but the men were unyielding. "We're to see you to Pentos, and we're to keep you confined until then," one said, and that was that.
They were allowed to bathe, once, which Sansa seemed relieved about—"You smell like the stables from home," she told Arya once, and Arya smacked her in reply, but lighter than usual; she couldn't bring herself to fight with her sister the way they usually did. They were all each other had. She bathed quickly, scrubbing the dirt off her skin so hard it glowed red, and afterwards she was so bored that she let Sansa brush her hair. She hadn't done that in years, and that was mostly because Sansa was always too rough and insisted on braiding it after and it hurt like hell, but Sansa had seemed so genuine when she offered that Arya had grumbled a response and sat down. Sansa took her time so it didn't hurt that much, and she didn't even make her braid it after, just brushed out all the tangles. "It'll feel better now," she said, and Arya said, "Don't think this makes me a lady," just to make sure she knew it wouldn't happen again, and Sansa said, "I don't think anything could make you a lady." But she was smiling, just a little.
There was absolutely nothing to do, and it didn't help that she and Sansa didn't like any of the same things. Arya longed to keep training, practice the techniques Syrio had taught her, but she didn't have anything remotely resembling a sword. She practiced what she could; she stood on one foot for hours on end, she swung an imaginary blade when Sansa was napping, she took the stances Syrio often took and tried to perfect them. Maybe she wouldn't have Needle in Pentos, but she might be able to find something else.
Most of the meager training Arya did could pass as the supposed dance lessons, but Sansa caught her once pretending she had a sword, and asked, "What are you doing ?" She didn't seem surprised to learn the full truth, not after everything that happened, and so Arya stopped trying to hide what she was doing. She still looked a little amused sometimes, but she never said anything, so Arya tried not to make fun of her as much. She got so bored she even asked Sansa once to practice with her, but Sansa rolled her eyes and shook her head and that was that. She wasn't offering to sew with Sansa or anything when they got a chance to actually sew.
Their anxiety never completely left them, though, not with the rowdy seamen they could hear through the door, or the whispers of the war they'd left behind, or their father, who Sansa had said looked terrible just before they left. "I think his leg is still bad," she told Arya one night, "and the Black Cells… I think he was sick."
"Maybe he's recovering," Arya offered helplessly. "Since he can't go anywhere. Sleep is supposed to be good for you, right?"
"He should see a maester," Sansa replied quietly. "He needs someone who knows what they're doing. I don't think any of these men do."
Fear was tight in her voice, and it was making Arya just as nervous. She could still remember how bad off their father had been after his leg had been broken, could remember the restless, pained sleep and fever dreams. They'd both been with him most of the time—together, even, despite how much they had fought since leaving home—and they'd both been terrified. "He'll be fine," she told Sansa stubbornly, because she couldn't think otherwise. "Father's strong. He always has been." But she couldn't shake the worry. With the quiet of the cabin, the long empty hours listening to the sea pound against the sides of the ship, there wasn't much else to think about. She was counting down the days until they landed in Pentos.
They arrived early one morning, just when Arya was starting to lose track of time. When she felt as if she'd just about memorized the length of the Narrow Sea. She was half asleep curled up on the end of Sansa's bed, where she'd more or less fallen asleep in the middle of a game of dice that they'd found in a corner of the room, when someone threw open the door and let lantern light fall across their faces. "My ladies," the man said in a sharp, mocking voice as Sansa and Arya sat up, blinking away the brightness. "We've arrived."
Arya scrambled to her feet immediately, leaving Sansa behind as she burst out of the cabin. She ran right for her father, standing near the gangplank in the dim light. He was still pale and feverish, a sheen of sweat on his forehead, and he was standing unsteadily like his leg still ached, but his hands were unchained and relief passed over his face as she grew closer. She went to hug him, trying to dodge his bad leg, and his arms came up tight around her and Sansa, right on her tail. "My girls," he murmured to the tops of their heads. "You're both all right?"
"We're fine," Sansa said, and Arya nodded. Their father held them close before drawing back, keeping a hand on Arya's shoulder as he looked past them towards the men crowded around. "Lord Stark," said one, "if you'll take your leave." He gestured to the gangplank in the same mocking manner that Sansa and Arya had been addressed in before.
Her father's jaw tightened, and he nodded. As they moved towards land, Arya's heart thudding with eager relief to leave the accursed ship, the same man leaned down and pressed a small purse into their father's hand. "Courtesy of the queen's generosity," he said, more serious this time. "She wishes you to remember her generosity, and that she showed you the same courtesy you'd have shown her. She'd have you remember that before you return to Westeros, and to remember her son's promise."
Her father's voice was tight with anger when he replied, "I do not think I would ever forget it." He pressed his hand against Arya's shoulder and the three of them began to move again, quicker this time, until they had reached the streets of Pentos and left the ship far behind. Only then did their father relax, taking his hand from Arya's shoulder and stepping away from Sansa, looking back over his shoulder at the ship and then emptying the purse into his hands. It was gold dragons, enough to get them lodging and food for a few days by Arya's estimate, but not nearly enough for them to live off of. He sighed, weary. "We could be more fortunate, but this is still better than I expected. We are not left with nothing."
It felt like nothing, but Arya could not say that, so she said nothing. It was Sansa who spoke, almost surprisingly, her chin lifting in something like a courageous manner. "Father, what did he mean with what he said about the queen? What… courtesy did you show her?" she asked.
Their father sighed again, touching his older daughter's shoulder briefly. "I suppose there's no harm in telling you now," he murmured. "Sansa, I'm afraid that King Joffrey and his siblings are not trueborn, and therefore should not inherit the throne."
Sansa's eyes widened in shock. "They're bastards?" Arya asked incredulously. It didn't seem real, after everything that she'd seen in the capital. Silly enough, one of her first thoughts was, They're nothing like Jon.
"Yes," he replied solemnly. "They have nothing of King Robert, and therefore no royal blood. I found out shortly before… before Robert died, and I offered Queen Cersei the chance for herself and her children to run, because I feared what would happen if they were still in the capital when Robert was told." He winced, as if he regretted his actions, and added in a quieter voice, "I suppose that this is the queen's bizarre way of thanking me even as she punishes me."
"A Lannister always pays their debts," Sansa said in a strangled voice.
A blessing and a punishment at the same time. They were alive, but they could never go home. The Stark name was disgraced, they rode against Robb and their soldiers in battle and her father could offer no aid, but still, they were alive, and it seemed they had the queen to thank. Arya knew she should be grateful, but she couldn't be. It didn't make her loathe the queen or her stupid children any less.
After all, their debt was paid. The scales were balanced. So what did they have to keep them safe now?
The gold was enough for a month or two at an inn, so that was what their father got. Sansa figured he was looking for a job, or some sort of ally in Pentos that might give them somewhere to stay when the gold ran out. Arya wasn't quite so sure that he could figure something out that quickly, but it didn't end up mattering. On their third week at the inn, they were eating in the main room with everyone else, and a man with a distinctly Westerosi accent approached them, claiming Robb had sent him. (He swore it was Robb, but the way he described him was strange. The Young Wolf Prince , he'd said, before falling to his knee at the side of the table. Told me to find the King in the North. Her father's face had gone red like he was embarrassed, and he got the man to his feet quickly, asking him not to draw attention. Arya was confused at the whole interaction; her father wasn't royalty, and neither was Robb, he was just her older brother who played dumb pranks and spent all his time running around with Jon and Theon and raced horses with her and Bran. They weren't royalty at all.)
The man got to his feet and their father told them to stay close to each other before going outside with the man, casting cautious looks around the room before going outside. Arya felt Sansa slide closer to her on the bench, but she didn't look back at her; she watched the door, wrapping her hand around the handle of her kitchen knife. It was dull, but it still might hold back the man if he was here to kill them.
"Arya, did you hear what that man called Father?" Sansa whispered.
"Of course I heard it," she replied irritably. "King in the North."
"There hasn't been a King in the North in years. Since the Targareyens came." Sansa sounded incredulous, astonished. "He didn't mean that Father…?"
"I don't know." Arya ran her thumb over the edge of the blade and bit back a huff of frustration at its dullness. This wouldn't poke holes in anything, much less hold a candle to Needle. "I don't even trust the man. Joffrey could have sent him. Cersei could have sent him."
"Why would Cersei send someone to kill Father? She let him go."
"The debt is paid. No reason not to kill us now."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If she let us go, why kill us a few weeks later?"
"Maybe it was all a trick, maybe she just wanted to make Robb think she was letting us live…"
"Arya, shut up," Sansa snapped, jostling her shoulder. When Arya turned to snap right back, she motioned pointedly towards the door. Their father was re-entering, a bag in one hand and what looked like an opened letter in another. He stopped partly in the doorway and gestured them forward. They got to their feet slowly and crossed the room, Arya taking the knife with her. Just in case.
Outside the inn, the man was still there. He immediately inclined his head when Sansa and Arya came out, saying, "Princesses." It took everything Arya had not to laugh at that; she looked over at Sansa, who seemed as confused as her.
"I thank you, ser, for bringing these things to us. And for bringing us news of our family," their father cut in. He opened the bag and pulled out several coins, tried to hand them to the man.
The man immediately shook his head. "I will not take your money, Your Grace. I will tell you that my ship home does not depart for a few more days, if you want to send along a reply. If you are certain that you won't come back to Westeros yourself…"
"It's just Lord Stark, please," their father said. "And yes, I would send along a reply, if nothing else. I am uncertain about facing the risk of a return, and I will have to consider the subject, but I wish to speak to my wife and son, as I'm sure my daughters also do."
Sansa's face lit up, and she whispered, "Do you have something from Mother?"
Their father nodded, still facing the man. "I will contact you before you depart."
"As you will." The man inclined his head once again. "By your leave, Your Grace."
Their father nodded again, and the man went, slipping into the inn, assumedly to find a room. Arya let go of the knife as he went, letting it fall to the ground with a muffled thump. She still wasn't completely trusting of the man, but she couldn't be entirely untrusting , either. The man's behavior was odd for an assassin, approaching them directly and calling them Princesses , and she'd caught a glimpse of something red on the paper her father had. Something that resembled the Stark seal, though it was hard to tell in the dark.
"That's from Robb?" she asked, reaching for it. She half-expected him to hold it away, but he gave it to her immediately. She held it close to her face, squinting in an attempt to decipher the words in the dim light. The handwriting was immediately recognizable as Robb's, but the tone seemed all wrong, it was all serious. Like Robb was a real man now.
"It would seem that my men— Robb's men," her father said, a little unsteadily, "have decided to name me King in the North."
Sansa gave a little gasp and crowded behind Arya, craning her neck to read the letter. All she could pick out were scraps of words here and there: … victory at the Whispering Woods… the Kingslayer as our prisoner… make arrangements for you and my sisters to return…
"Your brother has proven himself a capable military commander," their father continued, his voice quivering a little. "He's lifted the siege on Riverrun. He also sends a message from your mother, and news of your brothers, as well as money for the three of us to live on."
Arya shifted the letter and found another paper underneath, covered in her mother's handwriting. "They're all alright?" she asked, though she knew the truth, but she could still hear Joffrey threatening them all, and if any of what Sansa had said was true, then she believed he'd do it.
"Yes, sweetling, they are." Her father stroked a hand over the top of her head briefly, although he seemed distracted, his eyes on the papers in her hands, and Arya knew that her father was missing the rest of their family as badly as she was.
Sansa reached for the papers in her hands and she let her take it, still somewhat lost in the complexity of the situation. They had only been in Pentos for three weeks, and yet Robb was offering to let them come home. Someone had named her father a king. Absolutely none of it made sense, and she couldn’t believe the possibility that they’d be going home so soon. It was one of those things that seemed too good to be true; she didn’t quite believe it would really happen.
Sansa was clearly thinking similarly; she looked up at their father and asked in a quavering voice, “Are we really going home?”
Their father sighed, looking somewhere past them. “I don’t know. I will have to think on it. The last thing I want to do is to endanger the two of you, or your mother and brothers… but I dislike being here and doing nothing while Robb fights a war for me. I dislike that there must be a war at all, but it seems unavoidable at this point. And if my men are fighting a war in my name, calling me King, then I should be there to lead them.”
“But you don’t want to be a king,” said Arya. There was no question there; she knew it was true. She remembered Bran asking their father once, long ago, if he ever wanted to be king, and he had laughed and shaken his head, saying he had no desire for that kind of power. She didn’t even think he really wanted to be Lord of Winterfell, because Lord of Winterfell was supposed to be his brother, her uncle, and it would have been if he hadn’t been murdered by the Mad King.
Their father shook his head again, a little absently, and she could immediately see that he was deep in thought. “You two should go inside, get some rest,” he said. “I will be up soon.”
Sansa was disappointed; Arya could tell by the falling of her face and the slumping of her shoulders. She would be lying if she said she wasn’t disappointed, too; she knew they both wanted an answer, the promise that they would head home soon. But they both knew better than to argue. They slipped inside together, walking around the edges of the loud and rowdy room and up the stairs to their own, quieter room. A fire was already lit for them. Sansa still had the letters from their mother and Robb in her hands, and she passed them back to Arya as she sat down by the fire. (They’d given Sansa the bed, because their father insisted, and Arya didn’t really want to share with her. She had always sort of liked sleeping on the floor anyway; her mother had caught her curled up in front of the hearth sometimes as a small child, claimed she had insisted it was warmer there.)
“Mother sends her love,” Sansa said softly, as if she'd read Arya's mind. As if she'd been thinking about their mother, too.
Arya looked down at the paper and felt the same rush of relief as before at her mother’s words. Her handwriting was reassuringly familiar, the same neat loops and lines as always, but reading it over, she realized that she couldn't call up the sound of her mother's voice as easily as she once might have been able to. Tears burned suddenly in the back of her eyes, sudden embarrassment and shame, and she bit her lip and shook her head hard to ward them off. She would see her mother again. She knew she would.
The letter was addressed to the both of them, her and Sansa. There was no mention of their father, and Arya knew she must’ve written a separate letter for him, one that he’d kept to himself.
“Robb’s gonna win,” she said out loud, just to have something to say, some noise to fill the room. “He’ll win, and we’ll be there when he does. Maybe we’ll even leave tomorrow.”
“Father might not agree,” said Sansa, but she sounded as if she didn’t really believe it. Her eyes were glassy, like she was lost in the fantasy of going home, of being safe again.
“He will,” Arya said. “And we’ll beat Joffrey and the queen, and take their heads instead of them taking ours. And we can go back home to Winterfell.” She said it harshly, the way she usually did when she was fighting with Sansa, like if she said it hard enough, it might come true. Like she had become their mother when she was scolding and left no room for argument.
Sansa pursed her lips and nodded, trying to hide the blatant longing on her face. “I’d like to go home,” she said softly.
Arya looked back at her mother’s letter, back at the fire. She’d lost track of time since she left home; it couldn’t have been more than a year, but it felt like forever. “Me too,” she said sharply, resisting the urge to call Sansa stupid.
She lay down on her pallet, stretching out as if she’d sleep, although she wasn’t sure she could rest. Her mind was still racing. She still had Robb’s and her mother’s letters clutched in her hand.
After a moment, Sansa reached for them, muttering, “Can I have…?” and Arya handed them over without argument. Sansa took them, crumpled and wrinkled from Arya’s palm, and stood and crossed the room, climbing into her bed. Sleeping with the letters like a child, but Arya couldn’t make fun, because she would’ve done the same if Sansa hadn’t asked first. She turned over on her side to face the fire, curling into a ball the way she had when she slept on the streets of King’s Landing, and closed her eyes and thought of home.
Five days into their stay in Pentos, Arya had gotten restless all over again—not the same as on the boat, but not far off. She’d wanted to train, and really train this time, maybe not with Syrio guiding her, but anything would be better than nothing. She hadn’t asked her father, because it was impractical to search for wooden swords with the little amount of money they had, and because his leg was still hurting and it would be selfish to ask him to train with her. And she hadn’t asked Sansa because she hadn’t gone absolutely mad after leaving King’s Landing; Arya knew better than that. Instead, she’d poked around the streets of Pentos until she found a dilapidated booth in the market, falling apart, shards and larger pieces of wood littering the cobblestones among rotten fruit. Arya dug through the pile, ignoring the splinters and the stench, until she found a piece of wood that would do. She spent two days trying to smooth the ragged edges so she wouldn’t accidentally skewer herself with it, using the stupid dull kitchen knives to wear them down, and then she began to practice, going into the alleyway behind the inn and pretending the edges of the buildings were real opponents. Her father had caught her at it once, and hadn’t said anything, but just smiled. Sansa probably thought it was stupid, but if she did, she hadn’t said anything. So Arya had practiced every day since, keeping her stick at her side, lying it beside her pallet when she slept. It was no Needle, but it was something, and it seemed like a good idea to have it nearby.
It wasn't clear how good of an idea it was until the night Robb's man found them, when Arya was woken hours later by a strange, wet thump. She jolted awake as quickly as she did at any sound, the way she’d learned to do when sleeping on the streets, but didn’t sit straight up; her father was on his pallet not far from hers, and he was awake too, his eyes were open, but he was looking elsewhere, and the first thing she saw was the blade at his throat. The long blade that wasn’t Valyrian steel but could still kill a man just the same. And then she saw the shape leaning over her father, the shape of a man, all shadows in the firelight, and then the source of the thump, on the floor, looking up at her. It was the man Robb had sent. The head of the man Robb had sent, leaving a bloody stain on the floorboards, looking up at her with blank eyes, and she could hear his voice saying, Princesses , again, and she had to bite back a scream. She was still lying still, her muscles tense, and her eyes jerked back to her father, who saw her now, his eyes wide and full of fear. And the shadowy shape lifted the sword, murmuring something, but all Arya could make out was, In the name of King Joffrey…
Her hand shot out for her stick that wasn’t Needle, but it was something. She gripped it and launched herself at the man, shouting, “No!” for all she was worth. Behind her, she heard Sansa shriek just as the stick came down across the man’s back. It wasn’t anything, really, but it was enough to keep him from swinging at Father, and she managed to hit him two more times, going for the head. She was going for a fourth one when he turned on her, knocking her hard to the ground and grabbing her wrist with the stick in it. He sneered at her, as if amused. “Clever little bitch,” he said, and then his sword came down again, not at her, but on her stick, cutting it right in half the way they’d cut Syrio’s wooden sword in half before they killed him and she'd ran. Except Syrio had been able to hold them off because he was a swordsmen and she wasn’t.
Far off, it seemed, she heard her father shout, “Arya!”
The assassin went to yank her up and she jerked forward and sank her teeth into his wrist, clenching hard until she felt the coppery rang of blood on her tongue. The assassin howled and hit her in the face, but she didn't let go. Her father appeared at the assassin's shoulder, grabbing him and trying to yank him away, but the assassin let out a roar of frustration and threw his elbow back, catching her father in the nose.
Arya's eyes lurched to his hand with the weapon in it, to the weapons at his waistband, another sword, and she went reaching for it, but he hit her again. She kicked him hard in the leg. She heard, dimly, Sansa shouting, "Father!" Something hurled past her head and hit the assassin in the shoulder; a book, Arya recognized dimly. The assassin drew back like he was going to hit her one more time, but she scratched at his arms with her nails, as hard as she could. She turned her head to the side, twisting her teeth in his skin, and he howled again. He dropped his sword, which hit the ground with a clatter. He grabbed Arya hard by her hair and yanked , so hard that her jaw dropped opened and she let go. I could fight better if I had Needle, she thought, a little irrationally, and tried to pull away, but he was pulling her hair so hard that she almost screamed, her vision going dotty. She heard Sansa shouting, "Stop it, stop it, leave them alone!" and throwing something else that didn't land, and then just as the assassin reached for his waist, for a dagger he had in a sheath there, Arya saw her father pick up the assassin's sword. Saw him lunge forward and put the sword right through the man when he wasn't looking.
His grip loosened, just enough that Arya could wriggle away, and she spit out a mouthful of blood and saliva, panting hard, scrambling back as the assassin fell to the ground, blood pooling crimson beneath him. Her scalp was screaming with pain, still, and her cheek ached from where she'd been hit, but she couldn't focus on that. She was looking at the assassin. She was thinking of the stable boy, the one she killed. He hadn't deserved it. This one had.
Her father let the sword drop, fell to his knees despite his wince at the pain, and gathered her up in his arms. "Are you all right?" he murmured, and she nodded. "Gods, Arya, that was foolish."
"He was going to kill you," Arya said stubbornly, hugging him back hard. Joffrey had tried to kill him twice now, and this time, it had almost worked. "He would've killed us, too. I wasn't going to just sit there."
Sansa appeared at their sides, her face white and streaked with tears, and their father opened his arms for her. She came into the embrace, wrapping an arm around Arya's shoulder so tight it almost hurt. Arya didn't try to wriggle away. Instead, she whispered, "Good job throwing that book," just to be nice, and was relieved to hear her father's tearful chuckle.
"We cannot go home," their father said later, when they'd picked themselves up off the floor and went about trying to undo the damage. The people who worked at the in had heard the screams and come to investigate, and the bruise forming on the side of Arya's face and their father's bloody nose was enough to convince them that there'd been an attack. The first servant who came ran to get help, and their father had taken the sword he'd used and wiped it off, muttering something about how it wasn't Ice but it would do. Arya bent over the dead man and took his other sword, gripping it in both hands and going to clamber up onto the bed beside Sansa. She didn't let go, and her father didn't say a word. Now they sat there, she and Sansa, huddled together, as their father told them they had to stay.
"This wasn't some random assassin," their father continued solemnly. "How would he know to kill this man if he was sent from King's Landing? No, somehow, this man was followed by a Lannister man, which means the Lannisters have some idea that Robb has had contact with us. And if they can send someone for us here, they can do it in Westeros."
And if they could send an assassin, they could keep their promise to kill her mother and Robb and Bran and Rickon and Jon. This was enough to make Arya believe it would happen, if she hadn't before. Her father was right, they couldn't go home. Not yet. She nodded, her knuckles turning white around the hilt of the sword.
"I'm going to go and find us somewhere else to stay," said their father. "I want the two of you to stay in here, and stay together. I'll have the owners of the inn post someone outside the door."
"You shouldn't leave, Father," Sansa said waveringly. "Not if there's a chance those people are still out there."
"I think it unlikely that the Lannisters would have sent more than one person, but it matters not. I have to go. I promise I will be careful." Their father pulled the new sword out of his sheath, the assassin's sword, briefly before letting it fall back in. "I need your word that the two of you will stay here; I need you safe."
"We'll stay," Sansa said immediately, before Arya could agree. She would've liked to go; she didn't want her father to go alone, but she also knew arguing would be of no use. So she just nodded along, and watched him slip out the door.
"We shouldn't have let him go out alone," she said as soon as they were alone, letting a bit of disgust creep into her voice, but she didn't move away from her sister.
Sansa didn't shove her away, either, like Arya half expected her to. "I don't like it either, Arya, but it's best we stay here. Maybe he will have found somewhere for us to go by tomorrow and we won't be left alone again."
Arya let out a little grumble, but didn't say anything else. She drew the sword up so it lay across her lap, her shoulder jostling Sansa's a little, and leaned back against the pillows, determined not to let it go. She'd kill anyone who tried to hurt her or her father or Sansa. "Are you going to keep that thing?" Sansa asked softly from beside her.
Arya jerked her chin instinctively. "Yes," she said, nearly daring Sansa to scold her for it.
There was a moment of silence. The fire had burned down, and the room was darker, so Arya couldn't have seen Sansa's face even if she was looking. She ran one finger over the side of the hilt and scowled instinctively at the carved lion she felt there. And then Sansa said, "Good," that same edge of defiance in her voice. "I think we need it. And at least you know how to use it."
Arya relaxed and bit back a grateful smile. "And at least you know how to throw books," she said, only half teasing, and chuckled a little when Sansa shoved at her in response. "I could teach you, you know. Or Father could."
"I don't want to learn to use a sword. I would cut off my own head, anyway."
"You would," Arya said, laughing for real this time, and holding her hands up in defense when Sansa whacked her with a pillow. "Don't worry," she added. "When we get back to Westeros, I'm sure Mother and Father will arrange some marriage to some stuffy Lord, and you can be the best stupid lady out there."
Sansa laughed a little, but it sounded weaker this time. "Not as good as Mother," she said fiercely after a moment, and Arya nodded at that. Her mother was the best lady she knew. "And besides… we might not go home."
"Not as good as Mother," Arya agreed. She didn't think there'd ever be a lady as good as their mother. "But we will go home, Sansa. We will." Her voice was just as fierce, echoing in the emptiness of their bedchamber. She wondered if the people next to them could hear, and then decided she didn't care. She didn't care who heard, because it wouldn't make it any less true. They would go home.
"Why did you have to get a Lannister sword?" Sansa said suddenly, a lightness back in her voice. "It's absolutely covered in lions!"
"Well, it's not like I had my pick ," Arya said, feigning insult.
Sansa giggled, a surprising sound. "Maybe if we painted it gray, people will think it's a direwolf."
"Maybe if we carve it all up, no one will be able to tell what it is," Arya offered, and Sansa burst into giggles again, like she was whispering with Jeyne Poole across the room instead of talking to her little sister. Arya grinned, almost involuntarily. "Thanks for throwing that book," she said.
Sansa pressed a hand to her mouth, serious again. "Thanks for saving Father," she said, and Arya wanted to say that she didn't save him, and the idea that she had was stupid, but she didn't. She yawned instead and shut her eyes, keeping her hand on the Lannister sword that was hers now, that she would use to kill Joffrey and Cersei if she never got Needle back.
She and Sansa fell asleep curled together like little children, and didn't wake up until their father slipped into the room the next day with the news that he'd found them somewhere to stay.
The streets of Pentos were constantly abuzz with news. Crowded from end to end with smallfolk, merchants, buyers, sailors, and everyone in between, and all carried talk of things happening all over the Free Cities. Within a few weeks of wandering the streets, Arya knew what seemed to be every piece of gossip Pentos held. People spoke of a Dothraki wedding outside the city walls a year before. They heard stories of the red temple in the midst of the city, and the sorcery that came from inside. There were whispers of dragons to the east, the first dragons in a century. (Sansa didn't believe those stories, but Arya couldn't discount it. She had heard of stranger things. And besides, Sansa swore up and down one day that she'd seen Ser Barristan Selmy boarding a ship at the Port, and Arya knew that that idea couldn't possibly be true, and Sansa was either full of shit or seeing things, so she was hardly the crazy one for believing in dragons. Why would the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard be in Pentos?)
And there were whispers of Westeros, too, among the rumors of the Free Cities. News of the war, and of the people they'd left behind. Stannis Baratheon had declared himself King of the Seven Kingdoms, which their father said was true, but Arya didn't understand why Robb wouldn't ally with him if that was true. Renly Baratheon, the king's youngest brother, had also declared himself King, and was married to the sister of the Knight of Flowers. The Ironborn, Theon's family, was rebelling again; Arya knew that their first rebellion had taken her father away from home just before she was born, and that was when Theon had come to Winterfell. The new so-called King Renly was already dead, supposedly killed by a member of his Kingsguard. ("It's Jaime Lannister all over again," Sansa said when she heard, although Arya couldn't tell how she felt about the whole thing. "I suppose it doesn't really mean anything anymore, being a knight and swearing yourself to someone.") The Princess Myrcella had been sent away to be married, and the smallfolk in King's Landing had pelted the king with horse shit. (Arya and Sansa had both giggled at that and tried to hide it behind their hands. "I wish I could've seen that," Sansa whispered to Arya on the way back to their house.) It wasn't the most reliable form of information—people kept saying that the Young Wolf had an army of wolves at his back, and even turned into one himself, and Arya knew that wasn't true—but it was better than hearing nothing. Robb and their mother hadn't sent anything since the first time, and considering what had happened last time, that was probably a good thing.
Hopefully if Joffrey sent more assassins, they wouldn't be able to find them. Their father had picked a little building tucked off behind several larger ones, brown and bland and unassuming, cramped with only two real rooms: a little bedroom, and a main room with a huge fireplace and a little table to eat at. Their father had taken the bedroom after some argument from them (he couldn't sleep on the floor with his leg), and Sansa and Arya slept on pallets in front of the fire the way they had in the inn. Their father said that perhaps they could get beds after they had earned some more money, since he was trying to save the money Robb had sent as much as possible, but Arya didn't mind sleeping on the floor. If they got beds, it meant that the situation was permanent, and she didn't want it to be permanent.
They made money by selling fish. That had been their father's idea, too, in an attempt to both blend in and to have something to do besides sit and wait. It wasn't as if it brought in much money, but it was better than nothing, and they could eat the leftovers. It was easy enough to manage; they had an old net that Sansa had mended, and they'd go down to the water each morning and sink it in, bring up as much as they could and load their cart. Sansa didn't really like to handle the fish, or to get her dresses wet, so she'd hold the cart steady while Arya did the rest. Arya griped at her about it, but she couldn't really complain. She knew all the fish hauling was making her stronger if nothing else. And besides, Sansa did her part with the selling; she was better with customers than Arya was. They'd argued a lot at first, but they seemed to have run out of things to argue about now. And it was easier to just get along with Sansa, anyway; besides their father, they were all each other had.
In the evenings, they'd swim sometimes, although Sansa always insisted that they go far off from their fishing spot. Winterfell had always been too cold to swim much, except in the hot springs, so it was entirely different to swim in colder water in a hotter climate, but they both enjoyed it. It was one of the only good parts of their stay in Pentos, swimming in the sea. That and her training, which Arya did every single evening, no matter what. The alley in front of their temporary home was fairly abandoned most of the time, especially at night, and wasn't a bad place to practice. She simply lit a lantern after the sun had set, and went outside to practice.
The Lannister sword still had its lions; she and Sansa hadn't gotten to trying to disguise them yet. Arya hardly wanted to ruin the sword. But it wasn't a Lannister sword, because it was hers ; she hadn't thought of a name for it yet, nothing was as good as Needle, and it wasn't as pretty or well suited to her as Needle, either, but it was still hers. Its weight had been difficult to deal with, at first, but she'd gotten used to it, the same way she had gotten used to Syrio's heavy models, and after a few months in Pentos, she could maneuver it almost as easily as she had Needle.
Her father practiced with her sometimes, when he was there and not too tired. He was gone often on mysterious errands, which Arya suspected related to the war back home and his attempts to get them there. He'd come with them to sell fish often at the beginning, and sometimes he still would, but less often now, because he'd given Sansa the assassin's dagger ("Not because I expect you to use it, or even to learn how," he'd said, "but in case you and Arya are ever in danger and I am not there. I want you to have some means of defense.") and they carried it with them every day now, because they couldn't take Arya's sword, and that comforted their father considerably. But still, he was there in the evenings more often than in the day, and often he would train with Arya, if only for a little while.
Arya had been worried, at first, that he would disapprove of her still training, or refuse if she asked him to help her practice, so she hadn't. Instead, he had offered one night, smiling like he was amused watching her fight an invisible opponent. And then she'd worried he only did it because he missed practicing with Robb and Jon and Bran. She still worried about that a little, still worried that he secretly disapproved and was only doing it because he wished his sons were there, but she never voiced those worries. Besides, if he was only doing it because he missed Robb and Jon and Bran, he never voiced it. He sparred with her comparably hard, if not equally hard, as he had then, and sometimes in the moment she thought he looked almost happy, almost proud. "Your skill is growing considerably, Arya," he said one night. "You should be proud." It was so different from what he'd said when he discovered Needle, when she'd thought he wouldn't let her keep it, and it made her incredibly happy. She knew he still probably disapproved, at least a little bit, but he didn't outright dismiss it or condemn it, and she was grateful for his tutelage, even if it was so different from Syrio's. She wasn't able to beat him yet, but she was getting better.
Sansa was bored often, aside from the times they went swimming; Arya could tell she was bored, and a little lonely, since she had no interest in sword fighting, and no one to practice needlepoint or dancing, or to gossip with, or any of the stuff she'd done with Septa Mordane and Jeyne Poole. Arya didn't really want to feel sorry for her—she'd felt the same way when they'd left for King's Landing, after Mycah died and Nymeria left and she'd been surrounded by proper ladies, before her training began—but Sansa looked so pathetic that she couldn't help it. So she sat with her sometimes, although she refused to sew or anything like that. She let Sansa fix her hair in the mornings sometimes too, just to get it out of her way, although she'd yank right out of reach if Sansa ever pulled too hard. She didn't really like it, but she knew Sansa did, and it made them both think of their mother, so it wasn't too terrible.
It was easy to miss their family constantly; Arya knew Sansa and their father did as much as she did. Playing in the water with Sansa, shrieking and shouting, it was easy to wish that they were there with their brothers. Their quiet, empty dinners with their brooding father (who tried his best to be attentive, but it was clear he had a lot on his mind) seemed empty in comparison to the boisterous meals at Winterfell. And she found herself missing her mother at odd moments. When she'd be lying awake in the middle of the night, too restless to sleep, or when she was sitting with Sansa and trying to find things to say about sewing that weren't rude, or when her father bid them goodbye in the mornings, or once, oddly, when she was racing Sansa back to the house after they were finished selling for the day, and she fell and scraped her knee on the cobblestone. She was too old to cry like a little baby at a scraped knee, especially when she'd faced much worse things already, but for one strange moment lying there before she picked herself up and scrambled to catch up with Sansa, she wanted her mother. As a very small child, her mother had always kissed her scrapes and bruises, the same way she had Bran's, and did Rickon's still. She wanted that then. She'd torn her dress, and she couldn't help thinking her mother would scold her, but she might not mind this time.
Whenever she found herself missing her mother, she tried to remind herself that they would be going home, and perhaps soon. When she'd first heard of the death of Renly Baratheon, she'd felt a rush of relief, not because she really had anything against Renly Baratheon—she hadn't even known him, or cared that he was dead, except that his death might mean a sooner end to the War of the Five Kings, as the Westerosi merchants called it. If there were only four kings, then that was a step, wasn't it? The sooner it was over and Robb won, the sooner they could go home.
It was a completely normal morning, when they found out. They were walking to the market with their catches, Sansa pushing the cart, and Arya wringing the water out of her skirts. She'd gotten carried away while fishing earlier, diving under the water and swimming idly and splashing Sansa on the shore, and she was soaked from head to toe, her sodden braids coming loose and hanging around her face. "You look like a drowned rat," Sansa said, not without amusement, and in response, Arya shook her head hard like a wet dog, splattering Sansa with water from her dripping hair. "Hey!" Sansa shouted, mostly still playing, and Arya laughed, dodging the mud Sansa kicked at her, and she was running away, looking for something light to throw back, when she heard a voice, a Westerosi accent, and the word, the word, "Winterfell," and she came to an abrupt stop.
"You're funnin' with me," someone else said to the first man, laughter in his voice. "Why would the fucking Ironborn want to take Winterfell?" And Arya heard a sharp gasp behind her, Sansa's gasp; her own throat was closing with fury.
"Revenge, I suppose. It was the young Kraken who did it, one that Stark took hostage after the first rebellion. Seems he was tired of playing serving maid to the wolves," said the first man, sounding amused, and Arya wanted to kill him just for that. Theon had betrayed them, and their home was gone, and she couldn't believe it. She could never go home now. And a small part of her was screaming in protest, Bran and Rickon, weren't they still there? What happened to Bran and Rickon?
"Well, it couldn't have been very hard to take. What with the King in the North having been exiled, and the Wolf Prince heading his armies. Who was in charge of it? Wasn't it a little boy?"
" Two little boys. Little princes ." The man was mocking, talking in the flowery tone people used to imitate royalty; Arya had used it herself, but never about her brothers, and she was so busy being furious of the men's dismissive tone that she wasn't expecting what came next. It took her by surprise, felt like being kicked in the stomach.
"The little princes tried to run," said the man who mocked them. "So, way I hear it, the Greyjoy boy hunted them down and killed them both."
There was a sharp whimper from Sansa, like she was holding in a scream. Arya heard the dusty thump of their cart hitting the ground, the splat of their fish going flying. But she couldn't pay attention to it. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't speak. Her vision was spotty, reddening with anger, and then the man spoke again. "Hung their corpses up for all to see, I hear, so everyone will know wh—"
Arya let out a roar and lunged for the man, the one telling the story. She slammed right into him and yanked out Sansa's dagger, because Sansa was craven and always made her carry it, and she held it over the stunned man. She was screaming so hard her throat hurt, the words getting jumbled up, but she finally heard enough to make sense of it. She was shouting, "You're lying! You're lying !"
"What the fuck are you doing?" the man shouted, stunned.
Arya felt his friend dragging her off. She kicked back at him, still shouting, and lurched forward at the man again. He smacked the dagger out of her fist, and it went flying across the cobblestones, so Arya went at him with her fists, smacking him right in the jaw before he shoved her off. "You're a fucking liar!" she screamed. "Take it back, take it back!"
"Stop it, stop it!" Sansa was suddenly behind her, yanking her back so she fell onto the pavement. She froze for a minute, stunned, staring up at her sister. She was crying, dragging her hand across her cheeks hard to wipe the tears away. "It won't help ," she whispered hollowly. "It won't do anything, just stop it."
Arya wanted to scream, wanted to hit her. She balled up her fists so she wouldn't and screamed, "You're horrible, I hate you!" She got to her feet and started to run, letting the dagger drop, ignoring Sansa calling for her. She ignored the tears running down her face, ignored her own gasping sobs, until she reached their swimming spot by the docks, slipped underneath a smaller dock and sat in the stony sand, burying her face in her hands.
Sansa found her, later, still under the dock. "You shouldn't have run off," she said flatly.
Arya didn't lift her head from where it rested on her knees, just watched the water lap at the sad sand. "I don't care," she said flatly.
"Father and I know what you're going through. We know better than anyone. I…" Sansa's voice broke. "I miss them, too. They were my brothers, too."
Arya raised her head to look at her. "Father knows?" she whispered.
Sansa nodded and fell to her knees, despite the sand and her dress. "He heard. One of his friends in town told him."
A tear was trickling down Arya's cheek; she swiped it away angrily. "I didn't mean it. I don't hate you," she said miserably.
Sansa nodded quickly, her head jerking up and down rapidly, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around Arya. Arya gulped back tears and turned her face against her sister's shoulder. "I hate them ," she choked out, her fingers balling into a fist in the hand. "I hate them all. We should have been there, all of us, we should have been there to protect them…" Rickon had been so little when they left, running on tiny legs after everyone, demanding to know where they were going, clinging to Shaggydog's side like he was a horse. And Bran… she could still remember how small he looked in bed, pale and unconscious, before they'd been sure that he would survive. She remembered how happy they'd been when they learned he had woken, the night they'd spent in the godswood, her hope that maybe they could return to visit someday. That would never happen now. They might go back but they wouldn't be there. Her little brothers. And Theon, who had practically been a brother himself, who she'd never been close to but who had always been there, who she knew Robb loved like a brother, had done it. Theon had been the one to betray them, to kill Bran and Rickon. And she hated him for it.
"I hate them, too," Sansa said, her voice rough. Almost the same as it had sounded when she talked about Joffrey and how he wanted to kill Father, but angrier. Her sister almost sounded as if she could murder someone. "They're all horrible. I-I wish that they were dead, and Bran and Rickon were…" Her voice broke and she stopped abruptly, letting go of Arya and reaching up to dash the tears out of her eyes.
"I'm going to kill them," Arya said suddenly. Sansa looked back at her with astonishment, and maybe she should have looked away then, but she didn't. She wanted Sansa to see she was serious. "Everyone who's hurt us… I'm going to kill them all."
Sansa swallowed hard, smoothing one hand over her skirt, tears still in her eyes. "Good," she said, her voice hard.
When they finally made their way back to their tiny house, their skirts encrusted with sand and their cheeks wet with tears, their father was waiting, slumped at their table, his face covered in tears of his own. He wordlessly got up when they entered, crossing the room to wrap them in his arms. Arya pressed her face into his side, her eyes squeezed shut, the tears already coming again.
"We're going home," their father spoke suddenly, his voice roughened with tears. "As soon as I can find us passage. On the morrow, perhaps."
Sansa drew in her breath sharply, whispering, "Are we really?"
Arya lifted her head to look at her father, to see if he was serious; it seemed that he was. "We are," he said. "I will not let this happen again. I will not let people continue to hurt my family while I am here, doing nothing, sitting like a craven because I am afraid ." His voice was rising, tightening in pain. "Lannisters be damned. We will sail north, to your brother and mother. We'll take our home back…" His voice broke then, shattering, and Arya swallowed back a sob. "We'll go home," he whispered, thumbing a tear off of Sansa's cheek. "I promise you both, we'll go home."
Arya let herself fall into a chair, shut her eyes and tried to picture her home. But the image wouldn't come. It was all blurry and unclear. She couldn't picture it without Bran and Rickon, without Jon and Robb, without her mother, all of whom weren't there. Nymeria and Lady were gone, and probably Shaggydog and Bran's wolf, if Theon had killed Bran and Rickon. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, but there wasn't now, and there might never be again. She hadn't even been home in over a year; she could barely remember what it looked like. She had never worried for Bran and Rickon because they were home, not at war or in King's Landing, they were safe. But they hadn't been safe, and now they were gone.
That night, Arya slept curled with Sansa the way they'd slept the night after the assassin. But it was a restless sleep, one she drifted in and out of. She kept having nightmares, seeing her mother's face just after Bran fell, Mycah's broken body after the Hound had gotten to him. The assassin leaning over her father with a sword to his throat. Joffrey holding her father's head high above the crowd, his mouth open in a cruel laugh. Bran and Rickon, limp on the ground at Theon's feet…
She jolted awake more than once, shaking, and each time she could see her father awake in the main room, staring into the fire. Keeping vigil, the way he had in the godswood when Bran was alive, only that was all wrong now. His eyes looked almost blank from where she was, stony and fierce, angry. She thought that he might kill someone for what had happened, too.
Just after midnight, she woke again to hear him sobbing.
Two days later, a boy appeared at their door.
It was strange to hear a knock at their door, but Arya assumed it was one of their father's friends. She didn't look up from her sword, which she was cleaning from her perch on the floor, until she heard a small voice say, "Y-your Grace." Then her head shot up just in time to see a boy about Bran's age scamper away from the door. She bit the inside of her cheek to stave off a wince.
"Lad… Lad, come back here!" her father called, exiting the house to run after him. Sansa, across the room, clambered to her feet. Arya placed her sword on the ground gently and got up to follow her, but their father re-entered before they could follow him, muttering, "What in the devil was that boy…?" He had a parcel in his hands, small but clearly containing something.
"Father, what is it?" Sansa asked, a familiar wobble in her voice. She'd cried a lot since the day they'd heard about Bran and Rickon, and now Arya couldn't tell if she was worried or hopeful, hoping it was something from Robb.
"I don't know." Their father tore the package open, a look verging somewhere between hope and fear on his face as well. He pulled out a piece of parchment first, one that Arya couldn't read from where she was. She could see one thing, though: someone's seal in red wax on the other side. She couldn't tell whose.
"From Robb?" she prodded, moving to try and see the letter. "Or Jon?" She would've loved to hear from Jon; she missed him desperately, and had no news of him, since no one spoke of the Night's Watch. She craned her neck to try and see, but Sansa's hand suddenly coming down on her arm stopped her. She started to protest, but stopped when she saw her father's face. It had gone white, absolutely white. He looked horrified.
"Father, what's…" Sansa began, but he'd let the letter drop before she could finish. He ripped at the parcel, trying to get it open, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw it. A horrified look came over his face, wounded. Like all the breath had left his body.
Arya's chest tightened on instinct, and she spit out, "What's wrong ?" and reached for the parcel. But he let that drop, too, turned on his heel and went for the door, a sharp sound almost like a whimper emitting from his throat. He sounded on the verge of tears.
Arya couldn't breathe, her throat thick with fear. She fell to her knees and fumbled for the letter, reading the words as fast as she could, but she had to read it several times before it made sense. The King's seal sat just below it, a stag adorned in red.
His Grace sends his condolences for the loss of your sons. Rest assured that my son and I have the utmost sympathy, and cannot imagine your loss.
But I would have you remember the promise you made before you left Westeros, no matter how tempting it may be to return after hearing this tragic news. Grief is a horrible thing, that sometimes drives us to make unwise decisions. I would urge you to remain wise in these moments, Lord Stark. You keep your word so we won't have to keep ours.
You'll find enclosed a token of our goodwill. Take care to keep your word, or next time we will send something more permanent.
Arya couldn't understand what it meant, at first, until she heard the sharp cry from Sansa. Until she heard Sansa choke out her name, and turned to look into the ruined parcel. Until she saw the long braid lying inside, chopped off right at the end. The braid that shone as bright and red as Sansa's, the same hair Arya had seen all her life, that she'd hidden her face in as a very small child when she'd hurt herself.
The Lannisters had her mother.
Arya ran. She took her sword and she ran, as far as she could run, her lungs burning, until she found a small, abandoned alleyway. She screamed there, finally, at the top of her lungs. She swung her sword as if she were sparring, but harder, like she was swinging at an invisible opponent. Each time she hit the side of a building by accident, she pretended it was Theon, or Joffrey, or the queen. She swung the heavy sword until her arms ached, until her throat hurt from shouting. She practiced until the sun sunk low in the sky and it began to get dark, until a city guardsman began to lurk nearby, and then she slipped home, clutching her stupid Lannister sword close. When she got there, she wordlessly set the sword down and pushed her pallet next to Sansa's. Maybe it made her a baby, but she didn't care. After everything, Sansa was almost all she had left, Sansa and her father. She needed Sansa, much as she would've once hated to admit it, because they killed her little brothers, and now they had her mother and might kill her too, except they couldn't do anything to help her, anything at all, because if they went to get her, the Lannisters would hurt her. She would never see Bran and Rickon again, and now she might never see her mother again. Maybe Robb would lose the war. Maybe Jon would die beyond the wall. Maybe she'd never see home again. Maybe they'd kill her mother and send them grisly proof, as a warning, and she couldn't do a damned thing to stop it. They couldn't go home now.
Arya whispered the names just before she dozed off. All the people she was going to kill, the people who had hurt her family. Almost like it was a prayer.
They went back to normal life, because Arya didn't know what else they would do otherwise. There was nothing else to do; they couldn't go home, and they couldn't go anywhere else, so they stayed. They kept selling fish, working in near silence, dragging two carts now because their father came with them more often than not, and he could handle one by himself.
Arya spent every spare hour training, going late into the night, working until she ached all over and was covered in bruises. Her father trained with her sometimes still, but she could tell he wasn't really into it. She befriended some boys who lived nearby, an apprentice to the cooper whose shop was in front of theirs, and convinced them to spar with her, carving up more pieces of wood she found so she wouldn't get anyone killed again. (She thought that surely these friends would be safer than Mycah had been, since there were no kings or princes here besides her father, and even he didn't seem to count.) Her friends were always begging her to go do other things, play games or go swimming or do something beside play at sword fighting, but she always said no. Partly because she felt she didn't have time to do childish things like that, not now, and partly because playing with them would've made her think of playing with Bran and Rickon. She couldn't do it. She wouldn't do it, and so she always said no, and only ever practiced with them.
Sansa stayed at the house most of the time when they weren't selling. Arya supposed she found something to entertain herself. Somehow Sansa managed to get all the news from Westeros, and she always relayed it to Arya right before bed. Stannis Baratheon had attacked King's Landing but lost, and the entirety of Blackwater Bay had been set aflame—some said as a result of the red sorceress Stannis was said to have by his side, and others argued that it wasn't possible because the flames had been green. The Tyrells had allied themselves with the Lannisters, and Renly's widow was to marry Joffrey and be the new queen, as Sansa once had. Balon Greyjoy had taken a fall off a bridge, bringing the War of the Five Kings down to three. The Kingslayer's captivity was causing fights among the Stark army, and Robb had killed a man for hurting Lannisters. ("That's horse shit, Robb doesn't care for the Lannisters," Arya said to that, "and Robb would've traded the Kingslayer for Mother already, or at least tried.") The Kingslayer had disappeared into the night. Some blamed sorcery, some blamed Robb, some blamed a member of Renly's Kingsguard, of all things. Arya wasn't sure where the hell Sansa was hearing these things, and wasn't sure half of them were true herself. She asked the same question almost every time Sansa gave her news: "Anything about Mother?" And Sansa always got a mournful look on her face and shook her head.
There was no real news, at least none that interested Arya, until the day Sansa came home with a nervous sort of look on her face. She'd left to get bread for their dinner, a simple run down to the corner, and she re-entered in a rush, sending the door open with a loud bang and startling Arya and their father where they sat at the table. "Sansa, is everything all right?" their father asked immediately, his voice rising in concern.
"Erm." Sansa's hands were clasped tightly together in front of her, her face pale. "No."
"Then what's wrong?" Arya prodded.
"I… I heard news from home," she said gingerly.
Their father was on his feet in an instant. "Your mother? Robb?" he blurted, his voice booming with urgency and fear.
"T-they're both fine, if what I've heard is true," Sansa said quickly. "It's… it's the army. Our army."
Arya swallowed hard, watching her father's face. He looked afraid, although not as intensely as before, and he extended a hand to Sansa reassuringly. "Tell me," he said, gentler this time. And so Sansa told them.
It seemed that their uncle Edmure had been promised to the daughter of Walder Frey, to make amends for something Robb had done to offend him. The Stark army had marched to the Twins to attend the wedding, protected under guest rights, and Edmure had been married. But something had gone wrong at the feast. Sansa had heard it said that Robb had grown offended, changed into a wolf, and began attacking the Freys, but none of them believed that. But whatever the reason, Walder Frey had found it a sufficient reason to break guest rights and attack the Stark army. They were massacred, attacked unsuspectingly, senses dulled from the wine, too surprised to put up a decent fight. Most of the army was gone. And Robb…
"They say that Robb escaped," Sansa finished in a wobbling voice. "I listened to the whole conversation to make sure. They swore that he escaped the hall, although not without injuries, and took a great many Freys with him. They were saying he stayed a wolf the entire time, and that was how they recognized him, the Young Wolf. He escaped, they didn't kill him, he was fine." Her lip was trembling, and she looked on the verge of tears.
Their father's expression was tight with fury, a momentous rage. "Of all the deplorable…" he murmured, cursing under his breath. "The news that Robb escaped brings me much relief, but the idea that Frey would do that to my men… to my son… " He let his eyes fall shut with pain, trembling.
Arya felt the same way, nearly vibrating with anger. They'd have killed her brother, taken someone else away from her, and not given it another thought; they had killed her father's bannermen and loyalists, in the most despicable way possible. She loathed them for it, loathed their craven nature and everything they had done to her brother. Beside her, Sansa sniffled like she really would cry.
Their father made a sudden, furious sound in the pit of his throat. "I never should have gone south," he bit out. "If I'd had any inkling of the destruction it would bring to our family…"
Arya lay her head down on her table, shutting her own eyes to hold back tears. With their army gone, there was no chance that they'd win, no chance of beating the Lannisters, and no chance that they could ever go home. Her mother would be a hostage in King's Landing forever. Robb was alive, but he might not make it far if he was injured, Grey Wind or no. Jon couldn't help them, and Bran and Rickon were still dead. They would be in Essos forever. She could hear Sansa crying beside her, softly, and knew she wasn't far off. They'd been in Pentos for nearly a year, it had been nearly two since they'd been home. She could barely even remember it anymore.
She told herself that at least Robb was alive. Bran and Rickon were gone, and she had no way to be sure about Jon, but at least the men had said that Robb was alive. She hadn't lost all her brothers just yet.
After they heard the news of what the smallfolk were apparently calling the Red Wedding, Arya was as attentive as Sansa in listening for news from Westeros, news of Robb. But the talk around the city seemed to have shifted, to a focus on the cities known as Slaver's Bay to the east. It was said that a young queen with three dragons was making her way through the cities of Slaver's Bay, conquering them and freeing slaves as she went. It was said that she'd risen from the Dothraki sea, a queen that was unburnt by fire, and had her eyes set on Westeros. It was said that she'd already taken Astapor and Yunkai with the help of her monstrous dragons, and she was headed for Meereen.
Sansa still didn't believe the stories at first, but when they relayed them to their father, he seemed as if he did. "We were given news of Daenerys Targareyen when I was still in King's Landing. She's the youngest child of the Mad King, who escaped King's Landing at the end of the Rebellion and fled overseas," he explained. "We learned that she had wed a Dothraki khal and was pregnant with his child. Robert… Robert wanted to send an assassin, but he changed his mind just before his death. I suppose now I know that the plot was not successful." His forehead furrowed as if in confusion, as if deep in thought, and gave a sigh. "And it would seem Robert was right to be worried about the risk of the girl, although I still find it dishonorable to murder a woman and her child."
"Who cares if she wants to take Westeros?" Arya offered grouchily. "She sounds better than stupid Cersei and Joffrey, and if she beats them, there's nothing stopping us from going home."
"The Targareyens have just as much reason to oppose our family as the Lannisters, and we have just as much reason to oppose them," her father said absently, but he seemed somewhere else, like he was considering her words.
"This queen, Daenerys… it was her father and brother who hurt our family," Sansa offered, almost meekly. "Maybe she's different."
Their father didn't look completely convinced one way or another; Arya could tell he was thinking. But either way, he changed the subject and offered to practice with Arya after supper, and the conversation was forgotten. Mostly. Arya admittedly didn't know anything about this Daenerys Targareyen—didn't know that she was any better than the Lannisters—but she knew that her brother had no army, and no current chance of winning against them. And Stannis Baratheon had lost. She'd wish anyone would defeat the Lannisters if it meant she could go home.
The news about Joffrey came just a week later. Choked to death at his own wedding. Arya actually heard the news this time, down in the market looking for the cooper's apprentice, and she ran all the way home to tell Sansa and her father. She was a little disappointed that someone else had gotten to him first, but she figured as long as he was dead, it didn't matter. He was the one who had intended to break his word and kill their father, not Cersei; perhaps it was his idea to hold their mother hostage to threaten their father.
Her father didn't look nearly as happy as she expected; he looked relieved, but only a little. "Considering the tales I've heard of the boy's cruelty, this is certainly good news," he told her, "but our battle is not over yet. Prince Tommen seems a great deal gentler than his brother, but he is still young yet, and can be more easily controlled than his brother. He may be disastrous in an entirely different manner."
Tommen won't hurt Mother like Joffrey would, Arya wanted to say, but she knew that Cersei might. She knew so little of what was happening, her mother could be dead already. Still, she refused to look at this news as anything but good. If Joffrey could die, than so could Cersei and the rest of their stinking family.
Sansa had looked happy, happier than their father, when she heard the news, but she'd disappeared soon after. Arya found her sitting atop the roof hours later, of all places. She climbed up after her, scooting up to sit with her by the chimney. She said without thinking, "Thought only Bran could climb that good," and immediately winced.
Sansa had already looked a little upset when she'd climbed up there, but her face fell some more at that. "It was the only place I thought of where I could be alone," she said softly.
Arya probably should've left then, but she didn't. She wrapped her arms around her knees, looking out at the sky. She couldn't see very much from where she was, because of all the buildings, but she could see the stars. "Are you worried about Mother?"
"No," said Sansa. "Well, of course I am, but… no."
Her eyes were red, like she'd be crying, or almost crying. "Are you upset about Joffrey ?" she blurted, angry. "How could you be—"
"No, of course not!" Sansa nearly shouted back, just as angry. "I hate him. I hate him for what he would've done to Father, and every other stupid thing he did. If anyone deserved to die, it's him."
Arya kicked the roof lightly, her heart still pounding. Still furious at the idea of Sansa crying over him. "Then why are you upset?"
"I'm not upset. I just…" She sniffled quietly. "That was supposed to be my wedding. It nearly was."
"But it wasn't," Arya said. "You got away. So what does it matter? It looks like he wouldn't have made it through even if it was yours, choking on food like that."
"That doesn't matter," she said roughly. "Just the fact that it could've been me up there, marrying him, whether he died or not. He was horrible and I never saw it, and Father almost died because of it. And now he's had Mother, they still have her, and they almost killed Robb, and Bran and Rickon are dead…" She shut her eyes hard, curling up against the solid stub of the chimney. "I just can't stand to think about it," she whispered. "I'm glad he's dead, for all he's done, but I can't stand to think of me up there beside him while it happened."
Arya said nothing for a moment. She could count every star in the sky. She could remember the bloody red comet that had hung over them as they landed in Pentos, the speculation about what it meant. She didn't quite know what to say, so she moved closer to Sansa and wrapped a skinny arm around her neck. She offered, "It won't ever be you. Not ever," and hoped it was the right thing to say.
If it wasn't, Sansa never told her. They sat up there watching the stars for a long time.
One evening a few weeks later, Arya and Sansa were slipping through the streets in the dimming lights, on the way to the ocean, when Sansa seized Arya's arm. Arya yanked her arm away, hissing, "Sansa, let go ," and Sansa grabbed it again, leaned in close and whispered, "Arya, that's Tyrion Lannister."
Arya's eyes widened and she pulled her arm away again. "You're seeing things again," she scoffed, although a part of her actually believed her. "Is he having a drink with Ser Barristan Selmy?"
"Shut up , I'm serious," Sansa whispered, jabbing a finger at her. "Behind you. Look."
Arya turned and looked, and knew immediately that Sansa hadn't been seeing things. It wasn't as if she had ever spent much time with Tyrion Lannister—she mostly remembered him from that feast at Winterfell the night the king had come—but she recognized him immediately. He was scarred and possibly drunk, looked as if he was lost in a dozen miserable thoughts, but it was him. A Lannister in Pentos.
"What's he doing here?" she whispered to Sansa, craning her neck. Had he been sent to find them, to kill them the way he'd sent someone to kill Bran? Had something happened to their mother and the Lannisters had sent him?
"I heard a rumor," Sansa murmured. "I-I don't know if I believed it at the time, but it might explain it… They said that Joffrey was poisoned. And that Tyrion Lannister did the poisoning."
Incredulous, Arya's hand snuck to the hilt of her sword. (She habitually carried it now, even to go swimming, in case an assassin ever returned.) On one hand, she could hardly resent Tyrion Lannister for killing Joffrey, but on the other, she doubted he had done it out of any love for the Starks. "So you think he ran here?" she hissed. "He might be hiding from his family?" Her eyes were following him as he disappeared and reappeared in the crowd; he seemed to be heading for the inn they'd first stayed in, the one where they'd almost been killed.
"If the rumors are true," said Sansa.
A wild sort of daring came over Arya, and she swallowed hard before blurting, "We have to get him."
Sansa jerked back in astonishment. " What ?"
"For Mother!" she snarled, turning back to face Sansa. "If he isn't running from his family, then we can ransom him. If he is running from his family, for killing Joffrey, then I'm sure they want him back so they can punish him. This is how we can save Mother! How we go home!"
Sansa looked extraordinarily uncertain, and perhaps a little afraid. "Oh, Arya, I don't know. If we were anyone else, it might work…"
"It's better than nothing, isn't it?" she snapped. "You run and get Father. Right now. I'll make sure he doesn't get away."
"Arya, that's insane! You can't—"
"I have to!" She turned and took off running before Sansa could argue. She ducked across the street, under the arms of the men crowding it, towards the place where she'd last seen Tyrion Lannister. He had disappeared by now, she couldn't pick him out of the crowd, but she knew the way he'd gone. She moved towards the inn, clinging to the side of buildings, her hand on her sword that was once a Lannister sword that she was going to use to go after a Lannister. She slipped through the door and into the lit up dining room.
It was somehow even more crowded than when they'd been staying there before, noisy and almost cheerful. Somehow, no one looked twice at Arya. She clung close to the wall and scanned the room, but there was no sign of Tyrion Lannister. She moved further into the room, catching scraps of conversation as she went. Someone was speaking of the Dragon Queen again, apparently ruling in Meereen; someone was talking about their family back home. Arya's jaw hardened as she wove around a table and passing another one. She caught another voice, a woman with a Westerosi accent, at the table she was moving around. "—have to go and search for them tomorrow," she was saying. "I don't want to waste time."
Arya was scanning the room again when she heard a sharp laugh, a stunningly familiar laugh that she could not place from behind her. "It seems you'll be able to save yourself some time. There's one of them right there."
Arya whirled hard, her hand going to her sword, and saw the fucking Kingslayer behind her. It had been a long time, but she recognized him: Jaime Lannister, sitting at the table with a very tall blonde woman who must have been the one Arya had heard before.
Arya sucked in a sharp breath, her heart thudding with anger, breathing harder. Here was the man who'd attacked her father in King's Landing, who Robb had taken prisoner. She'd heard the rumor about him escaping, but she didn't know if she'd really believed it til now. What the hell was he doing here? She wished her father was here to kill him.
"This is… Arya?" the woman asked uncertainly. "Arya Stark?"
"As far as I can remember," the Kingslayer began, and Arya moved towards him in one fluid move, yanking out her sword and holding it to his throat. She suddenly felt small and foolish, standing here holding a sword to the throat of one of the supposed greatest swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms, but she didn't care, she couldn't do anything differently. The Kingslayer would be as good a captive as the Imp, maybe even better.
"Lady Arya!" the woman yelped, stunned and sounding lost, like she didn't quite know what to do.
Arya had no idea who the hell she was, but she didn't care. She pressed the blade of the sword against the Kingslayer's throat, not too hard but hard enough, and snarled, "Shut the fuck up, or I'll cut your throat."
The Kingslayer had the gall to look amused, amused and astonished. "Is… is that a Lannister sword?" he said, sounding as if he could laugh. "I told you, her mother underexaggerated her temper," he added to the woman.
"Ser Jaime," the woman replied, sounding exasperated now, but it only made Arya push the blade harder against his throat. "You don't speak of my mother!" she snapped in a wild fury. "Don't you dare speak of her."
The Kingslayer still looked fucking amused for some reason, but he raised his hands slowly as if surrendering. No— hand . He'd lost one, the right one, at the wrist. Arya wondered briefly if Robb had done that, and then decided he couldn't have. That didn't seem like something he would do. "Lady Arya, I think you've misinterpreted my reason for being in Pentos," he said.
"Shut up," she hissed. "You deserve to die for what you've done, just like your whole fucking family."
"Lady Arya…" the strange woman tried again, and it only made her angrier, because she didn't know who the woman was or why she thought she had the right to talk to her like that. "Shut up!" she screamed louder, and pressed the sword harder, nearly unwilling to wait for her father, so angry that Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister were here and her mother wasn't, and he was willing to make light of it, and she had absolutely no intention of drawing back until she heard a soft voice saying, "Arya." And then she dropped the sword.
She dropped the sword and turned to find her mother standing beside her. Wearing a dirty cloak, the hood drawn up, and her hair cut short so that it hung to her chin, but it was her , her mother, here and alive and whole. She said her name again, gentle, and Arya forgot the Kingslayer and the Imp, forgot the infuriating woman, forgot her stupid Lannister sword. She jerked forward automatically, dropping the sword, and in an instant was enfolded in her mother's embrace.
Her father arrived almost immediately after, and astonished relief spread across his face as soon as they came into the room. Her mother hugged her close again before going to him, and he scooped her right up and whirled her around, whispering something into her short hair.
Arya turned away, feeling like she should give them privacy, and saw the Kingslayer and the tall woman again. She lunged for her sword immediately, eyeing them both suspiciously, but neither of them made a move for it. The woman was watching her mother, with a look almost like she was happy, which Arya found odd. She held the sword close and scowled at the Kingslayer. "Wherever did you get that sword?" he asked her, his voice entirely too pleasant for her liking. She still couldn't tell if he was mocking.
"Took it off someone who tried to kill me," she snapped. "One of your men. Why'd you bring my mother here?"
He scoffed out something like laughter. "I didn't bring your mother any place. She came here to find you, of her own free will."
"I don't believe you," she growled.
Her father appeared suddenly at her side, his hand cupping the back of her head. "Arya, are you all right?" he asked, although his eyes were on the Kingslayer, too.
"Why, Lord Stark, I'd never dream of hurting your daughter," said the Kingslayer jovially. "She seems more interested in harming me , in fact."
"Spare me, Kingslayer," her father bit out. He started towards the door and Arya went with him, not looking back for anything.
Outside, her mother was embracing Sansa, the both of them with tears in their eyes. She pressed a hand to Sansa's hair and kissed the top of her head before looking up at the two of them. "I'm so relieved that all of you are all right… the queen assured me that she let you all leave unharmed, but I was afraid she was lying."
"Are you really all right, Mother?" Sansa whispered.
Their mother nodded, reached out to push tangled hair away from Arya's face, to touch her cheek. "I'm fine, sweetling, I promise. I have missed you all so much."
"I have missed you as well, my lady, more than you will ever know," said their father, taking her hand as she let go of Sansa and clasping it tight. "How… how is it that you came to be here? Have the Lannisters let you go?"
"I'm afraid it's a bit of a long story, but much of it can be attributed to Lady Brienne."
"The women with the Kingslayer?" Arya asked.
"Yes. She's… she pledged herself to me. She was in the Kingsguard for Renly Baratheon, and was at his side when he died, as was I. I had gone to negotiate an alliance and was discussing things with him… we both witnessed the apparent sorcery that killed Renly, and I helped Brienne to escape when she was blamed for his death. In return, she swore to serve me."
"She is a knight?" her father asked.
"No, but she should be. Her father is Lord Selwyn of the island Tarth, and she is his heir. She is a skillful fighter, and has the honor of any knight. She has been a dear friend to me. I have always thought that you girls would like her," their mother said.
Arya was suddenly conscious of the sword in her hand, of the fact that her mother had seen her holding a sword to the Kingslayer's throat. She had always believed that her mother would disapprove of her learning to use a sword, that she would think it was unladylike and uncouth. Did this mean that she might not be bothered by it? "Where was she when the Lannisters got you?" she said, unable to completely forgive this Lady Brienne for sitting cordially with the Kingslayer.
"Arya," her father said warningly, but her mother continued her story, grimacing at that detail. "I was ambushed," she said softly. "Caught away from the camp. I'd gone to take some time for myself… the news about Bran and Rickon…" She flinched again, and Arya felt nausea rising in her stomach, suddenly sorry she asked. "I asked Brienne to stay behind. I believed I would be safe, which perhaps was foolish of me, but there were three men. Tyrell men, actually. I fear for what would have happened to her if she'd been there."
"It was the Tyrells who took you?" her father asked, his voice hard.
Her mother nodded. "Something of a condition for their alliance, I believe. I suspect it was something of a personal grudge, too. Loras Tyrell was on Renly's Kingsguard, and found the two of us in his tent. Perhaps he believed I was involved as well, or perhaps he'd heard of Brienne's oath and wanted to hurt her." Sansa looked a little stunned and horrified at that, and Arya felt sorry for her; she knew Sansa'd had a crush on stupid Loras Tyrell from all the giggling she'd heard from her and Jeyne Poole after the tourney. The fact that the Tyrells had taken her mother that way was enough to make her hate them all forever.
"It would seem that Robb tried to negotiate a trade with the Kingslayer, but considering all the trouble with his men and the Kingslayer… publically exchanging him might have lost Robb half our army." Arya grimaced at that, furious that anyone could turn their backs on her mother just for the stupid Kingslayer. If her father was really King in the North—and she knew he didn't want to be, but that's what they thought he was—then that made her mother the queen. So she should be worth the trade, the Queen in the North. They never should've made Robb leave her alone there.
"Brienne spoke to Robb, who… privately agreed to have her take the Kingslayer to King's Landing and make a trade, specifically to negotiate for my release, and for all of your safe returns from Pentos," said her mother. "I believe they were taken captive at some point during the journey, accounting for the loss of Lannister's hand, but they made it to King's Landing shortly after Joffrey's death. There were… complications at that point. Brienne had formed something of an alliance with Ser Jaime under the conditions of their captivity, and in the chaos of the trial, Tywin wouldn't agree to an exchange… Tyrion was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die, and the Kingslayer worked to release him and send him to Pentos. And Brienne convinced him to assist in my escape as well."
" Jaime Lannister orchestrated your escape alongside Tyrion Lannister ?" their father said incredulously. Arya was feeling some of that same shock herself; she wouldn't have believed it, either, if she hadn't essentially seen the three of them together in one room.
Her mother laughed mutedly. "I can't say I understand it any more than you do, aside from the idea that Lady Brienne and Ser Jaime owed each other some sort of debt during their captivity. Brienne tells me he saved her life, and I've overheard him say similar things about her. I do not think that they are allies in any sort of way—I have no reason to doubt Brienne's loyalty—but I believe that is why events transpired this way. It may explain the Kingslayer's willingness to release me." She sighed heavily. "We traveled on the same ship simply for convenience—the Kingslayer came along out of fear that he would be found out if he stayed behind. His brother's escape coupled with the escape of a political prisoner whose release he was trying to arrange…"
"It doesn't matter," her father said abruptly, "as long as you're here now." He embraced their mother again, clinging to her tightly, and Arya exchanged a look with her sister. Sansa looked relieved, happy, and the ease on her face looked almost odd, after months of seeing her constantly nervous and fearful. It was nice to see. Arya found herself smiling back, tightly, just a little. Her mother was safe, and nothing else really seemed to matter.
The blonde woman, Brienne, slipped out just then, and said, "Lady Catelyn," sounding as if she meant to say more but didn't know quite what to say. Their mother slipped out of their father's arms and introduced Brienne to them. Sansa and Arya inclined their heads in habitual greeting; Sansa might've curtsied, a year ago, considering Brienne was highborn, but Sansa had lost a lot of her ladylike habits after a year of living among smallfolk, and Brienne didn't look much like a proper lady besides. She was wearing breeches, and a sword at her waist, and she was taller than even her father. Arya was almost envious; she couldn't say she completely trusted this Lady Brienne, after what her mother had said about her having made a truce with the Kingslayer, but she seemed to have the kind of strength that Arya had always wanted. She must've been a good fighter if she could've controlled the Kingslayer. Her father shook her hand, like she was a knight instead of a lady, and thanked her for protecting his lady wife, and Brienne didn't even seem to mind.
"We should go back to the house," her father said after the introductions were made. "You must be exhausted, Cat."
"I would like that. Lady Brienne, if you'd like to join us…"
"Certainly, my lady," Brienne said immediately, falling into step beside them.
Arya slipped her sword back into the belt at her waist as they went, drawing unconsciously closer to her mother as she went. She could still remember that moment months ago, when she'd fallen to the ground and briefly wished for her mother like a little child. It felt suddenly like that feeling had never gone away, that gasping longing in her chest. But it was gone now. Her mother was here, her mother was safe, and it felt like a fresh exhale.
It was immediately clear that whatever happened next, they could not stay in Pentos any longer. Pentos was likely the first place they'd suspect her mother of going, and although there was always the possibility that they'd just forget about her, it didn't seem likely. "I think they're unlikely to leave us alone if they think there's nothing stopping you from coming back," Arya's mother said to her father. "I know that's the reason they kept me in the first place. They may have destroyed our army, but they know that they will have no power over the north while their king is still alive." Her father looked uncomfortable at that, but said nothing in disagreement. They all knew that he was the King in the North, simply because it was what everyone saw in him. He couldn't make it go away by just denying the title.
Brienne offered her perspective on the matter. "Ser Ja—the Kingslayer assures me that his sister will have put a price on Lord Tyrion's head, and that she will send someone after him."
"I suppose there is always the hope that they believe we parted ways in King's Landing instead of traveling together, considering the unlikelihood of an alliance, but there was also talk that Lord Tyrion was a Stark sympathizer when he was on trial," her mother added. "He visited me a few times while I was being held hostage—why, I don't know—but that coupled with his open disdain of Joffrey was enough to convict him without a trial."
"Did he really do it?" Sansa said suddenly. "Kill Joffrey?"
It startled the adults a little, Arya could tell; they'd both been quiet throughout the whole thing, and Arya was much more likely to butt in than Sansa. But Arya recognized the look in her eyes, could remember the tremble in her voice on that roof the night they learned of Joffrey's death. She knew why Sansa wanted to know. She wanted to know if he'd done it, too.
Their mother sighed, offering Sansa a small, sad smile. "I don't know, sweetling. I do not know that it matters. He is dead either way, and we are hardly making an alliance with any of the Lannisters."
Their parents were still debating their next move, when they would leave and where they would go, when Arya and Sansa went to bed. The best news they'd gotten wasn't really even news, just a rumor, but their mother said she'd heard Robb had gone to the wall to find Jon. (She had the same angry bite in her voice as always when she mentioned Jon's name, but Arya tried to ignore it.) She knew which decision she would prefer as to where they'd go—to go to the Wall and find Robb and Jon—but she didn't know if they could do that. If it was safe to go back to Westeros. She didn't want to be too hopeful that they could go home, that this could all be over, but she knew it was a possibility. How could anyone really stop them now?
Arya wanted to keep listening, but Sansa elbowed her and motioned her towards their pallets with a sharp look, so Arya went. She was mostly pretending to sleep so she could still listen when she actually did drift off by accident.
She woke up when it was already light outside, and the main room was empty. Sansa was still asleep on her pallet beside her, but Arya had no desire to go back to sleep, so she got softly to her feet. She crept into the kitchen and cut off a hunk of bread before finding her sword and slipping out to practice.
She found Brienne outside, sitting against the wall of one of the other buildings and cleaning her sword. She looked up when Arya exited the house and said, "Lady Arya," moving like she was going to get up.
"It's just Arya," said Arya, taking her last bite of bread. She had never felt like a lady before, and she certainly didn't feel like one now. She scratched a line in the dust with the tip of her sword. "That's a nice sword."
Brienne looked surprised. "Thank you," she said. Her voice was guarded, like she knew Arya was suspicious of her, but she sounded genuinely grateful. "I like yours, too."
"It's not as good as my first one." Arya scratched at the dirt, scribbling an X. "The Lannisters took it. It was called Needle, and my brother gave it to me."
"I'm sorry," Brienne said, and she sounded like she meant it. "I know it must have meant a lot to you."
Arya shrugged harshly, lifting the sword and looking back up at Brienne. "I was going to practice," she said. She looked at Brienne's sword, lying across her lap. It was actually about the size of hers. "Want to train with me?"
So they sparred together for a bit. Arya still wasn't sure if she trusted her, but she figured if Brienne did turn out to be a traitor, she'd at least have some idea of how she fought. It was different fighting with someone who wasn't her father, or boys about her size, but it was nice. Brienne seemed to be going easy on her at first, holding back a bit like she was scared of offending or hurting her, but after Arya disarmed her a couple times, she stopped holding back. "You're a good fighter," she told Arya after a few rounds, smiling a little at her.
Arya pushed off of a wall with the bottom of her foot as she lunged at Brienne, which wasn't enough to disarm her or knock her down, but enough to make her lower her sword as she stumbled back. "You, too," she gasped out, shaking tangled hair out of her eyes.
"Finally found someone who can best you, wench?"
Brienne whirled, and behind her, Arya found the Kingslayer walking towards them. She tightened her grip on her sword, and snapped, "What are you doing here?"
"Don't worry, Lady Arya, I'm not here for your family," Jaime Lannister said flippantly. "I wouldn't release your mother in King's Landing just to kill her in Pentos. I've come to have a word with Lady Brienne."
He sounded as if he meant for her to leave, but Arya hardly wanted to give him that. She was grateful to him for saving her mother, that was true, but that didn't change everything else. "So have it, then," she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
The Kingslayer gave her a look, but didn't say anything else about it. "I suppose you'll be off soon, then," he said to Brienne.
Brienne, who'd said nothing yet, cleared her throat and said, "Whenever Lord and Lady Stark make their decision, I suppose."
"Knowing Cersei, I would advise them to move soon," said the Kingslayer, and Arya couldn't tell if he was kidding or genuinely warning them. She scowled at him either way, but he didn't seem to notice.
Brienne nodded, both hands clutching the hilt of her sword. "Are you going with your brother, then?" she asked. Arya couldn't quite read her voice.
The Kingslayer shook his head, a look like disappointment flickering briefly over his face. "I don't think he has any desire to ally himself with me, after everything," he said, nearly melancholy. "Wherever he goes, I don't think he'll ever ally himself with my father and sister again. And I cannot work against them."
Arya was tempted to say something to that, but she was sure it wouldn't go well. She kept her mouth shut, kept glaring at the Kingslayer, but he was still looking Lady Brienne.
"Where will you go, then?" Brienne asked him. "Not back to King's Landing."
He shrugged. "I don't know. But it doesn't matter. I've come to say goodbye."
"Just Jaime. I doubt I am a member of the Kingsguard any longer." He smirked at Brienne, just a little. "I wanted to wish you luck. May your Starks all find safety wherever they go. And if we ever meet on the opposite sides of the battlefield…"
"Thank you," Brienne said suddenly, cutting him off. "For helping me, and Lady Catelyn. And seeing us to safety. I… I owe you much that I don't know if I can repay…"
"You owe me nothing, my lady." The Kingslayer took her hand abruptly and kissed the back of it briefly, the picture of a knight if Arya hadn't known differently. Strangely enough, she couldn't help thinking that Sansa would have liked to see that. The back of Brienne's neck flushed red, but she said nothing. He inclined his head towards Arya and said, "Lady Arya," in that voice where she couldn't tell whether or not he was mocking. And then he turned and left, walking away down the alley. Arya was tempted to shout something after him, but she didn't know what in the world she'd say. Last night, she had held a fucking sword to his throat, and now she couldn't kill him because he'd saved her mother.
They stood there in silence for a moment before Brienne cleared her throat and turned back to Arya. "Do you want to start again?" she asked, lifting her sword. It was an incredible sword, Arya noticed, almost nicer than hers. (Her father had always speculated that Joffrey had given the assassin family swords purposefully, to display them in some manner, which was why theirs were adorned with lions. Brienne's sword was somehow even prettier.) The hilt was wrapped in cloth. It made Arya wonder if it was a Lannister sword. She wondered if that mattered to her mother.
She lifted her own sword. "He's horrible, you know," she said. "He killed my father's men. His family tried to have my brother killed. His sister is the reason we're even here, and not at our home."
Brienne cleared her throat again. "I am loyal to your mother, and you and your sister," she said, a bit awkwardly. "I will not break my oaths to your mother."
"I believe you." Arya shifted her weight, holding the sword in both hands. "I just want you to know what he's like. What he's done."
"I know," Brienne said softly, her voice thick. "I do. I know.'
Her voice was full of enough uncertainty, enough emotion to make Arya stop. At the top of her collar, she could see three white marks stretching up to her neck. Scars, like something had clawed at her.
She reminded herself that her mother trusted Lady Brienne. And she trusted her mother, trusted her judgement. There must be a good reason her mother trusted this woman.
She shifted her sword and said, "Again?" before lunging forward in an attempt at disarming.
Her parents were going east. They told her when Arya's and Brienne came in, covered in dust and scrapes. "We've considered it, and it would seem our best course of action, our best hope for bringing our family home again, is to form an alliance with Daenerys Targareyen," her father said solemnly. "The rumors I've heard suggest that she is very different from her father, and therefore has the potential to be a good ruler. I'm hoping with our support, and the support of what's left of the North, she will be willing to forgive any grudges between our families." There was pain in his voice when he said that, shielded pain, but there, and Arya wondered if this was the worst it had ever been right now, since he was willing to ally himself with the daughter of the man who killed his father and brother, the sister of the man who killed his sister. Maybe that was how bad the Lannisters were.
Or maybe he really did believe that Daenerys Targareyen would be different from her father, would be better. Maybe families weren't all one thing or another. The Targareyens couldn't have been all bad, she knew, and she knew her father hated what had happened to the little prince and princess during the rebellion. Maybe it wasn't that simple about families, them all being good or bad. She knew Lady Brienne must feel that way.
Anyways, Arya couldn't really care. She had no particular love for the Targareyens, but also all the ones who had hurt her family were dead. If Daenerys Targareyen could do a better job than Cersei, and could give them their home back, she didn't really care about her name. She didn't really get upset until her parents told her that only they were going to Meereen. That they meant to send her and Sansa west, to send them home.
Arya never thought that she'd be upset at the idea of going home—after all the nights she spent longing for it, trying to picture Winterfell in her head, remembering what it had been like before everything happened. But she never wanted to go back alone . Didn't want to leave her father, didn't want to lose her mother all over again after she'd just gotten her back. And who knew what would happen to them as they traveled east? What if they were hurt, what if they were killed? Protest was building tight in her chest, an outburst waiting to happen, but it was Sansa who exploded first. "You're sending us away?" she asked, her voice tight with fury and disbelief. Arya hadn't heard her sound like that since their father had told them they were leaving King's Landing.
Guilt darkened their mother's face instantly, and she reached out to take Sansa's hands. "We have to, sweetling, it's not safe where we're going…"
"You think it's safe back home?" Arya bit out, her hands curled into fists. "They said they'd kill us if we ever came home, all of us, not just Father. You think they'll spare us just because you're not with us?"
"We're not sending you back to King's Landing," her father said, calmer than she'd ever seen him during one of her outbursts. "You'll be sailing north."
"You're going to the Wall, to your brother… your brothers," said their mother, squeezing Sansa's hands, and Arya could tell it took a lot to include Jon in that. "They'll care for you, and protect you, until we can return to retake Winterfell and take you home. And Brienne will be going with you, to protect you."
Arya looked back at Brienne and saw no hints of surprise; they must've asked her already, last night, after Sansa told her to go to sleep instead of listening in. "But what about you ?" she hissed, nearly pleading. "What if something happens to you on your way to go find this new queen, and we never see you again?"
"That's why we can't take you," her mother said, almost pleading her to understand. She reached out to touch Arya's hair even though it was horribly dirty, and Arya wanted to yank away just to be disagreeable, but she couldn't; she had thought her mother was hurt, or maybe even dead, a few days ago. "It's our job to protect you, Arya, and this could be unsafe. We don't know what we're going to find on the way there."
"If the queen has sent people after us, after your mother and I, then they'll likely follow us, not the two of you," her father said. "Sending you away could be the best way to keep you alive."
Sansa looked more furious than Arya had ever seen her, even with their mother still holding onto one of her hands. “Sending us away could be what kills us,” she shot back, her eyes glinting like she was going to cry or scream. She pulled her hand away and turned on her heel, exiting the house and letting the door slam behind her.
Arya didn’t want to stay anymore than Sansa did, so she turned and went after her, brushing past Brienne and breaking into a run when her mother started calling her name. They wove through the alleys and buildings, through the marketplace, down the street where Sansa had seen Tyrion Lannister the night before. They kept going and didn’t stop until they found the docks where Arya had gone the night they learned about Bran and Rickon. Sansa slipped right under and sat down, and Arya went after her, scooting up against the sandy bank. She slipped off her shoes and let her toes sink into the shallow water at the edge of the shore. Sansa stayed curled up, her knees to her chest, her head bent down and her hair covering her face. It had gotten much longer since they’d left King’s Landing, over a year ago. Arya could barely even picture what they had looked like a year ago. They’d both been shorter. They’d dressed much nicer. They’d fought more frequently, and never voluntarily spent time together.
“You never would have done something like this before we came to Pentos,” she said, waving a hand at the space under the dock. “Sat here, on the ground.”
“I don’t like doing it now,” said Sansa miserably. “It’s just that there’s nowhere else to go to have any privacy, and they’d have followed us on the roof.”
Arya traced a pattern in the sand with one finger, her heart still pounding from the run here. She realized only now that she had left her sword at home, and she halfway wished she’d brought it. She was furious, and practicing would probably make her feel better. She seized a handful of sand and threw it into the water.
“I can’t believe they’re sending us away,” Sansa said, her face hidden in her knees so the words came out muffled. “We just got Mother back.”
Arya threw another handful of sand, so hard that it made a splash when it landed. “I don’t think it will help,” she muttered. “Protect us any better. We all left Bran and Rickon behind, and…”
“It wasn't like that, though.” Sansa’s voice turned suddenly sharp. “Mother and Father thought they’d be safe, they didn’t know that Theon would…” She broke it off, clenching her jaw shut, shaking her head. “They wouldn’t have left them if they’d known. They wouldn’t do that.”
“I know! I know they wouldn’t do that, I know,” Arya snapped, her face turning red with shame. She knew her parents would never, she wouldn't accuse them of… She gulped hard. “I wasn’t saying that. I just meant that we won’t be any safer if we’re not with them, that’s all. I don’t want to separate, either.”
“I’m more worried for them than us,” Sansa whispered, her voice low. “This queen could hold a grudge, she could refuse to ally, they could run into something bad on the way… And Lady Brienne was right, the queen will probably send someone after Mother and her brother. They might catch up with them.”
Arya nodded hard. “I wish they’d take Brienne with them,” she added. “She’s a good swordswoman, we practiced this morning and I only disarmed her twice, and didn’t win at all. She’d take good care of them.”
“I think that’s why they’re sending her with us,” Sansa offered. Arya let out a grumble at that, and Sansa poked her in the arm. “I thought you didn’t like Lady Brienne, anyway.”
“I like her,” Arya admitted. “Or at least I can see why Mother does. I think she really must be loyal, because Mother trusts her… And if she is working for the Lannisters, she’s really bad at hiding it. I think she might be in love with the Kingslayer.”
Sansa laughed a little at that. “Well, she did convince him to release Mother,” she said, and Arya snorted behind one hand. After a moment, Sansa added, “I don’t mistrust Brienne, either. I just… I worry. About Mother and Father, after everything.”
“I do, too,” Arya whispered. She didn’t know that she would ever forget the sight of her father in chains, that sword at his throat, her mother’s hair in that parcel. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen after they parted ways tomorrow, if they never saw them again. Like Bran and Rickon, who she would never see again. And she would never get a chance to tell them goodbye. At least, if tomorrow was the last time she ever saw her parents, she would be able to tell them goodbye.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to convince them to take us,” she said.
“I know,” said Sansa. “I know we won’t.”
They fell quiet again. Sansa scooted closer and put an arm around Arya’s shoulders, and Arya didn’t try to pull away. Finally, she spoke again. “At least we’re going to Jon and Robb,” she said. “At least we’ll see them again.”
Sansa nodded, and her eyes were filling with tears. “I have missed them,” she whispered. “I’ve missed them so much.”
Arya nodded, her throat thick, and it was absurd, but she didn’t want Sansa to see her cry, so she shut her eyes and lay her head down on her shoulder, and they sat there for a while longer.
Their mother was waiting outside when they got home, and she got to her feet and embraced them both immediately when they came home, no questions about where they had been or why they had run off. Arya was still mad—she would be lying if she said she wasn’t—but it felt too good to be held by her mother to protest. She slipped an arm around her mother and hugged her back.
“Don’t think I want to leave you girls,” her mother whispered against their scalps. “Don’t think it for a second. I wish I could stay here with you and your father. I wish we could all go home and all be together again.” Her voice broke there, shaking, and Arya knew she was thinking of Bran and Rickon, too. She pulled back and wiped the tears from Sansa’s cheeks, smudged dirt off of Arya’s forehead. “I have to have you safe, both of you,” she murmured. “And I know Brienne and your brothers will keep you safe… that you’ll be safer than you’ll be with your father and I. It’s us the queen wants dead, not the two of you.”
Arya could have argued with that, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t argue and she wouldn’t cry, not tonight. Instead, she squared her shoulders and looked her mother right in the eye. She said quietly, as fiercely as she could manage, “Promise you’ll come back home. You and Father both. Promise you’ll stay safe and you’ll come back and find us.”
She was expecting her mother to say that she couldn’t promise that, because there were no promises. People died; her brothers were dead. They’d tried to kill her father and her mother and Robb, and probably Jon, and even her and Sansa, and there were no guarantees they wouldn’t be successful next time. Her mother couldn’t really promise that she’d come back.
Beside her, Sansa was still sniffling, looking up at their mother, not saying anything as if silently asking the same question. Arya waited, expecting to hear her mother say that she’d do her best, but not expecting any guarantee. Any promise at all.
But her mother did promise. She smoothed Arya’s hair again, put a hand to the back of her head, and said, “I promise. I promise you both that we will come home. We will never stop trying to get back.”
There were tears in her eyes when she said it, but Arya knew she meant it. That she had made that promise before and meant it, too. She knew that it was a promise her mother might not be able to keep, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she had made it.
They left the next morning. They didn’t want to linger too long, knowing that if the queen had sent men after them, they might not be far behind. Her father split what was left of the money Robb had given them to buy them all passage, and Brienne added in a purse of gold dragons of her own. (When asked about the origins, she said, embarrassed and hurriedly, “Ser Jai—the Kingslayer. He said he meant to give Lady Catelyn and I something besides a pathway out, or we wouldn’t get very far at all.”) Sansa and Arya would be traveling on a merchant ship headed north, their father told them. He'd given the captain an extra payment to see the three of them safely to the wall after delivering their merchandise. They'd have their own cabin, easy enough to stay out of sight. Arya was already mentally scrambling to think of things to entertain them on another boat ride where they'd mostly be in their cabin, longer this time. At least they'd have Brienne for company.
They didn’t have many things to pack—Arya had her sword, and their father insisted they keep the dagger, but there wasn’t much past that. They bathed as well, because Sansa requested it, pointing out that they didn’t know when they’d get a bath for a long while. There was a bathhouse in Pentos, so they went there simply to save the time of hauling all the water. Back at the house, Arya had to fight with the tangles in her newly clean hair, often unbrushed unless Sansa offered. She was expecting no one to really notice now that their mother was there to brush Sansa’s hair again, the way she’d done years ago at Winterfell, but when she started swearing under her breath after the brush got caught in her hair again, her mother saw her and came over and offered to brush it for her. Arya pretended a little like she didn’t like it, but her mother approached it with more patience than she or Septa Mordane ever had back at Winterfell, and it reminded her of all those mornings when she let Sansa do it just because she felt sorry for her and found herself missing her mother, halfway jealous of all the years of her mother brushing Sansa’s hair. It became hard not to cry; she turned her face to the wall and planned to say it was because it hurt so badly if anyone asked, but nobody did.
They were to leave in the early morning, so their mother insisted they lie down early, to get some sleep. Arya was too restless to sleep but she lay down anyway with her back to the room, watching the fire through slitted eyes and listening to the reassuring rumble of her parents’ voices as they talked with Brienne. It was good to know that they were both there, even though they wouldn’t be tomorrow; even after all this time of living in Pentos, Arya still thought back to those cold, lonely nights sleeping in the streets of King’s Landing, scared and unsure of her father’s fate, and it was a relief every single night to hear Sansa’s steady breaths and her father’s snores from the other room. To remember she wasn’t alone. She wouldn’t have her parents after tonight, but she’d have her sister, at least. And she’d be going to the Wall, to find her brothers; she’d be going home.
She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke easily when her mother came to wake her. She was already dressed to leave, the cloak pulled up over her head in the same way it had been two nights ago in the inn. Arya got up and dressed quickly, sheathing her sword at her waist and pulling on a cloak of her own. It was unlikely to be very effective, but it seemed a good cautionary method; if Lannister spies were watching them, they might not realize where they were headed until it was already too late. It made them almost anonymous in the dimly lit streets. She was grateful for the cloak if only because it hid her sword. Sansa braided her hair quickly and pulled her own cloak over her head, picked up her dagger gingerly and slid it into their small bag of things.
They bid their parents goodbye in the threshold of the house. Their mother was crying, and Arya suspected their father was, too; she'd be lying if she said she wasn't close to tears herself. Their mother embraced Brienne briefly, murmuring something in her ear about gratefulness and keeping her girls safe, before coming to them to embrace them in turn. Arya hugged her back hard, clinging close like she was a child again, and whispered, "Stay safe," like a command. She never wanted to feel the fear she'd felt when she learned her mother was held captive again.
Her mother whispered, "The two of you stay safe, too," and kissed her forehead. Arya's arms tightened instinctively around her mother, her eyes squeezed shut. Remembering the moment where she'd hurt her knee and wanted to cry out for her mother. Her mother, who was here now. She pressed her face into her mother's side, and she stood there holding her and stroking her hair for a moment longer.
She went to her father next, hugging him just as tightly. "I'm sorry we have to send you away," he told her gently. "I'm very sorry. I don't like it any more than you do, but I need to have you both safe." He looked her in the eye, his hand on the back of her head. "I know that you and your sister will take care of each other," he said softly. "The way you've done here."
Arya nodded, because she knew that she would, even if they fought the way they always did. They'd gotten good at it over the past year; she could tell they'd been shocking their mother with how little they fought, now. Her father smiled a little. "You have your sword," he said. "It's not the one Jon gave you, but it's yours, and you wield it well. You'll remember all I've taught you?"
"Stick 'em with the pointy end," Arya said immediately, and her father chuckled a little. She smiled back. "I'll remember," she added. "All of it. I promise."
Her father nodded and bent to hug her again. As he stepped away to bid Sansa goodbye, she thought she saw something on his face, something she'd seen often before when looking at Robb and Jon. Something like pride.
Their parents left first, embracing them both in turn again before slipping nearly silently out the door. Sansa sniffled loudly as the door shut behind them, lifting a hand to scrub at her face, and Arya stepped close to lay a hand on her arm. "They'll be all right," she whispered, and she didn't know for sure that it was true, but part of her really believed it. "We'll see them when they come back home." She nudged Sansa with her elbow, and added, " Home, Sansa. We're finally going home."
Sansa sniffled again and pushed her away a little, saying, "Shut up, Arya." But there was laughter in her voice when she said it. Arya laughed a little, too, and pushed her right back, and they were both laughing together, Sansa through her tears.
She knew it was true, too, when they slipped out of the house as the sun rose, Brienne at their sides. They were really going home. They'd be following the sun, in a way; it was going west, and so were they, in a way. They'd be going west and they'd be going north, back home to the north, the place that they belonged. They'd see Robb and Jon again, they'd be safe with them. They'd see the walls of Winterfell rising high above them, the turrets and the towers Bran had once climbed. They'd take their castle back and make it theirs again, scrub out every inch of the Ironborn or whoever else was there now, so there would be no trace of anyone but Stark. Maybe they could give Bran and Rickon a proper burial, lay them to rest and give them peace. (The last thing Arya wanted to do was think about her little brothers being dead, to have to face that, but she knew Bran and Rickon deserved better than what they had, and she knew they had to give it to them. They could be buried in the crypts, where their father had buried his own brother and sister years before.) They would go home, and it would be painful, but it would be theirs again, and they could be happy. They would be happy again. Arya knew anything could happen between here and there, but she also really believed that they could all be happy again, the same way she believed that her parents would come home safely. If she didn't believe that, she didn't know how she could keep going.
The streets of Pentos looked the same as they always did, crowded even in the early morning, people going to market, the city coming alive. There was nothing special about this morning aside from their leaving, but Arya knew it was probably what she would remember about Pentos best. It wasn't her home, but it had been something close, for a long time.
Arya and Sansa walked quickly, matching their pace to Brienne's, hurrying to reach the harbor. They'd be on their way home soon, the only thing Arya had wanted for months. It might have been months yet before they reached the north, months or years more before they ever saw Winterfell, but just knowing that they were going was enough. If they were lucky, they might make it home before winter came.