Lyanna Stark managed to visit Winterfell perhaps twice a year, and different members of the household regarded her through different eyes.
To Lord Eddard she was always and forever his beloved younger sister; but she was also the cause of a stain on the honor of House Stark, a stain that would outlast even Robb's lordship.
To Jon Snow she was a much needed reminded that although he was bastard born, he wasn't motherless, unwanted, or unloved.
To Sansa her Aunt Lyanna had always been a figure of great and tragic romance. She had been the beloved of a prince and a great lord both, and catalyst to a civil war that had nearly ended the Targaryen dynasty. True, the cost had been nearly twenty years of exile at the end of the world, and the knowledge that her only son was growing up without her. But the songs that Sansa had grown up on only talked about the romance, never the price paid.
To Robb and Theon Lyanna was a woman who, bewilderingly enough, wielded a lance better than either of them.
Arya couldn't have been more than five the first time she recalled seeing her aunt leap down from one of the shaggy-coated, hardy mounts that they rode beyond the Wall, dressed all in black, and wearing a longsword on her back.
In that moment Arya Stark had decided that her future lay on the Wall, dressed all in black.
Lyanna Stark arrived at Winterfell unexpectedly, about a month before she would usually have been looked for. Fortunately, Arya happened to have been looking from her chamber window at the time, and she was able to intercept her aunt just as she was dismounting.
"You promised we would talk about it once I was older."
"And we will," said Lyanna.
"I'm five-and-ten," said Arya. "That's old enough."
"Arya..." Lyanna pushed her hair - which had once been black before life at the Wall had threaded it with grey - back from her face.
"You can't stop me from taking the black," insisted Arya.
"I can't," agreed Lyanna, taking her horse's reins and leading him towards the stables, leaving Arya behind. "But your father can."
Arya fought down the urge to stamp her foot into the slush of Winterfell's yard; she scrambled after her aunt and took the reins from her hands. "He'll let me go if you ask him. I belong on the Wall; I'm ready to take your vows."
"You're too young to know that. Even I didn't swear my vows until I was nearing twenty."
"Robb's going to be lord of Winterfell someday, and Jon will always have a place by his side. Bran's squiring for the Blackfish at Riverrun, and father is talking about sending Rickon away to be fostered soon. Sansa is to be married, there's a Tyrell here asking for her hand--"
"Which Tyrell?" asked Lyanna with mild interest, waving off the approaching groom as Arya began to unsaddle her mount.
"Lady Margaery--" Lyanna raised an eyebrow at Arya "--on behalf of her brother Willas, apparently. You wouldn't catch me marrying a man who sent his sister to court me."
"No, I would imagine not."
"All the others have their place, I don't. Mother's always saying that she doesn't know what's to become of me. I could belong at the Wall, I could be valuable there."
"Arya, it's not that simple. You're too young to know what you'd be giving up. You'd never be allowed to wed--"
"I don't want to marry some stupid lordling who smells like roses; I'm not Sansa."
"You'd never have a babe of your own."
"I don't want any babes."
"You might, if you knew--" began Lyanna, just as Jon entered the stables and said softly, "Mother."
Arya had enough sense to allow mother and son a moment to greet each other alone, and she made to slip past them. Lyanna halted her for a moment, squeezing her shoulder.
"I'll talk to Ned," she said, without taking her eyes off Jon, "but I'm making no promises."
Arya missed Bran. If her brother hadn't gone south determined to win his spurs she might have asked him to scale the wall outside their father's solar and report the conversation going on within back to her. It would have been an easy climb for Bran.
As it was, Arya had slipped soft-footed in the shadows past Jory Cassel, and she would have to hope that nobody came upon her lying flat on her belly with her ear pressed to the crack under her father's door.
"Ned, you can't actually be considering this--" that was her lady mother, who Arya hadn't expected to be easily reconciled to the idea.
"House Stark has sent daughters to the Wall before. Sons too, back when the Watch still wanted them--" her lord father sounded undecided.
"Well, the Tullys of Riverrun haven't. And in case you've both forgotten: you didn't volunteer to take the black, Lyanna, you were exiled as a traitor to the realm!"
"I remember, Lady Catelyn," said Lyanna stiffly. "And if I hadn't agreed to take the black and be separated from my son, all the while swearing to the old gods and the new that my brothers would have had every reason to believe me forcibly abducted by Rhaegar, then this entire family would have been exiled across the Narrow Sea, if not executed outright."
"Lyanna, Cat--" father sounded weary, as though this was not the first time this argument had been fought "--we are discussing Arya's future, not our past."
"Lyanna--" her mother's voice had an edge of desperation to it, and Arya felt a twinge of guilt at being the cause of it "--surely you would rather have been at Winterfell with your son than alone on the Wall? You can't want that for Arya."
"Of course I would rather have been watching Jon grow; but Arya is not me, she is not you, and she is most certainly not Sansa. She will never be happy as some man's wife, but I think she might do well in the Watch. And for what it might be worth, I was never alone on the Wall, and nor would Arya be."
Before she could hear anything further a boot nudged Arya in the ribs, and she rolled away into a crouch. She looked up to find Jory Cassel giving her a stern look, and nodding pointedly back along the hall away from the solar.
Arya hopped silently to her feet and headed back down to supper quite cheerful; from what she'd managed to overhear the discussion seemed to be going her way.
"Six months?" asked Arya; both delighted because she was to be allowed to take the black, and despairing because six months.
"You'll be six-and-ten then," said Lyanna. "Your mother and father agree that it's old enough, and I'll be down from the Wall again, so if you still want to take the black then--"
"If you still want to take the black, you can return with me then."
Arya would have expected Sansa to be happier at the prospect of soon being rid of her, instead she acted as though having a sister in the Night's Watch was going to be a source of the greatest shame; Arya obviously did not cut quite so romantic a figure as Lyanna did.
"I know a song about the Night's Watch," said Sansa nastily. "It's called Brave Danny Flint."
"I know a pretty one," said Margaery Tyrell, who was wearing a blue rose in her hair and was ever to be found at Sansa's side. "It's about Rhaenyra Targaryen being sent to the Wall after the Dance of the Dragons. She was the first woman in the Night's Watch, was she not?"
"First lady commander too," Arya answered with a grin.
Arya had been given a biography of Rhaenyra Targaryen as a nameday gift one year. She'd spent much of her time pouring over it when she was supposed to be at her other studies, much to the frustration of Septa Mordane. She knew the story well: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the woman who had come closest of all to becoming queen regent of the Seven Kingdoms, sent to the Wall after her defeat in the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, her enemies had doubtless expected her to meet the same fate as Danny Flint.
Instead Rhaenyra had become the first lady commander of the Night's Watch, she gave battle to the king-beyond-the-wall more than once, and drove him to live out his days in hiding in the Frostfangs.
After her, men and women both served in the Night's Watch, sometimes together, sometimes kept strictly segregated at different forts. It was only in the last hundred years or so that only women had taken the black.
"It's because boys are too important to waste on guarding the kingdoms against grumpkins and snarks," said Rickon, attempting to batter Arya with his own wooden sword.
Arya stepped past her little brother's wild swing and pushed him down into the slush of the training yard. "You'd cry if you saw a grumpkin or a snark," she informed him.
When Arya turned away Rickon leapt up, tackled her around the knees, and sent them both sprawling into the mud. He then stuffed as much slush as he could down Arya's tunic before she succeeded in knocking him off.
Arya was throwing out her dresses and skirts when Jon Snow knocked at her chamber door.
"Does your lady mother know you're doing that?" he asked.
"I'm not going to need any of them at the Wall, am I."
"You aren't going for five months yet," said Jon. "But speaking of early going away presents: I had Mikken make this for you."
The blade Jon produced from behind his back was long and slender; not a true shortsword as anyone would recognise it, but it was true steel and deadly all the same.
"It won't cut a wildling's head off," said Jon, "but it will poke him full of holes if you're quick enough."
"I can be quick," Arya promised.
"I know you can," said Jon, "and you'll be quicker still by the time I'm through with you."
"You're going to train me?"
Jon offered Arya the hilt of the sword with a mock bow, like a squire offering a knight his weapon. "I'll not have my mother say that I sent you to her completely unprepared."
Arya Stark was not the only daughter of the north taking the black at this time.
Lyanna Stark returned to Winterfell the long way round, by way of White Harbor and Bear Island, and she brought with her Wylla Manderly and Lyanna Mormont, both new recruits to the Watch.
But before Arya could get to know her new sisters she must first say farewell to her old one.
Sansa was leaving Winterfell too - for Highgarden and a betrothal to Willas Tyrell, and although Arya may be able to visit Winterfell someday, and mother and father, and Jon and Robb with it...there was unlikely to be any reason for a black sister to travel so far from the Wall as Highgarden.
"Don't get killed, and don't get stolen by wildlings, and don't embarrass Aunt Lyanna," Sansa commanded.
"Don't--" Arya tried to think of some danger that might threaten Sansa in the Reach "--don't prick your fingers on any roses."
Margaery Tyrell gave a bell-like laugh at that, and Arya turned on her, "And you, you look after her."
Margaery and Sansa shared a secret smile, and Margaery snaked her arm through Sansa's, "Like she's my own sweet sister, I promise."
The embrace Sansa and Arya shared was brief, but as it was also their first one since they'd been little more than babes it was sweet too.
Arya would not be taking a trunk, and much like Wylla and Young Lyanna her packs were not heavy. Life at the Wall did not require much in the way of possessions.
Jon asked her at least three times if she'd remembered Needle - he'd insisted she name her sword, all the best blades had names and stories behind them, he'd said - the last time he asked she'd been wearing it on her hip.
Arya threw her arms around Jon's middle and said, "I wish you were coming with us."
Jon held her for a long moment before he said, "Then who would protect Robb, and keep Theon and Rickon out of mischief?"
Arya barked out a laugh, and used her sleeve to scrub her eyes of the tears she wouldn't have let anyone but Jon see.
The morning of her departure Arya was summoned to her mother's chambers, where she found herself hugged so fiercely that she half suspected a plot to keep her in Winterfell by means of a broken rib.
Later, in the courtyard, Lady Catelyn confined herself to the same speech she'd made when Bran had gone off to squire for Uncle Brynden: she told Arya to be brave and careful, to remember that she was a Stark and a Tully, and that she'd always have a place at Winterfell.
And when they rode from the castle Arya forced herself to keep her mount moving and her eyes on the Kingsroad, because she knew that if she looked back she would be lost.
Aunt Lyanna pulled her horse up to walk next to Arya's. "I didn't want to leave Winterfell either," she said.
"That was different," said Arya. "You were leaving Jon, and you didn't have a choice."
"And you do have a choice," said Lyanna in a gentle voice.
"No, I don't," Arya said stubbornly, and spurred her horse into a canter to catch up with Wylla Manderly and Lyanna Mormont.
"Grandfather always said that all I was good for was the Night's Watch or the Silent Sisters, and I don't think life with the Silent Sisters would have agreed with me--" Wylla Manderly had bushy blonde eyebrows, her hair was dyed a sickly shade of green, and she talked so much that the Silent Sisters probably would have been forced to gag her before a week was out "--and so here I am; even if I'm the only one without a famous relative in the Watch."
Lyanna Mormont - who'd introduced herself as Lya; so as not to cause any confusion, she'd said, which had caused the older Lyanna to raise her eyebrows and say that nobody would be mistaking Lya for a sister of the Night's Watch, never mind a ranger, quite yet - threw a twig at Wylla and said, "Shut up, it's not my fault my mother's lady commander."
"Is it true all the girls in your family have taken the black?" Arya asked.
"Oh, yes. Mother went after I was weaned. My sister Alysane not long afterwards, she's second in command at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea now. Then Lyra, and Jorelle only last year. I'm the last. Well, except for Dacey, but she's the eldest, so she's stuck on Bear Island as castellan while Cousin Jorah's in King's Landing." Lya managed to make it sound like her sister Dacey had gotten the mucky end of the stick. "She'll probably end up inheriting anyway; Dacey says Jorah's too busy pining after his little princess to marry and produce an heir of his own."
"Princess Rhaenys?" Wylla asked. "I met her and her brother once when they visited White Harbor."
"No," said Lya, "the other princess, King Rhaegar's sister--"
Arya's attention was grabbed my movement in the corner of her eye. She looked to the side just quickly enough to see her Aunt Lyanna rise up from her bedroll and walk quickly and quietly away from their fire.
"Shut up!" she ordered the other new recruits.
The next morning Arya rode beside her Aunt Lyanna, feeling oddly guilty even though she hadn't been the one to bring up Rhaegar. Back in Winterfell the royal family were never spoken of; even Sansa had learned at a young age not to ask about the possibility of a royal visit, or to question why she would never be invited to King's Landing to serve as lady-in-waiting to one of the princesses, as a highborn maid might expect.
"I talked to Jon before I left--" Arya had already proudly shown Lyanna the sword Jon had ordered forged for her "--I told him I wished he was coming with us. Why couldn't he? I mean, why did they stop allowing men in the Watch?"
It was after a long pause that Lyanna said, "It's a long story-- ever since the days of Rhaenyra more women than men have taken the black."
"Not all those who take the black are like you and your friends." Lyanna nodded to Wylla and Lya, riding ahead of them.
"We're not that alike," Arya protested. "Wylla has green hair!"
"You are all highborn girls of good families who are taking the black by choice; that isn't true of all, or even most of the women on the Wall. Boys, even baseborn boys, almost always have a better choice; I know I'm glad that Jon does."
"He will always have a place by Robb's side," Arya said loyally.
"For a long time the only men coming to the Wall were those who'd been given the choice between that and gelding, it caused... difficulties. We work better when it's just us women. And there are those--"
"Southroners," Arya supplied.
"Not all southroners, and not all men either," said Lyanna, "but there are those who see guarding the Wall as pointless, thankless work: women's work."
They claimed a night's shelter at Last Hearth, having skirted around the Dreadfort. Arya was too young to remember the days before the Boltons were wardens of the North, but she had overheard her father and Uncle Benjen talking of it often enough to share their offence and sense of wounded pride.
Smalljon Umber drank deeply and cheerfully offered to give all three of the girls a night they'd remember before they swore off men for life.
Lyanna, just as cheerfully, said that she'd geld him if he made such an offer again; this caused all the Umbers, including the Smalljon, to laugh uproariously.
When they cleared the forest that had eclipsed their view, and got their first look at the Wall, Arya pulled up her mount and stared in disbelief. Wylla and Lya did the same.
"Come on," commanded Lyanna, "no time for sight seeing, we've still got three days ride to Castle Black."
Numbers had always been more Arya's friend than Sansa's, but she couldn't force her mind to accept the size of the Wall. If it appeared this tall from three days journey away, how tall was it if you were standing directly beneath it?
There was only one way to find out. Arya spurred her horse into a gallop and shouted over her shoulder, "Last one to Castle Black is stupid!"