They say that the Warden in the North is a witch, that she has lived among the Faceless Men and can be whomever she wants. They say she scaled the walls to the Eyrie and emerged with her sister, when none had known she still lived. They say she is followed everywhere by a direwolf twice the size of a normal wolf. They say her crippled brother emerged from the forest as her personal seer and that she slayed the undead thing that had been her mother after casting out the Bolton usurpers.. They say the men of the North have rallied around her and even now they shore up the Wall against the coming darkness. They say she sleeps in the family crypts, before her father's statue, and that she is rebuilding Winterfell, stone by stone. They say even crazier things, that it was her hand in Joffrey's cup and her noose around Cersei Lannister's neck and her vote that selected the Commander of the Night's Watch, her half-brother.
Daenerys does not know if any of the stories about Arya Stark are true. Her advisors tell her she should stamp out the North's rebellion as soon as possible; this is the second one in less than a decade and her predecessors on the Iron Throne had only been able to keep Winterfell through fierce fighting and trickery. Daenerys thinks she has more than enough work rebuilding King's Landing and the other kingdoms, but she knows that her advisors are right. The longer they wait, the more of a legend the girl will become.
She is a little bit younger than Daenerys. The last time Arya was at court she was hardly noticed, a scrappy thing, more boy than girl, fighting shadows with a wooden sword and chasing cats. This last Daenerys gets from the kitchen staff. There are a surprising number of Targaryen loyalists among them, or perhaps they are simply happy for the war to be over and their livelihoods stable again.
Daenerys writes a letter to Arya requesting parley and filling her in on the current state of the rest of the country. She's not sure how much information would have made it that far north, given the chaos and the winter freezing in around them. Daenerys has killed the people who put Eddard Stark to death, and even though that fact is incidental to her need to consolidate power, she thinks it might help.
Arya sends back an invitation addressed to the Queen in the South, requesting that she bring no more than twenty in her retinue. Daenerys does not think that Arya wrote the letter. Tyrion produces some of his wife's old correspondence for comparison and she agrees that the handwriting is Sansa's, excepting the signature. So at least one of the rumors is partly true: Sansa Stark is with her sister.
It isn't safe to ride with a party of only twenty. It is not the safest idea to go along herself, but Daenerys suspects that Arya will ignore a messenger. She brings two hundred men, laden down with food and supplies that she passes out along the road. (She does not bring Tyrion; she wonders why she bothers keeping him.) She leaves most of her men at a respectful distance from Winterfell, but she rides on with forty.
She has never seen a country so deserted. The sky seems to press down on them like a blade, full and heavy. It is snowing, but not enough to make the roads impossible, not yet. But soon.
They see the castle long before they arrive. Daenerys is sure that they are seen in return. When she arrives, a scruffy boy offers to take her horse, and when he comes back, he introduces himself as Arya Stark. She is hardly more than a child, tall and scrawny with slender hips hidden under heavy, practical clothing. She does not seem surprised that Daenerys brought more men than she asked. A Northman appears to help settle them. Arya jerks her head, in invitation, probably, and Daenerys follows her into the great hall of Winterfell.
The place is in good condition, considering all of the stories Daenerys has heard about it. It is surprisingly warm. Arya's footsteps on the stones are almost silent.
"You have killed the Lannisters," Arya says, sitting down at the head of a long table that was probably constructed a hundred years before she was born. Daenerys remains standing.
"I am the queen of the Seven Kingdoms," she says. "There were no other legitimate heirs, only usurpers. They were disposed of."
"Good," Arya says, with a passion that surprises Daenerys. For a moment she is a child again, a moment that soon passes. Daenerys remembers how terrifying it was to be her age and feels a surge of warm feeling.
The moment is interrupted by a crowd of people emerging into the hall -- her own people and a host of others. There is Sansa Stark, cleanly and plainly dressed, and a young man carried on a litter by two others -- this must be the brother. There are three direwolves on the hearth, sleeping.
Sansa is polite and responsive, the perfect person to manage this dinner. Arya watches more than she speaks, but she has a wonderful laugh, when she shares it. She is the most alive with her siblings, and Daenerys can read a fierce love between them, and pride.
They don't discuss anything important that night, or the next day, when Daenerys gets a tour of the grounds. That night at dinner, Bran says that there will be a big storm in four days. He doesn't say how he knows this, but no one doubts him. Daenerys wants to be well on the road before then, but she hasn't extracted a single promise from Arya yet. The Starks have not been rude, but they have not been forthcoming.
A decision is made that they will have their discussions tomorrow, starting early and going long into the night if necessary so they can leave before the storm arrives. Daenerys really should be getting some sleep, but instead she is pacing her room restlessly.
She hears footsteps moving slowly down the hall, pausing outside her door. Someone is talking to her guards. Daenerys opens the door and the guards turn instantly toward her. Arya is standing there, with her wolf at her side. The creature's eyes glow in the dimness.
Daenerys smiles and is about to make her excuses to shut the door, but she remembers the way that Arya moves, silent and sure. Those footsteps were meant to be heard by anyone listening.
"Can I walk with you?" she asks, and Arya says, "Yes." The guards follow behind them at a diplomatic distance.
"I've heard that you have dragons who fight for you," Arya says after a moment's silence.
"I haven't come here to make war with you, Lady Stark," Daenerys answers, and Arya stops walking and stares at her. Daenerys has been calling her Lady Stark this entire time, and Sansa by the same title. She thinks their ranks were likely stripped when their father was executed, but that is not her concern if the flattery works.
"That's not -- my mother, my sister. They are Lady Stark. I am something else entirely," Arya says, trailing off at the end. She twists her fingers in the wolf's fur and the wolf doesn't make a sound.
She is trying to be someone else; that much is obvious. She is wearing men's clothing, inexpertly tailored to her size. Probably some of her brother's things. Would it have been easier to treat with Robb Stark? He had proclaimed himself king. Arya has not called herself by any title.
"Down south they call you the Warden of the North," Daenerys says.
"Do they," Arya says. She resumes walking, the wolf beside them in the broad, quiet halls, the guards behind. "Have you met with the Commander of the Watch?" she asks Daenerys.
Daenerys has not, although she has received a number of letters, still addressed to the previous occupants of the castle. If half of the things in the letters are true, Daenerys has another war to fight. She grew up on tales of the Wall and the things behind it; they were some of her brother's favorite stories. She cannot get anyone to tell her which of them are true. The closer she gets to the Wall, the more people say, "All and none," and shiver.
"Not yet," Daenerys says. "It is already nearly too difficult to travel that far."
"Winter is coming," Arya says, almost automatically. "If the Wall is breached, we will all do what we can here, but there are not enough to hold them back for long. If I ask for your help, will you give it? I think that even the Others might be taken aback by the sight of a dragon."
"If you will swear to me, I will. I take care of my people," Daenerys says, thinking of all of those she's buried, and the ones who still live. There are more of the latter than the former. That is all she hopes for.
"I will. I'll send Bran with you," Arya says, nodding and business-like. "Don't worry, he has a special saddle, he can ride. He needs doctors and artisans that aren't here anymore. And if I need your help, he will know."
Daenerys does not ask how. She is distracted by Arya smiling. With the decision made, a weight seems to lift from her, at least a little.
"One of your men told my sister that you ride your dragons," Arya says. "What is it like to fly?"
Daenerys has described it for people before, but she can never quite express the way it feels, the edge of terror and freedom and rushing air. She explains, and Arya hangs on her every word. Daenerys says, "If you come to King's Landing sometime, I will see if you can ride with me. They don't like strangers much, but I might persuade them."
"In the spring," Arya says, "I will come, and we will ride together. If we survive the winter. And my sister needs a divorce, if her husband still lives."
She is back to business again and Daenerys find herself a little disappointed. For a moment she saw the girl beneath the burden, and she thinks that she could like that girl.
"And what do I get in return?" Daenerys asks. She is perhaps a little cold, which is why she is taken by surprise when Arya turns her head and kisses her. Arya's mouth is warm, and she is a little clumsy, but firm.
"I will be your most loyal friend," Arya says. "I will take up your banner when you ask. I will do anything as long as I can have Winterfell for me and all of mine."
"Where I can from, we don't usually seal promises with kisses," Daenerys says, trying to recover from the surprise. She thinks that there are a few things she could teach Arya about kissing, and although she'd like the opportunity. It has been a long time since either of them have taken a chance like that, she thinks.
"We don't either," Arya admits, flashing Daenerys a smile and stopping in the corridor. They are standing in front of Daenerys's door again. Her guards are trying studiously to pretend they didn't see the kiss. Daenerys leans up and gives them another one to pretend not to see.
"In the spring," Daenerys says, trying to believe in it.
"I promise," Arya says, and after Daenerys shuts the door behind herself, she does not hear Arya walking away. Somehow she sleeps.
In the morning she names the Warden of the North, and in the afternoon she steals a kiss outside the godswood. She takes it south with her, against the wind, to keep her warm.