“Robert, did you hear me?” Queen Cersei questioned her husband, irritated that he was obviously paying her no attention.
Her beauty was such that she captivated men and women alike when she entered a room. But she had never affected Robert Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms. She had wanted his love, once upon a time. But Robert would never love her. All his love belonged to a woman long dead, a pale ghost of the North, who was not even beautiful, it was said.
Lyanna Stark had been as pale as winter, with coarse hair the color of soot, and lips chapped red from the harsh winds that blew south from The Wall.
And Cersei Lannister would never measure up to her in the eyes of Robert Baratheon.
She no longer sought his love. Now she would settle for his attention, an acknowledgment of her beauty and intelligence. She would have his respect if she could have nothing else.
“What is it that captivates you so?” Cersei asked, moving to look out the window where Robert stood.
It was little Arya Stark, playing at swords in the courtyard, the ruffian. She was not so little any more, though Cersei could not recall how old she was. Old enough to no longer be called a girl, and yet not quite a woman.
“I had forgotten what she looked like,” Robert said softly, a tremor in his voice that Cersei recognized.
A tremor that was only caused by one woman.
“She is the spitting image of her,” Robert turned away from the window, and for a disgusting moment Cersei thought he would weep. “She looks just like Lyanna.”
“Well the girl is her niece, after all,” was the only thing Cersei could think of to say as her blood boiled in rage.
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Jaime Lannister said, watching his twin sister, Cersei, pace about the room like a caged lioness. “The girl is pale as snow with hair like a chimney brush.”
“It isn’t what she looks like,” Cersei snarled, “but that she looks like her.”
Frowning, Jaime moved into Cersei’s path, catching her in his arms and pulling her against his armor clad chest, “And why do you care who she looks like? Why do you care that she draws the ever wandering eyes of your husband? “
Cersei struggled, and Jaime held her tighter, his breath on her ears and he leaned forward and mercilessly whispered, “I stand watch outside his door every day, listening as he disgraces you again and again with whores and scullery maids. What is one more slip of a girl added to his conquests?”
Unspoken was the question Why do you care about him, when you have me?
Cersei kissed him, soothing his ire, raising his passion. In moments his hands were in her hair, and she was pulling at the buckles of his breastplate.
“Robert has hated me since the day I wed him, reviled me simply for not being Lyanna,” Cersei said into Jaime’s neck. “And now this girl looks like her, and everything I have been denied is within her grasp.”
Jaime thought he felt tears on his skin, but when Cersei turned her face up to look at him, her eyes were dry, though pain filled.
He let out a sigh, “The things I do for love.”
Arya rode behind Jaime Lannister on her pony, thrilled to her core that he had allowed her to accompany him and Joffrey on a hunt in the royal wood. She was not permitted to carry Needle as she had asked, but she had a game bow and quilted a hunting tunic and trousers like Joffrey’s, though hers were in the Stark colors.
It was more than she had ever been openly allowed before.
Joffrey rode ahead, angry she had been allowed along. Years had passed, and he was still as spoiled and awful as he had been since the day Arya first set eyes on him. She really couldn’t fathom what Sansa saw in him.
He was handsome, certainly, but his golden hair and fine features hid a rotten heart – an apple that promised sweetness but delivered poison.
Soon, Joffrey had gone far enough ahead that he was barely a speck in the distance. Arya kept expecting Ser Jaime to call him back, but the man was silent.
Unexpectedly, he turned his horse, leveling his hunting bow at Arya.
Surprised, she looked behind her, thinking perhaps that the deer they sought had made an appearance. But there was nothing.
“My lord?” she began, only to be forestalled.
“Get off your horse,” Ser Jaime said, his face dark. He drew back his bowstring, readying an arrow.
At this range, it would easily pierce Arya’s heart.
She got off her horse, wishing for Needle, righteous fury burning in her breast. “I don’t understand. What have I done?”
In that moment she understood why Ser Jaime was called Kingslayer, and why he did not like to be reminded of it. His eyes were terrible to behold.
She stood, poised to run, though she doubted she would get far. But she had to try. She wouldn’t die without a fight.
Ser Jaime lowered his bow, cursing under his breath. “Damn if you don’t remind me of my sister.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Arya retorted, edging towards the woods.
Ser Jaime shook his head ruefully, dark laughter spilling over his lips. “The women you resemble have more to do with things than you think.” Suddenly serious, he met her eyes, saying firmly, “You can never return to the Red Keep. You can never be seen anywhere where you will be recognized. Word cannot get back to my sister that you escaped my sword this day. Arya Stark is dead, do you understand? She fell from her horse, and her body was lost in the river. Now run, and mind you pick a different direction than the one Joffrey went.”
Arya ran until her feet were sore and blistered and her arms scratched from pushing her way through hanging branches and undergrowth. She ran until her stomach growled with hunger, and her limbs shook with exhaustion and cold. The sun had set hours ago, and the nights were getting colder.
Winter was coming.
Winter is coming, Arya thought to herself, dragging her weary bones over yet another rise. It seemed every time she thought she understood the meaning of the words of her house, life taught her a new way to use them.
She crested the hill, eyes peeled for a cave, a hollow, any place she could shelter and stay warm in the night – and then she saw it.
A little house. At first Arya thought it was much farther away than it really was, but as she approached it became apparent that it was actually a house built much, much smaller than usual. Though she was not very tall, Arya would have to bend slightly to go through the door.
She knocked, and heard loud cursing and groaning from within. She almost left, but she needed shelter, and whatever waited inside the little house could not be worse than freezing in the forest.
“Who is it?” a gruff voice called through the door.
“Arya Sta- Arya Snow,” Arya answered, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth.
“And what brings you to my door in the middle of the night, Arya Snow?” the voice replied.
Arya told her story, starting with being invited on the hunt and ending with the Kingslayer’s warning. “And I’ve been running ever since,” she finished.
But she would not run forever, she promised herself.
The little door opened, and Arya gasped, all the blood draining from her face, sure she was about to meet her end.
For there stood Tyrion Lannister the Imp, brother of Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime. Surely he would take their side and call out the guard, or stab her in the gut, or any manner of other things.
“Well, come in out of the cold then,” Tyrion Lannister smiled, bowing her into the little house.
Bewildered, Arya stooped and crossed the threshold.
It was not just the outside of the house that was small. Everything inside was scaled down, a third or half the size it would be in a normal house. It was like the play house Princess Myrcella had had when they were children, though everything was of finer make and designed to the tastes of an adult.
She must have been staring, for the Imp said, “Is it so surprising that I enjoy having a place where everything is my size waiting for me on those nights when being a dwarf among giants grows tiresome?”
“No,” Arya answered cautiously, moving to perch on the little chaise lounge by the fire.
There was a long silence.
“You can stay here until we’ve found something to do with you, my dear Snow White,” the Imp offered, moving to sit in the wingchair by the fire that was, Arya saw, the perfect size for him. He picked up a wine goblet that fit comfortably in his hand, pouring wine from a half sized decanter.
“I don’t like that name, Imp,” Arya replied without malice.
“Then we are even. I detest that moniker.”
They watched the fire for a time. Arya wasn’t sure what to say, and Lord Tyrion didn’t seem to mind the silence that chafed at her.
“I don’t know how to sew, or cook, or clean. But I can hunt. When you’re here, I can make sure you have fresh game for supper.” Arya offered, her pride stung at the thought of charity.
Tyrion nodded, “Fresh game would be welcome. I don’t like others to know of my sanctuary, and so must bring everything I want for the house myself.”
“Lord Tyrion – ”
“Tyrion, why are you helping me?”
The dwarf’s eyes went dark in a way altogether different than the Kingslayer’s had. “Let’s just say I have a fondness for cripples, bastards, and broken things.”
Arya Stark might have been insulted.
Arya Snow was only grateful.