Littlefinger was at least clever enough to see her when she wanted him to. Arya supposed it would be exhausting to play being subtle to a fool. Littlefinger was no fool, at least excepting his assumption she was one.
The whispers and meetings were all ploys to attract Arya Stark’s attention, and Arya gave it, skulking quiet but visible enough for him to know she took notice. What Littlefinger didn’t realize was that a new serving girl had been watching him too. That serving girl brought him food, changed his bathwater, and took his messages—whispered quietly in her ear—to lords and servants alike. The serving girl knew him better than he would ever assume a servant could.
Arya had few faces now, but the few she had were useful.
Littlefinger knew Arya Stark was dangerous with a weapon in her hand, but he didn’t know her other skills. Better to conceal her strengths and let him keep his ignorant assumptions. She did not wait when Littlefinger hid his message in the open. Instead, she searched in the light of day, added extra precious moments to her poor lockpick attempt, and searched the room for much longer than she needed to. She’d seen the scuff-marks from his boots, listened to his steps in the room, and knew he had hidden something under or in the bed, but it would raise his suspicion to take so little time.
When she found the scroll, the writing and words hurt but didn’t surprise. Even knowing what this was, Arya felt an old foolish part of herself uncurl and whisper rage at her sister for these traitorous words. Logic told her this was evidence that Sansa had fought for their father when all Arya could do was catch pigeons and steal bread.
Arya locked the door behind her, aware by the soft shift of feet on the stairs and the whisper of Littlefinger’s breath that he was watching her. His mistake was seeing her as the rude little girl she’d been years before; she would not correct that ignorance.
It had been quite a while since she’d put a new name on her list, and his seemed as good as any she’d chosen.
Bran knew who wore the face of the serving girl that brought him food that night. He called her into his room, watched her set down the tray of food, and studied her. He offered no smile, but his gaze was knowing.
“What do you wish to know?”
The serving girl touched her hip where her dagger would have rested if she were carrying it. Her voice was soft and curious. “Why did you give your sister that dagger?”
His answer was steady, with multiple layers, and it made the serving girl afraid even as Arya Stark’s rage built with each word. Betrayal after betrayal, all rending deep wounds in the Starks. She saw the destruction of her family, the unraveling of the Seven Kingdoms, and danger fallen on all of them. Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger, was not just as good as any name; his was a better name than most.
Sansa nearly missed the scroll tucked under the weight on the corner of her desk. There was no wax seal or signature, but the handwriting was familiar enough to identify the writer. Arya’s script had perhaps gotten worse in the years they’d been separated.
Keep your normal nightly routine, Lady Stark.
Her visit to the crypts, clearly. Sansa found herself retreating to that dark, musty place every few nights to find solitude and quiet. It was a safer place to her than the bedchamber. Ramsey had raped her in her old quarters, and even her parent’s room reminded her of that place. The crypts were respite from those memories and from Littlefinger’s rough paranoid whispers; he took to bed early and rarely entered the crypts.
Sansa wondered at this note even as she unobtrusively flicked it into the fire behind her. The part of her that had been shaped by Littlefinger’s lessons whispered that it could be a trap. Her little sister was a stranger, quiet and easy to miss now. Arya interacted rarely with Sansa. Gone was the dirty, giggling, mischievous, annoying little girl that had always been in the way, the girl that Sansa missed more desperately than she realized. The stranger Arya was slow to smile, offered little in words, and whatever mischief she created was well-hidden—perhaps for more sinister reasons.
But no, Arya was her sister. That quiet grin she’d given during their first meeting was real. Sansa applied a lesson from the part of her shaped by her father and mother: trust family.
Brienne was still armed and armored when Sansa stepped out of the study that evening, but she accepted Sansa’s dismissal with her usual look of caution. Ghost sat at the entrance of the crypts, and he followed behind her steady and comforting. He roamed the grounds and offered no threat, even as he’d emerged from the Battle for Winterfell more red than white. Jon had left his direwolf at Winterfell for Ghost’s protection, but Ghost offered Sansa a measure of comfort.
The crypts were wet, dark, and quiet, and the figure that was crouched in a dark corner seemed a stranger. Then when Sansa turned her head, that form changed, and her little sister rose from her crouch. Arya wasn’t wearing her usual garb.
“Are you wearing a dress?”
Arya offered a familiar childish sneer, but her expression melted into neutrality quickly. Sansa was reminded her sister had changed as much as she had.
“What is it?”
Arya held out a scroll to Sansa. Ghost lay down beside them, apparently finding no threat in that gesture. Sansa took the scroll, and her stomach dropped as she saw the words written in her own script.
“Littlefinger wanted me to find that. He’s been playing things up for me, so I played things up for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s been skulking near me, whispering to servants and lords. I let him see me because he let me see him. He made a big show in the hallway about hiding this to protect you, and then he shoved it in a mattress instead of burning it. The question is why he wanted me to find it. And why he thinks I’m stupid enough to not see through this trick.”
“He thinks everyone around him is stupider than he is.” Sansa fingered the letter and felt that old guilt settle in her gut. She knew how this might look to Arya, who had always seen things so black and white, who had loved their father maybe more than anyone else. Their noble father had given a false confession for nothing. Her statement came as both a plea and a question. “You don’t believe I meant any of this.”
Arya shrugged, not a yes, not a no.
“I was trying to save Father’s life. Joffrey, he—” She saw her father’s head falling from his body and shuddered. She put a hand over her mouth while her stomach settled.
“I was there. I saw.”
How could she? Sansa studied Arya in shock. “But how—”
“I escaped the Keep and lived in flea bottom catching pigeons. Yoren got me out of the city. I wasn’t stupid enough to blame you then; I won’t be stupid enough to do it now.” Arya nodded to the letter. “Littlefinger wanted me to find this. Why?”
Sansa studied the letter again. Arya knew the simple why: to tear them apart. “He wants me, and he wants me helpless. He wants me to be his wife, but he wants power more. He’s been urging me to take the North from Jon.”
“Are you going to?”
This was the real test. Sansa faced Arya, who looked back at her expressionlessly. Her answer was complicated by duty, fear, and desire, but ultimately that answer was, “No.”
Arya studied her for a moment. “That was truth.” She put her hand behind her and jumped up on the ledge there to swing her feet, as graceful as a cat. She sat with her knees out, awkward and unladylike in her servant’s skirt. Sansa resisted the urge to hit her knee to encourage better posture.
“So what do we do about this?”
A large part of Sansa was pleased to be asked the question. Arya didn’t discount her, even if she still wore dresses and carried no sword. “We should play into his hands. He may have more motive than we assume.”
“We’ll need to trick more than Littlefinger. The servants, maester, and lords will need to believe it too.”
“I’ve been another person before.”
Arya grinned abruptly. “Seems we’ve both prepared for this.”
So many things Sansa wanted to know but was afraid of learning. Her sister was alive, somehow; she’d survived somewhere; and she had done something—or a great many things given her fight with Brienne. “What happened to you, Arya?”
Arya shrugged. “I was Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer in Harrenhal for a while. Littlefinger came once to negotiate for Lannisters and Tyrells to create an alliance. I don’t know if he recognized me.”
Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer? Sansa admitted for the first time, “I saw him push our Aunt Lysa out of the Moon Door to take control of the Vale.”
“There’s more that he's done.”
“How do you know?”
“Bran?” It gave Sansa a shiver to think of Bran’s whisper about her wedding dress. She didn’t understand what he was or how he knew things. Arya studied her for a moment before she shrugged again. “I’ve seen enough magic to believe him. Whatever he knows we can present as truth even if it isn’t. Magic makes people see what they want sometimes.”
“What truth did he give you?”
“Littlefinger used Lysa to kill Jon Arryn. He told Lysa to write to Mother to claim the Lannisters poisoned Jon Arryn.”
Sansa was reeling from those truths, but Arya wasn’t finished. “He betrayed Father and encouraged Joffrey to murder him despite his confession. He…” Arya fingered her dagger. “He told Mother Tyrion owned this dagger, but Littlefinger sent the dagger and assassin.”
“I’ll kill him,” Sansa whispered, her heart gone cold from her rage. Everything went back to Littlefinger. “I can’t believe—” But she could. She could easily believe Littlefinger tore apart their family for his own gain, for his disgusting lust for power and Sansa and Catelyn.
“Yes, but how?”
There was the stranger Arya, fingering her weapon and offering a cold stare. Sansa felt a stranger to herself too. She’d envisioned Ramsey’s death many times leading up to the reality, but she hadn’t expected to want vengeance again. “We spring his trap and catch him in it.”
“Seems I have a new name to add to my list.”
“Father said that the man who passes the sentence should wield the sword.”
“I’ll be your sword.” Arya slipped off of her perch, and Sansa felt a rightness of Arya's claim settle in her heart.
Arya stopped and looked back at her. The suddenly soft expression on her face drew Sansa closer. She reached out, and Arya studied her for a moment before she stepped into her arms. Arya’s arms wrapped around her, and Sansa sent a prayer to the old gods that one of her siblings still took comfort in touch.
“He sold me to Ramsey Bolton,” Sansa admitted. “Ramsey raped he, he beat me, he debased me, and he did it in our home. Sometimes I can’t sleep for fear of remembering it. I can’t go back in that room ever again.”
“We should burn it then,” Arya said, her voice blurred with emotion. “How did he die?”
“I fed him to his dogs,” Sansa admitted, wondering if Arya would be horrified by that. Arya gave a startling barking laugh against her shoulder. “Did you watch?”
“I watched enough.”
“Did it feel good?”
Arya drew back and nodded. “I’ve had a few of those too.”
“Tell me your story.”
“If you tell me yours. I actually have…” Arya reached behind an old crypt and pulled out a skin of wine, shaking it with a grin. Ghost moved his ears, but he didn’t rise. Arya offered the wine to Sansa, who took a drink with a smile. “We can’t stay long, but we can start.”
Sansa’s torch was still strong when they parted. Arya paused on her way out. “We’ll have to make this real, all the time, with every word.”
“Yes. I’ll fear and distrust you.”
“And I’ll distrust and hate you. But you’re my pack, Sansa.”
“I’m your sister, idiot.” Sansa smiled gently with her teasing statement, and Arya gave her that sweet grin in return before ducking into shadow and sliding away. Sansa watched that shadow grow longer between steps before Sansa turned her mind to tending to her prayers for her family.
Despite her hopes, Sansa had no companion during her nightly visits to the crypts until a week later. That night, she and Arya talked quietly of their past, of Jon’s plan—or lack thereof—in Dragonstone, and of what kind of threat it was that they faced and how to prepare for it.
Arya apparently found time to speak to Bran unobserved again. She described Bran’s quiet words about the Night King and the threat of the Others. Sansa couldn’t find it in her to distrust Arya’s information. She found it difficult to plan for a threat she couldn't imagine and turned her mind to more practical matters.
“Littlefinger has been urging me to ask for Brienne’s protection.”
“No, you idiot. From you for myself.”
“We could kill him now and be done. What northern lord will care?”
Unlike when Arya whispered ridiculously to behead the discontent lords, Sansa saw Arya’s point. She wondered if a part of her didn’t want to catch Littlefinger deliciously unaware, right at the moment he was certain he’d won his own game. There were other more logical concerns about Yohn Royce—who wouldn’t mourn Littlefinger but might find fault in unjustified execution. Even a small fault could take his many men back to the Vale. While Arya seemed certain the lords would take Bran’s magic visions as truth, they would need a convincing audience with Littlefinger. For that to work, he would have to be completely off-guard.
Planting seeds of his betrayal would be a second insurance. Yohn Royce might be convinced that Littlefinger murdered Lysa Arryn. The other lords might be willing to consider Littlefinger had used Lysa Arryn to set in motion the great conflict, and the assertion he attempted to murder Bran would be emotionally charged enough to sway. But only if Arya was subtle enough to navigate that minefield and only if those lords didn’t whisper back at Littlefinger what was being said.
If he caught wind of what was coming, he would fly back to the Vale to wait out the coming winter. That was an unacceptable ending to this conflict.
“What will you tell the lords?”
“What should I tell the lords?” Arya echoed.
“Perhaps ask for an open mind and reaffirm loyalty to House Stark—subtly of course. Yohn Royce alone should know Littlefinger’s role in Lysa’s death. I wonder how many spies Littlefinger has here.”
“Two,” Arya replied, trimming her nails with her knife. "Both abed now so we're safe tonight. They followed you down here the last three."
A chill passed down Sansa's spine. “How do—I suppose I don’t want to know.”
Arya smugly continued, “Three spies if you count me.”
“Arya, be serious!”
She only offered a shrug. She touched the tip of her boot to Ghost’s ear, causing him to flick it in irritation. “Do you ever dream in the eyes of an animal?”
“Dream? Like flying?” Sansa rarely dreamed as she had as a child. Her dreams were darker, and the happy ones were memories of her childhood. She was always human in her dreams.
“No, like Bran.”
Sansa shook her head. Arya fingered her wine skin. “I’ve been having wolf dreams. I had them in Braavos. I saw Nymeria coming up here. She turned away from me, but I dreamed I was in her skin that night.”
“Your direwolf?” Sansa asked, surprised and showing it. It had never occurred to her that Nymeria might be alive. The memory of Lady's death was still an old hurt, but that emotion directed towards Cersei and Joffrey, not her sister.
Arya nodded. “She’s as big as a horse now. She knew me, and I knew her. She’s wild.”
“As wild as you are, no doubt.”
“She led a pack in the Riverlands and killed Freys for sport. Then I came and killed the rest of them.”
After all of this and what Arya had revealed about her past, Sansa was still shocked. “That was you?”
“I fed Walder Frey his sons in a pie and slit his throat.” Arya took a drink of wine and pursed her lips, offering a flat glance at Sansa. “I should have browned the butter before I made the pie crust, apparently.”
“That’s revolting.” And yet Sansa had to laugh at that childish statement about something so horrifying. “That was you? All alone? But how?”
Arya shrugged. “You’ll find out soon.”
Her faces were precious, hidden in reality far more cleverly than a satchel under her bed. Part of her enjoyed the mummery of this, whispering threats at her sister and enjoying Sansa’s disquiet. It was a different sort of game than those they’d played as children.
Later, sitting on the ramparts with Ghost beside her, Arya watched Sansa stride across the frozen yard and pondered if it was safe to reveal her past. The faceless men had let her go, a life for a life, but exposing her faces and her dark magic was risky. Jaqen had been a senior in the order, flaunting his faces for the purpose of recruiting her. Why he'd wanted to recruit a Stark skinchanger she still hadn’t quite deduced.
Arya hadn't been willing to take the gamble until Littlefinger received a scroll that he'd read several times over when his serving girl was in his quarters. The letter detailed the account of a woman spared during the Frey slaughter. A description of a dark-haired girl removing Walder Frey's face from her own after poisoning the entire house drew his attention enough for his lips to move unconsciously as he read it.
He surely guessed who that girl had been even as the rest of Westeros considered the tales of the serving girls the product of female hysteria. If he was still stupid enough to believe a faceless assassin would fall for his tricks, he would believe she'd betray herself to her sister only to strike fear in her heart. Arya had done just that, even if a part of her regretted that true disquiet on Sansa's face during that conflict.
There had been no threat to her life when she'd left the Temple of Black and White. The kindly man had seen her off as gently as ever when she returned the body of the assassin they’d sent to sacrifice her in the dead of night. He’d studied her expressionlessly and finally said, “Valar morghulis. Goodbye, Arya Stark.”
A life for a life, perhaps. Her gift to them in exchange for her life alone. The only items she’d left Braavos with were Needle, the faceless coin she wore on a chain between her breasts, and the knowledge she’d gained from the Temple of Black and White.
Ignorance of her family's survival had made her take risks at the Crossing. Arya hadn't realized she had anything to live for but vengeance. She'd wanted everyone to know that a Stark was seeking justice, no matter the danger that knowledge put on her. Now she could only uselessly hope the tale of her misuse of the magic of the faceless men would be distorted enough to disguise when it arrived in Braavos...or that they wouldn't care. There had been rules to their order, but she was no longer part of that order. Did using their magics make her a poseur or a heretic?
For now, Arya would play out this little farce and prepare for the war in the North. If an assassin came, he would come for her alone. She needn't worry about her family's safety.
These faces she'd created by her own hand had been crafted rather poorly. Instead of the marble softness of those in the Temple of Black and White, hers were leathery, itchy to put on, and they didn’t want to keep her in their skin—or vice versa. Walder Frey’s face was a keepsake only, and she would burn it soon before it started to rot.
The serving girl… She’d found the girl dying, torn apart by the straggling Brotherhood that had taken her distant blood relation to the Freys as justification to rape her. Arya had whispered a prayer and put her out of her misery and then used the knowledge she had to harvest her face.
It would die completely soon, and she would make no more faces. She was no longer no one. She had never been no one.
Ghost stood and stretched, pacing over to sit beside her and put his great head on her thigh. She stroked the fur between his ears. “I wish Jon were here. He'd muss my hair and tease me. Call me 'Underfoot'.”
Ghost sighed as if he agreed. She rubbed his ear. “Go protect Sansa. I have my own wolf.”
The great white wolf stood up, stepped away, and lumbered down the rampart steps, breaking into a heavy trot to follow after Lady Stark.
Lady Stark, who was protected fiercely by more people than she knew. The Lords of the North and even severe old Yohn Royce offered little in the way of concern when Arya asked for their quiet allegiance to her sister over Littlefinger. Royce had turned a little gray when Arya implicated Littlefinger in Lysa Arryn's death, but he hadn't been surprised. They would be present for the trial, and they would not intervene. Sansa had more loyalty than Littlefinger could ever hope for himself. He’d created his own undoing.
Arya almost thought that Sansa would turn away from these plans. As a girl, she’d wanted to be coddled and confined to her station as a Lord’s daughter. Now, Sansa saw as few restrictions with their gender as Arya did.
Sansa was her pack, she was Arya’s sister, but she was also a powerful ally. They would hold the North secure for Jon and for their people. For the first time in her life, Arya not only loved but respected her sister.
Sansa did find out the secret of Arya’s abilities by sorting through Arya’s things, searching for a letter she did not feel threatened by. She couldn’t fake her horror as she removed the preserved leathery faces from Arya’s bag. She’d never realized human skin could look like an animal pelt.
If any of the many servants had been listening in the servant's passages for Littlefinger, they had heard real disquiet and fear in Sansa's voice. She wondered if Littlefinger would realize she chose a time when most servants were moving through the passages to empty chamberpots, change bedding, or refill kindling for fires. Not only did it spread their words through number, but Littlefinger's few spies had a reason to eavesdrop. Would he realize? Likely not, not when Arya's training routine gave Sansa a legitimate excuse to slip into her room at that time of day to search her belongings.
Faceless. Assassin. Arya was skilled in poison, impersonation, lying, and truth-telling. She could wield a dagger, staff, and sword. She wore several faces too, though later Arya revealed to her it was taxing to take on a face and keep it.
“A bit of them stays with the skin. It hurts to feel what they were when you take that face the first time. It takes a cut to take into yourself, blood that’s hard to give. Walder was disgusting to wear; he would have approved of what I did to his family, the codgy bastard.”
Arya paused as she considered the worn statue across from them. “I was there at the Red Wedding. They cut off Robb’s head and stitched Grey Wind’s head to his shoulders. Put his body up on a horse and trotted it around.”
It should have hurt her, hearing Arya sketch that scene, but the only thing that hurt was that Arya had seen it. Sansa remembered her own grief from hearing about her mother and brother’s deaths. For Arya to have been so close to finding family again…
“Joffrey made me look at father’s head. He put it on a spike on the ramparts.”
“Little cunt,” Arya ground out, choked by tears.
“He really was.” Sansa found it in herself to giggle. She sobered. “Tyrion told me about the Red Wedding. I think I lost all hope then. I didn’t realize until later that he shielded me from the worst of it. We were married, you know?”
“You said so.”
He was a good man. Sansa knew that now. As much as she’d cried over their marriage, it had been a blessing and a shield from many fates that were far worse. She’d lived through one of those later. Part of her wondered if her marriage had been truly annulled or if Tyrion was still her lawful husband. It didn't seem such a bad thing anymore. “I’m glad he’s still alive.”
“He brought the Targaryen over with her dragons,” Arya mused neutrally.
“A Targaryen that Jon has pledged allegiance to without any counsel.” Sansa was nothing but frustrated with her stupid, naïve, and probably lusty brother. Good kings listened to their people and considered decisions instead of throwing themselves into an alliance without at least negotiating terms.
“I’d like to see her dragons.”
“Don’t be as stupid as Jon.”
For a moment, Sansa feared she would anger her sister, but Arya laughed in her quiet way. “I’ve always loved dragon stories. To have the chance to be Visenya… I’d take it.”
“And be wed to your own brother?”
“I’d take the dragon and the sword,” Arya clarified.
They were quiet for a few moments, watching Ghost lick his paw and scratch an ear. Sansa forgot sometimes that he was extraordinary. She wondered what Lady would look like if she were still alive. Noting the time that had passed, Sansa touched Arya’s shoulder. Arya started as if surprised. She said, “The lords stand behind you, Lady Stark.”
“They gave you no trouble, Arya Underfoot?”
Arya offered a shy grin before she sobered. “Littlefinger has no friends. He expects me to whisper to the lords to kill you so he has no suspicion.”
“Arya, thank you.”
Arya smiled again, passed a hand across her face, and became a stranger. She was pretty, dark-eyed, and had long brown hair. That woman glanced at her and lowered her head in a half-nod. “Tomorrow?”
She cleaned Littlefinger's blood off of her dagger, likely mirroring the servants that scrubbed Littlefinger's blood from the stones of the keep. He had been a sacrifice in a way, one to her sister and to their family.
There was more cleansing to be had that day.
A part of Arya wanted to keep the faces, even as they began to stink and bits of flesh pulled away. If they were any farther south, maggots would have taken the flesh. The faces were a comfort, a crutch, an escape. Arya didn’t need them.
She burned them in the Godswood, whispering her last prayer to the Many-Faced God. She looked up at the weirwood tree, feeling it cleanse the dark magic from the fire and smoke with snowfall and cold, and she gave herself up entirely. The old gods owned this place, and they owned her.
“I am Arya Stark.”
She felt Nymeria now, prowling the forests, traveling north with her massive wolfpack. She felt closer than ever to her wolf, and the few cats that remained in Winterfell took to following her, waiting for scraps and willing to gift their sight and body for short times.
Arya’s faces were a distraction from the pure ancient magic her blood gifted her. She would never wear another face but her own again. She felt old mischief as the weight of that dark magic lifted from her, and Arya Stark lifted her head to howl high and strong. From somewhere within the castle grounds, Ghost answered. From many leagues away, Nymeria did too.
A howl startled her and probably everyone in Winterfell. Another stronger one—a more wolven one—rose from Ghost, who had been pacing in the courtyard. Those two howls set all the dogs in Winterfell to barking. Above all that din, Sansa imagined the chorus of a great wolf pack in the distance.
It broke her from imagining the look on Littlefinger’s face when he knew he was done. Vengeance was delicious, and she was finding that lesson hard to stomach. Arya might wield the dagger, but Sansa had killed Littlefinger.
No lord had protested in the time she’d given them. Yohn Royce even turned away from Littlefinger. As much as Sansa wanted to credit her conniving, Bran’s magic authority, or Arya’s cleverness, Littlefinger had been the ultimate master of his own death. He’d earned it with every whisper, every threat, and every betrayal.
They were not nice thoughts to have while standing over Winterfell and studying the cleansing snow and ice. In the South, Sansa had almost forgotten how the cold shrank sound until everything was pure. She breathed the sharp air, let it pierce her lungs, and felt a great dark weight slip from her shoulders.
Littlefinger had been her crutch, her shield, and her anchor. She was free of him, free to be herself. Free to be open and good again.
The soft whisper of footsteps announced Arya’s arrival. Sansa turned her head and asked the question she’d formed minutes before. “Was that you earlier? You woke up all the dogs in the surrounding hundred miles.”
Arya grinned like she’d predicted the question. “Maybe.”
Sansa feigned irritation but felt love for knowing her little sister again. The farce was over, and now Sansa wasn’t sure she would play it again given the choice. They were sisters—pack, as Arya put it—bonded by more than their blood, and they would never have to pretend otherwise again.
“Jon will be back soon.”
“And all Starks will be back in Winterfell.”
“Live or die, we’ll be together.”
Arya looked at her and shook her head. She gave that small but fierce grin, showing her teeth. “No. There's only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today’.”