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A Wolf Amongst Lions

Chapter Text

"That's Arya Stark of Winterfell, my lord."

Tywin remembered very clearly the moment he heard those words from Peytr Baelish. It brought a mix of emotions: both triumph and frustration. Triumph that they had another bargaining chip in this war-two Stark girls instead of one. Frustration that he had not seen it sooner.

He knew she was from the north. He knew she was a noble girl by her speech and education. He knew she was on the run from something. All of those pieces should have connected far sooner. Perhaps they would have, had he not been so focused on stopping her damned brother and his north men.

Arya Stark, right under my nose, he thought. I wonder if she has been reading our letters.

She was a smart girl, travelling as a boy and keeping her head low. But she was just a bit too smart for her own good. It showed. It made her obvious. He would have been willing to let her slip by if she was any other northern girl.

Not Arya Stark, however.

"You wouldn't have known, of course," Littlefinger continued. "You never met the girl, or any of the Stark children for that matter."

"No," Tywin said.

"Shall I bring her to you?" Littlefinger asked. "I can arrange for-"

"No," Tywin said. "She'll be along shortly. I'll handle her then. I can handle this on my own."

Lord Baelish inclined his head. "I'll leave to you then. In the meantime, I shall go to High Garden to negotiate with the Tyrells."

"Good," Tywin said. "Make sure they do not declare for anyone but King Joffrey."

Tywin did not act immediately on Lord Baelish's words. Not yet. He wanted to see how well the girl lied when he tested her. He asked her questions, wondering if she would give herself away.

If you're going to pose as a commoner, you should do it properly.

My mother served lady Dustin for many years, my lord. She taught me how to speak proper. Properly.

She was a quick liar, but easy to see through.

She reminded him very much of Cersei when she was younger. Daring, and utterly disdainful of the role society laid out for her as a woman. Yet as the daughter of a great noble house, there was very little that she could do.

He let her play her game for a little longer, until the winds of war changed at it came time to move out again.

When his generals left the room to prepare and Arya began to slip away, Tywin stopped her.

"Girl...Come here a moment."

Arya's mind was racing. Lord Tywin meant to ride out that night, and she had to find Jaquen before he did. If she could kill him, perhaps that would cripple the Lannister army in the fight against Robb. It was a good choice, she knew. The best possible choice for her third name.

The Lord of House Lannister was surprising. She had heard many awful stories about him, and while he was certainly a man to be feared, she did not fear him as much as she should. She hated him, primarily for his name and for his campaign against her brother. But he had done little to wrong her personally. He was miles away when Joffery took her father's head.

His was a strange inclusion her list, because she did not yet have something to blame him for. But she would do it. She would find Jaquen and give him the name.

"Girl...Come here a moment."

Arya paused, fighting the urge to curse under her breath. She had to find Jaquen as soon as possible. Slowly she turned to face Tywin.

"Yes, my lord?"

Tywin motioned for her to sit across from him. It was clearly not a suggestion. Slowly, Arya moved toward the table, perching herself on the edge of her chair, in case she needed to make an escape. He seemed to notice.

"Are you planning to run?" Tywin tilted his head to the side. "What do you think I am going to do with you?"

Arya shook her head. She didn't know, but something about this did not feel right. "Do you...mean to take me with you? As your cup bearer."

"I do plan to take you with me, yes," Tywin held her gaze. "What's your name, girl. You never said."

The question threw Arya off guard. He had never asked and she thought he never would. She scrambled for an answer, saying the first name that came to mind. "Jeyne...Poole," she managed.

Tywin's mouth twitched. "You seem uncertain of that."

"I'm not," Arya said firmly. "It's Jeyne Poole."

"You're lying," Tywin said. "Let's try, once again. Tell me your name."

Icy dread spread through Arya's chest, and her hands shook. He looked at her with the eyes of a man who already knew the answer. "Do you...already know my name... my lord?" she murmured.

"Yes," Tywin said. "I do. I may not have known your face, but Lord Baelish did. You must have suspected he would. You got very tense around him."

Arya swallowed a lump in her throat. Then she tried to bolt.

He had predicted this. He stood at the same moment she did, holding her fast by her shoulders. She twisted and struggled in his grip but it did not give. Her size worked against her here. He was much stronger than her.

"Let me go!" she demanded.

"You know I'm not going to do that," Tywin said.

Arya squirmed and tried to wiggle free but his grip only tightened like a vice around her.

"Settle yourself, Lady Arya. You'll never make it out of here without at least one of my soldiers catching you. And they might not treat you as kindly."

Arya's heart beat a fast pace against her chest. She wanted to fight him off, to claw his eyes out. She wanted a wolf's form to break through her small human shape and rip out his throat. But caught in the lion's jaws, she felt more like a helpless girl.

She stilled, drawing in a few deep breaths. He looked down at her. "Are you done?"

Arya gave a small nod.

Tywin kept his grip for a moment longer. Then he let her go. "Good. Sit."

Arya sank slowly into her chair. "You've known...Since Littlefinger came?"

"Yes," Tywin said.

"Then why didn't you mention it earlier?" she asked.

"It was not necessary then," Tywin said. "And I wanted to see how well you would lie."

Arya looked up at him. "How did I lie?"

"Well enough," Tywin said. "For someone who comes from so honest a family." He tilted his head to the side. "You must hate me deeply. A wonder you did not poison my cup."

"I hate your family," Arya agreed. "They killed my father."

"King Joffrey did kill your father, yes," Tywin said. "It was a dreadfully stupid thing to do. Your father could have been the key to making peace with the North. I very much wish he was alive."

"Not as much as I do." Arya murmured.

Tywin observed her for a long moment. "No. Not as much as you do."

"I was there that day," Arya said. "Even after my father gave him his confession, and said everything he wanted, he still took his head because the crowd wanted it." Her hands clenched into fists. "I would kill him if I could."

"I imagine. But you can't," Tywin said.

"Kings die all of the time," Arya said. "Everyone dies."

"You should mind that tongue of yours," Tywin said. "Being so honest is what gets you Starks in trouble."

"I'm already in trouble," Arya said. "You know my name. You won't give me a chance to escape."

"I won't," Tywin agreed.

"Will you send me back to King's Landing?" Arya asked.

"I've thought about it," Tywin said. "I don't suppose it would be a pleasant experience for you. Kept a captive in the Red keep with your sister...Joffrey does despise you for that business with your wolf. I can't imagine he would treat you kindly. I don't think my daughter likes you very much either."

"I don't like her," Arya muttered.

"Yes, but she has more power in this situation, so how you feel doesn't matter," Tywin said.

Arya shivered. Truthfully, the thought of returning to the Red Keep terrified her. What would they do to her there, now that her father was not around to protect her? Sansa was still alive. It amazed her that she had managed it this long. Arya wasn't sure how long she would last without wanting to throw herself from the tower.

"I can offer you an alternative," Tywin said. "One that might be more favorable to you."

Arya raised an eyebrow. "Will you let me go?"

"Of course not. I'm not stupid. But I might need you as a bargaining chip on the battlefield. You could continue to pose as my nameless cup bearer for a time. I won't let you out of my sight and neither will my generals." He leaned forward. "But if you try to run, you will be caught and I will ship you back to King's Landing to be at the mercy of Joffrey and his mother."

Arya pressed her lips together in a tight line. If she could pick her companions, she far preferred Tywin. He seemed to tolerate her at least, even when she was careless with her words. Not to mention, being on the battlefield could put her closer to Robb.

She knew Tywin would not tolerate an escape attempt though. He would keep her carefully guarded.

"Well?" Tywin asked.

Arya nodded once. "I will take your lord."

Tywin nodded once, as if he expected this. "I don't imagine you have any possessions to gather."

Arya shook her head. Everything had been taken from her long ago. Her sword, her her freedom. She had nothing left but her own name. Even that seemed cursed.

"Good," Tywin said. "We ride tonight."

Chapter Text

The girl changed everything about this war, though she did not even know it yet. Suddenly, Tywin had a second bargaining chip-one that no one else knew about. He could bring her out at any time, whenever it most suited his needs.

She was a pawn on his board now, and he knew she must hate him for it. She would hate him more before this war ended, especially if he used her against her family.

There was still the matter of Jaime of course. He could not use the Stark daughters to sue for peace when the Starks had Jaime. If they had no hostage, it would be a different story. He would hold all the cards, and though Robb Stark talked a strong game, he was loyal to his family.

He would not choose war over the lives of his sisters. His mother would not either.

In the meantime, Tywin found Arya Stark far more tolerable company as his cup bearer than any of his generals. They were all worthless, it seemed, when they lost even a few hours of sleep. No one had any ideas on how to fight the young wolf or Stannis Baratheon, who was planning attack on King's Landing very soon.

He found himself staring furiously at a map long after his general's had left. Only Arya remained, collecting empty cups of wine.

"When will Stannis attack king's Landing?" she asked. She was bolder with questions now that he knew her name. She knew that he could not harm her yet.

"Soon," Tywin said. "But if we leave to deal with him, we give your brother too much ground."

Arya shrugged. "Well, you can't deal with my brother before Stannis."

Tywin tilted his head to the side. It seemed the girl wanted to try her hand at strategy, and after the disastrous meeting with his generals, he was inclined to hear anything. "And why is that?"

"I read in a book once..." Arya shifted, almost nervously, as if she had not expected him to actually ask. "When fighting a war on multiple have to consider what those fronts want. That determines the immediate problem."

"I've read the same," Tywin said. "So tell me: What does Stannis want and what does Robb want?"

Let's see how she did when tested.

"Stannis wants the iron throne," Arya said. "Robb wants the north. Stannis is trying to take what is yours. Robb isn't." She thought for a moment. "Well he is if you considered the north yours. It's just not as important as the crownlands."

"Correct," Tywin said. "If your brother takes back the ground we currently have, it is a loss...but not as much as the loss of King's Landing."

"Then doesn't the answer seem obvious," Arya said.

Tywin almost laughed. She really was too bold for her own good. She might already be dead if he had sent her to King's Landing. "If all strategy was that obvious, the war would be an easier game," Tywin said. "First, you assume that Stannis will succeed in his attack. It is possible that he will fail, and if he does, pulling our armies will be for nothing. We have to judge if it's worth the risk. Beyond that, Robb Stark may only want the North but he's willing to attack other places to get it. He is coming for what belongs to us in order to see his demands met. And he has my son, which means he can do so without worry of me killing his sisters. He grows braver with every victory, and if we retreat, he will become braver. He might even be emboldened to march on Casterly Rock."

Arya fell silent. She had clearly not thought of any of this.

"You're well read," Tywin said. "But reading alone never got a man through a battle. You need experience to really know how a war is fought."

"My brother doesn't have experience." She looked up at him. There was a challenge in her eyes. The damn girl really was fearless.

Tywin's eyes narrowed. "There's that tongue of yours again. Be careful. I may not be Joffrey...but I meant when I said that you would regret defying me. Do not forget that. Those who have don't last long."

Arya dropped his gaze and went back to cleaning up the table. There was still a flash of fear in her. If she got much braver, he might have to put an end to that.

It would be a shame. Her boldness amused him.

Tywin kept Arya close, and she had few opportunities to even think about escape. He slept very rarely, when he did, he assigned trusted guards to watch her. She was never alone.

It was suffocating, but better than King's Landing. No one looked at her as a lady. They mostly ignored her. Only Tywin knew her true identity. She wondered his purpose for keeping such a secret. Perhaps he worried that Stark spies would find out about her and alert Robb before he was ready.

He did not seem worried about her listening into any of their strategies, and he let her speak on the meetings when his generals had left. It seemed he was always testing her.

She did not mind being tested. Her obsession with history and warfare was always dismissed as unladylike by Septa Mordane. Her father would discuss it with her, but even he was reluctant to let her dwell on dreams of being a warrior. Tywin let her speak about her interests quite openly. She wasn't used to that.

"It seems you studied your history far more than your sewing," Tywin commented one late evening.

"I was always terrible at sewing," Arya said. "Septa Mordane said I had no eye for detail."

"That doesn't seem to be true," Tywin said. "You remember all of the names of the Targaryens and the battles and their dragons. You even know the names of their swords. Even I cannot boast that."

"It was the wrong kind of detail for me to know," Arya said. "But yes, I remembered. I always wanted a dragon and a named sword."

"Naturally, you got neither," Tywin said.

"That's not true," Arya said. "I had a sword with a name. My brother gave it to me. I called it needle."

Tywin laughed once. His laughs always sounded harsh and joyless, like he hadn't practiced them enough. "I thought you weren't good at sewing."

Arya almost smiled in return. "I was getting good with that needle. I had a teacher. Father called him a dancing master so that no one would know."

"Did he?" Tywin said. "Where is this needle of yours now?"

"One of your men took it from me," Arya said. "Polliver, I think his name was. I don't know if he still has it. It's too small for him anyway."

"True, but he could hardly let a prisoner keep it," Tywin said.

Arya shrugged and looked away. She wanted needle back very much. It was the only thing she had of Jon. It was the only thing she had of any of her family, besides memories.

"In any case, it would not do to give you a sword now," Tywin said.

"Because I'm a girl?" Arya muttered.

"No. Because I don't trust you with one, Lady Arya. You may be a little wolf, but you are a wolf all the same."

In spite of herself, Arya grinned. She liked to be thought of as a wolf. People used to call her wild as an insult but she always saw it as a compliment. Strong women were often wild. So were dragons.

More than once, Arya found herself fighting smiles in Tywin's presence. The head of House Lannister never smiled, but he did seem consistently amused with her. Arya was not sure if that was a good thing or not.

He had his boundaries, of course. She dared not talk about his son, still imprisoned in Robb's camp. She dared not talk of Robb's victories. Most of all, she dared not try to escape. She had seen his kindness for people who broke their word. He hung the lucky ones. Others did not end so well.

In any case, Tywin was not her biggest problem. She worried far more about the guards.

He did not tell the guards who she was-only that she was important and needed to be carefully guarded. She could not be allowed to escape.

But while soldiers could be trusted to keep her from escaping, they could not be trusted in some other matters. Arya noticed them leering at her. They had begun ever since they found out she was a girl. More than one asked if she was a woman grown. She did not reply.

A man named Ryder was the very worst of them. He asked her all sorts of queries about who she was, but also far more invasive questions. She had never had anyone talk to her in such a way before, because she was Arya Stark and her father would have killed the man who did it. But her identity was still a secret to others. To the guards she could be anyone.

She did not sleep when he was near in case she had to claw his eyes out. She dug her nails into her palms and forced herself to stay awake, glaring at him in silence.

She began to drift during meetings as he became one of her more constant guards. Occasionally when someone asked for wine, they had to speak twice. Her mind began to blur from exhaustion.

"You're not sleeping, are you?" Tywin asked.

"I sleep when I can," Arya said.

"And is there a reason you cannot?" Tywin asked.

Arya pressed her fist against the side of her leg as she lied. "No. No reason, my lord."

She would not sink to asking him for help. She was a Stark and his prisoner. The wolf should not ask for help from the lion who caught her.

That night, she sat in the corner of her small tent as always, watching Ryder. He smiled back at her as her eyelids drooped. "Tired, girl? You haven't been sleeping well."

"I'm not," Arya muttered.

"You can sleep if you want," Ryder smirked. "I won't hurt you."

She dug her nails into her skin so hard they bled. "I'm not..." her eyelids were so heavy. "I'm not..."

She woke after a few minutes of sleep, which enough for Ryder to drag her from her tent an off into the shadows of the brush. She recognized it at once and lashed out, raking her nails down his face, leaving bloody lines behind. He screamed and threw her to the ground, drawing a knife. She tried to scramble back but he pinned her down, pressing his blade against her throat.

"You're not going to make a sound you little shit. You're going to be quiet or I'll tell Lord Tywin you tried to escape."

"And I'll tell him you were lying," Arya spat.

"Why would he believe you?" Ryder asked. He pressed his blade threateningly to her throat. "I don't know who you are, but you're a prisoner of some kind. What reason would he have to believe you?"

Arya gritted her teeth together, biting back her name as it rose to her lips. It wouldn't matter if she said it. He wouldn't believe her.

"What's all this?" someone asked from nearby.

Arya looked to the side to see two soldiers on patrol. One of them...One of them was Polliver. Arya could see her sword shining at his hip. He had kept it.

Ryder leapt off of her. "Just having a little fun."

"We are not," Arya snapped. "I'm Lord Tywin's prisoner. If you harm me, you'll be punished."

"Will we?" Polliver tilted his head to the side. Malice glittered in his eyes. "But I saw you escaping. We decided to teach you a lesson."

Arya hissed as he walked over to her. When he leaned down to touch her face she turned and bit down, hard on his hand. He screamed and drew back and as he did she seized her sword from his scabbard.

Needle felt familiar in her hand. Though they had parted long ago, she remembered her grip, and she remembered her teacher's words. Every one of them.

What do we say to the god of death?

Not today.

The other guard came at her from behind to grab her. She spun the sword and jammed it backward on instinct. The point sunk through his gut with little resistance.

As the nameless guard fell back, Ryder lunged forward slashing at her with his knife. The blade cut a streak across her right cheek and she backed away-right into Polliver. He turned her and punched her hard in the gut, sending her to her knees. Arya almost blacked out.

No. Stay awake. Stay awake.

She gripped her sword with all her might.

"Little bitch," Ryder muttered. "Hold her down for me."

"Stop," a voice cut through the night, like thunder from a distant, raging storm. Arya recognized the anger in Tywin's voice and she wondered if it was at her. Perhaps he thought she had tried to escape.

"My lord," both of the soldiers stood at attention.

"Would you like to explain what you're doing?" Tywin asked.

"She was trying to escape," Ryder said. "We were teaching her a lesson. You said that escape was unacceptable."

"I said that if she escaped, you should bring her straight to me." Tywin looked down at Arya, an unreadable coldness in his gaze.

She shook her head unable to speak from the blow to the stomach. I didn't, she thought. I did not try to escape.

Tywin held out a hand. "Give me that sword, girl."

Arya handed over needle, slowly. She wondered for a moment if he might punish her with it. But then he turned and stuck the point through Ryder's throat. Arya's eyes widened as he coughed up blood, his eyes rolling back in his head. Tywin drew the blade back and he fell to his knees, gasping for breath that would not come.

Polliver's eyes widened and he took a step back as Tywin faced him. "The girl is valuable to me unharmed. Therefore, anyone who harms her will receive the same treatment. Consider this a rare warning from me."

"Yes, my lord," Polliver muttered.

"I'll take that sheath at your hip," Tywin said. "You won't need this sword. It's a child's toy anyway."

Polliver handed it over without question. Then he hurried away as fast as he could.

Tywin observed the blade for a moment longer before returned it to his sheath. "You were right to name this sword needle. It's quite thin."

"I didn't..." Arya had regained enough breath to speak. "I didn't run. He was lying."

"I know," Tywin said. "And you lied to me about the reason for your exhaustion today. Don't do that again. I despise being lied to."

Arya nodded once.

"Come." Tywin gestured for her to follow him. "We best see to that cut on your face."

The cut was minor. It might leave a scar, but it would be barely perceptible to the naked eye. That was good. Tywin needed her well if he was going to use her as a bargaining chip.

The girl watched him warily as he sat down at his desk, placing her sword in front of him. She had suspicious grey eyes. She kept looking to the sword, like a child in want of their favorite toy.

No...not a toy. She had known how to use it. One man was already dead when Tywin arrived. It seemed the girl was not just playing at being a knight from a song. She was willing to kill when necessary.

That made her both more dangerous and more fascinating to Tywin.

"The guards will not give you trouble anymore," Tywin said. "If they do, they'll be deaf fools who did not heed a warning, and I will see them punished for it."

Arya nodded once. She was rather silent. He wondered if the attack had scarred her. She was still very young. Thirteen, if he remembered correctly. Younger than Joffrey by two years. Tywin forgot that sometimes because she was quite a bit smarter.

"Did they take your tongue when they attacked you?" Tywin asked.

"No, my lord," Arya murmured.

"Did they take anything else?"

Arya shook her head. "They did not get the chance."

Tywin nodded once. "I will be awake for some time if you wish to rest. I don't want you knocking over goblets tomorrow during the meeting."

Arya swallowed thickly. "Yes, my lord." She glanced once more at her sword. "What...will you do with needle?"

"Keep it somewhere out of your reach," Tywin said. "But it will be safe enough. You have my word."

Arya nodded once. Tywin saw more words jumping at her lips but she was hesitant to say them. Hesitancy did not become her.

"You want to say something else. Speak," Tywin said. "I'm in no mood to guess."

Arya looked away, down at her hands. "Nothing...just..." She released a breath. "Thank you, my lord. For intervening."

Ah, so that was it. Retorts and dangerous comments came so easily to her, but thanks stuck in her throat, like she had never tasted the words before. Tywin supposed it was not often a wolf had cause to thank a lion-particularly a captured wolf.

"You do not need to thank me," he said. "You're too important for me to leave you to my men. They could have damaged you, and my son could pay the price. Understand?"

Arya nodded, seeming satisfied with that answer. It put her out of his debt.

"Good." Tywin said. "Now sleep. I won't ask again."

She obeyed, finding another corner of the tent where she could rest. Tywin kept an eye on her until her breathing steadied- a clear sign that she had fallen asleep. Then he returned to his papers.

This had been a very long war for both of them, and there was still a lot of war yet to come.

Chapter Text

Lord Baelish turned out to be useful after all. His negotiations with house Tyrell, particularly with Lady Olenna and Lady Margery, earned the Lannisters the army they needed to crush Stannis from behind at the battle of Blackwater. Meanwhile, Tywin could leave most of his army in the Riverlands to hold the line against the north.

One threat was dealt with. The Baratheons were gone or scattered and the Tyrells brought to heel. It left them an opportunity to focus on the Starks.

Arya Stark had clearly done the math on this fact. She looked more nervous of late as she listened to the battle meetings. He caught her glancing over her shoulder whenever she heard mention of her brother. There was a possibility that the war would turn, and Tywin imagined she was picturing the rest of her family's heads on spikes beside her father's.

She had every right to be worried, because the Stark boy had recently made some very crucial missteps in this war. First, he had executed Richard Karstark for killing two young Lannister hostages. It was a proper punishment for disobeying orders, but it lost him a sizeable house of allies.

Second, he had married some low born girl for love rather than keep his vow to Lord Frey. That was unexpectedly dishonorable of Robb Stark, though expectedly stupid of a seventeen year old boy. It gave Tywin satisfaction to see that the boy was not immune to incompetence. Walder Frey did not appreciate this slight, and was more than willing to speak with Tywin on the matter.

Third, he had gone and given the Greyjoy ward power in his army and the Greyjoy boy turned on him and joined his father in rebellion. Robb Stark's home was under attack and his younger brothers held hostage. He was stupid to trust a Greyjoy in the first place.

Fourth, he had failed to notice the turn of one of his other allies. Roose Bolton had long been disillusioned with this boy king, and sought a claim to warden of the north.

The noose was tightening on the Young wolf, on and off the battlefield, and he did not even know it. Tywin knew he had an opportunity to in this war. It would not be an honorable ending, but that mattered little to Tywin. He simply wanted to see this war finished so that they could focus on preparing for winter.

There would be problems following the fall of House Stark, of course. The North was stubborn and would be difficult without a Stark in Winterfell. They Greyjoys would also be a problem. But Robb Stark would never agree to peace after his father's death. Especially not when he still had Jaime.

His cupbearer in disguise knew nothing of these plans of his. She would find out eventually, and hate him deeply when she did. He did not mind that. Most people hated him. But if she grew too bold in her anger, he would have to put her down.

"Do you need something my lord?" Arya asked. She had noticed him watching her.

"No." Tywin rubbed his chin. "Actually...yes. An answer to a question." He leaned forward. "Your brother Robb. Were you close with him?"

Arya observed him suspiciously. "I'm not sure I want to answer that, my lord."

"No, but you will," Tywin said.

The girl looked down at her feet, as if thinking of a lie. But then she settled against it. "Yes. We were all close. I was always closest with Jon though."

"Your bastard brother?"

"Don't call him that." Arya's eyes seemed to flare with grey fire.

"Why not? That's what he is," Tywin said. "There is no sense in lying with kinder words."

Arya did not reply. She often became sullen when she did not have a retort. It reminded Tywin of Cersei when she was a child...and Cersei now, for that matter.

"If your brother had to choose between his sisters and his war, what would he choose?" Tywin asked. "In your honest opinion."

Arya did not look quite comfortable with this question. "I'm...not sure." She looked up at him. "He loves us dearly, but he loves the north too. He wants to do right by the north in father's absence. mother is a Tully. Their words are family, duty, honor."

"Family first," Tywin said. "A sentimental notion. Will he follow your mother's words? Or your father's?"

"I don't know," Arya said. "If he refused to bend...would you kill me, my lord?"

She was a sharp girl. She knew that just because she was a lady did not make her immortal.

Anyone can be killed.

"That depends," Tywin said at last.

The flaps of the tent parted and Kevan rushed inside, panting for breath. "Tywin. We have a visitor."

"Good or bad?" Tywin asked.

"Good. Very good." Kevan held the flap aside. Tywin was stunned to see Jaime enter the tent.

He stood abruptly, nearly knocking back his chair. Tywin was not one to let his emotions get the better of him, but here, he could not hide his shock. Jaime had the gall to smile.

"I'm back."

He was. And with his arrival, the tide shifted again.

Arya was not an expert at war, but she did know the significance of Jaime Lannister entering the tent that evening. If he was here, he was not her brother's hostage. Tywin had more than once implied that Jaime was the only reason he could not harm Arya or Sansa, yet here he was, free.

"How did you get here?" Tywin asked.

"Walked a rather long way. With a very tall woman as my guide. You should see that she is properly compensated. She did a fine job protecting me on the way." Jaime Lannister sat down in front of his father's desk. "Ah yes. Catelyn Stark sends her regards.'

"Catelyn Stark let you go?" Tywin asked.

"Yes. She wished for me to negotiate for the release of her daughters," Jaime said. "I don't think her son would approve. None the less, if we consider this an exchange of hostages, it would be in good faith to return at least one girl."

Arya looked up, hardly daring to breathe. Return one girl. Could she truly return home? The thought made her whole body feel lighter.

"It would be...if we didn't still have a war to win," Tywin said. "My willingness to release her daughters depends entirely on whether or not they will accept my peace terms. Releasing you was stupid."

"It's wonderful to see you too father," Jaime said. "I'm all right, by the way. Unharmed. I'm sure you were wondering."

Tywin gave Jaime a glare that would have shattered most people like glass. But Jaime was Tywin's son. He was invincible to such things. Funny, for as much as Tywin claimed to care for his son's wellbeing, he was awfully cold to him. Arya's father was never so cold to any of his children.

"As it happens, I was wondering," Tywin said. "I've been doing my level best to win this war without provoking Robb Stark to harm you in anyway. You've been an obstacle for many months now. So don't be smug with me."

"You're full of warm words as always," Jaime retorted.

"Warm words don't win wars."

"I hear they can be nice from family."

"If you want warmth, you're welcome to continue south to King's Landing. I still have work to do here."

For a moment, a silence fell between them. Arya realized she had been completely still for the last minute, frozen in the middle of cleaning a goblet. Jaime seemed to notice and she quickly went back to cleaning.

"You cupbearer is rather attentive to our conversations," Jaime said. "Have you considered he might be a spy?"

"She is not a spy," Tywin said, seemingly glad for a change in topic. "Come here, girl."

Arya swallowed hard, cautiously approaching the table. She felt the Kingslayer watching her, as if trying to place her face.

"Jaime, this is Arya Stark of Winterfell," Tywin said. "I believe you've met."

Jaime's eyebrows shot up. "Seven hells, it is. I didn't recognize her."

Arya cleared her throat. "That's... not surprising. We never spoke at Winterfell, my lord."

"No. I think I saw you running around with a helmet on in the courtyard once," Jaime said.

Arya's mouth twitched. "That does sound like me, ser."

"We have something in common, you and me," Jaime said. "I was a hostage to your family and now you're a hostage to mine."

"But my mother wanted you to negotiate for my return, doesn't she?" Arya said.

"Yes." Jaime glanced at Tywin. "But you see who I'm negotiating with."

Tywin did not take the bait of Jaime's comment, and he did not cut their conversation short either. Arya felt bold enough to ask another question.

"What else... what else did my mother say to you?"

"She insulted me a great deal. But at the end of the day, she let me go because she worried for you. And your sister of course." Jaime tilted his head to the side. "No one had heard a word about you. Some people thought you might be dead."

"As you can see, she's not," Tywin said. "For now, she poses as my cupbearer."

"An odd choice. Why not send her back to King's Landing?"

"I don't trust Cersei with her," Tywin said.

"Fair," Jaime said. "It's still an unusual job for a hostage."

"She was posing as my cupbearer when I discovered her identity. And she's good at it. I find her company more tolerable than most of my men," Tywin said. "She doesn't waste my time with incompetence."

"Really." Jaime glanced up at Arya. "You know, that's the closet thing you'll get to a compliment from him. You should keep it close."

"Your time as a prisoner really has not sobered you," Tywin said. "You still take nothing seriously."

"If I took everything seriously, life would be much more depressing," Jaime said.

"This is war, Jaime. Better to be depressed than losing," Tywin said flatly.

Jaime tilted his head to the side. "What happens if we're both? I've heard Stannis Baratheon fell. That's good news. But the Young Wolf has been outplaying you."

"I have a way to end this war. Multiple ways, in fact, now that you've returned." Tywin nodded at Arya. "She has just become much more useful bargaining chip. Robb Stark no longer has anything he can use against me."

Arya swallowed hard. It seemed she would no longer be a cup bearer soon. In fact, depending on negotiations, she may not even be alive soon.

Arya dared not ask about Tywin's ways to end the war for the rest of the day. She kept her head down and her tongue silent. It wasn't that she wasn't curious. She wanted to know more than anything. But she feared for the lives of her family.

And for her own as well.

He noticed her silence. Tywin Lannister was an observant man and he missed nothing. "You're quiet today. I can see you turning over the future in your head."

"I'm not," Arya replied. "I'm not thinking about anything."

"You're lying to me again. What did I say about lying to me?"

Arya looked up at him. "Not to do it."

"Good. I'm glad your memory is still sound." Tywin indicated the chair in front of his table. "Sit."

Arya slowly put down the pitcher and went to sit down. Her heart hammered against her rib cage. Foolishly, she had hoped he would forget all about her if she was just silent. She hoped she might turn into a shadow. Shadows did not have to face their fate.

"Ask the question you've been wondering," Tywin said.

Arya bit her lip. "How can can you end this war? You said you have more than one way."

"I do," Tywin said.

"Is there a way that does not end with most of my family dead?" Arya asked. She felt her hands shake as she asked the question. If he answered 'no' there was little she could do to stop him. Tywin was something like a storm-inevitable and merciless.

Tywin observed her for a long moment, letting the question hang in the silence. Then he nodded once. "Yes. There is a way."

Arya released a breath.

"Of course, I don't know if your brother will take it. He has proven very stubborn," Tywin said. "Until Jaime returned, I was inclined to go with a different option. But Catelyn Stark's love of her children has bought them one last chance to accept peace."

"Peace?" Arya asked.

"I'm willing to treat this Northern Rebellion the way Robert Baratheon did the Greyjoy rebellion," Tywin said. "It is much easier to keep a Stark in Winterfell than risk dividing the north so close to winter. And speaking of the Greyjoys, I would prefer the Starks deal with their attack themselves. I don't want to waste the soldiers on it. But if Robb Stark wants peace, he'll do it my way. No negotiation."

"And what is your way, my lord?" Arya asked.

"Guess," Tywin said.

It was another test. He did like testing her. Arya sat forward a bit in her seat. "The North would remain a part of the seven kingdoms, loyal to the realm. Robb would be the Warden of the North on the condition that he never rise up again, or else you would replace him with someone else. If he accepted, he would be required to execute any northern lords who did not to prevent further fighting in the north. And..." Arya trailed off.

Tywin tilted his head to the side. "And?"

Arya's fists clenched as she thought of the Greyjoy rebellion. They had crushed their armies soundly, and her father had taken on Theon as a ward to be sure it wouldn't happen again. Arya forgot sometimes, but Theon was very much a hostage in Winterfell.

"You would keep a hostage," Arya said. "To kill if my brother ever did rebel again."

A shadow of a mirthless smile crossed Tywin's face. "You are a smart girl."

Tywin did not say it, but Arya knew that he meant to take her as his hostage, if negotiations went well. She would be called a ward, but she would be a captive in King's Landing. And she wasn't sure how kindly the Lannister family would treat a wolf in their halls. They hadn't treated Sansa's wolf kindly, after all. Or Sansa herself.

"I will send out a raven tonight," Tywin said. "And the young wolf and I will meet. I will bring you with me. You may be the difference between your brother choosing the right path or the wrong one. I promise you...if he rejects my offer, he and your mother will die. It won't be clean. It won't be honorable. But it will end the war, and that's all I care about right now."

"If he chooses the wrong path, you'll have to kill me too," Arya muttered. "Because if they die, I would spend the rest of my life trying to kill you."

It was a bold comment. Too bold. An icy silence hung between them but Arya did not shrink. Not this time.

"It so happens that if he refuses my offer, I will kill you, girl," Tywin said. "So I suppose I won't have anything to fear."

Arya shivered. Of course, that was why Tywin would bring her with him to negotiate: so that he could use her death as a threat against Robb and her mother.

"If your brother had to choose between his sisters and his war, what would he choose?"

Arya still did not know the answer to that question.

She raised her chin. "I'm not afraid to die."

"Yes, you are," Tywin said. "Everyone is afraid to die. Even if you weren't, you fear the death of your family. This is not just about you. It is about them as well. Think on that before we ride tomorrow."

Arya hated him in that moment. The way he saw through her. The certainty of his words. She always wanted to be a hero in a story, utterly unafraid to die a glorious death in battle.

Yet, those were only stories. The heroes probably cried out in terror at the moment of their demise.

And even her father had looked afraid before the end.

Chapter Text

Through letters, Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark agreed on terms of meeting. They agreed on how many men they would bring. They agreed on the place. Tywin sent spies to be sure he would not be tricked by the boy. Robb was far more willing to use tricks than his father in the field of battle. Tywin respected that to a point, but he would not fall for anymore of his games.

In this case, Robb Stark kept his word. From the hill, Tywin could see the few Stark tents pitched. It seemed to be the agreed upon amount.

Tywin had brought Jaime with him, mostly because he fully expected the Stark boy to lie and claim he had his son hostage still. Beyond that, he brought the best soldiers in his guard. And the girl.

She sat on a horse between him and Jaime. Her face was vacant and calm, as if she was not worried at all about the discussion to come, but Tywin could see the pale white of her knuckles as she gripped her saddle. She was afraid. For her family and for herself.

Tywin would not enjoy having to kill the girl, if it came to that. He would do it himself, and he would make it clean and quick. But it would be a shame to lose her as his cup bearer. Hopefully, the threat of losing a daughter would compel Catelyn Stark to see his side.

In his mind, he already knew how some of this negotiation would go. They would call him dishonorable, as most Starks did. As if honor had any place at all in war. But in the end, if they were smart, they would accept his terms.

Their lives-the survival of the Stark family-depended on this night.

It was the first time Tywin had actually seen Robb Stark, face to face. He looked more like his mother than his father, with hints of Tully red in his brown hair. He had the Stark eyes though-the cold grey of the North. Tywin recognized those same eyes in Arya Stark.

His expression was fierce when Tywin entered, but he remembered his courtesies. This was a truce and there would be no blood shed in this tent. It would be a tremendous dishonor if there was, and no Stark would break such a vow.

Tywin would if it suited him. So would the Freys and the Boltons. This meeting would determine if he needed their services.

"I was surprised to receive your letter," Robb Stark said. "You know my terms. Unless you wish to accept them, there will not be peace."

He took a hard stance to begin. It was smart and would intimidate most men. But Tywin Lannister was not most men. "I've read your terms. At one point, perhaps, you had the leverage to bargain for them. Now, you do not."

"We've won many victories against your armies," Robb said. "A few losses but nothing compared to yours. Why shouldn't we keep fighting and winning?"

"I suppose it depends on how much value you put on your sisters' lives," Tywin said.

"You may have my sisters, but we have your son," Robb muttered. "So careful about making threats."

There was the lie Tywin was waiting for. He spoke with such confidence that Tywin might have believed him if he did not know better. "Really? And where is it you are keeping my son?"

"I wouldn't tell you that, Lannister" Robb said.

"That's all right. You don't have to," Tywin said. "Because you don't have my son." He glanced over his shoulder and Jaime entered the tent, removing his helm. He looked more the part of Lannister now that he had cut his hair and shaved his beard. He was no longer ragged from his time as a prisoner, and he looked more than a little bit smug as he stared down the King in the North.

"Hello again, Lord Stark."

Robb glared at him and Catelyn Stark gripped the edge of the table. "Did your son also mention that I was the one who sent him?" she asked. "Or did he break that vow?"

"Always assuming the worst about me, aren't you?" Jaime asked. "Yes, as it happens, I did tell my father that you sent me, and what you wanted in return."

"And?" Lady Stark looked to Tywin. She wanted her daughters very much. Her love of them had driven her to a tremendously stupid decision that worked very much in Tywin's favor.

"And it is only because you returned my son that I offered this meeting," Tywin said. "To discuss the future of this war and your family in Westeros."

"Don't pretend you hold the cards here, Lannister," Robb said. "We still have more victories-"

"Victories on the battlefield are not the only way to win wars," Tywin said. "I assure you, that I know how to win wars without them. You've proven a capable commander, willing to take calculated risks. I respect your efforts on the battlefield, but I will not entertain them anymore."

"If you can win the war, then why offer peace at all?" Robb asked. "I know your history, Lord Tywin. You've broken many people who defied you and your family and you did so without mercy. If you wish to make peace with me, there must be a reason."

"Of course there is," Tywin said. "Keeping a Stark in Winterfell is always preferable. If I place anyone else at that seat, it will split the North. I'll have to handle the Greyjoy rebellion on my own as well. I'll do it, but I prefer not to waste more Lannister lives on those tiresome fools. According to your own words, winter is coming, and I don't intend to fight the north in the cold."

"Then perhaps you should give us our independence," Robb said. "And you won't have to do so."

"How well do you think you'd do in independence?" Tywin said. "The north has grown dependent on resources from the south during winter over the many years belonging to the realm. Since you have been in war, you have not been able to gather as many crops before they turn. Without help from the crown your people will starve. How will independence taste to them then?"

"I don't claim it wouldn't be hard," Robb said. "But north men are hard people, used to dealing with cold. We will make do."

"Perhaps you will, and when the summer comes again, my armies will be stronger," Tywin said. "This is assuming I let you live until the summer, which I would not."

"I cannot bend the knee to the boy who murdered my father. It is out of the question," Robb said.

"Then let me give you a reason to bring it back into the question." Tywin stood, snapping his fingers at Jaime, who opened the tent flap again. Arya Stark stepped into the room.

The effect was immediate. Catelyn stood abruptly and Robb Stark's mask dropped. He had hit a nerve with both of them, and thus it revealed their weakness.

Now, it was time to see how useful a pawn Arya Stark could be.

It had been nearly a year since Arya had seen her mother and she wanted nothing more than to run to her. The moment her mother stood, she stepped forward on instinct. But Tywin grasped the scruff of her tunic and forced her to his side. His hand was like a vice and she could not hope to squirm away.

I will not be afraid, she told herself. I will be strong.

Yet her hands shook.

"Arya." Her mother's voice cracked, and tears rose to her blue eyes. But those tears burned like fire when she looked up at Tywin. "If you have harmed her-"

"Calm yourself, Lady Stark. I haven't harmed her," Tywin said. "You can ask her yourself if you wish."

Robb clenched the edge of the table hard, looking like he wanted to overturn it. But he stayed seated. "Arya...have you been mistreated at all?"

"No," Arya replied. "I'm all right. Promise."

"There, you see?" Tywin said. "You can't say the same of some of the Lannister hostages you took. Your men killed them."

"And I punished them for it, as you might have heard," Robb said.

"I know. Which is why I did not punish the girl in kind," Tywin said. "Now, let us be clear: I hold every card. I have two Stark daughters, one in King's Landing and one here. I have a larger army, now that we have allied with the Tyrells. I have more resources for when the winter comes. This is my last offer." Arya felt his grip tighten on her tunic. "If you do not accept my terms of peace I will keep Sansa Stark as a hostage. I will kill this one. And I will destroy your house."

Arya's mother looked as if she might leap across the table and claw Tywin's eyes out. "My daughters are innocent of any wrong. You will not-"

"Wars are full of innocent casualties. If ending the war means less Lannister lives lost, I will gladly kill an innocent," Tywin said flatly. He was calm as ever, but inevitable as a storm. There was no bluff in his voice. He would kill Arya. Whether he "enjoyed her company" or not, he would slit her throat if her brother rejected his terms.


Arya looked up at her brother. Robb used to help her practice with the bow and arrow when Septa Mordane wasn't looking. He always complimented her needle work even when it was awful. When she was little, he used to take her for rides on his horse because she loved riding.

Now she was being used against him and she hated it. She hated Tywin Lannister for making her his pawn. She could see the pain in Robb's eyes as he mulled over the awful decision. But if he did not take wouldn't just be Arya's life. He would die too. Her mother would die too. She had no doubt that Tywin Lannister had a way to destroy them.

"What are your terms," Robb finally said. "Exactly."

"You will end this rebellion and renew your pledge to Joffrey as Warden of the North," Tywin said. "You will take your soldiers and destroy the Greyjoy rebellion. If you accept the terms, I will return Sansa Stark home."

"And Arya?" Robb asked.

"I will take Arya as a ward to my house, to ensure your loyalty," Tywin said. The words fell on Arya like a death sentence of sorts. She had known all along that this was his plan, but the notion frightened her none the less. "She will be treated well enough, but if I hear any more talk of northern independence, she will suffer for it."

Her mother let out a shuddering breath. She must have known that a hostage would be part of the terms. None the less, it seemed to deflate her.

"How do I know that Joffrey will not kill me like my father if I go to King's Landing?" Robb said.

"He will not," Tywin said. "I will be present this time. My daughter could not handle him but I can. If you bend the knee, you will return to the north unharmed."

"King Aerys said the same thing of my grandfather and uncle," Robb said.

"I'm not king Aerys," Tywin said.

"No. But you're a Lannister. I don't trust you either," Robb said. He shot an icy glare at Jaime. "You lie and plot. You break oaths."

"What an awful oath to break, wasn't it," Jaime muttered. He had been largely silent during this debate, letting his father handle the negotiation. He was the eldest son, but he did not quite command Tywin's raw power. "A shame I killed such a kind man. King Aerys, the kindly king."

"You are still without honor," Robb retorted.

"Honor." Tywin laughed once. It was an utterly joyless sound. "Honor is idealistic nonsense, boy. A trick that men use to justify their actions. A trick they use to justify going to war. But the world does not operate by rules of honor. It never has. The reason why the Lannisters have endured for so long is because we recognize that. I suggest you do the same."

Robb's jaw tightened. He looked from their mother to Arya to Tywin. She could see his honor and his devotion to family tearing at the corners of his mind, threatening to pull him apart.

"Robb," Arya murmured to get his attention. Robb looked down at her. "Father died for honor too. You need to live. The north needs you."

Robb closed his eyes, resting his forehead against his closed fists. Tywin did not say a word. He did not need to. He truly had all of the cards in his hand, ready to play no matter the response.

"I..." Robb exhaled. "I would like to request some time to think on your proposal."

"You have until dawn," Tywin said. "No longer."

"May I speak with my sister alone?" Robb asked.

"No," Tywin said. "You may speak with her after you have given me your answer. For now, I'll keep her with me."

Arya's mother gritted her teeth together. "You truly are a monstrous sort of man, Lord Tywin."

Tywin looked back to her, unmoved. "Yes. That is why I'm still alive." He steered Arya toward the tent exit. "I'll return at dawn."

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark had always known Tywin Lannister to be a cruel man, but to dangle her daughter in front of her, only to tear her made her furious beyond belief. It was agony to watch Arya from across the table. Her little girl, trapped in a Lannister's grip. How frightened she must be.

Tywin Lannister would kill her without hesitation if it suited him. Which was why Catelyn could not believe Robb was even considering such an option.

"We cannot leave Sansa and Arya to his mercy," Catelyn said. "He will kill Arya and there is nothing we can do."

"Aye. And whose fault is that?" Robb snapped. "If we had Jaime Lannister still, it would all be a bluff. But we don't. I have nothing to use against him. I don't even have those Lannister boys. Not that he would trade for them."

"I was thinking of the girls," Catelyn murmured.

"You were thinking too hard of them. We could have gotten them back if we just kept winning," Robb said. "At best, we will get Sansa back. But no matter what we choose Arya suffers. She either dies or she becomes a damned hostage."

"I know that, Robb," Catelyn said. "I heard his terms. You don't think I know what I've done?" She shook her head. "I was desperate. Bran and Rickon held hostage by Theon and Sansa and Arya with the Lannisters. I needed to try."

"It didn't do much good, did it?" Robb asked.

"It did something," Catelyn said. "Tywin Lannister offered us peace. He would not have done so if I hadn't given him Jaime. And if he spoke truly, he had some dark plot to kill you and break the northern army. I don't doubt him. He is not a man to bluff."

"So you think I should be grateful that he offered peace?" Robb asked.

"Yes. It is something he rarely does," Catelyn said. "It's only your name that bought you this talk. He recognizes that it is easier to keep a Stark in Winterfell, especially with winter on its way."

"Aye. And keep a Stark in his halls to kill if we step out of line," Robb said. "What happens if this is a trap?"

"Perhaps it is," Catelyn said. "Perhaps it's not. Are you willing to risk your sister's life for it?"

Robb looked down at his feet. "The men of the north put their faith in me. Their trust in me."

"And if they are truly loyal, they will follow you in retreat," Catelyn said. "Tell them that you must crush the Greyjoys and save Bran and Rickon. Tell them it's is more important to protect home. Tell them that rebellion is unwise when winter is coming and crops must be gathered." She placed a hand on his cheek. "Look to the future. Your father is dead. I do not want to see any of my children join him."

Robb looked down at her with the eyes of a boy who had recently realized that his mother was not perfect, nor always right. He had lost his faith and her and she knew she would not get that back. He truly had grown up. It was a painful thing for Catelyn to see, yet she was so proud of how far he had come.

"You promised me that we would kill them all one day," he said at last.

"One day, we will," Catelyn vowed. "But there is wisdom in patience, Robb. And revenge will never be worth more than family. You know your father would say the same."

"Father is not here...because of Joffrey," Robb said. "What would he say if I bent the knee to him?"

"What would he say if you allowed your sister to die?" Catelyn asked.

Robb fell silent. To that, he did not seem to have an answer.

The camp was quiet that night, and tense beyond belief. Only Jaime's father seemed calm as he sat at his desk, writing letters. It seemed Tywin often wrote letters these days, often with the purpose of starting and ending wars. He had such a reach over the kingdom that a single raven from him could alter the course of the country.

Jaime could never imagine having that sort of power. His father wanted him to become 'the man he was born to be'. But if that meant becoming like Tywin, he wasn't sure he could manage it. His father had ten times his ambition and ten times his ruthlessness. Jaime had no desire for power or Casterly Rock. But even though he had donned a white cloak, his father still considered him his heir.

"You're calm tonight," Jaime said. "You don't seem worried about their decision."

"It doesn't matter either way," Tywin said. "I will be able to end this war whether they accept my terms or not. One road is slightly cleaner, but I have a plan for both scenarios."

"Naturally," Jaime said. "But I'm sure you have a preference."

Tywin looked up at him. "Why would I have a preference?"

His father's expression was stony and unreadable-to everyone except perhaps his children. Jaime had studied his father for a long time, and he knew the nearly imperceptible difference in his moods.

Jaime shrugged. "Why take Arya as a ward rather than Sansa?"

"What do you mean?" Tywin asked.

"If Robb Stark accepts peace. Why take Arya as a ward? Sansa would technically be more valuable. She's the eldest Stark daughter. And she's already in King's Landing. From what I've seen, she seems much more docile than her younger sister. So why not keep her?"

"I offered Sansa back to the Starks because she is more valuable. It makes them more likely to accept the offer," Tywin said.

"So you do have a preference," Jaime said.

Tywin set down his pen, leaning back in his chair. "What is the purpose of these questions, Jaime?"

"Maybe I'm just trying to figure out how your mind works. You've always encouraged me to follow in your footsteps," Jaime said.

"Don't play games with me," Tywin said. "Say what you mean or leave me be."

Jaime held his gaze. "You like that girl. Arya Stark. You don't want to kill her."

He expected his father to deny it. But then, Tywin was always a brutally honest sort of person, even with himself. "No. I don't want to kill her," he said. "But I will. I will do what needs to be done, whatever the Stark's decide. What I think of the girl doesn't matter."

Jaime exhaled. His father really never let weakness show. He wondered if Lord Tywin Lannister still experienced emotion like everyone else or if his heart had turned into an empty husk from years without use.

"If you truly want to know how my mind works, then know this," Tywin said. "It's never personal feelings or glory or goals that matter. It's about the family. It's about the Lannister name. If you want to truly serve the family, you must be willing to put aside every one of your selfish emotions."

Jaime shook his head, a mirthless smile on his face. "That's a nice idea father. You should tell that to Tyrion."

Tywin's gaze hardened, and in an instant, Jaime knew he had over stepped. "Get out. Now."

Jaime did not protest. He wanted to escape the conversation anyway.

It was true; his father wanted nothing more than to serve the family. Personal emotions didn't matter, he said. Personal wishes and grudges should be cast away. But those words didn't seem to matter when it came to his blind hatred of Tyrion. Tyrion would always be the breaking point for Lord Tywin Lannister's rationality.

At least, Tywin had a breaking point. That meant he was as human as everyone else.

Arya felt smaller than usual sitting on the floor of her small tent. It was late, but she knew she would not sleep. She would spend the whole night waiting for the dawn...waiting for her brother's decision.

She wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. How much would it hurt and where would she go afterwards? Would the god of death be a man, or a shadow?

There is only one thing we say to the god of death. Not today.

"Not today," she muttered, tucking her knees into her chest. "Not today."

The tent flap brushed back and she tensed, wondering if Tywin had come for her again. Perhaps, Robb had made his decision. Perhaps this was her last night.

Instead, Jaime Lannister entered the tent.

She started to rise but he held out a hand. "Don't get up."

Arya swallowed hard, looking away. "Does your father need something, ser?"

"No," Jaime said.

Arya looked up at him suspiciously. "Do you?"

"Not particularly," Jaime said. "But I find myself unable to sleep tonight. I guessed you might be awake as well."

"Of course I'm awake," Arya said indignantly. "Why would I sleep if I could die tomorrow?"

"Hence my guess," Jaime said. "You shouldn't worry too much, my lady. I doubt your brother will sacrifice you for his war. He seems like a good lad."

"Robb is worth ten of any of you," Arya said firmly. Fear of death made her bolder. Why should she fear speaking her mind when her throat could be cut tomorrow?

"Depends on what you count as worth. But yes, probably," Jaime tilted his head to the side. "Do you speak so bluntly with my father?"

"Yes. When I'm feeling brave," Arya said.

Jaime laughed once, sitting down on the stool in front of her. "I would call that brave or stupid. Most people wouldn't dare say a single word against him. It's a wonder he likes you so much."

Arya's brow furrowed. "He doesn't like me. I'm his hostage."

"His hostage whom he keeps as a cup bearer," Jaime said. "If he didn't like you, he would have sent you off to King's Landing long ago. My father doesn't keep company with people he doesn't like."

Arya did not reply.

"I know it's hard to tell," Jaime said. "I'm not sure he remembers how to smile. And laughing...that's even rarer. It always sounds so forced." He leaned forward. "But I'm his son, so I can tell. He only lets you get away with that mouth of yours because he likes you."

"I don't like him," Arya muttered.

"Of course you don't," Jaime said. "Most people don't like my father. Half the time his children don't even like him. But it will be in your favor if you're to become a Lannister ward."

A Lannister ward. The very words made Arya shiver. She only wanted to go home-back to Winterfell. Instead she would return to King's Landing, to the place where her father lost his head.

"At least, Sansa will get to leave," Arya murmured. "She must hate it there. I always felt awful...for leaving her behind."

"Your sister seems to be a more delicate person than you," Jaime said. "And King's Landing is not gentle with delicate people. You'll fair better than her, I'm sure."

"Will I? I'm a Stark," Arya murmured. Starks, historically, did not do well in King's Landing. Her grandfather, uncle, father...they had all died there. She always looked the most like her father of all of his children. She wouldn't last there.

"Yes, but you're smart," Jaime said. "My father would not have taken you as a cup bearer if you weren't. I'm sure you'll find away."

Arya rested her chin on her knees. "Why did you come here, ser? To try to make me feel better?"

"No," Jaime said. "Curiosity I suppose. I barely noticed you when I last went to Winterfell. But if you return to King's Landing, we are going to be seeing a lot more of each other."

Arya nodded once. It was interesting...she used to quite look up to Jaime Lannister when she first read about him. She looked up to all the great knights of Westeros. Barristan Selmy, the Sword of the Morning. Jaime Lannister was supposed to be nearly as skilled as them. But her father had nothing but contempt for the Kingslayer. He said he was a man without honor for killing King Aerys. Her father was usually right about people.

Whether he was without honor or not, he did not seem cruel. At least, not in this moment.

The tent flap opened again and a messenger slipped his head inside. "Ser Jaime. Your father sent me to bring the girl."

"For what?" Jaime asked.

"Robb Stark has made his decision."

Arya swallowed hard. It was not yet dawn, but it was time to face her fate all the same.

Chapter Text

Arya hardly dared to breathe as she met Tywin at the top of the hill. Only meters away sat the tent where her fate would be decided. In less than an hour, she would either be dead, or given away as a hostage to the Lannister families. There were no good options for her. She knew it. Tywin knew it.

He studied her as she came to a stop in front of him as if searching for her fear. She raised her chin and clenched her jaw in what she hoped looked like defiance. The corners of his mouth barely twitched. It was the closest he ever got to a smile.

"Come on, girl. Let's hear your brother's choice."

The tension in the tent was almost suffocating. Arya's mother and brother stood on one side of the table, tense and stern. Tywin stood on the other, his grip tight on the back of her collar. In the initial silence, Arya could not read Robb's decision. She did not know what he had chosen. She could almost hear her heart slamming against her chest, trying to escape.

What do we say to the God of Death?

Not today. Not today.

Robb exhaled at last and looked up at the Head of House Lannister. "I accept your terms...Lord Tywin. All of them."

Arya let out a shuddering breath. All at once, her future became clear. Perhaps not a good future, but it was better than a knife and the shadow of death. Tywin's grip loosened just slightly on her collar. It seemed even he had relaxed just a bit at the words.

"You're a smart man, Robb Stark. It will serve you well as Warden of the North."

"We'll discuss the terms again," Robb muttered. His anger was clear, but also his defeat. "First...let me speak with my sister alone."

For a moment, Tywin did not answer. Then he released Arya. "Very well. I will be outside."

There was a warning in his voice. A warning not to try any tricks. Robb seemed to hear it and he nodded. Then Tywin left the tent.

Arya released a breath and ran for her mother. She caught her up in her arms, hold tightly. "Oh Arya," she murmured. "Sweet girl. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

Arya fought tears as she clung onto her mother. It had been far too long. "No, I'm sorry. He used me against you. If I hadn't gotten caught..."

"Don't apologize for that, Arya." Catelyn pulled back, brushing her hair from her face. "It wasn't your fault."

"No it wasn't," Robb agreed. "I blame Lord Tywin for this. Not you."

"It was though," Arya said. "I escaped the Red Keep, mother. I was disguised as a boy and was well away from them when my group was caught and sent to Harrenhal."

"You had escaped?" Catelyn looked to Robb. "That must be why we never heard anything about her from the keep."

"How did Lord Tywin discover you?" Robb asked.

"Lord Tywin took me as a cup bearer," Arya said. "He didn't know who I was. Just that I was a girl disguised as a boy. I think he could tell I was high born but...but he didn't know." She swallowed hard. "Until Lord Baelish arrived. He told Tywin who I was."

Her mother's face twisted with rage. "Damn him to all the seven hells. He claimed to be on our side and he lied."

"Lord Baelish is on the side of the highest bidder. Nothing more," Robb said. "We can blame him for your discovery Arya. Truly. It wasn't your fault."

Arya looked up at Robb. "You're not angry with me then?"

Robb shook his head. "No. Gods no, Arya."

Arya rushed to hug him and he caught her up in his arms, holding her close. She had missed her older brothers-Robb and Jon both. The only thing that she liked about being small was that they could easily pick her up. She used to love feeling weightless.

"I'm sorry we can't take you home with us," Robb murmured. "Your place is at Winterfell. I'm sorry."

"I'm alive. Don't apologize," Arya said. "I'll be all right. I can be smart and quick."

"You already are." Robb sat her down on her feet. "But I hate to leave you in Tywin Lannister's hands."

"I can survive him. I've survived him for two months now," Arya said. "It's Joffrey I'm worried about."

"If that boy harms you, I will raise my armies again the next day," Robb said. "I promise that."

"Don't," Arya said. "Don't let anyone else in our family get killed. Not for me. Besides, you need to save Bran and Rickon first. I'll be all right."

"Oh, Arya," her mother murmured. The heart break in her voice weighed heavy on Arya's shoulders. "You've always been so fearless. You left the worrying to everyone else."

Arya forced a smile. She did not say how afraid she truly was. She did not want to worry her mother anymore.

"This is not goodbye," Robb said. "You'll return to Winterfell someday. I swear it."

Arya nodded once. "Yes. I'll see you again."

It was a promise that neither of them could keep. Robb would not have the authority to bring Arya home and she would not have the authority to leave.

Her fate was entirely in the hands of Tywin Lannister now.

Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark discussed the terms again. It was a short meeting, because Robb knew he had little room for debate. The only real question was the timeline of the terms.

Robb Stark swore loyalty to the crown in that tent, but it would be some time before he made it to King's Landing to bend the knee. First, he would secure the north by crushing the Greyjoy rebellion. Once the Greyjoys were brought to heel, Tywin could install someone there without a tendency for stupid uprisings. He would kill all the Greyjoys. They had already had one chance for peace and they had ignored it.

Once the final rebellion was crushed, the war of five kings would be at its end. Stannis on the run and Renly and Balon in the grave. Robb Stark would then ride to King's Landing to bend the knee to Joffrey, officially.

Meanwhile, the Lannister armies would return home, Tywin would take Arya Stark with him and send Sansa Stark back to the North. Robb would send trusted men to King's Landing to escort her.

It had all worked out rather well, which was a welcome change from the past few months, and it cemented Tywin's legacy. He had ended many wars and rebellions in his lifetime. He crushed the Reynes and the Greyjoys. He helped Robert's Rebellion to success and gave him that bloody iron throne. And now he ended the War of Five Kings. History would remember the Lannister name as one of strength.

The lords of the present would not feel the same. The Starks, the Greyjoys, the remaining rebel Baratheons...they would all hate him and curse his name. He was used to such things. What truly mattered was the bigger picture. Even if every soul on earth hated him-including his family and his children-it was the future that mattered.

Arya Stark hated him too. He supposed she always had. He could see rebellion in her eyes when she stepped from her brother's tent. She looked up at him with a challenge.

I'm your ward now...and you will have to deal with me, she seemed to say. I am still a wolf.

She was a wolf. In some ways, Jaime was right. Sansa would be an easier girl to handle as a ward. She would do as asked with little resistance. But a ward was associated with the family name, and Tywin had no interest in a docile girl.

If he was going to take a ward, he preferred one with a bite.

Arya had travelled this road before. The King's Road had been her first major journey from Winterfell. It had also been the first place where she saw the cruelty of House Lannister. Joffrey and Cersei had proved themselves monstrous that day, and Lady and Micha suffered for it. That was the beginning of the end. They should have turned and left for home at once after that night.

But they didn't. And her father was dead because of it.

As they drew nearer to King's Landing, they naturally passed through the same villages, including the site of that awful incident. Arya still remembered meeting Micha outside of the butcher shop and asking him to spar with her. It felt like an innocent request, and they had a grand time fighting by the river. But then Joffrey...and the Hound...

Arya's jaw clenched as she caught sight of the butcher shop. It was because of her that a man lost his son.

"You look as if you're plotting to kill, Lady Arya," Tywin observed.

Arya sighed. Was there ever a moment when he didn't notice a shift in her expressions? Perhaps she was too easy to read.

"I'm not plotting to kill. Just thinking about it," she said, urging her horse forward. She did not want to look upon the village anymore.

"Explain how plotting and thinking are different."

"Plotting involves a plan. Thinking is...less solid."

"Insightful of you," Tywin said dryly. "And what has you thinking of killing?"

Arya stared down at the reins, grasped tight in her hands. Though she was a captive, her wrists were not bound. She could almost imagine she was free. "Did you ever hear the story of what happened between Joffrey and me on the King's Road?"

"I heard the story from Cersei, yes. She was furious about it," Tywin said.

"You heard the wrong version then," Arya said. "Cersei is a liar. It didn't happen at all how she said it."

"You don't even know what she told me."

"I know it was a lie."

"I suppose you better give me your version then," Tywin said. "Or else I'll have to accept hers as fact."

He was baiting her. It was hard to tell sometimes with the Head of Lannister house because his very grim expressions. But Arya was beginning to learn the slight differences in the cadence of his voice. She had been near him for nearly three months now, after all.

"I was sparring with a boy named Micah," Arya said. "My brother Jon had just given me a sword, and I wanted to get good enough so that I could use it. No one from our group would ever practice with me, so I found him. While we were practicing, Sansa and Joffrey walked by. Joffrey wanted to fight Micah next." Her grip tightened on the reins. "Only he had a real sword. Micah didn't want to fight him. Of course he didn't. Joffrey was a prince with a real blade, and he only had a stick. Joffrey started cutting open his cheek. So I hit him with my stick as hard as I could."

"You were less worried about fighting a prince it seems," Tywin observed.

"It wasn't a smart decision. I didn't have a real sword either," Arya admitted. "He nearly killed me. I only avoided his blade because I was quick. But when I got in trouble, Nymeria came to help me."

"Your wolf?"

"Yes. She bit his wrist until he dropped his sword. Then I threw it in the river and we ran." Arya shook her head. "I didn't make it far. Lannister soldiers found me quickly. But Nymeria escaped at least. Maybe she's still alive somewhere. I don't know."

"Hmm," Tywin said. "Cersei insisted that you maliciously set your wolf on Joffrey."

"She's a liar. Nymeria was only defending me," Arya said. "Joffrey and Cersei both lied to everyone. Worse than that, they brought Sansa out and made her lie too. She was there the whole time but she pretended she didn't see what happened. She saw. I know she did."

"So Joffrey told one story, you told another, and your sister refused to confirm either," Tywin said. "And which opinion did the king listen to?"

"He wanted to leave the whole incident behind," Arya recalled. "But Cersei...Cersei wanted some sort of punishment for my wolf. Only my wolf was gone. So instead..." Arya swallowed. "They killed Sansa's wolf for no good reason. Lady wasn't even there. She'd never hurt anything in her whole life, but Cersei wanted her dead." Arya felt a fresh wave of hatred rising up inside of her. "And Micah...they killed Micah too. He hadn't fought Joffrey at all."

"Cersei wanted something or someone to blame," Tywin said. "And she couldn't very well kill you, so the wolf and the boy would have to do."

"It wasn't fair," Arya said.

"Of course not. And when is the last time you experienced the world as fair?" Tywin asked.

Arya fell silent. He was right of course. The world was cruel and often did not make sense. If fairness and justice reigned, her father would be alive and the Lannisters in the dirt.

"I'm more inclined to believe your story. Cersei told a fantastic lie in her letter," Tywin said. "She's been telling fantastic lies since she was a child. Whenever she did something wrong, she always had someone else to blame for it. A maid, a stable boy, her brothers. She always came prepared with a story. She could get away with it with the septas and the guards and most of her family. But not with me."

Arya studied him. "But she kept lying to you? Even if it didn't work?"

"No she did everything possible to make sure the issue never came to my attention," Tywin said. "I was hand of the king at the time. I was trying to run a country. It was easy enough for her to convince others that I did not need to become involved. Every successful lie she told, the more overconfident she grew." He shrugged. "Now, she's a transparent liar, but she's powerful enough that no one can question it."

"You can," Arya pointed out.

"I do. When she attempts to lie to me," Tywin said. "Her dishonesty with others does not worry me."

"Why not? A lie is a lie," Arya said.

"Yes. And a lie can sometimes protect the family or serve the family's interests," Tywin said. "I'm sure your father told a lie or kept a secret for the good of his family."

Arya shook her head. "No. Never."

"A rare man then. Most men are not so honest." Tywin looked down at her. "But remember, girl, that honesty of his is one of the traits that cost him his life. Don't make the same mistakes as him."

Arya's jaw clenched and she looked away. Yes, her father was honest in a world of liars. Arya was not as good of a person as him though. She had lied plenty of times and disobeyed and cheated.

Maybe the worst parts of herself would help her survive in King's Landing.

Chapter Text

They arrived in King's Landing through the God's Gate a few days later. Arya had last passed beneath that gate a year ago, back when she still believed in the immortality of people she loved. How different she had been then. How naïve. Now, the air made her sick with the awful memories of the past, and she felt bile in the back of her throat when she saw the sept of Baelor in the distance.

Ser Illyn. Bring me his head.

Approaching the Red Keep, she could almost smell the blood. All of the Stark household had been killed here. Septa Mordane, who always chided Arya for her needle work. The guards who used to escort her places. All of her father's most trusted soldiers. Syrio, her dancing master. Everyone associated with the name Stark had been slayed in the castle.

Except for Arya.

And Sansa.

When they stopped at the stables, Arya saw a familiar face flanked by Lannister guards. She was preparing for the long journey home and every bit of her face looked relieved. It had been so long since Arya had seen her sister that she almost stopped breathing.

Sansa looked up at saw her. "Arya..." she murmured.

No one could stop Arya from vaulting off of her horse and rushing toward her sister. She hugged her as tightly as she could. The last time they saw each other they had been fighting about something stupid. Arya would have deeply regretted it if they had never seen each other again.

Sansa wrapped her arms around her, holding her close. "Oh, Arya. It's good to see you. I thought you might be dead."

"I'm not," Arya pulled back at her. "I'm all right. Between the two of us, you were in more danger."

Sansa gave her a small smile. Her smiles were sadder now, with none of their old optimistic brightness. In fact Sansa's skin looked much paler, and her body more deflated. She used to shine in the capitol. Time and tragedy had sapped her strength.

"It's all right. You get to go home now," Arya murmured. "I've seen mother. She misses you. She'll be so glad to be with you again."

"I wish I could take you with me," Sansa murmured. "I wish we could both go home."

Arya's chest ached. Yes, she wished that too. It would be nice to have all of the family together again. "I'll be all right."

"You will." Sansa pulled her into another hug. But this time she whispered in her ear. "Be careful Arya. Joffrey is worse than he ever was. I know you're fierce, but you must be careful and play their game. Otherwise, you'll suffer."

Arya swallowed hard. She could hardly imagine Joffrey worse, but she believed Sansa. "Play their game?"

"Keep your head down. Don't act rashly. Be a shadow." Sansa pulled back. "Promise me."

"I promise," Arya murmured.

"Good." Sansa squeezed her shoulders.

"Lady Sansa," one of the guards stepped up beside her. It took Arya a moment to see that it was not a man but a giant of a woman. Her eyes widened. "We're ready to leave."

"Of course," Sansa murmured. "Oh...Lady Brienne, this is my sister, Arya."

"I'm not a lady," Brienne murmured. She gave Arya a bow. "I'm pleased to meet you Lady Arya."

"Mother sent her ahead to help guide me north," Sansa said. "She doesn't trust the Lannister guards."

"She shouldn't," Arya looked up at Brienne. "I've...I've never seen a lady knight. I've only read about them."

Brienne seemed taken aback by the admiration in her voice. "Do you like reading about knights, lady Arya?"

"Arya's always talking about knights. She would be one if she had the chance," Sansa said.

"Perhaps, one day you'll have that chance," Brienne smiled a bit. "I apologize that we cannot take you with us, lady Arya."

Arya swallowed hard. Yes, she would like very much to go with them. "Protect Sansa. I'll be fine here."

Sansa gave her a sad smile. "Goodbye. We'll see each other again." Then she turned away from Arya, stepping into the cart. Arya watched her sister leave, fighting the urge to jump in the back with her. She would not get far. She was a prisoner of this place now.

She could only hope to follow in her sister's footsteps one day, and make the long journey home.

"It's ridiculous," Cersei said. "It's completely ridiculous."

"So you've said," Tywin said without looking up from his letters. "Three times now."

"Making peace with Robb Stark is borderline madness," Cersei said. "He took up arms against the throne-against your grandson-and you offered him a deal? You should have destroyed every single one of the Starks, like you did the Reynes, starting with that insufferable girl."

Tywin exhaled. Cersei had been raving about this for what seemed like hours now. Recent events had made her more wild and paranoid than ever. He set down his quill. "The North would have stopped their rebellion long ago if you had managed to control your son. You made everything much more difficult when you stood by and let Ned Stark die."

"I didn't expect him too-"

"No. You didn't. But you should have," Tywin said. "You love your children, but you are blind to their faults. You should have seen Joffrey's untamed cruelty a long time ago and learned how to manage it when he was still young. Now, it's too late. He will no longer listen to you. The blame for that rests on your shoulders."

Cersei fell into a sullen silence, just like she always did when she did not have a retort. The years had hardened her, but some things had stayed the same.

"Would you like me to explain why I made peace with the North?" Tywin asked. "Or would you like to continue to make wild accusations?"

Cersei glared at him. "Explain then."

"The Starks are not the Reynes," Tywin said. "The Reynes owed loyalty to house Lannister, but they were not necessary for the survival of the Westerlands. Furthermore, your grandfather had let the Lannister name sit so long in the mud that an extreme response was required to change the views of the other houses. I crushed them soundly because I did not need them and they made an example to the rest of the world. The point is not to destroy every enemy because every enemy is not the same. Sometimes we go to war. Sometimes we make peace. Sometimes we form marriage alliances or take hostages."

"And you made peace with the Starks," Cersei said. "Why is that necessary?"

"You really shouldn't need to ask me that question," Tywin said. "They're one of the oldest families in Westeros for a reason. There has always been a Stark in Winterfell and changing that would destabilize the north. I preferred not to throw one realm into chaos with winter on the way. Furthermore, Robb Stark didn't rise in rebellion because he did not respect the Lannister name or the throne. He rose in rebellion to defend his father. Enemy or not, he would have been weak and disloyal if he did not come to Eddard Stark's defense."

"Do you respect him now?" Cersei sneered.

"A boy of seventeen with a great many victories under his belt? Yes," Tywin said. "He's smart and willing to make sacrifices. He will make a strong leader in the north. We need strong leadership."

Cersei looked away, the look of a sullen child crossing her face. "You told me once...that everyone who isn't us is an enemy."

"I told you that everyone who isn't us could become an enemy. There is a difference," Tywin said. "And it is possible to respect one's enemies. Make peace with them. Keep them close. If you look down on every one of your enemies, you begin to underestimate them and they have the opportunity to rise up and destroy you. That's what happened to the Targaryens." He picked up his quill to write. "I do not intend to follow them."

"Our enemies can't harm us if they are all dead," Cersei said quietly.

"That's a child's way to deal with a problem. You can't kill everyone in the world. Then the world would not turn properly anymore." Tywin went back to writing. "You will make peace with Arya Stark."

Cersei's shoulders rose like the hackles of an enraged lioness. "I will not-"

"You will," Tywin said. "A child's squabble between her and Joffrey is not a reason for you to bare a grudge. And if Joffrey senses your hatred, he may see that as an excuse to kill her just as he killed Ned Stark. I need her alive and unharmed so you will do your part to see that happens."

"She's as wild as an actual wolf. You should have sent her back to the north and kept Sansa here," Cersei said.

"But I didn't, and my decision is not negotiable," Tywin looked up at her again. "Make peace with the girl. Make sure Joffrey understands her value. Then you are both free to ignore her completely."

Cersei gritted her teeth together and stood. "As you say, father." Then she swept from the room.

She's going to cause trouble, Tywin thought as soon as she left. He set his quill down again, rubbing a hand over his face. If anyone was wild now, it was his daughter. She barely made an attempt to conceal her true feelings anymore.

He was more concerned about controlling her than Arya Stark.

Arya's room was smaller than most in King's Landing, but larger than her chambers at Winterfell. King's Landing had far more room to spare, it seemed, even for hostages.

Arya hated the room. She hated the smell of this place. It was all perfumes just barely covering the stench of death and deceit. She hated the silk of the sheets too. Silk was such a useless sort of fabric. There was no security in it. In the North, nothing was made of silk. Sansa used to lament that fact, but Arya loved it. She always preferred leather and fur and wool.

She wondered if they would dress her in King's Landing garb as well. She would not like that at all.

Arya paced around her room, looking for something she could use as a weapon. A knife perhaps. She did not know what she would do with a weapon, but it would be good to have just in case. She could not find anything sharp, however. Only a hairbrush on the dresser, and she wasn't sure it was heavy enough to beat someone with.

Arya's shoulders sagged and she looked up at her reflection in the mirror. She was annoyed that she did not look stronger. More fearless. She wanted to be a wolf, but she could see the fear in her own eyes.

It would not do to be afraid. She had to be strong in this place to survive. She straightened her back and raised her chin, looking defiantly at her own reflection.

The door creaked open behind her and she saw a flash of blonde hair. Arya spun around as the Queen Regent herself entered the room. Her grip tightened on the hair brush. It was the only thing she had.

Play their game, Sansa's words flashed through her head. Otherwise you'll suffer.

"Your Grace," Arya forced the words from her lips. They tasted bitter. "I was not expecting you."

"Clearly," Cersei said. "Courtesies don't sit right on your lips, do they Lady Arya?"

"No, your grace. Septa Mordane always said the same," Arya replied. "What brings you here?"

Cersei smiled. It was perhaps the least convincing expression Arya had ever seen. "Perhaps I wanted to welcome you back to King's Landing, and make sure you were comfortable."

Arya could not keep the incredulous look off her face.

"No. You know better than that, don't you?" Cersei asked. The gleam in her green eyes made her smile sharp as a razor. "My father insists that you are important to keep the peace. I can understand that perhaps. But that does not mean I have to pretend to like you."

Arya raised her chin. "Of course not. Then why are you here?"

"To give you a warning," Cersei said. "I know you're wild and I know that you must be plotting something in that head of yours. Your father died here. Perhaps you want revenge for that. But if you come anywhere near my children, I will have your throat cut."

She was short and to the point. Arya almost preferred her this way. Better an open threat than false flattery.

"Do you really think I want anything to do with Joffrey?" Arya asked. "I'll stay clear of him if I can. I'll stay clear of Tommen as well if it please your grace." She spoke her courtesies with the sweetest lilt she could manage. Sansa always made that sort of thing sound so much more convincing.

"It would please me," Cersei said. "I would do anything to protect my family, Lady Arya. Even the most distasteful acts. Your father tested me once. I don't recommend you make the same mistakes."

"I won't," Arya said. "I plan to learn from my father's mistakes, your grace."

Because if I move against you, I will be smarter, she thought. I would do anything for my family as well.

"Good," Cersei said flatly. "Then we are at an understanding." She swept back toward the door. "You may tell my father that we made peace. Then I won't hear any more about it from him."

He won't believe it if I do, Arya thought, but she did not speak those thoughts. "Very well." She tilted her head to the side. "Your grace?"

Cersei stopped and looked back at her. "Yes, Lady Arya?"

"If you don't pretend to like me...Does that mean I don't have to pretend to like you?" Arya asked. There was ice beneath the sweetness of her tone. Ice and steel. And Cersei clearly heard it. Her eyes narrowed and her lip curled back in disgust. Then she left, slamming the door behind her.

Is that a yes or a no? Arya thought.

Arya released the hair brush, still clutched in her left hand. It had left marks on her palm from how hard she gripped it. There were many threats to Arya in this place, but Cersei was at the top of the list of dangers.

Just as well. She was also at the top of Arya's list of names.

Chapter Text

Tywin Lannister had taken his place as the hand of the king. And so Tyrion fell from his rare chance at power. He always knew that his reign was temporary. His father had given him the position and his father now took it away. Tyrion felt the ache of the loss like the throb of the still healing wound across his face.

Shae wanted them to leave. She was a smart woman, and recognized that there was little left for Tyrion in this place. Yet he couldn't leave. He clung to this damn city even after it had rejected him because maybe, just maybe, he would find a taste of power again.

Pathetic, Tyrion thought. I really am pathetic.

Still, he found himself, in his pathetic state, walking toward the tower of the hand to speak with his father. He needed something to do. He needed to make his case that he could still be useful to the Lannister family. He had done his part to protect the city, so where was his reward for that?

As he approached the tower, he heard a rather loud conversation inside. At first he thought it must be Cersei snapping at their father again. But no, the voice was too young for that.

"She's going to murder me in my sleep. Even if I don't go near Joffrey, she is going to murder me in my sleep. Then she'll find a way to blame me for it."

"Really? And Cersei told me that she made peace with you."

"Of course she did. She wanted me to tell you the same."

"But you're not."

"You told me not to lie to you."

"It's good to know you're listening."

Tyrion peered through the crack in the door. His father sat at his old desk, but in front of him paced a girl with dark brown hair and the pale skin of the north. Arya Stark. It must be. He had heard of her arrival in the city because Cersei had raved to him about it as well. She was a ward of Lannister now. A hostage. Yet for being a hostage, she did not seem to measure her words around his father. She did not seem afraid of him at all.

"I only mention it because I don't want you to think everything is solved," Arya said. "And if I do die, you'll know who to blame."

"I never thought everything was solved. Nothing I say could keep Cersei from hating you. I only want her to be a little quieter about it." Tywin set down his quill. "You're not very good at hiding your feelings either, Lady Arya."

"Can you blame me, my lord?"

"It does not matter if I blame you or not. It's true."

Tyrion thought as if he had stepped into a dream. Tywin did not usually entertain this kind of talk from anyone. From his family, sometimes, depending on his mood. But not usually. He seemed almost...amused. A few times Tyrion thought he saw the shadow of a smile on his lips. It was a humorless, biting smile, but still. A rare thing for Tywin Lannister. Tyrion almost never saw such an expression.

Tyrion accidentally opened the door a bit more and it creaked. Arya Stark spun around, like a wolf searching for a threat. Tyrion sighed and opened the door the rest of the way.

"Forgive me if I'm interrupting."

"You're not," Tywin said. His expression became cold again at Tyrion's arrival. "Tyrion, this is Arya Stark."

"The new Lannister ward. Yes, I have heard." Tyrion approached her, holding out his hand. "My lady. We did not speak when I last visited Winterfell."

"Because I'm small and no one notices me," Arya said accepted his hand.

"Well, I can sympathize with that. I'm smaller than you as you can see," Tyrion said.

"It's refreshing," Arya said. "Everyone around here is too tall."

Tyrion grinned. This girl was certainly nothing like her sister. She was far more honest, and far less careful. It could get her killed in this place. "I must agree with you, Lady Stark."

Tywin cleared his throat leaning forward. "Did you come with a purpose, Tyrion?"

"I usually do," Tyrion said, releasing Arya's hand. "We don't speak in our leisure time, father."

His father regarded him coldly for a long moment before looking to Arya. "You may go."

Arya nodded once. "My lords." Then she slipped from the room.

"She's quite something," Tyrion commented. "Different from her sister. Courtesies don't become her."

"Did you come here to discuss the Stark girl?" Tywin asked.

"No. I was just making small talk." Tyrion sat down in front of him. "I came to discuss the future."

"That's a vague purpose."

"My future then."

Tywin laughed once though there was no joy in it. "You want to know if there is still a position of power for you here, now that I have taken back my seat as hand of the king."

"That's the short way of putting it yes," Tyrion said. "I did prove myself capable of handling the responsibility."

"You brought a whore to my bed. Is that what you call being capable?"

"I did not spend all of my time in bed or with whores," Tyrion muttered. "I kept Joffrey in line as best as I could and when he cowered in the keep, I held the gates at the Battle of Blackwater. I bled for this family."

"And you want a reward."

"Yes," Tyrion said. "Is that truly so much to ask, father? For some sort of recognition?"

"Jugglers and singers ask for applause. You are a Lannister," Tywin said flatly. "Do you think I demanded a garland of roses every time I suffered a wound on the battlefield?"

Tyrion clenched his jaw. No, his father did not ever seem to have any need for the recognition of others. But he did not know what it was like to be looked down upon every single day. People respected him. Tyrion would not need rewards either if he was simply respected.

"I have seven kingdoms to rule now," Tywin said. "You may have bled for this family, but you would have died had the Tyrells not arrived at my orders. While you were whoring and playing at power, I made peace with the north, crushed Stannis' armies, and now the Greyjoys are on the run. The War of Five Kings is over."

"Were we having a competition? Forgive me, I would have brought more of my accomplishments," Tyrion said, staring at his hands.

"What do you want, Tyrion?" Tywin raised his voice then, at the edge of his patience.

"I want what is mine. By right." Tyrion matched his father's volume. "Jaime may be your eldest son, but he surrendered his right to your lands and titles when he donned the white cloak. I am, therefore, your heir. You can't deny that. I don't ask for a bloody garland of roses. I won't even ask for your gratitude because I know I'll never get that. But I do ask for what is mine."

"So, you want Casterly Rock," Tywin said.

"With Jaime in the King's Guard, I am your heir," Tyrion said. "I may be a dwarf, but I'm still your son."

"Yes," Tywin agreed after a pause. "You are my son. You killed your mother coming into this world. Do you think I would forget that?"

Tyrion gritted his teeth together. "You always speak of that day as if it was by design. As if I intended-"

"I don't care what you intended. It happened all the same," Tywin snapped. "You will be given more suitable quarters for your name and station. You will be given a position of power within this keep so that you can continue to serve your family. Serve well, and eventually you may have a wife. But nothing on earth can compel me to name you my heir. I will die before I see you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse."

The words stung Tyrion to his very core. They had always been implied of course, in his father's cold tone and his icy glares. Yet to hear them out loud still hurt more than Tyrion wanted to admit.

"Tell me, father. To whom will you give Casterly Rock? I am eager to know," he murmured.

"That's none of your concern," Tywin said. "We'll speak no more of your rights." He spoke with such an air of finality that there was no room to argue further. "Go. Now."

Tyrion could do nothing but obey. His father always claimed the last word, one way or another, and Tyrion did not want to hear anymore words from him that day.


Even when everything else seemed relatively hopeless, Tyrion could still count on Jaime. Having his brother back at the keep, safe and sound, was a bright spot to his loss of power. Of everyone in his family, Jaime was the only one who truly liked him. His father and sister had rejected him long ago, but Jaime taught him to ride and how to speak with charm. It was a relief to see him again.

His time as a northern prisoner had clearly weakened him. He was thinner and paler, with some scars lingering on his face. But he was still Jaime, with his usual easy smiles. He needed a few of those after his conversation with their father.

" did it go?" Jaime asked.

"About how you'd expect," Tyrion said.

"That bad?" Jaime poured them both wine and handed him a cup. Tyrion drained it in a few gulps and he raised an eyebrow. "Worse?"

"Always worse." Tyrion handed his cup to Jaime to be filled again. He wanted to drink his weight in wine. "Even with the white cloak on, he still seems to think of you as his heir."

"I don't want the Rock," Jaime said. "I would much prefer you have it."

"Don't tell our Lord Father. Then he might hate you as much as me," Tyrion said. "Well, not quite."

"Perhaps we should employ the new ward to talk to him for us for now on," Jaime said. "He doesn't seem to mind when she argues."

Tyrion leaned forward. "So you noticed it too."

"Am I blind and deaf? Of course I noticed it." Jaime shook his head. "I've witnessed a few of their conversations. And he kept her as his cup bearer for a few months before the war ended. Clearly he enjoys the girl."

"But why?" Tyrion said. "We simply must figure out her secrets."

Jaime grinned. "Hoping to learn from her?"

"Why not?" Tyrion said. "I'll take whatever help I can get at this point." Tyrion clasped his wine glass in both hands. "Let us think. What does she have in common with people that father likes?"

"First we have to identify who father likes," Jaime said.

"True. A difficult task." Tyrion tapped the rim of his cup as he thought. "Uncle Kevan?"

"Yes, he likes Kevan," Jaime said. "Aunt Genna too. He always allowed her to talk back to him. I think he likes our aunt better than any of our uncles in fact."

"He likes all of his siblings well enough. Though few of their spouses," Tyrion acknowledged.

"What do they all have in common?" Jaime asked.

"Well, they are family," Tyrion said. "I suppose they're not afraid of our father. They grew up with him. Maybe that makes it more difficult to fear someone. I don't fear Cersei for that very reason."

"Really? I fear her sometimes." Jaime said mildly.

Tyrion tilted his head to the side. "Is she not happy to see you returned?"

"Happy? Maybe. But also drunk and very angry," Jaime glanced down at Tyrion's nearly empty cup of wine. "You both drink too much these days."

"Tell her that she's reminding you of me. Maybe she'll stop," Tyrion finished the wine and went to pour more. "Back to the matter in question. Our aunt and uncles are different from Lady Arya as they are siblings."

"This is true. So who else does he like?" Jaime asked.

"Well, you and Cersei of course," Tyrion said.

"It does not seem like that sometimes," Jaime said.

"If you could hear the difference in how he spoke to us, you would know it," Tyrion said. "You're the Golden son, Jaime. You can get away with nearly anything, and you'll still be the favorite." He smiled ruefully. "Even if he does get angry."

"He's certainly shouted at me much louder than he has shouted at Arya Stark," Jaime said. "Because he cares perhaps."

"Yes. He has high expectations of you." Tyrion snapped his fingers. "Maybe that's it."

"What?" Jaime asked.

"High expectations. Our Lord Father may love you and Cersei, but he has dreadfully high expectations for both of you. No offense, but you constantly fall short," Tyrion said. "He has high expectations for many people."

"But not for the Stark girl," Jaime said.

"No," Tyrion said. "He had no expectations for her from the beginning. It makes it very easy for her to exceed them."

"Perhaps that is the key," Jaime said. "But then, father always had low expectations for you as well."

Tyrion smiled bitterly. "I'm a special case, Jaime. He hates me so much that even if I rose above his standards, he would never admit it." He raised his glass. "So there's no hope for me."

Jaime plucked the glass from his hand before he could take a drink and set it out of his reach. "You've had enough."

"I don't think so. I'd like a lot more," Tyrion said.

"To hell with what father thinks of you," Jaime said. "The way I hear it, you did save this city. You did a respectable job of handling Joffrey as well. Whether father acknowledges or not, this city owes you their lives. Isn't that enough for you to know?"

"Was it enough for you to know?" Tyrion murmured. "When they called you Kingslayer?"

Jaime looked down at the table with a heavy sigh. " helped at least."

Tyrion stood in his chair, leaning forward and plucking his cup back from Jaime. "Cheers," he raised his glass. "To impossible expectations."

Jaime half smiled and tapped his cup against Tyrion's. "Let's see how long the Stark girl can exceed them."

Chapter Text

While Arya was a hostage, she was allowed a certain amount of freedom. She did not have a guard standing over her at every hour of the day, for instance. They guarded her door at night, but left her be otherwise. She had asked Tywin why this was shortly after her arrival.

"Why am I not under constant watch?"

"Would you like to be?"

"No, that's...that's not what I mean. What if I tried to escape?"

Tywin had gotten an almost amused gleam in his eye at this. "And put your family in danger? Would you really do such a thing, Lady Stark?"

Arya understood the message loud and clear. She was here to keep her family in line, but Tywin also meant to use them to keep her in line. If she did escape, he might decide to strike first before the North could rise up again. She would never give him an excuse to do that, so she would stay within the castle walls.

Besides her nighttime guards, she had a handmaid named Shae. She was pretty and her accent hinted that she came from across the narrow sea. She had served Sansa during her stay at King's Landing.

At first, Arya did not trust her. She thought she must be a spy from the queen, designated to keep an eye on any Stark girl within the keep. Sansa was gone and now her assignment was Arya.

But Shae was too free with her words to be one of Cersei's spies. Cersei would only employ those who acted like perfect ladies. But Shae spoke her mind.

"Your hair is too short for me to do anything," she said. "Short like a boy's."

"Then don't do anything to it," Arya said. "I can brush it myself you know."

"Then what work would I have to do?" Shae asked, picking up the brush and combing through Arya's tangles. She winced. "Will you grow it out?"

"I expect they'll want me too."

"Who's they?"

"The Lannisters," Arya said. "I'm a ward of their house. I'm sure they'll want me to play a little lady."

"Your sister had to do the same," Shae acknowledged.

"Sansa doesn't have to play at being a perfect lady. She is," Arya protested.

"She's a lady maybe. But it's hard to be perfect in a place where your family died." She raked her brush through a particularly difficult tangle and Arya winced. "Your sister had a difficult time here."

Arya glanced down from her reflection in the mirror, feeling a rush of guilt. Of course, Sansa had a difficult time here. Lady or not, she must have wanted to claw the kings eyes out or throttled Cersei with her bare hands.

"She's better at pretending," she said at last. "I've never been very good at it."

"Then learn," Shae said.

She could learn to play the role with practice, but that did not mean she had to be totally docile.

In her visit to the Chamber of the Hand, Arya made note of Tywin's many boxes and knew, in her heart, that needle must be somewhere in side. She memorized the times in which he went to the small council meetings with his guards. She memorized the opportunities when the chamber of the hand was left open.

He never left anything sensitive lying about. He finished his letters when he began writing them and sent them off shortly afterwards. It was not his letters that she wanted anyway, but a possession of hers that he kept safely tucked away somewhere. In the short window of time she had, she searched the boxes. When she found nothing, she was always careful to put everything back exactly the way she found it. Until one day, she clasped Needle's hilt in her hand again.

She let out a breath of relief and drew her sword from the trunk. Then she carefully shifted the other belongings to make sure everything looked organized again.

She scurried down the hall with needle stuffed down the back of her dress. She would have to find her own hiding place for her sword, but at least she could have it near. To hold Jon's gift to her made her feel just a little closer to home.

Arya could not hide needle in her own room. That would be too obvious a place and she could not deny having stolen it then. Besides, her room was no place to practice swordplay. It was far too small to really drill without knocking into furniture. And she could not very well carry her sword with her every day when she practiced.

Fortunately, she knew of a place where few people went. That was why her father had chosen it for her dancing lessons-so that no one would know. Arya retraced the familiar halls back to the place where Syrio used to teach her. This room was large and empty-open to the air. There were gaps in the stone, just large enough to fit needle. She could cover the gap with some of the old crates that had been rotting in the corner for ages.

Then when she needed to practice, she could always find her sword.

Arya stepped carefully across the stone floor, turning needle in hand. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine Syrio standing before her, chiding her for her lack of practice.

You must practice every day, or your body forgets. When your body forgets, it stumbles when you need it most. And you die.

His voice was so clear in her head. She could remember almost every word he ever said to her.

What do we say to the god of death?

"Not today," Arya whispered.

Good. Begin.

Arya started with the basics. The footwork. She practiced all of the forms again. Her body had not yet forgotten the stances, even though some of them were clumsy. She had little time to practice as a prisoner. When the footwork felt sound again, she added needle to the mix. She lunged and stabbed, then retreated. She blocked one strike, then a second. She imagined she was fighting Merryn Trant, the man who had killed Syrio. She was back in this room on that day, but this time she did not run. She fought with Syrio and beat the soldiers back.

Not today. Not today.

She stabbed out at another opponent, then spun around. Her blade clanged off of another sword. A real sword, with a real owner.

Ser Jaime Lannister smirked down at her. "Should you have a sword, Lady Arya?"

Arya paled and stepped back a few feet, hiding needle behind her back, as if he hadn't already seen it. "It's mine. I didn't steal it."

"I believe you. You're clearly familiar with the weapon," Jaime said. "But it must have been taken from you when you were caught."

Arya swallowed hard. "Please...don't tell your father."

"Ah," Jaime nodded knowingly. "So you stole it back from him."

"I didn't steal-it is mine."

"Yours or not, he's going to notice eventually."

"Then let him find out eventually and not now."

Jaime laughed once. Laughter came easier to him than it did to his father. "What do you want with a sword, my lady? Planning to skewer someone with it?"

"No, that would be stupid," Arya said. "Everyone would know it was me. I just..." She lifted her chin. "I wanted to practice again. It's been too long since I practiced."

"I see." Jaime circled around her, turning his sword in hand. "And what would you do with all of this practice? Do you plan to become a knight?"

Arya's eyes narrowed. "Don't mock me, ser."

"I'm not. You know, I was returned to my father by a woman who was close to a knight," Jaime said. Arya wondered for a moment if he was referring to Brienne, her sister's new guard. "Of course...she was taller than most men by quite a bit. You're much... smaller."

"I can be quick," Arya retorted.

"Undoubtedly," Jaime stopped in front of her again, raising his sword a bit. "Well, let's see how good you are."

Arya's grip tightened on needle, fearing some sort of trick. "I...I'm not sure..."

"I won't cut you," Jaime promised.

The slight challenge banished Arya's uncertainty. He doubted her skills. She could hear it. Her eyes narrowed and she raised her sword. "I won't cut you either."

Jaime grinned and stepped to the side. She mirrored him, keeping light on her feet. When he suddenly stepped in the other direction, she changed course.

"Your footwork is good," Jaime said.

"My teacher said footwork was one of the most important skills," Arya said. "It could make the difference between living and dead."

"Your teacher was right," Jaime said. His eyes seemed to flash and he flicked out his sword. Arya parried just in time. He struck out again and she blocked again. "He taught you reflexes too."

"Yes," Arya said. She realized Jaime was testing her abilities. He inherited that from his father at least. Everyone in this place always seemed to be testing her. "He also taught me never to underestimate an enemy, my lord."

Jaime raised an eyebrow. He heard the challenge loud and clear. "Best take his advice then," he said. He struck again.

This time, Jaime did not pause between blows. He rained strike after strike down on her as she blocked and dodged as fast as she could. She knew he was still holding back quite a lot, but at least he was giving her a challenge. The Kingslayer made it all look so easy. He was backing her up toward the wall.

Never let your enemy back you into a corner. That corner will become your grave.

She used her small size to her advantage, ducking under his next blow and spinning around him, away from the wall.

"Smart," Jaime said. "But do you plan on ducking and dodging forever? You won't win that way."

Arya's eyes narrowed as she avoided his next blow. Then she went for a lunge.

It was a mistake. Jaime was expecting the move and he caught her wrist, twisting her sword from her grasp. In the same motion he knocked her flat with the hilt of his blade and she gasped for breath as she hit the ground. The next thing she knew, he stood over her, his sword aimed at her neck.

"Don't let your opponent bait you into an attack," Jaime said. "Especially when you know they have more experience."

Arya released a breath. "My teacher said something similar once."

"You clearly had a good teacher." Jaime inspected needle. She felt nervous not having it in her hand. What if he took it? "You're quick and you're a small target. It helps make up for your weakness."

"It's not my fault I don't grow," Arya said.

"I didn't say it was. It's not your fault you were born a woman either." Jaime offered her a hand. She took it and he pulled her back to her feet. "You're about as good as I was at your age."

"Really?" Arya asked.

"Yes," Jaime said. "Smaller...but good. I didn't see a real battle until I was fifteen."

Arya dropped her gaze. She had already killed twice. And arranged the deaths of two others with Jaquen.

Jaime did not miss her look. "You've already had your first kill, haven't you?"

"Yes," Arya said. "A boy who wanted to turn me in when I first escaped from the keep. And a soldier who tried to take advantage of me while I was cupbearer to your father."

"Well..." Jaime offered her back needle. "Being willing to kill is half of the game of fighting. If you're not willing to take a life, your opponent will take yours. Simple as that."

Arya gratefully took her sword. He wasn't going to keep it then. She worried he might take it back to his father. " did you find me here today, ser?"

"Oh I wasn't looking for you," Jaime said. "Actually, I was looking for somewhere quiet to practice. My skills have gotten rusty since I spent so long as your brother's prisoner. I didn't want to practice for everyone to see, so I came here."

"You don't seem rusty," Arya said.

Jaime smirked. "That's because I'm very good. Even out of practice, I'm better than most men. At my best, there are only a few men in the seven kingdoms who can match me."

"My teacher said arrogance is a costly flaw in battle," Arya said.

"It's not costly if it's true," Jaime paced around her, flipping his sword in hand a few times. "You know, your father could nearly match me. He killed Ser Arthur Dayne. He was very good."

"He didn't like you," Arya said.

Jaime smiled bitterly, slicing twice at the air. The sword seemed to weigh nothing in his hand. It was like an extension of his arm. Arya had always wanted to see Jaime Lannister fight up close when she was younger. She wanted to watch all of the great swordsmen of Westeros in battle. "No. Lord Eddard made that very clear."

"He said you were a man without honor."

"So have many others. That is why so many call me kingslayer."

"I didn't understand it," Arya admitted.

Jaime stopped in the mid swing, glancing over his shoulder. "What didn't you understand?"

"In the war, my father was fighting against the Mad King. He wanted to kill him for hurting our family. That's why the war started," Arya said. "But he said he did not like you because you killed the Mad King. It never made sense to me. He said I was too young to understand."

Jaime lowered his sword slowly. "And how did your father explain it to you?"

"He said you made a vow," Arya said. "A holy vow to protect the king. Which meant that was your duty no matter what, even if the king was mad. A man who breaks a vow cannot be trusted."

"That does sound like him," Jaime said. "Tell me, Lady Arya...were you in the city when your father was killed?"

Arya swallowed hard. Memories of that day welled up inside of her, burning through her chest. She was there and remembered every detail of the sept. Of the mob. Of Joffrey screaming for her father's death.

Bring me his head.

"Yes," she said at last. "I was watching from the statue of Baelor. Hiding amongst the mob."

"It must have been an awful day for you," Jaime said. "Imagine for a moment you were standing on that platform with your father. What would you have done if the king gave you the executioner's sword and bid you to bring him your father's head?"

Arya barred her teeth at the mere suggestion. "I would have killed the king instead. In an instant."

"What if you made a holy vow to do as the king said?" Jaime asked. "To protect the king...would that have made a difference?"

"No," Arya muttered. "If anyone had asked me to kill me father I would have cut them down. Vow or no vow."

Jaime smiled bitterly. "Then I suppose in my would have made the same choice." Then, without another word, he turned and left her there.

Arya watched him go, confused by his response. Her father had said nothing of why Jaime killed the king. She assumed that he just didn't like Aerys and decided he did not want to serve him anymore.

Had the Mad King threatened his father? Had he asked Jaime to kill him?

She shook her head. It really didn't matter why Jaime Lannister killed the mad king. Her father was a good judge of people. If he said Jaime was dishonorable then he was. After all, he was a Lannister.

She could not allow weakness around him or anyone else.

She would learn from her father's mistakes.

Arya continued to accidentally run into Jaime over those next few months-sometimes in the halls and sometimes when she was practicing. When she did, it was hard not to speak to him. Her hatred of his family name mixed with her childhood fascination with great warriors, and her desire to learn from someone so gifted at swordplay. He did not discourage her practices, and in fact seemed intrigued by her dedication. Sometimes he sparred with her to test her out.

Try as she might, she could not hate him.

The same could be said for his younger brother Tyrion. The dwarf always made conversation with her when they happened to cross paths, always with a friendly smile on his face.

"Lady Stark. I see that you're still alive. My father has not bored you to death yet?"

He offered to teach her how to play Cyvasse, a game popular Dorne, in order to keep her entertained. He said it grew boring only playing against Bronn, his sell sword for hire who often traveled with him. Arya turned down the invitation the first time, but she longed for something else to fill her days and she accepted his second offer.

Better to know all the Lannisters well if I want to survive, Arya told herself.

Cyvasse was a game of strategy-a game of calculated risks and great rewards. One had to be smart in how they placed their pieces and be willing to make smart sacrifices if they wanted to win. It was something like a game of war but without the real bloodshed. Arya found it very stimulating and frustrating at the same time. Stimulating because she loved strategy-frustrating because Tyrion beat her every game.

"You are improving greatly, Lady Stark," Tyrion said after her latest defeat. "The matches last much longer now."

Arya sighed, plucking one of the extra pieces from the box. It was a king piece with a cracked crown. She wondered why he even kept the extra piece when it was damaged. "I still lose. Just more slowly."

"Because you need more practice. Be patient," Tyrion grinned. "I expected you to be quite terrible at this game, but you're already exceeding my expectations."

Arya glared at him. "And why did you expect me to be terrible?"

"Why, because you're a Stark. Starks are a straightforward lot and candid people do not do well at this game."

Arya's eyes narrowed. "My brother was beating your father quite soundly in battle until your father used me against him."

Tyrion raised his wine glass. "Very true. I think I like this new generation of Starks."

"Why? We're the enemies of your family," Arya pointed out.

"Well, I only faced the Starks in the field once and I was knocked out for much of it," Tyrion said. "In any case, we're at peace now. We're not technically enemies. And I like anyone who can show up my father every once and awhile."

Arya studied Tyrion. "You don't like your you?"

"No. And he doesn't like me. You've probably noticed. He's very honest about it," Tyrion said.

"Lord Tywin does not seem to like anyone. But yes I have noticed." Arya observed him carefully. "Why does he...?"

"Hate me so much?" Tyrion finished for her. "I'm a big disappointment, you see. I'm a dwarf. That's quite a crime in the noble family of Lannister. To make matters worse, my mother died bringing me into this world. He never forgave me for that, and he's been gathering other reasons to hate me ever since so he makes himself seem more reasonable. But everyone knows why he truly despises me."

Arya sighed. "For something you can't control. My mother was like that with my half-brother Jon."

"Ah yes. Jon Snow," Tyrion said. "I wondered how welcome he was in the house."

"Father was always kind to him," Arya said. "So were the rest of us. Well...Sansa was not very kind to him but...but I was. Robb was. Bran and Rickon adored him too. My mother hated him. Not because he had done anything wrong but because he wasn't hers. My mother is a kind woman, but she couldn't pretend even for a moment, that she did not loathe Jon."

"Yes. Your mother is a kind woman," Tyrion agreed. "My father doesn't even have that going for him. You can imagine my situation."

"At least he doesn't particularly like anyone else," Arya said. "I'm not sure if he's capable of liking anyone."

Tyrion's mouth twitched. "Oh, lady Arya. I know you're new to this place, but you'll learn to tell the difference in time. My father likes some people. He's just not obvious about it."

Arya nodded once. "I would be interested to see that."

"I'd say you already have multiple times," Tyrion said.

Arya gave him a look. "What do you mean?"

"Never mind," Tyrion said. "Let's play another game. I'm in the mood to beat you again."

Arya sat forward in her chair. "Perhaps this will be time that I win."

It was not the time that she won, but she didn't mind. Tyrion, of all the Lannisters, seemed the easiest to like. If his father rejected him, he couldn't be all that bad. And he hadn't done any plotting against her family.

She did not want to become complacent in this place. But as time went on, she was adapting. She was learning, just as Shae suggested.

Could she really be blamed for that?

Chapter Text

Arya avoided Joffrey for a long while, partially because he was on a hunting trip for half of that time. For the other half, he seemed to not know of her arrival. Tywin, no doubt, decided not to inform him so that he wouldn't cause trouble.

But his mother knew, and of course she must have told her son all about Arya's new place in the capitol. Arya was walking back to her room when she saw two of his kingsguard in the hall with the king standing between them.

It had been a year since Arya had last seen Joffrey. He looked the same as ever-though perhaps a bit taller. He still had the same cruel green eyes and the same vicious sneer. The last time she saw him, he was giving the order to remove her father's head.

Joffrey's lips curled back into an awful smile when he saw her.

"Lady Arya. It is you." He took a step forward. "I hardly believed it when I heard you had been brought to the keep."

Arya took a step back. "Yes...your grace." She forced the title out past gritted teeth. Rage made her almost dizzy, but she knew better than to lash out. Not here. It would only get her killed. "I'm a ward to the Lannister family now."

"To keep your traitor brother in line. I've heard," Joffrey kept moving toward her. Arya was torn between lunging at him, fleeing or standing her ground. She chose standing her ground, though she swayed on the spot. "I don't know why my grandfather didn't kill you as punishment. Why keep you here? It's not as if you're useful."

Arya's gaze flicked to the Kingsguard. One of them was Merryn Trant. She could see his face beneath his helmet. Two of them in their strong armor would be able to overpower her easily. "I'm a hostage, your grace. I hear those are very useful."

"Sometimes yes," Joffrey said. "But we don't need peace with the northerners. We should have taken all of their heads before we allowed peace."

"And how did you proposed to get all of their heads?" Arya asked. "Your grace."

"I wouldn't discuss my plans with you," Joffrey said indignantly. "But I think a good start would be sending them your head. Payment for all of the men they killed."

Arya lifted her chin. "Your grandfather brought me back for a reason. He's your hand of the king, isn't he? I don't think he would advise you to kill me."

"No." Joffrey looked down at her. She hated how much taller he stood. "But I can hurt you." He glanced back at his Kingsguard. "Ser Meryn. Ser Boros."

The Kingsguard came at her. Arya had exactly one weapon: a fork she had kept from her lunch and slid up her sleeve. It was not enough to defend herself, but she would not go down easily. Ser Boros reached for her and she ducked under his arm, only to stumble into Merryn. He seized her arms and lifted her off the ground, as if to throw her.

It was a mistake. She wrapped her legs around his waist to steady herself and knocked of his helmet. She drove the fork into his cheek, and snapped her teeth down on his ear, biting as hard as she could. He screamed and his grip tightened so much that Arya thought he might crush her arms. But she did not give. She kept biting and tearing the fork through his flesh until he smacked her upside the head, tearing her loose. She slammed to the ground gasping for breath. His ear fell from her mouth and rolled across the ground.

"You little bitch," Merryn snapped. She barely heard him. Her ears were ringing from the blow.

"She's wild as a wolf," Joffrey cried out. She hadn't even attacked him and he sounded afraid. "Show her a lion's strength."

A boot took her in the stomach. Then the ribs. Arya heard an audible crack and pain flashed through her body. She screamed before she could stop herself. Seven hells...had Sansa endured such abuse? Had they hurt her like this? She would kill them if they had hit her even once.

If she survived. Her vision blurred as the pain began to fog her brain. Moving hurt. Breathing hurt. She could not fight if she could not breathe.

She could not survive either.

Jaime only happened to be passing by. He was on his way to speak to Tyrion about...something. He could not remember what it was later. It must have been some trivial annoyance. But when he passed down the hall, he heard a cry of pain.

Though he had long ago abandoned his honor, the knight in him still went toward the sound on instinct. Someone was in agony, and someone else was laughing about it.

Joffrey, Jaime thought. Of course it's Joffrey. He has such a love of watching other creatures in pain.

It would likely be better not to intervene. He should leave Joffrey to his toys. He would check the situation and move on. Nothing more.

But when Jaime rounded the corner, he saw Arya Stark crumbled on the floor, curled into a ball to defend her body from the boots of the two Kingsguard standing over her. But the next kick from Merryn Trant sent her sprawling on her back, gasping for air. Joffrey laughed again.

Seven hells, Jaime stalked forward. The boy was going to hurl them right back into the war with the north "That's enough."

"Uncle," Joffrey said. "I'm teaching the girl a small lesson."

"Really," Jaime stopped just behind her. "What is that lesson exactly? That a thirteen year old girl can't win in a fight against two fully armored knights?" He glanced at Merryn. He had a nasty gash in his face and was missing most of his right ear. "It seems she did better than expected."

"We do as the king commands," Merryn protested.

"That's right, you do, don't you?" Jaime said. "I heard you did as the king commanded when he ordered you to beat Sansa Stark too. Because the king isn't very good at handling hostages."

Joffrey's face twisted in rage. "You don't speak to me like that, uncle. I am your king."

"Yes, your grace, you are," Jaime said. "You should start acting more like one."

Joffrey seemed bewildered by Jaime's words as he knelt beside Arya Stark. One of her eyes was blackened, but the other cracked open. She was still conscious.

"Apologies, Lady Stark," Jaime said. "We should get you to a maester."

"I'm not done with her yet," Joffrey said.

"Yes you are," Jaime said.

"Ser Merryn. Ser Boros," Joffrey said. Both Kingsguard took a step toward Jaime and he drew his sword.

"Come closer, and I'll cut through both of you," Jaime promised.

"It's our duty to protect and obey the king," Merryn Trant spat. "Maybe you forgot that while you were a prisoner, Kingslayer."

Jaime tilted his head to the side. "Well, I didn't forget my sword play while I was a prisoner. And that means I could very easily kill both of you. It would leave the king without two of his guards. That would not be protecting him, would it?"

The two men stilled. They knew better than to fight with Jaime. With Barristan Selmy gone, Jaime was the best swordsmen in the keep.

When the knights did not advance, Jaime sheathed his sword again and bent to pick up Arya Stark. Thankfully, she was small and easy to carry.

"Ser...Jaime?" she croaked out. Her voice was dangerously weak.

"Stay awake if you would, Lady Stark," Jaime murmured. "The maester will take care of you."

And my father will take care of them, he thought. Lord Tywin would not be happy about this development in the least.

Tyrion had witnessed his father's anger on multiple occasions. Quite often, Tyrion himself was the cause of it. But he had to admit, it was a bit cathartic to see Joffrey on the receiving end of Tywin's rage.

"Attacking Arya Stark was stupid," Tywin said coldly. "Nearly as stupid as chopping off Ned Stark's head. Apparently you did not learn your lesson from that incident."

"The Starks are all traitors," Joffrey said. "I took Ned Stark's head because he said I was not a king. Robb Stark claimed the same and you offered peace."

"Peace is much less expensive than war, your grace," Tywin said. "Shall I have Lord Baelish explain the numbers to you?"

Lord Baelish looked like he would really rather not explain any of that. All of the small council was keeping quiet, not wanting to stand in the middle of this fight between the King and his Hand. Even Cersei looked hesitant when she spoke.

"That girl is wild," she murmured. "I'm sure Joffrey was only defending himself."

"He was not," Tywin said flatly. "That's the same weak lie you used the first time they fought."

"I don't need a reason," Joffrey said. "She's our hostage."

"And her wellbeing is what keeps us from restarting another pointless war with the north right on the edge of winter," Tywin snapped. The volume of his voice seemed to shrink Joffrey for a moment. Tyrion hid a smile behind his hand. Yes, he did enjoy watching this.

"Your grace," Varys said carefully. "If I may...Robb Stark has sworn allegiance to you and will ride south soon to swear it before the throne in the sight of gods and men. Since they have surrendered...mercy seems a wise course of action."

"I am merciful if I don't execute every one of the north men for treason," Joffrey spat.

"You would be ruling over cold graves then," Tyrion pointed out. "Not very lively subjects."

"That is my right. I am the king." Joffrey declared.

"Any man who must say "I am the king" is no true king." Tywin stood from his seat. He was quite a bit taller than Joffrey and the boy seemed to notice it, gripping his mother's chair for support. "If your enemies defy you, destroy them. But if they kneel, you must help them to their feet. Otherwise, no man will ever kneel to you. King Aerys never understood that but you must if you want your line to survive."

Joffrey bristled at this. "Is that a threat?"

"It is advice...your Grace," Tywin seemed to add the title almost as an afterthought. "I am your hand. I advise you. I suggest that you listen."

"Why should I?" Joffrey asked.

"Wise men listen, especially to the men who won their war for them."

"You didn't win. You made peace." Joffrey spat the word, as if it tasted sour. "My father won the real war. He killed Prince Rhaegar. He took the iron throne while you hid under Casterly Rock!"

A deep silence fell over the room. Pycelle gripped the edge of the table and Varys and Littlefinger exchanged shocked glances. Cersei stared intently at her hands, as if wishing there was a wine glass in them. Tyrion very nearly started laughing but he forced it down. That was not a wise thing to say to his father. It was technically true, but it wasn't wise.

Tywin regarded Joffrey coldly. In the endless quiet, the boy king squirmed nervously, unable to hold his gaze. He raised his chin in a weak attempt to seem stronger, but everyone could see his fear.

"The king is tired," Tywin said at last, with extraordinary finality. "See him to his chambers."

Cersei was on her feet in a second, taking Joffrey's hand. "Come now. Let's go."

"I'm not tired," Joffrey muttered.

"It's late. You should rest," Cersei led him toward the door.

"Grand Maester. Perhaps an essence of nightshade to help him sleep," Tywin glanced at Pycelle.

Joffrey turned back, calling on what seemed to be the last of his courage. "You can't just send me to my rooms."

"I am. Right now," Tywin said. "And if you jeopardize our peace with the North by harming Arya Stark again, I'll send you there longer."

Joffrey offered up no more argument to that. He fell quiet and allowed Cersei to guide him from the room. Quite the king indeed.

The other members of the small council shuffled out rather quickly, not eager to remain in the aftermath of Tywin's rage. Tyrion lingered for a moment, an amused smile on his face.

"You just sent the most powerful man in the kingdoms to bed without his supper."

"You're a fool if you think Joffrey is the most powerful man," Tywin said.

"A treasonous statement. Joffrey is king," Tyrion said.

Tywin gave him a look. "He'll only become more difficult to manage the older he gets. The Mad King was the same way. In the beginning he took advice. He listened. By the end, nothing could be said."

"That doesn't bode well," Tyrion said. "Joffrey does not even take advice now. He can be manipulated and intimidated. Margaery does quite a good job at the former and you're good at the latter. But eventually he is going to catch on to both."

Tywin did not reply to that. "What have you heard of the Stark girl's condition?"

"Her right arm is broken. Several broken ribs and far more bruises. One of her eyes is swollen shut," Tyrion said. "But she will live."

"Good," Tywin said. "Those kingsguard should be thankful for that. It would be their heads otherwise."

"Meryn Trant may be suffering his punishment already," Tyrion said. "The girl bit off his ear and stabbed him in the face with a fork. Not a clean wound. I hear it has become badly infected because he did not see to it."

"If a knight can be killed with a fork and a girl's teeth, he should not be a knight," Tywin said. "Did Joffrey handle the other Stark girl this way?"

"He tried to. I stopped him when I could," Tyrion said. "She never earned a beating this terrible, but then again, Sansa was a gentler creature. I have no doubt Arya Stark fought back."

"She has her father's foolish bravery as well as his look." Tywin tapped his fingers against the table. "We'll have to cure her of that."

"Cure her of his look? I don't think that's possible," Tyrion said.

"Do you ever stop trying to be clever?" Tywin said.

"No. Do you?" Tyrion asked.

Tywin regarded him coldly. "Keep an eye on the girl, Tyrion, and make sure word of this does not reach her brother until she is recovered. I am not going to fall back into war with the north this close to the winter. If you were able to manage Joffrey before, you should be able to keep him and the Stark girl away from each other now."

Tyrion nodded. He knew their discussion was at its end.

Part of him had wished that his father had never returned. Then he might have continued to be hand of the king forever. But on the other hand, now it was Tywin's job to manage Joffrey, and he might find it was not so easy. The boy was afraid of him for now. That was what gave him an edge.

It wouldn't last forever. When Joffrey got stupid enough, who knew what kind of madness he would rain on the seven kingdoms?

Chapter Text

Arya faded in and out of consciousness for the first few days, though she would much rather be asleep. Being awake meant pain every time she even breathed. She would rather be lost in her dreams.

She had many strange dreams. In one she found herself racing through the forest at top speed. All around her, wolves howled. She was running with them, and they followed her as if they belonged to her pack. Perhaps they did. She was running on all fours. Powerful. Unstoppable. She could have fought anything and won in that moment.

Give me a name, Jaquen Hagar's voice echoed from some distant place. And the man will do the rest.

She lunged at a deer and crushed its neck in her strong jaws. The blood tasted warm on her tongue.

She found herself at Winterfell in the crypts, staring up at a statue of her father. When she stumbled from the darkness and up to the surface, the snow had fallen deeper than she had ever seen. Flayed men hung between two towers. They all looked down at her with vacant eyes.

She found herself back at Harrenhal, surrounded by death. Bodies scattered the courtyard, all with different sigils on their armor. Wolves, lions, stags. Ravens looked down from the battlements, and high above, she heard the beat of great wings.

She found herself at the sept of Baelor, surrounded by the mob. Only this time she was standing on the platform beside her father. Joffrey held a sword out to her. Her father's sword.

Bring me his head.

She gripped the great sword, drawing in painful breaths and turned to face her father. He looked up at her as she raised the sword.

The crowd called for blood.

Arya woke with a painful gasp. Everything hurt, but this time she felt as if she were awake for good. She gritted her teeth, and rested her head back against the pillow.

I'm alive at least. Pain means I am alive.

"Lady Stark. Are you awake for good this time?"

Arya glanced to the side to see Tyrion sitting in the corner of her room. He was reading a very large book.

"I think so," Arya said. "Have you been...watching me?"

"Yes. Orders from my father. In case anyone comes to finish you, I'll be here to fight them off. I'm very fearsome in a battle you see."

"That's a lie," said another voice. Arya saw a man leaning against the wall. She had seen him with Lord Tyrion before. Ser Bronn of the Blackwater. "He pays me to do the fighting."

Tyrion smiled dryly. "Have you met Ser Bronn?"

"In passing," Arya managed. "Is he a sell sword?"

"An anointed knight now," Bronn smirked. "Notice the 'ser' in front of my name."

"You don't dress like a knight," Arya said.

"Aye. And I don't die like one either."

"Let's hope so anyway." Tyrion looked back at Arya. "How are you feeling?"

"Terrible," Arya said.

"That's to be expected after you fought with two kingsguard." Tyrion snapped his book closed.

"Fought? It wasn't much of a fight," Arya said. "They attacked me and I only got a few hits before I fell." She swallowed hard. "Has Joffrey been saying I attacked him first? I didn't. It's a lie. That would be-"

"Stupid, yes." Tyrion hopped off of his chair. "And you are not stupid. Never fear, Lady Stark. Joffrey did not claim you attacked him. Rather, he tried to say it was his right to abuse you. That explanation did not go over well with my father."

"Robb did say that if I was harmed he would raise his armies again," Arya said.

"My father won't let news of this incident reach your brother if he can help it," Tyrion said. "But his rage was quite the spectacle. You should have seen Joffrey quaking in his boots."

"I would have liked to see that." Arya forced a pained smile. "Joffrey is afraid of Lord Tywin, isn't he?"

"Everyone in the seven kingdoms is afraid of my father," Tyrion said. "Including the king. My father will be able to control him as long as that remains the case. Joffrey won't come after you for some time. Not until he gets brave again."

"I may not survive the next time he gets brave," Arya said. "I only survived this time because..." She trailed off. How did she survive? She remembered the pain mostly. Then the pain had stopped.

"Come closer, and I'll cut through both of you."

"Ser Jaime," she remembered. "Your brother stopped them, didn't he?"

"Yes," Tyrion said. "The king is not particularly happy with him for that. It's a good thing he's family."

"Do you think they would have killed me if he hadn't come?" Arya asked quietly.

"It's possible. But you are made of stronger stuff, aren't you?" He grinned. "One good thing did come from all of this."

"And what's that?" Arya asked.

"You might have killed that fucker Merryn Trant," Bronn said. "The way I heard it, his wounds have festered. Idiot didn't have them looked at."

"No," Tyrion said. "He wasn't willing to admit he had been injured by a thirteen year old girl. Now he's feverish and the maester says he may not live."

Arya could not keep herself from smiling. Merryn Trant was a name on her list. He had killed Syrio once. How funny it would be if he died of an infection wrought by her and a simple fork.

Tyrion left her to retrieve the maester then, ordering Bronn to stay and stand guard. Arya stared up at her ceiling, breathing shallowly through the pain. News of Merryn Trant's possible demise brought her list back to mind. The list she once repeated in her sleep.




Illyn Payne

Merryn Trant


The Mountain

The Hound

She could not hope to kill most of them at her current position. But Merryn Trant's own stupidity had killed him.

Maybe the others would join him in the future, one way or another.

Recovery was slow and began to drive Arya absolutely mad. She hated being confined to bed for so long, and as soon as she could, she forced herself to walk around her room at least. The bruising had begun to fade and while her torso was still sore, she could breathe without wanting to die. Her arm was still the worse, bound up in a sling. It was fortunate that she was left handed, but she needed Shae's help to dress. Shae kept her company often and helped tend to her wounds. Arya liked talking to her, but she still felt she might go insane from boredom, trapped in her room.

It was two month before she felt able to walk the halls again. Her arm would be fully healed in another few months according to Grand Maester Pycelle, and he insisted there would be no lasting damage. It was a clean break. The pain, at least, had abated. There was a persistent tingling in Arya's fingers, but that was meant to fade in time.

Unfortunately, she now had two Lannister guards flanking her wherever she walked. For protection, according to Tyrion, but she did not like them watching her. She wasn't able to do anything without them coming along, which meant she could not escape to practice with needle. It was truly a dreadful situation.

Sansa always excelled at everything "ladylike", but Arya did not know how the practice didn't bore her sister to tears. Proper ladies did not run or fight. They practiced walking gracefully and needlework, at which Arya had always been horrid. Now, as she was still healing, Arya read to keep her mind from going numb as well as her fingers.

The only book in her room was The Language of Flowers and after reading it twice through out of desperation, Arya never wanted to look at a flower again. In the confines her room, she once grew so bored that she balanced the book on top of her head to see how long she could keep it from falling.

She was doing just that when Tyrion entered the room to check on her progress. He was accompanied by a boy this time, just barely old enough to be a man. She had seen him before too. He was lord Tyrion's squire. Both of the men gave her an odd look.

"Trying to absorb the words through the top of your skull, Lady Arya?"

"She is practicing," Shae said. "So that she can walk like a lady."

"Do ladies walk around with books on their heads?" Tyrion asked.

"No. I'm just trying to entertain myself." Arya let the book slide off of her head. "I've read this volume twice now. It's not even interesting. I am so bored I've considered jumping off the balcony."

"I recommend against that," Tyrion said. "The Language of Flowers? That does sound like a dry read."

"Did you know that if you combine certain flowers together, they're supposed to mean something?" Arya sighed. "Why not just say what you mean? Why do you have to use flowers?"

"I've heard some women find it romantic," Tyrion said. "What do you think, Lady Shae?"

"I agree with Lady Arya. Men should say what they mean," Shae said.

"An interesting perspective. What say you, Podrick?"

The boy flushed. "Well I...I'm not sure...I don't think I know enough of flowers to say, my lord." He glanced at Arya. "I'm sure Lady Stark is right though."

"You see." Arya slapped the book down on her bed. "Please, you have to bring me some other books. It's the only thing I can do until I'm recovered."

"I have many books, fortunately," Tyrion said. "What do you enjoy reading, Lady Arya?"

"I enjoy books about the Targaryen conquests," Arya said. "And the Dance of Dragons. That's always exciting. If you have anything on the wars of the past, I'm sure I'll enjoy it."

"Interesting. Did your father let you read those?" Tyrion inquired.

"It was the only way he could get me to read," Arya said. "I wouldn't learn with books that didn't interest me."

Tyrion's mouth quirked. "Well, as it so happens, I have many books that should suit your interests. I pulled several volumes while preparing for the Battle of the Blackwater."

"Good. Bring me as many as you can carry," Arya said.

The reading helped. It kept her mind off of the pain of healing, and allowed her to drift away from the Red Keep, back to the battles of old. It was an age of heroes and dragons. A time that seemed rather like a fantasy to her now. How she would have loved to be a Targaryen princess, astride a dragon, wielding a valyrian steel sword. Who would dare to challenge her then?

At some point, Tyrion also brought her pen and paper, though not only for her leisure.

"My father wishes for you to write a letter to your brother," Tyrion said. "Assuring him that you are well."

"Of course he does," Arya said. "Would you like to dictate the exact words I should write?"

"No," Tyrion said. "Robb won't believe the letter if we do."

"Suppose I write the truth then? What will you do then?" Arya asked.

Tyrion raised an eyebrow. "Do you want your brother to return to war, Lady Arya?"

Arya sighed, running her fingers over the paper. No. She did not want that. She did not want any more northmen to die because of her. "I'll write the letter."

It took her the next hour to figure out exactly what she wanted to say. By the end she had penned a letter that Tyrion deemed suitable enough.

Dear Robb,

Lord Tywin insists that I write to assure you that I am not dead, which I suppose you have already guessed, considering that this is my hand writing. I hope this reaches you and that the Greyjoys are not giving you too much trouble. Please write when Bran and Rickon are safe and Winterfell retaken. Tell mother and Sansa that I miss them. I miss you all.

Until we meet again,

Arya Stark

She was reminded of the vast space between her and Winterfell as she wrote the letter and it nearly reduced her to tears. She held them back. Crying only made the pain worse, and she did not want any Lannister to see her tears. Not even Tyrion.

As her condition improved, she took more walks, though always accompanied by her new Lannister guards. They did not speak to her and she did not speak to them. She went out to the gardens for fresh air, and to spot some of the damn flowers she spent too much time reading about. It was not the same as practicing with needle and she missed the solitude, but at least she felt alive once again.

It was on the way back from one of her walks that she crossed paths again with Jaime Lannister. In fact, she very nearly collided with him when she turned a corner.

"My apologies, Lady Stark," Jaime looked her over. "You're up and about again."

"I... yes," Arya said. "Grand Maester Pycelle says there should be no lasting damage."

"That's good to hear. Fortunate that they broke your right arm instead of your left. It shouldn't affect your...practice near as much."

"Funny enough I haven't gotten much time to practice." Arya glanced meaningfully at her two guards.

Jaime's mouth twitched. "No I suppose not." He gave her a nod. "Perhaps when you're fully recovered. Excuse me."

He circled past her to continue on his way. She cursed herself twice before turning around to call after him. "Ser Jaime?"

He stopped, glancing over his shoulder. "Yes, Lady Arya?"

"Thank you," Arya said. "For your help. It's possible that I owe you my life."

"It's possible," Jaime agreed. "Think nothing of it. You do not owe me anything. Even if you did, there's nothing in the Stark words about paying debts." With that he turned and continued on his way. "I wish you a full recovery."

Arya exhaled. She did not want to owe the Lannisters anything. Not a single one of them. Lannisters collected on debts as much as they paid them. Even if Jaime claimed that she did not owe him, she felt the debt.

I'll have to save his life one day, she thought. Then perhaps I can call the debt paid.

Six months after her injury, when her ribs had long healed and her arm was finally freed of its sling, Tywin Lannister called her to the Tower of the Hand. He was writing letters, as usual. Arya had never known a lord to write quite as much as her captor. Usually they left that to the maesters.

He did not look up as she entered. He kept on scribbling, leaving her hovering in the center of the room. She made an effort to stand absolutely still. Tywin had a way of making people feel nervous in his presence, and though Arya was not immune to it, she did not want to admit weakness by fidgeting. She imagined she was completing one of Syrio's exercises.

Stand absolutely still for as long as you can. This brings focus. Calm. If you cannot be calm in the stillness-in the silence-then your weakness will be more obvious.

At last, Lord Tywin looked up. "I see your injuries have healed."

"I would not have been able to climb the stairs if they weren't, my lord," Arya said.

"No. Likely not." Tywin glanced at her guards. "Leave us."

They both nodded, silent as ever, and left the room. She exhaled. "Are they really necessary?"

"I'd think your past several months of recovery would make that answer obvious," Tywin said. "They're for your protection."

"I don't feel protected. I feel watched," Arya said. "With them always around I can't..." She stopped herself. " freely."

"You mean you can't practice with your sword which you stole back from me," Tywin said, almost casually.

Arya paled. "I...what?"

"You are aware that I keep a close watch on you even without the guards, yes?" Tywin set down his quill.

"How long have you known?"

"A long time."

His expression was unreadable, and she could not tell exactly how angry he was about her retaking her sword. She raised her chin, pressing her closed fist against her thigh. "I'm not sorry. I only took back what is mine. And it's not as if I've hurt anyone with it."

Tywin regarded her for a long moment. "You're nervous."

It was a statement, not a question. Arya swallowed hard. "I'm not."

"You are. You always lift your chin like that when you're nervous," Tywin said. "You ought to correct that or soon everyone will be able to tell."

Arya lowered her chin, looking straight at him.

"Good," Tywin said. "If I was worried about you and your sword, I would have done something about it a long time ago. If you wish to play with that toy, your guards will not stop you. That's not why I called you here today."

Arya's shoulders relaxed. "Then why did you call me here?"

Tywin indicated the chair in front of his desk. "Sit."

Arya obeyed, taking a seat. She sat on her hands, but made an effort not to lift her chin again. Nerves still buzzed through her body. What had Tywin called her here for?

"Your brother replied to your letter." Tywin tossed a letter on the desk. "I thought you might want to read."

Arya eyed the letter cautiously. "Good news or bad?"

"I'll let you decide for yourself," Tywin said.

Slowly, Arya took the letter from the desk. The seal was broken of course. Tywin would not let her read anything that he had not already read himself. She took a deep breath and read.


I am glad to hear you are well. We think of you every day. I write this from the halls of Winterfell. The siege is at its end. The battle was not without its costs, but Bran and Rickon are safe. We are home.

The rebellion is not over and will not be over until the Greyjoys surrender. But it should please you to know that all of our siblings are no longer in danger.

I hope that you will stay out of trouble as well. As best you can.


Arya covered her mouth to hold back a gasp of relief. Bran and Rickon were okay. Winterfell belonged to the Starks again. It was perhaps the best news she had heard in a very long time. War or not, for now, everyone was safe.

She composed herself again and placed the letter back on the desk. "You could have told me it was good news."

"I could have," Tywin agreed. "It seems your brother continues to succeed on the battlefield. His handling of the Greyjoys makes things much easier for us."

"Does that mean you will protect him when he bends the knee to Joffrey?" Arya asked.

"I gain nothing from your brother's death at this time," Tywin said. "I could lose a great deal if Joffrey kills him. Your brother will leave King's Landing alive."

"You're sure you can control Joffrey?" Arya asked.

"I controlled the Mad King for a time. I can control Joffrey," Tywin said.

"For a time?" Arya asked. "So when did he get to be too much for you?"

Tywin regarded her for a long moment. There was a coldness in his eyes. A warning. She knew when she had pressed too far, but she did not lift her chin this time. She kept her gaze steady.

I will not be afraid. I am a wolf. I have no need to fear him.

"You may leave," Tywin said flatly after what seemed like an eternal silence. "I have nothing more to discuss with you today."

Arya inclined her head. "My lord."

Lord Tywin would allow many things from her that most captors would not. He allowed her to speak freely and he allowed her to practice swordplay. But he never allowed her to question his strength. He did not show his weakness, not just to Arya, but anybody.

But she was beginning to learn his tells too, just as he had learned hers. One day, she just might be able to use that against him.

Chapter Text

Two good things came from that meeting with Tywin. For one thing, Arya could breathe a sigh of relief about the wellbeing of her family. Robb, Sansa, Bran, Rickon. Her mother. They were all safe for now, and that was all she could ask for. For a time after her father lost his head, it seemed all the Starks might be killed, one way or another. But they had endured.

In addition to that, Tywin did not intend to take away her sword again. She supposed as long as she kept it tucked in that room, he wouldn't see it as a problem. She couldn't use it on anyone important if it was hidden in the walls. So, fully healed, she returned to that room and asked her guards to stay outside the door. Needle was exactly where she left it and she was relieved to feel its hilt in her hand again.

It won't cut a man's head off, but it can poke him full of holes if you're quick enough.

Arya adjusted her hold, making sure her grip was delicate. Then she began to practice once again.

Several months of bed rest had made her weaker, and she was determined to close that gap as quickly as possible. She practiced every day, sometimes for hours, with a new sort of determination. Next time, she would not be caught off guard by Joffrey's men. Next time she was determined to fight them.

She could not take needle with her outside of this room. She doubted Tywin would allow her to carry a sword openly. But if they did come at her again, she could dodge them. Avoid them. Or perhaps take a weapon from one of her new guards.

Whatever the case, she would be prepared.

As she practiced, she whispered her list under her breath.

Cersei Lannister

Joffrey Baratheon

Tywin Lannister

Illyn Payne


The Mountain

The Hound

Merryn Trant was no longer on her list, and she was debating the place of some others. She had no idea where to find Polliver or the Mountain. She thought she might be able to find the Hound, but apparently he had deserted the king during the Battle of the Blackwater. She had casually asked Tyrion about it and he told her the story.

"The last thing he said to me was 'fuck the king'," Tyrion said. "Which I suppose I could understand."

It was a funny thought. It almost made Arya consider taking him off her list, until she remembered Micah.

Joffrey, Cersei and Tywin were in the capitol of course, but each was as un-killable as the last. The whole keep would know if she tried to kill Joffrey. Cersei was far too suspicious of her already. And Tywin...sometimes she wasn't even sure if he could die.

Anyone can be killed, she reminded herself. But she could not kill him. He was the only one who would bother protecting Robb when he came to the capitol. He was her captor, but he stood between her family and the king.

Really, the list was more a fantasy for Arya. She could not kill anyone without Tywin knowing about it. She could not rebel or she might jeopardize the wellbeing of her family. But she did think about it sometimes, to keep her sane. She imagined destroying her enemies and rising above them all.

It made her feel less weak. Less helpless.

One day as she practiced, she felt a presence behind her. She did not hear footsteps, or hear anyone at all. But her skin prickled at the feeling of being watched.

She spun toward the balcony and saw a familiar man standing there, watching her with an amused smirk.

"A girl is practicing."

"Jaqen," Arya breathed. She shot a glance at the closed door, worried the guards might burst through. "You're here."

"I am," Jaqen H'gar said. "A man came to the capitol at the behest of the many faced god. A girl came against her will. And here we both are."

Arya stepped cautiously up to the balcony. "You came to find me?"

"Of course. A girl saved three lives and gave a man only two to take away. She has a third name to give."

Arya had nearly forgotten. After Tywin discovered her true name, everything had changed so quickly. Harrenhal seemed like a lifetime ago. But now she was owed one more name. She could name absolutely anyone in the world.

She could name someone from her list.

Arya look up at Jaqen. "I can name anyone? No matter what?"

"Give the man a name and that name will die," Jaqen said. "Any name. There is no limit."

It would be that easy. She had seen Jaqen kill before. He wasn't lying. One word from her and an enemy would die.

But who? Joffrey seemed an obvious choice, but if she gave his name so soon after he nearly killed her, she would be a suspect. Cersei was just as dangerous as Joffrey and maybe safer to kill. Lord Tywin...she could not kill him yet or she might doom Robb. Who did she choose?

"How long will you be in the capitol?" Arya asked.

"For a time," Jaqen said. "There is always much work to be done here."

"Then may I have time to think?" Arya asked. "There are several names I could give. I don't know which one yet."

Jaqen inclined his head. "When a girl wishes to find me again, she will find me here on this balcony."

"How will you know to come?" Arya asked.

Jaqen smiled mysteriously. "A man will know."

"You know a lot," Arya said. "I've never seen anyone kill so easily. I'd like to do the same someday"

"A girl could learn...if she came with me to Bravvos after my work here is done," Jaqen said. "A girl could learn many things there."

It was an enticing offer. If Arya could learn to kill from Jaquen then no one on her list would be safe. But then again...Bravvos was a long way from home. She did not want to put her family in danger by fleeing.

"I have to stay," Arya said. "For my family's sake."

Jaqen nodded once. "If that is a girl's choice, so be it."

"But you could teach me a small thing here," Arya said. "Just one trick."

Jaqen's mouth quirked. "And why would a man do that?"

"Because this is a dangerous place for me. I've already almost been killed once," Arya said. "If I die, I cannot give you a third name."

"You could become the third name," Jaqen pointed out.

Arya crossed her arms. "That wasn't the deal."

Jaqen inclined his head. "No. It was not." He thought for a moment, then drew a knife from his belt. It was smaller than a dagger and had a very thin hilt. He took her hand in his, pressing the hilt into her left hand. Arya watched as he maneuvered her fingers into a particular hold. Then he stepped back and nodded at the wall.

"A girl can do the rest."

Arya stared at the wall for a moment, confused. "What do you mean I-" She turned to look back for Jaqen but he had already gone.

Arya cursed twice under her breath. Of course he wouldn't really teach her. What did he want her to practice? Stabbing? Slashing?

She looked at the wall, trying to find the answer. Then she noticed the stack of wooden crates. That's what he had indicated. She glanced down at the knife in her hand, then back to the crates.

She shifted her right foot back slightly, squared her shoulders, and then threw. The knife stuck in the tallest crate with a quiver.

Arya grinned. She could not carry Needle with her but she could carry a knife up her sleeve with little trouble. If she could master the throw, then she could kill an enemy at a distance. Even the helmets of King's guard had gaps for a thin blade like this.

Arya moved forward and pried her new knife from the crates. Then she returned to her original place, adjusted her grip, and threw again. It struck the wood far to the left of her first mark. She retrieved the blade and tried again. And again. And again.

By the end of the afternoon, the crates were full of holes.

Jaime had only just returned from war, when his father bid him leave for it again. The Starks were dealing with the Greyjoy rebellion, the Tyrell's had been brought to heel with Margaery's engagement to Joffrey, and Stannis' army was crushed at the Battle of Blackwater. But Robert's younger brother was still a problem. Some of his forces had survived and as long as Stannis himself lived, he would be the greatest threat to Joffrey's throne. Technically speaking he was the true heir.

But to admit that would be to admit Joffrey's true parentage and that would not bode well for Jaime, Cersei or any of their children.

So Tywin had instructed Jaime to deal with the issue. He had not intentions of leaving one of the five kings to wander around until he could regain his armies. Stannis was one man he could never bargain into submission. He had to go.

It wouldn't take many men. Dragonstone would be well fortified but not well guarded. So many soldiers had died in the Battle of Blackwater, and many more had scattered in the aftermath, abandoning Stannis for greener pastures. They had no fleet. They had no hope of winning.

At Dragonstone, Stannis would make his last stand, and the last of the five kings would be dealt with.

Along with the orders, his father gifted Jaime with a sword-one of the most beautiful he had ever seen. In fact, it looked like valyrian steel, but it couldn't possibly be. These weapons were rare and only a fool would sell one.

"It was reworked," Tywin said. "There are a few smiths who know how to reforge valyrian steel. The original weapon was quite large, so he reworked it into two blades."

"The original weapon?" Jaime raised an eyebrow.

"Ned Stark's sword," Tywin said. "That one goes to you. If Joffrey learns an ounce of patience and wisdom, the other will go to him on his wedding day."

"Don't tell Arya Stark that," Jaime said.

"I did not plan on it," Tywin said. "I expect this sword will help you to put down Stannis?"

"If he's fool enough to fight me himself, yes," Jaime said. "Thank you. Truly. It's beautiful."

"You're my son," Tywin said. "Such a weapon befits the Lannister name."

On one hand, Jaime had only just returned to King's Landing and wasn't anxious to leave again. On the other hand, he knew fighting and war far better than politics. Between Cersei, Joffrey and his father, he was beginning to lose his fucking mind.

Cersei was the most difficult to deal with. When he returned to the capitol, he expected her to be happy to see him. She was...perhaps. But there was something changed about her. She was wilder and colder at the same time. She seemed to resent him for his imprisonment. Maybe he should not have taken it personally. She resented everyone for something these days. And he got to hear it all.

"What does it matter if Joffrey damaged the Stark girl a bit?" she snapped one morning. "You were there to make sure it did not go too far."

"I almost wasn't there," Jaime reminded her. "It was lucky I kept him from killing her."

"Father was mad to make peace with the north anyway," Cersei stalked to her table and took a long sip from her wine. She drank more than ever now. Why were both of his siblings so attached to wine lately? "I think age might be softening him."

"I doubt that," Jaime said. "He's not exactly being soft on the Greyjoys or on Stannis Baratheon. And speaking of Stannis Baratheon, I'm leaving today to deal with him. Must we talk about Father's deal with the north again?"

"You were with him when he made the deal. You should have said something," Cersei muttered.

"I've never been able to change father's mind about anything," Jaime said.

"Perhaps I could have then."

"You've never been able to change father's mind about anything. What are you talking about?"

"I would...if I was born in a man's body I would be taken as seriously as you." Cersei glared at him over her shoulder.

Jaime exhaled moving toward her with careful steps. "Cersei...please. Why are we talking about this?" He reached out a hand to rest on her shoulder but she stepped out of his reach.

"What do you expect from me? A tearful goodbye? Sweet words of farewell?"

Jaime dropped his hand, feeling frustration burn through him. "Is that so much to ask?"

"You were gone for over a year," Cersei said. "You can't expect everything to be the same now that you've returned."

"Do you think I wanted to be gone? Do you think I was running around the countryside for the fun of it?" Jaime asked. "I was a hostage. I was in a cage."

"It doesn't matter what you wanted. You were gone," Cersei said. "Stannis' men nearly took the castle. They would have killed me and both your sons. Do you care nothing of that?"

"Of course I care about that," Jaime snapped. "And if Stannis won the battle, my sword would not have been enough to save you." He ran a hand through his hair. "Anyway, he didn't win. We destroyed his army. Everything is fine."

"Everything is not fine. It's not as simple as that," Cersei whirled to face him. "Now Joffrey is engaged to that Tyrell whore. All of our enemies are allowed to bend the knee. We are weakening. Everything will be taken from us before we know it."

Jaime exhaled. This much wine made Cersei paranoid and almost intolerable. "Not all of our enemies. Renly is dead. Balon will be soon. So will Stannis. I'm leaving to deal with him now."

"So what?" Cersei asked.

"So that's not all of our enemies, is it?"

She turned away from him again, gripping her wine.

"You fear the Starks too much, sister," Jaime said.

"You don't fear them enough," Cersei said. "Ned Stark knew about us Jaime. He would have told Robert if Robert hadn't been killed by that wild boar."

"But he didn't. Ned Stark is dead," Jaime said. "His son may know, but who cares? To spread that secret would mean the death of his sister and the ruin of his house. He's not going to step out of line." He took a step toward her. "I was a prisoner of the Starks for a long time. Robb Stark and his mother are both dangerous. They're forces to be reckoned with. But they are not more dangerous than father."

"And the Stark girl?" Cersei asked.

Jaime almost laughed. "She's...what...fourteen at the most? The way you talk about her, you'd think she was a trained assassin. Father has a close watch on her and she won't act out because she fears for her family. What is she going to do?"

"Now? Nothing," Cersei said. "But someday, she could be a danger."

"You always focus so much on somedays. Someday we'll all be dead and none of it will matter. Who cares about some day?" Jaime reached for her again, but again she backed away.

"You should go," she said. There was nothing but coldness in her green eyes. "You have another king to slay."

Jaime clenched his jaw and bit down a retort to that comment. Then he turned to go. Years of war had changed Cersei in ways he could not begin to understand. But he knew her feelings were not changed toward him. They must be...hidden beneath fear and paranoia.

When true peace came, perhaps everything would return to normal. But this time there would be no Robert.

This time it could be just...them. As it was always meant to be.

On the day Jaime left, he said farewell to the people who mattered. His father reminded him to do his duty and crush Stannis Baratheon once and for all. Tyrion bid him to return soon, since he was the only member of the family he could stand. Tommen cheerfully wished him luck in the battle to come, which Jaime accepted though he had no faith in luck. Cersei did not bid him anything at all. She was fixed in sullen silence as she watched him go.

As he mounted his horse, he caught sight of Arya Stark passing above, her two Lannister guards flanking her. She noticed him and stopped to look. He truly could not see what Cersei feared so much about her. She was a girl playing at being a knight. She had some skill with a blade but she would never be able to truly wield one in a battle.

She was not an assassin. She was not a spy. She was a hostage to his father.

Until we meet again Arya Stark, he thought as he gave her a nod.

She stared straight back at him, her expression fixed and cold. And for a moment, he did see a flash of wolf in her.

He shook his head and urged his horse forward. The wolf could not judge the lion. Especially not a wolf small as her.

Chapter Text

Arya felt safer with a knife up her sleeve. Next time she was attacked, she could not count on Jaime Lannister to save her. On one hand, he had gone with the Lannister and Tyrell forces to deal with Stannis Baratheon and could be gone for months. On another hand, she did not want to owe the man any more debts.

She practiced throwing the knife until she had nearly destroyed the crates. But after several days of practice, she could hit her target almost every single time.

She was hyper-aware of the cool steel pressed against her forearm, but she never dared take the knife out when she was around other people. Everyone in the capitol had eyes behind every bush. Occasionally, she practiced throwing small sticks in the garden to see if she could stick the twig in some lady's elaborate hair. Half of the time she succeeded.

Her guards never chided her or spoke to her at all. No matter what strange thing she did, they did not speak. She had no doubt they reported to Lord Tywin, but she appreciated their silence. It made them easier to ignore.

It was far harder to ignore the attention of the courts. Everyone had eyes on her, the ward of House Lannister, the daughter of a traitor. When she walked in the gardens, their whispers followed her. Their gazes bore holes into her head. Sometimes she turned sharply around and caught people diverting their eyes.

It doesn't matter what they think. I am a wolf, Arya thought. A wolf in a cage but a wolf none the less.

She did not make conversation with any of them. She did not want to anyhow. She had never been good at holding conversations with most nobles. They thought her too wild or blunt or unladylike. She found places in the garden where less people traveled. The hedge maze near the sea was a particular favorite spot of hers. It was tucked away from everything else, offering much needed isolation.

Or so she thought. She did not at all expect to see the young prince walking amongst the hedges one cool autumn morning.

"Lady Arya." Prince Tommen noticed her and smiled. "Do you come to the maze often too?"

"Sometimes." Arya hid her latest stick behind her back. Her gaze flicked to the King's Guard at Tommen's side. It was not one of the ones who injured her, but she did not trust him. "It's quiet here."

"The maze is fun too." Tommen stepped toward her. He looked like his brother, but his face was shockingly kinder. His smile was genuine. "I've been through here many times, but I still occasionally get lost."

Arya nodded once. She should not be here. Cersei had warned her to stay away from her children and Cersei did not need any more reason to hate her.

"Is something wrong, Lady Arya?" Tommen asked. He tilted his head to the side. "Do you wish to be alone? I'm sorry if I interrupted you."

"It's not that," Arya said. "I mean I do wish...No, you didn't interrupt me, my prince. I'm just not sure what your mother would think of you talking with the daughter of a traitor."

"Well you're the Lannister ward now, aren't you?" Tommen asked. "I'm sure mother won't mind."

"She will," Arya said. "She doesn't like me. Neither does your brother. I mean...the king."

"I heard that you were badly injured because my brother. I apologize for that." Tommen gave her a little bow. Arya almost laughed. How did this boy come from Cersei? And how had he not absorbed any of Joffrey's cruelty? "What were you doing with that stick?"

Arya clasped her hands tighter behind her back. "What stick?"

"The one behind your back."

Arya dropped the stick. "There's nothing behind my back."

"Because you dropped it." Tommen took a step forward. "Come on. What were you doing?"

Arya sighed. "Just... a few tricks really. Simple tricks."

"What's the point?" Tommen said.


"You can defend yourself with a stick?"

"No. Usually it would be a knife." Arya winced as she said it. She did not need Tommen running back to his mother to say he found her practicing knife tricks. "But...only if absolutely necessary of course. A lady should be able to defend herself if...if someone else isn't there."

"Oh." Tommen nodded. "It's because you were attacked. You're afraid to be attacked again."

Arya let out a breath. "Yes. Yes that's it."

"I suppose that makes sense," Tommen said. "Though you have two Lannister guards to protect you. I don't think you have anything to fear, my lady."

"It never hurts to be careful," Arya said through a forced smile.

If Tommen sensed her discomfort he didn't show it. His expression was so open. Like a puppy. Yes, that was what Tommen reminded her of. A happy little puppy who had never known any horrors in his whole life. He was the same age as her little brother Bran, and Bran had already lost the use of his legs and been held hostage by the Greyjoys. Tommen had never been in danger once.

Looking at his face, she could not resent him for it. She wished she could wash the blood and death from her memory.

"Will you show me?" Tommen asked. "A few tricks?"

Arya glanced again at his King's Guard. The man would undoubtedly report to the Queen Regent. Would it be better to refuse a prince's offer or show him his she played with knives?

This is why I don't like speaking to people here, Arya thought. There's no winning.

"Please," Tommen said. "Perhaps I will need to defend myself too."

"You are always well defended, my prince," Arya said.

"So are you," Tommen pointed out.

Arya sighed and picked up her stick again, holding it her hand. "You see: if you keep a relaxed grip like this, it's easier to change your grip when you have to." She demonstrated, twirling the stick between her fingers with practiced ease. "Like this."

Tommen's eyes widened. "Oh, you're good. It looks so easy." He picked up a stick and tried to imitate her but it quickly slipped through his fingers. "It's not though, is it?"

"No. It takes practice," Arya said. "And it all depends on the size and weight of the knife. But it helps to keep your fingers nimble."

Tommen tried to mimic her again, his brow furrowed. Once again, the stick slipped from his fingers.

"Your grip is too tight," Arya said.

"But shouldn't that keep the stick from falling?" Tommen asked.

"No," Arya said. "The knife can't move well when you do that."

"Oh." Tommen looked up at her. "You sound like you know a lot about knives. I thought girls weren't supposed to be fighters."

Arya felt an age old defensiveness rise up from within her. "That's nonsense. There have been plenty of women warriors. Targaryen women road dragons. Aegon's sister Visenya...she wielded a sword called Dark Sister. She was a fearsome fighter."

"I suppose we did learn about her in my lessons," Tommen said. "I just don't see many women fighting now." He clasped his arms behind his back. "Would you be a warrior someday, Lady Arya?"

"Maybe," Arya said, though she knew the true answer. I already am a warrior. I will be a great one someday. I will see all of my enemies bleed.

But Tommen was not one of those enemies. He was a boy with a rather unfortunate brother and mother. He did not seem to inherit any of their malice over his years. Talking to him, Arya missed Bran and Rickon, who used to follow her around all day asking questions.

"Would you like to wander the maze with me, Lady Arya?" Tommen asked. "I think it would be fun."

Stay away from my children, Cersei had said. But Arya was feeling rather spiteful that morning.

"I would like that, Prince Tommen," Arya replied.

Dragonstone was an impressive castle, notoriously impregnable simply because it was on an island. It could only be attacked from the sea and the sight of the approaching fleet would give the soldiers inside plenty of time to prepare for the assault. The Targaryens did know how to build castles, and this one was no different. A small force could hold it against a much larger army. The most patient option would be to wait and starve them out.

But after a year as a hostage and several months after that of being treated like a failure, Jaime did not care about the patient options. He did not care about the honorable options either. He would take Dragonstone within the fortnight.

The key was to spread Stannis' remaining forces thin along the walls and leave other areas unguarded. Jaime had Lannister and Tyrell ships at his disposal. He sent the Tyrells around to approach from the South and left his Lannister fleet to approach from the north. That left the East and Western sides of the castle very sparsely defended.

They approached as if they meant to starve them out. They posted just off of the shore and waited, cutting off all movement in and out. And while they created the illusion of a siege, Jaime began sending small groups of soldiers to climb the walls in the middle of the night.

They circled the castle under cover of darkness, looking for the places not watched. The first few groups did not come back alive. But the fourth group succeeded and hid inside the castle walls, taking up the uniforms of the unlucky soldiers they found first. Jaime got their signal when they split the sky with a fiery arrow.

The men inside set off several explosions near the back gate, leaving the main gate less guarded for a brief enough time to give the Lannister forces a head start. They bashed through the entrance, climbed the walls, killed as many men as they could get their hands on.

When the gate fell, Jaime was one of the first few through it. Killing Stannis' men helped clear his head. They were all weak from the Battle of the Blackwater and in no shape for a fight. But still they fought for their "one true king".

An arrow took Jaime's horse and he ended up on foot, cutting through every man who came at him. Men were such fragile things, even in armor. Victory would be clear and absolute. Now that Lannister men had invaded the city, none of Stannis' forces would survive. Not unless they surrendered.

Jaime let every ounce of his pent up anger guide him. All around, men were dying. More men than necessary if they had just starved the place. Fuck them all. Cersei wanted him to be there to kill Stannis at the Battle of Blackwater? Well he would do it here and then maybe she would be satisfied. Maybe someone would finally be satisfied with his damn efforts.

A force knocked into him from the side and sent him to the ground. The fall knocked the wind out of him. A soldier stood above him, raising his great sword. Jaime threw himself to the side as he did. He lost his sword on the way. He scrambled for it and found it grasped in a hand. A severed hand.

Jaime blinked dumbly at the sight. His gaze went from his sword, to the hand, to his own wrist, spewing blood. Only now, as he looked at the wound, did he register the pain.

His sword.

His hand.

Men are such fragile things, he thought again in the daze of his shock.

"Lannister." One of his soldiers grabbed Jaime and hauled him to his feet. Jaime recognized his voice. It was Ser Bronn of the Blackwater. His brother had sent him along to help with the fight. "Get back. You need to get back."

"My sword," Jaime muttered.

"Fuck your sword," Bronn hissed. "Get back."

"My sword!" Jaime roared, grasping at air with a hand that no longer existed.

All around him rang the screams of dying men and the night was filled with the stench of blood.

In the end, they took Dragonstone. They put every soldier who did not surrender to the sword. They imprisoned the others. Stannis fell in battle, ending his quest for the throne. His daughter had escaped the castle somehow. Perhaps someone had smuggled her away in the chaos. But a child with greyscale on her face was not a real threat. Stannis was what mattered, and he was dead.

But for Jaime it did not feel like a victory. It felt like one more awful mistake. This one had cost him worse than all of the others.

Men were such fragile things.

Chapter Text

The role of the Hand of the King was to balance seven kingdoms on the edge of a knife. One of the regions was always threatening to tip over the side and fall into chaos. Years ago, when Tywin was named the Hand to Aerys Targaryen, he had managed that chaos well enough. But then Aerys began to fall to jealousy and madness. He didn't like that his subjects considered Tywin the true ruler. So he spitefully refused to engage Rhaegar to Cersei, and he spitefully named Jaime to the King's Guard, relieving Tywin of his oldest son and heir. After that, Tywin left the Capitol and his post as Hand of the King.

Effectively, he proved that he was the true ruler of Westeros without ever saying a word. Shortly after he left, the realms descended into chaos. Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon and all of their allies rose up in open rebellion. And Tywin waited and watched, ignoring Aerys call for him to take up arms. Then, when Robert's victory was clear, Tywin decisively ended the war by sacking King's landing.

He did terrible things to ensure Robert's total victory and to prove his loyalty to the new crown. He did the dirty work so that Robert could play the hero. And then he offered up his daughter for marriage: an alliance to secure his family in this new age.

Tywin had a dark reputation as a man without any honor. But he did know how to bring about peace in the seven kingdoms. The most effective tools were wisdom, violence and marriage. He aligned the Lannisters and the Baratheons with Cersei and Robert's marriage. Now both of those houses would be linked to the Tyrells through Margaery and Joffrey's wedding. It was not a guarantee of peace, but it did help considerably.

So now he faced the question of what to do with Arya Stark.

As the second daughter of house Stark, she was a valuable hostage but she could also bind the Starks to the crown. In light of the current peace, there was no need to rush an engagement. She was still a child. But if the North ever did rise up again, her sons would be potential heirs to Winterfell.

Arya Stark would not enter willingly into any engagement. It had been over a year since Tywin had first met her, and he could easily tell that by now even though marriage had never been discussed. But he could at least find her a match she could tolerate.

Tommen was a possibility. He was around her age, and not yet promised to anyone. Once Stannis was dealt with and Tommen came of age, he would inherit Storm's End. It was a better match than most second daughters could hope for, especially the daughter of a recently rebelling family.

Not that Arya Stark would care about whether or not it was a "good" match. But at the very least, she seemed to like Tommen well enough to hold a conversation with him. Or so her guards had reported.

Cersei would be absolutely furious at the notion. Her rage would cause a headache for all involved and she might try to have the Stark girl killed. That was the main problem.

Tywin could bring peace to the Seven Kingdoms several times over. But sometimes managing his family was the most difficult task of all.

For now, he would not tell Cersei. Better to wait for that. But he did call Arya Stark to the next morning to inform her.

" want to betroth me to Tommen?" She looked absolutely shocked by this idea. Tywin wondered if she had been willfully ignoring the possibility of marriage for as long as possible.

"I'm not certain yet," Tywin said. "It would tie the Starks to the Baratheons. It's as good a match as you can hope for."

"I haven't hoped for any match," Arya said. "I don't want to marry."

"I suppose you hoped to remain unwed for your whole life then?" Tywin raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," she said. "What's so strange about that?"

"It's not strange to hope. But it is impossible for a lady from your family," Tywin said. "You're my ward, which means it falls to me to make a match for you."

Arya's expression was sullen, like a child's. But then, she still was a child who would not come of age for another few years. She still had childish notions about the future.

"I suppose I am a hostage. I should have expected you to use me to make connections," Arya said flatly.

Tywin's mouth twitched, amused. "It's not because you're a hostage. It's because you're a lady. Your father would have forced you into a match too. To some northern lord maybe. That's what all fathers do for their daughters. They find them husbands."

Arya glared up at him. "My father knew I did not want to marry."

"I'm sure your whole family knew. But then, that didn't keep your brother and mother from bargaining you away to the Freys for a bridge, did it?" Tywin asked.

Arya stared at him. "What do you mean?"

"When your brother needed to cross the bridge at the Twins, he sent your mother to barter for passage," Tywin said. "Walder Frey wanted to marry you to one of his sons. Your mother agreed. Your brother accepted."

She looked stricken by this news. "For...a bridge?"

"It was an important bridge," Tywin said. "That's how the world works, Lady Arya. Now, I suppose I could let Walder Frey's son have you. But I didn't make that promise, your brother did, and Walder Frey is useless to me at this point in time. Binding the Starks to the crown's family? That's very useful."

"And I don't get any say," Arya muttered. "Not with you and not with my family."

"No," Tywin agreed.

"That doesn't seem fair."

"The world isn't fair."

"That's what people always say when they don't want to bother changing things." Arya glared up at him. Her tongue was still sharp as steel.

"You can argue if you want," Tywin said. "You can argue until your lungs give out. But unless you can make a reasonable case, it won't matter. It didn't matter with my children either."

"I'm not your child I'm your ward," Arya retorted.

"Then you should expect even less sympathy," Tywin said flatly. "This discussion is at its end."

Arya started to raise her chin, like she usually did, but corrected herself at the last minute. She was learning. Even as she argued and protested, she was learning. Instead, she held his gaze in the silence before she turned and left.

Tywin exhaled. And she was the easy one to tell.

He did not want to even think of Cersei's response to this news.

The next morning, Arya sat in the garden plucking petals off of flowers. She did not know why. The flowers had not done anything to her. Being born a woman had done this to her.

When she was a child and she first learned that girls and boys were treated differently, she had prayed to the gods to turn her into a boy so that she could become a knight. When she found out the gods did not answer such prayers, she resolved that she would be a warrior despite her gender.

But always the expectations of a lady hovered behind her. Her father promised one day she would marry the lord of a holdfast and have children who were warriors. Her mother reminded her that she must dress like a lady. Her sister stood beside her as a constant reminder of everything Arya was not.

When Yoren cut her hair, Arya felt almost freed. She didn't mind pretending to be a boy. No one told her to act more like a lady when she was pretending to be a boy. Most men were stupid enough to believe the trick. In boys' clothes with boys' hair, Arya might as well have been a boy. Until...

"You'll do no such thing. This one's a girl, you idiot."

Tywin Lannister had seen through the disguise. Then he discovered her name and she once again became a lady, expected one day to marry. Over the past year, her hair had grown back to her shoulders. Soon it might go all the way down to her waist. Shae liked the growing length, but Arya wished she could cut it all off again. She loathed being a woman at that moment. Even if she wasn't a hostage, she would not be free.

"Pardon me, Lady Arya."

Arya looked up in surprise to see Margaery Tyrell standing before her. She had seen her around the court but had never expected to speak to her. She was Joffrey's betrothed after all, and Arya was only a hostage. Yet here the future queen stood.

"Lady Margaery." Arya stood and made a hasty attempt at a curtsy. "May I help you?"

"Not with anything especially important. I only wanted to speak to you. It has been some time since you came to court and we haven't spoken at all." Margaery smiled brightly. "How are you enjoying King's Landing?"

"Not very well," Arya said. "I'm a hostage and my father died here."

Arya cursed herself immediately. This was not the person to complain to. She could rush to tell Joffrey of any treasonous comments.

But if Margaery was offended she didn't show it. "It was a grave loss for you I'm sure. And I have heard my husband to be has not been fully hospitable to you since you arrived. I came to apologize for that."

"Why would you?" Arya asked suspiciously.

"Because that's the kind thing to do," Margaery said. "Will you walk with me?"

It was a question, but Arya knew better than to refuse a future queen's offer. She fell into step beside her, trying to look as dignified as possible.

"I hear a rumor we might be sisters soon," Margaery murmured.

"Has that rumor really already spread that far?" Arya asked.

"Well it's not official, of course, but everyone in the Capitol has ears and eyes," Margaery said. "They absorb everything."

"Then Cersei will have me killed by tonight." Arya sighed. "It's not as if I have a choice in all of this."

"What is your concern, Lady Arya?" Margaery asked. Arya still had not decided whether or not to trust the kindness of her expression. "Do you not wish to be married to Tommen?"

"I do not wish to be married," Arya said. "To anyone. Tommen is not the problem."

Margaery gave her a sympathetic smile. "It's the burden of a woman in this world, isn't it? We want power, but no one gives us power on our own." She rested a hand on Arya's arm. "We gain power through marriage and children. That is the game that has been set before us."

"And I have no choice but to play...Is that it?" Arya asked bitterly.

"There's no shame in that, is there?" Margaery said. "A woman can be strong even if she is married. You think your mother is strong, do you not?"

"Yes, of course," Arya said without thinking.

"I think my grandmother strong. I'm not sure I've ever known a stronger person in my life," Margaery said. "But they both married. Do you think less of them for that?"

"No," Arya said quietly.

Margaery smiled and continued walking down the path, drawing Arya along with her. "Have you read much history, my lady?"

"Yes. A lot," Arya said.

"You're familiar with the Targaryen conquest then?" Margaery asked. "Aegon and his sisters?"

"Obviously," Arya said. "Visenya was always a hero of mine."

"She was a great warrior," Margaery agreed. "What about Rhaenys?"

"I've read about her, of course," Arya said. "She was the prettier of the two. She loved music. But she didn't fight as much."

When she read about the Targaryen conquests, Rhaenys always reminded her of Sansa. The great beauty beloved by all. Arya could never have hoped to reach those heights.

"Yes, she didn't fight as often with her sword," Margaery said. "But she fought more than all of them with her dragon. They say she rode twice as often as both of her siblings combined. And yes, she was beautiful and graceful and everything a proper lady is taught to be. But she is the one who established the Rule of Six which has protected women for centuries. The common people loved her. And her line went on to form the Great Targaryen dynasty. After she fell in battle, her brother and sister set Dorne ablaze for her. No one could say she was not just as strong as Visenya and Aegon."

Arya glanced down at her feet as they walked. "No. I suppose not."

Margaery stopped and turned to face Arya. "There are many ways for a woman to be strong, Lady Arya. In this world we must use every tool at our disposal. One of those tools is marriage. Another is children. Marrying Tommen will not make you weaker. I promise."

Arya managed a small smile. "Maybe there are many ways for a woman to be strong. But I've never been good at most of them."

"You will learn. You're young," Margaery said. "I wasn't always as you see me now. I had a cousin who used to call me pig face you know."

"When I was young, people mistook me for a boy," Arya said. "They still might...if I cut my hair again."

"See? We have something in common you and I," Margaery laughed as they continued along the path. "And I think your hair is lovely. So thick and dark. You must try braiding it." If she was faking her kindness she was very good at it, and even Sansa could not compare with her manners and courtesies.

Margaery had to be strong if she could be engaged to Joffrey and still smile. She had to be strong if she was to be his queen. Arya could respect that but she did not want to rule. She did not want a holdfast or a dynasty. She wanted freedom.

For a woman, that seemed even more elusive than power.

Chapter Text

Letters from war could contain news of many different shades. When Varys delivered a letter from Bronn to Tyrion, he was not sure what to expect, but he did feel a flash of panic.

"Good news or bad?" he asked.

"The letter is unopened, my lord," Varys said.

"And when has that ever stopped you?" Tyrion gave him a look. "Good news or bad?"

Varys sighed. "Both, I'm afraid."

Tyrion nodded once and split the seal with his thumb. He read the contents as quickly as he could, only taking in a few of the words. Dragonstone had fallen. Stannis was dead. And Jaime...Jaime was alive but...

Tyrion crumpled the letter in his hand. "Fuck me. Why didn't the idiot just starve them out?"

"A question you'll have to ask Ser Jaime when he returns," Varys said.

"I don't think he'll want to talk about the battle when he returns, and I'm not cruel enough to bring it up. Fuck." Tyrion paced over to the window. "Father is going to be furious."

"And worried, perhaps, for his eldest son's wellbeing."

"He'll be furious because he's worried," Tyrion said. "All emotions make my father angry because he doesn't like feeling them. Don't you know that by now?"

"I do. Which is why I leave it to you to deliver the news," Varys said.

"You honor me," Tyrion murmured. Damn it all to hell. Jaime could have been patient and starved Stannis out with little trouble. But he had decided to play the daring knight again. The hero desperate to prove himself. In the process, he had lost more than ever.

Jaime was not Jaime without a sword. Without his right hand, how would he begin to wield one?

Tywin was in the middle of conversation with Cersei when Tyrion climbed the steps. He could hear her raging from a ways off. Lovely. That would put his father in a better mood.

"-engage that wolf bitch to Tommen? I will never let that happen," Cersei snarled. "Marrying the Tyrell whore to Joffrey is bad enough, and now Arya Stark?"

"So you hate Margaery Tyrell now too," Tywin responded flatly. "Is there anyone in the seven kingdoms you don't loathe?"

"I love my children. That's enough."

"Then I suppose it will be difficult to find them any match that will meet your expectations."

So his father was plotting to marry Arya to Tommen. It could be a strategically smart match, but Cersei would never accept it. Not that her acceptance would matter to their father in the least. He never cared much for the personal feelings of his children.

Tyrion listened to the arguing for a few more seconds before he steeled himself and pushed through the door. "Oh, hello," he said, pretending to be surprised to see Cersei, as if the whole castle could not hear her for miles. "Am I interrupting something?"

"You are not. Cersei was leaving," Tywin said, returning to his desk. His jaw was tight. Not a good sign. Tyrion had learned to pick up the small tells in his father's expressions since his face almost never moved.

"I won't forget this." Cersei vowed. "And I'll stop it. I promise you."

"You can promise no such thing," Tywin said. "If I will it to happen, then it will happen."

Cersei gritted her teeth and stalked from the room.

"You must derive great pleasure from getting the last word," Tyrion commented.

"What do you want? I'm not in the mood for any of your games," Tywin said.

"Nor am I," Tyrion dropped a letter on his desk. "I received this today. It's news from Dragonstone."

"I received word from Dragonstone already. Stannis is dead and the day was won," Tywin said.

"That's not all of the news," Tyrion said. "Read."

Tywin studied him for a moment before he took the letter. Tyrion paced away from the desk so that he did not have to watch his father's face. He heard his anger well enough when he slammed the letter back down.

"That fool. He could have starved Stannis out of that damn place within six months if he was patient for once in his life. Why in the seven hells did he decide to take it? Did he learn nothing from Robb Stark?"

Tyrion didn't have an answer, and he knew better than to say something clever. Really, he just wanted a large cup of wine.

"Jaime crippled, Cersei drunk and half mad. And you..." Tywin trailed off. He had already listed his disappointments with Tyrion one hundred times over.

"And me," Tyrion agreed, turning around to face his father. "It's true. Cersei is as dependent on wine as Robert Baratheon once was. She grows more paranoid by the day for reasons none of us can really guess. And I know I'm an eternal disappointment to you no matter what." He exhaled "Don't give up on Jaime just yet. He only lost one hand. He has another."

"Jaime never wanted to learn anything he did not have a natural gift for," Tywin said. "The slightest frustration with reading and he folded. He only practiced so much with swords because he was a natural. It was easy for him. Now it's not."

"Jaime reads well enough now," Tyrion said. "You made him practice. He complained often about it even years after you stopped."

"I'm the Hand of a volatile king. I don't have time to treat him like a child," Tywin said. "I don't have time to force any of you to take this family seriously. To put the Lannister name over your personal feelings and desires. But I will preserve this family name in spite of all of you."

"You against the world then, is it?" Tyrion gave him a bitter smirk and a bow. "I wish you the best of luck."

Arya tried to listen to Margaery, and she tried to focus on the positives of her possible marriage to Tommen. To begin, he was not Joffrey. That was an enormous mark in his favor. Secondly, he was not several decades older than her. Arya heard many horror stories about girls as young as Sansa being wed to seventy or eighty year old men. Thirdly, he was kind enough. She could never picture Tommen lashing out at her in anger or trying to beat her. Not that she would let him if he tried. Fourthly, he would be easy enough to manipulate.

In King's Landing, there were puppets and puppeteers. Those who arranged the board and those who moved about as pawns. It all seemed like a game of who could collect the most strings to pull. People like Tywin, Littlefinger and Cersei had many strings to pull. Others, like Tyrion, moved in the middle.

Arya had been brought to King's Landing as one of Tywin's puppets to move where he pleased. But she did not want to be trapped in strings forever. If she wanted to rise above, she would have to play the game. Perhaps she could use Tommen for that. Perhaps, if he inherited land away from the capital, she could escape the grip of the Lannisters. She would have more freedom then.

She tried to look on the bright side. She tried to look at things from Margaery's perspective. But every time she did, her own thoughts interrupted her.

A good marriage could take you away from the capitol.

But why should I have to leave as someone's wife?

You can only be free if you have power.

Why? Why must it be that way? Why can't I change the rules?

With freedom you could fight as you wish.

I will fight no matter what.

She spent more time with Tommen when they encountered each other in the garden. She made sure that their guards were always around though. Ser Osric seemed to work more for Tommen than for Joffrey so she did not feel in danger of him. And at least with some guards around she did not have to fear from Cersei.

Arya made a game of avoiding the Queen Regent. She kept her door and window locked up tight at night. She stayed away from the rooms she often frequented. She asked Tyrion to warn her if Cersei was going to be nearby any of Arya's usual spots. Tyrion was all too happy to help her with this game.

She only saw Cersei at court, which she was required to attend as the Lannister ward. Arya hated court because she always appeared in uncomfortable dresses with sleeves that swallowed her arms and hems that tripped her if she was not careful. But Cersei's glare burning a hole into the back of head did not help either.

"If it makes you feel better," Margaery said one day. "She spends just as much time glaring at me as she does at you."

"It doesn't," Arya replied. "She has enough poison for two cups."

Cersei only got Arya alone once, just before court when not everyone had yet settled in the room. She gripped her arm so hard it left a bruise for a few days after.

"Do not forget what you are, Lady Stark. You're the daughter of a traitor and you will not wed my son," Cersei said through a forced smile. "I'll make sure of it."

"Please do," Arya replied in as sweet a voice as she could muster. "I don't want to marry your son. If you can convince Lord Tywin otherwise, I would be glad to hear it."

That seemed to make her just as angry. There was nothing she could do to please Cersei, but she did not wish to please her.

Time at court did give Arya a chance to observe the people who pulled the strings in King's Landing. First, there was Varys, known as the spider. He hadn't spoken to Arya, but Tyrion seemed to know him well. Or well enough. Most people didn't truly know the Master of Whispers. Secrecy came with his job description.

"He won't be your friend," Tyrion said. "But he won't work against you either. I think he actually rather liked your father, for his principals if nothing else. He hoped that your father might be sent to the wall rather than executed."

"I hoped for the same," Arya murmured.

Then was Grand Maester Pycelle, who had tended to Arya's wounds. He must have been a gifted maester if he had lasted so long in King's Landing. But he seemed like an old, senile fool. Tyrion warned her that he was not as senile as he let on and not to trust him.

"He leaks information often to my sister. Never tell him anything if you can help it."

And then there was Lord Peytr Baelish. Littlefinger. According to her mother, the man had claimed to be an ally to the Starks, but that certainly hadn't kept him from selling Arya out to Tywin. Nor had it kept him from sitting on Joffrey's small council. He was a traitor, a liar and a coward, and his name looked good on her list next to the others.

But he, like all of the other powerful people in King's Landing, was smart and too well connected to harm. He did not speak to Arya, in fact, until she attended court. Surrounded by so many people, she could not even scream at him, much less claw out his eyes.

"Lady Stark. It is good to see you well. After your long absence, many in the capitol thought you dead."

"Lord Baelish," Arya replied flatly. "Why are you acting surprised to see me back? You're the one who gave my name to Lord Tywin."

Littlefinger smiled. "I do serve the crown, my lady. And the king's peace. You were needed to bring peace."

"You serve whoever is convenient," Arya said. "You'll do favors for anyone you can use. Don't worry, my lord. I want nothing from you. Nothing you would be willing to give me anyway."

"That's not necessarily true," Littlefinger said. "I could have a great many things that you want."

"And you'd ask a price for all of those things, I'm sure. I don't trust you or your price." She glared at him. "Give me a reason to change my mind or don't talk to me at all."

Littlefinger laughed once. "I see your resemblance to your father, Arya Stark. It's in your eyes." He tapped the corner of his eye. "And in your honest tongue. He did not fare so well here."

"I know how he fared. And you did nothing to help him," Arya said through gritted teeth. "I'll make you pay for that one day."




Illyn Payne


Those were her only targets remaining in the capitol. All of them so far out of reach for her alone.

But she was not fully alone. Jaquen Hagar continued to visit her in her practice room. He continued to ask for a third name. But still, Arya had not decided which name to give. Cersei was, perhaps, the greatest threat to her at that moment. But there was Joffrey to consider. This might be her only chance to kill him. Or maybe she should spend her last name on Littlefinger?

She could not decide.

But she would have to choose soon if she did not want to lose her chance.

Arya continued to spend time with Tommen, partially out of spite for Cersei, and partially because there were only so many people she could talk to. She enjoyed Lord Tyrion but he was often otherwise engaged. Lady Margaery was the same, but she could not afford to talk too much with Arya, lest she anger her future husband. She did not see Lord Tywin unless he had something important to tell her. Not that she wished to see him, but at least conversations with him were engaging.

So, Tommen was one of her best options for company. He wasn't that interesting a person, but he was kind enough. They often returned to the maze to solve it again. Her guards waited outside the maze and his guard accompanied them.

"I know how to solve it," Arya said, one afternoon. "I've memorized the route."

"That's not the fun of it," Tommen said. "You're supposed to let yourself get lost then find a way out."

"That doesn't seem like a good strategy at all."

"Why must everything be about strategy?" Tommen asked.

Arya sighed and looked up at the clouds. Orange and pink had begun to cut across the blue of the sky. The days were getting shorter as winter approached, but she did love the long shadows of the early evening.

Then the shadows behind them moved.

Several months on the run had made Arya hyperaware of her surroundings. She tensed at even the sight of a rabbit flashing through the brush. But this was not a rabbit. This was a man who slipped from a dead end in the maze and lunged for them. Metal flashed in the dim light.

Arya whipped around to intercept the blade, knocking Tommen to the ground as she did. It sank into her right shoulder nearly up to the hilt and she let out a cry of pain. But she did not let it slow her. There was no time. She slipped the knife from her sleeve into her left hand and slashed upward. Her blade cut through the assassin's eye and he stumbled back releasing the knife. Seconds later, Tommen's guard drove his sword through his back.

"Lady Arya," Tommen scrambled to his feet. "Are you hurt?"

Arya swayed on the spot, forcing herself to breathe. "I'm fine. It's just my shoulder."

"Lady Stark," one of her guards appeared at her side, placing a hand on her uninjured shoulder. It was one of the first times she had heard him speak. "We should get you to a Maester."

"Why would someone try to assassinate her?" Tommen asked.

"Any number of reasons," the Kingsguard muttered. "But that assassin wasn't targeting Arya Stark. He was targeting you, my prince."

Tommen paled, as if for the first time he realized that he could be killed. "Me?"

He was right, Arya realized. A practiced assassin would have stabbed her in the heart. But she was not the target. When she reacted, she intercepted a strike meant for Tommen's chest.

Someone had tried to assassinate the prince.

Chapter Text

Tywin examined the blade. It was slim and well made. Foreign. No Westerosi blacksmith would make a knife like this. Where in the seven hells had the girl gotten it from? A fork, he understood, but this?

He watched it hold steady on his finger-perfectly balanced. And just beyond the blade, the girl watched him. Her shoulder was bound and her arm in a sling from the knife wound, though Pycelle insisted there would be no permanent damage. Whatever the case, the pain did not seem to bother her. Not nearly as much as his silence did.

Silence was the easiest way to stir most people into nervousness and Arya Stark was no exception. She was better at hiding it than most. She didn't fidget or look away. She had stopped lifting her chin so much, and she kept her gaze steady. But there was anxious intensity in her eyes and a tension in her jaw.

At last, Tywin lowered the knife. "Where did you get this?"

"I found it," Arya replied.

She wasn't lying, but she wasn't telling the whole truth either.

"Did you plan on using it on someone else?" he asked.

"Only in an emergency."

"And what qualifies as an emergency, in your mind?"

An almost smug gleam passed through her eyes. "Saving the prince's life."

Tywin exhaled. She really was too smart for her own good. And her instincts had saved Tommen. "This is a distinctive blade. Very thin. I'm sure it makes a unique wound." He looked up at her. "If you were to kill someone important with it, your guilt would be obvious."

"Yes," Arya murmured.

"So don't kill someone important." He flipped the knife in his hand and handed it back to her.

She looked up at him in surprise. "My lord?"

"You'll just find another weapon if I take this from you," Tywin said. "I prefer to know what you have."

Her mouth twitched into a smile and she accepted the blade. "Thank you."

He nodded once and stood, pacing over to the window. "How is your shoulder?"

"Doesn't hurt as much as the broken arm did," Arya said. "I still have my left hand. Everyone keeps injuring the wrong part of me."

"Or the right part, from your perspective," Tywin said.

"That almost sounded like a joke, Lord Tywin," Arya said.

He glanced back at her. "It's a good thing you know better than that."

"Yes. I do." She turned her gaze back to her knife. The blade spun between her practiced fingers in a blur.

She handled it like an expert. Like someone who had been training very hard to kill someone. How many hours a day did she devote to fighting, he wondered. It had saved Tommen, perhaps, but it could kill others who Tywin needed alive.

"Lady Arya," he said at last.

She looked up from her blade.

"I'm not a fool," he said. "I know you don't practice with your blades for self-defense alone. There are multiple members of my family you want dead. Including me."

"Then why give me the knife?" Arya asked.

"Because sometimes you kill the right people," Tywin said. "But whoever you kill...I will find out. And I will deal with you accordingly."

Arya lifted her chin then. She hadn't broken herself completely of that tell yet. "I might not use this knife."

"It doesn't matter if you use that knife or your sword or any other weapon," Tywin said. "I'll know from looking at your face. I can always tell when you're hiding something."

She glared at him then. He had seen that sullen look many times before. On Arya and on Cersei when she was a child. How would Cersei handle Arya's heroic rescue of her son?

When Arya did not retort, Tywin knew he had won the argument. For now. He paced back to the door. "Rest and recover, Lady Arya. You're of more use to me when you're unwounded."

Arya's shoulder wound was minor compared to her injuries a few months previous. The blade had not hit anything important. It would leave only a small scar behind once it had healed.

Most importantly, Tommen was safe and his assassin killed. He thanked her profusely all the way back to the castle, fretting over her wound. He apologized to her too. For dragging her into such an awful mess. Arya could not imagine how he came from the Lannister family. He was far too kind.

And his life could still be in danger. Arya guessed the assassin had not acted on his own. Someone must have paid him. But why? Trying to kill the king, she understood, but why would someone try to assassinate the prince?

Arya was contemplating this very question when a knock came at her door. She quickly checked to make sure her knife was up her sleeve. It was. "Come in."

Cersei Lannister glided through the door. Arya internally cursed a few times before she dipped into a curtsy.

"Your grace. I'm surprised to see you here."

"Are you?" Cersei asked.

"It was my understanding that we tried to avoid each other," Arya said.

Cersei smiled tightly. "Perhaps. But I come here today with good reason." She paused for a moment, as if gathering her words. Arya had never seen such an expression on her face before. "I to thank you, for a few days ago. If you hadn't gotten in the way, Tommen might have died. He's very precious to me."

Her gratitude must have tasted like poison to her. Arya wanted to feel smug but instead she was shocked. She hadn't expected Cersei to stoop to thank her at all. " lucky. That's all. I'm glad Tommen is not hurt."

Cersei tilted her head to the side. "I'm not sure you did get lucky, Lady Arya. You have quick reflexes. And the wounds on the body...Ser Osric stabbed the assassin through the back but you cut through his eye, didn't you? Do you carry a knife?"

Arya studied her. "Why are you asking?"

"Because young ladies usually don't," Cersei said.

"Young ladies aren't usually beaten half to death by two knights." Arya slid her knife from her sleeve and placed it on the table between them. There was no point in hiding it. It made her look more suspicious. "Your father already gave me permission to carry it. You can take it from me but I will find another one. I'm not interested in being helpless again."

Cersei smiled and picked up the knife. "You misunderstand me, Lady Arya. I'm not going to take your knife. Of course not. If you used it on anyone important, everyone would know and you would be executed. My father knows that. That's why he let you keep the little blade." Cersei handed the knife back to her. "If you are to marry Tommen, there might be other attempts on his life. Perhaps you'll need this knife again."

Cautiously, Arya took the knife back and slipped it back up her sleeve. "Yes, your grace."

Cersei folded her hands into her sleeves, pacing to the other side of the room. She looked up as if inspecting the quality of the walls. "You must hate Joffrey terribly. Perhaps even worse than you hate me. The fury is so clear in your eyes every time we see each other. And I've watched you in the throne room, burning holes into the king with your glares. But Tommen. Tommen has always been such a sweet thing. The kind of boy who rescued stray cats and tried to raise them on his own."

"He seems very kind," Arya said.

"It's not an act. He is," Cersei said. "I wonder if you've thought about it. Vengeance. I took something I love from you. Perhaps you would take something I love from me in return. I wonder if you considered hurting him to have your revenge on me."

"My father used to say that the innocent should not suffer for the sins of the guilty," Arya said. She kept her tone as steady as she could. "And Tommen has never wronged me."

"He likely never will." Cersei looked her up and down. Arya's face grew hot under her scrutiny. "You're not a great beauty, Arya Stark. Not like your sister. I know you had no designs on my son. This is my father's game and you're only a piece of it."

Arya pressed her fist against her thigh. "No. I'm not a great beauty. Is that why you didn't want me to marry Tommen?"

"No," Cersei said. "It's better that you aren't. At least you don't hide your anger with pretty smiles. I know exactly how you feel. And who you are."

Arya observed the queen regent. She wasn't sure how to read this conversation. Cersei still did not trust her but her rage had cooled. Perhaps she could not rage at anyone who had defended her son. Her love of her children was true, even if nothing else was.

Cersei clasped her hands together and replaced her pensive expression with a tight smile. "In any case...I did not just come to thank you. There is a small council meeting this evening. I know you've already given your full account to my father, but he would like you to give it again, so that everyone can hear."

Arya nodded. "Of course, your grace."

It seemed Cersei was less a danger to her than usual. Still an enemy...but less of a threat.

There would never be any fondness between them, but for now there was some sort of truce.

The small council was full of people Arya didn't trust and a few who she barely trusted. Littlefinger, Grand Maester Pycelle, Cersei, Varys...all of them had plots all over the kingdom and would use her, sell her out or kill her if it suited them. Tyrion was the only one she reluctantly trusted because he had not yet given her any reason to hate him. Lord a strange way she did trust him, at least to be honest with her. He would tell her frankly if he ever planned to kill her. The others would try to be sneaky about it.

And then there was the king himself. Joffrey was in attendance at this small council meeting, watching with her with his beady green eyes. Arya started to lift her chin again, but thought better of it. She set her jaw and stared him down. She would not be afraid of the wretched boy.

"Give us your account in full," Lord Tywin said. "Do not leave out any details."

"We were in the hedge maze in the gardens," Arya said. "Ser Osric was a short distance behind us. It was early evening when the assassin tried to attack Tommen. He slipped out of one of the dead ends of the hedge maze and tried to stab Tommen in the chest. I happened to get in the way and took the blade to my shoulder. I wounded his eye and he let go of the knife and stepped back. Then Ser Osric killed him."

"Her story conforms to that of Osric and the prince," Lord Tywin said.

"What do you remember about the assassin?" Varys asked. "Did anything about him...stick out to you?"

"He was dressed in very ordinary clothes. No armor. But he didn't look like he was from the capitol," Arya said.

"He wasn't. He was from the north," Littlefinger said. "Grand Maester Pycelle inspected the body. He found signs that the man belonged to House Umber."

Arya's brow furrowed. "That doesn't make sense."

Cersei smiled at her. It was the kind of smile one gave a foolish child. "I understand you are protective of the north, Lady Stark. But it is unlikely all of your brother's vassals accepted the end of the war." She turned back to the others. "Of course, if House Umber is behind this, then it would fall to Lord Stark to-"

"That's not what I meant," Arya said. "It doesn't make sense because whoever paid the assassin must have known Tommen."

They all looked back at her. Joffrey's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that?"

"The assassin was waiting in the maze," Arya said. "Tommen loves the maze. He goes there frequently. Someone from the north wouldn't have known that."

"It is possible someone followed you both into the maze," Littlefinger reminded her.

"But he didn't follow us. He didn't attack from behind because Ser Osric would have intercepted him," Arya said. "And my guards were standing at the entrance. They would have seen. Someone knew Tommen would visit the maze and they paid the assassin to wait there."

"That doesn't narrow down our options," Cersei said. "Tommen's love of the maze is common knowledge amongst King's Landing. Anyone in possession of several spies could have passed along that information to the north." Her gaze flicked to Varys and Littlefinger. Neither of them rose to the bait.

"But why would an assassin carry any sign of the house that sent them?" Arya asked. "That's just stupid."

"It may have been a mistake. The sigil was very small-engraved on the pommel of a dagger. Not the one he used in the attack," Littlefinger said.

"It might not be a mistake," Tyrion said. "I've been the victim of this kind of trick. Someone armed an assassin with a dagger they claimed was mine and sent that assassin to kill Bran Stark a few years ago."

"Bran?" Arya's eyes widened. "Why would someone try to kill him? He was paralyzed."

"I'm not sure, since I wasn't the culprit," Tyrion said. "The assassin failed of course. But then Catelyn Stark arrested me, my lord father raised an army, and the Starks and Lannisters started a war. Someone may be using this mistake to start a war anew."

"It is shocking how many people hate peace," Varys commented. He glanced at Littlefinger, as is he meant the comment for him. Littlefinger did not respond.

Cersei laughed once. "That's a farfetched idea. It's just as likely that some people in the North are angry that they did not gain the independence they desired. Or that they want revenge for Ned Stark."

Arya tried not to bristle at the suggestion. "The north doesn't deal in assassins. That's not our way."

Cersei opened her mouth to respond but Joffrey held up a hand.

"It's too soon to know for certain. We will have to investigate further before we know if the north is truly to blame. Perhaps the knife is a coincidence, but who knows?" He looked up at Arya. "But we are grateful for your testimony, Lady Arya."

Joffrey's words set off immediate warning bells in Arya's mind. This is wrong, she thought. He is being too reasonable. This is very wrong.

It was much more like Joffrey to jump to blind accusations. He did prefer war to peace, after all. But he was showing...caution? Was Tywin truly getting to him or was this some sort of trick? Whatever the case, she could feel her nerves buzzing as the meeting ended and the small council filed from the room. Once they had all left, Arya turned to go as well, but Lord Tywin stopped her.

"Not you."

Arya paused and turned back to face the Hand of the King. "Joffrey was acting strangely tonight. Did you notice?"

"I notice he's trying harder to play at being king," Tywin said. "It's possible I scared him a several months ago after he almost killed you. There's a reason he hasn't tried that again."

"I didn't like it. I felt more in danger than ever," Arya said.

"That's because you know he's only pretending while I'm in the room," Tywin said. "You were right about the assassin. Someone is trying to start another war, and it was someone who knew Tommen's habits well enough to give the assassin the perfect place to strike."

"There are plenty of people who don't support peace with the north," Arya said. "But...some of those people would never put Tommen in danger."

"Correct. Cersei has nothing to do with this," Tywin said. "However, if our culprit is looking to start a war, you are an obvious target. Be careful."

Arya lifted her chin. "I'm not afraid."

Tywin raised an eyebrow.

Damn, Arya exhaled and lowered her head again. "I've been getting better about that."

"I've noticed," Tywin said. "Regardless, you would be a fool not to be afraid."

Arya nodded once. Already this place had nearly killed her twice. She hadn't even been in King's Landing a year yet. How many more attempts on her life would she have to survive?

"You keep that knife on you at all times, don't you?" Tywin asked.

"Yes," Arya murmured. She could feel the cool metal against her forearm.

"Good," Tywin said. "You may need it again soon."

Chapter Text

Returning to King's Landing, Jaime felt like a ghost in his own body. He drifted through the gates on his horse. He drifted through the halls. He drifted all the way to his father's tower.

He did not want to see his father at all. He already knew what he would say and he could feel his disappointment palpably throughout the red keep. When Jaime had a squire send a letter to his father about the victory, he had not told him about his hand. But he would know by now. Everyone in the keep probably knew by now.

Still, he climbed the steps to the tower, and resigned himself once again to being a terrible disappointment. Ser Bronn had recovered his sword from the battlefield, at least, so Jaime had not lost that precious gift. But what did it matter anymore? He couldn't wield it. It was little more than decoration at his hip. If he couldn't fight, he might as well be dead.

His father was alone in the tower when he arrived, writing again. How many letters did he write a day? Jaime wondered. And how nice must it feel to still have a right hand with which to write.

His father looked up. For a long while he didn't say anything. He didn't need to. Jaime felt the weight of his expectations crushing him down with a single stare. He gritted his teeth. How his wrist throbbed.

"You look ill," Tywin said at last. "Did the maester on the battlefield see to your wound properly?"

Jaime nodded once. "Cut off the rot. Burned out the infection. It's just fine. Other than the hand being gone."

Tywin set down his quill. "Jaime-"

"Don't say it," Jaime muttered. "I already know what you'll say. Jaime, why weren't you patient? Why didn't you starve them out instead? Why didn't you just wait? This is your own doing, Jaime."

"If you know my thoughts so well, why didn't you listen to them?" his father asked.

"I don't know. I don't know the reason for half the things I do. I just do them," Jaime shook his head. "Does it matter anymore? It's done."

"Yes it is. Stannis is dead. Your hand is gone," Tywin said.

"Stannis dead," Jaime repeated. "Do you think they'll put that in the book? Perhaps Kingslayer won't be the last line anymore."

"Is that why you did it? Glory?" His father's voice was full of contempt. "Did you want to redeem your honor?"

"My honor is beyond repair. We both know that," Jaime hissed. "No. I didn't do it for glory. I don't care about glory."

"Then what do you care about?" Tywin snapped as he stood. "Anything? Not the family, clearly. You gave up on serving the family when you became a King's Guard. Not honor. Not glory. Not power. So what do you care about?"

"The sword in my hand," Jaime said with a humorless smirk. "And now...nothing I suppose."

Tywin cursed under his breath and circled around the desk. "You lost your hand. Not your head. No son of mine is going to give up so easily." Jaime looked away as he approached. He studied the mud on his boots. "Look at me."

Jaime did not. He couldn't look at him. In that moment, he would rather do anything other than face the look in his father's eyes.

"Jaime. Look at me." His father clasped the side of his face in his hand. Jaime obeyed this time. Somehow, Tywin always managed to force his children to obey. "You're my son and you are a Lannister of Casterly Rock. You will wear that name proudly even if you lose every one of your limbs. Do you understand?"

Jaime could only nod.

"Good." Tywin stepped away. "You're pale. Go to Pycelle and make sure your wound is fully taken care of."

Jaime nodded again and drifted from the room.

He did not go to Pycelle. First he drifted over to Tyrion's room, knowing his brother would have wine. He did need a great deal of wine. When he arrived, Tyrion didn't quite seem to know what to say. He tried to keep his conversation light, but Jaime could sense him tip-toeing. What to say to a brother who had lost himself on the battlefield? Jaime would not know the answer to that question either.

"You're pale, Jaime. You don't look well," Tyrion said. "You should see Pycelle."

Jaime promised to do so. He let himself drink until his head was fuzzy. Then he drifted away from Tyrion too.

He did not go to see Pycelle. He drifted toward Cersei next. Not to Cersei. Just toward her. He passed back and forth in front of her door several times but never managed to go inside. The disappointment in her eyes might have utterly broken him. He could not take any of her anger today. His shoulders could not bear the weight of it. Between his father's disappointment and his brother's awkward was too much. All too much.

Instead he found himself drifting to a different part of the castle, into a large room open to the air. Arya Stark's practice room.

The Stark girl was there. He knew because her two guards stood outside the door. They did not attempt to stop him as he wandered through. She was practicing with that tiny little sword of hers. She lunged forward, then retreated again, fighting off an invisible enemy. Her right arm was in a sling, but it didn't seem to bother her. She was left handed after all. How Jaime envied her for that in that moment.

She noticed him out of the corner of her eye and spun around to face him. "Ser Jaime." Her gaze darted from his face to his stump of a hand. "I had heard...but..."

"Heard what?" he asked. He glanced down at his hand. "Oh this? Yes. I seem to have misplaced it." He stumbled down the steps. He felt a bit unsteady. "Don't let me stop your practicing girl. I won't be able to participate today. You see...I'm not left handed like you."

Arya observed him cautiously. Suspiciously. She had Ned Stark's eyes. How he had always hated them. They had always looked at him with such contempt. Such loathing.

"Stop it," he muttered.

"Stop what?" Arya asked.

"Looking at me with your father's eyes. Stop," Jaime leaned back against the wall. "He looked at me with those eyes on the day he found me in the throne room with the Mad King's corpse. Kingslayer he called me. Oathbreaker. And then everyone was calling me that. Like it was my damn name." Jaime laughed once. "The Mad King killed his brother and father. Burned his father alive and let his brother choke himself to death trying to save him. But he hated me for killing that king. It didn't make sense." He tilted his head to the side. "Does it make sense to you?"

"My father was a good man," Arya said flatly. She was defensive of Ned Stark. Of course, he would expect that. "He was a just man. He judged people according to the law. Not according to what he felt."

Jaime laughed. "Ah yes. Honorable Ned Stark. So fucking honorable. Tell me...if your father was in my place, what might he have done?" He leaned forward. "What if...he was the one standing next to the Mad King when his own father sacked the city? What if the Mad King told him to bring his father's head? Would honorable Ned Stark have obeyed that order?"

The Stark girl did not reply. She clutched her tiny sword in her hand as if she though Jaime might lunge at her. As if he could. He could barely keep his feet at the moment. The wine, perhaps.

"Maybe he would have," Jaime said. "'Duty before family', he might have said. 'I must obey my king'. But what if...what if the King turned to his pyromancer and ordered him to set the whole city ablaze with wild fire? You see, the Mad King had set up cashes of wild fire all over the city. Enough to destroy the whole of King's Landing and every living soul inside. What if the king ordered the pyromancer to set those stores of wild fire ablaze to kill ever man, woman and child in King's Landing? Would your father have stood faithful by his post?" He glared at the girl. She had not said a word. She just stared at him, stricken by the question. "Would he have let that many people service to his king? Would that have been honorable?"

"Is that what happened?" she asked at last. Her voice was soft. Tentative. "The Mad King tried to burn down the city?"

"Oh yes. The Mad King loved watching things burn. He would have laughed at the sight of it. He always laughed when his enemies melted away." Jaime smiled mirthlessly. "I'm not really sure what your father would have done. But I know what I did. I killed the pyromancer before he could make the door. And then I drove my sword as deep as I could through Aerys back. I don't think he expected to die. He didn't even cry out in pain. He just kept chanting, "Burn them all. Burn them all. Burn them all." Jaime practically growled the words. "Well, I slit his throat to shut him up."

"If you killed the king to save King's Landing...why didn't you tell my father that?" Arya asked. "He would have understood."

"Would he?" Jaime asked. "I don't think so. Ned Stark judged me guilty the moment he found me in that throne room. The contempt he had for me. You should have seen it. He wanted me punished for my crimes. My crimes. He was fighting to depose the damn king yet I was evil for killing him? I was dishonorable?" Jaime barked out a laugh. "By what right does the wolf judge the lion?"

Arya's eyes widened. Jaime realized, too late, that he had crumpled to the ground. Suddenly he was staring up at the ceiling.

The girl rushed to his side. "Ser Jaime. You're burning. Your wound must still be infected." She cursed under her breath. "Wait here. I'll fetch the Maester." She gripped his shoulder surprisingly hard for someone of her size. "Do not die."

Then she left him. He listened to her footsteps racing down the hall until they faded into nothing.

Let me die, Jaime thought. There's nothing left for me here. If there are gods I'll face my crimes. If there are gods, I'll spit at their feet.

Just let me die.

Jaime did not die. When next he woke, it was from the pain of Pycelle sawing off another part of his wrist. Someone shoved a cloth into his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue as he roared with pain.

When the pain was done, he faded in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he saw his brother's face. Sometimes his sisters. Once he saw his father's back. He was talking with the Stark girl though he could not make out the words. She stared straight at him with those Stark eyes. Defiant.

Do not die.

Her words seem to have cursed him, because though he wanted to die, he could not. Instead he passed in and out of fitful dreams. He dreamed of battle. He dreamed of a cage. He dreamed of Robb Stark's great direwolf snapping at his throat.

He dreamed of shoving Bran Stark out of the window, only to have the boy pull his hand off as he fell.

He dreamed of the iron throne, with the Mad King sitting upon it. Burn them all, he screamed. Burn them all.

Jaime went to silence him but he had no sword and no hand to wield it. The fire erupted through the hall, breaking apart the stone. He watched the Mad King's flesh melt off his face and still he laughed. The throne room fell away, leaving Jaime alone.

The sky above him swarmed with dragons.

When he woke for the final time, after his fever broke, his father stood in the corner of the room looking down at him.

"Are you truly awake now?" he asked.

Jaime nodded once.

"Good," Tywin said. "Never endanger your life like that again."

It was an order. His father was fond of giving orders. But Jaime did not have the energy to argue with him or even speak. He could only nod again.

Arya Stark, it seemed, had cursed him to live a little longer.

Chapter Text

Before he left to fight Stannis, Jaime Lannister had insisted that Arya did not owe him anything for saving her life. He said that the Stark words had nothing to do with paying debts. But family words meant nothing, and Arya still felt the burden of owing him.

When he stumbled into the room that day, swaying like a drunken man and hissing words like a wounded cat, she got her chance. She ran for the maester. She instructed her guards to carry Jaime and follow her. She watched as Pycelle cut away the rotting parts of his wrist and treated the infection.

If he lives, this will pay my debt, Arya thought. If he dies, I will owe a dead man.

Arya's ears still rang with the story he had told her. The story of the day that made him the Kingslayer. She wondered, at first, if he was telling the truth. But what reason would he have had to lie? He was delirious with fever.

If Jaime Lannister had saved King's Landing...why did her father hate him so much? It wasn't honorable to let half a million people die for a cruel king. It wasn't honorable to let one innocent die for a cruel king.

Arya did not know why she lingered in the room as Pycelle tended to Jaime. Maybe she wanted to make sure he would live before she left. Her debt would not be paid otherwise. A few times, Jaime woke from his fitful sleep and looked at her with his half-conscious gaze. She stared right back at him with what he had called "her father's eyes".

She willed him to survive and relieve her of her debt.

She made herself small in the corner as his family came and went. None of them bothered her or told her to leave. They barely seemed to notice her. How strange it was to see the Lannisters worrying over Jaime as the Starks had once worried over Bran. It was almost uncomfortable. To see them as a family.

But she didn't move. She kept her post and watched.

The fever broke late that night. Tyrion cursed once with relief when Pycelle declared that Jaime would live. Cersei actually smiled. Tywin's face did not move but Arya saw the tension go out of his shoulders.

He had been more afraid for Jaime than he would ever admit.

When the danger had ceased, Arya quietly rose from her chair and went to slip from the room. Tywin stopped her, grasping her shoulder tightly as she passed. She looked up at him, confused.

"Your have my thanks, Lady Arya," he murmured, so quietly that no one else could here. "I am in your debt."

Never before had those words felt so significant.

Soon enough, Jaime was healthy again and walking around as if nothing had happened. Well, the hand was still gone, but his wound was no longer trying to poison his blood. Self-hatred still ran deep. Regret still ran deep. But Jaime no longer wanted to die, which he supposed was a start.

There was a bright side to the ordeal. After nearly losing him to death, Cersei was acting more her old self. She smiled at him and put down her wine when he came to visit her. She apologized for not seeking him out sooner after he returned. She kissed him again. He had desperately missed her lips.

"I'll have a golden hand made for you," Cersei said. "It will let everyone know who you are."

"Everyone already knows who I am," Jaime said. And a golden hand meant nothing if he could not fight. Still, it was better than nothing. Perhaps he could slap someone with it.

One thing haunted him about his brush with death. Arya Stark. He had spoken too freely with her in that room right before he collapsed. He laid the whole truth bare before a girl who hated him. A Stark. He had behaved like an utter fool and a drunk. She never should have seen him so weak.

It would have been easy for her to leave him there, burning his life away. She could have walked from the room and left him slumped across the floor. Instead she didn't. She had found the maester and she must have asked her guards to carry him down the steps.

Why? That question had been tormenting him ever since he woke. Why did she help him?

He asked Tyrion that question, wondering what he would have to say about it. His brother usually had an answer for most things and he was good at reading people.

"Why are you so bothered by the Stark girl's motives?" Tyrion asked. "It all seems rather obvious to me. You saved her from Joffrey and she saved you from your own stupidity. A paid debt."

"No. It's not a debt," Jaime said. "She doesn't truly owe our family anything because she's a hostage. She shouldn't feel indebted. And she could have left me so easily."

Tyrion sighed. "Father and Cersei are giving you such a cynical world view lately, brother."

Jaime gave him a look. "You have a cynical worldview too."

"Well yes," Tyrion agreed. "But Arya Stark doesn't. Not quite. Part of her still believes in the honor her father fought for."

"So why save a notoriously dishonorable Lannister?" Jaime asked.

Tyrion swirled his wine in his cup. "Did you hear about what happened with Tommen while you were away?"

"Cersei said he was almost assassinated," Jaime said.

"Yes. And the Stark girl saved him. That's why she's injured again. She took a knife to the shoulder. She didn't think about saving Tommen, she just did. No calculations. No grand plan. Do you know why?"

Jaime shrugged. "I assume you are going to tell me."

"Because Arya Stark instinctively helps people in trouble," Tyrion said. "The world hasn't beaten that out of her yet."

Jaime stared down at his stump of a wrist. Once upon a time, he had been the same way. He wanted to protect the innocent. He wanted to save people. His desire to be a knight was wrapped up in the misconception that all knights were heroes.

Then, serving King Aerys, he had no choice but to smother that instinct. The Mad King killed the innocent for fun, and there was nothing Jaime could do to help any of them. None of the other knights helped either. They watched. They waited. They did nothing.

"Give her time," Jaime said at last. "A little longer in this place, and she'll learn to be as terrible as the rest of us."

Still, he knew he had to thank her for what he did...and perhaps apologize for being so open. He made his way back to her usual practice room to find her.

She was there, of course. She was always there, sparring. Today, she noticed him as soon as he entered the room. She lowered her sword, lifting her chin.

"Ser Jaime."

"Lady Arya." He inclined his head. "Is your invisible opponent giving you trouble?"

"He was in the beginning, but I got the better of him," she replied.

"Naturally." Jaime rubbed his forearm just above his stump. He hated this. He hated having to ask forgiveness for such a stupid moment of weakness. Why didn't he keep his mouth shut? "I came today because...Well, I'm...I'd like to apologize. I don't quite remember everything I said to you a few days ago, but I know I said too much."

"Was it the truth?" Arya asked.

Jaime nodded once.

"Then don't apologize," Arya said. "If anything, you should apologize for not seeing to that wound sooner. You caused a lot of trouble."

"I excel at that," Jaime said. "At the time, I wished you left me to die."

"Why would I do that? You didn't leave me to Joffrey." Arya sheathed her sword and hid it in the stones again. "Don't Lannisters have words about paying debts?"

"You're not a Lannister."

"I'm your family's ward. Perhaps I'm trying to blend in," Arya said. "Besides. My father believed in paying debts too. That's what justice is, right?"

Jaime studied her. "In a sense, I suppose it is." He took a step back toward the door. "I'll leave you to your practicing. I only came by to apologize."

"You could stay and practice," Arya said.

Jaime blinked. Did she mean that as a joke? Her expression looked sincere. "I'm afraid I won't be much good at that anymore."

"I have something for that." Arya crossed the room.

"Really? Are you hiding a spare hand in here?" Jaime asked.

"No. But I found these." Arya picked two wooden practice swords up from the wall. "They're extras that my teacher and I used to use while sparring."

"And what am I to do with a stick?" Jaime asked.

"Practice." Arya tossed him the sword. His fingers fumbled and it clattered to the floor. She smirked a bit. "Next time you will catch it."

"This is ridiculous," Jaime said. "I've fought with my right hand my whole life. Training my left hand will be like starting from scratch."

"Then you best get started," Arya said. "You said you're nothing without swordplay. Then fight for it. I have." She circled around him. "Every day of my life I fought to wield a sword. They kept taking my sticks away from me and giving them to my brothers instead. They told me I was a lady and I could never be a knight. But you. They put a sword in your hand as soon as you could walk."

"And now I've lost that hand," Jaime glared at her.

"You have another one. I fight with my left hand. Why can't you fight with yours?" Arya held his gaze, a challenge in her eyes. "You're just worried that if you try again you'll fail. Scared you'll be beat by a girl?"

Jaime gave a mirthless laugh. "Anyone ever tell you not to play with a lion's tail?"

"This lion only has one paw. And he just told me that he's too scared to fight. Why shouldn't I?" Arya asked. She lunged forward and gave him a smack on the arm. Then another. "Pick up the sword, ser. Fight me. If you're as good as everyone says you would try again."

Jaime let out a half snarl and seized the tip of her sword when she swung at him once more. His grip was weak but she let him have it, bending instead to pick up the sword he had dropped.

"Good. You're holding a weapon. That's a start." Arya extended hers. "Now fight me."

Jaime shook his head. "Why do you care if I do?"

"I don't know," Arya said. "I just do. It's depressing seeing you wander about the keep." She swallowed hard. "You saved my life. Let me help you keep yours."

Jaime laughed once. What an interesting girl. Debts, it seemed, were important to her. Even if they were owed to a man her father despised. To a Lannister. "A one handed man against a girl. What fools we'll look like."

"Then we'll be fools." Arya gestured for him to come at her. "Come at me. Or I'll start hitting you again."

Jaime sighed. The girl was one part mad and two parts stubborn. She would not be refused. "Very well, Lady Stark." Then he lunged at her. Their wooden blades met with a sharp 'clack' that echoed through the room.

Arya Stark's guards made regular reports to Tywin and only Tywin. He picked them specifically because they did not speak to anyone else. They only spoke to Arya herself if absolutely necessary. The Stark girl needed such guards because there were plenty of untrustworthy people who might try pay off less loyal men.

Godrick Swyft, was one of the grandsons of House Swyft. Harys Hill was a bastard of House Crakehall. Neither had any chance at inheritance and they had both had entered the service of House Lannister earlier. They had passed many tests of silence and loyalty. Twice, men had tried to buy their silence or there words and both times they had reported the treachery to Lord Tywin. They would both die before they ever betrayed Tywin's confidence. He was not merciful to those who did.

That night, it was Hill who reported to Tywin, while Swyft remained at his post. Hill told him about Jaime's visit with the Stark girl.

"I think he meant to give her his thanks and be on his way," Hill said. "But then she forced him to practice with her. He stayed there for a good while."

Tywin raised an eyebrow. "Forced?"

"She kept hitting him with a practice sword until he picked one up, my lord." Hill shrugged. "Eventually, he did. I think he was too annoyed to argue."

"How long did he stay?"

"The better part of two hours. He cursed quite often," Hill said. "A few times he tried to put down the sword and she started hitting him again."

Tywin very nearly smiled at that image but he stopped himself. "Report to me again if this continues."

Hill bowed in response and left the room.

Tywin sat back in his chair, rubbing his jaw. When he chose to take Arya as his hostage rather than Sansa, he knew it was out of some personal preference. He enjoyed the Stark girl. She was interesting. But since she arrived, she was doing a great deal to justify his decision. In the past month she had saved Tommen and his son, and now she was forcing Jaime to practice by the sheer force of her stubbornness.

Perhaps she was trying to gain favor to ensure that her brother would survive King's Landing. Perhaps she felt indebted to Jaime for standing between her and the King's Guards. Perhaps she just wanted someone to practice with her, and Jaime was a means to that end.

Even more unlikely, perhaps she did not have an ulterior motive.

She was a strange girl. On some level she was willing to kill. She was willing to rip her enemies apart, if only she had the tools to do so. And yet at the same time, she had learned from her father growing up. She had learned from her father's honor. That part of her did not allow her to leave a man for dead.

But the honor her father believed in was an illusion and no one in this place operated by those principals. If Arya Stark ever lost faith in that imaginary concept, she would become as dangerous any other.

She could be a great threat to his family. Or a great asset. Only time would tell.

Chapter Text

Once, Arya had been a student of Syrio Forel, the first sword of Bravos, back when she liked the idea of fighting but did not know anything about it. Now, a few years later, she found herself in the peculiar position of being a teacher.

As irritated as Jaime acted after Arya released him from their first practice session, he returned the next day. And the next. And the next. He always claimed that he found life around the castle dull and that he had only come to pass the time. But Arya knew that part of him wanted to practice. Part of him wanted to believe that he could train his left hand to be as good as his right.

If Jaime was not Jaime without his sword, then he came here to fight for his identity.

His grip was weak. His muscle memory was non-nonexistent. But he still had his footwork and his reflexes. He just needed to relearn the sword.

Arya did not go easy on him. She often struck at the places he would have most difficulty blocking and that made him angry. But when he was angry he fought harder.

Some people are motivated by desire, Syrio told her once. Others by anger. Others justice. If you know what drives a man, you can help him, teach him, and kill him.

Arya thought about those words often. She told herself that fighting with Jaime was just a way of learning his weaknesses in case he ever became her enemy. He was of house Lannister after all. It was her job as a Stark to learn their weaknesses.

A lie to yourself is the worst lie of all, Arya Stark.

Syrio's words were sometimes quite annoying.

Truly, she did enjoy sparring with Jaime, especially now that they were more evenly matched. She liked being able to hit the man who was once one of the best knights in the seven kingdoms. It made her feel strong. She also liked having someone to fight. Swinging at an invisible opponent got rather dull and it didn't help her to practice her reflexes.

While Jaime pretended that these lessons were of no consequence to him, Prince Tommen treasured every word that dropped from Arya's mouth.

When his mother finally let him go outside again (always well-guarded of course), Tommen often asked Arya to accompany him to the gardens. In fact he would not return to the maze without her. He was too nervous to go alone, even with his guards. On these walks, he pestered her about how she handled a knife.

"I want to know how to use a blade like that," Tommen said. "I'm well protected, yes, but what if my guards fail? A knife could save me if you're not there."

He had such an eager and open expression, and if he was ashamed of asking for help from a girl, he did not show it. Arya was reluctant to teach him initially, but then again, Tommen was right. He should be able to defend himself. He was a prince, after all.

So Arya relented. She showed him how to hold a knife and how to throw one properly. How to slash and slice and how to conceal the weapon in his sleeve. It was just enough to ease his mind-knowing that he had some defense against future attackers.

And for Arya...well it was nice to have someone ask her for help in a fight. Tommen did not dismiss her as a helpless girl anymore. He knew better than that. And Jaime, it seemed, was starting to learn too.

"You've improved since I last fought you," Jaime commented one day. "Or maybe I'm just that much worse."

"I practice as much as I can," Arya said. "There's not much else to do."

"Apparently your practices have gotten boring as well, or you wouldn't have dragged me into them."

"You're free to go at any time."

Jaime shook his head, adjusting his grip on his sword. "If I try, you'll start hitting me again."

Arya titled her head to the side, allowing a grin. "Am I hurting you, ser."

Jaime's eyes sparked at the challenge and he lunged at her again.

At the end of the two hours, and at the end of their stamina, they stopped practice for the day. Jaime sat down on a crate, taking a long draught of water. "These crates have seen better days. Have you been throwing knives at them?"

Arya glanced off to the side.

Jaime raised an eyebrow. "Who are you practicing to kill, Lady Stark?"

"Anyone who tries to kill me," Arya said flatly.

"Then the gods help them," Jaime said, raising his canteen in a sort of toast.

Arya's mouth twitched and she leaned her practice sword up against the wall. "I don't believe in most of the gods anymore."

"How heretical of you."

She cast him a glare and he smirked.

"Don't worry. Neither do I," Jaime said. He set down his canteen and leaned back against the wall. "When did you stop?"

Arya stared at her feet. She knew exactly when. She remembered the exact moment that the gods fell to earth for her. She remembered the faith in higher powers leaving her body, as swift as the downward stroke of a sword. "When I saw my father die."

Jaime nodded. "I lost my faith over time... but I started hating the gods after my mother died. It didn't seem fair at all...for them to take her. And everyone always insisted the gods were fair."

"Your mother," Arya looked up at him. "Who was she? No one in your family has spoken much about her."

"She is a bit of a forbidden topic," Jaime said. "Cersei and I were eight. Quite young to lose a mother. I'm not sure either of us understood death before that moment."

"What was she like?" Arya asked. "Do you remember her?"

"Yes," Jaime said. "I can barely picture her face but...I remember her voice. And of course I heard all of the stories about her. She was beautiful. Strong. Stubborn. There's a lot of her in Cersei I think."

"Was she cruel like Cersei?" Arya asked before she could stop herself.

Jaime laughed once. "You two really do loathe each other, don't you?"

"I have plenty of good reason to loathe her," Arya pointed out. "What reason does she really have to hate me?"

"Your name, I suppose. That's enough for her," Jaime said. "But no. My mother was not cruel. Except to her enemies. My father loved her. They say he actually smiled on the day they were wed. Can you imagine that?" Jaime shook his head. "I think I was the only one who didn't hate Tyrion after she died. I hated the gods. But not Tyrion. He was just a baby. The way they spoke of him, you'd think he was a monster. But father needed someone to hate. Someone to blame."

Arya couldn't think of what to say. It seemed to her that Lord Tywin hadn't allowed himself to feel an emotion other than anger for decades. She did wonder what he was like before his wife passed. She couldn't picture him truly smiling though. His smiles were always laced with contempt. "When is the last time your father smiled?"

"I'm not sure. A long time ago. He used to smile at us on rare occasions when we were children. But that was mostly before our mother died." Jaime exhaled, placing his hand over his face. "Why on earth am I telling you this? Why on earth do I keep telling you anything?"

"I'm not sure," Arya admitted. "Your father does it sometimes too. So does Tyrion. You all seem to like telling me things."

"You'll be able to write a history about us soon," Jaime exhaled. "You should even the scales. What dark secrets have you been hiding?"

I have a contract with an assassin and am still considering which of your family I want him to kill, Arya thought.

"Dark secrets?"

"Surely the Stark family can't be as perfect as it seems," Jaime said.

Arya shrugged. "We... didn't have dark secrets. My parents loved each other well, especially considering they barely knew each other when they married. My siblings and I all got along. Well, I fought with Sansa sometimes. A lot of the time. But it was the kind of fighting all siblings do." She perched on another one of the crates, tucking one knee up to her chest. "My mother always hated my half-brother Jon, but the rest of us liked him. Everyone in our household was kind to us. We were happy."

Jaime let out a small groan. "Seven hells."

"What?" Arya shot him a look.

"You all really were a picture perfect little family," Jaime said. "Everyone getting along. No blood feuds of any kind."

"It's not that strange," Arya said.

"It is. It's very strange," Jaime said.

Arya rolled her eyes. "Well, everything fell apart when we went south. Our entire household was killed in these halls." She swung her right leg back and forth, tapping a steady rhythm on her crate with her heels. "Father lost his head. Robb and mother went to war. Sansa was trapped here. Bran and Rickon were taken prisoner by Theon."

"Ah yes. Theon Greyjoy," Jaime said. "Tell me about him."

It had been a very long time since Arya thought about Theon. She knew he had turned on them, but it was hard to think about the boy that she knew becoming their enemy. "He was cruel to Jon sometimes..." she said at last. "But I thought he liked the rest of us. He taught me how to shoot a bow better once." Arya picked at one of her nails. "I never thought he would turn against Robb. They were close."

"He was a Greyjoy. Your father helped to kill half of his family," Jaime pointed out.

"We treated him well," Arya said.

Jaime gave her a look. "Lady Stark. You, like Theon Greyjoy, are now a ward to an enemy house. My father has treated you kindly enough. Most of us have, with a few notable exclusions. If one day you returned home and your brother asked you take up arms against us, what would you do?"

The words struck Arya hard. She hadn't really thought about Theon's situation as similar to hers. She hated him for betraying their family.

But if Robb asked her, she would turn against the Lannisters in a heartbeat.

"It's alright. I know your answer," Jaime said. "So does my father. But hopefully it won't come to that. We are in the midst of a peace." He raised his stump of an arm. "And I'm in no shape to go to war again."

The door opened before Arya could respond. She hopped off the crates as Tyrion entered.

"Ah, brother." Jaime stood. "Would you like to take a turn at sparring?"

"You would both beat me rather badly," Tyrion said. "No, I came for Lady Arya."

Arya took a step forward. "Has something happened?"

"My father wants to see you." Tyrion smiled at her. "Your brother has won the last of this war."

Nothing could quite describe the relief Arya felt as Lord Tywin told her the news. Her brother had crushed the remainder of the Greyjoy forces, claiming Pike for the crown. Robb Stark had installed another lord there, temporarily, to keep the peace. Balon and Theon Greyjoy were both executed for their crimes against the king.

The news of Theon's death felt strange to her. He was a traitor, after all, and had put her little brothers in danger. But she still remembered him as the Theon she left in Winterfell. She was glad at his death, but it was a bitter sort of gladness.

Most importantly, Robb was alive and would soon ride south. She would get to see him again.

"Westeros will never worry about another Greyjoy rebellion after this one," Tywin said. "Their fleets are scattered and burned and the Greyjoy line ended with Theon. My tolerance for the iron islanders was at its end."

"How soon will Robb be here?" Arya asked.

"Within the week I'm sure." Tywin started toward the table to pour himself a goblet of wine. Arya stopped him.

"Let me. I have experience as a cupbearer," she said.

Tywin's mouth twitched. It was his version of a laugh. "Pour yourself a goblet too."

"I don't like the taste," Arya admitted.

"That's because the north has terrible wine. Try some again," Tywin said. "It's bad manners to refuse a lord's offer."

Arya inclined her head and poured herself a cup as well. She handed Tywin his goblet and raised her own. "To peace?"

Tywin raised his cup. "For now."

Arya sipped at her cup. It was better than the wine they had in Winterfell, but still had a bitter after taste. "You don't think the peace will last?"

"It never does for very long. I've seen several rebellions in my lifetime. There's always another," Tywin said. "Some people like war because it creates opportunities for them. Opportunities to grab at more power. Sometimes they justify their causes, of course. Stannis claimed the throne was his right. Renly claimed he would be a good king for the people. Balon and your brother wanted independence. But it's all just pretty words for the same thing. Power."

Arya did not like her brother being lumped in with those other kings, but she knew better than to argue. "Some wars are fought for just causes."

"Causes can be just," Tywin said. "Men rarely are. Remember that."

"Have you known any men who were just?" Arya asked.

"Not entirely. I don't think it's possible," Tywin said.

"Maybe it's not possible to be completely just," Arya said. "But my father was mostly just. And he wasn't hungry for power. He couldhave taken the throne if he wanted to, but he didn't."

"No," Tywin agreed. "He gave the throne to Robert Baratheon instead. And Robert Baratheon was a terrible king. Was that just of your father to give the realms to his friend? Or should he have taken the throne knowing he could rule better."

"That's not fair," Arya protested. "How could my father have known he would be a bad king?"

"He grew up with Robert. Thought of him as a brother. I'm sure he suspected Robert was not suited for the throne."

"Maybe he didn't think he could rule better," Arya said. "He never even expected to be Lord of Winterfell. His older brother Brandon was supposed to have that...before he died. I heard my father say to my mother once, when I wasn't supposed to be listening, that he was only ever trained to follow his brother's lead. He didn't want to do anything else."

"True enough," Tywin said. "There are some men more confident as followers than leaders. They have no ambition. My brother is like that. You've filled his cup before. Do you remember?"

"Lord Kevan," Arya recalled. "He seems like a good man."

"He is," Tywin said. "He's loyal and he's a kinder man than I am. I imagine he's disagreed with me a number of times. But he almost never questioned me. I can trust him because he has no designs on power." He sipped his wine. "Unfortunately, neither does Jaime."

Arya's brow furrowed. "Jaime?"

Tywin nodded once. "You mentioned before that your father could have taken the iron throne. My son could have done the same. Before your father ever walked into that room it was just Jaime, the throne and the corpse of the Mad King. He could have declared himself king and my soldiers would have supported him. We were there long before the Baratheon and Stark men arrived." He leaned back against his desk. "But he didn't. I don't believe he even thought about it."

Arya stared thoughtfully down at her wine. What a different world they might live in now if Jaime had the same lust for power as the other Lannisters. "Do you wish he did?"

"No," Tywin said. "It may have created more trouble than it was worth. Robert and your father would have fought it."

"Did you ever wish you could be king?" Arya looked up at him.

He studied her for a moment. "I don't need a crown to give me power, Lady Arya. The crown is really just another trick. The same as just causes."

"I suppose nothing is real then," Arya said, a bit snidely.

"That's a question for the philosophers," Tywin said.

For a moment, a silence fell between them. Arya traced her thumb along the rim of her cup. It was made of gold. Typical of a Lannister. "Can you promise...that Robb will leave this city alive?"

"I already told you I would gain nothing from his death," Tywin said. "I haven't lied to you yet."

"You can't blame me for fearing for him," Arya said. "He's my brother."

"I know," Tywin said. "Considering the debt I owe you for saving my son...letting your brother die would be a poor way to repay it."

Arya's mouth twitched. "How does it feel, being in debt so someone?"

"Careful now, girl," Tywin replied, but she could tell by his tone that the question had not truly angered him. "I can't promise any absolutes. I don't control every piece in this city. But I can promise you that Joffrey fears me, and so long as I am in the city, he won't go against my wishes."

Arya nodded once. She believed him. But ever since her father was beheaded there was a persistent voice in her head whispering in warning, "your whole family will join him some day. And you will be left alone."

The Greyjoy line was finished. Several other houses had died out in this war. And if Robb had not agreed to peace terms, the Stark name might have joined them. Arya was all too aware of the fragility of names and families now. Her family had survived for now, but for how long?

Tywin finished his wine and circled around his desk to flip through some papers. "Speaking of my son, how is his training coming along?"

Arya stilled. "My lord?"

"Well, you seem to have designated yourself Jaime's teacher." Tywin glanced up at her. "You're followed at all hours by two guards that belong to me. Don't act surprised when I know how you spend your time."

Arya set down her wine. "People who give up easily irritate me. I was only trying to-"

Tywin held up a hand. "Don't explain. There's no need. I'm pleased that someone is forcing Jaime to practice."

Arya's eyebrows shot up. "You are?"

"I don't have time to force him. You might as well," Tywin said. "He seems to listen to you."

"Only after I hit him a few times," Arya muttered under her breath.

Tywin heard her and smiled as he looked back down at his papers. Arya blinked hard. It was a genuine smile. Small, and gone in a few seconds, but without any of its usual contempt. She wondered if he had even realized he had done it.

I must be seeing things, she thought. I should leave before I see anything else strange.

She started to turn toward the door. "My lord, if there's nothing else-"

The words died on Arya's lips. Because as she turned, the door had opened and in stepped a man armed with a crossbow.

A crossbow aimed directly at Tywin Lannister.

Chapter Text

The next moment happened in slow motion. Arya registered the assassin and she registered his target at the exact same moment. She went instinctively for her knife, hurling it at the assassin's head at the same time he fired off the bolt. She struck him directly at his temple and he collapsed in a heap on the ground.

Arya's whole body buzzed with panic as she turned to look at Tywin. He was sitting in his chair. The bolt had struck his shoulder, not his heart. He must have moved out of the way in time.

He gritted his teeth together, gripping the bolt tight in his hand. "Poison." With a grunt he ripped the bolt from his shoulder. "They coated the tip with poison."

Seven hells, Arya thought.

It occurred to her, in that moment, that if she did nothing, Tywin Lannister-her captor, and one of the names on her list-would die. It was a startling thought, considering he always seemed so invincible. This was an opportunity she might never have again.

The same thing must have occurred to him. He met her gaze for a split second, and she saw that he understood: for once his life was in her hands.

She thought about it. For a long moment, she thought about turning and walking out of the room. But then, reality set in again. If she let him die, then Robb would never leave the city alive. She wouldn't last long either. Joffrey's fear of Tywin was one of the things that protected her.

No. He had to live a bit longer.

"What do I do?" Arya asked.

Tywin nodded at the cabinets on the other side of the room. "There's a vial in there. Small, transparent. The liquid inside is clear."

Arya rushed to the cabinets and held up the first battle that matched the description. "This one."

"No. Smaller."

She found another. "This one?"


"What is it?"

"Bring it here."

Arya obeyed, handing him the vial. His wound oozing blood, but it wasn't as visible past the red of his doublet. He took the vial and downed the whole thing.

"It will slow the progress of the poison long enough to get a real antidote," he muttered. "But it busy me minimal time. I need the Grand Maester."

"I'll find him."

Arya rushed to open the door. When she did, she saw the bodies of her two guards sprawled across the steps. She choked down bile and stepped back into the room. Right. She should have expected that.

"New plan. My guards are dead. If you stay here, someone else will kill you before the poison does." She pried her knife from the assassin's skull. "Can you walk?"

"For now." Tywin forced himself to his feet.

"Then we'll both go to the maester." Arya adjusted her grip on the knife. "And if there are any other assassins coming...we will probably both die." She took a deep breath. Her heart was absolutely racing and she had poor odds with only her knife.

"See that we don't," Tywin said firmly. Even as he was dying he was giving orders. He never stopped.

Arya opened the door again and stepped around the bodies of her guards. Lord Tywin walked unsteadily just behind her, placing his hand on the wall to keep himself upright. She advanced quickly down the stairs, checking for any other assassins. She flinched at the twitch of every shadow.

At the foot of the tower, the door opened and a shadow entered. Arya recognized the same clothes on this man as the assassin upstairs. Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it wasn't. She didn't have time to think about it. She launched herself down several steps and drove her small blade into his throat. Blood sprayed across her face.

I will not be afraid. I am a wolf.

She looked back to make sure Tywin was still behind her. He had reached the foot of the stairs, though he was leaned almost fully against the wall. She could see sweat starting to bead his forehead, and his shoulders shaking with the effort of breathing.

If he falls, I'll never get him up again, Arya thought. I'm too small for that.

Instead, she hurried to his side and he grasped tightly onto her shoulder for support, giving her a single nod. They hurried on from the tower and toward the Grand Maester's quarters. Late at night in the keep, no one else was around. Almost as if everyone had been cleared from the area beforehand. Perhaps the mastermind had paid off any of the usual guards so that they wouldn't interfere.

The mastermind had not expected Arya to be a problem.

Rapid footsteps rose behind them and Arya glanced over her shoulder in time to see a third man charging. She shoved Lord Tywin out of the way and the assailant's knife passed between them.

Fluid as water, quick as a shadow, Arya found her footing again and slashed out at the assassin with her blade. This one was faster than the others though. He dodged and countered with a jab of his own. Arya very narrowly dodged the blade.

It will be coated in poison too, she thought. I can't let it touch me.

The blade whistled dangerously close to her cheek, so close that she thought it must have cut a strand of her hair.

What do we say to the god of death?

She dodged a second stab, stepping back down the hall.

Not today.

The assassin struck again and she all but threw herself backward. She rolled and slid across the floor before coming up in a crouch several feet away from the assassin. Just far enough. As the man ran at her, she threw her knife and embedded it in his stomach. He crumpled to the ground with a gasp. His knife clattered to the ground.

Growling, Arya pushed herself to her feet and seized the assassin's fallen knife. She stalked over to him, holding the point to his throat. "How many of you were there?"

" could you..."

"How many?" Arya snapped. She gripped onto the blade embedded in the man's stomach and twisted hard. He screamed.

"Three," he cried. "There of us."

Three. That meant she had killed them all. She cast a glance at Tywin who sat on the floor, hand clasped over his wound. Maybe the assassin was lying, but even so, Tywin wouldn't be able to walk any further. She would have to take the risk and run for help.

She pulled her blade from the assassins stomach and drew it sharply across his throat. Then she stood. "I'll be back," she told Tywin, sprinting off without another word. She had to get the Maester. Had to get someone, at least. Someone who could carry him.

Hold on, she thought. Just hold on.

This was not the first time someone had tried to kill Tywin Lannister. From the very beginning of his life, he was a target. The eldest son of House Lannister in a time when the Lannister name was not respected. Men had tried to kill him-with poison, with swords, with arrows-since he was very young. Nothing he did would ever stop him from being a target. The key, he found, was to make people too afraid to try.

Someone stupid had made this attempt on his life. Someone stupid but with a lot of resources. From the moment the arrow struck him, he started to realize the plan. Someone was trying to create chaos and bring back war. Tywin's death would let Joffrey run wild, and with Robb Stark riding south, this was a very bad time for Joffrey to be off of his leash.

He could not die. Not this night. But his survival rested entirely on the shoulders of a fourteen year old girl.

He saw her think about leaving him. He saw the notion pass through her eyes. But then, she knew as well as him, that only Tywin had the power to ensure her brother's safety. So she armed herself with that tiny knife and guided him down the stairs.

He could feel the poison taking slow effect. His body felt heavy. His head dizzy. Breathing was difficult. He would not be able to fight anyone off in this state. If there were any other assassins, it would be up to Arya Stark to deal with them.

Shockingly...she did.

Tywin knew, of course, that she practiced swordplay. That she carried a knife up her sleeve. But he had never seen her use either, until that night. Panic transformed her into something almost inhuman-quick, feral, vicious. With her brother's life on the line, she did not hesitate to kill.

Cersei described her as "wild as a wolf". Only now did Tywin actually believe her.

The poison set in further. He could not focus on the Stark girl as he slid down the wall, pressing a hand over his wound. It was a trial to stay awake. The third assassin screamed in pain.

"How many," the girl snarled.

Tywin stared up at the ceiling. He couldn't die tonight, but he wondered for a moment if he would. Men didn't get to choose when they died. No one did.

If men could stop death, then Johanna would still be with him.

I must be close to end if I'm thinking of her, Tywin thought. He tried not to remember her, even all of these years later. It was too painful.

Somewhere, he heard the girl speak again. "I'll be back." He heard her footsteps echoing down the hall, until they faded into nothing.

They may have killed me this time. He struggled to draw breath. He dug his thumb into his wound to try to keep himself awake. Johanna...

He got the sense that if he closed his eyes he would see her again. See her face. He still remembered her face so clearly even after so many years. It was tempting. So many years of trying to hold up the world. It was so...tempting to rest.

Footsteps returned. More of them this time and heavier. Tywin wondered if someone had come to finish him. Instead he heard his son's voice.


Jaime lifted him from the ground with his one hand and balanced his arm over his shoulder.

"Hold on. Pycelle is close."

Tywin blinked twice. Arya Stark was at his other side, digging her nails into his other arm. Her wolf's eyes blazed with silver fire.

"Do not die," she ordered.

That was the last thing he heard before he lost consciousness.

The situation was bad, but not hopeless. Now that Tywin had received the proper antidote, Pycelle assured Jaime that his father had a chance to live. And an equal chance to die. It was more uncertainty than Jaime was comfortable with. But there was hope.

For every night his father survived, his odds would improve. But even in the best case scenario he would be confined to rest for several days. That would leave him vulnerable. He needed to be guarded well every day, by men that they could trust.

It was a fucking mess. This could not have happened at a worse time. Robb Stark was days away. What was to stop Joffrey from murdering him in the throne room, in the same place the King Aerys murdered his uncle and grandfather?

Arya Stark had clearly considered this, because she refused to leave the room. There was still blood flecked across her face and clothing. She had killed three assassins, she said. Three men with a tiny knife.

She must have caught them all by surprise. A fourteen year old girl from a noble house was not supposed to be a threat. By the time they realized she was one...well, it was too late.

She sat in the corner, wide eyed, still clutching her tiny weapon, watching his father twist and turn in his bed. Waiting to see if her efforts would be for nothing.

Jaime exhaled and crossed to her. "Lady Stark."

She didn't look at him.

"Arya," he said, a bit louder this time.

She looked up at him, blinking, as if she just realized he was there.

"Are you injured at all?" Jaime asked.

She shook her head.

"Good," Jaime said. "You should get some sleep then. You've done all you can here."

"I'm not particularly tired," Arya said. "I'll stay."

"For what reason? Are you going to will him to stay alive? You, of all people, should know that doesn't work," Jaime said.

Arya didn't reply. When he looked closely, he saw that she was trembling. He'd seen these same symptoms in young men after their first battle. Tonight may have been the girl's first true fight to the death. She had won, but her body had not yet calmed down from the experience. She was still waiting for another assassin to jump from the shadows.

"Arya," Jaime rested a hand on her shoulder. She flinched at the touch. "He's only here because of you. But you can't make him live."

"He has to," Arya said. "If he doesn't then Robb..."

Jaime exhaled. "It might not come to that."

"Can you promise?" Arya glared up at him. "Can you promise me my brother's life?"

Jaime didn't answer. Of course he couldn't. He was a one handed man and a King's Guard. The king was both his nephew and son. He could not stand against him if he chose to kill Robb. Instead of offering false promises, Jaime pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to her.

"You should see to the blood on your face."

"That's not going to save my brother either," she muttered.

"No, but I don't recommend walking blood splattered through the keep," Jaime said.

Arya accepted the handkerchief slowly, dabbing at her face. She seemed almost surprised by the amount of red that stained the white.

Jaime opened his mouth to say something else, but at that moment the door opened. Petyr Baelish stepped through, with a bow. "Ser. My lady. How is Lord Tywin?"

"Not good," Jaime said. "But not dead."

"That is a relief," Littlefinger said. "I just came from examining the bodies of the assassins. I thought you might want information."

"Obviously," Jaime said.

"They likely came from the same place as our first assassin," Littlefinger said. "No sign of Umber this time, but they did have other similarities in their dress. I think we are dealing with the same culprit." He glanced at Arya. "The same savior too, apparently. The assassins should learn to stop attacking when you're around, shouldn't they, Lady Stark?"

She did not respond. She glared daggers through the man. Of course, Littlefinger had betrayed the Stark house before and had betrayed her to his father. Jaime imagined that she rather hated him.

"Do you have any idea of that culprit?" Jaime asked.

"At the moment, the most likely suspect is the north. Though it's likely they had help from a spy in King's Landing," Littlefinger said. "We best be wary of our friends in this time."

"Should I be wary of you, Lord Baelish?" Jaime asked.

Littlefinger smirked. "I do recommend it. But I assure you, I am loyal to King Joffrey."

"You're not really loyal to anyone. But you're loyal to those who give you power. I suppose the king did give you a holdfast." Jaime ran a hand through his hair.

"The north didn't do this," Arya murmured from behind him. She was studying her small blade. "It's too obvious. They would have hidden it better."

"Not everyone is as bright as you, Lady Arya. People make mistakes," Littlefinger turned back to Jaime. "It's too soon to know for certain. We will have to investigate further before we know if the north is truly to blame. Perhaps the knife is a coincidence. Who knows?"

"You should know," Jaime said. "We employ you to know things. So find out."

"Of course." Littlefinger gave a small bow and started toward the door.

"Lord Baelish," Arya said softly.

Jaime turned back to look at her. She had the strangest look on her face. Like she had just remembered something very important.

"Yes, Lady Stark?" Littlefinger asked.

"Who do you think the culprit will target next?" she asked. "They must have other assassins here. Who is the next target?"

"It's impossible to say," Baelish said. "There are many worthy targets. But both of their attempts thus far have been unsuccessful. They might leave."

"I wonder...why they haven't attacked the king," Arya said. "If the north is behind this...and they wanted revenge...Joffrey is the one who killed my father. Why go after his brother and his Hand?"

"I'm not sure of their goal. Perhaps they are lashing out blindly. Perhaps Joffrey is too well guarded. I will find out." He inclined his head. "Excuse me."

Jaime's brow furrowed and he looked back to Arya. "What was that about?"

"Nothing." She stood abruptly. "I should go."

Jaime blinked. "You wouldn't move and now you're in a rush? What changed?"

"Maybe I'm just listening to you." Arya strode past him.

Jaime caught her arm and pulled her back. "Lady Arya. Are you planning to do anything stupid?"

Arya looked up at him. "No. But I'm going to do something." She glanced one more time at his father, then she jerked away from Jaime and swept from the room.

Jaime exhaled pacing to the other side of the room. His father had gone still again, but he was still breathing. For now at least.

"You have to live," Jaime murmured as he looked down at him. "We all despise you sometimes. Most times, actually. But things always seem to fall apart when you're not around."

His father did not reply. And Jaime was left in the silence of uncertainty.

When Arya was still Lord Tywin's cupbearer, Peytr Baelish had come to Harrenhal to speak of strategy. He had something then that Arya had remembered a year later.

"In my experience, chaos is an opportunity."

Lord Baelish was a man who came from a very small house in the Riverlands. He should have had no hope at real power. But since the war he had become the lord of a holdfast, negotiated the Lannister alliance with the Tyrells. He knew how to use a war to elevate his position. Because money and silver-tongued men were vital in war.

But they weren't in a war anymore.

"It's too soon to know for certain. We will have to investigate further before we know if the north is truly to blame. Perhaps the knife is a coincidence. Who knows?"

Those words sparked something in Arya's memory. Joffrey had said nearly the exact same words in the small council meeting two moons ago. They hadn't sound right coming from his mouth. He had sounded like he was parroting someone else.

The words sounded right coming from Littlefinger's mouth though. Perhaps Littlefinger advised Joffrey what to say in that meeting. She thought Joffrey was just trying to play nice in front of Tywin. But what if he was growing bold? What if he was tired of listening to his Hand? Joffrey was not the kind of person who liked being told 'no'. Maybe he wanted to get rid of the one person still powerful enough to say that word to him.

And in the same vein, he could blame it on the north. Give himself a reason to kill Robb when he road south. He would seem like a just king then, wouldn't he? The North tried to kill my brother and grandfather. I will answer with blood.

Not that Joffrey cared about seeming reasonable. Littlefinger probably advised it. She imagined Joffrey coming to him with his plan and ordering him to help. So Littlefinger was trying to make the best of Joffrey's blaze. He was tempering some of the king's rage with the hope of rising to even more power. What would the king give him as a reward? A bigger castle? More power?

"I assure you. I am loyal to King Joffrey."

Littlefinger had not lied when he said that. Clever of him. But Joffrey was not loyal to his family. Not even his own little brother.

They had both made a vital mistake though. They underestimated her. Arya imagined that her presence at the two assassination attempts was not a coincidence. If Tommen had died when she was near, perhaps they could have blamed her. At the very least, Cersei would have been eager to point the finger at Ned Stark's daughter. And tonight, if she left Tywin for dead, they easily could have claimed that she planned to kill him with the North.

But Arya was not so weak as either of them thought. She would not let herself be implicated in any crime she did not commit. Not like her father. Littlefinger understood that now. He would not make the same mistake a third time.

"The assassins should learn to stop attacking when you're around, shouldn't they, Lady Stark?"

It all made sense to Arya as she rushed down the hall. But she had no proof and she was unlikely to find any. But she knew someone who could.

Arya knocked rapidly on the door to Tyrion's quarters until he answered. He looked surprised to see her. "It's the middle of the night, Lady Stark."

"You're awake." Arya pointed out, brushing past him into the room.

Tyrion rushed after her. "Ah, Arya, perhaps you should-"

Arya stopped in her tracks when she saw Shae lying in Tyrion's bed, resting her chin on her hands. She was naked.

Arya whipped around to face the other way. "My apologies. I didn't expect her to be here."

"That's why you should wait before you storm into a man's bedroom," Tyrion said.

"I suspected Shae of being someone's spy. I just did not expect her to be yours," Arya said.

"I'm not a spy," Shae said sharply. When Arya glanced over her shoulder, she had donned her gown again.

"It's true, she's not," Tyrion said. "I thought she would be safer as a hand maiden for a lady with no connections to Cersei."

"Safer? What does she need saving from?" Arya asked.

Tyrion glanced at Shae, looking torn between the truth and a lie. Shae looked back at him, undaunted.

"Would you like to tell her, or should I?" she asked.

"Alright." Tyrion sighed and looked to Arya. "Shae is a whore, Lady Arya. More importantly than that, she is my lover. I care very much about her. But, since my father has promised to hang the next whore he sees with me and my sister is always looking for ways to hurt me, I needed to find a place for her at the castle. So as to not cause...suspicions."

"Your father would hang her if he found out about her?" Arya blinked. "That seems extreme."

"My father is extreme. You just don't notice, because he likes you. He hates me," Tyrion said. "And my relationship with whores has been a testy subject for us in the past. It's too long of a story to get into now. The point is, please do not tell my father."

"I won't," Arya said. "In fact, I may never get the chance. Your father might not live through the night."

Tyrion blinked rapidly. "He...what?" For the first time he seemed to notice the blood still staining Arya's dress. "Arya, what happened?"

Shae glanced between them. "I will go. So you two can talk."

Arya nodded once and watched Shae leave. Then, she sat and told Tyrion the whole story. Tyrion listened in bewildered silence. As much as Tyrion hated his father, he never seemed to consider the possibility of him dying. Arya understood that. Tywin always seemed so invincible.

When she finished giving the full story, Tyrion sat back in his chair. "Is Jaime still with him?"

"Yes. Along with several guards," Arya said. "Lord Tywin's chances of living go up if he makes it through the night."

Tyrion rubbed a hand over his face. "So someone tries to kill Tommen and my father. Clearly, the culprit is trying to frame the north. There are many people who would want to do that, but not as many who would dare to attack Tommen and my father."

"No," Arya said. "But I have a theory. That's why I'm here." She clasped her hands tightly together. "I think Joffrey is behind both of these attacks. And he used Littlefinger to orchestrate them."

Tyrion's eyebrows shot up. "Your evidence?"

"Scant," Arya said. "I have a motive and a hunch. Not much else."

"It's something," Tyrion said. "Tell me."

"Well, we agree Joffrey wants to start a fight with the north again," Arya said. "He's been very vocal about it."

"That's indisputable."

"And we know that your father is one of the few people who stands up to him," Arya said. "Which Joffrey doesn't like."

"Also indisputable." Tyrion pointed out. "He's afraid of him, but even father knew it wouldn't last forever. Joffrey doesn't like being afraid."

"So that is plausible," Arya said. "But would Joffrey go so far as to kill his brother? You've been his Hand before. You know him better than me."

Tyrion drummed his fingers against the edge of the table. "Joffrey has never been affectionate with his little siblings. And he belittles Tommen constantly for his weakness. Tommen has learned to avoid him after a while." He looked up at her. "And it wouldn't be the first time Joffrey tried to remove one of his heirs. When I became hand, he sent the city watch out to kill all of his father's bastard children, just to make sure none of them had any claim."

"Why would that matter? They're bastards," Arya said. "Bastards have no claim."

"At the time, there was a...rumor going around that they might have a better claim than Joffrey," Tyrion said carefully. "People said he was not Robert's true born son. So Joffrey had all the other sons killed. And the daughters. Every one."

"So he would do it?" Arya asked.

"His Baratheon uncles waged war on him for the throne," Tyrion said. "I don't think he trusts anyone in his family. Not even a sweet boy like Tommen. I suppose its lucky Myrcella is in Dorne. He can't reach her there." He shook his head. "Joffrey having a motive isn't enough to accuse him. He's a blood thirsty cunt. Everyone knows that. We need something more."

"He has been acting strangely," Arya said. "Do you remember how reasonable he acted in the small council meeting awhile back?"

"Yes. It was almost frightening," Tyrion said.

"I expected him to jump at the chance at blaming the north. But he didn't," Arya said. "If he had nothing to do with it, I think he would have tried to use the opportunity. But, instead, he tried to play innocent. I didn't think he was smart enough to do that until tonight. When I spoke to Littlefinger. He spoke the same words Joffrey did that day."

"Yes, let's talk about Littlefinger for a moment," Tyrion said. "Joffrey has a motive, but what cause would Lord Baelish have to go along with it? He fears my father too."

"And he knows your father keeps King's Landing stable," Arya said. "Chaos creates opportunity. He told your father that in Harrenhal. He can't keep climbing to power if there's peace."

Tyrion tilted his head to the side. "You miss nothing, do you? Yes. Lord Baelish likes war. He reaped a great benefit from it last time. But this plan seems rushed. Hasty. Usually he's smarter than this. It's possible that Joffrey has forced him into his services." He thought for a long moment. "It's also possible that Littlefinger has a larger plan in mind. And it only seems stupid because both assassination attempts failed. Because you were there. Your skills with a knife are a complication he may not have expected."

"So you think it's plausible," Arya asked.

"Yes," Tyrion said. "But we need evidence."

"That's why I came to you. Because you can find it," Arya said. "I can't. I have no idea where I would start. But you know King's Landing and its people."

Tyrion was silent for a while. Then he nodded. "I'll see what I can do. But you must not let anyone know that you are suspicious. Treat Lord Baelish as normal. Treat the king as normal."

Arya nodded. At least, she had someone she could trust with this information. Tyrion had more cause to hate his father than anyone, but still, he cared about his family. She knew for certain that he was not involved with this.

He could help her find the culprits. But if she was going to ensure Robb's safety...there was one more thing she had to do.

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, she waited on the balcony of her practice room. She was unguarded, because her guards were dead. Tywin had survived the night, but he would be bed ridden for a while yet. He would not be able to receive Robb. So she stood, waiting. Waiting for the one person who could help her.

"A girl looks troubled."

She spun to see Jaquen standing near the door, a mysterious smile on his face.

"A girl is troubled," Arya said.

"But decisive," Jaquen approached her. "You have a name to give, don't you?"

"I do," Arya said. "But this person must die soon. My brother arrives in a few days. If you wait too long to kill this person, my brother will die."

"I've told you before that death is assured and time is not," Jaquen said.

"I don't care," Arya snapped. "Please. Time has to be assured."

Jaquen inclined his head. "Give me your name."

Arya took a deep breath. He had made no guarantees that her brother would live. But if Robb died...she would still have her vengeance. She looked up at Jaquen, fire blazing in her grey eyes.

"Joffrey Baratheon."

Chapter Text

The last time Robb had been to the capital, he was barely more than a baby, and he had no memory of the great city. The Red keep and the Great Sept of Baelor were certainly a marvel to look at. Yet the whole city had a dangerous atmosphere-an undercurrent of malice running beneath to beautiful buildings.

Robb did not trust this place. He had grown more suspicious over these past few years. How could he not? War drew out traitors like poison from a wound. Even his own friend had...

Robb shook his head. He could not think about Theon right now. He didn't want to think about him ever again. It was with his own blade that he executed his once best friend only a month ago. It would have been easier if Theon was unrepentant and boldly refused to kneel. But he didn't fight the sentence. He knew he had gone too far for redemption or mercy. He knelt on the ground and let Robb take his head without any fight.

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.

If Robb could not trust his closest friend, it was even more difficult to trust an enemy. But the North needed peace. His son needed peace. And if they wanted lasting peace with the crown, he had no choice but to kneel before this rat of a king.

He remembered Joffrey from his visit to Winterfell. He had a smug face and the grin of a boy who had never been punished for a single one of his actions. Sansa had adored him instantly, and Robb worried for her. The prince was not kind. He could see that in an instant.

Sansa saw it now too. In fact, she knew it better than anyone. Her time in King's Landing had been such a trial for her. Before Robb left Winterfell, she had clasped her arm tightly and made him promise to be careful.

"Joffrey is a monster," she said. "And if he gets the chance, he will take your head."

"Tywin Lannister won't give him that chance," Robb said. "He is a man of his word. He can control the king."

But still, he was unsure. The Lord of Casterly Rock kept his word only as long as it suited him. If Tywin Lannister did decide that Robb was no longer useful to him, perhaps he would stand aside and let him die.

He found himself kissing his wife a little longer before he left, and holding their baby boy close. Little Eddard had been born two years ago, and he was healthy as ever. Talisa was days away from birthing their second child.

He did not want to leave them. He did not want to ride south.

"If they break their word," his mother promised before he left. "We will rain the seven hells upon them. Starks know how to survive the winter. They don't."

No. The Lannister's did not know the winter. Tywin had admitted that himself. He would avoid a conflict if he could. At least Robb hoped.

They passed through the God's Gate early that morning and made their way up toward the keep. At the stables, Robb and his men were met by an escort of guards. He already could feel the tension as he dismounted his horse.

"The king has prepared rooms for you all," the man at the front said. "You must be weary from travel. At noon, the king will hold court and receive you in the throne room. Until then, you may rest."

"You are most kind," Robb said. Already something seemed wrong. He would expect the Hand of the King to greet them, since this was such an important day. "We've ridden long and hard to meet with his grace."

The man inclined his head. "This way."

Fortunately, they were not immediately led to dungeon cells. That was a good start. They were given rooms in the keep. But still, Robb felt the danger. He would likely not feel calm until he left this city. His instincts told him to flee.

He wished, in that moment, that he had brought Greywind. But he worried the Lannister's would take that as a threat. When Robb was agitated, Greywind had a tendency to growl and snap. He would rather Greywind stay behind to protect Winterfell. Even if he died, his wolf would remain.

More than anything, he hoped to see Arya. She would be able to tell him if something was amiss. And of course, he wanted to make sure she was being treated well.

Then, att the door to his quarters, he heard his guards talking to someone. "What is your business with Lord Stark?"

"I'm his sister, idiots. Let me through."

Robb couldn't help but smile. Of course she would find him. He turned to see her standing in the door, her expression somewhere between happiness and anxiety. She had grown a few inches since he last saw her, and her hair hung to her shoulders. In her blue and gold dress, she looked like a proper lady. How she must hate that.

"Arya," Robb murmured. "It's good to see you."

Arya launched herself forward. He caught her up in a hug. This was still Arya. She was still alive and whole, and the Lannisters had not carved away her fighting spirit.

"It feels like a lifetime since we've seen each other," Robb murmured, setting her back on the ground. "You're beginning to grow up Arya."

"Not up. Just older," she replied.

"No, I'm quite sure you're taller than I last saw you." Robb rested his hands on her shoulders. "Are you well?" He felt a bandage beneath her dress, at the shoulder. "What's this?"

"That's nothing," Arya said. "There was an incident...But it wasn't the Lannisters that time."

"That time?" Robb asked. "Was there another time when it was?"

"There was a situation with Joffrey," Arya said. "It doesn't matter. It was over a year ago. I'm all right. You should be worried about yourself."

"I'm not the one who's a hostage," Robb said.

"I'm safe enough. You're not." Arya gripped his arm. "Listen...Robb. Two days ago, someone tried to assassinate Lord Tywin."

He blinked. "Tried?"

"He's still alive as of this morning. But he won't be in the throne room today when Joffrey receives you. Do you understand what that means?"

Robb's jaw clenched. "That Lord Tywin chose a poor time to almost die?"

"Someone chose, at least." Arya looked up at him. "I think Joffrey was behind the attempt. I don't have time to tell the whole story now, and I can't stay or they might think I know something. But Joffrey is hungry for blood. And war."

"Do you think he'll execute me at court?" Robb asked.

"No. But he might throw you in a black cell and sentence you to death." She looked up at him, a fierceness in her grey eyes. "Don't worry. I'll handle it. You will be fine Robb."

Robb shook his head. Arya had watched their father die over two years ago. She had suffered so much. But if Joffrey tried to kill him, she wouldn't be able to do anything. "How will you handle it, Arya?"

"Just trust me," Arya squeezed his hand. "I have to go."

Then, without another word, she swept from the room.

Robb's hand was shaking as he rested it against his sword. He longed for the ice cold northern winds. He longed for home. But he had come south to the wolf trap where his father had been ensnared. And there was no turning back now.

If it came to a fight, he would die with a sword in his hand.

Arya kept waiting for an announcement of the king's death. She spent the whole morning listening for the bells. Listening for cries in the halls. Listening for chaos. She heard none of it.

Please Jaqen, she thought. Please be quick.

Anxiety made it impossible for her to eat. Shae tried to force food upon her but she turned it all down.

"Your brother is here," Shae said. "Be happy. Eat."

"My brother could die here like my father," Arya muttered. "I don't think I will eat until he leaves alive."

"How will starving yourself help him?" Shae asked.

It wouldn't. But still, Arya could not stomach food.

Just before noon, Arya made her way to the throne room as fast as her feet would carry her. She found a place with a clear view of the throne, where Joffrey was already seated, looking particularly smug. He was still alive. Alive and vicious. His malicious green eyes trained on Robb.

Her brother stood in the center of the court, surrounded by his men. But his men would not be enough to defend him against the King's Guard or the Lannister men stationed around the throne room. There were more than usual. Arya could see it. Amongst the many nobles who had crowded inside, just as many soldiers stood, all with swords.

She was suddenly conscious of the knife up her sleeve, the metal resting against her forearm. If Jaqen did not intervene, would she have to use it?

You would die for it, a small voice inside of her said.

If I die killing Joffrey, so be it, Arya thought. They will sing songs about this day.

"You stand in the presence of King Joffrey Baratheon. First of his name. Protector of the realm!"

Robb did indeed stand before him-before the iron throne. But he did not for a second look weak. He held Joffrey's gaze and stood his ground with the pride of a wolf. In truth, he looked more a king than the boy sitting on the throne.

If he was afraid, he did not show it for a moment.

"Lord Stark," Joffrey called out. "It has been some time since we last saw each other."

"It has, your Grace," Robb said. Arya knew the title must have taste it like poison, but he said it all the same. Her brother was better at hiding his hate than she was. "We've both been fighting wars."

"Yes. I suppose your rebellion did qualify as a war," Joffrey said. "But it's over now, isn't it? Time for you to kneel before your king."

Robb held his gaze for a pause. Then, he slowly bent the knee. Arya hated to watch it. She hated that her brother had to kneel at all. In the back of her mind, she blamed herself for that. If only Lord Tywin had not captured her. Then maybe he would not have had to surrender.

"I do on this day proclaim that Joffrey Baratheon is the one true king of Westeros," Robb said. "The seven kingdoms, including the north, belong to him. My sword belongs to the realm and he is the protector of the realm. I vow to serve loyally from this day until my last day."

Murmurs swept through the crowd. Arya dug her nails into her palms as she looked from Robb to Joffrey.

"What a relief to hear you say so." Joffrey stood from his throne, perhaps in effort to make himself even taller. "A shame that you did not ride south earlier when your father turned traitor. Instead you...raised your banners against me. Tried to rob me of the North." He tilted his head to the side. "Does simply kneeling forgive that?"

"I do not simply kneel," Robb said. "I crushed a different rebellion for you. The Greyjoys are dead."

"You both rebelled," Joffrey said. "So why do we crush them but let the Starks stand tall. That doesn't make sense does it?"

"I suppose that is up to you. Your Grace." Robb added the title almost as an afterthought as he looked up at Joffrey. There was no fear in his eyes, but Arya feared for him. She feared for him very much.

"And do I know your words are true?" Joffrey asked, pacing back and forth in front of the throne. "In just this past month, two attempts have been made on the lives of my family. Someone tried to kill my brother. Someone tried to kill my grandfather. We have evidence to suggest that the culprit is from the north."

Liar, Arya wanted to snarl. You're a liar and a coward. Just like that day by the river. I should have run you through then.

"If there has been any plot against your family, I had nothing to do with it," Robb said. "I keep my word."

"Do you?" Joffrey asked. "Like your traitor father?"

Rage seemed to roll through Robb's shoulders and silver fire blazed in his eyes. But he did not rise to the bait. He just stared. His gaze seemed to unsettled Joffrey and the boy glanced around.

"Well. I suppose we will get to the truth of it."

The guards in the crowd shifted. Began to surge forward. Arya reached up her sleeve and grasped her knife.

But just then, the king coughed and swayed. His next order got caught in his throat and everything stilled. He coughed again, trying to get the words out. But none came. Instead, a trail of red seeped from his nose.

"Joffrey," Cersei stood from her seat beside the throne and moved toward her son, resting a hand on his arm. He waved her off, stumbling backwards. But he slipped and collapsed back into his chair. One of the blades impaled him through the shoulder. His whole body trembled. In that moment, everyone understood.

The king was dying.

Arya would remember the next few moments for the rest of her life, nearly as clearly as the day of her father's execution. As Joffrey coughed and twitched and bled on the throne, the King's Guard rushed to his side. Robb took a step back and his guards closed in around him on instinct. The nobles screamed and murmured.

And as Arya looked out among them, she saw Jaqen, standing in the midst of the crowd, looking right at her. He raised his finger and tapped just under his eye.

Cut it very close, didn't you? Arya thought.

Slowly she looked back to Joffrey, still writhing on his throne, blood streaming from his nose and mouth and eyes. Arya could not quite describe how powerful she felt then. Watching the life leave the wretched boy. Watching him bleed.

Over two years ago he had asked for her father's head. And by speaking his name, Arya had reaped vengeance upon him.

How sweet it tasted.

A few seconds later, the moment ended, and Joffrey went still on the throne. Cersei fell to her knees beside him, her face twisted with grief. It was amazing to Arya...that anyone could love such a monster. But still she felt the grim satisfaction of victory.

This is how it feels, Cersei. When someone rips away something you love. Does it hurt? Do you understand?

But the satisfaction vanished as Cersei looked up at her brother.

"Your people planned this," she hissed. "You did this."

Robb straightened. "No. We didn't. We only just arrived in the capital. How could we have done anything to the king?"

"Liars. You did. This is your doing," Cersei screeched. "Guards. Arrest them at once. They plotted to kill the king. Arrest them."

No, Arya thought. They didn't. It wasn't them.

But she could not say a word.

Joffrey Baratheon was dead. Arya's third name.

But Robb was still in danger.

Chapter Text

Arya expected to feel relieved when Joffrey died. Instead, she felt equal parts terrified and furious. Furious at herself for not predicting this and furious at Jaqen for engineering this death at the worst possible time. She let Jaqen know as much when she found him waiting for her in the practice room.

"Why then? Why exactly at that moment?" she snapped. "You could have poisoned Joffrey so that he died long before Robb arrived. You could have made it look like he snapped his neck falling down the stairs."

"I told a girl that the time of death was not certain," Jaqen said. "Neither was the method. Only death of the name. And that I have given you."

"You may have killed my brother in the process," Arya muttered. "And me, if Cersei decides I was involved."

For now at least, Cersei had not turned her eyes on Arya. Perhaps because she saved her son and father in the past. That made her look innocent enough, but she didn't expect that to last forever.

"If a girl worries for herself, then perhaps she should take the chance to escape," Jaqen said. "She could come with me across the narrow sea."

"What would I do there?" Arya asked.

"Learn the ways of the faceless men. Learn to do as I do."

Arya swallowed hard. "Is that why you killed Joffrey then? Did you hope to force my hand? Did you hope I would have no choice but to flee with you?"

"A man does not hope. A man simply does as the Many Faced God bids. And perhaps the Many Faced God sees potential in you."

That was an interesting thought indeed. Faceless men had no trouble in eliminating any man, from peasants to kings. If Arya wanted to finish her list, going with Jaqen might help her.

And yet...

"I won't abandon my family," Arya said. "They still need me. And I'm going to fix this mess you made."

"A girl is quick to place blame. She is the one who gave the name," Jaqen's mouth quirked.

"My mess then." Arya lifted her chin. "I'll learn of death on my own terms, Jaqen. Not from your god."

"If that is what a girl wants, so be it," Jaqen held out his hand. In his palm rested a coin. "But if she changes her mind...find a Bravosi and show him this coin. Then say the words: Valar Morghulis."

"Valar Morghulis?" Arya repeated.

"Yes. All men must die," Jaqen said. "If you learn nothing else of death...Learn that." He tipped his hand and let the coin drop into her palm. "Goodbye, girl."

Then he left her there, in the room, with a coin and an awful truth.

Valar Morghulis. All men must die.

"But not yet," Arya muttered. "Not today."

Tyrion could not imagine more of a mess than the current situation. His father still recovering from attempted assassination, the king dead, his sister raging through the castle and the northerners locked and heavily guarded in their rooms. Cersei was sure of their guilt. The past two assassination attempts told her that the north was to blame.

Yet Tyrion knew now that Robb Stark had nothing to do with any of the attempts. Because Arya Stark's theory was very likely correct.

"Lord Baelish has been meeting quite often with the king," Varys told him. "He has an excuse for every time. Discussing the finances of the kingdom. Discussing a possible alliance with the Vale. But..."

"But he could have been discussing these matters with the small council. Or my father, who wields the real power in this keep," Tyrion said. "Joffrey doesn't have a mind for strategy. He has a mind for violence. But he knew he needed someone subtle to help him kill my father, so he reached out to Littlefinger."

"Littlefinger does share his taste for chaos," Varys said. "There is nothing linking Littlefinger to the assassins or the poison. He has been very careful. It's still only a theory." He shrugged. "But it is a theory I like. The Stark girl is proving to be rather shrewd."

"More shrewd than her father certainly," Tyrion said. "What do you think Lord Stark would say if he could see his daughter now?"

"I don't pretend to know the thoughts of a dead man," Varys said.

"You pretend to know the thoughts of all living men. Why not dead ones?" Tyrion asked.

Varys' mouth twitched. "Lord Eddard Stark would fear greatly for his daughter. Not for her life though. He'd fear your father's impact on her."

Tyrion exhaled. "That's fair. I fear that too."

Arya already had a wolfish ruthlessness to her. He saw it in her eyes when she had glared at the king, or stared down his father, or even during a game of Cyvasse. But it was wild. Untamed. If his father managed to teach her true control-if she combined her tenacity with his mind-she would be damn unstoppable.

"The poison used to kill Joffrey was different. So I doubt Littlefinger was the culprit," Varys continued. "He would have used the same poison to cast blame on the northerners. Besides, this was a slow acting poison. It must have been served to Joffrey a day before his death. Lord Stark and his men had not arrived yet."

"No. The first two assassination attempts are different from the third," Tyrion said. "Which is troubling. That means there's some other, unknown murderer running about." He looked up at Varys. "I'd hoped your little birds would have seen something."

"Alas, they have not. This assassination was far more efficient than most. Clearly carried out by a professional," Varys said. "I will keep my many ears open though."

"Good," Tyrion said. "Cersei will want to blame someone for Joffrey's death. Right now the north is the easy target. If we manage to convince her that Robb Stark had nothing to do with this...well she'll find another target. Maybe the Stark girl. Maybe me. It depends on how she's feeling that day. It would be nice if we had the true assassin to blame."

King's Landing truly was an awful sort of place. Not a few months went by without someone trying to kill someone else. The Starks, the Lannisters, the Baratheons, the Targaryens. Not a single one of the great families had good luck in this god forsaken place.

Tyrion resented his father for shoving him out of power, but the mere fact that Tyrion was still alive, with only a scar on his face-that was something to celebrate.

Two days after the death of the king, Tyrion came to Arya with two pieces of good news.

"Grand Maester Pycelle says my father's survival is a near certainty now. He's woken up more than once. And Varys believes your theory holds some water," he reported. "However, there is no evidence. Lord Baelish is too careful to leave traces of that."

"Of course not," Arya muttered. "It's not enough that Varys believes me. We need proof to convince Cersei that Robb is not to blame."

"True. Even then, she may choose not to hear us," Tyrion said. "I'm not sure who she hates more."

"You," Arya said. "She did hate me more, but then I saved Tommen."

"True. The point is: Cersei won't listen to reason from us."

"But she will listen to your father," Arya said. "If we can convince him of my theory."

"Correct," Tyrion said. "Even he will require some kind of proof. He does not want to fall back into war with the north, but he can't be seen releasing a traitor to the crown either. That will make him look weak."

Arya swallowed hard, pacing back and forth as she tried to think of some sort of solution. Could she forge proof? No, she had no idea how to go about that. But maybe...

"What if Littlefinger confessed?" Arya asked.

Tyrion gave her a look. "That would never happen. Put Littlefinger on trial and he'll lie better than any man."

"You're right," Arya said. "So he can't know he's on trial."

Tyrion titled his head to the side. "You have some kind of scheme in mind, don't you, Lady Arya?"

"A scheme. And a gamble," Arya said. "But it's something."

Tywin had not expected to wake. In the twist of feverish dreams, he thought he was already dead and plunging toward the seven hells. He had accepted that. And yet the pain of the poison burning through his body kept him on the edge of life. He waited for it to kill him at last. It never did.

His dreams we full of faces long dead and rotting in the ground. The Reynes and the Tarbecks who he had crushed for their disloyalty to the house of Lannister.

Aerys, his close friend turned mad enemy, who his son had run through with his sword.

Robert Baratheon, who had taken the throne as a heroic, warrior king, and died from his own stupidity. He had started the war on a noble cause, but he didn't have any complaints about the children Tywin's men had slaughtered. It was all perfectly fine with him that they had died and eased his rise to long as someone else had played the villain.

Ned Stark, who had cemented the war of the five kings with his death. How the honorable Lord Stark had always hated Tywin. He believed in honor to the very end. In a meaningless set of principles that men used to make themselves feel decent. And hated Tywin because he understood how the world really worked.

Tywin's father, Tytos Lannister, the laughing lion. He had believed in the good of people, which was almost worse than believing in honor. People had used him his whole life and he laughed through it all as if it meant nothing. Tywin had cleaned up every bit of damage he wrought with ruthless efficiency. He had hated that smile of his at times. And missed it at others.

Johanna. Seven hells, how he had always tried not to think of her, but in the grips of fever, how could he not? He distrusted laughter and smiling, yet she seemed to force it from him with her wit. She was the one weakness he ever allowed himself and he suffered for that. Because the gods, if they existed, could sniff out weakness like the sharpest of hounds.

It seemed impossible that Tywin had lasted this long, surviving past every one of his old friends and past so many of his enemies. The Targaryens, the Baratheons, the Greyjoys, the Reynes, the Tarbecks. How many more houses could he possibly outlast before something killed him? It would not have surprised him if he did not wake up.

And yet...he did.

The first time he woke, he was barely aware of anything around him. Grand Maester Pycelle was speaking to him, but he didn't hear a word of it. The second time he woke he was more lucid. He recalled Pycelle explaining to him that his chances were improving every day. The third time he woke, Jaime was sitting beside him, telling him that the king was dead. Killed by poison. Cersei had locked up Robb Stark and the men who had come with him.

"You're gone for a week and the world seems to fall apart," Jaime said. "If we can't find someone else to blame, there's no way we'll avoid war with the north."

No. One way or another, someone was always trying to pick a fight. That was how men were. His father never saw it. Never wanted to. It was up to Tywin to see the truth and clean up for the mess of fools.

The fourth time he woke, he forced himself to stand and dress, because remaining in bed for one moment longer was an intolerable idea to him. He had just finished with the final buttons on his tunic when Tyrion entered.

"Should you be walking?" he asked.

"The danger is gone. So yes, I assume so," Tywin said.

"Good," Tyrion said. "Come with me then."

Tywin's eyes narrowed. "Where?"

Tyrion sighed. "I know it's very difficult for you. But just this once: trust me. You won't regret it."

Trust. Tywin didn't trust anyone. But he would rather follow his disappointment of a son than stay in this room any longer.

"Fine then."

Arya waited in her practice room, her hands shaking and her heart ramming against her chest. She was waiting for a visitor who might not come. And in the silence, she rehearsed her lies over and over again in her head.

Arya Stark was not a liar by nature. Her father had taught her honesty. So she did not lie about her feelings or her thoughts. Sometimes she lied about her actions, but only when she feared getting caught.

Today, she had to lie, many times. And she had to make a trained liar believe them.

The behind her opened and she whirled around as Lord Baelish entered. She let her nerves carry her over to him.

"Lord Baelish. You came." She glanced over his shoulder at the door. "Did anyone see you?"

"It is likely," Lord Baelish said. "This place is not as secret as you think. Many people know you come here."

Arya bit at the inside of her cheek, trying to look nervous. Really, she did not have to act.

"You needn't worry. No one is listening to us right now," Lord Baelish said. "Check in the hall if you'd like."

"I don't need to." Arya swept past him and closed the door. "I won't bother with small talk, Lord Baelish. My brother is imprisoned and I need your help to set him free."

Lord Baelish raised an eyebrow. "Do you? And why would I help you with that? He is Cersei's number one suspect for all of these assassinations that have been happening."

"But you know he didn't do it," Arya said.

"Do I?"

"Yes," Arya said. "Because you're the one who arranged them." Littlefinger's eyes narrowed only slightly and she hurried on. "Don't worry. I haven't mentioned it to anyone. It's not that I really mind that you try to kill Lord Tywin. Or that you killed the king. I hated Joffrey and Lord Tywin is my captor. Since he is still recovering, this may be my only chance to escape this city."

Littlefinger observed her. "Escape? You know well enough that if your brother and you escaped, that would start a war."

"Then it starts a war," Arya said. "Winter is nearly upon us. The Starks can outlast the Lannisters in the cold. I don't mind a war if I can return to my family. I don't mind a war if Robb lives."

"And why would I help you? Perhaps I want peace," Littlefinger said.

"No you don't," Arya said. "There's no chaos in peace. Chaos creates an opportunity, right?"

"Clever girl. You absorb every word you hear," Littlefinger said. "Your right. I don't want peace. And neither did the king. Everything I did was on his orders you see."

"Except for killing him," Arya said.

"I didn't kill him. That was someone else. Though I suppose that someone else only played more into my plans. I did hope he might way or another." Littlefinger studied her. "Tell me, if you wanted Lord Tywin dead, why did you protect him?"

"Because I thought I needed him to keep my brother alive," Arya said. "I won't need him anymore if you help us escape. Please. I'll do...I'll do whatever you need."

"What makes you think I need anything from you?" Littlefinger asked.

Arya looked down at her feet. "I don't know. But I'm willing to kill if I have to."

"Brave of you," Littlefinger said. "A Stark who does not mind their abilities being used for a dishonorable purpose. You're not much like your father."

Arya glared up at him. "Family comes before honor. I'll do one thousand dishonorable things to protect them."

Littlefinger smirked. He was starting to buy into her game. She could see it happening little by little. He was intrigued. "I may be able to help you. But only if my investments are assured. This war between the Starks and the Lannisters will never happen if Lord Tywin lives."

Arya swallowed slowly and deliberately. "So you want me to kill him."

"Yes. And in the chaos, perhaps that creates an opportunity for you and your brother to slip away," Littlefinger said. "I can't make promises for the other north men of course."

"Fine," Arya said. "Robb comes first."

"You're a ruthless little thing, aren't you? Those are your people."

"People die every day. And I only have so much room in my heart to care."

Littlefinger chuckled. "So cold. Your father would chide you for such a comment."

Arya glared at him. "My father is dead. He can't chide me for anything anymore because Joffrey killed him."

"And now Joffrey is dead too. You must feel happy for that."

"I'll feel better when my brother is safe," Arya said. "So...Joffrey ordered you to arrange for Tommen and Lord Tywin's deaths? Lord Tywin I understand but...his own little brother?"

"Joffrey has never had fond feelings for the boy. And this war of five kings made him paranoid about brothers. Perhaps watching Stannis and Renly inspired him," Littlefinger said. "And he thought it would be easier to blame the north if two members of the family died. The beloved prince and the ruthless hand."

"What did he promise you?" Arya asked.

"Wealth and power beyond my wildest dreams. I believe he meant to give me Winterfell. He was very confident that he could destroy the Starks," Lord Baelish shrugged. "Who knows if he would have succeeded? But I would have found my way regardless."

"Because Lord Tywin wouldn't be there to keep an eye on you," Arya said.

"Yes, he's never really trusted me," Littlefinger admitted. "Nor has he thought much of me. I'm not from a powerful family you see. In any case, it will be easier to move when he's gone. I'm sure you agree."

"I do." Arya couldn't keep the smile from her face then. "Thank you, Lord Baelish."

The door opened them and Tyrion entered, followed closely behind by Ser Bronn. "Yes, thank you Lord Baelish. Your honesty is much appreciated.

Littlefinger looked startled to see Tyrion, but he shockingly kept his composure. "Lord Tyrion. Up to your old tricks again?"

"I've told you before. Trick makes it seem like we have a playful relationship. And we don't," Tyrion said.

"No. You're right," Littlefinger said. "And we'll have even less of one when I tell your sister that you conspired with the northerners in these assassinations, Lord Tyrion."

Tyrion smiled. "Will you?"

"Oh yes. I guarantee she'll take my word over yours," Littlefinger said.

"Yes, probably," Tyrion agreed, gesturing toward the door. "And what about his word?"

At that very moment, Lord Tywin stepped through the doorway. And then the blood drained from Lord Baelish's face. Arya was not sure she had ever seen the Lord of Lannister's true anger until that moment. It wasn't loud. It wasn't violent. It was cold, silent, and inevitable as winter. When he looked at Littlefinger, his stare was like a death sentence. And the man knew it.

Still he tried to lie his way out of it.

"Lord Tywin. What you heard...It was a lie. I was only playing along with the girl. I meant to tell you of her treachery as soon as she finished."

Tywin did not reply. He kept on staring Baelish down, unblinking.

"Anything I did...I did for the king. On the king's orders. It's not my place to disobey the king."

"Was asking Arya to take my lord father's life on the king's orders? Because Joffrey is dead," Tyrion reminded him.

Littlefinger's frantic gaze went from Tywin to Arya. She held his gaze, her expression set like a stone.

"I told you, Lord Baelish. I want nothing from you. You should have remembered."

Littlefinger started to say something else-started to attempt another lie-but Tywin spoke before he could. "Don't. It's pathetic that you would even try. I've heard everything I need from you."

"Me too," Tyrion said. "Bronn. Would you be so kind as to escort Lord Baelish to a black cell?"

"Be glad to," Bronn said, strolling forward. "Want me to take his tongue as well? He likes to talk."

"It does not matter either way. His words are inconsequential," Tywin said flatly.

Petyr Baelish did not reply to that. For once in his life, he realized that his silver tongue had failed him. And Arya enjoyed watching Bronn march him away.

Tyrion looked at Arya. "That was a brilliant performance."

"You gave me half of the words," Arya muttered, finally letting out a breath. It had worked. She could hardly believe it worked.

"Not all of them though. You added some wonderful touches," Tyrion said. "I almost believed you myself."

Arya's mouth twitched. She ventured a cautious glance at Lord Tywin. His fury was slow to recede, but for once that fury wasn't directed at Tyrion.

"When did you suspect Lord Baelish?" he asked him.

"I suspect Lord Baelish of everything," Tyrion said. "But it was Arya who suspected him of this particular treachery. Something Littlefinger said on the night of your assassination prompted her theory. I investigated and found hints that she might be right, but we knew we would have to coax a confession out of him. It all worked out well."

"Yes. It did. It gives us a culprit for the attempt on Tommen's life and mine," Tywin said. "Better to blame him for it all. If we blame Joffrey it will make our house looked divided and weak."

"Shall we blame him for the king as well?" Tyrion asked.

"For now, that will satisfy the populace. Though it's clear he didn't do it. We may have another assassin running about the castle." Tywin looked back to Arya. "Do you have any theories on who killed the King?"

Panic spiked through Arya and it took everything in her not to raise her chin then. "No. Not yet."

In her head the truth screamed loud and clear. It was me. I ordered it. I killed him. But she hoped she could get away with one more lie that day.

Tywin cleaned up the situation quickly. He pulled Cersei back from the ledge of fury and presented her with the real culprit for the first two assassinations. Even she could not refute the confession. But the idea that Joffrey had tried to kill Tommen seemed to shatter something inside of her.

"He was always so difficult. So impulsive. Cruel," she muttered. "But Tommen. Why Tommen? Tommen never did a single thing to him in his life."

"No, but he was his heir," Tywin said. "And Joffrey did not want any competition for the throne."

Grief over Joffrey's death and rage that he had tried to kill her youngest son, seemed to conflict. But still, Cersei was determined to find Joffrey's true murderer. For now, it was easiest to place the blame on Littlefinger. But they knew well enough it wasn't him, and Cersei would not rest until she found the actual culprit.

"I'll find who did it. Whatever Joffrey did, he was king. Whoever killed him must pay the price. I'll find them."

"As a mother, that's your right. I won't stand in your way."

Once Cersei's rage was redirected from the north men, Tywin had them released at once. They had only been imprisoned for a few days. Not enough time to start a war. Robb would be able to prevent the conflict with a single raven, and he did.

At Tommen's coronation, he swore loyalty to the new king, and this time, there were no foolish attempts to start a war. Tommen was gracious and kind, as a king should be. He apologized for how Robb Stark was treated, and Robb seemed more than willing to accept.

"I am sorry for your brother's death, your grace," he lied when he knelt. "But I am sure you will be a good and wise king."

Only moments after he swore loyalty, Robb and his men made preparations to leave. They did not want to stay in the capital another moments when they so nearly lost their heads.

"You have my apologies for this catastrophe," Tywin told Robb that afternoon in the courtyard. The young wolf was quick to saddle his horse. "I'm afraid someone was hoping to start the war anew."

"Aye. It seems you don't have as much control over this place as you thought," Robb said flatly.

Tywin's eyes narrowed, but he did not rise to the challenge. Technically, the boy was correct. He had underestimated Joffrey's stupidity. "The matter is handled now. And you are free to go home. Your loyalty is to Tommen from this day forward. I expect that you prefer him as a king to Joffrey."

"Is that a trick question?" Robb asked.

"No," Tywin said. "Everyone will prefer him."

Robb's brow furrowed. "Joffrey was your grandson."

"Yes. He was my grandson. And he was childish, bloodthirsty and unpredictable. One's bloodline does not make them fit to rule. That's why your father fought in Robert's Rebellion in the first place," Tywin said. "And why you raised your banners two years ago. I do not believe you will have reason to take up arms against Tommen."

"Even if I did, my sister would die for it," Robb said. He looked up. Arya stood on the balcony a few stories above, watching her brother leave. She was clearly relieved to see him heading north again, alive. Yet there was nervousness to her. She had been nervous ever since Tywin woke again.

"I noticed a bandage on her shoulder," Robb continued. "She was injured. How?"

The boy's tone was neutral, but Tywin could hear the bite beneath the words.

"Do you think I stabbed her, Lord Stark?" Tywin asked. "She stepped between King Tommen and an assassin's blade. She has a bad habit of getting caught up in dangerous situations."

The boy's shoulders relaxed a bit as he recognized his sister wasn't being physically abused. "That's been her way since she was a child. Whenever there was a fight she would try to join in. She would defend Jon and me, even though we were twice her size."

"She has a protective nature," Tywin agreed. "It seems to be a Stark family trait."

"Yes." Robb said firmly. There was a warning in his eyes and voice. "It is."

Tywin looked back to the young wolf. "Don't worry for your sister. She will be safe here."

"No one is safe here. You weren't safe here," Robb pointed out.

"No," Tywin said. "None the less, I will do everything in my power to keep her alive and long as you play your role as Warden of the North."

After a long pause, Robb nodded. "We still have peace, Lord Tywin. I am in no mood to fight anymore."

"None of us are," Tywin said. "Safe travels, Lord Stark."

Robb nodded. He raised his hand in one last farewell to Arya. "We'll see each other again."

The girl smiled and waved in return. "Someday soon."

She lingered there until Robb and his men had left the courtyard. Then she glanced down at Tywin one more time when she noticed him watching her. That nervousness seemed to spike in her eyes again. She gave him a nod and backed into the shadows.

She was hiding something. Keeping some dangerous secret. Tywin could see it in her eyes and in the hitch of her shoulders when she looked at him.

Arya was a better liar than most Starks, but she still had a great deal to learn.

Chapter Text

Saying goodbye to Robb had been difficult for Arya, but it was considerably easier than watching him lose his head. Robb was rather overwhelmed by everything since he had arrived in the capitol. It had been one shocking turn of events after another.

"I don't know how you've survived this place for so long," Robb had said before he left. "Nothing sits still and someone is always dying."

"Not all the time," Arya said. "Just...mostly. But like I promised, everything turned out fine."

"You couldn't keep a promise like that," Robb said. "It was dumb luck that things didn't spiral out of control."

No, Arya thought. It was by design.

But she could not tell Robb the truth. She did not trust anyone with the truth. Kingslaying was a great crime, even if the king was hated. Jaime Lannister had taught her that much. And she didn't want her older brother to look at her any differently.

From the balcony overlooking the courtyard, she watched Robb talking to Lord Tywin one last time. And she watched him leave. He was scarcely out of sight and already she missed him.

But better he be far away from her than trapped in this vipers nest.

Below, Lord Tywin was watching her again, his gaze unreadable. Arya felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle and a little voice whispered in the back of her mind: He knows. He's found you out.

He can't know, she thought.

But he suspects.

Arya swallowed hard and gave the Lord of Lannister a nod before backing into the shadows, out of his view.

Joffrey had tried to kill Tywin, but he was the king and he was his grandson. If he found out...well he might see her as a true danger-too much trouble to keep around.

She could not trust anyone with this truth.

The next few days were surprisingly quiet. Following Tommen's coronation and Robb's departure, Arya felt as if she could breathe again. She stayed well out of Cersei's way, because she was still eager to find Joffrey's true killer. And she stayed well out of Tywin's way because his gaze threatened to draw out all of her secrets.

Instead she spent time with people who did not suspect her of regicide. Tyrion was one. He was in a rather good mood following Lord Baelish's imprisonment.

"Even father can't quite find a reason to hate me right now," Tyrion said. "I helped find his attempted murderer. He has to pay that debt by not saying anything insulting. At least for a few days."

"You two have an awful relationship," Arya observed, making her next move in Cyvasse. This game was lasting longer than usual, and she was doing rather well. She had chosen to use the broken king this time for her play. She felt sorry that it never got any use. Maybe it was good luck.

Tyrion raised his glass of wine. "That we do."

Bronn smirked from the other side of the room, where he cleaned his nails with his knife. "Half of Lord Tyrion's personality is built on that tense relationship. If you took that away, what would be left?"

"My charming personality? My skill at drinking games?" Tyrion asked.

"Your charming personality is your defense against your father insulting you. And you drink because you don't feel loved," Bronn said.

Tyrion glared at him. "You're beginning to know me too well. Maybe I should replace you."

"You won't though."

"I can do whatever I want."

"Aye. But you won't."

"Shut up. Podrick, more wine!"

Podrick hurried to obey. The poor boy was so quiet and kind compared to most people in King's Landing. Like Tommen, but without being royalty. Arya wondered how well Tommen was adjusting to life as a royal. She hadn't seen him lately, because he had been so busy with suddenly becoming king.

"I should thank you for keeping him drunk today, Pod," Arya told Podrick as she made her next play.

Tyrion gave her a look. "And why's that?"

Arya sat back in her seat. "Because I just won."

"You..." Tyrion's brow furrowed and he sat forward in his seat to look closer. "Well, fuck me. You did. How did you do that?"

"Wine and talking about your father distracts you," Arya smirked. "The strategy goes beyond the board."

Bronn snickered. "See. We all have you figured out, Lannister."

Tyrion sighed, looking up at Arya. "You are becoming very dangerous, Lady Stark."

Arya bit back a smile. "Dangerous? For winning a game?"

"Yes," Tyrion said. "Like you said: Games go beyond the board."

Arya swiped up the broken king, rubbing her thumb over it's cracked crown. "I suppose they do."

Besides visiting with Tyrion, Arya spent an awful lot of time in the gardens: one place that Tywin never was. In the gardens, she met often with Margery, who seemed in good spirits despite her mourning attire for Joffrey. Arya wondered just how relieved she was that he was dead.

"I must apologize to you, of course," Margery said. "My grandmother and father will try to engage me to Tommen now. I'm afraid I may have stolen your betrothed."

"We were never officially promised," Arya said. "And you know I don't mind. Tommen will be happy with you."

"He may have been happy with you as well," Margery said. "And this has cost you the title of queen."

"A title I did not want at all," Arya said. "Being queen is a terrifying idea. I can't even imagine being responsible for the crown." She made a face. "And I would have to bare heirs for the throne."

Margery laughed. "That's true. I will have many responsibilities. But I've been training for them my whole life." She patted Arya's arm. "I'm sure you will find another good match."

"Lord Tywin will find one, you mean." Arya sighed. "I won't have a choice in the matter."

Margaery gave her a sympathetic smile. "Well, I doubt he will give you to someone awful."

"Why wouldn't he?" Arya asked.

"He was willing to marry you to his grandson. That was a very good match. He won't toss you away just anywhere."

That was likely true. But for now, Arya preferred to revel in being unengaged. And she was more worried about Tywin discovering her hand in Joffrey's death than giving it away in marriage.

It was in those days after that Margaery introduced her to her grandmother, Olenna Tyrell of High Garden. She had come to the capitol to help plan the wedding of Margaery and Joffrey, and would now stay to change that wedding to Margaery and Tommen. They called her the Queen of Thorns, and after known the old woman for only a minute, she saw that she had earned her title.

"By the way Cersei talked of you, I thought you would be half a wolf, foaming at the mouth and screeching for blood," Olenna Tyrell said. "But you clean up well enough, don't you? And you're a tiny thing."

"Just because I'm tiny doesn't mean I'm not a wolf," Arya responded automatically.

Olenna smirked. "Well, you have a tongue on you at any rate. A wonder that Lord Tywin has allowed that."

Arya held her gaze. "I don't need to be allowed to do anything."

"Oh, you do. You're a ward and a hostage for House Lannister," Olenna said. "Which means, somehow, that old lion must not mind your sharp edges."

Arya did not know how to retort to that. Of course, if Tywin did not like her behavior, he could have ended it quickly. Her practices with needle. Her retorts. Her honesty. He let her keep all of them. She might not ever fully understand why.

"Well, you don't quite look comfortable in a dress," Olenna continued. "But you'll grow up to be a beauty."

Arya's brow furrowed at that. "I don't think that's true."

"Are you accusing me of lying, girl?" Olenna tilted her head to the side. "Plenty of young ladies your age look like boys in the wrong clothes. But a few years can make a great deal of difference." She went back to her food. "Have you bled yet?"

Arya felt the heat rise to her cheeks. No one had ever asked that question of her. She knew moon's blood was the sign of becoming a woman. Part of her hoped it would never come.

"Grandmother. Don't interrogate the girl," Margaery said with a little laugh.

"I'm not interrogating. I'm asking." Olenna glanced up at Arya. "Well?"

"No," Arya murmured.

Olenna seemed unbothered by this. "Once you do, your body will change a great deal more. Your dresses will begin to flatter you, if you choose the right ones. Margaery should be able to help you."

"I would be honored to help," Margaery said. "I think you would look quite good in blue Lady Arya. Blue and green perhaps." She glanced at her grandmother. "She has the right color for Highgarden, don't you think?"

"Yes, yes," Olenna said. "A budding flower."

Arya had never been compared to a flower in her life. It was always Sansa whose good looks and grace were praised. She could never imagine being a true beauty.

Then again, Lady Olenna did not seem like one to lie.

She enjoyed the company of the Queen of Thorns, and of Margaery. The royal wedding was only a fortnight off, and it seemed the whole of the court was eager to move on from the war and Joffrey. They wanted to embrace this new, kinder king. Tommen Baratheon. The boy who wouldn't order the murder of babies who shared his blood.

Arya met with that kinder king a week after her coronation. He was walking through the garden, flanked by two King's Guard. When he noticed Arya, he smiled. The expression seemed more strained than usual.

"Lady Arya...It's been too long since we've seen each other."

"It's a busy time for you...your grace." She was quick to curtsy. "I have not yet congratulated you on your coronation. My apologies."

"Not much to congratulate. I didn't earn it. I only have the crown because my brother died," Tommen murmured.

Arya bit the inside of her cheek. Yes, and she had killed that brother to make it happen. Tommen could never know the role that she played in all of this.

"I'd like to speak to Lady Arya alone," Tommen told his Kingsguard. "Just for a short while."

"Your mother instructed us not to leave you unattended," Ser Osric said.

"I won't be long. Besides, Lady Arya has defended me against attackers before," Tommen raised an eyebrow. "Do you still have your knife?"

"I always do," Arya said.

"Then I have nothing to fear," Tommen looked back to his Kingsguard. "Watch me at a distance if it pleases you."

The guards nodded and continued on their way. When they were gone, Tommen exhaled. "I am glad to see you again, my lady. I missed our walks through the garden. Things were much simpler then."

"I don't think anything has been simple in my life for a while, your grace," Arya said. "But yes. You're right." She tilted her head to the side, studying him. He seemed to have aged since she last saw him. "Are you alright?"

Tommen shook his head once. "This doesn't fit me. It was made for my brother originally. They're still working on a new crown. A proper one for a boy with a smaller head." He twisted one of his rings around his finger. "I was never supposed to wear any crown. I never hoped to be king. I never wanted it."

"I know," Arya murmured. Tommen, like her, did not have ambition for the crown. But she would not be made to wear one. He had no choice.

"So why..." Tommen looked up at the sky. "Why do you think my brother tried to kill me?"

Arya didn't reply. She didn't know what to say. "I...wasn't aware they told you."

"Mother didn't want to," Tommen said. "But grandfather insisted on being honest with me. He said that kings often have to face difficult truths. They face the truth and they use wisdom to deal with it. can I deal with it if I can't understand why? I didn't want to take his crown so why did he...?"

"Because your brother was cruel," Arya muttered. "That's why. He was cruel and he wanted another war to keep him entertained. And you were a means to an end." She looked up at Tommen. "It's not a nice 'why', but it is the truth."

"See, you're better at dealing with difficult truths than I am," Tommen's mouth twitched. "I would have made a good queen."

Arya shook her head once. "No. Lady Margaery will do a better job than I, Prince Tommen. A Queen needs to be well loved. I'm not good at making people love me."

"Hmm," Tommen scuffed his boot against the ground. "Maybe. Maybe not. But it's more important to rule well than to be loved. And I don't know how to rule well. I'm not...prepared for this. I can't..."

Arya's eyes narrowed. "Don't say another word, your grace. Not one more word."

"But..." Tommen looked like he was on the edge of despair and she did not like it. Arya reached out and jabbed him hard in the shoulder.

"Hey. Look at me." He did, surprised that she had pushed him at all. It was perhaps not a smart idea, but she didn't want to see him spiral into uncertainty. "It doesn't matter if you're unprepared. It doesn't matter if you're weak or stupid or anything else. You'll be a better king than your brother because you give half a damn about other people. There's no possible way you can do worse than him. He caused the War of the Five Kings. He was a vicious, awful person. You can punish me for saying it, your grace, but it's true."

"I'm...not going to punish you," Tommen said, bewildered.

"Good." Arya's fists clenched. "Don't punish yourself either. And don't waste anymore thought on him or anymore thought on self doubt. It won't do you any good. You're king now and you have to accept that responsibility. Others will help you fill in the gaps. Your grandfather, your uncles, your mother, your small council. But you will be a good king. And if you're a bad one...well...I'll tell you to your face."

Tommen's lips twitched into a smile. "I hope you will. I hope you won't be afraid of me like you were of my brother."

"I wasn't afraid of your brother," Arya muttered.

"I was," Tommen said. "You're right. He was cruel. And he doesn't deserve my thoughts." He shook his head. "I'm not sure I can stop doubting myself but...I'll make an effort."

"That's a start," Arya said.

Tommen smiled for real this time. A full smile. "We're not engaged any longer, my lady. But...if we happen to be passing each other in the garden..."

"Then we'll talk again." Arya smiled.

He was right, after all. It was simpler back then, walking through the maze. Before the mysterious assassination attempts. The plotting for war.

Before Arya had killed a king.

Arya's secret pressed at her like a thumb on an open wound. None of these people had any idea. She had nightmares about them finding her out. About being led to execution at the sept of Baelor just like her father before her. About the crowd calling for her blood.

Fear of being caught weighed heavily on her mind-when at last she was called to the Tower of the Hand.

As she climbed the steps, she tried to assure herself that Tywin didn't know. He could be calling her to see him for any number of reasons. After all, if he suspected her, he would have confronted her earlier.

Still, her nails dug into the palm of her hand as she stood before him.

"Your brother has returned safely to Winterfell." Tywin looked up from his letters. "For now, the peace continues."

"For now," Arya agreed. Her voice was soft to her own ears.

"There should be fewer assassinations in the coming months," Tywin said. "You should enjoy that. You always seem to be around when they happen."

Arya shrugged. "It's my bad luck."

"Bad luck for the assassins, perhaps. Rather good luck for their targets," Tywin said. "Unfortunately, our problems are not over yet. If Joffrey was responsible for the attempt on Tommen's life and my life...then someone else was responsible for his poisoning. At least one would assume." He sipped his wine, watching her carefully the whole time. His gaze was unreadable, but it made her skin feel as if it was burning. "We don't know if this new assassin was after Joffrey alone or if he has other targets."

Still, Arya tried to keep her face as impassive as possible. "Do...we have any leads?"

"No. Cersei is still investigating, as one would expect. She is distraught."

Arya knew that much. Cersei was wailing in the throne room when her son fell. As awful as he was, he was her son.

Arya had erased him simply by saying his name.

"And you?" Arya asked. "He was your grandson."

"Yes, and he tried to have me killed," Tywin said. "He would have tried again had he lived. He tried to kill his own brother too, to make sure he had no competing heirs. He tried to recklessly start another war because he thought he would be fun." He shook his head. "It does not bother me that he is gone. It bothers me that we don't know who did it or how they did it."

Arya clasped her hands tightly together, so tightly that her knuckles went pale. "Do you think the investigation will discover anything?"

"Perhaps." Tywin tilted his head to the side. "Does that make you nervous?"

Arya shook her head. "No."

"Then is there another reason you've been acting like a frightened cat since Joffrey died?"

"I'm not acting like a frightened cat. I'm not nervous," Arya snapped.

Tywin was unmoved by her protests. "You were much better at lying to Lord Baelish."

"I'm's not that..." Panic started to press at Arya's throat. Perhaps Lord Tywin did not mind seeing Joffrey go. But still...if he knew that Arya had been the cause, he might try her for the crime all the same. It was treason to kill a king. "I'm not lying."

Tywin indicated the chair in front of his desk. "Sit down."

"I don't want to," Arya said.

"It wasn't a request. Sit. Now."

Arya swallowed hard and obeyed, perching at the edge of the seat. This felt familiar to her. Like the day he first discovered her name. Only this was far more serious.

"Tell me the truth. From the beginning."

"From the beginning..." Arya rubbed her palms together. The beginning was such a long time ago. Almost three years. She had been the Lannister ward for such a long time now.

The beginning was painful and distant.

"Before...I became your cup bearer, I was travelling with a group bound for the Wall," Arya said at last. "There were three men in a cage there. When we were captured by the Mountain's men, they set fire to a lot of the area, and the men in the cage were trapped. I handed them an ax and left.

"One of them found me later at Harrenhal. He had joined the Lannister soldiers. He said that since I had saved three lives, the Many Faced God required three in exchange. I could give him any three names...and he would kill them. That was the deal." Arya looked up at Tywin. "I didn't really believe him at first. It seemed too good to be true. So I gave him the name of one of the torturers. The Tickler, they called him. That same day, he ended up dead with a broken neck. No one saw it happen.

"The second name...I had no choice with that one. I may have... stolen a scroll from your table. I was reading it when one of your soldiers saw me. He was going to tell you. So I gave the man his name. You thought it was an assassination attempt meant for you."

Tywin's eyebrows shot up. "So, that was your doing that day?"

Arya nodded once.

"No real loss. That one was an illiterate idiot," Tywin said. "And then you had a third name to give."

"Yes." Arya held his gaze. "I planned to give him yours."

Tywin's expression did not even shift. It was impenetrable. "Did you?"

"Yes. You were about to ride out. I thought you were going to fight Robb. It seemed like the best choice." She exhaled. "But then you found out who I was and I never got the chance. I never spent that third name."

"That is fortunate for me," Tywin acknowledged. "I assume you're about to tell me where you did spend it."

Arya turned her eyes to her hands. "The man found me again, after I recovered from Joffrey's attack on me. He gave me my knife and reminded me that I had another name to give. But I didn't want to be reckless or hasty like with the first two. There were options. I needed to choose wisely. Then..." she trailed off.

"Then what?" Tywin asked.

"Then you almost died. And I found out that Joffrey was involved. I realized his plan...that he would kill Robb, and no one would be around to stop him." She forced herself to look up at him. "It was an easy decision. I found the man. I gave him Joffrey's name. I don't know how he did it, or what he did. But I know I'm the reason." She almost lifted her chin then, but she stopped herself. She would not show fear. "That's it. That's the truth."

Tywin considered her words for a long while. The silence threatened to swallow Arya, and in that quiet she faltered and dropped his gaze.

"I've heard stories about the faceless men. I've never employed one," Tywin said at last. "Three lives would be expensive for most to buy. You stumbled into your contract by chance."

"Because I saved some men in a cage," Arya murmured. "I didn't expect to get something out of it."

"No. It's never your instinct to leave a man for dead, is it?" Tywin asked.

Arya did not reply. She studied her hands.

"Look at me," Tywin said.

Arya did. His expression was not quite as cold as she expected. There was no anger at all.

"Kingslaying is a great crime," Tywin said. "But, if you told me the truth, it seems you are not the one who poisoned Joffrey."

Arya's brow furrowed. "But I...I'm the one who gave the man..."

"You told the man a name," Tywin said. "That's all. You did not even pay him for his trouble. Let the gods decide if that makes you guilty."

Arya did not even know what to say. This was not the response she expected at all. She had even admitted to wanting to kill him, but he did not seem to care.

"Joffrey could not be controlled. Not by his mother and not by me," Tywin said. "He would have reaped unspeakable damage across the kingdom. More than he did already by taking your father's head. But now that he's gone, we have a more manageable king who will listen to his advisors and practice patience. You've made things a great deal easier for me."

"I didn't do it for you," Arya said.

"I know. None the less, I pay my debts," he said. "Does anyone else know?"

"No," Arya said. "I've told no one."

"Good. Keep it that way. Do not tell even a trusted friend. Do not tell your family. No one can know," Tywin said. "To repay you for keeping us from another war, I will keep your secret. No one will know the part you played in Joffrey's death. For saving my life...I have something else to give you."

Arya looked on curiously as he crossed to the back of the room and lifted a long object, wrapped in red cloth. He carried it to the desk and set it down between them, pulling back the wrapping. It was a sword. One of the most beautiful swords Arya had ever seen in her life. Her breath caught at the very sight of it. Her gaze went from the blade to Tywin.

"I...really?" It was too good to be true. The only one in her life to ever offer her a sword was Jon. And that was a blade for a child. This was not. It was real. It was sharp. This was a knight's blade.

"You're clearly not playing at fighting. And a sword is better protection than that tiny knife," Tywin said. "Don't carry it openly around the keep. You'll get more attention than you want. But it is yours."

Cautiously, Arya stood and lifted the blade. It was surprisingly light for its size. She drew it from its sheath and practiced turning it in her hand a few times. She couldn't help but smile. The hilt fit her hand well and it was perfectly balanced. The blade itself was almost impossibly sharp.

"It looks like Valyrian steel."

"It is," Tywin said. "And it's right that you should have it."

Arya's fingers glided over the flat of the blade. "Why is it right?"

"Because," Tywin said. "It was re-forged from your father's sword."

Arya's eyes widened and she looked up at him. "My father's sword?"

"The original weapon was too large for most men to wield comfortably. You would not have been able to lift it," Tywin said. "That one you can. It's still his blade. Just a different shape."

Arya could not explain the rush of emotion that came over her in that moment. There was anger at first. Anger that anyone would tamper with her father's blade. But at the same time...all her childhood, she had watched her father wield his great sword. He was strong and could swing it with just one hand. She had wanted to be like him.

Swords often passed from parents to children. Arya had asked her mother once if she might have her father's sword one day. Oh Arya, her mother had said. Your father's sword will go to Robb. You could never manage such a blade. You won't need to. You're a lady of Winterfell, Arya. Others will protect you.

She was a daughter of House Stark, not a son. And therefore, never fit to wield a blade. Only fit to watch as others did.

Now, she held half of her father's sword in her hand. A part of her wanted to cry, but she refused to do so in the presence of the Lord of Lannister.

"You...shouldn't have reforged it," Arya mumbled at last, keeping her head low.

"Yet I did. You can refuse it if you'd like," Tywin said.

"No. It's mine now." She cleared her throat, looking up at him. "It's...beautiful."

Tywin inclined his head. "It pays a debt."

"Since you won't let me go, this is the next best thing," Arya said.

Tywin's lips twitched into a smile. A real smile again. How strange it was to see it. She could not dismiss it as a hallucination or a trick of the light. "I suppose you'll give that sword a name as well?"

Arya observed the blade for a moment, turning over a name in her head. She had named her last sword needle, because it was small and thin. Easily overlooked. This sword was powerful. It came from old steel. The steel long past down through the Stark family. It needed a name to match it.

"Winter's Fury," she said at last.

"A strong name for a strong sword," Tywin said. "Make sure you earn it, Arya Stark."

Arya held his gaze. "I will."

Chapter Text


After a long war and the death of a monarch, a lavish wedding was just the thing to distract the populace at large. The crown had to at least appear in control, and nothing said control like a royal wedding. To the outside world, it showed that King's Landing was still strong and ready to move on from the catastrophe of the past few years.

And technically speaking, they were. The Lannisters, with the help of the Tyrells and the Starks, had managed to quell every stupid rebellion in the country. Traitors had been dealt with and they now had far better king on the throne.

Tywin Lannister never relaxed, but he had fewer things to worry about that day, at least. The Tyrell alliance with the crown gave the crown a sound financial future. It meant paying off the Iron Bank, in time. It meant peace during the rapidly approaching winter.

The wedding itself was excessive. That had been Olenna Tyrell's doing. She insisted that for the wedding to be a proper distraction, it had to be lavish. The kind of event for the common folk to sing about. The Queen of Thorns was paying her share, so Tywin did not press the issue. But he personally did not see the point of such extravagance.

In the garden, where the guests congregated after the ceremony, tables stretched far back past the hedges and food piled high on every surface. The feasting had gone on since this morning, and it was a wonder anyone could still eat.

Those in attendance were lords and ladies from every one of the seven kingdoms. There were a few notable exceptions. None of the north had attended. After the incident a month ago, they had all had enough of the capital. Tywin didn't take it as an insult. The north had more preparations to make for winter than anyone, and the war had left their country in tatters.

Dorne had not attended either, which Tywin knew was meant as an insult. While Tyrion had smoothed things over slightly when he shipped Myrcella off to the southern country, the Dornish had no love of him since the sack of King's Landing.

They weren't preparing for war, at least. Tywin would deal with Prince Dornan at a later date.

Tywin stayed close to the main table for much the feast, mainly to assist Tommen. The boy did not know half of the people who came to wish him well. He was too young and this was all overwhelming to him. His new wife, Margaery, handled the proceedings like she was born to it. Not one hair or smile out of place. She would be the kind of Queen beloved by the people and that might help Tommen to become a beloved king.

"I told you a grand wedding was the way to go," Olenna said from his right.

"Told me? I never said you were right," Tywin said.

"No, you didn't. But I am. Everyone is having a delightful time," Olenna said. "It's as if the war and death of these past few years has been utterly erased."

"Covered up, at the very least," Tywin said. "It's still excessive."

"Some would call it fun," Olenna said. "Have you tried it? Fun? You would think your brush with death would leave you more open to enjoying something."

Tywin gave her a look. "We don't all have time for frivolities."

"Well, congratulations. This is a wedding. A whole day set aside for frivolities."

"Some would call a wedding an important political event."

"Gods, you are such a bore." Olenna sighed, looking out amongst the crowd. "Speaking of weddings with a political purpose: when do you plan on marrying off your ward?"

Tywin followed her gaze and found her watching Arya. She was circling the edge of the gardens, looking like she would rather sneak off through the hedges. She was also the subject of some attention today, simply because she was a Stark. He couldn't imagine she was enjoying it in the least.

"I don't suppose it's your concern, is it?" he replied.

"Tommen was a suitable match before he became king. But Arya wouldn't want to be queen, would she? And you need our alliance more than you need the Starks." Olenna shrugged. "So what to do with her now?"

"You seem like you're about to get to the point," Tywin said.

"You should consider engaging her to Loras," Olenna said. "A second son for a second daughter. It seems a worthy match. He is young and one of the most eligible men in the seven kingdoms."

"And interested in eligible men, if rumors are correct," Tywin said.

"They are," Olenna said. "But he will do his duty, make no mistake. The girl isn't particularly interested in marriage in the first place. I don't think she would mind a husband who is not interested in her."

"Perhaps not," Tywin said. "But handing control of the Starks over to you is a poor political move."

"Do you not trust us, Lord Tywin?"

"I don't trust anyone. I prefer to keep her close. The war is too fresh to do anything else."

Olenna sighed. "As you say. Perhaps in time, when the war is less fresh and the north's loyalty more certain, you'll change your mind."

"I don't make a habit of changing my mind."

"That's true," a voice said from behind him. "I once said something that upset him and he did not speak to me for nearly a year."

Tywin turned to see his sister standing behind him, a wry smile on her face. It had been some years since he had seen Genna. Since before the war started. Longer than that even. They had only grown more distant with every passing year, as they both changed and aged. But beyond that distance, she was the same woman he remembered.

"Don't look so surprised, Tywin. It's my great nephew's wedding. I wouldn't miss it," Genna said.

"You weren't here this morning. I thought you might have," Tywin said.

"We had some dreadful delays on the road. Trouble with the carriage and the Brotherhood. Not to worry. All dealt with," Genna said. "I do apologize for the late arrival. I hope the king won't be offended."

"I'll leave that to him to decide," Tywin said.

Genna glanced at Olenna. "See how cold he is to me, Lady Tyrell, even after all of these years?" She clasped both of Tywin's hands in her own. "Come brother. At least pretend to be glad to see me."

Tywin's mouth barely twitched. In truth, he was glad to see her. Genna was family. Even when they fought, he couldn't dismiss their shared blood. She was his only sister. "You haven't changed."

"You're lying. I've gotten fatter and you know it," Genna looked back to Olenna. "I hope you don't mind if I steal my brother for a moment."

"Be my guest, Lady Genna." Olenna inclined her head and glided back to her seat.

"Come Tywin," Genna looped her arm around his. "Let's enjoy this wedding you paid for."

One thing Genna always excelled at was talking. She could talk for many hours if no one interjected. Most people dismissed it as womanly gossip. But rarely did Genna talk about unimportant matters. She talked about people, yes, because she knew them. She had a way of seeing right into a man's soul, then laying his every flaw out for the world to see. Sometimes, this was quite useful to Tywin, especially when he needed to exploit a flaw.

"All and all, most of the lords and ladies here seem quite relieved to be away from war," Genna said. "But it's a bit of a different story in the Riverlands."

"Really?" Tywin asked.

"You may recall setting a fair amount of it on fire," Genna said.

"I recall everything I did," Tywin said. "It was war."

"Yes, war. And it leaves unhappy people. But they aren't truly your concern." She looked up at him. "You should be worried about the Frey's though. My father in law and his many, many sons are displeased. They hoped to own the Riverlands after the war, but you did not give it to them."

"There wasn't a need anymore," Tywin said. "Making peace with the north also made peace with the Tullys. If I gave the Riverlands to the Freys then the countryside would have been in an uproar. And the Riverlands banner men would have realized the Frey's treachery."

"Their planned treachery anyway," Genna said. "I don't disagree with you. None the less, be careful. Walder Frey is a vengeful man."

"The Freys are too weak to rebel against the crown," Tywin said. "Especially with the Tyrells on our side."

"I'm not sure," Genna said. "He has enough sons to make his own army." She sighed. "He truly is the worst sort of person. He does fear you. You made him turn white when you were just a child. But don't underestimate him."

Tywin nodded once. "I won't."

"If you ever need to smooth things over with him, you could give him your ward I've heard so much about," Genna continued. "He wanted her to marry one of his grandsons. It could keep him from getting uppity in the future."

"I won't throw a valuable Stark hostage to Walder Frey," Tywin said. "I'd much rather go to war with him."

Genna smirked. "So it's true. You are fond of this girl." Tywin gave her a look and she held up her hands in defense. "Jaime said it first, Tywin. You don't think I talk to my nephew?"

"If you talk to him, convince him to give up on the King's Guard. That's much more useful than you gossiping about the Stark girl," Tywin said.

"Yes, yes. Isn't that her over there?" Genna asked. Arya was indeed standing in the shadows at the other end of the path, avoiding the crowds. "You should call her over. I'd like to meet her."

Tywin sighed. When he caught Arya's eye, he waved her over. She seemed almost relieved to see him, though he supposed he was one of the few faces she knew in this crowd.

"Enjoying the wedding, Lady Arya?" he asked.

"Yes. Except for this party is too long, and people keep trying to talk to me," Arya said. "And I'd really rather skewer myself than have one more person ask me about my traitor father."

"I'd refrain from that," Tywin said. "I hope you left your new toy in your room."

"Yes of course I did. Do you think I want to draw more attention to myself?" Arya grasped the skirt of her blue dress and gave a mock curtsy. "Not to worry my lord. I'm being a perfect little lady today."

Tywin very nearly smiled, but he stopped himself in time. Genna chuckled from beside him and Arya seemed to notice her for the first time.

"Ah...forgive lady, I don't know you. Apologies, I'm bad at courtesies." She curtsied again, this time for real. "My name is Arya Stark."

"Genna Lannister," his sister replied. "I'm Tywin's sister."

Arya blinked rapidly, momentarily caught off guard by this fact. "His sister? I mean, it's a pleasure to meet you, of course. I've heard so much about you."

Genna smirked. "That's a lie. Tywin never talks about his siblings. Don't worry. I'm not offended." She broke away from Tywin and grasped Arya's arm instead. "We'll leave you to your business, Tywin. I know you have many cares. I'd like to speak with Lady Stark."

Tywin resisted the urge to sigh. Of course she did. Genna was going to interrogate the girl until she knew every little thing about her. "Do as you please."

Arya shot him a slightly panicked look as Genna began guiding her down the path. She had clearly been trying to avoid such an encounter with a stranger.

But one would have an easier time escaping a lioness on the hunt than Genna once she had her mind set.

Arya was aware that Tywin had a sister. She was aware, in fact, that he had four younger siblings. But besides Kevan, she had never met any of them and she didn't really expect to. But now the Lord of Lannister's sister had her by the arm, with seemingly no intention of letting her go.

"My apologies for ambushing you, Lady Stark," Genna said. "But you've made me quite curious. Since my arrival, I've heard your name from Tyrion and Jaime. You've clearly made an impression on my house."

"Your house," Arya repeated. "Forgive me, Lady Genna. You're married aren't you?"

"Yes. To Emmon Frey."

"But you still call yourself Lannister?"

"Most people do anyway," Genna said. "When I was first married, everyone called me Frey. But when you get older, you don't have to care about such customs anymore. And my husband is too witless and weak to enforce the name."

Arya smiled a bit. "Lannister is a stronger name than Frey."

"Yes. More respected. More feared. Tywin saw to that," Genna said. "It wasn't always that way though. My father was a kindly man, but rather weak willed. No one respected him. They laughed behind his back, did not pay their debts. Now, no one would imagine slighting the Lannisters. Just the sound of the Rains of Castamere is enough to make men quake in their boots."

Arya studied Genna. She seemed to like to talk, and there were few people who knew Lord Tywin better. She wondered how many questions about him his sister might answer if she asked.

"Was he always as he is now?" Arya ventured cautiously. "Was he always so..."

"Cold? Dreary?" Genna shook her head. "No. But he was always rather intimidating, even as a child. He was the only one who would stand up for our father. Even father wouldn't do it. And he stood up for the rest of us too." She smiled. "You see, when I was seven years old, my father agreed to betroth me to my current husband Emmon. Emmon was not even Walder Frey's heir. It was an insulting sort of match. But father was eager to please and agreed to it. He announced it at a great feast, with all of the Lords of the westerlands there to hear it. I was terrified by the whole idea.

"Tywin was furious. He stood and declared the match unsuitable. Right in front of Walder Frey. A boy of ten years old. I saw Walder Frey go white as a sheet. You can't imagine the commotion he caused that day." Gemma sighed. "Well, he couldn't break up the match then. Too young. But he grew into that tenacity of his. Now the seven kingdoms live in fear of him."

"You don't," Arya pointed out.

Genna sighed and guided Arya to sit on a stone bench in the rose garden. "Oh, I fear him, child. Make no mistake. I love him dearly, but I fear the man he has become. The best parts of him died a long time ago."

"With his wife?" Arya asked. Genna raised an eyebrow. "Forgive me. I shouldn't ask."

"No, but you already have. I like people who ask questions," Genna said. "Yes. Joanna took the better parts of Tywin with her when she died. I was at Casterly Rock in the aftermath, and I saw how it changed him. Grief did not suit him at all." She glanced at Arya. "That's why we're so distant you see. I saw too much of his weakness that day, and Tywin likes to pretend he has none."

"He would be angry at you for telling me this then," Arya pointed out.

Genna smiled, looking rather pleased with herself. "Yes. He would." She turned toward Arya. "But tell me Lady Arya. I want to know your story. I've given you plenty on my brother. I want to know something about you."

"I'm sure you've heard a lot about me," Arya said.

"The basics, yes. That your father tried to refuse Joffrey the throne and lost his head. That your brother went to war for him. That Tywin used you to end help end that war," Genna said. "But how did you fall into my brother's hands exactly?"

"I was his servant," Arya said. "I was...disguised as a boy at the time, trying to flee the capitol. We were caught and taken to Harrenhal. He noticed I was a girl and decided to take me as a cupbearer. When he found out my true name, he took me as a hostage. I traveled with him from camp to camp until the war ended."

"He kept you close, did he?" Genna asked.

"If he sent me back to King's Landing, Joffrey might have killed me," Arya said. "After the war ended, I came back here with him. It's been over two years now."

"And in those two years, you seem to have rather endeared yourself to my nephews," Genna said. "And to my brother."

"I wouldn't say I've...endeared myself," Arya said.

"Well, I'm a better authority than you. Tyrion has said outright that he likes you. You treat him better than most of the people in his life, so that's not a surprise," Genna said. "Jaime called you stubborn and irritating. So obviously he enjoys your company."

"How is that obvious?" Arya asked.

"Oh, it was his tone when he said it." Genna waved her hand. "And Tywin...Well anyone who knows Tywin even a bit can tell that he favors you. I only saw you talk for half a minute and I could tell."

Arya looked down at her hands. "I don't suppose you're going to tell me that Cersei likes me next."

"Oh, heavens no. She doesn't like you at all," Genna said. "But that's not surprising. You're so much like she was at your age."

Arya bristled a bit. "I'm not-"

"Oh you're not? Did you know Cersei when she was a girl?" Genna's eyebrow arched. "She was a tenacious little thing who hated being forced into womanhood. She and Jaime were twins, but he was given a sword and she was given a dress. She despised being treated so differently. She argued against it. Sometimes, she would pick up Jaime's sword and see what it felt like to hold it."

Arya stayed silent. She had never imagined Cersei as a child. It was hard to imagine enemies as children. As less than the awful adults they had become.

"She adjusted. Adapted," Genna said. "Every lady has to at some point. You're attempting it too. With quite a bit of success. That is a lovely dress, by the way."

"My handmaid picked it," Arya ran her hand across the fabric. She remembered Shae insisting it was the best choice, and she did not argue. One did not argue with Shae on fashion. "I don't have an eye for that sort of thing."

"It doesn't matter. It makes you look like a proper lady. Which I'm sure you hate," Genna said. "I know Cersei is difficult. She could have been so much like her mother, but her mother died too early. Instead she aspired to be her father, and the world would never let her be that." She shook her head. "Meanwhile, Tywin does not realize that Tyrion is more his child than either of the twins. Such similar minds they have. Tywin is willfully blind to it. Men can be such great, thundering fools."

Arya did not reply. She did not know what to say.

"I don't tell you all of this without purpose," Genna said. "I say it, because it seems Tywin plans to keep you around for a while longer. It would benefit you to understand this family of mine."

"Yes, I think it would," Arya said.

Genna sighed and stood from her seat. "I ought to leave you be. I'm sure you've been looking for some sort of escape."

"No, my lady. I've enjoyed speaking with you. It has been...enlightening," Arya said.

"Good." Genna looked down at her. "One last thing, Lady Arya. My often have you seen him smile?"

Arya blinked in surprised. "Smile?"

"Yes. I'm just curious."

Arya rubbed her palms together. "Lord Tywin doesn't smile often."

"Often?" Genna asked. "That implies that he does at all."

"I've...seen him smile twice now," Arya admitted. "Like I said. Not often."

Genna shook her head. "Ah, Lady Arya. For Tywin, that's frightfully often indeed."

Jaime was used to standing as a bodyguard during grand occasions such as this one. He had been doing so since he was sixteen years old. As a King's Guard, it was his job to do as the king needed, and at a wedding it was his job to watch for someone slipping poison into the wine.

He ran his left hand across the hilt of his sword. It still felt strange to grasp his weapon with the wrong hand, but his grip was stronger now and surer. He could at least hold his own in a fight against an average swordsman. His practices with Arya Stark had allowed that. Slowly but surely, he was rebuilding his muscle memory.

In addition, he now had a golden hand to replace his old one. Cersei had gifted it to him before the wedding. It was a heavy thing and perhaps a bit ostentatious. But if someone came at him, he could smack them rather hard with it.

It was a bright day outside and the sunlight sparkled along the metallic surface. This hand truly did scream Lannister. The family that shits gold.

"So you did regrow your hand," a voice said from his right. He turned to see Arya standing beside him, a little smirk on her face.

"Yes I did," Jaime said. "The Lannisters are never for want of gold. Be careful though. If you touch it, it might turn you to gold as well."

"Hmm." Arya reached out and tapped the hand with her finger. "No. I suppose I'm immune. That's a shame. I'd like to become a statue right now to escape this party."

"You'd make a wonderful addition to the garden," Jaime said. She actually did look something like a lady that day. Her hair had grown past her shoulders and was nicely braided by her handmaiden. And the blue dress suited her. Starks did like blue. But it was stitched with a golden pattern at the sleeves, as if to remind the world that she belonged to the Lannister family. "You know, this could have been your wedding."

"Thank the gods it's not," Arya said. "It's not that I don't like the king. Actually, he's very kind and I enjoy his company. But I cannot even imagine standing in Lady Margaery's place." She nodded at the main table. "Look at her. Perfectly happy. Perfectly graceful. I could never be that charming."

You're charming enough to make my father like you, Jaime thought. "It takes practice, I hear. Just like swordplay." He looked down at her. "Speaking of which, I have not seen you practicing lately, Lady Stark."

"It's been a busy month," Arya said. "I'll return to it. I need to practice wielding a different kind of sword."

"Why a different kind of sword?" Jaime asked. "Growing tired of that Needle?"

"No. I still treasure Needle," Arya said. "But I have a new sword now."

"Really? How did you acquire a new sword and does my father know?"

"He does," she looked up at him. "He gave it to me."

Jaime blinked a few times. Seven hells his father gave her a sword?

"But of course, I'm more used to stabbing with a thin blade," Arya continued on as if she had not said anything astonishing at all. "This is more of a typical knight's blade. Perhaps you could teach me something?"

"Perhaps." Jaime shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't get past the fact that my father gave you a sword."

"Why?" Arya asked. "I saved his life. He paid a debt."

"With a sword?"

"What's this about a sword?" Tyrion asked, joining into the conversation. He was in good spirits, and likely on his fourth cup of wine.

"Father gave her a sword," Jaime said.

"Why are you surprised?" Tyrion asked. "That was only a matter of time. She killed three assassins with a tiny knife. Next time he'll want her to have a better weapon."

"Yes. In case there are five assassins," Arya pointed out. She looked just a bit too smug.

"Or seven," Tyrion said. "Let's not underestimate your abilities, Lady Arya."

"You're right. Seven. I can take seven."

Jaime exhaled. Apparently Tyrion had fully accepted that Arya had found a ridiculous amount of favor with their father. He didn't even seem phased by it anymore.

"Anyhow, my lady, I saw you speaking with Aunt Genna earlier," Tyrion continued on. "Tell me, did she learn your whole life story or just most of it?"

"She asked me some questions," Arya admitted. "I like her though. She's not as afraid of your father as most."

"Yes, she has that rare distinction. I do believe she's his favorite sibling," Tyrion said. "Or is it Uncle Kevan? Well it's one of those two. His relationship with Uncle Tygitt and Gerion has always been a bit more...unstable."

"It's strange to picture him being a child and having siblings," Arya said.

"As opposed to springing fully formed from the stone of a mountain? Yes, I agree," Tyrion said. "But Aunt Genna insists that he was, indeed, born like any mortal man. I suppose we'll take her word for it."

"How would she know?" Jaime asked. "She's younger. She wasn't there."

Tyrion snickered and raised his cup and even Arya let out a laugh at that. It was actually a rather rare thing to see Arya laugh. She was always so on guard. So wary. Jaime didn't blame her for that in a place like King's Landing. But she was beginning to let herself grin and laugh without restrain.

Jaime wondered if she was adjusting to this place. Adapting. He wondered if she was beginning to settle into being a ward to House Lannister.

But then, as if sensing both Arya and Tyrion's happiness, Cersei swept in to put an end to it. She was dressed in Lannister red and gold today, with magnificent jewelry and hair fitting the mother of the king. It was the first time she had abandoned black mourning attire. This was a happy occasion, after all. But she had smiled very little at this wedding.

"It's nice that you can all be so happy," Cersei said flatly. "But you're distracting Jaime. He should be protecting the king from harm."

"The king is fine," Jaime said. "I'm keeping a close watch, I promise."

"Were you keeping a close watch on the day Joffrey died?" Cersei retorted.

Jaime bit back a reply. It wasn't wise to antagonize her right now. But Tyrion was so drunk to realize that.

"Please, Cersei, Tommen is getting married. I know you're losing your queenly status, but do try to be happy," Tyrion said.

"My eldest son died a month ago. Why would I be happy?"

"Because your eldest son tried to kill your youngest?" Tyrion suggested.

Cersei glared at him, fire flaring in her green eyes. "Don't speak those words freely out here. Not when others can hear them."

"You're the only one who doesn't want to hear them," Tyrion said. "It conflicts, doesn't it? You hate anyone who hurts your children, but one child tried to kill the other. What do you do?"

"Tyrion." Jaime rested a hand on his shoulder. He was speaking truth, but this was not the place to speak it.

"You're such a vile little creature," Cersei hissed. "You always have been. Plotting. Scheming."

"Those are the same thing."

"And funny," Cersei said. "Well keep making your jokes. You won't get to make them forever."

"That sounds suspiciously like a threat," Tyrion said. Jaime squeezed his shoulder in warning and he sighed. "But this is a wedding. We should make peace." Tyrion extended his cup. "Here. You need it more than I."

"I don't trust anything from you," Cersei said.

"I assure you. I've just drunk from this cup. It's not poison, sweet sister."

Cersei's whole face froze in anger for a moment. Then she smacked the cup from Tyrion's hand, sending it spinning across the ground. The red stained the stones. Without another word, she stalked off.

Tyrion rubbed his fingers together. "I admit, that was bad wording."

"Oh, do you?" Jaime shot him a glare. "She's still mourning, Tyrion. I know you two hate each other, but couldn't you be gentler?"

Tyrion shrugged once.

"You should be careful," Arya said quietly. Oddly enough, she had watched the whole scene in complete silence. Arya was not usually one to be silent in Cersei's company. "Cersei is still looking for someone to blame for Joffrey's death. What if she blames you?"

"I'll correctly say that I didn't do it," Tyrion said.

Jaime's jaw clenched. Tyrion should know better than anyone that the truth didn't stop Cersei. If she could still love Joffrey after what he did, it meant she was an expert at deluding herself.

If she got it into her head that Tyrion killed her one would be able to stop her. Not even with truth.

Chapter Text

Cersei's mind was threatening to unravel. She could feel it fraying at the edges. If someone merely found the right piece to pull, she would lose all semblance of her fragile control.

This was a day that mothers were supposed to smile. To see their son married to a girl from a good family. But the girl was a manipulative little witch with her claws already deep inside Tommen. Her son was too young and kind to truly understand the weight of that crown. And this wedding came too soon after a funeral.

It felt, sometimes, as if she was the only one who remembered Joffrey's death. The realm was eager to forget it. But she remembered how he felt, writhing in her arms, the life leaving him in painful gasps. She would remember that day for the rest of her life, as clear as the day of his birth.

She had spent all day in the sept mourning, after the silent sisters prepared Joffrey's body. She cried until her tears had run dry and then she just stared into space. Quiet. Bitterly numb. No one else cared for Joffrey enough to mourn him. Not like her.

And then, in the midst of her grief, her father had to tell her the awful truth. That Joffrey had tried to kill him. Worse still, he had tried to kill Tommen. Cersei had always known Joffrey was a monster who she was cursed to love absolutely. But she never expected his viciousness to extend to his sweet brother.

It was too much to mourn. Too much to take in. Too much to just sweep under the rug.

Yet at the wedding, everyone else was happy to forget about their last king.

It was suffocating for Cersei. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs. She wanted to strangle every man, woman and child who laughed. She wanted to rip through the whole of the proceedings until only she and Tommen were left.

She had to escape the party or she might lose her control. So she found the hedge maze, Tommen's favorite place, the spot where he had almost died.

Gold will be their crowns and gold their shrouds.

How the words of that witch cursed her. All of her life she had feared for her children, knowing they would die. She tried to tell herself that the prophesy was nonsense. But what if. What if.

It's not poison, sweet sister.

What if Tyrion was just as wretched as the prophesy said? She could believe it. He was such a spiteful, ill made creature who ripped his way out of her mother at birth. He would kill them all if he could. It was his fate.


Cersei's shoulders hitched as she heard Jaime behind her. "You should be protecting the king."

"He has two kingsguard standing at his side. They will defend him. And if they can't, a one handed knight wouldn't make a difference," Jaime rested his hand on her shoulder. "I need to protect you too."

"Protect me," Cersei laughed. "Can you protect me from fate?"

"Fate?" Jaime's brow furrowed.

"Never mind. You wouldn't understand," Cersei tried to pull away from him. His grip stayed firm.

"Help me to then," Jaime said. "I know you're hurting. You're trying to hide it, like you always do. But I can see through the cracks." When Cersei didn't respond he turned her around. "Cersei. Please."

His left hand was warm as he rested it on her cheek. It reminded Cersei how much she had missed him. Fierce, beautiful Jaime, soft only with her. She always wanted Joffrey to grow up to be just like Jaime. A strong warrior. A noble knight.

But Joffrey was in the ground, and in life he had never been noble.

"He was our boy," she mumbled as her tears started again. "Our first son. And he's gone."

Jaime pulled her to his chest, holding her tight. "I know."

"He died in my arms. He was in so much pain, Jaime. He looked to me to help him but I...I couldn't."

"No one could have. Not even you," Jaime said. "But we'll find who did it, Cersei. We'll be sure that Tommen does not meet with the same fate."

"Will we? Can we?"

"Yes." Jaime pulled back to look at her, brushing her hair from her face. "I promise we will."

Jaime made an awful lot of promises, and he didn't keep all of them. Sometimes his vows contradicted each other and he had to choose. But he meant them all in the moment. She leaned up, risking a kiss there in the midst of the maze. He kissed her back like a man dying of thirst.

Jaime was so easily plied by physical affection. He was weak to it like many men. He would do anything for her if she simply gave him a kiss or something more.

And she needed her brother. From a young age they had given him a sword and her a dress. She needed him for his sword. As long as she could use that, she would keep him happy.

When Jaime went after Cersei, Arya did not know what compelled her to follow. Partially, it was worry for Tyrion. What if Cersei blamed him for Joffrey's death? Arya certainly did not want Tyrion to take the fall for her.

He won't, she reminded herself. Lord Tywin knows the truth. He can control Cersei.

But still she feared for Tyrion. He was one of her favorite people in this place, and one of the few who she could trust.

She followed Jaime at a distance until he disappeared into the maze. Then she crept up along the hedges to listen.

She did not intend to hear what she did. Whispered words meant only between brother and sister. But the nature of those words...

He was our boy. Our first son. Now he's gone.

Our boy. Our. Arya had always been aware of the rumors. People talked and enemies of the crown liked to suggest that Joffrey was born of incest. This confirmed that he was.

Our first son.

First meant that Tommen must be theirs as well. Arya assumed Myrcella also had that distinction. They did all look alike. They had the same blonde hair.

It made Arya's head spin. Did Tyrion know? Did Lord Tywin? There was no way on earth that he could...

Arya felt a bit dizzy as she took a step back. Then a second step. When she was far enough away, she turned and hurried away as fast as her feet would carry her. She ducked back into the party, circling around the edges-and in her haste almost ran over Tyrion.

"Sorry," she muttered. "I'm sorry."

"No harm done," Tyrion said. "You didn't spill any of my wine."

"You're drinking more?" Arya asked.

"Yes. I'm very good at drinking." Tyrion smiled. "And what about you? You look pale, my lady."

"I's nothing..."

Tyrion pointed a finger at her. "That is a lie. I can tell, even when I'm drunk. Something as startled you." His brow furrowed. "Didn't you go wandering after my brother?"

"No. I mean I did has nothing to do with..." Arya shook her head. "Sorry, I should go."

She tried to move past by Tyrion caught her wrist. "Stop. My lady." His voice was suddenly more serious. "Did you find him with Cersei?"

There was a note of understanding in his voice. Arya swallowed hard.

"I see," Tyrion said. "Come with me. Let's go somewhere...quieter."

"How long have you known," Arya asked Tyrion when they found a quieter place in the garden.

"Quite a long time," Tyrion said. "They've been at it for as long as I can remember. It was a rather well-kept secret until someone suggested the truth to Stannis Baratheon. Then he spread it to everyone who could read."

"That would mean that...the true king..."

"I would not even speak those words if I were you," Tyrion said. "But yes. The true king is dead. Every Baratheon heir as well. Including the bastards." He sighed. "And now that you know, what are you thinking of doing?"

Arya didn't reply.

"I suggest doing nothing," Tyrion said. "You see...Lady Arya...I think that your father found out the truth too. That's why he tried to defy Joffrey when he rose to the throne. And that's why Cersei and Joffrey forced him to confess at the sept that Joffrey was the one true king."

"He did confess," Arya murmured. She remembered that day clearer than any other memory. He had confessed in the sight of gods and men. Her father never lied but on that day. "They forced him to lie."

"He likely did it for your sister's sake," Tyrion said. "And yours."

"He died for it. For that truth," Arya said.

"Yes," Tyrion said. "And for that reason, you should not do anything about it. For your own safety, Lady Arya. Cersei would kill you if you jeopardized Tommen's rule."

Yes, she probably would. Cersei was a woman willing to do anything for her children. "Does...does your father know?"

"No," Tyrion said. "Even if he suspects in the back of his mind...he'll never let himself believe it. I don't suggest telling him."

"Why would you care if I did?" Arya asked. "Cersei hates you. Why protect her?"

"Oh, I'm not protecting her. Just Jaime," Tyrion said. "We're all terrible disappointments to my father, you know. Cersei is drunk and unstable. Jaime rejects ambition and has lost a hand. And I'm me. Why add to the list?"

"Even if they weren't twins..." Arya said. "Cersei seems so awful to him. Your brother. Every time I've seen them talk, she's insulting him."

"It's not what you would call a healthy relationship," Tyrion said. "Jaime's feelings are true and often blind. I'm not sure Cersei's feelings are. She loves her children. No one else. But she needs Jaime sometimes, so she found a way to use him properly."

"Does he understand that?" Arya asked.

"He's starting to. I think his time as a prisoner in the north helped sober him. She's only growing more wild and vicious with time." Tyrion finished the rest of his cup. "I'm terribly sorry about this. You're a ward of the Lannister house but I'm sure you didn't expect to be pulled into the family scandal."

"No," Arya said. "There's truly never a dull day in this place."

Tyrion laughed once. "You'll grow used to it."

Cersei spent the night with Jaime in her quarters. But after their passions ended, her dreams were cursed with dark visions.

All over again, she dreamed of Joffrey dying in her arms. Of him writhing and bleeding. He cried out in a voice like a baby's cry and she tried desperately to soothe him.

Hush my boy. Hush. It's going to be alright.

In the crypt she saw his golden shroud and recalled again the woman's words.

Gold will be their crowns and gold their shrouds.

There were two bodies on either side of him, shrouded as well. Cersei did not need to look to see that they were Myrcella and Tommen. Dead as Joffrey and she could not save them.

Behind her, she heard cackling. Tyrion stood on the stairs, his eyes practically glowing in the darkness, like some foul demon.

"You did this," she screeched at him. "You killed them all. You're a monster."

"Yes," he hissedThen he rushed forward quicker than she thought possible, grasping her throat in his hands. "And you should have killed me sooner."

Cersei gasped for breath as he began to squeeze. He squeezed as hard as he could, wringing the life from her. She tried to beat at his wrists but it was no good. His hands were hard and cold. Golden.


Golden hands.


Cersei woke with a start and found Jaime kneeling at her bedside, his face concerned.

"You were having a nightmare," he said.

I'm living a nightmare, Cersei thought. She jumped from her bed and began to dress at once. And it will keep being a nightmare unless I stop it.

"What are you doing?" Jaime asked. "It's the middle of the night."

"I have matters to attend to," Cersei said. "And you should return to your room."

She had to deal with Tyrion. Now, before it was too late. She knew he killed Joff. Knew it in her heart. If she could not find the evidence, she would make it.

She would destroy that treacherous creature before he took everything else she loved.

Tywin always knew when Cersei was lying. But when she came to his office three days after the wedding with a mass of evidence against Tyrion, he had to admit she was getting better at it. She showed him records of the poison bought. She gave him witness testimony. Every damaging thing under the sun. The kind of case that could convict Tyrion in an afternoon.

If he did not know the truth, he might have believed her.

But it was too convenient. Only an idiot would have left such a trail and Tyrion, for all his other faults, was not an idiot.

"You've certainly acquired this evidence very quickly," Tywin said. "How did you manage it?"

"I've worked day and night," Cersei said. "I won't have the same thing happen to Tommen."

"You think Tyrion has designs on Tommen's life?"

"He has designs on all of our lives."

That I doubt, Tywin thought. "It all seems a bit too easy. Catching an assassin usually isn't."

"Then I suppose we are fortunate," Cersei said. "I don't care how convenient it seems. Tomorrow, I'm going to have him arrested. I thought you should know so that you can prepare. But we must have justice for Joffrey."


"If you have a different culprit then I would be glad to hear it," Cersei muttered.

Tywin did not reply. He did have a culprit. A person he knew, with absolute certainty, was behind Joffrey's death. But he would not give her name to Cersei.

Cersei looked triumphant at this. "You've always hated him, father. Just think of this as your chance. A chance to let him die without guilt. You've wanted that for a long time."

Tywin's expression hardened. "Don't presume to tell me what I've wanted. And don't presume that guilt has ever kept me from doing what is necessary. He is the lowest of the Lannisters but he's still a Lannister. That is why he's still alive."

"He killed your grandson," Cersei said. "You preach so often about legacy. Tyrion set that legacy on fire. This is what he deserves."

Joffrey wasn't my legacy, Tywin thought. That mad boy was a plague on my legacy.

"You have a right to ask for a trial," Tywin said. "You have a right to build a case and call witnesses. But if you came here asking for my blessing to cause chaos in our family, you don't have it."

Cersei's face faltered for a moment. She liked to pretend that she was untouchable, but the child in her had always sought Tywin's approval. For a moment, she seemed to stumble for a retort before she lifted her chin. "I don't need your blessing. I need justice."

With that, she took her evidence and stalked from the room.

Tywin sat back in his seat, rubbing a hand over his face. In truth, a trial for regicide was an ideal way to rid himself of Tyrion. If he was convicted and executed... people would see that as justice.

But Tywin had already made his decision about Tyrion's life a long time ago. When he held his twisted form, staring out over the rocky beaches of Casterly Rock, and thought of placing him at the mercy of the ocean. He thought of letting the tide wash the mistake that killed his wife away.

But he didn't. He brought him up all the same, though he hated him. He let him live. And though Tyrion disgraced the Lannister name with his whoring and drinking and jokes, he was not without his worth. He had controlled Joffrey better than his mother as had. And he had helped bring Lord Baelish's treachery into the light.

He was still a Lannister. And Tywin's son. And if he did not kill him on that wretched night so many years ago, he did not intend to let Cersei kill him now.

But he could use this situation to his advantage...

It was never good news when Tyrion's father called him to the Tower of the Hand, but this late at night made Tyrion especially nervous. Perhaps his father had finally decided to kill him.

No, Tyrion thought. I've done nothing recently to provoke him. There must be something else.

But what required discussion so late at night?

For once Tywin was not sitting at his desk when Tyrion arrived, nor was he writing letters. He was standing by the window, staring out into the black of the night. His face was more serious than usual.

"You called me here?" Tyrion asked cautiously.

"Yes," Tywin said. "Your building a very strong case against you. She plans to blame you for Joffrey's murder."

His father was always so blunt. He never danced around the subject in the least. "Well," Tyrion swallowed hard. "I can't say I'm surprised. Do you think it will move her if I say 'I didn't do it'?"

Tywin glanced at him. "Her evidence is convincing. It would leave you soundly guilty if she put you on trial."

"How much did she pay for this imaginary evidence, I wonder?" Tyrion asked. "It must cost quite a lot to create something from nothing."

"Tyrion. This isn't a time to be glib," Tywin looked at him. "She's going to arrest you in the morning. And I won't stand in her way."

Tyrion's jaw clenched. "So...why am I here? You're warning me? Depriving me of a peaceful sleep?"

"No. I'm giving you a chance to leave."

The words stunned Tyrion. His father never gave him anything, much less chances. What was this exactly? What was his game?

"There's a ship in the harbor," Tywin continued. "If you sail to Essos, no one will follow you. I guarantee it. So long as you do not return, you will be safe." He tossed a small pouch onto the desk. It clinked when it landed. "You'll be able to live comfortably enough. But not with the Lannister name."

"Ah. I see. You're taking this opportunity to get rid of me," Tyrion said. "Very resourceful of your father. But really, why not just let Cersei have me. If she kills me then you won't have to deal with me anymore. Why even bother with a ship?"

His father did not look at him. His whole body was rigid as he stared out the window. "You played a part in bring Lord Baelish to justice. I acknowledge that. So I'm giving you this chance."

"That's kind of you father. But if you think I did it, wouldn't you be in your rights to throw me to the lions?" Tyrion asked. "If I killed the king, that's regicide. All debts would be cleared. If you think I did it..." He paused. "Oh. I see. You know I'm innocent."

"I suspect you are," Tywin said.

"You know." Tyrion shook his head. "But you won't vouch for me. You're incapable of that. I'm surprised you could give any credit to me regarding Lord Baelish. Why not give all the credit to..."

He trailed off as it dawned on him. Yes, his father knew that Tyrion hadn't killed Joffrey. But he couldn't reliably stand for him unless he knew the true culprit. But the true culprit...

"Arya," Tyrion said. "She's the one behind it, isn't she?"

Tywin looked down at him disdainfully. It was all the answer Tyrion needed.

"Of course. Cersei has built a convincing case. If you called her a liar you would have to offer up the true culprit. And you would never do that to the Stark girl. No. You like her too much for that. If you let Cersei think I did it...she is safe." Tyrion laughed. "This is hilarious."

"I don't think you quite understand the situation," Tywin said.

"Oh no, I understand. The realms need a scapegoat and I'm the perfect shape for one," Tyrion spit out.

"Are you going to accept or not?"

Tyrion gritted his teeth together, feeling a wave of anger and grief rise up in him all at once. Part of him wanted to spit in his father's face. Put me on trial, he wanted to say. I'm not afraid.

But he knew Cersei would build a good case against him. No one would protect him from the executioner's block, least of all his father. This was Tywin Lannister's last act of mercy.

Tyrion swiped the bag of gold off of the table. His father looked away from him again, as if he had already dismissed him in his mind.

"I suppose this is goodbye," Tyrion said, backing up toward the door. The gold clinked in his bag. It was only a small piece of what his father was paying him to leave. He would get what he wanted now. He would never have to look at Tyrion again. A wonder he didn't let Cersei kill him. "I can't say I'll miss you very much."

Tywin didn't reply. He seemed to be glaring at the window instead. Perhaps the glass had displeased him as well.

Tyrion sighed and pocketed the money. "You've placed so much on the Stark girl now." He looked up at him with a mirthless smile. "I do hope she doesn't disappoint you like the rest of us."

His father looked at him then. And Tyrion could see, in a moment of satisfaction, that he had caught the immovable Lord of Casterly Rock off guard. He gave a little bow and left before he could respond.

He would not give Tywin Lannister the last word. Not this time.


Chapter Text


It was just past midnight when Arya heard a knock on her door. Knowing better than to trust any visitor at such an hour, she drew her sword and stood ready in the center of the room. "Who is it?"


"Oh." Arya lowered the blade. "Come in."

Tyrion entered slowly, a box in his hands. He glanced up at her sword. "Planning to kill me, Lady Stark?"

"You could have been an assassin," Arya pointed out.

"An assassin who knocks?" Tyrion shook his head. "Is that the sword my father gave you?"

"Oh? Yes." Arya smiled and sheathed the blade again. "It's beautiful isn't it?"

"Yes," Tyrion murmured. "Quite beautiful. Valyrian steel isn't it?"

"It is." Arya's brow furrowed. Tyrion did not seem quite himself. In fact he looked exhausted. "Are you well, Lord Tyrion?"

"No. Not very," Tyrion said. "I won't be in the capital awhile. Urgent business across the narrow sea. But I thought I might say goodbye before I go."

"Oh. When will you be back?" Arya asked.

"I'm not sure," Tyrion said.

"Well, it will be much more boring without you around," Arya said. "So try to come back as soon as you can. Who else will I play Cyvasse with?"

"Ah yes. Cyvasse," Tyrion set down the box on the table. "Actually I...thought I'd leave my board with you. So that you can keep practicing. Jaime has little patience for the game, but perhaps you can convince him to play. You're good at convincing him to do things." Tyrion forced a smile. It seemed much sadder than usual. "Oh and...speaking of Jaime, will you give him this? It's a letter meant for his eyes only."

Arya raised an eyebrow. "Then why not give it to him yourself?"

"He might be with Cersei," Tyrion said. "I'd rather avoid that encounter. You understand."

Arya certainly did. She nodded once. "I'll give it to him."

"Thank you," Tyrion said. He started to go but he stopped in the doorway. "'re a very kind person. Do you know that?"

Arya blinked in surprise. "What?"

"You're kind," Tyrion repeated. "Not sweet. Not gentle. In fact I would call you fiercer than most people I've met. But you are kind."

Arya swallowed thickly. "Where is this coming from...Lord Tyrion?"

"I just wanted to tell you before I go. Because your form of aggressive compassion has had a rather good influence on some of my family. Myself included," Tyrion said. "Don't let my father convince you that it's weakness. It's not."

Arya had no idea what to say. She had never been called kind before in her life. That was a word for gentle ladies. She had been called stubborn, selfish, wild and every word in between. But never kind.

"I'm just talking." Tyrion smiled at her again. "Good luck, Arya. And farewell."

He closed the door behind him before Arya could return the sentiment. The words caught in her throat.

Slowly, she turned and wandered over to the table. She clicked open the box that Tyrion had opened many times between them. All of the pieces were there, including that extra, broken king which never had a place. She picked up the king and ran her finger along its cracked crown.

Tyrion will be back, she told herself. He's only going away for a short time. He'll return.

But she didn't believe her own thoughts. This felt like an awfully permanent goodbye. And Arya did not like it one bit.

Jaime had hoped that things might finally go back to normal following the wedding. Cersei had become suddenly affectionate toward him again, and with Tommen as king he did not have to worry about Joffrey's vicious whims causing damage.

But then Tyrion vanished from the city, and Jaime discovered that Cersei planned to have him arrested for Joffrey's death that very morning on the basis of evidence that she quite suddenly acquired.

Jaime did not even know how to process all of this information as his father informed them that Tyrion had fled the city. Cersei was in a rage, his father was stoic as ever, and Jaime felt as if he was floating out of his own body. Why? Why wasn't anything ever peaceful for two seconds with this family? And why was Tyrion always getting the blame for everything. Tyrion did not kill Joffrey. He couldn't have. Tyrion wasn't a murderer, no matter how Cersei saw him.

"We must send people out at once," Cersei said. "This is proof of his guilt. He ran from his fate. He ran from justice. Well he won't get far. I'll find him."

"No, he won't get far," Tywin said. "Leave him to me. There are only so many places he can hide."

Jaime shook his head. "This is...madness. Tyrion didn't kill Joffrey."

"Please, Jaime. Don't be so blind," Cersei said. "You've never seen what he truly is. He's a monstrous murderous creature. You show him compassion but he would kill you too if you got the chance."

"The only one who is blind here is you," Jaime spit out. "You've only ever seen what you wanted to with Tyrion. Always blamed him for what he didn't do. Sometimes you blamed him for your own crimes and then justified it to yourself later. Well, I'm not going to be a part of it. Tyrion is not, and never has been, the monster of your nightmares."

Fury rose in Cersei, making her look rather like a dragon about to spit fire. "He killed Joffrey."

"He didn't-"

"Quiet." Tywin ordered. The volume of his voice rendered everyone silent. "We don't know if Tyrion killed Joffrey. So we will find him and bring him back and find the truth of it." He glanced at Cersei. "You will leave the matter to me. That's final."

Cersei's jaw clenched and she dipped into a quick curtsy. "As you say father." Then, with one last glare at Jaime, she swept from the room.

"This is ridiculous," Jaime muttered when the door had closed. "You know Tyrion wouldn't poison Joffrey. That's not like him."

"No. But running does make him look guilty," Tywin said. "I don't think he did it. But I will send people out for him none the less."

"No. You won't," Jaime said. "I won't allow it."

"And how do you plan to stop me, exactly," Tywin asked. "Will you steal my pen and all of my paper?"

"Please," Jaime said. "He's my brother. I won't see him stand trial for this."

Tywin observed him for a long time, and Jaime got a startling sense that he had just stumbled into a trap. "If I don't send people after him...that leaves me without an heir, doesn't it? Except for you of course, but you've refused to leave the King's Guard. So unless we can come to some arrangement..."

Jaime laughed. "Oh, this works out perfectly for you, doesn't it? Two lions with one stone. You can use Tyrion to blackmail me, and get rid of him all at once. You never fail to take advantage of a family tragedy."

Tywin was unmoved. "It's your duty to the family Jaime. You're my eldest son. And now that you have lost a hand, serving in the King's Guard is not really appropriate. There is a precedent to remove a King's Guard from his post."

"So you'll have me break another vow."

"Didn't you say your honor was beyond repair?"

Jaime glared at him. "And if I did leave the King's Guard? What next? I suppose you already have a wedding planned for me?"

Jaime's tone still did not ruffle Tywin in the least. He was watching him as if he was a petulant child. That look was enough to make Jaime's blood boil. "When you have left the King's Guard and taken your place as my heir you will marry Arya Stark."

The command hit him like a punch to the gut. Seven hells, how long had his father been plotting this? "She's a child, father."

"Yes. And you'll marry her when she comes of age," Tywin said. "The match will join the Stark and Lannister houses more permanently, ensuring that we keep our alliance for many years to come."

Jaime jerked his fingers through his hair. "Does she know about this yet, or...were you leaving it to me to tell her?"

"You may tell her. If you agree to it," Tywin said, picking up his quill and dipping it in ink. "If you don't, then I will have no choice but to send people after Tyrion."

Jaime laughed once. "This truly did work out perfectly for you, didn't it? Joffrey dies and Cersei blames Tyrion. You have an opportunity to get rid of him, make me your heir and gain Arya Stark as a daughter. Everything works out exactly as you want it."

Tywin's expression was cold. "Do you agree or not?"

"Yes. I agree." Jaime muttered. "Put down your damn pen. I agree."

His father had won. He had played them all into the perfect corner, just as he always did. And not one of them could do anything about it.

Jaime did not believe in the gods. But even they were more easily moved than Tywin Lannister.

There were two people Jaime had to tell about the new engagement. And Arya Stark was far and away the easier of the two. He did not even want to think about telling Cersei. She was already erratic but this might send her over the edge completely. He didn't know how to talk to her anymore.

Arya might try to stab him, but he could handle that. Probably.

He found her in her room, surprisingly enough. She was standing in the center, turning a sword in her hand. It was a gorgeous blade. In fact, it appeared to be Valyrian steel.

He gave her the other half of her father's sword, Jaime realized. The half meant for Joffrey. Gods, he really has put his hopes on her.

"Ser Jaime." Arya lowered her sword. "What brings you here?"

"A number of things," Jaime said. "That's a fine sword."

"It's half of my father's," Arya said. "Lord Tywin must have reworked the steel. I'm not sure where he's keeping the other half."

"I'm... keeping the other half. Actually," Jaime said after a pause. He drew his blade and showed it to her. "These swords are twins."

"Oh." Arya looked at his sword as if seeing it for the first time. They didn't practice with real swords, so perhaps she hadn't noticed it. "I don't suppose my father would be happy about that."

"No, not at all," Jaime agreed. "I don't suppose you're happy about it either."

"I wanted to be angrier," Arya admitted. "When I heard Lord Tywin had reforged my father's sword...I should have been absolutely furious. But the fact that I got a piece of it." She sighed. "I always wanted my father's blade. I never thought I'd have it, since I'm a daughter." Something seemed to occur to her then. "Oh! I have something for you."

Jaime watched as she paced over to the desk. She grabbed a letter off the top and handed to him. It was sealed.

"What's this?" Jaime asked.

"Lord Tyrion gave it to me," Arya said. "He stopped by my room late last night before he left. He said he had...urgent business in Essos, I think?"

Jaime's eyes widened and tore through the seal with his thumb, hurrying to unfold it. As fast as he could, he read the letters.


I'm sorry to leave you with these people, and I'm sorry to leave without saying goodbye directly. I could not risk being seen by Cersei. Our sweet sister has her mind set on my guilt. Whatever she says and whatever she shows you, I did not kill Joffrey.

Father knows it too. He'll pretend he doesn't, because he's a liar. But he is the one who provided the ship to escape. Very merciful of him, I know. Now he soundly gets me out of the picture.

I'm afraid the legacy sits on your shoulders now. I'm sorry for that. I know you never wanted it. But I hope, one day, when father is senile or dead, we will see each other again.



Jaime gritted his teeth together, crumpling the note in his hand. "That bastard."

Arya's brow furrowed. "Tyrion?"

"No. My father," Jaime exhaled. "Gods, you're honest aren't you? You didn't even read the letter. You have no idea." He tossed the crumpled piece on the ground between them. "Go on. Read."

Cautiously, Arya picked up the paper and smoothed it out. She read it once. Twice. Her face went rather pale.

"Why..." She shook her head. "Why did he send him away? Your father knows Tyrion didn't kill Joffrey. So why?"

"Because it suits him," Jaime said. "We're all a part of an intricate game, you see. A game to advance the Lannister name. He doesn't want Tyrion as his heir even though Tyrion would do well at it. No, he wants me. The golden son. So he's using Tyrion to blackmail me as well."

"Blackmail you? How?" Arya asked.

"Father wants me to leave the king's guard. So that I can marry and have Lannister children, of course. So that I can secure our house's legacy," Jaime said. "That's what he always wanted, but now that Cersei wants Tyrion's head on a spike, he can finally back me into a corner. Make me choose between the King's Guard and my brother."

Arya looked absolutely stricken by this. Of course she did. She quite liked Tyrion. But he hadn't even told her the worst of it yet. The poor girl.

"I'm sorry that you're part of the wretched game too," Jaime said. "Truly. No one enjoys being a part of my father's schemes. But now you're at the center of one."

Arya's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"You guessed, I'm sure, that he would marry you off someday," Jaime said. "You're a smart girl. When your engagement to Tommen ended, you knew it wouldn't be forever. One day he would find another place to put you."

"Of course I knew," Arya said. "What does that have to do with...?" She trailed off as it dawned on her. He saw the confusion wash from her place, replaced with shock. "He...plans to marry me to you?"

Jaime nodded once.

For a moment, she swayed in the middle of the room. Jaime half expected her to go for her sword, but instead she sank onto the bed.

"Why?" she asked. "I'm the second daughter of the Stark house. I'm his hostage. He would marry me to you?"

"He was going to marry you to his grandson," Jaime said. "This isn't so much of a stretch."

"Tommen is a Baratheon, and he was a second son. You're a Lannister. He wants to build his legacy through you," Arya said.

"And you, Lady Arya. I'm afraid that's the price of finding my father's favor."

Arya shook her head. "I'm not sure how much he favors me. This will put me at the very top of Cersei's kill list, especially with Tyrion gone."

"Undoubtedly. I haven't told her yet but when I do-" Jaime stopped and looked back at Arya. Wait, how did she know that this engagement would enrage Cersei? She couldn't know about...there was no way that she...

Arya looked up at him, as if she had been caught in the act of some crime. Seven hells, she did know.

"When did you find out?" he asked.

"The wedding," Arya said.

"Tyrion could not have been drunk enough to tell you."

"He didn't. I mean he explained it to me but only after I...overheard you." Arya rubbed her fingers together. "I followed because I worried Cersei was going to accuse Tyrion of Joffrey's murder. Which...obviously she did. But...I didn't intend to hear the other things."

"You Starks are a goddamned nosy lot, aren't you?" Jaime muttered. "Have you told anyone?"

"No. Telling someone got my father killed," Arya said. "Honestly, that's the last thing on my mind right now. I'm more concerned with this sudden engagement and with Tyrion's safety." She shook her head. "I can't believe your father would-"

"I do," Jaime said. "My father would do anything and everything if it satisfied his goals. This is really a small step for him."

Arya didn't reply. She just stared straight ahead, blankly, as if she hadn't fully processed all of this news.

Jaime softened his voice. "I...apologize, Lady Arya. For all of this."

"Don't apologize," she murmured. "It isn't your fault. You're trying to protect your brother. I understand that." She looked up at him. "Thank you for telling me."

Her voice was flat. He could hear that she was angry. But not at him. Her anger was clearly directed at his father.

"I'll leave you alone," Jaime said. "I just thought you should know." He backed toward the door. "Arya..."

She looked up at him.

"Don't do anything stupid."

Arya nodded once, and he closed the door, knowing with absolute certainty that she was going to do something stupid.


Chapter Text

Reality was rarely tethered for Cersei these days. Between the alcohol and the lack sleep and the intense, constant paranoia, she almost never felt like she was standing on solid ground. And Tyrion's disappearance only made it worse. So long as he was out there, he could still plot the ruin of their house. At least when he was here, she could keep an eye on him but now...he could be anywhere. Anywhere at all.

It made her sick to think about. Her only constant was Jaime. Tommen had been stolen away from her by that Tyrell girl, Myrcella had been stolen by Dorne and Joffrey had been stolen by death itself. Jaime she still had. Jaime she would always have.

Until...she didn't.

Cersei barely heard the words when Jaime first told them to her. That father was forcing him to leave the King's Guard. That he was engaged to that little wolf bitch. How that girl had been digging her teeth into this family. A Stark of Winterfell. A wolf amongst lions. And she thought she could take Jaime from her as well?

"It's father's plotting," Jaime had said. "Really, Cersei. She wants nothing to do with me."

But how could he know that? What if she had presented the idea to their father? She had so much of his favor now, didn't she? Perhaps she wanted a more favorable position in the Lannister family.

Until there comes another. Younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.

Arya Stark could not be the girl the witch had spoken of. She was younger but certainly not a beauty. The prophesy surely meant Margaery Tyrell, who took her son away. Yet Arya was promised to Tommen before her. And Arya had won her father's favor. And now would wed her brother.

Take all that you hold dear.

She gave Jaime some sensible reply. At least she hoped it sounded sensible. "Yes of course. It's not you or the girl's fault. Father is plotting again. I understand."

Jaime did not buy the lie. He eyed her with obnoxious concern. When he reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder Cersei jerked away from him.

"I said I understand. Leave me."

He did with little argument. There was fear in his eyes. He had feared her for some time, for the woman she had become. But who could blame her? So many wars, a wretched husband who did not love her, and a dead monster of a son who she loved more than life itself. She had paid too high a price for being a woman in this world.

Once Jaime had gone, Cersei wandered from her room. She did not know where she was going. To yell at her father, perhaps. But what could she yell at him for? He did not know how she truly felt about Jaime.

He should though, or he is willfully blind, Cersei thought.

She drifted in the general direction of the hand's tower, her mind twisting and turning with wine and the witch's prophesy. But as she walked down the steps leading toward the west wing of the castle, she crossed paths with Arya Stark.

Cersei stopped in her tracks at the top of the stairs. And the Stark girl stopped at the bottom, glaring up at her. How much hate she had in her heart. Cersei wondered if it could begin to match her own.

"Lady Stark," she said softly.

"Lady Lannister," Arya replied curtly. She started up the steps, as if she meant to ignore her. But Cersei would not allow that.

"Wait a moment. I have a question," she said.

Arya paused mid-step, right beside Cersei. She did not look at her, only stared ahead like she wanted nothing more than to keep walking. "Yes?"

"Are you satisfied?" Cersei asked. "Now that you've ensnared my brother and my father. Are you happy? Have you had your revenge?"

Arya's jaw clenched. "I haven't ensnared anybody. And I do not want to marry your brother."

"That's a weak lie. I know your game," Cersei spit.

"I don't play that kind of game. Not everyone thinks like you, your grace," Arya looked at her then. Her gaze was cold as winter's first snow. "Sorry. I suppose it's 'my lady' now. You're not a queen anymore."

The words hit Cersei hard. The wolf bitch started up the stairs again, but Cersei drew her hand back to smack her. As her hand flew, Arya's eyes seemed to flare with grey fire. She caught her wrist in an iron grip.

"Do not touch me," she said flatly. Two steps above Cersei on the stairs, the Stark girl now loomed over her.

"How dare you," Cersei spit. "You forget who you are."

"I don't. I am Arya Stark of Winterfell. And you are Cersei Lannister of Casterly Rock," Arya replied. "You are just a lady like me now. You are not a queen. You have no crown. And if you try to strike me again, I will strike you back harder."

Cersei stared at her with wide eyes. Now she knew who Arya reminded her of. She saw it blazing in her grey eyes. Lyanna Stark. The same woman who Rhaegar Targaryen had chosen. The same woman who Robert Baratheon, her husband, cried out for in their marriage bed. She looked just like her.

Until there comes another. Younger and more beautiful. To cast you down and take all that you hold dear.

Gods, why were Starks such a plague upon her?

Cersei drew away from Arya Stark, jerking her hand back. She turned and stumbled away down the hall. She would have to find some other way to deal with Arya Stark. Poison would be the ideal method. She had proven herself too resistant to a violent assassination. Though perhaps she could make her death look like an accident. Her father could hardly blame her for an accident. The north might blame them, but what did she care? Fuck the northmen. They could hold them off easily.

She rounded the corner and nearly ran right into someone's chest. She felt hands on her shoulders, steadying her.


"Get out of my way," she muttered.

"Cersei." The voice said again, more firmly this time. She looked up to see her father looking down at her. What a stern face he had. It reminded her of when she was a child and he caught her in the midst of a lie.

"Yes, father?" Cersei managed. She could barely look him in the eye. She was so damn drunk.

Tywin studied her for a long time. His gaze went from cold to almost...tired. Exhausted even.

"Come with me," he said at last.

It was cold at the docks. Close to freezing in fact. But Cersei did not mind the bite of the wind. These days, she rarely felt anything at all because her mind was so soaked in wine. It was nice to feel pain. A physical pain to distract from the aching of her heart.

She leaned against the wall of the walkway overlooking the docks, gripping the stone edge with her hands. Her father was watching her. He had not said anything since they arrived and the silence was beginning to eat at her soul.

"I'm fine," Cersei said at last. "If Jaime told you anything...he is mistaken and overreacting."

"Jaime hasn't told me anything," Tywin said.

"Then why am I here?"

"Because I have my own eyes and ears." Tywin glanced at her. "How drunk are you? Don't try to lie."

Cersei glared down at her hands. "Very."

"That's not specific."

"You didn't ask for specific," Cersei said petulantly. "And it's not as if I remember how much wine I've drunk. I can barely tell you the time of day."

Tywin did not reply.

"Go on. Lecture me. Tell me that this is not any way for a lady of House Lannister to behave. Remind me that my actions reflect on you." She laughed once. "You're fond of your lectures. I think it gives you great joy to tell someone that they're wrong. That you know better than they do."

"It gives me no joy at all to have this conversation with you," Tywin said. "This is not a lecture. My words won't do you any good now. This is a goodbye."

Cersei managed to turn her head enough to look at him. Her long blonde hair fell in her eyes. "What do you mean?"

"I'm sending you back to Casterly Rock," her father said. "Until you have regained your faculties."

Cersei's chest constricted at the words. "I can't...leave. My place is here. I'm the queen."

"You aren't," Tywin said. "Nor are you queen regent any longer. You are the mother of the king. But you are only a hindrance to Tommen. I won't let you ruin him like you ruined Joffrey."

Cersei barred her teeth slightly, straightening. "No. You can't send me away. I'm the only one who can protect Tommen. The only-"

"You're a danger to him," Tywin said. "You're drunk. You're paranoid. You've lost all control of yourself."

"And you think that gives you a right to ship me back to the Rock?" Cersei hissed. "I am not one of your damned subjects. I-"

"You're my daughter," Tywin snapped. "And you will do as I command before you ruin yourself too. I will not watch you fall to madness in this place."

"You were the one who sent me here, father." Cersei snarled. "Years ago. It was you who gave me to Robert Baratheon, because you could only think to marry me off like some brood mare. You never even thought of treating me the same as Jaime, did you? Never thought that I might be your legacy."

Her father stared her down. There was crushing disappointment in his eyes. It was the very worst thing for Cersei to see. To know she had once again fallen below his expectations. "You were my legacy. That's why I made you queen of the seven kingdoms. While you were busy wishing you had been born a man, you could have ruled. Instead you let bitterness swallow you up. And make you this." He looked away. "There's nothing more I can do for you now."

A feral, desperate urge ripped through Cersei. She lunged at her father then, meaning to strike him. Or perhaps push him down the steps. But he intercepted her, grasping both of her wrists tight in his hands. She struggled and screamed but his grip did not give. Though he was older, he was still quite strong. Still she did not stop fighting. Not until footsteps reached her ears and other hands took hold of her shoulders. Her father's guards.

In a flash of panic, Cersei looked up at him, her gaze pleading. Her father looked right back at her. For a moment, she caught a glimpse of regret in his eyes.

When Cersei was a child, just after her mother had died, she had screamed at the gods to bring her back. When he caught her in her furious prayer, she had seen that same regret then.

"The gods will not give your mother back," he had said.

"If they are merciful they will," she had protested. "They'll resurrect her and take back that awful creature that killed her."

"The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods."

At last her father exhaled and looked to his guards. "Bear her safely to Casterly Rock. See that she rests once she's there."

Then he let her go and surrendered her to his men.

Cersei kicked and screamed all the way down the steps toward the docks. She was sure every eye in sight turned to look at her but she did not care. She hurled insults at her father.

She was his daughter but he sent her away none the less. Because she was in the way of his perfect plan.

He was right. The gods were gods because they were cruel.

It was a wonder Tywin Lannister had not yet become a god himself.

Tywin had not felt so exhausted in a long time. There was never any rest for him, of course, but lately, his ordeals had been far too personal. Dealing with Tyrion. Dealing with Cersei. It was all a reminder that the Lannister family was not untouchable.

He had a firm grip on Jaime, at least, though Jaime was more upset with him than ever following Cersei's departure.

"She's your daughter! You think sending her away will make her any better? Or is it just because you can't stand the sight of her anymore?"

Angry as it had made him, Jaime was right. Tywin did not think there was hope for Cersei to recover her old self. But to see her stumbling drunk about the keep, caught in her own was painful.

She looked so much like her mother. For that reason alone, Cersei had always been painful to handle. A headstrong girl with the green eyes of his wife. He hated how she reminded him, every day, of his losses.

Still, she was the only one who took his teachings seriously. Jaime ignored him in favor of swinging about his sword, but Cersei hung on his every word. That was why he was so determined to make her queen. She could have shaped the course of the country.

But she didn't. Because Cersei thought far too highly of herself and disdained her enemies. Tywin imagined she was mimicking him. She thought that he looked down on every one of his opponents. In truth he did not overestimate or underestimate anyone if he could help it. He judged them as they were, and dealt with them accordingly.

Cersei thought she was smarter than everyone else and that made her weak and easy to manipulate. She would not admit when she had made a mistake until it was too late. And she was blind to the truth once she had created a suitable delusion to replace it.

I should have corrected that sooner, Tywin thought. If I had known how far this madness would carry her...I might have.

He had watched people fall to madness before, but he never expected to watch his daughter take the plunge.

And now she is beyond my power, he thought. Just like Aerys. But at least she is not king.

In his exhaustion, Tywin wished for only a few days of rest when nothing would happen. But then, the day after Cersei left, Arya Stark knocked on his door.

And he could see already in her eyes that she had some trouble to cause as well.

Chapter Text

This was a bad time to speak to Lord Tywin. Arya was intensely aware of that as she stood in the corner of his office, rolling a cyvasse piece in her palm. It was one of the kings. The one with the broken crown. She hadn't meant to bring it here. She had been playing the board all that morning and hadn't really thought of it when she walked from her room on a whim and made her way toward the tower of the hand.

But Tyrion had given her this board, and for some reason she felt she needed his spirit for strength.

She traced the almost sharp edges of the king's broken crown, digging them into her thumb. She watched Tywin, waiting to see if she should speak or leave. Cersei's departure had left him seemingly exhausted. For the briefest second, he was vulnerable. Then, he glanced at her and remembered himself. His back straightened. His expression hardened.

"I hope you're not here to argue with me about the match with Jaime," he said. "Because my decision on that is final."

"Will arguing do me any good?" Arya asked.

"It won't," Tywin said.

"Then no. I'm not here to argue about that."

She had other words to say though. A lot of other potentially dangerous words.

"It's a good position for you," Tywin said. "Better than most could hope for."

"Especially the second daughter of a traitor," Arya murmured. She passed the broken king from hand to hand. "Yes. I know. I know how objectively advantageous it is."

Tywin nodded, almost distractedly, pacing back to his desk. "My children...between all of them it seems like a race to see who can burn down the Lannister legacy faster. All three of them have tried. All three of them will fail. The legacy will succeed in spite of them."

"Hmm." Arya tapped her thumb against the king's crown. "You shouldn't be surprised though."

Tywin shuffled through some papers. "What do you mean?"

"By them rebelling. You shouldn't be surprised," Arya looked up at him. "Have you played Cyvasse much, my lord?"

"No. I don't have much time for games," Tywin said dismissively.

"I had an awful lot of time when I first came here," Arya said. "Tyrion taught me to play. The goal is to arrange your pieces in just the right way to win the game. Your opponent tries to do the same. It's a game of war on the battlefield." Arya shrugged. "You would be good at it, I'm sure. You run your life like an intense game of Cyvasse. Except for people aren't game pieces." She squeezed her king tight in her palm, letting its wooden face dig into her skin. "So you shouldn't be surprised when they resent you for treating them that way. Or when they rebel."

Tywin's eyes narrowed. Arya had seen that expression before. She was walking a dangerous line, right on the edge of his tolerance. She had first seen that expression nearly three years before, when she looked him in the eye and told him "anyone can be killed".

Arya had come a very long way since that day, but she still felt a flash of fear at that expression. She did not lift her chin though. She did not show her nerves. She stared him down, calm and steady.

"A house that puts the whims and wishes of its children before the legacy of the family is the house that falls," Tywin said. "If they resent me, that doesn't matter. I have to do what is best for the Lannister name. Objectively."

"Maybe." Arya smiled mirthlessly. "Except, you're not objective."


"You're not objective," Arya repeated. "You only pretend to be. You pretend that you can judge a situation completely logically, but that's never been true. Especially not when it comes to Tyrion."

Tywin set down a book a little too hard on the desk. "We're not talking about Tyrion."

"Oh, yes we are," Arya said. "You were going to send people after him. Soldiers. Sell swords. You were going to send people after your son for a crime you know he did not commit. You know for sure that he's innocent, but you were going to send people anyway. At least, until you realized you could use the situation to blackmail Jaime."

"I was never going to send people after him," Tywin said. "Jaime assumed I would. I'm the one who gave Tyrion a chance to leave in the first place."

"So you forced him out. Forced him to leave his home and live in exile. Explain to me why that's better?" Arya asked. "He didn't do anything. In fact, he helped me to catch Lord Baelish the man who tried to assassinate you. And you decided to blame him for Joffrey's death?"

"Would you have preferred me to blame you?" Tywin raised his voice. "If I told Cersei that I knew for certain Tyrion did not kill Joffrey, I would have to provide her with the true culprit. And even if I didn't, eventually her suspicions would turn to you. Is that what you wanted?"

"Don't turn this on me. Whether or not Cersei would have blamed me is completely irrelevant to you sending Tyrion away. Don't pretend there weren't other ways you could have handled the situation." Arya's hand clenched so tight around the king that she thought she might crush the wood to dust. "But you didn't because you wanted a chance to get rid of Tyrion and a chance to manipulate Jaime. Then you don't have to accept a son that you hate as your heir. Even though Tyrion actually wants the position and Jaime doesn't."

Now there was real fury in Tywin's eyes. The kind of fury that could shake a room. "Perhaps I should let my children do as they please then? As your father did? That worked out very well for him."

Now the rage welled up in Arya as well. He knew her weak points just as she knew his. And this was becoming a game of saying the exact worst things. "My father didn't die because of his children. He died because of yours. Because your daughter couldn't control your awful grandson," she practically spit the words through barred teeth. "And yes, I know my father was too honest and honorable and you think that made him weak. But he knew us. He knew who we were. You know nothing about your children."

"Careful, girl," Tywin said coldly. "You're far overstepping. You forget your place."

"I don't forget anything. I'm Arya Stark of Winterfell."

"And my ward. You should remember that as well."

"Oh, how can I not?" Arya asked. "You remind me all the time that my life isn't mine. I'm a piece on your board as well. I know. I'm aware. But I still have a tongue and no one is stopping me from using it."

Tywin circled around the desk. Without the barrier between them, Arya was suddenly aware of how much taller he was than her. It took everything in her not to take a step back. She planted her feet on the carpet and stayed grounded. "I thought you had grown out of that reckless bravery. I see I was mistaken. Don't forget, I have a confession from you. If you're so anxious to prove Tyrion's innocence then perhaps you would like to face trial for it."

Arya lifted her chin. "Fine then. Write Cersei. Do it. I won't stop you."

Tywin gave a single mirthless laugh. What a hollow, terrifying sound it was. "You've played this game before. Pretending you're not afraid to die."

"I'm not pretending anything. I'm terrified of dying," Arya said. "So are you. I've seen it in your eyes. But I was willing to die to kill Joffrey. If he didn't drop from poison-if he sentenced Robb to death-nothing on earth could have stopped me from ripping his throat out. I would have been executed for it. But I would have done it anyway. So go on. Send a messenger after Cersei. Tell her. I'll wait."

A tense silence hung between them, heavier and more frightening than Arya had ever heard before. In her hand, she clutched the broken king like a lifeline. Her hand was trembling, but the rest of her was still. They had both called each other's bluffs, trying to see who would surrender first. And Arya was far too furious to waver. She was a ward to the Lannister family. Her whole life was in his hands. But she did not intend to give in quietly to his demands. She was Arya Stark of Winterfell and she would be a wolf until the day she died.

At last, Tywin spoke. But not with a death sentence. He gave her two cold, clipped words. "Get out."

Arya took a step back, holding his gaze. She let the king slip from her fingers and fall between them on the ground, like a gauntlet thrown in challenge. "Yes. My lord."

Then with a mock bow, she turned and strode from the room.

Only when she reached the foot of the stairs did she sag against the wall. Her breath left her in one shaky gasp and she felt a bit dizzy. There were no words...for how stupid that was. Tywin Lannister held her very life in his hands and she had just dared him to crush it.

At that very moment, he was probably thinking of how he could kill her without causing another war. Fine. She didn't care. It felt good to speak truth to the man for once.

The lion has claws, Lord Tywin. But the wolf has powerful jaws and teeth to match.

In the aftermath, Arya went to find Jaime. She wasn't sure why. Maybe because she had to talk to someone about what just happened and Tyrion was no longer here for that. Neither was Shae. And she certainly wasn't going to speak to the new King about this. Jaime was the only one.

Fortunately, he was not hard to find. He was in their practice room, running through his drills, flipping his sword in his hand. The other half of her father's blade. What a beauty it was as it flashed in the light.

"Ah, Lady Stark. Come to practice?" Jaime sheathed his sword. "You look a bit pale."

"I'm sure," Arya murmured. "Jaime...if I die in the next few days, it was your father who did it."

Jaime blinked rapidly. "My father...Did you do something stupid?"

"I said something stupid," Arya said. "Several things actually." She felt a bit dizzy remembering the conversation. What was she thinking talking to him like that? What made her think a hostage could get away with such words?

Jaime rested a hand at her shoulder. "You should sit. You truly look ill."

Arya let him guide her to one of the crates. He sat down beside her.

"Good. Now, tell me."

Arya did. She told him as much as she could anyway. The only detail she left out was her part in Joffrey's death. Joffrey was his son, after all, and she didn't trust him with those words. Not yet. Jaime listened in stunned silence as she recounted the fight and when she was finished he let out a long breath, resting back against the wall.

"Seven hells, Arya."

"I know."

"I's true. Everything you said. But that just makes it worse."

"I know."

"I cannot believe you toldhim that."

"Yes, I know," Arya snapped. "I don't know what even came over me. I was angry about Tyrion. That was the main thing. And then I just...ended up saying so much more."

"You managed to hit just about every sore point for my father," Jaime said. "The only worse thing you could have done is if you had brought up my mother."

"Please, Jaime. I have some survival instincts." Arya rested her head between her hands. "Not many apparently. Do you think he'll kill me? Or my family?"

"No. You were right to call his bluff. He's always reluctant to change plans once he's made them. And he doesn't want war and he has his legacy riding on you now. On you and me of course," Jaime said. "I'm actually surprised the screaming match wasn't about our engagement."

Arya laughed once. "No. I was far more furious about what he did to Tyrion. The blackmail and the manipulations...that's what angered me more than the match itself." She looked up at him. "Not that I'm happy about the match at all. I think I've mentioned to you before I don't want to be married."

"Multiple times yes," Jaime said.

"But...and this may surprise you...I don't find you completely awful. As a person I mean."

"Gods, what high praise you give."

Arya smacked him on the shoulder. "I just mean...I know who you are. That makes you a better option than most. Your father isn't marrying me to some old man I've never met. Just a...slightly old man who I have met."

Jaime raised an eyebrow. "Slightly old?"

"You are more than twice my age."

"Fair. And I do feel awful about that, believe me."

Arya's mouth twitched. "Besides that, you're one of the few lords in Westeros who wouldn't take away my sword. So it's not the worst arrangement in the world."

Jaime exhaled. "No. I suppose not."

"And you?" she ventured cautiously.

"Well, I never wanted to marry nor have children. Much like you," Jaime said. "I thought joining the King's Guard would make me safe from that. But I don't find you completely awful either." He smirked. "I'll go a step further and say you are often tolerable."

"Our affection for each other knows no bounds," Arya said.

Jaime looked up at the ceiling with a small smile. "Most marriages don't start with much affection. They're political moves and love isn't political. We don't get to choose who we love."

No. Arya supposed that was true.

"I've never loved anyone," Arya said. "And I never really thought anyone would love me. I've always been compared to Sansa. She was the lovable one in my mind. In everybody's mind."

"You don't look much like your sister, it's true." Jaime glanced at her. "You look like your aunt though."

"My aunt?" Arya asked.

"Yes. Lyanna Stark. She died before you were born of course. But I knew her, if only briefly." Jaime laughed once. "She wasn't a delicate beauty, but when she disappeared with Rhaegar Targaryen it started a whole bloody war. There must be something powerful about a woman who can do that."

"You think I'm going to start a war?" Arya raised an eyebrow. "Will men raise their armies for me, the great beauty of House Stark?"

"Well, who knows? You're young. You have plenty of time to start wars," Jaime grinned.

Arya stared up at the ceiling. "I'll put that on my list of ambitions then."

"Good," Jaime said. "The point is, so long as we're stuck in an engagement neither of us want, we can agree to be decent to each other. That will make life bearable enough."

Arya nodded once. "Yes. I can agree to be decent."

"Good." Jaime stood. "And now, I think we should practice. You wanted to learn how to swing a knight's sword. I can teach you some things."

Arya smiled slightly. Fighting was just what she needed to take her mind off of her great fight with Tywin. But even as she practiced she could not shake the sinking feeling in her gut. The realization that she may have fallen out of the Lord of House Lannister's good graces.

He was her captor. The man who had control over her entire life. By all accounts he was a cruel, ruthless, awful man.

So why did it bother her, losing his favor?

Why did she care?


Chapter Text

Two days after Arya had rather unwisely snapped at Tywin, the first snow fell at King's Landing. It did not stick to the ground for long, but it was reminder that the winter had truly come to the south. It was soothing to Arya's very soul to feel the bite of the cold air again. When everyone else had abandoned the gardens, she sat outside and let the snow fall all around her.

She breathed in deep and thought of home.

Over the next few months, the snow fell more often and the air grew colder. Snowdrifts built up along the castle walls and the flurries blanketed the gardens in white. Arya watched the snow pile from her window and often walked amongst it, leaving footprints in the white expanse.

And all the while, she did not speak to Tywin Lannister.

She saw him when she went to court, sitting beside Tommen as the young king addressed the concerns of the peasants. It was a challenge for one's first year as king to also be their first winter. Tywin helped Tommen when he did not know how to reply.

But those were the only times she saw him. He did not call her to the Tower of the Hand on any business. He did not retaliate for the argument, but he also seemed to be ignoring her existence entirely.

As much as Arya loved the cold in King's Landing, the winter brought with it strange isolation. Just a short time ago she had Tyrion and Shae. But they had left together on the ship, taking with them Bronn and Podrick as well.

In the beginning, when the snow was still fresh, Tommen ventured out occasionally to watch the flakes (he had never truly seen snow, after all). Arya was fortunate enough to watch his face light up at the sight. The crown, and everything that came with it, had weighed down his smiles as of late. But sometimes, Arya caught glimpses of the old Tommen.

"It's amazing that something so beautiful causes so much trouble," Tommen said. "I hear it snows even in summer in the North."

"It does," Arya said. "Summer snows. They're one of the things I missed the most about home."

"It must be very cold up there now. I'm not sure how the northmen cope." Tommen shivered under the gust of an icy wind.

"We're made of strong stuff, your Grace." Arya smiled. "Our blood keeps us warm."

"It doesn't keep most people warm," Tommen said. "Grandfather says that there will be many problems to deal with in the winter. A lot of people will die. A lot of people will run out of food. He says it's inevitable."

"If the north keeps our people alive in the winter, the south can do the same," Arya muttered. "Lord Tywin is just being cynical as always."

Tommen gave her a look. "Did you and my grandfather have a...disagreement?"

Arya crossed her arms, staring intently at a nearby hedge. "What makes you ask that?"

"Well, he's been colder than usual over the past few days. And once when Varys mentioned your name during the small council meetings...he seemed rather angry."

"It's nothing," Arya said. "Nothing you need to worry about, your grace. I can handle it myself."

"How are you going to handle it?"

"I'm going to avoid him until he forgets the disagreement happen."

"I don't think Grandfather forgets anything."

"Then I will avoid him until he dies of old age and I won't have to worry about it anymore."

The conversations with Tommen were welcome, but they died as the winter truly settled over King's Landing. After a few months she barely spoke to him at all. He was too busy to venture into the gardens, and the wind was too cold for a summer born boy like him.

The winter also saw the exit of the flowers. The ones in the garden and many of those that came from High Garden. Lady Olenna and her household set out to return home soon after the first snows. But she did manage to catch Arya one more time in conversation when she crossed paths with her in the courtyard just before they left.

"It has been a pleasure to watch you, Lady Stark," Olenna said, clasping Arya's hand between her wrinkled palms. "You've had an intriguing effect on this place. It's rather a shame I can't stay to see more of it."

"I'm sorry to see you go," Arya said.

"Oh I don't think you care much either way," Olenna said. "Margaery does like you though. It was her hope to betroth you to Loras, and I thought it was a rather good idea as well."

Arya blinked rapidly. "I...what?"

"Oh, you wouldn't have heard of these plans," Olenna said. "And Lord Tywin sadly murdered them in their crib. Though I must say, engaging you to his son..." She patted Arya's hand. "I did not expect that."

Neither did I, Arya thought. I wonder if he's regretting that now.

"Well, it puts you in an ideal position," Olenna said. "Here, you're casting ripples through the keep. With enough'll cast monstrous waves."

Arya's mouth twitched. "Thank you...Lady Olenna. It's kind of you to say."

"Not kind. Just true," Olenna said. "Continue to play your cards right, Lady Arya. Don't fold a good hand like this."

Arya watched the Tyrell caravan pulled away, thinking of those words. Wondering if she already had folded her hand.

One moon into winter, the gardens emptied completely, and Arya was left with very few companions. The only person who seemed to share her feeling of isolation was Jaime. He was released from his vows as a King's Guard, and thus was relieved of many of his old duties. With that he had more free time, but neither of his siblings around to share it with. Tyrion was across the sea and Cersei was at Casterly Rock.

So, in those winter months, they spent a surprising amount of time in each other's company. They sparred mostly. Fighting was an escape for the both of them, and they each wanted to get stronger. Better. Jaime was improving greatly with his left hand, but Arya had improved along with him. She would never match his strength, but she learned how to use hers.

Three moons after the first snow, Arya bled for the first time. She woke from fitful sleep in a puddle of red, her midsection cramping horribly. But she knew how to act through pain. She rose quickly and cut away the bloody sheets. She changed her soiled clothes as well, put every stained piece of cloth together and wrapped them in a layer of clean sheets. Later she would find a good place to burn them.

It wasn't the bleeding that worried her. Arya had bled from wounds plenty of times in her fifteen years. But she knew what this kind of bleeding meant. When she married, she would be fit to bare children.

There wasn't a point in hiding it, she knew. Someone would find out. And Tywin planned to marry her to Jaime as soon as she came of age. But she didn't want to give him a reason to push the wedding forward. She was enjoying her last months as Arya Stark.

Fortunately, Tywin was ignoring her at the moment, so he had no need to find out.

She wasn't why everyone called moon's blood the 'red flower'. It made it sound graceful and dainty. Instead it was messy, inconvenient and painful. It cut Arya's stamina in half and occasionally made her feel ill. Which meant, while she could hide it from most people, it was absolutely impossible to hide from Jaime.

"You're pale," Jaime said that afternoon after Arya had nearly stumbled dodging one of his strikes. "Do you need to sit?"

"No," Arya muttered. "I'm just fine." She went to hit him again but when he dodged she very nearly lost her footing. He caught her shoulder before she could.

"Are you sure?"

Arya cursed under her breath. "Alright. A short break."

She stalked away and leaned up against the wall, gratefully sinking to the ground. Why did it feel like she had been stabbed?

"You may need a maester," Jaime pointed out. "You're not usually like this."

"No," Arya said, a little too loudly. "I mean...That's alright. It's not fatal. I promise."

Jaime studied her for a long moment. Then he nodded once. "Ah. I see."

"You don't see anything," Arya muttered.

"I may not be a woman, but I do know how a woman's body works," Jaime said. "You could have taken a break from sparring today, you know."

"My teacher always said practice should be consistent."

"Well, that was when you didn't bleed once a month."

Arya let out a shaky breath. "Don't...tell anyone."

"I won't," Jaime said. "But if you're worried about my father moving up the wedding, he won't. He has a plan in mind. If he was in a hurry, we would be married already."

Arya nodded, running a hand through her hair.

"Have you spoken with him?" Jaime asked. "Since that day I mean."

"No. It seems we've both been effectively avoiding that," Arya said. "I always tried to walk a line with him...but I crossed it that day. And then dared him to do something about it. If I was in your father's favor before, I've fallen from it now."

"I'm not sure about that," Jaime said. "His favor is probably the only reason you're still alive."

The months continued to pass. Arya grew used to her moon sickness and to Tywin Lannister's silence. The winter was not as severe as many had predicted. Some even said that they would be in for an early spring. Others said that any spring that came would be a false one, followed by a harder winter. But while the temperatures were less severe, sickness proved a more dangerous foe than cold.

They called it Long Summer's Bane. It brought with it an awful cough, high fever, and in many cases, death. The last summer had lasted so many years that it made everyone more susceptible to this new winter's sickness. Particularly children. They died by the thousands all over the kingdom. Summer children who had only just seen their first snow.

But adults were not immune either. There were even some lords and ladies at court who perished. And the King's own executioner caught the disease. Arya had tried not to smile when she heard of Illyn Payne's passing. Another name off of her list. She imagined that some of the others had died too. Polliver. The Hound. The Mountain. As they were far out of her sight, she imagined the sickness had erased them. That would make her list much shorter. Only two names that she knew for sure were alive.

Cersei Lannister

Tywin Lannister.

Arya did not catch the illness. She was a northerner in the south, used to this kind of cold. However, up north, the plague was apparently awful. In the severe temperatures, Long Summer's Bane carried off many children's lives.

In the ninth month after the snows began, Arya received a letter from home. She was with Jaime when Grand Maester Pycelle delivered it, and even before she split the seal, she felt the plunge of dread in her gut.

She read the words of the letter three times before she absorbed the words. Long Summer's Bane had come to Winterfell, and carried off Rickon with it.

Rickon. Her baby brother. He was only six years old when she and Sansa left Winterfell. It had been nearly four years since Arya had last seen him. He would have been nine. No...ten. He had already survived a siege as a hostage but the winter took him.

It was too cruel to even imagine.

Arya sank to the floor when she read the letter a fourth time, confirming her fears. Tears began to well up inside of her but she tried to shove them down.

"Lady Arya?" Jaime stood over her. "What is it?"

She handed him the letter to read because she didn't trust herself to speak. He skimmed it over in silence.

"Rickon," he murmured. "The youngest?"

Arya nodded once.

"I'm sorry," Jaime said.

"The last time I saw him...he was crying at Sansa and I not to leave him," Arya murmured. "I told him not to cry. That we'd see him again, so it was stupid to cry. I didn't know..." Two tears trailed down her cheek and she hurried to wipe them away.

"You couldn't have known," Jaime murmured. "No one could have predicted what an awful mess everything would become."

"I told him I would see him again."

"It wasn't your fault that you didn't make it back."

Arya looked up at him. He was right of course. But still...she had been down south for far too long. She should have made an effort to return sooner than this. "I have to go home, Jaime. I have to see his grave..." She swallowed hard. "I have to mourn him."

Jaime studied her for a long moment. "Well...We are at peace with the north. I don't suppose there would be any harm in you making a visit." He sighed. "But it's not up to me."

No. It wasn't up to him. Arya rested her head between her hands. "Fuck. I have to talk to him, don't I?"

Jaime let out a single, sad laugh. "Yes, Arya. You do."

It had been nearly a year since Arya had climbed the tower of the hand. She lingered at the foot of the steps for a while, staring up the winding passage. How many times had she made this climb? More than she could count. When she first came to King's Landing, her father occupied this office, and she had climbed to visit him several times. In the past three years, it had become Lord Tywin's office instead, and she came when he called. Because she was his hostage.

Hostages were not supposed to speak their mind to their captors. But for a while, it had seemed her speaking her mind had amused him. When he allowed her honesty, she grew more and more comfortable making her thoughts known.

Then she took things a step too far. She wondered, not for the first time, if he had thought about calling her bluff. Throwing her to the lions and letting her stand trial for Joffrey's death. Surely it must have crossed his mind.

Eleven months later, she stood here again, needing to ask him for something important. How unfortunate that she had ran through all of her goodwill with him.

Arya took a deep breath and climbed the stairs. She had put this off for too long.

He was writing letters when she entered, because of course he was. He did not look up at the creak of the door. Arya stood in the center of the room, keeping absolutely still. Waiting. Watching.

Tywin was always fond of letting silences drag on. But this was perhaps the longest Arya had ever endured. The anticipation ate away at her and she wanted nothing more than to shift from foot to foot, like a child caught doing wrong. But she couldn't. She had to stand strong.

At the same time, she kept her gaze slightly lowered. If she was going to get something from Tywin today, she couldn't fight him for it. So she stared at his desk instead of at him. She was surprised to see Tyrion's Cyvasse piece sitting on the edge with its still broken crown. She hadn't even known why she left it there.

"What do you want?" Tywin asked at last. The sudden break in the silence startled Arya. She tore her eyes away from the king to see him looking up at her.

"I...I came because..." Her voice came out soft and she cursed herself for it. "I have a request."

Tywin did not reply but he did not tell her to leave either. His expression was utterly unreadable.

"I just received word that my youngest brother is dead," Arya continued. "The Long Summer's Bane took him. And I..." She steeled herself. "I would like to go home. Just for a short time. I haven't been home in four years. I need to pay my respects."

Still he didn't reply. He regarded her, as if turning the request about in his mind. Then he went back to writing his letters.

Arya gritted her teeth together. He was toying with her, and it made her furious. Her little brother was dead and she was in no mood for games. But she couldn't snap at him. She knew better than that. "My lord, I'm not plotting an escape of any kind. I will return to King's Landing but...Please." The silence persisted, filled only by the sound of his quill scratching against paper. "If this is about eleven months ago...I'm sorry. What I said-"

"You're not sorry," he interrupted. "You're apologizing because you're desperate, nothing more. You're not sorry for any of it." Arya opened her mouth to reply but he kept talking. "It doesn't matter. I'll let you go."

Arya blinked in surprise. "Really?"

"Yes," Tywin said. "Jaime will accompany you. So will some of our household guard, for protection on the road."

"And to make sure I come back," Arya said. " sending Jaime with me...wise?"

"Any act against him would be an act of war, which your brother should be smart enough to avoid," Tywin said. "And if he is not smart enough to prevent a conflict, then I assume you will be."

Arya nodded once. She wasn't going to start a war. Tywin had more allies, more resources and the benefit of the winter drawing to a close. He would have the advantage in any war that began.

"So, you will go north, stay for a fortnight, then return," Tywin said. "By that time, your sixteenth name day will have arrived. And you will marry Jaime." He finished his letter and carefully folded the paper. "Is that clear?"

Arya nodded once. "Yes, my lord."

Tywin sealed the letter and held it out to her. "Deliver this to your brother Robb, directly. It is for his eyes only."

Arya nodded once and accepted the letter. "I'll take it to him."

"Good." Tywin nodded at the door. "Go."

Arya did not stay are argue. She turned and hurried from the room before the man could change his mind. Only when she was out of his line of sight did she let out a breath. She had never heard such an indifferent tone in Lord Tywin's voice-almost as if he had forgotten completely about their argument. But she knew that wasn't true. Lannisters never forgot anything.

It didn't matter though. The impending marriage to Jaime didn't matter either. Finally, after so many long years, Arya was going home.


Chapter Text

 At Winterfell, Maester Luwin spoke of a soon to come spring-an end to the winter everyone said would be the worst in living memory. True winter in the North had not even lasted two years yet. It was not nearly as awful as everyone had said. But Sansa found it difficult to feel joy at the promise of spring in a few moons. Winter had robbed the north of so many summer born children, and with them: Rickon.

Seven days ago they had buried him in the crypt next to their father. Sansa's mother had wept openly. Sansa wished she had cried just as hard. But her time in King's Landing had wrung her dry of tears. Even after years at home, it still did not feel safe to cry.

This war had taken much from them. The north was tattered from the conflict. Her father was dead and her younger brother had joined him. Bran was crippled. Robb was aged from his role as Lord of Winterfell. And Sansa still fell like a shell of her former self. She hardly remembered the soft, sweet girl who had left Winterfell.

And Arya...well she was miles away, trapped in King's Landing. The place where their father had died. Who knew how time in that place had changed her. At the very least, Joffrey was no longer around to torment her. What joy Sansa had felt when Robb brought news of that wretched boy's end. She never thought death would taste so sweet to her.

The taste had soured again though. Thinking of Rickon in his last days, sick with made it hard to eat.

It weighed heaviest on her mother. Sansa could see grief etched in her face and her slumped shoulders. Even now as they sat side by side, repairing the stitches on some of their gowns, Sansa noticed her mother's fingers trembling.

"Do you need help?" Sansa asked softly.

Catelyn Stark shook her head. "No...Old fingers shake sometimes. Don't worry yourself."

Sansa sighed and went back to her own stitching.

The door opened and Robb burst suddenly through. "Mother...I'm sorry, I should have knocked. I just thought you would want to know."

Sansa's brow furrowed. His face was...happy. Happier than she'd seen it since before Rickon came down with sickness.

"What is it?" her mother asked, not looking up from her work. "If it's any terrible news, I'm not sure I can stomach it right now, Robb."

"It's not terrible," Robb said. "A raven from the capital. Arya is coming home."

Sansa's eyes widened. Her mother lost her grip on her needle and gown, letting it slide off onto the floor. She placed a hand over her mouth. " you mean it?"

"Yes," Robb said. "She heard about Rickon and asked permission to return to honor him. Lord Tywin granted it. Only for a fortnight, and with a small host of Lannister guards. But she's coming."

Sansa watched her mother smile for the first time in weeks. "Oh, Arya. It will be good to have her here even for a few minutes." She stood. "We should make things ready for her."

"You can leave that to Talisa and me," Robb said. "There's no need to strain yourself."

"I am not so weak that I required bed rest," Catelyn replied. "And Talisa has Lyanna and little Ben to take care of."

True enough. Robb and Talisa's daughter was a year and a half and Ben, named for their uncle, was half a year old, and required quite a bit of care. The oldest, little Ned, was just shy of four years old. Sansa had been helping quite a bit with the children to take her mind off of Rickon.

"As you wish," Robb said. He watched as their mother swept from the room.

Sansa finished her last stitch before she stood. "It will be good to see Arya again. It's strange that they should allow her to visit. Suppose she decided to run."

"I suppose that's why they sent the guards," Robb said. "Jaime Lannister rides with her as well."

Sansa's brow furrowed. "That's stranger still."

"It could be his father wants to inspect things in the north. Make sure we're still truly loyal. Tywin Lannister is fond of tests," Robb said. "Though he comes at a dangerous time. His visit might intersect with the arrival of the Northern lords."

That was right. They were less than a month away from winter's second year (and the first year of true winter). It was the time for the Northern lords to gather at Winterfell and take stock of their losses and what they would need to survive the coming months. The northmen would not be happy to see Jaime Lannister.

"If it does, we'll just have to hide the Lannister soldiers away," Robb said at last. "I don't want the Karstarks seeing even a strand of golden hair. Relations with them are tentative enough as it is."

"Yes," Sansa agreed. "I don't want to think about that right now. I'm just glad we'll have Arya back with us. It means she was able to adapt. If she was as wild as she was four years ago, they would have her locked in a cage for fear of her snapping at someone important."

"No cage, it seems," Robb said. "Just a leash. Still, we will have to be careful as long as Jaime Lannister is around. We don't want to say anything he deems treasonous."

"Don't worry," Sansa murmured with a bitter smile. "I've had lots of practice at keeping my thoughts to myself."

Arya Stark was clearly happy to be returning home, but Jaime was more nervous than anything else. He had not been back to Winterfell since she had, and he didn't much like the place. Time as a northern prisoner made him wary of Robb Stark and his allies.

And then of course there was Bran Stark.

It would have been quite a bit simpler if the sickness had claimed that boy instead. Years ago, when Bran had seen him with Cersei, he shoved the boy out the window and crippled him. It was a hasty decision. A bad decision. But he made it out of fear that their secret would be revealed to King Robert.

The boy had woken up with no memory of the incident. But what if he had recalled it again? What if he saw Jaime and remembered in a flash of panic the man who almost killed him. Peace or no peace, Robb Stark might kill him on the spot. And if he didn't, Arya would do the job.

He supposed if Bran Stark had remembered, he would have heard by now. He would avoid the boy if he could. He would avoid all of the Starks if he could. He had managed to at least win Arya's trust and tolerance, but he doubted he would have much luck with the rest of them.

Especially if they found out about his engagement to their sister.

Arya's mood was much better than his. Despite her brother's death, she felt a clear freedom being away from the capitol. She had donned breaches for riding, and a warm cloak of green and gold over her deep grey tunic. She looked something of a perfect mix between House Stark and House Lannister in that moment. He wondered if she knew it.

She was barely recognizable as the scrawny, boyish child that served as his father's cupbearer four years ago. She could not hope to pass for a boy now, even if she did cut her hair again. If not for the two swords hanging at her hip, she would look like any proper lady. Of course, she had insisted on taking both of her blades, in case she met with trouble on the road. When Jaime had asked if she intended to wield both in each hand, she shook her head.

No. I will choose between them, depending on how I feel.

How you feel?

Yes. If I feel like stabbing someone or taking off their head.

And the knife up your sleeve?

For if I want to cut someone's throat.

Jaime's mouth twitched when he remembered it. A few moons from now, that strange, sometimes terrifying girl would be his wife. He had not quite wrapped his mind around that yet. Jaime had never wanted to marry. He had only ever wanted Cersei. They were born together. Grew up together. He had given up his chance at inheritance a long time ago because he only wanted his sister.

There were parts of him that still longed for Cersei. Or at least, the Cersei who once was. Time had turned her drunk and cold and borderline mad. He feared the person she had become, and he had not seen her since she had returned to Casterly Rock. But he longed for the Cersei he had before the war. Before life had changed her.

She's not coming back, he told himself often. She's gone too far over the edge. She won't be as she was.

Nothing was as it was. Not even Jaime himself. Losing his hand had hollowed out parts of Jaime's soul. He had to confront his own weakness, something he hated doing.

Arya Stark had forced him to confront it. She had hit him until he fought back. Hit him until he found his soul again in his left hand.

They kept a quick pace north. Most nobles would stop often at various castles along the way, but Arya had no desire to linger with nobles or delay her return to Winterfell. The further they got from King's Landing, however, the more contemplative and almost nervous Arya seemed to become. The initial high of freedom had faded and now she seemed to dread what was ahead.

"You seem a bit at war with yourself, Lady Stark," Jaime said one cold morning. They had passed into the Riverlands and snow drifts grew increasingly more unforgiving. But the sun had come out to give them a respite from the snowfall. "If you don't mind me noticing."

"I do mind," Arya muttered. Jaime raised an eyebrow and she sighed. "'re right. I'm nervous to go home."

"Why?" Jaime asked. "Your family will be happy to see you."

"I've been gone for so long. Everything has changed since I left. I wonder how much of the old me I still have." She looked down at her hands. "What if I'm not what they expect? What if they barely know me anymore?"

"Hmm...well, I remember what you were like when I first met you. Outspoken, impulsive. Occasionally stupid." He smirked. "That part of you is still there."

"I've gotten much better about all of those things," Arya protested.

"Really? Because according to your...conversation with my father several months ago..."

"That was an exception." Arya sighed and looked up at the sky. "I'm not sure why he let me leave King's Landing after that. I thought he would deny any request I made on principal."

"He might have, if this trip didn't suit him," Jaime said. "But it allowed him to set a clear date for the wedding. And you're acting as a trustworthy courier for that letter he gave you. My father can hold a grudge, but he usually does things with purpose."

"He's still angry at me," Arya said. "He didn't...say it. His voice didn't even change. I just...felt it in the air."

Jaime studied her. "Does that bother you, Lady Arya?"

"No," she said, almost too quickly. "Obviously not. He can be angry at me if he wants. I'm his hostage. I have more right to be angry at him."

"So it does bother you," Jaime said. It was a statement, not a question.

She glared at him. "I just said it didn't."

"I know. You're lying," Jaime said. He almost laughed at the look she was giving him. If a glare could kill..."You know, some of us spent quite some time trying to convince you that you had my father's favor. I saw it immediately. Tyrion saw it immediately. Cersei saw it too, which only made her hate you more. And most importantly, Aunt Genna saw it. She and Uncle Kevan are the foremost authorities on my father."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Arya asked.

"Because at the same time, we could see that he had your favor too," Jaime said.

Arya's jaw clenched. She really was just as stubborn as his father. And just as unwilling to admit any sort of weakness. It was no wonder they used to get along. "You're wrong. He doesn't have any of my favor."

Jaime smirked. "You always get angry when you're defensive and lying."

Arya fell silent, her expression sullen.

"I understand. You feel guilty about it. He is the head of the Lannisters, after all. The enemy of your family," Jaime said. "But he also gave you a sword, and he doesn't force you into the mold of a perfect lady. So it's all a bit conflicting for you."

"If you have everything so figured out, then why ask?" Arya asked.

"I'm not asking, I'm telling," Jaime said. "Anyhow, you're not alone. Everyone hates my father at least a little bit. Even his family. But he has a way of making you want his approval none the less. When you actually meet his's an addicting feeling." He shrugged. "And you meet his expectations more than most. I can understand why you would favor him in spite of yourself. And why it bothers you to be out of his favor now."

Arya studied her hands. Her expression had gone from angry to pensive. "Tyrion is supposed to be the one who understands people. Not you."

"He's my brother. I learned from him," Jaime said. He hadn't heard anything from Tyrion since he left. He liked to assume that was good news. He imagined Tyrion finally travelling the world, free from his father's expectations. He had always wanted to see Essos after all.

They lapsed into silence for another few hours as they travelled along the King's Road. It wasn't until they stopped to rest for the night at an inn that she renewed the topic.

"I've hated the name Lannister more than any other," she said. "The way my father talked about you all...said your was easy to think of you all as monsters in human skin."

Jaime could believe that. Ned Stark said the name Lannister like it was poison. And Kingslayer like Jaime was some devil.

"Then after all that happened, it only became easier to hate your family," Arya continued. "When I met your father, I wanted to put a knife through his back. And when I came back to the keep, I did not want to like any of you. I resolved to hate every single Lannister. Then you all started making it so damn difficult. Tyrion was kind to me, but he didn't treat me like some fragile lady. You sparred with me, and didn't take away my sword. Tommen talked to me as if he didn't even know I was a daughter of a traitor. He wanted to make me feel welcome."

"You sound like we did something awful by treating you kindly," Jaime said.

"You did," Arya said. "You forced me reconsider everything I felt. Do you know how hard that is? Hate is a comfortable emotion. It's consistent. I hated Joffrey and I hated Cersei. At least they had the good grace not to prove me wrong."

Jaime raised an eyebrow. "And my father?"

Arya looked up at him. "Your father didn't treat me kindly. Worse. He took me seriously. Almost no one in my whole life has taken me seriously. When they saw me playing knight, they laughed and assumed I would grow out of it. Even my family was like that. Wild Arya. It's just a child's phase. She will move past this. In the beginning, you and Tyrion also looked at me as a girl playing a game with a sword. Don't try to deny it."

"I won't," Jaime said. "You're right. That's exactly how I saw you."

"I can count on one hand the number of people who took me seriously from the very first. Without me having to ask for it. Without me having to fight for it," Arya murmured. "My brother Jon. My first teacher, Syrio Forel." She twisted her fingers about each other. "And your father."

"I see," Jaime said. What a thing that was for her to admit. He imagined even her own father, who she loved so dearly, had expected her to grow into dresses and sewing needles one day. "And that won him your favor more than a kindness ever could."

Arya shrugged. "Not that it matters now. I burned a bridge with Lord Tywin. I'll never have his favor again. Which is for the best."

"Is it?" Jaime asked.

"Yes," Arya murmured. "It makes everything less confusing."

Chapter Text


As the snowdrifts climbed and the temperatures dropped, Arya began to recognize the countryside. Travel had been slow because of the winter, but after just shy of a month of riding, they were finally close to Winterfell again.

Arya knew these woods and these fields. She used to go riding here, whenever she could. And when she couldn't she stared out at the expanse from the walls of Winterfell and breathed in the familiar air. They were close.

Then, as they came over the crest of the snowy hill: she saw it. The familiar walls with the direwolf sigil flapping at the towers. Winterfell.

How young she was when she last left her home. Only twelve years old, and so naïve about the evil in the world. She had read about evil in her books and dreamed about conquering it one day, sword in hand. But she had never truly understood it. She had not met evil until she met Joffrey on the riverbank.

The girl Arya was four years ago had liked to think of herself as tough and untouchable. Invincible. But that girl had not seen battle or death. She had not killed.

Melancholy and nostalgia wove themselves together in her heart as she looked on. How bittersweet it was to return.

"You're home, Lady Arya," Jaime murmured from beside her.

Arya nodded once and urged her horse into a canter. The Lannister guards followed close behind. She could not reach the gate fast enough in her mind. All of her nerves disappeared, at least for a moment. Home. Home. She was home.

A large shape blocked her path and her horse squealed and slid to a stop. The other horses stopped behind her as well.

"Seven hells," one of the Lannister soldiers cursed. "What is that?"

"Now I know we're in Stark country," Jaime muttered under his breath. "That's a direwolf."

It was. In fact, it was a rather familiar direwolf to Arya. Greywind. She had not seen him since he was small, but she recognized his coloring well. He stared straight at her, his eyes calm. There was blood on his muzzle from a recent hunt. One of the Lannister soldiers started to draw his bow and he growled, raising his haunches.

"Wait," Arya said. "Put your bow away."

"I'm not eager to lose my arm," the soldier protested.

"Then you'll put your bow away before I cut it off," Arya snapped. She hopped off her skittish horse, handing the reigns to Jaime.

"Arya, I don't...recommend this," Jaime said slowly.

"Recommend what?"

"Whatever you're about to do."

Arya sighed. "Trust me. It will be all right." Then she turned and stepped toward Greywind.

With the Lannister guard's bow stowed away, his shoulders had relaxed again. He did not flinch or bar his teeth when Arya approached. He just watched her. The direwolves had such intelligent eyes.

A few feet in front of him, Arya sank to her knees on the snow covered road. "Hey boy," she murmured. "It's me...Do you remember me?"

For a moment, Greywind didn't move, and Arya held her breath. She wondered if she even smelled familiar to him anymore. If he recalled her after so long a time.

But then he closed the distance between them, sniffing her face. She reached out and gently stroked the fur of his neck and he did not shy away. Arya very nearly cried as she wrapped her arms around his great neck and buried her face in his fur.

Even after years away, wolves never forgot their pack.

Sansa stood in the courtyard with the rest of her family, waiting to receive her sister. They were in a line: Robb, the Lord of Winterfell. Talisa, his wife. Then their mother and Sansa herself. Meanwhile, the young ones, little Ned, Lyanna and Ben, were with the new septa, unable to stay for too long in the freezing air. Bran was inside for the same reason. The wind made his chair far too cold, and Maester Luwin said he was more susceptible to illness.

They were surrounded by their household guard, including Brienne of Tarth. The lady warrior had remained the sworn sword of the Stark household for the past several year, but she especially looked after Sansa and her mother. When she heard the Lannisters would be coming, she was especially determined to do her duty.

"I won't have them make any trouble here," Brienne said. "If any of them try, I will knock them into the snow."

"We'll try to avoid fighting if we can," Sansa said. "Especially with Jaime Lannister."

"That man loves to pick fights whenever possible," Brienne said. "I would know. He was my prisoner for a time. But, as you say, I won't let him goad me."

"Good," Sansa said. "I'm more worried about Robb than you, if I'm being honest."

Still, Sansa did feel safer with Brienne as her guard. She was an astonishingly tall woman and had all the strength that Sansa lacked. And she reminded Sansa quite a bit of Arya's fighting spirit.

She hoped that Arya still had that spirit.

The gates opened and Sansa drew in a deep breath. It was a similar scene to over four years ago, just on a smaller scale. A long awaited arrival. Lannister colors passing through the gate. But it was a far smaller group of visitors this time, and many people from that day were dead and gone. Her father. Her youngest brother. Ser Rodrick. Jory and all of her father's household guard. Robert Baratheon. Joffrey.

The winter had many casualties, most of them bad.

But Arya road at the head of the small group, atop a midnight black horse. She wore breeches, which was not at all surprising for Arya, but the rest of her clothing actually looked quite fine-befitting a noble lady. Her hair was tossed by the winter wind, and longer than Sansa had ever seen before. She carried herself taller, with a straight back and her head held high. She really had grown up from Sansa's annoying little sister.

Arya swung off her horse and landed gracefully on the ground, handing the reigns off to a stable boy. She approached them slowly at first, almost cautiously. She stopped in front of Robb, dipping into a little curtsy. "Lord Stark."

Robb raised an eyebrow. "Lord Stark?"

Arya raised her head, a little smirk coming to her face. That expression was distinctly Arya. "I'm just trying to be proper."

Robb laughed once and welcomed her into his arms, holding on tightly. Sansa's heart felt a little lighter at that. Yes, this was still her sister, even after years trapped in King's Landing. Arya had not let them break her.

No sooner had Robb released her from his hug, their mother swept in for an embrace. "My sweet girl. Is that really you?"

"Yes, I promise." Arya's voice broke a bit. "I'm just a few inches taller."

"More than that," Catelyn pulled back, brushing her hair from her face. "You've grown up, Arya. You're beautiful."

Arya's cheeks reddened slightly at the words. She was not accustomed to be called that, Sansa knew. " I?"

"I wouldn't lie," their mother smiled and kissed her on the forehead. "Not after all of this time."

"Arya," Robb said as Catelyn stepped back. "You have not met my wife. This is Talisa."

"A pleasure, Lady Talisa" Arya dipped into a quick curtsy. She had gotten much better at that, and the courtesies sounded more natural from her lips. "I'm happy to finally meet you."

"And I you, Lady Arya," Talisa smiled. "I've heard so much about you from your brother. He says you're one of the bravest people he has ever known."

"You must be brave yourself. To enter the Stark family in such times," Arya said. "Did you have hard winters where you come from?"

"Nothing like this," Talisa said. "I'm adjusting."

"I am too. I've been down south for too long," Arya said.

"You have," Sansa spoke up. "You were always more suited to the cold than I."

Arya turned toward her, her smile softening. "You look like you're doing fine. And gods, did you have to get so much taller? I grew a few inches and you grew half a foot."

Sansa couldn't help but laugh, drawing Arya into a hug. "You look well. You must have listened to my advice."

"Half of the time," Arya said. "Just enough to make it this far. But I'm still very much myself."

"I can certainly tell that," Sansa pulled back. "Has anyone noticed that Arya is carrying a sword?"

"She's carrying two swords," Robb said.

"Travel on the road is difficult." Arya lifted her chin. "Shouldn't I defend myself?"

"Isn't that the purpose of the guards?" their mother asked.

"Lady Arya would never leave it to other people to protect her."

Sansa turned to see Jaime Lannister approaching, almost cautiously. He had lingered a little ways back, as if not knowing how to speak to the Starks. Sansa supposed that made sense. He had been a prisoner of Robb's for some time. There was little warmth between them.

"Lannister," Robb said coolly. "I hope the trip was not too difficult for you."

"No, not so difficult," Jaime said. "I hope my stay here will be just as easy."

"That depends on you," Robb replied.

For a moment there was silence between them and Arya looked on tensely. Jaime cast her a glance before he exhaled. "I have no quarrel with you anymore, Lord Stark." He extended his left hand. "Let's make peace for now."

Robb hesitated for only a moment before he accepted. "Yes, for now. Winterfell has suffered too much death already." He glanced down. "Is something wrong with your right hand, ser?"

"Yes, it's missing. Kind of you to notice," Jaime said. "I lost it at the Battle of Dragonstone."

"I hear Stannis perished at that battle," Brienne spoke up from behind Sansa. Jaime turned, as if noticing her for the first time and grinned.

"Indeed he did, Lady Brienne. That must make you happy. I'm afraid I didn't do the deed myself."

"It does not matter who killed him as long as justice was served," Brienne said flatly.

"Ah, you haven't changed. That's good," Jaime glanced at Arya. "You should spar with that one if you get the chance. You'll enjoy it, trust me."

Arya's mouth twitched into a smile. But she looked nervous, as if she was waiting for him or someone to say the wrong thing.

"I don't suppose you will be sparring with Brienne," Robb said. "It must be difficult to fight with your left hand."

Jaime did not take the bait of the comment. Strange. Brienne said that he liked to pick fights. "I manage well enough. Your sister saw to that."

Robb gave Arya a look and Arya shrugged, looking suddenly nervous. " to spar. I practiced with him sometimes."

Jaime glanced at her, a small question in his eyes, and Arya shook her head once. They were speaking without saying any words-passing some secret between them that Arya clearly did not want to say out loud.

"We should get out of this cold," Sansa broke in, feeling the sudden instinct to rescue her sister. "I'm sure Arya is weary from the journey."

"Yes," Arya said, looking grateful for a reason to step away. "And I'd like to see Bran."

"I'll take you to him," Sansa said, looping her arm through hers. "Excuse us, everyone."

Sansa wasn't sure why Arya had seemed to freeze when Robb and Jaime spoke, but she knew that Arya rarely froze. Not unless she was hiding something.

What she was hiding, Sansa could not begin to know, but she guessed that in her four years away from home, Arya had acquired more than a few secrets.

It was only after greeting her family that Arya truly realized how many things she did not know how to tell them. How did she explain her second sword, for one thing? How did she explain Tywin Lannister giving her a sword without explaining all of the events that led up to that gift? How did she explain that her new sword was one half of Ice: her father's sword which, by all rights, should have been Robb's? How did she explain Joffrey's death without revealing the role she played in it? And how in the world could she tell them about her engagement to Jaime without starting a fight?

Arya knew Tywin had not informed her family of the match, and though there were rumors in the capital, she doubted many of them had come all the way to the north. Her family did not deal in spies, after all. Maybe Lord Tywin expected her to break the news on this visit which she did not want to do. If Robb found out he might try to murder Jaime, which was a sure course back to war. If she could help it, Arya wanted to avoid causing yet another major conflict between the Lannisters and the Starks.

It would be best, perhaps, to keep quiet about everything. But they would ask questions. She knew that. She had become a much better liar, but she did not want to deceive her family.

Bran was sitting in the great hall, his chair in front of a window so that he could look out at the snow. There was a large book in his lap, and a stack of others beside him. Summer curled up beside his chair, keeping a watchful eye at the door. His great head rose when he saw Arya enter and he let out a little whine. Bran turned and smiled.

"I heard the commotion and figured you were here."

Arya smiled and rushed to Bran's side, hugging him tightly. "It's good to see you awake. Before we left..."

"I was still unconscious. That's right." Bran sighed. "We never got to say a proper goodbye."

"At least we got to see each other again." Arya pulled back from him. Summer nudged her hand with his nose and she laughed, stroking the fur of his neck. "And of course, I'm glad to see Summer too. He seems to remember me."

"The wolves always remember their pack," Bran said. "Even when they've been gone for a long time."

Arya smiled softly. " ever remember what happened that day? Why you fell?"

Bran shook his head, looking out the window again. "Sometimes, I start to remember in my dreams. But then I forget by the time I wake up. I have so many dreams lately; it's hard to keep them all straight."

"One day you'll remember," Arya promised him. She glanced down at the book in his lap. "What are you reading?"

"An old book," Bran said. "About the Long Night."

"He's been reading a lot of books from those times," Sansa said. "Fortunately, all of the maesters say that this winter will not be as long as originally thought. The worst of the winter is over. Spring will be here again within the year."

"There have been false springs before," Bran said. "There's no guarantee of a new summer."

Arya studied him. Her little brother seemed much grimmer than when she last seen him. And far older. His eyes had seen so much, and she imagined Rickon's death weighed heaviest on him. They were always so close.

Summer whined and nudged Bran's hand with his nose. Bran shook his head once. "Sorry...sometimes my mind gets lost in dark places. But you're home. There's no reason to be sad."

"There's plenty of reason," Arya murmured. Her returning home came at a great cost. Their brother had died. Her presence here could not replace him.

The door to the hall opened again and Arya turned to see Talisa entering. She had three little ones with her. A boy trotting at her right, a little girl being guided along at her left and a baby cradled in one arm. "Lady Arya. I thought you might want to meet your nephews and your niece."

Arya's eyes widened. "My...what?"

Sansa smiled. "These are Robb's children, Arya. The oldest boy is named Eddard for father. And the girl is named Lyanna for our aunt. The youngest is Little Ben."

"For Uncle Benjen," Arya murmured. She was bewildered. Arya had not even known Robb had children. He had never sent word of them. She knew, of course, that he was married. Tywin had mentioned that more than once when she was his cupbearer, citing it as a grave mistake because he broke his vow to Walder Frey. But...three children? An unexpected wave of joy washed over Arya.

"This is your Aunt Arya," Tailisa told them. "She's been away for a long while but she's come back to visit."

Arya knelt down to the children's eye level. The boy hid behind his mother's skirts while the girl was entirely unfazed. She reached out a tiny hand and Arya held out her own, allowing her to grasp two of her fingers.

"Awya," Lyanna said, not quite old enough to manage the 'r' sound.

Something inside Arya melted. "Yes, that's right. It's nice to meet you Lyanna." She glanced at Ned, the boy with her father's name. He was peeking suspiciously out from behind his mother. "Hello there, Ned."

The boy ducked behind Tailisa again.

"Come now, Ned. Don't be shy. Say hello," Tailisa urged. Once again, he poked half of his face into view. One grey eye peeked out from beneath dark curls.

"It's alright," Arya said gently. "There's no need to be afraid of me. I know I can be scary sometimes, but I would never be scary to you."

Ned cautiously stepped out from behind Tailisa. Then he gave Arya a little bow. "Lady Arya."

Arya laughed. "So formal and serious already."

"He makes an effort to imitate his father," Tailisa said. "He's always following Robb about whenever he gets a chance."

"He looks like him," Arya said. "Stark grey eyes."

"The boys both have those eyes. I'm afraid only Lyanna took more after me," Tailisa said.

Lyanna grasped at Arya's hair, running her little fingers through it. "Awya."

Arya winced when the girl caught a tangle and carefully detached herself so she could stand. She found the baby watching her curiously when she did. Sure enough, he had the same grey eyes, though his skin was darker like his mother's. What beautiful children they were. Arya hoped they would grow up happy and free of any awful wars.

"None of them fell ill?" she asked. "With Long Summer's Bane?"

"No, thank the gods," Tailisa said. "They've all been very healthy."

"They were born in winter," Bran said, looking up from his book. "They say Winter children are always the strongest."

"If that's true, little Ben will be the strongest of them all," Sansa said. "He was born in the midst of the worst blizzard I've ever seen. He'll grow up a might northman indeed."

"They all will, I'm sure," Arya murmured. "You've all done well here. I'm glad. There was a time when none of us were home."

"There have been a great many blessings," Talisa said. "Though also reasons to grieve."

Arya's heart clenched as she remembered the reason she had returned. Not just for reunions, but for a goodbye. "Yes. There are always reasons to grieve in this family." She looked at Sansa. "I should visit the crypt."

"I can come with you if you'd like," Sansa said.

"No." Arya smiled sadly. "I remember the way."

The crypts used to scare most of the Stark children, but not Arya. The moment her older brother suggested she might be scared, she banished all fear from her heart and marched defiantly down into the depths to prove him wrong. There was no reason to fear the dead after all. And back then, all of the statues had belonged to people who had died before she was born.

Now there were two new tombs. One for her father and one for Rickon.

When she stepped into the crypt, something stirred in the shadows. A faint growl made Arya rest a hand on her sword. But then, she recognized the eyes staring out at her.

"Shaggy Dog." She slowly crouched down. "It's good to see you again, boy."

The great black direwolf watched her, almost suspiciously. He had always been the wildest of the pack, never lacking for energy. Just like Rickon.

"Thank you for watching over him for us," Arya said. "I hope you still go out to hunt. Rickon would not want you to starve." She smiled sadly. "Or should I bring you something to eat?"

Shaggy Dog whined and approached her slowly. She reached out a hand and he nudged her palm with his nose, licking her skin once. "That's it. Good boy." Her heart shuddered and she struggled to hold back tears. "I'm so...sorry."

Shaggy Dog did not reply. He simply turned and trotted deeper into the crypt. Arya followed after him until she found herself in front of Rickon's resting place.

There was no statue yet to mark his grave, though she was sure one would be made in time. Her throat closed up as she imagined his pale little body, lifeless and cold. No...he would be long rotted now. It had been a month since he died. She wasn't sure which was worse to imagine.

"I'm sorry," she murmured. "That I didn't come home sooner. I promised we would see each other again, and I couldn't keep that promise." She rubbed her fingers together. "I'm not sure. If there is a life after this one, perhaps we will see each other again. I tend to doubt it. I don't believe much in afterlives or gods anymore. But if it meant being able to see you again, perhaps I would." Tears trailed down her face. "I'm so sorry, Rickon."

She lingered in front of his grave, saying a few prayers to gods she no longer believed in. For his sake. Then, when she had avoided it long enough, she turned toward the statue of her father.

It didn't look like him. It was too cold and grim. She had known her father to laugh and smile often with her and that was the face she liked to remember. But still she felt his spirit in this place, and it weighed heavily on her.

"Father," she murmured. "I'm not sure this is the future you imagined for me, is it? You told me that one day I would marry a high lord. Did you think it would be a Lannister?" She shook her head. "I haven't told the others yet. I'm not sure I can. They'll be horrified once I do. I'm sure you would have hated it as well. You'd hate me being Tywin Lannister's ward too. A hostage in a game of war. But there's peace at least. Most of us are still alive. Is that enough?"

The stone did not reply, but still Arya kept talking. Being back home had brought so many long buried emotions to the surface.

"I have part of your sword," Arya drew it from her sheath and presented it to him. "Lord Tywin gave it to me. It's a bit of a long story. But at least one of your children has a piece of Ice." She turned the blade twice in her hand. "I know you didn't expect it to be me. A daughter. You always hoped I would grow up to be a graceful lady. You gave me a teacher, but part of you hoped I would drop the sword one day, didn't you? You never wanted me to see a real battle.

"Well...At any rate, I haven't seen a battle. But I have killed people. Five with my own hand. One with...with someone else's. What's that you always said? The man who passes the sentence must swing the sword? I didn't do that with Joffrey." Arya swallowed hard. "Would you have disapproved of that? Killing a king is a great crime, after all. Would you have been disappointed in me for what I did? I know you hated Jaime Lannister for killing an awful king once. But maybe I'm absolved because I'm not Kingsguard." She gave a mirthless laugh. "He has the other half of your sword you know. You must hate that. I don't like it either...even if he's not as awful as you always said. Not nearly."

For a moment, she lapsed into silence. She imagined her father was standing beside her, resting a hand on her shoulder. What would his expression be if he were there? Angry? Proud? Disappointed?

"You always believed so much in honor," she murmured. "That it was the thing that held the world together. Lord Tywin says that the honor you preached was just an illusion. That no one is fully honorable." Her jaw clenched. "I think you're both a point. The world isn't held together by honor. There's not enough of it to go around. It's held together by family. By people who would kill for each other. But...but I do still believe there are good people. Honorable people. Not many, maybe. But more than Lord Tywin believes."

Arya looked up at his statue again. "You were good. Truly. You were so good." A wave of sadness welled up inside of her. "I don't think I am. I don't think there's a limit to what awful things I would do to protect our family. I would lie. I would kill. I would violate every law in this world. The gods could not stop me." Tears fell fresh now. Bitter, awful tears. "And I'm sorry you have to see it."

Her father did not reply. Of course he didn't. He was dead and gone and he could not see.

But if by chance he could-If by chance his spirit lingered in this place or looked down on her for above-she was sorry for all that he would witness.


Chapter Text

Arya's arrival had brought mixed feelings to Winterfell. Of course, Robb was happy to see her, and less than happy to play host to the Lannisters. But more troubling than the Lannisters was the letter Arya carried.

Robb was worried to begin with when Arya gave him the letter-one Tywin Lannister had charged her to deliver to him directly. It meant he did not trust a raven to carry the words. Reading the letter, Robb saw why.

"Broken vows often have a way of collecting their debts. Some families may be plotting to collect theirs. Beware the Freys and more than that, beware the Boltons and all those aligned with them. They are not your allies, Lord Stark."

Robb had known to be wary of the Freys ever since he took Talisa to wife. But beware the Boltons? That was a new warning to Robb. More importantly, how did Tywin know that he should beware the Boltons? Had they tried to make some deal in the past when Robb was still in rebellion?

There were no specifics in the letter, perhaps because specifics would reveal Tywin's past plans, which Robb suspected were less than honorable. Now that the lion was determined to keep peace with their family, could his warnings be trusted?

His mother seemed equally worried by the note. "If Roose Bolton and Walder Frey are our enemies, we do have reason to fear," she said. "I've learned to fear words not delivered by raven."

"And what can I do?" Robb asked. "If I accuse Roose Bolton of treachery without proof or cause then that could throw the north into a civil war."

"We don't need to accuse him. We only need to watch him," Catelyn said. "All of the northern lords will be coming to court in a few days' time. This is an opportunity to observe Bolton and to see who is aligned with him." She paused for a moment, thinking "I...suggest you ask your sister what she thinks of all this."

"Arya?" Robb asked. "What would she know about it?"

"She has been in King's Landing for the past few years, near to Tywin," she reminded him. "He may have said something more to her."

"Tywin would not share this kind of information with a ward," Robb said.

"Perhaps not. But you know Arya. She absorbs everything like a sponge," Catelyn said.

That was true enough. And it struck Robb as odd that Tywin would trust Arya to carry the letter instead of one of his guards. Not to mention the sword at her hip. That was a very fine blade that he allowed her to carry. He could not help but wonder if Arya had found favor with her captor.

Robb could not fathom how anyone could find favor with that man. He was inscrutable and unmovable. Even did not hurt to ask.

Since returning home, Arya spent a fair amount of time wandering the grounds, especially on days with a clear sky. So Robb also had to wander in order to find her. Eventually he tracked her to the courtyard where she was standing opposite Brienne, turning a sparring sword in her hand. Jaime Lannister was sitting off to the side watching them, wrapping the stump of his wrist with another layer of fabric to protect from the cold.

"I'm not quite sure of this, Lady Arya," Brienne said.

"I can't cut you with a sparring sword," Arya pointed out.

"That's...not what I mean," Brienne said.

"Don't underestimate her, my lady," Jaime called out. "That's her greatest advantage in the field."

"Then perhaps you shouldn't have given it away," Arya cast him a glare.

Jaime smirked and shrugged.

Robb looked on, fascinated. There was a strange familiarity between them. At the very least, Arya did not speak to him as if he was her captor. She did not seem wary of him at all.

"Ignore him," Arya told Brienne. "Just come at me with your best. I did not get near as much practice as I wanted while on the road."

Brienne sighed at last and nodded. "Very well." She adjusted her grip on her sparring sword, then swung at Arya.

Arya took a step back, just far enough to avoid the tip of the blade. Brienne struck again and she dodged again, sidestepping and nudging the blade with her sparring sword to redirect it. Brienne seemed to be testing her to make sure that she could, indeed, carry herself in a fight.

To Robb's surprise...she could. Her footwork was rather effortless as she dodged and redirected Brienne's blows. Her expression did not even shift. She was completely calm and unreadable.

"Dodging is her specialty," Jaime said. "You'll never hit her like that."

Arya cast him a glare. "Why are you helping her? Shouldn't you be on my side?"

"I want to see you both fight at your best. What's wrong with that?" Jaime waved his stump of a hand. "I can't fight at my best anymore. You-watch out!"

Arya spun to the side to avoid another attack from Brienne. The taller woman kept a straight face, but Robb could see the amusement in her eyes.

"You shouldn't let him distract you," Brienne said. "That will lose you this fight quickly."

Arya grinned. "Okay then. I won't."

The two women began to fight in earnest then. Robb could not help but watch. Brienne was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, partly owing to her outstanding strength and speed. She was a woman, but she was larger than many of his men. She had been a great help to them in quelling the Greyjoy rebellion.

But Arya...Arya was keeping pace with her.

She did not have Brienne's strength, but she matched her in speed. She fought with one hand and relied mostly on intricate foot work to keep one step ahead of her opponent. She never blocked the full force of Brienne's blows. Brienne would knock her down if she tried. She was just redirecting the momentum.

They circled around each other over and over again in the courtyard, Arya dodging and attacking fluidly, like water, while Brienne bore down on her with the brute force of a knight. Then Arya's left foot slipped on a patch of snow and Brienne knocked her back with the butt of her sword. Arya fell flat on her back with a gasp and Brienne moved forward, prepared to bring her sword down. Her next blow knocked Arya's sword from her hand. But his sister was not deterred. She rolled between Brienne's legs and stood to her feet again, just as Brienne brought her sword back and leveled it with her neck.

"That's you dead," Brienne said.

Arya smirked. "And you."

Only now did Robb notice she had pulled a knife and slipped it through the gap in the armor at Brienne's armpit.

"Well played," Brienne said. "But I still would have taken off half your head."

"And I would have punctured your lung. Better to die taking your enemy with you than not at all," Arya straightened. "You're good. Better than good. I suspect you were still taking it easy on me."

"I was wary of using my full strength yes," Brienne said. "Though even if I did, you were doing a sound job at dodging. I'm not used to fighting such a small opponent."

Arya smiled. "We will have to spar again then."

"Told you that you'd enjoy it," Jaime said.

Arya made a face at him. Brienne placed the sparring sword on the table, then turned to notice Robb. "Lord Stark."

Immediately, Arya tensed and looked to Robb, as if wondering how long he had been watching. "Robb. I...How are you this morning?"

"Well enough," Robb smiled. "Can I speak with you for a moment? It's about that letter you brought me."

"Right." Arya crossed to retrieve her two real swords. The needle like blade from Jon, and the other one...Where had she gotten that from, he wondered. "Lead the way."

Once Arya had strapped her blades to her belt, they crossed up onto the battlements of Winterfell, away from any prying ears. In the distance, Robb thought he saw Greywind and Summer passing through the trees. They often stayed outside the castle walls where they could run free. Direwolves didn't like to be caged, after all.

"Did the letter that Lord Tywin asked you to deliver?" Robb asked when he was sure they were alone.

"No," Arya said. "He said it was for your eyes only."

Robb's mouth twitched. His sister had retained some honesty even after all of her time in King's Landing. "I hoped he might have mentioned something about it to you." He handed the letter to her. "Here."

Arya read over the letter quickly, her brow furrowed. Then she gave it back to him. "No. I don't know anything about this. But then again, I have not spoken with Lord Tywin in nearly a year."

Robb tilted his head to the side. "Did you speak with him often before that?"

Arya picked at the finger of her gloves. "I wouldn't say...often."

"More often than most wards talk to their captors?" Robb asked.

Arya exhaled. "Yes. That's likely."

A particularly icy gust of wind swept over them and they both shivered. Robb glanced down at her second sword again. "That's a fine new blade you're carrying. Did you name it?"

Arya smiled a bit. "Winter's Fury."

"That's a strong name," Robb said. "Where did you get it?"

She ducked her head slightly. Arya was not one to make herself smaller, but in that moment, she looked as if she wanted to vanish. "It was a gift. Well...not really a gift. More like a debt paid."

"A debt paid. By Tywin Lannister?" Robb asked. When she did not respond, he knew he was right. "What debt did he owe you?"

"I suppose he wouldn't have told you," Arya said. "He kept the details of his almost assassination rather quiet. He does hate showing weakness."

"What are you talking about?" Robb asked.

Arya looked up at him. "I saved his life. I was with him when the assassins came. I killed them and got him to the maester before the poison could take him."

Robb blinked, unsure for a long moment what to say.

"It was for you," she continued on. "I knew that if Lord Tywin would never leave the city alive. But even though I didn't do it for him, he still paid the debt."

"I...I see," Robb said at last.

Arya's mouth twitched. "You find it hard to believe, don't you? That I've actually killed someone. You always thought I was playing a game when I tried to spar. But I know how to use a sword and I know how to use a knife. I don't play with either."

Robb exhaled. "It's not that, Arya. I've always known you were fierce and brave enough for ten men. And moments ago, I saw your skill with a blade. I just wish you didn't have to kill or fight."

Arya rested a hand on the hilt of her sword, running her fingers along the pommel. "I do like fighting, Robb. It's not just a necessary evil for me. I enjoy it."

"And killing?" Robb asked. "Do you enjoy killing too?"

Arya stared out at the icy landscape. Her throat bobbed up and down as she swallowed a bit too hard. In the silence, Robb knew the answer before she spoke. "Sometimes. Yes."

Robb's heart clenched. How much Arya had grown up since they handed her over to Tywin Lannister. At first glance, she was still his little sister. But the longer he looked, the more he saw the little changes. In the way she held her shoulders. In her measured tone when she spoke. In the hard glint in her silver eyes.

His sister absorbed everything like a sponge. And that included bits and pieces of Tywin Lannister.

Robb looked down at the letter in his hand again, very much wanting to change the subject. "In a few days, the northern lords will be coming to court. If Roose Bolton is a traitor like Lord Tywin suggests...we might find proof of it there."

"Would you like me to watch him?" Arya asked.

"Carefully," Robb said. "If you notice him talking to particular lords, let me know. Sitting up at the table, listening to everyone, I don't have an opportunity to watch."

"You can leave it to me," Arya murmured. "I'll let you know if I see anything suspicious. I'm rather good at watching people."

"Good," Robb said. "Also...tell Jaime Lannister to make himself very scarce. I'd prefer it if he locked himself in his room. The Karstarks will be coming. He killed some of their own in the war. I don't want to deal with the fallout of that."

"You could tell him that, couldn't you?" Arya asked.

"He seems more likely to listen to you," Robb said.

Arya fell silent, looking oddly nervous again. But Robb did not have time to push her for anymore secrets. He wasn't sure he'd like the answers.

He couldn't expect Arya to be unchanged. She was a hostage. A prisoner of war to perhaps the most dangerous man in the seven kingdoms.

The fact that she was alive and strong was blessing enough.

Even in Winterfell, Jaime tried to keep up his practice. It was important to drill relentlessly with his left hand until it became second nature to him. It would never be as effortless as with his right hand, but he could still be better than most men if he just worked harder at it.

The northmen gave him distrustful looks when they saw him practicing. He wondered if they were looking at his sword. Could they sense the metal of their old lord's sword in his blade? Unlikely, but still, he was aware of it.

"Perhaps I'm angering Ned Stark's ghost," Jaime thought. Lord Stark would be awfully furious to see him with even a small piece of his sword after all.

Brienne of Tarth distrusted him like anyone else, but she wasn't particularly afraid to speak with him. In fact, she was far more direct than most people, which Jaime found refreshing.

"Why did you come north with Lady Stark?" she asked.

"My father asked me to," Jaime said simply, turning his blade a few times in his hand.

"And why did he ask you?"

"My lady, I do not have access to my father's mind. No one does," Jaime said. "I suspect he wanted someone trustworthy watching his ward on her visit home."

"So you are not here with any darker intentions?" Brienne asked.

Jaime raised an eyebrow. "If I was, do you think I would confess them here?"

Brienne's eyes narrowed.

"Truce," Jaime sighed. "I don't want to fight. Despite what you think of me, I didn't come here to start trouble."

Brienne was quiet for a moment. "Strangely enough, you seem to be telling the truth."

"Yes. Strange, isn't it?" Jaime turned away from her swiping twice in quick succession with his sword. "A Lannister telling the truth. It's quite a novelty."

She did not rise to the bait of his sarcasm. "You are much changed since our last meeting."

"I think it's the missing hand."

"No," Brienne said seriously. "Not just the missing hand."

Jaime turned to face her. "Enlighten me then, my lady."

"For one thing, you've barely insulted me at all. That's different," Brienne said.

Jaime smirked. "Did you miss my insults, wench?"

"Not remotely, Kingslayer," Brienne replied without missing a beat.

Jaime sheathed his sword. "Ah, that old nickname. I expect I'll be hearing it quite often here."

"It's true, is it not?"

"Yes, yes. It's true," Jaime said tiredly.

Behind him, the gates opened. A lone rider cantered inside, dressed in all in black. It took Jaime a moment to recognize the newcomer. The winter had aged him. But it was still very clearly Ned Stark's bastard son. Jon Snow.

The bastard of Winterfell noticed Jaime almost immediately. A mix of anger and confusion crossed his face. "Lannister. What are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same of you." Jaime asked. "Not deserting the Night's Watch, are you?"

"No." Jon swung off his horse. "I'm here on behalf of the Lord Commander."

"You moved quickly up the ranks to be acting on the Lord Commander's behalf," Jaime said. "Did you kill anyone for it?"

Jon glared at him. He had his hand rested on the hilt of his sword. "A few. Yes. You didn't answer my question."

"Relax, Snow. I'm just an escort."

"An escort for whom?" Jon asked.

"Jon?" a voice called from behind them. Jon's hand slipped off of his sword in an instant. Jaime barely turned before Arya rushed past him and launched herself into Jon Snow's arms. He caught her up in a tight hug. Jaime had not seen her embrace any of her other family with quite so much abandon. This was her favorite sibling, to be sure.

"Gods, Arya. I had no idea you were coming," Jon murmured when he set her down.

"I came when I heard Rickon had passed," Arya said. "And you?"

"Yes. The same reason," Jon said. "And to find recruits for the watch." He mussed her hair a bit. "It's so good to see you. I wouldn't think the Lannisters would allow you to come home."

"Hence the escort," Jaime said. "Not that she needs protecting."

Jon looked his sister up and down, as if checking her for any injuries the Lannister might have wrought. He noticed the smaller of her swords and smiled. "You kept it close."

"Always," Arya said. "It's the only thing I had of home."

"You've found a proper sword as well, I see," Jon said, nodding to the second blade on her hip.

"Needle is a proper sword as well," Arya protested. "Just smaller."

"I'm not jealous, Arya. I'm glad. I'm glad you're allowed to carry it." He glanced at Jaime. "Why is she allowed to carry it?"

Jaime shrugged. "Good behavior?"

"Yes. We'll leave it at that." Arya smiled up at Jon. Jaime had never seen her so unapologetically happy. "Does Robb know you're coming? I can take you to him."

"In a moment," Jon said. "I'd like to visit Rickon first."

"Do you want company?"

"Yes. I think I do." Jon Snow gave Jaime one last suspicious look before he followed his sister across the courtyard. Jaime gave him a little wave.

It was curious seeing Arya Stark with her family. She had said once that they didn't have much tension between them. That they all got along well enough. Jaime didn't believe it until he saw it, but she wasn't lying. Her brothers adored her. She and her sister seemed closer than ever. Of course, Arya was keeping secrets, but that seemed a normal thing. On the whole, the years of tragedy had only knit the Starks tighter together.

So this is what a normally functioning family is like, Jaime thought, raising his sword again to continue practicing.

Father should take notes.

The dark of the crypt seemed less oppressive with Jon for company. Arya had not even thought to see him on this trip. He was a man of the knight's watch, after all. This was an unexpected joy. She only wished that Rickon had not died to make it happen.

Jon absently stroked Shaggy Dog's fur as he stood in front of Rickon's grave. He was changed, just like her, from his time away from home. His eyes had seen terrible things. His blade had killed many people. But she did not want to ask about any of that. If she did then he might ask her questions, and she didn't want to lie to Jon.

"How is Ghost?" Arya asked at last.

"Well," Jon said. "He came with me and found Greywind and Summer in the trees. He remembers his siblings even after all this time."

Arya smiled softly. "They remember me too...when I came back. I worried they might not."

Jon sighed and mussed her hair. "Why not? You're still the same girl who left. Just a bit taller."

Arya smirked. "You're the same too. And not taller."

They laughed at that, even though it wasn't true. They were different. They were all different. It was stupid to pretend otherwise, but Arya couldn't help it. Jon was always the one who understood her and let her play the knight without any judgement. He gave her Needle. And with Needle she had killed her first enemy.

She wondered if he knew...if he had guessed...that she was a killer.

"Arya...are you all right? Truly?" Jon asked.

Arya shrugged. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"A million possible reasons," Jon said. "You've been a hostage away from home for years. A hostage to the Lannisters no less. When Sansa returned home, she was...well I heard she had plenty of nightmares. You've been down south longer than her."

Arya shook her head. "I imagine Sansa had worse experiences in the south than me. She was betrothed to that monster, after all. Joffrey came after me a few times but...well he's dead now."

"I heard," Jon said. "And you don't have any other tormentors?"

"If I did, would you fight them?" Arya raised an eyebrow. "I can fight for myself, I promise."

"I know. But can you blame me for wondering?" Jon asked. "Whether you can fight doesn't matter. Sometimes people back you into a corner where you can't fight."

"It's not a problem if I avoid corners," Arya said. Jon gave her a look and she smiled softly. "It's all right. I do understand what you mean. And I won't pretend that there haven't been hard moments. I just don't mind them. If our family and the Lannisters stay at peace, I can handle it."

"That's not your job, you know," Jon murmured. "To keep the peace."

Arya looked away. Out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of her father's statue flickering in the lantern light. "Someone has to."

Jon settled a hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. "We don't have to speak of the past if you don't want. If you say you're all right, then I trust you. I'll leave it at that."

Arya nodded once. For a moment, so many stories came to her mind. Her fight with the assassins. The pain of being beaten at Joffrey's orders. Killing Joffrey. But she couldn't tell him any of it. Of all of her family...she wished that Jon would see her as the same. As his little sister.

It was stupid, but sometimes she liked to pretend nothing had changed.

It was an unexpected joy for Jon to see his little sister again. When he went to the wall, he knew he wouldn't see her often. When he heard she was taken captive by Tywin Lannister, he thought he might never see her again. To see her after all of these years, still smiling with needle at her hip...well, it was a rare bright spot.

Most of Jon's life was not particularly bright. With Mance Rayder marching closer and closer to the wall, and continued sightings of the others, the Night's Watch was dreadfully underequipped. He needed men. He needed a lot of men. More than could be provided by scouring dungeons. That was why he had come to Robb for help.

His brother had a great many cares as Lord of Winterfell. They had aged him, and yet the position suited him. He looked more like their father than ever, and he carried himself proudly. Jon had always envied Robb for how much better he was than him at everything. People, politics, fighting, girls. But he had never hated him for any of it. Robb was very hard to hate.

"The cold seems to have made you grimmer than ever," Robb said when Jon entered the great hall.

"Aye. It's much colder at the wall than here. This feels almost like spring," Jon said with a smile.

Robb smiled in return, embracing him warmly. "I'm glad you could come."

"I'm sorry I did not come sooner. I wish I could have seen Rickon before..."

Robb squeezed his shoulder. "You're a man of the Night's Watch. Your life isn't your own. Rickon would understand."

Jon nodded once. "I wish that I came only to grieve. But it's the Night's Watch that sends me here as well. Mance Rayder is close, with a hundred thousand men. And we do not have the forces to repel him for long."

"You have a rather high wall," Robb reminded him.

"It's not enough. He has giants," Jon said.


"Aye. I've seen them with my own eyes. And I swear, I am not mad," Jon said. "We need more men."

"You can have your pick of the dungeons," Robb said. "As always."

"I could drain every dungeon in the north and not have enough," Jon said. "There are only a few hundred of us at Castle Black. A few hundred against tens of thousands. We can hold it for a time but not for long."

"What do you suggest then?" Robb asked. "I cannot ask decent, law abiding men to take the Black against their will."

"I don't need them to take the Black," Jon said. "Men can ride north to fight of their own free will without saying any vows. In times like these, the Lord Commander would not deny them."

Robb ran a hand over his face. "That may entice more men. They are tired from war, but no one wants wildlings running across our lands unchecked." He looked up at Jon. "You came at a good time. A few days from now, the northern lords arrive for court. I will let you speak to them then."

Jon let out a breath. "Thank you. Truly."

"Think nothing of it. Starks have guarded the wall for thousands of years," Robb said. "It is our duty."

"Our?" Jon raised an eyebrow. "I'm not a Stark."

"You are," Robb said. "If you weren't part of the Night's Watch...well I would have given you the name Stark by now. Legitimized you. You've more than earned it. But the Stark name will do you little good at the wall."

Jon felt a well of emotion rising up inside of him. How long he had wanted the name Stark. He hated the name Snow for the longest time. But Robb was right. The name didn't matter now. Jon's life was not his own. Snow was as good a name as any.

"Have you seen Arya yet?" Robb continued. "I know she would be happy to see you."

"She found me as soon as I arrived," Jon said. "Strange that Jaime Lannister is here with her."

"Keeping an eye on us, I expect," Robb said. "His father will want a full report on the loyalty of the north."

"I suppose," Jon said. "Does Arya seem well to you?"

Robb hesitated. "Well? Yes. But...different. We can't blame her for that. She's had to survive down south." He paced to the window. "I wish I could have saved her, Jon. When Tywin Lannister forced us to make peace-when he dangled her in front of me-I wished I could have killed him then and taken her back home with us."

"It would have meant more war," Jon said. "And more Stark deaths."

"Father would have hated sacrificing her for peace. He always loved Arya so much." Robb shook his head. "Anything that happens to her now...however she has changed...that is on my shoulders."

"Arya would be angry at you for saying it," Jon said. "You have the north on your shoulders already. And what's done is done. You can't change the past. If Arya has changed...well, she was never going to stay our little sister forever."

"No," Robb murmured. "I wish she could have. I wish we all could have stayed as we were four years ago. It was so much better then."

It was better. Even though Jon had been a bastard and Catelyn Stark had hated was all so much better when their father was alive. When Rickon was alive. When Sansa and Arya were home and safe. When Bran still had his legs.

But the past was gone and none of them had gone unchanged by the war. And Jon had a feeling there was still much more to come.

Chapter Text

 The night before the Northern lords were set to arrive, Arya sat with Sansa in her room. Sansa was busy with the needle work on a dress, and Arya was reading. Occasionally, she glanced up to watch her sister's fingers work. They were always so agile with the needle. The smallest thing Arya could handle was the knife up her sleeve.

Sansa noticed her watching and smiled. "Would you like to try?"

"Please. You know I'd only ruin it," Arya said.

"You're not that bad."

"Don't lie. I'm awful."

Sansa laughed. "Alright, yes. You are awful." She glanced at the book. "But you're miles better at history than I am. And fighting"

"Septa Mordane always said history was a study for boys. And she hated me fighting," Arya said. "Or climbing. Or getting dirty at all."

"She did, didn't she?" Sansa exhaled. "Poor Septa Mordane. It's been some time since I thought of her."

"Was she killed like the others?" Arya asked.

"Yes. Joffrey put her head on the battlements near father's. Then he made me look at them," Sansa murmured.

Arya felt a fresh wave of hatred for Joffrey break through at that moment. "He got what he deserved. He died writhing in pain. I watched it happen, and I wish I could have watched it one hundred times more."

"Once is enough for me," Sansa said. "I will admit...I was so happy when I found out he had died. I never thought I could feel such joy, learning of a person's demise. But he used to set his King's Guard on me all the time. Especially Merryn Trant."

Arya smirked a little. "Merryn Trant is dead too."

"He is?" Sansa asked.

"Yes. I killed him with a fork."

Surprisingly, Sansa laughed. "Did you? A fork?"

"Well... it was the infection that killed him," Arya said. "Joffrey set him on me and I only had a fork on me at the time."

"You always were resourceful," Sansa said. "Good. I'm glad you could kill him for me."

"You're not...disturbed at all?" Arya said slowly.

"Why would I be disturbed?" Sansa asked.

"I don't know. I think Robb is. He doesn't like the idea that I've killed anyone."

Sansa sighed, looking back down at her needle work. "Well...Robb does not know what it's like to be a prisoner in King's Landing. He doesn't know what it's like to be alone there. We do." Sansa shook her head. "And I very nearly pushed Joffrey from a high place once. I wanted to watch him break his head on the stone below. I know what it's like to want to kill. I've just never managed it."

I did, Arya thought. I'm the one who killed him.

But she couldn't say it out loud. Not even to Sansa.

"Many people were happy for his death," Arya said at last. "You weren't alone."

"No. The whole north must have celebrated that night behind closed doors," Sansa said. "Especially when Robb returned home safely. I think it helped to...calm things a bit."

"Calm things?" Arya asked.

"Well, not everyone accepted Robb's surrender easily," Sansa said. "They still wanted to fight. Northerners are stubborn folk. And just as many of his banner men thought he was mad for riding south. I think some were already preparing for what would happen if he fell."

He very nearly did, Arya thought. But she wondered if some of his banner men hadn't wanted that. Had the Boltons plotted in his absence? Had other lords joined them?

"Do you think anyone will make trouble at court tomorrow?" Arya asked.

"It's always possible. But I doubt it. Most of the lords have accepted the peace," Sansa said. "As long as Jaime Lannister stays out of sight, everything should go smoothly."

"I hope he does," Arya said. "It's hard enough to keep Jon and Robb from starting a fight with him."

"Robb isn't foolish enough to do that. He knows better than to anger Lord Tywin for no good reason." Sansa glanced up at Arya. "Unless you think he has a reason?"

Arya pointedly went back to reading her book. "No. No reason."



"Are you sure? Because you've been acting very strangely whenever Jaime is in the same room with us. You keep watching him like you're afraid he'll say something wrong."

Arya looked up at her sister, annoyed. "When did you get so observant?"

"I learned to watch people in King's Landing, same as you," Sansa reminded her.

Arya sighed. That's right, she had. Sansa had learned to survive as well, and she didn't have the benefit of a knife or a sword. Nor did she have Tywin Lannister's favor. "You...can't tell anyone. I don't want to cause trouble while I'm home."

"I won't," Sansa promised.

"Lord Tywin...he's been looking to marry me off to someone for some time. It's not surprising. I am a Stark. For a time, he considered engaging me to Tommen, but after Tommen became king, it was more important for him to marry Margaery." Arya shrugged. "He betrothed me to Jaime instead."

Sansa barely looked surprised. She wondered how long her sister had suspected. "A Lannister and Stark union. It is a smart political move. But I though Ser Jaime could not marry. He's a member of the King's guard."

"Tommen relieved him of his duties. Tywin sort of...forced him. Jaime doesn't want this match any more than I do," Arya shrugged. "Which is why I don't want to bring it up. It's not really Jaime's fault we're engaged. He doesn't need a broken nose for it."

"You're right. Robb and Jon will see it as an older man preying on their younger sister," Sansa said.

"I'm not anyone's prey," Arya muttered. "I'm Tywin Lannister's pawn, yes. But I'm not prey."

"No. You've always been more a wolf than most of us," Sansa said. "And what do you think of Ser Jaime?"

"What...what do I think?" Arya's brow furrowed.

"Yes. Is he ever cruel to you?" she asked.

"Oh, no. Not at all, actually. I expected him to be much more awful when we met. You know how father always talked about him." Arya shrugged. "He's...surprisingly kind though. He saved me once. That time Joffrey set Merryn Trant and another guard on me? Well, the fork didn't finish Trant off immediately, and they beat me half to death. But Jaime intervened. I don't suppose he would have if there wasn't some good in him."

"Some good is just enough in this world," Sansa said. "Most men don't have much good in them." She added another stitch to her needle work. "You two do seem to get on well enough."

"Yes. But even if we were the best of friends, I would not want to be married."

Sansa smiled sadly. "I know, Arya. You always loathed the idea. But this is an outstandingly ideal match."

Arya gave her a look. She expected Sansa to be more horrified by the whole thing, but she wasn't. She almost seemed...glad? "What do you mean?"

"Think about it," Sansa said. "Tywin Lannister is old. Past his sixtieth year. He has some time left, but he will be dead long before you are. Once he dies, you would inherit Casterly Rock. You would control the Lannister family."

"Jaime inherits," Arya said. "I'm just the wife."

"Only if you let yourself be," Sansa said. "If you play the game right, you can have as much control over the Rock as Jaime. You will control the heirs. You will control the family name." She reached out, resting a hand over Arya's. "That means a lasting peace between the Starks and Lannisters long after Tywin is gone."

Arya hadn't quite considered any of that. She was so anxious about the future that she preferred not to think of it. But Sansa was right. The power she would wield as a Lannister was extraordinary and very advantageous for her family. She could make sure that peace stayed for the next century. Jaime was not a political person and had no interest in being heir. He would not fight her if she took on some of those political duties. The future of her longtime enemies would truly be in her hands.

"It doesn't make sense," Arya murmured. "Why would Lord Tywin give me such power?"

"Apparently he trusts you with it," Sansa said.

Arya didn't respond. Yes, she had Tywin's favor, but his legacy was more important to him than anything else-even his own children. To put that legacy in her hands was quite an outstanding amount of trust. Especially after their...disagreement.

"It's a different sort of power than you've ever wanted," Sansa said. "You wanted people to fear you in battle. You didn't want to be a wife or a mother. The world has a way of forcing us into that box...but we can learn how to use it."

"Will you use it too?" Arya asked.

Sansa nodded once. "The question of who I will marry has been up in the air for some time. At first, mother was in communication with Aunt Lysa. A marriage to her son would have been advantageous. Robyn is six years younger than me and a sickly boy, so that might have left me with control of the Vale. Not romantic but...ideal." Sansa sighed. "Of course ever since Lord Baelish was executed, Aunt Lysa has been absolutely mad. So that was no longer a possibility. But then we got another letter extending an offer of sorts."

"From who?" Arya asked.

"I suspect you have met her. Lady Olenna Tyrell," Sansa said. "She's been looking for a proper match for her eldest son Willas for some time. She said...oh, what were her words?" Sansa tapped her needle against her project. "I think you may have learned something of strength in your time at King's Landing. And our words are 'Growing Strong'. It seems a good match."

"That sounds like her," Arya murmured. She wondered if Lord Tywin was aware of this. It would mean that the Reach had just as strong connections to the Starks as the crown. But honestly, it relieved Arya. It would make it all the more difficult for the Starks and Lannisters to go to war.

"I think she was plotting to marry me to one of her sons before I even left King's Landing," Sansa said. "But in our correspondence over the last several months she has been testing me. I think to make sure I'm not the foolish little girl I used to be."

"Apparently you past her tests then," Arya said. "And...Willas? What is he supposed to be like?"

"Willas was crippled many years ago. And he's some fifteen years older than me," Sansa said. "He's not what I used to dream about. But I do hear he's kind. These days I would take a kind husband before a gallant or handsome one. And, of course, he is heir to Highgarden."

"Meaning that, some day, you will be partially in control of the Reach," Arya said.

"Yes," Sansa said. "That will give me a great deal of power and it will give the north another strong ally with abundant resources. Enough to carry the Starks through any harsher winters."

"It's funny, hearing you talk like this," Arya said. "You used to talk only of marrying for love."

"Almost no one marries for love," Sansa said. "Robb is a rare exception, and that match was a strategic mistake. Most of us marry to help our families. There's nothing really wrong with that."

"No," Arya said. "I just wish the world didn't force us to do it."

"So do I," Sansa murmured. "Maybe with powerful names we can begin to shape the world so that our daughters don't feel so trapped."

Arya's mouth twitched. "Reshaping the world. I think I would enjoy that."

Arya could not sleep that night. Her mind felt...unsettled. It was a feeling she had grown accustomed to over the past few years. Her life was never peaceful. But in Winterfell, she had hoped to find some sort of rest.

But not tonight. She was not sure if it was the impending arrival of the northern lords or the foreboding words of Tywin's letter to Robb. But she could not settle her spirit enough to sleep. So instead she abandoned her bed and went outside into the cold. It had been growing warmer in the north now that winter seemed to be on its way out. But without the sun, the wind was infinitely less forgiving. Arya didn't mind its bite. Beneath enough layers, it wasn't bad at all. She walked with a lantern in hand, using the flame for some warmth.

She was surprised to find someone else outside. Jaime Lannister stood in the center of the courtyard, cutting through the icy wind with his blade. His breath left him in puffy white clouds.

She thought for a moment about leaving him to work. Of backing into the shadows and disappearing again. But before she could decide, Jaime turned swiftly around. His blade seemed to freeze perfectly in midair. And only after he stilled did he notice her beyond the tip of his blade.

"Your form is improving," Arya said.

Jaime's mouth twitched. "Nice of you to say so." He lowered his blade. "What are you doing awake at this hour?"

"I could ask the same of you," Arya murmured.

"Oh...I suppose it's the idea of all the northern lords coming tomorrow. Most of them don't like me." Jaime thought for a moment. "No...All of them don't like me."

"They have good reason for that," Arya said.

"True. None the less, I hope they don't discover I am here," Jaime studied her. "And you, my lady? I don't suppose the Northern Lords are making you nervous as well."

"Actually...yes. They are," Arya murmured.

"They're your people," Jaime said. "You have no reason to fear them."

Arya shrugged, rubbing her gloved hands together. "Do you think all of the northern lords welcomed peace with the Lannisters?"

"I doubt it," Jaime said. "They were winning battle after battle against my father. And they wanted justice for their lord. Vengeance. Most of them must have been upset when your brother surrendered."

"That's my thinking," Arya said. "And why was your father able to force peace?"

Jaime seemed to understand then. "Ah. You think the northerners might blame you."

She nodded once. "I blame myself sometimes."

"What could you have done against my father, Arya?" Jaime asked. "You were twelve when he first took you hostage. Full grown men cower before him. Which one of those men could have expected you to fight him?"

"None," Arya said. "That's why I wish I could have. To prove them all wrong."

Jaime's mouth twitched. "Of course." He nodded at the sword at her hip. "Perhaps you'd like to draw your sword now. I think a fight might help your nerves."

Arya fought a smile and rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. "We've never sparred with these swords before."

"Well, they are twins. It seems right," Jaime said. "I won't cut you."

"I would never let you." Arya drew her blade. The metal reflected the light of the full moon. "I'm far better with my left hand."

"Getting overconfident, are we?" Jaime asked.

"No. Just confident enough," Arya said.

Jaime flicked his blade toward hers and she deflected. He tried again, twice in quick succession. She blocked with fluid ease. Months of sparring with him-years now-had made her an expert in his movements. She had watched him rebuild his move set on his left hand from the ground up. But he knew her just as well.

He began attacking in earnest, lunging and cutting at her sides. She retreated back several steps, blocking his every strike, before ducking under the last and stabbing out at him. She forced him to step back as she went on the attack. Backing him up step by step toward the wall of the stables.

But when she was only seconds from cornering him, he swiped his right hand upward, catching her blade hard with the crook of his golden hand.

Arya lost her grip and her sword and it spun through the air, landing several feet behind her. With a sharp tap from his elbow, she lost her balance and fell onto her back below him. He leveled his sword with her neck.

"My right hand isn't completely useless, my lady," he said with a smirk.

"Neither are my feet," Arya replied flatly.

Jaime's brow furrowed. "What?"

Arya rolled out from beneath his blade and swung both her legs hard, knocking into his left ankle. He lost his footing and collapsed on the ground beside her. His blade spun from his hand and skidded off into the dark.

"Seven hells." Jaime muttered, looking up at her. Then he started to laugh. And Arya couldn't help but laugh too. What a strange night that a Stark daughter and a Lannister son should be fighting in the courtyard of Winterfell. It had been a long time since Arya had laughed so hard, but she couldn't stop. This whole situation was too bizarre. Her life was too bizarre.

At last, their laughed died and Jaime slowly sat up again. His breath clouded the air around him. "You know...You may not prove everyone in the world wrong, Arya. But you proved me wrong about a lot of things. If that is any consolation."

Arya stayed on her back, staring up at the moon. It was so bright tonight-a pale lantern in the dark of winter. She watched her breath fog around its image like a cloud. "A small consolation perhaps." She glanced at him. "But then... I suppose you've proved me wrong about a lot of things too, Jaime."

Jaime smiled. It was a soft, sad expression. One she never expected to see on his face. There was something vulnerable in that silence. She could not explain why, but it scared her.

She sat up quickly, drawing in a deep breath. She let the cold in her lungs bring her back to reality. "We should get inside. We don't want to tempt the winter."

Jaime exhaled. "Of course."

Arya got quickly to her feet and paced over to where her weapon had fallen. She found it sitting right next to his on the ground, the blades crossed on the stone. For a moment she just stared at the twin swords before she found her own and returned it to his sheath. She looked back at Jaime.

"Goodnight, ser."

Jaime gave her a small nod. "Goodnight, my lady."

Then she left him in the cold.

Chapter Text

 Early the next morning, Winterfell was buzzing with activity, preparing for the arrival of the Northern lords. One could hardly walk in the courtyard without almost colliding with a rushing servant or guard. Arya's mother was as busy as any of them, giving instructions left and right. She looked well. Better than she had when Arya had arrived. She imagined this event was helping to distract her from Rickon's death.

"Is Ser Jaime hidden," Catelyn asked her as the guards reported the first of the lords coming over the horizon.

"Yes," Arya said. "He won't come out of his room until the lords are gone. He's not eager for a fight. I convinced my other escorts to remove any obvious Lannister symbols or colors."

"Good," Catelyn said. "If we can get through these few days without some sort of fight, it will be a miracle."

"Jaime doesn't want to meet the northern lords again any more than they want to meet him," Arya said.

"True enough," her mother sighed and looked her over. "You've picked a good dress."

"Sansa picked it," Arya said, brushing her hand over the fabric. It was blue with grey flowers embroidered down the front. "I asked what would help me blend in."

"She made a good choice. They'll hardly recognize you," Catelyn said. "Though...if you're hoping to blend in, I suggest you store your swords in your room."

Arya's eyes narrowed. "They're mine. I don't need to hide them."

"I know they're yours. I'm not trying to take them from you." Catelyn rested her hands on her shoulders, squeezing lightly. "I know Robb wants you to watch the Boltons today. And the other lords as well."

"Do you not approve?" Arya asked, a bitter note creeping into her voice. She expected her mother to say it was dangerous. She was always a bit over protective, but especially of her daughters.

"It's not that," Catelyn said. "But it's not ordinary for young ladies to carry swords. You don't want to give them any more reason to talk about you than they already have."

Arya bit at the inside of her cheek. "You think they'll talk about me?"

It was a stupid question. Of course they would. She had known it from the start. The ward of House Lannister, back to visit family.

"Yes," Catelyn said. "You may hear them say awful things about you. They said awful things about Sansa when she first returned. She wasn't there for near as long as you, and she wasn't used to broker peace. But still, they resented her for her time down south. Some said she was a spy. Some said she was...tainted by Joffrey. They whispered it under their breath, but still, we heard it."

Arya's jaw clenched. "Who said that? I'll make them regret it."

"That's exactly what you can't do," Catelyn said. "When you hear them whisper-when you hear them say their words-you don't want the temptation of your weapons. We want to get through these days without a fight, remember?"

Slowly, Arya nodded. Her mother smiled at her and kissed her forehead. "Whatever you hear them say...know that we don't believe it. We know you. They don't."

Arya swallowed hard. With all of the secrets she was keeping, she wondered how much her family knew her anymore.

Her mother left her then, and moments later, they began to arrive: the many lords of the North. They came on horseback from the west, the east, the north and the south. They came in large numbers and small. After Arya safely stowed her swords in her room, she took her place atop the battlements and watched them. She noted the banners as they passed beneath the gates. Reeds. Karstarks. Umbers. Mormonts. Glovers. Dustins. Hornwoods.

Some twenty houses owed their loyalty to House Stark, and they all made an appearance today. The Reeds arrived first. And last? The Boltons of the Dreadfort.

Arya felt her whole body tense as the banner of the flayed man came into view. This was the house Tywin Lannister named as untrustworthy. He would not have sent that letter unless he had real reason to suspect them. Arya simply had to catch them at something suspicious to give Robb a reason to confront them.

One of the Bolton men looked up at her as they passed through the gates. Raised a hand and gave her a little wave. There was a smile on his face that sent a shiver through Arya.

You've been noticed, it seemed to say. You will not be a shadow today.

Arya took her place in the corner of the great hall, behind the table, so that she could look out upon all of the attendants. In such a crowd, it would be impossible to watch everyone, but at least she knew who to be most wary of. The Boltons.

Roose Bolton had arrived with ten companions, only one of whom had accompanied him inside the great hall today. He was the youngest of Lord Bolton's men, perhaps a little older than Robb. And he was the one who had noticed her on the wall and given her that knowing smile.

He was still smiling, though not at her. He listened with rapt attention to her brother as he stood and gave his greeting to the lords.

"My thanks to all of you for coming today," Robb said. "This is a time of many emotions for my family. On one hand, it seems the winter is on its way out, though we no doubt will have many more months of snow. On the other, many of us have lost loved ones to Long Summer's Bane. My sympathies to all those who have buried children. Siblings. Parents. The dead will never be forgotten."

"Here, here," someone called from amongst the crowd, and the north men called out in agreement.

Robb then opened the floor to allow the lords to bring forth concerns. Most of the concerns were quite routine. Struggles in the winter. Reports of wildling raids. Proposals for the coming spring. Robb listened to them all and gave wise council. He sat at the table like he was born to it, and if he was concerned about the state of the north, he did not show that worry on his face. Their father would have been so proud of him.

But Robb was not the concern. It was the other north men Arya had to worry about it. From a distance, most of the attendants appeared in favor of Robb, but if one looked close enough they could see the cracks. A son of Umber looking on coldly. A Karstark whispering something under his breath to his neighbor. But the two Boltons in the hall gave no sign of discontent at all.

It piqued Arya's suspicions. Tyrion used to tell her that there were three types of Cyvasse players. Those who went on the attack, those who kept a strong defense, and the best players, who could play both at once. The most dangerous players could keep you guessing at their strategy.

The Boltons were leaving Arya guessing. And she did not like it.

Two hours later, Robb motioned for Jon to step forward. Their brother came to the center of the floor and turned to face the lords.

"My Lords. This is a trying time for us all. Winters always are. And I know many of you have lost a great deal in the summer's wars. I do not wish to ask more fighting of you. But I have no choice. Mance Rayder marches on the wall, an army of wildlings in toe. I have seen the armies. It is a greater army than has marched on our lands in one thousand years."

"If I recall, even the armies of one thousand years ago were repelled by the Night's Watch," one of the Umbers called out. "Why should this be any different?"

"Because one thousand years ago, over one thousand men held Castle Black alone," Jon said. "And all of the castles along the wall were manned. Now, there are barely one hundred of us."

Murmurs rose up among the hall. One hundred was not many at all, even at a castle as well defended as Castle Black.

"I do not ask any of you to take the black," Jon said. "Because these are desperate times. But I do ask for you all to defend your homeland. I have heard concerns about wildlings several times today. Some of you have reported raids on local villages, resources stolen, people under your charge murdered. But that is only a small taste of what is to come. The North would be in chaos if an army of that size was allowed to cross the wall. So please. The Night's Watch needs you. And the North needs you."

Silence rang throughout the hall, filled only by the shifting of the lords. Many of them were upset with the end to the war with the south, but a war with the far north seemed to set them on edge. Arya's jaw clenched as she waited for someone to speak.

"I say Jon Snow is right," a voice said at last. Arya turned in surprise to see the younger Bolton man stepping forward. "Look at all of you. Shuffling around nervously. Northmen are known for killing wildlings, aren't we? Or have you all forgotten?"

"Mind your tongue, Snow," Lord Glover said. "You have no authority over us."

Arya's eyes widened. So this man was a bastard like Jon. Was he Roose Bolton's bastard? It was curious that the Lord of the Dreadfort would bring his bastard to court.

"It's Bolton now, actually," the man said, his smile sharpening ever so slightly. "I've been graciously legitimized by the king with my father's blessing. And perhaps I do not have any authority here...But I know a threat when I see one." He stepped up beside Jon, clapping him on the shoulder. "And as our friend here said...the Night's Watch will not force anyone to take the Black. So if it's going celibate you're worried about, you can put those fears to rest."

"We heard what he said and we can make our own decision," Lord Glover said. "Lord Bolton. You ought to control your bastard."

"I'm afraid Ramsay is right," Roose said. "The wall has stood for thousands of years. If it is breached, it will never be properly feared again. And then the north will be vulnerable from both sides. North and South." He looked around. "All of the northern houses should contribute men."

Something is wrong about this, Arya thought. They're too much in support of Jon. Of our family. If they are traitors then there must be another motive here. Or could they truly be concerned about the wall?

It was possible. Maybe they were willing to set aside any treachery until after the major threat was dealt with. A common enemy often helped warring houses to put their concerns to rest and a wildling army was no small thing. But still...

"I agree with Lord Bolton," Robb said. "This is a matter of the safety of the north. I won't force anyone to contribute forces. But think of your families."

There was a brief silence. Then Lord Umber stepped forward. "We will give men to the cause."

"So will we," Lord Dustin said. "As many as we can spare."

"Aye," Lord Glover said reluctantly. "We'll give men."

One after another, the houses pledged to send men within the fortnight. Bolton's bastard looked pleased by the development, patting Jon on the shoulder. "I'll join you north as well. I think I'd like to kill some wildlings."

"We would welcome the help," Jon said. "I'm sorry, your name is..."

"Ramsay Bolton." Ramsay held out a hand. "I was a Snow as well until very recently. It's good to meet a fellow northern bastard."

Arya's gaze sliced from Ramsay to Roose. There was nothing out of the ordinary about their faces. They simply seemed satisfied with the widespread support of this venture. She could not identify any ulterior motives.

Not when they kept their game so close to their chest.

When court had come to a close, preparations began for that night's feast. The northern lords lingered about the Winterfell courtyard, and Arya took the time to weave between them, listening into their conversations. Most of them stayed on safe topics: the events of the courts, the threat of the wildlings. But some spoke of Robb's inexperience. Some spoke of the unwanted peace with the Lannisters. The Karstarks seemed most dissatisfied with the situation. She did not confront them though. It would be unwise to make herself known.

Once, she passed behind two of the Umber men and heard them mention her name.

"Arya Stark. Did you notice her standing in the corner?" one of the men said.

"Was that Arya Stark?" the other replied. "I barely recognized her. What do you suppose she was doing back here?"

"Who's to say? Perhaps Lord Tywin let her go?"

"Oh, I doubt that. But maybe he sent her to spy."

"Spy? On her own family?"

"It wouldn't be so strange. Four years in King's Landing? She's probably more lion than wolf now."

Arya felt a wave of fury roll through her. Instinctively, she started to reach for her knife-the one weapon she had kept on her. But she stopped. No. No fights. It didn't matter what they said about her. She had to stay in control.

It was just like her time in the south. Sometimes there were important people on her list, like Joffrey and Cersei, who she could not harm. She had to wait for her moment. If any of these families proved traitor, she could fight them then.

Still it weighed on her. At the feast, she felt too watched. Everyone was beginning to take notice of Ned Stark's second daughter, back from the south. The girl that forced Robb Stark to surrender to Tywin Lannister. She felt the distrust in their glances and as she watched them talk in low voices, she wondered if they were speaking of her.

Sansa gently squeezed her arm. "It's all right..." she murmured. "Just remember that whatever they're saying is wrong."

"Not all of it is wrong," Arya replied. "Lord Tywin did use me to force peace."

"That was his fault. Not yours," Sansa said.

Arya nodded once. "Mother said they talked about you as well."

"Yes," Sansa said. "But it died down eventually. It will for you too."

Not when they find out I'm marrying Jaime Lannister, Arya thought. Then they will hate me forever. They won't be my people anymore. I'll just be a lion to them.

She swallowed hard and went back to picking at her food. Her mother was right to suggest leaving her swords in her room. At the moment, she wanted nothing more than to fight something.

Feasts made men drunk and unruly, and wine was a poor companion with tension. It always made a person more likely to say dangerous things. So, though Arya wanted to retreat to her room after the feast, she forced herself to remain and wander the grounds, listening to the conversations. Listening to any treasonous words about Robb.

Many of the Umbers were vocal about their distaste for Lannisters and their hatred of having to lick their golden boots.

"We had a King in the North for a year," one said. "Then he knelt faster than Torrhen Stark."

"At least Torrhen knelt before dragons," another replied. "Our king knelt for a fucking girl."

Arya did not confront them. She did not draw her knife. She only hid those words away in her mind so that she could speak them to Robb later.

These men would never have spoken about her father in such a way. They respected him for his victories in Robert's Rebellion. They had gone to war for him when Joffrey took him prisoner and executed him. How many would have ridden for Robb if he died down south.

Perhaps they would only want him as an excuse to return to war, Arya thought.

She wandered inside to earn a break from the cold. Sometimes people preferred to discuss treason in quiet corners, so she might have some luck wandering the halls. She hoped to find some Bolton men.

Instead she found Karstarks-standing dangerously close to Jaime's quarters.

"I'm not going to ask again," one of them growled at Arya's escorts who stood guard outside. "Which house do you serve?"

Say the Starks, Arya thought. Please just lie and say 'the Starks'.

The guards didn't. They were silent, and it was making the Karstarks angry. Arya heard the faint scrape of a blade being pulled from its sheath. She cursed and strode forward, slipping between the cracks of the four Karstark men and standing between them and the guards.

"They serve me," she said flatly. "Back away."

The man at the lead blinked in surprise. He was drunk and it seemed to take him a moment to bring her into focus. "Lady Arya," he muttered. "Didn't know you had northmen to serve you."

"Well, I do," Arya said. "Find someone else to harass. We don't need fighting in Winterfell."

The man shook his head and pointed at her. " you couldn't have northmen to serve you. Wouldn't make sense. You've been down south for too long." He glanced at the guards standing behind her. "These are Lannister men aren't they?"

"They're my escorts," Arya said. "Did you expect that I road here alone? You're drunker than I thought."

"Lion bitch," one of the men in the back muttered.

Arya's glare sliced to him. "Would you like to repeat those words? I don't think I heard them correctly."

"You did," the man replied. He was drunken enough that he couldn't quite stand straight. Easy enough to beat in a fight if she went for his legs. Gods, how she longed for her sword.

"Doesn't matter," the lead Karstark said. "If they're your escorts, I want to know why they're guarding this door...and not you."

Arya's jaw clenched. She imagined Jaime standing just inside the door, listening to every word of this. They could not see him. They would try to kill him if they did and then she would have to fight them off. If she killed a Karstark for a Lannister, there would be an uproar. And if they killed Jaime, the north would be at war again.

"Turn around," she said at last. "This hall is off limits to you. Go find a corner where you can pass out."

"Move aside," he said.

"You don't give orders to me."

"Move aside." The Karstark began to draw his sword. It was only halfway out of its sheath when Arya drew her knife and pressed it against his throat.

"Were you starting to draw a sword on me?" Arya asked. "I know I must be mistaken. Because I'm a Stark of Winterfell. I'm the sister of your lord. To draw a blade on me in my own home? That would be a death sentence." Her voice was icy. "It's a good thing that you would never do that. You're just a bit drunk. I understand. So I should all turn around and leave before I fetch my brother."

"That's an excellent idea."

Arya shivered at the voice that came from behind her. Roose Bolton. Gods, she had not heard him approach.

"I'm sure the Karstarks would like to apologize," Roose said. "It's not their place to make demands of you here."

The lead Karstark glared at him but bowed his head. "Yes, my lady. It was a mistake. We're just drunk."

"Good. Go make yourself useful elsewhere," Lord Bolton said flatly.

When the Karstark men had cleared away, Arya slowly turned to face Roose Bolton. Every warning bell in her head was ringing. "Thank you, my lord. But I had it handled."

"So I could see," Lord Bolton said. "But it wouldn't do for you to fight one of your brother's banner men, would it?"

"I was trying to keep them from a fight. Nothing more." Arya's grip tightened on her blade. "It was... kind of you to speak up in favor of my half-brother today."

"I wouldn't call it kind. Simply necessary," Lord Bolton said. "It's vital that northmen defend the wall. You father would have wanted the same." He looked down at her. "What brings you home, Lady Arya?"

"My younger brother died. I wanted to pay my respects," Arya said.

"And Lord Tywin...let you leave?"

This is some kind of test, Arya thought. He's trying to get information out of me. But why? What is his play?

"Lord Tywin knows I will return," Arya said. "He knows I won't jeopardize the peace between the Lannisters and Starks."

"He knows you well then? Well enough to trust you with this journey." He glanced down at the knife in her hand. "And well enough to trust you with weapons."

"What does it matter to you how well Tywin Lannister knows me?" Arya asked.

"It doesn't," Roose Bolton replied. "I was only curious." He gave her a bow. "Excuse me."

He left her then, standing at the edge of the courtyard. Only after he walked away did Arya let out a breath. Her hands were shaking.

The Boltons had not done anything suspicious since coming here. Not yet.

So why was it every time one of them spoke she felt as if she was in danger?


Chapter Text

For the rest of that night and all the next day, Arya waited for the Boltons to do something suspicious. But they never faltered. Roose Bolton remained utterly composed and Ramsay Bolton continued to be consistently cheerful. He bounced around between the other northern lords, making conversation. They all seemed rather annoyed with him, but not threatened.

Arya was threatened though. Because as she watched the bastard of Bolton he kept looking straight back at her. Whenever he caught her looking, his smile only widened. It was like a taunt.

I know you're watching me, but I don't care. I have nothing to hide.

By the time the northern lords prepared to leave the next morning, Arya had found out absolutely nothing of use. And all she could really present to Robb was that they seemed "too content".

"I can't use 'too content' against them, Arya," Robb said. "I can't use obedience and loyalty as weapons. Maybe they have plots but...for now it seems they are putting them aside for the battle with the wildlings."

"Do you really believe that?" Arya asked.

"There's nothing like a common enemy to unite warring houses," Robb said. "This could give us the time we need to truly investigate the Boltons. See if there is any substance to this warning."

"What if you're wrong?" Arya asked. "What if they haven't set their plans aside?"

"I still can't move against them with nothing," Robb said. "Perhaps if Lord Tywin was specific about their past treachery, I would have some grounds on which to act. But he didn't, so I don't."

"You do," Arya said stubbornly. "You're the warden of the north. You have complete authority over the north and the other lords according to the crown."

"The Targaryens had complete authority over the seven kingdoms. It didn't end up well for them, did it?" Robb asked. "Imagine I did move against the Boltons with nothing but a vague word from Tywin Lannister as evidence? What do you think would happen, Arya? How would the other houses in the north react?"

Arya pressed her lips together in a tight line. They wouldn't react well. She knew that. But striking first was better than leaving a venomous snake in the grass.

"I can tell you what would happen," Robb said. "They would start to doubt. They'd wonder, who will Robb Stark accuse next? If I step out of line, will I find myself as his enemy? They might not say it but they'll hold it in their hearts. They might even use it as cause to rebel. The Karstarks would see this as another betrayal of an old ally for no apparent reason. The Umbers would say I'm more willing to strike at my allies than my enemies. The Glovers would remind me that my father would never do such a thing."

"Father is dead," Arya said. "He's dead because he didn't strike first. He's dead because he expected his enemies to be honorable and they killed him. Father would never do such a thing? Of course he wouldn't. That's why you need to learn from him."

"It's not that simple," Robb said. "The northern lords want a leader like father. They respected him. I can't step out of his shadow."

"Which leaves you vulnerable. What happens if you wait for the Boltons to strike, Robb?" She took a step forward. "They won't do it gently. They won't make a soft first move. They'll take hostages. Maybe they'll kill someone you care about. It could be anyone. Mother, Sansa, Bran, Talisa. One of the children. They wouldn't be beyond that. And yes, that will give you plenty of cause to act against them. But that won't raise the dead and it won't fix things. You road south to war when they took father prisoner but that didn't save him. It didn't keep him from losing his head."

Robb's jaw clenched. "We did what we could for him."

"Yes. You did. And none of it mattered," Arya said. "It would have. If he had been smarter-if he hadn't been so caught on his own honor-it would have."

"Father would rather die honorable than live with lies and treachery," Robb said.

"I don't care," Arya snapped. "I don't care what he wanted. I had to watch him die."

For a moment, Robb was silent. She wondered if he had ever realized that before. The fact that she had been there on that day. An eleven year old girl, alone in the world, watching her father forced to his knees before a mob and an evil king.

"I was standing in the crowd, listening to them scream names at him," Arya muttered. "Watching them throw rocks at his head. I was crouched on the Sept of Baelor. I had a perfect view of him. He proclaimed Joffrey the one true king because he hoped to protect Sansa. It was a lie given way too late. Joffrey wanted blood. Joffrey heard the crowd crying out for it and he wanted to give them a show. So he told Ser Illyn Payne to bring him Father's head. I'll never forget that day. Not for as long as I live. I'll never forget Sansa screaming for mercy. I'll never forget the crowd screaming for blood. I will never forget Joffrey's face. I jumped into the crowd and tried to reach him. It was like something out of a nightmare-a dream where you're trying to move but you just can't go fast enough."

Robb's expression was pained. "Arya..."

"I didn't see the actual moment," Arya continued on. She couldn't stop. This was the first time...she was really saying it all out loud. The first time she had described that awful day to anyone. "But it didn't matter. I heard the sword fall. I heard the...the sound it made. I never felt so helpless in my entire life. I couldn't move because there was a man holding me back. I couldn't speak. I could barely even breathe. All I could think was 'I should have stopped it. Why didn't I stop it'?"

"You couldn't have," Robb murmured. "You could have stopped any of it."

"You're right," Arya said. "But I can stop the rest of our family from joining father and Rickon in the crypt. I'm not going to let you follow him. Or mother, or Sansa, or Bran. And if that means breaking the code of honor, then I'll do it. You have to be willing to do the same."

Robb shook his head. "Arya. It's not that easy. The north is in a precarious position now. I have to handle this carefully. And we don't live by southern rules here."

"Don't you?" Arya asked. "You bent the knee to a southern king."

Robb's expression hardened. "To protect you."

"Do you wish you hadn't?" Arya asked.

Robb stared at her. " you mean?"

"Exactly what I said. Do you wish you hadn't?" Arya asked. "It's caused all sorts of problems for you. I heard the northern lords gossiping about me. You're weaker to them because you bent the knee for the life of a twelve year old girl." She lifted her chin. "So have you thought about the alternative? Have you thought about what would have happened if you let Lord Tywin slit my throat? I bet you have. I bet you wonder if you could have won. Maybe you could have. You could have been the first King in the North since Torrhen Stark. If you had just let me..."

She trailed off. It was a terrible question to ask of her brother. But she asked it of herself sometimes. What if Robb had ignored Tywin's demands and put the country before her? If he let her die for the good of the North, would things have been different for House Stark? Would the North be stable and independent, if not for her?

Robb opened his mouth to reply, but Arya was too afraid to hear the words. She turned away from him.

"Never mind. I've given you my opinion. What you do with it is up to you."

Then she left before he could say anything more.

Arya tried not to think of their argument for the rest of the day. She distracted herself by watching some of the northmen leave from the battlements. She could not name any of them traitor either. An insult was not enough to warrant imprisonment. Neither was association with the Boltons. Many of the houses had spoken with Roose Bolton. The Glovers, the Umbers, the Karstarks, the Reeds. None of them stood out to her as close with the Lord of the Dreadfort. But Lord Bolton surely had allies if he had plans to move against her brother. Perhaps Robb was right. Perhaps the Boltons were willing to put aside their plots to face the wildlings. But her instincts told her...

The hairs on the back of Arya's neck rose as she sensed someone behind her. She spun around, snapping her grip around an extended wrist. She found herself looking at Ramsay Bolton.

His eyebrows shot up. "You have quick reflexes, Lady Arya."

Arya released him at once, stepping back a few feet. "You startled me...Lord Ramsay," she muttered. "What are you doing up here?"

"Oh, I just came to meet the second daughter of House Stark," Ramsay said. "I've heard many interesting tales about you. Mostly from the northmen, you understand. Some think you're a spy, some think you're a brainwashed ward of Tywin Lannister, some think you're a wild wolf in a girl's body." He tilted his head to the side. "I thought I should see for myself."

"Did you?" Arya asked coolly. "I hate to disappoint, but I am Arya Stark. That's all."

"Is it?" Ramsay asked. "I suppose you are too small to be a Direwolf. Maybe you're just a little one."

Arya gritted her teeth together. She did not like his scrutiny one bit. It made her feel exposed. "Why did you speak up in favor of my brother's proposal?"

"Your bastard brother? Well, I suppose it's because I'd like a chance to hunt some wildlings," Ramsay said. "And protect the north, of course. But most north men don't consider the wildlings human, so I doubt they'll have any...problems with my methods."

"Do your methods have anything to do with the sigil on your banner?" Arya asked.

"Flaying is outlawed in the north," Ramsay said with a smile.

"I know. That doesn't answer my question."

Ramsay laughed. Arya did not like the sound. It was wrong. Everything about him seemed wrong. "I don't think you have to worry. You're not going to the wall. You're going south soon, aren't you?"

"Soon, yes."

"That's too bad," Ramsay said. "You know, I might die at the wall, defending the north. So if this is our last meeting..." He gave a little bow. "I wish you luck in the wars to come."

"What wars?" Arya asked suspiciously.

"There are always more wars, Lady Arya." Ramsay flashed her a grin. "But I'm rather good at surviving them." That sounded distinctly like a threat, but before Arya could question him further he turned and left. "Farewell. Until next time."

That sounded like a threat as well, but Arya could do nothing but watch him leave. She watched from the battlements until the Boltons saddled their horses and left the keep. And long after they departed, she could still see Ramsay Bolton's smile in her mind's eye.

At least the northern lords gone, she could breathe a bit easier. She did not want to feel anxious during her last few days home. Soon, she would be returning to King's Landing with Jaime and she wanted to make the most of this time with her siblings and her mother.

So she pushed the Boltons from her mind. She spent time with Sansa. She watched little Lyanna practice walking with the help of her older brother. She helped her mother when she needed it. She read with Bran. She even convinced Robb to spar with her. They did not speak of their earlier argument. Neither of them wanted to fight.

She wished she could spar with Jon as well, but he had left around the same time as the other lords. It had been awful to say goodbye to him so soon, but Arya knew that he was needed at Castle Black.

"We'll see each other again, Arya," he said, mussing her hair before he got on his horse. "I promise."

"Don't make a promise you can't keep," Arya said. "You're going off to war."

"Aye. But I've survived battles before. We both have," Jon said. "We'll make it back here someday. Both of us."

Arya knew that there was a possibility that they wouldn't. But she didn't want to think of that right now. She had to believe she would see Jon again.

All too soon, her time at Winterfell was slipping through her fingers. And Arya's secrets were becoming even more impossible to hold. She had to tell her family about the engagement. She couldn't possibly put it off for much longer, though she truly wanted to do so. Sansa reminded her for perhaps the tenth time that the longer she waited, the worse it would be. Good advice. But Arya didn't want to listen to it.

Even Jaime was beginning to doubt Arya's silence.

"It is your news to tell," Jaime said. "Father likely suspected they'd take it best from you. You don't want them to find out from some rumor or raven, do you?"

"No," Arya muttered.

"Then what's your plan?"

"I thought we'd leave and I'd have Sansa tell them instead."

"I'm all for avoiding your brother and mother's wrath-but that's a terrible idea."

Arya's jaw clenched. Yes. It was a terrible idea. She needed to tell them. She had to. She had to. But Gods did she love to avoid it.

She didn't want her engagement to Jaime to cast a shadow over her time at Winterfell. She would have to leave her home soon for the south and she just wanted to...savor the moment. The evening before they were set to depart, she made it her mission to walk the entire length of the grounds. To take in every memory. To visit every place.

It was this quest that brought her to the weirwood tree. Arya had spent many an hour of her childhood playing in the Godswood. She knew that it was a sacred place, but the trees were so good for hiding and climbing. Now, she had no time for games, but she did like to gaze upon the cracked face of the tree, and its dry, bloody tear tracks.

Today, Bran was in the Godswood as well, his chair sat beside the pool. He looked up at the face rather pensively, as if he had asked it an important question and it had yet to answer.

"Are you praying?" Arya asked. "I can leave if you are."

"No," Bran replied. "Stay."

Arya sat down beside him on the ground, watching his face. He seemed much older than her in that moment. Like an elderly man trapped in a child's body.

"If you came to pray, I won't bother you," Bran said.

"Oh, I don't pray to the gods anymore," Arya said. "I just...wanted to come here."

Bran nodded once. "There is power in these woods. Maybe not the power of gods. But power." He rubbed his hands together. "I've...been having visions for a long while now, Arya. I dreamed that father would die before it happened. I dreamed that the sea would come to Winterfell before the Greyjoys invaded. I dreamed that they would kill Ser Rodrick." He looked at her. "Have you ever had those kinds of dreams?"

"I've had many awful dreams," Arya said. "But I'm not sure they were visions. Not ones that I knew how to interpret." She leaned forward a bit. "What have you been dreaming lately, Bran?"

Bran shrugged.

"Bran. If you've been dreaming something awful, you can tell me," Arya said. "I won't tell. I promise."

Bran's mouth twitched. "I've dreamed...about a false spring. Of the warmth returning to Westeros but only for a very short while. I've dreamed of a winter without end that will follow. And of the blue eyed creatures that come with it."

"Blue eyed creatures?" Arya asked.

"The Others. White walkers," Bran said. "You remember Old Nan's stories."

"The white walkers have been trapped in stories for centuries. They couldn' back could they?" Arya asked.

"They are back. Beyond the wall," Bran said. "If we're not careful, they will soon cross it."

"I suppose it's good that the north is sending men to the wall then," Arya said cautiously.

"They won't matter," Bran said with certainty. "Everyone who falls just rises again." He reached out and touched the weirwood tree. "It's been whispering to me Arya. Telling me to go north. I think I need to go beyond the wall."

"Beyond the wall...with the others?" Arya asked. "Are you mad? You can't even walk."

"I would need help," Bran said. "I'm not arguing that. But I need to go there anyway."

"Mother would never let you go," Arya said. "Neither would Robb."

"If I explained to them-"

"It wouldn't matter. They've already lost too much. They won't put you in harm's way again." Arya rested a hand on his shoulder. "I don't want to see you in harm's way either."

"The whole world is in harm's way. It just doesn't know it yet," Bran murmured.

Arya sighed. "Of course the world is in harm's way. It always is, one way or another."

"And what about you?" Bran asked. "Are you in harm's way?"

Arya shifted. "Why do you ask that?"

"Because you seem more nervous these past few days. Like you keep on wanting to say something but you're afraid about how we'll react."

Arya studied her hands. "Really. Has everyone noticed that?"

"I'm not sure. I haven't asked them," Bran said. "You can tell me though. We always kept each other's secrets when we were children."

"I didn't tell mother when I caught you climbing," Arya recalled. "You didn't tell her when I ran away from the Septa to play knight. We used to keep track of how many secrets we were that it would be even."

"Yes," Bran said. "So I've told you about my dreams. What do you want to tell me in exchange?"

Arya rubbed her hands together. "That I'm betrothed to marry Jaime Lannister...shortly after I return to King's Landing."

Bran didn't reply for a long while. Arya found it hard to breathe in the silence. She pulled at the smallest fingers of her right hand.

"The nervousness makes sense now," Bran said at last. " are going to tell the others, aren't you?"

Arya shrugged.

Bran gave her a stern look. "Arya. You have to tell them."

Arya opened her mouth to retort. But then something rustled the bushes nearby. She stood, her hand going to her hip on instinct. But she had not brought her swords to the Godswood. She had not thought to need them. " Summer nearby?"

"No. He's hunting," Bran said.

Arya slipped her knife into her hand, pacing to the edge of the Godswood. Searching for a threat. She looked around for the guards, trying to see if they had noticed the same sound...but she didn't see any guards. Not on the walls. Not in the trees. That was strange. She was sure one of her escorts had followed her to the godswood.

Then Bran made a choked sound from behind her. Arya spun around in time to see a man jerking her brother from his chair, holding a knife to his throat. "Not a sound from you, girl," the man growled.

"Bran," Arya took a step forward. Something struck her hard over the head, blinding her with pain. She swayed and crumpled to the ground like a stone falling through water.

"He said not a sound," a voice purred from above her. "Rest for a while, little wolf."

Then Arya's world went dark.


Chapter Text

 There was a shift in the air as darkness fell heavily over the North. There was no moon, and only a few stars. Even a torch provided barely enough light to see. This was the time that most usually retreated inside to escape the cold. Yet, as Jaime passed through the courtyard, he noticed an unusual flurry of activity. Men shuffled through the courtyard at a faster pace than normal, muttering to each other. In the distance, he heard a wolf howling, as if in panic. He saw Robb preparing a horse while Sansa Stark pleaded with him.

"It's completely black out there. You can't go out now. You won't be able to see a thing."

"I have to. If he's been taken then...then we can't let them get far."

"You think just one person took him? Or are you going to fight the culprits alone in the dark?" Sansa asked. "Think for a moment Robb. You have other men to send out looking."

"He's our brother. Do you expect me to-"

Jaime was so caught up in listening to them that he didn't notice Catelyn Stark until she nearly ran him over. He caught her shoulder to steady her. "Lady Stark. What is it?"

Catelyn Stark shook her head. "We're...looking..."

"Looking for what?" Jaime asked.

"Not what. Who," Catelyn said. "Bran is missing. His chair was found abandoned in the god's wood."

That was a troubling thought indeed. The crippled boy could not just get up and walk. No...He had to have been taken by someone. That explained Robb's desire to charge into the night. "I can help you look."

"No," Catelyn muttered. "We don't need your help."

"It seems you do," Jaime said. "My lady, I know you don't like Lannisters. But it can't hurt to have more men looking. I'll set my guards to the task."

Catelyn did not respond for a moment. Then she gave a small nod.

"Good." Jaime looked around. "Where's Arya?"

"I..." Catelyn Stark's voice had suddenly gone very soft. "I'm not sure. I haven't seen her."

Now, something inside Jaime went cold. When something was wrong, Arya was the first to notice it. If no one had seen her...

"I'll find her," Jaime said, stepping back. "I'll find her now."

But Arya was nowhere to be seen. Not inside the walls of Winterfell or out. When he called out her name, it fell into the silence like a rock into deep water. She, like Bran, seemed to have vanished without a trace. But Jaime was not willing to accept that she was missing until he went to the Godswood. There, in the snow near the wheel of Bran's chair, he found a tiny knife. Her knife.

"Fuck," Jaime muttered, which did not even begin to cover the situation.

By the next morning, barely anyone in Winterfell had slept, least of all Catelyn Stark. She sat in the great hall with Sansa and Talisa, pulling at the dry skin of her nailbeds. Every part of her was exhausted but her fear laden heart would not allow her to asleep.

Robb and his men were still out searching with every hound in Winterfell. The Lannister men had gone out searching in the other direction. But neither had yet returned and Catelyn had an awful sense that when they did, neither her son nor daughter would be with them.

Gods, why were her children always in such danger? Ever since Bran had first tumbled from the tower, each one of them kept tumbling into greater and greater troubles. And she kept praying for their return.

Those prayers had worked for a while. After Bran fell, she prayed for him to awaken and he did. When Robb road to war, she prayed he would survive it and he did. When her daughters had been taken prisoner in King's Landing, she prayed that they would return to her. Sansa had. Then Arya too, though she was not truly free. When Bran and Rickon had been held hostage by the Greyjoys, she prayed they would not be harmed. They survived. She prayed that Robb would return from the south when he road to swear loyalty to the throne. He had.

But as of late, her prayers were beginning to fail. Rickon fell sick and she prayed that he would survive. But he had died. She prayed that her children would not fall into anymore danger and now Bran and Arya were missing. Perhaps she had run out of favor with the gods. Perhaps she had used up all of her prayers.

"They will be fine," Sansa murmured. "Wherever Bran is, Arya is with him. She'll protect him."

"Who will protect Arya?" Catelyn asked.

"She'll protect herself," Sansa said. "She protected herself in King's Landing, didn't she?"

Yes. Arya had survived nearly four years as Tywin Lannister's ward. Catelyn had to believe she would keep surviving.

But if she didn't...

What if she didn't survive?

Only Catelyn's grandchildren seemed immune to the panic. Talisa had not told them Bran and Arya were gone. She told them their father was out on a ride and would be back soon. Little Ned toddled carefree around the hall, playing with a toy soldier on a horse, imagining it was Robb. Lyanna crawled after him, nipping at his heels, pretending to be a wolf. And little Ben slept soundly in his mother's arms.

"Don't bite too hard, Lyanna," Talisa called with a soft smile. "You don't want to injure him."

"I do!" Lyanna replied with a big smile. Catelyn wondered if she even knew what 'injured' meant.

She remembered when her children had been that way, running carefree about Winterfell, naïve of any troubles in the world. Bran and Arya chased each other and competed to hold a toy sword. Sansa screamed and protested when she accidentally got caught up in the chase. Robb was quick to separate them all from each other, all while little Rickon laughed and laughed.

Gods, what she would do to have those days again. To have her children not know war or death.

The doors to the great hall opened and Catelyn stood as Robb entered. She looked for some hope in his face. Some good news. But his face was grim and his silver eyes were hopeless.

"The trail is dead," he murmured. "We don't know where they are."

Behind him limped a wolf. Summer. He had taken an arrow to the shoulder and was whining desperately under his breath. Long ago, Summer had fended off an assassin meant for Bran. No doubt he had tried to protect Bran again.

But whoever took her son and daughter was prepared for wolves.

Jaime Lannister returned with the same news hours later. His men had no better luck with the trail. Whoever took Arya and Bran knew how to cover their tracks.

"Wildlings maybe," Talisa suggested. "Jon did say they were preparing to attack the wall. You say wildlings are good at moving without being seen."

"Wildings? Aye. It's possible. It wouldn't be the first time they threatened Bran," Robb said. "But Tywin Lannister's letter makes me wonder otherwise."

"What was in the letter, Lord Stark?" Jaime asked. "What did he warn you about?"

"You don't know?" Robb asked suspiciously.

"My father rarely shares plans with me," Jaime said. "We have a complicated relationship."

Robb exhaled. "He warned us about two families. The Boltons and the Freys. The Boltons were here a few days ago...but they acted in the interest of our family. I had Arya watching them and they did not do anything to cause suspicion."

"The Freys then?" Jaime asked. "It's possible. If it's either of them, they will let you know. They'll want something in exchange for the safe return of Arya and Bran."

"Something," Robb repeated. "Will it be a price I can pay?"

Jaime hesitated. "I...doubt it. Whatever the case, I should send news of this to my father."

"Why must you bring him into this?" Catelyn muttered. She had no more desire for the Lannister to interfere in the affairs of her family. Where they went, hardship always followed.

"Because he will want to know," Jaime said. "She is his ward, and that's common knowledge. This may be a play against him as well."

"A play against him? As if he would care." Catelyn glared up at Jaime. "He would not lift a finger to help her."

"That may not be true," Robb murmured. "What's that you Lannisters like to say? About debts? You always pay them, do you not? Good and bad."

"Yes," Jaime said.

"And your father owes my sister a great debt. One that could not quite be paid by a sword," Robb murmured.

"So she told you," Jaime said. "Father would be angry at that."

Catelyn looked between them. "What is he talking about?"

Jaime exhaled. "Over a year ago, my father was almost assassinated. The...culprit hoped to throw the Starks and Lannisters back into war with each other. Without my father around, Joffrey would have killed Robb without hesitation. Which your daughter must have known because she was with my father at the time of the assassination attempt. She saved his life."

Catelyn did not know how to process this. Imagining Arya fighting off an assassin was almost impossible to her. Imagining Tywin Lannister owing her girl a life debt was even more impossible.

"That's the reason for the sword," Jaime said. "But it's not exactly equal payment."

"No. And if your father takes debts seriously, he will respond," Robb said. "Write him. And we will see what his word is worth."

Jaime Lannister sent the letter with a rider to be sure it reached his father. And then they waited. Waited to hear from Arya and Bran's abductors.

A fortnight later, they received a letter with the seal of House Frey. Robb called on both Catelyn and Jaime Lannister when it arrived. The two towers made Catelyn tremble with rage. Walder Frey had always been an awful man. Ever since she was a girl, she loathed him. Now, her fury only grew. And it kept growing when Robb broke the seal and read the letter.

Give us what was promised and we will give you back what's yours.

Catelyn's heart thundered in her ears as her gaze went from the letter to the envelope. There was still something in it. Something with weight. Robb's hand was shaking as he looked inside.

"Show me," Catelyn muttered.

Robb shook his head once. "Mother."

"Robb show me."

Robb exhaled and turned the envelope upside down. Two small fingers tumbled onto the table. The smallest fingers from someone's right hand.

Catelyn thought she might vomit. If hatred alone could kill a man, Walder Frey would have choked right then.

"Whose fingers are these?" Jaime muttered. "Arya's or Bran's?"

From his place on the ground, Summer let out a soft whimper.

Catelyn swallowed hard. "They're Bran's."

"Then what about Arya's fingers?" Robb asked. "Will they come later if we do not respond quickly enough?"

"Maybe," Jaime said. "Unless Walder Frey has gone completely mad."

Tywin received the letters within days of each other. The first letter came from Jaime at Winterfell, short into the point.

Arya is missing. So is her brother Bran. We suspect someone has taken them. We are doing everything we can to find her.

Anger rushed through Tywin when he read the words. He had expected someone to strike back at the Starks, but not so soon. If he had sensed an immediate threat he would never have allowed Arya to go north. She was not meant to be caught up in this mess.

He had two immediate suspects in mind. The two families he wrote Robb Stark about-the Freys and the Boltons. After Genna warned him of the Freys, Tywin had set Varys and his little birds on the task. And he quickly found that Genna was right. The Freys had not relaxed since the end of the war. Oddly, Lord Walder had been sending quite a few of his sons out to talk to the smallfolk most affected by the violence, as well as the smaller noble houses of the Riverlands. They did so under the guise of charity. Of helping the affected. But Walder Frey did not have a single charitable bone in his body. Of course there was another purpose.

"The people of the Riverlands do not think fondly on you, which is no surprise," Varys had reported to him. "But they seem just as angry at Robb Stark. They say he used the Riverlands as his battleground and that the Tullys let it happen because he was family. They view the Freys more favorably. In time, the other lords will join them."

The Frey's popularity was of little consequence to Tywin. Even if the entirety of the Riverlands turned to their side, they could not march on the Capital or Casterly Rock. The Riverlands were broken by the war. But it was notable to Tywin that the Freys were working to undermine the Stark and Tully names as well. Walder Frey wanted revenge for vows broken. They thought they would have the Riverlands at the end of the War of Five Kings. Instead they were left with the Twins and a burnt out countryside to which they had no claim.

Tywin knew less about the Boltons actions since the war, but if the Freys planned to strike at the Starks, they would look to the Boltons as their allies. Plenty of northmen had been displeased with the peace for different reasons. The Karstarks wanted revenge for their patriarch and his sons. The Umbers preferred a foolish fight to the death than a smart retreat. That was to be expected.

But the Boltons, by all outward appearances, were surprisingly content. And that piqued Tywin's suspicion more than anything. They thought they would have a chance at becoming the Wardens of the North and Tywin took that away when he made peace.

The Boltons were also more dangerous because the Starks did not know to fear them. They feared the Freys because of the broken vow to Lord Walder. But Robb Stark never knew that Roose Bolton had been in frequent contact with Tywin.

That was why Tywin wrote the letter to him and charged Arya Stark with delivering it. He would not take ownership of any of the plots made during the War of Five Kings. But he at least wanted Robb Stark to be wary. That way, if the Freys and Boltons did become a problem, he could use the Starks to solve it, just like he had with the Greyjoys.

Now Arya was missing. Who was behind it? The Freys? The Boltons? Or were they working together? Had they been plotting all along in the shadows while Tywin was distracted by more pressing threats?

A few days later, Tywin received the second letter, sealed with the twin towers of House Frey. Inside was a short note accompanied by two fingers.

Give us what was promised and we will give you back what's yours.

Tywin's fury froze him. For a long moment he did not even draw a breath. When was the last time he had felt such intense rage? It had been quite a while now. It was as if there was a storm inside of him, the kind of storm that could flood the world.

These were Arya Stark's fingers. The two smallest ones from her right hand. And if he found out who had severed them he would make them beg for death. Did the Freys truly think they could they could play this game with him? He would raze their house to the ground, from Walder Frey to the youngest of his many sons. And if the Boltons were involved, he would add them to the pyre.

Something in his mind snapped into place, like the loaded spring on a trap, ready to crush any unfortunate creature that wandered into its path. He had felt the same way when the Reynes and Tarbecks dared to challenge the Lannister name. When Aerys paid him the insult of making Jaime a King's Guard. When Robert neared his victory. When Catelyn Stark took Tyrion prisoner. When Robb Stark captured Jaime. When Petyr Baelish admitted to having conspired to assassinate him. There was only one path forward. Only one. And he would see it to the end.

He wrote several letters that day. The first he wrote to his brother at Casterly Rock, bidding him come and watch over Tommen. The second he wrote to Jaime and gave to a rider to make sure it was delivered. The third letter was Genna warning her to excuse herself from the conflict of her husband's family. The fourth, fifth and several letters after that, he wrote to his Bannermen, calling them to action. The Freys and all those loyal to them had declared war on House Lannister and they would answer for it. The Tyrell forces would stay and guard the king while they dealt with the traitors in the Riverlands.

The last letter he wrote to Walder Frey. Short. Unsigned, but with the seal of House Lannister.

And soon the rains weep o'er their halls, with not a soul to hear.


Chapter Text

For Robb, there was only one path forward. But it was a desperately tricky path to walk.

Walder Frey's letter to Winterfell was an act of war against the Starks and Robb had to respond in kind, by calling his banners. But there was an immediate problem with that. Not one moon ago, many of the northmen had already pledged parts of their army to the Wall to help beat back Mance Rayder's army. And Robb could not call them back.

Mance was as much a threat to the north as Walder Frey. If he called his men away and marched south instead, the discontent would only grow. "Robb Starks thinks only of his family," they would say. "He pretends to care for the north, but when he faces a choice? He would damn us all for the lives of even one sister. Just like with the Lannisters."

But Robb could at least call on the men who had elected not to send men to the wall. He could not order them to fight for the Watch. But he could order them to fight for his family.

Every house sent some men, even if only a few. Some houses, like the Umbers had sent half their forces to the wall and sent their other half to Robb. Other houses, like Glover and Manderly, sent the majority of their forces to Robb, having doubts about the true threat of the Wildlings. Their loyalty, they said, belonged to House Stark first. Even the Boltons, who had sent most of their people to the wall, sent some people down south for the cause. It was fortunate that the northmen did not much like the Freys-especially after they had pulled their forces away in the War of Five Kings. They had no qualms with going to war with them. So Robb had at least some sort of army, even if it was small.

The Tullys would be another crucial addition to their numbers. Robb's mother saw to it that they joined them. Her brother Edmuere, who was Lord of Riverrun now, could not afford to let Frey treachery stand in the Riverlands. But there too, numbers were scant. More than one house had declared for House Frey. The Freys had been busy since the war ended, gathering sympathy and Edmuere Tully had largely ignored the rising discontent. The Riverlands was divided against the Starks and the Tullys alike.

"If they think that they can betray the Tullys and the Starks they are sorely mistaken," Robb muttered. "I'll kill every last man involved in this plot."

"If we get Bran and Arya back, we can," his mother replied fiercely. "And if they kill them, we will make them plead for death."

Sansa and Talisa were to stay behind at Winterfell to manage things there, but Robb's mother could not be persuaded to do the same. She was determined, just as with the last war, to accompany him. After all, this was a war against her homeland as much as it was a war against the north. And she would not leave Bran and Arya behind. Not after losing Rickon only a few moons past.

Robb was anxious to leave Winterfell. He was anxious to leave Talisa and the children. Little Ned and Lyanna wouldn't understand why their father was suddenly gone for so long, or why their uncle who had been living at Winterfell for as long as they could remember, was no longer in his chair. Little Ben would be too young to understand anything at all. And how could he begin to explain it to any of them? How could he begin to explain the cruelty of war?

"I'm sorry," Robb told Talisa before they said goodbye. "There was not supposed to be another war any time soon."

"It would have happened eventually. There are always more wars to fight," Talisa grasped his hands in hers. "If not for the children, I would go with you."

Robb looked glanced over her shoulder at where Little Ned was sitting cross legged on the floor, pushing a toy ship across the rug. "I wish I didn't have to go. I keep thinking that...that if I don't come back..."

Talisa shook her head and pulled his lips to hers. They had been wed for five years and still, her lips had not lost their power over him. From the first kiss they shared in his tent all the way to now...their feelings had not dulled or died.

After a long moment, she pulled back and looked up at him. "You will come back," she murmured. "I know you would not leave your children without their father."

My father did not mean to do that either. But he did all the same.

"Papa." Robb felt a tug at his cloak and he glanced down to see Lyanna staring up at him with big brown eyes. "Where go?"

Robb swallowed hard. One day, he would have to explain war to his children. He would explain the cruelty of some men and his duty to fight for his family and his people, just as his father once did. He remembered well when he first truly heard about the War of Five Kings and the destruction Aerys had reaped upon the world. As well as the crimes of Rhaegar Targaryen.

"When two of your family is killed and another taken captive...a man has no choice but to respond in kind. This world speaks a language of violence. So even if you fear war, you must be willing to master it. You must always master your fear in order to do what is right."

Robb had followed his advice, though he had not expected to do so at seventeen. Back then he had imagined going to war past his thirtieth year when he was wiser and understood the world like his father.

He was not supposed to become lord so early.

If Robb died, that would leave Little Ned as his heir. A four year old boy should never have to bare such a burden so early. So he had to come back. There was no choice.

Robb reached down and gently removed Lyanna's hand. "I'm going south. I'll be gone for a little while, but I'll be back." He smiled at her. "I promise."

Lyanna nodded once. She wasn't quite old enough to understand what a 'long time' meant.

Robb bid farewell to the rest of his children. Then gave one more kiss to his wife. As they rode out from Winterfell, he looked back over his shoulder to see her watching from the battlements, along with Sansa. They would manage affairs fine on their own.

He just had to return to them.

They took as straight a path as possible to the Riverlands. With the Frey's in open rebellion, the bridge would be closed to them. Instead they would have to attack from both sides. Robb and the northern army marched south and set up camp on the east side of the river. The Tully forces, meanwhile, sailed to the Cape of Eagles and setup camp in the west.

Seagard, of course, would be the ideal port from which the Tullys could launch their attack, but they were loyal to the Freys. It was not a surprise, Robb supposed. Seagard was close to the twins and the Mallisters and Freys had historically amiable relations.

An attack on Seagard would, perhaps, be a good first course of action. Otherwise, the Tullys could face an attack from two sides and on land and sea. But Walder Frey was not one to meet them in open battle. He would try to outlast them in a siege first, and rely on others to fight for him.

Then again, Walder Frey had struck first blood. If he had taken hostages, he would want to bargain. If he bargained, how could Robb be sure that Arya and Bran were unharmed beside their fingers? Walder was unlikely to play fair.

The debates with his bannermen were long and tedious. Umber, as always, favored direct action: An immediate attack on the Frey walls. The Glovers favored an attack on the Freys allies in order to cut off their possible supports. Edmuere Tully favored patience and a long siege, which would be equally difficult considering the wet winter the Riverlands was currently experiencing. Ice fell often and their men would weaken over time while the Freys stayed safe within their walls.

A notably absent voice was Roose Bolton's. He had sent men to represent him, but had not come himself. Apparently, he had elected to go to the Wall to fight for the north, along with his bastard son. Robb was made suspicious by their absence. But then, if they were in league with the Freys, why send men to the wall?

There were problems coming at Robb from all sides, just like the last war. The wet winter made poor conditions for a siege, his bannermen were constantly squabbling with the Tully bannermen, the common folk in the Riverlands hated the name Stark and Tully and seemed to blame them for their troubles. Multiple foot soldiers were attacked and some murdered when they tried to go to various towns for ale and women. And if the soldiers retaliated against the commoners, sentiment against them only increased.

They were short on man power. They were short on morale. They were short on resources. They were short on time.

There was one family that had the resources and the man power. But even if Tywin Lannister did arrive, the conflict amongst Robb's men would be immeasurable. Walder Frey was their opponent, but even in the peace, his banner men hated the Lannisters. The Riverlands hated them even more. Would they fight alongside them for the greater good?

Robb was wary enough of his bannermen's hatred of the Lannisters that he kept Jaime Lannister well away from them all and in constant disguise. He wore the colors of the north, and a helmet that obscured much of his face (and his golden hair) when he went around camp. The Karstarks would kill him if they knew he was here, after all. But Robb wouldn't very well leave Jaime Lannister at Winterfell when he was not there to watch him. He did not trust the Lannisters that much.

If Jaime Lannister had any plots, he did not make them known. Surprisingly, he was keen to help Robb with strategy after the other lords had left. Robb asked him more than once why he had not ridden back to King's Landing already.

"You are a King's Guard, aren't you?" Robb asked one evening. "Isn't your place by your nephew?"

"My father charged me to escort Lady Arya to Winterfell and to escort her back to King's Landing," Jaime said. "I've only done half of that job."

"There were extenuating circumstances," Robb said. "I'm sure your father would understand."

"Have you met my father, Lord Stark?"

Robb sighed, leaning over the map again. He had stared at this map for hours at a time, waiting for a clear path to present itself. He did not want to rush into a hasty attack that would lose them more lives, but he worried for Bran and Arya the longer they stayed in Walder Frey's hands. "It doesn't explain why you would risk staying amongst north men who loathe you."

"This helmet is actually working quite well as a disguise," Jaime said. "What do you care for my motives? I'm helping, aren't I?"

"Maybe I don't trust your help," Robb said.

"That is fair."

"I know it's fair. So what are your motives?"

Jaime paced around the table, tracing the fingers of his left hand along the edge. "You know...your sister is quite irritating."

Robb glared up at him. "What?"

"Irritating. Stubborn. Very few survival instincts. It's rather lucky that my father likes her so much."

"He owes her a debt, you mean," Robb muttered.

"No. That's not what I mean," Jaime said. "But if we're speaking of debts, I owe her one as well. After I lost my hand I was rather hopeless. You should have seen me, wandering about the castle like a ghost. I wasn't anywhere close to my usual charming self."

"Charming is a charitable word for you, Kingslayer," Robb said.

"Yes, yes," Jaime said. "The point is, I thought there was no point in picking up a sword with my useless left hand. Your sister...well she forced me to start practicing."

"Forced you?" Robb asked.

"Yes, she kept hitting me with a stick. Like I said: irritating." Jaime shrugged. "It would be poor repayment if I left her to the Freys."

Robb regarded him suspiciously. "Since when do you care so much about honor, Lannister?"

"Why is everything always about honor with you Starks?" Jaime asked. "This has nothing to do with honor."

Robb exhaled long and slow, looking down at the map again. "Everything in the north has to deal with honor. And everyone has a different definition of it. It's exhausting."

"Especially in war," Jaime said. "In war, it's dishonor and tricks that win. But you should know that. That stunt you pulled when you captured me. You sent two thousand men to their deaths."

"Shut your mouth," Robb said.

"That wasn't an insult. A compliment really. It was a brilliant move," Jaime said. "You did what you had to do to catch us off guard. The element of surprise gave you an edge in the war even when you didn't have the numbers or the experience. My father didn't know what to do with you because he knew nothing about you and he expected you to fight like your father in the War of Five Kings. Your father wasn't much older than you then, after all. It was an understandable assumption. But you didn't fight like him."

"Well that doesn't help me here," Robb said. "I don't have the element of surprise anymore. I'm a known entity. My strategies are known. My weaknesses are known." Robb looked up at the Kingslayer. "Walder Frey took my brother and sister because he knows I surrendered to Tywin Lannister for the sake of my family. He has been preparing for this day for sometimes. Preparing food for a siege. Preparing hostages for an attack. Preparing allies to attack us from all sides. Preparing for every move I made in the War of Five Kings."

"I suppose you'll have to make new moves then," Jaime said.

"Easier said than done," Robb said. "Any suggestions?"

"Maybe," Jaime said. "But I'm not the strategist. My father is. You'd be better off talking to him."

"He will be a whole new problem to deal with. He has the men we need, but if he comes, how will I keep my men from dissolving into a fight?" Robb asked.

"When he comes." Jaime paced over the table and poured a shallow cup of wine. "That's half the reason I'm here. I received word an hour ago. My father is coming. He'll be here in a few days' time."

Robb sank slowly into his chair. "Why didn't you lead with that?"

"You seemed very anxious."

"Did I? And do I seem relaxed now?"

"No," Jaime approached Robb and handed him the cup of wine "But at least you won't have to deal with me in your camp anymore."

Robb took a long draught of the wine, wishing for it to dull his nerves. "Small victories."

At dawn two days later, when Jaime saw the Lannister flags on the horizon, he stole away from the northern camp with his men and rode to meet his father. He did not want to be amongst the northmen when the chaos erupted. He felt rather sorry for Robb Stark. He was in a bad situation no matter which way he turned.

He discarded his helmet the moment he arrived and was quick to find his father's tent. His father was surveying a map much like Lord Stark's, a steely glint in his eyes. He did not look up when Jaime entered, but he saw him none the less.

"So. How did you come to misplace Arya Stark?"

"Are we truly blaming me for this?" Jaime asked. "There are at least five others you could blame before me."

"I'm not here to blame anyone. I'm here to pay back the Frey's for their defiance," Tywin said. "Tell me what happened, from the beginning."

"There's very little to tell," Jaime said. "The day before we were meant to leave, Arya was with her brother Bran in the godswood. Sometime between the afternoon and the evening, they went missing. The Starks received two of Bran's fingers from the Frey's a fortnight later. We assume Arya was taken with him. We have no way of knowing if they are alive."

"If they bothered to send fingers, they are alive," Tywin said, pacing around the table.

"They didn't send Arya's fingers," Jaime said.

"Yes. They did." Tywin replied.

Jaime was amazed. Were the Frey's truly that stupid? Even if his father did not have a fondness for Arya, such a gesture was an insult he would never let pass. It felt out of character for Walder Frey to behave so recklessly. Had age made him senile?

"Which hand?" Jaime murmured at last.

"Her right," Tywin said.

Jaime exhaled. "Well, that's some good news. She has her fighting hand still."

"She won't get a chance to use it if they are smart," Tywin said. "She's fought her way out of many situations. But she's not invincible. They will kill her if she puts up to much of a resistance."

"She's smarter than that," Jaime murmured.

His father nodded once. "I assume you warned Robb Stark of my arrival."

"Yes," Jaime said. "This is going to cause a bit of...a divide in the northern camp."

"Good," Tywin said. "Not everyone in the northern camp is to be trusted. Chaos will draw out the traitors like poison from a wound. Have the Boltons ridden south?"

"A small group," Jaime said. "It's actually a bit complicated. There are less northmen than usual because many able bodied soldiers left for the wall. Apparently Mance Rayder has an army of one hundred thousand wildlings."

"One hundred thousand? It's unlikely any man could force cooperation from even one thousand wildlings," Tywin said.

"Ned Stark's bastard seemed sure of the number," Jaime said. "Roose Bolton apparently sent a great deal of men to the wall. He went himself, if his men are to be believed."

"We'll investigate that claim," Tywin said. "This is too convenient a time for the northern forces to split in two. I wonder if Ned Stark's bastard has other designs in mind."

"Highly unlikely," Jaime said. "The boy is more like his father than any of the rest of them. Sincere to a fault. And he adores his sister. I think this might be an awful coincidence."

Tywin exhaled and sat at his desk. "Perhaps."

Jaime studied his father. "You don't seem well."

"I'm tired," his father muttered. "Every time I deal with one problem and two rise up in its place. After the War of Five Kings, I was forced to handle Joffrey. Then I had to handle your sister. Now that a more stable king is in place and she is home, the Freys are in open rebellion and the wall is in danger of being breached. By the time this war is over, I'm sure that Dorne will decide to take its turn at rebellion. Or perhaps the Targaryen girl will finally make her journey across the sea."

"Perhaps," Jaime agreed. He was beginning to understand why his father took such a brutal approach to dealing with enemies. He had massacred the Reynes and Tarbecks down to the last child. No one could return for revenge if they were dead. "I wonder father, do you still sleep?"

"Rarely," Tywin said. "I suppose Robb Stark will be riding to meet with me soon."

"Yes," Jaime said.

"Good," Tywin said. "We'll see how willing this boy is to do what is necessary."

Chapter Text

 Robb did not bring any of his bannermen to meet with Tywin, which Catelyn thought was the wisest course. She had seen the chaos the Lannister lions caused in the camp when they appeared on the hill. Some of the men insisted that Tywin had come to fight for the Freys and would betray them at any minute. Others did not care if Tywin came to help or not. They did not want to fight alongside a Lannister. Some of the lords agreed with Robb: that they needed all the help they could get. But even his greatest supporters were wary of the red and gold banners on the horizon.

So Robb took Catelyn and Edmuere with him-along with a small passel of his most loyal guards-to meet with Tywin. Edmuere to represent the Tullys. Robb to represent the Starks. And Catelyn...well she insisted on going with him. The lives of her children were on the line, after all. Robb seemed to understand that because he did not argue with her.

Catelyn was far more worried about Edmuere dealing with Tywin than anyone else. Edmuere had never been a clever man and he wasn't particularly strong willed either. Lord Tywin would sense weakness in him the moment he walked into the tent, and rambling, which her brother was prone to do, would not help their case.

"Do not speak to Lord Tywin," Catelyn advised him. "Truly, I cannot emphasize that enough."

"I'm Lord of the Riverlands, Cat. I can handle him," Edmuere said.

"You cannot," Catelyn said. "Don't speak."

Lord Tywin did not have any of his banner men with him when Robb arrived. Only Jaime. Catelyn wondered if the Lannister bannermen were reluctant to ally with the Starks as well. Robb had killed many of their men in battle, after all.

As much as her son hated Tywin, he kept those feelings to himself when they entered the tent. He bowed his head but only slightly. "Lord Tywin."

"Lord Stark." Tywin glanced from Robb to Edmuere, sizing him up. "Lord Tully."

Her brother did not manage a reply. He simply gave a nervous nod. Tywin's calculating gaze had struck him dumb. Robb, fortunately, was not as easily intimidated.

"I was glad to see your banners on the horizon this morning," Robb said.

"Were you?" Tywin asked.

"You have the men we need. I'm not sure if Ser Jaime explained our situation," Robb said.

"He did," Tywin said. "I am curious about that situation. Jaime was not present when you held court for obvious reasons. When your bastard brother made his plea for the Night's Watch, did any of your bannermen seem eager to contribute troops?"

Catelyn studied him carefully, wondering what he was getting at.

"No one is ever eager for war," Robb replied. "Especially a war with one hundred thousand wildlings."

"Then was anyone in strong support of sending men to the wall?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because this attack on the wall divided your forces just before Walder Frey declared war. You must have suspected by now that he could have spies or allies in the north," Tywin said. "My question stands."

"Lord Bolton," Catelyn murmured. "Particularly his bastard son. He made a particularly grand speech in favor of defending the wall. They sent a good portion of their forces north."

"Who told you this? Bolton's men?" Tywin asked. "I suggest you check the validity of that claim. The Bolton's are not your allies."

"I sent a raven to the wall," Robb said. "My bastard brother Jon Snow confirmed that the Boltons are there."

"And you believe Jon Snow is to be trusted?"

"I would trust him with my life," Robb said without hesitating. "Nevertheless, I will keep an eye on the Boltons. But regarding them...I have a few questions for you," Robb said. "You sent Arya home with a letter warning me of the Freys and the Boltons. The Freys I understand. I broke a vow to Lord Walder and he is not the type of man to forgive. But why the Boltons? Why did you suspect them of treachery? You did not give specific reasons."

Tywin regarded Robb in silence for a moment, as if debating an honest answer. At last, he exhaled. "I told you four years ago that if you rejected my offer of peace four years ago I would destroy your house and name. It wasn't an idle threat. I was in contact with those who had lost faith in you. Walder Frey was one. He wanted to take the Riverlands from the Tullys. Roose Bolton was another. He hoped to become warden of the north in your absence. I did not promise them anything, but when you accepted peace, they lost their chance."

A wave of fury rolled through Catelyn. Roose Bolton had fought alongside Ned more than once. He was not a kind man, but she at least thought he would be honorable. "How long was Lord Bolton against us?"

"Since Ned Stark's death," Tywin said. "He did not think the Starks would survive a war with the Lannisters and he doubted Robb would try to make peace after his father fell. He hoped to outlast you."

Robb's jaw clenched. "What plans did you conspire with these traitors then, Lord Tywin? Did you bid Roose Bolton stab me in the back? Or did you ask Walder Frey to lure me into some trap?"

"I did not bid or ask anything," Tywin said. "But I did not protest their plans either. It was not a clean way to end the war, but it would have ended it."

Robb did not reply but anger was written on every line of his face. Catelyn felt the same fury in her own heart. Tywin Lannister was a man devoid of honor.

"Walder Frey is not a brave man," Tywin continued. "He knew I would not back him once you made peace, and I did not expect him to pursue the Riverlands any further. But he has been spending these past few years wisely. Riling the small folk against you. Convincing others in the Riverlands to rebel against the Tullys. Our Master of Whispers caught wind of several suspicious movements from the Freys. That prompted me to send the letter with your sister."

"And the Boltons? What are their suspicious movements?" Robb asked.

"None," Tywin said. "They seem far too content and supportive of the Starks. It contradicts what I know of them."

"Too content," Robb murmured. "Arya said the same thing."

"You had her watching them?" Tywin asked.

"Yes," Robb said. "She's usually rather good at going unnoticed. But they did notice her. Roose Bolton and his bastard both made a point to speak with her."

"I don't know much of the bastard," Tywin said. "Though I have no doubt he is dangerous if he's learned anything from his father."

"Apparently they both went to the wall. Though now we have reason to check that again," Jaime spoke up. "Arya has good instincts. If she suspected the Bolton's of some plot, I'm inclined to believe her."

Catelyn studied Jaime. It was strange for him to speak highly of Arya or put trust in her. But then, he had been acting familiar around Arya ever since he arrived in the north. She had wondered why more than once.

"I'll send men to investigate Lord Bolton," Robb said. "If he is, indeed, in league with the Freys, or has plots of his own, he may have other allies in the north. I don't want to move on him and lose the trail on the others. In the meantime, something else has me confused."

"And what is that?" Tywin asked.

Robb's eyes glinted like steel. "Why are you here, Lord Tywin?"

"Why am I here?" Tywin repeated. "This is a rebellion, Lord Stark."

"Yes. And you left us to deal with the last one alone. You offered no help with quelling the Greyjoys. I'm surprised to see you offer help now."

Catelyn glanced from her son to Tywin. She wondered if he was trying to force some sort of confession from him. To admit that Arya had indeed saved his life and that he owed her a debt. Tywin was not one to walk into such a trap.

"Arya Stark is my ward. It's a personal insult to House Lannister," Tywin said.

"Most people don't go to war for their wards," Robb said.

"You're right," Tywin said. "It happens that she is important to my family's legacy."

"Father," Jaime muttered under his breath. Suddenly, the Kingslayer looked like he would like to disappear.

Catelyn's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"

Tywin held her gaze. "Arya is engaged to marry Jaime."

Catelyn wasn't sure what she expected to hear but it was not that. To her right, she was aware of Robb taking a furious step forward. She threw out her arm to stop him though she wanted nothing more than to launch herself forward as well. At Tywin or Jaime. She wasn't sure yet.

"So that's your plan? A perfect way to keep Arya permanently in your hold," Robb snapped. "I don't suppose you've told Arya about this."

"Actually I have. She's known about the match for over a year now," Tywin said. "I suppose I can understand why she didn't tell you."

"This is crossing a line, Lord Tywin," Catelyn muttered. "Arya is still a Stark."

"And once she returns to King's Landing, she will become a Lannister," Tywin said.

Robb hissed and pushed past Catelyn's arm. But as he stepped forward, Tywin Lannister stood to meet him, his expression hard. With his height, he towered over Robb.

"Don't try it, boy."

"Call me boy again," Robb muttered.

"I will. If you continued to act like one," Tywin said coldly. "Weren't you planning to marry your sister to a Frey boy for that bridge? Tenth or twelfth in line for the seat of the Twins?"

Robb's jaw clenched and Catelyn shuddered. Yes, they had promised Arya to one of Walder Frey's grandsons, and she would have loathed the match. It was a desperate time, and Catelyn had hated to do it. But at least it was a boy her age. Not a Lannister. Not the Kingslayer.

Why hadn't Arya said something? Was she so desperate to keep her family from worrying-to keep the peace-that she would hide such a terrible secret?

"Isn't Ser Jaime a King's Guard?" Edmuere spoke up, breaking the tense silence. Everyone turned to look at him and he shrunk a bit. "I just...Kingsguard can't marry so..."

"Jaime lost his hand in battle. He was unfit to continue as a Kingsguard so King Tommen released him of his duties," Tywin said flatly.

"Right. Of course," Edmuere said, looking suddenly like he would like to flee.

"You were very quiet on that point, ser," Catelyn glared at Jaime.

"It wasn't for me to tell," Jaime muttered, fidgeting with the glove on his golden hand.

"She's a child," Catelyn snapped.

"Her sixteenth name day has passed. She is of age," Tywin said.

"Yes. And more importantly, right now, she's a hostage of the Freys," Jaime raised his voice. "And she might die. Who bloody cares who she's engaged to?" He circled around Robb and Tywin. "I'm leaving."

"This discussion is not at its end, Kingslayer," Robb said.

"Of course it isn't," Jaime sneered. "By all means, convince my father to give up the engagement. Arya and I will both thank you for it."

Robb was just barely holding his temper. If Tywin noticed, he remained unmoved.

"The discussion is at its end. My son could not change my mind. Neither could your sister. What makes you think you have a chance?"

Robb gritted his teeth together and stepped back. "For now, we focus on fighting the Freys. Then we can worry about the future."

Tywin nodded once, pacing back behind his desk.

Robb made to leave and looked at Catelyn, as if expecting her to move as well. She did not. "Go one. I will follow shortly. I would like to speak with Lord Tywin for a moment."

Robb glanced from her to the Lord of House Lannister, worry in his eyes. He did not want to leave his mother to deal with a lion. But her boy forgot that she could be as much a wolf as him. She had teeth of her own.

At last, he nodded and left the tent, followed shortly by her nervous brother. Tywin Lannister did not look up from the papers on his desk. "Why send your son away? I doubt you have secrets from him."

"I don't," Catelyn said flatly. "But my son is determined to keep peace with you and has no choice but to be diplomatic. I don't want him to feel responsible for what I am about to say."

Now, Tywin looked up. He had colder eyes than any man Catelyn had ever met. Most would have been afraid of him, but she had a mother's fury to steady her heart and voice.

"You can't imagine how much I've hated you. Ever since you snatched Arya away from me and to that viper's nest of a capitol."

"I think your hatred is clear enough," Tywin said.

"You're only seeing the surface of it," Catelyn muttered. "You could never understand just how deep it goes."

"In fact, I can," Tywin said. "One of my children was used as a hostage once."

"Jaime was a man grown when Robb took him prisoner. He-"

"I'm not talking about his captivity with Robb," Tywin said. "I'm talking about his captivity with the Mad King."

Catelyn did not quite know how to respond. "He was a King's Guard, not a hostage. The youngest King's Guard in history."

"He was. But Aerys did not name him for his skill," Tywin said. "He named him King's Guard to strike back at me. He robbed me of my heir, which was insult enough. But that wasn't his only intent. He wanted Jaime as a hostage. He wanted someone to burn if I ever moved against him. Just as he burned your late husband's father and brother. He liked to watch people burn." Tywin plucked a wooden figurine from his desk. It looked like a game piece. A king with a broken crown. He rolled it in his hand, almost absently. "I waited in Casterly Rock, wondering when Aerys would tire of keeping Jaime hostage. I wondered when I would receive word that my son was dead."

Catelyn did not reply. Jaime Lannister was a Kingslayer who betrayed the man he was bound to serve. That was what Ned always said and that was what she always believed. She did not consider why.

Tywin looked up at her. "I never received that word, but I paid Aerys back for the threat. I sacked his city and made way for his enemy to take the throne. And Jaime stabbed him in the back. I imagine you wish you could do the same. I imagine you wish that your daughter would run me through."

"She wouldn't have had to," Catelyn muttered. "She could have just let you die."

Now it was Tywin's turn to be silent. He set the king with the broken crown back on the desk in front of him.

"Robb blames himself for Arya and Bran's situation," she said. "But I blame you. Your false promises-your games-are the reason why the Freys are moving against us."

"I didn't promise the Freys anything," Tywin said.

"I won't debate semantics with you. You made Lord Walder believe you would give him the Riverlands. He didn't get them and now he's angry. That's the truth," Catelyn said. "You couldn't beat my son in the field; you decided to use treachery as your weapon. You used treachery and my daughter to earn your victory. And now she's suffering for it."

Tywin regarded her for a long moment. His gaze was hard and his jaw taught with tension. He stayed calm and controlled, however. Catelyn wondered if the Lord of Lannister ever allowed himself a single impulsive reaction. "Do you think it more honorable to win a war on a battlefield, Lady Stark?"

Catelyn was caught off guard by the question. "That is the object of war."

"The object of war is to win, whether on the battlefield or with letters," Tywin said. "It isn't a game. If you lose you cannot try again. And the longer you play it, more people die. I made certain arrangements so that the war would end as quickly as possible. If I had fought the war solely on the battlefield, countless more soldiers and smallfolk would have died. That does not seem honorable to me."

"Don't pretend the lives of others have ever mattered to you," Catelyn muttered.

"I don't pretend anything," Tywin said. "I ended the war to secure the future of my family. But it did save lives, whether I intended it or not."

"And this new war?" Catelyn asked. "Will it save lives?"

Tywin exhaled and sat down at his desk. "I thought your daughter inherited her tenacity from her father. I see I was mistaken."

"You don't get to speak of her," Catelyn muttered. "It's because of you she is in danger."

"You're right," Tywin said. Catelyn did not expect him to say it so bluntly. She expected more empty justifications. Not a blunt admission. "They took the boy to provoke your eldest son. They took Arya to provoke me. I imagine they sent you two of the boy's fingers?"

Catelyn swallowed hard. "Yes...How did you...?"

"Because they sent me two of Arya's," Tywin said.

Catelyn's shoulders shuddered. Part of her had hoped Arya might still be unscathed. Her daughter was strong and fierce, but to imagine her in pain was almost too much. "Why? Why send them to you?"

"She's my ward," Tywin said simply.

"She's your pawn," Catelyn said. "You took her to keep my family in line and you've used her for your own gain ever since then. Why should you care if she suffers?"

"Does it matter?" Tywin asked. Now his tone grew sharp, as if they were entering a conversation he did not want to have. "I've brought soldiers to help your son. Soldiers he sorely needs. I'm sure you would not turn them away."

"No," Catelyn said. "No, we'll take your soldiers and your help, because it is the very least you can do after all of the hardships the Lannisters have wrought on the Starks." She lifted her chin. "And if Arya dies, her blood is on your hands."

He did not reply. But something in his expression did shift. Catelyn could not name the change exactly, but it seemed almost pained. "Agreed," he murmured. "Have you said your peace?"

"For now." Catelyn said. Then she turned and swept from Tywin Lannister's tent.

Chapter Text

It was difficult to fight a war when one did not know who to trust, and Tywin's report about the Boltons had left Robb suspicious of all his banner men. His decision to make peace had not been popular. And before he made peace, he had alienated the Karstarks after he killed their patriarch. How many of his bannermen were on the side of the Boltons? And were the Boltons in league with the Freys or a separate threat all together?

These questions poisoned his mind and left him with many sleepless nights. He wished often for Talisa. In the last war, she had always been at his side. Their love was fresh and new. Naïve, perhaps, but she was something to hope for after a hard day.

Now, his tent greeted him with silence and a slew of problems to keep him occupied until daybreak.

Oddly, the Lannister army became something of a blessing. Tywin's first act on the battlefield was to burn the Mallister fleet at Seagard, making a coastal assault impossible. It allowed the Tully forces to lay siege to the western castle of the Twins without worrying about an attack from the rear. Tywin sent out smaller forces to attack other Frey allies. Some of them surrendered as soon as they saw the Lannister lion, not wanting to provoke Tywin's wrath. The smallfolk stopped fighting soldiers for the same reason.

It confused Robb. Had the Freys not told their allies that they planned to antagonize Lord Tywin as well? Was this a scheme of Walder Frey alone? It seemed foolish to pull the lion's tail and not expect a response.

Even as the Lannisters cleared out the threats from behind them, Lord Tywin's presence only made the northern lords more combative. The Umbers were especially vocal about wanting him gone. They claimed that the north could fight its own battles. The Umbers had been the most vocally against the peace as well. Could they be with the Boltons?

The Bolton men were quiet about the whole thing. They did not raise dissent and they followed orders without question. Robb didn't like it. It only made him feel more nervous. He suspected everyone of a possible plot. If the Boltons could turn on him, couldn't anyone else? They did not respect him as their leader. Not since he surrendered to the crown.

"Lord Stark."

They would never respect him like they respected his father. His father won a great rebellion to overthrow the Targaryen dynasty. But Robb...

"Lord Stark."

Robb snapped out of his thoughts and looked up. He had nearly forgotten where he was for a moment. In Tywin Lannister's tent, listening to a report about the surrender of House Darry. It was a victory for their army. One less enemy to worry about. Yet Robb had barely registered the words.

"Yes, House Darry," he murmured at last. "That's nearly all of the Frey allies surrendered now."

"All but the Mallisters yes. But they are not a concern without their fleet," Tywin said. The lord of Casterly Rock was studying him closely. Robb tried to ignore it, staring intently down at the map on the table.

"That didn't take very long," he murmured.

"The Riverlands is still scarred from the last war," Tywin said. "I'm not sure they understood what kind of game Walder Frey was playing. I did not expect them to last long."

"This is only happening at all because you set the Riverlands on fire," Robb muttered.

"Really? And I could have sworn it had something to do with you breaking your vow to Walder Frey," Tywin said flatly. "Don't presume to lay all of the blame for your troubles on me. You made missteps without my help."

Robb felt rather like knocking over a chair, but that would have been an immature response. Instead he gripped the back and imagined he could crush the wood with his anger.

Lord Tywin was silent for a long moment. Then he indicated the chair. "Sit."

"I don't take orders from you," Robb said.

"I'm the Hand of your King. Technically, you do take orders from me," Tywin said. "Sit. You've been swaying ever since you stepped into my tent."

Robb couldn't argue with that. He felt utterly exhausted. But part of him wanted to keep standing anyway, just to defy the Lord of Casterly Rock.

Ultimately, he rejected that childish inclination and took a seat.

"Good," Tywin crossed over to his desk and poured two goblets of wine. "You haven't been sleeping."

It was a statement, not a question.

"How can I?" Robb asked. "I don't know which of my men to trust."

"The traitors will come to the surface soon enough," Tywin said. "Keep your tent well-guarded and you do not have to fear a knife in your back while you rest."

"And what if the guards cannot be trusted either?" Robb muttered.

"There's a fine line between suspicion and paranoia, Lord Stark." Tywin moved over to him, offering him one of the goblets of wine. Robb accepted, slowly. Maybe the wine would settle his nerves, and he desperately needed that. "Aerys Targaryen let the latter drive him to madness by the end."

"That bodes well for me," Robb said. "It doesn't matter. Even the men loyal to me see me as weak. Because you forced my surrender."

"I did," Tywin agreed. "You could have refused."

"You would have killed Arya. I didn't have a choice."

"You had a choice," Tywin said. "Men always have choices, even when they're terrible. Those choices have consequences either way." Tywin sipped his wine. "You made the better of the two choices."

"Better for you, perhaps."

"No. Better for you as well. And your family and your bannermen. They just don't know it. They'll never truly know it."

Robb's grip tightened on his cup. "Most of them still see me as a boy. They respect my father's ghost more than me. Not that I blame them. When my grandfather and uncle were killed, and my aunt Lyanna taken, my father went to war to seek justice. And he got it. He helped end centuries of Targaryen rule. Rhaegar died. Aerys died. He did exactly what he set out to do."

"Perhaps," Tywin said. "But your father's killer is dead as well."

"Not killed by a Stark, so it doesn't matter much, does it?"

Tywin paused for a long moment before he spoke again. "Your father did not kill Rhaegar or Aerys himself. Did it matter to your banner men then?"

Robb did not reply. No, his father hadn't killed any Targaryens personally. He assisted Robert Baratheon all the way to the throne. Yet still, he was strong. He was respected as a military commander. Robb felt as if he was only playing at being his father.

"Respect is not earned by your name alone. Even eldest sons are not born into respect," Tywin said as he sat down at the table across from Robb. "My father was not the eldest son. He was third in line for Lord of Casterly Rock. He stumbled into the title, and he was not equipped to deal with it. By the time I was born, the Lannister name had lost all respect in the West. Other lords knew they could manipulate my father into giving them whatever they wanted. They refused to pay taxes. My father refused to force the issue. The responsibility fell to me. Now, only fools disrespect the Lannister name. Do you know why?"

"I assume you are going to tell me," Robb murmured.

"Because I was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure my family lived on," Tywin said.

"You were willing to massacre innocents," Robb retorted. "I know the story. You killed every Reyne and Tarbeck down to the last child."

"And since then, my bannermen have never rebelled against me," Tywin said.

Robb glared down at his wine. "My father's bannermen did not rebel against him. He never took part in a massacre."

"Your father had the luxury of winning a noble rebellion," Tywin said. "Not every lord gets to choose to play hero for the respect of their people."

"I thought all men had choices. Even terrible ones," Robb retorted.

Tywin regarded him coldly. "They do. And I made mine a long time ago." He stood again, returning to his desk. "How you deal with this rebellion will determine the future of your house, Lord Stark. I will handle the Freys once they surrender, because I don't trust your fool of an Uncle to have a strong hand. But I leave the fate of any northern traitors to you. You will have a choice. If you make the wrong choice, you will have another rebellion on your hands in a few years' time. Make the right choice, and the north might know stability again."

Stability. That was a foreign concept to Robb, but he knew he must seek it to keep his family safe. Justice was not the problem. He was willing to put all of the traitors to the sword. But how would he decide who was a traitor and who was not? Where did he show mercy? His father always spoke against punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty. But where did one draw that line?

"You are a better commander than your father." Tywin broke the silence again as he began to sort through papers on his desk.

Robb's head jerked up. "I...what?"

"Your father was not born to rule the north," Tywin said. "Your uncle Brandon was. Eddard Stark was a second son trained all his life to follow. You were raised knowing that you would lead one day," Tywin said. "But beyond that, your father was too honorable. Too honest. On the battlefield he always made a straightforward play. It worked against the Mad King because the rebellion had great numbers and Aerys had few allies in the end. But if your father had been leading the charge in the War of Five Kings...I would have routed him in a few months."

Robb opened his mouth to defend his father but Tywin Lannister held up a hand.

"Fortunately for you, you did not fight like your father. You made moves that he might have called dishonorable. That gave you a great many victories on the battlefield. Because you didn't treat war like a game of honor. You treated it like a life or death conflict. Which it was."

"If I lost, my family was doomed," Robb said. "So I couldn't lose."

"Family outweighs everything else. Including honor." Tywin sat back in his seat. "Your sister understands that. I hope you do as well."

"I do. But I do not discard honor, Lord Tywin." Robb stood slowly. "Aye, my father may have been too honest. Too honest for King's Landing at any rate. But in the north, honor is important. My men will not respect me if I follow in your footsteps."

"I don't suggest you follow in my footsteps. Different situations require different responses," Tywin said. "I did not deal with each of the five kings in the same way, did I?"

That was true. He hadn't. Tywin had a different way of dealing with each of the houses who rose up against the crown. The Stark family had survived. But the other Baratheons and the Greyjoys...they were gone.

"You said you'll leave any northern traitors to me," Robb said after a pause. "Do you mean that?"

"I do," Tywin said.

"Why?" Robb asked. "You're so fond of giving orders. Controlling everything yourself. And the north is a very large stretch of land. Why leave its fate in my hands?"

"Because," Tywin said. "I want to see what kind of leader you will become."

Sieges were a long and tedious business that usually involved a lot of waiting. And waiting was far more difficult when one was worried about the fate of their children. Every day that passed, Catelyn was worried that Walder Frey would send more fingers from Bran or Arya. Worse, she feared that they might already be dead. She had not seen them since she arrived. What if he disposed of them months ago? It would not be wise to kill hostages, but then, neither was antagonizing two major houses at once.

Then, one day, they did receive a letter from Walder Frey, carried by a single rider.

I will meet with Robb Stark to discuss terms of peace within a fortnight, or I will kill Bran Stark.

It was short and to the point. And absolutely out of the question.

"If you go to discuss peace terms with Walder Frey, you won't leave the castle alive," Tywin Lannister told Robb after he read the note. They had gathered once again in his tent: Tywin and Jaime to represent the Lannisters. Robb and Catelyn to represent the North. And Edmuere to represent the Riverlands.

"But if he comes with the intention to discuss peace-" Edmuere started to say.

"It won't matter," Tywin said. "Walder Frey is willing to break the rules of war, honor and the gods. And the moment he kills Robb, the entirety of the northern army will destabilize, giving any possible traitors the perfect opportunity to seize power. Meeting with him would be walking into a trap."

"I agree," Robb said. "So how do you suggest I save Bran and Arya?"

Tywin glanced up at him. "This seems like a question for your bannermen. Why ask me?" He asked the question like he already knew the answer. As if he was testing Robb.

"I do not know which of my bannermen can be trusted," Robb said. "If I make plans with any traitors, they could warn Walder Frey and prompt him to kill Bran sooner. And if I try to make plans with only my most trustworthy men, the traitors will know I suspect them."

Tywin inclined his head. If the question was a test, Robb had clearly passed. "Yes, they would. Hopefully we can prevent that." Tywin rested back in his seat. "Walder Frey's place in this war rests entirely on his hostages. Without them he has no leverage and we could storm his keep within the night."

"Easier said than done," Robb said.

"But not impossible," Tywin said. "What do you know of the Defiance of Duskendale?"

Robb's brow furrowed. "It was a massacre, wasn't it?"

"A massacre of House Darklyn and all of their allies, yes," Catelyn said. She had heard the horror stories of Duskendale when she was a girl. They were not the sort of stories a young lady was supposed to hear, but Petyr had always enjoyed telling the awful tales. "The Mad King ordered every one of them executed. Some of those executions were particularly brutal."

"That was the aftermath, yes," Tywin said. "But the massacre came as the result of a particularly stupid rebellion. The Darklyn took the king prisoner when he came to collect their taxes. Storming the keep may have killed him. So Barristan Selmy volunteered to undertake a rescue mission. It succeeded. Lord Darklyn surrendered the next day."

"As I recall, father," Jaime spoke up. "That was a very risky gamble that you did not think would succeed."

"War is full of risky gambling," Tywin said. "I wouldn't send just one man in this case."

"No. A small group would better," Jaime said. "Actually, I may have something to contribute to this possible strategy."

Tywin glanced up at Jaime. "Really?"

"Don't act so surprised," Jaime said. "I may be terrible at politics, but I'm actually rather good at war. And the strategy I used at Dragonstone might work here."

"Didn't you lose your hand at Dragonstone?" Robb asked.

Jaime let out an irritated breath. "Yes, but that had nothing to do with my strategy. The strategy worked." He stepped forward to the table. "We concentrated our attacks at obvious points on the outer wall. The soldiers went to deal with those attacks and left gaps. That allowed a small group of men to sneak into the keep at one of those gaps. They disguised themselves as Baratheon men. Then, they caused a distraction to draw the guards away from the main gate and opened it for my army. It was a gamble, yes, but one that won us the day. We could sneak a few men over the walls to rescue Bran Stark with the same method. And the Twins aren't surrounded on all sides by ocean. That makes it easier."

"It does," Tywin said. "Though if possible, we should place men inside the keep well in advance. Unlike Duskendale and Dragonstone, this can't be a last minute gamble. This needs to be carefully planned, and we'll need eyes and ears inside to do it."

"The men who helped infiltrate Dragonstone are still with us. I can set them to it," Jaime said. "They proved themselves more than capable a few years ago."

"But there are other problems," Robb said. "If we antagonize Walder Frey with a direct attack, he may kill Bran or Arya sooner. When you attacked Dragonstone, Stannis did not have any hostages."

"So perhaps the distraction should not be an attack," Catelyn murmured.

"What then?" Jaime asked.

"Walder Frey wants to meet to discuss peace terms," Catelyn said. "Despite Robb's broken vow, he will expect Starks to keep to a code of honor. If we accept, he may lower his guard."

"But who do we send to meet with Walder Frey?" Robb asked.

"The same person we sent the first time," Catelyn said. "Me."

Robb shook his head. "No. Absolutely not."

"Robb's right. You can't go," Edmuere said.

"He'll kill you too," Tywin pointed out. "Or at the very least add you to his collection of hostages."

"Of course he will," Catelyn said. "Which is why he will allow me to enter the keep. If Robb sends one of his bannermen, it will be seen as an insult and provoke him. Lord Walder will see Robb sending his mother as an insult as well, but he'll still accept it because he can use me against Robb. Then while he thinks he has earned another victory, we pull the rug out from under him."

Tywin rubbed his jaw. "It could work...But there is still a high likelihood you will die. Once Walder Frey understands that there is foul play, he might kill you immediately."

"Exactly," Robb said. "So it's out of the question."

"It's not." Catelyn lifted her chin, looking between her son and Tywin. "If it can save Arya and Bran...let Lord Walder kill me. I am more than willing to die."

There was a long silence in the tent after her declaration, until Jaime hesitantly spoke again. "Lord Stark. It isn't ideal but...I can't think of a better alternative. Can you?"

Robb stared a long time at the ground, as if searching there for another way. For any other way. Catelyn's heart clenched at the sight. Her son was everything a good Lord should be. And yet sometimes, she still saw the child in him. Her boy, forced to grow up too early. He did not want to sacrifice his mother, but he knew as well as anyone: there wasn't another way.

This was their best chance.

At last, Robb looked up and met her gaze. "All right. But I will only send you in if there is a chance of success. First, in order for this plan to work, we must get men on the inside. We must have a guaranteed opening. If we have that...then I'll send you." He swallowed hard. "But only if your promise to survive as long as possible."

"I will," Catelyn said.

Robb turned back to Tywin. "I'll send word to Lord Walder, agreeing to meet to discuss terms in a fortnight. I will tell my banner men that I plan to send my mother to negotiate, and that we will cease our attacks during that time. If there is a traitor amongst them, word of my orders will find its way to Walder Frey. It will make him less likely to suspect. Then I will choose men that I trust above all others to tell the true plan."

"And if you choose wrong?" Tywin asked.

"There's a fine line between suspicion and paranoia, Lord Tywin," Robb said flatly. "If I don't have any men I can trust then I am clearly not fit to lead the North."

Tywin nodded once, as if satisfied with his response. "I suppose you plan to lead the ultimate rescue."

"I do," Robb said. "I won't truly trust anyone to do this but myself."

"It's not wise to put yourself in the crossfire. The north could easily lose its leader if things go poorly," Tywin said.

"I know," Robb said. "As I said...we'll only go through with this if there's a reasonable chance of success. If your spies find no openings, then we will hold back. But if they do...then I will make sure that things do not go poorly."

"See that you do," Tywin said.

With that, Tywin Lannister seemed to give his final approval for this venture. It was strange to Catelyn that they were plotting with this man at all. But an enemy of their enemy was their ally.

And Arya and Bran came before any past grudges.

Chapter Text

 Jaime caught up to Robb once they left his father's tent. "Lord Stark. Might I have a word?"

"You may have several if you'd like," Robb said. For a moment, Lady Catelyn stopped to look back at her son and he waved her to continue on. "What is it?"

"You said you plan to lead the rescue mission yourself, yes?" Jaime asked.

"Yes," Robb said. "Men in the North respect action. They won't respect me if I send others in to do the work for me."

Jaime nearly sighed. This boy really was his father's son. It occurred to Jaime, not for the first time, that he was holding a sword that by all rights should belong to Robb Stark. But now was not the time to discuss that.

"I'm not arguing," Jaime said. "But I would like to join you."

Robb studied Jaime for a long moment. "Are you so eager to lose your other hand?"

"No. I don't plan on it," Jaime said. "I'm hoping the golden hand might distract them. Most men are used to targeting the right side."

"Even so...I doubt your father would approve."

"Of course he wouldn't. Why do you think I waited until we left his tent to mention it?"

Robb's eyes narrowed as he studied Jaime. "Why then...Why risk this at all?"

"You're risking as much as I am," Jaime pointed out.

"They're my family. My responsibility. What's your reason?"

Jaime exhaled and flexed his left hand a few times. He really hated having this discussion. Did he really need to spell it out? "I told you already, didn't I? I built my entire identity on my right hand. After I lost it, I thought I might as well die, because there was no point in it all if I couldn't wield a sword. Your sister is the one who made me pick up a blade with my left hand.

"You told me," Robb murmured. "You didn't tell me why though. Why did she do it?"

"Oh, I don't know. She has this odd habit of saving members of my family. I don't think she even realizes she's doing it." Jaime sighed. "Though really...perhaps she just wanted a sparring partner and I was there. Or maybe she's a genuinely good person. I'm not really sure."

He was sure. Arya Stark was a good person. Better than most. Even if she had a strange way of going about her father's honor, she still had it. He hated to think of her trapped in the Twins without her weapons. Fortunately he had brought all of them south. Her nameless knife, Needle and Winter's Fury. Just in case she needed them. Maybe he could pass one to her when they found her.

"Look, we can call it paying a debt and be done with it," Jaime said. "I'd like to help save Arya. Is that so much for you to believe?"

Robb shook his head. "It's not. Fine. Have it your way, so long as you don't stab me in the back."

Jaime's smile was sharp. "Don't worry. I only do that to vicious kings."

When Robb had left, Jaime returned to his father's tent. He was turning a Cyvasse piece in his hand, but he set it down when Jaime entered.

"What did you discuss with Robb Stark?" Tywin asked.

"We're plotting to overthrow you so I can claim the title of Lord of Casterly Rock sooner," Jaime said snidely.

Tywin gave him a look. "I'm not in the mood for jokes right now."

"You're never in the mood for jokes." Jaime sighed. "I just thought it would be important to get Arya a weapon as soon as possible. One of the soldiers on the expedition can carry Needle easily enough. Or her knife."

Tywin nodded once. "I suppose it's fortunate that she didn't have her swords with her. Otherwise they would be in the possession of the Freys." He sipped from his wine. "But perhaps if she had her swords with her, she wouldn't have been taken."

"I couldn't say," Jaime said. "I believe she kept them in her room to avoid drawing suspicion from the northern lords."

"That doesn't seem like her idea."

"No. If I had to guess it was her mother and brother," Jaime said. "It doesn't matter. She'll be back soon. She'll be all right."

He was half saying it because he needed to reassure himself. He was worried about her. Even though she was a fighter, he was still worried. Because he had seen strong people die so many times in his life.

His father did not reply. Jaime wondered if he was just as uncertain. After all, Walder Frey had not made any mention of Arya in his note. Had she fought back and earned a dagger to the heart? Bran was a more valuable hostage, since he was a son.

"It's late," his father said at last. "You should see to those men from the Dragonstone siege. We don't have time to delay."

"Right," Jaime murmured. "Of course."

For a week, Robb kept silent about Walder Frey's request. He did not tell any of his men. Not yet. Before they could really go through with their plan, they had to be sure that it had a chance of succeeding.

The first step was getting men inside the twins. They had been probing at their defenses for some time, so they had an idea of small chinks in their armor. At this point in the siege, some of the Freys and the soldiers would be panicking. Their allies had largely been cut away by Lord Tywin. In a waiting game, the Frey's would ultimately lose. That was, of course, the reason Walder Frey had threatened Bran. He was getting worried. Desperate. And desperation meant weakness. They only needed a few to get inside the walls in order to make the plan viable. And Jaime Lannister ordered his men to do so by any means necessary.

"There are ways to break a castle," Jaime said. "And I'm sure the Twins are rife with conflict right now. Some of Walder Frey's sons did not want any part of this fools conflict. I can guarantee that."

"But will they be willing to turn against their father?" Robb asked.

"Depends," Jaime said. "I hear he's the worst sort of person."

At the end of the week, they heard good news. Three soldiers had managed to get inside the castle and sent a fourth back to report. In proper disguises, they would be able to slip unnoticed through the Twins. And they would be able to create an open to let Robb and Jaime's party inside. On top of that, they would be able to see how things really were inside the keep.

The report was favorable. Nearly all of Walder Frey's sons were in a panic. They had expected to grapple with the north but not Tywin Lannister. That was not part of the plan. In fact, very few of them even seemed to know the plan. They were looking for a way out of this, and apparently Walder Frey's threat against Bran was some sort of latch ditch gamble to lure Robb into the castle, in hopes of cutting the head off of the northern army.

"Everything about this seems so terribly executed," Robb said. "There's no...strategy to all of this. Do you think Walder Frey's age is catching up with him?"

"It's possible," Jaime said. "He has always disliked my father, but he had the good sense to fear him. Still... the man is close to one hundred."

"He is." Robb tapped on his map, feeling a wave of irritation rise up in him. "This feels too easy. All of it."

"Sometimes it is easy," Jaime said. "Sometimes people are stupid."

"So you don't get a bad feeling from...all of this?" Robb asked.

Jaime sighed, running his fingers along his golden hand. "I do. I'm just...trying to ignore it."

Robb felt like he was walking into a trap. Yet he knew that couldn't be true. He had not told anyone about his plan. Walder Frey would not expect him and most of the northern lords would not expect him to go the Twins. He fed them the false information and let them protest amongst themselves. He told no one the truth. There were a few who he was sure he could trust, of course. The Reeds. The Glovers. The Mormonts. But he could not risk anyone getting suspicious of his movements.

He watched the Bolton representative as he did, but they gave nothing away.

Soon enough, their window of opportunity was upon them. Walder Frey accepted Robb's offer of sending his mother to negotiate in exchange for a stop on all attacks until the negotiations were at their end. He did not seem to expect a trap. To him, Robb was a stupid boy sending his mother to do his work for him. Just like during the war. Robb expected that Walder Frey had a rather low opinion of his intelligence, but that was all right. He could use that.

A few days before the meeting, Jaime gave him a full report. The spies they had sent inside of the castle had bought them entrance. One of Walder Frey's grandsons, Robert Frey, was finished with his father's foolish battle and wanted his family out of the keep before things got bad. They helped to smuggle out his wife and two children. In exchange, the son would make sure the gate was unguarded at the appointed time. To ensure his loyalty, his family would be held in the Lannister camp as hostages until he delivered on the deal.

Robert Frey did not know his father's full plan or motives. He could not say what Walder Frey's end goal was or where he was keeping Bran and Arya. Walder Frey had not told most of his children his whole plan and had seemed especially on edge ever since the Lannister army's arrival. Paranoid. Desperate.

"Most of us are in the dark," Robert Frey had told the men. "Truly. This is my grandfather's game and only a few of his sons know the whole board. Most of us...most of us want this nonsense to end."

Regardless of how many Freys were guilty, Robb was ready and willing to kill any of those who stood against him. Until he had his family back, it did not matter.

The plan was set. They would move in small groups, dressed as Frey soldiers, and gather outside the back gate while Robb's mother approached the front. Then, the gate would open for them, courtesy of Robert Frey and they would enter the keep, catching the unprepared Frey soldiers by surprise. The spies would set fire to their supplies at the same time, eliminating any chance of a successful siege. Then they would find Walder Frey and force him to surrender.

It sounded straight forward on paper, but there were still many ways this could go wrong. Walder Frey could realize what was happening and kill one or both of his hostages. The Freys could see them moving and suspect treachery. Robert Frey could lose his spine and tell the plan to one of his brothers. Of course, his family was held hostage, but sometimes men said foolish things when they were nervous.

The night before the meeting, Robb spoke with his mother in his tent, reminding her once again to be careful.

"You can say it as many times as you want, Robb," she told him. "It won't make this any safer. You'll be in as much danger as me." She smiled softly. "Trust me and trust yourself. We'll get Bran and Arya back."

She spoke with such certainty that Robb almost believed it. He had to believe it.

He had to believe this would work.

That next evening as the sun was about to fall, Robb watched from a distance as his mother approached the bridge, accompanied by a small group of guards. He wanted them enter and he watched the gates close.

"It's time," Jaime murmured to his right.

"Yes," Robb placed his helmet on his head. "It's time."

The Flooded Gate was set at the base of the Western keep, named because the river flooded the stairs at its base. It was meant to allow Frey's easy access to their river boats in situations such as this. If one needed to make an escape from a dangerous siege, they could climb aboard a boat and sneak away under cover of darkness. It was less exposed than the bridge after all.

However, this gate was less guarded than the others. Archers could not see it clearly because the bridge blocked it from sight. And since it was marked by a narrow stairwell, it was easy to defend against any invaders who did manage to break through the portcullis.

Fortunately for Robb, that was taken care of. There were no guards in the stairwell and they found the gate open for them. And so, two dozen men climbed easily up the stairwell and into the eastern courtyard.

It was empty besides a couple of men and they both bowed their heads at them when they arrived. Their spies. Robert Frey stood between them.

"Cleared as promised," he muttered. "One of your men set a fire on the other side of the keep. Small enough to look like an accident. I sent the guards here to help contain it."

"Well done," Jaime said. "Seems you've held up your end of the bargain. When this is over, so long as you keep your tongue and check, you and your family will be free to go."

Robert Frey exhaled and nodded. "Good. That's good."

"Where's your father right now? Where is he meeting my mother?" Robb asked.

"The Great Hall," Robert said. "There will certainly be soldiers there, but not many. He's not expecting resistance from your mother."

"What about Bran and Arya?" Robb asked. "Have you found out where they are?"

"Only the boy," Robert Frey said. "He's being kept in the west wing under strict guard. I'm not sure about the girl."

That worried Robb. Why keep them far away from each other? And wouldn't it be common knowledge in the keep where Arya was being kept?

Unless she's already dead, he thought. No. He wouldn't allow himself to think of that. No time for that now. They could find out exactly where she was once they reached Walder Frey.

"All right," Robb looked to Jaime. "I'll take my men to the great hall with Robert Frey's guidance. You will find Bran and, if possible, Arya. Then meet me in the Great Hall."

"Done," Jaime nodded once. "Good luck to you Lord Stark."

"And you Lannister," Robb said.

With any luck at all, they could end this pointless conflict today. He could find out who had conspired with Lord Frey and have grounds to accuse and execute any northern traitors. Then he could go home.

They were almost at the end of this madness.


Sansa was not content to sit still. When Robb and her mother left along with the armies a four months ago, she spent the first month playing the role she was meant to play. She and Talisa looked after Winterfell and handled the accounts which were always complicated in winter. They checked their supplies and discussed rations for the remaining winter with Maester Luwin. And of course, Sansa helped manage the children. All the while pretending that her older brother was not at war and her younger brother and sister were not hostages.

Then the letter came from Jon. It was a letter for Robb, meant to update them on the progress against Mance Rayder. The northmen were successfully holding back many of their attacks and were able to withstand a devastating blow from the rear as well. The Lord Commander had fallen in the battle, and Jon had taken to leading much of the charge. He expected they had a long conflict still ahead of them. Mance Rayder showed no sign of surrender. Not with such a massive army.

He expressed concern about Robb. Apparently, some of the men abandoned the wall because they were needed in the south. Including the Boltons.

It was that little note about House Bolton that set Sansa's mind to work. If the war down south was going badly, Robb would have sent a note to Winterfell. It was strange for the Boltons to fight at the Wall but suddenly pull back their forces, especially when they had so eagerly supported the fight against the wildlings.

Unless they wanted northern soldiers going north, she thought. Yes, that made sense. They wanted to split Robb's forces, and promised their own men to put Robb's suspicions at ease. Meanwhile, they could pull back their men once Robb was already south and prepare them...for what? An attack from the rear?

They must have allies, or they would not have tried this, Sansa thought. House Bolton was formidable but they could not fight the north on their own. They surely had other allies who were displeased with Robb.

She had to find out whom before they made their move.

Sansa sent a note back to Jon asking for details. Which northern house hadn't sent men to the wall? Which northern houses had only sent a small number? And which houses had pulled back with House Bolton? She wanted all of their names.

Soon enough, Jon replied to her letter with a list: House Dustin, and House Ryswell had sent very few men. House Bolton and House Umber had sent a great many men, but pulled several back. House Karstark, House Manderly and House Locke had sent none.

It wasn't certainty of guilt. But she could not and would not wait around to find out. She had to find some way to judge their loyalty and send word to Robb.

That next day, she called the women of Winterfell to her. Many of them had husbands fighting in the war. Several more had lost their husbands in the wars of the past.

Sansa had grown to know these women well in her past few years. She used to not pay attention to most of them, back when she was vain and thought mostly of herself. But after watching Cersei in King's Landing, she realized that she did not want to become like her-powerful but hated. She wanted to be loved, and to be loved she had to care for those around her.

She knew all of their names. She knew all of their stories. She considered them her friends. Now she could only hope that they would help her.

"I want to apologize," Sansa said. "I'm about to ask something rather dangerous of some of you. I won't force you to accept. But you would have my eternal thanks if you did."

"We're used to danger, my lady," one of the women said. Wylla was her name. "We've lived it for the past several years. We'll live it again if it helps you."

Sansa smiled sadly. "I thank you. It has come to my attention that there are traitors in the north. House Bolton is the most certain of those traitors-likely their leader. But there are others who have betrayed house Stark and sworn themselves to the flayed man. They may be plotting against us as we speak."

The women looked amongst each other. Sansa could see the concern in their eyes. And the confusion. What are we to do about that, they seemed to wonder. She understood. Often, as a woman, it was easy to feel powerless in war.

"I don't want any uncertainties though. I want the names of the traitors so I can warn Robb and he can fight them before it's too late," Sansa said. "I'd like to send some of you to the suspected houses to gather information. If you can find a certain list of traitors, then Robb can deal with them before they cause trouble."

"Why ask us?" a soft voice asked. Jeyne Poole. Sansa's friend from childhood had lost her father around the same time Sansa lost hers, down south at King's Landing.

"We're women. They don't tend to notice us," Sansa said. "We can use that to our advantage."

After all, Cersei Lannister had done the same. She used women as her eyes and ears throughout King's Landing. Women who most people did not care to notice. Women who could giggle and look pretty and non-threatening. Sansa didn't want to be Cersei Lannister but that didn't mean she couldn't learn from her.

"I won't force any of you to do this," Sansa said. "But...if you're willing to go-to help my family and your husbands and sons-step forward."

Nearly everyone stepped forward. Those that didn't, Sansa offered a smile. "I understand. Go about your days." Once they had left, Sansa was left with a group of ten women. "The families I am about to name are suspected but not surely guilty: House Umber, House Dustin, House Ryswell, House Karstark, House Manderly and House Locke. Of course, House Bolton is our most major suspect, but I will not send any of you to the Dreadfort. It will be the most dangerous. It's safer to gather information from their potential allies."

"Send me to the Dreadfort m'lady," one of the women spoke up. It was Osha, lingering in the back corner, leaned up against the wall. The wildling woman had been just as restless as Sansa since Bran was taken. She was one of Bran's close companions for several years, after all, and she protected him during the Greyjoy Rebellion. "I don't fear the Boltons. I'll find out exactly what you need."

"If you're caught, you'll die," Sansa said.

"Won't be caught then," Osha said. "They don't know my face. Lord Robb had me stay hidden inside when the northmen came. I'll be a stranger to them. Besides, I've known worse than Boltons beyond the wall. I know how to make all kinds of men talk."

Sansa hesitated. Bran would not be happy if Osha died. He did enjoy the wildling woman's company. Yet she didn't think she could stop Osha either. At last, she nodded. "Be careful. They must not know that we suspect them."

Osha nodded once. "They won't."

Sansa gave assignments to the other women. She sent them places that would not know their face. She sent them in pairs in some cases, to the larger houses. She bid them return to her with whatever information they could as soon as possible.

Then, when they had left Winterfell, Sansa was made to wait again. She waited for good news. She waited for bad news. She tried to distract herself with the children and with Talisa's company. Talisa was just as worried about Robb, but they tried not to dwell on the worst possible outcomes.

The two women she sent to White Harbor returned first. They found no evidence of treachery in the Manderly house. They did not send men to the wall because they believed her brother was exaggerating the issue, and they believed the Freys were much more pressing. The woman she sent to House Dustin returned with a similar report.

But soon enough, her search began to pay off. Jeyne Poole returned with a treacherous letter written to one of the Karstarks from Roose Bolton, claiming that Robb was unfit to rule the north. Another woman returned with evidence that House Umber, divided in their support of Robb, had sent those loyal to him to the wall to fight against Mance Rayder in order to "get them out of the way". Then they left those men to fight when they pulled back their forces. And most incriminating of all, Osha returned with a list of names and an account of a dark plot.

It was Osha's account-the names of the traitors and the Bolton's true plan-which sent Sansa rushing for quill and parchment, her heart beat thundering in her ears.

She kept the note short and to the point, naming every one of the traitorous houses and her evidence. And she wrote of the treacherous plot. Then she handed the letter to a messenger and directed him to deliver it directly to Robb or her mother.

"What if they are not present?" the messenger asked.

Sansa thought for a long moment. She did not know who else they could trust in the north and she did not want to risk rousing suspicion. But she knew of one person who was invested in Arya's wellbeing, if only because of his plans.

"If you cannot find Robb or my mother...then give the letter to Tywin Lannister," Sansa said. "Jaime Lannister if you cannot find his father."

"M'lady?" the rider seemed confused.

"Trust me," Sansa said. "Just make sure one of them gets it."

The rider did not protest any longer. He set out at a full gallop from the keep and Sansa watched him go from the battlements.

She could only prey he reached Robb in time for him to act.

Chapter Text

 The letter arrived just before sunset, when Catelyn and Robb Stark had already put their plan into motion. Tywin waited in his tent to hear if they had succeeded or failed in their endeavor. He expected word would reach him quickly and if Robb Stark died; the northern traitors would make themselves known at once.

He tapped his fingers against the table, glancing ever so often at the broken king sitting at its edge. Walder Frey had not once mentioned Arya and it was bothering him. If he truly took her to spite him, then he should have sent word.

Unless of course she was dead and he worried about Tywin finding out.

Tywin was saved from thinking too long about that possibility when one of his guards entered his ten. "Sir...a rider from Winterfell."

"From Winterfell?" Tywin asked. "Why are they at my camp?"

"Apparently, if they could not find Lord Stark or his mother, they were told to come to you."

That was strange indeed. Who had sent this word from Winterfell? Tywin did not reply for a moment before he nodded once. "Send them in."

The rider was stiff and nervous when he entered. As if he himself did not understand his order. He clutched a letter tight in his hand. "Word from Lady Sansa. She says its urgent. one could tell me where Robb Stark was so..."

Sansa Stark. Tywin had only seen her briefly when she was preparing to leave King's Landing. By all accounts-but mostly by Cersei's-she was a soft hearted, timid girl with a naïve mind. But even the most foolish northern girl would not direct a rider to him without some purpose.

"Robb Stark will return shortly. I will pass it on to him then." Tywin gestured quickly. "Give it here."

The rider obeyed and Tywin split the seal with his thumb. If it was urgent it would not be wise to wait until Robb or his mother returned. And Sansa Stark clearly had reason not to trust the northern lords if she sent the messenger to him.

He read the letter once and was amazed by what the girl had discovered. He read the letter twice and new at once that he had to act. Here she listed the traitors to the north and her evidence. Traitors who had come south with Robb, likely waiting for their opportunity to strike.

And right now...Robb Stark had ordered a cease on all attacks.

Tywin stood and snapped his fingers at his guard. "Call my generals to prepare for a fight. We need the cavalry."

The guard blinked in surprise. "But... the temporary truce-"

"-will not be honored by everyone. Go. Now."

The guard did not question again. He fled the tent and immediately began raising the call to arms. The messenger stood, wide eyed, in the middle of the tent, wondering what his delivery had just caused.

"Sansa Stark was right to send you here," Tywin said as he stood and armed himself. "And your lord will thank you before the night is done."

Then he swiftly exited the tent. He needed his horse.

Catelyn had learned how to carry herself through ever emotion in the world. Grief, anger, fear...a woman had no choice but to learn how to contain such feelings and keep her head held high. If she cried, she was hysterical. If she shouted, she was overreacting. If she trembled, she was weak. So from a young age, she learned to keep her chin lifted and her shoulders back. Even if she was afraid, she would never give her enemies the chance to see it.

She had called upon her strength the last time she set foot into the Great Hall of the Twins, to negotiate with a man who did not respect her. She buried down her disgust and bargained with him on Robb's behalf. At that time, she did not fear for her life. She only feared that their armies would be delayed and Tywin Lannister would have too much time to prepare for their approach. she did fear for her life. If Walder Frey was willing to go this far, he would not hesitate to kill her. But still she steeled herself and followed his men calmly through the gates. Then through the narrow courtyard. Then into the Great hall.

Walder Frey sat in his great chair. He looked especially haggard-hunched like a gnarled old tree that had survived far too many storms. He was an ill made creature, yet somehow he had survived to be nearly one hundred. Many more good men had died in his life time, including her husband. Yet this wretched man, who had conspired to murder her son...he lived on. He lived long enough to take her children hostage.

A few of his sons stood in the room, all of them armed. One was holding Bran by the waist. He had a knife in his hand and Bran could not struggle or fight back. Her son looked at her and shook his head and Catelyn gave him a soft, encouraging smile.

It will be okay. If he chooses to kill one of us, I will make him choose me. But you will live.

Bran opened his mouth as if to try to say something but his captor pressed a blade to his throat and he quieted.

"So," he looked up at her past his thin hair when she stopped in front of him. "Your son sends you to bargain for him again. This is a familiar sight."

"As if my son would fool enough to come into your hall," Catleyn said. "You would have killed him."

"Maybe. But maybe I'll kill you instead. Have you thought of that?" Walder Frey asked.


"And you're still here."


"Hmm." Walder Frey scratched his head. "I was going to kill the young wolf. That was...the plan. Now I'm not sure what the plan is. I think it ends in me losing. Whether I kill you or not...I lose."

"You can surrender," Catelyn said. "Give back Bran and Arya. End this nonsense."

"I don't think...that will end well for me either," Walder Frey said. "I'll lose my head at the least. Unless you plan to send me to the wall. Don't think I'd like that."

"You'll die, yes," Catelyn said. "And what do you care? Your life has been twice that of an ordinary man. Four times that of some of the men you've sent to die for you. It's the least you can do for your family. Surrender and soften the blow."

"Soften the blow of Tywin Lannister? That's unlikely," Walder Frey said. "He was never soft once in his life. I remember him...ten years old and he looked down his nose at me like I was nothing. Never saw a boy born so proud-especially from such a weak willed father. Amazing that he deigned to look to me for help at all when your boy went to war with him. Because it was convenient. He'll use even his worst enemies when it's convenient." His laugh sounded more like a cough. "See? He's working with Starks now."

Catelyn studied him carefully. She had never seen Walder Frey so unhinged. Perhaps he really was going senile. Perhaps he did not expect Tywin Lannister to come in such force. But then why send Arya's fingers to him? He must have known that such a challenge would be re-payed. "Lord Walder," she said at last. "If you know...that it is hopeless, then why delay the inevitable? The longer you wait, the more your family suffers. End this now."

"I could do that," Lord Walder said. "Or I could...take as many of you fucking Starks with me as possible." He glanced at Bran. "What would Robb Stark do then?"

Catelyn took a step forward, opening her mouth to protest. Then the eastside door slammed open and one of Walder Frey's sons scrambled inside. "Fire. There's a fire."

"A fire?" Walder Frey blinked. "Well what are you bothering me for? Put it out and be done with it."

"It hit our supply stores," the son said. "I must be some sort of attack. We won't be able to keep up the siege if-"

"We're already losing you fool. The supplies only delay it all," Walder looked to Catelyn again. "Of is an interesting thought. What if the honorable Starks agreed to negotiate peace and then broke that agreement." He laughed again. "Wouldn't be the first broken vow, I suppose. Still. I thought you lot were supposed to be honorable. But the north is so full of dishonor these days."

"Don't speak to me of honor," Catelyn said. "You have forsaken your vow to my family. You have forsaken the laws of man. You would have killed my son even if he came under a banner of peace. I'm not sure there is a man in the world less honorable than you."

Walder shook his head. "Are you sure about that Lady Stark? Because I think...the Boltons might surprise you."

Again the door slammed open, this time from behind Catelyn. She heard the sound of throats slit and men screaming in pain. She let out a breath as Robb strode through the door. Two soldiers on either side of him had arrows drawn, and aimed at Walder Frey.

"Lord Frey," he said flatly. "I came to negotiate for peace."

"Be careful," Catelyn said. "He has Bran."

Robb glanced to the side and noticed Bran held tight in the grip of one of Walder's sons. "Order your son to drop my brother. Now."

"What if I do?" Walder Frey asked. "What will it earn me? Not my life."

"No," Robb said. "But the lives of some of your family. If you care about any of them, that is." He kept his bow steady. "If you don't release Bran and Arya, I'll kill ever man in this bloody castle."

"You keep asking for two," Walder murmured. "Two captives."

"Yes," Catelyn said. "You took Bran and Arya from Winterfell."

"Did I?" Walder tapped his long nails against the edge of his chair. "I only see the boy here."

"Then order your son to drop him. Now. I won't ask again."

"Robb," Bran choked out.

His captor hissed and shook him. "Shut up. Don't speak."

Catelyn's brow furrowed. Why were they so concerned with keeping Bran quiet?

"There's something funny about you being here, Lord Stark," Walder Frey continued. "Do you know what it is?"

"Enlighten me," Robb said.

"You're cheating your traitors out of their prize," Walder Frey. "You should take a look...over the wall."

Robb's eyes narrowed but he did not waver. "Lord Frey. Last chance."

Walder Frey smiled. "You're right. It is my last chance. At least I can kill one Stark." He glanced at his son. Catelyn felt herself go cold with panic and she stepped forward.


A sword tip broke through the Frey son's mouth and he shuddered, releasing Bran, who crumbled to the ground, gasping. Alive. He was still alive.

"That was lucky," Jaime Lannister said from behind the now dead man. "I figured they might have brought the boy here. I see I was right."

Catelyn released a breath, almost losing her feet from the relief. She hurried to Bran who was trying to right himself on the floor. There was a shallow cut on his neck but nothing serious.

"Did they cut him?" Robb asked.

"Only a bit," Catelyn said. "It's barely bleeding." Catelyn drew Bran into her arms. "Oh, Bran. I'm so sorry."

Robb glanced at Jaime. "He could have cut Bran's throat as he fell."

"But he didn't," Jaime said. "You have a strange way of saying 'thank you' in the north."

"Thank you, ser" Catelyn said. "Truly."

Jaime's expression sobered and he nodded once. "You're welcome." He glanced down at Bran, a rather strange look on his face. "You're all right, boy?"

Bran pulled back from Catelyn, nodding once. "I'm fine. Thank you, ser."

Jaime's jaw seemed to clench for a moment. Then he nodded and strode toward Walder Frey. "So...Lord Frey. I am awfully interested to know what your end goal was here. Because every way I put it together, you seem completely mad."

"It wasn't really my plan. Not in the end," Walder Frey looked up at them.

"Really? One of your sons take over the show?" Jaime nodded at the corpse of the man he had just stabbed. "Was it that one? I hope so."

"Like I told Lord Stark," Walder Frey rasped out another one of his horrid laughs. "You ought to look over the wall."

The door burst open and one of Robb's men entered, looking breathless. "We've...secured the castle. The Frey's surrendered."

"That's good news," Robb said.

"But his expression does not match it," Jaime said. "What happened?"

The messenger shook his head. "The...the northern camp. You should...just come and see."

Robb and Jaime glanced at each other, then hurried from the room. Catelyn wanted to go after them but she had to see to Bran.

"Mother," Bran said. "Arya..."

"Yes, where is she?" Catelyn asked. "We'll find her and bring her home."

"That's what I was trying to tell you," Bran said. "Arya's not here."

Slowly, Catelyn let out a shaky breath and closed her eyes.

No...Of course it could not be over so easily.

Look over the wall, Walder Frey had said. You ought to look over the wall.

He had said many things that didn't quite make sense. It seemed like the ramblings of a mad man.

Looking over the wall...Robb felt as if he might be going mad as well. There was fire in the northern camp and soldiers clashing. Not Frey soldiers though. Northmen. Northmen fighting each other.

"Seven hells," Jaime muttered under his breath, which did not begin to cover the situation.

It wasn't really my plan, Walder Frey had said. Not in the end.

No. Robb was beginning to believe him. He had delivered the same message to almost all of his men. That they would negotiate peace with Walder Frey and until negotiations were complete, they would cease attacks. And in those moments of peace, the traitors had taken up their swords to slaughter those loyal to House Stark.

From this distance, he could make out the place where he kept his tent. It was burning and bodies were strewn about. They had meant for him to be there that night. They would have if he had not insisted on coming here. The thought left Robb frozen.

But the moment was brief. There was no time to pause. He gripped his blade tight in his hand. "Gather your men, Ser Jaime. And escort my mother and brother to the Lannister camp."

"And you?" Jaime asked.

Robb barred his teeth slightly as he replied. "I'm going to handle the traitors."

There were already so many northern dead when Robb arrived to the camp. His own men had taken an especially hard blow as they had tried to guard Robb's tent, now crumpled to ash. He swayed on the spot, his grip clenching on the hilt of his sword.

"Lord Stark!"

Robb turned to see Lord Glover stumbling toward him, a gash over his eye. Robb's men closed around him but Robb held up his hand to keep them from attacking.

"Lord Glover. What happened?"

"Good question. It happened so quickly," Glover said. "Suddenly...there were Boltons attacking us. And some others I think. In the dark, I couldn't tell. Came to find you as soon as I escaped."

"I was away during the beginning of the attack. Rescuing Bran from the Twins," Robb said. "I'm sorry I did not tell you. We've suspected Walder Frey had spies in our camp. I couldn't take chances."

"Spies? More like allies," Lord Glover said. "The camp is in chaos. As if half of it suddenly...turned on us. But we weren't prepared for an attack tonight, and its too dark to see most of the culprits."

"That's why they attacked," Robb muttered. His head spun. He Robb had suspected all along that the northern traitors might be connected to the Freys, and it was a good thing he had not told anyone of his plan. They attacked to tonight because they thought they could surprise and kill him. Several of his men had suffered the consequences.

Another soldier came coughing out of the smoke. Robb did not know which house this one belonged to. His eyes widened when he saw Robb. "My lord! You're all right...we saw your tent and thought..."

"You thought wrong," Robb said. "We need to gather the soldiers we can and make a perimeter. Elsewise the traitors will try to escape north again."

"I'm not sure you'll be able to gather enough for a perimeter," Lord Glover said. "Or organize our soldiers. We should try to capture as many of the traitors as we can and interrogate them for information."

Robb nodded once. It was foolishness to try to rally his men in such chaos. He did not know who he could trust in this crowd anyway. "We should make for the northern edge then. See who we can catch running."

The men nodded and fell into step behind him. To his left and just behind him, Robb heard the scrape of a sword. He turned in time to see the newest soldier looking at him with cold eyes, preparing to strike. And he turned in time to see the man thrown to the ground by a massive wall of fur.

Greywind was upon the man before he could even think of attacking, ripping through his throat. Blood stained his maw and fur. He had taken an arrow to the shoulder but he was still standing. Still fighting.

At least he had one friend he could always trust.

"Seven hells," Lord Glover cursed.

Robb swallowed hard as he turned away from the dead men. "Stay in close. And if any of you try to betray'll meet the same fate."

They ran along the edge of camp with all haste toward the northern side. When they reached their destination, Robb saw that a few men had already begun to run. He watched them disappear through the tree line on horseback. If he had a horse he might have chased them down himself.

"Orders, my lord?" Lord Glover asked. He had rallied some of his own men on their way. Robb could only pray they were not traitors as well.

"Spread out evenly and catch who you can," Robb said. "Find out what house they serve. Then-" He cut off at a sound. The sound of hoof beats.

He turned to see a line of cavalry approaching, carrying the Lannister banners high above them. For a moment, Robb got an awful feeling that they were here to help the traitors-and that all of this time Tywin Lannister had been playing him for a fool.

But instead, they formed a barrier at the northern edge of the camp, lowering pikes to keep anyone from running. A few men skidded to the stop at the sight and backed quickly away.

"Fuck me," Glover muttered. "A trap?"

"No..." Robb said. "If they meant to kill us, they could cut through the camp right now and kill every northerner they see. Instead they're just blocking everyone in. Including the traitors."

"Why?" Glover asked. "And how could they even know what's happening?"

Robb did not have an answer to that question. But he imagined he'd get one soon as he saw Tywin Lannister riding toward him.

"You've survived," he said.

"I have," Robb said.

"I noticed you had a problem in your camp," Tywin nodded at the line of cavalry. "This should give you a chance to handle it."

It would. Already, at the sight of the Lannister army, the fighting had begun to die as everyone realized that they weren't going anywhere.

"It will," Robb said at last. "Lord Glover...will you assist me in calling my bannermen? We have a lot to discuss."

In one of the only large tents left unburnt, Robb stood, facing his bannermen. None would admit readily to being traitors if he accused them. They would all insist it was someone else. They would say their men turned against them. They would accuse each other until the entire north fell apart. He trusted Lord Glover, at least, though tentatively. For all he knew the man could be waiting to play his cards.

I hate this, he thought. I hate not knowing.

"It seems some of you conspired to kill me tonight," Robb said. "Since you failed...I can ask who's to blame."

"I saw a Karstark cut through our men," Lord Reed replied.

"A lie," Karstark said. "We were defending ourselves against the Reeds. They are the traitors."

"The Reeds would never betray the Starks," Glover fired back. "The Karstarks have been against Robb ever since the war."

"The Lannisters are to blame," spat an Umber. "They put spies in our midst while you've been playing allies with them. They can't be trusted."

"I'm not the one who can't be trusted," Tywin Lannister's voice came flatly from the entrance of the tent.

All of the northern lords were startled into silence to see him. They had been arguing openly about him for so long, but they never expected him to arrive in their camp. Robb was surprised to see him as well. He had thought Tywin intended to let him deal with the northern lords alone. It was a test of sorts.

"You're not welcome here," the Umber muttered in reply.

"I wouldn't expect to be," Tywin held up a piece of parchment. "But I have a letter that was meant for Lord Stark. I think he'll want to read it."

Robb's brow furrowed as he studied Lord Tywin. Then he accepted the parchment.

This was Sansa's handwriting. He recognized the pretty slope of the letters immediately. But its contents especially...those were what interested him.

For a long time he did not speak. Then he lifted his head and looked out coldly at the northern lords. "My sister, it seems, has discovered traitors among you. Families that did not send men to the wall but did not send their full forces to me. And families that sent men to the wall...but pulled them back after I was gone."

"How could the Lady Sansa discover such a thing?" a Karstark asked. "This is clearly a forgery."

"I have the messenger who brought it. He would gladly tell you otherwise," Tywin said.

"It's not a forgery. I know my sister's writing. Lord Tywin does not," Robb said. "But I understand why you would hope for a fake, Karstark. She did name your family after all. House Karstark, House Locke and House Rysewell the Umbers who are not still at the wall. And the Boltons. You have all betrayed your liege lord and House Stark. You betrayed your countrymen. And for that you will be tried and executed."

The effect on the room was palpable. The traitors saw themselves caught in a trap, and those loyal to Robb were overcome with fury. A few Karstarks tried to back away but Glover blocked them and punched one hard in the face. Lord Rysewell protested.

"You trust the word of one girl? This is madness."

"I trust my sister more than you," Robb said. "Seize him. Any of you still loyal to House Stark-bind the traitors and guard them carefully. Their men who tried to kill you-pay them back for that."

The loyal families were quick to follow the order and the traitors were-thankfully-outnumbered. Robb had begun to wonder if the whole of his camp was against him. At least...that wasn't the case.

"You read the remainder of the letter, I trust," Tywin said as the traitors were dragged from the tent.

"Yes," Robb's hand clenched on the parchment, threatening to tear through it. "I did. I need to go north as soon as possible."

Everything had clicked into place when he read the letter. The stupidity of Walder Frey sending Lord Tywin the fingers. The confusion when they asked the Frey men about Arya's location. They didn't know, because they hadn't sent the fingers. They had been framed. They had been thrown to the lions and wolves while the true enemy watched from a distance and gathered their forces. Even if they found the traitors here, it wasn't enough. The majority of the Bolton army, the Umber army, the Karstarks...they were north. And they were not weary from four months of siege.

When Robb road with his loyal followers to meet might not be enough.

This mess had been everything the Boltons wanted and more. The Northern army was splintered, the Riverlands once again in ruins.

And the Boltons had Arya.

Chapter Text

Four months earlier...

The pain was excruciating. One moment, Arya could feel the rough wood of the table between the tips of five fingers. The next, only three. The knife severed the smallest fingers completely, leaving bloody, jagged protrusions of bone behind. If Arya had eaten in the last day, she might have vomited. Instead she gagged up air and gritted her teeth against the pain.

They had done the same to Bran only moments ago. Arya had fought against her captors as her brother pleaded for mercy. His scream hurt her almost as much as the knife had.

"Mercy? I am showing you mercy," the Bastard of Bolton snickered. "It's just the little fingers. You can write well enough your other three, can't you?" He glanced at Arya. "Not sure well you'll be able to wield a knife though."

He had removed her fingers right after he said that. Arya refused to scream. She bit the inside of her cheek so hard it bled and tears burned at her eyes. But she did not scream.

I will not give him the satisfaction.

He had liked that. The fact that she didn't cry out. His smile stretched wide as he knelt down to her eye level. "You are a little wolf, aren't you? You bare your teeth and snarl when you're in pain. What would it take to make you scream, I wonder?"

She glared right back at him. Even as blood poured from her hand, there was some victory here. He did not know she was left handed. No one ever went for her left side.

Ramsay Bolton turned to some of his men. "I need two letters. One for the boy's fingers and one for the girl's. Then we'll make arrangements to send Bran Stark south to the Freys."

"I thought your father meant to keep the boy and hand over the girl," the man replied.

"He did," Ramsay agreed. "But the situation has changed. It won't matter either way. Robb Stark will think that both of his siblings are at the Twins."

Arya met Bran's eyes, panic spreading through her. They meant to separate them. Arya could not protect her little brother if they were separated. What would Walder Frey do to him?

It had been some time since Arya had felt so helpless. Not since Lord Tywin first took her prisoner. And even then, she knew that he would not harm her without a purpose.

Ramsay Bolton was not Tywin Lannister. Already he had taken her fingers and he would take more if he got the chance. There was chaos in his smile and delight in his eyes when he caused pain. Like Joffrey perhaps. But more measured. More intelligent than that.

She feared him and she hated it. She wanted to tear his smile away with her teeth.

She watched as he took her fingers from the table and dropped them into an envelope. Then he gave them to one of his men. "See that these are delivered. Not by raven. Rider. I don't want these lost in route to their recipients." He snapped his fingers at another man. "And you. Take the boy and transport him south in a barrel. Make sure no one sees him. And make sure doesn't make a sound." Ramsay passed near Bran and ruffled his hair. "Take another finger if he screams."

Arya struggled against her captor again. Damn them. She would kill them all.

"Oh...and if you're caught in route, you say that Walder Frey sent you," Ramsay added. "If you mention the name Bolton, I'll kill everyone who has ever spoken to you."

He wants to blame Frey for this, Arya thought. The Freys may be working with them, but the Boltons owe them no loyalty. What is his play here?

She didn't know. She could not begin to know what he had planned, but she was beginning to see his motives. He had showed support of Jon's plan so that the northern army would be divided. She doubted they intended to go to the wall, or if they did it would not be for very long. They only wanted to make sure loyal houses sent their soldiers away.

Robb was in danger. Her whole family was in danger and she was stuck here, another hostage. She was short on weapons and two of her fingers and she couldn't do a damn thing.

The man charged with delivering Bran to the Frey's began to pick him up and carry him away. Bran could do nothing to fight back but squirm weakly. Arya gritted her teeth together. The man behind her had stopped pushing so hard on her back. And his foot...

She jammed her heel back onto his toe, before throwing herself to the side. She slipped from beneath the man's grasp and hit the ground rolling. Then she ran for Bran.

He moved in front of Arya before she could reach her brother. Ramsay. He slid into her path-a shadow with a freshly cleaned knife. Arya hissed and side stepped just in time to avoid his blade. It sliced so close, she was sure he'd cut off a strand of her hair.

"You do have good reflexes," Ramsay cooed. His voice sent a shiver of revulsion through her. "Good instincts. Not just a wolf in name, are you?"

"Arya!" Bran called out to her as the door to the hall began to close. Arya looked past Ramsay for a split second, trying to get a glimpse of her brother again. Wanting to reassure him that things would be okay.

"Don't ignore me."

Arya ducked narrowly as Ramsay's blade cut a wide arc just above her head. She took a deep breath and found her footing again, retreating quickly from his attacks. But he was quick too. He kept advancing on her with his blade, stabbing and slashing in quick succession. Each time, she only narrowly dodged. But he was driving her backward and she did not have a weapon. Not to mention her hand was throbbing with pain and the blood loss was beginning to make her dizzy.

Fuck. I can't keep this up for long. His knife whistled past her right shoulder. I can't...I can't see straight.

Her back hit a wall and Ramsay's grinned. "Bad luck, little wolf."

Her eyes widened as he flipped the blade in his hand. I'm going to die.


The Bolton bastard's blade buried itself in the wall right next to Arya's face. If she only turned slightly to the side, she could see her reflection there. But she did not turn. She glared straight ahead into Ramsay Bolton's eyes.

He grinned at her, then slowly withdrew. "Yes, father?"

Arya glanced to the side to see Roose Bolton had entered the room, looking rather irritated. She could see the resemblance between the father and son. Roose Bolton carried himself with an air of dignity and calm, but his eyes still spoke of cruelty. He had just learned to control it. Ramsay let his malice spill out from his smile and eyes, like an overflowing cup.

I am in a very dangerous place, Arya thought.

"I saw you decided to send Bran Stark to Walder Frey instead of Arya. Why is that?"

"I don't think Walder Frey can handle much more than a crippled hostage," Ramsay said. "This one has more bite than her little brother. Lord Walder won't be able to keep her caged properly."

Arya gritted her teeth together. Ramsay had only been toying with her...testing her skills. And now he had a good idea of what she could do. Now that he knew she was dangerous, her element of surprise was lost. Fuck, this was bad.

"Whether he can keep her caged isn't my worry," Roose said. "Do you want Tywin Lannister turning his eyes on us? Truly?"

"It won't be a problem," Ramsay said. "He'll be focused on the Freys long before he realizes that we have Arya. I've already sent the letters ahead. As far as he knows, Walder Frey has two hostages and we have none at all."

"Yes, and when he inevitably breaks the Twins, he will realize the truth," Roose said. "That was the purpose of sending Arya Stark to the Freys. With his ward back in hand, Lord Tywin would have little reason to help the Starks deal with us. Do you really think I want to invoke the full wrath of the Lannisters and the Starks combined? Are you a complete fool?"

Ramsay almost seemed to flinch at these words. And the hate burned brighter in his eyes. "Tywin Lannister will find out that we worked with the Freys. And that we helped to capture his ward. You say that she has his favor? Then she's the best hostage we can have. If Tywin Lannister rides north, we need someone he actually likes at the knife point. Besides, he can't like her all that much. A man of his reputation?"

"That's a dangerous gamble, Ramsay."

"Dangerous gambles win wars," Ramsay retorted. "We can afford to be reckless. Besides, Especially with that lucky problem at the wall coming to sweep away half of the northern soldiers. They'll be weak."

"You assume your opponent's weakness. It weakens you in the process. It would do you well to be afraid of someone every once and awhile," Roose said coldly. "No matter. We'll keep the girl. But you won't take any more of her fingers. We need her unharmed for when the armies come marching for us."

Arya's left hand clenched into a fist as Ramsay looked back at her. "Seems you get to stay with us, little wolf."

"Burn in hell," Arya replied.

Ramsay laughed. "She doesn't speak like a lady does she? Or fight like one. Like I said...she's much more like an animal than a girl."

"And you're more like a rabid dog than a man," Roose said. "I'm serious, Ramsay. Do not harm her until we have more clarity about the future. You ought to apply a little self-control just this once."

Ramsay frowned, spinning his knife in his hand and returning it to his sheath. The idea of self control seemed to personally offend him. "Yes, father. As you say."

"Exactly what are you planning to do?" Arya asked. "The Bolton army isn't strong enough to stand against the whole north and the Lannisters and their allies. You think one hostage will really keep you safe?"

"One hostage can make a great deal of a difference. You should know that," Roose Bolton said. "Didn't your brother surrender his crown for you, Lady Arya?"

Arya swallowed a lump in her throat. Yes. He had.

"Besides. It won't be the whole north," Roose said. "Half of the north has gone to the wall to defend against the wildlings. Ramsay and your bastard brother did quite a good job of convincing them. And the other half of the north will leave to deal with the Freys in a few days' time. They'll wear themselves out at the siege, and give us time to prepare here. Then they will lose most of their men there when the Umbers, Rysewells, Lockes and the Karstarks turn against your brother. When the moment is right. If we're lucky, Robb Stark will die before he ever returns north."

Arya felt her blood turn to ice. Seven hells...this wasn't some stupid gambit for the north. This was a carefully planned strategy. And it wasn't just the Boltons who had turned against her brother. The Karstarks, who had lost their patriarch to Robb's blade years ago during the war. And the Umbers, one of the largest house in the north, who had been furious when Robb bent the knee. They planned to take control of the north themselves. And Robb would have his eyes squarely fixed on the Freys.

"Why?" she asked at last. "You fought with my father. The Boltons have served the Starks for one thousand years. Why do you turn against us now?"

"Because your brother is weak. He broke a vow for a love marriage and he bent the knee to the south for the life of a little girl," Roose Bolton said. "The north needs strong leadership."

"And if you've read any book about the north at all, you'll know the Boltons have a long history of fighting the Starks," Ramsay said, pacing toward the windows on the right side of the hall. Light was filtering through the windows, reflecting off the blade of his knife. Was it sunrise or sunset? Arya could not tell. "The Red Kings of old would be quite happy with us."

"But my father-" Arya started.

"To be entirely honest...your father was not strong either," Roose said. "I've been thinking for some time that perhaps the Starks do not deserve to be wardens of the north. House Bolton is just as ancient a family. There's no real reason...that the Boltons should not take power again in the face of Stark weakness."

"My brother is not weak," Arya muttered. "He is stronger than both of you combined. And my family will rip yours apart."

"A very scary thought," Ramsay grinned. "But, disassembling enemies is really more a Bolton specialty, little wolf."

"Really? Have you seen what wolves do to dogs?" Arya asked through gritted teeth.

Ramsay's eyes narrowed and his grip seemed to tighten on his knife again. How she wished she had a knife of her own.

"The Starks would already be destroyed if Lord Tywin did not find you," Roose said before Ramsay could make a retort. "You've only delayed the inevitable."

"What are you talking about?" Arya's eyes narrowed.

"If Tywin Lannister hadn't used you to force peace, he would have ended the war some other way," Roose said. "He was writing to us. And to the Freys. Lord Walder planned to host a wedding at the Twins and offer his support to Robb. Then...with your brother's mind at ease...we would have killed him, and all of his men. Lord Tywin promised us the north and the Riverlands for our efforts."

"A wedding?" Arya almost whispered the words. To kill someone in such a manner went against every single law of the gods. But of course...Lord Tywin had never cared much about that. She remembered...years ago...he had mentioned he had another way to end this war. He told her about it in his tent a few days before he dangled her in front of Robb.

"You may be the difference between your brother choosing the right path or the wrong one. I promise you...if he rejects my offer, he and your mother will die. It won't be clean. It won't be honorable. But it will end the war, and that's all I care about right now."

Of course, Robb had accepted the terms of surrender. And in doing so, Tywin had cast aside the Boltons and the Freys. Pawns he no longer needed. But the pawns had not gone away. This was not a game of Cyvasse, after all. Instead the fallen pieces plotted with each other and decided to make themselves into kings.

"Not that it matters now," Roose Bolton said. "That path is lost. But the Boltons will have the north again, with or without the Lannister's help. And you'll help us to get it." He regarded her with a stony expression. "You should be accustomed to this by now. Being used to win wars."

Arya's lip curled. She wanted to lunge at him. But she was unarmed, and she could barely keep her feet because of the lost blood. This was not the time to fight. Not the time to play the few remaining cards she had. She'd already revealed her speed and reflexes to Ramsay. She could not reveal anything else.

Roose Bolton snapped his fingers at two guards standing at the edge of the room. "Escort Lady Arya to her chambers and see to her fingers. Make sure the room is stripped of all possible weapons and post two guards at the door at all times. If news of her being here leaves this keep, I will have your tongues ripped out and stuffed down your throat before I flay you alive. And if we return from the wall in a month's time and find her gone? Your punishment will be worse."

The guards nodded once and moved toward Arya, taking her by the arms.

"Must we still go to the wall?" she heard Ramsay ask as she was dragged away. "Seems a good way to lose valuable men."

"Not going is a good way to rouse suspicions," Roose said. "Try not to let a wildling shoot you down."

I hope the wildlings shoot all of you down, Arya thought. She let out a shaky breath, trying to keep focus as the guards led her from the room and down the hall. But no matter how she concentrated she could not see a way out of this.

Once again, she was being used against her family. A hostage. A pawn in someone else's game.

A wolf locked in a cage.

Chapter Text

Arya's captors were smart. They had heard enough rumors about her and seen the knife she carried. They knew not to give her anything to work with. So her room at the Dreadfort was stripped bare. All he had was a bed, a desk and an empty shelf. Not a single sharp object in sight. Not even a stray sewing needle or a loose nail.

She had only a single, narrow window, too small to possibly use as an escape. Through that window, she could watch the light change and count the days passing. The rise and fall of the sun was all that changed in that tiny room for the first month. Occasionally, a guard came to bring her food. But they gave her no utensils that she could use against them. And they always entered prepared for an attack. All of her guards had been informed that she was not some docile lady.

One of Arya's greatest advantages had always been her unassuming appearance. Jaime had mentioned as much to Brienne, and he was completely right. People had been underestimating her all her life, even when she wanted to be taken seriously. That gave her the element of surprise. It was surprise that allowed her to protect Tommen, to kill those assassins, to draw a confession from Littlefinger. It was surprise that had kept her alive for this long.

The Boltons did not intend to let her surprise them. They were treating her as a serious threat and that gave her very few opportunities for escape.

She had always wanted people to take her seriously...but this was the very worst time for it to happen.

For the first month, Arya was totally isolated. She saw only the guards who brought her food at unpredictable times. It was maddening to be left alone with nothing but her thoughts for company.

And then Ramsay Bolton came to visit.

She had already eaten dinner, so she knew something was off when she heard the lock rattling. At first, she worried it might be a guard eager to take liberties with a hostage. She stood to meet the guest before they even opened the door, placing herself in the center of the room, ready to defend if they came at her.

Ramsay Bolton stepped through the door, smirking. "Were you waiting for me, little wolf?"

Arya's eyes narrowed. She would have preferred a guard. Then, at least, she could catch them by surprise. But not this man. "I was waiting for trouble. It just happens to be wearing your face. What are you doing here?"

"I'm back from the Wall. Perhaps I came to see how you are adjusting," Ramsay said.

"That would be considerate of you...if it were true," Arya said. "Except for you're in the midst of planning a rebellion. I doubt you would come for something so trivial."

Ramsay laughed once. "Well, even in the midst of a war, one does need to take time for amusements." He tilted his head to the side, studying her. "And you are very amusing."

Arya clenched her jaw. "Am I?"

"Yes. You're such a curiosity, little wolf," Ramsay said. "Your reflexes, for instance. You've clearly trained regularly. As a hostage of the Lannisters, I wonder how you gained permission for that."

"I didn't need permission," Arya said.

"Yes you did. It would have been easy enough to stop you," Ramsay said. "For instance...right now, you do not have permission. So you can't practice."

Arya's eyes narrowed. Technically, he was right. She didn't have a weapon and this space was too small for her to really practice footwork. She could keep herself strong and flexible, but little else.

"It frustrates you, I'm sure. Wolves don't like to be in cages," Ramsay said. "But if you'd like to practice... I can oblige."

Arya saw the knife a second before he stabbed out at her. She barely redirected the blow, slamming into the corner of the desk as she did. He laughed once.

"Oh dear. Hard to dodge in close quarters like this, isn't it?" His eyes seemed to glow with delight. "I can't imagine you practiced much in tight spaces. It's much more ideal for the attacker than the defender."

"Then give me a weapon, coward," Arya snapped.

"No," Ramsay replied, striking out at her again. She leapt backward onto the bed, but he didn't give her much time to find her footing. He rushed forward, his blade flashing in the light. She hopped to the table, trying to get around him and avoid being cornered. But this room had no safe places. Everywhere she turned, she found a new corner.

When she tried to slip around Ramsay again, he seized her collar and shoved her hard against the wall. Her head knocked against the stone and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself focused.

"I think we've found a gap in your training," Ramsay said.

Arya hissed and kicked out at his legs. He dug his knife into her right shoulder in response. Pain blossomed through her arm and Arya gritted her teeth to keep from screaming.

"You're not much of a howler, are you?" Ramsay asked. "I've heard animals make all sorts of sounds when their cornered and in pain. Humans too. It all blends together. In the moments before death, humans are just animals, desperate to survive." He twisted the knife slightly and black spots flashed across Arya's vision. Fuck it hurt. "Desperate animals are the most dangerous. Because they'll do anything. I've seen wolves chew off their legs to escape a trap." Ramsay tilted his head to the side. "What will you do...little wolf?"

Arya growled and head butted him as hard as she could. Her vision flashed white at the impact but it surprised him enough to force him back. It satisfied her to see the blood streaming from his nose.

And yet he still smiled. Arya realized now what his eyes reminded her of. She used to spend a great deal of time studying cats at Syrio's request. Sometimes, after they cornered a mouse, they toyed with it for a while. They had the little creature in their grasp. All they had to do was bite down. But instead they batted at it, wore it down, let it escape a little before pulling it back. And all the while they watched with wide, curious eyes.

Ramsay was exactly like one of those cats, and she wished she could dig his eyes out of his skull with his own knives.

"You look so serious, little wolf," he cooed. "Don't worry so much. I won't kill you. I won't even hurt you too badly. Because you don't fear death like most. Or pain. What you fear is a cage. So all I really have to do to torment keep you here." He shrugged. "Besides, we need you alive to use against Tywin Lannister."

Tywin Lannister. Even when he was hundreds of miles away, he still had a hand in her life. It was his supposed favor that kept Ramsay from digging his knife somewhere more important. His favor was why they bothered to keep her captive at all. A second daughter of a noble house wasn't that valuable a captive. But a girl in the favor of the head of the Lannister house? That made her very important indeed.

Arya's element of surprise had saved her life in many situations. But it was Tywin Lannister who had actually kept her alive thus far. It had kept the soldiers away from her in the camp. It had kept Joffrey from openly setting his guards on her. It had kept Cersei from immediately making a play for her life. And now it kept Ramsay Bolton's blade from her throat.

What a horrid realization that was. Arya had done everything she could to grow stronger, but she had only ever gotten the chance to hold a sword because Lord Tywin had allowed it. He could have stopped her practices in an instant. He could have exposed her for killing Joffrey. He held her life in his hand, like a piece in a game of Cyvasse.

She had always known that in the back of her mind, of course. That was half the reason she saved his life in return. To save her brother but also to protect herself from Joffrey. Without Tywin Lannister, she was nothing in the red keep. A second daughter. A mere hostage.

People didn't treat her well because they feared or respected her. They treated her well because they feared and respected Tywin.

Have I always been so powerless? Arya thought. Has my fate always been in someone else's hands?

Have I really gotten any stronger?

These questions tormented her constantly. They were perhaps the worst thing about being trapped in that room.

But then again...Ramsay existed.

He kept coming back to visit her, and she had no way to predict his movements. Sometimes he disappeared for a week at a time. Sometimes he visited every day for three days in a row. Sometimes he even came back twice in one day, but that was rare. Whatever the case, his visits left her paranoid. When she heard the keys jingling, she always had to wonder...was it food, or him? Or both. Sometimes it was both.

She learned to hate the sound of keys because that meant Ramsay and his smile and his laugh and his knife against which she could not defend.

He was true to his word, of course. He never damaged her beyond repair. But he did leave little scars behind. Some on her skin. Some on her mind.

Sometimes he came to give her "practice". He swung his knife around and forced her to dance around it until he cornered her and left a new wound on one of her arms. But sometime he just came to talk for a short ask her questions. She never knew which it would be, so she found herself ever tense around him, a cornered animal just as he said.

"Always on guard, aren't you? I'm only here to talk...why so nervous?"

Once he came in the middle of the night while she was sleeping. She woke up to his blade at her throat and his hand over her mouth.

"You think you're safe in sleep...little wolf?" he had purred in her ear. "Monsters love the nighttime."

She jolted up, flailing her arms to knock his blade away. She cut her arm in the process and he laughed at that.

"Now you're just making yourself bleed. You ought to settle down."

She did not fall asleep after he left, and for days after the smallest sound could startle her awake.

One time, he visited with a strangely somber look on his face. "Lady Arya...has anyone told you the news yet?"

"What news?" Arya asked suspiciously.

"Oh, no one has? I apologize. I hate to tell you this myself," Ramsay said. "We received word from the Riverlands today."

Arya's insides went cold. The Riverlands. The siege. So many of her family was there. Which one had died? Who had joined her father and Rickon in the ground?

"I'm not sure how to put this. But...your brother..."

Which one? Robb or Bran? Which one was he talking about? Ramsay let a long silence hang in the air and Arya thought her heart might claw its way from her rib cage.

"Your brother Robb," Ramsay flashed a wide grin. "Is doing just fine. All your family is."

Arya released a breath she had been holding for too long. She barred her teeth in a snarl. "I hope you die screaming someday."

"I bring good news and that's your reaction? You're not much of a lady are you?"

He was maddening, and his words were always far sharper than his knife. Arya had dealt with cruel people before. Joffrey, of course, was as cruel as they came. But he was stupid. He lashed out without thought, trying to hurt as many people as he could.

Not Ramsay. There was no anger to his methods. No hate. He was patient enough to study her, looking for chinks in her armor. He found the doubts and fears of her mind and dug into them, drawing them all out into the open.

The Boltons had a saying. A naked man has few secrets. A flayed man has none. Ramsay was not allowed to flay Arya, but he was doing his level best to peel away her sanity. He backed her into corners. He tormented her in her dreams. He fanned the flames of her worry for her family. And he pointed out her helplessness again and again and again, until Arya could not help but wonder if she had ever been strong.

One time, he visited her in the middle of the night. She was already awake, sitting cross-legged on the bed, staring straight at the door. Waiting. He smiled when he saw her. That awful, wicked smile that she could never get out of her head.

"Still awake? Did I visit you in your nightmares?"

"No." She held his gaze and refused to lift her chin. "I'm not afraid of you."

He laughed once and shook his head. "Yes you are."

Arya swallowed hard and pressed her left fist against her leg.

Yes. She was.

Ramsay had always enjoyed games. From a very young age, he loved to play with others. At first, the games were tame. Fighting with sticks. Chasing servants through the woods. But Ramsay bored easily and he was always looking for ways to make the games more interesting. For instance...if he added a knife to the stick fight, it changed the game completely. When he used a bow and arrow to help him in the chase...made it more exciting.

Ramsay discovered the power of killing from a very young age. In his fifth year, he had caught a rat racing through his room. When it struggled, he squeezed. He squeezed and squeezed until it went still in his hands. It made him feel powerful to do that...He tried it again with whatever animals he could find. Rats, mice, cats. Not dogs. He liked dogs for their loyalty. Besides, if you trained them right, they could be used as weapons as well.

But the thing about killing...well that got boring too after a while. Whether he squeezed a rat to death or shot an arrow into a servant boy's neck from fifty paces was over so quickly that way. Humans and animals were so fragile. So easy to destroy.

So Ramsay learned to be a little more careful. He learned how to drag it out. That was why flaying appealed to him. It broke down a person slowly...gradually. And you could learn so much about them that way. How long did it take them to break? How long did it take them to beg? How long did they last before their heart gave out?

But just flaying? That could get boring too sometimes. Ramsay was so easily bored. Years after he squeezed his first rat to death, he was still trying to come up with new ways to entertain himself. Myranda and Tansy had been fun for a while. They had both been keen enough to join in on his games. He was able to play them off each other until Myranda proved to be the most interesting. Then the hunt for Tansy? That had been very fun indeed.

But once Tansy was gone, Myranda began to bore him too. There was no more competition, and her obsession with him was...well it was dull. But he could use it. Eventually he convinced her to topple from a high tower to prove her love to him. She had done it...though to be fair, he was holding a knife at the time she fell. Perhaps she knew the ground would be a cleaner end.

And then she was dead and he was bored again. Always bored. Always looking for a new game.

His father had an interesting game going at the moment. Playing ally to Walder Frey and then throwing him to the wolves and lions to wear down their numbers...quite brilliant really. Ramsay loved the idea. And it could end with them taking control of Winterfell. That would make him heir to the North, assuming his father did not have any true born sons. He wouldn't allow any true born sons. He had made sure that his fat wife, Lady Walda, could never bare any. She perished in the process of course, but that was no real loss.

But the real surprise of the whole game...the real interesting twist that amused Ramsay to no end...was Arya Stark.

Gods, she was fun. From the moment he saw her, he knew she would be fun. She held her shoulders proud like a lady and her eyes were defiant. It was not the look he expected of a Lannister captive. It was not the look he expected of a noble lady in general. Myranda had grit because she was a kennel master's daughter with nothing to lose. A girl of Arya Stark's position could usually afford to be soft with no real consequences.

No. There was no softness about her on the surface. She was sharp as steal. Sharp as a wolf's teeth. It took a lot to truly shake her, and she was quick to recover from pain and fear.

She was a project that he could really enjoy.

In the midst of waiting for the Starks and the Lannisters to finish with the Freys, Ramsay used her to alleviate his boredom. She was always surprising him with the little things. Her retorts. The way she refused to scream when she was in pain. The way she held his gaze even when her hands were shaking. He loved it. It would be so fun to watch her finally break, but he hoped she lasted a long time.

In a way, it was good that he couldn't hurt her too badly. It forced him to savor the experience. To be creative. What a challenge. What a fun game.

And just when he thought it couldn't get any more fun...his father introduced a new twist.

It happened four months into the siege of the Riverlands. A rider reached the Dreadfort with news. Their allies were about to set a plan in motion that would cripple the Stark loyalists and, hopefully, kill Robb Stark. It would leave their enemies weakened

Walder Frey had played his part well. The perfect pawn in the Bolton's game.

"The Lannister armies are still quite strong," his father said. "Tywin Lannister did not summon his full forces. There are no Tyrells among their numbers. Likely he knew it was not needed. He will be a greater threat than Robb Stark's remaining men."

"The snow will still be thick when he arrives," Ramsay said. "Spring is not here yet. He does not know how to fight in the cold."

"Tywin Lannister has fought many wars. He'll manage it," Roose said. "You're assuming your opponents weakness again. But by now, he knows that we have his ward. Like I warned, he won't return to the south. He is going to come for us and soon."

Yes. Ramsay had hoped as much. He had heard so much about the brutality of the great Tywin Lannister and he longed to actually meet him. That business with the Reynes and Tarbecks? Inspired, really. Inspired enough that the sound of his song made men quake in their boots.

I'd a like a song to make men tremble one day.

"Our benefactor, however, has given us a suggestion that might make Lord Tywin give up the chase," Roose said. "If we find ourselves cornered."

"Our benefactor?" Ramsay smirked. "Well I suppose she would know best, wouldn't she? She is his daughter."

Cersei Lannister was another fascinating sort of person to Ramsay. Sent back to Casterly Rock by her father, she had been bitterly searching for ways to get back at him ever since. And she seemed to have a special hatred for Arya Stark, though Ramsay could only begin to imagine why. Initially, she backed their rebellion on the north just to strike a blow against the Starks and undercut her father's plans. But then things changed when Arya Stark came north. It was all that the lioness could have hoped for, it seemed.

Their goals happened to align and Cersei was a woman of considerable wealth. Her support would ensure that the Boltons could easily survive the winter. It might even guarantee them permanent control after her father was dead. He was getting old, after all. How much longer could he last?

"Cersei Lannister claims that her father's interest in the Stark girl is primarily tied to her marriageability," Roose said. "If she loses that value...she is sure he will pull back his forces."

Ramsay raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps, perhaps. Who did you have in mind?"

"You," Roose said. "You seem to like the girl. And it's past time you were married now that you bear my name."

Ramsay's face lit up in a smile. What a wonderful day this was. He had always considered marriage a rather boring prospect but...she could be fun. At least for a while.

"It's not certain yet," Roose said. "First we must ride for Winterfell and take it before Robb Stark returns to the north. We must take additional captives there and if we can secure Sansa...well she is the sister with the better claim to the north."

"You should marry her then," Ramsay said. "You are without a wife again. Give the younger to me."

"As I said, the wedding is not a sure thing," Roose said. "Cersei Lannister may be Lord Tywin's daughter, but I don't trust her. She backs us out of spite and loses little if we fail. It is possible that she has misjudged her father's aims. I would rather bargain with Tywin Lannister first to get a sense of him myself. Better not to anger him anymore than we already have."

Ramsay drummed his fingers against the table. "Well you can't just tempt me with such a delicious possibility and then say it might not happen."

"I can do whatever I like, Ramsay," Roose said. "We leave for Winterfell in an hour. Make sure Arya Stark is tied up so tightly she can't even think to move."

"Can I tell her about the plan?" Ramsay asked with a wide grin.

"If you please," Roose said. He was never particularly bothered by Ramsay's more sadistic impulses. Perhaps because he had so many of the same impulses within himself. He only pretended to be respectable. One of the benefits of being a bastard was that Ramsay never had to pretend anything. "Remember...No damage. We must tread carefully here. We're entering the final stage."

"I won't damage her," Ramsay said. "That would be such a waste."

Ramsay was positively beaming when he visited Arya that day. It was just past lunch and Arya wished she could go back to sleep. She had barely slept at all in the last two days because of nightmares. She'd barely eaten either. The food they served her was partially rotted and had made her want to vomit at the taste.

She felt...weak. But none the less, she forced herself to glare at Ramsay when he entered the room.

"And how are you this morning, little wolf?"

Arya did not reply. She was not in the mood for this today. She was never in the mood, of course, but especially not right now.

"The silent treatment? That's fine. I can do the talking," Ramsay leaned back against the door. "I have news from the Riverlands."

"True news? Or a lie to mess with my head?" Arya asked.

"True news," Ramsay said. "Walder Frey is on the edge of defeat and your family still lives."

Arya blinked. That...actually was good news for her. Which meant there had to be some kind of catch. "But...?"

"But our allies are about to turn on the Stark loyalists. They'll likely kill many of them in the confusion and chaos. Perhaps even your brother," Ramsay said. "That will make his forces smaller than they used to be. Between this and the wall, he barely has enough to defend Winterfell." He laughed once. "Oh. Coincidentally, that's where we're going today."

Arya's mouth went dry. What was he saying?

"Yes, we're going to take Winterfell off your family's hands before your brother return north. No doubt he'll be rushing back soon but...we are much closer," Ramsay said. "So he'll arrive and be stuck in yet another siege. And we'll have so many hostages that...well he won't have much ground to stand on."

Arya felt a bit lightheaded. This wasn't happening. This could not possibly be happening. The children were at Winterfell. And Sansa and Talisa. The Boltons would have no reason to keep them all alive, so who would they kill first to strike out at Robb? His wife? His sister? One or all of his children? She was suddenly glad she hadn't eaten because she felt horrible nauseous at the thought.

"That's not even the best news," Ramsay said. "Once we get there and we've established firm control over Winterfell...there's going to be a wedding."

A wedding.

Arya had felt panic and fear in so many forms in these past months. Sometimes it was hot and burned through her heart and mind, making it hard to breathe. But sometimes, like now, it was cold. It crept through her veins and froze her heart. She already knew what Ramsay would say before he said it. She already knew it in her mind and heart.

"You and I, little wolf. You're going to be my bride." He smiled so wide at the words. So impossibly and cruelly wide. "Isn't that wonderful?"

Something snapped inside of Arya. The blood roared in her ears, and she roared too. She let out an inhuman scream and she threw herself at Ramsay with full force. She had no weapon but her teeth and claws and she used them. She clawed at his face. She bit down on his neck until she tasted blood.

It lasted only a few seconds. He was able to flip her off of him and slam her against the ground. His hand closed tight around her throat and he pressed his knee down on her left wrist. Her good hand. She stilled, knowing that if she fought, he might break it. And then she would be truly fucked.

Ramsay was panting and laughing. "Finally. I got to hear you scream." His smile was poison as he looked down at her. "I hope I get to hear it again."

He stood and left her trembling with hate on the ground, opening the door to four soldiers. "Bind her hands and legs. Then bring her. I don't want her moving."

She glared fiercely up at him, wishing she could kill him with her gaze. She had never loathed anyone so deeply. Never wanted to kill anyone so much. All those other names on her list. The dead and the living. Joffrey. Cersei. Lord Tywin. They were nothing to her in that moment. There was only name at all she wanted dead.

Ramsay Bolton.

Ramsay Bolton.

Ramsay Bolton.

I will give everything I am. I will pay any price. Just let me kill Ramsay Bolton.

Chapter Text

Sansa had been expecting an army. From the moment she sent the rider with the letter to Robb, she began to prepare for an attack on Winterfell. It only made sense after all. While Stark loyalists were occupied with Mance Rayder in the north and Walder Frey in the south, Winterfell was left highly vulnerable. She had just enough archers to guard the walls of the castle all the way around, and barely enough soldiers to put up a fight if the army broke through.

To make matters worse, Sansa was not an expert at warfare. Not be a long shot. She had never presumed she would need to prepare for a siege. That was usually men's work and it was kept well out of her studies as a child. She knew how to organize resources for a long winter, which she supposed was helpful if the attackers tried to starve them out. And Tailisa was skilled at treating the wounded, which may help to minimize their losses. But Sansa doubted the Boltons would give them a chance to use either of those skills.

The Boltons would not try for a drawn out siege. They would make a full attack on Winterfell to take the castle. If they did not, Robb's armies would be upon them within a week. They had to take it now. They could not afford to wait.

And their odds were good. Winterfell did not have enough men or enough time to properly prepare.

Those in the most danger were the children. As Robb's heirs, the Boltons would want to get rid of them entirely. The same had happened to Rhagear Targaryen's children after all. The most obvious choice was to send them away to another castle in secret. But the Boltons might be expecting that. They might even have a spy already in Winterfell who could tell them of the children's departure. How else could they have known where to find Arya and Bran on that day, after all?

No...Winterfell was safer than the open road. And even if the attackers did take the castle, there were places to hide them.

Sansa hoped for at least a week to prepare for the attack. But the Boltons gave them less than three days. It was then that the watchmen reported a massive army sweeping over the hill, baring the flag of Bolton above them. With them came Umbers. Karstarks. Rhyswells. Lockes. All of the families Osha had mentioned had arrived at their gates.

Sansa felt bile rise up in the back of her throat but she choked it down again. Memories of the Battle of Blackwater stirred in the back of her mind. She remembered the stench of fire and blood that poisoned the air. Soon, that would come for Winterfell and the people inside.

There would be no mercy from the Boltons. Who could ever expect mercy from a traitorous house with a flayed man for their sigil?

Still, she and Tailisa stood atop the wall above the gate as the armies approached. Tailisa must have been as terrified as Sansa, but for her part, she did not show her fear. She had seen men bleed many times and even sawed of their limbs to save them. She did not frighten easily.

"The children are safe," Tailisa said. "Already tucked away and with plenty to last them until their father arrives. The Boltons won't find them if they do break the castle."

"They might," Sansa murmured. "It only takes one aimless guard. Or a few good dogs."

"Shaggy Dog will protect them," Tailisa said. "I've never seen a few good dogs win a fight against a wolf."

Sansa nodded once and looked back over the walls. The armies had stopped not far from the gates. At their lead was the Bastard of the Dreadfort. Ramsay Bolton. Sansa guessed that Roose Bolton had sent Ramsay ahead to take the castle.

"Lady Stark and Lady Sansa," Ramsay called up. "Kind of you to come to the walls to greet us. I don't suppose you will do us the courtesy of opening the gate and allowing us inside? We are quite tired from our journey."

"That is a shame," Tailisa said. "We have no room for traitors here."

"You don't have the men to oppose them either," Ramsay said. "You have archers I see. But probably not the best archers in the army. We have many times the arrows and men that you have. And more ladders than you can cut down." He inspected the walls. "It doesn't seem you've had much time to make preparations either."

"It doesn't take many men to hold Winterfell," Sansa said, making her voice stronger than she felt. "And they will gladly give their lives to do it."

"They will give their lives," Ramsay said. "Unless you do something about it. Open the gates and no one inside will be harmed. Yield the castle to me. I am a man of mercy."

He had a wicked smile as he said the words. It made his intentions horribly clear. He planned to kill anyone who was not of use to him. And he would not do it kindly. Sansa recognized in his eyes the same malice she once saw in Joffrey.

"I once asked a man like you for mercy," Sansa said at last. "I learned the hard way that he had none. I will not make the same mistake twice. We will not yield."

"Won't you?" Ramsay asked. "Not even for your sister."

The words stabbed at Sansa's heart. Only now did Sansa see a smaller figure being ushered through the crowd. She was bound tightly so that she could barely even walk on her own. And her mouth was gagged so she could not speak. Arya.

Sansa hadn't recognized her for a moment. Her sister had always been skinny, but now she looked almost skeletal. Her cheeks were sunken in and her face was pale as if she had not seen sunlight in all her months at the Dreadfort. But her eyes were still Arya's. They burned with vengeful grey fire as she glared at Ramsay. He merely smiled back at her and placed a hand on her head, ruffling her hair.

"Don't feel too worried for her. This is a familiar position for your sister. Certainly not the first time she's been used to force family to bend," Ramsay said. "I wonder, how did Tywin Lannister argue for it? Surrender or I'll kill your sister?"

"I was not there," Sansa muttered. "I could not say."

"Well, however he did it...the threat stands for me," Ramsay said. "Open the gate, Lady Sansa. Or I'll open her throat."

Sansa's hand was trembling as she looked down at Arya. Her sister looked right back at her and shook her head. Even in this weakened state she was defiant. If Sansa did not know better, she might even say she was fearless.

But neither of them was fearless. Sansa knew that. They were both simply playing a game of trying to look strong. Arya had always been better at that game than her, but still Sansa could see through her.

Sansa could not watch her die. She had already been forced to watch her father lose his head. How could she watch her little sister meet the same fate?

Why was her family always in such peril?

Tailisa rested a hand over hers, and the feeling brought Sansa back to reality. She drew in a deep breath and held Ramsay's gaze.

"If I opened the gates, most of the people inside would die, because they are expendable to you," Sansa said. "I don't think Arya would forgive me if I gave over our home so easily. So the answer is still no. We will not open the gates."

The look in Arya's eyes was relieved. Of course, Arya would never forgive herself either if Sansa opened the gates because she was taken hostage.

"So your sister's life means nothing to you?" Ramsay asked.

Sansa's jaw clenched. "If you did not need my sister alive for something, she would already be dead. Or at least, she would be in much worse shape than she is now. The fact that she is still on her feet shows that she's not expendable to you. Not yet."

Ramsay's smile did not falter. But it did sharpen. "You're right. Not yet."

Then he snapped his fingers.

Sansa expected, for a moment, that she might see Arya killed after all. But that was not what happened. As she had been so focused on her sister, she did not notice the lone archer who had slowly drawn his bow. Until exactly one second before he loosed the arrow. The shaft whistled past her, close enough that she felt it pass her arm-just before it struck Tailisa in the chest.

It was against all of the rules of war to strike at someone while still discussing terms. Sansa knew that much. Ramsay Bolton did not care for rules or honor or any of the ideals her father held in such high esteem. But still it shocked her to see him cross such a line.

Sansa felt Tailisa's hand slip from her own as she fell back. She looked down in horror and shock for a long moment before she fell to her knees beside her. Blood bubbled from the wound around the arrow. For a moment, Sansa wanted to pull it out but Tailisa grasped her wrist before she could.

"It will only...make the bleeding faster," she rasped.

"You'll be all right," Sansa said. "You can tell me what to do. You know how to handle wounds like these, don't you? Give me instructions. Or...or I can find Maester Luwin. I can find...someone."

Her words fell from her mouth in a panic and tears burned her eyes. It didn't make sense. Tailisa would have been a valuable hostage. Did Ramsay consider her one hostage too many? He knew Robb had three children after all, and he already had Arya in his grasp. Perhaps he did not think he needed the wife.

Perhaps he just wanted to eliminate the Stark name as quickly as possible.

Tailisa squeezed Sansa's hand, staring up at the sky. "It's too late, Sansa. It's too late."

"It's not. Please. I need you to stand with me. I can't do this alone," Sansa whispered.

"They had...good aim. I'm sor-" She coughed and blood spurt from her mouth, staining the collar of her dress. "Just...the children. You have to...protect the children."

"They'll be fine," Sansa promised. "But you need to stay for them. They need you." She gripped her hand as tightly as she could. Tailisa had been another sister to her since she returned to Winterfell. And a good wife to Robb. They had the sort of marriage that Sansa always read about in her books. Two people who married for love and adored each other afterwards. She did not even want to think of Robb's face when he found out...when he saw...

Tailisa wasn't focusing on Sansa anymore. She was looking past her, up at the sky. "So many arrows."

Sansa heard them. She heard arrows whizzing overhead and the screams of some of the archers as they were struck with the bolts. Normally, there would be archers to replace them. But they did not have enough. Not nearly enough. Besides the soldiers they had only old men and women and children. They could hold a bow perhaps but...but there were just too many arrows from the other side.

They were going to lose. It felt as if they had already lost. Even is Sansa had been an expert at warfare, no one could have prepared Winterfell for this army in only three days' time. But still she felt like a failure.

"Ned," Tailisa murmured. "Be careful of the arrows. They' Stay back from them..." She was delirious now and her eyes looked so far away. "Robb...get Ned. He'll...hurt himself. Please..."

Then she seemed to still, her last word still on her lips. Her eyes gazed out at nothing. The arrow had done its job.

For a long moment, Sansa lingered there, shivering with fear and sorrow. Troubles never ended for House Stark, did they? She had hoped her nephews and niece might know a childhood without war. But already they had lost their mother to it.

I've failed. I've failed everyone.

"Lady Sansa."

Sansa felt Brienne's heavy hand on her shoulder.

"We need to go. It won't take them long to breach the walls."

"I have to lead," Sansa murmured.

"Lead or not...they will come over the walls and they'll be all too happy to have you as a hostage or a casualty," Brienne said. "You shouldn't give them anything more to use against your brother."

She was right. They already had Arya. She should not give them two sisters. It would only put Arya in more danger and make either one of them expendable.

"When they break us, I will go," Sansa said at last. "But until they do, I stay. I won't leave this place in chaos." She stood and hurried down the wall, away from the danger of the arrows. Brienne followed close behind, shielding her with her armored body.

In the courtyard, the soldiers stood strong, along with the less prepared citizens who held whatever weapons they could find.

"M'lady," one said. "Orders?"

I am not fit to lead a war, Sansa thought. But I will try.

"Shore up the gates," Sansa said. "And keep your shields above your heads. They'll be using ladders to get over the walls. That means only a few of them will get in at a time. Kill them as they do. The Boltons may have more men than we do...but as long as they have less men inside the walls, we can still beat them. We are of the north. Winterfell is ours. We will keep them back."

Or at least...delay them for a while.

She was not sure if her speech was convincing, but the soldiers squared their shoulders and moved to do as she said. And Sansa stood in the courtyard, knowing it would soon be full of bodies.

Tailisa was the first of many deaths to come.

They held for one day. The Bolton armies had arrived at sunrise and it was nearly sunrise again. If only the sunlight brought any hope with it. Their numbers were enough to keep back the Bolton armies and keep casualties low. But after fighting through the night, everyone was beginning to tire, and they did not have the men to give those who had been standing guard at the wall a break or a rest. To make matters worse, the Boltons had been slowly chipping at their defenses. Bit by bit. Arrow by arrow. There were gaps now in the archers at the wall and not enough arrows. Especially now that they castle had been surrounded.

A group of ten Bolton men made it into Winterfell and cut down three archers and five swordsmen before they were killed by the survivors. Brienne herself killed three. But when Sansa looked up, she saw another wave soon to come.

"It's about to fall apart, my lady," Brienne said softly. "You lead well. But we are running out of time."

She was right. Of course she was right. Sansa knew it all along that this wouldn't last.

"My lady," Brienne said when she responded. "We should go to the children now."

Sansa nodded once, but not before turning to one of the older soldiers who's sword had slain many men that day.

"I leave you in command on the ground. Keep them back for as long as you can," Sansa murmured.

"Aye, m'lady," the man replied. He knew it was lost and he knew he was dead. She could see it in his eyes. "Get somewhere safe."

Sansa placed a hand at his arm, offering him a thankful smile. Then she hurried after Brienne. Even though she felt light headed and helpless and like an awful failure...she had to keep moving. There was no choice.

She had not had much time to prepare the castle. But she had time to prepare the crypts. She had prepared them with supplies that would last a few people several months. It was meant, initially, for Tailisa and the children. Now it would be for her and the children.

Only three people alive knew about the place in the crypts. Osha. Maester Luwin. Brienne. Sansa had told everyone else that she had sent the children away to another castle, just in case there was a spy. And if anyone was tortured...that was the information they would give to Ramsay.

Meanwhile, they would hide in the underground maze of the crypts and wait out the storm. Wait for Robb to come.

They reached the entrance just as she saw more Bolton men making their way over the western wall. She took one last look at the Winterfell courtyard before ducking inside the entrance of the crypt.

Her parents used to say that there must always be a Stark in Winterfell. And as a Stark, she would weather this awful battle and keep Robb's legacy safe.

Chapter Text

Arya had been longing for Winterfell for quite some time. In her four months of captivity at the Dreadfort, she dreamed of the familiar walls and the people within. But this...this was not what she had wanted at all.

She found herself sitting in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by bodies of the Stark household. They scattered the ground like dead leaves in the autumn, their blood staining the snow beneath them. It was the kind of sight that should have made Arya burn with fury.

But she was numb. Completely and utterly numb. This place didn't even feel real to her and she did not feel solid in her own body. Her soul was drifting about her home like a ghost.

This is my fault, she thought. I should not have gotten caught.

If she had been prepared and saved herself and Bran, then Robb never would have left Winterfell to deal with Walder Frey. She could have caught the kidnappers and forced them to confess. The Boltons could have been handled right then, and the north would be safe.

But that was all a distant, stupid wish now. Instead, she was caught again, Robb had fallen into a trap, and Winterfell belonged to the Boltons.

And so many people had died for it.

Arya longed for a weapon, but she could not move her arms to reach for one. Her bindings pinned her arms too her sides and the chains at her ankles made running impossible. She was helpless, sitting in the Winterfell courtyard, staring at fallen weapons she could not have.

Ramsay noticed. He always noticed the slightest things. He wandered over to her with a victorious smile on his face, picking up a dagger from a fallen soldier.

"Wishing you could have this, little wolf?" He spun it a few times in hand, letting it catch the early morning light. "You can. Just reach out in take it."

Arya glared at him but did not reply.

"Oh? Guess you don't want it too much then." Ramsay sat down beside, resting an arm around her shoulder. Arya gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to throw him off. "What do you think of the new decorations on the wall?"

Arya stared straight ahead, refusing to look up. She had been avoiding looking at the walls all morning. "They're exactly the type of decorations I'd expect from you."

"But you have to look at them to really appreciate them." Ramsay threaded his fingers through her hair and forced her head back. "Look. Now."

She caught a slightest glimpse before she was able to close her eyes. And the images swung in her imagination even after she did. She used to play on those walls. She used to climb there with Bran. Race along them with Jon. Stand with her father and look out across the fields they called home. She could not stand to see the walls repurposed for this.

Ramsay chuckled when she shut her eyes. He was far too close to her and it made her skin crawl. "Open your eyes," he murmured in her ear.

She didn't. She refused.

"Arya," his voice was more dangerous now. She hated his nickname for her, but somehow, hearing her true name in his voice caused bile to rise up in the back of her throat. "Open your eyes. Or I'll make your left hand match your right."

Arya drew in a shuddering breath and slowly cracked open her eyes to look.

She saw Tailisa first. They had hung her over the gate and left her to sway in the icy breeze. Without the arrow in her chest, it was unclear how she had died, which she suspected was the point. Robb would be left to wonder how much she had suffered before they killed her. And his imagination could conjure up a lot. They had flayed her after all.

They flayed other northmen too, some of them living, and they hung along the walls just like Tailisa. Some men. Some women. Even a few children. Those they hadn't flayed and killed were left in the dungeons. Some of the women had been taken as "rewards" for Bolton soldiers. And a few were allowed to live their normal lives because they were useful.

At least the people hanging on the walls were dead now. Their suffering had ended.

"How do you think your brother will react when he sees?" Ramsay asked. "Will he howl? Or is he like you? Perhaps he growls more often than he screams." He looked at her. "What do you think?"

"I think..." Arya's voice was flat when she spoke. No anger, no grief. Just numbness. "I think I'm going to kill you one day...Lord Ramsay."

The threat only seemed to delight him more. "Ah...I hope you try, little wolf." He snapped his fingers at the nearest soldiers. "Find Lady Arya suitable chambers. Strip the room before you let her out of those restraints. We can't become lax now that we've won. Robb Stark will be here soon." He ruffled her hair. "Until then, I think I'll go visit your sister. Or perhaps one of the children. I'll decide as I go."

At last, Ramsay stood and let go of her. That was a relief at least.

And there was another relief too, even as she was escorted to her new quarters. Ramsay did not have the children, nor did he have Sansa. He pretended he did, of course. But if he had imprisoned any of them, he would have paraded them in front of Arya by now. He liked to brag and he liked to hurt her.

Somehow, her sister and the children were safe, and Arya had to keep holding on to that silver lining for as long as she could.

When the siege ended and the traitors were captured, the Stark armies made for the north with all haste. The Lannisters stayed behind for now, though they would ride north in a few days' time. First, they had to deal with the Freys. Robb's uncle was at least marginally involved, but Tywin Lannister was the one making the true decisions.

Walder Frey lost his head. That was to be expected. But his sons and grandsons did not fare much better. If they were involved in the siege at all, they would suffer the same fate as their father. The only one spared was Robert Frey, the man who had helped them. And, of course, the Freys who were not at the Twins. The seat of their house, would, naturally, be given to Genna Frey and her husband. That meant Lannister control, which all worked out very well in Lord Tywin's favor, but Robb did not have time to think about that right now. He had more pressing concerns to deal with.

Though Sansa had not said so in her letter, everyone knew that Winterfell was the Bolton's true target. Robb hoped Sansa had known as well. He prayed that she and Tailisa had time enough to organize some sort of defense around Winterfell. Not that they had ever had to do such a thing before, and he cursed himself for not considering this possibility when he rode south. He should have. The Greyjoys took Winterfell once before while he was away. Why should he expect the Boltons to be any different?

The journey north left him anxious and he had the fight the urge to ride alone past his armies and gallop all the way to Winterfell. As it was, they pressed on with little sleep, taking the fastest roads back to the north. The melting snow made for difficult travel conditions and more than one horse fell with a broken leg. But they did not stop. They did not have time.

And when at last he saw Winterfell again...the sight felt like a blow to the chest that could have knocked him from his horse. Bolton banners hung over the towers, visible even from this distance.

Again, he wanted to charge at once. Again he let logic talk him down from such folly. They had to establish a good position. Then he would bargain with the traitors.

So the northern army established a camp at the edge of the Wolfswood. And Robb took a small group to the gate of Winterfell to speak with the traitors. To see exactly what they wanted and what they hoped to gain.

Ramsay Bolton met him atop the wall, a smile on his face.

"The Lord of Winterfell returns from his southern campaign. I hope it went well," the man called. "You look weary from your travels. I wish we could offer you a bed, but we're quite full at the moment."

"I'll make room again soon. Men without heads don't need castles to keep," Robb replied coolly. His anger was a storm inside of him, but he could not let it break through. He had to stay calm. "I'll relieve you of both before the spring comes."

"Bold words," Ramsay said. "Considering all of the hostages I have. Three children. Two sisters. I have a lot of...spares to kill, wouldn't you say?"

"Aye," Robb said. "But if you harm my sisters or my children or my wife, then I promise, your death will be-"

"Oh I'll give you your wife back," Ramsay said.

Robb paused, both confused and unsettled. Ramsay was still smiling but it felt wrong. Something was terribly wrong.

"If you want her that is," Ramsay said. "She's been hanging up here for some time and she's not much to look at anymore. But we'll cut her down for you, if you desire."

Only then did Robb see her. He had tried to ignore the bodies on top of Winterfell. But at Ramsay's words, he forced himself to look. And he saw.

Something fractured inside Robb. Reality itself seemed to crack in one hundred different places. He did not even know how process the horrible sight before him. But there was Tailisa, swaying in the breeze, one of her eyes already gone, much of her skin gone, her face already beginning to rot.

He swayed like she did, on the back of his horse. He wondered, for a moment, if he might tip off the edge. But he felt his mother clutch his arm tight in her hand.

"Do not fall," she whispered to him. "Do not give him that, Robb. Do not fall."

Robb did not fall, but he was trembling as it all began to set in. Tailisa was dead and the children could soon join her. And he wanted to dig Ramsay's eyes out of their sockets with a rusty blade.

"He has the children, Robb," Catelyn murmured. "Be smart."

The children...that monster has my children.

Robb took a deep breath and looked up at Ramsay. "I know what supplies you have, Lord Ramsay. I know how long you can last. We'll starve you out if we must. Or we'll rip you out of the castle by force. Regardless, you will not hold Winterfell. No matter how many hostages you have. No matter how many hostages you've killed." He turned. "Look for your own men to swing tonight."

Robb started his horse in a gallop back to the woods. And when he reached them he gave his orders. All of the traitors were to be put to death that very night, hung from the trees of the Wolfswood. He would take their heads himself, but so many slices would blunt his sword.

"Ramsay will not care about these deaths, Robb," his mother warned him. "But it will only insight more anger in the Umbers and the Karstarks."

"Good," Robb said. "Let them feel anger. Let them feel sorrow. They will all die before this is over. They bore steel against their lord and these are the consequences."

"Hostages can still be valuable," she said.

She was right. They could. Even in his fury, he could not kill every traitor. Not yet. Not until they had Winterfell. "Then we will keep one traitor from each house alive. The most important one. The others hang."

His mother nodded once. That seemed to satisfy her. As much as she tried to be reasonable, he could see the rage burning in her eyes too. Arya and Sansa were in danger. Her grandchildren were in danger. She wanted blood as much as Robb.

His men carried out the order without hesitation. Having lost their own families in the traitors attack, they were eager for revenge. The woods that night were filled with the screams of dying men. And the bodies swayed like branches in the wind. Robb watched it all to make sure his orders were carried out.

Only after the screams had died did he return to his tent alone.

Years ago, he had stood with Tailisa in a tent like this and confessed that he did not want to marry the Frey girl. That he wanted her. That he loved her. And she...gods be good, she had loved him as well.

"But you need that bridge. I hope it's a beautiful bridge."

Marrying her had never been the smart thing to do. It was exactly the kind of reckless move that could have cost him the war. But he never regretted it. Not for one moment. He did not regret that night with her or any night after. She was everything he had ever wanted. The only thing.

And she was...gone.

When he finally registered that fact, he folded. He crumpled to his knees and he let himself cry. For once again he had failed. Once again he had lost.

He was so tired...of losing.

Chapter Text

An icy breeze whipped across the north on the day that the Lannister army arrived at Winterfell. And it made the bodies in the Wolfswood sway violently. Their stench would have been near unbearable by now, if not for the cold. But winter's breath preserved them and kept them swaying longer.

The forest had been made a graveyard. At first, Tywin thought the bodies might belong to Stark loyalists. It seemed a Bolton sort of thing to do-hanging bodies in the woods to welcome back the Lord of Winterfell. But closer inspection revealed that these were the bodies of soldiers. Some belonged to House Umber. Others to House Karstark. Others to House Bolton.

This was a graveyard of Robb Stark's making.

"Seven hells," Jaime muttered from beside Tywin. "What...what do you think prompted this?"

Tywin looked from the trees to the walls of Winterfell. Even from this distance, he could see bodies hanging from those walls as well. A taunt to which Robb Stark had responded.

We wondered if Arya Stark was among the bodies.

"Father?" Jaime looked to him. His son was likely having the same thought. But Jaime had never been as adept at concealing his concerns.

"We'll set up camp on the other side of Winterfell," Tywin said at last. "Most of the traitor's army isn't at Winterfell. They'll be waiting to attack from behind. We'll be more difficult to surround if we split our forces."

Jaime nodded once. "Right...of course."

Once the Lannister army had settled into a suitable place at the fields to the east of Winterfell, Tywin sent a messenger to Robb Stark's camp to determine the exact situation. For the next hour, he sat in his tent wondering what kind of news the messenger would bring. Wondering what had prompted Robb Stark to fill the Wolfswood with bodies.

The messenger returned with an answer.

"The Boltons had already taken Winterfell by the time the Starks arrived. Ramsay Bolton spoke briefly with Robb Stark from the wall and made it clear they had no intentions of vacating willingly. And..." the messenger paused for a moment.

"And?" Jaime asked. "What else?"

"Robb Stark's...wife was hanging on the wall. Flayed. It's not clear how she died."

Now Tywin understood. Marrying that woman had been one of Robb's greatest mistakes, and Tywin had nearly used it to end the northern rebellion. But he had married her for love. Ramsay Bolton had made the mistake of taking her away along with any mercy the Stark boy had left.

"Did Ramsay Bolton kill any other hostages?" Tywin asked at last.

"None that Lord Stark mentioned," the messenger said.

"Then he likely still has his children somewhere," Tywin said. "And both his sisters."

And Arya is still alive.

"There's something else," the messenger said. "Lord Stark...invited you to his war council at sundown. He says the northern lords won't make any trouble and it's more efficient than meeting back and forth."

Jaime shifted nervously. "He's sure that's a good idea?"

"He just hung quite a few traitors," Tywin said. "I doubt the other lords are eager to argue with him at the moment." He gave the messenger a nod. "Tell Lord Stark I will be there."

When the man had left, Jaime turned to look at him. "You're sure? Even after the Riverlands, I doubt the northern lords will be happy to see you. Or me, for that matter."

"I don't need them to be happy," Tywin said. "But we're in the north. They know this country better than us and they know how to fight in it." He adjusted his gloves. "This is Robb Stark's war now. It's time to see how he will win it."

Jaime had never seen such a sudden change in a man before. Robb Stark had always been a serious boy. He would expect nothing less from a son forced to take up his father's mantle so early. But throughout the War of Five Kings, there was always a spark in his eye. The fire of a young commander who was adept at winning. Sometimes he had been down right smug. Even during this rebellion, Robb Stark kept that same spark. That same strength.

But when they entered his tent...his eyes were cold and hard as ice itself. There was no light in them at all. He sat at the war table, his hands clasped beneath his chin, looking about ten years older than when Jaime had last saw him. If there was any question of whether or not he loved his wife, it was answered here. He had loved her dearly. But now she was gone and with her, a part of his own soul.

None of the northern lords seemed surprised by Tywin's entrance, nor did they try to pick a fight. But one did take issue with Jaime's presence.

"I didn't know Jaime Lannister was welcome at this council as well."

"Jaime Lannister played an instrumental part in the mission to rescue Bran," Robb Stark said without missing a beat. His voice was flat and cold. "And he saved my brother's life. He is welcome and I will hear no more about it."

Jaime inwardly cursed as he felt his father's gaze on him. He had not yet gotten around to mentioning that little mission. But Tywin did not question him here. The Lannisters never showed division in front of enemies or allies. He imagined he would hear quite a bit about it later.

He was soon saved from his father's icy stare by Robb Stark's voice. "I was glad to see your banners arriving so soon, Lord Tywin," Robb said though his voice did not have one ounce of gladness in it. "Is the situation in the Riverlands handled?"

"It is," Tywin said.

"Good," Robb said. "Shall we begin the next stage?"

There was a long silence in the tent. The northern lords looked between Robb and Tywin, wondering if Robb could get away with speaking to the Lord of Casterly Rock in such a cold tone. Would Tywin Lannister be insulted? Would he try to take control of the plans? Would he try to give orders in this place?

But after an eternal pause, Tywin took his seat at the table across from Robb. "Yes. Let's begin."

The meeting was long and tense-but not as tense as it could have been. Tywin, oddly, rarely spoke. Instead he listened. He listened to the Northern Lords debate and he let Robb Stark make the final call on all plans. He stepped in only to offer information about his own armies.

Jaime did not speak at all. He thought it best in a room of men that hated him to watch and listen instead of talk. Mostly he listened to Robb Stark. Even despite the tragedy of the recent days, his mind was not affected. If anything, it had sharpened. He was focusing entirely on the war, pushing out any thoughts of his wife hanging above Winterfell or his children captive within.

He did not have time to grieve right now, so it seemed he simply eliminated every distracting emotion.

By the end of the meeting they had a solid beginning of a strategy. The Lannister army would surround the eastern side of Winterfell. It would be the obvious direction from which to approach from the Dreadfort. But Roose Bolton would want to attack the Stark loyalists rather than the Lannisters. If they forced him to attack from the Wolfswood instead, they had the advantage of terrain. The thick trees would make a cavalry charge much more difficult and cavalry would be the death of the northern loyalist's weakened army.

The main goal was to make an attack difficult for Roose and keep Ramsay and his men locked into Winterfell. Further strategies could be decided upon based on how their enemy moved.

It was a good start and Jaime's father had no objections.

"I don't think I've ever seen you so silent during a war council," Jaime said when the meeting was at its end.

"I would have spoken if I needed to," Tywin said. "But I didn't need to. Robb Stark rejected the foolish ideas and considered the intelligent ones. In any case, I told you I don't know the northern terrain well. Better to leave the campaign in Lord Stark's hands."

Jaime nodded once. He supposed it made sense. And it did say something of Robb Stark's skill if he was able to gain his father's approval. But then, he had always been a gifted strategist on the battlefield.

" instrumental part of the mission to rescue Brandon Stark?" Tywin asked as they neared the camp. "That's an interesting development. A shame you didn't tell me about it sooner."

"I had the sneaking suspicion you wouldn't approve," Jaime said.

"You're right. I wouldn't and I still don't." Tywin glanced at him. "Why would you take that kind of risk?"

Jaime shrugged. "Paying a debt?"

"You think just because you're a Lannister you can use that excuse for everything?" his father swung off his horse and stalked into his tent. Jaime followed after him even though he longed to ride away. "You can't. And it's not an excuse to stupidly risk your life."

"What do you want me to say then?" Jaime asked. "It's over and done with. I'm alive."

"And I want to be sure that I don't have to worry about you playing a great knight every time my back is turned."

"I wasn't playing a great knight," Jaime snapped. "I was trying to-" He stopped himself when he realized how loud he had gotten. "I was trying to get a weapon to Arya. That's all."

Tywin studied him for a long moment. Jaime could feel it even though he did not look at him. Fortunately, he was saved from the conversation by a messenger entering the tent. A messenger with a letter, sealed with the image of the flayed man.

Tywin split the seal with his thumb and wordlessly began to read. Jaime stepped forward.

"What is it? A threat?" he asked. He hoped there were no more fingers.

"No," Tywin set the letter down on his desk. "Roose Bolton wishes to meet with me."

Tywin had only met Roose Bolton in person once before at some tourney. He could not remember which one. He knew from that first encounter, and from his reputation, that the Lord of the Dreadfort kept his cards close to his chest. He had a talent for violence and cruelty but he kept it hidden. He was the kind of man who would stab his lord in the back for the right price and that had made him useful to Tywin at one time. Now, he was a thorn in Tywin's side, disrupting the peace once again.

But when he called this meeting, he mistakenly revealed his play. He did not want to fight with the House of Lannister. He was hoping to bargain and send them riding south once again. And a man desperate for a bargain came to the table at a disadvantage.

When Roose Bolton arrived to meet him in the dead of night, he came with just enough men to be a problem if anyone attacked him. He didn't trust Tywin to keep with honor. Of course not. He knew how willing Tywin was to break the rules to win. But Tywin would not kill him yet. Roose still had a hostage, after all.

"So. You meet with me in secret," Tywin said. "Hoping to turn me away from Robb Stark's cause?" He sipped his wine. "If you wanted my support, capturing my ward was a poor way to start."

"It was a mistake. She was with her brother at the time," Roose Bolton said. "We could call it bad luck."

"You could. I don't," Tywin said. "Was it a mistake cutting off her fingers too? A slip of the knife?"

"It was a mistake," Roose said. "But one that my bastard made. He's always been difficult to control. A mad dog that does what he pleases. Useful at times but often...a nuisance."

"Your mad dog is responsible for killing Tailisa Stark, I assume," Tywin said. "It effectively ended any possibility of mercy from Robb Stark. You know you won't bring him to the table."


"So you hoped to come to an arrangement with me instead. That's bold of you," Tywin said. "I understand. The Lannister army does disrupt your plan. Otherwise, it was perfect. Use Walder Frey as bait to wear down the northern army and occupy the Tullys. Send other loyalists to the wall. Kill as many of Robb Stark's men as possible to cripple his forces. If it was only Robb Stark here, your victory would be nearly assured. He's a gifted commander, but you have Winterfell and a well-rested army." Tywin looked up at him, his gaze hard. "But you made the mistake of insulting me and taking my ward."

"Mistakes can be corrected," Roose said. "The girl is unharmed, other than those two fingers."

"So you hope to return my ward and send me south," Tywin said.

"That depends."

"On what."

"If I think you'll go," Roose said. "Because if not, I'll let my bastard keep her."

Tywin felt a wave of anger roll through him but he did not let it cross to his face. He only tightened his grip slightly on his chair. "If you were to do that, I'd destroy you. I hope you understand that."

"Perhaps," Roose said. "But I can offer you more than the girl."


"Yes," Roose said. "Your ward, I'll give to you if you leave for the south. And if you reach the south...I will send you a letter. A letter with a name."

"What kind of name?" Tywin asked.

"The name of a traitor in your midst," Roose said. "One that has been helping us under your nose."

A traitor. King's Landing was full of traitors at all times and Tywin was used to them. But if someone down south had presumed to help the north in an uprising...they could presume to start more trouble in the future.

"How do I know you have a name?" Tywin asked.

"You plan to marry Arya Stark to your son, don't you?" Roose asked. "We knew before she reached the north. And that isn't common knowledge, is it?"

No. It wasn't. But Tywin did not let any surprise show on his face.

"So..." Roose raised an eyebrow. "Is your ward in a name worth peace?"

"I can't tell you what will happen if you return my ward," Tywin said. "After all, I don't know exactly what condition she is in. But I can tell you what will happen if you don't return her. I won't ride south. I will stay here in the north and see your house burned to the ground. I will see your name wiped from existence. That is the price of insulting me. I always pay my debts."

Roose Bolton did not show any fear at the prospect to his credit. He nodded once and stood from his seat. "I know. And I promise, the information I have will settle that account."

Maybe it would. Maybe it wouldn't. But even if Arya was returned to him in perfect health...and even if the information was good...he could not leave the north to deal with this rebellion. Otherwise Arya Stark might kill him herself.

The letter from his father was a command, but Ramsay could just as easily pretend he had never seen it. He didn't want to see it, after all. It contained words he did not want to hear.

Marrying the Stark girl will not convince Lord Tywin to leave. Better we arrange for him to have her back in one piece. Anything else he will consider an unforgiveable insult to House Lannister.

We can destroy Robb Stark's broken army on our own, but not with the Lannisters aiding them. We must do what we can to even the odds. Arrange for Arya Stark to be sent to me. I will handle things from there.

Ramsay nearly tore the letter in two when he first read it. What a ridiculous notion. Giving Tywin Lannister back his ward? Did his father really think that would convince the Lord of Casterly Rock to leave?

Sometimes he felt like a one eyed man surrounded by the blind. His father thought they could get rid of Tywin by returning the girl. Cersei Lannister thought they could get rid of him by marrying off the girl and rendering her useless. But they were both wrong. Ramsay could see it. There was no way the infamous old lion would back down now. If he had implied that he would, it was all part of a trap to lure Ramsay's father into giving up their most valuable hostage.

Technically, she was their only hostage, but Ramsay did not want to reveal that.

No...There was no escaping Tywin Lannister's wrath. Not unless they killed him. And until they did that...well Ramsay might as well choose the option that was the most fun.

So he tossed the letter into the flames, letting the fire eat up his father's words.

Ramsay had Winterfell now, and he had no need to follow orders.

Arya's room at Winterfell was larger than the one at the Dreadfort, but not by much. And it had no more weapons that she could use either. She spent the first hour pacing around to find something sharp. It ended with her sitting on her bed again, nearly pulling out her hair in frustration.

This place was so familiar to her. It was the house of her childhood. But Ramsay Bolton had turned it into another prison. Could she no longer be free even in her own home?

But imprisonment was not the worst thing this place brought. Nor was the uncertainty of whether or not her family was alive. that she was here, she knew that Ramsay planned to wed her very soon.

I will not wed him, she thought. I would sooner die.

And she might. She very well might.

When he came to her room that day, she already knew what he planned to say. Not just by his smile but by the dress delivered to the wardrobe by two of his guards.

"Good morning, Little Wolf. How did you sleep?" Ramsay asked.

She did not reply. She only glared back at him.

"I didn't sleep very well myself," Ramsay said. "I was so excited for today. Specifically, tonight. Do you know what is going to happen tonight?"

"I assume you're going to tell me," Arya said flatly.

"Smart girl," Ramsay said. "Well, suffice it to say that this morning is your last as a Stark. You'll be a Bolton by tonight. My Lady wife. But, you will eventually be Lady of Winterfell once my father passes. That's what you always wanted, I'm sure."

No. It was never what she wanted. She had never wanted to be lady of anything.

"Lost your voice, have you? I can't imagine why. You've barely screamed at all." Ramsay tilted his head to the side. "I know what you're doing, little wolf. You're trying to make yourself dull. Hoping I'll lose interest." He tapped his temple. "But I know better. I know beneath that silence there's still so much strength left in you. So many parts of you I can break. It will just take time."

Arya still did not reply. His threats did not mean anything to her. She had already made a choice in her heart. She would escape tonight or she would die trying. Either way, she would be free of him.

Ramsay seemed slightly irritated by the silence now. He turned his knife in his hand, then jabbed out at her like he had many times before. She redirected the blow with her forearm. She did not break his gaze or her silence.

"There's that strength. Tonight will be fun." He smiled and pulled back and moved swiftly toward the door. "Make sure you wear the dress!"

Arya stared for a long time at the door after he left. Then she took a deep breath.

This may last day alive.

Arya put on the dress that night, because appearing compliant was her only chance. Thankfully, it was not especially elaborate. Not like the ornate gowns of the south. She thanked the gods for the northern custom of function over appearance.

It was white as snow, and the skirt dragged across the ground. It would be a hazard if she tried to run. She picked at the hem until she managed to unravel the bottom. It would be just enough. Just enough to give her the chance to move.

It occurred to her that this probably wouldn't work. There was a very strong chance that she would die that night. She was at peace with that. If given the choice between death and marrying Ramsay Bolton...death was infinitely preferable. When compared with that sadistic bastard...Death was like an old and welcome friend.

Outside her door, the keys rattled. Arya sat passively on her bed, staring at the floor.

I am not a danger. I am passive. I am cooperative.

She imagined this was Sansa's tactic in King's Landing. To appear completely harmless. To stay quiet and hope the snakes grew bored with her. Arya only hoped that she could be as convincing as her sister.

She could only hope her sister was alive at all.

The door opened and four guards entered. Arya looked up with a blank gaze. She took in their appearance. They were armed of course. Swords in their belts and daggers. If she could just get one dagger...

One of them held shackles. Those could be her downfall.

"You don't need those," Arya murmured. Her voice was utterly flat to her own ears. Lifeless. Soft. "This is my wedding. I'd like my hands free."

The guards looked between each other, as if unsure.

"I have no chance against the four of you," Arya murmured. "I have no weapon. You have many. Please...just... Just give me the smallest bit of dignity."

There was a long silence. Then the guard hooked the cuffs back to his belt.

Thank you for that small kindness, Arya thought. I'm going to kill you first.

She walked forward and they took their places around her. Two behind, two in front. She expected that formation. If she went for any weapons, the two behind would see and stop her quickly. She had a plan. A plan with a narrow window, but a plan none the less.

They crossed outside and the cold wind bit at Arya's face. She reveled in the feeling. It was a sweet sort of pain compared to everything else she had experienced in these past five months. And it would not be so die in the ice of winter. They would sing songs about this night whether she succeeded or not.

She took a deep breath. Then she let herself fall to her knees. As she did, her fingers closed around the dagger in the nearest guard's back as he passed by her. She slid it under the large skirt of her dress before he noticed it.

Quick as a cat. Fluid as water.

"I'm sorry," she murmured. "These shoes are too tight." She started to stand but faked stumbling and fell back to her knees. "My ankle."

"Come on. You can manage a short walk," one of the guards, the one who had not bound her hands, knelt down next to her. Another followed suit. Arya smiled.


Arya whipped her blade from beneath her skirt and cut the throat of the first guard in one smooth motion. She drove the dagger into the other's eye before he even registered what had happened. Then she threw herself at the third guard, driving the point of her blade upward through his chin and out the back of his skull.

The element of surprise always was her best weapon. It gave her three kills before anyone ever raised a hand to her.

The fourth guard notice though. He called out and drew his sword on her. The blade cut deep into her side, not enough to be deadly, but enough to stain her dress red. She seized his sword hand and stepped forward, cutting his throat. He joined the others on the ground.

Unfortunately, his cry had roused the suspicion of the other guards. Some were coming up the stairs and some from the battlements. And she could not kill them all with a dagger. So she turned and ran for the outer walls.

I hope the snow drifts are still deep.

Something whistled through the air near her and Arya nearly stumbled as an arrow grazed her side, slicing through fabric and skin all at once. But she didn't stop. Not even as the guard at the wall tried to intercept her. She launched herself over the north wall and into the darkness.

For a moment, she was falling and thinking only of death. It was possible that this fall would kill her. A fall like this had crippled Bran after all.

I am not afraid to die.

She used to be. She used to be so afraid of joining her father beyond. When Joffrey first set his men on her, she was afraid they would kill her. When she fought the assassins, she feared that one of their blades would end her life. Not today, she had pleaded more than once. Not today.

But there were things worse than death.

Arya hit the ground. Rather...she hit the snow. It softened the impact though she still felt her ankle twist and her ribs crack. Fine. That was fine. She forced herself to her feet and limped as fast as she could toward the woods, clutching her dagger.

An arrow took her in the shoulder and she whimpered, almost losing her footing. But she didn't.

Keep going. Keep going. Make it to the woods.

Not that the woods would truly help her. The Bolton soldiers could pursue her to the woods. By now, they would already be getting on their horses and setting loose the dogs. They would overtake her before she ever found Robb's camp.

Her vision was so fuzzy. Blood loss of course. It was still pumping out of her, even as she pressed a hand over her wound.

The woods. I have to make it to the woods.

The woods is a place for wolves.

And I am a wolf.

Sure enough, as she reached the tree line, she thought she heard a wolf somewhere in the distance. It comforted her as she dropped to her knees, clinging to a tree. Somewhere behind her, she heard hoof beats and she laughed once, delirious with pain.

At least...I tried.

She collapsed into the snow as the hoof beats neared. And somewhere very close, she heard a wolf howl.


Chapter Text

 "Arya..." Bran murmured in his sleep, not for the first time. "Arya."

Catelyn felt her heart seize at the sound. Her son and daughter had been parted from each other some time ago. But she was in Bran's thoughts constantly. He, like everyone else, was worried for her.

But he was sure that she was alive. He could not explain why, he said. But he was sure.

Catelyn believed him, mostly because she had to believe him. She would not consider the alternative.

She swallowed hard and continued her work on her protection wreath. It was busy work for her. Just another attempt at prayer for her daughters. A prayer that they would not meet the same fate as Tailisa.

"Arya..." Bran whispered again in his sleep. "White and red..."

"Shh," Catelyn murmured, resting a hand over his. She felt only three fingers against her palm. He had lost two to the Boltons. She wished she could cut off Ramsay Bolton's fingers in payment. "Sleep, Bran. She'll be all right."

He stirred again, though his eyes did not open. "The woods...Summer."

Summer was out hunting. Catelyn wished he would return soon. Bran always slept better with the wolf at his side. She exhaled, wondering if she would wake Bran from his dream.

"Arya is... in the woods..." he murmured. "Summer."

And then his eyes snapped open, rolling back in his head until only the whites were visible. Catelyn leapt to her feet, grasping his shoulder. "Bran."

He did not wake. He did not look at her. Instead he repeated the same words.

"Arya is in the woods."

Arya dreamed that she was a wolf. A wolf on the hunt. She dreamed she raced through the woods, lusting for the blood of Bolton men. In the darkness, they did not see her until it was too late. She leapt at them from behind, knocking off their helmets as they fell. She crushed their necks with her jaws. Then retreated back into the darkness.

There was no moon. Just pure night for miles and miles. But her eyes could see and her nose guided her. She struck at soldier after soldier. She tore at arms and legs and throats. She tasted their blood in her mouth.

It was a blessing to feel this strong again. She was beginning to feel like a helpless child locked up in that room. This dream was a reminder. A reminder that she was a fighter. A warrior.

A wolf.

The spear of a man bit into her hind quarters as she lunged at him. She ignored the pain. She pinned him to the ground easily. As a wolf, she was not so small and fragile. She was stronger than any other creature for miles.

He cried out for help and mercy, but Arya would not give him either. She snapped her jaws around his throat and bit down hard. She let the blood seep across her tongue and she felt him die.

She wished Ramsay was in this dream. How she would have loved to tear him to bits as well.

Nearby, she heard howls from other wolves. She whipped around as another soldier came at her, but he was knocked down by an even larger wolf. Greywind. And further behind him, she saw Summer racing through the trees, blood on his maw.

Arya would have smiled if a wolf could smile. She was with her pack in this dream. It was nice not to be alone. She had been alone for too long.

The last of the soldiers fell and his horse squealed and retreated. Bolton blood painted the snow red. She threw back her head and howled at the night sky. Her brother's howled with her.

In the back of her mind, Arya knew she might never wake. But if this was her last was not such a bad dream to have.

Robb awoke on the ground, sweating through his furs. He had dreamed...he had dreamed he was a wolf. It wasn't the first time but it had felt so real. He clasped his head between his hands and breathed in deeply.

He was in the Wolfswood fighting with a pack, killing Bolton men without mercy. It had been a good dream. Exactly the kind of release he needed after everything that had happened. And he was sure he saw Arya there. She was nearly dead but she had been lying face down in the snow still breathing.

For a moment, Robb wondered if she might have escaped.


He dismissed such a hopeful thought. It would be a miracle for her to make it to the woods. And miracles did not happen in this world, especially not to the Starks.

It was a cruel hope. Nothing more.

"A dream," he murmured into his hand. "Just a dream."

There were wolves howling in the night. Sansa could hear them even from the darkness of the crypt. The children could hear them too. Lyanna smiled at the sound and stretched her hand toward the ceiling.

"Wolf," she whispered reverently. It was one of the only words she knew, and she chanted it often. But at least, Sansa had taught her to speak softly. They could not risk raising their voices.

The baby was the most difficult to keep quiet. Little Ben so desperately wanted his mother. He cried for her and every time he did, Sansa rocked him and pleaded for him to be silent. Little Ned had started to help her when she was at her wits end.

"Hush, Ben," he told his brother. "Hush. We need to be quiet. Mommy will be back soon. But it's important we be quiet."

They would have died down there in the first week if not for their preparations beforehand. Sansa had moved a small supply of food into the crypt when she prepared for the siege. She had also arranged for Little Ben's wet nurse to seclude herself there when the siege began, along with the children. She was the one keeping Ben fed when Tailisa could not.

But still they would have been captured by now if not for their other helpers. Brienne and Shaggy Dog killed any stray guards that happened to enter the crypts. Maester Luwin, one of the few who had been allowed to live, continued to bring more supplies when he could, along with updates from the outside.

And Osha had been the most useful of all. She had misdirected the Boltons. She said that the children had been sent away days before the siege because Sansa had predicted the Boltons would come. They had believed her. And why not? What reason would a captive wildling woman have to lie for her captors?

But for all of those good things...there was still the loss of Tailisa.

"Where's mother?" little Ned asked Sansa often. "When will she be here?"

"Soon," Sansa murmured, because she could not bear to tell them the truth yet. Ned asked the same question to Maester Luwin when he first stole into the crypts.

"Have you seen mother? Where is she? Will she come soon?"

Maester Luwin, to his credit, was good at hiding the truth with a soft, warm expression. "Later, Ned. She'll come later."

After the children had finally settled into sleep, Maester Luwin told Sansa what they had done with Tailisa's body. She was hanging over the ramparts of Winterfell, flayed and broken. Ramsay Bolton had done it, naturally, to strike out at Robb, who had arrived the day before. Maester Luwin said he had nearly toppled from his horse in grief but managed to stay strong. The news sent an awful numbness through Sansa. The same numbness she felt when she was forced to look at her father's head. How must Robb feel when he had to look on his wife's corpse?

I should have insisted she go to the crypts earlier, Sansa thought. Then she would still be alive.

She tried to keep herself cheerful for the children. She told them that they would not have to hide forever and that soon their father would save them. Robb was fighting as they spoke. And when he was victorious they could come out and see him again.

She bore the burden of the bad news on her own. Talisa's death. Robb's reaction when he saw her. The Bolton's plan to marry Arya to Ramsay Bolton. She took it all in while her niece and nephews slept, then put on a smile for them when they woke.

They believed her smile, of course. They did not know enough of the world to understand that their father could die as well. Sansa had been the same way once. She thought her whole family was invincible.

"Lady Sansa."

Sansa jumped as Maester Luwin's voice came from the darkness.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "Were you sleeping?"

"I rarely sleep," Sansa said. "Good news or bad?"

"Good. I think." Maester Luwin murmured. "Arya has escaped the castle. She was meant to wed Ramsay tonight. She killed her guards and ran. They haven't found her yet."

Sansa let out a breath. The good news was such a relief. Of course Arya had not gone quietly into such a match. She had always been such a fierce girl. A fighter. Perhaps she would find Robb before the Boltons caught her again.

Perhaps she would die before she reached him. It was impossible to tell.

"She'll make it," she murmured, more for herself than anyone else. "She has to make it."

"I'm sure she will," Maester Luwin said.

Sansa looked up at him. "Do you think Robb will win this war? Truly."

"He has the Lannisters on his side," Maester Luwin said. "He does have a chance. But the Boltons and their allies have a rather large army. And Robb's forces have diminished. I saw them from the battlements. The siege at the Twins must have taken many of his men."

"So that's a maybe?" Sansa asked.

"Yes. A maybe."

"I'm getting tired of maybes. I miss certainties."

"Better an uncertain future than a certain defeat," Maester Luwin murmured.

Sansa nodded once. "Thank you...Maester. For risking your life for us. We would be dead without your help."

"You don't need to thank me Sansa," Maester Luwin murmured. "I pulled you from your mother at birth. I pulled these three children from their mother as well. I would gladly die to see you live on."

"Don't die," Sansa murmured. "Too many people from the old days are dead. You cannot join them."

Maester Luwin smiled softly. "As you command, my lady."

The wolves started howling again. Lyanna set bolt upright, a smile on her face.

"Wolf," she chanted into the darkness. "Wolf."

Sansa hoped that there were many wolves outside the gates of Winterfell. And she hoped, with all of her heart, that they would tear the Boltons to pieces.

This whole situation was a bloody fucking mess. Jaime had seen his fair share of rebellions and wars in his lifetime, and not one of them had been simple. It was never a matter of one side fighting another. It was always a matter of betrayals, and back stabbing and internal conflict. And in the case of this conflict: a civil war that would leave a scar on the north no matter the outcome.

Ned Stark's death had left a crack in the north. A crack that started the first Northern rebellion. Claiming that there was peace did not prevent the creep of the fissures in every which direction. Now the whole north seemed to have shattered into tiny bits.

Robb Stark was a casualty of this conflict. Not his body but his soul. His wife was dead, and likely his children too. Jaime had seen them at Winterfell some months ago-innocent little ones who had no concept of war or death.

Even if they were still alive, their futures were bleak. If Robb moved on the castle...perhaps their bodies would join Talisa's on the ramparts.

Jaime sympathized with the man. Robb had not wanted to step into this role so young. He was handed a damaged, blood thirsty country that crowned him as a king. What large shoes he had been asked to fill. Only seventeen years old and he was meant to lead a successful rebellion against Tywin Lannister, the most feared man in the realms.

His bannermen had pinned all of their hopes on a concept-an ideal-and they were disappointed when Robb turned out to be a man like any other.

It was a dangerous thing, to realize a king was just a man. Men could be killed. Men could be overthrown. King Aerys had once been more than a man to Jaime. All of the Targaryens were. They were like gods who could not be touched. Then he drove a sword through his back and saw him bleed. And die.

There was no certainty in kings anymore. Or the power of a good name. It was only his father's sheer force of will that kept the Lannister name strong. When he died, the west might crack as well. Jaime was expected to succeed his father, like Robb was expected to succeed his. And already Jaime knew he couldn't do it. He was nothing like his father at all.

Father would have been better off naming Tyrion his heir, Jaime thought as he stared at the map in his tent. Tyrion could move mountains if he was given the chance. I'll be lucky if I can keep the mountains standing. I am going to fail him.

He was saved from thinking too long on this depressing notion when a soldier swept into his tent. One of the scouts he had sent to patrol the woods. The man was white as a sheet and breathing hard. " need to come quickly."

"What is it?" Jaime asked.

"We found...a girl in the woods," the man replied. "And a wolf."

It was one of the strangest sights that Jaime had ever seen. For a moment he thought he might be in a dream. A dozen Bolton bodies were scattered through the trees, along with a few horses, most of them missing limbs and throats. Their blood had stained the snow a bright red. In the center of the massacre stood a wolf the size of a lion, barring its teeth in warning. And beneath the wolf, lay a girl.

Arya, Jaime thought. A breath left him. It seemed impossible but then...he knew it was her. She must have escaped the castle somehow-thrown herself from the walls-only to be attacked by a dire wolf.

No. Not attacked. Jaime shook his head. The wolf was defending her. Its growl was like that of a mother defending its pup, and every time a Lannister soldier stepped closer, it snapped its jaws and forced them back.

There were plenty of stories about the Starks direwolves. They said it was fate that they should find five abandoned pups in the woods, one for each of the Stark children. Jaime did not truly believe in fate, but he had seen Robb Stark's direwolf in action. The beast had killed as many men as Robb, perhaps more. And it seemed to obey his will more loyally than any normal dog.

But Arya...Arya had been separated from her wolf for nearly five years. It was impossible that the creature would remember her and protect her.

And yet...

Jaime shook his head and focused on Arya again. There was blood beneath her on the snow. The white dress she wore was in tatters from her flight from Winterfell. If she wasn't dead, then she was badly wounded.

"That's Arya Stark," Jaime said at last. "We need to get her back to camp at once. She's injured."

"The wolf won't let us close, ser," one man said. "Shall we shoot it?"

"No," Jaime said. He doubted Arya would forgive him for that. "Back away. Lower your weapons."

"Ser?" the men seemed confused by this order. Jaime wasn't sure of it himself, but he needed to try something.

"You heard me," Jaime said. "Weapons away."

The men obeyed and stepped away from the wolf. Amazingly, the creature seemed to relax a bit, closing its mouth over its sharp teeth. It still watched warily.

Alright. Time to do something very stupid, Jaime thought. He returned his sword to its sheath. Then he took a careful step toward the wolf.

It fixed its eyes on him, a growl sounding from the back of its throat. He held out his golden hand, hoping to calm the beast. If the creature snapped at him, at least its teeth would close on metal instead of flesh. "It's alright," he murmured. "I'm not a threat to her. But she needs help. She'll bleed out if she stays here."

The wolf stared right back at him. Seven hells, Jaime felt ridiculous. What was he doing trying to reason with a wolf?

"Nymeria is your name, isn't it? She mentioned it once," Jaime said. "You must care about her...if you're protecting her after all of this time. And I must be the biggest fool alive because I'm talking to you like you can hear me."

The wolf stared. Blinked. And then-incredibly-stepped away from Arya and retreated to the tree line.

"Fuck," Jaime muttered. "I can't believe that worked."

He hurried to Arya's side then, rolling her over onto her back. There were two deep gashes in each of her sides and an arrow halfway through her right shoulder. Her face was gaunt, like one who had been half starved, and her eyes were rolled back in her head, leaving only the whites visible. For a moment, Jaime thought she was already dead. Then she drew in a sudden breath, her irises snapping back into view. She gripped Jaime's arm, digging her fingers in so hard that he thought she might break through to his skin. Only eight fingers. He was distinctly aware of that. The panic on her face was evident.

"It's alright," Jaime said as gently as he could. "It's me. It's only me. You're safe now."

"Jaime," Arya's eyes focused on him for the briefest moment. Then she went limp again. Not dead. Just unconscious.

Jaime lifted her into his arms. "Bring me my horse! Quickly!"

His men hurried to obey and Jaime laid her carefully over the saddle. If someone did not see to her soon, she would die without question. He swung onto the saddle and urged the horse into a gallop back toward camp.

Arya's wolf followed closed behind.


Chapter Text

Tywin was toying with the broken king again. He often found himself rolling the piece in his hand without remembering when he had picked it up. He did not know why. He did not know why he had even brought the damned thing with him, but it had somehow found its way into his belongings.

A year and a half ago, Arya Stark had dropped the piece on the ground between them, like a gauntlet thrown in challenge. The defiance on her face had sent a wave of fury through him. And her words had sent more waves than he could count. After she left, he had nearly thrown the broken king out the window.

Instead he set it on his desk and kept it there.

Every time he saw the broken king, he remembered what she had said, and the anger started fresh. Not because the words were false. No, it was much worse than that. They were true.

You're not objective. You only pretend to be.

In the four years since Tywin had found Arya Stark, he had been studying her and learning her every tell. He was a fool not to realize that she had been studying him too. It had been a long time since anyone had been willing to speak quite so frankly to him. How ironic that the truth came from a then fifteen year old hostage. Her anger had outweighed her fear. And when he threatened to retaliate she called his bluff.

"Do it. I'll wait."

She knew it was a bluff. She knew that Tywin needed her alive. And more importantly she knew that Tywin wanted her alive.

You're not objective.

No. He wasn't. He had never been objective around Arya. Not from the very beginning. He took her as his ward though her sister would have been more valuable. He let her practice with her weapons, though it would have been wiser to take them all away. He gave her a sword even though it would make people talk. He engaged her to his son. He went to war for her.

He always found a logical reason for his decisions. A reason to tell others when they questioned his judgement. A reason that he told himself.

I am not threatened by a girl playing with a toy sword.

I am paying a debt.

It is wise to join the Stark and Lannister families to prevent further conflict.

This is a rebellion, and this letter is a challenge. I must meet it.

But he did not have an objective reason for his fondness for the girl. And he did not have an objective reason for keeping the broken king she dropped at his feet.

Outside, Tywin heard a commotion and it snapped him out of his thoughts. He looked up as Jaime entered his tent.

"What is it?" he asked.

"It's Arya," Jaime said. "We found her."

The broken king slipped from Tywin's fingers.

Arya was badly wounded. Both of her sides were cut deep by blades and she had lost a lot of blood. Her ribs on one side were broken, her ankle badly twisted. She was delirious with fever and she was nearly writhing in her tattered white dress.

She did not have good odds, but she did have a chance, according to the maester.

Jaime was amazed she was not dead already. He wondered if she even thought to survive her escape attempt. These wounds spoke of a desperate gamble made as a last resort. Not many people expected to throw themselves from the walls of a keep and live. It was only the great snow drifts outside that had softened her fall and gave her a chance to run for the forest.

"I'll have to burn the wounds closed," the maester said. "The cold will have helped prevent infection, but we can't be too careful."

"Do whatever you need to do," Tywin ordered. "And if she lives, I will pay that debt."

Jaime had not seen such open worry on his father's face in a long time. Not since he nearly died from infection a few years previously. It was masked by anger mostly. That was his father's favorite mask to wear. But he was concerned for Arya.

Not that it surprised Jaime. He had known for a long time that his father cared for her. Everyone did...except for perhaps Tywin and Arya themselves.

As the maester prepared a fire, Tywin glanced at Jaime. "Go and find Robb Stark. Tell him we have his sister."

Jaime nodded once. And stepped back toward the entrance to the tent. The maester pressed an open flame against Arya's wound and she screamed. The sound made Jaime shudder.

"Go," Tywin ordered.

Jaime nodded and hurried from the tent.

Arya first woke to pain. White hot pain that nearly made her soul rip free of its skin. She clutched at the sweat soaked sheets beneath her, praying that it would go away. Praying for death to release her from the agony until she blacked out again.

Arya woke second to her mother's voice, soft and sweet in her ear. "Oh, Arya. My strong girl. You're going to be alright." She felt a hand on her forehead. "I need you to fight Arya. Please. Please keep fighting."

Arya listened to her mother's voice until the darkness took her again.

Her dreams were fraught with nightmares. Of Ramsay and his knife. Of Talisa's body handing from the ramparts. Of the rest of her family hanging with her, swinging and swaying in the wind.

She was not a wolf in these dreams. She was small. She was helpless. She was nothing but a shell of a girl, hollowed out by grief and fear.

In those nightmares, she screamed apologies into the wind. I'm sorry, she cried out. I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough. I'm sorry. Forgive me.

In one dream, she thought she heard Tywin Lannister's voice, like distant thunder on the wind.

There is nothing to forgive. Unless you die.

I forbid you to die, Arya.

Sometime later, Arya woke for good. Every part of her body hurt, but her mind was clear. Slowly, she looked around. She was in a red tent. A Lannister red tent. And her mother was kneeling at her bedside, grasping her hand.

"Arya? Are you awake?"

Slowly, Arya nodded.

"How are you feeling?" her mother asked.

"I've... been better," Arya croaked out. Her voice was hoarse. She wonder how much she had screamed. "What happened? How did I get here?"

"Jaime Lannister found you in the woods with your wolf," Catelyn said. "He brought you back to camp. You're safe now."

"My wolf?" Arya blinked several times. "Nymeria is here? Where?"

"She's circling the camp."

Arya glanced to the side to see Robb standing at the entrance to the tent. He looked tired and so much older than she remembered. She felt as if she had failed him. She felt as if Talisa's death was her fault. If she was not captured...

She swallowed hard. "Robb, I...I'm sorry. I..."

Robb shook his head. "It wasn't your fault, Arya." Slowly, he approached her bed. "The...the children. Are they... Did you see them?" His voice was flat and resigned, but she could tell that he feared the answer.

"No." Arya shook her head. "Which must mean they are alive somewhere, Robb. Ramsay is cruel. He would have made me look at their bodies if they were dead."

"He could have them locked up somewhere though...waiting for the right moment," Robb said. Still he seemed relieved. At least they weren't certainly dead. At least, there was some hope. "And Sansa?"

"I haven't seen Sansa either," Arya said. "She must be with the children. Maybe she hid them somewhere. I...I should have looked for them before I escaped."

"It's miracle enough that you managed it," her mother said. "How did you get away?"

Arya swallowed hard. "Stole a knife from one of the guards sent to escort me to..." she trailed off. "They were escorting me to...a wedding. They were going to marry me to Ramsay Bolton."

A wave of fury seemed to pass through the room, through both her mother and Robb. She felt her mother's grip tighten on her arm as if, for a moment, she was imagining it as Ramsay's throat.

"That bastard," Robb nearly growled. "When I get my hands on him I'll-" He didn't finish the sentence. Perhaps he didn't have the words. "How did you get away with only a knife?"

"I'm good with a knife," Arya murmured. " was luck too. They didn't know I was left handed, so I had the element of surprise. Then I threw myself over the wall and hoped the snow would save me. It looks like it did." She blinked a few times, trying to remember. What had happened next? It was all so blurry to her, like a dream. "But they sent soldiers after me. I don't know how I escaped them. I passed out soon after I reached the woods."

"It was the wolves," Robb said. "The woods were full of Bolton bodies. Nymeria killed them. Summer and Greywind helped. Their mouths were stained with blood when they returned."

"Amazing that she would be so loyal to you after so long," Catelyn murmured.

"Yes," Arya agreed. "Especially since...I threw rocks at her." She blinked hard to keep back her tears. She would not cry. She did not want her family to worry any more than they already were.

"Arya," her mother murmured. "Are you alright? We know the Boltons took your fingers and they could not have been kind to you afterwards. And you kept on...screaming in your sleep. What did they do to you?"

Arya bit the inside of her cheek as she remembered Ramsay. His face. His knife. There were scars hidden under her clothes and under her skin. But she did not want to share her captivity with her mother. She had worried her enough. So instead, she forced a smile. "I was screaming because of the pain, mother. I promise, I'm fine, other than the obvious. The fingers were the worst of it, truly. And that was months ago. I'm just glad to be back with all of you."

"Are you sure?" Robb asked. "The Boltons have proven themselves monsters. If they did anything else-"

"I'm fine, Robb." Arya looked up at him. "The injuries will heal. And I still have my left hand to fight with. You have much bigger problems to worry about than me."

"There are no worries more important than family," Robb murmured. "You asked asked me if I ever regretted the choice I made years ago. If I had ever thought about what would happen if I chose differently. I did think about it. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't. But I didn't regret it. I still don't."

Arya shuddered. A well of emotions threatened to overflow but she kept them back. All she could manage was a nod.

"I'll leave you to rest," Robb said. "You need to recover your strength. I am sorry that you have endured so much for me."

"It's not your fault," Arya murmured. It's mine, she thought. I should have been quicker. I shouldn't have let myself be captured.

"It's not yours either," her mother replied, seeming to read her mind.

Arya kept her smile and nodded again. She would not worry them. Not when there was a war to be won. "I am feeling tired. I should rest more."

"Of course," her mother said. "We'll leave you be. I'll be by again soon with food."

"Thank you," Arya said.

When her family was gone, she lay back against her pillow. So long as there was a war, there was not time for weakness. She had to lock her time with the Bolton's in a box. She had to be strong.

I am a wolf, she told herself. I can bare it on my own. I am a wolf.

If she thought those words enough...perhaps she would begin to believe them.

Arya was staring at her hand when Jaime arrived. Her right hand. It was still strange to her, even four months later, to see her hand without two of his fingers. Sometimes, she woke and was sure they would have grown back. But the empty space remained.

"They went for the wrong hand again, didn't they?"

Arya's head jerked up and she saw Jaime standing in the entrance to the tent. He held a long, narrow bundle in his hands, wrapped in red cloth.

"They...always go for the right," she replied after a pause.

"Unlucky for me. But lucky for you." He approached the bed, setting the bundle at its foot. "It takes some getting used to, but it will start to seem normal after a while."

Arya flexed her three fingers a few times. "I'll manage. I don't need this hand to fight."

"No." Jaime sat down beside her. "And your other injuries?"

"They won't kill me. I'm in pain but at least I'm not..." she trailed off.

"At least you're not married to Ramsay Bolton?" Jaime asked.

Arya didn't reply. She gripped her blankets with her left hands.

"I thought that's what happened. The dress you wore wasn't a dress for a normal hostage," Jaime said. "I'm sorry."

"About what?"

"Not keeping a closer eye on you."

Arya shook her head. "That wasn't your fault. You had no way of knowing I would be captured. Besides, I can usually take care of myself but... I should have taken more than a knife with me." She picked at the bandages on her right hand. "I'm guessing my swords are still in my room at Winterfell. I hope the Boltons haven't found them."

"They're not. And they haven't." Jaime nodded to the bundle at the foot of her bed.

Arya didn't understand for a minute. Then she leaned forward-slowly to avoid hurting herself-and drew the bundle closer to her. Three weapons lay inside. Winter's Fury, Needle, and her unnamed knife. She released a breath. " brought them with you?"

"I thought you were at the Twins," Jaime said. "If we found you there...well, I assumed you would want a sword as soon as possible."

He was right. It was a relief to feel their hilts against her palm again. Just their presence made her feel a bit stronger. Ramsay didn't have her swords. For everything else he had taken from her, he had not taken these.

"Thank you," she whispered at last. Again, a wave of emotion threatened to break her. Again she held it back, like a fragile dam against a rushing current. There were still more important things to worry about. "For this...and for finding me. I might have died if you didn't."

"Never would have managed it if you didn't escape to the woods," Jaime said. "I'm sure it was an impressive scene. How many did you kill?"

"Just four," Arya said. "Then I ran for it."

"Not out the front gate, I assume."

"No. Over the walls." Arya smiled bitterly. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. Anything seemed like a good idea...compared to him."

"And now?" Jaime was quiet for a long moment. "How are you now?"



"It's over now." Arya put on a smile again. "Why wouldn't I be?"

Arya locked her weakness away deep inside of herself. She got better at lying the more her mother and brother asked about her wellbeing over those next few days. Same with Jaime. She gave them a cheerful answer as often as possible.

Yes, my sides are feeling better.

I nearly slept through the night last night.

I can move my ankle again. It's much less stiff.

Slowly, they seemed to start believing her. Perhaps because they wanted to believe her. They wanted to believe that she was the same Arya. The same fierce, strong girl who could overcome absolutely anything.

Arya wanted to believe that too. If she said it enough, perhaps she would start to believe it. Perhaps she would forget all about the Boltons in time.

Then Tywin Lannister came to her tent.

She did not even need to lift her head to know it was him. There was something about his footsteps that he recognized. That and his silence. He did love his silences.

It had been half a year since she'd last seen him, and even then, they had only spoken for a few minutes with tense, measured voices. It felt like a lifetime since they had truly spoken.

Part of her was surprised he had come to see her. Now that she was back in his hold, she expected him to return to the task of ignoring her. But perhaps he wanted to check to see if his investment was still sound. If she could still be of any use to him.

At last, when she could bear the silence no more, she spoke. "Shall I give you the answers I've given everyone else?" she asked. "No, the damage isn't too bad. Yes, my hand is feeling much better. No, I don't need anything. Yes. I'm fine."

"I thought you were past trying to lie to me," Tywin replied.

Her heart clenched but she ignored it. She raised her head to look at him, forcing a smile on her face. "It's not a lie. Truly, my lord, there's nothing at all wrong. I've escaped my captors and I'm feeling much better already. In time, I will make a full recovery. Except for the fingers. But those came from my right hand. I'll still be able to wield a sword with little effort."

Tywin did not respond. Rather he held her gaze, patiently. As if waiting.

"I'm lucky to be alive really," Arya rattled on, desperate to fill the silence. Silence made her feel more fragile. "This is a better result than I hoped for. This business with the Boltons won't spoil any of your plans, I assure you. There's no need to worry."

Still, Tywin's gaze did not waver. Arya felt her body trembling, even beneath the thick covers. She was cold. She was so cold. And he was peering right through her, into the depths of her brittle soul. So she kept talking. She kept talking because if she stopped, something inside of her might shatter.

"But why would you worry? You always have a plan for every eventuality. You're good at making plans, aren't you? The Boltons told me about your plans if Robb hadn't taken your deal. It was already in progress wasn't it? A wedding at the Twins. A place to kill my brother since you couldn't beat him on the battlefield. You really don't care at all about honor do you?" She choked out a laugh. "You're the worst. Truly. The very worst sort of person. I'm surprised you didn't hand me to the Boltons in the first place just to keep them in line. In fact, why not just let them keep me? Why bother raising soldiers?"

Tywin said nothing. He denied nothing. His expression did not change.

"No, I suppose you need me for something else, don't you?" Arya spit through gritted teeth. "It all depends on where you need people. Where you can place them. Well don't worry, my lord, I'm still a working piece. That's what I've always been to everyone. The Boltons, the Freys, the Tyrells. My family. You. A daughter of House Stark. The perfect leverage. Did you come to see if I was still worth anything?" She glared at him, feeling tears begin to well up in her eyes. No, gods, no. "Stop looking at me like that. I'm fine. I'm fine. Just stop."

Then the tears overflowed and would not cease. She wanted to scream but screaming would not pull the water back into her eyes. She curled in on herself, ignoring the pain from her still healing wounds, resting her forehead on her knee.

She wanted to die.

For a long moment, there was silence. Then Arya heard footsteps as Tywin crossed to her bedside. She felt his hand on her shoulder. It was something of a comfort. She had never expected comfort from Tywin Lannister in her whole life.

He was unused to giving it. Because after a few moments, he seemed to think about withdrawing. Arya latched onto his wrist with her left hand and squeezed as hard as she could, keeping him there.

"I hate you," she muttered. "So much."

"I know," he replied.


Chapter Text

It was strange being in the same tent with him. At one point Arya had spent an awful lot of time at Tywin Lannister's side. Years ago, when she played his cupbearer, she was always hovering at the edge of his war councils, listening to their battle plans. Sometimes, after the others left, he had even asked her opinion.

Arya had no idea what to make of the Lord of Casterly Rock then. She didn't know what to make of him for a long time after. There was a strange familiarity between them, but she thought she had thrown it all away in their argument a year and a half previous.

She was wrong. That familiarity was back again as he sat beside her bed.

She had stopped crying by now. It was a brief release of emotion that she contained as quickly as she could. But it had still happened. She never meant to show such weakness in front of him.

So she decided to change the subject.

"How does Robb plan to take back Winterfell?"

"By siege," Tywin said. "Patience is the most prudent option when your enemy holds most of the cards. Robb's army is already broken from what happened at the Twins."

"Ramsay mentioned that," Arya said. "How bad was it?"

"It would have been worse without your sister's letter."

Arya's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"It seems that she identified the traitors and the plan. Apparently she directed the messenger to deliver to my hands if he could not find your mother or brother. And that, fortunately, gave me just enough warning that I could block most of the traitors from retreating."

Arya exhaled slightly. "Of course...that makes sense."

"Does it?" Tywin tilted his head to the side. "It didn't make much sense to me at the time. Why would a Stark ever direct a letter to a Lannister."

"I told Sansa first about...about my engagement," Arya said. "She knew that you had some need or me so you were someone she could trust with the information."

"I see," Tywin said. "Why did you tell her and no one else?"

"I figured that she would understand," Arya shrugged.

"But not your mother or your brother," Tywin said. "They were surprised when I told them."

"Really?" Arya's mouth twitched once and her fingers twisted about each other. "It seems I got out of telling them after all. I knew there was some way to avoid it."

"They likely would have taken it better from you than me."

"Likely...yes." Arya looked up at him. "But you're still working together at the end of it. How does it feel fighting with Starks instead of against them?"

"Oftentimes infuriating," Tywin replied.

"Would you rather fight against us?"

"No. That's far worse." Tywin shook his head. "Even in arguments you Starks are impossible."

Arya looked down at her hands again, rubbing the stumps of her two fingers. They had healed over mostly, leaving scabs behind and they did not hurt like they used to. "Thank you for coming north."

"I had no choice," Tywin said. "When someone insults the Lannister name, I respond in kind."

"Thank you anyway." She picked a bit at the scab. "If you hadn't, my brother's armies might have been crushed at the Twins. There would be no siege at Winterfell."

"No," Tywin agreed. "Roose Bolton's bastard gravely miscalculated when he sent your fingers to me."

Arya looked up at him. "He sent them... to you?"

Tywin nodded once. There was a tightness in his jaw that spoke of his anger. "Like I said. Insults."

Arya gritted her teeth together, clenching her fingers together. "I wish I could have killed him before I escaped. I've never wanted to kill someone more. Not even Joffrey. I want to look into his eyes and I want to see him fear me as he dies."

"If I can, I'll grant you that wish," Tywin said. "Though he's not the only enemy."

"No," Arya agreed. "There's Roose Bolton. And the other houses that joined him."

"Someone else too," Tywin said. "Roose Bolton mentioned that someone in the south supported him-a traitor in our midst. I wondered if he had told you a name."

Arya's brow furrowed and she shook her head. "No, he never mentioned a southern supporter." She looked up at him. "When did he mention it you?"

"He came to my camp the other night to try to make a deal that would send me south," Tywin said. "He hoped that if he gave you back to me I might leave the north to it's own affairs."

"And what did you say?" Arya asked.

"Well, you're back here and I haven't left yet. I think you can guess."

"No, but...did you tell him no?" Arya asked. "It's important. Did you give him a certain answer?"

Tywin shook his head. "No. I wanted him to think there was a chance so that he might foolishly return his best hostage."

"Good. That's good," Arya said. "Because I might have an idea."

The tent flap brushed aside and Arya looked up to see her mother standing in the opening. Her gaze flicked from Arya, to Tywin, confusion passing over her face. But it did not linger long. "I'm sorry to disturb you but...Bran was asking for you. If you feel well enough to cross to the norther camp then..."

"Yes." Arya forced herself to sit up straighter though it sent pain shooting through her torso. "Yes of course I want to see him. Is he alright?"

"In much better shape than you," Catelyn crossed to her bedside. "Come. There's a cart just outside. You'll only have to walk a short distance."

Arya nodded once and forced herself from the bed, leaning on her mother like a crutch. Then she remembered her weapons and grasped for them. "My sword...I need at least one of them..."

Tywin stood, taking Winter's Fury from her bedside and handing it to her. Arya grasped it gratefully in her hand and fumbled to tie it to her belt. When she had secured it, Tywin nodded once and started from the tent. But he stopped just before he left.

"Lady Arya, if you have an idea, I suspect you'll want to discuss it with your brother," he said. "I'll be by his tent shortly to discuss the siege. You can tell us both then."

Arya nodded once. "All right." Then, when Tywin had gone, she took a step forward, trying not to bare much weight on her twisted ankle. Her mother kept her steady.

"Careful now," she murmured. "I've got you."

Crossing camps was slow going since Arya winced every time the cart hit a harsh bump. But she tried to bite back her pain as they went. She wanted to see Bran again. She needed to see that he was okay and not too damaged by the Freys. Arya would blame herself for every scrape or bruise he earned.

"I'm sorry we could not return you to our camp earlier," Catelyn said. "We didn't want to risk worsening your injuries."

"It's fine," Arya said. "I used to being among Lannisters."

"That's true." Her mother let out a heavy breath. "And soon you won't just be among them. You'll be one of them."

Arya stared down at her hand, not replying.

"Arya, why didn't you tell me about your engagement?" her mother asked.

"I didn't want you to worry," Arya said.

"I worry about you whether you tell me anything or not," Catelyn said. "Did you imagine I would be angry at you for this? I know it's not under your control."

Arya shook her head. "Mother...did you promise me to one of Walder Frey's grandsons?"

The question seemed to catch her off guard. "I...what?"

"Did you promise me to him for a bridge?" Arya picked at her bandages. "Lord Tywin said you needed control of a bridge."

Her mother's jaw tightened. "It wasn't Lord Tywin's business to tell you such a thing."

"But it's true," Arya said. "Isn't it?"

Catelyn looked out at the horizon, suddenly studying the sky very intently. "Yes. It's true."

Arya nodded once. "I was angry when I found out. I expected Lord Tywin to force me into a marriage at some point. I was his ward, after all. But when I heard you had done the same thing...I was furious." She smiled bitterly. "And I knew if I brought up Jaime, you would be angry. And then all of my anger would bubble to the surface and I would have to confront you about that damn bridge."

"Oh, Arya..." Catelyn's voice seemed weighed down by sorrow.

"I didn't want to do it," Arya continued. "Not while I was visiting home for the first time in so long. I didn't want the truth. To know that I've been used as a pawn by nearly everyone in my life, including my own family."

"You're not a pawn to us," Catelyn protested.

"You still used me like one," Arya said. "But it doesn't matter. I'm not angry at the moment. I've spent all my fury on other people."

They lapsed into silence for a long while. And in that silence hung guilt. Her mother had not wanted to make such a match for her. It had been war though. It had been desperate times and they needed that bridge. Arya just wished she was not the currency used to gain it.

"Jaime's not a bad person," Arya said at last. "He's not a good person either. But he lets me have my sword which is more than most people have done for me." She looked up at her mother. "And with this match, I can keep the Starks and Lannisters at peace."

"There are other ways to do that, Arya."

"A few, maybe," Arya said. "But you're not going to convince Lord Tywin."

Catelyn exhaled. "I know. I already tried."

Arya's mouth twitched. The thought of her mother arguing with Tywin Lannister was a wonderful picture. She wished she could have seen it.

"I'm sorry," Catelyn murmured. "About the bridge."

"It's alright," Arya replied, looking off into the distance. "It doesn't matter anymore."

Just over the hill, she thought she saw a wolf sprinting toward the tree line, circling the northern camp. Somehow, she knew it was Nymeria. Her wolf had not come to her as she recovered. She did not lie at the foot of her bed or try to keep her warm.

But then again, that wasn't Nymeria's way. She was a wild animal, not a pet. And she never kept still for long.

Bran did not look harmed beyond his missing fingers and the sight relieved Arya. She stumbled all the way to his chair to throw her arms around him, even though it hurt her to do so. Bran was alive. Her failure to protect him had not damaged him too badly. She still felt nauseous when she thought about him losing his fingers, but it was better that he was sent to the Freys. The Boltons had originally meant to keep Bran and Arya could not have tolerated Ramsay targeting him instead of her.

Bran wrapped his arms around her shoulders as carefully as he could. "Gods Arya. Are you sure you should be standing?"

"My ankle is just a bit twisted."

"Don't pretend that's your only injury." Bran nudged her just slightly toward his cot. "Sit, please."

Arya did, gratefully. "I'm glad the Freys didn't harm you."

"No. They were kind enough," Bran said. "I was their only hostage, after all. The Boltons were foolish to treat you so roughly."

"Most of this came from my escape attempt," Arya said. "They were trying to slow me down. They couldn't be without their only hostage."

Bran's eyebrows rose. "So you were their only hostage. I thought so."

"You thought...what?" Arya blinked. "How could you think so?"

"I imagine it has something to do with what he wanted to discuss with us," Robb brushed aside the flap of the tent and ducked inside. He looked Arya over. "How are you feeling?"

"Still terrible, but my life isn't in danger," Arya said. "You?"

"About the same," Robb managed. He returned his attention to Bran. "So...what makes you think that Ramsay doesn't have the children?"

"I saw them in the crypts with Sansa," Bran said. "Brienne is guarding them and Maester Luwin visits when he can. No one has found them yet."

"How could you possibly know that?" Robb asked.

"Because Shaggy Dog is there too. I saw through his eyes," Bran said. "I used to only see through Summer's eyes, but I'm getting better at using others now."

"You're talking about dreams, Bran," Robb said. "Those are dreams."

"No. Not just dreams," Bran looked up at Robb. "The night that Jaime found Arya. You had a dream didn't you? You dreamed that you were a wolf."

Robb paled and looked away. "Maybe I did...I don't remember."

"I did," Arya murmured. "I remember clearly. I was running through the woods and ripping apart Bolton men." She glanced between her brothers. "And I saw Summer and Greywind there too."

"There were dozens of me dead in the trees," Bran said. "Normally, wolves would never attack that many. They're cautious creatures by nature. But they did because we needed to protect Arya and it was the only way."

"That isn't..." Robb shook his head. "I'm not sure how that's possible."

"You've had other wolf dreams, haven't you?" Bran asked. "You've just ignored them. Rickon used to have dreams too. Horrible nightmares. And when he did, Shaggy Dog would howl and rage and snap at anyone who came near him."

"Shaggy Dog was always wild," Robb said.

"Because Rickon was wild. Because he was scared," Bran said. "Robb, I know it isn't normal. But it's not normal that Nymeria protected Arya after five years apart. Our wolves aren't ordinary. They're a part of us. They always have been. I know it sounds mad, but I'm not mad."

"No," Arya agreed. "You were always the smartest of us. You always had a question for every answer Maester Luwin gave you. 'Smart children know answers and are satisfied with that,' he said. 'The smartest children ask more questions.'"

"Answers are important too," Robb said. "When did you decide that these dreams were...more than that?"

"I read about it when I could," Bran said. "Warging into animals isn't uncommon in the north. You don't hear of wargs often anymore, but they used to exist. I know it's easy to pass it off as nonsense and fairytales, but it's the only explanation that makes sense."

Robb thought about it for a long time, running a hand through his curls. "Maybe...perhaps you're right. It just doesn't feel real."

"My dreams are full of things that don't feel real lately," Bran murmured. "And yet I get a sense that they are and they're coming soon."

"They?" Robb asked.

The Others, Arya thought. Bran had told her he had dreamed of the Others coming south beyond the wall. But Robb was not ready to hear about that yet. He could only barely accept the idea of wargs. Her eldest brother was always very practical.

Bran shrugged. "It's complicated."

"Everything is these days," Robb said. His voice was so exhausted. "So long as you have Summer, you should keep testing this...ability. Maybe by the war's end, you'll have more information."

Bran nodded once, looking relieved that Robb trusted him enough to put some faith in his ideas. "Of course."

At that moment, a messenger interrupted them with a hasty bow. "Forgive me, m'lord. Lord Tywin is waiting for you in your tent."

"I'll be there in a moment," Robb said, clearly still trying to process all of this.

"Yes m'lord." The man bobbed his head. "He says you should bring your sister with you as well."

Robb's brow furrowed as the messenger left. "Why is that?"

Arya ran her fingers along the hilt of her sword. "I...told him I had a plan. I think he wants to hear it."

For a long moment, Robb didn't speak. A lord wouldn't usually take war advice from a lady. Neither would an older brother take war advice from a younger sister. But after a moment of consideration he nodded.

"All right. And what is this plan?"

Just that question made Arya feel a little bit lighter. Her brother was asking her opinion and looking to her council. She couldn't fight in this war with her injuries... but she could advise.

"It would be easier to explain if I had a map."


Chapter Text

Arya used the table to hold herself steady as she looked over the map. Robb had insisted that she sit, but she refused. She had been sitting for the last several days and if she did so for one more moment, she worried she might lose her mind. Instead she gripped the edge and studied the detailed map of the north, reassuring herself that everything was as she remembered.

Three men stood around the table, ready to listen to her plan. Robb, Tywin and Jaime. The only three of the commanders who would take her ideas seriously. But they were enough for now. It was amazing to be listened to at all.

"So," Tywin said. "What is this plan of yours?"

"It will make more sense if you tell Robb about Lord Bolton," Arya glanced up at him. "I assume you haven't yet."

"What about Lord Bolton?" Robb asked, as if confirmation of Arya's words.

Tywin exhaled. "Roose Bolton came to bargain with me shortly before Arya escaped. He hoped to send me back south with Arya and with valuable information."

"What kind of valuable information?" Jaime asked.

"The name of a traitor in the south. Someone who apparently gave information regarding Arya's trip north," Tywin said.

"A traitor in the south." Jaime laughed once. "Well that could be practically anyone."

"And why didn't you tell me about this before?" Robb asked. "Did you consider accepting his offer?"

"Don't be ridiculous Robb," Arya said without looking up from the map. "He wouldn't have told me about the meeting if he had. That's not the point."

"What is the point then?" Robb asked.

"The point is that I didn't tell him yes but I didn't tell him no either," Tywin said. "So he still thinks the deal is a possibility. Arya wants me to accept."

"And make him think that you're no longer on our side," Robb realized. "Then he'll think that my army is easy prey."

"Yes," Arya said. "I've been thinking about the timeline of it all. Lord Tywin...when would you say Roose came to your camp? How long ago?"

"A fortnight," Tywin said. "The day before Jaime found you."

"Good. That's good." Arya rubbed her fingers together, thinking. "So Roose Bolton came to you. You suggested that there is chance you will leave if he returns me. If I'm Roose Bolton and I'm desperate enough to try to bargain with a notoriously ruthless lord...what do I do?" She looked up. "I would send a letter to my bastard son asking for him to deliver the hostage to my camp. Then, at least, I would control the hostage, whether I ultimately give the hostage up or not."

"So you think Bolton sent a letter to his son?" Robb asked.

"Yes," Arya said. "In fact, I know it. Because of the wedding." She swallowed hard. "Ramsay told me that he intended to marry me before we left for Winterfell, so I was expecting it. But it seemed rushed. Impulsive. It's not smart to throw a wedding when you've barely managed to secure a castle. There are more important things to deal with." She laughed bitterly. "But his father told him to give up his favorite toy and he lashed out."

"It does put the two of them at odds," Robb said.

"Yes, but what if we pretend that Ramsay did give me up?" Arya asked. "That he upheld his father's deal and tried to smuggle me to his father's camp. Before they could reach him, however, I was intercepted by Lannister men. Fortunately for Lord Bolton, Lord Tywin decided to accept this delivery since I was unharmed."

"It's an idea, but there's a problem," Jaime said. "Ramsay has likely already told Lord Bolton that you escaped and were severely harmed. He'll know we're lying and sniff out the trap."

"Ramsay wouldn't tell his father about this," Arya said. "Never in one hundred years would he admit that he failed. I saw them talk. They're always bickering. Ramsay pushes his father's buttons and his father does the same on and on and on. Terrible way to communicate, especially in front of a hostage." Arya shook her head. "No...Ramsay won't give him anything to use against him if he can help it. He'd rather pretend he still has me. Just like he's pretending he has other hostages."

"Let's say you're correct," Tywin said. "It still isn't certain that Bolton will take the bait. He knows that I am not a man to back down easily when I've been insulted."

"He still tried to bargain with you," Arya pointed out.

"He did. But that does not mean he won't suspect."

"You're right. So we need to ask for a little more than the name of a southern traitor," Arya said. "We'll ask for Ramsay's head."

Tywin paused to consider the idea. Just the pause told Arya that he thought it might work.

"We can't make the price too high or he won't take it," Robb said. "Ramsay is his only son."

"It may seem too high, but maybe not," Jaime said. "Ramsay is a bastard in all but name now. If he is as cruel as he seems, I'm willing to bet that he's kept Lord Bolton from having any true born sons to protect his claim."

"He is exactly as cruel as he seems," Arya said. "Ramsay is a wild dog to Lord Bolton. He said so himself to his face. I heard it. He acts recklessly. He's constantly interrupting his plans. We could offer him a way to get rid of the problem. He can always have more true born sons. And then he doesn't have to worry about becoming a kinslayer himself."

Tywin stroked his chin. "I would have grounds to ask for Ramsay's head. Lord Bolton claimed that the fingers were his bastard's idea. I could claim the boy's life in payment for the insult. That may convince him that I am not bowing too easily to his demands."

For a long moment there was silence. Then Robb conceded with a nod. "All right. So let us then assume that we've convinced Lord Bolton that the Lannisters are no longer a threat to him. What then?"

"Then the real plan begins," Arya said. "Robb, have your scouts had any word of Lord Bolton's movements? Where is his army?"

"Last they reported, he was here," Robb reached out and tapped the map. "In the Sheepshead hills near the White Knife."

"He approached my camp from the northeast. That's in keeping with your reports," Tywin said.

"It's an ideal place from which to attack," Robb said. "He would have the high ground if he managed to bait us into attacking first. If we did, the wet winter would make for a difficult charge."

"And when the Lannister forces move away, it leaves you open to attack from the east," Jaime said.

"Yes, which Lord Bolton will know." Arya leaned forward over the map. "When the Lannister army leaves, Robb will move the northern army into the Lannister position. It's a theoretically stupid move as it leaves you more open to an attack from Lord Bolton. But it will draw him in. They will position themselves on the hills closest to the field." She tapped the map. "Then, they will wait to see what you will do. That's the most important thing. Roose Bolton strikes me as a cautious man. If he can bait his enemy into attacking first when he has the high ground that's exactly what he'll do."

"So he positions himself at the high ground and waits to see if I attack or defend," Robb said. "The smartest thing to do would be to move out of range of Winterfell but force him to come to me on flatter ground. That way if Ramsay Bolton's men tried to attack us from behind, we'd have fair warning and time to move."

"That would be the smart thing," Arya said. "You're not going to do the smart thing."

Robb's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Roose Bolton thinks you're weak, Robb. He thinks you're a hot headed boy who threw away a vow for love." Robb's jaw tensed and Arya hurried on. "But his low opinion of you? That's your greatest weapon against him. And it's how we will lure him into a trap. He'll take his position on the hill, hoping that his presence will goad you into an impulsive attack. And you, overwhelmed by rage and hatred, will do exactly as he suspects. You'll charge up hill, through the mud and he will meet your charge knowing in his heart that he has the numbers and he will beat you." Arya smirked. "And when the Bolton's are fully engaged in battle that is when the Lannister army will return."

"I see," Tywin studied the map. "You want us to attack from the north. From the wolfswood."

"Yes." Arya said. "You'll move south as soon as you've made your deal with Roose Bolton. But before you reach the fork in the White Knife, you'll shift your course west and circle up through the Wolfswood. It will be difficult terrain but you'll go unnoticed. I doubt Lord Bolton has men in the west. He has consolidated his forces for this attack. Besides, all his major allies are in the east. He has less eyes here." She traced her finger along the border of the Wolfswood. You'll make your way north until you reach this point, directly behind the hills. Then, when the time is right, you charge from the trees. Then you will have the high ground and the Boltons will lose half their rear before they know what hit them."

"It will require precise timing," Tywin said. "And my men don't know the difficult terrain. If we cannot get into position in time, the Northern army will break."

"I can send you with a guide," Robb said. "House Glover knows those woods well. With their help, you can get into position within a few days"

"Once we reach the northern woods, we can always give Robb Stark some sort of signal," Jaime said. "If he does not receive the signal then he can keep a defensive position instead."

Tywin nodded once and looked to Arya. "The plan has flaws. It relies a great deal on Roose Bolton playing into our hands...which means it relies a great deal on whether or not you've judged him correctly. And the surprise attack is ruined if any part of my army is spotted in the Wolfswood."

"They're unlikely to search the Wolfswood," Arya said. "They would never expect the Lannisters to use the northern terrain as cover like that. And, like I said, they are focusing on Robb's men. Not yours."

"True enough," Tywin said. "But why shouldn't my army just refuse Lord Bolton's terms and go to war with him openly? We still have the numbers."

"Because..." Arya paused, scrambling for a good answer. "It will mean more Lannister and Stark casualties than necessary. If you attack Roose Bolton head on...well you will win with the numbers. But at a much greater cost. This plan has a higher risk but higher reward. Worst case scenario, they discover our plan and we don't have the element of surprise. Best case scenario, we destroy them in one decisive stroke."

For a long moment, Tywin didn't reply. He stared her down with a nearly unreadable expression. Then, he nodded once. "All right."

Arya let out a breath. "Is it a good plan?"

The corner of his mouth twitched. "It's a good plan."

Arya smiled. A real smile in what felt like the first time in months.

"It is a good plan," Robb said. He seemed to be trying to come up with flaws himself, but he found none that Tywin had not already mentioned. "Gods above, Arya, where did you come up with this?"

"I've been thinking about various ways I could crush the Boltons for months. It was the only thing that kept me sane." She laughed once. "Once Lord Tywin told me about Roose Bolton's all fell into place."

"Let's hope that it falls into place when we put it in action," Jaime said. He was smiling as well, almost proudly. He didn't seem a bit surprised by Arya's strategy.

"It will," Arya said. She had her doubts of course but she wouldn't show them here. "There's one more thing...Jaime do you still have your men from the mission to rescue Bran?"

"Yes," Jaime said. "Nearly all of them survived."

"Then I want you to stay behind in the Wolfswood with me," Arya said. "Along with your men and a few dozen good archers."

"What for?" Robb asked.

Arya looked back down at the map, circling her thumb along the outline of Winterfell. "The best case scenario."

"So you've considered my proposal," Roose Bolton said when he entered Tywin's tent again. Tywin scrutinized the man, trying to gauge his current state. He was tired, naturally. And though he seemed confident, there was a slight tension and his jaw and shoulders. He wanted this to go well.

"I have," Tywin said. "It seems you were going to make good on your promise. Your son released my ward. I think he meant for her to reach you but my men intercepted her." He tilted his head to the side, studying Roose for a reaction. "Fortunately for you, you were right. She is mostly unharmed besides the fingers."

Roose let out a breath. The smallest breath but Tywin saw it. He was relieved that his son had done as asked. His son did not often follow orders, clearly. Nor did he communicate with his father. It was just as Arya had said. "And now that you have you intend to leave?"

"That depends on you," Tywin said.

"I promised you the name of the traitor when you return to King's Landing. Not before," Roose Bolton said.

"Oh, I know," Tywin said. "And I suspect you'll keep your word. But there's one other thing I want in exchange for my neutrality in this conflict. If you win and take control of Winterfell-you will send me your son's head."

Roose paused for a long moment as if he hadn't heard the words correctly. "And why would I do that?"

"Because he is the one guilty of insulting the Lannister name if what you said is true," Tywin said. "He took my ward. He sent the note with her fingers. He taunted me openly. You didn't imagine I would let that pass, did you?" When Roose didn't reply, Tywin sighed. "Mad dogs have their place in war but not in peace. I trust you to keep order in the north but not that bastard of yours. So if you want me to remain neutral, you will promise me the boy's head."

"Kinslaying is a great crime, my lord," Roose Bolton pointed out.

"I didn't think you shied from those sorts of crimes," Tywin said. "But if kinslaying is where you draw the line then you're welcome to send him with his head to King's Landing. I'll take care of removing it myself." He leaned back in his seat, steepling his fingers. "You have plenty of time left for true born sons. And you can't tell me you want a mad dog as your successor."

"No," Roose said. "You're right. He is a wild boy. I've tried to teach him for years but he never quite learns the value of patience." He studied Tywin. "So, if I understand correctly: you will return south tomorrow and stay out of the conflict. When the war is done I will send you the name and my son as payment for the insults against your family. Then our debt is settled."

"Then our debt is settled," Tywin confirmed. "And if you refuse, I will settle our debt in another way."

A long silence stretched between them. The final moments before a deal was struck or denied. Tywin did not give any indication that he cared what Roose Bolton chose. He pretended that it was all the same to him. No matter what happened, he would do what had to be done.

But he did hope that Roose would take the bait. He wanted to see just how well Arya Starks plan played out.

"Very well," Roose said at last. "You have your deal."

"Good," Tywin said. "Then we will leave tomorrow. And you will be free to wage your war."

They stood. They clasped hands. And just like that, the trap was set.

From the edge of the Wolfswood, Arya and Robb watched the Lannister's leave. Arya was seated against the trunk of an old tree, ignoring how it still hurt to breathe. And Robb stood beside her, his face grim and focused.

"The first part of your plan worked," Robb said. "Now we move to the second."

"It was the first part of my plan that worried me most," Arya said. "But I supposed Lord Tywin played his part well."

"Yes," Robb said. " he listened to your strategy."

"It was a good strategy," Arya pointed out.

"That's not the point," Robb said. "Most wards could be bursting with the most brilliant ideas in the world and their captors would never listen to them. You know it."

Arya shrugged passively.

"The Northern Lords are behind your trap as well. Though at the moment they think it's my plan," Robb continued.

"At the moment," Arya repeated, a note of bitterness in her voice.

"Yes," Robb said. "I will tell them, Arya. I will tell them it was you. I just...I don't want them to question the plan until it succeeds."

Arya exhaled. He was right. The northern lords would question any plan of a sixteen year old girl. She would expect nothing less. And Robb needed their full support. "So we wait for it to work, then surprise them with the truth."

Robb nodded once. "Yes."

For a moment, they lapsed into silence and continued to watch the procession. Then, Arya looked up at her brother. "Robb...someone is going to capture Ramsay before this all over."

Robb nodded.

"It likely won't be me. Not with my injuries," Arya said. "But if it's you, I want you to catch him alive. I want to kill him myself. Or at the very least, I want to watch him die. I want to watch him suffer before he goes. I know you want the same."

"Yes," Robb said. "But capturing him alive may not be possible."

"No. Maybe not," Arya said. "If it isn't...promise you'll make it hurt."

Robb nodded once. "That I can promise."

Chapter Text

 Arya Stark's escape had enraged and delighted Ramsay in equal parts. It was a very confusing little rush of emotions that knocked against each other and left his mind in chaos. On one hand he had lost his only remaining hostage and his men had severely injured her in the process. For all he knew, she could be dead and he didn't even have anything to do with it. It was disappointing and infuriating.

But on the other hand-what an incredible creature that one was. She had killed four of his men with only a knife and threw herself fully off the wall and into the night. He had reached the top of the stairs just in time to the hem of her white dress disappear beyond the stone. And when he reached the edge he watched her limping through the snow, a wounded animal with a coat of ivory and crimson.

One of his soldiers almost had the gall to shoot her in the back and he had knocked the bow off course. He didn't want her killed so impersonally. He wanted her back here for the wedding. He wanted her still breathing when he made her his. So he sent men on horses after her. They would find her before the Starks and Lannisters. He was sure.

But then none of them returned. And that was truly a queer thing. She couldn't have fought them off herself, limping like that. A lucky Stark or Lannister patrol must have come across her and killed his men. Which was just as well for them. If they had returned empty handed, Ramsay would have added their bodies to the ramparts.

But seven hells, how could the guards have been so foolish? He was so close to cracking her. So close to seeing the girl beneath the teeth and the armor. And now, to make matters worse, the Lannister army was leaving. He watched their camp disappear and the men stream off toward the south. That could only mean one thing-Arya Stark had been reclaimed by her former captor, Tywin Lannister and was being taken back to King's Landing.

But if she was so terribly injured, why would Tywin Lannister march south and not retaliate? It meant she had lived at least but she must be in quite a state. Was Cersei Lannister right and he only valued the girl for her marriageability? If he valued her any further than that, he would not let this insult stand.

So maybe he didn't value her all that much. Or maybe he was pulling some sort of trick. It would be in character for Tywin Lannister to do so, after all. He had been in support of killing Robb Stark at a wedding, after all.

No...Ramsay didn't trust this from Tywin Lannister. He doubted his father did either but it didn't matter. They had to strike at Robb Stark now if they wanted a chance. If they could at least kill him, they could destabilize the north.

Ramsay studied the letter for a long moment before setting it aside. He called to one of his men. "I want our riders prepared."

"Sir?" the man questioned.

"I suspect this battle with Robb Stark will be interesting," Ramsay said. "And my father might need our assistance if the wind is blowing where I think it is."

"Is it...wise to leave Winterfell unguarded?"

Ramsay laughed once. "I'm not a fool. We're not leaving it unguarded. Just down a few men. It doesn't take many to hold the castle." His grin widened. "Besides...reclaiming the castle isn't what they're after. Not yet. They need to destroy my father's army first before they have a chance."

Ramsay stayed up on the wall for a long time, until the Lannister army had filtered away and the northern army shifted into its place on the eastern side of the keep. They were preparing for an attack from his father, and their guards were faced away from Winterfell rather than toward it.

It's going to come to an end soon, Ramsay thought. One way or another.

Two days after the Lannister departure, Robb saw Roose Bolton's army appear on the hill, exactly where Arya had predicted. And, just as Arya predicted, they did not charge immediately. They waited to see what Robb would do. Waited to see if he had a defensive or offensive strategy. No doubt, Roose had a plan for both possibilities. He was a man of careful planning, after all. He had been planning this damned betrayal for many years.

As soon as he appeared, Robb's men snapped into action. They knew the formation. They knew exactly what to do, and they had been waiting for the past two days for the beginning of this final battle. Very shortly, Robb had his formation. He had divided his meager remaining cavalry into two parts-one for the first charge and one for the rear, to protect the archers in case of an attack from behind. The infantry, particularly the pikemen, guarded their flanks in case Roose Bolton's cavalry tried to cut in from the sides. Even though Robb meant to attack, he knew that a defensive position was necessary if he was to survive long enough for the Lannisters to arrive.

That was the real question. It had been over two days since they left. The Glovers said that two days should be plenty of time to work their way through the Kingswood. It would take less time if they went on little rest. They hadn't received a signal yet but...

But if they waited too long, Roose would leave the hill and go onto the attack.

They'll make it, Robb decided. Tywin Lannister wouldn't let his men fall behind. And the Glovers know the area well. They'll make it.

Robb took his place with the rear cavalry and drew his sword. It shone mid-afternoon light. Clean for now but soon to be slick with blood. This was not his first battle and yet his sword had never felt heavier.

"This bloody civil war is almost at its end, one way or another," he called out. "Let's remind them of the strength of loyal houses."

The army let out a roar that rang across the fields like thunder. Robb gripped his sword tight in his hand, steeling himself. Then they advanced.

They started at a steady pace, waiting to see if Lord Bolton would charge before they reached him. He didn't he stayed still, prepared to meet them. From this distance, Robb could make out a line of archers on the front line.

A defensive position, Robb thought. He was hoping for a charge. Hoping for me to do the foolish thing.

Thus far, Arya had been reading Roose Bolton quite well. He truly didn't think very highly of Robb. That was fine. Once Roose's armies lay in ruin and his head was removed from his shoulders, it would not matter what he thought.

As they neared the hills, Robb called for a charge. The army picked up its pace and the first line of cavalry charged at the Bolton men.

Then the enemy army split. The Boltons stayed in their place, supported by the Ryswells and the Lockes at their flanks. And the Karstarks and Umber broke apart, the first moving left, the second moving right. They circled the northern army as they charged. Then, before they could even reach the Boltons, they shifted their course and charged Robb's army from either side.

"Defend the flanks!" he cried out. The pikemen on the right and left side shifted their course, turning to face their once friends and allies. But some turned too late and the line broke, allowing a few Umbers and Karstarks to cut a gash through the Stark loyalists. But it was just few enough that they could cut them from their horses. The spear men filled in the gaps quickly to keep the enemy at bay.

Through the clang of steel and screams of dying men, Robb thought he heard the cry of 'Archers'!

"Shields up!" one of his generals cried in response, and the men at the center threw up their shields in time to deflect arrows from the Bolton side. They had kept their men back and let the Umbers and Karstarks entrap them. Then they had used their archers to take shots into the center in hopes that the Starks would not have time to react. Some did not. A few paces from Robb, a man took an arrow through the skull and fell from his horse.

Arya had predicted much of Roose Bolton's actions it seemed. But she was wrong on one thing-he did not wait for the northmen to reach the hill or get anywhere close to him. He did not need to use the terrain with the numbers and he was able to keep well away from the main fighting by using the Umbers and Karstarks to grasp him in the jaws of death. And any Stark loyalists that escaped to charge Roose? Then they would face a hill and a row of hundreds of archers.

They had archers too of course and Robb called for them in that moment. "Archers! Shift to the center, away from the rear. Rear guard, defend the archers!" He could already see the Umbers and Karstarks were trying to get around behind the Stark army and if they did, they would be surrounded on all sides. "Aim for the Bolton archers! If we can't kill them, they can pick us off one by one."

They did and Robb saw many of the enemy fall. But when they collapsed, more stepped forward in their place. They had more archers than the Stark loyalists by half and plenty to outlast them.

We need the Lannisters, Robb thought. Seven Hells, we need the Lannisters soon.

Robb Stark had the northern recklessness in him just like his sister. He was fortunate that Tywin had arrived in the northern Wolfswood, or else his army could have been defeated before help even arrived.

Fortunately, Tywin was there and his scouts were able to report the beginning of the battle.

"The Karstarks and Umbers are surrounding the Starks," one of his generals said. "The Bolton's are staying back and letting their allies do the work for them. They're using archers to pick off the northern loyalists."

"The Boltons have their backs to us, yes?" Tywin asked.

"Yes," the general said.

"Good," Tywin said. "We'll give them a taste of our archers. Then our cavalry right after that. Scatter them."

And so they did. In the thick of the battle, just as the northerners seemed surrounded with no way out, the Lannisters arrived. Their arrows silenced many of the rear guard before they even knew what would happen. And those that escaped the arrows only had moments to turn and register the calvary charging them. By the time they took up a warning cry it was too late.

The Lannisters charged right down the middle, a knife of red and gold amongst the grey of the northern winter. The Bolton men scattered, but they did not scatter in chaos. Some of their numbers panicked turned to flee to the woods, only to be met with a line of archers who dropped them in an instant. But most reacted quickly and with purpose. They seemed to understand that they might be attacked from behind, which meant that Roose Bolton had suspected some foul play. The army split right down the middle, half joining the Karstarks and half joining the Umbers. They still had the northern loyalists caught in a trap. They were trying to kill as many of them as possible before the Lannisters could counter.

But Tywin had predicted this as well. Roose Bolton was a smart man and adaptable. Naturally, if he suspected something, this would be his plan. But Tywin Lannister had given his men similar instructions. If the Bolton army split, they were to split as well and pursue them, forcing them away from the northern army.

You're quick to react, Tywin thought. But we still have the numbers. And now the high ground.

The Bolton's weren't going anywhere.

The lions had returned and it filled most of the men in Winterfell with fear. But filled him with glee. He was not one to feel terror at an exciting new development. Not at all. This, like all things, was an opportunity.

It lowered their chances of success of course. In fact, it practically guaranteed that the Boltons would be wiped from Westeros with nothing but a memory remaining. But the question was would they go?

When he heard that the Lannisters had come from the Wolfswood to the north, he laughed. And then he gathered his riders and prepared to leave. Because if the Lannisters had attacked from the woods, Tywin Lannister was likely there.

Perhaps I could meet him, Ramsay said. Perhaps I could kill him. That would shake things up.

Tywin Lannister was the strength of the west after all. What would happen to his armies if he fell?

"Open the gate!" Ramsay called out. "We're going to assist my father."

And perhaps, we'll slay a lion as we do.

Arya had been waiting for this. For exactly this moment.