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Starks Will Come Again

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Cold. That was the first sensation that came back to Jon, and it happened long before his eyes opened. He felt the cold, he felt himself sliding out of Ghost’s body and back into his own. He sat up abruptly, seeing Ser Davos and Melisandre, Tormund, Alys Karstark, Signor of Thenn, and Val all looking at him shocked. A part of him knew that he had died, remembered the knives in his chest as his black brothers betraying him, but there was only one thing on his mind now. “Arya. I have to save Arya.”

“Seven hells! The boy just wakes from the dead and can only think of the girl.” Ser Davos exclaimed.

“Such is love.” Val says in answer, and no one else makes a reply.

“Arya. I will ride to Winterfell to save Arya.” Jon resolves and stands, walking out of the door to see that there was a bloody battle being fought within Castle Black. It came to an unceremonious halt when they saw Jon emerge, naked as his nameday.

“Impossible,” Ser Allister Thorne whispers, “I killed you myself.”

 The next few minutes are a flurry of activity. The wildings and Brothers of the Watch who had been fighting those responsible for Jon’s death quickly overpowered the others and soon had them locked and chained.

“Edd,” Jon said menacingly, “fetch me a block.” It was bloody business killing all the traitors, and when it was time to kill Olly, Jon paused. Could I really kill a child? He’s no older than Bran would be. But then he remembered the fact that Olly would have let Arya stay prisoner to the Bolton bastard and Longclaw came down in one quick motion. That put an end to the mutiny. “I intend to ride to Winterfell, and free my sister. A man can only be released from his vows by death. You all saw them kill me, my watch has ended.” He took off the Lord Commander’s cloak and handed it to Edd. “The Wall is yours.”

***

A moon’s turn had come and gone, but Jon had not marched on Winterfell yet, much to his growing agitation. He had been staying in the Lord’s Chamber still, planning battle strategies with Ser Davos and Tormund, preparing the Wildings to march on Winterfell. He knew the fight was hopeless with their weakened forces, but he knew not who to trust in the North to help their cause.

“Your king commanded you to wait. He would have given you Winterfell but you refused. Now you want to march there!” Queen Selyse said indignantly.

“There has been no word from Stannis or his men. They either died on the way there or have been taken prisoner by Roose Bolton. I will free my sister, anyone who gets in my way will be dealt with.” Jon replied back just as angry.

“The Lord of Light has revived you for a reason, Jon Snow. The real threat is up North.” Melisandre broke in. “But I know your sister is important to you, and as I told you before, she is not lost to you. Go. Save her, reclaim Winterfell and lead the North in the Long Night to come.”

“As acting head of House Baratheon, I wish you good fortune in the wars to come. Please, allow Ser Davos to accompany you. When you have reclaimed Winterfell, I will follow.” Shireen Baratheon spoke with a quiet calm. She was no doubt smarter than her mother, for the girl knew that Jon would not abandon his mission. And she resolved to have him as an ally, especially given that they had had no word from her father. She knew in her heart that her father was most likely dead, so she would bear the torch for him. And protecting House Baratheon meant staying in Jon Snow’s good graces.

“Thank you, Lady Baratheon. I will send word once Arya is safe.” Jon said. Just then, Satin entered the chamber, a scroll in hand.

“My Lord Snow—Jon, there was a raven from the Vale.” Satin said to the interest of everyone in the room.

Jon looked at the seal of House Arryn and quickly broke it. He remembered that his father had been fostered there as a child and hoped this letter would be a sign that he could call upon them as allies when the time came to free Arya. He began to read aloud,

                                         “Jon, I was troubled to hear of your untimely death and then confused to hear of your resurrection. If this really is you, I know that nothing will stop you from your plans to save your dear little sister. Let me help you. Lord Baelish is regent for my cousin, Robyn Arryn, Lord of the Vale and the Erie. He and the Knights of the Vale have assured me that they will march on Winterfell with you. Please Jon, let me help you save what is left of our family. We will march on Moat Cailin as soon as you command.

                                          Your sister,

                                          Sansa”

“How can that be? Little has been heard of her since Joffrey’s death.” Queen Selyse asked astonished. “What if it is not her?”

“It is,” Jon said, “It is her hand writing. I will write back to her. Tormund, prepare your wildings to march.” In his heart, he was relieved to know that Sansa was at least safe and away from harm. He would take back Winterfell and protect his sisters. He prepared himself to win.

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“A raven, lady Sansa, from the Wall.” A serving girl, no older than ten said to Sansa and bowed before leaving.

She was in Lord Baelish’s private study, though they were not alone. Robyn Arryn was there as his status deemed necessary, and the Knights of the Vale were discussing battle plans for the attack on Winterfell. As of late, Sansa seldom found herself alone with Littlefinger, for no one had wanted to leave Sansa alone with Lord Baelish once her hair had been washed and her Tully red shade revealed. It might have done when they all thought her Baelish’s bastard daughter, but as Lady Stark, she would be guarded most carefully out of respect for her aunt, the former Lady of the Vale, and of course for her father, who had managed to still retain loyalty though he had been fostered there a lifetime ago.

“Pray Lady Sansa, what does it say? The Knights are prepared to leave at an instant and join your bastard brother to rescue the Lady Arya.” Lord Royce said. He was not one who rejoiced in battle, but when he thought a cause just and honorable, his will was iron. And the Northmen weren’t the only ones outraged to hear of Ned’s little girl in the hands of the Boltons.

“Jon gives his thanks to you all for your aid and is more than open to meeting you at Winterfell. He suggests we wait once reaching Winterfell, to lure the Boltons into thinking that he and his wildings have marched alone. He writes that he is anxious to free Arya and have us both back at home.” Sansa said handling the lord the letter, a smile on her face. She had forgotten how good one could feel when there was hope in life.

The rest of the day was spent in battle preparations and Sansa proved to be valuable to the Knights because of her knowledge of the North. They wanted to lay siege to Winterfell, and did not agree with Jon’s plan at all to wait. But Lord Baelish, ever reading her mood, said that it would not do to have Winterfell destroyed further. And in any case, Sansa was sure that Winterfell was just as impregnable as the Eyrie in its own way. Rising to retire to her chambers, Lord Baelish called her back.

“Lady Sansa, please stay a moment. Your cousin and I have something we would discuss with you.” Lord Baelish said in his usual sly manner. No one could object to her being alone with them since Robyn would be staying, though the boy was dozing on and off.

“Yes Lord Baelish?” She asked when they were alone. Better to get whatever this is over with, she thought to herself.

“Your mood has improved tenfold since the news of your bastard brother has reached us.”

“Jon was always kind to me, and if anyone can reclaim Winterfell and save Arya it is him.”

“Oh my dear, that girl is not Arya. She is known to you however, but your sister is lost and most likely dead.” Her heart stopped. It didn’t make sense. Why had he campaigned so for the knights of the Vale to join Jon and save a pretender? Was this yet another scheme of his? She felt her heart ache at the thought of never getting to apologize to Arya, of never seeing her wild sister again and make amends.

“I… I do not understand. I thought you meant to make me lady of the Vale before marching to Winterfell. Why change your plans?”

“Cersei has made me move things along tenfold. And your dear cousin’s constitution is improving.” The words themselves were wonderful news, for Sweetrobyn wasn’t a bad child, not really, just spoiled. But Sansa knew that Lord Baelish’s ambitions rested on Robyn dying and Harry Hardying ruling the Vale. “But when your bastard brother and Roose Bolton’s armies batter each other to death and find that the girl married to his son is not your beloved sister, they will have no choice but to name you the Lady of Winterfell. Consider it a new step, but still very much in the right direction.”

“I see.” She was silent for a long moment. “I would beg your leave to retire my lord, it has been a long day and we must march soon.” She took the trek back to her chamber in silence. She double bolted the door to ensure that Robyn would not wake and sneak into her chambers, as was his habit. Alone under the covers, she allowed silent tears to fall for the grey eyed girl of her youth. I should have treated her better. I should have looked after her, like sisters are supposed to do.  Her thoughts went to Jon then, alone on the Wall, dying in the cold for Arya. This will crush him. This will kill him like no dagger ever could. She was so tired. Tired of being a pawn in other peoples’ schemes, tired of having her hopes and dreams taken from her again and again. She wanted to be powerful, but not the kind of power that Lord Baelish intended for her. She just wanted to be safe and to never be used again, the power to protect herself. She resolved to let Lord Baelish crown her Lady of Winterfell. But I will not let his scheming kill Jon, I will save him somehow. And when we are together and have Winterfell, I will try to make him happy despite losing Arya. And I will put an end to Lord Baelish, she thought menacingly. “Winter is coming,” she whispered to herself, and drifted off to sleep, her dreams filled with that of a gentle direwolf running in the snow toward home.

***

Ghost was restless, much like his master. The wolf hated being in the camp, preferring to run toward Winterfell as fast as he could. Somehow, Jon knew that the wolf still remembered the way back to his home. Agitated, he remained close to Jon’s side always, but his foul temper improved marginally when they reached an old stronghold in the forest near Long Lake, for it marked the halfway point to Winterfell. He had seen signs of corpses in the snow all along the way, and confirmed in his heart that Stannis was dead. He never got to you little sister, but I am coming. Mance and Stannis have failed you, but I will not. I swear it by the old gods

Signaling to his army to make camp at the fortress, he dismounted his horse and made to head inside with Ser Davos and Tormund. The forgotten castle was full to bursting with the remains of Stannis’ army. They were huddled in the room, swords aimed at Jon’s chest when he pushed the door open.

“Seven hells! What is the meaning of this?” Jon exclaimed, his hand reached toward Longclaw at his side. At his face, many men lowered their weapons in recognition.

“Jon Snow. Ser Davos. We were marching with Stannis when the blizzards started and broke us in two. Many of the Baratheon men did not survive. And Stannis himself has died.” A man Jon recognized with sigil of House Flint on his breastplate answered.

“Aye. I figured as much.” Jon said. “That is why I come to free Arya myself.” He said her name with such a fondness.

“Come on in then, and don’t let the heat out!” A man shouted form the back. Jon signaled for Tormund and Davos to follow, Thenn and Val were soon inside as well.

“The wildings march with me to free Arya. Are you with us?” His tone was direct, but he had no use for pleasantries, not when Arya was still being tortured by Ramsay Snow.

“Always. We meant to finish the march as soon as one of our own came back from Howland Reed’s lands. The Crannogman stays to himself to be sure, but he’s always been a loyal man where saving Stark girls is concerned.” A new man with a House Norrey breastplate said.

“But how can you march with the wildings? You are sworn to the Night’s Watch.” The Flint man from before asked Jon, suspicion heavy in his gaze.

Before Jon could answer, Lord Cutler, from one of the regiments of Stannis’ men that stayed behind to guard Lady Selyse and Shireen answered him. “His brothers in black killed him. I saw it with my own two eyes. For three days his body was on ice and his life thought to be gone. But then Melissandre worked her fire magic and brought him back to us.” There was some speculation at this, but with the wildings and Ser Davos confirming it, most men seemed to accept it. The penalty for desertion was death, and Northerns took that seriously. But to kill Ned Stark’s bastard, as he was marching to save his precious little girl, would be cruel even for the harsh northern men.

“What is your name, my lord?” Jon asked of the Flint man after some time.

“Marq.” He replied.

“You know, Lord Marq, Arya is named after our grandmother, Arya Flint.” Jon stated calmly. His words were harmless enough, but his tone held a looming threat.

“Aye, all in House Flint know of your courageous grandmother and of your wild sister. That is why our march must continue. We must save the Ned’s girl.” Marq said, for his fear of Jon’s next words could not make his loyalty to House Stark waiver.

“Good. I am glad House Stark still has loyal banner men left. Now the penalty for desertion is death. But I say to you, I have died at my post and the old gods have seen fit to give me a second life. I will march to Winterfell, I will annihilate House Bolton and any who dared support them, and I will see Arya and Sansa safe in Winterfell. The man who gets in my way will be dealt with.” Jon’s voice was as harsh as Winter itself, and his Stark grey eyes were alight with the anticipation of battle.

“I would gladly follow you, my lord. Any son of Ned Stark’s is a man I can be proud to follow. But how do you plan to find the Lady Sansa? Little is known of her these days.” Marq asked.

“She has been in hiding in the Vale, another ally of House Stark that I am forever thankful for. She and the knights of the Vale will join us in battle as I blot out the name of Bolton.” Jon replied. “As soon as your man returns with news of Howland Reed, we will march.”

The men cheered and were happy that once again their cause had been saved. They would install their ladies of Stark back to the seat of Winterfell and damn anyone who tried to stop them. Men and wildings, united in this purpose, seemed to understand that they would never go back to being separate again. Fighting with a man in battle was one of the most unifying things under the sun, and soon the wildings and the Northmen would sing the song of battle together, putting aside their differences. After that would come the Winter, and the true battle.

Jon watched the intermixing of free folk and northmen from a corner of the room, Ghost seated beside him. I am coming little sister. The Norrey man from before approached him and offered Jon some of his ale. At his refusal, the Norrey man spoke.

“My lord, I do not mean to imply that your rank and birth make you somehow less. But I would urge you to consider hearing the pleas of the men in the castle once we take it. Not all who have pledged allegiance have done so willingly. Cersei Lannister holds a number of Northmen and river lords captive still from the Red Wedding.” The Norrey man said cautiously.

“I am no lord. I am a bastard, but I am Ned Stark’s bastard. I do not lack for honor, my lord. I will hear those men and what they have to say, I swear it.” Jon said, for how could he blame anyone for being cautious when he still beat himself up for not joining Robb. I should have died with him. No, he thought, then Arya would truly be helpless.

The Norrey man smiled and walked back to his men. At the thought of crushing Ramsey Bolton’s throat, master and wolf grew restless once more, and Jon prayed that Howland Reed would arrive posthaste.

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Winterfell lay ahead of the men like a prized treasure. Jon was impatient to begin, he spurred his horse faster towards the Bolton men. Two northmen he did not recognize held white banners on either side of Roose and Ramsey as Ser Davos, Tormund, and Thenn approached with two men carrying white flags of their own.

“You let wildlings south of the Wall,” Roose Bolton’s wispy voice stated as if her were already bored with the entire affair. “And you have deserted the Watch. As Warden of the North, I sentence you to die Jon Snow.”

“You will never be Warden of the North. I will free Arya from you and I will retake Winterfell.” Jon let out coldly.

“Ha! With this little pitiful army of wildlings? We have twice your number.” Ramsey Bolton laughed.

“Thousands of men don’t have to die, just one of us. Let’s settle this the old way.” Jon said, trying to lure Ramsey into a fight.

“The way people talk about you, you’re the greatest swordsman that ever lived. Now I might not be able to beat you, but I know our army can beat yours.” Ramsey smiled.

“Will your men want to fight for you when they know you won’t fight for them?” Jon asked nonchalantly.

Having no answer, Ramsey switched topics. “My good brother, why such animosity? We’re prepared to forgive your little breach of your oath and send you back to the Wall unharmed. Besides, when I become Warden of the North, your sister will be Lady of Winterfell, as is her right.”

“Not if I make her a widow.” There was little warmth in the smile Jon gave him, though the thought was a great comfort to know that soon he would kill this cursed man. “You,” he said pointing at Roose, “will answer for your crimes against Robb. And you,” he pointed to Ramsey, “you will answer those crimes as well. But you will pay a different price for misusing my sister.”

“Oh, you are upset. What makes you think you will make us pay anything? Your little plan to rescue her has already failed once before.” Ramsey signaled to his men to throw out a pile of leathery flesh that Jon could see was the remains of Mance Raider and his wildling women. “A fine woman your sister, I enjoy having her in my bed. And fine men ---“

“Sleep well, Lord Snow. You’re going to die tomorrow.” Jon was shaking with anger as he rode away.

Back in his tent, Jon walked from one end of his desk to the other, listening to the battle plan once more with his leaders.

“It should work.” Lord Davos said. “And your sister’s men will take them by surprise.”

“I want Ramsey Bolton alive. Make sure the men understand that.” Jon spat out menacingly.

“Of course,” Tormund began, “you southerners are a soft lot to be sure, but I know you do not mean to let that insult he threw at you go unpunished. I’ll let the camp know. No one is going to be a hero and try to avenge Mance, you will have your vengeance Jon Snow.” Jon threw him a grateful smile as they all left his tent. Soon little sister, I will see you soon. Just one more night. He could hardly sleep.

***

Sansa saw the carnage from a mile away. Lord Baelish had insisted that she stay in the encampment with Robyn Arryn until such a time as the battle was won and she could safely be escorted into Winterfell. She had refused. You will not hurt Jon, she had thought to herself, unsure of what Baelish intended. The Knights of the Vale had objected on the grounds of her safety as well. But she had answered that until the Boltons were defeated, she would never be safe.

That had been earlier that morning, when the night’s frost was still crisp on the ground. Now she watched as the snow outside Winterfell was as red as her hair as men tried to climb up the grey walls and were shot down. She imagined that she saw Jon a few times, slashing at this foe and that until the gate could be opened and Ramsey was in his clutches. Jon will kill him before he even learns that Arya is not here. Then he will wish he could kill him again. She prayed to the old gods and the new that they would protect Jon, and Arya wherever she might be. Her only comfort was that Arya had not been suffering at the hands of that vile monster Ramsey. 

Suddenly, a mighty sound echoed as the gates to Winterfell were opened and Jon’s men along with the Vale Knights poured inside. After some time had passed, she saw Vale knights approaching her. “Lady Sansa, the most extraordinary thing! We thought the efforts to seize the castle wasted until Northmen from inside the castle turned on the Bolton men!” A young boy, perhaps too young to fight, rushed out excited to tell her. “Please my lady, your brother is inside now and the Boltons have been captured. I beg you, ride and see your brother and sister once more. We must go fetch Lord Arryn.”

My sister is not there, she thought bitterly. Lord Baelish has made fools of all of you. “Thank you my lord.” She said graciously and spurred her mount towards the only home she would ever truly know. Riding into the castle, her eyes were watering as she looked at the burnt insides. She saw men eagerly tearing down the flayed man banners from the walls. We will build anew, Jon and I. Coming to a halt, a man with a House Flint breastplate made to help her dismount as all the Northern lords knelt at the sight of her. I am the Stark in Winterfell, she realized.

“Marq Flint at your service Lady Stark.” He held her hand and bowed.

“Where is Jon?” She found Lord Baelish in a dark shadowy corner and remembered the lie told to get her there. “And Arya?”

“Inside my lady. Your brother has gone to look for the Lady Arya.” Marq replied.

“Thank you, my lord. Thank all of you.” She said to the courtyard. “Please, I would beg you all to meet us in the Great Hall in a few moments time. There is much to discuss.” She hurried inside, her head held high. “Jon?” She called out to the darkness. She heard the sound of pounding as she neared the old bed chamber she and Arya used to share as children. Before she could get there, she saw an old man with shock white hair almost tumble into her.

“Sansa!” the old man shouted. Upon closer inspection, she recognized the blue eyes staring back at her.

“Theon?!” she let out disbelievingly, and then anger took her. “Theon Greyjoy! You mean to escape justice once more. You will not. Robb will be avenged. Bran and Rickon will be avenged.”

“Sansa, Sansa! Jon will kill me after he finishes with Ramsey. Please, please let me go. I betrayed Robb, I know. I will live with that regret until my last days. But I never killed Bran and Rickon. They were stable boys! Two boys of the same age and Ramsey told me to cover the bodies so no one would know. Bran and Rickon are alive. But please, please let me go. Jon will kill me for lying about that girl being Arya. Only Arya isn’t here! She never was.” He was half crazed and talking in jumbles. Stunned into silence, Sansa let Theon slip past her before she could react. When her senses came back to her, she ran down the hallway.

“Jon! Jon! Where are you?” She burst into her old bedchamber and almost gagged at the stench. A rotting body was on the corner in the floor, but even in death, Sansa would recognize her. Jeyne Poole, her childhood friend, had been the girl meant to trick the North into agreeing to accept the Boltons. Jeyne had been some time dead, for her corpse was pale grey and the room smelled of decay. “Jon!” She screamed once more, for his fists had not stopped beating Ramsey Bolton’s face in.

“Sansa.” Jon said, his voice devoid of emotion. He let Ramsey’s unconscious body slide to the floor unceremoniously. “It’s not her, it’s not Arya.” All the fight seemed to go out of him then. Sansa approached him as she would a wounded animal and hugged him fiercely.

“I know. Theon Greyjoy escaped from this castle. But not before he could tell me that the girl wasn’t really Arya. He says Bran and Rickon are alive too. Though that is probably a lie.”

“It’s not.” Jon said, “Bran is beyond the wall. I know that much to be true. But Arya, where is Arya?”

“I- I don’t know.” Sansa said sadly. She could see that Jon’s heart was breaking. “She escaped King’s Landing. That much I know. The Lannisters never had her.” She meant the words to be a comfort, but she knew that it did little to soothe Jon’s fears. I was a fool think he would not break without her. “Jon,” she began after some time, “we must address the lords. We must go to the great hall.”

“Aye.” He said weakly. “The traitors must be dealt with.”

Chapter Text

The Great Hall was full to bursting with lords, all eager to hear what Sansa and Jon had to say. Sansa let go of Jon’s arm when she took her seat at the high table, Lord Baelish slinking up close behind her. The Knights of the Vale and the northmen were looking at her and Jon expectantly, but her brother seemed to be looking for those lords who had been guests in Winterfell for “Arya’s” wedding.

“My lords, and ladies, I would like to thank you for your bravery. And for marching to win back our homeland. But Arya—my sister is not here. It seems the Boltons wed Ramsey to Jeyne Poole, our old Master of Horses’ daughter.” Emotion was evident in her voice and she tried to reign it in. I must be strong, like mother.

“My lady, if I may?” Lord Wyman Manderly waddled out to the front of the room.

“Yes, my lord?” Sansa asked curiously.

“My lady, my son and heir is captive at Casterly Rock, along with a great many other Northern lords and River lords. The Freys invaded my home and I was made to attend this false wedding. I suspected the girl was not the lady Arya, but still, I came to keep the peace. They have my son, and I would see him released. Even still, I have never wavered in my support of House Stark. I had word that Theon Greyjoy never found your brothers and that Lord Rickon is on Skagos with the free folk. I have sent men to bring him home. I tell you true my lady, our liege lord will be here soon. The mummer’s farce is done!” Lord Manderly had the attention of every person in the room, many mumbling their shock at his words. Sansa saw that Lord Baelish had a deep set frown and she rejoiced in it. What could be better than getting her brother back and thwarting Littlefinger? She felt her heart swell up inside of her once more. We can be happy again.

“Lord Manderly, my sister thanks you, and we eagerly await Rickon’s return.” Jon’s voice was hollow to her own ears. She wondered if the other lords could tell that he was the coldest one in the room. “I understand your caution and your need to seemingly play to the Bolton’s favor.” There was pregnant pause. “But I know that not all of you have been so cunning. I would know who supported the Boltons and I would know it now. Who aided Roose Bolton in leaving this castle before the battle could begin? Where has he fled to?” His voice was low and full of hatred. Sansa had never seen a man so fearsome in all her life.

At the menace in Jon’s voice, only one person stepped forward, gathering glares from everyone in the room as she walked toward Jon and Sansa. “I am Barbarey Dustin. I supported the Boltons as my liege lord.” The woman spoke in a calm manner, seemingly accepting her fate, for she must have known that Jon would surely kill her.

“Then I sentence you to die a traitor’s death.” Jon said coldly.

“Do that, and you’ll never get your father’s bones back boy. I have them in a secret place. Consider this my freedom price.” Barbarey said coldly.

“Enough of this! Bring Ramsey, fetch me a block and we’ll be done with it!” Jon’s voice thundered and men set to do his bidding. Once the block had been placed outside, Jon unsheathed Longclaw. “Any last words Ramsey?”

Ramsey was still unconscious when he was dragged out to the block. But when Jon cut off his foot, the pain so excruciating that the bastard awoke. “Curse all of you! I will never die, House Bolton will never die, I will have vengeance!” Ramsey was raving like a lunatic until Longclaw came down in one swift motion, cutting off his cries instantly. Jon immediately turned toward Barbarey, stalking up to her with his blood covered face.

“Barbarey Dustin, I do not bargain with oathbreakers. Your sentence still stands. You will be escorted back to the Rills where you will retrieve my father’s bones. You will return posthaste to await execution.” Jon had put his lordly voice on and none dared question his authority to be giving orders. Men volunteered to make the journey to the Rills and back in order to ensure that they would stay on his and Sansa’s good sides. Jon added wildings to the party as well to ensure that Barbarey would not “happen” to disappear once reaching her castle.

Fetching Tormund and a garrison of about sixty wildings and Wun Wun, Jon looked out on the crowd. Climbing onto his horse, he addressed Sansa directly. “I ride for the Dreadfort.”

Nodding once, she watched as his party disappeared from sight, then turned back to her people. “We will reconvene once our brother is back home. The hospitality of Winterfell is yours, my lords.” Sansa said as she went inside the castle to be alone with her ghosts.

***

In five days’ time, Jon had returned to Winterfell, his face grim and haunted. He never spoke of what he did at the castle, but all knew. He had put Roose and his household to the sword and burned the castle until it was nothing more than smoking stone. Some would have called it extreme, but the North called it justice-- justice for their betrayed king and his lady mother. Sansa could see that something had cracked and changed inside of Jon. He never said anything about it, but what he had done must have been gruesome indeed, for it was enough to make even the wildings whisper of him and how cruel he could be. The masses flocking to Wintertown would eagerly try to catch a glimpse of him, their fearsome warrior who had truly made the Dreadfort live up to its name, the son of their murdered lord who had put the Starks back in Winterfell.

There had been little said between Sansa and Jon in the days that followed. All were eagerly awaiting Rickon’s arrival from White Harbor and seemed to accept that Sansa would be Lady of Winterfell while the young lord continued to grow. She and Jon had thought it best not to mention Bran for fear that it might cause more trouble than good. “We need stability and we need it now. The real threat is coming, and it comes from beyond the Wall,” Jon had said, his tone ominous. She had seen little of him since Barbarey Dustin’s’ return and execution. He had always been silent, even in their youth, but now he was angry too. And Ghost was short with almost all save for her, Ser Davos, and a few of the wildings. The only times they spoke words to each other were in silent whispers as they passed each other in the crypts. It was on one such occasion that Sansa found herself now, walking towards her father’s statue as Jon turned to move away.

“Jon, please.” She called out to his retreating back. He slowly turned around.

“Yes, Sansa?” His tone was hollow.

“Rickon should be here any day now. And Bran is out there somewhere, I’m sure he will find himself back home as well.”

“Yes.” He did not offer anything additional.

“I know you miss Arya—“

“Do not-- do not say her name. Please, I cannot bear it.” Jon was breaking, she had never seen him this sullen before in all her life, not even when her mother had been particularly harsh to him. Arya loved him fully, not out of duty or honor, simply because she wanted to. I was foolish to think that could be replaced.

“I know you miss her.” She gave him a pitying look. “I miss her too. There are too many things left unsaid between us. But we must go on, prepare for winter. I believe that she will want to see the North restored when she comes back.”

“Do you truly think her out there?” He dared not hope, but still, his love ran too deep not to.

“I believe she is. She managed to avoid the Lannisters, that is something. If anyone can survive, it is Arya.” She gave him a small smile and took his hand, resolving that she would visit her father another time. As they approached the entrance, a messenger was eagerly awaiting their emergence.

“Lady Stark, Jon Snow.” He bowed to Sansa lightly. “The young lord Rickon is here! His horse arrived from White Harbor a short while ago, he is in the Great Hall with the Northern lords now.”

“Why were not informed of this sooner?” Sansa asked, apprehension spreading through her. Jon seemed to pick up on it and went into protective mode immediately. She disentangled her arms from him and broke out into a run to get to the Great Hall. I will not let Littlefinger’s scheming come between Rickon and Jon and I.

When she reached the great hall, Northern lords were already kneeling by his feet as Rickon approached the high table, a monstrous black beast at his left side, and a wilding woman at his right. “Sansa? Jon?” Rickon asked unbelievingly when he turned around and saw them. The wilding woman was standing close to him and her eyes were mistrusting of all.

“Umph,” Sansa whimpered softly as she rushed to sweep Rickon up in a hug, tears falling silently down her porcelain cheeks as Jon joined in. The instinct to protect him was fierce inside her, and she did not let him go even when the hug ended. Shaggydog and Ghost were circling around behind them, like times of old. “I knew all of you couldn’t be gone.” Rickon whispered closely to their ears. “Somehow, I knew. I felt it. I feel Bran and Arya too.”

At that moment, Lord Baelish chose to interrupt. “While it does my heart good to see a family reunited, I would beg you all for a chance to settle this business. Cersei Lannister will not wait and winter is ah approaching.”

“Indeed. We are all glad for you, but as Lord Baelish said. Winter is coming. I would beg you to take up your place as King in the North.” Wyman Manderly said looking at Rickon.

“Me?” I can’t be a king.” Rickon said, his eyes unused to so many people.

“But, my lord, it is your right.” Another Northern man said.

“Bear Island will follow a Stark or none at all.” Little Lyanna Mormont said vehemently. At the girl’s bold words, many northmen shouted their agreement.

“There is another true born Stark here.” Lord Baelish said, his lips smiling. Sansa was so tired in that moment. Will his scheming ever end? Not if I don’t stop it. Jon, forgive me.

“I- I do not know what to say.” Sansa said, summoning all her wits to make her voice seem meek and shy. “I cannot usurp my brothers. Rickon is alive. Bran must be too. And my sister. We need to find her too.” At her words, Lord Baelish’s eyes turned cold and hard. He looked at her like a betrayed animal.

“A regency then?” Someone from the crowd suggested.

“A regency, yes.” Good. “That could work. I will act as Rickon’s regent until such a time as he can perform his duties or Bran is returned to us. When Bran comes back, we will crown him king.” There was approval from all in the room.

“Lady Stark.” Jon said coldly and bowed before leaving the room.

“Rickon, please come with me.” Sansa held his hand as she led him to the one place she knew Jon would be—Arya’s old room. Looking inside, she saw Jon bury his face into the feather bed as if to try and smell a trace of her, though Arya’s scent would be long gone by now.

“Jon, I’m sorry.” Sansa said form the door as Ghost and Shaggydog made themselves comfortable on the floor and Rickon went to sit next to Jon.

“We agreed not to mention Bran.” Jon deadpanned.

“I know but—“ She hesitated, then shut the door. “Lord Baelish would see you all killed just to have me as Lady of Winterfell.” Her voice had dropped down to a whisper.

“Can such a man be trusted?” Rickon asked. “Why is he still here if he would do our family harm?”

“It is a delicate situation. I brought up Bran and Arya to divert the lords in the hopes that someone would propose a regency. At the moment, Lord Baelish is too invaluable to be disposed of, he has made sure of that. But naming me regent will give us time to figure out a way to get rid of him for good. Can you forgive me?” She looked at Jon pleadingly. Don’t you hate me too.

“Of course Sansa,” he sounded tired. After a pause, Rickon’s voice broke the silence.

“I dream of them sometimes.” He said in wonder. “That’s how I knew. Or at least I hoped.”

“What do you mean Rickon?” Sansa asked.

“Bran and Arya. Well, their wolves. It’s like—it’s like I can sense them. But I’m not me when I sense them, I’m Shaggy.” His voice held uncertainty. “I knew Robb was gone when I stopped sensing Grey Wind.” He said sadly.

“Well at least-- at least you still feel Bran and Arya.” Jon said, the barest trace of hope in his words. “Warging is what the wildings call it. Skinchangers. I have dreams like that as well. Where I am more wolf than man.” Two words and the mention of Arya, and Rickon has already managed to thaw the ice around Jon’s heart, Sansa thought sadly.

“I don’t know how right they are though.” Rickon said sadly. ‘Sometimes I sense Sansa’s wolf too, and I knew Lady to be gone.” Could it be that her father had somehow spared Lady? No, no it a foolish dream, a child’s hope. Still, she had dreamt that she had fur instead of skin and claws where her hands should be. Those are just wishful fantasies, the magic of sorrow playing tricks on my mind.

“Well, we can only trust that in time, we will get answers.” Jon said, the sadness once more taking root in his demeanor. He has lost her all over again Sansa thought sadly. “If we cannot find them, we can at least avenge them.” There was malice in his tone, and Sansa actually felt a tad bit sorry for their enemies. They have made us strong in the harshest ways possible.

Chapter Text

The blood rushing out of Walder Frey’s neck and onto her hands filled Arya with the briefest moment of peace. But all too soon, the emptiness took root inside of her again. I want Mother and Robb back. But no matter how hard she wished it so, she knew they were never coming back to her. Letting out a little sigh, she let go of Walder Frey’s dead body and began to clean up the Great Hall, preparing for the next phase of her plan. She would summon all of his sons and grandsons to the Twins. Once gathered, she would poison them all, eliminating the traitors in one fell swoop. I am a wolf, and a wolf does not use poison, she uses her claws. But Arya knew that eliminating the Frey’s was much more important than making sure her means were honorable. She had seen her father die of honor, and she had missed her chance to kill Tywin Lannister, she would not make the same mistakes again.

A commotion outside the walls of the great hall could be heard, men shouting orders, horses galloping, as the unmistakable sound of steel meeting steel was heard. The castle was under siege. How could have been so blind? How did I not know they were going to be attacked? Arya had spent a moon’s turn in the service of Lord Walder’s household, and in those weeks, she had inspected the castle and the areas around it will meticulous detail. She had played host to a number of men, but none of them had whispered a word of treason or rebellion. She was cursing her stupidity as men broke down the doors to the Great Hall. How will I get myself out of this one?

Shouts and cheers could be heard throughout the castle as a rag-tag bunch of men crowded into the hall. Upon seeing her standing near Walder Frey’s dead body with a knife in her hand, they paused and allowed their leader to emerge. Head and sword held high, an old greying man in armor beckoned her to come down from the dais. She did as he bid and lightly stepped down and approached him. Look with your eyes. She saw that the man looked familiar to her, though she was sure they had never met before. Looking into his eyes, she almost let out a sob as she saw the coolest pair of Tully blue eyes staring back at her.

“You’re a Tully.” Arya said to the man, her mind realizing the fact that in some way, this man was kin to her.

“Aye, and judging by your looks, you’re a Stark. Cat’s youngest girl, I’d say.” He dropped his sword.

“Aye, I am Arya.” It felt strange to give her real name, but she had to remind herself that Stark was powerful name, a name that she would need to use if she wanted to avenge her family and finish her list.

“Well then niece,” he gave a small smile and said the word fondly,” would you mind telling me what you’re doing here in the Riverlands with Walder Frey’s dead body?”

“I killed him.” She said simply. “And his two eldest sons. But there are many more who must die. Still, the Twins is yours, uncle.”

“Nay, by rights, the Twins is yours. You killed the lord and his heir.” Men murmured their agreement at her uncle’s declaration. She cared little for the ugly castle, but she knew that when the time came, it would serve her well to be Lady of the Crossing. Walder Frey will extract his toll no longer.

“We must set to getting your seat back now.” Arya said after the shouting had died down a bit, “Uncle Edmure is a hostage, but his son and wife are still in Riverrun. As long as he is alive, they are not safe, even if the girl is a Frey.”

“Aye, I’ve captured Riverrun from the Frey’s before, I suppose I could do it again. And with Cersei being more concerned with Daenerys Targaryen across the Narrow Sea, I doubt her brother would be able to come back here and take it again.”

“Good, then it is settled.” Can they feel it? Arya wondered. All the men I will kill, can they feel the air grow cold and dark like my revenge will be? Do they know that winter is coming for them? “The North Remembers.’ She said looking into the crowd around her, her voice strong like Robb’s had been once. “We will take back Riverrun by force. Uncle, call the banners. Tell them Arya Stark has come to avenge her king.” The men spoke of their agreement with her plan and one by one knelt before her.

“Aye princess,” her uncle said.

“I am no princess. Robb is gone.” She said.

“There is… much to discuss, child. Once you have cleaned yourself, we will meet in your chambers.” Her uncle bid her on her way while he went to finish securing the castle.

****

A shy serving girl was currently helping Arya out of a bath and into a pair of breeches and a fresh tunic. The girl had said little to Arya, but she could tell she was scared.

“I won’t hurt you, you know.” Arya said. “I know what it feels like, to be powerless. I have killed your master, but I will be good to you. I have no issue with you, do you understand?”

“Yes, milady. I am yours to command as mistress of this castle and Lady of the Crossing.” The girl was shy, but Arya could tell she was not a threat. She has most likely never known kindness here.

“Good. Now what is your name?”

“Nell, milady.”

“Alright then Nell. I don’t know how your life was under Walder Frey, but things will be different under me. All the servants are to be cleaned and fed properly, the castle is to be restored, and I would meet with my Maester at once. Oh and once you have finished here, inform my Uncle Brynden that I am ready to meet with him.”

“Yes, milady. And will you be needing supper?”

“Yes, and bring some for my uncle too.” The girl walked to the door, “And see to it that his men are cared for.”

The Maester was quick to come to her chambers and assure her that he would be a loyal man to her. “And why this change of loyalty? Haven’t you been Maester here for years, did you not serve the Frey’s faithfully?” She was surprised at the rage that had welled up in her voice.

“Please milady. At the Citadel, a Maester leaves his family name behind and becomes one of the order. But I was a boy of House Piper once. You are my Lady Catelyn’s daughter! I will serve you faithfully. I swear it by the old gods and the new.” The look in his eyes was one of reverence.

For a moment, Arya was stunned. She had never taken her mother for granted per se. But in her head, fighting and being one of the boys had always seemed to be the way to get men’s respect and loyalty. She was touched to hear the man speak of her mother so strongly, and she realized that her mother had commanded respect in a different way, in a woman’s way. That was never an easy path for me, but I will be a lady-warrior if it means winning this way. “So you say. Did you know of their intentions?” She did not have to specify; the man knew what she meant.

“Nay, my lady.” He shook his head vehemently. “Lord Walder only allowed his sons to bring him his ravens, for they could not read. He kept them all in that drawer there though.” The man motioned to a large oak desk in the corner of the room. Arya quickly read through scrolls from Roose Bolton, Tywin Lannister, and other traitorous bastards.

“If you would prove your loyalty to me, I have a task for you.”

“Anything my lady.”

“Alright then Maester…” she let the pause hang.

“Brynden.”

“Do you mind if I call you Piper? My Uncle Brynden is in the castle and I don’t want it to get confusing.”

“Of course, milady.” He smiled at her kindly.

“Go through Walder Frey’s things, find me the men who helped his plan and execute the Red Wedding. I want to know the names of all of them. And bring me any correspondence he has had from Kings Landing, Casterly Rock, anyone who is an enemy of House Tully.”

“At once my lady.” He bowed and walked out of the room, pausing only to bow to her uncle on his way in.

“Arya child, are you well?” Her uncle’s blue eyes held concern in them and it made her a little sad, for she had not had someone to care about her in a long while.

“I should be asking you that, uncle.” She laughed lightly. “You had all the fun in battle. It will not be that way when we take Riverrun though.”

 “About that, how did you manage to kill three men twice your size?”

“A girl learns things on the road. And things must be done if she is to survive.” Sensing that Arya would offer no more than that, her uncle took a seat. Nell emerged with two plates of food, two mugs, and a horn of ale.

“Milady, milord.” She let out a little curtsy. ‘Lady Stark, I have done all that you commanded earlier.”

“Thank you Nell, that will be all.” Her uncle waited until the girl had left to speak again.

“It seems you have made new friends already. First the Maester and now the maid.”

“They do not seem to miss Walder Frey.” Arya observed.

“Nay, they wouldn’t. House Frey was loved little even before the Red Wedding. There are many still loyal to House Tully, and House Stark too. The Lannisters have made them bow, but I will not back down again. Men are preparing to ride as we speak and gather the river lords here to take back Riverrun.”

“Good. I am anxious to get it over with.”

“You know what this means don’t you?” the Blackfish asked, taking the time to observe her manner.

“Aye. It is most likely that my uncle will die in the Westerlands.” She said as calmly as she could.

“You’re a smart girl, to be sure. And willing to sacrifice. Good, you will need to if you want to win.” He took a sip of ale and ate a piece of meat from his plate.

“Surely this sacrifice will be yours more than mine. I have never met uncle Edmure, but I would save him if I could. Still, with you here and his wife and child in Riverrun, he can be spared, should it come to that.” She hated talking about a member of her family as if he were no more than a piece on a cyvasse board.

“Cersei will want to kill him, but even she must know that he is more valuable to her alive, even with me and his son holding the Riverlands.”

“I’ve sacrificed too much, already. I will try to free him, but only after we take the Riverlands and after I go North.”

“The North is what I want to speak to you of. Most of what I hear is confusing and unbelievable, but many men all tell the same tale.” Her uncle took a long pause and looked down at his hands. “Your brother, Jon Snow…. Cat always said you two were fond of each other.”

“Yes.” She said nervously. What’s happened to Jon? Panic began to set in. “Yes, what is it? What is it about Jon?”

“Men say he died on the Wall.” Her heart stopped. “Men say he died on the wall because he let the wildlings cross and was going to break his vows.” He said it with a look of anguish on his face. He does not want to cause me any more pain.

“That’s not possible.” Not Jon, not good, honorable Jon. “He would never desert the watch.”

“Well you see child, the Lannisters sent some pretender to Winterfell to marry the Bolton heir. They said the girl was you. Jon Snow planned to ride to Winterfell to save you, and when news of this spread to the Riverlands, I decided to gather men and ride with him.  But his brothers in black killed him before I could even get a raven to him. Then I decided to take the Twins. But now reports are saying that your brother is alive, and that he has reclaimed Winterfell with the help of your sister, Sansa, and the Knights of the Vale who have been hiding her all this time.”

It was all too confusing. Her heart was breaking and mending, breaking and mending. He broke his vows for me. No, not me, just another Lannister lie, she thought bitterly. “So Jon is…” she could not even finish the question. Living in a world where Jon did not exist seemed like hell.

“Alive,” her uncle said quickly. “Of that I have no doubt. Men all speak of him and your sister enough for me to know that to be true.” Another thought came to her then.

“You would have ridden North with him to save me?” It was wonder in her voice. When was the last time she found a man as honorable as people claimed him to be? Not since father, not since Robb. Jon died for me.

“Family. Duty. Honor.” Her uncle said simply and smiled at her. I am a Tully too, she returned his smile.

“You would not have condemned him?” She asked curiously. Arya loved her mother fiercely, but she knew that Jon was a touchy subject where House Tully was concerned.

“No. You see child, when we all thought you and Brandon and Rickon dead, and your sister was married to the Imp, Robb wrote a will that released Jon from his vows and made him his heir.” Robb, good, sweet just Robb, who died alone had made Jon his heir. Mother would have been furious.

“Mother did not like that, I bet.”

“No, she did not. Still, the Riverlands follows the King in the North, and by Robb’s will, it was Jon. I planned to go to him and free him from his vows, but then Stannis Baratheon turned up at the Wall and was planning to march to Winterfell to save you. When he never reached Winterfell, it was assumed that he died, and then Jon Snow declared he would free you himself.”

“So Jon and Sansa are alive. And Sansa is away from the Lannisters.” She took a sip of ale, letting it warm her from root to tip. She remembered Sansa then, the fight about Mycha and her father being forced to kill Lady. There is much to discuss between us. Her thoughts turned to Jon then, the sweetness of meeting him seemed so close. He is a free man now. I could ride to Winterfell and see him. We could stay there, or we could leave. We could go anywhere he wanted. I could show him Bravos, the Titan’s statue and the ports. What a sweet dream it was. No, he is Robb’s heir and king now. We cannot go to Bravos.

“Yes but there is more. Your brother Rickon has returned to Winterfell as well. He had been on Skagos with the free folk.” Her uncle smiled.

“Skagos is said to be a land of savages.” She remembered Rickon then. Eyes always shinning with amusement, his breathless laughter trailing after her and Bran in all of their games, eager to join, eager to love and be loved.

“Aye, the boy and his wolf are said to be half wild.”

“Shaggydog was always a bit…untamed. It was in his nature.” Master and wolf are one, always. She smiled at the thought of seeing Rickon again.

“Hmm. Still, it raises a dilemma.”

“What?”

“Well Robb’s will was written when we thought your brothers dead. Now I have to crown your mother’s trueborn son before you or your brother.”

“Sansa comes before me.” Arya interjected.

“No,” her uncle gave a firm shake of his head. “The will was decidedly clear on that point. As long as your sister is married to the Imp, she will not inherit Winterfell.”

“To make sure the Lannisters would never get it.” She surmised.

“Right. But I have concerns. Crowning little wild Rickon could cause more trouble than good. Especially in the wars to come. Your sister has been named regent in his stead, but she is no military advisor.”

“You would ask that Jon be named regent?” Arya was in shock.

“Well, not regent exactly, more say as his Lord commander. Now I known that Theon Greyjoy claimed to have killed your brothers when he took Winterfell, but if Rickon is alive, I’ll bet Bran is too. Your sister has declared that upon his return, she will hand over the title of Lord of Winterfell to him and then he can be proclaimed King. So you see, Jon need not be king, but he can still serve in King Brandon’s Small Council.”

“That is why the men call me princess Arya.” She finally understood their chanting. “Because some way, one of my three remaining brothers will be King in the North.”

“Aye child. They have also issued a reward for anyone who has news of you. I suggest you write to them post haste, that we take back Riverrun, and that you and I ride North to swear fealty to our new King in the North, whoever it may be.”

Her head was spinning. This was lot of information to digest: Bran and Rickon alive, Sansa and Jon in Winterfell. Home, I must get home. But Riverrun first. As she opened her mouth to agree with her uncle’s plan, Nell broke into the room. “Milady! Come quickly, you must see this!”

Running through the castle, Arya took the steps two at a time, the Blackfish hot on her heels. In the outer court, men and women alike were standing around in fear, looking towards the tree line where hundreds of yellow eyes stared back at the castle. Nymeria. Arya stepped forward, a bit hesitantly. Will she forgive me?

The largest pair of yellow eyes broke away from the tree line and walked up to where Arya was standing. The wolf was larger since the last time they had seen each other, and Arya did not even have to bend down to see her face clearly. “Nymeria,” she whispered her name in reverence, and silent tears fell down her face. The wolf licked her face, wiping the salty tears away. I do not deserve this; I do not deserve you. Arya buried her hands in soft fur, gasping as the realization came to her that all those nights in Bravos, spent dreaming of wolves and the forest had been no dreams at all. I was inside her, and she was with me always. The emotions welling up in her chest were too much for her, too intense. She wanted to scream for all the joy in her heart. House Stark is not dead. Jon, Bran, Rickon, Sansa, I am coming home. Her feelings flowed out into the wolf, and Nymeria let out a howl as her pack soon took up the call. Walking back toward the castle, Arya looked at the scared faces of most around. Good, she thought, let them all be afraid. She addressed them in a loud, clear voice, “The wolves have come again.”

Chapter Text

Jon’s mood had not improved. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse. Sansa could not understand it at all. Bran had written to them from the Wall and was eager to get back to Winterfell. He would be bringing Shireen Baratheon and her lady mother with him, along with Meera Reed and the Red Woman. Sansa guessed that it had more to do with the Red Witch accompanying them than any real displeasure over Bran being alive. “She is not to be trusted,” Jon had said in one of their meetings with the northern lords and the lords of the Vale. Littlefinger had been dismissive of Jon in everything that her brother offered his opinions about, and he had all but laughed in Jon’s face when he had told them about the threat beyond the wall. Sansa had been more than willing to put him in his place on numerous occasions, consequences be damned. Luckily, many of the Northern lords had come to his defense.

“How is it that you think yourself to know more of the North than a man who was once Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch?” Lord Cerwyn had asked with disdain in his voice on one such occasion. They were all accepting of Jon, more so than they had been in his youth, and Sansa guessed it had much to do with his Stark looks. That and the fact that he was riding to save Arya from Winterfell had left many northerners eternally thankful for him. It seems her sister was a cause for much celebration. Sansa had received a letter from Arya a moon’s turn ago, stating that she was happy that she, Jon, and Rickon were safe and that she hoped Bran would soon arrive in Winterfell. “It breaks my heart, but I must finish my business in the Riverlands before I can go North.” Arya had written. “Tell Jon I will be with him soon.” Sansa had imagined that Arya had bit her lip for days and debated on whether or not to stay in the Riverlands with them all so close in Winterfell. She had also told Sansa that she had been named Lady of the Crossing and that she planned to take Riverrun back with the help of their uncle, the Blackfish. “Winter is coming, and I must avenge the Red Wedding.” By the time she had read the letter and passed it on to Jon, half of it was illegible because of all her tears. She kept the letter close to her at all times, for it was a great comfort to her.

“Ah, Lady Stark, there you are. I did not think to find you here.” Lord Baelish broke in, dissolving what little peace she had found in the Godswood.

“I am a Stark, these are my gods.” She said pleasantly enough. “You wish to speak with me about my decision not to take the crown?”

“Yes, my dear. I thought you and I had an understanding.”

“We do. But news of Bran and Rickon being alive…. complicated things.”

“I’m sure we could figure something out my dear,” he said patronizingly. “I would never seek to harm those you love, of course.” It was a lie. He would gladly chop all her brothers’ heads off, and though her love for Sweetrobyn was more duty born out of familial ties than anything, Littlefinger would kill him just the same.

“Of course not. But you must see how it was impossible for me to take the crown. Not when Rickon was there and the hope of Bran coming home. Besides, it might do for me to inherit Winterfell when I am the only Stark left, but Robb’s will was decidedly clear, I am told.”

“Ah yes, this will that only these Northern lords have seen.”

“They would not lie, not about that. Jon was his heir, and as long as I am married to Tyrion Lannister, I will inherit nothing. Still, Bran and Rickon come first, then Arya.” It hurt, but she knew the reasons why and could admit that she would never want her home given over to the Lannisters.

“News has come of your little husband.” She was surprised to hear it.

“He is hand of the queen to Daenerys Targaryen in Essos. And she is setting her sights on Westeros.”

“That means—“

“That we are at war with not only Cersei, but also the mother of dragons.”

“We?” The stakes were getting too high. A dragon queen, who seemed to only burn cities and then ride off to the next, and Cersei, as mad as Aerys in her own way, they would both look North eventually. I have to protect my family.

“Yes. Little Robyn Arryn has been very clear on his intent to support his cousins, and the Knights of the Vale agree. As regent, I will swear fealty to your brother Brandon upon his arrival. I assume that your dear sister, the new Lady of the Crossing will also travel with some river lords to also swear the Riverlands fealty to your brother as well.”

“I see. There is much for me to prepare for then. I beg your leave, Lord Baelish.” She got up and brushed the cold snow off of her dress. He looked dismayed to see that his news had not greatly affected her in some way. Perhaps he had been hoping I would fall into his trap again, Sansa mused as she walked back to the castle. He had bloody well think again.

Walking into Jon’s chambers, she saw that he was not alone. “Oh, I beg pardon Jon, I did not know you had visitors.”

“Sansa, please, come in. There is someone here who asked after you.” Jon beckoned her in. “When you could not be found, the guards sent them here to me instead.”

“Ah I see.” She walked over to him and finally got a look at the two people sitting across from him. “Brienne of Tarth. And my lord husband’s squire, Poderick Payne,” Sansa let out bitingly, much to Jon’s surprise.

“You have met before?” Jon asks, his eyes darting between Brienne’s ashen face and Sansa’s displeased one.

“Yes, I swore to Lady Catelyn to protect her daughters.” Brienne said and gave Sansa a pleading look. “After her death, I journeyed to find you both.  Your sister was with the Hound and she did not want to leave him, just as you did not want to leave Lord Baelish.”

“You saw Arya?” Jon looked at her like a new person. This will endear her to him, Sansa realized, much to her annoyance.

“Yes, my lord. I think he was protecting her. He did not want to leave her either. We fought, but they went away.”

“Do you still carry half of my father’s sword?” Sansa spat out, anger once more taking over. “And do you still serve the Lannisters?”

“I never served the Lannisters! I swore fealty to your mother after King Renly’s death. I took that oath seriously my lady, and I intend to find you sister.”

“There is no need. Arya is in the Riverlands. She is Lady of the Crossing and she rides with my uncle to take back Riverrun.” Sansa said dismissively.

“Then I would pledge my sword to you now, and her should she wish it upon her return.”

“Arya will need you more than me right now. She is fighting a battle. If you truly serve both of my mother’s daughters, you will ride to her and see her brought safely back here once she has taken Riverrun.”

“Aye my lady, I do pledge it.” She took out her sword. “I swear it by the old gods and the new.” She and Poderick both rose and made to leave when Ser Davos broke in the room.

“Jon Snow, Lady Sansa, they are here.” He said kindly. He would be reunited with Shireen Baratheon soon and all knew that the man was fond of her. He had been miserable knowing that she was at the Wall alone with the red witch.

“Inform Rickon at once.” Sansa said. “Brienne and Poderick, you may leave for the Twins as soon as our business here has concluded.”

When they got to the courtyard, Bran had already been helped into a chair by Rickon, and Summer was reacquainting himself with Shaggy and Ghost. Rickon’s wilding woman Osha was hugging Bran fiercely and he was clutching her back just as tightly. As soon as the two parted, Sansa flung her arms around him, crouching in the mud and snow to hug her brother. “Hello Sansa.” He said feelingly and hugged her back.

“Bran, you’re alive!” She said unbelievingly. She realized that she had scarcely believed it all this time. How many nights had she lay awake, remembering the Winterfell of her childhood, the times she had shared with her brothers and sister? Too many.

“House Stark will rise again.” He said to her fiercely. Oh Bran, not sweet Bran. They have broken you too. She moved aside so that Jon could greet him properly.

“Bran,” a real smile beginning to form on Jon’s face, “Bran it’s good you’re home.”

“Yes, but now we must defend it. I have seen the Night King Jon, as I know you have. He is coming and we must prepare.” Jon looked at his brother as if seeing him anew. “But first, we must settle this business with the Iron Throne. Meera, would you take me inside?” She wheeled him into the Great Hall, Rickon clutching his hand and unwilling to leave each other. It makes sense they would be closer Sansa thought to herself. They were the Starks in Winterfell once. Those days felt like a lifetime ago.

Sansa and Jon stayed behind to greet their other guests. First came Shireen Baratheon and her lady mother. Shireen seemed warm enough, but her mother was not. She is proud and broken. Sansa was not sure how to greet a woman who had once been claimed queen and so she turned to the daughter instead and said, “Lady Baratheon, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you,” Shireen said. She seemed to understand that she would not be proclaimed queen here, and thus took no offence to the title lady. “It is a pleasure to meet you as well Lady Sansa. My father was adamant about saving you from Kings Landing during his campaign. I am sorry that he did not succeed.” She is smart, Sansa thought. She will need to be to keep her father’s lands.

“House Stark and House Baratheon have always been friends. And your father was said to be honorable. It is my deepest wish that our houses remain close.” Will you be our ally?

“Always, my lady.” Shireen graciously walked into the Great Hall, followed by Ser Davos, who did not seem to want to leave her side. Her mother said nothing and walked inside.

“Melisandre,” Jon said with agitation in his voice. “I did not think you would want to come to Winterfell, what with our old gods.” Sansa could see that he was desperate to send the woman away. Her hair was a shade of blood red, as were her eyes and clothes. This woman is not natural, Sansa thought. But she has saved Jon, I must welcome her.

“Lord Snow, there are still many things the Lord of Light can use you for, despite your preference for heathen gods.” She turned her eyes on Sansa then.

“This is my sister.” Jon said reluctantly.

“Lady Sansa, I am honored to meet you.” She knew this was not the sister that he died for. And he knew that she knew this by the way her eyes passed back over his face.

“I must thank you, Lady Melisandre, for returning my brother. Arya will thank you upon her arrival. I am sure of it.” Sansa knew that Melisandre must be eager to meet the girl that had caused Jon to break his vows. She could see that the woman was obsessed with Jon, and since Jon was obsessed with Arya, it made sense that Melisandre would be curious.

“It was my calling to do so my lady. But I believe your other brother, Lord Brandon has need of us. The Lord of Light has seen fit to use him as well.”

“You stay away from Bran!” Jon whispered into her face and stalked off, grabbing Sansa by the arm and leading her inside. She could see that everyone was waiting on her and Jon to take their places on the dais beside Bran and Rickon. She lightly took the seat next to Bran’s right, while Jon chose to stand behind them all, acting as a looming protector to all three. She could see Shireen on the left side, attentive and scheming already. The girl might be good. Still, Sansa would keep her at arm’s length. She saw Brienne and Poderick hugging the outer wall and observing, much like Lord Baelish did on the opposite side. As of late, the Knights of the Vale had been more insistent on Robyn Arryn attending their councils and she knew it was only a matter of time before they tried to force Littlefinger out. That would get messy, but it was a thought for another time.

“My lords and ladies, thank you all of you for your help. In one way or another, all of you have proved your loyalty to House Stark. It is because of you that I stand here, that Brandon and Rickon and Jon are all here now. The Riverlords are with Arya now. She has been proclaimed Lady of the Crossing by conquest and marches with our uncle the Blackfish to restore House Tully to its seat.” There were gasps and murmurs of praise, for everyone could see where she was going with this. Sansa wanted to recreate the alliance from the time of Robert’s Rebellion. And with the Tully’s and Arryn’s already on their side, all it took would be to send Shireen back to the Stormlands and rally her remaining men. “It is with this news and knowledge, that I, Sansa Stark, trueborn daughter of Lord Eddard and Lady Catelyn do relinquish my regency and support my brother Brandon’s claim as King in the North.” There were shouts and cheers from every corner of the room. “House Stark” could be heard and “the north remembers” from the men, some even chanted ‘Winter is coming.” They were actually happy for the first time since the war of the Fire kings had started, and vengeance would be sweet with the Starks in Winterfell once more.

When the hall quieted down, Bran addressed them all. “Thank you Sansa. I know Jon has spoken to all of you about the threat beyond the wall and that some of you who have been to the Wall know it to be true also. This is the real fight, the only fight that matters. It will not matter who sits on the Iron Throne if all of us are dead.” He paused, seeing the fear take hold in men’s eyes. “But first, this business of the Iron Throne must be concluded, there is not much time left and we need a solidified Westeros at once. My lords, I need trusted men to be taken to the crypts and open my aunt Lyanna’s tomb. Whom do you offer up?” There was some confusion at this request, but Bran was king now, and men had just sworn to do his bidding.

“My lord, I doubt any could question Lady Mormont’s honesty or loyalty to that of House Stark.” Wyman Manderly gained many agreements on that statement.

“As Lord of Runestone, I will go as well.” Bronze Royce stepped forward.

“As the head of House Baratheon, I will go as well.” Shireen said and made her way to stand beside them.

“Thank you.” He addressed Sansa next. ‘Will you lead them to the crypts please, and have them retrieve what is down there?”

“Yes Bran,” she said dutifully. She bid them follow her and had a man bring a torch as well. The walk to the crypts was long and silent as they passed the Lich yard, where they had finally placed maester Luwin’s faithful bones to rest and descent into the crypts was cold and dark, almost as if her ancestors could sense that the people she brought with her were not Starks. The statues seemed to want to shout at them to get out as they passed by.  Her companions were silent, taking in that holy place where her ancestors’ lay in rest, uncomfortable in a way that no Stark ever could be in the crypts. Finally, she stopped in front of her aunt’s tomb, placing her back to that of her father and brother’s, for it would not do to cry at such a time as this. Lord Bronze crouched down in front of the statue and broke the base of the tomb open with a spear, sticking his hand in, he felt around until he pulled two yellowed parchment scrolls out of the crypt.

Walking back to the Great Hall in silence, Sansa wondered what was in those scrolls. What are you playing at little brother? Lord Bronze handed the scrolls to Bran, who in turn asked for Howland Reed to come forward. Breaking away from the shadows, the Crannogman shared a look with Bran before taking the scrolls. Sighing, he broke the seal of the Grand Maester.

“It is a marriage certificate,” Lord Howland Reed said, completely unsurprised, “between that of Lady Lyanna of House Stark to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen.” There was much confusion in the crowd.

“And now the other document, Lord Reed.” Bran prompted.

“It is a birth certificate of Lady Lyanna and Prince Rhaegar stating that they had a—“ he paused, not needing to read the rest of the document to know what came next.

“Go on.” Bran urged as they shared another look.

“That they had a son.  Named Jon.” Howland Reed finished and turned his eyes to Jon, sadness evident on his face.

“Yes,” Bran said. “The same Jon that stands behind me now is the Jon Targaryen from that birth certificate. My father, knowing that Robert Baratheon would kill Jon, lied to his best friend, his family, and all of Westeros to keep his sister’s son safe. He swore Lord Reed to secrecy, but the time has come for Jon to reclaim his birthright.”

There were murmurings amongst the lords and what it would mean for them all.

“My lords,” Bran broke into their conversations, “are you loyal to House Stark?”

“The Umbers have stood by the Starks for centuries, bled with them, died with them, loyal to the last.“ The Smalljon Umber stood up, “and it will not change today. We will do what our king commands.” He knelt, and soon all the other northern lords were kneeling before the Starks.

“House Stark is my kin,” little Robyn Arryn said after a few of his lord whispered in his ear. Without the sweetsleep constantly in his system, he was beginning to actually look his ten years, though his voice was still a weak little thing. “As high as honor. Those are our house words, and I intend to keep them. We have pledged our loyalty to House Stark and the King in the North.” He bent his knee before them as well, his knights and lords following suit.

“I will follow House Stark and pledge fealty to you.” Shireen dropped to her knee as well, her mother’s disdain plain on her face. Her group of men followed the little lady’s example though. Melisandre looked upon the whole scene with a satisfied little leer, her mind calculating.

“As Lord of Winterfell, I, Brandon Stark, do hereby swear fealty to Jon of Houses Targaryen and Stark, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. I swear it by earth and water, I swear it by bronze and iron, I swear it by ice and fire.” Men unsheathed their swords and all in the room bent their knee to the boy who had grown up believing himself to be a bastard.

Chapter Text

The thrill of battle was in her spirit and all the men around her. Cries of “Blackfish” and “House Tully” and “House Stark” could be heard all over the land as the River lords fought to restore House Tully to its seat. Killing Freys and Lannister men had got everyone’s blood up. She could hear a few men saying ‘she-wolf,” a decidedly different tune from when the men learned she planned to fight alongside them. Lord Tytos had scoffed and called her a silly little girl, Lord Bracken had been kinder, but his meaning was the same. None of them thought she had any place in the battle, save her uncle. It surprised her, how much confidence her uncle had in her abilities, but it was a welcome feeling. When she asked who was going to stop her from joining in, the lords were less expressive of their distaste.

“All we mean to say is that you are too valuable to be put in unnecessary danger.” Ser Marq Piper, a friend of her uncle Edmure, had said.

“And I tell you I can hold my own. I am a Stark, Robb and mother cry out to me for vengeance.”

“That skinny little blade at your hip will do little against a man in full armor intent on killing the lost Stark princess.” He had retorted.

“Well it’s a good thing that I have another sword then, Ser.” She had left the hall then. What did it matter what those men thought? No one was going to put her in a cage ever again. On the march to Riverrun, men had seemed more at ease with her intent to battle with Nymeria by her side. It was hard to believe that beast would let anything happen to her. If only Grey Wind had of been inside with Robb, she thought sadly. Nymeria’s pack followed them in the woods too. By day, men could see them in the hundreds, wolves all thirsty for a bit of flesh. By night, they disappeared and sang a song so sweet to Arya’s ears, she could barely wait to sleep and run with them.

Back in the thrall of battle, Arya saw the Hound cut down a man as easily as a knife through butter, and wondered again how he managed to be alive. The Hound and the Brotherhood without Banners had come to them the day before they reached Riverrun and pledged their fealty to House Tully and House Stark, but all could see that they really meant Arya. She had been furious, all but itching for the chance to sentence them to death.

“Where is your leader Beric?” She had asked of Thoros.

He looked away and said, “He did not want the kiss of life anymore, and so he passed from this world to the next.”

“Are you their leader now then?”

“You could say that milady.” Arya could see that he was lying, but she also knew she would not get the truth out of him here. I want to kill them for selling Gendry, but we need them. “And how are you still alive?” She turned her grey eyes to the Hound, looking at the man with speculation.

“No fire witch shit like Beric. My wound wasn’t fatal. When you left me, a godly man took me in and set me to rights. I saw the Brotherhood again on my way up North.”

“Why were you going North?” She asked curiously.

“To find you, wolf bitch.” He said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Men looked upon him with disdain for his choice of words, but she knew it to be his way. “You never shut up about your brother in the Night’s Watch. I figured I’d find you on the road there and help you get to him.” In his own way, he cares about me Arya realized.

“I did not wish you dead truly. I had…taken you off my list.” She did not know why that had come out of her mouth amongst the Brotherhood and the Riverlords, but it was true just the same.

“Aye, I know. Still, you did what you had to do. I understand.”

“We’re killing Lannister men, tomorrow. Would you like to join us?” She gave him a smile, more gruesome that pretty.

“Aye, a good battle is just what this dog needs.”

“Then it is settled.” She smiled at him and turned back to the Brotherhood. “What have you done with Ned?” Her voice was sharp, but Ned Dayne had been a sweet boy. She had not been in his company long enough to call him as good a friend as Gendry or even Hot Pie, but she had liked him just the same.

It was Anguy who spoke up then. “We sent him back to Starfall, milady. Beric knighted him before he died, he did. And we released him, just like our lady—“  Whatever he had been about to say, Lem elbowed him hard to shut him up. It made no matter, she was just glad that Ned was safe.

“Though I do not forgive you all,” she pointed at the brotherhood,” for your many crimes, even I can admit that were do not have the luxury of turning fighting men away.” Lem had let out a breath he had been holding ever since her eyes had sparked at them approaching. They made camp with her Uncle’s men, and prepared for the day to come.

Just as Nymeria demolished a man to the right of her, a woman let out a blood curling scream. Arya’s eyes flew to the window of the tallest tower, where she saw a man dressed in Frey armor holding a babe no older than two out of the window. A woman she assumed to be Rosalyn Tully nee Frey was crying and clutching at the babe, trying to get it away from him.

To her right, Anguy knocked an arrow and aimed it towards the man. “No!” she screamed and swatted the arrow down. “It’s too dangerous, you could hit the baby.”

“Well how do we stop him from killing your little cousin then?” Searching the battlefield, she saw the one man who might be able to help.

“Dog, with me!” She ran to the tower, cutting a path for them both as men sprang up like flowers in a summer field to stop them.

“How do you plan to stop the cunt from killing the little lord?” He asked, slashing this way and that at the few Lannister men that had been sent to aid the Frey’s.

“You’re strong enough to take him. You distract him while I get the babe out of his arms?”

“But how will you do that?”

“Just trust me!” They barged into the Lord’s Chambers where Rosalyn was whimpering softly.

“Please, Lothar, he is your kin.”  She was trying to reason with a mad man, for he knew they had lost.

“He is a Tully git that we don’t need anymore! You soft bitch! We don’t need you or the Tully’s, the Iron Throne has backed us!”

“Put the babe down, and come die like a man!” The Hound thundered as Arya silently crept into the darkness of the room. She made her way outside to where Rosalyn and Lothar were.

“Ha! And who’s going to kill me? I am leader of House Frey! No barking mad dog is going to rob me of that.” Lothar spat.

“Aye and you’ll be a dead leader when this day is done.” He unsheathed his sword, but before the Hound could even step towards the man, Arya stabbed his neck with a dagger. Dropping the babe on the ground, Lothar doubled over and gasped as the last breaths of life left him.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Rosalyn was chanting as she picked the babe up and clung to Arya, he was crying from being dropped but appeared to be unhurt.

“Hush now.” Arya set the woman away from her. “The battle is not yet done. Bolt the door and don’t open it until I return. Only open it for me, do you understand?” She nodded her head and Arya and the Hound went back to the carnage.

Chapter Text

“Little Cat,” the Blackfish called to her softly as she washed the dirt and blood off of her face. Her uncle had taken to calling her little Cat, because he said there was much of her mother in her. When she had told him that Sansa was the one that looked like mother, her uncle had just smiled and told her that the steel in her soul wasn’t just from the Starks, that her mother had been a leader of men in her own way, much like Arya was now. “Aye, “she’d said and smiled fondly, “she commanded respect.” Arya liked the name more than her uncle could ever know, for it reminded her also of the pleasant time that she had been Cat of the Canals, an orphan girl selling her clams, safe for a time, at least.

“Uncle.” She smiled and bid him come in.

“The feast should be ready any moment. There is a uh- woman who would speak with you. Brienne of Tarth. She pledged her sword to Cat once and swore to find you and Sansa.”

“She did find me, but I was reluctant to leave the Hound at the time. It was she who gave him the wound he spoke of earlier.”

“Makes sense,” her uncle chuckled, “they were both hesitant around each other. Still, she says she has news of Winterfell and that Lady Sansa sent her here to guard you.”

“Alright. We can address her concerns as soon as my maid has put me into this blasted dress.” She pointed dejectedly to a piece of cloth lying out on her bed.

“Ha! I’ll be waiting for you little Cat.” Her uncle left the room as her maid began to undo her breeches and tunic. Nell had begged her to take her with her once she left the Twins. The girl did not give a reason, but Arya guessed it had to do with haunted memories in the castle. Her maid laced the gown of deep blue and red, making Arya feel as if it were hard to breathe. This is more lethal than battle, she mused.

“Would milady like me to do her hair?” Nell asked. There was little time for a bath, but Arya had tried to at least wipe the blood and soot away.

“Just a simple braid. There’s no one to impress.” I was never pretty anyway.

She must have said that last bit out loud though because Nell quietly speaks again. “Milady does herself a disservice, if you will permit me to say.” She begins to weave the strands of Arya’s hair between her fingers in a way that reminded her of the times her mother used to drag her into her room and comb it. It was all for naught, I would tangle it up as soon as I left her chair. The memory didn’t hurt as much as it once did, but it was far from being a happy feeling inside her.

Walking into the Great Hall, men stood and bowed to her as she approached her uncle and Rosalyn at the high table. The girl seems good, perhaps she can be of use. Arya studied Rosalyn quietly as the servants filled their plates. Her uncle did not seem to hold and prejudice against the woman, and he was eager to bounce the babe on his lap and let him twist his fingers in his beard. As soon as the plates were served, lords began to make toasts to her uncle, to house Tully, and to herself. It made her happy, but anxious to get home. “We should leave for Winterfell as soon as our business here is adequately concluded.” Arya leaned in to the Blackfish’s side.

“Aye. I’ll set the castle to rights and put men in place to handle everything while I am gone.” Her uncle said, never taking his eyes off his plate.

“Can we trust that her kin will not try to take the castle back when we are gone?” Arya asked. She had intentionally left her voice loud.

“Nay milady,” it was Rosalyn who answered her. “All that remains of House Frey are me and little Edmure here.”

“Are you saying that Walder Frey’s entire line of bastards and true born sons have been slain?” Arya knew that she, herself had killed a number of Freys, but Lord Walder was said to have kin in the hundreds.

“Aye. Before you even took the Twins, someone was killing Freys. None could go out on the Kings Road for fear of being captured and killed.”

“So House Frey is dead.” It was a statement. It brought little peace to her, she found. Robb and Mother, gods help me, they are still gone. Gone like father and all the rest.

“Aye, and good riddance.” Rosalyn had disdain in her voice. No matter how many times she had seen it, it never failed to amaze Arya the complete difference between her family and other high borns. The Baratheon brothers battled each other to death instead of joining forces, Cersei Lannister hated her little half-brother, and the Targaryens were at odds with each other for centuries. It seemed her closeness with her siblings had been a rarity. No matter how much Sansa annoyed me, I did not wish her dead. But Sansa would never dangle my babe over a ledge either. Arya thought it unlikely that Rosalyn had disliked all of her kin, but she understood that the woman could little expect sympathy for any of her slain favorites.

Breaking into her quiet thoughts, Brienne of Tarth approached the table with Poderick Payne, the boy Arya remembered had travelled with her. She felt the Hound quietly step up behind her chair, a clear sign to Brienne that he would not be losing Arya to her again. “Milady,” Brienne and Pod both dropped to one knee in front of her.

“Rise, Brienne, please.” Arya said hastily, still unused to people bowing and kneeling before her.

“Lady Sansa has sent me to you, to pledge my sword to you and fight in the battle for Riverrun.”

“You’re a bit late for the battle.” The Hound broke in rather unimpressed.

“Be that as it may, I pledge my sword your service again, and wish to accompany you back to Winterfell.” She seemed to understand that the Hound had a place in Arya’s life, though Arya herself was still unsure of what it was. “I wish no quarrel with you.” She said to him.

“Of course. “Arya stated amiably, “We need only to set to the castle to rights and then Uncle Brynden and I will journey to Winterfell.”

“There is uh news from Winterfell, my lady. News that I think you would be most anxious to hear.” Brienne stated rather uncomfortably.

“Has something happened to Jon?” Arya let out hastily, already fearing the worst. “Bran? Rickon? Sansa?”

“Your brother Brandon had just returned before our journey here had begun. They are all well and good my lady. I did not mean to cause any distress.” Arya let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding and let her shoulders sag with relief.

“What is it then?” she asked, relief evident in her voice.

“Perhaps we should talk in private my lady.” Brienne flicked her eyes over to Rosalyn and the Blackfish.

“Anything you need say to me you can say in front of my uncle.” Reluctantly she added, “and Lady Tully.” The girl will not go against her own son’s interest. That thought gave Arya enough comfort to trust Rosalyn to an extent.

“It will be common knowledge soon enough.” Brienne started. “Upon his arrival, Lord Brandon instructed for Lady Lyanna’s tomb to be opened. Inside, there was a royal marriage certificate between that of your aunt and Rhaegar Targaryen from the time of her capture. There was also a birth certificate for that of Jon Targaryen, the man you grew up thinking to be your bastard half-brother. Your brother Brandon has declared his allegiance for your cousin Jon to take the Iron Throne, as have the wildlings, House Arryn, and House Baratheon.”

“House Baratheon? Surely Stannis will not give up his claim to the Iron Throne himself.” The Blackfish interjected.

“Stannis Baratheon is dead.” Brienne’s voice held no love. “The lady Shireen Baratheon, who was at the Wall at the time of his northern campaign, has journeyed to Winterfell and sworn fealty to your cousin.”

“Still, you say that Ned Stark lied to my niece and all of Westeros about fathering a bastard. It is a hard pill to swallow.” Brynden said.

“The Lady Arya’s father was known to be very honorable, all the Starks are.” Rosalyn piped up, no doubt hoping to gain Arya’s favor, but it was true nonetheless.

As they talked, Arya’s face grew more and more ashen. Bran what are you playing at? It was hard to believe that her father had lied about something so important. Suddenly, she remembered the time in King’s Landing when she discovered that her father knew she had sent Nymeria away. What had he said then? There can be honor in a lie. Arya had lied to save Nymeria from the queen’s malice. She knew without a doubt that her father would have lied to save Jon if he had been in danger. As Rhaegar’s son, he would have been sentenced to death, no matter the love Robert Baratheon claimed to have for my aunt or even for father himself. But to think of Jon as anything less than her brother hurt her in a way words could not explain. He is still my family she thought stubbornly. And I still love him fiercely. No one can take that away from us.

Just then she wondered if her mother had known. No, she hated Jon, that much was real. It was a bitter pill to swallow that Arya had never really gotten used to. Jon was her favorite, always, and she loved her mother, but it hurt her to think of how her mother had treated Jon. Father could have spared him that pain at least. But in her heart, she tried to understand his reasoning for not telling her mother. No woman would love her husband’s bastard, even less so when there was real love between the two in their marriage. It hurt her to think that her mother’s hatred of Jon had made the lie easier to swallow. That and the fact that Jon looks just like Father. Suddenly, she let out a laugh as she imagined Jon with silver hair and purple eyes as her father tried to claim him as his own.

Looking around, she saw that everyone had turned their attention back to her. I am a Stark, they look to me to lead. “If Bran says it is so, then it must be. He would not lie. And documents from a tomb that has been sealed for nineteen years are hard to forge, I imagine. I would ask that you keep this bit of information to yourselves for now. And I would bid you all goodnight.” She rose from her chair and pet her uncle’s shoulder. Walking to her bed chamber, the Hound let out a quiet chuckle behind her.

“What’s so funny?” she asked quizzically.

“Oh it’s just that I bet Tywin Lannister is rolling over in his grave.” Sandor said, his good humor always abounding where the Lannister’s downfall was concerned.

“And why is that?”

“Because! He sacked King’s Landing to kill all the Targaryens, he planned the Red Wedding to kill all the Starks, but here you are. You and your sister, your two brothers, and now your cousin is a fucking Stark and a Targaryen. I bet Cersei Lannister will shit bricks when the news reaches her.” He let out a deep rumbling laugh that had him doubling over.

Arya found herself laughing too.

Chapter Text

“Little Cat,” her uncle bid her to sit down across from him in his solar early the next morning.

“These are the lord’s chambers?” Arya had not been to this part of the castle during the fighting. The room was spacious, and had an excellent view of the Red Fork, but it was not as big as her father’s chambers had been in Winterfell. How I miss it so.

“Nay, these are mine. Hoster had them redone to be grander when he finally realized that I would not marry.” A laugh. “Of course I hardly stayed here before running off to man the Bloody Gate for Lysa.” Her uncle let out a little sigh, and his eyes turned thoughtful.

“Ah, I see. So you have given Rosalyn the Lord’s chambers.” It was a question.

“I know you dislike the girl.”

“I do not trust her. She will not go against her son’s interests, but still. She is a Frey.”

“Aye and I tell you true, not all the Freys hated your brother. Some of them fought against their kin in the carnage that happened at the Red Wedding. Who do you think helped me get this castle the last time?” That silenced her.

“And I would never betray you.” Rosalyn said from the doorway, the babe on her hip. Walking in, she took a seat next to Arya and looked her directly in the face.

“Because it is not in your interest to do so. For now.”

“You do me a disservice. Still, I can understand. My family name is a stain that will stay with me until my dying days.”

“I know that Robb made certain promises to your father, and that he broke them. I can understand your family’s… displeasure. But I cannot forgive them. Not after what they took from me.”

“Aye, he made promises. One of them was to have your brother Brandon and you wed to more of my kin. Still, I know nothing can forgive my family’s dishonor. But I tell you true, I would not betray you. You have saved my son. A mother does not forget.” There was a quiet strength to the girl, Arya realized. It was a strength of motherhood no doubt. It was common knowledge that her own mother had freed Jamie Lannister in an attempt to get her and Sansa back. I cannot fault her for being born as she was.

“I fear I have misjudged you.” Arya swallowed thickly. “I beg pardon.” Her tone was soft.

“Nay, there is nothing to forgive.” Rosalyn smiled. Turning to the Blackfish, she signaled for him to begin.

“We will have to inform the lords of this new development in the North.” Her uncle stated. “Now as for the castle while we are away, I would have Marq Piper, Lord Bracken and Lord Blackwood see to the defense of the Riverlands.”

“Agreed.” Rosalyn said. “Who will rule the castle in your stead?”

“I will be named Regent by the council this afternoon. Of that I have no doubt. As regent, I will set you in charge in my absence as the rightful Lady of Riverrun, anyway. There may be some opposition, but the lords will see that you are Edmure’s lawful wife and the mother to their heir. There is no one better.” Rosalyn was stunned by the Blackfish’s belief in her abilities.

“I will do my best to keep order while you two are gone.” She was humbled. “Will you also swear fealty to Jon Snow-- uh Targaryen?”

“I’ll have to discuss it with the council, but I see no reason not to. Many are aware of the will Robb left. It made Jon a king by rights anyway. And with the news being that he is no longer a slight against Catelyn, I’m sure they will see the wisdom of the decision. Besides, it would do no good to crown Brandon king if he has already sworn fealty to Jon.” Arya was stunned. She knew that she would swear fealty to Jon, but to think that the River lords would do the same had seemed like a child’s dream.

“With the Starks, Tullys, Arryns, and Baratheons allied, we will make quick work of Cersei.” Rosalyn said. As long as Cersei lived, her son was in danger, for she would never allow House Tully to return to its seat. My list is almost finished, Arya thought. Could she be happy then? When she had killed all there were to kill. Rosalyn rose and promised to see them both at the gathering of the council later in the day.

“It will go harder than that to convince the lords of Jon’s parentage.” Arya said.

“Aye, but as you said last night, two documents nineteen years old are hard to forge. Would that we could just ask your father.” Her uncle sighed tiredly, looking his age for once.

“I wish I could ask father a great many things.” Arya looked out the window for a long while, silence settling in comfortably around them. “You know, I was always fascinated about my uncle who men sang songs about. A warrior whose life was legendary and had his own sigil.” She paused and looked into his face. So much like mother, so much like Robb. “I wanted be just like you, like father, a warrior that men would sing songs of my glory.” She sighed and looked down. “Well, they’re singing songs of me now. But no one ever told me the price to pay would be so much pain and loss.” 

“They never do, child.” The Blackfish said sadly. “I am sorry to say that your mother was not happy. The news of losing Brandon and Rickon, of thinking you and Sansa lost to her forever—it killed her long before the Frey’s blade did.” Her uncle said. “But we will avenge her. And your father too, I swear it. I promise you little Cat, I will not fail you again. I will ride North with you as your protector and as the head of House Tully. We will swear fealty to your bro-cousin, Jon Targaryen. We will put him on the Iron Throne.”

In that moment, she absolutely beamed at him. I’m coming home. “Winter is coming.” She looked out at the Red Fork and digested what her uncle had just said to her. Closing her eyes, she let the fear run off of her like waves, and let strength take its place. “And it will change all of Westeros.” The howling of wolves rang clear through the trees.

***

The council meeting consisted of all those principle lords who had united under her uncle’s banner to save Riverrun, and the lesser lords who had made the journey to swear fealty to their liege once more. Men are fickle beings. They swear allegiance to this lord and that, all while planning treason. She distrusted them immensely, until she realized that all of them had lost people too. They’re not bad people, she realized, just broken. Like me. They only want to protect themselves. Family. Duty. Honor. I am a Tully too. I have to help them.

“My lords,” Arya began, walking to the center of the room and making sure her voice was loud and clear, she tried to remember how her mother would have done it. “I thank all of you for your help in reclaiming Riverrun, the seat of House Tully.” Shouts could be heard and men raised their fists in the air. How would mother proceed? With the truth.  “But the war is far from over. Cersei Lannister still sits on the Iron Throne, and Winter is coming. Now the Starks and Tullys have been allies for centuries. And as one who is both Stark and Tully, I bid you good men to listen to the news from the North and I ask you to find your courage and honor. You will need both in the wars to come.” She beckoned Brienne forward.

As Brienne related the news of Jon’s true parentage and the lines of allegiance in Westeros, Arya studied the faces of the lords sitting below her. Most were skeptical, but not unwilling she saw. Jon would have been their king regardless because of Robb. Does Jon even want to be king? The thought had come to her suddenly and she was dismayed to realize that she did not know the answer. The Arya of his past would know. She knew everything about Jon, and he knew everything about her. It made little matter. Bran had crowned him and Jon would go through with it. As a boy who spent his life believing himself to be a bastard, this was more than even his wildest dreams could have predicted. But Arya knew that Jon would do his duty no matter what. Father may not have sired him, but he did raise him. Jon will do what is right.

“We will never bow to the Lannisters again.” Her uncle had walked to Rosalyn and picked the babe up from her lap. Walking to the center of the room, he addressed the lords. “I have bid you follow me time and time again. And always, I have done what I thought best for House Tully and for the Riverlands. Here is your heir, his father sits in the dungeons of Casterly Rock along with some of your kin and northmen! Many of you know that king Robb left a will declaring Jon Snow as his heir. Now he is a Targareyn and heir to the Iron Throne. The boy is said to have honor, and he has led men before.”

“He let the wildlings south of the wall.” A man broke in, receiving a death glare form Arya and a few disgruntled looks form other lords. They only want to be safe Arya had to remind herself. It is not personal.

“Aye, and he was betrayed by his brothers in black, we all know the tale of his death and his resurrection.” Brynden said dismissively. “And what’s more, he intended to save Arya from the Boltons. That shows me that he knows how to make the hard decisions. Now I have lived through more winters than you could imagine, and fought as many wars, and I tell you true, the right decisions are always the hardest. I do not blame him for breaking his vows, and do not fault him for loving the girl he was raised to believe his sister so. We must unite with him. It is the only way we will last the winter and defeat Cersei.”

Lord Bracken stood up, “I have been and remain a loyal banner man to House Tully. If you swear fealty to Jon Targaryen, House Bracken will support you.” This the man who bent to the Lannisters so easily, Arya thought. Why else would he be so swift to accept? Many lords began to follow suit. Some began asking who would lead the castle when Arya and her uncle inevitably departed.

“My uncle speaks for House Tully,” Arya said rising. “And with your solemn oaths to follow your liege lord, he will swear fealty to my -- to Jon upon our arrival. Let me be clear. We are in direct rebellion with the Lannisters, and I know that the Riverlands have suffered much from beingbetween the Westerlands and Kings Landing. What is the saying, ‘the seven kingdoms piss and the Riverlands change clothes?’” She gained a good round of laughter from the men at that. Mother would not have been crude. But I must get them to like me, it is the only way they will follow me. “It is with this in mind that my uncle has seen fit to appoint Ser Marq Piper and Lords Bracken and Blackwood to the defense of the Riverlands. And Lady Tully will rule the castle until such a time as we may free my uncle Edmure and your kin.”

Most seemed willing to follow her. Show them you can wear a dress and still fight and talk like them, and men want to sing songs of you. Still, she was glad that the respect they had gained for her would make this transition easier. These people were hurting, and Arya knew all too well the scars of war and the damage it inflicted. She also knew that she was not the only one who distrusted Roslyn, and hoped that her endorsement of the girl would make it easier for her until such a time as her uncle could journey back. Rosalyn must have known this too, for she stayed close to Arya.

Chapter Text

A fortnight after the council meeting at Riverrun, Arya and her uncle along with the Hound, Brienne, Pod, and the brotherhood without banners were all set to make the trek to Winterfell. The excitement in her bones would not allow her to be still, and she was anxious for the journey to begin. She had seen much destruction in the Riverlands before she had gone to Bravos, and was sad to learn that it had not been improved in the time since. She wanted to help them, but knew that she could only do that once she returned to Winterfell. I am a Stark, my place is there.

Holding the babe one last time, Arya kissed his cheek and was reminded of a similar time when Rickon had been but a babe and her mother had finally permitted them to see him. Robb had melted as soon as they laid eyes on him, Sansa had cooed over him and asked their mother to hold him. Arya and Bran had been too little to hold him, but they had gathered around their mother and watched him as if he was the most precious thing in the world. She remembered that Jon had not been allowed to see him, and quickly suppressed the thoughts. Handing the babe back to Rosalyn, she mounted her horse.

“I bid you a good journey,” Rosalyn said, “and I am happy for your imminent reunion. I do hope you will return to Riverrun sometime.” She had worn Arya down until the girl had become a sort of companion to her. Arya was a little sad to realize that life would go hard for Rosalyn for a while.

“I am sure we will see each other again. Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.” A lifetime ago, Jon had told that to her, and it had comforted her throughout all the hardships she had endured. It has been six years and our roads have taken us far and wide, but I am returning to you Jon. She spurred her horse, the others hastening to catch up as wolves sped through the tress with her.

A fortnight later, Moat Cailin was a sight for her tired eyes. She asked for ink and parchment immediately to send a raven to Sansa. Home, almost. She imagined what it would feel like, to hug Bran and run with Rickon, to talk to Sansa and have Jon muss her hair and finish sentences with her. Will he finish sentences with me? He is a king now; a king does not have time to play with his little sister.

“Is that the castle then?” Lem asked as the party began to make camp in Moat Cailin for the night.

“Nay, we have not reached it yet.” Thoros said.

“And how will we know when we do?” Anguy asked. “All these castles look the same after a while.

“Winterfell is different.” Winterfell. Home. Had there ever been a more beautiful sight? Of course others castles had their splendor and finery, but Winterfell would always be the only real place for a Stark, the only place where their hearts could settle and their spirits soar. Just the thought of the castle, soon to be surrounded by the masses of Wintertown, made Arya’s heart tighten painfully in her chest. She remembered the grey walls and the warmth in them, running around the castle and trying to keep up with Bran’s climbing, giving bread to the smallfolk with her father a lifetime ago. Her thoughts kept her quiet for the rest of their time in the stronghold.

***

Ever since being crowned king, Jon knew little of what to do with himself. He was used to commanding men, but their willingness to do his bidding now left him a little flabbergasted. All his life he had had to prove that he was something more than a bastard, that he could exist outside of what the world thought bastards to be. Now, he was a king, one of the last Targaryens alive. I have an aunt to the east with dragons. He wondered if he should write to her, to ask for her dragons to help in the fight against the Others. He knew the time would come when he would have no choice but to ask for her help. Will she be glad to not be alone in the world?

His footsteps had led him to the Godswood, where Bran was, closely guarded by Meera Reed and Summer. “Do you know when she’ll be here?” He did not specify that he meant Arya. Ever since she had written to Sansa a moons turn ago and told her of her imminent departure from the Riverlands, she had been all he could think about. In council meetings and sword practice, in the quiet dinners they would sometimes take in Bran’s room, Arya was ever present to him in his thoughts, her grey eyes so like is own plaguing him every waking hour. He had heard Rickon asking Sansa once why he was still so grumpy after being crowned king.

“I thought being crowned king was a good thing. Why is he still so solemn?” Rickon had asked from his bed.

“Oh Rickon, you don’t remember much do you?” Sansa had asked in a gentle tone and Jon imagined she smoothed Rickon’s wild locks out as she spoke.

“I remember mother and father and Robb, if that’s what you mean. And I remember that Jon was always… well that he wasn’t as happy as us all the time. Was that because he was a bastard? The Skagosi free folk don’t much care about that sort of thing, but I imagine here they do.”

“Yes.”

“So he should be happy now. He’s not a bastard, he’s a dragon king.” Jon could recall Rickon had always found the Targaryen stories fascinating when Old Nan had told them, and had to smile at the memory.

“He is just anxious, I think. He misses her. I’m sure he will be better once she is back.”

“We all miss her.” Rickon had said sadly. “Arya used to play with me and Bran the most. I have…a lot of good memories with her.”

“And I am glad for it. But Arya and Jon… with them it was always different. They were always the closest.”

“Even closer than Jon and Robb? And me and Bran?”

“Even closer. We all loved each other, “Sansa had paused, her voice sounding far too light, “but life was cruel to them in a way it had not been cruel to us. They were each other’s shelter, that’s all. Jon will be better once Arya is back. I am sure of it.” She had sounded so convinced as Jon walked away from the door.

Jon, however, wasn’t so sure. Will she be happy that I am King now? Will she hate me for being a Targaryen? For not being her brother? It was foolish, for he knew Arya would always love him.

“It doesn’t exactly work like that Jon,” Bran broke into his disturbing thoughts and he was once again in the Godswood. He remembered that he had asked him of Arya’s arrival. “I am sure she will be here any day. We are all anxious to see her.”

“Of course, of course. I did not mean to disturb you.” Jon walked away sheepishly. He felt a little foolish to think that he was the only one missing Arya so. Of course the rest of his siblings—cousins would miss her too. Arya had always been easy to love, always asking questions and wanting to join in on all the fun. He remembered a time when he, Robb, and Theon had found her poking around the armory and made them all teach her everything they knew about archery, though she had never really gotten any good at it. Does she still have Needle? Has she used it? The thought made him angry and sad. I should have been with her.

All around Winterfell, people were preparing for her arrival. Sansa had stated that a celebration would be in order once all the remaining Starks were safe in Winterfell. And though he did not think it pertinent with the inevitable battles to come, he understood her need to have a good time and did not begrudge her. In fact, his relationship with Sansa had improved tremendously, even before he was revealed to be the son of Lyanna. She has grown, and put the silly notions of childhood behind. Would that I could have spared them all that pain. Bran was solemn, and even in Rickon, he saw a sort of hardened resolve. His little cousin practiced with swords and talked with the wildings as if he were one of their own. He was just a babe when it all went to hell; he has spent more years in the company of free folk than he has us. It made him more than a little sad. Father, Robb, even lady Catelyn forgive me. I have failed you all.

“What are you sulking about now?” He had unknowingly gone to the rookery where the new maester and Sansa were meeting. She often spent days holed up with the workers of the castle, trying to prepare the north for winter.

“I wasn’t sulking.” He said a bit sheepishly. He had indeed let his dark thoughts cloud over him.

“Of course not, your grace.” She bowed lightly, a smile on her face as she pet Ghost’s head.

“Stop that Sansa.” It felt strange that men would bow to him, even more so for his highborn sister that had always had barriers between them in childhood. She had become freer in the days that had passed. And there was a sense of companionship that had not been between them since she learned what a bastard was. The years have made her both more and less. Sansa was a fearsome thing to behold, she held her own amongst the small council, lords of the Vale, and even Lord Baelish, whom she had explicitly told him not to trust. She was cunning, and showed most of the world a facade instead of her true feelings, but she allowed herself to be free amongst those she trusted fully.

“I know something that will cheer you up.” She took his arm and led him back toward the castle. “Arya wrote to me again. She has reached Moat Cailin and should be here within a fortnight.” She showed him the scroll.

“That is good news indeed.” He smiled.

“Aye. I have much to discuss with her.” Sansa looked toward the sun then. Jon did not know what had passed between Sansa and Arya in King’s Landing, but given their history he was sure it was not pleasant. “And I could use the help in preparing for Winter. Arya was always better at numbers than me.” He took a moment to study her face and saw that she was anxious.

“Whatever has passed between you two, I’m sure Arya will be just as happy to see you as will be to see her.” He said guessing that her change in mood had something to do with the necessary conversation that must happen between the two. “Some would think you to be her favorite, given that she writes only to you.”

“Ha! Jon don’t be ridiculous. No one could ever take your place.” Sansa said giving him a knowing look. “It is more like than not that she chooses not to write to you three because it has been longer since she has seen or heard news of any of you. She thought Bran and Rickon dea, and you chained to the Wall. I’m sure she can scarce allow herself to believe you all here until she has set eyes on you for herself. She will be here soon enough in any case.”

As they walked the grounds, the signs of reconstruction were evident. Sansa had sewn a direwolf banner that hung proudly from atop the wall for all to see. She had set the task of sewing new banners to the women who were arriving in Wintertown, and Jon knew she was searching the library for paintings of the Targaryen sigil as well. More and more lords from all over the land had come to swear fealty to the Starks and to Jon, and to await Arya’s arrival. His little sister was sort of a living legend what with the tales of her slitting Walder Frey’s throat herself and using wolves to help retake Riverrun. It made him a little uncomfortable to know that men would look at her as they had looked at Sansa. Ever since he had been crowned, many men had asked for Sansa or Arya’s hand. He was reluctant to give his blessing to any of them and was relieved to know that Sansa had been reminding the lords that she was still technically a married woman as long as Tyrion Lannister was somewhere in the world. He had no such luxury in Arya’s case.

“Jon, I would speak with you about something though.”

“Yes, Sansa?”

“Well Bran has the Lord’s chamber as is his right, and I’ve moved Rickon into Robb’s old room since it has more space. And you have been given the rooms in the Old Keep according to your station, as Robert Baratheon was when he came.”

“Is there a problem? I can move if we need the rooms for some of the lords. I know the castle is full to bursting.”

“No, no there’s no need.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Winterfell is big enough to accommodate them all. I just… wanted to know if I should prepare Arya’s rooms in the Old Keep as well?” He had not thought much about where Arya would be sleeping, he was too focused on seeing her face to think of much else. “It’s just that I know she used to sneak into your room when we were children, and I know Arya is a woman grown now but still, I thought it might bring you some comfort to know she is near. I know you can’t sleep at night Jon, none of us can. I doubt Arya will be much different.”

It was true that Jon had wandered the grounds many a night and found Sansa, Bran, and Rickon all awake in their own chambers. “I have not thought much about it truly Sansa. Where else would you prepare her rooms if not in the Old Keep?” Though it was a long way off, and likely that he would die before he ever set eyes on the Iron Throne or King’s Landing, Jon knew that he would one day have to live there. He wondered if he could take Arya with him. He wanted to take them all with him, if they would come.

“Well, we used to share a room when we were younger. I had thought to give her the one next to mine, there will be much we will need to discuss in the days to come.”

“I see. Well,” he sighed, “one day I will have to leave Winterfell and I do not think either you or Arya would want to set foot in King’s Landing ever again. Better to give her the room next to yours.” She smiled at him then and gave him a particularly thankful look. He knew what she was not saying. He knew she wanted to be close to Arya to mend the bond between them, and that Jon and Arya had no such qualms. We will always be close, weather she be in my arms or sailing across Essos, she will always be with me. Besides, he smiled to himself, she will still find a way to sneak in.

“Thank you.” She smiled, but it was soon replaced with a grimace when she saw Samwell Tarley walking up to them. “Sam, I hope you have good news?”

“Yes, my lady.” He gave a deep bow, his few maesters chains set to rattling. “We know that Valyrian steel is the only thing that can defeat the White Walkers, and that dragon glass can defeat the wights.”

“Aye. But what little Valyrian steel is left is hard to come by.” Jon said.

“Jaime Lannister has half of father’s blade.” Sansa said, venom in her voice. “I doubt the Kingslayer would just give it to us.”

“Nay, probably not. But I know where we can get dragon glass. On dragonstone, there is an underground cave made of dragon glass.”

“This is, excellent news! Sansa, instruct all the available smiths in the North, Vale, Riverlands, and Stormlands to prepare for the forging of dragon glass weapons. Arrow heads, swords, daggers, anything that’s sharp and a man can wield!” There was a hope in Jon’s countenance that had not been present since she saw him when they took back Winterfell. “Find Shireen at once, I’ll get a team together and we can start mining the dragonglass immediately!” Jon quickly walked away from them both, his thoughts going to the Long Night to come.

“Thank you, Sam.” Sansa said when they were alone.

“I was only doing my duty, my lady.” Sam said, unused to being thanked by anyone save Gilly.

“Nay, I mean for being a friend to Jon. And for working so hard to help. This news will hopefully keep him busy until Arya can arrive.”

“She is…very well loved here, as are you all!” He hastened to add.

“Aye,” Sansa laughed it off. “But Arya is different. Even as a child, she would visit the smallfolk, asking questions and even naming their babes. It will do us all good to see her again.” She bid him good day and went to prepare the rooms next to hers.

Chapter Text

The castle was in an uproar. Men and women had been up and down the King’s Road with the news of the new Targaryen king and the lost Starks coming back into their own. The snow had fallen in thick waves the night before, and Arya’s horse was trotting along slowly. Would that I could ride Nymeria and be there already. Arya’s patience had grown thin ever since they reached Moat Cailin and she sent a raven to Sansa. She was positively vibrating with energy, and her companions all found it amusing. The Hound had told her to settle down more than once, her uncle had smiled in a knowing way, and the Brotherhood without Banners knew better than to tease her, but they smiled at her often.

Approaching Winterfell in the distance, she could see men and women hurrying out of their huts in Wintertown. “Uncle, what do you think they’re here for?”

“You, girl. They're hailing their princess’s return.” She blushed.

“I am not a princess. I am cousin to a King, that is not the same.”

“Aye, perhaps.” He seemed to think on it. “A people’s princess then. A champion of the smallfolk.” He smiled at her.

As they approached, men and women alike shouted out to her. There were shouts of “Blackfish” and “the north remembers” too, but mostly people were saying “Lady Arya,” “night wolf,” and “Ned’s girl.” It made her uncomfortable, and silent tears were already threatening to spill. She had always loved to meet with the common folk, but she had also spent years in Bravos learning how to be anyone but herself. Father’s voice once came to me at Harrenhal, she remembered. He called me Arya of Winterfell, daughter of the North. It was easy to see now that her father had spoken true. The utter devotion and joy in the faces of the people she passed pulled at her heart. My people, I must protect them.

“What, the wolf- bitch doesn’t have anything to say?” The Hound laughed as they approached the gate. Her uncle had asked her why she permitted the Hound to call her that, but Arya had just shrugged and said it was his way. “He saved me from dying that night. We were at the Twins, I would have rushed inside and died along with everybody else,” she had said by way of explanation. Her uncle had gone quiet for a long while and left the matter alone.

“Shut up, dog.” She muttered. She could not understand why she was so nervous. As soon as the gates were cracked, three ferocious beats rushed out to tumble Nymeria in the snow. They prowled around, running this way and that until Ghost let out a long, dizzying howl that the others soon took up. Dismounting, she saw Bran sitting in a chair, Rickon by his side, and Sansa next to them. The courtyard was full to bursting, but she only had eyes for them. She quickly fell to the ground in Bran’s lap, pulling Rickon along with her. She kissed both of their heads more times than she could count and would not let them up.

“Ah, Arya! I can’t breathe.” It was Rickon’s breathless laughter that set the tears to streaming down her face.

“You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.” She remembered being Nan the cupbearer at Harrenhall, trying to contain her dismay when she had overheard the news of their deaths. “I knew it. Somewhere, I knew you were still alive.”

“Welcome home Arya.” Bran whispered for her ears only. Reluctantly, she broke away and saw that Sansa had welcomed her companions while she was kneeling in the snow. Her uncle had come to see Bran and Rickon and introduce himself while she turned fully to Sansa.

“Sansa.” She hesitated for a moment, then a smile broke onto her face and her sister all but gathered Arya up in her arms.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Sansa kept repeating into her neck over and over again.

“I’m sorry too.” They broke away, still holding each other closed.

“Arya there is nothing for you to be sorry for.” Sansa kissed her forehead. “I should have been better to you. But I promise, that’s in the past now.”

“I hate to interrupt, but we would all like to see the girl who wars have been fought by and for.” Lord Baelish broke in yet again in to the annoyance of all present. Sansa reluctantly led her sister and Uncle around to the principle lords and ladies. It was all tiresome and she did not want to be ungrateful or discourteous, but she could not help but wonder where Jon was, why he had not come to greet her.

“Sansa.” She said after being introduced to Shireen Baratheon and her lady mother. “Where is—“

“In the Godswood.” She cut her off, a knowing smile on her lips. “Truly, I’m surprised it took you this long to ask. We thought it best if you two were given some privacy.” Arya smiled. She could very well understand Sansa’s concern. She had been a blubbering idiot a few moments ago as she had reunited with them all. And it would not do to have Jon display the same scene, for he was a king now. “Go to him. He is waiting, rather impatiently I might add.”

Fast as lightening, her footsteps took her through the beaten path to the weirwoord trees, Ghost and Nymeria running ahead of her. She stopped once she saw him, standing with his face to the weirdwood trees, deep in thought. At the wolves’ rapidly approaching footsteps, he turned around. She let out a little gasp at seeing his face. He looks older. The thought came to her unbidden. She took a moment to study the lines of his face: the shaggy black beard adorning his face, the hair pulled low on the nape of his neck, scars littering his features like stars in the night’s sky, and the slow, soft curve of his lips as they broke into a smile upon seeing her.

He let out a whisper of her name and suddenly there were no tress or roots in her path. Suddenly he was there, right there and his arms opened and she jumped into them like the times of old, littering his face with kisses, drinking in the feel of him in her arms.

“I missed you.” They said it at the same time and the tears were once again in her eyes, falling down her face unchecked. He let out a laugh as she began to press feather light kisses to his face again, words too inadequate to describe the happiness her heart felt. He was reluctant to put her down, and so she clung to him harder, silent tears now falling from his eyes as well.

“Never again.” He whispered, his breath hitting her face and tickling her nose. “Arya, I will never leave you again.”

“You died Jon. You died for me and I wasn’t even there.” Guilt came off of her like waves. “I almost lost you for good.” She was crying again, but this time the tears were not from happiness. “I’m so sorry, Jon.”

“Arya, Arya hush now.” His scarred hand came up to caress her cheek softly. “You must know, surely you must know, I’d do it again if I thought you in danger.”

“But I wasn’t! I wasn’t even there and they took you from me.” She gathered her thoughts for a moment and let out a deep breath. “Promise me, Jon. Promise me you won’t die again until you’re old and grey by my side.” She whispered the words like they were a secret.

“Arya-“

“Promise me!” He took a moment to study her face and search her eyes, seeing that she would not relent.

“I promise.” How could he not? She has been broken and remade. As I was. Jon could not fault her the fear she held, even knowing that he was safe now. It was the same fear that had him missing her when he first went to the Wall like a lovesick little boy, the same fear that gripped his heart when rumors said she was to marry Ramsey Bolton, the same fear that had him dying in the cold snow, alone and betrayed. “I promise Arya; I will not leave you. I can’t—I'm not strong enough to do this without you.”

Just then, Tormund and Val broke through the clearing and approached the two. Jon reluctantly put her down. “Har! So this is the sister you sent Mance to get. She is a true Rose of Winterfell Jon, pretty as you are!” Tormund said boisterously before turning to the lady in question. “I’m Tormund Giantsbane, Tall-talker, and all that other good shit the free folk know me as. It’s a relief to know you’re safe.”

“You’re a wilding,” Arya said, childish excitement seeping into her voice. “Both of you?” She said looking between Tormund and Val, taking in their clothing and weapons.

“Aye, and I have been tasked with your protection by his grace-- er Jon.” Val said, tumbling over “his grace”.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. I can take care of myself. And I have the Hound and Brienne as well. Both sworn to me and Sansa. And Uncle Brynden is more than capable.” She looked at Jon while she spoke. I am not a child Jon; the years have been cruel.

“Just the same,” he said cupping her face intimately, “it would give me some relief if you’d allow it? I’m sure you and Val will become fast friends. And there’s another, Wylla Manderly, who I’d have with you.” Arya was reluctant to press the issue. I don’t want to fight. Just hold me until I can forget that you died.

“Very well,” She said pleasingly, much to Jon’s shock. He had expected a bigger battle. “I believe there is a feast being prepared?”

“Aye,” Jon smiled at her warmly and tucked her arm into the crook of his. He felt Ghost and Nymeria stopped their battle to walk beside their masters back to the castle.

“And you must meet Uncle Brynden. He comes with the authority of House Tully. And the Brotherhood without Banners has accompanied us as well.” Her voice grew low and heated at the mention of their name, to which Jon quirked an eyebrow up at her. “Another time.”

“Arya,” he paused before entering the courtyard, turning her to look at him, “are you alright with all of this?” He gestured to himself vaguely, but she understood his meaning. Tormund and Val had gone inside to give them a moment more of privacy.

“Jon, I have loved you ever since I’ve been alive. Since before I even knew what love was. Nothing will change that, no matter how many titles they want to give you or battles you have to fight. I don’t care if you’re not father’s son.” He flinched at the words, and she pressed a hand to his cheek, letting the warmth seek into his cold skin. “I don’t care if you’re the son of Rhaegar Targaryen or a wildling chieftain or a merchant from Essos. You’re still my family, still a wolf, still just Jon. My Jon.” He closed his eyes at her words and let the feeling sink in that this, the two of them together, would always be enough for her. It stilled his anxious heart.

Chapter Text

Sansa had managed everything perfectly. Lords and common folk alike were present, and in some ways, it felt like the times of old when Ned Stark’s halls had welcomed all. On the dais, Bran, Arya, Jon, Sansa, and Rickon all sat in the seats of honor, with Ser Davos, Tormund, Ser Bronze Royce, Lord Baelish, the Blackfish, and Shireen Baratheon joining them as well.

The feasting has begun as expected. Toasts were raised to House Stark, to Jon of House Targaryen, and to the Lady Arya Stark herself, “the night wolf” a man had shouted, until others soon took up the call. After plates had been served, and men were heartily getting into their cups, lord Manderly came to approach Arya at the table.

“Arya Underfoot. Aye, I remember you.” Lord Manderly smiled. “Years ago, when I had Wylis accompany me here on some business, we saw you.” He gave a loud, boisterous chuckle. “We rode into the courtyard and Wylis told you to see to our horses. He thought you a stable boy!” Lord Manderly, large and grizzly as he was, bent his knee to her. “My lady.” More from the hall soon took his place. There were at least a dozen older lords or squires, men at arms, all who remembered similar times when she had thrown snowballs at them or quietly sat beside her father as they talked with him. And the women, gods how they fawned and fanned over her. They spoke of times she had shared scones and pies with them and named their babes. There were children present, too, who remembered Arya Underfoot and the days she had played come-into-my-castle or monsters-and-maidens with them.

Jon was watching Arya throughout all of it. She’s mesmerizing, he found himself thinking, gods help me, I do not want to look away. “Uh, your grace?” Ser Brynden Tully was calling his attention, so he reluctantly took his eyes off of Arya.

Turning to the man, he felt an acute sadness again. Robb’s face seemed to stare back at him through the man’s aged features. “Ser Brynden.” He acknowledged.

“I don’t mean to ruin the evening with politics, but some matters cannot wait.”

“Indeed. Would you meet me in Lord Stark’s soar after the feasting is done?”

“Aye.” He raised his mug of ale to his lips and took a sip before returning back to his conversation with lord Davos.

“Don’t be so grumpy.” Arya leaned in to whisper into his ear, shifting in her seat to press closer to him. She’s real and here and mine his mind had to remind him.

“I wasn’t. Truly, I mean no offense. Your uncle is man of renown repute. And he has kept you safe.” He leaned down quickly and pressed his lips to her forehead.

“Uncle Brynden comes in peace.” Arya smiled and kissed his cheek quickly. “There’s nothing to fear just because he is a Tully.”

“I do not fear Tullys.” He smiled, “Half of my family is Tully after all.” Catching Lord Baelish’s beady little eyes staring at them, Jon leaned away from Arya, the man’s stare making him uncomfortable and dirty.

Turning her head, Arya saw the source of his discomfort. “What is he doing here?” Disdain heavy in her voice. She had not liked him, even in Kings Landing.

“He is indispensable, so Sansa says.” Jon replied quietly.

At that she scoffed. “I’m sure.”

“Sansa is better at playing this game than Bran, Rickon or I am. Rickon is wild, Bran disinterested, and I…well I have failed as a leader once before.”

“You did not fail. A few murderous men do not make you a failure. Besides, you have us this time. And as you said, Sansa is better at the game than you are.”

“And what of you?” He said smilingly. “Are you good at the game too?” Where have you been, Arya?

“I am good at a great many things.” Do not ask questions you do not want to know the answers to, Jon.

The feast passed along in such a manner, ending well into the night. As he was escorting Arya to her room, she held his hands at the door tenderly. “Where are your rooms?” she asked innocently. Little sister, you have not changed.

“In the Old Keep, as befits my station.” At this she let out a pout. “But once I meet with your uncle, I shall return to this part of the castle. We will gather in Sansa’s room.”

“And where is Sansa’s room?”

“Right besides yours. She requested it expressly.” At that Arya was shocked. “She missed you, you know. We all did.”

“I’ve missed you all too. More than you could know.” Drinking her in, he let his eyes go to the thin blade at her hip. Sensing his look, she detached it from her side. “It has saved me, Jon. From men and from myself. I could never be no one. Not so long as I had this.” Her words made little sense to him, but the meaning was clear.

“I am glad you have kept it all these years, though we’ll have to get you a bigger one.” He smiled, and reluctantly, he let her left hand go. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Walking to Bran’s solar, he smelled her scent still clinging to his clothing and resolved to make the meeting with Lady Catelyn’s uncle as quick and painless as possible. I am a king, there is nothing to fear. But he knew that was not right. If he did not prevail, did not beat Cersei and the Night King, he would lose them all-- Bran, Sansa, Rickon, Arya. The thought was too painful to bear. I just got them back.

“Your Grace,” the Blackfish bowed low at Jon’s entrance.

“Ser Brynden. Please have a seat.” Jon walked around to the edge of the table and looking into the man’s face, trying to read him.

“I come in peace. I assure you.” The Blackfish smiled. “I would ask one thing of you.”

“Name it.” Jon said hesitantly. I must be as good a king as Robb would have wanted.

“Protect them.”

 Jon looked at the man incredulously. “I assure you, my lord, I have never meant to do anything but. They are my blood as much as they are yours. I am honor bound.” He steeled his voice.

“I meant no offence, it’s just that… well with Robb gone, it’s up to you to lead them. They all suffered greatly during his campaign. I would not have it happen again. You’re all still children, but the gods know responsibility got thrust on me early in life as well. I did not conform.” He shook his head sadly. “I would sooner argue with my brother than heed his advice. Ah, but what I would give to argue with him one more time.”

“Lord Hoster was said to be an honorable man.” Jon was thrown off balance at the man’s easy admission.

“Ha, no need to scramble boy. I know there was little love between you and Catelyn. She regretted her... coldness to you by the end of her life. As for Hoster and I, well, we had forgot why were even fighting.”

“I never wished for anything bad to happen to Lady Catelyn.” He said it vehemently. “Truly. She gave me my siblings.” It was in his mind to say Arya, but the truth was that he had loved the Starks all so fiercely. Even Sansa, even when she had tooted her nose up at him. “As for your brother, I…understand more than you know. Robb was always better at everything. Still, it was not in my power to do anything but love him. I should have died with him.”

“Nay, who would look over the others now with both of you gone? Son, I don’t choose follow you because you’re the son of some moony sad prince. Rhaegar was a good man to some degree, but he was reckless.” Jon did not know what to say to that.

“So… you will follow me? The Riverlands, I mean, I have their support?”

“Aye, we would have crowned you king after Robb’s death but the allegiance was in shambles. I meant to ride with you to save Arya as well, but news reached me that you had died.” Jon was stunned. “Aye son, it’s as you said. Your family is my family. I will be your man, just as I was Robb’s.”

“Wouldn’t you rather stay in the Riverlands?”

“This war is far from over, and I will not fail Cat again. I will watch over her children, as she would have wanted. And I will not let them lose another brother.”

“I am glad to hear it.” He paused, unsure of how to proceed. “But this war is not the only war. It is not even the war that truly matters.”

“Aye I’ve heard the talk of the others and white walkers beyond the Wall. Now I don’t think myself a superstitious man, but when different men all tell the same tale, there must be some truth to it.”

“Winter is coming, and with it will come the dead. That is the fight we must truly prepare for.”

“Is there any hope?”

“There is now.”

Chapter Text

The conversation with the Blackfish proved to be less painful that Jon would have imagined, and he even found himself smiling as he walked back to Sansa’s chambers. Ghost was quick to nuzzle up to Nymeria as Jon took a seat by the fireplace across from Bran. Arya pulled herself off of Sansa’s bed and sat by his legs, resting her head in his lap as his fingers immediately began to stroke her hair. The weight of her body pressed close to his felt so right, and for a moment, Jon allowed himself to close his eyes. I could stay like this forever.

“Arya,” Sansa said hesitantly, “how are you?” The question seemed so inadequate to her. She wanted to ask where Arya has been all this time, how she escaped King’s Landing, how she ended up in the Riverlands with Nymeria, but the words did not come out.

“Hmmm.” Arya moaned and kept her eyes, leaning into Jon’s side more. “I am glad to be home.” She opened her eyes and studied Sansa. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask Sansa all the questions that had been nagging at her for years, but she did not want to ruin the mood. So instead, she said, “I imagine everyone has a long story, these past six years have been hard.”

“That they have,” Rickon agreed. “Skagos is land of hard people, but I had Osha, and Shaggy. I can’t imagine how you two managed it without your wolves.”

“It was….difficult.” Arya said as she shared a look with Sansa. Does she still blame me for Lady?  Sansa remained quiet however.

“We don’t have to say it all tonight.” Bran offered. “The heart is a sea of secrets, some darker than others.” He spoke ominously, but not unkindly as he focused that last bit on Jon. “Still, we’re all family. There is much and more to discuss, but we have time.” He smiled.

They stayed quiet for a while longer, looking into the fire, not quite believing that the people surrounding them were real. How many nights had they all dreamt of home? Would the gods really let them have such happiness again? These unspoken questions plagued them, but it was not so frightening now with all of them here, together.

Finally, after Jon’s leg had begun to ache from Arya’s weight, he looked down and saw that she had fallen asleep. “I think I’d best take Arya to bed.”

“We should retire as well.” Bran said as he motioned for Rickon to get up, and bid them all goodnight.

Carrying Arya in his arms, Jon walked straight past the door next to Sansa’s and let his footsteps take him back to his own chambers. She did ask where my rooms were. Snuggling closer to him, Arya opened her eyes and smiled sleepily up at him. “Hi,” he said softly, giving her a smile in return.

“Are you kidnapping me?” She asked conspiratorially.

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes.” She let out a laugh as they passed by the guards stationed outside Jon’s doors, Ghost and Nymeria hot on his heels. And if his men find this scene strange, they do not comment, choosing instead to open the door for Jon as he walks through. Once the door has been closed behind them, he drops her softly on the bed then gathers his things to change. Emerging from his privy, Jon saw that Arya had forsaken her own breeches and tunic to don a heavy night shift that looked suspiciously similar to a shirt of his. He said nothing of it though, and climbed into bed beside her. 

It feels right having her here. The thought disturbed him, though he knew not why. He and Arya had always shared a bed in years past, but he was no longer a green boy, and she was certainly a woman grown. Her face looked older, all the chubbiness of youth long gone, her hair was long and wild, no doubt from his earlier entanglement with it, and her eyes looked as if they had lived a thousand lives, so wide and sharp and mistrusting were they.

“Stop that.” Arya murmured, her face tucked in to his chest.

“What am I doing?” Jon asked confused.

“Worrying about something.” She lifted her head to look at him. “It was always your habit.”

“Aye, that’s true.” He gripped her waist once more. “Truly, I was just thinking of, well…you.”

“No need to fear,” she flashed her white teeth at him playfully, “I won’t bite.”

He let out a laugh. “I love you,” he said without thinking.

“And I you.” She laid back down, and drifted off into sleep once more.

Jon had no such respite. His mind kept racing in all sorts of directions. He had told Arya he loved him, something he had done for years, so why was it so distressing now? Why did it leave him unable to sleep? Was it because he loved her more? Was it because he somehow loved her differently? From the first moment he had laid eyes on her in the Godswood, his heart had seemed to actually beat inside his chest. He didn’t feel like an undead thing, he just felt like a man. He felt like a man and Arya was a woman. But that was all wrong. Arya was his sister, cousin in truth, but he had loved her as a sister for years. The gods punish me. I broke my vows for her, died for her, and now they mean to twist my love for her. The thought scared him, but what else could it be? He had not felt this queer feeling when reuniting with Sansa or Bran or Rickon. If he was being honest with himself, he had not felt like this since Ygritte. His mind and heart, his very soul seemed to light up with Arya. The thoughts plagued him well into the morning light, and all the while, the object of his torment lay in his arms, sleeping soundly for the first time in years.

***

When Arya finally opened her eyes, it was to the sun rising outside the window, and a sleepy but very much awake Jon looking at her. “Morning.” She whispered, then doubled down into the covers.

“Good morning, Arya. How did you sleep?”

“Like a babe in arms. I’d ask you the same, but I fear you didn’t sleep at all.” She admonished, her fingers gently rubbing at the dark circles under his eyes.

“There is…much that troubles me.”

“Tell me,” she said. The years have not made her any less bossy he muses.

“Just the weight of ruling.”

“You lie.” She flung the accusation at him fast, but not harshly. It was almost teasing in the way she looked at him. “You may keep your secrets for now, I’ll have all from you eventually.”

“I fear you will.” Jon replied as she began tracing patterns on his chest. It was idle play, just something to do with her hands, so why did it make Jon’s heart quicken? Surely she must feel this, how her every tough makes my breath quicken. He thought on it in silence and thanked the gods that she had not commented on it.

“May I…may I see them?” She asked after a long while, worry in her voice.

“Yes.” She had not needed to explain what she meant, for Jon knew, he always knew. Carefully, she lifted his shirt up until his chest was exposed to her. Five large, angry white lines glared back at her, but it was the one directly over his heart that made her gasp.

“They killed you.” She said, bitterness and hurt in her voice. “They betrayed you.”

“I betrayed them first.” He began weakly, and made to cover his chest, but she would not relent.

Tenderly, she ran her fingers over the scar again. “For me.” She shut her eyes tightly and tried to hold the despair in. He is here with me now, that is all that matters. I will keep him safe. “Where are they now?”

“Gone.”

“How?”

“The old way.” She gives a nod at this, satisfied with his answer.

“So long as they can never hurt you again.”

“There are others who wish to harm me, to harm you, all of you. But people know what I’ve done in your name, what I’ve done for you, because of you. They...they’d hurt you to hurt me.” He cups her face. “I promise; I promise… I’ll never let anybody hurt you ever again. I’ll protect you. I swear it.”

She stops touching his scars to cup his cheek in return. “And I you. If anything happened to you Jon, I’d…I’d lose myself. I’d be no one. The only thing that kept me sane all these years was knowing you were safe on the Wall.”

“Hush now. We’re here now, that’s all that matters.” She sees right through his words, through this little lie he tells, but she does not call him on it. Instead she nods her head, presses a soft kiss to his face, and allows his presence to calm her as she drifts off to sleep once more.

Chapter Text

“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Arya said as she approached Bran and Meera in the Godswood early the next morning. She had meant to go to the crypts, but found that she was not yet strong enough to stare back into the faces of her father and brother.  They were alone, save for Meera, Summer, and Nymeria.

“You could never.” Bran said vehemently. He took her hand and suddenly, there were tears in both of their eyes.

“I believe my father would like to see me.” Meera excused herself quietly, she was smiling at them, but there were tears in her eyes too. Arya isn’t sure how she learned to tell the difference, but she knows Meera’s tears are born of sadness, not joy.

“She misses Jojen.” Bran offers up as a way to break the silence. Arya only nods, not trusting her voice just yet. “I…I’ve done terrible things Arya. Worse than you.” He took her other hand then. “But I’m still me, aren’t I?”

“Who else would you be?” Arya asked confused. Bran was looking at her with his big blue eyes, pleading with her in a way he used to do when they were children.

“Ha,” he startles a laugh that sounds more like a choked sob. “There’s so much to tell you, so much to be done. I would spare you, Arya, if I could. But we all have our burdens to bear.”

“Bran, you’re talking in riddles. What has you so upset? I’ll fix it if I can, I promise.” She tried to sound practical, like an older sibling should do.

“We should not discuss this here.” He slides his eyes over the landscape, peering at the trees. Arya has no idea what he’s searching for, but the urgency in his voice has her wheeling his chair away.

She steels him toward their parent’s old room, now Bran’s as the Lord of Winterfell. “Right then, what’s the matter?”

“Hmm, oh, I wanted to come inside is all.” Bran looks up at her from his wheelchair, face smiling, and for a second, they could be back in the Winterfell of old, hiding from their mother or some imaginary foe. But then Arya really looks into his eyes, sees the fear there, and the illusion is shattered.

“You’re stalling.” Arya surmises. “That’s not like you, Bran.”

“You don’t know who I am anymore, Arya.”

“You’re my brother. So long as that’s true, nothing else matters.” She juts out her chin, voice firm, eyes sure. And it’s such an incredibly Arya thing to say and do that he smiles, his shoulders sagging with relief.

“Alright. Alright, I’ll tell you.” He looks down, playing with the frayed ends of the cloak he’s wearing. Years ago, Arya might have pushed him to speak again, but that was before. If Bran will not say what has him so upset, she will not push him further, not now. So instead she says, “How did you escape?”

He shoots her a grateful smile. “Maester Luwin. He told us to hide in the crypts. Theon’s men killed him.” His face falls at the mention of the man that had meant so much to all of the Stark children.

“Sansa said—“collecting her thoughts, Arya tries again, “Sansa said that they found his bones in the Godswood.”

“Yes,” Bran’s voice has gone thick again, sadness threatening to overcome him. “Yes, he was there, already bleeding out by the time we emerged from the crypts. I can’t believe no one thought to move him all these years.”

“He’s in the lich yard now.” Arya sits down on the bed, and looks out to where she knows the graveyard is. “He can—he can rest now.”

“Yes.” Bran wheels himself over to a bookcase, retrieving a long package with string tied around it. “But we cannot.” He places himself right in front of her. “Arya, I am different. Kind of like how you are different.” Something in the way he says it, clues Arya in to the fact that he is talking about the Faceless Men. That is not possible. I haven’t told a soul.

“I am a green seer.”

“Green seers are rare.” Arya says astonished. She had heard of the ability back in Bravos, back when she had another face and a name to match it.

“Every man in a thousand is a warg, and every warg in a hundred is a green seer. And yet, we all are wargs. You me, Rickon, Jon, Sansa, even Robb was. But you knew that already.” He looked at her then, and it was as if he were looking deep down into her soul, to the parts she kept locked up so tight.

“It makes sense.” Arya nodded her head slowly. Another thought came to her then. “When you fell, the wolves would howl so. All six of them, up until we left with Father. When they would shut the window, you got so weak. When they opened it though, the howling brought you home.”

Nodding his head, “I knew you would understand. This part at least. Even then, it was the wolfs blood in our veins, helping me to be who I needed to be, making me strong enough to see Bloodraven.”

“What’s Bloodraven?”

“Not what, who. His real name is Brynden Rivers, a Targaryen bastard and former Hand of the King. He quelled the Blackfyre rebellions time and again and made it his life’s work to eliminate the Blackfyre line.”

“Ok. So you’re a green seer. But why did you have to go see him?”

“Because he’s one too. I had to learn, to see all the things he could teach me before the Great Other comes. We all have a part to play, Arya. And yours is… it will be tough. But it is a burden only you can bear.”

“What would you have of me?” There was fierce determination in her eyes. The faceless men wanted all from me, but I could not give it to them, she pushes that thought aside as quickly as it had come. I was never meant to be one of them.

“Everything. Your love, your joy, your pain, your sorrow. You will need it all if we are to win. The mummer’s dragon is coming. But he comes with one that we must use. It is important that Daenerys Targaryen ally with us, by any means necessary. It will be hard, but you will finally have to learn to share.”

“Learn to share? You sound like mother.” She gave a short laugh and Bran even had to join in on it. It was this, the knowledge that she would always still be Arya, even with everything that had happened, that made him smile.

“It’s been too long, Arya, I’ve missed you too much.” He played with the strings of the package, avoiding her eyes once more. “But you will have to give Jon leave to do what must be done. And you will have to leave some names on your list.”

She gave him a very hard stare at that. Give up my list? Worse yet, give up Jon? Her heart felt like breaking, though she knew not why. The only thing she said was, “Jon? Why on earth would I stop Jon from doing what’s right?”

Bran looked at her completely unimpressed. “Jon has always been the moon and stars in your world. And so it is with him as well. But we need Daenerys, we must work with her, ally with her.”

“How?” She knew exactly what he meant. Arya was fourteen now, and flowered--a woman grown by all accounts. She should not be pouting like a child at the thought of Jon in another’s arms as if she were still a girl of nine, jealous that her big brother could not play with her. But he is not my brother. The thought was interrupted before she could think more on it.

“Arya, you’re a clever girl, I don’t have to tell you the best way to make alliances.” Bran was trying to be gentle, his tone reminiscent of times when Arya had been upset and Jon could not be found to soothe her. “We’ve all made sacrifices, lost too much. The things I did--- gods forgive me; they will never be atoned for.”

 “What do you mean?”

“Jojen.” Bran looked away in anguish. “Power comes at a price.  And the gods do not care how cruel that price may be.”

“That’s why they are gods.” Arya remembers praying every prayer she could remember, and whispering words to blood red faces that never answered back. Not in the way I expected anyways.

“Arya I…I ate him.” He had folded in on himself, shut his eyes so tight and pressed down into his chair, looking smaller than his years.

It took a moment for her to process what he had said, but the disgust never came, only curiosity. “Why?” she asked wondrously, no hostility evident in her voice.

Bran cracks open his eyes, judges her face and only finds his sister there, not some disgusted woman he thought would appear after the confession. “I had to. The old gods, the powers I needed, magic comes at a price.”

“Blood magic.” In her mind, it made sense. It was not so different really from when she was in Nymeria’s skin, eating men alive. “I didn’t eat men, I became them. Skinned their faces and put them over my own. Such a one as me cannot judge you.” She says by way of answer, to make him feel better, and because it’s the truth.

“My third eye needed to be opened. And Jojen, he was powerful, his blood was powerful.” He pauses, the silence ranging between them is not oppressive, but it still makes him want to explain. “I would never have done it willingly! I didn’t know, I didn’t know Arya.” He starts crying then, long and sad and sorrowful. Arya walks over to him them, hugging him tightly, cradling his head in her arms as he sobs into the front of her furs. “He was my friend.” He whispers quietly to her belly, pain and regret shooting right through her at the way he has broken. “Meera and their father, they knew. That’s why they came to Winterfell. To find me and take me to Bloodraven, to….to sacrifice himself.” He let out another sob, clutching at Arya more tightly than before. “He was my friend.”

She stays quiet while he cries. Bran, sweet Bran, her younger brother who had always thought it his duty to protect her, who had been Arya’s constant companion when his feet were on the ground, Bran, her brother, her friend-- it wasn’t fair what Bloodraven had done to him. “I know what you’re thinking.” He pulls his head back to look up into her eyes. “Now do you see? This is the price we must pay. You, me, Jon, we all have to sacrifice something.

“We are wolves Bran.” Arya strokes his hair soothingly. “We were not made to plant trees, we were born to fight, to survive. What are our words?” She imagines her father’s voice as she says the last bit, strong and warm like that day in King’s Landing had been.

“Winter is coming.” Bran’s voice is almost child-like, so different from the man who sees beyond the shadows and makes them his home. In this way, we are both alike Arya thinks. We have spent too long in the darkness to fear it.  It is the light that frightens us now, the thought of being judged and found lacking. “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” He interrupts her musings.

“How did you--?”

“I saw it.” He smiles up at her. “You and Father, when he let you keep Needle.” He straightens himself up in his chair. “It was true then and it is true now. But we must add more to our pack.” He hands her the package that had been in his lap.

Arya immediately knows what it is before she even undoes the string, she has spent far too many years with a sword in her hand not to know. But the golden hilt with a deep red ruby set into it is a surprise, that and the fact that Valyrian steel gleams back at her. “How--?” She gasps softly, letting the question hang there.

“Bloodraven himself wants you to have this. He’s been watching us for a lifetime, seeing with a thousand eyes, across time and land and sea. He’s taught me to do the same.”

“I don’t understand. What does that have to do with him giving me this?” She’s swinging the sword around carefully, the balance deceptively light. This is a blade for killing, she thinks.

“Dark Sister.” Something in the way he says it lets Arya know that he’s not just referring to the sword, but she doesn’t linger on the thought long. Her eyes have gone wide as saucers. The blade Viseyna Targaryen used to conquer Westeros.

“For true?” She has to ask, though she knows Bran will not lie about something like this.

“For true. The dragon has three heads. Bloodraven wants you to be one of them, for this war will be won with ice and fire.”

Chapter Text

“Am I to believe you’ve been planning this from the very beginning?” Tyrion looked at Varys thoughtfully, as if seeing the man truly for the first time.

“Daenerys is a trueborn Targaryen, she has the looks, dragons, and wits to prove it.” He said it nicely enough, but Tyrion understood his meaning—Dany’s streaks of madness must be checked.

“No one doubts her parentage. But this boy you want her married to, he cannot be Aegon, not truly. Is that why you’ve given him the sword? To help sell the lie?”

“Does it make a difference?” Varys’ voice is questioning, neither confirming or denying the truth of the boy, simply asking Tyrion’s honest opinion.

“I suppose it doesn’t, not really.” Tyrion takes a sip of wine. Black, red, a dragon is still a dragon Ilyrrio’s words came back to ring in his head. House Reyne thought something similar, Tyrion smiles, father soon disproved them of that notion.  “Viserys was said to be half mad, and he is dead besides. Aegon and Dany will do. But I already told her the boy is a pretender, it would not do to continue to try and lie to her.”

“Hmm, how could you possibly have known that?” Varys stands up and walks around the table, striking his chin. “If she truly believes, it will be easier for the everyone else to believe.”

“She doesn’t,” Tyrion says flatly. “I told her the truth of it.”

“Before you even knew the truth,” Varys stops and gives Tyrion a scrutinizing look. “How could you have been so certain?”

“Maester Pycelle.”

“What on earth could that shriveled man know?” Tyrion smiles, taking in the fact that he knows something the Spider doesn’t.

“He told me that it was him who advised Aerys to open the gates to my father. And that it was you who cautioned against it. And my father once told me that he didn’t give the order to sack King’s Landing until they had actually opened the gates, he didn’t even tell my uncle Kevan. Until that moment, you couldn’t possibly have known what my father was going to do, even after Rheagar’s death on the Trident. So I know you would not have had time to swap a peasant boy with the true heir to the throne when you still had no way of knowing which side my father would be on.”

Varys looks thoughtful for a moment. “So we will need to come clean to Dany. But Aegon, he believes, rather he chooses to believe. In his heart, he knows, but he chooses to go along with this.”

“Very well.” Tyrion sighs. “You have not made my job any easier, but I see no harm in it. As I said, they are the only two Targaryens or Blackfyres left, whichever way you look at it.”

“This is best for all, I assure you. We will need this lie if we are to have the Martells.”

Tyrion looks away. “Aye, what happened to Qyentyn Martell is……unfortunate. She will see the wisdom of marrying this boy in Qyentyn’s stead.”

That had all been a moon’s turn ago, and Dany and Aegon had wedded and bedded before leaving Mereen. Now, the sea salt spray was starting to annoy Tyrion. The newly acquired Targaryen fleet had been stationed just beyond the shores of Dragonstone for the better part of a day now. Earlier in the morning light, Grey Worm had led an extensive guard to scout the island and ensure its safety.

Dany understood the caution, truly she did, but this was her home, her birthplace, the beginning of her reign. Her lord Hand surely must have understood this too, for he and Ser Jorah quickly gathered herself and Aegon into a boat as soon as Grey Worm signaled the castle’s safety.

Aegon took her hand lightly once ashore. “Welcome home, my queen.” He blushed slightly and gave her hand a gentle kiss.

“My king.” She replied demurely. There had been little said between her and the boy, save for their brief time spent together during the bedding ceremony. After their night together, she is confident she can control him, for the boy seems to be half in love with her already. But Dany had quickly informed him that he need not come to her chambers again until they had taken the Iron Throne, for he still had not bonded with a dragon, and getting with child would be foolish with the wars yet to come. In truth, Dany wasn’t entire sure she wanted him to bond with a dragon. Viserys had spent years telling her of the Dance of Dragons, she knew all too well the dangers of giving him power such as Viserion or Rhaegal. And besides, these beasts were hers, paid for with the lives of her husband and child.  He already carried the sword of Aegon the Conqueror, let that be enough for this pretender.

As her eyes take in Dragonstone, her ancestral seat, she tries to remind herself yet again that she is doing the right thing by allowing this boy to rule with her. If I look back, I am lost. And he will ensure Dorne’s alliance. He must, or else I have married a bastard for nothing.  Finally walking into the throne room, she is yet again tested of her wisdom of such a decision. The ornately made seat is marvelous, shiny black and white and grey chards of obsidian forged together to make a seat worthy of the dragon’s blood. But there is only one chair, one throne, as she knows there is only one chair in Westeros. He will sit the throne while I stand by his side her mind cruelly taunted. I should not have subjugated myself to him. For who will follow a queen when they have a king? Aegon marvels at the throne, going so far as to even touch it lightly and take pause. The sight enrages her, and she finds herself quickly pushing through her retinue to continue onward into the castle. She stops inside the Chamber of the Painted Table, touching the edges of the table lightly, drinking in the knowledge that here is where Aegon and Visenya and Rhaenys planned their conquest. I will rule as they did, I will sit the throne as they all did. This mummer’s dragon will not rob me of my birthright. She waits until Aegon enters the room, then sits in the chair positioned at the head of the table. “Shall we begin?”

 ***

Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thornes, is sitting in the fresh air of the gardens with her grandsons, Willias and Garland, when the letter arrives. It is addressed to the Lord of Highgarden, but Willias takes no offense when the servant gives the letter directly to Olenna instead of himself. “What is it?” Garland asks, eyes puffy and face raw, the news of Margaery, Loras and Mace had weighed on him heavily these past few months.

“A Targaryen and Lannister sigil.” Olenna announces, trailing a finger over the ink of the three heads of the dragon slowly. “I thought never to see the likes of this again.”

“I am tired of lions.” Garland announces darkly. “Burn it and be done with it.”

“You can’t really be that foolish.” Willias says incredulously. “I know you are hurting, we all are. But we must go on, there is work still to be done.”

“You’ve little to fear if you think this comes from King’s Landing.” Olenna says, still holding the letter, seal intact. “Cersei went to great lengths to eliminate Margery; she would not welcome the only living Targaryen girl into the realm calmly. I think this is from a different lion, one of shorter stature, but greater capabilities.” She breaks the seal and glances over the words.

“Tyrion?” Willias asks confused. “What on earth could he want?”

“It appears,” she pauses to read the letter once more, “that I was right. Tyrion Lannister is Hand of the King to Aegon Targaryen who has married his aunt Daenerys Targaryen. They have landed at Dragonstone and seek the Reach as allies. He writes that Varys informed him of the incident in King’s Landing and sends his condolences. Clever man.” She smiles then hands Willias the letter.

“How should we proceed?” Willas asks.

“I will go to Dorne.” Olenna announces, puzzling both her grandsons exceedingly.

“Am I missing something? What’s in Dorne?” Garland asks.

“My dear, you are always missing something,” Olenna teases, startling her grandsons. She had not been herself since the news of the Sept of Baelor came, but this letter has somehow made the Queen of Thorns reappear. “The spider is with them, so they have knowledge of what is going on in Westeros. House Baratheon is somewhere in the freezing north, along with an increasingly independent House Stark, who, if rumors are to be believed, have a Targaryen of their own with a claim to the throne. House Tully and House Arryn follow them. The Westerlands will always belong to Cersei and Jaime so long as they live. That leaves us, and Dorne. Tyrion knows we will not support Cersei and Doran would be kin to this supposed Aegon. So you see, I really must go to Dorne.”

 “To see if they believe this boy to be Elia’s child. To see if they will side with the Targaryens. To see what is in House Tyrell’s best interest.” Willias surmises and Olenna gives him a wizened smile.

“You’re learning.” She says pleased. “Good. I trust you can handle things while I am gone. I promise you, I will bring back our justice, I will bring destruction to Cersei Lannister, one way or another.”

***

“It is always a pleasure to welcome the Queen of Thorns into our gardens.” Doran Martell, though obviously in pain, gives her a warm smile, but does not rise to meet her.

“I trust you come in peace?” Princess Arianne asks, her silky skirts rustling as she sits by her father’s side, Tyene close behind her.

“That I do.” Olenna takes a lemon cake from a platter on the table and savors the sweet. “I think it’s time Dorne and the Reach put past animosities to bed. You know what Cersei took from me, and I know all she has taken from you. You know what I want.”

“Ah,” Doran sighs, voice weary, “I fear I cannot give it to you.”

She pauses for a moment, content to let this little farce go on a little while longer. “You know, Willas never blamed Oberyn for his leg. In fact, they still kept in contact.” She gives a short little laugh. “If they could be friends, why not us? I know that your youngest has died under mysterious circumstances somewhere in Mereen, suspiciously close to where Daenerys Targaryen was ruling.”

“How did you possibly find that out?” Arianne’s voice is shrill and shocked as her temper begins to flare. “You spy on us? By what right?!” She jumps out of her seat, shaking off the calming hand Tyene tries to put on her arm.

“Forgive my daughter and heir,” Doran’s voice is strong, stronger than it had been at the start of their visit, “she talks, when she should listen.” He stares Arianne down until she is no more than a flush of red hot anger, but subdued back into her seat. “It appears this conversation is going to be an honest one from now on.”

“I would so greatly appreciate that.” Olenna smiles, looking at Arianne in good humor. “You should not let your temper flair so, dear, you will need control for the things to come.” She says it soothingly, almost as if it were Margaery sitting across from her and not the princess. Her tone softens the blow, and does much to quiet Arianne.

“And what things do you intend to come?” Doran eyes her suspiciously. “As you said, I sent Qyentyn to bring back our hearts’ desires. But he failed.” An acute sadness takes over his face then.

“I know that Tyrion would not write to me without writing to you. You must know that this new king is claiming to be your sister’s son.”

“Aye, I know it.”

“Now I don’t know the circumstances of Qyentyn’s death, but I know the Mountain killed your sister, killed children he thought to be hers, raped her, killed your brother years later. I know Cersei Lannister intended to kill Trystane on his way to the capital. Damned fool she is, she got Myrcella killed in the process, but I know it was Trystane she was after.”

“What are you saying?” Arianne is intrigued, even her father can tell. She wants justice, all of Dorne does, and Doran sees that he cannot deny his people a third time.

“It makes little matter if this boy is your kin or not. He has married Daenerys and will claim so regardless. Use it to your advantage, seek retribution. Avenge your family.” There is a long silence that takes place, and the only noise is from the splashing of children outside in the water gardens. Finally, Olenna stands, and gives Doran’s hand a firm squeeze. “I set sail for Dragonstone. I do hope to see Arianne there soon.”

***

The Red Keep was awash in chaos and fear, but this time, it was not of Cersei’s doing. “Qyburn, what do your little birds say?” Cersei address her Hand and Master of Whispers during the emergency small council meeting.

“Euron Greyjoy has attacked Oldtown. He washed the city in blood and invaded the Citadel where he slew a number of maesters and septons, along with a number of others. He drowned himself in the blood and carnage and re-emerged…changed. His Iron Born fleet have disappeared, with none able to tell which way he left or where he intends to head.”

“I see.” Cersei took a sip of wine, tangling her free hand into the golden tresses of her hair that had begun to grow back. “This cannot stand. Jaime, as lord commander of the Queens Guard, you are far too valuable to be sent away. But I would ask that you help instruct the gold cloaks to see to the defense of the city. With no lord of Casterly Rock named at present, the defense of the Westerlands must also fall to me. I trust you can also organize the Lannister troops to defend themselves? All know the Iron Men have a thirst for Lannisport.”

“Aye, your grace.” Jaime looks at her long and hard. “I can see to these matters and still tend to my… duties here.”

“Good.” She smiles. “Now until we know what Euron wants, we must focus our attention on the other threat at hand. Daenerys Targaryen has landed on Dragonstone with a pretender who she claims to be Rhaegar’s son with Elia, three dragons, and a foreign army of Dothraki Screamers and Unsullied. In the North, the Starks, Tullys and Arryns have untied under another pretender, claiming to be Rhaegar’s secret son with Lyanna Stark. They intend to sit him on the throne as well.”

“Impossible.” Maester Pycelle drawls out. “He could be second in line to his brother, if the rumors are true. But not a king.”

“My lord Pycelle, you forget. They are nothing since my father crushed house Targaryen during Robert’s Rebellion. They have no claim to my throne.” She gives him a hard stare, and the man quakes, stammering out apologies as fast as they can leave his mouth.

“It is important to note your grace that Shireen Baratheon has declared with them.” Qyburn says calmly.

“She is but a girl. All of Stannis’s real banner men perished with him in the snow. We will appoint my cousin, Lord Tygil as Lord of Paramount of the Stormlands and send him to rally the remaining storm lords to our cause. I trust his time as Jaime’s squire has made him equal to the task.”

“And the Riverlands and the Vale your grace?” Qyburn asks. Before she can answer, the bells begin to toll, long and hard and incessantly. Their deafening roar is clear: danger.

The Mountain moves at once, a hand on the hilt of his sword as Cersei moves to stand by him. “Ser Gregor, to the throne room if you please.”

“Is that wise?” Jaime asks Cersei incredulously. “Shouldn’t you go to a more secure part of the castle? Wait to see what the threat is?” He rushes to her side, but her footsteps are still carrying her toward the throne room just the same.

“Whatever and whoever this is, they may meet me as I sit the throne. The rule is mine, let them come.” Her voice is venomous and each step makes her stand up just a bit taller and straighter until she ascends the steps. Ser Gregor flanks her right while Jaime stands beside her left. And they wait.

It is not long before Qyburn comes running in, his long woolen robe bunched up in his hands as his feet pound the castles’ red stone floors. “Your grace,” he stops, nearly out of breath, “Euron Greyjon’s fleet has landed at Blackwater Bay. He asks for a private audience.”

Jaime studies Cersei’s face, almost seeing her thoughts as they tumble around in her head. She is desperate, friendless, and he knows she will meet with him if it might mean an alliance. “Very well. But inform lord Greyjoy that he may meet his queen here. And summon everyone to the throne room, I want witnesses.”

Chapter Text

Tyene is sorting through her wardrobe to find the heaviest clothing she can find. Dragonstone is said to be windy and grim, not at all like the hot Dornish land she loves. Uncle Doran tasked me with watching over Arianne, I cannot fail him. She does wonder why her uncle chose her of all the sand snakes when she and Arianne have always been more sisters than cousins, so often sharing one mind in two bodies. But perhaps it is this very reason why he has seen fit to have Tyene accompany Arianne. They have both seen the folly of their attempt to crown Myrcella. She and Trystane died anyway Tyene thinks, it was useless. Men killed, Darkstar lost and broken, his hopes of wielding Dawn along with him. We cannot be so careless again.

Aero Hotah himself enters her room and halts her tumulus thoughts. “You must come.” He says, voice grim.

“Is it Uncle Doran? Or Arianne?” Tyene asks as her sandaled feet try to keep up with his brusque walk.

“See for yourself.” He opens the Prince’s private apartments just enough for them to enter, then quickly shuts them again. Sprawled out on the Prince’s own bed, bloody and broken, is her sister Sarella.

Rushing to her side, Tyene cups her sister’s fair face. “My love, what has happened?” She turns toward Arianne and Doran, seeking answers from them as well.

“E-Euron Greyjoy.” Sarella’s voice is hoarse and cracked, not at all like how Tyene remembers it. “He came to Oldtown and…. and… and … I was there. He used me.”

“Where my love?” Tyene grabs Sarella’s free hand, tears pouring from her eyes as she realizes her sister is close to death, for there is too much blood and burnt flesh for her to possibly survive the night.

“In the place…. when he became…..became…. I had to come… to tell you.”

“You’ve told us now.” Arianne kneels beside them on the bed. “Hush now, and rest.” She kisses Sarella’s brow lightly. “Rest. Uncle Oberyn would be so proud of you.”

“I will see him soon.” Sarella closes her eyes and smiles. “And we will have our vengeance.”

“What happened?” Tyene sobs as Sarella’s body no longer thrums under her, instead lies still and motionless. “What did he do to her?!” She is hysterical as Doran wheels himself over to her to lay a gentle hand on her arm.

“Euron Greyjoy attacked Oldtown and sacrificed maetsers and septons alike to make this so called dragon binder horn of his work. Sarella was there when he performed the ritual and it set the city ablaze. He used her as a part of the ritual and left her for dead. She came back to warn us.” He allows her a moment to process this. “You two will set sail on the next ship. We must have the dragons on our side, even if it means claiming a false sun and spear.”

***

“Why should we align with you?” Dany’s voice is haughty, even to her own ears. Aegon had wisely given her the honor of sitting the throne while meeting their guests, but she could still see how their visitors had looked first to him and not her. “You said yourself, your uncle has control of the Iron Fleet.”

“Aye, Nuncle controls the fleet, but he would not align with you, not now. He sent our other uncle, Victarion to treat with you in Mereen. When news never reached us, we assumed he died at sea.” Yara’s voice is hard but not unkind.

Dany looks down for a moment, then says her next words carefully. “You think Euron will not seek an alliance with us now. Why?”

“Because you’ve married this Aegon who stands behind your throne.” Yara’s speech is bold, but she sees the way everyone in the room except Dany takes offence. She knows what this dragon queen wants, and she sees her power grow in the chaos soon to come. “He has a horn though; I must tell you. He says it can control dragons, and he meant to find out how to do it in Oldtown.”

Before Dany can answer, Missandei inters into the room, her little voice high and anxious as she whispers in Dany’s ear, “A ship, with the Sun and Spear of Dorne.”

“Inform Lady Olenna at once.” Dany instructs, then smiles to herself. The old woman did say they would come. “It appears we will also be receiving our Dornish kin as well, my love.” She addresses Aegon quietly.  “Lady Yara, we appreciate your information, and we would like to discuss this matter at length with you. Now if you will excuse us, we shall reconvene at a later time. “

“Of course, your grace.” Yara bows her head lightly, following her men out into the hall, her brother an ever silent shadow behind her.

“Lord Tyrion, Varys, it appears we shall be receiving my cousins.” Aegon informs them once the doors have shut behind the Greyjoy party. The boy is nervous, and it shows in the way he fidgets and tries to fix himself. Dany almost things to soothe his fears like a good, dutiful wife should, but she refrains. If I do not have Dorne, I will not have him she vows to herself before the doors once again open to reveal Lady Olenna. The old woman smiles at Dany and Aegon as she sits and waits for the Dornishmen to come.

Arianne leads her party into the room, immediately stopping before the throne and curtseying low. “Your Graces.” Arianne says. Aegon is quick to step down from behind Dany’s chair, going to Arianne at once and offering his hand for her to stand. She takes it lightly and smiles at him with all the charm of a serpent. “My king.” She inclines her head again.

“My cousin,” he says, happily, “I am so very glad you came.”

“Allow me to introduce myself, your grace, I am—“

“There’s no need, Arianne. Lord Connington told me of you often enough! I wish the gods had seen fit to allow him to see this day. But I do hope we can be friends.”

“We are more than friends,” she says demurely, “we are family.” She catches Lady Olenna’s eyes when she says this, but the Queen of Thorns gives nothing away. “To Dragonstone, we pledge our heart and hearth and home. We have come to restore House Targaryen to its seat.” She looks between Dany and Aegon, smiling brightly as her delicate little crown of gold glimmers in the afternoon light. Dany gives her a genuine smile in return, choosing to even come down from her throne and take the girl’s hand. “My Queen, Daenerys.”  Arianna inclines her head yet again.

“Call me Dany, please, we are family after all.”

***

It is days later when the pleasantries and niceties have finally been allowed to be dismissed, and the principle ladies have been invited to sit with Aegon and Dany in the Chamber of the Painted Table. Tyrion is walking the length of the room as Yara boisterously advises Dany to take her fleet and make war on Euron Greyjoy. “He will be in King’s Landing, I’m sure. He seeks his sister’s hand.” She motions to Tyrion, who in turn stops and stares at the girl in shock.

“Can you be certain?” Lord Varys asks.

“He wants to be King of Westeros. Cersei is queen and unmarried. He will offer her a dragon, claiming his horn with be able to steal one from Dany.” She is sure, confident, and it dismays them all.

“Would your sister accept such an offer?” Aegon asks Tyrion.

“To be queen, my sister would accept anything. Of that much, I am absolutely certain.”

“Then let it be war upon them both.” Dany’s statement should put an end to that, but Arianne does not take this dragon queen’s word as law quite yet.

“Reports do say, your grace, that they have a horn.” Arianne’s voice is gentle, meek, not at all like the girl is said to be, and it catches Tyrion’s attention.

“Aye, I know of it.” Dany dismisses. “The lady Yara had informed us of Euron Greyjoy’s purpose for it. It is no more than an old wives’ tale, a legend men use to make themselves equal to the blood of Old Valyria.”

“Still, your grace, if such a horn exists, shouldn’t Aegon bond with a dragon? To ensure that you will be two against his one?” Arianne looks to Aegon to gage his reaction, but it is Dany who refutes this idea.

“No,” she says firmly, then calms her tone, “I could not bear it if some accident should befall him.” Tears begin to collect in her eyes as she forges on. “When your brother came to see me, he…sweet boy that he was, he tried to bond with one of my dragons. To my horror, the chaos of the city raging around us caused my dragon to mistake Qyentyn for an enemy and it killed him instead. I would have Aegon spend more time with the dragons before riding one is all.”

Her performance is good, no doubt, but not as good as the one Arianne takes up in response. “Poor thing, you,” she says, gathering Dany up in her arms, “of course we should wait. I would not have my cousin Aegon suffer the same fate as my brother.” These words, too, Tyrion takes note of.

“No, we would not.” Varys jumps in. “Still, with Cersei in an alliance with the Iron Fleet, the Reach will be Euron Greyjoy’s next target in Lannisport’s stead. Lady Olenna, have you adequate defenses?”

“Oh I am an old woman, and untrained in the ways of war. But a good number of my liege’s Unsullied would help defend the coast while we prepare our forces to march.”

“Consider it done.” Aegon says at once. Arianne does not miss the way Dany looks to him then, and is reminded that the dragon queen purchased these Unsullied by turning their previous masters to ash.

“The Unsullied are great warriors, but they do not sail. I fear they may be useless in the face of the Iron Fleet.” Dany straightens herself, engaging in the conversation once more, and it appears the time for playing meek is done. “I will deal with Euron Greyjoy when the time comes and strip him of his lands, titles, and life with fire and blood.”

“Many thanks, your grace.” Yara smiles.

 ***

“What did you think of him?” Arianna asks later into the night as she sinks down into the tub of hot water. Tyene strips her clothing and joins, her body relaxing in the water’s heat.

“He is…eager.” Tyene’s voice is little more than a whisper, for they are well aware that the Spider has spies everywhere within the ancient castle.

“Eager to please, eager to prove himself. A few traces may still linger in his blood, but he is not hot blooded.” She scoffs.

“Your father instructed us to play nice, Ari.” Tyene admonishes softly.

“I am playing nice.” Arianne insists. “But we must prepare for the day when we might not.”

“What good would it do?” Tyene’s voice is fearful as she asks. She sees the battlements being drawn up, the war that had never really ended beginning anew, this time with Dorne in the center of it, and it frightens her. “They claim kinship with us, isn’t that enough?”

“And when we have won this blasted throne for them?” Arianna sits up fast, splashing water over the side of the tub. “Surely you must see that the rule will be hers, while the Greyjoys plan to rise and winter holds Westeros in a frozen grip. Dorne will once again be forgotten.”

“So long as the Lannisters pay, who cares? This throne has brought us nothing but ruin since we got in bed with the dragons. We do not belong to the rest of the Seven kingdoms, let them destroy each other.”

“It does not end when we win the war, Ty, surely you must know that.” Arianne cups her cheek; tries to soothe the sting she is about to give Tyene. “You are a Sand, fierce and true, Dorne is the only place for you. But Dorne is my responsibility, my birthright, I will not see her misused again.”

“True, I am a Sand, and proud of it. Do not speak to me of responsibility, not when it is my duty to protect you, even from yourself if need be.”

“You sound like father.” Arianne pouts. “But there is nothing to fear at present. We will align with them, for now, but there is another dragon to consider.”

“You wouldn’t!” Tyene is astonished.

“Did you hear how she used Qyentyn’s death to excuse her sorry attempt at keeping the dragons for herself?! Ha! Aegon could claim kinship with us all he likes, she will never see him as an equal, so she will never grant him real power.”

“Would crowning the son of the woman Rhaegar dishonored our aunt with really be the better option?” Tyene is trying and failing to see Arianne’s logic in this. “You want to be Nymeria so bad that you would burn ten thousand Dornishmen to light your way.”

Arianne simpers in the water’s heat, looking at the woman sharing it with her and seeing her fear for the first time. “I know what you are thinking, love. But I will not make the same mistakes I did with Myrcella. I am Nymeria’s daughter, true, and Meria after her. Under her, Dorne slew a dragon, and I will too if need be.”

***

Early the next morning, the spread of fruits, cheese, and meats set before Dany do little to entice her stomach. She is restless, anxious even, to really and truly begin. She has spent long enough talking and negating with lords and ladies, now is the time for action, now is the time for her to take back her throne. Would that I could fly there and burn the Lannister woman along with her army and be done with it she thinks darkly as she fills her plate.

“My queen, as lovely as ever.” Tyrion Lannister enters the room in grand style, wearing his Hand’s badge proudly. “I would speak with you on a matter or two before Lord Varys and your lord husband join us.”

“What is it?” She asks intrigued.

“I fear the princess and the queen know our game. So we must look into the matter of Jon Snow, or Targaryen if the rumors are to be believed. We must decide how to proceed with him, should other alliances end. My sister has appointed my cousin, Tygil, as lord of the Storm lands and sent him to rally their remaining men. But Shireen Baratheon is North, and I fear they may have the same idea.”

“The Storm lords will not side with us then, in any case.” Dany surmises.

“No, not unless….you meet with your other nephew.” Your only nephew, his mind taunts, damned it all if only we had known before she wed the pretender. “An alliance with him will bring us the other four kingdoms, Cersei would be doomed.”

“The same four kingdoms who rose up in rebellion against my father, led by the son of a whore who started all of this.” She has lost what little appetite she has. “I will not beg him. Besides, we have chosen Aegon, let this Jon Snow come to us.”

“Some would say Jon’s claim is better than both you and Aegon, what with the dubious circumstances of your lord husband’s past. And with winter soon upon us, Jon’s lineage would do much to recommend him to other lords. “Winter is coming” as they like to say, and the Starks have always thrived in it.”

“It matters little,” Aegon said reasonably, plucking an apple form the table as he enters the room, “even if he is who he claims to be, he is still my little brother, younger than me by at least a year.”

Yes, Tyrion thinks, younger and known to the seven kingdoms, while you are not. He served on the Wall and grew up in Winterfell, a true Targaryen while you are not. A leader of men, while you instruct foreign armies to invade Westeros. “I only council that we speak with them, not dismiss him out of turn. Jon was always honorable, and Sansa is…well, clever to say the least.”

“Sansa Stark, isn’t she your wife my lord hand?” Dany asks.

“Yes, your grace,” you know very well what she is to me he thinks bitterly. “And her other siblings, long thought dead, have re-emerged. Dany,” he pleads, “you are not your father, all I ask is that you think of this when dealing with the Starks.”

“We will hear my little brother out,” Aegon begins, “but we will not run to him. If he wishes an alliance, he shall come to us.” Tyrion looks to Dany for some other answer, but in this, it would seem the two are agreed. Fools, Tyrion thinks as he drops the subject, stupid children always will break before they bend. Seven save us, what are we about to unleash upon Westeros?

Chapter Text

It had only taken a fortnight for Jon’s black mood to dissolve in the wake of Arya’s presence.  She was always in his company when she could spare the time from preparing for winter with Sansa or talking with Bran in the Godswood. These past few days have been heaven on earth for him, and the selfish part of him hand not wanted it to end, but even this bliss would soon leave him. It is late in the afternoon on one such day when Jon has summoned his lords for council, realizing that he can delay the talk of war no longer.

He arrives at Bran’s solar to find his lords most eagerly awaiting his arrival. Shireen Baratheon had thankfully attended alone and he had scarce seen the Red Woman since the time of Bran’s arrival. It will not last he thought bitterly. I must warn Arya. He did not want Melisandre’s prophecies and fire magic anywhere near Arya. She had hailed him as Azor Ahai, but he would not let her turn Arya into his Nissa Nissa. Though Nissa Nissa was Azor Ahai’s wife in the legends, Jon did not doubt that Melisandre would still try to drive a sword through Arya’s heart, for she was undoubtedly the person Jon loved most in the world. Had he not shown the red woman that himself? When his heart was beating its last, had his mind not turned to Arya then? And when he awoke, the Red Woman had heard his declaration to free her, had known that even death could not shake the need he had to protect his little sister. But she is not my sister, she is my love. A war waged within him at the admission.

“My Lords,” he said entering to find them all alert and ready to begin. Littlefinger was standing behind Sansa’s chair looking rather pleased with himself.

“Your grace,” Bronze Royce began,” it has come to my attention that Lord Robyn Arryn will not be attending these council meetings. I would beg you to allow him to attend, as he is the heir to the Vale and the Eyrie.” The man looked at Littlefinger then back at Jon. Jon himself was looking at Sansa who was decidedly not looking at him. I must figure this one out myself.

“Of course. He is of an age with Rickon and he is permitted to attend.” He could not deny the Knights of the Vale anything, they were too valuable. Still, he wondered how far Littlefinger was willing to go to take control.

“Little Robyn Arryn has a sickly constitution. As his regent, and more importantly his father, I feel it is my duty to protect his interests. His constitution is too delicate.” Upon seeing that everyone was rather unimpressed by his speech, Littlefinger inclined his head in Jon’s direction. “Still, I think we can work on an arrangement to best suit everyone.”

“Good. Now that that’s settled. Let’s begin. Cersei. She has started her pillaging of the Riverlands once more and it has been said that she seeks and alliance with the Golden Company and Euron Greyjoy.” Jon took his seat and looked at the lords and few ladies present expectantly.

“Where do Dorne and The Reach stand on this? Surely they have little love for Cersei since Oberyn’s death and the destruction of the Sept of Baelor.” Lord Davos asked.

“Lady Olenna hates Cersei, but that does not mean her allegiance will be to us. She will go with who she believes to win. Still, I can write to her. She and Margaery were…kind to me.” Sansa offered up.

“We can also send overtures to the Martells as well. They hate Cersei and Prince Doran has been waiting nineteen years to get his vengeance for Elia.” The Blackfish said, then winced when he remembered Jon’s parentage.

“I fear there may be a damper in your plans my lords. And in your hope to sail to Dragonstone too, your grace.” Lord Baelish broke in almost gleefully.

“What’s in Dragonstone?” Arya asked Jon. Hurt evident in her voice though she tried to hide it. “Why must you go there?”

“Dragonglass. It is invaluable against the white walkers and Dragonstone has a mountain of it.” Jon shoots Arya and apologetic glance then turns toward Shireen. “I had thought to ask you to mine it for us.”

“Ah but that will not be possible, I’m afraid. It seems we are not the only ones king-making.” Lord Baelish broke in. “The Spider and Tyrion Lannister have landed on Dragonstone with Daenerys Targaryen, her three dragons, an army of Unsullied, a Dothraki hoard, and a man they say is Aegon Targaryen. They have wedded, and he carries Blackfyre.” All were silenced.

“That is a lie.” Arya spoke up. “Aegon Targaryen is dead. The boy is most like a pretender. Tywin Lannister would not have been negligent of his killing.” She and Bran shared a look. The mummer’s dragon is here, it seems.

“The girl speaks true.” It was the Hound to speak now. “Whatever Tywin Lannister ordered was law. If he told my brother to kill the boy, he’s as good as dead.”

“Still,” Lord Baelish said insistently, “they are wed and he has the sword. They will make a claim for the Iron Throne. Dorne and the Reach follow them.”

 “Maybe….maybe they thought Daenerys and Aegon the only option.” Arya said.

“Ah, but you must remember. This boy has a better claim to the throne than Jon, and he is their cousin.” Lord Baelish explained as if she were a child.

“I’ve already told you once the boy is a pretender. There is no better claim than Jon’s.” Arya’s patience was wearing thin with the man. She had not forgot his silence back at Harrenhal, but she knew him to be a snake. But how to prove the boy to be a fake without exposing Bran? I cannot use the sword, not yet.

“Enough of this.” Jon spoke to lord Baelish coldly. “We cannot fight a war on two fronts and prepare for the Long Night. “I will write to them. If the boy is who he says he is, then he is my kin. Daenerys too. I will align with them if need be and destroy Cersei.”

“Jon you cannot.” Sansa spoke loudly, though the entire room was in an uproar.

“I must. She has three dragons. They will be invaluable against the War for the Dawn. And I need that dragon glass.” He said darkly.

“We can offer them an alliance.” The Blackfish said. “But you cannot kneel. Thousands of men have not died just for Westeros to fall back into the hands of a mad Targaryen.”

“I am a Targaryen. What if I am mad?” Jon challenged, eyebrow raised.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Jon.” Arya spoke up instantly. “She burns men alive if they do not do her bidding, she destroys cities and moves on as if it were nothing. She will bring more destruction.” Arya had real hatred in her voice that one in the room could place or understand. Bran has asked me to ally with her, she tried to calm herself down for his and Jon’s sake.

“What if we asked to meet with all of them?” Lord Davos spoke up at last. “Cersei, Daenerys and Aegon. We meet with all of them and agree to focus on the real problem for now.”

“Cersei will never meet with us. Not when she believes she can win.” Sansa said dismissively.

“How does she plan to defeat dragons?” Shireen Baratheon asked.

“Dragons have been killed before.” Arya said ominously. “Anyone can be killed.”

“The Lady Sansa is right.” Lord Baelish said. “Cersei will not meet when she has the upper hand. The lioness does not show her weaknesses to the sheep.”

“I’m not a sheep.” Arya said hotly. “I’m a wolf. And I know just how to even the odds.”

“How so?” Lord Wyman Manderly asked.

“I would give you back your heir. And you Lord Umber, I’ll bring you your father. I would free the hostages she has been using to ensure that the North and the Riverlands stay in line. An attack this close to home would send the message that everything is not under her control.” Arya shared a look with the Blackfish then. “My uncle and I will go. The Hound as well. Lord Wyman, can you secure a ship?”

“Absolutely not.” Jon’s voice boomed into the quiet that had befallen the room.

“Jon, I’m more than capable of planning a rescue mission. I freed the Northern lords at Harrenhall.” The men looked at her in shock.

“You were in Harrenhall, Lady Arya?” Wylla Manderly asked. This is the other girl Jon wants me to befriend. The thought made Arya angry for some reason.

“I was a captive of Roose Bolton, and later Tywin Lannister himself.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Lord Wyman, a ship?”

“Your king has forbid you.” Jon’s voice was indignant and deadly.

My king has just proclaimed his willingness to bend the knee to another.” Arya would not back down.

“Arya I forbid it.” They engaged in a stare down, neither willing to lose.

“Your grace, perhaps— “someone tried to interject.

“That is my word and my word is final. I do not deny that the plan has merit. Trusted men will free the lords from Casterly Rock. Ser Davos will accompany them and then set sail with Shireen to the Storm Lands.”

“Your grace, there is a blacksmith in Flea Bottom I would beg your leave to rescue as well.” Ser Davos began gently, aware that the argument between Jon and Arya was far from over.

“A blacksmith?” Wylla Manderly asked, again to Arya’s annoyance.

“Aye, and King Robert’s bastard. The boy will be loyal though.” Ser Davos added hastily.

“What is his name?” It was Shireen Baratheon to speak up this time.

“Gendry.”

“Gendry is alive?” Arya had gone stock white and looked close to crying. All in the room wondered who was this boy that she knew, and why the thought of him alive brought the she wolf to tears.

“You know him?” Ser Davos’ eyes flinted between her and Jon, aware that another sort of conflict between them was on the horizon.

“When we were on the road with a man of a Night’s Watch to escape Kings Landing. Gendry and I, we were friends.” She said his name like a caress, Jon’s grey eyes zeroing in on her face. “He was taken by a red witch when we were in the company of the Brotherhood without Banners.”

“Aye, Melisandre did have use for him. But I freed him before she could do much harm. She will not hurt him again, should she come across him here.”

“Why would Melisandre run across him here? “Arya asked confused. Everyone in the room looked away from her then.

“Arya,” Sansa started gently, “it was she who resurrected Jon. She has come to Winterfell with Shireen and Lady Selyse.” Silenced, no one spoke for a moment as Arya looked shocked. Jon looked away, ashamed. I should have had the courage to tell her myself.

“My king, I would ask something of you.” Shireen interrupted the silence.

“You may.” Jon stated curiously.

“I would ask you to legitimize him as a Baratheon,” she said to the amazement of all.

“You would renounce your claim? As Robert’s son, he would come before you.” Jon asked carefully. He was already beginning to dislike this Gendry and the propensity people seemed to have toward him, particularly a grey eyed girl who had spoken little in the last few minutes. Is this jealousy?

“I would marry him.”

“What? Why?” Arya had found her voice at that declaration. Jon’s eyes flew to her immediately to gage her reaction, as did everyone else. He found she could not look at him, however.

“As a true born Baratheon, my claim is strong, but as the son of my uncle Robert, I’m sure our banner men will have no qualms uniting behind us both. I must secure the future of my house. I will marry a Baratheon or no one at all. My uncle had many bastards to be sure, but he will do.” Shireen said practically.

“The boy is indeed the spitting image of the late king. And he is strong. And he just may be the one to know how to work your Dragonglass, your grace.” Lord Davos offered up.

“Consider it done.” Jon said hastily. “He will be legitimized and you will be wed here in Winterfell upon his return. Then you will set sail to the Storm Lands to being the work that needs to be done. The Lannisters must not be allowed to wield influence there.”

***

Creeping in to Jon’s quarters proved to be difficult now that he was a king. Tormund had been standing guard at the door and Val followed Arya not so subtly as she made her way to the King’s chambers.  Playing with the soft fur of her robe, Arya stood up straighter and tried to look Tormund in the eyes as he left Jon’s chambers.

“I’d like to speak with Jon. Alone.”

“Har, so you and he can have another fight about this rescue business, no doubt.” Tormund laughed boisterously. “I’ve known Lord Snow for a while now, and he’s a good fighter to be sure, but I don’t think even he can withstand the she-wolf’s powers.” He opened the door and let Arya inside. Hearing the door click softly, she went over to Jon’s desk and looked at the stack of papers haphazardly thrown around.

Walking in from his privy, Jon saw Arya in her grey night gown and robe, the winter moon outside illuminating her features. “Arya.” He did not think he would ever get used to seeing her again. She turned to him and smiled softly at his face.

“Jon.” She took one of his hands and led him to a seat by the fireplace. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Arya, please don’t ask me to go to Casterly Rock. You know I can’t let you go.” He was in agony just thinking about her dying in the Westerlands, alone and cold. He reached up to touch her face.

“You treat me as if I’m still a child Jon.” She scoffed and looked at him rather unimpressed.

“I have no doubt that life has taught you a great many lessons, but I need you here with me more.” Oh Jon, don’t fight me like this. Her grey eyes searched his own and found only the deepest sincerity. He’s not fighting fair.

“I would not leave you, Jon. That is not what I came to speak to you about.” I will not argue with him on that, I am going and he will not change my mind. Arya knew there would be hell to pay after she went on the mission anyway, but she resolved to cross that bridge when she came to it.

“What is it then?” Relief flooded his features, and he smiled at her.

“Gendry.” His eyes turned cold at the name. Taking his other hand from her face, she entwined their fingers. “I know you are a king and that being a king means that you must secure alliances, but I just…. I just don’t think this is what Gendry wants.”

“He was a bastard. Now he will be a lord paramount and wed Shireen, a true born Baratheon. He will have money, power, and influence. Take it from one who was such, this is a bastard’s dream.” His words were practical, but his tone was harsh.

“Gendry hated high borns from what I remember.” She smiled at the thought of the boy. “But he did want honor. That is why he wanted to stay with the Brotherhood. So Beric could knight him.” Untangling their fingers, she walked over to the window and looked out. Hugging herself, she whispered the next words lowly. “Must he marry Shireen?”

Jon’s ears went alert at that, and he walked up behind her, though not close enough to touch. “Would you rather marry him?” To say he was curious was an understatement. “Arya, who is this boy? What has he done to you?”

She turned around fast and looked stricken. “Gendry was my friend at a time when I was not yet strong enough to take care of myself. The gold cloaks were after us both, but we did not know it was because he was Robert’s bastard. Still, he kept my secret, and he escaped with me and another boy from Harrenhall.” She began to pace back and forth and bite her lip. “All I ask is that you give him a choice. He was a smith, he had a simple life before all of this. Shireen can still have the Storm Lands and he can still help the cause without their marriage.”

Taking a deep breath, Jon tried to calm himself. “Shireen has declared that she will marry a Baratheon or no one.”

“And everyone in the seven kingdoms knows that Robert Baratheon had at least twenty bastards. She can marry someone else!”

“Arya,” he took a deep breath, and she saw that he was shaking, “do you wish to marry him?”

“No,” she looked down. “I just want you to give him a choice.”

“What happened to you Underfoot?” Where have you been all this time little sister? She smiled at the name and went to sit atop his bed.

“It is a long story.”

“We have all night.” He joined her on the bed and made to cover them both. Leaning in to Jon’s side, she tilted her face to look at his eyes.

“I was in the darkness Jon, so the darkness I became.” She told him of Yoren and Gendry and Hot Pie, of Lomney and Weasel, of Roose Bolton and Tywin Lannister, of Lady Smallwood and her acorn dress, of seeing the Red Wedding and traveling with the Hound, of Jaqen H’ghar and Blind Beth, Cat of the Canals and the Black Pearl, of killing Daeron and Meryn Trant, saving Sam and stealing faces, of all the things in her second life that had begun when Ned Stark’s head rolled down the Sept of Baelor.

Chapter Text

Rickon loudly opens the door to Jon’s chambers in search of his sister, and the sight that greets him gives him pause. Of course he knew Arya would be there, Jon had told him so himself, but the sight of her curled up in furs, sleeping peacefully throws him off. Her face is relaxed, almost happy even, and it gives him pause for a second or two. Arya doesn’t look nearly as fearsome now that she’s sleeping, but he knows enough of his wildest sister to suspect that at least two blades are hidden somewhere underneath the covers with her, and that Needle will be close by. He tests fate and jumps on the bed anyway. “Arya, wake up!”

She rises at once, her eyes searching for the threat and immediately calming down when she sees an overly excited mop of red hair and blue eyes peering at her. “What is it Rickon?” She asks as she settles down in the bed.

“The Blackfish is teaching me to ride today!” He lets out excitedly. “I thought you might want to come along? He says no one sits a horse half as well as you! And I thought perhaps you could help teach me?”

She lets out a soft smile as she answers. “Aye, I’ll come little wolf.”

“I’m not so little,” he says as he offers her a hand, “bigger than you.”

“Aye and slower too.” She says as she darts away to her rooms, beginning a race Rickon cannot hope to win, their wolves following the chase.

 

It is well into the morning when the Blackfish and Arya have finally allowed Rickon a respite from their endless hounding of him. “Are you purposefully trying to kill me?” Rickon asks as he stops to take a drink from his water skin. “I did not survive Skagos just to have my own sister work me to death.”

Arya gives a startling laugh, and it warms his heart, reminds him of better times. “You’re the future of our house, Rickon, love. And I’ll have you well learned in the finer points of horsemanship.”

“Aye, lad, what she says is true. You’re to be a great lord someday, and you’ll need to learn this and more.” The Blackfish chimes in, and really had he expected him to say anything different from Arya? Their uncle seemed to be her own personal advisor of sorts, and they were ever in discussions with Sansa about something or another. Rickon isn’t sure he wants to know what it is they’re planning, but he knows it will come out in time weather he likes it or not.

“Men say you are wild, I fear some might try to use it against you. I will not have it.” Arya shakes her head vehemently.

“Surely you and Sansa are more the future of our house than Bran and me.” Rickon starts incredulously. “You know better than most what it takes to rule.”

“Nay,” Arya shakes her head, “though I will always be a Stark first, I will take my husband’s name, as will Sansa. Jon is a Targaryen and Bran cannot have children. You are his and Robb’s true heir, the hope for our future.”

“But I’m just….me.” Rickon looks lost as his horse trots along slowly next to theirs. “I can’t –“

“You can and you will.” Arya cuts him off immediately, not harsh but not kind either. It is a tone he thinks their mother must have used, firm and unyielding. “You are a Stark of Winterfell. You have a duty.” She softens her voice slightly, dismounting her horse and catching his arm as he does the same. A stable boy relieves them all of their horses and out of the corner of his eye, Rickon can see their uncle step away to give them a moment of privacy. “Winter came early for us, Rickon. Our enemies tried to break us, destroy us, and they robbed us of the lives we could have had. But all is not lost. Look at me.” She grabs his chin and looks directly into his eyes. “Winter is here now, and it will come for the likes of them. You are a wolf, be as wild as you need to be, but never let them hurt our family again. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” his eyes harden, “yes I understand.” He would show Arya that he could be as good a lord as she wanted him to be.

“Being a Stark means that you have a duty to your people, to the North. Know that whatever comes, you are not alone in this. Only you will carry on our name, but this is not just your burden to bear. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. Our pack is strong now, stronger even because of what has happened to us. I am sorry for the things that happened to you, sorry that as your big sister I was not there to save you--”

“You can’t blame yourself for that.” He tries to say, weakly.

“Hush now, hush now.” Arya soothes his frantic rambles, “all I mean to say is that I couldn’t be there for you before, but I swear by the old gods beyond count that I’m here now, and I won’t leave you.” The fierce determination in her eyes makes him want to weep, makes him think that perhaps he can do this. It is enough to ease the tension coiling in his heart and he draws her into a crushing embrace, one she returns just a tightly. When they finally do break apart, it is to his stomach rumbling. “Gods, I’m such a terrible teacher! You must be starving, come on little wolf, let’s get to the kitchens, I’m sure everyone is wondering where we are anyway.”

She links her arm in his as they set off, but as they reach the outer courtyard that leads to the great hall, Shaggy and Nymeria let out twin growls of warning, circling their owners protectively. “What is it boy?” Rickon asks as he searches for whatever it is that has put their wolves on edge. Arya must find it first because she stiffens almost immediately. His eyes finally land on deep red robes moving toward them.

“Melisandre.” Arya hisses her name and it has enough hate in her voice to make even him shrink back. But the woman is undeterred. She walks as far as the wolves will let her and stares at Arya for the longest moment.

“I know you, child,” her foreign voice announces, a little surprised, “the Lord of Light gifted me with you once before, but I did not know then that you were the prize of such great value.”

“What are you talking about?” Rickon’s voice darkens as he steps in front of his sister protectively and Shaggy snaps at her heels, dangerously close.

“Your sister. His little sister, or so she was.” Melisandre says, undeterred and eyes never leaving Arya, “I thought then that the bastard boy was what the Lord of Light wanted me to take from the Brotherhood, but I see now that much could have been avoided if I had known then that it was not Stannis, but Jon Targaryen that was the true Azor Ahai reborn.”

“You saved Jon,” Arya lets out through gritted teeth, “that is the only reason why I have not plunged a sword through your heart already! But do not think that I can forget how you took Gendry, nor will I forgive it.” Rickon feels her grab his hand as she pulls him away from the red woman, Nymeria and Shaggy never taking their eyes off her as they follow.

“A sword through the heart indeed, Lady Stark.” He hears her mutter as they leave.

“Arya, please!” Rickon tries and fails to get her to stop her frantic pace. “Just tell me what to do.”

She finally let’s go of his hand once they have reached the Great Hall. It is a very informal gathering of people as food is served, and Sansa waves them over enthusiastically as she sees them enter. “I wish to be alone right now,” Arya says, “there is nothing to be done. That woman took Gendry away. She was on my list, but she saved Jon.”

“I see.” Rickon is still a child in some aspects, but he knows enough to understand that this Gendry is special to her, and that the red woman is obsessed with her. “Go,” he gently shoves her back toward her room, “I’ll tell them what happened, and not to disturb you.”

She smiles and gives him a quick kiss on the cheek, “you were always my favorite.”

“Liar!” He calls after her and laughs, then makes his way toward a confused Sansa and Bran.

***

Arya was deep in her cups by nightfall. She finds it funny, the fact that she drinks to forget, yet it makes her remember everything so clearly. She could be on her sixth or sixtieth cup by the time the Hound comes in, it will make no matter to him. Perhaps this is why he comes instead of Brienne, she thinks, he always knew how to handle my hate. She finds it funny to think on, the fact that Brienne and Sandor must have put their heads together and decided who and when each of them would accompany her and Sansa. Stranger things have happened than the two of them getting along, she muses, taking a deep gulp from her cup. Stranger things indeed. Like the fact that I cannot kill Melissandre for the horrors she did to a man I love because she saved another man I love.

“Got any ale?” The Hound speaks up finally.

“Only wine, I’m afraid.” She offers him an apologetic smile as she fills his cup nonetheless.

“So the red bitch’s got you upset. What did she do to you?” He takes the offered cup and downs it in one long drag.

“Everything.” She looks to the fire for a moment, then sighs. “Before I ran away from the Brotherhood, the reason I ran away from the Brotherhood was because they sold Gendry to her. He wanted to be a knight, to be one of them, and they sold him.”

“Aye. I thought you had learned by now girl, men’ll do anything for gold.”

“Not all of them.” Arya looks back at him then. “A poor excuse, I know, but true nonetheless. Oh Sandor, I don’t know what to do. I want to kill her; she was on my list.”

“I remember; you couldn’t sleep til you said the names. But I also know she didn’t kill the boy, and now he’s got a real chance at a good future if we can survive all this shit. And she saved Jon, that’s got to count for something.”

“It counts for everything.” She says it fast, then blushes. He waits until she can look him in the eyes again. “Do you remember when we saw what they did to Robb’s body?”

“Yes.” He says quietly, not sure why she’s bringing up this old pain, but following along. “That is not something I will ever forget.”

“When we saw Robb’s body and Grey Wind’s head, you knocked me out cold. By the time I woke back up, we were long gone from the Twins. It took me a while, but I finally understood that what you did for me then was a kindness. You watched after me, you protected me, and I took you off my list for killing Mycah. Melissandre never killed Gendry, but I want her dead just the same.”

“But you couldn’t possibly justify that when she’s given you back the one person that matters most to you in the world.” To her credit, Arya doesn’t flinch at all, unsure if he’s aware of the full extent of what he’s said. Sandor smiles at this. “And you think that’s a betrayal to your friend Gendry if you don’t kill her.”

“No one else would understand this like you.” She pours herself another glass of wine, savoring the flavor of it this time. “But it’s not just her. Bran says I’ll need to leave some names off my list, people who haven’t resurrected Jon or looked after me.” If she were a little girl still, Arya thinks she might be crying. “Hate has kept me going all these years. How do I live without it?” She turns fully toward the Hound then, big grey eyes pleading in a way that remind him of the little girl he first saw in Winterfell, not the assassin he had met again in the Riverlands.

“I don’t know.” He sighs, and the weight of that truth is enough for him to take the pitcher off the table and pour himself another glass. “But if we survive these wars, we’ll figure out how to live without the list, yeah?” He raises his cup up to her in silent invitation.

She lifts her own, tapping his with a loud clank. “Yeah.”

***

By the time Arya stumbles in to her room, all Jon can see is words running together. He’s tried all day to find the right words to send to Tyrion and to King’s Landing, but the truth is, he cares little and less for Southron politics. It is a relief, then, when he sees Arya in all her drunken glory.

“Oh!” She slurs out softly. “I did not think…”

“Rickon told us what happened earlier today,” he starts by way of explanation, “and when you didn’t come to my rooms, well I thought I’d wait for you here.” He feels a little foolish now, perhaps Arya had not wanted his company and that is why she did not come to him. When we were younger, she always ran to me with her troubles. But she is not a little girl anymore as he can plainly see, still the thought of Melisandre and Arya turned his stomach until he had no choice but to wait for her, to make sure she was really and truly alright.

“Yes, yes I saw her.” She says quietly. It is her soft tone that makes Jon immediately drop his papers and go to her. Before he can even reach out to touch her, she’s grabbed the front of his shirt and buried herself in his chest. “I feel weak, Jon, and helpless.”

“You?” He askes incredulously. Arya had never been helpless her whole life, even her birth had been a torment to lady Catelyn, and she had always been the fiercest little thing. “Arya, you’re the strongest person I know.” He lifts her chin up to meet his eyes. “She’s not going to hurt you, I promise. I’ll send her away if you wish.”

“You can’t,” she shakes her head, “she saved you. You can’t send her away. Besides,” she pulls away from him to dry her tears, “I’m not afraid of her. I just—this is going to be hard, Jon. I’ve fought so long; all I know is fighting.”

“Listen to me, there is more to you than just fighting, there always has been. You are a Stark of Winterfell, a princess of the North, you survived King’s Landing and worse, you’ve killed men twice your size and I thank the gods for it. There is nothing you cannot do, Arya.”

“You believe in me too much.” She gives a wobbly laugh. “I suppose it’s the same with me.”

“I believe you are more than capable of dealing with whatever comes at you. Besides,” he kisses her forehead, “I know you plot with Bran.” That makes her eyes go wide as saucers.

“He gave me a sword,” she whispers, “do you wish to see it?” She bites her lip and it’s enough to make his blood boil. He nods in answer, unsure of his voice. She walks over to her chest and retrieves it, thrusting it into his hands. Unfolding the aged cloth around it, he lets out a little sigh as he stares at his reflection through Valyrian steel.

“A blade for killing.”

“I said the same.” She smiles at him and it almost breaks his heart. Gods grant me the strength to keep her safe. Jon doesn’t know what he would do if Arya were taken away from him again. I couldn’t bear it. “Dark sister.” She studies his face as she says the words.

“You don’t mean—“

“the sword of Visenya Targaryen? Aemon the Dragonknight? The very same.” Arya could be my Visenya. It’s a dangerous thought for him to think, and at dangerous time too. He should be concerned with his letters to the other kings and queens, with the Night King, who he knows is coming, but all his mind thinks is she could be my Rhaenys too. “I’d give it to you,” her voice dissolves his dangerous thoughts, “but Bran says Blackfyre is to be yours in time.” He looks up at her in question. “You sais we were plotting, you were right.”

He hands her back the sword. “When will you start carrying it?”

“Soon.” She tucks it back into her chest. “I wanted to tell you first. Jon?”

"Hm?"

"I'm sleepy." She shrugs out of her heavy furs and leathers and takes his hand. The bed is far too small for them both, but Jon doesn’t mind. He pulls her close to him and drifts off to sleep, resolving to think about dragon queens, lions of Lannister, and the Others in the morning. Right now, the feel of her in his arms is enough to keep even the guilt of having her there at bay.

Chapter Text

Jon Targaryen has written to me about meeting." Cersei says as soon as Jaime closes the door to her bedchamber, her voice dripping with disdain.

“Yes, and if the common people are to be believed, it appears Theon Greyjoy did not the kill the two boys, and that Arya Stark somehow managed to survive. I hear your little prodigy Sansa has returned as well.”

At that Cersei turned up her nose. “The little bitch. She plotted with Tyrion to murder our son then stole away in the night.” She took a moment to calm herself. “This bastard states that he has also written to Daenerys and Aegon to also meet with him.”

“Why one earth would he do that?” These Stark boys never ceased to confuse Jaime. Robb Stark had been a bit of a boy wonder. At only fifteen, he had handed Jaime a surprising defeat at the Whispering Wood, and his battle strategy, Jaime had grudgingly admired. But the boy had lost the North and his life over a pretty face and nice body. Now this other boy was asking to meet with his enemies.

“He claims there is a great threat from beyond the wall. But it makes no matter, the dragon bitch and her pretender husband will attend, as will their allies…curiosity and all that. And that is when we will strike.” She turned to him, giving him one of her dazzling smiles, the kind of smile that first made him fall in love with her when they were children.

“It is said the bastard put every man, woman, and child who fled to the Dreadfort to the sword.” Jaime was struggling to pour himself a cup of wine as Cersei studied the raven scroll intently. She looked beautiful, like a true queen, and Jaime was reminded again of all they had lost for the crown upon her head.

“A little lesson he learned from father, no doubt. But he did not burn their keeps nor did he sow their fields with salt. He is less dragon than his aunt, if those pieces of paper he uses as a shield are to be believed.” She tossed the scroll aside and watched intently as he splashed wine all over the table and floor before taking the pitcher from him briskly, pouring them both a glass.

“They say he has a darkness, and that his young sister has brought the light back to Winterfell. And to him.” Jamie smiled then, more smirk than anything. “I did not think we had anything in common when I saw him at Winterfell as a bastard, now I see I was wrong.”

Cersei slapped him hard at that. “You fool! You prance about making this all a big jape. What do you think this dragon wolf will do to you, the man who pushed his cousin out of a window? We are Lannisters, and if there’s one family who could hate us more than the Starks it is the Targaryens, and he claims to be both!”

“Mayhap he’ll thank me for avenging his grandfather and uncle by killing his other grandfather.” Jamie shook his head. “And I thought our family tree was messy.”

Cersei was growing ripe with agitation. “Father ruined you. You never thought to listen to what he said, only reaping the rewards of what he did.”

“And you think yourself too much like him.” He shot back at her. “Father is gone, our children are gone, and Tyrion sits as Daenerys Targaryen’s hand. What are we fighting for? The only family we have left is against us.”

“The name! The family name! Do you remember nothing? It lives on. We’re not the last Lannisters left. I’ve summoned all the family, anyone with our last name or has first connection to the name will be safe inside Kings Landing. You will lead our men: the gold cloaks and the Lannister guard. We will launch a dynasty that will last a thousand years. And one day after I’ve fixed this bloody mess and ruled, I will leave our dynasty in the hands of a capable member of our family.”

She moved about the room to calm herself. “I will deny the Stark bastard his meeting.”

“Why would you do that?” Jaime’s head was starting to hurt, weather it was from the wine or Cersei, he wasn’t sure. But he knew one thing, the next few months would be hard.

“I’ll also invite Tycho Nestor to the council.” She rolled right over his questioning, sitting herself down and picking up parchment and ink.

“What on earth would possess you to do a thing like that? And didn’t you just say you were going to deny his request to meet?”

She sighs, setting down the quill she had taken up, and speaks to him as if he were a child.  “I will deny him at first, yes, to give my other plans already in motion more time to work. And, to give Tycho Nestor time to reach King’s Landing and travel with us as our honored guest. How do you think they’re paying for all of this, the Starks and the Targaryens? Tycho Nestor represents the Iron Bank of Bravos, whoever wins him, wins the war.”

“And what makes you think he will back us over the other two? You might very well give them an advantage by bringing him along!”

“Jaime dear, you were taught to lead men and fight, I was taught how to manage a household. The Iron Bank of Bravos has little use for snow and they do not fear dragons. Neither the Starks nor the Targaryens can possibly hope to repay him should the Iron Bank back either one of their causes. And they would be taking on the crown’s debt for the Bank’s helps.”

“And are you so aware of House Lannister’s finances that you feel confident enough that we could? Last I checked, we were—“

“Destitute? Poor?” She gave a laugh. “Nonsense. Father spread that little rumor to get the Tyrells to start pulling their weight. I assure you, Casterly Rock is still very much dripping in gold, not to mention I have other plans in place.”

“Do I even want to know?” Jaime sighed.

“Not until you need to.” She kissed his cheek and then pressed herself firmly to his front. “But right now, I need you.” And really, had Jaime ever been able to deny her anything?

***

For the first time in a long time, Tyrion felt that perhaps there was someone up in the heavens listening to his prayers. He had received a letter from Sansa at her cousin’s behest, offering friendship and a chance to meet with Daenerys and Aegon. His lady wife had also informed Tyrion that Jon meant to extend the same invitation to his sister in King’s Landing, to talk of “threats beyond the wall.” And though he was certain his sister would not attend, and that whatever lay beyond the wall was no less worrisome, he gave thanks to the gods for this olive branch. He had been trying and failing to get Dany and Aegon to extend an invitation to Jon, but his monarchs would not budge.

His thoughts kept returning to Sansa though. She signed the letter Sansa Stark, but addressed me as her husband. He had to smile at her cunning. Lady Stark, you may outwit us all. He assumed that she must understand that staying married to him is the best bet for her right now. Should Cersei win, they would both die, but if Dany and Aegon were to succeed, being his wife would offer her some protection. He idly wondered if things should go the other way, and Jon prevailed, if she would grant him the same protection. I loved a maid as red as autumn with sunset in her hair, Tyrion sighs as he drops the note in front of Dany’s face, I am a fool.

“What’s that?” Varys tittered as Aegon peaked over Dany’s shoulders to get a look.

“That, my friend,” Tyrion pulled a chair up to the table, “is what we’ve been waiting for. An olive branch. My lady wife wrote to me on her cousin’s behalf. It appears Jon Targaryen wants to call a great council of sorts.”

“We’ve been waiting for this?” Dany quirked an eyebrow up. “Aegon, dear, it seems we’ve been waiting for this. Did you know?”

He laughed at her teasing and eased the tension that had begun to coil in his shoulders. “I am interested to see how your little Imp tries to sell us on this Jon Snow once again, my love.”

“I’ve said my part, thank you. And as your Hand, I would now advise you to put the question to your most important banner men. If you are to rule one day, then you’ll have to get used to hearing their input, weather you want it or not.” It is a gamble he draws here, by inviting them to seek the thoughts of Lady Olenna, Arianne, and Asha, but he is desperate. I have told them a thousand times of Jon’s benefit, perhaps if they were to hear it from someone other than me.

“Hmm, Lord Tyrion does have a point, your grace.” Varys peered at Aegon.

“Very well, then. Missandei, kindly ask our banner men to join us here.” She looks to Aegon, then Dany, then scurries off to do as bid.

“Your grace, I must tell you that Lady Olenna once planned to have Sansa Stark betrothed to her grandson, Willas.” Varys stated.

“And now she is married to Lord Tyrion,” Dany waves her hand dismissively. “Our lord and ladies will plot until the end of time; it makes little matter to me so long as they are loyal.” Yes, Tyrion thought, and three dragons make men very loyal.

They say nothing more until Asha, Lady Olenna, and Princess Arianne have been seated. Dany reads the raven scroll from Sansa and said, “well, what do you say?”

Arianne started, “I see no harm in it. Their offer of will allow us more time to study them at any rate.”

“True.” Dany inclines her head. “I know little and less of the Seven Kingdoms, save what Viserys told me. I would like to know my enemies more intimately.”

“Are they to be enemies then?” Olenna sighs. “I fear you’ll find them more equal to the task this time around.”

“What do you mean?” Aegon asks. “What do you know of these Starks?”

“I never met the boys, but Sansa was a lovely little thing, abused and broken as she was. But I doubt you’ll find her so gentle now. Even back then, she was learning how to play the game. And the Seven only know what all these years with Littlefinger have taught her.” Olenna said.

“What of the other girl? Arya.”  Asked Dany

“She was not in King’s landing when I arrived.”

Nor I,” Tyrion said. “I can recall her a little from my time at Winterfell though. And one does hear stories. She walks in her father’s shadow, and casts a mighty one of her own it would seem.”

“Ned Stark was a traitor.” Aegon’s voice is cold.

“Ned Stark was honorable,” Tyrion waves his hand dismissively. “Like it or not, Aerys was mad, and Rhaegar did kidnap his sister. Now, denying your family’s past crimes seems like a sure way to alienate your future banner men. You would do well to remember that the Starks have ruled their lands for thousands of years, don’t think it’s been by luck or accident.” Tyrion knows he should soften his tone, temper his words, but the boy cannot hope to succeed if he insists on being this thick headed.

“You presume to lecture me, Imp?” Aegon sneered, very unlike his normal easy nature.

“I presume to council my king.” Tyrion took a drink of wine. “I might remind you that Ned Stark is the reason your dear wife is still alive, isn’t that right lord Varys?”

In typical Varys fashion, the spider meekly replied, “Lord Stark did stay the execution Robert Baratheon had out on Dany’s heads.”

“An order you so willingly counseled him to give.” Dany bit out from her seat. She was young, but Tyrion knew she wasn’t a fool. She knew enough of Illyrio and his plotting to know that Aegon had always been their true goal. Were it not for her dragons hatching, Illyrio and Varys would have been content to let her die in the wastelands across the Narrow Sea.

“This is getting us nowhere.” Tyrion sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “You would not write to him, but now he has written to you, asked to meet, and offers a chance to put aside your differences.”

“He wants my throne.” Aegon flippantly replied. “We do not need him. Lord Connington conquered the Stormlands in my name, we could—“

“While it is true, dear cousin, that Lord Connington conquered the Stormlands, they dissolved back into chaos as soon as he died. I would urge you both to at least meet with your little brother, it could save us a great deal of men and supplies when the time comes to truly march.” Arianne demurely interrupted him.

“Little brother,” Aegon asked a little hurtfully, “you believe him then?”

“I believe we must accept the possibility that he could very well be who he says he is. After all, many thought you, yourself to be dead, but here you are.” Her eyes take on an apologetic smile, “and your father did have Lyanna Stark at the Tower of Joy for over a year, that’s more than enough time to have a child.”

For a long moment, no one said anything. Dany studies Arianne skeptically in complete silence as Aegon grips the handle of Blackfyre and tries to breathe properly. If anything, this exchange just proves to Tyrion what he already knows: Arianne is plotting. What exactly she’s plotting, he isn’t sure of, but he knows it cannot be good for his queen. She needs Jon but she cannot see, Mother have mercy, why did I ever want to be Hand?

“If I may be so bold?” Asha Greyjoy spoke up.

“When are you not, Lady Asha?” Dany smiled at the only woman she thinks to be her true ally present. “I have come to expect it of you, and would welcome any council you may give.”

She inclined her head in acknowledgement. “My brother, Theon, grew up with the Starks, if anyone knows them, it’s him. I say we go to this meeting, and offer terms. Theon knows their character, their quirks, their weaknesses and strengths. It should not be hard to figure out what exactly it is they want.”

“Yes, well, my dear, Sansa’s been very clear on what they want. “To say that Lady Olenna was put off by Asha’s suggestion would be an understatement. “And I understand that your little eunuch doesn’t take too kindly to crowds nowadays after what happened to him. Meaning no offense, my lord Varys.”

“None taken my lady,” Varys whispered soft as silk against the current storm brewing.

“Theon will do what is best for the Iron Islands.” Asha stood her ground. “We have pledged our fealty to Dragonstone, and we are the only ones here, it would seem, completely committed to our promise.”

“Don’t make empty threats at me.” Lady Olenna sneered, having none of it. “I’ll remind you that the Reach is feeding and funding this campaign. What have you brought to it? A few ships while your uncle controls the real fleet. Ha! Don’t even try it, dear, I’ve been playing this game longer than any of you have been alive.”

“And we are grateful, Lady Olenna, truly, for your contributions.” Dany put on a pleasing voice. “You are all my banner men, and I have heard each of your voices in turn. I think it is in our best interests to heed your council and accept the Starks’ proposal.” She said, effectively dismissing them. Tyrion tried not to smile as he hopped down from his chair and left the room, all too pleased at her seizing the chance to have the final say on the matter. As long as she listens to me, we may survive this Aegon yet. Dany had heeded his council and taken control of their allies almost immediately after their sworn oaths of fealty, but Tyrion knows enough of the boy he once shared a boat down the river Rhoyne with to understand that Aegon truly does believe himself a conqueror like his namesake. Were consequences not so dire, he would even enjoy their little internal power struggles, but winter is upon them and his sister is mad. With the death of Tommen, Tyrion knows that Cersei has lost her last redeeming quality, and her unchecked madness, in all truth, is a fight he has no stomach for.

Chapter Text

“Good morning, milady.” Nell was waiting for Arya in her chambers expectantly.

“Good morning, Nell.” Arya smiled as she stripped down and settled herself into the bath the maid had prepared.

“Did you have a pleasant sleep, milady?” She gathered Arya’s discarded clothing and set about putting them away.

“Very pleasant.” Arya smiled to herself at the memory of Jon’s arms around her. She had spent every night with him, weather that be in his bed or hers, since returning to Winterfell, and it had quickly become an addicting habit. She sighed wistfully at the thought that she would not get to see him again for the day until late in the evening. She knew he was planning for the mission to the Westerlands with his lords. All the planning in the world won’t stop me from going, she thought stubbornly, it was my idea anyway. Choosing to focus on Nell instead, she said, “How was your night, Nell? Are you liking Winterfell?”

“Oh, yes milady. It was a bit hard, at first, to get used to the cold. But I like it a great deal more than the Twins. Would milady like a dress?” She asked none too subtly.

 “Nay, fresh breeches and a tunic.” Arya had to smile at Nell’s efforts. She’ll make a lady out of me yet.

Changing course, the maid went over to Arya’s chest and began to dig through it. “Oh, perhaps the light gray furs to match. Or maybe the black, it’s by far the thickest you have and the sun doesn’t stay up near as long as it used to.” She was chatting along happily enough as she did her tasks.

“Nell,” Arya interrupted her musings, “were you always a maid at the Twins?”

The girl’s shoulders tensed at the question as she turned around with both furs still in hand. “Nay, milady.” She looked fearful. Poor girl, Arya thinks, she need not fear anything from me.

“Truly, Nell, I mean you no harm. It’s just...well, I would like to know more about you.” And I need to know how far I can trust you.

“I lived in a small village before the War of the Five Kings broke out.” She placed the shirt on the bed and went to grab more clothes. “It was just me, my sister, my brother, and my father. My mother died birthing a stillborn babe, so I had to take care of the little ones. My father was a farmer, always gave the Seven and Lord Frey their due. But then the lions set the Riverlands on fire, I remember watching our fields burn until there was nothing but thick smoke left in the air for days. It near killed my father to see such a thing, and he took to his bed soon after, then my brother left to join the Young Wolf’s camp. By the time Lord Frey’s sons found my sister and me, we were near dead ourselves. Macey was always a skinny little thing, but one of Lord Walder’s bastards said that his lord father liked his girls sturdy, so he thought to make a gift of me, and they took me back to the Twins.” She looked at Arya hesitantly when she had finished her tale, and for a moment, Arya did not know what to say. It is the smallfolk who suffer, always. Arya, herself, knew that firsthand, but it always made her sad to hear of someone else’s troubles. Nell is a good girl; she doesn’t deserve this. Then again, neither did I, she thought wryly, but I suffered just the same, and so did she.

Don’t you wish to find your sister?” Arya offers kindly, “I could send word and have her brought here.”

“Nay,” she gives a tearful little smile, “I know she is dead.” It’s the way she says it that clues Arya in to the fact that she knows exactly how her sister suffered and died. And Arya knows enough of men to know it wasn’t pretty. “I’ll help you dress now.” Arya doesn’t push her further as she rises from the tub and dries off.

“If I were to ask you to do something for me, something no one can know about, if I were to swear you to secrecy, what would you say?”

“I would say nothing, and do as milady commands. I have sworn to serve you, milady.” She holds out the shirt for Arya, letting it hang between them in the silence.

Arya does not immediately take the offered clothes, choosing instead to study Nell’s face intently. Look with your eyes. She sees only the deepest sincerely there and knows that Nell will do whatever she asks. Taking the clothes, Arya dons them quickly. “A simple braid will do.” She says as she sits down for Nell to do her hair. The maid takes her time, weaving Arya’s long strands in a soothing manner. “Soon, I will need you to do something for me.”

“I will do whatever milady needs of me.” They speak no more and Arya is soon on her way.

A little while later, she finds herself situated between men and women alike at a long table in the Great Hall to break her fast. While settling her hunger, Arya takes the time to listen to the conversations going on around her, a habit she has had since childhood. Father’s men would have the most interesting stories whenever he’d hold a feast she thinks wistfully. The talk now is of war and winter and death, but there is a little hope too.

“Lady Arya?” Alys Karstark interrupts her eavesdropping.

“Alys, I beg your pardons, what did you say?” This is one of the girls Jon would have with me. She knows that Alys ran to Jon at the Wall for sanctuary, and that she married the wilding chieftain to protect her birthright. The idea of being friends with Alys doesn’t drive her mad near as much as the thought of being with Wylla does, and she suspects it’s because Alys is married and Wylla is not. If they had not already, Jon’s lords would soon start offering their daughters and granddaughters and sisters’ hands in marriage. She knew her worrying was fruitless. Jon is to have Daenerys, Bran all but said as much. Still, it did not stop her heart from hurting every time she thought of it.

“Lord Umber asked if you had any news from King’s Landing or Dragonstone. It is said a raven came yesterday.” Alys answered kindly enough. A glance down the table showed Arya that everyone was looking at her earnestly, save for the few who pretended to still hold minor conversations.

“No word yet from Dragonstone, but there has been word from King’s Landing, Cersei has refused, as expected. That is why our plan to free the lords from the Rock must continue. I’m sure Jon will be calling a council soon.”

“And does his grace have any idea where this meeting might take place once he has secured their agreements?” A man who looked to be from the Vale asked of her.

“Nay,” she paused to take a sip of water. “Though I do believe Harrenhal to be the most likely candidate.” It would certainly give me an advantage. “Perhaps it would be best to address this with Jon once the council has been called.” She courteously replied.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow detach from the wall.

***

From her seat by the fireplace, Sansa could hear and see Arya throwing snowballs at Rickon, and she could see Bran looking at them both with a quiet smile on his lips. Their direwolves were play fighting in the snow alongside them. I wish Lady were here to play with them. It was little moments like these, when they were happy, that Sansa missed her mother and father and Robb most acutely. I do not deserve their happiness. She stopped sewing the trousers she had decided to make for Arya and sighed softly. I need only close my eyes, and Mother will be in the Sept, and father could be in his solar, and Robb down below playing with them all. But that wasn’t right, that wasn’t right at all. When she opened her eyes again, they would all still be gone. I have ruined our family. Bran had told her that he forgave her last night, when they were alone together, and the relief had been sweet, but only for a moment. Bran had always been her most gentle sibling, but would Arya and Jon forgive her, would Rickon forgive her of robbing him of his parents before he even got to know them? Disturbing her solitude, Littlefinger walked into her room, with Lady Brienne hot on his heels.

“Lady Sansa, I informed Lord Baelish that you were not to be disturbed. Shall I escort him out?” Brienne held little love for Littlefinger, and never hid her disdain from him.

“That won’t be necessary, Brienne. Thank you.” Beckoning him forward, she saw him give Brienne a rather haughty smile before she shut the door. “You shouldn’t antagonize her. She would happily run a sword through you.”

“Ah, my dear Sansa, she is not the only one. I know the Vale lords are plotting.” He looked at her to assess her reaction to the news. She gave nothing away.

“And so are the Northern lords, my uncle, and everyone else in this castle.” I am plotting your downfall too.

“But you will protect me, won’t you, my dear girl?” Lord Baelish looked at her longingly. “We still have much to achieve.”

“Of course, my lord.” She said it stiffly, but it was enough to make him speak of it no more.

Switching tactics, he looked out the window to see her siblings playing down below. “You do not join them? Too old for childish games?”

“Even grown men play in the snow from time to time.” I remember father shaping snowballs with us, and a time uncle Benjen came down from the Wall and they both battered each other endlessly.

“So why remain here alone?” He raised an eyebrow at her. Because I do not deserve their joy.

“Because I have to finish sewing Arya’s trousers. The little breeches she runs around in are hardly fit to stand the cold now that the days are getting shorter.” There was disdain in her voice, but not for Arya herself. Misreading her tone, Lord Baelish smiled.

“The Lady Arya is a great comfort to everyone from the Vale knights and the Northern lords alike. Your uncle even calls her ‘Little Cat,’ after your mother.”

“Well,” she huffed in annoyance, “seeing as how they all marched to free her from Lord Bolton, I hardly find it a surprise that they would cherish her so. As for my uncle, he knew mother longer than any of us. I’m sure he knows better than most the ways in which Arya and mother are alike.”

“Men say she is your Aunt Lyanna come again by the way she looks and acts.”

“Yes, indeed. As they say I am mother’s, but looks can be deceiving.” Her patience was growing thin, but Lord Baelish did not suspect it was with him. I will not make the same mistakes with you again.

“You are as lovely as your mother.” He leered at her. “But even his grace seems to be much improved with her presence in the castle. She was with him until the early morning hours again. Some would think it… improper for a young lady to be in the company of a king so much without a chaperone.” If Sansa was surprised at this suggestion, she did not show it.

“It has always been their habit.” She continued sewing.

After some time, he tried again. “And she has been telling some of the lords to prepare for travel. To the Riverlands. Harrenhall specifically.”

At this news, Sansa put down her needle and looked at Lord Baelish. “I did not know she intended to use your castle. No doubt she will ask for permission.”

If he was surprised by Sansa’s indifference to not being privy to that particular bit of information, he masked it quickly. “And I will give it of course. I am interested to learn that you did not know of this. Is there perhaps some tension? I would not want a dance of wolves to ensue. Bitter are the wars between sisters.”

“Arya and I are far past such animosities,” Sansa waved her hand dismissively at the suggestion. “She knows the castle better than most, I’m sure she has a reason for wanting to use it as the meeting place, and it is big enough to accommodate three monarchs and their allies.”

“Of course.” Rising, he went to the door but turned back before he left. “I wonder what our fierce she-wolf would do should she learn of the details of Ned Stark’s capture. She does have a knack for bloody revenge, it would seem.” He curved his lips upward, but the smile did not reach his eyes as he left her chambers. The meaning was clear enough. Should she wish to betray him, he would no doubt tell her family of her role in their father’s capture. He might still tell them anyway to cause discord. What am I to do? If I tell them, I will lose them. And if I don’t……she knew Lord Baelish would use this to manipulate them all. Sansa cursed the girl she once was and her stupid decision to run to Cersei Lannister and tell her that their father planned to send them home.

Gathering her things up quickly, she walked down to the courtyard. There were at least three dozen children playing in the thick snow, but she soon located her sister in the madness. “Arya,” she shouted over the excitement of the snowball fight, “Arya, I would speak with you.” Just then, a glob of cold hit the side of her face almost comically.

“Oops, sorry Sansa.” Rickon scratched the side of his neck hesitantly. In answer, she gathered up a ball of snow and threw it back at him, laughing as they once again resumed their war. Snowballs were flying this way and that, and at times like these, it was easy to remember they were children still. Eventually, Arya fell down and started making snow angels, glancing up at the snowflakes as they rained down on Winterfell.

“You wanted to see me Sansa?” Arya asked from her spot on the ground.

“Yes, I wanted to discuss something with you. But it can wait.” Smiling, she offered her hand to her sister. “I’ll have a maid bring mead to my chambers. Bran and Rickon,” she turned back to her brothers, “you’re welcome to join us after you’ve dried yourselves off and changed out of your wet clothes. That goes for you too Arya.”

“Yes, Sansa.” They all said in childish unison.

Half an hour later, the siblings were gathered around Sansa’s fireplace, warming themselves with the drinks that had been prepared for them. “Will Jon be joining us?” Rickon asked kindly.

“Jon was holed up with the Hound and the Blackfish the last time I asked after him.” Arya said. “He’s most like not finished.”

“Will he ever have time for us?” Rickon sighed sadly and Sansa was reminded of how young he truly was.

“Hey now,” it was Arya’s soothing tone, “he’s just trying to prepare for winter and keep us safe. But I’m sure Jon could spare some time to be with us if you asked.”

“It’s just that, well, I thought he’d be better now that you’re here.” Rickon said dejectedly.

“He is better.” Bran said in his solemn way. “Death has changed him, but he is more himself now than he ever was. There is a darkness in all of us. Jon just struggles with his the most.”

“Be that as it may, I will try to get him to spend more time with us.” Arya said, returning her glance to Sansa. “You had need of me?”

“Yes, Lord Baelish came to see me earlier.” Arya rolled her eyes at that. “He says you have been meeting with the lords and telling them to prepare for Harrenhall.”

Arya’s eyes hardened as she stared at Sansa. Defiantly, she set her mead on the table. “Are you spying on me Sansa?”

“Am I interrupting something?” Jon’s dark brown hair popped through the doorway. “I asked a maid for Bran’s whereabouts and she told me you’d all be here.” Setting himself on a chair between Sansa and Arya, he took note of the tension in the room and looked to them all expectantly.

“We were just waiting on Sansa to answer my question.” Arya’s voice was steel. “Are you spying on me?”

“No, of course not!” She was quick to get out. “It’s just that—Arya, he’s dangerous. I cannot stress enough the importance of sticking together during this time. We should have no secrets between us.”

“I barely had time to even speak with the lords before he all but ran to you and told you my plans.” Everyone in the room tensed at the harshness in her tone.

“Arya, it’s not like that, I swear.”

“Then what is it like, Sansa? What’s he still doing here?”

Sansa’s shoulders sagged. Defeated, she let out a little sigh. “He wants to kill Sweetrobyn.” Everyone, save Bran, widened their eyes in amazement.

“I knew he wanted the Vale but I did not think he would kill the boy for it.” Jon said darkly.

“He does. But Harry Hardying is in line to the Vale after Robert. He would have married me to Harry when the time was right and have us reveal my true identity to claim back Winterfell. He cannot kill Robert here though, and he will not go back to the Vale without him. I thought by keeping him here, it could save Sweetrobyn.”

“Robert is our cousin. It’s our duty to protect him!” Rickon cried. The boy was a whiny sort, but he had taken to trailing after Rickon when the wolf pup wasn’t training or talking with the free folk.

“We can’t just seize Lord Baelish though.” Arya shook her head. “The Vale knights love him not, but there are some in his company who would see it as an insult. Besides, we have no proof. Conducting a trial would be frivolous.”

“So what, just do nothing?” Jon arose and looked at his cousins incredulously. “That man struts around here like he owns the place, plotting treason! You expect me to just let him continue on?”

“You can’t just seize him!” Sansa yelled back. “Think of what people will say! He rescued me from King’s Landing and kept me safe in the Vale. Lords will think you cruel and call you mad to punish my savior. As long as I am married to Lord Tyrion, his plans are futile. He will not kill Robert so long as I cannot marry Harry the Heir.”

“She’s right.” Arya said begrudgingly. “I would gladly slit Melisandre’s throat for taking Gendry, but I cannot kill the woman that saved you.”

“He helped the Lannisters capture father.” Bran’s voice was low as it broke through the argument Jon, Arya, and Sansa were having.

“What?” Rickon went to lay a hand on Bran’s shoulders, for tears had quickly collected in the boy’s eyes.

“He tricked father into thinking that he would get the gold cloaks to help them seize Cersei and her children. But when the time came, he turned on father.” Bran’s voice was wobbly and it betrayed him.

“I’ll kill him.” Jon’s voice had gone deadly. Standing before them was not Jon their cousin, not the Jon that had played with them as children. Standing before them now was Jon as he had been as Lord Commander, the leader, the fighter, the undead.

“You can’t!” Arya was quick to fling herself between Jon and the door. “I have wished our enemies dead a thousand times but you cannot just kill him, not like this! Think of your honor, think of father. Men will say you are another mad King Aerys. No one will follow you.”

“I am thinking of father!” Jon roared in Arya’s face and it set her lip to trembling. “I’m thinking of how he went to King’s Landing and never came back, of how Robb and your mother lost their lives trying to free you from the Lannisters.”

“It’s my fault.” Sansa wept quietly from atop her bed. She was looking down at the floor, anywhere but in everyone’s eyes. “I killed father.” She could not stop her cries as they left her body in soft whimpers. “All that has happened to our family, it’s because of me. It’s my fault.”

“Why would it be your fault Sansa?” Arya asked quizzically.

“Arya—“ Bran said in warning, but she quickly cut him off.

“No.” She held up a hand. “Why were you standing on the Sept of Baelor with them when father was beheaded?” Sansa can tell she’s been waiting years to ask her that.

“Because,” Sansa’s lip trembled and she had to gather her breathe before she could continue. She will hate me. “Because I was the one who told the queen that father planned to leave in the first place.” At her confession, everyone in the room was stunned, save Bran. Jon let go of Arya and walked over the window, gripping the ledge tightly and trying to process the information. Rickon just stared and Arya was looking at Sansa with contempt in her eyes. Bran was the only one who didn’t look surprised and Arya took note.

‘You knew,” she flung the accusation at him. “You saw it in one of your visions!”

“Yes,” he said solemnly. “Just as I saw you kill many in Bravos, just as I saw Jon break his vows with a wildling woman. The same way I saw Rickon on Skagos, forgetting us all as each day passed and the months turned into years.”

“That is not the same!” Arya roared at him. “How could you do it?” She turned to Sansa and let the tears finally fall. “You betrayed us. For Joffrey! Even after what they did to Lady? How could you have trusted them?!”

“And I paid for it!” Sansa rose from her bed quickly. “He tortured me, he made me look at father’s head on a spike for months, he beat me for all to see. They married me to the Imp just as I was about to leave for Highgarden! Then I had to endure Aunt Lysa’s craziness and Littlefinger’s plotting. I have wished to change what I did every day. I would change it if I could. You have no idea the hell I’ve been through.”

“Don’t start comparing hardships Sansa, you’ll lose.” Arya’s tone was detached and flat. The coldness of the North was inside the room at the moment. “Father dead, Robb gone, and mother too. Bran and Rickon on the run, countless northmen and Riverlords dead at Lannister hands. Their blood is on your hands. The things I’ve done…..all because you wanted to marry the prince.”

“Sansa made a mistake.” It was Bran once again being practical and cutting through the haze. “But this war would have happened regardless. Littlefinger had Aunt Lysa murder Jon Arryn and tell mother it was the Lannisters. And he tricked mother into thinking that Tyrion Lannister had an assassin come after me. That is why she seized him. And he left the trail of breadcrumbs for father to find, just as he had with Jon Arryn. And a Lannister did push me out of the window. I’m sorry to say, Arya, that the result would have been the same. War and death, we cannot escape it.”

“Arya,” Sansa reached out her hand to touch her, but she pulled away. “Arya, please. I was a stupid girl full of stupid little dreams. I will regret what I did until the day I die, but I cannot bear for you to hate me. I know it’s what I deserve. But I’m not strong enough, I can’t survive losing you again.”

Shaking her head, Arya walked out of the room. No one spoke for a long moment.

“She’ll come around.” It was Jon to quiet their fears. “Arya has always been stubborn, but she’ll come around eventually.”

“And you? Do you hate me too, Jon?” She looked into his face hesitantly, uncertain of what she would find there. If he does not forgive me, Arya never will. For the first time since coming home, she was actually afraid.

“No,” he let out a sigh. “We have all made mistakes. Just… just give her time.” He walked out, leaving the rest of them alone.

***

“Arya?” Jon called out softly to the forest. It was well into the night and she had not returned from the Godswood since the conversation with Sansa. It was only a matter of time before he came she reflected. She was sitting by the heart tree, polishing Dark Sister. “May I sit?” At her curt nod, Jon perched himself on a stomp beside her. “She did not wish for fa—him to die, you know.”

Sighing, she paused her motions and looked into his grey eyes. “I know.” I saw her screaming at them to stop it. I saw her faint after they chopped off his head.

“Can you forgive her?” He asked gently, inching closer to her.

“Maybe….yes….oh, I don’t know.” She sounded defeated. “She’s my sister, I have no choice but to forgive her.” It’s what father would want. But father isn’t here and it’s because of her. The taste in her mouth was one of bitter sadness.

“Oh, Arya.” She lay the sword aside and he came to sit beside her, gathering her close to him. “Sansa deserves a second chance. As we all do. Take it from someone who knows, hindsight is one hell of a perspective.”

“I’m not angry with her, not truly.” She looked to the scary face of the heart tree, a silent presence behind them. “I know she was young, just as we all have been. But I know none of us would have ever told the Lannisters.” They stayed like that a while, Jon holding her as she sat in silence. He’s so warm, she thought, a dragon indeed. After a time, he kissed her forehead lightly.

“I won’t presume to know all the things that happened between you and Sansa when you went to King’s Landing, but I remember how it was when we were children. And Arya, I want you to know that I understand. But she has changed, we all have.”

 “I will speak with her.” He smiled down at her words. I’d do anything for him to smile, she thinks helplessly. He gave her a gentle kiss again, this time on the cheek and she closed her eyes at the feel of his lips on her skin. “I love you.” More than you could ever know. In ways that would shame you. Tears begin to collect at her silent admission, and there is a long pause before she opens her eyes once more.

“I love you too,” he whispered hoarsely. Jon was looking at her intently. It was a look she had seen on his face many time since her return, but she had never been able to place just where she had seen it before. But now she knew. It was the look her father would give her mother, the look she sometimes saw men give the Black Pearl, it was the look of a man who would do anything for her. He can’t love me, not the way I love him, not Jon. She’s not exactly sure when or how she knew her feelings for Jon had changed. All she knows is that the thought of Jon with another set her heart on fire, and that being with him was the only thing that would ever make her feel whole again. But she had never dreamed that he could feel the same, that he would regard her as such. But it’s there, writ all over his face. He loves me, he loves me, he loves me, he loves me as I love him. Her heart is hammering in her chest as her mind races, and now she must decide what to do with this information. She had never been cautions in her life, and she would not start now. Ever so slowly, she raises her lips to his and kisses him softly. And when he brings his hands up to her neck, locking her in place, deepening the kiss, she follows where he leads.

Chapter Text

Arya wakes to the sound of Nymeria’s whines. Her bed seems too big without Jon’s warm body next to hers. She had spent the last few nights alone in her chambers, and to say that she missed the easy smiles and touches between herself and Jon would be an understatement. It almost frightens her, how much she craves him now, after that one simple taste, but it has always been this way. He had always been her home, her love. It was all so simple once she thinks dejectedly. Now I have ruined it, ruined us.

She remembers the feel of kissing him, of loving and being loved, until he had pulled back, eyes widening in horror at the realization of what they had just been doing. Forgive me he had shuttered as he buried his head into her neck, too overwhelmed to look her in the eyes. Arya, please, you have to forgive me. She had wanted to shout at him, to ask what on earth he was possibly asking her forgiveness for when she had kissed him. She had been so sure the look on his face had meant that he felt what she had felt too, but now Arya isn’t so certain. In the days since, she had scarcely seen Jon, and when she did, the conversation was short and awkward. Nymeria licks her face as she sighs once more. “Alright, alright, I’m up girl.”

Rising from the bed, she quickly dresses and dons her cloak, slipping out of the room quietly. She almost thinks of marching straight to Jon’s door and demanding to speak with him, but she doesn’t. What would I even say? I love you, and not how a sister should love a brother, and I always have. It was madness, Jon was king, and he belonged to another according to Bran and Bloodraven. I can never have him she thinks dejectedly. A bastard or a king, the old gods will never let us be. She is so distracted by these thoughts that she hardly registers Nell until she almost crashes into the girl.

“Milady!” Nell gasps. “I was just on my way to the kitchens, to get your tray. Is there something else milady needs?”

“Nay,” Arya shakes her head softly, and the pitying look Nell gives her is enough to make her blush. The girl knows that Arya has not been happy these last few days. I used to be better at hiding my feelings. On a whim she asks, “where is Sansa?””

“The Lady Sansa is still in her rooms. Shall I bring your tray to her chambers?” Nell quirks an eyebrow up.

Before she can think better of it, Arya replies. “Yes, and bring one for her as well.” She hurries off to the kitchens as Arya turns around, Nymeria trailing behind, and heads back to where her and Sansa’s chambers are. Father would be disappointed that I’ve let this go on for so long. She gives the door a firm knock before she can talk herself out of it.

***

If Sansa is surprised to see Arya on the other side of her door, she does not show it. Quickly swallowing, the red head steps aside and lets Arya in.

“I’ve had Nell fetch us both trays.” Arya says in a voice far too light as she and Nymeria slip inside. The wolf, at least, seems at ease and Sansa takes that as a good sign, even though her master is clearly agitated. “I thought perhaps we could break our fast together.”

“I’d like that very much.” She replies softly. They stare at each other in silence for a time. For lack of anything better to do, Sansa goes over to her desk and rearranges the papers on it, resolving to at least keep her hands idle, even if her mind isn’t.

“Sansa,” Arya calls to her in a firm voice. Gods please, let her forgive me she quickly prays before meeting Arya’s eyes.

“Yes?” She feels that her heart is in her throat, just waiting for Arya to say that she hates her or that she never wants to see her again. Where will I go if she sends me away? Who would have someone like me? She is spared from hearing Arya’s judgment as another knock on the door interrupts them. Nell and another serving girl quickly enter the room and set the trays down on the little table, then exit.

“We should eat.” Arya clears her throat, sitting down to the table. Sansa follows her lead, taking a seat and pouring herself a glass of water and surveying the food on her tray, barely picking at the contents there. She is so nervous that she does not notice Arya fidgeting too. “I can’t do this.” She stands up fast, bumping the table as she goes to stand by the window.

“I’m sorry.” Sansa just stares at Arya’s back, not knowing quite what else there is to say, hoping that her voice can convey the truth in her statement. Perhaps if I asked her, pleaded with her to let me stay…. But Arya has never been anything less than headstrong, even at her easiest times. I mustn’t beg. She wouldn’t like that. She decides that whatever Arya says next, she will listen to it in silence and make arrangements to go somewhere, anywhere far away and never bother her again.

“I’m sorry too.” Arya hangs her head low, back still facing Sansa as she says this, and Sansa is flustered. She can’t mean it. At her lack of reply, Arya turns around. “I said I’m —“

“Yes, yes I heard you.” She jumps up fast, walking over and taking both of Arya’s hands in her own tenderly. “But why are you sorry? It’s my fault, all of this.”

“No,” Arya shakes her head. “I may not ever understand why you told Cersei of father’s plans, gods, I may never understand you! But father once told me that we’re two sides of the same coin. That- that we need each other. So maybe….” She sighs, and tries again. “What I’m trying to say is, yes, we are different, and yes you did—do things that puzzle me, but you are my sister, and therefore one half of me. And I forgive you. We have all made mistakes, and the past is the past, we cannot change it no matter how much we might want to. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to say that, I just needed time.”

The hope that blooms in Sansa’s chest spreads through her until she finds herself smiling shyly. “You mean you don’t want me to leave?” I can stay in Winterfell she thinks almost childlike in her excitement.

“Why would I want you to leave?” Arya scrunches her eyebrows up in confusion. Because I do not belong here Sansa’s mind whispers back.

“You mean you never thought of getting Jon to send me away?”

“You’re a Stark.” Arya says firmly. “Your place is here.” She doesn’t comment on the fact that Jon would undoubtedly do whatever she asks, and Sansa thinks it is because she does not have to. Jon may be king but she had never doubted for a moment that her fate rested solely in Arya’s hands.

“But I’m not though. I’m not like the rest of you.” Shaking her head, she drops Arya’s hands and goes to pet Nymeria, curled up by the fireplace. “I don’t look like a Stark, I don’t have a wolf like any of you. My name isn’t even Stark now, it’s Lannister.” She sighs dejectedly.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Arya looks at her in a way she used to do when they were children, utterly over the absurdity of it all. “Do you think people ever looked at mother and thought her anything less than a Tully of Riverrun, even after she was married to father?”

“It’s not the same.” Sansa shakes her head. “Mother looked like a Tully.”

“Yes, and so do you.” Arya joins her by the fireplace. “Jon is a Targaryen, but he doesn’t have silver hair or purple eyes. He takes after his mother, and so do you. Sansa, don’t you see? It’s not about what you look like, it’s about who you are, what you do that matters.”

“What if I don’t know who I am? What if I don’t know what to do?” A bird has no place among wolves she thinks sadly.

“There is plenty of you left.” Arya gives her a tentative smile, and Sansa finds the courage to return it. “I can’t pretend like the past never happened, but perhaps we can start anew you and I?” Her voice is so hopeful that it almost shames Sansa. How could I ever have wished for another? She is more good and true a sister than I deserved. But for whatever reason, the gods have seen fit to give them a second chance, and Sansa vows she will not waste it.

“I’d like that. I’d like it more than anything, Arya, I mean it. I’m sorry that it took our lives going to hell for me to finally realize the good things we had. I won’t pretend that it didn’t take me a long time to understand that what I did was wrong, but I swear to you, I never meant for … for father and mother and Robb… for it to end like this.” She pulls Arya into a hug, and it is a bit awkward for them both, but it feels right despite everything. She gives a little laugh as they detach from each other. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she jumps out of her seat. Rummaging through her trunk, she pulls out a heap of clothing, dumping it onto her bed. “These are for you.” She steps back and allows Arya to come over and inspect the breeches she had spent hours sewing. “I asked Brienne about the types of breeches she wears, and took the liberty of making some after a fashion for you. They’ve been lined with fur as well and I thought perhaps you might find these warmer what with the snow falling thicker by the day. And I thought it might be easier to teach Rickon and spar with Jon in—“

“They’re lovely.” Arya cuts her off abruptly. “Truly, thank you.” Something is wrong Sansa realizes as Arya is gazing at the clothes.

“I can always make something else if—“

“It’s not the clothes, really.” The younger girl quickly cuts her off. “I just… I don’t think I’ll be sparring with Jon very much in the future.” Oh. She had, of course, noticed that things were off between Jon and Arya as of late, everyone in the castle had. Arya had been quiet, a little less charming than what everyone had come to expect of her, but Jon had been in an absolutely foul mood, almost as angry as when he had first returned from the Dreadfort. She had just assumed that their fight was because of her. And now that she and Arya are speaking again, she can’t seem to understand why things between Arya and Jon would still be sour.

“If you’d like to… to talk about it—“

“I don’t.” Arya is quick to cut her off, and she just nods her head in understanding. They’ve always belonged more to each other than to anyone else. It will just take time for us to become close she thinks, trying not to be hurt by Arya’s quick dismissal. “These are nice, really. I love them. And perhaps, perhaps one day you might like to make me a dress?” Arya’s eyes are hopeful and Sansa has to smile because Arya really is trying to make things right between them, in the ways she knows how.

“One dress? Don’t be ridiculous, Arya, a proper lady should have at least twenty.” She laughs.

And when Arya laughs too, the world seems a little less daunting to her.

Chapter Text

Supper had been a long and tedious affair, not to mention awkward. There had been shy conversations with Sansa as they both tried to make up, easy laughs with Rickon, and tentative glances at Bran. Arya was almost certain that he knew what she was planning, but that wasn’t what had troubled her so about his hard stares. This thing between her and Jon had started in the Godswood, rather it had culminated in a kiss in the Godswood, for the foundation had been laid many years back. They had kissed and soared then crashed and burned in front of the heart tree, in front of Bran. She thinks to find disgust in his gaze at some point or another, or betrayal even, but all she gets is silence. Things are no less awkward between her and Jon on that account. As usual, he had been avoiding her, going so far as to ride with the party destined for Casterly Rock all the way to Castle Cerywn to see them off. He had returned just that morning and had scare said two words to her.

It was a surprise, then, when he had looked at her shyly during supper and reached for her hand as she meant to leave the great hall. I thought perhaps we could talk he had looked so hopeful when he had asked her. Nay, she remembers saying, I’d like to be alone with my ghosts for a while. And when his face had fallen, she could not help herself from adding but perhaps after I have visited the crypts. The hope in his eyes had shown so bright that it made her ashamed to have lied to him like that. She had gone to the crypts, stopping only by the glass gardens to pick a few flowers before making the descent, but she had no intention of going back inside the castle after. And now she finds herself looking at statues, wishing they were people instead of cold stone.

“Sansa and I have made up.” She says, placing some of the flowers on Ned Stark’s statue. “I think you’d be pleased. And mother too.” Then she walks to Robb and Grey Wind’s statues, placing a few more flowers there. “I’m going to fight the Lannisters, just like you. I’ll kill them all for you, just like I did the Freys. I promise.” She lets a tear fall as the memory of Robb’s smile comes to her mind. “I promise.” She holds the last flower in her hand for quite some time before finally placing the blue winter rose on her aunt’s outstretched hand. “They say I look like you.” She tries to find a trace of familiarity there in the lines, but all she sees is stone. “Howland Reed told me you were brave and strong, a true she-wolf. I hope I can be brave like you.” She lets a tear fall. “Bran says that when we die, some of us lives on in the earth and the trees around us. I hope that’s true.” She steps back, surveying their statues and the ones of her uncle Brandon and grandfather Rickard as well. “If it is, I hope you won’t judge Jon and I too harshly. I love him, I can’t help that. I hope you can forgive him for my mistake. I hope he can forgive me for what I’m about to do.” Having nothing else to say, she falls into silence, content in the crypts like only a Stark can be.

The candle she has is almost out when Nell comes scurrying down the corridor, disrupting the peace Arya has managed to find there. She thrusts a bag into Arya’s hands shakily, trying not to peer at the statues surrounding them. “The horse?” She asks, peeking inside the sack to see a water skin, a few loaves of bread, and flint and steel.

“Saddled and waiting by the entrance, just as you commanded.” Nell’s voice shakes as she answers.

“And the stable boy?” She secures Dark Sister in her sword belt.

“Gave him three drops of the sleeping draught at supper. And the gate keepers too.” The maid fidgets with her hands.

Arya covers them with her own. “Thank you, Nell. I know it is hard what I ask you to do. I promise, no matter what happens, I will see to it that you are not punished.”

“Don’t worry about me!” She whispers fervently. “I’ll be alright. You just take care of yourself. The North needs its lady back in one piece.”

Arya smiles. “I will. I promise.” She gives Nell’s hand one more squeeze before they part at the entrance to the crypts. She is surefooted as she walks down to the stables, having taken this same path countless times before. Still, she can’t help the feel that at any moment Jon is going to spring out from the shadows and stop her. The awkwardness between them may have stopped him from talking to her these past few weeks, but it certainly had not stopped him from watching her. If anything, his eyes seemed to linger on her longer, almost as if he expected her to do what she is doing now. She resolves to think about him and the consequences of her actions once she has freed the men from Casterly Rock. Putting him out of her mind, she transforms herself once more into a student of the many Faced God.

A few days later in the dead of night, and after pushing her horse hard, Arya reaches White Harbor, stowing herself below the deck of the ship that will sail to Casterly Rock on the morrow. Leaving Nymeria behind in Winterfell had been less hard than the first time, but it still made her sad. The wolf was a part of her, and any moment without her now seemed almost unbearable. Still, she knew Jon would know of her absence sooner if Nymeria was gone, and she was almost positive the other direwolves would be able to sense Nymeria out should she take her along. Kneeling down in the darkness, she kept quiet and waited.

After a day at sea, when she had resolved that the ship was a good distance away as to not warrant turning around, she went above deck. Feeling the salty sea air on her face reminded her of a time when she had been sailing towards Bravos, “the bastard daughter of Valyria” the men of the crew had called it. I always did have a special place in my heart for bastards. The thought made her sad, for she assumed Gendry would not pass up a lordship for her and that Jon, at the very least, would be furious with her on her return. I have to do this. She would not let the Lannisters make her cower in fear. She had been the blind girl, a sheep, a mouse, a ghost, and more, but not now. Now she was the blood of Winterfell, the Night wolf, her father’s daughter through and through. Let the Lannister be afraid of her, for she would never bow down again. Closing her eyes, she took a moment to breathe before seeking out the Hound. She knows a battle of sorts would ensue once the men found her there, and mentally prepares for it.

As she searches the ship, she hears the Hound’s gruff voice from inside the captain’s quarters. “Casterly Rock is well-nigh impregnable. The king has given us quite a task.” She opened the door to find him hunched over a map of the Westerlands.

At her entrance, all in the room turned their eyes on her. “Lady Arya,” Ser Davos is the first to say, worry evident on his face and in his voice. “I did not know the king decided to grant you permission to accompany us?” He raised his eyebrows, and she sees that he is hoping against hope she had somehow managed to convince Jon to let her come instead of directly defying his orders.

“He did not.” She said unbothered. “But you will need me if you are to prevail, and I see no reason why good men should die unnecessarily.” At her words, many in the cabin paled, except for Tormund.

“Har! You’ll be a prisoner as soon as you set foot back in Winterfell girl! If he did not lock you up before, he will surely do it now.” Tormund boasted, the only one at ease with the inevitable reckoning that would take place between Jon and Arya.

“Arya, child,” it was her uncle to speak up gently, but she knew he was angry with her, “defying your king is treason, former brother or no.”

“And I will pay that price. But first, we will free our men.” She went to stand by the Hound, the only one besides Tormund who seemed to understand that she would do as she pleased. “Shall we begin?” She looked over the map expectantly.

“Now the Rock is taller than the Wall, and better manned. It will go hard trying to break in.” The Hound said, picking up where he left off.

“The Eyrie is said to be impregnable too,” her uncle chimed in, “but that is not so. Visenya Targaryen proved that when she took the Vale bloodless.”

“We don’t have dragons though,” Tormund said, “and my wildings are unaccustomed to this Rock more so than we are Winterfell.”

“What of Lannis Port?”  Arya asked, thinking of Bravos once more. “And there is another, smaller port at the base of Casterly Rock, is it not?”

“Aye, but the Rock is thick and high, even at the port’s edge.” The Hound stated confused.

“I don’t want to climb it, I want to enter through the port.”

“Are you mad, girl? You can’t just go through the port!”

“Why not? We’re on a ship, and the port is busy. Lannis Port is not so great a distance from the Rock itself. Northmen still need to trade, and I’m sure the men of the Westerlands aren’t so accustomed to gold that a few of them cannot be bought. While docked at Lannis Port, we can take a boat up to the base of Casterly Rock’s own port.”

“It just may work.” The Hound scratched his head thoughtfully. The mines and the old lion’s den is down deep in the base of the Rock, as are the sewers.”

“The sewer?!” Ser Davos balked. “You want us to climb through shit to get to your prisoners?”

“What’s the matter Davos? Is the smuggler afraid of getting dirty?” Tormund gave a laugh. “Aye, girl, it could work, but we’d need to be quick and silent.”

“I’ll go,” Arya said at once. “I’m quick and fast.”

“Aye, and silent as the devil.” Her uncle said. “I’ve been to Casterly Rock once, years ago, I figure I might still know my way around a bit. I’m coming with you.”

“I’m not letting you southerners have all the fun. Me and Thenn’ll go.” Tormund agreed.

“Ser Davos, if you can find a boat, I’d suggest booking passage to King’s Landing as soon as we get there. You should get Gendry before we reach the Rock. It’ll go harder for you to find him once the news of the escape reaches Cersei’s ears. She’ll most like double up on security.” Arya said. “And we don’t want to draw unnecessary attention by staying docked there too long.”

“Aye, I’ll find a boat. Don’t you worry,” he agreed. “I’ve had enough back tunnels and secret ports for a lifetime.”

“It is settled then. Sandor,” she turned her attention back to the map, “you will lead us.”

***

After a small supper, Arya entered her uncle’s chambers, where she would be staying for the remainder of the journey. They had spent the day planning, and she had no doubt that until they freed her men, every day would be spent in much the same manner. Having only worn the clothes on her back, Arya resolved to sleep in them.

“Oh no you don’t. There’s a night shirt in the base over there.” Her uncle gestured to a small wooden chest by the side of the door. “Little Cat,” her uncle’s blue eyes were worried.

“You’re going to lecture me.” She resigned herself to hear his words.

“I know you think yourself right, child. It is hard to reason with you Starks when you believe yourselves to be justified. And you’ve inherited your mother’s stubbornness. And your reasoning is honorable. But Jon is your king. He’s not just your cousin anymore. It’s treason to disobey him.”

“Jon is my brother; he would never harm me.” He can barely even speak to me nowadays her mind shouts back.

“He would not want to. But, child, when Robb cut off Lord Karstark’s head, it was one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make. He was king, he could have forgiven the man’s treason like he did your mother, but he chose to uphold his laws. He did not go back on his word, and it cost him the Karstark forces.”

“Alys is with us now.” She tries.

“Yes, but I wonder how many things could have been different if he hadn’t killed the man. Still, he had to uphold his word. I ask you not to make your cousin have to make that kind of choice. The boy has died for you once before. I know he would not kill you, but he must punish you. He cannot let treason stand. If you start doing it, others might think they can as well. I will protect you with my life, but I must also tell you when you are wrong.”

“Jon is wrong! I’m better at this than any of you, and I’ve spent years training for just this sort of thing. Jon knows this, yet he still forbids me.”

“It will take time for his heart to catch up to his head and realize you are not the little girl he left at Winterfell. But eventually, he will see it. Until then, you would do well to obey him.”

I promised father I would grow up. “I will,” she said solemnly. “I promise I will.”

***

Waking early, Sansa went to Arya’s chambers to see if her sister could help her sort out the provisions they would need for the upcoming wedding. She had also begun to sew Arya a dress for occasion and wanted to know her thoughts on the garment, trying in her own way to strengthen the delicate bond between them. Walking next door, she nodded to Nell as the maid seemed to linger in the hall before Arya’s chambers. Opening the door, Nell gasped as she and Sansa saw Nymeria sitting by the door, a resigned look on the wolf’s face. Upon their entrance, Nymeria rushed out of the door for a bit of freedom.

“Arya?” Fear tightened in Sansa’s chest. Gods, she didn’t. But in her heart Sansa knew her sister was not at Winterfell. Did you have to leave me to clean up your mess Arya? Taking a deep breath, Sansa prepared herself for the storm to come. “Get Jon.”

It takes no time at all for Jon to throw his clothes on, rushing towards Arya’s room, distress blooming in his chest. Arya’s maid had come bursting in his room before he was fully awake, shakily spewing nonsense about Arya not being in her room. Snatching up his sword, he had quickly overcome the maid as he walked the path from the Old Keep to Arya’s chambers. Ghost seemed unaffected, which calmed him a little. “Sansa,” Jon said out of breath, “what is it?”

Looking upon Jon’s face in fear, she uttered, “She’s gone.”

Rage overtook his face immediately. “WHAT?” I knew. In the back of his head, he was shouting at himself. Arya had never been easy in her life. I should have known she wouldn’t give up without a fight. He had wanted to believe that she was willing to stay in Winterfell, willing to stay with him. But she had gone to save Robert Baratheon’s bastard instead. What did he expect, after she had laid her feelings bare and shame had made him push her away? Will vengeance always take her from me? Will he? Pushing those thoughts aside, he ordered for all the lords to be summoned immediately. “I want to know who helped her.”

“What are you going to do?” Sansa asked worriedly.

“It is treason to defy your king.” He studied Longclaw intently, his eyes seeing only red.

“Jon, you can’t. These men are loyal.” Sansa pleads. It does little good, she cannot hope to reason with his rage at the moment.

“They may have sent Arya to her death!” I may never get the chance to tell her how I feel, to love her the way she deserves. He feels like a fool for keeping away from her all these weeks.

“She has survived before. My sister is far more capable than you give her credit for.” She tries to talk some sense into his stubborn head. But in the past, the only one who could make him see reason was Arya.

“Did you help her then?” He stalked toward her menacingly. “Trying to regain her favor?”

“What?! I did not!” She sputtered indignantly. “She left Nymeria. It’s most like that she went alone.”

“Alone? You expect me to believe that?”

“It’ll have to do until you can ask her yourself! Do not let your anger cloud your mind. A wise king does not go around accusing his lords of plotting and treason, otherwise there will be plotting and treason.” She walked to her room and shut the door. Jon thinks it is for the best that she is not around when he finds his voice again.

Before he fully registers what he is doing, his feet walk the path to the Godswood, Ghost and Nymeria falling in line behind him. “Did you know?” He asked Bran’s back.

Tangling his hands in Summer’s fur, Bran wheeled himself around to face Jon. “No.” He rubs a hand over his face, looking far older than his years. “But I suspected.”

“Why did you not warn me?”

“Jon,” Bran gave him a particularly unimpressed look, “you’ve known Arya longer than I have. You suspected she would do this too.”

He surveys the Godswood for a long moment. “Aye,” he sighed defeated, “but I hoped she wouldn’t.”

“Even if you had locked her in a tower, she would have found a way out. Arya is untamable.”

“Would that I could take back the days I fed into her wildness.”

“It kept her alive all these years, you know.” Bran smiled. “I will tell you when there is a real danger to you. But some things do not need to be told.”

“Aye, I know it.” Jon had the decency to blush at his earlier accusation of Bran. “I just want her safe.” With me. He is positive Bran heard the last part, though he did not say it out loud. He thinks perhaps Bran knows more about them than either he or Arya had ever said, but it doesn’t necessarily shame him. Targaryens wed brother to sister, and she is my cousin besides. Even Starks wed cousin to cousin and uncle to niece. It is the mantra he has been repeating in his head for the past several weeks, the thought that had given him enough courage to speak to her the night before at supper.

“Until the Others are vanquished, no one will ever be safe. I know you want to protect us, Jon. But winter is here and we are children no longer. You need to trust that she knows what she’s doing. Arya and Sansa have had far more practice dealing with these people than we have. Rickon on Skagos, me and you beyond the wall, “he shook his head, “Arya and Sansa will know how to fight the lordly battles better than us.”

“Arya thinks she can fight every battle. She seeks justice in everything and vengeance makes her judgment cloudy.”

“Yes,” Bran nodded in agreement, “but she has the strength to do what needs to be done. The question now is: do you have the strength to let her?”

Chapter Text

A port is never truly quiet, with all the activities going on from dusk til dawn, but Lannis Port was as still as it was going to get. Ser Davos had departed a fortnight ago, securing passage on a cog that would return to Lannis Port in two weeks’ time. The days after his departure had been rather slow, what with her party not being able to leave the ship and having to stay below deck lest they be recognized. She had been near crazed to get off of the ship, but she would not risk their safety, however, and thought it best to wait until he and Gendry were safely on board. When the cog’s familiar sails came in to view, she gave the signal to begin. The Hound and the Blackfish lowered a boat into the water as Tormund and Thenn did the same. She thought it fitting that they should be setting out to do their business at the hour of the wolf, the moon shining on them to light their path.

Lowering herself into one of the boats, Arya calmed her heart and let her mind take over. Calm as still water. Quiet as a shadow. She was glad that she had a strong stomach, for the stench approached them long before the port’s edge came into view. Fierce as a wolverine. When they finally entered inside a shallow lake, she let go of a breath she had been holding.

“No time to stop, I’m afraid.” The Blackfish exited the boat, securing it quickly and beckoning Tormund to do the same with the other. “Right. They’ll most like be in the dungeons, there should be mine shafts leading to a way inside the castle.” As Tormund and Thenn fell into step behind her, Arya marveled at the streaks of precious metal she could see all through the cave walls. Each ascent higher into the Rock showed decades’ worth of gold and resources that had not even been touched yet. The Lannisters will be rich long after even my children’s children are gone. The thought seemed so unfair. Arya herself had been raised in plenty, but all her life, she had seen the common people struggle. Her own people spent years preparing for Winter, yet it never seemed to be enough. If I had even a boat full of this, I could feed the North. Her father had long talked of how he wanted to re-stabilize the North with men settling the lands of the New Gift, and somehow providing glass gardens to all the keeps, not just the extremely wealthy ones. She could not dwell on her father’s dream though, for they were stopped abruptly by the Hound. A small workman’s station appeared to be abandoned, or left for the time being. “Right, now here’s the tricky part.” The Hound began. “That there ladder goes all the way up to the main entrance of the mine. Might be a guard there, might not. But once you get past the mine’s mouth, there’s sure to be guards around, and they’ll be suspicious of people coming out this time of night.”

There was silence for a moment. “I’ll go alone.” Arya spoke up. “I’ve studied the maps for a moon’s turn, and it wouldn’t raise much alarm if I’m the only one sneaking around.”

“Aye, but what’ll you do if they catch you?” Tormund asked. He finally seemed unwilling to go along with Arya’s plans.

“Then I’ll kill them.” She said it simply and touched the sword Bran had gifted her. “It’s going to be a long night. I’ll most like have to bring only a few prisoners with me at a time.”

“Arya, child.” Her uncle had not called her Little Cat, and it alerted her at once to his apprehension. He seemed to hesitate for a long moment before sighing and saying, “be careful.” He patted her shoulder and boosted her up to the ladder.

“Get ready for some company,” she whispered down, and then her braid whipped behind her as she vanished.

Prowling around Casterly Rock made her heart race, though she kept herself steady. I am a wolf; wolves are not afraid. Fear cuts deeper than swords. She had to admit that the Rock had its own kind of beauty. Everywhere she went, there was shadows and darkness, but she could make out the fine furnishing, the golden finishes of the walls and crimson adornments. I wanted to see the Hall of Heroes once upon a time. She could not go there now, though, and so she tracked her steps to the path that Sandor had said would lead to the dungeons.

As she approached, the stench was almost as bad as when they had crawled through the sewers to get there. She smelled blood and decay. It sent her into a fury, that her people and allies should be treated so. We will have justice. Before long, she reached a well-lit passageway full of Lannister guards. She counted at least a dozen soldiers in the guard room and saw that they were all awake and eating what looked like a late supper. She knew she had to kill all of them and quietly if she had any hope of sneaking everyone out of there. This is war, she had to remind herself, everything I do is for the North, for my people. She steeled her mind, and deliberately made a sound.

At once, the guards quieted. “Did ya hear that?” One of them said into the silence. She heard the shuffling of feet and the unmistakable sound of swords being unsheathed.

“Willem, Lance, Ryam go and see.” A different voice commanded. Almost immediately, three men rushed towards the room. She waited for the first one to emerge. His helmet was off, and she slashed his neck open easily with the Valyrian sword. The other two halted as he fell, stalking toward her more cautiously. She waited until they were fully in the room to reveal herself. She wounded the second one quickly, the third one rounding on her soon. Briefly, she and the man danced before he, too, fell to her blade.

When a voice called out from the room, she retreated back into the shadows to hide. The dance began again, alluding this man and that, drawing them out for slaughter one by one or two at a time. By now, the prisoners were alert and invested in what was going on. She could hear the northern and Riverland accents of many men as they questioned who was there. Was this person a savior, come to deliver them? Or another intent on doing them more harm? Snatching the keys off of a fallen soldier, Arya quickly ran to the prison gates and began opening their bars.

“God’s be good!” The GreatJon Umber, weak but still a hulking mass of a man, choked out. “Have the gods sent ghosts torment us now?”

“Not quite my lord.” Arya let out a twisted smile. “There is little time to explain. I need to get you all out.” She surveyed the prisoners as a good fifty men emerged from the cells. “Where is uncle Edmure?”

At hearing his name, Edmure Tully, haggard and half starved, made his way to her. “Arya?” His voice was skeptical; his sister’s youngest daughter was said to be missing or dead the last he had heard. But who else could it be? This girl was obviously a Stark, and Cat only had one dark child.

“Aye.” She took his hand, tugging him gently. “We must be quick and we must be silent. I will lead you, a few at a time, to a passageway. There we’ll enter the mines and make our escape.” Gathering Edmure and a few other men, she addressed the remaining party. “GreatJon, I’ll need you to stay here until the end. Hide the bodies and arm yourselves with their swords, get back in the cells and wait until I return.” She started walking towards the door, then turned around after a thought, “and if a man comes, kill him.”

It was slow work, getting her men quickly and quietly to the mine tunnel entrance that she had entered in. “Go all the way down until you see the abandoned workstation off to the left. From there, take the ladder down to the shallow pools, the Blackfish will be waiting for you.” Quickly the three men set out to do what she had commanded, but before she could turn around, her uncle had a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s not safe for you,” he said weakly, “I’ll go back and get the rest. You should return.”

“You are the Lord of Riverrun,” she gave a firm shake of her head, “if someone were to spot you, it would be over. I can handle myself. Now please, go.” She gave him a gentle shove and he relented.

She must have made about a half dozen trips, each more dangerous than the last. Every time she came back up, she was sure a Lannister man would be waiting for her, or Cersei herself, madly, for she knew the Queen was far away in King’s Landing. Finally, it was just the GreatJon and two men left to escort down to the mines. “Come on then.” Most of their journey was done in darkness and silence. It was only when they reached the outer hall leading to the mining did they come upon a few men. They were obviously not soldiers, just some drunken fools wandering around the keep. From the looks of their garments, they had to be wealthy, or even noblemen.

Startled at seeing Arya and the prisoners emerge, one of them cried out and ran the other way. The rest, however, prepared to make a stand and unsheathed their swords. Seven hells, there’s no time for this! She hated it, but the fight was unavoidable. Her men took on three of them at once while that left Arya with the other two. She tried to make their deaths as painless as possible, but the fight was sorely against them, as haggard and weak as her men were. They did eventually end the struggle and kill the noblemen with little fanfare or attention raised. “The other one will be back, we have to hurry!” She took the lead once more.

“Little Cat!” The Blackfish cried at seeing her lithe form climbing down the ladder, his relief a tangible presence in the air around them. Gripping her shoulders, he asked, “it is done then?”

“Aye, now comes the fun part.” She looked to the Hound and nodded for him to continue.

“Alright, back to padding through shit.” The Hound started to tell the prisoners the way to the stream where the boat was docked. “It’ll be hard going, and the stench’ll nearly kill you.” He made to lead the way.

“I’ll not follow a Lannister dog!” An indistinct voice out of the fifty escapees called out. Arya was outraged, she had the mind to tell whoever the man was that he could bloody well stay here then. But before she could, the Greatjon cut in.

“And how is it that this Lannister dog is helping the Ned’s girl rescue us? Williem you bloody shit, out of my way!” He went behind the Hound and nodded at him, “Well man, lead the bloody way!” There was no resistance then, all of them followed silently, gagging and waddling through the muck and grime to get to their freedom.

“Right, now the boats. We’ll need to make at least two trips.” Tormund jumped in and looked toward the men, “Who first?”

“Uncle Edmure, Lord Manderly,” Arya signaled at them and then pushed a dozen more men with them, and filled up the Blackfish’s boat as well. Waiting silently, they watched as Tormund and The Blackfish rowed the boat around to the port. It felt like it must have been hours before they even spotted them in the distance again, none daring to make a sound while they waited. Their own trip passed in much the same silence as they rowed ever so steadily back toward the ship.

When they all finally made contact with the ship’s deck, the captain gave the order to raise the anchor. It would have been a welcome relief had not fires from the main dock been brightening, and Lannis Port came alive with activity. “Captain, get us out of here now!” Arya shouted, but the men were raising the anchor as fast as they could. She saw that the chain was coming up out of the water and pretty soon, they would be stuck inside the port. “Captain, NOW!” Came her commands. Still, it would not raise fast enough.

“Bloody hell!” The Hound yelled and dived into the water.

“SANDOR!” Arya shouted, fear in her voice. She did not want him sacrificing himself for this, for somehow, she had come to depend on him. He resurfaced after a short time, however, the weight of the anchor having been cut free from the ship. They were beginning to sail at increasing speed, the ship now moving further and further away from the Hound as men quickly threw a rope in the water to him. He was just barely able to grab it, and holding on for his life, he was pulled up out of the water as they plowed over the chain’s ascent. All through the night, they could hear the bells tolling as Lannis Port faded into a distant memory. When he was finally aboard ship, Arya tackled him in a hug. “Are you bloody insane?! You nearly got yourself stranded there! Then what would have happened to you?!”

“Aye, better to leave one man behind than get us all killed. Haven’t you gotten that through your head yet, wolf bitch?” He wasn’t mad, not truly, but he was right. Arya had never truly come to terms with leaving someone behind. She was always so sure that somehow everyone could be saved. Mayhap it was because she had lost so many already.

Stubbornly, she turned away and addressed the men instead. “There’s quarters below deck for all of you, and food and fresh clothes as well.”

“She-wolf,” called GreatJon Umber, “you saved us, and in return I vow to avenge your brother, the king, and win back your ancestral seat.” He dropped to one knee before her.

“Rise, Lord Umber. There is much to discuss. Many things have changed, but that talk can wait until you all have had food and a night’s sleep.” At her dismissal, the men went below deck to take advantage of their new found freedom. The scene however had made a certain blue eyed smith look upon interest at the large man kneeling in front of a wisp of a girl.

“Who’s that?” Gendry asked Ser Davos.

“Their savoir, and yours. Her cousin is the king I was telling you about. Tomorrow we’ll get you and the men up to speed on everything that’s been happening in Westeros. I doubt the gossips of Flea Bottom have gotten most of it right.” Ser Davos knew of their previous connection, but he was hesitant to inform Gendry just who the girl really was. He had seen the fires burning in Jon’s eyes where Arya Stark was concerned. And he knew that if the Stormlands had any hope, Gendry Baratheon would need to stay alive.

“The stories they tell are as confusing as they are stupid.” Gendry agreed. “Still, I’d like to thank her.” He hadn’t taken his eyes off the girl, even as she strode toward a group of seasoned warriors. Something in the way she walked and the outline of her back made him stare. I know this girl. The thought came to him suddenly. He dared not hope. “What’s her name?”

Looking at Gendry curiously, Ser Davos was wary. It would not do for Gendry to go getting soft in the head for the Stark girl. She and her sister both seemed to inspire men to do foolish things with their wit and beauty, not to mention that Gendry’s usefulness hinged on him marrying little Shireen and becoming the lord of Storm’s End. Still, he told him the girl’s name just the same. “Arya. Arya Stark.”

The reaction in Gendry was immediate. He snapped his head back and forth from Davos to Arya. Before he could even catch himself, he was running up to her shouting “Arry! Arry!” When she turned around, he was met with the most beautiful pair of steel gray eyes.

In truth, the exhaustion from the night’s events had made Arya momentarily forget that she would soon be reunited with her blue eyed friend. But hearing that old name from a former life in a voice she had believed to be dead, she was once again reminded of her time in Harrenhall and travelling with the Brotherhood. Turning around, she saw that Gendry was bounding towards her. Despite the curious stares of both her uncles, she ran up to him, happy despite everything. “Gendry!” she leapt into his arms and he raised her high above the ship’s deck. “I thought you dead for sure, but Davos said you were in Flea Bottom all this time!”

Setting her down, he took the time to really look at her. “I though you dead, Arry. Now Davos tells me you have a king for a cousin and you’re out leading rescue missions.” He laughed to himself. “I’ve missed you, Arry.”

Smiling, she cupped his cheek, “I missed you too Gendry.”

“I’m sorry.” He set her down. “For everything. I--I shouldn’t have left you.”

“In the end, you didn’t have a choice, Gendry. Neither of us did.” Glancing back at the curious stare of her uncles, Tormund, and Thenn, she took his hand. “Come. There’s some people I want you to meet.”

Davos had wandered over to the pair as well. “You already know Ser Davos and the Hound, and this is Tormund Giantsbane, a wilding, and Magnor of Thenn, another wilding!” Her voice held childish excitement. He nodded along and received curious stares form the two men. “And this is my uncle, the Blackfish, he has his own sigil! And my uncle Edmure, lord of Riverrun.” At hearing those two formidable names, Gendry dropped to his knees.

“My lords,” he said, bowing his head.

“Rise, rise,” Blackfish helped him to his feet. “I have heard much of you. And I must thank you for being a friend to my niece during her time on the run.” His voice was courteous enough, but his words almost seemed to hold a warning behind them.

“Har! Good thing this one’ll be taken soon; otherwise Lord Snow might lock him in a tower as well.” Tormund jested and Thenn laughed along.

“What?” Gendry asked in confusion.

“It’s nothing,” Arya said while she glared at Tormund.

“C’mon then.” The Hound intervened. “I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.” The journey was quiet until they got to a door the Hound motioned him into. Just before Gendry could turn the handle, the Hound stoped him with a firm hand on his shoulder. “The girl…you have to let it go. Maybe once upon a time, it could have happened…but not now.”

“What?” Gendry tried to feign surprise.

“You bloody well know what! Now I’ve sworn to protect her and her sister, but if her cousin finds out you’ve been sniffing around her, it’s you that’ll need the protection, so don’t do it. This is war, boy, and we’ve all got a part to play.”

“I’d never dishonor Arya!” Gendry said heatedly, “Besides, she’s a lady and I’m just a bastard.”

“Not for long,” the Hound sighed, “just remember what I said, boy. Keep your touches brief and your words respectable.” Before Gendry could ask what “not for long” meant, the Hound was gone and he was alone.            

Chapter Text

The sea breeze was a welcome respite from the dank atmosphere of Casterly Rock’s dungeons, but the men did not stand sky gazing for long. After a night of merriment, hopefulness had once again taken root in their heart and they were ready to finish the work that was to be done. It was on this matter that all aboard ship, save crew and captain, now gathered to hear Arya’s words.

“The she-wolf has come to lead us.” A thick northern accent called out when Arya appeared, exhausted but seemingly in good spirits.

She smiled in answer then prepared herself for the tasks at hand. Taking a deep breath, she raised her voice and tried to remember how her father would speak about important matters. “You all have been long imprisoned, and much has happened since you have been away. I ask you to listen to all the words I must say and take them as true. On my honor as a Stark, as a Tully, I ask that you hear these words, and heed them.”

Everyone looked at her curiously. She had strategically positioned Lord Davos, the Blackfish, Tormund, Thenn, and the Hound behind her, as if to add physical evidence that she was not the only one to know her story to be true. Valar Dohaeris. Taking a deep breath, she spoke. “My father is dead, my mother is dead, Robb is dead.” Her voice broke at the end, but she forced herself to continue. “But Bran and Rickon and Sansa are in Winterfell once more. Many of you know Jon Snow to be my father’s bastard, sired during Robert’s Rebellion. That is a lie. Jon is not my brother, he is my cousin, the son of my aunt Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. My father, knowing Robert Baratheon would kill Jon, hid his identity and raised him as his own.” Here were many shocks and gasps, much that Arya had come to expect when telling this almost fantastical tale. She forged ahead. “My lords, please, there is much more to say and I would beg you to let me finish.” Once the ship had quieted, she continued. “House Stark has decided to support Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne. Along with us, the Tully banners, led by my uncle, the Blackfish, and the Knights of the Vale, who have been sheltering Sansa since her escape from King’s Landing, have also pledged their swords to our cause. Shireen Baratheon is now the sole survivor of her house since her father’s death. Gendry, that is where you come in.”

She beckoned him forward, ashamed that she would have to thrust this upon him, and with an audience too. But time was not on their side, and she hadn’t even gotten to the real threat yet. Once standing in front of her, Gendry asked, “Yes, Arya?”

“Gendry is the bastard son of Robert Baratheon.” She spoke to the lords, but her eyes were only for him. “Shireen Baratheon has requested that Jon, as king, legitimize Gendry and marry the two so that they may travel back to Storms’ End and unite the Stormlands. My cousin will not force you, I will not force you. We only ask that you consider it.”

He was quiet for a long moment, and Aya felt that she might scream if he didn’t say something soon. After hat felt like an eternity to her, he hesitantly answered, “I will follow your cousin. And yes, I will do what needs to be done.”

“Excellent.” She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. She dropped his hand and refocused her eyes on the lords. “Now, we still have a war to fight. Cersei Lannister blew up the great Sept of Baelor, killing much of House Tyrell, Margaery included. It drove Tommen to suicide. She has crowned herself queen.”

“We’ll knock the Lannister’s down for good this time!” Lord Manderly’s heir answered, riling the men up.

“She is not our only threat, my lord. Daenerys Targaryen has landed on Dragonstone and combined forces with a pretender. The boy claims to be the long-dead Aegon Targaryen, Rhaegar’s first born son. The Reach and Dorne have united behind them.” She paused. “Still, this war for the throne is not the real threat. The cold winds are rising, winter is coming. And with it, the dead will come as well. We must be ready for them. It is time for the War for the Dawn.”

There was much speculation and confusion at this, but the question that she knew would inevitably come up, finally did, but she had not expected it from her own kin. “Arya,” her uncle Edmure spoke up, “Jon is not your mother’s son, and he joined the watch as well. How do you expect us to fight for him?”

It was her uncle Blackfish to answer him, and it finally showed Arya just why men feared him so. His voice was cold, and it brooked no argument. “Seven hells! He’s not Catelyn’s son and he’s not Ned’s either! Or didn’t you hear the girl say that?” He came to circle the prisoners, surveying them as one would do a child. “I know you lot have been out of commission for a while, but the war never stopped, not for me. And as long as I’m still standing, this war is far from over! The Boltons had some girl pretending to be Arya and the boy was going to leave The Watch to save her. Only his black brothers killed him before they could. Now the way I see it, and the way the northmen, the lords of the Vale, the riverlords, and Shireen Baratheon sees it, once he died and came back, he was released from his vows. And if you lot need proof of his legitimacy, it’s in Winterfell, ask for it if you so wish.” He paused, to survey every man present, then pointed to Arya.  “Here stands the girl who saved you. But that is not all she did. She killed Walder Frey, and helped my men avenge the Red Wedding. She took the Twins and Riverrun too. Not to mention she saved your son,” he jabbed a finger at Edmure,” from being killed by his own Frey kin! Now this girl asks us to follow her cousin. I have made my decision, it’s time you lot make yours.” Her uncle walked out, not looking back once.

“My lords,” she put on a sweet voice that juxtaposed harshly with the scene her uncle had just displayed, “the choice is yours, and you have until we reach White Harbor to decide. Most of the northmen are in Winterfell already, and that is where we are heading. Should you choose not to support your liege lord, my brother Brandon Stark or my uncle Brynden Tully, and your king, my cousin Jon Targaryen, then you are welcome to go back to your keeps and hole up until winter.” Her voice dropped lower and grew cold, “but I would remind each of you that you are pledged to House Stark and House Tully, sworn to answer when called upon.” Not having anything else to say, she followed her uncle’s retreat.

The next few days passed by slowly for her. And by the time they had docked in White Harbor, she had told and retold the stories of their lives so many times. Men wanted to know about the Battle of the Bastards, or where Bran and Rickon had been, how Sansa had escaped Kings Landing, how she herself had managed to survive all this time, and most were keen to hear the tale of her wolves aiding in the Battle for Riverrun. Those who knew Jon did not ask about his character, for they had witnessed his solemn ways first hand. But most of the river lords wanted to know what kind of a man he was, would he be good to them? Would he be a just ruler? It all exhausted her, but she was glad they at least showed an interest in what she was saying.

Of course she had dealt with the skeptics and non-believers too. Gendry himself had hurt her pride by suggesting that maybe Jon didn’t actually die, not in the way they had seen Beric die, at least. It was then that she told him of Melisandre and how the Red Witch was in Winterfell. Gendry’s eyes had gone wide at that, but she hastened to explain that he would not be harmed. After that, he had sought her out more so as friend, like the times of old. It was on one such occasion that he now addressed her.

“I don’t know if I can be a lord, Arya.”

“You don’t have to.” She looked at him in understanding. “Jon promised me that you could refuse, live a simple life if you so wanted.”

“No, no.” Gendry shook his head, “once you asked me to come with you and help your brother, and I didn’t. I won’t make the same mistake again; I’ll serve your cousin. I promise.” She just sighed at that and looked out at the sea. “So, what’s the name of this castle again? The one I’m supposes to live in?”

“Storm’s End.”

“And why do they call it that?

“Because that’s where the storms end.” She smiled up at him. “You know, kind of like how Winterfell is called Winterfell. Because that’s where winter falls. And Riverrun. The rivers run straight through it.” She looked out into the depths of the blue ocean and smiled, thinking of her families in both of the castles she had just mentioned. “Legend has it that Durran from the Age of Heroes earned the wrath of the sea god and the wind goddess when he took their daughter Elenei to wed. So the gods sent the sea to the storm lands to destroy him. Durran built his keep seven times before it could withstand their storms, and only after Bran the Builder showed him how to do it.” Arya became quiet. It was not her place to educate Gendry on his new homeland and heritage. Let his wife do that, he said he’d have the girl. It was a bitter taste in her mouth, to find that Gendry would always leave her for glory or someone else.

“So I guess the Starks and Baratheons, we’ve been friends for quite some time now?” He nudged her shoulders and smiled at her.

“Well…. technically Durran was a Durrandon. But yes, we have. I’m sure Shireen can tell you more about it. She knows your history far better than I ever could.” Getting up quickly, Arya made to go below deck. Gendry did not follow, but looked after her in confusion.

“You’re a good lad.” Ser Davos said, breaking him out of staring at Arya’s retreating form. “But you have to let the Stark girl go.”

“I don’t know what you’re taking about.” Gendry said defensively. “I was just asking about—“

“I know what you were doing.” Ser Davos leveled him with a look, and Gendry found himself breaking under it.

“It’s just, well, I’ve never been anything, save an orphan from Flea Bottom. Then when the gold cloaks were after us both, Arya kept my secret as I kept hers.” He smiled at the memory. “She even convinced them that they had killed me already, so I’d be safe.”

“Aye, the Stark girl is clever.” Ser Davos said worriedly. “I do not deny that one bit. And I’m not so old now that I can’t remember what it’s like to be taken by a set of pretty eyes and a fine face, especially when the girl has a force to match her beauty. But Arya Stark is not for you.” He looked to Gendry in pitying understanding then. Gendry hated it.

“Arya never cared that I was a bastard,” he found himself saying. “And now you want to put a wife and a castle on me. Lord paramount of the Storms Lands! Gods, I had dreams of being a knight once, but never this. I could be worthy of her now.” He looks startled that he even said that bit out loud, and to Ser Davos no less. “I mean—I know that I would need to wed the Baratheon girl to become a lord. It all makes sense now, what the Hound and even you spoke of when you first rescued me. This is everything I’ve ever wanted since I knew what wanting was.” He sighed, running a hand through his thick black hair. “You don’t have to tell me that she isn’t for me. I’ve known all along that she was never mine to begin with.”

“Listen, Shireen is, well she’s no beauty. As a babe she had greyscale, and a scar still remains on her face.” Ser Davos sighed and sat beside him. “But the girl is good. She is kind and smart and she cares little for pomp and circumstance like most young girls do. I know you may never come to love her but, be good to her.”

Gendry saw that the man spoke of his betrothed with real affection. “I will.” He vowed. He had never really thought of marriage until he had met Arya, and even then it was only to think of how stupid he was. Then Ned Dayne had come along and he had really known how impossible it was between them. But if this highborn girl wanted him, and if she was kind like Davos said, well Gendry would count himself lucky and do his duty by her. He resolved to put Arya Stark out of his head. Nothing good would come from it, she was always too good for him anyway.

***

“Escaped?! What on earth do you mean escaped?!” The lioness was furious as she shouted at the haggard group on men before her. They had come straight from Casterly Rock to inform her of the incident that had happened in the dungeons there. Her long golden spun hair cascaded around her in waves and her green eyes were akin to a storm of wildfire as she looked upon the men with obvious disdain. “Do you mean to tell me that all of Robb Stark’s northern and riverlands banner men have been freed from the cells my father put them in? HOW?!”

“Accounts do vary, your grace.” One of the soldiers timidly began.

“There was a slew of murdered guards and some noblemen found dead as well.” Another chimed in.

“One got away though. Said he and his friends were headed to the mine to have a bit of sport when they saw a tall man and a brown eyed girl coming from the way of the dungeons. They fought them, they did, but he managed to get away, and by the time he came back with guards, they were gone and his friends lay dead.” The first man explained.

“A girl and a tall man?” Cersei laughed nastily. “Is this what my father’s legacy has fallen to? Prison breaks and noble lords slain in my castle? Lord Qyburn, I present to you, two new gifts to add to your experiments.” Cersei said as the Mountain seized both men and followed Qyburn to his lair, neither of them uttering a word.

“Was that really necessary?” Jaime drawled out when they were left alone. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘don’t shoot the messenger?’”

“Damn the phrase and damn the messenger! This is Tyrion’s fault.”

“How on earth did you come to that conclusion? Tyrion is a dwarf, that doesn’t sound anything like a brown haired girl or a tall man.”

“If father were alive, men would not dare go to Casterly Rock, men would not dare contest us.”

“He was going to die eventually Cersei.” Jamie said reasonably.

“Yes but after we had defeated all our enemies, after we had a chance to establish our dynasty. Now he’s gone, with mother and our children, dust in the wind.”

“I do believe it was you that turned them to dust when you blew up the Sept of Baelor.”

“The Tyrells had their claws in Tommen, and the High Sparrow would have persecuted me. There was no other way. How could I know that Tommen would jump? He was my soft boy.” She sighed, her eyes sad. “He should not have done that. Joff would not have done that to me.”

“Cersei—“

“No matter,” she quickly collected herself and poured a glass of wine. “I have no doubt this was some northern plot. The Starks are in Winterfell once more as the people are want to remind us. It seems they will not be so easy to kill this time around.”

Seeing that Cersei would not speak of her emotions any longer, Jaime sighed. “Yes, it appears the Starks will be coming for us once more. Perhaps you should agree to the meeting now.”

“With Ned Stark’s bastard leading them.”

“Tsk, now Cersei, I know you read the raven scroll. He is Jon Targaryen now, risen form the dead, free of his vows and now the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen.”

“Is this all a joke to you?” Cersei looked at him with open contempt. “Need I remind you that Daenerys Targaryen has landed on Dragonstone with her supposed nephew, Rhaegar’s first son mind you, a host of Dothraki, Unsullied, three dragons, and our treacherous little brother? Or that the Tyrells and Martells have flocked to them?”

“You do not. I know full well the dangers that await us.” Jaime snapped. Thinking better of it, he softens his tone instead. “We must yield to the wolves or be devoured by them.”

She shot him a look so contemptuous that, were he a lesser man, he might have flinched. “A lion does not yield.”

“Then we have only one choice; we must leave Westeros.”

Never.

“Cersei, think of it, a life free from prying eyes, we’d be free to be together, to be just us.”

“I am a Lannister before I am anything else, even before I am yours. I paid for this crown with the lives of my children, with my own life, I will not abandon it.”

“This is madness! I killed her father and you certainly made Tyrion’s life more than a little hard. Do you think we will find sympathy from them? Not to mention that Joffrey cut off Ned Stark’s head and everyone knows that father persuaded Walder Frey to betray Robb Stark. Do you imagine they will have us?’’

“I never said I would align with either of them. I will destroy them, and any who get in my way.”

“The girl has three dragons and the Dothraki, you said it yourself! And the Starks have the support of the Vale and the Riverlands, and our campaign in the Stormlands is weak at best. They have not sent Shireen Baratheon there yet, but it is only a matter of time. Tygil will not be able to hold them once she lands there.”

“Dragons have been killed before. Or need I remind you that it was the common people of Flea Bottom that stormed the dragon pit during the Dance of Dragons?” She arched a lovely eye brow. “And Qyburn has assured me that he will have a device ready to combat her dragons in a few moon’s time. As for the rest of them, I’ll burn them all.”

Jamie’s face turned ashen white as she uttered the phrase. “Surely you jest. You can’t burn all the people of Westeros.”

“I’ll burn anyone who gets in my way. We must either fight or die. I know my choice, the solider should know his!”

Taking a deep breath, Jaime tried to calm himself. Cersei was just scared, just like he was. He could not fault her for wanting to keep the throne. She had paid for it in more ways than one. He remembered nights of listened to that drunken oaf Robert defile his sister, he remembered all the titters and disapproving looks of the nobility always directed at himself and Cersei, to their backs of course, but the looks were still there. “Do we have enough time for whatever it is you’re planning?”

“We will. Write back to Winterfell, tell them we will attend their council.”

“And when we meet them there, what will we do?”

 “I told you, whatever gets in our way, we’ll stop it. Tycho Nestor shall be here soon, then we’ll be ready to travel. Mayhaps I can end things at the council like father did with the Red Wedding. Would you like that, if I only burned them and left your precious little common people alone?”

“You think them foolish enough to bring their entire hosts?”

“Of course not. But men are fools, the lot of them. And once I have killed all their leaders, we will make quick work of their armies, should they be stupid enough to stand against us.”

“And just how do you suggest we do that? All we have are the gold cloaks and the Lannister army, that will surely not be enough.”

“Euron Greyjoy—“

“Euron Greyjoy!” Jaime interrupted her, looking at her as if seeing her anew. “The man is mad! He performed a blood ritual in the middle of Oldtown before disappearing off to the gods know where. What on earth makes you think you can rely on him? Or even want to?”

“His visit to me.” Cersei said as Jaime’s face displayed his shock. She had never told him what exactly had transpired once she and Euron had left the throne room, all Jaime knew was that Euron had sailed that day from King’s Landing, and scarce else had been heard of him. “He wants the Iron Throne, and only I can give it to him.”

“How so?” Jaime said, mouth growing dry, but deep down, he knew what she was going to say next.

“Daenerys certainly cannot, for she has already married Aegon. So Euron has aligned with me instead. He commands the Iron Fleet as well as a dragon.”

“You speak nonsense; Daenerys has the dragons.” He shook his head.

“For now, but he has assured me that his little trip to Oldtown has allowed him to steal one of her dragons. The other two will be killed. And as for the Dothraki and the Unsullied, they are not the only armies across the Narrow Sea. Euron travels there now to acquire the Second Sons and the Storm Breakers.”

“You would marry him?” Jaime asked with astonishment evident in his voice, for he saw that she was serious.

“For a time.” Cersei said, then walked out onto her balcony, effectively ending the conversation and dismissing him.

Before he could exit the room however, she turned back to him. “I will always be yours, Jaime. But never ask me to give up being a Lannister. It is a part of us, if we aren’t Lannisters, then we are nothing. And I did not suffer my whole life to be just nothing.”

***

Rickon was anxious, and it showed in Shaggydog. The wolf was well-nigh untamable, a mass of black fur and green eyes that burned. Nymeria’s presence could calm her brother when he was taken to fits of rage, but his master was not so lucky. Every day that Arya was gone was felt most heavily in Winterfell. Jon stalked the halls, sullen as ever, and Rickon could see that things were becoming tense between him and Sansa.

“You don’t care about her!” He had overheard Jon shouting once. “Just admit it, you never have and you never will.” She had slapped him then, hard. And a red bruise had been on his face the next time Rickon had met him face to face.

“How dare you! Of course I care, but I can’t- I can’t just sit around and fret over it. Arya left. Ok? She left. And someone has to rule while she’s gone! We can’t just let the world fall to ruin. You can’t let this darkness consume you. You’re obsessed with her!”

From his spot behind the door, Rickon couldn’t see Jon’s face, but he could guess that his eyes burned bright. His voice was low as he spat with disdain, “Get out.”

Things had been tense between the two eldest after that, and each day the string between them threatened to snap and unleash a world of chaos. In a way, he was almost happy for the raven that came in Arya’s absence. It had been addressed to Jon Targaryen and bore a three headed dragon sigil as well as a lion of Lannister. Jon had called a council meeting to discuss what his men had dubbed “Tyrion’s trap.” Lord Tyrion, who Rickon soon found out was the same Tyrion that was Sansa’s husband, invited Jon to Dragonstone to meet his alleged aunt and brother and to bend the knee to them.

There had been an uproar at Tyrion’s supposed mockery of Jon’s parentage, and many took insult to the casual way he brought up Sansa’s name, remarking that he wanted Jon to “give his regards to Lady Lannister.” Sansa herself had quieted that storm and spoke of Tyrion’s compassion during her time at the capitol and confirmed that he held no love for his sister, the queen. Still, men were angry at the denial of Jon’s rightful place on the throne.

“They mean to waive this pretender around and usurp our king.” Lord Glover had said, rising up. “I. Will. Not. Have. It!!” Many men had agreed, and shouts of “the White wolf,” and the “North remembers” soon threatened to drown out Jon’s pleas for peace.

“This is good.” Sansa had said in that gentle manner of hers that Rickon could faintly remember. “Let them think the idea of friendship was theirs. His grace will of course deny their invitation to Dragonstone, and suggest a meeting place of his own. I believe my sister has spoken of Harrenhal.” She had spoken the words sweetly enough, but she had not even looked at Jon since entering the room.

“Sansa is right.” Jon acknowledged, and Rickon saw that it was as close to a truce as they were going to get. “Maester Wolken, prepare a raven to Lord Tyrion.”

“Shouldn’t we wait until the lady Arya is back?” Lyanna Mormont spoke up.

“There’s no time.” Jon’s face had twisted up with grief at the mention of Arya. “Winter is coming and we must have this settled.”

But that had been almost three weeks ago, and a raven had finally come from King’s Landing with Cersei declaring him a lying usurper. Soon after, however, tales had reached them of the most extraordinary nature, where more than three dozen prisoners from the War of the Five King’s had been freed with none the wiser as to who had done it. Some said it was the Imp, still seeking revenge on Cersei. Others told a tale of a monstrous wolf devouring the men and bewitching the castle and sending it into a deep slumber.

In any case, he would know what happened soon enough. A ship had docked at White Harbor a few day’s past and raven had been addressed to Sansa in Arya’s hand. She had told Sansa to prepare rooms for the newly freed lords, their uncle Edmure and Lord Manerly’s heir some among them. She had begged forgiveness from her siblings for her deceit and any stress it may have caused but made no mention of anyone by name. She signed the letter only as “Needle,” as a clear message meant for Jon. That had seemed to expel the black cloud on his cousin’s heart, but as her arrival approached, he was soon taken over with melancholy. Rickon knew Jon would have to punish Arya for running away like that, but he hoped the penance would not be more than she could bear.

It was on this account that he found himself in the Old Keep, outside Jon’s personal chambers, standing face to face with a wilding as he asked for entry. The man smiled at Rickon and gave him a once over at his “free folk” styled clothing and knocked on the door. At Jon’s summons, he entered. “Rickon,” Jon said as he looked up from his desk filled with papers, “is everything alright?”

Taking a deep breath Rickon sat in front of Jon. He put on his strongest, most respectful voice possible and said, “Do you have to punish her?” Quickly adding, “you grace,” to the end.

Setting the papers down, Jon waved a hand over his face. He looked as if he had not slept in days. “Yes.” He said quietly. He walked up and looked out of the window. “Where is Shaggy?”

“Roaming the woods.” Rickon replied, defeat evident in his voice. It made Jon turn around and study his young cousin quietly. “He’s….. restless without her here.”

“Aye, aren’t we all.” Sitting back down, Jon looked at Rickon thoughtfully. “You were just a babe when we all left, and you have spent most of your time with Osha in the company of the Skagosi. But I have to do this. The world we are a part of dictates that she must be punished.” The words pained him to even say.

“But why?” Rickon pleaded, sounding his actual age. “You’re a king!”

“The king can’t just do as he likes, Rickon love.” Sansa had swept into the room like a spring breeze. Her long black dress trimmed with black fur made her look fearsome, and her red hair seemed to make it look as if she had been set ablaze.

“Sansa,” Jon straightened and put his formal voice back on. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Rickon saw that there was no actual pleasure in their encounter.

“I came to speak to you of Arya.” She was resolute, and stood firm.

“Say it and be done.” Jon was cold, colder than Rickon had ever been on those long nights spent in Skagos, wishing for the family he had lost.

“Her plan has worked.” Sansa produced a raven scroll that looked new. “Jamie Lannister has written to confirm Cersei’s willingness to meet with us. No doubt because of reports of Arya’s ingenuity.” She handed Jon the scroll. “Now, we need only pick a place. Arya suggested Harrenhal some time ago, and I have to agree that the castle would be suitable. I’ve taken the liberty of acquiring Lord Baelish’s blessing since he technically holds the castle and titles.” She ruffled Rickon’s hair and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before taking her leave.

“Sansa didn’t help her you know.” Rickon said it hesitantly as Jon was staring at the letter intently.

Sighing, Jon waved a hand over his face again. He looked like what little memory Rickon had of his late father. “I know.” He said it quietly. “In truth, I don’t know how to fix things with Sansa. You’re too young to know, but the relationship with me and Sansa was always… different.”

“I remember.” Rickon could recall the times when they were all playing some game or another, save Sansa. Or when she would swoon over her “valiant brothers” and always leave Jon out. Sansa had always been a lady, but Arya had always been a companion to the boys. Rickon could remember sneaking tarts from the kitchen with her and Bran, or following in behind Robb and Jon. “But you could be nicer. Everyone we have lost, she has lost too.”

Jon sighed and looked so sad at that. “It’s as if she doesn’t care that we might lose Arya too.”

“She cares,” Rickon replied instantaneously. “Sometimes, I hear her praying in the Godswood, and I hear her crying when she thinks no one around.”

“I fear I have let the darkness consume me.” Jon said it hesitantly. As if he could not believe he was confessing this to his youngest cousin. “But this is not your burden to bear. I will make amends with Sansa and Arya, somehow.” He smiled then, but it did not reach his eyes. Nodding, Rickon took his leave, praying that Arya’s return will dispel the darkness he sees in Jon’s soul.

Chapter Text

The sweetest thing had always been returning to Winterfell, and Arya could not help but think it would be even sweeter after the past few years. It was a week’s ride to the castle from White Harbor, and all of her rescued men had agreed to make the journey with them. It gladdened her heart, but she did not know what to expect from them once they reached the gates. Some of the men were loyal, and recognized that Jon was still a Stark, if not her father’s bastard. Others had been intimidated by the Blackfish’s speech and his clear message that everyone else in the Riverlands and the North had made their choice: Jon or nothing.

She had spied her uncles bickering in the Blackfish’s tent two nights past, if one could even call it that.

“I won’t kneel to him.” Edmure had said. “Cat didn’t even like the boy. And we don’t know what kind of king he will be. Why not have a crown myself, eh?”

“Your sister, may the Seven rest her soul, didn’t like the fact that her husband paraded his bastard around. She is gone, Hoster is gone, and Lysa too. All that remains of House Tully is us and your babe. Now little Cat and I have cleaned up the Riverlands for you and I’ll be damned if I let your arrogance lose it for us again. Or do you forget your blunders at the Stone Mill? I’d imagine that campaign would not go well for you.” Edmure had gone silent at that, but the Blackfish forged ahead. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about you getting your glory. You will serve the man who Robb named as his heir, you will support his claim to the Iron Throne, and you will do your duty to your people.”

I am the lord of the Riverlands, not you. Or don’t you remember uncle?”

“Aye, and I’m the man who got the Riverlands back. You be careful now boy.” The Blackfish had put both of his hands on Edmure’s shoulder, “you be very careful. He is the king we need. You will serve him, as he is cousin to your sister’s children. Family, duty, honor. You’ve always said the words, but today it’s time you start living by them.”

She hadn’t heard anything more said between them on the matter, but her uncle Edmure had asked Arya about her time in Winterfell, and her opinions of Jon. She was most certainly the wrong person to ask if he wanted an unbiased opinion. Arya had always loved Jon more than anything, and it flowed out of her. But it was not all happy. She had told the men of her disobedience to the king, and how she would have to be punished. The men had seemed to understand that it was a necessary evil. But Gendry asked if she could not persuade him to be lenient. “No,” she had said. “I disobeyed him, that cannot stand. I will take whatever punishment Jon gives me.” In truth, she had thought of little else in her spare time. Jon wasn’t the boy she had left in the North, and he was a king now too. She wondered how it would be between them, after the kiss and her disobedience, and it frightened her. It made her fret the closer they got the Winterfell. She would practice with Dark Sister every time the made camp to relieve some of the tension in her body. The blade had been its own little credit to her story of Jon’s parentage, Valyrian steel and a bright golden hilt and ruby jewel at the center. The men saw her with it and proclaimed her their warrior princess, their night wolf who had padded through the dungeons of Casterly Rock to save them.

But riding into the gates of Winterfell now, she finds there are fresh tears threatening to fall once more. Still on horseback, she watched as all her freedmen, Edmure included, dismount and drop to one knee in front of Jon. Her heart swelled when he bade them rise and men were reunited with their families once more. Seeing that Davos was introducing Gendry to Jon and Shireen, she took the opportunity to dismount herself and speak with Sansa, Bran, and Rickon before having to face Jon.

“Arya,” Sansa hugged her, “we were worried. Jon was furious, you should not have done that.” Arya felt as if she were a child once more and her mother were giving her a lecture. “But we are always proud of your accomplishments.” Sansa smiled softly and passed her off to Bran.

“I see the sword served you well.” He gave a satisfied nod.

“Were you watching me?” She laughed at the thought of Bran looking through the eyes of some pitiful Godswood down in the Westerlands.

“No, but you have a thirst for blood, much like the weapon you wield.” Dropping the smile, he studied her carefully, “you’ll get through this, Arya. I promise.”

Before she could reply, Rickon bounded into her arms. “I’m so glad you’re back! Please don’t leave like that again. Jon and Sansa were at odds and Bran spent all his time in the Godswood! Shaggy and I were miserable.” Rickon pouted like the boy of two and ten he almost was.

She ruffled his hair. “I promise, you wild little wolf. I won’t sneak off again.”

“Good.” He beamed at her.

She knew not to push her luck too much, and so she turned back to Jon. Walking up to him, she bowed low and looked up into his eyes. “Your grace,” she let out softly.

His emotions flinted through his eyes at lightning speed. She read anger and sadness, resignation and relief, but most of all, hurt. “Escort the lady Arya to her chambers.” Val and Alys walked up to her then and she bristled at the fact that they would be leading her, but she went to her room silently.

Everyone present was looking at the scene intently. She saw that it was in a few men to intervene, but Arya had made it clear that she would carry out her sentence. It was also painfully obvious to anyone that cared to look that Jon would never truly hurt Arya, even as angry with her as he was. Men had heard tale of how he had died for her, what sort of man would hurt a woman he loved that much? No, she carried herself up to her rooms dutifully and they watched in silence. Let it not be said that this king could be swayed so easily.

***

It had been two days since the party’s return to Winterfell and Arya had only seen her room. Not once was she allowed to leave. Her furnishings had been stripped until there was only a desk, parchment, ink, and fresh linens on the bed. She had been instructed to give Val Dark Sister for safe keeping, and later found that Needle had been taken out of her chambers as well. Nymeria, the poor girl, was miserable and stuck in the room with Arya. She thought Jon particularly cruel for that one. With Nymeria stuck on the inside, Arya could not even escape the chambers in her sleep. She had heard the castle bustling with activity for the past two days, but none had visited her, not even her siblings. She guessed that Jon had prohibited it, for even Val and Alys did not return after escorting her to the room. Nell was nowhere to be seen and some new little serving girl was bringing her all her meals, and the girl was particularly careful not to even look at Arya when she was in the room.

After two days of agony, the king himself decided to pay her a visit. “Little sister.” He shut the door and walked to her seat by the window. Examining her features, he asked, “how are you Arya?” Hi tone was soft and worried.

For a long while, she just looked at the fire. Finally, she gathered her resolve and opened her mouth. “Well enough.” Turning to him, she hesitated before reaching her hand out to grasp his big one. Her touch sent a shock through him and he soon pulled her into his arms.

Gone was Jon the King, here and now was simply her Jon. “Oh Arya, when I found your bed empty--” he could not even continue the sentence. “Please,” he said it so quietly that she had to strain to hear him, “please don’t leave me like that again.”

“Oh Jon,” she clung to him even harder. “I didn’t want to argue and I could see that you wouldn’t have let me go.” She pushed back from him to stare up at his face. “But Jon, I had to do this. You wouldn’t listen, but they needed me.”

“Aye,” he painfully admitted. “Aye, the tale has been told to me half a dozen times at least. Many have come before me to plead mercy on your case.”

“Whatever my punishment is to be, I will bear it. I know I shouldn’t have left like that and that as king, you have certain…duties. I won’t complain. I never wanted to make anything harder for you. Truly, I only want to help.” She looked at his tired features and immediately felt a little guilty for having put him through such pain.

“Arya, Arya… I don’t think I could bear it if anything happened to you. I just want to keep you safe. But, you’re right, you’re not a child anymore. And I can’t be seen as weak, not now.”

“I understand.” She squeezed his hand, waiting with baited breath to hear her fate.

He let her go and paced the room. “Your confinement will continue until we leave for Harrenhal. No visitors are allowed. You will only leave your chambers when I have granted permission. Nymeria is free to go.” He opened the door and was almost toppled over by the wolf in her haste to escape.

“Well she certainly wasted no time in abandoning me.” She walked up to Jon then, looking into his eyes intently. “Is that it? No stay in the cells? Or a banishment or a public whipping or—“

“Whipping? Do you take me for a brute?” He quirked an eyebrow up at her. “You are a lady, and cousin to a King besides. Anyone who dares lay a hand on you will have me to deal with. And the rest of your loyal admirers for sure.” He pushed the hair back from her face gently, giving her forehead a chaste kiss. It made her heart hammer in her chest.

“I’m cousin to the king. You are the only king. Whoever stands in our way, we’ll deal with it. Together.”

“Aye, together.” He gave her another kiss on the cheek, lingering longer this time.

“How is….Gendry?” She asked it hesitantly. Jon’s face contorted into a grimace at the mention of the other man and she silently berates herself for having to ask. But he is my friend she thinks. What kind of person would I be if I were not worried for him?

“He is well. He spends most of his time with Shireen, Davos, and the rest of Stannis’ forces. Her mother will not receive him, and Melisandre has been forbidden from seeing him.” He looked unsure of what to do with his hands. “You may attend their wedding if you wish.”

“Gendry will take it as an affront if I don’t.” She said by way of explaining. How to make him see that it’s not the same? How do I tell him that it’s only ever been him when saying such a thing will surely ruin us?

“Arya, are you sure there isn’t anything you wish to tell me?” He looked as if he did not really want to know the answer, but he could see something was tormenting her.

“No,” she gave a choked little laugh. “Gendry is a friend, that’s all. A very dear friend from a very difficult time. He reminded me of you actually.” But he could never take your place, Jon, no one could.

“I see. I do not wish to talk of your friend any longer.” He says by way of ending the conversation, and she doesn’t push him. He stayed a while longer, saying nothing, only holding her in his arms and it makes her sad. What kind of person am I to have put him through such a torment twice? She hugs him all the longer for her guilt. When he finally could delay his departure no longer, he promised to come back as soon as he could, then left. Arya was once again left with her thoughts.

The next few days dragged by. She could escape into the mind of Nymeria at least, and was thankful that Jon had not continued his punishment on her wolf as well. Jon himself had visited her every night, and she soon began to look forward to the time after supper when a soft knock on the door would announce his arrival. He had told her two days past that Rickon thought it vastly unfair that only Jon himself was permitted to see Arya, and had accused Jon of locking her up to keep her all for himself. Maybe I am he had whispered quietly. That one little sentence sent a thrill through her body in ways she had not experienced in a long while. Arya was no innocent; she had trained with the most famous courtesans in Bravos after all. But the thought that Jon, her Jon could elicit such a strong response from her was worrisome. This wasn’t just desire or carnal pleasure, this was love, adoration, utter devotion, and the depths of it frightened her in all truth. She had thought to send him away after that, and continue her sentence out in true solitary.  If they were to kiss again, and he turned from her once more, she does not think she can bear it. But how could she dismiss him when every being in her body wanted him closer? This was Jon, her brother, her best friend, the person who had always lifted her spirits. One little kiss couldn’t really change all that, could it? And so, every night he had continued to come. He would often ask her advice on some problem or another, or bring in sums that Sansa wanted her to look over. Though Arya was confined in punishment, it actually did little to dampen her help in running the castle and the kingdom.  He had told her that their bannermen had agreed to her suggestion of using Harrenhal as the meeting place. Though she loathed the castle, she had to admit that there was none better suited to accommodate the three fractured “kingdoms.” He had also told her that the wedding was to take place in the sept as soon as Sansa had finished the preparations for it. Gendry, Shireen, and the storm lords would depart soon after, Davos included. She was a little sad at that, but understood that Gendry had a duty now, much like her. And she knew that Jon was only too happy to send him away, though he never said it in so many words.

***

About halfway through her third week in confinement, Sansa burst through her door, startling Arya half to death. “Arya, get up!” Sansa carried a luncheon tray while Nell and the quiet serving girl came behind with several packages, a dress, and furs.

“What’s all this?” Arya asked as Nell and the maid placed their items on the desk. The maid scurried off quickly enough, but Nell gave Arya the most bone crushing hug before closing the door behind her. Sansa surveyed the scene and appeared to have reached some sort of conclusion. “What?”

 “Your maid is very… devoted.” She surveyed Arya.

“Yes, well I did save her from the Twins and all.” Arya made sure to level Sansa with as steady a gaze as possible.

“So you did.” Sansa gave a little smile. “And she is…..loyal to you.”

“What’s all this?” Arya tries again, going to the packages and untying one.

“The wedding’s today.” Sansa looked confused. “Did Jon not tell you?”

“No, he forgot to mention it.” She said dryly.

“Well, no matter. We’ll get you ready in no time, and then you can get out of this room for a few hours at least! Oh Arya, let me look at you.” Sansa hugged her sister tightly, then pulled back to survey her face again. “Are you alright?”

“Yes.” She tried to find more words to say. “My punishment has not been nearly as severe as the things I cooked up in my head.” She gave a little laugh.

“Well, you put Jon in a terrible position. We can’t afford to look weak just now, but you know he’d never harm you, surely.” Sansa said practically.

“How bad was it when I left?”

“The truth?” Arya nodded. “I found your bed empty and Nymeria still there and sent for him immediately. He went into a fit. He wanted all the lords summoned and the gods only know what he planned to do to figure out which one of them helped you. Luckily I talked him out of his foolishness, but that made him accuse me.”

“Oh Sansa, I’m sorry. I never meant to make things difficult for you, truly.”

“It’s alright, Arya. We have talked everything over. We’re fine now, truly. We’ve reached….an understanding. And I will not betray you, or your maid.”

“But it’s not! I shouldn’t have left you all here to clean up the mess I knew I was making.” Arya realized then that she had been foolish. For so long, she had only had herself to worry about. At first, she had had constant company in the form of Gendry and Hot Pie, the brotherhood, and then the Hound. But the House of Black and White had made her strip away even herself. She had promised her father years ago that she would grow up, and her uncle had told her something similar on the ship. She vowed to be better.

“Arya, really it’s ok.” Sansa sat her down and pushed the tray up to her. “Eat. Nell and Sybel will prepare a bath, and then we can get you dressed.”

“Sybel. Where did she come from?” Arya tore of a piece of meat and savored the taste of it.

“Winter town I think. Why? Does she not suit you?”

“No, no it’s just that, well the girl is quiet. She never talks when she brings me my meals. She won’t even look at me.”

Sansa laughed. “The girl is shy to be sure. She rarely talks to anyone, except for Jon. No doubt that’s why Jon picked her to be your maid for now. She fancies him, I think. And he needs someone you can’t manipulate.” Sansa gives a laugh at this. Nodding along absently, Arya finished her food and then settled into a bath. Though it had only been a few weeks, Sansa had plenty of news to fill Arya in on. She tried to push the twinge of irritation at the maid’s appreciation for Jon away. “We’ll leave for Harrenhall within two moon’s turns.” Sansa concluded as Arya finished her bath. “And we’ll have to make alliances if we are to survive.”

“Aye. Though I doubt it will do much good in the end. This Daenerys is said to be proud and Cersei is insane. They will both want blood.” The kindly man called me proud once too. Rather, he called my name too proud she thought as she dressed.

“Then they shall have it.” Sansa’s voice was low and firm. Arya found herself weeping in her heart for the innocence her family had lost once again. She could not despair long however, for Rickon barged into her room, wheeling Bran’s chair in too.

“Arya!” Rickon’s excitement was abounding and near drove Sansa up the wall as he tackled Arya while Sansa was braiding her hair. “I can’t believe you have to be stuck up here in your room until you leave for Harrenhal.”

“It’s not all bad, Rickon. Besides, Jon keeps me company when he can.” He warms me through the coldest nights.

“But he won’t let us see you at all. That’s not fair.” He pouted.

“No doubt because he knows you’d help her escape.” Bran shot at Rickon, a content little smile on his lips. In moments like these, Arya saw that Bran would come back to himself for a time, and be just their brother, not an instrument of Bloodraven and his dark prophecies.

“Well I’d never refuse getting into a bit of mischief.” Rickon returned, looking at Arya slyly. “I can bring a ladder to your window if you’d like.”

“And that dear Rickon,” Jon said walking into the room, “is why you aren’t permitted to visit.” He tousled Rickon’s hair, then set his eyes on Arya. Her gown was a soft dark blue, almost black. It displayed her shapely figure though it was long and heavy to guard against the chill. Her hair had been done in a simple northern fashion, with two braids on either side meeting in the middle as the rest of her mane was free to cascade down her back. Clasping the grey and white fur around her shoulders, she looked like a true northern lady. When Jon sees her in this regal state, his eyes sweep over her form slowly, appreciatively, and it warms her up instantly. She thinks she could leave the furs off if he would just keep looking at her like that. But he overcomes his appraisal all too soon and clears his throat, offering her his arm. Taking it, she steps out of her confinement and into Winterfell’s lovely grey walls once more, her siblings and a slew of guards trailing the king and his family all the way to the sept.

In truth, little of the construction that her father had built for her mother remained. During the sack, it had been badly burnt, and with the castle in taters and no true following of the Faith, they had not seen fit to take the time or resources needed to rebuild it. But Sansa had been creative, and found a way to revive the little broken place. The clutter and wreckage had been cleared away, leaving a small framework of the original outline, but opening up the altars to the elements. There were no walls and no roof, but the seven figures stood proud as hundreds of candles surrounded them. Leaving a path for the bride and groom to walk, the guests crowded around the altars of the Father and the Mother.

Glancing at the lords and ladies surrounding the holy place, Arya saw that they had all been looking at her for quite some time. She saw several smiles, and even a few tears among the women. She saw gratitude in their eyes and it baffled her. She had always known that her father and the north were something special, but never until she had seen the destruction war could bring and the evil it awoke in men’s souls. She had only done her duty to her people, yet they loved her for it, showed thanks as if it were not her responsibility to be good and kind to them. “Their princess has returned.” Jon had not let go of her arm, and she felt his body heat acutely as he ducked his head to whisper in her ear.

“Nonsense, more like they have never seen me in a dress.”

“Aye, that too.” He chuckled. “You look lovely, as always.” There it was again, that look that could set her soul on fire. She was so busy gazing into Jon’s eyes that she almost missed Gendry walking up to the altar of the father. Turning her attention on him, she saw that he had donned more expensive garments, and a cloak of Baratheon colors. He gave her a small smile which she struggled to return. He is leaving me again.

All too soon, Shireen came flowing down the aisle elegantly. The girl exuded good breeding in a way Arya found almost haughty. She thinks to unsettle Gendry with her airs, make him dependent on her good graces. The thought made her angry, but when she glanced back into Gendry’s face, she saw that he was smiling at the girl. When they finally joined hands, both of their faces beamed at one another. Lacking a septon, Maester Wolkan performed the rites while the guests looked on in revered silence. Since they were both Baratheons, Shireen had no cloak, all Gendry had to do was unclasp the one from his shoulders and drape it over hers. They shared a simple, chaste kiss and then led the guests to Winterfell’s halls where supper would be served.

Even by a stretch, no one could call the little celebration being held a feast, what with wars and winter being so imminent. Still, there was at least something good to celebrate and men took heart in that. Arya, herself had been permitted to partake in the celebration as well. She presently found herself squished between Bran and Rickon as a serving girl refilled her cup of ale for the third time that night. She had let sadness consume her, despite her best efforts. Though in truth, Arya didn’t really know how to feel. Gendry had been a replacement for Jon. No, not a replacement, but a comfort at a time when she thought Jon lost to her. And with Jon here now, her heart felt full to bursting. She could have found more room for Gendry in her heart though, she was certain, if he were not so eager to leave her. Still, Shireen was said to be a good girl, and strong too. She would make an excellent lady of Storm’s End, for she did not balk at her mother’s disdain, nor did she let herself be intimidated into submitting to Melisandre, granted the red witch had found the Baratheons less interesting since Stannis’ death. She’ll be a better wife to him than I ever could. Being able to bear the tug of emotions within her soul no longer, she rose and went to the dance floor. Finding a partner was an easy task, having half a dozen men of all stations to dance with, but eventually she was swept up into the arms of her uncle Edmure. “Arya child, you look no worse for wear since your confinement.” He smiled at her.

“I have not been a child these past six years, uncle. But thank you.” He talked of the Riverlords and their needs, offering to introduce her to the small party that had arrived, but found that she had already met and fought with the men during the battle for Riverrun. “We are willing to do what is needed,” he had reassured her. “We will finish what Robb started.” It helped ease her fears a little to learn that he would heed the Blackfish’s advice, and she kissed his cheek in answer.

Soon, she was swept up into the arms of the Blackfish himself. “The days have been long without you, Little Cat. I find myself piss bored to death with all this waiting.” He gave a gruff laugh.

“Indeed. I find that waiting is always the hardest part.” She was glad to see her uncle again.

“But I fear Littlefinger has been allowed too much freedom here. Perhaps we best put this dog down before we leave.” He glanced over to where Littlefinger and Sansa were dancing. Her sister looked amiable enough, but Arya could guess that she was most likely miserable. “The gods only know why Lysa married the man and left him in charge of her boy.”

“Sansa says he is indispensable to the Vale at the moment.” She was trying very hard to trust Sansa’s judgement on the matter, and she guessed her uncle could tell as much by her tone.

“Aye, even when I was at the Bloody Gate, Littlefinger was scheming. Half the lords of the Vale are indebted to him, don’t you know. Though none will admit to it.” That was information she was sure Jon would like to hear. And it made sense why some Vale men had been more against Littlefinger than others. The man would cause trouble before it was all said and done, Arya was sure of it. “Perhaps it is time we ask Lord Reed to do what is required.”

Before her uncle could answer, however, a deep baritone voice cut in beside her uncle. “May I dance with the lady?”

Her uncle glanced as Gendry’s outstretched hands, then at his face. He looked over and saw that Davos had taken Shireen’s hands and was now leading her onto the floor. After a tense moment, he relented. “Of course. It is after all, your wedding day.” He said in thinly veiled warning.

Taking Arya’s small hands into his larger ones, Gendry led them in a simple pattern of turns and spins. “Arya.” Gendry looked into her eyes. His gaze was warm, but it did not touch her the way Jon’s had.

“My lord?” She quirked an eyebrow up at him, laughter on her lips despite everything.

He chuckled softly. “Aye, I deserve that. Always calling you ’milady’ and whatnot, even when you said not to.”

“I think lordship will suit you Gendry. Who could better know the needs and fears of the common people than one who was one?” She had not meant for that to sound like an insult, but she feared he might take it the wrong way.

“I’m sure Shireen will make me over into a pompous lord before long, don’t you worry.” He smiled at her.

“Will you still make weapons?” She changed the subject, feeling too keenly that this was another woman’s husband she was dancing with.

“Yes. I’m good at it. And we need all the hands we can get. Forging dragonglass will take work, but I’m sure I can figure it out.”

“I see.” She fell into silence for a time.

“Arya, I’m sorry I left you.” He said it so suddenly.

“No more of it, Gendry. I’ve told you once before, you had no choice in the end. Besides, it was meant to be this way. You were meant to survive and marry Shireen.” The words tasted like vinegar.

“I was meant to come back to you.” He whispered devoutly, more emotion in his voice now that when he had said his vows hours earlier.

“Gendry,” she stiffened in his arms. “That is cruel.” I don’t have that kind of love to give you Gendry.

“I mean it, Arya.” His voice had risen in volume. “Even though I’m married to someone else, even though you love another, we were meant to find each other, to help each other I think.”

Before she could reply, a warm familiar hand was at the small of her back, halting their movements. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on cutting in. My cousin has promised me a dance, you see.” Jon’s tone was authoritative, but Gendry knew the excuse to be a flimsy lie. They sized each other up in silence for a moment. But glancing around the hall, Arya found the curious eyes of SmallJon Umber, Alys and Thenn, the Hound and Brienne, even Sansa and Littlefigner amongst the masses glancing at her and the newly wed, newly minted lord of Storm’s End. We have caused a scene it seems. She did not look to Shireen, knowing full well what the girl must be thinking right about now.

“Yes, of course. As my king commands.” Disentangling herself from Gendry’s arms, she took Jon’s offered hands. Seeing the same scene around them, Gendry bowed low to Jon and walked over to where Sansa had dismissed Littlefinger. She quickly took his hand and began a new dance.

“He is smart to dance with Sansa.” Jon observed as Sansa’s fiery red hair twirled around the dancing floor. “Though no one is stupid enough not to recognize the longing in his eyes when he looks at you.” Jon’s voice held loathing in it. It reminded Arya of time before, when her bastard brother was always in black and always brooding. He was her king now, but black was still his color and brooding still in his nature.

“He thinks I love another.” He would have a fit if he knew it was you her mind saying the things she dare not admit to Jon out loud.

“Do you?” His voice was fearful? Curious? She can’t place it, but she knows there’s something there.

“I can’t imagine who he believes it to be.” She says by way of not answering. Surely not Ned, not after all this time she thinks to puzzle it out. But perhaps he should. If he suspected Jon…

“No matter. Whoever he is, he cannot have you.” His grey eyes sparkled down at her, interrupting her thoughts. “I just got you back. I won’t part with you for all the gold in the seven kingdoms.”

Throwing her head back, she gave a delighted laugh. “The same goes for you. I don’t care how many princesses or noble women come looking for your hand. They shall not have you. No serving girls either.” She remembered the comment Sansa had made earlier about Sybel fancying Jon and grimaced.

“Jealous, my love? That does not befit a lady.” He kissed her brow lightly.

“Good thing I’ve never been a proper lady.” The smile was back on her face as they teased each other. But all too soon, things came to an end. Arya knew this part of the ceremony was unavoidable, but it still aggravated her when men began to call for the bedding ceremony. Feeling that she might become sick if she were forced to watch Gendry and Shireen consummate their marriage, she begged Jon to take her back to her cell. “Just get me out of here.” She asked of him. He gave an understanding look as he led her out of the hall.

Stalking through the castle now, with the moon high, she rests her head sleepily on Jon shoulder as they walk to her chambers. Undoing her hair, she watched as he goes to the window, surveying the newly fallen snow. “I need you.” He resolutely did not look at her as she unlaced her gown and stripped down into her smallclothes.

“Well, that’s nothing new.” Arya says softly. “And I’ve always needed you. I guess that’s why the gods saw fit for you to be born first. For I could never live in a world where you aren’t here.” She came up behind him, wrapping her arms around his middle, resting her cheek against his back.

He hung his head lowly at her words. “I thought you gone for so long Arya. I don’t know how I’ve survived without you these six years. I’ve missed you so.” He turns around him her arms, and she can see the fear that grips him. If this were a different life, a world where they could be together, perhaps he would not be looking at her like this now, with such longing and sadness. But they are who they are, and she loves him despite all this, but she knows her father has left too much of himself in Jon for him to ever think to have her in such a way. She thinks that if the gods would just let her, if he would let her, she would take this pain away for him and just leave love in its place. But she can’t bear to lose him any more than she already has, so she just holds him tighter, keeping her feelings at bay.

“The missing is over now. I’ll never leave you again. I swear it.” She promises, pulling him over to the bed. He strips down to his breeches, gently sliding in under the covers next to her.  Cuddling up next to him, Arya does not think of Gendry and Shireen as she drifts off. She does not think about their wedding or him bedding the girl, she does not even think about her dance with Gendry or his words. Her only thought is about the man lying next to her, his warmth seeping into her bones and making a home there, wishing she could love him the way he deserves.

Chapter Text

“The tides have come in.” Aegon tells her smoothly as he looks out over the sea. She has joined him to wait for Tyrion and Varys, and the stone floor of the balcony feels warm under her bare feet as she makes her way over to him.

“And with them have come news.” She gives a chaste kiss to his pale skinned shoulder, hugging him from behind. She has found that simple gestures like this make him much easier to manage when the time comes. I never had to pretend with Drogo, she thinks wistfully, but he was never meant to give me the throne. She hopes in her heart that Aegon will be different in that regard. Kingdoms matter more than love, if Aegon gives me the Iron Throne, I will give myself to him gladly.

“My Spider and your Imp make quite a pair don’t they, my love?” He takes one of her hands and kisses the back of it. “I hope they bring us good news. I’d like to march soon, before winter can truly begin.”

“A lovely pair,” she laughs prettily to please him, “I hope they bring us good news, too, husband. I would not like for you to grow fat before we can properly destroy our enemies.”

“Ah, Dany.” He turns around in her arms, touching her face lovingly. “There’s no woman in the world like you. You jape of fat husbands and lust for war in the same sentence. You have a good heart and an even brighter spirit. You will be the best queen the Seven Kingdoms have known since Alysanne; I am sure of it.” He kisses her, parting her lips to taste her mouth, speaking of the hunger he has for her without words. She lets him, though her own desire is a little lacking, she does enjoy the sensation. It’s been too long, and I was not made to be alone.

Before they can go further, Tyrion and Varys enter the room. “I see we’ve disturbed you.” Varys starts, his face displaying his pleasure at the scene he has witnessed. “Perhaps we could come back at a more convenient time?”

Tyrion looks to Dany with a small smile of his own, and she blushes under his gaze. “No, no.” Aegon laughs, not noticing their exchange, “my wife has assured me I’d best spend my time conquering lest I grow fat and lazy. She will not have me then, you see, so you’d better tell me what news of Westeros.”

Tyrion is still looking at Dany and she resolutely does not look at him as they settle into their seats. Whatever fleshly desires she had thought to relieve herself of with Aegon’s help soon dies under Tyrion’s stare. He bid me seduce the boy, not fall for him she berates herself. Clearing her throat, she puts those thoughts aside. “Well?” She arches a silver eyebrow, “what news?”

“Jon has replied to your letter!” Tyrion says, rather pleased with himself. “He writes that he will depart for Harrenhall in about two moon turn’s time. So you see, we won’t be on the island much longer. It’ll take at least that long to prepare the Dothraki and Unsullied to march.”

“That is not what we agreed.” Aegon kicks an eyebrow up in confusion. “We invited him here to Dragonstone, an honor to be sure, and he responds by going to Harrenhal. I thought this news would be good.”

“I have to agree with my husband, Lord Tyrion, this Jon Snow is hardly in a position to refuse us. Yet he does so anyway.” Dany states, and she can see that Tyrion is irked by her agreement of Aegon’s sentiments. He is my husband you fool, she thinks, a man I did not want that you thrust upon me. Now you want me to go against him.

“I’m afraid I have to share in Lord Tyrion’s sentiments. We should prepare to leave for Harrenhal.” Varys says, shocking them both, for those two rarely agreed on anything as of late.

“Why?” Aegon glances between them both suspiciously. “What else has happened?”

“My sister,” Tyrion stops to laugh, “will have no choice but to agree to Jon’s meeting now. He has freed his bannermen from Casterly Rock!” His stunted legs carry him over to the wine table, pouring himself a full glass while continuing to laugh quietly to himself.

“How?” Dany hears herself asking, growing more agitated by the minute. This Stark bastard is more daring than she had expected.

“Reports do vary, your grace.” Varys answers. “Little birds whisper of a girl descending on the castle, killing soldiers and slinking off with the lords before disappearing into thin air. At any case, the lords are free, and there is more.” He hesitates.

“Out with it man!” Aegon thunders, and it reminds Dany of Viserys’ angry cries ‘you do not want to wake the dragon do you,’ but her husband possesses the fire her brother never could. He is not a true dragon, she thinks to soothe herself, and no matter the color of his flames, they cannot burn me. 

“Shireen Baratheon has landed in the Stormlands. With a husband.” Varys states, but Dany can see that he is still holding something back.

“Must my husband tell you again?” She snaps. “Tell us the news, all of it. Now.” She feels rather than sees Tyrion still laughing to himself quietly in the corner and it annoys her to no end. “If you presume to still be my Hand, then you will set down the wine and inform your Queen of the state of her kingdom.”

“Oh aye, sure your grace. But, I did warn you this would happen.” He smiles indulgently, either too drunk already or too stupid to see that her patience is at an end. “She had landed with a husband, as the Spider says. The boy is one of Robert’s bastards, newly legitimized lord of Storm’s End. His name is Gendry.”

“A pity your sister did not kill him like the others when she had the chance.” Aegon snaps coldly. “By what right does this little usurper mean to legitimize this bastard? He is a bastard himself.”

“By the same rights as you, I assume. He is King in the North, and wields influence in the Riverlands, Vale, and over Shireen Baratheon. The boy will not make a claim to the throne, you can be sure Jon would not be so foolish as to legitimize him unless the boy has sworn to be explicitly loyal to Jon’s own campaign.”

“He has no rights.” Aegon snaps. “I am king.”

“King of Dragonstone, your grace.” Tyrion points. “Until you sit the throne, he and my sister will continue ruling their lands as they see fit. This is war, you don’t expect him to bow down so easily do you? He is a leader of men, after all.” Put down the wine you fool until you dig yourself in a mess I cannot save you from Dany thinks, hoping her expression will at least clue the little lion in on the danger he faces.

“Very well, then.” Aegon calms, and that is more frightening than his anger. She has no doubt that he would mount a dragon this very moment if he could and fly to the North and set it ablaze. But she has not let him attempt to bond with a dragon just yet, and she knows that his pride will not allow him to ask her to burn their enemies for him. “Let her land in the Stormlands with the usurper’s bastard. It makes no matter. The Golden Company took them once, it is nothing but wind and dust anyway.”

“Perhaps, your grace, that is not the most pressing issue at hand. Cersei will meet with the Starks at Harrenhal. The capital will be undefended.”  Varys points out.

“My sister is stretched thin, no doubt, but she will not leave the throne undefended.” Tyrion shakes his head, and they are back on opposing sides once more. “Besides, your bannermen have already advised that you meet with the Starks, why should that change just because he suggests Harrenhal and not Dragonstone?”

“I mislike taking directions from some Northern whore’s son,” Dany states, “but we did promise our allies, it’s true.” She looks to Aegon, something akin to resignation in his eyes, “a good king keeps his word, and my husband will be a great king. We shall set sail for Harrenhal in two moon’s time. But we will not do so alone.” She paces the length of the room slowly, willing Aegon to understand her meaning so that he may give the order himself. It will be less of a fight this way, she tells herself, if he thinks himself the master of his own fate.

“An army of Unsullied and Dothraki is hardly alone, my love.” His shoulders uncoil. “But I think my lady wife knows best. The Starks have their bannermen and we have ours. Lady Olenna and my cousin Arianne will return to their castles and gather their forces. We’ll meet them all at Harrenhal then. Let this Stark bastard have what he has asked for, the true king will come to him with all his power.”

“And leave King’s Landing alone?” Varys tries again. “The gold cloaks and the Lannister guard will fall easily while Cersei is gone. Moving on the capital now makes sense.”

“I will not be king of the ashes.” Aegon states, quoting herself. “I will fight for the Iron Throne with everything I have, but it will be the right way.” He is proud of himself for saying that, she can see it in his eyes, and she is glad she allowed him to speak the words himself. Arianne will see that it was me who had the thought, but so long as Aegon gives voice to them, she will have no choice but to obey. She is rather pleased with herself for solving this little problem the Stark boy has created. Tyrion had counseled her to be nice first, because she can always be stern later and she had listened, he had advised marrying Aegon and she had, he had asked to meet with the Starks and she would, but one day, she would burn them all, every last one of them until it was only her and her father’s throne.  I am Daenerys Stormborn of the blood of Old Valyria and one day soon I will take what is mine with Fire and Blood.

***

“I must thank your grace for the wonderful apartments you have settled me in during my time in King’s Landing.” Tycho Nestor says as he politely declines Cersei’s offer of wine.

“You are my honored guest.” Cersei states, sitting herself down behind her desk, the crown on her head gleaming in the afternoon light. Her tone is not unkind, so Tycho continues on in the falsities.

“My condolences, your grace, on the death of your son. From all reports, he was a fine young man.”

“The Iron Bank didn’t send you here to offer condolences.”

“Condolences and congratulations.” He allows. “You are the second queen of the seven kingdoms, that’s quite an accomplishment. May the Seven bless you to fare better than Rhaenyra. The Iron Bank appreciates how you cast off the yoke of the competition, freeing the Crown from elements who saw to subvert the rule of law.”

“The destruction of the Sept of Baelor was a tragic accident.” She puts just enough sorrow in her voice to make it believable. But Tycho Nestor did not climb the ranks of the Iron Bank of Bravos without spotting a liar or two.

“Indeed.” He inclines his head. “But sometimes tragedies are necessary to restore order and rational leadership.”

“The Iron Bank wants its gold back.” She states evenly enough. So it is to be plain speaking he thinks, good.

“Your father never minced words either.” He smiles at her. “But yes, your debts are considerable. And you are now engaged on a conflict on several fronts. Shireen Baratheon and Robert’s bastard have taken the Stormlands under the leadership of Jon Targaryen in the North, and Aegon and Daenerys Targaryen have landed on Dragonstone with dragons, amongst other terrifying things at their disposal. We both know how expensive wars can be.”

“We both know gold wins wars.” She states flatly.

“Your vaults are said to be empty, your late husband’s profligacy saw to that. Your wealthiest allies, the Tyrells, are now your enemies with the deaths of Queen Magarey, Mace and Loras. You are surrounded on all sides by rivals for the throne.””

“And the Iron Bank wants to bet on a winner.” She is far too calm as she says this, and the man has to admit to himself, he’s intrigued. A lioness indeed.

“We do not make bets. We invest in endeavors we deem likely to be successful.”

“A fancy way of saying bet.” She shoots back at him, showing her claws at last. He will indulge. “The war has already begun and my armada owns the Narrow Sea.”

“Eruon Greyjoy owns the Narrow Sea, whenever he can be found in it.” Tycho corrects.

“What if I told you that Euron Greyjoy is loyal to me?” She questions, assessing his face that has spent years learning how not to give anything away.

“I would wonder at your ability to be certain of such a fact. The man is mad, and as I said, little has been heard of him since his adventures in Oldtown.”

“I assure you, he will return.” The idea brings her delight, he sees. Could she really be that clever? He decides to test it.

“Daenerys Targaryen still has three grown dragons. How well do wooden ships fare against fire breathing dragons?”

“Her dragons might not be as invulnerable as some think. Nor might they prove to be so…. attached.” She arches an eyebrow, daring him to throw whatever he has left at her. “But let’s talk about the Targaryen girl. You want to invest in her. I’m guessing the Iron Bank invested considerable gold in Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai, how are your profits?”

“Well the Iron Bank does not take kindly to slavery, it is known.” He says by way of not answering her questions. In truth the way those cities had gotten their money was not something Bravos looked kindly upon, but there was simply too much wealth to be found in those place for the Iron Bank to not have a hand in some area or another of it.

“But you did have gold tied up in Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai. How are your profits, now that Daenerys has ruined them all with her dragons and insufficient ruling?” She will not be so easily subverted he sees.

“The loss of some of the free cities’ trade has brought the banking business into somewhat of a downturn, it’s true.” He shrugs.

“From what I gather, she considers herself more of a revolutionary than a monarch.”

“But does her husband? This long lost heir of Rhaegar?”

“Are we speaking in facts or possibilities?” She counters. “Daenerys has the dragons; she is my enemy. Her pretender husband could be a good ruler; I’ll give you that. Sadly, he will never see the Iron Throne without her dragons. The very same ones I have just told you I will overcome. Now, in your experience, how do bankers usually fare with revolutionaries?” Before he can answer, she forges ahead. “The Lannisters own the Iron Bank quite a lot of money but a Lannister always pays her debts. Do Unsullied, or Dorthraki, or dragons?”

“Your father’s daughter indeed.” He actually smiles.

“Jon Targaryen has called a council of sorts where he has invited Daenerys along with myself to Harrenhal. Stay in King’s Landing as my honored guest, travel with me to the council, meet all your other…options. I swear to you, by the end of the council, the Crown’s debt will be paid in full. Then you can decide which of our…endeavors is most likely to succeed.”

“A pleasure doing business with you, your grace.”

Chapter Text

“Perhaps I should accompany you,” Willas says from the doorway, resting on his cane as maids pack his grandmother’s belongings.

“Nay, you are too valuable, dear, Highgarden cannot part with you.” She waves a hand, dismissing the idea. She’s not going to let anything else happen to her family, if Cersei will be at the counsel, then Willias and Garlan must not be anywhere near Harrenhal. “Girl, the furs, look for the furs.” She says, sending one of the maids scurrying about the room to do her bidding.

“The Targaryens might take it as an affront if one of us is not present.” Garlan offers. “Besides, I can hold my own against the lot of them. I’m not afraid of Cersei Lannister,” he sneers.

“I will hear none of it.” Her tone is final. “Willas is unmarried, you are his heir. Dany understands that I will not let Cersei get anywhere near you.”

“Dany is it?” Willas quirks an eyebrow up. “Did things go that well for us?”

“The battle lines are being drawn and I dare say we stand at a good position. But the council could change everything, that’s the uneasy truth of it. Randall Tarly has gathered our forces as best he can in such a short amount of time, but I fear what it will mean for our fleet. Euron Greyjoy could appear at any moment and Paxter has expressed his concerns. Dany has assured me that she’ll ride Drogon to defend the Arbor if it comes to that.”

“Uncle Paxter is right to worry.” Garlan agrees. “Aegon will still need our fleet if we even have a hope of taking King’s Landing as peaceably as possible.”

“Grandmother,” Willas starts to speak but Olenna holds up a hand to stop him. As soon as the maids have left to find her furs, she bids him continue. “What do you hope to gain with this council?”

“I am gathering my forces as my king commands. We can hardly refuse to attend when we have been decreed to do so.” She moves to sit down in front of the windows, looking out at the gardens and sighs tiredly. “The winter roses will be blooming soon.” Not following, Garland and Willas say nothing as they take the vacant seats next to her. “This all started over winter roses, blue as frost. I think it high time it ended.”

“What do you want out of this council, tell me plainly,” Willas states. “I know you, I know you would not go alone unless you were planning to do something dangerous, something that could have implications.”

“I won’t lie to you,” Olenna states after some time,” this Aegon is not who he says he is.” Garlan makes to speak but she silences him. “For the time being, I have persuaded Arianne to accept him as her cousin, but I fear it will not last. She sees right through Daenerys and her ambitions, she knows that Aegon will never be equal to Daenerys so long as she is the only dragon rider. I do not think Arianne will stay with the alliance long if it continues this way. The Reach will still support them, but it is vital that we have other plans in motion. Among them, I hope to bring back a bride for you Willas, preferably one of some standing that will do much to unify Aegon and his brother. If the Stark boy aligns with us, then Arianne will have no choice but to be content with her lot.”

“Grand plans grandmother, grand plans indeed.” Willas says quietly, surveying the old woman’s face. “Daenerys does not know of these ambitions I take it?”

“She’d sooner see the Starks and Baratheons dead.” The woman snorts. “It’s a delicate matter I have set out to do. She is a young girl, full of more courage than sense as most young people are. But most young people do not have fire breathing dragons to do their bidding. This winter will see dynasties and families fall, I will do everything in my power to make sure that the golden rose blooms when spring comes.”

“Begging your pardons my lady, my lords,” a little maid shuffles into the room, curtsying quickly. 

“What is it girl?” Olenna asks, staring at the gardens one more time, almost wistfully.

“The lords Hightower, Tarly, Redwyne, Oakheart, Merriweather, Florent, and Ashford have all arrived my lady.” She bows again, leaving the room.

“Right,” Olenna raises herself up from her seat, stopping to give Willas and Garlan both kisses on the cheek. She had never been overly affectionate with the boys once they had reached adulthood, but this may well be the last time she will ever lay eyes on them again. “Do what you must,” she tells Willas, gripping his cheeks in her small hands, looking into his brown eyes fiercely. “Do all that is required of you,” she bestows on Garlan. “I will see to our future.”

***

Shireen had never been particularly fanciful as most young girls her age are want to be, but she has found herself dreaming of a quiet life after all of this is over. She wonders if it has anything to do with her possible condition. She can’t be fully certain, but she thinks it rather likely that she is with child, or more so she hopes she is with child this quickly. Her mother’s womb had been cursed, men said, and she did not want that same fate to befall her and Gendry’s coupling. Her husband is by all accounts a fine young man, handsome and strong, and eager to learn and please. She thinks he would almost be perfect if not for the company he’d like to keep. In any case, she can’t justify bothering him with her speculations when there’s still so much to be done, so much he has to learn, and she can’t possibly ask her mother’s advice when her mother hates Gendry so. Still, she thinks to speak with the maester on the matter when she can find the time, until then, she will rule.

Lord Connintgon had left a mess for her to clean up with his botched campaign, and she can only hope that Aegon and Daenerys will agree to meet with her king at Harrenhal without trying to regain Connington’s holdings first. Brienne had assured her that Tarth would come to her aid and thankfully, they had. But Tarth was only a small island, loyal as they were, and she had more broken lands than she knew what to do with. Sell swords had been sacking her lords’ abandoned castles, and with few of them remaining to lay claim to their ancestral seats, she did not know how to regain them. Thankfully Davos had been a godsend, calling in favors from pirates like Salladhor Saan to reestablish her and Gendry as the ruling lord and lady of the Stormlands. She had to admit that her mother, too, had been helpful, calling in a favor from her uncle Alester Florent and dispatching Tygil Lannister back to King’s Landing, his little lion’s tail tucked firmly between his legs.

“A beautiful day, milady,” Ser Davos walks up behind her. “Not a cloud in the sky,” he says, surveying the view of Shipbreaker Bay.

“Nay, but I fear we will have rain by the time night falls.” She tells him calmly. “I could always sense a coming storm,” she says absently. “Have you written to our king?”

“Aye, milady, as you commanded. Though I’m not sure why you want to tell him of your mother’s help in defeating Tygil Lannister?” He questions gently.

“Her uncle is lord of Brightwater Keep, sworn to the Reach. My father no longer lives, and Gendry and I have made it clear that we have no interest in sitting the Iron Throne. Now tell me Ser Davos, why do you think he would go through such great lengths to help me, his brother’s granddaughter, secure the Stormlands?”

“I don’t rightly know milady. Family perhaps?” Davos answers truthfully.

“I have never met the man. And you know as well as I do that men are seldom taken to doing what is expected of them. I think he must have gotten permission from the Tyrells. My king should know that his enemy’s bannermen have helped strengthen Gendry’s and mine own position.”

“I see now, milady. The Tyrells are always playing some game or another,” he agrees. “And how is the new lord? I trust things are well between you two?” He raises an eyebrow and she can hear the question he does not say out loud: has he been good to you?

“Very well. He spends all his spare time in the forge when he is not learning what he needs to. I think perhaps we could even have a good life once all of this is over.”

“That is good news indeed.” Davos smiles. “I am happy that your plans have worked in your favor.” He spots a lone, massive grey cloud looming over the water’s waves in the distance, steadily making its way toward them.

“Aye, without Melissandre’s shadow, Storms End might even be a pleasant place. Perhaps one day we might have a little Davos roaming around the halls, filling them with laughter.” He says nothing, stunned into silence for a moment that she thinks to honor him in such a way. “Perhaps…. that is, if my husband can keep away from the Stark girl when we next see her at Harrenhal.”

“They were friends once, perhaps—“

“Surely you don’t presume to lie to me to soothe me. I know full well what they were once, but any man can see what my lord husband would like them to be now.” She doesn’t snap, it’s not in her nature, but her tone is firm and Davos sees some of Stannis in her now.

“You are his wife, trueborn daughter of a Baratheon and rightful heir to the Stormlands. He will not betray you, the boy has sworn.” He counters resolutely.

“It matters little,” a light rain begins to fall, and it would seem that Shireen Baratheon is more right than she knows. “He is his father’s son, but so long as he gives me an heir, I will not force him to my bed unnecessarily. But he cannot give me an heir if Jon cuts his head off now can he?”

“No, milady, he cannot.” Davos states defeated. “But Jon is a man of honor, he would not—“

She levels him with a look, stern enough to silence him. “He died for her, you saw same as I what happened at the Wall. And when he rose, he went to war for her. Do not presume to think you know what he will or will not do where Arya Stark is concerned.”

“She is a good girl, albeit a bit headstrong. I got to know her a bit better on the mission to Casterly Rock, she would not dishonor you or herself in such a way.”

“I have nothing against Arya Stark.” And Davos sees that Shireen is speaking true. “Both of our fathers left mighty shoes for us to fill, and I intend to make mine proud. So it is with this that I task you Ser Davos: help me see to my house’s survival. You are loyal to Jon and I know you care for Gendry as well. I have not painstakingly created an alliance with the Starks, suffered my mother’s disdain, contended with Tygil Lannister, or even married a bastard just so he can bed the Stark girl and destroy my birthright. See to it that my husband doesn’t give Jon a reason to kill him, at least until I can be sure of my father’s legacy.”

“You have my word, milady.”

“Good,” she says, pleased as thunder crashes in the distance and highlights her next words. “See to it that what little forces we have are ready to march soon; I’d like to reach Harrenhal before our enemies.”

***

There was perhaps nothing in the world Asha loved better than the sway of a ship’s deck under her feet and the spray of the salty ocean at her face. Dany had given her command of the dragon fleet docked at Dragonstone, and that was a duty she took seriously. Surveying the ships, she relishes in the windy air and in the knowledge that wherever the Iron Fleet and her uncle are right now, he does not have the force to match hers. The Unsullied are not sailors, the Dothraki even less so, but what does that matter when she will have a dragon in the sky behind her sails?  “There is a storm brewing, and it’s set its eye on Euron Greyjoy.” She tells this to Theon when he emerges from below deck, but her brother is less eager than she had hoped.

“Aye, the storm is coming, you have that right. But only the gods know who it is meant for,” he replies worriedly.

“Must you be so fucking down all the time?” she asks flippantly. There’s more irritation in her voice than malice, but still, she cannot understand his pessimism, not when things are going so well for them for once.

“I only mean to say that surely our enemies think the same right about now. But you should never become too confident in war, no matter how just your cause or strong your army, nothing is certain. Our father taught me that when he lost the Rebellion.”

“Aye, he lost more than the rebellion, I’d say. He lost four sons as well,” she taunts, if only to bring him out of his shell. “We could get the Iron Islands back and more. Trust me, Dany and I have an understanding.”

“You think you have an understanding with her. But who is to say what she will do once we’ve commanded her ships and won back her throne?” He shakes his head as if to admonish her. “Look what I did to….to Robb,” he chokes out, “my brother for years, a brother that I loved, and I betrayed him still.”

“You can’t let that guilt keep you from living the rest of your life,” Asha says softly, “and you’ve more than paid for your sins. It’s time you allowed yourself to live, to hope.”

“No,” Theon says, “I do not believe the Starks will think that I have. I’m scared Asha, I do not want to face them.” He sighs tiredly, and he looks an old man under the stress of it all. “Jon could cut me down as easily as a knife through butter and I’d have no power to stop him, I wouldn’t even blame him.” He looks up as the rain begins to pelt down on their faces. “We have lost too much trying to restore the Iron Islands back to its former glory. The old way is dead, Asha, let it die.”

“What is dead may never die,” she says fiercely.

“Asha,” he warns, “I will not fight you on this. Just be careful, and don’t put all your trust in this dragon queen. Please, that’s all I ask.”

“Will you do what is required?” She takes the time to study his worn, leathery face. The Theon that had returned to her was a stranger to her, and she wonders if it will always be this way between them. When he had left as a boy, he came back changed all those years later, cocky and arrogant, but still her brother. But when she had left him at Winterfell, Reek had come looking for her and the battle to get him back to himself had been draining. She knows deep down that he will never be either the shy boy or the cocky man she knew ever again, but she does not think she would like him to stay in this limbo either. “Theon, I promise that I will give up this notion of an independent Iron Islands. I’ll swear fealty to the Iron Throne and be the most loyal banner man they have, just...just promise me you’ll help us get home?”

“You want me to betray the Starks again,” he accuses at her lowly, and she can see that he hates this more than anything.

“I want you to help your sister, to do your duty to your people,” she counters.

“Horseshit,” he spits, “you want me to betray the Starks. I don’t know if I can.” He looks at her face, shock and anger writ all over it.

“You’re not a bloody Stark!” She shouts, but he doesn’t flinch, and she is mildly impressed by this. “But it’s time you choose to be a Greyjoy again, Theon. I have promised Dany that you will help us overcome these Starks, do not disappoint me at this council.”

“Winter is coming,” he whispers to the wind, tears in his eyes, “but what is dead may never die.”

***

“Now presenting Ser Edric Dayne, Lord of Starfall and Sword of the Morning!” Lady Nym announces, and Arianne can see that she is shocked to have read that last title out loud. Edric Dayne enters quickly with little to no pomp and fanfare, kneeling at the foot of her father’s chair. Doran had gracefully allowed Arianne to sit at his right in the seat of the spear, while he sat the seat of the sun. She thought it a fitting choice, for the wars to come would most certainly see her using Dorne’s spears.

As she takes in Edric Dayne’s fair features—pale blonde hair, blue eyes so dark they look purple—she is struck by the sword at his hip. Dawn—the most famous sword in the seven kingdoms, the sword Darkstar had hoped to claim. “Rise Ser Edric,” she hears her father say.

“Ned, please, my prince.” His tone is very polite as he answers her father, and his smile is bright when he settled his eyes on Arianne herself.

“Ned, then.” Her father agrees amiably. “Let me be the first here to congratulate you on the honor of being named the Sword of the Morning.”

“Many thanks your grace.” He blushes. “Though I am still a bit young, I assure you that I do have the experience needed to wield it.”

“I am happy to hear it. The Brotherhood without Banners certainly has a fearsome enough reputation for me to believe you got into more than just a few skirmishes during your time with them.” Doran smiles easily but Ned’s face falters for just a moment. “I think there is much of your uncle Arthur in you, young man. And I am happy that Gerold did not take your prize from you. I feared he meant to steal the sword after he disappeared.”

“He did come to Starfall your grace. And as a sign of good faith I have had him brought here to Sunspear to take his place as your prisoner.” Arianna can feel Tyene stiffen behind her, but there is nothing to be done. Darkstar knew the risks, and he had betrayed her, of that much she was certain now. Her father had told her that Darkstar was poison and he was, pretty poison she used to think, but his actions had wiped even her lust for him away.

“House Martell thanks you for your loyalty. I thank you.” She answers sweetly, thinking that this Ned Dayne may be a sweeter poison than his cousin, for he certainly has the looks for it. His cheeks flush red before he can stammer out a reply and her father thinks to spare the boy.

“The lords Yornwood, Fowler, Vaith, and Allyrion should be here within days to prepare for departure to Harrenhal. Until then, the hospitality of Sunspear is yours Ned.” Doran announces.

“I’d beg a moment more with you my prince.” Ned interrupts. “It is a matter of some relevance I believe.”

“Yes?’ He questions curiously.

“I know I am merely your bannerman, and I do not presume to rise above my station, but the Starks…what are your intentions with them?”

“What concern of that is yours Lord Dayne? Does your fealty come with conditions on what my uncle intends?” Tyene snaps, her disdain for him evident, though Ned cannot fathom why she should dislike him. Arianne knowns only too well though.

“Forgive my cousin,” she says apologetically, “she forgets her place.” Arianne finishes sternly, and she can feel Tyene stiffening even further beside the back of her chair. Her father, however, appears to be pleased with Arianne’s dismissal of Tyene’s uncharacteristically wild antics.

It is a short moment before Tyene finally relents saying, “I must beg your pardons Lord Dayne.” They can all tell she means nothing of the sort, but Ned is too well mannered and good natured a young man to be anything less than charming.

“Of course my lady.” He says, though he knows Tyene is no lady. “I only meant to inform your graces that I am personally acquainted with one of the Starks. Arya.” That gets Arianne and her father both sitting up straighter in their chairs.

“Little is known of the Lady Arya. Her whereabouts are said to have been unknown until she reappeared at the Twins, conquering the castle with the help of the Blackfish and wolves if tales are to be believed.” Doran says in interest.

“Aye,” Ned chuckles, “I’ll admit I don’t know how she managed all of that, but I’m not surprised. Arya was fierce even when I met her. She was much younger then.”

“And how did you meet her Lord Dayne?” Arianna asks intrigued, for she can see that this boy is fond of the Stark girl. If Ned Dayne is friends with one of the Starks, he may have just changed the game for Dorne.

“When I was a squire for Lord Beric, we happened upon Arya in the woods by the Trident. She was escaping from Harrenhal; I do not believe Roose Bolton or even lord Tywin knew she was there. The Brotherhood meant to ransom her from her brother Robb, but she escaped before they could,” he explains. “She would most likely be dead if they had given her back to Robb Stark.”

“I see.” Doran strokes his chin thoughtfully and Arianna can only hope that this time, she and her father will have similar interests.

“There’s more, your grace,” Ned said. “I can’t be certain, but she wasn’t alone when we found her. There were two boys with her, one a cook and one a smith. The smith’s name was Gendry and he looked the very image of Ser Renly.”

“You don’t mean to say that…. could he be the Gendry Baratheon that the Lady Shireen has just married?” Arianne felt her heart soaring.

“I can’t be certain, your grace.” Ned answers apologetically. “But I know his name was Gendry and he looked very much like Ser Renly. The Brotherhood sold him to a Red Witch, so I don’t rightly know if it’s him or not, but if I were to see him at Harrenhal, I’d know.”

“Thank you, Ser Edric.” Arianne bestows one of her best smiles on him.

“Ned, my princess, please.” He blushes, bowing low.

“Ned,” Arianne grants, smiling again. “I am certain I may depend upon you to introduce me to the Lady Arya when we meet at Harrenhal.”

“Yes, your grace, of course.” He smiles back, bowing low once more before exiting the room, Lady Nym showing him the way.

“This is it.” Arianna says once the doors have closed behind him and it is just her father, Tyene, and Aero Hotah’s silent presence behind them. “This is where the game turns. We could have the Starks as allies.”

“We have allies Arianne.” Her father reminds her, clenching his teeth as Aero helps him back into his wheelchair. She joins him a moment later in front of the cyvasse table set up in the corner of the room.

“And our allies come with dragons.” Tyene reminds, taking her place by the table as well.

“You mean Daenerys comes with dragons.” Arianne corrects, Doran shooting her a questioning look. “Oh, father, I have seen the boy, believe me, he is not Elia’s son.”

“That may well be, my daughter, but we have allied with them. And I believe we may have a chance to strengthen his position.”

“How so?” Tyene asks.

“I have sent for Aegon the Conqueror’s crown. With Blackfyre and the crown, it will not matter so much that his wife is the only dragon rider. Why, even Aegon the Dragonbane sat the throne as easily as the next.”

“It could work,” she says doubtfully, “but her dragons rejecting him could turn those relics to ash in a moment. Men will follow the fire, and so long as it is hers alone, I fear she will use it to destroy us all. And what of this Jon Targaryen? It is known that all of those Starks have wolves, what if he were to do the same with one of her dragons? The game would be lost.”

“What do you suggest then?” He studies the board, preparing to make his first move.

“Only that we make as many allies as possible. No matter the trinkets you give him, Aegon is not Daenerys’ equal, and there is Euron Greyjoy’s plan to think of as well. Daenerys calls it impossible, but I am not so sure. We need more allies should she think to alienate us later and cast off the yoke of Aegon’s deception.” She picks up an onyx dragon, studying the piece intently. “I do not fear her wrath, for even dragons bow before the sun.”

“Children never fear the consequences of their actions, for it is the parents who clean up their mess.” He studies her studying the dragon. “But I find I must agree with you. If this boy’s lie should be found out, we would do well to have other plans in motion.”

“What are you saying?” She asks, hopeful.

“When you get to Harrenhal, secure our every advantage. I believe Arya Stark is a good place to start.” She realizes he is giving her his blessing. “But be careful Ari, you are my first child and my last, you must return to Dorne and take your rightful place on the throne.”

Chapter Text

Arya was becoming rather tired of meeting with the lords in Winterfell. The only good thing about said meetings was that they had offered her a way out of her room every once in a while.  But with her confinement almost at an end, she soon began to long for the party’s eminent departure. She wanted to be at Harrenhal, to finish this thing with Cersei and Daenerys, and get back to the real threat at hand. She wanted things over and done with, she wanted her running and fighting to finally come to an end after six long years. It was time for her to help her people survive winter, to rebuild her family, to heal.

“Cast out the mummer’s dragon!”

“Kill the dragons, all of them!”

“Send those Targaryens back to Essos! We have the one we need.”

“Attack Cersei! Take King’s Landing while she’s in Harrenhal!”

“None of them are fit to rule!”

She had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at the suggestions. Her allies were good, honest, no nonsense men. But suffice it to say, that helped little when playing the game.

Bran interrupts their tedious shouting match. “Kill three dragons when the War for the Dawn approaches? We would be wiser to ally with them.”

“Ally with the man who would usurp your cousin?” Robert Arryn’s sickly voice asks. Arya sees that he is not only asking about Jon, but of himself as well with reports that Harold Hardyng is on the move. She has to admit, the boy is smart to be cautious of such a thing, but he need not fear where their loyalties lie.

“With Daenerys at least,” Bran states patiently.

“And how do we do that?” Lyanna Mormont questions.

“We ally with their allies,” Sansa says demurely. “Margaery and Lady Olenna were always lovely to me when I was at Kings Landing. And they would have taken me to Highgarden as well.”

“Can we trust them? They supported the Targaryens in Robert’s Rebellion,” asks a knight of the Vale.

“As I recall, not all men from the Vale sided with the rebels. Or am I wrong, Ser?” Arya counters, not unkind, but clearly making a point.

“You are not my lady; I only mean to say that they might side with whoever they think will give them advantage, not simply the cause they deem to be just,” he replies.

“Aye, that’s true. But Olenna will never work with Cersei again. Not after Mace and Loras and Margaery.” Sansa sighs sadly after saying the girl’s name.

“Still, they would do well to ally with us, we are four against their two.” Lord Royce observes, warming to the idea.

“Aye, but they have Unsullied and Dothraki.” Wylla Manderly states, faltering slightly, “and dragons.”

“At the very least, we can speak with their allies, and offer friendship. It makes no sense to alienate those we would seek help from,” Bran reasons, “otherwise, why call the council at all? I’m sure my sisters will be more than capable of persuading them to see reason when they accompany Jon to Harrenhal.”

“The lord Rickon will not attend?” Petyr Baelish asks, looking at Rickon sitting next to Bran. Shaggy perks up at the sound of his master’s name, his eyes twin pools of rage at Littlefinger’s voice.  “It may go hard convincing the rest of them to follow us if a trueborn son of Ned Stark is not present. Some may even think there’s…tension in the North,” he lets the sentence hang, eyes searching for the question himself.

Petting him back down, Rickon answers Lord Baelish with less civility than required. “Bran and I have been the Starks in Winterfell before, and Arya and Sansa know our enemies much more intimately than we do,” he says sternly, his tone brooking no argument though he is less than half Littlefinger’s age.

“And there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, don’t you know.” The Blackfish finishes, amused by Lord Baelish’s utter dismissal. Arya remembers her uncle telling her and Sansa of a time before the Rebellion, when her parents were young and Littlefinger was Petyr Baelish still, a young boy in love with her mother, running to the Blackfish for care and council. Whatever boy you knew, he is long dead uncle, she had told him. Aye, don’t I know it, he had replied sadly. He had vowed to her and her siblings to put a stop to Baelish once and for all, but for now he was content to let his kin outwit the man at every turn.

“Indeed.” Jon puts his seal of approval on the arrangement, and no other lord present can hardly disagree.

“Then it is settled. I will speak with Lady Olenna and my lord husband,” Sansa determines. “We will need to speak with the Dornish as well. Reports say that the princess Arianne will come in her father’s stead. I believe--”

“Didn’t Cersei Lannister kill her youngest brother?” Pod interrupts. “Begging pardons, it’s just that, well Lord Tyrion secured the match between Myrcella and Trystane is all.”

“Trystane was killed along with Mrycella on their way to the Capital. There’s been some confusion as to what exactly happened, but it is known that the princess suffered some harm in Dorne shortly before their departure, and that they were both killed later on,” Lord Royce supplies dutifully.

“And reports from the far east say Daenerys’ dragons killed her other brother, Qyentyn. The princess and her father are all that remain of the Nymeros Martells, but Oberyn had eight bastard daughters.” Arya adds on, she had heard the story a million times in the ship bays of Bravos, of Daenerys Targaryen’s curiosities, and the Sun’s son that came to claim her, only to meet his fiery end.

“Surely the Dornish will not stay allied to either of them after that,” Alys broke in. “Unless Arianne believes this Aegon to really be her long lost cousin.”

“It doesn’t matter really,” Jon answers practically. “She would do well to ally with those that would give her family favor. Proclaiming Aegon’s parentage would give him a good deal of legitimacy, and he would reward such loyalty in turn. Her family stands much to gain if they can get Westeros to accept his claim.”

“They’ll still listen I bet,” Sandor bites out. “Starks, Tyrells, Martells, it makes no matter. Everyone wants justice for something.”

“Aye, true enough. But who would speak with the Sun and Spear of Dorne?” Lyanna Mormont asks. “Dornishmen are said to be hot blooded and ruthless, I fear mixing words with them will not go well for the practical minds present.” Arya has to smile at that. This girl is smart, appealing to her lords’ vanity while also realizing they would be utterly unhelpful in brokering peace with such as the Martells. She wishes, not for the first time, that the girl was going with them, for they could always use more people they could count on, and Lyanna Mormont is a Stark loyalist through and through. But the girl’s place is in the north, and it does soothe Arya’s fears that such as one as she will be here to help Bran and Rickon.

“The girl will.” Thoros speaks up, taking a long drag of ale from his cup, casually looking towards Arya.

“Me?” Arya asks, highly amused, “and just why do you think she’ll listen to me?”

“Because, you’re both fighters, and the Dornish are outcasts in the seven kingdoms just like the northmen.” He took another sip of his ale, then smiled at her. “And I’m sure Ned Dayne will be most happy to see you again and make the introductions.” When he’s not piss drunk, she thinks as a smile begins to form on her face, he’s actually a bit useful.

“Ned Dayne?” Jon looks between Arya and Thoros, misreading her smile. “Who is Ned Dayne?”

“The lord of Starfall,” Thoros explains, “he’s a good lad and he will help Arya for certain.” Arya can see the exact moment that Jon becomes irritated with this idea. Jon’s reading the situation completely wrong of course, but Arya still feels bad at the pang of hurt that crosses over his face and disappears just as fast. If he’d only talk to me, he would know. That thought saves her from feeling something like regret. She is a woman, and proud, she will not beg or play the fool for him, no matter how much her heart beats for his. If Jon wants answers or affection, he can seek her out. She will not run to him again as if she were a child still.

“Ned was training to be a knight last I remember,” Arya looks at Thoros, her voice curious, “did he ever get any better?”

“Aye, and deadly too. Made his first kill shortly after you and the Hound there took off, and he did not stop. When he left, I was sure that Dawn would be his in time.”

“The Sword of the Morning?” Jon asks incredulously. “Arthur Dayne was the last Sword of the Morning, the deadliest knight of Aerys’ kings guard!” She has to laugh at the absurdity of it all, which only makes Jon’s gaze fall on her once again. Ned Dayne, the sweet boy she had met all those years ago, carrying the same sword as the likes of Arthur Dayne, the man her father had killed. What had life in Westeros come to, that sweet Ned should have to bear such a burden? When did he stop being the good natured boy I remember, and become a killer instead? For that matter, when did I?

“Aye, and your uncle killed him just the same,” the Hound speaks up, drawing the others’ attention back to the conversation at hand.

 “I see.” Arya is distressed. This council, the war, it all seems so real now in way that it had not felt a few moments ago. Ned had been a sweet boy from what she remembered, always eager to talk to her and take her mind off of the war. He had made her capture feel a little less like a prison sentence, and she does not want any harm to befall him, though he is technically her enemy. War is never that simple, she remembers the Northmen hanging in cages in the Riverlands, the destruction Robb’s men had done just as much as any other army. Life was simpler when it was just the Lannisters to kill. But now, now the stakes just seem so much higher with Ned carrying Dawn, Gendry off in the Stormlands with Shireen, and chaos besieging them on all sides.

“Alright then.” Jon says begrudgingly, taking her out of musings, “Sansa will court the Tyrells, and Arya will speak with Lord Dayne to secure a meeting with the Martell princess.”

***

Almost as soon as Arya returns to her chamber, Rickon wheels Bran in to see her.

“Dark Sister.” Bran says by way of greeting.

“Are you coming to me as Bran? Or are you Bloodraven’s servant?” She asks skeptically.

“Both,” he gave her a gentle smile. “Always both, I’m afraid.”

“Ok,” she waits, none too pleased with the way this conversation must surely go.

“Bloodraven sees with a thousand eyes.”

“And what has he seen now?”

“You are right to doubt this Aegon, he is not what he says he is, but he is still dangerous.”

“Well that’s a bit obvious brother, you’ve already told me he is a pretender.”

“He is a Blackfyre.”

“The last Blackfyre died in the last rebellion. It is known,” she says, but a hint of a question find its way into her voice.

“On the male side, but he is a Blackfyre from the mother’s side. Varys and his web of lies have been planning this for years.”

“But I thought you said Varys was helping Daenerys and Viserys?”

“He was. But Viserys was never intended to succeed. Varys’ plan was always to have Aegon rule.”

“I sense there’s more.” She sighs, a slight headache beginning to form as she paces back and forth around the room. If this boy is Blackfyre, then he is a Targaryen bastard, and that could cause Jon real trouble.

“Bloodraven committed his life to ending the Blackfyre line, he will not be so easily stopped. Aegon does has the blood of the dragon, same as Jon and Daenerys, but he cannot be allowed to bond with a dragon. Bloodraven gave me Dark Sister, knowing I would give it to you, knowing we would need it if we were to hope to combat Varys’ claims of the boy. He also knew of the War for the Dawn, and that we would need help. That is why he sent his sister to also recruit Daenerys.”

“His sister?”

“His sister and his lover,” he pauses to observe her face. But Arya has trained under Him of many faces, Bran will not see a thing she does not want him to, greensight be damned. “Sheira Seestar, or Quaithe to Daenerys. She has been playing this game as long as him, and the breaking point is coming. Jon is the one true heir, and Daenerys his queen of fire. We need her and her dragons to win this war. The dragon has three heads, but Aegon must not be allowed to continue if you are to take your rightful place.”

“You mean murder?” She isn’t sure why that shocks her, the gods know she has killed so many already, and that they are preparing for war, where countless more will die. But for some reason, she balks at the thought of cold blooded murder. I gave up the way of the Faceless Men when I paid them my debt, Bran asks too much of me.

“You of all people must know, it has to happen. He must die.”

“Bloodraven told you that we must kill him?” All men must die, she thinks, even this Bloodraven of yours.

“Not us, you. You of all people know that death is a gift, one you must give to him if we hope to succeed.”

“And I of all people want to see Jon succeed, is that it?” She bites out, seeing now why Bran had laid this task at her feet. It has nothing to do with the faceless men or killing, any man with a dagger could do the deed just the same.

Bran gave her a pitying smile. “He has watched us our whole lives, Arya. Who else to guard Jon but you? Who else but you could not accept defeat in this? Jon died for you, I imagine you wouldn’t do any less.” He says, not unkindly and it proves her suspicions right. Bran knows, she isn’t sure exactly what he knows or how much of it, but Bran knows the way that Arya loves Jon. She studies his face, to see if he’s bothered by it, repulsed in some way, but he just stares back at her patiently, letting her drink her fill.

“I… I’ll have to think about it Bran. About killing the boy, I mean.”

“There’s nothing to think of. It must happen.” He sighs. “Bloodraven killed the last Blackfyre after swearing the boy would come to no harm. He got sent to the Wall for it, but why is it so much better to kill thousands of men in combat, than to end a war before it starts by eliminating one man?”

“There is no honor in such a thing Bran,” she tells him weakly, the irony not lost on her that she of all people could say such a thing. My hands are bloodier than most.

He sighs deeply, “I know it weighs heavy on you, Arya. It does for me as well. But the things I have done, the things I’ve seen, you’re far from the worst person.” He reaches out to touch her hand, gentleness seeping into his voice. “What happens at this council will determine everything. Please remember what the real threat is, who the real enemy is. It is not Daenerys, no matter what you may feel. We’ll speak more on your return.” He wheels himself out, leaving Arya alone for the rest of the day.

Early the next morning, they leave Winterfell. The crowd that gathers is large and sorrowful, for people are anxious to see the party off to Harrenhal, and even more anxious for them to return. Arya feels a tightening in her chest as she looks at all the families saying goodbye to each other once more. The farewells are short and sad, fearful because of the uncertainty hanging over them all. “You’ll come back,” Rickon had said earlier when they were alone, saying their real goodbyes. His voice was strong and sure, but Arya doesn’t have such certainty anymore. “You have to.” It was a bitter pill to swallow, having to leave the place she had spent six years trying to return to.

Summer and Meera had stood guard by Bran’s side stoutly as her brother had appeared firm and resolute, sending them all off with well wishes and riddles too confusing to puzzle out. To her he said, “remember the true enemy,” to Sansa he said, “You must be the steel now.” That had an immediate effect, her sister’s eyes going wide, scampering upon her horse with a determined look, but saying nothing. She had overheard him telling Jon, “when you get to Riverrun, someone will find you and help you do what needs to be done. Try not to hate yourself too much, it’s all a part of what must happen.” She finds herself still trying to figure out who awaits Jon at her mother’s home and what on earth Sansa was going to do with steel, long after the party has departed and Winterfell shrinks in the distance.

***

It is a long journey to Harrenhal, and his thoughts should be on the task at hand, but of course they are of Arya. The Blackfish is saying something, and he should be paying attention, but a crowd of townsfolk have cropped up around their camp, and he can’t help but wondering what it is they want. Nymeria is quick to appear, swinging her tail jovially, and both Stark sisters soon behind her, the three surprisingly at ease among the smallfolk there. “A pretty sight,” the Blackfish observes.

“What is?” Jon asks.

“My nieces. No doubt the tale has spread of our journey and that is why the smallfolk come to meet us here.” He says by way of explaining, and Jon knows the man is looking at him intently. He looks at Arya again, hair unbound and wildly billowing in the wind, her furs wrapping her up tight. She laughed at something a boy no older than four or five said to her as more people from the village surrounded them. Arya didn’t seem out of place at all, if anything, she looked happy. Is this what my father saw when he looked at my mother? Jon had not thought of Rhaegar as his father before, only choosing instead to think of him as Rhaegar. But now, looking at Arya with her beautiful grey eyes and her kind smile, he thinks maybe he could understand the man his father had been. Perhaps even, that he could not be faulted for falling in love with the rose of Winterfell. His mother had been much like Arya too, both fierce and just by all accounts. Howland Reed had told him the story of Harrenhal, and the true identity of the mystery knight. Jon had to admit, it sounded exactly like something Arya would have done. Perhaps he was his father’s son after all, for there could be no way he could have Arya, still, he wanted her just the same. Stark women cause wars he thinks darkly.

“I’m not sure if it’s safe for them to be so exposed,” he states worriedly, dissolving his treacherous thoughts before they can become actions.

“We’re in Blackwood territory just here, there’s none safer save Riverrun herself. The Blackwoods are a loyal sort. Besides,” he laughs, “half the Riverlands are too bloody scared of Arya’s wolves to even think of stepping a toe out of line.” It makes the tension uncoil from Jon’s shoulders, but the uneasiness is still there. “Now about Littlefinger,” he starts, “I understand he’s asked your leave to go back to the Vale and gather more forces, and he says he’d be willing to leave the boy in your care.”

“Aye,” Jon nods along, never taking his eyes off of Sansa and Arya so long as the smallfolk are near them, remembering the stab wounds on his chest acutely. All it takes is one person, one mad person to turn my world upside down. “I have half a mind to let him, just so I can get Robert out of his care.” He sees the Blackfish look contemplative at that. “Say what you mean, Ser Brynden, there should be no barriers between us, and I appreciate your council.”

“Only a fool would believe a thing Littlefinger says,” he replies plainly. “The girls have asked me to keep close watch over him and I’d like your leave to follow him.”

“No,” Jon says flatly. He can see that the Blackfish wants to protest. “You’re far too valuable here, whatever you and those two she-wolves have been cooking up, let it go. My hands have been tied on the issue of Baelish for far too long, but I’ve wanted him gone for a while now. Without him cowering in the boy’s shadow, I think he will make a play. And when he displays even an ounce of disloyalty….,” he lets the sentence hang.

The Blackfish chuckles. “You’re too smart for your own good. Robb was the same.” He gives Jon a pat on the shoulder, content for once. “With him gone, we’ll need someone good to help with the Vale knights and lead their party. Robert is still sickly and Harry the Heir still wants the seat and Sansa, I’m sure that’s why he troubled himself to meet us all the way back at the Neck instead of at Harrenhal. He thought her a beauty and nothing else when she was still disguised as Littlefiner’s bastard, I’m told, but he has every intention on claiming her now that she is a Stark once more. This isn’t the last of the Vale problem, I assure you.”

“No man will have either of my sisters so long as they do not wish it,” Jon says flippantly. “I care little for what he wants,” he gives a huff of air. To say that he’s less than impressed with Harold Hardyng is an understatement; the boy is proud and useless, green as summer grass, and a pain in Jon’s ass ever since he had met the party up by the Neck. The boy came with more airs than Jon thought possible, but he was utterly a hindrance to any real progress. In another life, he and Robb would have shared more than a few laughs at the boy’s expense. But Jon knows he must tread carefully with him just now. Harry is still next in line, and if Robert should die without issue, then he’ll have a new pompous lord of the Vale not related to his cousins to contend with. He contemplates for a moment before saying, “Lord Royce is a good man, what do you make of him?”

“Aye, he’s just and fair as they come, he’ll give Sweetrobyn good council. Might be he could straighten Harry out a little bit too.”

“It’s settled then. I trust you’ll speak to him discretely?”

“Aye.” He studies Jon for a moment more. “What you said about the girls….it’s a noble thought….”

“And I meant it. I don’t care to have them sold off as cattle, they’ve been through enough. There will always be a place for them wherever I am.” It is perhaps the smallest comfort he can give Sansa, but he is determined to give at least that peace of mind to her. And the last time he heard a man was to marry Arya….no, men would do well not ask after either of their hands as far as he is concerned.

“Sansa is already married, like it or not,” the Blackfish points. “And she certainly knows how to use that despicable union to her advantage.”

“My sister—“

“She’s not your sister.” The Blackfish states, something unreadable but not unkind in his voice. “They are your cousins, and they will do whatever is required to make sure that we survive this winter and sit you on the Iron Throne. We all have our parts to play.”

“My cousins should not have to make sacrifices of themselves. You didn’t,” Jon points bashfully.

“Aye,” he laughs loudly, “you got me there. But all I mean to say is that they are your family. A family that loves you dearly. You would do well to keep them close to you.” He walks away leaving Jon puzzled. I thought I was keeping them close to me. Bran inherited this trick of confusion from him Jon thinks dryly.  

***

“Rosalyn!” Arya calls, galloping through the gate at an easy pace. The girl seems no worse for wear, and the babe at her hip has grown. This, more than anything, makes Arya smile.

“Arya!” Rosalyn is quick to sweep her up into a hug as soon as she has dismounted. Little Edmund giggles as the embrace squishes him between his mother and his cousin. “I’ve had rooms prepared for the nobles present in your party, and maester Brynden is here from the Twins to speak with you. He says he left for Riverrun almost as soon as your party did, but he made better time. I would have thought he could have caught you on the road so as not to make the journey all the way here,” she wonders aloud.

“Nay,” Arya furrows her brow lightly, “though we’d be hard to miss,” she gives a puzzled look.

“No matter, we’ll get it all sorted, don’t you worry,” she hugs Arya again. “Thank you for brining Edmure home, thank you for everything,” she whispers warmly in her ear.

“Trying times lay ahead Rosalyn, but you will always have a friend in me.” And Arya realizes she means this, not out of duty or honor, but because she really does like this woman. Rosalyn may be a Frey, but she had seen to Riverrun and the Twins in Arya’s absence, the girl had more than proved her loyalty and Arya wants a bit of happiness for her. “But more on that later, I’m sure you’ll want to see your husband,” she smiles at Rosalyn as her uncle Edmure dismounts and joins them.

“Wife,” he inclines his head awkwardly, not sure what to do or expect.

“My lord husband,” Rosalyn smiles in answer, bowing awkwardly with the babe on her hip. “Welcome home.”

“May I… may I hold him?” He motions to Edmund and holds out his hands. She relinquishes the baby happily.

“He looks more and more like a Tully with each passing day,” she says to him, a bit hesitant, but firm. “Are you well my lord, after your journey?” Her eyes tenderly search his figure for any signs of discomfort or injury. It almost feels too tender a moment between them for Arya to be witnessing.

“Happy to be home,” he smiles shyly at her.

“Come on then,” the Blackfish cuts in to their awkward conversation, giving Rosalyn a pat on the shoulder. “Let the ladies see to the rest of the party, Rosalyn’s been running the place well enough without our help as it is. And we have business to attend to,” he says to Edmure. “And bring the boy, the gods know it’s never too early to start learning how to rule.” Arya laughs at this and he casts a smile her way. Edmure trails along with little Edmund in tow, his face happier here than it had even been at Winterfell.

“We’ll meet you soon, uncle Edmure, just as soon as I see to my maester’s concerns and get Jon and Sansa,” Arya calls to their backs. “They should be here soon. I think we’ll have to leave a guard out for Nymeria and Ghost. She took him to her pack a few days back but I think they’ll be at the castle gates sometime tonight,” she addresses Rosalyn again.

“I’ll tell Ser Marq to see to the gate,” Rosalyn nods along. “We’ll be dining as soon as your party has time to settle.”

“Are you well, Rosalyn?” Arya takes the time to survey her and fill the silence.

“Very well. I’m just worried is all. This council, the things to come, everything seems all the more dire now with a son to think of,” she trembles a little, but soon recovers herself. “But how have you been? And tell me true! Don’t think I didn’t hear tale of what happened at Casterlyn Rock,” she chides softly.

“That,” Arya gives a dry laugh. “Yes, well, it had to be done. But Jon will see us through this winter. I have every confidence in him,” She beams and Rosalyn does too.

“I am so very happy for your family’s good fortune in reuniting. I hope one day to meet the lords Brandon and Rickon as well.”

“One day. You’ll have to come to Winterfell though, but I know you’ll love it. And little Edmund could play in the snow with the Wintertown children!” What a pretty picture that would make, all my family safe and sound and home Arya thinks longingly as Sansa’s horse comes trotting in slowly. “Took you bloody long enough!” she exclaims, but there’s no malice to it.

“The snow’s too thick for a sensible person to rush ahead, Arya,” Sansa responds as a Tully man helps her from her horse. She looks the very image of their late mother in this place, and Arya thinks to tell her that, but holds her tongue, remembering Sansa’s words from before, I’m not a Stark like any of you. “And are you my good aunt then?” Sansa asks Rosalyn sweetly, but Arya can see through the facade. Sansa wants to know if Rosalyn can be trusted. Arya gives a slight, almost imperceptible nod behind the girl’s back.

“I have that honor, yes.” Rosalyn gets out, a little fearfully. “I would like to welcome you, Lady Stark, to Riverrun.”

“Our mother’s home,” Sansa tells her, “and a welcome respite from our journey.” She gives Rosalyn a genuine smile, and just like that, Arya knows they will be fast friends. Rosalyn had not called her Lady Lannister, a fact that did not escape either of their notices. But before they can say anything else, Jon’s horse finally comes into the yard and men bow before him.

“Your grace,” Rosalyn bows low as Jon stops in front of her, a little awed by him and it makes pride swell in Arya’s chest. Jon certainly does make an imposing figure, big, heavy furs adorning him and a solemnness only a Northman can have, and the light snow falling around them only adds to it in her opinion. A true king of winter, dragon blood be damned.

“Lady Tully,” he quickly offers her his hand kindly for her to rise. He is clearly still uncomfortable with the concept of people bowing to him, and it is enough to make Sansa and Arya share a discrete look and laugh at his expense.

“Riverrun is yours, your grace,” she says dutifully.

“Thank you,” he gives as close to a smile as possible, “I had hoped to attend to some business before supper, where has Lord Edmure and the Blackfish gone to my lady?”

“I believe they will have gone to the lord’s solar. Lady Arya can show you both the way. I look forward to seeing you all at supper,” she gives another bow. “Oh and Arya, do see Maester Brynden, he insists it’s quite urgent.”

***

“Can you be certain?” The Blackfish asks the old man again.

“I would not lie to you, my lord. Truly. I serve my Lady Arya faithfully. It’s as I said.” Maester Brynden says again, resolute and firm.

“Thank you, maester Piper,” Arya lays a hand on his shoulder. “You may rest. I believe supper is being prepared. Do eat and stay the night, you can journey back to the Twins on the morrow.” He bows to her, then to Uncle Edmure, then to Jon, and leaves. It is still strange for Sansa to observe Arya like this, not the compassion she had just shown the man-- no, Arya had always been kind to everybody—but the authority. It’s interesting to think on, her sister being the Lady of the Crossing, having a castle all her own to rule and men to do her bidding. Well, the last part isn’t new, men have always done her bidding in some form or another—first Jon, then Bran and Robb and father, even Rickon comes running when she calls now. But this is something different, this is power that makes these men come to her, respect, esteem, not the mere affection that had always made the Stark men clay in her hands. Sansa had learned a long time ago to use every advantage available to her when dealing with men in her own way. Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon she can still hear Cersei Lannister saying, and the best one’s between your legs.

“How can we use this?” She hears herself asking. “Jon gave Lord Baelish leave to go to the Vale. Now Arya’s maester says he set off south, not east. There’s no telling where he could be by now. And there are the ravens he showed her from before to think of.”

“The ravens mean little in truth, Littlefinger made sure to be discrete in his correspondence with Walder Frey. Much as I know you will hate to hear this, we can only wait and see,” Jon says, and it is a shock to all present. Since when has he become patience with his vengeance? He all but wanted to execute the man where he stood a few moons ago. Arya makes this same observation.

“What, you don’t want to find him and run him through with your sword?” She teases. But the Blackfish gives her a look and she settles down a bit, but only a bit. “You promised us justice for father. Don’t tell me that’s changed.”

“Never,” Jon shakes his head, going to the window and looking out at the Red Fork. “But it’s like you both said. There isn’t enough to accuse him. Say he comes to Harrenhal and offers an explination for his change of plans, say he provides a legitimate reason for doing so.” He shakes his head, “there isn’t enough to kill him yet.”

“But if we wait too long, whatever it is he’s planning could go against us,” uncle Edmure whispers so as not to disturb the babe fast asleep in his arms.

“A risk we’ll have to take,” the Blackfish sighs.

Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. “What if I wrote to him? I don’t know, told him I wanted to meet somewhere?”

“Nay,” uncle Edmure shakes his head, “even if you could get him to agree, he’s got spies everywhere. He’d know we were coming and all would be for naught.”

“Not if I go alone,” Sansa hears herself say and she wonders where this courage is coming from. She had wanted so long for her family to come back to her, so why should she offer to leave them again? Because I am the only one who can destroy him. Because I am a Stark and I must do this for my father, for my mother, even for aunt Lysa. She can still remember the look on her aunt’s face when Littlefinger had pushed her out of the Moon Door. Because he breaks people and he must be stopped.

“No.” Jon says, a finality in his voice, still turned toward the window. He may have many things left to learn, but command comes easily to him she thinks absently. “And don’t even think about trying to escape, I have guards posted in every corner of this castle. You have Arya to thank for that.” Her sister at least has the decency to blush and offer sympathetic eyes.

“Sansa wouldn’t dream of escaping,” Arya says by way of support.

“No, far too much work if you ask me,” she replies easily and it’s enough to lighten the mood in her uncle’s solar for a moment. “But I do think we should prepare for the possibility that he would be meeting with Cersei.”

“Why her and not Daenerys and Aegon?” The Blackfish asks curiously.

“Familiarity,” she answers right away. “That is not to say that he might not go to them later, but I think he will go to her first.” Always keep your foes confused his voice taunts in her mind. “He has been playing the long game with Cersei for quite some time and she trusts him to an extent, I think. Better for him to hammer out the details of a sure thing, before facing an enemy he does not know.”

“And when he meets with her, what will he do next?” Jon turns to face her and she can see that he will trust whatever comes out of her mouth next, he will listen to her council. It is a heady feeling, for she may not have his confidences like Arya, but she does have his respect. Looking around the room, she can see that she has the others’ trust as well.

“I can’t be sure, “she starts, doubt creeping into her mind, “but Cersei will want to see us suffer. He once promised Lady Olenna to help kill Joffrey, and he did, if only to have them both as allies for a moment. That’s the kind of thing he does, play with people like that. Perhaps he might promise Cersei something similar in turn.” A sinking feeling starts to take root in the pit of her stomach, and her mouth goes dry. “You don’t think….,” there is a pregnant pause, then her face pales, “he asked about Rickon.” She feels herself getting hysterical now and she can see that everyone else is anxious as soon as her brother’s name passes her lips. “At the last meeting in Winterfell, he asked if Rickon would attend.” Immediately, there is a flurry of activity.

“I want a raven sent to Winterfell at once,” Jon instructs the Blackfish, both men standing now as uncle Edmure rises also, “keep close guard of the castle. I want the wildlings on alert, Bran and Rickon are not to be left out of their sight. And their wolves must be kept close!” Her uncles and Jon exit the room fast, no doubt headed toward the rookery.

“I’ll have my maester double up on the defenses at the Twins as well. And send a raven to White Harbor. If a man goes North, he’ll have to pass one of those ways.” She comes over to where Sansa has fallen into a chair and grips her hand. “We’ll take care of this, don’t fret,” and then Arya has left her as well.

Gods, she prays, give me the strength to end this, show me what to do.

***

Jon could barely recognize the taste of the food on his tongue, it all seemed like ash now after meeting in Lord Edmore’s solar. Still, Sansa had counseled that they keep their wits. Littlefinger has spies everywhere, and I do not know what Harry will do to ensure his place, we would do well to tell no one of our plans she had said just before the feast could begin. But he saw that she was having trouble following her own advice, and so were the other three who had been present in the solar. 

“My lady,” Thoros approached Arya at the table, her plate as untouched as his own.

“Thoros,” Arya acknowledges. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Jon saw that the Brotherhood was watching this little exchange intently. Even though they had sworn their loyalty to her, it was well known that she still resented the fact that they sold her friend all those years ago. The bitterness rises in his throat once more at the thought of her little blacksmith. He’s the lord of Storm’s End now, no mere blacksmith he reminds himself begrudgingly.

“I would ask you and your sister to meet me at the place where the castle joins the Red Fork at the hour of the wolf.” The man was piss drunk, and it showed in his speech. He has to drink his courage to talk to her. Jon feels a sense of pride at that. She does not need me to fight her battles anymore, she is a woman grown, and deadly besides.  That thought was both a comfort and a curse. Perhaps if he still saw Arya as that girl with scrapped knees and torn clothes that he had left for the Wall, he would not desire her so. But that girl is gone, and so is the boy he once was. What sort of man has taken his place I wonder he thinks wryly.

“Surely you jest,” Arya interrupts his thoughts. “We have to depart for Harrenhal soon, and I am tired from our journey.”

“Just the same, I’d ask you to meet me there. You and your sister.” Jon watches as Arya and Sansa share a look, and Sansa gives her a subtle nod.

“Very well,” Arya replies tersely, nodding to Thoros once and the man all but runs down from the high table, relieved to have the encounter over with.

He isn’t exactly sure why he’s sneaking about, but it’s almost the hour of the wolf when Jon follows Arya and Sansa, as quietly as he possibly can, to the place Thoros mentioned. They are alone despite his best efforts of instructing his guards not to let them out of their sights, not even the Hound or Brienne accompanying them. More fool me to think they could not outwit a slew of guards after all they’ve done he berates himself. He wonders why he had even bothered to come himself.  Perhaps it is because Thoros had included Sansa as well. Whatever the reason, his interest is piqued as he sees that Arya carries Dark Sister at her hip, and that Nymeria and Ghost are accompanying them both. She did say they’d be back tonight. He relaxes at the sight of the wolves; his interest is still piqued because Arya at least is expecting some sort of confrontation, but he never really thought Thoros meant them any harm.

“This is a funeral boat,” he hears Sansa’s voice carry over the wind as she bends down to examine it, the torch in her hand flickering slightly at the disturbance.

“No need to fear,” Thoros himself emerges and there is some shadow behind him, other members of the brotherhood far off behind them. The man is still drunk, but Jon thinks he sees sadness in his face as well, though it is hard to tell from the distance away he is. “The lady means you no harm, I can promise you that, but it’s her right to see you.” The figure behind him steps into the light of the torch he holds and the face Jon sees in the flames makes his eyes widen. Her flesh is molten and rotted, her hair the color of copper tinted white as it lays in dull clumps around her face. Gods be good, how? Lady Catelyn was said to be dead from the Red Wedding, but here she was, standing just before him. He moves ever so slightly to get closer and he can see that her eyes are weeping red tears, the cut at her throat so deep that the moonlight catches on the bone exposed there.

He does not know who gasps louder at the sight, Sansa or himself. “Mother?” He hears her ask, voice choked. “But how?”

“When we found her by the river, she was three days dead. Harwin begged me to give her the kiss of life, but it had been too long. I would not do it, so Lord Beric put his lips to hers instead, and the flame of life passed from him to her. And... she rose as Lady Stoneheart. When word reached us of you at the Twins,” he points to Arya,” she bid us to follow you,” Thoros explains.

Understanding dawns on Arya’s features then. “It was you,” she lets out, fat tears spilling down her own face. “Rosalyn said someone was killing Freys, you—you…Lady Stoneheart….” she can’t continue. But Lady Catelyn had turned her eyes on him now. He almost has a mind to join them, but something stops him. She wanted to see her children the thought comes to him suddenly, not her husband’s bastard. The irony of that statement is not lost on him, but it does enough to root him to the spot. She gives him one long hard final look as the tears still fall down her face before turning away. It is not impossible for a person to be brought back from the dead, Jon himself is proof enough of that, but this is not the Catelyn Stark that had despised him so at Winterfell.

“Bran and Rickon are in Winterfell,” he hears Sansa saying in a wobbly voice. “They’re alive. And…Jon, he is not father’s son.” He finds that he does not take offense at Sansa telling her that, he hopes that maybe the truth will comfort her somehow.

“Aye, she has heard tale of it all, don’t you worry,” Thoros explains, because Lady Catelyn has not opened her mouth once.

“Uncle Edmure and Uncle Brynden, they’ll—“

“No,” Thoros says quickly. “Just the two of you. She wanted to see you one last time. A goodbye.”

“Goodbye?” Arya jolts and it’s as if lightening has struck her.

“This is not a life you would wish upon her,” Jon hears Thoros say, “with her children safe and her job done, she craves rest most of all. To see your brother and father once more,” the red priest tells them in a gentle tone. Lady Catelyn just gives a solemn nod at his words, then she presses an object that Jon did not even realize she was holding into Sansa’s hands. A crown his mind supplies, shockingly, for he does not even know how to breathe at this moment. He can see even from his hiding spot that it is iron, bronze, and heavy. Robb’s crown. He feels his knees buckle with the weight of that knowledge.

 

She doesn’t touch Sansa or Arya as she walks to the boat and settles herself inside, but her eyes drink their fill as Thoros hands her the torch, then pushes the boat off. The tears have not stopped flowing from her face as unnatural sounds come from her as she drifts away from the dock. And finally, when she is no more than a speck on the horizon, she lets the torch kiss the boat, engulfing it in flames as she drifts down the Red Fork to her next life.

Sansa weeps openly then, all broken and anguished, clutching the crown so tight he thinks she will cut herself. She waits until the boat has disappears from view, but doesn’t say anything to Arya as she journeys back to the castle alone. It is then when Jon finally decides to make himself known. She doesn’t say anything as he stopes right behind her and he thinks that perhaps she has known that he was there all along. He studies Arya’s face, unsure of what to expect from her in this moment. Swiftly, she unsheathes her sword. “Spar with me,” it is a command, not a question.

“I do not think that is wise,” he answers, unsure of anything at the moment, but wishing he knew what to do just now.

“They took everything from me!” She shouts angrily, and he’s never seen her so raw. “They couldn’t even let her die in peace. She had to come back as this…this… Lady Stoneheart. When I saw Robb’s head on Greywind’s body, when I dreamed of her in the river, I thought ‘at least the pain is over for them.’ That one thought, it was all I had in those days. And even that isn’t true. When does it end, Jon, when does it end? They killed you too, and now you’ve come back. And you’re still fighting, just as she was, but you’re normal and she was…. that.” The tears have started to fall once more form her eyes, “I thought death was an ending,” she finishes weakly and the sword drops from her hand. The wolves are staring at them intently, but save for them, they are completely alone on that jetty by the water’s edge.

Tenderly, cautiously, he pulls her into his arms. Her tears are staining his cloak, her nails are digging into his skin almost painfully, but none of that matters now. Arya is broken and it hurts him to see her hurt in such a way. “I’m not normal, not truly.” He cradles her face, making her look up so that their eyes can meet. “When I died, I went into Ghost, your mother had no such escape.”

“Then I will take heart in the knowledge that her suffering has finally ended,” her voice is flat, and it fills Jon with dread. He feels as if he is losing her somehow, as if the very essence of who she is might be slipping through his fingers at this moment. If I lost you, I’d be no one he remembers her saying to him once.

“Arya,” he pleads, “stay with me. Stay with me please. Sansa, Bran, Rickon…they need you. Your people need you. I need you.” He panics. He cannot lose her again, and losing her this way would hurt worse than if he had never found her. He does the only thing he can think to do, the thing he’s wanted to do since that day by the heart tree. He kisses her. In a world where dead men walk and dragons fly, where the Others are real and greenseers control lives, kissing this girl to save her can hardly be the worst thing to the gods. Or so that is what he tells himself as he pauses, pulling his head back to look into her eyes again. He thinks he sees a sliver of her soul returning to her, so he kisses her again and again. As many times as it takes until he can be sure she won’t leave him. It is nothing less than desperation and sheer need as he presses his lips to her own. “Stay will me,” he murmurs on her lips, then kisses her again.

***

Harrenhal welcomed Arya like an old friend. The castle is as burnt and as big as she remembers, looming over men with all its magnificent and terrible glory. I was the ghost in Harrenhal once. But that had been long ago, when she had blackmailed Jaqen and escaped with Hotpie and Gendry.

She had the entire journey to think about her mother, or what was left of her, and the visit Lady Stoneheart had paid them before departing this world. She had spent many nights in her tent with Sansa, both of them whispering quietly their treasured memories of their mother. It had been a comfort to have Sansa near, it made her feel less lonely without Jon. She and Jon had been shy around each other after that night by the Red Fork. He had kissed her senseless, then held her for hours after, until she had slipped away from him. She needed time to think, time to clear her head.

She had tried to seek him out after, but he conveniently kept his distance after that night. She still wants him of course, and she doesn’t want him to think that she was running form him, because she wasn’t.  But she just isn’t sure if he wants her for true or if he kissed her to save her from the void she was falling into, and that possibility is enough to sting her pride and stay her hand. But how could she not love Jon with all her heart? He had always been there, in her heart, her mind, and now it just seemed like the natural progression of things that she should want him in this way. She feels whole whenever he is near, she will not let anyone make her feel wrong for that, not even Jon. And she tries to remember that he was her cousin and cousins married all the time, not that she was thinking of marriage. But deep in her heart, Arya knew it didn’t matter, that she would give herself to Jon willingly weather he be her cousin or her bastard half-brother. Whatever way he wanted her, she would be his. But he has to want it too. He had pulled away from at Winterfell, and again at Riverrun, even though he had been the one to start it then. What would he do now, with their enemies gathering and the Long Night plaguing his thoughts? It’s now or never, before I lose him for good.

She takes the time now as they ride into Harrenhal to observe him. His broad shoulders are tensed slightly as he surveys the castle. His raven colored hair is subdued to the nape of his neck as Robb’s crown sits on top of his head. He had not washed the blood away after Sansa had given it to him, and that makes her sad. He is hurting as much as me. He is mine as I am his. I must make him see that. She knows it is dangerous to be thinking such things, especially now at a time when alliances must be made. She knows it fully possible that she and Jon both could leave this meeting with betrothals or even marriages. But no matter what happens next, she needs to know that Jon at least feels the same, even if nothing can come of it. She dismounts quickly as the men set to make camp and lay claim to chambers. Harrenhal is big enough that no one will be left wanting, but the Winterfell party has made sure to arrive first and get their pick of the castle before Cersei and Daenerys arrived.

“Whatever has happened between you two,” Sansa says coming to stand beside her, “you should put it behind you. Both of you.” She gives Arya a gentle shove in Jon’s direction.

He and Tormund are in a short conversation that stops as soon as Jon sees Arya approaching them. “Walk with me?” She asks hesitantly, and to her surprise, he follows quietly. When she has led them to the castle’s unkempt Godswood, she kneels by the heart tree as if to pray, but remains silent.

“Arya,” he calls to her softly after some time.

She reaches for his hand and pulls him down beside her. “When I was---when I was here before, it was in this very place that I heard father’s voice speak to me. He reminded me of who I was, and I was not afraid.” She looks into his eyes, “I found my courage here in this castle. I came here a mouse, I became a ghost in these halls, but I left a wolf.”

He looks at her then, shame clouding his features as he realizes what she is trying to say to him. “I’m sorry I’ve kept my distance. I just thought that you wouldn’t appreciate my company now.”

“And what would make you think such a silly thing, stupid?” He smiles despite everything, her words so much like the child she once was, and yet, not.

“Forgive me.” He looks into her eyes then, so much like his own. In answer, she flings her arms around him. She holds on tighter to him as she feels him pick her up and spin her around. It is the most natural thing in the world for her to kiss his face full of kisses like she used to do. And it is the most natural thing in the world that his lips should find hers in the process, and that they should share the sweetest kiss. He does not pull back this time, deepening it until they are both gasping for breath. “Arya.” He set her down gently and groans. “How can I be around you when every time you’re near I have to touch you, hold you, kiss you?” He grasps her by the shoulders then. “It is wrong; don’t you see?” His reasoning sounds weak, even to his own ears.

“You are everything to me, Jon. Do you love me as I love you?”

He closes his eyes in anguish. “Arya I have loved you since I first saw you. But now I love you in every way possible, despite everything.”

“Then it is not wrong.” She kisses his lips once more in invitation though his eyes remain closed. And he claims her lips once more before he can stop himself. “This is tearing me apart, the distance, the anguish. I cannot stop this thing between us. Do not deny it any longer. Soon I will have to give you up, but not before…. not before I know what it’s like to love you in this way.”

“At Riverrun, I had to…I could see you were losing yourself. I just wanted to bring you back. There can’t be anything between us, even for a moment. There is nothing between us,” he states weakly. She sees right through it and this time, she remembers who she is, who they are. Two sides of the same coin. She will not let him run from this any longer.

“Who am I if not the person who loves you best in this world?” She asks softly. “I am myself with you, just as I know it is the same for you. If you were to tell me that you truly do not want this, that you don’t feel the same…” she lets it hang.

“You are half my soul, as the singers say.” He gives her a sad little smile, still clinging to her. “I’d do anything for you, you know that. You have to know that by now,” he responds helplessly.

“Then show me! Love me,” she demands. Her heart hangs in the balance as she waits for his answer. He looks around them at the face carved into a weirwood tree and understands that whatever he says next will be witnessed by the old gods, a solemn oath. It is a lot to put on him at such a time, but they seem to be running out of it just now with adversaries closing in on all sides.

“Always.”