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when the rest of heaven was blue

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The old, dead weirwood tree in front of Arya seemed like it had come out of a dream. She could even feel the slight chill of the North if she tried hard enough, could feel herself transported to the godswood in Winterfell, before the spell had broken and Eddard Stark had ridden North.

She sighed sadly, opening her eyes to face the tree again, this time clearly aware of how this wasn’t the North. She was in the Riverlands instead, where war had left its scars harsh and raw in every village, every cluster of smallfolk, everywhere life had once been bright and unsurprising.

She had been staying under Lord Tytos Blackwood’s protection for less than a fortnight and she was no closer to the Lannisters than she had been back at Saltpans. She knew it would be too risky to leave prematurely, the Blackwoods were a prominent noble family with ties so close to the Starks even her restlessness could not contend with.

She knelt by the tree, feeling the cool brush of dirt and moss against her breeches. She thought back to her childhood then, when her biggest problems had simply been the stains on her dress from riding and getting through her mother’s admonishing and the distaste in Sansa’s gaze.

She knew it was too futile to pray to have a chance to go back to those times. She knew the Old Gods were not the type to graciously grant the wishes of all who show themselves pious enough.

It is not enough to clamp down on the wistfulness in her heart, and she prayed anyways, memories of Bran and Rickon and Sansa and Robb and her parents and Jon.

Jon, a sad smile graced her lips. Jon. Yes, she would stay alive for Jon.

“My lady?” Startled, Arya turned away from the tree and found herself face to face with Brynden Blackwood, the heir to Raventree Hall. His dark hair gleamed in the sunlight and his handsome face was open, though anyone who knew him would be able to see the touch of worry in his features. He really was a sight to see — tall, lean but obviously strong. Arya liked him, more than she would care to admit. He was attentive but he did not crowd her with the ridiculous abundance of courtesy and overprotection that most other men had freely given her. She knew him honorable, his father left no doubt in her mind about that but he also could make her laugh sometimes which would surprise even her own self.

Arya hesitated for a moment before acknowledging him, her thoughts still elsewhere, far and away from lords and ladies and knights. “Ser Brynden.” She inclined her head slightly in deference.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Lady Arya, but a raven has arrived. The Dragon King is marching North.”

Arya did not bother to hide the shock that was willing her body to stillness. “This soon?” she breathed out. This was not what she had anticipated. The Dragon King marching north from the Reach with the backing of the Martells and the Tyrells would throw her plans into disarray. She needed time to find her way to King’s Landing before then. She needed time to slit Cersei Lannister’s throat before the city was sacked.

Brynden watched Arya with a mixture of curiosity and interest. Though her face had displayed the shock that even he had experienced back in his father’s solar, every other emotion that might have played into the shock was nowhere to be found. It seemed as if she were guarding her face and yet still letting certain emotions through, perhaps as a way to prevent others from understanding her true intentions.

She spoke then, her voice steady and calm, “Will you bend the knee?”

Brynden stared imploringly at her, confusion rampant in his gaze. “My lady, there is no question that we will not.”

She tilted her head. “Why not?” She shrugged, “It would be the wisest option. No army can defend against dragons.”

“No, you are correct on that front. No army can defend against dragons. But we will not bend the knee. Our allegiance is to the King in the North and his heirs.” He stepped closer. “Like it or not, my lady, you are Robb Stark’s heir.”

A laugh escaped her, though Ser Brynden was not deceived. It was a cold laugh, bitter and cynical. “I did not know Lord Blackwood fancied himself and his heirs an early grave. Surely there are more honorable things worth laying down your life for?”

Ser Brynden shook his head. “What is more honorable than upholding the will of one’s rightful king?” Arya smiled sadly at that. “Oh Ser Brynden, are you truly naive enough to believe that?”

His heart catched at the melancholy in her smile. He knew Arya was not aware at all of her beauty, the wildness that invoked some sort of reaction in every man. It did not stop him from appreciating the steel in her wide grey eyes and the grace of her body as she danced and sparred and stood before him.

“I do not know myself,” and he grinned down at her despite the somber news that entrenched them, “But I do know that I would sooner serve under you than any Targaryen king. You are made of the blood of the First Men, my lady, the daughter of thousands of Kings of Winter. Who is more worthy of a crown?”

Her lips twisted into a frown in response. “I never said I would wear any crown. I will never be a Queen, and surely not one that people would willingly follow to their deaths. Sansa still remains in the Vale, and Jon is the true inheritor of the crown. I am not Robb’s only heir, merely the only one to find herself in the grasping hands of Riverlords.”

“But Sansa Stark is married now. Twice — first to the Lannister and then to Harrold Hardying. She is Lady of the Vale now and with her claim will come the man who has claimed her. The Riverlands and the North will never support one who is not of their own blood. Fortunately, you have both on your side.”

She noticed his exclusion of Jon and narrowed her eyes. He sighed and relented, “I mean no offense my lady, for I know how close you and your bastard brother are, but the Riverlands will never declare for Jon Snow. The North might, but Robb Stark united and ruled over two kingdoms not one.”

She nodded but her fear of the crown did not dissipate. She knew the Blackwoods would want her Queen if not for their closeness to her family and their protection of her wellbeing (despite it being unnecessary) then also because they wished for a future king of Blackwood blood.

“What will happen when the King arrives? Will he put all rebels to the sword? Freys and Tullys alike?” Her tone veered on sarcastic by the time she finished.

“No my lady.” He glanced down for a moment, and she could sense his hesitation in continuing. She was about to urge him on when finally, he spoke. “The Dragon King has heard word of your survival, and your stay here in Raventree Hall. He wishes to deal with House Stark.”

This time, Arya struggled to rule her face. Dealing with the Starks. That was sure to be disadvantageous. Arya had not heard anything concerning or dangerous about the King but she also knew that few kings would ever accept the independence of the North. Worst of all, he had dragons. If Torrhen Stark had knelt even with the full united force of the North, how would Arya? She was not a Queen, the Riverlands were still in anarchic chaos though most if not all, were loyal to the Starks, and the North was a shattered ruins, the bastard of Bolton running free and Stannis Baratheon parading around Winterfell as if it were his right. Her anger grew at that.

But, and she realized this with agony, there would be no way for her or any Stark to take back the North in the state that they were in. Ser Brynden was right, she thought grudgingly. Sansa was occupied in the Vale and did not seem any more inclined to shatter the neutrality that had saved the Arryns more than once. Jon was at the Wall, with wildlings to keep him occupied. There was only her. Only her to negotiate the fate of her broken family.

She bit back the bitterness that threatened to consume her. Would she give up her vengeance, Cersei Lannister’s blood on her hands for the North?

But the Boltons needed to be held responsible. They had played as much a part as the Freys in the Red Wedding. There would still be time, She reassured herself, Cersei was a woman and all knew how unwise it was to summarily execute a woman of even the most treasonous of charges. She could go home. To Jon, to Winterfell. Wasn’t that what she wanted most of all?

With dragons, with the backing of the entirety of Westeros, there was no doubt that the Bolton bastard and Stannis Baratheon would be defeated. She thought back to Jon’s letter about the Others and knew there was no way out.

“Tell Lord Blackwood to accept the king’s wishes.”

“Lady Arya?” And now it was Ser Brynden’s turn for shock to settle in. “You can’t mean—”

She nodded grimly. “I will treat with the Targaryen king.”

__________________________________________

 

Lord Blackwood’s solar was a bright chamber, moonlight seeping through every window, illuminating his dark and imposing figure. Even as he sat, there was a certain grace to it, the way his shoulders never slouched and his eyes failed to grow dim.

When Arya stepped inside, she could feel the soft cushion of the carpet beneath her feet which only served to make her more uncomfortable. She was not used to such propriety, and it made her feel a child of a mere nine years again, too small to understand the world in which her father ran his kingdom. Even now, with seven years passed she still shuddered at the rigidness of it all.

The chamber was almost circular, and bookshelves of ebony wood that were stacked to their absolute capacity lined every wall. Maester Luwin would have been proud. Such academia, and learning prized above all else.

Lord Blackwood was situated against the longest wall of the room, where the windows were most prevalent. Ink fled from his fingertips onto the parchment as he wrote hurriedly — it was as if he were in a trance — and failed to notice Arya’s entry until she cleared her throat.

He looked up, surprise glinting in his dark eyes. They were quite similar to Ser Brynden’s, she noticed suddenly. Aside from their coloring, Ser Brynden and his father did not share many features, but it was their eyes that caught her attention. In Ser Brynden’s there would always be an easiness to his behavior, a charm that would make those he spoke to feel light and without worry. Lord Blackwood’s, by contrast, were dark and wise, almost sad.

Arya felt a sudden kinship to him, a moment of shared sadness at how the world was burning beyond their reach.

“Lady Arya! I did not notice you! My sincerest apologies.” He pushed the parchment to the side, and gazed at her with what Arya thought seemed like apprehension.

“My son has told me that you wish to meet with the Dragon King.” She nodded. “Of course, hosting the king would be a great honor but Lady Arya, surely you do not plan to accept whatever terms he may stipulate?”

He gestured for her to sit, and when she complied he continued.

“The Dragon King will not want an independent North,” he warned, “It would only serve to make him look weak in the eyes of others, or plant seeds of doubt in his loyalty to the entire kingdom.”

Arya smiled softly, “You misunderstand me my lord. I do not wish for an independent North. I wish only to go home to what is left of my family. Waging war, that is not my chosen path.”

“And the Riverlands?”

“The Riverlands should go back to how they’ve always been, before my brother took two regions under his name. The squabbling and feuds will return, and with the Dragon King there is no doubt he will restore my uncle to his seat in Riverrun.”

There was a dubious look on Lord Blackwood’s face, an expression that told Arya he did not quite believe her. “How can you be so sure, my lady, that the King will grant Lord Edmure his rightful position? The Tullys rebelled against his grandfather in Robert’s Rebellion. Is the new king willing to forgive such treason?”

She met his gaze steadily. “If you were king, my lord, would you rather deal with a great house who has ruled the Riverlands for generations in relative peace or the upstarts who are quick to betray their overlord whenever they believe they have the chance?”

“So long as the king is not a fool, he will know that it was only because of feudal rights between lord and king that the Tullys rebelled, that his grandfather was the Mad King no less, and that it would certainly do him no good to go against the wishes of the most powerful houses in the Riverlands, all of whom have been loyal in one capacity or another to the Tullys.”

Lord Blackwood leaned back against the window as he observed her. There was acceptance in his eyes. He was impressed.

“So the king restores House Tully, with or without your input. What then? What do you suppose he should,” he corrected himself, “or will do to the North?”

“I will bend the knee,” she glanced pointedly at him, “as the living heir of Robb Stark and representative of our house in return for his dragons and his manpower. The Bastard of Bolton has too long evaded justice.” She left out her last condition, for the king to keep Cersei Lannister alive. She was not his to kill.

“So that is your final plan?”

She laughed a little, “I would not call it a plan, my lord. Simply, an objective for which I will hope to achieve what I came back to Westeros for.”

“Vengeance?”

“Oh that and more, my lord.” There was a darkness to the promise in her words and Lord Blackwood did not fail to notice it. In fact, he would remember it in the months to come.

__________________________________________

After meeting with Lord Blackwood in his solar, Arya wandered around the castle for a bit, drinking in the silence and cool air. It felt so different from the suffocating expectations of her birth and position.

She still didn’t quite know how she had ended up in Raventree Hall in the first place. She had arrived at Saltpans with the intention to ride to King’s Landing and complete her list, killing Cersei and Ser Meryn Trant and then continuing North. She had known what the Dragon King was waging in Dorne and the Reach and had reasoned that to get to King’s Landing first was most urgent. The King arriving in King’s Landing too soon would complicate her escape.

Arya still cursed herself for not wearing a different face the moment she set foot in the Riverlands but she had not known the full extent of her resemblance to Lyanna.

She had first gone to the Twins where she had donned a new face, more southern than her own and had observed from a distance.

Seven years had gone by and Arya had still not forgotten what had happened the last time she had reached the Twins, when Sandor Clegane’s ax thundered down on her head and the world had been reduced to darkness.

She would not make that mistake again. Then, she had been naive and angry and impulsive. Now, she would have to be on guard. The Crossing was guarded by Frey and Lannister soldiers alike, though she had heard in passing inns that King Tommen under Cersei’s influence had retracted many from their usual positions to help provide for the war to come against the Dragon King. King’s Landing needed all the protection it could have.

The Crossing was a dreary place, dark and cold and damp. The two towers of the Twins hovered far above Arya’s sight linked by a hard, rigid bridge cloaked in rain and mud. Frey soldiers guarded each side of the east castle, where the Lord of the Crossing resided. She need only get in, and a non-descript servant’s face would lead her to her destination.

It had been so easy, so wrong, so right.

Walder Frey had died pathetically in her hands, as powerless as a newborn babe. It almost made it worse to think about, the way such a weak man could kill someone has brave and courageous as her brother. She tried not to linger on it, only on the breath she had released when his blood had dripped through her fingers and the feel of the ceasing of his beating heart.

She had reverted back to her own face once out of the Twins, knowing that the servant’s face she had worn back in the Crossing would only cause trouble. The more faces she could have at her disposal the easier her life would be. She would have to don another one when she arrived in King’s Landing, and the thought exhausted her.

Even in Braavos, the act of changing one’s face had never been easy. There was a certain heaviness to it, an increased burden on the shoulders and the danger of losing oneself in the identity that had only been intended as a disguise.

Riding south, Arya had found herself just north of Riverrun and had stalled at a nearby inn. She had had her sights set on King’s Landing, but the thought of her mother’s childhood home still occupied by treacherous Freys tugged at her heart. It had been that singular lack of concentration that had doomed her.

A voice from the front of the inn had suddenly gasped Lyanna and when she had looked up distracted out of her reverie she had found herself in the presence of the Lord of Raventree Hall and his heir.

She had remembered freezing, knowing that cursed name would follow her to the ends of the earth if she were not more careful, and had judged the interior of the inn searching for an escape.

When Lord Blackwood saw the girl’s eyes dart from the front of the tavern to the back, he knew he could not let her go. He may have bent the knee to the Lannister puppet on the throne, but he would forever be Robb Stark’s man.

And here was Robb Stark’s sister. Here was Lyanna’s ghost. Here was hope.

Chapter Text

Raventree Hall, in the following days, became the scene of momentous preparation for the arrival of the king. There was a constant hum of servants bustling this way and that, cleaning, arranging, doing everything possible to make sure the castle looked as splendid as the days of old, when the Blackwoods had ruled the Riverlands with an iron fist. Ravens took flight every morning, and every night they arrived with more letters than which they had delivered.

The first day after Lord Blackwood had accepted her request, the training yard had become so congested with people that Arya had returned to her room in frustration and settled on sharpening Needle. She knew Needle would not help her in the ensuing war, knew that it was far too slim and slight to be able to kill a man in one stroke, but she could not find it in herself to find a new sword. This was her sword, this was all that she had left of Jon.

To shove it under her clothes in a trunk seemed like such a betrayal. She was no longer No One, she could parade around with it all she wished. So why didn’t she?

She had asked herself that question too many times to count and was always left with silence. Most days she slung it from her waist just because. Other days, she wondered if it even fit her anymore. She was stronger, quicker, sharper, than her nine year old self. It seemed silly to try and fit Needle into who she was now. But was she all that different? She wondered if she had changed. If Jon saw her now, would he recognize her? Would he penetrate the foreign accent, the darker hair, the guarded look in her eyes, and see little Arya Stark, who ran around Winterfell as free and wild as they come?

She had believed with so much conviction that the moment she left the House of Black and White she would know who she was. Who she had been and who she would be. It seemed it had only confused her further. She had become a proper lady now, who played the game of thrones from her decorated seat in the South, who blushed prettily when lords vied for her hand. She had worn so many masks, she no longer knew if Arya Stark had been a mask too.

Her thoughts destroyed her from within. When she wasn’t dodging the onslaught of maids who insisted on new gowns and ways to style her hair, she was drowning in a never ending sea of despair. How could she successfully take back Winterfell when she was barely Arya Stark? How could she return to the North after spending so long in the South? Would the king abide by her wishes? If he didn’t, she truly did not know what to do. She would go to King’s Landing surely, and find Cersei Lannister. But what would she do after? Her list would be complete, and she would dissolve into nothingness.

Nothingness. Perhaps, that is all that Arya Stark had been.

_________

A fortnight before the king was due to land in the Riverlands, the Brackens crossed the border.

Arya had been in the training yard when they came. While the training yard was still as crowded as ever in the afternoon, the nights that shortly followed were blessed with silence and solitude. She had been careful not to reveal the extent of what she had learned in the House of Black and White for the Blackwoods to see, but she feared what would happen if she did not practice at all. Resorting to measly spars with the master at arms was all she could do without raising suspicion. Even then, Lord Blackwood’s eyes would glint with something incomprehensible when she avoided his questions about where she had learned to fight, and why she fought in the first place.

Sometimes she even fought with Brynden. He had surprised her with his swiftness, and the fluidity of his movements. There was no doubt she could defeat him, though every match they started ended in her loss. It was better that way. They could not know how good she was. Lord Blackwood would surely confront her then.

A loud voice, rough and course rose above the clamor of steel as she parried against trees and air.

Jonos Bracken.

“Come out Tytos!” He blustered. Arya stifled a snort. She had never met any Bracken, and her curiosity won out. He sounded utterly laughable.

She set her training sword down and crept to the edge of the training yard. The left side of the yard overlooked the gates of Raventree Hall. Lord Bracken was still before the moat, sweat gathering at the edge of his forehead and temples though the end of summer was clear for all to see. Winter was coming, Arya repeated. It was always in the back of her mind. It kept her sane, and it made her think of Jon.

The gates opened promptly with a clang, and the guards stepped aside to let Lord Blackwood through. His face was stern.

“What do you want Lord Bracken?” He asked tiredly, his gaze wary.

“I want to know why you’ve got a Stark hidden in your midst! And why you thought it was so special of you to notify not one of the other Riverlords! It is our right to know who passes along our land!”

Arya started. They knew she was here. Of course they did. She had agreed to meet with the king, there was no question that the relative anonymity she had been afforded here would soon vanish. At that moment, she felt as weary as Old Nan. There really would be no end in sight.

Lord Blackwood responded coolly, “I have no idea what you are talking about, my lord. I certainly am not harboring any Stark. As you know perfectly well already, they all are dead.”

Lord Bracken sneered. Though he had brought a small retinue to accompany him, Arya realized how alone he was. He seemed to be the only one intent on seeking out the truth of her existence.

“You won’t get away with this! The Lannisters—”

“Are dead, defeated, or missing.” Lord Blackwood finished for him.

“Oh? You think that Targaryen boy will take your side no matter what? After all, why else would he meet with you? Why else would he come, if you did not have a Stark to gamble with!”

“The Targaryen king has obviously come to restore order to the Riverlands. We are a depressing bunch are we not? War has wreaked havoc over our people, and our fields are dead and burnt. Go home, Lord Bracken. You will achieve nothing here.”

For a moment, Lord Bracken stood still, gazing ahead. His expression was easily read, anger and confusion written all over his face. A guard whispered in his ear frantically, and with a frightful glare, he turned and left.

Lord Blackwood remained outside the gates until the last of the Brackens disappeared into the night. Then he too, proceeded inside the castle, leaving Arya to stew in her thoughts.

__________

That night, she dreamed of wolves.

Large and looming, they rose in unison. The majority of them, Arya did not recognize. Their scent was foreign, and their eyes cruel. At the head of the pack stood the largest of them all, her pelt gleaming and her stride steady, quiet, powerful.

Nymeria.

But that wasn’t right. Why wasn’t she in Nymeria? Where was she now? Who was she now? Her vision blurred with unshed tears, and the world began to spin.

In moments she woke up. Loneliness consumed her.

Chapter Text

The unexpected visit from the Brackens did not bode well for the Blackwoods, and Lord Blackwood made that clear enough by the time they broke their fast in the morning.

“They will surely spread malcontent among the other houses as well. Who knows how many will be at our gates this day and the next? No, something must be done.”

From Arya’s right, Brynden Blackwood spoke up, “What will you have me do, Father? It will surely be chaos no matter what until the Dragon King arrives, and even then, who says they will listen? We are an awfully quarrelsome bunch,” he quirked a self-deprecating smile towards Arya but it did not lift her spirits. In fact, it made her feel worse.

The truth in his jest concerned her. What would the Brackens do once the king marched North? What would the king do? She wondered if the king was at all competent to begin with.

“It is not a matter of listening, Brynden,” said Lord Blackwood, “it is a matter of obedience and control. We have been too long without a just and able overlord and as a result, the lands of our forefathers have become destitute, deprived of prosperity and peace.”

“Peace,” Arya tested the word on her tongue, “is possible. But for how long?”

“Long enough for our houses to become used to serving again, I suppose,” Brynden replied thoughtfully.

“But will that be enough?”

Lord Blackwood nodded gravely, his tone melancholic, “Nothing is ever enough, but it will have to do. We kept relatively separate while we served your mother’s house, my lady, and that was somewhat effective in letting the realm breathe.”

Separate. Arya remembered her dream, remembered how the wolves seemed to communicate among themselves without physical signs, only through a common interest.

The Blackwoods and the Brackens would never again align as they had done under her brother without a common interest. But they wanted different things, she countered desperately. How could she make them see eye to eye? If only for a moment? It seemed impossible.

She tried to recall what Syrio had told her, mentally running through all the things he had taught and how she could use them in the situation that she now found herself in.

She had to be cunning, brave, she had to simper when it was necessary, weep when she knew tears would be the way to a man’s heart. She had to manipulate each and every one of them, for the sake of the North, but for the sake of herself as well.

Leaning forward, she murmured in a low tone to Brynden, “I need to speak with you privately.”

Ignoring the questioning stare of Lord Blackwood, she excused herself and lead the heir to Raventree Hall out of the Great Hall and into the shadow of a corridor.

“What is it, Lady Arya?”

She cast her gaze down to her feet, feigning a shyness she tried to recall from her childhood years when Septa Mordane would admonish her for the dirt on her dresses and the sweat that had clung to the pale warmth of her skin.

“I wish to treat not only with the young Targaryen, but also with the Brackens.” She paused for effect, but did not look up.

“I need your help in convincing your lord father to consider this second proposition. I know he will not like it, but if there is anything I have learned from all that has happened, it has been that we must all succumb to things we wish to avoid the most.”

She let out a resigned sigh, and willed her eyes to dampen. She brought her face up to meet Brynden’s, her voice thick with grief, “I want to go home.”

There was an immediate effect as he twisted his body to shield her from the openness of the rest of the corridor, lending her the privacy that would have been received with gratitude if the tears had been genuine. Conflict waged war in his features.

“I am not sure, Lady Arya…” he began, “Please do not overestimate my abilities. Convincing my father to end a historic feud that has been part of our entire family history for thousands of years — that is no easy task.”

“My brother did it.” She could not hide the pride in her voice.

He inclined his head in respect, but he did not waver, “Your brother was the kind of man who only appears once in many lifetimes, my lady. I am not him.”

“I only ask of you to talk with him, gently prod the idea in his direction. I will do the rest.”

He sighed, and his eyes unfocused as though he were concentrating on some place afar.

“I will try my best, Lady Arya.”

It was then that a smile graced her usually solemn face, and even Ser Brynden could not look away. She attempted her best curtsy, which resulted in the convulsion of laughs that reverberated throughout Ser Brynden’s form.

Rolling her eyes lightly, she thanked him again, this time in words that carried the most warmth he had heard travel from her mouth and they turned to return to the hall just as a servant rushed in their direction.

“My lady, my lord, The Brotherhood Without Banners are here! They’ve come to discuss the matter of the Dragon King’s arrival.”

The blood running through Arya’s veins burned cold. The Brotherhood Without Banners, how could she have forgotten?

Unconsciously, her thoughts turned toward Gendry, toward Harwin, toward the whole lot of them, who had betrayed her trust when she had still been younger, more afraid, more naive of the true nature of the world. She had learned that all in Braavos. Alcohol, lust, gold, power, those were all that mattered.

Following Ser Brynden back to the great hall, her composure regained its equilibrium -- it always did when she remembered her lessons -- and with a sort of mellowed defiance reminiscent of the days when she ran with mud streaked in her dresses, uncaring and free -- she entered the hall, ready for all that it had to offer.

 


 

 

 

Lord Blackwood remained seated at the dais, but in front of him stood men of familiar faces. Arya recognized Anguy the Archer, Tom of Sevenstreams, and Lem Lemoncloak, whose brutish, tall figure cut an angry line against the festivities that were already being prepared for their future guests.

Ser Brynden’s arrival prompted them all to shift their attention away from their overlord and to his son, a strange woman at his heel.

She knew she looked different. Her hair had grown long since she had seen them last, and she felt a little taller though she still shied away from mirrors, but she had not expected the utter lack of recognition, the curious way they tried to analyze her and puzzle out who exactly she was.

It was only after she drew closer that Tom’s eyes lit in sudden understanding, “Can this be? Is this not.. Lady Arya Stark?”

Slowly, the realization dawned on his companions, and for a moment, they stood still in shock.

“Surely.. It cannot be..”

“We believed you dead, milady,” Anguy said softly, “Dead or sold off to that Bolton Bastard.”

“As you can see, I am neither dead nor the poor girl who is being made to parade around as me. I am here, under Lord Blackwood’s generosity,” she nodded in his direction and continued, “I did not know what had become of the Brotherhood, but I am glad you are all well and safe.”

Tom smiled slyly, “You’ve changed milady. Where is the wild thing that had been fierce as a direwolf and angry as the boar that mauled poor old King Robert to death?”

She refused to take his bait and only replied smoothly, “I know not what you speak of.”

Brynden’s exclamation of “Then it is true?” coincided with Lord Blackwood’s “You know these men, Lady Arya?” and they both glanced at her, perplexed by her familiarity with such an infamous band of outlaws.

“It is true that I know these men, Lord Blackwood. When I escaped from King’s Landing, I found myself in the Riverlands and I met the Brotherhood, then led by Ser Beric Dondarrion. The last I saw of them, I was being carried off by the Hound who seeked my brother for gold.”

“But your brother… The Red Wedding…” Brynden trailed off; he could sense her growing discomfort.

“I was there. The Hound had arrived too late and the massacre had already began. There was nothing we could do. A short while later he was injured in a bar fight and I ran away.”

A hush fell over the inhabitants of the room. “Where did you go?”

“I wandered, mostly,” She said, and the lie came easily. “I never thought to leave Westeros though. Like it or not, the Lannisters had to be stopped.”

Tom arched an eyebrow. “Did you go North? If you had stayed in the Riverlands, you must have had some inkling of what was happening.”

Arya forced a smile. “I think you underestimate the deliberate ignorance of the smallfolk, Tom. They do not care for the politics of lords and ladies. Or which side would benefit them the most. They cared about their crops and their land, their children and their family.” She hesitated. “It was peaceful. It became too easy to just forget. To pretend as though nothing had happened, that I had never been a Stark.” Her voice grew quiet. Even as the lies came, truths embedded themselves in between the lines. Because it was true. In Braavos, she had often been happier when she forgot about her past life, when she fooled herself into thinking she had never set foot in that land called Westeros.

“What made you come here, my lady?” Brynden asked. When he and his father had discovered her, they had all been so shocked that they had asked no questions. They had the heir of Robb Stark in their castle, and Lord Blackwood knew well enough it would be no good to push her too much, lest the spell be broken.

Arya studied him for some moments before answering, “I had ventured out one day, too close to one of the Lannister encampments. Just the sight of their armor revolted me, made me numb. And then I heard what they were saying, laughing to each other over mead.”

Her eyes traveled to the ground. “They were talking about Jon. How he had been stabbed by his brothers at the Wall. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t, for a while, until it dawned on me that anything could happen. If my lord father could be executed for treason and my brother and mother slaughtered at a wedding, surely my favorite brother could be betrayed at the most apolitical system in Westeros. So I decided to leave to travel North. On the way I heard varying accounts, that Jon had been resurrected, that his resurrection was a lie, that the Nights Watch was mere anarchy. I didn’t know what to believe. While I was staying at an inn, Lord Blackwood and Sir Brynden chanced upon me and here I am.”

Tom nodded thoughtfully, his gaze contemplative. He turned to glance at his companions and then his gaze returned to her.

“Lady Arya,” he began, “Your mother. I’m afraid she is not entirely dead.”

 


 

 

The ride to Hollow Hill was longer than Arya expected. From her seat on the saddle, she could see the wide expanse of torched land, the dotted line of small, battered houses along the edge. It saddened her, to see the people in such a state.

The fictional story she had created about what she had done before settling at Raventree Hall had been readily accepted by the Blackwoods and the Brotherhood, but she was anxious that something would slip and a flaw would end up destroying her cover. They needn’t know she had spent her years in Braavos. They would not understand.

As she rode, Tom’s words echoed in her head. Her mother was alive, he had told her. Her mother was alive, and vengeful. She could not speak without a translator. She was haggard and her throat was in a constant detachment from her body. The only words she spoke concerned Freys. Killing Freys, murdering Freys, torturing Freys.

The image he had conjured up of her had scared Arya. She could not imagine her mother in such a state. Catelyn Stark had always been dignified, ladylike, controlled. Lady Stoneheart — as they called her — sounded like the kind of creature Arya kept hidden inside herself. The kind of creature Arya was afraid of becoming if she saw too much, and felt too little.

Tom and Anguy and Lem had insisted on coming with her after they had spoken at length to Lord Blackwood. She had not been made privy to their exchange, but it had hardly mattered to her at that moment. All she could think about was her mother. Her undead mother.

Their horses trailed in straight succession behind her and she was relieved that they did not force conversation. Perhaps they knew that Stoneheart was not something anyone could easily process.

The wind blew steadily, and the day darkened to night. Long ago, the stars had sung to her. Now they drowned in their own silence.

By the time they reached Hollow Hill Arya’s thoughts had exhausted her. She was almost too tired to feel fear. At the House of Black and White, they had never taught her how to be brave in such circumstances. It had never been in the realm of possibility. Faces could change, and youth could become one’s forever, but resurrection was dark magic, relegated to the dark depths of Asshai and foreign lands.

They killed in the name of Death, and Death stole away the lives of men and women before they could breathe once more. It was the way of the Many Faced God. The only way.

Anguy lead them to the opening of the cave, where light glowed from within. There were mutterings and clinks of metal, the crackling of a fire. A guard stood at the front, dark eyes landing on Arya’s own, suspicion in every crevice of his face. Even in the dark, she could tell who it was.

“Gendry,” she whispered.

The stubborn set of his mouth refused to yield.

“Who is this? I’ve never seen her before. You can’t go letting high lords and ladies into our Brotherhood, Tom. It’s no place for them.” He sneered. “They don’t care about us, or what we do.”

For the first time since she had arrived in Westeros, Arya laughed.

“Gendry, you stupid bull! It’s me, Arya!”

Lem sniggered, “Considering how much you never shut up about her, I’m surprised you’re the one not being able to recognize her. The lady’s right, you are a stupid bull.”

A mixture of hope and melancholy tinged the less aggressive way he said her name, “Arya?”

She sighed, and nodded. She had missed him, more than she would ever admit. It was nice to be reminded of something familiar, something safe. Gendry would never change, and she could rely on that.

“You look different,” he said, and his skin rose in color. He stepped forward, as if to embrace her, and then thought better of it. He kept his arms to his side, but his eyes shone with emotion. He looked as though he had found a new reason to live.

She rolled her eyes, “It’s been five years, what did you expect?”

“Looks like a proper lady now, doesn’t she? Spending all her time with the Blackwoods.”

Arya turned to glare at Tom, knowing his words were only meant to rattle Gendry even further.

“The Blackwoods? What could you be possibly doing with the Blackwoods? How did you find Tom and the others? Where did you go? I… I thought you were dead.”

“I’ll explain later okay? I came here on other business and I don’t have much time. Tom, Anguy, or Lem could fill you in because they’ve heard the whole story now.”

She hugged him anyway, wrapping her small arms around his neck and remaining oblivious to the way he stiffened as she did so.

“I’m not sure if I forgive you yet, but it’s good to see that you’re still alive.”

“You too, milady.”

“Oh shut up!”

His lips stretched to form a tentative smile, and for a moment, Arya felt sane. She felt like her nine-year old self again, not the damaged girl of five and ten whose anger had manifested itself into everything she did. At least with Gendry, she did not have to pretend to be a lady.

As her gaze drifted toward the inside of the cave, the fear returned. Lady Stoneheart was waiting. Her mother was waiting. The insecurities of her childhood crept back. Who was she? Would her mother be ashamed of what she had become? After all that had happened, she still cowered at the reminder that she was no true noblewoman, that she was still a lost little girl, and that her mother would be able to see through the imposter that dressed in Lady Bethany’s clothes and danced with Lord Blackwood’s son.

I have become their puppet, and they have become mine.

Chapter Text

“Mother…” It was spoken in a hushed whisper, longing and horror woven into one. “I-I…” She looked towards anyone for guidance, for Tom or Lem or Anguy to tell her something , anything . This — she could not understand this. She could barely keep her gaze on this creature that was her mother, each second a prolonged struggle. She had expected the worst her imagination had to offer and still it was aweing. Shock rooted her feet to the dampened floor and only golden flickers of light from the far edge of the cave occupied the blank darkness that swept over the recesses of her mind.

Her mother did not respond, though her sallow face turned slightly to acknowledge this new girl, young and pretty and shrouded in something she could not place. There was a certain aspect to her words, the way she pronounced them, that caught the dead woman’s attention. Her faded mouth opened, as if to question this girl, but she had momentarily forgot the wound in her throat at the new guest, and only silence was heard. 

She could not place her, but she knew this girl. She felt it , in her bones. It was clear as the summer sky, only, it was as if the clouds were obscuring the glowing sun. She knew the sky was clear, she could see it in glimpses, but the painting of the entire sky failed to rouse her. She did not know what this girl dreamed of, the people she loved and had loved, if she rode horses the same way the Targaryens had ridden their dragons. She knew none of that. But she recognized her, perhaps in kindred spirit, or was it blood? 

Arya, too, had lost the strength to speak. It was not until after that she realized the crowd had been reduced to only them. There was no one to translate whatever her mother might say, and no one to feel the loud, roaring beating of her heart. If they had, they would have told her to remember what Syrio had said, what Jaqen had said, what the old man in the House of Black and White had told her. But they were gone and only she remained. This woman, whoever she was, only enlarged the gaping loneliness she had experienced for so many years. 

She stepped closer, ignoring the growing dread in her heart. “Are you in need of assistance,” she struggled to continue, “ Lady Stoneheart ?”

Her mother did not move. Then, in some mangled language of the dead, she croaked, “Do you bring information of the Freys?”

“The Freys? They-well Lord Walder Frey is dead, my lady. Their house is most likely in chaos. You have not heard?” 

“Dead,” she repeated, voice straining until the word faded into a low growl. “Someone has stolen our work. That old fool would not die of his own volition. Someone must have killed him.”

Her pale eyes lit with fire, and before Arya could respond she screeched to the open cave that the last prisoner be brought in. 

Arya receded into the shadows near the dense walls of the cave as the area quickly became crowded with people. She recognized some, but felt a stranger to all. They did not seem to notice her as they dragged a ghostly corpse to the center of the crowd. The camp was suddenly alive with jeers, snorts, and angered muttering.

When the sea of people parted, she was gifted with a distinct view of the captive. His skin was almost translucent, his frame weak and fragile. Greasy dark hair reached the collar of his filthy gray doublet and Arya could make out the faint blue towers of House Frey.  

He was a Frey indeed, the insolent expression on his face even as he neared death stuck permanently to his pinched countenance. He too was a stranger to her, no recognizable trait stirring the familiarity with which she guarded her secrets. 

“Edwyn Frey,” someone barked. He was kicked forward, falling pathetically on his knees. Lady Stoneheart loomed over him. 

“Did you know about this?” She hissed. The dried blood that colored the slit of her throat seemed more prominent than before. 

“About what, my lady?” Edwyn Frey said, a lazy smile curling on his lips. There was a harsh sound of a slap that reverberated through the crowd and echoed off the hollow walls. Blood splattered against Lady Stoneheart’s cloak and when the prisoner looked up, his nose was scarlet. 

“I will ask again,” there was a menacing edge to her voice, “did you know about this?” She lifted her hand, dripping in thick red liquid as she awaited his answer. 

“How would I know of it? I am a prisoner, the only things I hear are of the dishonor of my house and my name. I do not know what you speak of, my lady.” This time, he merely sneered but Arya could sense the truth in his words. 

“Your great grandfather is dead.” said Lady Stoneheart flatly. 

There was silence. From the quiet grew a sudden noise, muffled heavings. For a moment, Arya thought Edwyn Frey was crying. It was only after the noise reached discernable levels that she realized he was not crying, but laughing . The laughing was mad. The man was mad himself, gripped by some spirit of the Stranger. The crowd froze. As did her mother. 

When the laughing finally died down, he spoke, “So, your pitiful band of outlaws really have annihilated the pinnacle of my house, our lord since the beginning of the dragons — as if that is possible,” he added with contempt, “or someone has beaten you to the chase.” 

He continued, “Whoever they are, I am glad of it.”

“Glad of it?” A tall man burst forward. It was Gendry. He must have been relieved of his post at the opening of the cave, Arya thought. 

“Your lord has died! Perished! Your family is in ruins, is it not? Your family will die at the hands of those that are supposed to love them. And you, sick man that you are, you are glad of it!”

Edwyn Frey grinned. “Oh shut up bastard. Of course, you wouldn’t understand. Don’t you see? I am Lord of the Crossing now.” His tone took on a reverent quality as he punctuated, “Me. I am Lord, or I might as well be, I have already defeated those thousands of simpering, cowardly little fools that infest my house and rob me of the place of honor I truly deserve. No one is as strong as I am, as cunning as I will be.”

“Me!” He crowed repeatedly. Arya reasoned that he was very much delirious. 

Gendry snorted. “You truly believe you will live to see the Crossing again? Tonight is the night you die. You best not forget that, milord .”

The new Lord of the Crossing rolled his eyes. “If you were my bastard, I would beat you to death this very moment. Besides,” he said elegantly, “how will you defeat the Lannisters without a bargaining chip?”

“The Lannisters do not care about you.” spit Lady Stoneheart hatefully. “There are thousands of Freys left.”

“Oh?” Edwyn Frey only looked amused. “And how many of them have died in this scramble for power? How many of them are brainless and weak? Though the rest of my family are idiots, I am not. I am well aware of our position in the Riverlands. All the other houses are scheming to destroy us — or they were — they will not be when I am Lord” he revised, “so much so that the Lannisters have no other house to trust in the Riverlands. Harrenhal is barren and Lord Littlefinger is off gallivanting in the Vale, leaving only me. Me. I will win, because they will all finish each other off before I arrive.” he concluded excitedly. 

There was another fit of laughter. It came from Arya herself. The eyes of the crowd drew to her, Edwyn Frey included. 

“Cersei is not nearly astute enough to realize that, if it even happens. She will kill you herself, for you have forgotten your place by propositioning this wild arrangement, and then she will make the mistake of believing enough Lannister gold — however vile — will buy off at least one more house or some remaining member of your forsaken family for their loyalty.”

She met his eyes. “You say you are no fool, unlike the rest of your house. It is there that you have proven exactly the opposite.” 

Another wave of silence reigned as the captive attempted to find something to keep him alive as he battled with the sudden loss for words. 

“Kill him.”

Arya started. The crowd dispersed and a rope hung from a man’s fingers as the Brotherhood collectively moved outside the cave. At Lady Stoneheart’s command, the deed was to be done. 

But this was not right, Arya thought. He would prove more useful alive. Riverrun was still under the remnants of Frey and Lannister control, and the Boltons held the North. Surely Edwyn Frey would know of both plans. When Arya met the Dragon King, she would have this man as leverage, as information.

She flew from her place in the shadows and turned toward the opening, just as Gendry ducked into her path.

“I don’t have time, Gendry. I need to stop this.” She did not look at him as she spoke. 

He rushed to match her pace. “How did you learn to walk so quickly? And why must you stop this? His lord highest is getting what he deserves. Did you not hear him talk of his family?” He stopped her suddenly, pulling her aside by the iron grip of his hand.

Arya’s gaze did not waver from the disappearing crowd. “You know nothing at all.” She shook him off and ran. Everything was reduced to a blur. 

“He has a family, and he wants them destroyed! He does not know what it is like to live without one, has never had to survive without father dearest. He deserves no mercy.” Gendry spat. “No mercy at all.”

Arya attempted to keep her anger in check as she called over her shoulder, “It is not a matter of mercy, you great big dolt!”

While Gendry fumed behind her, Arya reached the clearing where the death sentence was to be held. It was on the outskirts of the surrounding area of the cave, where the trees began to grow smaller and smaller and fires could be held without much disturbance. Already, a crowd had formed, Lady Stoneheart at the head. Any semblance of past humor had vanished from the captive’s face as his eyes frantically searched for a way out. 

He was terrified.  

For the briefest of moments, Arya felt a small sliver of satisfaction. From the beginning she had understood her mother’s anger, though her brutality had taken time to adjust to. Even now, she was uneasy. But the fear Edwyn Frey was experiencing felt like justice to her, to the fear that her brother would have felt as he was betrayed, to the fear her mother had experienced as they mercilessly slit her throat. 

But the remembrance of her duty, of the real justice that the Boltons and the Lannisters deserved reminded her of how useful Edwyn Frey would be. And perhaps, there was a part of her that did not want to see the man die. She hated him, as much as he hated them all, she supposed, but still.

Walder Frey had been an old, ailing, sad excuse for a Lord. When she had killed him, she had even construed it as a mercy. What could he have had to live for? His house would have fallen with or without her interference. She had not known him, not truly. She had known what he had done, but he had died too quickly for her to listen to his excuses. To what had made him betray her brother.

She was a coward, wasn’t she? She had killed in Braavos but not to the extent of what she had done to House Frey. By killing their Lord she had doomed them all to violence. The House of Black and White had been right: better to know nothing of the victim whose life one will take. Better to be eased of such pain.

She knew Edwyn Frey. Only a few moments with him had made her privy to his delusions, his wild dreams, his hatred and ignorance and dishonor. 

She pitied him. She did not know if she wanted him to die, but she most certainly did not want to see it, and that more than anything, more than how useful he could have the potential to be, drove her to her undead mother. 

She had felt Lord Walder Frey die, but she had not seen the light that had flickered out of his eyes. Mayhaps she had been too afraid to. She had been heaving with such pride, such anger that she had forgotten her father’s words. 

If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

She had refused to remember them. It was enough that she had killed him herself, wasn’t it?

It was the kind of self-preservation she had learned after her father had died, one that she was ashamed of but still held close to her heart. No one could survive this world being as honorable and righteous as her father had been. His death had proven that. 

She had learned more from that day than she had from the House of Black and White.

It was then that she finally understood it. Her mother had learned from the Red Wedding. A lesson more harsh, more rigid, more severe. Revenge was all there was. Mercy was a weapon for the weak.  

“Arya!”

She turned at the sound of Gendry’s voice.  

“What are you doing? Why are you standing there? They’re about to hang him!”

“What?” Her hair whipped her face as her thoughts faded. She had spent so long thinking that time had passed rapidly. Her feet had slowed without her noticing. A mob was always too impatient for death. 

The rope was already around the neck of the trembling man, sweat pulsating from his brow. He had gone white and his legs struggled to hold the rest of his body upright. The rope hung from a nearby tree at the front of the clearing and the wooden block beneath his feet was the only thing that kept him from death. 

“Mother!” She did not move. The woman who had been Catelyn Stark merely opened her mouth. She covered her neck. She was cold and she was dead. Her eyes were glazed.

“Stop it! I, Lady Arya Stark command you to stop this now! Do not remove that block!” 

The man in charge of the execution — she did not recognize him — stared at her in shock. Edwyn Frey’s eyes shot open. He was ready to collapse by the look of it. Had he begun to accept it? Had she ruined the peace he had made with death?

Emotion bloomed on Lady Stoneheart’s face. It was anger. 

“How dare you disobey me,” she seethed. “Do not listen to this girl, kill him!”

“Take one more step and you will have the Blackwoods to answer to!” Arya warned. 

“Mother,” she pleaded, trying to find some recognition, familiarity, anything in her mother’s gaze. “Please, I beg of you. He is more useful alive. We will get revenge, but we need him breathing to do so. Please, He does not deserve to die,” she said, though a voice inside her head countered not yet at least .  

“He does not deserve to die?” Her mother looked on the verge of laughter. But she was dead, and fury replaced the absence of amusement.

“He has destroyed my family! My son is dead because of him. My daughters lost. My husband disgraced and slaughtered. He deserves worse .”

“I am your daughter,” Arya pleaded again, “I am not lost. Sansa is still alive somewhere, I know it,” but this failed to convince her mother and Arya knew that any other arguments she might have had planned died on her tongue. 

Robb had killed too. He must have. He had been at war. She had killed. Her father had killed, even if it had been for honor and nothing else. Her mother was killing right now. Could she not see the terror in his eyes, the limpness in his limbs? She could see it so clearly. She could feel the guilt deep inside her. Syrio had taught her too well. 

“He will die. You have no say in it, whoever you might be. Brazen and disrespectful and weak,” her mother sneered. 

And Edwyn Frey died.  

Arya watched as he gasped and shook. She realized she had been wrong, that now she was playing the hypocrite, and that the last breath Edwyn Frey took, the whimper as the noose tightened, would never cease to echo in her mind. His bloodless face was stamped permanently into her memory. It had all been such a spectacle, a show, strengthened with each shout or jeer. Strengthened with her complacence.  

She had seen a man die. She could have saved him. Or mayhaps that was simply a romantic and false hope. But she had seen him die, that she was sure of, and the guilt plagued her more incessantly now. House Frey haunted her. The children and the cooks and the maids. All caught in the crossfire of what would crumble them all now. 

She cried.  

Her mother was right. She was weak.

Chapter Text

They were two days march from King’s Landing and Aegon was ready for death. 

He was not sure if it was the endless train of nobility vying for his attention in hopes of gaining more gold and land and riches that they could barely afford to preside over, or if it was the more humid climate that made sweat cling to every inch of his known body. Sweat pooled at his temples, and his irritation grew at even the smallest of gestures, whether insult or gift. 

Ashara had ordered a servant to bring him cold water, but the poor girl had trembled as he took it, and in rushing out had left the curtain of silk protecting him from the sun’s rays open wide. In a fit of anger at the sudden blare of light in his eyes, he had flung the water and the glass outside the litter. 

It had dried as soon as it hit the ground. 

Ashara had scolded him shortly afterwards and shame had overtaken his momentary lapse of humility. 

He was a King now. He was no longer a boy. From here on out, there would be no forgiveness for error, no repentance for childish whims and mistakes. He had not even arrived at King’s Landing yet, and he was already remembering his new duty. He cringed at the thought of it, at the memory of before.

He was met with a sudden pang of longing for Dorne, where the wind had been sandy and dry and his retinue had been full of cousins he had never met, each more intriguing than the last. He had been introduced to Ser Edric Dayne there as well, and it was to Dorne that he thanked for the most prized of all his sworn swords. Duck was his dear friend, but it was Edric Dayne who he entrusted with his security, Dayne who knew where he would be at every moment of every day. 

Dayne knew politics too, and that was invaluable to Aegon. 

He had been the one to propose writing to Raventree Hall in the hopes of convincing Arya Stark and the kingdoms behind her to join their side. And so Aegon had taken his advice and done just that. There was no reply yet, but Dayne had reassured him that ravens were frequently delayed and that however contentious the Riverlords might be, a king’s message could not be so blatantly ignored. 

They had been waiting since Aegon had dined with the Tyrells in the Reach and doubt continued to creep into the back of his mind when there was no one else to distract him. Who was this Arya Stark anyway? He worried that she would be too defiant, or too simple, or too anything to accept or even consider his demands.  

Dayne had confessed to knowing her when they were children but Aegon knew from personal experience that people changed, sometimes so drastically that there were no traces of their former selves. He would not have been able to recognize the boy of six and ten who had laughed freely and stayed out to watch the stars every night if he had not known from memory that that boy had been him.  

Whoever Arya Stark had been at ten, Aegon could not concern himself with. It was who she was at seven and ten that mattered. 

He read up on the Starks of the North, on the Tullys of the Riverlands. He listened to Haldon in his vast and contrived explanation of the War of the Five Kings, read more on Robert’s Rebellion and tried to ignore whatever Jon blustered to him about the houses that had rebelled. 

Traitors, all of them. If it had not been for them, if it had not been for Robert and his damned followers who latched onto every word, your father would still be here, and your throne would not have to be won by earning back the loyalties of those who had already sworn it three hundred years earlier. 

It was odd. Jon had always told him that to be a good king was to listen to counsel and to trust no one, even Jon himself. 

And he did. Aegon had listened, and had heeded the words of those around him. He had sat back and observed, had realized who lied and who spoke the truth, who exaggerated for their own benefit and who wanted what was best for their king. He did not trust a single soul, not even Jon who had raised him from birth, or Ashara who had been his mother in all ways but blood. He did not trust Duck, who had been more of a friend to him than mentor, or Dayne who protected him from all that could be protected within the reach of the gods.  

He did not even trust himself, because no one had truly proved to him that he would be a good king, that he had what it took to rule over a realm as broad and as different and as susceptible to war as Westeros. Jon and Ashara would repeat that it was his birthright, and Duck would say nothing because he did not understand the ways of the conniving, and Dayne would shake his head and mutter that it was not his place. 

In return, Aegon brooded. He read because he was afraid of incompetence, he read because he knew that if he didn’t, he could end up on the steps of the Sept of Baelor, his own head rolling down to meet the laughs and jeers of an easily impressionable crowd. He knew most of all, that if he did not read, if he was not reminded again and again of the mark of history on his family, he would meet the same fate as his father, sanity gone for the price of love. 

He planned and he plotted. He did not write these ideas down, for fear of being found out, but he did run through them in his head every night before he slept. It was more reassuring than any half-meant compliment. It calmed him. It was his home, for a king who had never had one.  

Arianne had mocked him for being too controlled on their first encounter in Dorne and she had been right. But he had not envied what her people would mutter in taverns when she and Daemon Sand were out of sight. He had not envied whatever remained steadfast in her father’s gaze when he urged her to marry. 

He was not Arianne, and she would loathe to be like him. They were too different, and for his own luck, his uncle had seen that all too soon. Against history, no betrothal was made. They were blood and that was enough. 

Doran had looked past his Valyrian coloring, and tears had sprung to his grief stricken eyes as he had whispered Elia and embraced him like a son. 

So Aegon had fallen in love with Dorne and Dorne had pledged their loyalty to his reign and he had ridden North because they were his people now and they needed justice. How else was he to thank them for the swords Doran had given him selflessly in his defeat of Cersei Lannister? How else was he to thank for the family Doran had given him, when all that he had grown up with had been lessons in languages and lectures on politics? 

Dorne had been different. It had not been the Reach, who had used opportunity to grant their swords as quickly as they could before the fall of King’s Landing, the Tyrells who had tried to make it clear that their support had not been for revenge for the deaths of their family. Willas and Garlan Tyrell had been too polite for that, too kind, but Aegon had known. 

They had suffered the wrath of the mad queen. They had evidence to show for it in the empty seats around their grand dais. There was no Mace Tyrell, no Alerie Hightower, no Margaery or Loras. There was air and the scent of roses, deafening. 

Aegon had been glad to leave.  

Yet now he was almost back at King’s Landing and he dreaded that too. King’s Landing was a pit of vipers waiting for his fatal fall. They too would whisper of him as the people did in Dorne for his cousin Arianne, when his back was turned. How would he guard against a sword in his back? How would he guard against the throngs and throngs of lords and ladies who had played the game of thrones for far longer than he had? 

Would the Riverlands be different? Or was the nature of man unchanged, wherever they may reside? The Riverlords were a squabbling bunch, he knew that much. Years of Tully history had highlighted the constant conflicts that arose from the Blackwoods and the Brackens, from the various houses that had tried to call Harrenhal their place of honor. 

What was Arya Stark making of it all? That burned incessantly in his mind. How was she coping? She was younger than he, and her life had been much harder. Her father had been executed on the steps of a holy sept, and her mother and brother had perished at the bloodiest wedding in Westerosi history. Her home had been burned to the ground and her younger brothers murdered in cold blood by her foster brother. How had she survived? How did she sleep?

He realized how desperately he wanted to meet her, to observe this girl who had lived through so much. To speak with this girl who had somehow found her way to the Riverlands and not the North. 

She would ask for something in exchange for his demands, he knew that. He only wanted to know what. 

 


  

Haldon came to his chambers only a few moments after Aegon arrived himself. His normally emotionless face was lit with almost childish excitement. In the hands that he was waving around was a letter.

“It’s come, your grace. The Stark girl has agreed to meet with you. She has convinced the Blackwoods to host your party, and she is open to discussing some sort of peace, though she did not clarify what exactly that entailed.” 

Aegon frowned. “Should I consider that suspicious?”

“No, no, of course not,” Haldon said dismissively. “She wouldn’t play her cards so easily like that. Telling us in advance would allow us to prepare or concoct some sort of plan to outmaneuver her. As I’ve told you, the Starks are not a trusting kind of people.”

“Yes, I am aware. Although at this point I am more curious to see these accusations proven than to simply hear of them all the time.”

Haldon nodded gravely before responding, “You will be glad that you are not a Stark, and that you do not reside up North. There is no humor, and there is no light.” 

Aegon resisted the urge to roll his eyes. All the tales he had heard of the North and the Starks seemed unduly exaggerated. There was no doubt that they were a cold and isolated people, but he could not fathom the nonsense that maesters always spoke in hushed whispers about: direwolves and the Long Night and the Others. 

He would believe it when he saw it. At this point in his reign, he had no time to waste on such baseless stories meant to scare the young into submission. He was a king. He remembered it for the second time that day. He was a king. 

“We will depart on the morrow,” he heard himself say, “resolving this would best be our first priority. I will leave Jon behind obviously, though Ashara will be coming with me. Was there not some rumor that she had some short lived romance with a Stark?”

“She has never spoken of it, your grace.”

Aegon waved away his own question, “It matters not. She’s more open to diplomacy than Jon is at any rate.”

“Less aggressive,” Haldon supplied.

“Yes, precisely. Dayne will come too. He knows the girl,” Aegon corrected himself, “or he knew. The rest of our retinue will be mostly comprised of security. Not too many, only enough to protect us on the road. The Blackwoods will not take it lightly if we come too equipped with swords.”

He gave a wry smile. “Prepare the litter and the horses for early dawn. It will take some time to get to Raventree Hall, I expect.”

“Oh, and bring Ser Edric Dayne to my chambers, will you Haldon?”

“Of course, your grace.” With that, Haldon bowed and left.

Aegon left his bed abruptly — where he had been thinking before Haldon had interrupted him with his message — and sat himself at the large desk that took up most of his chamber. A large and very impressive tapestry hung over the wall adjacent to his seat. It was the Targaryen sigil, the bright crimson of the three headed dragon on onyx black. Fire and blood was the constant reminder. 

Leaning back against it, he closed his eyes.

So she had accepted. Of course she had. The Riverlands were the most geographically vulnerable area in all of Westeros. To have denied it would have painted her a fool, and doomed her mother’s kingdom to an eternity of ash. 

But where was the other Stark sister, the one married to the Lannister dwarf? If she were to suddenly come out of hiding from wherever she was, it would complicate everything. Then Arya Stark would not be a lone wolf. She would have enough support to push against the dominance of his force and declare the North to be an independent kingdom once more. There was no chance that Sansa Stark was dead, and no chance that she would be sheltered by anything less than a great house. 

A hostage of sorts, he guessed. Or a chance for revenge on Cersei. 

He scoffed. Whichever house it was, they had not come forth to join his cause when he had first announced his claim and birthright. They had remained silent when he had gone to battle against King’s Landing. They had said nothing when Cersei Lannister was locked up, awaiting trial. 

So he could not count on them. And they had already proven that they did not count on him.

“Your grace?” Edric Dayne, Sword of the Morning, stood at the door of his chamber. His gleaming sword hung gracefully from the scabbard attached to his hip. It truly was magnificent, Aegon realized. Dawn. He had seen it a hundred times, had even held it once or twice, and yet he never tired of simply being in the presence of it. If anything was magical, it was Dawn. 

“Dayne,” he greeted. He had given up on calling him Ned some time ago. Perhaps it was the notoriety of Ned Stark, but it had always seemed too northern a name for someone as Dornish as Edric Dayne.

“Arya Stark has agreed to meet with us. Haldon received the letter just as we arrived.”

The Sword of the Morning bent his head in deference, though his king could still spot the smile on the curve of his lips. “Have you decided what your terms will be?”

Aegon thought for a moment. “Oh the usual,” he drawled, “bend the knee, or have your flesh be burned alive. Then I’ll recite some needless history that she already knows, on Targaryens and how they conquered Westeros.”

Edric Dayne shook his head in amusement. “Be serious, your grace.”

“Alright. I’ve decided that I will offer the protection of my collective forces and relative freedoms to the North if they agree to bend the knee. She will probably have some minor desires that I will have no choice but to grant and we will be settled. The Riverlands and the North will be returned to Westeros, and all the power will again, as it always has been, be reserved to the one on the Iron Throne.” 

“Relative freedoms,” Dayne repeated. “What do you mean by that, your grace?”

“More or less that I will leave them to tend to their own. They can expect my support if they are threatened by outside forces, but they will be left alone. They will still be answerable to me, but I will not abuse my power to call on them when unnecessary. 

Realization dawned on Dayne’s face. “So you are merely dressing up what every major region of Westeros has to begin with in more convincing terms.”

“That is the idea,” Aegon said slowly, “Whether they will buy it, is another question.”

“You don’t think they will.” It was a statement, because Dayne knew Aegon well enough to not answer questions he had already guessed the answers to.  

“No. They are Starks, or the girl is. The Blackwoods have Northern roots too, I believe. They will see through the special pretty words quickly enough, and then we will actually be able to discuss what must be agreed upon. This is merely a test, to understand how willing they will indeed turn out to be.”

Dayne nodded in approval. “Lady Arya, from what I remember of her, will be smart enough to understand how much ground she has.”

“Let’s hope she does, Dayne. Pray to the gods, she does.” Aegon rubbed at his eyes tiredly. “I do not have the strength for another war.”

 

 


 

That evening, he did not sleep. Instead he wandered around the castle, feeling the gaze of the guards that had been stationed within every walking distance of his chamber. He shook off their attempts to follow him and stepped outside the Red Keep into the cool air. 

He breathed in and then out. He remembered who he was. He was a king.

He made his way back inside the Red Keep and passed through long passages that were empty save for a few servants running back and forth from the kitchen, until he got to the dungeons.

“Hello Mal.” He said quietly, when he had reached the small compartment where the chief gaoler and his underling spent much of their life. Cold stone, he knew. Unburnable. 

He waited, and then heard the sound of metal against metal as the chief gaoler handed him the keys to the lower levels of the dungeons. 

“Goodbye Mal.” Mal only grunted.

Aegon descended into the darkness with only a torch in one hand and a set of keys in the other. He made careful effort to avoid brushing the keys up against one another. His arrival always had to be silent, inaudible. 

That was how they knew it was him. That was how they trusted whatever came for them in the dead of the night. 

When he reached the opening of a long expanse of open air that was pitch black, he leaned against a scorching wall and sighed. This kind of heat, he enjoyed. It was dry and it was true. This was the warmth of fire, not the distressingly ostentatious swelter of the sun. 

It was different here. Peaceful, almost. 

He blinked and raised his torch. At the edge of the large cave-like chamber, the flickering shadows of two dragons began to dance.