It’s Harwin that recognizes her first. It seems rather fitting that it would be him. He had known her as a child; served her father in his life and was now serving her mother in her death. It had been him that had known her to be Arya Stark when the Brotherhood had found them. Gendry had only known she’d been highborn because she’d told him.
They had been making their way back to the inn with some of their brothers. Gendry stayed there most of the time, smithing and keeping watch over the lot of orphans that had collected over the years, but whenever a wayward Lannister or Frey came across their path, he took part in the short trip to Lady Stoneheart. He didn’t used to make the entire trip, choosing to turn back at the river so as not to leave the orphans alone too along. (But really it wasn’t just about the orphans. Deep down, beneath his simmering anger, some part of him, a very small part, would remember why he had joined the Brotherhood in the first place. Truthfully, it was that part of him that made his feet turn back around.)
That had changed once they had gotten news of the wedding. After that, he made it a point to go to as many hangings as he could. See the deaths of as many Freys and Lannisters and traitorous Northmen as he could. The news hadn’t affected Lady Stoneheart the same way. She’d believed her daughters to have been dead all along, refusing to believe that the Bolton bastard had married Arya. Gendry had never found it in himself to face her—that horrible, milky face, shredded to ribbons—and tell her that her daughter hadn’t died; that it was Gendry that had lost her. It seemed Harwin and Lem and all the others had never gotten around to it neither.
The lady had been extra swift with her justice since they had lost the Kingslayer and the ugly woman knight right out from under them. It’s after one of the more brutal trials that they’ve found themselves creeping up slowly through the trees upon a small figure with their cloak up huddled in front of a fire. The cold had been creeping into the Riverlands for years; snow was a daily occurrence. But even still, what fool would chance a fire in the middle of the day? The Riverlands had not been safe for as long as Gendry had been there, and they had been able to see the smoke from a league away.
“Just looks like a small boy to me,” he whispers to his right.
“Boys can be lions or wolves. Pretty smelling roses even. Same as some of us was,” someone bites back at him.
He glances over at his brothers, sees their hands slowly moving to hilts and quivers, sneers on their faces. He is suddenly transported back to when he was a young boy, coming out behind a wall with Hot Pie, only to be met with some of these very men. Friendlier faces. They wear no friendly looks now, even knowing this one small boy would stand no chance against them. Sometimes he thinks there is little point in even calling them a brotherhood anymore. They are not brothers. The only things that bind them all together now are hate and anger.
He shakes his head, clearing it of thoughts of the past that do him little good anymore. He notices that he has missed the signal, his brothers already advancing silently without him. He takes a quick step forward, onto the freshly fallen layer of snow, when he hears a crack. Grimacing as he looks down, he sees the end of a twig he has stepped on, half buried beneath the snow.
He can sense everyone has stopped moving at the noise and looks up to see the back of the boy’s head is tilted at an angle, like an animal might. The boy makes no further movements, though it’s obvious he knows someone is there.
“Alright,” Harwin says, his jovial tone holding a bit of an edge. He steps out to where the boy would see him if they turn around. “I don’t want no trouble. Turn around nice and slow lad, hands out where I can see them.”
They hesitate a moment, head still cocked. “And your friends? Do all five of them ‘want no trouble’?”
Gendry feels his eyebrows shoot up, both in surprise at them knowing just how many of them there are, and at their voice being distinctly feminine.
The girl does not wait for an answer, and Harwin doesn’t seem like to think of one quick enough. She stands up like he told her to, slowly, but hasn’t yet turned around. The rest of them give up the pretense and come forward, forming a half circle around her.
She brings her hands up and slowly lifts the cloak off her head, revealing short cropped brown hair. Harwin has a look on his face that seems more thoughtful than the situation warrants. She takes small shuffling steps to turn around, showing off her face to each of them one by one. It’s when it is fully exposed to Harwin that Gendry hears the man suck in a sharp breath. Gendry looks over to him as he says, “Milady. We’d not thought to see you again.”
He can feel confusion ripple among his brothers. It is then that he looks away, letting his eyes roam over the girl.
She would be small for a boy, but for a girl she looks rather healthy, well-fed. If he had to guess, he would put her at no older than five and ten. Her jerkin and breeches look clean but foreign, and the cloak she has on is only a little faded. It is when he gets to her face, to those eyes, that the breath is knocked from him. He hasn’t seen those eyes in years. Her hair is similar in length to when he had last seen her, only this time the locks are more even. Like they’d been cut in a purposeful way, and not sheared off to make her look like a boy. She is no longer the scrawny, malnourished girl she had been in their youth, but she is undoubtedly Arya Stark.
“Neither had I,” she replies. Her voice knocks him out of his observations and all he can feel is an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that she isn’t dead. That she hadn’t met her end at Saltpans. And no sooner had he thought that then was the relief snuffed out, replaced by guilt. Because if she hadn’t died then that meant that the rumors were true, and she had been wedded. Wedded and bedded by the Bolton bastard. The guilt he’s been carrying for years in his heart and in the constant scowl he wears hits hard as he thinks on what horrors her husband is said to have inflicted upon her.
“We looked for you, milady. All around the Riverlands we followed Clegane’s trail.”
“Did you, Harwin?” she asks, eyes narrowed as if looking to catch him in a lie.
She does not wait for his answer, instead looking around at the faces of his brothers, taking them all in carefully, perhaps trying to see if she recognizes any. Her face is carefully blank until her eyes reach him. It is only then that she allows for the shadow of a smile.
He realizes then he has not thought to say a word up to this point. He clears his throat, feeling as though there is something lodged in it. “Arya,” he manages to get out.
She faces Harwin again, the shadow gone. “I’m heading North,” she starts, turning back toward her fire to put it out. All of his brothers but Harwin have their weapons at the ready, prepared to stop her from leaving. “And this time, you won’t stop me,” she finishes, unwavering at the sound of steel that has been drawn.
“Put your bloody weapons down,” Harwin barks.
“And why should we? The fuck’s this?” pipes up Luke, not recognizing this older version of Arya.
Harwin ignores him. “North, milady? Is that not where you have just come from?”
Her brow furrows. “Why would I have come from the North?”
“We had heard it that…” Harwin looks lost. “Well news had been that you were Lady Bolton now,” he says gently. In fact, the Harwin before him looks downright paternal compared to the Harwin that had been present the last few years. More like the one who had gently prodded Arya along when she had been the Brotherhood’s captive, and less like the hardened outlaw that hung the noose around the necks of their enemies as often as any other fervent supporter of Lady Stoneheart.
“Oh that.” She seems unperturbed. “No, I’ve not been North. It seems some other girl was unfortunate enough to marry a Bolton in my stead.” And just like that, Gendry’s emotions swing right back around. She hadn’t been married. Whatever Arya had been through, wherever she had been, it was likely a great deal better than being butchered at Saltpans or trapped in her family’s castle with a monster in her bed. He can’t help but let his shoulders sag a bit from the relief.
“Then where have you been, milady?”
All that meets his question is silence.
“If I had to guess,” one of his brothers pipes up when it becomes clear that she will not answer. His eyes begin to roam up and down Arya’s body. Gendry can feel his fists clenching at that. It’s the Tyroshi. He has been with the Brotherhood for a while now, joined right before Lady Stoneheart had taken over, though Gendry has never spoken to him. But it’s hard to miss him with his dyed hair and thick accent. “I would say this girl has spent time across the Narrow Sea.”
He sees Arya’s jaw tick for a fraction of a second before it stills, her face a calm mask. “Valar morghulis,” the Tyroshi adds, with what he must imagine is a charming smile thrown her way, speaking in that odd tongue Gendry had heard Greenbeard use before he had gone and left them. Arya just sends a hard look the man’s way, eyes steely.
“I really ought to be going now,” she says, directing her words toward Harwin and Gendry while eyeing the Tyroshi. “I have a long trip and it’s not getting any warmer.”
“Wait, milady,” Harwin says none too quietly, hands coming out as if placating a spooked horse. “We can’t be letting you go just yet.”
Her left eyebrow shoots up and all eyes are drawn to the hand that she’s inching toward her waist, slipping between the fold of her cloak where she undoubtedly has a weapon. “I don’t think you’ll be getting much gold out of me Harwin. There’s no one left to ransom me to I’m afraid. Don’t worry, I’m sure Beric won’t be too upset with you.”
At the mention of their former leader, over half of their faces turn weary. She falters at that, clearly expecting to get more of a fight out of these men. She looks over at Gendry, a question in her gaze.
Seeing no one else is ready to break the news, he manages to find his voice. “Arya, things have…changed since you left.” He takes a gulp, knowing where this will go. Knowing what they will have to reveal to her. Knowing she will likely hate them for what they have turned her mother into. Hate him for what he let them turn her mother into. His eyes flicker toward Harwin. His jaw is clenched but otherwise he gives Gendry no indication as to what he should say. He feels her eyes still on him, looks back to see those grey pools urging him on. The concern she wears is the most emotions she has shown since he has set eyes on her.
Taking a breath, he steels himself, sends a small prayer in his head to R’hllor and all of the other gods he has never been sure he believes in. A prayer that this won’t send her running, the horror that her mother has become. Not when he has just gotten her back.
Gendry hears nothing. It’s all silence. He knows he should be hearing the chirping of crickets, the hooting of owls. And, distantly, maybe even the howling of wolves. Some sounds of life. He knows he should hear Harwin, cursing as he tries to break chinks into the frozen streambed, and he certainly should have heard his own loud, crashing footsteps as he hurried from the tent. But he hears nothing.
Suddenly, Harwin is in his face, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him. Then he hears it. A ragged gasping sound. Looking for the source, his eyes finally land on Arya, kneeling in the snow by the stream, scrubbing furiously at her hands. He jumps at that and heads toward her, bending down beside her. Her motions are jerky and quick, but she stops and looks over at him, a wild look in her eyes.
“Lady Stoneheart…your mother” Harwin begins behind them.
“Don’t call her that,” she snaps back.
He bows his head a bit, in shame. “Lady Catelyn—"
“Don’t call her that either. That thing was not my mother.” He can feel her crackling with rage beside him, a sense of clarity having returned to her.
“It was done with good intentions, milady. Beric himself is the one that did it.”
“I don’t care about Beric’s intentions. Or yours, or your stupid fucking brotherhood’s.” She pauses. “My mother should have been allowed to rest. She should have been allowed to return to my father.” Her eyes grow glassy, and he thinks she is about to let out a sob, but instead she turns back to the stream to try and wash the remaining blood off her hands.
Harwin sighs, a large furrow to his brow. Gendry can tell he is torn. All he has ever known is the Starks. His father was Lord Stark’s man and then he himself was. He had seen the Stark children grow up and it was Lord Stark that had sent him out with Beric to catch The Mountain. And now a Stark has killed the Stark he was serving. But Gendry will be damned if he lets Harwin tell the Brotherhood about what happened in that tent.
After Beric’s death, they had stopped giving fair trials. Hanging any enemy of Lady Stoneheart’s, helping her take her revenge. Anyone left with them now eagerly supported her, had the same thirst for revenge as she did. Gendry included. He knows that no argument about Arya being Stoneheart’s daughter will stop them from decrying her for a murderer. It won’t stop them from trying to hang her too.
“You’re going to let us go, Harwin,” he says with purpose, leaving little room for the man to argue. “You’re going to tell them we left in the middle of the night, choosing to head back to the inn. Then maybe we were set upon by Freys or some other River lords. We were never in that tent.”
He looks over at Arya, still crouched beside him in the snow. Her hands are now pink and shriveled and she is levelling a cool gaze at Harwin.
“Aye.” The man nods his head. “You were never in that tent.” Gendry lets out an inaudible sigh, grateful that Harwin’s loyalty had extended to Arya this time, rather than the Brotherhood.
“You’ll need to go, quick. You know what paths the Brotherhood takes boy, what towns they stop in. Be careful.” He takes one last look at Arya before turning to make his way back up the sloped incline.
“Harwin,” Arya calls out.
“What do you know of funeral rites in the Riverlands?”
“Very little, milady.”
“You’ll ask?” Her tone says that he must.
“Yes.” His back turns to them one last time as he walks off into the night.
Sensing she needs a minute longer, Gendry reluctantly settles down beside her in the snow, letting it soak through his breeches. Silence hangs between them, but his head is full of questions. Where has she been all of this time, if not in the north? Had she really been in Essos? How did she survive on her own? Had she been alone?
Instead he blurts out, “Everyone thought you were dead.”
She turns to look at him, a strange look passing over her face. “Arya Stark was dead,” is all she ends up saying, before looking down at her hands. He had known something was off when he had seen her again. That restless energy she’d had before she had disappeared seemed to be gone, replaced by something calmer. Her words had a different inflection to them.
“We need to leave before dawn. The Brotherhood’s not the only group of outlaws out here. If we head—”
“We don’t need to do anything, Gendry. I’m going North. And you should stay here.” She begins wiping snow off her breeches, preparing to get up.
He stares at her, dumbfounded. “Course I’m coming with you.”
“Don’t be stupid Gendry.”
He can feel his jaw clench and his nostrils flare. “No, Arya, you don’t be stupid.” She looks at him upon hearing her name, her movements stopping. “I thought you had died. I couldn’t stop you from running and for years I thought it had been my fault. And then we heard about your wedding—”
“It wasn’t my wedding,” she snaps. There’s anger in her voice now too, a hint of the old Arya returning.
“Yeah, well I know that now, don’t I? I was finally hearing you’re alive, only to be told it might’ve been better if you actually had died. But now, here you are, strolling through the woods, easy as you please, and I find you. I actually find you, safe and alive. Not dead, and not married to some bastard.” Her eyes have become downcast at that, and he sees her teeth are worrying her bottom lip, just as she used to do.
“Arya,” he hesitates, “I didn’t spend the last few years taking care of orphans and serving your mother for no reason.” He stops there, figuring it best to let a few things be left unsaid for now. “So, yeah, I’m not letting you leave without me. Not this time.”
She nods, the moon casting her pink, cold bitten cheeks into light. He clears his throat. “Alright. Like I said, we should leave soon. But why north?”
Her brow furrows. “What do you mean?”
“The Riverlands aren’t safe Arya, but the North’s not much better. And if we get there, and someone recognizes you and realizes that the real Arya Stark isn’t holed up in some castle…”
“Gendry,” she starts, “all of my family is dead.” She lets out a humorless laugh. “I’ve just seen to that.” He winces. “Jon…well I’ve heard things about Jon, and I need to see for myself. I need to go north.”
“And your sister?”
“Sansa? What about her?”
“Not long ago we heard some news about her. Some say she’s been in the Vale with some lord from King’s Landing.”
She shakes her head. “No. No, I went to the Vale. Sansa’s long dead, I know it. The imp probably killed her,” she says with disgust.
He is taken aback by how much Arya’s reminds him of her mother in this moment. Or the version of her mother he had known. “Stoneheart was sure it wasn’t her neither. You really want to go north then? The winds are rising Arya, and I may have never been further than the Riverlands, but even I know it’ll be a hard journey.”
She leans forward into him, placing her left hand on his right. He looks down at where they’re joined. He knows her hands are freezing from drying in the cold night air, but all he feels there is heat. Her hands are still as small and soft as he remembers, though he can feel the slight dig of callouses along them. Shaking his head to clear it, he looks back up at her, their eyes meeting.
“I’ve heard horrible things about Jon, Gendry, all the way in—” she stops. “I need to see for myself. I need to find out what has happened to my brother.”
He’s noticed her incomplete sentence, but, seeing the distraught look in her eyes, drops it, finding himself wanting to reassure her. “We don’t get much news from the north Arya. I have no idea what’s waiting for us up there, but we will. We’ll find out about your brother.”
She shakes her head up and down quickly, eyes glistening. She looks tired, and Gendry doesn’t blame her. Who knows how much sleep she had been able to get traveling out here all on her own? After what she had been through today though, he doubted she would be having a peaceful sleep in a while.
He looks up at the sky, sees that they have been sitting there much longer than he had planned to. He is finally starting to feel the snow that has soaked through into his clothes and his ass is freezing. He looks back down at her, prepared to tell her they really need to leave this time, when he catches a peculiar look on her face. She is staring intently at his own, only her eyes aren’t focused on his, they seem to be focused on…oh.
His face starts to heat up despite the cold as she continues staring at his lips unabashedly. Her eyes flicker up to his quickly, the hand that had still been resting on his own now reaching up and landing firmly on his chest. He feels frozen as he sees her face moving slowly toward his. He is intensely aware right now of just how different this Arya is from the one he had all those years ago. For one, that Arya had been a child, hounded by hunger and constantly on the run. This Arya is near a woman grown, her body having filled out from age and consistent meals. That Arya had been wild, prone to outbursts and impatience. This Arya is calmer, with a calculating, almost predatory look in her eyes. As she closes more distance between the two of them, her cold breath mingling with his own, he realizes just how attracted he is to her.
He gulps nervously, knowing he should pull away. That he should insist they leave, right now. But he cannot seem to look away from her eyes, sensing a hint of vulnerability beneath the predatory gleam. He breathes out softly, nearly whispering, “Arya, what are you—” She cuts him off with her mouth. Her lips are cold and firm against his. They move against his for just a second before she breaks away.
He is staring at her, dumbfounded and confused. He can see the heat coloring his cheeks mirrored on her own. “Just wanted to know what it would be like as Arya Stark,” she says. His forehead scrunches up in thought. He figures there must be some truth to what the Tyroshi said about where she had been, given the odd way she has been prone to speak every few sentences. He had never heard anyone in Westeros refer to themselves by their own name like that.
He can barely form the words to ask about it when she says, “We should head out now. Dawn will come soon, and we’ve been here too long.” She stands, a hand offered out to him to pull him up. He grabs onto it, bringing himself to his feet. “We’ll need to steal some horses now that the Brotherhood has mine.”
She begins walking away from him, opposite the direction Harwin had gone. He can’t help shaking his head a bit at the confidence with which she is guiding them, despite not knowing her way around. He is glad to have seen glimpses of the old Arya within this new woman that has returned to him. He will not ask where she has come from just yet, who she has been with, or what she has been through. They will have plenty of time to speak on their way north, and he does not expect her to be willing to yield that information just yet.
As he begins following her, it feels as though a weight has been lifted from his chest. He is not proud of things he has done over the years in her mother’s name. In her name. As much as he had taken care of those orphans at the inn to try to atone for what had happened, it did not erase all of the blood that the Brotherhood had spilled and the death that they had brought that he had turned a blind eye to. Assisted in, even. Perhaps, over time, Gendry will be able to speak about that too.
He has caught up with her when she suddenly stops, glancing over her shoulder at him to say, “You still walk too loudly.” A small smile graces both of their lips as she faces forward again and continues on. Yes, they will have time.
As they continue on their way, moonlight the only thing to guide them, Gendry thinks he hears the sound of wolves in the distance, louder than they have been in months.