(“Arya? Arya? You- you don't know me at all, do you?”)
She sits up abruptly in bed at the sound of the door slamming into the wall, dagger in hand and eyes wide. Rickon gives an annoyed huff from the doorway, sneering.
“Come on! Breakfast already!”
He leaves the door open when he stalks back downstairs, and Arya scowls and reaches under her pillow for the sheath as her heart continues to gallop in her chest.
Stupid little brother.
But from the way sunlight is streaming through the gaps in the shutters, she really has slept late.
It's not like her- she's a sword, with a disciplined, keen edge. And she rolls out of bed in one smooth motion so she can kick the door shut again for the privacy to get dressed.
The dream she'd been having must have caught and held her under. It was strange: like a wolf dream, as if she were running around in somebody else's skin.
But it wasn't Nymeria. And even now she can feel the details of it slipping away, although she remembers heat and strength and the smell of iron and sewage...
She frowns when she goes to do her toilet. Her smallclothes are tied on wrong. As if she had done up the ties backward, so she can't just pull them open one-handed as usual.
But she chalks it up to the odd start to the day, quickly relieves herself and then changes into her tunic and trousers before heading downstairs for breakfast.
She is late- the men have already left the table- doubtless they're already out in the yard training or with Father and the other lords they're currently hosting. Mother sends her a frown from where she's speaking to Maester Luwin and jerks her head towards the table, and Arya ducks her head in apology and walks a little faster. She really wishes she hadn't slept late- she prefers eating in relative peace with the men and getting first crack at the hot food and freshly baked bread. Makes her feel less a stranger because that, at least, hasn't changed in the time she's been gone.
The ladies always take second shift at the dining tables with the children because they take more time to get dressed, fix their hair and then socialize endlessly over the meal. Sansa's upcoming wedding to Lord Steffron Frey's son and heir is the usual focus of conversation now and Arya would really prefer not to be dragged into arguments over what she should wear or how her manners have suffered.
Case in point: Sansa greets her with an outraged glare and sniff. “Well, thank heavens you've remembered how to use a fork today! I expect you to work hard to re-learn the dance: the ceremony is at twilight. This will be my last one, so I need you to do a decent job even if Braavos seems to have scraped it from your head somehow. I'll practice with you once I finish mending the robe, but you need to get it right. ”
Arya gives Sansa a look of disbelief as she stabs cold bacon, sausages, and bread for her plate. “What are you on about? Might not be good at any lady-like pastimes, but I've always been better at the dance than you.”
Sansa's blue eyes blaze with recrimination. “You don't remember what an absolute disaster you were yesterday? Couldn't even remember how to get to the Godswood and you just turned around and kept apologizing like an idiot. I had to spend all afternoon mending what you ripped! I'm glad you had to practice all evening too, though I feel sorry for the Reeds. And you, Bran.”
“Arya! You're back.” Bran smiles at their older sister while Jojen gives Arya a bracing smile from beside him and gives his head a slight but urgent shake: stop protesting. “Thank you for mending the robe, Sansa--” Bran continues, “your stitching is so beautiful that I know it'll be good as new.”
Sansa sighs and rolls her eyes, but the flattery obviously mollifies her. “...I'll do my best, of course. And she's been back for a month, so stop giving her special treatment! You could at least be grateful, Arya! If it was left to you, the whole thing would still be a wreck.”
Jojen gives Arya a prodding look and Arya, baffled, complies. “I am? Grateful, I mean-- I'm glad you're sewing it for me. I'll practice the dance, I promise. Really don't know how I forgot it- we've been doing it since we were girls.”
She can think of the steps in her head even now, dagger in right hand, bundles of newly harvested barley, wheat and oats in the other, grey wool robes embroidered with weirwood leaves swirling around their bodies as they turn, turn, turn, stepping carefully in pattern. Arms up, swishing the grain in every direction, round and round the godswood, before using their daggers to offer blood to the gaping mouth of the heart tree. Stark maidens have performed the ceremony (and Reeds have provided both instruments and music) to renew the bond with the old gods for thousands of years, as her father had reminded her once, when she was ten.
“It's not fair that I can't use my hand properly after! Can't Jeyne Poole or Beth Cassel do it if Bran can play the pipes too? I think Sansa would like to dance with them better anyway.”
Father had looked bleak. He'd smoothed her hair back, eyes solemn. “I know it seems barbaric and unfair, these old traditions, and I'm doubly sorry that you favor your left hand. But when we break the bond, our land and people bleed instead. The last time that happened, we had years of war, not just here, but all over Westeros. I need you to understand how important this ceremony is. We're Starks: wardens of the North. Bran cannot fight wildlings with his damaged knee; but he can play. You must do your part too, and neither Jeyne nor Beth have been marked for this as you and Sansa have.”
“I'd rather fight than just dance with a dagger.”
Father had smiled grimly then, much like the smile Meera gives her from across the table. “Well, you must feel better after a good sleep,” she says pointedly, and then gives Jojen a questioning look after cocking her head at Arya. Jojen nods and Meera relaxes, obviously relieved.
Arya looks between them, bewildered.
What in Seven Hells did she miss while she was sleeping?
Bran pulls her aside after breakfast and explains as best he can.
“I think you were warged ...in a fashion. It seemed like your soul changed places with another, actually. Jojen and Meera and I helped him where we could, but we couldn't exactly tell him how to dance properly and Sansa was frantic when you --he-- tripped and ripped a big hole in your robe.”
“There was a boy using my body?”
“He didn't do it on purpose- he thought this was all a dream, but he couldn't wake from it like a proper warg could. Sounded like he was lowborn, the way he talked. Said he was from King's Landing, and I believe it- acted like he'd never even seen a field before,” Meera adds.
“I thought skinchangers couldn't take control of thinking beings easily. Why didn't I fight him off? And how could he warg me from so far away?”
Bran frowns. “I don't know. It was like you were gone, not like you were trapped in there with him. Jojen, Meera, what do you think?”
They both shake their heads and shrug, and Jojen tilts his head. “Bran's the strongest warg we know, and warging a person isn't supposed to be possible.”
Bran nods thoughtfully. “Even with the wolves, Summer is easiest because we're bonded. And you obviously don't even know this Gendry-”
“Gendry? That's his name?”
“He quite liked being you. Said he'd never eaten so well in his life, and he walked around the castle and through the fields like this was a wonderful dream, feeding the horses and handling your weapons. You –he-- was quite excited when he realized you had a Valyrian steel dagger. But he was surprised when he woke up here as you yesterday. We figured out quickly that something was awry from the way you wandered down gawping at everything and kept quiet and didn't help yourself to food. Might have managed to keep out of trouble if Sansa hadn't insisted on practicing, but we got him to talk once she left with your robe.”
Arya hesitates, considering. “This morning, it did feel like I'd warged in my dreams. And it was strange because it wasn't a wolf dream, although I guess I remembered that it stank like King's Landing and I felt... tall and strong.” She makes a face. “You'd think I'd remember warging all the way there...?”
“You've warged Nymeria from Braavos,” Bran reminds her.
“But she's my direwolf, and it's always just in dreams- I'm still me in the morning. How could this Gendry boy and I warg each other for a whole day?”
Bran shrugs. “Honestly, I don't know. Not supposed to warg that long, or you can lose yourself in the other. Maybe once I find the-” he breaks off and gives Jojen a look and then shakes his head. “Anyway, if it happens again, perhaps you can find out? No lasting harm seems to have come from it, at any rate.”
Arya has to agree- what else is there to be done? The Red Witch might have been able do some spell to prevent it in future, but she'd left while Arya was in Braavos, confused and conflicted by visions of a figure emerging from flames unburnt. She'd taken Jon with her too, which Arya wishes hadn't happened, though she can guess that must have made Mother happy.
Still, Bran and Jojen are greenseers- if they say this Gendry was in her by accident and neither seems particularly worried, then she shouldn't be either. Maybe it's just one of those peculiar things that happens, like how Billy had hiccups for three whole days once, even while he was sleeping, and they stopped as mysteriously as they had started.
So she goes through her usual drills with bow and staff before heading out to the Godswood with Bran and the Reeds to practice. Sansa brings her mended robe out in the afternoon, but she refuses to let Arya wear it until they practice one last time.
There's no mistaking the relief on Sansa's face when they dance in circular unison as they've done for years, and Arya moves with sure-footed precision.
“Well thank goodness! It was like you were a whole different person yesterday!” Sansa exclaims, and she gives her a genuine smile. “You've always been so good at the physical things; I couldn't understand how you could forget it so completely. But I'm glad. You'll be doing this alone until Roslin has a girl, and that girl turns eight.”
Arya shrugs. “I could end up like the Blackfish: a warrior who never married. Which means I might be doing this until I'm old and gray like Berena Stark.”
Sansa gives her a look that's a bit like pity. “Well, I'm looking forward to never having to cut my hand again, anyway. Father made me wait until you were back to betroth me, and I've been a woman grown for years.”
That makes Arya feel sorry, but only a little. “A clean cut hurts less than pushing out a baby, I'm sure. ...You really want to marry that Frey? He's so much older. And you've never even met him.”
Sansa lifts an elegant shoulder, matter-of-fact. “I've always wanted to move south, where the climate's milder and there's more of everything- you know that. Roslin says he's a good man- handsome, too. He's kind enough in his letters. And he'll be heir to the castle and lordship, in time. Lord Steffon is so old that it's probably going to be sooner than later.” Her face softens. “Besides, babies are sweet. You haven't been around to help with Robb and Roslin's babe much, but you have to admit he's adorable.”
Arya smiles warmly at the thought of little Ben before she hesitates. “I'm never going to be a lady like you and mother. How many ladies do you know who've been wards of the First Sword of Braavos? Who have prophecies hanging over their heads?”
Sansa gives her a pensive look. “Maybe it won't come true.”
Arya flips her dagger into her hand. A priceless relic from lost Valyria, presented to her on her thirteenth nameday, when everything had changed.
The ceremony goes smoothly at twilight, the eerie tune from the pipes spanning the time between day and night exactly, and Arya doesn't hesitate when she cuts her palm neatly at the end, dribbling the blood into the carved weirwood bowl set before the heart tree. As she tips her blood into its carved mouth after Sansa, she strives to ignore the pain, but she can't help but wonder what life as this Gendry would be like, without any of what's expected from Arya Stark of Winterfell.
House Stark's bannermen are all gathered in the growing gloom to witness. They've been arriving for about a week- some have to ride far to get to Winterfell, and many have come with wagonloads of their taxes and their families. This winter is supposed to be cold and hard after such a long summer and they need to discuss preparations with Father and Robb. Arya has noticed that both Mormont ladies and Alys Karstark carry swords, and Meera Reed wields both spear and bow and carries a hunting dirk. It seems more things have changed for girls than she had thought, and she plans to find out what she can at the feast. It fills her with pride though, to hear them all reaffirming their fealty to House Stark and smell all the good Westerosi food cooking. She loved Braavosi seafood, truly, but she's been looking forward to having Old Nan's kidney pies and roast goose and venison all day.
She's made friends with both Lyanna Mormont and Alys Karstark before she finally heads up to her room, slightly tipsy from ale that she's finally old enough to drink. It's the most fun she's had at a feast in her memory- the ale sure helps to make things feel friendly and relaxed. Maybe it's also easier without having to worry about Jon hunched brooding and alone at the servant's table, though she feels guilty for even thinking it.
As she's getting undressed for bed, she notices that her travel journal has been left open on the desk instead of being neatly bound and tucked in the drawer. On the open page is writing that isn't hers with carefully printed words:
Bran and Jojen and Mira are nice.
Your sister thinks I'm crazy. Maybe I am? This is the realest dream I ever had.
You have a nice life, Arya.
It's funny, the pang that goes through her when she reads it. She'd completely forgotten about the odd warging-switch during the feast. The note feels almost like a goodbye.
Strange to think they've never actually met.
It's especially ironic when she wakes the next morning. Her eyes snap open when she hears the bustle of a city stirring outside. Realizes how hard the bed is; that she's in a windowless room.
No, it can't be...
She looks around warily-- it's not Braavosi style stone or any room in Winterfell, although the cramped, dark space doesn't tell her much else. She's on a pallet too small for her body.
Her big, masculine body that is naked under the thin, holey blanket. She lifts up the blanket experimentally and--
Well, Bran was right and Gendry is definitely a boy. Why in hells is he hard like that for no reason? Still, she can't help but admire the shape of him as she runs a tentative hand over his –her?-- defined pectoral muscles before she lifts his arm and flexes. He seems strong, probably works some kind of laboring job. Belatedly, she wishes she had found out more about him but she's more conscious of the gnawing emptiness in his belly- he must have gone to bed hungry.
She turns over his hands. To her surprise, there's a smooth, circular scar on the palm of his right hand- looks like an old burn. Funny to look down and see an unblemished left palm- she's had the ritual scars on her palm as long as she can remember and she went to bed with the fresh cut aching, despite the ale, her mother's careful stitches and Maester Luwin's good numbing balm. His hands are big and callused from work, with black ingrained around the nails and into the skin. She inspects more closely and decides it's not just dirt- it's more like coal dust or soot.
Maybe Gendry sells coal? He's not built like a chimney sweep.
She pulls on his leather tunic, tucking his stupid boy parts into his pants before searching fruitlessly for socks and reluctantly shoving his bare feet into his boots. She feels so awkward, like she's a little girl dressing in her brother's clothes for play but the clothes actually fit, and she has to laugh at herself a little. This is no wolf dream: she's in full control and everything feels completely real, even the way she fumbles the bootlaces with his bigger fingers and the growl of his empty stomach.
She's not used to standing so tall and being able to bare her chest and arms like this. Meera said he was from King's Landing, which has always been warmer than Winterfell- it practically feels like midsummer. Plus his hair doesn't require tying up although it feels thick and dirty and –she pulls out a strand-- black.
She pulls aside the curtain hanging over the doorway cautiously and spies weapons and armor hanging on the walls, an anvil and a big forge, coals still glowing.
So he's a smith. An apprentice, probably, as it seems they're of an age.
Mikken's apprentices eat at his table in the dining hall in Winterfell, but she's sure it can't be the same here for Gendry. This looks like a shop, so there's no lord providing food for those who work at his castle. She turns back and rummages under his sleeping pallet, smiling when she finds a little leather bag of coins tucked against the frame.
Her eyes widen when she cracks open one of the shop's big double doors and realizes that she's in the shop at the top of the Street of Steel, right next to the Sept of Baelor. When she'd come to King's Landing with Father years ago, he'd said it was much more dangerous in the capital than Wintertown or White Harbour, so they'd always been surrounded by his men whenever they'd had to traverse the streets. They'd hardly gone anywhere interesting, coming up to see the wares on this famous street just the once, and Arya had spent most of the trip only able to look down at the city, safely protected in the Red Keep while Father had conducted business for Winterfell. She'd only protested occasionally: she'd filled her time finding secret passages and better, exploring the big dragon skulls in the dungeons with Princess Shireen before Father had hired Syrio Forel as her instructor.
Since then, her life has followed one unswerving path. She's trained and ready. And winter is almost here.
So it's a truly unexpected windfall, this chance to explore King's Landing hidden in the body of a tall, strong boy who can wander the streets without restrictions.
She grins as she opens the door wide and strides out confidently.
Well, Gendry. Let's get some breakfast, then.