A/N: This is a story a long time in the making (relatively speaking). It is part 2 of a planned trilogy. Part 1, The Assassin's Apprentice, details Arya's training among the Faceless Men and is set entirely in Braavos. Part 2, The Grey Daughter, will detail her return to Westeros. I will try to make this piece coherent for those who have not read part 1, but in some cases, it may not be entirely possible. Certainly, you will have a better understanding of this part if you have already read The Assassin's Apprentice. Thanks to everyone who gave the first story a chance and thanks to everyone who is giving this one a go!
Welcome to the new age...
A slender girl stood on the deck of a Braavosi ship, its gentle rocking at odds with the violence of what boiled inside of her. She was cloaked in the damp of the predawn mists and though her grey eyes appeared to pierce the gloom of the hour before sunrise, what occupied her mind was nothing which could be spied upon the dark and distant shore. Her cool fingers wrapped delicately over the railing as she listened to the lapping of the black waters against the wooden hull below her feet. She was perfectly silent and perfectly still, but she was not lulled.
And she was not at peace.
The vessel, a trading galleas with the elegant name of Titan's Daughter, had been her home for a seemingly immeasurable stretch of days and nights; days filled with a particular type of dancing (the type which required Valyrian steel in her hand and could be good sport but could just as easily be deadly); days of shouldering some of the work commonly done by men who made up a ship's crew (when she grew too bored or too consumed by her own troubled thoughts to remain inert, lest she go mad); days spent trading bawdy insults in three languages with the men who surrounded her (and, early on, trading blows when the men grew too bold for her liking. The crew had learned rather quickly what they could and could not say to Arya Stark). The days could be tiring, or fruitful, or frustrating, or monotonous in turn. The girl could no longer recall how many days it had been since she had spent time staring at anything other than a vast expanse of rolling, green water, with nothing but sea and sky to answer her gaze.
But if the days were often a trial, then the nights were always an affliction; an homage to suffering and misery and torment; a tribute to pain.
For her nights were filled with dreams of wolves she had abandoned and solemn fathers admonishing her to come home when she had no home (when she felt herself to be an exile who belonged nowhere). Her dreams were plagued by a silver king she had never met yet somehow knew, and by a dark knight she had once known but who was now a stranger (and whose sincere blue eyes and smiling face made her think only of abandonment and rejection). She was caught between fiery dragon's breath and icy crypts; she cried out for those lost to her, begging their forgiveness; begging for their return. Her nights were blessed and cursed with dreams of a voice whispering to her in Lorathi (by all the gods, I am yours), and a particular set of piercing, bronze eyes (bronze eyes that made her chest ache to gaze upon, the pain of it often waking her from deep sleep with a start). Bleeding one into the next without respite, hers were agonizing, endless nights.
Nights filled with silent tears scrubbed away roughly with small, tight fists.
Nights filled with quiet vows to avenge those who had been taken from her.
Nights filled with choking down grief and hate, storing them up and saving them for later.
Nights spent pacing the decks of Titan's Daughter when she could no longer stand to keep to her bed, snarling into the darkness as stinging winds and roiling seas coarsened her hair with salt.
Days were for sparring and plotting; working and improving and tiring oneself to the point that thought and contemplation finally failed. Days were for distraction. Nights, though... Nights were for mourning. Nights were for whispering names and calling it prayer. Nights were for malice and resolve.
And nights were for regret.
Regret for leaving Nymeria in the wilderness with stern words and some precisely aimed rocks.
Regret for her own inability to save her father from a fate he did not deserve.
Regret for not fleeing the dim halls of the House of Black and White sooner, as she had been urged, and for not taking Jaqen with her when she did.
At the thought of him, the girl closed her eyes and breathed out slowly; raggedly.
A voice broke her reverie.
"Will you leave us today, Salty?" asked the captain's son from just behind her. He spoke in the common tongue, heavily accented by his native Braavosi.
Arya continued staring into the gloom, her eyes tracing the faint, shadowy outlines of the trees in the distance. Saltpans. It was fitting that they had come back here. After a moment, she answered Denyo, her voice soft but sure.
The boy moved to stand next to her, his shoulder close enough that she could feel the warmth he emanated but not close enough to brush against her. He would not be so daring. Even with the recklessness so emblematic of youth, Denyo was not foolhardy. One did not reach out his hand to pet a feral wolf, no matter how beautiful the beast.
"And shall we ever meet again?" This he asked her in Braavosi, his tone wistful. His ability to speak the common tongue was rudimentary at best, though Arya had tried at various points during their journey over the Narrow Sea to help the captain's son improve. The girl turned her head and regarded the boy's profile. He was gazing out into the same grey that she had been contemplating when he approached her. She answered him in his native tongue, her own accent flawless.
"There are things I must do here first, but when my duty is done, I will return to Braavos. Perhaps when that time comes, it will once again be you who carries me back over the sea." She paused for a moment. "If the Many-Faced god wills it," she added. "I think I should like that, if it was you."
"But isn't this your home?" Denyo asked, sounding confused. "Why would you wish to return to Braavos?"
At her friend's question, Arya's mind filled with the images of two men, two sides of an iron coin, just as different, and just as connected. Two men—Faceless masters, both. One man, she longed for with all that was within her. The other, she would kill, fueled by the hatred which burned like wildfire in her gut.
Jaqen H'ghar and the Kindly Man.
Black and white.
Love and hate.
Why would you wish to return to Braavos?
"Because," the girl replied, her voice becoming harder as she spoke, "there is someone I must find, and there is a debt that I must pay."
Her tone prevented her friend from questioning her further. Though he had known her when she was little more than a half-starved stowaway just shy of her twelfth nameday and though he now found her to be wholly magnificent and wild and thrilling to be around, he did not forget how her passage was paid and he did not pretend that her two companions were simple travelers. Denyo was a man of Braavos, and with that distinction came a certain understanding about the mysterious order from which the girl had recently emerged. There were perhaps things he did not truly wish to know and things about which it was simply better not to ask.
A long journey over the seas in a confined space is an undertaking which most would find taxing, even under the best of circumstances. Arya's crossing from Braavos to the muddy shores of Westeros had certainly been long, and hers were definitely not the best of circumstances.
Exiled from her home of four years, the first place she had ever chosen for herself.
Grieving the loss of yet another person she loved, the first man she had ever chosen for herself.
Thrust toward an uncertain future, a life vastly different than the one she had spent four years shaping for herself.
And all while sequestered aboard a ship with an assassin who had hated her since before he even knew her.
That nuisance, at least, she had able to allay, to an extent (however reluctantly). At the urging of her Lyseni friend, a Faceless assassin whose immense stature and broad build had earned him the appropriate moniker of the Bear, Arya had finally confronted the rat-faced boy who had been directed to return her to the seat of Northern power, Winterfell; the home of her birth. A fortnight into the crossing, the Bear had confronted her, admonishing her to make things right between herself and the other Faceless Man aboard the ship. It had taken her a few days to finally give in, but after a time, she found her avowed foe and demanded that he tell her once and for all why he had disdained and abused her for years.
"Why do you hate me so much?" Arya pressed. She had the Westerosi boy cornered in the small area of the hold where he slept. He had not heard her approach, as she had employed the cat-like stealth for which she had been so well-known among her order (her former order). Garnering such a reputation was really quite a feat, considering that in the clandestine society which served Him of Many Faces, furtiveness was not only admired, but was often akin to survival. To be known as the shadow among shadows was no small thing.
The boy had whirled on her, his too-close eyes hard and his mouth curling into an ugly sneer. It was an expression the girl knew well, as it was the one with which he most often favored his sister.
His former sister.
The way the young man's lips pulled away from his teeth made him look more a rodent than ever. Arya fought to keep her face neutral though a frown tried to form. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
"Alright, then," the Rat ground out as he took a step closer to the girl. She remained absolutely still while the newly-minted assassin encroached and as he bent to bring his face so near to hers that she could smell his fetid breath as he spoke, she gazed intently into his eyes, reading the animosity she found there. "I'll tell you exactly why I hate you so much."
There was a pause and Arya nearly vibrated with impatience. She stifled the urge to scream at her brother to get on with it. The boy pinched his face and breathed in hard before spitting out his seething words.
"Your father killed my father!"
The Cat had trouble sleeping that night. Her mind was turning over all she had learned from the Rat.
Justan Carver, she corrected herself.
The Rat had once had a name, like everyone else who dragged themselves through the ebony and weirwood doors of the House of Black and White. It was a name he gave up at a tender, young age, but he had not forgotten. Somehow, through years of training, through ceaseless lessons on the value of being no one and countless faces worn and changed whenever the need arose, the Westerosi assassin had held onto who he had been, a piece of himself fixed in place with a nail made of sorrow and a hammer made of hatred. That was certainly something that Arya could understand, even if she felt his blame had been unjustly heaped upon her shoulders.
As the girl tossed in her bunk aboard the Braavosi ship, the Rat's accusing words ran through her mind.
"Your father killed my father!"
"That's impossible," Arya had nearly laughed. "My father has been dead for years!"
"And mine has been dead for years longer, thanks to Lord Eddard Stark," the boy spat at her, his words becoming a hateful hiss as he pronounced her father's name.
"Did your father fight for the Mad King during Robert's Rebellion, then?" It was the only thing that made any sense to the girl. Her father hadn't traveled the countryside indiscriminately slaughtering the smallfolk on a whim. A powerful lord tasked with the responsibilities of running a great castle and the whole of the North would have little occasion (and little inclination) to kill one insignificant common man.
"No. He didn't take part in that. Why would he? He was no soldier! He was just a simple woodsman." He said it in a way that indicated how stupid he found her question.
"Well, then, I don't understand how..."
"What's not to understand, my lady?" the assassin sneered, the use of the honorific obviously meant as an insult. "Your noble father cut off my father's head!"
"Even if that's true, there had to be a reason for it!"
"When have the great lords and ladies of Westeros ever needed a reason to crush the common folk?" The Rat's voice was bitter, and he was glaring at her. He was nearly shaking with his anger.
"My father would have had a reason!" Arya barked shrilly, and the Rat visibly flinched. She was surprised at her own lack of control, but this petty boy was daring to question her father's honor; honor that he died for; honor that he lived by, always. It was not to be borne!
"Oh, sure. He had his reason. Ask my mother if it was enough of a reason! Ask his children, who died without him to provide! All but me."
"What was the reason?" the Cat demanded. "Come now, you must know. You can't just accuse my father of some cruel deed without telling the whole story. What was the reason? Was your father a poacher? A raper? A thief? Did he murder his neighbor? What was it?"
"Does it matter? Men do what they must to survive when they're lowborn. And highborn men judge them and tear them away from their families and send them off far away to freeze and suffer."
Arya drew up short. Freeze and suffer? Far away? Was the Rat saying that his father... was a brother of the Night's Watch?
"Was your father... at the Wall?" she asked hesitantly. The Rat said nothing and so she continued. "Was he sent to the Wall for some crime?"
"He left that place and tried to come home to his family, to keep us from starving without him!" the boy cried. "He never made it, though. Some men sworn to your father found him. They took him to the warden of the North for the lord's justice, and you know what that means."
The girl did know. She knew very well.
"How could you be sure of this?" she asked. "You must have been very young. How could you know?"
"My mother told me!" the Rat bellowed, affronted that the girl seemed to be questioning the veracity of his story. "I was very young, but not too young to watch the twins starving, and then get sick and die."
She tried to picture it. The Rat, he must have been... four? Perhaps five? His brother and sister (the twins) must have been younger. Possibly infants. Infants were not always hardy, and starving infants would certainly be susceptible to illness and, without the treatment of a maester, death.
"He tried to come home to us, but he never made it," the boy said again, looking off as he added, "and I watched my sister and my brother die because of it."
Arya was horrified. She felt torn. It was perhaps not a common occurrence, but she knew her father had meted out such punishments to men who cast aside their vows. To desert the Wall was unforgivable. But to desert your family... wasn't that unforgivable too? Could a man be blamed for trying to protect his family? And could a man be blamed for adhering to his duty, no matter how unpleasant? How could she condemn the Rat's father? And how could she condemn her own? She wasn't sure what to say.
After a moment, a whisper escaped her lips. Her own words surprised her.
"I... I'm sorry."
The boy glared at her, not trusting her words, but she meant what she said. She understood loss. She understood what it was to have a father struck down in the name of justice, whether that justice was true or false. She knew what it was to love siblings, only to have them torn away. She suddenly felt a kinship with the boy with whom she had known only rivalry and acrimony for years. They had both been marked by the death of siblings. Both of their fathers had lost their heads, likely to the bite of the same Valyrian steel blade.
Arya considered how unlikely were the circumstances that had drawn the two Westerosi outcasts together, but when she did, she was confronted with the image of a great man kneeling on the steps of a great sept. She was reminded of being so weak, so powerless, so frozen with her own horror that all she could do was crouch at Baelor's feet, clutching uselessly at her little blade. She pushed the memory away before it could overcome her and repeated her condolence, her voice made hoarse by emotion.
"I'm so sorry about your father."
Her tone was sincere. It gave the Rat pause. The angry heaving of his chest slowed and he looked down at the Cat, his pinched expression softening. The two assassins stared at each other for what felt like an eternity; she, not knowing what else to say and he, unsure if she was being earnest..
"Jaymes Carver," he finally said. He sounded tired. "His name was Jaymes Carver. He named me Justan, for his own father."
"Justan Carver," Arya said softly. The boy just looked sad when she spoke the name he had cast aside so long ago.
"Not anymore," the Rat answered, shaking his head slightly as he backed away from her. He sank down to sit on a crate pushed against the wall, his shoulders sagging. He dropped his head.
The girl was left feeling confused. She understood her father's sense of honor and duty; his faithful adherence to his obligations. She had grown up with it, the steadfastness of it as much sustenance to her and her kin as mother's milk. Such ideals had shaped her; they lived on in her; her bones were steeped in them. Yet, as she grew older, she also began to understand that the world was not a simple place and that what seemed right to one man would seem like sin to another. What was it that the handsome man had said to her back in the temple?
Do you know what the interesting thing about the right choice is, little wolf? It's that the look of it changes depending on where you are standing when you make it.
Right. Wrong. Good. Bad. Hadn't she seen enough of the world to know that there were no absolutes? Hadn't she done things that others would condemn? Who could say what was justice and what was corruption when the look of it changed with your vantage point?
She felt all her animus melting from her. Looking at the Rat with his head bowed low, almost touching his knees, she found herself pitying him. That drew her up short. She would have never guessed she could feel anything but contempt for the boy. But didn't she understand his loss better than most? And hadn't their common losses led them to the same place? She sank down to a squat, staring at the top of the Westerosi's head, using her eyes to trace the strands of his light brown hair as they fell forward, creating a curtain that hid his face from her gaze. Tentatively, the girl reached out a hand and placed her fingers lightly on his calf. Her gesture caused him to look up at her, and she saw that he had been silently crying.
"Go ahead," the Rat gritted out. "Laugh."
"I'm sorry you lost your father," Arya repeated. "I wish I could undo it. At least now I understand."
The boy's brow wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. He seemed perplexed by her words. She endeavored to explain.
"My father was sacrificed in the name of someone else's justice, and I hate the people who killed him. I want to see them all dead, everyone who had anything to do with it." She paused for a moment, and then said, "I will see them all dead."
It was her way of absolving him of his years of maltreatment. It was her way of saying that he was not alone; that she knew his pain. The girl rose to stand but before she could turn to leave, the rat-faced assassin reached out and grabbed her wrist, squeezing it hard. Arya tensed, preparing to defend herself, but the boy began to speak quietly, so quietly that she had to strain to hear him.
"I know it wasn't your fault," he admitted. "I shouldn't have blamed you."
It obviously cost him to say it. She could tell by the way he did not meet her eyes as he spoke. She did not know if she should nod and leave, or if she should sit and invite him to unburden himself further. The girl did not have long to wonder, though. Her brother had dismissed her, asking her to tell the Bear that he did not feel like sparring that evening but was going to retire early.
Now, hours later, Arya turned over in her bed once again, wondering what her exchange with the Rat would mean for the future. She wasn't quite sure that they would ever be friends, but at least it seemed as if the her Westerosi brother (for that was how she still thought of him) would no longer make it a point to cross her whenever he could.
What will that be like? she wondered.
You'll find out when you wake up tomorrow, her little voice answered.
The girl bunched her pillow under her head, closed her eyes again and waited for sleep to descend.
Titan's Daughter a was well-provisioned vessel and the passengers and crew did not lack for food. Still, their fare could not compare to even the most mundane of Umma's offerings in the small hall of the House of Black and White. That fact, coupled with all the cares and worries which Arya wore constantly, almost as a shroud, ensured that the girl often found she did not have the appetite to eat as she ought.
Her blonde, bear-like brother would not allow her to starve, however, and harangued her mercilessly when he saw her picking at her plate and pushing her food around rather than putting it in her mouth. Even still, Arya had grown leaner and more angular during the course of their voyage.
"We have a ways to travel yet," the Bear told her one day as they sparred on the deck at dusk. "When we make landfall, our journey is only half-complete."
"So?" the girl replied, seemingly disinterested in the particular line of conversation. She sliced the air near his shoulder with her slender Bravos blade, stopping just short of cutting him and admonished her brother. "That would have been a grievous wound. You're not even trying."
"I am trying," he countered over the clanging of steel as he met her blow and turned it. "It's you who aren't trying."
"Why are you spouting nonsense?" Arya grunted, slapping the boy's hip with the flat of her bastard blade. "If I was trying any harder, you'd be dead."
"I mean you aren't trying to take care of yourself. You aren't making any effort to care."
"Don't be ridiculous," the Cat growled as they circled one another.
"Sister, what is it that ails you?"
The girl whirled around, lightning quick, positioning herself at her brother's side. In an instant, she brought the sharp tip of Frost, her water dancer's blade, to rest just under the Bear's ear.
"You're a dead man."
The Bear blew out a loud breath, his frustration palpable.
"You aren't sleeping," he began.
"I sleep. Every night." She lowered her blades and stepped away from the her brother.
"I see you pacing the deck."
"Then it seems that it is you who are not sleeping," Arya replied with a smirk. Her expression reminded the Bear of the Rat's master, the so-called handsome man. It rankled him to see it.
"You aren't eating."
"I eat. Every meal, if only to stop your nagging."
"There is something troubling you, Cat," the large Lyseni insisted. "I wish you would just tell me what I can do."
"Honestly, brother, if you keep this up, I'll have to stop calling you Bear and start calling you Mother Hen."
"Can you kill the principal elder? Can you bring Jaqen back to me? Can you replace my father's head on his shoulders?" she asked, her voice emotionless. "No? Well, can you make my mother as she was? Can you stop my damnable dreams?" As she spoke of her dreams, her voice cracked, betraying her dilemma.
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing," she muttered. "Forget it."
"I won't," the assassin insisted. "Tell me."
She frowned at her brother, then sighed.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"So it's your dreams that disturb you, then?" the Bear pressed.
Before she could answer, the Rat approached the pair. He nodded to her, then began speaking to his brother. Arya didn't pay much mind to their conversation. It has been this way for weeks, ever since she had confronted the Westerosi and he had revealed the truth about his father. About their fathers. That is to say, things were slightly awkward but no longer so tense or hostile. They didn't speak much, and the boy seemed to have trouble meeting her eyes most days. She wasn't sure if he was ashamed of the way he had treated or her or just uncomfortable that he had revealed so much of himself to her.
The girl's contemplation of the things which drove the Rat's inner turmoil was cut short when something he said to the Bear caught her attention.
"Captain Terys says we should make Saltpans in a few days. He said we passed..."
"What?" the girl interrupted. "What did you say?"
"That... we should make landfall in a few days?" the Westerosi replied hesitantly.
They were almost there. All at once, that thought superseded all of her other concerns. She went very still, willing her heart to stop pounding beneath her breast. A feeling began awaken in her, something that seemed to stir in her gut and spread from there. It was a sort of apprehension, and an excitement. It was the feeling that she was near to a goal; that she was about to get something she had desired for so long that she could hardly remember a time before wanting it. It was the feeling of being close. So close. But to what?
"Cat, what's wrong?" the Bear asked, grabbing her shoulder and peering at her face. The Rat was also staring at her, though he remained silent.
"Nothing," she said automatically. "Why?" She regarded the Lyseni's down-turned mouth and furrowed brow. He looked worried.
"You... just looked suddenly pale."
"I'm always pale," she replied dismissively. "I'm a Stark."
Without another word, she turned and left her companions on the deck and made her way to her cabin. When the Bear came to her later, carrying a platter from the supper she had missed, he found her sprawled in her bunk, fast asleep.
She awoke suddenly without having been aware she was ever asleep. She felt as if she had been startled awake, and so she pricked her ears to see if she could pick out what had disturbed her. All she heard were the soft snores of exhausted men and the occasional popping of hot embers in the dying fire. There were no unusual sounds, nothing to suggest danger, but there was a feeling, and it told her that it was finally time to move.
The great beast rose and whined softly, nuzzling a sleeping knight's neck with her snout. She watched him flinch and bat at her lazily as he rolled over. Whining again, she licked his face with her scratchy tongue. Moaning, the knight opened his eyes, squinting at the wolf in the dim light of the cave.
"What is it, m'lady?" he yawned, wiping at his moist cheek. "I thought you were hunting."
The wolf whined once more and looked at him with her golden eyes for a long moment. Her scrutiny appeared to give him pause. He was instantly more alert. Nymeria padded away a few steps then turned to look at him again, seeming to will him to follow her.
"What, now?" Gendry whispered, sitting up. "You want me to leave now?"
Another whine was the only answer he would get, but then he was sensing it too; that feeling. It caused him to hasten his movements, rolling up his bedroll and blanket, dressing quickly, and gathering some food and skins of wine and water. Within minutes, he had thrown a heavy cloak over his boiled leather and mail. His armor, he would leave behind, so he could travel fast and light.
When he emerged into the cold night, the moonlight shone across the light blanket of snow that covered the land. The ground seemed almost to glow with it. Winter had come to the Riverlands, but he knew they were just on the very edge of it; that it would get worse, colder, the snows deeper. He found Nymeria waiting for him, sitting up tall on her great haunches just past the entrance to the cave the Brotherhood without Banners used as their main encampment. The dark knight threw the wolf an irritated look and then set about saddling his horse.
"You couldn't have waited until morning?" he asked, his breath creating small puffs of floating frost just visible in the bright moonlight that filtered through the bare branches of the surrounding trees. "I was having a dream."
Nymeria simply looked at him. She seemed... judgmental and even aloof, if such a thing can be said about a wolf.
"No need to be so haughty, m'lady," Ser Gendry groused. "I'm coming, aren't I?"
The knight fastened his pack to his mount and then seated himself in the saddle, taking off in a trot in the direction which would eventually bring them to the road. It would be safer and faster to keep to the road at night. He did not wish to risk a broken leg for his horse or more nights in the cold than were absolutely required. For a man of his size and strength, the other dangers of the road at night posed little threat, and he would have formidable companions guarding his flank, for Nymeria would not leave her cousins behind. Indeed, bandits, brigands, and raiding parties would consider Ser Gendry of the Hollow Hill at the head of a savage wolf-army as the danger to be avoided, not the other way around.
"We need to be away," the knight muttered. "Lady Stoneheart won't take kindly to desertion, and I'd rather not wind up swinging on the end of a rope among these trees before I've had a chance to even see her."
Nymeria whined, and to him it seemed that she had understood. In fact, it appeared to him that the direwolf understood a great deal. There was too much purpose in her actions, and an intelligence in her eyes that made it nearly impossible to believe otherwise. And sometimes, like tonight, it was very much like she was speaking to him, without words, and sometimes it felt... it felt almost as if the beast was somehow... just more. More than an animal. More than a wolf. As he spoke of his own desire to see Arya Stark once again, he had no doubt that this was also the direwolf's wish. Nymeria craved this reunion, he was certain. Perhaps even more strongly than he did himself.
The logical part of his mind told him he was being foolish. To leave the warmth of the cave in the dead of night, alone, risking the ire of the those who had taken him in when he had nothing (and risking the punishment for desertion, a sentence to be passed down from the least merciful among them), at the supposed urging of a four-legged creature, was tantamount to madness. The reasonable part of him said he should turn around, make haste for the hill, unpack his horse and go back to sleep before anyone found him missing.
But there was something deeper than reason at work. There was something more pressing than logic that pulled him further away from the dying fires and the Brotherhood. Whatever it was, it lived in his skin and wrapped itself around his heart and his head. It was as if his dreams had taken root deep within him, and what they told him was as real as any memory he could conjure. What they told him felt as true as anything he could claim to know. What they told him compelled him to ride on, direwolf at his side, leaving comfort and certainty far behind.
"It was her I was dreaming about, you know," he said, grinning down at the wolf.
The direwolf answered him with a growl and then nipped at his horse's hindquarters, causing the beast to buck wildly and take off in a run. Gendry let out a yelp and haphazardly grabbed at the horse's mane, barely hanging on. After the knight was finally able to rein in his mount and calm the animal with soothing words and pats on the neck, he turned to chide the wolf who trotted up to the knight with little apparent concern.
"That wasn't nice, m'lady! Weasel may have grown used to you but no one likes being bitten on the arse!"
Nymeria pranced regally past the knight and his mount, looking indifferent to his correction.
"Oh, come now! It wasn't that kind of dream! Nothing improper!"
The wolf whipped her head around and stared hard at her companion. He broke into another wide grin and she growled menacingly again, causing Weasel to start dancing a bit.
"Alright! I'm sorry! Just leave my horse alone!" the knight acquiesced. "There, there, Weasel. Nymeria won't hurt you." Gendry patted the horse's neck again and then mumbled, "I hope."
When they had put a league between themselves and the camp, Nymeria stopped and let out a series of howls. All at once, the forest came alive with rustling, snarling, growling, and yips. Within moments, Gendry and his massive companion were joined by more than six score of wolves, all rendered grey and black by the darkness. Their eyes, though, glowed white in the moonlight. The effect was somehow both frightening and comforting to Ser Gendry.
"Well, then," the dark knight said, raising his eyebrows at the great direwolf while giving a grand, sweeping gesture with his hand, "shall we, m'lady?"
"Cat, wake up!" the Bear called again, this time shaking his sister a bit by her shoulders. She was mumbling in her sleep and her face was screwed up into an expression of displeasure. He thought she might be having a nightmare and after their talk earlier, he wanted to spare her what he could. "Cat!"
Arya gasped, her eyes flying open as she grabbed the Lyseni by his collar and pulled back a small fist, aiming for his nose.
"Whoa!" the Bear cried. "Sister, stop!" He thrust his hands up defensively and watched as recognition washed over the Cat's features. Slowly, she released her grip on his collar and dropped her fist back onto the bed. After a moment, she pushed herself up into a seated position, still breathing heavily.
"You really shouldn't wake a trained assassin that way," the girl finally said.
"How would you recommend I wake a trained assassin, then?" her friend asked, dropping to sit next to her on the bed.
"I don't know. Just not like that."
He laughed lightly.
"You were having a bad dream, I think."
She shook her head slightly, saying, "A dream. Not precisely a bad one..."
"You appeared... agitated."
She remembered Gendry's suggestive grin and thought that yes, she had been agitated.
"Was I... howling?"
"Howling?" the Bear queried. He sounded puzzled. "No, not howling. You just looked unsettled. Or, maybe disturbed. And you were mumbling."
Arya cocked her head, scrutinizing her brother. She asked him how he happened upon her if she was merely mumbling. He did not appear to comprehend her question.
"If I wasn't crying out, how did you know you needed to wake me?"
He explained that he had come into the cabin to bring food to her and found her sleeping restlessly.
"You came into my cabin unbidden..." she started.
"Sister, how many times did you enter my cell unbidden as I slept?"
"It's not the same."
"Oh? And how is it different?"
"I... I could have been naked!"
"I seem to recall you climbing into my bed once when I was naked!" the Bear reminded her. "And since when are you so timid, anyway?"
Arya shrugged, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. She wasn't timid, not really. And she wasn't particularly modest. She couldn't recall a time when she hadn't felt she was simply one of the boys. She was just out of sorts, was all. That dream, and Gendry...
"Seven hells," the girl grumbled. "We're just getting so close to home, I guess. I'm not myself."
"Cat, you haven't been yourself in two moons, at least," the Lyseni commented softly. He gave her a kind smile. "You know, I never said thank you..."
"Thank me?" the girl asked, unsure of his meaning. "For what?"
"For making things right with our brother."
The Bear laughed. "Yes, that. I know it couldn't have been easy, but I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."
It was true. Though it was only an uneasy peace that had settled between the three of them, the Lyseni was relieved. He had grown tired of walking the treacherous tightrope between his brother and sister. The balance was too hard to maintain, and he was glad to be without the continued strain.
"Well, you were right," Arya acknowledged. "It needed to be done."
Her companion chose not to bask in the glow of his sister's concession, rare though it was, and instead tried to accomplish what it as that had brought him to her quarters in the first place.
"Will you have something to eat now, since you're awake?"
She started to refuse, but then thought the better of it, reaching out her hand in silence, docile for once. The Bear gave her a genuine smile and put a chunk of hard bread in her hand. The girl tore off a piece and began to chew. She then noted a covered bowl.
"What's in the bowl?" she asked, her mouth full, making her difficult to understand. When her companion gave her a look of confusion, she pointed to the vessel.
"Oh! That's fish stew. It's quite good, really. Here, dip your bread in it."
Arya did as she was bid and she ate while her brother talked. She knew he was trying to distract her; that he was worried. She began to feel bad for being so distant and guarded for the last few weeks. The girl had always hated to feel helpless, and so had rebuffed the Bear's efforts at cheering her for the most part. She could see now that it had taken a toll on him, though, and it filled her with regret. She swallowed down another bite of bread soaked in stew and then reached out to place her cool palm over her brother's heart.
"Listen," the girl began, "I know I haven't been an easy companion lately..."
The boy snorted.
Arya ignored him and continued, "You have your own burdens to bear, and I haven't made much effort to make things easier for you. I certainly didn't want you worrying over me..."
"You made that plain, sister," the Lyseni cut in, "but what you want to be true and what is are not always the same."
"This is a lesson I have learned well," she lamented. "Too many times."
"Oh, sister," the boy said sympathetically, reaching for her. She fell into his arms. Arya allowed herself to be comforted, if only for a moment. The Lyseni pressed his lips gently to the Cat's forehead, and then spoke again. "You know, it might be that you will find peace once we have returned you home. It could be that once you are back in Winterfell, things won't seem as dire."
The Bear sounded so sincere, his words so heartfelt, that his sister felt a lump form in her throat. To keep from disgracing herself with tears, she started to tease him.
"You have an awfully soft heart for an assassin," Arya japed.
"I just want you to be happy."
"It's not happiness that I'm after," the girl replied. "I had that already. It doesn't last. It can't."
"You're no longer obligated to the order. You don't have to take missions. You don't have to give up who you are to be who someone else says you must be. You have a chance, a real chance, to have a life as full and as rich as you choose to make it," the Bear told her, placing a finger under her chin and tilting her face up so that he could look her in the eye. "If not happiness, then what?"
He watched in dismay as her mouth curled itself into a malicious smile. It was a look familiar to him, but one he had not seen since well before they departed Braavos. Finally, she answered him.
Her last night on the ship, Arya managed to fall asleep despite all her warring emotions about the coming day, but once unconscious, her dreams became a tangled mess that afforded her no rest. Voices tumbled one over the other, striving to be heard. A voice murmuring, "You are a man's reason. For everything" meshed with another asserting, "You are my grey daughter. Come home." She heard Syrio command her to be "Calm as still water," but then his voice was supplanted by that of the Kindly Man, who said, "You must learn to serve in stillness. Who are you, child?" Men and beasts crowded her head; wolves and dragons, bastards and kings. Eels, cats, enemies and friends. She saw one brother with the crowned head of a wolf and another with a dagger through his heart. She saw a man with hair as pale as the moon but whose eyes burned bright like amethysts held up before the firelight. She saw a dark knight with a snarling army at his back. She saw the Lord of Winterfell, seated upon his tomb, oblivious to the frost creeping around his feet. She saw Jaqen.
When the girl bolted upright in her bed, there were tears on her cheeks. She wiped them away roughly, using the sleeve of an overlarge blouse she wore; a man's favorite shirt. As she sat trembling among her blankets, she felt the slow rocking of the boat, and it was different than she was used to; it had changed somehow. As sleep receded and her head cleared, she realized why. The boat was not moving. They were anchored.
Quickly, Arya grabbed a pair of doe skin breeches from the end of her bunk (a gift from the Captain's son; a pair he had worn as a skinny boy, when he had first made her acquaintance, long since outgrown). She dressed, slipped on her boots, and stepped out of her cabin door and onto the deserted deck. A single lamp flickered from its hook on the mainsail mast. It cast just enough light for the girl to make her way to the center of the ship without tripping over coiled ropes and other gear. It was too dark to say exactly how far off shore they were, but she could tell that they were not yet docked. Likely, Captain Terys would wait for first light to navigate the Bay of Crabs and bring the ship into Saltpans. At low tide, the bay could be treacherous. Better to have a clear view of the obstacles.
The air was the coldest she had felt since leaving the North, seven years ago now. She knew she ought to have donned her cloak, but she wasn't yet chilled enough to turn around and go back for it. She continued walking toward the mast with the hanging lantern, strangely drawn to the flame. As she moved closer, she took on a look of concentration, staring into the light. She cocked her head slightly, narrowing her eyes. It seemed that there was something there, moving in the fire...
A dragon, painted in red and orange, yet somehow black with glowing embers escaping from beneath each scale, eyes burning like coals. It was only when the great creature opened wide his mouth and sent a rushing stream of white flame exploding forth that Arya noticed the man standing before the dragon, hand outstretched as if seeking to touch the monster. She had seen this spectacle before, in a dream once, early on in her journey. But the man was all shadow then; a dark silhouette against the rising sun behind a hill. Now, though... Now she saw that he was bright, like polished alabaster, with hair as pale as the moon. Instantly, he was engulfed in a torrent of fire. She stepped closer to the lantern; closer to the fire, staring with eyes wide, the lantern light and dragon's breath turning them from grey to bright silver. A second passed, then two. The flames around the man evaporated and she saw that he still stood, tall and unburnt before the dragon. His hair was gone, now only ash on the ground, but he was as pale and perfect as before. He turned and it was as if he were looking at her; beckoning her.
Arya gasped and shook her head, trying to dislodge the image. She muttered something about fanciful imagination and not enough sleep as she commenced her patrol of the ship. She preferred to think of it that way, rather than aimless pacing. Often, when she could not sleep, she strolled in just this way, listening to the sounds of the sea at night and the creaking of the ship. It afforded her time to think. If her bed would grant her no rest, then perhaps she could use this time to sort out some things.
There was so very much to sort out, after all.
She had crossed the Narrow Sea, but her journey had barely begun. If she had been asked the day she boarded Titan's Daughter, the girl would have said that two moons would be plenty of time to settle on a plan. The time it would take to traverse the waters which divided Essos from Westeros was more than enough time to decide who it was she wanted to be; who she was. Surely, in two moons time, she would have found her way and would no longer be caught between all of the different versions of herself, unable to decide which one really defined her.
But she had had her two moons, and still she was unsure. When she stepped onto Westerosi soil, who would she become?
Lord Eddard Stark's youngest daughter, and perhaps his only surviving child, the most likely heir to Winterfell and her fallen brother's crown? The grey daughter, urged in countless dreams to come home and fulfill her destiny as the hope of the North? A warg who walked in the skin of beasts, both near and far, and who was privy to the secret thoughts of men? An assassin gifted with the ability to move in silence and shadow, all but invisible? A marriageable lady of both breeding and fortune? A woman with a grudge (half a dozen grudges) and the freedom and will to settle them all? A disgraced acolyte, part believer and part rebel, expelled from the very order which had plucked her from obscurity and given her purpose? Servant to a foreign god, daughter of a great house brought low, she was someone and no one, both mourner and celebrant, woman and child, and she was not sure how to weave all these disparate parts of herself into one, coherent whole. So many hands had formed her. So many circumstances had impacted her. So many losses had marked her.
Shaped by family, duty, honor.
Bred for winter.
Trained to kill as a form of devotion.
Changed by the love of a nameless assassin.
She was being marched toward her beckoning fate while being dragged from the life she had thought she earned.
Agitated, Arya turned and strode toward the ship's stern, bounding up the steps to the quarter deck and flinging herself against the railing there. She pounded her fist against the smooth wood which served as a barricade to keep her from falling overboard, mindless of the bruises her angry rapping was sure to raise. The pain cleared her mind of the chaos. With the absence of the tumult, she began to imagine that she could gain control. She began to see that it was all her choice.
No more being marched anywhere!
No more being torn from anyone!
No more being dragged, or pulled, or pushed. No more being told, no more being prevented. No more being made to do anything!
The girl leapt up onto the rail, the wood pressing into the soles of her boots. She stood straight, staring out into the darkness, lithe and graceful, swaying with the slow rock of the ship, moving like the black waters below. She called up the words of her mentors. Eddard Stark. Syrio Forel. Jaqen H'ghar. The Kindly Man. She was calm. She was brave. She was determined.
And inside, she was still.
She was Arya Stark, daughter of a fallen house that she would restore. She was the ghost in Harrenhal and she would not be afraid. She was the shadow among shadows and could not be caught. She was the Cat who could create death with roots and fire as easily as with steel. She was a dark heart, a wolf, an evil child, and a lovely girl.
She was rage made flesh.
"Ser Ilyn, Ser Meryn, Queen Cersei," she whispered, her words carried away on the breeze. "Traitorous black brothers."
She paused for a moment, remembering. Balanced on the high rail, she closed her eyes and tilted her face toward the stars. She spread her arms wide, as if embracing the night. She could almost feel the warm pad of a calloused thumb pulling her lip from between her teeth. She could almost smell the cloves and ginger. She could almost hear his whispered words. I will not allow death to part us. A man will find you, no matter where you may have wandered. She blew out a slow, measured breath before speaking again, and this time, she did not whisper.
"The Kindly Man."
Denyo grew quiet as he stood next to his friend, his Salty, the girl who had gone to Braavos and become a woman while he sailed the seas with his father; the fearless orphan girl who had turned assassin while he carried cargo between the free cities and western ports.
He had asked her if they would ever see each other again, and she had surprised him by saying that she hoped to return to Braavos someday. His joy at her answer had faded, though, when she had explained her desire to return.
"There is someone I must find, and there is a debt that I must pay."
Her voice was like steel and her words made him feel cold.
The Captain's son remembered the skinny, dirty girl who had bought her way aboard Titan's Daughter with iron; a payment any man of Braavos would be foolish to refuse. He remembered the weeks spent in her company, watching the sadness and fear that she brought with her blow away with the warm winds and salt spray as they voyaged across the sea together. He had admired her for her pluck, and she had an enviable imagination, using a mixture of the little common tongue he knew and broken Braavosi and High Valyrian to tell him stories of giant ice spiders and skinchangers and other terrible things which lived in a land of frost far and away. They would play together, when he was done with his work, and they laughed from their bellies as they rolled on the deck or collapsed against the masts.
This woman, though, she was different than that Salty. And her tales were different as well. Dragons and wolves; treachery and intrigue; revenge. These were the things she spoke of, when she spoke at all. He watched her dance with her menacing companions amid the crash of steel and there was a grace about her violence, but there was a rage in it too, which always seemed on the verge of breaking free from her control. He noted with disappointment that her sadness and her worries did not seem to blow away with the wind and salt this time. She never laughed from her belly; indeed, she barely smiled.
Still, she was so beautiful and mysterious and strong that Denyo thought he might love her. What he knew was that he feared her, but even so, he did not truly understand her.
And, being a man of Braavos, he knew enough to realize that perhaps it was better that way.