And you can bring me to my knees
He didn't like the way they whispered. It happened whenever the councils broke up or after they'd supped and the captains drifted away from the fireside with full bellies and heavy lids, leaving them alone to talk; to conspire. They'd put their heads together, one beautiful, the other ugly, and a shrewd mouth set beneath mismatched eyes would murmur wisdom and counsel and bits of prophecy, contriving plots both ingenious and cunning; plots designed to transform an invading foreigner with a great name into the undisputed ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.
It wasn't that he misliked the dwarf, or the young dragon, for that matter, but it was the content of their whisperings which soured his mood. More than once, as he'd drifted past the pair in the dark, a name had crossed the dwarf's lips, one he knew well. He did not like the intent behind the utterance, the calculation and the covetousness of it. And he did not like the way the dragon's amethyst gaze changed when he heard it, transformed by some mixture of intrigue and desire, a look that reminded him of the sort of hunger which tenses a lion's skin in the moment before he mauls his prey. But there was something else there, flickering in those violet eyes. It was something he reviled, a thing entirely human, and it was that thing which disturbed him most of all.
"Before nightfall, milady," Harwin assured Arya. "The walls of Acorn Hall will be in view by then."
The Cat nodded, her face impassive. Her expression belied her excitement at the Northman's words, for as ashamed as she was to realize it, the prospect of a hot bath and a bed upon which to rest was more welcome to her than any nearly-Faceless assassin should admit.
It had been a long journey and they'd spent more than a fortnight in total weaving a careful path to the Smallwood stronghold. It had been an arduous journey, too, forced as they were to avoid the more hospitable roads so that they might keep their movements undiscovered. Nights were spent in various locations, as opportunity dictated: the odd friendly village, or an abandoned barn, or beneath a canopy of leafless branches in the wilderness. Ser Brynden's guidance had proved invaluable when determining which holdfasts and settlements to avoid, and which to approach with the expectation of safe shelter and discretion. The recent movement of forces from all sides through the land had created a state of shifting loyalties and fears among the smallfolk, so that places once thought secure might no longer be so. Through all this, the heir to Raventree Hall had navigated skillfully. Indeed, he had brought them safely within a day's ride of their destination.
Brynden has proved himself a worthy addition to the company, the girl thought somewhat defiantly. It had been a particular point of contention between herself and Ser Gendry, and they had bickered about it off and on during the whole of the journey. Arya felt a prickle of annoyance as she thought of her most recent exchange with her old friend over the matter, but in truth, she was grateful for it. Their meaningless squabbles were as benign as the arguments she and her brothers used to engage in, just as silly and just as quickly forgotten. Indeed, the minor quarrels between Arya and Gendry provided a welcome distraction to the larger problem looming between them; a problem made plain the night after Ser Brynden had rejoined the party and Gendry had sought out Arya to make his feelings known.
The girl frowned and urged Bane on ahead, putting some distance between herself and the dark knight, who rode just behind Harwin. She found when they were out of proximity, she could more easily avoid inadvertently reading those troublesome feelings. When they were side by side, Gendry's dissatisfaction and yearning tended to worm their way into her head unless the two old friends were otherwise conversing, or japing, or fighting. Sometimes, Arya wanted to scream at the bastard knight, to tell him to please just shut up, but she did not, for how could she explain such an exclamation when it was thrown at a man who had ridden in complete and sullen silence for leagues and leagues and leagues?
Still, Gendry's incessant internal mourning and recrimination exasperated her, as there was no profit in continuing to dwell. But dwell he did, though his thoughts were nothing more than echoes of an argument they had already had.
"You know he wants nothing more than to trap you into a political marriage and leverage your name," the dark knight had seethed by way of greeting as soon as the girl approached her tent, where the blacksmith paced, awaiting her. "He wants to increase his own power!"
The Cat had begged her brother to rescue her from this inevitable confrontation, but the Bear had merely chuckled after reminding her of a Braavosi saying about making beds and lying in them, and then the traitor had walked away, leaving her to her fate.
Arya grimaced. Ser Brynden had been back in their company scarcely more than half a day and that was apparently the limit of Gendry's tolerance. He could not contain his spite one minute longer.
"Good eve to you as well, ser," the Cat said tonelessly, tossing her bedroll into her tent.
"Why?" Gendry continued, ignoring her. "Why would you allow this?"
Arya pressed her balled up fists into her hips and glared up at her old friend. "Are you not my sworn knight?"
"I am." He frowned.
"By what right do you question me?"
Gendry scoffed. "You're either m'lady, or you aren't. You can't just play the part when it suits you!"
His boldness had surprised her. She might have admired it, if it weren't vexing her so right at that moment.
She did not think Ser Gendry would appreciate the irony that he and the man he resented so fiercely had laid the same complaint at her feet within the space of one day: that she wanted to play both monarch and rebel; to spurn leadership and responsibility while demanding loyalty and deference; to be both no one and someone.
They were both wrong, of course.
So wrong, her little voice had agreed.
"Would you rather that I'd slit his throat before the sun rose?" she asked. "I could've, and watched him bleed out in a few blinks of my eye. I'll admit, I considered it, but the ramifications gave me pause."
"I'd rather you would've turned him away. Sent him back to his castle so he could play the lordling with his father and brothers, and leave us be."
"You know what I mean. All of us. We all want to rejoin Lady Sto… your mother, and he has no interest in that. He can only be an impediment."
"What offense has he given you, ser, that you are so disturbed by his mere presence?"
"It's the offense against m'lady that concerns me."
They both kept their voices low, and steady, but Gendry's anger was practically radiating from his skin. His blue eyes pierced her own as he willed Arya to understand; to take his side.
"He's committed no offense," she assured the knight, moving carefully toward him and placing her palm on his forearm in a calming gesture. Gendry would not be soothed. He pulled away from her and turned, gazing out toward where the others were building a fire, his back to Arya.
He heaved a great breath, then said, "Brynden Blackwood would have held you prisoner…"
"Bah!" the Cat snorted. "Prisoner…" The girl sounded derisive, but there was a degree of discomfort in her response. It rankled her to be cast in the role of a Blackwood apologist when she, in fact, had experienced these very same doubts, and even still was wary of the heir to Raventree Hall and his intentions.
"Yes, prisoner, at Lord Harroway's Town. He would have kept you there under guard until his father deigned to send for you. Did you not tell me that you understood these things? That you are no longer a young and naïve girl? That you see men for exactly who they are?"
"Then how do you still fail to understand what a threat the Blackwoods are?"
Arya laughed lightly. "How do you still fail to understand that I cannot be threatened?"
The dark knight spun around quickly, growling at the girl. "You're, what, barely seven stone, in your cloak and boots?"
"I'm more than seven stone," she grumbled under her breath.
"And just how would you resist a company of Blackwood men if Ser Brynden ordered them to take you captive? Would you slaughter them all? Do you sleep with your sword, m'lady?"
"We left him behind for a reason, then I find you two watching the sun rise together, pretty as you please, as if you had never parted company."
"We weren't watching the…"
"So, what was it all for, then? You couldn't wait to get away from that place, and now… you make haste to return!"
"Return where? Raventree Hall?" the girl asked, taken aback by Gendry's steady barrage of disparate complaints.
"I wish you would stop to consider what you do, m'lady, before you make an error you can't recover from and…"
"Enough!" Arya barked. "Ser Gendry, enough!"
The blacksmith-knight drew up short and bit back the last of his words. The Cat stalked toward the ironwood near her tent and leaned against it, arms crossed over her chest, jaw set.
"This unreasonable criticism must stop, ser," the girl finally said. "Ser Brynden is part of this company now, and you must make your peace with it."
Gendry moved toward Arya slowly, his eyes locked with hers. When he was half an arm's length away, he reached out for her, his hands resting on her shoulders, the tips of his fingers digging slightly into the fur of her wide collar.
"M'lady," he murmured, his voice a plea. "Think carefully on this…"
"I have," she assured him, her indignation dampened somewhat by his tone. "I have considered this most carefully, and…"
"And you decided you could not be without him."
She shook her head. "You misunderstand…"
"I don't think I do," Gendry replied grimly.
"Gendry," the girl whispered, reaching out and grasping his jerkin, fisting it with a force that demonstrated her frustration. "Can you not trust that I'm doing what's best?"
"I know you think so, m'lady…"
"Don't call me that," Arya interrupted, but there wasn't much conviction behind the order. She released her grip on Gendry's jerkin and sighed, looking off into the distance.
Gendry's sigh matched her own. His hands dropped away from her. "Have you even asked yourself why he's here?"
"I know why he's here." She sounded tired. "Lord Blackwood charged him with safeguarding me."
"What's convenient about it?"
"It's convenient that he can play the dutiful son and the doting lover all at the same time." His arms crossed themselves over his chest as he spoke. He moved away from her.
The girl turned her gaze to the knight's face and her look was keen. "Wasn't it you who said Ser Bryden had only ever behaved as a true knight? That you had no cause to resent him?"
"That was before."
"Before what?" she demanded.
"Before he showed back up here, chasing after you with some story about his duty! We all know very well why he's here."
A part of Arya burned the lash out, the part of her that remained of the girl who had travelled this road years ago with the very man standing before her, when he himself was a mere boy. That girl wanted to scourge her old friend with her words and her wrath, angry with his stubborn insistence on crossing her. Another part of her, the part that was Faceless and calculating, innately understood what motivated the blacksmith's protests and instantly knew how to use his own inclinations against him. That girl wanted to manipulate her old friend and bend him to her will so artfully that he would believe it had been his intention all along to obey her wishes.
But it was the part of her as she existed at that moment, an amalgamation of all her selves (the wilding of Winterfell, the ghost in Harrenhal, the Cat, and Ned Stark's grey daughter) which spoke next.
"Gendry, this jealousy… it's unbecoming and unnecessary," she assured him, then added, "and frankly, it's annoying."
"What if I am jealous?" he hissed, his control slipping. "I've cause to be, don't you think?"
"No. No, I do not."
If the bastard knight read the warning in his friend's tone, he did not heed it. "You," he breathed, his brow creasing and his eyes hard. He pointed one finger at her. "You did this to me." I tried to ignore it, she heard, but her friend's mouth was fixed and no words passed his lips. She almost looked behind her then, to see who spoke, but then heard, I tried to control it. She knew then it was Gendry's thoughts which whispered to her.
I tried to ignore it. I tried to control it. I tried to ignore it. I tried.
Arya pressed the heels of her hands hard against her temples and squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating on pushing out the dark knight's thoughts. She had her own troubles to consider and his insistence on his own innocence was distracting.
"I did nothing…" was all she managed before he was upon her again, so close their bodies nearly touched. He bent his head down, his heavy breathing stirring the loose hairs which had escaped her braid to tickle her brow. Though he spoke quietly, his hoarse voice carried in it all the ache and want he'd kept pent up inside since Arya Stark had reappeared in his life. Perhaps even from before that time.
"You kissed me."
Arya dug her heels into Bane's sides and the beast picked up his pace to a trot. The girl drew up alongside Brienne. Conversation with the knightly woman would surely distract her from continuing to turn over the memory of her uncomfortable conversation with Gendry yet again.
"My lady," the daughter of Tarth greeted with a stiff nod of her head. Brienne was always so awkwardly proper. It made Arya smile.
"Harwin says we'll see Acorn Hall before the night falls."
"That's welcome news," the woman replied. "The horses could do with some proper care and rest."
Arya again felt ashamed of her earlier thoughts of a comfortable bed. Harwin wished to bring the company safely into the home of an ally. Ser Brynden sought to keep her undiscovered, hidden from her enemies. Gendry had his own private worries, thinking on his impending audience with Lady Stoneheart, where he was like to have to beg for his life. Even Brienne was preoccupied with thoughts concerning the health of their mounts. And here she was, dreaming of a hot bath. Arya frowned.
The Lady of Winterfell, heir to the Winter Throne, she thought, her lip curling in distaste. The titles felt like the gravest of insults. Memories of the ladies at King Robert's court, of the beautiful and cruel Cersei Lannister, pampered and pristine, assaulted her then. When did I get so damnably soft? And selfish?
"I think we shall have to wait on your mother, my lady," Brienne continued. "A raven is like to have made the journey from Raventree Hall to Acorn Hall in two to three days at most, but we have no way to receive ravens at the Hollow Hill. A rider would have to be sent after your mother and the ride back would take, oh, perhaps five days? Six? Still, it shouldn't be too long. A few days."
"My mother," Arya intoned, her eyes going soft. Her hands practically tingled with memory and though she tightened her grip on Bane's reins, she could almost feel Catelyn's soft, auburn curls in the palm of her hand. Instantly, she was four years old, pulled into her mother's lap while in the midst of a fight with Sansa. Her mother was scolding her (always her, never Sansa) but the words floated past her, as meaningless as a half-forgotten lullaby, and she reached for the waves of her mother's unbound tresses. Arya could be rough, even then, but she petted her mother's hair like it was a precious treasure or a mewling kitten: gently, almost reverently, a look of fascination shaping her mouth and smoothing her pinched expression into one of contentment.
The girl had not allowed herself to think too much on Catelyn Stark, or Lady Stoneheart, as she was now known. It was hard for her to reconcile the graceful, shining beauty of her childhood with what little Arya knew of her mother now; her new role as leader of a violent, renegade band of knights and priests and poor, motherless peasants. What would they say to one another, these two Stark women, after all this time? What would her mother think of her, of what she'd become? When Arya tried to imagine it, the image wouldn't come, and instead, she saw herself, fierce but small, sitting quiet and still in her mother's lap, petting at all her shining, auburn hair; the wildling tamed.
The whitebeard says nothing as he scrutinizes the passing troops, but his eyes rove endlessly over their number and it is plain to see that in his mind, he makes every possible calculation regarding this army; the commander in his element. The maimed griffin sits astride his horse, just to Barristan's left and watches as well, though his eyes are steady, fixed on a point, drinking in all the splendor and might as it passes before him. The khaleesi, upright and still on the back of her silver mare, is resplendent in her light armor, sun glinting off the thin chest plate, making a bright star upon her breast. The garb is ceremonial of course, but it signals something all too real: the coming war.
Dragons circle overhead, three of them, their moving shadows painting the various brigades in fleeting shade, each in its turn. First the Unsullied, then battalion after battalion of Dornish spearmen and knights and archers, then the Stormcrows, then the Golden Company. The forces commanded by the Lord of Starfall is still two days' march to the west, and so the new Sword of the Morning does not bear witness to this spectacle.
The king stands apart from the council and its review. He seems deep in thought and has dismounted his sand steed, holding the beast by its reins, staring toward the horizon, in the direction of the Reach. While the others look to the army, assessing and appraising, the king looks to the future.
Daario Naharis is also gazing out, looking northward, his borrowed skin bristling with impatience. He has spent enough time with the Council of Dragons to know that they have the numbers and the will. They have not one, but two fit rulers, ready to be installed on that jagged hunk of iron that sits rusting in the Red Keep. They have the more skilled army, fit and fed; largely battle tested; eager. They have martyrs whose memories they can rally behind and avenge (martyrs with names like Elia, Rhaenys, Oberyn, and Rhaegar. Should the need arise, they can add Ned Stark, his son Robb and even his wife to the list, for their names are the currency needed to buy the allegiances of certain great houses).
And, they have dragons, terrifying creatures who breathe fiery death and once were thought gone from the world forever.
Their victory is assured, yet they must still attain it. They must win their war before they can move on from it. Highgarden must bend the knee and join to their cause, or be reduced to ash. King's Landing must fall. They must secure the Riverlands, subdue the Westerlands, and prevail upon the Eyrie to unite under their banner. All of this they must achieve before they can move north.
And north is where the Tyroshi most desires to go.
"Captain Naharis," the king calls and the leader of the Stormcrows turns his mount and approaches the Targaryen, sliding off to join his majesty on the ground.
"My King," the sellsword says, and there is enough practiced deference in the bowing of his head to satisfy the young monarch but enough impertinence in his tone to serve as a reminder that he is, in fact, the khaleesi's man, first and foremost.
(The crown is Aegon's by right of birth, but there are some among the unified factions who believe Daenerys should rule. She is, after all, the mother of dragons. For now, though, an uneasy peace exists between the two Targaryens, one that could easily be solidified by a marriage, as Jon Connington is always quick to remind the young king.)
"After years of moving so swiftly across Essos in the company of my few loyal friends, I have grown used to rapid travel," Aegon laments. "I find the army's pace difficult to endure."
The king smiles and the sight is radiant; alabaster in the sun. It is nearly blinding. The Tyroshi thinks this must be the mark of his father, the famed Prince of Dragonstone, for there is little of his mother in his look. The captain has spent time among the people of Sunspear and has dined with Oberyn Martell's daughters as well as the only daughter of Prince Doran. These women are so alike in many ways, dark of hair, dark of skin, with eyes like warm almonds and a sort of clever adaptability that serves them well, both amongst enemies and friends, that he has to imagine they are each something of a reflection of their departed aunt. Yet Daario can see none of that in Aegon, with his silver hair and violet eyes and forthright manner.
"For an army of this size, and considering the terrain, the pace is excellent, your grace," the captain replies.
"Still, I think you are nearly as impatient as I," the king counters, looking expectantly at the sellsword. "You long to be at it already. I can sense that much."
"You speak truly, my king."
"And what is it about war which draws you? The feel of a sword in your hand? The heat of battle? Valor and glory? Or is it the spoils of war you crave?"
Daario follows the king's gaze to where it has come to rest: on Daenerys Targaryen's profile.
"It's none of that, your grace. It's what comes after that calls to me."
"Oh?" The king's tone is one of surprise. "You are a stranger in this land, are you not, captain?"
"So tell me, then, what awaits you at the end of this war?"
The Tyroshi's gaze turns northward once again and he thinks a moment before he answers.
"My reason," he finally says. The king's brow creases and he tilts his head slightly, trying to unravel the mystery of the sellsword's response. He laughs a little, his bewilderment evident in the sound of it.
"Your reason? Your reason for what?"
The captain turns his false eyes on the silver king and regards him coolly before he speaks again.
"Did you leave your blades back in the village?" the Rat asked his sister as they rode together at the rear of the company. Arya had dropped back so that she might have time to think without being disturbed. Memories of her mother dueled with her worries and anticipation about their impending reunion and she needed quiet to sort them out. The Rat did not seem inclined to give it to her.
"What? What are you talking about?" she asked the assassin testily.
"I'm just trying to figure out why you haven't put that bastard out of his misery," the Rat replied. "You could easily slip upon him while he sleeps and open his neck, quick and clean."
"Talk sense, you idiot!" the Cat growled.
"If you left your blades, I could loan you one. Just clean it before you return it."
"I'm not murdering Gendry in his sleep, you stupid sot."
"Well, you'd better do something, or I will. I can't stand another day of this. It's not even fun to ridicule him anymore."
"Why must you be so…" The girl's voice trailed off and she glared at her brother in frustration.
"Probably for the same reason you have to be the source of tension and discord everywhere you go. It's just the way I'm made."
"If you're not careful, it'll be you whose neck I open while you sleep."
The false squire laughed. "What, and take another person away from our brother? Haven't you caused him enough grief?"
The words stung her but she bit back her surprise and instead showed her ire. Arya glared at the Rat and the Westerosi assassin's look was one of triumph. He gave his sister a half-smirk and then rode on ahead, leaving her to her disturbed thoughts.
"Stupid," she grumbled, but images of Olive's dead eyes glittering in the dim light of her chamber rushed in and Arya gritted her teeth. Her mind snatched at anything to distract her from the wave of dread and guilt that washed over her then, and she thought of what her brother had said about putting Gendry out of his misery.
Didn't I try? she thought to herself, and she had. She had done her best to talk him out of his insupportable longing. He wouldn't allow it. He chooses to feel the way he does. It's not my fault.
"You kissed me," the blacksmith-knight had said to her when they argued by her tent that first night after Brynden's return. Arya could see that they were attracting attention. In her peripheral vision, she saw Harwin and Ser Brynden, some ten yards away, look up from the campfire and gaze over at the two old friends.
"And you understand very well why I did it, don't pretend you don't!" the girl huffed. Honestly, was she to be punished every time she tried to do something nice?
"I guess I don't understand so very well as you seem to think I do," he had said bitterly. "Remember, I started out as a nameless, Flea Bottom bastard and my early days were taken up with learning how not to starve."
"So?" Hadn't they all starved? Hadn't she gone days with only the meager meat she could pick from a scrawny pigeon's bones? Eaten acorn paste? Starved long enough that her ribs and hip bones poked through her skin at ugly angles? Hadn't he just accused her of being barely seven stone? "What's your point?"
"I've had less time for practicing the games you highborn folk like to play. You are necessarily better at them."
"I wasn't playing a game, Gendry. I was doing a kindness."
"It was no kindness, m'lady," he laughed acidly. "Believe me."
She pushed against his chest, moving him back a step so she could look up at his face. Her eyes were pleading.
"You were sad," she tried. At her small push, Ser Brynden had risen and taken three steady steps toward them, ready to intervene if required.
"I was sad?" Gendry whispered.
"I'm still sad." His words cut her to the quick.
"Why is my friendship not enough?"
"Because you kissed me."
Arya slipped away from him, walking away from the camp. Gendry followed. The night was creeping in on them and Arya moved in and through the grey that existed between firs and oaks, over uneven ground and further away from the fire that was licking up higher in the center of the camp. She almost seemed to drift over the fallen leaves and dried twigs, so silent was her step. Gendry's heavy boots thudded behind her, scattering leaves and snapping branches, creating signs even the most amateur of trackers could follow.
"M'lady," he called softly, then, when she did not even slow her step, "Arya!"
The girl stopped and seemed to straighten a bit before turning to face him.
"Do you know why I've brought you here, ser?"
The knight made her no answer, only staring grimly at her placid expression.
"We are far from camp now, Ser Gendry. There is no one to castigate or censure you. You will not be judged or expected to adhere to your knightly code. This is your chance."
"Say what you need to, and let's be done with this."
The blacksmith laughed. "You brought me here so I could yell at you away from the prying eyes of knights and lords?"
And assassins pledged to the care of my person, she thought, but did not say.
"You awaited me at my tent…"
"After I raised it for you," he groused.
"…so you seem to have a great need to talk. Well, here we are." She threw her arms out wide, palms turned up, indicating how very secluded they were. "Talk."
The large man regarded the girl and hesitated.
The company was so weary of their travel that no one objected when Harwin suggested they ride on rather than stop for a midday meal. An hour before the sun was to set, they spotted the walls of Acorn Hall high upon a hill to the west. The path to the gate was not so difficult, but in places, the drop from the outer edge was steep and dangerous, so they proceeded with an abundance of caution in the waning light. The night air had chilled Arya's ears and she pulled up her hood to warm them a bit.
The guard from the gate tower called down a challenge when they reached the walls, and Ser Brynden answered. He added, "You'll have had a raven from your lady advising you of our impending arrival."
Only moments later, the gates swung open, and as the band rode through, they saw Theomar Smallwood standing in the center of the Bailey yard, flanked by two others. One was a bent, gaunt ghost of a man, with an expression that carried all the worries of the world upon it. Though he was much changed, Arya instantly recognized him as Thoros of Myr, the renegade and reformed priest of R'hllor. The other man was tall, well-featured, and golden, from his head to his toe. Gold of hair, with a well-trimmed golden beard, wearing golden armor. Even his hand was golden, gleaming in the torchlight illuminating the yard. Arya knew him as well, though his look was changed enough that she wondered if she could be mistaken. It wasn't that he was terribly aged or disfigured or made humble. On the contrary, the man who lived in her memory had not this man's air of nobility.
"Ser Jaime!" Brienne cried in surprise, dismounting and walking quickly toward the golden man. "How is it you are here?"
"My lady," Jaime Lannister greeted with a bow and a mischievous twist of his lips. Now that was more like the man Arya remembered. "The entire brotherhood heeded Lady Smallwood's summons."
"The entire brotherhood?" Brienne repeated, confused, looking around. "Did you arrive ahead of them?"
"No, we rode out at strength, and made haste for the castle."
The knightly woman was clearly befuddled. "But… how? How did you know? Surely you could not have gotten word from Raventree Hall so quickly…"
"No, indeed, Lady Brienne," the Kingslayer agreed. "It seems our lady had her invitation delivered early."
Our lady, Arya repeated in her head. He means my mother!
"How's that?" Brienne asked.
"She had it from a certain direwolf, my lady, and had us set out almost instantly. When we met the rider from Acorn Hall on the road, we were already halfway here."
Nymeria! Arya thought, realizing the wolf had somehow gotten to her mother and worried her into following, convincing her to leave the Hollow Hill and set out for Acorn Hall. Clever girl.
"She followed the wolf?" Brienne asked, incredulous.
"It was either that or live with the constant howling and whining," Thoros interjected, spitting in disgust. "The noise! It echoes terribly under the hill. We would have had no peace had we not followed."
"A direwolf is not to be trifled with," Ser Gendry replied, hopping off his horse and approaching Thoros. The men clasped hands in greeting.
"It's good to see you boy. I hope you've got a ready excuse for our lady, though. She was not pleased to find you gone, nor the wolf pack with you."
"Yes, it's good to see you," Ser Jaime echoed, a smirk appearing on his face. "Our company has suffered a woeful lack of bastards since you deserted."
The blacksmith-knight ought to have known not to get pulled into an argument with the Kingslayer, but he had too much of his father's rashness in him to resist the bait.
"Well, it seems the company profited from an excess of pompous asses in my absence," the large man retorted. "And I didn't desert!" Arya was alarmed by Gendry's tone and worried his might try to strike Ser Jaime. Such an offense in the presence of their host was not like to be forgiven so easily. She jumped from Bane's back and approached the men cautiously, thinking to pull her old friend back and prevent a breach of etiquette which might complicate their stay.
"No? Well, what else do you call it when you abscond in the dead of night, forgoing your duty without the leave of your betters?"
"I always intended to come back!"
"And aren't we all the lucky beneficiaries of your good intentions?" Ser Jaime's words dripped with scorn.
"Ser Jaime," Brienne warned under her breath. Gendry glared and opened his mouth to argue further, but Arya stepped in then, sliding in front of the dark knight and addressing herself to the master of Acorn Hall.
"Lord Smallwood," the girl began, pushing her hood away from her face and allowing it to fall down her back. "We are most grateful for your friendship and hospitality."
Ser Jaime's exclamation interrupted them before Theomar could make a reply.
"Great gods!" he cried. "You really are her absolute reflection! I can scarcely believe it." Jaime took a step, staring, scrutinizing Arya's features in fascination.
Lord Smallwood gave the golden knight a sharp look, then turned his attention to the girl before him, reaching for her hand and bowing to place a kiss upon it.
"You honor me with your presence behind my walls, Lady Arya," the man said. "Please, eat of my bread and salt, and be safe under my roof."
The master of Acorn Hall waved a servant over with a platter of black bread and coarse salt. The food was passed around until the ritual was complete.
"I know I'm a poor substitute for my wife, my lady, but circumstances dictated that I leave Ravella at Raventree Hall while I made haste back here to gather my levies for the march to Riverrun," Lord Smallwood explained as he took Arya aside. "I hope you are not too discomfited by her absence."
"Not at all, my lord," the girl assured her host. "I knew Lady Smallwood would not be here to greet us when we arrived. Indeed, I am greatly surprised to find you here. I was led to believe we would be in the charge of your maester and steward. But then, I had not considered the necessity for you to be here to gather your men. How long until you make for Riverrun?"
"Oh, not long now," Theomar replied distractedly. He changed the subject almost immediately. "Please, allow my servants to tend to you and your men and horses. I know it was a difficult journey."
"If it please you, Lord Smallwood, I would very much like to see my mother."
"Yes. Yes, my lady, I understand, but she prays in the sept just now and has asked not to be disturbed. Please, take your refreshment and rest now. You will see her soon enough."
Ser Gendry insisted on carrying Arya's saddle bags to her room for her, and she allowed it, waving away both a servant and Ser Willem when they stepped in to help.
"Thank you, m'lady," the dark knight mumbled as they followed a servant to the room set aside for the Lady of Winterfell.
"You wish to discuss my mother," the girl said, matter-of-factly.
"Be easy, ser, I will vouch for you."
"Thank you, m'lady, but I meant to say that I would prefer you didn't."
The girl frowned and looked at her old friend. "Why ever not?"
"It's just… It's been so long since you've seen her, and she is… much changed. I do not like to think of you going to any trouble on my behalf, when you must be feeling…"
"It's no trouble, Ser Gendry, and you cannot expect me to allow you to suffer any ill consequences over this minor infraction when your intentions were good. And when you brought my Nymeria to me."
"It's more like Nymeria brought me to you than the other way around," he chuckled. "Still, I believe our lady will judge me fair. I'm not worried."
Liar, she thought, but did not say.
"Be that as it may," the girl replied, "I have a mind to say something about this, and so I shall." She tried to sound as imperious and commanding as she could, to lay the matter to rest. Gendry was not so easily led, however.
"M'lady, I mean no offense…"
"Then stop calling me m'lady," Arya suggested.
"…but I'm able to see to myself. I don't need your… interference, however well-intended."
I shall never need your rescue, ser. The memory of her words to Ser Brynden echoed in her head. Well, Gendry sounds even more pompous than I did, she decided.
"Do you worry I'll think less of you? That I'll find you weak?" she asked gently and the knight gave her a sharp look. She wondered perhaps if she had been a bit too exact in her voicing of Gendry's thoughts just then. I must remember to change the phrasing more, she admonished herself. Else he'll start to suspect. "You must allow me to do what I can without this needless protest," she continued quickly. "We are friends, are we not?"
"Friends," he repeated dubiously.
She ignored his tone. "Good. It's settled."
They had arrived at the door to her chamber. Gendry handed her things to the servant and bowed to Arya. Wordlessly, he turned and left, and the girl knew that things between them were anything but settled.
"Well," Arya had said once they had walked some distance from the camp and the curious eyes therein, "here we are. Talk."
The bastard knight hesitated, but only for a moment.
"You must understand, m'lady…"
He had paused a beat then and the Cat grew impatient.
"Must I?" she asked shortly. Her words spurred the large man on.
"I dreamed of you, when you were away."
"So you've said, ser."
"That is to say… You've been much on my mind and… I've thought of you, long before I was even certain you still lived. I dreamed of you."
"Yes. I know."
"Well, what, ser?"
"Well, it must… It must mean something." He seemed uncertain. "Mustn't it?"
"It means you had too much wine that night. Or too little. I'm not sure which."
"No!" Gendry insisted. "You were in my dreams, and it was as if I could feel you there, like you were truly there. And sometimes, even when I wasn't dreaming…"
"I assure you, ser, until very recently, I was in Braavos."
"No, I know, but…"
"But you were here. I don't know how; I can't pretend to understand all these things. I know you were in Braavos, but you were here, too. The ghost of High Heart tried to tell me, but I was too stupid to see it then. I see it now, though. I feel it now. I know what I say is right. And what's more, you know it too." His gaze bored into her. She knew he wanted her to acknowledge the truth of what he was saying.
Instead, she laughed, a rich, throaty sound. It was the sort of laugh that would have infuriated her handsome master, or Jaqen, if she were laughing at them, and might have even bought her a bruise or three, but Gendry seemed only to grow more stubborn at the sound of it.
"Is this what you wished to tell me, ser? That you dreamt of me, and that dream felt real to you?"
"I dreamt of the Winter's Queen, m'lady, veiled in the northern snows, and at her side, a great wolf stood," he explained. "It was you. And here you are now, as much a queen as anything I ever dreamed. And you kissed me, and that was no dream. It happened, and you can deny it no more than you can deny you stand before me now. So how can you expect me to feel as if nothing has changed? As if I hadn't had my free will torn from me, and my… my heart claimed…"
"Bah!" the girl scoffed. "Claimed…"
"Yes! Taken from me by force! I never consented to it!"
"Am I a such a scoundrel, ser? Am I a thief?"
"No," Gendry replied, his brow creased and his eyes as beseeching as his voice then. "No, I do not make such a charge, but you asked me why your friendship isn't enough."
"And your answer is that I stole your free will."
"Yes," he agreed sadly, "for I ask you, how could I ever settle for friendship when I have felt the lips of the Winter's Queen on mine?"
Winter's Queen. The very idea was preposterous. She had wanted to laugh. As if there were such a person; as if she could ever be such a person. He must be mad, to say such a thing; to even think it! Only the look on his face as he spoke kept her in check; kept her from dissolving into fits of laughter. Arya stared at the blacksmith-knight, at his painfully sincere eyes, bright and blue and begging. It was as if he were speaking a foreign language she had not studied. His words made no sense to her.
"I am as you see before you," the girl finally said, palms turned up. "Look well, ser. I have no crown, and no aspirations to one. No veil of snow. No enviable graces or manners. I didn't step out of a song about ladies and knights and love. I didn't enter this world through your dream of me. This white flesh is cloaked in blood and pain, not cloth of silver or stars or whatever ridiculous image you have stuck in your head. My palms are calloused and my heart is hardened with more scars than I can count any longer. This is me, as I am, and you would be better served to forget your dream, for all our sakes."
She had walked away then, leaving Gendry to his contemplations, hoping he would find his peace with the truth. They had not spoken directly of the matter since, but the tension which existed between them over the rest of their journey made it obvious that for Gendry, there was little peace to be had.
And because he was unsettled, so she remained as well.
The sept at Acorn Hall was not a separate structure as it was at Winterfell, but rather a chamber set apart on the lowest level of the castle, quiet and out of the way where a devotee would trouble no one, and in turn, be troubled by no one. Ravella Smallwood often fled to the small temple to seek solace and pray for her lost daughter, lighting candles and weeping at the foot of the Maiden and of the Mother. The Cat had gleaned this information from the maid who brought her tray that evening then helped her with her bath and dressing. After she sent the woman away, the girl decided she would seek out the sept, and her mother, if Catelyn remained there, disregarding her host's warning that Lady Stoneheart wished to be left alone with only the gods for company.
Silent as a shadow, Arya crept down stone stairways and along empty corridors, searching for the chamber. When she happened upon a heavy wooden door carved with a seven pointed star, she knew she had the place. She drew in one great breath, then pushed into the cell.
The room was gloomy, lit only by a few dwindling tapers. Tapestries faded with age hung the walls, one for each of the seven, embroidered with their likenesses. The work was fine, and very old. Directly opposite the door, across the chamber, was a stone dais, raised perhaps two feet above the floor, with a step placed to make ascending in heavy skirts more practical. In the center of the dais was a kneeler, facing an alcove built into the far wall which served as an altar.
A hooded figure prayed at the kneeler, grey robes fanning out and draping the floor of the dais. At the sound of the door creaking open, the figure straightened, then rose, slowly turning to face the intruder.
The Cat stilled, staring at the woman whose face was too shrouded for her to be sure of the features. The girl took one hesitant step forward, then another, straining to see some sign that this was the one she sought. The build was right, but of more than that, the girl could not be certain. The woman raised her hand to her neck and clutched. The girl mistook the gesture for one of distress and strode forward to help however she could. She was stopped by a single word.
"Arya," the woman croaked, her thin, white fingers curling around her own throat like a necklace made of bleached bones.
The girl gasped, unable to speak. The word mother caught in her throat and she could not force it out, no matter how she longed to. She stood motionless for a time, she knew not how long, ten seconds or ten years. Everything felt still and quiet all around her, as if the very air had frozen solid and she could not move through it. Fixed in her place, Arya's ears rang and her insides trembled. She forgot to breathe entirely, until she was near a faint. Wildly, she wondered if she were caught in a dream, or a trance, or some similarly ephemeral imagining.
The girl stared and stared into the darkness beneath the woman's hood and watched as the frail hand dropped away from the unnaturally pale neck and stretched forth, beckoning. It was then the spell was broken, all in a rush, and Arya ran, stumbling over the loose stones in the floor, falling onto her knees and bruising them through her breeches. She was up again in half a second, crying and running, leaping over the step onto the dais, reaching and reaching until she felt her, her arms clasped desperately around her mother as if she were afraid the woman was made of mist and would float away from her at any moment.
Arya laid her cheek against her mother's breast, not feeling how doughy and wrong it was, looking through her tears at the hair which trailed down from Catelyn's head and over her shoulders, laying limp against her robes. The girl reached out and took the brittle, white strands in her one hand, petting at them haltingly; softly. Stroking them like they were still the shining, red waves she remembered from so long ago; from another lifetime entirely.
"Mother," she finally whispered, barely able to form words. "Oh, Mother! I've come. I've come. How I've wanted you. I've wanted you for so long. I've come!" Her words became incoherent among her choking sobs.
"My… child…" Lady Stoneheart rasped, digging her long, sharp fingers into Arya's flesh. She pressed one ruined cheek to the top of her daughter's head. "My… dark… child."