I want you, and I always will.
Pacing, pacing, pacing.
The dried needles of sentinel pines rustled under her paws, some sticky with sap, clinging to the fur of her forefeet. Her cousins hunted, but she paced, restless, agitated, unsure.
That was the girl in her.
The wolf did not question. The wolf did not doubt. The girl brought those things with her, even though she had sought to escape them. Wasn't that why she ran with the wolves this night? To leave uncertainty behind? To abandon her confusion? To escape her grief?
The wolf growled.
That belonged to both the girl and the wolf. To grieve for more than a moment was a waste. To ponder, to agonize, to ruminate, all a waste. The only memory which deserved to live on was one which served as a lesson. All else was mist; wind; an illusory reminiscence without purpose. Wolves were not so self-indulgent. A wolf did not need to reflect to know her mind. When the moon was high, there was but one imperative, and it had naught to do with turmoil.
The wolf did not have the words, but the desire was there, easy enough to read; to feel. Mouth slavering. Teeth bared and bluish white in the moonlight. Pacing. Pacing. Her cousins howled, not a quarter of a league away. They had found quarry and called to her.
Something else called to the girl; something entirely different.
One which may or may not have served as a useful lesson.
"Family," Catelyn had said, fingers of one hand clutched over the wound in her neck as her voice wheezed up from her chest, strained and painful, "must be avenged." Her other hand raked through Arya's hair, fingers pulling and digging, the gesture almost a mockery of affection. All of Lady Stoneheart's tenderness was long dead, buried and decayed.
Hunt, the wolf insisted, snout pointed in the air, searching for the scent of blood and meat.
"I cannot," was the girl's answer, and so she left the wolf out of kindness, out of mercy, and flew away, across the wood, over the high walls of the small castle, and back into herself, thrashing in her sleep.
And instantly, what she had sought to escape came back to her. Stung, she cried out.
It had been so very cold, a chill unlike any she had felt before. She had never been so cold, not in her whole life.
Not when she had run barefoot in the summer snows of the wolfswood in her youth.
Not when she had ruined her slippers and hem with mud in Winterfell's godswood and Septa Mordane had forced her into an icy bath, both to clean her and to punish her; to chastise her for her unruly and disobedient behavior.
Not during the winter storms that tossed Titan's Daughter as she crossed the sea to Westeros, standing on the deck to watch the skies rage, soaked through with the rains and the salt foam tossed over her feet and splashed up onto her face. The water was so frigid, her brother swore her lips were purpled and stayed that way for an hour after he'd wrapped her tight in a fur and held her against his chest, to warm her with his body.
So cold, and dark, too, the darkness pressing against her, hard. The thoughts were heavy, and sharp, and abrupt, falling upon her like stones, like boulders; an avalanche. The thoughts were thick, and raw, ghastly, and they wormed their way inside, like a malicious spirit, a choking fume; like an insidious disease, wrapping around her very bones, chewing away at them. She could feel herself dissolving. She was frightened, this girl who was never frightened; scared she would be crushed under the weight of it all; scared she would be frozen solid by the cold of it all. Scared she was dying of it all as the darkness seeped into her veins, an invisible poison corroding her from the inside out.
She thought she knew hate, the shape of it; the feel of it; its weight. She thought she knew what it was to live enveloped in it, for the hate to embrace her, and she it, clinging one to the other, like desperate lovers. She thought she knew malevolence and venom and abhorrence. She thought she understood what it meant to be consumed by it all. Then, in an instant, her eyes were opened, and she knew the truth.
She had understood nothing.
For love still lived in Arya's heart, and it had molded her, chiseled her. It had made her, perhaps much more than she had ever realized. She had been shaped by her hurts, yes, but more than that, she had been built by her love.
Love for family.
The memory of love, the shape and feel and weight of it, existed alongside her hatred, and despite her desire for vengeance, despite her loathing for those who had harmed her, she was not frozen by her hate. She was not weighed down and crushed by it. Her mind was not constrained by it, her heart was not gripped by it, not completely. She could still breathe. She could still laugh. She could still love.
So much. So very, very much.
If hatred was a cold, hard, strangling weight, then love was a warm fur and the embrace of her brother when the winter storm had drained the blood from her lips; love was Nymeria's nuzzle against her side after Septa Mordane's icy bath; love was Jon, carrying her on his back so that she would not freeze her toes when she had carelessly lost her shoes in the snows of the wolfswood.
Love was Jaqen's nose softly tracing the shape of her ear, and his bronze gaze locking with her own grey eyes, and a whispered vow.
"By all the gods, I am yours, and ever will be, come what may."
She had only been in her mother's head for a moment, for the smallest flicker of time, for the space of a breath, and in that briefest of instants, she had thought she was dying.
She had been certain of it.
And that was how she came to understand what it was to live completely in hate; to go on living, somehow, after all the love had been bled out of you.
She felt as though an icy hand had been plunged into her chest, its stabbing fingers wrapped around her heart and squeezing tight. Her mind had retreated immediately, instinctively, her feet following, and she stumbled, and gasped, clawing at her throat as though she were suffocating. She wondered wildly if she had been poisoned as her vision blurred. She reached out, grabbing desperately for something to steady herself, finding the back of her mother's chair. She braced her hand against it, sucking in the air in great gulps. Her mother had watched her, unmoving, and unmoved, and it had been Ser Jaime, of all people, who had rushed to her, steadied her, and helped her out of the hall.
She had turned as she stepped through the doors and into the antechamber, and she looked. Her mother stood before the muttering assemblage, ready to pass judgement. The hood of her mother's rough spun robes hid her ruined face in shadow, and before the doors closed and blocked the scene from her sight, she saw her mother lift her head and look toward her. As with the night before when she had found her Catelyn in the sept, Arya could not make out any of her mother's features beneath that hood, but she knew that Tully blue eyes were staring into her own.
And an echo of that icy grip around the girl's heart nearly felled her, then and there.
The Bear's warm palm stoked Arya's cheek gently and she cracked one eye and looked at him. A single taper glowed on the table near her bed. A glance at the window told her it was full dark outside.
"What time is it?" she croaked.
"Nearly time for supper," her brother said. "You slept the day away."
The girl groaned and sat up. Her head ached and her mouth was dry. "Water?" she rasped. The Lyseni assassin rose from the edge of the girl's bed and found the small pitcher Arya's chambermaid had thoughtfully left, along with a goblet, and poured. He wordlessly held the cup out for her and she took it, drinking deep and then wiping her mouth with her shirt cuff.
"Better?" he asked, sitting once again. He rubbed her arm, warming her with the heat of his hand and she nodded, grounded by the feeling of her brother's touch.
"What was the dream about?"
Arya's eyes narrowed. "How did you know…"
The Bear laughed. "Please. Anyone within thirty yards of this room would know. You were screaming like you were in pain."
Pain. Yes, it had been painful.
"I was very…" She paused, trying to think of the right way to explain it. Finally, she shrugged, saying, "Cold."
"Since when is the Queen of Winter afraid of the cold?"
Arya's eyes went wide and her mouth opened. Her brother guffawed at that.
"You aren't the only one with a light step, my lady," he murmured then, smiling good-naturedly.
"At the inn, in the forge… You were eavesdropping on my conversation with Gendry?"
"No, I was watching your back. You're welcome, by the way. And if I happened to overhear some things, well…"
The girl balled up her fist and punched her brother in the arm.
"Ow!" her friend protested. "What was that for?"
"For being sneaky!" she cried. "And for thinking I needed your protection. From Gendry!"
"Well, to be fair, I didn't know him at all then."
"No, but you know me." Her meaning was clear. It bothered her that her brother would question her ability to look after herself.
"And you know me," the Bear said. He reached out and grasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger, pulling her face forward and pressing a firm kiss on her forehead. "So, you should know that despite your protests, I will always look out for you."
The girl grunted at that, but her mouth curved into a smile despite herself and she said, "Well… even if I don't need your protection, I'm glad the order sent you along with me."
"It's the one thing we should thank them for, I suppose."
"Well, that, and they taught you to change your face," the Cat added, thoughtful.
The Bear shook his head. "The price, though…"
"Of course," Arya whispered, reaching out for her brother's hand. "Of course." Her brother squeezed her offered hand and studied her face for a moment.
"If they hadn't sent me, I would have come anyway."
Arya nodded, saying, "I know." They both drifted in their shared memories, thinking of the things which had brought them to this place, and the girl had to admit to herself that though she often objected to the idea that she ever needed anyone's rescue or assistance, it was certainly comforting to have her brother with her in Westeros.
It was nice not to be all alone.
"The lone wolf dies," she murmured.
"When the cold winds blow…" Her voice trailed off as she thought of the winds of winter. Even they could not be as cold as what she found in her mother's head (in her mother's heart) that morning.
"When the cold winds blow?" the Bear prompted.
Arya took a deep breath in and shook her head slightly, pushing away errant thoughts.
"When the cold winds blow, the lone wolf dies," she continued, "but the pack survives. My father said that to me, when I was a child."
The Bear laughed, saying, "You're still a child, sweetling."
He had meant to rile her, his tone teasing, but Arya's reply was more sad than irritated.
"No. No, I'm not."
The Lyseni assassin smiled and patted his sister's leg before rising from her bedside. He bade her make herself ready for the supper, but she grabbed at his hand, ignoring his instruction.
"You are my pack, brother," she told him. "Never forget it."
The Bear left his sister to dress and instantly, the chambermaid appeared, ready to assist. Arya wondered at the look she saw on the servant's face as the large assassin passed her in the doorway. For that matter, why had her brother smiled his most charming smile at the maid?
And was she… could she actually be… blushing?
The Cat's eyes narrowed.
"Ser Willem is a handsome man," Arya said later, her voice almost contemplative as the maid braided and pinned her hair.
"Oh, yes, milady! So very handsome." The maid started to giggle, then stopped herself abruptly. "Beg your pardon, milady."
The girl resolved to question her brother when next they were alone. When had he even had time to…
A knock at her door disturbed her thoughts. She invited the visitor to enter.
"Lady Arya," Ser Brynden greeted warmly, sticking his head through the door. "I've come to escort you to supper, if I may."
"Certainly, my lord, if you wish it. We're all finished here."
"But milady," the maid protested in a squeak, "I've not put any ornaments in your hair and…"
"Lady Arya needs no adornment," replied the heir to Raventree Hall softly, smiling at the women. "Though perhaps a dab of scent?"
The maid scrambled to find the small bottle of perfumed oil Bethany Blackwood had gifted Arya, but the girl waved her off, not wishing for cloves and ginger and memories of the spicy scents of Braavos (the spicy scent of her master's skin, and his hair, and his breath) to cloud her mind. There was enough there to cloud it already.
"Well, you can't blame a man for trying," the knight said, offering Arya his arm. "Though I am sorry to hear you're off it now."
The girl took the proffered arm as Brynden made a slight bow to her.
"Off the scent? No, Ser Brynden, that's not it," she assured him. "It's dearer to me than ever. I just… like to save it." The two strolled down the corridor together, arm in arm.
"My lady, if you desire it, I shall have a hundred bottles sent to you."
She laughed. "Shall we pull it in a wagon train behind us, all the way to Riverrun, and beyond?"
"I don't understand…"
"Well, the banners have been called. Aren't all the Riverlords to make for Riverrun? And soon?"
"Certainly, my lady, but you are not a Riverlord."
"No, but I'm in the company of a great many of them these days. And Riverrun is on the way to Winterfell."
Brynden looked into Arya's eyes. "You're to stay here, at Acorn Hall." He spoke as though he were disabusing a young child of some fanciful notion or another. "Lord Smallwood will lead his levies to Riverrun, and my father will lead those banners pledged to my house. Lady Smallwood will be returning soon, and she'll be only too happy to host you here, for as long as need be."
Arya betrayed no feeling about this plan and simply asked, "And you?"
"I will stay with you."
"You're not going?"
"It is my father's wish that I not."
"My purpose has not changed, my lady. My father commanded me to protect you. We feel that while the armies gather, it is safest to keep you here."
"Well, Lord Smallwood, my father, and I. And Lord Vance."
"Lord Vance? When did you discuss this with… Oh, never mind." She was becoming exasperated. "So, I'm to be hidden away?"
"You're to be protected, Lady Arya, not hidden away."
"Is there a difference?"
He ignored her and continued his explanation. "Until any troops whose loyalties cannot be relied upon have passed through, and it's safe to travel once again, the best way to guarantee your security is for you to stay put!"
Arya nodded, the picture of good judgment and acquiescence. "Yes, very sensible, Ser Brynden. I understand. Care and caution."
"I'm glad you see it," the knight replied, his surprise evident in his voice.
"There is a problem with this plan, however."
"Oh? And what is that?"
"Well, my mother has other plans that don't involve me staying put."
"Your moth…" Brynden stopped himself, and sighed. Clearing his throat, he seemed to consider his words carefully before speaking, then said, "With all due respect, my lady, your mother is no more a Riverlord than you."
"She's a Tully of Riverrun," the girl reminded her companion.
Brynden stopped walking then and looked down at Arya, his expression pained. She could tell he wished to disagree, but instead said, "Be that as it may, it is a Frey banner which flies over Riverrun now, even if it is ultimately under Lannister control. And should a Tully be restored to that seat once again, it is your Uncle Edmure who has the rights to Riverrun, not your mother."
"My Uncle Edmure is a prisoner, or so I've been told."
"True enough, but your mother is…" His voice trailed off. Arya looked at Brynden expectantly. "A renegade," he finally finished. "An outlaw."
She was certain he had been about to say something else and then changed his mind.
"Surely the Riverlords have no problem with that. Not when she eliminates their enemies for them."
"Perhaps not, but her aims are… different than ours."
"Well, they're not different than mine."
"Even after the sentence today? Aren't you the least alarmed for your friend?"
The girl pulled away from her companion, taking a step backward and looking at Ser Brynden in confusion. Her mind raced.
The sentence. Arya had convinced herself that in the end, her words would be enough to save Gendry from any real harm, but then, she'd been so… overwhelmed by what she'd found in her mother's mind… by what she'd been made to feel… And then she'd slept, like someone who'd been given sweetsleep or dreamwine. And perhaps she had been. Had she had anything to drink before she'd been delivered to her chamber by Ser Jaime and Lady Brienne? She was finding it hard to recall. Ale, perhaps? The girl thought back to the trial.
Though initially surprised at the formality of the proceeding, it had progressed as would be expected for such a thing. Members of the Brotherhood were called upon to testify, though they mostly seemed to speak reluctantly, and attempted to temper their words for the sake of their brother.
Arya was left with the impression that Gendry was generally well-liked among the company.
"Aye, I took three extra watches, but I didn't mind much," was Jack-be-lucky's contribution.
"We were glad of his help at the inn, working the forge and training the orphans," Harwin added. "And the little lady was glad to see her wolf again, I can tell you that!"
(Arya had nodded in agreement at that when several heads turned to look at her).
"Our journey was made safer for having him along," Brienne had said. "My lady knows very well how treacherous these roads are now."
When it came to Gendry's turn to vouch for himself, he spoke simply.
"I abandoned my post without your leave, I'll not deny it," he had said to Lady Stoneheart as he stood from his seat between Harwin and Thoros. "I followed Nymeria, same as you did to get here, m'lady. I did it because I knew… I knew she would lead me to Lady Arya, and I wanted…"
The blacksmith-knight paused for long enough that Thoros prodded him to continue. "You wanted what, lad?"
Gendry turned his Baratheon blue eyes to the crowd, finding Arya with them and gazing sadly at her for a moment. "I wanted to bring her, unharmed, to her mother. I wanted… to make amends, for failing her all those years ago. I didn't keep her safe, and the Hound got her, and took her away."
As Arya recalled, Ser Brynden hadn't even been there to hear the testimony. She supposed it was his sense of decorum that kept him away. He didn't seem the type to ogle or draw enjoyment from another man's misfortunes. Still, he had obviously heard about her mother's judgment, even though she had not.
"Word travels fast in a small castle, I suppose," the girl sighed. "Just not to my chamber."
"Then you've not heard?"
"No." She crossed her arms over her chest. "So, you'd better tell me."
He seemed reluctant to speak, but after a moment, said, "A flogging, my lady," and Arya sucked in her breath. The heir to Raventree Hall continued, "And then banishment."
"Banishment?" The girl's head whirled.
"It's hard to hear, I know," Brynden soothed, approaching Arya slowly and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, "but it's a mercy."
"After what I told my mother, after explaining… how is this mercy?"
"It's mercy because it's not a noose."
The girl cast her eyes down, thinking, chewing her lip.
"When?" she finally asked.
"On the morrow," the knight replied, his voice grave. "He's been locked in his chamber until then."
"He wouldn't run," she muttered. "Does the Brotherhood think so little of his honor?"
Her companion nodded in agreement. "I cannot say I know him as well as you, my lady, but my impression is that Ser Gendry is no coward, and an honorable man, if a bit rash. In fact, I had heard that he requested his punishment be carried out immediately."
"What? But, why?"
The knight shrugged. "One assumes he would rather not brood on it all night, or perhaps that he wishes to atone for his mistakes."
The girl sighed. That did sound like Gendry, damn fool that he was. Didn't he realize she would use whatever time was at her disposal to save him? It did not help her to have him trying to cut that time short. Her jaw clenched. Why must you make my task harder, you stupid bull?
But then, he had not wanted her help. He had told her as much.
He's getting it anyway, she thought to herself.
"Banishment from the Brotherhood means little," Arya decided, muttering more to herself than to Ser Brynden.
"I don't think Ser Gendry would agree with that, my lady."
Arya looked up at the knight. "He's sworn himself to me. My only condition was that my mother release him from her service. I suppose she's done that, hasn't she?"
"Ser Gendry has pledged his service to you?"
"To the cause you claim not to have," Ser Brynden remarked, trying to hide a smirk. "As have I. It seems you are gathering your own levies, Lady Arya."
The girl's eyes narrowed. "I didn't ask it. Of either of you."
The knight shrugged. "You inspire a great deal of loyalty. It cannot be helped."
Is loyalty untested actually loyalty at all? her little voice wondered.
"We shall see," the girl murmured cryptically, then took Ser Brynden's arm once again. They continued on to the supper in silence, Arya's mind working over the problem of how to spare Gendry an unfair punishment all the while.
As he passed through the Sealord's doors, he wore his favorite face, his Braavosi face, the one a dangerous girl still thought of with fondness. The true face of Tyto Arturis; of the man known to some as Syrio Forel. His robes fluttered and waved behind him and despite his fatigue, he walked with strength, the hard soles of his boots making no sound on the polished marble floors.
The Sealord's household guards seemed to shrink back as he passed.
Some men handled their affairs through letters delivered by couriers, through emissaries, through mutual friends. Some men relied on the Iron Bank for mediation, especially here in Braavos. The principal elder preferred to handle the most important matters himself, face to face.
How better to gauge a man's true intentions?
Still, the elder expected no resistance. Worry is not for us, brother. He had given the Sealord what he wanted most, and he had used the wolf child to do it. It was now time for the Sealord to pay his debt, and what man of Braavos would try to cheat Him of Many Faces? Ships, men, and weapons had been promised, and the Kindly Man had come to collect.
"Tyto!" the Sealord's voice boomed when the principal elder entered the throne room. "Welcome!"
Arya searched the great hall when she and Ser Brynden arrived, craning her neck this way and that.
"Who is it you are looking for?" the knight asked her.
"I had hoped to sit with my mother," she answered absently.
"I had hoped you'd sit with me, my lady."
"Well, as my mother does not seem to be here, I would be glad of your company."
She had said it to be polite, but Arya itched to be gone, to seek her mother out so that she might convince her to reverse her decision about Gendry's sentence. Still, she didn't suppose an indecorous departure would endear her to her host, or anyone else in the hall, for that matter. After her unexplained behavior at the trial earlier (which must have seemed very strange indeed to most of those watching), she thought the better of making any more imprudent displays.
Lem Lemonclaok had spoken for the Lady Stoneheart, projecting his voice where she could not. He bent low as his lady scratched out her question in his ear, then straightened and addressed the crowd.
"Does anyone have anything else to add to Ser Gendry's defense?"
Arya stood and moved past Brienne and the others who shared her bench. She found the makeshift aisle and approached her mother, vaguely aware that Ser Jaime had almost immediately slipped into her place, seating himself next to the Maid of Tarth.
"I do," the girl said when she came to stand before her mother.
"Well, then, Lady Stoneheart will hear your testimony," Lem replied gruffly, his crooked nose a reminder that he had little cause to love Arya Stark.
The girl turned sideways, much as Gendry had earlier when he spoke on his own behalf, so that she could look at both her mother and the crowd as she pled her friend's case. The hall quieted and all eyes rested upon her then.
She explained how it had been Nymeria's idea (there were snickers among the assembled witnesses then, but only from those who had never seen the beast. The members of the Brotherhood all seemed to understand how convincing a direwolf could be). She explained how Gendry had offered her shelter at the inn when she had been injured in a fall from her horse. She explained that he had risked life, limb, and the wrath of the Brotherhood so that he might shield her from danger as she traveled across the Riverlands. She explained that he was willing to sacrifice himself in order to see her safely to her mother, a task that no one had been able to complete five years past. She insisted that such actions were not the deeds of a man who deserved punishment, but the deeds of a man of deep conviction, and for that he deserved their thanks.
And then she had looked at her mother, and was dismayed to see that her words had not seemed to convince Catelyn beyond a doubt. And so she had tried one last, desperate measure; she had tried to reach out, to slip into her mother's mind, and suggest a reasonable course; to suggest mercy.
But instead of temperance, or a malleable will, all the girl found was cold. Cold and dark and hatred. It had sucked the air from her lungs and nearly turned her legs to ribbons.
Ser Brynden had pulled the girl's chair out for her, a seat next to Lord Smallwood's at the high table. She hadn't recalled even being led there, so lost was she in her thoughts about the trial. The knight waited patiently for Arya to be seated and did not prod or hasten her.
"Oh, I'm sorry, my lord," the girl said sheepishly once she realized how long they had been standing there.
"You seemed very far away just then, Lady Arya," Ser Brynden observed.
Arya looked out over the hall, arranged differently than it had been for the trial, but it was the same chamber nonetheless.
"No, not so far away at all," she said simply, then took her seat.
Lord Blackwood entered the hall then, striding toward his seat. He greeted his guests at the high table, pressing a quick kiss against the back of Arya's hand as the servants entered and began serving the supper.
The girl was mostly quiet while the men around her chatted, talk of levies and banners, the march to Riverrun, and other such concerns. Finally, Theomar leaned over to Arya and apologized.
"This must be very tedious for you," he said contritely.
"No, indeed," the girl assured him.
"But you are so quiet, my lady."
"Forgive me, Lord Smallwood. I'm not very good company tonight. I had thought… I had thought I'd be supping with my mother, you see."
The bearded lord leaned back, his eyebrows raised slightly.
"You mother… prefers to dine in her own chamber. I'm sure you can understand why."
"Just so," the girl replied, and the conversation about numbers of mounted knights, supplies, and weapons resumed. Ser Brynden was to her right and Lord Smallwood to her left, and they conversed over and around the girl for most of the supper. When Theomar turned to his left to talk with Ser Jaime and Lady Brienne over some tactical matter, Brynden leaned in close and spoke softly to Arya.
"How may I be of service, my lady?"
The girl looked out over the hall, feeling the absence of both her mother and Gendry. The Rat caught her eye, and his look was inscrutable. The Bear sat next to him, engaged in conversation with Thoros.
"There is nothing I require now," she said, her tone matching his.
"But I can see that you are about some task, in your head. I am certain I could be of use to you."
Rule your face.
She turned to look at the knight for a moment, finding his face so close that if she were to lean even a fraction closer, his lips would be at her forehead. She did not jerk away as she once might have; Syrio had taught her about stillness, and the Kindly Man had reinforced the lesson. And so she tilted her head slightly, her eyes upon those lips that were so close, those lips speaking words the Cat suspected were meant to garner favor; to instill trust; to prove the loyalty he claimed she inspired.
"I do wish to see my mother," the girl said, so softly that Ser Brynden had to strain to hear, "but I've no wish to insult Lord Smallwood by fleeing from his supper."
The heir to Raventree Hall nodded, a slight thing, and then said in a much louder voice than he had previously been using, "Oh, my lady, I am sorry to hear it! A headache, you say? I insist you retire and take your rest. Shall I escort you back to your chamber?" Before Arya could say anything, Ser Brynden leaned over to speak to Theomar, who had overheard and was looking at Arya with concern. "Lord Smallwood, with your leave, I shall take the lady out of the noise and heat of the hall."
"Of course, of course," Lord Smallwood said, waving his hand. "Shall I send the maester to you, my lady?"
"Oh… oh, no. No, that won't be necessary. A bit of rest and quiet is all I need, I'm sure." Her tone was gratitude and frailty, all twined together. Her hand fluttered delicately to her forehead then, and she closed her eyes for a second and blew out a small breath.
Don't overdo it, her little voice warned, or he'll have the maester bleeding you within the hour.
Lord Smallwood jumped up and reached over for his guest. "My dear Lady Arya, please, I'll escort you myself!"
"Lord Smallwood, your guests…" Brynden reminded gently, looking over the crowd. "Do not trouble yourself, I'll see to the lady."
"My thanks, Ser Brynden," Theomar said, nodding his head crisply at the knight.
The high table rose respectfully as Brynden helped the girl to her feet and Ser Jaime called to her, "Nothing a good sparring won't cure, eh Lady Arya?" Brienne elbowed the Kingslayer hard in the flank. Jaime winced and then said through gritted teeth, "What? She owes me a match." Then to Arya, he bowed his head slightly and said, "Perhaps tomorrow, if you are up to it."
Nine-year-old Arya would have drawn the dagger hidden at her wrist and challenged him to a fight right then, in the middle of the hall. Twelve-year-old Arya would have bidden him to choose his weapon and meet her in the bailey yard in a quarter hour. Faceless Arya turned weak eyes upon the knight and agreed in a slightly ragged voice to cross blades with him on the morrow if she were up to it.
As she passed their table, her brothers both bowed respectfully to her, but she could see their shrewd eyes appraising her, and she knew her Lyseni brother wished to discover what scheme she was engaged in, and for what purpose.
He'll just have to wait to find out.
When Brynden had gotten her through the doors and down the corridor a bit, he stopped and laughed, clapping his hands together in delight as he complimented the girl.
"Well played. Well played, indeed! I think your stay in Braavos must have included some time spent with a mummer's troop."
A small smile appeared on the girl's face then, and she said, "Something like that."
"You nearly had me calling for the maester."
"Well, I thought you made a splendid show yourself, Ser Brynden. Who knew you were such an accomplished liar?"
"All in the service of my lady," the knight said with mock solemnity, dropping dramatically to one knee, taking her two hands in his own and pressing his forehead against her knuckles in a show of deference and dedication.
"Arise, good ser knight, and know that you have your lady's blessing, and gratitude."
Ser Brynden rose, but looked at Arya a little strangely then.
"What is it?" she demanded, laughing but a little uncomfortable at his expression.
He shook his head a little, saying, "You are too convincing a mummer, Lady Arya. Just then, I felt as if I were in the presence of my sovereign queen. You make me feel as though I should be calling you your grace."
The girl snorted. Your grace, the Queen of Winter, Queen in the North. Would these men ever stop trying to place some fabled crown on her head?
Arya then remembered a dream, a nightmare from long ago, when a frosted crown of Valyrian steel had formed atop her head, stabbing at her, digging into her hair and scalp. She remembered that try as she might, she could not shake it off.
Just a dream, she told herself, but she had stopped her snorting laughter. Just a dream, that's all.
"Your mother's chamber is this way, your grace," Brynden teased, snapping Arya from her unpleasant thoughts.
"If I'm to be your queen, then you'll have to be my fool," the girl chided the knight.
"If that's how you think I may best serve you, then I'll not complain," her companion answered warmly, and she thought his smile quite beautiful then.
Too charming by half, she thought as he led her away.
Ser Brynden delivered the Cat to her mother's doorway and then took his leave of her. The girl watched him walk away and disappear around a corner before she knocked lightly at Catelyn's door. She waited a moment and hearing nothing, opened the door and slipped inside. She found her mother sitting in a chair near her fire which burned low in the grate. The woman seemed to be staring into the flames, unblinking as the embers popped and hissed.
"Mother," Arya said simply, pushing the door closed behind her. "I've come to speak with you, about Gendry."
Lady Stoneheart sat as motionless as a stone, her eyes the only part of her which moved as she watched her daughter cross the room to her. The girl dropped to her knees before the woman and placed her hands lightly in Catelyn's lap, palms pressed together as if in prayer.
"Please, mother, you mustn't punish him for what he did. Not like this."
Catelyn leaned down, the loose, graying flesh of her cheek only inches from Arya's own face, and breathed out a single word. Justice. It was hard for the girl to hear, as her mother had not moved her hands to help force the words up from her throat. The lady's skeletal fingers grasped the arms of her chair, still as bones in a crypt, just as they had been when Arya had first entered the chamber.
"If you allow this sentence to be carried out, it's not justice, mother, it's cruelty. It's abuse."
"Desertion…" Lady Stoneheart said with effort, "…is punishable… by… death."
Much like Brynden, her mother seemed to be claiming the sentence was merciful.
"But he didn't desert, mother. He followed Nymeria to me, and then delivered me to you. How can you not understand? He did all this to reunite us!"
A strange, crackling sound, almost a sickly choking, clawed its way up from Catelyn's mutilated throat. It took Arya a moment to realize this was the sound of her mother's laughter. There was no amusement in the older woman's expression, however. Then, slowly, those crooked, white fingers rose and the woman grasped her throat with both hands as if to strangle herself. It was then her words became clearer, a sort of distressed hissing.
"What he did… was for himself," Lady Stoneheart insisted.
"What? But that's not true! What had he to gain? Nothing! All he's had is trouble for his efforts. Misguided as he was, he did what he did for us, mother, so that you and I might be together once again. Surely you have to see that."
Catelyn glared down at her daughter as Arya clutched at her mother's knees, her desperation rising.
"He did it… so that he might… have you. And your… inheritance."
The girl was aghast at the suggestion. "No!"
"A bastard reaching… beyond… his station."
"It's not true." Gendry would never be so bold; would never want such a thing for himself. He did not have the arrogance, the hubris, required for such a plot. Arya had seen, had heard the thoughts which occupied the dark knight's mind. Of all his detractors, Gendry's harshest critic had always been himself. A brooding lack of self-worth was as much a part of his makeup as the deep blue eyes and raven-black hair which marked him as Robert Baratheon's natural son.
"Lord… Smallwood gave… evidence."
Theomar Smallwood! Was that why he was at the trial? To give some sort of evidence against Gendry? Lady Brienne had guessed as much, but Arya had not seen him speak, except briefly to her mother before the trial began. Had he addressed the assembly after her ill-fated attempt to influence her mother in less conventional ways, when her testimony had failed to sway Lady Stoneheart? Had their host waited for Arya to leave before making these baseless accusations? And why would Lord Smallwood think the blacksmith-knight had any sort of design against her interests?
"I don't know what Lord Smallwood said, mother, but I swear to you, Ser Gendry only had the noblest of intentions when he left the Hollow Hill. And he always meant to come back to you, he just wanted to bring me with him."
Catelyn's shriveled hands fell back onto her armrests as she shook her head slowly. The edges of her jagged wound rubbed grotesquely together. Arya averted her eyes.
"My judgment," Lady Stoneheart breathed, "has been… made."
The girl pushed away from her mother and stood. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, chewing for a moment as she searched her mother's eyes. Not finding what she had hoped she would, she straightened, pushing her shoulders back.
"This is wrong," Arya insisted, her heart pounding. "You are wrong."
The lady's hand was back at her throat then and she stood, too, a head taller than her defiant daughter.
"You… forget… yourself," Arya's mother warned, her lips drawing back into an ugly snarl.
"No, mother," the girl replied sadly, backing away. "You've forgotten yourself."
The memory of that weighted darkness and the unspeakable cold she'd found in her mother's mind prickled around the edges of Arya's own thoughts just then, and she took another step back. The girl was struck with the feeling that her mother had disappeared completely and she was instead staring into the eyes of someone… something different; something not altogether human. Sharply inhaling, the girl shook her head and closed her eyes for a second, pushing the idea away.
Don't be stupid, she chastised herself. Lord Beric died and was brought back over and over again. He was still himself. Why should my mother be any different?
When she opened her eyes, it was her mother she saw before her, not some monster. Her mother, who had borne her and four of her siblings, in her bed at Winterfell. Her mother, who fussed at her about dirt beneath her fingernails, and tangles in her hair, and the state of her clothes. Her mother, for whom she had yearned for so very, very long. She blew out a soft breath.
"I… remember… everything." Catelyn slowly sank back into her chair, turning her face away from her daughter to stare into the fire once again. The flames behind the grate threw writhing shadows onto the woman's sunken cheeks and the deep, unhealed scratches there.
"Everything but fairness. Everything but mercy."
And with that, the girl was gone.
The Cat stalked the passageways of Acorn Hall, her thoughts roiling in her head. She was angry with herself, for not being more convincing; for not being able to bend her mother to her will. And, she was angry with her mother, for not being able to see reason; for not treating her with any favor, though perhaps she was more hurt than angry about that.
She had felt very much the same as a young child, back in Winterfell, when Catelyn had mostly praise for Sansa but mostly criticism for Arya. This was not that, though. This was different.
For years and years, Arya had so longed for her family, for her mother, that the want had become a persistent, dull ache in her chest, a constant reminder of her losses; of her grief. Cruel fate had turned the girl into the lone wolf her father had warned her against becoming, and all the while, she had tried desperately to cobble together a pack for herself, only to see her pack dwindle until she was a lone wolf once again. There was nothing the girl would not do, no possession she would not sacrifice, no measure she would not take for a chance to reunite with her loved ones. Finding Catelyn had meant the fulfillment of one of the girl's greatest desires.
But fate had one more cruel jape in store, it seemed.
She had never considered that her mother might not have had the same sort of longing. Catelyn hadn't seen any of her children for years, and she had always held the importance of family above all other things. The girl could not reconcile that with how her mother was now treating her.
She behaves no differently with me than with a stranger, Arya fretted.
That's not so, her little voice said. She told you things she has told no one else.
So many things.
Arya had to admit that it was true. Though it was not exactly the acceptance, the affection the girl had craved, her mother had spent hours whispering to her, confiding her plans; imparting her memories. She supposed that was something. The girl knew very well how difficult, and painful, it had been for Catelyn to do so. She had told Arya every detail of the Red Wedding, every detail of her own murder, every detail of the three days she spent in the river before she was found by the Brotherhood Without Banners.
"My faith had… taught me," Catelyn rasped as Arya's head had lain in her lap, "about the… heavens. The seven heavens. And the… seven hells."
But where Catelyn found herself after her life's blood had spilled and spread amongst the rushes and floorboards of Walder Frey's feast hall was not any of those places, she told her daughter. Instead, she'd found herself back at Winterfell.
"With Robb. And with… Ned," her mother said, and she shook a little. It was only when Arya felt her mother's warm tears dropping onto her temple that she realized Catelyn was crying.
Her father had been in the godswood, his back leaning against the heart tree, and he was polishing Ice. It was a scene Arya could picture perfectly. It was a scene from her childhood so ingrained in her own mind that it felt as if it were as much a part of her as her beating heart.
"My darling wife," Ned had said to Catelyn when he saw her walking through the trees of the godswood. "You've come too soon."
"You left me too soon, Ned," her mother had replied.
"Aye," her father agreed, gazing up at the scarlet canopy over his head. "I should not have left at all. But now I am back where I belong. And you are here. And I will never leave you again."
Ned rose and embraced his wife.
The way Catelyn told it, there were days of laughter, of remembrances, of watching Robb run alongside Grey Wind. There were days of love and peace and joy. She would wake up next to Ned each morning, and fall asleep next to him each night.
And then one night, she was sleeping next to her husband, and then she wasn't.
"The Brotherhood," the lady lamented. "They pulled me… from my… grave."
"From the river, mother," Arya corrected softly.
"The river is… a fitting grave… for a… Tully."
The girl had nothing to say to that.
Arya knew the rest of the story. Beric had breathed his life into Catelyn's corpse, finding his own, true death at last. And then Lady Stoneheart had arisen.
The Cat slipped through the corridors on silent feet, moving in shadow and skillfully avoiding the few people about the castle. It was made easier than it otherwise might have been by the fact that most were at the supper still, either consuming it or serving it. After a time, the girl located the door she sought. Moving quickly, she used a slender dagger along with one of the hairpins her chambermaid had stabbed into her piled hair (to create a braided style too elaborate for Arya's taste) to pick the lock. Her work done, the girl slid past the newly opened door and into the chamber, then shut the door noiselessly behind her.
"Well, you look relaxed for a man facing a flogging," the Cat observed.
The large man stretched out on a bed across the chamber startled, sitting up suddenly and exclaiming, "Seven hells!"
"Shh," Arya warned. "Be quiet! Do you want everyone in the castle to come running?"
"Arya," Gendry hissed, "what are you doing here?"