Arya never saw war up close, and for the first time she was grateful for that. When Ned sent her to the Red Keep during the Second Ironborn Rebellion, Arya resented him for it, convinced she could have been of some use to him at Starfall. She’d exiled herself during Aegon’s taking of the kingdoms, safely ensconced in the North with Jon and the wildlings, fretting every time Jon came with news, uncertain which man she wanted to prevail, cursing her uselessness but determined to stay apart to keep her children safe.
And it was all for naught, she thought as she watched the supply carts being loaded, the men mobilizing outside her window. Already Winterfell had called its banners, the Northern lords and their men marching to provide the first wave of defense. The Riverlands were moving north as well, her old uncle Edmure insisting on going to battle despite having more than enough sons to go in his stead. Arya thanked the gods her father was too crippled with arthritis to join the cause, but Robb and his sons were not. Bran and Rickon were with them as well, and it was not the first time Arya wished she had been born a boy so she could go and keep her brothers safe.
But being born a boy did not guarantee a place in the column, and Brandon was finding that out the hard way.
“I must go!” he shouted as Arya’s older children readied to climb onto their dragon’s back and ride to the Wall. “You cannot expect me to just sit here and wait!”
Aemon’s calm demeanor never faltered as he stuffed a skin of water into his sack. “You are the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Your job is to protect the king.”
“You’re the king!”
“I will be fine so long as our sisters are by me, but Baelor is just a babe in the cradle and has no such protection.”
“Mother can see to Bae! I am a knight, not a nursemaid!”
“Brandon, you’re being difficult,” Rhaenys declared, blowing a lock of hair from her eyes, her voice sounding so painfully bored with it all, Arya could have sworn they were children again with Rhaenys playing the long suffering older sister and Brandon, the baby used to getting what he wanted.
“You cannot leave me here!” he screamed, his voice cracking with emotion, and they all paused at that, turning to truly look at Brandon. It was an odd thing, the sight of such a large, heavily bearded man now openly crying with frustration, and Arya’s first impulse was as it always was, to go to him and make it better.
Alysanne reached him first, rising on her toes to cup his bearded cheeks, and Arya took a step back, the useless feeling creeping back into her heart again. She wasn’t sure when her children stopped looking to her and started looking to each other for comfort, but the guilt and shame of having failed them in that way ached in Arya’s gut. Her eyes flicked towards Aemon, wondering if he could sense the connection between Brandon and Alysanne, but her eldest son looked away, trusting as ever. Rhaenys, on the other hand, watched with sharp eyes, and as if Alysanne could feel her sister’s gaze on the back of her neck, took Brandon by the hand into another room.
“You keep her secrets without a moment’s hesitation, don’t you?” Rhaenys drawled when Aemon left the room, leaving only herself and Arya. With her hair pulled severely back, face half in shadow, her daughter looked like a dangerous person. Normally it would upset Arya, but they were headed to war; dangerous people tended to return from battle.
“I keep your secrets as well.”
“But you judge me for them. You hate me for them.”
“I don’t hate you,” Arya said, surprised by how true it felt. “You’re my daughter Rhaenys, the first child I ever held in my arms. I hate what I let you become and I hate what you did, but I also think your father and I bear responsibility for it as well.”
Rhaenys looked down at her hands, and Arya swore she saw a tear roll down her cheek. After a moment she stated, “I know I will burn in every hell for what I did to Daeron and Daena, to everyone who perished at Summerhall. But I did not intend it. I swear it on anything, on everything. I just wanted to shame them the way we were shamed.”
“Intend it or not, they’re still dead.” Swallowing down her tears, Arya added, “And now I see you look at Alysanne the way you once looked at Olenna.”
Rhaenys’s head snapped up, disbelief on her face. “You cannot think I would hurt Aly.”
“You have never handled it well when you thought you were being usurped.”
“I cannot love her and hate her at the same time?”
Arya thought of Sansa then, of the powerful jealousy she’d cultivated for years, allowing it to grow until it choked them both. Yes, she knew how much you could love and hate your sister in equal measure, but she was not sure how much she trusted Rhaenys. Some days she was not sure how much she trusted Alysanne. They’d become strangers to her, her children, and it was hard to understand how they had ended up in such a precarious place.
“Why do you keep her secrets?” Arya asked. “If you are so concerned with Alysanne’s actions, why have you not revealed them to Aemon?”
“Because he’ll hate me.” She scoffed. “More than he does now anyway. He wasn’t built for any of this.”
“No, he wasn’t.”
Rhaenys looked at her then, her dark eyes sharp. For half a moment Arya saw the little girl who screamed for Aegon as they were loaded on the ship in Volantis, the one who scrapped with wildling children and outran her septas, and then she was gone, hidden behind her mask again.
Arya moved forward, pressing her lips to Rhaenys’s forehead. She felt her daughter stiffen at the contact, but she didn’t pull away. “Stay safe. Take care of your siblings.”
“I always do.”
Unlike you, her expression seemed to add, and Arya hoped she’d get the chance to make things right with Rhaenys.
He looked so small in his riding clothes.
It was all Arya could think as she entered Aemon’s chamber, her son placing items into his sack. Mayhaps it was because she’d grown so used to Brandon with his broad shoulders and barrel chest that Aemon looked small in comparison. He was built like Aegon, tall and lithe, and he’d let his hair grow nearly to his shoulders now. She suspected it was to draw comparisons to Aegon, but it reminded Arya more of Viserys. Though Aemon possessed none of Viserys’s ill temperament, there was something about the way he interacted with people that brought to mind Viserys’s lack of comfort with people.
She heard metal against metal and saw something dangling from his bag. His unfinished maester’s chain, only a few links forged, was tucked amongst the necessities. It was terribly sentimental, and it made Arya’s heart swell. She knew the girls always thought Aemon was her favorite until Brandon was born, and Arya knew there was some truth to it. Aemon always seemed to need to be cared for, tended to; Rhaenys and Alysanne needed nothing but themselves to survive.
“Are you certain this is the right course of action?”
Aemon didn’t seem surprised to see her. If anything, he looked relieved, and that didn’t surprise her. Aemon liked being told what to do. “It is the only one.”
“You’ve consulted with the Citadel?”
“Of course.” He smiled wryly. “Rhaenys doesn’t trust them. They hate the dragons. They’d like them gone.”
So would I. “You know nothing of war.”
“Does any man before he experiences it for himself?”
“Please do not treat this as a philosophical discussion, Aemon.”
He nodded, his shoulders hunching forward some. His fingers sought out that unfinished chain, worrying the links between his fingers. After a moment he looked up at her and said, “I would have been a fine maester.”
“Yes, you would have.”
“Mayhaps when this is over, when Bae is old enough, I will give him the crown and finish what I started.” He nodded. “That seems like a reasonable plan, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
Aemon smiled and got to his feet, coming around the bed and pressing the heavy links into Arya’s hand. She’d never held a maester’s chain; given the weight of so few links, she couldn’t believe Maester Luwin was ever able to wear his.
“None of this was your fault. I made my choices. You gave me what I wanted, and I chose to follow Rhaenys.”
Her throat tightened. “Are you happy?”
“No.” Aemon grasped her shoulders, meeting her gaze unwaveringly. “And that isn’t your fault either.”
“Aemon – “
“You’ll look after Bae if something happens to us, won’t you?”
“Please don’t – “
Arya sighed, wrapping her arms around herself, the heavy links pulling down her hand. “Of course I will look after him.”
“Take him to Winterfell. I always loved it there, and he will learn the best lessons there. The North…It is best there.” Aemon’s calm demeanor began to melt away, emotion starting to fill his face. He looked like Aegon now, and the resemblance tore through her. “Do not let Brandon take him to Storm’s End. I do not want Bae to become that sort of man.”
“There is no reason for Brandon to take Bae – “
“Mother.” He scoffed, his face as close to irritated as it ever was. “Please do not pretend as if you do not know.”
His smile was pained. “Neither of them has ever been very good at deceit. I do appreciate the lie though. She has worked so hard to maintain it.”
“It was an accident.”
This time Aemon laughed, returning to the packing of his knapsack. “Alysanne does not allow for accidents. She may be poor at deceit, but she’s wilier than a fox. I could practically taste the moon tea on her lips each time I went to her.”
“Why her?” Arya found herself asking, her sick curiosity getting the best of her. “After all you and Rhaenys did, why did you turn to Alysanne?”
“Because Rhaenys…She’s more than my sister; she’s an extension of myself. I could never look at her the way I should a wife. But you sent Aly away when she was a child; I scarcely got the chance to know her. I thought it less of a sin.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Except now she hates me for it.”
“Rhaenys, Alysanne, mayhaps both. They’re far more alike than they’d ever admit. In another life they’d have been friends.”
“This one isn’t finished yet.”
Aemon looked away, and Arya understood her son didn’t believe any of them would return.
She found Alysanne in the nursery just as she suspected she would, Alysanne seated on the floor while Baelor scooted around on hands and knees. Arya considered joining her on the floor but perched on the edge of the bed instead; her body did not take kindly to crawling around the way it once had.
“I remember when the twins were born,” Alysanne said after a moment, holding out a block to the baby, “how Brandon and I would come in here and play with them. Sometimes Olenna and Elia would come too, and we’d all play until Jessa came and hurried them away. I always felt so bad for her.”
Alysanne nodded. “It couldn’t have been easy for her, placed in Father’s way so the Tyrells could win his favor, having to live in the shadow of you and us. They used her. I suppose all daughters end up used that way. It was half of the reason I was so happy Baelor was a boy.”
“You were not made to wed against your will.”
“Just because there was not a royal decree does not mean it was my will.” She ran her fingers over Baelor’s thick hair, brushing it from his brow. “When the war is over, mayhaps things will be different. Mayhaps we’ll make them different.”
“What would you do different?”
“I’d go to Dragonstone. I always liked it there. Then I’d go to Winterfell and Casterly Rock, and I’d see Elia at Highgarden and take her to Dorne. Mayhaps I’d even venture east this time, see the Free Cities. I would have adventures of my own this time.” She smiled. “I used to get so angry when I was small because it seemed like all the exciting things happened before I could even remember them.”
“You could still do all of that.”
“As if Aemon would let me gallivant around the globe with Bae in tow.”
“He seems to bend to your will easily.”
Alysanne laughed, a surprising chipper sound given the gloominess of the mood. “Even when you’re trying so hard not to sound judgmental, you sound like the High Septon pronouncing a sin. You should ask Brandon to do his impression of you; it’s absolutely uncanny.”
Irritated by the comparison, she did not bother hiding her disdain as she asked, “Will Brandon be accompanying you on this imaginary trip?”
Alysanne looked up at her, her Stark eyes sharp in her Targaryen face. “I have always wondered: do you disapprove of Brandon loving me more because he is my half-brother, because it means all of his love might not be reserved for you now, or because we remind you too much of what happened with Uncle Gendry?”
Though there was no malice in her voice, the words pierced Arya’s heart like a blade. “He shares your blood.”
“Rose thinks it is because you were in love with Uncle Jon,” Alysanne continued, getting to her feet and brushing off her gown, “and you could never act on it.”
“I love Jon as my brother!”
“Except he isn’t truly your brother; he’s your cousin or your good-brother, depending upon which connection you’d like to make. And when you were fleeing from Father, you could have gone to Uncle Robb or Uncle Bran or even Uncle Rickon, but you went to the Wall.”
“Because no one would think to look there.”
“Or because you’d spent every moment from the time you parted getting back to him?” Alysanne smiled. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Mother. But I also don’t want to ride into war thinking you’ll keep the truth from Bae if something happens.”
Still unsettled by her words, Arya managed, “Aemon wants me to take him to Winterfell if you fall.”
Alysanne rolled her eyes. “Of course he does. Aemon has all sorts of theories about how nothing ever would have gone wrong if we’d remained at Winterfell.”
“And you don’t believe that?”
“I think what is happening was meant to happen and would happen no matter what we did. It was written in the stars when we were born. There is only one way it can end.”
“How is that?”
This time Alysanne looked less certain, looking down at Baelor now tugging at her skirts. “I do not know. It has not ended yet.”
Fire and blood, that was how things ended for Targaryens, but Arya could not consider that as she wrapped her arms around her daughter and squeezed her too tightly.
As her three oldest children departed for the North, Arya went in search of Brandon. She’d been shocked he had not come to see them off and the devastation on Alysanne’s face lingered. After coming up empty in the White Tower, the Tower of the Hand, and the Keep itself, Arya wondered if he’d wandered out into King’s Landing to drown his sorrows. It was an unfortunate weakness of his, one that worried Gendry more than her; a weakness for drink seemed to be a curse on the Baratheons, and the gods knew her son had a higher tolerance for it than most.
She was breaking her fast with Baelor when one of the Kingsguard came to her. They all seemed so young now, baby faced and hardly a whisker in sight, and this one’s name escaped her. He looked terrified, which amused her; it wasn’t particularly a quality you wanted in the man who was to lay down his life in defense of her family.
“Your grace,” he stuttered, handing her a hastily folded piece of parchment.
She knew what it said before she even glimpsed Brandon’s nearly illegible scrawl. Brandon’s parting message was brief, ten words that would reverberate within her for years to come.
I have to do this. Take care of Bae. – Brandon
There was always too much Baratheon in him, too much fury and not enough logic, and if Arya was honest, she knew it would always land him in trouble. She felt the urge to unravel, a scream rising in her throat as she fully appreciated that now none of her children were free from danger. And then Bae babbled, “Gam! Gam!” to get her attention, and Arya knew she couldn’t crumble. Not now.
She summoned Baelor’s nurse before walking to the rookery. Arya quickly scribbled out two notes, one raven headed to Storm’s End to tell Gendry what happened, and the other bound for Casterly Rock.
Sansa arrived a fortnight later, and only then did Arya allow herself to cry.
Arya wondered when Sansa would cease surprising her. From the moment she arrived from the Westerlands, Sansa acted with purpose, meeting with Daenerys to discuss what needed to be done and what potential problems were arising in King’s Landing. Arya sat in those makeshift small council meetings and watched in amazement at the ease with which both women navigated the situations. Somehow she’d forgotten Daenerys was not always Aegon’s sweet aunt, that she had ridden with her husband’s khalasar for ages and knew what it meant to rule people; it seemed like such a ridiculous oversight, Arya found herself deeply embarrassed. Aegon loved his aunt but he had never given her much power; now Arya understood why. Daenerys was a threat to him, someone stronger and better suited to ruling, and she felt indignation burn in her chest on Dany’s behalf.
But Sansa…She seemed to come to life as she met with Daenerys, boldly making declarations with the sort of assurance Arya never felt when she tried her hand at ruling. Sansa’s reign as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms had lasted only a fortnight, but it was clear her true talent lied here.
“You would have been a better queen than me,” Arya offered one evening as they supped, the amount of wine in her bloodstream having loosened her tongue further than she preferred.
“I know,” Sansa answered with a teasing smile.
“No,” Arya insisted, “you are better at this. How? How do you do it?”
Sansa looked puzzled for a moment before shrugging. “I was raised for this. While you were running through the godswood and riding your horse, I was at Cersei’s side being taught what would be expected of me. I’ll say many things about the Lannisters, but they understood the business of ruling, especially Lord Tywin. I learned a lot simply watching.”
“But you like it, the ruling. You like it the way Daenerys does.”
“We have much in common, Lady Daenerys and I, and we became friends during Elinor’s marriage to Rhaego. Does it bother you?”
“No, I just – “ Arya laughed but it sounded pained to her own ears. “You have always been better at everything. It would make sense you’d excel at this as well.”
Sansa’s face became troubled. “I am only here to assist you, Arya. I have no desire to take what is yours.”
“Everything is already taken.” There were tears on her face now, too much wine having driven her to the sort of overly emotional displays she hated, but she could not stop herself. “There’s been no word from them. I know you hear the reports, that thousands are dying every day.”
“Just as I hear the dragons still fly – “
“But Brandon has no dragon, and it is not as if our wolves would die if we did.” Arya glanced towards the fire where Lady and Nymeria laid entwined, both of their coats shot through with white, neither moving as fluidly as they once did. “We do not even know if our brothers, if Winterfell – “
Sansa reached across the table, taking the wineskin out of her reach. “Stop. That thinking does no one any good, and I won’t have you speaking it. The only thing our family needs now are your prayers. I will spend every minute on my knees in the godswood if that is what you want to do, but I won’t sit here and listen to you declare everything for naught.”
Arya looked at the determination on Sansa’s face and nodded resolutely, wiping at her cheeks and exhaling shakily. Her stomach rolled, too much wine and too little food, and she knew she was going to be sick. As she heaved, the liquid contents of her stomach splashing across the stone floor, Arya vowed she would be more like Sansa in the morning.
The raven came from Winterfell two moons’ turns after her children left, and Arya could not bring herself to open it alone. She hurried through the castle, desperately searching for Sansa, and found her walking through the throne room with several of the older lords.
She whirled, a look of chastisement already on her face, when she saw the parchment Arya bore. Quickly bidding farewell to the lords, Sansa hurried towards her, and the fear on her older sister’s face made Arya feel as if she was not alone.
They sought refuge in the Tower of the Hand, and Arya thought it telling they went to the chambers that had been their father’s. For a moment they only stared at the gray direwolf seal and finally it was Sansa who reached for it, breaking the seal and reading the words silently.
The tears in her eyes brought tears to Arya’s, and she closed her eyes, waiting for Sansa to declare the worst.
“Father has passed,” Sansa managed before her voice broke, and though it was not the bad news Arya feared the most, it still felt as if she had been run through with a sword.
Ned Stark died in his sleep, a fever having turned into a cough that sapped him of his strength. Their mother’s letter relayed only the facts, but when Arya read it, she could see the spots where Catelyn Stark’s tears landed on the parchment. He would be interred in the crypts beneath the castle with his father and siblings, and that made Arya ache even more, to think of her kind father forever in such a cold, sad place.
While Sansa went through the motions required – writing their mother back, having the bells toll to celebrate the life of the former Hand of the King – Arya found herself thinking of Jon Snow. Rhaegar Targaryen may have fathered him, but it was Ned Stark who raised him, who made him the man he was, the brother Arya loved ferociously. Did he even know? Was he even still alive?
Though the snows were as deep as her knees, Arya went to the godswood and prayed no one else she loved would be joining her father in the Winterfell crypts.
People began to flee King’s Landing, desperate to head places further south. There were rumors the Others were pushing closer and closer south, that not even the Targaryen dragons could keep them back, and soon people were packing all they could carry and trying to reach Dorne, the Reach, and any ship in any port bound for the Free Cities.
“We cannot soothe the panic,” Daenerys declared one morning as they watched people moving through the snow-covered streets with packs and carts. “There is nothing we can say to make them feel safe.”
“Does safe even exist anymore?” Sansa drawled, folding her arms over her chest. Though she didn’t say it, Arya knew from a note she’d glimpsed in Sansa’s solar that Elinor, Rose, and Alisa were all on a ship bound for the Free Cities accompanied by Tommen’s wife and children. Officially they were touring the Free Cities, but Arya knew Sansa believed it was not safe for her children in Casterly Rock.
Arya could not even be angry about it. If she were able, she’d have sent her children away as well to guarantee their safety.
A handful of days later, Arya was shocked when Margaery Tyrell arrived at the Red Keep, Elia in tow. Her stepdaughter was as tightly bundled as her great-aunt, but a scarf covered her face, only her bright green Tyrell eyes visible. She’d grown since their brief visit to Highgarden, and Arya was surprised when Elia moved to embrace her. Jessa had not liked her daughters to spend much time with Arya, but Arya supposed she was the closest thing to a parent poor Elia had left.
“She is a princess of the Iron Throne,” Margaery pronounced, as fierce as Arya had ever seen her, “and she deserves the protection of Maegor’s Holdfast.”
“Of course,” Arya agreed, and though Arya did not trust the Tyrells any farther than she could throw them, the least she could do for Aegon’s daughter was protect her as much as possible.
The Tyrells did not know what Margaery did. Sansa gave her this tidbit of information the first night after Arya had rooms prepared for both Elia and Margaery. Mace Tyrell had wanted to send Elia away until the war was over and then place her on the throne, usurping Baelor. It was only Margaery who wanted to keep her away from the plotting, to keep her safe.
“She has been a pawn the same way we were, the way Jessa was,” Sansa said when Arya expressed disbelief Margaery would act alone. “If the war goes well, the last thing Margaery wants is for Elia to bear the brunt of her siblings’ displeasure.”
And if it goes badly, there is a chance she will be queen anyway, Arya silently finished.
On the cusp of womanhood, Princess Elia Targaryen would have been the prettiest of all Aegon’s daughters. When her scarf would droop, revealing the unblemished side of her face, Arya saw the same delicate beauty Jessa possessed, and she often wondered if Elia wished she’d perished in the fire at Summerhall. Though she’d managed to keep her leg, Elia walked with a pronounced limp, and her right arm was useless, usually kept tight to her body via a variety of silken slings. To her credit, Elia seemed to have adapted well, but it made Arya ache to recall the little girl who would clamor onto Alysanne’s lap, who chased at Brandon’s heels.
She’d offered Elia her old chamber, but Elia politely refused, stating it reminded her of her long and painful convalescence. Arya had Jessa’s old rooms aired out, and Arya wished she had stories to tell Elia of her mother. All she could offer were platitudes while telling tales of Aegon, but Elia seemed anxious to listen no matter what.
Baelor adored his aunt, squealing any time she came into view, and it helped to put Arya somewhat at ease. One of her greatest fears was Baelor would lose his entire family in one fell swoop, never knowing anyone. At least there was Elia.
Reports from the North came sporadically, short missives declaring gains and losses. Last Hearth was abandoned as it became overrun by Others, Asha Greyjoy’s fleet was helping to protect the coast, Lord Glover was struck down with half of his men. Each bit of good news came with news as equally bad, and Arya felt so damned useless, she could barely stand it.
One afternoon after Arya received word Rickon had taken a wound and was recovering at Karhold, Elia joined her, quietly sitting in the chair opposite of her. For a long time neither of them spoke, the soft sound of Elia’s breathing the only noise in the room, and then Elia said, “It was our fault.”
“The fire, it was my and Olenna’s fault.”
Head spinning, Arya managed, “Sweetling, what – “
“Olenna wanted a dragon like Alysanne,” Elia began, her voice soft but strong, “but she knew she’d need wildfire to break the egg open. I was little, sneakier; she asked me to steal a pot from the pyromancers. That night in Summerhall, we were trying to sneak outside so we could hatch it, but I tripped and dropped the pot.” Voice wavering, she continued, “It happened so fast. The second it hit the floor, Olenna’s gown caught fire and when I tried to put it out, I caught fire too. Father and Ser Rolly heard us screaming. They managed to put out the flames on me, and Father carried me outside but he had to go get the twins. I don’t quite remember much after that but…It wasn’t Uncle Viserys. It was us.”
For several minutes Arya could not speak as she processed poor Elia’s confession. And finally when she could, all she could manage was, “It was an accident.”
Elia shook her head. “They all died because I tripped.”
She thought of Rhaenys then, of the pain in her voice as she confessed her part in the fire, the wicked intentions she held when she’d brought that egg to Summerhall. Rhaenys and Aemon brought the kindling and Jessa’s girls provided the spark, and the guilt they all felt was eating them alive.
“You were a child who wanted to help her sister. You could not know what would happen.”
“They all died because I tripped,” Elia repeated, her voice a watery whisper now, and Arya found herself moving to embrace her. She’d grieved for her poor babies burnt in their beds, for her husband and her friends, but she’d never felt a responsibility for it. But Elia had lost everything in that fire: her mother, her father, her sister, life as she knew it. Even the siblings she had left were taken from her as the Tyrells hurried her away to Highgarden. Elia wore her pain on her skin while Rhaenys and Aemon carried theirs deep inside, and no one deserved so much punishment for pure carelessness.
If she hadn’t had the affair with Gendry, if she hadn’t made her children feel as if they had to prove themselves Targaryens, if Jessa hadn’t so desperately wanted her children to be recognized as trueborn children as much as Arya’s, would any of this had happened? Were the sins they’d committed as parents what drove their children to such desperate measures?
If her children returned from the North, Arya vowed she would do all she could to mend the divide between Jessa’s daughter and her children.
The ravens arrived together, and all Arya could think was the old saying, Dark wings, dark words. Both bore the direwolf seal of Winterfell, and this time Arya did not wait for Sansa. She broke them in Baelor’s nursery as he and Elia played on the floor, Elia’s eyes watching even as she helped Baelor build a tower he promptly knocked over.
Jon’s bold hand informed her that the war was over, the Others pushed back, the Wall fallen.
Alysanne’s delicate script bore only three words: You must come.
She rode North in a litter with Sansa and Baelor, Gendry and several of the Kingsguard accompanying them. Elia remained in the Red Keep with Daenerys, whom Arya named regent until her return. She had not the slightest idea what awaited them at Winterfell, but she knew Alysanne would not have summoned her so with good news.
Summer bloomed around them as they made the journey, the snows melting as the air became unseasonably warm. It was practically magic, winter turning to summer in a matter of days, and by the time they passed through the Neck, there was not a single flake of snow in sight.
It was a new world.
Winter town was full of people, refugees from further North who’d lost their homes during the fighting. She saw some of Robb’s men passing out food and supplies, but Arya knew there would not be enough. When they reached the castle, she would write Daenerys, order her to send provisions to the North. There were few positive things about being the Queen Regent but this was one of them.
They’d barely passed through Winterfell’s gates when Alysanne came running. Arya almost didn’t recognize her; in her drab grey gown, her hair unbound and half-wild, she looked nothing like the composed woman who’d flown North to fight. Even Baelor seemed confused for a moment before shouting for his mother, squirming in Arya’s arms to reach her.
It was only as Alysanne dissolved into tears, squeezing Baelor tightly, Arya understood just how bad things were about to become.
They were wrapped in linen, scented oils doing little to cover the odor of decay. Side-by-side, eyes closed, Arya thought of when they were children, sharing a pallet at the Wall. Whoever tended to them had arranged their bodies so their hands were joined, and it was that more than anything that finally tipped Arya over into tears.
It was Jon who gave her the details of what happened, Alysanne upstairs with Baelor and a bedridden Brandon. He explained how Aemon tumbled from Meraxes’s back while fighting, and a sword pierced his heart. Quick and relatively painless, that was how Jon described Aemon’s death, but neither descriptor gave Arya any sort of peace. It was Jon who collected his body from the battlefield, sending him back to Winterfell where his body would be safe.
Rhaenys did not go so easily.
“She was the fiercest warrior I’ve ever seen,” Jon declared as Arya stroked a limp curl uncovered by linen on Rhaenys’s head. “She cut through the Others like a woman possessed, and she saved so many lives.”
“Then what happened?”
It was the last stand, he explained, and Alysanne’s dragon was felled by a rain of arrows. As she struggled to escape where she was pinned beneath Vhagar’s body, an Other approached her, prepared to deliver a killing blow. Rhaenys came out of nowhere, bringing up her sword to block the strike, and as Alysanne fought to get to unpin herself, Rhaenys managed to kill the Other but not before his blade opened her stomach.
“The wound festered,” Jon offered before stopping, the rest of the message clear. Whereas Aemon died quickly, Rhaenys suffered as infection ate away at her. It was a terrible death, and Arya could not bear to think of her first child dying that way.
“Alysanne said Aemon would want to be buried here, but she also said Rhaenys wouldn’t want to be buried without Aemon. We didn’t want to do anything without your consent – “
“They should be together in the crypts,” she cut in, wiping at her tears. “That’s where they belong.”
Jon nodded in understanding. “I’ll talk to Robb.” Wrapping an arm around Arya’s shoulders, he said, “Come on. I’ll take you to Brandon.”
He was a shell of himself, having lost a shocking amount of weight during his convalescence. The broad muscular frame that made the girls of King’s Landing whisper when he passed was gone, having withered away to barely more than skin and bones. His hair and beard were long and shaggy, hiding his sunken cheeks, and his long legs lay beneath a thin blanket, the toes of his feet pointed inward.
“Don’t worry, Mother, I’m not dead. I just look like it.” Brandon smiled weakly, gesturing to his legs. “Maester Padrick says I’ll never walk again. I can’t feel anything from my ribs down.”
“But you’re alive,” Alysanne stressed from beside the bed, Baelor asleep in her arms. “It could have been so much worse.”
“Some knight I’ll be now.”
“So you’ll be the Lord of Storm’s End,” Alysanne declared, smoothing a hand over Baelor’s hair. “The world didn’t end. We have a second chance now.”
Arya barely heard the conversation, perching on the edge of Brandon’s bed and running her hand over Brandon’s hair the same way Alysanne did to Baelor. She felt as weak as Brandon looked, grief so intense she could barely breathe, and all she wanted was to hold Brandon and Alysanne as if they were children again and never let them go. How had it come to this? How could she have lost so much so quickly?
“You need a shave,” she said with a half-hearted smile, running her hand over Brandon’s chin.
“Grandmother Catelyn says it makes me look like a true Northman.”
“It makes you look like a savage,” Alysanne corrected with a soft giggle, and for a moment Arya could pretend everything was normal, that Aemon and Rhaenys were simply in the other room, that they would all return to King’s Landing together.
But nothing would ever be the same again, and Arya knew it.
They gathered in the great hall, her siblings, her mother, and Jon. Arya sat between Jon and Sansa, and their familiar faces gave her a sense of peace. In Winterfell she was not “your grace” or treated with any sort of deference; she was just their sister, their daughter, another Stark, and even now when she was well past the age of being a child, Arya loved the comfort their presence provided.
“So all it took to get you all home was the end of the world,” Catelyn said with a smile.
Her mother was always beautiful, and age hadn’t changed that; her auburn hair was silver now, her face heavily lined, but there was a regality to her that still drew the eye. Sansa would be beautiful like this, Arya understood, and the jealousy she would have felt once was gone. Let other people compare her to her sister; Arya was finished doing it.
Her brothers were still handsome, Rickon especially, but they, too, had left youth behind them. Their was white in their beards, their auburn hair lightening and thinning; Jon’s dark hair showed his age especially, large portions of it as white as Ghost’s coat. The Starks of Winterfell were old now, and while it made Arya feel a certain sadness, there was a happiness to it as well.
Only her father made it to old age among his siblings; poor Aunt Lyanna had not even seen seventeen years. The safety and protection Ned Stark wanted for his children had granted them all longer lives than those who came before them.
Arya wished she could have provided her own children with the same gift.
Robb filled a cup of wine, passing the skin around until they all had some in their cup. He barely looked like the man who’d taken Arya to King’s Landing for her first marriage so long ago; the handsomeness of youth had given way to a paunch beneath his doublet and tremble in his hand. Robb lifted his cup and said, “To Father, to Aemon, and to Rhaenys.”
“May the gods bless them and keep them,” Sansa agreed.
Arya managed a sip of her wine but nothing more. She let her family reminisce about her father and her children while she rested her head against Jon’s shoulder, Sansa’s hand tightly squeezing her own.
After so many years spent with dragons, all Arya wanted to do was bask in the presence of her pack.
Arya was wandering the grounds of Winterfell when she heard Baelor’s laugh coming through the trees. Confused, she followed the sound and saw Gendry and her grandson in the pond they’d swam in together in another life, Baelor happily splashing away. The heat was only increasing with each passing day, summer having arrived faster than anyone expected. Arya froze as she fell through time for a moment, remembering the last warm day she’d swam in this pond.
“Would you care to join us?” Gendry asked with an easy smile, Baelor lifted against his shoulder. The resemblance between them was so strong in that moment, Arya couldn’t believe anyone ever believe Baelor was anything other than a Baratheon.
“No, thank you.”
She sat on the bank, watching as Gendry dragged him around the pond, dunking him and bringing him up as Bae’s squeals of laughter echoed through the trees. Arya didn’t know how long they swam before Gendry set Baelor on the grass, pulling himself out of the water. He sat beside Arya as Bae toddled over to a patch of growing flowers and said, “I offered to watch him while Alysanne sent letters to Daenerys.”
“The duties of a queen are never done.”
“I can see why you never wished to be one.”
Arya scowled, pushing at his shoulder with her own. “You will never let that go, will you?”
He laughed. “I’m sorry. I will never mention it again.”
“Thank you.” She sighed. “I worry it’s weighing on her too heavily.”
“Because of all of your children, Alysanne was always the one who reminded me the most of Sansa.”
Gendry nodded. “A perfect lady in all things but hard as steel underneath. There’s a strength to her that will always steer her well.”
“Like Sansa. Baratheons, we were rather terrible at the whole ruling thing. But Sansa took to it. She understands people the way Alysanne does. She’ll be a good queen, and she’ll raise Baelor to be a good king.”
“And what of Brandon? Is he to be like you?”
“Oh, Brandon is already stronger than I ever was. What he’s going through right now, losing his legs, I couldn’t have handled it. He’ll be fine, and he’ll return to Storm’s End.”
“You don’t think he and Alysanne will marry?”
“I think mayhaps they missed their moment.”
Arya heard the undercurrent to his words. “Like us?”
He nodded solemnly. “Like us.”
Baelor rushed towards them, a clutch of weeds in his chubby hand. Arya welcomed him into her lap, pressing a kiss to his damp hair. She sighed, looking over at Gendry, and felt a sense of calm fall over them. There was no desperation to them now, no sense of hunger or need; they were too old for all that now, and what they’d had was a pleasant memory now.
“What will you do now?”
“The girls will return from the East, and we’ll return to Casterly Rock. With all the chaos, I’ll have work to do. The girls will get married, they’ll have children of their own, and I can finally be a fat, jolly grandfather.”
“That sounds nice.”
“I hope so.” He cracked a smile as Baelor climbed from Arya’s lap to his. “You’ll return to the Red Keep with Alysanne, help her rule?”
“I think I’m going to stay here,” Arya said, not even realizing she was thinking it until the words slipped past her lips.
She nodded, the plan solidifying in her mind. “There’s so much work to do in the North, and they don’t need me anymore. While I was trying to keep them small, they went and grew up. I cannot stay at their sides forever.”
Gendry sighed, wrapping a bare arm around her shoulders and pulling her to him, brushing a soft kiss against her temple. “I will miss you.”
“And I, you.”
This time Arya knew their goodbye was true. There was no heartbreak, no tears, no feeling of being split in two. There was only her and Gendry and their grandson laughing happily in the afternoon sun.
She spent more and more time in the crypts, the cool darkness providing her a temporary refuge from the weight of her grief. The man Robb hired to make the likeness of their father was talented; Arya felt both saddened and unnerved by her father’s stone countenance. Aemon’s and Rhaenys’s likenesses were not completed yet, but Arya doubted they would be able to encompass all they had been in life.
Arya often found herself speaking to her children, alternately apologizing and telling them of the goings on at Winterfell. Some days she’d spend hours there, trying her best to make amends to her eldest children. They’d suffered the most, the two who came when she was still young and carelessly stupid enough to believe she could be free of everything. They were the ones who always understood that which Alysanne and Brandon had been spared from and in the end, they were the ones who bore the brunt of the Targaryen legacy.
She was standing before Rhaenys’s resting place, telling the darkness the story of how happy Rhaenys’s birth was, when Alysanne joined her in the crypts. Her remaining daughter was silent, listening to the story, and when Arya was finished, she said, “You need to come upstairs, Mother.”
“I will come – “
“They’re gone. They cannot hear you.” Gently clasping Arya’s shoulders, she begged, “Do not get lost with the ghosts. Neither of them would want it.”
“I never had the chance to make it right.”
“Make what right?”
“Rhaenys – “
“Rhaenys loved you, Mother, just as Aemon did. Just as Brandon and Baelor and I do. Being angry with you didn’t make them hate you.”
“They died thinking I blamed them for Daeron and Daena.”
“They died blaming themselves for that. Living down here won’t change that. And whatever sins they committed, they gave their lives to save us now. I do not believe any god would punish them after balancing the scales that way.” Alysanne’s hand slid down Arya’s arm, tightly grasping her hand. “Come upstairs. Brandon and I would like to have supper with you.”
Arya went, but her heart remained in the crypts. She could not bear the thought of her children down there in the dark, and she didn’t think she ever would.
Bran brought Brandon their father’s wheeled chair to use, allowing him to at least join the rest of the castle in the great hall. His extreme weight loss made it easy for Robb’s sons to carry him down, and though Brandon clearly hated being treated as a cripple, Arya also saw he was happy to be free of his chamber.
“Maester Padrick thinks I should stay here until I’ve regained some of my strength,” Brandon told her as she pushed him through the glass gardens, the sweet scent of the flowers nearly overpowering. “Gendry says he can make sure Storm’s End is kept running efficiently until I can return.”
“What of Alysanne?”
“Alysanne wants a brood of children and a quiet, happy life. I could provide the one but not the other. We’ve spoken of it. We’re in agreement.”
Though his voice was even, Arya heard the underlying pain. “I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t want your pity, so save it for someone else. It isn’t as if I’ll be lost to her forever. And there’s still Bae.”
“You can always visit King’s Landing?”
Brandon looked up at her, his brow furrowed in confusion. “King’s Landing? Alysanne is going to Dragonstone.”
“Dragonstone? She plans to rule from there?”
He laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “I cannot believe she has not told you yet. She was speaking with Uncle Robb about it this morning.”
“Speaking to me about what?”
“She’s splitting the kingdoms, putting back what the first Aegon put together. Seven kingdoms plus King’s Landing, and she’s giving the Keep to Elia.”
“What? That – That’s madness!”
“Madness, greatness, who can even tell anymore? She’s only returning to the Crownlands to make the declaration. She’s calling all the Great Houses to her and granting them sovereignty. I will be King Brandon, the first Storm king in 300 years.”
Arya considered what he was saying in that moment. Seven kingdoms, seven kings, no Iron Throne…It would have made Rhaenys go mad to even consider it and Aemon would have supported her entirely, but they were gone now. Alysanne was the queen; the queen could do as she liked.
Even if what she liked was putting her own reign to an end.
The column was packed and ready, Alysanne and Baelor to ride in the finest litter, Sansa and Jeyne Westerling to accompany them. Gendry and Robb would ride South as well, Jon to serve as castellan in Robb’s absence, while Bran returned to the Neck and Rickon to the Riverlands. Arya stood behind Brandon’s wheeled chair as goodbyes were made, kisses and hugs exchanged.
“You must come visit when everything is calm,” Sansa ordered her, pulling her into an embrace so tight, Arya could not help but return it just as tightly. “Let us not become strangers again.”
“Never,” Arya agreed, breathing in the scent of Sansa’s hair before they pulled apart. There was a sheen of tears in Sansa’s blue eyes, and it made Arya go forward again to embrace her. “Thank you for everything.”
“It is what sisters do.” Pulling back resolutely, Sansa wiped at her cheeks and smiled down at Brandon. “And you! Rose has been positively begging me to let her visit you in the Stormlands when you return. Will you receive your sister when the time comes?”
Brandon was clearly surprised to hear Sansa’s words but he nodded, a smile spreading across his face. “Always.”
“And you must receive us too,” Alysanne chimed in as she exited the castle, Baelor in her arms. “Just because you will be a king now and I will be a simple lady does not mean you can turn us away.”
Brandon laughed. “A simple lady? My, the lies you tell!”
“Shut up, you,” she ordered, face softening as she bent to kiss his cheek. He still wore the terribly messy beard, and when Alysanne pulled back, there was redness around her mouth. “You will write me?”
“Every week as promised.”
Arya felt as if she should look away from their parting, the air thick with longing and loss. She glanced away and saw Gendry swinging up into his saddle. As if he felt her gaze, he turned and for a moment looked at her. Then he inclined his head, a sad half-smile on his face, and rode to the front of the column.
She returned her attention to her children long enough to see Brandon embrace Baelor, ruffling his hair, and then Gendry was gone from her sight.
As the column made its slow progression from Winterfell, Arya thought of the last royal procession she’d watched leave Winterfell without her. It felt like a hundred years ago, like someone else’s life, and now something new was beginning again.
She remained in the yard after the departure, idly wandering about with Nymeria at her heels, when Jon exited the castle in his riding clothes.
“I was going to ride through the wolfswood. Would you like to join me?”
Arya nodded, gathering her skirts and following him to the stables. As she settled into her saddle, urging her heels into the horse’s sides to take off at a run, laughing as Jon called for her to wait up, for the first time in nearly thirty years, Arya felt like she was finally where she belonged.
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