Arya did not care for the Stormlands the way she had for Dorne. Though Renly certainly allowed her more freedom than Ned had, the attitudes of the Stormlands were vastly different than those held further south. Renly did not care if she spent all day riding Winter around the grounds, had men's clothing made for her so she would stop swiping his breeches, and delighted in the filthy jokes she had learned from eavesdropping on Theon, but he was the only one; the love the smallfolk bore for Renly did not extend to his bride, and Arya found herself painfully lonely.
At Starfall, even when she was at her unhappiest, she, at least, had friends. Lady Allyria enjoyed riding with her, Ned's men loved to wager at cyvasse, and their wives told bawdy tales which made Arya's sides ache with laughter. But the women at Storm's End found her as strange as a dog with two heads, were terrified of Nymeria, and the men all thought Renly needed to keep a firmer hold upon her. Cortnay Penrose was the worst; so often he invoked the memories of the better ladies of Storm's End which came before her, and Arya began to dread the sight of the bald man even more than she once hated the sight of Maester Malcolm. For awhile, she held out hope that mayhaps Edric Storm would return to Storm's End, a familiar face who would, at least, speak to her beyond what was simply courteous, but he remained at court with Gendry, leaving Arya bereft of companionship.
Renly was kind enough, always quick with a smile and quip, but he was also frivolous. He was not good at managing Storm's End, had little head for figures, and the tedium of a lord's life bored him to no end; Cortnay Penrose handled much of the day-to-day affairs, but the decisions which were to be made by the lord Renly promptly passed along to Arya. Soon she was handling all of the affairs of Storm's End, managing the Stormlands and telling Renly whose grievances needed to be heard and how incomes could be increased. There would be weeks where Renly would disappear with his friends, traveling to the Reach or other holdfasts, and Arya suspected he did so simply because he did not want to handle his responsibilities. It was shortly after their first anniversary as man and wife that Arya heard one of the smallfolk refer to her as the Lord of Storm's End.
“It's unnatural,” the man had said, not realizing the woman in men's clothing was the wife of his liege lord. “No man should have to bend the knee to a lady, especially one that isn't even a lady. They say that she-wolf's got a cock between her legs.”
“If she had a cock, Lord Renly might actually fuck her,” another man chimed in, and then there was laughter, rough and cruel, which reminded Arya of Jeyne Poole telling her how she was so ugly, no man would ever want her.
Later, as she wandered through the godswood no one at Storm's End ever visited but her, Arya found herself thinking of Ned Dayne as she last saw him, his fair hair messy from running his fingers through it, an edge of fear in his eyes. She remembered those first few months of her marriage, how she studied Ned when he was not paying attention, trying to figure out who he was; he talked more than most of the men she had known, but Arya remembered her father once warning her that a man's words and a man's actions did not always match. Ned Dayne professed to be a calm, slightly shy man, which was what Arya found to be true; there was no boldness to him, no rebelliousness.
But he was kind and gentle with her; he made sure Allyria helped her adapt to life at Starfall, helped her learn Dornish customs and dances. One of the few truly happy times she had with her first husband had occurred during their first year of marriage, shortly before the first baby was lost. They were invited to Sunspear for Prince Oberyn's name day celebration, and Ned had the most beautiful Dornish gowns made for her. At the celebration, limbs loosened from sweet wine she drank to soothe her mouth burning from the food, she let Ned lead her onto the dance floor, her body as fluid as water as she danced; Ned's eyes burned with desire for her that night, and, if Arya tried, she could still feel his hands against her skin, the hungry press of his mouth against hers.
Though she would never admit it to anyone but herself, Arya missed sharing her bed with a man. Mayhaps it was wanton or shameful, but it was difficult to go from being married to a man who showered her with kisses and tried desperately to please her to having a husband who barely remembered she existed.
This is the sacrifice I made, she thought as she sat before the heart tree. I did not want an old man to climb upon me, so I wed a man who would rather bed one of my brothers than me. I was happy enough in Dorne and still I complained. Mayhaps nothing will ever make me happy.
The crunching of footsteps on the ground brought Arya's attention towards the path, her hand instinctively falling to Needle in her waistband. A tall, lean man entered the clearing, the hood of his cloak obscuring his face, but Arya could tell from his clothing he was not highborn; though well-kept, his clothing was clearly old and patched in places, and Arya thought he might be an apprentice or even a tradesmen. That is, until she saw the sword upon his hip. Arya cared little for gowns and could not differentiate one type of embroidery from another, but she knew Valyrian steel on sight.
“Who goes there?”
The man froze, lifting his own head as if startled, and Arya saw his eyes were a deep purple, the same as the Daynes of Starfall. His skin was paler than Arya's own, the same unblemished porcelain as Sansa's complexion, and his features were sharp yet handsome.
“I am sorry, my lady. I did not expect to find anyone here.”
“Well, you have found me, and you should identify yourself.” When the man hesitated, she drew herself to her feet, raising her chin in frustration. “I am the Lady of Storm's End, and I command you to drop your hood and tell me your name.”
He was still for a moment before inclining his head, pushing back the hood to reveal a shock of blue hair which brushed his shoulders. “I did not mean any disrespect to you, Lady Baratheon. I am Griff of Tyrosh. I have only recently come to the Stormlands, and I certainly did not mean to scare you.”
“You did not scare me,” she scoffed, smirking when Griff of Tyrosh started as Nymeria broke through the trees to sit beside her. “What is a Tyroshi doing in the Stormlands?”
“My mother is from Tyrosh, but my father is originally from Westeros. I grew up in the Free Cities, but I had heard life was more prosperous here.”
“And the blade on your hip? How did you come by it?”
“It was gifted to me by the commander of the Golden Company after I won a great victory.”
“You are a sellsword?” she said, voice thick with derision.
Griff's smile was small, lightly tinged with self-deprecation. “We cannot all be born to highborn lords and ladies who make us good marriages, Lady Baratheon. I am sorry to have disturbed your prayers.”
As he moved to turn, she asked, “Why, if you are from the Free Cities, did you come to the godswood? They do not keep the Old Gods there.”
Griff lifted his face towards the sky, the red leaves clinging desperately to the trees. “I had heard stories, and I wished to see it for myself. I also came to offer my services to Storm's End, but your castellan said House Baratheon does not hire men such as myself.”
“Cortnay Penrose would die before ever hiring a sellsword.” Reaching down to scratch Nymeria's head, she offered, “Lord Connington is still looking for men. His interests were hit considerably by the Ironborn. Are you alone or do you have other men from the Golden Company?”
“There are four men, counting myself, and a lady as well.”
“If you would like, I could write Lord Connington.”
Griff's face wrinkled in confusion. “Why would a lady as highborn as yourself care what becomes of sellswords?”
Remembering one of Septa Mordane's long ago lessons, Arya shrugged. “No matter how small, a lady should care for all who serve her husband.”
A shadow passed over his handsome face, flickering by so quickly Arya almost thought she imagined it. “I thank you for the offer, but I can make my own way.”
When she returned to the castle, she asked Cortnay Penrose about Griff of Tyrosh; the older man ranted about the unsuitability of sellswords, how it would besmirch the honor of House Baratheon and King Robert would never stand for such foolishness. By the time he was finished, Arya could hardly keep from rolling her eyes, but she was unable to keep the frown from her face when he handed her a letter from Renly.
“Your lord husband will remain at Highgarden for three more moons,” Penrose reported, “and he has given you leave to invite Lady Dondarrion to visit, should you want for company.”
Arya knew Renly undoubtedly thought he was being generous, providing her with the freedom she was once so desperate to acquire.
If he is going to give me freedom, she thought as she lay in her large bed, then I shall take the fullest advantage of it.
The next morning, Arya set out to find the blue-haired sellsword from Tyrosh.
It was surprisingly much harder to find a man with blue hair and Valyrian steel than Arya thought it would be. The smallfolk were naturally distrustful of her, Renly's bride or not, and none were eager to give her any information. It was not until she pulled three gold dragons from her purse that a man in a tavern told her of seeing blue-haired men living in a house near the kingsroad.
The snows were nearly melted along the kingsroad, and Winter was finally able to run again; her sand steed was a powerful horse, but his speed was always lessened by the snow. Arya inhaled the fresh scent of the air as her hair flowed behind her, as Nymeria loped along beside her; she tried to imagine she was riding the hills surrounding Winterfell, but the scent of the south could never replicate the unique smell of home. So wrapped up in her imaginings, Arya nearly missed the small house nearly hidden by a grove of trees; only its red door set it apart from the other houses of the smallfolk. Slowing Winter, Arya saw a man and woman of an age with her father standing in the yard; the man's hair was as blue as Griff's and the woman wore the robes of a Septa.
Both looked at her with wide, startled eyes, but neither bent the knee; if Griff's tale was honest and they were new to Westeros, they likely did not know she was Lady Baratheon of Storm's End.
“May we help you?” the woman queried, her voice soft and unimposing.
Arya swung down from Winter's back, pushing her windblown locks over her shoulders. “I am looking for Griff of Tyrosh. I was told I could find him here.”
“Young Griff is hunting,” the woman offered, “but I can tell him of your inquiry. Who may I say has called?”
“Arya Stark. Baratheon,” she quickly corrected with a wince. “I am Arya Baratheon of Storm's End. We met yesterday in the godswood.”
“And what business do you have with my son?” the man gruffly demanded.
Arya shrugged. “I wished to offer him work. He asked my man about it, and I have some available.”
“He does not need work at Storm's End.”
Irritation flared in her belly. “Well, he is a man-grown and, if he does not like my offer, he can tell me himself.”
“My lady,” the Septa began, “we do not wish to involve ourselves with the Iron Throne. Young Griff was hasty in approaching your lord husband's men, and we apologize for any offense we have given. I am certain you can find other men to dedicate their swords to your cause.”
“I have no cause, Septa, and I would prefer to discuss the matter with Griff.”
“Discuss what matter with me?” Griff asked as he came out of the trees, flanked on either side by men old enough to have fathered him. His blue hair was flowing unrestrained, the neat ties from the day before forgotten, and a bow was slung over his shoulder; one of the men carried two large birds felled by arrows.
“Lady Baratheon has come to make an offer,” the Septa said, her voice conspicuously flat, and Arya had a feeling there was an entirely different conversation occurring beneath the woman's gentle words.
“I am sorry, my lady. I thought Storm's End was clear in not requiring my sword.”
“It is not Storm's End which is requesting your skills; it is solely me.”
Griff smirked. “Establishing your own little queensguard?”
“I do not need protected,” she declared, spitting the word as if it was foul. “If you listened to any of the gossip, that much you would know. I want lessons. I have a sword but I was parted from my brothers before I could fully learn to use it. I cannot ask our Master-At-Arms to teach me because he would go running straight to Lord Penrose, who would send ravens to Renly, my father, and the king.” When the Tyroshi man said nothing, she removed a small purse of silver from her saddle and tossed it to him. “I can pay you as well as anyone in the Free Cities, and there is no risk of dying. All I require is discretion.”
Griff tossed the purse to the clean-shaven man, who quickly counted the coins. “What you are asking could get me killed. Lords do not take kindly to lowborn men toiling with their wives.”
She scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Let me assure you, ser, that my husband would neither notice or care if you fucked me on his dining table mid-meal so long as you did not obstruct his view of the Knight of the Flowers. He will care even less if you teach me to use a sword. It is only Lord Penrose who would care, and, if we are discreet, he will never know.” When Griff simply stared, Arya sighed, swinging her leg over Winter's back, settling into her saddle. “I thought a member of the Golden Company would not be so craven.”
“I will train you,” Griff pronounced just as she was about to dig her heels into Winter's sides.
“Griff!” his father snapped, and Arya almost smiled; blue-haired or not, Griff's father sounded exactly like Ned Stark when he used to chastise her brothers.
His son flicked his violet eyes towards his father but gave no other indication he heard him speak. “A gold dragon for every time you come for a lesson.”
“That is fair.”
“And I wish to ride that horse of yours.” Griff laughed at Arya's snort. “I have never seen a horse like this. Where did you get it?”
“It is a sand steed from Dorne. My first husband gave it to me as a wedding present.”
“Your first husband,” Griff repeated ponderously. “And who were you before you becoming Lady Baratheon?”
“Lady Dayne of Starfall.” Turning Winter towards the kingsroad, she added, “And we will discuss my horse when I return tomorrow. I shall bring practice swords, and I do not want you to go easy on me.”
There was something about Griff's smile which made Arya smile in turn. Silly blue hair notwithstanding, Griff of Tyrosh was very handsome.
The clean-shaven man was called Haldon Halfmaester, and Arya suspected he did not care much for her; she knew Griff's father, also called Griff, did not like her. Duck, the man with the orange hair, helped in her training sometimes, and, from the way he explained things, Arya suspected he might have once been Master-at-Arms somewhere like Ser Rodrik. Only Septa Lemore was consistently friendly, occasionally eschewing her septa's robes for gowns; Arya suspected Lemore was not nearly as pious as other septas and even that suspicion was based only on Arya's preference for the woman.
She had been slipping to the house with the red door for nearly two moons when Lemore invited her to remain for evening meal. Arya saw Old Griff scowl, opening his mouth to protest, but Young Griff silenced him with a glare, insisting Arya remained. She knew that she shouldn't; Cortnay Penrose watched her like a hawk when she returned, always battering her with questions, and if she was late, he would certainly report her alleged misdeeds to Renly.
But, purchased with gold or not, Young Griff and his companions were the closest things to friends Arya had in the Stormlands, and it had been so long since she ate a meal with people who actually spoke to her, rather than at her.
“This is Dornish food!” she declared in surprise as all of them gathered around the tiny table, Lemore placing dishes of hot food upon it. Arya was sandwiched between Young Griff and Duck, and the tantalizing smells of the peppers and spices of Dorne made her stomach ache in anticipation. No matter how many requests she made of the cooks of Storm's End, they could never make the dishes she learned to love at Starfall; she suspected Penrose played a part in that, his disdain for Dorne and especially the Martells well-known.
“Griff mentioned you used to be the Lady of Starfall. I thought it would be a nice change.” Sinking into her seat, Lemore confessed, “I have never quite learned to like such plain food myself.”
“Are you from Dorne?”
“In another life, I was.” Lemore smiled, her purple eyes twinkling with laughter. “But what of you, Lady Arya? Mayhaps you could favor us with tales from the North. None of us have ever seen anything above the Neck.”
Heaping her plate with peppers and richly spiced meat, Arya eagerly complied. “It is very different there; I think it is better but I'm sure others would disagree. The Starks were the Kings of Winter before Aegon the Conqueror came, and Winterfell has been my family's seat for 8,000 years. It is the best place in the world. There are hot springs and a godswood, and you can ride all day long if you wish it. Renly promised we will go when spring has truly come, and then I am going on to the Wall.”
“The Wall? Are you taking the black, m'lady?” Duck laughed.
“My brother Jon is Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. I am going to visit him and my brother Robb, who is Lord of Winterfell while my father is the Hand.”
“You are not afraid of the Wall?” Haldon asked. “There are terrible tales coming down, and they say there are wildings serving the realm now.”
Arya shrugged, plucking a pepper from her dish and letting the heat explode upon her tongue. “So there are wildings. If Griff does his job correctly, I will be able to wield a sword skillfully, and, if he doesn't, Jon will guard me.”
“There is a story, is there not, about a wilding taking a Stark princess?” Young Griff said, reaching for the wineskin. “There was a rose or something similar?”
“Bael the Bard,” Arya supplied, remembering Old Nan telling she and Sansa the story when they were small. “But he didn't really take her. She was in the crypts beneath Winterfell the entire time. The crypts are very dark and go deep into the earth. My father never let us go too deeply down where the old kings lay; we were never allowed to pass Lyanna's place.”
“Lyanna,” Griff repeated. “She was the one stolen by Rhaegar Targaryen, yes? She was the one the Seven Kingdoms went to war for?”
She shifted in her chair, surprised the sellsword did not know the tale; she wondered if the exploits of Westeros were known in Essos. “Prince Rhaegar named her Queen of Love and Beauty over Princess Elia at the tourney at Harrenhal. They say he kidnapped her and hid her away at the Tower of Joy, and King Robert nearly went mad at the idea of him raping her. But that was not what started the war.”
“No?” Old Griff challenged, his voice rough. “Then tell us, Lady Baratheon, what did?”
“The Mad King started it,” she snapped, her dislike for the older man plain. “My uncle Brandon went to King's Landing to face Rhaegar and get his sister, but Aerys had them captured. He sent for the fathers of Brandon and his men, and, when my grandfather came, the Mad King burnt him alive and killed Brandon before demanding Jon Arryn send my father and Robert to court to face the same. Jon Arryn refused and called his banners. That is what started the war.”
There was a tension in the room Arya did not fully understand, tension which only thickened when Old Griff pushed, “And Prince Rhaegar and his family?”
“Rhaegar died in single combat against Robert on the Trident, not that it truly mattered since Lyanna died anyway. Tywin Lannister sacked King's Landing, and his men murdered Prince Aegon and Princess Rhaenys as well as raping and murdering Elia Martell.”
“And you think that's just?”
Arya slammed her fork down, glaring hatefully at the older man. “Of course I don't think that's just! Princess Elia was defenseless, and what honor is there in murdering children? Even if Rhaegar did kidnap and rape my aunt, his family played no part in it. They could have sent them into exile as they did Aerys's other children.”
“Aerys's children weren't sent into exile,” Old Griff corrected, voice as tight as a bow string. “They fled or risked being murdered as well. Though, I suppose, the noble Eddard Stark left those details out of the stories he tells.”
“That's enough!” Young Griff ordered, and Arya blinked in surprise at how drastically different Griff's voice sounded. It was the voice of a commander, not the pleasant tone of the sellsword who japed with her in the yard.
“He's right,” Lemore chimed in, her voice softer. “We do not insult our guests, especially ones as dignified as Lady Baratheon.” Spooning a helping of vegetables onto her plate, Lemore ventured, “If you do not mind me asking, what happened to your husband, the Lord Dayne?”
Taking several deep breaths to soothe her temper, Arya finally answered, “He was killed during the Ironborn Rebellion while defending the coast of Starfall. We had no children, so Starfall passed to his aunt Allyria.”
“You want no children?”
“I cannot have them. A child will not quicken in my womb.” It was strange, she thought, how the truth of her words did not hurt until she saw the pity in another's eyes. “But I would make a poor mother.”
“Why is that?” Young Griff asked.
“Because I am a poor lady.” Arya smiled wryly at her friend. “I pay you a dragon a day to teach me to swing a sword. I am hopeless at my stitches, I prefer horses to people, I hate dancing, and I am more comfortable in breeches than I ever am a gown. Why do you think the queen dumped me to rot in Storm's End? She wanted me close enough I could be under watch but not so close as to cause trouble at court.”
“How did you cause trouble at court?” Duck queried as he tore into his meat.
Arya smirked. “You have been in the Stormlands for weeks. Surely you have heard the stories.”
“You had an affair with the prince,” Old Griff supplied distastefully.
“I didn't, but there were enough whispers that my sister preferred me away from court. And the queen has never much cared for me ever since King Robert spent an entire feast calling me Lyanna.” Meeting Old Griff's cold gaze, Arya swore, “I may not be a lady, but I would not bed my sister's husband. There is no honor in that.”
“You place a high price on honor,” Old Griff begrudgingly observed.
“My parents would not have it any other way.”
As Haldon and Duck began to discuss something which happened in town, Arya found herself stealing looks at Old Griff. Young Griff said they were all members of the Golden Company, save Septa Lemore, but Old Griff did not behave like a sellsword; there was something noble in the way he spoke and carried himself. She saw it in Young Griff as well, hints of a man he was trying to hide, and Arya began to suspect there was a great deal more to these five people than what they said.
The light pressure against her knee drew Arya's attention back to the table. Glancing down, she saw Young Griff's fingers absently circling her kneecap as he playfully argued with Duck; it was on the tip of Arya's tongue to chastise him for being so bold, to remind him she was married and of far higher birth than he, but then Griff turned and smiled at her. The secret smile was small, barely noticeable to anyone else at the table, but it made Arya's heart give a particular lurch, especially when coupled with the heat in his violet eyes; it had been a very long time since someone looked at her with desire rather than disdain.
Not since Gendry...
After stuffing herself to the brim with Lemore's cooking, Arya announced she had to return to Storm's End. Lemore embraced her tightly, and there was something in the way she held Arya against her body which brought to mind Catelyn Stark. Griff rose from the table to walk her out, and it seemed odd to see her sellsword without his Valyrian steel strapped to his hip.
“I will not be able to come tomorrow until after midday,” Arya explained as they walked to the tree where Winter was tethered. “I have to hear grievances, which is dreadfully boring, and most of the lords would rather speak to Penrose but - “
Griff's lips were warm and firm, his tongue tasting of Lemore's peppers; Arya froze at the press of his mouth against hers for only a moment before she responded, rising on her toes as her hands knotted in the front of his black tunic. She nearly stumbled as Griff walked her backwards, one hand sliding into her loose hair, the other clutching tightly at her hip; her back rested against the trunk of a tree, and she could feel the length of Griff's body pressing tightly against hers.
You have a husband, a voice which sounded remarkably like Sansa chastised. You are a Stark of Winterfell, and you are letting a lowborn sellsword besmirch your honor like a common woman. Stop it right now, Arya!
But her husband would never want to share her bed, had been at Highgarden for half of their marriage, and she was only twenty-years-old; Arya did not think she could spend the rest of her life being forgotten in Storm's End.
Arya shivered as Griff pulled back, his warm breath misting against her face. “Then I shall see you at midday,” he murmured, peppering wet kisses against the column of her throat. “That is, unless you'd like to stay.”
“I have a husband,” she weakly blurted out, tilting her head to allow Griff to kiss the sensitive skin behind her ear. “This is not proper.”
“What is improper is Renly Baratheon leaving you to rot in this place,” Griff retorted, a surprising ferocity in his voice even as his touch remained gentle. “What is improper is you do not have a husband who thanks the Gods every day to be wedded to you.”
Despite the warmth flowing through her veins, Arya forced herself to slip from Griff's embrace. “You barely know me.”
“I know you are bold and brave, that you are funny and honorable - “
“You praise my honor while asking me to break the vows I made to my husband?”
Griff scoffed. “We both know your husband does not hesitate to break those vows, and you said yourself he would not care if I fucked you on his dinner table. Why cling to a promise made when everyone who made you swear it knew how ridiculous it was?”
“A Stark is no oathbreaker.”
“If that were true, where did your bastard brother come from?” He stepped closer, one hand closing gently around her elbow. “You are human, Arya, and you deserve better than the life your parents sold you into.”
“My parents did not sell me - “
“No, it was your sister,” he acknowledged, his words striking in the most sensitive part of Arya's battered heart. “She wanted you away from the prince and to all seven hells with what you wanted.” Cupping Arya's face, his violet eyes burning bright, he declared, “You deserve all Seven Kingdoms, not this miserable rock that Renly Baratheon does not even care enough to rule.”
“And what, you and your men will give me all of Westeros?” Arya retorted. “I should shame House Stark and Baratheon, bring the wrath of the Iron Throne down upon me, all because the man I pay a dragon to every day thinks I am worth more?”
“No, you should do all of that because you know you are worth more.” Griff leaned forward, grasping her shoulders to keep her in place. “There is a queen inside of you, Arya Stark. Why do you insist on letting everyone else keep you becoming what you were destined to be?”
She jerked away, pressing her hands against his chest to try to force more space between them. “I do not believe in destiny, and I am no queen. I have brought enough embarrassment down upon House Stark, and I will not bring more by dropping my breeches for you.” Swinging up into her saddle, Arya declared, “I will not return here again. Our business has ended.”
“Arya - “
She did not look back as she drove Winter away from the little house with the red door, her hair flying over her shoulders at the punishing pace she set; the cold sea winds bit at her even through the heavy wool she wore. Her body was still singing with arousal, her skin feeling overly sensitive, and Arya cursed her traitorous body nearly as hard as she cursed Griff for upsetting the false balance of her life by hitting her with so many unhappy truths.
He just wanted to fuck me, Arya thought uncharitably as Storm's End rose in the distance. Elia Sand said a man will say anything to into your smallclothes, and that is all it was. He wants my gold and my cunt, nothing more.
But the thoughts did not make her battered heart feel any better, not when Griff and his men were the only friends she had in the Stormlands, not when all she wanted was to let Griff do exactly what he wished before returning to her humdrum life within the walls of Storm's End.
As she rode into the gates, the first thing she noticed was how full the yard was; horses, litters, and supply carts were everywhere as well as soldiers in Baratheon and Lannister colors unloading them. Arya cautiously stopped Winter, her eyes taking everything in, and a cold ball settled in her stomach as she realized the king's court had come to Storm's End and had done so without any warning. And then she saw Cortnay Penrose, and Arya knew there had been warning; it just hadn't been shared with her.
Arya immediately began to wonder how long it had been since court arrived; night was starting to blacken the sky, and she knew she had spent far too long lingering at Griff's table, laughing at Duck's tales and discussing Dorne with Lemore. She quickly handed Winter's reins to one of Renly's men, hurrying towards the castle to offer her apologies to the king. Certainly all of court was whispering about her already, Renly's wild bride who went out without escorts and returned after nightfall. For the first time, Arya hoped her family was not with the king, not wanting to see the disapproval in their eyes.
Spinning on her heel, she saw Renly rushing towards her, his body tight with anxiety. He was dressed finely in green velvet, but there was something uncharacteristically unkempt about his appearance, as if he had been fidgeting with his clothing. Arya knew he had not been expected back at Storm's End for another moon, and an endless amount of questions started to rise in her throat.
“What is going on?” she managed to get out before Renly linked his arm through hers, all but dragging her through the halls towards the hall which held the high seat.
“Penrose wrote Robert about our unique arrangement,” Renly hissed, his hand biting into the flesh of her arm. “I was on my way back from the Reach when I received word. I sent you a raven to warn you what was coming - “
“I did not receive any raven,” she reported, cold fury starting to burn through her veins.
“Everyone arrived hours ago. They wanted to send out riders to find you, but I managed to convince them you'd be back soon. Where the hells were you?”
“Riding,” she lied, absently lifting a hand to try to get her hair to lay flat. She knew she undoubtedly look a fright; her tunic smelled of sweat and was dirty for falling to the ground during her lessons while her riding leathers were battered and filthy. As they entered the chamber, Arya flinched when she saw it was not just King Robert awaiting her; it was the queen, her parents, Gendry, Sansa, and a member of the Kingsguard.
Her skill at curtsying had improved over the years, but her ability to do so without feeling irritation had not. Arya sank low to the ground, inclining her head in as much deference as she could stomach, before apologizing, “I am so sorry, Your Grace. I was not told of your coming.”
“That is all you have to say?” the queen drawled disdainfully. “We arrived hours ago to be met only by your castellan and then you finally arrive looking like a beggar?”
Clenching her fists even as she remained in her curtsy, Arya offered, “I am genuinely sorry, my queen. I meant no offense to you or the king.”
“Get up,” Robert barked gruffly, motioning for his wine to be refilled. As Arya complied, wincing at the cramp which was starting to form in her calf, Robert turned his eyes upon his brother and Arya. “I did not want to be here, but Cortnay Penrose has been sending me ravens practically daily cataloging your exploits.”
“Robert - “
“Shut up!” the king snapped, silencing Renly. “You are both well past the age where these sorts of activities can be overlooked. Houses Stark and Baratheon do not need to be the subjects of gossip from the bloody smallfolk!”
Renly was stiff beside Arya as he requested, “If we are being accused of things, I believe we are entitled to know what it is.”
“What could I possibly say to the Lady of Storm's End?” Robert spat, gesturing emphatically towards Renly, who flushed with embarrassment and anger. “You send your wife to do your job, managing our family's seat and making the decisions while you ride about the Seven Kingdoms doing nothing! Mace Tyrell says you have spent nearly half your marriage at Highgarden!”
“I am an able Lord of Storm's End.”
“No, she is an able Lord of Storm's End!” the king roared, pointing to Arya. “By all accounts, she hears the grievances, she manages the accounts, she decides where the guards will be placed, and she brokers peace between holdfasts! You waste gold having armor made which you will never use while riding around my kingdoms with Loras Tyrell!”
Arya could feel the fury radiating from Renly's body, but it was the absolute humiliation in his eyes which made Arya speak out. She may have hated the way Renly had yet to follow through on his promise of taking her to the North, but she did not hate Renly; he may have been her husband in name only, but Renly was as good of a man as Ned Dayne had been and did not deserve to be berated before everyone.
“All that I have done at Storm's End, I have done on Renly's direction,” Arya lied, trying to force some sense of passivity into her voice. “He has given me ample instruction - “
The king snorted in disbelief. “Well, instruction you will no longer need because my brother is not going anywhere in the near future.” Gripping the arms of the high seat Arya usually sat, Robert proclaimed, “Until I say otherwise, you are not leaving the Stormlands. You will rule the Baratheon family's seat or I will give it to Stannis, and you can live out your days on Dragonstone. Do you understand me?” Not giving Renly a chance to respond, he ordered, “You are going to be the best lord the Stormlands has ever seen, you'll do your damnedest to get a child on your wife, and I will not see Loras Tyrell anywhere near here. Am I clear?!”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Renly choked out, emotion welling in his eyes.
Arya was expecting for the king to dismiss them; she nearly started when Robert turned his blazing blue eyes upon her. “As for you, it is time you start behaving like a lady. I do not know what the Daynes let you do but you're a Baratheon now. I will not hear another word from anyone about you dressing as a man, disappearing without escorts, and there will be no more rides on that damned Dornish horse! You will host wives for tea, smile pleasingly, and the only responsibility you will have is trying to give my brother an heir. Understood?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” she gritted through clenched teeth.
His voice deepening, an edge of undeniable threat in his words, Robert added, “As soon as we are done here, you will go see Maester Rhys for moon tea.”
“Moon tea? How am I to give Renly an heir if you are forcing me to drink moon tea?”
“Because I will not have you bringing some Tyroshi bastard into this castle.” Lumbering to his feet, the king threatened, “And if I ever hear of you sneaking off to see that bloody sellsword again, not even the love I bear your family will keep you from my wrath.”
Arya could not stop the tears of rage and humiliation which began to swim in her eyes. She could see her parents both flinch at the accusation, and Gendry dropped his gaze, face twisting unattractively; only Sansa looked at her, and it was the pity in her face which brought Arya's tears cresting over her lids, spilling down her cheeks. An image of Griff flooded her mind, the sharply handsome features and lips which breathed fire into her body, and Arya wished she had just stayed at the house with the red door, had let Griff tumble her back on his bed and keep her there for as long as he wished; if she was going to be shamed before the people she loved, she would have preferred it to be for something she actually did.
Laying with him was the first thing you have truly wanted in years, and you said no to protect the Baratheon name. And this is your reward.
There would be no trip to Winterfell now, no visiting Jon on the Wall; there wouldn't even be everyday adventures now. All there was going to be was never-ending tedium with a man who would never lay a hand upon her. Arya would have screamed if she thought it would have made a bit of difference, but she knew from experience it would not. No one cared about a woman's screams, least of all the king.
“I did not do anything,” she managed before her voice broke. Swallowing quickly, trying to regain her composure, she repeated more firmly, “I did not do anything to bring shame upon your house.”
“All the two of you have brought down is shame,” Queen Cersei spoke up, her voice as immovable as the Wall. “If your king was less kind, he would dissolve this marriage, send your husband to the Wall, and send you to the silent sisters. You should thank him for his kindness.”
The words hung heavy in the air, and Arya knew she would never be able to force them past her lips even if she hadn't just been accused of being a whore before her parents. She saw Renly shift uncomfortably beside her before he thanked his older brother, and, when eyes fell on her, all Arya could do was glare through her tears.
“Thank your king,” Cersei ordered after an indeterminable amount of time.
“Mother,” Gendry began softly, but Arya refused to let him finish, not wanting to hear him try to defend her.
“Thank you for such kindness, Your Grace. I hope someday I am in the position to offer you the same kindness you have offered me.”
Arya saw her mother's eyes widen at her words, but something close to regret flashed across King Robert's face before he ordered her from the chamber. She tried to leave with as much dignity as she could summon, but tears were still rolling down her cheeks no matter how hard she tried to get them to stop. Vaguely she heard Renly saying her name, but Arya ignored him; there was too much unkindness in her body in that moment to risk speaking to anyone.
By the time Maester Rhys came to her chamber with the moon tea, Arya had changed into one of her many unworn gowns, her face scrubbed free of dirt. She hated Rhys with his leathery skin and judgmental eyes, always looking as if he smelled something foul. Arya swallowed the concoction, wincing at its aftertaste, and she resisted the urge to punch the maester when she saw how he checked the container to make sure she had drunk it all.
Moon tea for a barren woman. It makes as much sense as new boots for a legless man.
When the maester moved to leave, Arya saw her parents waiting to enter her chamber. Under different circumstances, Arya would have rushed towards her father, embraced him tightly and begged for details about her brothers and Winterfell; she would have withstood Catelyn's tutting over her wild hair before allowing her to unwind it, listening to the comforting rhythm of her voice. But both looked so dour and disappointed, Arya wished they were leagues away so she would not have to face them.
“I did not do what the king accused me of,” she swore the moment the chamber door closed. “I broke no vows!”
“Even if that is true, you must see how it appears,” Catelyn reasoned. “What use would a lady have for a sellsword if not something improper?”
“He was teaching me to fight.”
A hint of a smile tugged at Ned's lips but Catelyn only looked exhausted as she sighed, “Oh, Arya...”
“You have to get him to change his mind,” she implored her father. “Renly and I were supposed to go to the Wall to see Jon and - “
“I'm sorry, my girl, but Robert has very definite ideas on Renly staying here for the time being. If I could have swayed him, I would have done it long before we arrived here.”
The reality of the situation fully asserting itself, panic and desperation began to roar in Arya's chest. “I cannot do what he wants me to do. Hosting those simpering women and just sitting still, that's not me!”
“You can learn - “
“I do not want to learn!” Shaking with the effort it took not to grab her mother and pleading for her to understand, she exploded, “I have done everything you ever asked! I wed Ned so I would not break the stupid betrothal with the Daynes, and I did not fight marrying Renly when we all know there is no chance in seven hells he will ever get a child on me! The only thing I have ever asked is to be allowed to go home, and now the king is taking that too! Why can you not see that I am miserable here?”
“Arya, you must understand - “
She scoffed, giving her back to her parents as she crossed to stare out at Shipbreaker Bay. “I understand, Mother. I understand that you will never be able to understand because you are like Sansa and got the good match.” Casting stormy eyes over her shoulder, she bitterly drawled, “Mayhaps you should send a raven to Aunt Lysa, and she can explain it to you.”
Catelyn recoiled from the words as if a physical blow, but it gave no Arya pleasure. Instead she turned her eyes back upon the ocean crashing against the cliffs, wondering if this feeling of emptiness was what drove Ashara Dayne to leap from the Palestone Tower.
The future had never seemed so bleak.
Court had been at Storm's End for nearly a fortnight before Gendry came to her in the godswood. Arya was never a particularly devout person; while Sansa would pray to the Seven and Bran found as much solace in the godswood as their father did, Arya preferred action to praying. But since Robert's decree that she become a proper lady, Arya was allowed nowhere without an escort except the godswood. With no other options, Arya found herself feigning piety more than she ever had, taking Nymeria amongst the weirwoods and just sitting, listening to the wind through the leaves, the sounds so melodic they could almost be mistaken for words.
The day before, Arya was certain the trees were saying, “Run.” Today she only heard, “Dragons.”
“I've always loved the godswood,” Gendry confessed, bending down to ruffle Nymeria's ears. “Sometimes I think I like the Old Gods more than I do the Seven.”
“Best not let your mother hear that or she'll march you to the Great Sept of Baelor herself to remind you of your responsibilities.” When Gendry smiled, Arya could not resist throwing her voice in an uncanny impression of Cersei Lannister. “A king does not worship heathens, Gendry. Honestly, what are you thinking?”
His laughter rose amongst the whispering trees before he chimed in using his father's voice. “Gods be good, boy, you'll raise the Faith Militant if you start saying your prayers to trees!”
“Sansa would be horrified as well. She's always preferred a sept to a heart tree.” Arya lifted a hand to fidget with the net of Myrish lace which held her hair, a gift from her older sister. “She's been lighting candles to the Mother in hopes of giving you a son.”
A frown twisted his mouth for a moment before becoming stoic again. “She worries too much. Elinor can sit a throne as well as any son.”
Arya snorted, rolling her eyes. “Best not say that to your father either. You see how well he looks upon women who do not know their place.”
“You've run the Stormlands better than Renly could ever dream of; my father knows that. He's more angry at Renly than you.”
Gendry was quiet for a moment, studying the bleeding face of the heart tree. And then he said, “You and the Tyroshi - “
He winced at the ferocity of her word. “Arya - “
“I will not discuss this with you, so do not bother trying to sway me.”
For a moment, Arya thought he was going to push, but she saw the fight seem to drain from him as he looked at her. Finally he said, “He will not always be the king.”
“No,” Arya agreed, “but I shall always be your lady aunt.”
Gendry scoffed. “We both know you and Renly hardly have a real marriage. It could be set aside once my father is gone.”
“And then what, yet another husband is chosen for me? If I am lucky, I live out my days at Winterfell, trading one man telling me what to do for another? When Robert dies, life here will likely return to how it was: I will resume running the Stormlands and Renly will return to the Reach. Better yet, Penrose can run Storm's End while I go North and see my brothers.”
“And that is your plan?”
“I can spend time with Jon at the Wall, spend a few months in Winterfell. A ship could take me to the Westerlands to see Bran at Casterly Rock; my mother tells me that Tommen offered him a place there. After that, I can go back to Dorne. Allyria has offered to host me multiple times, and I have maintained a friendship with Elia Sand at Sunspear. Mayhaps I will even join Renly at Highgarden; everyone says Willas Tyrell breeds the best horses, and, since your father has stripped me of Winter, I shall require a new horse.”
“Come back to court.”
“I know you get bored there - “
“Are you really so thick?” Pulling her cloak more tightly around her as the wind kicked up, she snapped, “Sansa does not want me there! She wants your attention focused on her, and I am sick and tired of everyone believing that I am fucking every man who crosses my path!”
“Since when do you care what people whisper about you?”
“Since I was ordered to drink moon tea in front of my parents! Since my sister can barely look at me without thinking I am making plans to seduce her husband! Since every one of those damned whispers has lead to me being stripped of everything I love!” Arya grabbed the full skirt of her green gown, jerking it away from her body. “This is it, Gendry! You cannot save me from being a woman!”
“No because you do not want saved.” There was a bitter taint to his words now, and it curdled Arya's stomach. “You act as if you are the only person in all of Westeros who has been made to do something they did not want. You did not want to be a lady? Well, I did not want to be a prince. Your mother wanted Brandon Stark, your father wanted Ashara Dayne, my father wanted Lyanna Stark, and my mother wanted to be king rather than a queen. The only difference between you and the rest of us is you continue to act as if you are the only one who has suffered for it!”
“Then leave me be! Go back to the castle and perfect Sansa, who has never uttered an unhappy word in her life, and leave me to the trees.”
“This is the bed you made!” Gendry shouted, face flush with fury. “I offered you a life, and you threw it back in my face!”
“You offered me a lady's life in another flavor; that is all!”
“What, and your sellsword offered you something better?” Gendry spat, disgust plain on his handsome face. “That's what you want, some baseborn bastard who will steal your gold and fuck you in the mud?”
It was the coldest insult Gendry ever leveled at her, and the rage which always simmered in her heart began to burn as brightly as wildfire. The words flew out of her mouth before her brain could temper them, and they landed with the biting force she intended.
“Better to be fucked by an honorable bastard than a dishonorable prince.”
Arya had never drawn a man's blood before; for all her practice with Needle and lessons with Griff, her blade was clean. But, as her words sank in, Gendry looked as if he had been run through with Ice, his face so twisted with hurt and offense Arya averted her eyes out of guilt. She felt an apology start to rise in her throat, instantly regretting injuring him this way, but Gendry gave her no chance. Instead he turned and left her, back as straight as iron, no hesitation in his steps.
And still the leaves sang, “Dragons, dragons, dragons.”
It was Sansa who told her of the tourney being planned to mark Gendry's twenty-fifth name day, the court's last celebration before returning to King's Landing. While her sister discussed all the festivities King Robert was insisting upon, all Arya could think about was the cost to Storm's End: nearly 150,000 gold dragons would be spent when all was said and done, a cost Arya knew their coffers would feel. She did not have any true love for the Stormlands, but they were still hers by marriage the same way Starfall had once been hers; Arya knew she was not a good wife but she was an excellent manager of a household.
Sansa, of course, knew nothing of managing a household; it was Lord Littlefinger's duty to take care of her family's funds, and, should they run low, Lord Tywin would hand over gold to his grandson without hesitation. It gave Arya a peculiar sense of pride to know she could do something Sansa could not.
“Why are you so sour-faced? You always loved a tourney when we were younger.”
Arya looked up from her embroidery, as haphazard and crooked as ever. Sansa sat on a soft velvet chair, her skirts an icy shade of blue which contrasted well with her coloring; Elinor, nearly six now, sat at her feet cradling a finely made doll with an ivory face, her auburn hair plaited and pinned as securely as her mother's. There was enough of Gendry in the child's face to keep her from being distinctly beautiful but Arya suppose she was a pleasant enough child, already well-schooled in her courtesies; if she were honest, Arya much preferred Rose, who was not comelier than her older sister but had mischief sparkling in her blue eyes.
“That is because I wished to be a knight.”
Elinor's little nose wrinkled. “Girls cannot be knights, Aunt Arya.”
“Yes, thank you, Elinor.” Biting her lip to keep from cursing as her thread broke, Arya elaborated, “And now I understand what a tourney costs the lords who hold it. Storm's End cannot bear this sort of expense easily.”
“That is a concern for Renly, not for you,” Sansa gently reminded her. “I insist on having a new gown made for you for the occasion.”
“I have dozens of gowns barely worn. I do not require a new one.”
A flicker of irritation passed across Sansa's pretty face before dissipating. “This is a gift, Arya. I shall have a fine gown made for you, a gown befitting the Lady of Storm's End. Do you have a red gown?”
“No,” she answered grudgingly, threading her needle again.
“I long to wear red, but it does not suit my coloring. Now that Alisa's hair is darkening, I suspect she will be able to wear Lannister crimson.”
“Are you honestly talking about colors?” Arya could not help but ask, wincing at the sharp look Catelyn gave her from across the room.
Sansa's face soured temporarily, setting her embroidery down upon her lap. “I am sorry. Did you have a topic you would prefer more? I confess I have never quite mastered the art of conversation with you, given our differing interests. Please pick our topic.”
Arya did not doubt her words would have been more pointed if their mother and Elinor were not present, and Arya suspected she was acting a bit of a brat; Sansa was frivolous and frustrating, but Arya knew her sister genuinely did not mean to offend her.
“How many events will take place at the tourney?” Arya asked, offering a weak smile when Sansa began to describe what details she learned from the queen.
It was an interesting skill, Arya decided, to learn to listen without hearing a thing.
After midday meal, Arya found herself carrying Rose out to the yard to watch the tourney grounds being erected. Her middle niece was the only one who seemed to bear her aunt any love at all; Elinor was a miniature of Sansa, loving songs and dolls, while Alisa was still barely more than a baby and an ill-tempered one at that. But Rose was happy and energetic, quick to talk to anyone and everyone, and she had earned chastisement from the queen a few days earlier for wrestling with Nymeria. Arya saw enough of herself in Rose that it made her rethink her unkind opinions towards children.
Balancing Rose on her hip, the little girl's arms around her neck, Arya described what each construction would be used for; she explained how a tilt was ridden, how a melee was fought, how you won the archery competition. Arya had not the faintest idea if Rose understood what she said, but the little girl listened eagerly and asked questions like an eager student.
“Elinor says Father is going to win the tourney.”
“He might,” Arya acknowledged. “He has won tourneys before and named your mother Queen of Love and Beauty.”
“Uncle Bran won a tourney once, and he gave the flowers to Aunt Meera.”
Arya had yet to meet her brother's wife; all she really knew of Meera Reed was that she was from the Neck and Sansa found her to be utterly unrefined. “Any man can win a tourney if he rides well enough.”
“Can a lady win a tourney?”
“Ladies do not usually ride in tourneys. It is frowned upon.” Seeing the way the little girl's face fell, Arya added, “But Brienne of Tarth, she has ridden before; she may ride at this one since it is so close to Evenstar Hall. She is one of the best knights I have ever seen.”
“I wish I could be a knight, but Mother says I am a princess.” Rose rested her head against Arya's shoulder. “Father says I can have a pony on my next name day. Aunt Margaery has already asked which color I would like.”
“You will like riding.”
“Can you take me on your horse?” Lifting her head, her blue eyes swollen with hope, she added, “Father lets me ride with him sometimes.”
Arya knew it would drive Sansa to distraction if she did so; her sister wanted to raise proper princesses. But Rose looked so hungry for adventure, and Arya could recall how happy it once made her when Uncle Benjen raced her around Winterfell on his horse, his arms tight around her waist.
The stable boy looked unsure when Arya ordered him to saddle Winter, but the boy did not dare deny it; Rose bounced excitedly on her heels as Arya swung up into the saddle, her gown keeping her from doing it as gracefully as she once had. Rose giggled as Arya settled her small body in front of her, and Arya made sure to hold her securely in the circle of her arms as she urged Winter out into the yard. As Rose's laughter rang in her ears, Arya found herself blindsided with emotion as her throat and chest tightened with tears; she had not sat a horse since King Robert came to the Stormlands, and Arya did not realize how desperately she missed this.
“Go faster, Aunt Arya!” Rose urged, and Arya complied, sending Winter into a trot; the pace was maddeningly slow for Arya, who knew just what kind of speed Winter was capable of, but, for Rose, it felt like flying.
This is what having a child would feel like, Arya realized, Rose's back warm against her chest, the girl's small hands clutching the reins alongside Arya's, the sweet scent of the girl's hair in her nose. Arya never considered herself to be particularly maternal; she never cooed over babies in the cradle nor fantasized about what she would call her children. Even when she was pregnant, Arya was certain it was not something she particularly wanted; it was just something she had to do because she was a wife. But, as Rose giggled and cheered as they rode, Arya thought it would not have been so terrible to be a mother if her children were like Rose.
“What the bloody hells are you doing?” Robert roared as he, Ned, Renly, and Gendry exited the castle, spears and bows in their hands for hunting.
Arya immediately stopped Winter, clutching Rose a bit tighter. Her niece was oblivious to her grandfather's rage, grinning broadly at her grandfathers, uncle, and father.
“Look, Father! I'm riding!”
Gendry moved forward, reaching his hands out for her. “Yes, you are, sweetling.”
“I want a pony like this! Aunt Arya, will you ride horses with me when I get my pony?”
Arya struggled not to wince at the hopeful tone in her voice. “We shall see, my love.” She accepted her father's hand, helping her down from Winter without getting tangled in her skirts, and it seemed to strengthen her, having Ned Stark at her side.
“I thought I said you weren't to be on that Dornish beast again!”
Trying to keep her voice calm, not wanting to create a scene before Rose, Arya explained, “Rose wished to ride, and I do not trust another horse as I do Winter. You may ask anyone in the yard; we only came so far as this and were always in sight.”
“Aunt Arya wouldn't let us run,” Rose piped up, “even though I begged. She said I'm too little still.”
“It was harmless, Robert,” Renly pronounced, chucking Rose gently beneath her chin. “Why, you must have ridden with me like that half-a-hundred times when I was a child, and I know I rode with Tommen the same way. You're stabbing at shadows.”
There was something in Robert's eyes as he looked at her, something dark and lost which made Arya squirm; it was almost worse than when he'd look at her with longing in his face, the memory of Lyanna Stark blatant in every word or deed. This look was twisted up in desperation and impotency; it was the look of a man who could not control what was happening.
He wants to keep me where no one else can get to me, the maiden in the tower that he controls.
“I don't want you on that horse,” Robert said, his voice less gruff as his temper cooled. “You'll sell it.”
But Winter is the last thing I have which is truly mine. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“It can go to the winner of the tourney,” the king pronounced. “Older horse or not, a sand steed will be much desired.”
As Arya carried Rose back to her sisters, she prayed with everything she had that Gendry would win the tourney.
The snows melted in time for the tourney, but Arya knew this was not spring. There was still a lingering chill in the air, and she swore she could smell snow over the horizon, promising to return; when she shared her thoughts with her father, he smiled and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, declaring that she was correct and this was a false spring. As her maids laced her into the elegant crimson gown Sansa commissioned, Arya could already see the scores of men milling about; Prince Joffrey and Princess Margaery arrived earlier in the week for the tournament as well as Loras and Garlan Tyrell, most of House Martell, and even Lord Beric with Allyria. The men competing were all adorned in their finest armor, wanting to collect the purse of 50,000 dragons and her sand steed as well. Even Renly wore armor, intent on riding a tilt, and Arya dutifully gave him a favor to tie upon his lance.
“Lord Renly looks very fine in his armor,” Sansa offered as they had their midday meal. Her sister wore a dress of bright blue with Myrish lace, and she looked positively radiant as she nibbled at her food.
“Yes, Renly always looks fine.”
“Have you spoken to Maester Rhys about a tonic for fertility?”
My fertility matters not a lick when neither of us can bring ourselves to even undress before the other. “We are going to start to try once the castle is calm again.”
Dropping her voice as if to tell a secret, Sansa murmured, “I know there was unrest between the two of you before we came, but I am happy to see you two getting on so well now. I know we did not last part on the best of terms - “
“Sansa - “
“No, please.” Taking a deep breath, Sansa continued, “I know we did not last part on the best of terms, but I truly meant you no harm. I honestly thought this would be a match which would serve you well. I do not want you to hate me.”
“I don't,” Arya genuinely swore. “You may have made the suggestion, but it was only a matter of time.”
Sansa was quiet for a long beat, absently tapping an egg with a spoon to break its shell, before revealing, “He has never forgiven me for it, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gendry,” Sansa clarified. “The night your betrothal to Renly was announced, we had a terrible row, the worst we have ever had. He slept in his solar for weeks after your wedding. I was certain he would never forgive me. And then one night he came to me in his cups, as sad as I have ever seen him, and do you know what he said to me?”
“Of course not.”
“'She was my only friend.'” Sansa lifted her gaze from her plate, and Arya thought Sansa appeared to have aged well-past her two-and-twenty years. “How does a prince surrounded by dozens of men not have a single friend?”
“The same way a lady can sit in a parlor and know not a single woman cares an ounce for her but will still smile to your face because you are the wife of her husband's liege lord.”
Sansa nodded absently. “I sometimes believe I shall never understand Gendry in the same way I shall never understand you. Both of you are so damnably stubborn. But I do know he is still in love with you.”
It was the matter-of-fact way Sansa said it which surprised Arya more than anything. She was used to Sansa's anger and disdain; this logical calm was disconcerting. “I believe you are mistaken.”
“You will always have a part of him I cannot touch; I have come to accept that. I can even accept that he requires your friendship to fulfill some emptiness in him which his brothers cannot fulfill. But the whispers...”
“I wish them to stop as well.” Sipping from her cup, Arya admitted, “I hated you for sending me here, I can confess that. But I swear to you on everything in this world, Gendry has never broken his vows to you, not with me. It is just idle gossip.”
“And the sellsword? Is that gossip as well?”
Arya felt herself blush brightly, hating her treacherous face. Tugging the edge of her lip between her teeth, worrying it gently, she finally managed, “I did not require moon tea.”
“But you conducted an affair?”
Arya shook her head, not sure how to explain Griff and his companions. Finally she decided upon, “He just made me feel things, is all.”
Her sister's eyes grew wide in her head as she leaned forward, voice barely audible above the din of the hall. “Do you love him?”
“No, it was not...It was not how the king made it seem. But I...I loved the way he made me feel.”
“How did he make you feel?”
“Powerful,” was all Arya could say before Margaery sank down beside Sansa, smiling broadly as she recounted the events of the archery competition.
It was not until later, as Arya was watching the melee with Sansa at her side, that she realized this was the only time she ever truly felt as if she and Sansa were truly sisters.
The mystery knights arrived on the second day of the tilts as they always did, some clad in fine armor, others in armor which was ill-fitting. Next to Ser Loras, Gendry, Trystane Martell, and the other fine knights who had survived the first day of rides, none of the mystery knights seemed particularly intimidating. As Arya filed into the stands with Allyria Dayne and Arianne Martell, Sansa sitting in the royal box with the queen today, she expressed her disdain with the rather predictable showing.
“Oh, I think it may get interesting today,” Arianne said with a knowing smile. “Have you not seen the Dragon Knight?”
“The Dragon Knight?”
The Dornish princess pointed across the yard to where the mystery knights were assembled. Instantly Arya saw precisely who Arianne was speaking of, having a conversation with another of the mystery knights. He was taller than most of the knights, though not so large as Lady Brienne or the Cleganes; though difficult to ascertain beneath his armor, Arya thought he was lean but clearly strong. Unlike his fellow mystery knights, the Dragon Knight wore fine, black armor which gleamed in the sunlight; his dragon's head helm was black as well with rubies inlaid for the eyes. A sword with a dragonbone pommel hung in a scabbard around his waist, and his shield bore a dragon before a blazing orange sun which reminded Arya of the midday sun in Dorne.
“They say he is the ghost of Rhaegar Targaryen, come to ride again,” Allyria whispered with a giggle.
“It is far more likely he is some rich lord's son hoping to get a knighting. With armor like that, he's probably a Hightower,” Arya replied.
“If he is Rhaegar's ghost, I cannot wait to see if he draws Gregor Clegane's name,” Arianne spat, sipping from her wine. “I would give every ounce of gold in Dorne to see the Mountain ridden down.”
After the first round, only the Dragon Knight and a man with a mammoth on his shield remained of the mystery knights, and the knight with the mammoth shield was quickly unseated by Trystane Martell in the second round. When the Dragon Knight pulled Ser Loras's name, Arya could hear men in the stands exchanging bets, many wagering their money on Loras Tyrell. As each man dipped their lance towards Robert before going to opposite ends of the field, Arya watched the Dragon Knight, finding something familiar about the man.
The crowd's cries of disbelief when the Dragon Knight easily unhorsed Ser Loras on the first pass echoed in the air; the Knight of the Flowers was incredibly well-liked throughout the kingdoms, and no one had ever been able to unseat him with such apparent ease.
“He is going to win,” Arya declared, surprising herself with the proclamation.
“You're certain?” Arianne asked, quirking an eyebrow. “You think he can beat the rest, even the prince?”
Arianne gestured towards the man collecting bets, placing a purse full of gold upon the Dragon Knight. Turning her dark eyes upon Arya, she teased, “We had best hope you are correct or else my father is going to be quite angry with me.”
“Why would you bet all your coin?” Arya exclaimed in shock.
“You are better at predicting a tourney than a maegi.” Dropping her voice, her breath hot against Arya's ear, she added, “And mayhaps I would like to see a dragon knock a stag to the dirt.”
It was a curious thing, the enduring enmity between Houses Baratheon and Targaryen. In Winterfell, with Septa Mordane and Maester Luwin, she had been taught her histories, and those lessons always carefully laid out why Targaryen rule was horrible, why Rhaegar deserved to die on the Trident, why Robert Baratheon's ascension to the throne and Ned's role in it all was honorable. Only in Dorne did Arya truly begin to hear another side of the story, a story which was never whispered in the other kingdoms.
When she first came to Starfall, Allyria would tell her stories of her fallen siblings; she was barely more than a child when Arthur and Ashara died, but Ned's aunt told tales of her knightly brother and beautiful sister as if she recalled everything with perfect clarity. Once she even let Arya hold Dawn before replacing it in its place of honor, waiting for use by the member of House Dayne worthy enough to swing it.
“Arthur once told me that the two greatest honors of his life was to wield Dawn and to wield it in service to his dearest friend.”
“But Rhaegar Targaryen was not honorable.”
Allyria had looked at her then, her violet eyes studying her with unsettling intensity, before replying, “Is that what they teach you in the North?”
Later, when she and Ned went to Sunspear, Elia Sand blatantly referred to Robert as “the Usurper.” She talked about the aunt she was named for, how her father still locked himself away on Princess Elia's name day, too overcome with grief; she discussed Rhaenys and Aegon's murders and swore vengeance on the Lannisters. Sometimes her sister or her mother would try to calm her down, but Elia was relentless in her hatred. On her last night in Sunspear, drunk on Dornish wine and swollen with questions, Arya had asked, “If you hate Robert so much, why not rebel?”
“So the Martells become usurpers? Besides, with Lannister gold funding him, Robert Baratheon will sit that throne until a Targaryen takes it back.”
“You think Aerys's children will cross the Narrow Sea with an army?”
“Only if there is justice in this world.”
As the Dragon Knight prepared to tilt against Trystane Martell, Arya wondered how many people in Westeros thought the same way as Elia Sand, how many Targaryen supporters still existed in the Seven Kingdoms.
When only Gendry and the Dragon Knight remained, Arya realized what was so familiar about the mystery knight. It was something so small, the way the mystery knight adjusted his grip on his lance, but Arya recognized it; it was the same adjustment Duck showed her using her practice sword, the one which was supposed to take pressure off your wrist when it ached. The Dragon Knight was too tall and lean to be Duck; the only other person Arya ever saw use the same grip was Griff.
She wished it did not make her stomach flutter in nervous anticipation to know Griff was so close.
Arya could not help but flinch when Gendry and Griff's lances connected solidly with the other's shield; she knew from sparring that Griff was strong, but Gendry possessed a massive amount of strength. Court was full of tales of Gendry and his hammer during the Ironborn Rebellion, how he had killed one on Euron Greyjoy's men with a blow so powerful, it pushed his chest out through his back. But Arya also knew Griff was faster, able to bring up his shield and pivot quickly enough to keep his seat, even as Gendry's lance shattered.
“Gods, he is strong,” Allyria observed as both men returned to their places to start again, Gendry being given a new lance.
“Are you certain I am not about to lose my gold?” Arianne japed.
Arya said nothing, her eyes refusing to leave the field.
The moment the tips of their lances passed, Arya knew with absolute certainty Gendry was going to be unseated; Griff's lance struck the crowned stag on the prince's shield at just the right angle, and Arya saw Gendry grasp at the reins before landing hard on the ground. Gasps and cheers mingled as the Dragon Knight turned his horse back towards the prince instead of riding to retrieve the crown of winter roses to give to the Queen of Love and Beauty. As Griff slipped from his saddle, Arya heard the confused whispers amongst the spectators, but she knew what he was going to do; he had done it for her half-a-hundred times.
Griff extended his hand, helping Gendry back to his feet. The crowd roared its approval, and, as Gendry removed his helm, Arya could see the look of respect in his eyes for the Dragon Knight. She could not hear what words were being exchanged between the two men, but, after a moment, Griff reached up and removed his jeweled helm. His blue hair was sweat slicked and tight against his head, but his violet eyes and handsome features were just as Arya remembered them.
Arya had never heard an entire tourney go as silent as the dead before; she found her parents sitting before the royal box, and she could see her father's face was as pale as milk as he stared at Griff and Gendry, almost as if he was seeing a ghost.
So distracted by her father's appearance, Arya barely heard Allyria breathe, “It is uncanny,” before Arya felt something settling on her lap. Snapping her head, she found herself eye-to-eye with Griff, a crown of winter roses as blue as his hair once was resting on her legs.
“The godswood tonight,” he murmured, his voice so soft that his words were nearly carried away by the shocked whispers of the crowd, before turning his horse and riding away.
It was not until Arianne pressed a handkerchief against Arya's palm that she realized her tight grip on the crown of flowers had caused the thorns to dig into her skin and drawing blood.
“Do you know him?” Allyria asked as they rose, Arya determined to hide away in the castle before the king could begin shouting at her yet again.
“He's Griffin of Tyrosh.”
The Dornishwomen exchanged looks, heavy with subtext, before Arianne declared, “Well, you certainly have good taste.”
“Robert said I have to bed you tonight,” Renly reported as he entered Arya's bedchamber. “He said I'm not to leave your chambers until I've put a child in you.”
“He doesn't quite grasp what 'barren' means, does he?” she drawled, setting the book she was reading on her nightstand. Her body was tight with tension, anxious to escape to the godswood to see what it was Griff wanted with her, but Arya knew it would need to be much later before she could find out. The king was wroth over the Dragon Knight crowning her Queen of Love and Beauty, raging about insults to Baratheon honor, and Arianne whispered during the feast that, after receiving his purse and Winter, the Kingsguard had ordered Griff to leave the Stormlands.
“The only things my royal brother grasps is wineskins and his cock.” Renly tugged off his boots before climbing into bed beside her. They had feigned this enough times during their times together, and sometimes Arya even liked it when Renly would spend the evening in her bed; he could be incredibly funny when he wished to be.
“Such high esteem you keep him in.”
Renly smiled, stretching out on the mattress so he rested on his elbows near her feet. Reaching with one hand, he felt the fabric of her nightgown. “I quite like this. Makes you look so sweet and innocent.”
Arya halfheartedly kicked him in the shoulder. “Neither words which have ever been used to describe me. Much like modest and shy will never be used for you.”
He shrugged with a smile, fingers slipping around her ankle before venturing, “The Dragon Knight...”
“What of him?”
“Do you love him?”
“No,” she instantly answered. “I have told you before we did not have an affair.”
“Yes, and Loras and I are only the dearest of friends.” Renly shook his head with an affectionate smile. “Sometimes I believe you are the most difficult person to know. It is like you keep ten thousand secrets and do not wish to part with a single one.”
“Then I am like every other person in the Seven Kingdoms.” Arya shifted, propping herself up against the headboard. “Did you know my aunt?”
Surprise shone in Renly's eyes but he did not comment upon it. Instead he seemed to think for a moment before nodding. “I only met her once, and I was so small then, barely older than Elinor. At the time, I was so excited to be there, I barely cared at all to meet Robert's betrothed.”
“Harrenhal, of course. It was the firs time I had ever been to a tourney, and that was one so large. Robert introduced both Stannis and me to the Starks, showing off Lyanna the way he would have a prized destrier.”
“What was she like?”
Renly shrugged. “Pretty, I suppose. She was kind, and I remember she gave me extra sugared dough when I was told I had enough. Like I said, I was young.” Arya opened her mouth to reply when he added, “But I remember when Rhaegar gave her the flowers. I didn't understand at the time why everyone was so upset, but I remember the look on Robert's face.”
“What did it look like?”
“Like all the air was sucked from his lungs.” Meeting her gaze steadily, he added meaningfully, “The way Gendry looked today when your sellsword gave you the flowers.”
“Shut up!” she ordered, digging her heel into Renly's ribs. He grunted before capturing her legs, and Arya laughed as he wrestled with her; it reminded her of Robb and Jon, of being little again with no cares in the world. Renly caught her wrists, trying to pin her to the mattress, but Arya smoothly slid from beneath him, flipping his body as she caught him by surprise, sitting on his stomach with a smirk.
“You always win,” Renly complained good-naturedly, staring up at her with affection on his face. Arya blinked in confusion when he lifted a hand, gently cupping her cheek, his thumb stroking the line of her cheekbone.
Renly playfully tweaked her nose. “I was just thinking that, if I had to be forced to take a wife, I'm glad that it is you.” He sat up, essentially holding Arya in his lap. “At least you are fun. Did you know Robert wanted me to marry one of Walder Frey's daughters? I would have taken the black first.”
“You would never take the black,” she argued, ruffling his hair the way Jon used to do to her. “The Night's Watch is not allowed to fuck.”
“That's because their cocks freeze off.” Renly leaned forward, his lips brushing against her forehead tenderly. “Feel pregnant yet?”
“With twins, no less.”
“Fabulous!” Playfully dumping her onto the mattress, Renly forced his feet back into his boots, preparing to leave. Arya rose on her knees, rumpling his shirt and loosening his ties, before pronouncing, “Now you look like you have fucked your wife well.”
“What would I do without you?” he quipped.
“Give Loras my best.”
A shadow descended over Renly's face, undoubtedly remembering that soon he and Ser Loras were going to be parted, and he nodded crisply before hurrying from her chamber. Arya tried to resume reading, but her adrenaline was flowing too strongly; by the time enough of Storm's End was in their beds, Arya was bursting with impatience, hands shaking in anticipation as she tried to lace her breeches. In men's clothing, she looked very little like the Lady of Storm's End; enough layers hid the small swells of her breasts and camouflaged the curve of her hips. Only her hair gave her away, and Arya made sure to gather it tightly against her head, slicking it down with oil to make her look more like one of the many men who were still lingering at Storm's End following the tourney.
Tucking Needle into her belt loop, the dragonglass dagger hidden beneath her furs, Arya slipped unseen from the castle, heading towards the godswood. In the darkness, she could hear Nymeria and Lady singing, the full moon rousing their instincts, and Arya thought of Ghost, Grey Wind, Summer, and Shaggydog, of the pack her wolf had lost.
She found Griff before the heart tree, his destrier and Winter watering in the stream. Arya saw he had exchanged his fine tourney wear for his ordinary, patched clothing, his tourney sword replaced with his Valyrian steel. When he turned to look at her, Arya saw infinite sadness in his lilac eyes, and she wondered if the Kingsguard's order to flee was what caused it.
“You shouldn't have given me the flowers,” she said by way of greeting, reaching to rub Winter's side.
“Did you throw them away?”
“No, they're in my room,” Arya admitted, shivering as the leaves began to dance, the whispers of the trees starting again.
Griff stepped closer to her, face as serious as she had ever seen it. “If I don't leave the Stormlands, the king has promised to have my head. There is a ship leaving for the Free Cities tonight, and I will be on it.”
Sorrow began to twist her insides. “So you have come to say goodbye.”
“No, I have come to ask you to come with me.” One hand finding purchase on her hip, the other cradling her face, Griff entreated, “You would love Essos. It is nothing like here, with the rules and the limitations. You could be anything, anyone there. I know you do not believe that I possibly can, but I know you, Arya; your heart is the same as mine, and being beneath the thumb of a Baratheon for the rest of your life is no life at all.”
“I cannot just leave!”
“You would rather stay, let them dress you up in gowns you hate and give away what little you have which is not theirs? Come with me and I swear I will give you everything you have ever wanted.”
“I want to go home, and I will never be able to do that if I go with you.”
“Do you honestly believe that is an option if you stay with Renly Baratheon?” Drawing her nearer, his breath warm against her face, he insisted, “We could make a new home, the two of us. Duck can be our Master-At-Arms, Haldon will be our maester, Griff will be our castellan, and Lemore can be the septa to our children.”
“There can be no children - “
“There will be children,” Griff insisted. “I have seen it in a dream, Arya. We will have three, two daughters and a son.”
“It was just a dream.”
“It wasn't!” His kiss was firm but did not linger, and Arya felt as if her head was spinning. “We were destined to be together. Ours will be the song of ice and fire.”
“I cannot,” she began, her voice trailing off, resolve weakening.
“You will be free, Arya. Is that not what you want?”
Freedom...It was all she had ever wanted. How many times had she lamented her status as a girl to Jon Snow or begged Bran to escape to the Wall with her? How many times had she cursed Sansa for easily accepting whatever she was told to and vowing never to do the same? Yet here she was, everything she never wanted to be, and Griff was offering her the chance to be the person she wanted to be without any interference.
I will shame all of House Stark if I do this. They will never speak my name again, and I would not see them for the rest of my life.
They are already lost to you, a perfectly logical voice which sounded much like Bran pointed out. You will not be able to leave the Stormlands until the king is dead, and already they are starting to become strangers to you. Your mother has only been to the Riverlands a handful of times in nearly thirty years. Winterfell is not your home anymore.
Arya spared one last glance at the castle before nodding minutely, mounting Winter. She could hear Nymeria's howl like a siren song, trying to summon her back, but Arya knew Griff was right: this was the only way she would ever be free.
As they rode from the godswood, the leaves sang, “Queen, queen, queen.”
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