The storm arose from nowhere, tossing about their ship as if it was a toy. Arya held Aemon tightly against her chest as Rhaenys clung to Ashara, her scared crying the most pitiful sound Arya could had ever heard. Though no one was saying it, Arya knew they were in real danger, that the ship was taking a horrible beating. Ashara was singing in a soft, deceptively calm voice, songs about Targaryens long since dead; Rhaenys always loved to hear about her family's heritage, pleading to hear about all the women who came before her: Queen Rhaenys, Queen Visenya, Queen Alysanne, Daena the Defiant, even Shiera Seastar. But, while the songs were calming Aemon, his little hands loosening their grip on Arya's tunic, Rhaenys continued to cry, fully aware of the danger they were in.
“The boat is going to break!” her daughter sobbed, clinging to Ashara with all of her limbs, her face brightly flushed red and soaked from tears. At nearly four, Rhaenys was already taller than most children her age with a surprising amount of strength in her body, the result of playing aggressively with the other children in Vaes Dothrak. Since leaving Volantis, her daughter wanted little to do with Arya, blaming her for being parted from Aegon; Rhaenys spent her days clutching her father's necklace, trailing after Ashara, and driving the ship's crew to distraction by being underfoot.
Arya thought of Shipbreaker Bay in the Stormlands, of the massive storms which used to rage there, and suppressed a shudder. “It is not going to break, sweetling. The captain knows what he is doing.”
“I want Father!” Rhaenys wailed, and, as she began to cry even harder, Aemon began to lift his voice to join with hers, always so sensitive to his beloved sister's moods. They were never far from each other, her son and daughter, the very best of friends; Rhaenys fiercely loved her younger brother and Aemon always sought his sister for comfort before seeking Arya or Ashara.
Arya reached for Rhaenys, passing Aemon to Ashara in a move practiced over the past three moons at sea. Kissing away the hot tears on her crumpled face, Arya confessed, “I want him as well, my girl. But soon we will be with your Uncle Jon, safe and sound, and, if the Gods are good, we will see your father soon.”
It was not a lie; she did miss Aegon. Some nights she longed for him so acutely, she could hardly breathe, sickened with grief and shame. When she first conceived of this plan, preferring to ride out the coming war with someone she trusted rather than someone who so obviously had a vested interest in the outcome, Arya did not think of what it would be like for Aegon to hear word she and the children never arrived in Pentos. Arya still felt anger at Aegon for breaking his promise, for putting her family in danger, but her love for the man she knew him to be did not waver.
Arya had already lost one husband to war; she knew the costs. But this was not the Ironborn Rebellion; in this war, Arya wished for both sides to win, for Aegon to reclaim what he had lost and for Gendry to survive, and she knew that could not happen.
“I want to go home,” Rhaenys whimpered, and Arya almost pointed out that they did not have a home, only the kindness of friends and family. It took her a moment to realize Rhaenys meant Vaes Dothrak, the only home she had ever known.
“So do I, my love. So do I.”
The crew member came into the cabin, bracing himself against the door frame, soaked to the bone. “We've taken hits, m'lady. We have to dock in Gulltown or we'll capsize!” Arya knew there must be fear on her face for the man quickly added, “Do not worry, m'lady. War hasn't come to the Vale yet.”
Arya knew tales of war were being told whenever they went into port. In the Stepstones, there were stories about dragons gathering in Volantis; in Braavos, as Arya sought out the ship to take them North, sailors whispered about dragons landing in the Stormlands. There had been no word since then, moons having passed without stepping off of Titan's Terror, but Arya said as many prayers for Renly at Storm's End as she did for Aegon.
Dawn was breaking as they made port in Gulltown, and, as the rain continued to pound, Arya came above deck, Rhaenys in her arms, Aemon asleep on Ashara's shoulder. A few silver stags convinced one of the crew members to carry their trunks to an inn, but, even as Arya handed over enough coin for a room, she realized the gold in purse was running low. If Titan's Terror was no longer seaworthy, Arya was not sure she would be able to afford another ship to take them on to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
As the children slept curled around each other, Arya and Ashara changed into dry clothing. Ashara nudged the children over, dropping kisses to the tops of their heads, before sighing, “Does anyone know you in the Vale?”
Arya shook her head. “No, but I think it would be best if we stay in the room until we sail again.”
“Do we have the gold for that?”
“There are things we can sell should we run out,” Arya replied, knowing full well that the meager possessions they had which would bring them much money would also draw attention to them. She would never sell Aegon's dagger or Dark Sister; her Dothraki garb and leathers might fetch a few coins for the novelty of it, but the arakh Rhaego had given her would certainly fetch a decent price. But Arya knew that which would gain them the most money, what would purchase them a fleet of ships, was what rested in the trunk Daenerys had given her.
Ashara was the one who explained what the three, multicolored rocks were. “Those are dragons' eggs. I met a red priest from Asshai once who had one. Three...Men would sell their souls to possess them.”
“They are just stone,” Arya said in confusion, running her fingers over the petrified scales.
“But once they were dragons, and many men still believe they can wake dragons from stone. Illyrio gave those to Daenerys as a wedding present. It is peculiar she would give them to you.”
“Mayhaps she wants me to keep them safe.”
Ashara had smile wryly at that. “A Targaryen does not part with dragon eggs without a reason, my dear. She has given you three eggs, and Aegon has always said you would have three children. Daenerys likely means for each egg to belong to one of your children.”
Arya had not told Ashara of the child which had quickened in her belly as they sailed past Dragonstone. The sea journey was weighing heavily on all of them, and Arya knew the moment she admitted she was pregnant, Ashara would attempt to convince her going to the Wall was a poor plan. There was enough tension and fear in Arya as it was; she only now started to feel as if she was herself again, fully recovered from Aemon's birth nearly two years past, and the idea of going to the birthing bed again terrified her. Arya knew they needed to be at the Wall before she was unable to hide the bulge of the baby any longer, and they needed to do it as quickly as possible.
The storms did not abate for two days, and, on the third day, Arya awoke to Rhaenys shaking her shoulder. Blinking sleep from her eyes, Rhaenys whispered, “Mother, someone is knocking.”
Instantly awake, Arya slipped from her bed, pulling her discarded tunic over her head before casting a glance towards her daughter, now sitting up on her knees. Ashara was still asleep, Aemon curled around her body, and, after determining there was no way for the caller to see her son's decidedly Targaryen looks, Arya opened the door.
The very last person on earth Arya expected to be on the other side of the door was Loras Tyrell.
The years had been kind to the Knight of the Flowers. His brown curls still framed his handsome face, his skin was still as smooth as a maid's, and, though Arya knew he was nearly thirty now, he did not look a day over eight-and-ten. Though he was wearing leather and ringmail, he still seemed to be as richly dressed as the last time Arya had seen him all those years ago at the tourney held at Storm's End. But it was not his attire which concerned Arya; it was the sword he wore at his hip.
Loras inclined his head in deference before saying with a bit of a jape in his voice, “I do not know whether to call you Lady Baratheon or Lady Targaryen.”
“She is the queen,” Rhaenys piped up helpfully from the bed, and Arya threw a cold look at her daughter as Ashara began to stir upon the bed.
Loras smirked. “A thousand pardons, my small lady.” Turning his eyes upon Arya, he said, dropping his voice, “It is not safe for you any longer. You need to come with me now.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Because I mean you no harm.” Seeing the hesitation on her face, Loras offered, “Renly sent me. Your captain bragged of carrying the dragon queen; Robert is sending men for you. Renly knew I was in the Vale appealing to Robert Arryn; he said I am to put you on a ship.” When Arya still did not move, he removed a piece of parchment from his pocket. “If you cannot trust me, trust Renly.”
Unfolding the parchment, reading Renly's familiar hand confirming all which Loras said, Arya moved to look at Ashara, now sitting upright with Aemon in her lap. “Gather everything you can. We must leave now.”
Loras was accompanied by a small retinue of men; Arya recognized them as Renly's companions, the ones he used to teasingly refer to as his rainbow guard. As they carried the two trunks which held all of their worldly possessions, Arya saw the looks the men were giving her and her children, looks thick with judgment and disdain.
“Are you certain you can trust these men?” Ashara murmured as she pulled Rhaenys's cloak tighter around the girl's body.
“No,” Arya admitted, “but I trust Renly, and he trusts them.” Tugging Aemon's hood further down to cover his silver hair, she added, “And if Robert does know where we are, I would rather be a prisoner with these men than a prisoner with Gregor Clegane.”
Ashara sighed, her shoulders sagging, and Arya realized for the first time just how tired Ashara seemed to be. She had already lived through one rebellion with an ill-fated queen; Arya felt ashamed to be making her start all over again.
“What's happening in the south?” Arya asked Loras as the rains began to fall again.
“The dragons landed in the Stormlands a moon ago. They captured Griffin's Roost and began to lay siege to Storm's End. Renly tried to broker peace with your sellsword prince, but the only terms he would agree to was surrendering the castle, which Renly would not do. Dorne declared for the dragons; their men are marching north. And there are rumors that Asha Greyjoy is willing to commit Pyke's ships to their cause.”
“Is Renly safe?”
Concern flickered over Loras's face. “He says he is fine and that the Targaryens have not been cruel in their dealings.”
Guilt filling her chest, Arya said, “I never meant - “
“Renly holds no anger towards you,” Loras cut in, tension obvious in his body, “and so it is pointless for me to hold any.”
As the ships came into view, Arya dropped her voice to ask, “How is my family and the prince?”
Something close to pity flashed in Loras Tyrell's eyes. “They are fine. Your lady mother is at Winterfell with Jeyne Westerling and her children. Bran remains at Casterly Rock and Rickon, at Riverrun. Robb has called his banners, but they have not marched south yet. The Hand remains by the king's side, but there are rumors he only remains there to make sure you are not put to sword. Princess Sansa is safe in the Holdfast with the children; she has a boy about your son's age now, did you know that?”
Arya shook her head, a sad smile playing at her lips. Sansa had finally gotten her boy as Arya always knew she would. “And Prince Gendry?”
“My lady - “
Loras sighed, muttering something which was carried off by the breeze. Finally he admitted, “The prince prepares to march south and put down the rebellion. I've never known the prince to have a taste for war, but your dragon has awakened a beast within him. They say his rage at Aegon Targaryen puts Robert's hatred towards Rhaegar to shame.”
There was a knowing expression on Loras's face which made Arya burn with shame. It would do nothing to explain to Renly's paramour that this was not what she wanted, that she had pleaded with Aegon not to invade, that she had done everything she could to put to rest the feelings she and Gendry held for each other. She was the wife of the dragon, the mother of his children, and never had Arya brought shame to Sansa's marriage bed no matter how much she wanted to lie with the prince.
But Arya knew he would not believe her. No one ever did.
The ship Loras brought them to had black sails and was sturdily built. As his men carried their trunks aboard, Arya looked at the captain, a man of an age with her father who fingers were shortened. When she asked for his name, he said he had no name and did not want hers either. As Ashara took the children down to the cabin they were provided, Arya realized this was a smuggler's ship; she wondered how the Tyrells or Baratheons knew smugglers.
“I do not need to know where you are going,” Loras stated. “In fact, I'd prefer not to know. I honestly hope nothing ill befalls your children.”
Arya was well-aware of how he left her out of his well wishes. “Thank you for your assistance.”
His companions returned from below deck, walking off of the ship to mount their horses. Loras did not move, so Arya did not either, knowing the man had something else to add.
“Renly loved you as a sister,” he eventually divulged, “and he has never wished you ill for even a moment, not even when Robert berated him for letting you flee. He made me swear an oath that I would not let any harm befall you or your children, so I have kept it. But I must say, Lady Arya, you are the most selfish woman I have ever had the displeasure of meeting, and good men are dying for your folly.”
Emotion threatened to rise in her throat, but Arya refused to allow it; she needed to be as hard as stone to survive this conversation. “I am sorry you feel that way, Ser Loras.”
He clenched his jaw tightly, a muscle in his cheek leaping, before relenting, “Is there any message you would have me carry south?”
There were a thousand messages she wanted to relay, apologies and pleas and declarations, but Arya knew they would fall upon deaf ears. Her father may not want to see her killed for treason, but that did not mean he was likely to forget the shame she had brought on House Stark. How many times had she heard Ned Stark speak of honor and sneer at those who so carelessly tossed it away?
“I have no messages.”
Loras nodded curtly before disembarking the ship. As they left port, the wind swelling the black sails, Arya watched as Loras Tyrell and his men rode away. The Knight of the Flowers had not been unduly cruel; Arya understood why he hated her the way he did. His assistance was provided only because he loved Renly, and Arya sincerely hoped no one learned of his actions; Loras Tyrell did not deserve punishment for serving the man Arya had not loved well enough.
The coast of Gulltown was almost out of sight when Arya saw the red Lannister banners riding along the water's edge.
Arya began to sob the moment she saw the Wall.
It was silly, she knew; from the moment they left Volantis, this was the goal: get to the Wall, to Jon Snow. But it was more than that as well. From the moment Jon left so long ago, all Arya wanted was to see him again, to go to the Wall with Bran and see their brother. How many times had Jon or Robb or Bran called her the Queen of the wildlings? How many times had she fantasized about running North and going beyond the Wall? Of course, she wouldn't need to go beyond the Wall now. Arya knew wildlings had settled on the Gift years earlier, earning Jon the anger of Northern lords; she did not imagine the wildlings would be that different from the Dothraki, and she and her children were hardly used to luxury.
“What is this place?” Rhaenys asked as the nameless captain's men carried their trunks from the ship, leaving their passengers to stand before the castle with little more than a grunt to part.
“This is the Wall.”
“Is Father here?”
“No,” Arya managed, wiping her face free of tears as men in black began to approach them.
Ashara carried a feverish Aemon in her arms, and Arya tried to hide her fear for her son as best she could; when Rhaenys developed a fever on the crossing from Braavos, she had recovered relatively quickly. But the sickness was lingering with Aemon and now a cough began to shake his small chest. At night, when the others slept, Arya would rest her hands on the swelling of her belly, on the child who would arrive in little more than three moons, and she wondered what would happen to her children if she died birthing this babe.
The man who approached was horribly ugly, his face pock marked with a nose which had obviously been broken. He looked at the four of them, and Arya knew how strange they must look: Ashara in her septa's robes, Arya in men's clothing, Rhaenys in Dothraki garb, and Aemon in a nightdress, bundled in the blanket of Targaryen colors which was once his sister's.
“Welcome to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, my lady,” the man greeted roughly. “I am Cotter Pyke. I do not know what your captain told you, but this is not a port of a city. My men can take you to Last Hearth -”
“I am where I wish to be,” Arya interrupted, trying to force steel into her voice. “I am Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I have come to see your Lord Commander.”
When Cotter Pyke said nothing, Rhaenys piped up in her thickly accented Common Tongue, “She is the queen! You have to listen to her!”
It was strange, how a child's words could remind Arya of so much. She had no use for crowns and the Night's Watch took no part, but they still respected the monarchy. When Cotter Pyke said nothing, Arya snapped in a voice she had heard Daenerys use, “I am Arya Stark, wife of King Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of his Name, and I command you to take me to Castle Black to see Jon Snow!”
“It is a long, hard ride, Your Grace,” Pyke replied, “and that is without children.”
“We are excellent riders, ser, so please provide us with horses.”
Ashara looked at her with an amused expression, but Arya did not reply, watching as men loaded a small cart and horses were brought. Arya lifted Rhaenys onto the saddle in front of Ashara, knowing Rhaenys was already comfortable enough on a horse to not give Ashara too much trouble; but, as one of the Night's Watch handed Aemon to Arya after she was mounted, Arya knew it was going to be more difficult to hold Aemon and still ride as hard as needed. He was too large to be swaddled against her chest the way Rhaenys once was and too ill-feeling to hold tightly to her. Grasping the reins with Aemon as tightly against her body as possible, Arya urged the horse to go.
It took two days to reach Castle Black at the pace they were forced to keep, and Arya's anxiety about Aemon only increased as his fever began to burn hotter. When Castle Black came into view, Arya felt her entire body relax, knowing that after six long months she was finally where she knew they would be safe. Men were in the training yard, looking at them oddly, and, as Arya slid down from her saddle, she saw Ghost loping out from the trees.
Rhaenys cried out in fear, clinging to Ashara as the large direwolf approached, but Arya bent immediately, allowing the wolf's rough tongue to lick at her face. Aemon, weak and tired as he was, reached out a small hand to touch Ghost's fur, smiling as the wolf turned his affections upon her son. For a moment, as she buried her face in Ghost's pelt, she felt like a Stark of Winterfell again.
Arya instantly looked up at the sound of Jon's voice, tears flooding her eyes even as she grinned. Her brother's smile was wide, and Arya instantly began to rush towards him, trying to move as quickly as she could even with the added weight of her belly. Jon hugged her tightly, and Arya buried her face in his neck, sobs and laughs mingling as they held each other, a reunion sixteen years in the making. It felt strange to be nearly the same height as Jon, to not have her feet dangling in the air as they embraced; in her memory, she and Jon were always children rather than Lord Commander and runaway queen.
“Gods be good, Arya, I thought you were dead,” he whispered against her ear, pressing a firm kiss against her hair.
“I couldn't send word. I'm sorry - “
“No, don't be sorry.” Jon pulled back, clasping her face between his palms; Arya felt calmer looking into a face so much like her own. “I am so happy you are here.”
Remembering herself, she blurted out, “My son needs a maester.”
Jon nodded, his face softening as he took in the sight of her children, both of whom were now petting Ghost as if he was their most beloved pet. “Let us get you settled in.”
As the men of the Night's Watch began to carry the trunks into the castle, Arya realized that, for the first time in years, she actually felt home.
Samwell Tarly could not look her in the eyes as he explained the tea he brewed to help with Aemon's sickness. Under different circumstances, it would have amused Arya, but she was too concerned about the heat of Aemon's skin to truly care much about the maester. Neither he nor Arya could convince Aemon to drink it; only Rhaenys, brought in by Ashara, was able to coax her brother into swallowing it down, her soft voice wheedling in Dothraki, the only language she and Aemon ever spoke to each other. Sometimes Arya caught herself lapsing into the language, having spent two years of her life speaking it more than the Common Tongue, and Arya knew Rhaenys's grasp of the Common Tongue was not particularly strong, her daughter often forgetting words and replacing them with Dothraki.
“I will stay with him,” Ashara offered, brushing Arya's hair from her forehead. “Get something to eat and talk with your brother.”
Rhaenys bounced on the balls of her feet at the mention of food, and Arya nodded. Maester Sam volunteered to take them to Jon's quarters for supper, and, as Rhaenys ran ahead, eager to run after so many months upon a ship, Arya asked, “Have you ever delivered a baby, Sam?”
The maester blushed red “The only women here at the wildlings, Your Grace, and they do not like maesters.”
“Arya,” she corrected, wrinkling her nose at the title. “And if a woman is having a child, who is the best of the wildlings to act as midwife?”
“Probably Val.” His eyes darting to Arya's midsection, several layers of fabric providing enough camouflage to make a man unsure, before venturing, “You are with child?”
“I will likely be in the birthing bed within three moons. Could you introduce me to this Val?”
Maester Sam nodded, his multiple chins jiggling with the motion. They were nearly to Jon's quarters when he said, “Maester Aemon has delivered children.”
Arya froze. “Maester Aemon?”
“He has been the maester at Castle Black for most of his life; he lost his sight years ago and his age has made him to weak to move about, but his mind is sharp. I could ask him for instruction, and I am sure he would want to meet you.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“Because he is Aemon Targaryen, Your - Arya. His father was King Maekar.” The discomfort drained from his face and was replaced by soft affection. “Your husband's arrival in the south filled him with such life.”
“I would like to see him,” Arya said. “You will take me to him?”
Sam nodded before leaving her and Rhaenys with Jon, who had set a table heaping with food. Arya felt her mouth water at the scents, and Rhaenys stared in confusion at some of the dishes, more used to horse and salted fish than capon and lamprey. Jon teased her daughter as she picked at everything, particularly enjoying the candied nuts, and Rhaenys amused him by telling tales of Rhaego, Aegon, Duck, and her playmates in Vaes Dothrak Arya listened and laughed as Jon recounted stories of their childhoods for Rhaenys, but her laughter stopped when Rhaenys pointed to the blade of Valyrian steel resting against the wall.
“My father has a sword like that. It is called Blackfyre. Does yours have a name?”
"My father is the king,” Rhaenys continued, pride obvious in her voice, “and I am a princess. But Father said I can still be a knight like Ser Jorah if I want.”
“I am certain you will be a fine knight,” Jon swore, smiling at Arya over Rhaenys's head.
“Are you finished with your food?” When Rhaenys nodded, Arya wiped her messy hands and face, her daughter fighting the process the entire time. The moment Arya finished, Rhaenys hopped from her chair, crossing the room to play with Ghost.
“She reminds me of you as a child,” Jon murmured, pouring them both more wine.
“If the Gods are kind, they will give her better sense.” Avoiding Jon's eyes, she whispered, “Does everyone hate me?”
“Hate you? Arya, we were terrified. When Robb sent the raven which said you went missing from Storm's End, we all thought you ran off with some sellsword. It was dishonorable but you would hardly have been the first. But when word reached that he was Aegon Targaryen, we thought mayhaps it was revenge, a Targaryen stealing another Stark. Robb was half-mad, trying to convince Father to let him invade the Free Cities to take you back, and Prince Gendry was offering up the soldiers to make it happen. It wasn't until we heard you were pregnant that tempers began to cool.”
“Cool? Robert placed a bounty on Aegon's head!”
“You know how King Robert feels about Targaryens,” Jon reasoned. “What did you expect? I am certainly not saying it was right, but you had to have known what sorts of consequences could arise.”
Instinctively Arya's hands move to rest on her stomach, at the dragon sleeping inside of her. Jon's eyes followed the movement, realization shining there, but he said nothing. After a moment, Arya sighed, “I always thought I was so much smarter than Sansa. Stupid Sansa who always did what she was told and never wanted anything for herself.” Tear began to trickle down her cheeks. “I loved him so much, Jon. Even after he told me who he was, even after I knew what it would mean, I loved him more than was smart. I never wanted a husband and I was certain I did not want children, but with Aegon, I did.”
Jon moved forward, reaching for her hand and clasping it tightly. “Arya...”
“He promised me he would never come for the Iron Throne. It was the only reason I agreed to the marriage. I just wanted to be free of it: the throne, the king, the expectations of it all. I just wanted to be free.” A slightly hysterical laugh burst from her chest. “And it could kill us all.”
Jon's grip on her hand increased. “As long as you are here, no harm will come to you or your children.”
“The Night's Watch takes no part in matters of the realm,” she reminded him.
Face darkening, Jon pronounced, “If Robert Baratheon wants you, he will have 10,000 Free Folk he will need to cut through in order to reach you.”
“Free Folk? Do you mean wildlings?”
A smile cracked Jon's face as he leaned back in his chair. “When you're ready, I'll take you to them. I know Mance will want to meet you.”
He nodded in amusement, sipping his wine as he let his eyes wander towards Rhaenys, who was trying to get Ghost to offer his paw for a shake. The mixture of affection and regret on his Stark face broke Arya's heart; she had always believed Jon would be a wonderful father if only his vows allowed it. And, as he continued to look upon her daughter, Arya thought of the story Ashara told her so long ago in that Braavosi inn, the one which turned the world upside down.
You are not Ned Stark's bastard, she wanted to say. Ned Stark's bastard is Allyria Dayne, though there is nothing in her features to hint at that. You have the Stark look because Lyanna was your mother and Rhaegar Targaryen was your father, and they were wed and in love. You were wanted, Jon, and you deserve more than to waste your life on this Wall because my mother did not want you in Winterfell any longer.
Instead she said, “The septa I arrived with, she is the one who raised Aegon in the Free Cities. She used to serve Princess Elia before the rebellion.”
“A brave woman,” Jon acknowledged.
“She is Ashara Dayne.” He froze, looking as young as he ever had, and Arya hated herself for stating, “She is not your mother. But she will tell you who is if you want to know.”
“Do you know?”
Arya nodded, wincing slightly as the baby kicked powerfully against her ribs. “But it is better if she explains it.” Reading the unease in his face, Arya rose, hugging him to her chest tightly. “You are my brother, now and always.”
Hours later, when Jon came to the chamber Arya was given, his face wet with tears, Arya held him as if he was one of her children. Arya had never seen a man-grown so distraught, his world blown apart, and she wished she could say or do something to make it better. That night Jon Snow slept beside her as he had half-a-hundred times at Winterfell, both of them grateful for the presence of the other.
It was the first truly peaceful night's sleep Arya had since she was a child.
Sam took Arya to Maester Aemon on her fourth day at Castle Black, finding her in Aemon's room with Rhaenys and Ashara. He checked Aemon's fever, declaring her son to be on the mend, before asking Arya if she would like to meet the elderly maester. Quickly nodding, Arya followed Sam to a chamber on the ground level of the castle, a room which Arya determined to be the warmest she had found thus far at Castle Black. She felt sweat start to form on her forehead, but the man seated up in bed still had furs atop his legs and a thick woolen shirt on his body.
He was small and shriveled, easily older than even Old Nan; there was no hair left atop his head and his eyes were clouded as if with milk. Sam told her he was well over a hundred-years-old, the oldest man in the Seven Kingdoms, but his hearing and mind were sharp as ever. Even as the door opened, Maester Aemon called, “Is that you, Sam? Have you brought me a visitor?”
“I have, Maester,” Sam answered, a genuine smile spreading across his fleshy face. “Might I present to you Queen Arya, wife of King Aegon.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to correct Sam until she saw the pure happiness which seemed to radiate from the old maester's face as he grinned. “Forgive me, Your Grace, for I cannot bow, but I am honored you have come to see me.”
“It is I who should bow to you, Maester Aemon,” Arya replied, remembering the courtly courtesies she once tried so hard to forget. “Thank you for receiving me.”
He reached a gnarled hand over, patting the chair beside his bed. Arya crossed, obediently sitting, and Sam smiled at her before leaving them. She saw a tall tower of book rested on the desk in the room, likely read to him by Sam or his steward, but there was nothing remarkable in the room, nothing which telegraphed precisely who this maester was.
“I confess I do not know a polite way to ask these questions of you, Queen Arya, so I hope you will not judge me harshly. But I have so many questions.”
“You can ask me anything, and, please, just call me by my name.”
Maester Aemon smiled. “You are as uncomfortable with your title as your brother is with his. Starks have always wielded power well, but you do not wear it well at all.”
“That is likely true.”
“Sam has told me you carry another child, your third. Might I feel?”
Arya shifted slightly, leading his arthritic hand to the swell of her stomach, easily visible now that she no longer needed to hide it. The maester felt the firmness of her middle, half in reverence, half in examination, before he declared, “A small baby. Have you thought of a name for the child yet?”
“To be quite honest, I haven't had time to give much thought to this one,” she admitted. “I did not even realize I was pregnant until we were halfway to Braavos, and, with everything happening, there was no time to think. You must think me horrible.”
“No, I think you very strong. I have lived through many wars, and I have found that, while the men swing the swords, it is the women and the children who pay the costs.” Aemon's hands twitched a bit as he folded them in his lap. “I used to correspond with Prince Rhaegar. His poor wife and child certainly paid the price when the Lannisters came.”
Arya said nothing; the lingering presence of Elia Martell and the first Rhaenys Targaryen haunted Arya every day.
“What is he like, your Aegon?”
She was quiet for a moment, trying to find the right words only to realize they all seemed woefully inadequate. Finally she settled on, “He is friendly and kind, but he has a temper as well. Some days I wanted to kiss him and other days I wanted to shake him. He is a wonderful father, and he always treated me well.” Trying to force down her bitterness, she said, “He is very close to his aunt and uncle and loves his men. He is good with a sword. And he has taught our daughter to be very proud of House Targaryen.”
Aemon nodded as he listened. After a moment, he revealed, “It is a curious thing, being the son of a king, particularly a Targaryen king. For 300 years, our house ruled, and I fear I took for granted it would always be that way. When Aerys was killed...when everyone was killed...” He turned as if to look at Arya, though she knew he could not see a thing. “House Stark is an old and noble house as well, the Kings of Winter. For you to imagine your house to fall is to imagine the very unraveling of the world. That is how it felt when word reached the Wall that my entire family was erased.”
“I am sorry.”
“I never imagined I would live to see my house rise again. You have delivered dragons back to the earth, sweet girl.”
His declaration tightened Arya's chest. “If you would like, I could bring my children to see you. My son even shares your name.”
“Oh, I would like that,” Maester Aemon sighed. “It has been so long since I have known another dragon.”
It was strange, Arya thought as she the warm cell, how she never truly understood what it meant to be a Targaryen until seeing the look of absolute hope on the face of Maester Aemon.
Arya did not know what she expected wildlings to look like, but the childish part of her still buried deep inside was disappointed to see how civilized they appeared. Every man in the North told stories of wildlings, how they were vicious animals who would rape and murder without conscience; even her father had a story or two of wildlings who made it to Winterfell and toiled with the smallfolk. But the large assembly of people wore more clothing than the Dothraki did, and, though a few men had unkempt hair and beards as well as physical deformities from fights, none were particularly fearsome to behold. The only sight which genuinely wrought a gasp from Arya's lips was the giant who lumbered across the yard.
“That's Wun Wun,” Jon offered with a smile. “He is relatively harmless, but he only speaks the Old Tongue. Should you need to speak with him, it could get tricky.”
“Lord Crow!” a man bellowed, drawing Arya's attention. He was a broad man with a white beard, and, though his voice was deep and gruff, the man was grinning. “Don't tell us all this time you've been keeping a spearwife of your own in that castle o' yours!”
Stilling their horses, Arya allowed Jon to help her down from her mount. “You'll watch your mouth, Tormund. This is my sister.”
“Sister? I thought you crows hatched from eggs!”
Both men laughed before Jon said, “Arya, this is Tormund Giantsbane. Tormund, this is Arya.”
“A pleasure to meet you, girl.” Tormund pointed to her middle. “You looking for Val then?”
“Is she with Mance?”
“Most likely.” Arya started slightly as Tormund threw a thick arm around her shoulders. “Well, c'mon, girl, let's find Val before your brother breaks down in tears. You know he's sweet on Val, don't you?”
Arya smirked as Jon flushed red as a maid. “No, he didn't mention that.”
“Oh, he loves her something fierce,” Tormund confided in a teasing tone, his eyes sparkling with laughter as he eyed Jon. “He pretends like he doesn't 'cause of those bloody vows he made, but he wants to make her belly big as yours.”
“Shut up,” Jon ordered good-naturedly, still pink as could be, and Arya laughed to see stoic Jon so out of sorts.
“I'm only speaking the truth.” Lowering his voice to a loud whisper, he continued, “There's a reason Jarl hated your brother, and it wasn't because of his fine, black cloak. Why, I don't even think Val would fight if he came to steal her, but your brother's too fucking stupid to do so.”
“Watch your language in front of the lady, Tormund,” a man seated outside a tent chastised, his fingers playing over the strings of an instrument. “You're speaking to the Dragon Queen.”
“Mance,” Jon greeted, and Arya could not believe this man was the King-Beyond-the-Wall, this unimposing man who was plucking out the notes to The Dornishman's Wife without so much as glancing at the instrument.
“So this is your sister, the queen,” Mance Rayder drawled, his eyes taking Arya in. “The only queen I've ever seen before was Cersei Lannister, and you look so little like a queen.”
“Well, I've seen a half-dozen kings, and you are certainly the saddest looking of them all,” Arya retorted, holding her belly as the baby flipped inside her. “And I consider it a compliment to not be a thing like Cersei.”
Mance smirked as Tormund chuckled before rising to his feet. He gave a bow with was equal parts mocking and intrigued before gesturing for them to follow him into the tent. Arya saw a handful of wildling women milling about but her eyes were instantly drawn to the willowy blonde who wore a gown rather than pants. Without being told, Arya knew this must be the infamous Val, and she could certainly see why Jon was allegedly in love with her: she was easily one of the most beautiful women Arya had ever seen.
“Have you brought me one of your men's buried treasure, Lord Snow?” Val queried with a soft smile.
“He has brought us his queenly sister,” Mance corrected. “This is Queen Arya. She is the one wed to the southern dragon.”
“Dragons,” Val scoffed as she crossed to stand before Arya. “Do you fashion yourself a dragon?”
“No, I am a direwolf, and Maester Sam says I require your services.”
Val exchanged a weighted look with Jon, one whose meaning Arya could not fully puzzle out, before the wildling woman placed her hands upon Arya's belly, kneading and poking with hands which were less than gentle. She inhaled sharply but did not protest, letting the older woman do what she needed. After a moment, Val pulled back, a frown twisting her mouth.
“Is this your first child?”
“It's turned the wrong way. If the birthing starts, fat Sam is not going to be able to help you. I'd offer to come with you to the castle, but I am not welcome there.”
“You stabbed two of my men,” Jon reminded her mildly.
“They deserved it,” Val countered dismissively. “You'll need to stay here if you want me to deliver the babe.”
“She cannot stay here,” Jon objected.
“Why not?” Arya asked. “I'm not some useless lady. I have been all around the world - “
“But you are pregnant.”
“And I gave birth to Aemon in a tent in the Dothraki Sea,” she snapped, suddenly irritated with her brother. “I can certainly have this one in a tent as well. We'll ride back to Castle Black for the children and Ashara - “
“You should not ride,” Val interrupted. “Lord Snow can fetch your children. You will need to remain abed if you do not want to risk twisting the babe up even worse.”
Her displeasure must have shown on her face, for Tormund threw his arm around her shoulders again and cried, “Now don't fret, wolf girl! I'll keep you company!”
By nightfall, a tent was erected for Arya and her family, an honorary wildling until the baby was born. As the children and Ashara slept, Arya silently cried into her pillow, longing for Bran who was always supposed to come with her to meet the wildlings.
The celebration for the wedding of one of Tormund's sons was in full swing when the first sharp pain ripped through Arya's stomach. Ashara had pinned open the flaps of their tent so Arya could see what was going on, and, as the fires burned and the wildlings danced, Arya could make out the familiar forms of the people who became her friends over the past two moons: Mance, Tormund, Val, Dalla, the children Rhaenys called her friends, the women who thought Aemon's silver hair was lucky, the men who had fallen into the habit of calling her “Lady Snow” since Jon visited her nearly every day. Jon was out there now with some of his men, sharing mead and brokering deals to keep the wall fortified; Ashara was dancing with some of the wildlings, and, as firelight flickered over her face, Arya saw the shadow of the girl she must have been, the one her father loved dearly enough to conceive a child with, the girl who died thirty years ago. Even Rhaenys was dancing about with Aemon and Mance's boys, though their dancing seemed to involve more of flinging each other about than actual steps.
Arya tried to shout only to have her voice drowned out by the beating of drums and the fervent singing of the guests. As pain radiated through her body, Arya managed to get to her feet, grasping her stomach as she stumbled towards the celebration. She managed a dozen steps from the tent when another birth pain hit, sending her to her knees, her hands slamming into the ground in an attempt to catch herself. Waiting until the pulsating pain stopped, Arya rolled onto her back, gasping from the force of it.
The drums stopped, and she heard people shouting, calling her name. As Jon and Tormund bent to carry her back into the tent, Arya noticed that the sky was bleeding, a bright stripe of red cutting through the blackness.
After having struggled through deliveries with Rhaenys and Aemon, Arya was stunned at how quickly this was baby was coming. She could see fear and panic in Jon's eyes, and, if the pain was not so severe, Arya would have laughed; whenever Catelyn gave birth, they were always spirited away by Old Nan or Jory, only being brought to her rooms when the baby had arrived, safe and sound. Arya could still remember when Rickon was born, how small and wrinkled he was, how she did not fully understand how Rickon came to be. While Robb and Jon stood by the bed and Sansa and Bran climbed in beside Catelyn to see their newest brother, Arya slid into Ned's lap, uninterested in babies even then.
She missed her father. Sometimes she missed him most of all.
As Val began to rush the men from the tent, Arya rose up and grabbed Jon by the wrist. Voice tight with pain, she gasped, “If something happens to me, you have to keep the children safe.”
“I will,” Jon swore.
“And tell everyone I'm sorry. I never meant - “
“Arya, I don't - “
“Promise me, Jon! Promise me!”
Her brother squeezed her hand tightly, quickly nodding. “I promise. I promise.”
Val moved over to Jon as Dalla and Ashara helped remove Arya's smallclothes and readied for the birth. The blonde woman laid a hand on Jon's shoulder, her usually fierce expression replaced with something soft. “Don't worry, Lord Crow. I'll keep her alive.” When Jon did not move, indecision on his face, Val took hold of his face, forcing him to look at her. “If you want to be a help, go calm the little dragons.”
Arya shouted as another sharp pain ripped through her, her eyes closing from the force of it; she could feel Ashara take her hand, urging her to breathe, and Arya exhaled sharply as she felt Val move between her legs, her hands cool as she tested Arya's progress. As the pain began to pass, Ashara mopped her brow with a damp cloth, and Arya heard Val and Dalla speaking back and forth in the Old Tongue, both of their voices urgent. For a moment Arya wished Rhaenys was there to tell her what was being said; in only two moons, her daughter had picked up enough of the Old Tongue to chatter with Mance's sons and even Wun Wun. Tormund liked to tease Arya that there was more Free Folk blood in Rhaenys's veins than blood of the dragon, but it was more than that.
Rhaenys spoke of being a princess because Aegon called her that; she knew her father was the king and her mother was the queen, but she had no real understanding of what that meant, not in Westeros. Daenerys was a khaleesi who rode horses in painted vests with an arakh on her hip; Dalla was a queen who spoke roughly and freely while carrying a dirk between her breasts. Rhaenys's life had been spent in Vaes Dothrak, at sea, and now on the Wall. She had no concept of what it meant to be a lady in the Seven Kingdoms and thought her lessons from the boys she preferred to play with were preparations to be a princess.
At five, her daughter knew more freedom than Arya ever had.
“I have to turn the baby,” Val informed her, “or else you're both going to die. It's going to hurt and I can't promise you the baby will be born with breath. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she panted through clenched teeth, grasping Ashara's hand even tighter as she rose up, bracing for the pain.
Arya bit her lip, tasting iron on her tongue, as Val's hand slipped inside her body. She could feel the movement inside her stomach, the burning and sharp aches as Val adjusted the baby, and Arya tried to breathe deeply, tried to think of anything but what was happening: the way Nymeria used to curl up against her body, the smell of the sea at Starfall as she'd race Winter up and down the coast, the singing leaves in the godswood at Storm's End, the feel of Theon's bow in her hands as her father's ward taught her how to shoot, the sight of Bran climbing through her window for the first time after his fall, the taste of the blood oranges she and Sansa once stole from the kitchen at Winterfell.
I used to have a family and friends as well. I was Arya Stark of Winterfell, the daughter of Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully. I had three trueborn brothers and a sister as well as one natural-brother. I was the wife of Edric Dayne, whom I never loved well enough, and then I was the wife of Renly Baratheon, whom I loved as a brother. I was the Lady of Starfall and the Lady of Storm's End, but I was always accused of never being a lady at all. Once I loved a man who was going to be king, so I refused to marry him even though it broke my heart. But if I die in this tent, all I will be remembered as is a traitor.
From start to finish, it took only two hours to bring her daughter into the world, the baby whimpering but never fully crying. Arya ached as Val cleaned her with warm water and applied a poultice to her torn flesh, but her eyes were on the baby Dalla readied, swaddling her tightly as Ashara wiped at the tears on both her and Arya's faces. The baby was small as Maester Aemon had predicted, the hair on her head as silver as her father's, but, when she opened her eyes, they were as grey as Arya's own, the eyes of a Stark.
“It is good luck to be born beneath the falling, red star,” Dalla informed her as she placed the baby girl in Arya's arms. “Children born beneath it are powerful and strong.”
“You're as strong as a mammoth, Lady Crow,” Val teased as she rinsed the blood from her hands. “I've seen many ladies waste away in the birthing bed with a twisted child.”
“I do not have time to die,” Arya rasped, staring down into her daughter's face.
“Have you chosen a name?” Ashara murmured, running a finger down the smooth skin of the baby's cheek.
Someday she hoped Aegon would be able to meet the child he did not even know they conceived, but Arya knew better than anyone how unpredictable war could be.
Maester Aemon's arms shook for a moment when Arya placed Alysanne there, but soon they turned sure. Arya smiled when she saw the amazement on the man's face, at the light touch of his fingers on her daughter's face as he traced her features. Though she had decided to remain with the wildlings on the Gift, her children preferring the company of the other children to the men of the Night's Watch, Sam's message that Aemon was not likely to survive to the next moon lead Arya to insist on riding to Castle Black to introduce Maester Aemon to her daughter.
“What color is her hair and her eyes?”
“Her hair is silver like Aegon's, but her eyes are grey like mine.”
“The first Alysanne was a kind and gracious queen. You know her song?”
Arya did though she never much cared for sad songs. “I hope this Alysanne will know happier times. Dalla says she will be lucky since she was born beneath the comet.”
“The dragon has three heads,” Aemon murmured, his voice so soft Arya almost missed his words.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, my dear. It was only an old story.” Pressing a kiss to Alysanne's forehead, Aemon divulged, “I have not held a child since I left King's Landing all those years ago. There were so many children then, so many Targaryens. Now there are but a handful of us. After Rhaegar fell, I never imagined there to be more of my house.” Arya was startled to see tears in his clouded eyes. “Thank you, Arya.”
“Maester Aemon - “
“Your children will play great roles in what is to come. Houses Targaryen and Stark, ice and fire, they are powerful forces. It has been foretold...” His voice tapered off as he extended his arms, motioning for Arya to take the baby. As she moved to do so, Aemon grasped her wrist with surprising accuracy and declared, “They will wake the dragons from stone.”
Arya thought of Viserys and his claims of waking the dragon, of the massive skulls hidden away in the Red Keep, and shivered; she was not sure she would ever be fully comfortable with dragons.
It was not until a fortnight later, after the funeral for Maester Aemon, that Arya even remembered the petrified dragon eggs hidden away in her trunk, the brightly colored stone scales. She lifted the cream colored egg, weighing it in her hands, running her hands over the rough texture. It was not until Aemon toddled over to her, setting his small hand upon the egg and declaring, “Mine,” that Arya wondered if these eggs were to her children what the direwolves had been to her family.
Immediately Arya dismissed it. After all, everyone knew dragons died out long before even Maester Aemon was born.
“Do you ever regret taking the black?”
Jon looked up from Alysanne, whom he was tickling as she giggled and squirmed. Rhaenys and Aemon slept soundly on their pallets across the tent, Ashara having gone with Val to help deliver a child, and Jon arrived shortly after nightfall with sweet Dornish wine. As Arya watched him interact with her children, blatantly doting and far lighter than he was when acting as Lord Commander, regret over his inability to be a father swelled in her chest.
“Sometimes,” he admitted, making Alysanne squeal as he suddenly peppered kisses to her round stomach. “I wish I had done what Father said and waited until I was old enough to truly understand what I was giving up.”
“You would have been a wonderful father.”
“But I did not want to pass a bastard's name to my children.” Lifting Alysanne from the fur they were sitting upon, Jon sighed, “Robb was the Lord of Winterfell. If I had been trueborn, mayhaps I could have been a knight like Bran or Rickon, but I was a Snow, not a Stark. There was never a place for me.”
Arya thought of Edric Storm, opening her mouth to protest, before finally settling on, “But you weren't a bastard, not really.”
His hand brushed over the silken silver of Alysanne's hair. “I used to wonder about my mother, about Ashara. Was she beautiful? Did she love me? Did she know where I was? Did Father love her? Why did he dishonor my mother and himself to make me? I even pretended sometimes that I was our father's true son; you and I look so much alike, it wasn't so hard. At least until your lady mother looked at me; then I remembered.”
“Jon - “
“I never imagined she was Lyanna,” he rushed on, staring down into Alysanne's happy face. “I think about her statue in the crypts now, about the stories, about Rhaegar, and all I can do is get angry.”
“Angry?” she echoed in surprise.
“What Rhaegar and Lyanna did was selfish,” Jon stated flatly. “He knew Lyanna was betrothed to Robert and Lyanna knew what it would bring dishonor to her house. Even if Elia Martell knew what they were doing, even if the rebellion hadn't started, they still hurt an infinite amount of people.”
“They were in love,” Arya offered.
“And while that would have brought peace to me as a child, as a man it shows how reckless they were. Aerys was mad and should have been deposed, but imagine what a different world it would be if the rebellion had not happened. Our grandfather, our uncle, they would have lived to be old men rather than have been burned alive and strangled. I am sorry I was never able to know my parents, but I do not know if I will ever be able to forgive them for bringing me into a world where I had to be hidden as a bastard for fear I would be put to death.”
Arya was quiet for a long time, the words rolling around in her head as she watched Jon crossed the tent, setting Alysanne in the cradle one of the men had made for her. In a small voice, feeling more chastened by Jon's speech than she had by Loras Tyrell's indictment so many months ago, she asked, “Do you think I'm selfish?”
Realization dawned on Jon's face, regret twisting his features. Arya expected him to lie or apologize; instead he countered, “Do you want the truth?”
“Yes,” she answered, certain she didn't.
“I love you and your children; I would die to defend you all if it would keep you from suffering the same fate as Rhaegar's wife and child. But what you did, the part you played...The Targaryens were going to invade whether you married Aegon or not; I truly believe that. But you knew who he was, what he wanted to do - “
“He swore he would never - “
“Did you honestly believe that?” Jon challenged. “Do you honestly believe any man would not avenge what was done to his family? Our sister is married to the prince, Arya. What becomes of Sansa and her children?”
“Aegon would never - “
“I am not saying he will kill them,” he corrected. “But what will happen? Will he send them to exile, to wander the Free Cities as beggars as he did? Will he take all Baratheon and Lannister holdings? Joffrey's children, Myrcella's children, Tommen's children, what of them? What of our father, who will never betray Robert?”
“Stop,” Arya whispered as tears began to well.
“They should never have married you to Renly, that is true, but what you did broke their hearts. And while you may not have played a role in this war, you gave Aegon heirs, more children who have to be hidden to keep them safe.” Jon shook his head, his dark curls cascading into his eyes. “So, yes, Arya, I think you and Aegon were selfish. No matter who wins this war, you will lose, and that will be no one's fault but your own.”
“I never wanted this,” was all she could manage through her tears.
“That's the problem, Arya,” Jon said softly, compassion painted on his handsome Stark face. “Life isn't always about what you want.”
Arya woke up to the feel of a child climbing beneath her sleeping furs. She knew the sun had not risen yet, the tent still cloaked in darkness, but she could hear voices outside, the hunters going out in hopes of felling a few deer. Since coming to the Wall, Aemon frequently slept beside her, tucking his body tightly against her own, but Arya knew it was Rhaenys curling around her, which surprised her. Even as a baby, Rhaenys rarely sought out the bed of anyone but her brother, the two always sleeping better when they were beside each other. Arya remembered sleeping the same way with Bran when they were small, back before they were each given their own chambers.
“What's wrong, sweetling?” Arya murmured as Rhaenys tucked her face into her mother's shoulder, her dark ringlets brushing against Arya's face.
“Is Father dead?”
Instantly awake, Arya pulled back, lifting Rhaenys's face so she could look into her brown eyes. Where Alysanne was her happy child and Aemon was her serious boy, Rhaenys was always her fearless girl, the one who climbed to the tops of trees and would strike a boy twice her size if he dared to glower at her brother; to see such sadness on Rhaenys's face was heartbreaking.
“Why would you ask me that?”
She shrugged. “It's been so long since we saw him, since before Alysanne came. And Qarl said sometimes fathers go away and never come back because bad men kill them.”
“Sometimes they do,” Arya allowed, “but your father is a dragon. Do you remember the stories he used to tell you about the dragons?”
“The first Aegon and his sisters rode dragons, and the dragons breathed fire. No one could beat the dragons.”
“That's right.” Cupping her daughter's face, forcing strength into her voice, Arya stressed, “No one can beat a dragon, Rhaenys, and your father is the last true dragon. Do you know the words of House Targaryen?”
“Fire and blood,” she supplied.
“Fire and blood, yes, but you are more than just Targaryen. You are Targaryen and Martell, Stark and Tully. The blood of four of the greatest houses in Westeros flows through your veins, and you must remember that you are only ever as strong as your pack.”
“My pack? Like the wolves?”
Arya smiled. “Your father is a dragon, but I am a wolf, a she-wolf of Winterfell, and my father always said that the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. Aemon, Alysanne, Uncle Jon, Grandmother Ashara, your father and me, we are your pack, and when someone hurts your pack, you do whatever it takes to protect them.”
“I already do that. When Pate pushed Aemon, I protected him,” Rhaenys reminded her.
“Yes, you did.” Smoothing the curls back from her face, Arya swore, “You are the great love of your father's life. When you were born, he smiled so brightly, it dimmed the sun. I do not believe he set you in your cradle for the first few weeks after you were born, and, when he did, he sat beside it to stare upon you. No father has ever loved a daughter the way your father loves you, and he will fight every man in the Seven Kingdoms to get back to you.”
“Do you promise?”
It was a dangerous promise to make; Arya knew there was a very real chance that they would never see Aegon again. But still she promised, the words as much for Rhaenys as they were for herself.
Arya was making a cake for Alysanne's name day, Rhaenys and Aemon bringing her berries to help flavor it, when Jon rode into the settlement, a piece of parchment in his hand. Her heart dropped into her stomach, fear for her husband, fear for her family, fear for Gendry pumping through her veins. She told the children to go find Ashara or Val, trying to stop her hands from shaking as she set down the bowl and berries, rising unsteadily to her feet.
“The war is over,” Jon announced, handing the letter to her.
“Who sits the throne?” she asked, terrified of the response, unsure which response she wanted.
He performed a half-bow. “Your Grace.”
Unfolding the parchment, Arya saw it was written in Robb's hand and bore a broken direwolf seal. Her brother wrote of how King Robert died of sweating sickness a fortnight earlier, how the Reach had changed loyalties from Baratheon to Targaryen, how their forces combined with Dorne and the Golden Company laid siege to King's Landing. The siege had only ended when Gendry surrendered, apparently afraid for the smallfolk when a ship of Dothraki screamers landed. Anyone who bent the knee and laid down their weapons was spared; the heads of Jaime Lannister, Tywin Lannister, Gregor Clegane, and Amory Lorch were perched upon spikes above the Red Keep for their crimes against House Targaryen. All lords of the great houses were being summoned to swear their fealty, and there was talk of new Wardens being named.
It was the last line which stole Arya's breath: ”There has been no sign of Arya or her children since the hint of a rumor in the Vale over a year ago. Talk still persists she must have been on the ship which sank. Jeyne writes that Mother spends her days in the sept praying for a sign, and Aegon is offering gold to anyone who can bring her to him. I believe she may well be gone, Jon.”
“I have to go south,” she immediately declared. “I have to go - “
“I have already made arrangements for you to sail from Eastwatch,” Jon cut in, a sad smile playing at his lips. “Though I am not sending you without protection. I cannot send the Night's Watch, but I will not let you sail without a few of the Free Folk as shields.”
“You cannot come?”
There was genuine sorrow in Jon's face as he shook his head. “I am the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, my vows made before the heart tree, and I cannot break them no matter how much happiness it would bring me.”
“You don't belong here,” Arya blurted out, the parchment crunching in her hand. “You should be at Winterfell or at court, you should be married to Val with children of your own - “
“Arya.” He pulled her into a tight embrace, his voice strained against her ear. “I can't.”
That was the difference between her and Jon, she supposed: Jon would always honor his vows at the cost of his own happiness while she was too impetuous to keep hers.
In the end, six spearwives, two of Tormund's sons, Tormund, Val, and Mance volunteered to go south with Arya and her children. Arya suspected Jon requested Val come along, knowing she and Mance would be able to help balance out the brashness of the others, but more so he knew Arya considered Val to be a friend, a rarity in her life now.
Jon saw them as far as Eastwatch, Ghost padding silently at his side, and Arya knew she hugged him too tightly, struggling to keep the tears from falling, a battle she lost when Rhaenys and Aemon squeezed him enthusiastically and Jon kissed Alysanne's smiling face. Ashara embraced Jon for a moment before pulling back, clasping his face between her hands the way she did with Arya's children.
“You are the best parts of them,” she declared, “and I am honored people believe you to be my son.”
“Thank you, Lady Ashara.”
A peculiar smile twisted Ashara's mouth. “No one has called me that in a very long time. I suppose I must get used to that again.”
Arya held Jon a final time, swearing to carry his well-wishes to their family, before forcing herself to board the ship. She remembered the last time she and Jon parted all those years ago at Winterfell; then she had clung to him so tightly, Ned had to pry her hands from his cloak, Uncle Benjen snapping for Jon to get on his horse. The moment Ned put her down, she ran after the horses shouting Jon's name before collapsing on the kingsroad in tears; Ned carried her back in silence, stroking her hair comfortingly the entire time.
But she was not a child any longer, and Arya knew the Wall was not her place.
Of course, she did not think King's Landing was her place either, but that did not matter.
“This is what the kneelers fight for?” Val drawled disdainfully as they disembarked the ship, her nose wrinkling at the pungent smell of Flea Bottom and the Blackwater.
“There are prettier kingdoms than this,” Arya assured her, shifting a sleeping Alysanne to her opposite shoulder, Aemon held aloft in Val's arms. Rhaenys held Ashara's hand, but Arya could see her daughter itching to run and explore.
“Where are the trees?” Tormund asked, his loud voice carrying and drawing stares from the other people on the docks. With his gold bracelets, clothing made of pelts, and heavy facial hair, Tormund Giantsbane was certainly not a man who could be missed. When Arya had suggested he may want to wear something more appropriate to the south, he had laughed and declared he would wear his best when meeting the dragon king.
“In the Riverlands, the Stormlands, and the Reach.”
“I'll keep the North,” Tormund declared as if he owned the whole of it, and even Mance smiled at the man's words.
Members of the Golden Company were patrolling the streets in place of the City Watch, and Arya found she barely recognized the city as it was. It had been so long since she had last been in King's Landing, nearly seven years, and war was unkind. Though King's Landing was not burned like some of the villages Arya glimpsed off the coast, it was obvious the smallfolk were not sure what to make of their new king. There was something like a hush in the streets, almost as if they did not even want to raise their voices and risk angering Aegon. It made Arya wonder what happened during the war, what her husband's army did to inspire such fear.
What was it Connington used to say about the Targaryens? Greatness or madness, it was always one or the other.
The men guarding the entrance to the Red Keep were Dothraki, large and fierce, and Arya nearly laughed when Rhaenys greeted them enthusiastically as if she had known them her entire life; there were 40,000 men in Daenerys's khalasar, most of whom Rhaenys never met, but Arya knew her daughter missed Vaes Dothrak, knew she still considered it to be home. The guards smiled in surprise at Rhaenys before returning her greetings. It took Arya a moment to remember the Dothraki words she needed, but she did, she saw the instant recognition in the men's eyes.
“I am the wife of the king and these are his children. We wish to enter.”
Eyes turned upon them as they entered the Keep, but Arya knew no one recognized her; she was never a favorite at court and, in doeskin pants and a tunic, she looked nothing like the Arya Stark who attended Princess Sansa or wed Lord Renly. In the company of eleven wildlings, three children, and a soiled septa, Arya was certain she looked like a beggar.
“Duck!” Rhaenys cried, breaking free of Ashara's grasp and charging towards the man, now outfitted in the white cloak and armor of the Kingsguard. Arya saw the genuine disbelief on her old friend's face before he bent to pick up her daughter, returning the little girl's embrace.
“You seem to have grown twice your size since we parted,” Duck reported, his voice as jolly as it ever was when interacting with the children.
“I missed you!”
“And we have missed you.” Eyes locking with Arya's, he stressed, “All of you.”
Arya flushed under the perceived judgment before requesting, “Would it be possible for you to find food and lodgings for my companions? We have had a long trip and they acted as our protectors.”
Setting Rhaenys upon her feet, he stopped a passing servant, directing her to take Mance, Tormund, and the others to the kitchens for food before placing them in open rooms in the Hand's tower. Only Val remained, silent evaluating the interactions between the men, rubbing Aemon's back when he whimpered. Arya suspected Val was silently cataloging each and every word to report back to Jon, his spy in the south.
“The king is in the great hall hearing grievances and requests,” Duck informed them. “I can take you to his solar to wait until he is finished.”
“I have been told the realm believes we have all perished, including my husband,” Arya replied. “I am sure he will forgive us the interruption.”
“Your Grace, I believe it would be best - “
“You heard your queen, Rolly,” Ashara cut in, her voice thick with chastisement.
I am truly the queen now, Arya realized as Duck nodded, leading them towards the great hall. It is not what I wanted but it is what has come to be.
She could see Aegon on the Iron Throne, Viserys behind his right shoulder, Jon Connington at his left; Arya recognized the great lords of Westeros in the room as well as the ladies, all in their finest to stand before the king. Her eyes scanned the room and found Ned and her brothers standing near one wall, all wearing solemn faces, and Arya's heart ached with such ferocity, it nearly shattered. The air rushed from her lungs as Bran suddenly looked at her, his eyes widening in shock; she saw him grasp Robb's arm, pointing towards her, and then the eyes of her family were upon her, four familiar faces twisted up in happiness and disbelief.
It was at that moment Rhaenys caught sight of Aegon, shouted, “Father!” and began to charge the Iron Throne, running as if all seven hells were after her. The man from the Westerlands who was speaking nearly lost his footing as Rhaenys blew past him, leaping into Aegon's arms as he began to rise from the throne. Arya felt tears threaten to overwhelm her as she saw the desperate way her husband and daughter were clinging to each other, but she knew now more than ever she had to be as stoic as her father.
She reached for Aemon, Val transferring the boy into Arya's arms, and Arya began to make the long walk to the Iron Throne, Aemon on one shoulder and Alysanne on the other. The murmurs of the lords echoed in the hall, whispers becoming shouts, but Arya refused to look anywhere but forward, at Aegon. She heard Connington dismissing the lords and ladies, heard the shuffle of their footsteps, and Arya sunk her teeth into her lip to keep from shouting for her family to stay.
Aegon's eyes shone with emotion as Aemon reached for him, setting Rhaenys on her feet only to have her cling to his leg. As his arms enclosed their son, he ran a hand down Alysanne's back.
“And who is this?” he asked, a smile in his voice.
“That's Alysanne,” Rhaenys supplied.
“Alysanne,” Aegon repeated, a touch of awe in his voice as their youngest daughter lifted her head to look at him before burying her face back into Arya's neck with a giggle. “It would seem I have missed much while campaigning.”
A single tear escaped Arya's eye as Aegon cupped the side of her face. Bringing his face close to hers, he whispered, “Why did you run?”
“Because I was not going to put my children in the hands of Illyrio, not when there were better options.”
“They told me you were dead.” A smile heavy with respect and amusement crossed his face. “I told them if they thought that, they did not know you at all.”
His mouth was warm and firm against hers and, though Arya had spent nearly two years of her life loving and hating him in equal measure, she still leaned into it, so grateful to know the ones she loved were safe, that her children were safe she could barely stand it.
“I would like to see my family,” she murmured when the kiss broke.
“Soon,” Aegon promised, grinning broadly. “Let's get you all settled in first, and you can tell me of your adventures these past few years.”
“There are matters to attend - “ Viserys began.
“They can wait,” Aegon stated firmly. “My family has been returned to me, and that requires celebration.”
The hatred in Viserys's glare told Arya her old enemy was an enemy still.
They were only a handful of steps from the great hall when Gendry and Lord Varys exited a room, both stopping in their tracks at the sight of her. For a moment all she and Gendry could do was stare at each other, his blue eyes so swollen with words unspoken, and then Arya's stomach dropped as he took the knee.
“Welcome back to court, Your Grace.”
It was the clipped coolness of his courtesy which finally brought forth Arya's tears.
Aegon may have let Gendry Baratheon live, but Arya knew the prince she loved, the prince who was her dearest friend, was well-and-truly dead to Arya Targaryen.
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