The fire crackled merrily. Arya felt a petulant, meanspirited urge to dump a bucket of water on it, just to sour the mood. Were there buckets here? Or water? She did not know. The campfire in her dreams had always been a strange space where the dead could talk and far things could be near.
"The Others have retreated, for now," Jon said. "No word on how long this warm wind will hold. The Red Woman wouldn't leave Stannis and didn't have answers to my questions. But we can come south to break the siege, at least. ..and that's the end of it," Jon said. He had brought much news, almost all of it bad, but that was hardly surprising. All the news was bad these days. Arya supposed she should be grateful he was alive, but all she could think of was that he looked tired and in pain. She wanted this all to end. She supposed it would.
"The Others might have given up on you and yours, but they're still in the field," Sansa said. "We've had a raven from Last Hearth, and there are dead there. No great host, but enough to keep them from being secure. If Stannis forced the Others to go North again, Last Hearth would be cut off completely"
Jon sighed. "What can we do about it? If you lose Winterfell, it's all over in any case, and I refuse to split my force to chase them into a blizzard. As it stands, some portion of their strength managed to cross the river, and they have harassed us constantly. They strike out at us every night, for no reason other than to make us jump. If Last Hearth is behind strong walls with enough food, they will be in a better state to fight than we are."
Arya wondered if Jon could even get to Winterfell in time. Winterfell and Castle Cerwyn had both come under the corpse king's siege, and though the food stores were holding, the castle itself had never fully been repaired after the burning. There were parts of the wall that could scarcely be walked on, and the garrison had little better than tents to sleep in. Men simply died in the night or got sick with no clear cause. Arya heard the men whispering about all of the corpse's conquests, all of Robb's conquests. They said that he had taken the Twins with but a score of men, how he might do that here. Fools and cravens, all of them. Arya had no such fears, not of that. Arya feared the long cold death more than she feared any nighttime raid. How many days would it be before Jon could relieve them? Too many.
It made Arya so angry. The corpse's army was a bare handful. Nothing like what she had seen earlier in the war near Riverrun or Raventree. The bulk of the corpse's armies had stayed in the south, perhaps because the corpse did not trust them, or perhaps because the corpse had some greater plan. Were he here, Jon could crush the corpse's host, of that all agreed. But Jon was North with the army fighting the Others, and the dragon queen and her pets were worse than useless. A part of Arya wished the dragon prince and his dragon had both died when they crashed, instead of living on and eating all their food. The maesters all agreed the dragon would recover and fly again eventually, but that was small comfort when eventually might never come. And they could not even send the healthy dragon out to fight. The threat of that horn, the threat of the corpse magicking away the dragon from them, was too great. The dragon prince, Prince Aegon, seemed more frustrated than anyone and made a big show of getting up on his crutches and going to the battlements as if to tell everyone that despite his injuries he was still hale and hearty. Arya wanted to throw a rock at him.
That was wrong. They were allies. Well, of a sort. Arya did not know how good an ally you could claim to be when you courted two different claimants at the same time, but in the end, it did not really matter. She refused to pretend to be sad about Stannis. She supposed he had been a good sort of King in his own way, but it was not as though she loved him, and she had seen better people die in this war.
For a moment a memory flashed in her brain, which she did her best to forget.
"I've tried to reason with the Others," Bran said. His appearance was the most altered of all of them. Here in the dream, he appeared with bark for skin and twigs for hair, and eyes that were too big for his head, and too many of them. He was still Bran, at least Arya thought so, but it sometimes felt as if she had lost him somewhere along the way, or perhaps something had been added. "I've tried many times to reach out to them," he continued. "The worst part is, I think I could do something, or at least give us more time, but," he sighed. "I can't. That… thing always intervenes."
"It's the same thing that's living inside my… remains," Robb said, his voice quiet and sad, as ever. "It felt the same when we all tried to… take it back."
That had been a dismal failure. They had thought they could steal back Robb's body at the parley, with so many of them all in one place, but whatever the thing inside Robb's body was, it was stronger and older than them, and the experience had left Arya feeling half dead inside for days, barely able to sleep. Sansa and the wolves and Rickon had all felt the same.
"I don't know what else we can do," Sansa said, voicing everyone's thoughts. Arya did not have the will to say anything at all. It was all so cruel. They were all alive! They were all so close to safety! They had overcome so much, worked so hard, and risked everything, but that had only extended their pain. Arya wondered what might have happened if the Hound had not carried her away from the Twins that night. Would she have died with Robb? Would their story have ended there? That might have been better. Life was full of nothing but pain and drawing it out only meant hurting for longer. What came next? Starvation? Plague? Robb's corpse cutting her open and stringing her guts from the Heart Tree while she watched on? Or would they live long enough to hold each other as they both drew their last, frost-covered breaths?
She did not want to know.
"There is nothing to do," Jon said. "Nothing in war happens quickly, except for the killing. If you can keep morale high, and keep everyone fed, keep everyone moving and alert… that's all that you can ever do."
"Well," Robb said, "if we're to keep morale up, that includes us as well, yes? Come, let's not spend the rest of the night worrying. Let's just enjoy the fire."
Arya felt a spike of anger in her heart. Robb's ghost had been a comfort for many nights, but a part of her had begun to resent him, resent how soft and detached he was, how uselessly placid he could be, no matter how bad things got. He had never been like that before. The Robb Arya had known was fierce and proud and clever, as well as kind… but now he was only kind. When had he changed? He had been like this ever since he died, she supposed. When Gray Wind had come to her at the start, he and Robb had been all gentle sadness. He had been betrayed and murdered. Mother had been killed there too, as well as hundreds and thousands of others. Where was the rage, the hate? Did you leave such things behind you when you died? She knew that father had said so, once. Perhaps that was it.
But there was no use weeping over what was lost. Mother and Father were dead, and so was Robb. They should be happy to have him, even a part of him back with them. There was no use in ruining what little comfort they had left.
Some time passed by the fire, and then she opened her eyes and found herself in her bed in Winterfell, in the world of the waking. She dressed and fetched some food from the kitchens. Most of the courtiers had fled in the face of the corpse king's army, and Arya for one would not miss them. A core remained, but not so many that Arya needed to worry about being fretted over. Between Daenerys and Sansa and Selyse and Shireen, Arya thought the meager court probably had quite enough ladies of rank to go around.
She took the bread in one of her favorite spots, a tiny chamber near the top of the Great Tower that she had used since before the war. But the room smelled of smoke and she had no appetite for the bread, and no stomach to look out the window at the banners that ringed the castle, so she simply lay on the floor staring into the dark space between the rafters. It was all so pointless, all so dull. There was nothing for her to do. There was nothing she could do. A part of her missed her time with the Hound on the road in the Riverlands. There had been excitement, change, and purpose, then, like a river rapid or the sea in a storm. Life now was something else, more like a still pool filled with filth. Every day now saw some new terrible thought intruding on her and refusing to let her go. She found herself wondering what it would feel like if she really did have her guts pulled out of her, or how bad it could really hurt to be burned alive, or whether she would feel it when Jon died.
They were all a part of each other now. A proper pack, as father had always urged them to be, each helping the other no matter what. She could feel them even now, whether she wanted to or not. Jon was angry, Sansa was hungry, Rickon was happy, and Bran was a thousand things at once. She could feel the wolves' thoughts too, and Robb's, though he was fainter and softer than the rest. They were so much stronger together, so much smarter and braver. Arya was all the time hearing members of the court muttering about Sansa's cunning, how she never seemed to be caught unawares, always seemed to know what anyone was going to say before they said it, always understood every matter of war though she was but a young girl. She was cheating, of course, getting advice from Jon and Bran, even as Jon would get advice from his sisters for his war councils. They were the Stark Line, and they were not many, but one. They were a pack.
But all the unity and strength in the world had not been enough to reclaim Robb's body. She had been so sure that their plan for stealing back Robb's body would work. They were so strong together, they had such a force of will and emotion, and they had a claim to the body in the first place. But whatever shade had gripped Robb's corpse seemed to have some claim as well, seemed almost impossible to displace entirely, and wherever they had been able to find a crack, that strange force had filled in the gap.
Arya could not help but wonder what might happen if the Pack had been larger. Could mother have joined? Could Father? What of others? She had thought Gendry and Hot Pie could be her family, once. Shireen and she had touched the same darkness. And there had been Lady, too. Arya could not forget her. If Arya had never attacked Joffrey then, would Lady be with them in the dreams too? Arya felt sure that she would have been. Of all the deaths they had suffered, that seemed like such a long time ago and such a petty thing, and yet it would have been so easy to avoid. Arya knew that Sansa had forgiven her for that, but it still stung in her chest.
More than anything, Arya could not shake the idea that they had lost some part of Robb. He was still there, and she loved him and was so grateful for him, and yet, and yet… something was not right. She closed her eyes and tried to think of what he had been like while alive.
For a moment the corpse's face appeared in her mind's eye, and she shuddered. The corpse still had Robb's eyes, but Robb's had twinkled with joy… except when he was angry, and he was often angry. She remembered him thrashing Jon in the yard, holding a sword to his face, and swearing that his brother would never hold Winterfell. She remembered him full of fury about something Theon had said that he would not tell her.
He could be kind too, of course, and as she thought of him sneaking to her room with sweets, she found herself thinking more of the image of him she saw by the firelight in her dreams. The image did not seem so incomplete then. Robb had always been so kind, so quick to know what you were feeling. But he could be sad too, even though he tried to hide it. She remembered seeing him scared and crying alone behind the glass gardens, where he thought nobody would see him.
She tried to remember what he looked like, then, and his face escaped her. What had he been like? She thought of the corpse-king, and that was wrong. He was empty. She thought of the ghost by the fire, and that was wrong. He was sad, dulled, and remote. Robb was not like that. Robb was like neither of them. Or no. He was both.
Robb, Robb. He had always been their leader. The head of the pack. He had always been the strongest, the most confident, and the most passionate. She remembered how good it had felt to hear about him winning (or was that Sansa's memory?), and she remembered how much she had wanted him to protect her.
A thought came to her, and it repulsed her.
She scowled. It could not be true. It was foolish. She tried to think of something else, but the idea would not let go of her. Try as she might disregard it, she became more sure of it with every passing moment. The cold settled around her in the tower, her heart beat like a drum and her breaths came short. She wanted to run, wanted to hide, but the thing she feared lay in her own mind.
What is the matter? Arya, what is it? Little sister, what has you so upset? The voices of her siblings came to her one after the other, and Arya growled with frustration. She closed her mind to them and stormed away to her chambers. Maids were in her room, cleaning, but she chased them away. She knew what she had to do. She knew how to win, how to save them all, but she had to act quickly before the fear that she felt in her heart took hold.
Since their return to Winterfell, Arya had taken to dressing like a lady again, though she still dressed more plainly than someone of her station should have. But for what came next she would need to be Arry again. There was a gap between the bed and the wall that the maids did not know about, where she had stashed some boys' clothes, and she changed quickly and quietly. Breeches, boots, cloak, and hat. Enough to keep her warm against the wind.
She took the steps two and three at a time as she descended from the great keep, and winced as the blast of ice greeted her at the door. Servants milled about, but none spared her a second glance. Why should they? She was Arry again, and of little consequence. She walked directly to her goal without a single person speaking to her, except for the lame dragon prince who nearly collided with her as she rounded a corner. She ignored his curses and walked on, grabbing a basket from a wood sawyer as she went.
And then she was there. Her goal. A small door in the side of the outer wall, just large enough for a horseman to ride through, with only a single old man standing watch, leaning on his spear. It was a sally port, a small door through which defenders could ride out and strike at their besiegers. Arya supposed that was appropriate. After all, was that not what she was doing right now?
Suddenly Arya felt a wave of doubt crash over her. Would this work? Was she going to get herself killed?
Arya! Talk to us! Arya!
She gripped the edge of her basket. She would need them for any of this to work, but she hated to tell them what it was she needed. She was afraid and very very small, just like she had when she first met with Sansa again back in Harrenhal. She knew she had to let them in, let them hear her thoughts, but for a moment she seized up and could not.
I can fix this, she thought. I can fix everything. She struggled to form her thoughts, to explain what she knew. If she had been speaking to them with her voice, she would never have found the words, but mind to mind things were clearer. Complex thoughts were easier to convey. She could feel her pack's emotions play out in response. Confusion, anger, concern.
You might die. You may be right, but even so, how can you know this will work? Arya, you can't
You may be right, but even so, how can you know this will work?
Arya, you can't
Arya grit her teeth. I'm the only one who can do this, and we have no other choice. It has to be me, and I have to go alone. I have to go now.
For a moment, none of the pack replied with more than raw emotion. It was Bran whose thoughts resolved first.She's right, he said. Jon, you know she's right. Perhaps, I will have all of you with me,
Perhaps,Jon replied, his thoughts dark and bitter. The Others will be on us again by nightfall. Stannis only bought us so much time.
I will have all of you with me,Arya said.
So be it, then, Sansa said, agreeing with weariness. So be it. Stay safe,
Stay safe,said Robb's ghost.
Arya drew in a deep breath and looked to the door in front of her again. It lay shut, and the guard had not noticed her. She walked toward it confidently, basket in hand. "Thomis!" She said, "It's Norry! I'm supposed to go out and gather sticks!"
The old guard blinked at her, cold hands shifting on the haft of his spear. "Arny? I-" His speech stumbled. "Yes, yes of course. Take care not to stray too far from the castle." He fumbled with the keys a moment before opening the door, and Arya left Winterfell, out into the cold fields of snow that surrounded the castle.
The real Norry was a boy she had seen around here and there, who went out the sallyport sometimes to collect sticks from the brush around the base of the castle walls. He was probably asleep in bed right now, but Thomis the guard was too blind to tell notice the difference. She had not needed to lie to him, but it was simply this way. If she had told Thomis she was Arya Stark, there would have been questions, and waiting, and walking about, and Arya did not want to waste time on such things.
She wandered away from the wall, picking up sticks. She would need a full basket soon enough. The wind whipped about her, seeming at times to cut right through her cloak. It was not snowing, but the wind was so strong and the powder of the snow so fine that it was hard to ever see more than a hundred feet forward. Somewhere, hundreds of miles away, Jon was preparing to fight, and she could feel the tension and anger in him. She took some of that anger and resolve for herself, made it her own, and pressed on.
The snow squeaked under her feet as she walked. Before long her basket was nearly full, and she had wandered out very far. She was nearer to the besieging army's lines now than to Winterfell's walls, but she doubted anyone had seen her through all the wind and snow. She felt afraid now, but less than she had been at the sallyport an hour ago.
The banners towered over her, Manderly, Bracken, Flint, and so many more, but she was not afraid. She was a pack, she was an army. She turned on her heel and walked directly into the camp.
"Hey now! Who're you?" A thin freckled man with a longbow hailed her as she approached. He squinted out at her through the wind, holding his hand up to shade his eyes.
"Name's Arri!" She said, presenting her basket of sticks. "Sorry, I was out getting sticks for Ser Stevryn's fire and I wandered a bit."
"Knight in service to Lord Jonos Bracken? He took me for a servant from my parents when he crossed by our village in-."
The guard coughed into his hand. "Get on with you, lad. You're on the wrong side of camp and your master will be looking for you."
Arya nodded and hurried past him into the camp. Unlike in Winterfell, there was little shelter from the wind here, and the mood inside the camp was dismal. Men shuffled between tent and fire, rarely looking up from their tasks and working quickly. No one wanted to stay out in the cold. Neither did Arya. Within an hour she stood below the hill on which the King's tent stood. The tent loomed tall, with the Stark Direwolf flying overhead proud and strong, but the tent itself was near ruin. Colors faded and fabric frayed, with small tears around the edges like old battle scars.
Arya pulled her cloak around her and crouched by a bale of hay to hide. This was not Winterfell, or Harrenhal. She did not know this camp nearly so well, nor did she know what sorts of lies the guards might accept, or how she might sneak past them. She thought of stealing some page's clothes, pretending to carry a letter from Riverrun, or sneaking around to the back of the tent and cutting her way in, but every path forward seemed certain to fail. Would she have to wait for the corpse king to come to her? That seemed the most miserable of all possible choices.
She froze and turned her head slightly. Martyn. Martyn the kitchen boy from Winterfell, who had given her rolls fresh out of the oven a hundred times. How had he ended up here? But of course, he had. Most of the household had gone south at one point or another. Maybe she could convince him to-
"Arya Stark?" He yelled in alarm, and every man within a hundred paces turned their head. "What in the name of the Old Gods are you doing here!"
Damn him. She ran, or tried to, but her leg had fallen asleep and so she stumbled and fell, and Martyn caught her by the arm before she could take a step. "Let me go!" Arya yelled, but Martyn's grip was firm, and there were more hands than his on her in a moment. They were all yelling at each other, at her, and no matter how she fought they were strong.
Something cold in the back of her mind clicked, and she remembered who she was.
She stopped struggling, stopped protesting. She had one last chance. "Yes, I'm Arya! Arya Stark. Unhand me." Their grips loosened a moment, but did not let go. "Unhand me." They let go. They stepped back, and she stood, her lungs burning and her face red with heat. She could not flee, not anymore, but that had never been her plan, had it?
She grit her teeth. "I am Princess Arya Stark and you willtake me to see my brother."
Confusion passed between a few of the men for a moment. More men were gathering, murmuring to each other in low tones.
"You will take me to see my brother the King, or you will take me to someone with the authority to do so!"
Armed men parted the crowd at last. "It will be our honor to escort you, princess," their leader said, his voice still a bit unsure. Perhaps the man remembered their King's promise to gut her and string her entrails from the Winterfell heart tree. Still, it was not as though they had a choice to keep her from her brother. Not as long as they still swore to him. Whatever came next, he would want to do it himself. That much she knew. How would he do it? Surely he would leave her alive for the disemboweling, and then after - no. She stopped those thoughts. She knew what she was about. She knew it would work.
She carried her heart in her mouth as she walked to the King's tattered pavilion. The guards kept their distance, seemingly afraid of her, as though she was a bad omen. They opened the flap of the tent to her, and warm air washed out. Candles were burning inside, so many candles, and the silhouette of her brother outlined against them.
"Your Grace?" The guard asked, and Robb turned to face them.