chapter title: like a soldiers heart
summary: The game has changed, not ended – and by the time they realise she's playing it's too late to stop what she's set in motion. Or How Sansa and Arya Save the North Despite Being on Different Continents.
dedication: drunk siblings crashing in at 4.30 am
The Tenderness of Wolves
On the ship they know her as Freya – a faceless girl with an iron coin. It is easier this way; for all her newfound physical strength, the developing curve of her hips and narrowing of her waist is undeniable. The days of Arry the orphan boy are now far behind her.
But no one looks too long or hard at an acolyte of the House, she's found. She sleeps with Needle just in case, but no one steals into her small cabin in the dark of night ready for a raping.
It is just as well; anyone who tries to force their way into her smallclothes is going to get a blade through their throat and the Captain will definitely not take kindly to that.
The memory of Chiswyck's laughter haunts her as vividly as the Tickler's endless questions.
No, not through the throat, she thinks. I'll hack their bloody cocks off and see how they like being the ones who are violated.
She remembers how Gendry and Hot Pie would lie on either side of her in those long, violent nights before Harrenhal, and she would almost disappear from view between them. There's no one to hide her now, and there is no hiding the fact that she is a girl either. Maybe not a highborn girl in pretty silks and dresses, but a girl all the same.
She feels vulnerable, robbed of the little protection posing as a boy gave her when out in the world alone, though she does her best not to show it. The only one who talks to her at all is the cabin boy, a brown-haired youth about Sansa's age, who scrubs the deck and ties endless knots of rope for the sailors.
"You are not Braavosi," he guesses, as she helps him peel the last of the potatoes brought from White Harbour. Freya is having trouble remembering his name.
"Just so," she agrees, dropping peel into the bucket. "But a girl's origins are of no importance, kitchen boy."
"All the men are afraid of you."
She can't help the smile that slips out, sly and slightly feral – the ghost of Harrenhal bubbling beneath the surface of her skin. "Good."
"But you're just a little girl," he says, bemused. "I've seen much scarier things than you."
So have I, she thinks.
"A girl can have secrets," she tells him instead. "Mayhaps it's those secrets which your brave crew fears."
She thinks of her father on the steps of the Sept, confessing to a treason he didn't commit, and the Gold Cloaks who pursued them through the wilderness for a boy named Gendry.
"Secrets can kill just as sure as blades can, kitchen boy. Did no one ever teach you that?"
Amusingly his face goes stubborn all over, reminiscent of another boy she used to know. Another boy in another life time.
"Maybe I have a secret too."
"Everyone has secrets," she tells him, unimpressed. She has more secrets than anyone she is likely to meet, and he is a fool for throwing the existence of his around. "But yours can't be that important or you wouldn't be telling me you have one, stupid boy."
The dull flush which spreads over his cheeks is strangely satisfying. Freya can do that to people, make them feel their inadequacies. Arya Underfoot could never make anyone blush, except maybe her foolish sister when she was embarrassed.
Silly Sansa, she thinks and the sadness cuts as deeply as any knife could. Her fingers are suddenly clumsy and stiff, the useless fingers of Arya Horseface with her crooked stitches.
The nights are the worst part of the voyage. She hates the deep, rhythmic quiet when the sea rolls underneath them, and the sky is an eternity of stars stretching overhead, for that is when she has the most time to think – the most time to remember. Even the blood throbbing through her veins whispering kill them all kill them all kill them all is easier to push aside during the daylight hours because Arya – Arya has spent months being Cat, being Blind Beth, and she knows now how to pretend that simmering rage isn't there.
Freya is just another mask, another name to wear and no protection against the ghosts which have started to come back, the memories which are rising to the surface whether she wants them or no.
When it goes still and silent, like tonight, there is nothing to prevent her from examining them, the way a tongue probes at a sore tooth over and over. There are no more lessons to learn; no bodies to strip, no poisons to smell, no names to give to the many-faced-God.
Lying on her small bed, she stares up at the ceiling and tries to remember the faces of those on her list. "Cersei," she whispers, but all she can recall now is a curtain of long blonde hair. The Queen was beautiful, that much she knows, but it's been so long…
I barely even remember what Joffrey looked like, anymore, Arya realises, and it seems so impossible that she could forget these things when she still hates the Lannister's so much. How can you forget the face of your father's murderer?
"He had fat, wormy lips," she murmurs to herself, closing her eyes. "Sansa thought he was handsome."
But thinking about Sansa hurts, so she tries not to – tries not to consider the fact that she has no idea where in the world her sister is. Tries not to remember that the last time she saw her, it was as their father lost his head.
I hope the rumours are true, she thinks viciously, remembering words about a wolf who grew wings and flew away after killing the stupid king. I hope you watched him die, and were glad.
The Lannisters killed father. They killed Robb and mother, too. She wonders if Sansa had to hear all the grisly details, if they told her everything and watched to see if she would cry. No matter how they drifted apart in Kings Landing, Arya knows that there's enough wolf in Sansa to deny them that particular satisfaction. She rolls onto her side, an ache in her chest which hasn't left her since the day she dreamed of her mother's corpse in the river, not even when she was Cat, and Beth and No One.
"It's never going to go away," she murmurs, though there's no one left to hear. "The pack is dead."
Inhaling slowly, she tries to remember how to breathe – how to push that awful emptiness down and be angry instead, so full of rage she can taste it on her tongue, a black and bitter thing, like blood.
She cannot stand to be inside anymore.
In swift, careful movements she's out and taking the steps two at a time until her feet are planted on the deck, and there's the wide, open night around her. She leans against the railings and looks out to
the shores of Westeros, hidden behind the horizon, and imagines she can see right into Kings Landing, to the steps of the Sept where her father lost his head. The awful emptiness inside her is growing, expanding – eating away at her insides – when all she wants is to bury herself in rage until she can taste it on her tongue, a black and bitter thing like bad blood.
She has no use for sorrow but her vision is blurring all the same, and the stars threaten to rain down around her head if unwanted tears happen to spill over.
"They're dead, stupid," she whispers to herself. "They're dead. But you're not."
Against all odds, Arya Stark has survived – battered, bruised and bleeding, perhaps, but undeniably alive, even if it's only in the meanest sense of the word. Even the House wasn't enough to bury her, the grizzly remains of a girl once called Underfoot, once called Horseface.
She leans over the railing to stare at her rippling reflection, at the long face and solemn grey eyes she never wanted. Her own face.
Her hair is growing back, at last, falling just past her shoulder blades. She is taller, thinner, than she remembers being, but for the first time in a long time, she looks like a girl.
Almost pretty, she thinks distantly, surprised. She looks like Jon.
She looks like father.
And that – that is the hardest thing in wearing her own face, to see others in her reflection, and yet know that it holds no resemblance to everyone else whom she has lost.
The lone wolf survives…
Father was wrong; when the cold winds came it was the pack who died instead, and their ghosts follow her wherever she goes.
Her hands clench and unclench around the worn, wooden railing. The air smells salty, and if she closes her eyes, she can almost imagine it is the scent of blood, heavy and metallic, a salty rusty stench she knows well. She imagines it spilling across the deck in a red, wet river, soaking through her shoes. One day she will walk through pools of Lannister blood barefoot and feel it squelch between her toes, and oh, she will dance then. That hatred bubbling in her veins is the only thing which can even begin to drown out that frightening, hollow place in her chest which whispers in the night, whispers of her own, sweet death by her mother and brother's side –
"Cersei," Arya says, to the cool, clear night. "Ser Ilyn. Dunsen. Raff the Sweetling. House Frey…"
She has chosen to be Arya Stark, and that means accepting all the ghosts that come with her.
She dreams of wolves and forests and a river with three forks, banners with lions and towers fluttering in the wind. She dreams of her black brother hunting somewhere in the cold.
Home, a voice calls urgently and she is too much the night-wolf to recognise it. Home, home, come home, come home.
"Where are you from?" the boy asks, and Arya knows his name now, though she will never tell him hers. Not her true name. A thousand and one lies dance on her tongue, easy and light as air. She has been so many people; Arry, Nan, Weasel, Salty, Squab, Cat, Beth –
Watching Zak shrewdly, Needle balanced on her bony knees, she asks, "What do you know of the North?"
His eyebrows pinch together, eyes narrowing. "This ship came from Eastwatch. There's trouble at the Wall, I know that much."
The air is salty and wet, sea spray soaking her hair. It takes everything she has to stop her face from showing the sudden worry in her chest, sharp and cold like the press of a blade. "What kind of trouble?"
"Wildlings, it was. At first."
"There were dead things," he whispers, eyes downcast and afraid. "In the water. When we were sailing through the Bay of Seals. I saw them, I did."
A hundred and one stories fill her head, long forgotten. Those hushed whispers of Old Nan's belong to another life, another Arya Stark – she's long since learned there are worse things to fear than snarks and grumpkins, those imaginary monsters which used to hide under Bran's bed. And yet –
Jon told her about the day they found the direwolves – the deserter, his mad ramblings, how Bran had not looked away.
"He said he saw the whitewalkers," Jon said, more puzzled than amused. Arya had scowled at him.
"That's stupid. The whitewalkers lived thousands of years ago, everybody knows that."
Now she looks at the vast ocean around them and wishes the ship was headed to White Harbour instead.
"People," Zak whispers, and it comes, oh how it comes – that cold dread from her dreams, from a day in the rain by a bridge where she heard a wolf screaming. From a day when she stood in the midst of a thunderous crowd and watched helplessly as her father was shoved to his knees.
She's on her feet without realising, her work abandoned. The sky is cloudy, a solemn grey like Jon Snow's eyes, and she can feel the promise of a storm in the air.
Facing the waves, she gulps for breath and tries to remember how to be someone else. She has chosen to be Arya Stark, though, and for the first time in months, she realises that stupid girl comes with more than just ghosts and memories which cut like shards of glass.
"My brother is at the Wall," she murmurs, and this time it is not Kings Landing she imagines somewhere beyond the waves, and she is afraid.
It's dawning on her that despite that ragged hole in her heart, Arya Stark still has something to lose.
notes2: why does Arya never behave for me.
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