Characters: Arya, Gendry, Lady Stoneheart
Summary: Sandor Clegane is never captured by the Brotherhood without Banners, and Arya's journey takes a divergent path
When Lady Stoneheart finds out about Sansa's disappearance, it sends her into a rage such as Arya has never seen. She demands that the Brotherhood do whatever is possible to find Sansa and The Hound wherever they might be hiding, that they bring her daughter back to her again and sends search parties out across the country to find them. They are tracked as far as the Saltpans and there the trail is lost; it seems that wherever Arya's sister has gone that she has taken a ship to get there.
Arya does not believe that they'll find her now, and as much as she longs to see Sansa again, she's not sure that it's a good idea that they do.
Her sister, her gentle ladylike sister, who used to make fun of Arya's stitches but who would also sneak lemoncakes from the kitchen to share with her. Sansa shouldn't have to see what their mother has become, or to live like the members of the Brotherhood do, she wouldn't be able to survive here in this place. Arya hopes that Sansa really is alive and safe somewhere, that she's managed to escape from the Hound, or that as impossible as it seems that he's really saved her and is protecting her now.
Arya knows that a happy ending for Sansa is as unlikely as it would be for her. Mostly she tries not to think about what might have happened to Sansa at all, it is far easier that way.
Lady Stoneheart has established an orphanage at the Inn at the Crossroads, and sends the Brotherhood men to look after it by turns. It is something that Arya's mother would have done, and when it is announced there is a strange hope in Arya's chest, that more of Lady Catelyn had survived than she had previously thought. There must be something of her mother that is more than simply memories remaining within Lady Stoneheart, no matter how little.
The search parties find no sign of her sister, but they have far more success in bringing back Frey men and straggling Lannister and Bolton forces. Arya has lost count of how many they've killed now - she knows that there are paths through the forest where almost every tree has at least one body hanging from it. Some have been their enemies, and some have been the type of desperate men who are enemies to all.
Days turn into weeks, turn into months, while they hide in their hole in the ground, occasionally leaving for ambushes or sorties. There is little sign now of the proud brotherhood that once existed to help the smallfolk. They kill bandits that pray upon the people just as they kill Boltons and Freys, but they also take food and coin from those same smallfolk in the name of protection when they need it. Arya isn't sure there's much difference when it's unwillingly given.
Arya wonders if most of the men in the Brotherhood without Banners even remember what they're fighting for or who their enemy is. It is not the same as when Beric Donadarrion had led them, and every day the principles that they once held slip a little further away.
It is to be Lannister men today, foot soldiers who had wandered away from their commander and were found by the Brotherhood while robbing an orchard. The men they've captured tonight are pleading, blubbering, adamant that they don't deserve to die for such a small thing as taking a few apples.
Arya hates it when they do that, she wishes that they'd just die quietly and be done with it. She doesn't know if these men truly do deserve to die or not, but they've been sentenced now and their fate is inescapable, they should at least try to die well. Arya is tempted to leave rather than staying to watch, the killing will bring her no joy. She has partaken of so much death by now that she feels as if she is filled to the brim, unable to hold anymore.
If they should manage to capture the men who killed her brother and his bannermen, Arya would gladly do the deed herself, but these soldiers… Tonight, Arya would prefer to turn away.
It is to be done by the sword today, rather than by the rope. The men are already bound and ready to receive their justice though they continue to cry out. While Arya waits to see who her mother will call upon, she looks towards Gendry where he stands slightly back within the crowd, meeting his eyes. He gives her a slight nod, as if to reassure her, and she feels her spirits rise a little.
It will be over soon, just as it always is. Over until the next time.
It is then that Lady Stoneheart stands and points one bony, pale finger straight at Arya.
"My daughter will do it." she announces, the words oozing out of the wound in her throat. "She will take vengeance for her brother."
Arya's breath sticks in her throat, choking her. She had not expected this, had not wanted it.
She has killed before, but never like this. Before it was always because her life depended upon it, or a named enemy, someone who she knew deserved to die. Never like this, never men who were bound and powerless to resist. While Arya serves the Brotherhood gladly as a fighter, she has never had to be an executioner before, has never wanted to be. Arya doesn't even know if these men should die, even if they have served the Lannisters. They're just common soldiers after all, poor men with a lion on their chests rather than a wolf. It gnaws at her, it doesn't seem entirely right.
"I.." she begins to say, "Lady St… Mother…"
Her mother would never have asked, would never have wanted her daughter to do such a thing. Her mother… her mother is dead. Lady Stoneheart may have a shadow of love for Arya remaining within her heart, but the thirst for vengeance is what drives her most of all. Once it had been all that drove Arya too, but now, now…
"Let me do it for her," A voice rings out, and Gendry makes his way through the crowd, pushing his way to the front. "I would be honoured to serve Lady Stoneheart in this matter." He looks down at Arya, a quick flick of the eyes and then away. Nobody else speaks, nobody else tries to resist her mother's dictate.
Arya feels a warm rush of blood to her chest. Even after everything that has occurred he still wants to spare her. She forgives him everything in that instant, except that she is certain that she forgave him long ago.
"No," Lady Stoneheart hisses, "My own daughter will carry out my justice. For her family, for her brother who was slaughtered, by Lannister trickery as much as Frey. She will avenge her blood, she will do it for me."
"But m'lady…" Gendry begins to say, desperation apparent in his tone. Arya stills him with a touch of her hand to his arm. She removes it just as quickly, and steps forward into the circle formed around the Lannister men.
"I will do it," she whispers, and holds out a hand, her eyes fixed upon her mother's decayed face.
Somebody places a hilt into it and she is relieved, she wouldn't want to use Needle for this work.
You are a sword, that is all. Syrio Forel had once told her, what now seems like a lifetime ago. It is easier if Arya thinks of herself as a sword, as Lady Stoneheart's sword. It is easier, but it is not what Arya wants, it is not what Arya should be.
It is all that she may be, here and now.
Arya takes a deep breath and steels herself. You are a sword, that is all, she tells herself once again. She steps forward, the sword raised.
Lady Stoneheart nods her approval.
He finds her afterwards, in the woods, and Arya almost wishes that he hadn't. She will have to talk about it now, she will have to think about her mother and what she has become, and about what Arya herself is becoming.
The only light is that of a waning moon, and Gendry stands above her as she sits on an old log, scuffing her boots backwards and forwards in the dirt.
"Do you want to leave?"
The question takes her aback at first and for a moment Arya can't think, can't respond. If she could leave, if she could run away with him…
"I can't leave her, how could I? I'm all she has left now, I couldn't leave her. She wouldn't let me go anyway, not ever. She won't let me out of her sight, she needs me..." Arya shakes her head, glad that he can't see her eyes in the dark. "Needs me to help her carry out our revenge at least."
"Arya…" His eyes glint in the moonlight and he reaches a hand out to take hers but she pulls it away. "Arya, I… I'm sorry."
She's not sure what he's apologizing for; he tried at least, when nobody else did. He's always tried to look out for her, to keep her safe, and now he has to stand aside, to watch as Lady Stoneheart seeks her vengeance, always with Arya by her side.
"Your mother…" he starts to say, but Arya cuts him off with a quick shake of her head.
"My mother is dead. She's not my mother, she's… I don't know. But my mother was kind and honest and true and she loved us all, more than anything. She would never have wanted this, she…" Arya is shaking with the effort of suppressing her tears by now, and she lets it out suddenly, lets it out in one large sob. "My mother loved me, and Lady Stoneheart is not my mother."
She has thought it many times over the last months, in quiet moments of doubt which she has quickly stifled within herself. Arya had wished for so very long to be back with her family, to have her mother with her once more, that it has been hard for her to admit it. There is very little of love left in Lady Stoneheart, only the memory of it, and Arya worries that day by day even that is fading.
Lady Catelyn Stark may have been resurrected but Arya is still motherless, still so very alone.
Gendry pulls her up then, gathers her to him, hugs her tightly and she resists for only a moment, pushing at him only to have him hold her tighter.
Arya cries then, for the first time in… she can't remember. She cries for her father, for her little brothers, for Robb, all lost now. She cries for Sansa, who might be dead and who she might never see again, even if she's not. She cries for Jon, so very far away, so very far out of her reach. She cries for her mother, for her mother as she was, and for what she's now become. She cries lastly for herself, because after all, there is nobody else left to cry for her now.
Arya wants to ask Gendry if he would take her away from there, if they could leave, just the two of them, on the road again, but she knows that it's impossible. Lady Stoneheart may not truly be her mother anymore, but Arya does not know if she can bring herself to leave her, to betray her in that way. Even if they were to run away, Arya is sure that Lady Stoneheart would ensure that they were brought back.
Finally she pushes him away.
"We'd better go back, before she misses us." Arya announces quietly, and turns back towards the camp.
Gendry follows, a step behind.
On a cold day near the end of autumn, Arya becomes a woman.
She had woken to see blood on her thighs and for a moment it had terrified her, she had wondered if somebody had attacked her, if she was even now dying. She had glanced around and seen that the others were still asleep, and suddenly realized what had happened.
She is no longer a child. She has not been one for the longest time, but in the eyes of society the true change has finally come.
Had she been still in Winterfell, with her family around her, Arya has no doubt that her mother would have comforted her and explained the meaning of it. Sansa would have sat with her, and teased her about it but brought her hot bricks and cakes anyway. It might have been the occasion on which her father would have started searching for some stupid lord to be her betrothed. None of that will happen now.
In the end, Arya doesn't see what difference a little more blood makes.
She takes herself down to the river and washes the blood off her thighs, cuts up strips of cloth with her dagger so that she may use them like the women in Harrenhall did.
In Winterfell, Arya's mother would have been the first person that she would have told, the first one that she would have sought comfort from, but she will find no comfort there now.
Arya prepares to keep it a secret, she doesn't want anybody to know.
Least of all Lady Stoneheart.
The months pass and there is no change, no escape, only an ever increasing list of men that she has killed. Arya can feel herself growing older and wearier, colder and harder, her fate bound up with the ever approaching march of Winter. She can feel the life leaving her as death continues to creep slowly in. There is not much left in her life now, apart from death.
Once she had wished for an escape from the life she knew, the chance to be more than the wife of some high lord and mother to his children. She had dreamed of being a mighty warrior and fighting in battles, of being an outlaw like Wenda the White Fawn. Never, in all her dreams, did she imagine a life like this. Whatever principles the Brotherhoood without Banners once might have lived by are long gone, dead along with Beric Dondarrion. Now they live like rats, hiding in the dark.
Sometimes when she's able to, Arya sneaks into the forest to practice with Needle. She loves the way it feels in her hand, how the balance is just perfect for her, the way the light glints off the blade. Needle makes Arya remember happier times – laughing with Jon after he had given it to her, water dancing lessons with Syrio Forel. Those times might be gone now, never to return, but Needle is a reminder of them, a symbol, evidence that they once existed.
Arya prefers not to use Needle to kill for Lady Stoneheart.
In battle, whenever it comes to that, it does not matter. Needle is there to protect her when need be. But executions, the times when Arya is not sure… she will not use Needle for those.
Arya looks at the blade and thinks of Jon Snow and what he would've wanted for her. If he could see her now, and the life she leads… He's the only family that she has left anymore, the only one she still knows to be alive, and Arya wishes desperately that she could make her way to him somehow.
Maybe he wouldn't know her anymore, wouldn't recognize the younger sister that he once loved so dearly. Maybe he would know her on sight, and hug her to him, and never let her go. Maybe it would feel like home.
One thing is for certain. Jon would not want her to stay here, or to have to do the things that she has to in order to survive. Jon would not approve of the work that Arya carries out on behalf of Lady Stoneheart. Jon would see the way that the life is slowly being stifled out of her, the shadows overtaking her, and ask her why she stays.
Arya thinks about what Jon would want for her and what he would tell her to do, and she knows that he would ask her to leave. As the days pass and the darkness slowly overtakes her, Arya finds it more and more difficult to justify why she doesn't.
Whenever she begins to forget who she really is, Arya puts her hand on Needle's hilt, feels the perfectly made steel under her fingers, and remembers. She stays awake during long nights, staring up at the moon, remembering, and begins to dream of escape, of a life other than this one.
You are a sword, that is all, Syrio Forel had told her once to make her focus, but Arya knows he never intended for her to be only that. It is the true seeing that makes the greatest swordsmen, and she is beginning to see truly now.
Arya is more than this, more than death and hate and bloody vengeance, she was once life and love as well.
Arya knows that, she just needs to work out how to make her way back there again.