Fic: Carved From Stone 6/7
Somehow it is different now.
Arya cannot say quite how, but she feels as if some of Lady Stoneheart's power over her is now gone, as if she has finally let go of the last ties that connected her to her mother's ghost.
She remains with the Brotherhood without Banners, and accompanies them on their missions, but now Arya chooses what she does and does not do, chooses which battles she fights in. They do not realise it yet, but she chooses all the same.
Arya knows that Lady Stoneheart's vengeance will never end unless somebody stops her, but Arya now believes that she cannot simply wait for that day. She doesn't want to grow old killing Freys. Her list will remain, her vengeance will remain, but that doesn't mean that life should stop until her work is completed. The North is waiting for her, Jon is waiting for her, perhaps somewhere out there even Sansa is waiting for her.
Gendry is certainly waiting for her, and for his sake as much as for her own, Arya has to try.
Almost as if they have sensed the change in her, that she is ready for them once more, the wolf dreams begin again.
For the longest time there has simply been darkness when she closed her eyes and the first time that she dreams of them, Arya wakes crying for joy.
Nymeria, she wants to call out, but the camp sleeps and Arya does not wish to wake them.
Nymeria, Nymeria, Nymeria, she chants within her head the next day, another secret for her to keep that nobody else will know. She waits until night falls, until the hour when she may sleep, to once again close her eyes and dream of running in the woods beneath the sliver of a moon.
In the dream, she tugs at her direwolf's consciousness, urging her to run, to run as fast as possible, towards the girl who loves her so. In the dream, Arya feels Nymeria respond, feels her turn under the light of the moon, her face lifted to sniff out Arya's scent.
Arya wakes again, and knows that it will not be long now. She understands that Nymeria never forgot her, never blamed her for the rocks. Her direwolf has been waiting for this day, just as Arya has.
It will not be long now, and when Nymeria arrives then Arya knows that nobody will be able to stop her from leaving, that it will finally be time for her to return North. Together they will reclaim her family's home and defeat the Boltons, whether with an army of men or with an army of wolves called by Nymeria's, they will have their justice there.
It is enough for Arya to be able to start in this way. She hopes that it will be enough for Lady Stoneheart too.
Arya has just returned from foraging for firewood when she hears excited shouts coming from the direction of the camp. Gripping her bundle with one arm, she places the other on Needle's hilt, ready to fight if it is necessary.
It is not necessary though; the shouts are from their own men, jeering as prisoners are led into the camp. Arya watches as they are led past, a man and a boy who make their way on foot and another man who is draped over the back of a horse, clearly injured and apparently unconscious. Jeyne Heddle walks next to the horse, glancing now and again at the prisoner.
Placing her bundle down, Arya steps closer to inspect the newcomers, wondering which House they belong to. At first glance, none of them appear to be Frey, or Bolton, or Lannister men by the colours they wear. Moving closer, Arya hears the man on foot trying to cajole the Brotherhood members into letting him go, promising all types of riches to them if they do. The boy is silent, his head down and his gaze directed at the ground. To Arya's eyes, he seems to be around the same age that she is, and she is surprised by how well he holds himself, by how little fear he shows.
He reminds her of another boy, who didn't deserve to die.
The figure on the horse groans, clearly in pain, and the boy suddenly looks up. "Ser? My lady?" He starts to move towards the injured prisoner only to be shoved back by one of the Brotherhood.
Surprised by his exclamation, Arya moves forward with steady purpose, now seeing with clear eyes. She walks up to the horse and leans down to peer into the face of the body that hangs limply over its back, realising with a start that it really is a woman, the largest she's ever seen.
The woman groans again, her eyes suddenly opening, vague and unfocused. "Jaime…" she calls out, and then "My sword! Please give me my sword!"
Arya looks up, turning towards Jeyne. "Who is she? What did she do?"
"She saved us." Jeyne answers, her voice serious, "Two of the Mountain's men came to the Inn, they would have killed us for sure had she not intervened. She was asking about the Hound and your sister when they arrived. She fought bravely, and killed one, the other nearly did for her until Gendry finished him off."
"Gendry, is he…"
"He's fine, it is only the lady who was wounded. I have tried to tend her, for all the good it will do her now."
Arya looks into Jeyne's face and sees that they share the same thought, that all the care given to the prisoner will mean nothing if Lady Stoneheart wishes to hang her.
"But why have they been brought here? What has she done wrong?"
"Hear her calling out, the name she says? That's the Kingslayer she calls for. She's a Lion this one, or at the very least a Lion's whore."
A Lion, and Arya knows that soon this lion will also hang upon a tree.
Jeyne returns to the Inn at the Crossroads, and the prisoners are left with the Brotherhood without Banners, to stand trial once the swordswoman has recovered.
Arya discovers the names of the prisoners from the boy – the man is Ser Hyle Hunt, while the boy is Podrick Payne, squire to the lady who wavers in and out of consciousness, Brienne of Tarth.
The large swordswoman fascinates Arya, she is the first woman that Arya has encountered who has openly pursued a path of swordsmanship. She reminds Arya of the life that she used to dream of, a life of adventure and heroism. This woman had saved the lives of all those at the Inn and defeated two of the Mountain's men, surely a heroic act. Yet Arya listens as the men call Lady Brienne the Kingslayer's whore, and a traitor besides, and wonders where the truth lies.
"Are you Lions?" Arya asks Podrick Payne, "Do you serve the Lannisters?"
The boy gets a stubborn look on his face, his lips pressed firmly together. "I serve my lady," he announces, "I served Tyrion Lannister once, as his squire. But he left and never took me with him. I serve my lady now."
Arya gets the story out of him in bits and pieces as he stutters and starts. Of how Tyrion Lannister was accused of killing Joffrey, only to disappear before his execution could take place. Of how Podrick Payne had seen Ser Jaime Lannister send Lady Brienne on a quest, and followed her to see if she would lead him to his old master.
"But my lady wasn't looking for him, it was the girls she sought."
"What girls?" Arya asks him, frowning.
"The Stark girls. My lady had made a promise to Lady Catelyn, to return her daughters; only they were gone when she arrived to King's Landing. Ser Jaime made a promise too. We were searching for them, to save them if we could, only nobody had seen them. My lady isn't a Lion, she isn't. She never forgot her vows."
Arya has become still, her face a mask as she listens to him. Could it be true, that Lady Brienne was on a quest to save her and Sansa, or is it a Lannister trick? According to Podrick, Lady Brienne had once served her lady mother and promised to bring her daughters back to her.
Arya finds it funny that now when Lady Brienne has actually found her, it's she herself that needs saving.
For two days, Lady Brienne wavers between life and death. Arya wonders if it might not be kinder if she was to die now in her sleep. No matter what the truth of her quest is, it is likely she will be killed anyway, strung up to hang from a tree, and Arya thinks that it is a sad end for such a lady. There is nobody here who can help her.
Nobody except Arya, and she doesn't know if she wants to. She doesn't know if she can.
Yet Arya remembers Olyvar Frey, who never betrayed her family but died anyway. She remembers watching him kicking at the end of his rope, and wonders if she could watch it happen again, to this lady warrior and her companions.
Arya had promised herself that she would no longer turn away.
On the third day, Lady Brienne wakes gasping, her gaze darting around the cavern in which she's been placed to recover. Her eyes fix upon Thoros first, where he sits near her pallet, missing Arya where she crouches in the shadows.
Arya watches as they converse, as the woman asks for her sword once more, as she has a dozen times a day since she was brought there. She waits and watches and listens, trying to judge the truth in Lady Brienne's words before she speaks to her herself. Arya waits until Thoros goes to fetch some food, and then she steps forward into the light, padding forward on soft feet.
"Lady Brienne." Arya says, coming to stand near where the woman sits upon the pallet, obviously light headed from her injuries and lack of food.
"You are young to be part of a band of outlaws," the woman comments, "Is it possible that there may be more honour in you than the others? If there is, then convince them to spare the boy at least, he has done no wrong."
"And have you?" Arya asks her, "Did you betray Lady Catelyn Stark as they say you did?"
"Never," Lady Brienne responds vehemently, "I swear it upon my sword. I set out to take Ser Jaime to King's Landing, to exchange for her daughters, but by the time we arrived they were both gone, the youngest possibly long dead. Ser Jaime had made her a promise and even after we heard that Lady Catelyn was dead he sent me to fulfil it and gave me my sword, Oathkeeper. I swore I would find them and take them to safety."
"But the Kingslayer is a Lannister, an enemy of the Starks."
"He is not what he once was. He is changed, I swear it! He saved me when they would have raped me, and he came back for me, even when there was no need. He swore that he would never again raise arms against Stark or Tully. He is not Lady Catelyn's enemy."
Arya thinks about it, there is truth in the woman's words. She looks into that wide, honest face and has a difficult time believing that Lady Brienne would lie. But that is not enough, and Arya needs to know the entire truth before she can judge whether Lady Brienne is guilty of betrayal or not.
"Tell me." Arya commands her, "Tell me everything that happened, from the time you left Lady Catelyn at Riverrun. If you're telling the truth then I will try to help you. If you lie to me though, I will help them to string you up."
And so Lady Brienne begins to speak, pausing only when Thoros returns with some food, speaking around bites and gulps, seemingly as aware as Arya is that her time may be growing short. Thoros leaves them, a thoughtful look on his face as he watches Arya listen to the woman's tale. When it has all finally been told, Lady Brienne takes a deep breath, seemingly exhausted by the effort, and Arya is silent for a long moment, mulling her decision.
It may be the wrong one, perhaps she will never be sure, but she thinks she knows now what it is that she needs to do.
"You have been successful in your quest." Arya tells the swordswoman quietly, stepping forward into the lamplight. "At least in one part of it."
Lady Brienne opens her mouth to respond, her face contorted in confusion, before she stops and really looks at Arya. A sharp intake of breath, and Arya knows that she has understood.
"The younger girl? Arya Stark? Everyone believes you dead. I never thought to find you, it was your sister whose trail I followed. But how do you come to be here, with these outlaws?"
Arya ignores Lady Brienne's question, pressing on with her own. "And did you find Sansa? Did you find out where the Hound took her?"
Lady Brienne shakes her head sadly, "The trail has long since gone cold, it has been far too long since they left King's Landing. I heard that they were seen riding towards Saltpans, perhaps towards a ship there. I had hoped to go there next, to ask if any remembered them. But you, my lady, at least I have found you." Brienne's face crumples then, ashen beneath the bandage on her cheek. "Though I find that now that I have, I have no way of saving you."
It has been a long time since Arya has seen justice, or loyalty, or honour. She has had little enough experience of friendship or love or courage lately either. Yet as she looks at this woman, she feels as if the light is slowly coming back to her, as if suddenly a chance has come to make it all alright. Lady Brienne is everything that Arya once dreamed of being, and Arya cannot let her die.
"It's alright," Arya says simply, feeling a strange sense of calm. "I've got a lot of experience in saving myself."
It does not take long for the Brotherhood to bring Lady Brienne and her companions to trial. As soon as they realise that she has awoken and eaten, she is summoned to face Lady Stoneheart, Ser Hyle and Podrick Payne with her.
"They will hang me," Lady Brienne whispers frantically to Arya as she walks alongside, "But I am glad to have seen you alive before they do. Please, convince them to spare Pod if you can. He is just a boy, he does not deserve this."
"I will do what I can." Arya promises, and she knows that it will be more than she has ever tried to do before.
Arya waits until the right moment. Until Lady Stoneheart has spoken, and accused Brienne and her companions, until Lady Brienne has spoken her piece, until the verdict has been pronounced and an ultimatum given.
Arya wonders at Lady Brienne's refusal to kill Ser Jaime even under threat of death. Despite having heard the story of the changes in him she still can't believe that he would inspire such loyalty. But loyalty won't save Lady Brienne or Ser Hyle, or the boy. Arya looks towards Thoros for support, but he stands towards the back of the crowd, sadness written across his face, already distancing himself from the outcome.
No, if anyone is to save Lady Brienne then it will have to be Arya.
Arya waits until Lady Stoneheart has spoken the sentence and then steps forward.
"She's innocent," Arya announces, "And I won't let you hang her."
"Hush milady, your mother has decided their fate." Harwin says, taking a warning step towards her.
Arya looks around at all of them, accusation clearly written in her gaze as she meets theirs, one by one. "I remember when the Brotherhood believed in justice, when we had real trials, not these mock ones. I remember when a prisoner was allowed trial by combat."
"That was before." Lem says, "We follow Lady Stoneheart's justice now."
"It's not justice, and you're not a Brotherhood." Arya spits out, "Just worms, hiding in the ground and living off corpses. If any of you are man enough, then come and face me. I'll fight you, and I'll kill all of you if I have to but you're not hanging her."
"Arya," Lady Stoneheart hisses, "You would betray me, as this traitor did? She has embraced our greatest enemies and forgotten her vows."
"No, I am not betraying you. I've heard her story and I believe her, she never betrayed you, she was trying to fulfil her promise to you and save your daughters even now, that's what brought her here. She doesn't deserve to die, none of them do. It's us who have forgotten our vows, everyone here has forgotten what they promised to uphold. Even you, Mother."
It is the last time that Arya will ever call her that, but today she hopes that it rings true. "Except you're not my mother, because Lady Catelyn Stark would've made certain there was a proper trial before pronouncing a sentence. This is wrong, just like it was wrong to kill Olyvar Frey when he hadn't harmed us. I won't let you do this, I won't let you spoil my mother's name with this death. Kill Freys and Boltons and Lannisters all you want, but Lady Brienne is under my protection."
Lem laughs mockingly at that, "And how are you going to stop all of us, when we go to string up the big ugly wench? You think you can take us all on?"
"No," Arya replies challengingly, "Only one of you, in single combat. I'll be her champion, if I win then you let them go. If I fail then at least I won't be alive to see you all lose whatever honour you have left. If any of you have any courage, then come and challenge me."
She pulls out Needle, moving into a water dancer stance.
It has been a long time, a very long time, since Arya has fought for anything worthwhile. As she stands there, staring Lem in the face, she feels more alive than she has in years. This is what she was made for, this is how she should be living.
"My lady, no, you don't have to…" Brienne starts to say, but Arya silences her with a look.
"Yes. I do."
The Brotherhood looks towards Lady Stoneheart, as it has ever since her resurrection. It is a long moment before their leader finally speaks.
"We will deal with this once and for all. Thoros, you will fight my daughter, but she is not to be harmed."
Arya's eyes turn towards Thoros where he stands at the very edge of the circle of light the torches create, his robes hanging loosely around him, a shadow of his former self.
Thoros looks at her, then back at Lady Stoneheart, and finally shakes his head. "No." he says, and turning around, walks off into the night.
There is silence among the Brotherhood as they look at each other in discomfort.
"I'll do it then." Lem announces, pulling his sword roughly from its sheath and glaring down at Arya. "I'll try not to hurt you, since it's Lady Stoneheart's orders, but I hope you're prepared to bleed a little for the Kingslayer's whore."
Arya smiles. She's never been afraid of a little blood.
A circle is cleared around them, the Brotherhood's members forming the edges, and Arya shifts from foot to foot, ensuring that she is ready. She has not had a chance to dance properly in so very long.
Lem is the first to move, lunging at her, putting far too much of his strength into it, and Arya sidesteps it easily. She allows him to chase her, dancing out of his reach easily, as he chases and swears, growing more tired with every move.
Arya knows how to wait for the right opportunity, she hasn't forgotten anything that Syrio Forel taught her no matter how many years have passed. She waits and watches, and anticipates his moves.
Seizing the right moment, she slashes at Lem, cutting him across the right thigh, and jumping back as he curses foully and tries to reach for her.
"I'll get you for that you little bitch!" he howls, seeming to have forgotten his promise to Lady Stoneheart.
Arya continues the dance, ducking in when she's able to make shallow cuts across Lem's body as he becomes more and more enraged, his own attempts increasingly clumsy. She can hear shouts in the background but she blocks them out, unwilling to allow her attention to be diverted.
"I should've killed you when you broke my nose." Lem threatens her, and Arya waits until he's just distracted enough to make a deeper cut to his abdomen.
He doubles over, screaming, holding the flesh together in an attempt to stop the blood and falling to his knees.
"Kill me then," he spits out at her, "Be done with it."
"No," Arya replies. "I won't."
She cleans Needle on her tunic before sheathing it, even as two of the Brotherhood members step forward to help Lem.
"I won. They're free to go." Arya announces to the crowd. There is silence as everyone waits, even Lady Brienne and her companions, to see if anybody will challenge her.
Arya looks towards Lady Stoneheart and waits, her eyes fixed on the dead woman's face until slowly, she gives one firm nod.
"Let them go," the sound whistles through Lady Stoneheart's throat. "You have challenged me today, daughter. You have stopped my revenge. You will not do so again in future."
"No, I won't." Arya confirms, her eyes darting to the remaining brotherhood members then back to Lady Stoneheart. "Because I'm leaving, and nobody here is going to stop me."
"No." Lady Stoneheart hisses, "My daughter…"
"I was Lady Catelyn Stark's daughter, and Lady Catelyn Stark is dead." Arya interrupts her. "You want revenge for our family and I pray that we will have it one day, I promise you that I will not rest until they are avenged. But I want to live as well, I want to go back to Winterfell, I want to see Jon and to try and find Sansa. I'm going to reclaim our home from the Boltons who have taken it and I'm going to make them pay for their treachery. I'll carry out our revenge there, Lady Stoneheart, I will have vengeance from the Boltons. I'll make them pay, but I'll do it on my own terms."
It seems to take an eternity for Lady Stoneheart to respond, the seconds ticking by like hours before she gives a nod of assent, a long sigh whistling through the wound in her throat. "Go then, my daughter. Go and make them pay."
Arya steps forward, one step in front of the other, until she has reached her goal. She thinks of all those many months ago, when she had wished to be back with her mother. She thinks of standing on the bank of the Trident River and looking down at the body that had washed up, and wanting only to bring her to life once more.
She leans forward and kisses Lady Stoneheart's dry, papery cheek.
"I will make you proud, Mother," she whispers into one ear.
Arya hopes that somewhere it may bring Lady Catelyn Stark's soul some peace.