deny her anything
and it became her heart's desire
They say, in the North, that the youngest she-wolf was born backwards. Feet first, eyes wide open, howling howling howling. They say it was not Wylla Stark that birthed the girl but a direwolf, deep in the sacred Godswood. They say she was born late, that her warrior's heart has no place in a time of such peace. Others say she was born too early and with knowing eyes watched as she railed against the constraints placed upon her. Some say nothing at all.
She says to the Gods, before they sent her off "Throw me to the wolves and I'll return leading the pack"
"Aria! It's time to turn back!"
She hears Jon call in the distance and looks up at the grey sweltering sky. The rains are due any minute but she can not be persuaded back to Winterfell, not with the feeling that was stirring in her bones. She had happened upon a path that looked remarkably identical to the one in the reoccurring dream that had visited her relentlessly since her ninth name day. Taking one last glance backward, Aria pushed forward deeper into the Wolfswood, disappearing from Jon's line of vision.
Aria walks for several moments until she's in the middle of a clearing. She thinks there might have been a stream here once, but the earth had long since been dried up and left barren. The woods are quiet, most of the animals fleeing for higher ground or drier winds. Aria herself is about to turn back when she hears something. It takes her a moment to locate what she's been unknowingly searching for but when she does the only words to stumble from her mouth were "Oh."
In front of her was a small litter of direwolf pups. Only one had her eyes open, the oldest if their size was any indication of their age, and Aria found herself completely enraptured by the wolf's golden orbs. Suddenly Jon is gripping her backwards and she wants to scold him for sneaking up on her but the words die on her lips at his expression. She looks back, not at the pups this time but at their mother and the violence of the image has her pressing herself back into Jon in shock.
All her life, Aria will never forget the image of the wolf mother with a stag's antler gouging her throat. It was the first time in her ten years of life she had ever been exposed to such macabre. After a breath she looks away and tugs Jon along, gathering the pups and riding off to Winterfell before the storm truly set in.
Sometimes Arriana thinks she would have accepted her fate had she not grown up so closely with Jon. From his birth the two had been inseparable; they learned to walk together, learned their letters together, learned to ride horseback on the same horse. They learned the same history at Maester Luwin's knee and had been indistinguishable from each other as babies, in the way all babies seem genderless until time smooths out the clues of their gender hidden in the structure of their bones. Their grandfather often japed that the only stretch of separation between them was the twelve months between their name days.
She had only ever known them to be equals in every way. Jon often felt as an extension of herself rather than his own corporeal being; her heart in human form. While she was all rough edges and blunt talk Jon was her softer shadow, disarmingly charming and infinitely tender. It made it all the more difficult to understand why she received a sewing needle while Jon was handed a wooden sword.
Arriana is not sure exactly when she begins to feel the constraints of her gender. It just simply happens, with the same inevitability as the sun setting or winter arriving. One day she's wearing Jon's breeches and racing him through the Godswood and the next she's being shoved into a dress and bullied into etiquette classes (of which she made several Septas resign their posting until her mother threatened to sell her horse and send her to the silent sisters).
And just as she's not sure of it's inception, Aria is equally unsure when it began to shape her. Willfulness and mischievousness had always been as much a part of her as the north itself, but she remembers a time when she was softer. She and Sansa had always gotten along as well as oil and water, but she remembers a time the several of her grandfather's banner men were visiting Winterfell and an Umber girl made Sansa cry. Where now Aria was more likely to leave Sansa to her own devices, then she had spent the better half of the following afternoon tormenting the Umber girl with minor pranks and nuisances. She remembers how helpful she loved being in her youth, whether in the kitchens or in the stables, and how it earned her the nickname 'Aria Underfoot' among the castle servants.
And then, just as the sun sets and winter comes, the winds of change blow. She's forced away from Jon and into sewing circles with respectable girls her age. Her laughter turns to scowls and her japes more malicious. She's scolded for spending time in the kitchens, and for ruining her dresses despite her protests for less restrictive clothing. With the years she grows tall, and angry, as Jon gets better and better with a blade.
The only thing that keeps her in line is Jon and that blade. While her family only sees her rebellion and her anger, Jon saw the way she was truly suffering beneath her conditions. And so one night, to her utter surprise, he drags her out of bed while the morning was still dark and all of Winterfell slept and gifted her with her own wooden sword and a promise to train her in front of the knowing eyes of the Winter Kings of old.
It's almost enough to satiate her thirst for more. Almost.
"No." She says it resolutely, leaving no room for argument.
Wylla's face quickly settles into something that resembles frustration. It was a familiar expression on her, almost as natural as blinking, at least when directed at her only daughter. Eddard quickly places a comforting hand over her mother's clasped ones despite never taking his eyes off his daughter. "Arriana," the use of her given name would have made her smile coming from her father, who only used it when cross, if she weren't so cross herself, "Noble children have fostered with other great houses for hundreds of years as a way to strengthen ties within the seven kingdoms. It is considered a great honor to fulfill this duty to your house."
An unladylike snort escapes her. "You speak of honor and duty as if it wasn't grandfather who brought the idea forth." A moment of silence settled between the three of them. It was true that the idea of fostering Aria away was born from the mind of the Stark patriarch, who loved his granddaughter but believed she needed a firmer rearing than the one Ned and Wylla were providing. "He would have sold me to highest bidder as soon as my moon's blood came if only to get me out of his hair if it hadn't been for the two of you."
It had been a conjoined effort between her grandmother Lyarra and her parents to keep her in Winterfell when Rickard seemed hellbent on marrying her away, claiming her wolf's blood would tame with a marriage to a strong man. The whim came and went, but the damage between Lord Stark and his youngest granddaughter remained. "Yes, it was your grandfather's idea but your father and I's decision," Wylla says, setting her chin. She always admired her mother most in moments such as these. As sweet as her mother was there were few who saw the true iron beneath her porcelain skin. "You would flourish outside of Winterfell."
"Fine! If you must send me away let it be to Bear Island, or Karhold. Gods, I'd even go to the Dreadfort if it meant staying in the north." There was a quiver to her voice and she stood abruptly, turning away from her parents. She hated the way her eyes stung, hated showing any sliver of weakness, but within the comfort of her parents' solar she was no longer the fierce she-wolf of Winterfell. She was simply a pup scared to leave the safety of the pack den.
"Some of my fondest memories are of the time I spent fostering in the Eyrie with Robert Baratheon," Eddard says softly at his daughter's back, a smile toying at his lips, "And what did I come away with? A strong ally in House Arryn, my sense of honor and duty, and a brother. I would wish these things for you, daughter."
Arriana purses her lips, cursing her father's sincerity. Eddard Stark was the only man alive who could soothe Aria out of one of her moods with a few soft words. She turns slightly, her profile facing them, and says nothing. "We are not sending you away, Aria. We are trying to prepare you for the world. I am not the Lord of Winterfell, nor will I ever be. As much as I'd like I cannot keep you here forever," Eddard explains.
She turns to fully face her parents. "And who will receive me?" Aria asks stiffly, already sensing the loss in this argument. It is Wylla's turn to speak. "House Arryn has agreed to take you in. You leave within a moon's turn. You will call the Eyrie home for two years and once your time there is done you will continue south and join your Aunt Lyanna in King's Landing for a few moons." The smile that splits from Aria's lips is enough to light up the room as she runs to her mother and father and peppers their faces with kisses.
Arriana was no fool. She knew a visit to her Aunt Lyanna was dependent on her behavior in the Vale but it mattered to her not. She would be on her best behavior with the Arryns, and then she would see the aunt she favored above the rest who would let her stretch her wolf heart as far as it could run
Arriana's girlhood ends not with the exchange of a maiden's cloak or blood on her thigh, but with an announcement.
She remembers the moment quite clearly. She's sitting with her Manderly cousins in the Great Hall, laughing at a bawdy joke and pulling Wynafryd's braid, when her grandfather rises from his place at the head of the room. The hall falls silent and Aria takes the opportunity to look around. She's surprised to see so many of her grandfather's banner men gathered in their home for Sansa's name day. She sees the sigils of Houses Karstark, Umber, Glover, and notices with raised eyebrows House Bolton even managed an appearance by sending its' heir.
Arriana paid little attention to the politics of Winterfell; she had no need for intrigue as the the second daughter of a second son. Of the feast she knew only that though it was held for Sansa's name day, her aunt Elinor was also the guest of honor, and that the invitation for the feast would be extended to Stark banner men. That information had been enough for her and the thought of seeing her Manderly cousins after nearly two years had been enough to distract her. Looking around the room now she wished she had been wise enough to pry.
"I have a confession my lords. Unbeknownst to you all, I have been tending to the most beautiful winter roses in all the north. One of them," Rickard pauses, taking a moment to smile softly at Sansa, "is turning seventeen today. The other is eighteen, already a woman grown." Aria glances at Elinor, beaming in her seat, and feels something uneasy settle in her stomach. "As much as it pains me I cannot keep them for myself. And so, it is with great pleasure, that I announce their betrothals."
Arriana feels as if the very air she breathes has been stolen from her lungs. She vaguely hears her grandfather announce Sansa's betrothal to Tycen Lannister, or Elinor's departure to the Stormlands. She knows the banner men around her are clapping fiercely, toasting to the might of House Stark, but she feels as if she's underwater. Everything is muffled and the only thing she could hear was the sound of her tell-tale heart beating in her ears.
"Aria?" The sound of her name is enough to pull her back from her shock, and she focuses on Wynafryd who is giving her a concerned look. "I'm fine," she answers back mechanically, "I've only now remembered that I left Valia without food." And with that she rises, and hastily makes her way out of the Great Hall, the sound of a thousand banner men in their cups still ringing in her ear.
Her cousin was betrothed. Her aunt was finally leaving the north to fulfill the promise that had been made years before. It left her the last single female Stark in Winterfell. The last broodmare up for auction. She feels a familiar panic rising in her throat and her steps getting quicker.
By the time Aria reaches her solar she's out of breathe and a little hysterical, her mind racing with all her possible future outcomes. Surely her grandfather already had several suitors in mind for her, all southron she was sure. Rickard Stark was a man whose mind thought in terms of empires and dynasty. His grandchildren are heirs to the iron throne, to the Stormlands, and now the Westerlands. Where did that leave her? The Riverlands? Dorne? She paced from one side of her solar to the other, angrily wiping away her tears. It left her far from home, it left her pack scattered to the four winds. Pack. She looked down at Valia, who was gazing up at her with a worried expression, and felt her heart break clean in two. She knew not where they would send her but she knew this much: wherever it was, they would not accept Valia.
When Jon came to find her some time later, surely after her absence had been noted, he hadn't hesitated to lower himself to his hands and knees and look under the bed she had been hiding under. "I'm too tall to join you now, sister" is all he says, stretching a hand towards her. It had been years since she had sought the comfort of her old childhood hidey hole and years since Jon, her constant shadow, had needed to fish her out. She takes his hand without hesitation and lets herself be guided out. Jon dusts her skirts and sits her down on the bed with a gentleness she had forgotten he possessed.
"Alert me to the immeninent danger; it must be frightening if it has the fierce she-wolf of Winterfell cowering under her bed like a wolf pup." The smile on Jon's face is teasing, but his eyes are soft, and it leaves Aria like a blown out flame. "They're sending me away Jon," is all she can manage before her throat closes with the threat of tears. "We all get sent away in the end." The answer both satisfies her and infuriates her. She and Jon should have been born twins; they could read each other's minds and hearts as easily as their own and there were very few things between them that required explanations but this, apparently, was one.
"Not you. Not Robb. If you both leave Winterfell it is of your own designs. I leave Winterfell on Rickard Stark's orders." There is a moment of silence between them. The conversation is one they've had time and time again. She had spent her whole life raving against the injustices done to her and those of her gender because they had lost the genetic lottery. "Well, what will you do?" The answer surprises her. In the past Jon had always tried to calm her hysteria with the reasoning that Eddard Stark would never send her where she would be unhappy and in the past it had been enough to assuage her.
"I'll run away to the Free Cities. You should come with me. We'll have Valia and Magnar to protect us." The answer comes to her freely, as if she had been thinking it all along. "And how will we get there?" Jon asks, playing along. "Our Manderly cousins will open White Harbor to us, along with a safe passage to the city of our choosing. Braavos, maybe?" She knows its a jape, knows that by the time they arrived in White Harbor ravens from Winterfell would have already been sent to stop them. She knows that two direwolves would be a dead giveaway for two missing Starks but..she could do it. She could do it if she wanted to. "I've always dreamed of seeing the Titan of Braavos" Jon gives her a cheeky smile and it's enough to lift her spirits.
They'll send her away.
They can try. But the willful wolf will not go gently into that good night.
It's quiet in the crypts beneath Winterfell when Aria descends, Valia at her side.
She remembers a time when she found solace in the crypts. She remembers sitting at the feet of the Kings of Winter as a child while Robb and Elinor retold Old Nan's tales. She remembered playing "come-into-my-castle" and "monsters and maidens" among the stone kings with Jon. She remembered holding her first true sword as the likeness of King Theon looked on proudly.
Now it was not the Hungry Wolf who looked on proudly but Lyanna Stark, with a crown on her head and Muna at her feet. Arriana studies her late Aunt's statue for the first time; she had been too overwrought with grief at her burial to face the tangible proof of her aunt's untimely death. Now looking on she must admit they captured her likeness accurately, her large eyes and long Stark face and her wolfish smile. It's enough to bring a broken smile to Aria's own face.
"I looked for you, you know" she says after a moment of silence. "Grandfather had the whole north searching for you, from White Harbor to the Wall. He tried to send me inside to pray with the women," she imagined Lyanna rolling her eyes "but I had to remind him that I am the finest rider in the north. He was displeased but I care not, I got my way." To say Rickard Stark had been displeased with his youngest granddaughter was an understatement. He had called her insolent for the manner in which she spoke to him in front of his lords, cursed her loose upbringing for her insistence, and damned her wolfsblood when she kissed him on the cheek as he yielded.
The small smile falls from her lips. "I wish you were here Lyanna," her voice sounds small within the cavernous tombs "Everything has changed. Elinor departed for the Stormlands and Sansa for Casterly Rock. Grandfather has received summons to King's Landing to judge the imp's trial." She felt the bonds of her pack stretched too thin. Sooner than later Elinor and Sansa would take off their Stark maiden cloaks forever and pledge their loyalty to their lord-husband's house. Lyanna and Benjen were already lost to them, beyond the wall. Robb kept glancing at every opportunity to join the night's watch, and she felt as if her own days in Winterfell were numbered.
"I need your guidance now more than ever." For most of her life Arriana had kept in close contact with her Aunt. They sent ravens faithfully from the moment Aria learned her letters, and their correspondence was one of the reasons Aria had thrived during her fostering in the Vale. She had felt like kindred spirits with Lyanna, who had suffered from the same ailment as Aria: their gender, coupled with their wolfsblood. At times it seemed as if Lyanna Stark was the only person in the world who understood her true heart.
Arriana is silent for a long time before she continues. "There's a war brewing across the narrow sea. Every day we receive ravens from the wall speaking of dark things, things out of Old Nan's tales." Winter is here she thinks and all I dream of is a night that never ends and ice eyes. "I pray to the Old Gods and the new for mercy, for I fear there are dark times ahead dear Aunt."