“where is arya?” catelyn sounds tired. she asks the question too frequently. their second daughter has a penchant for running about, coming to table with leaves in her hair and with grubby knees. it’s not so much a question as a habit.
ned gets to his feet. he knows that catelyn’s question, or habit, or whatever it is, is a command as well. find your daughter, ned. because ned, alone of anyone in the castle, has a way for finding arya.
he goes out into the bailey and closes his eyes for a moment. he imagines laughter–lya riding her horse around the yard, ben not holding his shield high enough. it hurt less to remember lya like that–when she was a little girl still, and wild like a wolf, always on horseback…
he opens his eyes. the stables, he decides today. it seems as likely a place as any to find his wayward daughter. she was about the same age that lya had been when she’d started to ride horses. even if father had tried to restrict her, she was always sneaking into the stables and out the other end on the back of a pony, or a horse. she’d have an apple and a smile for hodor, and there wasn’t a thing that the stableboys would deny her.
when arya learns to ride, i’d best keep an eye on her, he thinks, and the flash of amusement that accompanies the thought turns sour. elsewise she’ll ride away from me and not come back. he doesn’t want to think of that yet. she’s only a girl.
“what are you doing?” he asks when he finds her in the stable. she’s still very small, coming not even to his hip, and he knows catelyn will groan at the state of her hem when she comes inside.
“i just like looking at them,” arya says. “they’re sweet.” she chews her lip, and her eyes are far away. “friendly.”
“aye. there are some mean ones out there, but we’ve only got friendly horses at winterfell.” he crouches down, eyes narrowing slightly. her eyes are red and puffy and there are dried tearstains on her face.
“what are these?” he asks her gently, cupping her cheek in his hands. arya’s come back to them with scrapes on her knees and elbows and eyes alight with excitement. she’s tripped and sprained ankles and bruised bones, but he’s not once seen her cry.
tears well in her eyes again. “it’s nothing,” she lies, chewing her lip again.
“arya stark,” he says, trying to sound stern, but he can’t–not now, not truly. he takes her in his arms instead as she cries again. “my sweet girl. my lovely sweet girl.”
arya hiccups, and he kisses her forehead. “dry those tears. have you tricked hullen or hodor into letting you ride a pony already, or have you saved that for me?”
arya sniffles for a moment, then his words seem to hit her. “ride?” she breathes, as if hardly daring to believe it.
“aye,” he says. “a proper northern girl should be at ease on a horse.”
“i thought i was too young!” she is positively alight with joy at the prospect of it, and that alone is enough to set ned’s mind at ease. whatever had brought tears to her face is fully forgotten at the prospect of being allowed on horseback.
“you probably are,” he says. “but i expect i’ll always think that. it’s time.” and he picks her up and tucks her underneath one arm the way that brandon always used to carry lya and arya’s giggle sounds so like lya’s his heart freezes for a moment. she’s not gone, not truly. not if arya laughs her laugh. and he vows then and there, his daughter tucked under his arm that he’ll protect lya’s laugh as truly as he protects lya’s secret.
“hullen,” he calls, “i’ll need a pony.”