We catch up with Arya for the first time in a long while. She’s still at Harrenhal and her life has not really changed for the better since the Weasel Soup incident. Harrenhal has found itself under new management but that new management is depressingly similar to the old – given that Roose Bolton is in charge that should come as absolutely no surprise. This will be Arya’s final chapter in A Clash of Kings, the chapter in which she breaks out of Harrenhal and the readers are filled with hope that she can somehow, against all odds, make a successful escape to Riverrun. Alas it is not to be and worse (or better), in the process of breaking out of Harrenhal, Arya will once again take human life. This is notable because it will be done without the help of Jaqen H’ghar and, as opposed to her panicked stabbing in the Red Keep’s stables, in full possession of her mental faculties. I will end this chapter’s write-up with a quick round-up of Arya’s journey in this book and what lies in store for her in A Storm of Swords.
Tothmure had been sent to the axe for dispatching birds to Casterly Rock and King’s Landing the night Harrenhal had fallen, Lucan the armorer for making weapons for the Lannisters, Goodwife Harra for telling Lady Whent’s household to serve them, the steward for giving Lord Tywin the keys to the treasure vault.
I recall making a comment a long while back about how little life changes for the small-folk regardless of who is in charge of a castle. The above quote both supports and undermines my argument, depending on who falls under the umbrella of smallfolk. In a sense, life for the smallest of the smallfolk – workers and labourers like Arya and Gendry – hasn’t really changed all that much but even that is very much debatable. Life for women like Pia has taken a horrific turn for the worse and it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss her as an exception given that plenty of other non-military staff were also executed. For the likes of Arya and Gendry and the rest of the labourers little enough is different. Yesterday, they were making weapons and meals for Lannister troops; today they are making weapons and meals for the Stark troops. This whole business reminds me of nothing so much as a private equity buyout, honestly. New management comes in and suddenly all the little lieutenants who felt oh so secure in their positions are being shown the door (or the executioner’s block, depending). This particular passage also establishes that the Starks, when it comes down to it, are really no better than the Lannisters. However, good and noble the Stark High Command is – and there is good reason to question that assumption – the same cannot be said of the men on the ground. In a sense, there is really nothing differentiating the men fighting for the Starks and the men fighting for the Lannisters – apart from land of their birth, the men are the same in virtually every way. They are as uneducated, as desperate, as inexperienced, as cruel and brutish as each other. Yet, for all that, I still feel strange saying that Harrenhal is in Stark hands. It doesn’t feel like a Stark castle – it feels like a Bolton castle. I associate Harrenhal, like the Dreadfort, with misery and misfortune but it feels like a Stark castle should seem different. Winterfell and Riverrun are examples of Stark castles in my head and in my head-cannon, all this rape and butchery doesn’t happen in those places. Even as I type that though, I am starting to remember that not all the Starks and Tullys were as nice as the current lot – Winterfell, for one, has most certainly seen its fair share of darker days.
He liked to boast how he was the son of the Lord of the Crossing, not a nephew or a bastard or a grandson but a trueborn son, and on account of that he was going to marry a princess.
Little does he know that the princess he is going to marry is right next to him! It’s almost like a deconstruction of the typical Cinderella type story, isn’t it? Plain serving girl meets dashing lord but viola, it turns out the serving girl is actually a beautiful princess! Cue Disney music and ending credits. In ASOIAF, of course, things don’t work out quite that smoothly. There isn’t a whole bunch going on in this portion of the chapter – we are shown life in Harrenhal under the new regime and given small updates on the activities of said regime but nothing that’s going on here will have long term consequences. Things do get more interesting however, when Arya, in her capacity as Roose’s cup-bearer, overhears Harrenhal’s tactical situation. Ser Aenys Frey is insistent that Tywin Lannister will be marching up to reclaim Harrenhal. Now, Roose is certain that Tywin won’t but just how is he so sure? Has the conspiring for the Red Wedding already begun? Or is Roose just savvy enough to know that Tywin won’t risk over-extending himself just after winning a great victory at King’s Landing? There is a case to be made for both options, I guess, but it feels a little too early for the Red Wedding. For one, Tywin has only just defended King’s Landing – even for someone as efficient and hardworking as him, it would take a while for him to move sufficiently down his priority list to the line item of undermining his enemies politically.
“Someone must have the courage to say it,” Ser Hosteen said. “The war is lost. King Robb must be made to see that.”
And so the first seed of treason was planted. It is impossible to really underestimate the effect that the loss of Winterfell had on the Northern army’s morale. All of Robb’s authority; as King; as Warden of the North; as a general and as a leader; came from Winterfell. With Winterfell fallen, suddenly his ability to defend his own lands is called into question and every lord, great and small, will always be wondering if the lands they left safely behind them will soon fall to the Ironborn. Of course, the Ironborn, apart from Theon, have absolutely no desire to venture further inland but then again, Harrenhal is really far from the sea and Harren the Black was an Ironborn king. In all of this, Roose is egging on the treasonous talk ever so subtly. He doesn’t come close to coming out and agreeing with the Frey viewpoint but he doesn’t discourage or shut it down either. In all honesty, it is clear at this point that Robb’s campaign is falling apart and the sound policy for Robb would be to withdraw above the Neck and hold his own lands. Of course, he can’t in good conscience do that since it would mean forfeiting the Riverlands to Tywin’s largely non-existent mercy. The fall of Winterfell was truly a watershed moment in the war, beyond what it is given credit for.
“He has lost the north,” insisted Hosteen Frey. “He has lost Winterfell! His brothers are dead …”
You have to feel bad for Arya, who’s standing quietly nearby, hearing this news mentioned so casually. At this point, she probably doesn’t even know that Winterfell has fallen, despite there being a solid few weeks between Winterfell’s fall and the ‘deaths’ of Bran and Rickon. Yet, her brothers’ deaths don’t seem to play much on her mind after this point, as far as I can recall anyway.
“It is time they had a taste. Glover has lost a castle, and Tallhart a son. Let them take their vengeance on Duskendale.”
The capture of Duskendale, if I remember correctly, is a disaster. The Stark forces are met by Randyll Tarly and Gregor Clegane and thoroughly routed. The defeat effectively forces Robb to go back to the Freys and try to regain them to his side and we all know how well that goes over. This isn’t just a tactical error on Roose’s part – this is a deliberate move on his part. What is his angle? Simple: he wants to force Robb’s hand. When Robb loses the bulk of his forward infantry in the process of capturing a pointless, out of the way town, Roose’s hope is that Robb will be forced to acknowledge that the war is lost and that he has to make peace. It’s a clever move on Roose’s part – even if Duskendale is captured, it offers frighteningly little strategic value beyond the immediate supplies. Yet, those supplies can be seen as enough of a secondary objective that he can justify his actions should an angry Robb demand an explanation.
“It is wolves I mean to hunt. I can scarcely sleep at night for the howling.”
As always, I don’t know how much is foreshadowing and how much is innocent coincidence. We will assume that it’s a sly nod to Roose’s fast approaching betrayal of the Stark cause and give Martin credit for it. The wolves here as Nymeria and her pack but of course, no one knows that at this point. I’m still waiting for a payoff to this whole massive wolf-pack angle and given Arya’s wolf dreams in ADWD, it seems that there is still some hope that it will all come to fruition.
“My princess,” he sobbed. “We’ve been dishonored, Aenys says. There was a bird from the Twins. My lord father says I’ll need to marry someone else, or be a septon.”
So of course, word is spreading that Robb has married Jeyne Westerling. Arya’s statement that she wishes Elmar’s princess dies is a little troubling though she doesn’t know who she’s referring to. The really interesting thing here is just how unfortunate the timing of this raven is. Just that morning the Freys had been fretting that Robb’s cause was a lost one and that they ought to lay down their swords before things get really nasty. Then this letter comes along which tells him, questions of honour aside, that Robb has truly lost the plot. What else could explain a King going and marrying a merchant girl (yes, I know Jeyne is technically a noblewoman, but just barely) and scorning a major portion of his army just as his enemies are consolidating their forces? Remember, at this point, the Karstarks are still on Robb’s side. If the Freys are agitating for Robb to lay his sword down now, even without Robb’s blunder, they would be practically rebelling once the Karstarks abandon him. You have to also wonder what would have happened to Arya had she revealed to this lot that she was actually Arya Stark; it’s more than likely that once news of Robb’s marriage came through, Arya would effectively be a hostage.
“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” he said.
The ambiguity here is both amazing and annoying. On one hand, we don’t know (and likely never will) whether Arya’s prayers were really answered by the spirit of Ned Stark, Bloodraven, Bran or her own imagination. Yet, the advice they give her is pretty much perfect – she can’t escape on her own, she needs her pack. The definition of pack here is loose enough that it works while only reusing phrases that Ned had said to her in the past. The effect of the old gods answering her prayers is absolutely immense – suddenly Arya goes from thinking about her next day in Harrenhal to planning anb outrageous escape that by any measure is nothing short of suicidal. The whole thing is beyond unrealistic; it is literally incredible. Arya, an eleven year old girl, puts together an escape plan from a guarded castle and plans to across a good long distance to reach her grandfather’s lands. Not only that, she conceives this plan in the literal minutes that it takes her to walk to Gendry! Normally, when people have been captured for so long (which Arya is, though she doesn’t think of it in those terms) people stop thinking about escape and begin to accepting their situation. It seems that Arya, even at eleven, is one of the few who refuses to accept her situation and continues to seek ways to get out. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised – Sansa is the same too.
“He told me to give all his guards a silver piece, for their good service.” The words seemed to come out of nowhere.
Yet, it doesn’t stop there, does it? There is something deeply unnatural about this entire escape sequence. Keep in mind, over and above everything else, just how young Arya is. She isn’t just lying – she is lying convincingly in a literal life-or-death situation. She came up with a serviceable assassination plan on the fly at the age of eleven. If that doesn’t disturb you on some level, I don’t know what will. Anyway, regardless of the unlikelihood of it all, Arya Stark is free of Harrenhal! That alone is worth celebrating, regardless of how it was achieved. It is never stated whether Roose bothers looking too closely for her. He has other things on his mind and a few runaway servants are not worth the manpower. Besides, if he did search, he would probably go south – it would make no sense for servants fleeing northmen to head north, after all. This brings Arya’s story in A Clash of Kings to a close – she began the book on the run from King’s Landing and she will end the book on the run from Harrenhal. During the course of the book, things haven’t really changed for her but she has seen a great deal more than anyone her age (or any age, really) should have to witness. She has seen the horrors of war and the things that people do to each other; so much so that she is now pretty much numbed to the concept of violence – not entirely, of course, but far more than is natural. Yet, for all that, her story has been fairly slow for the most part. A lot of the word count in Arya’s chapters was spent describing the ravaged countryside and painting a portrait of a land shattered by brutal civil war. It makes for interesting reading, yes, but in my opinion far too much time was spent on it. Likewise, we are also given a great deal of detail into the daily life in Harrenhal, under two separate regimes and I felt a large portion of it slowed Arya’s storyline down. The times when the plot actually moved forward were consistently excellent however, so I guess I’ll just have to take the good with the bad. When we see Arya next, she will be en route to Riverrun though she will never, ever, reach her maternal family’s castle.