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Arya of the Thousand Days

Chapter Text

Day 1

 

Winterfell no longer felt like home anymore.

The realization that the home of her childhood no longer felt the same crept up on Arya suddenly, within a moon’s turn of her arrival in the North after spending more than a year in King’s Landing to secure the peace for Jon and his new queen. Before that, she’d been fighting the War for the Dawn alongside her brothers, her sister… and the rest of her pack. 

They had fought for the lives every man, woman, and child in Westeros. Much had been lost, but in the end, they prevailed.

Before the Wars, she’d spent many years Faceless in Braavos. Years that felt patched together in her memory, years where she’d somehow crossed the invisible veil between childhood and womanhood without even realizing it.

Other than brief moments between battles, Arya hadn’t lived in Winterfell since she was eleven years old. Now, at seventeen, she barely knew it.

It wasn’t the same for Bran and Rickon, she knew. Rick had been little more than six when the wildling woman Osha had carried him off, the half-giant lad Hodor at her side, Bran strapped to his back. When Rickon returned from Skagos, the peace had been won, and their baby brother was a long-legged youth who towered over both Arya and Bran. With his curly red hair and battle hardened blue eyes, he looked exactly as their older brother Robb had at fourteen. Their wild wolf, heir to the North. 

Bran, unlike their youngest brother, remembered much more about what the castle of the North had been like before the craven Theon Greyjoy and the turncloak Boltons had ravaged it. But Bran was much like his long-ago namesake… as much builder as he was greenseer. With his new wife Meera of House Reed by his side, the young couple had spent the two years since War’s end rebuilding Winterfell. They were in their element, secure in the knowledge that they were rebuilding the North of the realm for a new age.

The work of rebuilding would go on for the rest of their lifetimes. The North remembered, and it was now a time for wolves.

But Winterfell will never be the same again, thought Arya sadly. And neither will our House.

Sure, Bran had made the vast castle a home again. There had been feasts aplenty, the first celebrating the new Lord of Winterfell’s marriage to his traveling companion, another when the royal court made its first progress throughout the kingdoms, and still another to celebrate the Northern Lord’s sixteenth nameday.

Their smallfolk in the Winter Town were as loyal as they had ever had been. The houses of the North remained ever true – Mormont, Umber, Karstark, Manderly, Glover, Flint, Tallhart. The hearthfires blazed warm during those early spring nights, laughter rang merrily in Winterfell’s Great Hall, and the ale flowed long after the moon was high.

There will be new babes toddling about everywhere ere summer comes, Arya could almost hear Old Nan saying.

But lying in the room of her childhood at night, after she and Nymeria had prowled every inch of hallway to see that it was secured, Arya would close her eyes and just inhale… and instead of the weight of ancient stone and earth, her senses would fill with the newness of it all… from freshly cut wood to mortar not yet fully dried… 

Winterfell felt new. But Winterfell was supposed to feel ancient. It was all wrong.

She would never again smell her mother’s perfume that wafted from skirts and trailing sleeves. She would never press her face into her father’s fur cloak, feeling the snowflakes melt against her skin…

No more.

But the North remembers.

And so do I.

Those were Arya’s thoughts one afternoon as she pressed her face into the carpet of red leaves at the base of the weirwood. There were only two places in Winterfell where Arya felt like herself these days: in the godswood, and deep in the crypts.

Swift as a deer. Quiet as shadow.

Fear cuts deeper than swords.

With senses finely tuned, the she-wolf knew that she was no longer alone.

Quick as a snake. Calm as still water.

Fear cuts deeper than swords.

Fear cuts deeper than swords…  

Within the blink of an eye, Arya had risen from her facedown position, unsheathed Needle, and had the point a hairsbreadth away from the throat of the unwelcome intruder who dared disturb her solitude. 

Shireen Baratheon took a step back out of Needle’s reach.

“Oh, my,” she breathed. “I did not mean to disturb you, Lady Arya.” 

Sighing, Arya sheathed her trusty, too-small sword again.

“It’s all right, Shireen. And how many times must I tell you never to call me a Lady?” 

“I know,” implored Shireen. “However, since our new King is a Stark, you are a princess of the realm and…”

“I will never be a princess or a lady or anything else that my sister or my brothers or their wives insist upon,” snapped Arya. “And that includes you, my soon-to-be goodsister.”

Shireen blushed at hearing that, the part of her face not marred by greyscale turning a becoming shade of pink. Although Rickon Stark was only fourteen, with the Lord of Winterfell perhaps not being able to produce a heir of his own, the King and Queen were happy to enforce one of Stannis Baratheon’s last decrees.

Before the moon was full, a Stark and a Baratheon would be wed.

Both Shireen and Rickon seemed more than happy with the arrangement. Despite their age difference, they had fallen so in love with one another that Bran had to have a stern talk with his brother when they were found in a compromising position by Sansa before she returned to King’s Landing.

Now, Shireen was a very proper lady and mostly never failed to observe her courtesies. But Arya knew that underneath her ladylike façade, Shireen was as much of a daughter of the Stormlands as any Baratheon woman… and couldn’t get enough of Arya’s wild wolf of a brother. Together, they would share the many duties of ruling the North with Bran and Meera.

Soon, the laughter of a new generation of Starks unmarred by war would consecrate the halls.

As always, Shireen tried to smooth things over.

“Then I beg pardon, goodsister. I only meant to have a word with you.”

Arya pushed a few dark brown strands away from her eyes, a slight smile on her face. Even though Shireen was as different from her as night was from day, Arya couldn’t help but love her.

“What is it? Please don’t tell Bran or Rickon sent you to force me into another dress.” Between King’s Landing and Winterfell, Arya felt as if she’d spent the past eighteen moons dodging her brothers’ matrimonial traps. She was quite weary of Winterfell’s endless feasts and tourneys at King’s Landing. While she understood that the Dragons were only trying to forge a lasting peace, neither she nor her sister cared for it. 

After all, marriage had only brought misery and woe to both of Ned Stark’s daughters.

All throughout the realm knew that the Winter Princesses, cousins to a King who called them his sisters, were the most eligible and desirable ladies in all of Westeros. Sansa’s marriage to the Imp had been dissolved during the War, undone along with many of the Lannisters’ dastardly acts. For her part, Arya had been legally married to Ramsay, but the Boltons were no more.

And once Ramsay was gone... 

But there, it did not do to think of the past too much. Arya had quite enough to deal with in the present. She was a lone wolf, and planned to stay that way, no matter what King Jon, Lord Bran or Ser Rickon Stark had up their damnable sleeves.

“Your brothers were not the ones who asked me to speak with you this time, Arya. It is I who wish to ask a favor of you.” 

In response, Arya sat upon an exposed, weathered root of the heart tree, and indicated another for Shireen.

The other girl sat down, looking Arya straight in the eye. Any other Southron noblewoman would have remained standing lest she soil her precious silks, or sat squeamishly, avoiding Arya’s uncompromising stare and the harsh features of the heart tree’s carved face. But Shireen had lived at Dragonstone, at the Wall, and in the field for many years. Other than two journeys to King’s Landing along with the rest of Winterfell, Shireen hadn’t been South since the Dawn… and seemed not to miss it.

While she used to be shy, hiding the scarred part of her face during the long winter years of war and hardship, after the demise of the Red Woman and her father, Shireen had risen to the occasion and her house. Ours is the fury. She was a quiet and serene stag, but the blood of the ancient Storm Kings still ran through her veins. 

She’ll make Rickon a fine lady wife, thought Arya with satisfaction. Although Arya wasn’t much for this trafficking in noblewomen’s maidenheads that had commenced the moment that spring arrived, she knew that Shireen and her brother were very happy at the prospect of being together. They would produce the heirs that Winterfell needed to thrive for generations to come. 

Arya nodded, and Shireen began her request.

“Rickon and I will be wed in a fortnight. When that happens, I will forfeit my claim to the Stormlands.”

What a shame it is that women cannot inherit, thought Arya with a frown. By rights Storm’s End should belong to Rickon and Shireen’s second son.

Stupid men and their stupid rules.

“Yes, I know.”

But Shireen shook her head.

“There’s more. While I was in King’s Landing, I spoke with your sister, Lady Sansa. My marriage will lead to civil war by summer if my cousin Edric is awarded the lordship.”

This was new. Arya raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not following.”

“After my wedding, the Queen will issue a decree stating that my cousin Edric is the Lord of Storm’s End and Warden of the East. He needs the power of the Stormlands if he is to help Aegon Targaryen usurp the throne from the king and queen.”

“Aegon wants to go to war with Jon and Daenerys?”

Arya thought of the young pisswater prince, head of the Golden Company, and rider of Rhaegal, the green dragon, whom she’d met just before the Battle for King’s Landing. Those few present who had been old enough to remember Robert’s Rebellion said that their meeting was Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, come back again from the grave. Aegon had been instantly smitten with the younger Stark daughter. But Arya had been less than impressed with the lost Targaryen prince.

Besides, back then, her heart belonged to another…

…back before it turned to stone.

No one would ever know exactly how much Arya lost in the War for the Dawn. 

“Yes, Prince Aegon and Lord Edric have reasons to not be thrilled with the Crown as of late. Prince Aegon resents your brothers for not giving him your hand in marriage, or Sansa’s when you refused him. He feels that he was owed one of the Princesses of the realm, since the Queen refused him…”

“The Queen refused him because of the choices he made at the beginning of the war,” Arya said flatly, annoyed by Aegon’s sense of entitlement. “It was his choice to turn West without seeking Daenerys or the dragons, to begin the siege on Storm’s End, to ally with Dorne and undermine the conquest.” 

“You know he feels that as Prince Rhaegar’s eldest son, he is the true Last Dragon.”

“Daenerys brought the dragons back to the world,” was Arya’s reply. Men always give themselves too much credit. “While Prince Aegon played the silly game of thrones in the south, the Queen saved our lives when the Wall came down. If she hadn’t arrived with her armies…” 

“I know, Arya,” said Shireen quietly. “I was there that day. As were you.”

“Then you know as well as I that Aegon Targaryen best hold his tongue, lest he find himself without one.”

And she stabbed Needle into the ground.

Shireen’s deep blue eyes held her soon-to-be goodsister’s silver ones.

“Arya, Aegon’s bitterness has taken root elsewhere. Sansa says there is much discontent throughout the South with the Crown...”

“Lands that did not feel the bite of the Long Winter that we stopped.” 

“There are others who feel that Jon should not be King, that Aegon was passed over…”

Who?” 

“Dorne, because of their loyalty to the memory of his mother, Elia Martell…”

Fuck the Dornish,” Arya swore. “They sent one man for every thousand that fought in the Wars.” Cowering behind their Red Mountains without seeing a single snowflake. Cowards.

Shireen knew Arya too well by now to flinch at her language. She only continued.

“Not only Dorne, but Highgarden is discontented, too."

“Of course Willas Tyrell is upset that my sister didn’t want to become his paramour,” snapped Arya. Willas Tyrell, once proposed as a match to Sansa during the last years of Lannister rule, had married some Hightower girl as soon as winter began. His wife was very much alive and working on giving the Reach a second child. However, Willas seemed to think he was entitled to Sansa anyway.

“And then there are the Westerlands…” 

“Under Lord Tyrion’s rule, and he is a close friend of the King and Queen.”

“Yes, but the Hand spends much of his time at King’s Landing, and has no heirs. The people of the West lost much at the hands of Robb’s armies. There are those in the West who say that the new King once called the Young Wolf brother…”

Great. Not this shite again. 

“Crowning Jon and Daenerys was the best solution for all involved,” Arya said firmly. “The Great Council of 305 made the proclamation, not House Stark. It was the only way to unite the kingdoms at the end of winter, especially when you chose not to press your own claim, Lady Baratheon.”

“I had no desire to become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms,” Shireen reminded her gently. “It was easy to refuse the Council.” 

“Yes, all knew of your desire to return North, and honor your betrothal. But you should not worry overmuch about Aegon’s blather, Shireen. He is still the rightful heir of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon and Daenerys will never bear children other than their dragons. They are war comrades, and have never been lovers…” 

Arya noticed Shireen’s look of dismay. 

“What is it?”

“Lady Sansa seems to believe that the political match between the king and queen is no longer just about politics. Their affection for each other has grown apace as of late, and the entire Court has noticed it.” The good side of Shireen’s face blushed red. “The word is that they are sharing chambers now.”

What? Arya’s eyes widened. All knew that Jon and Daenerys lost their first loves long before the Wars, had the utmost respect for one another, and saw each other as only friends. Unbidden, a memory from a frozen field on the Gift came to Arya…

“How is he?” Her brother’s eyes – never, ever just a cousin, even if he was their aunt’s son, still her brother in her heart – reflected his deep concern.

Arya let the flap of the leather tent fall back into place. “He is resting. And he yet lives. That is all that matters to me.”

“I think you’re determined to keep him alive by sheer dint of will, little sister,” Jon laughed, but it was not a mirthful sound. There was no merriment in the dark of early winter.

“Even a wolf without a face needs her mate,” replied Arya, heading to their dwindling water supplies as Jon followed. (All in their path bowed with deference at the She-Wolf of Winterfell, and the former Lord Commander, the great General of the North.)

“So you admit it. You are in love with him.”

  “Admit what? That he’s just a stupid bull who goes charging into a wall of White Walkers simply because he doesn’t believe me when I tell him I can handle myself in battle? I'm a trained assassin! Yet he treated me like I'm some...”

She trailed off. Jon chuckled darkly again.

“Love is worse than all the hells of every faith there ever was,” was his verdict. “I pray to the Old Gods that I never endure such agony again.”

Shireen’s gentle voice brought Arya back to the present.

“Arya, if the King and Queen are falling in love… if Daenerys were to conceive…”

“She cannot,” Arya replied quickly. It was unthinkable. Daenerys’ crown was based upon the Great Council of 305, that she would never bear a living child of ice and fire, that her miscarriage almost a decade before had ravaged her womb.

“That is what a mage told her many years ago in the Red Waste. But Arya, if she does…”

If Jon and Daenerys were to have a child, Aegon would lead half the kingdoms to war. Another Dance of the Dragons. 

“Then it very well might come to civil war.” Arya’s shoulders slumped. “But what of Edric? He gets Storm’s End the moment you're Rickon's wife… why would he turn the swords of the Stormlands against those who granted him the claim in the first place?”

In response, Shireen didn’t say anything. Instead, her eyes filled with tears.

Arya wasn’t sure what to do. She had faced everything from an army of White Walkers to a half dozen members of her own Faceless order after she’d deserted, but tears eluded her. Awkwardly, she patted Shireen’s knee, in a vague effort to comfort her.

“Edric is furious that my father made pact with Jon for my marriage to Rickon. He says that his uncle was faithless, that long before war and winter, there was always an understanding that I would marry him and inherit Storm’s End.” Shireen gulped in deep, steadying breaths of cool air. “But the Wars changed us all. I fell in love with Rickon Stark. I want to be his wife, and to live here in the North. Dragonstone, Storm’s End, the Baratheon name… I want a new life, Arya. Can you understand that?”

“I can,” said Arya slowly. “What I don’t understand is what it has to do with me." 

“If Aegon can get the Stormlands on the side of the discontented, he has his civil war. The Crown knows this, and they have stalled his request, saying that I am Lady Paramount of Storm’s End and Warden of the East until my marriage. But Arya…” her eyes were bright, “my father’s last will and testament did not only provide for my marriage to Rickon.”

Arya closed her eyes.

“I know.”

“And…”

“It’s a moot point. Your father’s will legitimized Edric. As for the rest…”

“My father legitimized all of Robert’s bastards. He named me his heir and betrothed me to the youngest Stark, for he said that he could trust House Stark would keep me safe. He gave Edric Dragonstone, although the Great Council restored it to House Targaryen. And he gave Storm’s End, and your hand, to…”

“Don’t say it. Please.”

Her voice came out in no more than a whisper, but the words that escaped Arya’s lips seemed to fill the godswood with her sadness. Most of the time, she could pretend as if his loss was simply one death among too many she’d suffered at far too tender of an age. She spent most days not thinking on it.

But the Old Gods knew what was in her heart.

Unfortunately, so did her brothers, her sister…

…and Shireen.

“Arya, according to the laws of the Seven Kingdoms, you are the rightful Lady of Storm’s End. The King and Queen have not pressed the matter, because King Jon loves you so much and we all know how much pain the thought of my cousin brings. But Arya…” Shireen took another breath, “Gendry would have wanted you in our family’s ancestral home.”

At the sound of his name, the hole in Arya’s stone heart ached.

“My place is in the North.”

“Of course it is. And you can return here once Edric gives up his claim and pursues another, perhaps even the Westerlands with Joy Lannister’s hand in marriage.” Formerly Joy Hill, she had also been legitimized by royal decree. “You will always have a place in Winterfell.”

Her eyes shut.

“Shireen, the moment I go to King’s Landing with the intention of claiming Storm’s End, not only Lord Edric, but Prince Aegon and every bloody Lord in Westeros will believe that I am asking to be courted.”

And I will never marry again, swore Arya firmly.

Now it was Shireen’s turn to reassure Arya. “They can’t force you to marry anyone. You’re not a widow. After all, your husband is missing, not…”

“He was counted as dead by the Great Council last year,” Arya said flatly. “It’s been a year and a half, almost two years, Shireen.”

“But you’ve always said…”

That Gendry is alive. Because he is. I would know, Nymeria would know, the very wind would know if he were no longer living.

“What I say doesn’t matter. Gendry’s death was written into the records of a Great Council… it had to be.” That’s because every claim was considered, and as Robert’s eldest bastard son, he had a claim to the Throne when the Council upheld all of Stannis’ decrees.

The Council even questioned me, asked if I gave him a child.

Truly, the gods are cruel. 

“But Gendry was not proclaimed dead by royal decree,” said Shireen firmly. “Sansa told me that she has checked. It was simply inscribed into the proceedings, as part of the testimony. Should he return, he would be Lord of Storm’s End and Warden of the East.”

He only ever wanted to be a blacksmith. To maybe have his own shop someday…

Arya stared down at Needle, still stuck in the ground.

“What favor have you come to ask of me, Shireen?”

“Arya Baratheon… I would ask that you petition the crown for Storm’s End. To hold in the name of your husband, the legitimized Lord Gendry Baratheon, missing in the War for the Dawn, as Lady Paramount of the Stormlands and Warden of the East.”

Her place was in the North. All she’d ever wanted since she was eleven was to return here, to Winterfell. What did she know of the Stormlands? Or bloody Storm’s End? Not even her lost love had ever set foot there…

When she looked up at her goodsister, Arya’s eyes were clear, and her mind was set.

“I shall start for King’s Landing at first light.”

Chapter Text

Day 30

 

“Ouch! Not so tight, Arya!”  

She glowered at him, releasing the bandages to reveal bruises that were every color of the rainbow. She thanked the old gods and the new for newly forged Valyrian steel plate armor and Gendry's muscular bulk. Otherwise, the deadly ice-sword of the Walker would have cleaved him in two.

“Shut up, stupid, they’re supposed to be tight. Do you want to heal or not?”

“Seven hells, Arry, I’ve been inside this bloody tent for a month.”  

“You’ve been in this tent six days,” said Arya, using her entire weight to bind Gendry’s freshly washed wounds securely. Sam, serving as healer thanks to his work with Maester Aemon, had just left their shared tent, leaving Arya to finish up. “The Wall hasn’t even been down an entire month yet…”  

He groaned as she secured the bandages firmly and admired her handiwork. Her training at the House of Black and White had proved useful, and not only in service to the Stranger.

“Don’t remind me,” Gendry said, gritting his teeth until she pressed Sam’s concoction to his lips. It took a moment, but soon more of the potion was getting into his mouth than on his chin, cheeks, and neck.

As he sipped the healing liquid, their eyes locked. Neither Arya nor Gendry were much for words, but their eyes said it all.

Thank you for not dying, stupid. And for not leaving me alone… again.

I will never leave you again, milady. Wherever you go, I follow.

Maybe I don’t want you following me around. Even if I do need you. (And if you don’t stop calling me milady…) 

You don’t have a choice. Because I need you too. (Milady.)

Gendry spoke as soon as he finished Sam’s tea.

“Why haven’t the Others broken through yet?”

“The wildlings. We hold Queenscrown thanks to them, because the dragons can’t be everywhere at once… they’ve all they can do to keep the numbers of wights down. Thank the gods that the bulk of the White Walkers are still North of where the wall used to be… what are you doing?”  

For Gendry had used his good arm, still unbound, to draw Arya closer.

“I want you in my arms when this shite Sam gave me takes me under. That’s all.”

She could feel his warm breath in her hair. The breath of life. Arya allowed him to roll her over on her side, which he did with surprising gentleness, his free arm pulling her near, and his fingers tracing the curve of her waist, hip, and thigh.

“I don’t want to fall asleep alone. I want you, warming my bed always.”

Despite his injuries, his voice was low, husky. The depths of it made Arya’s heart beat faster. And her body responded as if his words and his touch were as kindling to a flame…

But there would be time enough for that, later. Once he was healed. Gods be good, after the horrors of the Battle for the Gift, her Gendry was alive, near… and right here. With her.

“All in time, my love.”

She planted a soft kiss on his lips, then drew back to stare at his handsome face, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Other than the bruising from the battle, the only other scar Gendry bore was the thin one she gave him upon her return from Essos.

And well he deserved it, Arya reflected. I told him when he protested that it was both punishment (how dare you leave me?) and mark (you belong to me). Stupid bull should be glad that all I did was open up his cheek a little.

Besides, he knows that I could have killed him if I wanted to…

But I didn’t want to.

Arya reached out to trace that scar softly as the potion filled his senses and he began to drift off to sleep.

Her mark. Hers.

“I’m here,” she whispered to him. “And I’ll be here when you awake..."

 

*

 

When Arya opened her eyes, it was dark, and she was alone.

She had grown overused to waking up in the middle of the night. In the beginning, when she thought that Gendry and the Brotherhood were simply delayed, she’d spent most nights either practicing her familiar Water Dance, or else tossing and turning until sleep overtook her. Anticipating the night that she’d have him with her again.

But when the weeks turned into moons, and the moons turned into a full year, the nights took a wicked turn. Instead of patient waiting, they were now filled with all the nightmares that were supposed to be over and done with the abrupt end of Winter and the promise of a new Spring. For Arya, the long-awaited spring brought nothing but bitterness. Loneliness. And sleepless nights.

So she avoided the North for a time, instead staying in King’s Landing and serving on her brother's small council alongside her sister until the caged wolf inside of her felt that it was starving.

“Go home to Winterfell, little sister,” Jon had said to her, his voice betraying a Northman’s longing. Before the war, when he was still called Jon Snow, he had never been south of the Neck. Ever since, he had not returned to their homeland, though he longed for it.

Jon might be the son of the wolf and the dragon, but he was raised by Ned to always do his duty. As were they all.

“Go, little sister,” said the King, “and seek the peace of the North.”

And Arya did, expecting the peace of their shared home to bring her rest. In Winterfell, she thought that perhaps she could learn to love the beauty of the night again. But the North had changed forever, and her nights were worse.

She and Gendry had reunited in the Riverlands, back when the Brotherhood was still led by the Lady Stoneheart. But it had been in the unyielding Northern winter nights that she and Gendry fought, reconciled, fell deeply in love, spoke their eternal vows before a heart tree…

…and ravished each other with a longing and a hunger so sharp that sometimes she thought they might both die from the joy of it.

 Arya knew that it was wicked to long for death, winter, and the Long Night to return again. Their losses had been incalculable, so much so that they had turned the social order upside down. It took losing more than half the population north of the Trident to enact the reforms that long-ago Aegon V had sought to enact: an annual Great Council, the recognition of some rights of the smallfolk, and the legitimization of the wartime bastards of the Great Houses of Westeros. It was indeed the start of a new age. 

But it wasn’t the winter or the Long Night that took Gendry away from me, Arya thought unreasonably. It was the first breath of the new spring. And the first light of dawn.

Well, fuck spring, and dawn, and this new world where I cannot sleep, no matter how much wine or milk of the poppy I take.  

She was now sitting up in bed, pouring herself a glass of water from the pitcher on the nightstand table. Arya’s quarters in King’s Landing were still much the same as she’d left them a few moons before, one of the most sparsely furnished of the royal family’s accommodations in Maegor’s Holdfast. She preferred to be without all the fripperies that Sansa and Daenerys appreciated.

The only change since her last visit was a large bath. Coming of age in Essos, Arya was overused to communal public baths, as was the Queen. However, Daenerys had never used those baths herself since childhood. Arya scandalized the entire Court when she insisted on using them after training a few of the squires in the tiltyard. It was only the appeals of Jon and Sansa that got her to stop, which meant the maids had to haul water to her chambers twice daily.

They must have been tired of hauling the tub up, too, thought Arya ruefully. Damned men. All I wanted was to bathe like everyone else...

Other than her bath and chamber pot, a wardrobe, a small table and two chairs, there was nothing else in the room besides the bed and nightstand. Although most of the Targaryen tapestries had been lost after the rebellion, there was still a stained-glass window where their sigil of a three-headed dragon could be seen. 

Aegon. Jon. Daenerys. 

The dragon must have three heads.  

A knock sounded on the door. Arya frowned. She’d stolen into the Red Keep well after the appointed hour for supper… and no one could steal into one of the most guarded palaces in the world better than she could. Other than the stableboy who tended the steed that brought her from Winterfell and the maid who found a bite for her to eat, only Jon knew she was here thanks to their direwolves. As much as she wanted to see her brother, she also realized that her arrival was far later than anticipated…

“Who is it?”

“It's Sansa, sweet sister. Jon told me that you were here.”

Arya leaped from the bed as soon as she heard the first word. Her feet sped over the fresh rushes meant to take the coolness of the floor’s stones away… 

And she was in her elder sister’s arms.

“Sansa.”

“Arya.”

They’d never been like this, before everything. They spent their childhoods fighting each other tooth and nail, and parted on bitter terms. But that was before they spent so many years apart, going through the seven hells on the opposite sides of the world.

“I am so glad you are back, dear sister,” murmured Sansa into her hair. “So very glad. How is everyone in Winterfell?”

Sansa drew back to look Arya over, as if she could read the answer in Arya’s face, nightgown, and dusty feet. Sometimes she’s so much like Mother, it amuses me.

“They are well. The North misses you.”

 “I wanted to return for Rickon and Shireen’s wedding,” Sansa explained, pulling her robe more tightly around her shapely, tall figure. “I am overdue for a visit. But your presence here means that you understand why I couldn’t.”

Arya beckoned for Sansa to sit in a chair by the dwindling hearth-fire, snatching one of the woolen blankets off the bed and offering it to her sister. She took another, wrapped herself in it, and climbed into the oversized chair opposite, curling up in it much as she had when she was younger. 

“Does Jon know?” Arya asked. “About Aegon and Edric, I mean?”

“He does. Their rule is in peril, Arya. Jon brought the North, I brought the Vale and the Riverlands, and Daenerys brought the dragons. With the Stormlands firmly in Stark hands, the peace will hold. Without them… I’m not sure.”

Arya nodded. “Has Tyrion found a new mistress of whisperers yet?”

Sansa shook her head. “No. The small council is still just as you remember it… and before you say anything, you must know that the king and queen only want a new Master of Whisperers they can trust.”

“They’ll need to find a new Master of Ships, too. If they grant me Storm’s End, Edric will quit.” 

“He will,” agreed Sansa. “But seeing as we’re at peace, that is not our most pressing need. We need ears to the ground around the South.”

“I was never much help with that,” Arya admitted. “This is as far South in the Kingdoms as I’ve ever traveled.”

Sansa looked at her younger sister sympathetically.

“You don’t have to do this, Arya. We can find another way.”

“There is no other way, and you know it. If Edric gets the swords of the Stormlands, Aegon will call his banners the moment it is known that Jon and his Targaryen Queen are sharing chambers.”

“Aegon’s attitude is an insult to the honor of the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands,” Sansa sniffed. “We all agreed to the provisions of the Great Council. Jon and Dany could have ten children, yet it will be Aegon’s line that rules here in King’s Landing.”

Arya’s eyebrow quirked. “Dany?”

Sansa shrugged. “I have gotten to know her. She is a capable queen...”

“That’s not what I heard when I was living in Braavos.”

“She has learned much since then.” Sansa’s voice lowered as her lovely blue eyes drifted to the fireplace, lost in thought. “We all have.”

“I know, but the Targaryens are so strange,” Arya insisted. It was true. Despite everything that she’d seen and done and endured, even though she’d seen others with silver-gold hair and purple eyes among the courtesans of Braavos, there was something about Daenerys and Aegon that just didn’t sit right with her.

Especially Aegon.

“Our brother is half Targaryen.”

“Then there’s much to be said for our aunt’s Stark blood cooling the heat of the dragon.” She cocked her head. “Speaking of which…”

“Drogon is in the pit, but Jon’s off on Viserion… I haven’t heard him come in yet. You know how he is.” Their brother loved to ride his pale, white-and-golden dragon all the way to the Red Keep. He’d even trained Ghost to ride alongside, the black of his cloak the only darkness on the great beast’s back. “Rhaegal, and Aegon, are on Dragonstone.”

“Then let’s hope he remains there until my claim is acknowledged.”

Sansa’s eyes were tender. “Arya, are you sure? Are you doing this just for Jon’s sake? Because if so…”

Arya inhaled slowly. Calm as still water. Fear cuts deeper than swords.

“I’m doing this because Gendry deserves this, Sansa. I know that our brother would give up the throne to Aegon before he would see Westeros at war. I know that Jon would be much happier in the North, back at Winterfell…”

“As would we all,” Sansa agreed.

“But if we learned anything from father and mother, it was that we must do our duty. When we bent the knee to Jon and his queen, we swore a vow. And when I stood before our heart tree, and said the words with Gendry, and he put that old cloak of Stannis Baratheon’s around my shoulders, I swore a vow then, too.

“My duty is to Gendry. If he had been here, he would have refused Storm’s End and let it pass to Edric the moment the Great Council assembled. He was to be the blacksmith for Winterfell, with our children bearing the Stark name. At least, that’s what we planned, back when… back before it all ended.

“After our moth – after the Lady fell, and Gendry took up the leadership of the Brotherhood, his men would have followed him anywhere. But the way that Gendry’s men felt about him, including those who knighted and trained him? That’s exactly the way Gendry felt about Jon. Sansa, Gendry always believed that Jon was the true king, long before we learned the truth about who his real mother was. It always gave him such satisfaction that the true king of Westeros had been raised as a bastard boy… just like him.

“Once Shireen was safe and protected in Winterfell, Stannis decided that the future for House Baratheon would rest with Gendry. That’s why he made Gendry his heir, not Edric. So it’s up to me to hold off Edric as long as I can… and to hold out hope that someday…

That someday, he’ll come back to me.

“That someday, we’ll learn his fate. Until then, I will hold Storm’s End in my own right, as both a Stark and a Baratheon. Any challenge to that will be heard as a challenge to the Council, who determined that Shireen was Lady Paramount and the head of House Baratheon… and a challenge to the Queen, who does not defer to her husband, but is co-ruler of the realms in her own right.”

Her voice did not shake. Her eyes did not fill. There was nothing about her that betrayed her emotions.

It was not Arya Stark’s way.

But Arya realized that her dry eyes frightened people when she talked of her husband, especially those who knew she did not just marry Gendry out of a sense of duty.

My sister, you forget that I spent years as a Faceless woman. A part of me will always be No One.

Perhaps that was the price I paid for those years, when Gendry’s seed did not take hold before he disappeared. The Kindly Man warned me of the consequences. If I had carried Gendry's son or daughter before he went missing, Edric’s claim would have been laughed out of court and Council, and I would have been regent until my child came of age.

This is my doing. I must make things right.

And I know, Sansa, that this is something you understand well…

Because you’re Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully’s daughter, too.

Family, duty, honor.

Winter is coming.

“I hear that it’s bloody hot in the Stormlands come summer,” Sansa swore, changing the topic as Arya knew she would. “If ever you need respite, of course you shall always have a place here.”

Arya’s nose wrinkled. “Eugh… I know it’s been seven years, Sansa, but surely you remember the way King’s Landing smelled the last time we arrived during the summer. I think that it will be you who needs respite, given the part of our lessons I still remember.”

Sansa laughed. “Yes, I forgot how much rain Storm’s End gets…”

“I lived in Braavos,” said Arya. “I’m not afraid of a little rain, and a part of me, well… I miss the sea.”

And she thought of her time as Cat of the Canals.

“Well, for all the rain, it’s certainly one of the most romantic places in the Seven Kingdoms. You do recall the story of King Durran Godsgrief, and his Queen Elenei?”

Arya shook her head, waving a hand at her sister.

“I had little patience for stories and songs when I was a child, and I have even less time for that nonsense now. And I should think that you would have more sense, Sansa,” she said, perhaps more harshly than she intended.

Instead of taking offense, Sansa stretched and smiled in a way that made Arya know that her sister had secrets of her own.

“Rest well, Arya. Tomorrow, we shall do all we can in the small council to speed your petition through the court… and soon, Storm’s End will be yours.”

 

*

 

Within moments of Sansa’s leaving, Arya was back beneath the covers of the fancy featherbed, trying to fall asleep. She could smell the smoke of the candles, freshly blown out… the lingering traces of her sister’s rich perfume, so reminiscent of their mother's… the faintest scent of the cinders, burnt now to nothing.

Arya closed her eyes, willing her body to fall beyond the veils of sleep so that her mind could go, too. Unbidden, she felt Nymeria’s pull… come, run with the pack tonight!... but she denied her direwolf the sweet communion that had saved her so many other nights, wanting to keep human trysts in this place with many ghosts.

Am I doing the right thing? she wondered. Perhaps the right course of action would be to refuse the Stormlands, ask Jon to abdicate, take her brother and sister back to the safety of Winterfell, and let Dany and Aegon's dragons dance out the fate of the kingdoms. What did she care of the fate of Gendry’s father’s House… a father who never acknowledged him, with a brother who was aware of his nephew's existence for years, but kept him in Flea Bottom, allowed him to be sold to the Night’s Watch, and only legitimized him when Gendry more than proved his worth in the Wars?

Arya had little use for Robert Baratheon back when she’d known him as a little girl, and she had even less when she learned that he was Gendry’s father. Some of the old soldiers who’d fought in the Rebellion had kind words to say, but Arya would have none of it.

Feeling drowsy, Arya tried to recall the many houses sworn to Storm's End. The only ones she always remembered were the Estermonts, who’d married into the Baratheon line. King Robert's mother was from House Estermont. Gendry's grandmother...

Then there was Lady Brienne’s isle of Tarth. The Sapphire Isle. And she knew about House Dondarrion, because of Lord Beric, and her travels with the Brotherhood. 

Wait… there’s Lonmouth, I think that may have been Lem’s… and then there’s the griffins, Connington, where Aegon’s foster father came from… and wasn’t Edric Dayne from the Stormlands’ side of the Marches? I can never remember...

No, milady. It was as if she could hear Gendry’s chuckle, amused that he knew something arcane that she didn’t. House Dayne is part of Dorne. Edric’s castle is called Starfall…

 

*

 

Arya opened her eyes with a smile. “Someone’s been paying attention during their lessons with Sam and Shireen.”

“Not much else to do here besides learn my letters. At least, during the daytime."

“Who stays calm enough during a siege to learn anything?”

“Might be that you’d like to join me sometime,” he teased. “Being a lord’s daughter in a castle, having a maester and all didn’t do you no good if you think fancy Ned’s not Dornish… ouch!”

Arya let the pillow fall. “Shut up. There are too many bloody houses in these kingdoms anyway.”

Gendry’s smile faded slowly. “Bolling. Buckler. Cafferen. Caron. Cole. Connington. Dondarrion..."

She propped herself up on an elbow, waiting for him to finish his list. “Came up with a prayer for yourself, have you?”

He shook his head. Reaching out, his hand threaded through her hair.

“Those are the first houses they taught me, you know. The houses of the Stormlands… the banners of House Baratheon. ‘Your father’s house,’ they said."  He stroked his fingers through her hair, a deep frown furrowing his face. “Think they don’t get what it means for me to hear about my father. Not really.”

Arya’s hand rested on the side of his neck, caressing it with her thumb.

“I understand. It’s hard for me to hear about my father, too.” Especially after I heard Ilyn Payne's blade fall, she thought to herself.

But Gendry shook his head.

“I know, Arya, but it’s different for me still. You knew your lord father, and you share his memory with Lord Jon and all your other brothers and sisters. He was a good man. But me, I…”  

Gendry trailed off, studying her face. Before Arya knew it, his bearded mouth had covered hers with a kiss. She savored the taste of him, laced with the very last doses of Sam’s potion. Only a few days more, she thought wickedly, anticipating the thought of their joining again once he was completely well.

“You’ve been up all night, worrying about me, worrying about your brother, worrying about the camp, worrying about everything. Why don’t you get some rest? I’ll be here when you awake.”

Arya opened her mouth to protest… but instead of words, out came a wide yawn that made Gendry chuckle, and draw her nearer.

“Sleep well, milady. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

She was too tired to protest the endearment. Instead she snuggled close, feeling glad that he was nearly healed. Holding her didn’t hurt his ribs anymore. And his strength was nearly back.

It felt so good to be with him again.

Feeling his lips in her hair, his heartbeat against her ear, Arya shut her eyes and let sleep overtake her.

 

*

 

Arya opened her eyes. Bright morning sunshine flooded her eyes, but as always, she was alone.

Always alone.

And yet not alone after all, because just beyond the blood red glass of the three-headed dragon sigil, she could see a pair of very familiar red eyes.

She almost flew to the window, unlatching it, opening it wide…

Jon’s grin matched her own as he held on to Ghost’s scruff with his good hand, and the reins of Viserion with the other.

"Got some news by raven that I think you’ll want to hear, little sister. Care for a ride before we break our fast?”

“Of course, Your Grace.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Day 31 - Morning

 

Arya wasn’t much for dragons. A winter wolf to her bones, she’d always distrusted their fire.

Nothing had amused Gendry more during the bleak days of the siege than her wariness when it came to the dragons. Viserion was threatening enough, the size of Queenscrown’s tower, and able to carry a dozen knights on its back without faltering in the flap of its great wings. But Daenerys’ dragon was more enormous than any creature Arya had seen in all her many travels. Drogon had to be seen to be believed. When the forces of ice, darkness, and eternal winter wounded Viserion with their weirwood arrows, they seemed as no more than mere pinpricks for the enormous black beast. 

Viserion was of a different nature. At first, Daenerys believed that Jon would bond best with Rhaegal, summoning the green dragon despite the fact that Aegon had already used the fallen Greyjoy’s dragon-horn to bind them. They were her children, after all. 

But Rhaegal resisted Jon, and would not take direction from any save Aegon or his mother Dany, and seemed to especially feel the cold. So Daenerys returned the great green dragon south again, to wait in King’s Landing with Aegon, who insisted he needed to remain in the Crownlands lest darkness fall.

Of the dragons, Viserion had the least dragon-like temperament. Arya never told anyone, but the white-and-gold dragon reminded her of Ghost and her brother, although she’d never care for him as much as she loved Jon and his direwolf.

And of the dragons, Viserion was the one who never minded if Jon’s Stark brothers and sisters caught a ride.

Viserion may be a dragon, a creature of fire, Arya thought, but those scales shimmer like the ice of the North.

All the same, Arya stepped into the courtyard cautiously, shielding her grey eyes from the early sun with a hand, waiting for Jon to finish feeding both his pets and meet her on dragonback. She was so busy looking up at the sky that she failed to notice the peril that approached her below.

“Ah, the fairest princess of them all.”

Arya whirled around, folded her arms, and narrowed her eyes. I thought Sansa said Aegon was away. Bloody dragons.

“Good morning, Your Grace,” said Arya flatly. Unlike the teasing little sister that she was when she used the formal way of addressing royalty with her brother, her tone with Aegon was clipped, short, testy. She was not in the mood for his games.

“The morning is very good indeed, sweet Arya.”

His purple eyes drank her in. Arya cursed herself for wearing a dress, although she had on leather breeches beneath the linen. It had taken her sister the better part of a year to get her to concede to any part of court style, but the day was overwarm, and she wanted to feel the wind on her face and neck.

Of course, the blue dress she’d selected was in the court style, its neckline revealing far more than Arya liked. But she’d inexplicably wanted to make Sansa proud, and Jon too, and…

“What?” For Aegon hadn’t stopped staring.

“Forgive me, sweet lady. You look exactly like a winter rose. That blue is quite fetching on you… I daresay it would look ever better off.”

Whether they were sparring in the tiltyard, or just using words, Aegon always talked to Arya as if he wanted to take her to bed. He was always referencing their likeness to her aunt and his father, one of the most famous love stories in the kingdoms.

Arya unsheathed Needle with one smooth motion, her other on her hip. Behind Aegon, the two Kingsguard that were always with him put their hands on their sword hilts. 

“Now Sers, you must realize that I could slice you both open before you even unsheathed your weapons.” Once they released their hilts, Arya sheathed Needle again. “Instead of threatening your King’s sister, you ought to teach your liege honor.”

Aegon smirked. “Have a care, lady, for I do not suffer insults to my honor lightly.”

“Words are wind, Your Grace. Surely the honor of the great Prince of Dragonstone could not be insulted by the words of a mere girl? 

“Your Prince would like nothing more than to make that girl his Princess.”

Arya’s mouth was set in a firm line. “Your Grace, I am already wed.”

“Oh? Then where is your husband, my lady?” Aegon’s eyes continued to drink her in. “Had I known that heathen Gendry Waters would steal your maidenhead, I would have claimed my rights the moment I laid eyes on you. Ridiculous that a man like that should have the fairest maid in the Seven Kingdoms.”

It was an old, tired conversation. Arya knew that she supposedly looked like her aunt, but she was nothing like Lyanna. And Aegon wasn’t much like Rhaegar Targaryen. All who’d known him said that it was her brother Jon who was the Silver Prince in all but his looks.

“Damn your heathen marriage, and damn your Baratheon bastard. One day soon, I will steal you away at swordpoint…”

Arya turned away. Truly, Aegon Targaryen wasn’t worth the trouble of cleaning Needle afterward.

Seeing that he didn’t get a rise out of Arya, Aegon tried another tactic.

“Once I am your King, that baseborn lord of yours will be declared dead once and for all…”

“But you are not my King, Your Grace. My brother is. And as long as Jon is everyone’s King, I am not free to wed.”

And if I still draw breath after my dear brother breathes his last, I will live out my days in the Free Cities.

Where is that brother of mine? Jon, please come for me soon, lest I run this fool half-brother of yours through…

As if her thoughts and words summoned him, a shadow covered the courtyard. Viserion was like an ominous cloud blocking the sun as he descended, although no cloud ever shimmered as he did. Unlike his wife and half-brother, Jon was a courteous dragonrider if not in battle, spiraling down from the sky gradually so that the people on the ground could see his approach.

Rescued. Arya grinned her crooked little smile at the Targaryen prince.

“Why don’t we ask King Jon what he thinks about your words directed to his favorite sister, Prince Aegon? I’m sure he would have much to say.”

Aegon’s stare turned cold. But it was no longer directed at Arya.

He, like everyone else in the courtyard, was looking up at the sky.

“There is unfinished business between you and me, Lady Arya,” Aegon grated out. “If you did not wish to be mine, you would have stayed well away in your Winterfell. What is between us must have an answer, and soon.”

“And that answer, as long as I remain Lady Baratheon, will always be no.”

Viserion was landing. Rather than greet his half brother, Aegon took one last look at Arya, then left the courtyard… mere seconds before Jon dismounted, and leaving would have been impossible. Aegon might have been an insufferable toad, but outwardly, he observed all the courtesies. (Arya rather suspected it was because he expected to receive them someday as King.) 

The Kingsguard remained, trying to help Jon dismount. As always, they nearly received black leather riding boots in their faces for their trouble as the king swung down from his dragon’s back on his own. The man once known as Jon Snow was still at heart a man of the North, the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch that no longer was, and needed neither guards nor squires nor executioners. After all, he’d won the most important battles in Westeros since the Dawn Age, and swung the sword that dispensed the King and Queen’s Justice himself. Rumors from the North even held that he’d come back from the dead, but few south of the Neck put much stock in the war tales from the popular ballads and songs.

“You can look after my queen,” Jon would tell his Kingsguard. “Especially when Drogon isn’t about.”

Jon of the Houses Stark and Targaryen, First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Rider of the Dragon Viserion and Bringer of the Dawn, was perhaps the most difficult King to guard since the Conqueror himself.

“Little sister,” said Jon, striding over to Arya. “Are you ready to ride with me?”

Arya smiled.

“Always.”

 

*

 

“They’re awful,” was Arya’s verdict, after the silver Queen Daenerys and her dragons were safely away from Castle Black and the Wall. “And so is she. How can Jon even think about making alliances with a woman like that?”

Gendry said nothing as he hammered steel in the forge that had once been Donal Noye’s. When they were younger, Arya just assumed it was because he was stupid, too slow to catch on to things. Now she knew that it was her bull's way to let her rage quiet down, wait until the storm had passed, and then weigh in.  

Whenever he did, she most always called him stupid anyway. But it was for different reasons.

“Are you even listening to me, Gendry? You never listen…”

Clang. “I always listen to you, Arya.” Gendry repeated back everything that Arya had said since entering the forge that afternoon. “You think the dragons are dangerous, and Jon should turn down the alliance.”

Arya shrugged, shifting to a more comfortable position on the unused anvil that served as a bench. “Fine, stupid. Maybe you were listening this time. But you haven’t told me what you think…”

“I think… I think your brother ought to make this alliance. Lord Jon’s men tried to get rid of him, but one of the last useful things the Red Woman did was to bring him back. There’s creatures of ice trying to get us. The silver Queen’s dragonfire is a weapon more powerful than anything I can make…"

He trailed off with a frown, looking at something over in the corner. Set down his hammer (which Arya couldn’t lift, and not for lack of trying). As Arya began to twist impatiently, he turned to face her.

“That’s it.”

Arya shook her head. “What’s it?”

“How they forged Valyrian steel. I watched Master Tobho reshape it a few times… nothing like it, but no one’s made any more for hundreds of years. There’s probably something more to it, but… I think I've figured out why no one’s made any for so long. And why we couldn’t figure how they turned obsidian into dragonglass…"

“Gendry, what are you talking about? What would the Dragon Queen know about making weapons?”

“She doesn’t. But she has dragons.”  

What was he on about? Gods be good, she thought, I need to find a packmate who isn’t stupid like him…

…just so long as it's someone who kisses like him. And whose body keeps me warm like his does…

He glanced at his dwindling fire, brow still furrowed. Arya watched the play of firelight against the bare skin of his back, the sweat that beaded along his spine. Going on and on about silly dragons and sillier Dragon Queens… it’s been too long since I’ve tasted his sweat. Stupid Night’s Watch, and stupid Castle Black, with their stupid rules, all enforced by my stupid brother, who thinks that I need to be protected from Gendry.

Silly Jon. It’s Gendry who always needed protection from me.

Just as she thought about getting up to distract him in the best way possible (stupid Wall), he spun around to look at Arya.

“Go tell your brother that if he can somehow get me a little dragonfire, I think I can make him weapons that can kill White Walkers. And armor that can stop their blades.”

 

 

*

 

If she weren’t an able enough warg, Arya didn’t think she’d ever grow used to the swooping sensation of Viserion’s takeoff. Unlike Drogon, the white dragon didn’t hurl himself into the sky, and he certainly didn’t twist and loop-de-loop like Rhaegal. He gradually ascended, but all the same, it was disorienting.

Arya clung to Jon’s back, burying her cheek against his thick cloak. Black and lined with white fur, it bore his personal arms, silver-threaded Stark direwolves quartered with crimson three-headed dragons. His long dark hair, only a shade darker than her own, was cut to his shoulders and flew in her face. He always had lovely hair…

His mother’s hair, Arya reflected, remembering the kind face of Lord Howland Reed, her father’s bannerman and friend. My hair is not so nice as aunt Lyanna’s was, and they tell me I’m not nearly as tall…

But you have her face, sweet girl, she could hear Howland saying, looking from her to her newly betrothed. Just as your young smith has his father’s face…

So did Jon, apparently. Although he had the Stark look and bore a strong resemblance to the man who'd raised him, all who had known Rhaegar Targaryen claimed that they saw his likeness in Jon's face. Arya thought she would have liked the Silver Prince if he was anything like her favorite brother. Jon was always thinking of others before himself. He was a leader of leaders, and his word was law throughout the Kingdoms. Even soft and perfumed Southron lords who talked behind his back about the Winter Dragon King were all obeisance when in his court.

And yet Jon always retained the melancholy that she remembered from their childhood, long after knowing that he was trueborn, a prince, and the lost heir to the throne.

“I don’t care who my father was,” Jon told Arya, two days before the Wall fell. “Ned Stark was the only father I knew.”  

“But you heard what Lord Reed said,” she’d replied dully. “The prince was not what we thought he was. He loved your mother! Which means you are his son, and our cous…”

“I am your brother, Arya!” Jon snapped. “You will always be my little sister.”

And above the firelight, his dark eyes glowed.

Smoke… but in the red light, she could finally see the purple.

Arya exhaled as Viserion found a favorable wind. Her legs and bum felt warm, but with her riding breeches, it wasn’t unpleasant. (Sansa, who hated breeches, had been burned once, before they learned. Only Daenerys seemed to tolerate the dragons’ scales on her bare skin.)

“Are we landing this time?”

“Not this time,” Jon replied. “Full day. Small council this morn, then Court after the midday meal. There is also a feast tonight…”

Growl. “Was that your idea or the Queen’s?” 

“It was both of ours. Arya, what I am going to say is… gods, you’re not going to like it.”

Arya opened her eyes and looked down at Blackwater Bay sprawling below. 

“Go on.”

He took a deep breath. “Before Dany and I grant you the claim, I would like for you to consider taking a husband.” 

No wonder Jon took her out on Viserion. Had they been on the ground, Arya would have had Needle at her brother’s throat, Kingsguard and consequences be damned.

What?” 

“Arya, please hear me out. I know what it’s like to lose your first love. I know. When she died, Ygritte took a part of me away that I’ll never get back again. Dany feels the same about her Khal. We know what you felt when…”

“Don’t you say his name! Not when you’re planning to barter me as if I’m livestock, after you promised you would never!”

“And I promised that I would take no wife, bear no children, hold no lands, and wear no crown…”

“That’s different. The Night’s Watch is no more because the Wall is no more! I am still married!”

“Lord Gendry was a good man and true. He became a friend during the great battles for the North… otherwise, I would have run him through when I learned what he’d got up to with you.” 

“Then you agree with me! See, that’s exactly…”

“But Gendry left with his Brotherhood almost two years past. Their ship never reached Qohor. They took sail at White Harbor and no trace of them has been seen since. Their leaving has left the Stormlands and the Marches in turmoil… the very places that I need loyal to me… to us,” he said. She couldn’t tell if “us” included Daenerys, Arya, the other Starks, or someone else.

“I can hold the Stormlands,” Arya said firmly. “Until…”

“Until when, little sister?” Sigh. “Arya, I know you’re able. I know it damned well. I’ve fought beside you in battle, and I’d take you over a dozen men. You’re a fierce little wolf and always have been. 

“But what if something happens to me, and Aegon becomes King? What if something happens to you before there is a heir to hold those lands? I know that you can rule as Lady Paramount, Arya, and so does the North… so would Dorne, if they’d get the sticks out of their snake arses about me being the son of Lyanna Stark… but most of my lords are looking upon you and Sansa, beauties both, and growing discontented that I am arranging marriages for their daughters, and not my own sisters.”

“You promised Sansa and me you wouldn’t do this, Jon,” Arya answered coldly. “You told us we would never have to marry.”

“Everyone has to marry, Arya. The world has changed, but that much hasn’t.” Another sad sigh. “The last thing I wanted to do after the Great Council was to marry my own aunt… the widow of a Khal, of a slaver, and of a pirate… a woman who speaks the Common Tongue with an accent… a woman who knew nothing of the ways of the North!” 

“Yet you share her bed,” Arya accused.

“We share everything, including this terrible burden that our ancestors granted us of ruling the kingdoms. We may yet need to rule with fire and blood before all is said and done, but that is not our way. We are the children of war, but we want the children of the spring to know only of peace.”

Arya could feel the tension in his shoulders, lean muscles sprung tight like knots in sailor’s ropes. Her small hand stole into his curls to massage the base of his neck until he relaxed.

“If they had just allowed the North our independence, we could all be in Winterfell by now.” She laughed. “Perhaps Sansa and I should have married you so that the Dragon Queen couldn’t get her claws into you. That’s something a Targaryen would understand.” 

“The North was too broken to fight a war of independence,” Jon said. “And your husband would have never given you up without a fight." Chuckle. "It was enough for Gendry and I that our fathers fought to the death over a Stark girl…”

Arya was surprised. “I didn’t know that you ever talked about it.”

“Only once, before he left. Told him that this time, a Baratheon got the girl. And he said, ‘Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but…’”

“I’m not a Baratheon,” both Jon and Arya said at the same time.

“I miss him, Jon,” said Arya sadly. She only ever voiced it when she and Jon were alone. Not even Sansa could know, as much as she loved her. “If Gendry’s dead, I wish he’d taken me with him. He promised me he’d never leave me again.”

“I know, little wolf, but whatever happened, it wasn’t his choice. We both know that. When he left you the first time, he didn’t think he was good enough for a highborn girl, and you were just children. He didn't want to leave you back then, and he never wanted to leave you behind when he sailed across the Narrow Sea. Dead or alive, he loves you.”

“Then how can you make me marry another?”

Arya couldn’t see her brother’s face, but she knew Jon was smirking. “As if anyone could make Arya Stark do anything she didn’t want to. All I said was that the Queen and I are asking that you consider taking another husband.” 

“Consider?” She blinked, jerking Jon’s head to the side so that he could face her. “Do you mean that I don’t have to do it?”

“Of course not. We just need to make a show of it to the court before granting you the claim. And there are other reasons…”

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“I did. You don’t listen.” He kissed her cold cheek. “You never do. But that’s our Arya. And before you ask why I went on about it, you needed to know the political situation you’re walking into.

“Before he died, Maester Aemon told me that love is the death of duty. As King, it is my duty to arrange marriages for my sisters. But because of the love I bear for you both, because I know you walked through the very hells during this war to save us all… and because I now know what happened to my mother, I will not.”

“She would have been so proud of you, Jon. So would father.” Because she knew Jon doubted it, Arya told him often and more.

“I hope so. I can’t bear thinking of my mother being thrown into a marriage with a man for whom she held no respect. When I first learned that Lyanna was my mother and not my aunt, I was angry at her for doing what she did. Now that I've had a bit of time to think about it, I think I understand. I wonder at our grandfather for forcing her to marry Robert." 

“He didn’t know that your mother loved your father.”

“It wasn’t as if she could have told him.” 

Arya thought about it. What would have happened if her brothers hadn’t liked Gendry? If they were the kind of monsters who betrothed her to a creature like Ramsay for political advantage?

She threw her arms around Jon's neck and kissed him back.

“Thank you, Jon. I know what it means for you to defy the high lords and grant Sansa and I our freedom.” 

“Then you’ll appreciate what Dany thinks about it. For as she says, if Aegon is allowed to flit around the kingdoms, then you and Sansa should be allowed the same. My wife has been married four times and she didn't choose any of her husbands, not even me. She doesn’t want what happened to her to happen to either of you.”

Arya thought about this. Perhaps she’d been harsh in her judgment of the Dragon Queen.

“I will give her my thanks when I see her.” A wicked smile curved her features. “And perhaps I shall ask her about a dress for the evening’s festivities.”

“Since when do you care about dresses?” her brother scoffed.

Ah, Jon, you wouldn’t want to hear of your sister’s courtesan days in Braavos. Even my husband roared with laughter at the idea of it…  

Until we were wed and I showed him everything I learned, that is.

And the players in your Court think that you only have one sister that knows how to play the Game.

As it so happens, you have two.

 

 

*

 

 

Few things bored Arya Stark more than court, but meetings of the small council held an intrigue all their own. Unlike the feckless council of Robert’s late reign, the one that helped Jon and Daenerys rule was young and shrewd, with the hard-earned wisdom of the Wars.

Tyrion Lannister was the Hand of the King and Queen, a position he’d held since before the Wars. He’d joined Daenerys’ circle of advisers in faraway Meereen, and was there when she conquered Volantis and Lys. Then, because Aegon had already invaded the South, she flew Drogon to the Vale, where she met Sansa Stark and learned of the plight of the northern realms.

House Lannister was the greatest enemy of House Stark during the War of the Five Kings. But Tyrion had helped that war come to an end, killing his own father, Tywin Lannister, the Lion of the Rock. He was a dwarf, but he was also known as the cleverest man in the kingdoms.

“Lady Arya, welcome back to court.” He turned to the others. “Our former mistress of whisperers is so good, I’m afraid no one knew she’d arrived.” 

Amid the laughter that followed Tyrion's wit, Arya said, “It is good to see you too, Lord Tyrion.”

“Yes, princess, it has been far too long,” said Edric Storm, letting his blue eyes trail all over Arya’s slender, shapely figure.

She’d changed out of the blue dress she was wearing earlier into a high-necked Northern gown of plain grey, black leather breeches beneath.  And she’d done it specifically for the benefit of her husband’s half-brother, who always looked at her chest when he was talking to her, not her face.

Edric Storm was a Baratheon indeed, but not muscled and broad like Gendry or Robert or Renly. He was more lithe and wiry, much more like Stannis in build although he did favor Robert a bit when it came to facial features. But his blue eyes were round and wide-set. Paired with his Florent ears, Edric Storm's eyes always reminded Arya of a bug.

Like Prince Aegon, Lord Edric was often inappropriate with both of the Winter Princesses. The two men were friends who met in Volantis after Ser Davos Seaworth, Stannis’ loyal friend and Hand, stole Edric out of the Red Woman’s clutches and sent him to Essos. Both rode with the Golden Company and participated in the invasions of the South.

War veterans both, that is true enough. All the same, the campaign in the South was child’s play compared to what we suffered in the North.

Arya gave him a stiff nod. “Lord Edric.”

Sitting next to him was Lady Nymeria Sand, Mistress of War who had served on the small council since the time of Tommen I Lannister. In other circumstances, Arya was sure that she and Nym could have been great friends. After all, she’d given her direwolf the same name. But in the eyes of the Sand Snakes, the Stark princesses were nothing but she-bitches of the North who were somehow responsible for the loss of their father and aunt. Nymeria was nothing but frosty to Arya, and even worse to Sansa. But she was a capable general and gave Dorne a voice in the small council.

“And here I thought the heat of the South had gotten to the She-Wolf of Winterfell,” Nym said, exchanging a glance with Maester Alleras. Alleras never said much, but Arya didn’t get the feeling that the maester shared Nymeria’s hatred.

“Well, Lady Nymeria, I am glad to have my sister back, despite our spring warmth here in the capital feeling like a summer day back home.” Sansa, Mistress of Laws, spoke up. Known far and wide as the Fair Lady of the North and the Vale, her beautiful face belied the steel in her voice... and the shrewd cunning in her blue eyes. “After all, winter is coming.”

“Winter is coming,” said Jon and Arya in response, reflexively. (Once a Stark, always a Stark.)

“Yes, my dear wolves, winter is indeed coming,” said the Queen, smiling at her husband, then her goodsisters. “But thankfully, we have many years before we must think on it again… Lord Tyrion, what business?”

“Your Grace, we have but one petition to discuss today. Lady Shireen Baratheon wishes for the crown to appoint Lady Arya as head of House Baratheon, Lady Paramount of the Stormlands, and Warden of the East, upon her marriage to…”

The door of the council’s chamber flew open. Prince Aegon strode in, boots made from the dragons' shed scales clicking against the hardwood floor.

“Pardon me, Your Graces,” he said, bowing to his aunt and half-brother. “I am sorry that I am overlate. Rhaegal… that great beast wanted to play with his breakfast.”

“Please be seated, nephew,” said the Queen, shortly. “We were about to discuss Lady Arya Baratheon’s claim on the Stormlands.” 

Aegon sat in his chair on the other side of Jon with an elegant flourish.

“What claim? Lady Arya is a Stark. I believe their lands have always been in the North, which is not the Stormlands.”

“My father’s house was Stark, Your Grace,” Arya said, more patiently than Aegon deserved. “My husband is Lord Baratheon.”

“Then pray tell, where is Lord Baratheon? Surely Ser Gendry can show himself in the Red Keep to pursue his own claim instead of hiding behind his wife’s skirts. In the meantime, we have another legitimized natural son of Robert Baratheon that will hold the Stormlands in trust… Lord Edric.”

“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but that is not Lady Shireen’s wish,” Sansa said. “A raven arrived from her saying that she will only marry Rickon Stark when she learns that Princess Arya is in Storm’s End.” 

That’s new, thought Arya. She’d had no word from Winterfell since she left, and thought that her brother and Shireen were already married. Once again, she marveled at Shireen’s political savvy. She is Stannis Baratheon’s daughter in truth.

“Absolutely ridiculous,” was Aegon’s verdict. “When have the Stormlands, the most martial of our kingdoms, ever been ruled by a mere woman?”

Before Arya or Nymeria could say anything, the Queen raised a hand.

“Aegon…” That was Jon’s growl.

“Husband, ladies, I will respond to my nephew.”

And Daenerys’ purple eyes turned into blades.

"Your Grace, I do apologize, but..." Aegon tried to repair his folly but it was too late.

“A mere woman," said Daenerys smoothly. "Aegon, please explain ‘mere womanhood’ to me, and the other ladies of the Realm seated around this table." 

Aegon looked at Edric, then at Daenerys, a slight sneer on his handsome features.

“Women are to be protected from the harsh realities of ruling. And while I realize that the women of this small council are… special cases, as is Your Grace, women are blessed of the Mother to bear a lord’s children, to tend his home, and to bring him comfort. It has been ever thus.”

Everyone stared at Aegon. Without the women of Westeros, the Others would have taken everything from the Lands of Always Winter to the Stepstones, and all knew it. After the War of the Five Kings, the ranks of men of fighting age had been decimated from Dorne to the Wall. Even the traditionalists who thought the women of Westeros belonged only in the kitchen and abed admitted it. Was he being serious? 

Daenerys raised an eyebrow.

“I see.” She turned to the rest of the council. “My lords and ladies, please excuse me, for it will be easiest if I continue speaking to my nephew in Valyrian for a moment."

“Would you like to speak to him in private?” asked Jon. (Arya knew that her brother didn’t dare look at the Dragon Prince, lest he beat him bloody.)

“That won’t be necessary, Jon. Some of you are actually learning our tongue, including you, husband. I want witnesses, for I shall make my meaning plain to Prince Aegon.”

Aegon was frowning. “Daenerys, I…”

But the queen shook her head, and waved a hand at Alleras, who was taking notes.

“Grand Maester, I will continue in High Valyrian. It is far easier for me to speak of my family histories and ancestors in my native language, for that is how my brother told me the stories. But I want you to inscribe what I say to Prince Aegon into the record in the Common Tongue. Can you do that, or shall I ask Missandei to translate?”

“I am quite capable of it, Your Grace.”

“Thank you,” said the Queen.

She caught Arya’s eye. Does she know that I am fluent in Braavosi and the bastard Valyrian of the Free Cities? And like all in the North, I have a smattering of the Old Tongue? 

At the Queen’s slight nod, she realized that Daenerys did know. Had Jon told her, or had Dany figured it out on her own?

Perhaps Arya had underestimated the Queen. She listened as the conversation continued in Valyrian.

“Ever thus, Aegon? And I suppose that our ancestors who conquered these kingdoms with fire and blood, and those of the generation of the Dance… they were all men? Shall I speak their names to you, starting with Queen Visenya and Queen Rhaenys I? Shall I speak of their victories and conquests?”

“That was generations ago, Daenerys,” replied the Prince, speaking in the same formal High Valyrian dialect of the dragonlords as well. (Arya noticed that both seemed more at ease speaking in Valyrian. It made them seem more human.) “Aegon the Conqueror…”

“…conquered Westeros on dragonback with the aid of his two sister-wives. I need not tell you of this, for you know our histories far better than I do, nephew.”

It was as if the two dragons were the only people in the room.

“Then I need not tell you that you are the first Targaryen Queen since the Conquest to rule in her own right,” snapped Aegon impatiently. “Rhaenys Velaryon and Rhaenyra and Daena and many others were passed over by every single Great Council until that farce last year at Riverrun. Targaryens do not allow our women to rule us, and neither did our ancestors in the Freehold. Such is for the uncivilized Rhoynar and First Men, not the blood of Old Valyria. What do you think your father and grandfather would have said about you ruling in your own right? And if your brother had not perished in the Dothraki Sea…”

Aegon speaks treason to the Queen of Westeros, thought Arya. He challenges her right to rule. 

She could have his head struck off... if I were her, I would.

“But Viserys did perish, much to my anguish, nephew," Dany was saying (Arya guessed the unfamiliar word the queen used was "anguish," but she wasn't sure.) "You and Viserys have much in common, except that he cared about me, after a fashion. And how dare you speak of my brother? You turned West instead of East, leaving me to languish in the lands of Old Ghis while you sought our claim on your own behalf. The last Targaryen woman alive, the last woman of Old Valyria, with no family and no House, and I had no idea of your existence until word of your landing reached me in Vaes Dothrak!

“Aegon, as long as I remain Queen of Westeros and head of House Targaryen, you shall never again speak of the Princess, or any other lady, as a mere woman. Your words are why you have not tempted her away from the memory of her husband.”

“So you do admit that the Baratheon bastard is dead.”

“I said nothing of the sort.” The Queen’s eyes narrowed. “Your continued disrespect is noted, Aegon. The sole reason that I do not allow my husband the King to run you through is because of the love that I bear for your father, the brother I never knew.”

“Your husband the King was Rhaegar’s son, too. His younger bastard son…”

“Yet the Great Council awarded Jon the kingship, and my hand in marriage… and not you. You are our heir, Aegon, and our family. Instead of antagonizing the Starks, you ought to spend your time finding a queen and giving our family heirs and a future. The wolves are bound to us now…

“I would bind the wolves to House Targaryen for all time, aunt. I would bind them, with fire and blood, with my seed and the children of our combined houses… if only she would bend the knee.”

And his gaze seared Arya with purple fire.

The Queen was not amused. “Bend the knee?" she scoffed. "Lady Arya's brother is your King. Unless you mean for the benefit of your cock, in which case, nephew, I’d advise you to take care. Wolves bite.”

Aegon reddened, while Arya smirked. Gods be good, she loved it when Aegon was defeated verbally. It certainly didn’t happen often.

Daenerys looked away from her nephew to acknowledge the rest of the table in the Common Tongue.

“My nephew’s concerns are satisfied, Lord Tyrion. So the petition we must consider today is that of Arya Baratheon’s claim to the Storm Lands.” She turned to Sansa. “Lady Sansa, what were the provisions of the Great Council of 305 for the Stormlands?”

“As the Great Council was primarily called to settle the matter of the Crown, the Stormlands were left in the hands of Lady Shireen Baratheon. The King and Queen have sole discretion to award lordships, for all lands are theirs…”

“Your Graces,” said Lord Edric, “may I speak?”

The King nodded. “Of course, Lord Edric.”

“Your Graces, my lords and my ladies, the only reason why I have not spoken before now is because I remained south of the Neck during the Wars, with the understanding that the childhood agreement for me to marry my cousin, Lady Shireen, was still in effect. As a son of Robert Baratheon, I chose to forfeit my claim to the throne, and made the choice to absent myself from the Great Council's proceedings. Imagine my dismay when I learned after the Council ended that my uncle's will betrothed my sweet lady cousin to a Stark, one barely old enough to be knighted, who spent the entirety of the War on Skagos, a remote island only noted for its cannibals…”

“Oh, I hear there are unicorns there, too,” said Lord Tyrion. "And grumkins. And snarks." The Hand had been uncharacteristically quiet, but Arya knew that the wheels in the Lannister lord’s mind were always turning. Perhaps I should speak to him during the feast, she thought.

Edric glared at Tyrion before continuing.

“My King, I cannot impugn your Great Houses, or speak to my uncle Stannis' last days. But while I can appreciate everything that my half-brother Gendry did for the realm during the Wars, the fact remains that he was baseborn. I was not. I have spent most of my life in the Stormlands. He had not. What's more, my maternal kin of House Florent give me ties to the Reach, ensuring peace at the Stormlands' western borders. I have been most loyal to the crown, and I have supported your rule in all things…”

“Not if you do not support our decisions,” said Jon. “As the Mistress of Laws has informed you, all lands belong to the Crown to grant as we please.”

“It is not fair, Your Grace. Lady Arya is your sister!"

Daenerys touched Jon’s burnt hand before he could react. “Lord Edric, do you dare accuse your King and Queen of playing favorites?”

“I would not be so presumptuous, Your Grace.”

“The King has just informed his sister this morning that in order for us to consider her claim at Court, she must consider taking a husband. All in the kingdoms know that she does not wish to marry.”

Lord Edric’s bug eyes returned to Arya’s chest. (Arya resisted the impulse to cross her arms in front.)

“I-I didn't know, Your Grace. But she is married. I am of the Seven. I cannot…”

“Well, it seems to me that you are indeed being presumptuous, for neither the King nor I have said that you will be the lord so favored with Lady Arya’s hand.”

“Your Grace, please forgive me, I simply just…”

Daenerys turned back to Jon.

“I tire of this conversation, husband. Please inform the council of our plans for your sisters.”

Jon’s eyes twinkled, but his features remained stern.

“Tonight, there will be a great feast celebrating Lady Arya’s return to court. We have called all the suitable lords of the realm to dine with us in the Red Keep, those from the Great Houses of Westeros, and those from other notable houses.

“The guests of honor will be my sisters Arya and Sansa, the Winter Princesses. Let it not be said that your King is Baelor the Blessed come again, locking his sisters away in the Maidenvault… that he refuses his lords the beauties of Winterfell. My sisters and the other ladies at court will feast and dance, and consider all unwed men suitable to their station.

“However, there is but one provision. My sisters must agree to the match. The Lady Sansa has been married twice, once against both of their wills to Lord Tyrion Lannister, the second time to the late Lord Harrold Hardyng of the Vale. The Lady Arya has been also married twice, once by proxy to the late traitor Ramsay of the House Bolton, and the second to Lord Gendry Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End according to the will of Stannis Baratheon, presumed lost at sea. Before their marriages, both sisters were betrothed, the Lady Sansa to the traitor Joffrey of House Lannister, and Lady Arya to Elmar of the treacherous House Frey.

“It has been acknowledged by the Great Council and the Crown that my sisters were invaluable to the war efforts, Lady Sansa in the Vale and King’s Landing, and Lady Arya in Essos and the far North. They have served on our small council ably, and have brought much wisdom and wit to this table. They have done this without complaint, and they have suffered the gossip of the realm because I did not use them as my pawns the moment I was crowned King.

“In the name of my lady mother, Lyanna of the House Stark, no lord in the Seven Kingdoms, or across the Narrow Sea, and no prince,” his eyes cut to his half-brother, “will force me to betroth my sisters against their will. They are strong, they are capable, and they have the blood of the First Men in their veins. Lady Lyanna Mormont, named for my mother, rules Bear Island in her own right. Lady Alys does the same for House Karstark. It has been ever thus in the North, because winter is coming.

“I do not dictate what my lords do within their Houses. But as for me and my House, my brothers and I are agreed. No woman of House Stark will ever again be subjected to what my mother faced when she was just a young girl. When our grandfather refused to give her a choice, she took it… and the kingdoms were soaked in blood. Lyanna, like my sisters, was a She-Wolf of Winterfell, and we do not cage our wolves. They cannot be caged.

"So this nightfall, Lady Sansa and Lady Arya will consider the lords of the realm, and decide if any are matches for the blood of the Kings of Winter. They will share their choices to me, and in turn, I will approach the man in question, to test him and see whether he is worthy or not.

“After that, the Queen and I will decide on the matter of the Stormlands… Storm’s End is in the care of the Lord Davos Seaworth, a most capable castellan, former Hand of the late Stannis Baratheon, and lord guardian to the Lady Shireen Baratheon. The matter will hold until then…”

“Your Grace,” interrupted Edric, “I only implore you to… you have failed to consider…”

“If we wanted your thoughts, Lord Edric, we would inquire,” snapped Daenerys. “Do not ever interrupt my husband, your King again. As long as you live.”

Jon turned to his wife. “Didn’t we grant Lord Edric the isle of Driftmark?” he asked, as if Edric had not spoken.

“We did indeed, my King. It was one of the first bequests we granted after being crowned.” Dany’s eyes cut back to Edric. “Even the greatest rulers do err from time to time.”

“What the King and Queen give, the King and Queen can also take away,” advised Tyrion with a slight chuckle.

“Indeed, Lord Hand,” said Jon dryly. “The seat of the ancient Valyrian House Velaryon. Something that the Lord of Driftmark might consider, lest the Crown take it as a slight to House Targaryen, my Lord Master of Ships.”

“Driftmark was good enough for the great Sea Snake, and half our ancestors are from House Velaryon, including the mother of Aegon the Conqueror,” added Daenerys. “My husband is quite forgiving of your insolence, Lord Edric. I am not. Hold your tongue if you would like to keep it.”

When the silence stretched for more than a moment, Tyrion said:

“I believe that concludes this morning's business, Your Graces.”

Instead of dismissing the table as she usually did, Daenerys gazed up at Jon.

“Thank you," said the King. "We shall see you at Court after the midday meal, then tonight, we feast.”

Ignoring Aegon and Edric as they stared at her, Arya watched the King and Queen exit the chambers, arm in arm, then caught her sister’s eye across the table as the rest of the small council rose to their feet and left in groups of two and three, muttering among themselves. Sansa sent her a half-smile.

Arya wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.

Once they were out of the council chambers, Sansa caught up to her sister.

“Before you say anything, Arya, take care, for you are no longer mistress of whisperers, and others have filled that void, though they are not loyal to our brother or his queen,” she said, taking her arm. "The very walls have ears."

“I know better,” said Arya, remembering all too well chasing cats as a little girl... and overhearing a conversation that she shouldn't have. “But Sansa, I just can’t believe… even after riding with Jon this morning…”

“There is much and more to share. Come to my chambers this afternoon before the feast. I will share all… and together, we will prepare for the mummery tonight.”

Chapter Text

  Day 31 - Evening

 

“We shouldn’t have done this, you know.”

Arya didn’t agree. Her senses were humming pleasantly, the blood rushing in her ears. Never had she felt this invincible, not even in her most pleasant memories. She had never felt so alive before. Not while playing around Winterfell, not when Jon gave her Needle, not while warging Nymeria, not when she made a particularly skilled kill, not even when they were reunited or all the nights since.  

Gods be good, nothing was quite like lying atop him, naked as the day she was born. And despite his blather, his large, strong hands stroking up and down her back as they both tried to catch their breath belied his guilty words.

“Shut up,” she murmured, kissing his clavicle. His skin tasted like sweat, the smoke of the forge at Winterfell, and him. Arya knew that no matter how long this winter lasted, she would never be cold as long as she fell asleep every night with Gendry’s arms wrapped around her like this.

His lips were in her hair, half smothering his words. “Winterfell is only three days’ ride behind us.”

“I thought you wanted to put at least that many days between your uncle and us,” was Arya’s response. The hair of his chest reminded her of a wolf’s pelt, so thick and black it grew. She idly raked her fingers through, as eager to explore him as she’d been to know every corner of Braavos.

His body was as mysterious to her as that once-foreign city had been. But Arya had learned Braavos well. She knew all of its crevices and secret places.

She would unravel all Gendry’s secrets, too.  

“Yeah, but now that we’ve… we need to go back, Arya.”

“For what?”

“That tea that girls take...”

“Why? There’s no maester there. Luwin is dead, and with winter here, the Citadel hasn't sent another."

“Arya.” He lifted her chin gently from his chest. “We should go back.”

“No, we shouldn't. And just what would you know about moon tea, Gendry?” She shoved him a little. “How many girls have you had before me?”

His kiss ended with a chuckle. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Not if you value your life,” she snapped, biting into his lower lip, teeth sharp and demanding. Instead of protesting, it only made him roll her back under him and tickle her. All the better for her to wrap her legs around his waist again.

Unbidden, she remembered the last time they’d wrestled like this… on a forge’s floor in faraway Acorn Hall, although they were much younger.

And fully clothed.

At least this tent was more comfortable, she thought, and far less dirty.

“I don’t want to get my bastard on you, Arry,” he was saying as their motions stilled, smoothing the hair away from her face. “I’m not him.”

“I know,” came her soothing reply. “If you were anything like him, I wouldn’t love you so much.”

It was the first time Arya had ever spoken it, aloud, to him. She realized it when she saw the look on Gendry’s face, hovering above hers.

"You… love me?”

“Of course I do, stupid,” she said impatiently. “Now shut up and put your cock back in me already.”

The stupid look on his face was replaced by a mirthful chuckle, and fire in his eyes.

“As my lady commands.”

 

*

 

 

When Arya opened her eyes from her midday nap, her left hand was nestled between her legs. She inhaled, knowing from the lengthening shadows that evenfall approached, and she would soon need to go to her sister’s room. 

As horrible as waking up alone was, Arya thought the very worst was dreaming about what she could no longer do much about. The last thing she needed was to revisit all the fucking that she and her husband had done, from about a month after their reunion, until the morn he left for White Harbor, but it was often the subject of her dreams. Her memories provided quite enough fodder. As much as Gendry protested any likeness in personality to his royal father, he did share Robert’s legendary stamina…

Only Gendry never had much interest in whores. All of his interest was directed toward one girl only.

Her.

And Arya met him measure for measure. She’d long harbored a healthy curiosity about the act, from seeing animals rutting, to walking in on her parents when she was little (now, that memory made her stomach churn), to spying on the girls at the Peach before her argument with Gendry.

Then, when she was the mummer Mercedene, she learned much and more from the famous Braavosi courtesans.  But it wasn’t like she actually wanted to share a bed with the men she killed. Arya had been too young for a lover in those days when all she cared about was learning how to serve the Many-Faced God.

It wasn’t until she’d happened upon him, chopping wood in the snow-covered forest near the Inn at the Crossroads in early winter, that Arya realized what all the fuss was about. The moment she laid eyes on Gendry, now a man grown, she knew exactly whom she wanted to give her maidenhead.

After she dealt him a punishment fitting of the crime of leaving her when she’d chosen him to be part of her pack, of course.

Arya squeezed her eyes shut again, her fingers moving slowly between her legs, willing herself to fall back into the dream of him. Trying to remember his scent, his taste, his voice, and his touch that was like none other’s…

Her worst fear was that one day soon, she’d forget. 

An abrupt knock sounded on the door. Arya sat up with frustration, feeling tense and out of sorts. Where was Nymeria when she needed her? She hated that her direwolf was too big to get into this part of the Red Keep… the alpha wolf was now the size of a pony, and thus relegated to the castle grounds.

“I’m coming!”

No, not really, she thought crossly, going for her robe, giving her face and hands a swipe with the cloth in her basin, then padding over to the door.

Nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Sandor Clegane in the corridor. It was bad enough that Jon had chosen him for his Kingsguard when the dog was supposed to have died for what he did to Mycah long years before. Even worse that Sandor was assigned to the King’s sisters, because of his role keeping them safe during the War of Five Kings.

Arya had refused his services back when she was still Mistress of Whisperers, so Sandor exclusively guarded Sansa most of the time. And although he was no longer the Hound, Sandor was still as ill-tempered as he was faithful... the personal knight of the Lady of the North.

Some said that it was natural. Lady Sansa was the only living Stark without a direwolf.

But others were less polite with their gossip.

“The Lord Hand is here to see you, she-wolf,” Sandor announced. Sure enough, there was Tyrion, peering around his bulk to send Arya a mocking wave.

“Fine, just… what in all the hells are you doing at my door, Ser?” Arya asked, certain that she wouldn't care much for the answer.

“The little bird asked me to be here while she was at court and you slept.”

“I don’t need a Kingsguard,” snapped Arya sourly.

“Of course not. You Starks are special,” observed Lord Tyrion. “Never mind that you refused the bastard Storm Lord his lands and his friend the Crown Prince your cunt, and all in a single morning! I'm sure you expect neither of them to teach you the place of a highborn woman, perhaps even while you slept...”

Tyrion Lannister didn't mince words or suffer foolishness. She'd learned that during the Wars. He was one of the few people at court from south of the Neck that Arya respected.

“Valar morghulis, Lord Hand.”

“Valar dohaeris, Lady Arya. Which is what I have come to talk to you about. Lucky you… that will be all, Lord Clegane.” 

Sandor shook his head. “You may be the Hand, but you don't have the right to dismiss me. Until the little bird needs an escort, I’ll remain outside.”

Tyrion nodded. “Very well. May I, Arya?”

Arya was so appreciative of hearing her name without “lady” or “princess” preceding that she backed away from her door and let Tyrion into her chambers. The Hand of the King and Queen waddled over to the chairs near the hearth as if he owned the place, rubbing a hand over the wooden nose that he always wore during Court. He sat down, but Arya, still restless, remained standing. All the better to pace the room, rushes rustling beneath the soles of her feet.

Tyrion watched her pace for a while. Then he said:

“I know what you and your sister and brother are up to, Arya Stark. I’m here to tell you that it won’t work.” 

Arya stopped pacing and turned to face him.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Is everyone from the North a terrible liar? Arya, I am here to inform you that if you go through with the King and Lady Sansa’s half-baked plan, we will face another civil war ere spring ends.”

Arya folded her arms and spoke not a word.

“You cannot refuse Lord Edric what he feels is his birthright, and then refuse the Prince what he feels is his destiny. You cannot do it on the word of Stannis’ daughter, who barely survived Winter, and you certainly cannot do it in the memory of your dead husband.”

“My husband is not…”

“Arya, because your brother is the King, no one is willing to tell you the hard truth. Your Gendry is very likely a skeleton at the bottom of the Narrow Sea, along with his companions of the Brotherhood and the wreckage of their ship. Or their ship was overtaken by pirates, and they slit his throat for a quick death.”

“Shut up!”

“Oh, you actually think the boy's still living? Perhaps he regret marrying one so young, so wild, so…” he looked her over derisively, “lacking in traditional womanly graces. You know there are more pretty girls in two or three of the Free Cities than there are in the whole of Westeros. Pretty girls with perfumed skin who know just the right things to say to a newly made lord. I know you’ve seen them… given his parentage, a pretty girl or two, a casket of good wine…”

A year or two ago, Arya would have cut off Tyrion's lying, mocking tongue with a quick dance of her sword. But today she felt Tyrion’s words keenly. She couldn’t understand why.

“Why are you being so hateful?”

“Because you are being delusional, young Arya. The last woman to claim Storm’s End in her own right was stripped naked, wrapped in chains, and presented to Orys Baratheon. None have tried it since, and fetching though you are, you are not the daughter of a Storm King. Half the Stormlands will resent you, and the other half won’t stop until they’ve tried to bed you… they will expect it since you have steadfastly refused the Prince and every other high lord in the realm.”

“I shall work to change their expectations. Men followed me into battle against the Others, Tyrion… I have no doubt they will follow me during peacetime as well.” She resented the doubt she saw in his oddly mismatched eyes. “My brother the King has faith in me.”

“And your brother is delusional too.”

“Careful, Lannister. You speak treason.”

“I speak the truth, and well you know it, Stark. It’s the reason why you haven’t drawn your sword.” Arya said nothing, so Tyrion continued. “Lord Edric Baratheon knows the Stormlands, has traveled their length a thousand times. What do you know of Storm’s End?”

Arya’s eyes narrowed. “I know plenty about running castles. I was no good at sewing, but I did learn sums. I was best at the numbers as a girl at Winterfell, and I was good with them when I was assigned to… when I was in Braavos. Even Sam says I have a better head for figures than he does when I put my mind to it.”

Samwell Tarly was the Master of Coin for the realm, but was not present for the morning meeting, as his wife had just been delivered of a newborn babe. He was one of Jon’s oldest friends, and Arya liked him a great deal.

In fact, she’d take ten Sam Tarlys in place of one smirking, smug Lannister…

Tyrion was laughing at her. “Men will say anything when you turn those pretty grey eyes toward them. Not to mention those fabulous teats…”

“If you’re quite done insulting me, Lord Tyrion...” 

“Your beauty is only bested by your sister and the Queen herself. For men who prefer a more spirited mount, you, Lady Arya Stark, are the ultimate conquest, just as I’m told your aunt was a generation ago. You could be Aegon’s Queen.”

“I don’t want to be queen, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t be his queen! I'd die first!”

“If I recall correctly, you didn’t wish to become a lady, either. And here you are, in all your exquisite glory. No wonder young Gendry was so smitten.” Tyrion shook his head. “Such passion, such fire… are you certain that you wish to be a ruling Lady Paramount, and never again feel the touch of a man?”

“Lord Hand, I am only seventeen. You speak as if I am a crone!”

“No, I speak as if you contemplate madness. Did Robert’s bastard cause you to take leave of your senses, so that you think that you can somehow refuse every lord in the realm without causing offense?”

“You’ve heard what your King has said about it.”

“Yes, which is why I thought I’d try to talk some sense into you. Lady Arya, please take one of tonight’s suitors as your lord husband. Gendry Baratheon will be declared dead, and you will soon have other cares.”

“I will never care for another as long as I live. Never!”

“Ah, the beauty of young love. I was much the same, many years ago.”

Arya frowned. She had never known the Imp to love anything beyond his books, wine and whores. But he didn’t elaborate, instead pressing on.

“I hear our heroic King loved a wildling girl beyond the Wall before it fell. And the fair Queen Daenerys grew to love her Khal before the witch’s treachery stole him from her. And your sister loved my horrible nephew, much to her peril. Arya, we have all lost much and more in the Great Wars. You lost your parents, you lost your brother, and now you’ve lost Gendry. Let the boy die, my lady. Let him have the peace of knowing that you will not join him in his grave. Leave him to the gods…”

“Which gods, Lord Tyrion? Gendry worshipped R’hllor, the Red God, the Lord of Light, much as his uncle did. His master, Tobho, worshipped the Goat. My mother worshipped the Seven. We Starks keep the Old Gods. When I was a girl in the House of Black and White, I served the Many-Faced God. Others worship the Children, the Others, the Tall Ones, or even the Targaryen dragons.

“But my dancing master, Syrio Forel, had the right of it. He told me when I was a little girl, ‘There is only one god, and there is only one thing that we say to him: not today.”

She stared Tyrion down.

“I have been telling the God of Death ‘not today’ since I was a child. I will not stop saying 'not today,' Westeros be damned and everyone in it! I am the lady wife of the eldest son of Robert of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, Ser Gendry of the Hollow Hill, legitimized by Lord Stannis and affirmed by Lady Shireen as the heir to their Great House. I will rule the Stormlands in Gendry’s name until he returns.”

“And if Gendry never returns?”

 “Then the Stormlands will go to Shireen Baratheon’s second son once he is old enough to rule. It is likely that my brother Bran cannot sire children of his own, so Winterfell and the North will go to Rickon, and then to his eldest son. By going to the Stormlands, I save the realm the trouble of a boy lord, subject to the whims of fickle bannermen, especially the notorious Marcher Lords.” 

“The Reach, Dorne, and the Crownlands may still go to war, Lady Arya. Your allies are many leagues away in the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands…”

“They will not if your Westerlands do not follow. The Reach and Dorne’s grievances with one another stretch back far beyond Aegon’s Conquest. The Crownlands are small and do not offer many swords.”

“But the Crownlands do have a dragon.”

“My brother and his queen have two dragons. And direwolves besides.”

Tyrion shook his head. “As much as I enjoyed reading about the Dance of the Dragons, I do not wish to live through a new one, Arya Stark.”

Sigh. “There will be no Dance.”

“Except tonight.” Tyrion hopped down from the chair and bowed to the King’s sister. “I do not know the extent of the mummery you and your sister have planned, but for all of our sakes, I hope that it is the performance of a lifetime.”

 

 

 

“I feel like a fool,” Gendry complained, broad hand attempting to adjust his collar as they waited to go into Winterfell’s Great Hall. “These fancy lord's clothes are no good for the cold.”

“I know. I look even worse,” Arya sympathized.

His eyes drank in the yellow gown. “You look pretty, though. Like a proper lady.”

Instead of complaining this time, she laced her small fingers through his thick ones.

“I’m just glad that I’m your lady,” she whispered. “And the moment I get you back to the forge, I’ll remind you just how improper I can be.”

 

*

 

She had nothing of his to wear, no gift or token, not even a ring.

Arya couldn’t help but think on this as Sansa flitted about her chambers, getting this and that to adorn herself and her sister for the benefit of their lordly guests. She and Gendry had so little time together after the war, only a few months before he insisted that he needed to get to Qohor to get exactly what Winterfell needed to forge the best steel in the Seven Kingdoms.

During the war, Gendry made countless weapons, including stuff that mimicked the best qualities of dragonglass and Valyrian steel. As he learned to read and write, he began to take notes on his techniques – what worked and what didn’t – not trusting it only to memory. His cousin Shireen would help at first, but soon, he got the knack of it.

The trick of making stronger armor and swords was indeed to use dragonfire, although Drogon’s seemed more effective than Viserion’s. One could even temper the better castle-forged steel weapons with flames from the firebreathers, as he’d done with her Needle. Arya spent countless days watching him, for weapons and armor were needed as fast as he could make them.

He had planned to make Arya presents after the Wars: a sword that was a bit longer than Needle, a direwolf helm, a hunting-knife with a silver handle, and a bull pendant (“that will hang between these pretty little teats… just like this...”). How many times had he described each piece to her as they held each other those frozen nights? But there were always more weapons to make, more armor to repair. She’d tried to find him help from among the soldiers, but no matter how many apprentices Gendry took on, no other smith could get as close as he could to the dragons.

There was never enough time, Arya thought, pawing absently at her neck, conspicuously bare. The Starks were never much for adornment, but here in the Southron court, a lack of jewels for a feast meant one was near begging in the streets. Even the smallfolk treasured necklaces, bracelets and rings of semi-precious stones, or even just bronze or steel.

Sansa had a fabulous string of deepwater pearls that was nearly as long as she was tall. Gifted to her by the Lords of the Vale, Arya’s fashionable older sister could loop them in the most fetching ways. Their goodsister, the Queen Daenerys, had taken this as a cue to gift Sansa with pearl earrings that dropped richly from her ears, and a pearl bracelet to adorn her slender wrists.

But Arya had no jewels, and the hairdressing that Sansa’s maid had done on them both was designed to showcase ears and necks. She was about to snatch the pins from her hair and wear it down in the Northern fashion when the Queen was announced at the door, attended by Lady Missandei of Naath.

“Good evening, Lady Arya, Lady Sansa… please, don’t get up on our account,” Daenerys said, as several Unsullied filed in with boxes. “I have brought the crown jewels, for you to choose from among as you see fit.”

Sansa’s hand fluttered to her throat. “Your Grace, we cannot…”

“But you must,” said Dany, opening one of the boxes to reveal the shine within. “You are princesses of the realm. My family brought many of these gems with them when they fled Old Valyria, and crafted others during the Century of Blood. Most of them predate the Conquest.

“I am but one woman and cannot wear them all. So I share them with you, goodsisters, to wear now and whenever you please.”

Arya looked at Sansa, who was at a loss for words. Truly, she seemed almost faint. Her sister was shrewd and wise, but she would always bear a love of pretty things.

“You are too generous, Queen Daenerys,” said Arya, speaking for them both.

“Please call me Dany,” said the queen for the first time. “Especially when we are private.”

But Arya was skeptical.

“We’ve known you for years, Your Grace. Why now?”

Instead of responding to Arya’s insolent tone, she turned to her Unsullied and her dear Naathi confidante. “Leave us.”

The door closed. Daenerys began, and her tone was sincere. 

“Before I came to the Wall, all I knew of your House was from my brother and Jorah Mormont’s tales. To Viserys, House Stark were the Usurper’s dogs, because of your father’s friendship with Robert. And your father is the one who insisted that Ser Jorah face the penalty for slaving. Then you must understand that the first people from Westeros whom I encountered were Southron…. All made the North seem like the very wilds, and Northmen and women like beasts.” 

Ere Arya could object, Dany raised her eyebrows and said:

“I hear that my House is considered much the same in the North. And for reasons more deserved. After all, my father murdered your grandfather and uncle for no great cause. And my brother dealt insult to injury when he kidnapped your aunt.”

“She wanted to go with him, Your Grace,” Sansa pointed out.

“The Lady Lyanna was not free to make that choice, so it was kidnapping and seduction by the laws of the Realm, Sansa,” Dany corrected. “House Stark were well within their rights to rebel, no matter what Viserys said. And while I am sure that my brother Rhaegar may have been able to make things right, my father was mad. And because of that madness, the kingdom bled… and I was left alone.

“My House has done much harm to House Stark in the past, and now, it is a Targaryen Prince who threatens the hard-won peace of this realm. And your House has repaid the slights by giving me a husband, goodsisters, and goodbrothers – for the first time in my life, a family other than my crazed brother, my sun-and-stars, and my dragons.”

The Queen shut her eyes, seeming very young for a moment.

When she opened them again, she was smiling.

“I have now had years to observe the Starks,” Dany said thoughtfully. “When the Great Council made their choice, I did not wish to marry your brother, but I did know that he would be fair and honorable…”

“Are you in love with him?” asked Arya.

“I am… content with Jon. We understand each other,” was Dany’s reply. “He is a good and proven leader of men. I trust him. I know that he loves the people of this realm. Not since I was a girl riding with the khalasar have I felt wed to my equal.” She looked at Arya. “Is that love? I do not think that is what they mean in the pretty songs bards sing.”

“Words are wind,” said Arya. “Gendry and I used to laugh at those stupid songs. Love isn’t like that.” 

Sansa had been looking through the crown jewels. “No, it’s not. Life is not a song… but Arya, as much you used to laugh at me, you’re the one who ended up falling for a great hero from the songs.”

“Gendry wasn’t – I mean, he isn’t some hero. He’s just Gendry.”

The Queen’s amethyst eyes sparkled. “Our Arya protests too much, Sansa. I saw her with Robert’s son during the Wars. They were indeed a song.” Dany walked over to one of the boxes perched on Sansa’s bed. “It is because of that song that I let Jon convince me to let you two play this game, but do not be mistaken. It is dangerous. If our lords get wind that you are not seriously contemplating their suits…”

“They will not,” said Arya firmly.

“Will they not? Willas Tyrell has arrived with haste this evenfall, seeking Sansa’s hand…”

Sansa gasped, shocked. “Your Grace, Willas has been wed these four years.”

“It’s Dany… and I am told that his wife is on her deathbed. Childbed fever nearly took me, and there is nothing in all the hells to equal it.”

“So instead of being at his wife's bedside as she meets the Stranger, Willas galloped all the way from Highgarden?” Sansa was more angry that Arya could remember seeing her in a long while. Usually her lovely face gave away nothing... sort of the way the Queen looked just then as she changed the subject.

“A tiara of golden roses,” said Dany, pulling out a crown, “for your crimson Tully hair, Sansa. A tease, a hint… something that a lord might think of as favor.”

Arya nodded. “Yes, that’s good! And for me…”

“Emeralds and sapphires,” the queen advised. “Emeralds for my wayward nephew’s green dragon, and sapphires for the benefit of Edric, who wishes to be Lord Paramount over the Sapphire Isle.”

Sansa gasped. “Is that…”

“The necklace of Shiera Seastar, one of the many Great Bastards of Aegon the Fourth, long accounted as the most beautiful woman who ever lived.”

Arya was shaking her head. “It does nothing for my coloring. Give it to Sansa.”

“Nonsense,” said Sansa. “It will look incredible on you, Arya, especially with that blue velvet dress. And the diamonds surrounding the emeralds and sapphires make your eyes look silver.”

Words are wind. Ridiculous to think of me wearing the Seastar’s necklace…

But when the Queen fastened the gems around Arya’s neck, she marveled at her own reflection.

If Gendry could see me now, he’d have such a laugh…

No, no. I can’t think about him. Just for tonight, I need to forget.

I need to remember how to be Faceless again.

 

*

 

The feast went much as expected. Dinner was long and lavish, with thirty different kinds of meat served, and Sansa’s favorite lemon cakes.  There were entertainments, from fire dancing to a puppet show.

And then there was dancing.

When she’d first come to court in the days after the Great Council, everyone had expected Arya Stark to be little more than a heathen, knowing nothing about the finest dances.

It turned out that Arya was one of the best dancers in the Seven Kingdoms. Light as thistledown, her feet never missed a step as she danced with partner after partner. It was the only ladylike thing about her, but of course, there was nothing ladylike about how she learned.

Dancing at court. The Water Dance.

It’s just dancing, after all.

Never was Arya more in the moment than when she danced. As she moved in a man’s arms, it was very easy to imagine herself into another time, another history, another face that dreamed of nothing but the songs. Because of this, the lords clamored to partner with her.

She danced with all of them save for Edric Storm and the Dragon Prince, Aegon. Men always want whatever they cannot have. Let them yearn to have her in their arms, let them imagine…

Let them dream.

Of course, Aegon wasn’t one to take any insult lightly, and he had just the thing to make Arya squirm.

One of the items discovered in Lyanna Stark’s crypt was Rhaegar Targaryen’s silver harp. Now, King Jon would no more strum on a harp than he would become the court jester, but Prince Aegon had studied music with his foster father and septa, and had inherited Rhaegar’s voice in full measure. When he sang, every woman in the room fell half in love with him…

Every woman save the one he wanted, that is.

All eyes in the Great Hall of the Red Keep were on the prince as he strummed a few notes from his seat on the raised dais.

“These days, I am singing a new song, inspired by the most fascinating girl in all the kingdoms. This is a song fit for a queen… I give you ‘Blue Winter Rose’.”

There were cheers and exclamations, all while Arya thought, I really am going to have to murder this creature, aren’t I?

And Aegon looked straight at Arya as he sang.

 

What bloom is laden with frost and the snows of the North?

That bloom is the Blue Winter Rose, of course.

Sing of beauty, sing of passion, but everyone knows

That the fairest of all is my Blue Winter Rose…

 

“I’m not some damned blue winter rose,” Arya murmured, under her breath. “I am a poison kiss.”

“That you are, little lady. That you are.”

While everyone was entranced by the Dragon Prince’s song, Arya glanced over to the man beside her and gasped.

It was Tom of Sevenstreams… 

…who’d rode off with the Brotherhood more than two years before, traveling to Qohor.

With Gendry. 

Chapter Text

Days 31-35

 

It was all Arya could do to remain standing in place and expressionless as Prince Aegon finished his song. She couldn’t believe that one of Gendry’s faithful companions was standing right next to her, someone she’d last seen that fateful morning in the Winterfell courtyard as they’d said their goodbyes...

“Arya, if you don’t stop kissing him, he can’t leave, which means he can’t come back.”

Arya stopped kissing Gendry long enough to glare at her younger brother.

“You had better be glad that my ankle means I can’t ride, Brandon Stark. Otherwise, you’d lose my company and good counsel this morn.”

A gnarled root had gotten the better of Arya during a hunt two days before, and as a result, she’d twisted her foot badly. Faithful Nymeria carried her back to the forge, where she was treated to several amusing moments of her generally steady husband panicking, grabbing his warhammer, and demanding who’d left her in this state.

“You would truly leave your doting family for this ragtag band of outlaws?” laughed Bran. “I don’t believe it.”

“I would if it weren’t for my damned ankle! But I suppose until your promised bride returns from the Neck, I must play at being Lady of Winterfell, since you couldn’t do without me.”

She turned back to her husband.

“And neither can you.”

“Aye,” Gendry said against her ear, so that only she could hear. “I know I can’t.”

Ignoring Bran, she gazed up at her love with the smile she saved just for him.

“Then why are you going? You don’t have to go, you know. Stay with me until this godsforsaken foot heals, then we’ll go to Qohor together."

"You know I want to wait, milady, but that sea-captain's got our silver and gold for the passage already, and it's too early in spring for all these people in Winterfell. Another week or two here will stress the food stores too much..."

"But I want to be with you. It could  be just like it was in the old days, when we were children…”

His broad hands slipped down to her hips, pulling her closer. Claiming her as his in front of all the men.

“Well, not exactly like.”

She chortled, feeling as if she was made of light. As their lips were about to touch again, they heard the strains of Tom’s wood-harp, and his teasing voice singing, “And how she smiled, and how she laughed, the maiden of the tree…”

The other men joined in, singing the “No Featherbed” tune that Tom had first strummed at Acorn Hall.

Arya and Gendry groaned.

“If I never hear that stupid song again,” she muttered to him, “it’ll be too soon.”

“I hear the bards in the South have picked it up,” was Gendry’s response. “Damn that Tom. Let me know if you want me to cast him overboard.”

“He’d make a poor meal for the fish. Wiry and tough. No, just keep him away from women and wine… and tell him to find some new songs in the Free Cities.”

Back in the present, couples were starting to dance as the Prince ended his song and the other musicians began to play. When Arya saw Aegon walking straight toward her, she turned to Tom and said:

“Dance with me.”

“Gladly, little lady, although I haven’t the right.”

Arya felt surreal as the music and other dancers swirled around them. I can’t ask. I want to, but the words won’t form. Please, Tom, just tell me what happened to him…

“What do you mean you haven’t the right?” she asked as they twirled. “All here know how you protected me in the Riverlands during the War of the Five Kings.”

King Jon had granted all members of the Brotherhood without Banners a full royal pardon. Right after the war, their ranks had swelled with men from the Stormlands seeking to serve Robert’s eldest son. Their postwar encampment had swelled the Winter Town beyond its limits; Arya knew it was one reason why Gendry decided to go on his expedition to Qohor barely half a year after the Others were defeated and the last of the Children disappeared. They would sail from White Harbor, get supplies in Braavos, then sail down to Volantis and travel up the Rhoyne to Qohor and back. The journey would take the better part of a year, and Arya was supposed to accompany Gendry. He’d even helped Bran find an armorer to smith in his stead while he was gone.

The Brotherhood, originally sent to administer King Robert’s justice to the Mountain, Gregor Clegane, lost their way during the wars, but were united toward a purpose by Gendry and brought under the banners of Lord Jon. They were loyal to Houses Stark and Baratheon, but their leader since the demise of the Lady was Gendry, who they would follow through the seven hells if he asked.

Which was why Arya didn’t understand it.

How could Tom O’Sevens be here, and not Gendry?

Unless he was here…

Just as Arya began to crane her head to look about, she heard Tom sigh, loud and long. Alarmed, she turned to face him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Ah, little lady, if only I could find the words to say.”

Arya felt as if an icicle was piercing her heart. In a voice not her own, she asked, “What happened, Tom?”

The old bard didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he let her go, and bid her follow him to the corridor outside. Arya knew they didn't have much time to speak alone, as half the eyes in the hall were upon her, including the Prince’s.

The usually jovial Tom was looking down at his well-worn shoes. Then at the walls. Everywhere but at her. Arya’s first impulse was to rage at him, but then he spoke.

“She was a rare wench, the girl I bedded our last night in White Harbor. Hair the color of hay at harvest time, teats finer than the Maiden’s, and skin soft as a cloud. Anguy and Lem cautioned me, but I lost myself in her charms, and in the drink she offered me.”

“When I awoke, the sun was high in the sky. It was noonday, and I was left alone in my room, my good cloak and my purse o’ coins missing. She didn’t take the harp, but everything else besides my breeches, the bitch stole off me…”

Arya’s heart sank.

“They sailed without you.”

“Only because I joked with them about running off with the White Harbor maid the night before. That ship was sailing at first light, and not even Lord Gendry could have convinced ‘em to delay, especially after what I said. I went to the harbor, and…” he closed his eyes, “and after I heard they were lost at sea, I couldn’t face you, little lady.”

“That’s nonsense, Tom, and well you know it,” said Arya sharply.  “I’m not a stupid child anymore, I’m a woman grown. I wouldn’t have blamed you for what happened.”

The old bard coughed. “I told myself I’d share my follies with you when they turned up again. As the Brothers told their tales of all the wonders they’d seen around our fires, we’d all be in our cups, pretty girls bouncing on our knees, and you laughing and snapping at everyone as Lord Gendry held you close. But…”

“I’m glad you’ve told me now. Tell me, on that last night in White Harbor… was he happy?”

“Wouldn’t say that he was, little lady. He was determined, I’d say that. But the lad is only content when you’re near. It’s been that way ever since we found you two and your baker friend in the woods. The boy was as smitten with you as his father was with poor Lady Lyanna… and you loved him, too, even though you were too young to know it.” 

“Declarations of love?" scoffed a deep, masculine voice. "Surely you aren’t so presumptuous.”

Tom bowed deeply as Prince Aegon entered the corridor. Arya simply glared.

“Your Grace, I wouldn’t dare. Most of my children are the elder of this little lady…”

“….who is your social better. A fact that you, bard, should never forget.” Aegon’s eyes were cold. “Perhaps you should return to the feast.”

“That’s a great idea, Your Grace,” said Arya quickly. “Tom, I hear there are flavored ices from Starfall for dessert.” Apparently, a mysterious new cook there had figured out how to preserve the snow that fell high in the mountains during the winter. “Let’s see what all the fuss is about…”

But Aegon seemed impatient.

“I meant that the bard should return, Lady Arya, for I would have words with you.”

Of course you would. Helplessly, Arya looked on as Tom bowed to Aegon again, then to Arya, and went back into the Great Hall.

“Did you like your song?” the prince asked, his voice very tender.

“It was a song well sung, Your Grace…”

Aegon. When we are private together, Arya, say my name.”

She shook her head. “I would not presume.”

“You may presume anything you like if your choice is me after this chicanery is through.”

Remembering her conversations with Tyrion, Sansa, and the Queen earlier in the day, Arya allowed Aegon to take her hands in his, despite everything within her protesting, every inch of her body wanting to squirm.

I’m not yours… I don’t belong to you!

“Arya, I want you. I want you by my side, wearing my cloak, riding my dragon and not your brother’s, in my bed, and bearing my children. There is no other woman in all the lands that I desire. I want you to be the Princess of Dragonstone, and someday, my Queen.”

“A fate worse than death.”

“You insult me.” The prince looked wounded. “Am I so offensive to you, sweet lady?”

“Only because I belong to another. And I would be the worst Queen these realms have ever seen.” She sighed. “My brother has said that I may choose…”

“There is no lord in Westeros fool enough to ask the King for your hand. All know that I have claimed you as mine. None wish to slight me. Not even your husband’s half-brother whom I call friend.”

He brought her hands up to his lips. Arya closed her eyes. They were warm, firm.

“Forgive me, my lady. My feelings overwhelm me whenever I am around you.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Aegon. We are both hot-tempered and impetuous.”

“Yes, we are. Perhaps we should begin again with a truce. I will not hold the jealousy in my heart toward your husband, and I will not resent your choice. In turn, you will allow me to get to know you better.”

Arya bit her lip. She wanted to refuse him. After all, Aegon had grown up as someone that he was truly not. Deception came quite easily to him, and he could make a lie seem like the truth.

But if she offended the Crown Prince once more, what consequences might her brother face?

When she did not speak, he broke the silence yet again.

“You seem skeptical.”

“Of course I am. Aegon, you have acted as if you and I are Rhaegar and Lyanna reborn since first we laid eyes on each other. The last time the stag and the dragon fought over a wolf maid, the kingdoms drowned in blood. We suffered much because of it… you lost your parents and were reared in obscure foreign lands, while I lost my parents and my aunt. Why can’t we be different?”

“Because as I look at you and listen to you, all I want to do is take you to bed, and fill you until you cry out my name, Arya. I can’t help that. I have never wanted a woman as I want you.” He released one of her hands to finger the Seastar’s gems. “Princess Shiera’s famous necklace. Perfect. A gift from my aunt the Queen, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“It suits you.”

“Why? Because Shiera was another for whom men tore the kingdoms apart fighting their own blood kindred?” Arya reached for the clasp of the fabulous necklace, and snatched it off, crumpling it in her hand.

“No.” His purple eyes darkened as he came one step another, close enough for her to smell the Myrish perfume that scented his skin. “Because as a Targaryen princess, you deserve to wear such things.”

“Aegon, I may look like a princess tonight, but at heart, I am still the fearsome She-Wolf of Winterfell that everyone names me. I was a field general of the greatest Wars of the age, riding my direwolf into battle. I fought the undead, slew the treacherous, and stared into the very Heart of Winter.

“I am not the Princess Shiera, and I am not my lady aunt. I will never allow innocents to suffer and die because of a man’s desire for me. I would end the man instead.”

“You speak treason.”

“And you speak as if I am your possession, which I cannot abide, not even for the sake of my brother and goodsister, and the peace of the realm. Good night, Prince Aegon.”

She whirled on her heel and began to walk away.

“What if I were to win you?”

Arya stopped. “Your Grace, good ni…”

“The only difference between me and Gendry Baratheon is that he met you first. Yes, yes… I think I understand it now. Two children, caught in the middle of a terrible war. He kept you safe, you gave him hope. And before you say it again, I know that you love him. But let me give you something to think on: perhaps your love for him was a first love, the love of a young girl, untried, pure… and as enduring as the fickle blooms of spring.

“His memory will always be in your heart, the boy that you loved as a girl… but I would have you love me as a woman loves a man, Arya Stark. Don’t bury your heart in your husband’s watery grave.”

“Aegon, I will not abide your…”

Don’t bury your heart.”

Arya turned around to consider the Prince. Even if I were to take a lover, he isn’t the kind of lover I should want…

Another, smaller voice: But what if Gendry really is dead?

It was such a horrifying thought that Arya shook it off. Never had she allowed herself to think on it, and she wouldn’t begin now.

No, no! If he were gone, I would know. I just would.

Terror gripped Arya’s heart. Because she had once been Faceless, she would always have a much more dangerous setting where she could avoid trauma by becoming No One. When she was No One, there wasn’t a man, woman, or child safe from her. She could kill without mercy, and her life had no value or meaning. But her firm belief that she would see her husband again had given her strength and allowed her to remain Arya Stark for her brothers and sister.

Before she’d found her siblings again, before she’d put her pack back together, it had been Gendry who had first seen her as Arya when she’d attacked him at the inn with the orphans. Falling in love with him had melted all her defenses away, so that the Arya that Sansa, Jon, Bran, and Rickon knew was the Arya they were reunited with. They knew she’d trained to kill in Braavos, but only he had an inkling of what that meant.

Thinking on Gendry’s quiet, firm and steady presence had kept her calm and allowed her to function for twenty turns of the moon and more. But if he were truly dead...

Calm as still water.

“Do you propose to woo me, my Prince?”

“Ah, ‘my’ Prince. We are getting somewhere. Allow me to court you and you shall have Storm’s End as a bridal gift.”

“But I do not wish to be courted,” Arya countered. “I would have no patience for that sort of thing, Aegon. Simply befriend me, as you have befriended Edric. We will spar in the tiltyard, we will ride horses and not your dragon, and you will let me learn something about yourself, so that I can take the measure of the man you are. Befriend me as you would a man.”

“Did you tell your Baratheon husband that nonsense?”

“Didn’t have to. We met as new recruits for the Night’s Watch, right after my lord father was beheaded. I traveled as a boy and only knew my husband as the Bull… they called him that because of his helm…”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard about all that, and it’s quite different. He thought you were a boy.”

“He figured out that I was a girl soon enough. That’s because he paid attention to me more than the others did.” She smirked. “Gendry was my friend, Aegon. I fought beside him as a child, and I fought beside him as a woman. I shared meals with him when there was nothing much left to eat. I figure out how to stay alive with him, again as both a girl and as a woman.

“We saved each other’s lives time and again, and if it weren’t for some dratted root in the ground, I would have been with him on the journey to the Free Cities. You think that I love Gendry with the love of a young girl, when he was truly my mate.”

Aegon had the decency to look ashamed.

“Again, I ask you to treat me as a friend, my Prince. Support me in Court as Lady of the Stormlands. Allow me to grieve my losses. And then…”

“You can give me hope?”

“I cannot promise you my hand, Aegon. Not today. But I will tell my brother everything that I have said to you, and I will keep my promise to befriend you in truth.” Exhale. “It is all that I can promise if I am to be sincere.”

“It is enough,” swore the Prince, gallantly pressing his lips to Arya’s hands again. “I shall personally escort you to Storm’s End, and I will speak with Lord Edric so that he does not challenge your claim. There is but one thing I ask…”

“What is it?”

“One year from the day you take possession of Storm’s End, I ask that you host a Tourney. I shall help you with the prizes, for House Baratheon cannot spare the gold…”

Arya didn’t say anything, but her heart began to pound. She had not thought on the stags’ coffers in all this. She would need to speak to Ser Davos Seaworth, Stannis’ friend and the castellan of Storm’s End, to learn the right of it.

“At that Tourney, I plan to be champion. If I crown you my Queen of Love and Beauty, I ask that you think on our year of friendship, along with all the duties of running one of the Great Houses of Westeros alone, and consider allowing me to court you as befitting a woman of your beauty.”

“I will never agree to marry you, Aegon. Not so long as there’s a chance my husband will come back to me.”

“Perhaps. But for now, it is enough.”

Arya took a deep breath, then nodded very slowly.

“Then I agree to your request. Shall we have a stroll about the gardens, then, and you tell me what you know of Storm’s End?”

Her motive was less than pure. It wasn’t that Arya was taken in by the Prince’s charm. Now that she had the Prince thinking he had a chance to court her, she was done with the mummery of a feast where the main course had been her and her sister.

What Aegon Targaryen didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

He held out his arm for her to take.

“Then our friendship begins this very night, my lady. Let us walk.”

 

*

 

Three days later, the entire Court was assembled in the Throne Room.

One of the provisions of the Great Council of 305 was that the Iron Throne would be relegated to history. It still dominated the room, but instead of the King being seated on it, there were two thrones located halfway between the traditional seat of the Targaryens and the floor.

Jon and Daenerys sat far more comfortably on their thrones of richly carved wood and velvet cloth than any of their ancestors sat on the seat forged in the breath of Balerion the Black Dread and made of the swords of their enemies.

“But no Northern swords,” Jon liked to observe to his sisters, for he was also descended from Torrhen, the King who Knelt. Sansa agreed with Jon that it was the sensible thing for Torrhen to do, but part of Arya wished that the bastard Brandon Snow had succeeded in his quest to fell a dragon…

And part of her didn’t, because of Viserion… and Jon.

The lords of Westeros were still in King’s Landing, waiting. Today, there was considerably less interest in the choice that Arya would make, for the entire Red Keep knew of her midnight stroll with the Prince by the morning after. She’d sparred with Aegon that afternoon in the tiltyard, and the next day, she’d raced in the Godswood with him, taking two Dornish sand steeds from his mother’s homeland.

In turn, Aegon spoke for Arya in the small council, saying that he’d considered Dany’s words, and would support Shireen Baratheon’s request for the Crown to honor Arya’s claim on the Stormlands. Edric’s lack of reaction meant that Aegon had gotten to him as well.

Everything was going according to plan.

With Arya’s fate thus settled, the question of the hour was about whether the lady Sansa had chosen a suitor. As with Arya, only a Lord Paramount or one from an equally respected lesser House would do.

There was much and more speculation about Sansa’s choice. Would she indicate interest in Lord Willas Tyrell, whose wife’s death from childbed fever arrived by raven only yesterday morn? Did she prefer Lord Tyrell’s Hightower rival, or the hand of widower Prince Trystane Martell, restless in his sister Princess Arianne’s court at Sunspear? Would she make the more unconventional choice of the young heir of House Blackwood? Or would she surprise everyone by returning to the North to be wife to one of her brother’s bannermen?

As gossip rustled on the breeze as the assembly waited for the king and queen to arrive, Arya noticed Tom O’ Sevens. He was standing near the middlemost pillars of the hall, behind the high lords but in front of the commoners. She tried and failed to catch his eye. They hadn’t had the chance to speak since the feast, but something in her wanted to explain the situation with Aegon to Tom.

But Tom was engrossed in conversation with a tall, broad-shouldered cloaked figure. Arya felt her heart skip a beat, but it sank again as the man in the cloak walked away. Even if Gendry had somehow managed to lose enough weight to be as skinny as the hooded man, his walk wasn’t like that, and his weapon was a warhammer, not a sword… and the hilt of this man’s sword was obscured by a leather pouch of some kind.

Not Gendry. Arya berated herself for thinking it could be him. What did she think, that he’d throw off his hood and reveal himself the moment the Crown granted her claim? Such fancies were for fools, like something her sister might have dreamed about when she was younger.

The King and Queen’s arrival meant that Arya could not think on it further. The lords and men of the smallfolk alike bowed, and the ladies and women curtsied low as King Jon and Queen Daenerys entered the Throne Room, and remained so until they were seated and all could rise again.

“Your Graces,” said the royal herald, “the first petition of the day is from Lady Shireen Baratheon, only daughter of Stannis Baratheon and heir to the Stormlands by the decree of the Great Council until her marriage to Rickon Stark, heir to Lord Brandon of Winterfell, Warden of the North. She requests that the Crown bequeath the Stormlands to Lady Arya Baratheon, formerly of House Stark.”

Dany nodded. “Lady Arya, please approach.”

Arya did so, and curtsied.

“Lady Shireen makes this request of us, but you are not a Baratheon by blood. Storm’s End is the seat of those of the blood of the Storm Kings.”

“Your Grace, I agree that the Stormlands belongs to those of Durrandon and Baratheon blood. Yet the friendship between House Stark and House Baratheon goes back to the Age of Heroes, when Bran the Builder helped Durran Godsgrief construct a keep that might withstand the wrath of the gods of the sea and wind.”

“Even so,” said the King, “some might claim that with you as the Warden of the East, House Stark rules more of Westeros than is our right. What say you to this?”

“That this is the Lady Shireen’s wish, Your Grace. She believes, as I do, that my lord husband, Gendry of the House Baratheon, is still alive. I shall rule from Storm’s End as a Baratheon, not as a Stark.”

“But you are a Stark,” said her brother the King.

“I will always be a Stark, just as my mother was always a Tully. But according to our customs, a woman leaves her father’s house, and joins her husband’s.”

“Your husband is not here to make his wishes known,” the queen observed.

“Yes, this is true, Your Grace. All of Westeros knows that my husband and his men have been missing these two years and more. Yet there are records attesting to the petition that Lady Shireen has put before you. There is the will of Stannis Baratheon, which states that Storm’s End was to go to his nephew Gendry, whom he legitimized. There are the provisions of the Great Council of 305, which named the Lady Shireen as heir to House Baratheon. There is custom, where the king and queen generally permit Houses to determine their own succession…”

Lords are permitted to determine their heirs, Lady Arya,” the King said. “Not ladies.”

“There are exceptions all over Westeros, from Dorne to the Wall. House Martell, House Karstark, and House Mormont are but a few that are ruled by women. My own sister is the regent for Lord Eddard Arryn, and is regarded by most as the titular Lady Paramount of the Vale…”

“And you ask that House Baratheon be granted an exception,” the queen interrupted, “for all their martial history.”

“They are called the Stormlands for a reason. The words of my husband’s House, Ours Is the Fury. Your Grace, I submit that I am more than capable of holding the East. I will not tell of my deeds during the Wars, lest I be accused of boasting,” the Throne Room exploded with laughter, “but I am called the She-Wolf of Winterfell for good reason. I shall look to the wisdom of Ser Davos Seaworth, and I will listen to the plights of my bannermen and the smallfolk, but rest assured, I go South with the honor of my house of birth.”

“You would be the King and Queen’s justice in the Stormlands?”

“Again, my Queen, I shall not boast of what I have done. But my lord father taught his children that the one who passes the sentence must swing the sword. The Kings of Winter have done this since time immemorial, and when there are no kings, it has been the She-Wolves that have swung those swords.” There was a wicked twinkle in her eye. “Even my lovely sister, the Lady Sansa, swung the sword that ended the life of the treacherous Petyr Baelish.”

There were gasps here and there around the Throne Room; Sansa’s legends tended to be more of the gentle sort.

“We are of the North,” Arya continued. “And yet, I will respect the customs of the South. My lord husband and I kept different faiths. I will have the sept and the godswood restored at Storm’s End; those who follow the Red God may continue to do so. The court at Storm’s End will be a Southron one, and if the petition is granted, I would be most pleased to host a grand Tourney in one year’s time.”

The queen cocked her head to the side, then turned to the king.

“I am inclined toward granting this petition. What say you, husband?”

Jon looked Arya in the eye. It was the look he’d get when she wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

“I am favorable to it, my queen, but I have lords who are discontented by the thought of a Northern woman holding the East.”

There was a bit of rumbling from whispers all over the Throne Room. Tyrion spoke up quickly.

“Your Graces, if I may…”

Daenerys nodded. “Go on, Lord Tyrion.”

“Your Graces, I propose that we affirm the Lady Arya Baratheon as the Lady Paramount of the Stormlands, Wardeness of the East for a period of one thousand days, from the date of Lady Shireen’s petition, which was…”

“One moon’s turn ago,” stated Grand Maester Alleras, who was keeping the Court records. “Thirty-five days.”

“Thirty-five days. You see, many of those assembled here have approached me privately during this week of feasts, assuring me that a woman cannot hold the East. When I remind them of the She-Wolf’s deeds, they have told me that acts during a time of war are no matter when it comes to keeping the peace.

“So I asked my lords, how long would it take for Lady Arya to prove that a woman can rule the Stormlands in her own right? One hundred days? Five hundred? Many king and lords have had reigns shorter, yet no one refuses their right to rule.

“Therefore, I suggest that the Crown allow Lady Arya hold Storm’s End for a thousand days. Let her prove to the realm that she can indeed hold the East for the King and Queen. And let it be done.”

“Our Lord Hand is wise as usual,” said the queen. “Thank you, Lord Tyrion.”

“Let it be known that Lady Shireen’s petition is granted,” said the king. “Maester Alleras, send word to Lady Shireen and my brothers at Winterfell, and to Ser Davos at Storm’s End.”

“Lady Arya,” the queen added, “you will have a royal escort, an honor guard led by my nephew Aegon, Prince of Dragonstone, to speed you on your way.”

It was done.

 

*

 

The feasting that night was more muted than that of three nights before. All believed that the Hand’s suggestion of “one thousand days” was a farce to mark time, for Arya Stark had made her choice. Aegon Targaryen had won the hand of the She-Wolf, her husband would eventually be declared missing and dead, and in time, Arya would be Princess of Dragonstone.

What wounded Arya the most about the farce was that she’d lost her outward appearance of fidelity to Gendry. She was not coquettish with the Prince, and in her conduct, she treated him as she would any other friend, or one of her siblings. But because Aegon’s desire for her was common knowledge, all assumed that Arya Stark had finally given up on Gendry Baratheon…

And perhaps, she was going to Storm’s End for a time out of her guilt.

That evening, as Aegon engaged her in conversation and she smiled politely into her goblet, Arya wished she’d never left Winterfell.

 “Will you sing a song for us, Prince Aegon?” Sansa was asking. If Arya was in agony over her choice, Sansa’s had been to choose none at all, saying she needed more time to think on it.

This did not sit well with the lords, who were saying some unpleasant things about the Fair Lady of the North.

“Of course, Lady Sansa, but I’m afraid my harp was left in my chambers. It will take me only a moment to retrieve it.” He looked meaningfully at Arya. “I have been rather distracted as of late.”

The moment Aegon left the dais, Arya let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. As her muscles relaxed, she realized with dismay just how tense she was, like a coil sprung tightly.

Was this to be the rest of her life?

A soft hand pressed into her own.

“Smile, Arya,” whispered her sister. “You look ill.”

“Sansa, I can’t do this,” she replied under her breath. “I want to skewer him.”

“You can’t. You have to just…”

“Tyrion is right, Sansa. This is dangerous. Aegon will eventually expect me to marry him. What will I do then?”

“Then I guess you’ll just have to give him the Gift.”

Arya jerked her head to look at her ladylike sister, shocked.

“What do you know about it?”

“I know what the Faceless do, Arya.” Sansa’s tone was as if she was talking about the weather, or a new dress style. “As Jon said to both of us, this may all end in blood. But sweet sister, never again will it be wolfsblood. Not as long as I draw breath.”

She couldn’t believe her sister. This wasn’t sweet Sansa!

But when she looked at her sister’s face, and recalled that she’d once lived in this selfsame Red Keep, Arya realized that no matter what the ballads said, there wasn’t just one She-Wolf of Winterfell.

“Anyway, on to pleasanter matters. I have decided upon which of these lickspittle lords I should like to get to know better…”

Just as Arya was going to ask Sansa which lord had earned her favor, Tom of Sevenstreams approached the dais.

“Little lady, I’ve been asked by the King to do a bit of singing. He wants me to sing your song.”

Arya wanted to sink through the floor. Tom had seen her walking and riding with the Prince… after coming up with one of Westeros’ greatest love ballads about her. What must he think now?

“Please,” she said quietly. “I would be honored.”

“I think I’d rather sing a new song for you, little lady. I’ll sing about the maiden of the tree once your love comes back to you, and finds you true… and he will come back, Lady Arya.”

He didn’t smile. It was not only a promise, it was a reminder.

Not that Arya needed one, of course.

Soon, the Great Hall listened to one of the greatest bards of their age as he sang a new song about Wenda the White Fawn, outlaw maiden of the Kingswood Brotherhood.

 

Wenda the White Fawn went riding one day,

And Wenda the White Fawn got lost on the way.

She said, I am the lady of these woods of the King,

She went riding, and hiding, and she lost everything.

 

Wenda, oh Wenda, where is your head?

Bride of a stag, but took a dragon instead,

Wenda said to the dragon, my stag’s gone away,

And the dragon, that dragon, he laughed on that day.

 

Spring lasts for a moment, one moment of youth

And I don’t know that much, but I tell you the truth,

Dragon and stag will wage wars till the end,

So be careful, little Wenda, of those you call friend.

 

Sansa was frowning. “It’s been a while since I remembered the story of Wenda the White Fawn, but I don’t remember there being any dragons in it… Arya?”

For Arya was shaking. She was remembering the worst time of her young life, when Gendry and Hot Pie had left her, and the Hound knocked her out so that she wasn’t killed at the Twins. She’d slipped into a dream of being back with the Brotherhood, and all her friends, including Gendry, and imagined she could be Wenda, before dismissing it at something stupid that silly girls like her sister would dream.

It was one of the last times she’d had a flight of fancy before descending into the House of Black and White.

Tears filled her eyes. Crying in public was something she hadn’t done since childhood. But the tidal wave was approaching, and Arya knew that she was going to scream in short order…

“Seven hells, little bird, how much wine has your she-wolf of a sister had?”

 Arya looked up at the scarred face of Sandor Clegane. He was looking at her, but talking to Sansa, who’d come around the dais to block most guests’ view of what was happening with her sister.

“Sandor, please take my sister to her chambers. She is quite unwell.”

Sansa looked around, then rubbed Arya’s back a little and whispered under her breath:

“Arya, please, just a moment longer… it’s just that you cannot, not in here, not in front of the entire realm… you know you can’t…”

Sansa was right. If she fell apart or dissolved into tears, if anyone saw her display emotion, word would get to Storm’s End and the storm lords before Arya even arrived there.

She had to pull it together.

 Holding her head high and making the tears that threatened disappear, Arya stood up and followed Sandor out of the hall. The Prince and his Kingsguard were just returning, Aegon holding his father’s silver harp.

“My lady, surely you do not mean to take your leave? The hour is still quite early.”

“I am unwell, Your Grace,” she said, keeping the quaver out of her voice. “I should like to retire early, for there is much to prepare, and we depart for Storm’s End in two days’ time.”

“Very well,” conceded Aegon. “There will be much time and more for you to hear this song. Rest well, sweet lady.”

Before Arya could react, Aegon had planted a kiss on her forehead.

It felt like a brand.

If anyone knew about lovers’ marks, it was Arya Stark.

 

 

*

 

“Thank you for escorting me to my chambers, Clegane.”

He nodded. She didn’t ask if he’d stay out in the corridor, and didn’t waste breath protesting its necessity. In the eyes of Sandor Clegane, whatever his “little bird” wanted, the little bird received. And Sandor was overused to looking after the Winter Princesses.

Arya shut the door behind her. The moment she did, she melted, sliding down the door as she let the tears fall.

She hadn’t cried like this since… Arya couldn’t even remember the last time. When her father, mother, and brother were killed, she’d been so busy trying to survive that she hadn’t had very much time to feel anything. She’d cried a little during those first nights with Yoren and the recruits, but she was afraid of being overheard. She’d cried after what the smallfolk called the Red Wedding, too, but she’d had a goal: revenge.

When she was No One, her pain didn’t matter so much. She wasn’t Faceless when she first set foot in Westeros again, but she might as well have been, so many years was it since she was the girl Arya Stark. She’d left as a twelve-year-old girl, and returned as a fierce wolf-maid of fifteen who could slit a man’s throat as easily as most could send a knife through butter. Foremost on her mind was finishing the list that she’d started…

Wasn’t it just like that stupid bull to mess things up? Why couldn’t it have been Hot Pie she ran into in those woods? She could have had a laugh and a wonderful bite to eat, then been on her way to kill Freys and Boltons.

Why did she have find Gendry first? And why did she have to fall in love… with him of all people?

“You promised me you’d never leave me again, Gendry! You lied to me!” she sobbed heartbrokenly, hugging herself. “You promised… you promised!”

Of course, there was no answer.

Arya laid on the floor in front of her closed door, and cried her heart out. She prayed that she would drown in her tears. Death seemed like a mercy. She no longer felt like telling him, “Not today.”

Long ago, she’d learned from the Kindly Man how to shut down her body and expire…

I can’t. I promised Shireen.

And unlike some people I could name, I keep my promises!

As her crying subsided, Arya realized how cold the floor was, how uncomfortable the rushes were against her face. No wonder Sansa loves her rugs so much.

Well, perhaps she would have rugs at Storm’s End. She thought of the lonely castle in Shipbreaker Bay that she’d heard many stories about but had never seen. It was thousands of leagues from where she’d said goodbye to Gendry, where she promised him she’d be when he returned.

What if he went to Winterfell, and she wasn’t there?

This is ridiculous. I am coming apart at the seams, like all my poor attempts at sewing. I’d best get to bed.

Standing up in the darkness, Arya went to lie down…

…and stumbled into the arms of a man, who was reclining on her bed in the darkness. Before she could react, he put his hands on her mouth.

“Don’t kill me, Lady Arya,” he said quickly, before she could ever struggle. She knew that voice, and it was clear that he knew her, for Arya was a hairsbreath away from sticking the dagger strapped to her leg into his throat. (She didn’t really need the dagger, either.)

She reached out to light the candle on her table at bedside...

“Ned Dayne,” she said, turning back to frown at the Sword of the Morning, “what on earth are you doing in my bed?”

Promise me you won’t kill me.”

“Your lady wife will do it for me, Dornishman… Ned, why aren’t you in Starfall? This gathering was for lords who wanted wives. Was that you in the hook and cloak at court? Why don’t you want to be seen?” She gasped. “Did something happen to your wife? Is that why you’re here? To court me?”

“No, but Arya Stark, you must promise me that I won’t die for what I’m about to do.”

“Ned, you will almost certainly die if you don’t tell me what you’re doing here. Now.”

Sigh. “I came in with the Brotherhood.”

What?”

“He’s alive, Arya. At least he was not too long ago…”

“What do you mean, not too long ago? Gendry is alive? Where is he?”

“Arya, you said you wouldn’t kill me. Just remember that when you wake up, please.”

“Where are they?”

“I’m going to take you to them, Wenda.”

Arya saw the leather-covered hilt of Dawn coming for her before she could react. 

Oh. That’s what he meant.

And then she knew nothing at all.

 

Chapter Text

Days 35 - 36

 

When Arya opened her eyes, she immediately knew that she had been blindfolded, gagged and bound. Candlelight filtered through the rough weave of the cheap cloth, her wrists and ankles were chafing from the ropes Ned Dayne had used, and the gag was making her thirsty. Worse still, her head still throbbed from where he’d hit her with the leather-covered hilt of Dawn, House Dayne’s famous greatsword.

Sword of the morning, my arse.

Panic was the furthest thing from Arya’s mind. She couldn’t afford to panic, not now, and not ever. If House Dayne was no longer friend to House Stark and the crown, how many other traitors were there across the realm? 

And how dare Ned kidnap her like she was some…damsel in distress? The thought rankled Arya. He’d waited for her in bed, and for that folly alone she ought to have gelded him. Not even as a woman flowered and married had she been one who needed to hide behind her brothers or husband.

There wasn’t a person in Westeros who could save Ned Dayne from Arya Stark. Not after this humiliation. However, neither anger nor panic were emotions that Arya could afford at the moment. She’d settle the score with Lord Dayne after she freed herself.

Arya quickly sized up the situation. First, she was alone. That was clear enough. She was a warg and Faceless besides. She’d be able to detect anyone – or anything – in the vicinity that drew breath.

Second, she was underground. Everything about her position helped her know it, from the faint damp musk of moldy air, to the unmistakable sound of dripping water. The odds were that they hadn’t even left the Red Keep… so they were likely somewhere in the dungeons.

Why, then? What would be the reason to keep her here?

And what did Ned Dayne mean when he said that Gendry was alive?

She didn’t think she’d be left alone to wonder for long, and she wasn’t. Long before they were close, Arya heard the footsteps. As they drew nearer, voices became more intelligible.

Quiet as a shadow.

Fear cuts deeper than swords.

“…taken leave of your senses? You don’t hit Arya Stark over the head, tie her up like a sow, then leave her alone!”

“What was I supposed to do, Tom? Ask her to come with me nicely and have her alerting the castle? Walk through the halls with the lady His Grace the Prince of Dragonstone is openly courting? Explain why I’m here at court and not in my bed at Starfall, with my Lyseni lady wife?”

Arya could hear Tom snort as their footsteps slowed, and her breathing slowed with them. She didn’t even have to think about it. Her days in the House of Black and White were ever with her.

“You could’ve been gentler. And you’d better pray to the Lord of Light that your ropes hold…”

Of course they wouldn’t hold, Arya thought as she freed one hand, waiting to grab the blade she kept inside her bodice. Of course Ned had only confiscated the knife she kept strapped on her thigh, and not any of the others. Of course.

Darkstar’s demise during the second Dance meant there was no other choice for Sword of the Morning. Arya always rather thought that her old friend (perhaps former friend after this) lucked into the famous title thanks to the Wars.

“Still out like a light. When she comes to, we’ll explain all… is he here yet?”

“Not yet.”

Gendry, she thought. In spite of herself, her heart beat faster. If his Brothers had truly found him, if he were here, she’d forgive them everything…

Right after she repaid the hit she’d taken from Ned in kind, that is. Stupid Dornishman with his stupid old sword.

Tired of lying there like a trussed-up sow, Arya freed her other hand and sat up.

“What did I tell you, Dayne?” shouted Tom. “Look out…”

But Ned had no time to react before Arya had sliced through her blindfold and gag, unsliced the ropes binding her feet, and had her smallest blade pressed to Ned Dayne’s neck.

It took her about seven seconds.

Getting old and slow, thought the seventeen year old ruefully, relishing the fear she saw in Ned’s eyes.

“Lady Arya! Please forgive me, I couldn’t be seen with you here in the capital!”

“Where’s here?” she demanded. “Where are we?”

“The Red Keep…” Tom began.

“Don’t insult me, Tom! I know that much.”

“Floor below the Black Cells,” Ned supplied, gasping for air. “We couldn’t risk being seen.”

So they came in through the sewers. I’ve been telling Jon and Dany about this for ages. They need to either close this up, or guard it better. Because anyone can get in here.

“Let him go, little lady," cajoled Tom. "We’re not here to hurt you. We’re as loyal to you as we are to your husband.”

Arya pressed the blade into Ned's skin, just enough to draw a line of trickling blood. She could sense Ned’s panic. Idiot, I’m going to have a bruise when Gendry sees me because of what you did with your bloody sword. Which means that instead of making up for lost time with my husband, I’m going to have to make certain he doesn’t kill you…

Stupid idiot.

“Where is he?” she demanded, her voice brooking no refusal.

“Please don't kill me, Arya!” Ned Dayne gasped desperately. “I came here to tell you...”

Reluctantly, Arya lowered her blade. Ned slumped against the wall a little, holding his neck as if his head would tumble off his shoulders if he didn’t.

She turned back to face Tom.

“He isn’t here.”

That was a fact. If Gendry were there, he’d be in the cell with Tom and Ned.

“So where is he?”

Tom sighed, loud and long, but didn’t reply.

“He’s the prisoner of the rogue Prince of Dragonstone… and his own Baratheon half-brother,” said a new voice, low and rough. “Which is why we needs be careful.”

The information struck Arya like a blow as she looked up into the rugged, bearded face of Lem Lemoncloak.

 

*

 

It was a day that would live on in memory long after all present were dust. For the first time, the three heads of the dragon were all in one place. The Lannister and Tyrell forces that held King’s Landing were dwindling by the day, and from their sources inside, all knew that the smallfolk would throw the gates open in glad welcome.

As was their habit, Arya and Gendry didn’t enter the royal pavilion until after the feast had begun. They’d ridden hard past Harrenhal, Arya refusing her brother's offer of a flight atop Viserion, and had both been greatly in need of a bath. Normally, she wouldn’t have cared, but Gendry did. So off in search of a suitable stream they went.

Perhaps Arya would never be able to fully help her bull forget his courtesies and have the easy arrogance of a nobleman… but she could help him forget the fact that there was a royal supper they had to get to, quite easily...

They arrived late, quite clean, a bit breathless, the Lady Arya of Winterfell and the newly legitimized Lord Gendry of House Baratheon. Although both were dressed simply in leather britches, an unadorned golden tunic for him, and a belted white chemise for her, they drew every eye. Partly because they were a famous pair, partly because they looked exactly like the forest lass and love from Tom of Sevenstreams’ songs…

…but mostly because they looked exactly like the Lady Lyanna and King Robert, returned from the grave. Especially the way Arya’s chestnut hair, so like her half-brother’s, curled past her shoulders and down her back… and the fact that Gendry hadn’t bothered to shave while on the road and wore the same mustache and beard as the late Baratheon king... albeit close cropped and neatly trimmed, much as Robert had done when he was a young man.

Queen Daenerys greeted the pair with a smile after they were announced and the noise of the gathering died down to whispers.

“Lord Gendry, Lady Arya,” she said brightly as Gendry bowed gallantly and Arya made her best attempt at a curtsy. “Please, come sit with us on the dais. Jon and Aegon return soon.”

Arya caught Sansa’s eye before speaking for her and Gendry both, as was her habit.

“Thank you, Your Grace, but we’re happy to eat with our men. They rode tirelessly to get here. To see King’s Landing back in the hands of the blood of the dragon!”

In response to their she-wolf, the leaders of the Brotherhood sent up a loud cheer. Their numbers had grown since the successful siege of Riverrun and the retaking of the Twins from a band of less than two hundred to a respectable three thousand, with more added daily to their number.

“Your men have had the pleasure of your company for more than a fortnight, my dear,” the silver queen replied. “I have not had the honor for quite some time. Please, join me.”

“Your Grace, m’lady wife and I are honored to dine with you,” Gendry said before Arya could offend their host. “We have camped with our men, and we shall join them around their fires after the feasting is done.”

"Very well, my Lord. You and the Lady Arya are most welcome. It is good to see you both. Let the feast continue!"

They joined the queen, Lord Tyrion, Missandei of Naath, the Bear Jorah Mormont, and Arya’s sister Lady Sansa at the table. Daenerys insisted that Arya and Gendry have the place of honor by her side, and immediately launched into a religious discussion about the Lord of Light with Gendry that bored Arya beyond belief. She was raised with the Old Gods and the New, but hadn’t much use for the Seven other than the Stranger. After her youthful flirtation with the Many Faced God, Arya took comfort in the ancient ways of the North. 

Arya always thought Gendry only converted to the Red Faith because of the Brotherhood and Stannis Baratheon. Her husband was convinced that R’hllor was the one true god simply because of the resurrections he’d witnessed, but Arya’s Old Gods taught her there were more things that existed than mere mortals could understand. Because Gendry was a skeptic by nature, and wasn’t really into converting and burning people in the name of any religion, even his own, their dual faith marriage worked as well as Arya's father's and mother's had.

Mind drifting away from Dany and Gendry's conversation about fire and light, Arya noticed the hooded figure at the back of the pavilion staring at her a mere moment before she was swept off her feet by her favorite brother.

“You act as if we haven’t seen each other less than a fortnight ago, brother of mine,” Arya teased Jon as he set her back on her feet, and clapped his goodbrother on his broad back. “Where were you when we arrived?”

“Getting to know my new brother,” he replied, nodding and gesturing for the people in the pavilion to take their seats impatiently, for all had risen upon his arrival. Although Jon hadn’t been crowned King back then, everyone had begun treating him like one after he started riding Viserion. “I have no idea where Aegon slipped off to, for he was right on my heels.. .”

“Is that strange?” Arya asked, glancing to see if the hooded man was still there. He was not.

“Having a new brother and aunt? In a sense… but it’s almost like a part of me has always known. And through me, they are your family too, Arya.”

“Yes. Family.”

Jon and Arya turned around. Behind them stood Aegon Targaryen, hood thrown back, his blue-tipped silver hair pulled back from his face with a leather cord.

Daenerys seemed to be in her element. “Aegon, allow me to introduce…”

“She needs no introduction,” he interrupted, eyes locked on Arya as he sat down on the other side of the silver queen. “This is the She-Wolf of Winterfell, sworn member of the Faceless Guild, the Ghost of Harrenhal, and the Blue Winter Rose Reborn. And for all the stories and songs about her, none of those legends have done justice to her beauty.”

Aegon bowed gallantly.

“My lady.”

“Your Grace,” said Arya, a little stiffly. She never liked it when strangers waxed poetic about her face and form, for long and bitter had been her younger years when she’d been known as Arya Horseface. She knew that men responded to her differently now that she was a woman grown, but she also believed much of that response was men being men. They always wanted to fuck or fight, and all but the stupidest of them were too afraid of Arya’s Needle and Gendry’s warhammer to bother her.

Unfortunately, it seemed that the prince missed that vital piece of the stories and songs.

“Then allow me to introduce you to the son of the Usurper, nephew,” Dany said. “Lord Gendry has sworn fealty to me, and is not only a fine general and warrior, he is the most able smith in all the land. Although I would prefer our kinsman hold Storm’s End once the war is done, and renew the friendship between House Targaryen and House Baratheon...”

“Lord Edric Baratheon already holds Storm’s End for us, aunt,” said Aegon coldly. “The Stormlords would not follow an unlettered armorer…”

“Half the Stormlords are already following Lord Gendry,” was Dany’s curt reply. “They followed him from the Riverlands to the North, fought back the ice demons, and now swell the ranks of our camp in his name.”

Aegon then finally turned to look at Gendry.

“So you are the bastard son of the man who killed my father.”

Under the table, Arya’s hand flew to Needle's hilt, but her husband’s larger one enclosed it, caressing and cajoling.

“Afraid so, Your Grace... but he did it only after yours robbed him of the woman promised him as wife.”

Aegon’s eyes narrowed. “A sad day for my family, and for all Westeros. Let us hope that history won’t be repeated.”

“Beg pardon, Your Grace, but it won’t be. For Lady Arya is no longer my betrothed.”

For a fleeting moment, the prince looked stunned, then hopeful.

“She has been my wife these past two moons. Arya is now my Lady Baratheon.”

Aegon was incensed. “Preposterous! Arya is my half-brother’s kin, and therefore a princess royal. She needs the permission of the Crown to wed, and we’re in the middle of a war.”

“Oh, but Your Grace, the queen gave them her blessing and attended the ceremony in Winterfell’s godswood before returning to the South,” Sansa supplied. “Our half-brother gave her away. It was lovely and my sister looked like a dream in the first dress I've gotten her to wear in years. Pity you couldn’t supply any men-at-arms for the battles in the North, or come above the Neck yourself, or you might have witnessed the spectacle… after all, I know how much you value family.”

Arya tried her best, but she couldn’t hide her smirk. Her sister might not carry a sword, but Sansa had other weapons.

“Whilst you lot made merry in the North," Aegon hissed, "I was stuck here in the Crownlands, overseeing the siege of King’s Landing! So I will thank you to hold your tongue, my Lady Sansa.”

Aegon tore his eyes away from the statuesque redhead to undress Arya with his eyes again. When he looked back at Gendry, his eyes were murderous.

But Gendry hadn’t been nicknamed the Bull for nothing. He didn’t flinch at all under the dragon’s fiery glare, only reached for his golden wine goblet as the queen stood to offer a toast of goodwill and health upon the arrival of Lord Gendry and Lady Arya.

When their marriage was announced, Gendry surprised Arya with a kiss as the entire pavilion erupted with applause.

“I’d like to run him through,” she muttered as Gendry reluctantly ended their kiss, a brief moment before it would have been unseemly. “Silly dragon.”

He cocked an eyebrow.

“He has no right to say those things about you when you’re twice the man he is,” Arya continued in a whisper, as the feast continued with dancing and song. “And he has no right look at me as if I’m nothing but a strumpet, fit only for his bed. I’ll not suffer this nonsense.”

“Aye. Like fathers, like sons I suppose.” Gendry chuckled under his breath. “The dragon prince can look at you all he likes. Half the men in the realms wish to bed you… and sticking your elbow in my ribs will make no difference, Arya, when it's the truth.”

“Stupid men and their stupider eyes,” Arya growled.

“As I’ve said, Aegon Targaryen can look all he likes. Pretty lass like you will always draw men’s notice. But should he ever touch you, Arry…”

Gendry never finished his sentence.

Instead, he crumpled the bowl of the gilded goblet in his hand to make his point.

And Arya knew that not even Rhaegal’s dragonfire would protect the prince from her husband’s fury.

Or her own.

 

*

 

More than two years later, in the deepest part of the Red Keep, Arya’s head spun.

Gendry was not dead.

He was alive. 

He had been alive this entire time.

And he’d been held prisoner. For years.

The three men had all they could do to hold Arya down so she didn’t race back up to the inhabited parts of the castle, barge into the dragon prince’s rooms, and murder him in his sleep. It took a considerable amount of time, as Arya tried to escape their grasp until her energy was spent.

Aegon. She’d danced with him, dined with him, sparred with him, and raced horses with him…

She’d even almost agreed to perhaps court him in a year’s time if her husband did not return.

She’d almost believed that Gendry had broken his promise to her.

All because of himAegon. 

Aegon Targaryen.

Aegon Fucking Targaryen!

Aegon Dead Targaryen.

“I’ll kill him,” Arya croaked, voice nearly gone as she collapsed against the stone wall of the corridor. It was probably the thousandth time she’d said it. Or screamed it.

“You cannot,” said Tom, also for about the thousandth time. “Any bloodshed would lead to civil war, and perhaps worse. The Long Night almost fell. We barely stopped it in time. You cannot.”

“Trust me, Lady Arya, if there were any way to get Gendry back without Aegon Targaryen still being alive, we would have murdered that fucking dragon before we spoke,” said Lem solemnly. “But we will get him back.”

Ned Dayne had come to sit next to her. His hand patted her knee. Her childhood friend, the Sword of the Morning.

“Arya, we will get Gendry back,” said Ned. “We will. You've got to believe us.”

She sighed.

Then finally she asked, “What happened?”

And Lem began his story.

“We made good time out of White Harbor. Clear skies and favorable winds. But we ran into trouble about a day’s journey from Braavos… pirates.”

Arya had feared as much. “Go on.”

“They never caught us, though. The captain was of the Stepstones, and quite used to outrunning the likes of them. We ended up losing them in the Shivering Sea, so we sailed to Lorath instead.”

Lorath. Why hadn’t she thought about that? Although Arya hadn’t ventured that far East during her time in Braavos, she’d encountered many a Lorathi, including Jaqen’s face. It wasn't that far from Braavos, all things considered.

“Did you send word?”

“Nay. We didn't stay long enough. Gendry was determined to get back to you, and our sojourn in Lorath meant going to Qohor the way we’d intended would add another three months on our trip.”

Arya understood. It would mean their ship would have had to sail back to Braavos, around the entire Western edge of the continent, swing down into the Summer Sea, resupply in Volantis, then make the perilous journey up the Rhoyne. It was the traditional trade route to Qohor, but it took a very long time... time that Gendry wouldn't want to spend without her.

“Which way did you go instead?”

“We traveled overland to Norvos,” said Lem. “There’s old Valyrian roads connecting it to Lorath. Pleasant enough country. Reminds me of the Stormlands a bit. We were safe enough and in high spirits. Even encountered Prince Aegon when we were within sight of the river Noyne, sweeping over the hills on Rhaegal as he does.”

The prince was famous for his dragon riding over the mainland of Essos, where he and the queen had grown up. (Aegon particularly enjoyed harassing the Dothraki horde just to irritate his aunt.)

“Anyway," Lem continued, "Prince Aegon sent Rhaegal off to hunt, then borrowed a horse from one of the squires to ride with us into the city. Lord Gendry wasn’t overfond of his company, but as Gendry told us, ‘he’s my cousin, after all. If he’s making an effort, I should too, I suppose.’ And from the way Aegon laughed and talked around the fires, we didn’t have a reason to suspect anything until it was too late.”

Arya closed her eyes. Though the words came from Lem, they were Gendry’s. She could hear and feel his heartache, his longing to belong.

I’ve never had a family.

I can be your family…

She knew she’d filled his heart with love and acceptance, satisfied him beyond his wildest dreams (“I never even dared to think you could ever be mine”). But there was always something in the way that his eyes would light up whenever Jon showed keen interest in his craft, or shared a swig of ale and a brotherly chat with him…

There was something in the way that his eyes would soften when Sansa would present him with a new cloak or tunic embroidered with the Baratheon stag and his personal sigil of a bull…

There was something in the way that he would smile whenever Bran asked him to tell stories about his adventures with Arya when they were younger…

…and there was something about the way his laughter would ring out whenever he roughhoused with Rickon. He also enjoyed being fussed over by his older sister Mya, married with a babe of her own, during their visit to her home in Crackclaw Point, and had quite a laugh when Mya introduced him to Bella, the tavern wench who’d tried to bed him all those many years before…

(Arya didn’t see what was so damned funny. She didn’t like Bella much, never would, and told Gendry that after she rang her husband's bell for him that night loud and long enough for his half-sisters and any damned body else to hear. Stupid inns, with even stupider girls.)

But Gendry’s closest family relationship was with Shireen. Though she was his cousin in truth, Stannis’ hard earned regard for Gendry as the son he never had, and Gendry and Shireen's own bond made their relationship one of brother and sister. She'd taught him how to read and write; he was ever her advocate and protector. Both Gendry and Shireen knew something of rejection, something about wanting life to be different. Better. 

Arya knew that Gendry’s disappearance had affected Shireen deeply, too. Hadn’t she whispered her futile wish of Gendry giving her away to Rickon Stark in her father’s stead before Arya left Winterfell for King's Landing?

Of course Gendry ignored his first mind and trusted Aegon anyway, Arya thought, feeling claws of frustration tear at her insides. Probably thought the silver-tongued dragon prince suddenly had a change of heart.

She wished she could talk to him over the miles, reassure him. My beautiful, wonderful, stupid bull of a man. You can be so stubborn about everything else, but that damned Aegon found your weakness, didn't he?

I’m sure at first he thought I was your weakness. Stupid men like him always think that the way to get to a man is through his woman. But a snake like him learned quickly that strong as you are, I make you even stronger. Always have.

But losing your mum when you were but a wee lad? Never knowing your father before his death, even though you detested his character as much as Stannis did?

Gendry, my love, your longing for family and brotherhood has always been your weakness.

And you fell right into the damnable dragon’s clutches.

She listened as Lem told of Aegon’s betrayal, of the silver prince’s men being secreted in the best inn in Norvos, of the Brotherhood's drink and food being doused with sweetsleep, and waking up locked in a Lorathi dungeon where they could hear naught but the sea. At first, they were treated well by their jailers, although the Prince was nowhere to be seen.

“Things changed after the Great Council,” said Lem solemnly. “We didn’t know it was happening at the time, but I learned of it later. We were once again drugged, thrown into the hold of a ship in our chains, and tossed into the dungeons at Driftmark.”

“That's Edric's seat,” Arya growled angrily. She was already forming another list.

“Aye, and that was when we saw the Prince. When things changed…”

What did Aegon do to you?” Arya didn’t even know her own voice.

“It wasn’t what he did to us,” said Lem. “It’s what he did to Gendry. I’m sure you can guess his grievance, and that of his friend. Edric wanted his half-brother’s claim, and was furious that the stormlords wanted Gendry as their Lord Paramount at the end of the war. And of course, the prince wanted you, wants you still… and believes that Gendry should have never been allowed to marry you.”

“Why didn’t they just kill him, then?”

Any other woman might have been loath to ask that question, especially put so bluntly. But every woman was not Arya Stark.

“If they just killed him,” Arya pointed out practically, “Edric would have the Stormlands, and Aegon could have tried to manipulate the Crown to giving him my hand in marriage. That’s almost what’s been set in motion, anyway. Why didn’t he? It makes no sense.”

“We wondered the same. At first we didn’t know, and no answers were forthcoming. The dungeons at Driftmark are terrible. They kept Gendry elsewhere, but his men? Dungeons for us. Cold, and wet. There was never enough food or water, and there was greyscale in the hold. We lost many of the men who'd come with us to its madness, including Harwin and Jack. Anguy and I were somehow spared.”

In spite of herself, a sob caught in Arya’s throat. Harwin had been her father’s man when she was a child in Winterfell, and Jack had been of the smallfolk in the Riverlands, her mother’s family realm. They and other faithful members of the Brotherhood had faced the army of the dead and their masters, only to perish needlessly…

She frowned.

“Pat my leg again, Ned Dayne, and it’ll be the last thing you do with your sword hand.”

The Sword of the Morning drew back as if she’d stung him. “I was just trying to reassure you, Arya, not bed you! Why can’t you be sweet like other girls?”

“Because men are stupid. Keep your hands to yourself.”

Lem shook his head. “It was hard to lose Harwin and Jack like that. Once they were gone, we went from talking and plotting our escape to seeing it as an inevitability. We knew we had to get out of there, or else the prince and his lickspittle lordly friend would make sure we never emerged.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me, Lem,” Arya said with a frown. “Why would Aegon take such a risk? After all, the second Gendry got out, we’d all know what happened to him, and there would be war anyway.”

“You don’t understand, Lady Arya,” said Lem. “Lord Gendry has been a prisoner these two years as Aegon’s bargaining chip out of war. His guarantee when his aunt and half-brother have two dragons, and he only has the one.”

She gasped.

“Gendry’s their hostage in case Jon and Dany go to war,” said Arya slowly.

“Or if the King and Queen decide that Aegon is not the King that the Seven Kingdoms need.”

That was Tom. The usually merry bard was quite solemn indeed.

Lem turned to his old friend. “And you’ve said that King Jon and Queen Daenerys are sharing chambers?”

“The entire Red Keep can’t shut up about it,” Ned answered for Tom. “There’s now even rumors in the town, although no one knows them for truth. Or whether the King has taken the Queen to bed…”

At Ned’s naïve words, Lem, Tom, and Arya just looked at him.

“Well, there’s no way of knowing for sure unless you’re in there with them. And it doesn’t matter because the Great Council has already made Aegon heir to the throne.”

“A heir can be ruled unfit,” said Arya. “Both by the crown, and by the Great Council. And now, the Council meets every year, not just once in a lifetime.”

“I’d say both crown and the Council would count kidnapping and imprisoning a Lord Paramount as a mark against the Prince,” Tom said. “It’s outrageous behavior befitting of the Mad King or the evil Joffrey Waters. It makes Aegon unfit to rule. And if what many suspect is going on between Jon and Daenerys produces a son, or even a daughter…”

“Aegon could be passed over,” Ned finished. “He should be. I’ll never bend the knee to him. And now that Arya’s heard Lem’s story, neither will the Stormlands…”

“It’s not that simple, Ned,” said Arya quietly. “Do you think Aegon is going to lose his birthright without a fight?  He's imprisoned my husband, whom he’s always hated, and his accomplice is Gendry's jealous little half-brother. I don’t want Aegon to be Prince of Dragonstone anymore, the Gods know I don't, but damn it, the Gods know I don’t want Gendry dead over this, either!”

A soiled yellow cloak was placed around her arms. Arya hadn’t realized how cold it was until her body shivered beneath its reeking warmth.

“Gendry’s been treated well,” said Lem quietly. “When Anguy and me were able to surprise the soldier who brought us the food and escape, we went looking for him. Took us almost all night and we were scared of being found. He was imprisoned high in the Keep. They’ve given him a lord’s chambers and plenty of food.”

“They aren’t stupid,” observed Arya, wanting to sob with relief.

But they’re still going to die at my hand.  For Harwin and Jack. And for the two years they stole from Gendry… from us.

“Perhaps so, Lady Arya, but they've done enough. Because the reason I didn’t bring Gendry with me today is because he couldn’t leave.”

She blinked. “What do you mean, he couldn’t leave? Did those bloody fuckers have him chained?”

“Nay. He told us they leeched his blood when we first came to Driftmark… some witch or mage or the like. Old magic. Whatever they did, they bound him first to his chambers, and to Aegon and Edric…”

What?”

“Lord Gendry couldn’t leave the chambers. Door was wide open, Anguy took care of the two soldiers guarding him, aye, but the man couldn’t walk out because of the ensorcelement. We couldn’t even carry him out.”

Arya was stunned.

“Lem, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“It gets worse. Of course, the commotion alerted the rest of their men. It was dawn and the castle was awake. I’ll spare you the details, but we had to fight our way out of there, and we ran into both Prince Aegon and Lord Edric. And we learned quick that whatever damage or injury we do to them… well, Lord Gendry also suffers the same.”

Her mouth was wide open.

“I have heard of such magic from the orphans of the Greenblood,” said Ned in wonder. “It’s Valyrian blood-magic, the kind that the queen once used to awake the dragon. But generally it only affects them, not us… it’s what they call the ‘blood of the dragon’… why would Aegon use it on Gendry? He's no dragon.”

“That’s what we wanted to know,” said Lem. “I had to leave Anguy behind and I don’t know what became of him. We were prepared to kill the dragon and his pet stag. But we would die before we let harm come to Gendry.”

Tom shook his head. “Makes no sense to me. It's as Ned said. Gendry’s not a dragon…”

Arya’s heart sank.

“No, but he is the blood of the dragon.”

“Little lady, I know a Targaryen when I see one. My father was bard to the court of King Aegon the Fifth, the Unlikely King…”

“…who is Gendry’s ancestor. Remember, Edric is Gendry’s half-brother… their father was King Robert, who had the best claim to the throne because of his grandmother, Rhaelle Targaryen. Gendry’s great-grandmother was King Aegon’s daughter. So yes, he has a drop of Targaryen blood. What the Red Woman called the blood of kings. The blood of the dragon.”

The three men just looked at each other as she reminded them of the history everyone in the Seven Kingdoms now knew.

“Well, fuck me, I don't know what to make of that,” swore Lem. “Our boy grew up not only to be a Lord, but has the blood of the dragon kings, too?”

“It’s why he was able to use Drogon’s fire to make our weapons,” Ned added, almost wonderingly. “During the Wars, everyone in the camps thought he was the Smith reborn, to withstand such heat. Only ones who could get as close to dragonfire without peril were Daenerys, Jon, and Aegon themselves.”

“That’s exactly why they were able to trap him,” shrugged Arya unhappily. “It's his brother and cousin. All blood of the dragon. No wonder there’s been no word.”

Gendry was alive. From what Lem said, he was alive and well.

But he couldn’t come to her. He was a hostage. Linked by blood to his captors.

And if she didn’t want him hurt, there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

Unless…

“We need to find another mage,” she said firmly. “One who can break the charm, the spell, whatever they’ve done to keep Gendry prisoner. Once that’s done, we can rescue him, then make Aegon, Edric, and whoever helped them pay.” 

Valar Morghulis, she thought.

“That’s what we’ve been doing for nearly half a year,” said Ned. “When Lem made his way out of Driftmark…”

“Almost fucking drowned," Lem swore proudly.

“…he made his way to me at Starfall. Took him a while to do that. Tom was already there with me, as part of my household, and others among our companions besides. Since then, we’ve been figuring out our next moves.”

Arya held Lem’s gaze.

“Lem. Why didn’t you come find me right away?”

“Because, like Tom, I wanted to tell you that we had him, Lady Arya. We are men sworn to his father and your father. Neither King Robert nor Lord Eddard were the type of men who cared to hear excuses. They wanted us to see it done. You and Lord Gendry are the same.”

“No, we’re not,” said Arya shortly. “Neither my lord father nor King Robert suffered half of what Gendry and I did when we were growing up. We know things can go wrong, and how. You were wrong not to tell me about this, Lem.”

Tom looked sad. “Little lady, we didn’t know how to tell…”

You should have told me. The entire nobility of Westeros wanted me to mourn my husband and remarry. You can’t know the pressure there’s been on my brother for my hand. And in two days time, I ride with an honor guard led by my husband’s captor because everyone in the Kingdoms thinks Aegon is courting me.

“You should have told me.”

All three men were silent.

“Tom of Sevenstreams, Lem Lemoncloak, you are both sworn to House Baratheon, and Gendry is your liege lord by your own choice. You swore fealty to him after my mother died. I am Gendry’s lady wife, and will rule in his stead until he is freed.

“You’ve both wanted me to be a lady since I was a little girl. Now that I have to be, know this: it is a terrible thing to lie to your Lady, especially when she is of the North. Never lie to me again. And never withhold information from me. Is that understood?”

Slowly, Tom and Lem nodded their assent. Satisfied, Arya turned to Ned.

“Ned, you are not sworn to me, as you are a Lord in your own right, but you are my friend. Isn’t that so?”

“Aye,” he said.

In response, she punched him in the eye.

Ned reeled from the force of her blow. 

“ARYA STARK, what in seven hells?”

“If you ever hit me again, Ned Dayne, with Dawn or anything else, it’ll be the last thing you ever do.”

 

 

*

 

Long into the night, Arya talked with Ned, Lem, and Tom, making their plans. Ned, as Lord of Starfall, had sent scouts and spies. They reported they had cause to believe that Gendry had not been moved from Driftmark. Once the ensorcelment was broken, he could be easily freed.

The trick was breaking the enchantment that kept him prisoner.

“It still makes little sense,” said Ned, winking his swelling eye, “that a bit of blood would render someone as strong and powerful as Gendry helpless.”

“Magic’s come back into the world,” Arya reminded him. “We stopped the Long Night, but there are still dragons and direwolves, wargs and greenseers. Gendry’s mission to Qohor was to find the spells his master Tobho Mott used to rework Valyrian steel… spells, Ned, because the only way we defeated the Others was using the weapons he made from dragonfire and the bits he could remember. He wanted to make new-forged Valyrian steel, and the Qohorik are likely the last who know how to do it.”

“Aye, I get it,” Ned shrugged. “So let’s get him out of there before the prince and his lackey think better of keeping him alive.”

The first part of their plan would be for Arya to go to Storm’s End with Aegon and the honor guard as if nothing was amiss. This would require all of Arya’s skills she’d learned in the Faceless guild, for she’d need to become No One during the week of the trip from King’s Landing without killing the Targaryen prince.  Arya knew it would one of the most difficult things she’d ever done. For his crimes, she longed to see Aegon’s blood on her sword…

All in time.

Meanwhile, Tom and Lem would return to Starfall with Ned. According to Ned, there were already a few familiar household servants stationed in Storm’s End, who would be trusted to travel back and forth between the seat of the Stormlands and the marches.

When Arya heard the two names, she flung her arms around the neck of the lanky young man she’d just punched.

“I can’t believe you found Hot Pie!”

“Actually, Hot Pie found me," said Ned proudly. "He became an innkeep during the war, and I stopped at the place while traveling from the North. Took him to Starfall. Best cook in Westeros, and when he heard you were going to Storm's End, he offered to run your kitchens. I hear Ser Davos was glad to have him, and you will be too, because the old cow they had in there before made nothing but slop.”

Arya couldn’t help but smile. “And I can’t believe that little Weasel lived! Of all people… I was sure she'd died long ago.”

“Lived and has become like a younger sister to Hot Pie. She’s become quite the lady’s maid… my wife will be sorry to lose her, but she has plenty of handmaidens and you have no one. And yes, Arry, for all that you wear britches and carry a sword, you'll need someone. You’ll have plenty to do with your time, just you wait and see. Growing up in a castle is one thing, running one is quite another…”

“Spoken like a true little lord,” Tom said, as Lem snickered.

“Shut up,” was Ned’s eloquent reply.

It made the journey ahead seem worth it, to be with her pack again, Arya thought. Tom and Lem and Ned Dayne... Hot Pie and Weasel… and soon, she’d have Gendry back, too. No pack of Arya's would be complete without her mate by her side.

Just before she left the dungeons, Lem pressed something into her hand.

“Almost forgot. When we realized we couldn’t get him out, Gendry said to give you this. He bought it in Norvos, right before we were captured. Must have kept it in his boot or somewhere they couldn't find the whole time. Said you’d know it meant he was coming for you.”

Arya opened her palm.

On it rested a pendant, made of tinted Qohorik steel.

It was the head of a bull.

 

 

*

 

 

When Arya returned to her rooms just before the morn broke, clutching the bull pendant next to her heart, she had much to do and plan. But it was not to be, for she had a visitor.

Missandei of Naath.

“Forgive me, Your Grace. This one was sent to search for you.”

Arya usually liked Daenerys’ advisor and confidante. The Naathi girl was pretty, practical, and incredibly smart. She would have made a good maester, Arya always thought.

But Missandei was the very last person Arya wanted to see just then.

“Please don’t call me that. And before you say it, Missandei, I know I’m a princess by decree, but both my sister and I were women grown and wed when our brother became King.” 

“This one has no choice, Your Grace. Your Graces are princesses royal of the realms… which is why this one has come. Your goodsister the Queen wishes to speak with you and Princess Sansa.”

What was Dany up to?

“Now?”

“Forgive this one, Your Grace, but yes, now.”

Half an hour later, Arya found herself entering the wide arched doorway of the Dragonpit. Sansa was just ahead, having been summoned by Grey Worm, but as always, accompanied by the ever faithful Sandor Clegane.

“I’ll wait out here for the little bird,” said the grizzled soldier. He still wasn't much for fire.

“Thank you, Sandor,” said Sansa sweetly, smiling up at him. “I’m sure the queen won’t keep us long.”

Unless she’s secretly in league with her nephew and plans to give Drogon a couple of flame-broiled she-wolves, that is, thought Arya wryly, still annoyed at having her plans disrupted.

Sure enough, the queen was waiting for them, sitting at the center of the dragonpit. Dany was a vision in pale lavender, stroking Drogon’s head and leaning her silver tresses against his scales.

Arya knew instantly when the dragon had locked her into its vision. There wasn’t much that frightened Arya Stark, but the giant beast’s gaze made her blood curdle with fright…

“My sisters, come closer!” said Daenerys. “There is no need to be frightened. Drogon will not hurt you. My dragon never has harmed my wolves, and never will.”

Sansa visibly shuddered as the great black beast suddenly lifted its head, threw back a neck that was nearly long as Maegor’s Holdfast, and sniffed their scent deeply. After one terrifying, too-long moment, the dragon laid his head back down on the ground as Dany cooed and talked to the creature in Old Valyrian as if it were a newborn babe.

Babe…

Arya didn’t understand everything Daenerys was saying, but she caught some of it.

Her eyes flew to her goodsister’s middle…

And then to Sansa.

“Yes, it is true,” Dany said, answering the question in both Stark women’s eyes. “It seems that the maegi was wrong many years ago. I am expecting...”

Gods, it's going to come to civil war, thought Arya. And soon.  We have to get Gendry away from Aegon, away from Edric…

“…and so is Drogon.”

Next to her, Sansa clutched Arya’s arm and gasped.

In Valyrian, she told the great dragon, “Show them, my child.”

And the great beast lumbered to its massive feet to reveal a clutch of eggs.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 36-40

 

 

When they returned to the Red Keep after Daenerys’ revelation in the Dragonpit, Arya and Sansa were summoned to the King and Queen’s chambers to break their fast.

Before Arya could decline, Sansa spoke on on behalf of them both.

“Yes, we will. Please thank our brother the King and his Queen for the summons, Grey Worm. We shall be there as soon as we bathe and dress for the day.”

Ignoring Arya’s glare, Sansa practically dragged her to her chambers, trailed by Sandor. Soon, Arya was perched on the edge of Sansa’s elegant tapestry-covered featherbed, while Sansa whispered something to Sandor at the door. Her faithful Hound nodded, taking her hand for the briefest of moments. Then he shut it behind her.

“Did you know?” asked Arya without preamble.

Slowly, Sansa sighed. “I had no idea about the eggs, Arya…”

“The babe. Did you know the queen is with child, Sansa?”

The answer was written all over Sansa’s pretty face as she began to make excuse. “The very walls have ears. We had enough to do convincing you to secure Storm’s End, because we knew you were still grieving for your husband. And we didn’t know if you still felt the same about the queen…”

We?”

Arya reeled as she realized that Jon had confided in Sansa about his impending fatherhood, not her. Growing up, her bond with him had been unshakeable, while he and Sansa had been little more than strangers. Now it seemed as if Sansa had taken her place.

She’d been torn about whether to confide in Sansa about everything she’d learned from the Brotherhood. They had been growing closer ever since the end of the war, and Arya wanted to share her joy over knowing that Gendry was alive and, as long as the spell held, safe. But this…

This just made her feel sad. She felt every bit of Arya Horseface then, the misfit among her brothers and sisters. Only when they were children, Jon had been as much of a misfit as she was.

“Arya…”

“No, Sansa! You should have told me the night I arrived from Winterfell! And Jon… he should have told me the next morning. This changes everything!” She let out a deep breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “How could he do it? She is his aunt!”

“And we are his cousins in truth, dear sister,” said Sansa sadly. “Either of us could have made a match with him without it being sin against the gods, but what of the sin against our hearts? Jon is our brother, and to him, we are his sisters.” Pause. “Arya, Jon was afraid to tell you because he feared this very judgment from you of all people. He and I have grown close because of the intrigues of King’s Landing, but there is none closer to him than you. He knew of your dislike for Dany…”

“I don’t dislike her,” Arya protested, biting her lip in frustration. “It is clear that she desperately wishes for us to like her. I do not fear that she will harm us or any Stark. I just can’t trust any Targaryen.”

“But you trust Jon.”

“You have just spoken of the heart, Sansa,” Arya snapped. “Jon is at heart a Stark. Perhaps his father’s blood has inclined his lusts toward Daenerys, but his mind is of the North.”

“Arya…”

Sighing again, Arya felt some of her anger dissipate. She wasn’t the judgmental type and she wasn’t a fool. Arya had seen the lingering looks exchanged between Jon and Daenerys even before war’s end, in the deep snows of the Gift, and during the nights filled with terror. Her brother was naught but a proper gentleman, there was nothing untoward in his actions toward the Mother of Dragons, but Arya knew his tells, knew him well enough to understand how his gaze grew soft when he spoke with the petite Targaryen queen.

As for Daenerys, Arya at first had expected her to be inclined toward Aegon. But it was clear that they were like oil and water. She was the fierce Khaleesi of the Dothraki whenever she spoke to the elder of her nephews…

But with Jon, she was quite different. He was the only person in the Seven Kingdoms -- man, woman or child -- whom Daenerys would defer to. And she did it long before Jon was crowned king.

Arya couldn’t get the joy in her goodsister’s eyes out of her mind. Daenerys had been ecstatic about having her beloved’s child…

Perhaps it is not anger I feel, but jealousy.

For my service to the Many-Faced God may mean that I will never be able to give Gendry a child.

“Arya?”

“It is well that Dany chose to reveal this to me before I left for Storm’s End,” she said slowly. “But the Lord Hand is right. I will need to prepare the Stormlands for war. Aegon will declare himself the rightful King the very moment that our goodsister is showing, and I’ve no idea how he’s missed Drogon’s eggs in the Dragonpit.”

“Aegon keeps Rhaegal at Dragonstone,” said Sansa. “Jon says his half-brother fears to keep his green in the Pit, for that is why the dragons of their ancestors never reached their full size.”

“Still, there were perhaps six or seven eggs,” was Arya’s reply. “It means that this child will be the first of many for the King and Queen. They are like the direwolves -- one for each of the children.”

She trailed off when she saw the sad look in Sansa’s eyes. In just a few instants, Arya had gone from feeling angry at her sister to feeling sorry for her. Contrite, she decided she would share her news with Sansa.

But not here in the Red Keep.

“Yes, I must leave for the Stormlands, and soon. When will you come visit, sister?”

“Perhaps in a half turn of year. I must to the Vale and the Riverlands. My little Eddard’s fourth nameday approaches, and the Royces have planned a tourney in his honor. Then I promised Uncle Brynden that I would visit him soon… he sends you his love as well.”

“Tell him that I shall write once I am settled in Storm’s End.” And I shall visit someday with Gendry, she thought, for I would see my mother’s homeland during a time of peace. After all, it is where I learned to survive with my bull, and Hot Pie, too.

Sansa smiled.

“You never speak of Eddard much,” Arya continued, her voice tentative. Often, she didn’t remember that her elder sister had been the first Stark to have a child, conceived with the Heir of the Vale before his demise during the Wars.

“I do not speak of him because it reminds me of how much I miss him.” Her blue eyes swirled, and Arya wondered if she had secrets of her own. “But ever my thoughts are with my sweet son.”

Arya closed her eyes. Unbidden, she imagined holding a tiny boy with unruly hair black as a forge’s coal, and eyes blue as the sea.

Where were these maternal instincts coming from? Arya shook herself out of it. Gendry certainly held no such expectations of her. He always knew that wedding her brought no guarantees, and likely no children, since the Kindly Man had been clear about the price she would be paying for serving the Many-Faced God.

Fucking House of Black and White. Sometimes, I wish I’d never met Jaqen.

Sometimes, I wish I never learned where whores go.

“Come, sweet sister, let us prepare to break our fast with our brother and goodsister,” Sansa said matter-of-factly. “I wish to spend as much time with you as possible until you ride for Storm’s End. And I know Jon and Dany feel the same.”

 

*

 

Arya’s moon blood came at dawn the day she was to ride to Storm’s End. Cursing, she flung back the bedsheets, glaring at the telltale rusty stains. Craning her neck around, she saw the back of her nightgown was similarly bloodied. Without preamble, she lifted the soiled garment over her head.

Naked and bleeding, she padded over to the chest where she’d stashed old rags and cloths to stanch the flow back when she’d lived here as Mistress of Whisperers. In Braavos, the courtesans had plugs to catch their moon blood, which made the whole business much less messy. But Westeros was the backwater that everyone in the Free Cities said it was, and Arya had no idea what they’d made them of.

Unbidden, a memory came to her that made her smile. It was from the morning before she and Gendry reached the Wall, after lying together for a fortnight.

She was being shaken out of her sleep roughly, and Arya wasn’t having any part of it. Snuggling closer and pressing her face into Gendry’s chest, she refused to open her eyes. The Wall loomed in the distance of the woods, and only the gods knew when she’d get the chance to be with him again thanks to the rules of the Night’s Watch.

“Arry? Arya, wake up, you’re bleeding and I can’t make it stop…”

Blinking, Arya reluctantly opened her eyes… and stared up at Gendry’s panicked, half-crazed face. She sat up, looked down… and when she saw the situation, she started to laugh.

“You silly bull, this is my moon blood,” she laughed, dipped her fingers down between her legs to show him. “Haven’t you ever seen it before? You led me to believe I was not your first girl.”

“Didn’t say that, m’lady.” He took her hand in his to examine her red-stained fingers carefully. “I… I didn’t know there’d be so much of it. You didn't bleed like that when we first…”

“Because I’m as wild as my mother always feared, Gendry. And don’t look at me like that. You took my maidenhead, and there’s been none other for me, either. It’s just that I swordfight and seat horses well as a man and better than most. Not my fault that I bleed like a stuck pig every moon’s turn.”

She sighed impatiently at his look of concern, snatching her fingers from his grasp and cleaning them on the furs they were bundled in. Men are so stupid, she thought, and he’s stupider than most. Idiot treats me like I’m made of glass, when he’s the one who’s the shy maid!

“Does it hurt?” he asked, holding her close again.

“Makes me cramp a bit, but it looks worse than it feels. Girls who sit around all day stitching and being useless have a worse time of it.”

He reached his hand down to caress her thigh, gently smearing the bloodstain there before drawing his own hand back to stare at his fingertips in wonder. Arya shivered at the sensation of his gentle touch, nipples pebbling against his chest, the little button between her legs aching for attention even though he hadn’t ventured near it. With a whimper and a squirm, she reached for his cock, hard as it was every morning…

“Arya, what are you doing?”

“My moon blood makes me feel everything more,” she said huskily, chuckling under her breath. “Makes me ache for a man’s touch. Usually, I make do on my own as the courtesans taught me, but since you’re here… you’ll do nicely.”

His cock jumped as her fingers encircled him enticingly, but his brow furrowed.

“But I don’t want to hurt you, love… won’t it hurt?”

“Only if you deny me,” she assured him, stroking his cock gently, looking up at him from beneath her lashes, and biting her lip in the way that she was learning drove him wild. “Would you deny me this, Gendry?”

And when she saw the look in his eyes, she knew that he would deny her nothing.

In the present, Arya allowed the pleasurable feeling of her climax to wash over her as she pulled her bloody fingers from between her legs. Fucking moon blood, she thought ruefully, standing up from the closed chest and grabbing out a few rags. Gets me all hot and bothered without my man to take care of the ache between my loins.

And it’s not just the lovemaking I miss. I miss the way he’d find whatever water was available after, and take a bit of cloth, and cleanse the both of us. I miss the way he’d hold me tight, the way he’d murmur stupid things in my hair, and the way he’d chuckle whenever I elbowed his ribs or pinched his side. As if I could inflict no more damage than a fly could.

And oh, how I miss how he’d call me his love, his forest lass… and though I always said I hated it, his lady… and those would be the last words I heard before I fell asleep.

I think I miss him even more now that I know he’s alive.

Stuffing the rags between her legs, lost in thought, Arya padded awkwardly to the washbasin to cleanse herself, then dress for the day ahead. Feeling bereft and lonely as always.

Why am I heading to Storm’s End when I should be going to Driftmark to rescue my husband?

Because it’s as Lem says. If I breathe a word of Gendry’s whereabouts to anyone, I risk his life. I need to get to Storm’s End and help them find aid to break the spell…

Gendry, how am I going to get you out of Driftmark without killing you? Or killing many thousands in another war? I swore to Lem, Tom, and Ned that I wouldn’t do anything stupid. Every bit of me has wanted to leave the Red Keep for days… I could be in and out of that ancient Velaryon castle before anyone was the wiser… but I can’t get there and back again in a single night.

Every instinct is telling me to go to Driftmark. But I can’t simply disappear like I did when I was eleven. Back then, I was the youngest daughter of the Warden of the North, not Lady Arya Baratheon, a Stark princess of the realm.

And Aegon Targaryen is expecting me to ride at his side, with all the pomp that a royal progress provides. He can suspect nothing is amiss, or Gendry may be in danger.

After she put on her smallclothes and bound her teats lightly so that she wouldn’t be sore by nightfall, Arya donned the blue dress she’d worn her first full day in King’s Landing, when she’d verbally sparred with Aegon and rode Jon’s dragon Viserion. The day was overwarm, made even more so because of her moon blood, and Arya wanted to dress accordingly.

Instead of the thick boiled leather breeches, she donned softer, lighter ones that would be more appropriate for her Dornish sand steed, which fit nicely into her riding boots.

And around her neck she wore a simple leather cord, upon which hung her bull’s head pendant.. Qohorik steel tinted pure gold. The bull’s head nestled between her teats, and could not be seen unless she was undressed.

The first gift Gendry was ever able to give to me, thought Arya. I don’t know if he made it or had it made before he and his men were captured, but he told me all about how Tobho used to tint the steel.

I remember when he talked about giving it to me, she thought to herself. And I laughed and said:

“Why not a wolf? You’re the bull, not me.”

“That’s why,” he said as he kissed her. “Since my she-wolf put her mark on me,” and he pointed to the scar she’d given him upon his return, “I must make her wear mine always.”

His father’s House sigil is the stag, but his personal one is the bull. It’s the one he chose.

It’s his promise to return to me soon…

Because he's right. I do belong to him. And I always will.

No sooner had Arya finished tying the end of her single Northern braid, tossing it over her shoulder so that it swept between her shoulder blades and halfway down her back, that a knock sounded at the door.

“Just one moment,” Arya called, running to the door… but before she could, the familiar face of one of the Kingsguard appeared, followed by that of her favorite brother.

Arya couldn’t help it. Rotten though she felt, and angry over Jon hiding his true feelings for his queen from her, she flew into his arms as he laughed.

“Little sister,” he said happily, nose against her neck like he wished to breathe her in as he lifted her and spun her around. “Were I not king, with duties tying me to this godsforsaken shithole on the Blackwater, I would escort you to Storm’s End myself.”

“I know you would.” Arya pressed her eyes close, savoring Jon’s warmth and strength. “Don’t worry about me, Jon. I know how to keep Aegon well in hand, and I shall make you proud in the Stormlands.”

“You are worth a thousand men and more,” said he, kissing Arya’s cheek. “I know you have been angry with me because Dany is with child, little wolf. I pray that the gods allow you to forgive me someday…”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Arya replied firmly, for she’d had a few days to think about it. “I know what it means to love someone and to find comfort in their arms. I am glad that you will know what you once thought you never would again… because you love Daenerys, don’t you, Jon?”

“I tried not to, but may the Old Gods forgive my sin, I do.” He drew back and held her at arm’s length. “She is much like you, Arya. Dany’s will is stronger than all the armies of Westeros, and yet she yearns for family, for home. She has seen horrors untold, and yet her heart is still tender and gentle. She is fiercely loyal and I have never heard her tell an untruth in all the years I’ve known her. And yes, she is my father’s sister and my kin, but neither of us knew Rhaegar. He died before we were born! Unlike you and Sansa, Dany was a stranger to me when we met.”

“When did you know?” asked Arya softly, reaching out to stroke the side of his face until the uncertainty in his eyes disappeared. “That you loved her, I mean.”

“Right before the siege on King’s Landing,” he admitted, almost under his breath. “But I didn’t imagine she felt the same until the night we wed.”

“Jon, you don’t mean to say you’ve been together all this time?”

“A marriage not consummated is not a marriage at all. Still, we have tried to be cautious. We did not want the Kingdoms to know what we truly meant to each other. There were to be no children. Dany did not think it possible. But then…”

“Aegon proved himself to be unfit to rule.”

Jon’s hands found hers. “We cannot allow him to take the throne, Arya. We talked of many possibilities, including leaving it to your eldest son, should your husband return…”

“No,” said Arya firmly. She didn't know how Gendry would react to her decision to take Storm’s End, but she did know her husband’s feelings about kingship… “and be like my fat, drunk whoremonger of a father? The forge is my place, m’lady, not the Iron Throne.”

Arya knew he wouldn’t have wanted it. And if the gods were good, perhaps they would reverse the Many-Faced God’s decree that she had become a bringer of death, not a giver of life. But she wouldn’t wish the Iron Throne on her worst enemy. Other than Daenerys, it had been more punishment than reward for Jon…

But her brother did his duty. As did they all.

“We knew that you and Gendry felt that way. So we talked about naming Shireen and Rickon’s eldest child as heir, but then Drogon laid eggs…. and a few days later, Dany's morning sickness began.”

“Viserion is their father?”

“Yes… Drogon hasn’t been with Rhaegal long enough to mate. They’ve been intimate as long as we have, and well we’ve both known it, but we were surprised by the eggs.”

“There are so many of them.”

“There are seven eggs… seven little dragons, if they all hatch and live. It seems that this really is a time of magic.” He smirked. “Of course, if Ghost and Nymeria continue to get up to what they’re doing, the dragons won’t be our only pets who are expecting.”

Arya’s mouth dropped open.

“They’re… what?”

“When’s the last time you’ve warged into your direwolf, little sister?”

Shrug. “It’s been a while.” Although she’s been calling me, she thought. “Nymeria had another mate, but he went away…”

“Killed during the siege on the Twins,” Jon reminded her. “Ever since you’ve returned to the capitol, Ghost and Nymeria have been hunting together. They’ve been inseparable… just as they were during the war.”

And immediately, Arya knew his words for truth.

“Then Nymeria must stay here,” said Arya, feeling a pang of sorrow. It would be cruel to separate her wolf from her mate. She wouldn’t do to Nymeria what Aegon had done to her.

“Nonsense,” Jon said. “Ghost will go with you, and be my eyes and ears in Storm’s End… since I cannot.”

Arya beamed. “Do you mean it, Jon? I know you’ll miss him badly…”

“I will, but it will give me all the more reason to visit. You’re less than a fortnight’s ride away…, which means less than a day on dragonback. The queen and I shall fly to Storm’s End in a moon’s turn to see how you’re faring, without all the fuss and bother of a royal visit.”

Squealing, Arya flung her arms around Jon again.

“That would be perfect! You're the best brother in the Kingdoms. I love you so much, Jon.”

He squeezed her tightly. “I love you too, Arya. More than you could ever know. And we will find Gendry for you.”

“You don’t need to! I actually have a plan to…”

Arya trailed off. She’d said too much.

Jon pulled back again, eyes narrowing a bit.

“Arya, what’s going on? What have you learned? Has someone told you Gendry's whereabouts?"

She had to choose her next words carefully. If Jon learns what Aegon has done, he’ll cleave him in two without thinking about it. And Edric Storm, too. He’s got enough to deal with, he can’t become a kinslayer!

Not to mention that killing them before the spell is broken would kill Gendry, too.

The problem was that Arya had never learned to lie convincingly to her favorite sibling, with whom she’d always shared an extremely close bond. Even her years playing the Game of Faces would not help her with this predicament.

What if I ask Jon to have Driftmark searched?

I can't. Because Edric and that fucking dragon prince would just move Gendry gods-know-where. I’ve got to be smart about this. Can’t let the wolfsblood take over…

“Actually, once I reach Storm’s End, I plan to write Edric Dayne, Lord of Starfall and the Sword of the Morning, to ask his help in the search. He was a member of the Brotherhood and a friend of Gendry's. We have been in touch lately.”

Jon smirked a little at that. “Oh, I see. But I rather got the impression that Lord Edric was more your friend than your husband’s. Gendry never seemed that amused by him... bit of jealousy there, hm?”

Arya shook her head and laughed. “Ned Dayne is a perfectly noble sort. If there had been no war, and I'd never met Gendry, it's likely that it would have been arranged for me to marry him. You know how father indulged my whims even as a girl. The Dornish allow their women a degree of freedom, he was friends with the Daynes, and we even thought Lady Ashara was your mother, remember?”

Her brother shook his head.  “Never would I have imagined that it was Lyanna all along. A woman I’d always thought of as my aunt. History repeats itself, but changes in the details. She chose a dragon, while you found a stag.” He smoothed a loose chestnut lock of hair that had escaped from her hasty braid behind her ear. “My wife is as fair as the songs say, but if what the old people say is true, you are as lovely and wild as my mother was, little wolf. I only wish for your happiness.”

She smiled at him.

“But I am happy, Jon. I go to claim lands that are Gendry’s by rights, and someday, I know he’ll be there with me.”

“The Stormlands aren't our true home, little wolf. You’ll long for the North.”

“Yes, I will. I am a Stark, as are you, my dear brother. But we will not be estranged from the North. When Shireen and Rickon’s first babe is born, we should travel to Winterfell to celebrate the birth of each new Stark as long as we’re able… you and your Silver Queen… and me and Gendry.”

Jon’s dark eyes sparked with joy as he kissed her cheek one last time, and held her as close as he did when he gave her Needle. Later that morning, he would be a King of legend, bidding farewell to a great Lady of the Realm.

Just then, he was only Arya’s big brother.

 

*

 

Arya’s bad mood, which had faded with Jon’s farewell visit, completely dissipated when she saw who’d ridden into the courtyard just as the royal progress was slated to leave.

“Rickon!”

Arya leaped off her gray steed that she’d just mounted, and ran like the wind to her youngest brother. Fourteen, gangly and taller than even Robb had been, Rickon left his conversation with another familiar face and in two strides lifted his older sister around her waist to lift her in the air.

“Rick, put me down this instant!” she laughed happily. In the distance, Ghost and Nymeria tackled their sibling, Shaggydog.

Then Arya glanced at the cloaked lady who’d been mounted next to him. On her shoulder was mounted a black raven, which flew away almost as soon as Arya’s eyes landed on the bird.

“Goodsister, are you to come with us?” said Arya, letting her brother go to kiss Shireen’s stony cheek.

“We are, if you will have us,” Shireen said with a smile. “I have told Rick so many stories about my family, Dragonstone, and Storm’s End that he insisted upon seeing both. It has been more than a year since I’ve seen Ser Davos, too…”

“Are you wed yet?”

“Officially, no. Not until you are in Storm’s End, Arya, and I witness the stormlords swear fealty to you,” was Shireen’s firm reply. “I don’t expect trouble, but any challenger to your rule will answer to the daughter of Stannis Baratheon…”

But Rickon grabbed her round the waist, and Shireen squealed with laughter.

“We said our vows in front of a heart tree a moon ago, big sister,” said Rickon. “Shireen is my lady wife, wedded and bedded, for I would not wait another day to take her maidenhead…”

“Rick! She's your sister!” Shireen hissed in a whisper, the softer side of her face flushing red as Arya giggled. Her brother was indeed their wildest wolf of all. But Shireen let him draw her to his side, all the same, and rested her head on his shoulder.

“I tell it true, and well you know it, my love,” he growled back at her. “But Bran and Meera were right, and I did not wish to dishonor you.”

Arya threw back her head and laughed. “You are our wild wolf, Rick, but you are every bit as gallant as father. I am glad to call you sister, Shireen, and we shall announce your marriage in the court at Storm’s End...”

But Shireen was shaking her head, and Rickon spoke for them both.

“Sister, you and I know that these foppish Southrons think naught of our Northern customs,” Rickon continued. “Shireen and I shall wed again at Storm’s End according to the customs of the Seven, with a septon and a full audience. I care not for all this ceremony, and think it nonsense, but my Shireen is as shrewd as she is fair…”

“Flatterer,” his wife admonished him, only to receive a kiss at the side of her neck. “Bran and Meera send you their love, Arya. Bran wanted you to know he’s watching over you, and say that they shall travel to Storm’s End, likely before summer comes.”

Just then, Arya’s heart was filled with love for her brothers and sister, her goodsisters, and her more distant relatives like Uncle Brynden, the Blackfish. It was not the custom for women wedded to return to their father’s House, or for their siblings to visit often. This meant that close cousins, unless they were fostered elsewhere, would be as strangers.

But the Starks would begin new customs in this new age. Arya knew that each of her siblings would come to the stormlands, all out of love for her, and to remind the unruly stormlords that their new Lady Paramount had the might of the unyielding North with her. Her brothers’ and sister’s children would all know one another as they grew up, despite the distances between them.

Arya was elated that her family would endure the hardships of travel out of love for her. Then again, they were Starks, and so was she. Theirs was the House of Winter, and their pack had survived the hardest winter of all. She could take on anything…

“Ah. The most alluring woman in all the kingdoms. I have been searching all over for you.”

…except for the presence of Prince Aegon Targaryen.

Shireen curtsied like the lady she was, but Rickon’s bow edged slightly on disrespect. But Aegon saw them not. His eyes were only for Arya.

“The groomsmen have brought your steed to the head of the procession, my lady fair. The King and Queen and royal court await us there, to bid us farewell. May I escort you there?”

Calm as still water.

“Yes, you may. I am ready to go home.”

Aegon searched her face. But Arya’s training proved true, for he read nothing there.

He grunted impatiently.

“Yes, yes… Storm’s End is your home. For now.”

Prince Aegon offered his arm. Arya took it.

He didn’t see the fury written on her face.

Or the portents of his death that flickered in her eyes.

Not today, Aegon.

But soon. Very, very soon.

 

*

 

At evenfall, they were well into the kingswood when Aegon called for a halt to the march… with a knowing glance in Arya's direction.

“My lady, we have left the holdings of House Targaryen, the Crownlands established by my namesake ancestor,” said the prince. “Here at the Wendwater begins the lands of the Storm Kings, gifted by Aegon the Conqueror to his right hand and rumored half-brother, Orys Baratheon.”

“We have crossed into the Stormlands, then?”

“The ancestral lands of House Baratheon, yes, and before that, the realm of the Storm Kings. Now, your lands. Welcome to the Stormlands, Lady Arya.”

Arya looked around. The Kingswood looked much the same as it always had, the parts of it south of King’s Landing much like its appearance to the north. She’d traveled northward on the kingsroad a half dozen times since she’d left Winterfell with her father and sister and King Robert's court as a child. Never had she traveled this far South.

Arya searched for words, but finding none, she turned back to the Dragon Prince.

“It seems much like the Crownlands.”

“And will until we reach Bronzegate, and the end of the kingswood. But in these lands, other than mine own person as Prince of Dragonstone, there is none higher than you, Lady Arya.”

That wasn’t how Arya liked to think on things. She’d always had little patience and less for the hierarchies of the nobility and royals. Most highborns were only good for fighting destructive wars and lording it over people. At least smallfolk like fishermen, farmers, trappers and hunters, skilled tradesmen and artisans were useful.

“Let us not forget Lady Shireen, who rides with us. I think it will cheer the stormlanders to see a true daughter of House Baratheon… when will we arrive at Bronzegate, Your Grace?”

“In three or four days’ time. Until then, my troops will assist with the royal pavilions. You shall have every comfort, my lady.”

Again, Aegon proved how little he knew her. After her sojourn on the kingsroad with Yoren and the Night’s Watch, then the Brotherhood and the Hound, after all the time she’d spent in Braavos, and then years of waging war in the frozen, wintry North, Arya was used to making camp in all sorts of terrain, and was grateful to have a bed of grass or soft moss. She’d ridden South from Winterfell just a month before, avoiding inns and villages and sleeping beneath the stars, with only her beloved direwolf Nymeria to keep watch.

What need had she of a royal pavilion?

“I thank you, Prince Aegon. You have thought of everything.”

His purple eyes darkened.

“Indeed I have, sweet Arya. Don’t worry, I will keep my word to protect your virtue.”

Arya said nothing in response as they rode into the Stormlands. She only imagined sliding the point of Needle across his fine, pale neck.

But who’s going to protect you from me, Aegon?

After a time, Aegon turned to the nearest of his Kingsguard, then raised his hand.

“HALT!” shouted the guard, and the caravan stopped for the night.

 

*

 

Hours later, Arya was snuggling under the covers of her bed in the pavilion, trying to fall asleep. But it was ever strange to know that she was out of doors, the sound of crickets all around her, the cool of the night air caressing her skin… and to be surrounded by plush cushions and silk on a featherbed.

This feels wrong, she thought. I’m not going to get any sleep this way.

First, she arranged the pillows to make it look as if she was still sleeping beneath the covers. Then, dressing quickly, forsaking her court clothing for her trusty simple chemise, boiled leather vest, and breeches, Arya slipped from the pavilion before the guard could know she was even gone.

Swift as a deer.

Quiet as a shadow.

Fear cuts deeper than swords.

Quick as a snake.

Calm as still water.

Fear cuts deeper than swords…

Soon, Arya had left the camp behind, putting a good league between herself and the rest of the group. Finding a stream that likely was one of the sources of the Wendwater, she found a boulder of river rock to sit on as she caught her breath. Even the sound of the mud squelching beneath the soles of her riding boots satisfied her deeply.

Better, Arya thought. Here, I can be myself.

Her solitude was interrupted by the cry of a bird. It was a black raven, likely sending a message up to King’s Landing. Arya ignored it, reaching down to take a couple smooth stones in hand, all the better to skim the surface of the stream. She felt at peace…

Until the bird caw-caw-ed, flapping its black feathers in her face.

"Go away, you pest!” she shouted, beating the bird’s wings with both hands. But the raven still seemed to hover, to look directly in her face.

Arya, stop! It’s me.

She knew that voice! Arya froze.

“Bran? How did you get here?”

No, don’t speak aloud. Use your mind. I can hear you.

Arya looked at the raven as it perched on a nearby low-hanging branch... and remembered the black bird had been sitting on Shireen’s shoulder.

You’re warging him! You're in the bird...

I am. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, but I sent Rick and Shireen South. I wish I could be there in truth, but this is the best that I could do… Arya, you are in terrible danger.

It’s not me who’s in danger, Bran. They have Gendry.

Who has him?

You can’t tell anyone else.

Arya, he is my goodbrother, and I am Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North. Who has Gendry?

Aegon Targaryen and Edric Baratheon. They’re holding him hostage with a powerful spell. They’re kin, so it’s blood magic.

Neither are mages, though. Someone is helping them.

I know. Bran, I’m so afraid for him.

Yes, but I am more afraid for you. The Dragon Prince wants to devour you, and the entire realm knows it. My lords sent me word after that feast Jon and Daenerys held in your honor. All believe that Aegon is wooing you in truth, and if he continues this farce, it will be disastrous. Arya, you must not let him linger at Storm’s End, lest your reputation be compromised. We cannot stop the progress, but he must return to Dragonstone.

I feel the same.

That is why I have sent Rickon and Shireen along. Aegon is the liege of Dragonstone, a title Shireen once held. Many of the people on the isle are still loyal to her, and Aegon knows it. He will accompany our brother and goodsister simply to keep her in her place.

Thank you, Bran.

Do not think on it. Now, you are saying Aegon is holding Gendry at Driftmark?

It’s Edric’s seat…

But this is Aegon’s doing. He does not accept Jon as his King, Arya. He never has and all know it from Dorne to the Lands of Always Winter. Aegon will do anything he can to challenge our brother’s right to rule, including seducing his sister and murdering his own cousin.

If he wanted to become a kinslayer, Bran, I think he would have done it. Gendry yet lives...

He needs Gendry as hostage against the war he’ll declare once Jon and Daenerys’ child is revealed. But do not fear, sister, Gendry will be in Storm’s End before you know it.

How can you know?

Because I have seen it.

Arya knew her brother had the greensight, that he had it still even after leaving the frozen lands beyond the fallen Wall.  All the same, she wondered if this vision could be true. Shireen says Storm’s End has no godswood. Stannis burned it on the Red Witch’s command.

I tell you what I have seen, sister. Gendry, bearded like King Robert, still young, holding the hands of two children. Children of the winter storm, with hair as black as this raven's wing, eyes as blue as the seas after a storm...and the long, solemn faces of the Kings of Winter. The seed is strong, Arya, and will continue for ages to come.

The blood in Arya's veins turned to ice as Bran described his prophetic vision. Gods, Bran, what else have you seen?

Much and more. But you are in graver danger than he, though it seems the opposite. We all know you are capable, Arya, but you can’t be the lone wolf and survive the danger to come. Enough wolfsblood has been shed already without adding yours to it. Please take care.

I will. And…

Yes?

Before you go, I need a favor.  Can you please… get word to Gendry from me? Now that I know where he is, I want to go to him, but all eyes are on me, I can’t steal away and go that far without being found. But you can send your raven to Driftmark…

Not a raven… too dangerous. They’ll be scanning the skies for ravens. Another, smaller bird. I could do that.

Yes! Find Gendry for me, Bran. Let my husband know that I am safe, that I am well, that I have been faithful and true. Tell him that I love him and that I wear his gift. And tell him that I’m in Storm’s End, not Winterfell… he’ll come North looking for me otherwise once he’s freed. Tell him… tell him I’ll explain everything when we see each other next. Can you do that?

I… shall try. But he’s not a warg, Arya. A good man and true, but not a Stark. He may not understand me…

You’ve got to make him understand. I can’t bear to think of what he’s going through. Get word to Gendry, and I will secure the Stormlands and do what I can to prevent the war while the Brotherhood seeks to break the spell that holds him.

Don’t worry, Arya. I will. And now that I know of this vile blood magic spell, I shall do what I can on that matter as well. Sleep now, my sister, and remember what I’ve said.

Sleep?

But as soon as she uttered the word in her mind, Arya’s eyes flew open. She was lying in bed. The cloth of the pavilion was flooded with morning light; her riding boots were dry, and uncaked with river mud.

She sat up in wonder, feeling completely rested although she was covered with sweat. Had she ever left her bed at all? Or had it been a dream?

Then she heard the fluttering behind her. Whirling her head in the direction of the bedpost, Arya saw the black raven taking off in flight, cawing as it went whooshing out of the tent flap.

Whether it had been a dream or reality, Gendry would get her message. Somehow, Arya knew that she’d talked to Bran, and that her brother would do all in his power to tell Gendry that help was on the way. It was exactly what she needed to keep going south and take over her duties at Storm’s End.

And once she had her husband back, there would be nothing that would save Aegon Targaryen or Edric Baratheon from the wrath of the wolves of Winterfell.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 47-60

 

Fire crackled on the hearth of the stone fireplace, creating dancing shadows and flickering red light. It seemed eerily comforting in this room that had not been mortared by human hands, but by ancient dragonflame. The fire not only kept away the dark and the cold, its sound also served to mask the unrelenting roar of the sea just outside the windows.

The room was sparsely furnished, but made for a lord’s comfort. In one corner, a canopied bed stood sentinel deep in the shadows. Directly across from it, there was an ornately carved tall table, its pedestal the shape of a sea-horse. Upon it rested a basin and pitcher, made of fine porcelain from distant Yi Ti. There was also a wardrobe, and a trunk nearby. Behind a Yunkish screen were brass hooks for clothing, as well as a covered chamberpot.

In the center of the room was a table and one chair, also just as ornately carved as the one upon which the basin rested. The other chair was pulled before the fire.

Upon it sat a man. And what a man he was.

The most famous missing person in all of Westeros.

Alive, breathing… and unharmed.

His likeness to the champion of Robert’s Rebellion was so uncanny that the elder servants were regularly startled when called to wait upon him. Little of his petite, blonde mother remained in his visage save for the genuine and caring soul behind his deep blue eyes. All the rest was his natural father’s, from his thick black hair to the cut of his jaw, to shoulders broader than almost anyone else’s in the kingdoms, to thickly muscled arms overused to wielding hammers to create, to defend, to protect, and to kill.

Had he stood to his full height, Gendry Baratheon would have towered above almost anyone. Not even King Jon was tall enough to look him in the eye, and neither could his jailer half-brother Edric. The prince was almost the same height, but that craven bitch of a man was slender and willowy in the way of the dragonlords of old. Among the living, only Ser Sandor Clegane, Brienne Lannister, Lady of Tarth, and Hodor of Winterfell were of a height to look down upon the Warrior Smith, the living heir of the ancient Storm Kings.

But just then, Gendry wasn’t standing, or smithing, or fighting.

As he did every night, he was praying.

“Lord, cast your light upon us,” he murmured, focusing on the crackle of the fireplace and not the sound of the sea. “For the night is dark and full of terrors.”

Other than his pretty little wolf of a wife, the Bastard King and Dragon Queen, and their fire-breathing pets that forged weapons of magic, Gendry Baratheon didn’t have faith in much. He had seen too much in two-and-twenty years to be a religious fanatic. And he’d never been much for sacrifice, born amidst the dregs of Flea Bottom had he been. The smallfolk of the world did enough sacrificing in their daily struggles, he’d always thought, for the gods to demand anything more.

Gendry had seen his share of death. He’d seen much and more even before the hooded man with the oddly smooth round face came for him as he clung to his mother’s cooling body. That man promised a trade and a chance for a life beyond begging and stealing for a coin to buy a bowl of brown…

Of course, many years later, he’d learned the identity of the man Varys, and his efforts to preserve the last of the Baratheon line, the house with the most dragonblood after the Targaryens themselves. Before his time on the kingsroad north at the start of the War of the Five Kings, Gendry had imagined that the Smith himself had sent the Stranger so that he didn’t have to beg like all the other orphaned gutter rats of the Bottom.

But as a man grown, R’hllor was the only faith that made sense to him, try as he might to understand the Seven of his youth, and as much as he respected his wife’s Old Gods. From the purpose he found in the flames at Tobho Mott’s forge, to the Red Sword that had once streaked across the sky, bringing his she-wolf to him, and from the moment he saw Lord Beric pour his life into the Lady Stoneheart, Gendry knew that it had been naught but the Lord of Light’s benevolence that had brought the dragons back into the world, and saved them all from a Long Night when the King defeated the Great Other in single combat…

For the night is dark, and filled with terrors.

It was why Gendry tended his fires so diligently, night after night. He was certain that all in Westeros counted him dead, especially after all this time. In a moon’s turn, it would be two years since he sailed from White Harbor with dozens of his best and most trusted men. Nearly two years since he’d gone on his fool’s mission…

I’d do it again, he thought stubbornly, for the thousandth time. Someone had to go, and there was no one but me. I’ve just got to find my way out of here… and back to her.

Closing his eyes, Gendry recalled a favorite memory of his wife. It was something that he did every night. Just then, he was thinking about the way Arya had looked on their last morning together, abed in their tiny quarters behind Winterfell’s forge. As she did most mornings, she had been watching him dress as she stretched lazily, wincing at the pain of her twisted ankle.

Arya had never been the earliest of risers, even when they were younger, so usually he left her sleeping after he’d awakened and looked his fill. His wolf-maid was the prettiest girl in the Seven Kingdoms, and there was little and less that Gendry enjoyed more than gazing at her as she slept contentedly in his arms.

But their last morning together was different.

“Gendry, I wish you’d reconsider this,” she was saying, sitting up so that the covers fell to her waist. “Why can’t you wait a week or two until I can ride again?”

“You know why I can’t," was his reply, as he averted his eyes. (If he returned to bed, he was certain she'd keep him there.) "If I don’t move those men out of the winter town, the stores won’t hold. It will take two or three months for the Mormonts to make the trip to the Reach and back for more grain, and Winterfell isn’t the only castle in the North that needs it.”

“But it’s like Bran said. The glass gardens…”

“Grow vegetables, but not grain. And the vegetables can’t feed everyone and all the animals besides. Each hunt, we’re bringing back less and less meat, because anything that died before we ended it all was raised again and is useless…”

“I know, Gendry, we’ve talked about this lots… but you’ve sent most of our men back to the South. Mayhaps we can manage.”

“Mayhaps? Can we manage to get back all the gold and silver we paid that ship’s captain in White Harbor?”

“If he’s an honorable man, he’ll honor what we paid later in the year when I’m fit to travel. If he isn’t, the Others take him, but it’s just gold and silver. There are more important things…”

Just gold and silver? Gendry couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sometimes, Arya’s nonchalance about things rattled him.

“Spoken like a true highborn lass.”

He regretted his words as soon as they came out of his mouth. He was no longer a bastard with no name, but a Baratheon. He had his uncle Stannis’ name, his faith, the wife of his dreams, and he’d promised to take care of his cousin Shireen. It wasn’t Arya’s fault that his father had been a drunken, lecherous king who’d left the realm in a sorry state during its time of direst need.

Before he could take back his retort, Arya sighed, shrugging off the covers and swinging her legs over the side of the bed, wincing only a bit when she forgot her foot.

“What are you doing?” he asked, turning around to see her try to struggle to her feet. “You’re not supposed to put any weight on that ankle…”

“I don’t care. I’m going to make you see sense whether you like it or not.”

That was the thing about Arya. Gendry swore to himself that he’d never understand how he could want to shake her, fuck her, and hold her all at once. There wasn’t another maid in all the Kingdoms like Arya Stark, and for the turn of six moons, she’d been his wife, wedded and bedded. In bed or out of it, Gendry was certain that Arya was going to be the death of him.    

This slip of a girl held his heart in her hands, and always would.

“Get back beneath those furs, you’ll catch your death,” he protested, coming back to the bed and coaxing her to sit down with him.

“I will not,” she protested, arms folded as she rested her weight on her good foot. “There’s no chill in the air, thanks to your nightfires! And even if there were, I’m a Stark of Winterfell. We aren’t thin-blooded like you bloody Southrons…”

“Arya. Sit down.”

When there was no response save for her angry stare, Gendry pulled her down on his lap, all soft skin, bouncing breasts, and silken brown hair, gazing up at him with suddenly wet silver eyes.

His Arya never cried about anything.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t want you to go,” she said flatly, refusing to sniffle or do anything about her tears. “Three times, Gendry, I almost lost you. Once when we were children on the kingsroad, once to the Brotherhood, and once to some stupid wight. Three times. I can’t go through that again...”

“You won’t,” he promised, tracing her pouting lips with a finger. “I’ll be back soon, and once your ankle heals, you can meet me in Volantis for the return trip.”

“That’s the better part of a year. Eight or nine moons. And it’s too fucking hot in Volantis come spring…”

His hand slid to cup her hip. “And once we’re back together, we’ll make it hotter… Lord, Arya, you’re sopping wet!”

“That’s because you haven't got a shirt on,” she replied, sliding her hands along the muscles of his broad back as his fingers explored what he'd just discovered. “You haven’t even bothered to lace your breeches yet. And… you slipped out of bed this morning before we had time for a proper fuck.”

Chuckle. “Knew that was coming. You were staring the way Nymeria does when she’s sizing up her prey.”

“Which is why you go about half naked, of course. To drive me mad.” She swung her good leg over to straddle him. “What else did you expect?”

He answered her question with a kiss, one hand holding her hip, the other cupping a breast, full and soft in his hand. Inwardly, he chuckled at his wife’s inability to use pretty words to describe what they did together. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

How he was going to leave this magnificent woman after spending the better part of the past year and more with her nightly, Gendry wasn’t sure. He’d buried himself within her hundreds of times, perhaps a thousand by now, but his desire for her was a thirst that would never be quenched.

He could only hope that R’hllor would bring him back soon and safe, for he would die a happy man if only he could spend every night and morning of the rest of his life abed with her…

“No time,” he told her as she nipped his bottom lip between insistent little teeth and trailed her hand down his stomach so that her fingers could slide into his breeches. “Arry…”

“You’re not leaving me again, stupid,” she told him, as she kissed along the side of his jaw. “I won’t let you. I’m going to make it so that you won’t want to…”

Everything within him made Gendry want to give in to her, as he always did. Resisting Arya’s will had always been nigh impossible for him. But something more was going on with her.

His wife was not clingy. At all.

“This isn’t you. What’s wrong, love?”

He held her chin in his hands and forced her to look at him, even though she had further loosened already-loose leather laces to search for his cock (and by the Lord of Light, he dearly wanted her soft little hand wrapped around it).

“Arya. Stop this. Talk to me.”

She froze.

Staring into the silver-grey eyes he so loved, Gendry read what no one else in the world could. He saw not only the love and lust swirling there, but also the uncertainty, the vulnerability…

And her fears.

“Arya, we talked last night. I thought you were fine with this.”

“No, I’m not ‘fine with this!’ Neither of us are fine with this, Gendry! You sound like the idiot you are! I can’t believe you’re going to leave me for a year without looking back! I don’t care about making stupid dragonsteel, and Ice can go hang for all I care! It's not like Bran can even wield it!"

"Arya..."

"I hate that you’re leaving me again! I hate it!”

“Arya.”

“Let me go, Gendry! You can go to Qohor or to the seven hells for all I care! I’m getting dressed.”

She tried to slide from his lap and cover herself, but Gendry wasn’t having that. He held her fast as she protested and flailed, oblivious to the pain he knew must have been flaring in her bad ankle. His chest muffled the stream of curse words and insults to his intelligence that were his wife’s specialty… but he knew her real feelings about his trip would surface soon.

And they did. Soon her angry words dissolved into stormy, bitter tears. He loosened his iron grip to massage soothing patterns on her bare back, letting her cry her heart out. It moved him so much that his eyes moistened a little.

He didn’t know how he was going to be able to leave her behind.

But one thing was certain.

Once he returned, he’d never let her go again.

The door opened, snapping him out of the memory. Thoughts of Arya always brought arousal in their wake, so he was quite hard. But at the sight of his visitor, his raging hard-on shrank.

The man who entered his chamber was a few years younger, shorter, and of a more slender build. But even an observer who spared both a half-glance would be able to make out the fact they were brothers. The blood of the Storm Kings was as true and powerful as ever, even untold ages after the time of Durran Godsgrief. Both men’s hair was the same hue of black, and their eyes were the same deep blue of the Narrow Sea.

Yet while Gendry was always described by others as handsome, and was overused to women’s advances (including the maids of Driftmark who attended his weekly bath), Edric’s look left much to be desired. In him the Baratheon blue eyes were enormous, as were his ears. He wore his hair overlong, too, perhaps in imitation of his princely friend, but it hung limply to his shoulders.

Edric also was more of a talker than a doer… while Gendry was the opposite.

Brothers. But they couldn’t be more different.

“Gendry,” said Edric, sidling past the posted guard and shutting the door behind him. “I trust you’ve been well this fortnight and more.”

Gendry’s eyes followed Edric as he went for the chair that was still at the table, pulling it toward the fire.

“Shouldn’t you know?” he snapped dryly. “After all, you haven't poisoned my food or slit my throat in my sleep yet.”

Edric blinked his wide eyes.

“Why, brother, I would never become a kinslayer. Such vile creatures deserve the wrath of the gods, not the mercy of your barbarian winter King… and the hand of a highborn lady.”

Gendry knew that Edric was referring to the fates of Brienne, one of his most loyal soldiers during the war, and the faded Kingslayer. Both were living in quiet retirement on Tarth, Brienne ruling her father’s lands in her own right with Jaime Lannister by her side.

Stannis’ will had pardoned Jaime for his role in saving Shireen from the Red Woman’s fires, and although the new King and Queen thirsted for revenge against all the Lannisters and done, Jon and Daenerys agreed to uphold that decree, and all others from Stannis’ will.

Gendry knew only of Brienne and Jaime during the War for the North, where they had more than proven their worth. And it was Brienne and Jaime who’d returned Oathkeeper to House Stark, part of the living legacy of the greatsword Ice. But he knew there were many in the kingdoms that neither forgot nor forgave Ser Jaime.

Never mind, Gendry thought. Cousin Shireen is Lady of the Stormlands, and as long as Tarth is part of our House’s domains, the Kingslayer will be safe.

There has been more than enough blood shed.

“Although I daresay if I were to give you our father’s warhammer, brother," Edric continued, "and remove the spell that binds us both, you wouldn’t mind doing a little kinslaying of your own.”

Gendry glared at him.

Edric chuckled in response. “You’re so easy. No wonder you became the little wolf-girl’s pet cow…”

“Why am I really here, Edric?” growled Gendry. “It’s been more than a year. You’ve killed my men, and I’m sure you and Aegon are busy stealing our father’s lands…”

“You have always said you cared not for our father’s lands,” Edric said coldly. “And well you should not, bastard blacksmith. You should have remained well enough in frozen Winterfell, at your wolf-bitch’s beck and call.”

Why am I here?”

“You know why you are here, brother. Your existence threatens my claim on the Stormlands.”

“By R’hllor, I don’t want the fucking Stormlands!” Gendry exploded. “I never asked for any of this. You can take the Stormlands, Storm’s End, and all that lot! Let me out of here, and let me go home to my wife!”

Edric’s eyes narrowed.

“Your wife. Oh, so you don’t want the Stormlands, you’re not a storm lord, but you want to go back so pretty little Arya Stark can suck your cock, eh?”

Gendry reacted without thinking. His fist slammed into Edric’s face, knocking him out of his chair…

…and the same sensation exploded in his skull, causing him to fall flat on his own arse.

Fuck,” he swore angrily, rubbing his forehead and temple.

Edric was holding his own head. “I’ll say. Hope Egg didn’t just fall off his horse or his whore. Stupid fucking spell.”

“I’m glad I did it,” said Gendry as he grabbed the chair. “Keep talking about my wife, and I’ll pummel us both into the ground.”

“Tsk, tsk. All brawn and no brains makes Gendry a very angry boy,” Edric sneered. “Anyhow, your wife is not in Winterfell, so don’t presume.”

“So she’s in King’s Landing. So what? Her brother is the King.”

“Ah, but Arya is no longer in King’s Landing, though she was for some time.” Edric finally was able to sit upright in his chair again. “Tell me, Gendry, how faithful do you think Arya would be if she thought you were truly dead?”

Gendry didn’t want to think on it. He knew Arya’s heart, knew that she would be ever true as long as she knew he was anywhere in the world. After his death, though…

“Just spit it out, Edric. Now.”

“Arya has been proclaimed Lady of the Stormlands and Wardeness of the East by royal decree. She rides for Storm’s End with Prince Aegon as we speak.”

Gendry couldn’t help it. His mouth gaped open. Of all the things he expected to hear, he didn't expect that.

“You’re a liar.”

“I tell it true. The raven arrived this evening, although I was in the Small Council meeting when her brother and goodsister chose to usurp our family’s ancient holdings. But never fear, I have been assured by Aegon all will be well… and I shall be Lord of Storm’s End in one year’s time.”

Edric seemed less like a stag, and more like a cat, harboring a poisonous secret. Gendry almost didn't want to know more. But of course, a creature like his half-brother would not know the meaning of mercy.

“A fortnight ago, the King and Queen held a feast in honor of the Winter Princesses, both widowed, both beautiful, and both quite eligible. The Lady Sansa is now being openly courted by Lord Willas Tyrell of the Reach. And your Arya…”

But Gendry already knew.

I’ll kill him. Fuck this fucking spell.

Aegon is dead.

“…why, Aegon staked his claim on the beautiful She-Wolf and they disappeared from the feast together to… walk the gardens. They have spent every moment together since then, and it is Prince Aegon who accompanies her to Storm’s End.”

She would never! Arya loves me…

But isn’t that what your father said about her aunt?

Lyanna ran off with the dragon prince. She wasn’t kidnapped. She was in love.

And you’ve been gone these two years.

Gendry felt numb. But while being a highborn lord had its advantages, so did being a Flea Bottom bastard. He’d learned as a child to keep what he was feeling off his face.

“So what?”

Edric scoffed. “Nice try, but…”

So what? Thanks to the shit you pulled with the bloody Dragon, Arya thinks I’m dead. What, did you think I’d be angry and upset because she’s moved on? She’s a woman, and the sister of the King. She has to survive somehow.”

“As if Arya couldn’t have avoided a new marriage,” Edric countered. “This is Arya Stark we speak of. You know as well as I that this was her own choice. Both to take our family’s lands, and to allow the dragon to court her.”

“So if you think my marriage is over,” Gendry said in a monotone, “Why keep me hostage? That part is strange, since you so obviously believe Arya’s no longer in love with me.”

Edric laughed.

“You stupid bastard. Haven’t you figured it out already? Once Arya and Aegon are wed, and she’s with child, and I am in place in Storm’s End, we wage war on the Crown. Aegon is the true heir of the Seven Kingdoms, and like our ancestor Orys, I am to be his right Hand.”

I thought this was about Storm’s End… and Arya. The bitch prince never got over her refusing his advances. As if she’d ever go for a man like that! I’ve seen her around Aegon, and I know what she thinks about him. He’s a craven and a coward who thought the lot of us would perish in the North. Even if she thinks I am dead, if Arya is allowing him to be close, it’s for her own reasons.

But no. This isn’t just about me and her.

This is about Jon and Daenerys… and two spoiled little lords who think they’ve been passed over by their betters.

“Edric. Why the fuck am I still here?”

“I should think it quite obvious, brother. You are here as our hostage for the war to come. And perhaps to make us spell-forged weapons, same as you did for the bastard of Winterfell and his Dothraki slut of a queen. But if you swear allegiance to Aegon…”

“And give that fucker my wife?” he shouted. “Not while I’m alive! Over my dead body!”

Edric clucked his tongue in response.

“Whatever you do, do not say that when Aegon arrives in a moon’s turn. The spell is all that prevents him from killing you. You do not want to give him cause.”

Gendry’s eyes narrowed.

“You had better hope that little spell of yours holds true,” he warned. “For the moment it is broken, your lives are mine.”

“You would be twice damned,” Edric scoffed. “A kinslayer and a Kingslayer, for Aegon is the true King of Westeros. The sooner you begin to see your situation, dear brother, the better for us all.” He stood up.

“Leaving so soon?” Gendry snarked.

“Aye, now that I have given you something to think on. Good evening, brother of mine.”

Gendry only glared at the man as he departed with a jaunty whistle, then shut the door behind him. Edric’s jealousy of him was palpable, and he’d managed to steal two years of his life.

And kinslaying was an abomination in the sight of all the gods that ever were.

“Then by R’hllor, let me be damned,” he swore, throwing more kindling on his fire.

For suddenly, the night was once again dark and full of terrors.

 

*

 

Arya didn’t want to like the Stormlands. How could she? She was a daughter of the North, and knew every House, every holdfast, and every man, woman, and child in her beloved Winterfell. After all her wanderings, she’d wanted nothing more than to stay in Winterfell forever, riding and hunting in the wolfswood, and living with Gendry in the rooms behind the forge where Mikken made Needle at Jon’s request.

Then, too, there was the conversation she’d had with Bran via raven her first night in the kingswood. Confirming her sense that Gendry would be returned to her, but warning her of the danger to herself.

She would take care, but she would not be afraid, Arya decided. Animals and children sensed fear.

And so would her stormlords.

As guarded as Arya felt about these new lands, when the thick forest of the kingswood began to thin on the morning of the seventh day, she took heart as she caught sight of the grand castle looming in front of them.

“Behold, Bronzegate,” said Aegon, riding beside her. “And I see that House Buckler has sent an envoy to greet their lady and their prince…”

But the prince was interrupted by an explosion of hooves, and a cloaked figure sped in front of them both.

“What is the meaning of this?” Aegon sputtered, clearly annoyed at royal protocol being broken.

Arya simply laughed.

“This is my first time seeing Bronzegate, but my goodsister Shireen was the first to see our old friend.”

It was Ser Brus Buckler, and his wildling of a wife, Alba, second daughter of the raider Gerrick Kingsblood. Rickon pulled up beside his sister to glower at the stormlander who helped his wife from her horse to hug her tightly.

“Who is that?” Rickon demanded, glaring at the man who was embracing his wife. “I like to know the names of the people I’m going to kill…”

“Settle that wolfsblood of yours, wild one,” Arya smirked, as they rode to greet the party from Bronzegate. “Ser Brus Buckler is a friend of Houses Stark and Baratheon, and fought valiantly in the Wars for the Dawn. When his cousin died, he became Lord of Bronzegate. He is happily wed to Alba, who has the blood of the First Men. And he is quite fond of Shireen… as one would be of a younger sister , or a daughter. So you have little and less to fear.”

But Rickon still glared daggers, and wasn’t satisfied until Shireen saw him, and beckoned him over with a smile and a call.

That afternoon, they feasted merrily inside the study walls of the ancient holdfast, enjoying a luncheon of fare from both forest and sea. Arya, who’d grown up in Winterfell far from any source of seafood, had grown to crave such fare during her days as Cat of the Canals. Braavos was famed for its assortment of seafood, as were all of the Free Cities.

Shireen was trying to get her husband to try shellfish.

“Rick, it’s not half bad,” she implored. “Try one and you’ll see.”

“I’m not eating anything that looks like that,” he replied, staring at his wife’s plate of oysters on the half shell as if it was a pile of refuse.

Arya was seated at the place of honor, at the right hand of the Prince of Dragonstone. She was laughing with Alba when she felt Aegon’s eyes on her.

She turned to face the prince. “What is it?”

“You truly are the most captivating creature. Laughing, swilling wine, eating a platter’s worth of oysters… you know what they say about oysters, right?”

The smile faded from Arya’s face. “You know that I used to sell oysters, right?”

“You wound me, fair lady. I wonder if you were half so cruel to that blacksmith who stole you from me.”

Turns out you stole that blacksmith from me, Aegon…

“Crueler,” Arya said matter-of-factly. “When I saw Gendry again after he left me, I nicked him with Needle.”

“Pity. You should have used his warhammer. It may have left more of an impression.”

But his words transported Arya far back in time, long before she’d known anything about Targaryens still being in the world, or living dragons…

“I ruined that gown that Lady Smallwood gave me, and I don’t sew so good…”

Young Arya chewed her lip in frustration. She sounded like a lowborn, not like the daughter of a lord she was supposed to be. Why couldn’t Lord Beric understand that an acorn dress couldn’t make her into a little lady? And that her brother and mother might not even ransom her?

After all, she wasn’t perfect Sansa.

“I don’t sew very well, I mean,” she said in a rush, trying to clean up her language. “Septa Mordane used to say I had a blacksmith’s hands…”

Gendry, who had been listening to her conversation with Beric, hooted. “Those soft little things?” he called out. “You couldn’t even hold a hammer.”

“I could if I wanted!” she snapped at him. “Shut up, you stupid!”

That only made Gendry laugh harder.

Arya sighed. Sometimes, she missed Gendry so much that it ached. This was one of those times. She missed turning to see him sitting next to her, looking up into that steady cerulean gaze of his, intertwining her fingers with his impossibly bigger ones. She missed the way they’d learned to communicate things to each other with just a glance over the years.

She missed that no one knew what she was thinking better than he did.

She wondered what Gendry would make of Bronzegate. She knew that Ser Brus had respected her Bull, as the stormlander knight been one of the first and most grateful soldiers to wield his dragonflame-forged steel.

And Alba was as wild as Arya herself was. “I hear you stole that handsome man of yours proper,” was the first thing the wildling girl had said to her when they first met. “ That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. No buying and trading in womenflesh, like the stinkin’ kneelers.”

“Come back to me, lovely lady,” Aegon purred. “You’ve once again gone somewhere your prince can’t follow.”

She blinked once, then turned to the prince.

“Then follow me to the tiltyard, Your Grace, for it has been overlong since I’ve sparred. I would cross swords with you.”

And before he could pull out her chair for her, Arya had sprung to her feet, and had left the dais, the prince following close on her heels.

Maybe she could kill Aegon during practice. It would be quite simple to make it look like an accident... valar morghulis... wouldn't it? She'd be doing her brother and goodsister, and all of Westeros, a service. Valar dohaeris.

And run the risk of killing Gendry, too? I cannot.

Fuck that fucking spell, she swore to herself. She had to find a way to break it.

For now, she had to live with this. Arya would do what she could when she got to Storm’s End. But she had to bide her time, and hope that Ned Dayne, Tom, Lem, and Bran were doing all they could…

She hoped they worked quickly. Because patience had never been her strong suit.

“When you host the tourney at Storm’s End, I swear that I shall prevail over all others,” Aegon said fervently as they walked. “I will crown you my Queen of Love and Beauty, the way my father crowned your aunt at Harrenhal.”

“That was a sadder story,” Arya quipped, having heard her goodsister Meera's tales.

“Aye, it was… but Storm’s End is not Harrenhal. Your castle isn’t so ill-omened as that. You will not suffer the fate of the Lady Lyanna.”

At his words, Arya suppressed a shiver. Nothing good ever comes when the blood of the North goes south of the Neck, she remembered Old Nan warning when she was a small child. Suddenly, she was afraid for her brother, sitting on the throne of Westeros, afraid for her sister Sansa, working at his side.

But she had Rickon with her, strong and true, her wild wolf of a youngest brother, not even fifteen yet and one of the fiercest battle-knights in the whole of the land. In the tiltyard that afternoon, there were whispers about Barristan the Bold and Jaime Lannister from the people who watched the Wild Wolf defeat all opponents. Ser Barristan and Ser Jaime had also been youthful legends in their time.

And there was Bran, Lord of Winterfell, the three-eyed Crow who refused to remain entwined in the Great Weirwood’s roots forever… her dear brother, with powers Arya couldn’t even begin to understand… Bran who watched over them all.

Bran, please go to Gendry, find a way to let him know that I am safe and well. Tell him why I had to take Storm’s End.

And tell him that no matter what he hears about me and the Dragon Prince, I am still in love with him.

 

*

 

Less than a fortnight later, the royal party arrived at Storm’s End.

Arya had caught glimpses of the castle, here and there in the distance, on the kingsroad south as they drew ever closer to their destination. Once leaving Bronzegate, they’d been hosted at Fellwood by Lady Fell, a gentle and kind woman with the roundest face Arya had ever seen.

Spring in all its splendor had arrived in the Stormlands, and Arya couldn’t help but marvel at its beauty every day as they rode. As the forest thinned and gave way to wet grasslands, buffeted by the relentless sea, there were wildflowers everywhere that could be seen.

If there was one thing that a She-Wolf of Winterfell loved, it was flowers.

On that final night, they made camp within a half-day’s ride of the ancient seat of the Storm Kings, within sight of Shipbreaker’s Bay. The sound of the sea lulled Arya to sleep in the pavilion, making her lonely night less restless, comforting her, giving her a better slumber than she’d known for many years.

Yes, Arya Stark was of the North.

But she’d found refuge and the will to live in a city on the other side of the selfsame sea. A city where she learned much about the ways of those who lived within the sight and the sound of water.

Besides, I am half a fish, too, Arya reminded herself as she drifted off, although I don’t look it. Water has always been good to me.

By the next morning, Arya wished that she were a fish, or at least, the skinny pink otter she’d imagined herself in the war-torn Riverlands as a refugee girl. It wasn’t because the Stormlands were at war; quite the contrary. From the turrets of the castle in the distance, she could see the banners from all over her domain. Her lords had come to greet her and the Prince of Dragonstone, of course, and the varicolored pavilions of their hosts surrounded the great keep from the Age of Heroes, with its single drum tower….

And high above them all, taking precedent, the Baratheon stag salient, crowned, sable, flew high above all, as it had for over 300 years.

The banners of her husband’s house. Now, her house.

Waiting for her.

Arya had no fear of rebellion or insurrection; among those camped in wait for her were Houses Buckler, Fell, and Tarth, all loyal to her, whose lords and ladies she knew from the war. Many others counted her as friend. She also traveled with the grey-and-white banners of House Stark, and the three-headed Targaryen dragon, royal sigils of the North and South, united.

What filled Arya’s heart with dismay was the heat. It was only spring, and the morning promised a sultry day. Sansa had warned her about this; King’s Landing was already overwarm for Northern blood, and only Dorne and the Reach were warmer than the lands of the Storm Kings. If this was Storm’s End in the spring, how would she be able to draw a good breath come summer?

That morning, Arya woke up sweating, positively melting… and eyeing the clothing that had been set out for her. Most of the stormlanders she’d known were men, and Lady Buckler had been born of the Free Folk, but Lady Fell had been born and bred with the lands of the storm. It had been she who had given Arya her first gown befitting a ruling Lady Baratheon.

At the time, Arya had thanked her. Although she would always prefer practical clothing like breeches and chemises to dresses and gowns, her years in Braavos had taught Arya to appreciate feminine clothing once in a while. Wearing a simple dress or an elaborate gown could disarm an enemy who’d be naught but suspicious of a woman dressed in the garb of a man.

And of course, the courtesans of Braavos had taught her how certain dresses could ensnare men utterly, would weaken their resolve and cloud their thinking.

Once the peace came, Arya no longer protested wearing dresses during formal occasions, although when she was hunting, fighting, or riding, she insisted upon breeches. This pleased her brothers and sister, who no longer had to explain her unconventional behavior.

And it pleased her husband even more… especially since she had the habit of forgetting to wear smallclothes beneath her skirts when they were alone together in Winterfell’s forge. As she’d told Gendry matter-of-factly once, since he preferred to walk around with no shirts, then he deserved the torture of always having to guess whether she had on anything beneath her skirts.

“That’s different! I do it ‘cause of the heat from the fires…”

“So do I.”

In the two years since he’d disappeared, Arya had invariably worn smallclothes. There was no longer any reason not to, she thought sadly.

Which was part of the problem with Lady Fell’s dress. She’d be expected to wear it in the procession, but because of the stiff formal brocade, she’d have to ride sidesaddle. And Arya hated riding sidesaddle even more than her aunt had…

“Even Lady Lyanna rode sidesaddle sometimes,” Harwin protested disapprovingly as they left Acorn Hall. “You’re not a little girl anymore.”

Arya simply rolled her eyes, and mounted her horse, swinging one leg over the mount’s back, oblivious to the eyes following her bare limb.

“There’s your answer,” laughed old Tom, slapping Harwin on the back.

“I’m nothing like her,” Arya said to the men, quite exasperated. “It’s not my fault my clothes got ruined, and Lady Smallwood gave me all these stinking old dresses.”

This seemed to send even more laughter among the ranks of men. It was too reminiscent of Winterfell. Why didn’t anyone ever take her seriously?

She glared at Gendry, folding her arms, daring him to laugh at her, too. But he didn’t. He merely turned red around the ears, speechless for a change.

Lady Smallwood came up to take Arya’s rains from the stableboy.

“May the gods be with you on your journey back to your family, child. And from now on, if you must ride astride your steed… wear breeches.”

Damn men and their stupid laughter, Arya thought angrily. Sidesaddle was no way to ride a horse. Then, too, the brocade of Lady Fell’s beautiful black-and-gold frock would have kept Arya warm even in the chillier spring weather of Winterfell. The morning air here was already baking Arya’s bare skin. She couldn’t imagine putting it on before the cool of the evening.

Too warm for silk, and it’s not yet summer. But I can’t disappoint Lady Fell. Even worse, House Fell might take it as a slight...

The gown was cut in the fashion of the Stormlands, which was more conservative than ladies of the Reach and Dorne, but certainly much more revealing than anything a woman of the Crownlands, Westerlands, or Riverlands would wear. It featured long sleeves, a split skirt, and a low, plunging neckline that revealed what women further North generally concealed. The women of House Buckler favored a more covered look, like their Lady Alba, but at Fellwood, the style of the Stormlands was on full display.

No wonder Edric Baratheon couldn’t tear his eyes from my chest, thought Arya with exasperation . He was probably wondering why I wasn’t showing off the goods, like all the other proper ladies in the family realms. The Red Woman wore dresses like this even at the Wall, and here I thought she was just Stannis’ strumpet.

Feeling tightly wound, Arya washed the sweat from her body quickly, then dressed in a linen shirt and breeches. She quickly tied up her long brown hair with a single leather lace, much as a man would. Instead of wrapping her teats as she always did, she took the corset from one of her court dresses, a plain black one, and laced it over her chemise. It would provide adequate support for her chest in the saddle. For she planned to go for a ride on her own before she went about the uncomfortable business of trussing herself up for the formal procession.

Arya clasped the bull’s head pendant she’d worn since Lem gave it to her around her neck, thinking about Gendry.

I’m going to see what there is to see around your father’s castle, stupid. Can’t wait to tell you what I think… besides it’s too bloody hot in your Stormlands for a winter wolf like me, that is. Wish I’d known that when I agreed to do this for Shireen, and Sansa, and Jon and Daenerys, too.

Sighing, Arya tucked her husband’s smuggled gift inside her blouse as she left the pavilion to meet the dawn.

Outside of the royal party’s encampment, the warmth of the day was broken by cool, salty breezes. Although it was more than a league away, nothing obscured Arya’s view of the sea. The force of the storms that assaulted Shipbreaker’s Bay since time immemorial, and the many times Storm’s End had been under siege over the ages, ensured that nothing grew around the cliffs where the castle stood save for the hardiest grasses, and the most resilient flowers, like the yellow day-lilies that grew everywhere.

It had been many years since Arya had seen anything like this. The soiled Blackwater near King's Landing, the quiet Blackwater Rush, even the bubbling streams of the Wendwater were nothing like the crash of the untamed pure waters here. The beauty of the early morning, the sound of the larks and seagulls, and the roar of the sea all drew her in, beckoning her. She had to get closer.

Spurring her sand steed on, Arya raced across the plain so that she could get closer to the rocks and dunes. It was the start of a splendid day, without a cloud in the sky. The colors of the dawn painted the eastern horizon with a palette the likes of which she’d never seen.

Arya felt her heart swell in her chest as she reigned her horse to a stop. Not since leaving Winterfell had she felt this free. The cool air of the sea assaulted her face, taking the loose tie away with the wind so that her hair floated on the breeze. She closed her eyes, inhaling the saline, the scent of flowers and grass, and felt alive.

After soaking up the moment, Arya spurred her sand steed on. Soon, she was at the cliffs. Dismounting her trusty horse, she paused for a moment just to take it all in once more.

Somewhere on Driftmark, Gendry’s watching and listening to the selfsame sea.

And someday, he’ll watch the dawn, right here, with me.

She took her pendant from beneath her blouse, and kissed it. Sealing the promise.

Then she made her way down the rocks carefully, and raced down the sandy bank… until her toes splashed in the cool shallows.

Gendry, I wish you were here with me, she thought happily, reining in her impulse to strip bare and plunge into the water, and only taking off her riding boots, vest, and breeches so the salt wouldn't ruin the leather. This isn’t like swimming in the godswood's pool at Winterfell, it feels great. Remember how I taught you how to swim there, and you complained it was freezing cold? You'd be just fine here, I know you would…

Lured in deeper by the soothing cool of the bay, Arya took a leap and plunged in. Laughing at the sensation and her own silliness, she started to swim.

I hope no one can see me from the castle, was her first thought. But even if they can, I’m sure they’ll never know it’s their lady, out for a morning swim. It’s not something a proper lady would ever do.

I wish I’d taken off this stupid chemise off first, though. Feels like a weight.

What Arya was feeling wasn’t her chemise, as she soon discovered. It was the notorious undercurrent of Shipbreaker's Bay she felt as she swam out from the shore. Lurking just beneath the surface of the deep blue waters, it was the current that had drawn so many to their watery graves. True to her mother’s sigil, Arya could swim like a fish, but even a fish cannot swim against a tide with many, many tons of water behind it.

Within a few short moments, Arya knew she was in trouble… because every effort she made to swim toward shore seemed to end with her drifting further away.

And it was all she could do to keep her head above water.

I can’t keep fighting like this. But if I don’t, it will sweep me under.

Damn Shipbreaker’s Bay. For all Sansa’s stories about Elenei, you would think the gods of the sea would be kinder toward someone who loves a son from the line of Storm Kings.

Or perhaps that’s not how the story goes. I never did have much patience for the bloody stories and songs.

No, no! I refuse to drown within sight of my husband’s castle! May the Old Gods and the new help me… please!

Suddenly, something tapped her shoulder, firmly. It was an oar.

“Grab this, my lady,” said a kind but grizzled voice. “Can't have you drowning when you just got here.”

Arya didn’t need to be told twice. She didn’t care much if her rescuer were a pirate or a raper. Nearly all her strength was gone, and she wanted nothing more than to be out of that water! Using the oar, then the side of the rowboat for balance, she stumbled onto the deck, only for a sea salt encrusted, spray-stained black cloak to be wrapped about her shoulders.

“That was a close one,” said the man, who looked old enough to be Arya’s father. He didn’t seem much like a raper at all, just a fisherman with kind brown eyes and spackled grey in his beard. His morning catch was heaped on the boat between them, a few of the fishes leaping, and Arya felt her stomach rumble.

“I thank you, kind ser,” she said cordially, thinking about what Sansa might say if she were rescued. “The day is overwarm for me, so I thought to go for a morning swim...”

The man laughed. “Shipbreaker’s Bay is nowhere for a swim, Lady Arya,” he assured her. “We’ve pools in the castle for that, and baths that I’m sure you’d enjoy better. You see, the Lady Elenei’s parents have never forgiven Lord Durran for taking her from them. They would have drawn you to their halls in the depths of the Narrow Sea, and demanded that you give account for your trespass.”

“I am the Lady of Storm’s End,” retorted Arya with a toss of her head, “and I answer to neither gods nor men. I do as I like.”

The man nodded, a chuckle in his voice, “So I have heard. All said the same of the Lady Lyanna. No wonder Robert’s son loves you.”

Robert? Arya knew that no mere fisherman would ever address a king by his first name without title or honorific.

“Who are you?” she asked, wrapping the cloak more tightly about her.

“I’m your castellan, raised in the same Flea Bottom from which your husband came. Stannis Baratheon, the rightful king who legitimized young Gendry, was my liege lord and my dearest friend. I am Davos Seaworth, my lady, at your service.”

Arya met his smile. Due to being injured during the siege of the Twins, she’d never met Davos, but Gendry and her brothers had, when he brought Rickon back to Winterfell.

“Then it is truly ‘ser.’ I have heard so much about you, Ser Davos.”

“And I have heard even more about you, Lady Arya,” he said. “And just Davos will do fine. House Baratheon has favored me, but I’m just an old smuggler at heart… and before that, a bastard from the Bottom.”

“Then please call me Arya. My husband was born in Flea Bottom, and I’ve no trouble with bastards.” She looked around. “Oh, no, what happened to the rest of my clothes?! I have to go back and...”

Ser Davos chuckled. “Never mind those, my lady. They’ll be lost in the tide by now. You’ve chambermaids and a bath waiting for you in the lord’s chambers. My cloak will preserve you from prying eyes. We’ll row you into Storm’s End and none will be the wiser, for we’ve plucked many others from these treacherous seas. My wife Marya and your new little lady’s maid will get you sorted, then you can greet the procession.”

Arya’s stomach grumbled again.

“And a spot of breakfast, aye? I believe an old friend of yours is making something special for you in the kitchens.”

Arya remembered Hot Pie with a lopsided grin. It would be good to see him again.

Just as they rowed under the raised portcullis of the seaside entrance to Storm’s End, Arya noticed the gull sitting on Davos’ shoulder. When she stared into its eyes, it took off, streaking back toward the sea.

Part of her wanted to sprout wings and follow it.

But another part of her was interested to see what new adventures this castle by the sea held for her.

 

*

 

Gendry was starting to hate the sound of the sea.

As he tossed and turned the night after Edric’s visit, he felt restless and out of sorts. He couldn’t help but think about Aegon and Arya, riding into the castle he’d heard so much about and had never seen.

Why did Arya feel the need to claim Storm’s End? Edric wouldn’t say, damn him. But Arya had been the reason why Gendry hadn’t thought at all about going south, not even to visit the Stormlands where his father and uncles had been born. He was content wherever Arya was, he told himself.

What do I know about the damned Stormlands, anyway? I’m just a Flea Bottom bastard, no matter who everyone says I look like.

Damned sea. The sea’s brought me nothing but bad luck. What would I want with some bloody castle by the sea, anyway?

He wondered why Arya was in Storm’s End and not Winterfell. Had there been a dispute between her and Bran? But that didn’t make any sense. Never had he seen brothers and sisters who loved each other more than the Starks… they were closer to each other than they were to their own husbands and wives, in a sense. If Gendry hadn’t known better, he himself would have been quite jealous of the King, for her brother Jon was Arya’s favorite person in the world. It made no sense that Arya would have been expelled from either Winterfell or the Red Keep.

Unless Edric was right, and that pinch-faced fucker Aegon had stolen her away from him...

Gendry tried to pull the ornate cover over his broad shoulders, and only succeeded in exposing his feet to a blast of chilly air. Swearing, he wrapped the velvet around his shoulders, got up from the bed, and walked back over to the nightfire. His internal clock had long ago adapted to the worship of the Lord of Light, and the need to keep the fires ever-burning… and he'd long been able to sleep anywhere.

He’d sleep in the chair tonight. Being near his nightfire would ward off the chilly sea breeze.

Staring into the fire, Gendry imagined he was back at Winterfell, in the room at the back of the forge, Arya sleeping contentedly in his arms, her soft skin pressed against him everywhere, the delicious scent of her filling his nose. Even though it had been years, it was something he’d never forget.

After all, this wasn’t the first time they’d been parted.

When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the Narrow Sea. But he wasn’t in the highest tower at Driftmark any longer… he was sitting cliffside, a strange meadow behind him. And it was now early morning, not the middle of the night.

Had Lem fulfilled his promise? Had he and Anguy found a way to rescue him from Edric and Aegon after all?

The pounding of hooves sounded right behind him. Covering his eyes with a hand, he stood up…

It was Arya, mounted atop a light grey sand steed, riding as if she were trying to run from something. Or someone. He’d know her anywhere, and he certainly knew that no other woman in the Seven Kingdoms rode like she did. Even the Queen’s Dothraki women seemed awed to see the She-Wolf of Winterfell ride. Certainly he’d learned long ago never to race her and expect to win.

Grinning, he waved at her, and called her name ("Arya!"), but she seemed not to see him at all. What sort of wicked spell was this?

As she dismounted a few feet from where she stood, Arya took his breath away. Gendry wasn’t certain what to look at first, her upturned face with rosy cheeks, her hair floating on the wind, the sweat-stained linen chemise and leather breeches that clung to her curves, or the leather contraption that seemed designed to emphasize how lovely her teats were. She looked every bit a warrior maiden from the Dawn Age, the forest lass from all the songs.

Could any man presume to hold the heart of such a creature long after he was presumed dead? As her grey eyes scanned the sea, Gendry wondered how long this beautiful woman of his would remain faithful to his memory…

If that bastard of a dragon had already staked his claim! 

Or worse, stolen her heart...

Just as he was about to reach for her, Arya reached for something she was wearing around her neck.

His bulls’ head pendant, the only thing he’d been able to craft while still in Norvos.

The smithy of the strange Qohorik merchant had been newly used that day. Gendry could always tell from the state of the fire. Along with the familiar billow, anvils, and various other tools, the forge was littered with spellbooks, jars, and vials that seemed mysterious. Another man might have drawn back and held his peace, but Gendry was only intrigued.

“He say you can shape Valyrian steel, Andal,” said the Qohorik in broken Common, his accent thick. Behind him, Harwin, Lem, Anguy, and some of his other men looked on.

“I can,” Gendry said confidently. “I come seeking knowledge of newmade Valyr…”

“Show me,” barked the Qohorik smith.

And Gendry had. The Valyrian steel that the Qohorik in Norvos wanted Gendry to reshape was neither a dagger nor a sword, but something more rare – a lady’s bracelet. It barely fit around three of Gendry’s fingers, but it would slide right from his Arya’s slender wrist.

He imagined some silver-haired girl or the other wearing it during the time of the dragonlords. Valyrian steel always held the memory of those who wore or wielded it, and the spell to reshape it would reveal all.

It was strange having an audience as he worked. Other than when he first unlocked the secrets of dragonfire during the Wars, the only other person who was usually there with him was Arya, who never seemed to tire of looking on. Right before he left Winterfell, she’d almost turned into an assistant of sorts, handing him this tool or implement or the other, or a fresh bucket of water to cool the weapons and armor, or a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. She brought him meals, too, for while he was working, he didn’t often care to stop.

And Arya, for her part, usually chattered as he worked, part of the background even as he tuned in and out, depending upon the amount of concentration a task required. If she were silent, she was either eating or practicing her Water Dance, so there were sounds if not words.

It was nothing like the eerie silence in the forge just then. His men and the Qohorik smith said nothing. They simply watched as he quickly and easily reshaped the lady’s bracelet. Sure enough, as he murmured the words he’d watched Tobho speak several times, words that Samwell Tarly had rediscovered, in his mind, Gendry saw the face of the girl who’d once worn the bauble long before the days of the Doom. It had been a gift from her lover, a smith and a slave, although she’d been from a freeholder family far more rich and powerful than the Targaryens ever were during the days of Old Valyria. And yet…

And yet it was a Targaryen dragonlord that the Valyrian girl would have for her husband. Tears fell upon her smith’s bracelet, first hers, then both of theirs as they made love under cover of darkness...

The steel remembered.

Gendry couldn’t see what became of the girl. She only saw when she dropped the bauble, almost intentionally, from her litter as it wound through the streets of Volantis hundreds of years ago, as she headed toward her wedding processional. As the last traces of the bracelet disappeared above the flames, it was as if the girl looked into Gendry’s eyes… and winked.

He looked into the molten steel and saw it.

It was the three-headed Targaryen dragon.

As he reworked the steel, he said nothing, although he now knew the secret the steel held for him. The girl was a long-distant ancestor who’d married into the Targaryen family. Denied her love, she’d nonetheless given him her maidenhead… and her first child, the heir, was of his blood. That child would marry a Targaryen cousin, and the blood would be preserved. But within the blood of the three-headed dragon, there were secrets.

One of those secrets was the long-ago smith, a slave whose descendants would someday become kings and queens.

A slave known only as the Bull, who made his beloved a bangle out of steel, but had dreamed of making it...

“Gold. Have you any?” asked Gendry, breaking the silence.

“Gold I have, if you have the coin,” said the Qohorik gruffly, yet there was admiration in his tone. 

“Then I'll take it, a gold nugget, and my dagger.”

This part of the ritual, he had never done, but it was as if he knew what to do. Another spell bound the gold of the pendant to the steel so that it cleaved and rippled. Then he took up his dagger, slit his finger, and added drops of his blood to the molten metal.

Three of them. For it was three generations before the time of Daenys the Dreamer that the girl had parted from her smith.

Done, he handed the dagger to Lem Lemoncloak.

“Clean this up, and I’ll take a strip o’ cloth to wrap my hand.”

Lem took away Gendry's knife, stained with his blood, and the bandage was produced.

Within moments, the steel had taken the shape and hue Gendry wanted.

A bull’s head, much like the long-ago helmet he’d treasured as a boy.

And just before he cooled it in the water, he placed a hole between its horns, imagining what Arya would look like as he placed it around her neck.

Gendry had to wonder no more. Arya was wearing his bauble, and her eyes told the tale of what it meant to her. He didn’t know much, but he knew that only he could draw that expression from her silver eyes, that mixture of tenderness and frustration and hope and so much love that he only wanted to be worthy of it.

She loves me yet, he thought wonderingly. Arya is still in love with me.

“You got my bull pendant,” he said wonderingly, more to himself than to her. “So Lem’s found you… that means you know where I am, know what’s happened, and who did it… Arry, is that why you’re here, and not in Winterfell? Are you doing this for me, love?”

As if in response, Arya seemed to giggle, then scramble down the rocks. He tried to follow, but somehow couldn’t get his footing. Helpless, he watched as she headed toward the water.

Don’t go in there, he thought desperately. Gendry had never seen the Stormlands before, but he knew the treachery of the Blackwater around King’s Landing, had lost friends swept away when they ventured beyond the shallows, too small to fight the strong undercurrents of the Narrow Sea. His Arya had only known the rivers and streams and pools of the North and the Riverlands, and the canals of Braavos.

It was as if he were watching his worst nightmare when Arya divested herself of everything save for her chemise and dove into the water. He watched her struggle, watched her head go under…

“ARYA!” he shouted. “ARYA!”

He didn’t notice the little boat swimming out of a tunnel in the cliff below him until it was well on its way toward where Arya was bobbing up and down. Thankfully, the oarsman noticed the woman struggling to stay above water. As he helped her into the boat, Gendry could see that it was Ser Davos Seaworth. Good old Davos!

Breathing a sigh of relief, he watched as Davos wrapped his cloak around his soaked, shivering wife, and rowed them both back into the tunnel…. But where were they going? Where was the old sailor taking his wife?

Gendry looked over and up, up, up… as far as his eyes could see… and beheld the single drum tower that he knew must be Storm’s End. Feeling a little strange in the head, he fell to his knees…

And came to with a start and a shiver. He was still sitting in the chair before the nightfire, which had dwindled down to glowing cinders. When was the last time he’d been so negligent at tending to the duties required by the Lord of Light? Gendry couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so long without waking. The sound of the lark, and the light from the windows, were evidence that it was now morning.

A fluttering drew his attention. He whirled around and saw a seagull, flapping around the room.

“Get out of here, pest!” Gendry reached for a poker to chase the stray bird away. The last thing he needed was bird droppings all over his prison cell… and that’s what the room was, no matter how nice it was. A prison.

But the gull paid him no mind. It flew to the windowsill, turned to Gendry and seemed to stare at him.

Then it plunged from the window, only to be caught on a gust of wind, which carried it out to sea.

Shuttering the windows, Gendry thought about his dream… and wondered why it felt so real.

It was of no consequence now. He knew that Arya was in Storm’s End, and that he would need to go there to find her. And find her he would, for neither captivity nor death could keep him away from his love.

And once he did, if the Lord of Light gave him the strength, Gendry Baratheon would deal with all who had kept him from his she-wolf accordingly.

Ours is the fury.

 

 ---to be continued--

 

APPENDIX: Excerpts from Maester Alleras'  Great Houses of Westeros In the Year 306 After Aegon’s Conquest

(Currently in progress)

 

CROWNLANDS

 

Jon of the Houses Stark and Targaryen, the Unburnt,

King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men,

Lord of the Seven Kingdoms,

Final Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,

the Prince That Was Promised,

Bringer of the Dawn, and Rider of the Dragon, Viserion,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the Unburnt,

Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men,

Lady of the Seven Kingdoms,

Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea,

Breaker of Chains, Once Queen of Meereen,

Mother of Dragons, and Rider of the Dragon, Drogon,

Born 284 AC, 22 years old.

 

Aegon of House Targaryen, once known as the Young Griffin,

Prince of Dragonstone and Heir Apparent of the Seven Kingdoms,

Preserver of the Realms of Men, and Rider of the Dragon, Rhaegal,

Born 281 AC, 25 years old.

 

Edric of the Houses Baratheon and Florent,

Master of Ships and Lord of Driftmark,

Captain of the Ship Delena’s Pride,

Acknowledged son of King Robert Baratheon,

Preserver of the Realms of Men,

Born 291 AC, 19 years old.

 

Lothor Brune, the Steadfast,

Lord Brune, Knight of the Dyre Den, Master of Crackclaw Point,

Born 264 AC, 42 years old.

 

Mya Brune, the Sure-Footed,

Acknowledged daughter of King Robert Baratheon,

Lady Brune of the Dyre Den, wife of Ser Lothor,

Born 279 AC, 27 years old.

 

Robert of House Brune,

Born 305 AC, 1 year old.

 

 

THE NORTH

 

Brandon of House Stark, the Flying Wolf,

Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North,

Master of the Direwolf, Summer,

Born 290 AC, 16 years old.

 

Meera Stark, born of House Reed,

Lady of Winterfell and Wardeness of the North,

Wife to Brandon, Lord of Winterfell,

Born 285 AC, 21 years old.

 

Rickon Stark, the Wild Wolf,

Heir to the North and Master of the Direwolf, Shaggydog,

Born 292 AC, 14 years old.

 

Shireen Stark, born of House Baratheon,

Princess of Dragonstone, Heiress to the North,

Wife to Rickon, Heir to Winterfell,

Born 289 AC, 17 years old.

 

 

STORMLANDS

 

Gendry of House Baratheon, the Bull,

Forger of Lightbringer, the Warrior Smith,

Lord of Storm’s End and Warden of the East,

Legitimized son of King Robert Baratheon,

Member of the Brotherhood Without Banners, once outlawed,

Knight of the Hollow Hill,

Born 284 AC, 22 years old,

Missing since 304 AC. Presumed dead by the Great Council of 305.

 

Arya Baratheon, She-Wolf of Winterfell,

Born of House Stark, and Mistress of the Direwolf, Nymeria,

Lady of Storm’s End, Wardeness of the East,

Princess of the Northern Realms of Winter,

Past Acolyte of the House of Black and White,

Wife to Gendry, Lord of Storm’s End,

Born 289 AC, 17 years old.

Presumed widowed by the Great Council of 305.

 

Davos Seaworth

Castellan of Storm’s End, Lord Seaworth,

Captain of the ship Black Betha, the Onion Knight,

Born 260 AC, 46 years old.

 

Marya Seaworth,

Chatelaine of Storm’s End, Lady Seaworth,

Age unknown (but younger than Ser Davos).

 

Hot Pie, head baker at Storm’s End.

Lover of Willow Heddle, cook at Storm’s End,

Born around 286 AC, says he is 20 years old.

 

Willow Heddle, cook at Storm’s End,

Lover of Hot Pie, baker at Storm’s End,

Born around 289 or 290 AC, around 16 or 17 years old.

 

Weasel, lady’s maid at Storm’s End,

Ward of Hot Pie and Willow,

Born around 296 AC, around 10 years old.

 

Brus Buckler, Lord of Bronzegate,

Knighted for his service during the Wars,

Date of birth unknown.

 

Alba, Lady Buckler, born of the Free Folk,

Wife of Brus Buckler, and Lady of Bronzegate,

Born around 283 AC, around 23 years old.

 

Lady Fell, Mistress of Fellwood Keep, date of birth unknown.

 

Brienne Lannister, the Blue, Ruling Lady of Tarth,

Wife of Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer,

Born 280 AC, 26 years old.

 

Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, Lord Consort of Tarth,

Pardoned for his crimes by the Great Council of 305, on account of services rendered during the Wars.

Released from the Kingsguard by royal decree of King Jon and Queen Daenerys, 305 AC.

Born 266 AC, 40 years old.

 

Duncan of House Tarth, Heir of the Sapphire Isle,

Born 305 AC, 1 year old.

 

 

THE VALE

 

Eddard of House Arryn, called Ned,

Lord of the Vale, the ward of Lord and Lady Redfort,

Born 302 AC, nearly 4 years old.

 

Sansa Arryn, Fair Lady of the North,

Born to House Stark, formerly of House Lannister,

Lady of the Eyrie, Mistress of Harrenhal,

Keeper of the Laws of the Seven Kingdoms,

Princess of the Northern Realms of Winter,

Widow of the late Lord Harrold Arryn,

Born 286 AC, 20 years old.

 

Mychel Redfort, Lord Regent of the Vale,

Born before 275 AC, at least 31 years old.

 

Myranda Redfort, born of House Royce,

Lady Regent of the Vale,

Born 279 AC, 27 years old.

 

 

RIVERLANDS

  

Edmure of House Tully,

Lord of Riverrun and the Riverlands of the Trident,

Born 274 AC, 32 years old.

 

Roslin Tully, born of the extinct House Frey,

Lady of Riverrun and the Riverlands of the Trident,

Wife to Edmure,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Bryn of House Tully,

Heir to Riverrun and the Riverlands of the Trident,

Born 300 AC, 6 years old.

 

Bethany of House Tully,

Born 305 AC, 1 year old.

 

Brynden of House Tully, the Blackfish,

Lord of the Twins of the Crossing,

Born 245 AC, 61 years old.

 

Bella Baratheon, Lady Smallwood,

Legitimized daughter of King Robert Baratheon,

Lady of Acorn Hall, once a serving girl at the Peach,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Lem Lemoncloak, sellsword,

Member of the Brotherhood Without Banners, once outlawed,

Date of birth unknown, likely before 270 AC.

 

Tom of Sevenstreams, wandering bard,

Member of the Brotherhood Without Banners, once outlawed,

Date of birth unknown, but remembers the time of Dunk & Egg, so likely over 60.

 

 

WESTERLANDS

 

Tyrion of House Lannister, the Wise Imp,

Hand of the King and Queen,

Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West,

Born 273 AC, 33 years old.

 

Joy of House Lannister, legitimized daughter of Lord Gerion,

Lady of the Westerlands and Heir of the West,

Ward of Lord Tyrion,

Born 288 AC, 18 years old.

 

Sandor Clegane, once known as the Hound,

Protector of the Fair Lady of the North, Sansa Stark Arryn,

Born 271 AC, 35 years old.

 

 

 

REACH

 

Willas of House Tyrell, the Golden Rose,

Lord of Highgarden and the Reach,

Born 276 AC, 30 years old.

 

Samwell of House Tarly, called Sam the Slayer,

Lord of Horn Hill, and Master of Coin,

Final Maester of the Night’s Watch, Black Sam,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Gilly, Lady Tarly, born of the Free Folk,

Lady of Horn Hill,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Sam of House Tarly, born of the Free Folk,

Heir of Horn Hill,

Born 299 AC, 7 years old.

 

Jon of House Tarly,

Born 304 AC, 2 years old.

 

Melessa of House Tarly,

Born 306 AC, a newborn babe-in-arms.

 

 

 

DORNE

 

Edric of House Dayne, called Ned,

Lord of Starfall, and Sword of the Morning,

Member of the Brotherhood Without Banners, once outlawed,

Once squire to the Lightning Lord, Beric Dondarrion,

Born 287 AC, 19 years old.

 

Lanna Dayne, born of House Rogare in the Free City of Lys,

Lady of Starfall, and wife to Ned Dayne,

Born 283 AC, 23 years old.

 

Ashara of House Dayne, the little Star,

Heir of Starfall,

Born 305 AC, 1 year old.

 

Arianne Nymeros Martell, Ruling Princess of Dorne,

Wardeness of the South, called the Sun in Splendor,

Born 276 AC, 30 years old.

 

Trystane Nymeros Martell, Prince and Heir Presumptive of Dorne,

Born 287 AC, 19 years old.

 

Nymeria of House Martell, born a Sand, called Lady Nym,

Daughter of the Red Viper, and Mistress of War,

Born 274 AC, 32 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Day 60

 

Bundled tightly in Ser Davos Seaworth’s musty cloak, Arya watched as her trusted castellan rowed the small boat down the canal inside of Storm’s End. She looked behind her and saw the portcullis shutting firmly, another gate of solid wood and iron following it.

“Storm’s comin’ in later,” Davos explained. “Already sent a messenger to the encampments, and His Grace’s party. With your permission and His Grace’s, I’m thinking we’ll move up the procession and the feast in your honor to midday. They’ll want to put these walls between them and the wind.”

“Does it storm here often?” Arya asked, feeling dull all of a sudden. Her chest hurt from the panic of her ordeal, and her stomach rumbled from hunger.

“Often enough, and every afternoon come summer. Worst time’s late fall and early winter, though. Makes you wonder if there’s some truth to the old legend.”

Arya didn’t say anything right away. Instead, she scratched an itchy spot just under her ear, moving aside a clump of sodden hair to do so. Salt water was the worst.

On either side of her, there were stone walls scaling up as far as the eye could see. Arya couldn’t tell where the cliff’s natural formation ended, and the castle’s stone bricks began. And the bricks were incredibly smooth, smoother than the pale red ones that made up the Red Keep, smoother than any Arya had seen in Westeros.

I wonder if it’s true that my ancestor Bran the Builder helped Durran Godsgrief spell these walls to withstand any storm? Shireen once said that Storm’s End is one of the oldest places in the Seven Kingdoms… almost as old as Winterfell or the High Tower of Oldtown.

And yet, these walls are as smooth as if they were mortared yesterday morn.

“I remember a few of the stories about Storm’s End that Old Nan told when I was a child,” she said a few moments later, in an effort to make conversation. “But Sam likes to claim most of the castles here in the South only date to Andal times…”

“Lord Samwell Tarly’s a good lad and true,” affirmed Davos, “but in my day, I’ve seen some things that none of his book learning will account for… and given that the Slayer served with us all in the Battles for the North, I’d think he would have more sense.”

At the severity of Davos’ tone, Arya smirked.

“Once you’re settled in, once I’ve seen the little princess, and once the lords and ladies have looked their fill at you and return to their homes, I’ll tell you what I know of this castle… and House Baratheon.”

She frowned. “Is there a curse on this castle? On the House?”

Davos laughed at her.  “Nay, quite the opposite. The Baratheons, and the Durrandons before them, have lived here since the time of the First Men. The smallfolk here say your husband’s people are the descendants of the wind and the sea…”

“Just as ours in the North swear that my father’s House sprang from the union of a direwolf and a Child of the Forest,” snorted Arya in a very unladylike fashion, “when the truth is likely far more boring.”

“Aye, and yet even the most unlikely yarn contains a strand of truth, Lady Arya,” Davos admonished her.

“Just Arya,” she reminded him. “I can’t wait to see what’s inside.”

“Well then, wait no longer,” said the old sailor. “For here we are.”

Voices and the hum of activity greeted Arya and Davos as they emerged from the water passage carved between the inner and outer walls of Storm’s End and into a vast moat, as vast in circumference as the pool in the godswood in Winterfell. Behind her was the steep outer wall of the castle (“It’s three times as thick as the wall that faces the land!” Shireen had said during their days riding south through the kingswood).

Before her, far as the eye could see, was the single drum tower that contained the whole of the life of Storm’s End. Unlike most castles, which consisted of a lord’s keep and several outbuildings, everyone in the capital of the Stormlands lived in the same ancient building. Yet the drum tower was higher than even Maegor’s Holdfast.

“Only the lighthouse of Oldtown, or the spire of Sunspear, can best our drum tower for height,” boasted Davos proudly. “On a fine day, they say you can see the topmost spire of Baelor’s Sept from the lord’s chambers… and the Red Keep.”

“And my quarters are at the very top?” inquired Arya. That will be new, she thought to herself. Other than living in the Red Keep for a short while as a girl, living so high in a tower would be completely new for her. She wasn’t quite sure what she thought of it.

“That they are. There’s every comfort up there… nothing like Dragonstone. Then again, Stannis and Renly were as night and day... you’ll see.”

Davos sailed to the dock at the landing of the base of the keep, where a flurry of morning activity had already begun. There were many servants, and all seemed to be in high spirits, talking and joking and going about their tasks. The mood seemed to be light, which made Arya feel good. It was perhaps the first castle she felt at ease in since leaving Winterfell.

She was certain that Davos had much to do with that. He’s been such a good castellan, looking after things here. I’ll have to talk to him about the coffers. Tyrion says Storm’s End doesn’t have much money. After I get all the stormlords out of here, I’ll look at our latest inventory.

If Ned finds a competent mage, they’ll want something. These days, most want gold or silver. I can’t have Starfall shouldering the cost to free my husband. Ned has been a good friend to Gendry and me, ever since the Wars, and I’ll find a way to repay the favor.

Inside the walls, there were various outbuildings, including the kitchens, the stables, and…

“Is there a forge here?”

“There is, but no armorer since before the war,” said Davos, tying the little rowboat to the end of the dock. (Arya admired how skilled he was at doing it; perhaps she’d have him teach her how to row a skiff of her own.) “On the other side of the tower. I’ll expect you’ll want to have a look.”

“Yes, I would,” Arya said, watching as Davos stepped out of the boat, then reached back to offer her a hand. “We’ll need to get it in shape for Lord Baratheon.”

“Do you really expect that lord husband of yours to smith inside his own keep?” laughed Davos. His mirth died down when he saw Arya didn’t think it so funny.

“Other lords hawk and hunt, and no one seems to think anything of it… my lord actually can make things.” Her voice was proud and defiant as she refused his hand and scrambled up to the dock on her own.

“I’m just thinking of the talk that might cause. Remember, lass, I spoke to His Grace on Gendry’s behalf before he died. I’m in the lad’s corner. Always have been. I want to see him do well as a proper lord,” Davos reminded her gently. Still, it raised Arya’s ire.

“I’ve never been a proper lady, and the whole of Westeros knows it,” she snapped. “And just as Gendry isn’t a lad, but a man, I haven’t been a lass for a while. I am a woman grown and married, and the wardeness of these lands. If there is any talk about their liege lord’s talent among these stormlords, they shall have me to contend with.”

Arya almost regretted her words when she saw that Davos was taken aback by her uncompromising stance. He sees me as a little girl he’s sworn to protect, she thought to herself. After everything you have heard of me, Ser Seaworth, please don’t tell me that you believe me to be just like my goodsister.

Shireen and I have each seen seventeen namedays. We have seen much and more in seventeen years. Shireen is not the same little girl you knew from Dragonstone or the Wall.

And I?

Scarcely do I recognize the woman I have become over the past two years, let alone who I was before Braavos, before the Hound and the Brotherhood, before traveling with Yoren after my father was killed, and training with Syrio….

I know that I can hold the Stormlands for my brother.

But when – not if – we free Gendry, will he even know me anymore?

“Kitchens are this way. Follow me.”

She did, shaking off her meandering thoughts and ignoring the eyes of the servants upon her…. the curious eyes of the children, the judgmental eyes of the women, and the lustful eyes of the men. Arya didn't care. She had never really been self-conscious like most ladies, and knew they could not know who she was. In her bedraggled state, she didn’t look anything like the fierce She-Wolf of Winterfell they were expecting.

But when she entered the kitchens and sat Hot Pie, barking commands to his kitchen staff, she couldn’t help the tears that stung her eyes. Although she and Gendry had a special connection even from the first, Hot Pie was dear to her, too.

Her friend was not much taller than she remembered, but he was just as round as he had ever been. And Hot Pie’s eyes were still snapping with wit and mischief, and as she would soon see, his tongue was as sharp as ever.

Arya opened her mouth to greet him with joy, but before he could, Hot Pie half looked at her, then said to Davos:

“Another one, then? How many more of these strumpets are going to jump into the bay rather than do their duty by their husbands? Seven hells, it's just a cock...”

“Hot Pie!” fussed a brown-haired, slender young woman who sat at the kitchen table, kneading dough with vim and vigor. “You’ve no idea what the girl’s been through! And in front of Lord Seaworth!”

“Actually, Willow, she’s…”

Before Davos could finish, a heavily armed guard burst into the kitchens.

“Pardon me, Ser, but the Prince is at the main gate with the whole of the royal host. He says that the Lady Arya was taken from the royal camp this morning, and he wishes for our men to help him with the search.”

“Oh, dear.” Davos looked from Arya to the guard, then to Hot Pie. “Feed her, she’ll explain all… I must to the courtyard.” He dipped into a bow, then left.

“Bowing and scraping to the likes of her,” muttered Hot Pie over the hot stove. “So what is it then? What’d he do?”

Arya couldn’t help herself. She had to keep up the façade, simply because it was all too amusing.

“My man? Oh, he’s been gone these two years past,” she said with sadness that wasn’t completely feigned.

“You poor thing,” cooed the woman Davos called Willow. “Well, a slice of my husband’s pigeon pie and a cup of hot cider will cheer ya right up.”

Hot Pie protested, cheeks turning red. “That pigeon is for Arry, I’ve told you…

“And I’ve told you that your lady high ain’t got time to think about the likes of you, especially when she ain’t seen ya these five years past!” Willow snapped, as she took Arya by the arm and coaxed her to sit at the table. “You’ll see it's not worth throwin’ your life away, love. All the lords of the storm are gathered to greet the great lady Arya Stark today, and there’s hundreds o’ knights besides. You’ll find yourself a new man at the feast tonight.”

“Two years is a long time for a mere slip o’ a girl to be by herself,” Hot Pie said severely, managing to stir and taste a soup, then smacked one of the kitchen boys over the head with the ladle for “spoiling it with salt!” and handing Arya an apple to snack on all at the same time. “I don’t believe you. Who are you really?”

Arya’s eyes narrowed.

“You don’t believe me? I survived the road during the War of the Kings and Harrenhal at your side, you great big lump… what makes you think I can’t take care of myself, Hot Pie?”

Hot Pie’s eyes and mouth went round as he dropped the soup ladle.

“ARRY!”

He ran to the table, chortling, but Arya had already gotten up to meet him. He crushed her in a hug as Arya laughed, dropped her half-eaten apple, and buried her face in the folds of his neck.

“Yes, it’s me, Hot Pie. It’s really me.”

“You lived… you’re here… and you’re our lady.”

He let go immediately.

Then he bowed to her.

Which earned him his first smack in nearly six years.

“My lady, please forgive him!” Willow said, clearly alarmed. “He don’t mean no harm, really, he’s just…”

Arya turned to smile at her.

“Stupid? An idiot? I say that about my husband all the time. And they were friends, after all.”

In spite of herself, Willow laughed.

“Hey!” Hot Pie protested. “Just ‘cause I ain’t no Baratheon or a Stark from Winterhell…”

“Winterfell,” Arya said, elbowing him. Then she said to Willow, “We survived together as children bound for the Night’s Watch... he’s like a brother to me. And you… you spent the early part of the Dawn War with my husband, Lord Baratheon, didn’t you, Willow? You and your sister Jeyne. He told me all about you.”

Willow nodded vigorously. “Yes, my… yes, I did. Good man, Lord Gendry was. Kept us and the orphans safe as he could until we could seek refuge at Riverrun…”

“Which is my uncle’s seat,” finished Arya. “Which means you're part of my pack, Willow. You never need bow and scrape to me. I am just glad to have you here to keep him in line!”

Hot Pie and Willow were flustered, but within a moment, were fussing over Arya, insisting that she sit and eat. Hot Pie shouted commands all over the kitchen, demanding hot cider and watered wine. Willow got her hands on that freshly baked pigeon pie for Arya after all...

Arya ate two whole slices of it, licking her fingers heartily after each one. Ned Dayne was right, Hot Pie was the best baker in all the Kingdoms, and Willow was just as good. She’d fried some spiced apples together and served them with a dollop o' fresh cream as a dessert.

All the while, Hot Pie and Willow sat at the table with Arya, hearing about her journey south, all while regaling her with tales of meals to come. All three carefully avoided any talk of Gendry’s whereabouts, especially since there were plenty of servants bustling about, preparing the morning meal for the rest of the castle.

But the moment Arya finished her last bites of pie and apple, and her last swig of the watered wine, Hot Pie pulled her aside near the great stove, Willow following to speak for them both.

“We was with Lord Dayne since the end of the war. We know all about what the prince and Lord Edric’s done with Gendry.”

“Yes, I know. Ned, Tom, and Lem told me everything.”

Willow cast a sideways glance at Hot Pie, who seemed to have something to say. She nudged him, and her old friend looked furtively at Arya.

“Well? Spit it out.”

“Arry,” Hot Pie looked around, “before we left Starfall, Lord Dayne gave me this.”

He reached into a pocket of his flour-stained jerkin, and handed something to Arya.

She looked at the vial in her hand. And knew it immediately.

“If you trust us, Arry, if we put all of it into his food…”

“NO!”

Her hand closed around the vial. She tried to force the unwelcome image of Gendry gasping for his last breath out of her mind. Shut up in some damp castle of the Blackwater, wondering what on earth was stealing his life as he licked the sweetness from his lips...

It sent a chill down her spine.

Why would Ned Dayne give Hot Pie and Willow a deadly poison like sweetsleep?

“We thought you might welcome an end to the craven,” whispered Willow, looking worriedly at the door and the servants dashing here and there, in and out of the kitchens. “How dare he keep his lord cousin prisoner? He hasn’t the right! Begging your pardon, Lady Arya, but he doesn’t deserve your kindness! Or your mercy!”

“There’s blood magic linking Aegon and Edric to Gendry,” Arya muttered. “If you poison the prince, they all die.” She patted Willow’s shoulder as the girl’s eyes filled with tears. “And it’s just Arya.”

Hot Pie gasped.

“I… I thought… Lord Edric told us to tell you of our plan! We thought you’d be happy…”

Wait a minute.

Ned, you are a total cretin… but I think I know what you’re up to.

“It’s okay,” she whispered to them. Then, in a louder voice, “You are a good friend, Hot Pie. Always were. So are you, Willow.” She looked around. “We will talk more, but after the whole of the stormlands and the bloody Prince of Dragonstone take their leave… have you anyone to show me to my chambers?”

“This ‘bloody prince’ would be most honored to do so, sweet lady.”

Arya, Hot Pie, and Willow looked up to see Prince Aegon Targaryen, followed by an apologetic looking Davos.

The prince’s gaze seemed to burn through the old seaman’s dirty cloak, as Arya pulled it tighter around her body.

“Ser Davos here has told me all about your morning ride and swim. In the future, if you wish to take morning exercise, you need but ask. I am ever your willing escort.”

Her cheeks burned with fury as she swept out of the kitchens with as much grace as she could muster under the circumstances.

 

*

 

Gendry could think of nothing but escape.

He remembered the day when Lem and Anguy had tried to rescue him. Killed his guards, burst into the room, while his heart soared at the thought of leaving the damp bunghole that was Driftmark for the cold of the North.

And Winterfell’s forge.

And Arya.

But it was not to be. The spell that bound him to Edric and Aegon also confined him to the cell. They had freedom of movement; he did not. Nothing that Lem and Anguy tried would get him to budge over the threshold.

Neither had any of his best efforts.

How many guards had he maimed or killed before he stopped trying? Seven? Ten? Twelve? Gendry lost count. At least in the prison at Norvos, he had the company of his men, and others to think through the logistics of breaking free. Here, he was almost always alone.

They’d long ago stopped posting armed guards at Gendry’s door. These days, the only weapon was a blunt poker, but it was of no use. Hitting Aegon with it, as he had perhaps three or four months earlier, only served to knock them both unconscious (and the unsufferable dragon cranky but amused at his prisoner's helplessness). Since then, the only servants who ever came into the room were the elderly or women. Which showed that Aegon and Edric had gotten to know him well.

Gendry would never harm a person who was weaker than he was. He’d known his strength all his life. And he never forgot his little mother’s words when he was very small, that anyone could be a brute and take what they wanted as long as they were bigger. It took a special kind of big boy to learn how to be quiet, how to be patient… and most of all, how to be still.

He’d learned what being still meant by the time he’d seen only six namedays, as he sat by Mother’s bedside and waited for her to die. There was nothing the healer could do to save her in the end, and after he was paid, no coin for a maester. But she sang to Gendry as long as she was able, until the sickness that ravaged her blood dried her lips and tongue so that all she could do was rasp how much she loved him.

Another one of the tavern girls had left with a message for the castle, right before Mother died. Soon, the Silent Sisters had her body, and the bald man whom Gendry would know a lifetime later as Lord Varys was bringing him to work for Tobho Mott.

That was his first rescue.

The second would happen almost nine years later, when the Red Sword and the betrayal of the Lord of the North at Baelor's Sept brought a dirty little boy into the same ragtag company of new recruits for the Night’s Watch. Looking back, Gendry had to admit to himself that he’d known from the first that Arry was not a boy, no matter what he’d told her. No boy he'd ever known had such finely sculpted features writ small, or such soft little hands, or such a graceful way of moving.

Like water.

Like dancing.

Meeting Arya had saved him from despair.  Gendry hadn’t known what he’d done to make Tobho so angry with him, why he’d been dismissed from service after being his best apprentice by far. Tobho had praised his bull head’s helm so much that Gendry had begun to dream. Of making swords and armor with a mark of his own, of having his own shop on the Street of Steel…

And someday, perhaps a wife of his own. And children. Children who would know their father, who wouldn’t grow up to have any unanswered questions about his whereabouts...

She gave him hope.

Arya was why, when he was rescued a third time while chopping wood in the Riverlands, Gendry was a man who'd seen twenty namedays, but still was innocent as a maid. He knew from his mother’s fevered rantings that his father was a drunken whoremonger with babes all over the realm. From the things she’d said in her ramblings, he’d always guessed at his father being at least a knight, perhaps even a lord.

Never had Gendry imagined himself to be the son of the King.

Now, it wasn’t as if Gendry respected the King. The boys of Flea Bottom had two Roberts that appeared in their games and lewd tales and fun. The first was the young champion of the Great Rebellion that had freed Westeros from the grip of the Mad Dragon King. But the other was of the drunken lout who was not an infrequent customer of the city’s taverns and brothels… and would often send for his favorites to entertain in his chambers at the Red Keep.

One of Robert's favorites had been his mother. No one ever told him, but when she died, just before he was taken away, Gendry remembered the whispers.

I’ll never be like him. Gendry had sworn that to himself as a little boy. No matter who his father was, he would be the exact opposite. He swore it again as a youth, when maids from Stoney Sept to Riverrun were panting after him to take their maidenheads. Of course he liked girls (no matter what Arya had said to his sister that time), but he didn’t want to be like his father.

Besides, Gendry really did like and notice girls… at least some girls... but he really liked one girl in particular.

She was far too young for him. Gendry had known it all the while. Arya had been only twelve when the Hound had stolen her, and had not yet bled. He was sixteen going on seventeen, knighted and a man grown. When he realized there would be no other girl for him but her, he felt naught but shame.

You won't be stealing no kisses from a princess.

Yes. She wasn't just a girl too young for him back then, she was also highborn, which was even worse. Gendry was nothing if not patient; he would have waited an entire lifetime for her. But as the daughter of a lord, she existed in a different life altogether. 

Worst of all, her father had been one of the greatest lords in Westeros. There would be no waiting for a girl like Arya Stark, although there was naught else to do, at least, not for him. She was nearly royal, he’d thought as she told him who she was.

It wasn’t until she came back that he’d learned the truth.

So was he.

The only gift that his father had given him was royal blood. In peacetime, it would have availed him of nothing. After the killing of the Wars, it meant that House Baratheon would have been spent without legitimizing him and his half-brother and sisters…

“But you’re the only one who’s earned it in my eyes, boy,” Stannis had told him as his trembling, weakened hand signed the will that Samwell Tarly had drawn up. “Old Jon Arryn was right. The seed is strong… in you.”

When he’d said his vows with Arya in Winterfell’s godswood, Gendry made his peace with Robert Baratheon. Whatever else might be said, as the natural son of a king, and the eldest living male of the line of the Storm Kings, no one protested his marriage to Arya.

No one save for the dragon prince, that is.

He hadn’t forgotten a single word Aegon had ever said to him. He knew the silver-haired prince burned for Arya. But what did Gendry care about that? Arya’s conquests were legion from Dorne to the Wall, and had at times included everyone from Ned Dayne to Dolorous Edd Tollett. Half the Brotherhood undressed her with their eyes, even as they jumped to obey her commands.

It was said that half the realm was in love with her… and the other half in love with her sister Sansa.

But she was his.

As much as he was hers.

Words failed when Gendry recalled the vivid vision of her he'd had the night before. It couldn’t have been a dream, for Edric had confirmed she was in Storm’s End. No longer was she the girlish wolf-bride of fifteen he’d left behind when he’d sailed for Essos. Arya was but a few months shy of her eighteenth name day, very much a woman…

The woman of his dreams.

He had to get back to Arya. But how? He’d wracked his brain trying to think of a way to leave Driftmark. While Gendry freely admitted he was not some field general or tactician, he could usually think his way out of a corner. He’d always prided himself on making up for his lack of formal education with a hearty dose of common sense.

But the answer couldn’t be easy. Otherwise, Lem or Anguy would have gotten him out by now. And Arya… she was wearing his bull’s head, which meant they’d gotten to her, talked to her, and she knew where he was. She likely also knew about the spell that bound him to his half-brother and cousin.

Which is likely the only reason she hasn’t sliced Aegon open yet… more’s the pity.

A loud knocking interrupted his thoughts.

“Yes?” he snapped.

“Your bath, Lord Gendry.”

“Come in,” he said, surprised at the roughness of his own voice.

Sometimes, he’d refuse the gaggle of maidservants who attended him. Perhaps his half-brother enjoyed having company while he washed his back and bits, but Gendry didn’t, not unless it was his wife. However, he didn’t want to give Edric the satisfaction of begging for any change to his living conditions. He didn’t want him to know how much this had affected him.

They may have taken him unawares, but neither Aegon nor Edric had broken him.

They don’t have what it takes to do that. Cowards. Pampered little brats.

He’d keep thinking on his escape plan. Neither the sniveling prince nor his lordly little brother were that wise.

And he knew that just as he was thinking about it, Arya would be too.

 

*

 

“Why are there so many steps?” asked Arya.

She felt sweaty and uncomfortable beneath Davos’ old cloak, but she also had a high tolerance for such things. However, she wasn’t going to take it off so that Aegon could look at her body. The prince was already uncomfortably close on her heels as she followed Davos up the staircase that led to the very top of the drum tower.

They’d passed through the kitchens and entered the drum tower from underground. Through the pantry and wine cellar, then the vast Great Hall where she would receive the stormlords, they finally reached the landed entrance gate to Storms's End, with its grand entrance hall... and the first set of stairs.

The servant’s quarters were on the floors just above and below the hall, with the more prominent servants living above ground. Then came the library, quarters for the maester, the septon, the septa, and the priest of R’hllor, and quarters for the knights and squires. Above that dwelt the castellan and his family when they were in residence. And then, there was floor after floor of chambers for guests of Storm’s End, including those for Arya’s ladies-in-waiting who didn’t have to stay the night with her....

“What is it, my lady?” For Arya had chuckled at this point of Davos’ tour.

“I won’t have any ladies-in-waiting besides Weasel, whom I’m eager to see after these long years.  But that’s all. And I certainly don’t need any of my ladies to spend the night.”

Davos shrugged. “As you wish,” he told her. But of course, Aegon didn’t wish to let it go.

“You know, Arya, I made Storm’s End my residence after we won the Stormlands during the War. I am familiar with the lord’s and the lady’s quarters. They will have separate but adjoining bedchambers to yours…”

“Lady’s quarters?” Arya frowned. “I thought you were taking me to the lord’s quarters, Davos…”

Davos swallowed and looked uncomfortable. “My lady, I…”

“If you call me ‘my lady’ once more, Davos, I'll have to...”

Aegon cut in smoothly. “I believe that Lord Davos has prepared the lord’s chambers for me, as is customary for a visiting king, queen, or prince. Although if you would like to share…”

Arya jerked away from his hand that had snaked to her waist. “Davos, the lady’s chambers will be just fine for now, although I plan to dwell in the same rooms as my lord. I expect that eventually, once Gendry returns to me, the rooms used by the ladies of Storm’s End will someday make a perfect nursery for our babes.”

She glanced over her shoulder just in time to savor the stricken look on Aegon’s face. Lovesick fool. Go find Margaery Tyrell, thrice married and rumored still a maid, to slake your damned lust.

Her ire toward the dragon prince was temporarily forgotten when they emerged into what had once been the royal residence of the Storm Kings. Arya was astounded by the size of the circular room she found herself in. It was tiled in a colorful mosaic floor and the windows that surrounded the high ceiling flooded it with light.

“The private great room of the Durrandons and Baratheons,” announced Davos. “The tile beneath your feet tells of the love story between Durran Godsgrief, the first Durrandon king, and his bride, the immortal Elenei.”

Arya looked down and saw that indeed, the floor told the familiar story of forbidden love. Every child in Westeros knew bits of it, although it was most beloved here in the Stormlands, and in King’s Landing.  So Davos told it anew.

Durran had been a mortal during the Age of Heroes who won the love of the divine Elenei, daughter of the sea god and the goddess of the wind. Although her parents refused the storm king her hand, the pair wed anyway. In their great wrath, the sea and the wind destroyed the first Storm’s End keep on their wedding night, during the feast. All of their guests were killed. Outraged beyond measure, King Durran raised six castles in succession. Six times, the gods destroyed them.

“Stubborn stag didn't know when to leave well enough alone,” Aegon snarked. “Sounds quite familiar.”

“Yes, but then Bran the Builder, who many say was just a child at the time, came to the Stormlands to help Durran build for the seventh time,” Arya cut in before Davos could. “That seventh keep is the one we stand in today. As father liked to say, that was the beginning of the friendship between the wolf and stag.”

Davos smiled at her.

“It’s fitting that a daughter of Bran’s line has come to steer us through another storm. The old ones who have served here at Storm’s End tell me that although the sea and the wind may rage, what remains and endures here is as lasting as this drum tower itself.”

Arya shook her head. “My sister Sansa kept talking about Durran and Elenei, and how romantic Storm’s End is. The tower is well made but I have no idea what she’s on about…”

“It’s in all the songs,” Aegon told her, as if it were one of the most obvious things in the world. “Surely you know that all the fun love songs come from Dorne, and the best courtly ones are of the Reach. However, even I’ll admit that the Stormlands have given the Kingdoms many of its greatest love stories… and its greatest tragedies.”

“Then it’s high time that this realm had a sensible wardeness,” Arya said matter-of-factly. “All those songs and stories are nothing but fluff and nonsense.”

“The bastard Orys Baratheon placing his cloak over last Storm Queen to shield her after her own men's humiliation isn’t fluff,” Aegon told her. “Neither was the tragic way that my grandfather’s kinsman Lord Steffon and his wife Cassana Estermont died in the shipwreck. And there was nothing nonsensical about what happened to my ancestors at Summerhall.”

Arya simply muttered a flat “forgive me” that was the opposite of polite, and continued to survey the grand room. In each direction, there were four corridors that led to more doors.

“The lord’s chambers, the lady’s chambers, chambers for the heir, and of course, those for the rest of the children," Davos told her. "Often, the family would have their morning meal out here, in this room, instead of going down to the Great Hall.”

“There’s so much light up here,” Arya said quietly. “It's a nice room, even nicer than the Great Hall. I wish you could get a glimpse of the bay from the windows, but they’re far too high.”

“Then perhaps we shall see what view will find in the lord’s chambers.” The prince turned to Davos. “That will be all.”

Before Arya could protest, the old seaman bowed deeply, thanked the prince, told Arya how glad he was that she made the journey safely, and disappeared back down the grand staircase.

“Alone at last.” Aegon took a step toward Arya, who took a step back.

“You promised to give me time.”

“Your beauty makes such promises impossible to keep.”

She tore her eyes away from his burning gaze and followed it to where Davos’ cloak had come undone. Her ruined chemise was no longer transparent, but still clung indecently to every curve.

And she wore nothing else beneath.

Despite what she knew she had to do, Arya felt angry and irrational. She knew that she should find the lady’s chambers, and leave the prince before she said or did something that she’d regret. Uppermost in her mind was the fact that this man was her husband’s jailer, and that he’d imprisoned Gendry primarily so he could take her as his wife before ridding the throne and the realm of Jon and Daenerys.

Why did I leave Needle behind when I rode? I’m glad I didn’t lose my sword, but really, I want to run him through…

Calm as still water.

Instead, Arya unclasped Davos’ cloak and let it fall to the ground, carefully touching the sail clasp to her lips twice. Instantly, the cool sea breeze soothed her sweaty skin. She shook out her hair, then placed her hands on her hips.

“Is this what you wanted from me, Your Grace?” she said flatly. “You’ve been undressing me with your eyes since the day we met. Perhaps once you look your fill, you will honor your word as a knight and give me the year that you promised.”

Aegon licked his lips.

“You are not as undressed as I would have you, my lady.”

“Am I not?” she asked idly. “This isn’t enough for you?”

“Nothing will ever be enough until I see you bare.”

“Half the North saw me this ‘bare’ during my bedding when I was wed, Aegon. Had you come to witness my vows, you could have also had the pleasure.”

Aegon crossed the floor in two strides. All the better to clasp her forearms in his hands.

“Had I been there that day, there wouldn’t have been any damned wedding. I would have stolen you, Arya Stark, stolen you for my very own pleasure.”

The heat of his fragrant breath fell on Arya’s mouth. A frown furrowed her brow as instinctively, she bit her bottom lip.

She quieted her instincts so that she wouldn’t recoil.

Calm as still water.

Aegon’s mouth was inches from hers. She stared into his eyes…

“I know what you did, Aegon.” It came out somewhere between a hiss and a growl. For all her training, Arya had never been good at hiding her contempt.

But Aegon was still under the spell of seduction she’d woven. Fallen straight into her lure, just as the Black Pearl had taught her.

“What did I do, sweet girl?”

“I know that you had something to do with Gendry's disappearance.”

To his credit, the cocky look didn’t leave Aegon’s chiseled face. His expression didn’t change. But he noticeably blanched.

“Arya, I am insulted. We are friends. I want to win you truly. How dare you insinuate such a thing?”

“When I find out what you did to my husband and how you did it, I am going to make you pay. Prince or not. That’s all.”

His eyes went wide, but before he could react, Arya kissed him. As he crushed her to him in response, plunging his tongue into her mouth so that it collided with hers, smoothing his hands over her back and hips, she marveled.

I don’t feel a single thing.

“Your lips are the sweetest thing I’ve…” he murmured as she pulled away.

Then the Prince of Dragonstone collapsed onto the mosaic floor. 

 

*

 

When Gendry finally awoke, he was somewhere that was not his room. It was nearly midday from the looks of the light, and he couldn’t remember when or how he’d fallen asleep.

He could barely remember telling the servants to come in so that he could take his bath. Or had he dreamed it? His head was filled with cobwebs, as if he’d been dosed with milk of the poppy or even...

Sweetsleep, he realized as he licked his lips. Yet he couldn't remember eating or drinking a thing.

That’s when he realized that the room was actually moving.

He was no longer in a castle by the sea. He had been freed from Driftmark's Hull.

He was now in the hold of a ship. Captain’s quarters, from the looks of it. The bed he’d been laid in was narrower than his shoulders, and the bunk above was too low for him to sit straight up…. something he learned when he bumped his head.

“Ouch!” Gendry exclaimed, rubbing it and rolling onto the floor before he realized that perhaps he should have been quieter. (As his Arya never failed to point out, stealth wasn’t his strong suit.) He didn’t know who held him prisoner this time...

He didn’t have long to wonder. The door to the captain’s quarters swung open, and a familiar looking freckled face appeared.

One of the best faces in the world.

The face of a sworn member of the Brotherhood.

“Didn’t think you were ever going to stop snoring, you great big ox!” Anguy exclaimed, slapping Gendry’s back. “Thought we’d have to roll you into Storm’s End.”

“We?”

“Your men, of course. And your friends… me, Lem, Tom, even the little lordling Ned Dayne, who fancies himself the Sword of the Morning these days. They’re up on deck.”

Gendry sat down heavily atop a crate that seemed to be there for the very purpose.  “Where are we?”

“Rounded Massey’s Hook an hour ago, and will likely catch sight of Tarth any minute. Had hoped to make it into the bay by midday, but a storm’s coming up, so we might have to seek shelter at Evenfall Hall before we sail on. Don’t worry, we sent a raven ahead to Brienne the Beauty… she and the Kingslayer will know we’re coming just in case.”

“We’re in the Stormlands?” Gendry asked, feeling as stupid as his wife always accused him of being.

“Aye, indeed we are! Heard they’re having a little welcoming party for your forest lass at Storm’s End… we wouldn’t want to miss that, now would we?”

I must be dreaming.

When he pinched himself and shouted at the pain, Anguy had a good thigh-slapping laugh and called for the others.

“Lord save the lad, but he’s awake!” he called out. “And still the same old Bull.”

To Gendry, he said:

“Hope you had a good rest. You owe us one. Now let’s find that little lady of yours.”

 

*

 

Arya tried to relax in the bath that little Weasel, with help from Willow and Marya Seaworth, had prepared for her after a joyous reunion. She was thrilled to have Weasel back, glad that the child had survived the horrendous War of the Five Kings. Even better, she liked Lady Marya instantly, with her motherly ways and a spirit as kindly as that of her husband.

She tried to get what she'd just done out of her mind. With some effort, she'd dragged the prince into the lord's chambers, so it would be some time before anyone knew what happened.

The moment she saw the sweetsleep in the kitchens, she remembered the aftermath of the wars, remembered exactly how she’d gotten the armies of the North access to the impregnable Twins.

She remembered words from the Kindly Man, the Waif, and the others in the House of Black and White…

One drop of sweetsleep calms fits.

Two drops of sweetsleep brings velvet slumber without dreams.

Three drops of sweetsleep is the killing dose.

A girl gives thanks to the Many-Faced God.

Valar morghulis.

Although she’d gone to her husband as a maid, Aegon Targaryen had not been the first victim to first sip sweetsleep from Arya’s lips. She herself was immune to it by now, as she’d become to several poisons. But her skill had been useful for getting into the Twins and ending the treacherous Freys. Her uncle, the Blackfish Brynden Tully, was the new Lord of the Crossing.

The moment she saw the sweetsleep vial in Hot Pie’s hands, she knew what to do without Ned passing on a note, or telling Hot Pie and Willow. The Brotherhood needed to put Edric Baratheon to sleep in order to get Gendry out of Hull without causing harm to either. Because of the stupid blood magic, putting one to sleep would put all three out…

Delivering a deadly poison at the perfect dose was something that Arya could do in her own sleep. And the whole of the Brotherhood’s inner circle knew it.

Arya wasn’t much for poisons for killing. Too much of the honor of the North was left in her; she was too lupine. The she-wolf in her demanded the blood of a clean kill. It was more honest, fairer somehow. At least in her mind it was. But she'd do anything to free her husband...

Anything at all.

She hoped that they’d had enough time to help Gendry. If putting Edric to sleep was the plan, it meant there weren’t enough men at Driftmark to put up a fight without him… and he’d have to be the one to sound the alarm. And once he was out, there was little and less that the infernal dragon prince and stag brat could do about it, since they weren’t supposed to have had him in the first place.

It was brilliant. She couldn’t help her hopeful thoughts. Maybe he’ll be here with me tonight or tomorrow. Definitely by week's end. It’s a better outcome than I could have imagined. We can figure out how to break that stupid spell once he's here.

Closing her eyes, Arya leaned back against the edge of the tub.

Nymeria…

Just as she was about to warg into her direwolf, she felt a presence behind her. Before she could react, the intruder jerked her head back by her hair, and brandished a sharp knife, clearly aiming for her throat.

“There’s a girl. This will all be over soon, and we’ll all be the better for it.”

Fear cuts deeper than…

Arya didn’t even finish her thought. Using her attacker’s momentum against him, she flipped out of the tub, slippery and agile, snapping the wrist that held the would-be assassin's knife with the entire weight of her naked wet body.

She heard the bone break right on cue, the knife clatter to the floor, and her attacker’s bloodcurdling scream all at the same time. Still, her work was not done. A broken-handed man twice her size could still kill her.

Again using the momentum of her body, Arya flung her attacker to the floor while he was still disabled, landing him strategically on his side so that the weight of their combined bodies broke his good hand and twisted his ankle.

But still a man can walk, Arya could hear Jaqen say. The Many-Faced God must have his due.

She ignored the voice from the past and thrust the point of her attacker’s knife into his groin, just enough to prick it.

A girl has more courage than sense.

“Who sent you?”

The would-be assassin spat blood. “Burn in all seven hells, heathen bitch. You aren’t worthy to rule over men.”

That earned him more than a pinprick. Avoiding the essential arteries, Arya nicked him with the pointy end.

Her attacker screamed.

“That’s for calling me a bitch,” she told him. “Now, who sent you?”

And at the names he gave, Arya’s mouth was set in grim determination.

The one who passes the sentence must swing the sword.

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 61-70

 

After dismissing the household maids who’d hauled the water upstairs, and insisting that Weasel go seek her own morning meal (“’cos I was too excited to eat, Arry, when they said you would be riding into the castle today…”), Arya had been left alone to soak in her bath and clear her head.

That’s when the attacker came. Arya was almost insulted that two of her stormlords thought so little of her that they sent an amateur to kill her. Didn’t they know who she was?

When she’d deserted Braavos and the Order, the Many-Faced God demanded his due. The War for the Dawn prevented them from collecting as wights and Others swarmed the whole of the North, but at the first thaw of spring, they came calling about a half moon’s turn before she and Gendry were to wed.

Arya’s traps were empty that day, and the small rabbits that were the only game yet available in the woods evaded her arrows. Nymeria had better luck, but the hare she’d caught was so lean that Arya let her beloved direwolf have the kill for her own dinner.

Dried beans for our supper again, Arya had thought ruefully, with not even a bit of lard for flavoring. For all that, Arya was grateful for them, glad that her brother sat the Throne, glad that Sansa’s political savvy and Samwell Tarly’s brains had opened up the grain stores of the southern Reach so that all survivors throughout the kingdoms could be well fed.

Arya shared the quarters behind the forge with Gendry, and woe betide the man or woman in the North who remarked upon their sleeping arrangements. All knew that the She-Wolf of Winterfell and her Bull were merely betrothed and not wed, but none dared say anything about it, not even her younger brothers.

However, Arya and Gendry still took their meals in Winterfell’s Great Hall with the rest of the inhabitants of the castle. It wasn’t as if the forge had a kitchen, and neither of them knew the first thing about cooking.

Dusk was starting to fall, and so the evening meal was well under way. But when Arya rode in from her hunt in the wolfswood, the chimney smoke from the armory told her that her man was still hard at work. But aye, she knew just how to distract him. Afterward, they could seek their suppers, even if they had to dine on leftovers in the kitchen. (Best way to work up an appetite for tasteless beans, Arya always thought.)

After stabling the pony, Arya sent Nymeria to the godswood, then walked to the forge, a purposeful and excited spring to her step. Unclasping her cloak with her sword hand, she flung open the door…

The playful greeting died on her lips. Gendry was tied to a chair, a gag in his mouth, completely still.

Arya didn’t have to ask who in seven hells could manage to restrain her Bull without significant damage. Standing on either side of him were a man and a woman from the Faceless Guild. Arya didn’t know their names. But she did know their expressions.

“Your business is not with my husband,” she said flatly. “It is with me.”

“A faithless girl lies to the Many-Faced God,” said a third voice behind her, walking into the forge through the open door. Arya recognized her as one of the serving girls who’d appeared in Winterfell the moment the war was through. “Yet in this, she tells the truth.”

“Except the man is not yet her husband,” a younger sounding voice chimed in, wearing the face of one of the squires. He shut the door. “He is but her lover. She defies the conventions of both gods and men.”

“She has little care for her own life,” added a woman walking in from the sleeping quarters, dressed as a weaver from the Winter Town, “but her heart fails at the knife at her lover’s neck.”

“The girl failed in becoming No One,” said the man who was holding that knife. “The Many Faced God is owed a life.”

“And so he is,” Arya said coldly, looking from one to another. “And so he shall have one.”

Although the outcome had been different on that day, and she no longer worshipped the deity who ruled the Faceless, that morning Arya Stark once more gave the Many-Faced God his due as she sliced her attacker’s femoral artery after his confession. She didn’t need to know much more.

Her face was impassive as his life drained away. Valar morghulis, she thought.

Stepping over her attacker’s body, Arya dried off, then reached for the wrapper that Weasel had left for her, made of silk. She was surprised that the commotion had brought no one, but was rather glad. It bought her time to think.

She walked over to the windows of her chambers. Here was what she had been looking for all along – the sight and sound of the sea. The windows were twice as high as a man was tall, yet narrow because of the unrelenting storms that the lands she now ruled were named for. The winds were clearly picking up, and the deceptively calm bay that lured her in but hours ago was now choppy with white-capped waves, beating against the shore, matching the mood of the partly cloudy skies.

Arya had thought that she had all the marcher lords in her corner. So had Jon and Sansa. Three of the Houses from the Stormlands side of the Marches did indeed support her as their Lady, for they had ties to the Starks.

First of the marcher castles was Blackhaven, ancestral seat of House Dondarrion. Both Arya and Gendry had known Lord Beric, who had been charged by Arya’s father Lord Ned Stark to bring King Robert’s justice to the Mountain That Rides. His fiancée had been Lady Allyria Dayne, Ned’s aunt and former guardian. When Beric gave his life to resurrect the Lady Stoneheart, House Dondarrion was no more… but Balon Swann and Allyria Dayne met at the Great Council, and as soon as it ended, petitioned the new King and Queen to wed. Permission was granted, and now they were House Swann of Blackhaven.

Of course, the next of the great marcher castles, Stonehelm, supported her. It was the seat of House Swann. Aged Lord Guilian was Balon’s father, and Ser Donnel, his eldest brother. House Selmy, which had produced the famed Kingsguard Ser Barristan, was a bit less certain, but Arya knew that Lord Arstan didn’t want to kill her.

House Foote of Nightsong was another story.

Ser Philip Foote had famously killed Ser Bryce, the last Caron, during the Battle of the Blackwater in single combat. Bryce’s brother, Ser Robar, had been part of Renly Baratheon’s legendary Rainbow Guard, and had been slain by Loras Tyrell for allowing the shadow to kill his lover.

The Carons had been unfailingly loyal to the Baratheons for centuries, holding Nightsong in the Marches for them. She would have had no problems with them.

The Footes were different. They were not stormlords, but westermen, gentry ever loyal to the Lannisters who had elevated them. In fact, it had been the puppet king Tommen who’d granted them the Caron’s ancient claim.

Arya knew that Philip Foote would have never tried to kill her on his own. He didn’t act alone. Someone more powerful encouraged him, told him he’d have protection. Hated me enough to defy my brother, their King, as well as the Prince, whom all the realms know wants me for his wife.

How mighty their hatred, Arya thought, to risk the wrath of my brother’s dragonfire -- not to mention my husband’s warhammer -- in order to kill me.

She had her ideas about who gave Foote the courage, and knew what she’d have to do. Though the elaborate dress that Lady Fell gifted her with was incredibly thoughtful, it would never do.

Arya’s trunk had been brought up from her pavilion when Aegon arrived. She knew the sweetsleep would have him drowsy until evening, knew that it would be over once he awoke, knew too that he wouldn’t likely remember her words to him about Gendry.

Arya knew that she’d gone too far with Aegon, what the risks were if he’d heard her. But she couldn’t help herself. (The insufferable, pompous, self-righteous little cretin.)

Had she actually thought they’d come to a time of peace? Nay, it was time to prepare for the wars to come.

Opening her trunk revealed what she needed. What she hadn’t worn since the end of the war.

Her breastplate.

Gendry always wanted to make her a new one. Tempered in Drogon’s flame, it was very early work that he’d done before leaving his forge at the inn in the riverlands. There was never enough time to do naught more but mend it afresh, ensuring that she would be relatively safe in battle.

Yet he’d added her sigil to the front of it, shaping a silvery metal that he would not name, and molding it so it would be visible in battle.

The direwolf of Winterfell.

After braiding her hair and putting on her chemise, breeches, and her spare pair of boots, Arya donned her breastplate. Generally, one of the squires would help her, but Arya usually waved them off. Men’s armor was far more complicated, and she was agile enough to reach the straps. She also had gauntlets and leg guards, but that would not do for now.

She then reached back into the trunk for the cloak that Gendry had draped around her shoulders. It was one of Stannis’, so the crowned stag was prancing against the fiery heart sigil of the Lord of Light. The black velvet and fine gold and crimson thread symbolized power in this part of Westeros. Her audience would recognize it instantly.

The only problem was that it was now boiling hot. Near midday, the sun was high in the sky, no matter what Davos said about an approaching storm. Being at the top of the drum tower would mean the chambers would be sweltering for anyone of the blood of the North. Beneath her armor, leather, and velvet, Arya began to sweat heavily.

No matter, she thought defiantly. Once this business is done, I can take another bath. And I can sleep bare, like I did when I was but a sweet summer child.

Or when I slept with Gendry.

But tender thoughts were not ones that Arya Stark could spare just then. Stepping over the dead man again as if he were a rolled-up carpet, the new Lady of Storm’s End strode out of her chambers and into the corridor. Staring a new list:

Aegon Targaryen. Edric Baratheon.

Philip Foote.

Valar morghulis.

If she’d kept a Braavosi coin, Arya thought, walking through the Great Room and to the long staircase, she would have kissed it.

 

*

 

Miles away in the Narrow Sea, Gendry was leaning against the deck, taking a swig of ale from the skin Lem lent him. He wasn’t much for strong drink, but watered wine was none to be had on the galley Tansy’s Teats. The day was overhot, and he was glad of any sort of refreshment.

Gendry was happy to keep his own counsel just then.

It took a while for him to become oriented to his surroundings. Then when he stumbled onto the deck for the first time, he had to block the sunlight with a hand over his eyes.

“Told ‘em you was pale as a ghost,” chuckled Anguy, drinking with Lem, Tom, and Ned and talking quietly at the starboard end of the ship. “Haven’t seen the sun for a while, milord, have you?”

“Yeah, well, you try being locked up for two years,” he snapped, walking uncertainly across the deck, “See how you feel at the end of it.”

Lem, Tom, and Anguy had a laugh over that, but Ned Dayne looked sympathetic. (Ned always knew what to do and say, and it made Gendry want to smash his face in sometimes.)

“How are you feeling?” inquired his Dornish friend, gesturing toward a barrel that could serve as a seat. But Gendry waved it off.

“I’m fine. No need for all this fuss. Being locked up didn’t do nothing to my balls. I’m not a little girl.”

“Eh, words are wind,” Tom said with a wave. “You’ve gone from white as a sheet to green as a swamp lizard, lad. Best you sit down a minute. A bit o’ firewater will hearten ya, see if it don’t.”

Gendry licked his lips. The sweet taste still lingered…

“How did you do it?”

Anguy chuckled. “It was all little Ned’s idea,” he explained. “He gave your old friends Hot Pie and Willow sweetsleep…”

“You poisoned me?” Gendry roared.

“Calm down, lad, there was no poison involved,” Lem assured him. “At least, not on your end. We just needed something to knock out the dragon princeling and that Edric brat. Anguy thought he’d be able to slip it to Edric, but some o’ the Driftmark people were suspicious…”

“Lem fled but I hid,” Anguy said. “Driftmark isn’t just Hull, the castle. The fisherfolk welcomed my bow and arrows, and didn’t ask no questions…”

“Go on, tell ‘im your life story later,” Tom chided. “Ned said that Arya would slip it to the prince, and she did. The prince fell asleep…”

“And so did you,” said Anguy. “I watched the maids fetch your bath at the stream and they were clucking about it. ‘Twas an easy thing to get them to haul up the bathwater for whenever you awoke… especially if a strapping gentleman such as myself was helping ‘im haul.”

Lem shoved Anguy, and Tom said: “Don’t go tellin’ me you went a-whoring when you were s’posed to be gettin’ Gendry out.”

“I wondered why that signal came so late,” Lem snarked, “and us nearly caught.”

Anguy turned to Gendry. “You were never in any danger, m’lord. I swear on my life…”

Ned was shaking his head in amusement.

“So how did you manage to get me out of the castle?” asked Gendry with a frown. “You couldn’t budge me during our first attempt at escape, and I’m not exactly small.”

“The sweetsleep,” explained Ned. “My wife Lanna was raised in the Free Cities. She’s not a mage, but they’re crawling over there, apparently. We thought on it for months. Finally, she said that if death would break a blood-spell, then a sleep that was almost death was like to weaken it.”

Gendry remembered Ned’s wife, a tall and slender girl with spun-gold hair and haunted eyes.

Ned’s second love, when he couldn’t have his first…

Because his first love was Arya.

And Arya is mine.

What would I have done if she’d chosen him and not me?

Thinking on it, Gendry resolved to be a bit less surly toward the Dornish boy he’d once seen as a rival.

“Thanks, Ned.”

“Don’t mention it. But remember the spell is not broken yet. We must needs be careful, lest Aegon and Edric find a way to use the link between you to trap you again.”

Gendry nodded slowly. “Aye, the link needs to be broken once and for all, so that I may repay the prince and my brother in kind,” he glowered.  “What of this mage? Has anyone been found?”

“Nay,” Ned replied, “but rumors in the kingdoms abound of those who have the greensight, who are wise beyond measure, who may know a way to end any enchantment. The Lord of Winterfell is one.”

Gendry thought on Bran, about all the rumors and legends about his wife’s next-younger brother, and how irreconcilable they were with the teenaged boy he’d watch grow into the wardenship of the North. He’s just a kid, Gendry thought.

“Once we arrive at Storm’s End, I suppose a raven can be sent to Bran.” Gendry scratched his head and rubbed his face, trying to stifle a yawn, for he still felt drowsy. “Any word of the guard? Is the Prince still there?”

“Aye, that’s what they say,” said Lem, tapping Gendry’s chest with his wineskin, “but I’ll be damned if you have to sneak into your father and uncle’s castle like a thief, especially with your wife in residence. With these rising winds, we could be there by nightfall.”

Gendry took his first sip of the warm ale and closed his eyes. Arya. He tried to conjure up his wife’s laughter, her smile, the scent of her skin and hair…

But Ned looked doubtful.

“By morn or tomorrow noon, mayhaps,” he told the men. “These winds are portents of a storm. I like it not.”

That was the last thing Gendry wanted to hear. “Sure we can’t outrun it?”

Ned shook his head.

“I’ll not have you end as your grandparents did, my friend,” said the Dornishman, clapping Gendry’s broad shoulder. “Shipbreaker Bay has had enough Baratheon blood for centuries to come. Nay, we shall seek shelter with Lady Brienne at Tarth, and sail for your castle – and your claim – at first light.”

Thus the men scattered to and fro, leaving Gendry with his drink and his thoughts.

 

 

*

 

There was no grand procession that morning, of course. Arya’s decision to go for her morning ride and swim had changed everything, including the assassin’s plans.

As she walked down the many stairs to the Great Hall, she ruminated on how anyone would know that she’d gone into Storm’s End early. Or managed to get inside her chambers…

One thing was for sure. Unlike the Red Keep, the vast stairs and size of the Baratheon chambers meant that she could have Nymeria with her at all times.

And so I shall, thought Arya, starting tonight. Nymeria, Ghost, and Shaggydog must have free reign at Storm’s End. I wonder at Jon allowing them to be restricted in King’s Landing.

It is no matter that these Southrons fear our direwolves. They are creatures of the North, and there is nothing to fear if they mean us no harm.

Let them fear our wolves.

Let them fear us.

When she got to the fourth landing from the top, she ran into Willow, Marya, and two of the chambermaids whose names she did not yet know.

“My lady,” said Marya, eyeing Arya’s strange attire, “is there aught you need in your chambers?”

“No, I’m quite fine, Marya,” she replied, as calmly as if she were discussing the weather. “You will need to clean them again before nightfall, I’m afraid. An intruder disturbed my bath.”

This created quite a stir among the women. Once again, Marya spoke for them all.

“An intruder?”

“An assassin. It is of no consequence. He lies dead in my chambers. His body needs disposing, and I shall dispense justice to the ones who hired him into their employ.”

Arya continued walking down the stairs as Marya ordered the two maids up to Arya’s chambers to fetch the body, then snapped at Willow to follow her.

“My lady, we must take care. I shall tell my husband to set a guard and…”

Arya didn’t even turn around. “I told Ser Davos I have no need of guards. I took care of my attacker, and I shall bring the justice of the North to these Stormlands before the noonday meal.”

“But my lady…”

Arya.”

“Arya, we must alert the others. No one should have had access to your chambers. There is no other way to the family quarters… they would have met me and the girls on the staircase…”

She couldn’t even respond to the kindly woman’s confusion. My dear Marya, there are many ways to enter a chamber unseen. Even that fumbling idiot would have known how. He likely hid himself in the chamber even as your girls cleaned it, aired it out, filled my bath with heated water and rose oil.

But it would not do to frighten you just yet. Soon enough, you will know fear, if we are unable to stop a civil war.

Stopping so abruptly that Willow almost ran into her, Arya walked back the few steps to where Marya stood, and laid her small hand on the elderly woman’s stooped shoulder.

“Do not worry further. I am not only unharmed, but quite well. Follow me into the Great Hall, and you will see soon enough what I do.”

It took a quarter of an hour and more, but soon Arya, Willow, and Marya were at the doors of the Great Hall. The whole of the Stormlands were gathered inside, and the royal party besides, their soldiers pulling up stakes in advance of the coming storm.

The four guards posted at the door bowed slightly at the approach of their petite lady. She walked up to the captain of the household guard, Ser Rolland Storm.

“Bar these doors, and all other entrances to this hall, until you hear otherwise from me,” said Arya firmly.

“Yes, my lady,” Ser Rolland replied.

Arya was grateful that she seemed to have the guard already. She was hopeful that she would be able to dispense justice without things getting too bloody. Also, she was glad that Aegon had ordered his Kingsguard to assist with the camp instead of following him around… although she knew the Prince’s absence would soon be missed.

She walked down the central aisle of the hall and the din quieted somewhat as she approached the dais where Shireen and Rickon were speaking with Davos, Lord Brus Buckler and his Lady Alba, Lady Fell, Lord Balon Swann, and his wife, Lady Allyria.

“My lady, your dress,” said Lady Fell, with a fallen face.

“Have no fear, Lady Fell. I shall wear your beautiful dress at the feast this evening. I did not wish to soil it.” She turned to Balon and Allyria. “It is good to see you both.”

“It is far better to see you, Arya,” said Allyria quietly. “My nephew has told me all.”

Arya nodded.  She knew that House Swann of Blackhaven understood the vile intrigue that Aegon and Edric had engaged in, thanks to Ned Dayne.

“We are at your service,” said Lord Brus. “Whatever you need done, you have only to say the word.”

Arya looked from Brus to Davos. “Ser Davos, fetch me a block.” To Balon, she said: “And I will need your longsword.”

The Southroners looked confused… except for Shireen, whose blue eyes widened, and Davos, who was frowning.

Rickon looked outraged. “Sister, what the fuck has happened now?”

“One of the Marcher lords sent their man to kill me in my morning bath,” Arya told him. “I plan to make an example of him.”

“Which one?” roared Balon, jerking his head to look at the gathered crowd.

“Why didn’t she have a guard?” Brus demanded, looking accusingly at Davos, who seemed stricken.

But it was Rickon who had an immediate reaction.

“WHICH MAN AMONG YOU SOUGHT TO SPILL WOLFSBLOOD THIS MORN?” he roared at the assembly, unsheathing his sword.

The Great Hall was suddenly still and silent, as all halted their conversations at the sound of the Wild Wolf's outrage.

For he looked like the Young Wolf, reborn.

“Speak now,” Rickon continued, “and we shall give you the mercy of a quick death…”

Shireen laid a hand on the small of her husband’s back, coming to stand beside him.

“My betrothed is right. These halls are sacred to my father’s house, and my grandfather before him,” she said coldly to the gathering. “By seeking to end the life of my goodsister, without whom the Long Night would have fallen, one among you has offended House Baratheon. Who among you did this vile thing?”

Still, the Great Hall remained silent.

Arya said, “Davos, find me a block, please.”

Rickon turned to her with a frown. “Do you mean to put all to the question?”

“No, my wild wolf, my would-be assassin confessed before I ended his life.”

Arya looked out among the crowd.

“I came to you from my home in the North at the request of your beloved Lady Shireen, daughter of Stannis, granddaughter of Steffon, to preserve these Stormlands, so that you and your houses might prosper. Two among you sought to end my life this morn, while accepting the hospitality of House Baratheon.”

The cloak billowed around her as she paced the dais, every eye in the Great Hall upon her.

“I know what you say about us in the North, here in the lands of the South. I know what legends and stories and lies are told. But I also know that you are familiar with the stories told of my father, Lord Eddard Stark, the dearest friend of King Robert Baratheon, father of my husband. I know that you have heard of the treachery that took his life, of his fairness, and his goodness, and that his children suffered much because of it.

“But our father also taught us that the man who passes a sentence must swing the sword. I am no man, and I never wished to be a lady, but I must rid these lands of those who would betray us all and plunge us into another war.”

Her grey gaze was cold as she searched for the man whose name bubbled in blood from her attacker’s lips.

“Lord Philip Foote,” she said, “come forward and face me.”

This created quite a stir as everyone looked to the center right of the hall, where Ser Philip had been standing with some of the other Marcher lords. He looked defiantly at Arya, and didn’t move a muscle.

It was Lord Alyn Estermont who spoke up.

“Lady, you accuse a good man without proof! How dare you come here, an outsider, and sow dissention among us?”

Arya smirked.

“Lord Alyn. How generous of you to speak on Lord Philip’s behalf.” She stepped off the dais and began walking toward the front row where he stood. “I believe that it was you who were reported as saying your cousin Stannis Baratheon would never have legitimized a King’s Landing bastard, that it was a trick of the North, and that you would never accept the get of a tavern slut as your liege lord.”

She came to stand so close to him that the tips of her boots were nearly touching his.

“Did you not say such things?”

“Aye, I did, and I shall say them to your face. You don’t belong here. You’re not of these lands, and it was my lord Edric whom Robert acknowledged, not your bastard husband.”

“Take care with your words, Lord Alyn,” warned Rickon. “House Stark does not suffer insults to the honor of our women lightly.”

“Your women have no honor!” shouted Alyn Estermont. “The whole of the kingdoms know all about your sisters selling themselves as whores during the wars… Lady Sansa keeping company with the likes of Petyr Baelish and the filthy Hound… and you,” he stared down Arya, “a blacksmith’s slut…”

Those were the last words Lord Alyn ever uttered. For Rickon had crossed the room in long strides, and sent the point of his dragonflame-forged sword into Lord Alyn’s Adam’s apple.

Arya unsheathed Needle as the Estermont men brandished their own swords.

No one else moved.

“Lord Alyn did not deserve the justice of the North,” said Arya, walking to the next eldest Estermont as Alyn fell to the ground, strangling for breath. “My husband has Estermont blood running through his veins as much as your House’s preference for liege lord, Lomas.”

“My cousin supported the Lannister brat Joffrey as his king, my lady,” said Lomas, with a contemptuous look at the dying Alyn, “whilst I remained true to the father of the Princess Shireen, His Grace, Stannis.”

Lomas Estermont turned to all those gathered in the hall.

“Good Sers and ladies, most of you have never been north of Harrenhal, let alone the Neck. I fought and bled beside the king and queen, and the men and women of the North, as did my son and heir, Andrew. I do not believe that Lady Arya is here to usurp the ancient seat of my kin, House Baratheon. I know that it was the wish of His Grace, Stannis Baratheon, for Lord Gendry to take his seat, for I witnessed the signing of his will, and the joining of House Stark to House Baratheon through the marriages of Lord Gendry to Lady Arya, and now of Lord Rickon to our dear Shireen.”

Ser Lomas came to stand before Arya, then went down on one knee, gesturing for his son to do so as well.

“In the name of the good king and queen,” Lomas swore, “I pledge my honor, my service, and my life to you, Lady Arya, and the loyalty of House Estermont, on this day, until the end of days.”

“And I as well,” intoned Ser Andrew.

“Traitors!” called out Lord Philip.

Arya had enough.

“Bring him to me,” she said, not even looking back at the crowd, returning to the dais, where Davos had indeed fetched her the executioner’s block she’d asked for.

“My lady,” whispered Lady Fell as Arya took Balon’s longsword from him, at his side since his days as a Kingsguard, “surely one of the men would be happy to do you this service.”

Arya shook her head. “The man who passes the sentence must swing the sword.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady, but… you are no man.”

“That is precisely why I must do this, Lady Fell.”

Arya watched impassively as Philip Foote was brought to her, struggling and cursing the day she was born, by several guards.

“Do you have any last words to say, Lord Foote?”

“You wolf bitch,” he spat. “You may have tricked me and stupid Alyn, but there are more of us than there are of you! We will rid these lands of you Starks, your bastard king, and your Dothraki slut of a queen, and send all of you, and those wolves of yours, to the Seven Hells!”

Rickon started for him, but Arya held up a hand.

“No. That is not our way, Rick, and well you know it.”

“I would end him the way I ended that fucking Alyn…”

“His life was not yours to end. Neither is Philip’s. Do not do that again, my wild one.”

She turned back to Philip.

“Your own words have condemned you, Lord Foote.” To the guards, she said, “Put him over the block.”

Brus and Balon looked at each other as the man, struggling and cursing, was stretched out over the bloodstained stump.

“Arya, I would be happy to do you this service,” said Balon quietly. “No one here will think less of you for it, here in the South.”

“And I am of the North,” she replied, but not unkindly, "where our women rule Houses just as men do. And we all swing the sword.”

She lifted the sword high and spoke in a clear, loud voice.

“In the name of Jon of the Houses Stark and Targaryen, and in the name of Daenerys of the House Targaryen, First of Their Names, King and Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord and Lady of the Seven Kingdoms and Champions of the Dawn, I, Arya of House Baratheon, born of House Stark, sentence you to die.”

The sword struck true.

And Philip Foote’s head went rolling down the steps.

Not a sound could be heard in the hall.

Outside, the skies darkened with the coming storm.

 

*

 

“Tarth, the Sapphire Isle,” pointed Ned, interrupting Gendry’s thoughts as he stood at the railing, “and not a moment too soon."

Gendry looked. Tarth seemed more emerald than sapphire to his eyes, although even he knew the isle’s legendary nickname came from the seas that surrounded it and not the land itself.

"I like not the look of those clouds, nor the feel of this warm wind," Ned continued. "Come, my friend. We must get to shore and seek shelter with House Tarth."

A light from the topmost tower of Evenfall Hall had guided them safely to shore. As they disembarked, the rains began. Although it was less than a league from the port to the castle, they were soaked to the skin by the time they walked into the covered arch of Evenfall, where Brienne, Jaime, and their household staff were waiting to greet them.

Brienne sank to one knee, and the staff followed her. Jaime smirked at Gendry, but his head still inclined respectfully because it was difficult for him to bow… for with his good hand, he held the most precious person in the world to him and his wife...

Their one-year-old babe, Duncan.

“Stand, Brienne,” Gendry implored her, tapping her shoulder. “You are a friend.”

“And you are my liege,” Brienne smiled, rising as her household did. “Evenfall Hall is yours, my lord.”

The other men of the Brotherhood began to haul their meager goods and supplies inside, while Gendry kissed Brienne’s cheek and nodded to Jaime. After his initial disdain for Brienne while he was in service to Lady Stoneheart, and his complicity in what would have been her sentence to death by hanging, it was Brienne of Tarth who had told Gendry her suspicions of his royal parentage. During the wars, he’d gotten to know both the Maid of Tarth and the Kingslayer of legend.

Today, he considered them both comrades-at-arms, as well as friends.

“It is good to see you both,” Gendry told him. “Ned feared you would have traveled to Storm’s End for Arya's procession.”

“We wished to greet your wife,” said Jaime, “but I’m afraid the wench is in no fit condition to travel.”

Brienne blushed. “Jaime, you should not say such things.”

Gendry looked at them both. It was one of those moments when he knew he was missing something, and Arya would be nudging his side and filling in the gaps.

“What fortunate news!” exclaimed Ned. “Another babe is always welcome for a growing House.”

Yes, thought Gendry, Arya certainly would have nudged him there.

“Aye, welcome news indeed,” Gendry said, inwardly amused at how red Brienne had turned (and how smug Jaime seemed). Now that he glanced at her middle, he could see that she was with child. “And you have had a son since last I saw you both...”

“We thought you dead,” Brienne said sadly. “All of Westeros feared it. Only Lady Arya kept faith. She will be most elated to be reunited with you, my lord.”

Gendry thought about Arya, stuck inside Storm’s End with the lords sworn to his natural father’s House, and Aegon Targaryen besides. Damn thunderstorm. Why did it have to come up now?

“Come inside,” Brienne said. “Warm yourselves by our fires, and our people will give you dry clothes. Then we will feast, and you must tell us all about what kept you from Westeros for so long, Lord Gendry.”

But her husband seemed more grim.

“What kept him, indeed,” he muttered, clutching their child close. “I’ve suspicions of my own that need only confirmation...”

“Jaime,” said Brienne gently, “there will be time enough for all of it. For now, we feast with old friends, while we wait for the storm to pass by.”

And as they went inside, a rumble of thunder sounded from the skies above them.

 

*

 

As Ser Philip’s head came to rest at the side of the fallen Lord Alyn, the first rumble of thunder shook the drum tower.

No one said a word as Davos directed the servants to clear away the bodies, and to remove the blood. Then:

“Ser Rolland Storm,” Arya said, handing Balon his sword to clean, “please approach.”

The bastard of Nightsong left his post at the inside of the main doors and came down the aisle swiftly, immediately plunging to one knee before Arya and the assembly.

“My great lady,” said the knight humbly, his pox-scarred brow furrowed. “I am at your service, as at the service of Houses Baratheon and the Crown.”

“Please rise, Ser Rolland,” Arya replied, a hint of kindness returning to her voice. To the gathering, she said:

“Rolland Storm, last of the blood of House Caron, was one of the true heroes of the War for the Dawn. His bravery in the Battle of Blackwater Bay is well known, and he was well known for holding Dragonstone as castellan for Stannis, the last Baratheon king.

“After escaping from Dragonstone, the Lannister Master of Ships Aurane Waters on his heels, Ser Rolland landed in White Harbor, and joined the war effort in the North. He fought bravely at the Battles for the Gift and the Last Hearth. After the wars, when the Great Council upheld all claims granted by Houses Lannister and Baratheon, he did not protest, but joined the household staff here as the captain of the guard.

“Of all the men and women assembled here, I can think of none better for Lord of Nightsong.”

Ser Rolland looked shocked. Arya sent an encouraging half-smile his way, then looked to the rest of the lords.

“What say you all?”

“I say aye!” said Lord Brus Buckler of Bronzegate. Others joined in – “aye, aye!” – until the roar of applause within the hall matched the rumble of the thunder outside.

Arya raised a hand, and the stormlords quieted down.

“Ser Rolland, I shall write to my brother the King and his wife the Queen and inform them of my decision to grant you Nightsong in light of Ser Philip Foote’s plot against this House. I shall ask them to affirm your claim, and to legitimize you as Lord Caron as well.”

There was much acclaim and applause again, as the doors of the Great Hall opened… and Prince Aegon appeared. He was resplendent in the colors of his House, wearing a black velvet doublet and hose. On his chest, the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen was stitched in crimson thread.

Once he began to approach the dais, all in the hall bowed and curtsied low.

Save for Arya, that is. She met Aegon's gaze head-on.

“You may all rise,” said the prince, joining Arya on the dais. “My lords of the Stormlands, it is my great pleasure and honor to join you in welcoming your lady to these lands.”

“Thank you, my Prince,” Arya responded to all, trying to stop her heart from pounding beneath her breastplate. She was never afraid! She hadn’t been this frightened during the attack and dispensing justice.

Why should she fear now?

“You are most welcome, my lady. Let us feast.”

Arya started to return to her seat as the people assembled began to be seated around the tables that were being pushed inside for the midday meal…

But Aegon’s grip on her elbow was unyielding.

“You think that you are clever beyond measure, don’t you, Arya Stark?” he hissed beneath his breath. “Sweetsleep. You could have killed me.”

“Could have and didn’t, Your Grace,” she whispered back, feeling weak at the knees. “Be grateful.”

“It is you who shall learn gratitude. You think your little ruse will free that bastard of yours? Think again.”

They spoke below their breaths. Anyone looking on would believe the rumors for truth, that they were a couple in love, all but betrothed.

“You will not lay a finger on my husband, Aegon,” Arya said coldly. “If one hair on Gendry’s head is harmed, I will kill you myself.”

“Oh, I’m certain he’s already escaped. What they do not realize is that my men, and Edric’s, are right on their heels. This time, I will take care of what I should have that day in Norvos.”

“You would spill Targaryen blood?”

Arya tried to keep the quaver out of her voice. Please, someone send me word! I need to know he escaped safely, that my guesses at Ned’s plan were in fact the truth.

“Gendry Waters is nothing to me. What’s more, he won’t prevent me from having you. And make no mistake, Arya, I will have you, willing or not.”

“You can’t have me if you’re dead.”

“I will,” he swore. “For now I see that I will never have you as long as you have hope that he’s alive.”

He smiled at her as if she were the most beautiful creature in the world.

“Your Gendry is a dead man. He is scum and lowborn filth that hadn’t a single right to touch you, and well he knew it!” The prince grew angrier the longer he spoke. “If your father and eldest brother had lived and known of the way he dishonored you, they would have had his cock and his balls, then his head. I swear to you that I will do to him what they could not.”

Aegon chucked her chin. Arya’s eyes were frozen.

Calm as still water, she ordered her swiftly beating heart. (Which, of course, disobeyed her.)

“And to think that I promised you a year to yourself. No, my lady, I see that it’s best for you not to be left to your own devices. Instead of sharing my bath, I hear you were nearly murdered in yours… no, I think I shall extend my stay in Storm’s End.”

She wanted to say that he was no longer welcome, but knew better.

“For how long?”

“Until you are my wife, Arya, and I can return this castle to its rightful owner, my cousin Edric? Indefinitely. And just in case your husband and his band of merry men get any strange ideas, I shall send for Rhaegal as well.”

“My brother and goodsister have dragons as well.”

“Oh, yes. Indeed they have, and eggs besides.” Aegon clucked his tongue as he glided toward their seats, pulling out Arya’s for her. “I plan to tell the Great Council all about how my bastard half-brother and my widowed aunt are trying to usurp my claim. No child of theirs will ever sit my throne. But ours, on the other hand…”

Arya’s heart pounded so hard, she thought it might beat out of her chest.

“Have no fear, my lady,” smiled the prince. “For far too long, you have had to defend and care for yourself. That time is over. You are now mine.”

And so, it begins. 

 

*

 

As the rolling storms raged outside for the next ten days and nights, many ravens flew within the Stormlands, and to and from the lands of the Crown:

The plot has failed.

He has escaped! Send aid, so that we may search for him.

We have him. He is alive and safe.

He knows.

 

 

--to be continued--

 

 

APPENDIX: Houses of the Stormlands, c. 306 AC

 

Taken from the household records of Storm’s End. 

Author unknown, but presumably by castellan Lord Davos Seaworth (with assistance from the Lady Shireen).

 

(Great House)

BARATHEON (Storm’s End) - Lady Arya, born of House Stark, ruling in her lord husband Gendry Baratheon’s stead.

 

(Marcher Lords)

DONDARRION (Blackhaven)  - Lord Balon (Swann) & Lady Allyria (Dayne) - supports Lady Arya.

SELMY (Harvest Hall) - Lord Arstan  - neutral.

SWANN (Stonehelm) - Lord Guilian & his heir, Ser Donnel - supports Lady Arya.

FOOTE (Nightsong) - Lord Philip – conspirator against our lady’s life, received the King and Queen’s Justice at the hand of Lady Arya.

     *** Lady Arya has offered Philip’s holdings to Ser Rolland Storm of House Caron, Lord Presumptive of Nightsong, who fought nobly in the Wars.

 

(Noble Houses)

BUCKLER (Bronzegate ) - Lord Brus & Lady Alba -  supports Lady Arya, both were veterans of the Wars.

ERROL (Haystack Hall ) - Lord Sebastion –  neutral.

ESTERMONT (Greenstone ) - Lord Alyn – conspirator supporting Lord Foote, slain by Lady Arya’s brother Lord Rickon Stark upon a threat to her honor.

    *** Lady Arya has offered Alyn’s holdings to Lord Lomas Estermont, Lord Presumptive of Greenstone, also a veteran of the Wars.

FELL (Fellwood Keep ) – Lady Hester - supports Lady Arya.

GRANDISON (Grandview) - Lord Narbert - supports Lady Arya, was a veteran of the Wars.

HORPE (no castle) - Ser Richard –  neutral, but may prefer Lord Edric to Lady Arya as liege

MERTYNS (Mistwood ) - Lady Mary -  supports Lady Arya.

MORRIGEN (Crow’s Nest) - Lord Richard -   supports Lady Arya; fought in the Wars.

     ***Tristan Rivers, one of Prince Aegon’s men & a member of the Golden Company, claims Crow’s Nest through conquest. The Great Council, as well as the King and Queen, have denied Rivers’ claim.

PEASEBURY (Poddingfield) - Lord Robin -   supports Lady Arya; fought in the Wars.

PENROSE (Parchments) - Lord Ronnel –  neutral, may prefer Lord Edric to Lady Arya as liege.

STAEDMON (Broad Arch) - Lord Alesander -  neutral, may prefer Lord Edric to Lady Arya as liege.

TARTH (Sapphire Isle ) - Lady Brienne (w/ consort Lord Jaime) -  supports Arya; both fought with honor in the Wars.

TRANT (Gallowsgrey) - Lord Martyn - openly hates Lady Arya, House Stark, and the King and Queen. He is the twin brother of deceased Ser Meryn Trant. Notably absent from the assembled lords of the Stormlands, gathered to greet Lady Arya in the spring of 306 AC.

WYLDE (Rain House) - Lord Casper – neutral.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 71-72

 

The heavy, soaking rains of spring finally subsided on the tenth day after the storms began, leaving in their wake only a soft sprinkling under grey skies. It cheered the hearts of all on the isle of Tarth, and with the weather growing fine, it was expected that the Brotherhood would sail for Storm’s End the next day.

During the rains, there wasn’t much for the men to do around the castle except swill Evenfall Hall’s famous honeyed ale, then fuck. Gendry refused all offers for the latter (and there were many), instead offering himself up as assistant to the castle’s wizened master armorer Ulric. At first intimidated by his liege lord’s presence at his side, Ulric was soon won over by Gendry’s smithy talk.

“Beg pardon, m’lord, but you certainly know your way around a forge,” Ulric said, admiring a half-made short sword that Gendry had been working on. “If I might say so, you’re a craftsman as much as a smith.”

 “Thanks,” Gendry replied, setting down Ulric’s spare hammer and wiping his sweaty brow. “My old master in King’s Landing always said I took to a hammer like I was born to it.”

“Better than bein’ some foppish dandy lord’s little squire,” Ulric muttered his agreement. Then his eyes widened as he remembered this was no ordinary armorer.

“M-m’lord, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean…”

Gendry threw back his head and roared with laughter.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Ulric. The whole of the Seven Kingdoms knows my tale. I was baseborn. An apprenticeship on the Street of Steel was more than a lad like me could have ever hoped for. I didn’t know who my natural father was until the Wars, long after he died.”

“I saw him, many times,” Ulric offered as he hung tools back in place. “King Robert. When he was a boy, then as a young man, newly crowned. Took to the ladies, he did… and they took to him, for he was much as you are. Handsome, strong... could talk to anybody.”

“I hope he treated the good people of Tarth well during his time here,” Gendry said slowly. Even now it was difficult for him to hear about the way Robert Baratheon had slept with hundreds of women, then discarded them. Like he did to my mother, Gendry always thought, while trying to push it out of his mind.

He could never understand some men’s ways. Of course, he had eyes, and could appreciate a comely wench as much as the next man. But he doubted his father’s much-touted love for King Jon’s mother, the Lady Lyanna Stark. Gendry couldn’t even imagine being with another woman after having Arya in his bed…

And then he remembered. As soon as the storms subsided, she would be in his bed again.

Gendry could hardly wait to see her. It had been so long that sometimes Arya seemed like a dream.

“His Grace King Robert was larger than life in many ways, ‘tis true,” Ulric was saying, very slowly. “My sister was quite taken with him.”

Gendry turned to look at Ulric, feeling his face burn with shame.

“Ulric, please tell me he didn’t. My father...”

“Of course His Grace was taken with her, m’lord. Our Kyra was a new-flowered maid, buxom and sweet in the way that milkmaids are. You know the type.” Gendry nodded. “Robert had her often during his last visit to Tarth as lord, before the Mad King burned the Starks and the Rebellion began. My father was wroth and beat her for spreading her legs, but she didn’t care. And when Kyra learned she was with child…”

A child. I have another brother or sister somewhere on this island.

“Where is this child?”

“I’m sorry, m’lord, but it wasn’t to be. Kyra and her babe died in childbed. The babe was stillborn, but had the black hair and blue eyes of the Baratheons. My father told Lord Selwyn, and he wrote Lord Renly… we got a sum o’ gold, enough for me to buy this very forge from Lord Selwyn.”

Gendry felt horrible. As if he had been the one to steal this man’s kinswoman, get her with child, and kill her in the birth. It just wasn’t fair, the way nobles ran roughshod over the lives of smallfolk!

“It is I who should be begging your pardon, Ulric. My father did not know how to treat women with care and respect. House Baratheon owes your family a debt, and I intend to pay it.”

“No need, m’lord. It was long ago. And as I told my father, he was her lord,” said Ulric firmly. “It was his right…”

“He was wrong, Ulric. Robert left my mother the same way when he was a man betrothed to another, and a lord besides. A lord is supposed to care for his people, not treat them like…”

Gendry trailed off when he saw the compassion written all over the elder blacksmith’s face.

“After such turmoil as I have seen in my days, it is my fate in my old age to speak with such a great lord. The Ice King and his Dragon Queen saw the people through the hard winter and are restoring our lands. And now, the line of the Storm Kings, which all had thought lost… it will go on in you.”

Ulric came down on one wobbly knee. Gendry rushed forward to help him up, but the elder blacksmith waved him off.

“They sing songs of the Smith even here on Tarth. They tell tales of your deeds during the Wars, my young lord, how you forged armor that stopped the blades of the ice demons, and made swords that shattered them to pieces. It is an honor to bend the knee to you, Lord Baratheon. To know that these lands will be left in good hands at last.”

Still, Gendry tried to lift him up.

“Please, Ulric, you must stand. Here in the forge, we aren’t commoner and noble. We are brothers. We are part of the same guild, the same craft, worshipping the same fires…”

“All the same, you are m’lord, and it is an honor to bend the knee to a young man worthy of the title. A lord who was once one of us… a common lad.” He finally relented and allowed Gendry to support him as he stood up. “I have kept you from your supper, m’lord.”

Leaving Ulric’s forge, Gendry had returned to his chamber in the keep. He was still thinking about the young milkmaid Kyra, long dead, and the injustice of the way many highborns treated their smallfolk. If he had any say in it, there would be consequences, and even punishment, for lords who acted as if they could do anything to the poor!

You are m’lord, and it is an honor to bend the knee to a young man worthy of the title.

Gendry could still hear Ulric’s voice, see his thin face peering up at him as he kneeled…

Eyes filled with hope.

A lord who was once one of us.

A common lad.

He couldn’t really wrap his mind around it. Lordship wasn’t really anything Gendry had ever aspired to. Now, knighthood, that had been the height of his wildest dreams as a young boy in Flea Bottom… what boy in the Seven Kingdoms didn’t wish to be a knight someday? But by the end of the Wars, wearied from battle, all he wanted was to run Winterfell’s forge, and to build a life with Arya. Back then, he believed that Storm’s End was Edric Baratheon’s by rights…

By whose rights? said a small voice deep within.

I’m no lord. I wasn’t born to it.

Neither was Jon born to the kingship… and look at him now.

Gendry climbed the stairs, nodding to the servants as they bowed and greeted him, wishing he was back in the North. No one bowed to me in Winterfell. In the North, I was just another man.

But was he?

He didn’t believe in coincidences. When he could have stayed in King’s Landing and waited out the war, he was sent to the Night’s Watch at the first sighting of the Red Sword comet. He’d met Arya, and stayed with her through the kingsroad, the horrors of Harrenhal, and then traveling with the Brotherhood. He’d fought in the greatest Wars since the Dawn Age, cleaved several Others in two with his great warhammer, and armed every man, woman, and child in the North with swords tempered in Drogon’s flames.

And then he’d married into the line of the Kings of Winter, married his one and only true love, married a girl he thought he’d only be with in his dreams…

Arya Stark.

I don’t want to be King, Gendry thought, heading straight to the basin to wash the moment he was inside his chambers. Jon is the Prince who was Promised. He is a true friend, my wife’s dear brother who grew up a bastard just like me. I’m glad to follow him, just as we followed him during the Wars. He’s the King that Westeros needs.

But…

Should I do as Stannis wished, and become Lord of the Stormlands? Arya’s in Storm’s End now, sure, but she’s always said that Starks don’t do well south of the Neck. What if she hates it there? She loves Winterfell. It’s her place. It’s where her pack is. Doesn’t she miss the North?

Neither of us knows anything about the Stormlands, other than that many of the Brotherhood grew up there as children. Listening to their stories isn’t the same as knowing a place. I know King’s Landing, the Riverlands, and the North. But I’ve never been to Storm’s End, never seen Shipbreaker Bay. How can I call myself Lord of lands I know nothing about?

I wouldn’t want to give up forging, either. A lord has so many duties that it makes my head spin. When would I have time to become a master smith? When would I get the chance to learn how to make newforged Valyrian steel?

I need to know how Arya feels about all this. We can’t live somewhere she hates. I need to talk to her, see how she’s faring. Why did she take Storm’s End in the first place? Did she do it because she had to or because she wanted to?

I can’t wait to see her again. Her happiness is all I care about.

And if she isn’t happy living in Storm’s End, then that’s that.

He had been so focused on his thoughts while washing his face, hands, arms, and chest clean of soot that he’d failed to bar his door. So he shouldn’t have been that surprised when he drew back the washcloth and saw the naked young woman reclining on his featherbed.

She was a curvy thing, rosy-cheeked with plump hips and full breasts. Gendry thought he might have seen her around the castle a time or two during the rains, trying to catch his eye. But he knew he hadn’t given her any reason to come into his bedchamber nude.

“M’lord, I thought you might like a first course before the feast,” she cooed, her stormlander drawl thick. “Beautiful man like you… powerful lord, a war hero… shame you been sleepin’ all alone these nights.”

Gendry shook his head slowly. “Afraid you’re mistaken, miss,” he said, firmly but not unkindly. “Please cover yourself.”

The girl’s face fell. “But m’lord…”

“Do as I say at once.” His voice brooked no refusal as he tossed her the dress she’d discarded at the threshold.

“Your father liked us girls here at Evenfall,” the girl poured, pulling the dress over her head. “His Grace said there was none prettier in the Seven Kingdoms.”

Oh, did he? Bet that’s what he told ‘em all, the lousy drunk…

“You are pretty enough, but I have a wife,” Gendry explained patiently.

“So did your lord father,” returned the girl saucily. “I ain’t askin’ to be your lady wife… but every lord worth his salt likes a pretty maid to fuck. All your men have had us, ‘cept that odd little Dornishman.”

Of course, perfect Ned is always faithful, thought Gendry despite his consternation over being disturbed . Little sot does everything right, doesn’t he?

“I’m not like most lords. What’s your name?”

“Serra, an’ it please ye, m’lord,” said the girl.

“Serra. Look, Serra, it’s nothin’ personal, it’s just…”

“Right, I’m no highborn lady,” said the girl, tying the laces of her bodice. “I get it, m’lord. Beg pardons for forgettin’ my place.”

“Don’t think on it,” said Gendry, as the girl bowed awkwardly, and left him to his thoughts…

Thoughts of Arya.

 

*

 

On the tenth morning, the rains stopped. Pulling a light robe on, Arya ran to the windows of her chambers, and saw naught but light grey clouds and a fine mist.

Thank the Old Gods for this respite, she thought, elbows propped on the stone window still, chin tucked in her palms as she took in the gentled waves, the softness of the clouds overhead. The sound of thunder was like to drive me mad.

Even madder than being trapped in this castle with the mad Prince, Aegon Targaryen.

Despite her annoyance over the storms and Aegon, Arya was starting to get her bearings. The spacious chambers at the top of the drum tower were finer than anything she’d ever dwelt in, even during her time in Braavos. Arya had thought she didn’t care for Myrish carpets, carved wardrobes, fine tapestries, or soft featherbeds. But the four-poster bed was more luxurious than anything in even King’s Landing. It was a bit like sleeping on a cloud.

I love this featherbed, she’d decided on the fourth night. Never thought I’d care for such fripperies, but it makes one wish to linger abed in the mornings.

Arya’s sumptuous chambers had fast become her sanctuary away from the cares of running a castle. Behind the solid door, which Nymeria guarded diligently, there was the ever-present threat of her unwelcome guest, the household staff going about their duties, and the assembled lords and ladies of the Stormlands, delayed by the perilous weather.

Other than her brother Rickon and goodsister Shireen, and Hot Pie and Willow bringing up breakfast if she wanted it, only Weasel and the Seaworths were allowed into Arya’s chambers after the assassination attempt. Weasel alone saw to Arya’s bath and wardrobe, chamber pot, and washbasin. Lady Marya did the sweeping and dusting, and aired things out every morning.

It was here that Arya practiced her swordwork, looked over the household books, and got to know more about the stormlands during the long days of rain.

That morning, on the table behind her, Arya had several books. They contained histories of the realm that dated back long before the years of Orys and his defiant wife Argella, last of the Storm Queens. Long into the night Arya read by candlelight… she who’d always hated to read.

She also had notes about all of her bannermen, compiled faithfully by Davos, with assistance from her goodsister Shireen. They’d spent every evening discussing her options. About half the Stormlands were allied to House Baratheon, with most being neutral, and only a few refusing her rule.

Perhaps the most dangerous was House Trant. Ser Martyn Trant was the evil Kingsguard Meryn Trant’s brother, and the new head of that house. Arya had ended Ser Meryn’s life while living in Braavos under the guise of Mercy.

Arya knew she would have to summon Martyn Trant to Storm’s End soon enough. He was the only one of her bannermen who’d failed to show to greet his new Lady. Although he would have to bend the knee to her in the name of the King and Queen, or forfeit his lands and his life, Arya didn’t feel like quelling any more dissent before Gendry returned. Of course, she was more than capable of handling Martyn alone, but it was just that…

She missed Gendry. So much.

Without him, her pack was incomplete.

Arya’s stomach rumbled. The morning meal was over, and she hadn’t eaten much the day before. Turning away from the panorama of sky and sea, she folded her arms and looked out over her chambers, losing herself in thoughts of the recent past… and the near future.

It had been ten days since she sent a raven to Ned at Starfall, with a very cryptic “He knows.” If Ned meant for her to use the sweetsleep on Aegon, he’d understand her meaning; however, no one else would know what her message meant if it fell into the wrong hands.

Since then, she’d had no word. Arya took the midday and evening meals in the Great Hall, and pretended to be interested in every single fucking word that came out of Aegon Targaryen’s mouth. He delighted in tormenting her, but for his part, he didn’t bring up the fact that she knew what he and Edric had done to Gendry.

It was an uneasy stalemate.

Arya’s days were filled with going here and there around the castle, getting to know its inhabitants, and familiarizing herself with the lands she was meant to rule. Evenings, she excused herself, and pored over maps of the Stormlands with Shireen, Rickon, and Davos. She also read the household ledgers, and learned that they weren’t quite as destitute as she’d thought, even after paying the substantial amount that House Baratheon owed the Iron Bank. Still, they needed Storm’s End to begin generating income on top of the nominal taxes their bannermen paid…

Without Gendry, she thought sadly, none of this means anything. What if Ned and the Brotherhood can’t free him?

Worse, what if something terrible has happened?

I have to know what’s going on. I swear by the Old Gods if I don’t hear from Ned Dayne soon, I’ll go mad…

Suddenly, Arya wasn’t hungry at all anymore. She was also starting to get overwarm in her robe… only in the overnight hours was Storm’s End in springtime completely comfortable for a winter wolf. Shrugging it off, she lay across the bed, pulling the silk cover over her nakedness…

…and opened her eyes seeing the world from the perspective of a creature shorter than the length from her wrist to her elbow. Arya scampered down a damp corridor, sensing the sea breeze on her twitching whiskers and silver-grey fur.

Where was she? A quick glance at the motifs imprinted into the brickwork revealed suns in splendor quartered with crescent moons…

Arya had somehow warged into a cat on Tarth. This was Evenfall Hall!

She hadn’t warged this far away since she was a child. Why did her mind, spirit and heart seek this cat? Arya could barely form human thoughts. She, Jon, and Rickon were never as powerful as their brother Bran, a true greenseer who could remain himself even as he took on the form of any animal or plant, even the grass or the winds.

Human footsteps could be heard in the corridor just ahead. Arya the Cat did not flee, but padded on silent feet to a niche in the wall. Here, she would not be seen, but could see.

What she saw was a girl, a serving wench, pulling up the sleeves of her dress over flabby shoulders and elbows, and muttering something.

“Lord Bloody Baratheon…”

And now, another set of footsteps, this time from the opposite direction.

“Serra! Thought you were keepin’ the lord company?”

“Nay, he’d have none of me,” snapped Serra, seeming very annoyed. “He ain’t nothing like my ma said his father was.”

“Mayhaps you weren’t to his liking?” the other girl laughed. (Arya the Cat could see that she was tall and ungainly, with a wart at the tip of her nose.)

“Mayhaps you should try so the lord can shame you, too. He said he’s got a wife.”

Chuckle. “So have they all.”

The two girls stood opposite Arya the cat’s vantage point against the wall. “Aye, but he’s wed to the She-Wolf of Winterfell. There are those songs about them. Supposing they’re true?”

“There are songs about a lot of people. Lord Baratheon’s a man with a cock and his lady wife ain’t here. Some bloody girl in this castle ought to be to his liking!”

She could see them both, rosy and plump little Serra, and the other girl, tall and willowy, but with something about her nose and face that seemed pinched and calculating. She carried a jug of ale and a cup.

“Mayhaps he don’t like girls. Mayhaps he likes little boys.”

Not a chance, thought Arya smugly. Only “little boy” Gendry ever liked was me.

“Whatever he likes, we’re to keep him upstairs and out of sight. Them’s the orders.”

Arya’s fur stood on end. Orders from whom?

“Whose orders?”

“Never you mind that. You do as you’re told, Serra. If you can’t get Lord Gendry under your skirts, then find someone in this castle who boils his blood. Meanwhile, I’m takin’ him a drink.”

Serra scampered off, and the other girl headed in the direction from which she’d come. Arya followed quietly.

They didn’t have far to go. The grand guest chamber was at the end of the hall, and the door was slightly ajar.

“M’lord? I brought you refreshment, if it please ye...”

There was no reply, but the girl went into the room. Arya stalked quietly inside, too, and the sight made her pause in the doorway.

Her Gendry sat on the side of the bed, dark circles beneath dulled blue eyes, looking thinner than she’d ever seen him since the end of the Wars. Although two years of imprisonment hadn’t made him lose all of his muscle or strength, with one glance Arya knew that he’d gone through the Seven Hells at the hands of Edric and Aegon.

I am going to kill them both slowly, part of her thought, her heart beating fast as she drank in the sight of him. Fucking dragon and stag! What have they done to my bull?

The other part of her melted. It’s him. It’s really him… he’s here, alive and well, and less than a day’s sail away!

“Put it over there,” he told the girl, as she started toward him. “On the table.”

His voice was still the same, she marveled happily. Still the same deep, steady rumble…   ah, the Old Gods were merciful. She’d always loved his voice.

“M’lord, if there’s aught else I can do for ye…”

“There isn’t,” he replied firmly, quelling the light in her eyes. “You may go. And close the door behind you. I don’t want to be disturbed.”

Arya watched the wiry girl stalk out of the chamber, shutting the door behind her. The moment he heard it close, Gendry’s head was in his hands.

“Arry…” his whisper was nearly muted by his palms, “Lord only knows how much I need you right now.”

His sad words touched Arya to the core. She wished that she could hold him truly, let her know that she needed him just as much as he needed her, and always would.

Instead, in her grey cat form, she stalked up to him, and meowed softly, looking up at him through soulful eyes of gold.

Gendry looked down.

Their eyes locked.

A half smile spread across his tired face.

“How’d you get in here, little one?” he murmured, picking the cat up and setting it in his lap to stroke. “Must’ve known I needed someone to talk to right now.”

In response, the cat purred, nuzzling into his bare chest… all the better for him to stroke her fur. She inhaled, and her heightened senses were filled with him…

…and then, Arya opened her eyes in her humid, close chambers in Storm’s End. Someone was knocking at the door.

Part of Arya wanted to ignore the insistent knocking and return to her blissful dream. However, the disturbance grew louder, so loud that she couldn’t ignore it.

Her eyes flew open and she sat up, clutching the sheet closer. Listening.

“…nearly high noon and I have yet to lay eyes on Lady Arya today! I insist upon seeing her at once.”

In response, Nymeria growled at the dragon prince, and her brother Rickon chuckled tauntingly. (After the assassination attempt, Rick, along with Ser Brus and Ser Balon, had taken shifts at Arya’s door alongside the direwolf. None of her attempts to dissuade them worked, either.)

“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but I’m afraid my sister is still abed, and cannot be disturbed.”

“Then I shall wait at her bedside until she is awake! Move aside.”

Nymeria’s growling intensified.

“Move aside?" sneered Rickon. "Your Grace, Arya is my sister . Until she remarries, her honor is precious to House Stark. It is unseemly for even a prince to be seen entering her bedchamber alone.”

“Do you dare question my honor, wolf?”

“Not at all. I know that like me and my brothers, you are… most concerned with Lady Arya’s reputation. You are a noble knight indeed, one whose honor is… beyond reproach , and as such, you are quite willing to wait until my sister is dressed and opens her chamber door.”

Sometimes, Arya adored those brothers of hers. Her smirk only lasted a few seconds, though.

“ARYA! I must needs speak with you, NOW! RIGHT NOW!”

It wasn’t like a Targaryen to raise his voice, she mused. Bet he’s a hairsbreadth away from breaking his resolve not to engage in his usual whoring while he’s here.

“Just one moment, Your Grace,” Arya called out. “I shall meet you in the antechamber once I am dressed. I’m afraid I am indecent at the moment.”

And at Aegon’s distressed groan, she smiled with satisfaction.

Serves you bloody right.

 

*

 

The feasting at Evenfall Hall lasted until late in the evening, with Tom’s singing and playing, and much dancing and cavorting as wine and ale flowed. It would be the last such frolic, as the Brotherhood would be departing at dawn.

He could hardly wait.

Sitting at the place of honor at the head table, Gendry swilled his ale quietly, making polite conversation with Brienne and Jaime, and anticipating the following night, when they would be at Storm’s End.

“We will bring our new babe to you as soon as we are able,” said Brienne. “For the blessing of the septon, and to ask you and Lady Arya to be her godparents.”

“Neither of us follow the Seven,” Gendry pointed out.

“All the same, we want the blessing of our lord and lady. Don’t we, Jaime?”

“Blessing? Not necessary. Gold and silver? Always acceptable…”

Jaime chuckled as his wife’s elbow met his ribs. It was so much like something that Arya would do to him that Gendry couldn’t help his sad smile.

“If Arya and me are still in Storm’s End when the babe comes, Brienne, you are more than welcome there, or anywhere we dwell.”

Brienne and Jaime looked at each other, frowning. Then:

“But you must remain in the stormlands, my lord, for the sake of the kingdoms,” Brienne insisted.

“After everything your half-brother and the prince did to you, you mean to tuck tail and run back to the North?” taunted Jaime. “I thought better of you, Gendry.”

“It’s not that,” replied Gendry, pinching the bridge of his nose between his eyes, suddenly very tired. “I need to learn why my wife rode South and took a claim we both agreed that I would forfeit. And before you say it again, yes, I know I’ve been gone a while, and there has been intrigue at court. No need to remind me.”

“These lands are yours by rights, Lord Gendry,” said Brienne. “When I look at you, I see the faces of your uncles, and your father…”

“By that measure, the Iron Throne is mine by right of conquest as well,” Gendry interrupted. “I want no part of kingship. Mayhaps I have doubts about lordship, too.”

“Mayhaps,” Jaime observed, “but you are already a lord, and have been since the depths of the Wars. The stormlords will follow none other.”

“When word came from King’s Landing by raven that Lady Arya was coming to Storm’s End,” Brienne said, “there was rejoicing among your banners. I have heard from Lady Fell, Lord Buckler, and Lady Mertyns already. I assure you that we are not alone.”

“The people of these lands want the blood of the Storm Kings in Storm’s End,” added Jaime. “Whatever else might be said about Edric’s rights, you and your little she-wolf have the people’s hearts. Don’t take it for granted, Gendry.”

Gendry shook his head.

“I hear everything you say. But until I talk with Arya, and until I hear from Jon and Daenerys, I can’t make any promises about what I’ll do.”

Tom then struck up a favorite song of the Tarths, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair."

 

Oh, sweet she was, and pure and fair!

The maid with honey in her hair!

Her hair! Her hair!

The maid with honey in her hair!

 

The bear smelled the scent on the summer air.

The bear! The bear!

All black and brown and covered with hair!

 

He smelled the scent on the summer air!

He sniffed and roared and smelled it there!

Honey on the summer air!

 

Jaime coaxed Brienne to give him a dance. Soon, the very pregnant Lady of Tarth spun around the floor with her consort as the hall sang and clapped all around them.

 

Oh, I'm a maid, and I'm pure and fair!

I'll never dance with a hairy bear!

A bear! A bear!

 

I'll never dance with a hairy bear!

The bear, the bear!

Lifted her high into the air!

The bear! The bear!

 

And with impressive strength, Jaime used his one hand to lift his tall wife a few inches off the ground as the usually proper and stoic Brienne squealed with delight.

Taking another swallow of ale, Gendry couldn’t help but remember lifting Arya off her feet in the same way at their wedding feast. And her face when he explained to her the meaning of the song, later that night…

“I can’t believe I didn’t understand it before!” Arya laughed, slapping his chest playfully. “They don’t sing that song in Braavos. Usually I’m not slow to get a joke… unlike you.”

“Well, that’s because you’re not the bear,” Gendry smiled back, kissing her navel, then moving south, all while gazing up at her lovely face. “You’re the maiden fair.”

“And I suppose you’re the bear, husband? But I thought you were a bull? And now, you’re a stag, since you put one around my shoulders this eventide… Mayhaps you should decide on an animal, hmm?” she teased, allowing him to coax her legs open.

“Tell you what, wife,” his voice broke as he kissed her mound, inhaling her heady scent, letting it fill his senses. “Why don’t I let you do the deciding, while I…”

As he started kissing her where she wanted him most, Arya gasped out the lyrics of the song.

“My bear… my bear so fair!”

And as he licked the honey from her hair, he found it as sweet as the song said it would be.

 

“Hey, old friend, who are you thinking about? Haven’t seen you smile like that in an age.”

Of course, it was Ned Dayne, there to interrupt his favorite lustful memories. His timing was always perfect, wasn’t it?

Setting down the mug of ale, Gendry regarded the young Lord of Starfall.

“Who do you think?”

In response, Ned grinned.

“She misses you just as much. Almost killed me when we told her what happened to you.”

That’s my Arya! “Good,” Gendry smirked.

“You know, I’d be hurt and insulted if I didn’t hold the two of you in the highest regard,” Ned returned good-naturedly. “After you are settled, you and Arya must come to Starfall. I want you to meet Lanna and my little Star, and we shall show you the lands where I grew up.”

Gendry nodded. “Of course. Ned, can I ask you something?”

“Anything, my good man. Just name it.”

“Why did Arya come to the Stormlands? Is it as Brienne and Jaime have said?”

Ned’s purple eyes darkened. “Do you wish to wait to speak with her, or do you want to know what I think?”

“I want your thoughts on it.”

Ned looked around and leaned closer.

“The Seven Kingdoms are in danger. Aegon and Edric are willing to go to war over Arya and the Stormlands. They are men who feel they’ve been denied their rights.”

“They are also men who held me captive for two years!”

“That’s because they want the world to be as it was before the Wars.” Ned sighed. “That world is no more. Our great battles showed that a man’s worth isn’t a birthright. These days, men earn respect. Men respect you not because you are the son of King Robert, but because of the kind of man you are, Gendry.” He clapped his shoulder. “And that’s how you won her, too.”

Gendry couldn’t help himself. He grinned triumphantly.

“Still not over it, are you?”

“Actually, I am. I love my Lanna with all my heart. Besides, I knew I hadn’t a chance with Arya Stark when we were all yet children. Pretty, fierce girl, but all she ever saw was you.”

“She was the only one I saw, too… Arya's the only one I’ll ever see.” Gendry stared into his cup, then added, “I never hated you, Ned. Only that your rank meant you were more suitable for her than me.”

“It does not even bear mentioning,” Ned replied. “Gendry, you must know that the lords of Westeros respect you. Let me give you something to think on: if you refuse the Stormlands, not only will the people suffer under Edric’s rule, it will not be the last claim offered to you. Those of us in the King and Queen’s inner circle must stand fast against civil war. That is why Arya came South.”

Gendry let out a deep breath.

“Before all this happened, I… I had thought to let the claim pass to Edric for Arya’s sake. She fought so hard to return to Winterfell. I only wish for her to be content.”

“Trust me, she will be content in the Stormlands. Storm’s End is a beautiful castle, and one of the finest strongholds in the Seven Kingdoms. You and Arya can make of it whatever you will. You can have glass gardens where you can have the blooms of the North grown for her. You can even hammer steel in your own forge there, and import it all over the world on your ships.”

My own forge. Gendry thought of the modest shop in Winterfell that he was so proud of, where he’d carried his new bride over the threshold…

“Storm’s End isn’t Winterfell.”

“Winterfell has Bran as its Lord, and Rickon as its heir,” Ned reminded him. “My friend, I know you well. I know you were quite content to smith for the Starks, to arm the North, and to raise any children you had with Arya in those cold lands.

“But our hard-won peace is more fragile than we thought. When the King had need of his sister, he called on her… and so, Arya has taken the Stormlands in your name. Now that you are returned, you are the lord of these lands in truth.”

Gendry regarded his old friend calmly.

“I know that it is my duty to rule the Stormlands, Ned. What I need to know is whether it is my destiny. And in order to know that, I need to know what Arya wants.”

“She is your lady wife.”

“Aye, she is, but you know her. I cannot order her about as one might do any other female. She would not abide it, and I wouldn’t have her any other way. I need to speak with her and learn more about what has happened over the past two years. Whether we remain in Storm’s End, that’s a decision that we’ll make together.”

Ned smiled at him.

“You will be with her tomorrow, my friend. If this good weather holds, tomorrow night, Gods be good, you will hold your wife in your own castle.”

 

 

*

 

Arya wasn’t willing to wait another day to be with Gendry. Now that she knew he’d taken refuge with Brienne and Jaime at Evenfall, she would be with him that night no matter what.

She waited until most of the castle was asleep. Then she stole into the Seaworths’ living quarters, several floors below her own chambers. Davos was abed and snoring, but Marya was sitting by the window, knitting.

When Arya dropped the hood of her cloak and stepped from the shadows, Marya dropped her knitting needles, startling Davos awake.

“My lady! What are you… was there something you needed? Is there something Weasel didn’t do? Did…”

In response, Arya held a finger to her lips, grey eyes shifting from Davos stirring on the bed, to Marya’s alarm.

“We must be quiet. Ser Davos, I need you to row me to Tarth.”

“Begging your pardon, my lady,” yawned the old seaman, “but… whatever for?”

“Because Gendry is there with his men. He was held up by the storm. I’ll not wait another day to see him, and if I suffer that dragon prince one more morn, I’ll be guilty of starting a civil war. Can you get me to my husband?”

Davos didn’t answer, just swung his legs off the bed so that his gnarled feet hit the floor. Marya immediately rushed over to a chest, and began taking some her husband’s clothing out of it.

“I take that as a yes,” smirked Arya.

“Yes, of course, my lady,” was Davos’ reply. “Goes without saying. But if the prince finds out…”

“He will rage, but I swear that no harm shall come to any of you. I have already left a note in my chambers, sealed by my own hand. It is to be given to Aegon in the morning, Marya.”

She nodded. “Shall I wake Weasel for you?”

“No, but tell her to prepare my chamber for when we return. We’ll want a bath, perhaps some food. And we may need a seamstress, for I am certain that Gendry doesn’t have any clothing with him.”

“It will be as you say upon your return, my lady,” Marya told her. “There are also some things in storage that Lord Renly never wore, clothing that he ordered and was made before his death…”

“Anything you can do in that regard will be appreciated, Marya. Thank you.”

“Of course, my lady.”

Behind the curtain where he was dressing, Ser Davos asked, “Arya, how did you learn where Gendry was? Did you have a raven from him?”

Arya smiled again to herself, remembering the tender way Gendry had held the cat in her dream. Underneath his imposing exterior, he husband had a kind, gentle soul that touched her to the very core. His imprisonment hadn’t changed his fundamental goodness at all.

“Something like that.”

 

*

 

A loud commotion woke Gendry out of his fitful sleep. Rubbing his eyes, he ran to the window of his chambers at Evenfall…

And saw his men, illuminated by the light of the full moon, running toward three ships that had just landed near Tansy’s Teats. Which was now engulfed by orange flames flickering higher than the trees as the dry wood and sail caught fire.

The ships that had just landed bore the Baratheon stag quartered with a red fox and blue flowers on ermine…

The personal arms of Lord Edric Baratheon.

Gendry’s half-brother and jailer had come for him.

Well, if it’s a fight he wants, it’s a fight he’ll get!

Dressing quickly and grabbing his warhammer, a furious Gendry wondered why he’d been left asleep. Why hadn’t his men awakened him? Why wasn’t he called to lead the fight? Did they truly think him so weakened from his imprisonment that he wouldn’t want to face his captor?

But when Gendry stepped into the corridor he ran straight into Lady Brienne, who was wearing a dressing gown and carrying a lantern.

“Lord Gendry, we had hoped not to disturb you....”

"Woman, are you daft? Of course I should have been disturbed, Brienne! That fucker’s come sailing here from Driftmark, burned our ship…”

“Yes, offenses without cause in the sight of gods, men, and the Crown… as long as you are not seen.”

Gendry blinked, but followed Brienne back into his chambers.

“What are you on about?”

“Only my people and your men have seen you, Gendry. Since no one else knows you are here, Edric’s attack is baseless. Therefore Lord Ned and the men of the Brotherhood have every right to detain him and his men. It also prevents a civil war.”

Sinking down into a chair near the door, Gendry acknowledged the truth of her words even as the bloodlust surged through his veins. If he, a missing man whom many around the Seven Kingdoms believed was dead, showed up in the battle and cleaved Edric in two, there would be questions. Many questions.

Questions that would divide the realms in two.

Besides, thanks to the fucking blood magic, he wouldn't be able to kill Edric anyway…

“Lem has told us all about your predicament. Edric is to be detained, not harmed. We don’t want you to suffer any loss of limb or life as long as the spell connecting you remains unbroken. And the only way to do that is to keep you here and out of sight until this is resolved.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Brienne, but I can’t do that. These are my men… this is my life!”

“And this is my castle, and my island, the land of my ancestors,” she said, not unkindly, a hand on her rounded middle. “But neither of us have any choice, Gendry. We cannot risk lives beyond our own. It is a matter of honor, my Lord, and well you know it.”

It was the hardest thing that Gendry had ever done. Not since he was fifteen years old had he sat as a spectator to the great battles, fights and skirmishes of the realm. Yet that night, he looked helplessly on from the tower window beside Brienne as swords clashed, arrows flew, armor clanged, and men shouted and fell.

The two sides seemed nearly evenly matched. Edric’s men had the element of surprise, while the combined forces of the Brotherhood who’d come on the rescue mission and the household guard of Evenfall Hall were greater in numbers.

They were in for a long, bloody battle.

But then a familiar, bloodcurdling cry filled the skies, and a dark shadow filled the air.

 

*

 

They had almost made it out of sight of Storm’s End when Aegon found them.

He was mounted atop Rhaegal, back from seeking the great green dragon’s evening meal. The magical creature hovered over the small rowboat, eerily quiet save for the flap of his great wings.

“Leaving without saying goodbye, Arya?” called Aegon. “That’s not very polite.”

“Are you saying that I’m a prisoner in my own castle, Your Grace?” Arya called out, keeping any trepidation out of her voice. (She still didn’t care much for dragons.)

“What I am saying is that it is rude to leave without bidding your guests so much as a by-your-leave, Lady Stark.”

Despite the unrelenting gazes of the dragon prince and his dragon, Arya folded her arms and glared.

“So here’s what we’ll do. Come with me for a moonlight ride on Rhaegal, and we’ll forget this ever happened. Refuse, and I will burn Ser Davos to a crisp.”

Arya didn’t move a muscle.

 

*

 

The great black dragon swept down from the skies, obscuring the light of the moon, and halting the skirmish on the ground.

When Drogon landed, both Gendry and Brienne could feel the floor move beneath their feet in the castle.

They could also hear the words of the silver queen as she dismounted. Although her face was too far away to make out any features, all knew when Daenerys Stormborn was displeased. Her petite body nearly trembled with outrage when she was angry.

The queen certainly wasn’t still now.

At the sight of the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, the men immediately threw down their weapons, and fell to their knees, prostrating themselves.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Daenerys.

 

*

 

Before Aegon could say anything else, a cream-and-gold shadow swept past the moon, circling gracefully downward, spiraling around the place where the green dragon and its rider faced the little rowboat. 

“Brother,” called the King, once he was near. “It seems as if you’re finding sport with the fisherfolk.”

“These are no mere fishers, Your Grace,” snapped Aegon, his eyes never leaving Arya. “This is your sister, and her castellan, stealing away without a single guard to the gods only know where in the middle of the night.”

“Is that so?” Even from this distance, Arya could see her brother’s smirk. “Arya, have Ser Davos row your boat ashore. I would have words.”

“She is in my care, Jon,” Aegon protested.

“If Arya’s got this far without you? I wonder,” was the king’s reply. “Why don’t you land as well, Aegon? I would hear more of what’s transpired at Storm’s End.”

 

 

*

 

 

“My lords and good Sers, your Queen has asked you a question,” thundered Daenerys. “Answer me with haste, or I shall not be merciful!”

“Your Grace,” called out Edric, all simpering obeisance, “my men and I were sailing past Evenfall Hall when we saw a ship aflame. We landed to help, and we were attacked.”

(High above, in the tower, Gendry was outraged. Would Daenerys actually believe such a tale?)

“How did the fire start?” the queen snapped.

 “Lightning, I’d expect,” said Edric quickly.

“Drogon was drawn to the scent of blood while we were hunting,” said the queen. “Where is the Lady Brienne?”

“Abed, Your Grace,” offered Jaime Lannister, wiping the blood of a shallow cut with the back of his one hand. “Given her condition, I thought it best.”

Daenerys circled the group with a frown.

“Stand up. I would see your faces… wait… Lord Dayne, what are you doing here?”

“Came to welcome Lady Arya to Storm’s End,” Ned said, glaring at Edric as he sheathed Dawn, “but was detained at Evenfall due to the long storm. This is my ship, and it was not lightning that destroyed it, but Lord Edric and his men!”

“That’s a lie!” shouted Edric Baratheon.

“The only liar here is you!”

That led to shouts, and renewed anger…

Until Drogon lifted its impossibly long neck and shot a column of orange fire into the air. A deadly warning.

That made the men bend the knee again… and forget what they were arguing about.

“Lord Edric Baratheon, Lord Edric Dayne, you are hereby summoned to Court,” said Daenerys. “I want you both in King’s Landing within a half turn of the moon. Lord Baratheon, you are to leave this isle of Tarth immediately. Lord Lannister, your wife will need to lend Lord Dayne a ship… and I want you to travel with him, as a witness.

“The King and I will sort out the rights of this,” the queen finished. “We will have peace in these realms, even in spite of our lords and knights. Is that understood?”

There was a pregnant pause, then, from a hundred throats:

“Yes, Your Grace!”

Back in the tower, Brienne turned to Gendry. “She has been a good Queen. Daenerys and Jon will detect the lies in your half-brother’s story. All will be well.”

“All will be well? Brienne, that fucker burned our ship and now Jaime has to take yours. Exactly how am I supposed to get to my wife now?”

Brienne’s blue eyes were kind. “Then it will be my honor to host you here on Tarth until my Jaime returns.”

Gendry simply glared angrily at her, then stalked away from the window.

“Take heart, my lord,” Brienne called after him. “You will see Lady Arya again soon… and this will all be just a memory.”

 

 

*

 

“What’s wrong, Arya?”

Arya bit her lip, looking everywhere but at her brother. The dragonriders had dismounted as Davos brought Arya to the shore. Aegon had tried to take her into his arms, but Arya pulled away, walking swiftly over the rocks.  Angrily, Aegon had mounted Rhaegal again, and taken to the skies.

It was then that Jon confronted his little sister.

“Arya, what is amiss? This isn’t like you.”

“I am fine, Jon.”

“You are not fine! Bran and Rickon have both sent ravens. When were you going to tell me about the assassin, Arya? Or the fact that two of your bannermen had to be executed within hours of your arrival?”

“I didn’t want to bother you…”

“Didn’t want to bother me?” Jon threw up his hands. “You are not a bother! Arya, you are my sister! I am not only your brother, but also your King! You should have sent a raven!”

“I would have, but I’ve been so busy with everything, I…”

“What aren’t you telling me, Arya?”

If I tell him what Aegon and Edric have done to Gendry, I will be responsible for tearing the Kingdoms apart. Jon will end Aegon’s life tonight.

Aegon deserves death for his crimes, but Jon doesn’t deserve to become a kinslayer…

At least, not today.

“I… need you to ask Aegon to leave Storm’s End, Jon. When I agreed to get to know him, he promised me a year to consider his suit. He has since breached that agreement.”

“Has he?”

“Yes.” She lowered her voice so that Davos could not hear. “He has even tried to seek access to my bedchamber.”

What? ” Jon’s dark eyes were filled with fury. “He shall be summoned to Court immediately, for I would have words with him. Especially after all the promises he made to me about protecting your honor!”

Arya’s hand reached out for his unburnt one, and Jon took it.

“Thank you, Jon.”

“There is no need to thank me. I was a fool to think that snake could be trusted, that’s all.”

Oh, Jon. You don’t even know the half of it. All the same, Arya was glad that her brother would take care of her Aegon problem.

But she was no closer to Tarth, or seeing Gendry…

Except for in her dreams.

Chapter Text

Days 94-100

 

Springtime in the Stormlands was made for rain, or at least, that’s what the castle servants at Storm’s End liked to say. The break in the rain that Arya had hoped would last was thwarted the morning after Aegon flew off on Rhaegal. The inhabitants of the drum tower awoke in the early hours of the morning to choppy seas, heightening winds, and the rumble of thunder.

Still, despite the weather, Arya thought to row to Tarth as soon as there was another break in the storms. She spent that night, and many nights that followed, in the guise of the cat, cuddled up next to Gendry on his bed in Evenfall Hall. Knowing that any day, the dawn would bring the sunshine back to the land.

But the rain didn’t subside. It continued, day in and day out, and all night long, week after week.

There was a difference this time, however. Instead of the incessant rain making Storm’s End feel like a prison, it felt rather cozy... especially now that the dragon prince had been called back to King’s Landing.

When it rained in most other places Arya had lived in, like King’s Landing and the palace of the Sealord of Braavos, there were always the drafts to contend with. As winter’s she-wolf, Arya Stark would always prefer the honest, bone-dry cold of the North to the freezing rains that she came to associate with autumn and winter, and her ordeals in the Riverlands during the War of the Five Kings. But just as Winterfell was built to withstand the blistering cold of the North, Storm’s End was built for the weather of its stormy realm.

Day after day, Arya marveled at how comfortable the drum tower was even when the winds gusted beyond the walls and the sea beat against the cliffs. There were no drafts, and not even a hint of dampness inside the walls.

By the third week of rain, Arya realized that she actually preferred it to the damp heat that clung to a person like a second skin. It made everything cooler, so that she could go about her duties without wanting to strip bare and jump into Shipbreaker Bay… undercurrents be damned.

“When will there be another break in the weather?” Arya asked Davos at midday about a month after she’d arrived at Storm’s End. That noon, she trailed her faithful castellan, her brother Rickon, and her goodsister Shireen up from the Great Hall to the castle gallery. Davos said that there were a few things he wanted to show them up there.

Other than being able to be with Gendry in her guise of the grey cat every night, Rickon and Shireen were another reason why Arya wasn’t going out of her mind during the second round of storms. Her brother and goodsister had wed in a small ceremony the evening after Aegon left, stilling the few wagging tongues around the castle. Both were not only good company for her, but also brought a bit of Winterfell to her here in the lands of the South.

Davos smiled at her question.

“The weather does what it will in these lands, much as in your North. Only here, it is not snow, but rain.”

“However do you get used to the sound of it?” frowned Rickon. “It grates on the nerves. At least snow isn’t so loud.”

“And here I thought you’d lived through part of the winter on Skagos, Rick,” teased Shireen, “which isn’t exactly known for its balmy weather…”

She giggled as Rickon playfully pinched her rear end.

“And what would you know about Skagos, my lady wife?” he asked her, hands easily spanning the older girl’s waist. “Other than what your doting husband has informed you of?”

“I know there are unicorns there. I read that in a book somewhere…”

Shireen giggled again as Rickon’s hand did something under her skirt, and Arya raised an eyebrow.

“Alright, you two. Hands off or I’ll send you back to your bedchamber.”

“Don’t tempt me, big sister! Threaten us again and you won’t see us until it’s time for us to depart Storm’s End.” This sent Shireen into another fit of giggles as Rickon drew her back into his gangly arms.

Arya shook her head. “You two are ridiculous.”

“You’re one to talk,” her brother said. “You and Gendry…”

“Never pawed at each other around Winterfell every single day for all to see!” insisted Arya loftily, a little more peevish than usual. “There are some things that should remain private between a man and his wife, Rickon.”

At her haughty words, not only did Rickon and Shireen chortle, old Ser Davos actually joined in!

The lady of Storm’s End folded her arms as they all reached the landing of the gallery, sullenly glaring at the other three. 

“I don’t see what’s so bloody funny. And Davos, you weren’t even there!”

Davos cleared his throat. “Aye, milady, but all the realm has heard the stories of your love…”

“And the Northern part of that realm has actually heard your love,” Rickon added, winking at his wife.

“We heard it a lot,” Shireen piped up, hiding her smirk when Arya glared at her. “What? We did!”

Arya felt her face grow hot. Of course, the bloody Brotherhood said whatever they would about her and Gendry, but her siblings… and their bannermen…

“No, you didn’t! We were quiet!”

“Were you? I seem to recall that Jon had to hold Rickon down his first night at Winterfell so that he didn’t attack the forge,” Shireen announced as Davos searched for the key to the Baratheon gallery on his castellan’s ring. “The commotion woke me up.”

“Thought your blacksmith was out there killing you,” Rickon grinned, “so loud and long were your screams…”

Arya sent them both scathing looks before following Davos Seaworth into the Baratheon gallery. Ignoring Rickon and Shireen’s laughter.

Irritating little brother. And Shireen just eats up every word he says!

The gallery of the Baratheons was not used very much, but was kept meticulously maintained by the household servants. Not a speck of dust clung to the paintings that lined the three walls, and the stained glass windows at the far end reflected the muted light.

Davos took them around and told the stories of the people in the tapestries and paintings, “as King Stannis told it to me.” Shireen knew most of the stories, too, and would proudly fill in the details, dark blue eyes flashing as Rickon gazed at her as if she were the sun, the moon, and the stars.

“I never knew that Orys had silver hair,” said Arya, gazing at the slightly faded tapestry depicting the founder of House Baratheon. “Wasn’t he an old man during the Conquest?”

“No, he was actually quite young, I believe,” Davos said. “Shireen, is that what you recall as well?”

“He was born the same year as Aegon the Conqueror,” Shireen affirmed. “The silver hair is one of the reasons most thought him a Targaryen, although his eyes were light blue, not purple.”

“Why was he a Baratheon, and not a Waters?” asked Rickon.

“Because his mother was a Valyrian noble,” his wife replied, “and her brother had no heir. House Baratheon were Targaryen bannermen who came to Dragonstone before the Doom.”

“So you Baratheons are half Dragon Kings, and half Storm Kings,” Arya observed. “Through Orys and Argella.”

“And lots of other things besides,” was Shireen’s distracted answer (for Rickon had begun kissing her neck). “We’ve intermarried a lot, like all the other southern Houses. It was all so long ago.”

“All the same, I always loved the story of Argella.”

Until she was betrayed by her bannermen, she thought ruefully. Arya remembered how frustrated she grew when Maester Luwin, Septa Mordane, and Old Nan would tell them stories of Argella, and Rhaenys Velaryon, and Rhaenyra Targaryen too. Why did the women always have to lose?

“Aye, but the stormlords were faithless, and refused to be ruled by a woman,” said Davos. “They stripped young Argella bare, wrapped chains about her body, and delivered her to the Conqueror’s bastard brother…” His warm brown eyes twinkled. “But that isn’t all there is to the tale, you know.”

“I know,” Arya told him impatiently. “Orys put his cloak around her, and claimed her as his wife. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill him in his sleep. Because if he’d killed my father…”

“Argilac was a fool,” Davos said, “and all knew it. He should have taken the Conqueror’s first offer and lived to tell the tale. And none know what transpired between Orys and Argella. All we know is that she bore him five children, and in turn, he avenged her.”

“What?” Arya had never heard that part of the tale.

“Of course. Orys’ wife was a princess of these realms, and very briefly a Storm Queen. Her men hadn’t the right to touch her, let alone betray their lady like that. It was an insult to Houses Baratheon and Targaryen, and that insult needs be repaid. Long before he lost his hand in the fight for Dorne, Orys put each man who dishonored his Argella to the sword.”

Well. That just might make me more willing, too, thought Arya, looking at the restored painting of the last Storm Queen. “She looks like you, Shireen.”

“She’s far more pretty than I’ll ever be.”

“You are her very image, except for your scar,” insisted Arya. “Which is why my little brother can’t keep his hands off you… hey, hands where I can see them, wolfkin!”

Rickon looked as if churned butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “What?”

Arya shook her head, moving along the gallery wall.

She listened as Davos and Shireen told of Baratheons dead and famous, the good, the bad, and the ugly. All except a few had the family’s signature black hair and blue eyes…

“Princess Jocelyn Baratheon,” said Davos, stopping at one of the portraits. “She would have been queen if her husband, Prince Aemon, had outlived the Old King.”

“She was also the mother of Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was,” Shireen added. “And before you two ask, like Orys, she was that rare Baratheon with silver hair. That's because her mother was Alyssa Velaryon.”

“Another powerful woman,” noted Arya with satisfaction. “Alyssa was Queen until Maegor the Cruel took the throne, wasn’t she? The mother of King Jaehaerys and Queen Alysanne?”

“She was indeed,” Davos said. “I remember Stannis saying that his mother Cassana considered Alyssa as a name if Renly were a girl.”

Much further down, there were portraits of the Laughing Storm, Lord Lyonel Baratheon, and his lovely daughter, spurned by Prince Duncan Targaryen.

“A fool,” was Rickon’s verdict. “He took Jenny From Nowhere over her?”

“Love is madness,” Shireen grinned at him. “The heart wants what the heart wants. Duncan’s folly meant that I had Rhaelle Targaryen for a great-grandmother. Apparently my grandfather Steffon adored his mother and told his sons many stories about her. I only wish that I could have met her.”

“Lady Rhaelle bore little love for the house of her birth,” Davos pointed out. “Stannis told me that his grandmother did not wish for his father to serve as a royal page. She did not reconcile with her father and brother… until Summerhall.”

Arya bit her lip. “She died there?”

“Aye, and you will find old folk in this castle who said that part of Ormund Baratheon died with her. They were an arranged match, but they’d known each other since they were children. Love came later... and oh, what a love it was.”

Just like my mother and father, Arya thought.

“Great-Grandfather Ormund perished in the Stepstones a year later,” Shireen filled in, “in my grandfather Steffon’s arms. As he died, he spoke of Great-Grandmother Rhaelle...”

“Do you Baratheons ever not find love?” asked Arya, shaking her head in disbelief.

They’d gone through the entire gallery, and she’d heard all these incredible stories. Of marriages arranged between strangers, and marriages arranged under duress, and marriages between friends… but all seemed unrealistically happy. She wanted to know the truth in all of it.

“My parents,” Shireen said with a dry laugh. “Neither wanted the other. My mother was in love with some boy she’d known back in the Reach, and my father…”

She trailed off. It was well known that Davos Seaworth wouldn’t hear a single bad word against Stannis Baratheon.

“Never mind. Well, all know that my Uncle Robert started a war for your Aunt Lyanna. Whatever might be said about him, he loved her memory until the day he died. And Uncle Renly loved Ser Loras. In our generation, there’s me and Rickon, Mya and Lothor… and you and Gendry...”

“I think that means her answer is ‘no, not really,’” Rickon finished, tickling Shireen’s side so that she laughed. “What did you tell me that it is? The prize of Durran or something like that?”

“No, silly… it’s the gift of Elenei. Not all of us receive it, but it has meant something over the ages, I suppose.”

“What is the gift of Elenei?” asked Arya.

Shireen’s eyes twinkled.

“Something that my parents always said was a foolish story for children. But each generation of Baratheon babes have heard the story told. You see, Durran Godsgrief, and Elenei, the daughter of the sea and the wind, founded the line of the Storm Kings. It was Elenei’s love that shielded Durran from the storms during the seven times he built and rebuilt Storm’s End… until his friend Bran the Builder spelled the walls to withstand any storm.

“Elenei gave up her immortal life as a goddess to live a mortal span with Durran. And so the gift of Elenei is the other part of our words, ‘Ours is the fury.’ The part that never gets said, but that used to be part of the old Durrandon sigil: ‘Our love will endure.’ For although the sea and the wind will always rage in these lands, our love will weather any storm. Our love will endure.

After looking at the portraits and tapestries of the recent Baratheons, then admiring King Robert’s warhammer in its golden case, they came to the stained glass window at the end of the gallery depicting the building of Storm’s End. In it, Elenei held a bloodied Durran in her arms, bracing him -- and herself -- against the might of the storm.

All four of them stared at the glass, all golden and sepia toned, with accents of leaded black threaded through.

“My father said that Durran and Elenei was a silly story that didn’t really happen,” Shireen said quietly. “All the same, it’s a story that I’ll tell my children. No matter if it’s silly or not, no matter if it’s true, it’s ours.”

And Arya thought about Shireen and Rickon’s children. The blood of the Kings of Winter, the Storm Kings, and the Dragon Kings would mingle in their sons and daughters…

And in mine, too.

 

*

 

The short sword had become something more wonderful altogether.

Gendry had finished the blade two nights before. Since there was little and less to do around Evenfall Hall except hammer steel, he had made the blade nice and sharp, something that anyone would be proud to yield…

It’s for Arya. Needle had long grown too short for her, and the only reason she was so effective using it was out of sheer habit. Gendry knew that his wife would always keep her beloved sword, but he wanted her to be able to have her choice of weapons. This blade wasn’t exactly Valyrian steel, but he would temper it in dragonflame, and the handle was a thing of beauty…

A silver wolf’s head that he was finishing up.

Satisfied with the look of the molten silver, he put the handle into the cooling water. His other project was already finished, not one hunting-knife, but two. He’d already had the leather scabbards made, and had crafted the handles so that the direwolf of Winterfell was on one side, and the stag of House Baratheon was on the other.

The sword and the knives, he wanted to finish before the storms ended. For no matter what else happened, he and his men would sail to Storm’s End whenever Ned Dayne returned with Brienne’s ship.

Eventually, he would need to make another warhammer and longsword for himself. Gendry’s own arms that had seen him through the years of war and winter had been taken from him when he was captured in Norvos. The hammer and sword that the Brotherhood had given him were adequate, but not as fine as his own craft. The balance wasn’t quite right on the hammer, and the steel of the sword was castle-forged, but not by a master.

But as always, Gendry’s priority was Arya and her needs.

Her helm and a new breastplate will wait until after we decide what we’re going to do. Unless it’s been moved, I still have the steel I was going to use for them at Winterfell.

It wasn’t a priority at the time. Right before I left, I was making more hunting knives and spears, nails and tools, and even a few cauldrons and pots, than arms. Arrow points for Anguy, too… but for hunting, not killing people in battle.

The stuff that blacksmiths make during peacetime.

Word had gotten out that Lord Baratheon liked to spend his days in Ulric’s forge, giving the elderly smith his first real rest in decades. So now there was usually a crowd whenever Gendry worked, the men taking the measure of his skill as the women admired his physique. He wasn’t in the form he’d been in two years before, though, so he had to push himself in order to hammer from dawn until dusk. All the better to rebuild his strength.

He was alone this morning. It was market day, and in the Stormlands, people went to market at Eventown despite the pouring rain. Ulric had taken some of his smaller wares in the wagon, saying that he would be back in time for the evening meal. The rest of the castle’s inhabitants either were off to market as well, or busy with their market day chores – the sorts of things one could do when there were fewer people about, like changing rushes, scrubbing the floors, and sweeping the stairs. It left Gendry alone with his thoughts as he finished the short sword.

It was there that Brienne found him. She wore a dark blue dress over reddish leathers, her shoulder-length straw-blonde hair pulled back into a neat braid. Her pregnancy was the only thing that interrupted the lean, tall line of her figure. As always, one of her hands cradled her bump.

“Gendry, have you a moment, or shall I return later?”

“I’m a guest in your home, Brienne,” was his reply as he laid down the hammer. “What is it? Do you need something?”

“No, I’m fine. It’s… Gendry, I’ve had word from my friend at Mistwood, Lady Mary Mertyns. She has been corresponding with Lord Brandon at Winterfell and…”

He raised an eyebrow. “And?”

“And they think they’ve figured out a way to break the blood spell.”

It was a good thing that Gendry had put down his hammer. He might have run the risk of breaking his foot, for he would have dropped it then. (Shame, though. He would have relished causing Aegon and Edric pain all the way in King’s Landing.)

“What? How? Where are they?”

“That’s just it. Brandon’s still in Winterfell, and Mary is in Mistwood. She has sent a raven. If you can come to Mistwood, she says she might be able to break the spell.”

Gendry’s eyes widened.

“Lady Mary's a mage, then.”

“She is from an ancient line of them. The Mertyns very rarely leave the rainwood, for much the same reason that Lady Meera’s people remain in the Neck. People fear what they do not understand. But Mary was a cupbearer here in my father’s household, when I was very little. We were girls together. She is a supporter of your claim and a friend.”

“People grow and change. How do you know this, Brienne?”

“Because Lady Mary’s sister… her dear, sweet, youngest sister… she was your mother.”

What?”

Gendry had to sit down. He was reeling. His mother was not highborn, and well Gendry knew it. She had been a tavern girl; she used to bring home men from the alehouse and…

“Not all noble fathers are as forgiving as Delena Florent’s,” said Brienne, very quietly. “I know that Ulric has told you his story, of how his father beat his sister bloody for sleeping with King Robert. And she was of the smallfolk, not promised to a highborn lord. Your mother’s first was not Robert, it was a boy she loved down in the rainwood, but Lord Mertyns could not deal with the shame. He disowned her when she refused to marry a man of his choosing…”

Stop! No more.” Gendry’s head dropped. “Brienne, I will hear no more of this.”

“Gendry…”

“No, Brienne. It was you who told me that King Robert was my father! And now…”

“You always knew it. In the back of your mind, you had to have known.”

“Never mind about what I knew, and when I knew it,” he snapped. “And now, you’re telling me that my mother may have been a highborn girl whose own father cared nothing for her, who let her die on the streets of King’s Landing, in Flea Bottom…”

“It is not the first time such a thing has happened, my lord,” Brienne said gently. “And sadly, it will not be the last.”

“Then R’hllor save us all from our lust, our pride… and our hate,” he spat, standing up to pace the forge. “Has this Lady Mary always known about me?”

“Not always. During the Wars, yes. She, like Bran, is able to see some things. And she is most eager to meet you.”

“Well, that little family reunion with my long-lost aunt will have to wait,” Gendry snapped angrily. “I am sailing to Storm’s End the moment the next ship lands here.”

“And what then?”

“Aegon is in King’s Landing. So is Edric…”

“It’s been nearly a month. They will not be there forever. The sooner the spell is broken, the sooner they will be able to answer for their crimes.”

“How do we know they’re not answering already?” snarked Gendry.

Brienne touched his shoulder, only for him to jerk away.

“Because you, my lord, still stand upright. As long as Ned and Jaime are there, no harm will come to them. They will tell the King and Queen all in order to preserve you… they would risk their lives for you.”

There was a trembling in Brienne’s voice. Gendry felt the tiniest bit of contrition.

“Brienne, I… you didn’t deserve that. You and Jaime have already risked your lives for my sake, and Arya’s. I will go to Mistwood on one condition: send word to Storm’s End, and have Arya meet me somewhere along the way. I do not wish for my wife to be in that castle once Aegon and Edric are out of King’s Landing.”

“Arya is more than capable of holding them off, Gendry. The spell…”

“I know what she’s capable of,” he interrupted. “I do not care. I know better than most that my wife is able to defend herself. All the same, I want Arya with me.”

The lady of Tarth nodded.

“Then find me a ship. I don't want to wait for the storm to end before I leave for Mistwood.”

 

*

 

Arya was in her cat dream when Nymeria’s barking and a pounding on her chamber door brought her back to Storm’s End. Donning a robe, she padded over to it.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Willow, m’lady… Willow and Hot Pie. Ser Davos said it was all right to come up at night if it was important…”

And it was. Both were damp from the rains, and a little breathless. Arya opened the door and waved them inside as her faithful direwolf Nymeria and a silent Ghost followed. Pack recognizes pack, she thought, because if that bloody Aegon had pulled this in the dead of night, the direwolves would have had him for supper.

“What is it?”

“Arry, there was a rider in the night,” said Hot Pie. “They came to the kitchen quarters. It’s a letter, but I don’t recognize the seal.”

“I do,” said Arya, taking the damp scroll from her old friend and breaking it. “This is the seal of House Tarth. It’s word from Brienne.”

“Is it about Gendry?” asked Willow.

Arya’s heart was pounding in her chest. “Most likely… here, go rekindle the fire and sit by it. Warm yourselves while I read what Brienne has to say.”

Willow and Hot Pie scrambled to heed her directive, while Arya found a match and lit the candle on the table with trembling hands. Spreading the drying parchment out, she expected to see the neat scrawl of Brienne of Tarth.

Instead, the words were formed by a more carefully practiced hand, a hand whose owner she knew very well…

Gendry.

Her heart was in her throat as she read the letter.

Arya, milady, my love –

A trading ship from the Summer Isles has arrived at Tarth. The captain has promised me that it can withstand the winds of any storm. I sail on the morn to Seaworth at Cape Wrath. I have twelve of my best men with me. If Ser Davos can smuggle you there, I will explain all when we see each other.

It has been far too long since I held you in my arms. I miss the scent of your hair, the feel of your skin, the taste of your lips…

Meet me at Seaworth. So we can ring every bell there is.

Your Gendry

“What does it say?” asked Hot Pie. “Arry, what does it say?”

But Arya couldn’t even form words. Her cheeks burned as she folded the intimate letter away.

And she didn’t dare stand. Not yet…

“Willow, I need Ser Davos and Lady Marya. Wake them up.”

Hot Pie and Willow looked at each other.

“Now, m’lady?” Willow asked.

“Yes, now.”

 

*

 

Saffron and Spice was everything that her captain and crew had promised.  The swan ships of the Summer Isles did best on days like this one, when the winds blew swift and sure. Unlike Westerosi ships, which broke up regularly during the spring and summer storms, the Summer Islanders were used to sailing during the tropical gales.

Fortunately, the new keep of Seaworth was downwind from Tarth, so the winds and the currents of the Summer Sea worked to move the ship along swiftly. Night was newfallen when the men of the Brotherhood waved the Saffron and Spice on its way… albeit with a Summer Island wench or two who’d been persuaded to keep a couple of the men company.

Devan Seaworth, Davos’ eldest surviving son, came riding out to greet them with three of his men, carrying the banner of his house. It was a black ship on a pale grey field, with a white onion on its sails.

“What mean you coming to Seaworth Keep, riding without banners?” the youth inquired, his hand on his sword hilt.

“We never ride with banners, young Seaworth,” chuckled Lem, throwing back his rainsoaked yellow cloak to reveal his face. Tom and Anguy did the same. “Kind of defeats the point of the Brotherhood.”

Devan’s hand dropped. His plain face broke into a grin as he laughed.

“Lem! It’s been years! Come, dry and warm yourselves by the fire. We’ve mutton and pottage, and new bread besides.”

“Is your father here?”

Devan looked at the tall, broad-shouldered figure who hadn’t yet removed his cloak. “No, not yet, and I haven’t received word. Why? What’s it to you?”

“Because your father is bringing something I want very much with him,” said Gendry, throwing off the hood of his plain, unadorned cloak as the rain poured down over him.

Devan immediately plunged down on one knee.

“Forgive me, my lord! I didn’t mean…”

In response, Gendry gave Devan a clout about the ear, much as Lem and the other brothers had done to him when he was around that age.

“Lording me and dirtying up your breeches in this mud… what’s this I hear about fires, mutton, and new bread? Get up, man, and lead us to the feast!”

 

*

 

Only Davos Seaworth could row the Narrow Sea in a skiff during the springtime storms. Lady Marya had assured Arya of this, and yet she still couldn’t help but retch several times over the side of the boat as the faithful smuggler rode the choppy waves from Storm’s End to just beyond Griffin’s Roost.

That was the first day. As Lady of the Stormlands, under normal conditions, Arya should have been able to have guest right at Griffin’s Roost. But old Jon Connington had died during the Wars, and his castle and lands were disputed. There were hearth-fires in the ancient castle, but Davos did not know who was in residence.

So instead, they camped at the edge of the rainwood well beyond sight of Griffin’s Roost, Davos taking the first watch so that Arya could sleep, then trading off.

It was during the second night, after Davos spent the day rowing within sight of the coast of Cape Wrath, that he had to express his admiration for the younger woman.

“I saw you fight in the snows of the Gift, so I shouldn’t have been surprised,” he said as they shared another meal of whitebait, dried figs, and bread that Marya had packed for them. “But sometimes, I think you seem more at home in the rain and in the camp than in the castle, my lady.”

“Exactly why I’ve insisted all my life that I’m no lady,” smiled Arya. “You know, if I were Ned Stark’s third son and a boy, I could have been a hedge knight, joined the Kingsguard, or sought my fortune as a sellsword. But instead, I was born a girl.”

“Your husband appreciates that fact, I’d expect.”

“I could have loved Gendry just as well if I were a man.”

Davos chuckled at that. “I’m not sure that young Lord Baratheon would agree.”

“He liked me well enough as a boy!”

“Aye, but a part of him likely always knew you were a girl, Arya. And what a girl you were.” His gaze was kind, fatherly. “I didn’t know Lord Stark, but I know he would have been proud of you. Of all of you.”

“I wonder what he would have said about Jon on the throne.”

“He knew that Jon was the rightful Targaryen heir.”

“I know,” said Arya quietly. “But he wanted to protect him.”

“As much as I loved all my children, as dear as the surviving ones are to me," said Davos, "if King Jon, Lord Brandon, and Lord Rickon were my sons, and you and the Lady Sansa were my daughters, I’d be the proudest man in all the Kingdoms.”

“You would have liked my brother Robb, too,” said Arya softly.

“The Young Wolf,” said Davos, almost reverently. “Ah, how Stannis gnashed his teeth about him. But I think they’d have gotten along. There are certainly enough stories and songs about him.”

“I wasn’t as close to Robb as I was to Jon,” said Arya thoughtfully. “But I remember how he’d pick me up and carry me to my room when Mother was displeased about something I’d done. At the time, I hated being so little. But he’d make jokes and call me Underfoot, and by the time he tucked me into bed, it was all right.”

She bit her lip.

“Sometimes I wonder what they would have thought about me. All of them. Robb… my aunt Lyanna, and my uncles, too… and my father and mother.”

“They would have been proud,” Davos repeated, his voice brooking no refusal. "Arya..."

Arya shook her head. “I have so much blood on my hands, Davos.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t get it. I like killing people. At least, people who deserve it.”

“There are plenty of men who do, even good men. That’s why there’s a word for it: bloodlust.”

She bit her lip again. “Gendry… he doesn’t really like killing. He sees it as necessary, but he never likes it. He doesn’t think on it much after it's done, but he doesn’t… he doesn’t crave a clean kill the way I do.”

“And you think he judges you for that?”

“I don’t know.” Sigh. “I’ve always wondered why he wanted me so much.”

“Well, that’s something you’re going to have to ask him when you see him.”

“It’s been so long.”

“Only two years.”

“Maybe that’s not a long time for you, Davos, but when you’re our age, it is.” Arya tried to ignore the twisting knot in her stomach. “I’ve changed. I’m not the girl he married. I’m…”

Davos waited.

Arya laughed.

“Listen to me, prattling on like some silly girl.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the prattling. Or being a little silly… when you’re in love.”

“Never meant to fall in love with him,” she muttered, almost to herself. “He was my friend. I didn’t even think about him the whole time I was in Braavos…”

“Didn't you, now?”

“No, I didn’t,” Arya snapped. “I was my own person over there. And I would have been my own person over here, too, if I hadn’t run into him in the Riverlands.”

Unbidden, the memory of their first meeting after being separated during the Wars filled her senses.

His was the fury at being scarred by her hand, but he hadn’t even lifted his hammer to swing at her. He just disarmed her roughly, flung Needle into the trees, and held her down with his entire weight on the cold forest floor.

“Let go of me, Gendry!” Arya screamed, flailing, trying to get free. “So I can finish killing you…”

“Never. I’m never letting you go again.”

Blood bathed his cheek and dripped from his chin, but his blue eyes were wide and clear, as if seeing Arya for the first time.

Arya blinked curiously in turn. Until that moment, she’d never thought of him as handsome. After it, she’d never see him as anything but.

She stopped struggling as quickly as she’d begun, leaned up…

And tasted his blood with a single wolfish lick of her tongue.

“What’d you go and do a thing like that for?” he snapped, wincing at the wet sting of her mouth, still firmly holding her to the ground.

“It was no more than you deserved! You were my friend! And you left me to join the men who were trying to sell me for a ransom!”

Gendry was panting. Still, he didn’t make any move to wipe the blood from his face, blood that was dripping slowly onto her tunic and leather vest and chin and cheeks.

“Thought you were dead,” he said hoarsely. “Dead at the Twins, dead with your mother and brother. Then they said you were alive, but married to the Bastard of the Dreadfort…”

She squirmed under him. “They lied. I’ve been… I’m here now, aren’t I?”

He looked at her as if she were the most precious thing he’d ever seen.

“Yes, you’re here. And you’re alive. Kill me if you want to, but that’s all I care about.”

Davos chuckled as Arya told him about that meeting in the forest.

“Stannis was scandalized, you know. A highborn girl like you, daughter of a Great House and barely fifteen, shamelessly sharing her bed with a bastard outlaw. Only reason it didn’t cause more of a stir was because it was wartime.”

“People never did understand us. But we didn’t care. We kept each other alive,” Arya said defiantly. “The Wars are why we fell in love in the first place. If my father hadn’t died, and if King Robert had lived longer, maybe Gendry and I would have never met. But we did, so that’s that.”

Arya chewed at her lip again, worrying.

“But now that the Wars are over… Ser Davos, I don’t know that I’m meant for peacetime. During the Wars, I didn’t know if I’d live to grow up. Then, after we defeated the Others, I’ve gone from being a blacksmith’s wife at Winterfell, to being Mistress of Whispers for my brother and goodsister the King and Queen, and then back to Winterfell.

“Now I’m Lady Baratheon, but I’m not like Sansa, or my mother, or even my goodsister Shireen. I can’t sew or sing, and I don’t know if I can bear any babes. If I can, I don’t know what kind of mother I’d make. I was never meant to be the lady of a great House. I’m so afraid that…”

“That you’ll fail him?”

“That our love won’t be enough. That he’ll fall out of love with me. And if that happens, I don’t see how I can go on.”

“Well,” said Davos practically, “perhaps we should get to my humble little keep so you can see the boy before you pronounce gloom and doom on your marriage, young lady. What say you?”

At his words, Arya smiled. Something about Davos reminded her of her father’s affection for her.

“See you in the morning, good Ser,” she said, walking over to her bedroll.

“And you, my lady.”

 

*

 

Although nothing on his face betrayed his true feelings, Gendry grew nervous when the rider arrived at Seaworth two days later, assuring him that his message had been delivered to Storm’s End. The description that the rider gave of the person he handed the message matched Hot Pie and Willow.

So where was Arya, then?

“Likely got held up because of the weather,” said Anguy practically at the midday meal. “Don’t worry, these storms aren’t as terrible as the first. Davos is an old hand at this, and he’ll bring your cargo safe and sound.”

But Gendry couldn’t eat a thing.

Worse, just before supper, a raven came with news of a gale whipping up the coast that would make travel impossible for the next day or so. The winds were known to tear trees from their roots and hurl great walls of water at the coastline. Few things terrorized the people of the Stormlands more.

It was such a gale that had taken the lives of Lord Steffon Baratheon and his wife, Cassana Estermont, within sight of Storm’s End.

The wrath of the gods of the wind and sea, meting out their judgment against their fair Elenei. Wreaking vengeance on Durran’s children.

He could almost hear his cousin Shireen’s voice, telling the old tale.

This time, no one told Gendry not to worry. The Brotherhood joined the small household staff at Seaworth as they prepared for the storm to hit. The shutters of all the windows were nailed shut, and the bottom two floors of the keep were abandoned.

“See that watermark?” said Devan to Anguy and Gendry, pointing to a limestone line on the stones of the wall on the staircase between the second and third floor. “That’s how high the floods got last time.”

Anguy nodded. “Aye, winds from a gale like this will flood the coast from here to Griffin’s Roost.” His usually easy manner was gone as he peered out the window, where the winds howled and the erratic rain had picked up. “Would your father know the signs?”

“Better than most,” said Devan. “Don’t worry, my lord, Dad will get Lady Arya to high ground. He would never chance a boat in this kind of storm.”

Davos wouldn’t, but Arya would…

Gendry’s heart sank as he ran back down to the hall, with Devan praying behind him.

Lord, cast your light upon us, for the night is dark and full of terrors.

 

*

 

About three leagues west of Seaworth Keep, Davos had already assessed the situation and gotten them out of the water hours before. Dragging their supplies behind them in the boat, they left the coast and had been climbing the plateau of the rainwood most of the afternoon.

“Wish we could risk taking shelter at the Rain House,” Davos called out to Arya, who had scampered a bit ahead. “Lord Casper stayed South during the Wars, though. I’m not sure where he stands on things, and I didn’t want to take the risk.”

“It’s fine, we’re nearly at Seaworth anyway,” Arya pointed out. “Raintown is just up ahead, and none of these smallfolk have any idea what I look like. We’ll be safe enough there, and on our way once the gale passes, with Rain House never any the wiser.”

“You’re right.”

But Arya noted the trepidation in his voice.

It was only a few moments later that the bell began to sound in the village sept. As Arya and Davos entered the small town, they noticed that all of the buildings were nailed shut, and people were running through the muddy streets as the rain poured down all around them.

Davos tried to stop a man who was struggling to push a cart. “What news, my good man?”

“Lord Casper’s giving all shelter in the castle, Ser! The like of these winds haven’t been seen since the dark of winter… the floods will knock your house down. We even lost the lighthouse at Cape Wrath last time! Best you both get inside!”

With that, the man continued pushing his cart. Davos turned to Arya.

“We’re going to have to take our chances with Casper,” he said. But there was a look of worry on his face.

“Davos, your keep at Seaworth. It’s right on the cape, isn't it?”

“Aye,” said Davos grimly. “But my Devan knows what to do. He’ll get them to the very top, and they might have to swim if worst comes to worst, but…”

“Gendry isn’t a strong swimmer,” said Arya quickly, heart fluttering with fear. “And this is Shipbreaker Bay… how far did you say Seaworth was from the Rain House?”

“Not far,” was Davos’ reply. “About two or three leagues, as the crow flies… Arya, no! We don’t have time! NO!”

But it was too late. Arya had spotted a saddled destrier tied at a post, likely abandoned by a frightened owner to the wind and the rain. Within a moment, she was on the horse, and racing back down the trail they’d come up.

Swift as a deer, she whispered to the horse. Run, now, run!

She dashed through the pouring rain, oblivious to the state of her tunic, leather breeches plastered to her skin. Branches that Davos had carefully pulled out of her way lashed at her cheek and chin and arms and hands, but none of that mattered.

Arya had to get to Gendry.

She had to protect him from the storm.

If Elenei’s gift is true, I could sure use it right now.

A ditch that might have been dry during finer weather was a roaring creek now. It was of no consequence. Arya took her reins and spurs, and the destrier leapt across, galloping on.

Arya saw the group ahead of her before she thought to slow the horse down. At a glance, she guessed there were around two dozen, seeking refuge at the Rain House. They were guarding their oil lamps under shields, for sunset was nigh.

Perhaps a fishing village seeking refuge, she thought.

But she didn’t wonder why fishermen would have shields, or armor, or weapons until an arrow whizzed past her ear.

Instinctively, she ducked down. But it wasn’t necessary.

“HOLD YOUR FIRE!” a familiar voice yelled.

“Gods be good,” exclaimed Lem, “it’s the little lady!”

But Arya only had eyes for the man who had yelled at the archer. Gendry had leapt off his horse, and was now running toward her, running so hard that he stumbled over an unseen branch, but kept running, running, running as if he would stop breathing if he didn’t.

Arya leapt off her borrowed horse, and ran too. She ran as the rain fell hard around her, soaking her to the bone, making her clothing feel as if it was filled with weights, but she didn’t care because she would run to him even if she had to move the entire fallen Wall to get there.

They stopped just short of each other, energy spent.

Gendry was panting and trying to speak and catch his breath and reach out for her all at once. For her part, Arya was slightly bent over, clutching at the stitch in her side, muscles screaming in protest, trying to take her husband’s hand.

“I never believed you were dead,” she whispered, soft against the rain, throat dry despite their world of greenery and water and wind. “Not one minute did I believe it! I knew you would find me…”

His eyes said everything he couldn’t. Through the rain, Arya read them as if they were a book.

“I’m yours, Gendry. Still yours. Only yours…”

At her words, a strangled sound between a groan and a cry caught in Gendry’s throat as he closed the short span between them.

He crushed her to his chest. Her feet cleared the ground.

Her arms went around his neck.

“Never let me go, Gendry,” Arya gasped. “Oh, Gods! Never let me -- ”

But the rest of her words were swallowed by his kiss.

Ours is the fury.

Our love will endure.

 

Chapter Text

Days 100-101

 

His kisses tasted like rain… and him.

That was Arya’s only thought as she clung to Gendry tightly, arms around his neck, legs around his strong thighs. She was drowning in his kiss, in his embrace, as the seven heavens opened and poured the floodgates on top of them.

After seeing the world almost end in ice and in fire, Arya thought that drowning wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

“As much as I hate to break up this happy reunion, you two,” Lem yelled at them, “that gale’s going to hit any second now!”

“Aye, and I’m too young and beautiful to die,” shouted Anguy, as Devan Seaworth raced the horse Gendry had been riding over to where they clung to each other. “Let’s continue this inside the Rain House, shall we?”

Devan raced over on the destrier, as if to offer it to Arya. “Lord Baratheon, my lady…?”

Arya broke the kiss reluctantly, and confessed to Gendry, “I’ve stolen someone’s horse… I should take it back.”

“You must be mad, love, if you think I’m letting you go long enough to get on some stranger’s horse,” Gendry murmured against her ear, pressing a kiss to it.

“One of my men’s got my horse, my lady, so I have yours,” Devan was shouting. “Please, ride fast to the Rain House. I’ve sent word to Lord Casper. He should be expecting us… see you up there!”

And Devan ran back to his own horse, hopped on it, and started racing back down the path to rally his men, who were gathering up the slower-moving servants from Seaworth on their horses.

“Davos said the Rain House might not be safe,” Arya told Gendry as he carried her back to his horse, still holding her tightly. “Lord Wylde is…”

“I know,” Gendry replied, pressing his forehead to hers. “He was Alyn Estermont’s friend. They squired together. And now, Alyn’s dead.”

“Rickon is… wild,” Arya explained between kisses. “Alyn’s life was mine. My baby brother should not have denied me my justice.”

“Your brother acted with honor,” was his reply, as Arya let him seat her on his horse as if she were no lighter than a sack of feathers, and then swung his bulky, muscular frame up behind her. “If I’d been there, I would have done more than let that Lannister bootlicker strangle in his own blood.”

“But Davos says Casper was Alyn’s friend,” Arya told him, handing Gendry the reins of the horse so she could relax against his soaking wet tunic. “I don’t want to stay here tonight.”

“I know, Arry. But we don’t have a choice.”

Arya shivered as Gendry drew her closer to him, the reins firmly in his hands.

“I have so much to tell you, Gendry,” she murmured, closing her eyes as his lips buried in her wet hair.

“No time,” Tom was yelling at them. “LOOK!”

Gendry turned the horse and they looked. Far below the rainwood surrounding the Rain House, at the shore, a wall of water crashed into Cape Wrath, swallowing the shoreline into the sea.

“RUN!” roared Lem.

Arya didn’t need to be told twice. She snatched the reins from her husband.

“Hold on!”

And she threw the heels of her boots sharply into the steed’s side. It reared and raced back up the sloping wood. They’d already raced a quarter of a league before Gendry’s hands closed over hers on the reins.

“This reminds me of the day the Wall fell,” he told her, a bit of laughter in his voice despite the perilous situation.

Arya smiled too, remembering.

“You know your way around a horse a bit better than you did back then,” she teased.

In response, his hands left her waist to slide down to her hips.

“I know my way around a lot of things better than I did back then,” he said suggestively. “Let me show you…”

“For all my famed courage? Not yet,” she snarked, even as one of his hands moved to trace her thigh. “I think I’ve got the only man in Westeros who would dare distract the best horsewoman in the North while she’s trying to get him out of mortal danger.”

“That’s because I know how good you are at riding,” he teased right back. “Horses, direwolves, me, it’s nothing for my Ar--”

Gendry’s words were cut off when the first, small wave hit. Their eyes and noses and mouths filled with water, and for a brief instant, Arya feared all was lost. It was all that they could do to hold on to the skittish steed, which was now thundering up the stony path toward the Wylde holdfast as if his life depended on it.

Fortunately, none of Devan’s men had lingered the way they had. Lem and Tom had doubled back to yell at them.

“I’m not going to let you drown like that grandfather of yours did, lad!” Lem shouted, as Tom laughed. “Not on our watch! We survived Lannisters and Boltons and Edric Fucking Baratheon… stop pawing at your little lady, and get your bull arse in here!”

There was no more talk. Gendry, Arya, and the last of the Brotherhood spurred their horses on and made it through the gates of the Rain House just in time for Lord Wylde’s soldiers to cut through the ropes of the gears that held the gigantic doors open…

Less than an instant later, a wall of water hit those gates and the walls surrounding them with the force of a battering ram. As high as those walls were, a waterfall still poured over the heights of the walls and the gate.  The ground beneath their feet shook with the force of the sea’s fury.

“That was a close one,” chuckled Tom as Anguy helped Arya down from her horse before Gendry could jump down to do it. “Never a dull moment with the two of you, that’s for sure.”

“Taking years off my life, that’s what they do,” Lem added in his usual severe way, but his eyes softened at the sight of Arya and Gendry together, holding hands. “Well, come on. Lord Casper’s waiting.”

It was pouring in the courtyard. The water was as high as their ankles. Yet as Gendry and Arya walked toward the main buildings of the castle, the townspeople who had come into the walls for shelter from the storm bent the knee, in the mud.

Gendry seemed uncomfortable by this, and murmured to Arya about it.

“First Tarth, then Seaworth, now here. They really shouldn’t…”

Arya shushed him under her breath. “Later.”

The Wylde household was assembled inside the covered entrance to the castle, just a bit further on. Dressed in a golden threaded tunic with a blue-green maelstrom on his breast, a man went down on one knee… and with him, the rest of those gathered.

“Lord Baratheon,” said Lord Casper, eyes downcast. “The Rain House is yours.”

“You may rise, Lord Wylde,” Gendry said, his deep voice filling the archway. “This is my lady wife, Arya Stark of Winterfell. We appreciate your hospitality.”

Casper bowed again. “My lady. This is mine own lady wife, Lady Jeyne… my uncle and aunt, Lord Ormund and Lady Elyana, and their son, Rickard.”

Arya felt her trepidation lift immediately as she smiled at their war comrade. How could she have forgotten?

“Ormund, it’s good to see you again,” said Gendry, clapping a broad hand on the older man’s wiry shoulder.

“And you, my lord!” Ormund piped up. “It’s been far too long since we fought in the snows of the North. And your lady wife is as lovely as ever… brave, too, to ride in such a storm… although those of us who fought in the wars knew better than to doubt the courage of the She-Wolf of Winterfell!”

“Uncle Ormund, our guests are cold and tired,” Casper interrupted. “Lord and Lady Baratheon, shall we take bread and salt in the Hall? We have prepared a stormfeast in your honor.”

Arya didn’t want to even ask what a stormfeast was. “If we could seek our chambers, and dry off a little before that…?”

“Yes, my lady. My servingwomen are already drawing your baths, and have set out dry clothes,” said Lady Jeyne, pleasantly. “As soon as Lord Davos told us you were here, we began preparing your chamber. We did not know that Lord Baratheon would be joining us as well.”

After bread and salt was partaken, Arya, Gendry, the Seaworths, and the men of the Brotherhood trudged up the stairs of the tower toward the guest chambers… Arya and Gendry, hand in hand.

There was nothing that Arya wanted to do more just then than find a room with a featherbed, drag Gendry in it, and not emerge for an age or more. Her man had always been the type to draw every woman’s eye in the room, but the rain had made his white tunic transparent, plastered his leather breeches to his strong thighs, and sharpened his unique, masculine scent…

I want to strip him with my teeth.                                             

From the way he was looking at her, Gendry felt the same way.

Soon…

But first things first. When they reached the best chamber in the Rain House, the one the Wyldes had set aside for their liege lord and lady, Davos, Devan, Anguy, Tom, and Lem followed them inside.

True to Lady Jeyne’s word, there was already a roaring fire, a hot bath, and clean clothing set out for Arya and Gendry in there. Savoring the warmth, Arya flopped onto the bed, unceremoniously, not even caring that she was soaking wet, since they all were.

She pat the spot on the bed next to her, but when Gendry sat down, he pulled her onto his lap, and held her closer than close, large hands stroking up and down her back just the way she liked...

Before, even after they were married, a younger Arya would have protested. She had never liked her family and friends seeing everything that went on between her and her bull. Besides an occasional kiss, she never really liked showing others how vulnerable she was when it came to Gendry.

That was then.

This was now.

“Do you trust them?” asked Gendry as soon as Devan barred the door.

“No, I don’t,” said Davos shortly. “Lord Ormund’s a good man, but he is at the mercy of his nephew. Lord Casper refused to swear fealty to Stannis and he was furious when the king named me Lord of the Rainwood. Stannis was going to strip him of the Rain House and give it to Ormund…”

Davos trailed off, as he often did when talking about his closest friend, lord, and king. All knew that he missed Stannis like few others did.

“Father, that was a long time ago,” cajoled Devan. “I’ve gotten to know Casper and his family. The Wyldes mean no harm.”

“They mean us Seaworths no harm,” Davos replied. “Lord Gendry and Lady Arya are another matter. They…”

“We can defend ourselves,” Arya assured them, stroking Gendry’s arms where they were crossed atop her stomach. “We’re not going to let our guard down in a stranger’s house.”

“My lady, we have…”

“Davos, if you call me that when we’re private once more, I’ll… to you, I’m just Arya.”

“Arya, we have only a dozen men. There are over two hundred fifty men-at-arms between the Rain House and the Raintown.”

“And yet Ormund and Rickard fought with us in the North,” said Gendry. “I don’t think he’ll let Casper slaughter us like sheep in our beds.”

“Aye, he won’t,” said Anguy grimly. “But Casper’s got the biggest prize in the Seven Kingdoms under his roof. A great lord the Prince of Dragonstone was secretly holding prisoner, the son of Robert Baratheon, a man whom most in Westeros believe to be dead, and his wife. That’s good as gold…”

“Then we’ll pay him,” snapped Arya. “Find out how much it’s worth to Casper to keep his mouth shut, and give him that much.”

Gendry turned her to face him. “We don’t have any gold.”

“Yes, we do. Davos, show him.”

Davos reached inside his heavy cloak. Soon, sodden moneybags were clinking down on the bed next to Gendry and Arya.

Freeing a hand from Arya’s waist, Gendry opened one of the moneybags. His eyes widened.

“Arry. Did you rob some merchant?”

Arya elbowed him as Tom and Anguy looked at him and laughed.

“No, stupid, this is yours.”

Gendry blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Gendry,” said Lem patiently. “You are Lord of the Stormlands, lad. Storm’s End, all its income and buildings, and everything in it belongs to you. So does the Baratheon treasury. Your wife did what she was supposed to do… bring some of that treasure here so that you could use it.”

“But this isn’t mine…”

Arya clapped her hand over her husband’s mouth before he could say anything else.

“Davos,” she said firmly. “Pay him.”

“I can’t guarantee that will keep Casper quiet, Arya. Once this storm lets up…”

“Then pay the maester, too. Any high-ranking servants as well. Let them know that the gold is for their silence, and that Lord Baratheon expects that his gold will be enough to buy it. Tell them that if anyone learns of our whereabouts, dead men and women have no need of silver or gold...”

Arya felt Gendry’s tongue trace the lifeline of her palm, tickling it. She let his mouth go and began to giggle uncontrollably, breaking her stony face.

“As much as I appreciate my wife’s quick thinking, we aren’t paying that fucker anything,” Gendry announced. “The gold sitting on this bed is more than my master in King’s Landing would have seen for a lifetime of work. I know what it takes to earn a dragon at a smithy, and it’s even harder for a servant… spreading that kind of gold around would ruin this house forever. We’re not bribing anyone, least of all that Lannister bootlicker.”

“For all intents and purpose, we are at Casper’s mercy, Gendry,” Arya protested, squirming and blushing a little as his lips found her temple. “Our household is leagues away at Storm’s End, and our allies are further still. That’s how this sort of thing is done…”

“Not anymore, it’s not.”

To the men, he said: “Set a watch. If Casper’s smart, he’ll give us shelter until the storm passes and hold his tongue. If he isn’t, we’ll arrest him and face the consequences.”

“We can’t arrest Casper in his own castle!” Arya protested.

“Yes, we can, if he gives cause.”

“He’s a lord.”

“I don’t care. He licked Joffrey and Aegon’s boots. Now, he’s pretending to lick mine. I might not know as much as you do about lords and ladies, but I know about people… man like that will take our gold and sell us out.”

Gendry turned to the men.

“You lot are tired, and wet besides. Seek your chambers. We’ll see you at the feast.”

“Sure you’ll be making it down to the hall tonight, lad?” quipped Tom as the group headed to the door. “Haven’t seen your little wife in two years…”

“Tom,” said Arya crossly, “if you really want to know whether I’m going to fuck my husband the second you’re on the other side of that door, the answer is yes. Get out before that bath I plan to share with him gets any colder.”

At the she-wolf’s blunt words, all the men roared with laughter.

“Thought you told your brother that certain things should remain between a man and his wife, young lady,” Davos called over his shoulder.

“And well they should, Davos,” Arya smirked. “Which is why you’re not invited!”

“She’s back!” Tom announced, as Arya shut the door behind them. “Our little lady is back!”

 

*

 

“Ah, that feels good,” moaned Arya, as Gendry ran the soft cloth over her shoulders, then down her spine.

“Good… I’m glad. You deserve to feel good.” He dipped the cloth back into the cooling bath water, then between her legs. “Lord knows how much I’ve missed you, Arry.”

“I’ve missed you too… oh, Gods!”

They’d already gone at it twice. The first was against the door. Both still dirty and damp from the rains, they started the second Arya closed the door after the Brotherhood and the Seaworths had left the room. Their men’s laughter could still be heard as Gendry came behind her, spun her around and pulled her breeches down. In turn, Arya reached down and made short work of his already loosened ties, greedily palming his cock and positioning him at her entrance.

It had been two long years. Still, they didn’t miss a beat.

Her cunt felt even better around his aching cock than he’d remembered. He’d spent countless nights in that dungeon in Norvos, in that cell of a lordly chamber of Driftmark, and more recently, on Tarth and in Seaworth Keep, trying to call back up that sensation. But a spit-moistened hand was a poor substitute, not even a shadow of the real thing.

Arya was the real thing. There was nothing more real than her petite body wrapped around his, sliding as deeply into her as he wanted, nostrils filled with her sweet scent, hearing her hoarse, needy cries as she scored his back with her nails. Each time he thrust into her, she answered by tightening around his cock. Soon their pace became frenzied as they fucked each other with growing abandon, rushing toward the inevitable. The force of his thrusts knocked her hips against the bolt in the door as her teeth found the smooth skin that joined his neck and his shoulder…

They came at the same time. Arya screamed out her release, her arms and legs and cunt a sweet vise around his everything , forcing the seed from his loins and her name from his lips. It was a chant, a prayer… Arya Arya Arya… for he loved her more than the Red God, more than hammer and steel, more than anything else in this world and the next…

“I love you, Gendry,” she gasped, as he stayed inside her, semi hard, not letting her feet touch the ground, walking her over to the bed. “I was so afraid that I would never be able to tell you that again.”

He gazed at her, eyes giving her his heart. Gendry often found himself beyond words when it came to her. Not even the sweetest dreams he’d had while imprisoned were as beautiful as Arya Stark in her bliss, he thought, peeling away her tunic and breeches (which she only had one leg in, anyway), and the boot that she still had on.

Her smallclothes were already gone, but the bindings about her teats was still damp and nearly transparent from their sweat and the rain. Through them, he could see the pink of her nipples, as delectable as ever. Not to mention the enticing dark curls atop her mound, and another, deeper pink, glistening between her thighs…

Later, he promised himself, mouth watering at the scent of her arousal as he unstrapped the knife she always wore strapped to her thigh, and used it to cut the strips of cloth away.

Her beautiful teats bounced free, the bull’s head pendant he’d gifted her with nestled between them. Mine.

His mouth watered again.

Later. After the feast, dessert.

The hours until then would be sheer torture, though. The sight of Arya unclothed always made him achingly, mind-numbingly hard. This evening would be no exception.

“Your turn,” she told him, indicating all the clothes he still had on.

And her eyes burned with cool grey fire as more and more of him was revealed for her hungry gaze.

“Gods be good,” she declared, licking her lips and reaching out for him once he was totally naked, “you’re still the stupidest and the handsomest man in all Seven Kingdoms.”

“And you, the prettiest lass,” was his response, as he covered her body with his, “and the meanest.”

“I have to be mean,” she giggled. “Lest some fool of a girl think she can steal you away from me. Because only you think I’m pretty.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard, milady,” was his reply, sliding home once again as she cried out. “I’ve heard… fucking Aegon… tried… to steal… you away… from me.”

“He never… had a chance,” moaned Arya, hands going to the hair atop his head to tug on as he thrust. (It was a sensation that he loved, that combination of pleasure and pain, and well she knew it.) “I would have killed… that dragon before… I let him… touch me.”

He spread her legs further, coaxing her to wrap them high around his back.  But his wife was so responsive, and so incredibly aroused that just the shift in positions made her start peaking again…

All the better for him to finish her off with the hard, unrelenting strokes she so relished and craved. He reached his own completion easily… it was always so fucking easy when it came to her… spilling his seed deep as she shuddered and clung and cried out his name.

Now that they were in the bath, Gendry wondered if they could sneak in a third time before the feast. As hungry and thirsty as he was, in need of the food and drink a stormfeast would provide, he was also nowhere near sated when it came to his beautiful wife.

It felt like a good problem to have.

“Gendry, we have to join the feast,” Arya was saying, trying without success to remove his cloth-covered hand from between her legs. “Everyone’s waiting.”

“We have to join it? Thought the benefit of being a great lord and lady is being able to do whatever we want.”

“Yes, but Jeyne and Elyana went through all that trouble and… ahhh!”

He’d thrown aside the cloth and thrust two fingers into her heat, while his thumb played with the little love-button at the top. The sensation made her throw her head back against his chest, arching her own out so that her teats were on full display for his greedy gaze. He used his free hand to tweak and play with one straining peak, then the other.

There she goes. Another thing he loved about Arya was that she was always so generously responsive to his touch. The way she fell apart in his arms made him feel more inebriated than any wine ever could.

That’s the best thing about ice maidens. When you know how to touch them, just so…

They melt in your hands like snow in the sun.

Or like metal in a forge’s fire.

And they sing like new steel, too. 

“Gendry, please…” she sobbed helplessly, thrashing up and down on his fingers, sending water everywhere.

“Let it take you, love,” he groaned in her ear, trying to school himself to wait for his own pleasure, wait for her, wait… “Don’t fight it. Let it take you.”

She did indeed let the bliss he was giving take her. Arya’s head rolled back against his broad shoulder as her entire body went taut as a harp-string, then slowly relaxed.

His fierce wolf-maid of the North was as pliable as molten steel just then. And only he got to see her this way. Gendry savored the thought as he entered her slowly from behind, joining their bodies once again under the cooling water.

“Three times already,” she whimpered, reaching back to clutch at his hair, pulling it just the way he liked. “I don’t think I can come anymore…”

“Yes, you can,” he promised her, settling himself to the hilt, trying his best to ignore how tight and perfect she felt around his aching cock. “Remember all those long winter nights we went at it half a dozen times, and still woke up the next morning, ready for more?”

She craned her neck around to pull him in for a kiss. Letting him know that she did indeed remember everything.

“But I’m not as young and eager as I used to be, husband,” she teased, starting to rotate her hips, giving them both pleasure. “After all, I’m out of practice.”

“Then I suggest you eat well at the stormfeast, wife,” he rasped, gripping her hips so that he could quicken their pace. “As you like to say, practice makes perfect.”

And they kept practicing for quite some time.

 

*

 

By the time Arya and Gendry emerged from their chambers, clean, dressed, and temporarily sated, their guests were overready for the feast to begin. The great hall of the Rain House was packed to the gills with not only lords, ladies, men-at-arms, and servants who sat below the salt, but also what seemed to be the entire population of the Raintown.

When the lord and lady of House Baratheon were announced and entered, there were cheers and shouts. Arya looked up at Gendry questioningly, but he seemed just as surprised as she was.

After being parted for so long, Arya didn’t think she’d ever get her fill of being by Gendry's side. Lord Casper had provided him with a clean white tunic and leather breeches that were big enough, but too short… but his tall boots had dried by the fireplace, and his breeches were tucked in, so it was fine. Other than Sandor Clegane and the king himself, there wasn’t a more imposing man in all of the kingdoms… he was tall, broadly muscled, and after their shared bath, smelled so heavenly that Arya found herself anticipating curling up in his arms later.

His thick hair, black as a forge’s soot, was drying from the bath, and was just as messy as ever. He’d recently been clean-shaven, she could tell… some nonsense custom of Tarth, thought Arya, who preferred a full beard to stubble. Although even she could admit that the shadow that covered his upper lip, cheeks, and chin was enticing indeed.

But the best of all were his eyes, always his eyes… eyes that were clear and blue, eyes that never went long without capturing her in his gaze, eyes that made her heart beat fast.

It was a good thing that Arya met Gendry when she was ten, and not fifteen. Had she met him as a new-flowered maid, she would have had little sense when it came to him.

Not that she had much sense now, she thought, enjoying the rightness of his strong arm around her waist, guiding her up to the dais.

“Lord Baratheon, you are most welcome!” Lord Casper called out in his booming voice as the applause died down. “My lady, you look exquisite.”

Lady Jeyne Wylde had given Arya one of her own best dresses to wear, as they were both of a size. The black silk was woven with silver thread and trimmed with silver lace, bringing out the silver in Arya’s eyes. It was cut in the fashion of the Stormlands, with long sleeves and a deep v-neck… where Arya could finally showcase Gendry’s bull pendant, glowing softly in the candlelight. Her dark brown hair, worn down in the Northern fashion as usual, framed it perfectly.

“Thank you,” Arya said politely. “I hope we didn’t keep you waiting too long.”

“Not at all, my lady. The wine and ale flowed, and we’ve had bread and entertainments for all… especially with Tom o’ Sevens in our hall!”

Casper laughed, and Arya glanced at Gendry. The man’s wasted, she thought, wondering if the Brotherhood had slipped something into his goblet. He seemed almost like a different person from the man who’d sullenly greeted them at the start of the gale.

With a single glance, she knew that Gendry was thinking the same thing.

Arya looked back at the Wyldes, a small smile playing about her lips. Gods, how I have missed him.

“Then let’s not keep the people waiting, Casper,” Gendry was saying. “This will be the first stormfeast for my wife and me. Let us begin!”

Casper then returned to his cups as his servants began bustling about, but Arya and Gendry learned about the stormfeast from his uncle, Ormund.

“As you’ve seen, the stormlands are called that for a reason. The worst storms happen in spring and autumn, and the deadliest in winter, but at any time, one of the great gales may hit from the bay. It’s why our towns are built with wood, especially here in the rainwood… we get the worst of it, and so we lose all the storehouses.”

“Why don’t you just bury things underground?” Arya asked, taking the morsel of grilled lamb Gendry was offering her. “Are there no cellars?”

“Nay, my lady,” was Ormund’s reply. “The ground here in the rainwood’s as muddy as that in the Neck once the rains come. You’ve seen a bit of that today. Anything buried underground would drown.”

“How about towers?” Gendry asked between bites.

“You’re thinking of Storm’s End, my lord, as well you should. Alas, most of the houses here didn’t have a Bran the Builder to spell their walls. Every century, your bannermen have had to rebuild their castles, or at least undergo significant repairs. It’s why we’ve had to purchase crops from the Reach.”

Arya frowned. “What if the Reach wouldn’t give them to you?”

“Then we forage what we can from the rainwood, the kingwood, and the sea. And we starve,” chuckled Ormund. “Why do you think we’ve gained our reputation for war?”

“All the same, you would do well to have glass gardens,” Arya suggested. “They don’t grow overmuch, but it means the difference between starvation and life in the North.”

Ormund nodded slowly. He’d seen the glass gardens of Winterfell before.

“My lady, if you can convince these stormlords that it’s more than Northern nonsense, you will have done much and more for this realm.”

“So when a gale hits,” Gendry continued, “the lord gathers everyone behind his walls, uses up all his stores in the feast, and… then what?”

He has that pained, thinking look right now, Arya observed, much amused as she took another bite of the marinated lamb from his trencher.

“He prays to the Seven that his keep holds in the rains and the wind,” was Ormund’s response.

“But when it’s over, he’s got nothing,” Gendry protested.

“Except for the houses that are large enough to have stores above ground… and the only one is Storm’s End.” He picked up his goblet. “The only respite we have from it is winter, when instead of the wind and rain, we get cold wind and freezing rain.”

“But what happens when the storm is over?”

“The storms are never over, my lord,” Ormund laughed. “A stormfeast isn’t about getting over a storm, it’s about getting through a storm. So we turn all our grain into bread, bring out the ale and wine, and slaughter all the beasts that won’t fit on higher ground. We feast and drink and make merry… and we pray that the Mother’s mercy will see us through to the other side, not buried under rubble, or swept out to sea.”

Gendry was shaking his head. “That’s just…”

“How your ancestors lived for countless ages. And it’s how you’ll live, now that you’re lord of these lands.” He swilled more wine, then looked from Gendry to Arya and back again. “Gods be good, it’s how your grandchildren will live and rule, long after we’re all dust.”

“Suppose we could do something about the storehouses,” Gendry ventured. “Do you think the lords would want them?”

“I’ve no idea, my lord. It’s something you’d needs find out. But a word to the wise: people can only change a bit at a time. The people of these lands are excited about you and the Lady Arya taking your rightful place. But they won’t love it if you come here changing how things are done.”

“Of course.”

There were so many courses that Arya couldn’t keep track of them all. She couldn’t remember when she’d eaten and drunk this much…

It’s been at least two years, she reflected.

It was very natural to share food with Gendry, as she’d been doing so ever since they first met… a fact that she was reminded of when they were presented with a course of roast rabbit, dressed with new potatoes, carrots, and parsnips.

After the meat was carved, Gendry took a leg of it, and placed it atop Arya’s already laden trencher.

Their eyes met.

She smiled.

In response, he kissed her gently.

After the meat and vegetable courses, there were endless desserts. Of course, the first and best was the pie, and the baker had to show that he knew the latest in King’s Landing cookery, so birds flew out of it, up to the ceiling, but remained in the hall due to the raging storm.

Arya wasn’t much for pies, cakes, or cookies unless they were made expertly by Hot Pie, but during her time in Braavos, she’d acquired a taste for sweets of all kinds. The baker at the Rain House was an expert hand at making marzipan, Arya’s favorite. She swilled Dornish Red and enjoyed a full plate of them, shaped into maelstroms and stags, bulls and direwolves…

“I love watching you eat,” Gendry murmured against her ear. He’d been talking with Ormund, but noticing as Arya enjoyed her dessert.

“Don’t be stupid,” was her reply, although she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. “Everyone eats…”

“Not everyone is you.”

And his lips pressed hotly against the swirl of her ear. A promise of things to come.

After the feast came the entertainments. There was a young juggler in Lord Casper’s court, who was quite amusing.

And after the entertainment, there was dancing.

In the North, anyone could begin dancing at any time. The First Men didn’t stand on ceremony when it came to their revelry. But in the South, the highest-ranking couple had to take to the floor before anyone else could.

As she allowed Gendry to lead her to the middle of the floor, she hoped that Tom would play any song except…

 

My featherbed is deep and soft, and there I’ll lay you down,

I’ll dress you all in yellow silk, and on your head a crown.

For you shall be my lady love, and I shall be your lord.

I’ll always keep you warm and safe, and guard you with my sword.

 

Arya rolled her eyes.

“We’re going to have to hear that song for the rest of our lives,” she complained, as Gendry took her in his arms.

“Aye, mayhaps. But… I’m finding I don’t mind it so much. At least, not anymore.”

Arya looked up at him, and smiled.

Then they spun across the floor, and others joined them.

  

*

 

He would never tell her this, but Gendry always thought Arya looked her most delectable and wolfish when she rode him.

It was much the same during their first time. His body and his mind had been at war with each other since the first moment she came charging back into his life. Yet the reason why he'd gone to chop wood at midday was a sad one...

It had been an ordinary day at the orphanage, although the group knew they’d be having to move soon. Jeyne Heddle had taken ill, and they had to find her a maester.

Gendry knew that Willow and the children were worried about Jeyne. So was he. She’d grown to be a companion of sorts for him, the closest one to her age although he could never give her everything she wanted. Now that she was feverish and bedridden, Gendry’s guilt led him to make sure there was always enough wood for the fire in her little room.

“Who is she?” the dying Jeyne had asked him that morning, her lips dry as he fed logs to the flames, an offering to R’hllor from the greenwood.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Must’ve been a rare maid, this ghost who makes you refuse every living girl who looks your way, Gendry… who is she?”

She was just Arya, he thought, years later, drinking in the sight of the flesh-and-blood woman moving above him as he gripped her waist and poured his seed into her for the countless time that night, his mind filled with white-hot pleasure.

And there wasn’t another woman alive like her.

Knowing all his tells, Arya pulled away from him the second her shudders subsided, and dropped down into his arms.

“You were far away from me just then,” she said softly, fingers playing with the hair on his chest. (Arya was always at her most tender after they made love.) “Where did you go?”

“Thinking about another woman… ow!”

He laughed a little, although her slap had stung his sweaty skin.

“How dare you talk about another woman when I’m naked in your bed, and we haven’t seen each other for an age?” She kissed him, sharp little teeth digging into his lower lip.

He kissed her back, tasting blood. "I was thinking about the day we first saw each other again. I'd gone out to chop wood for Jeyne..."

“Another woman." She hit him again. "I don’t have to take this treatment from you, you know. I have a standing offer from a prince.”

Gendry rolled them both so that she was pinned beneath him.

“I’ll kill him,” he growled.

“History repeats itself. We’re going to have to kill him anyway. But I was going to do the honors…”

“His life is mine. After we break this spell, that is,” His fingers ran through her soft, fragrant hair. “Still can’t believe I’m going to meet my aunt.”

“I know,” Arya replied, reaching up to stroke his jaw. “I’m glad for you. And then, after we're done at Mistwood Keep, we can go back to Storm’s End. Wait until you see it, Gendry...”

He frowned at that.

“Why would we go to Storm’s End and not Winterfell?”

“Because Rickon and Shireen are holding the castle for us. They’re going back to Winterfell, not us.”

Their eyes locked.

Gendry waited.

“I promised the King and Queen that I’d hold Storm’s End for a thousand days, Gendry… in your name, as the wife of the Lord of the Stormlands. I did it so that Edric wouldn’t get the claim. Which means we’re here, by royal decree, for the next three years at least.”

“Fine,” he snapped, although it wasn’t fine at all. “And then we return to Winterfell. Right?”

Arya bit her lip. (Gendry couldn’t help but dip down to kiss her.)

“Not exactly,” was her answer, as she reluctantly broke their kiss. “I… I’m starting to think we should stay, Gendry.”

“Stay where?”

“Here. In the Stormlands.”

He wasn’t expecting that. At all. Feeling as if she’d punched him in the gut, Gendry stopped hovering, and dropped to the bed beside her.

“Why would we stay here, Arya?”

“Because.” And she bit her lip again.

He kissed her again.

“You’ve forgotten, milady, that no one gets to bite these sweet lips of yours except me,” he warned her when she finally broke the kiss, breathless and panting. “Now explain to me why we need to stay.”

“When Shireen asked me to come here, I didn’t want to leave Winterfell. When Jon and Sansa spoke to me, I thought I’d be down here just for a time. But Gendry, I… I think this is where we’re supposed to be. Not just for three years. For good.”

Gendry shook his head. “I’m no bloody lord, and you, my love, have always said that you’re not a lady.”

“Perhaps not, but I was born and raised to be one.”

“Yeah, but if you really wanted to be a lady, there’s no way you would have married me.” He couldn’t help but snort. “Lords and ladies…”

“Don’t start with me, Gendry. You’re not some farmer boy from the countryside. You are the son of a king, and you’ve just learned your mother was a lady!”

“No, Arya! I’m the son of a drunken lout who didn’t give a damn about any of his children, and a tavern wench who died of a broken heart! Who they were born to is nothing to me.”

“Perhaps not, but who you are is everything to the people in these Stormlands! Not to mention if we can keep the people of Westeros out of another war…”

“Look, I’ve given Westeros all I have to give! I gave the king a weapon to use to defeat the Others! I fought in the Wars of the North, was injured and nearly killed! I even foolishly sailed halfway around the world to bring the secret of Valyrian steel back to the Seven Kingdoms, so that we’d never have to fight another war like that again, not in our lifetimes!”

“I know.”

Arya had closed her eyes, long lashes fanning on her cheeks. The sight made Gendry’s breath catch in his throat, and stopped his diatribe short.

“You really are the prettiest lass I’ve ever laid eyes on,” he said, running a finger over her soft, sweet lips. “So pretty... but I didn’t think I’d have to become some bloody lord to keep you.”

Her eyes flew open angrily at that.

“Don’t make this about me, Gendry! I have loved you since I was four and ten. Mayhaps even before that! This isn’t about me! It’s about you.”

“What?” he roared, sitting up. “How is this about me?”

Arya sat up too, clutching the bedcover to her chest. “Because you’ve always hated the fact that I am a Stark of Winterfell! That I wasn’t just some lowborn girl, but a lady! I can’t help who I am, and I’ve come to accept it! I was born a Stark, and when I married you, I became Lady Baratheon!”

“You married a blacksmith,” he said, more frostily than he intended. “When I left, you were content to be a blacksmith’s wife, Arya…”

“No, Gendry, when you left Winterfell, you were already so much more than just a smith, and well you know it! You left because more than half the fighting men of the Stormlands and the Marches were camped out in the Winter Town, wondering just when their general was going to lead them back home!” She reached out for him again. “You said to me a long time ago that you were done serving lesser men…”

He flinched away and turned his back on her. “And I was! I was the smith for a great lord’s house! For your brothers…”

“You were going to be serving my little brothers, Gendry.”

“They didn’t treat me like I was nothing! They treated me like family!”

“That’s because they are your family. But so am I.”

Arya’s small, soft hand came to rest on his shoulder.

“Aye, mayhaps Winterfell would have been fine, for us. Bran and Rickon respect you. But what of our children?”

“Ours? You know what the Guild said…”

She shrugged. “They say a lot of things. Anyway, what about all the people we’ve met here in the Stormlands, who look to the two of us with hope in their eyes?”

Gendry didn’t want to face the true meaning of her words. He couldn’t. For two years, he’d dreamed a dream of a forge far to the North, and the small but cozy living quarters behind it. He’d dreamed of a stormy-eyed maid of five and ten, his newly wedded wife, and making her the finest weapons she could handle.

He’d dreamed of forging Arya things to wear about her neck and wrists, a pin for her cloak, and combs for her hair. Pretty little things that were as strong and eye-catching as she was.

Gendry had never dreamed about being the lord of lands that he’d not seen very much of… lands that were plagued by the unrelenting sound of the sea.

A sound that he’d come to despise.

Arya’s lips were pressing softly to his neck, then with more urgency. Her slender arms wrapped around him. He could feel her breasts, pressed against his back… as her hand snaked over his hip…

“Don’t, Arry,” he warned her. “Don’t! It’s not fair to convince me this way.”

“I’m not going to convince you. I won’t have to.” She kissed his neck again. “This land is in your blood, Gendry, the way the North is in mine.”

“I grew up in King’s Landing, woman! I know nothing about the Stormlands. And I hate the fucking sea.”

“My love, that hatred you have for the sea? That’s what makes you a true stormlord,” she chuckled in his ear.

“That… makes no sense.”

“Did you actually think that the people of the storm love the sea, Gendry? If you do, I’ve a few stories for you. Your ancestors have been at war with the sea and the wind since the very beginning! Of course you hate the sea.” Her hands ran up and down his forearms. “That’s why you’re exactly what they need.”

“You don’t want to live here, Arya, You belong in the North.”

“And yet, here I am, thousands of leagues away from Winterfell... and I’m fine.”

“Are you really, milady?”

“Yes, really. Stupid bull. Come here…”

Arya tugged Gendry’s shoulder, and he faced her.

R’hllor be good, this woman’s going to end me. If two years before, his Arya had been a fiercely pretty little wolf-maid, this beguiling, frustrating, sexy woman of nearly eight and ten was going to be the death of him. They’d gone at it half a dozen times since reuniting, thrice before the stormfeast, and three more times after it. Yet once again, his cock was winning the war against his head.

As soon as we’re back in Winterfell, I’m going to bed her until she can’t move.

Yes, they would be returning to Winterfell. Arya wanted to be in the North, and Gendry wouldn’t believe otherwise. She had no power to accept the Baratheon claim on his behalf, and he would tell Jon and Daenerys that. His cousin Shireen was now married to Rickon Stark, so it wouldn’t be her decision, either.

And Stannis, the man who decided to become Gendry’s uncle and benefactor years after he learned about his existence? He was dead.

Gendry was going to get Arya back to where she belonged, whether she liked it or not.

And where she belonged was Winterfell.

Not Storm’s End.

His rational train of thought was cut off when her small hand wrapped around his cock, followed by her mouth…

And all Gendry could do for the next while was feel.

 

*

 

Arya was awakened by the sound of someone attempting to force the door of their chamber open at dawn’s first light. Snapping her eyes open, she tapped Gendry, very gently, then placed her hand over his mouth as he stirred…

Yes, she knew him well. Two years, and he still was loud upon awakening.

Placing a finger to her lips, she pointed at the bolt, straining at the door.

They dressed silently and quickly. As they did, Arya listened for the sound of the wind and the rain. It was suddenly quiet. Davos said that gales like this could last for days, or they could subside with the morning light.

Mornings in these lands often brought respite from the storm.

But not this morning. Arya had just stolen to the side of the door when the wooden bolt finally burst open. She killed the first two men through the doors, dispatching them easily through the vulnerabilities in their helms. (The Braavosi she’d learned swordfighting from were always making fun of “Andals in their metal clothes.”)

Gendry had his warhammer in hand, and was soon plowing through the men-at-arms that were pouring through their door as well, smashing them in the skull and chest with great blows that rang true.

They’d killed the dozen men who’d been sent to do Gods-knew-what to them, and no more seemed to be coming.

Arya and Gendry looked at each other, and frowned.

“I hope the men are all right. They were supposed to watch. What happened?”

“No idea,” said Gendry, grimly. “The fact that Casper thought he could pull this means trouble. We need to find them.”

No sooner had she said it than they heard the tumult down the corridor. Running to the action, they saw Lem, Anguy, and Devan Seaworth fighting half a dozen guards with the Wylde maelstrom on their breastplates.

With Arya and Gendry added to the fray, the score was more than evened. Soon, they were surrounded by dead and dying Wylde men. Lem had suffered a couple of cuts, and Devan looked winded, but they seemed no more worse for the wear.

“We’ve got to get out of here. When did the trouble start?” Gendry asked, as they ran down the corridor, looking over their shoulders.

“Just when we thought Casper was harmless," replied Anguy. "Lem and me were on our way to bed, while Tom and Davos…”

Arya frowned. “Where’s Tom?”

But her question answered itself when they rounded the corner, and saw Tom with Davos, propped up in a niche.

Both were holding a bloody gash in Davos’ side.

“Steel for breakfast, young lord, little lady,” pronounced Tom, more grim than Arya had seen him since the night he’d found her in the Red Keep. “Serve ‘em up steel for breakfast, and send that fucker Casper Wylde to the Seven Hells.”

The old bard then slumped forward.

And blood poured from the wound on his skull.

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 101-110

 

Tom!”

Arya cried out, forgetting the need for stealth, forgetting that they were in imminent danger and that anyone, anyone at all could hear them. They were all used to fighting, but could still be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Still, Arya’s fiery emotions got the better of her in that moment. She ran to where her friend was slumped, cradling the head of the old bard in her lap, examining the wound quickly.

She felt a bit better seconds later when she saw that Tom’s wound was but a scalp laceration. Arya had feared that the rogue guard’s sword had pierced the skull, which would mean brain tissue oozing out. Tom would recover, if they could wrap the wound, and cauterize it, and keep it from turning black with infection.

But first they’d have to get out of the castle.

Devan was next to her, examining Davos’ wound.

“Father…”

“It’s no use, my boy,” Davos told him, voice dry as parchment. “That sword pierced me clean through. I won’t survive…”

“You will,” said Gendry, very firmly, kneeling in front of the seaman. “You will because you have to, Davos. For your son. For your wife... and for us."

“We’re going to get you to a maester, Davos,” promised Arya, eyes filling with tears, “after I kill Casper for what he’s done!”

“The maester here won’t help me.”

“Yes, he will,” was Gendry’s response. “Everyone’s telling me that I am the rightful lord of these lands. That’s got to be good for something more’n lording it over people, way I see it. If he’s my bannerman’s maester, I’ll tell him to heal you.”

He looked up at Lem and Anguy. “Can you find the maester? We’ll get them into a room, Arya and I will guard the door, then…”

Gendry never got to finish his statement, for suddenly, a company of Rain House troops came storming into the corridor. Anguy drew his bow as they unsheathed their sword, ready to fight until the end…

“My lord, my lady! In the name of my poor dead brother, please have mercy on this House!”

Ormund raced through the column of men, and kneeled just before the arrow that was meant for him flew from Anguy’s bow and struck one of the Rain House men-at-arms in the shoulder.

The knight dropped to his knees, exclaiming in pain, and the others looked as if they were about to charge…

“How dare you raise a hand toward us?! Drop your weapons!Arya commanded.

Ormund glanced back, holding up a hand.

“Do as your Lady says. Now!

With a clatter, all of the household guards’ weapons fell to the ground.

The Brotherhood’s didn’t.

“Ormund, what’s this all about?” Gendry thundered, setting his hammer down for emphasis, striking the floor with such force that the stone cracked. “My party and I take shelter in your home, you offer us bread and salt, and then your fucker of a nephew thinks to murder us in our beds?”

“Lord Gendry, please! They are not our men…”

“They’re wearing the Wylde sigil!” Gendry replied angrily. “What do you take us for, man? We’re not stupid!”

Arya looked up at her husband. “I want a life for every life that their guard has taken.”

Gendry nodded, but Ormund shook his head. "Please, Lady Arya!"

Arya glared at the old knight. “If our friends die because of your treachery…”

“My lady, forgive me! Please, please, you must believe that House Wylde did not do such a thing,” implored Ormund desperately before Gendry or Arya could speak again. “We would never break guest right like the filthy Walder Frey. Casper and Jeyne are still asleep in their beds. My idiot nephew passed out from drink and had to be carried from the hall long after you retired. He is a drunk and a lout, nothing like my lord brother, may the Seven rest his soul, but he is harmless.

“I myself was asleep until the captain of our guard summoned me. Said there was commotion coming from the seaward tower where our guests were, and that we needed to check on it.”

Ormund looked from Arya to Gendry, and then back again.

“Gendry, Arya,” he repeated. “On my honor as a Wylde, for all Casper’s cowardice and fear, I swear that House Wylde did not break guest right. These are all outsiders, strangers whom I have never seen before in my life.”

He indicated the fallen soldiers, their bodies littering the floor where they stood. Arya looked from the maelstrom sigils on their breastplates, to the nods of the household guard, and back to Ormund.

“Why should we believe you, Ormund? Tom and Davos are hurt!”

“Because I have our maester with me, my lady.”

That was Lady Jeyne Wylde speaking. She had just entered the corridor. Her husband was nowhere to be seen.

Once more, the column of the guard parted to let the lady of the Rain House and the maester through. Both knelt at Gendry and Arya’s feet, Lady Wylde curtsying deeply and gracefully… but her entire body was trembling.

“Lord Gendry, Lady Arya,” said Jeyne, eyes downcast, “our House takes the blame for this incident. We prepared for your arrival, and we prepared for the storm, but we failed to prepare for having our castle infiltrated and violated by these strangers…. strangers who must have been trailing you, for we have never seen them in our lives.”

“How did strangers get through that gale? How did the sigil of House Wylde appear on their armor?” Arya asked her harshly. “I don’t believe you, Jeyne! I think we should put your guards to the question!”

“Dead men tell no tales, love,” was Gendry’s reply to his wife, pointing to the soldiers’ bodies.

“I meant the living, Gendry,” she snapped in reply. Reminding herself not to call him “stupid” in front of a lesser house, she inwardly groaned at the dire situation. Too many things to remember

“We’ll not find out anything from them, anyway,” Gendry pointed out. “They were in the other tower.”

To the maester, Gendry said:

“See to our men. If Lord Davos and Tom of Sevenstreams live, I’ll believe that this was the work of infiltrators. If either of them die, House Wylde will be attainted, and I will have all of your heads.”

The maester bowed again. “Yes, my lord.”

“That should give them enough motivation to save them,” Gendry told Arya, Lem, and Anguy as the household guard carefully lifted the injured Tom o’ Sevens and Davos Seaworth, the household maester, a distraught Lady Wylde and a devastated Devan Seaworth trailing after them. “Meanwhile, we need to make preparations to leave…”

“I’m not leaving!” Arya protested. “Davos and Tom were nearly killed trying to protect us. They might still die! I’m not going anywhere.”

“We can’t stay here, little lady,” said Lem, eyeing the bloodstains on the stones next to them, and the dead men. “If they’re right, and this is the work of infiltrators, anyone could be a threat.”

Anguy was nodding. “Best to keep moving. Most of Westeros doesn’t know that Gendry is alive, much less what happened to him these past two years. There are some who’d pay to ensure he never surfaces at all.”

“Like Aegon and Edric.” Arya made the two names sound like curses. “But they’re supposed to be in King’s Landing still!”

“It’s been more than a week,” Gendry observed, setting down his hammer to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Plenty enough time to send ravens to their allies here in the Stormlands…”

Including Casper!” Arya replied angrily, whipping Needle through the air. “I don’t believe a word Ormund and Jeyne said! I think they fear our wrath, and well they should! I will take Casper’s head as I did his friend’s!”

Gendry shook his head slowly. “We can have no more bloodshed, Arya. Not until we learn the rights of this.”

“You would refuse me my justice?”

Your justice?” He raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re not eleven years old anymore, Arya! You don’t have to put Casper on a bloody list, and you don’t have to act alone. We’re in this together....”

Arya glared at him. “Are we, my lord?”

Needle cut the air for emphasis.

Lem and Anguy looked at each other.

Both battle-hardened soldiers backed up toward the wall of the corridor… and away from the arguing couple.

Gendry met her glare with a hard stare of his own.

“Just what do you think would happen if you kill Casper?”

“The same thing that happened when I killed Philip Foote! A worthier man would become lord of his House…”

“Your brother Rickon killed Alyn Estermont for insulting you. Then you killed Philip Foote for ordering your death… after you killed the man who gave you that information. If you kill Casper Wylde, and it is later known that these men came from outside the Rain House, you will be responsible for starting a war in the very Stormlands you want me to claim!”

“You would keep me in my place then, Gendry?” she snapped. “My woman’s place?”

“Don’t be fucking ridiculous, Arya! You can’t go around killing innocent people just because your wolfsblood is up!”

“I KILL PEOPLE WHO DESERVE TO DIE!”

“Not always,” Gendry said, deep blue eyes locked on her.  “And well you know it.”

Arya glared at him. She could feel her blood boiling. How dare Gendry act as if he was the only one who’d taken the measure of her, who saw to her core? How dare he?

One part of her wanted to run him through with Needle.

Another part of her wanted to fly into his arms.

She did neither just then. Instead, she wiped Needle on the leg of her breeches, then re-sheathed her trusty sword, never breaking Gendry’s stare.

Then Arya closed the distance the distance between them. Grabbed his collar…

“You’re not my father, Gendry! So don’t you dare act as if you are!”

Letting him go abruptly with a shove, she spun on her heel and stormed down the hall, back toward their chamber.

She knew Gendry was going to follow her, and they would have it out. But just then, a young page came running toward them.

“My lord, the maester is asking to see you,” Arya heard him say. “It’s about your traveling companions…”

She could feel it when Gendry glanced over his shoulder, but for her bull, his loyalty to their men would always come first.

It would give Arya the opportunity to do what she needed to do.

Even if I don’t worship him anymore…

The Many-Faced God must have his due.

 

*

 

When Gendry, Lem, and Anguy arrived in the Rain House’s infirmary, Tom was already bandaged and in good spirits.

“This one sizzled that cut like I was a side o’ beef!” he joked, indicating the page who had been assisting the maester. “We’ll have to see how nice the tavern girls are to me now.”

“Girls like a man with a scar,” Anguy smirked.  “Anyway, not like it’s your first.”

Lem just shook his head at them both, then followed Gendry over to where the maester was still dressing Davos’ wound. Despite the touch of the maester’s wizened hands on the exposed, bloody tissue, the trusted old seaman slept soundly, having been given a good dose of milk of the poppy.

“How is he?” Gendry was asking the maester.

“As well as can be expected for a man of his age, my lord. Once I finish cleaning the wound, I shall sew it well and burn it to kill the bad humors.”

“Don’t you use leeches?” Lem inquired.

The maester shook his head. “No, these days, the Citadel only prescribes leeching for special cases. I find that they do more harm than good. It’s an outdated practice.”

Lem turned to Gendry. “Our maester used to say that a good leeching was like a good spanking for us lads.”

Gendry laughed uncomfortably at his friend’s admission.

“Always forget you were raised a highborn, Lem.”

In response, the burly man shrugged. “It was long ago. Another lifetime.”

For a brief moment, Gendry studied the profile of the rough, broken man who’d been his mentor in the war-torn Riverlands, and had proven to be one of his truest comrades once he was a man grown. They’d almost lost him during the war to madness and bloodlust, back before the helm of the Hound was destroyed. But Gendry was always thankful that the Lord of Light had seen fit to spare him. They all had much and more on their consciences, and they’d lost far too many.

It wasn’t until the end of the Wars that Gendry and Arya learned that the rogue outlaw known to them only as Lem Lemoncloak had been born Richard of the House Lonmouth, son and heir of the late Lord Lonmouth.

Although sworn to House Baratheon of Storm’s End, Lem’s father had remained loyal to House Targaryen. A lifetime ago, Lem had been Prince Rhaegar’s squire, and had been knighted by the silver prince. Tom liked to joke that Lem was the reason that the Crown suspended the sentence of the Brotherhood without Banners, for King Jon and Queen Daenerys never ceased asking him questions about the father and brother they never knew.

Gendry only felt a bit removed from it all. And strangely, a bit guilty by proxy. Maybe if his father hadn’t killed Prince Rhaegar, everything would have turned out differently.

But then, it was very likely that Gendry wouldn’t have been born. And thinking about the way he’d spent last night before the attack only served to remind him how much he really liked being alive. Despite how frustrating she could be, being alive and married to Arya Stark was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Anyway, House Lonmouth had been attainted during Robert’s Rebellion, and Richard had melted into the forests of the Riverlands, reinventing himself as Lem, taking a wife, starting a family, living the life of a hedge knight… until they were killed, lost in the War of the Five Kings.

Lem had joined up with Lord Beric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood after that.

It’s not fair that Lem lost everything, twice, because of all the wars he’s fought in and seen, Gendry thought, looking at his friend, who was now back to joking with Tom to distract him from the pain .

Maybe I could do something for him, then. I could even restore his lands…

Gendry frowned. What was he doing? He wasn’t going to stay here in the bloody Stormlands, where it never stopped raining, the winds never ceased their howling, and the sea never stopped beating against the shore.

That damned Narrow Sea. He loathed the sound of it, he hated the sight of it, and he especially couldn’t stand the smell of it.

It almost made him long for the stench of Flea Bottom again.

He looked down at Davos. He’s from Flea Bottom, too, and Stannis made him a lord for his service. Just as he legitimized me for mine.

Beyond giving him the license to wed Arya, Gendry had never really cared much about legitimization. In his mind, a man only should get what he earned. He had always believed little and less in birthright, and the Wars only served to prove his point. Few of his friends had been highborn, anyway… he liked Lem in spite of his birth, not because of it.

The only highborns he’d had much use for were the Starks. Lord Stark had treated him kindly during their brief meeting, showing more curiosity about his circumstances than his father ever had…

Gendry swallowed the lump in his throat, remembering when Stannis confirmed that Robert had known of his existence… and never made any effort to see him, only nodded when Varys suggested an apprenticeship and a trade…

No, being the son of a king had never done much for Gendry. While he appreciated the opportunity to have an apprenticeship and not to have starved in the streets, everything since then had been earned from the sweat of his brow and of his own merits. He’d worked hard for Tobho Mott. He’d been knighted by the Brotherhood without banners.

And the castle blacksmith at Riverrun had seen the quality of his craft and proclaimed him a master smith when he finished his first broadsword the same day he’d begun his warhammer.

His title of Ser, his status as master smith, the respect of his men… that was all the result of seven years of hard work, five of those years at war, being honorable, hardworking, and loyal, determined to earn the respect that his low birth and bastard status had denied him.

He’d even won the heart of the perfect girl.

Gendry had never cared about Arya being the sister of kings, or the daughter of a high lord. If anything, their birth had only separated them from each other, and caused him years of agony. First, it was her status, back when the Hound kidnapped her. Then, years later, it was his turn.

He knew that everyone saw them as Robert Baratheon and Lyanna Stark reborn. But they weren’t… it wasn’t like that at all.

Difference is that Arya’s always liked me, Gendry thought, with not a little smug satisfaction. No matter how angry she got with me, she never stopped liking me.

And when she came back, I made her love me. And only me.

Setting their current differences aside, Gendry counted Arya’s heart as the most precious thing he’d earned for himself. In his mind, that was better than being the lord of any kingdom there ever was.

Yet looking around the room, at Tom laughing in the corner with Lem and Anguy as the maester’s assistants finished bandaging him up, then at the maester working on the unconscious but still (thankfully) breathing Davos, Gendry couldn’t help but remember similar times during the Wars. Times when they held their breath between battles, hoped the Lord of Light would be merciful, and spare them all from sickness and death. There had been countless days without a sliver of sunlight, where they’d fought the undead in the unnatural cold mists of the Others, occasionally crossing swords with one of the Walkers themselves…

“Brotherhood, to me! To me!”

He waved the fallen flag of the three-headed dragon in one hand, swinging his hammer in a half circle with the other as the reanimated Unsullied troops came immediately charging with their spears.

The trick of fighting the wights of your recently fallen comrades was to pay attention to the unnatural ice-blue of their eyes, Gendry had always thought, although he never told Arya. Otherwise, it would be far too difficult to switch from fighting by the side of a column of soldiers to fighting their corpses.

During this battle, the battle for Queenscrown, he’d found himself cut off from Arya and the Brotherhood, charging alongside some of the silver queen’s Dothraki in the confusion. In a berserker rage, he plowed through wight after wight, swinging left, right, behind him…

Until he was the only human standing for several yards.

That’s when the Other came for him with long and menacing strides. Gendry had never sparred with one before… had never even seen one until then, had only seen and killed the infernal wights, wraith-horses, and ice spiders.

It was one of the few beings that could look him in the eye.

And its ice-blue eyes were not unseeing, like the wights.

They were mocking. Cruel.

“Come on then, you frozen fucker!” he shouted. “Let’s see what you’ve got!”

He lifted his hammer.

Then everything felt cold as the Other’s ice-sword hit his side… as if to cleave him in two.

Worst of all, just before all went black, he heard Arya screaming.

“Gendry! GENDRY!”

And his last thoughts were filled with the horror of the knowledge he’d made the woman he loved watch him die.

His name was being called. Gendry blinked with a start, unsure if he’d been asleep or merely daydreaming.

“Lord Seaworth sleeps now, my lord,” the maester told him.

He covered his yawn and stood up, looking in the direction of Davos’ cot. Devan sat next to his father’s still form, lips moving silently in prayer.

“How is he?” Gendry asked the maester.

“Only time will tell, my lord. He’s in the hands of the gods.”

He nodded. “Thank you. Truly.”

“Perhaps you would like to seek your chambers, my lord? I am certain this unfortunate disturbance disturbed your rest.”

Gendry thought about his wolf-girl, who was waiting there for him. She’d had time to sit for a while fuming… and though it had been two years, that never boded well for him.

“Not yet. I will seek the kitchens, find something to eat and then…”

The maester summoned his page. “Boy, inform the kitchens that Lord Baratheon and his lady wish to take the morning meal in their chambers.”

The youth looked from the maester’s severe face, to Gendry’s twinkling eyes, and back again.

“Well, don’t just stand there gaping at us like you’re daft! Go!”

The boy bowed halfway between his maester and Gendry. “Yes, m’lord, right away,” he gulped before scampering off.

When Lem and Anguy saw Gendry leaving, they got up to follow him, but he held up a hand.

“No need. I’m just going to look for Arya so we can get out of here,” he said. “We’ll come find you. Tom…?”

The old bard nodded. “Say no more. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on our good old onion knight,” he assured Gendry. “If the waters die down a bit, and Davos can be moved, I’ll help his lad take him back to Seaworth.”

His gravelly voice lowered.

“You go break that spell, lad, so we can whip the hides of that fucking dragon and his pet stag.”

“Gladly,” Gendry grunted, rubbing his eyes. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before thanks to Arya. He would be glad when this entire business was over and they were snug in their rooms behind Winterfell’s forge again.

Just as he was about to walk out the door, an ear-piercing scream broke the silence in the keep.

Gendry knew it before he was even told.

“It’s coming from Lord Wylde’s chambers,” said the maester, rushing toward the door. “The guards…”

But Gendry had already taken off, forgetting that a lord was supposed to be dignified at all times, racing down the corridor from which they’d been led as they trudged up to the maester’s quarters, up a winding staircase, running although he knew he’d be winded, for he was built for strength, not for speed.

And as he ran, he prayed to the Lord of Light that when they made it to Lord Wylde’s chambers, they would not find…

…Casper Wylde, sprawled on his back in the four-poster bed, staring sightlessly at the ceiling through eyes that would never see again.

Gendry felt paralyzed as he leaned heavily against the door, not sure how to comfort the screaming Lady Jeyne, or her weeping daughter, as the slower-moving maester and his assistant bustled into the room.

“He’s gone, my lady,” said the maester, touching the side of his neck, then his pulse. “Lord Casper is with the gods.”

“How could he be dead?” sobbed Jeyne. “There isn’t a mark on him. How could a man die from nothing?”

“Or No One,” Gendry muttered grimly.

For Arya was nowhere to be seen.

 

*

 

That afternoon as they departed, the tension between Arya and Gendry was so thick that it could be cut with a knife.

There was no sharing of horses as they set off that afternoon, leaving the Wyldes to mourn their dead, and Lord Ormund as the new head of the Rain House. Gendry sent not-so-nice looks in Arya’s direction as she cheerfully refused the help of the stableboy to saddle the destrier she’d ridden to meet Gendry.

Not my fault that he’s mad, she thought. He’ll get over it once he understands the situation we were in.

They were seen off by Lord Ormund, Lady Elyana, and their son Rickard with a minimum of fanfare, as most of the staff were now preparing for Casper’s funeral. Arya thought she gave good enough face while condoling her old friend and his family for his loss, but the second they were back through the gates, she felt a rush of happiness. The heavy rains had left the rainwood steaming, releasing the fresh scent of green, and although the day was quite hot for her wolf’s blood, a cool wind blew from the bay.

Best of all, she had her husband back. Her bull liked to brood, but he was here, and he was hers.

And once the story of what happened to Lord Casper got out, none in these Stormlands would disrespect her husband as their liege lord ever again.

It would be all right, Arya decided, even as she knew he was glaring at her back. That didn’t make her feel great, but she reminded herself that Gendry wasn’t used to the treacherous ways of the highborn. It was her duty as his wife to protect him as surely as he would protect her, she thought.

Perhaps Casper hadn’t known of the attack. So what? He was still the friend of the horrid Lord Alyn Estermont, who deserved the seat of Greenstone as little as Casper himself deserved to be Lord of the Rain House.

Andrew Estermont and Ormund Wylde had proven their worth and they were friends. Arya knew after her talks with Davos and Shireen that she’d much rather have them as bannermen than cowards who tried to knife her in the back. It was the way of the North, and she had been charged by her brother the king to stop a civil war with those ways.

The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives, her father had always said. Well, she’d wed a man who was a stag and a bull, and she’d made him into her packmate. She’d finish sorting out the Stormlands as its lady, and none who might betray her husband, or her brother on his throne, or his queen would be left alive.

This all made perfect sense to Arya.

She’d just have to make Gendry see it, too.

Anguy struck up a ballad in his rough voice. Although he was certainly no Tom, Arya couldn’t help but sing along… it was what the Brotherhood did. Usually she didn’t sing along, but that afternoon, she certainly felt like doing so.

As the foursome plunged deeper into the rainwood, Arya and Anguy sang “Lord Harte Rode Out on a Rainy Day,” “Seven Swords for Seven Sons,” and “Meggett Was a Merry Maid, and a Merry Maid Was She.”

It wasn’t until they got to “A Wolf in the Night” that Lem or Gendry said anything.

And the stars in the night were the eyes of his wolf,

And the wind itself was their song…

“Gendry,” Arya heard Lem say. “Where are you off to, lad?”

“I’ll be back,” he growled, and trotted off their path into the trees. “Just need a moment.”

Anguy and Arya stopped singing and laughing.

“What’s eating him?” asked Anguy.

“You know what’s eating at the lad, Anguy, don’t be an idiot,” Lem said. “Little lady, you’d better go see to your man.”

Arya frowned stubbornly. “No, let him sulk! I only did what had to be done…”

“Mayhaps, but he don’t see it that way,” Anguy pointed out. “You’d best go catch up to him. You know how Gendry is when he gets into a rage.”

“I do,” snapped Arya, “and yet he also knows how I get.”

“All the same,” admonished Lem. “Go on, little lady.”

Arya rolled her eyes impatiently, made a screeching noise of frustration, but then steered the destrier in the direction that Gendry had gone.

She found him lacing up his breeches next to a tree beside a little stream… his breeches this time, and not the ones he’d been lent at the Rain House. He wore his vest, but his tunic was plastered to his skin thanks to the humidity and warmth of the day.

“If you needed to take a piss, all you had to do was tell someone,” Arya said by way of greeting. “No need for all this nonsense.”

“I said I needed a moment,” he said, glowering at her, clearly not pleased. “But you always just do whatever you want. So go on, then.”

“That’s not true,” Arya insisted. “I thought we could talk about things once we stopped for the night…”

“Talk about it? What is there to talk about? You've already done as you pleased! You clearly don’t want to talk…”

“That’s not true!”

“You’ve killed three stormlords, Arya! Three!”

Arya’s hands went to her hips. “That’s not true, either! My brother killed one of them. And you said you would have done so!”

“Aye, and so I would have! But I didn’t get the chance, did I?”

It was her turn to glare. “Is this about me killing Casper Wylde? Gendry, if I hadn’t killed him, he would have hurt me, our friends… or even you!”

“And so killing him was the answer? Not arresting him, and locking him up, and having a trial?”

Arya didn’t say anything.

“Damn it, Arya! Killing people isn’t the fucking answer every single time! Just because you’re afraid, you can’t just go around…”

“I AM NOT AFRAID!” she yelled at him. “I am going to make these stormlords fear me if it’s the last thing I do!”

“So all that you said last night was just bollocks, hm?” he thundered back. “You don’t really want me to be Lord of Storm’s End. You just wanted to use my father’s House and our marriage as an excuse so that you could be lord in all but name!”

She gasped, frozen. How dare he?

“After all, you didn’t know if I was coming back, did you?” Gendry continued, clearly outraged. “You could have told Shireen no and stayed in Winterfell.”

“What? Gendry, this is what my brother needed me to do to keep his crown! And I did it!”

Please. Jon would do anything for you, and well you know it! You could’ve talked to the King and Queen and let the Stormlands go to…”

“Who? Edric? The half-brother who kept you imprisoned? Gendry, you’re talking utter nonsense! You aren’t angry because I took the Stormlands! You’re angry because I did it without asking you first!”

“That’s because you always do this, Arya! This is what you do! You talk for both of us! You make decisions for both of us! It wouldn’t matter if I were here or not… this is what you do!”

“It is not!”                                       

“Yes, it is! Why can’t you just accept that you’re a woman? My woman? It was all right when we were at Winterfell…”

“Yes, at Winterfell,” she hissed. “When we were at Winterfell, and I just watched you smith all day. Brought your meals, and then fucked you all night. Is that what you wanted, Gendry? Hm? Some little woman who can’t do a damned useful thing except cook and clean and give you stupid babes?”

“You did plenty of useful things! You hunted and trapped and practiced your swords! You didn’t go around killing people!”

“That’s because the people of the North are my people,” Arya said coldly. “Here in these lands, some of the people are loyal to us, and some are not. I intend to make sure that all of them are pack.”

“Listen to yourself! ‘I, I, I!’ It’s all about you! You just decided to kill Casper without telling me!”

“I didn’t tell you about the people I killed to get us out of Harrenhal, either,” she spat. “Or the deal I made with Jaqen. But I saved you, Gendry. I was a child and I saved us! And I saved us this time, too! Isn’t that the most important thing?”

He didn’t say anything, just turned away from her, walking some distance from his pack and his warhammer. As if he couldn’t even bear the sight of her anymore.

Arya felt her heart plummet to her stomach.

Let him go, a part of her said. If he can’t understand this, he doesn’t understand me.

But the rest of her said, go to him.

As if she could ever resist Gendry.

She raced after him.

“Gendry, wait…”

But he’d already spun around and had taken a half step back toward her, and caught her in his arms.

Arya closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, filling her senses with his smell, his sweat, and his warmth.

When he made no move to kiss her, though, she opened her eyes again.

Gendry was looking down at her. As if memorizing every detail of her face.

“Arya,” he said, very quietly.

She smiled up at him, thinking their disagreement was now over. “Yes?”

“I don’t want any more killing. Not like how you’ve been doing it. Not until we get everything sorted with these stormlords.”

Frowning, she pushed him away.

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

“Yes, I can. You are my wife.”

“Yes, your wife, Gendry, not your child! My brother the King made me Wardeness of the East, and I say Casper Wylde deserved to die!”

He was shaking his head at her, as if he was disappointed… and Arya felt her heart plunge again.

“Don’t you feel any kind of guilt about what you do, Arya? Any remorse at all? Casper was a man with a wife and a daughter. He disliked us, aye, mayhaps even hated our guts. That didn’t mean you should have killed him.”

“I don’t care what you think! I am a daughter of Winterfell! I proclaimed the sentence, and I swung the sword.” Pause. “Well, I put the poison in his cup. One crystal of a special blend that made him stop breathing. It’s a kinder death than he intended for either of us. And if he wasn't such a drunk…”

Gendry seemed exasperated. “By R’hllor, woman!”

“And I don’t believe in your stupid Lord of Light. Save it…

“Thought you didn’t believe in the Many-Faced, either. Yet seems to me like you’ve been worshipping him a lot lately!”

“I never worshipped him, you stupid! I did what I had to do to keep my pack safe!”

Your pack? Not ours?”

Arya rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t, Arya.” Gendry sounded very, very tired as he walked back toward where he’d left his rucksack and hammer. “I don’t know at all. Not anymore.”

“Don’t walk away from me, Gendry!” she said, storming toward him. “Don’t you dare…”

“You don’t want me telling you what to do, but you get to tell me what to do? Is that how it’s going to be, Arya? Well, then, mayhaps I’ll go back to Winterfell, and you stay here ruling the Stormlands. Since that’s what you seem to want anyway.”

His words were turning her inside out. What had Edric and Aegon done to her bull in prison? Why couldn’t she make him see?

“Gendry, please, you don’t understand…”

She caught up to him easily. Arms going around him, she pressed her face to his back. Willing her body to make up for the failure of her words.

He didn’t pull away from her. But he remained very, very still.

“All I dreamed about for two long years, Arya, was you. You, and my forge at Winterfell. And you know, I thought it was everything that happened to you and your family in the Wars that made you long for the kill. But today, you murdered an innocent man… a man you decided was responsible for an attack. What if someday you decide I did something you don’t like… and you decide to murder me?”

Arya pushed him again.

“Why are you being so stupid, Gendry? As if I would ever kill you!”

Gendry seemed very sad just then.

“You know, I’m not quick with words like you are,” he muttered. “But I know what you were like when you first fell on me in the Riverlands. You thought I’d betrayed you by staying with the Brotherhood, and you were going to punish me for it… I know that look in your eyes, Arya. The deadly look. And that day, when your Faceless Guild came for you, I wasn’t afraid for myself. I was afraid that you would…”

He trailed off, taking her into his arms again. His gaze was tender, but still very sad.

“You don’t love me enough, Gendry,” Arya accused. “If you did, you’d understand.”

“That’s just it,” he said softly, winding his fingers into her hair. “I love you more than life, Arya. You are the only one I’ve ever loved. I’ll never love another.”

He brushed her lips with his.

“But I didn’t wed No One that day in the Winterfell godswood... I wed you , Arya. This face,” his large, callused hand cupped it for emphasis, “these eyes,” his fingertips brushed their lids, “this nose, these lips,” tracing them softly, “these sweet cheeks,” mouth finding both, “every part of you. My bride, my love, my wife.”

Where had her anger gone? Arya was melting. Expecting more, right there on the forest floor, if need be… his lips and his hands all over her body…

I knew I could make him understand.

“Gendry,” she said softly, imploringly. “I love you too.”

She moved to strip away his clothes, but he stopped her, hands skimming slowly down her sweat-dampened tunic.

“Not now, love,” he murmured. “I’ve got the taste of you in my mouth. I need to have my fill first.”

He was always too damned slow, she thought impatiently, but standing still as he found the hem of her tunic and pulled it over her head. She’d lightly bound her breasts as she always did when she’d be in the saddle for long hours, but their pebbled tips were evident through the linen. Sometimes, he’d take his knife or hers to cut through the bindings, but this time, he lingered for long moments. Hands cupping, fingers tweaking, then mouth savoring the taste of her each time he unwound a layer.

By the time she was bare from the waist up, Arya was mindless. Still, Gendry continued his unhurried rite of devotion, pressing kisses to her collarbones, down the valley between her breasts, lips tracing patterns on her stomach, tongue dipping hotly into her navel.

And by the time he removed her breeches, her smallclothes were soaked. But he didn’t remove them at first, simply carried her over to his pack, spread a worn blanket he’d brought all the way from Seaworth on the ground, and lay her atop it as gently as he would a rare piece of glass. Then he resumed his kisses and caresses, from toes to ankles, from calves to knees, from thighs to hips… and then again with the other leg.

And when he finally removed her smallclothes, and Arya expected it to be all over soon, he turned her over on her stomach, and pressed kisses from her spine to the cleft between her rounded hips, squeezing them, covering them with a lover’s gentle bites.

Then he turned her over and just looked at her. Caressing her with nothing except his eyes as his gaze trailed from the top of her chestnut hair, to the bottoms of her feet… and everything in between.

“No, I didn’t wed some bloody assassin from Braavos,” Gendry rasped, coaxing her legs open with caresses that made her heart flutter. “I wed you.”

And at the very first touch of his lips on her sex, Arya came apart. But he wasn’t finished with her just yet. As she soared and trembled and shuddered, every flicker of his tongue as he savored her taste rekindled her desire anew.

She came twice more, once from his mouth, the second time with his fingers deep inside her. By the time she reached to help him with his breeches, her eyes were heavy-lidded. The warm day and the heat he’d kindled inside of her made her feel languorous.

“Let me do it, my love,” she whispered softly. Just then, just for the moment, she was a she-wolf tamed.

And a bit remorseful. For she knew he loved her, even though he did not understand the blood on her hands.

But Gendry shook his head and said:

“Lay back, she-wolf. This is for you.”

For he knew how much she loved it when he covered her body with his, so that they were skin to skin, not enough to crush her, just enough so that they were pressed together with nothing between them. He knew how much she loved it when he slid his hard, thick length into her, so deep, so hot, touching a place that her fingers couldn’t reach, touching her heart and her soul, touching places that she knew would have died long ago without him.

I’m lost, she thought. This stupid idiot of a man stole my heart so long ago I didn’t even know what he was doing until it was gone. Damn him to all the hells that ever were, or ever will be.

I’m lost. He’s taken my heart and won’t give it back.

And my body is his, too.

With that thought, Arya fell apart again, nails pressed deeply into his back, screaming out his name, knowing that Lem and Anguy probably realized exactly what they were doing, but not caring about anything in the entire world except Gendry. Her pleasure drew the breath from her husband’s chest, the seed from his cock, and her name from his lips, sighed like prayers to his fire god.

Arya. Arry. Mine.

He rolled over on his back, bringing her with him. But they were too wrapped up in each other to let go just yet.

“I’m sorry, Gendry,” she murmured, staring at him. “I shouldn’t have killed him.”

“What’s done is done, love,” he conceded. “Maybe you were right about Casper…”

“No, you were right. And not because you’re my husband and you think your little woman should obey you, either,” she added quickly, raising an eyebrow lest he think this rare concession of hers was anything except an unusual occurrence.

“Then why the sudden change of heart? Surely not because I just had you shaking and screaming my name four times in a row… ow!” he exclaimed, laughing at the blow she just landed on his stomach because of his proud boast.

“Has nothing to do with that, you great rutting bull,” Arya protested, shaking out her hand as he continued to laugh. “No, it’s just that being with you reminded me of something important… and don’t be lewd when I’m trying to be serious!”

“You’re the one who’s naked in my arms,” Gendry pointed out stubbornly, “talking about rutting.”

As if for emphasis, Arya felt the press of his hardening cock against her soft thigh as one of his hands squeezed her hip. She rolled her eyes, but felt her body heat up in response.

Gods, we’re really as mad about each other as everyone in the bloody Kingdoms says we are, aren’t we?

“What I was trying to say,” Arya continued, trying to concentrate as the hand that was on her hip slid with clear intent, “is that when I saw Davos and Lem were hurt, all I wanted to do was kill whoever hurt them. But I forgot one important thing.”

He was still. “What’s that?”

“It's like you said this morning. I’m not alone anymore.”

Gendry’s eyes said everything he had no words for just then.

So did his kiss.

And Arya really thought they would have had time to have one more go before returning to the path through the rainwood, that Lem and Anguy had gone fishing or something and had left them to make love in peace…

…until the bucket of water came flying out of nowhere, dumping out its contents over their heads before landing on the other side of the blanket.

“Seven bloody hells, you two, if you don’t break it up already so we can keep going…” Anguy shouted as he rode into the clearing, just after Arya had wrapped herself up in the grass-stained blanket.

But Gendry had already gone after the water bucket slinger.

“LEM!” he roared.

“I told you wouldn’t be stealing kisses from no princesses, lad!”

And Arya laughed herself silly at the sight of her naked husband chasing the old knight down the stream, brandishing his warhammer.

 

*

 

Because there were only the four of them, and they were used to rough travel, Gendry, Arya, Lem, and Anguy made good time. During their week of riding through the rainwood to Mistwood Keep, they only found small settlements and a couple of fisher’s villages, for this part of the Stormlands was very thinly populated.

Their days and nights fell into an easy rhythm, one made familiar thanks to their many years on the road together. Lem and Anguy took turns cooking their morning and evening meals, with plenty of japes about Arya’s lack of skill in that department.

“Never heard of a wife that don’t know how to boil water, little lady,” Gendry heard Anguy tease Arya as the archer added onions and parsnips to the pot over the fire.

“Shut up,” snapped Arya good-naturedly as she helped Lem skin and clean rabbits. “Gendry isn’t like most stupid men. He didn’t marry me for my cooking.”

“Aye, we know the lad didn’t,” Lem said, waggling his eyebrows at her suggestively. “We know what he married you for... saw it with our own eyes!”

Gendry could see the lecher easing a hand toward the log where Arya sat…

“Don’t even think about it, Lonmouth!” Gendry said, bringing over another load of wood for the cookfire and nightfires. “I saw where that hand of yours was going… want to lose it?”

Lem dropped the rabbit he was skinning into his lap and held up his hands. “I was just reaching for another of these coneys! The lass is young enough for my daughter! What do you take me for?”

“A lecherous old lout,” Anguy said. “She might be young enough for your daughter, but the she-wolf ain’t no daughter of yours.”

Pause. 

“But the little lady’s got the prettiest teats this side of the Greenblood, that’s for sure!”

Gendry shot Anguy an angry glance, and threw a log at him (which narrowly missed), but Arya laughed.

“You men are stupid,” she declared.

But it seemed that his Arya certainly enjoyed having her own stupid man back, to share her tent, to love, and to hold despite the sticky heat. The weather was hotter than anything Arya had ever experienced in her life, she told him, and far more humid.

They usually took the first watch, letting their two older friends sleep until the moon was high in the sky. Then they retired, making love, talking, and then gradually as the words became fewer and further between, falling asleep.

But there was much and more that they needed to talk about.

“Don’t see why you’re so set on staying in the Stormlands forever,” he observed to her one night when Arya complained as he tried to pull the blanket over them both. “It’s not even summer yet!”

“Storm’s End gets a breeze from the bay,” was her reply. “Aren’t you hot? Big as you are?”

That earned her a tickle (and him a laugh out of her), but Gendry shook his head. After the year he’d spent locked up on Driftmark, and the year before that in Norvos, he was actually enjoying the weather here. Besides, as an armorer and smith, he was overused to heat.

“King’s Landing gets hot as Dorne come summer. It was like that when I was a child, at least.” Shrug. “Kind of nice to not have to wear all those fucking furs for a change.”

She pinched his shoulder, and he winced at her sharp little nails pressing into his skin.

“There’s nothing wrong with furs! Some of those pelts saved our lives a few years ago. And don’t forget the way Nymeria used to curl up at the end of our bedroll to warm our feet before she grew too big for the tent.” Sigh. “I miss her.”

“I know you do. She’s with Ghost, isn’t she?”

Nod. “Weird to think of them mating.”

Yeah, it’s weird.

“Hm. You and Jon have always been close.”

Too close.

Arya pinched him again.

“Ew! Not like that! We’re not damned Targaryens. We just… you know how much Jon means to me , Gendry! We were the only two who had the Stark look. The rest of our brothers and sisters looked like Tullys. And I was never good at being a little girl… not like Sansa. She was so beautiful.”

Her eyes closed, and Gendry knew she was tamping down unpleasant memories. Sure, Sansa Stark was a legendary beauty. But his Arya’s beauty after flowering had brought him to his knees in worship. Sansa was like a fine tapestry that one should admire from afar; Arya was Valyrian steel. Breathtaking, intricate, complicated… deadly.

Not to mention more intoxicating than wine.

Their parents’ generation had great beauties, too. Yet for all the legends that spoke of the beauty of Cersei Lannister and Ashara Dayne, the two most powerful men in the realm had fallen for a She-Wolf of Winterfell. Twenty years later, there were still many gorgeous women in Westeros. In addition to Sansa Stark, there was Queen Daenerys Targaryen, often called the most beautiful woman in the world, Princess Arianne Martell, legendary for her famous lovers, and thrice-queen Septa Margaery Tyrell, the hood of her order doing little to diminish the radiance of her face.

But Gendry knew his wife’s conquests were legion, from Dorne to the Wall, and across the Narrow Sea. Her name was spoken when those other beauties were not…

The Lady of the North may be the fairest woman in the Seven Kingdoms, and they say the Dragon Queen is the fairest in all the world…

But any man in Westeros would beggar himself, and risk the wrath of the Bull, for one night with the She-Wolf of Winterfell.

That was because his Arya had a way about her that put men completely at ease. She met no strangers, she fought and drank and sat horses like a man, and she gambled and cursed and sparred. During the Wars, she gave as good as she got in taverns and halls across the North, in camps, sending a hundred men into spasms of laughter at once. And he rarely had to fight for her honor, because dozens of men whom she’d never laid eyes upon would beat him to it if any man was too forward.

She was that rare maid who did not fear or loathe the company of men, but seemed to actually prefer it.

Yet Arya was also fair of face and form. Although she wasn’t Daenerys, Sansa, Arianne, or Margaery, his Arya had hair that was soft and silken to the touch, alluring starry grey eyes, and a petite shape with curves that made men thank whatever gods they served. Every bit of his wife was all woman, but without the artifice that made women incomprehensible to men…

It was as Gendry always thought to himself: she’s perfect.

“Gendry, say something,” Arya fussed. “Stop staring at me with that stupid slack-jawed look, it annoys me so much…”

“I was just thinking about how beautiful you are, Arya,” he told her sincerely. “Your sister can’t hold a candle to you, love.”

“All the same. Sansa was the pretty one growing up, and I was Arya Horseface. Jon and I understood each other like no one else. In his eyes, I was perfect.”

“I know,” was Gendry’s reply. “I wish I could have had something like that.”

“Shireen thinks the world of you.”

“And I her. But…”

“Not the same, right?”

“Not the same.” His big hand swept up and down her back as he let the blanket fall back. “But I do appreciate Shireen’s faith in me. That she thinks I’m worthy of continuing her father’s legacy…”

Your legacy,” Arya corrected. “I've been thinking about it since we talked the other night. Stannis, Renly, and Robert didn’t act as brothers should. They failed the Stormlands and Westeros, but you won’t. You know how special family is, Gendry. You've been family for Shireen and Mya and that damned Bella, too.”

Gendry hooted. “Still don’t like her, do you?”

“I swear she was flirting with you that time in the Dyre Den!” She wrinkled her nose with distaste. “If ever I had doubt you stags have Targaryen blood? ‘Lady’ Bella Baratheon is the proof.”

“Targaryen blood. Arya, I…”

He trailed off with a frown, remembering Norvos.

“What is it, my love?” she asked, reaching up to stroke his jaw, pressing her lips against his chest when she saw his distress. “What’s wrong?”

He reached for her hand. All the better to lace his fingers with hers.

“When I was forging the bull’s pendant, I… I saw where the steel came from.”

“Saw where it came from? What do you mean?”

Slowly, he told her the story of the long-ago Valyrian smith he’d seen in the flames. (It was slow because whenever you told Arya Stark a story, her quicksilver mind would interrupt you with plenty of questions.)

When he was done, Arya reached for the pendant that she’d worn around her neck since the night she’d received it in King’s Landing.

She clasped it in her hand.

“Does this mean you know how to smith Valyrian steel? Without going to Qohor?”

“Not quite. I think there’s probably some kind of a spell or incantation they used. But it’s blood magic and dragonfire. And the steel holds a memory. All metal does, in its own way, but this, Arya, this was…”

“It sounds wild.”

“It was.”

"You'll have to show me sometime," she insisted, then frowned again as she thought of something. “Is that how Aegon got your blood? When you cut yourself to make me this?”

“Most likely.”

Arya felt sick. If he hadn’t wanted to make me a present, he wouldn’t have been tainted by blood magic.

“I… I want him dead, Gendry.”

“I know you do. But Arya, his life is not yours to take. You’re not No One anymore. You’re my wife.” He caressed the side of her face. “We should be thinking about making lives, not taking them.”

“Even with what the Guild told us when they came for me?”

“Even then.” Gendry studied her face, memorizing her features. “How do you feel about that?”

“Before? I didn’t want to be a mother. It was never something I wanted. I told my father that when I was just a girl. But now...”

She leaned up to kiss him softly.

“But now?” he rasped when she finally let him speak.

“Now that I have you back, there’s nothing more that I want in the world.”

He pulled her closer than close. All the better to kiss her, over and over again.

“Then let’s break this damned spell so we can start our family,” Gendry said against her lips.

Arya raised an eyebrow as his hand slipped between her legs. “Looks like you want to get started right now.”

“Like you don’t,” was his reply. Smug, because he could feel exactly how ready she was.

She snickered playfully, and reached for him again.

And after that, there was little and less talking until the dawn.

 

*

 

It was mid-morning on the eighth day that Anguy’s sharp whistle alerted them to something ahead. He’d ridden ahead to scout a bit as the other three bantered and lingered.

“There. In the valley below.”

Arya looked down the ridge they’d been riding on, down into a mist-filled gorge from which a keep made of slick black stone rose from amid the forest.

High above the turrets, grey and white banners flew. But on them was not emblazoned the sigil of the direwolf, but of the owl.

A sign of wisdom.

Arya looked from the flapping banners to her husband.

“Mistwood Keep, the seat of House Mertyns,” said Lem solemnly. “Gendry, welcome to your mother’s House.”

And the look on Gendry’s face was indescribable.

Chapter Text

Day 115

 

The golden consort of the Lady of Tarth paused in the doorway of the chambers of the Hand of the King and Queen. His little brother was perched comfortably in the chair behind his desk, reading a small parchment that had likely arrived by raven that evening with the use of spectacles that were balanced on the tip of his wooden nose.

Across from him, filling another small parchment with her fine handwriting, was his former goodsister, the Mistress of Laws. Sansa Arryn was dressed in white and cloth-of-gold. Her famous auburn tresses were worn off her face and secured with an elaborate hairnet made of pearls. The cut of her dress revealed her creamy shoulders, and the neckline was also adorned with pearls and golden lace.

Jaime couldn’t help but admire Sansa’s face and form. Not for me, he thought lazily. Not for me, for I love the smell and the feel of my wench. But it is as they say. The Fair Lady of the North is as the Maiden reborn…

…although when and where Sansa Stark ceased to be a maid is one of the greatest bits of gossip in the Kingdoms…

…along with the identity of the man who shares her bed these days.

Jaime Lannister would have eavesdropped then, but Tyrion as ever sensed his presence. Without looking up, he said, “Oh, good. You’ve spared me the bother of sending the Hound to summon you.”

“I’ve told you, Imp, I don’t follow Lannister orders no more,” growled the battle-hardened soldier from his perch near the hearth. “You watch how you speak to me.”

“Sandor, the Hand means no harm,” admonished Sansa with a laugh. “Good even, Lord Jaime.”

“And to you, sweet lady,” said Jaime, entering the room… and feeling Sandor Clegane’s eyes boring into his back as he took her offered hand. All the better to plant a polite kiss on it before taking the other chair near the desk.

“How is your lady wife?” Sansa asked, as Tyrion continue to read. “And your son?”

“Brienne and Duncan are both well. Her time has nearly come, so they did not accompany me to King's Landing this time. I hope to return home before she gives birth.” He slanted a glance in Sansa’s direction. “And what of the young Lord Arryn? I was most disappointed not to find him here, as I have heard that you have recently returned from the Vale. Surely he shall be presented at court soon?”

And Jaime watched as Sansa’s quill broke in her pretty, elegant hands.

“I am afraid that my Ned is simply too young to travel,” Sansa replied, reaching for another parchment from the pile on Tyrion’s desk… although her hands trembled. “He is but a small boy.”

“A boy without a father, the poor lad,” Jaime said idly. “Surely he would be most welcome at his uncle’s court? After all, the queen is expecting soon, so he’ll have someone of an age to play with…”

Tyrion looked up at Jaime, warningly.

“And here I was thinking about how much I missed you, big brother. Turns out your sort of humor is out of style these days.”

“Oh, come now, Tyrion. How long does Daenerys believe she can keep the news that she and the king have violated the provisions of the Great Council silent? It’s why they let Edric Baratheon go with a mere warning although the gods know he torched Ned Dayne’s ship. She's showing! And now…”

“Now there will be a Great Council called,” said Sansa quietly, “at the first of the year. The assembled lords of Westeros must now decide whether the provisions of last year’s Council were truly violated.”

“Is that what you’re up to? Campaigning?”

“We are not,” snapped Tyrion. “We are simply determining what measure of support exists for the King and Queen…”

“The whole of the Realm knows that,” Jaime sneered. “Their support is in the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands. The Westerlands will split, and Dorne outside Starfall wants their blood. The Reach and the Stormlands are the question.”

“The Stormlands are not in question,” said Sansa, voice firm. “My sister Arya is the Wardeness of the East.”

“Is she?” Jaime debated for a half second whether to break the news, then decided that it would be common knowledge soon enough. “I wonder what her lord husband would have to say about it.”

“How cruel of you!” Sansa snapped in a rare display of anger. “This is beneath even you, Lord Jaime. My sister’s husband…”

“…spent a fortnight on Tarth just before I departed.”

That got Sansa and Tyrion to stop what they were doing. The new quill fell from Sansa’s hands, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Jaime, this is not the time for your japes…”

“It is not a jape, Tyrion.” He turned to Sansa. “Your goodbrother Gendry is in good health… at least, as well as can be expected after being imprisoned for two years.”

And Sansa, sweet, proper and pretty Lady Sansa did something that Jaime was sure she’d never done before.

She upended the entire inkwell all over Tyrion's desk.

 

 

*

 

“There’s a storm coming,” said the King. “And I like it not.”

Queen Daenerys Targaryen considered her husband as they sat on the banks of the Gods Eye. The Kingsguard who had ridden out in advance of their arrival were posted nearby but out of sight, the way her husband preferred it. While Dany was overused to having guards and retainers around, her Jon was ever more lone wolf than dragon.

Now the dragons were off hunting on their own, which worried Dany. Although an entire legion of her Unsullied guarded the Dragonpit, she knew that Aegon could force access if he turned Rhaegal on her loyal troops.

He wouldn’t do that, Dany reassured herself. He knows of the child, and he knows of the eggs, but he has not yet made his move.

Whether we like it or not, he is still our heir.

At least he is for now.

Trying to keep her tumultuous thoughts at bay, Dany curled up next to Jon, fingering his sweaty collar.

“Are you overwarm, my husband?” she asked, unlacing the ties slowly.

He smiled, dark indigo eyes reflecting the light of the waning moon.

“Spring has finally sprung, it seems,” he chuckled, fingers brushing hers in an effort to open the grey linen tunic. “It’s as I’ve always told you…”

“Starks melt south of the Neck,” they both said together.

Jon laughed aloud. Dany kissed him.

He deepened it.

There was little and less she loved these days than being alone with this man, wrapped in his arms.

The longer she was married to Jon, the more she feared what he was doing to her heart. Dany had promised herself after Drogo that she would never love again. Losing her sun-and-stars along with her little Rhaego, losing the family she’d tried to build, had been the lowest point of her life. Not even Daario’s betrayal had affected her the same way, and she certainly hadn’t wed Hizdahr in faraway Slaver’s Bay for love.

Somehow, despite her best efforts to guard her heart, she’d gone and fallen for this enigma of a man, her brother’s long-lost son. He had ever been her comfort during the darkest nights of the Wars, nights when they knew their uncounted dead would be added to the ranks of their enemy’s soldiers. Neither Dany nor Jon had slept many of those nights, for they alone had been tasked with the duty of stopping the advance of Winter… and a night that would have lasted for a generation.

They’d won, back then.

And having won, they fell into each other’s arms.

He’s the best lover I’ve ever had, thought Dany, their hundreds of nights together since then flashing through her mind. Unbeknownst to all, they became intimate long before their wedding night, right after King’s Landing was liberated by their combined troops…

It was not something that either wanted anyone to know.

And no one would have ever known, had I not conceived…

Our babe may tear these Kingdoms apart. I know it well.

But all the same, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

“You’re quiet tonight, beautiful,” Jon murmured in her hair. “Is the babe restless again?”

His hands rested on her belly, gentle, caressing. As if she and their unborn child might break. It took Dany’s breath away.

“Not just yet. You wolves are such nocturnal creatures, I am learning. I fully expect to be awakened in the middle of the night by this little pup of yours, just as I have every night.”

“Then we’ll just take the dragons out again,” came his lazy reply. “Perhaps we should fly northwest this time, breakfast with my siblings’ kin at Riverrun…”

“It’s not good for Drogon to be away from her nest so long,” Dany protested. “Especially now that I’m showing. Everyone knows…”

“Let them know!” Jon thundered. “You are my wife, Dany, and I love you.”

“You know what the Great Council said about the Targaryen customs, Jon. You know they barely approved our marriage. They say that brother and sister lying together is a sin…”

“You are not my sister.”

“Yes, but I am your aunt.” Dany’s eyes fluttered closed. “It is not something that they understand, Jon. My parents were brother and sister, and some look at me strangely because of that. My accent, the dragons, and now my union with you, a man who keeps the Old Gods and not the Seven... it’s all too strange for some.”

“It was not their choice.”

“They could have insisted that I wed another…”

“Over my dead body!” he protested, crushing her to him, his lips against hers, his tongue claiming her mouth.

Dany was certain that someday soon, she would drown in Jon’s kiss.

She drew back with a pant, shaking her head.

“Don’t say that. You’ve already died twice.”

“So have you.”

They looked at each other, and laughed with the understanding of two people who’d been to the Seven Hells and back together.

Then they resumed kissing again.

 

*

 

They were all sitting around the fire in Tyrion’s antechamber now. Sansa lounged on a silk divan; Jaime and Tyrion sat in matching chairs, and Sandor remained on his chair near the fire.

“We’re at war,” said Sansa sorrowfully, breaking the silence. “We are at war again, and the King and Queen don't even know it yet.”

“We are indeed, sweet lady,” Jaime agreed. “The moment that brother of yours hears of the offense against Houses Stark and Baratheon, he is going to melt Driftmark into a stone puddle that will make Harrenhal look like the Conqueror was being merciful.”

“Don’t forget that Prince Aegon has a dragon, too,” Sansa pointed out.

“I don’t think anyone could forget that, Sansa,” replied Tyrion. “We can only hope Jon and Daenerys don’t make good on their promises to end House Lannister after they hear how long my brother and his wife knew about this without sending word.”

“Of course they shouldn’t have sent word,” snapped Sansa peevishly. “Anyone could have intercepted that news… my poor, sweet sister! Now, it isn’t something I’d say often about Arya, but I’m sure this news sent her reeling.”

“Well, it isn’t as if she’ll have much notice. Gendry was planning to make his way to Storm’s End the moment the weather cleared.”

Tyrion smirked. “Spring gales have made their usual appearance, then? Shipbreaker Bay still lives up to its reputation, I’d imagine. I don’t see how you deal with that terrible weather.”

“Love makes a man endure much, little brother.”

No one said anything for a while.

“I brought this news to you, Tyrion and Sansa, because I thought that you would know how best to proceed,” said Jaime. “You too, Sandor.”

“Whatever,” was Sandor’s reply.

“No, Sandor, perhaps you should speak,” Tyrion suggested. “I’m fresh out of ideas.”

“So am I,” said Sansa. “We knew what Prince Aegon and Edric Baratheon wanted. Aegon wanted Arya, and Edric wanted Storm’s End. Of course they captured Gendry. Of course they bound him with blood magic so that we’re powerless to kill them. It’s an impasse.”

“My lady, you know the laws and customs of the Kingdoms better than anyone,” was Tyrion’s response. “Surely there is a loophole somewhere.”

Sansa frowned prettily. “What can we do, Lord Hand? Even if my goodbrother testifies before the royal court about what his cousin and brother did to him, we can’t execute them. That would end Gendry’s life.”

“No,” said Tyrion, “but we can imprison them. At least, we can arrest Lord Edric for it, since he was the actual jailer.”

“But the King…”

“Fuck the King, little bird,” snapped Sandor from the corner. “Your brother is about to become a father. His throne is in danger… and fuck knows I’ve seen this all before…”

Sansa’s eyes narrowed. “Watch your language, Sandor!”

“No, fuck that, little bird. I am sworn to you, and you know I speak truth. Neither King Jon nor that silver queen of his are in any fit state to deal with Aegon’s endless shit. That’s what the fucking Small Council is for!”

“You are saying that my brother should be a kinslayer! He’s not that kind of man…”

“Well, I am. Break whatever shit spell binds the she-wolf’s man to him, get that dragon of his distracted, and I’ll happily do House Stark this honor.”

The Lannister brothers watched the byplay between Sansa Stark and the man known to most of Westeros as the Hound. They didn’t seem much like a sworn shield and his lady, but something else that Jaime couldn’t quite put his finger on…

“Oh, Sandor,” Sansa sighed. “If only it were that simple. Prince Aegon truly was the rightful heir, by all the laws of Targaryen succession.”

“But the hearts of the people, the majority of the Lords, and of course the Great Council, wanted Jon and Daenerys,” added Tyrion. “The champions of the Dawn.”

“How long have you known they were in love with each other, little brother?” asked Jaime.

The Hand snorted.

“I knew they would be before they ever met.”

 

*

 

They saw the shadow first, interrupting their precious time alone. Rhaegal looped over the Isle of Faces, his rider nothing more than a flash of black armour, silver hair trailing after him like a comet.

Neither of the other dragonriders braced themselves for the impact of the dragon’s landing, as others generally did. They did both hear their dragons in the distance, Viserion calling out for Drogon as Aegon jumped from the dragon’s back. The prince had no sooner dismounted before Rhaegal swooped off to meet his brother and sister.

“Brother, aunt,” said Aegon, walking over to the king and queen with an exaggerated sort of swagger. “How fare you both this eventide?”

“Stop with the pleasantries, Aegon,” ordered Jon, “and be seated.”

Aegon did so, plopping down on the other side of Dany. “See how reasonable I can be? Despite your harsh tone...”

“Your insistence upon a new Great Council is thoroughly unreasonable, Aegon,” Dany corrected. “We have won the peace and the throne. House Targaryen rules Westeros again. We are going to hatch dragons again for the first time in nearly 200 years. Why can’t we start anew?”

“Starting anew is rather difficult for me, Daenerys. I am the rightful King of Westeros, and you took my birthright… my throne. There was only one woman I wanted as my wife, and you allowed her some wartime dalliance, then legitimized a son of the man who killed your brother and our father. And to add insult to injury, you give his wife the power to resist me by elevating her to Wardeness.”

“My sister was one of our most effective field generals in the North,” Jon said evenly. “She is a trained killer, educated in the ways of an assassin. She is perhaps one of the deadliest women alive.”

“And Arya had no desire to be queen,” added Daenerys. “She barely wished to take Storm’s End.”

“The whole of Westeros knows that. You did it to defy me, just as you chose to conceive that babe as a threat to my reign!”

“A threat?” snapped Daenerys. “Aegon, when Jon and I made this babe, you were as far as Asshai from our thoughts. Our child comes from the love that has grown between the two of us. After my Rhaego was taken, this babe has been a miracle from the gods…”

Please ,” snapped Aegon. “You are a political animal, Daenerys. Only the gods know what kind of magic you invoked to get pregnant after you assured the Great Council there was no such possibility!”

“You watch what you say to her!” Jon said angrily. "After everything you've done!"

But Dany was shaking her head.

“Aegon, we are supposed to be family,” she said, the iron tones in her voice softening the slightest bit. “You are the only one I have besides Jon and this babe… and it is the same for you. Jon and I know all about what you did to Gendry, although the Gods only know how hard everyone has tried to keep it from us. Tell me, why can’t you just choose the bride that you were going to take before you laid eyes on Arya Stark? Arianne is languishing in Dorne…”

“Arianne and I were not suited for each other,” Aegon responded in a clipped manner. “Sure, we’ve had a few tumbles here and there, but you forget that I am half-Dornish through my mother. She does nothing for me. If she were more like Elia Sand, perhaps… although Elia's out of the question, as she's but a bastard... but Arianne is the ruling Princess of Dorne, and would not wish to stand in my shadow.”

Jon was frowning at his half-brother.

“It makes no sense that you desire my sister, then. Arya has never stood in a man’s shadow. Never has and never will.”

“Yet she looks at that great lumbering ox as if he hung the moon and the stars. I saw it when first I met her, and I blame you for it.”

“Me?”

“By the Seven, Jon, Gendry was a bastard!  What's more, he is an idiot! As simple as a farmer! Yet the bards sing of them being lovers from the time of the Wars of the Five Kings, when she was but a girl! He defiled your sister, and you rewarded him with her hand in marriage… a highborn lady and a princess! She was for me! I would have given you the throne if you’d only given her to me! I would have given you both everything!”

Dany sighed.

“Aegon, you must drop this,” Jon warned. “We agreed to this meeting away from prying eyes so that you could speak freely. But you are a Prince of the realms, and we are the King and the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Since Arya is unavailable, you must choose another."

"I want Arya or no one."

"It is your duty to marry, just as it was ours.”

“We shall see where duty lies,” snapped Aegon. “I am calling for a new Great Council at the first of the year.”

“On whose authority?” roared Jon, standing to his feet.

Aegon rose too. “That’s what the lords of Westeros will need to determine, especially now that several of the provisions of the Great Council of 305 have been violated.”

“You dare accuse us of dishonor?" said the King. "After what you and Lord Edric did to Gendry Baratheon?”

The prince's face was inscrutable. “I do not accuse anyone, dear brother. I will simply challenge your right to rule in front of the assembled lords. If you and my sweet aunt here refuse to attend, that will send a message loud and clear to the whole of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“Aegon, it doesn’t have to come to this,” Jon said. “For the last time, you should…”

Dany was the last to rise. She laid a small, soft hand on Jon’s shoulder.

“Cease imploring him, my husband. You are his King. Such insolence should not be tolerated, even from a kinsman.”

And her eyes were like ice as she took her nephew in.

“Aegon, you forget I am your queen. As head of House Targaryen, as the one who acknowledged you both, I was your queen even before Jon was selected as the king of these realms. Time and again we have offered you terms of peace, and in the spirit of family, but you have rejected us.”

“I reject only your injustice, Daenerys. After all, I am far more reasonable than you warrant. I could very well deal with you the way that Aegon the Second dealt with Rhaenyra!”

Jon’s hand flew to the hilt of his sword, but Dany grabbed his wrist.

She smirked at Aegon.

“Call your Great Council, then. We will indulge you in this and allow the lords of Westeros to hear your grievances.”

“I am not your pet, you Dothraki bitch! By the laws of the gods and our ancestors, I am your king! You do not allow me anything! I have rights!”

"The Others take your rights!" Jon shouted. "I have never threatened your life, but by the Gods, so help me, I'll..."

But Daenerys turned her back on Aegon then, and walked away, as if the sight of her wayward nephew sickened her… as if he reminded her of someone else.

Whenever his Dany was distressed, Jon felt murderous. Brother or not, kindred or not, his hand itched to draw his sword. The only thing that stopped his rage was the thought of Arya. His sister meant the world to him, and Gendry Baratheon meant the world to her.

“Aegon, stop this madness. The lords will not elect you King,” Jon warned. “They had opportunity to do so last year, yet they did not. They will not do it next year. They will laugh your claims out of Council. And if they hear about what you did to my goodbrother, a fellow lord…”

“But your goodbrother is not Lord of anything save for a filthy forge,” scoffed Aegon. “What's more, your goodbrother was declared dead . Edric has already sent men after him, and they should be catching up to him soon. For the second that we break that spell, Arya’s dumb bull will be dead in truth.”

Aegon whistled sharply then, and within a moment, his great green dragon was landing on the shores of the Gods Eye.

“Great catching up with you two. Always a pleasure. There’s nothing quite like family.”

He mounted Rhaegal then, and took off swiftly, so that soon they were no more than a dark-winged shadow in the sky.

 

*

 

“How long?”

In the Black Cell beneath the Red Keep, the Mistress of Laws was trembling. Beside her stood her faithful shield, who’d wrapped her in his golden cloak with three black dogs.

“Not long.”

The Lannister brothers were there as well. Tyrion was perched on a barrel; Jaime leaned against the damp wall, a shade of his younger rakish self.

“Which way will the realm split?”

Joining them for their secret meeting was Ned Dayne, Lord of Starfall, and Sword of the Morning. He was one of the nicest men in the whole of the Seven Kingdoms, but he had also slain two White Walkers in single combat and a whole host of wights.

Tyrion intoned what they all knew. “Jon and Daenerys have the North, the Riverlands, and the Vale, of course. The Stormlords, too… at least some of them. Aegon will have Dorne and the Reach, and scores of lords from near and far.” 

“Not Dorne,” swore Ned. “He shall not have the Dornish."

"His mother, Elia Martell..."

"Would have been ashamed of her son's antics, Lord Hand. My aunt knew her as a girl, and says Aegon is nothing like his mother. So I shall travel the Marches and talk to their Lords. And I shall send word to Trystane. His sister will be intractable, but she listens to him. House Martell lost much in the Wars.”

"That leaves the Reach," Tyrion said.

Sansa’s trembling did not cease.

“I… can speak with Willas,” she finally said.

“No, you fucking won’t,” Sandor protested. “You’ve talked to him, and what he wants, you haven’t got to give.”

Tears flooded the usually stoic woman’s eyes. “We cannot have another war, Sandor!”

“I won’t let you go to him!”

“But my brother is the King!”

“Fuck the King if he demands this of you,” swore Sandor. “Even if he is your brother. I swore after Joffrey I’d never serve another fucking king. I serve you, little bird, and only you.”

Tyrion looked from Sansa to Sandor, then over to Jaime and Ned.

“Gods damn it,” whistled the Hand. “Lady Sansa, please don’t tell me that… you didn’t... that Clegane isn’t…”

“Well, at least we know why little Ned Arryn can’t be presented at court,” drawled Jaime. “Never would have thought it of the prim and oh so  proper Sansa Stark.”

Before anyone could react, Sandor had unsheathed his sword, crossed the room, and had it at Jaime Lannister’s throat.

Sandor!” exclaimed Sansa. “Please, calm down!”

“Not another word, Kingslayer!” He looked around, the very picture of fury and desperation. “None of you will breathe a word of this! To anyone!”

“It will get out sooner rather than later, Sandor. Cutting my brother’s throat won’t resolve matters, now will it?” asked Tyrion calmly.

“You don’t understand, Tyrion. Harry was vile,” said Sansa, pulling Sandor’s cloak more tightly around her as the Hound re-sheathed his sword and returned to hold her. “He was a handsome, vile fool and spent more time fucking the maids at the Eyrie than touching me. By the time we wed, I did not wish to have his child. Between him… and Petyr…”

“You owe us no explanation, dear lady,” said Ned kindly, as Sansa wept openly into Sandor’s chest. “We Dornishmen believe that life is short, and happiness and pleasure should be taken where they might be found. My house has ever been the friend of House Stark, and Jon is my King. You shall always have the support of my House.”

Jaime was shaking his head.

“Pretty words, my friend, will not appease the Reach, nor will they quench Willas Tyrell’s lusts. In the time before the Wars, any sensible King would have arranged your marriage to him, Lady Sansa, then given your sister to the Prince. However, after what happened to the King’s mother, we cannot rest our fragile peace on the Stark princesses’ charms.”

“Nor should we ever do so in this new day,” was Ned Dayne’s firm reply. “We rally the realm, then. I shall depart for Dorne, whilst you Lannisters needs see whether your presence in the Westerlands will win any of those lords to your side.”

“Hatred for the Starks runs deep along the borders with the Riverlands,” observed Tyrion. “Nevertheless, I shall do what I can. Clegane, you must come with me… that is, if Lady Sansa can spare you.”

“Only if I can accompany you,” was Sansa’s reply. “We can make progress through the Riverlands on the way, solidify support for Jon and Daenerys there before turning West. Besides…” here her voice softened, “I have never seen Clegane’s Keep.”

“I’ve told you, it’s a shithole,” swore Sandor, the unburnt side of his mouth turning up into a smile.

“All the same, you are a Lord of Westeros, Clegane,” observed Tyrion, “and for all your talk, I know you’d do anything for the King and Queen.”

“Well, they’re the little bird’s brother and goodsister,” Sandor growled. “Don’t like dragons, but the way I see it, they’re more fair than your nephew ever was.”

“You’ll find no arguments from me on that score,” Tyrion replied. “Now that things are settled, let’s go to bed. Dealing with certain doom is always better after a good night’s sleep…”

“But not before all have weighed in, Lord Tyrion. For the hour is far later than any of you know.”

And Summer, the direwolf stalked into the dank chamber deep beneath the Red Keep on silent feet.

Beside him was Lady Meera, dressed in the green of her father’s house, adorned with the grey of her husband’s.

Atop his direwolf sat Bran, the mysterious Lord of Winterfell.

 

Chapter Text

Days 110-130

 

“Well, don’t stand there gaping like idiots,” snapped Arya impatiently. “I know I look ridiculous.”

Neither Targaryen nor Baratheon women were known for their flappability. The silver Targaryen queen was famed for the iron in her lilting voice as well as her impassive face that showed no emotion. And Shireen Baratheon, cousin to the dragons… well, half the poor girl’s pretty face was literally stone.

Yet both women seemed stunned as they gazed at the younger of the Stark princesses after Meera helped Sansa pin her sister’s brown hair into place. Half of it was bound in a garland of the palest blue roses; the other half was left down to curl over the exquisite white-and-silver gown a generation old.

At first, Arya hadn’t wanted to wear anything of her aunt’s. She disliked any and all comparisons to her, and would have thought her things lost over the years or destroyed when Winterfell burned. Yet when she first returned to Winterfell during the war, Sansa had found trunks filled with things, secreted away in the Broken Tower. Things that had once belonged to each of them as children, to their parents, to Uncle Benjen and Uncle Brandon…

And a chest filled with things that had once belonged to their Aunt Lyanna.

One of those things was the dress Arya had on. The frock only cemented in Arya’s mind how little she was like her aunt, for no one would have thought to make her anything so fine. But none of the other garments fit.

It was some small consolation to Arya that she wasn’t the tiniest Stark who’d ever lived.

I wonder what you would have made of me, Aunt Lyanna, she thought to herself as the other women in the room oohed and ahhed over the exquisite gown. Everyone loved you so much, and two men fought and died because they desired you. But today, I meet the fate you ran away from rather than face.

I am in love with the son of the man you refused to marry. Today, I become Lady Baratheon… in the gown you would have worn to marry Robert… would have, but did not.

I wonder what that means for my fate.

Meera smiled. “Father always said you were the very picture of her. Lady Lyanna was his dear friend. Gendry’s getting a true Northern bride this eventide.”

Arya scoffed at that. It was unnerving, the ways that the Reeds seemed to always know what a person was thinking. Bran was like that, too, but he was an exception to the Stark rule.

“Please. Gendry’s going to laugh himself silly when he sees me done up like this… seven bloody hells, Sansa, whatever are you blubbering about? I’m not dying tonight!”

“Yes, but you’re getting married tonight. And you look so…”

“The ladies are right,” said the Queen softly, seeing that Sansa was too choked up to speak. “You are a very lovely woman, Arya…. as long as you don’t make those faces while your lord brother is escorting you to the godswood, that is.”

She glared at the queen. “Beg pardon, Your Grace, but this lot have done so much to my hair and face and with this bloody gown that I have to make faces. Otherwise, my poor brother won’t even know who I am.”

“You're still Arya even in fine threads,” laughed Sansa. "He’ll know you."

“Yes, I will,” said a familiar, beloved voice at the door. “I’ll always know my little sister… Your Grace. Ladies.”

Arya turned around and smiled at Jon as he took in the sight of her. Her older brother was dressed all in black as usual, and was holding her maiden’s cloak. The direwolf sigil of Winterfell had been embroidered on the back of the white cloak in silver thread by Sansa’s deft hands.

“Lord Baratheon had better realize the prize he’s getting from the Starks.”

“Please don’t tell me you had a talk with him,” murmured Arya, as she turned around and lifted her hair so that he could fasten her cloak. “And don’t call him Lord Baratheon, you know he hates it.”

“All the same, being Lord Baratheon is the only reason why the Lords of the North aren’t in full mutiny, along with his deeds during the war,” Jon pointed out. “The Umbers have been grumbling since…”

“Let them grumble all they like, my lord,” Dany said softly. “So long as it is out of my hearing and yours, let them grumble. The North has bent the knee to the dragons again, and I say that the marriage of Lady Arya to Lord Gendry is good for the kingdom. Besides, they love each other.”

“She is the sister of the Lord of the North,” was Jon’s reply to the silver queen. “Their love is beside the point for my brothers’ bannermen.”

“Then they shall have me to answer to,” came Dany’s response. “The whole of the North is here, with much of the strength of the Vale and the Stormlands besides. With all the fair maidens and merry widows in attendance, and the wine Lord Dayne has brought with him from Dorne, their objections will be as snow in the springtime by the morn.”

Daenerys then came over to face Jon and Arya. She smiled softly at the Lord Commander of the Dawn as he held his sister’s shoulders, then bestowed a kiss of blessing on either side of Arya’s face.

“Go wed your love in peace, Lady Arya. Today marks the start of a new age.”

 

*

 

Nearly three years later, Arya couldn’t help but think about that fateful day as they rode to the gates of Mistwood Keep. Something about it reminded her of Harrenhal, except the oily black stone that it was built from didn’t seem as if it came from dragonfire.

Yet it seemed just as remote, just as ruined, and just as haunted. Arya couldn’t imagine Gendry’s mother growing up here as a girl, or anyone at all. Perhaps the Ghost of High Heart might have been at home here, once… or the mysterious Bloodraven.

“They say in the Marches that the Mertyns are nothing more than woods witches,” Anguy offered, breaking the silence as they approached.

“Aye, for true, you Marchers are always flapping your gums about nothing at all,” scoffed Lem. “At least for all the war in these lands, there has never been talk of invading Mistwood. This keep has never been taken.”

“Who would want the bloody thing?” scoffed Anguy. “Middle of nowhere, terrible weather…”

“Shut up.”

Arya and Gendry rode slightly ahead of their friends. For her part, Arya couldn’t tear her eyes from her husband. Gendry’s entire face was impassive, but it wasn’t his usual brooding look that she dismissed as stupid when she was a girl… the look that caused her untold worry now that she was a woman grown. Rather, his face looked stony and determined.

What was even more unusual was that he didn’t look at her. It was as if he couldn’t tear his eyes from the Keep that was looming ahead.

He could have grown up here, mayhaps, thought Arya. Mayhaps Gendry’s mother could have brought him home when she got sick, or had him sent for when she knew he was dying... he could have been raised in a castle, received a lord’s education even if he was a bastard… just like Jon did.

Lady Mary doesn’t have any sons. Mayhaps she might have asked King Robert to legitimize him. He’d be Lord Gendry Mertyns… and then mayhaps Father would have let us…

But then, we would’ve never met the way we did. He wouldn’t be the same if he was reared as a highborn, knowing his parents’ status. And Father would have never agreed to this, even if Gendry had been acknowledged by his mother’s house. He would have never looked to the South for my lord husband, willful and wolf-blooded as I was as a child.

Things wouldn’t have been the same. Mayhaps they would have turned out worse.

Just then, they learned just how the remote holdfast had earned its name. The moment they approached out of the trees, mist seemed to rise all around them, as if they had been caught in a sudden fog.

A flock of birds took flight from the trees just behind them. Arya glanced back over her shoulder. Dark wings, dark words, she thought.

And when Arya looked at the keep’s gate again, there was a round middle-aged woman with silver hair standing there with three other girls. All were dressed in the fashion of the southern Stormlands, dresses of thin, fine fabrics that wrapped around with deep v-necks and long, trailing sleeves.

Arya tugged her reins to bring her destrier to a halt. So did Lem and Anguy, but Gendry rode ahead.

The woman began to walk out of the gate, much more briskly that Arya expected.

“The Old Gods keep you all!” she called out in greeting. “At last my sweet Bessa’s son is returned to me!”

Gendry dismounted and walked to her in a few swift strides. One knee went into the dirt of the forest floor as he bowed his head.

The old woman walked up to him.

“Do not bow to me, my dear boy,” said she, “or anyone but your King and Queen. You are my nephew, that is true, but you are also my lord. The very image of your father, Robert of the House Baratheon… First of His Name.”

Gendry lifted his head.

They stared at each other. Neither said anything for endless moments.

(Arya held her breath.)

Gendry finally broke the silence.

“You look like her,” he said. Slowly, wonderingly. “If she’d lived. You look just like my…”

But he couldn’t even finish. His voice broke then.

And the small older woman enfolded the large young man into her embrace.

“My dear, sweet lad. Of course I look like her. I am your Aunt Mary, your mother’s twin sister. Elder by mere minutes, but her twin all the same. Welcome home.”

 

*

 

They were to have a ceremony that combined faiths. They would wed before the ancient heart tree, recite the vows of the Seven, and acknowledge the Lord of Light, who had given them the Bringer of the Dawn and the Mother of Dragons to stop the Long Night.

Jon led Arya out of the Great Keep into the chilly early spring night. A thousand lanterns lit the way, from the servants who beamed at her as they walked to where the wedding procession waited for them in the courtyard, led by the Dragon Queen Daenerys Targaryen herself, clad in pure white and warmed with the cloak of a lion.

She felt someone behind her adjust her train, and other, softer hands smooth down her hair.

Arya caught the scent of her merry assailant’s perfume and smiled. Sansa.

“Sweet sister, are you truly so frightened?” Sansa laughed in her ear as Jon went to confer with the queen, and the party assembled for the short walk to the Godswood. “I have been wed twice. It is not a death sentence, and tonight, you marry your love.”

“But I’ll no longer be a Stark, but a Baratheon,” Arya whispered back. “I want to remain a Stark, for I don’t care to give up our father’s House name. Other than Shireen, I never even liked the Baratheons!”

“I liked the Lannisters even less, I assure you,” said Sansa, “and I was indifferent to House Arryn, although you know how poorly Aunt Lysa treated me. But Arya, you will always be a Stark. Two marriages and a child hasn’t taken one bit of the winter from my blood. It will be the same for you.”

Arya smiled at her sister. “Thank you, Sansa.”

“No need to thank me. Just… be happy, Arya. Be ever happy.”

 

*

 

After they settled into their rooms at Mistwood and changed clothes, Lady Mary invited the visitors to the castle godswood, along with her daughters, for an evening repast. (Lem and Anguy said they would seek their own meals below the salt.)

For once, Gendry and Arya decided not to be late. He felt as one in a dream as he tried to take in every corridor and hall, every door, and every stone while they walked to their chamber…

Gendry thought he’d never tire of looking around.

His memories of his mother were growing faint. Faded, like a garment left too long in the light on the Street of Silk. Six and ten years after her death, he mostly remembered snatches of things these days, like the scent of her golden hair, the flash of sadness in her watery blue eyes, and the raspy sound of her voice when she sang him to sleep.

Gendry hadn’t yet reached his sixth nameday afore she’d begun to cough up the blood. That frightened him, but by then, between her and the men she dragged home from the alehouse for coin, he’d been hit enough to know not to cry. Instead, he learned to fetch what they both needed quickly whilst she still had her wits about her.

When she faded further, he learned how to steal food for them both.

He couldn’t remember finding her dead, although he knows that he must have, because his wailing of grief alerted their Gin Alley neighbors. Suddenly, the hole in the wall that served as their home was filled with strangers, the Silent Sisters were there, and the girls from the tavern were splitting up her belongings…

Gendry was too distraught to care about this much. All he knew during those first terrible hours was that he was an orphan. Although big for his age, he was still far too little to care for himself. As the son of a known tavern wench, it was unlikely anyone would take him on as a serving-boy. Without coin for their tiny room, he would soon be homeless.

Even at six, Gendry knew his fate was destined to be a grim one. The stealing and begging he’d been doing to supplement the little bit o' coin the tavern owner had given him and his mum to survive would be the entirety of his life now. Instead of having his straw mattress in the corner, he would now be sleeping in the gutters of Flea Bottom...

Until the stranger in the hooded cloak came. Varys. Dead before Gendry arrived with the northern troops to free King’s Landing, dead before Gendry met him, dead before Gendry got to thank the Master of Whisperers for caring about him when his father didn’t.

But before that stranger came, before it all…

Gendry remembered the owls.

The sigil of House Mertyns.

He rather thought his mum liked owls. Owls had been pressed into the seals of a parcel of letters that he’d found. There had also been an owl cloak pin. But Gendry could not read back in those days, and after his mum faded and began talking nonsense, he didn’t see much use for keeping no letters when they were too poor for any other fuel.

The cloak pin he’d taken with him to Tobho’s. Within a month, it disappeared, likely nicked by one of the older apprentices and traded for a woman or a jug of wine. Although Gendry should have been sad, he never really associated it with his mum because he’d never seen her wear it. When he was older and understood exactly what his mum did to supplement the copper a day she earned for serving at the tavern, he assumed that pin had been stolen from a customer.

Ever since their arrival, Gendry couldn’t get those owls out of his head.

“You’re quiet,” observed Arya, doing her best to set her hair to rights after the week of hard travel. “Tell me what you’re thinking about.”

He never could keep anything from her. Walking over to where she sat on the edge of the bed, he stood in front of her, arms folded.

“Owls.”

She reached out for him until he sat down on the bed and took her into his arms.

“Does it surprise you?” she asked curiously.

“Never thought about it. I told you about the letters, but other than that, all I knew was that my mum was called Bessie and had yellow hair…”

“It’s called blonde hair, stupid.”

He tickled her side and took the comb from her. “Enough with your fancy words, milady.”

“I always thought you liked girls with blonde hair, since you always mention it,” Arya said idly, wincing as he started to comb the tangles out of the back of her hair for her. “Maybe I’ll cut it all off again, it’s easier…”

“But I like your hair just the way it is.”

“You had better say that… ow! Don’t tug too hard! I’m not like you, that doesn’t turn me on!” Arya stuck her elbow in his ribs. “See, this is why I don’t let you do this much.”

“Why? I’m gentle as a lamb,” he protested.

“As gentle as a bull in a room of glass candles, mayhaps,” was her amused response.  “But I knew your parents must have been important even when we were children. It’s the reason why Varys arranged your apprenticeship…”

“He did that so I could be evidence that the old queen was sleeping with her brother. Remember?”

“It was more than that, Gendry. Your father had bastards from Dorne to the Wall. Varys knew everything. He left Bella in a whorehouse in the Riverlands. Mya was at the mercy of the Arryns and the Royces. You were special.”

Done with the comb, he planted a kiss on the top of her head. “You’re only saying that because you love me.”

“I do.” She kissed him. “Now, let’s see what Lady Mary has to say about why she let her sister die in the middle of King’s Landing. This had better be good.”

 

*

 

The excesses of the Wars would have driven the faith of the Lord of Light underground had it not been for the support that Queen Daenerys gave to those of all faiths among the Northern troops. It was well known that Lord Jon kept the Old Gods, the Brotherhood were devoted to R’hllor, and others among all the troops followed the Seven.

But in this new realm, as the Dragon Queen always said, every religion was welcome.

Still, in this ancient godswood of House Stark, the Old Gods reigned supreme and eternal. After the Sack of Winterfell, the people of the North looked at fire with suspicion and sometimes even hatred, and did not understand the Eastern cult of the Lord of Light.

Thus the only concessions to Gendry’s faith that was made on the day he wed Arya was the nightfire kindled between the heart tree and the ancient black pool... and the fiery heart of the cloak that the faithful Harwin held that had once belonged to Stannis Baratheon.

He knew I loved her, thought Gendry. Stannis knew. It disgusted him because it was the one thing about me that reminded him of my father, his brother… well, the only thing about me besides my look.

It was his brother’s weakness for a Stark girl that tore the kingdoms apart. That’s what he told me just before Arya and I left Winterfell. I lied and told him that I was bound for the Wall, that I would escort Arya there so she could see her brother, and once there, I would take the black.

But Stannis knew. He always knew.

When his armies came to relieve us at Queenscrown, he didn’t kill me for defiling a highborn maid. He didn’t arrest me or even make me stop sharing a tent with Arya. Instead, he made me his heir.

And he gave me this cloak, told me to place it around her shoulders… and someday, when young Rickon is old enough to take a wife, to give it to Shireen to wear before he covers it with his direwolf.

Today, I cover my pretty little she-wolf with my uncle’s fiery heart and the crowned stag of my father.

But I’m still my own man. I’ll always be a bull.

“You look too serious for a newly made lord about to wed the highborn maiden of his choosing,” Harwin said. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” he murmured back. “Still can’t believe it sometimes, that’s all.”

“Aye, this is the easy part,” laughed Lem. “Most times the hardest part is the bedding, but you two won’t have that problem.”

Though his stomach was a bundle of nerves, Gendry managed a half smile. “It was wartime. We couldn’t help ourselves. Just grateful her brothers didn’t kill me for ruining her honor, is all.”

“If anything, she ruined yours,” Anguy observed with a snort. “We’ve watched her with you since you were children, remember. She chose you long before you ever dared to choose her.”

 

*

 

In the present, they were walking out of the guesthouse and into the godswood, which consisted of most of the entire inner courtyard at Mistwood. Gendry caught a glimpse of Lady Mary, dressed in white.

She was sitting at a table beneath the heart tree with her daughters. From the looks of it, they'd already begun supper.

Arya laced her fingers through Gendry’s and squeezed his hand.

“Don’t be afraid,” she whispered. “What are you always telling me?”

He didn’t say anything. So she continued.

“You’ve faced wights and White Walkers and walked through the Seven Hells of the Riverlands. You survived the horrors of Harrenhal, too. You can face this.”

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about any of it,” he muttered back. “First my father, now my mother… everything that I thought was true about my life is a lie.”

The thought came out from him before he realized he’d spoken. But he’d never been able to hide much from her.

“But I’m here. And I’m not a lie.”

He smiled down at her. She’d been given one of the white gowns made for Lady Mary’s daughters, and looked deceptively demure this eventide.

“You’re the truest thing in my life, Arya. Always have been.”

“Even though you’re still not okay with what I did to Casper?” And she bit her lip until she drew blood.

“Even so.” He leaned down to kiss the hurt away. “I’m ready.”

They arrived at the heart tree, hand in hand. As they drew closer, they could see that the evening meal had been set up beneath its red leaves. Lady Mary sat at the head of the table, with her three daughters sitting on the sides. There were two places left, one at the opposite end, and one next to one of the Mertyns girls.

“Good even, my dears. Please join us.”

Gendry drew out the chair next to the girl so that Arya could sit down, then sat opposite Mary. After the servants brought wine and the first two courses, Mary asked:

“I know you have many and more questions about your mother, Gendry.”

He looked at Arya, who had dug into her partridge with gusto… then back at Mary.

“Yes.”

“Very well. But first, before we talk of the past, we must needs talk of the present. Your wife’s decisions have helped bring these kingdoms to the brink of civil war once again… although I am starting to believe that’s what Stark girls do.”

Arya stopped eating.

Gendry’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“Edric Baratheon has sent ravens to every major House in this realm. Ours arrived just before eventide. He is stating that you, a stranger from King’s Landing, have usurped his claim. He reminds us that we know him, and he grew to manhood here in the Stormlands. And he has stated that the She-Wolf of Winterfell has murdered three Stormlords and begun a reign of terror.”

“Has he, then?” said Arya coolly. “Please, Lady Mary, send word to Lord Edric that I will happily raise that number to four if he continues to defame the character of his goodsister.”

“It is not defamation if it is the truth,” stated Mary flatly. “Arya, if any of this is the truth, you must set things aright. You are Gendry’s wife and ought to know your duty as Lady Baratheon.”

Gendry shook his head, knowing what Arya’s reaction to this would be. “Lady Mary…”

Aunt Mary, my dear.”

“Aunt Mary, I support my wife’s decision to take Storm's End over my half-brother’s claim. He imprisoned me and you know that. The Council gave Arya this realm, not Edric.”

Mary looked at them both in turn.

“Why?”

Arya was going to answer for them both, but Gendry stopped her.

“It was the will of the king and queen. Many and more of these Stormlands fought under my command and hers in the North.”

“And just how long do you believe that will continue, my dear, if she keeps this up?”

She then turned to Arya.

“You endanger my sister’s precious son when you refuse to be brought to heel.”

“Lady Mary, I am not a horse.”

“The Stark men spoil their she-wolves shamelessly,” Mary complained to her daughters, who clearly looked shocked at Arya’s confidence. “I saw it in her aunt at the Tourney at Harrenhal a generation ago. I’ve always said that not even Cersei Lannister could beat Lyanna Stark for pride.”

“My aunt had every right to be proud,” Arya said. “The Starks are one of the oldest families on the continent. For all but the past 300 years, we were royalty of domains larger than the rest of the Southron kingdoms combined. The North is not a place where girls sit around frittering their lives away! The women of Winterfell must needs be as strong as the men, for winter is coming.”

“Yes, my lady,” said Mary slowly. “You are a people built for winter. I know. House Mertyns keeps the Old Gods and the New, and others beside. And your family brought us all through what would have certainly been another Long Night. But it is no longer the time for winter and death. It is spring.”

“I killed none who did not deserve death!” Arya protested. “I gave that fool who insulted Gendry mercy! It was a quick, clean death, as was Philip Foote’s! He is my husband – and your sister’s son!”

Lady Mary’s hardened face seemed to soften then as she considered Arya… and a silently furious Gendry.

“Mercy? My sweet girl, there can be no mercy without justice. Your father swung the sword of justice in your realms, but he did so as a last resort.”

“Do not speak of him! You know nothing about my father!”

“I know that Ned Stark spared the life of the Lannister woman, and her son…”

“And he was wrong! If he’d gone to the king and told him what the queen and her brother had done, he would still be alive today!”

Lady Mary smiled.

“My, my. How wrong I was about you. My dear, sweet girl. Forgive me, but these lands only ever heard tales of the fearless She-Wolf of Winterfell… and here you sit, a frightened maid all atremble.”

“I am not afraid!”                    

“Yes, you are. Because you feel it, don’t you? You feel the death you keep evading, that you’ve been evading since you were but a wee girl. You’ve kept one step ahead of it, and yet, you feel Death drawing ever closer...”

Arya set down her goblet, spilling wine over the sides.

“You know it, too, don’t you? You’ve felt it, dreamed of it, danced with it. You even flirted with it, twice, when you believed Gendry dead… once in Winterfell, and once at the Red Keep…”

“Shut up!” Arya shouted, as Lady Mary continue to gaze with her watery blue eyes, and her daughters kept eating. “Shut up, you insufferable old hag!”

Gendry was fuming. “Mary…”

But Lady Mary remained calm.

“My sweet sister felt it too. She was gold of hair, as I was, and as my girls are, but Bessa was as beautiful and willful as you are, Arya… and just like you, the fear of death was ever in her eyes. Perhaps it was because the moment she breathed her first our mother breathed her last.”

Gendry looked at Arya, whose fury was quelled by the change of topic. “My mother… your twin sister. How did she come to such dire straits?” he asked.

“Because she was as stubborn as you are when it came to her heart. She loved a boy in our household, the son of the rainwood’s best huntsmen. When we were young, we played often with Willem, but when we flowered, it was Bessa who kept his company long after it was proper…”

“I always thought Gendry’s mother was called Bessie,” Arya noted.

“That was her nickname. We were much as you and your sister are. I was the elder and more ladylike twin, while Bessa preferred to run wild. With sisters, it is ever thus, is it not?”

Arya shrugged and nodded. (Gendry knew she was thinking about Sansa.)

“Not long after we reached our fifteenth nameday,” Mary continued, “our castellan caught Bessa with Willem, and…”

Lady Mary then turned to her girls.

“Rhae, Alyssa, and Dyanna, please excuse yourselves. The supper hour has come and gone, and I must needs finish this conversation with your cousin and his wife.”

“Mother,” the girl called Rhae said defiantly, “I’m eighteen. That makes me older than Lady Baratheon…”

“Never mind your cheek,” was her mother’s reply. “Arya Stark is your cousin’s lady wife, while you are still a maid. Some things are not for delicate ears, and you are to be an example to your sisters. Go.”

Reluctantly, the girls left.

“What happened to Willem?” asked Arya the moment Lady Mary’s daughters were out of earshot.

“Well, I was serving Lord Tarth as cupbearer and companion to his little daughter Brienne, so I wasn’t present at the time. But they told me Willem was brought before my father as his lord, and here in this godswood, with the whole of the castle present, he was gelded, then drawn and quartered as an offering to the Old Gods.”

“Oh, Gods no!”

That was Arya, whose hand had flown to her mouth. But Gendry was beyond that point. He could only imagine a different time and place where he might have been brought before Ned Stark, or the Young Wolf, and suffered a similar fate.

“What happened to Gendry’s mother then? Bessa, I mean?”

But Lady Mary was finished conversing with Arya for the time being. Instead, she surveyed Gendry’s stony face.

“You know all now, don’t you?”

“Bessa -- my mum, I mean -- she fled.” Gendry voice sounded flat even to his ears. “Made her way north. Since you’re of an age with Arya’s aunt, and you were fifteen when it happened, it means that she ended up in the midst of the Rebellion.”

“She had nothing left to sell but herself after a while, I suppose,” observed Mary. “Father always said after that he had no other daughter, and Bessa was dead to him… even the outbreak of the war failed to move him. But she wrote me from time to time until she fell ill, and I wrote her back. Always whenever she could find someone traveling to the rainwood, or else to the Marches… the letters were few and far between, but at least I knew my dear sister was alive.

“And then one day, two years after she left, she wrote to tell me that she’d had a babe. A strong and healthy son…”

Her watery blue eyes fixed on Gendry.

“The bastard son of the King. I came to King’s Landing to see you, once when I received word, and then again just afore I was wed. Then after our father died, I begged Bessa to give you to me and give you a life. My lord husband and I had no male heir, and he was willing to claim you as ours. Bessa, ever stubborn, refused. She said that she had a friend at court that would assure your future.

“And then one day the letters stopped. I made inquiries, but by the time my messenger arrived, you’d already been moved to the Street of Steel.”

Mary’s tears spilled over. So did Arya’s.

But Gendry felt nothing. He tried to conjure back up the emotions he’d felt when he learned that his mother was dying. The one he’d remembered most was fear.

He had loved his mother with all his heart. She was kind at times, and pretty, too. But Bessa also loved her cups a bit too much.

Gendry didn’t need Mary Mertyns to tell him that his mother enjoyed a good time. It was probably why she’d been a favorite of King Robert’s. From all accounts, his natural father had enjoyed a good time, too.

He remembered being held in his mother's arms. He remembered the scent of hair like sunshine, and the sound of her voice that reminded him of bells. But he also remembered the stinking men she’d drag home between the times she was summoned to the Red Keep and one of the girls from the tavern would stay with him overnight. Gendry had hated those men and dreamed about being big enough to pound the living shite out of them.

Starting with his father. If he made it to whatever hell Robert Baratheon was lingering in, someday, Gendry planned to make it his business to demand a reckoning.

But his mother had been no maid herself. Even as a lad of six, Gendry knew that. He’d loved her as only a son could, but there was no bones to be made about the fact that his mother loved drinking and fucking and fighting.

Gendry suddenly wondered how he could have come from such wild parents.

“Well, say something, my boy,” Lady Mary insisted. “The guilt of not finding you has been eating me alive for the past six-and-ten years...”

“Don’t be,” said Gendry flatly. “There would have been nothing here for me.”

“You might have inherited Mistwood Keep… gods be good, if I can’t find these girls husbands, perhaps your son might.”

Arya had dashed away her tears and was listening in the conversation again. “Have husbands been that hard to come by?”

“Of course, young lady. Lads of good name and gentle breeding always are in peacetime, and with the war, the situation is dire. There simply aren’t enough men left among the families of the rainwood.”

“You inherited Mistwood in your own right, did you not?” asked Gendry. “When your father produced no sons?”

“I did indeed, but…”

“And your lord husband was your consort, not the head of your House, so that your girls are of House Mertyns. My uncle Renly made it so, much to the protest of the other noble Houses of the rainwood. Is that not true?”

“Yes, Gendry, but…”

“Then your Rhae, Alyssa, and Dyanna should marry who they will. Rhae will inherit Mistwood, and her eldest child after her, no matter what the babe is.” Pause. “Is that not fair, Aunt Mary?”

Mary smiled. “It is indeed fair. But…” and here her smile faded, “...as I have said, there are no suitable men here.”

“The girls can come with us when we leave. We must return to Storm’s End to relieve my cousin and goodbrother.”

“They are to be part of your court, then?” Lady Mary seemed extraordinarily pleased. "Handmaids to Lady Arya..."

“Not quite,” said Gendry. “It is not yet decided where we shall live.”

“Not yet decided? The king has named your wife Wardeness of the East. News of your return is spreading…”

“I don’t wish to be a lord.”

Lady Mary shook her head. “Your mother didn’t wish to be a lady, either. Neither did your wife, if all the stories and songs are true. And the Gods only know that your father neither wanted to be a child Lord of the Stormlands nor the King of Westeros. Reluctance is in your blood, I suppose.”

“I’m nothing like my parents,” Gendry insisted.

“You are just like them,” said Mary. “You think because you stay upright in your chair when you drink, and you only take one woman to bed, that makes you better than Robert or Bessa? Robert lost his parents, and then Lyanna… Bessa lost Willem, and was cast out from her family. Imagine what you’d feel if something happened to Arya.”

I would die, thought Gendry without hesitation. Or I would be as a wight or something.

I’ve lost my wolf-girl twice already. To lose her a third time…

Before he knew it, Arya had moved to sit on his lap. One minute he was staring at his mother’s sister, contemplating the horrible scenario she’d conjured up… and the next, there she was, all white linen and brown curls and soft, fragrant skin, looking up at him with concern in her starry grey eyes.

“He’s not going to lose me,” said Arya, after planting a kiss on his shaven cheek. “Mary, what’s this all about? I thought we came here to learn of Gendry’s mother, and to break this damned blood-spell.”

“Yes, I know that’s why you came. But I cannot do as you ask.”

“Why not?” Arya snapped. “Our friend said you could help us!”

“The time for the spell to break is not now.”

None of the occupants of the dinner table had spoken.

Beside Lady Mary’s chair stood a Child of the Forest.

It was as if the creature had been standing there the entire time.

 

*

 

It was as if the stars had drifted from the sky to light the godswood. The strength of the North was coming toward them in the godswood, along with the Valemen and Stormlanders and those from other Houses who had traveled and fought and suffered beside them all.

The ball of nerves in Gendry’s stomach grew larger as he heard the gasps from the guests on the path. He craned his neck to see her.

And the second he saw her, the ball in his stomach became a burst of pure happiness.

In that moment, as he beheld his beautiful bride walking toward him on her brother's arm, all the Aryas Gendry had ever known flashed before his eyes. There was Arry, the dirty little urchin who’d been prettier than any boy. There was grim-faced Nan and Weasel from Harrenhal. There was Princess Arya Stark, sister of the Young Wolf, captive of the Brotherhood without Banners. There were all the Aryas he’d missed, too, like the Arya who’d traveled first to the Twins, then to Saltpans with the Hound. There were the Aryas she’d been in her stories of the House of Black and White in Braavos, as well as the Aryas he could only read in her eyes.

There were also the Aryas-that-never-were, the Aryas of his worst nightmares lurking at the edges. Arya slaughtered at the Twins with her mother and brother. Arya forced to marry the rapacious Bastard of Bolton, her childhood home a prison. Or even the last of Arya being picked apart in the hedges, never to see or hear or hold her again. But the Lord of Light had seen fit to spare his beloved from such terrors.

And of course there were the Aryas he’d known for the past two years. The Arya who’d fell upon him in the Riverlands with murder in her eyes, ready to kill him for his betrayal. The Arya he’d brought back to the inn only to learn that Jeyne had just breathed her last, just before he could show the faithful Heddle girl why he could never love her. The Arya who’d formed the plan to get the orphans safe to Riverrun, then who traveled North to broker the peace with Stannis.

There was the Arya of hundreds of stolen nights in tents from Winterfell to the Wall, back again, to King’s Landing and Crackclaw Point, and back to Winterfell again.

All of the Aryas he’d ever known were in his bride’s smiling face and shining eyes. But no matter what, she was his Arya. The lady of Winterfell’s forge, his heart, and his life.

She could have loved anyone, thought Gendry. Anyone at all.

But Arya Stark chose me.

It was that thought as she placed her hand in his before the ancient heart tree that made Gendry cry his first tears since his mother died.

 

*

 

Gendry looked at the creature who had come to join their gathering. He’d seen two of the Children before, after the Great Other had been defeated, when the Pact Between Mankind and the Children of the Forest was renewed by Leaf of the Children, the man who was known throughout the Wars simply as Lord Commander Snow on behalf of the First Men... and the woman known far and wide as the Dragon Queen.

This Child was not Leaf. She (or he) seemed smaller, quicker, and younger.

“What are you doing here?” demanded Arya, jumping down from Gendry’s lap to face the creature.

“The children of Men first beheld the trees of this rainwood eight thousand years ago. The children of the Forest first beheld these trees when there first were trees. House Mertyns has been a friend to us for many ages.” He (or she) smiled again, but quickly sobered. “You are in grave danger.”

“So I’ve been told by my brother,” Arya replied impatiently. “We need to break the spell, then we can deal with whatever nonsense the weirwoods are whispering about me...”

“You fail to understand. You must deal with this danger before the spell can be broken. If it is broken first, all is lost.”

Gendry cleared his throat. “I don’t understand.”

“That is because you are of fire and blood,” said the Child, “and the spell that binds you with your kinsmen is the same. Fire is hungry. It burns, it consumes, and it is always… seeking.”

“Yes, but just as fire broke the will of the Others,” Arya said, “then shouldn’t ice break this spell? Or water? Or…”

“I will not tell you how to break it,” said the Child. “Neither will Mary Mertyns, or your brother Brandon Stark, or any of the few wise ones left among you.”

Arya was clearly frustrated. “Then why bother us at all?”

“Because Acorn is my guest,” replied Lady Mary. “Their family has been friend to hundreds of generations of Mertyns. They gave us the mists that have kept us from danger. They protected me and my daughters through all these Wars…”

“They’ve shut your House away from everyone else! Just like they tried to do with my brother!”

Gendry had come up behind Arya. Placing a hand on her back, he rubbed the tension between her shoulderblades.

“You are still angry with us, young Arya,” the Child said.

“You and the three-eyed raven tried to take my little brother away from us forever. Of course I am angry.”

“All that anger is consuming you, young one,” said Acorn patiently. “No daughter of Winter should burn with such fire within. It consumed your aunt. It is consuming you.”

Please. When my deep ancestors tried to take these lands from you, you flooded the Neck and broke the Arm of Dorne. So the Children of the Forest know all about anger, don’t they?”

“We know of the balance in all nature, young Arya. Unlike you, we respect it.”

“Well, I don’t have much respect for you,” she said. “And I don’t see what we got out of the Pact, anyway.”

“Do you believe that Jon Targaryen could have slain the Great Other without our aid?”

“My brother Jon is a Stark.”

Arya pulled away from Gendry to walk up to the Child. (She and Acorn were around the same height, although Arya still towered over her by nearly a head.)

“If you can release my husband from the spell, do it. Now.

“Even if it will mean your death?”

“Aye,” said Arya.

NO!” protested Gendry.

Aye,” Arya repeated. “Because this entire thing is just stupid. Neither Gendry nor I asked for any of this, so just release him from that blood spell, we’ll get rid of Aegon and Edric, and then…”

“That’s just it, you foolish girl,” said Mary bluntly. “There is no undoing a blood spell without consequence. The last two sons of Robert Baratheon and the Dragon Prince now share the same blood. To break it, blood will be required from the one who is dearest to the three.”

With Mary’s words, the Child seemed agitated. Acorn closed her enormous eyes.

“Do not seek the meaning of those words, young Gendry, young Arya. Instead, renew the pact between Storm’s End and Winterfell. Go to your castle, and start Durran’s line anew.”

“Blood will be required? My blood is not my life.”

Acorn turned to Mary. “You should not have spoken to her of this.”

“There are many and more steps, my friend,” said the witch.  “I did not share much.”

“She is a daughter of Winter. He is the blood of the dragon. It is enough.”

Acorn looked from Arya to Gendry and back again.

“Your friend sings that the dragon and the stag will wage war until the end. Yet just as the Children and Men have renewed their pact, the dragon must now live in peace with the stag.”

Gendry looked at the creature as if it was insane. “You’ve got to be kidding. I lost two years of my life! You don’t know what they did to me! And what he wanted to do with my wife!

Acorn continued as if he hadn’t spoken.

“In order for the Dawn to remain, the dragon must live. Not a hair on his head must be harmed by stag or by wolf. And as for your half brother, the kinslayer is accursed.”

“Edric Baratheon isn’t my kindred,” Arya pointed out.

“Yet you are the Lady of Storm’s End, and the wife of his brother,” replied Acorn solemnly. “The children of your womb will share Edric’s blood.”

“If you know so much,” said Arya, “then you know that there may not be children of my womb, and you know why.”

Gendry had come up behind Arya again. Keeping his own counsel, but enfolding her in his arms. Remembering that fateful day just before their wedding and the verdict of the Faceless.

A wife cannot be No One… and neither can a mother.

You chose to become Arya Stark again. And yet you are Faceless. How can this be so?

The Many-Faced God must have his due. A life is required.

What will you do?

“You are at a crossroads, young Arya, even more so than young Gendry,” said Acorn. “Life and death are yours to choose, and the peace of these realms are in your hands. Choose life.”

“Aegon will not allow Arya and I to live in peace together,” said Gendry to Mary, as the Child disappeared into the trees. “Edric will not let his brother take the Stormlands he believes are his birthright. Without killing them, what are we supposed to do?”

“Welcome to being a high lord, nephew,” said Mary. “For all my knowledge of magic, until Acorn arrived, that is not what I spoke to you of. Neither did I ask you of your skills in the armory, or your wife’s at assassination. What you need is neither magic nor a sword.”

“That’s ridiculous,” was Arya’s verdict. “I’m not listening to this. Gendry, let’s go. I am leaving in the morning.”

“Are you? For all your wolf-blood, you are still the daughter of Catelyn Tully, and the sister of Sansa Stark. Before you plunge these lands into war as surely as your aunt did, Arya, give peace a chance. Ere we find ourselves living through another time of false spring.”

Arya threw up her hands and walked away.

 

*

 

“You may now cloak your bride and bring her under your protection.”

The septon who’d come North more than a year ago with the host of Riverrun was smiling at the couple, but they only had eyes for each other. Never mind that the godswood of Winterfell was crowded with over a thousand men, women, and children. Or that the Queen was standing a few feet away. Or that the man all whispered would soon become her King had come to stand beside her, having delivered the bride of Winterfell.

As Gendry’s hands came up to remove the direwolf pin that held Arya’s maiden cloak secure, her grey eyes held his softly. One small hand came up to touch his as he unclasped the pin.

Then instead of handing one of the Starks her pin, Gendry did something that most grooms did not, certainly not in Westeros.

As he removed the cloak of Winterfell from her slender shoulders, he handed Arya back her direwolf pin.

Arya’s entire face lit up when Rickon took the cloak and Gendry pinned her direwolf to her Northern collar. His hand caressed the side of her face for the briefest of moments before he draped the fiery heart and crowned stag of Stannis Baratheon around her.

“Always mine,” he whispered to her, “but forever a wolf.”

 

*

 

Arya and Gendry did not leave in the morning, but instead stayed for the better part of three weeks. With Edric’s ravens being sent all over the Stormlands entire, and Acorn’s dire warnings, they decided it would be best to head toward the Marches. Other than Philip Foote, the marcher lords had ever been supporters of the man they called Robert Baratheon’s truest son.

And now that word was spreading of Gendry's return, everyone in the Stormlands wanted to see him.

Lady Mary's maester gave them quill, ink, and the use of her rookery to send ravens of their own. First, they asked Shireen and Rickon to remain in Storm’s End, and Rickon’s reply of “you wasted a raven on this?” made Arya laugh.

They also sent word to their friends at Bronzegate, Felwood Keep, and Tarth. But Brienne sent back a warning via messenger that ravens might not be safe, and that Jaime had word from the capital.

The King, Queen, and small council wish to meet with you, but in secret, wrote the Tarths . This we must do afore the first of the new year, and the start of the Great Council.

The Great Council would be held at Harrenhal. Arya was angered by Aegon’s supposed insistence upon that as a venue. He had the support of Willas Tyrell, who suggested that Riverrun would not be a neutral site.

“Neither is Harrenhal,” Lady Mary observed, “for most believe that it is Lady Sansa’s by rights. Nonetheless, it has been a ruin since the Wars.”

“My brother and goodsister talked of razing the ruins to the ground,” Arya told her, “and building a new capital there. They both loathe King’s Landing.”

“Your brother and goodsister need to keep their thrones,” the older woman replied practically. “First things first, my dear.”

Before the royal meeting, Gendry told Arya he wanted to meet with the stormlords loyal to him. Since Mistwood was nearly impossible to find, they needed another location… until the Swanns offered up Stonehelm, but promised a host both loyal and true.

Your wife will have little and less cause to spill blood in my father’s castle, wrote Balon to Gendry. Any traitor to the realm will be taken care of by your friends.

After leaving Stonehelm, it was agreed that the Lord and Lady of Storm’s End would meet the King and Queen, the Hand, and all the loyal Lords and Ladies Paramount as soon as possible. This would be done under the guise of a royal progress to Summerhall.

At the Great Council, we will propose that Jon and Daenerys’ child be henceforth and forevermore known as the Prince or Princess of Summerhall, wrote Lord Tyrion Lannister, Hand of the King and Queen . They wish to rebuild the ruins, and bequeath it to the younger sons and daughters of House Targaryen.

Thus, Aegon will not be able to say that the King and Queen violated the provisions of the first Great Council. Their children will have their own House. They wish to preserve their great royal House, not end it.

“But that’s what Aegon will say,” Gendry said to Arya the night after the messenger arrived from King’s Landing. “And who can blame him? They should have been more careful.”

“About what?” Arya asked with a yawn, curling into his side. After a long day in the tiltyard, evening supper in the godswood with Lady Mary and her daughters, then several bouts of sex, she was quite tired. But she loved their pillow talk, treasured the time when their words picked up where their bodies left off.

“Sometimes a man and his wife just… can’t have a child. No matter how they might wish it. Even if they really love each other.”

Arya frowned and bit her lip. “Is this about Jon and Daenerys? Or is it about us?”

“You know what the people from your guild told you, Arya. And you know what Mary and that creature said the first night here. We’ve got to be careful.”

“We never have been. And yet I still haven’t given you a child.”

“Aegon took you away from me for two years,” Gendry pointed out. “Six moons afore that, we were not wed, and I didn’t wish to bring any more bastards into the world…”

“I know,” groaned Arya. “You told me that practically every single night. But I never liked it when you spilled outside me back then.” Her fingertips ran down his sternum. “I hope I’m with child soon.”

“Even after what your Braavosi cult told us would happen?”

“Even so.” Arya rolled her eyes. “Gendry, I’ve told you this a thousand times. Between your hammer and my sword, I’d like to see them try it.”

Her bull said nothing in response, but pulled her closer than close, and soon, he was asleep. But Arya couldn’t help but lie awake, remembering the unwelcome visit just before their wedding.

 

*

 

A girl made us a promise!

I was a child! A child who hadn’t even flowered yet! Little girls cannot make promises.

Yet a girl was a very dangerous little girl. A girl came to us a murderer already. A girl chose to serve the Many-Faced God. A girl chose to bring death into the world, not life…

I will not promise you any babe of mine! Not after you stole my childhood. I have paid my debt to the House of Black and White.

The debt is not paid. A life is required…

There is but one thing that I say to the God of Death: not today.

 

Chapter Text

Day 150

 

Steel clanged against steel at high noon in the dusty tiltyard of the Stormlands castle in the Dornish Marches built from black and white stone at the mouth of the River Slayne. While the sight of two knights honing their skills to perfection was a common sight in these lands, the two who dueled were not.

The first of the pair was not really a knight at all, though not by her choosing. Arya Stark, She-Wolf of Winterfell, always drew an audience whenever she sparred. It was no different now that she was Lady Baratheon. In fact, word among the Marcher Lords was that marriage and a new house had taken away little and less of her ferocity. What she lacked in strength and size, she made up for in stamina and grace.

In fact, Arya had long ago learned to use her size and the fact that she was a member of the fairer sex to her advantage. Opponents underestimated the petite Water Dancer to their peril.

Many and more were those who had fallen from her sword into the grave.

Her opponent knew better. He faced her, tall, lean, and all muscle, pale blond hair pushed back over determined purple eyes.

“Are you overtired, my lord?” she taunted with a lazy grin. “You have but only to say the word, and we shall break for the noonday meal.”

“That would require declaring you the victor.” He emphasized his words with a forward thrust that she parried easily. “That will never happen, I’m afraid, my lady.”

“Has it not? If I remember correctly, it’s happened every time we’ve fought before.” She struck the formidable knight on his side with her blunted practice sword. “That blow would have drawn quite a lot of blood if this had been one of my husband’s blades.”

Ned Dayne glanced over his shoulder at Gendry, who was watching from the sidelines as he chatted with Balon Swann and Brus Buckler. “I owe you one.”

“You’re too easy on her,” was Gendry’s casual reply. “She’s disarmed easily enough.”

“Am I, husband?” she called out. “Well, then, pick up your hammer, Lord Baratheon, and we’ll soon see who’s disarmed.”

Balon laughed and asked her, “Arya, don’t you ever give a thought to what the other ladies of your station are doing?”

“Why should I? They’re doing one kind of needlework…” she poked at the Sword of the Morning’s right arm, “…while I am doing another entirely.”

He shook his head and turned back to Gendry.

“She’s beautiful, but you’re mad.”

“The whole of the Kingdoms know it’s her beauty that has driven the man mad,” Brus observed. “And before you step on me, bull, you well know that my own wife is the same.”

“Not your lady wife who’s in the tiltyard, is it, Ser?” Gendry pointed out tersely. (As much as he always supported her whims, Arya knew that her husband sometimes grew tired of being needled by the other men over her unconventional ways.)

Brus chuckled. “It wasn’t me who did that, but the babe I planted in her. Arya will likewise be brought to heel once you plant your babe inside her.

“No, I won’t,” Arya called out, parrying each of Ned Dayne’s blows easily and swiftly. “You men act as if being with child makes a woman into a stupid delicate flower! Common girls don’t stop working until their time is nearly upon them! Ridiculous that lord's daughters are treated any differently…”

“What will you do then, milady? Train at arms while your lord husband’s heir suckles your teats?”

The men laughed at the thought of it, while Arya dodged beneath Ned’s left arm and re-emerged behind his back. “That’s not your concern, is it, Lord Brus? Seems you shouldn’t be thinking about my teats at all.”

“Then mayhaps you shouldn’t show them off to a yard filled with soldiers, eh?”

She looked down and saw that her tunic had slipped. Fucking hot Stormlands, Arya thought, annoyed at the warm sun of the Marches, and at herself for not being willing to bind them before the morning meal.

Rolling her eyes, she adjusted her clothing… and caught the warning and the promise in Gendry’s eyes.

Your fault why I was too hot this morning to bind them up in the first place, husband, she thought as she continued to practice with Ned. Damn all these men to every hell there is. We’ve fought and bled together, they all have wives, so why is it that the fact that I’m a woman bothers them so? Drives them to distraction? I'm a warrior just the same as any man!

Angry at the entire world in that moment, the tip of Arya’s practice sword landed in just the right spot on Ned’s inner thigh.

The Sword of the Morning roared, and in an instant, the practice sword flew out of Arya’s hand.

Ned Dayne’s was at her throat.

“Fuck it, Arya, I’m gonna feel that for the rest of the day. You’ve got to give me this round.”

She shrugged. “Sure, if it matters that much to you. But you know I never drop my sword. I could have beaten you if I wanted.”

Unbidden, his eyes dropped below her neck, then quickly back to her face again.

“It was a good round,” he grinned, “with the most beautiful swordswoman in the Kingdoms.”

“I’m going to train all your daughters at arms,” Arya promised him as she adjusted her tunic again and handed the practice sword to Ned’s squire, “just so they don’t have to deal with men’s fucking eyes. And that goes for you too, Balon, Brus…”

“Aye, my daughter'll have a wildling for a mother,” said Brus contentedly. “Be half wildling herself. She’ll know how to defend herself at all times.”

“Not mine,” swore Balon. “Allyria shall have no need to pick up a sword, nor any other girl or woman who bears the Swann name. If women can defend their own honor, then what need have they for knights?”

Arya snatched Gendry’s waterskin from his hands and drained it before speaking again. “Not all boys are good at swordfighting, and not all girls are skilled at embroidery. Everyone should do what the gods have for them to do. It would make Westeros better.”

Balon shook his head. “Women are not men, my lady, no matter how you might wish it to be so.”

Brus smirked. “And given that half the maids of the Stormlands swoon when your lord husband walks by, why would you wish it?”

Arya looked up at Gendry as he smiled down at her with the look he saved just for her. She was dirty, dusty, and smelly… yet he was looking at her as if she were the Seastar reborn.

“We’ll see you at the noonday meal, my lords,” said Arya with a knowing smile, taking Gendry’s hand in hers and leading him back to the main keep.

“Or not,” smirked Ned Dayne knowingly.

And the men all laughed heartily as Arya glanced over her shoulder, stuck out her tongue, and Gendry swept her up into his arms.

 

*

 

Gendry loved it when Arya came in from the tiltyard smelling of sweat, and leather, and herself.

He also loved the way she tasted. Which was why his face was buried between her thighs, licking at her nub while his large, calloused fingertips teased her flushed and swollen folds before sliding in deeply.

His little she-wolf was the only midday meal that Gendry needed.

They were atop the battlements of the highest tower of Stonehelm, as the maids had been still attending to their chambers when they came in from the tiltyard. Arya was seated on one of the black-and-white stone crenels, her thighs on Gendry’s shoulders, small hands buried in his thick, black hair. The loose tunic meant for a pageboy was open, exposing her perfect teats, taut stomach, and soft skin to the warm air.

“Hurry,” she moaned, “before someone sees.”

“Not a chance,” he taunted against her core. “Besides, you like it when we’re caught, you know you do.”

Arya started to speak again, but he’d traded his fingers for his tongue, lapping at her folds as he thumbed her nub just the way she liked it. Arya always preferred a fast and hard round, particularly when she was already aroused, but Gendry loved drawing his wife’s climaxes out until she was mindless. Helpless in his arms, trembling and gasping and telling him how much he meant to her.

He loved their size differences, knew that she was ever conscious and defensive about the diminutive size and feminine features that drove him out of his mind. But he never ceased wondering at how it was possible for such a tiny little lady to sheathe his aching cock so completely.

She was as perfect as if she had been custom-forged for him.

When he stood up, she whimpered in protest… until he unlaced his breeches, which made her smirk.

“I don’t keep the Seven any more, but you’re as the Smith himself,” she swore appreciatively, hand reaching out to curl around his erection. All the better to stroke him. “Gods, you’re so handsome.”

“Stop that before I spill all over your teats,” he ordered her huskily. They were nowhere near their chambers, and everyone would know exactly what they'd gotten up to together.

She shook her head and leaned forward. “That’s not going to happen.”

As if for emphasis, she mouthed the head of his cock.

Fuck!” he swore, as her tongue and hands worked their magic. “Arry… fuck, fuck, fuck!”

She let him go with a pointed smack. “I thought that’s what I was doing, love? Fucking you? With my mouth?” Stroking his now-wet shaft with her hand as she talked. Licking her lips.

In response, Gendry lifted her from the crenel... and right onto his cock. One hand cradled her hips as the other positioned his head… as her arms draped over his shoulders and around his neck.

When he slid in, they both cried out. Arya with a gasp; Gendry, with a low, guttural groan.

“Why'd you always feel so fucking good?” he grated out, starting to move.

“Because... you feel so much fucking better,” was her teasing reply. “I knew you would. That’s why I… why I wanted you so.”

He chuckled into her ear. “That… you… needs be… paying for. You lied... to me!”

She squeezed her inner muscles the way he liked. “I told you… what I had to...”

He’d never get over how young she’d been. It wasn’t until he met Jon that he learned the truth of Arya’s age. While he realized she was a child when they first met, her confidence and her high birth made her so much more sophisticated than the girls he’d known in Gin Alley and the Street of Steel. He'd honestly thought her older than she'd been.

Arya’s teeth tugged at his ear. “I’d flowered…”

“Barely.”

“As if any of that… matters! We've been wed.... nearly three years. And... I’m almost… eight and ten now… ahhhh!”

She trailed off in a moan as he found the familiar spot deep inside her that always drove her over the edge. Yet his slow, measured strokes drew out her pleasure, no matter how she tried to coax him to lose control.

Until her blunt nails ran down the crevice between his ass, and found a certain spot at the base of his bollocks that made her man roar.

They climaxed together as he pushed her against the parapet. All the better to give her the deep, hard strokes that she liked. That she craved. The nails of one small hand scored his back while the other raked at his scalp and her thighs gripped him tight enough to bruise any other man.

For his part, he held her to the wall solely through his powerful torso and legs. One hand found purchase flat against the stone wall next to her head, while the other snaked between their mating bodies to find the place of their joining, to finger her nub until she exploded like wildfire.

And when she came, she brought him along with her, tightening around him perfectly, milking all the seed he had to give from his cock as his mind and soul was thrust out of his body and floated away.

Not to mention his heart. By R’hllor, this little Northern lady was his heart. He would follow her not only to the ends of the world, but to whatever hells there were, or would be.

Arya was kissing his neck and his jaw, all the sweaty skin she could reach, as she came down from the clouds.

“I want to have your babe, Gendry,” she breathed. “We need to find out why your seed isn’t taking.”

His face was buried in her hair. “Happens when it happens, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but we’ve been coupling lots for the better part of two moons now. And before you were imprisoned, it was the same. But I’ve never been with child.” She bit her lip. “I want to know why.”

Gendry’s answer was to kiss her as he reluctantly pulled out of her warmth.

“You know what I’ve always told you about that.”

“Yes, I know how you feel about it. You’ve always said we don’t have to. But I want to, Gendry. You’d be like my father… you’d be wonderful with our children.” The last bit was almost whispered, as if she were shy about it.

“So would you, love.” Another kiss. “But Arya, we need to figure out what we’re going to do about the Stormlands. You can’t possibly wish to remain here always.”

“I want to be where you are,” she told him. “And I think you should be here. This is where you belong, Gendry. Wherever we travel in these lands, the people almost worship you. They see you as Lord Baratheon...”

His fingers wound through her hair lovingly. “Aye. They also seem to like their lady a whole lot, too.”

“All the same… what if we did stay? We could do so much good. Davos is recovering at Seaworth, and once he's all right, he’d be right there with us at Storm's End. We have the Mertyns girls with us, and they are having the time of their lives away from that mad mother of theirs. We have loyal knights and good ladies. And we could make Storm’s End a place where people come for not only the best fighting men in the Kingdoms, but also the finest steel and weaponry...”

“You say that, milady love, as you sweat like a stuck pig,” he teased her. “And it isn’t even summer yet.”

“Well, I’ll always long for the wolfswood,” Arya admitted, fingers playing along his sides, feeling the musculature, “especially in summer. These lands are too peopled, too tame… although I like the rainwood well enough, and these Marches. But we can journey North to Winterfell ere summer comes, and Davos can hold Storm's End in our stead. But after stopping the Long Night, and shivering in tents for two years, I’ve enough of the deep cold of true winter to last a lifetime.”

“All the same. There’s no word from House Wylde, and House Estermont sent Lord Guilian that raven last week,” Gendry reminded her. “As much as Andrew might have been our war comrade, he’s got the entire Estermont clan to contend with. Many of them survived the Wars…”

“I know, Gendry. And they’re not terrible people. All we have met speak highly of your grandmother Cassana. They say your grandfather Steffon married her for love, although his grandfather Aegon wanted him to have a Targaryen bride.”

“Any children we have will marry for love,” he told her, voice growing husky again as he gazed down at her with everything he felt for her in his eyes. She could feel him grow hard again against her thigh. “I swear it to you.”

Arya looked up at him with just as much love and longing. “Just as we chose each other,” she said softly. “Again and again.”

In response, he slid back into her again.

“Then let’s keep choosing each other, milady mine.”

She gasped with surprise at his entrance, then chortled. “Is your plan to make me as stupid as you are? Stupid from too much lovemaking, when we are to be the lord and lady of these lands?"

“Well, I don’t know if I want the bother of being a lord… if I wasn’t a lord, I could just…” they both groaned as one particularly well-timed thrust rang just the right bell for them both, “…fuck you all afternoon.”

“That’s one of the greatest pleasures of being highborn, my love,” rasped Arya, arching against him, never wanting to leave his arms. “Who’s to say we can’t?”

But they were not destined to make love all that afternoon. Within a moment, a dark shadow blocked the sun… but it was not a cloud.

Aegon,” growled Gendry, pulling away, reaching for his tunic to cover Arya… and his next move was his warhammer.

“No, that’s not the prince,” she whispered back. “Two dragons… one’s black, and the other’s white! It’s my brother Jon! And the queen!”

“Your brother is the king, Arya,” Gendry said, both amused at his wife’s logic and annoyed at their lovemaking being interrupted.

She was dressing quickly. “I know, but he’s still my Jon, too… look at you, Gen! How did your tunic get that hole in it?”

Gendry looked down. “Don’t you remember?”

Arya shook her head with a laugh. “Come, we have to change and greet the King and Queen. We were to meet them at Summerhall. I wonder at their change of plan, and without any Kingsguard in sight.”

 

*

 

The midday meal was later that usual, so late in fact that it was really an evening meal that began early and ran long. For the royals had arrived at Stonehelm on dragonback. Although the strength of the Stormlands filled the castle, provisions were quickly made for the King and Queen.

At first, Lord Guilian offered them his chambers, but Jon and Daenerys refused.

“Your Graces, it is my honor to do this,” said the head of House Swann. “My House has not been so honored in a century.”

“Your House has been ever a friend to House Stark, and to my wife the Queen,” was the King’s reply. “Neither of us need pomp and pleasantries after spending our younger years beyond the Wall and in Slaver's Bay...”

 “Yes, and on the Dothraki Sea,” said the silver queen as her husband unclasped his black cloak from around her shoulders. “Whatever rooms can be spared is what we will take.”

“My wife would chase me through the seven hells if I did that, Your Grace, the Seven rest her soul,” said Lord Guilian. “My son’s wife, my sweet gooddaughter Allyria, will see to your needs.”

Jon smiled. “Lady Allyria is here?” He looked to Balon Swann. “I know you are glad to be reunited with your lady wife after your long sojourn in the capital.”

“Thanks only to your generosity, Your Grace, in releasing me from the Kingsguard to marry the girl I’ve loved since I was but a boy,” was Balon’s reply. “She is seeing that you, the Queen, the Master of Coin, and the Mistress of War will have every comfort.”

“I don’t see Lord and Lady Baratheon,” Daenerys said, looking around the great hall of Stonehelm. “Where are your lieges?”

“They will be here soon, Your Grace,” Balon promised. “We were giving our men a bit of practice this forenoon, and they needed to make themselves... presentable.”

Jon was shaking his head as the lords who'd been there in the tiltyard laughed.

“Send your page to get my little sister, good man, and tell her that a lady neither keeps her King waiting, nor her husband abed all the day long…”

“Jon!” the queen said, trying to feign shock, but covering up a laugh. “Don’t embarrass your sister. Anyway, there is no need. Lord Gendry and Lady Arya are here.”

 The herald announced them, and every eye was drawn to them. Lord Baratheon was dressed in a black tunic and breeches, long leather boots, with a golden vest emblazoned with the crowned stag. Beside him, Lady Arya wore a lovely gown of the palest yellow, a parting gift from Lady Mary Mertyns. The deep v-neck showcased the bull pendant around her neck, but below it, her belt was clasped with the direwolf pin of House Stark.

Her chestnut hair was parted down the middle. Atop it, she wore a tiara that had once belonged to Lady Shireen Baratheon. Understated and sent to Stonehelm by messenger, it was made of antlers twisted together and made of pure gold.

You are Lady Baratheon and the sister of the King, wrote Shireen. You must wear it at Stonehelm, then again during the summit at Summerhall, and especially at the Great Council.

The assembled lords and ladies of the Stormlands had bowed deeply and respectfully for the King and Queen, respecting all the age-old customs of the Seven Kingdoms. Of course, there had been some murmurs of surprise when people had seen that the queen was pregnant.

However, when they saw their liege lord and lady, they did something altogether different.

They cheered.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Arya greeted Jon and Daenerys, as she curtsied and Gendry bowed. “We were speaking with Allyria about your needs. Welcome to the Stormlands, Your Graces.”

Then formalities were dispensed with as Jon hugged his little sister, lifting her off the ground as she giggled as if she was nine years old again. For his part, Gendry kissed Daenerys’ upturned cheek, as she smiled.

 

*

 

The evening meal began. Jon and Arya sat together, heads close with each other as they ate and kept their own counsel, the only two Northerners for many leagues.

As the Stark siblings conversed together, Daenerys talked with Gendry. Before, their conversations had mostly been about forging dragonsteel and the properties of fire. Although Daenerys did not follow R'hllor, as the Mother of Dragons, most followers of the Lord of Light had revered her during the Wars for hatching the first dragons in hundreds of years. She in turn was fascinated by the dualistic fire religion, and would regale Gendry with endless questions about the feats he'd witnessed.

Today, however, the queen had other matters on her mind.

“It is good to see you alive and well, dear cousin, but the tidings that bring us here are quite dire. We must dine, and then we must talk.”

“Your Grace…”

“You are my cousin and my family, by blood and by marriage. You must call me Daenerys.”

“Daenerys, then. I worried when we saw your dragons in the sky. Is all well?”

She shook her head.

“It is as they say. 'Dark wings, dark words.' I have need of you, cousin. I know you had no wish to be a lord, but I must break my promise to you at the end of the Wars. I need you to rule Storm’s End.”

“Daenerys…”

“We had to convince Arya, but now, it seems that we must convince you. Edric is my enemy. So is Aegon. He has called this Great Council to depose us, perhaps to even have us imprisoned and killed. And Gendry, Aegon must not rule. If Jon and I thought he’d be a good king, we would retire to the Free Cities, live a quiet life. We have suffered much and more…”

“Your Gr… Daenerys, I know. I was there and saw your sacrifice in the fields of ice. I know you're weary.”

“We all are,” she told him knowingly. “But Gendry, we were born for this. So were you. There were those who believed the line of the Storm Kings were finished, never knowing that you escaped King’s Landing with Ned Stark’s lost daughter.”

“I’m just a smith.”

“And a soldier. And a damned fine general who led thousands of men against the undead and the unknown. A man honest and true who has restored the bond between House Baratheon and House Targaryen.”

Daenerys touched his hand where it rested on the table.

“Deep down, you know it to be true, don’t you, Gendry? Everything in your life has readied you for this time."

"I'm nobody's lord. There's too much I'd have to learn..."

"Nonsense. You don’t need to learn how to be a lord, you are a lord. With Lord Davos as castellan, and Lady Arya as your wife, you could make these lands prosper under your rule. ”

“I don’t want Arya to give up Winterfell for me.”

“She won’t have to. Cousin, we are bound to the wolves now. You have loved Arya for as long as I’ve known you… and what’s more, you understand her. Jon and I… well, we were once commanders on the battlefield, and united through my brother’s prophecy about us. We became friends, and then, we became more. But now, he is the love of my life, and will be the father of my children.

“Neither Jon nor Arya gave up Winterfell for us. It is the same with Lady Sansa… the Starks are still of the North. They will always be. But since Torrhen bent the knee, we in the South never made the attempt to understand the Northern realms, or their people. Perhaps it will be in our children, in which North and South, ice and fire unite, that we will have lasting peace in Westeros at last.”

Gendry nodded slowly. “Arya actually likes it at Storm’s End,” he told the queen, lowering his voice. “Can you imagine that? I'm sure the king's told you how hard it is to get Arya to like things she doesn't, right?"

“Right," Daenerys smirked. "Have you traveled to your father's castle yet?”

“Not yet.”

“You must. And you must be our guest in King’s Landing after this Great Council business is said and done.”

He chuckled at that. “Every day of my life, till I was a lad of five and ten, I looked at the bloody Red Keep. Never thought I’d get inside.”

“Well, I’ve changed it since your father was in residence. The dragon skulls are back in the throne room, and the Targaryen banners and tapestries that weren’t destroyed have gone up again.”

Pause. “Your Grace, I…”

Daenerys, cousin.”

“Daenerys, I regret what my father did to your family. To your brother.”

She nodded. “There was much blood spilled back then. And you know, my father was mad. I don’t think I would have liked to have known him.” The little queen shuddered. “But before his madness, he and your grandfather Steffon were great friends, and along with him, Tywin Lannister. Fighting the Wars made us all push differences aside and forged friendships… and loves… among all our houses. And our children will have no memory of the enmity between Baratheon and Targaryen. Think of that. Our children.” Her hands cradled her swollen womb protectively as she spoke.

Gendry did think of it. Often. He imagined a child with Arya’s spectacular silver-grey eyes, and his own black hair… perhaps a little girl. And after that, a little boy.

“Gendry, I want you to take Storm’s End, and rule it as Lord and Warden of the East for the rest of your days. I want your son to rule it after you. I could order you to do so as your queen, but as your cousin and friend, I ask that you talk to your Lord of Light. Ask him for the strength to fulfill your destiny. And who knows? Perhaps we shall right the wrongs of our ancestors, the Laughing Storm shall get his vengeance beyond the grave… and a daughter of Storm’s End shall become a Targaryen Queen after all.”

“Only if they choose it,” said Gendry before he thought. The thought of having a child with Arya thrilled him to his bones, but the idea of being father to a Queen was so far beyond his understanding that it seemed like nonsense.

“Only if they choose it,” the queen promised. “Jon and I have said that we would like to have companions for our child at court from all the families who would wish it. We were always lonely growing up, and we do not wish that for our babe. Any child of yours and Arya’s would be welcomed and treasured.”

Gendry snorted. “Arya wouldn’t like that.”

“Yet your daughter might. Or your son. But here, I am speaking of hope and the future, when we have more pressing concerns.”

He nodded.

“So what brought you to Stonehelm in advance of your procession, Daenerys? What’s happened at Summerhall?”

 

*

 

“How dare he?”

Arya paced the antechamber of the king and queen, as her brother stood by the window, looking from his beloved little sister to the pale moonlight, and back again.

“How fucking dare he, Jon? Rhaegar was as much your father as he was his!”

“I know that, as you do. The entire realm knows it. Yet Aegon taunts me by saying Rhaegar never laid eyes on me, never smelled my breath as a babe, never picked me up when I cried. He says that I was the bastard, while he was the trueborn. As such, Summerhall is his by rights.”

 When Jon shut his eyes, Arya knew that he was feeling an age-old grief that even the best of her sisterly love could not assuage. She now knew something about how much Jon had come to love Dany, too… but Dany could not take this away.

“He knows what Summerhall meant to our father. What it means to both of us. So he’s taken it and…”

“Garrisoned it so that we cannot have our summit meeting there before the Great Council at the first of the year,” finished Arya angrily. “Jon, I hate him so.”

“I want to hate him,” said Jon quietly. “But hating my half-brother is like… well, he’s like looking into a mirror. I was raised to believe I was nothing, but Griff and Lemore reared Aegon to believe he was everything. He is as filled with surety as I am filled with my doubts. And yet… and yet…”

“He's still your brother.” Arya frowned. “Lady Mary and Acorn, they told Gendry and me the same about Edric. I hate this fire and blood stuff, Jon! It’s foreign to the North, where a man’s deeds determine his fate.”

“And yet we are both only half of the North, little sister. You’ve the blood of the Tullys, and Gods be good, sometimes you remind me of Lady Catelyn.”

Arya wrinkled her nose. “No, I think that’s Sansa,” she protested. “All have said that I take after our father, and Sansa is most like our mother…”

“No, Sansa has our father’s temperament. She is quiet, an observer, and she carries around much guilt.”

She walked over to join him at the window, and lowered her voice to a whisper.

“Sandor is her lover, isn’t he?”

Jon nodded. “Turns out the dutiful sister has presented me with more of a pickle than the wildling one.”

“You must allow her and Sandor to be together,” Arya said, voice brooking no refusal. “He is a good man… broken, but good. He protected both of us during the Wars, when everything first happened and our protectors were few and far between. I hated him long ago for what he did to Mycah, but he was under that awful Joffrey's orders. He's changed. And Jon, he loves her… truly, truly loves her... I think we’ve always known that, and pretended not to notice…”

“He does. And she loves him. But Arya, there’s a new wrinkle in this. It seems that Sansa is with child.”

“Oh, Gods,” stammered Arya, shaking her head in disbelief. “No wonder she remained in King’s Landing with the Lord Hand! Is she showing?”

“Not yet, thank the Gods. Arya, this may be too much for the Lords of Westeros. The Royces have kept the secret, because they have grown to love Sansa, and they knew what she suffered at the hands of Baelish and Hardyng. There’s also an unspoken promise to wed our nephew to a Royce daughter, thus ensuring the grandchild is a Valeman. But that Clegane blood runs true, and…”

“Sansa is no longer wed.” Arya bit her lip, deep in thought. “Then you must allow her to be with Clegane. Ned can be with his parents, and the Royces can take the Vale.”

“The Vale lords will not take the public insult, little sister, and you know they won’t. They will punish House Stark by voting for Aegon as King. And we've Willas Tyrell’s pride to contend with. It would mean the throne. But before we left, Sansa told me that now that Willas’ wife is dead, she would be willing to…”

No,” said Arya firmly. “Jon, House Stark has sacrificed much and more over these two generations for the cause of the dragons. We are all happy with our marriages -- you and me, Bran, Rickon, too. We will not sacrifice any more of Sansa’s happiness.”

“I told her that. But Sansa said to me…”

“Sansa is your sister, and she loves you. She would do anything for us. She has done much for us. You know she has suffered agonies since our father was betrayed and killed. She will never tell us some of what happened. I suffered, too, but I had the gift of choice. It has only been Gendry for me. But it has not been that way for her.”

Jon closed his eyes.

“Please don't feel guilty, Jon. There was nothing you could do for her back then, before the Wall fell, in the time before. Sansa doesn’t blame you for any of it… she doesn’t blame any of us. But for the rest of her life, let our dear sister have her happiness, brother. Let her love that Hound of hers until her last breath. We will find another way to keep your crown. We must.”

Her brother opened his eyes with a nod. “And what of your own love, sweet sister? Are you truly happy with Lord Baratheon?”

“You know I am. Gendry's the only man for me, Jon. If I’d never met him, you’d have had quite a time convincing me to wed. It’s just fortunate he was the bastard son of a king. Gave you something to work with, at least.”

Jon had to laugh at Arya’s outrageousness. “This would have all been easier if you’d just fallen in love with my damned half-brother, you know.”

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response, Jon. It took a woods witch and a Child of the Forest to stop me from killing him, so he’d better be glad he stumbled upon that old Valyrian spell.” She grumbled with displeasure. “Fucking dragons and their fire and blood… and before you even say it, shut up, you’re not half dragon. Never. Not in my eyes.”

“If you say so, Underfoot.”

She came over to elbow him roughly, the only person in Westeros who would dare such an outrageous thing in the presence of the King.

In response, he mussed her hair.

“No matter how much you play at being a lady," he told her, hugging her again, "you’ll always be my rough and tumble little sister.”

And she smiled at him.

“Are we interrupting anything?”

It was Daenerys, coming into the antechamber with a curious look on her face. She was followed by Gendry (whose eyes immediately went to Arya, as ever) and Ned Dayne (who smirked at the sight of the two Stark siblings roughhousing in private).

“Of course not, love,” he said as Dany went to his arms and she smiled softly at him. “Just filling Arya in. I don’t get enough time with my little sister since this Baratheon giant stole her away from us.”

“Shut it, you left me first for your bloody Wall,” laughed Arya merrily, then squealing at her husband grabbed a handful of her rear end. “I had to make friends!”

“That’s all I am to your sister, you know,” Gendry mock-complained to Jon. “Friends.”

“Tell me you’ve decided we’re going to kick Aegon’s stupid arse out of Summerhall,” said Arya to Jon and Daenerys, settling her arms around Gendry (or as far around as she could get them). “It’s been far too long since my Needle has been blooded…”

“Only about a moon’s turn,” was her husband’s sober reply. “Nay, no more bloodshed, Arya, at least not until the Council. What have I told you?”

“My cousin is absolutely right,” said the queen. “You are the king’s sister, dear Arya. The crown cannot shed first blood, not before we speak for our cause before the Seven Kingdoms. But we must needs meet with the other loyalists, so that we can speak as one when the time comes.”

“Have you found a place for the summit, love?” asked Jon curiously.

“Not I, my husband, but Lord Dayne has a promising proposition.” Daenerys turned to him. “Ned?”

“My king, I would be your host,” said Ned Dayne, “Come to Starfall and see the place where your mother wed your father. My maester will send word to all throughout the Seven Kingdoms who support your cause. The Sunset Sea will bring the ships the faithful of Tarth and White Harbor and Sunspear and Redwyne to our harbor, and your faithful Marcher Lords will secure the land route. My lady wife Lanna will see to your every comfort, and my little Star will amuse and delight you as much as she does us.

“Come to Starfall, my king and queen. It would be the pleasure of House Dayne to be your hosts.”

A strange look passed over Jon’s face.

“Starfall. Do you know if…”

But his milk brother nodded.

“Yes, Your Grace. I have been there many a time, and I would be glad to take you there as we make our way through the mountains.”

“Wylla says I was born there, then?” the king asked the Sword of the Morning. “Truly?”

“You were indeed,” was Ned Dayne’s reply. “She was there. If you come with me to Starfall, my king, you shall pass the place where the Tower of Joy stood… where you breathed your first… and where your mother died.”

Jon’s face was unreadable as he looked to his wife.

The queen’s verdict was swift and certain.

“Then to Starfall we must go.”

Chapter Text

Days 150-164

 

 

Not since the days of Aegon and his sisters had a Targaryen retinue travelled as light and fast as the party who moved swiftly and stealthily from Stonehelm to Starfall as the long spring settled into the Dornish Marches late in the year 306.

It took much convincing of Lord Guilian before he agreed that the King, his Queen, and Lord and Lady Baratheon were to travel with a company of merely fifty men-at-arms. Only the words of Ser Balon, now Lord of Blackhaven, convinced Jon, Dany, Gendry, and Arya to take any guards at all.

“If not for yourselves,” pleaded the faithful former Kingsguard and knight, “please consider taking an advance guard for the sake of my lord father,” he implored. “He will not rest knowing that you travel without protection during these uncertain times, and he is ailing.”

Dany conceded, and Gendry wanted to support Lord Guilian, but Jon and Arya were more impatient about it, although they had learned enough about Southron customs to be outwardly gracious.

“These Marches are not your wolfswood, sweet goodsister,” the Queen told her the night before their departure, in the fine room appointed as the royal bedchamber. “Ned Dayne is the only one of us who knows these lands well.”

“But you and my brother have dragons,” was Arya’s retort as she watched the maids pack the few things Dany had brought with her.

“We have, but Drogon is back in King’s Landing, guarding her nest. Aegon’s aggression toward our rule means her little ones must be protected.” She cupped her own rounded middle with a hand. “It is selfish to keep Drogon here with me while she needs to be tending her own young. And we cannot all travel on Viserion’s back… no, my husband’s dragon will scout and hunt, and we will travel on horseback through the Prince’s Pass.”

Arya sat down on a cushion, wishing for a draft of cool air. The spring day was overwarm, and she found herself sweating profusely. Wishing for the rains to come again.

“Do not worry, Arya,” said the Queen. “I’ve brought just the thing. You must cease wearing the clothing of a Northern boy in these warm climes. Woolen tunics, roughspun breeches… they will not do, goodsister.”

“I will not wear dresses in the saddle,” said Arya. “I’ve no use for looking like a silken doll outside of feasts, and sometimes not even then. I do not wish to worry about my clothes getting torn or dirty.”

She looked at the Queen, afraid that she’d finally gone too far. But surprisingly, there was a twinkle in Daenerys’ lilac eyes.

“You fought for me in the North, Arya, as a general under my command. Did I wear fine silks in the field?”

Arya’s teeth worried her bottom lip. “No, you had some kind of battle armor on, but…”

“I know what you’re going to say. I was on dragonback, which is different than riding horses, and you are the best horsewoman in Westeros. Do I have the rights of it?”

Shrug. “Something like that.”

“Then you are forgiven for forgetting than long before I was your brother’s wife, long before I restored House Targaryen, even before I fought for the Dawn and liberated the slaves of Old Ghis… I was a Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea.”

Oh.

“Da—Your Grace, I…”

“Call me Your Grace again when we are private, goodsister, and I shall be quite vexed indeed. Never do it again.” Dany laughed, taking the sting from her words as she shook out something that looked to be a vest made of supple and soft kid leather. “I forget that you have never seen me wear my Dothraki garb, but I packed enough to spare, and you and I are of a size.”

Arya’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t mean to offend you, Daenerys, but I prefer my tunic and breeches.”

“Nonsense. The Prince’s Pass is warm during the day even in winter,” said the queen. “In late spring, it will bake your squire’s clothing to your skin…”

“Northern women don’t tan, Dany. I would be red as a beet by day’s end.”

And I have Mother’s voice in the back of my mind as well.

“Oh, I’ve something to help with that as well,” she said, indicating an oddly colored ointment jar on one of the tables. “My first husband’s people are overused to long days in the saddle, under the hot sun of the Dothraki Sea.” She shook her head, and muttered to herself, “When I first wed Drogo, some days, I thought I would expire.”

“Why didn’t you?” asked Arya, curiously. “I can’t imagine being married off at only thirteen to a man not of my choosing. What kept you going?”

“My brother’s stories at first,” was Dany’s reply. “Viserys filled my head with so many tales about these lands, how they belonged to our family, how I would someday be his Queen. I knew that we needed Drogo’s army, and only I could secure that. And then there was my friend Jorah.”

“Ser Jorah Mormont,” said Arya, very quietly. “His family is one of the greatest of the North, and ever loyal to House Stark… although he wasn’t.”

“But Jorah was loyal to me,” replied Dany, but not unkindly. “I see that now. He loved me, after a fashion. And though I was grateful to him, I could only give him my friendship. I hope he has found peace in the Night Lands.”

Dany seemed to shake off her melancholy then, and held out the leathers.

“Try these on,” she ordered. “Any alterations necessary must be done today. We leave at dawn.”

 

*

 

Gendry was having a difficult time keeping his eyes on the treacherous path.

It was a good thing that he’d become a better rider over the years. He’d spent the morning savoring the feeling of the warmth and heat of the sun overhead…

…as well as the sight of his beautiful wife in Dothraki leathers riding before him. (Those heathen rags revealed more than they concealed, and Gendry couldn't decide if he wanted to cover her up, or tear them off.)

They’d been on the road for the better part of a week now. From Stonehelm, they’d sailed to Wyl, where the current Wyl of Wyl feasted the royal party for two days and would have had them for a fortnight (“he’s a cousin of my mother’s, and I believe he and Balon squired together,” Ned Dayne explained).

From there, it was an easy three days and nights’ travel alongside the River Wyl, avoiding the Boneway until they reached the source of the river and the wall of the Dornish Mountains.

“Nothing like the Frostfangs,” joked the king, shielding his eyes with a hand.

“Truer words were never spoken,” replied the Sword of the Morning. “It’ll be a hard climb to Vulture’s Roost, even with sure-footed steeds used to the terrain.” He looked to the queen. “Your Grace, given your condition, I wouldn’t advise it.”

Jon turned to his wife.

“Dany, do you think you should…”

Daenerys shook her head.

“I rode my silver until my time with Rhaego came. I rode her again mere days after the pyre where I said goodbye to my babe and my sun-and-stars, and greeted my newborn dragons. I would not disturb Drogon, and your Viserion needs to keep an eye on Summerhall and his brother.”

“But you’ve never climbed a mountain like this, sweetling,” Jon told her. “I have. I climbed the Wall before it fell, and this is of like height…”

“I will be fine, love, and so will this babe of ours,” Dany assured him, jumping off her white horse as the magnificent animal dipped her head into the headwaters of the Wyl to drink her fill along with the others. “What is it?”

For Ned had to laugh.

“Arya’s already started up the path!”

Gendry had to shake his head at his incorrigible wife. Arya had indeed made the climb to Vulture’s Roost with the advance scouts, not even stopping to take a rest.

Her energy was boundless in a way that Gendry had never seen. Always before, even when they were children, there had been an unmistakable sadness about his she-wolf that she covered up with her confidence and quick temper. Even after the Wars, her worries about the debt she owed to the House of Black and White, and the freshness of the grief over the deaths of her family and friends, tempered her personality.

At first, he suspected that this newfound, unbridled joy of Arya’s was something new for her… until Jon pulled up his magnificent black destrier next to his, laughing heartily at his little sister galloping up the pass.

“Arya Underfoot all over again,” was Jon’s fond remark.

Gendry looked at the king curiously.

“Haven’t seen her in a long time,” continued Jon, almost to himself. Then, to Gendry: “I think you have something to do with it.”

Perhaps her brother was right. In the hot Dornish sunshine, Arya seemed to come alive in a way that Gendry had never witnessed before. After languishing uncomfortably in the heat and humidity of the Southron realms, suddenly his Northern girl seemed to savor it. Dressed in the light vest and short breeches of a Dothraki woman, Arya’s skin went from milk to rosy to the palest of gold during their first week on the road. Her royal goodsister’s handmaiden braided her hair before they departed. As a decorated war veteran, Arya had earned the right to wear bells, too…

He could only admire his wild wolf of a wife as she rode directly ahead of him through the narrow, steep pass, the wind making music of the bells in her long chestnut hair. Although Gendry preferred it when they could ride side by side, or even better, together, the view wasn’t half bad. It was all he could do to keep up with her as he followed her…

He knew that he would follow Arya always, no matter where she led him.

That night, in their tent pitched amid the ruined courtyard of Vulture’s Roost, she was too excited to sleep, even though he tried his best to thoroughly exhaust her. There wasn’t an inch of her sunkissed skin that he left untouched, but still, she reached for him again.

“Tired already, old man?” Arya whispered, palms steadying her perch atop his chest. “I’ve not had my fill of you yet.”

Gendry sat up with a yawn and a grin. His lips found her hairline.

“We need to sleep.”

“We can sleep when we’re dead,” she said, burying her hands in his thick hair to kiss him soundly.

Sweet. He didn’t think he’d ever get over the sweetness of her, how soft her kiss-swollen lips were, how good they felt against his mouth and chest and skin and…

“There was a time when I thought I’d never be in your arms again,” she whispered, staring up at him. “I never lost hope, I knew a part of me would have known if you were… if you had... it’s just that I… I lost so much when I was little Father… Mother and Robb, and then… I thought I’d never see… that all of us wouldn’t… but we did, all the rest of us, and then I had you, and it was… it was just so… and then you didn’t come home, Gendry. You didn’t… and I refused to believe that I would never see you again.”

She said this all in a great, breathless rush, perfectly still atop his thighs, hands cupped around his neck. Enormous grey eyes imploring him to just understand.

“I wanted to send word,” he murmured, feeling guilty. “I wanted to let you know know I was alive, but I didn’t know how. That was the hardest part in it all, I think. If I’d just been smarter…”

“Shut up. You’re plenty smart.”

“You always call me stupid.”

“Because you are sometimes. But only I get to say it. Only me. No one else. Not even you.” Grin. “You make me happier than anyone, Gendry… except maybe Jon. And Father, when he was alive.”

“Glad to know I’m of some use,” Gendry snorted, crushing her to his chest so that she emitted a very un-Aryalike sound, something between a squeal and a squeak. “You could’ve had anyone, you know.”

“So could you,” was her retort, mouthed against his chest. “But since we’re stuck together, we might as well make the most of it…”

“Tomorrow,” he murmured, bringing her down with him as he laid back on the straw pallet. “I swear I can’t get it up again tonight.” Although not for lack of trying, he thought.

In response, Arya’s hand reached between their bodies to circle his cock.

“Can’t you? We’ll see about that.”

She inched down his body, fingertips of her free hand tracing down his muscular chest and corded stomach to brush past the hair below, dark as that atop his head.

Parting her lips, she let out a deep breath…

“Fuck, Arry… fuck!”

“Told you so,” she teased, just before she took him into her mouth.

After, they slept. Usually, it was Gendry who dropped off to sleep first, as he was the earlier riser, but tonight, it was Arya, going off to seek her dreams with a satisfied smile. He lay awake for quite some time, watching her slumber, and wasn’t quite sure when he slipped into the realm of dreams himself…

And then he opened his eyes in a tower room high in Driftmark, cold and dark, for the nightfire had been extinguished. The taste of liquid iron rose in his mouth like an ominous sort of bile, until his entire throat filled with it, strangling for breath.

At the foot of the bed, Aegon Targaryen laughed his triumph.

And above him, the She-Wolf of Winterfell brandished Needle, dripping with the lifeblood of the bull...

Gendry awoke with a start, sitting straight up on the pallet, shaking off the strange nightmare. Besides him, Arya slept on, except she was now frowning.

He exhaled, drinking in the sight of his wife, tiny and petite and perfect as she began to miss his warmth in her sleep. Trying to still his fast-beating heart, Gendry lay back down, gathering her into his arms again. Still sleeping, Arya settled down as she always did, emitting only a quiet sigh.

The nightmares had started coming ever since they left Stonehelm. It was perhaps the fourth or fifth time he’d dreamt the same dream.

Gendry knew that there was as much chance of Arya harming him in real life as there was of him harming her – none. Yet ever since she’d killed Casper Wylde, the anger and trepidation he’d felt toward her for taking justice into her own hands had been pushed away from his happy waking hours into the shades of the night.

She’d killed before they’d ever met. Gendry had always known that, long before she told him about the boy she murdered beneath the Red Keep during her escape. He’d seen it with his own eyes when they were children… her fierceness, her fearlessness… and her sheer recklessness. That part of Arya’s nature was alien and strange to Gendry. No matter how confident surviving the Wars and winning the hand and heart of the She-Wolf of Winterfell made him, he would never be a risk taker like she was.

Arya said she made him happier than anyone. But why? They were so different. Sure, they’d always been oddly drawn toward each other. Now that they weren’t fighting for survival, would they survive this game of high lords, and castles, and… thrones?

In his arms, Arya stirred, waking up slowly as was her habit. She blinked, and looked at him…

“I’m thirsty,” she whispered. “And sore.”

Their waterskins were near the flap of their tent. Gendry got up to retrieve hers...

“So that’s it,” she sighed, looking down at herself. “My moon blood’s begun. Again.”

He looked down at his naked thighs. The moonlight filtered into the tent, a beam revealing the red. They were smeared with her blood. Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t even noticed.

“Need your cloths?” he asked, tossing her one of the waterskins.

“Aye, thanks,” she said, uncharacteristically placid as she sipped. Coming back to the bed with cloths and the other waterskin, they swiftly and silently cleaned up. One cloth soaked with water from his skin wiped them clean, another was spread over the stain on the pallet, and the final one was tucked between her legs.

She tried to push him away once they were abed again, but he didn’t let her.

“Easier to travel afore I flowered,” Arya fussed. “What good is it to bleed each month if I can’t have a babe?”

“You don’t know that, Arry. We have time…”

“Sansa will have two children soon. I have none.”

She didn’t say anything else for a while. Gendry wasn’t sure what to say. He loved her more than life, and while he did want children someday, he only wanted them with Arya. If she couldn’t bear any babes, then there was nothing to be done for it. His old master, Tobho Mott, had no sons of his own, which is why he took on apprentices.

But Gendry knew it mattered to Arya when he felt her tears on his chest. Each was like a dagger in his heart.

“Shh,” he soothed. “Arya, it doesn’t matter…”

“It matters,” she whispered heartbrokenly. “Mayhaps the Old Gods are punishing me for all the lives I’ve stolen. All the eyes I’ve shut. Nothing comes from my womb except blood. Serves me right.”

“We’ll see a maester,” he suggested feebly. “At Starfall, or else when we get to Storm’s End... you said the one there’s plenty good…”

“You don’t get it,” she said quietly.

Gendry cleared his throat uncomfortably. “What don’t I get?”

“You think that it doesn’t matter to me, just because I never wanted to be some noble broodmare. I told you about the time I said to Father that I didn’t want to be some lady in a castle, bearing babes for some man I hardly knew, a thousand leagues away from Winterfell and the North. Isn’t that what you’re thinking?”

“I…”

“Well, I was a stupid child back then, Gendry! I didn’t want to wed anyone, until you… and I didn’t want any stupid man’s stupid babes until you, either!”

He really was at a loss. What was he supposed to say about that?

“Now you’re back and I’m so fucking tired of bleeding every month! I’m tired of moving from fucking hamlet to holdfast, and not having a place to call my own! I’m tired of my pack always being threatened!”

“I know, love. So what is it that you want? We can go to Winterfell, Storm’s End…”

“Don’t be stupid, we can’t go home yet. We have to help Jon and Daenerys keep the throne, and we have to help Sansa and little Ned now that people are learning about her love for Sandor. And we can’t do that all the way in the North!”

“That’s what we’re doing. And after that…”

“I don’t know, Gendry. All I know is that I’m tired. All I want is to have your babes, in a place where we can be safe. I haven’t had a home since I was nine years old. And I want to find that again. I just want peace.

He looked at her with all the love he felt for the tiny brunette in his arms, finally understanding what she was getting at.

“Winterfell’s not that place for you anymore, is it?” he said perceptively.

“I’ll always love Winterfell. It’s where I grew up. I… I wanted it so much when I couldn’t get home. But then you were captured, and it didn’t feel like home anymore. I had my brothers and my sister back, but it just wasn’t the same. Jon and Sansa were in King’s Landing, and we’re all grown up… and…”

And your parents aren’t coming back, Gendry thought but didn’t say. Neither is Robb, or Mycah, or Harwin and his dad, or any of the people who you knew when you were a little girl.

When Winterfell was your whole world.

“It’ll always be your home,” he told her. “Winterfell. I’ve never had a home, not really…”

“No. Your home is with me. Because my home is wherever you are, Gendry.”

He couldn’t even find the words to tell her what her words meant to him. He just stared at her in the mostly-dark tent, precious and perfect in his arms, wanting that moment to never end.

So he put all the words he couldn’t form into a deep, devouring kiss. He knew he would never get enough of the sweetness of Arya’s mouth, from her lips to her tongue to her teeth that liked to nip him so much, bringing him the most exquisite mix of pleasure and pain.

If he could, he’d kiss her for an age.

 But just then, they only had till dawn.

 

*

 

“Easy, girl. The way is steep, and treacherous besides.”

Arya soothed her horse with a hand, her other expertly handling the reins. She was leading the royal party down the pass from Vulture’s Roost, simply because no one else could keep up with her now that she had the hang of riding through the mountains.

Dany had been right, the Dothraki clothing was suited for the desert weather, and Arya felt in her element as she kept a steady pace alongside the red mountain.

Queen Daenerys followed close behind on her ivory-white steed, also an excellent horsewoman from her years as Khaleesi. She was dressed similarly to Arya, but around her fair hair, she had wrapped a scarf to guard against the red dust of the Pass. Behind them rode their husbands, King Jon and Lord Gendry, followed by Lord Ned Dayne, Sword of the Morning, and the honor guard Lord Guilian had sent with them from House Swann.

They carried no banners, and other than the two women at the head of the company, nothing distinguished them from a group of itinerant soldiers…

Except Viserion, the silver dragon, occasionally swept above them, keeping watch over his rider, his mother, and their friends as they journeyed to Starfall.

It happened when Arya was going to ask Dany whether they ought to stop for the midday meal. Arya didn’t really want to, but she knew the common soldiers and their mounts would be ready for a rest.

“Aaaaaaaargh!”

Arya’s head whipped around to see Gendry being supported by the king, who’d stopped him from falling from his horse. At first, she’d thought the great black destrier had lost a shoe, but saw how Gendry was jerking in the saddle…

Without thinking, she stopped her horse, jumped off and ran back to him.

“Gendry, what’s wrong? What’s happened?”

He could barely speak from the pain. “Edric… Aegon…”

The spell! She looked up at her brother and Ned (who’d raced up to help). “Where are the scouts?”

“A bit ahead of us, I’d expect,” said the Sword of the Morning.

“They’ve got either Edric or the prince,” said Arya, uncorking a waterskin and holding it up to her husband’s lips. “We’ve got to stop them from killing whoever they have, or Gendry will die, too!”

“Don’t worry, I know these lands well,” said Ned Dayne. “I’ll find them.”

“No need,” was the queen’s reply. “Viserion will take us to this intruder.”

“Your Grace, in your condition…”

“My dear Ned, that wasn’t a request,” snapped Dany. “This is what I will do, as your queen.”

Jon had summoned his dragon with a sharp whistle, looking down at his goodbrother with concern. “I want to know which of these cowards dared attack our vanguard.

Within a moment, the white-and-gold dragon had landed. The king and queen rode off on dragonback, with Ned Dayne and twenty of their best men following.

The rest made Gendry as comfortable as possible, while Arya tried to soothe him.

“I could kill your aunt for not breaking the damn spell,” she said, stroking his sweaty forehead.

“How’d you… think I feel?” he snarked back through dry lips, gritting his teeth.

“Where does it hurt?”

“Left… shoulder…. and my… right side.”

Arya reached for the waterskin again, ripping a piece of her vest to soak and wipe his forehead.

“You’re going to be all right.”

You have to be, she thought fiercely. Although she knew Jon would bring back the culprit alive no matter what, Arya couldn’t help but be angry at whoever caused her bull’s pain.

Even if the culprit was probably in as much pain himself.

She didn’t have long to wait. Gendry began grinding his teeth so hard from the pain that Arya ordered one of the men to find something for him to bite down on. They had no milk of the poppy with them, but a stick was somehow found.

“Feel… like… being… dragged,” he told her right as she placed the stick into his mouth.

“Don’t break your teeth,” she ordered. “I like them.”

The culprit in question was indeed being dragged into the camp by the guards, clearly wounded.

Arya found her blood boiling.

Edric Storm Baratheon had come to parlay.

 

*

 

He awoke to find his half brother staring at him, an unreadable expression on his face.

Gendry didn’t feel threatened, though. Where he was sharing his pain, Edric was the one actually wounded. His head, shoulder, and hand were bandaged, and his leg was as well.

Blinking, Gendry flexed his hammer hand. It was painful, but would be all right.

What would have happened if somehow Edric or Aegon lost a hand? Would he lose all sensation in his, too? Would it shrivel up, become useless?

What would he do then?

Edric noticed that he was awake. Groaning, he turned from his side to his back (a move Gendry felt every bit of) and stared at the pavilion’s ceiling.

“Do you ever think about what happened to the others?”

For the thousandth time, Gendry cursed himself for being so damned slow when it came to these highborns. Why couldn’t they just say what they meant, and mean what they said?

“What?”

“The others. The ones who didn’t escape King’s Landing, like you did. You were the only one. I was in the Stormlands, Bella was at Stoney Sept, and Mya was in the Vale. Two boys, two girls… but there were sixteen of us, they say.” He shifted again.

“Stop bloody squirming ,” Gendry snapped. “And no, I don’t think of it. Didn’t think I even had no… I didn’t know that I had any brothers or sisters till the middle of the Wars.”

“Well, I think about it all the time. Had our father been an honorable man, you and I would have grown to manhood in the Red Keep as princes, and Westeros would have been our birthright. But he was a lousy, philandering drunk, a poor excuse for a husband and a king.”

“That why you kept me locked up for a year? Think you were gonna get a little of your own, somehow?”

“You… never… met the bastard,” Edric grated out. “I did, just the once. When he was on royal progress…”

“How was he? What was he like?”

Gendry tried to keep his voice nonchalant. He didn’t forgive Edric for keeping him prisoner, and the moment the spell broke, he would have no trouble dispatching this craven. But…

“Didn’t give a shit about me. That’s how he was.”

Edric seemed visibly distressed, his usual sneering veneer of nobility broken for the moment. Gendry didn’t know what to say. He supposed he should have been grateful that his example of what a man should be was Tobho Mott and the Brotherhood, and his own sense of personal honor, not their father. He didn’t think he even had a father till he was a man nearly grown. Thinking back to the louts his mum sometimes dragged to their little room, Gendry certainly hadn’t expected the Robert Baratheon of stories and songs once he found out.

But it seems that Edric clearly had.

“Didn’t give a shit about any of us,” Gendry pointed out. “Only one he paid half a coin’s worth of mind was Mya.”

“Oh, for certain. Then once he became king, the girl never saw him again. Treated his Lannister children the same, although they lived with him.” Edric rubbed at his chin. “You do look like him, more than the rest of us. Especially when you grow out that infernal black beard.”

Gendry’s uninjured hand reached up to touch the hair on his own face. He didn’t much care for wearing a beard, having been reared in King’s Landing, but when one waged war in the North alongside Northerners, then took a Northern lady for a wife, you quickly learned a razor wasn’t what you most needed on the road or on the run.

“We all look like him,” was Gendry’s flat reply. “That’s how everyone knew.”

“But you’re his exact image, which I am not. I’ve too much of my mother’s blood, whilst you have none of yours.” He turned back to regard Gendry, his face impassive. “Bessa Mertyns. All thought she died before the Rebellion.”

Gendry refused to talk to Edric about his mother.

“No. She didn’t.”

“Clearly. But it changes everything. Even if she became a tavern wench later, she was still highborn, from a House even older than my mother’s.”

“It doesn’t matter, Edric. Don’t you get it? You could have had it all. I didn’t want any of it. You just chose the wrong Targaryen to back. And then you kept me prisoner...”

Edric let out a deep breath. “No need. I know my life is over. The Starks are not known for their leniency. Your wife will demand my head once our bond is broken, and her brother our king will gladly give it to her for the trouble I’ve caused.”

In that moment, Edric seemed incredibly pitiful. Gendry’s anger lessened not one whit, but he did feel rather sorry for him.

“Perhaps. But you’re still my brother. And that means something to me, even if it never did to you.”

Edric frowned. “Don’t patronize me, blacksmith.”

“You say that as if it’s an insult,” Gendry replied with a smirk more characteristic of his wife. “Yes, I am a smith. That’s all I ever wanted to be. And it’s nothing I was born into… it’s something I earned myself, same as my knighthood. And my wife.”

“You didn’t earn your lordship,” snapped Edric. “Nor did you earn the hand of the King’s sister! A princess of the realm!”

“Mayhaps, but I won her heart. No matter who my parents were, I was a child who had nothing, not even a coin, when my mum died. I was content with what I had at Wars’ end. I had my hammer, and I had Arya. That’s all I needed.”

Edric chuckled wryly. “Yes, but you won’t say no to being Lord of the Stormlands, will you?”

“If the King and Queen have need of me…”

“Of course you won’t say no to them. Heaven forbid you disappoint Good King Jon and the Silver Queen Daenerys! Good old earnest Gendry. Steady and simple. Without a single ambitious bone in his body, the stormlords have assured me… save for the one that aspired to wed the daughter of a great lord, that is.”

Gendry frowned at the ceiling of the pavilion. “Why did you really come here, Edric?”

“I’m here because Aegon is a madman. He’s persuaded Willas Tyrell to his cause, and now that the Valemen have arrived at Summerhall…”

That surprised Gendry, who sat up despite their shared pain.

“What?”

“Did your Starks really think they could convince the Lords Declarant of the Vale to overlook that the son a bloody Clegane was their overlord? The seat by rights belongs to…”

Gendry’s brow furrowed. “They know about Lady Sansa.”

“The ravens are flying ‘round the realm. Lord Willas no longer cares to preserve the reputation of the Fair Lady of the North, and is not merely content to shame her afore the realm. He blames the King and Queen for allowing the filthy scarred Hound to soil the woman he’d hoped would become the flower of Highgarden.”

“Lord Tyrell’s gone mad,” was Gendry’s opinion.

“All the same, if Aegon can convince his Martell cousins to join him, that's four of the Kingdoms…”

“The Reach, the Vale, and Dorne. That’s only three.”

“You forget the Iron Islands, brother.”

“Damned Greyjoys,” snarled Gendry. “What in R’hllor’s name do the Ironmen have against the crown this time? And why would the Reach join any alliance with those fucking reavers?”

“Taking your Lord of Light’s name in vain, brother?” clucked Edric.

“Just answer the damned question.”

“House Greyjoy blames the Starks and the Baratheons for all their misfortunes during the Wars. They blame Queen Daenerys for her treachery, for turning North to fight for the Dawn instead of fulfilling promises made to them long before she landed in Westeros.”

Gendry’s eyes narrowed.

“That still doesn’t tell me why you turned your cloak and came seeking us after all you’ve done. The prince has been your friend for years. Why would you come here after all you’ve done?”

Edric’s entire face changed. An expression crossed it, the like of which Gendry had never seen.

“Aegon expects me to bring him the Stormlands. And that I cannot do.”

There was something that Gendry just wasn’t getting. “What?”

“Because of you , you idiot! You and that little wife of yours! You’ve traveled the length of the Stormlands over these moons past and you’ve fucking won their hearts! Even the widow of the Rain House remains loyal to you after Aegon’s trap! All I have are the fucking useless Estermonts, and not even Andrew, their lord!

“You’ve won, Gendry. Even if something happened to you, these damned fickle stormlords would find a way to build a monument in your honor or something. And when I told Aegon that, he went into a rage… the like of which I’ve never seen. He blamed me for not holding you captive, for letting you free, for failing to capture you on Tarth.

“He said that I should have killed you. And when I told him that killing you would have killed us both, he said something that made me quit his presence.”

Gendry didn’t have to ask. Edric pressed on.

“He admitted the spell never affected him the same as us. That as brothers, it is fatal to us, but not to him. That we could feel his pain, but he did not feel ours. That we could share his death…”

“But he would not share ours.” Gendry frowned. “Then this means…”

“Yes. He put me at risk, but not himself.” Edric turned again to face Gendry. “I know that you will never forgive me.”

“Even so, it is of no consequence,” was Gendry’s reply. “I know that my wife will not. Arya isn’t the forgiving sort. And what Arya will not forgive…”

“Neither will the king. All know of Jon’s devotion to his sisters.” Edric’s jaw was set. “I know you think me craven, brother, but I am not afraid to die.”

“Aye, I think you craven,” replied Gendry. “However, you do not deserve death. You could have murdered me simply to keep me from having what you cannot. You could have prevented the prince from linking us with the blood-spell. And if you can help us bring him to the King and Queen’s justice…”

“This King and Queen? Just?” Edric shook his head. “Jon and Daenerys are dragons. They will feed me to their pets the moment the spell is broken.”

If Arya doesn’t end your life first, thought Gendry, then felt disloyal for the thought.

“They show mercy to those who bend the knee,” he said instead. “So when the king and queen put you to the question, here’s what you should do: bend.”

  

*

 

“What shall we do with him?”

Daenerys looked from her husband, who had spoken, to her goodsister, who had not. Arya was poking the fire angrily with a stick, sending sparks flying upward. It had been ever thus since she was banned from the healer's tent, where she would have ended Edric’s life with Needle, forgetting that to harm Gendry’s jailer would be to harm her beloved.

“He must be put to the question,” was Dany’s reply. “Just as any of our enemies. If he bends the knee, he shall be punished, but we shall show mercy. If not...”

Jon continued sharpening his sword, the famed Blackfyre, sword of his ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, recovered during the Wars. Not saying a word. Normally, Ned Dayne would have been with them, sharing the nighttime fire, but today, he had led a party of twenty of their fifty men north to scout for any remaining troops that might have come south with Edric Baratheon.

“Hope you’re readying your sword for when you cleave it from that mealy-mouthed stag’s shoulders,” snapped Arya, not even bothering to look at him. “And don’t remind me about that damned spell again, because it’s the only reason why he’s still alive.”

“We must be reasonable, Arya,” said the queen slowly. “There is much we can learn from Edric about Aegon’s plans.”

“Plans?” Arya tossed her stick angrily into the fire. “I don’t care about his plans! I want the spell broken, and I want both Edric and Aegon dead for what they’ve done! What is so difficult about that?”

 She jumped up and stalked away from the fire’s warmth, daring any of the guards to say anything to her. It was only a moment before she heard footsteps behind her.

“Arya, talk to me.”

Arya looked up at her beloved big brother, tears standing in her grey eyes like diamonds.

“I can’t do this, Jon. I have no patience for these endless standoffs, subterfuges, and cyvasse moves! I’m not meant to be a Southron lady…”

“No more than I was meant to be a Southron king.” He chuckled. “We’ll never fully understand the ways of people South of the neck, little sister, but our children will.”

“What’s wrong with rearing our babes in the proud North? Let’s leave these Southerners to their messes! Aegon could have his bloody kingdom, you and Dany could come North, Gendry could be back in Winterfell’s forge and…”

His hand found hers.

“It’ll never be the same, will it?” Arya sighed. “It’s what I keep telling Gendry. He thinks I’m unhappy here, when I know the gods meant for me to be here.”

Dry laugh. “Dany says the same. I did not want to be a king, but since I am, I want to be a good one.”

“You are.” She stroked his hand with her thumb, affectionately. "We all know it's your destiny. Jon, you were born to lead all Westeros, not just the North. And I…”

“You were meant to be Lady of the Stormlands. The gods wanted a she-wolf down there, and it had to be you.”

“Perhaps.” She frowned as they put more distance between them and the camp, ignoring the desert chill. “Jon, I have been thinking on the spell, and how to break it. The Child of the Forest tried to hide it, but I think it’s something to do with me.”

“What would it have to do with you? You don’t share blood with them.”

 “Yes, but I’m the one thing all three of them have in common. Acorn said it. They all share blood with each other, and they all…” here, she chewed her lip, “…desire me.”

Jon’s dark indigo eyes shone in the moonlight, with compassion and an elder brother’s love.

“Arya...”

“I hate it, Jon.”

“I know you do. Through you, I understand how my mother must have felt about being the object of men’s desire. Apparently, Lyanna was not the kind of girl who cared overmuch for that kind of attention… just like you.”

“It’s a slight against my husband’s honor,” said Arya firmly.  “It shows the kind of man Gendry is, that he has shown such restraint in the face of their insults.” She looked away from her brother. “I fought with valor in the battles of the North, but I don’t think any of these men will ever value me as their equal…”

“You have grown far too beautiful for that, little sister,” was the king’s reply.

“I did not want to tear the Kingdoms apart, Jon. Why won’t Aegon… no, don’t answer that. The heart wants what the heart wants. And he’s stubborn.”

“Yes, he is. He won’t take no for an answer, any more than your goodfather did,” Jon said grimly. “One of us will have to kill him…”

“I want him to die by my hand, Jon.”

“No.”

“No? Who else has more right than me?”

“I don't want your soul any more compromised that it’s already been, little sister.” Pause. “Gendry told me what happened at the Rain House.”

Arya shut her eyes.

“Jon, I…”

“You owe me no explanation. When Casper insulted my goodbrother, he insulted the crown. His life was forfeit and it is only by grace that he could have remained unharmed. But your husband is worried about you, as am I. All the killing…”

“I don’t have to kill people,” said Arya crossly. “But no one faults a man for his bloodlust.”

“You are not a man.”

“And thank the Gods for it. I know that I certainly am appreciative.”

Both turned to face the voice in the darkness that was no longer dark. It was Aegon Targaryen, surrounded by his troops, torches held high.

“Aegon, what the fuck are you doing here?” growled Jon.

“Nice to see you too, brother,” sneered the prince. Then, to his men:

“Seize them.”

Chapter Text

Days 165-200

 

The royal camp was in chaos.

Gendry still felt the pain from Edric’s assault when he limped from the healer’s tent, prompted by the screams and the smell of smoke. What greeted his eyes was beyond description.

He who worshipped the Lord of Light found himself surrounded by flames that turned their encampment seven leagues beyond Vulture’s Roost bright as day. Tents, scaffolds, and men were aflame as two great dragons danced in the sky for the first time in an age.

As everyone around them was trying to douse the flames (an impossibility with the lack of water in the desert) or scatter from the wrath of the dragon, Daenerys was shouting to the starry heavens in High Valyrian.

"Rhaegal! Viserion is your valonqar! Stop this, now!”

The dragons didn’t seem to hear their mother. They dueled on fiercely in the sky, their blasts of flame at each other setting the world below on fire. Gendry would have been almost mesmerized by the flames, but he realized right away that Arya and Jon were nowhere to be seen.

Edric had limped to the tent flap. “Well, seven fucking hells.”

Without even thinking much about it, Gendry’s hand closed around Edric’s throat.

“Did you know about this?” he grated out.

In response, his half-brother’s eyes grew wide. But instead of desperately pleading for his own life, the man simply jabbed at Gendry’s neck with a finger.

“Yeah, I’d like to see you try it…”

“You… idiot,” strangled Edric. “The… fucking… spell!”

Gendry released Edric, astonished. It was true. He hadn’t suffered any loss of breath, couldn’t feel his grip around his own throat.

And his injuries from earlier were suddenly gone, as if they had only been his imagining.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” shouted Edric, moving about fast for a man who was still critically injured. “That fucking Blackfyre bastard’s got your wife! He’s got Arya!”

Gendry grabbed his hammer.

Edric grabbed his sword.

And when they stepped out of the tent, the Baratheon brothers were plunged into the midst of a raging battle.

 

*

 

The words “seize them” hadn’t even left Aegon’s mouth before the blade of the knife Arya wore on her thigh was through the mouth of the soldier behind her, felling him instantly. Before he hit the ground, she’d slid under his legs, retrieved Needle from her hip, and pierced the back of the man standing next to him, bursting his heart.

What made Arya so deadly was her speed. Overused to scampering unnoticed underfoot from her childhood, the necessities of survival during the War of the Five Kings, her training in the House of Black and White, and her service in the War for the Dawn made Arya Stark, Lady Baratheon, the She-Wolf of Winterfell one of the most efficient, deadly, and lightning-fast killers of her age.

Swift as a deer.

Fear cuts deeper than swords.

“Seize her!” yelled Aegon. “The king is MINE!”

He rushed forward.

And the last two sons of House Targaryen, king and prince, clashed steel against steel.

Aegon’s sword held.

Dark Sister.

How had he gotten it? Arya saw the famed blade in the corner of her eye. There was no mistaking it. Everyone knew that Jon had been given Blackfyre during the Great Council of 305, as one of its many provisions. It had been recovered from the lost possessions of Gerion Lannister when his campsite was discovered during Daenerys’ War of Conquest in Essos. Tyrion had given the blade to the Queen, who waited to see which of her nephews was worthy of wielding it.

When Jon gave Longclaw back to the Mormonts, Daenerys gifted him with Blackfyre.

Dark Sister hadn’t been seen since the time of the Three-Eyed Raven, and was assumed lost.

Bloodraven, thought Arya angrily, her insides curling with her hatred for the ruined Targaryen sorcerer. First, he steals Bran away from us, and now he gives a madman the sword of Visenya…

“Little brother, I do not wish to kill you tonight!” shouted Aegon at Jon, wielding the famed longsword. “The Kingdoms are lost to you! Lay down your weapons and you shall have a comfortable exile for the rest of your days.”

Jon deflected the blow, raising Blackfyre once more.

“Tonight, you have earned your death sentence, Aegon,” was Jon’s reply. “Tonight, or some other time, you will die for this betrayal of your King and Queen.”

And the brother and sister blades sang as they clashed against each other, sparking in the moonless nighttime dark.

Arya only heard the sounds of the duel as she tried to fight her way to Jon’s side. She sliced through the troops who were clearly sent to capture, not kill her. All the same, Arya felt little and less remorse as Needle reddened with the blood of men. Attempting to capture a She-Wolf of Winterfell was a killing offense. Arya Stark had never been taken alive, and after having been imprisoned by Aegon in her own husband’s castle, she’d be damned if she was kidnapped tonight.

The men kept coming, though. They were largely men-at-arms and not knights, but even the occasional plate armor was no match for her Needle, which could always find the gaps and chinks and soft, exposed spots.

I stitched all winter long.

Never thought I’d still be doing so much needlework come spring…

Suddenly, the men to her right thinned. The thunder of galloping horses approached, and the men Aegon had brought along with him scattered.

“Sers, to the King!” shouted Ned Dayne. “Protect your King!”

Ned then unsheathed Dawn. It gleamed in the moonlight.

Suddenly, the battle was not a one-on-one duel. The king and prince were surrounded, with twenty swords trained on Aegon.

“Drop your weapon,” said Jon. “I shall give you the mercy of a quick death.”

“Your Grace, allow me to do you this honor,” Ned spoke up in a cold voice rarely heard from him. Just then, he was not their affable friend Ned. He was Ser Edric Dayne, Lord of Starfall… and Sword of the Morning.

Aegon threw back his head and laughed, but didn’t drop Dark Sister.

“You pathetic little bootlicker. Your cause is lost, Edric. Jon Snow is no longer King. How can he be, when even your Dornish Princess has sworn fealty to me?”

His purple gaze then fell on his younger brother.

“Kill me today, Jon Snow, and my ghost will haunt you for all time. Not to mention all in the Kingdoms will say that you only killed me because my claim was better than yours.”

“You deserve death because of your crimes against my family… our family! You broke the law!” shouted Jon, enraged.

“I broke the law, little brother? It is I who am the rightful King of Westeros! I am the true Lord of the Seven Kingdoms! I am the law!”

Arya, always underfoot, had walked into the circle where the men were being held.

“Ah, here is who I’ve come for. My future queen. Sweetling, I’ve come to take you home…”

Arya didn’t reply.

Instead, she slapped him with the hilt of Needle, as hard as she could.

Cutting her hand in the process.

Aegon, undaunted, grabbed her wrist.

Dawn and Blackfyre pricked the exposed neck above his polished green armor. White sword, black sword. Drawing red dragonblood.

“Oh, come now, sweet Arya, I simply wanted a kiss.”

And he licked her palm.

Just as Jon and Ned were going to skewer him, a loud crash sounded above them, up at the blazing top of Vulture’s Roost, shaking the entire mountain.

Jon stumbled back. His cry seemed to mingle with another, a woman’s, further away…

Viserion!

“One down, one to go,” sneered Aegon. “You’re so easily distracted, little brother. Taking the kingdoms from you will be easy as taking a sweet from a babe.”

Enraged, Jon stalked toward Aegon, raising his sword above his head, determined to chop him into pieces.

Arya screamed, “No, Jon! Gendry!”

Her voice stopped Jon short.

Of course, Aegon took advantage of the confusion, and would have taken off Jon’s sword arm had it not been for Dawn parrying the blow. All the same, the tip of Dark Sister sliced the skin on the side of the King’s neck.

Arya ran to Jon, screaming in horror.

Now it was Ned’s turn to charge the silver prince. Aegon, undaunted, leapt off the side of the red mountain…

…and onto Rhaegal’s back.

“Next time, sweet lady, I take two prizes,” he called out as the green dragon’s great wings flapped. “My dear brother’s head… and you.”

And off the rogue swooped, until he was no more than a nightmarish shadow in the midnight sky.

 

*

“Argh! Fuck, bloody fuck!”

Gendry stuck the bent sword they'd been using as a poker back into the fire. “Beg pardon, Your Grace, but it had to be done.”

“And then my own goodbrother’s Your Grace-ing me on top of it,” Jon complained. “Hurry and finish mending me up, Gendry, I must see to my dragon.”

“Dany went out to be with him once she knew you were all right,” reported Arya, who'd seen to her own wound, and was now peering out of the flap. “His wing is torn pretty badly. I don’t think the fall broke his back, but he can’t fly. Not sure how he can be fixed, either.”

Jon’s anguish was evident. “Between nearly killing Ghost at the Wall and what happened tonight, I don’t deserve any pets.”

“Not your fault,” Gendry said, burning the tip of a needle against a coal. “It’s that fucker Aegon… and this idiot for distracting us earlier so that we didn’t set a proper watch.”

Edric glared at him from the corner. He was reclining again in the other bed, but this time, his hands and wrists were bound lest he escape.

“How was I supposed to know Aegon would attack tonight?” Edric snapped. “We’re no longer friends. I’m not some seer.”

“Save it,” Gendry retorted. “Way I see it, we should leave you here for the dragon to eat now that the stupid spell’s broken…”

“We don’t know for certain that it’s broken,” Arya told him. “I don’t want to risk your life… even if it means preserving his pathetic one. For now.”

Once the King’s wounds were patched, they joined the rest of the camp. The surviving men were tending to the many wounded and few dead, and putting the smoking camp back to some semblance of rights.

And beside the great fallen dragon, the little queen wept.

Jon immediately went to her, enfolding his wife in one arm while the other came up to stroke his dragon’s creamy scales. In turn, Viserion looked at them both with what Gendry could only read as mingled sorrow… and pain.

“We need to get the King and Queen to Starfall,” said Ned to Arya and Gendry. “The queen will have to summon her black dragon to carry them there. The green one can’t beat her.”

“But then Drogon would have to leave her nest,” Arya murmured. “Aegon may try to get her eggs.”

“Mayhaps so, but the Swanns were right. If Aegon is this bold, it means he has the support of at least one of the Great Houses. We can’t continue to travel overland like this. Not without our friends.”

Tears were filling Arya’s eyes as she watched her brother speak to his dragon in halted, broken Valyrian. “Jon needs Ghost. And I need my Nymeria. We should have never left them in Storm’s End, they should’ve been with us.”

Gendry knew what his wife was thinking without her even saying it. Nymeria and Ghost would’ve torn Aegon apart. Damn him to all the hells that ever were for what he made Rhaegal do tonight… damn House Greyjoy and their fucking dragonhorn…

Rhaegal just doomed his own brother.

Is that why the dragons died out the first time? Because kinslayers are accursed?

“We would have lost the Wars with the carelessness we showed tonight,” Arya said grimly to both men. “Aegon could have killed us, but he didn’t. He could have captured us, but he didn’t. None of us can afford to ever let our guards down again.”

“It is no longer Winter, Arya,” said the wielder of Dawn. “Spring is here.”

“Mayhaps,” replied the she-wolf. “But winter is coming.”

 

*

 

In the end, it was decided to slaughter the dead men’s horses and leave them for Viserion to feast on for a while. Together, the king and queen had coaxed the silver dragon to allow them to bind the wing using tent-poles and sackcloth as a makeshift sling.

Gendry offered his strength and aid for mending the dragon’s wing. But while the dragons never seemed to mind the blacksmith much when they were well, even allowing him to temper his handiwork in their breath, now that the silver dragon was ailing, his drop of Valyrian blood didn’t seem to be enough. It was only Dany’s intervention that stopped Viserion’s jaws from closing around the blacksmith’s calf and biting his entire leg off.

Fortunately, Daenerys didn’t have to summon Drogon. The dragon came from King’s Landing on the wings of the morning, filling the horizon with her dark shadow.

In her great claws was her entire clutch of eggs.

The formidable black dragon soon made the mountaintop south of Vulture’s Roost her own. She placed the eggs beneath her flightless mate, hunted for them both, and all without paying much attention to the useless humans around her.

Since Drogon refused to leave Viserion and their children-to-come, this left the royal party at an impasse. They’d chosen to travel light and swift, and as Lord Guilian Swann had feared, it had led to ruin. Their supplies were no more and they were in the midst of rocky desert. Worse, few knew where they were, which had been done a-purpose… but now seemed a regrettable error.

Ned Dayne volunteered to ride ahead to his Starfall, to fortify his castle and lands for the royal party, and whosoever still supported the cause of the wolves and dragons. He departed the morning after Drogon arrived, being the least used to dragons, and the least comfortable with sharing a camp with them. His twenty good men rode with him.

Arya had been watching Gendry’s look all that day. He was brooding, and that never boded well. She was, however, still electrified when he made his announcement at the noonday meal.

“Arya and I will return to the Stormlands, and raise a force there,” he said. “We’ll return to escort you to Starfall.”

 Jon and Arya spoke at once.

“Wait a minute, when did we talk about this? I’m not leaving my brother,” she said severely.

“You think I’m letting my sister out of my sight with that madman on the loose?” was Jon’s response.

Gendry was eerily calm.

“Since everyone says that I am Lord of the Stormlands, way I see it, I can call my banners whenever I bloody well see fit. And Arya’s my wife… only time Arry’s been in any danger all these years is when I let her out of my sight, Your Grace… milady.”

Arya elbowed him. “You can’t clean it up with nice titles!”

“All the same, my mind’s made up. Aegon attacked us from Summerhall, which is a Targaryen ruin on Baratheon land! Think I’m going to let him do it again?”

For once, Daenerys, Jon, and Arya had nothing to say in response.

“We’ll leave at dawn, go back to Wyl, and take ship to Storm’s End…”

“There’s no one here to protect my brother and goodsister,” said Arya firmly. “We are not abandoning them, Gendry.”

“Arya, they’ve got the greatest dragon since Balerion the Black Dread,” Gendry pointed out. “Rhaegal caught Viserion and his rider by surprise. He’ll not get that chance again.”

Jon looked weary as he stroked his wife’s hair. (He was sweating profusely in his black silk shirt, breeches, and tall boots, and Dany was loosening the ties.)

“I can’t let you take Arya,” said Jon to Gendry, sounding melancholy. “I know I have no right, but that fucker is after my favorite sister, and you’re only one man. He’d as soon burn you to a crisp, and carry her off on his dragon to do the Gods only know what…”

“And if he tried that, I would end him, then follow Gendry to the afterlife,” swore Arya.

“Arya!” said the queen. “All this talk of murder and sacrifice is exactly why we need to wait for Ned to send word…”

Valar morghulis, Dany,” muttered Arya grimly.

Valar dohaeris, Arya. You would do well to remember that.” To Gendry, she said, “I will talk with the king, cousin, about your plan tonight. It may very well be our only hope of rescue.”

“What plan? The plan he didn’t tell me anything about?”

Arya glared at all of them.

“I’m going hunting. Unless you’re going to hold me prisoner like Edric, that is.”

She scampered out of the camp at the summit of the mountain hewn from red rock, and started to stumble down the pass. Hearing footsteps behind her, Arya sped up, knowing that either Jon or Gendry was behind her, but not caring which. They’d catch up to her soon enough, and just then, she wanted some semblance of peace.

This place was slightly more hospitable than the peak that held Vulture’s Roost, which is why they’d stopped before the ambush. Down in the valley between their camp and the next mountain, there was an inviting little stream, and a stand of hardy trees. Even from this distance, she recognized ash trees, junipers, and…

Olives.

They wouldn’t starve after all! Where there were water and trees, game would inevitably follow. Her mind was already thinking on what kind of supper she’d be able to forage for them all when she saw that the oasis in the mountains already had visitors.

They were flying no banners, but then, neither was the royal party during these still-uncertain times. Arya counted fifteen nondescript tents, set up simply on poles.

Reflexively, she unsheathed Needle as she came to the foot of the mountain and left the pass. She was almost certain that she wouldn’t be noticed.

She almost never was.

But as she stepped off the pass and into the dry red dirt, skulking next to boulders that were half again as tall as she was, she felt a bit dizzy and uncertain. As if she shouldn’t approach further.

As if she was in danger.

I should wait for Gendry or Jon, or whoever followed me…

But it was too late. There was a sharp whistling, and before she could react, she was surrounded by what she immediately recognized as Dornish spears.

The spears of Princess Arianne Martell.

“We were wondering just when you were going to come down from that mountain,” said the Dornish princess with a laugh, trotting on a fine steed just beyond her spears.

“Waiting to clean up the mess your pathetic little cousin left behind?” Arya sneered, unafraid. “He told us you’d joined his cause.”

“Aegon is pathetic, but as usual, you Starks are wrong. We tried to get to you before he did, but we were not in time. But it was our approach that made him retreat. Only his advance guard entered your camp... entered, but did not leave, knowing your reputations.”

To her soldiers, she said:

“This is Lady Arya, the king’s sister and Lord Baratheon’s wife. Your spears would be useless against her if she wanted to fight. Drop them.”

To their credit, they did so.

Arya dug the toe of her riding boot into the red dirt. “Do you mean to say that Dorne is ours?”

“Dorne is not yours. But it is not Aegon’s, either. A friend sent word of the full situation, so I have come to the king and queen with terms of my own.”

“A friend? What friend?”

“A friend who is glad to see his dear sister safe after all.”

Arya couldn’t believe her ears, but she definitely could believe her eyes when she saw the broken young man atop Summer.

Bran!”

For Brandon Stark, Lord of Winterfell, had come to the Red Mountains of Dorne.

 

*

 

They met in the cool of the evening, in the shade of the trees by the brook. King Jon and Queen Daenerys, Lord and Lady Baratheon, the Princess of Dorne, and the Great Lord of the North.

“But there’s no Stark in Winterfell if you’re here,” were Jon’s first words after he hugged his younger brother so hard, he lifted him clear off his direwolf.  “The Pact…”

“There is a Stark in Winterfell,” the greenseer assured him. “Lady Myranda Royce brought Sansa’s son to be with us when it was no longer safe for him to remain in the Vale. Meera and I traveled to King’s Landing, then Meera accompanied Sansa and her protector to Winterfell.”

Arya breathed a great sigh of relief. She would miss her sister, but she would be safe. No one could protect Sansa better than Sandor, and she would have Meera with her, too.

“Our sister Sansa is safe in Winterfell,” Bran assured them. “Tyrion remains in King’s Landing, while Jaime has gone west to Casterly Rock. Rickon and Shireen are in Storm’s End…”

“Aegon will attack the Riverlands,” interrupted Arianne impatiently, cutting to the meat of the matter. “Between the Vale and the Reach, he can raise 70,000 troops…”

“Let him try,” said Gendry, cutting the princess off. (Arya grinned proudly at him.) “The rest of the realm can field that number and half again. And our men are veterans from the wars in the North. Let him try it!”

The princess stared at her neighboring liege. A smile curved her lips.

 “Welcome, my lord,” purred the Dornishwoman, a glint in her eye. “I remember your Uncle Renly well. It is… quite pleasing to have the fury of House Baratheon back in the ruling business.”

“Are we certain the Vale is lost to us?” Arya asked Bran, glaring a warning at Arianne (whose reputation for taking handsome lovers was legendary). “The Royces were Ned’s regent…”

“The Royces fled a coup two moons ago,” Bran replied, “which is how they came to Winterfell. The child is nearly four and stands as tall as a boy of seven or eight. Strong little lad, with Tully red hair, but his face is naught but Clegane.” Pause. “Without the disfigurement, of course.”

Arya had known Sandor for so long that she sometimes forgot about his burns. She saw them, but then again, she didn't see them much at all anymore. It didn’t matter to her, and she knew it did not matter to Sansa, either. A man was more than simply a pretty face – a lesson that Joffrey and others had taught both Stark girls well.

We like our men strong and true, thought Arya. That's what matters most to me and my sister, not pretty words and baubles. And there aren't many men like that to be had.

“So that is why Aegon will not wait for the Great Council,” said the queen. “He’s won over Willas Tyrell. But it does not explain your presence here, Arianne.”

The princess was as darkly pretty as the queen was fair. Arianne was every bit a ruler in her own right, and was one of the few women in the world who was not a whit intimidated by the famous Dragon Queen.

“Does it not, Daenerys?”

“It does not, Arianne. All know that the Martells despise Houses Targaryen and Stark for the offenses done to your Aunt Elia.”

“Neither of your Houses gave the order that murdered my aunt and her babes. That was House Lannister. If we begrudge you anything at all, it is that you did not attaint them despite the many misdeeds of the Lannister brothers.” She smirked. “But if you are woman enough to pardon the man who killed your father, Daenerys, surely it is not shame for me to acknowledge the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark as my King…”

With a flourish, the princess gestured around.

“And where better to draw up this pact than at the scene of their crime?”

Arya looked up and frowned.

This place…

But Jon’s entire face changed. As if he was no longer seeing the people in front of him.

“Bran. Is this true?” The faraway look was back in his eyes.

Although Jon was not looking at him, Bran’s eyes didn’t leave his brother.

“This very stream we sit beside is the one that the tower once looked down upon. The tower where you were born, and your mother breathed her last.”

And they were all quiet for a time.

 

*

 

Later, after dark, in search of firewood, Gendry found Jon standing by the pillars of stone that marked the cairns of the seven against three.

The king’s back was to him. Feeling as if he was intruding upon something private, he started to turn around…

“Gendry?”

“Jon.”

He came to stand beside him. Above them, occasional flashes of fire illuminated the mountaintop where Drogon was sharing a supper of sheep with Viserion. Behind them, the campfire glowed with a subtler golden light.

That was why he was gathering firewood; Gendry planned to build up later on into a proper nightfire. He’d long since learned that he didn’t need Thoros or any other priest to make intercession on his behalf. The Lord of Light had heard him so far, and he wanted to give thanks and ask for guidance.

There were many things to consider now.

Gendry put down the firewood. He wished he’d brought the king a wineskin, or else a tankard of ale.

Jon looked as if he could use a drink just then.

“I wish I could talk to her,” Jon finally said.

“You can. Just do it,” Gendry advised without thinking. “I talk to my mum all the time.”

“You knew her. Even if just for a few years. But I…”

“I know. But,” here he felt certain about what to say next, “she’d just want you to speak your mind. Tell her plain, and tell her true.”

Jon finally turned to him. “How do you know?”

“Because I know your sister. And you know her, too. Talk to your mum just like you’d talk to Arya....”

“Arya wouldn’t do the things that my mother did.”

Gendry shook his head. “Arya does the things your mum did. Do you think if Bran had gone through with that arrangement with the Umbers, Arya would’ve gone along quietly?”

 The king chortled dryly, his dark curls shaking a bit. “Next you’ll be saying the whole affair was her idea, and not my father’s.”

“Oh, your father went along with it.” Gendry chuckled. She-wolves had a winning way with men, a fact that was likely lost on their brothers, he reflected. “Any time you slip into thinking Lady Lyanna was kidnapped or worse, just imagine someone kidnapping Arya.”

Jon actually laughed out loud then. “My father wouldn’t have lived to die on the Trident if he’d kidnapped her! I know that much is the truth, at least.” Sobering up quickly, he asked, “Do you… you ever think about him? Your father, I mean?”

“At times.” Seeing that Jon wanted to hear more, Gendry added, “I don’t think we would’ve got on.”

“Same. And… same.”

“Your father was nothing like Aegon, Jon. That pinched-face fucker’s like your grandfather, the Mad King.”

“Dany says he reminds her of her brother. Breaks her heart to see him descending into this madness.” Jon shook his head. “Part of me still feels like the Bastard of Winterfell, the natural son of Ned Stark. But then I stand here, and all I can think about is my father and my mother.”

Gendry started to speak, but Jon stopped him.

“I know you feel the same about yours. Which is why you must hold Storm’s End for us.” Something about his tone brooked no refusal.

“That a request from my friend, or a command from my king?”

Jon didn’t answer directly. “Our wild, dead parents bound us to our fates, Gendry. Made me a dragon and you a stag. Not too bad for two bastards with no names, eh?”

Gendry looked from the cairns, to the campfire where the others dined and talked, then to the sky.

He would build the nightfire high tonight. Perhaps the Lord of Light would show him their true fates in the flames, or perhaps he would just grant safety and peaceful sleep.

The Bull would take either.

“Not too bad.”

 

*

 

They spent the next moon at the makeshift camp, calling for royalists from around the Realm to join the King and Queen in the Red Mountains. There, at the place where Jon was born, the fifteen tents grew to fifty, one hundred, five hundred, a thousand as ravens flew to the Stormlands, Dorne, the Westerlands, and the North. Drogon’s presence meant that they would be unmolested, and the sight of the black dragon atop the red mountain struck awe into the hearts of the King and Queen’s allies.

The Northerners and the Westermen came by boat, for the way overland through the Reach was no longer unsafe. But the men of the Stormlands and Dorne were the first to arrive, and Arya was overwhelmed by the deference and respect she was shown by the former. No longer was she a foot soldier or a general. She was their Lady, and in the first two hundred days of the thousand she'd pledged to the Crown, her legend had already swept the most martial of the realms.

It equaled that of her husband. During the month they spent camped in the desert, Gendry got to know the men-at-arms not just from the Stormlands, but also from other kingdoms besides. Tall, big, and imposing, Gendry gained respect and acclaim from the lords of Westeros for his disarmingly calm and steady personality, and the fact that he never forgot a face or a name. For as gregarious as his wife was, it was Gendry who noticed detail.

This was not usual for most nobles, and certainly not for great lords. After all, highborns always had people to look over little details on their behalf. This was not so for Gendry, who’d noticed the little things as a wee lad in Gin Alley, then as a boy apprentice on the Street of Steel. Paying attention to detail had kept him alive when he was sold to the Night’s Watch, was enslaved at Harrenhal, ran into the Brotherhood, and then became a knight and soldier in his own right.

Perhaps the most important thing he’d paid attention to was Arya. But then, he couldn’t help but pay attention to that she-wolf of his. She’d been one hell of a girl, and had grown into a woman who was one of the most formidable in the kingdoms. But he’d been the first to pay attention to all that, the first to see the woman she'd become. Arya Underfoot, her brother had affectionately called her, but she wasn't that to him. He’d always paid attention to everything Arya said and did, and always would.

A smith had to pay attention to details, too. So should a lord, he always figured. At least, Gendry wished that highborns would pay attention to their people more. But they never did. They were taught from birth to not see.

It was Gendry Baratheon's ability to see the little things that became another poor boy's good fortune.

As soon as Lord Wyl arrived with his smith, of course Gendry had to meet him. The man's name was Oswell, and he was red and freckled as Anguy was.

“M’Lord Baratheon, well met!” he called to Gendry in his thick Marcher accent, bowing deeply as two of his boy assistants moved his anvils into place. “I am honored.”

“Stand up, good man,” said Gendry easily. “How soon can you get this set up?”

“By supper. Lord Wyl wanted to make haste to the King’s side, but there’s weapons and armor to be mended…”

“Always,” laughed Gendry. “Can you set me up for a bit of work until my own smiths arrive from Storm's End? Would it be too much trouble?”

“You don’t even need to ask, my lord. My son was one of your apprentices in the North, toward the end of the Great Wars. He learned much from you, and is now the armorer for Lord Allyrion down at Godsgrace. Your reputation from Dorne to the Wall is second only to the King’s.” He lowered his voice. “The dragon prince couldn’t even heed old Stannis Baratheon’s call and go North, when we sent our own sons. Lost my other boy to the Others.”

Gendry nodded. They had all lost much and more.

“The dragon prince has taken the Reach and the Vale…”

“But not all the Reach, beg pardons, m’lord… Topsy, get your head outta yer fuckin’ arse, and get moving! Those tools won’t move themselves out the wagon!”

For the two apprentices were gaping at Gendry. They reminded him much of himself and his own friends, gazing with wonder and awe at the knights that passed through the Street of Steel a lifetime ago.

“Lads, you’d best heed your master,” he said. “What are your names?”

“I’m Tarver, m’lord,” said the one who’d been boldly staring, “but everyone calls me Topsy. And that one’s Sam, my big brother... I was wonderin’ if you had any squires.”

Gendry did not. Before this, he’d been a prisoner for two years; before that, he’d been in the North, in lands without knightly custom. He’d taken on assistants to help him with his work as an armorer, but squires he’d never considered.

He looked the boy over. He was perhaps around eleven or twelve, with the kind of wiry frame that belied his true strength. His hair was dark brown, and beneath the unruly mop was a gaze that was clear and steady.

What was hilarious was that the boy seemed to be taking his measure too.

Oswell was outraged. “Forgive him, m’lord! He is impudent and will be punished…”

But the Bull held up a hand. “Let him speak. Go on.”

Gratified, the young boy did. “Our ma, she was born near Fellwood Keep, and her people are all Stormlanders. Lord Fell’s man-at-arms was gonna take me on as his squire, but with the Wars, we had to move South.”

“And you want me to find you another knight to take you?”

“No, m’lord. I wish to be your squire.”

Before the wars, the youth would have been backhanded for even approaching a Great Lord of Westeros with such a request. Certainly Gendry, nor any of the boys he’d grown up with, would have ever thought to ask something so preposterous.

Well, why not?

“M’lord, I must protest,” said Oswell. “The boy is an imbecile. He doesn’t take direction.”

“And he’s called Topsy,” panted Sam, who was still about his work, “because he drops everything, and is unsteady on his feet, all topsy-turvy like. What kind of knight would he make?”

Before either of the men could react, Topsy picked up a stick of firewood, and hit his brother in the head with it.

“This kind!”

He would have beat the living shite out of the elder boy had Gendry not stopped laughing long enough to pull him off.

“Tarver, Topsy, whatever your name is, make it up with your brother, and help set up the field smithy. Tonight you can see to my weapons and armor, and to my lady wife’s as well. But your work for your master must not suffer because of what you’re doing for me, or I’ll hear of it.”

The lad's entire face lit up. "Yes, m'lord!"

To Oswell, he said, “How long remains on his term?”

Oswell shrugged, “His ma is my woman, m’lord. The others are apprenticed; I took on Sam because he’s a good lad, and Topsy only because my Flora asked me to. As you can see, Topsy’s a right trial to me, and though I don’t want to speak out of my place, I respect you too much not to warn you of the trouble.”

“I’ll take him, then.”

What had gotten into him? He had no use for a squire. He and Arya had already agreed to take on the Mertyns girls; they were having the time of their lives at Stonehelm, and a nephew of Lord Guilian’s was already wooing Rhae when they left. The others would have to be taken to Storm’s End...

And now, he had a squire. Gendry wondered if the boy were a Fell, then realized it didn’t matter. Before the Wars, most squires came from good Houses, with the exception of famed ones like Ser Duncan the Tall who married a highborn lady before abandoning her to serve King Aegon the Fifth as Kingsguard. And all throughout the realm knew that Ser Duncan’s grandson was the Evenstar, the late Lord Selwyn Tarth.

And the Evenstar’s daughter was Lady Brienne, Gendry’s friend and bannerwoman.

Yes, Topsy was a floppy kid, but Gendry noticed what others did not.

The boy had mismatched eyes. One was blue, and the other was green.

 And both had portents of mischief.

Arya will like him, he thought.

 

*

“Have you lost your mind?”

Arya glared at her husband, who was nonetheless amused by her consternation. They were among those standing guard at the summit of the mountain, taking one of the watches so that the King and Queen could nest with their dragons. These Targaryens are strange, she thought, marveling at how much her brother had changed since meeting Daenerys.

Yet when the boy had tried to pick up Needle, it took a surprisingly quick move from Gendry to stop Arya from breaking his hand or arm. Furious until she heard the full story from him, she still wasn’t very happy with him.

“Well, you said you’re the only one who gets to call me stupid.”

“Why do you need a squire? It’s nonsense.”

“Knights have squires. And I’m a knight.”

“You don’t know what in Seven Hells you want to be,” was her unkind retort. “You’re a smith one day, a Lord the next, and a knight today! So what are you then?”

“I’m your lord husband,” was his growled reply. “And you would do well to remember that.”

“So you’re not even going to give me a real answer,” Arya sniffed. “Squires are stupid.”

Stop. You would have been one if you could.”

He was winning the argument, which was making Arya furious. “A true warrior doesn’t need a squire! My brothers…”

“Are Northmen. Which I am not, my love, no matter how much you wish to make me into one.”

“Clearly, you’re not, because a true Northman wouldn’t have a need for some little boy to fetch and carry and feed his stupid ego!”

He ignored her insult, which he knew would serve to infuriate her more. “Whatever you say. Topsy is coming with us, and I’m going to make a knight of him. I may take on others as well.”

“It’s stupid.”

“I don’t care. It’s done.”

“Is this because I haven’t given you a son yet?”

Gendry frowned. Arya’s voice was small all of a sudden, and her eyes were filled with tears.

He sighed.

“Arya, this lad will be a man grown before our sons even learn to walk. And we will have them. We will. But… Storm’s End can’t just be you and me. We need to have others there with us. Same with the King and Queen. Jon and Dany, they’re used to being alone. So are we. But if we’re to be the rulers this land needs, we need to teach the children what we know. We need to take children in, I think. All of us. Even Bran…”

“A pack is bound by blood,” said Arya firmly.

“A pack is what you make of it. Master Tobho was good to me. He raised me to manhood and so did the Brotherhood. Tell me that Anguy, Lem, and now Davos and his family aren’t part of our pack. Or Hot Pie and Willow and Weasel.”

“But we know them.”

“We’ll get to know Topsy. And others. Trust me.”

And although Arya was Arya, he knew that she did.

“Well, perhaps you can make something of the boy,” she finally conceded. “That is, if he stops being such a doddering fool.”

 

*

 

Topsy was indeed a doddering fool, who dropped as much as he carried, but he worked hard on behalf of Lord Baratheon, regarding his new Ser as a demigod. Oswell seemed to be well rid of him, which left Arya and Gendry enough time to participate in the final War Council that night.

Besides King Jon and Queen Daenerys, Lord and Lady Baratheon, Princess Arianne Martell, and Lord Brandon Stark, the camp contained nearly three hundred royalist lords, great and small, from the corners of the Realm. Ned Dayne used the stocks he’d gathered at Starfall to supply the troops gathered near the fallen Tower of Joy, much as his House had done for the Prince of Dragonstone, Lady Lyanna Stark, and the doomed Kingsguard a generation before.

Last to arrive was Lord Jaime Lannister, acting as the voice of his brother Tyrion, Lord of the Westerlands and Hand of the King and Queen.

Just as Bran had left his beloved wife Meera to help Sansa weather the crisis and run the North, Lady Brienne remained at Tarth, where she’d just given birth to a beautiful little girl named Catelyn.

Mayhaps I would have liked to name my children after Mother and Father, Arya thought a little resentfully as Jaime made the announcement. There’s already a new Ned in the family, and now, another Cat is in my new lands.

Yet she pushed the thought out of her mind. As long as she gave birth to no babes, Arya couldn’t begrudge Sansa or Brienne, both of whom she loved.

After being taciturn and solitary in the weeks after the prince’s ambush, Jon returned to his usual form relatively quickly as the camp’s numbers swelled and Viserion’s wing started to heal. Although he was without his black furs in these hot climes, the black silks clung to him like a second skin, and his long black curls were pulled off his face with a leather cord.

Unlike his wife, Jon was not much for the trappings of royalty. But Bran had brought his preferred crown from King’s Landing, and when he wore it, he was as the kings of old. It was the crown of Maekar Targaryen, his great-great-great grandfather, son of Daeron the Good, and younger brother of Baelor Breakspear.

Maekar had also been the father of Aegon the Unlikely, known as Egg in his youth…

…and the father of Maester Aemon, who served the Night’s Watch in the last years before the Wall fell.

Aemon. Jon’s elderly mentor and friend.

Also his great-granduncle.

Had Aemon chosen differently, Maekar’s crown could have been his.

Of all the kings before him, Jon related most to Maekar’s story, he told Arya.

“Maekar was the younger brother, the fourth son, the most unlikely to ever take the throne,” he shared with his little sister. “This crown is much like Robb’s, only gold and iron instead of bronze.”

Arya nodded. They still had Robb’s crown, the recreated crown of the Kings of Winter, among the treasures of Winterfell. Bran wore it at Jon’s coronation, and when he married Meera. His heir would wear it someday, too.

Jon continued. “Maekar stood in the shadow of his brother and father, too. Baelor Breakspear’s acclaim is much like my father Rhaegar’s… a shining prince whom everyone loved, whose legend was never tainted by the pressures of actually ruling.”

Yet with Maekar’s crown of iron and gold atop his shining dark curls, Jon of the Houses Stark and Targaryen looked every bit the truest heir of the Kings of Winter and the Dragon Kings that ever there was. He was the Champion of the Dawn, dark and handsome, the greatest warrior of their age. His people absolutely adored him, from the humblest stableboy to the very highest in the land.

Always before, Jon had been a slightly reluctant King, content to let his wife be his co-regent, sometimes even hanging back and observing more than leading.

Aegon’s ambush ended all that.

For the Great Lord Commander of the War for the Dawn had returned. And he planned to fight to secure the throne of Westeros.

“Prince Aegon is on the move,” said the King that night at the war council. “He means to make for Harrenhal and garrison it before the Great Council can take place.”

“I thought he was making for Riverrun, Your Grace,” Princess Arianne, one of the few of sufficient rank to speak directly after the King during such a dire time, spoke up.

“We have spies that have verified his troops are marching to Harrenhal.”

“Can Edmure Tully and the Blackfish stop him?” Arianne pressed.

“My Uncle Edmure is no soldier,” said Lord Bran Stark. “At best, he can field ten thousand, most likely less. And the Blackfish is getting on in years."

“The Wars devastated the Riverlands,” Lord Gendry Baratheon added. “Aegon's men will find little and less to eat. Which means he’ll need to stretch his supply lines from the Reach…”

“Beg pardon, Lord Baratheon, but the Houses of the Mander and the Blueburn are still loyal to our King and Queen,” called out Lord Meadows. “Two of my sons fought under your command with the Brotherhood in the North, my lord, under our Good King’s banner. We’ll not supply that snake with naught but our steel!”

And the loyalist Houses of the Reach cheered. Lord Samwell Tarly was chief among them.

“Good man, your loyalty is heartening during these times,” said King Jon. To Gendry, he said, “What say you about cutting the supply lines, Lord Baratheon?”

“We cut off the southern Reach at Highgarden,” he said without hesitation. “Lord Meadows is right. With my men, and those of Lord Tarly and his friends, we can cut off the Mander completely.”

Arya’s heart swelled with pride. She remembered all the many long nights during the depths of the Wars when Gendry had pored over maps, learning the geography of Westeros. She also noticed the way that unlike Lord Meadows, he acknowledged the subtle overlordship of Lord Samwell Tarly in the region. Many in Westeros underestimated the bumbling former man of the Night’s Watch to their own peril. The legends about Sam the Slayer were all true. What’s more, Sam was a man whose mind was second only to Tyrion Lannister’s, as well as the King’s best friend. As part of the inner circle, Sam had long been part of the Starks’ pack.

Reluctant leader though her Gendry might be, she knew he was becoming a great one.

“Are your castles well-garrisoned?” asked the King of his best friend.

“Yes, and Grassy Vale and the village of Tumbleton will offer guest right as they pass,” said Sam shrewdly. “They’d better eat up. North of Tumbleton, they'll not find much until Harrenhal.”

“Very good,” said the King. Then he turned to his wife. “My queen, I want to give Lord Baratheon command of this operation in the South. What do you think?”

The silver queen was not smiling, but her eyes twinkled at Jon.

“I say yes, dear… as long as you realize that your sister, Lady Baratheon, needs her own command as well.”

The entire gathering laughed. But Arya had a surprise for them.

“I don’t need my own command this time,” she announced to the lords, great and small. “I am content to fight under my lord husband’s banner.”

In truth, Arya could have pressed for more. She was as spoiled as she was bloodproud… in her moments of honesty, well she knew it. She’d been born the treasured youngest daughter of the Warden of the North, she was married to a lord paramount who worshipped the ground she walked on, and two of her brothers had been kings. And it was known from Dorne to the Wall that King Jon would give Lady Arya anything she asked for, including a command among those generals who would lead the loyalist troops to Harrenhal.

But that would have meant letting Gendry out of her sight. Of course she trusted him. Yet with the way that some of the highborn women in the camp were looking at her man, especially that “princess” Arianne Martell?

No way would Arya be heading to the Riverlands just yet.

“By the Seven, the man’s actually managed to tame the She-Wolf of Winterfell,” said Jaime Lannister about Gendry, with a note of admiration, and even a slight bit of envy. “Let it never be said that Lord Baratheon hasn’t done the impossible!”

That set the gathering into even more amusement and laughter.

Arya didn’t care.

Jaime’s wrong. Gendry didn’t tame me. A wolf cannot be tamed.

He was my prey. I caught him.

And I’m never letting him go.

*

 

The battle plan was thus set. Gendry and the loyalist Lords of the Reach (led by Sam) would cut Highgarden off from the South, depriving Aegon of his greatest ally. There would be great risk that Aegon would attack them atop Rhaegal, as the Reach famously provided little ground cover or camouflage. But the King had some ideas about that, too.

“Time to bring a little Wildling warfare to the South,” Jon said. “We can teach them how to move about undetected. Supply boats and wagons won't stand a chance.”

Dorne had the greatest fleet that remained to the Crown, since Lord Redwyne was a friend of Aegon’s. And since the Wars, Ned Dayne had grown into quite the sailor. He was also Lord of one of the great port castles of the Summer Sea, the Sword of the Morning who'd just saved the king's life…

“Rise, Edric Dayne, Lord of Starfall, Sword of the Morning... and Admiral of the Seven Kingdoms,” Jon said, after touching both of Ned’s shoulders with Blackfyre.

While Princess Arianne Martell would send troops for the siege of Highgarden and the blockade of the Mander, Lord Dayne took command of the naval operation that would move up the Narrow Sea and transport troops to Maidenpool. Lord Bran Stark guaranteed a force of over twelve thousand from the North, who would gather their strength in Darry…

“That’s all your men of fighting age, and boys besides,” protested Jon. “Winterfell must be protected.”

“It will be,” swore Bran, who’d lived through the horror of its sack as a child. “I swear it to you. But House Stark sits the throne of Westeros. You are my king. And I am your brother.”

Jaime would lead a stealth operation into the Westerlands, then to the Riverlands, to add to the strength of the force gathered in Darry.

“And the king and I will come to Harrenhal on dragonback,” said Daenerys.

Sam frowned. “But Your Grace, the child…”

“The next person who dares mentions the fact that I am with child to suggest that their queen is an invalid will be thrown into the Black Cells posthaste,” snapped Dany. “And that includes my sweet husband’s dearest friend...”

“He cares about you, Dany,” laughed Jon. “But no, Sam, dragonriding women don’t stop riding their dragons before or after they give birth.”

With all settled, preparations were made to break camp. Arya kept to herself, enjoying the bustle, the sounds, the campfires, and the people all around her.

I feel more at home during war than I do in a castle, she thought. Mayhaps I spoke too soon when I did not ask Jon or Dany for a command of my own.

She found an out-of-the-way rock, keeping her own counsel. Of the missions planned, she couldn’t help but think that the one Jaime Lannister was embarking upon would be the most exciting. It would mean going through enemy lines, then seeing a part of Westeros she’d never managed to get to, and perhaps never would.

Was Pinkmaiden Castle really made of pink quartz stone? Arya wanted to see for herself. But she couldn’t go on adventures and take care of her growing pack, too. They would need to go back to Storm’s End, gather men and supplies, then go West over their borders. She would need to see to their needs, but she also would need to get Gendry’s Mertyns cousins settled in the castle. She would need to check on Davos and Marya, too. And while she couldn’t wait to see Gendry reunited with Hot Pie and Willow and Weasel, a part of her wondered if she would ever sleep under the open stars again.

Footsteps stole up behind her. Arya smiled, knowing it was Gendry.

“Ready to enjoy our last night in the desert together?”

She knew that something was wrong before the person spoke, for the scent in the air was nothing like her bull.

But before she could grab her sword, she heard Edric Storm say, “Ah, but this will be the first of many until I take you to him.”

There was a blunt blow to her head.

I’ve really got to stop letting this happen to me, she thought. I’m losing my touch.

Then the blackness took her.

 

Chapter Text

Days 200-201

 

A/N: Warning: Major character death.

 

Winterfell

Sandor Clegane opened his eyes to dim firelight and the soft breathing of his pup, nestling into his scarred side.

Just beyond his son’s auburn curls, he saw the creamy bare shoulders of his precious little bird, the most fetching woman in all the Kingdoms, as she sat up and swung her slender legs over the side of their shared bed. The enticing curve of Sansa’s back was turned away from him, hiding her newly rounded middle.

Usually, the blazing fire and his body heat was plenty enough to keep the woman he loved more than life warm, as it had been in the depths of the wintertime Vale. But for some reason, she was shrugging her shoulders into her dressing gown that covered her thin shift…

“I will be back, my love.”

Sansa always knew when he was awake, even without looking. Sandor told himself that it was because she was unusually observant. She’d had to be, in order to survive the bloody Lannisters.

But in moments so sweet that he barely believed them to be real afterward, the man known to the kingdoms as the Hound knew that his woman was specially tuned into him. Which was ridiculous. He’d lucked back into the role of her protector when he stumbled into the Vale after his sojourn on the Quiet Isle, and it was in the Vale during winter’s chaos that it grew into something more.

Since the long-ago days of the last Long Night, never had there been a luckier dog.

Sandor’s voice came out in a deep rasp. “Babe stealing your sleep?”

Fuck, he thought, seeing the shushing look on Sansa’s face as she pressed one finger to her lips.  He hadn’t intended to be so gruff, hadn’t intended to cause his little boy to stir. He looked down at Ned. Blessed with his mother’s hair and fine face and cursed with his own steel-grey eyes that were blinking awake now, Ned Arryn was oft mistook for a lad of seven or eight, instead of the mere four years that he was.

Sansa looked over her shoulder and pursed her lips at Sandor with mild irritation that masked affection, her hand reaching to soothingly caress their son’s back.

“Father, Mother,” whispered the small boy, gazing up at them both in turn. “I am scared!”

Before Sansa could say a word, Sandor had hauled their son up into his arms.

It was only thanks to Bran’s greensight that Ned’s life had been spared during the slaughter of the Royces the moon prior. Lady Myranda, Sansa’s dear friend and confidant, had given her life rather than give up the secret hiding place of Lord Eddard Arryn, dosed with the slightest taste of sweetsleep, then stashed into a false back of his wardrobe moments before the combined forces of the Lords Declarant burst into their castle, Runestone. The royalist forces had arrived from the capitol an hour too late.

His little bird’s grief over the loss of her dear friend had known no bounds.

It was Sandor who had lifted up the woman’s body and laid it alongside her husband’s for the burning. This early in the spring, the custom of cremation, for so long the way of only the wildlings and the Valyrians, still held true. No one who had lived through that last winter believed in burying freshmade corpses.

Aegon. Fucking dragon prince.

For it had been Prince Aegon who stirred the Lords of Westeros to action. Prince Aegon who had declared their precious wee lad a bastard, which he wasn’t. Not many days after the death of her foppish husband, Sansa and Sandor spoke their deathless vows before the heart tree in the Godswood at the Gates of the Moon right before climbing Sandor like a tree in the bedchamber she’d shared briefly with Harry the Heir. Little Ned Arryn was in truth young Ned Clegane , and the boy’s only fault was having him as a father.

Sandor had feared the taint was in Ned, that the same rotten nature that had consumed his brother and had almost taken him would manifest in his son. But little Ned took after his mother in looks, and his temperament was that of his grandfather, the Quiet Wolf whom Sandor had known in his former life as the Hound. Only little Ned’s height, his eyes, and something about his face betrayed his paternity.

Sandor loved his boy more than life.

And he loved his boy’s mother even more than that.

My little bird, and the pup she gave me.

“There is no need to be frightened,” Sansa soothed their son, rubbing circles on his back as he rocked him back to sleep. “Rest now, and in the morning, you and Father shall ride into the wolfswood.”

“For true, Mother?”

“Aye, for true! Perhaps you shall see a hind…”

“Or a bear!” laughed the little boy. “A big old scary, hairy bear!”

“Thought you said you were frightened,” his father scoffed.

“Nay, you’ll beat that scary bear, Father! Every time!”

And when his son kissed his burned cheek, then settled back down with the covers up to his chin, Sandor felt strong enough to face a thousand bears.

I’d tear them all to pieces for him. For them both.

My family. Mine. Mayhaps ill-gotten. I don’t fucking care.

They’re all that holds me in this world…

Mine.

Once Ned was asleep once more, Sansa got up to pace the room, hugging herself until Sandor got up from the bed and took her into his arms.

“Stop that. You’re fluttering about too much. We’re safe here for now.”

“It’s not our safety that I’m worried about, my love. Come, sit by the fire with me.”

His arm circled her impossibly slim waist. “You and your fires,” he growled, inhaling her sweet scent.

“How many times have you walked through the flames for me?” she teased back.

“Enough to make me a fucking R’hllor worshipper.” Yet Sansa was right. He’d braved both fire and ice for his lady, and he would do it all again.

Not to mention the fire in her hair… everywhere…

A scarred dog like him had no right to love the finest lady in the Kingdoms, the most beautiful of her generation, but she loved him in return. That’s all that mattered.

With that, they could face anything.

“What’s making you flutter so tonight, little bird?” he asked once they were settled in the large chair by the fire, Sansa perched in his lap, his large fingers stroking through her auburn hair.

“My sister is in danger. And don't ask me how I know... I just know. If anything happens to Arya, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“The She-Wolf can protect herself,” said Sandor flatly. “They couldn’t keep Arya captive as a child… even I tried… and she’s become quite the little killer.”

Sansa shivered, remembering what Sandor had told her all those years before about killing. Back then, Sansa could have never imagined taking a life. That was before all the blood on her hands, blood she had shed to protect her son… her brothers and sisters… and this man.

And I would do it all over again, Sansa thought without hesitation.

Her face revealed none of this to her husband.

“She is not immortal. She is but a woman.”

“Nonsense. That’s why the fucking bastards took her husband and his men, not her… the She-Wolf can’t be captured.”

“All the same, Sandor, she can be killed. She can be raped. Arya’s too bold! She thinks she can’t be harmed. And I’ve a terrible feeling… I want to send a raven to Bran and…”

“Your brother said no contact,” Sandor reminded her. “Not while he’s in the South. We’re to hold Winterfell for the Crown, and they’ve left me few enough men to hold it.”

“But we must, Sandor,” implored Sansa desperately. “Winterfell must stay safe.”

“It’s safe. You’re the Stark in Winterfell. Every man, woman, and child for a thousand leagues would die rather than give you up.”

“Yes, but my brothers and sister are scattered across this continent! Rickon is holding Storm’s End for Gendry in Shireen’s name, Arya and Bran are the Gods only know where, and Jon could be anywhere on that infernal dragon of his… I feel as if I’m coming out of my skin shut away up here at the top of the world…”

“Your mother’s daughter, after all these years,” was his remark. “More comfortable in the South than the North.”

“I’m a Northwoman to the bone, Sandor,” Sansa reminded him. “As Father used to always say, ‘The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.’ For all my courtesies, you must never make any mistake about that.”

“Never did, little bird,” he assured her. (Any man who’d ever had Sansa Stark in his bed would attest to her wolfish qualities… ones that Sandor quite enjoyed. “But you’re Lady Catelyn’s girl all the same....”

“I am a wolf.”

“A wolf, aye, but one of the South. You forget, I watched you grow up before you shared my bed and bore my son. I watched you learn the great Game, play it, and become the most powerful woman in the Kingdoms after the Queen.”

He stared into her deep blue eyes.

“Mayhaps my little bird wants to play the Game again.”

“Of course I do! I was helpless as a child.”

Sandor nodded.

“I’ll not be helpless again. Never! I will not stand by while more of my family’s blood is spilled.”

“Then what can you do? You won’t go to Willas Tyrell…”

“That damned Willas Tyrell,” snapped Sansa. “That’s exactly what he wants me to do. He could have chosen me, he and his father and grandmother, long ago. If he had, Littlefinger would have never, could have never touched me. He let me languish in King’s Landing, and then it was you who found me in the Vale! Damn Willas, Highgarden, House Tyrell, and the entire fucking Reach for nearly bankrupting the other realms with their damnable overpriced grain and produce while children starved!”

Sandor rubbed her shoulders, chuckling to himself. Little bird’s feathers are ruffled tonight.

Sansa met his half smile. “I’ve another plan. Mayhaps I’m no longer in King’s Landing, and perhaps the Vale has betrayed me, but I am not without friends, there, here, and across the Narrow Sea. I am still the great Mistress of Laws for all Westeros. I am still a princess of the realm, the sister of the King. And I am not done playing cyvasse with these damned lords and ladies, princes and princesses.”

She sighed, one beringed hand resting softly on his cheek.

“Perhaps it won’t be enough to save Arya from the fate that Bran has foreseen. But it will at least buy her some time.”

Sansa kissed him then.

And after that, there was no more talking for quite a while.

 

*

 

Somewhere Above Dorne

Once trained and initiated, it is nearly impossible to kidnap a Faceless man or woman. They are able to escape any trap, change to any face, elude any method of capture. This is what makes them such valuable assassins – they will always find their target.

However, it is far easier to kidnap a Faceless woman if you have a dragon.

When Arya opened her eyes to a pounding headache, she immediately assessed her situation. Sure enough, she was on dragonback, soaring high above what looked like a desert. Her arms were thrown around someone’s neck, her wrists were tied, and something had bound her to their back as well.

Aegon. On Rhaegal.

Edric, that filthy liar, he never betrayed the prince! He kidnapped me and turned me over to him!

We grew careless, figured no one would dare attack with the armies from six of the Kingdoms camped and Aegon’s forces moving North to Harrenhal…

I’ll kill him.

But it took fewer than fifteen seconds for Arya to realize that she had been completely disarmed for the first time in her life. She also felt quite drugged, and felt disoriented. There was an odd-tasting substance on her tongue and lips, something so sweet that it made her nearly gag.

Not sweetsleep. Something else. What is it?

She was wearing different clothing than the Dothraki garb she’d donned while in the camp, and her usually bound hair was flapping about freely in the wind. That, and the fact that she didn’t feel nearly as dirty as she should have been from her last remembered activities bothered her greatly.

“Finally awake, I see.”

It was the damned prince . Every cell in Arya’s body recoiled.

“I don’t need a weapon to kill you,” she announced in a frozen, dull monotone. She would not allow this craven coward to invoke any kind of emotion from her.                                                    

“Arya, my own,” laughed Aegon. “If you kill me, then Rhaegal will shrug off both you and my corpse, and you’ll plunge to your death. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?”

“Rhaegal can’t fly forever,” said Arya flatly. “I’m going to kill you as soon as we land.”

“No, you won’t. Because I’m going to make you fall in love with me.”

He’s totally lost it. “That will never happen.”

“I can be as persuasive as my father was. He stole your aunt’s heart, and gave her his child. I intend to do the same.”

“I’ll flay you alive.”

“Flaying? How primitive . Wait, come to think of it, didn’t you kill the very last Bolton? Roose Bolton’s bastard, the one the illegitimate Lannister king legitimized, the one who claimed to have married you?” He clucked his tongue. “You and your penchant for bastards. It’s quite charming, you know…”

Her hands were bound, and she couldn’t free herself from the knots for the first time since she was a child. All the same, Arya was going to strangle Aegon Targaryen and take her chances with the damned dragon, especially since Edric Baratheon’s disappearance along with her own would have alerted the camp.

“But you’re not alone in realizing the use for a bastard,” Aegon continued. “It’s thanks to Edric that I managed to steal you right from under two bastards’ noses.”

Arya’s stomach sank, and not just because Rhaegal had done a swooping loop-de-loop.

“How?”

In response, Aegon just chuckled.

How?”

She punctuated her question by using the quickest weapon available to her, her teeth. Forgetting her self-control, giving into her fury, Arya bit into the place where Aegon’s neck met his shoulder, unprotected by his cloak and tunic, breaking the skin, tasting blood…

If he bled enough, he could weaken, and she could get free of the ropes… free enough to push him off his dragon.

Instead, the metallic taste of blood was replaced by the crush of the dragon prince’s lips, as he craned her head to capture her mouth with his.

“The She-Wolf indeed,” he purred, drawing back before she could bite him again. “Bedding you will be the delight of my life.”

“It will be the very last thing you do,” promised Arya icily, “since I will unman you before you can even try.”

“I love a bit of an edge from my beautiful women, otherwise, it’s all a bit boring,” Aegon snickered. “Something else I get from my father.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“Somewhere safe. So that we can get to know each other better… while your husband and my brother are eliminated for good.”

For the first time since she was captured, Arya felt real fear. She wasn’t afraid for herself, and a small part of her was even relishing the chance to rid herself of her tormentor and her brother’s rival for the throne. She could do him, and Westeros, this service.

But all signs had pointed to a great battle in the Riverlands. Aegon had taken Summerhall, he was planning to take Harrenhal…

It’s a trap. Jon and Dany are playing right into Aegon’s hands.

And what of Gendry’s plan? What will happen to my husband?

One thing was for certain. If Aegon did not bleed out his veins atop Rhaegal, many more people would die.

She had to stop him…

But then, whatever poison they’d given to subdue her took her back under.

 

*

In the Prince’s Pass

Gendry was missing something. But he couldn’t figure out what.

The campsite was nearly empty, and a great line of troops, servants, and retainers stretched as far as the eye could see in the Prince’s Pass. Some of the Lords and Ladies Paramount had left in the days preceding, including Bran Stark, Jaime Lannister, and the Martells, each on their respective missions.

High above their heads, King Jon of the Houses Stark and Targaryen flew on Viserion. The ivory dragon with golden wings was still a bit wobbly, but also seemed eager to fly now that its wing had mostly healed.

Atop a rise, the silver queen of Westeros and Essos, Daenerys Targaryen, was mounted on her Dornish sand steed, dressed in the garb of the Dothraki sea, but with the helmet and breastplate of Visenya Targaryen.

Within her was life, and the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. A daughter or a son.

Aemon if he’s a prince. Aemma for a little princess.

Named for Jon’s mentor on the wall, and the Dragonknight we all wanted to be when we were boys.

Gendry remembered Arya telling him that, a few days before. He couldn’t help but feel irritated as he inspected his troops atop his destrier. Their cheers were a deafening roar, and yet, it was incomplete without his little she-wolf riding by his side as he’d imagined.

His wife could remember the little details of her brother’s life, down to the names of his unborn children

…and yet couldn’t even manage to say goodbye to her own husband ?

I knew she wasn’t content to follow me! Gendry brooded. She just had to have her own mission and command, didn’t she?

And she didn’t even have the heart to tell me herself.

He’d gone looking for her two nights before when his new squire Topsy gave him the news. Arya was joining Jaime Lannister’s men with a force of her own, off to see the Westerlands like she always wanted to. The small attack force had left under cover of night, as soon as it grew dark.

She didn’t even say goodbye.

Gendry felt hollow. He knew that his wife was not like other women. She wasn’t one to shy away from the front lines of combat, and she was overused to being in charge. Even more ridiculous than making him a Lord Paramount had been making her into a Lady, and well he knew it.

We were happier in Winterfell. When I was just a smith, and she could ride the wolfswood and hunt.

All she had to do was tell me.

But she didn’t. She let me think she was happy to take my lead for a change, that we could be happy here in the South, and then she…

He wasn’t sure what to do. Loving Arya had been a fact of his life for so long that he couldn’t imagine it possible not to do so. It was because of that love that he indulged her whims, allowed her all the quirks that made her so different from other girls.

I’m missing something.

Why wouldn’t Arya tell me she wanted to fight under Lord Jaime? She tells me everything…

No, she doesn’t. From weasel soup to Casper Wylde, the only constant has been that Arya Stark will never tell me everything! She does as she likes, and then makes me accept it just because she knows I love her.

And yet, she gets angry at me when I do the same! She nearly murdered me for staying to smith with the Brotherhood, when her brother Robb would have chopped my head off had she kept hanging about me at Riverrun. All these years on, and nothing’s changed! Look at how she acted just the other day when I took Topsy on as squire…

One thing’s for sure. When we get to Storm’s End, if we ever get there, we’re gonna have a talk about all this.

I love Arya Stark and always will.

But mayhaps that isn’t enough.

 

*

 

King’s Landing

“Lord Hand, today’s final petition is from the Lady of Starfall, Lanna Dayne,” announced Missandei.

Tyrion Lannister looked up from his seat just below the thrones of the King and Queen, the one he used to run the realms whilst his lieges were away. The seat had been constructed specially for him, with a booster and a step built in to form an optical illusion that made him appear more imposing than he was.

He needn’t have bothered. His reputation preceded him around the Kingdoms…

The little Lion, the smallfolk affectionately called him.

Yet when he looked up, Tyrion was floored.

For the girl curtsying before him looked almost exactly like his sister Cersei had as Robert Baratheon’s young Queen. In fact, the resemblance was remarkable enough that Tyrion wondered why he’d never heard about it.

Of course, there was one notable difference. Lady Lanna was smiling demurely and respectfully at him.

“My Lord Hand, I come to you as the wife of the newly appointed Admiral of Westeros…”

“Ah, yes. Lady Lanna Dayne, wife of the great Lord Edric Dayne of Starfall, Sword of the Morning.” Tyrion smiled at her. “Your husband is a friend of the Crown, and you are always welcome in this court. Go on.”

“I am here at the behest of my lord husband about the situation at the border. I request a private audience.”

“Yes, yes,” said Tyrion distractedly, trying but failing not to stare. “You shall have it.”

He adjourned court for the day, all bowing with respect to the man with the authority of the Crown while the King and Queen were away. Then he went to the antechamber behind the throne room, where the palace guard escorted Lady Lanna.

The Hand of the King and Queen climbed an overstuffed plush chair, and beckoned for the wife of the Lord of Starfall to have a seat. Wine, cheese, and fruit had been prepared for them, and the Hand dismissed the servants impatiently.

“My lady, it was quite dangerous for you to travel all this way,” said Tyrion the moment the door shut behind her.

“My husband’s people have been seafaring for many ages, and he is the great Sword of the Morning,” replied the young woman. “And my parents were also sailors… in fact, it is how they met.”

“Parents,” Tyrion said. “Your accent is still notable. You are Braavosi.”

Lanna smiled. “My Lord Hand has a very good ear. Yes, I was raised in Braavos until my mother met my father, who was of Lys. My father’s people were once the wealthiest banking family in the world, although that was quite some time ago…”

“One of your ancestors married a Targaryen prince,” he interrupted, remembering. “Larra Rogare. But she was never queen.”

“Westeros is a difficult place for us Essosi women,” Lanna said, very slowly. “My mother was of Westeros. She infinitely preferred life in Braavos. Much more civilized.”

She looks like a Lannister. Could it be that Uncle Gerion had a daughter and granddaughter living in Braavos?

“Who could blame your mother?” chuckled Tyrion. “Where is she now?”

“Lives with me in Starfall since my father died. She said Lys wasn’t the same after him, but she’d gotten overused to living away from Braavos’ chill and salty wind. Starfall suits her, because there she can dote on my beautiful little Star… my Lord Hand? Is there something the matter?”

For Tyrion was deep in thought.

There’s something strange about her story. Getting on in years, and I never sleep well when the King and Queen are away and the kingdom’s on my shoulders. What am I missing here?

“Where in Westeros is your mother from?”

Lanna’s beautiful green eyes darkened.

“She never said. She never cared to speak of it. And it is not my parents of which I wish to speak, my lord. I come to you not as Lanna Rogare, but as Lady Dayne, wife of the Admiral of Westeros… your Admiral, Lord Hand. I bring you an update from the royal encampment, and troop movements, so that we may end this civil war before it begins.”

In that moment, Tyrion remembered himself.

“Of course, my dear. Let us proceed to the matter at hand.”

*

Water Gardens, Dorne

Arianne Martell lounged in the cool of the warm spring evening, languishing on a balcony alone with a glass of wine and a plate filled with grapes, gathering her wits and her strength before the difficult journey to the thawing Riverlands. The maritime support that Dorne would lend to this new Dance of Dragons would break her kingdom’s preference for isolationist policy. It was as if she needed to come here, to his favorite spot, to gain his permission.

When she closed her eyes, she could hear her father’s voice, even all these long years later, ensuring that she, Arianne, understood the significance of their House and kingdom.

We married the dragons. We were never conquered.

Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.

Yet so much of the current political situation could have been prevented had Aegon just married her. Of course, he was much younger than she was, but he was a lusty lover and enjoyed the pleasures of royal life as much as she herself did.

Arianne knew that Aegon did not love her. It had been of no concern. She did not love him, either. Love was for the smallfolk and the songs. It had no place in the life of a ruling Princess, who must always think of the needs of her people first.

Thinking of her people’s needs was how she got into this predicament in the first place. There was nothing that House Martell knew better than how to play sides against each other.

In truth, Princess Arianne was skeptical of the ability of King Jon and Queen Daenerys to unite the Kingdoms, and made no secret of that. Despite what she said at the royal encampment, she did hold the queen responsible for Quentyn’s death. How could she not? Although she bore no especial love for the brother who had almost denied her what was hers by birthright, the callous way that the Silver Queen had dismissed her simple sibling demanded an accounting.

She’d cast her vote for Aegon in the Great Council of 305, much as all of Westeros had expected her to do. She also bent the knee to Jon and Daenerys at their coronation, just like all the other heads of the Great Houses had.

All the while, she was humming with plans. Plans to become Queen of Westeros. Her beautiful aunt Elia had been denied her own coronation day in favor of a She-Wolf; Arianne had scores to settle. Her brother Trystane was ready, last scion of House Nymeros Martell, willing and able to take over as the ruling Prince of Dorne the moment that Aegon assumed the throne…

Which she’d once hoped would be sooner rather than later.

She, Trystane, and the Sand Snakes had been in on Aegon’s plot from the beginning. It would have failed without their assistance. The idea to capture the heroes of the smallfolk, Gendry and his men, in order to yield the Stormlands to the Green Dragon had been hers.

There is no lord in all the land more beloved by the people than Gendry Baratheon. His disappearance will quell the heart of any resistance toward your rule.

But…

He is a good man, Aegon. He is also half-brother to Edric, and your own cousin.

You will not spill his blood.

The blood-spell had been cast in Norvos by her cousin Alleras, esoteric and forbidden magic from the darkest corner of forgotten Citadel lore. A twisted combination of Valyrian and Rhoynar magic, it required fire, and water, and blood. It was a spell of protection, not harm. It had been Arianne’s price for participating in what could be seen as treason against the crown… Arianne’s price for a bloodless revolution.

This you must do, she had told Aegon angrily, or I shall go straight to the King and Queen.

Lord Gendry is my kinsman, the prince had replied. I wouldn’t dream of hurting him.

Yet you burn from wanting his wife. Nay, this shall be done. A dragon who spills another dragon’s blood is accursed… even if it be but a drop. This, you know.

Arianne remained unrepentant about her House’s secret involvement in supporting Aegon’s quest for the throne because of that spell. Had it not been cast, she doubted that Gendry would have survived his long imprisonment. Of course, Alleras was not the only one who could weaken or remove it, but... given the She-Wolf’s propensity to keep herself out of mortal danger, the bonds would hold.

She had been right to help Aegon and Edric rid the realm of the Brotherhood without Banners, she’d thought. Lord Gendry was a hero without parallel. Like the king, he was raised as an unfortunate bastard boy, but unlike the king, he was raised with absolutely nothing.

During the Wars, the songs that reached Dorne about Gendry irritated Arianne to no end… he was the son of a whore, a master armorer, a protector of orphans, the lost heir of House Baratheon, the folk hero of a warrior who’d managed to tame the She-Wolf of Winterfell. Her realm had been at odds with the Stormlands since time immemorial, so perhaps her dislike of the man was justified.

What she hadn’t been prepared for was meeting him.

The first thing Arianne noticed about Gendry Baratheon was that he was incredibly handsome. Perhaps one of the tallest men in Westeros, and certainly built like the Bull that he’d taken as his personal sigil.  His height and build were imposing, but what was most intriguing was his manner.

Arianne had never met a man who was neither smallfolk nor noble, but a combination of both. Unlike a highborn lord, there was nothing arrogant or superior about him… confident, but not condescending. Yet thanks to the Brotherhood and the wolves, Gendry had also long ago ceased to show the deference of a commoner. Which meant didn’t look down his nose with impatience, he didn’t cast his eyes down with fear…

He looked me right in the eyes. Not seeing me as a Princess, or a woman…

Seeing me, Arianne. Listening to me.

One of the best men in Westeros. All the tales were told true.

Within a day of meeting him, Arianne knew exactly why Arya had fallen for him. It was clear that they were deeply in love. Two years’ separation had only brought them closer together. Although neither were much for public displays, especially at Council, the way they looked at each other made Arianne wonder what it would feel like to have someone look at her like that.

She’d also observed the bond between the King and his sisters and brothers during the month they were at camp. House Stark of Winterfell. Most highborn children had varying degrees of closeness and rivalry; pack was the best description she could find to describe the way that Brandon and Arya supported their brother. The Starks had clearly been very close as children in a way that Arianne had not been with her brothers; the horrific loss of their parents and eldest brother, persecution, war, and winter had only sealed the Northerners’ fraternal bond so that not even the Seven Hells could break it.

During deliberations of the war Council, Arianne swore that Jon was communicating with his brother and sister with just looks . Winterfell and Storm’s End were firmly in their hands, and not in the tentative way that King Robert’s brothers had held his castles. The Stormlands were in Stark hands, too, and until recently, so was the Vale.

The final revelations that made Arianne change her mind all had to do with Sansa Stark.

Arianne had only met the Fair Lady of the North on a few formal occasions, and Sansa’s demeanor had been cool and reserved.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Princess Arianne.”

Lady Sansa had managed a perfect curtsy. Her appearance was flawless from head to toe.

“And yours, my lady.”

Of all the highborn women of Westeros, Arianne identified most with Lady Sansa. For all their legends on the battlefield, and as rulers in their own right, Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark were women in politically powerful marriages. Observing both, Arianne saw how they supported beloved husbands new to the pressures of ruling, who had been born and raised with the stigma of bastardy. And the husbands in question were clearly deeply in love, and neither King Jon nor Lord Baratheon did much to hide their regard and affection for their fiery, petite highborn wives.

Sansa was different. Like Arianne, she’d suffered much while young for no other reason than being the eldest daughter of a Great House. Like Arianne, she played the Game. And like Arianne, she clearly played to win. The way that Sansa Stark had negotiated grain for the whole of Westeros with nothing more than promises for Willas Tyrell, as well as the convenient way that both Harry Arryn and Petyr Baelish had disappeared from the Vale, had earned Arianne’s admiration many years before. It showed that a woman could indeed sit on the small council and be valued for more than her worth as a broodmare…

Like Arianne, Sansa played the Game not as one-half of a team, but in her own right.

But then came Aegon’s machinations, then Willas’ anger at Sansa spurning his proposal, Highgarden’s spies bringing news from the Vale, and the Lord of Flowers’ alliance with Aegon. Word of the massacre of the Royces, and the flight of the little lord Ned to Winterfell, had reached every corner of the realm by the time Arianne reached Sunspear after the summit in the Prince's Pass.

Now Sansa had acquired another, more painful name among the smallfolk: dog’s whore.

And when she heard it, Arianne’s heart changed toward the wolves…

And toward Jon and Daenerys.

The rightful King and Queen of Westeros.

They can never know that the spell was my doing, she thought to herself. They can never know that House Martell thought to do our beloved Elia’s son this one last boon to restore his rightful place on the throne. If the She-Wolf ever learned of our involvement in Lord Baratheon’s disappearance, if the King and Queen ever suspect our part, there would be the Seven Hells to pay.

But Aegon Targaryen cannot be allowed to take the throne. Gendry’s disappearance alone was meant to sway the Council in Aegon’s favor. Since then, Aegon has threatened the King’s family, repeatedly harassed his favorite sister, and has stoked the Reach and the Vale to a wrath that no mere Great Council will quench.

What I witnessed the night the white dragon was injured by the green was something from the legends. The Dance has come again.

The wolves must answer in kind. As must their King… and his dragon wife that all the realm now know he loves.

Sunspear will be for them. Dorne will not remain neutral this time, may father and Aunt Elia forgive me. We shall give this King and Queen our support. My cousin Edric Dayne will send a fleet of ships into the Riverlands not seen since our great foremother Nymeria.

Between them, my brother Trystane and my cousin Nymeria will command 50,000 Dornish spears… a number not seen north of the Greenblood since the War of the Usurper.

We will prevail. This time, the burning sun will come to the aid of the wolf, the stag, and the black dragon, so that this hard-won peace of the spring will hold.

Dorne failed Westeros during the Wars for the Dawn. All except our cousin, of course… I still remember Ned as a little boy, thrilled to hear my stories about his uncle, Arthur Dayne. Still the handsomest man I ever laid eyes on, though I was little more than a babe during those days. Sword of the Morning, Kingsguard and Prince Rhaegar’s dearest friend…

When I close my eyes, I can see them all. Mother and Father. Aunt Elia. Uncle Oberyn.

I miss them all so very much.

Arianne closed her eyes then, silent tears slipping from beneath her long, black eyelashes. It was there that her youngest brother found her.

“Sweet sister, why so melancholy?” Trystane asked, sitting on the chair beside her, taking her well-manicured hand between both of his.

She opened her eyes and looked at her little brother. Since the end of the Wars, Trystane had been her delight and her comfort. Along with the younger Sand Snakes, the little boy who was now a young man was ever the apple of her eye.

“Just thinking of the past.”

“Don't. The future will be far greater. For House Martell, for Dorne, and for all Westeros.”

Arianne smirked. “You’re in a good mood this night. Still thinking about courting that odd Mertyns girl?” The Stonehelm retinue had brought not only Lord Guilian and Lord Balon, but also a few young women, including the daughters of Lady Mary Mertyns, known for their skill as healers.

“Dyanna is not odd, Arianne. A bit sheltered, but I shall take care of that when I bring her to Sunspear after we’re done in the North. I shall enjoy introducing such a charming little beauty to the many pleasures of the flesh.”

“Lady Dyanna’s mother is a witch. The girl’s guardians are Lord Baratheon and his She-Wolf. I would caution you before espousing the charms… and the pleasures… of Dorne when you get to Storm’s End. Otherwise, I shall have a difficult time brokering that match… or even bargaining for your life.”

Trystane threw back his head and laughed.

“Come, sister, sit with me in the cool of the evening before I go to battle to defeat that damned green dragon, and claim my bride.”

And so, she did.

 

 

 

*

Back in the Prince’s Pass

It was as if something was not letting Gendry leave this place.

All signs of the royal encampment were nearly gone. Most of the wagons and wheelhouses had left shortly after the morning meal, along with most of the servants and retainers. All that remained were the Royalist troops commanded by the King and Queen, the combined forces of the Stormlands and the Brotherhood, all under his command, and Lord Tarly’s loyalist forces of the Reach.

High above the formations, the King and Queen flew on their dragons. Viserion soared above his mate, while the nest-sling that had been fashioned for Drogon by the Queen herself out of stitched-together leather tents seemed to suffice for the great black dragon.

“The eggshells are hard as stone,” Dany had assured him and Arya a fortnight earlier, “and the heated scales will only warm the little ones.”

Now that Viserion was mended, the dragons would allow him to come near. He was not a rider, and could not communicate with them as the Targaryens could, but Gendry had always had an affinity for fire. When Drogon generously gifted him with a pit filled with dragonflame, she seemed to accept his muttered gratitude, blinking at him with golden eyes, then staring at Arya with something approaching amusement as his wife cowered from a safe distance away…

The dragon won’t hurt you, he had assured her. They are part of our family as much as the direwolves are…

Gendry, stop it, she’d said, voice all atremble. They’ve taken so many lives.

Not always. Dragons saved our lives in the North, Arry. Without them and their riders, we would have lost.

I know that. Still doesn’t mean I have to like it.

And the black dragon caught Gendry’s eye again, as if holding him in its gaze and imploring him not to hold it against her, for she was a daughter of the snow and ice...

As if dragons could talk.

He blinked. That was then, this was now, when his Arya had chosen to ride with Jaime Lannister instead of where she belonged, right by his side. How could she?

All the same, he couldn’t help but shake the sense that something was badly wrong.

Surveying his troops one final time, he was approached by his young squire Topsy, sitting as uncomfortably on his horse as Gendry once had.

It was to be expected. The boy would learn, just as he did.

“M’lord, is there anything else you require of me afore we march?”

“Fill up my waterskin,” he commanded.

Wish I could ask for wine, he thought as Topsy scampered away, but I’m not going to be like my father. Even if that damned Robert gave me naught besides my strength and a taste for highborn Northern girls…

“Done, m’lord,” Topsy was saying, staggering under the weight of the second skin he handed Gendry after what only seemed like scant moments later.

“Already?” asked Gendry, lifting the skin easily from the boy and raising it to his lips. “That sweetwater stream we’ve been drinking from’s half a league from here.”

“I know, m’lord, but there’s another stream. Lord Edric was comin’ from that cave over there last night, you see, and his boots were all wet.”

Gendry frowned and nearly choked. He looked at the place where the boy was pointing. It was near the cairns from the ruined Tower of Joy, where he’d talked with Jon the night they found this place.

“Lord Edric was in a cave last night?”

“Aye, m’lord. He was coming out of it. Said the guards let ‘im take a piss outside his tent for a change.” The boy brightened. “Come to think of it, he’s the one who told me about Lady Arya!”

“What?!”

“Aye! He told me he saw Lord Jaime’s men moving out. M’lady was among them…”

Wait a minute…

“Topsy, go find the King’s men. I must speak with him.”

Feeling a sense of foreboding, Gendry rode toward his captains. Instead of marching orders, they would need to halt.

He would figure out what was going on.

 

*

 

It was just before dusk that the great green dragon landed in the midst of the Water Gardens, destroying the peace of the evening, and sending even the intrepid children of the Dornish court scampering for cover.

Arianne stood up, incensed, ignoring Trystane’s imploring hand on her forearm, and her guards, pointing their spears at the dragon.

“Aegon, what is the meaning of this?”

There was no reply, and the prince did not dismount. But she saw the meaning of it when she saw the half-conscious She-Wolf of Winterfell, tied to his back.

That made Trystane stand up beside her.

“You kidnap the King’s sister, and bring her here? ” Arianne’s laugh was derisive. It contained no humor. “Here, to Dorne? By your actions, you tear Westeros asunder!”

“I tear Westeros asunder? I?” Aegon glared at the pair, ignoring the hundred spears pointed at him and his dragon. “It is House Martell who has broken faith with me, son of Princess Elia, the one true King of Westeros!”

“You promised Dorne that no one would get hurt if you pressed your claim, Aegon!” Trystane shouted. “Was your word worth nothing?”

“Trystane, sit. Those of us who rule are talking.”

And Aegon’s basilisk eyes turned to Arianne.

“You betrayed me because of my love for her, didn’t you?”

“Aegon, I did not love you,” said Arianne. “I thought at one time that we could have made an amenable marriage, and that I could be your Queen. But you don’t love anyone, and you certainly don’t love Arya Stark. You only love yourself.”

He laughed.

“You could have been part of the restoration of the Kingdoms, Arianne. The next great golden age. With Dorne, I would have had the lot… that lumbering oaf would have given me the Stormlands for his precious Arya. Of course, he would have had neither, but the ruse was perfect. None suspected a thing.

“Because of your treachery, because you could not reign in that fucking Lord Dayne, the bastard lord was freed from Driftmark! Because of your treachery, I had to send Edric, my only true friend, into the clutches of my enemies in order to gain back my advantage! I had no idea who betrayed me, until you turned your cloak in the mountains.

“You are no true princess, and no true dragon,” said Aegon coldly. “You have betrayed not only your House, but your aunt, my mother! For that, I cannot forgive you. The sentence is death…”

“You are no true king,” spat Arianne. “And you have no right to pass sentence here.”

And the forces of the Water Gardens put up a noble fight. To protect the smallfolk of the Water Gardens, they did not hold back. But all that used to be known by the Dornish once when they felled the Dragon Kings and Queens of old had in the long years since been lost.

On that perfect spring night, the Water Gardens burned, melted… and were no more.

But when the beautiful marble was melted, all of their guards were charred, and the orphans had fled screaming with terror, Arianne Martell was still defiant. Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.

“The sentence for treason is death…” pronounced Aegon coldly, facing the daughter and heiress of Doran Martell as she stood amid the smoking ruin.

Princess Arianne Martell was prepared to die.

“…for that which you hold most dear.”

But she was not prepared for him to die. Not the same way Quentyn did.

So she did the only thing she could.

When her youngest brother tried to push her aside, spear in hand, she shoved Trystane with all her might behind the last half-melted marble column standing…

And the last thing the darkly beautiful Princess saw was dragonflame.

Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.

 

*

 

The evidence in the cave was damning...

...Arya’s garments and sword, badly hidden under a bit of dirt, next to an underground stream.

While Jon questioned the trembling new squire and Edric’s guards, Gendry clutched the scant Dothraki garments to his face and inhaled deeply. Arya. He wasn’t as good of a tracker as she or her brothers were, but he knew his wife’s scent that was like none other. She had been taken, but there was no trace of blood or a struggle.

Which defied everything he knew about his Arya. It made no sense at all.

Topsy and the guards’ stories revealed what happened. Edric had somehow subdued Arya, dragged her into the cave so that she could be retrieved under cover of darkness, and returned to the tent where he’d been held with none the wiser. He had been allowed to visit the latrine without a guard for weeks , with no mishaps.

Their mistake had been in believing Edric had truly defected to their side, when quite the opposite was true. The problem was that he’d already been sent ahead in a wagon bound for Storm’s End. There would be no questioning him until Arya was found, and when she was, Gendry would remove his half-brothers’ head from his shoulders. Neither she nor his goodbrothers would get the satisfaction. She was his; it was his right.

As for who had taken her, there was only one suspect.

“But where did he take her?” Gendry growled, heading back to his horse, ready to cleave both his squire and the careless guards in two with his warhammer… not to mention himself for letting her out of his sight.

The king’s dark indigo eyes were black with anger.

“We will find her. And him. Make no mistake about that.”

As the two men left the cave, the shadow of Drogon fell upon them. Dany dismounted before the black dragon even had the opportunity to land.

“What have I told you about that, Dany?” the king fussed as she landed, although there was no mirth in it. “We’ve lost Arya, and now, you’re leaping off dragonback…”

“Shhh. Our child is ever safe with me, my love, as Drogon’s brood is with her,” shushed the queen, brushing off her battle dress and looking at both men. “Cousin, you must ride with us on dragonback. We will cover more ground that way. And not a moment must be spared. Aegon’s madness means that Arya’s life is in danger.”

Neither Jon nor Gendry needed to hear those words spoken aloud to acknowledge the truth in them.

 

*

 

As Jon and Gendry flew North on Viserion, the silver queen and her black dragon flew South. It wasn’t long before she saw the smoke rising into the clouds, billeted by the winds from the Sunset Sea.

By the time Daenerys and Drogon arrived, the stars were out, spangling the sky.

When the Targaryen queen saw the smoking ruins, her breath caught in her throat. The Water Gardens, beloved of the Targaryen princess for whom she had been named, were no more.

And so, the Dance begins.

She dismounted, surveying the carnage. Daenerys had seen much and more during her years, and she was destined to see even more, but between the unrecognizably charred bodies and the melted stone, the horror of the Water Gardens would remain with her for the rest of her life.

Few were left alive. One of them was Prince Trystane, moaning with grief.

Weeping over the burnt body that had once been his sister.

Daenerys laid a hand on his shoulder. He rose, bowed…

Then collapsed on her shoulder.

“She’s dead, Your Grace,” the youth cried out, unashamed in the way of Dorne. “Dead because she joined your cause. I demand vengeance!”

“You shall have it, cousin. In fire and blood. This I swear to you....”

“Fire and blood. I have lost my brother and sister to this fire and blood,” he spat. “Dorne has always suffered fire and blood under the Targaryens, Your Grace. We married you, and yet we still suffer! Your dragons bring no justice! Only terror.”

“Dragons bring neither justice nor terror, Trystane,” observed Dany quietly. “That is entirely up to their riders.”

“Then may the dawn bring Dorne justice,” said the distraught young prince, acknowledging the truth of her words with a look. “And Aegon’s head.”

 

Chapter Text

Days 212-225

 

Had it been a fortnight since she’d been brought to this sumptuous chamber? The room that served as her bejeweled, besilked prison? Arya couldn’t be sure. When she’d come to, she was trapped in this high tower room, the captive of Prince Aegon Targaryen, the Green Dragon.

Arya was sure that her food and wine were being drugged. This was a poison she was unaccustomed to, one she had never encountered during her time in Braavos. It dulled her senses and dropped her defenses in a way that she hadn’t experienced since her training at the House of Black and White. As she was familiar with most regular poisons, and had developed immunity to some of the most common, the only answer was that either the Citadel or Asshai was involved in this plot to unravel the Seven Kingdoms, and their dragonriders, once and for all.

A poison strong enough to trap even the Faceless sister of the King they call the Ice Dragon, the White Wolf… hero of the War for the Dawn.

Whenever she stopped eating, she’d awaken with the same sickly-sweet taste on her lips and tongue that she’d been given in the Prince’s Pass.

The fact that Aegon was now moving openly, and had captured the King’s sister, meant that he had a path to the throne. Between bouts of consciousness, Arya tried to tamp down her fear. Escape meant that she had to have a plan, as the only clue she had about her whereabouts was that she was near water. 

The only hope left to her was that Aegon was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t taken advantage of her while she was unconscious. That was clear every time she awakened with a terrified start, unable to shake the cobwebs from her mind.

I am going to die in a tower, thought Arya miserably, just like my aunt did. I always judged Lyanna and thought she was stupid for loving a dragon…

Turns out there’s no help for it if a dragon thinks he loves you.

One thing was for certain. Arya had to figure something out before Aegon finished whatever was keeping him away... and the dragon came to claim his prize.

 

*

 

“Another civil war is upon us. Our next move determines the fate of the Seven Kingdoms.”

The voice of the king echoed throughout the privy chamber of the Great Hall in the famed castle at Starfall, ringing as if from the stones of the high vaulted ceilings, echoing out toward the tranquil Summer Sea. Most of the great lords of Westeros loyal to the Crown were crowded into the room, listening to the king and queen’s command.

When he was worried, the king paced. It was one of his tells, something that only his nearest and dearest realized about him. While the others were seated around the milky white marble stone table of the Daynes, carved in time immemorial, Jon walked the length of the room… and back again. 

Most of the lords and ladies tried not to notice. But although her face remained impassive, Dany’s eyes didn’t leave her husband’s form.

“My king, Prince Aegon must be captured alive if possible,” the queen said. Although her voice was high and feminine in tone, the known world trembled when the Stormborn spoke… for the petal soft voice of the Mother of Dragons belied the iron will beneath.

The exploits of Queen Daenerys were known from Dorne to the Wall, from the Shivering Sea to the Summer Isles, from the Iron Isles to the Lands Beyond the Shadow. None would question the Stormborn. 

All eyes were upon their dark Northern king, and their silver queen, both among the last of the line of dragonlords.

“Rhaegal will be brought to heel,” Daenerys continued. “I shall make sure of that. And the prince shall face the justice of the Great Council.”

That sent the entire room into an uproar of protests.

Gendry, Lord Baratheon, said nothing. He was in a place far beyond anger.

The nobles of Westeros had spent the past sennight scouring the Kingdoms, searching for any sign of Lady Arya. Foremost among them had been her bereft husband and lover. Gendry had traveled with the King atop a freshly healed Viserion, while the Queen flew on Drogon, both carrying their young. Alongside their allies, the royals had turned over every stone in every hedge and every corner of the Kingdom, from Dorne to the Wall… even a contrite Willas Tyrell, who’d made his way to Starfall the moment he heard of the demise of the Dornish Princess, had directed his considerable troops to search.

“Aegon Targaryen is as mad as his grandsire,” the Reacher high lord had proclaimed to all in his hearing, bending his head to King Jon and Queen Daenerys as he teetered on his walking stick. “The only allies who remain with him are fools.”

In ordinary times, Gendry would have cleaved Willas’ head from his shoulders with one swing of his Warhammer for his treachery. Gaining the strength of the Reach had only served to embolden the evil prince. Postwar folly of Dorne aside, the treachery of the craven Tyrells caused not only Princess Arianne’s death, but also Arya’s kidnapping.

Willas Tyrell was a besotted fool whose actions after Sansa Stark spurned his suit had nearly been the undoing of them all.

Gendry would not soon forget Willas Tyrell’s betrayal. In ordinary times, he would have swung his warhammer first, and asked questions later. 

Yet these were not ordinary times. Arya was missing, and so was Aegon. It was as if both had vanished into thin air.

Gendry couldn’t bring himself to think of what Arya’s fate might be at the hands of the Mad Prince. He had to find her.

Worse, the Vale was firmly in the hands of the Lords Declarant, who were threatening Winterfell for the treachery of House Stark, and by extension, House Tully, at Sansa’s attempt to “usurp their ancient claim.” They were also threatening to declare their independence from the Seven Kingdoms for the Crown’s support of the Fair Lady of the North and Vale in the face of her insult. 

“The Knights of the Vale haven’t the strength to invade the North, nor the will to withstand dragonflame,” Ned Dayne had declared once the royal party arrived at Starfall. “Yet their sword rattling is unwelcome distraction that we do not need.”

With the Reach back in the royalist camp, rebellion in the Vale was distraction that could be dealt a swift blow. Cutting off the mountain passes would do for now; blocking the Vale’s harbors would follow once Arya and Aegon were found. Lord Tyrell departed Starfall after only a day, having already sent his best generals north to bolster the defenses of Winterfell and Riverrun. 

The rest of the realm would be needed to deal with the Dragon Prince.

“Your Graces, surely you must release us from your… this insistence upon capturing Prince Aegon alive,” cajoled Jaime Lannister. “Aegon’s actions are treason. He has killed the reigining Princess of Dorne, captured another Princess, the King’s own sister, who is married to one of your Lords. His crime has far surpassed any of that which Prince Rhaegar was once accused. To allow Aegon to live would be to undermine your authority as King and Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men forever… not to mention all your provinces in Essos, and the Free Cities that pay the Mother of Dragons tribute. You risk your reign.” 

“I demand justice!” shouted Prince Trystane, his fist hitting the table, shaking the parchment map of Westeros and all the pieces scattered upon it, as if it were an odd game of cyvasse. “My sister is dead! I demand Aegon Targaryen’s blood for hers! What if it were your sister who had suffered this fate, Your Graces?!” 

He stopped his tirade cold when he saw the look on Jon’s face.

“It is my sister, Trystane,” said the King wearily. “The entire world knows how I feel about Arya. She is Aegon’s captive. The last time a dragon captured a she-wolf, both dragon and wolf ended up dead… and the Kingdoms suffered greatly.”

Jon’s eyes met Gendry’s.

“And much of that suffering has not yet ended,” continued Daenerys, standing and walking to place a beringed hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Don’t you see, Trystane? My lords and ladies? We cannot end Aegon’s life without a trial. He must face the throne and the Great Council for his crimes. It is the only way for a lasting peace.”

There was silence for a time, until the most reticent among them, he who was least likely to speak, spake then.

“If a single hair is harmed on my wife’s head,” Gendry said, very quietly, “if Arya is hurt by Aegon Targaryen, there will be no peace, Your Grace.”

The entire room stared at him. The Bull’s voice was so calm, so very cold, one might have mistook him for a Northman. With his full grown beard, and his eyes nearly the blue of the Others, his furrowed brow caused a few hearts to skip a beat.

Daenerys shook her head. “My dear cousin, you must see reason. Your father…”

 “My father crushed Rhaegar’s chest with his hammer. They say that your brother was dead within a minute. I will not show your nephew that mercy.” 

“But your half-brother…”

 “Will meet the same fate if I find him. By my hand.” 

The hall was utterly silent. 

Daenerys shook her head. “You have always been sensible, Gendry.” 

“Your Grace, with all due respect, what the Crown and you high lords and ladies see as me always being so ‘sensible’ is just being a Flea Bottom lad taken far above his station. I don’t care much about what you highborns do. All I care about… is her.

“I am sensible. Except where she’s concerned. All know this. If it comes to it…”

Ned Dayne was sitting next to his once-rival, and now dear friend. He looked over at Gendry, who stared back grimly.

“Then we need to ensure it doesn’t,” said Ned. “And let’s not forget that Lady Arya is quite good at taking care of herself.”

  

*

 

The bleeding began at the start of her second week in captivity.

 Arya couldn’t be fully sure of the time, of course, but it was her estimate. It wasn’t her moon blood, but even worse.

A child. Though it was far too early to see any evidence of her pregnancy in the bloodstained sheets, though she was yet drugged and feverish, in her heart of hearts Arya knew that she’d lost her first babe.

The she-wolf saw red, though her senses were frustratingly dulled. Rage shook her drugged body from head to toe, suppressing the sorrow and heartache that were sure to come later. Had she been more careful, had she not been caught by Edric and Aegon, in a moon or so, she could have surprised her Bull with this momentous news. 

A child. A babe that was both Arya and Gendry at the same time… what was the queen always saying? Blood of my blood. A child of his blood and hers, both Stark and Baratheon. 

Would it have been a girl, or a boy? Brown hair or black? Blue eyes or grey? A wolf… or a stag?

When Arya closed her eyes, she could almost hear tiny footsteps. And laughter in the great round family chamber on the uppermost floor at Storm’s End…

Tiny footsteps and ghostly laughter. 

Bloodstained sheets.

Arya struggled to maintain her grip on her sanity. She couldn’t afford to fall apart, not if she were to escape the dragon’s clutches and see Gendry again.

She just had to plan. 

Unfortunately, the drug was taking her back under again, though she used every bit of her mental training from the House of Black and White to fight it. 

Just before she slipped back under, her mind formed a single thought. 

A name.

Nymeria…

 

The Brotherhood Without Banners reached Starfall at the end of the fortnight, having ridden hard from the Seaworth holdfast during a season of storms. Ned was happy to put them up in proper lord’s quarters inside the castle, but the Brothers had never been overfond of perfumed lords and powdered ladies. There was room enough in the garrison, and a bite and a swig o’ ale besides waiting for them with the common men. 

Topsy and the other squires rushed to take care of the Brotherhood’s lathered horses. They were ignored as the men jumped down off their saddles…

…and saw Gendry’s stricken face.

Under any other circumstances, Gendry would have been quite glad to see his men. But as they ate in the lower hall, even generally jovial Anguy was quite grave. 

“Who knows what rock that fookin’ dragon dragged the little lady under?” the freckled archer swore glumly between swigs of ale, with none of his characteristic good humor.

Lem growled above a cut of mutton, “He and that pathetic, sniveling excuse for a mangy stag that trots after him know they had better hide. It won’t go well for ‘em when we find them, that’s for sure.” 

But it was a newly recovered Tom who provided Gendry with the most comfort and hope.

“You know, you weren’t s’posed to ever leave that tower that half-brother o’ yours put you in,” the bard reminded him. None of us were supposed to leave Driftmark. Yet here we are. You’ve got to believe that the Lord o’ Light wouldn’t leave your little lady without a way out.”

Gendry nodded an assent he didn’t feel. “If we only knew where he took her.”

“He’s a dragon, lad,” said Tom gravely. “The one thing that dragons know how to do is hide their lair… and their treasures…” 

“She’s not his!” roared Gendry, slamming his fist down on the table, sending food and ale scattering and silencing the table. 

Anguy broke the silence. “Right, man. She’s yours.” 

“Aye, she’s milady wife, ‘tis true. But more than that, she’s her own,” corrected Gendry, glowering. “All know it. A she-wolf can’t be contained, not for long. You know how she was during the Wars, you saw it. She’ll lose herself if she can’t get free of him.”

That was what Gendry most feared, deep down, when he dared to admit it to himself. If Arya were any other woman in Westeros, rape and murder would be foremost in his mind. But she wasn’t. She was the fearsome She-Wolf of Winterfell, acolyte in the House of Black and White, a trained assassin who could change faces and kill anyone she liked.

If Arya had to kill her way out of Aegon Targaryen’s clutches, Gendry didn’t know if he would be able to get her back from the darkness this time.

 

*

 

Out of the mists that had clouded her brain for the past fortnight, a face…

A familiar face… 

A face that had been dear to Arya since its wearer had been only two years old.

Weasel?

She must be dreaming. There was no way that Weasel could find herself in the same predicament that Arya found herself in…

“Arry?”

The voice, whispered furtively, was real. So was the slightly sour breath of the common girl, hovering next to Arya’s ear. And the warmth of her hand on her forehead…

“Weasel?” she mouthed through cracked, dry lips.

The two embraced. This was real, not a dream. For once in her life, Arya Stark didn’t have to rescue herself. She would be safe….

“Shh, m’lady,” Weasel murmured, with a furtive glance over her shoulder. “We ain’t got long. Hot Pie ain’t sure whether that Septa is gonna wake up, or if she ever will…”

Arya looked over at the direction of Weasel’s glance. Sure enough, there was an unconscious Septa in the corner, half slumped in her chair. Next to her, a chalice’s dark red contents were spilling onto the table… dripping on the floor.

“Hot Pie?” she asked the girl.

“Aye, me an’ Hot Pie an’ Willow come. We had to… that wolf of yours wouldn’t shut up her howling until we followed ‘er…”

“Followed her where?” Arya rasped. “Weasel, where are we?”

“Griffin’s Roost, m’lady. That wolf, she made us come here, an’ here you were…”

Griffin’s Roost. The seat of Aegon’s foster father, where she and Davos had seen the fires all those days before. They had been wise not to seek shelter there, then.

Arya couldn’t believe it. Just as they’d all thought Gendry lost in Essos when he’d been right there at Driftmark the entire time, she was a prisoner in her own lands! Which just proved to Arya the justice of her campaign, and the truth of her words to him in the first place… 

When I get out of this, the whole of these lands will be pack.

Dear Nymeria, she understands me. Even though I couldn’t warg, she heard my call. She came to me anyway.

“What have they been putting into my drink?” Arya hissed.

“Hot Pie don’t know. We been here a week. It’s only now that we knew enough to drug the Septa with the last of that sweetsleep Lord Ned gave you… but she’s the one that’s been puttin’ whatever it is in your tea.”

“Tea?” 

Weasel paused.

“It’s laced with a poison that I don’t know… was it moon tea?”

The girl nodded. “Aye, Willow reckons so.” 

“Then Aegon has murdered my child.” Arya’s eyes turned into steel. “Weasel, how ever did you get into the keep?”

“You know how, Arry,” was Weasel’s reply, with a low chuckle under her breath. “Highborns don’t care about smallfolk. We’re just hands to work, legs and feet to fetch an’ carry. They didn’t have no cook, so they was glad to have us. They don’t know our faces.”

Not all highborns, thought Arya. “I don’t see you that way. Neither does Gendry. We know your faces.” 

“We know, m'lady. That’s why we had to come. Hot Pie told me to tell you remember Harrenfall…”

“Harrenhal,” Arya whispered. “But what about it?”

Footfalls in the corridor.

Weasel’s eyes went wide.

“Go back to the kitchens and keep your head down,” Arya ordered her. “I’ll take care of this. Just tell Hot Pie and Willow not to let them drug my food or drink again. I need to be able to think.”

The girl needed no more prompting. In a moment, she scampered off in her grey work dress, fleet of foot. 

Arya’s feet were even lighter. By the time the intruder reached her room, the Septa was upright, reclining in a sleeping position, the wine goblet upright, with no trace of the spill. For her part, Arya was in bed, breathing regulated in a perfect imitation of drugged sleep.

The door did not open.

The footfalls moved on.

Once Arya knew she was safe and unobserved, she looked around the room. It was more sparse than she had imagined it in her drugged dreams, which made sense. House Connington was no more after the wars. Aegon had little interest in its treasures, and what little wealth it had would have been spirited off to his seat at Dragonstone. But it was still clearly the chambers of the lord of the house. Much like Edric had done to Gendry, Arya was a prisoner that was to be kept according to her station.

She was sure of Aegon’s infernal plan. It didn’t take much to deduce it. He planned to get her with child, so that it was a fait accompli, much like it had been with Rhaegar and Lyanna a generation before. After that, he would break the blood-spell, kill Gendry if he could, and usurp the throne from Jon and Dany.

He’d killed Arianne when she went against him. Arya would never forget the evil that she saw that night when the Water Gardens were destroyed, and she was too powerless to help. This heinous act meant that Aegon would kill anyone who betrayed him, including Edric Storm, the knights of the Vale, or anyone else. That was his weakness. By murdering the Dornish princess in cold blood, he forfeited the right to petition the Great Council for the throne. Jon and Dany, with their own heir imminent, could make the case for Aegon’s madness, and take him out of the line of succession entirely.

They would not have time to do any of that, however.

If Aegon Targaryen had been wiser, Arya thought, he would have left her in that Dornish camp.

However, he had been a fool. 

And his folly would cost him his life.

  

High above Starfall, in the most sumptuous of chambers that Lord and Lady Dayne could offer, the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms opened her eyes and regarded her husband, dark figure silhouetted in the moonlight filtering in through the window.

Dany’s time was near. She had not gotten nearly this far in her pregnancy with Rhaego; the maegi’s tricks and her own foolishness had seen to that. Yet as troubled as her mind was over the fate of the kingdoms, her babe’s vibrant life thrived within her. Even now, she could feel the little dragon-pup stirring curiously within, kicking up a storm as she sat up in bed, pulling the silken Dornish coverlet to her besilked breasts.

The rustling caused the king to turn around.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, love,” he rasped, the grim line of his lips belied by the warmth in his eyes. When they were alone, his Northern accent was more pronounced.

So was her Valyrian one. “You didn’t wake me,” she smiled. “This babe of ours did. My time grows near, Jon.”

Jon came back to bed, all the better to gather her into his arms, hands caressing her swollen womb, soothing her as always. There was nothing quite like being in his embrace. 

“He wants to come out and see us soon.” He sighed into her hair. “Would that he could meet his Aunt Arya by then.”

Dany looked up at her husband’s grim expression.

“Your sister will not remain in our treacherous kin’s clutches for long, beloved. She can take care of herself.”

“She is flesh and blood, Dany!” Jon said hoarsely. “My sister was stolen right from beneath us, all because we showed Edric Baratheon mercy.”

“We show mercy to those who bend the knee. Edric…”

“Lied to us, for the benefit of the damned pisswater prince! By doing so, he endangered the entire kingdom. He must be brought to justice.” Sigh. “I will find my little sister, even if I have to turn over every stone on every hill in the Seven Kingdoms. I couldn’t protect her before. I will protect her now.” 

Dany sighed. 

“Jon, I know what it means for you to have your sister in Aegon’s clutches. I know. But rest assured Aegon will not deal with her as he dealt with Arianne. He believes himself in love with her, so he has done the same thing that Rhaegar did with Lyanna. Yet Arya is not Lyanna… he will learn that out soon enough.” Sigh. “We dragons do love to hoard our treasures.”

“She is not his to hoard,” said Jon crossly. “All I know is that if we don’t find her soon, the Stormlands will be lost, and so will our throne.” 

“The Reach is secure, beloved,” Dany pointed out. “Willas Tyrell…”

“Will be given the justice of the North the moment this crisis is averted.”

Jon.”

“You know that I listen to your counsel in all things, love. Your power is equal to mine, and we are as one. But on this, I must stand firm. Willas is the reason why Aegon was bold enough to murder Arianne in her own home. We cannot have a Lord Paramount who turns his coat according to the way the wind is blowing. He must face the King’s justice, and you, my Queen, must be with me on this decision.” 

Dany’s sigh acknowledged the truth of his words. 

“Then who will hold Highgarden for us?”

“Sam.”

Dany’s head was shaking. “Sam? He is your dearest friend!” 

“Sam is pack. He and Gilly have two children, the first of many. House Tarly has long been one of the Reach’s most prosperous…”

“Jon,” she repeated.

“He is also part of our pack, love.”

“You sound just like your sisters and brothers! Pack, pack! You wolves would have all our Great Lords tied to the North. Not even Cregan Stark…”

“You wish to speak to me of Cregan?” Jon’s voice turned rough as his scarred hand tilted up her chin, then trailed down her body in a caress that bespoke both wonder and possession. “You wish to speak of him, when my sister is missing, and the Hour of the Wolf is at hand again?”

Dany instantly moistened at the deep rumble of his voice and the touch of his rough hands on her body, savoring her soft skin. No other man she’d ever been with turned her on as swiftly as this fierce, pretty warrior from the North. Dany had thought she’d known what it meant to love before Jon, but in truth, she hadn’t known the half.

The fact that the blood of the dragon ran through his veins, too, only added to his irresistible allure. She knew that the Kingdoms looked askance at their blood tie, that his father was her brother, but it was necessary to ensure the line of dragonriders continued in the world.

Besides, Dany would never give Jon up. And she knew he felt the same. 

All the same, she knew he’d initiated lovemaking not only to distract himself from the frustration of Arya’s kidnap, but also, to soften his wife so that she would see things his way. Her husband and his siblings were determined to make their rule a time for wolves, not merely an hour. She knew that she had to get him, and eventually them, to see reason…

“Jon, we can’t be seen as partial,” Dany admonished him, stilling his roving hands. “We need to strength our ties in the southron kingdoms, so that this won’t happen again.” 

Seeing that his wife meant to have her say before the sex commenced, Jon grunted, then relented. 

“It’s as you’ve said, Dany,” he told her. “Our marriage brought the North back into the Seven Kingdoms. It was political long before we knew it was a love match. We should foster our friends’ children thusly, and unite the kingdoms once and for all through ties of blood with our own children.” 

She nodded. “Starting with this one.”

Jon’s hands moved to cup her womb, where their child grew. “Aye.”

Dany melted under his touch, feeling the baby kick under his father’s hands. “Then once Arya is home and Aegon is brought to justice, we should begin thinking of a betrothal…”

“The babe is not yet born,” Jon groaned. "Surely this can wait."

“It’s never too early to begin,” was Dany’s lofty reply. “We want a match like ours, a love match that’s also politically advantageous. So…” 

“Ned Dayne’s daughter has been a delight,” Jon observed. “She’s been the one bit of laughter in the halls during these weeks. Little Ashara will be of an age with this little one, if he is a son. She’s as lovely as her mother. We could betroth…”

“No,” said Dany firmly. 

“No?”

“Not Ned’s Star, although she will be lovely. There will be another soon who will love our son. I have seen her. She will be exquisite, but strong, and fierce… the songs will speak of her someday. She will be Queen after me.”

Jon looked at his wife in awe. Dany’s dreams had always foretold much, but she had not yet spoken to him of this matter.

Her hands covered his on her womb with caresses of their own. 

“Little Star’s destiny lies elsewhere. She has another inheritance. Our son’s bride will have the blood of the North, Jon, further sealing the pact of ice and fire for generations to come.” 

Her words filled him with warmth. Still, he waited, sensing there were more to be said.

“After all, Jon, you are the first King of these realms who has truly had the blood of all its peoples: the Andals, the Rhoynar, the First Men, and the Valyrians.” Dany turned around, and climbed atop his lap. “You are ice and fire, earth and wind…”

“Not your sun and stars, though,” he teased, no longer willing to wait, sitting up, fastening his mouth to hers in a heated kiss. 

“You have become so much more to me. Much more. All the heavens, from East to West…” Switching to Valyrian, she murmured between kisses, “The sun, the moon, the stars… the entire firmament.” 

Her lips moved to the side of his neck. 

“And before you answer me, I’ve told you, I care not if I must share you with her memory. You are still my Jon… my wolf… my sweet Jaehaerys.” 

With half-lidded eyes, his fingers found her unbound silver hair, to twine in, all the better to draw her back to the pillow.

At the question in her eyes, he told her:

“She was kissed by fire. But you are fire, love. You are my warmth always. Never fear her ghost. You are the woman of my dreams.” 

He kissed her lips, then her womb.

“And this will not be our last child.” 

And in the starry night, high above Starfall, two dragons danced until the dawn.

  

*

 

The next morning, Topsy found Gendry in the tiltyard at dawn.

Gendry was not amused. “I ought to send you back to your old master,” he growled.

“No, my Lord, please! The maester here bade me come to his study. A raven came for you in the night.”

It was unusual for ravens to arrive in the darkness. Dark wings, dark words. He took the rolled parchment.

The dried sealing-wax bore the Baratheon stag.

Word from Storm’s End, then. His castle, but one he’d not yet had the chance to see. 

He broke the seal, fearing that an unpracticed scrawl would force him to find someone to read it to him. But instead, he beheld Shireen’s ladylike lettering. Slowly and carefully, he read:

Dear cousin,

A. is held at Griffin’s Roost. I could not stop R. from riding with 300 men. The green dragon circles Shipbreaker Bay.

I fear the worst. Please get there before R does. And please stay safe.

Shireen

It didn’t take Gendry long to reach the Great Hall at Starfall, half-filled with sleepy nobles, where the morning meal had just begun. He strode up to the King and Queen, sitting at the high table with Lord and Lady Dayne on either side, without preamble, ignoring all precedent… with all the confidence and entitlement of any great lord of the realms. 

“She’s at Griffin’s Roost.”

Jon stood to his feet so swiftly that the heavy chair he had been sitting in clattered to the floor.

No one else in the hall said a word.

“Prince Aegon has captured my wife, Lady Baratheon, and is holding her in my own lands,” Gendry thundered, turning to the rest of the hall. “After his murder of Princess Arianne, and his sack of the Water Gardens, Lady Arya…”

“Goodbrother, there is no need for you to explain further,” said the King. “We ride to Griffin’s Roost now.”

 

The most pernicious lingering effect of the strange drug had that Arya was no longer able to warg. Reaching for Nymeria was nigh impossible.

Once Weasel left, Arya’s first thought was to warg into her direwolf to alert help. Now that she was no longer pregnant with Gendry’s child, there would be nothing to stop Aegon from returning to… “woo” her. And while she was confident in her ability to fight him off, she couldn’t be certain that the blood-spell wasn’t broken.

Yet Nymeria seemed elusive even though the drug was nearly out of Arya’s system. She kept trying to see through the eyes of her wolf, though. Arya saw no one save for the Septa (who did awake eventually) and Weasel (who had to pretend not to know Arya under the Septa’s watchful eyes) for the next day. But all the time feigning sleep gave her opportunity to plot her escape.

The castles around Shipbreaker’s Bay all had a water gate, much like the one at Storm’s End. Arya had seen it when Davos rowed by, back when they were trying to rendezvous with Gendry and the Brotherhood. A water gate meant escape, no matter if it was gated or not. Gates and locks were not much trouble for one who knew the secrets of the House of Black and White.

She could easily use another face, even the Septa’s. The problem was that her exploits during the war were well known, as were the legends of her abilities. If her face disappeared, then the castle would sound the alarm, all would be secured, and either Edric or Aegon would return, likely with a dragon if the latter.

Arya couldn’t have that.

There was also the matter of the blood-spell. From her drugged rememberings, Arya seemed to recall something about Arianne helping to cast it. Which shocked her, for she hadn’t known that the princess was a witch like her husband’s aunt. 

But…

If Arianne helped to bind the spell…

And Arianne was dead…

Arya’s thoughts were interrupted by the sun eclipsed by shadow…

Flapping wings…

And a familiar shriek.

The green dragon had returned.

  

*

The white dragon landed atop the battlements of the main keep of Griffin’s Roost, making the ground between its feet tremble and shudder. Gendry, Ned Dayne, and twelve of their best shields immediately leapt off Viserion’s crowded back. The king went to follow, but then, a shadow blotted out the sun overhead.

“Dragon!” shouted the soldier who’d leapt off first, a man of the Reach who was part of Willas Tyrell’s personal guard. It was the last thing he ever shouted, for Rhaegal’s dragonflame melted him into the stone.

“AEGON!” 

That was Jon and Gendry, shouting the same thing at once. Exchanging the briefest of glances, Jon spurred Viserion up into the air, hurling toward Rhaegal, while Ned and the soldiers began to engage the household guard of Griffin’s Roost. 

It felt good to smash plate, bone and sinew with his warhammer again. Gendry was swinging before Jon and the white dragon were fully in the air, hearing the satisfying crunch when his hammer connected with a guard’s skull.

Perhaps Arya was right. There was really something to killing when it was justified. These were the men who had enabled Aegon to kill Arianne and capture his wife. These were the men who had forfeited their lives in order to do so.

Red-hot bloodlust surged through Gendry’s veins for the first time since the Wars. Unfamiliar, but welcome. The taciturn Smith had once again become the rampaging Bull, plowing through the guards who poured onto the battlements from the entrance of the staircase.

In the back of his mind, he heard the voice of his cousin Shireen. Fainter, more distant, her father’s. And fainter still, from the stories and songs, his own father’s…

Ours is the fury.

Beside him, at his side, on his back, in the corner of his eye Gendry could see the flash of Dawn, glittering in the sun where it wasn’t reddened with blood. The Sword of the Morning was the most affable lord from his native Dorne to the Wall, but when his blade went snicker-snack, all who witnessed it knew he was a Dayne swordsman in truth. 

One more of their men fell, as above them, the green and white dragons danced, tearing with claws, the heat of their mouths and the iron slash of their teeth directed at the heavens instead of at the melee below.

There seemed to be no end to this guard. And the dragons were evenly matched in the fray above; Viserion was no Drogon.

Then suddenly, there was a shout, a hue and a cry.

A black-clad figured streaked down from the clouds, falling toward Shipbreaker Bay, while Viserion continued to battle his green-scaled brother.

“JON!” Gendry shouted, clubbing a final soldier, then joining Ned (who’d dispatched his last assailant) to peer over the edge of the ramparts. 

But it was no use. Viserion had disengaged to dart after its master… Rhaegal and his rider on his heels…

…a thousand thoughts flickered through Gendry’s usually deliberate mind… of the realms with no King… of Dany having to face Aegon alone... of the fatherless unborn prince or princess... hearing the horrified moan that Ned Dayne could not fully suppress…

Then came a sound like none other, and a creature moving faster than any either Gendry or Ned had witnessed during the wars streaked along the side of the castle, gusting their hair upwards in a burst of heated air, a black, flying streak with a silver lady on its back. 

Drogon and Daenerys caught Jon in midair.

Neither Gendry nor Ned would have believed it had they not seen it.

Within a blink of the eye, the great black dragon was eye level with them, sizing them up. Dany was peering over its enormous head, a rather dazed Jon clinging to her waist.

“We’re going after him,” panted the queen. “Get Arya.”

With a nod, both men raced to the stairs.

 

*

 

The door to the room opened, and it was Arya’s time to feign sleep again.

She had determined that she would kill her assailant, whomever it was. Now that the damnable drug was out of her system, she could easily kill her way out of the castle and make her way back to… where had the troops been going? Pinkmaiden? Tumbleton? The last military conference of the lords and ladies in the Prince's Pass was naught but a blur in her not-yet-fully-cleared mind.

It was no matter. She was looking forward to the kills. They’d stripped her of every blade that she wore, but it would not make a difference. It had been a mistake to leave her hands and feet unbound; Arya Stark didn’t need weapons to kill. 

Whoever had just opened the door paused, as if to look their fill. Let them look, for they would shortly lose their ability to see…

Right before they lost their lives.

The She-Wolf could almost taste the kill. It was on the tip of her tongue. She had to stop herself from savoring the anticipation of it in her mouth and concentrate.

But the footsteps, when they began, were all wrong. They were not human steps…

Before Arya knew it, she had a faceful of direwolf tongue, as Nymeria lapped her face.

Nymeria.

She had been found, then! 

A second direwolf nuzzled her knee. Arya glanced. Shaggydog.

A third barked. Ghost!

The castle had been taken. The direwolves were here, sent up to protect her.

Arya was floored. It was the first time in her life that she’d ever been rescued. She wasn’t the kind of girl who’d been the damsel; she’d had to learn how to fight her way out of situations. She’d expected a long, unpleasant day of murdering servants and castle guards, then stealing away from Griffin’s Roost under cover of night.

Sure enough, Rhaegal had been here, which meant Aegon had been here. But after several moments, she ceased hearing the dragon, which meant he’d turned elsewhere.

That meant she was rescued. But how?

And by whom? 

There was a clamor of footsteps in the hallway beyond the door, a flash of red hair on a tall, mailclad Northern lad…

 "Arya!”

“Rickon.”

Arya tried to stand, but her legs betrayed her. Whatever that poison had done, it had made her weak. Before she collapsed on them, there was her little brother, there to catch her before she fell. 

Hugging her quickly, he set her on the bed.

“We fought our way up the castle, and from what Weasel told me, Gendry and Ned were fighting their way down…”

“Gendry?” Arya gasped. “Where is he?”

“Right here, milady.”

This time, Arya leapt out of that infernal bed, weak legs or no. She clung to her husband’s bloody armor, heedless of anything save for being in his arms again. 

He tilted her lips up for a kiss, but she shook her head. At the question in his eyes, she whispered, “Poison.”

He nodded grimly. Gendry knew that Arya could take poisons that would kill most. The fact that she had been so affected by this one meant that she couldn’t kiss her husband until she could be checked by a maester… her saliva, her tears, and her blood could be the very death of her husband. Certainly that was a tactic not unknown to the Faceless.

But the grim set of his jaw worried her. If he was this enraged about the fact that Aegon poisoned her, his fury when he learned that Aegon was the cause of them losing their first child, poisoning their defenseless babe right in the womb, would know no bounds.

“The King and Queen chased Aegon out of here,” Ned Dayne supplied, wiping Dawn on his leather-bound knee before sheathing the famous sword. “He will be back, so we should leave this place soon as we’re able.”

“The queen shouldn’t be chasing anyone,” Arya insisted. “She’s nearly in her confinement.”

“The queen wasn’t going to have what happened to Arianne happen to you,” said Rickon. “Do you remember any of it?”

Arya glanced at him, then Ned Dayne, and finally Gendry.

“I remember all of it. I want to find out what kind of poison the Septa here used on me.” She frowned. “What happened to Edric? Not you, Ned… the other one, the one that kidnapped me?” 

“The wolves,” said Gendry grimly. “They got to him before we could.” 

Arya gasped. 

“Show me… whoa, stop it, stupid, I can walk!”

Gendry shook his head. “Not a chance.” To his youngest goodbrother, he said, “Rick, grab that blanket.”

She fussed as they made their way down the hall, past countless slain guards, past numerous cowering servants.

“You always do this, Gendry! I’m not some bloody child! Once Weasel told me what was going on, and Hot Pie and Willow managed to get that shite out of my system, I was on my way out of here!”

“You’re weak as a kitten,” was his reply. “Skin and bones.”

Arya continued to rail, and Gendry, heedless, continued with the other men and the wolves down the stairs of the keep to the kitchens below. 

Hot Pie and Willow rushed up to them as soon as they appeared in the doorway.

“Arry!” exclaimed the baker. “We wanted to come up, we did… all we could do was sneak away the poison bottle so that it was syrup instead.”

“Aye, took most of a week before Weasel here could wake y’up,” Willow supplied, handing off basket after basket to a serving boy, as young Weasel tied bundles of bread.  “Cart’s almost ready, m’lord…” 

“Since when am I m’lord to you, Willow?” Gendry said. “Thanks for the cart, she’s too weak to walk to the ship.”

“I am not,” fussed Arya angrily. “I’m going to remember all of this.”

“It’ll be slow going,” said Hot Pie. “Roads in the rainwood are terrible. The griffins had their own road to the shore, but there was a lot of trees in the way when we came.”

 “My men are clearing the trees,” Rickon supplied. “Should be bumpy, but we’ll pass.”

“Aye,” said Gendry, “but if it’s too rough, I’ll put her afore me on my horse…”

“Gendry, if you don’t stop this, now," Arya scowled, "I’ll never speak to you again.” 

Hot Pie, Willow, and Weasel all burst out laughing.

“That will be the day, big sister,” Rickon smirked, as Arya scowled. “After the past fortnight, I don’t think he’s letting you out of his sight ever again.”

Arya continued to scowl as her family and friends made japes and her husband loaded her onto the wagon. Sure enough, his blue eyes remained upon her each time she looked up. Each time this happened, she’d roll hers, even as her heart fluttered in her chest.

Sure, mayhaps he was stubborn as the bull of his sigil. But he was so very handsome, and he’d come for her, and…

His cool, closed lips pressed against her forehead just before he turned away from the wagon to mount the fresh horse that Rickon’s men had taken from the stables for him. Arya’s eyes followed, mouth watering.

If he’s going to be stupid, she thought, he could at least kiss me properly.

Poison or not, at least he’d die a happy man.  

Although it isn’t as if I could live without him…

Hot Pie and Weasel rode in the wagon with her, while Willow drove the pair of mules who pulled it. Gendry, Ned, and Rickon followed behind, and the surviving men who’d come from Storm’s End and Starfall rode behind and before. 

Within a few moments, she heard Gendry call “Halt!” and he was coming back to the wagon to retrieve her.

“You wanted to know what happened to Edric,” he told her. “Apparently Aegon left him behind to guard the castle. He and his men came out to meet Rickon and the wolves…”

“Never was there a greater fool,” remarked Rickon.

From her perch in her husband’s arms, Arya surveyed the carnage. Battlefields she’d seen aplenty, and sacks of villages and holdfasts besides, but to a man, Edric Baratheon’s forces had been slaughtered. Arya tried to feel sadness or even a bit of remorse, but she remembered the news she had yet to share with Gendry, and she felt nothing.

She did, however, gasp when they arrived at the mangled body. Only the Baratheon crest and the intricacy of the armor bespoke his identity. His arms had been nearly separated from his body, and there was only a bloody blur where his face had been…

For the first time in a long time, Arya was absolutely horrified. Edric Storm had been served the justice of the North, but the direwolves had been vicious.

Then she recalled the taste of blood in her mouth from a bit earlier…

And the remorse she hadn’t felt suddenly flooded her veins.

As did the sense that she was missing something. Something vital, something important. Arya looked from the ruined body of her husband’s half-brother, to Gendry, back to the body, to Gendry again… 

“The blood-spell!” she said, almost exploding from his arms in a blind panic. Her bare feet sank into the muddy ground of the rainwood, and the blanket fell off her shoulders as she folded her arms. “Gendry, why aren’t you dead?”

“Because the spell broke.” 

That was Ned Dayne, coming up beside them in the wood.

“We don’t know how it happened,” said Gendry. “Maybe because of what they did to Arianne. Trystane says she and some of the Sand Snakes knew about it, although he claims not to know much else….” 

“Of course, it’s his neck,” said Arya dryly. “All this time, I assumed the spell was bound by me, especially after that time at Mistwood… but they didn’t have my blood to use then. They had Arianne’s. She died, so it’s broken.

“The wolves robbed us of our justice, goodbrother,” Rickon called out, riding up to where they stood. “Edric deserved to die at our hands.”

But a strange look dawned in Arya’s eyes.

“I told you I had no need of defending,” she said quietly.

And remembering the sweet, hot, metallic taste of blood in her mouth, Arya licked her lips.

  

Storm’s End was only two days’ sail away from the landing at Griffin’s Roost. Arya, whose strength really did need recovering, was below decks, dozing as they approached. But Gendry braved the salty spray of the sea and the pelting spring rains to catch sight of it.

As always, his friend Ned Dayne was by his side. 

“Your castle,” he said.

“Doesn't seem real,” was Gendry’s reply as he stared up into the grey twilight sky, darkening with nightfall. 

“It is real, brother,” Ned said, almost in awe as he looked at Storm’s End, too. Never before had he used the familial term with Gendry, although they had both been sworn members of the Brotherhood in truth. “It’s real… and it’s yours.” 

Gendry couldn’t believe it. It was something he couldn’t wrap his head around.

“It’s mine, but Aegon’s out there, somewhere with a dragon. Even Storm’s End can’t withstand dragonfire.”

“Yes, but he isn’t the only dragon,” Ned observed sagely. “After this blow, Aegon will retreat somewhere and lick his wounds. And when he returns, we’ll be ready for him.”

Transferring to a skiff with a murmuring, protesting Arya in his arms, they rowed into the Water Gate. 

“You’re going to love this,” said Rickon animatedly. “Winterfell’s landlocked, we don’t have anything like this…”

“But Winterfell has the oldest godswood in Westeros, and the crypts besides,” said Arya with a yawn. “Admit it, you’re just looking forward to seeing Shireen.”

Which he was, of course. The moment the landing came into sight, Rickon leapt from the boat onto the stones, snatching a waiting Shireen about her waist and spinning her around as she laughed and laughed.

Willow, Hot Pie, and Weasel were already there, having rowed ahead, along with the rest of those who’d accompanied them from the castle of the griffins.

Lady Marya was waiting along with one of the handmaids, warm blankets under a tarp ready for them.

And of course, leaning on his cane, with a wide smile, a recovering Ser Davos was there to meet them, along with his wife.

“Lord and Lady Baratheon, I presume,” said Ser Davos, a teasing note in his voice. “Storm’s End is yours.” 

Gendry lifted his wife by the waist and set her on the landing, Davos and Rickon helping to steady the She-Wolf. Arya kissed Davos’ cheek, turning it red, and hugged Lady Marya.

“Thank you,” said Arya to them both.

“We’re glad to have the two of you back, dearie,” said Marya. “Safe and sound.” 

Gendry was the last to step from the rowboat onto the landing. He looked around. Besides Davos and Marya, Ned, Rickon, and Shireen, everyone else on the landing from guards to servants were on one knee. Several were sneaking curious peeks from beneath bowed heads. None remained standing.

“My Lord?” said Davos. “Welcome home.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Days 226-310

  

Arya blinked, sitting up in bed.

She was in her chambers at Storm’s End, in the featherbed that felt like a cloud. It was much as she’d left it many moons before, richly appointed, the most luxurious room she’d ever slept in.

The difference was that last night, she’d shared that bed with Gendry for the first time. His delicious scent was on the bedcoverings that she buried her nose in, wolflike, but there was no sign of him. Early riser that he was, he’d left her sleeping.

Of course, she had no memory of this, only vague recollections of their landing, the Seaworths greeting them along with their people as Rickon and Shireen disappeared into the castle (those two scamps), then Gendry carrying her up the winding, interminable stairs to the very top of the drum tower as her hands fisted in his tunic, and her head rested against his broad chest.

Then she was scrubbed clean and put in a nightgown by unseen hands, but she didn’t think that Gendry had managed that alone. No, it was Marya and Weasel who had seen to her, insisting that their young lord eat. After a while, he was sat at the table in the chamber with dinner, then disappeared into the outer chamber once Ned Dayne came calling. By then, Arya was tucked in, and must have fallen fast asleep...

“Good day, my lady!”

It was Lady Marya, coming into the chamber with the castle’s new maester, Pylos, formerly of Dragonstone. Not yet thirty, he had an open, friendly demeanor. One of Archmaester Ebrose’s top students in Healing at the Citadel, half of his chain was made of pure silver links.

“Good morning, Lady Marya,” Arya replied, surprised that her voice was no longer thin as parchment.

“It’s no longer morning, but nearly eventide, young lady,” said the Seaworth woman in her brisk, friendly manner. “You fell asleep so late last night, you dreamed the night and almost half the day away!”

Arya nodded. “Yes, but I am feeling better.” She turned to the maester with a smile. “Maester Pylos, I believed you remained at Dragonstone.”

“My lady, the Citadel has recalled me from my post, given the Prince’s recent actions. The Septon has also likewise been recalled. I requested reassignment to the seat of the House I began my career serving, House Baratheon.” His usually solemn eyes twinkled. “In truth, I had hoped to serve alongside my old friend Ser Davos once more… and to see the Lady Shireen as a new-flowered bride.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” said Arya sincerely. “Davos speaks very highly of you, and so does Shireen.”

The young maester inclined his head. “It is an honor to serve you and your household, my lady. Now, I have been told about this poison you were made to ingest against your will…. may I examine you?” 

As Maester Pylos performed his examination, Arya couldn’t help but recall being a child at Winterfell with Maester Luwin. Pylos reminded her of him. He was a true maester of the Citadel, loyal to castle, but also, loyal to the family it contained. Maester Luwin had seen them through all their illnesses and had even delivered her, assisting the midwives, assuring her mother and father that all would be well…

Arya realized that Pylos would be the maester who would deliver her babes, provide their schooling, and see to their health.

That is, if she could have them.

“It seems to have been a most curious poison,” Pylos said at last. “However, I do not fear that death lingers in your humors, my lady.”

“How can you be sure?”

He held up the glass jar he’d brought in. “This leech is filled with your blood. It is alive and well. If the poison had lingered, it would not have survived.”

“But I don’t feel like myself." 

Maester Pylos’ eyes twinkled.

“When’s the last time you had your moon’s blood?”

Arya pulled the coverlet to her chin.

“At the Griffin’s Roost, although I can't remember everything that happened,” she said glumly. Then, in an uncharacteristically small voice, “I think I lost my babe.” 

“If you did, you couldn’t have possibly been very far along. I see no sign of it.”

In response, Arya didn’t say anything. Her experience in captivity had been so real. Drugged and feverish, she was certain that she’d been with child, and lost her little one. The thought filled her with sorrow and melancholy of a sort she hadn’t felt since the deaths of Father, Mother, and Robb.

“Mayhaps I can’t have children,” she muttered as Maester Pylos gathered his vials and bottles.

Marya Seaworth was shaking her head. “Don’t say that, child. You’ll give your husband heirs in good time, see if you don’t….” 

“I don’t want to just ‘give him heirs.’ I want Gendry to have a family of his own.” She frowned. “Where is he?” 

“He’s been all over the castle, with Davos,” Marya replied. “Came up here a few hours, then was back down in the Great Hall by cockcrow. Think he’s turned over every stone twice, talked to even the littlest scullery maid and the lowest serving-boy. Never seen anything like it in my life.” 

Arya threw off the plush bedcoverings. “He’s never been here before.” And I wanted to show him everything, too.

Just another thing that Aegon took from me. Another thing he owes.

I will repay him for every day he stole from us. What happened to Edric Storm, the horror of it, will seem a mercy by the time I deal with the green dragon.

For the North remembers.

And the fury will be all mine.

   

 

“What do you think, Lord Baratheon?”

Gendry looked from the lord’s seat in the Great Hall at Storm’s End, to Davos, and then back again. The room was vast and cavernous, but his craftsman’s eye caught the small details. There were stags and antlers everywhere. Carved on the oaken legs of the long tables, sculpted into the reliefs set above each of the dozen blazing fireplaces round the room, stitched into the tapestry covering before the high table.

He and Davos had walked every inch of the castle since first light that morning. It was almost too much to take in.

Ridiculous to think of me as a high lord in some bloody castle, I always thought.

Yet here I am.

“Where’s the smithy?” Gendry asked.

“Below and outside. But that fierce little wife of yours would be quite cross if I took you there without her.” Davos’ eyes suggested some mischief. “You’ll have to wait until she wakes up. Marya’s gone to check on her now.” 

Gendry frowned. “Were she another, I would’ve feared what that fucker Aegon did to her while he had her. But…”

“You know Arya.”

“Aye.” He couldn’t quite keep the note of pride out of his voice. Or his worry. “All the same, she isn’t herself.”

“She’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

Footsteps distinct from those of the servants scurrying around and setting the tables for dinner approached. Gendry and Davos looked up into the grinning, open face of Ned Dayne. He was dressed in full armor, and ready to ride.

“You aren’t leaving so soon?” said Davos.

Ned nodded. “Just got a raven. I’ve got to head to King’s Landing. The king and queen are back and I’m summoned to court immediately.”

That didn’t seem to bode well. “Did they find Aegon?”

“No, but they wish to meet with their lords and small council.”

“Without me? Or Arya?”

The Sword of the Morning cocked his head. “Didn’t say, but I suspect your goodbrother wishes for his sister to heal before she runs off into the fray again.”

“That’s nonsense, I’m perfectly fine.”

The three men turned around. There stood Arya, arms folded. She was wearing a dress he’d never seen her in, brown with golden hook clasps. For once, she wasn't wearing her usual riding trousers beneath. It looked like many other dresses he’d seen around the Stormlands, sheer and scant enough to leave only enough to the imagination to tantalize… except for the low, plunging neckline that revealed the creamy, soft skin of her breasts.

He noticed that she wasn’t wearing her bull pendant… then realized that she hadn’t been wearing it when they found her at Griffin’s Roost. Which meant Aegon or Edric or one of their lackeys had removed it, since Arya never took it off.

She wasn’t wearing her wolf pin, either. That he’d seen in their bedchamber, resting atop a side table next to her favorite dagger, the one she tended to wear at her waist.

Instead, she wore a pin he’d never seen before…

“I only came to say goodbye to Ned,” she was saying, running into her old friend’s arms.

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll all be seeing each other soon enough,” replied Ned, folding her in his embrace… and meeting Gendry’s unamused stare. Chuckling to himself, the Sword of the Morning let the She-Wolf go before her kiss landed on his cheek.

Arya looked back at her husband with a knowing smirk. As Ned took his leave with Davos, she closed the few paces between them and looked full into his face. She was used to reading Gendry like a book, as he did her, but she’d never seen this look in his eyes before.

“Did you have a good day, my lord?” she teased him, twining their fingers together. “How do you like your castle?”

“My castle,” he repeated with a chuckle. “Bloody ridiculous is what I think it is.”

“Your king and queen would beg to differ. And so would the lords and ladies of these Stormlands.” She pressed herself close to him, heedless of any staring servants. “Right now, you’re the most beloved lord in the Seven Kingdoms.”

He studied her face intently, holding their hands together against his chest. “As long as milady thinks so, I don't care what the rest of Westeros thinks.”

Then Gendry hesitated, hovering a few inches away from her lips, until Arya stood on tiptoe and closed the distance.

In between kisses, she said, “Poison’s gone. Maester Pylos… said I’ll be… fine.”

“Good,” he murmured against her lips. “Now show me what you did to my forge, woman.”

And as much as Arya tried to remain impassive, she couldn’t help the grin that broke out on her face.

“After dinner. Good things come to those who wait.”

 

*

 

Arya ever after felt that their first dinner at Storm’s End lasted too long. Her insides were all aflutter from anticipation for the long night ahead, so she did not eat very much. Besides, the physical and emotional residue of her ordeal at Griffin’s Roost was still with her.

What little she did partake of was down to Gendry, who between bites would occasionally put a morsel into her mouth. After the tenth time or so that he did this, Arya protested.

“I think you’ve got the wrong Stark. It’s my sister who’s her husband’s ‘little bird.’”

“Maybe, but Hot Pie’s gone all out for this dinner. The least we can do is eat up. Else we’ll never hear the end of it from him.”

She nodded, conceding the point, before turning to her own trencher.

Along with Arya and Gendry sat Rickon and Shireen, Davos and Marya, Lady Mary Mertyns’ three young daughters, and the leaders of the Brotherhood without Banners. There was also word that other lords and ladies would arrive in the coming days from around the Stormlands. They wanted to behold their lord, greet Gendry and Arya properly, and gather their strength after the Dragon Prince’s grave insult to that most martial of kingdoms.

Well, everything that’s happened forced me and Gendry to learn these lands long before we ever would have, Arya thought. She’d now traversed the length and breadth of the Stormlands from Bronzewood to the Marches. It had not yet been a full year since she left Winterfell, but she was fast learning this wild land as well as she knew her beloved North and her mother’s Riverlands.

She slanted a glance at her husband. He was the son of Robert Baratheon in truth. His presence could fill a room without saying a single word. This castle was that of his father’s people. In truth, it was why the Stormlanders followed him without question, why he rose to leadership within the Brotherhood, why he was beloved.

It was much as Arya had come to realize… Gendry belonged here.

But Gendry was also of his mother’s people, the mages of the rainwood who yet kept the Old Gods, who still conversed with the last Children of the Forest. That mystical blood from his mother’s side came out in his belief in the Lord of Light… and especially in his magnificent metalwork. He was more than an armorer; he was an artisan and a craftsman. His work had gained fame during the Wars, and Arya didn't want to see him lose what he loved most.

Right afore the dessert courses, Gendry stood up. All were silent, all eyes on his tall, broad figure standing afront the lord’s seat.

“It is good to be in the lands of my ancestors. I am thankful for Ser Davos for showing me the castle, and looking after the East in my absence. I am thankful for every man, woman, and child who have kept faith with House Baratheon and tended to this place since the death of my uncles. Lady Arya and I will rule over you with justice, but we also want to love these lands as you do. Let us move forward into the spring, and may these lands of the Storm prosper now and always.”

Ser Davos, visibly moved, stood to his feet. His sword was unsheathed, and the point of it struck the ground as he knelt.

“We are your people, my lord, now and always,” swore the old Onion Knight. “Long live Lord Baratheon, the Bull, Warden of the East!