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For Want of a Better King

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On The Road

 

Arya

 

She sleeps lightly, too afraid of nightmares and revealing too much. And like the night before, she finds herself less exhausted than when she’d laid down in the first place, but not actually rested. The three boys are still asleep around her, Hot Pie snoring not quite loudly enough to wake the others. For the second time, Gendry is curled up nearest to her, taking up as little space as possible given his large frame, like he’s used to sleeping on a tiny mattress, not yet used to the ample ground. With his eyes closed she’s not distracted by the blue, and she can see how long his lashes are, how his ears stick out a bit, and how soft his lips look. He’s a kind giant, she’s officially decided. What to do with him was another matter entirely. Her father had felt responsible for him. So now she was too, especially since she couldn’t seem to be rid of him anyway. And he did serve as a kind of friendly guard dog, or maybe a bull, like his helm. In actuality, a stag, but he didn’t know that.

 

She got up to make water before the sky was fully light, taking the opportunity to unwrap her chest, scratch to her heart’s content, and redo the wrapping. She also readjusted the pouch to a more manageable position. She felt her face too, it didn’t hurt so much, but it was quite stiff, and still slightly swollen. She had no mirror to inspect her reflection more closely, but it was a few days in, so she could imagine it would be turning blue and purple around the edges. If she were so inclined, she might make a compress of rosemary and cinnamon to place on the swelling, but it wasn’t available, and besides, she would rather slow the healing than quicken it. The ugly marks were a godsend; they added to her tough persona, reduced the chance of being recognized, and made her undesirable.

 

Breakfast that morning was to be biscuits and salted squirrel. A few of the older recruits were already waiting in line; she took her place, and with a quick glance back at her little group, took enough for each. The man handing out the portions looked suspicious, but told her if she was lying, she’d go without for the next few days. Hot Pie woke immediately to the smell of breakfast, and smiled as he took the shares for the three of them. He hungrily scarfed down his portion, and looked longingly at the rest. She gave him such a nasty look; hand on her sheath that he put the food down gently. She walked off satisfied; she’d already reached her quota of nice for the day.

 

Apparently, The Gods must have seen her reluctant good deed, because after midday, Yoren announced that her little group would have a turn riding in the wagons. Lommy climbed up fine, but Hot Pie had to scramble up. Her and Gendry watched, then looked at each other, before chuckling at the scene. Gendry climbed aboard the second wagon, and while she could have gone with the two idiots, when Gendry held his hand out to her, she clasped it and let him pull her up. While her feet were glad for the reprieve, she worried about the consequences to her sanity. Too much free time, led to too much thought. She needn’t have worried though, after a few bumpy stretches of road, the sun shining down, she fell into a deep sleep.

 

In the dream, which she knew was a dream, she was riding on a horse, black as night, through the same King’s Road. On her right, her father, alive and well, if a little pale; just the two of them. She takes in every detail, focusing primarily on his warming smile, the soft grey of his eyes.

 

“Will we make it home?” She asks. Though there’s so much more she wants to say and ask, it’s all that comes out.

 

“I won’t, I’m afraid.” And he pats his speckled mare lovingly.

 

“But then, where will you go?”

 

“Don’t worry yourself yet, love. I’ll ride the roads with you as far as I can.” There’s a particularly rocky stretch, and her horse hobbles and whinnies.

 

“How far is that?”

 

“Well, it’s not so much how far as only some of the time.” He explains, or tries to.

 

“But, what about the rest of the way?”

 

“Well that’s why there’s the boy.” He explains.

 

“I know. I’m to look out for him, and I will, but…”

 

“No, my daughter. I sent him to look out for you.” The horse rears and she loses her grip, caught unawares, tumbling to the ground, before his grip keeps her upright.

 

Only the hand holding her up isn’t that of Eddard Stark, it’s Gendry, keeping her from falling off the wagon.

 

“Woah there. Alright?” He asks. She hadn’t wanted to wake. There was so much more she wanted to ask him, if she could she would sleep forever.

 

“Did I say anything?” She asks Gendry, worried about what she had given away in her sleep.

 

“Nah. You was just smiling for a bit.” She nods, assured. He hands her some water, and she drinks almost all of it before it occurs to her he might be thirsty too. She offers it to him, but he shakes his head.

 

“I already drank my fill. You go on.” She’s drinking the rest before he’s finished talking. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, the cool water feels good on her bruised cheek.

 

“Looks better.” He says. “Should be almost normal in a couple days.” He comments on her face. That’s not what she wants, not what she wants at all. “Where do you reckon we are now?” He asks conversationally.

 

“Near Hayford territory, I expect.” She answers, having been wondering the same thing herself. He looks at her surprised.

 

“Ya think? How da ya know?” Crap.

 

“I don’t. It’s just a guess.” True enough, she can’t be sure.

 

“Where are you from, Ari?” She’s trying to come up with a lie but he keeps talking. “I know you’re not from King’s Landing. You don’t talk like it.”

 

“Maidenpool.” She says, feeling a bit guilty for lying.

 

“Maidenpool? And a brother on The Wall. What you doin’ all the way down ‘ere?”

 

“Bad luck.” She jokes. He snorts at that.

 

“I never been outta King’s Landing. I may be givin’ up my freedom, but at least I’m seein’ a bit o the world. Not much, but. Well, it’s somethin’ innit?”

 

“I always wanted to travel across The Narrow Sea. Bravos and Essos.”

 

“Across the sea? You’re braver than me then, I’d be too afraid. I can’t swim.” He says.

 

“Well, you won’t need to swim at The Wall. All the water’s frozen.”

 

“Aye, suppose you’re right. And Maidenpool, what’s ‘at like?”

 

“Not so crowded. Nor so hot. How do you stand it?” She asks, feeling the sweat accumulating in her pits, unable to escape through the bandages tied tight.

 

“I’m used to it. It’s ten times as hot in the forge. I’m worried about the snowy North, to be honest. I’ll prolly freeze my bollocks off. Oh well, won’t really need ‘em anyway.” It had been a long time since anyone used such language with her. Her brothers used to, then they’d get a slap from her mother, and they’d be more careful. More than anything else, it endeared the boy to her. And she finds herself laughing, genuinely laughing for the first time in who knows how long. He laughs along with her and it’s a pleasant ride in the wagon from then on.

 

They set up camp while it’s still light, Yoren wanting the chance to do a bit of hunting before dark to replenish their stores of meat.

 

Gendry hops down, and helps her out too. He walks to the nearest tree, and starts peeing, a strong, heavy stream. She tries not to, but does peak for an instant. He doesn’t notice, and she quickly wanders off with some story about collecting wood for the fire.

 

After a satisfying piss, she sets about on her task. She finds many twigs, thick and little, older and new. She’s not sure which kind is best, so she grabs a variety. A bit farther on she sees seeds scattered, and apple cores pecked clean. She looks up to see a huge tree, maybe ten times her height, within its leaves she can make out green orbs, apples. The lowest branch is still too high, and she curses in frustration.

 

Heading back into camp, arms laden with branches and the like, she hears a whisper.

 

“Psst. Boy. Lovely boy.” She looks up and finds it originated from the cage. It’s the mysterious man; the overly polite one. “A man has a terrible thirst. This man would be grateful for a drink of water.” She hesitates, but she remembers a time he was kind to her, he showed her the secret passage, and spoke to her with respect. Denying him something so simple seemed to go against who she wanted to be. No, she doesn’t want his discomfort on her conscience. She sets the bundle aside and fills a cup for the man.

 

He takes it without incident, eyeing her the entire time. She makes to turn away, but he says. “You are called, Ari.” She nods, turning the unmarked side of her face away. ”Do you remember a man’s name, boy?’ He asks, one eyebrow raised. She hesitates.

 

“Jaquen Haguar.” She says.

 

“Just so. From the free city of Lorath. A pleasure.” A Lorathi, what was he doing down here?

 

Another in the cage shouts. “Give us a drink too, you little shit. Beer. Wine. Now.”

 

“I ‘aven’t got beer.” She says, voice as low as she can make it.

 

“Then come ‘ere. A little thing like you. I’ll fuck you bloody, fuck you proper.” And he sneers at her, tongue wiggling so lewdly it makes her stomach churn.

 

“What do you think you’re doin’? Yoren said to stay away from that lot.” Gendry says from behind her, steering her away from the cage, her discarded bundle in one arm.

 

“A man begs pardon for his companions, they lack common courtesy.” The Lorathi says to their backs. She turns around against her better judgment and looks him in the eye; he lifts the corner of his mouth in response. Gendry turns her round again.

 

“Stay away from them.” He warns.

 

“They’re in a cage.” She responds. She’s not sure why she’s making excuses, but she does feel drawn to the Lorathi, and she’s relatively certain she won’t stay away from him.

 

“Yeah. ‘Cause they’re dangerous.” She can’t argue with that. And she doesn’t want to fight with him. She has a better idea. He deposits the branches near the team in charge of the fire, and she motions to him to follow her. He does so without question.

 

At the tree with the apples he understands without her having to tell him, his face lighting up at the prospect. He laces his fingers together like a stirrup, she steps in, and he boosts her up to the nearest branch. It’s still quite high, and she has to stretch to reach. It takes all of her strength, but she pulls her body up ungracefully, and steps onto the thick branch.

 

“Alright?” He calls up.

 

“Yeah.” She calls down. Carefully she climbs higher until she’s within reach of the fruit.

 

“Oye!” She shouts, looks down for his black head of hair, plucks an apple and tosses it down as far away from him as she can manage. Not far. He gets the idea though and moves out of the way. She picks as many apples as she can reach, six total, though one is rather tiny.

 

Slower than the climb, she makes her descent. One branch at a time, slowly lowering herself little by little.

 

“Just jump Ari, I’ve got ya.” She’s only half way down, but the idea of jumping, of Gendry catching her, causes her to continue her downward climb.

 

“Come on, it’ll be dark soon.” His voice startles her, and her boot slips on a smoother patch of bark. She feels herself fall, the wind knocked out of her chest by the drop, but she’s caught before she hits the ground. “See, I got ya.” And he’s smiling at her, all smug. She is relieved, but quickly sets herself upright, mutters a quick thanks, and starts to collect the apples.

 

“You’re welcome.” He says. On closer inspection, the apples are under ripe. She points this out to Gendry crestfallen.

 

“They just need more time.” He says rationally. She smiles back at his good sense. He stores the apples in his shirt, and hands the good one to her. “Here. This one’ll do.”

 

“I’ll cut it.” She suggests.

 

“Nah, it was your idea. Your hard work. You have it.”

 

“You helped. Besides, I’d feel bad.”

 

“Ari, you don’t have ta…”

 

“Eat the fucking apple.” She insists. He chuckles and nods. She cuts the apple up with her blade, the third time she’s used it in as many days, and thanks Jon once more for his thoughtful gift. They both eat in silence, the fruit is a bit bitter, but neither minds. It’s sweeter from the effort, and the sharing. They decide on the way back to give the teeny one to Hot Pie and Lommy to share. The boys are actually thrilled with the apple, and she suspects they’ll be loyal from now on. They hide the rest in his helmet, eat the roasted pigeon, and settle in for the night. She yawns and stretches, her shirt rising a bit to reveal some of her stomach, too excited to sleep, hoping to see her father again in her dreams. She feels a prickling on the back of her neck, and becomes aware of the proximity of the other men and boys. When she looks over, all eyes are closed, but she feels self-conscious, naked.

 

She’d let her guard down. Thinking about her skin showing, knowing how small and delicate she looked, remembering the other murderer’s interest in fucking her bloody, she sets off from the group. She goes off once more to make water, though she doesn’t really have to go. Her breasts are secured, but she can’t do anything about the curve of her waist and hips, and the possibility of someone noticing.

 

She feels her face; the pain is at a minimum now. The light of the moon allows her to see the forest floor, where she finds a few pebbles. She picks them up in her palm, and harshly rubs them over her damaged face, the rough edges disturb the healing flesh, making the muscles of her cheek and jaw scream out in pain, and reopening the cut by her eye. There, she thinks, it’ll swell once more, and take a few days longer to heal. She’ll be ugly, she’ll be safe.