"This is a wolf road."
Gendry startles more than he means to; he hadn't expected to meet anyone on his way to his grandmother's. His mother has taken her food every Sunday for as long as he can remember, and she's never mentioned seeing other humans, let alone wolves. He knows it's a wolf road, but they aren't supposed to bother him. He glances around and spots it, a few meters off the road, crouched on a low tree branch. He thinks it's a girl, but it's hard to tell; she (for convenience) is dark and wiry, very small, with short-cropped hair and dressed in the leather and furs most wolves wear. She can't be more than fourteen.
"Yes, it is," Gendry says, stopping and giving her a slight bow. Wolves deserve respect, even tiny ones.
"Stags don't belong on wolf roads."
That takes Gendry aback. "I'm not a stag," he says carefully, confused.
She looks him up and down, head cocked. She's not coming any closer; he doesn't feel hunted. She's still thinking about what to do to him. Of course, he's about twice as large as she is. Even a wolf might be reluctant to start that fight. "You smell like a stag," she says at last.
"I live in a stag town," says Gendry. "We all probably smell like stag."
She doesn't look convinced, but she doesn't press it. Instead, she says, "You haven't come this way before."
"No, I haven't."
"Where are you going?"
Gendry starts walking again; he wants to make it before dark. "I'm bringing my grandmother food for the week. My mother usually comes, but she hurt her leg. She can't make the journey until she's healed. So I'm doing it for her."
"Is that her cloak?" the wolf asks. She doesn't sound any farther away, but he doesn't look back to see if she's following him.
"No, it's mine. But it looks like hers. She made them both."
"Why are they red?"
"Why don't you ask her?"
"She's not here, is she?"
Gendry finally looks back; the wolf is off the tree branch, but not on the path, still at the edge of the woods, still a few meters away. Following him like a lost puppy, he thinks, and smiles. "Well, she was last week, and you didn't ask her, did you?"
"She didn't smell like stag. Why's it red?"
"Why shouldn't it be?"
"You don't blend in."
"I don't want to. I don't want our hunters mistaking me for a stag either. I know wolves sometimes get hit by accident."
Her flash of a smile is all teach. "That's worse for the hunters than the wolves. Besides, if everyone can see you, then the ones who want to hurt you can too."
"No one wants to hurt me."
She considers. "I might. You haven't given me anything."
He frowns. "Why should I give you anything?"
"For safe passage," says the wolf. "We take payment for safe passage."
Gendry's heard about wolves taking payment--it's usually the male wolves, taking payment from pretty young things. Maybe she is a boy, but he doesn't think so. Even if she were, she'd be a little young to be looking for that.
He roots around in his bag, finds a sweet roll, a small one that his grandmother won't miss. He tosses it back and hears the wolf catch it. "Safe passage?" he asks, not looking back.
He hears her bite into it. "Safe passage," she agrees.
She waits outside while he visits with his grandmother, and then follows him home, silent. He doesn't look back, but he still knows she's there. "I'll be going again next week," he tells her, throwing it over his shoulder. "Same time. Anything you like to eat? For safe passage."
She's quiet so long that he thinks he might be wrong, she might not have followed him after all. But then she says, "The roll was good. We don't have a lot of bread. Being wolves."
Gendry grins for the rest of the day.
After a month, Gendry says, "You know, you could walk with me."
She comes up next to him; she really is small. But this close, he can see that she must be strong, and might even be a little older than he thought.
"Do you bother everyone who walks this road?" he asks. "Or am I special?"
He can see her turn a little red, right around her neck. "You smell like a stag," she tells him.
"So you bother everyone who smells like a stag?"
"No one else who smells like a stag comes on this road. They know better." She glances up at him; it's one of his first good looks at her face. "It's not a very popular road, anyway. That's why they gave it to me," she adds, almost grudging. "Even though I'm young."
"How old are you?" Gendry asks. Not that he cares. It's not important.
"Sixteen," she says.
He chokes on a laugh. "Sixteen?" he asks. "But you're tiny!"
She kicks him in his ankle, shooting him a glare. "I'm not tiny. You're over-sized."
Gendry laughs. "So what do you do when there aren't young men to follow to their grandmothers'?"
"I do the same thing for everyone I do for you," the wolf says. "Safe passage." Her face twists, and she scowls. "This isn't a popular road and it wasn't very safe. For girls walking alone."
"That's why you follow me," Gendry says, surprised. "Because you--"
"No," she says, not looking at him. "I followed you because you smelled like stag. And once I'd talked to you, I could tell. That's not why you're here." She smirks, and Gendry finds himself wanting to smile back, ridiculously. "You're just a nice boy who's taking care of his grandmother. It's very sweet."
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Gendry says, loftily. "I'm a very upstanding young man."
"I'm sure." She elbows him. "You haven't given me my roll yet."
He laughs and tosses it over. "As I said, very upstanding."
"I can start taking the basket to ma again," says his mother, one Sunday morning. Gendry had almost forgotten it wasn't his regular duty to do it. He looks up, surprised, and she smiles. "I know you have other things to do on your day off."
He pauses; of course, she stopped him just as he was packing the wolf's sweet roll. "No," he says, slowly. "It's all right. I don't mind. It's nice to get some fresh air. And I like seeing granny."
She raises her eyebrows. "You like seeing granny, do you?"
"Yes," he says.
"And that wolf girl who follows you."
"Her too, yes," Gendry says. He knows he's blushing, but he's pretending he's not. "I don't mind going, regardless. You should relax. You don't want to hurt your leg again."
She smirks and tosses him another roll. "What's her name, your wolf girl?"
He blushes darker. It's been four months, and he still doesn't know. "I'll ask her."
She's always in the same tree, lounging around, as if she's trying to pretend she isn't waiting for him. "Hey, wolf girl!" he calls, waving.
She slides down, glaring at him. "You don't have to be so loud about it. Why are you in such a good mood?"
"What's your name?" he asks.
"What kind of question is that?"
"My name's Gendry," he says. "We should introduce ourselves."
"Arya," she says. "I'm hungry. Where's my payment?"
He fishes out the two rolls and hands them over. "A bonus. For keeping me so safe."
Arya's face flits through expressions, as if she doesn't know how to feel. She settles on something that's almost a smile. "Thanks," she says, softly, and Gendry resists the urge to ruffle her hair or squeeze her shoulder. Stupid things. He resists.
Three weeks later, his grandmother doesn't wake up when he comes in, and he knows what it must mean.
She's up another tree (wolves don't like trees, do they? He doesn't know why he's thinking it, now. He's desperate), eating an apple. "What?" she asks, expression sobering. She slides down. "What's wrong?"
"Are we close to a town? A doctor? My granny, she's--"
"We have a pack healer. I'll get him. It'll be--just hold on, I'll be right back."
It's the first time he's ever seen her turn into a wolf. The shift is almost instantaneous, girl one second and wolf the next. She's still small, tawny gray and brown fur, gray eyes. She looks at him for a second and then she's off, racing into the woods. She's the swiftest thing he's ever seen.
But she doesn't get back soon enough.
"She's gone," he says, softly, when Arya arrives with an older gentleman. He's leaning against the doorjamb; he can't be inside with the body. The gentleman goes in, and Arya sits down next to Gendry, a small, warm presence by his side. She leans her head against his shoulder, strange and tender, and he rests his head against hers.
"I'm sorry," she says.
There's an open market on the third Thursday of every month; it's the only time wolves are allowed into stag towns, and vice versa. As a human, Gendry could go to a wolf town any time he wanted to, but he's never gone. And he couldn't go to the open market anyway; he has his own stall to run.
"The other craftsmen don't smell like stag," Arya remarks, just as Gendry finishes the blade he's been working on. He nearly drops his hammer, and from her smirk, he knows that was what she was going for. "Hello."
"Good afternoon," says Gendry, wiping his brow and grinning like a lunatic. He hasn't seen her in the five weeks since his granny passed away. The first few days he'd been back and forth to her cottage with his mother constantly, only catching occasional glances of her in the woods. And then he didn't quite know how to go back. He hadn't been going to see her, he'd been going to see his grandmother. They weren't friends, exactly. She might not even have missed him. But she's here. "What about stag?"
"You said you smelled like stag because you lived in a stag town. But plenty of other people here don't smell like stag, so that's not why." She pauses. "Your mother doesn't smell like stag." A longer pause, and then, "Your grandmother didn't either. Was she your mother's mother?"
"Yes, she was," says Gendry. "And before you ask, I don't know who my father is."
"I do," she says. "He's a stag."
"I'll take your word for it." He tugs his sweat-stained shirt off and uses it to wipe his face. "So, what brings you to the open market?"
He's gratified to see her looking at his chest when he looks back at her. "I wanted to buy a sword," she says. Her voice is measured, but there's color in her cheeks. "I heard there was an excellent smith here."
"I didn't know wolves needed swords."
"We don't need them. But I like them."
"I missed you," he blurts out, and for some reason Arya blushes darker than he does. "I haven't--had much reason to go out that way. Except to see you."
She doesn't look at him, but she says, "I'd like to see you," and Gendry bites his lip to keep his smile from going too big. "But now I'd like to see swords," she continues, before he can say anything. "If you please."
"Of course, m'lady. I have an excellent selection."
"Call me lady again and I'll rip your throat out," she says, almost cheerfully.
On Sunday, Gendry grabs a basket of food and heads out on the road to his grandmother's old cottage. He doesn't have a destination in mind, but he's hoping Arya will just find him. It is her road. And, just as he hoped, after only ten minutes, he hears, "I need something for safe passage."
Gendry turns to her and grins, holding up his basket. "I brought lunch. If you know somewhere to eat."
She's in the trees again, and she gives him a long, considering look before she says, "No."
Gendry feels cold all over. "No?"
She's too far away for him to see her, but there's a pause before she says, "I want the old price. The traditional price."
"The traditional price," Gendry repeats slowly, and then he understands. What wolves take from humans they protect on the road. "Well, come down here." Another pause, and she jumps down, comes over to him. She's blushing and nervous, all defiance, and Gendry smiles. "The traditional price involves you bending me over and taking me, doesn't it?"
"It can be modified," Arya mutters, not meeting his eyes.
Gendry slides his hand under her chin and tilts her face up, leans down and kisses her. It's supposed to be soft and quick, but she reaches up, fists her hands in his tunic and doesn't let go, keeping him close, and he groans and gives in to just kissing, like he's wanted to almost since he first met her.
When he finally pulls back, she lets out a soft sigh, and he can't help doing kissing her again, just for a second.
"If you wanted a kiss, you could have just asked," Gendry murmurs. His voice is a little rough. "I would have happily paid that price."
"I wanted more than a kiss," she says, still a little defiant, but she's grinning as hard as he is.
"Me too," he says. "You'll get it."
It turns out Gendry's grandmother's old cottage is the perfect place for a blacksmith who smells like stag and a wolf girl to live happily ever after.