At night she opens her eyes to dreams frozen over in grey and blue strumming along underfoot. The land is a membrane stretched over memories of a river. She howls syncopation to the subterranean waters and the dappled ice echoes back. A thousand different formulations of waters she must teach to her little grey cousins before winter; a thousand winters her blood patiently sings while the moon dances in and out of the dark.
Every morning it takes longer to break the ice. His days are filled with children running underfoot, in and out of the makeshift smithy that has finally started to take on an air of permanence. He doesn't mind them, so long as they know to keep quiet and away from swing of his hammer. They're entrusted with small errands - fetching kindling, working the bellows, refilling water buckets. It was not so long ago that he was only an apprentice himself and he keeps an eye out for anyone he might take under his wing, but despite the Ser tacked onto his name, he doesn't know the first thing about being a master, not even of his own forge. Besides, most of the children start dreaming of riding away with the Brotherhood, lads and lasses alike, as soon as they are strong enough to lift aloft steel. He doesn't blame them. He remembers a girl who fought tooth and nail for every bit of ground she stood on, and can't begrudge anyone for having saved enough of themselves to find a patch of belonging worth defending.
Jeyne never complains about the endless work of running an inn for the revolving cast of orphans. Her solemn briskness that takes everything in stride - from the limbs and viscera she regularly stitches up to the furtive couplings neither of them ever speak about in daylight - only falters once. The children were asleep and the two of them faintly drunk from too much ale.
"There is nothing noble about war, Gendry. But picking up the pieces - " She drained her cup and tried to smile, looking away after a quick glance towards him. He thought she might have been trying to express gratitude, maybe forgiveness. She peered out the door and asked more of the night than towards him, "How much longer? What does your god say about weariness? Or the slowest of deaths?"
It had been less than a fortnight after Willow left with the Brotherhood for the first time; he could only extend a hand to her shoulder, feeling clumsy. She tightly gripped his hand with her own, then abruptly got up from the bench. Only the next morning when he plunged a half-mended breastplate into the water bucket and felt a smouldering coldness in the pit of his stomach did he fully realize that they were both grieving. Her, in preparation for the loss of her sister, and him, for another version of the girl he lost long ago. Uncharacteristically he had abandoned the armour, and started a new batch of silver-tipped arrows instead. She would need to refill her quiver the next time she stopped by the inn.
By the time word comes of Ramsay Bolton and Winterfell, the Trident is almost entirely frozen over. Dried reeds bristle through the ice creeping from both shores towards the ever-thinning sliver of grey water sluggishly flowing on. He hears the shouts and clamour that could only mean a visit from the Brotherhood, but remains in the forge to pound out the last few dents on a shield. Harwin has a few orphans bring over the stack of ruined barge poles he had used to chop through the ice for the passage of the skiff. When they clamber off again, Harwin forgoes his customarily muted greeting, instead passing Gendry a flask of something dark and steaming, and motions for him to sit down.
Gendry doesn't remember striding away or saddling the horse, only coming back to himself when he's almost out of the stables. He surveys the scene around him for a long moment before mechanically returning to the stall. He spends a long time watering the horses, filling up their troughs, and then clearing the ice from the barrels behind the inn. When they are all replenished, he leaves for the riverbanks to gather thatch, only pausing when their stores are over-full and most of the afternoon light has gone. No one tries to stop him when he splits kindling in the dark rather than join in the boisterous supper the return of the Brotherhood always brings.
The dull thwacks of the axe don't dissipate the cloud of silence hanging thick around him, each thud sounding hollower than the last and suddenly he is furious, wanting to hew trees and crack open the earth to properly match the storm raging inside him. For the first time in his life, he wishes for a banner to lead, maybe with a flaming war-hammer in hand. He clenches the axe with tight fists: he is a blacksmith, what is the harm in trading one hammer for another? But in the end he returns to the forge and allows the battlefield of the anvil, of the pumps, to subsume all feeling into hot metal. He rebuilds the blaze he had allowed to cool during the day and thinks on the project he has been planning for years, ever since she lost Needle.
He locates an innocuous looking box hidden amongst the clutter of the smithy, and begins a practised ritual that finally quietens his mind. He sorts through the contents, picking out a piece here to place alongside another there. Mott had been teaching him how to forge Valyrian steel before he left King's Landing and he has been carefully hoarding scattered bits and broken pieces he's come across since. His collection has never grown beyond a motley pile of scraps, barely enough for a short dagger, never mind a sword, but any decent smith would be willing to pay for its weight in gold. Whatever he makes in these scatter-shot abandoned facilities with the Brotherhood will never measure up to true castle-forged steel, but it doesn't stop him from dreaming. He has long tried telling himself that it was an experiment to push the limits of his craft, and not anything real he might actually one day deliver to its intended bearer. Tonight, however, he finds himself driven to believe otherwise, his rising panic only made bearable by listening to the singing of the familiar shards, calling for him to finally join them. Having long since prefigured the geometry of one edge, he begins to temper the scraps individually. This is easy methodical work that his arms were made for. More difficult is transitioning the fire with streams of air and the careful furnishment of fuel so that it is not greedy licks of flame that dashed itself out against the steel, but a tight arc that pulsed steady and strong. Mott had always said the first and most important tool of the smith was the hearth itself. Dawn breaks before he is satisfied that the fire is hot enough to sustain the temperatures needed to settle the first sutures switching together the heart of the blade.
He stumbles to the cot behind the bellows only to find Jon Penny abed there already. Gendry is grimy with the soot, and sore and steaming from the night's labour, but he nevertheless carries the boy inside the inn. Jeyne and Anguy have their heads close together, quietly talking. She takes one look at him and sends Anguy over. He hands the sleeping boy with relief over to Anguy, who carries him upstairs. And then it's just the two of them.
She fixes him a mug of tea and a cold plate of mutton pie. "Well, bugger mine own eyes. I would have thought Ser Waters would have took advantage of the cover of darkness to run out on us."
He smiles sheepishly, "Was it the thatch then, that gave me away?"
"Of everything the children have had to put up with, collecting reeds is what you want to save them from."
"It's the scythe that I'm worried about."
"You'd better keep it away from Tansy, then. She spends more time swinging that rusted thing, pretending it's an arakh, than Willow ever did with her crossbow." She falls silent, serious again. “Harwin told us what's happened, in the North. Will you go with them to seek audience with The Lady? Or are you going to leave for Winterfell yourself?"
"I've got - " he gestures around the room with his arm "this to take care of. And armour and swords to fix."
She narrows her eyes, unconvinced.
"For now, anyway. And there's this one blade -" he trails off as she tilts her head towards him, full of questions. He finishes in a rush, full of gruffness, "I can't ride for shit in cold weather and what would they do with another baseborn blacksmith showing up at the gates?"
"So you think it's really her. This blade, it's for her."
He struggles to explain why he thinks a blade will help her, when it seems like she could no longer help herself, when he has to believe that it's not even really her up there, locked away in a prison of her own home.
Despite his clumsiness with words, Jeyne understands. She always does.
For weeks while he works on the blade, he unrelentingly dreams of wolves running over frozen landscapes of ice and snow, and then finally, of Arya herself.
They are back in Acorn Hall, surrounded by members of the Brotherhood past and present - Beric Dondarrion, Lady Stoneheart, Lem, even Hot Pie. Though still in the torn dress with the colours of the forest, Arya looks older, maybe of an age he had been when Jon Arryn last set foot in Master Mott's forge. Somewhere the strum of a woodharp begins, and the crowd parts for him as if he were a Southron Lord even though he is still in his apron and vest. When Arya sees him, she stills and slips into the deliberate poise of her fighting stance. His body is fluid, hopelessly drawn to her like molten steel running along the grooves of a cast. They begin to dance the water dance: thrust, bend, spin, parry. All men are made of water and he drowns in the grey steel of her eyes, the metal forging the smith as surely as he shapes the air around the mercurial form of her moving body. Everyone around them vanishes one by one beyond the periphery until the song ends and it's just the two of them. He daren't breathe for she holds herself taut like a drawn sword. Move too fast and he might nick himself on the sharp blade of her shoulders, the flat plane of her abdomen.
When she takes a long measured look at him, it feels like being approached by something feral, and he can't help but slowly reach out, watching her eyes follow the motion of his hand. His fingers hover over her cheek, now without any child-like plumpness. Just as he is about to brush his thumb against the sharp point of her chin, she flinches away and takes a step backwards.
Baring her teeth, she growls, “I'm a wolf, not a lady.”
Because it's a dream, he says, “I'm a blacksmith, not a lord. I can forge your teeth and claws.”
“I'll bite you for your troubles!” she shouts.
“As you say, m'lady” he retorts, which only makes her angrier.
But rather than the heated denunciations she used to pelt at him, she stiffens and asks with ice in her voice, “Shall I answer your prayers then, bastard?”
The tension in the dream reaches unbearable levels. His ears buzz as something in the air shifts until abruptly Gendry can sense all the unsaid charges and retreats clashing between them as he never did in waking life. He marvels at how easy it is to parse, just like a sweet piece of steel. Instinctively, he dips down on one knee before her and waits. As she remains motionless he finds himself murmuring to the ground, “What prayers do wolves hear?”
He feels her eyes burning into the bare curve of his neck. She answers softly, “The howls of their pack.”
They are suspended in the silence, alive around them. At last she tentatively rests a hand atop his head. As he sighs in response, she begins to paw through the bushy darkness of his hair, her fingers lightly scratching against his scalp. His whole body shudders, leaning into her touch. When she reaches slightly above his nape, he catches her hand and stills it with his own. She doesn't move away. Tugging her hand to the side, he turns his head and presses an open kiss to the supple skin of her wrist. Her palm cradles his jaw as her thumb strokes circular patterns against the cords of his neck.
Greedy for her taste, he flicks his tongue and nips at the pulse-point. She gasps, grabs a fistful of his hair and it feels a bit like the wrestling they used to do. Trying to regain the upper hand, he sweeps her tight into his arms, reaching up to encircle her waist as he remains kneeling. He noses the sharp ridge of her hipbones through the soft material of the dress as she arches against him. She is impatient now, scrabbling at his shoulders for purchase, so he stands up, lifting her bodily above him. For a moment he has his face buried against her, breathing her in. She smells like frost on newly turned soil, green things. But then she twisting and wiggling, somehow sliding down his body like shimmying down a tree. She shoves him sideways, sticking a foot between his legs but he pulls her down with him and with a grunt tries to roll on top of her. She's quicker, pushing him past her and he finds himself on his back looking up at her breathlessly. She bares her teeth again and howls this time, her whole body strumming on top of him till he can feel the vibrations echoing through his chest.
He wakes up bereft with an ache under his ribs. The strange sharp certainty of dreams tells him that Arya couldn't be in Winterfell, then he feels stupid believing it because she was just a little girl. He wants desperately to find solace in Jeyne, but unsure about what or who exactly he would be betraying, picks up the hammer instead. His world narrows to the folds within folds of the blade. Mott had said all swords remember their forgings, but old swords never forget their previous lives. He likes to think there is something of the North in the ripples of the smoke-dark pieces, of the old kings and warrior queens, and that the broken ridges are held together with the indomitable force of winter itself sweeping down the Riverlands. The only spells he knows are mere rituals of habit against the terrors of the cold, dark night – smokey thatch fires, still frozen Trident mud to quench it, red powders from Thoros. He hopes it's enough.
The harsh blue and grey of her interior landscapes are interrupted with red flickers. Curiosity gets the better of her and she leaves her grey cousins one night, snapping at the ones who try to follow her. Chasing down the red source brings her a wild delight as she thunders past frozen rivers, guided by the gleam of the moon and a map her snout sniffs out for her in the hunt.
It is a little hut thick with smells and heat and smoke that unlodges a memory from her infancy. She was once in a place like this, before, when she was still together with her brothers and sisters, all new and unlearned. The forge calls to her but she hesitates before the doorway, she has grown to hate the crowded warrens of humans. She snarls, paces, then finally squeezes her way in, ignoring the near presence of ripe flesh. Immediately, her attention is drawn to a single metal claw on the work table, long and shiny in the dim light. She pads over and tests the edge with a careful tongue; it is sharper than hers. She drags her claws experimentally against the metal one. The sweet song it sings fills her with anticipation.
A sound from the other end of the room distracts her and she rears towards it, already feeling possessive of the metal claw. A man in a narrow cot thrashes, restless in sleep. She growls a warning to him, but he sleeps on, tossing and turning. There is something deeply familiar about him that she ought to know, a scent she once associated with something as familiar as her own kin now long ago and far away. She wonders if he might rise, might have ran and feasted with her in that other life. Bristling and backing away, she howls at him, waiting for him to answer. The walls rumble around them but he doesn't wake. His motions strangely becoming more calm as he murmurs something in his sleep.
She can hear the clamour of other voices now, smell their panic. It is time to leave. She longs to grab the claw in her jaws with her, but something tells her that it is still incomplete. She takes one last look at man and runs, back to her pack.
Across the narrow sea the girl wakes with a gasp. In the dark she instinctively slides her fingers over her face, traces the serious ridge of her nose. Not her face, she admonishes herself, not her nose. She is not a girl, nor a wolf, even if she often forgets in dreams if she is a wolf dreaming girl dreams or a girl dreaming wolf dreams. A wolf needs a pack, And she needs no one. She has to kill the wolf to kill the girl.
These thoughts bring a lump to her throat, and her fingers suddenly ache to grasp something other than the thin edge of the blanket. She temps down the yearning in the pit of her stomach. no one no one no one no one As the words trace through her mind, they mingle with flickers of ice warmed by fire. When she falls back into blue dreams, she sleeps soundly for the first time in many months.