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Cindergendry

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Once upon a time there were two faraway kingdoms ruled by two powerful families.

The King and Queen of the North were kind, just rulers, beloved by their subjects and adored by loyal vassals. The winds of the North were cold, but the people were happy and the royal family’s castle was filled with laughter.

But in the Southern kingdom, despite endless summer days, the King and Queen did not have such happiness. The Queen was vain and cruel, and the King fat and indolent, wanting only to drink and lay with women. He dishonoured his wife and had many illegitimate children scattered throughout the city.

One of these children was a little black-haired, blue-eyed boy christened Gendry. He was not born in a palace but to a tavern girl in the dirtiest, lowest part of the city known as Flea Bottom. Life was hard for the mother and son, the other woman calling her a whore and the children taunting him with cries of ‘bastard.’ But the woman loved her boy and little Gendry grew up strong and kind, never knowing who his father truly was.
But when he reached his twelfth name day his mother fell sick. She was too poor for medicine or any healer, and grew sicker each day – her son knelt by her bedside, begging all seven gods to let her stay with him. But no god listened and she drifted away, her last kiss gentle on his cheek.

The boy would have been put out onto the streets, however one of the King’s advisers had been watching him and decided it was the time the King acknowledged his son. Gendry, shaking and angry, was brought before the King and presented as his bastard son. King Robert – his careless heart softened by the boy’s plight – offered him a room in the Red Keep and planned to arrange for him to learn a trade or receive respected position in the palace household as a steward or guard.

However, Queen Cersei – bitter that her husband would shame her with his bastard son’s presence – demanded the boy be made a servant, and wait upon her trueborn children. The King protested but she insisted, cruelty running deep in her blood.

“If that boy stays here, he will know his place. I will not have you dishonour me Robert.”

And because the King was a weak man he gave in.

So, Gendry was acknowledged as the King’s son and bore the bastard name Waters but lived as a servant, spat upon by the highborns. The Queen delighted in giving him the most menial and dirty of tasks and punishing him when he displeased her. Her son, Prince Joffrey, was a cruel as his mother and bullied Gendry daily, never hesitating to remind him of his lowly place.

Gendry grew reserved and quiet, slow to trust anyone and often surly from his unhappiness, but underneath his kind heart remained. He liked to help the royal smith in his forge when he was able and the children of the palace adored him. Despite the Queen and Prince’s cruelty, Gendry was stubborn and refused to let them break him.

When Joffrey gave him the name ‘bull’, taunting him that he could never bear his father’s true sigil, the Stag, Gendry took the bull as his own. He forged a bull’s head helmet and bore the name proudly. And as the years worn on he plotted ways to escape his servitude in the palace.

In his eighteenth year, the King arranged for a tourney to be held. The men would joust, and the winner would crown a lady the Queen of Love and Beauty. The week would end with a magnificent feast and dance for all the competitors to attend. Guests came from far and wide - lords from great houses, noble knights and eager young men who saved up to be able to enter the tourney.

The King invited the rulers of the North, seeking to strengthen bonds between the families. King Ned and Queen Catelyn accepted the invitation and with them came their children, including their younger daughter: Princess Arya, as beautiful as the winter roses she adored.

All the lords in both kingdoms wanted to wed their sons to the daughter of the King, but Princess Arya was wild, with the blood of wolves running through her veins. She rode with her direwolf, donned breeches and wielded a sword as well as a man. There were whispers she had saved House Stark from the treacherous House Bolton when she was only fourteen years, rumours father had given her lands of her own despite her weak gender and stories of her fierce defence of the smallfolk.

Her father humoured her wild ways when she was young, but the She Wolf knew she could not be free forever. Her older sister was already wedded and most of her brothers were betrothed.

On her fifteenth nameday, her mother and father announced she would accompany them to the Tourney to find a suitable match among the men. The Princess fought and begged them not to make her – the thought of a Southern husband who wanted her only for her title filling her with dread – but they held firm. They were loving parents and would allow her to find a man among the lords of her own choosing. But still, she must wed as all ladies do. So, the She-Wolf travelled South with a sinking heart, feeling as though her claws were blunted and fangs muzzled.

And that is where our story begins.

Chapter Text

Gendry ran down the winding path from the Red Keep, the sun already high in the sky. He’d been due at the tourney grounds before noon to help set up for the joust, but King Robert had summoned him to his chambers to see how he was faring.

His “father” occasionally made such efforts, grasping at feeble attempts to inquire into his son’s wellbeing and giving Gendry fine gifts to assuage the guilt of the Queen’s actions.

Today it had been a luxurious tunic of black wool embroidered in silver thread around the sleeves and across the chest. It was fine and tastefully cut but Gendry had to resist from rolling his eyes. Didn’t his father realise a servant could never wear something like that? The other boys would mock him and the Queen and Prince would be furious. And it would be Gendry, not King Robert, feeling their wrath.

/You can give me fine clothes but cannot stop your own wife from ruining my life,/ he thought bitterly, glancing down at the tunic. /Fat lot of good you are as a King./

Then again, he shouldn’t complain given the King’s guilt might help him escape out of the palace after all. Over the years Gendry had sold off many of his father’s “gifts” in hopes he’d make enough coin to pay off his own apprentice fee. Tobho Mott, the royal armourer, said he had a talent for smithing and Gendry enjoyed the work. Mott knew smiths and armourers throughout the South and Gendry hoped when he had enough coins, the man would persuade one of them to take him on. (Gendry would have liked to apprentice with Mott himself but knew the Queen would never allow it). He’d be older than most apprentices of course, it had taken several years of gifts to raise the money – his meagre wages alone never would have given him enough – but perhaps this could tip him over.

So, he had put the tunic on at the King’s command planning to change it as soon as he got to the tourney grounds. That is, if he ever got there in time. Gendry looked at the sun again and sped up, focusing on the cluster of tents and pavilions just ahead. However, before he could reach them someone stepped out onto the path, blocking his way.

“Well, if it isn’t the bastard. Aren’t you wearing clothes a little too fine for your blood there Waters?”

It was Prince Joffrey, surrounded by several of his personal guards. Gendry gritted his teeth, a familiar wave of anger building in his chest.

“My Prince.” He spat, dipping his head briefly in the barest attempt of a bow.

Joffrey surveyed him, a cruel smile playing on his lips. “Well?” He said. “I asked you a question. What would a bastard serving boy need with such clothes?”

“His grace gave them to me.” Gendry ground out. “As a gift for the tourney.” He eyed the pavilions, wondering if there was anyone who might call on him to get to work.

But his half-brother continued to smirk, laughter dancing in his green eyes. “Well then you should have refused,” he said, “Otherwise it looks… suspicious. As if you’re getting ideas above your station.”

I just want to get to bloody work, Gendry thought. And you really think I want to be a Baratheon after seeing what you’re like?

Sighing, Joffrey shook his head mournfully. “I am afraid I must teach you a lesson.” He said, “for your own good.” He jerked his head at his guards, “men – show the bastard why he should be less eager to accept such gifts next time.”

The guards moved forward and Gendry clenched his fists, bracing himself for the all too familiar beating. Someday I’ll just give up, he thought, the guards circling in. He raised his fists. But not today. The first guard swung at him and he twisted sideways, punching the man straight in the face. He reeled around to face another man coming from behind, grabbing their arm and yanking them to the ground, then spun to kick a third. Even as he dodged another blow, Gendry knew it was a failing battle. He was strong but there were four of them of them against one of him, and they all wore heavy armour making it hard to land hits. Still, he thought – launching back at them – if they were going to beat him the least he could do was bloody them up doing it. He landed another punch, relishing in the satisfying crack of a nose breaking under his knuckles, but then a mailed fist slammed into his back, knocking the breath out of him. Gendry gasped and pitched forward, a painful kick sending him face first into the ground. A foot slammed into the side of his face, making him groan with pain, blood trickling down his cheek.

“Hey!” A voice yelled from behind, “What in seven hells are you doing?” Breathless, Gendry rolled over to see a slender girl whipping out a narrow blade and charging at the guards. Beside her a giant – wolf? – bounded into the fray, knocking one soldier down and leaping on another, pinning them to the ground. Gendry gaped but jumped to his feet and rammed into the third solider, sending a him sprawling while the girl lashed him across the back with her sword.

In less than a minute, all four guards were down and the girl and her wolf stood over them, expressions curled in hauntingly identical snarls. Gendry glanced over at her, trying to catch his breath. The girl was small and slight, dressed like a man in breeches and grey tunic and the sword in her hand made of castle forged steel. Who was she? Didn’t she realise what Joffrey could do to her? His wounded hand throbbed, as if sensing the punishment coming for her.

Joffrey was gazing at his downed men in disbelief, body shaking and eyes burning with wild fury. “You!” he shrieked, marching towards her. “How dare you? Those were my men!”

“And I apologise for their injuries your grace.” The girl snapped with considerable fire. “But I’m afraid all I saw was four guards beating an unarmed man! I thought I should step in to even the fight a little.”

“They dispensing the King’s justice! He had to be punished!”

“Really?” She laughed sardonically. “Punished for what? Was he running away with stolen goods? Making an attempt on your life? If so, he can be arrested and brought for a trial. Because I wasn’t aware the King’s justice involved stalking around the Red Keep looking for men to beat bloody.”

Joffrey took another step forward, face twisting more than Gendry had seen for a long time, raising his trembling fists. “You little wolf bitch I’ll –”

Instinctively Gendry stepped in front of her. It was foolish he knew; the girl had more than proved she could defend herself. But she didn’t know Joffrey, she didn’t know what he could do to her. “My prince, please – just leave her.”

“I’d listen to him.” The girl said, seemingly still unaffected by the Prince’s rage. “We wouldn’t want any more trouble.”

To Gendry’s surprise, Joffrey paused, eyeing her with hesitation and hand hanging awkwardly in mid-air. “I’ll – I’ll take this before my father!” Joffrey threated, waving his fist instead. “King Robert won’t be happy to hear you attacked my guards!”

“And I don’t think King Eddard would be happy hearing you threatened his daughter!” The girl fired back, thankfully not noticing Gendry’s breath cataching at the title. “But by all means swing at me and I’ll show him the beautiful bruise you make.”

Joffrey growled, looking as if he wanted the throttle her, King Eddard be damned. Instead he glanced at his guards and jerked his head. “Let’s go. Leave this wolf-bitch to fuck her sword.”

He stalked off, gold hair glinting in the sunlight. Gendry watched him go, chest loosening in relief.

He felt a touch on his arm and jumped, amazed to see the girl – Princess? – looking at him with kind eyes. “Are you hurt?” She asked. “Do you need anything?”

“Your grace,” he stuttered, swiftly bending his knee and dipping his head in submission. “I’m sorry I – I was –”

The Princess huffed in annoyance, tapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t do that. I much preferred you fighting by my side rather than bowing before me. Are you hurt?”

He risked a glance at her, head still reeling from the revelations. “No your grace.”

“Your knuckles say differently” she said, eyeing his blooded fist. “Let me patch you up.”

“Your grace I couldn’t ask you –”

“You’re not asking I’m offering stupid.” She snapped and her wolf growled. “Now come on.”

She turned on her heel and marched towards the nearest tent, so – her wolf’s terrifying stare fixed upon him – Gendry followed.

Somehow the Princess managed to get some salve and a rag, and led Gendry to the side of the tourney grounds, ordering him to sit on a log. She knelt down and dabbed the salve over his torn knuckles, spreading it with gentleness that surprised him.

Gendry, still trying to understand what was going on, studied her covertly as she worked. The Princess was short and slim in stature, her head barely reaching his shoulder, her breasts small and hips curving neatly under her tunic. Her features were striking, a long face and strong jaw tempered by wide grey eyes and dark eyebrows. Her brown hair was pulled back in a Northern style braid but a few strands had escaped and hung loose framing her face. Although her skin looked smooth, her fingers were calloused as they caressed his knuckles. The clothes, although like nothing he’d ever seen on a woman, looked well made, the breeches fitted, sturdy boots made of fine leather and the tunic was grey edged in white fur – the colours of the Stark royal family – with the direwolf embroidered on its chest.

As if to remind him of the dangers of wolves, Gendry heard a growl and jerked up, seeing her companion’s golden eyes staring at him suspiciously. The wolf narrowed its gaze, titling its head on one side and Gendry almost drew away, suddenly realising how incriminating this all was. The Princess of the North couldn’t be kneeling before him, tending to his wounds like a common healer. Cersei would have his head if she saw.

“Princess –” He said, quickly trying to extract his hand. “Princess, I don’t –”

“Arya.”

“What?”

She glanced up at him, eyes brimming with amusement. “Just call me Arya, believe me I’m no Princess.”

Was this girl actually mad? If she was Gendry didn’t want to get dragged along with her. “You’re a King’s daughter, aren’t you?” He said irritably. “That makes you a Princess. And I know my courtesies your grace.”

She glared at him for that, her deft touch becoming more aggressive. “Stop that stupid.”

“At least let me call you m’lady.”

She rolled her eyes, glancing down at her muddy breeches and the sword at her hip. “Oh, and you really think I look like a lady? That’s not what men normally call me.”

“I think you look like a warrior.” Gendry said, before he could stop himself. Her grey eyes widened with surprise, and for the first time he felt her hands falter.

“Even fewer men say that.”

“After seeing you fight, how could they not?”

Her lips quirked and she looked at him almost appreciatively. “You’d be surprised.” She said. “Men in the South don’t seem to think a woman can hold a sword, much less swing one. Though I suppose many in the North aren’t much better.”

“Well, all I know is I was being beaten into the mud and within seconds you and your wolf had them all on the ground.” Gendry said. “I’m not going to deny that.”

Princess Arya finished binding his knuckles and met his gaze, true and steady. “Well – thank you,” she said quietly. “I don’t think any man would admit to that.” Before Gendry could reply she stood up and turned her attention to the gash on his cheek, holding his chin to keep him in place. Gendry flushed at the contact, but realised it was pointless to resist. This girl is never going to give up. He talked hastily to distract himself.

“So – who taught you to fight?”

“My brother Jon at the beginning.” She said, wiping away the blood. “After he gave me Needle he started doing the same exercises with me that our master at arms did with our brother Bran. When my father found out he hired Syrio, the first sword of Braavos, to teach me Braavosi water dancing.” A touch of laughter entered her voice. “I could tell mother and my Septa I was having dancing lessons without even having to lie.”

“Well I’m glad Syrio did such a good job.” Gendry replied, wondering what it would be like to have a father who loved his children so much that he’d have a man come all the way across the Narrow Sea to make his unconventional daughter happy. He brushed that thought away and swallowed, an obvious question throbbing in his mind. “I have to ask, why – why did you help me? I’m certainly grateful, but those were Prince Joffrey’s men.”

“Because Joffrey’s a cunt.” Princess Arya said angrily. “I haven’t needed to be here a week to realise that. He humiliated the Imp – his own uncle – in front of everyone last night and taunted Lady Shireen. And no one does anything because he’s a Prince. Attacking an unarmed man for his own amusement is exactly the type of thing he’d do. I’m one of the few people he doesn’t have power over, I couldn’t not do something. It’s just a shame I only managed to punch his guards and not him. A broken nose would vastly improve his pissy blonde face.”

Gendry burst into laughter at that, feeling more amused than he had in years. It was rare to find someone who’d insult Joffrey so openly, the servants were too scared and the highborns too busy arse kissing. Gendry seldom found an ally in his open distaste of the Prince. But this scrappy, wild girl was voicing what he’d been feeling since he met his half-brother. “Well thank you,” he said sincerely. “I’ve been waiting for someone to do that.”

“Glad to be of service.”

Arya smiled at him, eyes crinkling and Gendry grinned back, a warm feeling blossoming in his chest.

“At least we’ll see him humiliated at the tourney.” She said cheerfully, “I’ve heard he’s not much of a jouster and the Queen didn’t even want him to fight for fear he’ll accidentally stab himself with his own lance. So at least he’ll embarrass himself without us doing anything.”

Gendry grimaced. “Not likely m’lady, none of the other competitors will dare to touch him. Too scared of hurting their future king – or trying to curry favour with him.”

Arya pulled abruptly away. “What?” She snapped. “They’ll just…let him win?”

“Of course. They won’t risk harming the Crown Prince.” He glanced at her, darkly amused to see the look of fury on her face. “Isn’t that the way it’s done in the North?”

“Of course not!” she cried, sounding offended at the thought. “None of the other men or any knight would dream of letting Robb or Jon or Bran win. How can their own forces respect them if they don’t prove themselves?”

Gendry laughed harshly, “That’s definitely not how it works in the South. Or at least not for Prince Joffrey.”

“So you’ll go easy on him?” She demanded furiously, “Even after what he did to you today? Even if you dishonour your house?”

“My – what?”

“Your house.” Arya repeated, glancing over him. “I don’t recognise your colours – black and silver? Sorry, I’m terrible at remembering Southern families.”

A leaden weight sunk in Gendry’s chest, sucking all the air out of him. /She thinks I’m a highborn/. Well of course she did. He was wearing a tunic far too fine for any servant. And he’d been down at the tourney grounds – probably looking like a knight scoping out the competition.

That explained everything. Why she’d defended him, why she’d tended to his wounds, why she shared stories about her family, why she told him to call her Arya. She thought he was a highborn, one of them. She’d never treat a lowborn bastard that way, no matter how kind or unconventional she was.

He couldn’t tell her. While Arya – Princess Arya – didn’t seem likely to punish him for his insolence the way Joffrey or Cersei would, she’d still be angry and humiliated that he’d tricked her. (Accidentally or not). He didn’t want to imagine what would happen if this story got out and reached the royal family.

And a small part of him admitted he didn’t want to see the revulsion in her eyes when he confessed he was just a bastard servant. He liked this now, the ghost of her touch lingering across his cheek. Their shared comradery over Joffrey. Few people were normally this kind to him. Stupid, stupid Gendry.

“Well?” She said impatiently.

“Oh, just a Stormlands House. You probably won’t know it.” He stumbled, panic taking control of his tongue. “And um, I’m not jousting tomorrow, I’m a terrible rider, much better fighting on the ground. I’m just here to watch. My father arranged for me to attend.”

Gendry held his breath and waited for her reaction, heart pounding. He wasn’t technically lying – what he’d said was all true. Arya looked disappointed and he wondered if it was because he made it sound like he was a minor noble.

“That’s a shame,” she sighed. “You’d probably be one of the few people who wouldn’t have let Joffrey win.”

“Believe me,” Gendry laughed nervously, “I’d beat him if I could.”

She let out a huff and slid to the ground, leaning back against the log. “Well I could beat him.” She said. “If he’s as terrible as everyone says I’m sure I could do it.”

“You can joust?” At this point he didn’t know why he was surprised.

She nodded, a tender look softening her face. “Jon taught me that too. I was jealous when he and Robb and Bran got to learn while I was stuck inside sewing, so he used to sneak me out and give me lessons. It’s three quarters horsemanship anyway and I’ve been in the saddle before I could walk.”

“You could certainly beat Prince Joffrey then,” Gendry said, “He’s shit on a horse. And cries at the smallest bit of pain.”

There was a long silence. Arya chewed on her lip, expression twisted in thought. “I mean…I could enter.” She said slowly. Gendry’s eyes widened and she shrugged at him. “I wouldn’t have to be good enough to best every man in the tourney – just beat enough to face Joffrey.” She said. “Though of course I’d need to disguise myself.” She paused, still considering. Gendry was busy wistfully imagining Joffrey being thrown to the ground in front of the crowd.

“But I don’t have my armour here,” she said suddenly, sounding defeated. “Jon had some made for me but it’s back in Winterfell.”

Gendry watched her slump against the log, sharing her disappointment as the vision of Joffrey hitting the dirt dissolved. “I can get you armour.” He blurted out.

She looked at him. “Really?”

“Yes,” he said, trying to sound confident. “And a shield and a helmet that will fit you. They’ll be mismatched but…it will be enough.”

“More than enough! And I could pay the tourney fee.” She straightened, her pretty eyes lighting up. “We could really do this!” Gendry grinned, feeling strangely proud at how happy she looked. “Though – no wait – I’d need a squire as well.” Her shoulders dropped.

“Are you sure?” He asked. “We’ll put your armour on beforehand, I thought squires were mostly for decoration and making knights feel self-important.”

“Ha mostly.” She admitted. “But I do need someone to pass me the lance, I won’t be able to manage it without help. Ugh.” She curled in on herself, pulling her knees to her chest, “If Jon was here he’d help, but he’s not…welcome.” Disappointment twisted across her face, making Gendry’s stomach clench.

“I can be your squire.” He said before he could stop himself.

She looked up at him, her whole face filled with hope. “What?”

Seven hells Gendry, what have you done, he cursed, panic flooding through him. Still he couldn’t stop himself from raising his chin and meeting her gaze, his resolve hardening like steel in the forge. “I can be your squire.” He repeated firmly. “I was only going to be watching anyway. I’m sure even I can handle handing you a lance.”

She leaned forward, resting her hands on his knees. He willed himself not to start at the contact. “You’d truly help me?”

“Hey, I want to humiliate Joffrey as much as you do.” Gendry shrugged. More than you can imagine.

The widest smile split across her face, glowing with mischief. “Then we have a plan.” She held out her hand to shake. “And what should I call you?”

“Um…” Gendry paused, hesitant to give his own name in case it got back to Joffrey and Cersei. “The Bull.” He said carefully, taking her hand. “Everyone calls me the Bull.”

Arya squeezed his hand, still grinning. “The Bull and the She Wolf then.” She said. “Taking down the cowardly lion.”

And probably dying in the attempt. Gendry mused to himself, not even able to imagine how much trouble this could get him into. But with Arya’s hand held tightly in his, he couldn’t help from grinning back.

Chapter Text

What have I done?

The thought followed Gendry for the rest of the day, gnawing at his stomach. He was going mad – there was no way this plan could end well. The Queen could find out what he was doing. The Princess might discover what he truly was. Joffrey would probably murder them both.

But despite his internal warnings, somehow that evening Gendry found himself in the forge searching through piles of old armour.

He found several pieces that he thought were small enough to fit Princess Arya, although they were mismatched and worn. A black breastplate, a covered helm, some steel gauntlets and a sturdy shield with a laughing tree painted on it. Gendry had never seen the sigil before and hoped it didn’t belong to some House attending the tourney who would be suspicious at a mystery rider representing them.

Yawning, he stowed the armour away. He’d need to fix up one of the gauntlets – it had rusted over the years – but he’d do that tomorrow morning before building the royal family’s fires. It would mean getting up long before dawn but it was the only time he’d have. At least Tobho would appreciate him getting the forge warmed early.

For now, he needed food. And more importantly – information.

Body still aching from the fight earlier, Gendry headed over to the servant’s hall for dinner, accepting some of the runny stew with a nod and taking a seat next to a crowd of other servants. Unsurprisingly, the main topic of conversation was the visiting royal family, with stories flying all around the table.

One of the young grooms said that he’d heard the North was a wild and strange place, filled with monstrous creatures and far poorer in resources than the South. A pokemarked cupbearer argued that may be true but the Starks had fervent loyalty among their vassals that was worth more than a thousand crowns. According to the Northern servants King Eddard was known for giving every man a fair trial and the Stark’s justice was so fierce a girl could walk down the Kings Road in her nameday suit without fear of rape. Apparently, there were even rumblings that that folk in the Riverlands and Vale wished they had seceded as part of the Northern kingdom instead of the South when the Targaryens fell.

If the Starks are as just and righteous as all that, then I don’t blame them, Gendry thought wryly, wolfing down his meagre dinner.

It wasn’t hard for him to steer the conversation towards the younger Stark’s daughter. Unsurprisingly, Princess Arya had already made an impact at the royal court.

A maid reported that on the first night alone the Princess had defended the Lannister dwarf from Prince’s Joffrey’s taunts and noticed Lady Shireen’s shyness alienation and drew her into conversation about some historical Queen they’d both read about. Princess Arya loved stories about warrior queens. According to one of the scared looking dog boys, her direwolf – Nymeria – was even named after one.

Of course it was. Gendry shook his head. That beast was terrifying enough to send whole armies running.

There was no doubt, however, the maid said, that Princess Arya was at the tourney to find a husband. Her older brother Crown Prince Robb had been wed Lady Wylla Manderly of White Harbour long ago and her sister, Princess Sansa, had been married to Lord Willas Tyrell the heir of Highgarden two years past. It was astonishing Arya hadn't been betrothed yet.

Gendry’s stomach squirmed at that, but he ignored it, focusing on the maids gossiping about the marriage talks for the younger Stark Princes, Bran and Rickon. Gendry was curious to notice there was no mention of Jon, the brother Arya had talked about so many times.

With Princess Arya as the only royal child unclaimed, a dairy maid sighed that every man at the tourney was trying to claim her hand.

“And who wouldn’t?” The girl said dreamily, “She’s beautiful.”

Gendry crammed the last mouthful in his mouth to stew to stop himself agreeing with her. He didn’t normally see many girls – all his work didn’t give him a chance – but he’d have to be blind not to notice the Princesses’ sparkling eyes and wide smile. Or the way her hair swung across her shoulders and slender limbs danced in battle. But he wasn’t stupid enough to say that out loud.

“Oh, it’s more than her looks,” the old kennelmaster snorted from the other side of the table, “it’s her holdings those lords are after.”

“Her holdings?”

The kennelmaster said that according to many of the Stark household, a year or so ago House Bolton had plotted to overthrow the Starks and take control of the North. The Starks had subdued them, executing Roose and his bastard son Ramsay. With no close relations, House Bolton’s lands returned to their King. And King Eddard announced he would give the lands to his daughter to rule over once she was wedded so she could establish her own holdfast.

“His daughter?” A new groom asked incredulously, “Why not one of his sons or bannermen?”

“They say Princess Arya was the one who uncovered the plot and brought down the Boltons,” explained the kennel master, clearly enjoying the attention. “She saved the North from a bloody civil war and possibly every Stark in her family from being killed. King Eddard is rewarding her as she deserves.”

The younger man huffed and rocked back, muttering under his breath about wild women and strange Northern ways. “A likely story.”

The master shrugged. “That’s what I hear. Perhaps it is just a tale.”

But Gendry thought back to the Princess with her blade clenched in her hand staring down at Joffrey and thought he could believe it.

“Well, whatever the truth, she certainly has her pick for a betrothed,” the dairy maid said. “Or her parents do at least. Every lord from the Wall to Dorne wants to tame the She Wolf.”

For some reason that comment made Gendry’s stomach clench, uncomfortable at the thought of Arya bound to a man who wanted her only for her title. She deserved better than that, she deserved a man who would laugh when she entered tourneys, fight by her side, and forge her swords – not tame her.

But that was stupid, what highborn man would let his wife have such freedom? Or a lowborn one for that matter. There was no point dwelling on foolish worries about who a Princess would marry, Gendry told himself, and headed to bed.

*****

Arya was grateful they weren’t dining with the royal family that night, the last thing she needed was for Cersei and Joffrey to ply her parents with lies about how she and Nymeria had set upon him. She was hoping Joffrey’s humiliation would make him hold his tongue, but it was still best to avoid him.

Thankfully, King Robert had sent a message that he had duties to attend to – which everyone from the stable boys to Cersei knew meant he was frequenting the brothels again – and so the Starks dined alone in their solar.

Not that Arya was getting much peace and quiet.

“But isn’t it exciting Arya? Your first tourney! Oh, think of all the gallant knights you’ll watch! Are there any that have caught your eye?”

Arya tried to nod politely through Sansa’s gushing. It’s the first time she’s seen Sansa since she became the Lady of Highgarden, and she’d missed her sister more than she expected in the last few years and her sister has softened since marrying Willas. Unfortunately, he was dining with his grandmother tonight and Arya’s remembering why she and Sansa fought so much as children. She’d barely stopped swooning over knights and marriage and Queens of Love and Beauty since arriving.

It made Arya miss her brothers all the more fiercely, Rickon would be throwing food at Sansa by now and Robb who could tease her into shutting up. And Jon most of all, to shoot Arya the special secret smile they always shared. Bran was at Kings Landing too but he was so busy squiring for Great-Uncle Bryden, Arya barely saw him.

“Well?” Sansa asked again. “Are there any?”

Arya blinked and stared into her sister’s disapproving face. She’d forgotten how even Sansa’s frown was pretty. “Any what?” She asked cautiously, glancing at her parents absorbed in their own conversation, wishing they’d intervene.

“Knights that you’ve noticed!” Sansa exclaimed impatiently. “Or lords? Surely you must have met many by now!”

“Um.” Arya paused, the Bull’s blue eyes flitting through her memory. No, best not mention how she met that particular lord. Besides, and he’d seemed more wary than interested in her. And a lord that handsome probably had some sweet, pretty Southern betrothed waiting at home for him. “Um, no not yet.”

Sansa looked disappointed, “Really Arya? Can’t you show a little interest? This is your future betrothed to think about. The man you will be married to for the rest of your life.”

Arya’s stomach lurched at the reminder and her knuckles tightened. “Well thank you for that information Sansa.” She snapped. “I’m not stupid. I know I’ve got to choose from this bunch of simpering Southerners.”

Her sister glared at her, “You should speak more respectfully of them. You’re lucky any of these lords want to marry you.”

Arya felt a thread of hurt pang through her, taunts of horseface echoing in her mind. “You ought to marry Hodor, you're just like him - stupid and hairy and ugly!” She knew Sansa didn’t mean her comments like that, not like she did when they were younger, but Arya’s chest still tightened at the reminder of what her future husband would think of her. She scowled to avoid looking hurt, wondering if she was too old to start throwing fruit like Rickon.

“I don’t see why.” She said heatedly. “I don’t need a husband, I could easily rule Dreadfort alone –”

“You always do this, you always –”

“Enough.” Their father finally interrupted, snapping over them. “You are woman grown and shouldn’t be squabbling like children.”

“But –”

“She –”

“Quiet.” Their mother echoed, steel in her tone. “Sansa, you know better than to needle your sister, and Arya –” She turned her gaze on her. “We are not having this discussion again. You will find a match. It is past time you were married and your father and I have given you far greater freedom than can be expected in allowing you to select a husband.”

“And before you go talking of ruling alone.” Her father added. “Remember who those lands came from Arya.”

Yes. Arya thought mutinously. (‘And I remember why they came to me.’)

But she remained silent. She knew that gifting her with Bolton’s former lands was a contentious decision and one even King Ned Stark was questioned on. It rankled her, had she been one of her brothers, every lord would have seen it as a fair reward.

After all, she was the one who mistrusted Roose Bolton when he visited Winterfell, while Robb and her parents dismissed her. She was suspicious when it was suddenly announced Lady Hornwood – who had taken a liking to Ser Rodrick Cassel – had apparently married Ramsay Bolton (formerly Snow). Arya was the one who rode to Dreadfort with Nymeria, disguised herself as a serving girl and discovered Lady Hornwood being held prisoner by her new “husband.” She found evidence of Roose and Ramsay’s plot to overthrow the Starks – planning to kill them under guest right and make themselves Kings of the North. She was the one who got the news back to her father, and accompanied him as he rallied their men and ambushed Roose and Ramsay on their way to claim Hornwood. She personally rescued Lady Hornwood from her carriage.

Arya was there when her father called his lords to Winterfell for the Bolton’s execution and revealed what Roose and Ramsay had done, crediting his daughter for saving the North and giving her their lands as a reward.
Was that so wrong just because she was a woman? Hadn’t she proved herself?

Apparently not according to some grumblings. But her father had struck her an agreement and subdued the complaints in one stroke. Arya could claim the Bolton’s lands and establish her own House at Dreadfort…after she married.

Arya knew it was a bribe as much as a reward. Her parents and Septa Mordane had struggled for years to make her a lady. And Arya had too, she truly had. But no matter how she’d tried to mind her courtesies or labour over embroidery or sing as sweetly as Sansa, she could never be anything more than wild Arya Horseface. She’d given up trying a long time ago. When her parents began murmuring about marriage, she wondered if she’d have to flee to Braavos rather than go through with the inevitably unhappy marriage. For both her and her unfortunate betrothed’s sake.

But lands of her own? That changed things. An opportunity for her own authority and freedom. And a choice in husband. So, Arya had agreed.

The Northern lords had arrived at Winterfell in a steady stream over the past year, turning up with poorly-veiled excuses to match their sons – or themselves – to the newly wealthy Princess of the North. Arya had met so many men that their faces all blurred together in her mind. Most of them had been brave, honourable and strong, but almost all had frowned disapprovingly when they saw Needle and scowled when Arya outrode them. And the better ones – who didn’t scowl, or at least hid it – Arya still couldn’t bring herself to accept any of their offers. She’d imagined marrying them, forced herself to seriously consider a few. But whenever her father called for her, asked if this man was enough, she always fell silent.

Besides Nymeria hadn’t liked any of the men. Most of them had avoided her or swaggered around, thinking they could tame a direwolf. They were wrong. And how could Arya marry someone without Nymeria’s approval?

As the had months worn on and the rejections piled up, her parents got more and more frustrated, demanding if her plan was to turn away every man in the North. So, when King Robert invited the Starks to the tourney at Kings Landing, Ned and Catelyn told her that if none of the Northermen were acceptable then Arya would just have to look further afield. And if she didn’t choose a husband by the end of the tourney, they’d do it for her.

Arya scowled, pushing the meat around her plate. If she couldn’t stomach marrying a Northernman, did they really think she’d be happy with a Southern weakling? Why should she even try?

Because this is your chance. She reminded herself. Because of Dreadfort, because of the people there.

Arya had visited the Bolton’s old seat a lot in the past few months, already organising to get rid of the famed torture chambers, close up the Bolton crypts and build glasshouses like those at Winterfell. She’d also spoken to many of the smallfolk, listening in horror to the atrocities Roose and Ramsay had inflicted on them over the years and vowing to provide justice for them all.

And she could. She could have her own lands and stay close to her family, she could have ladies in waiting,* she could look after the people, she could ride and fight and rule as she wished.

She just had to find a husband first.

Arya stabbed at her venison and put that thought out of her mind.

**********

Gendry was due to meet Princess Arya just after noon, in a secluded wooded spot not far from where she’d patched him up the day before. He arrived early and laid out the armour under the trees, fingers fumbling a little.
He was an idiot, he told himself, eyeing the hastily fixed gauntlet with trepidation. She wasn’t going to come. It was a trick.

Before he could start panicking properly, Princess Arya burst into the clearing with Nymeria beside her, red with apologies. Gendry’s chest loosened with relief at the sight of her, grinning a little as she joked about escaping her sister’s harp lessons. It was fine. She’d come.

He still felt nervous as she tried on the mismatched pieces of armour – if he was a real highborn would he be able to find better? But Princess Arya just smirked at him wolfishly, tightening the breastplate.

“All fits.” She said cheerfully, “I was worried you wouldn’t be able to find armour that was small enough.”

Gendry cleared his throat, “I know the smith here; he was very helpful.” He said, trying to avoid any incriminating answers.

She glanced at him as she slid her hands into the gauntlets. “You know the smith?”

Had he given something away? Was a highborn associating with a smith too unbelievable? Irritation flared in his chest. “Yes, he’s a good man.” Gendry said, irrationally angry at the thought that she was disgusted as nobles and lowborns mingling. “Why?” He asked, aware of how belligerent he sounded. “Do you disapprove m’lady?”

Princess Arya frowned, annoyed by his address. “No stupid.” She said crossly. “I was thinking it made a nice change. Not many of you Southern nobles seem to pay attention to the men who serve you.”

“Oh.” Gendry swallowed. “Well…it was good I did. It was a bit of a job to find all the pieces. There aren’t many knights your size.”

She rolled her eyes, “Sadly not. But thank you.” She squeezed his arm briefly, making something in his chest jolt.

“You’re welcome.” He said. “Though I suppose it’s nothing like your armour back at Winterfell.”

“No. But it’s more than good enough.” She shrugged, her narrow shoulders heaving under the armour. “It know it would have made life easier for you I’d brought it with me, but believe it or not, I didn’t start this visit intending to compete in a tourney.” She glanced mischievously up at him. “And smuggling it past my mother and Septa would have been difficult. If they found it, they’d wonder who had it made for me and I wouldn’t want to get Jon into trouble.”

That name again. Her brother who no one mentioned.

“That’s your brother?” Gendry asked, and then even as he scolded himself for not just ending the conversation and leaving her alone, he asked. “He isn’t here?”

Arya stiffened at the question, her grey eyes suddenly looking remarkably like storm clouds. “No.” She said flatly. “He’s not.” Her face drew shut, going oddly blank. Gendry stared at her, uncomfortable with the change.
“May I ask why not m’lady?”

“Don’t call me m’lady.” Arya snapped, a flash of spirit returning. Gendry grinned involuntarily and she rolled her eyes at him, smacking him on my shoulder.

“As m’lady commands.”

“Ughh, stupid bull.” She hit out again and then paused, staring at him appraisingly. Gendry couldn’t help but be reminded of Nymeria’s gaze the day before and stiffened his spine automatically, meeting her piercing eyes.

“He’s a bastard.” Arya said suddenly, the word sending a shock through Gendry’s veins. “Jon I mean. He’s Jon Snow – not Jon Stark. That’s why he’s not welcome at court. He has to be kept out of sight.” Her tone twisted bitterly and her hands curled into fists. “Mother and Sansa tell me off when I just call him my brother instead of half or bastard. They say it makes him sound…equal, when’s he’s not. Even though he was came to Winterfell as a baby, was raised like the rest of us and father loved him just the same.” She raised her chin, eyes flaring like a storm again. “But I suppose they’re right because he’s better. He gave me my sword and armour. He accepts me as I am. He’s my favourite brother. I don’t see why some marriage bans not being read should change that.” She raised her chin challenging. “Does that shock you?”

Gendry realised his mouth was dry. It did shock him – but not for reasons she thought. For a second he wanted to tell her the truth – ‘I’m a bastard. I’m one of them’ – but he still hesitated. It wasn’t the same. Jon Snow had been raised as a Prince and King Eddard Stark treated him as his own son. Gendry Waters was a servant and King Robert had taken him out of pity.

“I think.” He replied cautiously, “That your father is more honourable than most men in caring for all his children, trueborn and baseborn. And that it’s sad that even in those best of cases – where a father does all he can – bastards are still mistreated for no fault of their own. I think that the position people are born into, trueborns and baseborns, lowborns and highborns, whatever their sex, should matter a lot less than it does. But right now, it does matter and there isn’t much we can do about it.”

The Princess stared at him, her whole face softening and for the first time since they’d met, seemed unable to speak. Gendry smiled awkwardly at her, hoping he hadn’t given anything away. She smiled back shyly, a strange light shining in her eyes. They stood there in silence, gazing stupidly at each other.

Suddenly aware of what he was doing, Gendry cleared his throat and looked away, grabbing the battle helm.

“There you go milady.” He said quickly, slotting it on her head.

She punched him on the shoulder. “I’m not a lady!”

Gendry laughed, moving to check all her armour. “A knight then – a mystery knight.”

“Much better.” She revolved in a circle, arms out. “How do I look then? Will anyone look out at me and recognise a Princess?”

Gendry glanced over her small figure, the mismatched pieces and helmed head. Apart from those striking grey eyes peeking through the helm’s narrow slits, no one would be able to guess. “I think you’re safe m’lady.”

“Good.” She stretched a few times and reached for her narrow sword, swinging it around experimentally.

“Will the King and Queen notice you’re not there?” Gendry asked.

She shrugged again, the armour chinking. “There's five days all together, I can miss one as long as I attend the other four. I’ll be around for the Knightly round on the final day and see who wins.” She gave one last swing and then put aside her sword, taking off the battle helm. Her cheeks were flushed a pretty pink and her hair was even messier than before, loose strands sticking out everywhere.

Gendry nodded, helping her ease off her gauntlets. “And for the champion to crown his Queen.”

Arya snorted, “Of course, I won’t be allowed to miss that.” She said, her tone suddenly bitter.

“It would be awkward if the Queen of Love and Beauty herself wasn’t present.” He commented idly, starting to undo the breastplate.

He was barely thinking about his words, but Arya’s whole face darkened at his comment, turning to angry red. “Shut up.” She snapped, slapping his hands away. Gendry stepped back, wondering what he’d done wrong. But the Princess just glowered at him and then ducked her head, trying to tug the breastplate off by herself.

Gendry frowned. Everyone knew the Princess was bound to be crowned, she was the highest ranking unmarried lady and all the knights wanted to win her favour. And even if she hadn’t been a Princess, Gendry was sure she was beautiful enough that most of the men would choose her anyway.

“What’s wrong?” He asked tentatively. “Do you not want to be crowned?”

She glared at him, unidentifiable emotions swirling in her eyes. “I don’t like people mocking me.” She spat.

“Mocking you?” Now he was utterly lost.

“I know no one will crown me.” She said flatly. “Or on the off chance they do, it will be because I’m a Princess, not anything to do with beauty.”

“I don’t – what do you mean?”

She stared at him furiously, hand curling into fists. “You really think crowning a girl that looks like me would make the title anything other than a joke?” She gestured to her face. “It would be like crowning a horse.”

Gendry couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing.

Instantly he knew it was the wrong reaction. Princess Arya froze, her body coiling like a snake and her face going cold and hard. She grabbed the gauntlets from the ground and threw them at him, slamming him in the gut with precision. Gendry gasped, doubling over in pain.

“Keep them you stupid Bull,” she hissed. “And find some other idiot to take down Joffrey. Because if I’m just some jape for you, then I’m certainly not going to help anymore.”

She stalked off, the breastplate still half undone. Gendry straightened and ran after her, heart pounding with panic that shocked him.

“Princess!” He shouted, grabbing her arm unthinkingly, “M’lady, I didn’t –”

She whirled around, wrenching free. “Don’t touch me!”

He fell back, “Sorry, I didn’t mean –”

“Look I didn’t expect you to pay me with false compliments.” She snarled. “I’m not asking you to pretend I’m pretty. But I at least expected you not to mock me for being ugly. I thought this was about me being able to joust, not how much of a lady I looked while doing it. I guess I was wrong.”

“But I wasn’t laughing because I think you’re ugly!” Gendry yelled, losing his patience. “I was laughing because the idea of you not being pretty was so stupid!”

Arya paused, balanced uncertainly on her heel. “What?”

“I said you’d be crowned Queen of Love and Beauty because I think you will be. Yes, because you’re a Princess and the knights want to get favour with your parents –” and marry you, he thought, but couldn’t say. “But also because everyone knows you’re so pretty that you’d be crowned anyway.”

She turned to face him, chewing on her lip. “You’re lying. You’re making fun of me.”

“I’m NOT.” He said, annoyed. “I’m stating a fact.”

Uncertainty played across Arya’s face and her hands fell to her sides, fiddling with the sword in her belt. “You’re just flattering me.” She said. “Everyone knows I’m ugly. Arya Horseface, that’s what Sansa and her friends used to call me.”

Gendry felt a stab of anger and fierce protectiveness rise in his chest. Her own sister called her that? What was wrong with her? But at least he understood what this was all about now.

“Then horses in the North must look different from down here then.” He said gruffly, and then – with a burst of courage – “Because I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

It was a stupid, foolhardy thing to say and Gendry couldn’t quite believe he did it. Normally he felt shy talking to girls – normal girls, let alone highborns – but the ridiculousness of Arya thinking she looked like a horse made him risk it. And she still thought he was a lord, lords said those things all the time didn’t they? “I’ve seen your sister and half the ladies from the South.” He added. “None of them are as beautiful as you.” Truthfully, he only vaguely remembered Princess Sansa from a visit more than a year ago. But her face certainly hadn’t stuck in his mind the way Arya’s had. “And that’s the truth.”

Arya took a careful step towards him, her cheeks red and eyes shifting for a different reason. “Then you’re blind as well as stupid.” She said curtly. And then in a rush. “But I’m sorry I threw the gauntlets at you.”

“You should be, they hurt.”

She shrugged, a small grin returning. “I meant them to. Now shut up and help me get this thing off.”

Realising she wanted to move on and feeling too shy to say anything else, Gendry did so quickly, pulling off the breastplate.

They were quiet as they collected the rest of the armour, but then Arya mentioned some story about Joffrey failing to hit a deer with his crossbow at point blank range and Gendry said he’d heard that Joffrey actually ended up shooting one of his own men instead and they settled back into an easy conversation.

They headed back towards the Red Keep and Nymeria bounded out of the woods, tail wagging. Gendry was suddenly grateful she hadn’t been around when her mistress had been steaming with anger. Instead the wolf pattered beside him, headbutting his hand. Despite the instinctive fear of a beast that reached higher than his chest, Gendry buried his hand in her fur and stroked her. Nymeria panted happily, tongue lolling out and looking for a moment as harmless as the puppies that lay around the kennels. He chucked quietly at the thought.

“What?” Arya asked. She was watching at him and Nymeria oddly, eyes flicking to his hand petting her.

“Just she’s not as fierce as she seems.”

Arya’s lips twitched, the same strange expression flittering across her face. “At least not with you.” She said and cleared her throat before he could ask what she meant. “So, we’re all prepared?”

Gendry nodded, patting the sack of armour. “As prepared as we can be.”

“Then I’ll see you in three days Bull.”

“Alright m’lady.” 

X-X

Chapter Text

The night before the joust, Arya struggled getting to sleep . It wasn’t just exhaustion from three days of having to play the lady at the tourney, nerves about competing worrying about getting caught. She couldn't rid the Bull from her mind. She hadn't seen anymore of him again - at either the tourney events during the day or the mummers shows and singers playing in the evenings - but for some reason he still lingered in her mind.

(“I know the smith here. He’s a good man.”

“I was laughing because the idea of you not being pretty was so stupid!”

“A knight then – a mystery knight.”

“Then horses in the North must look different from down here then. Because I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”)

Arya groaned and rolled over, flumping her feathered pillow. Nymeria grumbled from her spot by the fire, shooting Arya a disgruntled look.

“I know, I know.” Arya muttered, “I’d like to get to sleep too.”

Looking thoroughly unimpressed with her mistress’s agonizing, Nymeria heaved herself up and padded across the room, pausing at the foot of Arya’s bed. Arya patted the blankets in invitation.

Nymeria bounded up at once, making the bedframe creak alarmingly – for a second Arya wondered if she was going to have to explain a broken bedframe to her parents and Queen Cersei. But then Nymeria settled down beside her and the bed held. Arya exhaled, burying her hand in Nymeria’s fur.

(“I think that the position people are born into, trueborns and baseborns, lowborns and highborns, whatever their sex, should matter a lot less than it does.”)

She stared at the darkened ceiling, running through the Bull’s words.

She’d never met any noble men who thought like that. Well, apart from Jon – and that was because he’d grown up a bastard, on the outside of everything like her. He saw the injustice in the world. And hardly any men apart from her brothers would help her enter a tourney to humiliate the Crown Prince. The Bull was different.

Although…Arya chewed her lip. What if he was only doing all that to woo her? Everyone knew she was here to find a match – maybe the Bull was just one of the many lords who wanted her for her title, and was craftier than the rest in how to get it. Maybe the moment he settled his cloak over her shoulders, she’d never been allowed to hold a blade or wear breeches again. Her fingers tightened in Nymeria’s fur at the thought.

But then she remembered the anger burning in his eyes when he talked about Joffrey. His steady hands managing her armour. The gruffness in his voice when he called her beautiful. No. If he was that good at acting, then he should join a mummer’s trope.

And if he wasn’t acting…

Arya had arrived in Kings Landing close to despair at finding a husband. She’d thought there’d be no way in seven hells she’d find a Southerner she could stomach for an hour, let alone her life. She expected to watch the men compete in the tourney with a forced smile (which she certainly had so far), dance with them woodenly at the feast and then confess miserably, desperately to her parents that no – no she hadn’t found anybody – but please, please could she have more time. Her mother would sigh and her father would look at her with his stern eyes and by the time they were home, a Northerner lord would be waiting for her to wed him, scowling at her sword.

The last thing Arya expected to find was a Southern bull, who not only didn’t scowl, but grinned and found armour to go with her blade.

Could she marry a man like that?

As she’d done with all the men who’d come to Winterfell to court her, Arya imagined life with the Bull. Saying their vows in front of the heart tree, riding with him through the villages…lying together in their chambers.

Instead of the usual sensation of cold dread, her stomach squirmed pleasurably, a warm glow filling her chest. Idly, she scratched behind Nymeria’s ear, making her wolf rumble happily. Arya smiled. Perhaps…just maybe…

Abruptly, her grin faded. What if she thinking about this all wrong? The real question was, did he want to marry her?

For most men, her titles and land would be all that mattered. But somehow, Arya knew that the Bull – with his refreshing ideas of people’s character mattering more than their birth – felt differently. He’d want more than just status and wealth from a wife. He’d appraise her views and principles – how she acted and treated others.

Arya had originally assumed he was already betrothed. How could a lord that strong and kind and handsome not be? She still had to consider that. Probably the Bull was with his intended wife now, a demure Stormlands bride he’d chosen for love. Maybe he was telling her to look out for the mystery knight, while she sat sedately in the stands tomorrow.

The thought of the Bull and some faceless girl made Arya’s chest clench. She imagined him caressing her auburn or perhaps golden head – so much prettier than Arya’s plain brown; holding the girl’s soft hand in his big one; her lips brushing against his cheek.

Arya forced the vision from her mind.

If he was betrothed, he was betrothed. She could not do anything to change that.

But if he wasn’t….

Even if he wasn’t…would he want her? Could he want her?

Septa Mordane and Jeyne Poole had always told her no man would be happy being married to Arya. What self-respecting husband would want a girl who ran around covered in dirt and fraternised with lowborns? Arya’s stomach twisted.

But, she reminded herself, not every man was like that. Jon once told her he’d like a wife who’d explore beyond the Wall with him. He even joked that he needed a woman who was as good with a bow as he was with a sword so they could fight together. Bran often said that having a girl who could run and fight and throw as good as boy would be more fun than a girl who sighed over kissing stories.*

Could the Bull be the same? He’d called her a warrior and seemed interested enough in fitting her armour. And if everything he’d said about lowborns and highborns was true, then he maybe wouldn’t mind if his wife was more comfortable eating in the kitchens with servants than at the high table with ladies.

Arya rolled over and curled closer into Nymeria. Nymeria licked her cheek, nuzzling gently.

She was ignoring the glaring point in all this.

Every man wanted a beautiful wife. Arya had heard enough of Sansa’s songs and her mother’s lessons to know that. And while, for all her other suitors, having Princess Arya Stark at their side by day would make up for having Arya Horseface lie beside them by night, for the Bull it wouldn’t.

And if he didn’t care about titles, Arya thought bitterly, what could she offer him to compensate for her face? The Bull may be unconventional enough not to want a wealthy wife, but even he must want a comely one. And she could never give him that.

Although…her traitorous mind whispered. He DID call you beautiful.

She gritted her teeth, hands curling under the covers. He was just being stupid. Sweet, but stupid. Everyone knew Arya was ugly. A thousand jokes about Northern horses couldn’t change that. The Bull had seen she was upset and wanted to make her feel better, the way Jon and her father used to when Sansa and Jeyne sneered at her. One kind hearted man’s placations wouldn’t make her beautiful all of a sudden.

Still, he’d looked so sincere that she wondered if, in time he could find her – not truly pretty – but at least tolerable enough to wed.

Sighing, Arya burrowed further into her pillow, nestling up against Nymeria. She couldn’t think that far ahead. She had to focus on the joust tomorrow and beating Joffrey. At the most, finding out if the Bull was betrothed. And then…then maybe she could start to hope.

********

Gendry had been busy the first few days of the tourney, rushing around every morning to help set up the pavilions before all the highborns arrived to watch the competitions. The entire tourney lasted five days, with the jousting on the fourth and fifth. The first day had been the melee, the second the axe throwing and the third the archery, with mummers shows, singers and dancers in the evening. (During which he - naturally - had been stuck down in the kitchens).

He'd caught a couple of glimpse of Princess Arya, seated up in the royal tent or at the high table with her family and the Baratheons, her bright eyes taking in every detail. However, he'd avoided her seeing him - the last thing he needed was her wondering why an alleged Stormlands lordling was working with the servants instead of sitting up in the stands. Today, when he went down to the tiltyard, the Princess's spot beside the King and Queen of the North was suspiciously empty. Gendry smirked and ducked behind a passing horse, heading over to the armoury tent.

Not long later, citizens from Kings Landing crowded into the standing space, jostling each other with excitement. King Robert’s booming voice welcomed everyone, speaking of his delight at another day of celebrations for his dearest friend and fellow King joining them. Musicians, carrying flutes and drums, marched in the tiltyard.

That was Gendry’s cue. Making sure no one was watching, he slipped away from the tiltyard and pavilions and ducked into the surrounding woods. He’d hidden the armour and the lance in the clearing he and Arya had met in a few days ago, deep in the trees and far away from everyone.

Fortunately, the joust was large, over a hundred men entered so he and Arya had time to get ready. The joust had two rounds: The open class and the Knights. Only sworn knights – whether landed, hedge or household – could enter the knightly class. The open class, the one today, was open to any man who could pay the fee. Of course, in practice Gendry knew only wealthy highborns or perhaps men with generous patrons, could afford to compete. But it was a fine opportunity for squires and aspiring knights to compete, as riders who performed with notable skill in the open class may be knighted. The Knights joust was tomorrow, on the final day of the tourney, with the feast and dance in the evening.

To ride against Joffrey, they’d entered Arya in the open class. Gendry had heard Joffrey complaining that he wasn’t allowed to ride against the knights, claiming that the Crown Prince should override any common Ser. Thankfully, Cersei insisted he only enter the open class so Arya wouldn’t be facing any experienced jouster or have to fake a knighthood on top of everything else. After paying the fee, Gendry had been given a wooden token to prove her entry.

He clenched his fist around the token now and sucked in a deep breath, steadying his pulse. Everything should be fine. There was no reason for anyone to suspect anything. He pressed the token harder into his palm.

He didn’t have to wait long for Arya. The musicians had barely finished when she rushed into the clearing.

She’d changed into an even plainer tunic than normal to fit under the armour, and clutching a crumpled gown. But she beamed at him, excitement glinting in her eyes.

Despite himself, Gendry grinned back – he was sure he’d smiled more in the past two days than he had in the past four years.

“You managed to escape then?” He asked, taking her gown and stuffing it in the sack.

“I know how to fake a fevered brow.” She shrugged. “And I've been very well-behaved these past three days at all the other events.”

“Shall we then?”

“Let’s knock him into the dirt.”

He and Arya put on her armour even more swiftly than the day they'd practiced, checking everything was tightened and she was comfortable. Gendry passed her the shield.

“I um, didn’t recognise the sigil.” He admitted, “I’m not sure if you do, hopefully it’s not any house that’s attending and might wonder who in their family is riding.”

Arya gazed down at the shield, an indecipherable expression flitting across her face. She reached out and traced round the laughing tree with her finger tip.

“I recognise it.” She said quietly. “It’s a weirwood tree. But we don’t have to worry about any Southern family.”

Gendry frowned. “What do you mean?”

She glanced up at him, eyes soft and faraway. “My friend Meera told me that years ago, at the tourney of Harrenhal, there was a mystery knight who competed. The Knight of the Laughing Tree everyone called them, because of their unusual sigil.” Her gaze flicked back to the shield in her hands. “They challenged three knights to defend Meera’s father – the knight’s squires had been bullying him. The knight beat them all but then disappeared before anyone could discover their identity. The only thing they left behind was their armour and shield.”

Gendry watched her trace the tree design again, certain Arya knew more of the story. “Who was it?”

A smile hovered at Arya’s lips and she met his gaze, her grey eyes sparkling. “Lyanna Stark.”

Gendry felt as if Joffrey’s men had just punched him in the stomach. “The Lady Lyanna? Your aunt?” The perfect woman my father has spent his whole life in love with? Gendry wanted to say. Who all of Westeros remembers as a fragile maiden carried away by a tyrant? That Lyanna?

Arya nodded. “When she was only fourteen.”

Gendry swallowed, trying to equate the story of this spirited girl Knight with his father’s drunken ramblings that Lyanna never would have fought him like Cersei did. Somehow, he couldn’t make it fit.

But glancing at the small figure in the shabby armour before him, he knew one thing did match. “She sounds like you.”

Arya shrugged, avoiding his gaze. “My father says I remind him of her. She was meant to be wild and wilful as well. But…” She trailed off, staring at the shield again.

“But?” Gendry prompted, recalling yesterday’s conversation and suspecting what she was going to say.

“But Princes fought wars over her beauty.” Arya said defiantly, raising her chin. “And no matter what nice things you said about Northern horses yesterday, I’m not blind.” Before Gendry could respond, she grabbed the helm and slotted it over her head. “Now come on stupid, we’ve got a Prince to humiliate.”

Deciding to argue his point later, Gendry picked up the lance and another helm he’d taken from the smithy. It wasn’t an enclosed helm like Arya’s, but it would stop people from recognising him at first glance.

The third bout was starting when they arrived. Arya was competing in the fifth bout, against some green squire from the Vale. Going by the scheduled arrangement, Gendry and Arya had worked out that she had five competitors to eliminate before she and Joffrey would face each other. (Providing no one else had a change of heart and decided not to let their Prince win after all. Having had to resist punching Joffrey on a daily basis, Gendry wouldn’t be surprised).

They fetched the Northern horse Gendry had taken to the makeshift tourney stables that morning, and saddled it. Arya mounted and Gendry walked beside her to the edge of the tiltyard. He showed the attending page their wooden token and the boy nodded them through.

They watched the fourth bout, one of the riders fell from his saddle and his horse dragged him halfway across the tiltyard ground before he could free his legs. The tell-tale crack of bone echoed through the stands and Gendry grimaced, blocking out the man’s screams.

He glanced up at Arya, tempted to check she was still alright, but stopped himself. No. This was her choice. If Arya Stark didn’t want to do this then she wouldn’t be. Instead Gendry stepped closer and pressed his shoulder against her leg, offering wordless support.

Her face was hidden by the helmet and she stayed silent – but he felt her mail-clad knee nudge against him.

The injured rider was carried off and the herald motioned them forward. Across the tiltyard the Vale squire was mounting. Gendry took a deep breath and handed Arya the lance. “Ride well.” He whispered under this breath.

She brushed his fingers in acknowledgement and then secured the lance under her arm.

“The rider of the Laughing Tree.” The herald boomed, and Arya rode in.

Gendry needn’t have worried. The two riders cantered towards each other, lances pressed forward and within seconds the squire’s lance was shattering into splinters. Gendry felt things had barely started and Arya was already trotting back to him, the crowd whooping. He took her lance and they retreated away from the tiltyard.

Joffrey rode two rounds later, and as expected, his competitor threw the bout. The Prince crowed with delight, smirking as he soaked up the applause.

Gendry rolled his eyes, and from her helmet, Arya snorted.

They didn’t recognise the sigil of Arya’s second opponent, maybe another independent rider, unaffiliated with any House. Either way, the bout went much the same as Arya’s first. She didn’t even have to break the man’s lance this time, knocking it from his hand like it’s only a twig.

Joffrey won his next bout and jeered loudly at his rival, oblivious to the experienced knights exchanging knowing looks.

Arya’s third bout against some lord’s second son from the Westerlands, was slightly harder for her, both riders keeping hold of their lances and a firm seat in the saddle for the initial tilt and having to circle back for a second go. On this attempt, Gendry saw Arya lean further forward on her horse and strike her opponent with deftness that seemed almost impossible for such an unwieldly weapon. The other rider rocked backwards, unable to keep both his seat and his lance. The lance clattered to the ground and the crowd gasped in genuine admiration, breaking out into applause. Gendry grinned, relief and pride mingling in his chest.

“He still thinks you ride with your hands,” Arya commented, when Gendry took her back to their clearing at the noon day break. “Clinging onto the reins like they were his life. Any boy past three namedays knows all the control is in your knees.”

“Maybe you do.” Gendry retorted. “Not all of us were born on horseback m’lady.”

“Did you ride much?” Arya asked, uncorking the waterskin with her teeth. “Growing up?”

Gendry’s throat went dry, remembering Flea Bottom where everyone was wading through horseshit rather than riding the damn animals. “Not much.” He said gruffly.

Arya nodded. “I’ll have to teach you sometime.” She said casually.

Gendry swallowed, throat tightening. Was she suggesting they’d still be…. friends after all this? He’d only expected this strange comradery to last during the tourney. Then Princess Arya Stark would return home with a fine, upstanding husband, and never know that the surly man she’d schemed with was a bastard servant rather than a Stormlands lords.

He glanced at her. She was chewing her lip, seemingly watching for his response.

“Oh really?” he said, surprised his voice came out light and teasing. “Even if I’m as useless as a boy of only three namedays?”

She smirked, her sweaty face shining. “I’m sure even you’re not that stupid.”

“Flattering as always m’lady.”

“Shut up stupid.”

During their noon day rest, King Robert had food brought down from the Red Keep kitchens. Although – Gendry noted derisively when he checked on the tiltyard– it was only served to the noble guests not the standing smallfolk. At least with the wooden token, he could get some bread and fruit for Arya, which she tore into like she was a wolf herself.

After noon, the jousting resumed and they returned to watch the next few rounds. Joffrey won his third and fourth bouts, pointed face alight with glee. After his final win, he hurled insults at his defeated rival loud enough for everyone in the stands to hear. The other rider – finely dressed in the colours of some Reach House – looked mutinous, no doubt wondering if it had been worth forfeiting the round after all. Gendry didn’t blame him.

Arya’s fourth bout against a Dornish rider went smoothly and she moved on to face a rider from the Riverlands, the heir to House Smallwood. Gendry could see his mother, Lady Smallwood, in the stands.

“This is it,” Gendry murmured, checking her saddle, “If you beat him then your next opponent is Joffrey.”

Arya just nodded, staring out across the tiltyard. The atmosphere was tenser now; the crowd recognising riders from previous bouts and the competition getting fierce.

Gendry passed her the lance, resisting the temptation to squeeze her hand.

“Ride well….m’lady”

The horns blew and Arya and the Smallwood rider baralleled towards each other. Gendry could instantly tell the boy was better than the previous riders, moving with ease. He and Arya’s lances collided, battering into the other’s shield. Both swayed in the saddles, tightening their knees but remained upright.

They cantered back around for another go, but the result was the same. So, they rode again. And then once more for a fourth time.

As Arya circled back for the fifth tilt, Gendry could see her arms were trembling and he noticed anew how small Arya was – even clad in armour. The Smallwood boy looked at least a year older than her, with broad shoulders and long legs. And while Arya had said she practised jousting, Gendry suspected that what training she could get sneaking out after her brothers was much less than a lordling had from years with a Master of Arms.

Nerves curled in his stomach and Gendry wondered dimly how King Eddard would kill him for injuring his beloved daughter. Did they hang people much up in the North? Or did they burn people like those Lord of Light followers? Some of the maids had said the deceased House Bolton flayed people alive. Gendry shuddered. He should have shut his mouth the moment a Princess started going on about jousting.

However, as the riders lined up again, Arya straightened, rolling her shoulders back and settling the lance. Gendry could practically see her angular jaw lock under that helmet, her gaze taking on that familiar steely-eyed determination. The crowd was silent, air crackling with expectation.

This time, when they rode towards each other, Arya waited until the last moment and aimed her lance low – far lower than Gendry had seen any other competitor go – and simultaneously ducked against her horse’s neck. Her lance slipped under the boy’s shield and she gave a final thrust, knocking him aside. He slammed into the sand, lance falling with him.

The audience exploded into cheers, the lowborn crowd whooping in delight and even some of the noble spectators leaping to their feet to applaud. Gendry couldn’t stop from laughing aloud, a fierce pride roaring in his chest.

Arya rode back and dismounted swiftly, barely pausing to toss Gendry the lance and reins before running back to check on the Smallwood rider.

The boy was crumpled on the ground and struggling to stand – Gendry couldn’t see any broken limbs, but it was hard to tell under the armour. Arya offered him her gloved hand and pulled him to his feet. Leaning against the railing, the rider yanked off his helmet appearing in a puff of brown hair – Gendry was surprised to see him grinning broadly, looking at Arya with an impressed expression.
Gendry watched him tell Arya something that looked like a compliment. Arya gestured back, obviously asking if he was injured, but he only waved her off, nodding to the still cheering crowd and then her helmet. Was he asking her to reveal herself? Gendry clenched the horse’s reins, the leather biting into his palm. What the bloody hell was she doing?

Fortunately, Arya seemed to have realised how conspicuous she was and shook her head, backing away. The boy frowned but she just bowed quickly to the crowd and marched back to Gendry.
“Quick.” She hissed when she reached him. “Before anyone else gets suspicious.”

Feeling the spectator’s eyes boring into his back, Gendry led the horse away, trying to walk at a normal place. Beside him Arya was tense, breathing heavily inside her helmet. They melted into the bustle, slinking over to the stables.

“Seven hells, that was close.” Arya muttered. “He was demanding I show myself to the crowd.”

“You shouldn’t have gone back.” Gendry pointed out irritably. “If we get discovered you’ll never be able to face Joffrey – no matter how well you ride.”

“I had to check he was alright.” Arya protested. “I’m not trying to kill everyone on my way to Joffrey.”

Gendry just grunted, skimming the crowd for anyone giving them curious looks. Luckily everyone seemed to have lost interest in the mystery rider and was watching the next bout.
They watched the next few bouts far back from the tiltyard, staying out of view. The shadows were lengthening now, drifting into late afternoon.

Joffrey’s next opponent didn’t even compete. The rider forfeited, allegedly due to an injury, but Gendry suspected he couldn’t take the humiliation of the Prince crowing over him if he threw the bout. Joffrey crowed anyway, laughing about cowards and halfwits.

“You know what this means.” Gendry said under his breath, watching Joffrey preen to the stands.

Arya raised her chin. “I’ll be facing him next.”

There were only six riders left now: Arya, Joffrey, a rider from the Vale, another from the Stormlands and two from the Reach.

The herald called the next bout: The rider of the Laughing Tree versus Prince Joffrey of House Baratheon and Lannister.

Gendry heard Arya suck in a breath.

“You’ll be fine.” He said, trying to be reassuring. “You’ve beaten riders far more skilled than Joffrey today.”

Arya chuckled, an odd raspy sound under her helmet. “Oh, I’m not worried about that part. It’s just getting out before Cersei or Joffrey catch me.”

“I’ll be right here” Gendry promised her. “Ready to run with you.” He’d already figured out an escape route in fact.

She looked up at him, eyes shining through the narrow slits. “I’ll be quick.”

They walked to the tiltyard together, Gendry flashed the wooden token one last time and Arya mounted. Opposite them, Joffrey bounced in the saddle, his poor beast whinnying in distress.

The atmosphere in the crowd was odd: Some of the audiences were riveted on the mystery rider, whispering over who he could be. Others looked bored and eyeing Joffrey irritably, knowing how it would end now the Crown Prince was riding.

Gendry chanced a look at the royal pavilion, Cersei looked as smug as always, sipping her wine and smirking down at her son, while Robert was already deep into his cups. On the Stark side, Queen Catelyn and Lord Willas Tyrell were talking quietly, while Lady Sansa’s gaze was fixed on the jousters, leaning forward in her eagerness. King Eddard was leaning forward to, but in contrast to his daughter’s shining face he stared at Arya with narrowed eyes, gaze drifting to the Laughing Tree shield. Gendry’s stomach lurched. Surely the King couldn’t….?

Then the horn sounded, and Arya rode forward.

Gendry through that after everything they’d gone through to get there, the moment itself was anti-climactic. Arya rode like she was half horse herself, back upright, shield raised and lance straight, Joffrey moved clumsily, kicking at his mount and making it clear to everyone that his lance was off-centre.

And then – in front of half the lords and ladies in Westeros – the rider of the Laughing Tree collided with the Crown Prince, knocking him off his horse in a single swipe. Joffrey hit the ground with a wail of fury, spluttering against the dust. The crowd gasped, several women squealing and one lord even breaking out in surprised laughter, many of the men who had looked so bored earlier were smirking now.

Gendry stared down at his half-brother and satisfaction swelled in his chest. Not caring if anyone saw, he grinned, broad and open.

(You finally got what you deserved brother).

Arya circled around and looked out at the onlookers, surveying them from her seat.

“A contest is a contest.” She called, in a strange booming voice completely unlike her own. “If anyone, man or woman, ever wants respect from their people then they must earn it fairly. No one – ” her voice took on a derisive edge as she glanced down at Joffrey, “– not even a Prince is exempt from that. Remember that next time you humiliate someone below you.”

She turned back to the crowd and bowed, inclining her helmed head. A rumble spread through the spectators, confusion on many of faces and disgust on some. A few looked like they were holding back grins. Gendry chanced a glance at Cersei, she was clutching her wine goblet in knuckled hands , gaze fixed on her son whimpering in the sand,. But then her eyes flickered to Arya. Gendry’s chest tightened.

Before anyone could react, Arya rode out of the tiltyard, sweeping past the herald. Gendry grabbed her outstretched lance, letting her dash by him and plough a path through the loitering riders and squires. He threw one last look at Cersei, tossed the lance to one side and ran after his knight.

He got beyond the edge of the pavilions by the time Cersei and Joffrey started wailing for someone to go after the rider. Gendry ducked into the woods, weaving his way through the trees until he reached their clearing, relieved it was fairly deep in the trees. Arya was already half out of her armour.

“They’re coming after us.” He said.

She looked up at him, face flushed. “I know.”

He helped her strip off the rest of her armour, tossing it to the ground.

“I jumped off the horse behind the armoury pavilion.” She said, “some stable boy will have put it with all the others by now so it will be harder for them to find us.”

Gendry jerked his head in agreement, tearing off her breastplate while Arya freed her legs. Voices drifted through the trees – people were starting to search the woods. Gendry grabbed the sack with her gown in it.

“Let’s go.” Arya said. She glanced down at her suit of armour all gathered in a pile.

Gendry followed her gaze. “Leave it.” He said. “Let it be a reminder of the knight that defeated Joffrey Baratheon.” Arya nodded and went to place the shield in the heap, but he stopped her. “But take that with us.” He paused. “A memory of your aunt.”

Arya looked as is if she was about to say something, but they heard voices coming even closer, and she grabbed his hand instead. “Come on!”

While Gendry was trying to process the feel of her small fingers laced between his, Arya dragged him deeper in the woods. He shook himself to attention, realising that she had no idea where they were going. Luckily, Gendry knew the Red Keep almost as well as the forge and servants quarters.

The Red Keep was built on a peninsula, shaped roughly squarish with four sides. The front side faced straight towards Kings Landing with a road leading from the castle gate to the city. The left and back sides fell to sheer cliffs, jutting above the water below. The right side sloped into an open grassy area and woods before rolling down to the beach. King Robert had built the tourney stands and tiltyard in the grassy area, pressed up against the forest – outside the walls of the castle tiself.

Gendry knew the woods stretched past the front side of the Keep, running alongside the road and reaching the edge of the city. If he and Arya got through the woods fast enough, they could slip into the city and lose themselves in King Landing’s streets.

So, he concentrated on their route, glancing around the trees and calculating which direction the city was in. “This way.” He hissed, pulling ahead of Arya.

She gripped his hand tighter, letting him guide her. They dashed through the trees, running parallel to the road. Behind them, they could hear shouts and the tell-tale clank of armoured feet – Cersei had sent the royal guard after them.

Realising they could move faster separated, Gendry released Arya’s hand – considering how frantic the situation was, he felt stupidly unhappy doing so.

They’re gaining on us. He thought.

Arya sped up, weaving through the trees like a shadowy forest spirit. “Come on you stupid bull!”

Gendry sprinted after her, breath rasping and a sharp pain piercing his side. Distant whinnying echoed through the trees, ground shaking with hooves beating against the dirt. The pain sharpened and Gendry almost tripped.

Arya glanced over her shoulder, hair flying around her face. “Hurry up!”

With sweat burning his eyes, Gendry at last saw the trees thinning ahead. In a burst of energy, he pounded forward and unthinkingly grabbed Arya’s hand in his again. Together they hurtled on, breaking through the trees and at last onto the streets of Kings Landing.

Chapter Text

Arya let the Bull pull her through the city streets, leaping together over the uneven road. Careening around a corner they collided with a pair of fisherwomen, spilling fish from their barrels onto the cobblestones, the stench clogging Arya’s nostrils and angry yells of the women filling her ears. The Bull ignored it all, dragging her onwards.   

Arya tugged at his hand, forcing him to pause. “Slow down,” she hissed. “We’ve got to blend in.”

The Bull nodded, slackening to a brisk walk and managing to stay behind other passer-by’s. She could tell it was an effort though, his eyes darting to the rooftops and cracks between buildings.

Admittedly, she wasn’t any better, constantly glancing back to check if they were being followed – already she could hear the belligerent shouts and whinny of horses that meant Cersei’s guards had emerged from the woods.  

Arya was also far too aware of the Bull’s hand locked around hers, palms as calloused as her own and his grip solid and warm. She ignored that thought, feeling as foolish as a maiden in one of Sansa’s songs.

“Where are we going?” She asked instead, keeping her voice low.

The Bull frowned, his face screwing up like it did when he thought too hard. Arya wondered what problem he was wrestling with now. The yelling of the guards drifted closer and he locked his jaw, seeming to come to a decision – though not one he looked happy with.  

“This way,” he said shortly, guiding her down a side alleyway. They headed deeper into the city, the streets getting steadily narrower and the shit on the cobblestones growing. Arya leapt to one side to avoid being drenched in a torrent of piss water pouring from an upstairs window.

The Bull glanced at her, eyes flickering with something that looked strangely like embarrassment.

“I just thought they wouldn’t look for us here.” He snapped, sounding defensive. “Y- The other highborns never come to Flea Bottom.”

Arya tilted her head, puzzled at the anger in his tone. “I’m not questioning you.” She pointed out. “I agree it’s a good idea.”

He blinked at her. “Even if you get buried in a pile of shit?”

“Well I haven’t yet.” Arya sniped back. “Have some faith.” Releasing his hand, she hopped over a puddle of vomit and threw a challenging glance over her shoulder. “Besides you’re much bigger than me so you’re a better target for any shit flying around.”

The Bull snorted, looking inexplicably pleased for someone who’d been threatened with dung. “At least I’ll be able to climb my way out of any shit pile. You’re so tiny you’ll drown in one little heap.”

“Oy!” She shoved him hard in the chest. “I’m not that small! You’re just a giant.”

He chuckled and they continued walking through Flea Bottom, passing beggar children, whores calling on street corners and vendors selling dubious smelling dishes.

Fortunately, they both blended in – the tunic Arya had been wearing under her armour was plain and worn, and the Bull had dressed in a faded jerkin and breeches obviously to avoid drawing attention to himself and the rider of the Laughing Tree. She wondered if he’d borrowed the clothes from one of the servants or if he was like her and kept simple clothes for these occasions. Their normal, highborn clothes – her gown, his tunic and – were stuffed with the shield in the sack slung over his back.

“I think we’re safe.” She said eventually, as they ducked into another shadowy alleyway. “None of Cersei’s men have come this way.”

“Even if they do, they wouldn’t look twice at us.” The Bull said. “They’d never believe a street rat from Flea Bottom could have defeated Joffrey. Let alone a girl.”

“Well they’re stupid then.”

“Never said they weren’t.” His eyes crinkled when he smiled. Arya found herself smiling back.

“But we shouldn’t return to the Red Keep yet.” She said quickly. “It might look suspicious, let’s stop somewhere.” She peered up the street, spying what looked like a tavern at the far end. “Go and get a drink.”

The Bull followed her gaze – when he saw the tavern his eyes widened. “No. No that’s not a good idea.”

 “Why? We have time to spare and it’s safer than the streets.”

“It’s – it’s not appropriate.” He said, scowling. “A Princess can’t go visiting taverns. Come on let’s just keep going.”

He went to keep walking, but Arya barged in front, blocking his way. “What in seven hells are you about?” She demanded. “Now you’re worried about what’s appropriate? What do you think we’ve been doing today, working on my embroidery?”

The Bull just stared at the tavern mutinously, a muscle twitching in his cheek.

“And we could get a meal. Come on, I’ve got gold.” She gestured to the sack, knowing her money pouch was buried somewhere in its depths.

He was still scowling. “Let’s go somewhere else. That place doesn’t look good.”

“We’re in Flea Bottom stupid, nowhere’s going to be good. We’re not going to stumble on some respectable establishment on the next street and we don’t want to go back to the other parts of the city. This is here now. And I’m hungry.”

That more than anything seemed to sway him. “Fine.” He ground out, marching forward. “As it pleases you m’lady.”

Arya had to run after him, irritated that she struggled to keep up with his longer legs and wondering why he was so angry.

They reached the tavern – admittedly it did look pretty disreputable, the battered sign hanging half off its hinges and the windows coated with grime. Arya didn’t care but the Bull grunted in disgust, shoving the door open with force.

Inside was just as bad, smelling strongly of piss like the tavern in Wintertown that Robb, Jon and Theon had snuck her out to. Battered tables were scattered around the room, dimly lit by feeble light fighting through the shutters and stubby candles, and there were a few tavern maids behind the bar and another one serving drinks.   

The Bull dumped the sack on a table in the corner. “You sit here, I’ll get us drinks.”

Arya glared at him. “Stop telling me what to do.”

He didn’t reply, just dug through the sack for the money pouch and trudged off to the bar glowering.

Arya gritted her teeth and slumped down at the table. What in seven hells was wrong with him? Jousting was no problem but drinking mead was? Did he not want to consort with lowborns? Was he more like the other lords than she’d thought?

She glanced over at him; he was leaning over the bar talking intently to the older barmaid and the woman was smirking a little, shaking her head with what almost looked like fondness. Some of Arya’s irritation vanished. No, it wasn’t the people he had a problem with, there was obviously something else going on. She leaned on her elbows, thinking.

One of the serving girls stopped by her table, asking if she wanted food. Arya asked for recommendations and they quickly fell into conversation about Flea Bottom’s infamous Bowl of Brown being a must try for a Northern visitor. (“You haven’t truly visited Kings Landing without tasting it!”) The two of them were laughing over Arya’s offer to go and behead some pigeons to help, when the Bull arrived back. He thumped two tankards of mead on the table, still scowling. “M’lady.”

Arya bit down her annoyance, exchanging a rueful look with the girl at his behaviour. “Just two bowls please.” She requested, rolling her eyes in apology.

The girl grinned at her. “I’ll be out in a minute.” Her eyes flicked between Arya and the Bull with a knowing look, and she headed back to the kitchens.

The Bull frowned at her retreating back. “Having a good talk?” He snapped.

Arya tried not to lose her temper. “You know your face screws up when you think too hard.” She said, feeling petty.

“I – what?” He paused, caught off guard.

“It does. Makes you look stupid.”

He scowled, and then to Arya’s amusement forced his forehead to smooth out. “Thinking makes me look stupid?” He sniped. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

“Maybe you’re thinking stupid thoughts.”

“Well thanks for that. Seeing as it’s my stupid thoughts trying to stop you getting found out and keep my head still attached to my body.”

That made Arya pause. “What do you mean?”  

“Just if you’d been discovered, I don’t think the King in the North would be very happy with the man who helped you.” The Bull shrugged. “And if you get hurt, then he’s certainly going to punish the person responsible for harming his little girl.”

“My father wouldn’t do that! He’d know it was be my idea! And he certainly wouldn’t punish you for it!” Had he been thinking that the whole time? Did he truly think her father would have blamed him and not her? Was that why he was nervous about coming to the tavern? That he’d be blamed for even more of her actions?

The Bull snorted, lips twisting. “In my experience whose fault it was doesn’t usually come in to a King’s judgement.”

Arya stared at him, anger at the Baratheon court growing. “Maybe it doesn’t here.” She hissed, trying to keep her voice low. “Maybe your King doesn’t care about justice but my father does.”

The Bull looked at her with his steady eyes, staring long and hard and Arya waited for him to say something. But he just dropped his gaze and buried his nose in his tankard again.

“Is that what you’ve been thinking?” Arya prodded. “Is that why you didn’t want to come here? Did you think you’d get blamed for what I did?”

He shrugged. “I knew it was a risk.”

“But you still did it?”   

He shifted in his seat, avoiding her stare. “It – it was the right thing to do.” He said flatly. “The just thing. Too many people don’t care about justice. I wasn’t going to turn away someone who did.”

“Well…thank you.” Arya said, feeling awkward. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

He grunted. “You were the one who beat him, I just passed you a bloody lance, Nymeria could have done it for you.”

“No.” Arya insisted. “It was more than that. You set everything up when I couldn’t, you knew an escape route when Cersei’s men were chasing us, you got us around the city. I couldn’t have done any of that.”

He ducked his head and Arya thought it was funny to see a man so big and strong blushing like a maid. “Thank you.” He mumbled gruffly. “Glad to do it.”

Arya smiled, feeling oddly warm and gulped down some more mead to avoid the awkward silence. “How do you know the Keep and city so well?” She asked. “Do you visit much? You said your House was from the Stormlands.”

The Bull still looked uncomfortable, swallowing several times. “Yes, it is, but I’m…. related to the Baratheons. And my um, mother was from the Crownlands. So, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Red Keep.”

Arya mentally skimmed through the list of Stormlands houses she knew. To her frustration, it wasn’t a great many, a rare time she wished she’d listened to Septa Mordane’s lectures on Southern names and family trees.

She knew House Tarth of course; Brienne of Tarth had visited Winterfell once and they’d sparred together. And she remembered House Dondarrion from meeting Lord Beric when they’d both been staying at Rivverun. And House Seaworth – she’d talked to Ser Davos during the mummer’s show last night. But none of them were related to the Baratheons and she was hazy on other houses.

Wasn’t it a House Estermont or something that had some Baratheon blood? And she recalled a House Trant? Trent? Trench? And there was a House Wylde in the mix somewhere.

Arya was about to swallow her pride and just ask what the Bull’s House was – even if she probably wouldn’t recognise it – when the serving girl arrived with their stew.

They both thanked her, Arya satisfied the Bull was less grumpy now and dug in swiftly, Arya suddenly realising how ravenous she was.

As she dunked her bread in the brown slop, she remembered the more pressing question to ask, much more important than his house – was he betrothed? She chanced a glance at him hunched over his food. The question was how in seven hells could she ask him without utterly humiliating herself?

X-X

Gendry stared into his tankard, stomach churning. How the fuck did he keep getting into these situations? Here he was, in the tavern where his mother used to work, staring the grimy tables he played under as a child, forcing down the bowl of brown he’d been raised on...with the fucking Princess of the North beside him.

He’d almost drowned himself in a shit pile on purpose when she’d suggested stopping here. It had been painful enough bringing her to Flea Bottom, even if he knew it was the safest place for them. But of all the taverns and alehouses in the slums, she had to pick this one? The place he’d grown up scraping through the dirt, crushed under the heels of highborns?

He didn’t want her to see his world. Even if Arya didn’t know that this tavern was where he belonged it was still a painful reminder of how far apart they truly were.

At the joust, they’d been distanced from their proper positions, both pretending to be something they weren’t – just a knight and squire defeating the Crown Prince. Gendry could forget Arya was a Princess and he was a bastard from Flea Bottom.

Here, with reminders of his past seeping from every stink-filled corner, Gendry couldn’t suppress the shame pulsing through him. He wanted to push Arya away, tell her to go back to her castle and leave him be. No good ever came of lowborns consorting with lords and ladies. Highborns only played with people like him, used them for what they wanted and tossed them back in the dirt afterwards.

And while Arya was kind and unconventional, and the Starks clearly ruled with the justice that the Baratheons and Lannisters lacked, she still didn’t belong here, she couldn’t understand his life.

If she’d known what Gendry was all along, he’ll admit she probably still would have defended him when they first met but it would have ended there. She wouldn’t have made him her squire or banded with him to defeat Joffrey. They’d have exchanged a conversation and that would be it.

Although…Gendry watched Arya grin at the tavern girl and swig down her mead as unladylike as they come. A wave of affection warmed his chest. Maybe. Maybe she would have trusted him and they’d still have plotted together. But she wouldn’t have treated him the way she had thinking he was a lord. They wouldn’t be sharing mead or holding hands running through Flea Bottom. She wouldn’t look at him the same way with shining eyes and a wide smile.

And if she kept asking those fucking questions about his House and parents and visiting court, then she’d discover the truth and – rightfully enough – be furious at him for lying.

Arya broke into his thoughts. “The girl called this a bowl of brown.” She commented wryly, poking at the murky depths. “She said people here make a game of guessing what meat it is.”

You’re telling me like I didn’t play that game every night until my mother was too poor to buy us even a bowl of brown. Gendry thought. But he shook that thought away, at least trying to be amicable, they were here now, there was no point in being sulky and making her more suspicious.

“This doesn’t seem so bad.” He said, trying to keep his tone light. “I don’t think it’s rat, so it’s not the worst bowl of brown you could get.”

“True,” Arya nodded thoughtfully, examining lump on her spoon. “Could it even be fish?”

“We might be getting a bit ambitious there.”

Arya smiled. “I told the girl I could kill some pigeons for her if they were running low. Pidgeon’s aren’t bad to eat and they’re easy to catch.”

Gendry relaxed a little at the topic, curious why she’d learnt to catch pigeons on top of everything else. “And hunting them will be nothing after taking down Joffrey.” He said. “You know we haven’t really celebrated yet.”

“You’re right.” Arya raised her tankard. “We did it.”

“We did.”

“To humiliating arsehole princes!”

Grinning, they clashed tankards and downed their drinks, Arya drained her mead in one go and slammed the tankard back on the table, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Gendry leaned back, smirking at her. “Did you hear him wail when he hit the dirt?”

“And see those men laughing at him?”

“The women too.”

“Queen Cersei looked like she was going to throw her wine at me.”

“Well, today was a shock, she hasn’t let anyone give Joffrey what he deserves since the moment he left her belly.”

“That explains why he couldn’t even stand up by himself. He was just waiting for someone to come and pick him up.”

“Like a baby stag trying to walk. Probably not how the King wanted his son to represent his sigil.”

They both laughed and Arya shrugged ruefully. “It wasn’t enough for how much of an arse he is.” She admitted, wrapping her hands around her bowl. “Or enough justice for everyone he’s mistreated. But at least it was something.

“It’s more than anyone else has done.” Gendry told her, thinking of the years of abuse Joffrey laid on him and the other servants while the highborns stood by. “And Joffrey is served so little that that what you did will go a long way.”

“What we did.” She corrected. “You’re right…. I suppose my only regret is that I couldn’t keep competing. I’m not saying I would have won – that last bout before facing Joffrey was hard – but I’d liked to have tried rather than just running.”

“I did worry in that last round.” Gendry admitted. “Against the Smallwood heir, but that trick you pulled was so skilled.”

It might have been the dim light, but he swore he saw her blush. “I had the advantage, I’ve watched him jousting against Bran before so I knew his weakness but he’s never seen me.”

“Well whose fault is that? If you could practice with them, then they’d be prepared.” Gendry pointed out, wondering why the world was so stupid sometimes. “And I don’t know if you would have won either, but you deserved the chance to try – it’s unfair that beating Joffrey meant you had to run.”

Arya stared at him, eyes flickering with some undefinable emotion. “Thanks. But I suppose it made sense it be me as a woman – even if I’d won, I wouldn’t have been able to reveal myself. And at least now whoever wins today now will deserve it.”

“That’s unfair as well.” He said flatly. “That you couldn’t compete as you.”

Arya shrugged. “Jon once said injustice was the way of the world. Girls get the arms but not the swords. Bastards gets swords but not the arms. I’m sure everyone here –” She gestured to the tavern, “Could tell you more about injustice than I could.”

Gendry’s mind felt too full and conflicted to answer that. So, he didn’t reply, silently watching Arya tear off another chunk of bread. The way she ripped at it reminded him of something. “Where’s Nymeria today?”

“I don’t properly know.” Arya said, talking through her full mouth. “I sent her off this morning and told her she had to keep out of sight so no one would wonder where I was.”

“And she understands that?”

“Of course she does. She’s not some dog I need to chain up, she’s more than that.” Arya swallowed her mouthful and swirled the stew round in her bowl, clearly debating something. Gendry waited patiently, chewing at his own food. “What about you?” She said eventually.  

“What about me? I don’t have a giant direwolf.”

“No,” she chewed on her lip. “I mean…did your…she…mind you….?” A deep breath. “Does your betrothed know about this? Did you swear her to secrecy as well?”

Gendry choked, almost spraying half his stew across the table. “My WHAT?”

Her jaw locked. “Your betrothed.” She repeated, avoiding his gaze. “Or wife. I thought given your age and well – everything” she gestured vaguely to him, though Gendry wasn’t sure what the ‘everything’ meant “that you probably had some match arranged for you.”

Gendry wondered if he had choked after all and was hallucinating. “I – I’m not betrothed.” He stumbled out, “Or married. I don’t have any wife. Or…anyone close to it.”

“Oh.” She still wouldn’t look at him. Gendry felt light-headed.

He’d never thought much about marriage. Never allowed himself to. His place in the palace had made him a poor prospect for any self-respecting woman; even the female servants who were just as lowly he was, saw that marrying the object of the Queen’s hatred was only inviting trouble. And everyone knew that a bastard – even a King’s bastard – was made of lust and lies.

Besides, even if a woman was willing to overlook all that, Gendry was awkward at wooing girls. He could talk to them fine, but any attempts at bedding them left him tongue tied and blushing like a maid. Some of the other boys had taken him to Flea Bottom’s brothels a few times and Robert had sent a whore to him once, saying that good coin would make up for his stumbling tongue but Gendry had hated that and turned the girl away. He didn’t want to be like the King. He couldn’t lie with a woman knowing he might leave behind a bastard to grow up as miserable and humiliated as it’s father.

A few times when plotting to get a smith’s apprenticeship, he’d thought that one day – when he was trained and far away from Kings Landing – he could find someone. No woman wanted a disgraced servant but perhaps some would accept a respected smith; but they were idle dreams – a bastard was a bastard wherever he went.  

Of course, he couldn’t say all that to Arya so he just cleared his throat again. “I haven’t found anyone yet. And my father hasn’t arranged a match.”

“Is he planning to arrange one?”

“No. Not for me at least. I’m…not…not his heir.” Gendry said, head starting to ache waiting for the inevitable questions. Who’s your father? What’s your house?

But she didn’t. She asked something worse. “So, you’d be free to choose then?” She said, still staring at the table. “If you wanted to marry?”

Gendry almost choked again, wondering how much mead she’d had to drink. “I – I suppose so. Yes.” If anyone wanted to marry me. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

“You’re fortunate then.” She said dryly, draining her bowl.

Part of Gendry wanted to press her. Who was she thinking about now? Which rumoured match floating around the Red Keep was true? What suitor had her parents chosen for her? Which of the lords he’d bowed to this morning would be the one to bed her on her wedding night?

But another part of him couldn’t bring himself to speak. At this moment, despite all the gossip, he didn’t know the name of the soft smelling lord who got to marry her. He couldn’t picture the face of the man she’d spend her life with. And he wanted to keep it that way.

But why do you care anyway?  Gendry caught himself bitterly. Why are you worrying about who she marries?

He didn’t. He didn’t care. She was a Princess. They’d defeated Joffrey and that was it. He wasn’t thinking about anything else. 

Thankfully, Arya changed the subject, speculating on which of the remaining jousters would win. Gendry sunk into that conversation, pushing other thoughts from his mind.

As the sunlight through the window faded, they decided it was safe to walk back to the Red Keep, gathering up their things to leave. Arya told him to wait for a minute and darted over to talk to the serving girl again, catching her carrying bowls back to the kitchen. The girl grinned at her, bursting into laughter at something Arya said.

Something in Gendry’s chest jerked at the sight of them together. For a second it was his mother he saw, weaving between tables with her yellow hair bound back and a flagon of wine at her hip, smacking men’s hands when they wandered.

Would Arya have talked and laughed with her like that, even if she was a tavern girl? Would his mother have liked Arya? Most likely, she’d have hit him over the head for getting too close to a highborn. Stay away from that lot Gendry. She’d always warned him. Don’t you know the trouble you could get into? Of course, it was only after she died and he’d been dragged before the King himself that Gendry understood what she meant by trouble.

Arya popped back up his side. “I got us a room.”

“You what?”

She frowned at him. “To get changed in stupid. People will be suspicious if we go back into the Red Keep dressed like this.” She gestured to their tunics and jerkin. “I’ve given Ellyn a few extra coins and she said she’ll make sure no one disturbs us.”

Gendry swallowed, trying to dismiss the other implications of them disappearing into a room together. “Alright.”

They slipped upstairs to one of the rooms, it was small and musty, with a low bed and unlit fireplace.  

Arya stood in the centre, crossing and uncrossing her arms and gaze darting round the room. “You wait outside.” She commanded, “I’ll just…” She waved her hands vaguely.

“Right, of course.” Gendry stumbled, turning to the door.

“You haven’t given me my clothes stupid.”

“Right. Yes.” He shoved the sack at her without looking and ducked outside, closing the door behind him and slumping against the wall. He wondered if this was the same room the King had fucked his mother in. Had she felt nervous, lying with a royal? Had she done it in hope of it leading to something more – favours, gifts, some extra coin? Or had she just been carried away by a highborn’s easy charm and warm smile? Either way, all she’d got out of it was a bastard in her belly, Gendry didn’t think the King had ever visited her again. He closed his eyes, swallowing.

A minute or so later Arya emerged, clad in her proper clothes. Gendry has never seen her in a dress before – or even really being a Princess before – and his stomach dropped at the sight. Her gown was a dark green with a square neckline and draped sleeves, edged in glinting gold embroidery. She’d rewoven her hair into the restrained Northern braid, swinging down her back. She looked like a true highborn now – beautiful and untouchable.

“Go on then,” she said, noticing him staring. “Hurry up.”

Gendry slipped in and changed into his fine tunic quickly. It was a bit grubby from being scrunched in the sack all day and he hoped he’d still be able to sell it after all this.

They went back downstairs, thanking Ellyn and left the tavern. Gendry led Arya back to the Red Keep, hurrying to get there before twilight ended – the last thing they needed was to end up wandering the streets of Flea Bottom after dark in clothing like this.

Reaching the Kings Road, they walked up the hill to the main entrance of the Red Keep, sun setting in the background. Gendry was quiet, listening to Arya talk of Winterfell and the wild North, hands gesturing wildly.  

They were almost at the gate when Nymeria shot out of the woods they’d fled through earlier that afternoon. Large as a small horse, she bounded over to them, butting her head first against Arya, then Gendry and licking their hands affectionately.

Arya laughed, scratching her behind the ear. “Good girl Nymeria. There you go.” She told Gendry. “Much more intelligent than anyone thinks.”

“Never said she wasn’t.”

Gendry had been worried that the soldiers guarding the gate would ask why they’d been out or even recognise him, but walking beside Nymeria and Arya in his fine tunic the guards didn’t even glance twice at him, let alone question them. Instead they ducked their heads, bowing low as Arya passed. 

“Princess.”

“Your grace.”

Arya nodded to them in response, looking oddly bashful at their behaviour. Her eyes flicked to his, cheeks flushing and Gendry realised he’d never been around her when she’d been treated properly and he flushed as well, instinctively hiding his roughened hands.

But when they neared the Maidenvault where the Starks were staying, Arya stopped, drawing him into the shadows of the royal sept. Gendry wondered if this was goodbye and what he could say – thank you? You were spectacular today? I only wish…?

Before he could say anything, Arya raised her head, chewing on her lip and her face half in shadow, half in moonlight. “Will you be at the dance tomorrow?”

Gendry froze. The feast and dance to celebrate the end of the tourney – it was the crowning glory of the week, with every guest in Kings Landing and beyond in attendance and the coin spent on food alone would beggar a lesser lord.

And naturally, Gendry was supposed to be working in the kitchens.

But what was he meant to tell her? No, I’m going to miss this one? I don’t feel like coming? She must already be wondering why she hadn’t seen him in the stands or the evening entertainment.

“Yes.” He said quickly. “I’ll be there. Of course.”

Her face lit up in a smile, eyes seeming to shine with the moonlight itself and for a second he didn’t regret anything. “Good. It will be nice having someone who isn’t a total arsehole with me.” She said and hesitated, hands flexing like she was considering reaching for something but stopped. “I’d better go, I’ll see you there.” With a final grin, she darted off into the darkness, Nymeria by her side.  

Once she was out of sight, Gendry collapsed against the wall and not for the first time since meeting Arya Stark, groaned in despair. What in seven hells was he meant to do now?

Chapter Text

X-X

Arya was changing out of her gown when someone knocked at the door.

“Who is it?” She called, slipping a robe over her small clothes – hopefully whoever it was had only just come to visit, what with Arya supposing to have been in bed with a fever all day.

“Your father.” His stern voice came through the door. “Can I come in please Arya?”

Arya grimaced, biting back a curse that would have been more appropriate in Flea Bottom that afternoon than in front of the King in the North. “Uh, yes just a minute!” She shouted, sweeping the room to make sure nothing was amiss. She stuffed the gown in her clothes chest, rumpled the covers on the bed to make it look like she’d been sleeping and then ran to open the door.

“Good evening father!” Seven hells, she wasn’t out of breath, was she?

Ned Stark strode in, jaw locked and eyes hardened and flinty. Shutting the door behind him, he surveyed the room, gaze lingering on the rumbled bed covers.

Arya swallowed. “How was the joust?” She asked, trying to lighten her voice. Her father rarely visited her chambers and not since they’d arrived at Kings Landing. While he could have just come by to see how she was feeling, the clenching of his knuckles suggested otherwise.

But how could he guess? He didn’t even know she could joust, let alone how she could have found the armour and lance. It was probably nothing, Arya told herself.

“Did the competitors ride well?” She said.

Her father didn’t reply, just watched her, his expression inscrutable.

“Father?” Arya asked uncertainly. Don’t say anything. Don’t give it away. You don’t know he knows until he says so. “Are you feeling alright?”

“You tell me.” Her father replied grimly, still staring at her. “How should a man feel after today?”

 “I don’t –”

“Don’t lie to me Arya.” He said, low and dangerous. “We both know what I’m talking about.”

Alright then. If he wanted to do this. Arya gritted her teeth and raised her chin, meeting his gaze. “You know it was me.” She said flatly.

“A mystery knight defeats Prince Joffrey the day you just happen to fall ill?” Her father snapped, barely controlled anger in his voice. “Arya, what were you thinking? Do you know what you risked? Aside from the danger of the joust itself, what do you think would have happened if you were discovered? You would have humiliated our House and kingdom in front of Robert’s entire court, Cersei would be furious, you’d be known for striking down a Crown Prince? How could you be so foolhardy?”

“Because it was the right!” Arya cried. “You’ve seen the way Joffrey acts father and how he treats people. And no one does anything to stop him – not King Robert or Cersei or anyone else. Someone had to show him he can’t behave in this way!”

“And you thought that someone was you?”

“You taught us that true rulers should deliver justice.” Arya said. “And to protect those weaker or defenceless. That’s all I was doing. How Joffrey acts is cruel – mocking his uncle and Lady Shireen, abusing the servants, I found him beating an innocent man – don’t they all deserve justice? If me dressing up as a mystery knight is the only way to get it then so be it.”

Her father opened his mouth to retort but then sighed deeply, all the energy seeping out of him. He slumped on the bed, running a hand over his face, Arya thought he suddenly looked very tired and old, a deep pain brimming in his eyes. She slipped down beside him, wishing she could curl up in his lap like she did when she was small.

 “You remind me of her.” He said quietly. “Have I told you that before?”

“Remind you of who?”

“You aunt Lyanna. You’re a lot like her. And today…”

Arya’s heart thudded. The Knight of the Laughing Tree. Seven hells, why when she’d told the Bull that story hadn’t she remembered – her father had been there, her father might have helped her Aunt Lyanna enter that joust. Of course, he’d recognise the shield and no wonder he’d guessed Arya was the mystery rider.

“The Tourney of Harrenhal.”

“I know Meera told you that story.” Her father said. “And part of me is glad of it, that my sister will be remembered for who she truly was. But her tale is not one to be copied. She was wild Arya – wild and wilful and it led her to an early grave. I don’t want you to follow her path. When I saw that shield today…” He trailed off, staring into the fireplace, the flames reflecting back in his grey eyes.

Arya chewed on her lip, imagining what it must be like for her father to see the ghost of his sister riding into the tiltyard. She thought how she would feel if it was Jon or Bran and slipped her hand into her fathers, squeezing hard and making him look at her.

“But she still did the right thing.” Arya insisted. “She defended Howland, she got justice for him. That’s why Meera and Jojen still remember her. And that’s good. And I know it isn’t quite the same, but facing Joffrey today was right – you can’t possibly approve of how he behaves. Everyone else is too scared of him to do anything. But I can do something. And I can’t ignore that.”

Her father frowned at that, lips tightening. “That may be, but your mother and I didn’t bring you here to pass judgement on other courts and princes Arya.” He said sternly. “We brought you here to marry – a fact you seem to have forgotten.”

Arya’s stomach curled and bile rose in her throat. Of course. It all came back to that – everything always did. Did he really she could ever forget?

“We’ve given you far greater freedom than most men would allow their daughters in choosing your husband.” Ned continued, expression darkening as he looked down at her. “And this is how you repay us?”

A stab of guilt throbbed through Arya’s chest. “Father, I didn’t –”   

“Are you even trying to find a husband?” He demanded. “Or are you just hoping we’ll forget? Because one way or another Arya, you will be betrothed by the time we return to Winterfell.”

“But I have!” Arya blurted out. “I have found someone!” The words tumbled out practically without her control, spilling into the room before she could stop them. She gulped and glanced up at her father, heart thudding.

Her father stared at her, eyes wide. “What?”

“I...” Arya took a deep breath, feeling like she did swimming in the springs of Winterfell, the inhale just before plunging into the depths. “I have found someone.” She repeated. “I’ve found the man I want to marry.”

Pausing, her father cleared his throat. Cleared his throat again. Blinked. “Really?”

“Really.”

“Who?” He pressed. “Who is this man? Have I met him?”

“He goes by the Bull.” She said. “I don’t think you’ve met him.”

“What’s his real name?”

“I’m, er – I’m not sure.” She admitted, feeling a little stupid. But just going by a name like the Bull, wasn’t that uncommon – hardly anyone called the Hound or her uncle Blackfish by their real names for instance. And there was that kitchen boy at the Inn of the Kneeling Man – Hot Pie – who couldn’t even remember what he was really called.

“What about this man’s House?” Her father prompted. “His family? Parents?”

“Um….” Arya chewed on her lip. She’d planned to ask the Bull all this at the feast tomorrow, before suggesting marriage and bringing him to her parents, but her impulsiveness had gotten rid of that chance. You stupid.

Her father ran his hand over his face, gritting his teeth. “So, what do you know about this boy?”

I know the important things, Arya wanted to say. How he listens to me and how he treats servants. How his face screws up when he’s thinking too hard and that he grins when he watches me fight. But she wasn’t stupid enough to say that.

“I know he’s from a Stormlands house.” She replied instead, trying to remember anything useful. “One related to the Baratheons. But his mother is from the Crownlands. And he’s not the heir so he must not be the first son and he’s not betrothed. He’s about Jon and Robb’s age.”

Her father looked thoughtful now. “A Stormlands House related to Robert? The only I can recall is House Estermont and I can’t remember if there were any younger boys.”

“Well,” Arya’s mind twinged with doubt. “The Bull will be at the feast, I’ll ask him everything then.” She promised.

Ned sighed and eyed her carefully. “And you’re saying this for true? It’s not some ploy to trick your mother and I? You really want to marry this boy?”

Arya swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. “I do. Truly. I – he…” She faltered, and her father put his arm around her, his embrace warm and comforting. Arya leaned into it, resting her cheek against his rough jerkin and breathing in the scent of the weirwoods trees he’d somehow carried all the way south with him.

“He’s a good man.” She said quietly. “A bit gruff sometimes, but he cares about people – all people, not just other highborns. He’s different from the others. And I think – I hope – we could be happy. If -if he wanted.”

Her father’s lips twisted, and Arya found it almost funny that after all the months of scolding and lectures on needing a husband, he looked almost regretful. “I never thought you’d choose a southerner.” He said ruefully. “Not my wolf blooded child. When it came to it I believed you’d settle for some proper Northern man with ice in his veins.”

Arya laughed. “I’m as shocked as you. But –” She bit her lip. “I haven’t told him yet. He – he may not want to marry me or come North at all.” She glanced down at her calloused hands. “He’s not the sort of man who will marry just to be husband to a Princess. He wants…he wants more than that in a marriage.”

Her father lifted her chin, suddenly gentle. “Arya, look at me.” She looked, grey meeting grey. “Any man would be fortunate to have you. You don’t just ride like Lyanna you know.”

He didn’t say more, but Arya could hear the words between them. The Northern rose that started a war, she remembered old Nan saying.  The she wolf that Princes rode to their deaths for.

Arya still didn’t think she was like that. She was sure Lyanna had never been called horseface or fought back tears like a baby while her Septa told her she had the hands of a blacksmith. But it made Arya hope that a man could love a woman who was the Knight of the Laughing Tree.

So, she smiled as her father kissed her forehead, and after he left, curled in front of the fire, watching the flames dance and crackle over the logs.

Tomorrow. She thought. Tomorrow I’ll ask him.

x-x

Gendry wasn’t sure how he could any work done that day. He went about his duties in a daze, bent on his knees scrubbing the floor of the great hall. Meanwhile, his mind raced, jumping from one thought to another, stomach twisting in knots, thinking of his promise to Arya to attend the tourney feast.

A promise that was utterly impossible to keep

...wasn’t it?

Gendry frowned, attacking a particularly stubborn splatter of mud. He’d heard the feast and dance were masked, a proper masquerade ball, so maybe he could slip in among the guests unnoticed. But there was still a chance Cersei would recognise him – and he couldn’t take that risk.

He dunked the brush in the water, trying to push away the guilt niggling at the edge of his mind. At least be honest with yourself, he thought irritably, you know why you truly can’t go.

He can’t keep lying to Arya. He can’t keep deceiving her about who – what – he truly is, when she’s so painfully, wonderfully honest with him.

But then he can’t tell her the truth either. Gendry knows now that Arya wouldn’t have him whipped or thrown in the Keep’s dungeons like Cersei and Joffrey, but the truth would hurt her. He imagines her eyes widening, betrayal shimmering in their grey depths, yelling at him to get out of her sight and shouting that he was a liar and a fraud. Gendry’s throat clenched. It wasn’t about what she might do to him anymore, he just doesn’t want to cause her pain.

So, he won’t go. He’ll leave her be and let her continue with her life.

But then… wouldn’t he be hurting her just as much if he didn’t come? Leaving her there wondering why he’d abandoned her and if everything they’d done together meant nothing?

Gendry clenched his fists, scrubbing so hard his knuckles bashed against the stone, scraping open the skin. He winced and dunked his rag in the bucket.

Seven hells, he should have told her the truth from the beginning. Back then, when they’d first met, he’d thought if Arya knew he was just a servant she would have regretted defending him against Joffrey. But now – after hearing her stories of Winterfell, taking her to Flea Bottom, seeing her befriend the tavern girl – Gendry thinks she wouldn’t have cared after all. Maybe she’d even still have asked him to help her defeat Joffrey.

Though she wouldn’t have been holding your hand or smiling at you over mead. A snide voice reminded him. You’d have been her servant not her squire. It wouldn’t have been the same if she’d known. Gendry pushed that thought away. It didn’t matter what would have happened - he just had to decide what to do now.

Once he’d finished with the scrubbing – still as undecided as before – the steward told him to go and help with the tourney.  

The joust was much finer than the previous day, the proper Knights clad in their polished armour and bearing House sigils riding with far more skill that the common riders. The tiltyard stands were heaving with onlookers.

Gendry could see Arya up in the royal pavilion sitting by King Eddard. She was leaning forward to watch some grooms try to subdue a horse, a wry grin tugging at her lips. She looked happy. Gendry averted his eyes and hurried away.

Like the open joust, the bouts lasted for hours, sand spraying under their horse’s hooves and lances rising and falling. Gendry scraped up horse dung, polished weaponry and lost count of the number of men who fell to the ground, including one unfortunate rider whose leg was so mangled he had to be dragged off the grounds.

At last, Lord Edric Dayne of Dorne unhorsed Ser Loras with a sly twist of his lance and the crowd burst into cheers, the roar of it almost deafening. Lord Edric whipped off his helmet, revealing blonde hair and an easy smile, glowing with pride. The man was young, Gendry noticed with an odd sinking in his stomach that he couldn’t explain, probably no more than one and seven, and handsome as well, with those fine, soft looks that come from sleeping on a bloody featherbed and having servants to bathe you every night. Edric nodded to Ser Loras and then waved to the crowd, accepting their applause with grace.

Flute players and drummers marched onto the tiltyard, a page boy in their midst carrying the coveted garland of flowers. Lord Edric scooped up the crown on the tip of his lance.

Gendry’s heart pounded as the lord trotted along the stands, passing lady after lady – past Margaery Tyrell and her cousins, past Roslin Tully, Jeyne Westerling, Shireen Baratheon and all the rest – and onwards to the royal pavilion. He barely glanced at Princess Myrcella, and Princess Sansa, stopping in front of Arya as the stands fell quiet. Somehow, Gendry found his hands curled into fists.

“My lady.” Edric Dayne announced, loud of enough for every person to hear. He extended his lance, offering the flowers. “For you.”

Arya went scarlet, chewing on her lip and eyes darting around the tiltyard as if she expected someone to stop him.

I told you. Gendry thought bitterly. I told you they’d crown you. Somehow, that wasn’t a comfort.

Slowly, still hesitant, Arya reached out and placed the garland on her head. The flowers were blue, Gendry noticed, a pale blue that could only be winter roses from the North. He heard Princess Sansa and some of the other women sighing, soft coos in the background. Arya’s lips tightened, her face set.

“Thank you, my lord.” She said steadily, straightening the crown. “I’m…honoured.”

Edric Dayne inclined his head to her and wheeled around. “My Queen of Love and Beauty!” He cried.

The crowd cheered and Gendry gritted his teeth, an odd roaring in his ears. In that moment, he didn’t care about Cersei or Joffrey or the risks of anything. He was going to attend that feast and he was going to see Arya again. And let the old gods or the new try and stop him.

x-x

Gendry started preparing the moment returned to the Red Keep. Taking a page from Arya’s book, he got one of the kitchen boys to tell the head cook he’d come down with a fever – normally that would be a poor excuse for a servant missing such a busy night but he knew the cook was too busy to deal with him at this moment. At most, he might be punished in the morning but he could face that then.

Waiting until all the other servants had left, he brushed his shaggy hair as best he could and shrugged off his old, ragged jerkin. He could wear his father’s gift again and then just needed to find a mask and some way of getting in –

“Going somewhere?” A voice sounded behind him. Gendry’s breath caught.

He turned slowly, barely able to move his limbs. Cersei was standing in the doorway, resplendent in Lannister gold and crimson, a crown on her head and smile curling at her lips.

“Y-your grace.” He bowed, wondering if anyone had ever spewed their heart through their mouth before or if he would be the first.

“Oh, don’t bother speaking you grovelling bastard.” Cersei snapped, stalking inside the room several of her guards stationing themselves at the door. “We both know anything from your foul mouth is lies.”

“I don’t…” Gendry kept his eyes fixed on the floor, heart racing. Cersei had been angry with him plenty of times before but she’d never come to his chambers. His heart thumped harder. “Your grace, what –”  

She slapped him, hard and fast the shock of it stinging through his face. Gendry staggered to one side, repressing the instinct to hit back at her.

“I said silence.” Cersei hissed, “I’m not here for false courtesies. I’m here for answers.”

“Answers?”

“Did you really think you would get away with it?” She demanded. “That I wouldn’t hunt down the man who humiliated my son? I’ve sent for every servant and soldier at my disposal since yesterday, bringing news of whoever the mystery rider could be.”

The tourney. The Knight of the Laughing Tree. Gendry felt every ounce of blood leave his veins. Arya.

“Your grace.” He said, forcing himself to keep his voice steady and gaze lowered. “The rider…. I can’t joust, I barely learned to ride. You know that.”

Cersei laughed. “Oh, I’m not suggesting you could achieve anything nearly as high as that.” She sneered. “Not one of my men has been able to tell me who that rider was. But several people say they saw you squiring for him.”

There was silence. Gendry froze.

“So,” Cersei said, ice colder than anything in the North slicing through the room. “Tell me bastard. Who. Was. That. Rider?”

A hundred memories blurred through Gendry’s mind; Arya dancing around Joffrey’s men, Arya binding his wounds, Arya petting Nymeria, Arya donning her armour, Arya laughing with him over mead. Arya, Arya, Ara.

Gendry gritted his teeth and slowly, deliberately raised his gaze to meet Cersei’s eyes. “No.” He said simply.

Cersei stared at him, face twisting his fury.

What did you say?”

No.” Gendry repeated. “I won’t. You can do what you want to me. I know you will. But I promise you now, I’m not telling you anything about that knight.

Screaming with incoherent rage, Cersei lunged towards him, slamming him into the wall and clawing at his face, Gendry gasped, pain vibrating through his back and feeling blood run down his cheek. Summoning all the stubborn, bull-headed will he was known for, he glared back at her. My answer is still no.

The Queen pulled away panting, her crown slightly askew and hands shaking. “You’re going to regret this.” She hissed. “You’re going to regret ever challenging me bastard.” She straightened, eyes clearing. “Because I’m not going to do anything to you now. Oh no, I’m going to leave you here and let you imagine everything that will be done to you if you don’t tell me the truth.” Her fingers trailed across the cut on his cheek and Gendry gritted his teeth, willing himself not to flinch. “It’s amazing how many ways there are to hurt in a single bastard’s body. And in the morning, I am going to return and you are going to be given a choice. You will tell me everything I want to know or be taken to the black cells. And I doubt your so-called father will care enough to protest once he hears you helped humiliate his trueborn son.” She cupped his chin in one hand, letting her nails rest against his neck, pressed up against his pulse. Gendry didn’t move.

 At last Cersei pulled away, smiling in a way that reminded him uncannily of her son.

“Sleep well bastard.”  

X-X

 

 

Chapter Text

x-x

He had to go. All thoughts of the dance momentarily fled Gendry’s mind as he crumpled against the wall, legs trembling and blood oozing down his cheeks.

He had to leave and he had to leave now. Despite all his fine words against Cersei, Gendry doubted he could hold out against her torturers for long; everyone in the Kings Landing whispered about what happened in the Black Cells…those men would pull Arya’s name from him on a rack of blood if necessary. And even if he confessed immediately, Cersei wasn’t going to pardon him knowing he’d helped humiliate Joffrey. The only way Gendry was leaving those cells was in chunks of flesh.

For a second he considered begging his father for help but dismissed that idea instantly – whatever half-hearted protection Robert had given him before today wouldn’t last if the Queen proved to the court Gendry had plotted against his trueborn son. The King wasn’t the type of man to risk himself for his bastard.

Gendry realised his hands were shaking and forced them to still, trying to concentrate. Think Gendry think.

He’d never truly believed he’d be caught – yes, he’d worried about Arya, the Knight of the Laughing Tree, being discovered but he hadn’t thought anyone would pay any attention to the squire. Stupid, bull-headed bastard.

But he had more urgent things to worry about now.

Sucking in a deep breath, Gendry dragged himself to his feet and stumbled across the room towards the door. Already knowing it was pointless but stubbornly continuing anyway, he grabbed the iron knob and yanked it towards him, bracing his feet against the wall and heaving with every ounce of strength he had. The door shuddered in its frame but barely budged, slamming against the bolt on the other side. He heaved again, ignoring the grooves biting painfully into his palms and rust coating his fingers. The door still didn’t move.

Gasping, Gendry released the handle, fighting growing panic. There must be some way to remove the door, he reassured himself, he’d helped install the doors in the servant’s quarters only a few years ago and aided Tobho and the royal locksmith with the ironwork…surely, he could remember something helpful to get them open.

He ran his hands over the hinges, ignoring the fact that even on the unlikely chance he could find a weakness in the design it would take hours to remove the door. But it wasn’t like he had any other options.

So, he crouched down and probed the bottom hinge, examining every inch of the iron – he didn’t have any of Tobho’s tools, so he used his fingers instead, prying around the wood and stone even as his hands kept slipping with sweat. Stupid, stupid.

To distract himself, Gendry concentrated on what he’d do once he’d escaped from Cersei. He thought of his long-held dream of running away to train as a smith and the preparations he’d made over the years; selling his father’s gifts, saving his wages, the hours spend with Tobho, sneaking glances at maps whenever he could, noting the ships leaving the harbour – but those had been distant plans for the future, sometime later when he had the chance.

Well later will have to be now, he thought, jerking at the hinge, because if I don’t escape tonight I’ll never get another chance to do anything at all. Hopefully his preparations so would be enough. All his coins from selling Robert’s gifts were stashed in the forge for safekeeping and there’d be plenty to pay for his passage out of Kings Landing - maybe he could sell the tunic on-route and then work to make enough to pay for an apprentice fee somewhere…

Gendry’s fingers were starting to ache and his nails were jagged and broken, but he kept working anyway.

Gullstown, he thought obstinately, prising at the wood, I’ll go to Gullstown. Tobho had a friend in Gullstown, a fellow smith he used to work with and Gendry could fabricate a letter of recommendation from Tobho to get an apprenticeship. The Vale was far enough from Kings Landing that the Queen would have no reason to suspect Gendry of fleeing there, and if he was lucky there could be a ship leaving from the harbour for Gullstown tonight or tomorrow…   

Except the door wasn’t Bloody. Giving. In. Gendry’s fingers slipped from the hinge and something in him broke, all the panic he’d pushed down rising until he couldn’t hold it in anymore – he started pounding at the door, not caring how desperate he sounded. “HEY!” He yelled. “Hey! Can anyone hear me?” He slammed at the wood again, thumping harder. “Anyone? Can you hear me?! Hello?” He kept at it for what seemed like forever, pounding until his arms ached and his throat was hoarse from screaming. He pressed his forehead, giving the door one last blow. “Anyone?” The hall stayed silent.

Gendry slumped to the ground. Every inch of him hurt – face stinging from Cersei’s cuts, knuckles throbbing and his chest aching with fierce and rough.  

He remembered Arya tending to his wounds after the fight with Joffrey’s men, her hair tickling his cheeks and calloused hands cupping his chin with surprising tenderness.

That’s where this whole mess began – her stubborn, dogged kindness and his own stupidity letting her drag him into her schemes with nothing more than a playful glint in her eyes.  

Stupid, Gendry told himself, stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have left her alone from the start. He wondered what his mother would say if she was here now, watching her bullheaded son ignore the one rule every tavern girl, servant and Flea Bottom beggar knew from the time they could walk – Stay away from highborns.

He should have pushed Arya away the moment she touched him, fled back to the servant’s quarters and kept his eyes to the ground for as long as she was here. That would have been the sensible thing to do. He rested his head back and closed his eyes. Stupid.

That was when Gendry heard it – a steady pad-pad-pad of footsteps along the passageway. Heart seizing, he stood up and knocked on the door, “Hey!” He called again. “Is someone there?”

The footsteps got closer, oddly paced and out of step, Gendry frowned. “Hello?”

The person didn’t reply, but he heard them stop in front of the door – there was a beat of silence, followed by a slight creak of someone grasping the door knob. Then he heard a groaning screech as the bolt was pulled back, slowly and unsteadily as if whoever it was didn’t have full control of their hands.   

Gendry grimaced, stepping backwards and bracing himself for whatever was coming. There was another pause, and then the door swung open revealing a mass of grey fur and golden eyes, Gendry’s jaw dropped, stomach swooping.  

Nymeria?”

The wolf bounded forward, tail wagging and eyes sparkling, even in his daze, Gendry found himself reaching for her, fingers curling into warm fur.

“How – how did you know –” He stammered. “When did – what –” Arya’s words drifted back to him, she’s not some dog I need to chain up, she’s more than that and Gendry just shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter.” He admitted and Nymeria licked his ear in agreement, sitting down and sniffing his bleeding cheek. After a second, Gendry knelt as well and she immediately pressed up against his chest, their heads practically level.

Gendry leaned into her, stroking gently and the wolf that most of the palace was terrified of, just let him, sitting as contented as a house dog, her breath warm against his forehead. For the first time since Cersei appeared, Gendry felt his heart settle. His breathing evened out and he buried his face in Nymeria's fur, inhaling in her scent. You saved me.

Eventually he pulled back, looking into Nymeria’s knowing eyes. “Thank you.” He said seriously. “I don’t know how you know I’d be her or why you’d even want to help me. But thank you.”

She stared back at him and then, amazingly delicately for such a giant wolf, leaned forward and licked away the blood on his cheek from where Cersei had cut him. Gendry stayed still until she’d finished and stroked her head once more.

Part of him wanted to stay, let this inexplicable creature that had somehow appointed itself as his protector, look after things. But that was just him being craven.

Instead Gendry pulled away and set about gathering up his meagre belongings, shoving his spare tunic, breeches and blanket into a bag and pulling on his worn jerkin. Once he checked the room was clear, he slipped into the passageway, sliding the bolt back shut behind him.

He crept through the back corridors of the Keep, taking the well-worn route towards Tobho’s forge. To his surprise, Nymeria stayed with him, padding by his side and watching their path with her sharp gaze – Gendry wasn’t sure why she was still there, not that understood anything about the wolf admittedly, but he was grateful, her presence warm and comforting against the quiet and his quaking nerves. 

When he reached the forge, Gendry undug the sack with everything he hid from Cersei and Joffrey – his savings, the tunic from the King, the bulls head helmet, even Arya’s Laughing Tree shield.

Once Gendry was certain everything was still there, he went to the chest where Tobho kept the logs of customer orders, and dug out a quill and scrap of parchment. One of the few things Robert had done was make sure Gendry learned to read and write – not much certainly, but enough to forge a few lines of recommendation now. He scratched out the letter and sealed it with Tobho’s mark, hoping the smith in Gullstown was even worse at his letters than Gendry was.

Ready at last, Gendry slung the slung the bag over his back and straightened his jerkin. Sucking in a deep breath, he glanced around the place that had been the closest thing to a home since his mother died and wondered if he should feel sadder. Tobho could be the only person in this damn place who misses me after all.

But when Gendry turned to the forge door, he found Nymeria blocking his way, fixing him with a reproachful gaze.

Gendry coughed. “Uh, Nymeria? Are you going to move?”

She bared her teeth, revealing some strange black cloth dangling from her mouth, Gendry ignored it, trying to push through the door but she wouldn’t budge.

He scowled, irritation rising. “Nymeria! Let me through.” She didn’t move. He tried edging around her but she anticipated the move and blocked him again – he dodged the other way and she rammed at him, forcing him backwards. “No!” Gendry snapped, steadying himself. “Nymeria, I don’t have time for this, I need to go.

She just snarled, lowering her head and Gendry gritted his teeth in annoyance. “You can yap at me all you want.” He growled back. “But I don’t understand what do you want me to do.”

In reply, she dropped the material in her mouth at his feet, staring accusingly.

Still feeling irritated, Gendry picked the object up, turning it over in his hands – it was a mask, one of the cloth masquerade ones that all the lords and ladies were wearing to the tourney ball. He stared at it and then back at Nymeria.

“The ball?” He spluttered. “After all this you still want me to risk going to the ball?”

Nymeria bared her teeth.

“I can’t.” Gendry insisted, too frustrated to even dwell on the fact he was arguing with a wolf. “I was going to go, I swear it, but that was before Cersei. I can’t risk it now, I need to leave while I still have the chance.”

Nymeria didn’t move, still staring at him and he sighed, dropping his bag and running his hand through his hair. “I know she wanted me there.” He said quietly. “I want to be there too. More than anything. But –” He swallowed. “She wouldn’t want me there if she knew. I shouldn’t even be allowed to talk to your mistress. We’d never see each other after tonight anyway – I was only ever going to say goodbye. And that’s too dangerous now.”

Not seeming to care about his pleas, Nymeria started rootling through his bag until she dragged out his black and silver tunic from the King. She dropped it next to the mask and Gendry groaned.

“I don’t even have a way of getting in,” he pointed out weakly, “Even if I’m dressed like a lord no one will let a no-name like me in.”

Nymeria just kept watching at him, then slowly and deliberately raised her chin so Gendry could glimpse the item dangling round her neck – it was the wooden token he’d been given at the tourney – the one that proved you’d paid the entry fee for the joust and allowed any rider to attend the ball as part of the tourney.   

He reached out and gently unlaced it from her neck, swiping his thumb across it. He glanced from the tunic to the token to the mask and to the wolf’s golden eyes.

“Alright.” He said. “Alright I’ll go – but only for a few hours. When midnight comes or Cersei goes, I have to leave.” He glared at her. “Promise me you’ll let me go then?”

Nymeria dipped her head once, rumbling in her throat and Gendry stood up, staring at the small collection in his hands.

“Well Gendry,” he muttered, “I suppose you shall go to the ball.”

x-x

Chapter Text

You’re just here to say goodbye, Gendry told himself as the guards swung open the great oak and bronze doors. You’ll tell her you’re going and then leave. In and out. Holding that thought tight, Gendry took a deep breath and stepped into the hall.

Immediately he knew he was late, the room was already heaving with guests many deep in their cups, and the tables of food lining the hall were half empty. Gendry paused for a moment, glancing over the mass of bodies and silk, and letting the chatter of nobles and flowery scent of perfume wash over him. He exhaled, steeling his nerves.

Gendry could see Robert’s bulk down in the crowd lumbering around with some girl who couldn’t be much older than his own children. Cersei was wearing a lion mask lounging in her chair at the opposite end of the room and Joffrey yelling at one of the musicians in the corner, neither of them giving the new guest who’d walked in a second glance.

Feeling more confident, Gendry made sure his mask was secure and inched tentatively down the steps, staying in the shadow of one of the hall’s gigantic pillars.  

Guests mingled around the edges of the grand hall while the centre of the room was filled with dancers weaving back and forth, jewels flashing. Thankfully for him, people seemed to have embraced the masquerade theme, with masks everywhere he looked – some people working hard to hide their identities and covering their whole faces, while others were less subtle: Lady Margaery and her cousins wore House Tyrell’s green and gold, there were some masks fashioned as falcons that could only be House Arryn and Gendry spotted a mask with a trout design embroidered on one side and a wolf on the other that must be Queen Catelyn. His gaze drifted, picking out more highborns; Lord Stannis’s frown barely hidden by his half mask, the auburn hair of Princess Sansa, a stocky figure that looked like Quentyn Martell hovering in the corner, the drunken Thoros of Myr dancing with a fat Frey girl – and there, right in the middle of everything, her crown of flowers bright amongst the crowd, and like a punch in the chest – Arya.   

She was whirling around the floor, her dark hair tumbling loose down her back and silver mask glittering under the candlelight. Her slender figure was sheathed in a simply-cut gown falling smoothly to the ground, the same shade of blue as the winter roses on her head. To Gendry, she looked like a steel blade or shard of ice – her slim profile slicing through the delicate backdrop, as dazzling and sparkling as the frost.    

He remembered Arya thinking he’d mocked her for being ugly and admitting her sister bullied her for looking like a horse, but Gendry couldn’t understand how anyone, unless they’d had their eyes cut out, could believe that. He looked over at Princess Sansa who was dancing with Ser Loras; while she was certainly comely – her elegant figure wrapped in an ivory and gold gown, hair bound in the Southern way – she looked like any of the other court women, softly pretty next to her sister’s sharp angles and wildness brimming in every step.  

The song drew to a close, and the lord dancing with Arya stepped back, kissing her hand. The line of dancers separated to find new partners and it seemed to Gendry that half the men in the room turned towards Arya – she looked around at the crowd, her grey eyes darting from face to face and Gendry could picture her chewing her lip under that mask. Several men pressed forward and Arya tensed, still scanning the room with an air of desperation.

Somehow, barely aware of what he was doing, Gendry found himself stepping forward, moving out of the shadow of the pillar and staring at her across the top of the crowd. Arya caught sight of him and froze, eyes widening in shock. They gazed at each other, neither moving an inch, the murmurs of the guests and rustle of gowns fading away around them.

He wasn’t sure if he or Arya moved first but in a second they were stumbling towards each other, pushing past other dancers, and wilfully ignoring the frowns and whispers of disapproval. The crowd parted before them and in a skidding, breathless rush they finally met, eyes still locked.

“My lady.” He couldn’t look away.

Arya’s eyes crinkled through the mask’s eye holes. “It’s you.” She said, and her voice was oddly breathy for the girl he knew. “Isn’t it?”

“Just so.” Gendry cleared his throat, aware of everyone settling in with their partners. “You grace, if I may – that is –” He sucked in a breath, stuttering, trying to unjumble his thoughts. “It would give me the greatest pleasure… if you would do me the honour of letting me lead you through this…the…”  

He could tell Arya was grinning under the mask, tilting her head. “…Dance?” She asked, a teasing lilt to her voice.

“Yes,” he breathed out, chuckling awkwardly. “Dance. Yes, that’s it.” In answer, she just caught his hand and pulled him towards her.

The musicians started up the new song, the strum of lutes drifting through the room and Gendry curled his hand tentatively round Arya’s waist, half surprised she didn’t slap him. He could feel the gaze of the lords and ladies bearing down on them and grimaced, feeling light-headed.

“They’re all looking at you.” He whispered.

Arya glanced up at him, eyes softening. “Believe me.” She said gently. “They’re all looking at you.

Me? Gendry thought panicked, all? including… he searched the hall frantically for Cersei, terrified she might have recognised him, but she was still sprawled on her chair downing another goblet of wine, clearly not interested in whatever man the Northern Princess chose to dance with.

Before Gendry could panic anymore, the music quickened and it was all he could do to keep up with Arya. Thankfully the dance was a fairly simple one that even he recognised, but he wasn’t exactly a graceful dancer, something quickly obvious from how many times he almost stepped on Arya’s feet.

“Sorry,” he muttered, ducking his head. “I’m not good at this.”  

He could tell Arya was smirking, “This isn’t my favourite type of dancing either.” 

Gendry grinned, remembering her talking about her water dancing master. “No, I know you prefer holding a blade instead of a man.”

She laughed, sweeping him in a particularly tight turn. “Most of the time.”

He chuckled, letting her guide them between the other dancers, intensely aware of his hand pressing against her back like a clumsy, heavy lump – his palms were sweating but he was too nervous to move much in case she said something.

“What?” Arya demanded, noticing him staring. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” He said. “You just look different now. Like a proper lady.”

“I look like an idiot with all this crown and dress and everything.” She said snorting, and again Gendry realised that she honestly had no idea how beautiful she was.  

“Nice though.” He attempted. “A – a nice idiot.”

Even in his own head, Gendry was rolling his eyes. A nice idiot? Really?

Arya clearly thought the same, managing to kick him in the shin despite her dress. “Now you’re just being stupid.” She said and danced even closer so that her hair tickled his chin.  

The music was speeding up and Gendry braced himself for the final part of the dance – as the song soared to a crescendo, he lifted Arya by the waist and spun her, skirts flying and the room turning to a blur around them with nothing but Arya’s shining smile and the whirl of the music pounding through him.

Then the song ended and Gendry slowed to a stop, gently setting Arya back down on the ground. To his surprise, Arya curtsied, deeper and more graceful than any curtsey he’d seen her give anyone before and certainly more than impressive than anything needed for a Princess to thank some lordling for a dance. Gendry bowed awkwardly in return, heart stuttering.

Around them, everyone began switching partners again and Arya straightened, noticing more lords approaching determined to claim her hand for the next dance.

Arya grabbed Gendry’s arm. “Let’s go.”    

Hand in hand, they slipped through the crowd and out of the grand hall – as Arya didn’t know as much about the Red Keep, Gendry took the lead, guiding her across the courtyard and towards the arched gate leading to a mass of trees enclosed in stone walls.

“The godswood?” Arya said, turning to him and smiling.

Gendry shrugged, “It seemed like the right place.”

They wandered through the trees together, enjoying the quiet – most residents of the Red Keep found the godswood harsh and unforgiving, the silence too heavy to be comforting but Gendry had always liked it here. The trees were stern, but they had a gravity to them that he’d never been able to find anywhere else – no matter how cruel Cersei or Joffrey had been, or how hopeless escape seemed, the godswood reminded him that there were forces beyond the court and the South and the games of the royal family.

He and Arya stopped in front of the grove’s heart tree, the carved face staring down at them. “I suppose this hardly compares to your godswoods at Winterfell.” Gendry said lightly.

Arya shrugged, reaching out to trace the face with her small hand. “It’s different in the North. Every castle there has a heart tree carved out of weirwood.” She plopped down at the foot of the tree, pulling off the rose crown, removing her mask and tossing them both on the ground; after a moment’s hesitation, Gendry undid his own mask and joined her. “The face at the Dreadfort is smiling.” She said. “At first I thought it looked cruel, but since I’ve been visiting so often it seems kinder somehow.”    

“Why have you been visiting?” He asked. 

“Learning about the castle.” She said. “Meeting the people before I move there.” She gazed up at the moon, eyes taking on a faraway look. “Discovering what the Boltons did, what Roose and Ramsay –” Her face darkened and she dug her fingers into the ground, knuckles white. “There’s already so much to do. The coffers are full but Roose’s taxes are another matter…he seemed to let thieves and rapists run wild and some villages are struggling so much I’m not sure they’d even have made it to next winter let alone through it! I’ve been around visiting the women to hear what they think needs to be done and I’ve employed a lot of men from the surrounding villages to help with rebuilding some parts of Dreadfort in exchange for wages and provisions. That should help them get by until the next harvest.” 

Gendry sat quietly, listening to her ramble – he didn’t know why she was sharing so many of her plans with him and she seemed oddly nervous, but he was happy to hear listen Arya recounted that when she first visited Dreadfort with her father and Jon, the terrified servants who had survived the Bolton purge had showed them the castle’s torture chambers filled with the skins flayed from those who had displeased Roose and Ramsay. Immediately, she’d called every castle resident and as many villagers nearby who could be gathered, to the courtyard and announced that her first act as the future Lady of Dreadfort was to clear out the chambers and fill them up with earth. Everyone there, including Arya herself, spent the rest of the day doing just that, even sealing up the entrances to the Bolton’s ancestral crypts with for good measure.

But she’d been even busier since then, laying out plans for glass gardens like Winterfell’s to grow fruits and vegetables during the winter – the castle had some hot springs though not as many as at Winterfell; rebuilding parts of the battlements – they were old and looked like teeth apparently; replacing the torch holders in the grand hall from mouldings of human hands to mouldings of wolves instead; adding more windows and improving the smithy and stables. A new Maester was coming from the Citadel after the Bolton’s old one had fled and Arya was bringing some of the household servants and guardsmen from Winterfell to join her new court.

As Arya spoke, her eyes sparkled and her hands flew, carrying Gendry along in her schemes – somehow, even though he was never going to see the place, he found himself suggesting ways to improve the stables and asking how many villagers needed feeding.

Arya already seemed to have visited half the people living in her new lands, from farmers out in the furthest reaches of her holdings, to a band of healers living up in the hills to the tavern girls at the local inn. At Winterfell, she said King Eddard ate in the great hall half the time and invited a different man or woman to join his table every night, and Arya was determined to do the same when she became the ruling Lady.  She wanted to build more houses in the castle’s nearest village as well, so that smallfolk could shelter there during winter like they did at Wintertown.   

“It’s exciting,” Arya admitted, hugging her knees. “I never thought I’d want to leave Winterfell but when I visited and saw it all and met the people and realised…” She trailed off. “It will be mine.” She said firmly. “There won’t be anyone to stop me from sparring or jousting or wearing breeches or eating with servants. No one.”

She bit her lip, looking worried for a second as if he was going to disagree but Gendry just nodded, a fierce and terrible ache in his chest. For a single, wild moment he imagined sitting beside her at Dreadfort, riding together through the village, sparring in the courtyard. He thought of watching her make the castle her own – wolf banners lining the walls and people’s laughter ringing through the kitchens. Seeing Arya every day in breeches and armour and dresses – whatever she wanted as long as he was beside her.  

Stupid plans. Stupid dreams. The only person who would be beside her was her husband, that was who she was worried about stopping her. You came to say goodbye. That’s all.  

He looked down at the crown of roses between them, wondering how much time had passed and how long he had left. Arya was still watching him and Gendry swallowed. “Arya…I need to talk to you about something.”

She tilted her head up, hair rippling across her shoulder. “I need to talk to you too.” Her eyes were luminous in the moonlight and his stomach twisted. I don’t want to hurt her.

“I –” He took a deep breath, staring down at his hands.  How do I start this? How do I do this to her? “I – hang on.” He touched her knee. “Just – just stay here, I’ll be back.”

Gendry leapt up and ran out of the godswood and over to the smithy, he dug through his packed bag until he found his helm, then ran back where Arya was standing waiting for him under the tree. He skidded in front of her, holding out the bull-shaped helmet, “Here – I want you to have this.” 

Arya looked down at the helm. “A bull?” She said laughingly. “Very fitting.” She ran her fingers lightly across the polished metal, and Gendry wondered if she’d be as gentle if he told her he’d hammered it out with his own hands rather than got some smith to do it. He wanted to remember her holding his helm like this – as if it was something important, valuable, something she cared about even, not something made of lies. He didn’t want his last memory of Arya to be her throwing the helm away, eyes filled with hurt. Let me keep this moment.

“Why did you give it to me?” She asked. 

Arya’s crown was still resting on the ground and Gendry picked it up, gripping the thorny stems to steel himself for what was coming. “As a goodbye.”

Her chin jerked up, eyes widening. “What?”

“Arya – I’m leaving Kings Landing. Tonight.”

Why? What’s happened?”

“It’s complicated,” he said, words tumbling out now. “There’s so much involved and so many things that have happened – just years of – my whole life. It’s not anything about you or anything you could have done. I shouldn’t even be here now but I didn’t want to leave without seeing you once more. I wanted to say goodbye. And tell you I’m sorry.”

Arya stared at him, face twisting in confusion. “What are you talking about?” She demanded. “Look, I meant to say tonight - I've got questions, there are things I need to ask you about - well, everything. About you.”

Gendry felt a lump growing in his throat. “I’m – I’m not who you think I am,” He forced out. “There’s just so much –” He swallowed again, gritting his teeth. Don’t hurt her. Don’t hate me.

“I wish things were different.” He said intensely, “More than anything. I wish I could stay and talk and dance and – and all of that, everyday until you go back to Winterfell. But I can’t.” Impulsively, barely even aware of his body now, he grabbed her hand. “I – I just wanted to say thank you – for the jousting and defeating Joffrey and Flea Bottom and tonight – these last few days might have been the happiest I’ve ever had.”  

Arya shook her head, clasping his hand. “No. No I’m not accepting that. Talk to me. Why do you have to leave? And where are you going? You said you're from a Stormlands house but you never said which one? Do I know them? Who are you parents? Seven hells, even your name -” As she spoke, the sept balls began pealing out – it was the hour of the wolf already. Gendry could hear people in the courtyard coming out of the grand hall, the first of the guests retiring for the night and wondered if Cersei was among them. She’d said she’d leave him until the morning, but what if she decided to check on him now?

“I’m sorry,” his voice cracked and he squeezed Arya’s hand once last time. “I hope you’re happy. Truly. I know you’ll be a great ruler.” He let go of her hand. “Goodbye m’lady.”

“What – no. Bull – ”

Gendry tore away and plunged through godswood, behind he could hear Arya chasing after him and yelling at him stop but he ignored her, darting through the straggling guests and across to the courtyard.

Arya was a faster runner, gaining on him despite his headstart, but Gendry knew the Keep better – he fled inside, losing himself in the back routes and ducking through passageways left and right, until her voice faded behind him and he was sure he was safe.

It wasn’t until he was making his way back to the smithy, that Gendry realised his eyes were wet and he was still holding Arya’s roses.

Chapter Text

Arya felt she’d barely fallen asleep when dawn broke.

After she lost the Bull, she’d returned to the ball to see if anyone else knew where he’d gone, but most of the guests had already retired and the few that were left were too drunk to string three words together. Revoltingly, Joffrey of all people, was the only one who cared about her mysterious partner.

“Who were you dancing with earlier?” The Prince demanded, narrowing his green eyes. “Who was that man?”

Arya barely glanced at him, heading for the doors. “I don’t see how that is your concern your grace,” she sniped, refusing to admit she didn’t know herself.

“I’m the Crown Prince.” Joffrey sneered. “Everything is my concern. And I want to know the name of the man foolish enough to dance with you. He might need help.”

“Help by leaving me alone.” She snapped, barging past and ignoring his suspicious expression as he watched her leave.

Joffrey clearly didn’t know the Bull and Arya wasn’t going to give him the chance to mock her about it. So, after fruitlessly searching the Keep for another hour, she’d given up and trailed back towards her room, a lump of misery sitting in her stomach.

Why had he left? What happened?

Memories from their time together and the Bull’s final, agonized words had tumbled through Arya’s mind, she’d glanced down at the helm and on impulse walked past the royal smithy and armoury – unsurprisingly they were empty, but Arya had peered into the darkened forge, suspicion prickling.

 

Now, even though the sun had barely risen over the window sill, Arya – feeling more conflicted and worried than ever – dragged herself out of bed. Throwing on a simple, grey gown, she undug the bulls’ head helmet from her clothes chest and slipped out of the chamber.

Naturally, she couldn’t even reach the end of the passageway.

“Arya!” Her father’s voice echoed towards her. She froze. “What are you doing up so early?”

She turned slowly around. Her father was striding towards her, Jory and Harwin at his side, all three of them looking curious.

“Um,” Arya bit her lip. “I couldn’t get back to sleep – I had a lot to think about.”

Her father raised his eyebrows. “A certain Stormland lord? I saw you dancing with him last night, I was disappointed I didn’t get to meet him. I assume I’ll get that chance today.”

“Well,” she winced. “Yes. Hopefully.”  

Her father frowned. “Arya?” He said sternly.

“He left before I could find out anything else,” she blurted out. “He didn’t want to, I could tell – there’s something going on, father. Something’s wrong. I have to find him.”

His frown deepened, “He left?”

“Yes, he said he had to go, I tried to stop him but he insisted. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Ned Stark sighed, running his hand over his face. “Arya, this is all ridiculous. You really expect me to agree to a marriage with a man who won’t even present himself?”

“I’ll find a way.” Arya insisted, heart pounding. “And he isn’t – he’s not just – look, he left this with me.” She thrust out the bulls’ head helmet. “This is his helm, he gave it to me. I just need to talk to him. Something obviously happened yesterday.”

“And how do you propose to find him?” Her father demanded.

“I –” She stared at the helmet clenched between her hands, recalling her half-formed suspicions. She couldn’t tell her father that – not yet. She needed time to see if her doubts were true and decide what to do from there. “I’ll – I can – I can –”

All at once, an idea crystallized in her mind, rushing to her in a moment of clarity. She smiled and met her father’s gaze boldly.  

“The helmet.” She said firmly. “I’m going to use the helmet.”

“You’re what?”

She spoke more quickly, the plan forming instantly. “Jory, Harwin – I want you to tell our men to spread the news that from two hours before noon today, Princess Arya Stark will be ready to meet her suitor from the tourney. He was wearing a helmet in her possession.” She tapped the helm. “If that suitor comes to the audience chamber at the Maidenvault – and can tell me what shape the helm is and fits it, then I’ll marry him.”

There was silence. Jory, Harwin and her father stared at her – Arya stared back, raising her chin defiantly. That should buy her time – at least a little. And perhaps…perhaps the Bull would come today and explain – even if what she suspected was true.

“Two hours before noon.” She repeated, “That will give all the guests time to wake up and hear. Most of them won’t out of bed yet but we’ll need to start spreading word now.”

Jory looked at the King, waiting for approval – her father looked sober, frowning. “Alright.” He said at last, “Jory – spread the word. Although the plan sounds like madness.”

Arya exhaled in relief. “Thank you,” she threw herself at her father and squeezed her arms around him, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

He stroked her head before pulling away. “This is your last chance Arya.” He said sternly. “If you can’t find this boy, then your mother and I will choose someone else.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” He nodded and strode off, while Arya turned to Jory and Harwin, comforted with by their familiar, affectionate faces. “So,” she said, “tell every lor –” her suspicions burnt in her mind and she paused suddenly. “Every man.” She said clearly. “Tell every man who attended the tourney or the ball can guess the helm shape and try it on. Please, make sure you say that – please.”

They looked at her, eyes knowing before Jory spoke. “Of course, Arya Underfoot.”

X-X

Arya stood outside the royal smithy, heart pounding.

Now she suspected something, all the strange details about the Bull came rushing back to her at once – the mismatched armour and his friendship with the smith; the nervy emphasis on her title when they first met and his roughened palms when they held hands; his awkwardness in Flea Bottom and constantly avoiding his name and House. 

Seven hells, even the helm itself – he didn’t treat it like some noble who’d had it made, it was something more than that to him.

The memories swirled through Arya’s mind, almost making her buckle over. Could he be –? And if she was right, what did that mean? And what should she do?

Well, there was only one way to find out.

Arya took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

“Hello?” She called, stepping inside, instantly engulfed by the familiar scent, the heady mix of smoke and sweat and molton metal bringing back memories of sitting in Mikken’s forge with Jon, swinging her legs back and forth and watching the smith meld Needle for her small hands.

Of course, the Red Keep’s smithy and armoury was much bigger than the one at Winterfell – a cavernous, stone barn with a forge in each corner and apprentice boys working at the bellows, some making what looked like weapons, while others were handling more ordinary metal horseshoes and items. She scanned the boys but none of them were the Bull.

An older, better-dressed man saw her and rushed over, bowing deeply. “Princess Arya.” He greeted and then paused, no doubt wondering what a Princess was doing in his forge the morning after the grandest ball of the year.

“Tobho Mott isn’t it?” She said, recalling Jory talking about the royal armourer.

“Yes, your grace.” He said.

“Sorry to disturb you so early.” She apologised. “I just wanted to ask something.”

“Whatever I can do to assist you Princess.”

She squared her shoulders and held out the helm. “Do you know who this belongs to?”

Tobho took the helm, brow furrowing. “Naturally – this is the Bull’s work.”

She swallowed, heart clenching and suspicions hardening to certainty. “One of your apprentices.” She said.

“I’m – I’m not who you think I am.”

“No your grace.” Tobho shook his head. “The King’s bastard son, Waters. He goes by the Bull.”

Arya’s stomach dropped away, mind scrabbling. Waters?  “Rob – Robert’s – bastard?”

“I’m…. related to the Baratheons.”

“Aye. The King acknowledged him – hmm, it must be close to six years ago now, when the Bull was just a lad. His grace allowed him to live in the Keep after the boy’s mother died.”

“My um, mother was from the Crownlands. So, I’ve spent a lot of time at the Red Keep.”

“And – who was his mother?” She asked, struggling to keep her voice even.

The armourer shrugged, “A tavern girl so I heard, some wench from Flea Bottom the King lay with one night. Nobody you’d know your grace.”

“I just thought they wouldn’t look for us here. Y- The other highborns never come to Flea Bottom.”

Arya swallowed again. “But he’s not apprenticed to you?” She asked. “He was raised as the King’s son?”

Like Jon? She wanted to say. Did the king raise his bastard like her father had? But then why hadn’t Arya been introduced to him?

But Tobho was shaking his head, weathered face tightening. “He’s not apprenticed to me, though I wish that were the case.” He said. “But he’s not raised as the King’s…well, he’s a servant in the palace household. His grace originally considered apprenticing the boy to me or another guildsman here. And I remember the master at arms said the King also thought about making him a household guard.”  

“Oh, just a Stormlands House. And um, I’m not jousting tomorrow, I’m just here to watch. My father arranged for me to attend.”

“But?” Arya prompted, having a sinking feeling she knew where Tobho was going. “Why didn’t he?”

“The Queen didn’t think it was…appropriate, for a bastard with his beginnings to be given that status.” Tobho said shortly. “She insisted the boy would be better off serving her family in a more suitable position.”

“My father hasn’t arranged a match. Not for me at least. I’m…not…not his heir.”

Arya was instantly furious at Cersei’s cruelty and pettiness, and Tobho’s hard expression suggested he felt the same. Arya decided she liked the armorer. 

“I told King Robert many times I’d be happy to take the boy on as an apprentice.” He continued. “Those hands were made for hammers and he’s here as much as he’s able anyway, helping out with bits and pieces over the years – he’s picked up the knack quicker than most of the lads I train. That helm is a good bit of work,” he nodded to the bull’s helmet. “But the King and Queen feel otherwise.”

“So many things that have happened – just years of – my whole life. It’s not anything about you or anything you could have done. I shouldn’t even be here now.”

Arya nodded numbly, stomach churning, feeling like the world was falling apart and coming into focus at the same time. 

She swallowed. “Thank you,” she said, realising Tobho was still watching her. “That was…helpful.”

X-X

Legs shaking, Arya stumbled through the godswood to the heart tree and knelt in front of the carved face, putting the helmet aside and pressing her hands into the rough earth.

Even though she’d suspected something before, now actually knowing the truthit changed everything.

And not even that he was a smith like she’d thought – but the King’s bastard. Not a Stormlands lord or a noble second son or a tourney guest. Just a servant boy born in Flea Bottom.  

But more importantly than any of that, he was a liar. Not her friend or the man she thought could be her husband – a liar.

Because in the end, that was all that mattered – she didn’t care if he was just a servant. Why would she care about that? Old Nan was a servant, Mycah the butcher’s boy was a servant, Hot Pie who made her that wolf bread was a servant.

Why would she care if the Bull was as well?

But she did care he’d lied. Arya scrubbed her eyes fiercely and pulled her knees to her chest, hurt washing over her.

Why had he done it? Had it been some plot all along? He was Joffrey’s brother after all – was he working with the Prince?

Had he seen an opportunity to trick her into…what? Falling in love with him? Humiliating herself? Had everything they’d been through together – the joust, the dance – had that all been a lie as well?

She remembered her stupid declaration to her father and all her planning for the future – Dreadfort, ruling together, marrying him.

Stupid, stupid.

The trees behind her rustled and she spun round to see Nymeria emerge, golden eyes bright. Nymeria padded over, gently headbutting her and Arya threw her arms around the wolf, her desperation and confusion spilling over.

“What do I do Nymeria?” She whispered. “Is this all a trick? Is he just using me? Is he –” To her shock Nymeria suddenly pulled away, baring her teeth in a snarl.

“No?” Arya asked, confused. “You don’t think he –” Nymeria growled again. “But then why? Is he really who he pretended to be?”

Nymeria licked her on the forehead, and Arya sighed and rested against Nymeria’s fur again, forcing herself to think logically.

“Maybe you’re right,” she sighed. “Maybe…”

Maybe it wasn’t as calculated as all that. The anguish in his voice last night, the pain twisting his face. That hadn’t been lies.

But then why had he lied in the first place? Had he been planning to use her but then the guilt got to him?

But what was he going her for? He hadn’t wooed her or asked for some favour or betrayed her secret, she didn’t even think the stupid bull realised she’d wanted to marry him. He’d just been…there. If anything, helping her at put him at risk.

So why pretend to be a lord if it didn’t get him anything?

Nymeria settled her head on Arya’s lap, snorting. Arya stroked her ears idly, recalling first meeting the Bull.

Now she considered it, had the Bull introduced himself as a noble? Or had she just assumed? She remembered seeing him with his fine tunic and handsome face, and thought he was a knight visiting the tourney grounds.

But even if she’d assumed wrong, why hadn’t he corrected her? Yes, servants and highborns befriending each other was unusual – especially here in Kings Landing – so maybe the Bull was too scared to at first.

But after everything they’d gone through together, he must have realised she didn’t give a shit if he was a lord, a butcher’s boy or anything between. He could have told her the truth and nothing would have changed.

Nymeria gave a whine and nudged her hand.

Except…. he’d spent his life under the royal family. Everything Tobho had said – Cersei forcing him to be a servant, Robert being too lazy to defend him, Joffrey’s treatment of his vulnerable, half-brother…

No wonder the Bull didn’t trust another royal. No wonder he was scared.                   

So maybe, just maybe…everything had been true after all. Maybe it had all meant as much to him as it had to her.

Arya glanced down at the helmet, remembering them standing together in this exact spot the night before, the fire burning in his blue eyes as he’d faced her.

“I wish things were different. More than anything…I – I just wanted to say thank you – these last few days might have been the happiest I’ve ever had.”

Was everything that truly mattered still true? He was her friend, even if he wasn’t a lord?

And if that was true…did she still want to marry him? Did he want to marry her? And would she be able to persuade her parents? He was a bastard yes, but a King’s bastard, so perhaps…

A bead of sweat dripped down her back and Arya suddenly realised how high the sun had risen while she’d been thinking. She needed to get ready, no doubt half the men from last night would be turning up, claiming the helmet belonged to them. 

And that led to the real question – Would the Bull be one of them?

X-X

Gendry heaved the sack over his shoulder, watching sailors roll the barrels up the gang plank.

The back of his neck burnt as the sun climbed to its mid-morning spot – which, thank the gods, meant the ship, the Black Betha, would be leaving any minute now.

It had taken him longer than he expected to get out of the Keep, through the city and down to the River Gate without being seen, and then even longer to find passage at such short notice. He’d bargained with captains, while constantly glancing over his shoulder, certain the gold cloaks would appear and drag him back to Cersei  

The Black Betha was only going as far as Maidenpool in the Riverlands, but that was a decent-sized harbour and the ship captain, Davos, had told Gendry he’d be able to find another ship going on to Gullstown from there. It might even be a good thing – if anyone did find out how he’d left Kings Landing they wouldn’t be able to track him the whole way.

Gendry looked back at the city, the familiar stench of sour wine, sweat, horse piss and rotting fish drifting over him one last time.   

He wondered if he should feel sad – it’s not like Kings Landing had ever given him anything, but it was the only home he’d ever known. Yet somehow all he could remember was Arya. Arya and their first meeting – her bending over his bruised knuckles, engulfing him in her scent even as he’d tried to escape. 

She hadn’t stunk like Flea Bottom or the Keep servants, but she hadn’t smelled like a highborn either. There’d been no whiff of sugary perfumes and cloying fragrances – she’d smelled like the woods, the sniff of dirt of the fields, of a fresh inhale of stream water, the scent of sweat and horse musk and wolves and wild flowers. If he’d closed his eyes and been told to guess who’d was beside him, he would have said a travelling rider or some forest maiden, certainly not a Princess.

And somehow, with the stink of Kings Landing behind him – Gendry couldn’t bring himself to regret it. Despite everything, he wouldn’t change what had happened. Not them meeting or taking down Joffrey or any of it. Not her. Not Arya.

A loud whoop disturbed his thoughts and Gendry whirled around, fists clenched. But it was only a crowd of ordinary men in plain-spun tunics, strolling along the wharfs as Kings Landing residents commonly did during the day.

He exhaled, relaxing, when a more unusual sight caught his eye – a stocky man walked in the middle of the crowd, dressed in dark leathers that looked cut in the Northern style. But why would a Northerner be outside the Red Keep? Had Arya –?

He dismissed the thought quickly and turned away, trying to ignore the group.  

“Well lads,” one of men announced, grinning, “I’m going to take Harwin’s advice here and go and woo myself a Princess.”

Gendry stiffened.  

“Oh yes?” His friend scoffed. “You, sitting up in your fine Northern castle ruling over us common folk? You may as well wish for the maiden herself to come for you.”

Gendry’s hand started to sweat and despite himself he inched closer to the conversation

“Why not?” The first man retorted, “I can guess a bloody helmet as well as any man!”

What?”

Immediately the men turned to him and Gendry stepped back, cursing. “I mean – what’s all this about?” He asked casually.

“Haven’t you heard?” The second man demanded. “It’s been all over the city – that Northern Princess, the little Stark girl, is choosing a husband. Or looking for him rather. She says she’s got his helmet and the man who can tell her it’s shape and fit it on his own head will be the one to wed her.”

Gendry almost dropped his bag, the wharf seeming the sway under him – he wondered if the men could see him trembling and wished he had something to lean against.

Arya – Arya wanted to marry him? Him? All those hours together and her questions about his wife and their dance at the ball – that hadn’t been her trying to escape some betrothal, that had been her wanting him. Him. The surly nobody whose House she’d never even heard.

Because there was no house. Because he wasn’t anything close to who she thought he was. Because he’d lied to her and now that lie was going to hurt her more than Gendry had ever thought possible.

He swallowed, the guilt rising in his chest.

“Not the man though,” he snorted, forcing his voice to stay gruff. “The lord surely. There’s no way a Princess would be letting us lot try on that precious helmet.”

“No.” The Northerner called Harwin spoke for the first time, watching Gendry sharply. “Man, not lord. Any man who attended the King’s Tourney will be received by her.”

Gendry stared at him, something in his chest swelling and feeling his throat close. “Any man?” He repeated hoarsely.

“From the mouth of Princess Arya herself.” Harwin said. 

Gendry bit his lip – but she couldn’t? She couldn’t know. If she did, she couldn’t still…

“Hey! Lad!” Captain Davos yelled from the top of the gang plank. “Time to go.”

Gendry looked back at the ship, the last few men climbing aboard and then back at the city – in the distance the Red Keep was gleaming on the top of the hill, and for a second he thought he could feel Cersei’s eyes on him, as cruel and gleaming as the knives she’d threatened him last night.

“Well?” Davos called again. “Last chance." 

 

Chapter Text

Arya slumped in her chair, eyes drooping.

Her father and mother were sitting off to the side of her raised dais, wearing identical sober expressions, and almost all the household from Winterfell – save Harwin and a few men still out spreading the news –were lining the walls of the audience chamber watching the events with eager eyes.

Men had been parading before Arya for over an hour – second-born sons, impoverished lords and grasping widowers. She’d heard claims the helm shaped like a wolf, trout, sea shell, bird, skull, flower and the old gods knows what else until she wanted to scream.

She’d almost ended it all and told her parents the truth about who she was looking for, but found herself hoping that the Bull might still come.

Because truthfully, watching lord after lord feeding her lies without a glimmer of guilt or regret, had only made her more determined to find the Bull.

He may have lied as well but he hadn’t tried to use her. He’d pretended to be someone else, but then done nothing but support and stand by her, unlike these men who’d steal her whole future based on a lie to help themselves.

So, Arya pulled herself up and carried on.

Sansa sailed into the chamber only a couple of men later, her face paler than usual after a late night of dancing, but her hair prettily arranged and courtesies as polished as ever.  Arya avoided her gaze – she didn’t want Sansa’s opinion on any of this. Knowing her sister, she’d find it wonderfully romantic until she discovered what sort of man Arya was truly searching for and her cooing turned to a disgust.

As the hour worn on, other curious onlookers arrived to see how her search was going including Sansa’s husband Willas Tyrell; Joffrey’s uncle Tyrion Lannister and most shockingly of all King Robert himself.  Servants rushed to get him a seat beside Ned and Catelyn while he joked about needing to see his Ned’s wild daughter taken care of.

Arya stared him, her pulse racing – this was the Bull’s father. The man who’d allowed his own son to be degraded and abused because he couldn’t be bothered to argue with his wife.

Of course, Arya thought bitterly, why bother yourself for the sake of a bastard?

“Your grace,” Jory called, jerking her back to attention. “Are you ready to continue?”

The next guess was yet another wolf-shaped helm and wryly Arya wondered what all these lords would do they knew the man they were pretending to be normally scrubbed hall floors not danced on them.

At last the trail of men petered out and Arya closed her eyes, a mixture of relief and disappointment washing over her. She had to tell her parent’s the truth now, if she could just make it sound like –

“Um, there is one more your grace.” Jory said from the door, sounding uncomfortable. Arya looked up, concerned.

Joffrey sauntered into the chamber, gesturing impatiently to his guards. Cersei followed behind him, clearly having just woken up and doing a worse job than Sansa of hiding it.

“What are you doing?” Cersei hissed at her son. “We have bigger things to worry about than this Stark girl.” 

“Believe me mother you’ll want to me here for this.” Joffrey said, smirking at Arya, his green eyes glinting. Arya stiffened, foreboding creeping down her spine.

“Prince Joffrey.” She said curtly.

He smirked wider. “Princess Arya. I heard you promised to marry the man this famed helm belonged to. The one from the ball?”

What game was he playing? “I did.” Arya said flatly. “However, I can assure you that man isn’t you your grace.”

“Oh really?” He taunted. “Not big and…bull-headed enough for you?”

Arya’s breath caught. He knew.

But of course he did, she realised. Joffrey had seen them last night and he was the Bull’s brother so he knew the name and perhaps even about the helmet as well. And unfortunately, Joffrey was intelligent enough to piece everything together.

Cersei clearly understood as well, her face flooding white and eyes flaring. She gestured to one of the guards.  

“Check the bastard’s room immediately.” She ordered, and Arya frowned. Was the Bull still in his room? Was Cersei keeping him there?

“So,” Joffrey said, dragging Arya’s attention back. “How does this work? I tell you the shape of your helm and we call a septon to marry us here and now?”

“Don’t toy with me.” Arya snapped. “Have your jape and leave.”

“Arya.” Her father said warningly. “Treat the Prince with respect.

“I think I should be allowed to guess like all the other men.” Joffrey continued, still smirking. “After all – you promised.”

Arya gritted her teeth, forcing herself to stay quiet and Joffrey took it as permission to carry on taunting her.

“Now let me see…” He drawled, “Could it possibly be – a bull’s head?”

Silence fell over the room – Joffrey grinning madly and Cersei now smirking as well, enjoying the game as much as her son. All the Northerners looked horrified.

Fury burned through Arya’s veins, but she schooled her features to stop it showing, keeping her face smooth and calm.

The Lannisters wanted to play this game? They should know they’d be facing Arya Stark and the wolf-blood of the North. She drew herself up and met Joffrey’s gaze.

“Why, my prince,” she gasped loudly. “You’re right!”

Her father half-rose of his seat, frowning but Arya shook her head at him, praying he and her mother would stay back. Deliberately, she bent down and extracted the helmet from the sack with a flourish, revealing the bull’s head for all to see. Joffrey leered at her, licking his lips.

“But of course,” she said sweetly. “If this is truly your helm then it must fit you as well. Try it on.” She held it out.

Joffrey hesitated, some of the mirth fading from his face. “I – I, uh…”

Idiot, Arya thought scornfully, do you really think I’m that stupid?

“Go on then,” she prompted. “Try your helmet on.”

“I don’t see how this is necessary.” Cersei cut in. “My son says it’s his helm, why would he lie?”

“Exactly.” Joffrey nodded and paused. “Now tell me, so I know when I deflower you – do you Northern girls act like wolves in bed as well?”

A rumble of anger swept through the Northern courtiers and servants, Jory stepped forward, hand going to his scabbard and even King Robert’s face darkened.  “Be careful boy,” he threatened. “You do not address Princess Arya in that way.”  

Arya just rolled her eyes. As if you truly want to marry me anyway. This is about humiliation. But a wolf in your bed isn’t what you need to worry about.

“Amusing.” She said dryly. “But, I keep my vows. And –” She raised her voice so the whole hall could hear. “I vow that if King Robert’s son fits this helm then I’ll marry him – I swear it, before all these witnesses, by the old gods and the new.”

Cersei and Joffrey’s faces went slack, eyes darting around the hall. I’ve got you now.

 “Arya.” Her father said urgently. “Arya, what are you doing?”                                         

“Trust me.” She whispered, and held the helm out.

“Go on then my Prince.”

Mutinously, aware of every eye upon him and Arya’s vows hanging in the air, Joffrey took the helm and slotted it on in his head. As expected, it dwarfed him, slipping over his eyes and sliding off one side of his head, making him look like a child at play. Tyrion Lannister laughed out loud at the sight, making many of the onlookers to follow suit. Joffrey ripped off the helmet and threw it Arya’s feet, face flushed with humiliation and rage. “You fucking wolf bitch!” He spat.

“Joffrey!” King Robert thundered. “How dare you!”

Arya shrugged. “It’s alright your grace. As I said, I keep my promises – and I vowed to marry the King’s son who fitted the helm.” She paused, meeting the King’s gaze. “So, I say all your grace’s sons deserve the chance to try it.”

Her father spoke, voice tight. “Arya, if Joffrey didn’t fit the helm, then Tommen certainly won’t.”

“I know.” Arya said quietly, still watching King Robert. “But does his grace have any other sons to try?”

The King flushed, sudden realisation and shame flooding his expression. But before he could answer, Cersei stepped forward, her whole body shaking with fury. “He has no other sons!

“Yes, he does.” A weary voice sounded from the back of the hall.

Arya and the court whirled around, and there – his face bruised and scratched, dressed in a faded tunic with a ragged sack slung over his back, but strong and tall and truestood the Bull.

“He does.” The Bull repeated, standing in the doorway, beside Harwin.

Carefully, shoulders stiff under the pressure, he walked through the crowd, ignoring every stare upon him, keeping his eyes fixed on Arya. She held her breath, unable to look away. 

At least he reached the foot of the dais, guilt playing across his face. “Your grace,” he said, quiet but clear. “I’m a bastard.” And she knew his words were meant for her. “And a servant. I don’t have a name or a House or a lordship or anything to offer. But if you’re looking for a King’s son then that – that I can claim.” He glanced at Cersei, “No matter how much people deny it.”

“How – how did you escape?” Cersei spat, “Guards, take him at once!”

Her men lurched forward, but King Robert stood, gesturing them back. “What is the meaning of this woman?”

Cersei wheeled on him. “What this means, is that your bastard humiliated our son! He squired for that cursed mystery knight and then refused to reveal his identity to me!”

King Robert frowned, looking down at the Bull. “Is this true?”

He nodded and Arya thought the scratches on his face seemed to throb in the light. “Yes. Her grace came to me yesterday and threatened to send me to the black cells if I didn’t tell her the mystery’s knight’s identity.”

Arya’s chest squeezed, guilt tightening around her throat. Tortured? She glanced at the Bull, and yet he wouldn’t tell? She eyed his bruised and scarred face, fists clenching. Did he care so much that he’d risk the Queen’s torture to protect her?

Her father glanced between her and the Bull, understanding dawning on his face. Inwardly Arya groaned, realising her father had worked out how she’d met the Bull.

But her father looked at King Robert instead. “Does her grace normally punish your son for actions such as these?”

“You know how women are about natural children.” Robert said, squirming. “They overreact.”

Ned Stark nodded, a muscle twitching in his cheek. Arya thought of Jon, and what her father would have done if Catelyn Stark had raised so much as a single hand at his son. But Ned didn’t say anything more to Robert, turning to the Bull instead. “You squired for the mystery knight?” He asked sternly.

The Bull dipped his head. “Yes, your grace.”

Her father frowned, eyes flickering to Arya. “But you refused to give up their name?”

“Yes, your grace.”

“Why? And look at me when you speak.”

The Bull raised his head, meeting his father’s gaze straight on. Arya wondered if the Bull realised her father knew Arya was the Knight of the Laughing Tree. “I wanted to protect them. I didn’t want them to get hurt.”

“Even though you endangered yourself doing so?”

“I vowed to keep their secret.” He said simply. “And I intended to keep to that. They didn’t deserve to be punished for a simple joust.”

Her father stared at him a moment longer and then nodded.  “That was an honourable act.”

Honourable?” Cersei spluttered. “That knight committed treason! He –”

“Can we continue?” Arya snapped, worried the Bull would be dragged off before she got a chance to say anything. “We’re here to see if he fits the helm, not put him on trial. We can argue over guilt later.”

Hopefully when I can offer more of a defence, she added mentally, wondering if offering to marry him was actually going to help against Cersei.

Even so, Arya stood and picked up the bull’s helmet from the floor where Joffrey had thrown it and walked towards the Bull, the metal cool in her hands. Stopping before him, she realised her legs were shaking. She offered the helm to him. “You – you can try it. If you want.”

The Bull gazed back at her, expression still twisted in guilt and doubt. “Even if I’m just a bastard servant?” He asked, and she heard the apology for every lie between them. Arya took a deep breath.

Especially if you’re just a bastard servant.” She said quietly.

Awe shone in his blue eyes, and Arya wondered if she’d ever really seen him smile before. Then he bent down one knee, bowing his head to her. “I – I would be honoured.”

Slowly and delicately as it were a garland of flowers, Arya placed the helmet on his head – it slotted on perfectly.

“It fits.” She said and it seemed the two words echoed to every corner of the room. Murmurs rippled across the hall and Cersei swayed in place.

The Bull stood, chin high, helmet gleaming in the light, looking every inch a prince. Arya’s chest burned with something fierce and uncontrollable, fire coursing through her veins. He gazed at her and his expression took her breath away.

“I have something to give her as well.” He said and reached into his bag, pulling out a crown of crumpled blue roses. “You left this behind your grace.”

She stared at the crown, gently stroking the battered petals and back at his blue eyes. Then, for the first time since Arya could remember, she curtseyed willingly, dipping her head to him.  

Of course he understood and, surprisingly gently for such big hands, placed the crown on her head, fingers trembling a little against her hair. Arya straightened, facing his warm smile.

“The Queen of Love and Beauty.” He said softly, eyes crinkling. “Now do you believe me?”

She rolled her eyes and punched him to hide her flushing cheeks. “Shut up stupid.”

“As you say m’lady.”

“Don’t call me my lady!”  

He grinned, opening his mouth to reply, when Cersei cut across them.

“No.” She snapped. “No. I will not let this happen.” She turned to her husband, “Your grace – putting aside this, this farce – your bastard disobeyed a royal command and plotted to harm the trueborn Prince! I will not let this stand! And I have those in court who will agree with me.”

The King went from irritated to worried, scratching at his stomach and gaze darting around the room like cornered prey.

Arya was about to scream out loud when she caught sight of the Bull’s bag, the outline of a shield bulging against the material. She made a decision. “King Robert,” she announced loudly, making sure everyone could hear. “I think your son has something else that belongs to me.”

The Bull glanced at the sack and back at her, scowling as he realised what she going to do.

“No.” He denied. “No, I don’t. I won’t.

She grabbed his hand, feeling his callouses against her own. “I’m not letting you take the blame alone stupid.”

“But –”

“We’re both part of this. And I won’t let you be punished for what I did.”

Still reluctant, the Bull bent down and pulled out the shield, the sack falling away to reveal the sigil of the Laughing Tree. He passed it to her and Arya hooked it onto her arm, raising her chin. A gasp spread round the room, even some of the Northern servants looking shocked.

Arya heard Joffrey screech in fury and Cersei gasped. “You?She hissed, stalking towards Arya. “You.”

Instinctively, the Bull stepped forward as if to shield her, but Arya was already moving to stand in front of him.

“Yes.” She admitted baldly. “Me.”

Cersei’s face flushed red, mottling with rage and her green eyes took on a crazed look. “That’s not allowed!” She shrieked. “You did not really defeat Joffrey, women cannot enter jousts! I demand a rematch!”

“Alright,” Arya shrugged. “And if you do that I’ll tell everyone why a rematch was needed and who beat him the first time.”

“You wouldn’t.” Cersei snapped. “You’d be humiliated forever and the stain on your reputation would never fade.”

“Maybe.” Arya said. “But the stain wouldn’t be as big as the one his reputation.” She looked at Joffrey who was turning purple. “Is that how you want to be remembered? Being defeated by a woman?”

Obviously unable to hold back anymore, Joffrey let out a scream, drawing his sword and lunging at her – Arya blocked the stroke with her shield, barely in time to stop the blade slicing her neck and the Bull jumped forward, shoving his brother away from her. Screams erupted round the room, half the Northern servants rushing forward and even Arya’s parents leapt to their feet.

“ENOUGH!” Robert bellowed. “Enough! This is madness!”

Catelyn strode over to Arya and the Bull. “Are you alright?” She asked Arya, cupping her cheek and scanning her for injuries. Arya nodded wordlessly, stomach turning.

Meanwhile her father approached Robert, taking on that hard-eyed flinty that belonged to King in the North, not old friend Ned Stark. Robert squirmed in his seat, grimacing.

“Your son just attacked my daughter.” Ned said coldly. “I don’t need to remind you the cost of royal blood drawing steel against each other.”

“Your daughter tried to murder Joffrey.” Cersei spat back. “And that bastard committed treason helping her!”

“Oh, for god’s sake woman!” King Robert snapped. “Murder? Treason? It was a joust. Woman aside she didn’t intend to hurt him and there’s no law against the boy squiring for her! They unhorsed Joffrey fair and squarely.” He glanced at Ned as if for approval. “And after Joffrey’s display against Princess Arya, you and your son are in no place to argue anything.” 

Cersei and Joffrey stared at him, fury building in their eyes. Arya pulled herself together, grabbing the Bull’s hand again.

“Is it agreed?” She asked, raising her voice. “The Knight of the Laughing Tree can be put aside. No one will suffer for it.”

There was a moment of silence, everyone in the room waiting to see what the Lannisters would do.

“Oh, I have seen enough of the both of you.” Cersei sneered. “Go back to the North and rot or freeze I do not care. But I want you out of my court.”

“And let it be the last we see of you bastard.” Joffrey added.

Arya and the Bull glanced at each other, shrugging. “Nothing would please us more.” Arya said.

Still looking venomous, the Queen and Crown Prince stalked from hall, golden heads glinting and guards following behind them. The crowd seemed to exhale in unison.

The Bull squeezed Arya’s hand and they turned to face the two Kings – their fathers gazing at them as if they’d seen at them a ghost. King Robert’s eyes lingered on Arya’s crown, while Ned was fixed on the shield still hooked over her arm.

“Your graces – can we have a moment?” The Bull asked. “We will explain everything. I just want to talk to Ar – Princess Arya first.”

King Robert nodded, seeming still shaken. “There’s a lot to talk about.” He said, unusually sober. “Come to me after you’re done and we’ll discuss matters.”

Ned nodded as well, expression thoughtful. “And I’d like to speak to you Arya – but you may take a minute.”

“Thank you, your grace.” The Bull bowed.

Ignoring the stupefied crowd, Arya tugged the Bull’s hand and led him behind the dais, ducking into the room connected to the audience chamber. She shut the door behind them. 

Immediately the Bull turned to her, his eyes clouded with guilt. “I’m sorry,” He said intensely. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth about who I really was to begin with, I’m sorry I lied. I’m so sorry for everything. You deserved better. I know you did – I never meant to hurt you.”

Arya smiled, the last fraction of doubt dropping away, certainty settling in her heart.

“It’s alright.” She said honestly. “I mean – I wish you’d told me the truth. I wish you’d trusted me, and I don’t like that you thought who you were would change what I think of you. But, after hearing everything with you and Cersei and Joffrey and what you’ve gone through – I understand why you did it.”

The Bull exhaled in relief, shoulders slumping. “Thank you.” He paused. “What happened in there – you vowed to find the King’s son, before I told you who I was. You knew?”

“Only since this morning.” Arya said. “After how you acted last night and – well a few other things. I suspected you weren’t who you said you were. Actually, I thought you were a smith so I went to talk to Tobho and he told me everything. So, I knew what I was promising.”

The Bull nodded but still looked troubled. “And you truly don’t mind? I meant what I said before: I’m a servant, a bastard, I have nothing to offer you. I grew up in Flea Bottom and have been a servant since Robert claimed me. The most I have hoped was to train as a smith. I’m no fit match for a Princess.” He said it plainly, but his fingers twitched against hers as if stopping himself from holding her hand tighter.

Arya ignored him and squeezed as tightly as she could. “I wouldn’t have cared.” She said vehemently. “I never would have cared. Of course, it would have made life a bit easier.” She admitted wryly. “Knowing all this from the beginning instead of having to face Cersei and Joffrey now. But I wouldn’t have cared if you’d told me you were a bastard from the very first. All the best boys are bastards.” She traced the bulls helmet still on his head. “It wouldn’t have changed anything. I still would have chosen you.” She swallowed. “And – and I’m sorry too.”

“What?” The Bull looked staggered, “what – what could you possibly have to be sorry about? After – after everything you just did, how could you even…”

“I’m sorry after all this, you didn’t end up with much of a choice.” Arya answered. “Everything happened so fast, I didn’t get a chance to ask what you wanted.” She bit her lip. “If you even want to marry me at all.”

He blinked, “What?”

She swallowed, forcing the words out. “I know you want to choose who you marry. And I know you want to marry for love. Not just for money or status or a title, but because you want the woman. And not many men want a woman like me. So, if – if you don’t want…I understand. Truly. You don’t have to marry me. You can leave and become a smith anywhere, I can find a position for you. Or travel – or – or any of that, I didn’t mean to force you –”

“Stop.” The Bull cupped her cheek, his eyes damp. “Let me be very clear. I want you. I’d want you as a Princess and I’d want you if you were some servant girl I met in Flea Bottom. If I could choose any woman in the world, I’d choose you. Whether you’re a Stark of Winterfell or just Arya, I’d always choose you.”

Arya pushed back her hair and looked at him. “So, you take me as I am? The Knight of the Laughing Tree who will never be a lady?”

“Only if you take me as I am.” He replied. “A simple bastard servant who loves you.”

She smiled, feeling tears well in her eyes. “Of course I do.”

Unable to hold back any longer, she grabbed the collar of his tunic and pulled him down – capturing his lips with hers in a burning clash. Immediately, the Bull pulled her flush against him, letting out a deep groan as her tongue slipped into his mouth and returning the attack with an intensity that matched everything he did.

Arya reached up to grip his hair, only to meet the cool metal of the bull helmet– she pulled back, laughing suddenly. 

The Bull pulled back as well, breathing heavily. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing…I just realised, well I don’t even know your name.”

He laughed as well, disbelief in his face. “Gendry.” He said eventually. “Gendry Waters.”

Chapter Text

Gendry had had no idea what to expect from his father. Normally the King was predictable in his laziness about anything concerning his bastard…but this hadn’t exactly happened before.

Robert sat sprawled behind the desk he never used and gesturing to Gendry to sit opposite him. He extended the jug of wine, shrugging when Gendry refused and pouring a generous glass for himself.

“Obviously it will be a great insult to the Starks if the girl marries you.” Robert started.

Well, thank you father.

“Wasting a King’s daughter – with lands of her own to boot – on a bastard? That’s a humiliation for Princess Arya.”

You think I don’t know that?

“But,” Robert continued doggedly. “I’ve told Ned that if he accepts, you won’t come penniless. You’ll bring a small inheritance of your own – some gold, horses, servants. You’re still a King’s son if nothing else.” He looked at Gendry hopefully.

“Of course.” Gendry finally spoke, his voice hard. “Now you’ve decided to acknowledge that.” He knew he should keep his mouth shut and thank his father for what he was offering. He was escaping anyway – what did it matter anymore? But memories of the past six years tumbled through his mind – going to bed hungry and dizzy because Cersei ordered the cook to deprive him of food; aching from another of Joffrey’s beatings; Tobho confessing he’d have taken Gendry on the very second that Robert gave the apprentice’s fee – and Gendry found he couldn’t keep quiet. “So now that the Starks care, you’d risk displeasing Cersei for me?”

Robert flinched, shamefaced. “I know – I know I haven’t always treated you well.” He said. 

That’s putting it lightly.

“And I regret that. But I want what’s best for you. And if that Stark girl wants to marry you, I won’t stand in the way.” He paused.

“I originally wanted to marry one of Ned’s girls to Joffrey.” He admitted. “But Princess Sansa was already promised to that Tyrell rose and Princess Arya had her own holdings in the North. So, I gave up. So, now, seeing you with her…I’ll make it happen.”

Gendry gritted his teeth. He wasn’t Joffrey’s replacement in an arranged match (though he liked imagining Arya’s reaction at being told to marry Joffrey; she’d be off and out a ship leaving Westeros before her parents even finished their sentence). He and Arya had decided this, no one else.

Robert was still speaking, glazed blue eyes drifting past Gendry.

“By the gods, when I saw your girl in that blue crown…It was like my Lyanna again. But the right man crowning her this time. The Baratheon.”

I’m not a Baratheon, Gendry though stubbornly. That’s the point. Still, he stayed quiet – everyone knew about Robert’s heartbreak over Lyanna and the story of Harrenhal when Prince Rhaegar crowned her Queen of Love and Beauty. Suddenly his father’s support of him marrying Arya despite Cersei protests made more sense.

Truthfully, Gendry was still reeling from the revelation. Arya wanted to marry him. Marry. Knowing what he was, what he wasn’t – she still wanted him.

She cared that he’d pretended to be her friend, not that he’d pretended to be a lord.

He still hadn’t wrapped his head around it all.

When Arya had asked him if he truly wanted her, he’d almost laughed out loud. How could he not want her? Since meeting her he’d had to suppress even thinking about it.  Refused to acknowledge how his heart jumped when she grinned at him, his admiration at how she mingled freely with commoners, the heat in his stomach watching her joust, the feel of her small hands in his.

But now? Knowing Arya wanted him the way he wanted her? Wanted to spend her life with him? He’d been walking around in a daze, almost numbly happy and blurry around the edges.

He couldn’t imagine how close they’d come to losing everything – if he hadn’t heard about Arya and the helmet or if he’d left last night instead of going to the ball.

“Before we go,” Arya asked, as they prepared to go and meet their fathers. “Are you alright? After whatever Cersei did to you.” 

He shrugged. “M’ fine. She didn’t have a chance to do much last night, I was mostly just locked in my room.”

“How did you even get out?”

“Well, that part wasn’t me.” Gendry admitted, and before he could say anything more, the answer arrived for him. A furry head nosed around the door and Nymeria’s now-familiar face appeared – Gendry had never imagined a wolf could look smug, but somehow, she managed it. He broke into a grin. “It was her.”

Nymeria trotted over, headbutting first Arya and then him.

“I don’t know how, but somehow she knew I was in trouble and found me. I just wanted to leave, too worried about Cersei – but she brought the mask and token and persuaded me to go to the ball. I wouldn’t be here without her.”

Arya looked thoughtful. “She helped me as well. She persuaded me to trust you – after Tobho told me the truth, I was worried you could be a liar, using me. But Nymeria told me otherwise.” She paused. “She likes you, she’s never liked any of my other suitors.”

They both looked at the wolf and Gendry grinned ruefully, scratching behind her ears, absently wondering how he could ever have been scared of her.

“Well, thank you,” he said sincerely. “I’ll try to be worth it.”

Nymeria was fighting for them. Arya was fighting for him.

And he would fight for her.

So, Gendry raised his chin and met his father’s gaze.

“I want to marry her.” He said. “And with or without your support, I will. But your help would make it easier.”

Robert nodded, setting his jaw and for once seeming like the man that toppled a 300-year dynasty. “You will son.”

X-X

Her father was standing by the window when Arya entered, his back turned to her.

Swallowing down her nervousness, Arya went to stand beside him, leaning against the window ledge, the stone cool and smooth under her palms.

They stood in silence for a while, watching the crowded streets below.

“So,” Her father said at last, “Stormlands lord was an interesting way of describing him Arya.”

Arya bit her lip. Before parting, she’d complained to Gendry how difficult he’d made things. How they could have presented everything properly – dressed Gendry up in his fine tunic and her in a proper gown, set up a meeting with their fathers, introduced Gendry as the son of a King, have him formally request her hand in marriage, prepared arguments for this moment.  

But they haven’t done any of that. So, she must make her father understand now.

“I didn’t know,” Arya said immediately. “Truly father. I told you everything I knew about him. I wasn’t lying.”

“So, he lied?”

“No! Well – yes. There was a lot of misunderstandings.” She paused, speaking carefully. “When we first met I mistook Gendry for a noble. He never claimed to be one – he just feared what would happen if he told me who he really was.”

“So, you’re saying all this got messed up because I mistook you for a lord.” Arya huffed as they compared stories. “Why didn’t you bloody correct me?”

Gendry grimaced. “I made a mistake. At first, I was too nervous to tell you – for all I knew you could be just like Joffrey or Cersei, and I’d be punished to high hell for dressing like a noble.”

She must have looked offended at the comparison because Gendry chuckled.

“Of course, after I discovered you’re as different as possible from them,” he squeezed her hand. “We were friends – and I thought the truth would end that.”

“I wouldn’t have done that either!”

“I know! And by the time I realised that …I didn’t want to hurt you by admitting I’d lied. So, I kept my mouth shut.”

“Making my life much more difficult,” Arya quipped, but felt herself give in.

Her father didn’t say anything, so she hurried on. “And is that really surprising after growing up here? After seeing how Joffrey and Cersei treat him, can you blame him for trying to protect himself?”

Almost too subtle to see, her father’s face softened, Arya knew he disapproved of Cersei. Still, he wasn’t done.

“And he helped you compete in the tourney. You didn’t mention that part when you told me about him.”

Arya flushed. “No.” She admitted. “That I lied about. I didn’t – I didn’t want you to think badly of him before you’d even met him. He’s a good man father, honestly. He’s good and strong and yes maybe a bit grumpy, but kind. He risked torture to protect me! That impressed you, I know it did.”

Ned sighed wearily, running a hand over his face. “Arya, this isn’t about liking the boy, I want to accept the match but you know marriage isn’t that simple. He’s a bastard and that’s a lot – even for you. Many lords will see it as an insult.”

“I know.” Arya admitted. “I know he’s not a noble, not really. But he’s King Robert’s son! It’s an alliance of sorts! And no one in the North has to know he was a servant.”

Ned nodded slowly, “Robert has already offered to provide an inheritance. That will help.”

“And he wants to marry me.” Arya said. “Imagine how you’d feel if Jon had fallen in love with a girl and she wanted to marry him, but they couldn’t because he was a bastard.”

Pain twisted across her father’s face in an instant, passing almost too quickly to see. Arya felt a pang of guilt but pressed on.

“You know Jon deserves to be happy…and so does Gendry. Please father, promise me. Promise me.”

Ned jerked as if he’d been struck, sucking in a breath and staring at her with haunted eyes. Distantly Arya realised she was still wearing the winter roses. She waited for him to speak.

“A woman much like you begged me like that once.” Her father murmured, turning to face the window again.

Arya knew who he was talking about. “And what did she say about marriage?”

“Love is sweet.” He said softly. “But it can’t change a man’s nature.” Another pause, then – “Let me talk to him.”

Gendry and King Robert arrived not long after – Gendry cleaned up, hair brushed, face washed though his scratches still stood out and shoved into a Baratheon black and gold tunic.  

Seeing Robert and Gendry standing side by side for the first time, Arya realised how alike they truly looked – the same blue eyes and black hair, even the stubborn set of their jaw. But while the King was fat from sitting on cushions all day and his face flabby and dull, Gendry was solid and muscled, observing quietly.

King Robert instantly launched into a bluster about inheritance and households and whatever else. Ned listened carefully, asking a few questions – about money, Cersei, Gendry’s mother, how he was raised, if he was literate, if he had been trained in arms. Gendry and Arya stayed silent for most of it – Gendry only offering details when Robert couldn’t answer. (Yes, he could read; no not many lords knew about him; he wasn’t trained in arms but he could certainly wield a hammer like his father).

At last, the discussion finished and Ned turned his whole attention to Gendry, staring at him for a long, hard moment.

“What I need to know,” he said. “Is will you remain loyal to my daughter? Keep to one bed? Protect her, respect her, cherish her and value her?”

Gendry didn’t flinch. “For as long as I live.”

Ned nodded and offered his hand. “And may that be a long time.”

X-X

The Starks left Kings Landing quickly after that, wisely deciding to return to Winterfell for the wedding instead of having it in Kings Landing. Gendry bid goodbye to his father, the other servants and Tobho.

(“The Princess came by asking about that bull’s head and the next thing I hear she’s promising to marry you? How in the mother’s name did you manage that boy?”

“I don’t fully know myself. But I’m not going to complain.”)

They headed off in a procession of carriages and wagons, which included Gendry’s own new inheritance, household, horses and chests of hastily purchased clothes.

For the first time in his life, Gendry went beyond borders of King’s Landing, watching eagerly as they travelled through the Riverland’s lush fields, rolling hills and dense forests.

Arya fulfilled her offer to teach him to ride, showing him on how to use his legs to guide the horse and thankfully promising the saddle sores would soon fade.

Gendry met the rest of the Starks as well. Queen Catelyn, treating him warily but with an air of obvious appreciation that he’d got her wild daughter to marry, and as time went on even sharing titbits of knowledge about the surrounding lands. Princess Sansa, who accompanied them to attend her sister’s wedding was courteous but aloof, her tone taking a hint of distaste on Gendry’s bastard-born surname. Arya told him that was Sansa being Sansa and to ignore her. Prince Bran, on the other hand was instantly friendly – all easy smiles and quick jokes, teasingly suggesting he’d challenge Gendry and Arya to a joust if they wanted real competition. With his company and the welcoming Stark household, including Jory, Hullen, the journey passed quickly.

One night they stopped at shores of the Gods Eye, the largest lake in the Seven Kingdoms – Arya and King Eddard told him the island in the middle was the Isle of Faces, where the pact between the children of the forest and the First Men was created and one of few known locations of weirwoods in the south of Westeros now.

Arya said she’d love to visit the island, and when her father told her they didn’t have a boat, she wondered if she could swim over. Gendry compared her to one of the black swans gliding on the water’s surface – which got even funnier when it almost attacked them. That was the first time he saw Ned Stark laugh.

They stopped at Acorn Hall, greeted by the kindly Lady Smallwood and her son who Arya had beaten in the tourney. Arya and Gendry got caught by an amused Harwin wrestling in the smithy when Gendry accidentally ripped Arya’s dress. (“It made me look an oak tree anyway.”)

They stopped at Rivverrun, Queen Catelyn’s childhood home and Gendry felt a little uneasy at another reminder of Arya’s noble lineage. But the food was good and he was seated next to Arya’s great-uncle Brynden, the Blackfish. He winked at Arya and Gendry and told them about his own refusal to get married and how he was happy for them.

(“For a while there I thought you’d take after me little one,” he chuckled. “Be the black wolf to my black fish.”)

At the Inn of the Kneeling Man, the inn’s cook Hot Pie, who Arya met on the journey down, was kind enough to give them some bread baked in a wolf-shape…apparently.

(“I don’t know what why you can’t see it,” Gendry grinned. “It was a spitting image of Nymeria.”

Arya swatted him on the arm “And you didn’t feel like mentioning that when he asked?”

“It was more fun watching you guess which ends was the tail and which was the nose.”)

They travelled further and further North until they reached the Neck filled with the boggy swamps and tangled vines. Some members of House Reed appeared out of thick to assist them, including Lady Meera, a lithe, curly-haired girl who Gendry noticed Bran giving a lot of smiles to and blushing hard when she returned them.

As they entered the North, the land got wilder – windswept plains and jagged hills. But it felt free too, the wind clearing his heads and the clear landscape opening up the sky.

Arya had looked happier with every step they took from Kings Landing, cheeks pinkening, laughing louder and hair flying in the wind. Now in the North, she looked at home – her grey eyes shining the same colour as the sky.

Still nothing compared to Winterfell itself. As Gendry approached it, his mouth went dry, feeling as if he was entering something that had been there as long as the land itself. The castle was far larger than the Red Keep, a great sprawling complex of impenetrable walls and lofty towers, the sounds of laughter echoing through the courtyards. He craned his neck as they got closer, determined to catch every detail.

“Old Nan told us it was built by Brandon the Builder,” Arya said from beside him. “He helped build Storms End as well.” She threw him a playful look. “They say that’s why the Baratheon’s and the Starks have always been close.”

The gates were flung open and they were instantly immersed in bustling, chattering throng of people –dragging in the chests and bags, unhitching wagons, hugging Arya and Bran, and bowing to the King and the Queen.

Gendry had barely dismounted, when Arya was introducing him to Robb, the future King in the North and Lord of Winterfell but also a boy just his age, who grinned and slapped Gendry on the back, telling him he was a brave man for taking on their famed she-wolf. Little Rickon came rushing out to meet them too, barrelling into the crowd with an unrestrained wildness so like his big sister.

But it was Jon, Gendry was most nervous to meet. Trueborn or not, he was Arya’s favourite sibling and Gendry couldn’t imagine what would happen if he didn’t support them.

“He’ll like you,” Arya had promised. “I like you, so he will too. He’s like me.”

As Robb and Rickon greeted the rest of the family, a dark-haired figure appeared behind them and Arya hurtled herself into his arms, just as Nymeria lunged forward to greet a white wolf.

Gendry instantly understood what Arya meant – unlike their auburn-haired, blue-eyed Tully-like siblings, Jon had the Stark look, Arya’s look, as he spun her around it was hard to tell who was who in the whirl of grey eyes and dark hair.

Jon put Arya down, tousling her already-messy hair playfully. She rolled her eyes, still grinning and then dragged Gendry forwards. “Jon, this is Gendry.”

Jon held out his hand, gaze friendly but appraising.

“Gendry helped me enter the tourney so we could beat Prince Joffrey –he squired for me and found me armour and –”

The corner of Jon’s mouth quirked, “you gave my little sister armour?”

“Well, you’d already given her a sword,” Gendry said wryly. “Armour seemed to be the next step.”

Jon chuckled, “Not the most traditional courtship gift.”

“No’’ Gendry admitted. “But it’s what Arya wanted.”

“And never get in the way of a determined Arya.” Jon said. “She’s been going on for years about the unfairness of not being allowed to join us in the training yard.”

“I can understand that.” Gendry said. Suddenly a conversation with Arya came rushing back. “Girls get the arms but not the swords –”

“And bastards get the swords but not the arms.” Jon finished, his whole face softening. “I heard you were King Robert’s bastard.”

“And I heard you were Ned Starks’’.”

Arya huffed and grabbed both of their hands, forcing them to look down at her, “I’ve told you.” She said, looking at Gendry, “I don’t care. And I’ve told you,” she turned to Jon. “It doesn’t matter, it’s never mattered. Hopefully the two of you will finally believe it.”

Jon shook his head, breaking into a wide smile Gendry suspected was rare for the sober looking boy. “Of course, you’d choose a bastard.” Jon said to his little sister, infinite fondness shining in his eyes. “I shouldn’t have expected anything less.

Then he turned to Gendry, a sense of comradery passing between them. “Well,” Jon deadpanned. “Between the two of us I’m sure we can keep the swords coming.”

 

X-X

That night, after dinner in the great hall and Arya introducing Gendry to seemingly everyone in the castle; she, Jon and Gendry sat curled around the fire, Ghost and Nymeria settled at their feet, discussing the arms part of the sword and arms.

With a Princess and nameless bastard establishing a new seat, nothing about their future was conventional.

The sigil was easy to decide on, Arya and Gendry had discussed it on the journey up: A wolf and a bull racing towards each other against a field of white. The Stark sigil, with a bull for Gendry.

“And your House name?” Jon asked.

“Stark of course,” Arya replied.

“It’s not like we want any children to grow up as Waters,” Gendry said wryly. “And I wouldn’t want the Baratheon name even if I could take it. Arya’s a Stark so I will be too.”

What to rename Dreadfort was trickier though. Arya suggested Tree liker her shield – Laughing Tree, Protectors Tree, Guardians Tree, Shield Tree, Steel Tree, Storm Tree – but none of them quite worked. Gendry suggested Knights Tree, but knights were southern.

Jon told them to give up on the tree, but liked the name being about protection. Gendry proposed Safe Arbor as the castle was on the banks of the river and Jon offered the Bullwark. “You’re further North than Winterfell, you’ll be the ones holding back winter, protecting people from it.

They liked that idea, so threw around ideas connecting it to Winterfell – Winters Edge, Wolves Edge, Wolves Rise, Winters Flame, Wolf Flame.

Arya wanted something that referenced Gendry as well so they kept thinking – Forge Haven, River Forge, Jon liked Winters Forge, but Gendry said it sounded too much like Winterfell.

“Helm or Shield.” Gendry said. “That’s protection against winter. And I’ve certainly forged enough of them.”

“Winters Helm,’ Arya tried it out. “House Stark of Winters Helm.”  

They talked about house words after that – Defend the defenceless, strive together, stronger together, by action and deeds, the pack survives, for the many not the few.

They liked We forge our mettle, defend the defenceless and Protect all, forget none before finally settling on By act, not stature.  

Afterwards Jon went to bed and Arya and Gendry stayed up, thinking out more plans for Dreadfort’s future, carrying on from their conversations in Kings Landing.

“You know, designing the new stables makes more sense now.” Gendry joked. “When you first brought that up, I was wondering what the hell you were asking me for.”

Arya rolled her eyes. “Yet you still couldn’t guess I wanted to marry you.”

“How would I? I thought you were already betrothed – not sizing me up as a prospect!”

“I thought everyone knew about the agreement with my parents,” Arya shrugged. “That’s all I could think about when I arrived.”

Gendry noticed the strain in her tone and tightened his arms around her. “I’m sorry.”

“I never thought I’d find someone though.” She said awkwardly. “I couldn’t imagine any of those lords ever being someone I’d want to marry. I think about where I’d be if we hadn’t met, if I hadn’t happened to come across you and Joffrey…” She trailed off in concern. Gendry’s own stomach curled at her words.

“I can’t think about that either.” He admitted. “Let alone imagining you marrying any of those fancy lords. I tortured myself wondering which one you were promised to.”

She snorted, “And I thought you were betrothed. Kept imagining some prim southern girl you’d laugh about me with.”

Gendry chuckled, remembering his reaction when Arya asked about his wife. “Never. I was too busy trying to ignore even the thought of being with you. At least you asked about my betrothed, I couldn’t even let myself consider it.”

“Even when I was practically proposing.”

They both laughed and Arya rested back against him. 

“Well at least we got here.”

Chapter Text

They married in the godswood at Winterfell.

Jon instructed Gendry on Northern wedding ceremonies, while Catelyn and Sansa prepared Arya. They’d sewed her a gown of fine white wool, using silver thread to embroider leaves twining around the neckline, waist, sleeves and hem.

When Arya slipped into the dress, she thought back to the private wedding gift Gendry had given her last night: a helm shaped as a wolf. Her betrothed would marry her in a gown or helm or anything between – and really, wasn’t that all she ever wanted?

Her mother and sister left most of her hair tumbling loose, pulling back just a few curls and braiding them with winter roses. Once she was ready, Catelyn held her close and even Sansa smiled.

Ned seemed shaken as Arya emerged from her chamber.

“My little she-wolf,” he whispered, taking her arm.

Arya swallowed, feeling tears well up and found she couldn’t speak. Instead she squeezed his hand as tightly as she could. Her father seemed to understand.

The godswood was unusually bright when they arrived, the usual shadows dissolving in the remarkably warm sun and leaves seeming to hum in the breeze. The heart tree’s face smiled down on Arya, while the black pool lying beneath it sparkled.

Everyone was there – Harwin, Jory, Mikken and all the other men of Winterfell; old Nan and the rest of the women; Robb and Wylla; Maester Luwin; Lord Manderly and Wynafryd; the Mormont clan; Alys Karstark; Bran with the Reeds; House Flint of the Arya Flint she was named for; even Nymeria, Ghost and the rest of the wolves sat at the edge of the crowd.

And there – at the front of it all, gazing at her adoringly with that stupid, lovable, stupefied face – was Gendry. And despite herself and solemnity of the occasion – Arya grinned at him. Gendry grinned back.

When she and her father passed through the crowd and reached the heart tree, Ned clasped her hand one final time and let her join her husband-to-be.

The ceremony passed in a blur – distantly Arya was aware of Maester Luwin’s gentle voice, her father’s claim; her vows clear and loud, while Gendry’s were quieter but no less fervent.

For her, the only thing that stood out was the cloaking ceremony – she and Gendry had discussed it beforehand.

When it came time to Gendry to cloak her, the two of them simultaneously reached up and removed their own cloaks: Arya’s was white edged in grey and decorated with a wolf, while Gendry’s cloak was plain brown adorned with a bull.

A ripple of surprise spread across the onlookers as they put the mantles aside, but Jon stepped forward and handed them two fresh cloaks – white edged in brown and patterned with a wolf and a bull.

“We’re House Stark,” Gendry had said, when Arya wondered about what they should do for the cloaking ceremony and complained about how women normally had to give up their house. “It’s certainly not me enveloping you in my no-name house. But we’re own branch of Stark – our own seat, sigil, words. So, let’s mark that at the ceremony.”

“It will be our colours,” she said, loving him more in that moment than she ever had before. “Grey for the Starks, but edged in brown like a bull, instead of white so everyone knows we’re the Starks of Winters Helm.”

And now, chest burning with affection, Arya let Gendry sweep the cloak around her shoulders. Then he bent and let her do the same, the cloak settling against his back. They grasped hands and in that second Arya flashed back to the first time they met – Gendry fighting beside her, jaw jutting stubbornly and eyes flashing. And she’d never felt so sure of anything in her whole life.

“I give you,” Maester Luwin announced, “Princess Arya and Gendry Stark of Winters Helm.”

X-X

The Starks settled in well at their new home.

For the first few years, the castle was consumed with near-constant building and activity, but it soon stabilised and the former Dreadfort was transformed. New windows threw light into the halls; freshly chiselled stone replaced the old teeth-like battlements; glass gardens filled with fruits and vegetables were erected; the old kitchen was refurbished; thick tapestries lined the walls and new mouldings and torches appeared everywhere.  

Even when that was completed, the rulers of Winters Helm were busy.

Arya and Gendry held court in the great hall and passed judgement on disputes and crime; they managed to households and stores and prepared for winter; travelled to every corner of their holdings to meet their people and hear their stories. When they were at home, they invited a different man or woman to eat with them at the high table each night, listening to talk of copper counting or sewing or leatherwork. They visited and hosted other lords, setting up a merry court with many families of the North.

Sometimes they were alone – Arya donning breeches and sparring with the men in the training yard, while Gendry visited the forge and helped craft helms and shields and swords. But often, they stayed together – riding along the river, playing with Nymeria, bathing in the hot springs and curling close together in the cold nights.

In time, Jon was given a holdfast and lands on the New Gift to rule – becoming famous for his support of the Nights Watch and brokering peace with the Free Folk over the Wall, even letting some of them settle on his land. Correspondence between him and Gendry and Arya flowed constantly, and he was a common guest at Winters Helm.

For the couple’s first anniversary, Jon commissioned a portrait of the two of them: Arya bearing the Knight of the Laughing Trees shield and brandishing Needle, the crown of winter roses on her head, Gendry wearing his bull helm and wielding a hammer and Nymeria between them. Along the bottom ran their house words – By act, not stature.

“You know that’s not actually right,” Arya said. “I jousted, not sparred – and I’d never have worn that crown while doing it!”

“And I never fought with my hammer then,” Gendry added.

Jon just smiled. “You don’t understand legends at all.”

All the same, they hung the portrait at the head of the great hall, alongside the shield of the Knight of the Laughing Tree. (Whose identity was now Westeros’ worst-kept secret).

“Remember that.” Arya would eventually tell their children, pointing to the shield and painting. “That was our beginning – House Stark of Winters Helm. You know our words.”

X-X

And so, Arya and Gendry Stark lived and ruled.

Joffrey and Cersei were not to bother them again – for within a year, both of them fell prey to an infection of greyscale and King Robert exiled them from court for the rest of his short lives and instead had his second son Tommen, marry Joffrey’s intended bride and rule Westeros.

King Robert did not live long, but lasted to see Arya and Gendry’s first child, a daughter with her grey eyes and his black hair. Robert visited Winters Helm with Ned and held little Lyanna in his arms before he died.

And the North prospered.

Over time, House Stark of Winters Helm passed into history as House Bullstark – for the sigil marking the tale of the Bull and the She-Wolf, and their story passed from generations, marked by the portrait and faded shield hanging in their seat.

They were counted to be the kindest and fairest rulers the lands had known. And they continued to see the world not as people told them it was – but how it could be.

And they lived happily ever after.