“Oh, I'm a maid, and I'm pure and fair!
I'll never dance with a hairy bear!
A bear! A bear!
I'll never dance with a hairy bear!
The bear, the bear!
Lifted her high into the air!
The bear! The bear!
I called for a knight, but you're a bear!
A bear, a bear!
All black and brown and covered with hair
She kicked and wailed, the maid so fair,
But he licked the honey from her hair.
Her hair! Her hair!
He licked the honey from her hair!
Then she sighed and squealed and kicked the air!
My bear! She sang. My bear so fair!
And off they went, from here to there,
The bear, the bear, and the maiden fair.”
“Would you just shut up?!”
“Would you? I can damn well sing that song as often as I like,” the man who just sang out of tune retorts angrily, knocking against the stone wall standing between him and his younger critic.
“That song is stupid – and you sing like a cat shrieks when you step on its tail!” the vocal critic laments.
“You are just too young to understand what the song’s actually about, Mouse. Lads like ye have not yet tasted honey of that kind,” the man laughs throatily. “Because it’s hard to harvest, ye know? Right between a maid’s legs, haha!”
“My name is not Mouse,” the dark-haired child whispers, glancing about the tiny cellar into which the goldcloaks had it thrown days ago, though there is no certainty to tell just how much time has passed, because there is no daylight shining in the black cells of King’s Landing, blurring the lines, blurring the times.
“What was that?” the older man asks, not having understood.
“I said you are disgusting,” Mouse calls out.
“Oh, did I upset you with speakin’ about ‘em naughty bits of those songs? Can’t learn those lessons soon enough, lad. If you want to have any chance with’em ladies, you should think about how to get ye some honey rather sooner than later. The girls want ye to be good at that sort of harvest, I’m tellin’ ye.”
“I don’t want to have a chance with the ladies, you nasty bastard,” the child grunts, leaning its head against the iron bars of the black cell.
“What? So ye are a pillow biter? Who could’ve guessed? Our little thief likin’ it from behind, hm? But ye know, if ye are not into getting’ yo’self no honey, you can still milk some man’s cock if that makes ye happy. But that, too, needs skill. And bawdy songs are a first taste of that,” the man snorts, only to cough, unable to contain his own laughter, almost choking on it.
If only he did…
“Arry, not Mouse. Arry. The name is Arry,” Arry repeats through gritted teeth, knocking against the iron bars over and over. “Just why did they have to lock me up next to you treacherous lech?”
“Coz ye and I committed the same crime, easy as that,” the man chuckles.
And all that because of one bloody loaf of bread, Arry thinks in frustration.
One loaf of bread, and the goldcloaks caught the young thief in the act and dragged the child straight to the back cells, no judge, no magistrate, because the guard had seen the loaf in the child’s hand, so there was no need for a trial, however small, however unimportant. Arry didn’t even get to eat the bread, but instead now feeds on stale crumbs and water that tastes like they got it straight out of the sewers.
It shouldn’t be like this, Arry knows, but there is no way of helping it anymore. Steps were taken, bridges were burned, and now, Arry has no choice but to live with the decisions made, even if that means risking being caught in the act of stealing a loaf of bread to fend off the hunger, regardless of the obvious danger that comes with.
There may have been an easier time for the thieves to thrive, but ever since Queen Cersei has the city in her clutches, alongside the rest of the realm, stealing bread is an art form instead of something even the dumb people once succeeded in with little trouble.
However, that is what happens when taxes keep rising, carving out the purses and lands, the cooking pots and ovens, until nothing remains of them. The levies are so high as of late that it has the common man wondering whether the Queen intends to simply seat herself on all the food that keeps getting carried to the capitol to pay the taxes instead of planting her ass on the Iron Throne.
Perhaps the good Queen was just in dire need for a comfy pillow for her royal buttocks.
Normally, Arry would not want to come anywhere near the city, which has cost the young thief everything of value, everything that once mattered, mattered the world – and more. That is what happens when you make decisions, of the kind you can no longer undo, that is when you make choices, and the wrong ones while at it. Because suddenly, you stand at the front of a gate to a city not your home, a city you link nothing but misfortune with, nothing but sadness, nothing but pain. And yet, it is the one city where there is food to steal, food to eat. And that drives even the most desperate thief back into the lion’s den.
Arry wanted to get away from this wretched city after all that happened, away from its inhabitants, its royals and soldiers, and its hateful preachers. Because the preachers don’t hold any comfort for the small man, far from it. They proclaim that everything in the world is sin. And the good Queen only ever adds to the wretchedness, the rottenness of the city, since she might be the one to succeed to the honor of her pre-predecessor, Mad King Aerys Targaryen, backing up the Faith in its ongoing terror sweeping through King’s Landing’s roads and narrow passageways. Yet, in the end, Arry can’t seem to escape, no matter the effort, no matter the sacrifice. And so, the young thief rather takes the risk of being imprisoned for stealing than to go to where there is no food, no home, no nothing for the likes of the young thief with dark hair and dark eyes.
However, Arry doesn’t try to waste much of a thought on it, the pain of the choice once made in a rush still throbbing in the young body as though it happened just yesterday, blurring past and present, leaving nothing but a mush of regret at the bottom of a bowl o’ brown frequently handed to them as “food.”
“A bear there was, a bear, a bear!
all black and brown, and covered with hair.
The bear! The bear!
Oh come they said, oh come to the fair!
The fair? Said he, but I'm a bear!
All black and brown, and covered with hair!”
“JUST STOP ALREADY!” Arry cries out as the man wants to start with the next verse. “You can’t just start over with the same damned song all over again! My ears are bleeding!”
“And mine are bleedin’ from your constant complainin’, lad. Ye might be young, but ye are old enough to be charged for the same crimes as I was, so stop whinin’ and take it like a man,” the man retorts. “No matter whether ye are into suckin’em cocks or not. Just take it like a man and deal with it, and leave me bloody well to my fuckin’ songs, Seven Hells.”
“In my experience, men would do better taking things like women,” Arry argues with narrowed eyes, though the older man can’t see that, of course.
“Haha, who made you think such nonsense?” the older man scoffs.
“A woman must be truly brave to take up with you, that’s how I know,” Arry answers. “I just imagine the horror of you on top of… no, I don’t want to imagine that!”
Arry knows by now that the only way to respond to those kinds of men is by returning the favor in kind. While Arry never feared to speak from the top of the head, not minding the consequences, it was on the streets that the young thief learned to talk like an old, nasty man.
It’s another kind of shield, another kind of armor, that comes without metal, without leather straps, and chainmail, but nonetheless, it can keep you out of harm’s way – and sometimes, get you right into it.
“Ye can count yourself lucky that I’m stuck in my own cellar, or else…,” the man on the other side snarls, but Arry interrupts him before he can finish the threat, “Or what? You would hit me? I am too fast for you to even take a swing at me.”
“Don’t stretch your luck, boy. There’s always a time after prison, Mouse,” the man grumbles. Arry can hear him kick something away, probably his wooden bowl, to let out a bit of his frustration.
“Not for all,” Arry comments with a grimace.
No, some spend the rest of their days in one of those black cells to rot away in. And people get such sentence for lesser and lesser charges, at least in Arry’s opinion. Though that may well be because Arry has no faith in the Seven, because it is these laws the High Sparrow preaches and that his Faith Militant and the goldcloaks enforce, showing no mercy in the execution.
“No, but for the likes of us? They can’t afford to hold us forever. Think about it, Mouse! We cost’em solid coin, and isn’t that sweet? In a strange way, the Queen herself’s payin’ for my bed, for the roof over my head, may it dribble with water all it wants, for the stale bread I eat… she’s payin’ for it. It’s as though Your Grace accidentally invited a beggar the likes of me to her own royal table,” the older man laughs almost giddily at the thought.
“Just that she’d never have you anywhere near her royal table,” Arry snorts.
“Neither would she have ye,” the older man points out.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” the child argues. “I am quite… sneaky.”
“Be sneaky all ye want, Mouse. The likes of us? This is the lives we live. Either imprisoned in the city, or locked up in the black cells for whatever they find wrong with us. It’s what we were born for, and it’s how we are goin’ to die. We only have… stale bread, prison cells, and… bawdy songs.”
“Just that I am not like you…,” Arry mutters.
“What was that again, Mouse?” the man calls out, not having caught that.
“The name’s still Arry,” the child calls out instead.
“And I still don’t care.”
Arry clutches at the brown curls as the man starts off with Six Maids in a Pool.
Not that this is something out of the usual, though. That has been Arry’s daily routine almost immediately after being tossed into the cellar. And perhaps, if Arry was not concerned with other things, there would be pity for a man who has nothing but bawdy songs and naughty comments to hold on to in the prison, because he has the rights of it, the life of the small man holds little comfort, and much danger, especially in times such as these.
However, the thief called Mouse has better to do, has much more urgent business to attend, than tend to the likes of the man locked up in the other cell, singing out of tune. And that is why Arry endures, simply endures, waits for chances to arrive.
Patience is key when it comes these matters.
Being sneaky is an art form like stealing bread grew to be one. Yet, in order to be sneaky, you have to master the arts of observation first. A patient observer is what it takes to achieve the impossible, and Arry is set on making a small miracle happen once chance arises.
Arry keeps pacing up and down the small cell, counting over and over again the steps that it takes to carry from one corner to the other.
One, two, three, four, five, turn. One, two, three, four, five, turn. One, two, three…
Arry carries on with measuring the cell with small steps, over and over again, until silence starts to fall upon the prison cells as the inmates grow weary of their own condition, go to rest, dream away to better times, the former days, or those lying in a distant future that looks more promising than what the present holds. Soon, there is nothing but the steady rhythm of the guttering of the torches set up by each pillar leading down the dark corridors and the snoring of the other inmates carrying over wet, black stone to create a cacophony that just keeps repeating itself each night in a new, even worse shape as more and more voices keep adding up in their sleep.
And so, Arry sets to the task to make miracles happen.
Having used time wisely for the arts of observation, the young thief knows at what interval the guards patrol their block, which is why Arry knows it’s safe to go for the little secret now. Measuring the steps, Mouse starts from the corner right by the iron bars three steps ahead and four to the right. Thus, even in the darkness, the loose stone is located with ease. Arry lifts the loose stone up as silently as possible before grabbing into the hole until the small fingers curl around a piece of wood, which once was a spoon the guards hand them for the bowl o’ brown they give them to force down their throats. Arry pretended to have lost it, and when the guard could not find the spoon either, Arry was given a new one for each meal, because they are not supposed to keep anything, safe for the bowls from which no weapons can be created without anyone hearing of it at some point.
But a spoon, quite on the contrary, that is a malleable object that just waits to be bent into the right shape, or rather, carved.
Rubbing it over the rough stone over and over, silently as a cat, it starts to take another shape – the one shape that is needed. All you need to do is to scrub it against the ground, against a nick in the stone, whatever it is. All it takes is a sharp edge. It took Arry a lot of effort, working on the spoon without relent whenever the guards could not see, but at last, the wooden object has the right shape. Arry can feel it when brushing short fingers across it.
Tonight is the night.
Arry steps over to the iron bars, glancing around to see if someone is there, but the guards are still in the other block, which is a fortune. The young thief’s thin arm fits well through the iron bars, which gives the young child little trouble to get the tool to work on the lock on the other side, even though it proves rather difficult to keep the carved spoon in the right place and turn in the right direction since everything is in reverse, but Arry knows that now that it began, there is just one way, and it is ahead.
After agonizing moments of turning the spoon in the lock, the object of heavy metal finally springs open and for a moment, Arry wants to believe that this is a success, but then thinks better of it – because this was only the beginning, the young thief knows. Thus, as quietly as Arry’s feet allow, the dark-haired child steals down the currently empty hallway leading down the rows of sleeping prisoners. Arry knows that there is no escape to be achieved by the front gates. It is heavily guarded and has a steady post that all of whom managed to get out of their cells ran into when they tried to sneak outside. The child has seen all of that before, has carefully observed, and learned from the mistakes made by others, which is why Arry heads the opposite direction, down the lion’s throat instead of getting torn apart by the back of its teeth.
They say the black cells are inescapable, but a wise man Arry knew once said that there is a way past any person’s defenses, you just have to find the spot and attack without relent, without mercy. You just have to see. That is important. You have to see, see!
Arry stops upon the sound of men talking nearby, their footsteps coming closer and closer. Mouse holds its breath and stands still behind one of the pillars, hoping that the men will just walk past.
Just go on. There is nothing to see. Nothing to see. Just walk on. Walk on…
And thankfully, they head the other direction, away from the child hidden in the shadows. Arry lets a silent sigh of relief before continuing down the dark hallways, trying to spot an exit, a way out.
And that is when Arry’s gaze wanders to the ground upon the sound of water rushing.
Arry quickly bends down to remove the metal top from the drain. A tall person would never fit through, but someone of Arry’s stature can crawl down, even if with a bit of a struggle. The young thief falls to the ground below, splashing into the water of the drain, ignoring the stench.
Freedom rarely smells sweet, it appears.
And so, Mouse continues down the drains, the sewers, crawls over objects, past rats and mice, and pushes past parts of the sewers only ever closed with the aid of some nails and a wooden planks hammered across the round entrance gates.
For a moment, Arry wonders why they bothered blocking those passages, as though anyone would come down here purposely, if not for a young thief trying to escape the inescapable prison cells above. However, Arry leaves the thought aside rather quickly, reckoning that there is a time to ponder those matters, but not now.
The escape is more important than some barred passageways no one has likely seen in hundreds of years.
After a quest through the drains, going back and forth, crawling in circles over moss, and things Arry doesn’t even want to know what they may have been, not seeing a single thing with the eyes, having nothing but fingers and feet to use for guidance, the young thief called Mouse comes to stand in front of a drain that is filled to the rim, broad enough for the child to fit through. Yet, that is not what grabs Arry’s attention. It’s the faint sheen in the water that can only come from light hitting it on the other side.
Knowing that there is just the way ahead, Arry climbs into the drain, sucks in a deep breath, and then dives down, crawling along the drain that keeps twisting. The child’s lungs already ache for air and young Mouse’s eyes grow dimmer, just like the arms and legs grow weaker.
What if I die here? Arry thinks for a moment, cold dread clutching at the child. What if I die here and my family…?
The thought leaves the young thief as there is a white flash of light, and with the light comes air to breathe, a life to live. Arry gasps, sputters up the stagnant water wanting to get out. For a moment, Mouse can’t see a single thing, is blinded by the white light above, but after some blinking, contours become visible, then colors, then clearer outlines, shapes, until, at last, Arry can make out buildings, familiar buildings. People passing by above, going about their usual business, unaware to what just jumped out of the drains leading to the black cells.
The child glances down, then up again, realizing that this drain is right by the Great Sept of Baelor! And if Arry were to swim a little further to the other end of the sewer, there seems to be another drain connecting the black cells with the sept. The young thief frowns – that was no news ever shared by anyone Arry got to know, and Arry spend many days and nights in the company of men and women who knew the city like the back of their hands. However, there was never any mention of drains connecting the black cells and the sept.
And who knows, maybe there is even one going straight up to the Red Keep! Imagine that!
Arry doesn’t waste too much time on the idea, though, because the rhythmic clattering of metal calls the young thief’s attention back to the present situation, which demands the arts of discretion and sneaking away, still. Arry swims to the edge of the drain, to where shadows do well to hide a short-grown child as the goldcloaks march along the sewers, demanding of people coming by to tell them whether they have seen “Mouse,” “a wretched boy with brown hair and brown eyes and a way too big mouth,” and what else they can come up with to describe the young thief best in their opinion. That only makes Arry ever the more that staying in the city is no longer a viable option.
Though perhaps that is what fortune is trying to tell me. Maybe I was meant to escape to escape this city… maybe it’s time for a new journey!
Once the goldcloaks are out of sight, Arry gathers the last strengths remaining to climb the wall, stone for stone, careful not to slip thanks to the wet fingers, but Arry knows well how to balance, an art taught in what feels like a small eternity ago.
At last, Arry can glide over the edge, lying flat on the stomach, breathing hard. Mouse would like to take a rest, but there is no time for that. The goldcloaks are looking for the “wretched boy” and they will turn every stone upside-down to find “Mouse” who has given them so much trouble over time.
Thankfully, a huge crowd has gathered by the steps leading up to the Great Sept of Baelor. The guards would be fools to wade through the masses of people in search for a small child with not very particular features, Arry is aware. Thus, doing what they should not do is exactly what the young thief should be doing. And so, Arry starts to wade through the crowd, past women carrying baskets full of flowers or apples or breads, men with hay strapped to their backs, and children standing between their parents’ legs to ensure that they aren’t stepped upon.
There is always an uproar whenever the High Sparrow raises his voice to the people, even though one should think that a man wearing a plain woolen tunic and owning no shoes should not impose such fear and respect at the same time the way he does. And yet, people hang on every word the white-haired man shouts from the top of the stairs.
He used to be one of them, so perchance that is why. A man of the Faith who fed the poor and tended to the sick with the aid of his loyal followers. The High Sparrow is certainly more popular around here than the dear Queen is, but over the years, his tactics seem to have shifted. He started out as a man of benevolence, of charity, of the values of the Faith, the teachings of the Seven. He was a man who proclaimed that his being named High Septon would ensure that the small person’s voice would be heard at last, that they, the crowd, the people of King’s Landing, would finally find a voice to speak with to “shake on the pillars upon which the country has rested for far too long, not feeling the impact of the earthquake we all can set loose.”
However, that changed once he became one of the “Two Pillars,” as it was referred to when the Crown revived the Faith Militant from its slumber after it had been banished many, many years ago in the wake of the havoc those men and women spread across the lands. Suddenly, the High Sparrow’s speeches were less about the people, and more about the faith they were meant to follow.
It did not take long for people to stop believing their voices to be heard and instead come to the realization, slowly but surely, that they were meant to remain silent about other matters instead. What once was crime is now sin. And over time, both came to mean the same thing.
Seeing people being dragged through the city for having gambled with a friend once or twice is part of everyday life at the city now. Seeing women being paraded down the streets with septas ringing a bell behind them, chanting “shame” over and over, for merely being prostitutes, belongs as much to King’s Landing as the Red Keep does.
Thus, the High Sparrow is now a figure imposing both fear and, perhaps strangely so, hope for people who came to believe that the world is sin, that they are all sinners, and that only the Faith, that only he can show them the way out of their own damnation, away from the Seven Hells, to be off to the Seven Heavens in the afterlife.
And that is how he keeps in power alongside the Queen. She feeds off his power that the High Sparrow has with the people. Because they follow him out of fear that his sermons hold nothing but the truth. They follow him because they fear perhaps not even him as much, rather, they fear the Faith Militant, his strong arm bearing no swords but clubs instead, but because they fear damnation. They fear being sinners. They fear being shunned by others if their sins were exposed. They fear that something dark rests within them and that the man who preaches from the top of the stairs is the only one holding the answers to rid them of the demons, of the sin.
Yet, Arry doesn’t want to meddle with the Faith, let alone politics. That was never the young child’s endeavor. It’s simply what you are bound to see, bound to hear, bound to witness, and you carry it with you wherever you go, so that, in the end, even if you walk past the gates of King’s Landing, a part of the wretched city lives on inside you, taunting you to return.
Arry turns around and stands for a moment as the High Septon opens his arms, yelling at the top of his voice to the people listening to him by the other end of the stairs.
“The world is sin! We are sin! Sin lives in all of us, my brothers and sisters. And our one way to forgiveness is to repent, repent for the wretchedness of the world residing in every single one of us! Thus, let us stand together, let us keep watch over one another, so to expose the devils taking a hold of the good that lies in all of you alongside the bad wresting for control! So that we can ensure that we do not fall into the clutches of those wretched devils trying to take control over our weak flesh!”
Mouse grimaces, but then quickly carries on. The High Sparrow and his Faith Militant can stay right where they belong if someone were to ask the young thief. The Queen unleashed a dragon of its own kind by letting those men rise again, as the Faith Militant continues to tear down inns and brothels, rushes into people’s homes where a lad may lay with the girl of his choosing without having taken the vows, to parade them through the streets to expose them to the shame they say they committed, and all that in the name of the Queen.
However, Mouse knows better than to get involved in such a trouble. The thief’s trouble lies in escape, which is now the first thing to do, the one thing that matters, the one thing to see ahead. Thus, the choice seems rather straightforward to head for Flea Bottom, where no one can tell one thief from the other, to then make out of the city.
Inside the Red Keep, Queen Cersei Lannister sits on the Iron Throne, tapping her long index finger against the melted iron of the blades from which the chair was forged, her face stoic, stone-like almost, as she looks at those beneath her.
“Lord Commander. What brings you here?” she asks in a monotonous voice, her index finger relentlessly tapping against the melted swords.
“I am afraid I have bad news to deliver, Your Grace,” Meryn Trant admits, bowing his head even deeper this time.
“And what… would those bad news be, Lord Commander?” she asks slowly, taking her time to taste each of the words traveling past her lips.
“A prisoner escaped from our dungeons, Your Grace,” the soldier wearing the White admits, not daring to look up to the woman sitting on the Iron Throne.
“Is that so?” Cersei asks, tilting her head to the side slightly. “Because that seems rather curious to me. After all, the black cells are inescapable, you might recall.”
“And they are… I thought. I don’t know how the lad’s done it, Your Grace, but he must have slipped past my men somehow. For which, of course, they will be punished duly, I will see to that myself, but… but the lad is gone,” the Lord Commander answers.
“The lad?” she repeats slowly, almost painfully slowly. “A boy managed to escape the most able men you assigned to the task of keeping those treacherous criminals where they belong to rot for the crimes, the sins committed? You, my good Lord Commander, mean to tell me that you fail to keep imprisoned… a boy. Do I get that right?”
“A young thief, but yes,” Meryn Trant admits, licking his lips nervously. “He stole bread when we caught him in the act, only for the boy to start a fight with the goldcloaks once we brought him to the black cells for punishment. One he even bit in the leg.”
“Do I look like I care about that, Lord Commander?” the Queen asks, gesturing at herself. “You do realize that I sit on the Iron Throne, yes? That this means that I am the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Which, in turn, means that such issues are handled by my inferiors, by the likes of you, my loyal knights. And now you want to have me believe that it is my duty to concern myself with the responsibility I gave into your hands, believing it no great burden to shoulder. You want me, the Queen, to handle your affairs of which you prove incapable. Do I get that right, Ser Meryn Trant?”
She leans forward in her seat slightly, which has the man standing at the bottom of the stairs take two steps back.
“I wouldn’t ever, Your Grace,” he says quickly. “I just meant to inform you of it.”
“But, frankly speaking, I do not care about that, Lord Commander. I just wish to know how comes that someone manages to achieve the impossible – and how you wish to counter that and make possible again for the statement to remain true that there is no escape from the punishment awaiting such thieves in the deepest depths of the black cells,” the Queen hisses.
“I have ordered my men to search the city. They are doing that as we speak, Your Grace. And I am sure that they will secure the boy, and once we have them, we will question him to learn how he escaped, so that this may never repeat itself again,” Ser Meryn answers hastily.
“And why are you still here, then?” she asks.
“To report back to you,” he replies.
“Which you may just as well have assigned to a messenger. Instead, you are here, wasting my time and your watchful eye which you should better be used to find the boy who made the impossible happen. We cannot allow for rumors to spread that people can escape punishment. Thus, I want the boy found, but discreetly. I don’t want this rumor to catch flame, is that understood?” she demands.
Ser Meryn nods his head frantically. “Absolutely, Your Grace.”
“Good, then I hope for you that you will succeed rather sooner than later…,” she says, leaning back in the chair dozens of Queens and Kings sat on before her. “Or else it might be that you will have to see for yourself if the black cells are as inescapable as you promised me.”
Meryn Trant nods his head again, letting out a shuddered breath, then hurries away to the open gate, the white cloak hanging about his shoulders dragging after him, as though to haunt him.
Queen Cersei closes her eyes, blowing air through her nostrils, before reaching up to the crown she had manufactured for herself years ago, finding relief and calmness at the touch of the cold metal against the tips of her fingers.
Her eyes open again once she hears someone approach, though her features once she sees the Maester without chains and now Hand of the Queen, Qyburn, approach the Iron Throne with fast, smooth steps.
“Your Grace, you had me summoned?” he asks.
“Yes, I wanted a report on your experiment,” she answers. “I heard nothing of that in a while, though I gave you as much time as you needed to fully dedicate yourself to the cause. So? How far are we with it?”
“I ran some trouble in the third stage of the experiment, I am afraid, Your Grace,” the dark-haired man admits. “The test subject proved rather… resistant to my ministrations.”
“Resistant, you say? So… the experiment is failing, is that what you are trying to tell me?” she questions, narrowing her eyes at the older man.
“Oh, not at all, not all, Your Grace,” Qyburn assures her, stepping a little closer, a little higher up the stairs leading to the Iron Throne. “Set-backs in experiments of that measure are absolutely expected. And in fact, there is much to be gained from the knowledge that the test subject proves so resistant.”
“How would that be?” Cersei questions, curling her lips into a frown.
“Well, resistance means strength, it means vitality, Your Grace,” he answers. “And that is what it takes to enter the fourth and final stage of the test.”
“I will have to trust your word, then. And so I am to hope for your own sake that you will find a solution to the resistance in due time,” Cersei answers, looking at the gate through which Meryn disappeared moments ago. “I need an able Queensguard, and this one… doesn’t appear like it anymore. It seems that we are in desperate need for a kind of vitality, a new kind of life.”
“I will focus all of my efforts on achieving just that, Your Grace, you have my word for it,” Qyburn says, bowing his head.
“Of course you will,” Cersei agrees with a slight smile. “Because your Queen demanded it. And the Queen’s will is the will of the Gods. And what the Gods will… happens.”
Young Arry, meanwhile, has torn away from the crowd listening to the old preacher whose words proclaim only more sin to be in the world than there already are, and instead continued down Flea Bottom. The thief’s hope is to make past the Iron Gate, reckoning that the guards will keep inside the gates of the city. While they may have interest in catching a young child that managed to escape the inescapable black cells, it seems unlikely that they will dedicate so many guards to search the areas around King’s Landing, where someone the size of Arry can hide under any rock, behind any brush or on the top of whatever tree may grow high into the air.
Maybe I should just get a ship, the thief thinks, walking down secret passageways, feeling a flutter of the heart at the idea. A small boat would do. And then… maybe just set sail across the Narrow Sea. To Braavos, maybe. I always wanted to see the Titan.
Mayhap it’s simply time for Arry to abandon this city once and for all. It meant no good all along, even less so since Cersei Lannister took the crown into her pale hands and put the metal ring on her head. Young Mouse has seen enough suffering and fear sweeping through the city ever since the woman took the throne to know that one thing for certain – Queen Cersei Lannister is a burden the people have to carry, no matter how close they are on the edge of collapsing under the weight.
It is because of preachers the likes of the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant enforcing the laws he yells, standing at the top of the stairs leading to the Great Sept of Baelor, that she is as powerful as she is in the city.
The High Sparrow makes them all afraid of being sinners, and having sinners amongst them, next to them, in their homes, their neighborhood, their own family. He makes them paranoid and frightened of themselves and each other, which seems to help keep the people restrained, tied down, when once he said he would unleash them, so that they now look up to the unjust Queen for guidance alongside him, for laws to keep them from their own salvation. Because Cersei Lannister upholds the Faith as one of the “Two Pillars” in every speech she gives, making it sound that following her laws is the same as living a life free of sin, and that, by implication, anyone not abiding the Queen’s laws is a sinner.
Arry rounds another corner, letting a sigh of relief at the sight of the Iron Gate now finally within eye’s reach, but the thief has to run for cover at the very next moment once flashes of gold and white evade Mouse’s eyes as the goldcloaks and the men of the Queensguard, led by Meryn Trant march down the street, entering the houses, one by one, likely in search for the runner who somehow managed to escape an inescapable prison.
Looking around frantically, searching for a swift escape the likes to be found in the black cells, Arry finds none. The goldcloaks are encircling the young thief already, which means that there is no way of escape other than making a daring dash ahead.
There is just one direction, and it is ahead – yet again.
And so, Arry pulls the hood up to cover the face likely to be recognized by the men and enters the main street, trying to walk on as casually as possible, so not to call attention to the young child making towards the Iron Gate.
Swift as a deer. Quiet as a shadow. Quick as a snake. Swift as a deer. Quiet as a shadow…
“Stop right there, you little bastard!” a voice calls out, and to Arry’s shock, has an iron-like grip not just on the thief’s mind but also the thin arm belonging to such.
The young child looks up, cold fear dribbling down its length alongside the beads from the water still soaking boots, tunic, breeches, and hood.
“Got you at last, boy,” the Lord Commander of the Queensguard snarls, tightening his grip, twisting the poor child’s arm even further to the point that Arry can’t help but cry out once. “And this time, you will get to rot in the black cells till only bones remain, after the mice and rats are finished with you.”
“You must mistake me for someone else, I am…,” Arry means to say, means to escape, but to no avail, as Ser Meryn gets right in the child’s face, his acidic breath making Arry dizzy.
“You think I am that easily fooled, boy?” Meryn hisses.
“No,” Arry answers slowly. “But I think you are rather easily distracted.”
“What now?” the older man snorts, but that is when Arry simply plops to the ground with the buttocks first, thereby slipping out of the hood onto which the Lord Commander held on.
After that, Arry knows truly just one direction, ahead. The little thief runs for dear life itself, no longer daring to look back, fearing for the guards close by to make good on Ser Meryn’s promise and have the child in a cellar even Arry with all cunning will no longer be able to slip away from.
Arry keeps running for the gate, slipping past women going about their daily business, crawling through one men’s parted legs, knocking pots and wooden buckets over as the gate comes closer and closer.
“Get the boy!” Meryn Trant keeps shouting.
Arry keeps running and running, until at last, there is a shadow above, and then bright light, just like that when emerged from the depths of the secret sewer system of the city of sin.
Inside the child’s mind, all sorts of ideas keep dancing fast about its head.
I can start for the water, for the ocean. If I keep running before they catch up to me, I can hold my breath as long as I can to have them believe Mouse drowned for good. Let myself be drifted away in the current and get back ashore when they retreat. Or maybe I could make for Rosby road and hide on one of the carriages carrying hay to and fro the city. Or maybe…
The young thief has to try hard not to cry out as arrows fly left and right and ahead, all around, while Arry makes across the Iron Gate. The child looks around, trying to spot a hiding place, some place to stay, some place to disappear in, a shadow, a crevice, a tree, a brush, but… there is no tree, there is no brush, just a plain field that ebbs into the blue of the ocean far out of Arry’s reach.
“Maybe I should have gone for the Dragon Gate after all,” the young child mutters, frantically looking around, all the while running as fast as the feet can carry it, because if Arry stops running know, that much is for certain, the black cells will be the child’s destiny indeed.
Arry watches in terror as the men clad in white and gold pour past the Iron Gate, looking like a metal flood meant to drown everyone and everything in its path, and foremost the runner they are meant to bring back to the city.
If only I had my sword, young Arry thinks bitterly. I never should have abandoned it. It was the one gift that…
Another arrow almost hitting the child square in the shoulder, if not for fast reflexes preventing that from happening, has Arry lose the thought and flit away into the cloudless sky above. The men are going to get what they came for, and if Mouse is just unfortunate enough, it may well be that Meryn Trant will not just be done throwing the young thief back into one of the black cells. Arry heard the stories about the Lord Commander of the Queensguard, one more terrible than the other.
Mouse swallows as the men start closing closer and closer and closer and closer…
The shriek of a bird calls Arry’s attention to the teal-colored sky above, where the young child can spot a majestic bird flying high in the air, big and with wings spreading wider than the young thief has ever seen it in a lifetime. At this distance, the bird almost looks like a blade that cuts across the sky.
Arry can do nothing much but stare as the winged animal dives, picking up speed as it comes closer and closer, but short before hitting the ground, takes a swift turn to fly at full speed now in the realm of the beasts of the earth – and with outstretched, sharp claws, cuts into the mass of gold and white, knocking two men off their feet from the sheer impact.
That is nothing Arry has ever seen before, the young thief will admit. A bird, a hawk to be more precise, of such strength and with such hatred for the Queensguard? No, that is a novelty, which is quite welcome, of course, considering that this may well be Arry’s last respite that came raining from the sky by some miraculous wink of fate. However, young Mouse does not get to linger with the bird that keeps scratching and pecking at the men in golden armor, trying to fend off the beast of the sky, but instead finds dark eyes locked on a man riding up on a white stallion, sending clouds of dust and sand to climb into the air.
For a moment, Arry feels reminded of children’s books and illustrations from home, where gallant knights came to the rescue of those in need, riding in on a mighty horse, wielding their magical swords with such valor that the Warrior himself would have had to bow his head in admiration.
As the man comes riding closer, Arry can only ever catch a glimpse of the rider clad in black leather and with a red belt strapped around his waist, but the hood over the man’s head obscures his identity entirely.
Who is this man? Arry thinks silently, eyes wide open to see it all, to remember everything.
The young thief watches with both fascination and shock as the man rides up to the horde of gold and white, to come to stand right between young Arry and the men meaning to capture the runner, in the same motion jumping off his horse, moving with a swiftness Arry only ever saw on the man whose memories are still close to heart and mind, but who is no longer within reach.
The rider pulls his sword from the sheath, a beautiful blade that seems almost white as the sunlight reflects on the smooth surface.
“Up, now!” Arry can hear the stranger yell, and to the child’s surprise, the majestic hawk takes flight right thereafter, retreating to the teal above their heads.
And then, the battle begins. High, low, high, low, upper cut, low cut, the man just comes raining upon these men like an unrelenting storm, using the sword like the extension of his own limb.
That man is good, more than good, Arry can’t help but note. What a technique! And what a sword!
The blade cuts through the golden armors like a hot knife glides through butter. And yet, the stranger seems not interested in the kill, because he mostly just knocks the soldiers to the ground instead of taking their lives with a sword that could take them in a single heartbeat.
“Lay down your sword!” Trant curses. “This is a prisoner of the Crown! You are not to interfere!”
“And the Crown has taken the whole city as prisoner, which seems unjust in the eyes of Gods and Men,” the hooded man argues.
“Lay it down!” the Lord Commander repeats shrilly.
“I am afraid I can’t,” the cloaked man argues with a smirk tugging at his lips. “It was a gift.”
“Get him!” Ser Meryn yells, pushing the men of the Queensguard forward next.
“Then let’s see what your masters have taught you,” the cloaked stranger says, rotating the sword in his hand swiftly once, twice, and then charges the first knight approaching him, both hands tightly clutched to the fine blade the young Queensguard member comes to carry.
However, the young man stands no single chance against the hooded fighter, who moves as though he and the sword were one being. Arry has never seen anything quite like that ever since… ever since…
Eyes closing for a moment to contain the tears on the verge of falling, Arry tears them back open to see the hawk sinking back into the crowd of goldcloaks, as though the bird was another blade the stranger wields with a magical touch. There is a curious synchrony to the way the man and the beast move.
High, low, high, and high again.
It almost seems like a dance.
“What did I say!?” the man calls out once in direction of the bird. “Stubborn thing you are! You never listen to what I tell you, do you?!"
The hawk shrieks at him in reply, as though to oppose him.
"Oh, the last word is not yet spoken on the matter! You just wait until this is dealt with!"
If possible, the bird only seems more aggravated at that, flapping its wings wildly, screeching ever the shriller.
However, the man's attention is soon drawn to the next opponent meaning to try his luck, though to no avail, as that man, too, soon tumbles to the ground, knocking his head hard enough to pass out from the impact as his own helmet sends him into the realm of dreams.
The next one comes charging then, another of the younger Queensguard members, those who have not yet spent half if not more of their lives in celibacy, once having kept the King’s, now keeping the Queen’s secrets, bond to a life without children or lands. However, this one seems better at the blade than the others before him proved to be, successfully blocking some of the blows the stranger hiding under the hood sends his way along with the hiss of the steel whenever their blades collide.
Arry, feet frozen, unable to move, simply watches as the men continue to sword dance, but the thief can clearly hear the exchange taking place as the soldier raises the sword against the man cloaked in black and red, suddenly stopping his movements in shock.
“Ser, Ser Jaime?!” the knight of the Queensguard asks upon seeing the mysterious man up-close, happiness and relief washing over him as he looks at the other man’s face. “It’s you? You have returned?”
“My brother…,” the dark-clad man means to say with a smile tugging at his lips, but that is when an arrow cuts through the air and solidly collides with the exposed neck of the young man of the Queensguard. The mysterious man’s eyes open wide as the young soldier’s blood spills to the ground, tainting the gold and painting it red. He catches the young man as he falls. And no one seems to deny him at that moment, because shock is evident on all soldiers’ faces, since the arrow came from one of their own – the Lord Commander of the Queensguard himself, who still holds the bow up from which the lethal arrow was fired – and took a life along.
“Ser, Ser…,” the young man stutters, blood running down the corners of his mouth.
“Speak not,” the dark-clad man tells him, holding on a little tighter. “It’s going to be alright. It’s going to be alright.”
“You haven’t died for nothing, rest assured, brother. You will be avenged, we all will be in due time,” the stranger mutters, gently rocking the knight as the color is drained out of him along with the red blood staining the sand. However, that is when the young man takes his last breath, the only noise being that of the blood still running down his opened throat.
An uproar goes through the ranks of soldiers who just bore witness to what their own leader carried out in cold blood, murmurs growing into whispers, and whispers into voices.
The hooded man gently lowers the fallen soldier to the ground, looking at the white cloak now soiled with the man’s own blood in disgust.
“Trant!” the stranger shouts at the top of his voice as he straightens back up, fury in his eyes, his entire being. “You are a dead man, you…”
However, that is when the bird from above starts to shriek shrilly. The stranger tears his gaze up, his hand still shaking, aching for blood, for the Lord Commander’s blood, but then he lets a shuddered breath, bends down, and picks up his sword.
“You can consider it a fortune that I must be on my way,” he says in a low voice, nodding at the fallen man of the Queensguard on the ground. “But for that you will repay. Just like for everything else. In due time, I am going to collect the debt. That is a promise. But for now… I will leave you to your own sin – and the judgment of your own brothers.”
He gives a curt nod to the soldiers, still standing there in utter shock, unmoving, unable to move, even.
“Get him!” the Lord Commander keeps shouting, but no one moves, no one can, even if they wanted. Because what they saw – they can no longer unsee. “Get him, I said! Get him!”
Anger rushing through him, Meryn Trant takes up the bow again, shakily balancing the arrow on his finger to take a shot at the stranger, but by that time, the white horse is already intercepting, and the hooded man swiftly swings himself on the horse’s back. He turns his horse and starts to ride away, Ser Meryn’s arrow landing nowhere near close the man, neither does the next, or the next, or the one thereafter.
Arry can do nothing much but stare at what just happened, the fallen soldier that merely said a name, the Lord Commander who killed one of his own men, and the mysterious man whose goal to help the thief is beyond anyone’s understanding.
However, Arry doesn’t get to ponder on these matters, as suddenly, the child is grabbed by the back of the collar and thrown across the back of a white horse. Young Mouse lets out a shout upon the realization that the mysterious man swung the thief on the horse with one mighty pull.
“Hey!” Arry shouts, struggling against the man who has an even harder grip on him than Meryn Trant did while still inside the city, fear right back in the child’s heart as the man takes a sharp turn to the left, away from the sea, away from the direction ahead that Arry wanted to go to.
“I will keep that one as pledge,” the man calls out over his shoulder, looking over his shoulder to the Lord Commander.
“Get him!” Trant shouts. “Or I will see you all punished for your disobedience! I will have you all whipped, you bastards! Get him! Get him, I said!”
But no soldier, no knight moves, no soldier, no knight can as the man rides away, followed by the shriek of the hawk flying above him, flying away with him. Instead, they all glance back at the fallen man who did not fall victim to the stranger’s blade, but to that of one of their own.
And judgment is in their eyes, nothing but judgment as the bells of the Sept ring above their heads, reach up into the teal sky, only to falter and tumble back to the ground again, because there is no way that the voice of the city full of sin can reach for the heavens at this point.
“Let go of me! Let me go!” Arry keeps shrieking and thrashing as the man keeps riding in Western direction, to where there are trees to hide behind. The young thief has no interest staying the pledge of some stranger man, however brave he may be, however swift he may be with the blade, however fascinated Arry admittedly is.
Because Arry has other plans in mind. Like Braavos. Or one of the other Free Cities.
Just anywhere not here, and anywhere but the North. Because that is no longer an option, no longer a passage to take.
A bridge burned.
“Will you keep still already?!” the man curses in frustration, holding on even tighter. “At that rate, you will fall off my horse and Honor is going to crush your skull by stepping on you. And we can't have that, can we?"
“I will stop if you let me go!” Arry bellows, moving arms and legs like a beetle, however futile it may appear to anyone else, Arry has always been a fighter, has never given up, no matter how chanceless the endeavor may have appeared.
Which may or may not be both a virtue and a curse.
“Seven Hells, you are one ungrateful child, for that I just saved your life,” the man huffs, giving Arry’s tunic another tug to ensure the young child cannot get off the horse, no matter the continuous attempt to achieve just that.
“I owe you absolutely nothing! I didn’t ask you to help me! And I didn’t ask to be made your pledge,” Arry insists stubbornly.
“Oh, you owe me your life,” the man corrects the young thief.
“I owe you a rat’s ass. I didn’t ask for your help, and I didn’t ask to be carried away! You can count yourself lucky that I can’t right now, but otherwise I would kill you – and you wouldn’t even see it coming, I promise you,” the child seethes.
Swift as a deer…
“Good luck with that… without a sword,” the man huffs, now almost amused, which only drives Arry ever the madder. If there is one thing the child always despised, then it was being belittled.
“Give me a sword and then we will see!” Arry taunts the man. “How about that? Huh? Or aren’t you brave enough to try against a child?”
“Do you take me for a fool? I will not have you armed by any means. You might poke my eye out by accident. And I need both my eyes for the mission I need to fulfill,” the older man laughs as the horse sets for a trot, now that they are past the forest boundaries, though Arry doesn't know these woods, never having traveled through them.
That means no good.
Or more precisely, that means that there is no escape for now.
“Then let me go and your eyes will stay in your skull, right where you need them for your bloody mission,” Arry snarls.
“You tell me, to where would you go, if I were to give you leave?” the man questions, still sounding far too amused to Arry’s liking.
He is having fun at my expenses! The bastard! Forget that I only for a second dared to admire him! He is just another bastard, like all the others in the city!
“It doesn’t matter. I always find my way around,” the young thief answers, wriggling around yet again, though to no avail – yet again.
“Yeah, I saw that. I bet you would have made your swift escape without me all the same,” the man chuckles. “I probably only ever interrupted your great hour of when you would have cut them all to the ground with just a single strike of your mighty… do you even have a dagger? Or a toothpick at the very least?”
“Perhaps I would have?” Arry scoffs with puckered lips.
“I find it rather unlikely. Those men are well trained, far better than you have ever been,” the older man tells Arry, which has the child struggle as hard as ever against his grip.
“You will take that back!” Arry shrieks.
“Take what back?” the man asks, frowning.
“That they had better lessons in fighting than I did! That cannot be true. That isn’t true.”
“They are men of the Kingsguard… I mean Queensguard. They are the finest swordsmen in all of the Seven Kingdoms, in case it went without your notice," he argues.
“I had sword lessons with the First Sword of Braavos, Syrio Forel! And Syrio said that…,” Arry means to say, but the man is quick enough to interrupt young Mouse, arguing, “I don’t care for what your Syrio may or may not have said. I can just say that the men of the Queensguard will not be overpowered by a beansprout the likes of you.”
“I am not a beansprout!” Arry complains. “And in any case, they can’t be that good if they lose against a thug like you?”
“A thug like me? There are no men like me, only me,” the man laughs, all the while looking up to the sky to where the hawk is screeching, sounding almost as though the animal was shrieking specifically at him. Arry grimaces. That man seemingly is convinced that this bird actally understands him - and that he understands the hawk in turn.
"I said that to you not that often, now calm down!" he calls to the bird above, the bird, in reply, takes a dive, flying right above his head to almost send the hood off his head as the hawk climbs back into the sky.
"That was absolutely unnecessary. And for the record, you only ever prove me right!" the man shouts, but then turns his attention back to the child struggling against him while on the back of the horse. "Where was I?"
"That there are no men like you thug," Arry huffs. "And that you still beat those oh so great swordsmen despite their training and skill."
“Some of those men are the finest of sword fighters the country has ever seen.”
“And yet, you beat them. How good does that make them, huh?” Arry scoffs.
“That is because a master never teaches his pupils all of his tricks,” the man says, looking ahead.
Arry frowns at that. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You don’t have to understand that,” the man answers.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” the young child snorts. "Or what to concern myself with, and what not."
“You remind me far too much of someone I know,” the man sighs, glancing up again, his voice momentarily softening as his eyes focus on the hawk flying above them. “Isn’t that right?”
“To where are you coot taking me?” Arry demands to know, calling the man’s attention away from the sky, back to the child on the back of his horse alongside him.
“Why would I tell you that?” he snorts. “Where would be the surprise in that, hm?"
"There is no need for surprises?"
"No, but we want to lose the tails likely to follow us," he argues, holding on tighter to the reins. "And that means we'd do best keeping off the usual tracks for a while. And those are paths you don't know anyway, so why bother telling you? Now hold on tight. A lot of stones and a bumpy road are ahead of us. And if you don’t hold on tightly, you will fall off the horse – and break your head, most likely. And that would be a pity, would it not?”
Arry lets out a grunt, but soon has to hold on for dear life as the horse maneuvers over sharp rocks, off the usual tracks, to where their trail will be lost in time, the string cut from the city of sin.
As it appears, Braavos will have to wait. For now, the direction ahead is to wherever that man will mean to take Arry.
And where that is? Arry has no clue, but the young thief reckons that it will be revealed in due time. After all, that strange man seems to have some urgent business to take care of. So perhaps taking up with the coot and his bird is not the almost bad, considering the alternatives.
And truth be told, Arry would like to know what is the matter with the hooded man and his winged companion.
Arry wants to see, see it all.