Her mother announced King Robert and his court were coming to Winterfell during dinner. Arya was not sure where her father was – probably the godswood – but immediately her siblings began to talk about what it would be like to see the king, queen, and everyone else walking around Winterfell. Sansa and Jeyne Poole were whispering something about the princes, but Arya did not bother trying to hear; Sansa never said anything interesting, especially when boys were involved. Picking at her vegetables, Arya dropped her gaze for a moment before looking up to see Bran studying her, a bemused expression on his face; Arya crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, and Bran smiled, making her smile too. Arya suspected the only person who cared less than her about King Robert coming to Winterfell was Bran; mayhaps they would be able to sneak away into the woods and miss out on most of the propriety. Bran play-fought with her sometimes in the godswood with wooden practice swords; that would certainly be more fun than embroidering with the princess or curtsying to the princes.
“I have heard Prince Gendry is very handsome,” Jeyne Poole was saying as Arya reached over the girl for another roll, earning a sharp look from her sister's friend. “And they say Prince Joffrey is handsome as well.”
Sansa smiles, her cheeks flushing pink. At five-and-ten, everyone said Sansa was the most beautiful girl in the North; Arya tried not to feel jealous, but it was hard sometimes when hearing everyone sing of Sansa's beauty while knowing she was often referred to as “Arya Horseface.” As she tore apart her roll, Arya supposed it was better Sansa was the beautiful one since she actually wanted to wed a prince.
“I would love to dance with a prince,” Sansa sighed. “It has been so long since we've had a real feast. We haven't had one since Robb's wedding.”
Arya thought of Robb's wedding to Jeyne Westerling nearly a year earlier. While Sansa was dancing with Jeyne's younger brother, Theon let Arya have some of his mead and she got drunk; Jon carried her to her room and made her promise she would never do anything like that ever again. Arya missed Jon, so far away on the Wall; though it was unkind, she sometimes thought it would have hurt less if Robb and Jeyne had gone away rather than Jon Snow.
“Mayhaps Father will marry you off to a prince,” Robb laughed, causing Sansa's blush to deepen further. “I'm certain you would not mind being Princess Sansa.”
“It would be wonderful to be a princess,” Sansa demurely replied before sipping her wine.
“You don't even know the princes,” Arya pointed out sourly. “They could be fat or stupid or just plain horrible.”
“They're princes,” Sansa said as if it was the only argument she needed.
“You are just bitter because no prince will ever want to marry you,” Jeyne chimed in.
“I would not want to marry a prince. I do not want to marry anyone.” Getting to her feet, glaring at the steward's daughter, she felt anger welling in her as she spat, “But I will still make a better marriage than you.”
Bran found her in one of the old towers an hour later, climbing through the window with ease. Arya could hear their wolves outside growling as they wrestled, and, as Bran brushed the dirt off of his palms, Arya declared, “We should run away.”
“Where would we run?” Bran asked, playing along. Since turning two-and-twelve on his last name day, Bran had grown taller than her, his legs impossibly long; their father said he would likely be as tall as Uncle Brandon once was. When Jon left, Arya found herself spending more and more time with Bran, and he was her best friend, the only one who understood how much she disliked everything about growing older, the threat of being a lady coming closer and closer.
“Beyond the Wall.”
“And be wildings?” Bran shrugged, perching on the window's ledge. “That would be an adventure. But how will we get past the Wall?”
“Jon will let us through the tunnel. I will bring Needle, you can bring your bow, and we will have Summer and Nymeria to protect us.” Arya idly drew patterns in the thin layer of grime on the floor. “Let's leave tonight.”
“We cannot leave tonight,” Bran said, his voice full of practicality. “We do not have food or supplies. An adventure like this requires planning.”
“I am sick of planning.” Getting to her feet, not bothering to wipe the dirt off of her skirts, Arya raged, “I hate all of this! I hate Sansa and Jeyne Poole and the stupid princes! I hate that everyone's leaving and one day Father is going to decide I have to leave too! And it does not even matter what I want!”
“That is not true,” he argued mildly. “Father would never marry you to someone you did not want to marry.”
“And if I want to marry no one? If I want to run away and be a knight? What then?”
“Then you and the Maid of Tarth will scandalize the Seven Kingdoms by winning tourneys and besting knights of great renown.”
Arya smiled at Bran's words, shaking her head. She crossed to one of the windows, staring out at Winterfell's lands, at her family's lands. As a cool breeze scattered her hair, she declared, “I wish I had been born a boy.”
She turned to meet Bran's gaze. “Because boys get choices and girls get orders.”
The only reason her father let her go for a ride the morning the king's court was to arrive was by promising she would be back in plenty of time to bathe and be made appropriate, and Arya honestly had intended to keep that promise. But then her horse threw a shoe and her, and, by the time Arya climbed to her feet, her body sore but unbroken, she knew it was going to be a slow-moving return to Winterfell on both her and the horse's part.
She wore a pair of Bran's old breeches and a tunic she stole from Jon before he left for the Wall, both too large on her slender frame; her long hair was wild, the wind and her tumble from the saddle having loosened it from its braid, and she was positively filthy from landing in the dirt. By the time she returned to the castle, Arya knew her mother and Septa Mordane were going to scrub her skin raw and lecture her again on being ladylike. The last time something like this happened, her mother threatened to sell her horse and send her to the silent sisters, and, while Arya was certain Catelyn Stark would not actually make her become a silent sister, she did believe her mother would take her horse.
It was unseasonably warm today, and Arya could feel sweat pooling at the small of her back, in the hollows of her collarbone; while still half-a-league from Winterfell, Arya could not resist wading into one of the ponds, letting her horse drink while she cooled herself. The sun told her it was already past midday, and Arya tried to hurry, hoping the courtly procession was moving slower than anticipated.
Her hip hurt worse than anything, and Arya knew she was going to have a giant bruise in the morning; there was only slight swelling, but it made her walk with a slight limp, forcing her to bear the majority of her weight on her right leg. Swearing as she nearly stumbled over a rock, Arya was certain she was being punished for riding against her mother's wishes.
Arya saw the Baratheon standards as she crested the hill nearest Winterfell, and she knew she was going to be in more trouble than she ever had in her entire life. Clutching her horse's reins tightly, Arya attempted to enter the yard with as much dignity as she could manage, her hip positively screaming in pain from the strain of her trek. There were people everywhere, horses and litters, and Arya could see members of the Kingsguard looking at her peculiarly as she stumbled towards the stables, neither her family or the royal family in sight.
“Gods be good, girl!” Harwin cried as she escorted her horse into the stable. “What happened to you?”
“Threw a shoe,” she grunted, handing him the reins. “Where's Maester Luwin?”
“In the rookery, I believe. Your mother sent riders out after you.”
Arya silently groaned as she began to hobble towards the castle, tears threatening to appear with every step. She needed to see Maester Luwin; when she fell from the tree last year, he gave her something to take the pain away in her wrist, and she needed that now until the swelling went down. But the rookery was up so many flights of steps, and, if her mother saw how badly she was hurt, she would never let Arya ride alone ever again.
“Do you need help?” someone asked, causing Arya to spin around as best as she could to face the boy who asked her the question.
He looked to be as old as Robb, around eight-and-ten, but he was broader through the shoulders; his hair was black and as messy as her own and his eyes were bright blue. Arya knew he must have come with the king's court, but, judging by the dirt on his breeches and his open surcoat, Arya suspected he was a steward or some lord's son.
“I need to get to the rookery to see Maester Luwin,” she offered after a moment.
“Maester Luwin is in the great hall the king and Lord Stark. I can fetch - “
“No!” she cut in, wobbling a bit on her good leg. Bracing her hand against the wall, she asked, “What of my brothers?”
“Your brothers?” he echoed, confusion folding his brow before realization dawned. “You are Lady Arya?”
Irritation licked at her with his use of her title. “Yes, and I wish to see my brothers. Are they about?”
“Your brother Robb is with the king as well; your younger brothers are with the princes while your father's ward hunts the lands for you. I could fetch your sister - “
“Oh, seven hells, no,” Arya groaned, and the boy laughed, delight flashing in his eyes. With a sigh, crossing her arms over her chest, she asked, “Can I trust you to keep a secret?”
“On my family's honor,” he swore.
“Would you be able to help me to my chambers and not tell a soul?” Seeing the uncertainty on his face, she quickly added, “I will reward you for your silence.”
“And how will my lady do that?”
Arya pretended she did not hear the undercurrent of mocking in his deep voice. “I have some dragons I won. I could pay you.”
“How does a lady win dragons?”
“At cyvasse.” She had won an entire purse from one of the Karstarks the last time they came to Winterfell, and she had not spent a single coin, preferring to stare at the money and know she bested someone. “And I will give you - “
“I do not need money, Lady Arya.” He stooped slightly, wrapping Arya's arm around his shoulders; she sighed in relief at finally having pressure off of her left leg. Letting the boy help her up the stairs, the boy easily bearing her weight, he asked, “How did you hurt yourself?”
“I was thrown from my horse.”
“Really? Your brother said you are the strongest rider he knows.”
“Well, she threw a shoe,” Arya snapped defensively. She was extraordinarily proud of her horsemanship, and she was not going to let some stupid southron boy mock her. “And I am the strongest rider he knows. I'm better than all of my brothers.”
“Mayhaps when you are better, you can prove it.”
Arya opened her mouth to reply but stumbled as she attempted to hop up onto the next step; she nearly spilled to the ground before the southron boy caught her. She gasped as he swept her into his arms the way Jon once had, easily carrying her up the stairs.
“You are a stubborn girl.”
She scoffed. “I know. That is all anyone ever calls me.”
The boy smiled down at her, something she could not identify hinted at in his eyes. “I did not say it was a bad thing.”
Arya felt her stomach flutter nervously for a moment, unused to the feeling, before pointing to her door. “That is my chamber. You cannot come inside.” Waiting until the boy set her on her feet, Arya said, “Thank you. And I will ride with you when I am better. I pay my debts.”
The boy's smile became a grin. “I have never trusted those who do not.” Dipping down as if bending the knee, he quipped, “I shall see you soon, Lady Arya.”
It was not until later, when Maester Luwin was treating her hip and her mother was lecturing her on dangerous behavior, that Arya realized she had not asked the boy his name or to whom he belonged. Vowing to look for him at dinner, Arya managed to sit still while her mother arranged her hair into a complicated updo of braids, not even protesting when she was laced into the least favorite of all of her gowns; Arya was stubborn but she was not stupid.
Maester Luwin said she could not bear weight upon her leg for an entire day, and Hodor was summoned to carry her to the dining room for the king's feast. Arya hated it, being carried like a cripple, and Bran looked at her with pity in his eyes as she was brought before the king and queen for introductions, apologizing as vigorously as she could manage for not being there when they arrived earlier in the day.
King Robert laughed, his large belly jiggling. “It seems you've got some of that wild wolf blood in you, eh, Ned?”
Her father smiled placidly but Arya was certain he was not as amused as his old friend. Robert was in the middle of asking her a question when she saw the princes and princess file into the dining hall in all of their finery. Arya's eyes widened as she saw the boy from earlier leading the procession, his dirty, unkempt clothing replaced with garments in the Baratheon colors. He smiled at her, amusement twinkling in his blue eyes, and Arya wished she was not being cradled by Hodor because she wanted to walk up to Prince Gendry Baratheon and smack him right in the mouth.
Stupid prince, Arya growled to herself as Hodor took her to seat. He's just a stupid prince playing a trick.
Arya refused to look at the head table for the rest of the night.
“He is so handsome!” Sansa swooned as their mother smiled indulgently from her place near the window. Arya watched as her older sister pushed the food around her plate without taking a bite, and she literally bit her tongue to keep from spitting something unkind about the prince, knowing it would only draw her mother's ire. “Is he not handsome, Mother?”
“He looks much like his father did as a young man,” Catelyn replied.
“And he is so kind!” Sansa continued, her voice as soft and dreamy as Arya had ever heard it. “He danced with every girl at the feast last night, even the plain ones, but he said I was the best.”
Arya rolled her eyes, tearing into a piece of bacon to keep her from saying anything.
“I am nearly six-and-ten now, Mother, and everyone knows Prince Gendry is not betrothed yet. If Father speaks to the king - “
“If King Robert wishes to wed his son to you, he will be certain to tell your father,” Catelyn gently interrupted, “but I would not raise your hopes so high. Queen Cersei says he is likely to wed Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden.”
Sansa's face fell before sputtering, “But Father is King Robert's oldest friend! He would want Gendry's queen to be a loyal friend!”
Arya could not contain herself anymore. “You are not a loyal friend! You do not even know him! Who cares if he danced with all the girls? He could be the stupidest man in the kingdoms for all you know!”
Her sister's blue eyes filled with disgust. “He is not the stupidest man in the kingdoms; he is going to be king. And even Robb says Gendry is a good man. You're the stupid one.”
“Girls!” Catelyn chastised. Sansa instantly closed her mouth, ever the obedient daughter, but Arya felt the weight of unspoken words on her tongue.
She deserves the stupid prince. Let them marry and have 100 stupid children, each one stupider than the last.
Arya hoped Gendry Baratheon would take Sansa far, far away, and then she'd never have to see either one of them ever again.
The king had been at Winterfell for three days when Gendry stumbled upon her in the godswood, practicing her swordsmanship while her brothers went hunting with King Robert and his men. She was smacking her wooden sword against one of the weirwood trees when Gendry stepped into view, a smile on his face; instantly she brought the sword down, grateful she had not taken Needle from its hiding place to practice like she initially planned. Only Jon and Bran knew of Needle, and Arya was certain Gendry would tell everyone about her sword the same way she was certain he had told of their first meeting.
“Why aren't you hunting?” she blurted out, not bothering with a curtsy or the manners her mother and septa tried so hard to teach her.
Gendry shrugged. “Don't much care for it. And I was with Mikken when they rode out.”
“Why were you with Mikken?”
He shrugged again, tugging off his fine coat and dropping it onto the ground before stretching out on the grass, his long legs out before him. Arya watched as he settled back on his elbows, looking as at home in the godswood as she was. “I like forges, the idea of making something out of nothing. I'd make a good armorer.”
“Then give up your crown and go be one,” she snapped unkindly.
“And let Joffrey rule the Seven Kingdoms? We'd be better off with your wolf on the Iron Throne.” Gendry pointed to Nymeria, sunning herself near the water's edge. “What's her name?”
“Nymeria.” Crossing her arms over her chest, sinking to the ground, she asked, “Why didn't you tell me you were the prince?”
“Because you didn't ask.” Gendry met her gaze unwaveringly. “I know you're angry at me, but I was not trying to trick you. If you had asked me who I was, I would have told you.”
“Did you tell anyone?”
“I promised I wouldn't.” He reached over, taking hold of her wooden sword by its blade; she thought about wrestling it away, but he didn't appear to be trying to keep it. “Do you often practice with swords?”
Arya felt defensiveness rising in her chest. “What, because I'm a girl, I can't swing a sword?”
Gendry blinked in surprise at the aggressiveness in her voice. “No, I...” Sighing, he snapped, frustration in his own voice, “Are you always this unpleasant or is it special just for me?”
Recoiling, she growled, “So sorry, my lord, for not being ladylike enough for you.”
He tossed the wooden sword beside her, anger blatantly coloring his features as he got to his feet. “Your sister is far more pleasing than you.”
“Then go bother her!”
Arya was not sure why Gendry Baratheon irritated her so; as she returned to the castle, she forced herself to admit he really hadn't done anything to her. But there was something in the way he looked at her, his whole manner, which unnerved her. Guests at Winterfell seldom wished to spend any time with Ned Stark's younger daughter, the troublesome one, the one who was not as comely as her sister; Gendry was the first one to ever seek her out, to not call her “Arya Underfoot” or “Arya Horseface.”
And you ran him off like he was going to murder you.
Mayhaps Sansa was right: she really was hopeless.
Arya was heavy with irritation after a day of embroidering with Princess Myrcella and the rest of the girls of Winterfell when she stepped out into the yard with Sansa, Myrcella, and Jeyne Poole. Her brothers, Theon, and the princes were all there, Bran and Tommen currently crossing swords, and Arya felt jealousy well in her breast. She loved Bran dearly, but she was better with a sword than her younger brother; it was not fair she had to spend the day listening to silly girls titter over boys and making stitches while Bran got to play.
While Sansa, Jeyne, and Myrcella decided to gather flowers, Arya sat upon a railing to watch the boys spar; Bran bested Tommen easily before being disarmed by Joffrey. Arya idly noted Gendry made no move to pick up a sword, even when invited to by Robb; he made some comment about a hammer, and Arya dimly recalled King Robert's weapon of choice was a warhammer.
Good for a melee but not well-suited against a sword.
When Joffrey and Robb began to cross swords, Robb clearly better with his blade than the younger prince, Arya found Gendry staring at her with his bright blue eyes; after a moment, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and Arya found herself tentatively returning it, the nearest she would get to making a peace offering. The heir to the Seven Kingdoms crossed the yard, climbing up to sit beside her on the railing; after a moment he divulged, “Your sister told me I must forgive your poor manners for you are hopeless.”
Arya laughed mirthlessly. “I would rather be hopeless than helpless.”
“I have only known you a week and the only thing I am certain of is you are anything but helpless.” He studied her from the corner of his eye, and Arya dropped her gaze, not liking the way his gaze twisted her insides. “You are not like any girl I have ever met.”
“I do not - “
“I like it,” he cut in, his voice lower than before, thick with something Arya did not recognize. “I like that you do not call me 'my prince.' I like that you do not seem to care at all that I am a prince. And I like that you do not care a bit what anyone thinks of you.”
“That's not true,” she argued, softening a bit. “I care what my father thinks and my brother Jon.”
“He is your natural-brother, yes? The one at the Wall?”
Arya nodded. She was not sure why she confessed, “I miss him more than I have ever missed anyone or anything,” but Gendry did not seem to judge her for it. Arya knew everyone thought that, because Jon was a bastard, he was somehow less deserving of her love, but Jon Snow was the only person who ever seemed to love her exactly as she was.
“I have a natural brother named Edric Storm,” Gendry revealed, his eyes following Tommen and Rickon as they played with Shaggydog. “My father had him raised at Storm's End because Edric's mother was a lady. When I was young, I loved to play with him; Joffrey and I have never particularly cared for each other. Sometimes...Sometimes I wish I had been a bastard as well so I could have remained with Edric.”
She was not as good with people as Sansa, but Arya understood what Gendry just confessed to her was something deeply personal. Arya fumbled for a moment before venturing, “But can you not do as you wish since you are the prince?”
Gendry's laugh was shockingly bitter. “I am willing to wager you have more of a choice in your life than I do in mine.”
“If that were true, I wouldn't have spent all morning having Septa Mordane tell me how horrendous my stitches are.” Fidgeting with her skirts, she ventured, “I do still owe you for the other day if you still want to see Winterfell.”
“I can have Harwin saddle the horses. Is a kingsguard coming?”
“If it would make you more comfortable.”
Arya frowned in confusion. “Why would a kingsguard make me comfortable? There is nothing in the forest to get you, and there have not been wildings spotted in years.”
A light blush filled Gendry's cheeks. “I simply meant...Well, if a lady is riding with a man unaccompanied....I would not people to talk.”
She laughed as she hopped from the railing. “This is not the south. Besides, everyone knows if you ever tried anything improper, I'd kill you.”
Gendry's laughter was loud in the yard, and it started Arya with the force of his amusement. “I appreciate the warning.”
The prince did not sit a horse as well as Arya expected; he blushed when she told him so, sputtering about how seldom he got to ride anymore and how, unlike she and her brothers, horses were not required as much in King's Landing. She showed him the hot springs and her favorite places in the forest, including the pond where she sneaked away to swim sometimes.
“Your parents let you swim?”
Arya shrugged. “When I was small, Old Nan used to take all of us to swim. And now that we're older, Bran and Rickon are still allowed to go, but Mother says it's improper for a girl of my age to do so.” She wrinkled her nose. “So I do not tell her.”
“I have not been swimming since three years past. We went to Casterly Rock for a tourney being held there, and my uncle Tyrion let us bathe in the sea. Mother was furious, of course, but it was so much fun. Have you ever seen the sea?”
She shook her head. “I saw the Trident once when we went to Riverrun for my uncle Edmure's wedding, but that is the farthest south I have ever been. When we were small, Jon and I used to say we were going to visit every one of the Seven Kingdoms. I wanted to see the Westerlands so I could see a lion, and he wanted to see Dorne because - “ She broke off, suddenly afraid of saying too much.
Gendry seemed to know exactly what she was going to say. “Because that is where his mother is from?”
Arya blinked in surprise. “How do you know that?”
“Gossip never really dies at court, especially when it comes to a good mystery.” Idly stroking his horse's mane, he admitted, “Ned Dayne is a squire at court. When I mentioned coming north, he said his aunt Ashara's son was the natural-son of Ned Stark.”
Arya shifted in her saddle, discomfited by the idea of everyone in the Red Keep gossiping about her parents. “My father has never said that Ashara Dayne is Jon's mother. My uncle Benjen told him once when he was in his cups. They say she was very beautiful.”
“Her sister Allyria is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and they say she is not half-so-beautiful as her sister.” Noticing Arya's expression, he quickly assured her, “But Lord Stark obviously loves your lady mother. I would not fret any.”
“I am not fretting. I just do not think it is fair Jon never got to know his mother.” Rearing her horse around, digging her heels into its sides to rush it up a hill, she heard Gendry curse before following her, shouting for her to slow. When they reached the top of the hill, Gendry was out of breath, and Arya almost apologized.
And then Gendry gasped as he took in the full picture of Winterfell spread out before them, its rolling hills and the rich green of the land, and Arya felt pride swell in her breast. She loved the North, loved everything about it, and seeing the way Gendry's eyes widened, a smile playing at his lips, made her grateful for being born a Stark.
“I could stay here forever,” Gendry declared, such genuineness in his voice Arya could not help but study him for a moment.
“Are you going to marry my sister?” she asked, unsure why the words fell out of her mouth, why those words came out.
He swallowed hard, and Arya watched as he seemed to struggle for words for a moment. Finally he said, “I do not know who I am going to marry, but I do know I will not get to choose.”
Arya never really thought about it before, but it did not seem as easy to be a prince as she once believed.
“We should head back,” she ventured after a moment. When Gendry nodded absently, she grinned and challenged, “I'll race you!”
There was nothing Arya loved more than riding at full-speed, her hair flying behind her, the echo of hooves in the air. She could hear Gendry urging his horse on faster, trying to reach her, and Arya laughed as she rose in the stirrups, casting a quick glance over her shoulder to see Gendry gaining on her. Her horse was still running as fast as its legs could carry her when she burst through the gates, startling one of the Kingsguard and a few of the man gathered in the yard. Yanking the reins so her horse would stop, she saw her father already opening his mouth to chastise her when Gendry came roaring in behind her, cursing her with a laugh.
“You are half horse, my lady,” he panted as he slowed his horse to a stop, wiping sweat from his brow with his sleeve. Grinning down at his father, Gendry pronounced, “I fear I have shamed the family name, Father. I have let Lady Arya best me on a horse.”
“You did not let me do anything,” she argued, allowing her father to help her from her mount. “I am just better than you.”
Robert bellowed with laughter, and Arya noticed the wineskin in his hand for the first time. “You've got a lot of nerve, girl, I'll give you that.” He motioned for Ned to bring her closer, and Arya willingly went, knowing she could not refuse the king. She managed not to wince as he leaned forward, studying her face while breathing the stench of strongwine into her face, before proclaiming, a touch of sadness in his voice, “Gods, you are just like her, aren't you?”
“Who?” she asked in confusion.
Robert did not answer her, turning his attention to Ned. “Have you made a match for her yet?”
“No, we were waiting until she is older. She is not even four-and-ten yet.”
The king nodded for a moment before patting Arya on the cheek as if she was a small child. “I shall find you a good husband.”
Arya knew he meant it to be sweet; instead it sounded like a threat.
It was ungodly hot that afternoon, and Arya could barely breathe in the humidity of the castle. Septa Mordane excused them from the solar, sweat running down her face, and Arya quickly hurried to the stables, riding for the pond as quickly as her horse could carry her. All she could think of while botching her stitches was how nice the cool water from the pond would feel on her overheated skin, how great it would be to float atop the water on her back the way Jon taught her to do. As she tied her horse to one of the trees, Arya was already unlacing her gown, her slippers discarded, when she noticed there was already someone in the pond.
Arya hesitated near the trunk of the tree, studying the back of the man in her pond. His skin was not as pale as her own, and his dark hair stuck to his head from the water; muscles danced beneath his skin as he moved, and Arya could tell he was strong. She had seen men without their shirts before – her brothers, Theon, her father – but this was different; she was not supposed to look at a man who was not her family, especially when he was undressed, and Arya blushed as she wondered if he wore breeches beneath the water or was completely nude.
And then the man turned and Arya nearly gasped as she realized it was Gendry, his own eyes wide with shock at being discovered. Arya dropped her gaze from his face, but that was worse because now she was staring at his chest and stomach, ridged with muscle, and a line of dark hair which disappeared beneath the water.
“I am sorry,” she blurted out, giving Gendry her back, bright red with embarrassment.
“I did not mean to take your swimming spot. It was so warm and I...” Gendry trailed off, and Arya wondered if he was blushing as red as she was. Screwing up her courage, she turned and saw Gendry was climbing from the water, his breeches clinging to his legs.
“You do not have to leave,” she blurted out. “You were here first.”
“But you wish to swim. I did not mean to intrude upon your place.”
Irritated with herself for behaving as if she was Sansa, simpering and flushing over something as silly as swimming, Arya shrugged, wiggling out of her gown, leaving herself clad in a thin shift and her smallclothes. She dove cleanly into the water, touching the soft, spongy bottom of the pond before pushing to the surface, shaking the water from her face. When she opened her eyes, she found Gendry staring at her with dark eyes.
“You,” he began before trailing off, shaking his head; drops of water clung to his hair and eyelashes, catching the sunlight, and Arya suddenly thought Sansa was right: he was handsome.
“I what?” she pushed as she swam towards him, twisting her body to spin through the water as she did so. Her father always said the only Tully quality she had was her love of the water, and Arya believed him; she would be sad when winter finally came and kept her trapped indoors.
“You're extraordinary,” he murmured, a peculiar expression on his face, and Arya was not sure if he was japing or not. She splashed him in the face, giggling as he spat water from his mouth.
“Stop being stupid,” she ordered before disappearing beneath the water, narrowly missing the splash he was returning.
Arya was not sure how long they had been playing in the pond; her fingers were staring to wrinkle, but it was more fun playing with Gendry than it was her brothers. Rickon was still too little to be much fun, Bran was always busy with his lessons, and Robb said he was too old to play now that he was wed; ever since Jon went to the Wall, everything changed, became more serious. Gendry did not say he was too old to play even though he was of an age with Robb; he did not tell her she was not acting like a lady or lecture her for playing too rough. When she leaped upon his back, he tossed her off; when he grabbed her by the wrists, she kicked him in the stomach. As she once again slipped from Gendry's grasp, she decided she liked the prince, that he somehow had even become her friend.
“Are you coming to court with your father?” Gendry asked as they both tried to catch their breaths.
She scoffed with a shake of her head, pulling at her shift which now felt like a second skin. “He and Mother wanted me to, but I convinced them to let me stay with Robb and Jeyne. I promised I would help Jeyne with the babe when it comes.”
Disappointment twisted his face. “So only Sansa and the boys are coming then?”
“Sansa says it's better this way because now I won't embarrass the entire family by acting like a wilding at court.” Arya smirked. “She is afraid I will do something so horrendous, your father will not let you marry her.”
“She should be more concerned about what Mace Tyrell will do if he thinks Margaery is going to be forgotten.” His fingers skimming the water, he declared, “You should come to court.”
“I do not want to. It would be more sewing and dancing and listening to stupid girls talk about their marriage prospects and whether or not they have flowered or what they will name their children. I would die of boredom within a fortnight if I did not murder someone first.”
“Court is boring,” Gendry allowed, “but it would be much less so if you came.” Grinning, he enticed, “And there are adventures to be had. I could show you the dragon skulls beneath the Red Keep and the secret passages; I could even have Tobho Mott make you a sword of your own. There are tourneys, too! We are to have one at Storm's End for my uncle Renly's name day, and you could come to Casterly Rock with us. I could show you lions if you still wish to see one; my grandfather keeps them in the lower levels of the Rock, and I bet you could even touch one if you wished.”
“No,” she argued calmly, her voice matter-of-fact, “because we would not get to have any adventures. We would get to the Red Keep and they'll announce who you're going to marry, and once they do, we will not be allowed to play together anymore. And your father said he is going to find me a husband, and, if my father lets him, then I'll get sent away anyway. I would rather stay at Winterfell as long as I can before I get traded away like a bloody horse.”
Gendry's face folded in consternation. “Is that what you think we're doing, playing together?”
“What else would it be?” she asked, genuinely confused.
He shook his head with a mirthless chuckle. “Nothing, I suppose.” Raking his fingers through his hair, Gendry looked up at the sky and groaned, “What am I doing?”
“Why are you acting like this?”
Gendry looked at her in disbelief. “Because I'm stupid! Because I thought you liked me!”
“I do like you when you aren't acting like you've gone mad!”
“No, I mean – Gods, you are so stupid sometimes!”
Arya watched in shock for a beat as Gendry climbed out of the water, pacing the grass like a caged animal, before following him onto the bank, pushing her tangled hair over her shoulders. She stepped into his path, pressing a hand against his chest, and snapped, “What is your problem?!”
“My problem?” he echoed. “My problem is I have spent every spare minute with you for the past month, and I thought it was because you liked me! My problem is you act like you know everything but then play dumb! My problem is you keep treating me like I'm Jon, and I'm not your bloody brother!”
“Who asked you to spend time with me?” she shouted in return. “You were the one who kept following me around! I'm not dumb; you just don't make any sense! And I know you're not my brother because my brother isn't a stupid, bull-headed boy!”
Gendry looked positively furious, and for a moment Arya thought he was going to strike her. But then he stepped back, his fists clenched tightly at his sides, and growled, “You make no sense whatsoever! You keep acting like you're a child but you're a woman-grown!”
“I am not!”
Letting his eyes linger upon her body, he spat, “You certainly look it.”
Arya glanced down and promptly felt herself flush in humiliation; her shift and smallclothes had become transparent in the water, and she was as good as nude before him. Rushing over to her discarded dress, she pulled it up and quickly climbed atop her horse. “You are the most disgusting person I have ever known, and I hope you die!”
She refused to look back, vowing never to speak to Gendry Baratheon ever again.
“Did you have a fight with Gendry?” Bran asked as he climbed through Arya's open window, hopping to the floor with his usual grace.
Arya did not look up from polishing Needle. “Gendry is stupid and I do not care to ever discuss him again.”
Bran looked at her for a moment before stating, “He is looking for you, you know. He asked why you were not at dinner.”
“I do not care.”
“And he asked Maester Luwin if you were ill.”
“If I am sick, it is only because he has made me so.”
Bran picked up an old doll from her shelf before replacing it. “What did he do?” When Arya did not respond, he asked, his usually calm voice filling with a hint of Robb's temper, “Did he try to do something improper to you?”
Arya finally looked up, shock on her face. “No! No, he...He is stupid but he is not a raper.” Resuming her polishing, she finally admitted, “He makes me so angry. I do not understand him.”
“What is it you do not understand? I mean, I have not spent a great deal of time with him, but Prince Gendry does not seem to be that complicated. I've found him to be quite candid, not like Joffrey at all.” Bran studied her for a moment before asking, “Do you ever think you're the complicated one?”
“I am not complicated,” she objected. “And I did not do anything and he just started acting like a complete prick!” Arya grunted in frustration. “I just want him and the king to leave already so things can be normal again!”
“They'll never be normal again, Arya. Father's the Hand now; all of us have to go to court. Even if you stay, it will still be different.”
“I do not want it to be different! He should just say no to the king!”
“King Robert is his best friend. You do not say no to your best friend.” Bran shrugged, his face placid. “The world is changing whether you like it or not, and mayhaps it would not be the worst thing for you to have a friend at court, especially if he does end up being Sansa's husband.”
Arya did not like or understand the complicated mix of emotions in the pit of her stomach at the idea of Gendry and Sansa wedding. “We could still run away to the Wall.”
Bran smiled as he began to climb out her window. “Arya Stark, Queen of the Wildings.”
Sometimes Arya wished Bran was not nearly so practical.
It was not difficult to find Gendry; as she suspected, he was in the forge, idly running her fingers across Mikken's tools. When he noticed her, Gendry paused for a moment, a variety of emotions flickering across his face before seeming to settle on apologetic.
“I did not mean to upset you earlier.”
“Yes, you did,” she retorted without malice. “Why didn't you go into town with Theon and Joffrey? No taste for whores?”
Gendry smirked. “What does a lady know of whores?”
She rolled her eyes. “I know Theon spends any spare coin he has on Ros and when he runs out, he beds Kyra instead.”
“He recommended Ros. I'm certain my brother is spending our grandfather's coin on her as we speak.”
“You did not answer my question,” she pointed out. She knew of King Robert's reputation for wenching, had heard her mother make a comment to her father about all of Robert's bastard children; she wondered if Gendry would dishonor Sansa that way one day.
“I've never bedded a whore nor do I intend to.” Amusement filled his blue eyes. “And you? Have you bedded down with whores?”
“I once shared a bed with Jeyne Poole. Does that count?”
He laughed before tapering off, his fingers running around the edges of the anvil. Finally he said, his voice soft but firm, “I like you.”
“And I told you that I - “
“No, Arya, I like you.” Coming around the anvil, his hands clasped before him in the same way she had seen the knights of the Kingsguard do, he clarified, “I like you the way a man likes a woman, not as a friend or a brother. I want you. The reason I was so angry this afternoon was because I thought you knew that and were playing dumb.”
Arya stared at him for a moment, her words failing her, before blurting out, “But you're supposed to marry Sansa.”
“I think Sansa is perfectly fine, but I do not want to marry her or Margaery Tyrell or whoever else my father puts forward. I just want you.”
Arya began to shake her head. “But Sansa - “
“I am going to tell my father what I wish,” Gendry cut in, his voice thick with stubbornness. “He says he wants to make a match for you, and I will be that match.”
“No, you won't. Your parents will never let you wed me; I am no queen. And it would break Sansa's heart! She would never forgive me, even if your parents say no. Do not do this.”
“Arya - “
She could feel a peculiar panic swelling in her. “You cannot do this, Gendry! You will ruin everything! And I do not even want to marry someone so - “
“You do not like me? You do not want me?”
There was something plaintive in his tone which made Arya feel incredibly guilty. “I do not know.”
“You do not know?” he parroted incredulously. “Well, think about it then!”
Arya shook her head vehemently. “She is my sister, and, while I may not like her, she wants to be your queen. So you need to just...stop.”
Gendry clenched his jaw tightly before nodding, averting his eyes. Finally he said, his voice cooler and more detached than she had ever heard it, “I will not bother you again, my lady.”
When all of court left two days later, Arya refused to look at Gendry as she said her goodbyes, only offering him a perfunctory curtsy before he disappeared down the kingsroad.
Sansa will be a better queen than I ever would have been.
But Arya did not like to think about that.
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