Reading the signs in fire is not a perfect science. It's not a science at all. It deals with beliefs and the wants of the viewer, and as much as the red priestesses like to think they are unbiased… they are not.
In another world, in another time, perhaps there may have been a darkness the fire was trying to combat. But even when you add to a fire's kindling, the light will always make a shadow, a darkness of its own. In this world, in this time, the fire's own shadow was it's greatest threat and enemy.
Power corrupts. The newly ascended high priestess from Asshai was not exempt from this rule.
For moons, when she had looked into the flickering flames, a pair of bright gray eyes stared back at her and the distant howl of a wolf could heard underneath the great bonfire's own roar. All of the chosen disciples of the Red God R'hllor knew of a coming darkness, and as with every darkness, there would always be one of light to fight back the shadows. The cosmos required balance, just as the sun would always be replaced by the moon and vice versa.
Despite R'hllor's lack of worshipers on the continent of Westeros, the high priestess was not without knowledge of the great players of that kingdom's game. The Starks of the North were still whispered of in bedtime stories to disobeying children, the pain brought to Andalos by King Theon Stark's rage. While no longer kings, the lords and ladies of the Northern house were still respected as wardens and warriors alike. There could be no other family a grey eyed child of the wolf was from.
High Priestess Melisandre was not foolish, but she was devout. When she interpreted this sign, she could not be swayed from her course. And thus, a ship was chartered from Essos to White Harbor.
Melisandre made great care to disguise herself and two of her fellow sisters with drab robes and cloaks on their journey. The people of the North mainly followed the pagan ways of the Old Gods, although White Harbor did house many worshipers of the Seven Who Are One. Neither religion of Westeros was fond of those of the Red God. She was proud of her position, but this mission was not one to convert others, and thus secrecy was required.
After disembarking at the docks surrounded by steep white cliffs, the three red priestesses bought fares on a boat making its way up the White Knife towards Winterfell, the seat of the Starks for millennia. The three did not dare draw attention to themselves, and refrained from much contact with the crew. Just the slightest slip of their accent could draw heavy suspicion.
Winterfell was reached after a few hour's ride east of the river once they had stopped for the night on the next day. The three women booked a room at an inn in the neighboring Wintertown, but the room remained empty– it was only to keep up their appearance as regular travelers. Melisandre did not plan on staying long once they found their chosen one.
It had not been hard to learn of the current status of the Stark family from overhearing conversations around Wintertown. Lord Eddard Stark and his wife Catelyn had been blessed with three children so far, something that would ensure the house's survival after its near decimation in Robert's Rebellion. The first two, Robert and Sansa, were said to be near copies of their Tully mother. That only left the newly born daughter as the one from Melisandre's visions: Arya.
It was laughably easy for the red priestesses to gain access to the main castle of Winterfell. A flickering out of the torches in one hall, a seduction of a guard in front of another door, and Melisandre found herself walking down the stone halls towards the Stark family's suites.
Arya was asleep in her nursery. Her nursemaid had not noticed Melisandre following her throughout the keep, and once the girl had opened the door, Melisandre grabbed her from behind and placed a handkerchief over her mouth. The cloth was laced with a mild poison; the girl would not wake for several days (if she did at all).
The small skirmish must've been enough to wake the babe, as when she approached the crib, Melisandre was greeted by bright and curious grey eyes. Arya was a tiny thing, with a fluff of brown hair beginning to cover her head. A wolf of the Starks through and through. The flames had not led her astray. R'hllor had led her to the promised one.
The alarm of Arya's disappearance would not be raised for several hours, until the absence of the nursemaid girl was noted. By then, Melisandre and her red sisters were already on a boat back down the White Knife. By the time news reached White Harbor by raven and rider, Arya and her captors were well into their journey across the Narrow Sea, on course for Braavos.
Winterfell was a quiet place in the summer years, which is why Lord Eddard Stark was confused when he awoke to the sounds of commotion in the halls outside his suite. Catelyn was still nestled at his side in their bed, and he did his best not to disturb her as he slipped out from under the sheets and hurriedly dressed before exiting the room. The guards to his quarters were standing at full alert as Rodrik Cassel, the Master-at-Arms, approached with the head of servants, who was consoling a crying maid girl.
"Lord Stark," Cassel rumbled, "I bring fell news."
"Speak, Rodrik," Lord Stark urged.
Cassel bowed his head, and Ned Stark immediately dreaded what he was about to hear. "There was a fault in our guards, m'Lord. Someone breached the castle, poisoned a maid, and stole Lady Arya from her crib. We have searched the grounds…"
Ned missed anything else Cassel said as his words echoed in his mind. Arya was stolen. His baby girl…
"We must search," he rasped out, interrupting Cassel abruptly. "Send out ravens to every major house in the North and Riverlands… notify Kings Landing as well-"
"M'Lord," the head servant spoke up, stopping him in his tracks. "Maester Cressen examined my serving girl that was poisoned; he said the herb came from Essos."
Ned stared in horror at the sturdy woman for several long moments, thoughts of the Slaver's Bay creeping to the surface of this nightmare. "Send a rider to White Harbor," he finally ordered quietly. "Alert the Crown and every major house in the realm. My daughter must be found." Catelyn… "I will join you in my solar shortly. I must inform my wife first."
Catelyn Stark's mournful cries could be heard throughout Winterfell as a rider raced out of the gates and turned east to the coast.
Rarely had the Seven Kingdoms been united behind a common cause in written memory, but the kidnapping of a noble child, especially of a Great House, was enough to push the realm together. While it had been the young Arya Stark from the North who had gone missing, there was the underlying thought that it could be any family next time. The Crown offered 10,000 gold dragons to anyone who brought Arya Stark home and put an equal bounty on her kidnapper's head.
The North was raging with barely concealed fury at the theft of their Warden's child. A harbor watch was formed and began checking every foreign boat that entered White Harbor (and of course to the North, "foreign" included southern ships as well).
Tensions rose as throughout the country, the story of Essosian poison being used in the kidnapping sparked violence towards any who spoke with the flat eastern accent. Anything associated with Essos was quickly socially forbidden; a mob of the Faith Militant set upon a small gathering of worshipers of the Red God, nobles began to favor fabrics from Dorne over those from Mereen, wines and spices from Westeros were now favored over ones from Essos.
While the shift in the common habits of the Seven Kingdoms occurred, the Starks mourned. Lady Stark wandered the halls of Winterfell cloaked in black, typically with one or both of her remaining children by her side. Robb and Sansa may have still been young, but even they knew something grave had happened and grew slightly subdued in their play. If possible, Lord Stark became quieter than before. He recorded any whispered rumor he heard about Arya in a journal in his solar as men reported back from all over the known world.
For three years, he met with sailors and lords and merchants from all corners of Westeros (and Essos, as some saw the share of information as ways to get back into the North's good graces for importing). For those three years, as nothing concrete was unearthed, the rest of Westeros gave up their search. To them, Arya Stark was maybe dead, but certainly lost forever.
It was often said that the Northerners were a stubborn folk, and the search for Arya Stark proved how true that was. While the rest of the kingdom gave up, the North sent a scout to a different part of Essos every three months.
Every three months… even as Catelyn Stark grew pregnant with child again (and again), every three months, the Lord and Lady Stark waited to hear back from their scouts with a tiny flame of hope lingering in their hearts. Their family may have continued to grow, but a piece was always missing.
On the date of Arya Stark's first birthday after her disappearance, many of the great houses of Westeros made a pilgrimage to Winterfell to support the Warden of the North. While the meeting of so many powerful people was also used as a chance for political talks, the gathering had an overall mournful tone. Despite the prominent baby bump Catelyn Stark was presenting, her dresses remained a solemn black while she housed her guests.
As the Queen had just given birth to the crown princess, King Robert Baratheon had made the journey to the North with his small heir, Joffrey. The four year old boy had seemingly strained his father's patience over the journey ("He always cries when I pick him up, Ned!") but surprisingly to everyone, he had latched onto the hesitant warmth Catelyn Stark had showed him. He was seen frequently following behind the Lady Stark along with young Sansa Stark.
King Robert had taken over Ned Stark's solar to host a council of the highest lords that had attended. His hand of the king, Jon Arryn, was of course there to support his former ward, and Lord Hoster Tully for his daughter and goodson, but the sight of so many other great southern lords was uncommon. While none had come from the Westerlands (they were still recovering from the Ironborn attacks from the rebellion the previous year), Old Penrose had come up from the Stormlands, and Paxter Redwyne had come with his twin sons from the Reach. Howland Reed and Bronze Royce were here from the Vale, and Lords Manderly, Umber, and Bolton from across the North. It wasn't lost on Ned Stark that many of these great lords (and the lesser lords that were milling about Winterfell) all had children of their own. They may have regional differences, but they all shared parenthood. The Stark's pain echoed across the realm.
After grumbling about a few individual Ironborn attacks along the western coast here and there in past months, Robert led them in a discussion about strengthening the houses of Westeros from foreign threats. "The kingdom is united thanks to Greyjoy's Idiocy, so we need to act now. According to the reports, the people have been attacking anything with a whiff of Essos to it," he rumbled, looking around at the assembled lords.
"Aye, we've started sending our ships south to Dorne instead," Redwyne added. "The higher prices haven't stopped the goods from completely selling out in the Reach. I sent another three ships to Sunspear before traveling north.
"The Stormlands have been receiving ships from Dorne as well," Old Penrose added with a nod from where he stood in the corner of the room. "There was an altercation on a ship coming in from Mereen. A woman dressed in red had been on board… the men on the ship apparently tossed her overboard."
Ned Stark nodded at their words. "We have heard similar stories from travelers coming North on the Kingsroad."
Howland Reed summed up their sentiments with a grave tone. "Westeros stands behind you and Robert, Ned. We will follow your lead."
At dusk, the gathered people and guests of Winterfell met on a hill outside of the castle, all with lit paper lanterns in their hands. It was silent in the crowd as Lord and Lady Stark stood in front of them with a lantern slightly larger than the others.
"For Arya!" Ned said loudly but firmly as he and Cat released their lantern and let it begin to float up into the night sky; it was soon joined by hundreds of others as the crowd echoed his words.
"For my baby girl," Cat whispered as she watched the lights begin to blend in with the stars.
The tradition of releasing lanterns would be spread across all of Westeros and become an annual occurrence. In the south, it would be a celebration of family and prayers to the Old Gods and New. In the North, and especially in Winterfell, it would always be a sorrowful remembrance. Regardless, the thousands of floating lanterns all across the continent would always be at the mercy of the wind, and once they were high enough in the air, they were at the mercy of an eastwards draft, giving those across the Narrow Sea a glimpse of Westeros' lights.
And so every year, a little girl in Braavos would lean out her window and be awestruck at the floating stars from the west.
[Next chapter has a time jump to introduce our favorite Baratheon!]
Every day in King’s Landing was nearly the same for the common people of the city. While nobles played nuanced games within the high walls of the Red Keep, the average citizen of the capital tried to push off hunger for another day. Some did this by trading goods for other goods (or services), some were artisans, some were beggars.
Gendry Strongarm did this by working in a forge on the Street of Steel by day, and stealing by night.
He grew up having no family that he could remember, sans his Master in the forge and the gang of street urchins that took him in, seeing him as one of them. They were all orphans, and while not all of them had a steady apprenticeship like him, they all stuck together throughout the years. They had taught him how to start a fire (good for warmth and distractions), how to scale a building (good for breaking in through upstairs windows), and how to sew (good for mending fabrics and making simple disguises). In return, he made small, concealable weapons for each member for protection and brought scraps of food when he could.
There were always new members joining and familiar faces leaving the group, whether it be because of death or running off to try their luck somewhere new. It was usually the Stranger that took the street kids, by murder or starvation or cold or disease.
The last de-facto leader had been around for five months, but he had recently joined the trainee ranks of the city’s Goldcloaks in an effort to earn some coin. Time would tell if he would survive to join as a fully fledged guard.
This now left the “Stabbington twins” in charge. Preston and Sam had gained their nickname from their favored method of attack, and often did Gendry regret being the one who gave them the wickedly sharp knives they favored.
The two were only slightly older than him, which he knew would become an issue. They didn’t want any threats to their newfound control, and Gendry had begun to sleep with a knife under his pillow.
The moment he had been dreading had finally come though. The twins had gathered all the street kids together to announce that they would be going to the North to steal something so precious, they would never go hungry again. And of course, that Gendry would be the lucky one to go with them, because who wouldn’t want Gendry “Strongarm” as their side in case of trouble?
Gendry had no desire to go to Winterfell to steal the lost princess’ crown. Sure, he had regularly snatched rare and valuable jewelry from the wealthy merchants and nobles of King’s Landing, but that was here, in his home. For this, he would have to travel to the bloody North. He’d never even left the city!
But he couldn’t escape the trap the Stabbington brothers had laid. If he didn’t go, another would knife him in the back to take his place. He couldn’t avoid that fate. If he did go, there was a chance he could double cross them and escape…
And as long as he ended up somewhere with a forge, he could make a future for himself.
Besides, the crown of the lost “Northern princess” was said to be a metallic work of art. Not that she really was a royal, but once King Robert Baratheon had called her that at the remembrance ceremony where he had gifted the crown to her parents, the nickname had stuck. If he could manage, he’d like to see it.
And so Gendry made his quick decision. He grinned at Preston and Sam, and agreed to go with them. They’d leave the next day, so now he just had to survive the night. He could worry about the twins once they were on their way north.
It really was a beautiful crown. Gendry almost forgot his growing guilt about stealing it when he looked that the shining bronze and silver (but no gold, as that was only for royals), carefully crafted into a circlet of vines and flowers. He turned the crown over in his hands, the smooth metal cool against his calloused fingers. One day he’d like to attempt to make such a piece, if he could find a forge at his destination.
He and the Stabbington twins had escaped Winterfell before an alarm could be sounded– mainly because the twins had killed the two guards. Gendry shut his eyes tightly, wishing he could forget the heavy thump their bodies made on the stone floor. The twins had grinned maliciously as they wiped the blood from their knives onto the dead men’s pants while he snatched the crown from its pedestal and urged them all to leave.
The Stabbington brothers were hopefully still somewhere in the woods surrounding Winterfell. Gendry had slipped some milk of the poppy into their celebratory ale, and once the two thugs had passed out, he had fled their campsite, following the river towards the east. If he could get to the coast, he was sure he could find a ship leaving Westeros. The further away from the brothers he could get, the better for his life span.
A large port city with tall, white cliffs had been at the end of the river. He had enough coin saved from his smithy work in King’s Landing that he was able to buy passage on the first ship leaving Westeros. He had heard the name Braavos on the lips of tan merchants in King’s Landing, but he didn’t really know where it was– he’d find out soon enough. The ship he was on was headed there.
For a man who had never left his hometown before a few weeks ago, this was quite the adventure. Gendry was sure he’d have enjoyed it more if he hadn’t been fleeing for his life.
He wrapped the crown back up in his few extra garments and stuffed them all back into his bag, before tucking it behind several crates. He couldn’t keep it on himself while doing chores on deck like he did with his coin purse, so this was the closest thing to a safe space he could find. The spot had worked for the past few days, and he was sure it would continue to suffice for the short time left before they docked.
With a heavy sigh, Gendry made his way back up the steps towards the main deck of the ship. At least working would take his mind off his worries for a short while longer.
On the outskirts of Braavos, where the mansions of the rich lined the streets, was a building much taller than all those around it. Arya had once asked her mother why they had such a tall tower for their house, and the reply had been something confusing to her about how it allowed their lord to see all of the city and make sure it was safe for them.
Mother liked to talk about her lord quite a lot, but Arya had never been very interested by what she had to say on it. Her stories about her far off travels were much more interesting.
"When can I join you to go to another free city?" Arya had once asked, when Mother had been telling her about the pyramids of Meereen. She'd like to try climbing one, one day.
Mother had stroked her hair as she pulled her in close. "Not for a while, princess. Not until we are sure you are safe from harm, for-"
"'For the night is dark and full of terrors,'" Arya muttered the words along with her mother. "I know."
Arya spent most of her days inside the mansion's walls, becoming fluent in both the Common Tongue and Valyrian when there were Red Priestesses around to tutor her, and tending to the everlasting fire when they were all away. She did not have many other tasks besides those when she was left alone– the slaves did all the housework– and with no playmates, there was only so many times she could run around the manor playing make-believe games of knights and kings and queens. So instead, she lost herself to the world of reading.
Books were never kept from her, and she had asked for them so many times now that the priestesses always brought back rare tomes for her to read from the farthest corners of the world. She read about the conquest of the Targaryens and the Doom of Valyria, of the thick forests of Yi Ti and the mysterious continent of Sothoros. She marvelled over the sketched pictures of the Red Keep of King's Landing and the high walls of Volantis.
Her favorite books, however, were those that told of knights and swordsmen of old. There were many stories she had gathered, from the mighty knights of Westeros to the numerous sellswords scattered around Essos (sometimes with figures falling into both categories). The one that never left her side was The Dance of Water by Syrio Florel. She wasn't sure who Syrio Florel was, besides being the author of the book his name had never appeared in any other text. It didn't matter to her though; the detail with which he outlined different strikes and forms and stances was far superior to anything any of her other books had offered.
That book was hidden in one of the many hidden alcoves she had discovered, because she knew by now how Mother would react to her possession of it. Mother was against any form of fighting or talk of leaving the mansion. She was allowed on special occasions to venture into the city at Mother's side, but only if she wore her silk red robes and covered her head with a scarf.
So no one steals you away from me, princess, Mother would say every time she had questioned about it. Arya didn't ask anymore.
The past few weeks in fact, Arya hadn't said much to anyone in the mansion. Her last venture into the city had been to celebrate the Festival of Light, and she had stood amongst the assembly of worshippers of R'hllor as Mother and the other red priestesses made sacrifices into a great bonfire in the Red Temple on the Isle of the Gods.
She had not been prepared to see the sacrifices be children.
Arya had kept to her room afterwards, feigning illness. She knew she had little time left to use the excuse, but for a little while longer, she wanted to remain in the safety of her gilded prison, reading of heroic knights and queens of old and wishing she was one of them as well and help those who needed it.
Her favorite day of the year was her name day.
It wasn't because it was a reminder that she was growing older– that fact alone almost made it her least favorite day. She did not want to think about how she would soon be expected to become a priestess herself and sing praises to the fire god for the rest of her life.
It was in anticipation of what would come for the nights after. Her birthday marked the day before all the floating lights began to appear in the western sky.
She had never managed to get a straight answer out of Melisandre about it, but luckily for her, Kinvara from the southern Free Cities had taken up residence in their manor recently. Arya was aware that there was no lost love between the two women, and Kinvara was happy to undermine Melisandre by telling her where the lights were from.
"It's an interesting story, princess," Kinvara told her with a sly smirk, her face wreathed in the gentle light of Arya's bedroom fireplace. "Some years ago, an heir to a house of Westeros was stolen from its castle. The people hope the heir is found someday, and they cast those lights up to help lead the way home."
Arya stares at the priestess in confusion. A religious practice maybe, a celebration of a battle even, but this was not at all what she was expecting. "The people do realize the heir probably died soon after they were stolen, yeah?"
Kinvara's soft laugh set her on edge— there was definitely more to the story than she was letting on. "Our Lord works in mysterious ways, Arya. Some secrets only he is privy to."
Those words stuck with her as the two of them looked up at the night sky several nights later, the twinkling Westerosi lights reflected in her wide eyes. "One day, I will go to see the lights released in Westeros."
Kinvara hummed in quiet amusement, like Arya had just reminded her of an inside joke only she knew. "As you say, so you will, princess."
Sorry for the shortness of this chapter, the prompt was brief and it'll start to pick up next chapter when Gendry gets to Braavos.
And here's the chapter you've all been waiting for...
As soon as the ship had docked at the bustling port of Braavos, Gendry hurriedly collected the few extra coins he had earned on his passage before grabbing his bag and disappearing into the crowds. He’d spent most of his life in King’s Landing – in fact, only the past few weeks had he seen any other cities– but from what he knew, he thought best to head away from the docks. Travelers were more likely to stay near the boats at the port, and he didn’t want his face to be memorable in case some merchant ran across the Stabbington twins at some point in the future.
He kept his head down as he worked his way away from the larger canals in the city, keeping his back to the large Titan statue that his ship had passed under to enter the harbor. It was a little difficult at first as Gendry grew steadily used to using canals to cross waterways instead of merely sneaking through alleys, but at least this way it was easier to spot any potential people tailing him. He didn’t see any signs he was being followed though, and so he gradually began to relax as he ventured through the city.
His first purchase had been a hooded cloak while he was near the port, and he was glad for that when he reached a waterway junction that held a series of islands with large temples to a host of different gods. He’d never been one for religion, but the largest building of white marble caught his eyes at how bright and ornate it was, even in contrast to the Sept of Baelor he was accustomed to in King’s Landing.
Near it was a smaller red pyramid temple. Gendry wasn’t sure what it was about it, but he trusted his instincts when the building put him on edge. He’d do his best to stay away from it and any of its fanatics.
He kept heading further away from the harbor as the morning went on, stopping every now and then to purchase food that would keep a bit longer: smoked meat, bread that he could eat stale, dried fruits. He did want to stay in Braavos, but the paranoid part of him whispered that he should keep going east, as far from Westeros as possible. For now, he’d settle with staying as far into the city as he could.
By the afternoon, he found himself surrounded by mansions of all sizes. Braavos didn’t seem to care about being different, and he was surprised to see the variety of shapes and sizes there were. Some were short but long, covering a block or two, while others spiraled up and up taller than he thought a smaller mansion could be. He knew from his time roaming the streets of King’s Landing at night, that many mansions owned by merchant lords were often vacant when they went abroad– and on the off chance they left behind servant staff, there was always someone that could be paid off to look the other way for a night or two. He was sure he could find an empty place he could stay in while he figured out whether to stay in Braavos or continue east.
He found a suitable location after walking a bit further. The towering mansion didn’t have a large bottom floor, so there was little chance of any passers-by seeing him. He staked out the building until night began to fall, waiting to see if there was any activity inside. No one had entered or exited for all that time, and there was no evidence of motion through the windows he could see through from his vantage point across the way.
Once it was fully dark, Gendry snuck around to the back of the manor and entered through one of the lowest windows. He paused for a moment after finding his footing inside the mansion; he hadn’t made any noise, but he was still wary in case anyone else was indeed inside. He heard no movement after a moment, and so began to scope out the entire building. He would only settle down in a room for the night if he confirmed he was truly alone.
The first three floors were completely vacant, save for several flickering fires; he was surprised to see them, as he hadn’t noticed any lights when he was outside. There was always the possibility that the servants had made sure the fires would last until the residents returned. So, he found the next spiraling staircase and continued to explore upwards.
The only room of interest was on one of the uppermost floors of the mansion. The room was as spotless as the rest, but this one looked… more lived in. There were books neatly stacked next to the bed, and although the sheets were made, they had some wrinkles… like someone had recently been sitting on them…
Before he could even react, he felt something hit the back of his head, and the world went black.
Gendry opened his eyes to find himself tied to a wooden chair. Fantastic. He gave a few experimental tugs, but he was bound too tightly for it to make any difference.
A light cough caught his still-dazed attention, and Gendry slowly looked up. A hooded figure was standing facing him several yards away, and there was a pot clenched tightly in one of their hands. His heart sank into his stomach; he’d come all this way, and now it seemed like his time was up.
“Struggling is pointless,” the figure said firmly. Gendry disliked being unable to see the speaker’s face; their voice was controlled enough that he determine much about them, other than they were young. “I know why you’re here. Who are you?”
“Um… what?” Was he really that obvious?
The stranger huffed in annoyance. “Who are you?”
“Uh… hello. I’m Gendry. From King’s Landing,” he added as an afterthought, feeling strange for the first time at how short his introduction would be otherwise.
That seemed to shake his captor. “King’s Landing?” They echoed, an edge of wonder to their voice. “You’re from Westeros. And now you’re in Braavos.”
He shrugged as much as he could in his bonds. “I was in a… situation. I had to get away from Westeros, and I needed somewhere to stay the night before I moved on…” His eyes widened as a thought struck him. “Wait, where’s my bag?!” That was the only thing that could potentially save him if anyone from Westeros was coming after him.
“I hid it. You’ll never find it.”
Gendry looked slowly around the room. It was the same room he was in when he was knocked out, and there weren’t many places it could be hidden… “It’s under the bed, isn’t it?” The hooded figure stiffened, before angrily marching towards him, raising the pot in their hands. “Wait, wait wait!”
“Alright, would you stop that!” Gendry groaned as he blinked back into consciousness for the second time that day.
He could practically feel the smugness radiating off of his captor. “Now it’s somewhere where you’ll never find it. So, what do you want with this mansion?”
“To get out of it,” he hissed in annoyance, his head still pained. “You hit me with a pan!”
“Don’t think I won’t do it again,” the stranger warned. “But, if you can behave, I’m prepared to offer you a deal. Do you know the floating lights that are sent up from Westeros each year?”
Floating lights? Gendry stared blankly at the stranger until he thought about the contents of his (now hidden) bag. “You mean the lantern thing they do for that lost girl from the North?”
He heard a mumble that sounded suspiciously like Kinvara was truthful, but he brushed it aside as the terms of this ‘deal’ were stated. “You will act as my guide and take me to these lanterns; only then will I return your bag to you. That is my deal.”
Gendry outright laughed. They couldn’t be serious. “Look, kid. The kingdom will want me dead when they find out what I did, so I won’t be taking you anywhere.”
He was surprised when his captor tossed back the dark hood that was covering their face. He was right, they were young– definitely younger than him. They had brown hair that fell almost to their shoulders; it was a bit long for a boy, in his opinion, but he had seen longer hairstyles from many Northerners and Essosians so this was no real issue. Their eyes are what stood out the most to him: they were a startling gray, so different from the shades of brown and blue and purple he had seen on his ship and while wandering around Braavos. He couldn’t tell what the boy was wearing under his long cloak, but he was on the shorter side.
“I don’t care if destiny or some god brought you here. My deal is the only reason you’ll be leaving here. And if you don’t take the deal, even if you tear this mansion apart brick by brick, you’ll never find your precious bag.”
“Let me get this right: we leave Braavos for Westeros, I take you to see the lanterns, and you’ll give me back my things?”
“I promise.” The boy spoke with a severity that made Gendry wonder who exactly he was speaking to. “And when I promise something, I never, ever break that promise.”
He really didn’t seem to have any options here. And, at least now his next few steps were decided for him. He might have enemies in Westeros, but he knew King’s Landing. Being on the run in his homeland didn’t seem as daunting anymore as fleeing to a whole new place. “Fine, I’ll take you to see the lanterns. Now get me out of these bloody ropes!”
“Hold still, Gendry from Westeros.” He didn’t need to see the smirk on the boy’s face to know his words held a tinge of amusement.
Gendry muttered his thanks as he rubbed the rope burns left around his wrists, but paused as he realized something. “You never mentioned your name.”
For the first time, he could see the boy’s surprise as he was caught off guard by Gendry’s passive inquiry. “Oh! I’m… Arry.” There was a slight pause before Arry said his name, and Gendry assumed it was due to his reluctance to give it. No matter. Now they were on a bit more even ground.
“Well-met, Arry from Braavos. Any chance you’ve got some food in this place before we leave in the morning?”
Getting out of Braavos was easier than Arya thought it'd be.
She and Gendry had spent the night in the mansion and shared a bit of bread and cheese to break their fast before gathering their belongings and heading to the port. Even with her limited knowledge of the city, it wasn't hard to lead them to the main harbor since all of the canals originated there.
Gendry had done the talking to book them passage on a ship bound for Westeros, not wanting to call attention to Arya. The captain had looked once at her smaller stature and declared that she could help scrub the deck, but Gendry would be doing more work on the journey. She wasn't upset about it; she was more than happy to observe people freely for one of the first times in her life.
She listened to a pair of men grumble about the weather of Gull Town, where they were heading. They apparently were from the Reach, towards the south of Westeros, and Gendry later told her much of King's Landing's food apparently came from there. She watched the captain break up a fight between a Dornishman and a sailor from Myr, both using fighting styles she had only ever read about. Each time she heard or saw something new, she filed it away for later research. Or, so at the very least she could ask Gendry. He may not have traveled often, but he had to know some things about his homeland.
She got answers to her questions several days later, once they had landed in the foul-smelling port of Gulltown and escaped out of the city. Only out here on the road surrounded by mountain passes did Arya first find a love for Westeros.
"So this is the Vale?" She asked him as they walked side by side. Her fingers brushed against the thicker clothes she had bought before they left the city, since she knew the coastal mountain passes would be considerably colder than the Braavosi weather she was used to.
Gendry shrugged in what she presumed to be agreement. "Would seem so."
"What do you know about it?"
He shrugged again. "Mostly heard stories about mountain raiders and bandits. We should be fine; we don't have much for them to take."
Arya nodded as she mulled over his words. She knew that no road traveled was ever free of violence, but she hoped theirs would have less of it. It would make their journey easier and quicker, and the sooner she saw the floating lights, the sooner she could set off into the world on her own. She doubted she'd be going back to Braavos- all that was left there for her was a murky future in a religion she no longer could follow.
The first night was spent camping on the side of the road. One of the things Arya was skilled at was starting a fire, and Gendry set her to make theirs as he secured an area where one of them could sleep while the other kept watch.
When she saw the large figure making their way towards the little camp she had set up, her voice had nearly given her away as a girl when she called out for Gendry's attention. He quickly turned to face the newcomer, placing himself between Arya and the stranger as he did.
"What d'ya want?" Gendry growled, his hand hovering over a hammer that was strapped to his waist. While it was a common blacksmith tool and nothing flashy, Arya knew that it would be a dangerous weapon in his hands.
As the man fully came into view, Arya had to keep herself from flinching. She knew him. Well, not that she'd ever spoken to him, but she'd seen him once or twice at some of the larger celebrations of R'hllor in the past. His red robes and the dual swords strapped to his back were unmistakable. This was Thoros of Myr.
Thoros of Myr gave them a wide smile, but Arya was wary of what may have hidden behind it. She didn't trust anyone wearing the red robes of R'hllor right now, even if it was the 'drunken red wizard.' Her hand slowly moved to grasp the dagger she'd hidden in the waist of her trousers.
"Might you spare a seat by the fire for a weary traveler? I merely wish to warm my hands before continuing on my way."
Arya could sense Gendry's confusion. "The roads aren't safe to travel after dark," he said, his head tipping in the direction Thoros had come from.
Thoros nodded in recognition of his words. "The night is dark and full of terrors, no matter where one is," he replied, his voice light as if it was a joke to himself. Arya supposed the saying was said in jest by him; she knew how some of the priests talked about him, including Mother. Then again... she now knew the lengths to which Melisandre would go to worship R'hllor and wondered if Thoros was anywhere near as terrible as they had said.
"Who're you?" Gendry asked, still tense.
Thoros gave a slight bow. "I am Thoros of Myr."
"My master's mentioned you. Said you were a fat fraud, and as bad as priest as there ever was."
'Well. That answered what people thought of him here in this new land.'
She hadn't expected Thoros to laugh. "That was unkind. True, but unkind. May I?" He gestured to the fire Arya had made.
Arya was surprised that Gendry first turned to glance at her to read her reaction to the query. She gave a slight nod in consent, and Gendry's stance relaxed. "You're welcome to share the fire for a while, but we have no food to share," he informed Thoros.
"It is no matter," Thoros said as he sat next to the fire, across from where Arya was still standing. She and Gendry shared a look before they both sat as well, weary from their first day on the road.
It was Arya who broke the silence. "Where are you headed?"
"To all the little villages that line this road," Thoros replied. "I may not be the most loved or respected man in this kingdom, but enough lords know my name that when I talk, they listen." He looked towards Gendry with a wry smile as he pulled out a bag from within his robes. "I may be a failure of a priest, this is true. But I am the nearest thing to a voice of the smallfolk that there is." He undid the drawstring and held out the bag. "Chestnuts, either of you?"
'Maybe not all those in red robes followed a darkened path of R'hllor,' Arya thought as she munched on a handful of nuts while Thoros told her and Gendry stories of his travels. Thoros of Myr seemed to have found a way to fan the flames of life for hundreds of other, even while renouncing the large bonfire of death that her Mother so devoutly maintained.
They'd traveled with Thoros of Myr for three days along the main road before he left them with his good wishes at a town before the main crossroads. Arya had held them up as she watched the large man stride into the village square and be greeted by welcoming shouts as people streamed out of their shops and homes to see the priest.
She felt Gendry standing behind her, his desire to move on down the road nearly tangible as she stood transfixed by the cheerful site of the town's people. She wondered what it felt like, to be so known and beloved by so many people; to be welcomed with open arms into so many places.
Those thoughts lingered with her once the two of them moved on, continuing until they finally reached the Inn at the Crossroads. The building and surrounding stables had a hustle and bustle to them that reminded her of a sea port like her home. Gendry had to roughly pull her out of the way of a messenger rushing by on a horse.
He looked down at her, his blue eyes cautiously guarded and yet she could still see a twinge of concern glimmering in them. "You need to be more careful here," he chastised.
Arya had tried to match his glare with one of her own, but surprisingly he smirked at her reaction instead. She crossed her arms with a huff once he let go of her and began to walk towards the inn. He was much taller than her and had much larger strides, so she needed to jog to catch up to him.
They sat down inside at a table in the far corner. She noticed that Gendry sat with his back against the wall, allowing his eyes to flit around all the entrances and watch for threats. Or at least, that's what she assumed he was doing. She made sure to angle her chair as well, so she could see more of the busy room as well. Her eyes followed the figures of the several 'serving wenches' as they hurried between tables, sometimes staying at one table longer to insinuate and flirt in order to get some extra coin.
Gendry's stormy gaze keeps any of the women from getting to close to their table, and so Arya is surprised when they are finally approached by a heavy brunette boy- most certainly a boy, because while the inn is not the most innocent of places, his eyes are still bright and hopeful and his face round and unshadowed. He held a wooden tray of steaming buns in his hands and held it out in offering to the two travelers once he stood beside them.
"Sorry 'bout the wait, today's a busy day. Lots of people on the road going home for the lost princess' festival! Go on, take one: halfpenny each."
Arya dropped a dull penny into his awaiting hand and took one of the buns off his tray, relishing its warmth as she bit into it. She'd never tasted such a wonderful pastry. R'hllor had certainly blessed this boy- she shook her head fiercely to rid herself of the thought. No, R'hllor would not have given such a pure talent. Perhaps it was due to a Westerosi god instead. Yes, that was more acceptable.
"D'you got anything with some meat in it?" Gendry muttered, keeping his voice low as he accepted an identical bun from the boy with a thankful nod.
The boy's face lit up. "Of course! I'll whip something up right away." He turned to hurry off back towards the kitchens, but paused to smile back at the two travelers. "If you need anything else before I've finished, ask for Hot Pie!"
Arya and Gendry shared a confused look once he'd left. "His name... surely it's not actually Hot Pie?"
Gendry gave her a shrug. "Might use it to hide his real identity. Or maybe his ma had a loose pin in her head."
She couldn't really argue with that. "Do you think we'll get to Kings Landing in time for the festival?"
The older boy rolled his eyes wearily. "You asked that this morning."
"And now I'm asking again. I didn't know the main road would be so busy."
He shrugged again, but she was beginning to translate his movements from 'the language of Gendry' into actual words. The slower motion of his shoulders this time meant that her question wasn't as bothersome as he made it out to be and that he was actually giving it some thought. "The crowds will be fine since we're not in something large, like a carriage. Might find some odd jobs along the way at inns or holdfasts with a smithy."
Arry nodded thoughtfully at his words. "Alright. Sounds like a plan."
She was awarded with one of Gendry's rare smiles, the type that spread up into his brilliant blue eyes. She thought he should smile more, as the expression seemed to erase any evidence of stress and his difficult past from his face.
The smile vanished into a mask of neutral indifference as Hot Pie ambled back over to their table, another wooden try in his grasp. "Hot Pie's special meat pies!" He proudly declared, showing them the neatly sacked pastries. "A penny each!"
His words had noticeably drawn the attention of several other nearby patrons, so Gendry sighed as he rummaged into a pouch he had hidden on the inside of his waistband and gave Hot Pie four pennies. He nodded at Arya for her to take two for herself as he grabbed the pair of meat pies closest to him. Hot Pie smiled widely in thanks and went off to sell the rest around the room.
Ready for the next leg of their journey, Arry followed Gendry as he stood up from the table and made his way outside. She found herself jealous of the ease he moved through packed areas due to his larger size- she needed to flit around some of the bigger individuals as if she was dancing.
She met up with him outside the entrance to the inn, rearranging his bag so it sat more comfortably on his shoulders, when she heard someone calling behind her. The two turned to see Hot Pie rushing out the door and looking around wildly before her caught sight of them and visibly relaxed.
"Here," he said, pushing a cloth-wrapped pastry into her hand. "Made it for you. Your eyes- they reminded me of the stories of the Northern families..." He watched eagerly as she unwrapped the fabric to reveal a wolf-shaped biscuit. "It's a direwolf! Or at least, it's meant to be. I'm not the best artist..."
Arya was struck silent by the gift she held. She couldn't remember a time someone had given her something so thoughtful and meaningful. It was something just for her. She gently wrapped the biscuit back up and stashed it in her bag before wrapping her arms briefly around this kind baker boy.
"Thank you," she whispered before just as quickly releasing him.
Hot Pie's embarrassed flush and proud smile stayed in her mind the rest of the way down the Kingsroad.
She failed to notice the new tenseness in Gendry's jaw that lasted the same amount of time.
"I'm King Robert's son."
Arya wasn't sure how to respond to such a bold claim.
She stared blankly up at Gendry from her spot on his cot in the small room above the forge on this Street of Steel, the bustling sound of the city dying to a soft roar as she focused on her traveling companion. His bright blue eyes have not averted from hers in the silence that has followed his words.
"You're joking," she finally said flatly, fingers curling angrily into a fist by her sides. She couldn't believe she'd followed him all this way to King's Landing, and even stepped foot into his home, only for him to lie to her face. "I don't believe you."
"We've traveled together for days, Arry," Gendry huffed, his muscles flexing as he crossed his arms in defense. "I wouldn't lie about something like this."
"You said you're the king's son!" She hissed, eyes narrowed dangerously as she stood and pointed her finger accusingly at him.
"I am," he agreed. "But I'm just a bastard." He sighed and ran a hand down his face tiredly. "I thought you needed to know, if you're to stay with me. I always have to be looking over my shoulder in this city, in case someone comes looking."
Arya didn't move for several heartbeats, waiting to see if he'd flinch, but he showed no signs of nervousness or guilt, so after a moment, her shoulders relaxed. She nodded tightly in apology before sitting back down. "Why would someone come looking?" The words felt unfamiliar in her mouth.
Gendry shrugged, but she could see from the way his head dipped down that it weighed heavier on him than he let on. "To use me as a hostage against the royal family. To kill me. To challenge the succession." He grimaced before looking back at her seriously. "Any number of reasons. Nobility play by different rules than us."
It must've been clear that Arya didn't fully understand what he was trying to tell her, as Gendry huffed tiredly before kneeling in front of her. "Lift your legs?" Once she'd followed his request, he ducked down, his arms disappearing beneath the bed as he searched blindly for something. "Ah– here it is." He pulled out a small, dust-covered wooden box, and didn't bother brushing it off before opening it so she could see what was inside.
There was a little golden locket with worn joints, the two halves opened to show miniscule portraits of a man in rich clothes with black hair and blue eyes, and a woman with blonde hair and brown eyes.
"Who are they?" She asked softly, her gaze flickering up at Gendry to find his eyes trained carefully on the locket.
"My mother and father," he replied just as quietly, as if speaking louder would be disrespectful to the figures forever frozen in the painting. "My mother worked… she was a whore, in one of the more popular brothels here. She always said she was my father's favorite," he chuckled darkly. "But she died in the plague that swept the city ten years ago."
Arya wanted so badly to reach out and touch the locket, almost as if that would somehow bring Gendry's parents into his life together, so he wouldn't sound as lonely as he did while speaking of them. But she was only a girl, no magic to her name. So instead, she rested her hand on Gendry's upper arm, hoping it'd be enough to provide some comfort. By the relaxed state of his body, she'd helped just a bit.
"That's the only secret I have," he joked blandly, shutting the lid to the box with care. "It wouldn't be fair for you not to know, in case something happens. Now you won't be forever wondering what happened to me, Arry."
This was an entirely new feeling for Arya, to have someone's explicit trust, to be their secret-keeper.
She wasn't entirely sure why it'd struck her by surprise; after all, they'd spent many days together now on the road, watching each other's backs. Keeping each other safe. This was only another level of that… but one she wanted to keep equal.
Gendry paused from where'd he been crouching down again to re-home the box in its hiding spot. "What?"
Arya bit the inside of her cheek before steeling her nerves once more. "Not Arry. My name is Arya." She could feel her face beginning to heat as Gendry's azura eyes burned holes into her spirit. "You trusted me with your greatest secret, and well… this is mine."
"Arya." Gendry's voice was flat and emotionless as he raised up on his knees again to be at her eye level. "You're a girl?"
"Yes." She furrowed her eyebrows in thought and began to pull up the bottom of her shirt. "Sorry, did you need proof–?"
"No, no, no! No, I believe you," Gendry panicked, his tone raising dramatically alongside his eyebrows as he shook his head. "I just… why did you hide?"
"You did break into my home," she reminded him. "Mother told me stories about what could happen if I went out into the real world on my own… for the night is dark and full of terrors," she intoned with a roll of her eyes. "Besides, everyone would be on the lookout for a girl in red robes. Not a short boy tagging along with you."
"So all those times we shared a bedroll…?"
Arya tipped her head curiously. "What about it?"
Gendry stared at her for several moments before he burst out laughing. She wasn't sure what she'd said that was funny, but she figured it was a much better reaction than him possibly being mad and throwing her out.
"What a pair we are," he said once he'd calmed down enough. "The lost girl and the secret son." He held out his hand for her to clasp. "Arya of Braavos, a pleasure to meet you."
Her smile was true and bright as their hands melded together. "Valar Morghulis, Gendry Baratheon."