Boston Common, July 8th 1861
It was a beautiful morning as the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched smartly across the Common in parade formation. Their new blue uniforms seemed brighter even than the clear New England sky. Brass buttons gleamed and new steel swords shone while the band kept time with ‘The first gun is fired’ - a popular patriotic song composed after the Battle of Fort Sumter which had taken place that spring.
The ranks were full, a thousand men marching in close order, moving with the military precision of veterans. Colonel Gendry Waters felt proud of all he and his raw volunteers had achieved in such a short period of time. He should be satisfied that he had done all he could to prepare for the sacrifice and suffering that lay ahead, but no matter how hard he tried, some of these boys would never be coming home.
The atmosphere on the Common was jovial and optimistic, more like a Fair than a prelude to war. It seemed the whole of Boston had gathered to see her sons off. Street vendors and hawkers plied their wares while the crowds cheered, mothers cried proud tears and children ran, whooping and hollering, alongside the troops.
The populist notion was that the secessionist states would be taught a swift lesson and returned to the Union before the year was out. The President had only asked these volunteers to sign a three month contract. Few thought the war would even last that long.
Veterans of the Mexican-American war, men like Colonel Gendry Waters, knew better. Thirteen years ago he’d fought under the same flag as the men who were now leading the Confederate army. He’d considered them to be as brothers then and could not contemplate how they could raise arms against the same proud flag. Now they faced each other on opposite sides of another war. Perhaps he knew them too well, for Gendry knew his former brothers would never go down without a prolonged fight. Neither would he.
As he looked along the rows of eager fresh faces, Gendry wondered how many of them would die bravely while fighting for the stars and stripes and how many more would succumb to disease and fever or the winter’s cold. How many of these boys would be marching north again once this war was won? One thing was for sure, if they came back, it wouldn’t be as boys. Gendry intended to bring as many battled hardened men back as he could.
He thought on how his old Colonel Lem and once hoped for the same thing, only to succumb to yellow fever during the final days of the last war. In a way, he felt as if he was taking up Lem’s mantle by looking after these boys. He wished old Lem could have been here for, amongst this festive mass of people, Gendry had never felt more alone.
The rapturous farewell was led by the great and the good of Boston; those Boston Brahmins, the fine old colonial families who had supplied his soldiers with boots, swords, rifles and even the instruments for the brass band now playing so damn enthusiastically. All of these well bred aristocrats looked smugly satisfied with the proof of their generosity as it paraded before them. All save one, whose grey eyes were as hard and cold as the Pennsylvania steel so recently forged into tools of war.
Like him, Miss Arya Stark knew all too well what lay ahead. But that was where the similarity between them ended.
He hadn’t seen her in thirteen years, although he doubted there was a single one of those days when he hadn’t thought about her. She’d been a slip of a girl then and he’d been little more than a boy himself. Looking at her now, standing on the dais with the other great ladies, it was obvious she was a woman long since grown. Her hair tumbled in fashionably long, dark ringlets down her back which was held ramrod straight, showing off her fine woman’s figure to magnificent effect. The sister who stood beside her might be considered the more conventional beauty, but Gendry had lost his heart long ago to a pair of grey eyes and a mind as sharp as the northern steel she reminded him of.
As Gendry watched her keenly from atop his horse, he wondered if she ever thought of him. Her eyes scanned the assembled troops and for a moment he let himself wonder if she was perhaps looking for him amongst the ranks. He quickly suppressed that foolish thought. Their paths might have crossed once, she might even have considered him a friend, but their lives and futures could hardly be more different now.
Arya Stark was from old stock, old money and, despite her past, she would see out the war safely behind the walls of her family’s country retreat. Gendry had hauled himself up by his bootstraps. He’d come from nothing to a new, hard won prosperity with his own Boston law practice, until the drums of war had summoned him to fight for his country once again. He liked being a lawyer; it enabled him to help individuals who could not help themselves. But he was born to be a soldier.
After months of preparation and rigorous drilling, his Massachusetts Volunteers marched for Virginia to protect the capital’s northwest flank and break the Confederates control of the Shenandoah Valley.
Gendry hadn’t seen her in thirteen years and he wondered if he would live to see her again.
Arya found it wasn’t hard to sneak into the camp at all. The army was only camped a few miles beyond the city limits and the morning’s excitement didn’t seem to have been dampened at all by the first day’s march. Indeed a procession of buggies and coaches travelled from Boston to the camp and back as mothers sent on final, forgotten possessions and stragglers joined their Regiments.
The Stark sister’s closed buggy drew no more attention than any of the others. The horses might have been the finest pair in the whole of the Northern States, but in the general gaiety, no one seemed to notice or care. Arya recognised a few of the transports as belonging to the great old families of Boston and wondered who lurked behind the closed curtains. Whoever they were and whatever their purpose in the camp tonight, she had no doubt they would be safely back in their Boston beds come sun-up. Arya, on the other hand, had no intention of seeing Boston again until this war was won.
She had been sure to wear britches and riding boots under her hooded cloak in order to avoid attracting any unwanted attention. At Sansa’s suggestion, she was wearing very little else.
Sansa had loaned her a patriotic blue satin chemise. Arya had no idea where, or from whom, Sansa had acquired such a shocking garment, although she did suspect. Whatever its origins, Arya had never worn anything nearly as risqué in her life. It brushed smoothly and sensually over her skin as the carriage swayed. It made her so aware of her body that it was somehow worse than being naked. She almost was! Well, her top half anyways. She had preserved some semblance of decency by covering herself with a thick cloak. Gendry had better appreciate all this effort!
She allowed herself a little smile, something that was increasingly rare these days with another war already on their doorstep. No matter what happened in the days and months to come, Arya couldn’t deny it was exhilarating sneaking around in the dark again. The thought of meeting Gendry after all this time was strangely thrilling too. Although she had barely thought on him in thirteen years, the glimpse she’d caught of him this afternoon had sent sparks of excitement shooting through her like it was the 4th of July. He’d sat on his big, black horse at the head of the column, looking every inch the soldier; every inch a man. She hoped there was something left of the boy she had known.
Colonel Gendry waters was the only man left in the Union who could help her and she was prepared to do anything to get him to agree to her plan.
Arya was certain she wasn’t the only Boston lady in the camp, anxious for one last tryst with her soldier. Arya’s visit to the camp tonight was particularly scandalous because the man she was searching for wasn’t her husband or fiancé or even her secret lover. Yet. Still, Sansa said all the young women were doing it. Never had there been such a rush of hurried marriages announced in the Boston Chronicle. The threat of war seemed to galvanise men into proposals of marriage and certain young ladies into rash behaviour that, if discovered, would lead to the complete ruin of their reputations. Smiling to herself, Arya supposed she might be one of those scarlet ladies before the night was through. It was just as well she had never cared one jot about her reputation.
Arya knew better than anyone war threw people into situations and made people do things they could never have imagined before. Seven hells, she suspected even perfect Sansa had let herself be compromised by that Targaryen cad before he’d left to join his regiment. Not that Sansa would ever admit it. At least not to her little sister.
Once they reached the camp, Sansa whispered a hurried ‘good luck’ to her and tried to pull her into a final hug that Arya strenuously resisted.
Huffing, but in a typically polite ladylike way, Sansa reminded her, “I’ll wait here for an hour. That will be long enough for you to find out what his . . . ah . . . intentions are.”
Arya contemplated asking Sansa how she knew an hour would be enough, but decided she didn’t want to know what her sister and that silver haired dandy had been up to when they went out riding unescorted.
“You’ll not see me until the war is won,” Arya said confidently, slipping out of the carriage into the twilight.
Row upon row of identical new canvas tents made finding one man more difficult than Arya had anticipated. In the end, she’d simply asked one of the guards which tent was Colonel Waters’ in her best, gruff Boston accent, turning her ‘R’s into ‘AH’s wherever necessary. She was delighted when the guard assumed she was just another tardy recruit and gave her directions without hesitation.
Her plan to resume the identity of ‘Arry was well on the way to succeeding.
Gendry couldn’t sleep. Had it been apprehension for the battles to come keeping him awake he would have accepted the sleepless night ahead with weary resignation, but that wasn’t the problem. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw that hair, those eyes, that figure and imagined the long, strong legs and soft, full breasts under that demure Union blue dress. Under him would be better he thought.
His undergarments tented uncomfortably and he was thankful that his rank now warranted him his own sleeping accommodation. Sleep would never come when he was this hard or this ready and, since he could not seem to stop himself from thinking about her, the night ahead was destined to be a long, painful one.
When he heard her whispering his name he cupped his taught balls with one hand and groaned into his pillow with frustration. Unrequited lust was driving him insane already. Now he was even imagining her voice. He cursed softly to himself - if he couldn’t get a grip on this madness it would likely kill him as surely as a secessionist bullet.
“Gendry. Wake up.”
This time, it wasn’t just her voice he imagined. He would have sworn he felt her breath drift across his face and her scent fill his nostrils; warm, spicy like cinnamon, enticing and achingly sexual.
He bolted upright in bed. His imagination wasn’t that good.
The shadowy figure standing by his bed promptly sat down upon it and he watched, heart thumping, blood pounding as the hood dropped back to reveal the face he’d been dreaming about for thirteen long years.
“I could have killed you easily you know.”
“You really ought to be more careful.”
He was relieved she kept her voice soft and low in case someone walking by the tent overheard them. He wasn’t surprised though - of course Arya Stark would know to do that.
Although her tone was mildly scolding, her mouth curved into a teasing smile and her eyes sparkled as they roamed over his naked torso. Gendry hurriedly snatched up the blanket, holding it firm around his waist, anxious that she shouldn’t see what lay, or more accurately stood stiffly to attention, beneath his blanket.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?”
She didn’t answer immediately. Instead she leaned over him to strike one of his matches. Her proximity threatened to overwhelm his senses. Whatever the hell she was wearing it wasn’t that demure dress he’d just been fantasising about, for he caught a glimpse of creamy breasts as she lit the candle by his bed.
In the flickering candle light he watched her eyes trail slowly over his chest, assessing every bare inch, right down to where his hands grasped the blanket. “You never used to look like that.”
His irrationally excited brain tried to process her response to his question. Had he even asked a question? He was finding it difficult to think. He gave his head a quick shake, hoping it would clear his mind. It only made his hair fall into his eyes.
To his astonishment, she reached out and brushed the lose stands of hair away from his brow. Her coy smile as she did it sent all of his blood racing south. How could such a simple gesture be so shockingly intimate and thrill him so Goddamn much? If could have moved his hands without exposing himself, he would have been tempted to crush her against his chest and never let her go. Instead, he tried to force some of that rampaging blood back into his stupid, empty head.
“You’ve changed too. But why are you here?”
Her eyes dropped further to his crotch and remained there while she answered breathlessly, “To see a soldier off to war. To give him a memory to carry with him into battle.”
Gendry took a moment to consider if he understood what she was offering. He decided he did. Her intentions were shocking, but clear. If Gendry hadn’t known her so well before, if he hadn’t know what a good actress she was, he might have believed her - if she hadn’t waited thirteen Goddamn years to find him.
Did she really think so little of him? Did she really expect him to fall for an act like that? Furious and somehow even more hurt than angry, he clenched the blanket in his fists so tightly that he thought he might rip it clean apart. It was all he could do to stop himself tossing the lying little wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing out of his tent right this minute.
“Drop the act Arya. Tell me why you’re really here.”
She stiffened and her mouth formed a perfect ‘O’. Caught! He’d seen right through her little scheme, whatever the hell it was. To her credit, her surprise lasted only a moment before her eyes snapped up his, meeting his searching gaze steadily. As he expected, there wasn’t even a hint of softness or remorse in those flint grey eyes. She might look different, but inside she was still the same old, hard-as-nails, Arya.
All pretence at charming him was gone when she finally answered, “I’m here because Abe wouldn’t let me enlist.”
“Abe?” Gendry repeated, not understanding any of this. He felt as if his heart and his body were racing at the speed of a galloping horse while his mind plodded behind on an ass.
“President Lincoln of course! He’s dead set against women fighting for our country even though it’s just as much ours as yours!”
She was on first name terms with their President? More than that, she called him ‘Abe’? Perhaps he was dreaming . . .
“Why don’t you say something Gendry? It’s awfully hard to know what you’re thinking when you you’re just sitting there staring at me.”
She was right. He was staring. Staring at the vision in front of him. He’d seen things with her, experienced things, that shouldn’t have existed on God’s earth. Was this heavenly vision before him another kind of apparition? Was he so desperate he’d dreamed she’d appeared in his tent talking about President ‘Abe’ Lincoln?
He studied her intently. His blanket creased and disappeared under her bottom, just the way he would have expected it to if she really was sat there on his bed. The cloak looked real enough – standard Union issue – and Arya close up looked just as he had imagined she would. Her face was the same one he remembered, but different . . . grown, matured, heart-stoppingly beautiful, with ruby lips and framed by ringlets of hair that shone like ebony in the candle light. Her mouth, set in a delicious, angry pout, threatened to addle his brain even further.
“Why are you staring at me like that Gendry?”
He swallowed hard before he answered, but his voice still came out rough and gravely with desire, “I’m just trying to work out if you’re real.” If she wasn’t, he was having a conversation with a match-striking ghost.
She laughed softly and, as if from nowhere, laid a warm hand upon his belly. His abdomen and his manhood jerked at her unexpected and brazen touch. A breathless gasp escaped his lips.
“See. I’m as real as you are,” her eyes twinkled mischievously as she trailed her fingertips gently over his heated skin until they brushed into the hair bellow his belly button. Then she started tentatively down. No matter how much he wanted her to continue, he couldn’t let her. He had to stop this before it went any further. She was alone in a tent with him. At night. And he was nearly naked and fully aroused. If anyone saw them, her reputation would be ruined.
So why was he fighting this? A wicked, sinful, selfish part of him was tempted. It whispered, ‘Let her and let them find you. She’ll be ruined and then she’ll have to marry you.’ He should take what she was offering and worry about why later.
He might be a bastard, but he wasn’t that much of a bastard.
Snaking his hand around her wrist, he told her “No”, but his hushed demand didn’t come out half as forceful as he’d intended.
For a long moment his skin burned against hers while their eyes were locked in a silent, unspoken battle. They both wanted this, but he had to stop it.
“Arya . . .” He murmured her name as a plea, a prayer for everything and nothing. He needed her to understand why he had to do this and why he didn’t want to.
She cupped his face with her free hand. It was all he could do not to turn his face towards her hand and kiss her palm.
“Take me with you. I can do everything a man can do and more. You know it.”
“I know . . .” he agreed softly. He closed his eyes, wishing everything could be different, “. . .but I can’t.”
Suddenly, finally, she jerked both her hands away and scowled at him. “Can’t or won’t Gendry Waters?”
He missed her touch already. Taking a deep steadying breath, he answered honestly, “Both.”
She immediately rose from the bed, distancing herself from him. He’d almost forgotten that instead of blood, Arya Stark’s veins ran with cold, northern steel.
“I thought you were different. I thought you understood. You want to fight again. Well so do I!”
He felt much older and wearier than he had half an hour ago, before she’d sneaked into his tent and back into his heart. “I don’t want to Arya. I have to.”
She snorted as if in disbelief. That hardened his resolve. He thought that she, of all people, would have understood him. “You saw those boys on Boston Common this morning. Some of them have never even shaved!” He needed to make her understand why he didn’t have a choice. “You remember what it was like for us don’t you? Well, it’s going to be the same for these boys. This isn’t a game Arya. You know the reality. Who is going to bring those boys back alive if not veterans like me?
“I could help too! You know I could!”
He sighed. If only it were that simple. He tried another tack. “You’ve already lost your father, your mother, your brothers. Don’t let your sister lose you too.”
What she said next threatened to break the heart he’d forgotten he had until she’d walked back into his life.
“But what about you?”
No one had ever asked about him before. All everyone else saw was the lawyer, the soldier, the commander, the big man whose broad shoulders seemed to be able to take the weight of the world. Perhaps she understood him more than he’d given her credit for.
He wished for the thousandth time that things between them could be different. But they weren’t. They came from two different worlds and had two very different roads ahead of them. He was prepared to risk his life, but not hers.
“I’m doing what my conscience tells me I have to.”
She stared down at him, her jaw set in that stubborn way he remembered from their youth. When he’d seen that look before he’d known nothing could sway her. The memories almost made him smile. Almost.
“I’ll cut my hair and be ‘Arry again. No one will know. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.”
Gendry finally let his gaze drop from her face to where he’d been aching to look since she’d first appeared before him. Despite the cloak, the swell of her breasts was unmistakable.
“You say I’ve changed. Well, you never used to look like that. Do you think every soldier in this Regiment is blind?
Arya’s face coloured with embarrassment.
“Go home Arya. Marry a good Union man. Breed good Boston babies and look after your own.”
She narrowed her eyes, her expression telling him she’d rather spit nails. He’d always accepted her stubborn, pig-headed ways before. But not now. He wasn’t that boy anymore, but by God, he’d missed that face every single day for thirteen years. The least he could do now was keep her safe and that meant sending her home. But perhaps there was something she could do for him . . .
“Can you tell your friend Abe to send us all the winter coats, bandages and medicine he can?”
Arya wasn’t going to let Gendry distract her by talking about this war dragging on again and she certainly wasn’t going to give in that easily. “I can disguise myself better than ever and besides, it’ll only be for a short while. This war will be over quickly. Everyone says so.”
Gendry sighed again, only slower and deeper this time. “If the Confederates came marching up here would you surrender?”
The look of horror on her face was all the answer he needed.
“Go home Arya,” he repeated wearily.
She looked as if she was about to argue and then thought better of it. Instead she made do with jabbing her finger at him and hissing, “I thought you were different, but you’re just like all the rest!”
Her words cut him worse than any Confederate blade. He was different. He was doing this for her. Couldn’t she see that? She was better off at home, at least she’d stay alive there. And how many men when left alone in the dark with Arya Stark would have rejected her advances?
Fearing he might say something he would regret, Gendry hunkered down under his blanket and turned his back to her.
“Leave me be Arya. I’ve a hard road ahead and I need to get some sleep.”
She cursed roundly him under her breath and then Arya Stark disappeared as silently as she’d arrived.
Gendry wasn’t sure if he was relived or devastated. She’d left him. Again.
Arya certainly wasn’t going to put off that easily. Retracing her steps, she made her way back to the buggy where Sansa hung half out of the window, waiting anxiously for her return
“So, did you do it?” Sansa hissed. “What did you think? Did you enjoy it?”
“Shut up,” Arya snarled back, climbing up and closing the door behind her so hard the chassis shook.
“What’s wrong?” Sansa gasped, holding her hands over her mouth, dreading the answer. “Dear God Arya, tell me he didn’t hurt you! Surely he had a care?”
Arya considered not answering or even lying, but Sansa was too damn perceptive to accept anything other than the truth.
“He told me to leave.”
Arya tried to sound as if it didn’t matter, but even she heard the tremor in her own voice. Anger, frustration and disappointment all seemed to have rolled up into one, big lump in her chest. That Gendry hadn’t been willing to help her was bad enough; that she’d offered herself to him and been rejected was far worse. How dare he! She was one and twenty and had never offered herself to any man before and plenty had asked. Plenty! Gendry was a stupid, bull headed bastard.
Worst of all, she hadn’t expected to actually want him to touch her and she had. She’d wanted it as badly as she’d ever wanted anything and Gendry had told her ‘No’.
No one except the President and Gendry had ever said no to her about anything. It was a new experience and one she didn’t like at all.
As Arya fought off her cloak she wished to the seven hells that she had never involved Sansa in this or taken her stupid advice. Sansa and all the other ladies had lied. Not all men turned to putty when a lady offered. Certainly not Colonel bloody Waters anyway.
“But I thought you knew what you were doing? I thought you said he would do anything for you?”
“Seems he’s changed,” Arya muttered as she shrugged out of her satin slip, the one she’d worn specially, the one Gendry had never even touched. She cursed as she fumbled around in the dark for her uniform.
To her surprise, Sansa stifled a giggle.
“What?” Arya demanded bad temperedly, pulling her army issue, baggy wool trousers over her boots and her own, softer britches. At least she would have another layer between her skin and the rough weave of the uniform.
“Your breasts,” Sansa whispered, clearing trying not to laugh.
“What about them?”
“Well, now I see them, they’re . . .um . . . big.”
Arya cursed again. Hadn’t Gendry pointed out the same thing, only not quite as bluntly? Well, she had planned for this. She wasn’t stupid. Unlike stupid, bloody Gendry.
“Hand me that strip of cotton and make yourself useful.”
Sansa did as she was bid and, between them, they wrapped layer after layer of the torn sheet around Arya’s torso.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Sansa huffed, in a tone that made it perfectly clear she thought Arya didn’t.
Once her breasts were bound down, Arya took a last, longing look at the soft satin slip she had discarded and pulled on the scratchy blue sack-coat she wouldn’t be rid of until this war was won. It itched already.
“You’re not really going to try and do this are you?” Sansa whispered incredulously as Arya fastened the brass buttons.
“I’m not going to try. I’m doing it!”
“Fiddle-dee-dee, but you are a stubborn as an old mule.”
Arya pulled a face and stuck her tongue out at her sister before settling the black felt hat on her head and pulling the brim low over her eyes.
“Your hair. You forgot about your hair!”
Arya cursed some more and hunted around for the scissors she’d brought for this very purpose. Finding them, she thrust them towards Sansa. “Cut it all off.”
“Do it, or I’ll do it myself and that’ll look even worse.”
“But your beautiful hair!” Sansa pleaded, “It’s taken years to grow back. Don’t do this. Go back to him. I can . . . I can tell you how to do things that Aegon assured me all men love and cannot resist. Surely Colonel Waters wouldn’t deny you after . . . after you . . . do that?”
“Colonel Waters is a bull headed bastard,” Arya spat. She could have added ‘and he doesn’t even want me’ but she didn’t. She couldn’t bear to say it aloud. Instead she snarled, “Are you going to cut my hair or not?”
Sansa’s exasperated sigh confirmed she would.
As her sister set to work, Arya wondered what that Targaryen cad had apparently taught Sansa. Ha! Arya had known it. Her perfect sister wasn’t quite so perfect any more.
“While you’re cutting my hair. Tell me what Aegon said.”
“Said?” Sansa giggled. “There wasn’t much talking, but I can tell you what he did.”
By the time Private ‘Arry Snow left the carriage, he was ready to face anything this bloody war or Colonel Waters had up his sleeve, or indeed down his britches.