When a king said the words, “I need to speak with you,” you didn’t disagree with him or turn him down, hence why Gendry was now standing in the presence of King Stannis Baratheon in the godswood of Winterfell.
Gendry felt like an intruder in the godswood. Even if they were Arya’s gods again, they were not his, and he didn’t know what to do with them. He just stared at the carved and bloody face in the white weirwood tree. It reminded him of a dead man whose blood was seeping out of his body little by little after a terrible wound. The thought was not a good one, especially when he was already so nervous. Despite the fact that he had now spoken with the king a number of times, had been given a Baratheon warhammer, and had even saved the man’s life, Gendry found it awkward being around the older man for reasons he could not explain. While Rickon was the Lord of Winterfell, he was young and easygoing, making him good company for a highborn lord. Stannis was not like that though; he was cold with a hint of anger in almost everything he did or said.
Once they had entered the godswood though, Stannis did not speak for a long time. He stared down into the hot springs, watching his reflection ripple in the dark water. Though he found it awkward to look at the king, Gendry struggled not to stare. Now that Stannis had cleaned up and looked more like a king than a soldier, it was easier to see what he looked like. If Stannis was looking at his reflection in a mirror, then Gendry was as well, but a different sort of mirror, one that spoke of the future.
I look like him, Gendry thought somewhat timidly. They weren’t an exact match, but it was hard not to notice their similarities. He’d seen more than a few of the men stop and give them a second glance if they stood anywhere near each other. Gendry was almost always at Arya’s side whenever she spoke with the king, so it was hard not to notice the fact that they looked strikingly similar. I have his eyes.
Stannis Baratheon had bright blue eyes – but they were more than that. They were also somehow dark, as if cast in a shadow, but then when he looked at someone, they were bright again, as if on fire. Gendry had those eyes as well: hidden in shadow when he was thinking, but bright and alight when he was smithing. How could he not notice something like that? People might have thought him slow, but it was more like denial than anything else. He’d never thought of it before, not until he’d found Stannis staring at him, but the idea of finding someone that he was related to in some way was startling. They’d spent so much time finding Arya’s family and reuniting her with her family that he’d never once thought about meeting his own. Quite frankly, the idea cowed him, and he’d tried not to think of it for the past month. Truth be told, he didn’t want to think of it. For some reason, being a bastard boy with a dead mother and no father to speak of was easier than knowing just who had abandoned him.
“I knew who you were from what moment I saw you,” Stannis finally began, still staring down at the water. His voice was steady, devoid of any sort of emotion that might betray him. Stannis was a man ruled by his mind; Gendry couldn’t help but think, when all he’d ever been was ruled by his heart. What a burden it must be to never allow those emotions out. “I didn’t know your name or where you came from, but I knew you. I’d seen you before, in King’s Landing, years ago when my brother was still king. And as soon as you walked in the door with Arya Stark, I knew beyond a doubt where you came from, and I hated you for it.”
Gendry’s eyes dropped to the ground quickly. You really didn’t want to hear a king tell you that he hated you; that usually meant that your head was about to be cut off. Couple that with the fact that he was a bastard that had gone against the king’s orders many of times and continued to do so by sleeping with a highborn lady; and, well, it was off with his head for sure. Still, Gendry said nothing, keeping his lips pressed together firmly. He tried to keep himself from reacting, his face a blank slate, but it was difficult. He’d always been ruled by his emotions. Whereas Arya could go blank at the flick of the wrist and Stannis could grind his emotions into submission, Gendry could not. When he was angry, he would rage; when he was happy, he would smile wide; when he was sad, he would mope about; and when he loved, he loved with all his heart, even when it hurt. He had always been like that; and it was hard to be otherwise.
“I hated you for it because you reminded me so much of what I had lost – of what I had destroyed and betrayed in order to get where I am today.” Stannis looked up from the water and turned his gaze on Gendry, a fierce and cold one at that. “Make no mistake; I want justice and what is right and by the law, but I have not always taken the honorable way, as much as I wish I could say I did. I thought it was the blood that ruined me, but perhaps it was the crown that corrupted me in the end, just as it did my brothers before me.”
“You saved the Wall from Wildlings and you helped retake Winterfell for the Starks and the North from the Iron Throne,” Gendry pointed out, thinking back to all the stories that had been told over the month. From the sound of things, Stannis was more like a god than a mere king. He was the Lord of Light reborn, some men whispered at their fires at night, the Prince that was Promised, though Gendry had no idea what that meant. Still, it seemed like a good idea to remind Stannis of that.
Stannis nodded his head. “Aye, I did both those things,” he sighed, his mouth twisting into a cruel frown, “but I also did terrible things as well. I nearly burned my bastard nephew, just for his blood. And I killed my younger brother.” He looked down at his clean gloved hands, most likely seeing something entirely different from Gendry. “I didn’t want to believe it then, but I know it to be true now. Somehow or another, I killed Renly, the boy who I kept alive by giving half my rations to during the Siege of Storm’s End, the boy who continuously took what was mine by rights, whether meaning to or not. Should a kinslayer be a king even if the death is sound and justified?”
“I don’t know, Your Grace.”
“Before the battle, I thought about having you killed as well,” Stannis continued, still looking at his hands. Gendry took a deep breath. He had expected as such, had told Arya multiple times, but she hadn’t listened and in the end he hadn’t cared enough to stop. “Not only did you disobey me directly, but you brought shame upon House Stark as well. How many times have you risked putting a bastard in Arya Stark’s belly, if you’ve not already?”
Gendry bit his lip. It was a constant worry of his. They’d only used moon tea a few times, but they’d lain with each other multiple times. Nearly every time, he spent himself inside of her. He was terrified of hearing her say the words that she was carrying his bastard child. He could not bear the idea of bringing another bastard into this world, a child without a name. He’d grown up without a surname of his own, a House of his own, a crest or family words. Arya had them all, and he didn’t want her child to be like him. He didn’t want to make a Snow, even if she proclaimed to love her bastard brother on the Wall with everything in her.
“I couldn’t help but think that of course you would ignore my commands – of course you would dishonor her – of course you would taint her with your blood and your bastard seed and selfish desires. How could I expect any more from you?” Stannis shook his head and looked piercingly at Gendry, making Gendry feel like he couldn’t move. How could anyone turn away from a gaze like that? It terrified him and stilled him at the same time. “I was wrong though. I was the selfish one, wallowing in my self-pity and anger. I looked at you and saw someone else and hated you for things you had never done in your life. You may look like him – a spitting image, in fact – but you are nothing like your father.”
He couldn’t stop it if he’d tried. At the mention of his father, Gendry’s heart skipped a beat. “My father?” He was both curious and scared, both desperate to know and hopeful that he wouldn’t.
“Surely you know or at least have an inkling?”
Gendry swallowed the knot in his throat, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down. It took everything in him to shake his head slowly. It was a lie though. He’d never thought about it before – never had to, never even bothered – but being in the presence of King Stannis Baratheon made it impossible for the mill to not start turning in his head. There were looks from people that couldn’t be ignored and things that had been said throughout the month that he couldn’t just forget. They might have to beat it into his head, like a hammer on a breastplate, but he would know eventually, even if he didn’t want to, even if he was afraid to.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, he tried to tell himself. You’ll always be just a bastard.
Except that he wasn’t – except that Arya had been telling him for years, since they were children, that he wasn’t just a bastard. He’d always thought that he would only not be just a bastard to her, but now there was more, and he didn’t want it to change. He’d become a knight to be better and be good enough for her, but now he was desperate for the simple life that being a blacksmith bastard gave him. He didn’t have to worry about the game of thrones or squabbles between high lords or any sort of courtesies. He just had to be himself, a bastard and a damn good blacksmith.
“Gendry, you are Robert Baratheon’s bastard son.”
The words sounded fake and unreal. Gendry shook his head, the word “no” on the tip of his tongue, but all he did was laugh instead. It wasn’t filled with any mirth or disbelief or anger. It was just a laugh because he didn’t know how else he was supposed to react. “You’re not just a bastard,” Arya had said so many times before, but especially after they’d crossed paths with Stannis. “You’re important.” And he’d thought he’d just been important to her and that had been enough to him. He hadn’t thought that his father might be more than a sorry drunk of a lout that had impregnated his mother for a copper or two. Perhaps he hadn’t been wrong though. King Robert had whored his way through the Seven Kingdoms.
“You may be his only remaining son in Westeros, certainly his oldest,” Stannis continued, full steam ahead, not caring if Gendry was slowly backing away, as if trying to escape the godswood and the truth that it held. “Edric Storm is away in the Free Cities, but he is younger than you, more like a child, and Robert’s treacherous wife had many of the bastards killed.”
It was all starting to make sense now. How he’d suddenly been chucked into the Night’s Watch, for his own protection, and why the gold cloaks had come searching for him all the way on the Kingsroad. The queen had wanted his head because he was the king’s son. She couldn’t have the son of the dead king, even a bastard one, running around looking exactly like him when her son, the boy king on the Iron Throne, was being passed off as a Baratheon and looked nothing like one.
“It cannot be by chance that you came here. I don’t know if the damned Lord of Light brought you here or maybe even these old gods that the North hold so close, but something brought you here.”
“Arya,” Gendry choked out, the only sane thing he could latch onto. “Arya brought me here.”
Stannis smiled, but it was a strange smile, one that did not look friendly. “Of course it would be her. A Stark and Baratheon pair has been in the making for decades, but has never come about, like some sort of curse.”
“I’m not…” Gendry ran his fingers through his coffee black hair, the same hair that Stannis had, the same hair King Robert had had. He’d lived in King’s Landing; he knew what the king had looked like, and he’d never once thought of it. How could he have been so blind? (But no, it would’ve been too arrogant to think of the king as his father; and Gendry was anything but arrogant.) “I’m not a Baratheon,” he finished weakly, falling back against a tree to hold himself up.
“You may not have the name, but you have the blood,” Stannis corrected him. “I saw it plain as day for myself during the battle when you defeated Roose Bolton and saved my life. I saw your father in that moment, but when it was over, I saw you, perhaps for the first time. You are your father’s son, but you are not your father.”
“I’m not,” Gendry said, practically pleaded, shaking his head. “I can’t be. I’m just a bastard, just…just a nobody. It can’t be true.”
“But it is,” a soft voice said from behind him.
Gendry spun around, still leaning against the tree, and saw Arya standing in the opening of the godswood. There was a solemn expression on her face, as solemn as the one she’d been wearing on the first day he’d met her in King’s Landing. Her father had just been killed then, and she had been so sad yet unable to talk about it with anyone. (He’d heard her crying though, deep in the night, when she’d thought no one could hear her, and when he’d catch her face in the morning, it would be so sad and heavy.) It looked like that now, as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders, but then it wasn’t. It wasn’t even on his really or on Stannis’. It was on all of their shoulders, bearing down upon them without mercy.
“If you won’t listen to me,” Stannis said, “listen to the girl.”
Gendry never took his eyes away from Arya; and she never took her eyes away from him. “How long have you known?”
Arya shrugged her shoulders, trying to be nonchalant, but he could see the way it hurt her to do so. “A year or so. I realized it randomly while I was in Braavos. I saw a man from the back and thought it was you, but when he turned around, he was older, and I thought he looked like the old king. And then slowly I began to piece together things. It wasn’t until I spoke with King Stannis that I knew for sure though.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Gendry demanded heatedly, pushing away from the tree and glaring at the both of them. He was stuck in between them, a sad-faced Arya on his right and stone-faced Stannis on his left. “Why didn’t either of you tell me until now? I had a right to know and instead you just kept me in the dark.”
“Because you didn’t want to know!” Arya snapped. And Gendry was mad at her for it, mad at her for presuming to know what he wanted to know about himself, but she was right as well. He hadn’t wanted to know; he hadn’t thought he’d ever need to know. Being a highborn bastard didn’t change things for him; they didn’t make his situation any better or change his feelings or relationship with Arya. He would’ve been happier off having never been told of his true parentage. Now it just hurt, knowing that he could’ve never had a real family. He’d always been doomed to be a bastard. His mother had once told him that his father was a very busy man and that his father loved him but could not be with him. It had been a nice lie to warm himself up at night as a child.
But now he knew for certain it was a lie. His father hadn’t loved him; his father hadn’t even known him. He’d just been one more sad and sorry whelp that he’d gotten on a whore. Perhaps he’d given her more than just a copper then, maybe a golden dragon for her time.
Gendry blew out some air and rubbed his face. “What does this mean? What’s it change?”
Arya stepped up to him, sure-footed and true, and took his face in her hands. “It changes nothing. You’re still Gendry; you’re still you.” She cast a glance at Stannis, and Gendry followed her gaze, red-faced and uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be physical with Arya in front of Stannis, but all the gods be damned, he wanted to pull her into his arms, flush against his body, and hold her against him for hours. He wanted to press his face into her hair and smell the scent of smoke and the North.
“There are some…matters that can be dealt with later,” Stannis announced, sounding a bit off. He clearly did not know what to do with two young lovers so close to one another. Maybe now he felt like the intruder. “You needed to be told of this first, so that you may think about decisions to come later. They will not be easy ones.”
You’re not just a bastard. You’re important.
But to who?
And for what reasons now?
With that, Stannis left the godswood, leaving Gendry and Arya alone with each other. Once he was out of sight, Arya threw her arms around his neck and Gendry wrapped his arms around, lifting her up so that he was hugging her tightly as can be. They stayed like that for a while, her feet dangling in the air and rubbing against his shins, with her face buried in the crook of his neck and his face buried in her wild brown hair.
“Remember what I told you before the battle,” Arya whispered as she moved to kiss his neck up to his ear. “No matter what blood runs through your veins, no matter whose son you are, no matter your name or where you came from, I will always love you. I don’t care about anything else but you. It’s not the father or the blood or the name that makes the man; it’s only the man himself.” He slowly let go of her, letting her body slide down his until her feet were touching the ground again. Once more, she put her hands on his cheeks, forcing him to look at her. “And you are a better man than most could ever hope to be, Gendry. You will always be my stupid bull and I your wild she-wolf.”
“Your forest love and my forest lass?” Gendry’s lips quirked into a weak smile, the old song playing in his head like a distant fog.
Arya pulled his face down and kissed him gently on the lips. “Always, no matter what.”