How we think the fight will go
In his haste to get out of town, John had taken a few country roads he was unfamiliar with, and hoped the general populace would assume he was, as well. The only problem with getting lost so no one could find you was that your GPS often lost you, too.
And now it was the middle of the night, the storm from earlier taking a break. Not much rain would come through the trees anyway, but there was a little moonlight, shining on their path. It looked like a road Diana would take, half logging road, half deer trail, a slinking silver snake with the black canopy of leaves overhead.
The trees along the road parted every so often, and around this particular bumpy curve, his headlights revealed a distant, fire-gutted plantation mansion. Its once-stately lawn was overgrown, and the roof looked like whale bones. The place was named Harrenhal, as denoted by the ironwork sign left against the rubble-pile of a mailbox. There were no lights on. He might have chanced it, save the likelihood of future rain, and current squatters.
Another mile or two of winding roads, the sound of the tires on manual drive, and the voice of his own thoughts his company, and John found himself pulling up to the gate of another mansion: this one a Victorian. It sat in a peaceful clearing with the moon hanging over, and one sole light in the turret. Someone up this late, and all alone – probably not welcoming of strangers obviously on the run.
A hand-painted sign over the gate read The Smallwoods – Acorn Hall.
John shifted the car into gear, and moved on.
Not half a mile down the road, there was a bridge. An old one, one lane. He made it over with no problem, but was forced to wonder where he was. The thing about bayou roads was that they could keep going, for hours, with no turnoffs, and then just stop. He didn’t mind driving through the night, but he hoped to be somewhere that daylight touched the earth by the time daylight actually returned.
The road thereafter ran along a creek. The trees grew thicker and thicker up the hillside to his left, but at least the water, far below to his right, gave him a good show of the moon. There were no other headlights, no –
Around one of these curves there spilled light onto the road. Bright light, but not the white from headlights nor the yellow from houses. It was orange.
The road took a long, sloping jog around a wide knoll, and at its bottom came into view a tree. It stood upon the hill and, outlined against the shining clouds, snaked into the sky like dark crone’s fingers. But that was not what bothered him. All around its base were men, no more than black slinking silhouettes, with a woman in a long dress walking at their front. She held aloft a torch as, one by one, they seemed to descend into the tree. He drove slowly to gawk, but when there appeared to be no captives, and Agatha did not wake to tell him of an impending death, he shifted gears, sped up, and left the strange brotherhood behind.
He was, after all, trying to outrun the torches, not wander into them.
Ten miles of S curves away, when John had not encountered anything in quite some time, there came a pull-off. The road widened for passing, and at its side was an old, packed-dirt patch sheltered by trees that seemed to just go into the woods, most likely a logger’s turnaround. With little hesitation, he turned off, and, hiding the car behind the overgrowth, slid into park, turned off the headlights, and left the keys with Agatha. He could rest a few moments here, get out a map and get his bearings. But before he did, he had to get some of this water out of his system, and some of the nerves too.
The creek they’d been following lay not 100 feet down a ravine. The last vestiges of moonlight were sparkling on its bubbling surface as he peered over at it, through the dark sentinels of saplings. Luckily, there weren’t any large trees between himself and the water; it provided a straight view of whether or not there were any alligators. Distant thunder rumbled overhead, and it was as it finished and he zipped up his fly that he thought he spotted a light in the distance – a tiny fire across the creek, flickering through the trees when the stormfront’s wind moved the branches just right.
It was no reason to stay and investigate. The first rule of special ops was that you don’t stop to take side quests unless someone is imminently about to die. As the moonlight hid behind the clouds and darkness sheltered the land, John turned to go back to the car – and stopped in his tracks.
Sound exploded to his side, a cacophony of skittering through the underbrush.
John turned toward the sound of it, only to be hit from behind. Paws, feet, claws – he couldn’t tell, but it was heavy and furry and snarling and, just like that, he and it toppled into the ravine. They tumbled forward down the steep embankment, assaulted by every twig and vine on the way down. The thing broke his fall somewhat, but he just as much broke its. All he could do was keep his head down and pray to be whole at the bottom.
John came to a jarring halt, hitting the bottom right-side up: His hips slammed into dirt, his feet whacked into river mud and cool water splashed up to his knees. The weight on him lifted and bounded off into the trees, leaving him with nothing but a drawn gun and pinprick of red fluttering on empty leaves.
He put his hand over the gun’s scope light and forced his senses forward: think, hear, breathe, feel ….
But there was nothing. He was alone.
Slowly, his breathing calmed, and he checked to see if anything was broken. Steadying himself on a nearby yearling tree chocked with orchids, he tested his legs and arms and ribs, and finding all intact, gazed up at the hill. The flashlight portion of his gun sent wane white light up the hill, but only revealed it to be way too steep to climb.
He sighed, and, gun at the ready, put his back to the muddy cliff and made his way along the creek’s edge, careful of sleeping creatures that could bite his leg off.
It took an atrociously long time to walk through mucked-up forest paths in the daytime, let alone at night. Half an hour later, John was rounding the bend and about ready to scream for finding it just as steep if not steeper than what he’d left, when he noticed there was more light than usual beyond his flashlight. There was a fire, across the creek, just visible through the trees.
And there was a boy there, about 10 or 12, huddling alone around the fire ….
* * *
It had been a quiet night with their dinner cooking over the fire, until the clouds rolled in and Sandor had thought he’d heard something. Tossing her a long knife from his belt, he’d gone off into the trees, up the hill. For a few long minutes, Arya had been alone with the crackling of the fire, straining to hear further out into the darkness like Syrio’d taught her to listen. The knife was tucked in her belt, hidden under her loose gray tunic, and her thin, one-handed sword, Needle, lay on her far side. Then the thunder came, and with it, a man.
He slipped out of the trees like a wraith, something bulky and bug-shaped held in his hands. Arya had heard him coming, and stayed still; sometimes the best way to stalk prey was to let them come right by you. That’s what she’d seen cats do, time and again, as she watched them in her training.
“Hey, kid,” the stranger whispered, hesitant. “You all right? It’s dangerous out here. There’s something crazy out there, it almost got me just now.”
“Wolves.” She said it with a shrug, voice a little deeper, so that she could mimic a boy’s. She glanced at him sidelong to keep track of him, but kept herself toward the fire. If he tried to grab her, she could duck and roll, thereby pitching him right into the flames. “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt me.”
There was a pause, and then: “What are you doing out here all alone?” The movement of his feet had stopped, a few feet to her side, she figured.
“Do you have anyone looking for you? A home?”
She tensed, and another rumble of thunder jostled her to move. She raised her head and eyed him suspiciously, coming up to rest on one knee. He was tall and thin, in mostly black. Not as haggard looking as the Brotherhood Without Banners, but possibly someone sent by the Freys to look for stragglers from the wedding. He was fairly comely, at least compared to Sandor, but then why was he in the woods? “My mother and brother are dead,” she said, colder than she planned. “There’s no one to go back to. So you might as well just move on. I ain’t worth nothin’ to nobody.” Behind the blind of her leg, she fingered the leather of the sword’s handle, ready to bring it to bare. The sword her other brother had given her. The brother that might still be alive ….
“That’s…” his voice was soft, and his brown eyes softer. He sounded genuinely remorseful, but that’s why she didn’t trust it. If it was one thing she’d learned from the last year, it was that any solace offered unsolicited was solace that came with a price. “That’s too bad.” A step forward. “I’ve got room, I could take you to the nearest town, if you needed….”
He reached out, and quick like a cat, Arya struck. Her sword came up and slashed at his ankles, which were well within distance, but actually a little too close to make a good side-strike. She cursed, and scrabbled to her feet.
“SHIT!” He cursed as well, stumbling backward.
“You ain’t gonna take me nowhere.” Arya readied Needle, pointing it forward. Stick ‘em with the pointy end…. Needle’s steel glinted in the light, a straight road of molten reflections dancing at the black-cloaked stranger like she planned to do in a moment if she couldn’t run him off. He didn’t have his own weapon up – if that’s what that thing in his hand was – which she wasn’t sure meant if he was a fool or still trying to trick her. She stepped forward and lunged at him, this time a straight stab rather than a side swipe.
“What? No, stop! You bloody kid – ! I’m – just – “ Another crackle from the fire, and a quick-footed dodge. He was certainly no newbie, no traveling farmer, though Arya did realize handsome musicians were pretty nimble because they had to run away from angry fathers. Maybe the thing he was carrying was some kind of foreign instrument?
An image of her father’s happy smile the last time a bard had played in their hall flashed through her mind unbidden, and the anger it ignited went into her sword arm. She struck again, and he jumped again, this time parrying with the instrument/shield/weapon thing around his hand and forearm.
“I’m just trying to get up the hill! To my friend!” the man yelped.
This time an image of Gendry came, betrayer that he was.
“There are no friends!” She yelled, as thunder rumbled the ground. “Friends just die!” Another swipe. “Friends just leave you for some awful woman!” Another stab. This time, the man leapt to put the fire between them, and as Arya turned to meet him, he raised his weapon – whatever it was.
“Kid!” he shouted, bringing the box-like thing, with its multiple round pieces of glass and metal, up to shoulder level. She found herself gazing down one black circle, but she just raised her sword across her chest, readying to block. “This is a gun. Put down the sword, I’m just trying to help you.”
“That’s what they all say. Just wait till Sandor gets back, then you’ll be sorry!” She glanced at the fire, wondering if she could kick the embers towards him. Then she eyed him again, petulant. “And what’s a gun, anyway? Why should I be afraid of that?”
He stared, incredulous. “Are you serious? Do you, like, hunt alligators with bows and arrows?”
Her face scrunched up, offended. “What’s it to you if I do?”
“Look. It shoots flaming arrows of death. Now, just help me find the trail! I’ll buy you a new pair of shoes or something, Jesus.”
Arya huffed. “What the hell’s a Jesus?”
“Oh my God, Kid ….”
A tremor of violence went all the way through her arms and down both her legs; she could almost feel it bleeding into the ground. “God … God?!” She swept Needle through the fire, flinging burning embers directly at him. “So you are with The Brotherhood!”
He back-pedalled with a curse, and flung the embers off him, small rings of orange burning in his clothes like a map of places to strike. “What … No! I – Look – No! Just! Calm down!”
Arya leapt over the fire, and brought her sword down. “I won’t be betrayed any more!”
* * *
Red and orange and heat spread up his shirt. With frantic pats, it may have been falling into ash and gray when the boy came at him, sword in hand and rending air with massive whooshes, but it was still damn hot.
Beware the Fire.
The boy’s attacks didn’t stop, nor did the feral screaming. John blocked with his gun, hoped it wouldn’t malfunction, and ducked out of the way, darting for the relative safety of the trees where the blade’s reach would be severed. He set his gun from stun to sick as he darted up the hill, the momentum of the previously flat ground letting him get ten or fifteen feet up the 50 degree slope with relative ease. But as soon as he slowed he turned back and shot, feet dug into mud, knowing that if he didn’t, he’d be as good as a sitting duck.
But the wild boy wove in and out of the trees; the curling bolt of light shot between bars but off the mark, hitting dirt and branch but no child, and sending leaves curling to dust. The kid dodged like he belonged there, no more than a swift black shape against the halo of orange crackling back in the clearing.
“Agatha! Agatha!” John cried into the trees, but there was nothing. No help, no one to call his name back to him. The farther he got up the hill, stumbling and reaching for braches to pull him up, shooting and turning and making it a few feet, only to repeat the process, the farther away from light he became. The moon was gone now, and thunder trembled constantly through his feet, a growl beneath the high-pitched wail of his weapon’s discharge. The higher up the hill he scaled, the more the boy became just a pair of gleaming eyes reflecting the light of his gun, afterimages burned into his mind and preceding wherever his vision went.
At the top of the hill, the electronic skree of his gun zipped into the forest once more, and at its end came a cathartic yelp. John waited, momentarily blinded, wondering if the rustle of trees was from the kid falling down the hill. He waited, breathing in his ears, wind rustling everything above him and sending the trees creaking.
There were no footsteps. No sounds of violent vomiting. Had his mark not hit, or merely been close enough to cause alarm?
A sapling cracked in half in front of him, and the sting of a blade wrote a hot line into his arm.
This time it was him yelping as he bounded up the hill, clutching his arm. The wound wasn’t deep, but it would still bleed a great deal without pressure. John cursed and then praised the Lord as he, blessedly, came into the sweet air of a vale. This clearing was bigger than the last, fifty yards across, and just as he broke past a gateway of obsidian oaks and into grass, a massive spiderweb of lightning arced across the darkened sky to reveal deeply brooding clouds.
A massive and forbidding tree stood in the middle of the clearing, a several-hundred-year-old sugar maple with white bark and red leaves and a fifty-foot reach. Putting the thing at his back, he spun and aimed his gunsight, waiting, watching.
The grass was tall here – about three feet high. It wavered in the humid wind, ghostly pale in his flashlight’s illumination, only to fade away altogether after that. John looked around – here, there, anywhere – only to realize that the light would indicate exactly where he was looking. So he hunkered down with his back against the tree, turned off the light, and waited.
The wind was gusting to a gale. Lightning was frantic and the thunder impetuous, a hammer that sent everything shaking.
But he was ready.
So was the boy.
Without a single sound the boy leapt out of the grass from the side. He swung his sword down, catching the dazzling flash of the lightning above as if it were possible to throw it at him. But the flashes made vision unreliable and the rolling thunder filled ears, so John threw out both legs, switched his weight, and shot.
The sword clattered to his side as the kid rocked backward, and then spewed vomit as if he were made of nothing but … Knowing it was coming, John rolled to the side, and let it paint the tree bark in a way that would feed the birds tomorrow. The kid doubled over with a hideous groan, and continued to dry heave.
John sighed, and, flashlight on him, gave him a look of pity.
“You coulda just let me leave,” he said. The kid cursed something incoherent, then barfed again. “You’ll be fine, just give it time to stop contracting your guts.”
“It huuuuurts,” he wailed, clutching his stomach. He sounded like he might have ruptured something, honestly, and given that he looked fairly small and was living in the woods, maybe he had.
John flung the sword into the field, where it would be hard to find even in daylight. Then he clicked to flashlight-only mode. “Here, look at me.”
“St – stay away from me, you bloody – ” but the kid just groaned again, and curled up further on the ground.
John nudged him with his boot and got down on his knees beside him, rubbing a hand over his shoulders. He would hate if this had happened to his son. “Look, you’ll be fine, just promise me you won’t hurt – ”
All breath left him. In the light of the next lightening strike, he found himself staring at the hilt of a knife sticking out of his stomach.
“Jaqen always carried an extra knife,” the boy growled.
Predicted Winner: Arya Stark
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Monday, March 24, 2014, AT 12:00 PM, EST
Editor’s Note: Thalia Sutton is a longtime writer at Unbound Worlds.com, and a freelance editor of Fantasy for the adult market. She is working on her first novel(s), and a Peter Pan-based comic set to go live in April. She can be found on Twitter at @ComedyMusing.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”