After it was all over it seemed like people never tired of telling me how lucky I was to be alive. How fortunate that I’d been spared when my wife, parents, and followers were all dead, maimed, or captured. How truly grateful I should be that the new ruler had decided to let me live as long as I gave up all claim to any titles and lands my family once held. It was fortunate that I still had a family of sorts to go back to. I should be so happy that they let me keep what little I had instead of being turned out to fend for myself. Every day I should thank the Gods that I was a trusted advisor to the Warden of the North and still able to contribute in a small way to the safety of the people who lived there.
If I hadn’t felt guilty before my waking moments soon became consumed with thinking about why I had survived when so many others had not. Some days it was hard to not want to switch places with one of those who had died. Surely Mother or Father would be of more use than me? They would have a much better idea about how to keep going. They wouldn’t have been looking for ways to justify giving up.
Most days I spent walking the walls of Winterfell looking for signs of weakness. It was one of the few things I felt like I could do that was useful. The damage left from the fire and the siege had been repaired long ago. Thankfully there had been no sign of any trouble from the outside for quite some time. Once things had settled down the King’s Road was patrolled more regularly again and all of the banditry and anarchy that had plagued it for so long was a thing of the past. You could theoretically travel between castles without having to fear for your life. Still ever since what had happened at the Twins I was never quite able to fully trust that anyone had good intentions anymore. I barely went beyond the castle walls.
It was snowing and the wind whistled over the top of the castle. I wasn’t wearing my cloak and I soon regretted it. The breeze cut through my tunic and tore at my skin. The wounds from my captivity may have scarred over but they still hadn’t fully healed. When it was cold it was hard to move my arms and legs after sitting for long periods of time. If I walked around it made things easier. Since my return I’d probably walked hundreds of miles back and forth on the battlements.
"What are you doing up here?" Sansa asked from the doorway to the tower. She rarely came up onto the walls. It reminded her of jumping too much. She had her hand over her eyes so she didn’t have to see. "Bran’s been looking for you. He’s hearing petitioners today."
I limped back over to the door. "I like to check our defenses," I said, walking over next to her. She was bundled up as much as she could. I could barely see her face underneath the hood of her cloak. "I don’t want us to be caught unaware."
Sansa nodded but still looked concerned. She took my hand and I could feel her shivering. "I understand. If I didn’t have bad memories I might be up there with you. As it is whenever I think about walking up there I dream about falling." I felt a twinge of guilt that she’d had to come up here to fetch me.
We walked back to the Great Hall slowly. Whatever Bran needed was unlikely to be urgent and neither of us was in any shape to go much faster. After she’d jumped she’d hurt her ankle and it hadn’t healed correctly. As a result she walked with a slight limp. The maester had said he could try breaking it and setting it again but she refused.
The Great Hall was almost deserted. It usually was unless it was a special occasion. Winterfell had barely enough servants to maintain itself nowadays. The surviving peasants that lived in the villages outside the walls tended to stay there, struggling to rebuild what had been lost. The only time that there was ever anything approaching a crowd inside the walls was on days when petitioners could come in and ask for help. Otherwise everything was run on a skeleton crew. I remembered when all of the tables and benches that lined the halls had been full of people. Now they were stacked on the sides of the hall to ward off dust.
Sansa nodded goodbye to me and headed off to her rooms. Bran was finishing up with the first of the petitioners as I walked in. A long line of them waited by the door. I had to take a deep breath and put on a neutral face before taking my place with him. After what had happened, where it had all begun, I still didn’t like crowds or feast days. Maester Culver glared at me as soon as he saw me. He didn’t like my role, it threatened him. In theory we shared many of the same duties. I would have been glad to relinquish them all.
Bran held up a hand and stopped the farmer from talking. "You’re late," he said, his face expressionless.
"I’m sorry, I was checking the walls,"I said.
"We have guards for that. And it could have waited. You know it’s petition day."
I bowed my head and slid into a seat next to him. Once I had sat down he gestured for the farmer to speak again. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before. The harvests were bad and there weren’t enough people to work the land. I listened to a few of the farmers give tired explanations about why they wouldn’t be able to make their allotted grain contribution this year. Bran leaned back and asked for advice. I told him to go easy on the peasants, they were doing the best with what they had. In better years they could contribute more. Maester Culver recommended a sterner approach. Bran sided with him.
Bran didn’t usually take any of my advice. Instead he deferred to Maester Culver. In the beginning this had stung but as time passed I realized that he probably had good reason not to listen to me. Nothing I’d ever done had wound up working out the way it was supposed to.
The next petitioners were soldiers from a village on the coast. Their lord had sent them to report raids by pirates. Bran promised more patrols in the area and dismissed them. Theirs was the only unusual request in a sea of pleas for mercy.
Once the last petitioner had gone and Maester Culver had left Bran turned to me. Since we’d been reunited I realized how little I truly knew him. The little boy who’d wanted to have adventures had been replaced by a man who had a quiet seriousness about him. "Did you need me for anything else?" I asked.
He watched me carefully before nodding. Since he’d come back from beyond the Wall he was a lot more quiet and introspective. Half of the time I wasn’t even sure whether or not he was even there. "I wanted to talk to you about something."
I poured myself some water and drank it. "About what?"
"About what your role is. You don’t seem happy here," he said.
That was an understatement. The whole time I’d been gone the only thing that had kept me going was the thought of coming back to Winterfell and reuniting with everyone who was left. So many of those people were gone. My parents, Talisa, and Arya, all were lost to the darkness. And those that were left had been irrevocably changed by the experience. Now that I was back again nothing was the same. There were ghosts here and they hadn’t gone away as quickly as I’d hoped. It didn’t help that now that I was back I couldn’t do most of the things I’d been taught how to do when I was growing up. I wasn’t the heir to Winterfell. I wasn’t a soldier. I wasn’t really anything. "It’s hard to rest here after all that’s happened."
His eyes didn’t give any hint at what he was thinking. "Maybe you’d like to go somewhere else. Somewhere with no bad memories."
I had to laugh at that. "I don’t think a place like that exists."
He looked far away for a moment. "It might. There are other places that you could go that would benefit me just as much as having you here advising me. Think about it." He nodded at Hodor and then they both left.
I savored the rest of my drink. Maybe he had a point. But where would I go? Most of our bannermen would not greet me with open arms after the death and devastation my war had wrought upon them. And the last thing I wanted to do was go to King's Landing and try my hand at politics. I had never been good at the kind of maneuvering needed to get ahead of everyone else. My father and I were alike in that. The only difference between us was I knew there was no point in even trying.
That night I couldn’t sleep. This was not something that was out of the ordinary. Most nights I couldn't sleep. Whenever I did manage to drift off there were always terrible dreams that varied in intensity. They were populated with all of the people that had died because of me, either directly or indirectly. I’d already started to forget what my parents looked like but whenever I slept I could see them like they’d never left. Father would be standing next to Mother holding his head in his arms. Mother had blood dripping down her neck, and Talisa held on to her bloody abdomen. Behind them was a mass of faceless people, everyone who’d joined my army and met their ends because of me. They all held out their hands beckoning me to join them. And I wanted with all my heart to be with them. I reached out for them and for a moment I felt that warmth of belonging again. Only to be pulled back by a strong force I couldn’t deny.
I shot awake and felt the furs all around me on the bed. The feeling of fur against my skin brought back all the bad memories of my captivity. I threw them on the floor and got dressed. Then I went up to my usual spot on the wall. The guards were used to it and would save a spot for me next to their fire. They treated me like one of them. It was a nice change from the shocked stares and simpering bows of the servants inside.
"Nice night tonight," Munger, the largest, said, holding his hands above the flames. "No snow." The others parted and made a space for me.
I nodded in agreement and stood next to him. "Anything interesting happen so far?"
"No. Everything’s been quiet. Vance thought he saw a wolf but I think he just had too much to drink with dinner." Munger looked at Vance guiltily as he realized what he’d said and who he’d said it to. I didn’t have the heart to reprimand either of them.
"I’ve been known to have too much ale myself," I said, slapping him on the back. "As long as you don’t miss seeing White Walker hordes I don’t think seeing an imaginary wolf is going to hurt."
I stayed with them by the fire for a while longer and then went back to my room and tried to go back to sleep. I wound up pacing around the room hoping that would get me tired enough that sleep wouldn’t be a struggle. It was the same room I’d had since I was a child and very little had changed. When I was growing up it had felt like it was massive but now it seemed cramped, especially compared to the rooms Bran, Rickon, and Sansa had as heirs to the Stark name.
I didn’t have very many belongings of my own anymore. They’d either been burned in the fire, repurposed by the Boltons, or stolen from me by the Freys. I had nothing left of Talisa. That hurt most of all, it was almost like she’d never existed. I’d tried writing to her family a few times but the letters were returned unopened. She deserved so much better than what I’d given her.
My parents had left their mark but most of their belongings had gone to everyone else. I was left with one of the pins Father had used to secure his cloak, a small piece of silver hammered into the shape of a direwolf. Sansa had given me a Tully fish pin of Mother’s that she’d found in the ruins. They sat on the table in front of my mirror.
The mirror itself was covered with a cloth. I didn’t use it unless I had to. It was always shocking to see just how much my inner vision of myself clashed with what I actually looked like now. I looked like I'd grown so much older. It had only been a couple of years but it felt and looked like I'd given up all of my youth to what was now called the rebellion and my subsequent imprisonment. My brown hair was dotted with flecks of grey. My cheeks had a pinched hollow look that came from not being fed regularly. There were wrinkles where there hadn’t been any before. If I pulled down the neck of my shirt there would be a scar-harsh and white across my neck. I never pulled down my shirt. When servants came across me in the hallway they always acted like they were afraid of me in a way they hadn’t been before. It was almost as if I wasn’t even human anymore.
The only other memento I had from before was carved into the stone wall itself behind the table. In a fit of boredom and pride Theon and I had carved our names there so that no one would ever forget us. I ran my fingers over the crudely carved letters. The fire had blackened them and made them harder to read but they were still there. They’d be there long after we’d gone.
Lately my thoughts had been drawn to Theon. After I’d heard from Sansa that he was still alive I’d wondered where he was and what he was doing. For much of my life he was like an older brother figure who was always there to join in a scheme or dispense advice. Sometimes I even thought that what we had between us might turn in to something more. When he smiled at me or gave me a slap on the shoulder that lasted a little too long my whole body felt like it pulled toward him. At times I thought he felt the same, but all I ever got from him were a few late night meetings in the stable that we both pretended never happened the next day. Now I supposed I’d never know if any of it meant anything at all. He’d turned his back on me. A part of me still wanted to know why. Those answers wouldn’t come tonight.
I laid back down on the bed. The furs were where I’d left them scattered on the ground. I wouldn’t put them back on tonight, though it was freezing. Instead I covered myself with a few of my cloaks. I fell into an uneasy sleep.
The only thing I remembered of the wedding after falling to the floor was someone trying to saw my head off with a dull knife. There was so much blood and everything had turned so dark. It seemed impossible that I was still alive. They pushed aside my hands fighting them off easily and I had to lay there and listen to them delight at carving me to pieces. The only constant was the back and forth of the knife as they tried in vain to separate my head from my body. Blood was filling my mouth. Everything tasted metallic. The room smelled of iron.
"Is he dead?" someone asked. Their voice echoed like they were at the other side of the world. My vision had tunneled so everything seemed like it was very far away.
The knife paused. A hand roughly wiped away the blood before touching my neck and feeling for a pulse. "No, he’s still alive."
"Did you get his wolf’s head? If you hurry up we can tie it to his body," another voice chimed in, sounding almost gleeful at the prospect.
That was when I truly accepted that I was going to die. I made my peace with the world and closed my eyes. The Freys had won, with my death they would have their vengeance. This was it.
But someone else would come to exert a bigger influence over them all. Whoever it was changed the course of my entire life. To this day I’m not sure if I should have thanked or cursed him. "Why would we kill him? His army is dead, why don’t we have our own Wolf of the North? He can entertain us!" I waited for someone to tell him that his idea was preposterous, but none of them seemed to want to argue. There were murmurs of agreement
The knife at my throat slowed and finally stopped. Everyone was looking up at Walder Fredy, who was picking his teeth with a bit of straw. "Sew him up in his wolf’s skin and let him rot," he snarled. "It makes no difference to me." I moaned in protest, this was not what I wanted. They’d killed me, I’d given up. My body had no energy to fight anymore. This wasn't the oblivion that I wanted. This held the promise of constant torment. The hands left my body and I was alone. A stronger man would have fought against it but I wasn't strong anymore. I laid there hoping for death.
Soon they all held me aloft as the still bloody skin of Grey Wind was pulled over me. It was hot and sticky and smelled of death and decay. They pulled Grey Wind’s head up over mine and took away my sight. My hands weakly scrabbled at the light as it disappeared. I felt them put me up on a horse and parade me around, jeering and catcalling all the while. The up and down motion sent jolts of pain through my body. With each step I prayed for an end to all of it.
After they’d had their fill of that they trundled me off down to the dungeons and locked me in a cell. They all stood outside laughing at how far I’d fallen until they got bored and left me to die.
Once they had gone there was only darkness and the sounds of Freys and Boltons celebrating as they routed my army. There would be no coming back from this even if I survived. The Northern army was broken. And there was no coming back for my family-my parents were dead, my brothers were dead, for all I knew Arya was dead, and Sansa was deep in the nest of vipers that was King’s Landing. My wife and child were dead, leaving no way for the Stark line to continue. They’d erased us. I was the only reminder that we'd ever been a force of power in the North. Once I was gone we'd be forgotten.
For weeks after the wedding my memory was spotty. I was only able to put together bits and pieces of what had happened. It seemed impossible but Roose Bolton hadn’t stabbed me deep enough to kill me. Whether or not that was intentional was up for debate. I could imagine him thinking that the torture of knowing I was alive when all of my friends and family weren’t was probably a fate worse than death. He was right.
The only thing I remembered somewhat clearly was lying on the floor on a bed of straw with a fever, pain and tightness all over my chest, and the feeling of fur all around me. I knew they must have had their maester tend to me because sometimes I would wake and someone was sewing my wounds closed and giving me water to drink. It all blazed away in a wound fever that made it impossible to tell how much time had passed and if what had happened was even real. Above it all Grey Wind’s lifeless head stared down at me.
Sometimes I’d find myself starting awake trying to tear the wolf skin from my own, confused about whose flesh was really mine. My wounds healed wrong. I couldn’t hold my arm above my head anymore. The scar on my throat was jagged and rough whenever I touched it. The maester had sewn it up badly. He hadn’t listened to my pleas for help. I suppose I was lucky he hadn’t decided to take away my power of speech.
Once I had recovered enough to move around again it was a struggle to find any reason to get up. I lived in the darkness of my cell, prowling its perimeter trying to get my strength back. I started off by crawling, then gradually worked up to shuffling around my cell. They had put Grey Wind’s head on a pike just outside the bars. He watched everything I did as if he was passing judgement.
I should have given up, everything inside of me was telling me to give up and give in to the part of me that said I should roll over and die. Yet that would have been letting all that I had been fighting against win. So I kept trying to get better, no matter how much I wanted to stop. The Freys had kept me alive. I needed to make sure they regretted it.
"Get up, you need to get to work," someone said, kicking me in the side. I started awake, wincing at the light. I still wasn’t able to do much without the familiar pricks of pain all over my body. A guard was standing over me. If he was interested in me at all he didn’t let it show. "Come on, Lord Frey said you have to earn your keep if you want to live."
I pushed myself to my knees. Everything felt like it was going to burst. The maester had bound up my chest so tightly I could barely breathe. Still I knew that if I didn’t start doing something soon they might decide to let me die after all.
As I started walking I realized that sometime when I’d been unconscious they’d chained my ankles together. They were cuffed with barely a foot or so of chain in between them. It made it that much harder to keep my balance as my stride was considerably larger. The guard laughed to himself as I tripped a few times on the way to the stairs. He nodded to the jailer on the way out.
"What am I supposed to be doing?" I asked as we began climbing the stairs. It started to get lighter and I wondered how long I’d been below ground. I’d almost forgotten the feeling of the sun.
"Somewhere appropriate for a person of your station I expect," he said but didn’t give any further explanation. It must have been early in the day-people were rushing to and fro in the course of doing their jobs. No one paid me any attention except for a few children playing in the dirt who made faces at me as we walked by.
The guard had hold of my arm and he guided me gently but firmly to the stables. And here he stopped. Horses mounted or otherwise were being trained in the paddocks nearby. I doubted I would be expected to have anything to do with that. Even if I stole a horse where would I go? As far as I knew I had no allies anywhere near here.
The stablemaster barely looked up as the guard brought me in. "Where do you want the King in the North?" the guard asked.
"There’s a few stalls that need mucking out. Unless the lord’s not got the stomach for it."
"Don’t think he’s got much choice if he wants to live, now does he?"
The stablemaster shrugged and handed me a shovel. I took it and followed him to one of the empty stalls. "You can start here," he said.
What followed was a day of backbreaking labor where I accomplished little but tiring myself out. Each shovel of horse excrement made me aware of how much more I still had to heal. The bandage around my chest tightened every time I tried to move. I couldn’t lift anything much more than waist height. I was coated in sweat and it stung as it soaked into my bandages.
The stable was a flurry of activity-much like it had been at Winterfell. I could hear bits and pieces of other people’s conversations but they weren’t talking about the war or what had happened at the wedding anymore. Most of what I heard was talk of crop rotation and how to prepare for the coming winter.
It wasn’t clear what would happen if I didn’t finish the work they’d given me. It would have been awful if I’d survived this long only to get killed for not mucking out a stall correctly.
I’d barely cleaned the corner of one stall when the guard stood up and slapped the dirt from his pants. "Alright, King in the North, time to get back to your cell," he said.
I put the shovel against the wall and nearly collapsed. Everything in my body ached. A rising terror filled me. I hadn’t finished the job. "I...I didn’t finish," I said.
He shrugged. "It’ll still be there tomorrow. We’re not going to kill you yet." He prodded a bucket of water toward me. "Wash up, you’re filthy."
I had no concept of time or how many days had passed since the wedding. At the beginning I tried to keep tally on the wall but as each day was much like the last I eventually gave it up. Sometimes I suspected they added marks to my tally just to confuse me. I woke up, they took me to the stables to work, I was taken back to my cell. Repeat. They fed me, but only enough to allow me to make it through the next day. Perversely the punishment they’d given me only made me stronger. My arms were still stiff but I could move them further. Instead of barely cleaning out one stall a day I started to be able to clean more and more.
One day the guard let me out of the cell and we took a different turn than we had before. "It’s a feast day today," he said when I looked at him in confusion. He didn’t tell me which one or why that made a difference in what I was supposed to do. Stalls needed to be cleaned every day. Servants were bustling all around us and almost ran into me a few times.
The guard, who thus far had refused to tell me his name, took me down to the kitchens. There the head cook started yelling at him for bringing me there. Grey Wind’s pelt had always had a stench but the longer I wore it the worse the odor got. Even though the guard had me wash off before going back to my cell I was never truly clean. I’d gotten used to it but I’m sure it didn’t help other people around me.
"Why is he in here?" the cook yelled. "He’s going to ruin the feast!" I didn’t see how that was possible given that he was almost as dirty as my clothes were.
"Lord Frey wanted him brought in at the start of the feast. Said to wait here with him. Didn’t say why." The guard snatched a roll from a tray as it passed nearby and ate it noisily. "He won’t be touching any of your plates."
They kept me standing in a corner. All eyes were on me as they passed by. I must have been a pitiable sight, dressed as I was in a dire wolf pelt and decaying clothing. I tried to keep my head up. Cleaning stables hadn’t broken me, this wouldn’t either.
An impatient looking man came into the kitchens followed by three or four servants. He talked to the cook briefly and then came over to where we were standing. "Thank you Blackwin, I’ll take it from here." Blackwin shrugged and handed the chains over. The man sniffed at me and then gestured to the servants. "Blindfold him and get him ready."
I braced myself to run and fought against their grasp. All of my struggles didn’t amount to anything and before I knew it I was blindfolded and there was something heavy on my head. My hands were tied in front of me. They tugged on the rope, leading me somewhere. I followed them blindly. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t like I had any reason to trust them. Maybe my recovery was slowly taking away any resistance I had left in me.
From the banging of pots and pans in the kitchens we burst out into a wide open area full of voices, music, and noise. It rumbled all around me. I could hear them whispering about me in the background. A few times I tripped on the uneven surface of the floor. That brought laughter that echoed.
We stopped and I almost fell over. I wasn’t expecting it. My hands were jerked in front of me and tied to a pole. I could feel the change in the air as they walked away from me. The noise rose in a crescendo and then stopped. I was vaguely aware of people all around me, I must have been in the middle of a circle of them. That didn’t bode well. I started to try and pull my hands free. My heart pounded dangerously in my chest.
"Where are you going? You’re our special guest," Walder Frey’s voice came from in front of me and up above. "We even gave you back your crown." He laughed bitterly.
That explained the weight on my head. I didn’t want to think about what they’d put there. If I hadn’t seen Grey Wind’s decaying remains before I’d been taken up here I wouldn’t have put it past them to place it there again. I could hear everyone around me laughing and whispering to each other.
I started to struggle harder. This wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of. Maybe they’d decided to kill me after all.
"In fact, why don’t we all cheer for the King in the North?!"
"I’m...I’m not!" My voice sounded so pathetic. It didn’t matter. The chant had already started.
"All hail the King in the North! All hail the King in the North!" The voices sounded like they had the day of the wedding. I was so caught up in that I almost didn’t feel the object that hit me on the forehead. It was soft so I almost didn’t notice it. That was the only soft thing they’d throw.
Suddenly I was pelted on all sides by objects of varying sizes and weights. After a few hard things hit my head I sank to my knees. Nothing made it stop and the chanting only got louder. I could feel what I thought was blood dripping down my forehead. Though everything inside me made me want to scream in terror I bit down on my lips and tried to brace myself so I could make it through it.
And then, after what seemed like hours, it stopped. I struggled to get to my feet. "Thank you so much everyone. I’m sure the King in the North appreciates all of your gifts." A cheer spread throughout the room. "Now let’s let him rest."
Hands lifted me and carried me out. A mocking applause followed. The weight on my head was gone and the blindfold went with it. I was back in the kitchens. My legs wouldn’t work correctly and I fell to the floor.
Everyone walked around me and no one paid me any attention. If I’d had the energy I could have run away and no one would have noticed. I wound up retching in the corner. All that came up was bile. I had no idea what they’d been throwing at me but my clothes were covered with rotting food. The cut on my forehead was still bleeding. I found smaller cuts all over my body and places where bruises were starting to form. All that I could hear was the chanting "All hail the King in the North!" It became my whole world. And so I didn’t notice when Blackwin came to get me.
"Alright, time to go back to your cell." He acted like nothing had happened. I didn’t have the energy to protest. He half carried me back down to the dungeons.
Once I was back in the familiar confines of my cell he put a bucket of water in the corner. "Wash yourself off, you’re disgusting," he said. I waited until he went up the stairs before I crawled over to it and tried to clean myself off.
The next day he acted like nothing had happened. I could barely stand and one of my eyes had swollen almost completely shut. He stood there watching me, no emotion showing on his face. "Come on. Time to work."
"Is that what’s going to happen? Or am I going to have rocks thrown at me again?" I snapped.
Blackwin glared at me. "What did you expect? You can’t think you’ll be forgiven that easily." He poked at me with the butt of his spear. "Get up, we’re going to the stables." I didn’t move. All of the resistance I should have shown yesterday when it mattered seemed to have shown up today. He rolled his eyes and sighed. "All I know is you hurt my liege lord and went back on your word. You’re lucky he let you live. If you have to let them throw things at you to do it, isn’t that worth it? I’m sure the people in your army who died that day would love to be where you are now." He hit me with the spear again. "Now get up."
"At least tell me what feast day it was." If I knew that I’d at least be able to tell how long I had until the next. But Blackwin had finished talking. He grabbed hold of the chains around my ankles and pulled. I had no choice.
There was another feast day an indeterminate number of days later. I hoped that if I figured out the pattern I might be able to prepare myself for it. There was no preparation for this-once Blackwin tried to make me take the same turn I started to fight against him. He had to get two other guards to subdue me and drag me up to the main hall. They barely got the blindfold on.
I had a small strip of vision so I could see little pieces of everyone around me. They all looked like they hated me. It didn’t help me dodge anything that they threw at me. This time I found my voice, this time I asked why and screamed abuse at them. That only made them madder and increased the number and size of things thrown at me. And always, always, the mocking chant "All hail the King in the North."
Once the feast was over and I was back in my cell it was almost as if it had never happened. The next day it was back to mucking out the stalls. Life settled into an unsteady rhythm. Some days I mucked out stalls and some days I had abuse thrown at me. And some feast days nothing at all happened.
One day I was busy in the stable again when I overheard one of the stablehands a few stalls over. "I heard the Northern army is getting closer. Do you think we’re safe here?"
His companion laughed. "Lord Frey stopped the last ones who came this way. Don’t worry about it."
"This time they said there’s wildlings with them. And giants."
"I told you, Lord Frey can handle anything the Northerners throw at us."
After that I started to work harder than I had before, thinking that it was the best way to get my strength up. If anyone noticed they didn’t let it show. Blackwin must have enjoyed his position guarding me. I didn’t fight him. He got to sleep most of his shift in the stables. And he was a deep sleeper.
I started to plot my escape. They never left any horses in the stable when I was working so I couldn’t steal one of them and ride away. I wasn’t sure if I’d even still be able to do it. The next best thing I’d found was some loose boards up in the hay loft that opened out onto the river. I wasn’t sure which side of the river was which but anything had to be better than this. If I got out I could find something to tell me where I was. I could make my way home, or to whatever was left of it.
I wasn’t sure how deep the river actually was. When no one was paying any attention I’d drop rocks down from the gap to see if I could tell how deep it was. One splash sounded just like another. I’d have to take it all on faith, which I didn’t have much of anymore. Mother and Father had always acted like the wicked would be punished and those who did good things would be rewarded. The more time I spent outside the walls of Winterfell the more I realized how untrue all of that was.
It hurt to climb up into the hay loft and it hurt even more to move the hay bales out of the way so I could get to the loose boards. Still I knew there would only be pain if I stayed. I’d been too complacent for too long. I’d survived for a reason. I had to get away. The boards broke after a few well-placed kicks. They tumbled through space and landed in the river. I waited to see if anyone noticed. Nothing. This had to be it then, there would be no more delays. My eyes slid closed.
For a moment there was nothing above me and nothing below. I almost imagined I could see Talisa there, forever out of reach. As soon as I hit the water I realized this was a mistake. My leg hit something and erupted in pain. The breath went out of me instantly, the water sucked all the warmth out of me. It was deep enough, so deep that it was hard to fight back to the surface. And why would I want to? Deep in the murky depths shadows formed, Father, Mother, Talisa, Arya, Sansa, Bran, and Rickon. Their hands all reached out for me, pulling me down into the darkness. It took all I had not to give up and join them. I would have if I didn’t still feel like there was a slim hope of escape. I drifted near Talisa’s hands reaching out for me.
I had never been a strong swimmer. There wasn’t much point learning at Winterfell, though Theon tried to teach me. The rush of the water combined with the injury to my leg made it almost impossible to make any headway. Instinct took over and I thrashed to the surface. Air rushed in and I could breathe again. Then the only thing I had to do was get to shore. That had to be my goal, once I got there I could escape all of this. It was only when my flailing arms failed to get me any closer than a couple of inches nearer to the shore that I realized I hadn’t recovered as much as I’d thought. The fall and the fight to the surface had drained all of my strength from me. I was going to drown. And a part of me accepted it even as I continued to struggle to the shore. The chains around my ankles kept me from getting very far with each kick.
I couldn’t hear much over the sound of water moving all around me but I didn’t hear any kind of alarm so I hoped they hadn’t noticed my escape yet. The shore was in sight and yet always out of reach. It was a mass of green trees and grass that seemed like it was on the tip of my fingers. My swim stroke didn’t get me very far but at least I was able to settle into a rhythm that made some progress. The shore still seemed impossibly far away and constantly out of reach.
If I was able to reach the Northern army would anyone even remember me? It had to have been years that I’d been locked away. My siblings were young when I’d left. Would Bran or Rickon know who I was? Would Sansa? There was one other person still alive, at least as far as I knew, that might still recognize me. Theon. My mind still thought he looked the same way he had years before when he’d left to go to Pyke. I could still see his crooked smile taunting me as he rode off. Where had he ended up? Why did he leave me? Did he know this was going to happen to me?
I managed to make my way to the shore with perseverance. My leg had gone numb from the coldness of the water. My vision was starting to go too, pulled into the blackness. Then my hand met land. I had never been so happy to feel sand and dirt before. I scrabbled my way onto the beach and collapsed. My clothes had started to fall apart in the water. Chunks of fur floated past. Then I noticed red in the water and my hand went to my leg. Whatever I’d landed on had made a deep gash on my right leg. I almost thought I could see bone. Even looking at it made the bile rise in my throat. I leaned over and vomited.
Nobody seemed to have noticed that I was missing, which was good, though I knew it was only a matter of time until they did. Especially now that I was sure to leave a trail of blood.
I tore one of the sleeves of my shirt off and tied it over my wound as tightly as I dared. I didn’t think it would do much but I had to try. The sand was wet and unforgiving under my hands as I tried to get to my feet. It scraped my skin raw. Somehow I managed to get to my feet and take a few shaky steps before my leg gave out and I fell again. The pain was excruciating but I had to fight past it or I’d never be able to see anyone I knew again. I wound up crawling until I got to flatter ground. Then I got to my feet again and walked a little further.
It was hard to tell where exactly I’d ended up but I figured the best thing to do would be to head for cover. There wasn’t much of it nearby. In the distance I could see trees and hoped there were enough of them to obscure me from view.
The castle loomed behind me. Bits and pieces of noise from inside drifted out-thankfully none of it anything that sounded like they had noticed I was gone. I limped with all of my strength as fast as I could to the trees. There I dared to rest for a moment before pressing on. It was cold outside and my clothes weren’t drying off. They were starting to fall apart too, the stitches that held them together finally giving up after their long misuse. I was still wearing the clothes I’d had at the wedding coupled with the ragged bits of Grey Wind’s pelt that still clung to me. I ripped the last part off, throwing to the ground the last memories of a faithful friend. I probably should have kept it if only to have a little more protection against the elements, but I’d lived feeling fur for so long I couldn’t bear it any longer. Now that my skin was free from underneath it I felt like I was more free than I had been before. I threw the fur away in the opposite direction, hoping that anyone following me would be thrown off my track.
I kept walking as fast as I could. My leg was agony. It alternated between going completely numb and boiling with pain. I practically had to drag it. At this point I wasn’t even sure where I was heading. It didn’t really matter as long as it was away.
The shadows grew longer and started to blend together. Clouds filled the sky. It was starting to turn into night. I needed to look for a place to sleep soon. Wandering around in the dark was a good way to get attacked by animals or bandits. I found a few likely spots but they looked too exposed. Finally exhaustion won over and I collapsed in the middle of a bunch of bushes.
If I had thought this through better I would have saved some of my food from yesterday’s meal and brought it with me. Chances were any settlements I found would be duty bound to report me to the Freys. There was no telling where the Northern army was, or even if it actually existed.
I covered my trail as best I could and settled down to rest for the night. I drifted into an uneasy sleep that was punctuated by starting awake every time I heard a noise. I’d forgotten how dark it could get outside castle walls. The moon wasn’t out. Everything seemed larger and more dangerous than it did during the day. I forced myself to ignore the fear and relax.
Once the sun started to rise in the morning I looked at my leg again. It had scabbed over somewhat, but once I started moving that broke and blood spilled down my leg. I grabbed some leaves and tied them to my leg, hoping it would staunch the flow of blood. If Talisa had been here she would have known what to do. If Talisa had been here a lot of things would be different.
My stomach was empty and my mouth was dry. I had to find somewhere to get supplies or my escape wasn’t going to last for very long. The best chance I had was to follow the river and hope it took me to civilization. Maybe I could steal food and water from a village. I wouldn’t make it at all if I didn’t get up.
I struggled to my feet. The world spun in front of my eyes. Each step only made it spin faster. I kept on walking, hoping that if I did eventually the spinning would go away.
The castle was still visible behind me. With each step it got further away. I only had to keep moving. This would all work out. Once I got food and water I could make it to the Northern army and go home. I could put all of this behind me.
My optimism lasted until I heard dogs barking and hoof beats behind me. Then it was replaced by pure desperation as I dragged myself along as fast as I could. I had no doubt that if they caught me they would kill me. I’d already cheated death once, I wouldn’t a second time. I just had to try to make it to somewhere they couldn’t follow and I would be free.
The dogs were closer now. I didn’t look back to see how far away they were but the volume of their baying was growing louder. I had my hand on my thigh trying to will myself to keep going. The spinning was getting worse. I tried to focus on one spot in the distance, hoping that if I did it wouldn’t matter how much everything moved around it. I was paying so much attention to that spot that I didn’t notice the tree root on the ground that tripped me and made me fall. Once I was down there was no getting up. The dogs surrounded me and it was over.
I didn’t even bother hiding my head. If I was meant to die here surely it would happen no matter what I did. The dogs paced around me growling, waiting for the order to attack. I pushed myself to my hands and knees trying to prepare myself for the worst.
Men on foot soon loomed over me. "Didn’t get very far, did you Your Majesty?" One of them said, elbowing his friend. "You’re heading the wrong way anyway." He pointed. "North’s that way."
I closed my eyes and cursed to myself. This hadn’t been planned out very well at all. The other soldier reached out and pushed me over. I let out a gasp of pain. "Get up, we’re going back. Lord Frey’s orders."
Once we started walking it became clear I hadn’t made it very far away from the castle at all. The pace they set was grueling. I could barely keep it up. But if I slowed down the dogs got closer and I could feel them nipping at my ankles.
When we got inside the castle walls everyone stopped working and stared at me. I stumbled forward, half unconscious with pain. Then I saw them bend down and start to pick up rocks. This had to be where it all ended.
They made me kneel down and the people moved in around me, boxing me in. I waited for them to start throwing rocks. Instead something happened behind me and I was held still while they settled a wolf pelt around me. This one wasn’t a dire wolf skin, but a bunch of smaller ones crudely sewn together. They had to hold me still as I fought to keep them from sewing it on around me. I nearly went mad-I’d had a brief glimpse of life without all of this and I couldn’t go back.
"Why are you fighting it? You’re a wolf! This is your natural state." One of the men standing above me said imperiously.
I found myself snarling at him, able to do little else with the man kneeling on my chest sewing me in. The longer it took the less I found I could fight back. My energy was leaving me. The thought of everyone standing around me holding rocks kept me fighting. Finally they were done and they stepped back. I tried to get to my feet but found I couldn’t. My leg had completely given out. I caught a flash of movement in the crowd. My hands went over my head reflexively, trying to defend against the rocks that were sure to come. A few did but they were small and didn’t hurt as much as I thought they would.
"Alright, stop it. He’s going back in the dungeons." Guards appeared on either side of me and half dragged me down to the prison cell that was my home. As we passed through the crowd a few people spat on me. I could hear the familiar chant but by now my mind had reduced it down to syllables, the words had lost all meaning to me.
And then I was down in darkness.
They left me there chained to the wall by my arms and legs. I could barely move more than a few inches. They boarded over the barred windows and let the torches burn out until I was all alone in darkness. It would have been easy to imagine that they had sealed it all up and left me alone down here to starve to death.
Once in the darkness there was no way to mark any passage of time. Things looked the same whether or not I had my eyes closed. I tried to wait for my eyes to adjust but even then I couldn’t see anything. No one came down the stairs. I couldn’t hear anything from outside. I tried to move but there was no way to reach anything that might have been of use.
The possibility that they were deciding whether or not to kill me seemed more and more likely. Regrets flooded over me. I should have planned my escape better. I should have know that I wasn’t strong enough yet. The Gods were punishing me for my hubris yet again.
I shook my limbs against the chains. There was no give in them. My arms were chained above my head. The longer they stayed like that the less feeling I had in them. I prayed that they would soon go numb. The chains held them up past the point I could move them myself. It almost felt like I was being slowly torn apart. It was a slow agony with no end in sight.
I didn’t even want to think about what was going on with my leg. I could feel it throbbing as blood rushed to the cut. It made the straw underneath me wet. I didn’t think they’d bother wasting time and resources to mend it. I only hoped that it wouldn’t start to fester.
As time passed I started to see things that I knew weren’t there. Shapes bounced and blurred together in front of my eyes. Every so often they would coalesce until they formed people and places that I’d known. I couldn’t make them go away. I closed my eyes.
It all lasted until the day the Northern army reached the Twins. That army had crushed everything in its wake, leaving nothing behind. I found myself abruptly torn out of the ragged clothes I had been wearing and forced to take a bath. It took two tubs full of water before they could even partially claim that I was clean. All of the scars and places rubbed raw on my body were revealed from beneath their coating of grime. My leg was a horror show, muscle and bone stuck out awkwardly beneath my half-healed skin. It was all covered over with bandages and healing salves the maester had in his bag of tricks. Why he hadn't used them before was never questioned. They tied a strip of cloth around my neck to hide where they’d tried to cut my head off.
Once I was set to heal they turned to my outer appearance. My hair was cut and my beard was shaved. I watched an impressive pile of hair fall to the floor under the skillful hand of the barber. It looked a lot lighter than I remembered, it was brown mixed with grey. Then I was given new clothing to wear, fancy embroidered clothes like the ones Mother had given me before. It felt odd to wear something that wasn’t fur so close to my skin.
They sat me in the gallery with the other Freys when Bran came in to demand their surrender. Bran acted a lot older than I remembered-as if he’d gained hundreds of years on top of his own. His direwolf, Summer, was there with him. I felt a pang of loss as I remembered Grey Wind. Summer was massive and could have easily taken any of the soldiers policing these proceedings. Bran had refused to put him in the stables like the Freys had requested. At least someone had learned from my folly.
Walder sat on his throne with who I assumed was his newest wife at his side. Bran sat in a chair with several of his allies surrounding him on either side. Hodor stood behind him, dressed in garb emblazoned with the Stark sigil. I was surprised he’d made it through their travels alive.
"So yet another King in the North has come to make me bend the knee. I hope you’ll be more respectful than your brother." Walder still showed no fear even though he’d obviously lost. The army that stood outside his gates was more than enough to crush him into the ground. I wished I knew how Bran had gotten all of the allies that he had. I hoped he hadn’t had to make promises he wouldn’t be able to keep.
"Lord Frey, I’ve only come to show you the same respect you’ve shown my family and guests under your roof. You had to have known this day was coming," Bran said firmly, glaring at him. Summer bared his teeth and growled. "My mother and brother would still be alive if it wasn’t for you."
At that Walder nodded at the man who held my chains. He dragged me to my feet. I couldn’t suppress the grunt that struggled out of me. "I’m sorry for what happened to your mother, but your brother, as you can see, is still very much alive."
Bran looked at me like he had no idea who I was. "Robb?" He gestured for Hodor to move him closer to me. "They said you were dead." The fear and distrust in his eyes was palpable. I knew I didn’t look anything like the brother who had gone off to war anymore. That man had bled to death here on the floor. He probably thought that I was some random peasant Walder had brought in to pretend to be me. I wouldn’t have believed it either.
I shook my head. Words wouldn’t come, they were stuck behind tears that I couldn’t keep from shedding. I couldn’t trust myself to say anything that made sense. The last time I’d had a conversation with anyone who really existed I’d wound up a gibbering mess at the end of it. I was little better than Hodor. My tormentor was still holding me upright with the chains. I was a pitiful figure. I was struck with the desire to go back down to where I belonged in the dungeons. At least there I knew where I stood.
Suddenly it felt like something was inside my head rooting around. Bran’s eyes had slid back in his head. I lost all control of myself. I welcomed it. It was wonderful to go somewhere else and look down upon myself as if I wasn’t truly there. It didn’t last long. Soon he slipped back into himself and looked upon me with pity. "It is you," he said softly. "They told us everyone died at the wedding."
Walder was snickering to himself. "See, I kept him safe for you from the Boltons. It was all their idea, you see. They were holding one of my sons hostage so I had to do what they said." He held his hands palms up in surrender. "I had no choice."
Bran wasn’t paying any attention to him. He was still staring at me. "We’ll take you back home Robb. Back to Winterfell. Sansa and Rickon are there. They’ll be happy to see you."
It took all I had to keep myself from breaking down in tears in front of everyone. I’d thought this was how my life was going to end and here was my brother offering deliverance. It was more than I could have ever asked for. "Please..." I forced out.
He nodded to one of his attendants and they took the chains away from my captor. We made our awkward way out of the Great Hall. I’m not sure what exactly happened to the Freys but I remember hearing screams as they took me down to Bran’s tent.
Bran came in to see me later. Responsibility had made him grow old before his time. Hodor still helped him get around but he was much more independent than I remembered. They hadn’t taken my chains off yet. They were almost a comfort to me right now. It was something I’d grown used to and I didn’t know what to do without them. This all still felt like it was a dream. How many times had I wished for someone to come and save me?
Summer sniffed around my chair before falling down at my feet. I had to resist the urge to pull back in horror. He reminded me so much of his brother. Bran sat at his desk writing letters. It felt like he’d forgotten about me. At least sitting here waiting for him to notice me didn’t feel like being on display in the Frey dining hall. Hodor was tidying up in the background, muttering his name to himself and smiling. I’d forgotten how much I’d missed him.
"Are you hungry?" Bran asked. "I can get them to bring you something to eat and drink."
I tried to remember the last time I’d eaten. It seemed so long ago. "Yes please." I was surprised that my manners hadn’t died in prison. Hodor nodded and left. I remembered what camp food was like. When I’d been on campaign I’d complained about what passed for nourishment. Now I looked forward to the thin stew and hard bread that made up meals on the road.
Bran continued to stare at me as if he couldn’t quite figure me out. I would have loved to be able to explain it all to him but that had been taken away from me long ago. Instead I sat and enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have to wonder what was going to happen next. I could have sat there forever. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"I’ll live," I said. It was all I could say.
"I’ll have one of the maesters look at you," he said, scribbling something on a piece of paper. That sounded fine to me.
"Who did you get to join you?" I asked after it became obvious he wasn’t going to ask anything else.
He continued writing. "Some of our bannermen, the Tullys, and a few groups of wildlings that wanted lands further south." I was impressed that he’d gotten anyone to follow him after I’d ruined the Stark name.
"Where will you go now?"
"Back to Winterfell. This is as far as I wanted to go. I had to get revenge for Mother...and for you." Whatever he was writing must have been long because he hadn’t stopped the entire time he’d been talking to me. "I didn’t think I’d find you alive."
"I didn’t think I’d still be alive. After what happened to Mother and my followers...I thought they’d kill me too. Instead one of them thought I’d be more valuable as a prisoner." The chains felt heavy on my wrists but I didn’t ask Bran to take them off. Then I might have to figure out what to do next. That wasn’t something I thought I could handle just yet.
"Yes, you’re lucky you survived."