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Monstrous

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11.

“Robb?”

Theon was staring at me from the bed with wide eyes. Even though I thought he had been speaking I don’t think he’d actually said a word. He was sitting up looking at me with an interest that he hadn’t shown in days. His face was crossed with horror and concern.

My little bed beneath the window was soaked with ocean spray and rain. My clothing was wet and the cloth around my neck seemed to have absorbed the worst of it. Lying down it must have tightened so much against my throat that it made it hard to breathe. I loosened it slightly and sat up.

The room was dark. The fire had burned out during the night. All I could see was a vague outline and his eyes shining in the darkness. I waited for him to turn away again, to roll over and go back to sleep. Instead he continued staring at me as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do.

“I...I had a bad dream,” I said. My voice was strangled and weak. My hands ached to run along the scar to see if it was still there. They shook too much to do it. I was afraid if I touched it I would find it had turned twisted, curling up to drag the rest of me down.

There was no sound from the bed but I caught a glimpse of movement. Theon had shifted over, making room. I got to my feet and started to walk over to him. The floor had random puddles all along it. Once I made it upright, I couldn’t avoid half of them. The water on stone was cold. If I closed my eyes I could pretend it was melted snow.

When I got to the bedside I stopped. Theon was watching me carefully with eyes that showed a mixture of worry and fear. He looked at the space he’d made and then up at me.

“Are you sure? I’m all wet,” I said.

He gestured to the spot he’d made again, this time with more vigor. I couldn’t argue with him anymore. The room was cold and I was only getting colder. I crawled into the bed beside him, making sure not to touch. He moved the blanket off of himself and onto me. A shiver started to run through my body. I thought it would pass but it seemed like as soon as it started it wasn’t going to stop. My teeth started to chatter. I couldn’t stop them. The threadbare blanket was all that I had to hold on to. I held it so tightly around me I was sure it was going to tear. Theon watched with concern but didn’t reach out for me. If he felt cold at all he didn’t let it show. There was an invisible line on the bed between us that he took great care never to cross.

I sat there huddled up near him listening to the wind and rain batter the walls outside. I had taken snow for granted before, the way it fell silently and serenely. There was a part of me that missed it. My shivering had almost stopped. While Theon wasn’t acting like he was cold I knew there was a good chance that he was hiding it from me.

We sat next to each other in silence, watching water pool on the floor and slide between the stones. I found myself talking without any purpose to the fill the air in the room. “When I dream, I dream about Grey Wind.” The shiver carried through my body again. I looked away from him, not wanting to see pity in his eyes, especially pity directed at me. “This time he had Father’s voice. I thought I’d forgotten it.” A quick glance at him, he was waiting for me to continue. “He . . . he pulled on this.” I gestured to my neck. A part of me was too scared to touch it. “And then I woke up . . . I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if I died or if I lived.”

I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew there was a soft touch on my shoulder, then a hesitant one near my neck. My eyes snapped open and I turned to look at him. He didn’t react to my attention. Instead he kept moving his hand, his finger tracing the narrow band of skin that bordered the cloth. The possibility that if he removed it or touched it more than necessary my head would fall off loomed. I knew there was no chance of it. I knew nothing would happen. But right then it felt like we were in a magical realm where all of that was possible. My hand pushed his away.

Theon changed his positioning, coaxing me to lie down beside him. I let him guide me, sinking down into a bed that wasn’t much more comfortable than the one I’d just left. He kept his hand on me slowly running it up and down my arm. We were facing each other. He wouldn’t look into my eyes, preferring to close his. I didn’t want to think about it. After so long without any kindness, without any human touch, I let myself be lulled into a feeling of comfort and warmth I almost hadn’t realized I’d missed. His hand on my arm slowly moved away, leaving me back in the cold again.

I watched as he started to quietly turn away from me unable to even give me the thing I missed most, human contact. Once I’d had a small piece of it again I just wanted more. I decided I had to seize the brief moment I had his attention before he was lost to me. Carefully, without making any sudden movements, I reached out for him. “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I wish you could talk to me. All I want to do is help you.”

There was a long silence, one that lasted so long I almost thought he’d gone to sleep. “It’s dangerous for you to be close to me,” he said finally. “It’s better if they don’t know you have anything to do with me.” He curled up facing away from me to signal the conversation had ended.

I hesitated pointing out that everyone already knew we were inextricably linked. His fingers picked at the edge of the blanket. Here next to him in the dark it was tempting to pretend that we were back in the cabin by the lighthouse waiting out a storm.

I let the rain guide me to sleep. Lying here next to Theon I actually felt safe, like the things I feared most couldn’t touch me. There were no more dreams that night.

 

I stayed far away from the crowd of sailors who settled in the castle waiting for their ship to be loaded with supplies and the castellan to give his blessing for another voyage. They had a dog for an unofficial mascot that ran around nipping at the ankles of whoever passed by. Most of the time it ignored me but its mere presence terrified me. Even walking to the main gates to get to the beach was a maze of not knowing which sailors would decide to take that moment to call me King in the North and ask if Theon was my Queen. That wasn’t even the worst of it. There was always a running commentary about his genitals that I tried to ignore. It seemed that no matter what any of us might have done we had already been defined by things that had happened in the past.

At the Twins after they had called me King in the North again I had been able to pretend for a time that I didn’t even recognize the words for what they were. Here it was almost as if I was hearing them for the first time. It cut just as deep.

The one place I thought people actually still understood me was at the storehouse with the villagers. The few people that I recognized there came to look forward to my visits, even as it became clear to them that they were most likely never going to see the island they’d called home again. I listened to their problems and their life stories, bearing witness to what they had accomplished. My own story that I told them was simplified and only marginally based on truth. I told them I’d grown up with Theon in the North and became his friend. After the war was over I didn’t have anywhere to go so I’d gone to find him. That was it. And most of them seemed satisfied with that.

I went to visit the villagers after I’d talked with Theon. It was almost as if I wanted to prove to him that there were people who could overlook what had happened. These were people we had helped. The storehouse had been slowly emptying since the last time I’d come here. The pile of bodies by the entrance wasn’t there anymore. The number of beds and curtains set up was dwindling, thought it was still impressive. A few people walked through tending to the wounded but it wasn’t as frenzied as it had been before.

At my entrance it almost felt like everything stopped. I froze, not sure if I was going to find any friendly faces here. One of the people tending to the wounded looked up at me, his face slowly twisting in recognition. I had never seen him before. It was not a happy welcoming face. It was one full of fear and disgust. It had been foolish to think that what Ivar had revealed wouldn’t make its way down here.

“You never said you were a King,” he said. “You never said you were a Stark.”

While I couldn’t fight off the sailors at the castle, here I thought I had more of an equal chance if things turned against me. “I never said I was because I’m not. My name and my titles are gone. I gave them up.” I tensed, my hand wanting to grab my sword so badly. I waited to see if he was going to say something else. They always said something else.

Instead he looked at me dumbfounded, his lips moving but no sound coming out. Perhaps he had no concept of why I might have been forced to give it up.

“I don’t care what his name is, he saved my family!” someone yelled from behind a partition. I didn’t recognize the voice. It didn’t have much of an effect on the others. The faces around me weren’t welcoming anymore. I gave up any idea of staying and headed back outside.

A crowd had gathered. When I emerged I could feel their nervous energy. Still they let me pass. I could hear the low rumbling of them starting up the chant behind me. I had never thought words I once held dear could be so painful. At the sound of the chant it felt like my heart leapt to my mouth. My only thought was escape. I pushed my way through the crowd with little regard to who I was moving out of the way.

My horse was where I’d left it. I managed to avoid the worst of the crowd as I rode out of the town. They didn’t have enough interest to follow me. Once they’d seen I wasn’t going to do anything they went back to what they had been doing before.

It was hard to resist pushing the horse to go as fast as it could back up to the castle. Once I’d heard those words and felt the pressure of the people around me it hadn’t taken much for my mind to go back to the Twins. When I finally got to the gates the stable hand took the horse from me with no comment, but he also didn’t show any malice either. I’d tried to be kind to the servants I’d met here. I hoped that actually meant something to them.

I was still shaken by what had happened in the town. Living on the island had insulated me somewhat from what the world at large thought of me. My name was not looked upon with favor in every part of the realm, no matter how much good my family might have done. The only thing my name was associated with was hubris.

 

When I went back up to the Tower Theon had gone back to ignoring me. I’d dared to hope that what we’d talked about had made a difference, but it appeared he still didn’t trust me. He had covered himself with a blanket and turned so he wasn’t facing the door. Maybe our talk this morning hadn’t changed anything at all.

My dreams that night were full of monsters. Dark looming shapes reached out for me from mists that surrounded everything. And at the center of it all a glowing crown of bronze.

 

The sea churned all around me. I walked out into it with my eyes closed. I’d left my boots up on the last bit of what passed for dry land. The ground under my feet was uneven and slippery. I ignored the danger and walked out until the water lapped at my belt. Seaweed collected against my hands as they trailed in the water. Looking straight ahead it seemed like the sea went on forever. The water stretched out to the horizon, lapping up against the ever present dark storm clouds that watched over all.

I closed my eyes again, hoping to get some measure of comfort from the cold and dark that surrounded me. After being able to talk with Theon for a little while it still hadn’t changed anything. He had reverted back to the man he’d been when I first met him. I still couldn’t touch him. And I didn’t feel like I could burden him with anything more. He already knew that I was a target because of him, he didn’t need to know I was a target just by virtue of who I was.

The water was so cold I almost didn’t feel it. My skin went numb in a blaze of chill that traveled up through my bare feet and settled in my chest. It was too fast for my body to do much more than shiver once or twice.

I hadn’t seen any of the priests on the way out here. Even living among the Iron Born for as long as I had I still didn’t know what worshiping the Drowned God entailed. Theon never seemed a strident practitioner and whatever beliefs Yara had were her own. Sometimes I saw the priests, sometimes I didn’t. There was no pattern that I could tell.

The waves crashing all around me masked any other sound. Had I been at this distance from Winterfell I still would have been able to hear the normal castle noises all around me. On Pyke that was all eclipsed by the sea.

My legs went out from underneath me. At first I thought I’d lost my footing. I didn’t even have time to open my eyes before I hit the water. While I thought I had gotten used to the temperature when I was standing once my whole body was submerged it was a huge shock. The water was just deep enough that I couldn’t reach the bottom to push myself back up. I thrashed my arms, reaching out for the bottom that was beyond my grasp.

It wasn’t until I realized there was something or most likely someone holding me down that I figured out what had happened. I fought as hard as I could against the pressure holding me down but I didn’t have anything I could push against to get back to the air. My vision started to waver and fade. That was when the grip on my back tightened further, dragging me into the air. I could barely see-all I could make out was a group of figures standing around me in the water. I didn’t have any chance to do much more than get a glance before they dunked me in the water again. There was no chance to get any air before everything was dark and wet.

I tried not to breathe though my lungs were bursting. I knew if I stopped fighting it I would inhale water instead of air and be lost. I would become much more acquainted with the Drowned God than I ever wanted to be. Somehow I was able to find purchase with my feet and push up against the arms holding me down. They struggled to keep hold of me as I thrashed against them. For a moment I slipped free, bursting through the surface. I pushed away from them and struggled to my feet.

I couldn’t make out who was attacking me but it wasn’t hard to figure out who it was. If it had been pirates, they wouldn’t have bothered with a man standing on his own in the surf. I staggered to my feet, facing them. My hair was in my eyes. I swiped it to the side.

A group of men from the recently docked ship and the ringleader Ivar, my constant tormenter, stood there looking at me. I wanted to do nothing more than fight all of them even if it meant getting hurt. All of the frustration of being here and not being able to do anything to help Theon threatened to boil over. I spat the water that I’d almost swallowed out of my mouth. “What do you want from me?” I snarled, but my voice sounded pitifully weak in the aftermath. I wasn’t even sure I was speaking loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water. While I was mentally noting how many friends they had brought with them my focus was captured by the dog that they had apparently thought fit to bring with them. I had seen it before in the castle. It was their ship’s mascot and had helped them on many of their raiding expeditions. It was a ratty ragged thing that watched me with barely visible eyes. Once I saw it that was all I could look at.

“Well, Your Highness, there’s the simple matter of your family attacking the Greyjoys. Yara might be willing to forgive you but I’m not. My father died in that war, and he wasn’t the only one,” Ivar said. I took a few cautious steps backward, trying to be mindful of my footing. There would be no reasoning with them, no pointing out that the Greyjoys had been the ones who had rebelled. My thoughts went to the knife I’d left with my boots on the shore. Even if I had it in my hands now I knew it would only make things worse, not better.

“If something happens to me Yara . . . ”

Ivar sneered. “Will hear that you walked out into the surf at high tide, lost your footing, and washed away.”

The whole time he’d been talking I was trying to figure out if I could run faster than they could. The castle wasn’t really that far away and they hadn’t brought horses. The only thing I wasn’t certain of was my leg. No matter how healed it was it still had a bad habit of going out underneath me right when I needed it. The only other possibility was swimming and I knew I had no chance at that. And there was the dog.

I started to slowly inch closer to the shoreline closest to the castle gates. Ivar was watching me with an indulgent smile. We both knew I wouldn’t be able to outrun them. We both also knew it was unlikely anyone in the castle would hear me if I cried for help. And were even more unlikely to come to help me if they did.

“I’m sorry for what happened to your father,” I said. “Truly I am.” As I talked I shifted closer to the shore, praying my feet wouldn’t slide out from underneath me. “I don’t have a way to make it up to you or bring him back.” Almost at dry land. I tensed myself to run. “I hope that my fighting pirates for the Greyjoys goes some way to make up for it.”

The instant my feet hit dry rock I was off. My heart pounded in my chest. All I could focus on was the castle gate. From this distance it didn’t actually look very far away. If I kept moving I almost thought I could make it. My legs were actually keeping me upright and it didn’t feel like they were going to falter. A little flicker of hope and confidence burst alive in my chest.

Until I hit the rocky path underneath me hard, an immovable weight slamming into me from behind. My hands barely kept my face from hitting the sharp rocks beneath me. Still I forced myself to keep moving, struggling to continue going forward, hoping that someone might notice what was going on. All of my breath had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t make much more noise than a strangled gasp.

They tried to flip me over. I grabbed hold of the ground as much as I could and fought against them with all I had. I was only one against four, however, so that didn’t last long. The sky was blinding as they rolled me on my back. I didn’t have time to do much more than flinch as they kicked my stomach. Unconsciously I tried to protect myself with my arms but one of them grabbed my hands and held them down.

I couldn’t see anything clearly. My eyes were still stinging with the burn of the sea water. I didn’t need to see to know they had finally caught me. I fought as hard as I could to keep them from dragging me down into the water. It was only then that I heard a sound that I couldn’t get out of my head. The dog had started to get excited. It started barking and panting loudly, running around beside them.

I screamed and fought against their grip. My whole body gave itself over to the terror that I felt. I was operating on a purely instinctual level, I wasn’t thinking clearly or looking for another opening to escape. All I wanted was to keep away the feeling of fur around me and the stench of death.

The sailors dragged me back to the water with ease, scraping the back of my head against the rocks and gravel that lined the path to the beach. A few well-aimed kicks got me the rest of the way there. I was still flailing and in absolute terror, unable to do much more than strike out at them weakly whenever they lost their grip on my arms or legs. The dog ran around them and through them, barking in excitement. It never got close enough to be a danger. But its every move was all I could focus on.

The end, when it came, was almost a relief. A few feet pushed on my chest and the water swallowed me whole. There were a few last ditch efforts to fight back, but I wasn’t strong enough to push off three or four people who didn’t want to be moved.

The cold of the water was a relief after the expectation of fur. At that point I would have taken anything. Pain from where they’d kicked and punched me flared briefly before dissolving into the rest. I found myself losing the last of my energy pushing back against them.

Everything got misty around the edges. I could feel my grip relaxing no matter how much I struggled to stay conscious. It wasn’t enough. I didn’t have enough left in me to keep going. No matter how much I wanted to get back to the East Tower and Theon I didn’t have the strength remaining to break free and do so.

I gave in to the darkness. A part of me could almost feel Grey Wind’s skin slipping around me. Father and Mother’s faces floated in front of mine, slowly coalescing into themselves. Talisa’s hand stroked my cheek. It was warm and dry and there was no pain.

Suddenly there was light and air and sound. My body lifted and I could breathe again. I had almost forgotten what that felt like. My lungs burned. Someone helped me over to the shore and rolled me onto my side. Water felt like it came out of every part of me. I coughed for what could have been forever. Then I vomited up the rest.

Once my body had calmed down a little bit I was able to look around at who had rescued me. There was no sign of Ivar and his shipmates. The dog was gone too. When I looked up it was into the eyes of one of the Drowned Men. There was no kindness there. Once he saw that I wasn’t going to die he turned back to the sea. I thought he was one of the priests I’d seen before but they all looked the same. His robes were ripped and torn by the waves and he had long wispy white hair.

I dragged myself the rest of the way out of the water and sat on the shore trying to catch my breath. Pain started to radiate from my chest. Thinking about walking back up to the castle was beyond me right now. And I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to. There wasn’t anyone there who could make any of this better. I didn’t think I could stand the silence and loneliness right now. And my legs weren’t steady enough to go that far yet anyway.

I coughed up the last bit of water and wiped off my face. The priest was still standing in the water looking out to sea. “Thank you. You saved my life,” I said. My voice was barely more than a broken whisper. I had no idea if he’d even heard it. I should have realized that living this close to the sea he’d have gotten used to the sound.

For a while we existed in silence. I slowly ran my hands over my body trying to figure out how badly they’d beaten me. My face was tender but I didn’t think it was as bad as it had been before. There were a few spots on my chest that made me inhale sharply when I touched them but I wasn’t sure how much of that was left over from my fight with the pirates. I found my boots sitting next to me and put them back on. The only thing I couldn’t do was stop shaking.

“You should go back to the castle,” the priest said. His voice was tired and quiet from what I assumed was disuse. He still wasn’t looking at me.

My legs wouldn’t move. I could still feel them and I knew they should be capable of movement, they just wouldn’t. “I can’t,” I said.

At this he turned to look at me. There was no kindness in his eyes, but there was understanding. “That will pass,” he said. “The Drowned God has decided it’s not your time.”

Right then it was hard to feel glad about that. The long walk back to the East Tower followed by Theon ignoring me was too much to contemplate.

The priest suddenly moved, walking up closer to me. “I’ve seen you out here before by yourself.” There was a question wrapped up in the statement. “Why? You don’t worship Him.”

I had no good answer for him. The truth would have to suffice. “It’s peaceful here. It reminds me of where I used to live.” My legs were slowly coming back to life. Pain pricked up and down them. I drew them up in front of me with great care. “And until today no one bothered me here.” I gathered myself together before attempting to get to my feet. I almost fell, but was able to right myself. He waited a moment before he put a hand out to help me.

“You should rest. The Drowned God touched you today. Not everyone is that lucky. Most men don’t come back after being down that long.”

If I’d had anything left in my stomach to throw up I would have. Instead I accepted his steadying hand and let him guide me in the direction of the castle.

 

No one paid any attention to me as I staggered into the main yard of the castle. There actually wasn’t anyone around. If I’d seen the castellan I wasn’t sure what his reaction to my appearance would have been. And I definitely wasn’t sure what his reaction would have been to learning who caused it. He had been fair to me and stuck up for Theon when gossip started to float around but he had other more pressing concerns. He always had an air of being too busy to deal with it.

There were a few servants in the halls but they scuttled away before I could call out for help. I left a trail of wet footprints down the hallway. Every step seemed to take most of what I had left to give. I leaned against the wall and practically dragged myself toward the entrance to the Tower.

The one-eyed guard was standing there when I finally made it to the staircase. He looked to have been dozing off. When he saw me he lurched to attention, not seeming to have any idea that how I looked was anything out of the ordinary. Then again I wasn’t sure how much he could actually see.

“Is the maester still up there?” I asked. My voice was so weak. I almost couldn’t recognize it.

“No. He went back to his chambers. Do you need me to get him?” He asked. I’d only ever really heard him give monosyllabic responses before. Maybe he had been inspired to speak based on my appearance.

A part of me wanted to cry out for help to the only person who seemed willing to give it. But hope had slowly been beaten out of me. “No, I just need to get to a fire,” I said.

He stepped to the side and let me make my way past. “Yes m’lord. Let me know if you need anything m’lord.”

I made my way up the stairs. I kept a hand on the wall for stability. I didn’t feel as cold as I had before, which probably wasn’t a good sign. There was a bridge that connected the Tower to the castle. It was the last few steps before the small staircase that led up to the room. My legs wouldn’t carry me any further. I decided that sitting down for a few moments wouldn’t hurt anyone.

When I’d been out here with Yara before I hadn’t paid much attention to how isolated all this was from the rest of the castle. The servants and Maester Culver would have to travel the same water slicked steps that I did, and usually carrying much more than I ever had to. There was a small platform at the end of both sides of the bridge. It was probably wide enough for three people to stand next to each other if they all crammed together. A rickety railing of rope and rotten wood provided some protection from falling off but it wasn’t much. My legs dangled over the side.

It was hard not to look down at the rocks below. They seemed to have an almost hypnotizing quality. Water crashed against them and up against the base of the castle. Falling from here would undoubtedly bring a painful and crushing death. There would be no plucking anything out of that water other than a corpse. It was easy to imagine Balon’s last moments as he fell. Unconsciously I leaned over further for a closer look. It wouldn’t have taken much to move forward and drop.

All I wanted to do was jump off of the bridge and into the water below. I could see it churning beneath me against the rocks. There was a kind of visceral beauty about it. If it hadn’t been certain death I might have wanted to get closer no matter what. It all swirled together in an almost hypnotizing way under us all. Nights now that Theon wouldn’t let me anywhere near him were horrendous. I couldn’t sleep. My only companion was Grey Wind, who was no company at all.

Even though I knew it wasn’t true it felt like most people wouldn’t miss me. I’d struggled on as far as I could and I could go no farther. I’d lived through the Red Wedding. I’d lived through years of captivity and I’d lived through finding Theon again. The prospect of having to start fighting to rebuild it all again was overwhelming. I wasn’t the same man I was when I fought the Lannisters and Father died. I’d grown older and my body couldn’t bounce back the way it had before. Even making my way up here had almost been enough for me.

Today was a clear day. It seemed important to me to see the sun for one last time before taking the plunge. I didn’t want to give up on a cloudy day with no sun. That was almost cliche. The water didn’t look as truly blue on cloudy days, like there was a whole world beneath the waves. Like there wasn’t a place I could go where no one knew who I was.

I leaned my head up against the railing. The shivers had started again. Pain that had momentarily gone away flared to life again. I closed my eyes and tried to think about the best way to get back on my feet again.

Against all odds I heard the scraping noise coming onto the platform behind me. I could only open my eyes to slits. Part of me was sure it had to be the maester. Instead I saw the unmistakable dirty white of Theon’s threadbare nightshirt. It flapped in the wind, finally stopping to outline what wasn’t there anymore. I looked up. He was holding his abdomen protectively, almost like he was cradling a baby. Out here in the daylight his skin was the same color as the nightshirt. The weight that he’d gained before all of this was gone, replaced by hollowed cheeks.

Theon didn’t say anything. He laboriously sat down beside me. His arm brushed against mine. I flinched. It had been what felt like an eternity since the last time I’d been touched without malice. He joined me in looking at the rocks below.

“You’re walking again?” I asked. The maester hadn’t said anything and whenever I’d been in the room he’d been in bed.

Theon was swinging his legs over the edge so carelessly I almost thought he was going to fall. “Yes.” He took a long hard look at me. With a shaking hand he reached out for my face. I closed my eyes in anticipation. He stopped before his fingers met my skin. It took all I had not to break down right then. “What happened?” he asked. “Who did this to you?” There was a trace of the old anger there.

“Some of the sailors who came in on the Morbid Cry,” I said. “One of them found out who I was. He’s not too fond of the Stark name.”

Anger flashed over his face. I don’t know if it was all at Ivar or if part of it was at me. “Were you going to tell me?”

My grip on the edge of the platform tightened. I wanted to do something violent and painful. “No, I didn’t want to worry you. There isn’t anything you can do.”

Theon slowly moved his legs up until he could rest his head on top of them. When he spoke his voice was almost lost in the sound of the water. “I still would have wanted to know.”

My frustration started to come out. “Really? Because you haven’t acted like you had any interest in me since your fever broke.”

Theon was entranced by the water. It almost looked like he wasn’t paying any attention to me, but I’d been around him long enough that I knew he really was. “I was trying to make it easier for you,” he said finally.

My fingers unconsciously went to my face. The black eye that had gone away after the pirate attack was slowly reforming. “Make what easier? It feels like I’m all alone here. There’s no one I can trust here except you.”

“I wanted it to be easier for you to leave.” His grip around his legs tightened. “Now that you know everything.”

I grabbed one of his hands. It shook in my grasp. “I told you I wasn’t going to leave. I told you I loved you. That’s still true, no matter what happened to you.”

He waited a moment but he eventually nodded. When he turned to look at me there were still tears in his eyes. “Do you really mean that?”

I tightened my hold on his hand. “I mean it.”

Theon managed a weak smile. I could almost imagine he was going to give in and let me touch him again. Instead the only thing that touched was our hands. They were both cold, almost like two stones. “We should go inside,” I said.

It took far longer than it should have for both of us to get back to our feet and shuffle our way back to the room in the Tower.

 

Theon helped me undress, helping me move my arms and legs to guide the sodden cloth off. Even though I’d been naked in front of him before I still hesitated. When he got to the bit of cloth around my neck I stopped him. That was still too much. A part of him must have understood. He helped me into his bed and covered me with all of the blankets he could find. Once he had tucked them in all around me he did his best to coax the fire to heat the room. He moved like everything took a supreme effort.

The shivering, which I had thought had stopped, began anew. I was warm, but my body still remembered the way the water felt as it enveloped me. It felt like I might never be warm again.

Theon slowly climbed into the bed next to me. He took care to avoid putting any pressure on his injuries. He sat on the bed next to me in deep thought. My shivering slowed and finally stopped. I wound up curled nearly in a ball with all the blankets wrapped around me.

“You can’t stay here,” he said finally. He was looking away from me at the window across the room.

At his words it felt like my body froze all over again. I’d thought we’d come to an understanding, but now it felt like everything he’d said on the ledge had been just to get me to come inside. I was too shocked to say anything.

“You aren’t safe here. What if this happens again?” Theon said. He actually looked at me, really looked at me. There was concern and guilt in his eyes, more than I’d seen before.

“If I’m not safe here you aren’t either. We should leave together,” I said. I struggled to get as close to a sitting position as I could. My body wasn’t strong enough to obey me. I settled for lying on my side facing him. He hadn’t turned away yet.

His fingers were tracing his abdomen where I knew the bandage had to be. “I can’t leave until this is healed,” he said. “But you can go back to the village and help them rebuild. I’d like to have somewhere to go back to. The maester said he heard that the lighthouse was still there.”

“Do you believe him?” I asked. It was hard to imagine that with all the destruction the pirates had caused they had neglected to destroy the thing that would have hurt the Iron Born the most. Without the lighthouse it would have been near impossible to reach the port without being smashed to pieces on the rocks nearby.

“I want to believe him. That’s the only place I can really call home anymore.” Theon looked around the little room again. “I can’t go there to check for myself right now. You’re the only one I trust. You’re the only one who cares about it as much as I do.”

I had to admit that was true. The happiest moments of my life after the Twins had come up at the top of that lighthouse and in the cabin below. The possibility that it might still be there was a tantalizing one. “I don’t want to leave you alone again.”

Theon took my hand. His was warm and soft. “I know. But I think it might help both of us if you left for a while.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. Now that the idea had been brought up my mind latched onto it. The fact that I could leave here and not have to worry about being attacked by people who might be considered allies was something I clung to. It warred with guilt for abandoning Theon here.

 

When I woke up later Theon was sitting by the dying fire. Once he noticed I was awake all of his attention focused on me. “You should get up,” he said. “They’re having a feast in the Great Hall tonight and you need to eat.”

The idea was preposterous. “I’m not going back down there to get attacked again,” I said. “I’d rather starve first.” My body protested as soon as I started to move. There were bruises all over my chest and my hands were covered with scratches. It took all I had to put on my clothes.

“I’m going too,” he said. “I need to see how far I can walk.” That was small comfort, but it sounded like he had made his mind up. “You go ahead. I need to get dressed.” He shrugged off any attempt at help and continued to point me toward the door. Eventually I admitted defeat.

 

The Great Hall was nearly full when I entered it. I kept my head down low and made my way to the first table that had an open seat. The other men at the table shifted so there was a gap around me. None of them were familiar to me which was somewhat of a blessing. If all they knew me as was a stranger they would have little cause to get involved with me. I’d gotten a brief glimpse of my face in the water bucket before coming down here. My eye had almost swollen shut and a bruise reached out to caress my cheek. I hoped I looked intimidating enough to make people not want to have anything to do with me. The urge to run was threatening to consume me. I had to grab hold of my legs to avoid giving in to it.

The head table had the usual cast of characters. The castellan sat up there with a few of the ships’ captains and first officers. The maester sat at the end. I still had no idea if he meant me harm or not. I would never have met Ivar if he hadn’t told me to go down to that feast. He noticed me sitting at the lower table and gave me a brief nod and a half smile. I thought it far more likely he was just oblivious.

Ivar and his friends were at one of the far tables. I could hear them laughing and joking with each other. It didn’t seem like they’d noticed me yet. There was no telling what they would do to me with an audience.

Servants started to bring around the night’s meal. I was too nervous to do much more than look down at the fish on my plate and pick out a few pieces. It didn’t have any flavor. A part of me longed for the taste of something other than the barren blandness of whatever fish they’d managed to catch that day. The rest of the people at my table dug in with a vigor I envied.

Conversation hummed all around me. There was much whispered speculation about what had happened to Yara. There hadn’t been any word since they’d left. I didn’t know how much to worry about that. Rumors swirled that the pirates had been spotted as far south as King’s Landing and as far north as near the Wall. I figured the majority of it had no basis in truth.

Suddenly all discussion stopped. Everyone turned to look at the entrance to the Great Hall. Theon stood there. I had to put my hand over my mouth to avoid crying out. He was wearing his armor and standing straight and tall. He’d taken great care to make sure everything was in its proper place. His sword even swung from his hip. I didn’t want to think about how much effort it must have taken. If you didn’t look closely he looked almost like he had so many years ago. The servants stopped rushing back and forth as he stepped into the room. He walked with a barely perceptible limp. The effort was visible on his face. His skin was a shade of grey and covered with sweat. He had his hand clenched in a fist next to his stomach almost like he was trying to hold everything inside. For all I knew he was.

No one said anything as he made his way up to the head table. The castellan gestured for everyone to move down to make room for him at the center. There was muttered grumbling but they followed his commands. Theon took his seat without any grace. Sitting down he looked even worse than he had standing. No one seemed to notice. A servant rushed to get him a plate of food. The castellan leaned over and spoke to him. Theon started shaking his head. The castellan looked like he was trying to convince him to not do whatever he had planned.

Ivar and his friends had started talking loudly again, much louder than anyone else in the room. I saw Theon glance at them and start to stand up. Part of me was ready to leap to my feet and stop him. The castellan shook his head and banged his cup down on the table until everyone was quiet. Theon was unsteady on his feet but still managed to maintain some of his authority. He looked out at a point above everyone’s heads. Then he started to speak. “It has come to my attention that some of you haven’t been observing the guest right.” The hand at his side was in a fist. His voice was weak but the anger was still there. “House Greyjoy guarantees the safety of any guests under this roof. And Robb Stark is a guest. He has fought in defense of the Greyjoy family and to defend the Iron Islands. He has as much right to stay here unmolested as any of us.” I could feel people turning to look at me and tried to look as strong as I could. There was a low muttering but no one said anything.

Ivar had barely stopped laughing while Theon was talking. Now that there was a pause in the speech he got to his feet and walked up in front of the head table. “And who’s going to enforce that? You? Your sister isn’t here to fight your battles for you,” He spat on the ground. “You can barely stand. And everyone knows you’re a coward.” He turned to the room at large. “How many of our people did the Starks kill? I’d say Robb Stark would have to do a lot more than defend a useless fishing village for us to give him proper guest right.” I could hear some affirmative noises in the background.

Theon was still staring straight ahead, swaying slightly. If Ivar’s words had had any impact it wasn’t apparent. The castellan had gotten to his feet next to him, trying to get Theon to sit back down. Theon shook him off. “I can fight my own battles. I’ll fight you if I have to,” he said. My scream of “No!” was lost in the sound of everyone else yelling their approval. It was impossible to even get close enough to do anything. At Theon’s words everyone had gotten up and pushed forward, making a makeshift circle. I couldn’t get through.

Ivar smiled almost triumphantly. He would have won this no matter what his response. There was no way Theon was going to be able to beat him in a fight. It had taken all Theon had to walk down here. A part of me was scared that all of this was a desperate suicide attempt. “Sure, I’ll fight you if that’s what you want. I’m not sure what you want to prove by losing,” he said flippantly. His friends laughed.

The castellan looked like he was going to pass out. I’m sure Yara had given him specific instructions about how to take care of things in her absence. Maybe she would have been happy Theon wanted to fight again, but I doubted she’d want it to be in a battle he would probably lose.

I was still trying to get through the mass of people all around me. But the crush was too great. My screams were lost in the sounds of excitement all around me. Theon walked with difficulty to the center of the makeshift circle opposite Ivar. It looked like he could be knocked over by a breeze. I didn’t know what he was thinking. He wasn’t paying attention to anything around him. He didn’t hear my words.

One of Ivar’s friends handed him a sword. Ivar wasn’t wearing as much armor as Theon but he didn’t seem to act like this was a problem. He held it in his hand with an ease I would have appreciated had it been someone else. “How do you want to do this then? First blood?”

Theon shook his head. “We fight until one of us yields.” At least he hadn’t said to the death. Though right now the options seemed one and the same. I didn’t see how he was going to make it. Even now he was swaying from side to side. I tried with all my strength to break through the crowd surrounding them. Everyone I pushed past looked at me in anger. I received a few well aimed punches and kicks to keep me in place. Finally the people next to me held me back.

Ivar cocked his head, obviously thinking the same. “Sounds fine to me. Doubt it’ll make much of a difference.”

They both drew their swords. Theon still held his the way Ser Rodrik had taught us all those years ago. Once he assumed the old form it was as if none of what had happened had passed. A hidden inner strength painted itself over him. Ivar was more loose with his form. He was all quick moves and short jabs. I wondered how often he’d had to fight with a sword. On the Iron Islands axes seemed to be the preferred weapon for sailors. Theon parried his first few blows easily but made no attempt to make any strikes of his own. I figured he was waiting for Ivar to overextend himself and grow sloppy. It was what I would have done in the same position.

Theon had a look of determination on his face. He didn’t fall for any of Ivar’s feints. I could tell he was hurting though, he kept his arm close to his side. Ivar was getting tired. His face had turned red and he was breathing heavily. He’d realized what Theon was doing and adjusted accordingly. They circled each other warily. The crowd started to jeer. They called Theon a coward for not trying to fight back more. I was sure they would have said the same if he’d fought back when Ivar wasn’t ready. My words of encouragement were swallowed by their bile. Thankfully neither of them was paying much attention to the people surrounding them anymore.

“Come on Ivar, he can’t last much longer!” one of Ivar’s shipmates yelled.

Ivar snarled and rushed forward. Theon didn’t have a chance to get out of the way. Ivar’s sword caught him on the arm. Blood spattered onto the stone floor. Theon managed to push back, slamming Ivar’s sword hard enough that he lost his grip and fell back toward the crowd.

Theon backed up too. He didn’t even look at the cut on his arm. From what I could see it wasn’t that deep, the shirt they wore for armor was thick enough to take most of it. Paradoxically the way he acted it was almost as if he had gained strength after being injured. He wasn’t favoring his side as much anymore and he held the sword with more strength than he had before.

Ivar still hadn’t recovered his equilibrium. Theon was able to take advantage and give Ivar a matching wound on his arm. Their blood mixed together on the floor. The injury seemed to give Ivar new energy. His face turned wild and any pretense he had of self defense was gone. He ran at Theon crazily, wielding his sword with no great care. They met in the middle of the circle, their swords clanging together. Each of them tried to get the other to back away. Neither of them did.

Finally Ivar got a lucky strike in, knocking the sword out of Theon’s grip and Theon onto his back on the floor. Theon reached for his sword, but conveniently the men standing on that side of the circle stepped in front of it. Ivar advanced on Theon, sword held high. I tried to push myself through the crowd again, but it was no use. They held me back. My screams were swallowed by the men yelling for Theon to yield.

Theon had slowly gotten to his feet, raising his arms protectively in front of himself. He was still wobbly on his feet. Blood dripped onto the floor from the cut on his arm. Everyone was yelling at him to yield, me included. There was no way he was going to be able to fight Ivar like this. I didn’t want to see him lying there dying again, not after what had happened with the pirates. That time had also been when he was trying to defend me.

Ivar continued advancing, a grin stuck on his face. “It’s not too late for you to yield,” he said. He jabbed the sword forward, nicking Theon’s shoulder. It wasn’t deep enough to cut through. Theon didn’t react with anything other than a look of cold determination. He didn’t even look at his shoulder.

Without any preamble he charged forward. Ivar had relaxed his grip on his sword and wasn’t ready. Theon collided with him and they both wound up on the floor. Ivar’s sword clattered away into the crowd. Surprisingly it disappeared as quickly as Theon’s had. Maybe there was some interest in keeping this a fair fight. They both struggled against each other, each getting in a few lucky hits on the other. At least until Ivar got in a good hit on Theon’s side. Theon dissolved in a rush of pain, releasing his grip on Ivar. That was all Ivar needed to press his advantage. He pushed Theon onto his back on the floor and started punching him in the face with wild abandon.

I could have sworn Theon was almost smiling. He tried to fight back but he didn’t have a lot of leverage. His punches didn’t hit as hard as Ivar’s. Blood poured down from a cut on his lip. I could see he was going to have a black eye or two as well. And yet he didn’t yield.

I missed the moment Theon changed everything. Somehow he’d worked his leg between Ivar and him and pushed Ivar off to the side. Then it was his turn to punch and kick while Ivar couldn’t fight back. A kind of supernatural strength came over him. All of the frustration he’d been trying to keep under control came out of him, exploding in an instant. There were no pulled punches. Ivar howled in pain. It seemed like it would never end. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t get through, the people around me held me back.

Then the castellan shoved through the crowd and pushed them apart. “That’s enough. I think you’ve proven your point!” he yelled. Whatever had possessed Theon was gone. He sat back on his haunches in exhaustion, a faint smile on his face. The arms holding me back let go and I rushed to his side. He accepted my help, probably having no energy to resist my touch.

Ivar could barely stand. A few of his shipmates came and helped him to his feet. His face was covered in blood. He stared at Theon blearily. “I yield,” he said. His shipmates nodded in agreement and spirited him away.

The crowd rumbled a mixture of anger and disappointment that there wasn’t more bloodshed. They trailed back to their seats and the normal noises of dinner resumed. A servant came and put straw over the blood. I helped Theon get to his feet, trying to ignore how he rested nearly all of his body weight on me. The castellan cleared a space for us at the end of the table. Somehow we both got Theon to sit down.

“What am I going to tell Lady Yara?” the castellan wondered aloud. “She told me to keep you safe.” He grabbed a piece of cloth from one of the servants and found some water to wet it with. I took it from him gratefully and used it to try to clean Theon’s wounds.

“She’ll understand. It’s not your fault,” Theon said. His voice sounded thick, like it was stuck in his throat. His eyes turned to me. One of them was half-closed, encircled by a bruise. “I had to protect you.”

Something unnamed twisted inside of me. Maybe it was guilt that he felt he had to put himself through this just for me. It mixed with rage that this was the only way he felt he could fix things. “No, no you didn’t,” I said, my voice cracking. “You didn’t need to do this. I could have handled it.”

The castellan was still sitting near us keeping a watchful eye. While everything seemed to have quieted down it didn’t mean that things couldn’t turn. He was mumbling to himself. “Those sailors who go far out to sea are always causing trouble. They barely listen to Lady Yara. They wouldn’t listen to me.” A servant came by and he grabbed a flagon of ale off of their tray. He drained it in one go. At one point he might have been a fearsome warrior. Those days were long past. Now he looked like a man who was completely out of his depth with anything more complicated than managing shipping schedules.

Theon pulled away from me slightly, looking at the castellan. “Is there a ship going back to the island?” he asked. “I want to send Robb back there.”

I started to protest. “I told you I’m not going! Especially not after what just happened.” It had been so easy for things to turn and become violent.

The castellan was staring off into space, going through the ledger I imagined he kept in his head of what ships were heading in and going out. “There’s one ship leaving tomorrow morning at first light.” He pointed to a man at the other end of the table. While the man didn’t look very friendly or inviting I didn’t remember him getting caught up in what had just happened. “That’s the captain. He owes me a favor, so I’m sure I can get him to take you. But why do you want to go back there? From all I’ve heard there isn’t much left there except shanties by the beach.”

Theon grimaced and closed his eyes. “Robb and I fought to keep the pirates from destroying it. I don’t want everything we did to be all for nothing.” The part of me I kept well-hidden that still clung to the idea that I could make things better flared inside of me. There was sense in what he was saying. Maybe the best thing I could do right now was leave for a while, let Theon get used to the idea that I knew his secrets. I could give him something to come back for. And he’d just proven that at least for right now he could take care of himself.

The castellan nodded but I knew he wasn’t listening. A swirl of servants came and went after he gave them instructions. I saw one of them head to the captain at the other side of the table and whisper a message. He stared at me with judging eyes and gave a curt nod. Apparently my passage had been secured. A knot formed in my throat.

Theon was starting to falter. He rested his head on the table. “Come on, let’s go back to the tower,” I said. I put my arm around him and helped him get to his feet.

 

Up in the tower he let me help him unfasten his armor, but when I went to help him take it off he pulled away. “C...can you wait outside?” he asked. A few different arguments came to my mouth but I didn’t voice them. Today had been too much for him, he’d been too exposed. He’d always felt safer by himself in a dark corner somewhere out of view.

I stood out on the platform and waited. Night had fallen and for once there were no clouds. The moon was almost full and it spilled light down onto the water below. In some ways it was almost like a lighthouse itself.

The thought of jumping was still there. Jumping, falling, however it happened there was some appeal in not having to worry about it all anymore. I wouldn’t have to think about reconstructing again, rebuilding everything from scratch yet again. My dreams had revealed there was a place waiting for me after all of this, a place where all I had to do was exist. There would be no struggle. The only problem was Theon wouldn’t be there. But Theon wasn’t going to be there when I got on the ship tomorrow and left. There was no guarantee I’d ever see him again.

Eventually I peeled myself away from the platform and went inside. Theon was back in bed, blankets pulled high around himself. His armor was strewn all over the floor. A fire was burning in the fireplace. I couldn’t remember if that had been there before. This time instead of lying facing away from me I could see him watching me. The bruises on his face were turning darker, outlining all the sharp angles of his features.

I stepped further into the room and stopped next to the bed. Theon said nothing. His eyes gleamed as they watched me. I started to shrug off my armor, undoing the clasps and ties that held it together. With great difficulty I shrugged off the breastplate and set it down on the floor. The rest of it came easier. Theon held the blanket up so I could get in bed beside him. I hesitated before giving in, kicking my boots off onto the floor.

He pulled away to give me more space. The gap at the neck of his nightshirt revealed bruises trailing all the way up to his neck. His eye had swollen almost shut and there was dried blood on his lips. I reached out slowly and traced the edge of his eye socket. He closed his eyes but didn’t flinch. “We could be twins,” I said. His lips turned up in a smile, cracking the scabs that had formed. “You really didn’t have to do that for me.”

His eyes opened slightly in protest. “I couldn’t let them keep doing that to you. I promised myself I wouldn’t let anyone get hurt because of me again.”

Suddenly I could feel the desolateness of Pyke crushing down around us. The only way I had been able to carry on was thinking about him, knowing I could at least see him if I wanted. The prospect of being all alone again was terrifying. Maybe I was more scared for myself than for him. “Are you really going to be okay here by yourself?”

This time he reached out hesitantly for me. When his finger met my skin I couldn’t help closing my eyes. The touch spread through me, traveling with a warm flash throughout my entire body. I could feel him stroking my cheek. “Yara will be back soon. I’ll be fine until then. I’ll stay up here and rest. The guards won’t let anyone up here who’d want to hurt me.” He moved his hand down from my face to my side. “And then I’ll come back. I’m going to come back.” He grabbed hold of my arm, trying to be reassuring.

It didn’t work. I pulled him as close to me as I could, almost trying to become one person. “I don’t want to lose you,” I whispered into his chest. I could feel his heart beating beneath me.

His voice was shaky as he spoke. “I don’t want to lose you either.” He held me tightly. “This is the best way to keep you safe.” I had to be satisfied with that. The last thing I wanted was for Theon to be drawn into another fight because of me. I let myself be lulled into an uneasy sleep.

 

Theon rode with me down to the port the next morning. He looked like he hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before. It took me and one of the stablehands to get him up into the saddle. Once he was up there I was afraid he was going to fall. He waved off any concern. I couldn’t help noticing that he kept a hand on his abdomen. The sun hadn’t even risen yet. The moon cast an unearthly glow on the rocky path. As we passed the beach I could see a few of the priests out in the water. I stopped to watch them for a moment before continuing down to the port.

At this time of day the port was bustling with people loading the ship in the harbor and helping with last minute preparations. The streets were a bustle of sailors trying to enjoy the last bit of dry land before they headed off on their long journey. No one paid any attention to us. My eyes were drawn to the storehouse the villagers had been housed in. I had no idea how many were left.

Once we reached the dock for the ship that was going to take me back to the island I got off my horse. Theon looked like if he had done the same he wouldn’t have been able to get back up again. The castellan had prepared a small bag of supplies for my journey, given that I had nothing of my own. It weighed almost nothing in my hand. Pretty much everything I owned was back at the lighthouse.

I handed Theon the reins for my horse. Soon they would make their way back up to the castle and Theon would go back to his room in the tower. Theon had closed his eyes and was biting down on his lip. He grabbed hold of my hand and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t want to let go either. “I’m going to write you,” I said. “I’ll send you a raven every day if I can.” I shook our clasped hands. “All you have to do is get better, okay?”

He’d clenched his eyes shut. I could see tears making their way down his cheeks. He nodded his head curtly. A lump had settled in my throat, restricting anything else I might have wanted to say.

“Are you the one from the castle?” the captain asked, stepping forward. “Ship’s leaving soon. I need everyone onboard.” He glanced between Theon and I with an expression that was a mixture of confusion and disgust before stomping away.

Theon let go of my hand with some reluctance. “Have a safe journey,” he said. It looked like he wanted to say something else but couldn’t find the words. I didn’t know what to say either. Instead I settled for reaching out for his hand again and kissing it. It wasn’t until I let go of it that I realized it was the hand that was missing a finger. A profound sadness settled over me. I knew it was better this way. My leaving was an opportunity to make sure we had a place to go back to. That didn’t mean I had accepted it yet.

The captain started to ring a bell on the ship. There was no more time for goodbyes. I shouldered my sack of supplies and made my way onto the ship.