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Monstrous

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1.

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.

 


 

~~~~Past~~~~~~~

 

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.

I jumped.

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."

Chapter Text

2.

I greeted the next morning the same way I had every day since I’d returned home. After I’d had a few hours of sleep I’d sit in a chair by the window and watch the sun rise. It was almost a reward after so many days where I hadn’t been able to see the sun at all. I’d let it spread its rays over the floor until they met my feet. Usually by this point servants could be heard scuttling to and fro all around the hallways. Once that happened I’d start to do the stretches Maester Culver had recommended to get full movement back into my arms. I didn’t have much hope but any progress was better than none.

After I finished my exercises I started to get dressed. This took a lot longer than it had before. All of my clothing was more difficult to put on than I remembered, with buttons and buckles that my hands couldn’t handle as well as they could before. Everything slid through my fingers.

There was a knock on the door. It startled me in the middle of putting on my tunic. When I answered the door the servant outside cowered and wouldn’t even look at me. I liked to think that I was still the same person, there was no reason to fear me. But ever since I’d come back no one would look at me in the same way. "Can I help you?" I asked when it became obvious she wasn’t going to say anything.

"Lord Stark wishes to see you m’lord," she whispered, staring at her feet. She practically ran away before I could stammer out an answer.

"Tell him I’ll be there in a moment," I said to her retreating back.

It was time to face my enemy. The mirror shone brightly underneath the cloth I’d put over it. The face that looked back at me wasn’t much different than the one I’d seen a few days ago. Sometimes I wished I could see the person I used to be, strong and free, instead of this broken husk. I adjusted the cloth around my neck so the scar didn’t show and then covered the mirror up again.

 

Bran was still in bed when I got to his room. I knocked on the door and Summer immediately started barking behind it. It took all I had to not pull back in fear. Summer seemed to delight in getting close to me. For the most part I was able to hide how much being near him made me want to vomit. When Hodor opened the door I had to put my arms up so Summer wouldn’t jump on me. Somehow I managed to get away without having much contact at all.

Hodor nodded in greeting and muttered his name. "You wanted to see me?" I said, taking the chance to look around the room. It hadn’t changed much from when Bran was little. Most of the toys and decorations were gone, replaced with papers that filled most of the shelves and spilled onto the floor. A map was tacked up on the wall. There was a fire burning brightly in the fireplace. Bran sat in the middle of it all, lying in bed like a king.

"Yes, I thought of something you could do for me," he said. He didn’t elaborate. If he wanted me to ask him all the questions he would be disappointed. I was perfectly content to wait and see what life had in store for me.

There was another knock on the door. Hodor let Maester Culver in. The pieces of their plan seemed like they were falling into place. Bran had to wait for backup before he talked to me. It was at times like these I wished I had taken the time to get to know him better when we were growing up. At the time it had seemed like the gap in our ages was too wide to bridge and there was little point. He had been a little brother who needed to be humored and kept happy. Now all of that was coming back to haunt me. "Lord Stark, Hodor, Robb," Maester Culver said, nodding to each of us in turn. Summer barked and sniffed at his crotch. "And how could I forget Summer." He knelt down and petted him vigorously. I stepped to the side.

"I was just telling Robb what we were talking about yesterday," Bran said. It was bad enough that he had my future in his hands, it was even worse that he thought Maester Culver was a better person to talk about it with than me.

"Have you told him about your plan?"

"Not yet." Bran turned to look at me. "I was thinking that you could go to Pyke and speak to Yara Greyjoy." I froze. This wasn’t happening. "We need her help in dealing with the pirates attacking our villages on the coast. Her house is the only one who still has enough ships left to make much of a difference." While all of that statement might have been true just hearing the name had been enough to bring back memories of someone else. Someone who might have been best left forgotten.

"Why would she listen to me? I’ve never talked to her. Are the Iron Islands even interested in working with the other kingdoms?" A great many things must have changed since my return.

"We’ve taken the liberty of sending her a letter asking for help in return for some land concessions. She sounded receptive to the idea. You would be going to guarantee the deal," Maester Culver said. "You were close to her brother so you were an obvious choice of emissary." Bringing up Theon was not a good idea on his part. I still hadn’t decided whether or not I wanted to forgive him.

"Did you forget the part where her brother betrayed me? And held you captive?" I said, staring at Bran. Surely he had to know this plan was doomed to fail. I couldn’t do this. The wound was too recent, the pain too devastating.

"He also helped save Sansa." Bran nodded at Hodor, who started to help him out of bed. "This is important for keeping the Stark lands safe. And I was hoping a change of scenery might help your mood."

"When would I have to leave?" I said. I took care not to agree to anything yet.

"As soon as your preparations are complete." It seemed odd that they hadn’t packed my things for me. They seemed dead set on pushing me to the side. Maybe that was for my own good. "We sent her a raven. You can send her one too if you like."

"Can I think about it before giving you an answer?" They both exchanged looks.

"Of course you can," Bran said. I nodded to him and excused myself.

 

"You look horrible," Sansa said at breakfast. She barely had anything on her plate. Her piece of bread had been torn into equal size chunks that were strewn all over the plate to make it look like she had eaten something. It looked like she’d gotten about as much sleep as I had. We never talked about our mutual insomnia. I think we were both in denial about it.

"Thanks, you look great too," I said, sliding into a chair a few spaces down the table from her. While a servant refilled her mug they avoided mine. I grabbed the jug myself and filled it. I was conscious of being on display. The servant standing by the doorway couldn’t keep his eyes off me.

"Where were you this morning? Usually you’re up before me," she said. I wasn’t sure how much I felt like telling her right then.

"Bran was telling me yesterday that he didn’t think I was happy here. He wondered if I wanted to go somewhere else for a while."

She snorted. "Where would you go? It’s not like you’d be popular in King’s Landing. And the Stark bannermen weren’t exactly overjoyed when they found out you were alive." She wasn’t exaggerating, they had been the ones who had pushed hardest for me to relinquish any claim to the Stark name.

"Bran wants me to go to Pyke," I said. Sansa stared at me in surprise and didn’t say anything. "There have been pirate attacks on some of the coastal villages and the Greyjoys are the ones who have the most ships."

"Are you going to be okay going there?" There were so many layers to that question that I wasn’t really sure how to answer her. I hadn’t been okay in a very long time. It was crazy to think that a change of scenery might make things better or worse. How much different could it get? I decided to ignore the question. There were other things I wanted to talk about first.

"What happened to Theon after Brienne rescued you?" I asked.

"We met up with his sister at Deepwood Motte. She said she was taking him back to Pyke with her. She said they could take better care of him there. That’s the last I saw of him," she said.

"And that was it?"

Her eyes went cold. "Robb, he wasn’t the Theon you or I knew anymore. That Theon is long dead."

"I was dead once too." Each day was another step further away from that grave.

She watched me intently. "You want to see him again."

"When I made the deal with the Iron Born to capture him I wanted to talk to him before I had to behead him. I never got the chance." There were so many questions I wanted answers to and only he could answer them. "I want to know why. Everything went to hell after he left. I want to know what made him choose his family over me."

"You know he might not be able to answer those questions anymore." She regarded me slowly. "Who would you have picked if he asked you to choose?" She tapped her fingers on the table. "I asked him why he did what he did to Bran and Rickon. At the time I thought Theon was part of our family, a Stark in everything but name. Obviously he didn’t think that way. Deep down he was always a Greyjoy, no matter how much we tried to let him in." She stared off into the distance. "But when it really mattered he chose me. He came to his senses and protected me. As much as I might hate him for taking Winterfell I can’t forget that." That was about as much as I’d ever heard her say about what had happened here with Ramsay. I didn’t think I would ever get a clear picture.

"I still want to see him. We were as close as family once. That doesn’t stop." She looked at me unhappily. "What’s wrong?" Neither of us had eaten anything. I think we were becoming experts at the art of looking like we were eating while consuming nothing.

"I don’t think you should go by yourself," she said after a long pause. "I’m worried about what you might find."

In truth I wasn’t sure if I should go by myself either but who to take with me hadn’t been clear until that moment. "Do you want to go with me?" For a moment there was actual light in her eyes, a hope that hadn’t been there in a long time. I knew her life here was difficult. Her days were spent fending off marriage proposals from houses who wanted to latch on to the Stark name. She told me once that she never wanted to marry again. It was such a change from the girl I remembered leaving Winterfell for King’s Landing years ago who wanted to get married at any cost. We’d both given up our youth far before our time.

"Would Bran and Rickon be okay without us?" she asked. It was almost as if she was finally seeing that there were more options than staying at Winterfell.

"Maester Culver would still be here. He and Bran have a good handle on things." I tore the crust off of my piece of bread. "And there’s Hodor."

"Yes, there’s always Hodor." She smiled. It was nice to see. It had been a long time since either of us had anything to smile about. I smiled back. She looked me straight in the eyes."I want to go with you."

"Are you sure? It would be a long and dangerous journey and I’m not sure what would be at the end of it," I said. "I don’t want you to get hurt."

She was picking her piece of bread to pieces angrily. "I’ll be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. You’ve been walking around here like you don’t have a purpose for living anymore. I know why you don’t. I think this would be good for you. And maybe it would be good for me too. After what happened to Theon and I…" Her voice trailed off. I still didn’t know exactly what had happened to them but the few details I’d heard weren’t encouraging ones.

I didn’t have any reason for her to stay. I was almost happy she’d decided to come with me, especially since I had no idea what I was going to find.

 

After breakfast I went up to the ravens to send a letter to Pyke. I still wasn’t sure if my going there was the best choice. The ravens shrieked and cried as I walked up in the midst of them. From up here I could see most of Winterfell spread out beneath me. This had been my home for as long as I could remember. Yet standing up here looking down at it I could only see how much it had changed.

If I had to go to Pyke I wanted to make sure I could see Theon. My hand shook as I wrote out the letter. I didn’t really care about the villagers or stopping the raiders, all I cared about was whether or not I’d see Theon, whether or not he’d thrown a friendship-a relationship-I’d thought had meant everything away for a chance to betray me. In what had become a purposeless life this gave me some clarity. I wanted to look him in the eye and hear him tell me to my face why he thought what we’d had together meant nothing. At that moment I didn’t know what would come after. A part of me hoped that we could regain some of what had been lost.

Talisa and I had had a similar kind of connection but she was gone now. She’d died because of my hubris. Every day I apologized to her in a thousand different ways. I wanted that feeling of support back. Because while I knew my family was still there for me I also knew that they had no idea what to do with me. I was supposed to have died. They’d gone on. I was still the man who’d died at the Twins.

My hands shook as I wrote out the letter to Yara. I gave her the details of when I’d be coming and what Bran wanted me to talk about with her. In the middle of all of it I also asked if I could see Theon. I’d never met her so I had no idea what kind of person she was. I didn’t know how she’d react to my letter and if she’d even respond. Right now she was the closest thing to a link between myself and my past.

 

I found Bran in the Great Hall later. Rickon was sitting near him scribbling something on a piece of paper looking bored out of his mind. They both barely looked up as I approached them. I had to cough to get their attention. Two sets of intense eyes bored holes into me. "I’ll go," I said. "But I want to take Sansa with me." Something clouded Bran’s expression but soon passed. Rickon looked upset.

"If she really wants to go I guess that’s okay," Bran said. "Let me know what supplies you’ll need and I’ll make sure they’re ready for you."

Rickon started whining. "Why do they get to go and I have to stay here? It’s so boring."

I almost wanted to tell him that it wasn’t our choice to leave, that this was just a clever way to get rid of two people that no one knew what to do with. That seemed almost cruel. "You have to stay here and help guard the castle," I said. "That’s an important job too." Rickon didn’t look convinced.

 

Maester Culver asked to see me before we left. He wanted to see how my wound was healing. While my first instinct was to refuse I also knew that my leg wasn’t likely to get better without outside intervention. He was the only one in the castle who could help.

His rooms were in an out of the way part of the castle. I knocked on the door and he let me in almost instantaneously. I’d been here a few times before but every time I was surprised by how many books and scrolls he had lining the shelves that were set into the walls. They were an obvious fire threat that I was surprised Bran let him keep. Maester Culver’s bed was set against one of the walls and was mostly covered by books both open and closed. There was barely any room to sit. There were candles set on every open horizontal space and they dripped wax onto everything. In one dark corner of the room was a cage where he kept a raven he’d nursed back to health after it had injured its wing. It glared at me from behind its wooden prison. Maester Culver swore it spoke but I’d never heard it utter a word.

"Thank you for coming to see me," he said. "I wanted to see how you were healing before you left. I’m not sure what kind of medical care they have on Pyke."

I didn’t say anything. Instead I struggled out of my tunic. The wounds where the bolts had pierced my skin were mostly healed over. My stomach had healed too, a ragged line where Roose Bolton had tried to killed me. Maester Culver’s fingers skimmed over the scars lightly, then prodded me to move my arms so he could check my range of motion. "Are the exercises working?"

"I think so, but I’m still stiff in the morning," I said. Still some motion was better than nothing. I was almost to the point where I could raise my arms above my head again.

"It’ll take time to get full range of motion back. If you keep up with the exercises I’m sure it will get better." I wished I shared his faith. He gestured that I could put my shirt back on. "Now I’d like to look at your leg."

I got out of my pants with some difficulty and then looked away as he untied the bandage that was wrapped around my leg. No matter how many times I’d seen it I was still surprised every time I looked at it. It was taking longer than any other wound I’d ever had to heal. When I’d gotten back from the Twins Maester Culver had had to scrape some of the dead skin off. Every time I pulled off the bandage the room filled with the smell of rotting flesh.

Maester Culver washed it gently and then covered it with a strong smelling salve he had in a ceramic pot. It burned slightly but then the pain started to go away. "Apply this at night and see if it helps. I’ll make sure to have them pack some of this and some clean bandages for your journey." He fingered the edges of the wound. "I think more of this will have to be cut out though." I didn’t say anything and let him wrap it up. Once I got dressed I felt like I could talk again.

"Thank you Maester Culver," I said.

He nodded slightly. "You’re a very lucky young man. If any of those wounds were any deeper I’m not sure if you’d be standing here right now."

I managed to give him a tight-lipped smile before heading out into the hallway. Once I’d gotten far enough away from his room I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I punched the wall, hoping the physical pain would distract me. There wasn’t anything lucky about what had happened to me. If I could have switched places with anyone else on that day I would have.

 

Yara’s letter came a day before we had planned to leave. It was delivered to me at breakfast by Maester Culver. The seal was broken so it was fairly obvious he’d read it before giving it to me. I tried not to let that bother me. The only thing the letter said was that she’d be expecting my ship. Nothing about whether or not she’d accepted Bran’s proposal. Nothing about Theon. I’d be going into the whole situation blind.

 

Sansa and I left the next day. Everyone came to the gates to see us off. As I hugged Bran goodbye he whispered, "I hope you find what you’re looking for." I didn’t have a chance to ask him what he meant before Rickon was grabbing hold of me like he never wanted to let go. I felt a twinge of regret as I got into the cart to leave. I’d fought to stay alive to get back here and now I was leaving again. I’d been given a second chance and I couldn’t squander it.

Once we got to the port it fell on me to negotiate with the captain of one of the ships to book our passage to Pyke. This proved to be more difficult that I’d expected. Most ships didn’t go to Pyke on principle anyway, and now with the pirate situation no one wanted to take any extra risks. I spent most of the day trying to convince someone to take us. Most of them wanted nothing to do with the whole endeavor.

By pure chance I found a captain who was taking furs and wine to Pyke to trade who had space in his cargo hold that he was willing to let us stay in. At first he hadn’t wanted to take us on either, he’d remarked that Northerners didn’t have good sea legs, but after I’d doubled our offer and shown him our coin he was more than willing to let us board his ship.

Our cabin wound up being a roped off area in the cargo hold behind casks of wine and pallets of pelts. They’d strung up some hammocks on either side of the room. There would be little privacy and little room to walk around. I wasn’t sure exactly how long this trip was supposed to take and the captain didn’t seem willing to talk about it either. If Sansa had a problem with any of it she didn’t let it show. Then again she was able to overlook a lot of things as long as the objective was a good one.

Once I watched the sailors put our luggage in the room and made sure everything of value was still intact I joined Sansa up on the deck to watch as we left port. There were large chunks of ice out in the water. A smaller ship went out first to break a path through the ice for our ship. I hadn’t realized that little pieces of winter would still follow us wherever we went. The ship groaned menacingly. There were several heart-stopping moments where I was sure that something had punctured the hull beneath us but no one ever seemed concerned. I stayed on deck watching the land disappear into the distance.

It was once we got on open water that my stomach decided to protest against leaving the solid ground. The ship shifted slightly from left to right and my legs could barely adjust. I clutched the railings for dear life, sure that at any moment the ship was going to pitch to one side and I’d fall over. I could tell the sailors were laughing behind my back at me. I’d hear muffled laughter and when I’d turn around everyone was covering their mouths and doing their best to look anywhere but at me. As if it wasn’t enough that I could barely walk I also couldn’t keep myself from feeling like I was going to vomit. With each shift of the floor beneath me my stomach threatened to spill over.

If any of this bothered Sansa she didn’t let it show. She’d found a spot by the railings that was out of the way of the majority of the work the sailors needed to do. I could see her sitting there with her hair fluttering around her head and a huge smile on her face. For once it actually looked like a natural smile, not the ones she’d been putting on at home. I didn’t want to spoil things for her.

Somehow I made my way back down to our cabin and managed to slump into my hammock. Even there I couldn’t escape the constant sway of the deck beneath me. In fact it might have been worse as the hammock swung to and fro. There was a lantern in the middle of the curtained off area and it spun wildly, making the room spin even worse than usual. I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself that all of this suffering was worth it if I could get answers at the end of it. Once we got to Pyke this would just be an unpleasant memory.

I must have fallen asleep because the next time I opened my eyes Sansa had parted the curtains and was coming inside. "Have you been in here all day?" she asked. Her hair was wild, it made a halo around her head. She ran her fingers through it in an attempt to try and smooth it down. She looked so much more alive than she had back at Winterfell. Maybe it hadn’t been a bad idea to bring her along.

In response I leaned over and threw up into the bucket they’d given us for a chamber pot. It was mostly bile. Once I’d done that all I wanted to do was vomit again. She stared at me in pity. I laid back down and hoped for the oblivion of sleep.

"They say seasickness passes in a couple of days," she offered. "Do you want me to get you anything?"

"No, I’ll be fine," I said. Even talking brought the possibility that I might be sick again.

"The sea is beautiful. It’s almost crystal clear. The sailors were showing me some of the fish that come near the ships. They showed me a mermaid. I could see the jewels in her tail." Sansa continued telling me about all of the things that she’d seen today and all I could think about was whether or not the world would stop moving sometime soon. Somewhere in the middle of her story I fell asleep.

 


 

~~~~PAST~~~~~~

The first time Theon and I kissed was after a long day of training with Ser Rodrik and studying with Maester Luwin. I think both of us were almost ready to pass out from exhaustion. Jon went off to dinner by himself. Theon muttered something about making sure his bow was put away correctly before he pulled away and went into the armory. I followed him. Usually he didn’t care that much about his equipment except for the battered trunk of things that had been sent with him from Pyke. I’d only seen inside it once, when he’d forgotten to close his door all the way. All I’d been able to make out was driftwood and seashells before he’d noticed me staring and shut the door.

I found him sitting on a bench in the corner facing away from the entrance. He had one of his sleeves rolled up. His arm was slowly bruising, turning a mixture of purple and brown. He flexed his hand and grimaced. I don’t think he noticed me.

"Did that happen today? You should have Ser Rodrik look at it," I said, stepping further into the armory.

Instantly Theon pulled his sleeve down and a sullen expression crossed his face. "It’s fine. The bow string hit my arm on one of the shots today." He didn’t make any move to get up. I walked over closer to him and sat down beside him. "What? I told you I was fine. It was a stupid mistake. It’ll heal," he snapped.

"Why don’t you ever let anyone help you?" I asked. "That’s just going to get worse." All of a sudden I was starting to sound like Mother. Theon sat there silent looking straight ahead, his hands slowly clenching into fists.

"Leave it." He gave me a quick glare then thought better of it. "What you should worry about is your own bow skills." A small smile crossed his face. "You barely hit the target at all today."

"Maybe you’re right," I said, laughing. "But when we really have to fight I think I’ll be out there in front with a sword, not in the back with a bow."

Theon smirked. "You Starks always have to be out in front."

"I can’t ask someone else to risk their life if I’m not willing to risk my own." Now I was sounding like Father, even though a part of me believed it. I waited for him to tell me that I was being stupid and idealistic.

The smile he gave me was almost reassuring. "Well if you’re going to run off to be the hero I’ll be right next to you."

"I know you would." We’d always been like that for as long as I could remember, one of us never far from the other. Even if Theon thought it was a bad idea he’d still come along, complaining all the while. Once Jon was here he’d joined us but always a few steps behind, never sure exactly where he fit in. I never pushed him away, though I think Mother wished I would. "You have to look heroic for the girls back home. They can say they slept with a hero."

"That’s not why I’d follow you," he said. Then he must have realized he’d revealed more than he wanted because he pulled away and started to stand.

I touched his arm and for once he didn’t pull away. "Why would you follow me then?"

That seemed to break something within him. He glanced at me quickly before looking away. "You don’t treat me like the others do, like I’m a servant."

"Because you’re not. You’re the person I feel closest to." I was still touching him. My hand went to his and held on. I’d never done anything like this before except in dreams. Lately the dreams had been coming more and more frequently, feeling so real that at times I wondered if they were memories of things that had actually occurred. Right now it would have been so easy to pull away and pretend it had never happened. But neither of us did.

When Theon looked at me it was almost as if a curtain had parted and I could see how he really felt. We both leaned forward at the same time. Our lips met and even though he’d had more experience he was almost delicate about it. He could have devoured me. It didn’t feel like it had in my dream. It was a light kiss and it didn’t last very long. When we pulled apart he gave me the ghost of a smile. I expected him to make a snide remark or start bragging but he didn’t. We leaned in again, kissed again, deeper this time-so deep I wasn’t sure I could swim back up out of it. A kiss that etched itself on my memory.

Then it was over. It all crashed down. The constant refrain of duty and honor echoed in my head. A Stark wouldn’t let himself get distracted by a Greyjoy. A Stark would put the family’s needs first. I pulled away slowly. My whole body wanted to give in but I was conscious of how exposed we were.

"They’re going to worry about us," I said. We weren’t being very secretive down here, at any time someone could walk in and discover us.

He still had his eyes closed. They opened slowly and focused on me. There was hurt there but it only lasted an instant before he stood up. "No, they’re going to worry about you." He rubbed at his injured arm tenderly before pretending to be interested in something hanging on the wall.

"I’d miss you," I said. "Isn’t that enough?" That earned me a nervous smile.

If anybody noticed anything different between us when we went to dinner they didn’t let it show. Most of their attention was focused on Bran, who’d been climbing something he shouldn’t have been and Arya, who’d been doing something she shouldn’t have been.

I avoided looking at him. I wasn’t sure if I could keep from smiling or laughing if our eyes met. And I wasn’t sure if I could take it if he didn’t look at me the same way.

 

Later that night there was a slight tapping at my door. I would have thought it was a mistake or a trick of my mind hearing things that didn’t exist. Then it happened again. I forced myself to get out of my warm bed and find out what was going on. It was probably Rickon or Bran playing a trick. The stones on the floor were ice beneath my feet. It felt like needles piercing up through my skin. The tapping happened again, more insistent this time.

When I opened the door Theon was starting to walk away. He turned back around and something like hope crossed his face before it went away, replaced by a neutral expression. "What’s going on?" I asked.

He shrugged. There was something desperate in his gaze. "I wanted to see if you were still up. I’m going down to the stables."

"To do what?"

"Why don’t you come and see?" he said and then he was off. I stood in the doorway watching him leave fighting with myself trying to figure out what the best decision would be. I know what my parents would have said. They already didn’t like how much time I was spending with him now. And yet everything within me wanted to be near him.

It felt like it took hours to get dressed and down to the stables without waking anyone else up. Thankfully most everyone slept with their doors closed. I didn’t think Mother would be very happy if she’d caught me prowling around at night.

As I headed down to the stables I could see guards patrolling the walls up above me. They were more concerned about looking outside than looking in. Most of the servants were in bed, though I could see light from the kitchens. The chances of running into anyone else were growing smaller by the minute. And even if I did run into someone I was sure I could think up a good excuse.

The stables smelled of horse and earth, a stench that settled into everything. It was dark. All of the torches were out. The only light came from the moon up above. Theon was by the stalls we only used when visitors needed a place to house their horses. The hay was fresh and it was clean. He leaned up against an empty stall and watched me come toward him. I could barely make him out in the gloom, though his eyes gleamed in the moonlight.

"I thought you’d never get here," he said, opening a stall door and stepping inside where it was dark.

"What if I hadn’t?" I followed him, closing the door behind me.

"There’s always Ros," he said, but there wasn’t much conviction behind it.

I was irritated. If it would have been so easy for him to go with someone else why had he even bothered waking me up? "Yes, I suppose so. Maybe I should go back to bed then."

Theon shook his head and reached out for me. "Why do you have to be so serious about everything?"

When we kissed it was as if a hunger had consumed us. I pushed him up against the stall frame, grabbing onto him and letting go of the things that held me back. There was none of the self-consciousness of earlier today. His mouth was so warm I almost forgot how cold I was. My hands grabbed onto him and held him close. It felt like if I pulled him tighter against me we could become one person.

A horse snorted and I pulled away from him. He laughed. "Everyone’s asleep. No one’s going to come down here," he whispered against my neck. I shivered at the feeling of his breath against my skin. "Your precious reputation is safe with me." I didn’t fight him when he leaned in to kiss me again.

My hands started to explore his body. They trailed down his chest and then went below his belt. He was hard. I cupped his cock with a hand, feeling his warmth. Theon gasped against my mouth. If he thought I was going to take things slow or be timid about it he was mistaken. If he knew how many times we’d met together in my dreams just like this he wouldn’t have been surprised. "We don’t have much time," I whispered against his ear. "I want to make the most of it."

Theon reached out for me finally, his hand shaking as it went. Maybe he was the one who was unsure of himself. When he touched me some of the control I had over myself faltered. I stumbled against him. We were both losing track of ourselves. I stared to work my hand into his pants, sliding from his hip over to his cock. When I finally found it he gasped and grabbed on to my shoulder. I stroked it gently, running a finger up and down its length. I think if there hadn’t been a wall behind him he would have fallen over.

Then it was my turn to clutch frantically to him as his hand skimmed underneath my clothes and found my cock. It wasn’t anything like touching myself and pretending it was someone else. The air was full of the sound of our choked breath. We started off slowly, matching each other’s pace. I could feel myself building towards something, my body slowly winding up tightly, ready for a release. Theon was hardly doing any better. He had his head on my shoulder.

We stayed like that for a little while, our strokes growing faster, pleasure rising in my blood and ready to explode. When release finally came I had to bite my lip. I didn’t want to let out any noise that might attract attention. Theon moaned against my shoulder. We slumped to the ground. I moved my hand away from him slowly and tried to clean it off as best I could on my tunic. Then I moved to sit next to him leaning against the stable frame. It was hard to catch my breath. He still had a hazy look about his eyes, as if he was still caught up in it all.

"Are you okay?" I asked finally. It took him a while to come up with a response.

He nodded. "I think so. Who knew you had it in you?"

Suddenly the horses started to whinny and the stablemaster walked by, holding a lamp. Theon and I shared a look of terror and instantly scrambled to the opposite side of the stall where no one could see us. Apparently sometime in all our dallying we’d reached a new day. The stablemaster started walking down and checking on all of the horses. Theon had his hand firmly over my mouth and held both of us down out of sight. There was no need for the stablemaster to come down this far but still we couldn’t be stuck here all morning. It seemed like we would never be able to sneak out. Who knew that he had a name and a song that he’d sing to each horse as he fed them? It took forever for him to get them fed and watered and then start to take them out to exercise. Once he was out of view we ran out of the stables without looking back.

 

After our first meeting in the stable our relationship changed. There was a certain secret element to it all. The way we behaved in public was a screen to how we were in private. There was something of the forbidden about it all. Theon and I were expected to marry the daughters of other houses to seal agreements and make peace. We weren’t supposed to choose anything about our lives-that had been determined long ago by our ancestors. I was the heir to Winterfell, he was the heir to Pyke. We weren’t even really supposed to be friends. He was a hostage. By all rights he should have been locked in the dungeons.

Sometimes I wished it was different. I would have liked to have been able to decide more about what to do with my life and escape some of the responsibility that I could see looming on the horizon. Soon my days would be full of the minutiae of running a castle and being the head of a prominent family. There would be no time to make mistakes. The only moments I could truly say were completely under my control were when I rode off on my own, hoping he would follow.

Jon picked up on the change between Theon and I immediately, though I’d tried my hardest to hide it from him. He already felt like he didn’t belong, he didn’t need it shoved in his face at every moment. I’d catch him watching us after we all broke away after training. He didn’t understand why I would want to have anything to do with Theon. I was always the peacemaker between the two of them. At the time I thought it would have made things so much easier if we all could have gotten along with each other. But Jon thought Theon was a braggart and Theon thought Jon was boring. The more time I spent with Theon the more I would find Jon following us, hanging along behind waiting for someone to invite him in. I tried to balance time between the two equally, hoping to avoid any arguments.

Mother noticed that there had been a change between us as well. She took me aside and tried to remind me that Theon was a Greyjoy and there had been no great love lost between our houses. Theon was a bad influence on me and I should instead be concentrating on protecting Winterfell. While her advice may have been sound I didn’t let it affect how I acted toward him. Once she’d gone off to King’s Landing to talk to Father and left us alone it didn’t matter anyhow.

 

One day I took a horse out of the stables and rode until I couldn’t see the castle anymore. When I got to a place where the only thing that surrounded me was grass and mountains I stopped. It felt like for right now a great weight had lifted off of me. I was sure once I got back to the castle Maester Luwin would have choice words for me. As the eldest and the heir I was supposed to set an example for the others. I could hear him telling me that I had to think about more than myself now. The idea rankled but I knew he was right.

The morning’s lessons had been full of instructions about how to maintain a castle and what was involved in keeping it running. Maester Luwin had remarked that he wouldn’t be around to help forever. The prospect that the rest of my life would be consumed with making sure the people following me had food, water, and shelter while also being mindful of where I stood with the other lords was a daunting one. And Maester Luwin was right, there wouldn’t always be someone around to help. It would be my responsibility alone, my choices that would lead us to riches or ruin. Right now I wasn’t sure which was on the horizon. The attack on Bran had shown that even in the castle no one was truly safe.

I got off of my horse and left it to graze nearby. While the roads weren’t particularly safe there was enough open space around me that I thought I would be able to see anyone coming before they surprised me. The grass beneath me was inviting. I laid down and stared up at the sky. There were hardly any clouds. The sky was the same cold grey it usually was. At least it didn’t look like it would snow. If winter was coming it was still a long way off.

I think I fell asleep. The next thing I heard was hoof beats coming toward me. I ran to my horse, my hand on my sword. The other horse was coming towards me but I couldn’t make out who was riding it. They were riding alone. I thought anyone who meant me harm would have brought a group. I could feel my horse tense beside me as it waited to see if it would have to run.

When the other horse finally stopped I found myself looking up into Theon’s crooked smile. "Are you running away from home?" he asked. The way he said it was almost as if I was a child.

"I had to get away for a while," I said.

"What a coincidence. I had to get away too," he said, smiling wider. I stepped back as he got off of his horse. I’m not sure why, it wasn’t like he would have hurt me.

"Did anyone else notice I was gone?" I asked.

Theon shook his head. "Rickon maybe, but he won’t say anything." He took a step forward. For a moment the idea that we were the only two people for miles around took hold of me. We could do whatever we wanted and no one else would ever know.

"You probably should have brought Grey Wind with you. Who knows what kind of villains you might meet out here?" Theon said.

"If he came with me everyone would know where I was. This way he can cover for me," I said. "By the time they’re done searching the castle for me I’ll be back." My plan had worked a few times before with varied success. I still got yelled at but no one knew I’d actually left the castle. I’m not sure where they thought I went. "Were you worried about me?"

"Just wondering where you went." He stepped closer. I let myself step closer to him. He had a stupid smirk on his face like this was all a joke.

While our encounters in the stable didn’t usually take very long-the threat of discovery usually lessened the time it took to climax-now we could take as much time as we wanted. Maester Luwin was going to be angry no matter if I was gone for five minutes or five hours. The chances of anyone coming this way were low. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were but I knew we were far away from any roads or settlements. That should have scared me.

Theon didn’t offer much resistance when I walked up to him. I didn’t stop until we were almost touching. He actually took a step backwards, his smile wavering almost imperceptibly. "They won’t notice we’re gone until dinner," I said. My hand reached out and touched his chest. I could feel him start breathing faster under my palm. He didn’t make any move toward me. Apparently I was supposed to take the lead on this. I didn’t mind. My heart was pounding in my chest. My other hand moved to join the first. He shuddered as I undid the clasps holding his cloak on his shoulders and let it fall to the ground. Still he had the same irritating smile on his face, though there was something predatory in his eyes.

"What are you doing?" he asked. His voice was unsure of itself.

"Making the most of the time we have," I said, then pulled the collar of his tunic aside so I could kiss his neck.

His hands grabbed hold of me then and pulled my cloak off without any care. After that we were lost. It didn’t take very long until we devolved into kissing every piece of exposed skin as it was uncovered. There were so many layers to take off and each one only revealed more. When we met at night there wasn’t much of a chance to undress and see what was under all of our clothes. Now there was time to enjoy the things that we hadn’t seen on each other before.

We both had bruises from practicing sword fighting the day before. I kissed the worst of his. It had turned dark and angry on his shoulder. Theon hissed as I licked and sucked at it. Our hands seemed to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. He didn’t resist as I unfastened his belt and pushed him down to the ground. He very rarely took the lead in any of this. Maybe it was so he could have some deniability-as if I’d somehow forced him to do this. Whatever it was he was clearly enjoying it and he gave as good as he got.

I pushed my hand inside his pants, searching for his cock. When I found it he grunted and pressed against me. "Not wasting any time, are you?" he gasped. I was too busy kissing a line around his neck to respond. His hands started to move, sliding down my back and then around to my chest. Once he had enough leverage he rolled me over until he was on top. His cock rubbed against mine in passing. I couldn’t resist letting out a desperate moan.

Theon started to peel off the rest of my clothing, cursing at the buttons and clasps that held it all together. The grass was slick with dew underneath me and as he pulled the last of my clothes off I was conscious of how exposed I was. I could feel the wind blowing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. His hand covered my cock, stroking it slowly.

I laid back and watched him take the rest of his clothes off. Instead of being embarrassed about his nudity he almost embraced it. I took the opportunity to drink it all in. He was balanced above me, close enough to feel his body heat but not to touch. The same crooked smile that he always had was plastered on his face. This time I took advantage of his inattention and flipped us back over. I straddled him below where it made any difference. Still he had that same unwavering smile on his face. "You can’t bear to not be in control, can you?"

I moved up, our cocks touching, and ground down into him. His eyes slammed shut and he arched into me. "Maybe I can’t," I leaned down and whispered into his ear, "But maybe you like that." He shuddered against me.

My hand went down to his cock and gave it a quick stroke before I shifted myself down. When I took his cock in my mouth he gasped. I waited for him to adjust before I licked a long stripe up the shaft. His hands were firmly clenched in the grass, waiting for me to start the long slide back down again. Instead I stopped, my mouth inches above him. I watched him come to the growing realization that I had stopped and wasn’t going to move again. His irritated glance was all the encouragement I needed to descend again. He was biting down a moan. I decided to challenge myself to make him let it loose.

There was a spontaneous quality to the whole experience that wasn’t there when we’d done this before. We’d met often enough in the stables that we knew each other’s likes and dislikes, what would drive the other crazy and what would delay things. Maybe it was the simple act of not having to hide any of it that made it all seem different and somewhat special. I alternated sucking and licking, making him harder. A part of me enjoyed the small measure of control this gave me over him. Maybe he was right, maybe I did like the idea of being in control. My body buzzed with the rush.

One of Theon’s hands left the grass and settled on the back of my head, clutching my hair firmly. He was breathing heavily. His body tensed beneath me. He was close. I redoubled my efforts until I could tell he was about to spill over. His release, when it came, was explosive. It landed on his chest. I wiped the worst of it off with my tunic. He laid on the ground for a while panting hard and trying to recover. I watched him struggle to regain control of himself.

Once he did he pushed me onto my back and returned the favor. His lips were dry and his teeth scraped against my cock by accident, but I laid back and enjoyed it anyway. He grabbed hold of my hip for leverage and swallowed me down as much as he could. I found myself staring up into the sky. Pleasure painted small sparkles across the clouds. I grabbed hold of his hair more firmly than he’d grabbed mine. I wasn’t able to keep control over myself as much as he had. After what I’d done to him I almost expected him to make this drag out as long as possible, but he sucked and licked me to oblivion quickly. I clenched my eyes tightly shut as I came. His face was unreadable when he pulled away.

Theon rolled onto the ground beside me. We laid there next to each other watching the two or three clouds in the sky go by. A rock was poking me in the back and I was sure I was covered with grass stains. The wind was cold and unrelenting as it whipped across the grass. I didn’t move because I knew if I did everything that I’d come out here to forget would slam back down on me all at once.

Finally Theon got up, but it was only to put his pants back on. He threw mine at me and then sat back down and wrapped his cloak around us. "It’s cold," was all he said. I almost didn’t want to admit he was right. Instead I slid back into my pants and crossed my cloak over his. He had a flask of something and he took a swig before handing it to me. We sat there like that for a while, passing the flask back and forth not talking.

"Do you think we can stand against the Lannisters?" I asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course we couldn’t if it came to that. We didn’t have the same resources and connections they did. But right now I needed someone to reassure me. I needed a reason to stay when everything in me was telling me to run as far away as I could from all of this.

"You’ll figure it out," he said. "I’m sure if you call all the bannermen they’ll come to help." He closed his eyes and sighed. "You can beat them."

I looked at him then. "Will you be there?"

Theon stared at me like he was seeing me for the first time. "Why would that matter? You’re a Stark. Everything just falls into place for you. You don’t need me."

I didn’t even pay attention to the second part. "Because I want you there. If I have to fight a war I want you with me."

It took him a long time to come up with a response. "I’ll be there."

 

When I was at the Twins I had a lot of time to consider how much of what he’d told me was a lie. I was still trying to figure it out.

Chapter Text

3.

I woke up in the middle of the night covered in sweat. My nightclothes were soaking in it. I struggled to remember where I was and how I got there. That unsettling sensation of constant movement was still there. It had been too much to hope that I would get over it by the morning. That combined with still feeling like I was in danger made it almost impossible to calm down. I forced myself to get to my feet and put on my pants and boots. Maybe if I walked around in the fresh air on deck things would be better. That was all well and good but I had to get there first. My legs still wouldn’t obey me.

Once I got up on deck I realized I should have put on more than just a shirt. The wind whipped through my clothes and bit down hard on my skin. The rocking was more pronounced here too. I staggered to the railing and threw up again. There wasn’t very much left in my body to get rid of.

"I told you that you wouldn’t be able to handle it," the captain said from behind me. "You’ll never get your sea legs at this rate." I wanted to argue with him but my legs gave out. I clutched onto the railing for dear life. "Here," he said, catching me and helping me stand. "Come on into my cabin. I’ve got something that’ll help."

I followed him into the dimly lit partition that heralded his cabin. There were no personal touches here. There was a desk with two chairs over by a window that overlooked the sea beneath us. His hammock was exactly the same as the ones Sansa and I had. He opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a bottle and two glasses. He poured something into both glasses and gestured that we should drink. I did and regretted it. Fire burned all the way down my throat. But I didn’t get sick.

"Why are you two headed for Pyke anyway? You don’t look like the typical travelers who’d go there." He looked me over like he’d found me wanting. I was suddenly painfully aware that the scar on my neck wasn’t covered. He hadn’t seemed to notice.

"We’re trying to negotiate for some ships with the Greyjoys. Why, what do the typical travelers look like?" I asked.

"It’s mostly boys running away from home. They think they’ll have a better life at sea and what better place to go than the land of the Drowned God? Then there’s those seeking riches who think that the Iron Islands are the place to go to get them." He drank more out of his glass. "Both of them are disappointed. It’s a hard life. Most traders won’t go there. They’re afraid their ships will be emptied out with nothing to show for it."

"Have things changed with Yara Greyjoy in charge?" I asked.

"No, not really. She’s just as bloodthirsty as any of them. But after what happened with Balon now they mostly content themselves with raiding the nearby coastline. They still have the biggest fleet I’ve ever seen." He eyed me suspiciously. "I wouldn’t expect to get anything past her."

"I’m not planning on it." I took another drink. He filled my glass without me asking. "Do you know anything about the pirates? Are they part of the Iron Born?"

"I only know what I’ve heard from the other captains. They don’t fly any flag and they don’t claim that they’re from any house. Best I could tell is they’ve come from across the sea to cause as much trouble as possible. If they attack your village they don’t leave anyone alive to tell the tale."

My eyes were starting to close without much encouragement. The captain noticed and helped me to my feet. "I think you’ll sleep through the night now. Tomorrow stay at the middle of the ship, it moves the least."

"Thank you," I said. Somehow I made it back to our cabin. There I found Sansa having a nightmare. She wasn’t screaming, but she was tossing and turning whispering "No" underneath her breath. I gently shook her awake and she stared at me in confusion.

"You were having a nightmare,"I said. "It sounded like a bad one."

She shook her head and covered herself back up to try and go back to sleep. I figured if she wanted to talk about it she could. I certainly didn’t want to talk about my own nightmares.

 

It took a few days but I finally got to the point where walking around didn’t make me dizzy. The captain didn’t seek me out or even talk to me but he treated me with a little more respect than he had before. I didn’t understand why, it wasn’t like I’d proved myself to him at all.

Sansa seemed to almost enjoy life at sea. She spent most of every day out on deck enjoying the fresh sea air. She was making herself a new dress and could usually be found on a part of the deck that didn’t get any wind sewing as long as the weather and light were good. I helped out with a few of the more menial tasks on board and tried to make myself as little of a nuisance as possible.

While our days were relatively quiet and relaxing, our nights were anything but. It seemed like Sansa and I would trade off on who would have a nightmare and who would wake the other one up. Neither of us talked about these dreams. I assumed hers were about Ramsay and Joffrey, villains that I would have been hard-pressed to forget myself. My dreams were about dying. I don’t know how many times I relived Roose Bolton stabbing me. Sometimes the knife went in shallow, sometimes so deep it came out the other side. In the morning I’d have to feel the scar to see what had really happened. It all felt so vivid I almost felt like being alive was the dream.

 

"Land ho!" One of the sailors called out a few weeks later. Everyone rushed to the deck to see. It was just a small green speck in the midst of the grey ocean but it was heaven after weeks of sailing in a ship that was hardly watertight. As I watched Pyke slowly rose out of the water becoming more than just something that Theon had talked about one time long ago. This was real.

The castle was up on a cliff. I could see bridges connecting each of the towers almost like a spider web. The city down below was almost quaint. Everything was either a shade of gray, brown, blue, or green. There was really no in between. The air was full of the smell of the sea and of dead fish. Everyone walked around with a scowl on their faces and a coating of fish scales on their clothing. The Greyjoy kraken was on everything. It flapped menacingly on the flags in the harbor. People walked back and forth unloading the ships and haggling for merchandise. From time to time soldiers patrolled the harbor, leaving no doubt as to who was in control.

Once we got off the ship at the harbor the captain was done with us. He dumped our luggage with us on the pier and then was off trying to haggle the best prices for his cargo. I hadn’t expected anything more from him. He’d been doing us a favor just accepting us as passengers. I’m sure we’d been more problems than we were worth.

I’d sent Yara a raven with the ship name before we left. In any other kingdom that would have meant someone would have met us at the pier. Apparently those same social niceties weren’t true on Pyke. We stood on the docks trying to stay out of everyone’s way."What do we do now?" Sansa asked.

"I guess we need to see if someone can take us up to the castle," I said. But looking around I didn’t know who to turn to. "I’ll go and see if I can find someone."

After looking around a few of the buildings around the port I finally found a stables. The man running them didn’t look very happy to be disturbed. "Would you be able to take us up to the castle?" I asked. He didn’t act like he’d heard me until I gave him a few coins. Then he pulled a rickety old cart out from deep within the stable and waited for us to load it before heading up to the castle.

 

The ride up to Pyke was almost a breath of fresh air after weeks on the boat. The cart ride was uncomfortable, we felt every bump and rut on the road. The sea was all around us. It pounded at the rocks down on the rocky beach beneath us. The road up to the castle was uneven and craggy. There was barely space for one cart at a time to pass. This probably served them well when someone attacked, but getting supplies must have been a nightmare. Where there wasn’t rock and water there were straggly green plants that tried to make the best of what little fertile soil there was. I hadn’t seen so much green at one time in quite a while.

The stablemaster didn’t say anything as he took us up and Sansa and I didn’t have much to say to each other. We’d been cooped up together for so long there was hardly anything new to talk about. The things we probably should have talked about were the things that didn’t need an audience. I hadn’t realized I was shaking in anticipation until she reached out and took my hand.

Pyke rose in front of us, tall blocky towers connected by thin bridges that swung over narrow gaps in the rock. It looked like a wet cold place, even wetter and colder than a normal castle. The closer we got the more dreary everything started to look. The castle began to block out the sun, making everything in a perpetual twilight. Two guards met us at the gate, looked at our letter from Yara and let us pass. There was a small inner courtyard where the stablemaster put our luggage and then drove away. It wasn’t clear exactly what we were supposed to do at this point.

There were another two guards by a gate at the other side. They both stared at me as if they’d never seen another person before. That could have been because they had maybe two working eyes between them. Massive scars decorated their faces. This was either a position that demanded a lot of fighting or was where she put old sailors to wait out the rest of their days. They had their hands on axes on their belts. I was aware of the sword that I had on mine. I’d brought it with me more because I felt naked without it than because I’d actually be able to use it. My arms hadn’t been able to lift something like that with the correct amount of control in quite some time. Hopefully I wouldn’t have cause to use it here.

"We’re here to see Lady Yara," I said. I held the letter out. I had no idea what title Yara would have had so I guessed. "She should be expecting us."

They both exchanged looks that lasted so long I almost thought they were unable to understand speech. Something unspoken passed between them and the one on the right broke away and went into the castle. I waited standing in front of the other one. From time to time I’d glance back at Sansa, who looked small and abandoned in the courtyard with our luggage.

Eventually the one who had left came back down followed by a few servants. The servants went out and took our luggage. Sansa and I followed. She pulled me aside briefly. "I’ll let you talk to her first, that way we won’t overwhelm her so much," she said. I almost protested but then let her go. I couldn’t disagree, this was my mission after all. Our ragged little group broke apart. Sansa went with the servants and I followed the guard up into the main castle.

The hallways were narrow and dark. There were puddles every few feet and the sound of splashing followed us wherever we went. We finally reached a heavy wooden door and he stopped. I stood next to him unsure of what to do next. Anything could have been in the room. He finally nodded at the door in irritation. I knocked a few times, wincing at how weak it sounded, and then opened the door and entered.

It was a giant room, almost as big as the Great Hall at Winterfell. One end of the room held a fireplace with two massive chairs set in front of it. There was a map table on one side of the room full of markings and with markers for reach of the great houses. I wondered if every house had been given their own set. If she was planning another attack on the mainland she wasn’t concerned about hiding it from me. There was another table covered with papers. While the fire was burning brightly and there were torches set into the walls it still felt like entering a cave. Condensation dripped down the walls and the sea could be heard beating against the base of the castle.

Yara was sitting in one of the chairs by the fire with her feet propped up on a stool. I had only entered the room by a few feet, waiting to be invited to sit down. Something told me that I would be waiting a long time. I could hear a baby crying off in the distance. If this bothered her she didn’t let it show. She finally got to her feet slowly and faced me. She looked about as tired as I felt. Theon hadn’t told me that much about her, he’d been so young when he was taken away, but the little bit he’d shared made her sound like a woman who wouldn’t make compromises. She had wanted to captain her own ship. The fact that she’d managed to parlay that into ruling the entire Iron Islands was a triumph. "I thought your sister was coming," she said. Her face was severe, it had settled into a constant frown. Her hair was cut chin length. It was about the same color as I remembered Theon’s being. She was dressed pretty much exactly like any of the sailors down at the docks. Her clothing was stained by salt and the same blue as everyone else’s. Maybe that was the point.

"She was tired after our long journey. She wanted to rest before meeting you," I said.

Yara smiled at that. "You Northerners can’t handle being on the sea," she said. "I suppose I should have expected that."

It felt like I had to defend us somehow. Things couldn’t start out this unequal between us. "I think we did alright for ourselves. I was almost sad to have to get back on dry land."

She kept on smiling. "I suppose you’ll be raiding my coasts next, now that you’ve got a taste for the sea."

I laughed politely. "The idea does sound appealing."

Yara did me the courtesy of laughing. She walked closer and looked me over carefully, examining every inch of me. I cursed myself for not changing into something else. I’d been wearing these clothes for the last few days on the ship and they were covered with dirt and sea water. I didn’t have the same excuse for it that she did. "So you’re the one Theon wouldn’t stop talking about," she said finally. "Not quite what I expected." Theon had talked about me when he was here? And it sounded like favorably? Then why had he decided to go against everything we’d planned and betray me? I was left with more questions than answers.

"It’s nice to finally meet you," I said. "Theon talked a lot about you when we were growing up."

She shook her head sadly. "I’m sure he did." She stepped even closer, so close we almost touched. It took everything I had to not step back. That would definitely have been a sign of weakness. There was a silent battle of wills between us before she finally relaxed and stepped away, walking over to one of the tables and grabbing a bunch of papers. "Your letter said something about pirates attacking the coast?"

I tried to think back to what the petitioners had told me. At first there had only been a few isolated attacks, but soon lords who had villages on the coasts were sending pleas for help. The pirates were organized and merciless. They struck fast and left few survivors. They weren’t content with murder, often after they’d killed everyone in a village and taken all of their belongings they’d burn the buildings to the ground. I distinctly remembered one of the survivors saying that they were worse than the Iron Born. I still wasn’t sure if telling Yara that would be a good idea. "Yes, my brother sent all of the details with his letter."

She took a look through the papers in her hand briefly. I had the awful thought that maybe she couldn’t read. "This doesn’t leave the room," she said firmly, glaring at me. I nodded. "There have been a few attacks on our coast as well. Your offer of a place to set up another port on your lands would be helpful in trying to track them down and stop them. I talked to some of my captains and they agreed that we would be able to help you under the terms your brother set."

Instantly a huge weight that had been on my shoulders lifted. I’d done what I had promised Bran I would do. No matter what else happened I at least had that. Still there was a niggling thought in the back of my head that wondered how much I could really trust her. "Thank you. May I write a letter to let him know?"

Yara nodded indulgently. "Of course." She was still staring at me as if she didn’t understand me. "There is one thing I don’t get," she said. "All of this could have been done with a few letters. You didn’t have to come here to talk to me yourself. And even then you didn’t have to bring your sister."

"Bran thought you might take us more seriously if we came in person," I said. It was hard to meet her gaze. I kept my eyes focused on a point next to her.

Yara read over the letter again, holding it out in front of her theatrically. "In the letter that you wrote you asked if you could see Theon." She held it out to me. I took it and read my words again. Water had dripped onto it in places, smearing the words. "Haven’t you done enough to him?" she demanded. "You and your allies...he didn’t deserve what you did to him. He was stupid but he wasn’t just some piece in your Northern game. It took him a long time to get back to where he could take care of himself again. I’m not going to have you ruin it for him. You and your family have already done enough to break him."

The baby was still crying. It hadn’t stopped the entire time I was in here. If it bothered Yara at all she didn’t let it show. This time I couldn’t be weak. I met her gaze and held it, speaking as firmly as I could. "I need to speak with him. There’s a lot we need to talk about with each other. There are things that happened between us that we both need to apologize for." Her eyes narrowed as she took the letter back and placed it on the table with the others.

"Maybe he doesn’t want to talk to you." Yara gritted her teeth. "But that doesn’t matter because Theon isn’t here," she said. "I don’t know where he is." I would have believed her if I didn’t know that she wouldn’t have let him leave unless she knew exactly where he was and how to find him.

"What if he’s in trouble?" I asked. It seemed trouble and Theon were inevitably mixed up together.

"He helped me win the Kingsmoot. After that he said he wanted to be left alone. I let him go. He sends me a raven every few weeks letting me know that he’s alright. That’s all the contact I have with him," she said. She still wouldn’t look at me. There was something she was hiding. "I don’t ask questions and I don’t disturb him. He’s suffered enough without you coming and bothering him."

"Then why did you say I could come here then?" This trip had been a waste of time and coin if we had to turn back now.

"I wanted to see the great Robb Stark, the man he was convinced could do no wrong. You were going to solve all of our problems."

"What do you think now that you’ve met me?"

Her look was withering. "You’re just as messed up as any of us." If she thought that would hurt me she was wrong. I was well aware that my life wasn’t what most people expected.

"Can I see one of his letters?" If I couldn’t see him at least I thought I could see something that he’d touched.

Her hands rustled through the papers in front of her and produced a faded piece of paper. "Alive-Theon" was scrawled across it. The hand was sloppy and unpracticed, looking nothing like what I remembered his handwriting being before. He’d used to have better handwriting than I did. Now we were equals again. "Are you sure this is from him? It doesn’t look like his handwriting."

Pain crossed her face but she quickly hid it. "That’s the best he can do right now," she said. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her but I wasn’t sure where to start.

A guard appeared in the doorway behind us. She nodded at him. "I have to take care of some business now so I’ll let you go to your room. You have free reign of the castle. There are no secrets here." I opened my mouth to protest. It seemed like secrets were all they had. "We can speak more later." The guard took my arm and led me out of the room.

 

My room was narrow and cold. My luggage was set to one side on the floor. There was evidence that it had been gone through. Whoever did it wouldn’t have found anything of value. I didn’t have much of that left and what I did I kept on my person. The window in the wall looked out over the sea outside. It was narrow and barely let in any light. There was a candle on a table in the corner that gave off an anemic looking light. Exhaustion finally caught up with me and I collapsed on the bed. It was lumpy and uncomfortable but at least the blankets were cloth instead of fur.

Sansa knocked on the door and then came in. She’d changed her clothes to something subdued. I didn’t move from the bed. She sat down at the foot of it. "Did you meet her?" she asked. "Was Theon there?"

"Yes I met her, but Theon’s not here. She says she doesn’t know where he is." I bit down on my lip.

"I tried to talk to the servants about him but they acted like they didn’t know who I was talking about."

"I think Yara told them not to talk to us."

Sansa put a hand on my shoulder. "I’ll talk to her later. Maybe I’ll have more luck." She got up to go. "You should rest, you look terrible."

 

Dinner that night was a raucous affair. The servants led us off to one of the tables along the side of the hall where all of the first mates had congregated. The captains all sat with Yara at the main table up front. Once she saw us Yara gestured at Sansa and the seat next to her. Sansa gave me a panicked look before following the servant up to her new seat. Yara banged on the table and pointed at her. "This is Sansa Stark! She helped rescue Theon. She’s worth ten of you lot!" A resounding cheer rose in the hall, probably brought on by the free flowing ale that everyone drank. I couldn’t help thinking about the last time I’d been cheered like that and my appetite went away.

The first mates all eyed me suspiciously. Clearly there weren’t many guests at these affairs and I was certainly a strange one. I tried to eat and drink just enough of what was put in front of me to avoid being noticed. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t stop them. It didn’t help that the man across the table from me wouldn’t stop staring. He only had one eye and his lip was curled into a perpetual sneer. "What ship are you from?" he demanded. "I haven’t seen you around before."

"I’m from the mainland. I came to talk with Yara about a deal with my lord," I said. Everyone had been really interested up until that point. They all broke off into their own conversations. The man across from me wasn’t that easily satisfied.

"Looks like you’ve seen some fighting," he said, gesturing at his neck.

I froze. I hadn’t remembered to tie a cloth around it like I usually did. Now that he’d pointed it out it almost felt like it flared in pain. "This?" I said finally, tracing it quickly with a finger. "I got that fighting to defend my family."

He reached across the table and slapped me on the shoulder. "I wouldn’t want to see the other guy!" he yelled. Before I knew it he was pulling his shirt up to reveal an impressive array of scars that bisected his body. Without much prompting he went into the story of how he got every single one. Everyone else at the table turned back to us and chimed in at points of high tension in the story.

Once we started comparing scars and war stories we were suddenly on more equal footing. A story for each scar and I’d made friends for life. Their stories ran the gamut from dealing with jealous lovers to fighting off pirates. They were always the hero, they never had any doubts, they were never the one’s at someone else’s mercy. My stories twisted in the face of all of it. The villains in my past all became foes I’d vanquished. I’d taken care of all of it. I’d ground the bodies of my enemies to dust before me. I almost preferred the new version of my life.

After the stories of battle and theft were done they started pointing at pieces of my clothing and asking me where I’d gotten them. They were disappointed when I’d tell them that Sansa made it, or I’d bought it. Their weapons and clothing had all come from daring midnight raids on enemy camps or they’d killed a man to get it.

It felt like here I’d started to finally understand a little bit of where Theon had come from. When he’d first come to Winterfell random small objects had started to disappear-a piece of silverware here, a sewing needle there. They all turned up in Theon’s trunk. He’d given Father what at the time had seemed a bullshit explanation. He’d paid the iron price for them. That stealing something was better than buying it. And Father had believed him, giving him a relatively light punishment. Now that I was here amid a society where they all felt like that it started to make more sense.

My new friend across the table seemed like as likely a person as any to ask about Theon. "Have you met Yara’s brother, Theon?" I asked. The question got the interest of other men at the table.

"Why do you want to know about him? He’s an embarrassment to the Greyjoy name. Came back here with his tail between his legs," one of them said, spitting on the floor.

"I knew him when we were growing up. I was hoping to see him," I hoped my explanation was good enough and they wouldn’t pry. I didn’t know how happy they would be to know they were talking with a Stark.

"He’s not here. Don’t know where Yara sent him but it was getting pathetic seeing him around here cowering in the corners. He couldn’t take a joke." He took a deep drink and then changed the subject. No one else seemed to want to talk about Theon.

From time to time I’d look at Sansa sitting up with the captains. She seemed like she was having a good time, though how much of that was due to the flagon of ale in front of her was up for debate. I was ready to rush up and rescue her if anything untoward happened but that didn’t seem likely. Yara had given her protection and no one seemed like they wanted to cross her.

As the night drifted on the general good feeling in the room switched to a more nasty kind of humor. Someone from one of the other tables was shoved into the center of the room and they started throwing food at him. It was all in jest but I felt the same trapped feeling that I had at the Twins. There was always the chance that they’d come after me next. I got up from the table and headed outside.

 

One of the bridges was nearby. A fine rain was falling that soaked my clothing almost immediately. The air smelled of the sea below. I stepped out onto the platform and tried to let the cold air and water calm me down. I made the mistake of looking down from the platform. It was a long drop to the rocks below. I would have gone out onto the bridge itself but it was slick with water and there was little between it and the rocks below. I wondered if Balon was down there living with their Drowned God.

"Not one for parties?" Yara asked from behind me. She stepped out next to me, crowding me out further on the platform. I was aware of how close I was to the edge. It wouldn’t have taken much for her to reach out and push me over. I wouldn’t have put it past her either. My presence was a threat to her and her family. If I stepped out of line it would be a simple matter to arrange an accident and send Bran her condolences.

"I needed some fresh air," I said. "Is Sansa okay?"

She smirked at me. "She can hold her own. No one’s going to hurt her under my roof."

"Are you sure? Didn’t your father fall from one of these?"

Yara twitched. "That was the Drowned God punishing him for his pride. Nothing more." She stepped a few feet out onto the bridge itself. "It can come for us all." There was no sadness in her voice. I watched her swaying on the bridge for a moment and then turned back to the sea. Ships were passing around us, more than I’d ever seen at one time. When Yara started talking again I almost didn’t hear her. "I tried to help Theon, I really did. When I first heard that Ramsay was holding him captive I went to rescue him. He just stared at me like he didn’t know who I was. He chose to stay there instead of leaving with me. His sister."

She reached out and grabbed hold of the ropes holding the bridge up. I hadn’t realized how skinny they were. It looked like she could snap it in her hands. She continued talking. "When I met him again I knew I had to get him back home as soon as I could. But Ramsay broke something in him. I had to stop him from jumping off the bridges more than once. He thought it was all a trick, that Ramsay was going to come and get him. It didn’t help that some of the sailors here made fun of him."

"So you sent him away?" I asked.

She snarled at me. "He asked to go somewhere Ramsay wouldn’t find him. So I let him. I let him go as far away from anyone as you can get." My mind was racing now. Where would that even be? Had she sent him across the Narrow Sea? Had he gone to Meereen or Braavos? If he had there was no chance of finding him. "I tried my best. What would you have done?"

The old me, before the Freys and life outside had corrupted me, would have answered with the same idealistic fervor I’d been raised with. That me would have said that I would have kept Theon with his family, trusting that their love and affection would help him recover. The me now wasn’t sure what the right course of action was, only that maybe sending him away had been the best Yara could do. If he’d stayed here there wouldn’t have been any love and support to hold on to. Yara watched me fight with those dueling concepts without comment.

I stayed where I was letting the rain and wind pelt me. The baby’s cry I’d heard before started up again. This time Yara seemed to hear it too. "Whose baby is that?" I asked.

She scowled at me. "It’s a Greyjoy. Someone has to keep the family name going." The baby started crying louder. "But that wet nurse is making me regret it. Damned thing never shuts up." She pushed past me and into the castle. I wanted to ask her more questions but it seemed like the time for that had passed. I’d almost thought she was on the verge of telling me where Theon was. I waited a few minutes and then followed her.

 

Sansa was standing in the hallway in front of the dining hall looking for me. "Where have you been?" she asked angrily. "I was looking for you."

"Did something happen?" I asked, my hand going to my sword. My first instinct was that someone had hurt her. But she looked fine.

She shook her head. "No, but I think I might have found someone who knows where you can find Theon." Instantly my interest was piqued. She ducked back into the dining hall and returned with one of the captains from the main table. He looked at me kindly, with a half-smile on his face. "Tell him what you told me," she said.

"As I told you milady it might not be the same person you’re looking for."

"Anything you can tell us would be helpful," I said. "Right now I don’t even know where to start."

He started talking quietly. "Yara had me take on a passenger a year or so ago. Wouldn’t let us talk to him. He didn’t want to talk to us either. Kept himself covered up the whole time. She had us take him to one of the villages on the outer islands. It’s the last stop before leaving the Iron Islands."

"How old was he? What did he act like?" I wanted to shower him with questions to make sure without a doubt we had the right person.

The captain put up his hands. "He was probably about your age, but again, I never saw his face. I think something must have happened to him in the war. He was awful nervous. As like to stab you if you looked at him wrong. My men stayed far away from him."

"Did anyone tell you where he was going?"

The captain shook his head. "We dropped him off at the village and were happy to be rid of him. Someone met him at the docks. I think it was the lighthouse keeper." He looked around briefly before turning back to us. "I can take you there if you like. I’ll be going that way in a day or so."

I exchanged a look with Sansa. What did we have to lose? "We’ll go with you,"I said.

 

A day or so later found us out on the water again. This time the seasickness hadn’t been so bad. It was a different kind of ship than the one we’d come to Pyke on, this one was a warship and built for speed at the same time. It cut through the water with ease. Sansa and I shared the captain’s quarters and that’s where we took most of our meals. The captain was far nicer than we’d come to expect and he was willing to make extra concessions where we were concerned. Yara didn’t seem to be suspicious of our quick departure, in fact I think she was probably relieved that we’d come and gone so quickly. While I’d talked to her a few more times she hadn’t been any more explicit about what had happened with Theon.

After a week of sailing the ship came across land again. A cry of "Land Ho!" rose from all of the sailors in unison. The port was guarded by a lighthouse on a peninsula. It was a rugged stone tower with a small cabin beside it. The area needed it because the water was full of rocks that could tear through a ship in seconds if it wasn’t careful. Everyone was quiet as we passed through the rocks, the only sound yelled directions from sailors stationed at the front of the ship. Everyone held their breath. I could hear the ship groaning underneath us as we passed through the narrow safe area. The last thing I wanted to do was die so close to answers.

Once we were through the rocks the port rose up in front of us. It was a relatively decent size. Most of the port was taken up by a giant storehouse with a few smaller buildings huddled around it in a straight line. The village was surrounded by rocks and grass, and a small grouping of trees that led off to the peninsula with the lighthouse.

Sansa and I were sent to the beach on the second rowboat, after the captain and his quartermaster. He helped us get out luggage out from the rowboat and then wished us well. That seemed to be the pattern of our journey thus far. "There’s an inn up and over to the right," the captain said, pointing. "That would be the best place to start." He started to walk away but turned back. "I’ll be back in these waters in a few weeks. If you need a ride back to Pyke I can take you." I thanked him profusely. Friendly faces were hard enough to find here.

I paid a boy I found hanging around the docks to take our luggage up to the inn. I didn’t think I’d have been able to manage it. The path up from the beach was lined with small shops hawking anything from fish to suits of armor. Our every step we were stopped by someone holding something new and exciting in their hands that was on sale for a special price because we looked like such good customers. After a while I just ignored them, pushing through them holding onto Sansa’s hand.

There was a brothel on the street before the inn. Sailors were milling around out in front deciding whether or not to go in. Prostitutes hung out the window waving at the passerby. One of them grabbed onto my arm and tried to pull me over. A few of them saw Sansa and hissed. I tried to push past as quickly as I could. It was only by pure chance that we were able to get to the inn at pretty much the same time as our luggage. I’m sure if we hadn’t all of our things would have been gone. The boy held his hand out for another coin at the end of it.

The innkeeper barely looked up as we went inside. After I put down some coin he finally moved and directed us to a room up at the top of the stairs. He demanded payment up front for a week. I hoped that would be enough time to accomplish what we needed to do here. I didn’t have much money left. Bran had only given me enough to take care of the incidentals we would need meeting with Yara, not for tracking down Theon. I was sure if he knew what I was doing he wouldn’t have been happy. Even though Theon had helped Sansa escape from Ramsay that wasn’t enough to make up for him capturing Winterfell.

Despite all of the activity at the port it seemed like there was no one staying here. There were a few dozen benches set up in front of a fire place, but there was only one person sitting at them. The inn wasn’t the best I’d stayed at, but it looked like it was clean and there was warm food, both of which were unexpected extras. Our room was small but there was a curtain to divide it and the beds were more comfortable than the ones on Pyke. It wasn’t a bad place to start to look for clues.

After dropping off our luggage and changing into decent clothing we went back down into the main gathering space. We staked out a spot at a table and waited for people to come in. In the meantime the waitresses dropped off food and drink for us. The main meal was a hearty seafood stew served with crusty bread that had just come out of the oven. After days of hardtack and stale water it was more than we deserved.

"Do you think he’s here?" Sansa asked in between mouthfuls. "This seems like a pretty crowded place for someone that wants to get away from everything."

"We can ask around. Maybe someone knows something. It’s a better lead than we had before." I said.

As the hour grew later more people started to file into the inn and took seats at the benches. Someone started to play a string instrument I didn’t recognize while someone else sang. The song was a long rambling one about a mermaid luring a man down into the sea and how happy they were there.

The more people came in the harder it was to pick out individual conversations. There was lots of talk about Yara. There was still some debate about how she was doing as the ruler of the Iron Islands. Two men got into a brawl about whether or not she even deserved it. Even out here she inspired the kind of loyalty that made men want to die for her honor. I knew firsthand how quickly that could turn.

As the room got more crowded Sansa put the hood of her cloak up and huddled down into herself, trying to make a less attractive target. I didn’t have that same luxury. It seemed like everyone knew each other and once they saw me there were only questions in their eyes. Who was I? What was I doing there? Could I beat them in a fight? I had left my sword up in our room thinking I wouldn’t have to use it. Now I wished for its welcome weight at my hip, especially when the benches started to fill and Sansa and I found ourselves surrounded by drunken sailors spoiling for adventure.

Still I had to keep my ears open in hopes that someone would start talking about Theon. This was my one of my last chances to find him. If no one knew anything about him here I didn’t know where else to go. Sansa was listening intently to conversations around us too. She grabbed onto my hand and pointed at one of the tables on the other side of the room. "They’re talking about the lighthouse keeper. It almost sounds like they’re talking about Theon," she whispered. Then she stared at me. I didn’t put it all together until I realized that I was the more intimidating one out of the both of us and I needed to be the one to go and see what I could find out.

The two men across the room were nursing two mugs of ale. They didn’t look like sailors, their clothing didn’t have the same coating of salt that everyone else’s did. One of them had a giant mustache that took over most of his face. The other was a reedy stick of a man whose skeletal fingers clutched onto the handle of his mug as if he was sure someone was going to take it. They were muttering something about the lighthouse keeper. "He came into the shop today to get supplies. Didn’t even say a word, just pointed at what he wanted and put some coins down on the counter."

"I saw he came into town. He didn’t cause any trouble this time did he?"

"I think Samuelson down at the blacksmith learned his lesson. The lighthouse keeper almost took his face off when he tried to talk to him."

"He always stops to look at the brothel though. I wonder if he’s ever had a woman."

I swallowed hard and sank onto the bench next to them. They both looked at me as if I had materialized out of thin air. "I’m sorry to interrupt but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Do you know anything about the lighthouse keeper?"

They both regarded me suspiciously. "Why do you want to know about him?" The thin man leaned in closer to examine me. "You’re not from around here, are you?"

I tried to make myself look as non-threatening as possible, which I wasn’t sure was the right thing to do but I didn’t think I could pull off intimidation right now. "No, I’m not from here. I think he might be someone I fought with in the war."

"How would someone from the North know an Iron Born?" the man with the mustache demanded.

"We grew up in the same village. Our families were friends." A gross oversimplification but one that they believed with little argument.

"Well seeing as you’re old friends I suppose as I can tell you," the thin one muttered, then looked like he was getting ready to tell a long exciting story. Having a new captive audience who was hanging on to his every word must have been a big coup for him. "He came here about a year ago to take over for Old Man Munderson, who could barely tell a ship in the water from a leaf in the ocean anymore."

"I’m surprised he held on as long as he did when his eyes started to go. They say he couldn’t even see his hands in front of his face. Suppose we should be lucky more ships didn’t wind up on the rocks."

"Anyway, this new lightkeeper, he won’t say two words to anybody. We hardly ever see him except when he comes in to town to get supplies every few weeks. He sends off ravens every once in a while but no one knows where they go. The only way we know he’s still alive is that damned lighthouse fire burning every night."

The mustached man interjected, "Something’s wrong in his head. If you so much as look at him wrong he’ll pull a knife on you. He about took my mustache off when I touched him on the back to pass him by."

"Is it hard to get to the lighthouse from here?" I asked. We’d seen the lighthouse as we came into port. It looked like it was all alone on the peninsula. The light hadn’t been good enough to see if there was a direct way to get there.

"It’s probably a couple of miles walk. There’s a path, but it’s a tricky one," the thin man offered. "Best bet is to leave early in the morning or else you’ll get stuck out there when the tide comes in."

"Thank you for your help," I said, struggling to get to my feet.

They both exchanged a look. "He’s not some secret noble, is he?" One of them asked. The other nodded.

"No, he’s just an old friend," I said.

Sansa had somehow saved me a spot on the bench across from her. She leaned in close as I sat down. "Well?" she asked. "I tried to ask some of the sailors around me but they’re all too drunk." As if to prove her point they all started singing a sea shanty. She put her hands over her ears and motioned to the stairs.

I led the way up to our room and shut and locked the door behind her. She went and sat down on her bed. "I think the lighthouse keeper might be Theon. All of the details fit. They said he came a year or so ago. He won’t talk to anyone and gets mad when anyone gets close."

Sansa nodded. "So when do we go and see him?"

"Tomorrow, if the weather holds. They said there’s a path that leads to the lighthouse from the village."

 

The next day dawned gloomy and overcast. I could hear water dripping onto the floor from the roof. I’d barely slept the night before after my dream. The anticipation at finally seeing Theon again was almost more than I could take. There was a chance I could finally get the answers that I sought.

Sansa took longer than I thought necessary to get ready. I’d been up with the dawn and dressed in the best clothes that I had left. For once I actually looked at myself in the mirror. I wanted to look as much as I could like the Robb he’d grown up with. The scar was easily hidden beneath a strip of cloth I tied around my neck. There was no hiding the grey in my hair or the weariness in my eyes and little point in trying. She stared at me like she was worried something bad was going to happen.

"Robb, please don’t get your hopes up," she said. "We still don’t know if it’s really Theon."

"I know," I said, "But this is the closest we’ve gotten to him this whole trip."

She sighed. "I know, but please don’t get too involved in this."

The innkeeper was sitting by the door when we started to leave. There was a one-eyed man with a pet monkey sitting next to him. They both barely looked interested in us. I stopped. "Do you know the best way to get to the lighthouse?" I asked. The innkeeper narrowed his eyes at me. The man with the monkey mumbled something unintelligible.

"Why do you want to go out there? It’s no place for a lady. The rocks are slick and there’s no road. You’ll wind up in the sea like as not," he said.

"Can I take a boat out there?" I asked. I’d seen a beach, but that didn’t mean it was safe to land.

They exchanged a look and started chuckling. "It’ll sink before you get there. The currents too strong. Better to stay here where it’s safe." I stared at him, hoping he would eventually relent. There had to be a way out there, otherwise how would the lighthouse keeper live there? He started talking, amusement lingering in his eyes. "If you follow the road out of town there’s a path. It’ll take you out onto the rocks. Just keep heading for the lighthouse. You’ll get there before long."

 

Once we got out into the streets and started walking the reality of it all finally started to sink in. My leg, which had been behaving itself for the majority of the journey, decided that now that we were on uneven ground it needed to give out randomly. The roads in town were relatively even but as we passed the last few houses and shops to the open road that all stopped. The path to the lighthouse barely even deserved to be called that. It was nothing more than a strip of land that had been worn down a little bit by people walking over it.

After we left the village the scenery changed to one that was more wild. The path went through a small stand of trees. Birds flew up through the branches as we approached. Sansa had to stop often so that I could catch up. She wasn’t doing so well herself, her ankle still didn’t let her move the way she used to.

The path took us down a rocky trail towards the shore. Here was where it all got tricky. The sea tried to batter against us, splashing up against our feet and making the path almost impossible to walk on without slipping. We had to hold on to each other to stop ourselves from falling over on the slick rocks. After making it over the low point in the path the ground started to angle upwards again, leading to yet another gathering of trees and the end of the peninsula.

Through the trees the lighthouse was visible. It was a sturdy looking building constructed out of stone with a platform of wood and stone built at the top where the fire was built. Next to it was a cabin. The cabin had windows but they were all shut. The only sign that there might have been anyone living there was the smoke coming out of the chimney. There were some struggling crops planted in the soil nearby. I wondered what Balon would have said if he could have seen his son now. A path behind the cabin led down to a small stone beach. I could hear the sound of waves crashing against the shore all around us.

Sansa let me take the lead as we approached the cabin. The path was more even here, someone had walked over it often enough to make the ground level. As we got closer to the cabin more details emerged. The cabin was old but sturdy, built of a mixture of wood and stone. The windows were covered with wooden shutters that must have locked from the inside. The front door was remarkably solid looking as well. It made an easily defendable fortress against the outside world. "Should we wait for him to come outside or should we go up to the door?" I asked her.

She shrugged. "Either way it’s going to be a shock."

We stopped outside the front door. I wasn’t sure if whoever was inside would have heard us approaching. I knocked and waited to see if anyone would answer. A raven cawed inside and someone shushed it. Then there came the jangle of someone unlocking the door. There were a lot of locks and it took whoever was inside a long time to unlock them all. Finally the door opened, but only about an inch. It was too dark to see anything through the crack. A faint musty smell emerged. "Hello, is this Theon? It’s Robb. Can I talk to you?" Instantly the door slammed shut and all of the locks slammed back into place. I stepped back in shock. Was it even Theon? Had this all been a big mistake?

"You’re dead." a voice said behind the door without emotion. I couldn’t tell if it was Theon or not. It had been so long since I’d heard his voice.

Sansa had come up beside me in the meantime. She motioned for me to move back further. "I’ll see if I can talk to him, ok?" She leaned over close to the door. "Theon, it’s Sansa. We just want to talk to you. Can you let me in? I want to make sure you’re all right."

"Yara said I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. Never again," the voice said. He almost sounded like he was crying.

Luckily Sansa was patient. I would have broken the door down. "And you don’t have to. Can I come in to see you? We didn’t get to speak to each other after Deepwood Motte."

Her only response was silence. I was sure he’d turn her away just as easily as he did me. Instead the locks started to come undone one by one and she was let in. I stayed standing outside waiting for the door to open to let me in. As the minutes passed any hope of that was dashed. The raven had been cawing but eventually that stopped. Quiet surrounded me.

Instead of waiting around nervously for something to happen I started to walk around the peninsula. The lighthouse door was wide open. I took a brief look inside. There were piles of wood and other supplies stacked in a corner. A ladder led up to a few different platforms and then to the top itself. Any other time I would have tried to climb it but today my leg twinged with pain even when walking normally.

A training dummy had been set up near the neatly stacked woodpile on one side of the cabin. Someone had sewn pale blue stones onto its head for eyes. It almost looked untouched. None of the arrow holes were anywhere near the center of the target. I wondered what had happened. Theon used to be the best archer out of any of us. Certainly better than me.

The beach below the lighthouse was small and deserted. There was a slim rocky path that led down to it. Fierce waves battered against the shoreline. It would have been a difficult place to land anything without it being beaten to pieces against the rocks. This truly was a place isolated from the rest of the world.

There was still no activity from the cabin so I went and sat down on the small fence that surrounded his paltry garden. It had started raining again, a fine mist that soaked through most of my clothing. I pulled the hood on my cloak up over my head. It didn’t provide much protection against the elements.

The longer they were in the cabin together the more I started to worry. Anxiety was starting to overtake me. What if Theon had decided to hurt her? What if it wasn’t Theon at all?

The door finally opened after what felt like hours and Sansa emerged. It closed and locked behind her. She slowly made her way over to my side and sat down next to me. It looked like she’d been crying. And yet she looked at me like I was the one who was coming apart. Maybe she was right. She took my hand gently. "It is Theon." A weight released itself from my chest, only to be replaced by two more. "He can’t see you today but he will talk to you tomorrow." She tried to peer underneath the hood of my cloak to see how I was doing. Right then I couldn’t do anything to reassure her.

"How is he?" I asked once my voice started to work again.

It took her a long time to answer. I could see her struggle to find the words. I’m not sure if she was trying to spare my feelings or if it really was that hard to describe. "He’s doing better than he was the last time I saw him." Since I had no idea when that was that detail wasn’t helpful. "He’s answering to his name again. But he’s not taking care of himself very well and he could barely look at me." She held on to my hand firmly.

"Did he say anything about me?" The words stuck in my throat but somehow I got them out.

This obviously was a question she’d been dreading answering. "He’s scared of you. He thinks it’s all a trick and you’re going to take him back to Ramsay. They told him that what Ramsay did to him was on your orders." I started to get ready to argue with her. She put her hand up. "I told him that wasn’t true. You just wanted to talk to him." She clenched my hand in hers. "Promise me you won’t be hard on him. I’m not sure how much of him is left."

"I promise," I said. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep my promise, but I felt I owed her that much. She managed to give me an encouraging smile.

Suddenly one of the windows opened and a raven flew off into the sky. "He’s telling Yara we’re here," Sansa said. That meant we didn’t have much time.

She stood up and tried to coax me to my feet. "Come on, let’s go back to the inn."

 


 

PAST

While Theon and I had been close at Winterfell the moment the Stark bannermen came it all changed. What had happened to Father had pushed everything else to the side. I was pulled in a thousand different directions, none of them anywhere close to Theon. Some days I barely saw him. Whenever we ran into battle I hoped that wherever he was he was alive and unharmed. Somehow he managed to make it through safely every time. He’d said he would be there. I’d never said the words back but I thought he’d always understand that I would be there too. That was how it was going to work. That was how it had to work. And yet somehow it wasn’t. Once we left Winterfell the things that had tied us together slowly slid apart.

The most time we got together was looking at each over the war table. And I had to fight even for that. No one trusted him. Nearly every day someone told me to send him to the dungeons. Greyjoys couldn’t be trusted. It was only a matter of time before he’d turn on us.

At night I would walk around the camp unable to sleep. The burden of avenging my father and keeping my army alive weighed on me heavily. Even then I wasn’t truly alone. The eyes of all my followers watched my every step. Whenever I passed the tent I thought was his I could hear women laughing. A different one each night. I tried to tell myself I shouldn’t have been angry or jealous, this wasn’t anything new. When we were still at Winterfell he’d continued going to the brothel. At least when we were home I still had a place in his life. Here there was nothing. I was his liege lord, nothing more.

Mother was no help. When she wasn’t trying to tell me what to do with the war she was trying to plan out my future. She still believed there was a future after all of this. And a future to her meant a wife and children, extending the Stark family another generation.

Any time I had by myself was carefully monitored. There was someone guarding me or around me at all times. My fury at what had happened to Father only grew. Anything that got in my way was an obstacle to be crushed. It grew harder to try and be patient when patience was needed. The tension was palpable.

 

One night I resolved to see Theon by myself. I waited until the guards outside of my tent had descended into a discussion of whether or not Tilly, one of the camp followers, loved him best. It was a conversation I’d heard before. They could make it drag out for hours. I changed into a nondescript tunic and cloak with a hood. As I made ready to slip out the back of the tent Grey Wind started to follow. "Stay here," I whispered. He sniffled unhappily and managed a few barks.

"Gods I wish that wolf would be quiet," one of the guards snapped.

I patted Grey Wind one last time and then slid out underneath the tent. Instantly I felt freer. For a few moments I didn’t have to think about how to lead this unwieldy army and avenge my father. I was my own person.

The camp was dotted with interspersed campfires and tents. Each of the bannermen had brought their own and they flew their flags proudly. I had a vague idea where Theon was staying. It was in the midst of one of the smaller houses. I had overheard Greatjon Umber instructing the lord of that house to keep a close eye on him.

I kept to the shadows, nodding to those I passed but not stopping to talk. None of them seemed very talkative anyhow. I made sure my head was covered at all times. There was no place to go where I wasn’t observed. It was pure luck that no one stopped me to ask who I was. I picked my way through the crowd of tents to the only one that had a black and gold flag flying. The kraken flag flew proudly from his tent, though it looked like it had been battered by the wind. As I walked closer to the tent the flaps parted and a woman walked out, carefully putting a few coins in her purse. She winked at me before heading on to her next engagement.

Theon was half dressed when I opened the tent and peered in. He was sitting on his cot drinking out of his flask. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and my eyes went straight to his milk white skin. When I lowered my hood he barely looked at me. "What are you doing here?"

"I snuck out of my tent." When I had decided to do this I had a vague idea that he would be happy to see me, not irritated.

His eyes narrowed. "You have to sneak out to see me? Are you afraid someone’s going to find out you’re with a Greyjoy?"

I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’d only wanted to avoid attracting a lot of attention, but he was acting like I’d hidden because I was ashamed of him. I would have hoped that long years as his friend would have proved I was anything but. "No. I didn’t think you’d want me coming down here as Robb Stark, King of the North."

He took another swig out of his flask. "Getting used to that, are you?" He gave a mocking bow. "Your Grace." The jealousy was only thinly veiled.

Instantly I wanted to punch him. The way he looked at me as if I was enjoying all of this made the resentment inside of me burn. "I didn’t ask for any of this. If Father hadn’t been murdered none of this would have ever happened." I hadn’t come here to fight with him but it seemed like that was all we were going to do. His face had paled a little at the mention of Father but he soon recovered.

Both of us glared at each other until he finally looked away. "Calm down," he said wearily, patting a space next to him. I sat down beside him on his cot. He moved over so we weren’t touching. The tent was stifling inside. "I knew this wouldn’t last," he said finally. "Once you get revenge there’s no going back to the way things were."

"What do you mean?"

"You’ll be the King of the North. They’ll want you to keep your promise, get married to one of the Freys, and settle down." He took a deep drink and emptied the flask. "I didn’t think it would happen so soon."

"We can still..." The words came before I thought them through.

Theon rolled his eyes. "We can still what? After this is all over I can’t stay. My people are waiting for me on Pyke. Once I go back they’ll be expecting me to take over. They’ve waited for me for nine years."

It felt like we had both been thrown into a river with a fast moving current that was quickly tearing us away from each other. "I didn’t come here to lord over you. We haven’t talked alone for weeks. I see you sitting next to me in the tent with the others and all I want to do is ride away with you." Something burned deep within me. I wasn’t sure if it was anger or regret.

"You’d never do that. You might think about it but you’d never do it."

"I can’t. I have things I need to take care of." Right now I could feel them surrounding me.

He had closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists. "I know that. I knew that when I said you had to do this. Maybe I didn’t think through what it would mean." If he had tried to hit me I wouldn’t have stopped him. Physical pain would have been better than this mental anguish.

"We’re so far away from anything in Winterfell-sometimes it’s hard to remember there’s a whole other world out there." And now that my family was drowning in it I wasn’t sure where to go. Once Father was avenged it would all fall back into place. After it was all over I’d have to go back to the Twins and marry whoever Walder Frey had decided was best for me. Then we’d return to Winterfell and continue things the way they had been since Brandon the Builder. The window of time I had with Theon was rapidly closing. Soon he would be gone and I would have nothing left of that time before except our names carved in stone.

Theon was staring at me intently. "I can’t help you here. It’s not good for either of us." His eyes were wild with excitement. "If I go home I can bring ships back to help you. You’ll need them if you want to take King’s Landing."

My stomach lurched. He looked so earnest in the dim light. I felt like I was drowning. A part of me always knew it had to end but never like this. "I want you to come back with a fleet," I choked out, my throat tight with suppressed emotion.

"I will," he said.

 

I thought about that night often. It was one of the few moments I could point to where everything completely changed afterwards. Before the night ended my life was full of possibilities. Once it was over my choices had narrowed further and further until there was nowhere to go except Walder Frey's castle and the dungeons. If Theon hadn’t left to go to Pyke Winterfell would never have been seized and burned. Bran and Rickon would never have gone North. Ramsay would never have married Sansa. Then again I would never have met Talisa. I loved her in a different way than I loved Theon. With Theon there were always reasons to run away from it all, with Talisa there were reasons to stay. Now she was gone all I wanted to do was run again. And this time there was nothing holding me back.

Chapter Text

4.

We didn’t say anything to each other on the walk back to the village. Sansa barely even looked at me. She marched on in front of me with her head held up high. I struggled to make my way along behind her. The tide was coming in and the water lapped at my feet. A few times I lost my footing and had to grab onto the rocks around me for purchase. It felt like if I fell she would have been too concerned with getting back to the village to notice. She was determined to get as far away from the lighthouse as possible.

Once we reached the small group of trees outside the village she relaxed a little and let me catch up. A dog came running up to us. It was a dirty shade of brown and its fur was missing in spots. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth. My hand immediately went to my sword even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it. A primal fear emerged, squirming around inside me. I found myself stepping behind a tree trying to stay out of the dog’s field of vision.

Sansa went right to it, getting down on her knees to pet it. The dog loved the attention. It rubbed itself all over her, panting and kicking its leg up.

I was paralyzed. I could still remember how things had been with Grey Wind before it all went sour. Now whenever I looked at or felt anything that reminded me of him it didn’t take long before I felt the suffocating weight of his fur all around me and smelled the musty animal scent of his dead corpse.

I stayed behind the tree watching as Sansa buried her face in the dog’s fur. Eventually it tired of her and turned to look at me. My hand gripped my sword as firmly as it could, ready to draw it if the dog got any closer. The dog started to come toward me. The sword started to leave its sheath.

"Kelpie, come here!" a sailor called from outside the trees. The dog ran off to join him, barking happily.

Sansa stood up and brushed the dirt off of her dress. I was still ready for anything. I couldn’t get my hand to let go of my sword. "What’s wrong?" she asked, looking at me for the first time since we’d left the peninsula.

For a moment I wanted to tell her everything that had happened at the Twins. But even though we’d shared each other’s nightmares didn’t mean that we ever told each other what they were about. "I...I wasn’t sure if it was going to attack you."

She looked at me as if there was something fundamentally wrong with me. And there was. The old Robb would have been able to handle this. The old Robb would have protected Sansa instead of looking out for himself. He would have been right there petting the dog with her. Maybe it was time to admit that there was a problem and I had no idea how to solve it.

"It’s because of what happened to Grey Wind, isn’t it?" I started to nod. "After Lady died it was hard for me to look at another animal like that again. It took a long time to get over it." I couldn’t find the words to tell her that if that had been the issue I wouldn’t have had a problem at all. Instead I merely nodded and we continued walking.

 

The lighthouse burned so brightly that night it almost looked like the whole peninsula was on fire. The stars were barely visible in the face of all the reds, oranges, and yellows mingling together. It irritated some of the sailors at the inn. They said it was tantamount to taunting the Drowned God into reaching out and pulling ships under the water.

We went to bed early. Once we went to sleep it didn’t take long for Sansa to have dreams so bad she started to physically fight something off in her sleep. I had to get up and try to wake her before she hurt herself. As it was she beat her hands against me until she woke up enough to realize who I was. And even then she kept fighting, desperately pushing me away. I stepped back. I didn’t know what to do with this.

"I’m fine now," she said, pulling the covers up around herself. I might have believed her if she didn’t proceed to have yet another nightmare right after she fell asleep. The pattern continued a few more times before she finally got up and got dressed. "I’m going to take a walk."

I watched her go. I should have gone with her but by this point she’d proven herself more than capable of taking care of herself. If I was there it wasn’t as if she would have been any safer.

I drifted into an uneasy sleep. My dreams were no less troubled. A dire wolf watched me from across a field. After a moment I realized it was Grey Wind. It had been so long since I’d seen him whole and living again that I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked at me with eyes full of hate. The only thing I could do was run, so I did. My leg didn’t work any better in the dream world than it did in the real one. It gave out on me before I got further than a few yards. I fell to the ground. Still even here I didn’t give up. I pressed forward, crawling inch by inch. Grey Wind took his time getting to me. He only had to walk at his normal pace and he was on me within minutes.

I felt his weight on my back and his breath in my ear. My whole body shook as I waited for him to devour me. Fighting back wasn’t even something I considered. He had won. And yet he hadn’t done anything with me. I waited for him to strike the killing blow.

"You forgot about me," he whispered into my ear. "I gave my life for you."

"I didn’t forget! I think about you every day," I said. I should have stayed silent.

"You always made me stay behind. When you went off with her, when you went off with him." He spat. "You made me stay behind when I could have saved you." He snarled into my ear.

"I’m sorry," I cried out. "I didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s all my fault. I made the wrong choice."

A hot liquid dripped onto the back of my neck. It dribbled around to the front and down onto the ground in front of me. Blood. It stained my hands and turned the dirt underneath me to mud. "You’re right. Now I’m going to stay with you forever," he whispered into my ear. He disappeared. When I reached back I found his skin. The fur slid through my fingers and onto the ground in front of me.

I woke up covered in sweat with the covers tangled around me. My leg was on fire. Sometime during the night I’d loosened the bandages and it was exposed to the air. The wound was red and puffy. Just looking at it made me want to be sick. My bag and the salve were on the other side of the room. Right now it seemed like an impossible task to walk across the room and get them. Sansa wasn’t back yet so I couldn’t ask her for help.

Eventually I gently slid myself down onto the floor and pushed myself over. After I put the salve on the pain slowly slid away. The wound didn’t look like it was healing. Every part of me wanted to put off making the decision about what to do with it. The last thing I wanted to do was lose my leg. I put my head in my hands. The rest of the night seemed to stretch out forever.

 

The inn wasn’t half as crowded the next morning. The few remaining sailors and townspeople barely took up half of the room. We sat down in a corner by ourselves. The innkeeper came by himself to drop off the morning meal-salted fish and stale bread. "Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked. Then, before we could answer, he shook his head. "Not that there’s much out there to find." Neither of us answered him and he eventually wandered off. His one-eyed friend with the monkey was holding court by the kitchens. The monkey was dancing half-heartedly for its breakfast while its owner laughed.

I was barely able to get any food down. My stomach was still uneasy from the encounter with the dog, the dream of Grey Wind, and the promise of seeing Theon. Sansa, on the other hand, was determined to eat as much as she possibly could. She ate everything placed in front of her and asked for more. Through it all she never looked at me and never said a word.

"Is something wrong?" I asked after she sent the innkeeper to get her another mug of ale.

She looked at me then. Long years in King’s Landing had given her a mask to hide her emotions behind but now it fell, if only for a moment. She was angry. A fury burned in her that couldn’t be contained. "I thought I’d forgiven him. But when I saw him looking exactly like he did the last time I saw him all I could think about was how much I still hated him."

"What happened in the cabin?"

"We talked." Her eyes closed. "About Ramsay." She took a deep breath. When she started talking again her voice shook with anger. "Theon was there on my wedding night. Ramsay made him watch him bed me. Theon could have stopped it. He could have stopped all of it." Her hands curled into fists. "When I saw him all I could see was that man from years ago who couldn’t help me. Or wouldn’t help me." She opened her eyes and met mine. "I won’t let that happen again."

This had all been a bad idea. For all she’d talked about taking things slowly and going easy on Theon it was clear she couldn’t manage it herself. She still needed time. "It was a mistake to bring you here," I said. "I should have come by myself. I didn’t want this to happen to you." But if she hadn’t come then I never would have gotten this far. I’d still be on Pyke waiting for Yara to take pity on me.

Sansa reached out for me. I grabbed her hand. Mine was shaking. Hers was firm. "Robb, it’s not your fault. I thought if I came here and saw him the nightmares would go away and I could move past it. I was wrong." She looked down at the table. "Last night all I could dream about was Ramsay tearing me apart and Theon watching."

"Do you want to go home?"

She nodded. "I’ll help you talk to him, but after that I don’t think I can see him anymore."

"What do you want to do?"

"I’m going to go back home and find Ramsay," she said. "I’m going to find him and make him pay." I had no doubt that she would.

"And then what?"

Her grip tightened on my hand. "Go back to Winterfell and make it what it once was." For a moment I could see it. Sansa would rebuild and make Winterfell worthy of housing the Warden of the North. The Great Hall would fill again. There would be no question of who was in control. She would do everything that I never had the strength or resolve to do once I’d returned.

"If anyone can do it, it’s you," I said. I’d had my chance to make a difference and it had all turned sour. It was time for someone else to have a turn. Bran would need all the help he could get.

"After you talk to Theon, what are you going to do?"

I found myself scrambling to answer. Getting answers from him would be like going back to Winterfell after my captivity-the future was unknowable and vast. It made me uncomfortable to even think about it. There was no plan for after this."I don’t know," I said. "It depends on what his answers are."

"Aren’t you angry at him? You’ve been acting like you want to see him. He betrayed you." She shook her head in irritation. "You still think something good can come out of all of this. You’re just like Father." I remembered when being like Father was something to be proud of.

I slowly pulled my hand out of hers. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry. On the growing list of people who’d betrayed me Theon wasn’t even close to being first. That didn’t mean I knew how I was going to react when I saw him. Anger and some other emotion I couldn’t name twisted in my chest. "Why did you come on this trip with me?" I asked. "It wasn’t just about the nightmares."

Her mask slipped a little. Naked concern laid there. "Robb, I didn’t want you to get hurt. We only just got you back. Bran was going to let you go by yourself. If something had happened to you...someone has to keep us together." Some things started to make sense. I’d thought she really wanted to leave Winterfell because it was painful for her to be there. Now I saw she’d come with me to protect me.

"What about Theon? You’ve been telling me to go easy on him, to not push him too hard, but you’re still angry at him."

"I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t know how much he means to you." My throat closed up. Sansa looked at me with pity. Her hand reached out for mine again and I let her take it. "When you talk about him you act like you used to. I want my older brother back." I had no response for that.

"We should get going or the tide will come in," I said, pushing my plate away and getting up.

 

It was raining hard when we stepped outside. Neither of us talked about the obvious. We probably should have waited for another day to go and visit him. For a moment I almost thought Sansa was going to try and convince me to go back inside. She thought better of it. I’d made up my mind. We’d told him we were coming back today and I didn’t think he’d be able to deal with a broken promise. On my darkest days I knew that I wouldn’t have.

The innkeeper spat on the floor as we walked past. "You’re not going out in this, are you? You don’t need to go out searching for the Drowned God you know. He’ll take you soon enough."

I ignored him though I could tell Sansa was spooked. Once we were out in the street I realized how much of a mistake all of this was. Puddles had overtaken much of the road and some of them were deep. No one was around. Even the brothel was silent. There was an air of expectation about everything. It felt like there were a thousand eyes on us as we made our way to the edge of town. The rain soaked our clothing completely and water filled my boots. I felt bad for Sansa, who didn’t have much more than thin cloth shoes to wear. I kept my focus on where I was stepping, sure that if I fell there would be laughter from all angles. I also looked out for Sansa, trying to guide her around the worst of it so she wouldn’t fall.

After we got out of the village the path was a little more clear. The water hadn’t worn away the footholds out here. Surprisingly it was almost easier to pick our way across the rocks to where the peninsula rose out of the seawater.

Smoke was coming out of the chimney of the cabin. I stopped by the stone fence again and turned to Sansa. She looked at me briefly. "I’ll go and talk to him first and make sure he’s still okay with this." She patted my hand.

"Be careful," I said and took up the same station that I had the day before sitting on the fence. It was covered with water and soon my entire body was soaked. Finally I couldn’t take waiting anymore and I headed over to the lighthouse. The door was still open. I went inside and looked over the supplies that had been carefully set here. Piles of wood and barrels of oil were set against the stone walls. If there was a fire it would all go up without much effort. It was hard to tell if the lack of attention to safety was intentional or not. A small bucket of water was the most care that was taken to prevent a fire. There was a basket on a pulley to carry the wood up to the top. I looked up at the top. The ladders were rickety and old, most of the rungs looked like they would break at any moment. The whole thing looked like it had been well-maintained at one point but now it was on the verge of collapse.

Suddenly I heard Sansa yelling, but the words were too indistinct to make out. I should have run over right away to see what was going on but what with the way she’d been acting this morning I didn’t think it was likely she was yelling because he was hurting her.

Finally she burst out of the cabin, slamming the door behind her. I met her just outside the door to the lighthouse. The mask that she’d cultivated over the years hadn’t quite settled back down on her face. She stood in front of me barely able to contain her rage. She pushed past me to sit by the barrels. "He’ll see you now."

"Are you alright?" I asked. "I could hear you out here."

She shook her head violently. "I thought I could do this but I can’t. He tried to apologize but I can’t look at him. All I see is Ramsay." I wanted to say more to her, find out what had happened, but now didn’t seem like the right time. I sat down next to her for a few more minutes and then got up to head for the cabin. I had no idea what I would find.

 

I walked over to the cabin and knocked on the door. No one answered. I took a chance and tried to open the door. It wasn’t locked and it swung open to reveal a comfortably sized room. There was a bed in the corner piled high with furs, so high, in fact, that most of them had wound up on the floor. It was unclear if he slept on the bed or on the floor. There were shelves stacked with supplies and cabinets arranged around the room. A table with two chairs and a small kitchen space rounded out the area. An empty cage hung on a chain in one of the corners. The only thing that might have marked the owner as anything different was a set of armor with a kraken on it. A bow and quiver were hung on nails by the door. If they had seen any recent use it was hard to tell.

The room smelled of stale air. Most of the window shutters were closed and nailed shut. Scraps of fabric were nailed over all of the shuttered windows so that no light got inside. The only window that wasn’t had more locks than were probably necessary. There were cracks in the walls that gave a small view of what was outside. He’d probably had a perfect view of us approaching the day before.

Theon was kneeling in front of the fire trying to coax it back to life. He wasn't facing me so it was hard to tell what kind of mood he was in. From the way Sansa had been yelling at him I doubted he’d be in a good one. From the back he looked like any other peasant. His clothing was threadbare and worn. There were patches sewn over patches. As he tended the fire with a poker I noticed that he was wearing gloves in spite of the oppressive heat.

"Theon?" I asked. His shoulders fell. It took him a moment to work up the courage to turn around and face me. When he did I almost didn't recognize him. The years hadn't been kind. Years of deprivation had taken away much of the excess fat on his frame. He looked like he'd been ill for a long period of time. Sansa hadn't been exaggerating when she said he wasn't taking care of himself. His hair was longer, greasy, and tangled. He had a scraggly beard and mustache. His skin was covered with dirt and grime. A strip of cloth was tied around his neck. It only accentuated what wasn't there anymore. His eyes were haunted and wide, they stared at me like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. I remembered his eyes being full of mischief and light, but now they only stared at the floor blankly.

As he turned to face me he acted like simply moving hurt. I tried to look him in the eyes, something that I still had problems with after my own imprisonment. He met mine for a second and then looked away like he'd been burned. I stepped closer to him and he flinched. His eyes closed and he stood facing me as if he was waiting for me to hit him. "I'm not here to hurt you," I said, not moving. "I only want to talk."

"That what Sansa said too," he said quietly. "Then she started screaming at me."

I hadn’t come in to the cabin planning on getting angry with him but I could feel it curling in my chest waiting for release. "I think there are some things you deserve to be yelled at for."

Theon twitched in agitation and kept his eyes on the floor. "I know," he whispered. He stayed over by the fireplace staring at points on the floor in front of me. From time to time his eyes would flick up to my face but he’d look away just as quickly.

We stood there not looking at each other. He kept on looking at me warily, as if he wasn’t sure when I was going to strike. "Do you think we could sit down?" I asked, pulling a chair out. He barely nodded. I sat down more heavily than I intended, hitting my bad leg at a poor angle.

When he walked it seemed like it hurt him. There was a lurching quality to his gait that hadn’t been there before. The hand that reached out and moved his chair was cloaked in a glove that had been well taken care of. It was the only thing that marked him as something different than what he appeared to be. As soon as he noticed me staring he put his hands in his lap. From time to time he’d risk glances at me that lasted for mere seconds.

We sat at the table not looking at each other. It felt strange to me to be close enough to touch him when I’d thought I would never see him again. After he’d gone and left me all alone I’d tried to forget him. Seeing him here sitting across from me only made me mourn a relationship that had died long ago. Sansa was right, seeing him again was only reminding me of bad things that had happened in the past, not helping me move on.

"Why did you betray me?" I asked. It wasn’t how I intended to start things but it was at the heart of everything between us.

He shuddered and kept his eyes on the table in front of him. It was old and battered, it was probably original to the lighthouse. He ran his finger along a deep groove in the wood. "I didn’t go to Pyke thinking I was going to turn on you." His eyes were closed. "That happened later."

"After what?" My voice was hard.

"Being in the Iron Islands isn’t like being in the North, at Winterfell. You don’t get respect just for who your parents are and where you came from. You have to take it. I was taken away before I could do any of that. My father thought I was a joke." Theon slowly put his hands under the table. "He thought staying with you had made me soft. He burned your letter after he read it."

"You could have come back." It was hard not to sound petulant. The more I sat here looking at him the more I was reminded of how much we’d lost. He barely looked up from the table.

"No, I couldn’t. My father wouldn’t have let me. And even if I did you weren’t talking to me anymore. I could barely see you without your bannermen all around you. They all said I didn’t belong there, that I hadn’t proven myself. Here there was a chance." He glanced at me nervously. "I tried writing you a letter so many times but I couldn’t finish it. It felt like I was betraying the only family I had."

Anger was boiling inside of me. It took all I had not to lash out at him, screaming like Sansa had. "You just said your father didn’t care about you. Why would you care about betraying him?! You didn’t care that you were turning on me!" It was almost like pulling the scab off of an unhealed wound. It took all I had to keep myself from banging a fist down on the table between us.

The old Theon would have fought back. The person sitting in front of me now barely reacted. A part of me wanted him to break and start yelling back at me. "They were all I had left. There was no more you and me. And you were the only one who trusted me in your army." He hunched over even further. "I thought my family would have missed me when I was gone. Instead they thought I was weak, that being with you had made it so they couldn’t trust me. Right then I would have done anything to get that trust back."

"So sack a village! Fight pirates! You didn’t have to attack Winterfell!"

Theon wiped at his eyes quickly and risked a look at me. I was sure I looked as angry as I felt. "I know I made the wrong choice. It seems like that’s all I do," he said. Before I could say anything else he got down onto his hands and knees in front of me. His dead eyes stared straight ahead. "I’m sorry for what I did to your family." He took a deep breath and bared his neck. He had stopped trembling. This must have been something he’d been preparing himself to do for a long time. "I accept whatever judgement you think is fair."

I had been angry with him a few moments ago, now all I felt was pity. Whatever I had expected when I decided to come and find him it wasn’t this. We stayed like that for what felt like minutes but were probably only seconds. "You can get up. I didn’t come here to do that. The time for that passed a long time ago." I said finally. He slowly sat back on his haunches and looked at me in confusion. "I said I wasn’t here to hurt you. I only wanted to find out what happened."

Something changed in his demeanor. An agitation that hadn’t been there suddenly came to light. "Then you need to leave."

"What?"

"You need to get out of here!" he snarled, getting to his feet. He stormed over to the door and held it open. "Get out!"

I started to say something else but he was shaking his head violently and whispering something under his breath. I didn’t think I’d get anything more out of him. "Can I come to talk to you later?" I asked. We couldn’t leave it like this. We’d been too close for that. He practically pushed me out the door and then locked it behind me. I knocked on the door desperately. "Theon! Please!" There was no response.

Sansa was sitting on a barrel in the lighthouse picking apart a bit of rope. "What happened?" she asked.

"He told me why he did it." I took a deep breath. "He wanted me to execute him. When I wouldn’t do it he kicked me out." I glanced back at the cabin. The door and all of the windows were firmly closed. I couldn’t tell if he was watching us.

"He’s convinced the only reason we’re here is to finish what Ramsay started." Sansa barely looked at the cabin as she grabbed my arm and started to pull me back down the path. The rain had let up a bit. "A part of him is still with Ramsay. I think a part of him always will be."

"Is that how it is for you?" I asked. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know the answer.

Sansa had taken a few steps down the path in front of me. "Every night I go to sleep I'm back with Ramsay or Joffrey. Once I wake up it takes me a few minutes to remember that they’re far away and I'm safe." She turned and looked at me. "Isn't it the same for you?"

I knew she already knew the answer. She'd had to wake me from nightmares of my own enough times to tell. "Yes."

"Let's go back to the village. He's not going to talk to you now."

 

Once we got back to the inn it was full of people gossiping. There was a hum of noise that stopped as soon as Sansa and I stepped through the door. The innkeeper gave us a wary look. "What’s wrong?" I asked.

"We’ve gotten word from Pyke. Yara Greyjoy’s on her way here." The man with the monkey laughed maniacally. "You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?"

I had no idea what to say. Sansa took over smoothly. "Of course not. We only came here to see the lighthouse keeper. Isn’t this the last port before leaving the Iron Islands? Maybe Yara’s going raiding."

All the eyes staring at us started to look away one by one. The murmuring increased again, and thankfully this time it wasn’t talking about us. The innkeeper didn’t look satisfied. "You had better not be lying to me," he said.

After repeated assurances that we were not, in fact, lying to him, he let us go back up to our room. Sansa immediately flopped down in bed and tried to go to sleep. I laid down too, relishing the chance to give my leg a rest. Unfortunately my mind didn’t want to relax. I wasn’t happy with how things had gone today. I knew that time was short, Yara could be here any day now and she’d make us leave. I had to talk to Theon again, and soon.

Sansa stirred slightly when I got up. "What’s going on?" she asked.

"I’m going back to the lighthouse," I said.

"Be careful," she mumbled, rolling over and going back to sleep.

 

The path was somehow worse later in the day. The grassy areas had turned to mud. It sucked my feet down into it, almost taking off my boots. The tide was coming in, splashing up over the rocks and making it nearly impassable. I should have turned around instead of pressing forward. That’s what a smart person would have done, not the desperate person I’d become. I clung to the rocks as I tried to pick my way through the path. There were a few times I was sure I was going to die as my foot went out from under me. There would be no swimming up to the surface in this water. If I fell in I was going to drown.

When I finally reached the peninsula I was soaking wet and ready to collapse. The seawater had splashed over my leg and it stung with salt. Still I forced myself to keep going. The cabin came into view. Theon was walking around outside gathering wood. I didn’t think he’d noticed me yet. There was a strange hopping quality to his gait. Something had happened to his feet. As soon as he noticed me he started moving slower and he folded down into himself. I had no idea what I looked like. After my adventure on the rocks I could have been a wet apparition come to haunt him. "Can I help you with that?" I asked.

There was no response. He didn’t protest as I started to pick up wood and take it inside the base of the lighthouse. He piled it in a corner. Then he took some of the piled dry wood and put it in a basket on a rope to take up to the top. He climbed the ladders with a dexterity I envied. When I tried to follow my legs wouldn’t cooperate.

Theon was building a fire when I finally reached the top. He did it with a quickness that came from doing this over a long period of time. There was a sort of beauty to it, he piled things neatly before pouring a bit of oil on it and setting it alight. The fire started off as a weak spark but then grew, burning brightly. Theon visibly relaxed.

"Do you do this every night?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was stupid. And it was a dumb question, of course he did this every night. There were always going to be ships who needed a safe way to get into the harbor. "Yes. There are ships that go in and out every night. This lets them know the safe path to enter the port."

"It seems like a lot of work, carrying all that wood up and down and setting the fire."

"Once the fire’s set it’s not that bad. I just have to make sure it stays lit until morning. The only hard times are when it’s windy or rainy." He seemed almost lucid, nothing like the man I’d met earlier in the day. Maybe it was because we weren’t truly talking about anything that mattered.

It was almost unpleasantly warm up here standing next to the fire. I found myself taking off my gloves. If the heat bothered Theon he didn’t let it show. His gloves stayed on. There was something wrong with his hands but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Once he noticed that I was staring he hid them behind himself. He wouldn’t look at me for more than a few seconds at a time. Silence stretched out between us. "They said you were dead," he said finally, risking a longer glance this time.

"I might as well have been. They killed Mother and my wife...they almost killed me too but decided against it."

Pain crossed his face for a moment before passing. I’d never thought about it but in some ways I suppose Mother was his mother too. Maybe I should have been more delicate about telling him. The pain was soon replaced by confusion. I could see him trying to work something out in his mind. "Your wife? Which Frey did you marry?" he asked hesitantly. I could tell he was surprised. When he’d left there hadn’t been any sign that I was going to marry anyone at all. We’d even joked about it. As far as he knew nothing had changed.

"She wasn’t a Frey." His eyebrows raised slightly. "Her name was Talisa Maegyr. I met her on a battlefield tending some of the wounded. She gave me a different perspective on things. We started talking, one thing led to another and we got married. Lord Frey found out and said I was an oath breaker. She was pregnant when they killed her." For a moment I could almost see her face in the flames. Something swelled in my chest and made it impossible to continue. I turned away from the fire and looked off into the sea. Ships passed beneath us. I could hear sailors singing shanties in the night. "I couldn’t help her," I choked out. "I couldn’t help any of them." It had been a long time since I’d talked about what had happened. Everyone at Winterfell already knew the details and they didn’t want to hash it out with me again. I sealed it all away, only thinking about it at night when I walked the walls. I slumped to the floor, leaning up against the side of the tower.

"So you betrayed someone too," he said. There was no judgement in his voice, only fact.

Instantly I wanted to argue, to make the case that my marrying Talisa hadn’t broken any promises. Mother had made all of the arrangements for me. But the time for justifying it had long passed. The penalty had already been paid. "Yes, I suppose I did. I thought I was doing the right thing."

"I did too."

"I know." The silence between us grew.

Theon acted like he didn’t notice me. He continued tending the fire, adding more sticks as it started to collapse in on itself. I tried to figure out why his right hand looked so different than the left. Something in how he moved it was off. Finally he looked at me. "Why did you come here?" he asked the flames. I almost didn’t hear him.

"Sansa said you were still alive. I wanted to find you. You’re a hard man to find." His eyes flashed dangerously. "How long have you been out here?"

"A year or so. Yara said I could do what I wanted after the Kingsmoot. I wanted to be left alone."

"She’s very protective of you, isn’t she?" Gods only knew what she’d do to us once she got here and found us with him.

Theon smiled sadly. I got a brief glimpse of his teeth. They were more crooked than I remembered. "I dishonored our family. I don’t deserve what’s she done for me."

"I don’t believe that." Theon looked up in disbelief. "She did what I would have done for any of my siblings."

His face fell and he stared back at the flames. "When I was at Winterfell she came to visit. She said she didn’t want me to die so far from the sea." He swallowed heavily. "Maester Luwin said I should have taken the black. It was too late for that. I was going to die fighting. There would have been no dishonor in that. But Ramsay got there first." He seemed just as reluctant to talk about Ramsay as Sansa was.

"And then what happened?"

Theon closed his eyes. He shuddered like he was in pain. The thin veil of control he had over himself was slipping piece by piece, just as it had in the cabin. "After...after Yara rescued me I went back home with her. And nothing had changed. My uncles, the servants, all of the captains and their crews-they knew what had happened to me. They never let me forget it. Yara had to stop me jumping off the bridges more than once." He looked up at me slowly. "She said I wasn’t ready to meet the Drowned God yet." His hands fell to his side. "I told her I wanted to go away."

"And this was where she sent you." I gestured around us. He nodded. "Do you like it here?"

"It’s better than I deserve." And acting the way he did it was probably a blessing. I noticed he hadn’t said that he enjoyed living here. It was obvious he was making the best out of an unpleasant situation.

After glancing at me briefly he came over and sat beside me on the lighthouse floor. There was still plenty of space between us, more space than I could bridge by reaching out for him. I thought about how when we were younger I would have done almost anything for a moment like this with him. They had come so rarely and never lasted for long. Now it could last as long as we wanted. "Sometimes I pretend this is where we ran away together." He said it so softly I almost didn’t hear him. For a moment my mind followed his train of thought. It saw the two of us out here as we used to be. No worries or cares other than taking care of the lighthouse at night. Adventure would have only been a ship’s ride away if we wanted it. Right now that sounded like paradise. But that was right now, after we’d seen what had happened when we were apart.

"It might have worked. We’d have had everything we needed right here. There’s an inn and a brothel." He winced at the word. I didn’t know why. "But I think we would have hated it. This is so far away from everything. I know I couldn’t have left my family to deal with the Lannisters by themselves." I said.

"I know. Like I said, it’s only something I pretend." He leaned back against the wall.

"Does it make it easier?" I asked.

"Sometimes." He sounded wistful. "Sometimes it makes it worse."

The fire started to sputter and collapse. It would need more tending soon. I reluctantly got to my feet. Theon looked like moving was the last thing he wanted to do. I reached out and took his hand to help him up. That was when I realized what was wrong. He didn’t have a little finger anymore.

Theon stared at where I held his hand and then at me in shock. He pulled his hand away violently and before I knew it he’d gone down the ladders and out into the dark below. I was almost too surprised to move. There was no way I was going to get down all of the ladders with my leg as quickly as he had. I looked at the fire briefly before I started to head down to the ground. It looked like it would burn at least long enough for me to find him. Even so I threw a few more pieces of wood on it.

I barely managed to get down the ladders without falling. My leg had fallen asleep after not moving for so long and it seemed like it caught on every rung. I had to take things slow or I’d wind up falling down onto the stone floor and hurting myself. Once I got to the ground I ran toward the cabin. He hadn’t left a fire burning in the fireplace so it was dark and indistinct inside. There was no sign of him. The only other place I thought he might go was back to the village. I ran as fast as I could to the path. The tide had come in during our time up in the lighthouse and I figured he wouldn’t have tried to swim the gap.

I didn’t know what Theon was capable of. My touching his hand had brought something to life in him and I didn’t know what. There wasn’t anywhere else for him to go, we were effectively shut off from the village. Then I remembered the beach.

The rocks were slick on the path down. I clung to the wall for dear life as I tried to make my way down to the gravel beach. It was almost impossible to see anything. The lighthouse was up above us but barely cast any light down below. The gravel was dark and mixed with large rocks. Any of them could have tripped me as I ran. Finally I saw him kneeling in the surf, the waves breaking over him. "Theon!" I yelled. There was no response. I summoned up the last of my energy and ran for him, dragging him out of the water. He let me, offering no resistance.

Once we were out of the path of the waves I let us both collapse to the ground, too tired to do anything else. He waited until I had paused to catch my breath to start crawling to the sea again. I grabbed him and pinned him underneath me to the beach. He fought against me with a reserve of energy I was envious of. "What are you doing?" I yelled.

"I’m going to meet the Drowned God," he screamed. "I can’t do this anymore!" I managed to force his arms down to the ground so that he couldn’t get free. If this was what Yara had had to deal with once he’d gotten back to Pyke I envied her for her patience. She probably didn’t have any better idea of what to do with him than I did.

"Theon, it’s okay," I said softly, trying to get him to calm down. Theon still fought me but without as much strength behind it. He didn't look anything other than tired, as if he'd been fighting something for a long time and didn't have the energy to continue. His glove had come off sometime during the scuffle and I got a full view of his hand. The little finger had been neatly removed and sewn up so well it almost looked like he’d never had one. "Did Ramsay do this to you?"

Theon shook his head furiously. "I begged him to take it off. He started to peel the skin off piece by piece and I couldn’t even take that." He was trying to gain control of himself but not having very much luck. His breath came in gasps. I loosened my grip a little to let him get some air. "I begged him to kill me but he wouldn’t. He said I was valuable. Instead he kept on cutting away piece after piece until I had no idea who I was." He pulled away from me and slammed his hand into the rocks until it started to bleed. "Sometimes I still don’t know."

"Theon…I…"

"Yara promised me I could make a new life after I helped her. I wouldn't have to see anyone else if I didn't want to. You were dead, and there wasn't anyone else I wanted to see. I thought I’d made a life here. Then you and Sansa came and it all started to come back." He looked at his hand as if it was someone else’s. The blood ran bright red down his arm. "I can't do this anymore."

I reached out hesitantly and touched him on the shoulder. He flinched away but eventually let it rest there. "That’s how I feel sometimes too. Like there’s no place that I fit anymore.," I said.

Theon shook his head. "It’s not the same. He’s always out there, he’s always watching me." He put his hands on his head and started rocking. "I can’t escape him." I didn’t have any idea what to say.

 

It took longer than I thought to convince him to walk back up the slick stones to the cabin above. I slipped a few times and almost brought both of us down. The sea water was cold and freezing as it soaked my legs. It made the cloth stick to my skin and chilled me to the core.

Theon should have been even worse, he’d let himself get drenched. I could barely convince him to walk more than a couple of steps he was shivering so much. Eventually, with careful prodding, I got him to climb up the rock trail and get up onto more stable ground. Then it was only a matter of getting him over to the cabin.

I looked up at the lighthouse. The fire was burning just as it had when I left so I let myself think things would be okay if I got him into the cabin. Once we were there he fell to his knees, teeth chattering, unable to get warm. I would have let myself do the same if someone didn’t need to take control and make sure we both got warm.

I reached for his clothing and started to try to get him to take it off so he could change into something dry. It must have triggered something primal in him. "It’s fine, leave it!" he snapped, fighting against my hands.

"You’re going to get sick!" I had no idea what the problem was. He crossed his hands in front of his chest and shook his head. There was no reasoning with him.

The fire was embers in the fireplace. I busied myself stirring it up and back to life. My fire tending skills weren’t very well-developed but I was able to get something going that would warm us after we’d sat there for a while.

Even though he wouldn’t take off his clothes I knew I had to do something or I was going to get sick and not be of use to anyone. He watched almost in awe as I pulled my shirt off and tried to wring it out. Water splashed over my feet, bringing them back to life momentarily.

Most of the scars on my chest had faded, the ones where the bolts had penetrated were now pale little circles that didn’t match the agony that they had caused. If one was looking for real pain that would have been my leg, which I could feel throbbing even now. I had hoped Theon would look at me and feel safer about undressing but he looked like he’d never take anything off ever again. Once my shirt was somewhat dry I put it back on. The cold was almost worse the second time.

Now that Theon was wet I could truly see how reduced he had become. His clothes clung to him and there wasn’t much to cling to. I was impressed he’d even been able to fight me off on the beach. He noticed me staring and huddled down further into himself. He didn’t make a move to change his clothes. I wasn’t sure if he even had other clothes to change into. Instead he’d pulled one of the furs from the bed over himself. I didn’t think it would do much of anything against the cold at this point. He sat huddled near the fire, his arms crossed on his chest looking miserable. I started to sit down next to him and he began to get up. "Someone has to check the lighthouse," he muttered. As the more mobile of the two of us I knew it was going to have to be me.

"I can take care of it," I said. "Is there anything I need to do?"

"Make sure it doesn’t go out," he said.

I hesitated before going out the door. "Are you going to be okay?" I asked. I noticed his hand was still bleeding.

He looked at me with the same dead eyes as before. "I’ll be fine. This wasn’t the first time." I touched him on the shoulder before I left. I counted it as a small victory when he didn’t flinch.

 

It was almost tortuous to think about going outside into the wind and cold. I wasn’t sure that leaving him alone was the best idea. There was no telling what he could do to himself with what he had in the cabin. The only thing that made me feel somewhat comfortable about the whole thing was he sounded more like his old self-tired and sad to be sure but not broken.

I climbed back up to the fire with difficulty. My arms were jerky and uncoordinated, my fingers could barely hold on to the rungs. Still I managed to clamber up to the top and reach the fire. It was still burning brightly but there was no telling what it might have done if it had been left alone for much longer. Much of the lighthouse’s structure was stone but everything inside was wood. It would have gone up in a flame that could be seen for miles.

The fire dried me off so quickly I almost couldn’t remember that I’d been cold. Instead of thinking about how I felt I was stuck thinking about where things could go from here. Theon had come here to get away from everything that had hurt him and everyone that had ever known him. All I’d set out to do was find him but could I really leave him like this? He didn’t have any meaningful contact with other people except when he went to town and even then I’m sure he didn’t talk to anyone. Whatever Ramsay had done to him was almost worse than killing him, he’d taken away everything that made Theon who he was. That was probably the point.

I leaned on the edge of the window on top of the lighthouse and let the breeze cool me. As places to hide went this wasn’t bad. My thoughts turned to what I was going to do next. If I went back to Winterfell my only place would be as an oft-ignored advisor to Bran. I had a place there but it wasn’t really more than a place to stay, and it was only given out of family obligation and pity. It would be more trouble for them if I stayed-they always had to explain what I was doing there and reassure everyone that I wasn’t in a position to rebel again. It wasn’t a spot that I enjoyed.

This trip with Sansa had been a way to get away from all of that-all of the people who knew me-and go somewhere that I could be someone else. Maybe that was what had attracted Theon here. Nobody knew who he was or what had happened to him. He could make his own way and didn’t have to think about living up to someone else’s expectations. At least until I had come around to remind him of what he’d left behind.

Everything was quiet below me apart from the wind and the waves crashing against the beach. The village was almost visible off in the distance, lights gleaming in the darkness. From time to time I could see ships passing in the night, sometimes passing perilously close to the rocks below.

The fire stayed lit for most of the night with little coaxing. A few times I almost abandoned it so I could go back down and see how Theon was doing but I figured he would most likely be sleeping. I was sure he got little enough of that.

Once the sun started to bleed over the water turning it all shades of orange and red I put out the fire with a bucket of water he’d left in the corner then started to make the long journey down the ladders to solid ground.

I hesitated at the door to the cabin. Would he remember me? And if he did would he let me stay?

The cabin was dark inside and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The fire had burned down to nothing in the fireplace. I could only make out vague shapes in the darkness that looked like furniture. The bed didn’t look like anyone was in it. It took me a second to realize that what I thought was a pile of furs on the floor by the bed was Theon. It wasn’t clear if he’d fallen out of bed or if he’d spent the whole night there. He was shivering so I put a few of the furs from the bed on top of him.

I would have had to wake him up to get into the bed so I sat down in one of the chairs and pulled my cloak over myself. It was cold in the cabin and wind came in through gaps in the walls by the windows. I started shivering but the cold gradually managed to make it easier to drift off to sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

5.

PAST

After Bran rescued me from the Twins it took weeks to get back home, weeks where I barely left the back of my horse to do more than sleep. Bran’s army had done what they had set out to do. He’d installed a new guardian for the Twins and left a decent portion of troops to secure it. They didn’t try to head for King’s Landing. Bran knew his limits.

Once we started traveling my leg only got worse. A low fever set in, exacerbated by the constant back and forth of the horse I was riding. Bran had a maester look at me but he only gave me a few potions and said we had to wait and see. I heard him talking to Bran about me possibly losing the leg. That only strengthened my resolve to get better at any cost. I had so little left, I couldn’t lose more.

Winterfell rose in front of me, its welcoming walls rising from the mountains and forests surrounding it. I couldn’t see much activity inside but I figured most people would be working in the castle not up on the walls. It stayed in front of me, tantalizing me with the possibility of finally being home and safe at last.

Once we were inside its walls I nearly fell off my horse. Rickon, or a man who I assumed was Rickon, was standing by a tall, stately looking woman waiting for us. Sansa. They could barely contain their surprise at seeing me. Rickon looked like he wanted to say something but Bran pulled him to one side. "Robb?" Sansa asked.

I nodded, trying to keep standing. She ran over to me and grabbed on for all she was worth. "They said you were dead," she said against my neck. "I thought we were the last ones."

"They killed Mother," I said, barely able to form the words. "They killed my wife."

Her grip grew tighter. "We’re back together now. Things are going to be different." She pulled back and looked at my leg. "What happened?"

"I tried to escape. It didn’t go well." The world was starting to spin again. When she tried to pull away I held on, sure that I would fall.

Sansa noticed and covered her concern quickly. "Come on, your old room is still there."

 

Sansa walked me up to my room. It was a struggle. I wound up leaning on her more than supporting my own weight. The only thing that made it possible was my weight loss from prison. If she minded she didn’t say.

"How long have you been here?" I asked. She paused on the top step to wait for me and then continued.

"A few months. I was at the Eyrie for a while. Once Bran retook Winterfell he sent for me. I’ve been here ever since." She helped me the last few feet to my room. "And I was here when the Boltons held it."

I hopped the few feet to the bed. My room was plain. It had obviously been put back together in a rush. Bran had said something about there being a fire but he hadn’t said anything about the extent of the damage. He’d also talked a little about what had happened with the Boltons, enough so that I had a vague idea of what had gone on. No one seemed very eager to talk about it.

The brief glimpse of myself I got in the mirror on the table was enough to last me for a long time. I was a broken wasted man, nothing like the person I’d been before all of this. I turned away from my reflection. Sansa helped me onto the bed. "Do you want me to get the maester?" she asked.

No matter how much I might have wanted to pretend it was all okay I couldn’t. The room hadn’t stopped spinning. "Yes, I think you should."

 

After she left I must have passed out because when I woke up she was standing there next to another man who I didn’t recognize. This had to be the new maester, his chains shown brightly on his chest. Sometime during my delirium they’d pulled my pants off, exposing the wound to the air. Streaks of red ran up my leg, nothing good could come of it. He poured a liquid over it and I nearly blacked out again.

"Robb!" Sansa cried. I would have said something but the pain had taken my power of speech.

"Some of this flesh is dead. I’ll have to cut it out to let it heal," the maester said. Sansa had unwisely left her hand within reach. Once he started cutting and scraping I latched on with all the strength I had. Screams erupted out of me, burning my lungs and destroying my voice. Sansa wound up lying almost on top of me to keep me from moving.

The maester said nothing to me as he continued on with his grim work. I almost thought he was taking off my leg entirely. I tried to shake him off. Sansa could barely hold me down. I was too lost in my own private terror that I couldn’t do much more than struggle weakly against them.

Finally the maester sat back and Sansa relaxed a little. He poured more of the liquid over my wound. My vision went white.

When I finally regained my senses the maester handed me a glass. "Drink," he said. After all he’d done that felt like entirely the wrong thing to do. Whatever it was smelled earthy and vile. "Drink," he said again, pushing it forward. I drank. It tasted worse than it smelled.

After I’d finished it he waited for a moment before leaving. Sansa watched him go."He may be a little serious but he knows what he’s doing."

I tried to respond but my tongue wouldn’t work. The room was getting smaller and smaller, darker and darker.

Then it was gone.

 

When I woke up next my leg was tightly wrapped and pain free. At least until I moved it. Someone had changed me into my nightclothes. It felt so good to actually sleep in a real bed. I almost didn’t want to get up.

I managed to get to my feet with some difficulty and make my way over to the small window. Snow was falling outside. A small pile of it had accumulated on the windowsill. Down below in the courtyard a few soldiers were practicing swordplay while others looked on. A couple of years ago I would have been down there giving it my all.

Dressing myself took longer than I wanted it to. I hadn’t had to change clothes in so long I’d almost forgotten how to contort my body to fit a tunic or put my pants on. I didn’t know whose clothes were in the trunk at the foot of my bed. They didn’t fit me, they were all made for a much larger and healthier person. It only reinforced how broken I’d become.

I opened the door to my room and tottered out into the hallway. There was no one around. I walked down to the Great Hall slowly, trying to avoid falling on my unsteady feet.

Once I got there everything looked different enough that I wondered if I was in Winterfell at all. The tapestries and decorations Mother and Father had put up were all gone, replaced by empty gaps in the stone walls. It was a dreary place. No one had given it a thorough cleaning in quite some time. There were piles of dirt and dust in the corners.

"I didn’t think you’d be up yet," Bran said from behind me. Hodor held him carefully, a wide smile on his face. "We went up to your room to check on you but you’d gone."

I turned to face him, wincing as my leg protested the motion. "I wanted to see where everyone was."

"There aren’t very many people here now. I sent them home after we got back. There wasn’t much point keeping them around after that."

"The war’s over?"

He stared at me with cold unblinking eyes. "It is for us."

The relief that washed over me almost felt wrong somehow, like I didn’t deserve it. My legs started to give out. I braced myself against the wall.

"Make yourself at home," he said. "I want to talk to you later."

 

After eating and drinking my fill I wandered through the castle. Everything was familiar enough that I recognized it, but different enough that I often questioned if I was in the right place. It didn’t help that there weren’t any familiar faces among the servants to reassure myself that yes, I was home. They all stared at me like I was some evil specter come to take them away in the night. After a few encounters where a servant screamed and dropped what they were carrying I decided to keep to the shadows and side hallways. It was easier that way.

There were signs of the fire all over the place. The stone was scorched black in some places. Flakes of soot came off in my fingers. No one had apparently had the time or inclination to wipe it all away. I could see where they had tried to rebuild, some of the towers teetered atop unsteady bases, shifting in the wind and snow.

There was little left of what it had been before. I almost hated to step outside to see what else had changed. Still I did, there was one place I thought that they probably hadn’t touched. The crypts laid out below the castle walls were my target. If there was one place I absolutely had to go that I knew wouldn’t have changed it was there.

Torches burned brightly near the entrance. I took one and descended into the dark and chilly depths. The arm holding the torch shook. I used my other arm to steady it. Each step down was an uneven gap that jolted my leg unpleasantly. Still I continued. What other choice did I have?

The oldest monuments were first. Once the faces might have looked like the corpses that laid beneath them but now they were worn blank by time and the elements. My torch only lit a few feet around me, barely enough to watch my step. When I was growing up we’d played games down here once before Father had found us and scolded us for not respecting the memory of those that had come before. We would all be down here one day, after all.

I walked from memorial to memorial, searching for the more recent ones. When I was younger I’d had to memorize the family history down here. Maester Luwin walking from statue to statue explaining who each of them was and what they had done. I couldn’t help hearing his voice as I walked further inside.

Finally I found what I was looking for. Father and Mother’s statues sat staring at each other on either side of the passage. I knew that Mother’s remains were most likely not here. I doubted that the Freys had sent them here to their proper resting place. Father’s remains I wasn’t sure about. Mother had said they were on their way but whether or not the Boltons had let them rest here was still in question.

I laid a hand on each of their monuments and tried to conjure up a happy memory of all of us together. Those memories were long gone and hard to dredge up from the more recent ones of death and destruction. Still I tried. They deserved that much. I waited in quiet meditation for a while before my leg started to seize up. I turned around to go back. Then my torch caught something that was hiding past my parents graves.

There was another monument here, one that had barely had time to acquire the gloss of condensation the others had. Once I brought my torch around my legs failed me. It was my grave. My dead stone eyes stared straight ahead. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move. The torch fell to the floor. I tried to grab it before it went out, leaving me all alone with the specter that was always looking down on me. Sobs wracked my body, harsh painful ones that I couldn’t suppress. This more than anything else reinforced that there was no coming back. I had died. I fell to my knees and cried for all those who I’d lost and all those that had had to give up their lives because of me. I had thought I could escape it all if I came back here, came back home, but reminders were everywhere. Whoever had made the statue had carved Grey Wind too, he sat at my feet guarding me for eternity.

A hand clasped my shoulder. I pulled its owner down to my level and grabbed on to them. Whoever it was held me back as I cried out all of my fears and frustrations. There would be no coming back from this. I had survived everything at the Twins only to be pulled back under to where I really belonged.

"I’m sorry you had to see that," Sansa said against my cheek. "We argued about whether or not to have it carved for you. Rickon thought there might still be a chance you were alive." It was depressing that the brother I remembered least was the one who held on the longest. Sansa kept a hand on my back as I pulled away from her.

I took in a rough shaky breath. My voice came out jagged and painful, almost as if the stitches holding my throat together had burst. "What am I supposed to do now?"

Sansa never stopped rubbing a calming circle on my back but she never answered my question either.

 

I met Bran in the Great Hall later. He sat in the spot where Father would have long ago. For this meeting they’d managed to scrounge up one tapestry with the dire wolf and hang it up behind him. I walked into the room with my head bowed. Sansa had stayed with me in the crypts for what felt like hours trying to calm me down. Now that I was back up in the light again I felt like I had to try to show that I still had some control over myself. There had to be a line between the Robb that had died and the Robb that lived.

Maester Culver was sitting next to Bran. While Bran had a quiet serenity about him Maester Culver looked like he wanted to jump up and do things right then. He gave me an appraising look. I suppose I would have done the same if the first time I’d met someone was when I was stitching up their injuries. He’d seen me laid bare.

There were other people sitting by them, people I didn’t recognize. I could recognize their heraldry though. They were representatives of all of the bannermen who had gone with me in the first place. I thought he’d sent them all home. The temptation to turn around and leave was overwhelming.

"I thought it would be just you and me talking Bran,"I said. It came out shaky.

He didn’t gesture for me to sit, so I stood. "Robb, a few of the other lords wanted to see you before they left." All of their eyes focused in on me. It almost felt like they were tearing me apart with their gaze. I would gladly had done it myself. I waited for them to start throwing things at me. "There was some discussion about what you should do now that we’ve found you again."

"Especially since you were declared dead," one of the bannermen interjected. Bran gave him a warning glare.

"Yes. I became the Lord of Winterfell once you were gone," Bran said.

"And that’s the way it should stay!" Another of his bannermen said, glaring at me. I had no idea who he was. There were so many people I’d wronged. For all I knew he could have been one of the Lannisters.

"Lord Karstark you’ll have your say."

"After what he did to our family I don’t want him anywhere close to any of us," Lord Karstark snapped. I briefly remembered killing his relative. The swing of the sword, the feeling as it cut through bone and tendons. The blood that spattered onto my hands. I’d thought I was securing my victory but instead I was sealing my fate.

"And he won’t be," Maester Culver said. "Robb, one of the conditions for your continuing to stay here is giving up all claim to any titles and lands that you would have been entitled to." Why did he have such glee in saying those words? The other lords were shaking their heads in agreement.

Bran tried for a more conciliatory approach. "You’ll always have a place here, I’ll make sure of that. You can even be one of my advisors if you like," he said. It was as if he was throwing me a scrap of nothing. I should have been insulted. I was so disoriented he could have told me I was going to be one of the servants and I would have gone along with it.

Instead I practically fell to my knees. "I’ll go wherever you feel it necessary," I said. At least for now I didn’t have to wonder about what to do next and where I fit in all of this. I had a relatively stable place.

Bran exchanged glances with each of his advisors. "Some of the others also want you to apologize for what you did during the war."

I don’t remember what I said only that it made some of them smile in triumph.

 

After I was dismissed I wandered up onto the battlements. The forest and mountains that surrounded Winterfell were coated with snow. When I’d left the last time you could still see green. Now it was almost all white and brown. Everything had changed so much since I was gone. There was talk of having a feast tonight to welcome everyone home. I decided that I would stay in my room. The last thing I wanted to hear now was the sound of celebration.

"Can I help you m’lord?" one of the guards asked. He was a foot or so taller than I was. His face was a craggy mess that spoke of long nights in the cold. I’d thought I was alone up here, but of course there would be guards. That wasn’t something could be neglected anymore. There was always a threat that the people you counted on would strike out and attack you.

"No, I’m sorry. I just wanted to see the countryside again. It’s been a long time," I said.

"It’ll be a lot nicer once the snows melt," he said. He started to walk away but then looked back at me. I hadn’t put on much more than my cloak. The winds up here were fierce and they cut through the cloth. "Do you want to join me by the fire? Beg pardon m’lord but you’re not dressed well enough to be up here."

His was practically the first welcoming invitation I’d had since coming back home. I followed him almost meekly. He didn’t stare at me like I was a ghost. "What’s your name?" I asked his broad shoulders as he tromped away in front of me.

"Munger, m’lord."

"You don’t have to call me that," I said. "I’m not a lord any longer."

He looked back at me disbelievingly but didn’t say anything.

The fire when we got to it wasn’t very large and it wasn’t very warm but it was better than nothing. Once I went back down I almost wanted to see about how I could arrange it so they had a bigger one. If our safety depended on them I wanted them to have all the tools they needed.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

Munger shrugged. "Long enough. There were too many mouths to feed where I grew up so when Maester Culver came by looking for guards I volunteered. Been here ever since." He held his hands over the flame. "Must be strange for you coming back here."

"It is. It’s all different than what I remembered," I said. "I haven’t seen anyone here who I remember from before."

Munger stared at me coldly, his mind trying to decide what to tell me. "Most of the people who worked here before died when the Boltons came. They flayed them and hung them up on the battlements. They’d leave them there for weeks. On market days when my family would come into the castle they’d be there watching us."

"And then Bran came."

"Yes, Lord Stark came and drove them all out. We had a big feast after that. It was the first time we’d had enough to eat in a long while." Munger warmed his hands over the fire slowly. "It hasn’t been so bad lately. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to those days before."

"That’s good to hear," I said. "I don’t think I would want to either."

"We’re glad you’re back, m’lord. When we heard you’d died at the Twins it took a bit of the fight out of us. What was the point if there were no Starks to defend us?"

I didn’t have an answer. We shared the fire for a while longer in companionable silence. Eventually I thanked him for his hospitality and made my way back down into the castle.

 

NOW

 

Fur surrounded me the next morning. It felt like I was drowning in it. When I tried to move whatever it was it felt like I was peeling off my skin. Finally I managed to free myself from it. I threw whatever it was off of me. A few assorted furs fell off me and onto the floor. Theon must have put them over me sometime during the night. They laid there looking like a dead animal. I had to close my eyes and tell myself it was just an object, it wasn’t alive. It was a struggle to calm down. For a moment I’d thought Grey Wind’s promise had come true, he had become a part of me.

Every part of me ached. Sleeping in the chair hadn’t done anything for my broken body. I had to work up the strength to move.

Theon was kneeling by the fire stirring something in a pot. I couldn’t tell if he’d noticed I’d woken up yet. The only sign of our adventures last night was his hand, which he’d wrapped up with a dirty cloth. His clothes were coated with a thin dusting of dried salt. As soon I stood up he froze. "Good morning," I said, after it became clear he wasn’t going to say anything.

Theon only nodded. I noticed the table had been set with a spot for each of us. There was salted fish and a loaf of bread. I didn’t know if this was what he normally ate or if he’d brought it out for me. He took the pot off of the fire and spooned out a generous helping of porridge onto my plate. I noticed he didn’t take nearly as much. Once he’d finished he sat down across from me and started eating without ceremony. He ate like it was a chore.

I wasn’t that hungry but I forced myself to try a little of everything. Theon had gone through the trouble of cooking for us, the least I could do was eat it. What I tasted was good, much better than anything else I’d eaten since coming out here.

As the silence between us grew I wondered if it was as uncomfortable for him as it was for me. Theon ate like I did, hiding exactly how much he’d eaten by tearing it to pieces and arranging it carefully on the plate. His gloves were drying by the fire. He only ate with his left hand. The right he kept in his lap so neither of us had to look at it. I wanted to tell him I didn’t mind, I’d seen much worse, but I didn’t think that would have had much influence. It obviously bothered him so whatever I thought didn’t matter.

"This is good," I said, pointing at the bread. "Did you make it yourself?"

He nodded, reddening slightly. "The master...he had me help in the kitchens. Nobody paid any attention to me. I watched what they were doing."

The more pieces I heard about his time with Ramsay the more confused I became. I’d thought he’d been a prisoner like I was-with all that entailed. I thought there would have been guards watching his every move and he would have been restrained in some way. And yet it sounded like he’d had free reign of the castle. Sansa had said he’d been the one with the keys to her room. It almost sounded like he’d helped hold her captive. "He let you walk around without anyone watching you?" I asked.

I expected Theon to make a lot of excuses. Instead he stared straight ahead with unfocused eyes. "He was always watching. He could leave me alone because he always knew what I was doing." He took a shaky breath. "And there was nowhere to go."

I tried to reconcile all of this with what Sansa had told me. It was possible I might never understand what had happened and maybe I didn’t need to. "The Freys always had a guard watching or they’d chain me to the wall," I said. "But that was after I tried to escape."

Theon looked at me briefly. "I tried to escape once. It was all a trick."

"I didn’t get very far. They caught me before I even got to a village." I managed a weak smile. "All those stories Old Nan used to tell us about heroes escaping from dungeons-she made it sound so easy. Turns out it’s a lot harder than I thought."

"There are worse monsters than the ones she told us about," Theon said. The silence stretched out between us. "How are things at Winterfell?" he asked finally.

"Back to the way they were, for the most part. Bran and Rickon rebuilt most of it so it’s the way it was when Father and Mother were alive." He was picking his food to pieces and not eating anything at all. I felt sorry for him. "I’m back in my old room. Remember when we carved our names there?" He nodded. "They’re still there, even after everything that happened."

"That was the point, wasn’t it? Something to last forever," he said softly. "I don’t know why I wanted that so much. Now I wish they’d all forget."

I started tearing my fish to pieces. "I doubt anything they write about either of us will be very flattering. We weren’t exactly on the winning side."

He got up abruptly and started to clear the table. I watched him move. His hands shook as he took the plates. "You’ll be leaving soon," he said as if it was a fact.

"Do you want me to leave?" I asked. "Because I haven’t decided yet."

Theon turned to look at me then, his eyes full of a hope that he didn’t dare express. "You...you’d stay?"

"They don’t need me at Winterfell. Bran has things well in hand." I tapped my fingers on the table. "This...this was what we should have done a long time ago, isn’t it? It would have stopped a whole lot of hurt." I hadn’t intended to lay myself bare like that. I wouldn’t have traded what I’d had with Talisa for anything but it was hard to avoid thinking she’d still be alive if I hadn’t met her on that battlefield.

Theon had a blank look on his face but his eyes were full of life-something I hadn’t seen for a long time.

 

I had thought the village was fairly small but I didn’t realize how large it actually was until I started to walk back to the inn to see Sansa. There was more than just the main street, there were specialized shops and houses nearby where the townspeople lived. There was also a small form of government, even if it was only in a narrow windowless building covered with flags bearing the Greyjoy sigil. Soldiers patrolled the streets periodically but there weren’t many of them and they didn’t look like they would have been able to stop anything. There was a dock master who monitored whatever came in off the ships, but he only seemed concerned with the storehouse. Apart from that nobody seemed to really be in charge.

Whenever I saw the soldiers I froze, paranoid that they would see me and recognize me. I knew that was impossible. As far as I could tell no one here even knew who Theon was. If they did I wasn’t sure how they would have treated him. I’m sure it would have been with more care than the benign neglect they showed him now. The village was so far away from everything that anything connected to Pyke felt like it was very far away.

Sansa was sitting in the main room finishing sewing her dress. The waitresses had circled around her and were asking her questions about her technique. Sansa acted like everything was fine but once I got closer she gave me a desperate look. "Robb!" she called out. Her audience faded away back to their tasks.

"You’ve made some new friends," I said.

She shrugged. "They wanted to see my embroidery. No one does that around here I guess." She held it out for me to look at. Delicately sewn fish splashed out of intricate waves. "It’s going on the sleeves," she said.

"It’s beautiful,"I said. "I think Mother would have been proud." I never knew how Mother found the energy to do any of it. She had constantly seemed like she was juggling a hundred different household duties at once, and somehow she still found the time to pass her knowledge on.

"Thank you," Sansa said. She went back to her sewing. "How was last night?"

"Interesting. We talked a little more. Then he got upset and tried to drown himself." I busied myself looking at my hands.

Sansa didn’t act like any of this was surprising. She focused on her stitching. "You’re going to stay here, aren’t you?" She tied a knot in her thread.

There was no point in denying it. "I was thinking about it," I said.

I waited for her to try and talk me out of it, to try and convince me that the place I belonged was back in the North, that I belonged with family. She didn’t disappoint. "You’ve barely been here a day. What is it that’s here that’s so appealing? What are you even going to do?"

"I don’t know yet. But it’s not like I knew what I was going to do when I was at home either." I hadn’t had a goal, a real solid goal, in quite some time. Sometimes I was almost envious of Bran. He’d accomplished so much of what he’d set out to do in so little time. He hadn’t just won a few battles, he’d won a war. I hadn’t even come close to any of it. I had been raised to lead a family, to be a lord. Now I wasn’t any of that. I was the broken older brother who came home and found out that everyone else had moved on.

"You being here isn’t going to fix him."

"He’s not going to fix me either," I said. "That’s not why I want to stay."

"Then why? You know you wouldn’t even be here looking for him if Talisa was still alive." I think she realized she’d gone too far even as she said it. A look of horror spread over her face.

"Maybe not." I forced myself to get up and walk upstairs to our room. There were many other things I would have liked to say to her but I only thought of them once I walked away.

 

Was what she said even true? I liked to think that no matter what had happened in the war I would still be here looking for him. It was something I liked to think but I knew it wasn’t true. Had the wedding at the Twins never happened I’d be at Winterfell carrying on the Stark legacy with no time to travel halfway around the world to visit an old friend who’d betrayed me. It didn’t matter how close we’d been once.

I sat down heavily on the bed. All of the walking I’d done the past few days had done little to quiet the pain in my leg. Staying up all night and then sleeping in a chair probably hadn’t helped matters much either. I took off my boots and tossed them under the bed. Blisters were starting to form on my feet. Walking in the water hadn’t done them any favors. I dried my feet off as best I could.

My shirt was filthy from the excursion on the beach. I took it off and opened my trunk to change into a clean one. Sansa came into the room. If I’d thought her look earlier had been full of fear the way she looked at me now was even worse. "Robb..." she gasped, putting her hand over her mouth. I looked down though I didn’t have to. I knew every inch of scar tissue that decorated my body. Every day I prayed that they would fade with time. Sometimes I prayed that they would disappear.

"You’ve seen them before. You were the first one to see them after I got back," I said after I grabbed a shirt out of my bag and put it on. I didn’t want to think about what she’d say if she saw my leg.

"Not recently. I’d forgotten how bad they were." Her eyes flicked between the scars and my face. "How did you survive?" It took everything within me to keep from laughing or crying.

"I don’t know. I ask myself that every day." I climbed into the bed and tried to relax. Sansa put her fabric away in her trunk. I closed my eyes.

"I shouldn’t have said what I did," she said. She sounded ashamed. It took her a moment to keep going. "But you did what you came here to do. You don’t have to stay here with him out of guilt or loyalty. He’s not going to appreciate it."

I remembered Theon’s face when I told him I wanted to stay. It was almost as if he felt hopeful about it but at the same time couldn’t believe that anyone would want to sign up for this. I thought about the promise he’d made long ago, one that I’d never been able to keep. One that I’d wanted to. And now there was almost a chance.

"Maybe he won’t. But I’ll never know until I do it, will I?" I kept my eyes closed. It was easier to discuss all of this without seeing her expression.

"But this is so far away. And no one here knows you. If they find out who you are you might be in danger." She sounded desperate. And I understood why. The Stark family had lost too much to the vagaries of fate to trust that anyone was safe unless they were standing right next to you.

"I can still come home. It might take a while but I’ll get there." I looked at her then. She was biting back tears. "And I’ll write you all. I won’t disappear." Sansa didn’t look any more happy at that but at least she wasn’t verbally attacking me. "You said you wanted your older brother back. Well, for the first time in a long time I feel like I’m getting some of that back."

 

After I slept for a few hours I made the long walk back to the lighthouse. This time I brought my bag of belongings. Sansa and I had hugged before I left. I still planned on going back to see her every day before she left. Maybe a part of me hoped she’d talk me out of the whole thing. I knew she’d try.

I bought a blanket from the general store, sure that the owner had charged me two or three times what they would have charged someone from the islands. I didn’t care, the idea of being able to sleep without thinking of Grey Wind was overwhelming.

It was still light out when I made the walk back. After a few feet my burden felt like it was too much to bear. Still I pressed on, ignoring all the discomfort. My boots were heavy and soon were caked with mud. It had started to rain again. Everything was a shade of gray or brown. A fine mist settled over the ground. The sound of the sea was everywhere. I was struck by a sudden thought that I might not be able to get used to this. It was too different from things back home. It wasn’t the calming silence of a snow covered forest.

Once I made it through the trees it felt like I was entering a different world. One that I would learn to make mine. Theon was working in his pitiful garden. When he noticed me he stopped and almost acted like he was afraid. Then he must have figured out it was me and something like the smile of old crossed his face-if only for a moment. I waved at him.

Theon knelt down on the ground and put his head in his hands. I ran over as quickly as I could. When I got to his side I realized he was crying. "What’s wrong?" I wanted to touch him, to reach out to him, but I didn’t know how he would react. It felt like it could make things worse.

"I thought it was all a trick. I thought it wasn’t real," he said. He was trying to regain control over himself. I waited for the familiar blank look to pass over his face, as it did after he showed any sign of emotion.

"I said I’d come back. Didn’t you believe me?" I knelt down next to him. One of his hands was in the dirt. I took a chance and reached out for it. He wasn’t wearing his gloves. His skin was wet and clammy, but as we touched it warmed. For a moment it felt like we had a connection again. I enjoyed it for as long as it lasted.

"It was too good to be true." He took his hand back and wiped his eyes.

"I promise you, I’m here, I’m real." Even though at times it didn’t feel like it, even to me.

He nodded shakily. I waited for him to touch me, to see if it was true.

"So what are you trying to grow here?" I asked.

Theon took to the change of subject readily, almost happily. "There were some seeds for sale at the store. I don’t know what they are." He patted down some of the soil around the struggling plants. "I’m not doing a very good job with them."

"I don’t know if this is the right kind of soil to grow anything." I reached out and touched the limp leaves. A thought came to me then-maybe the plants weren’t dying from neglect, maybe they’d had too much attention. "Why did you want to grow them? I don’t remember you caring about plants before."

"It was a stupid idea. Something to make time pass." He stood up, suddenly realizing how late it had gotten. "It’s time to light the fire."

I went along with him. I helped him gather the wood, carry it up to the top, and watched him light the fire. My thoughts drifted. There wasn’t much to do out here alone except tend the lighthouse. And that didn’t even look like it needed much except for a steady supply of wood. Otherwise it was a quiet life of contemplation with plenty of opportunity to get sucked back into thinking about the past. It was the kind of spot I’d found myself in when I was walking the walls of Winterfell. It was a kind of torture and pleasure to have the time to think of the things that had happened to me. I hoped that my being here wouldn’t disturb Theon too much. He’d come here to escape, after all.

Once the fire was lit, a little later than it had been the other night, Theon turned his eyes out to the ships at sea. It had taken longer to get everything ready because he had taken the time to show me all of the steps involved in making a fire that lasted. It wasn’t particularly complicated but it definitely took a special touch.

I watched the fire burn for a moment and then joined him. I hadn’t thought there would be much difference in the kind of ships that passed through here but there were. He pointed out each of the different types in turn. There was endless variation in sail shape, size, and markings. I could barely make out the differences in the dark. Theon knew them all. As he described them to me he did it without any of the hesitation that plagued him any other time.

"Did the old lighthouse keeper teach you all this?" I asked.

He shook his head. "My father did. Before I was taken to Winterfell. Before they all gave up on me." A ship from across the sea passed beneath us. I could hear the sailors talking. "You have to know which ships are yours, which ships you can attack, and which ships will attack you."

"I’m impressed you remembered it all."

Theon glanced at me briefly. "It’s not that different from what Maester Luwin taught us about the other houses."

I remembered those lessons, which had been tortuous at the best of times yet made all the difference when seeking allies. It was a complicated web of who owed who and who hated who. And also who would betray who but I didn’t like to think about that part.

I heard a raven cawing out in the night. One hopped onto the ledge near Theon. He untied the message with care and let it fly off again. It took him longer to read the message than I thought was necessary. It was only a small scrap of paper and there weren’t many words.

"Yara’s coming. She’ll be here soon," he said finally, throwing the message into the fire.

"What’s she going to do?"

He put his hands on his head like it hurt and sunk to his knees. "She’s going to make you leave."

I had a hundred different ideas of what that might involve. Most of them featured her attacking me with an axe. I knew she wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, no matter what she’d agreed to days before. By all rights I should have run, I should have gotten as far away from her as possible.

"What are you going to tell her?" I asked.

He looked like he was going to be sick. "I want you to stay. I need you to stay," he said quietly. "She’s not going to understand that."

"If it helps Sansa didn’t really understand when I told her either." She probably never would.

"Sansa isn’t going to come after you with an axe," he said. After these past few days I wasn’t sure how much of that was true.

I continued watching the ships. "That one’s from Pyke," I said confidently, pointing at one that passed nearby. "It’s a cargo ship."

He got to his feet and stood beside me. "No, it’s a raiding ship. See the extra set of sails?"

We spent the rest of the night watching the ships go by. Once the sun started to come up we went down to the cabin and took up the same sleeping positions we had the day before. Neither of us slept in the bed.

 

When I woke up the next morning Theon was still asleep. He had curled into himself as much as possible. And even then it seemed like his every muscle was tensed and ready to act.

I got up slowly, trying to avoid making any loud noises. He needed all the sleep he could get. The fire was almost out. I gently poked it until it came back to life. Exploring the cabinets revealed more salted fish and bread. I set it out on the table.

I walked around the cabin. Everything was disorganized and thrown around randomly. I wasn’t sure how much of that he had inherited from the previous lighthouse keeper and how much of it was him. I didn’t remember much of what Theon’s room had looked like at home. I couldn’t remember if he was neat or messy.

There was a fine layer of dust all over the armor he had in the corner. I didn’t understand why he’d brought it here unless Yara had told him to. It was hard to think of him even wearing it. I’d always remember him standing by my side in the mismatched pieces of armor we’d found for him at home. I ran my fingers over the Kraken emblazoned on the breastplate.

Theon was still asleep. He slept like the dead. I couldn’t tell if he was really asleep or if he was waiting for me to leave before he got up. If he was having nightmares I couldn’t tell. If he wasn’t I was envious. I decided to go outside and wait for him to wake up.

It was the middle of the day and for once the sun was out, though it was obscured by clouds. The sea beneath us didn’t look as forbidding. It still beat against the peninsula with the same ferocity but it didn’t act like it was going to swallow us whole. The lighthouse almost looked different too. It stood proudly above the cabin and it was easier to pretend it wasn’t going to fall apart. There was a sense of calm about the whole place. For a brief moment I could see why Theon must have liked it here.

I sat down on the stone fence near the cabin. The plants weren’t growing any better than they had been yesterday. I took a drooping leaf in my hand. I had a passing familiarity with plants-one only supplemented by Maester Luwin’s teachings. I knew enough that when the peasants delivered their portion to the castle I could tell if they had mixed in other plants to meet their quota.

"You could have woken me," Theon said from behind me. I turned around. He stood on shaky legs looking at me with a weary cast to his eyes.

"You were asleep. I didn’t want to disturb you."

He sat down next to me on the fence. Though he’d slept longer than I had he looked like he was going to collapse from exhaustion. "I don’t sleep very well anymore."

"Neither do I," I said. "I was hoping that would get better out here."

Theon shook his head. "It hasn’t for me. But it’s quiet here, there’s no one else around. No one can hear the screams. I used to wake everyone up at night. Yara had to change my quarters to an abandoned tower on Pyke." He got up from the fence with some effort. "Did you eat yet?"

"No, I’ll be there in a minute." He nodded and went back inside. I poked and prodded at the plants a little more. Then I heard something rustling in the trees. I stood up, my hand reaching for the hilt of a sword that wasn’t hanging on my belt anymore.

Sansa burst through the trees. "Robb, she’s here!" She came running over to me and grabbed my hand. "You need to hide!" I was confused- we hadn’t seen her ship last night. Theon would have said something. How had she snuck up on us like this? That didn’t matter now, she was almost upon us. I let Sansa drag me into the lighthouse. She closed the door behind me and we moved some of the barrels of oil in front of it.

"Did she see you?"

"No, I don’t think so. I came here as quickly as I could."

"When did she get here?"

"This morning. I saw her talking with the guards over by the storehouse. As soon as I saw her I came to get you." Sansa kept an eye on the trees through a crack in the doorway. "She’s wearing full armor. I don’t think she’s here just to talk." She paused before saying anything else. "Are you sure you want to stay here?"

After spending time with Theon the past few days I was pretty secure in my decision. "Yes, I’m going to stay."

I expected her to start arguing or point out that someone was coming to kill me for being here but she didn’t. "Then I’ll try and stop her. Make her see reason."

We watched the trees in silence. When Yara finally did come through them I almost let out a sigh of relief. The tension had been unbearable. Yara had a powerful stride and she was almost running to the cabin. She had her axe out and didn’t look like she would hesitate to use it. She had two soldiers with her. They were in full battle attire, all ready to fight. Yara looked like she was out for blood. Sansa pushed me back up against the wall and kept part of herself in front of me. I was touched, not many people would have stepped between me and an angry Iron Born. "What does she think I’m going to do?" I asked. "I can’t even lift a sword!"

"Maybe she thinks you’re going to hurt him some other way."

I tried to steel myself for the confrontation soon to come. Yara went to the cabin first. Her soldiers stayed standing by the trees-near enough to help in a fight, far enough away that they wouldn’t overhear family drama. Theon came out of the cabin and they hugged with reckless abandon. It was the kind of hug that I didn’t think either of them would have wanted anyone to witness. For a moment the love they had for each other was obvious. Theon pulled away first. Yara turned her attention to the lighthouse. She stormed over, her face the personification of wrath.

I was going to get a close up glimpse of why the Iron Born were so feared. Right then all I wanted to do was run. It would have been different if I could have defended myself. The Robb before all of this would have been out there with sword drawn, confident and ready to stand up for himself. Now I knew if she wanted to Yara could destroy me with a touch.

Yara came over to the lighthouse and threw the door open. She moved the barrels aside with almost no effort and before I could do anything to defend myself she had me pushed in a corner with an axe at my throat. "Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now," she hissed. She’d lined her eyes with black. It made her stare more intense. I could see Theon hanging back behind her. He looked like he was far away from all of it, his stare was completely blank. I knew I couldn’t expect any help from him. Yara stared at me until it became clear I had no answer. Her face twisted in disgust. She loosened her grip and moved the axe away from my neck. "I promised him he’d be left alone here. Why did you think it was a good idea to try and find him when I told you to leave him alone?"

"I wanted to talk to him. There were things I needed to say that wouldn’t have meant the same thing coming from you."

"He’s been through enough because of you. He doesn’t need you coming here to stir all of that up again." She put a hand on my chest. My heart pounded in my ears. Slowly I put my hand over hers and pushed it to the side.

"He’s my friend." There were thousands of layers in that word. I tried to convey them with my tone. "I owed him that much."

"He’s my brother. I was the one who helped him get home after you Northerners tore him to pieces. I had to defend him and take care of him. Do you know how long it took before I could even get him to believe I wasn’t going to give him back to Ramsay? How long it took to convince him that I hadn’t abandoned him? I’m not going to let you hurt him again," she snarled.

"I’m not going to hurt him," I said finally. "Why don’t you ask him what he wants?" Yara almost looked like she would have torn my head off if she had the chance. Instead she took a deep breath and looked at Theon.

He was hanging back staring off into the distance. When he slowly became aware we were all looking at him and waiting for a response he started shuddering in that halting way he did when he was unsure of himself. "I...I want him to stay."

Yara turned to him with a barely concealed fury. Sansa bravely put herself between the two of us. "Why don’t we go talk about it in the cabin?" she suggested. Yara took a moment to gain control of herself before she gestured her assent.

It was still cloudy and overcast when we went outside. Yara’s men were standing around outside. They jumped to attention as she passed. She ignored them and made her way into the cabin.

 

The cabin felt even smaller with four people in it. There weren’t enough chairs so Theon and I wound up sitting on the bed. Theon acted like he wasn’t a part of the conversation at all. He picked at a section of fur restlessly. I wound up sitting next to him while Yara and Sansa took the only two chairs.

Yara looked around like she couldn’t believe anyone could live like this. She quickly hid her disgust behind a neutral expression. The neglected armor in the corner seemed to irritate her most. I wasn’t sure what she expected. There was a long awkward silence as everyone except Theon looked at each other carefully. Sansa seemed upset for some reason but she soon covered that up as well.

Yara finally tipped her chair back and let out a long sigh. "So Stark, do you want to be the apprentice lighthouse keeper?" I wasn’t sure what had made her change her mind. Everyone was suddenly staring at me.

"Yes," I said after a long pause. "If Theon doesn’t mind."

Faced with all of the eyes in the room upon him Theon shrank down even further into himself. Yara’s gaze was particularly intense. "I don’t," he said finally.

"You’d have to give up your family name," Yara said. "If you tell anyone who you really are I can’t protect you. No one here knows who Theon is and you need to keep it that way." The way she said it was as if it was a test, something that would reveal that I wasn’t as serious about this as I claimed. Now it was everyone’s turn to look at me.

"I can do that while I’m here." I hadn’t used it to its advantage in a long time anyway.

Yara nodded in surrender. "You still have to check in with me each week. Both of you." She got to her feet. "I can’t stay any longer. I’ll be leaving within the day. Sansa, you’re welcome to come with me. I’ll make sure you get back to Winterfell." She gave Theon a look and gestured for him to talk with her in private. He slid off the bed and followed her to the other side of the room. I got to my feet as well, standing over by Sansa.

Sansa looked between Yara and us in confusion. "Robb, are you sure about this?" Unspoken was the fact that this might not be the best idea.

A twinge of uncertainty loomed in the back of my mind. If everyone left and it was just Theon and me all alone what would that look like? I tried to reassure myself that if things went badly I would always have somewhere to go back to. And I had a feeling that Yara would make sure Theon was taken care of. "I’ll be fine Sansa," I said. "What are you going to do?"

She looked discontent. "I haven’t decided yet. Maybe I’ll take your place as Bran’s advisor. I think I could make some changes everyone would support." For a moment I saw the inner strength that she’d kept hidden for so long. I didn’t doubt that she would change things. Maybe the North could finally break away from everyone else and stand on its own. She looked between me and Theon. "Good luck," she said and hugged me. I hugged her back, suddenly remembering how good it felt to have someone touch me.

Yara was standing with Theon giving him whispered instructions. She kept on pointing at me violently.

"I hope you know what you’re doing," Sansa said, glancing between us and them. "It’s a long way back to Winterfell."

"It’ll be fine," I said. "What could possibly happen way out here?"

Chapter Text

6.

I went to the village to say goodbye to Sansa the next day. Fittingly it was raining as we walked from the inn to the docks. The sky was a dismal shade of grey and the sea was muddy as it splashed against the beach. My cloak had long ago soaked through. Despite all of this we walked as slowly as possible to postpone the inevitable. We held hands, something we normally did not do but these were special circumstances.

Yara met us by her ship. Curious sailors peered over the sides. None of them looked very friendly. I had a sudden urge to make the journey with Sansa, if only to keep her safe. Theon had decided to stay at the cabin. If Yara was upset he hadn’t come to say anything to her she didn’t let it show. She stood with her arms crossed glaring at the men peering over the sides. "Don’t you have anything better to do?" she yelled up at them. "Take her trunk to my cabin!" The faces disappeared. A sheepish looking sailor came out and carried Sansa’s trunk up the gangway under Yara’s supervision.

Sansa turned to me, holding both of my hands. "You can come home whenever you want," she said. "You’ll always have a place at Winterfell." She hugged me like she never wanted to let go. A thought occurred to me that this might truly be the last time I ever saw her. I couldn’t force the words out of my mouth. My throat clenched closed. Instead I tightened my grip on her. Eventually we had to part.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks as I’m sure they were on mine. "I’ll write you every week," I said. I hugged her quickly. "I hope you have safe travels."

Yara must have thought we were taking too much time. She stood next to me and slapped my back. "I’ll make sure she gets home safe and sound." She put an arm around my shoulder. "Just make sure you treat Theon with the same care."

"I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else," I said.

Sansa stayed out on deck and waved at me until the ship got too far away from shore. That was when the full extent of what I’d agreed to finally stuck. The only way I was leaving this island was if I found passage on a ship heading back to the mainland. Chances were good I’d never see Winterfell or the North again.

The one -eyed man with the monkey came up behind me. "Guess they forgot you!" he cackled. I ignored him.

I watched the ship until it disappeared off into the horizon. Then I started the long walk back to the lighthouse.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Once they all left Theon and I settled in to an easy routine. We shared the daily chores, though he was a lot better at cooking and I was better at cleaning. I straightened the cabin up into some semblance of order. The lighthouse wasn’t a fire hazard anymore. I moved all of the oil far away from the timber. Nights we spent up in the lighthouse watching ships pass by. Yara got her weekly letters with my name signed right beside Theon’s. There was never anything to report.

It rained nearly every day. I’d thought I was used to bad weather from living at Winterfell but this was an entirely different beast. The first few weeks I had a cough that wouldn’t go away. My clothes were always damp and it felt like everything was coated in a film of water. Sometimes it was a struggle to even breathe. Still I tried to believe that things would get better.

Theon had relaxed a little since Sansa and Yara had gone. He still walked around me like he was afraid I was going to attack him or vanish. I still hadn’t seen any more of his body than I had the night on the beach. It never seemed like he washed himself or took any care with his appearance. While I was cleaning the cabin I didn’t find any other clothing for him to wear. He truly only had the rags he was wearing. At first I noticed an odor about him that followed him around. As time passed I didn’t notice it anymore. Even though I knew it was just the two of us here I still tried to wash the worst of it off myself once or twice a week. He had seen most of my scars. He never showed me any of his own.

I tried not to hide anything from him in a desperate attempt to show him that whatever was bothering him couldn’t possibly be that bad. I wasn’t going to think less of him because of it. How could I? We had both done things that other people hated us for. I couldn’t hold it against him anymore. There were only a few things I didn’t talk about with him and didn’t intend to-my leg and Talisa. My leg because I didn’t want to give him more to worry about and Talisa because I wanted her to be mine alone. She still haunted my dreams, standing proudly next to Grey Wind and smiling sadly. What I’d had with her was different than what I had with Theon. I was scared that if I let the two mix it would make her disappear. Theon never asked about her.

My letters to Sansa became the last tenuous link to a life I’d left far behind. I didn’t just write her about the good things. I told her about how I really felt. There was something cathartic about telling someone else how lost and directionless I’d felt since returning home. If I’d told Theon how I was feeling he might have started blaming himself. Maybe once we got used to each other again I could tell him everything. For now Sansa was enough. Sansa, for her part, was just as honest with me. She’d rejoined Brienne of Tarth and they were searching the North for any scrap of evidence they could find that might lead them to Ramsay. She wrote of her own frustration and lack of direction. I think had she been with anyone else except Brienne she might have been convinced to give up the whole idea. But Brienne had exchanged an oath with her and nothing would stop her on her mission. I admired that kind of devotion. I wished I had that kind of purpose again.

 

At the end of my first month with Theon he took me to town to get supplies. The path was just as slippery and uneven as it had been before. Theon navigated it without much trouble. He waited to make sure I’d crossed safely before heading on. We didn’t speak. Most days we didn’t. It was almost easier that way. No one said anything that could be misunderstood or bring back bad memories. The silence could have been awkward but it was almost companionable. It was the quiet between two people who had known each other for a long time.

Theon had a list of things that he needed and it required going to a number of different shops in the village. I found myself having to introduce myself to half the villagers by the time we were done. No one seemed to recognize that Theon was anything other than the lighthouse keeper. Once I’d introduced myself they were happy enough to share gossip with me. The village was abuzz with reports of pirate attacks across the islands. They had even attempted to land on Pyke but were driven off before they could get close enough to drop anchor.

Everyone could tell at a glance that I didn’t belong. Once I opened my mouth they all made a comment about my accent. I wasn’t aware there was any difference between the way I spoke and the way they did on the Islands. Most of the villagers were friendly, as opposed to the guarded way everyone had acted on Pyke.

At the village I sought out the herbalist while Theon was busy with something else. She had a stall by the pier that was adorned with drying herbs and flowers of almost every hue. "Do you have anything that can help wounds heal?" I asked.

The way she looked at me was almost like she could see through me right to where the pain lingered deep in my bones. Finally she nodded and gave me a mixture of dried herbs. "Mix these with salt water and drink it every day."

I paid her and thanked her profusely, hoping I hadn’t just spent my coin on something that wouldn’t work. I shoved the herbs into the bag with the other things we’d bought. I met up with Theon waiting in line at the general store. He’d somehow managed to get a few fresh fish and clams from one of the fishing boats in port. My stomach growled at the thought of eating something that wasn’t salted or dried. Sometimes I longed for the feasts at Winterfell.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked.

"No, but I found something close," I said. I waited for him to ask a follow up question. He didn’t seem to be all that interested. Maybe he didn’t think he was allowed to ask. I was glad of it. I didn’t think I’d be able to come up with a convincing story.

"And who are you?" the general store’s shopkeeper asked as she put all of the things Theon had asked for into a bag. Theon had talked to her like he spoke to anyone-with his head down and his eyes only briefly meeting hers when he thought she wasn’t looking.

"Robb. Apprentice lighthouse keeper," I said. I forced myself to be friendlier than I usually was, perhaps in a sad attempt to compensate for Theon’s attitude. "You have a nice shop here."

She looked at me strangely. "I didn’t think a lighthouse needed two people watching over it. Old Man Munderson never had any problems."

Theon froze counting out coins to pay her. "Yara Greyjoy asked me to. Said Old Man Munderson left things in a mess so he’d need some extra help." I gave her a fake smile. "I couldn’t argue with her."

The shopkeeper didn’t look convinced but she stopped asking questions. I took the bag and we left. The townspeople gave us both a wide berth. Theon almost seemed used to it, he walked with his head down barely looking at anyone or anything. I walked next to him and tried not to let all the stares bother me. It was hard to act like I wasn’t afraid they were all going to turn on us. I knew all too well how quickly friendly smiles could change into knives in the back.

Suddenly he stopped. I looked around to try and figure out why. There were a few buildings around, none of them were out of the ordinary. Then I heard the sound of women laughing coming from one of the buildings. A few of them rushed out to the street and tried to pull in passerby. It was a makeshift brothel, little better than the shacks down by the beach. A few sailors passed through the doors. It was the last stop before weeks of loneliness on a ship.

"You can go in if you want. I can handle getting the rest of this back to the lighthouse," I told him. Maybe I should have felt jealous but at this point anything that might get him to start talking again was good. Maybe if he’d gone inside he’d get rid of some of the dreariness that followed him like a cloud.

For a moment it looked like he was considering it. A wistful look passed over his face. Then he shook his head violently. "No, we should get back." He walked away faster than I could follow. I let him. It was the most energy he’d shown in days.

 

By the time I got back to the lighthouse it was growing dark outside. Theon wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I dropped the bag off inside the hut. There was no evidence he’d come back. There was nothing in the lighthouse either. The only place he could have gone was the beach.

I scrambled my way down the rocky slope hoping this time he hadn’t done something stupid. I found him at the bottom of the path watching the tide come in. He briefly looked up when I sat down next to him and then returned his attention to the water below.

"I don’t know where you want to put everything," I said. It felt like it would be better to try and act like nothing was wrong. There would be time enough to talk about it later. It was almost time to light the fire.

He still wouldn’t look at me. His hands were in his lap. I took a chance and reached out and touched his hand. It wound up being the right one, the one he wouldn’t even use most of the time himself as if he was ashamed of it. At my touch he stiffened. I stopped, slowly moving my arm back. I remembered how long it had taken to get him to touch me except by accident when we’d first met. Now it seemed like we’d have to go through all of that again. After everything that had happened to me I couldn’t say that I was willing to let people touch me either. Especially not after what had happened at the Twins. There was always the chance that someone you trusted could turn on you.

Theon moved a little closer to me, just enough that we barely touched. He had his hands clenched together in his lap. The gloves were a constant fixture, they were the one thing about himself that he kept in good repair. It was almost as if he didn’t deserve anything better. "It doesn’t matter where you put them. It’s as much your place as mine," he muttered. I moved a little closer to him. He didn’t move away.

"Are you sure you’re okay with me being here?" I asked. Theon stiffened and looked at me almost in terror.

"Y...yes, I like having you here," he said. He was wringing his hands. "Sometimes it doesn’t feel real."

"You can let me know if you want me to go," I said. "I don’t want to make things harder for you."

He grimaced. "It’s hard to believe that Ramsay isn’t watching me all the time. It feels like any day he could reach out, grab me, and make things worse. He’s taken so much from me. I don’t know what else he wants. I don’t have much left." He was right. The man sitting next to me had lost most of his looks, his physique, and his position. The same could be said of me.

Not for the first time did I wish that Ramsay hadn’t escaped. His father, Roose Bolton, had stood his ground and defended his castle to the death, but Ramsay had fled with a few of his men off into the wilds like a coward in the night. Men had been sent to search for him. They either returned empty handed or were found dead in the forest. I prayed with all my heart that Sansa would find him. "I wish I could tell you he was dead," I said. "I wish he hadn’t escaped, for your and Sansa’s sake." A thought occurred to me then. "Is that why you didn’t go to the brothel?"

His voice shook. "I’ve tried a few times but it doesn’t feel right. The last time I did anything it was with him..." He trailed off. "I wasn’t me then. He took that from me too." His hand was outstretched, like it was reaching for mine but couldn’t quite make it on its own. I grabbed it and held on as firmly as I dared. It almost felt like his bones might snap.

"I’m here, okay? I won’t let him hurt you."

Theon was crying now. "If Yara couldn’t kill him how can you?" His hand held on to mine so tightly that it hurt. I didn’t have any answers for him.

 

That night I manned the lighthouse by myself. It had taken a long time to calm him down and get him to walk back up to the cabin. He refused to sleep in the bed so I piled furs up around him on the floor before heading up to the fire and the dark.

I took my time building the fire, grateful to have something to do with my hands that would distract me from everything running through my head. Instead of throwing random sticks on the fire I built a solid base and expanded on it, creating a fire that could blaze bright enough to be seen for miles.

After that was done I had no excuses anymore. I stared out at the water all around us. Tonight was fairly quiet, there were hardly any ships passing by. Still I kept count so I could tell Theon. He thought that some of them might have been smuggling and he wanted to collect evidence to send to Yara. I admired the fact that he was still trying to be useful even all the way out here. I should have been doing the same back at Winterfell. There were still some skills that I had that would have been useful to help rebuild. I could have worked with the guards on their training. I could have helped Bran make better decisions than I had. The only thing holding me back was the thought that I didn’t fit back in where I used to be. They had all thought me dead and moved on, filling the space I’d left. I’d thought I could find part of that here with Theon.

My leg started to ache so I sat down on the floor. I’d changed the dressing that morning and put on more of the salve from Maester Culver but I knew it wasn’t enough. I didn’t think the herbs I’d bought were going to help either. Eventually they’d have to cut more away. I was starting to build a new life here with Theon. It felt like at any moment it could all wash away. I had no one to blame but myself. If I hadn’t thought myself above the plans that had already been set in motion for me and my future maybe my army would still be whole and Mother and Talisa would still be alive. I wasn’t lucky at all, no matter how many people insisted that I was. Roose Bolton had dealt me a far more painful blow than death.

Once the sun began to rise I watched color bleed across the water. There were a few ships pulling in to port. I watched as sailors took supplies on from the shore. The rocks below me were jagged and sharp. As the sun glittered across the water’s surface I could see vague outlines of the wrecks below. We’d been lucky so far, none of the ships passing this way had had an accident. Theon told me in one of his more talkative moments that after he’d come here there had been a few accidents but nobody had died. If one of the larger ships foundered there was little to do except signal the village and hope someone saw.

As soon as it was light enough I doused the flame and stirred the embers until they went out. Then I climbed back down the ladders to the ground.

Theon was still sleeping when I crept into the hut. I stepped around him and got into bed. It was exhausting dealing with everything that had happened today.

 

I had never met Ramsay but I had an idea of what he was like. Old Nan had once told a story about a creature that lived in the shadows. It dwelled in the darkest corners of castles and only came out at night. It would sneak up behind children who stayed up past their bedtime and steal their souls piece by piece. It had hundreds of arms that slowly wound around its victim and wouldn’t stop until they were swallowed whole. The only detail I remembered with any clarity was that it had wide vacant eyes. Unlike the rest of Old Nan’s stories there was no hero who came to save the day. Once the creature had you it never let go. It would never be content with only a piece of you, it wanted it all.

My dreams that night were full of Theon and Sansa slowly being swallowed up by the darkness. I was powerless to help. And once the creature had finished with them it reached out for me, its hands circling my leg and dragging me into the dark.

 

When I woke up later Theon was gone. He’d left some bread and fish on the table. I rolled over and tried to get up. My leg wouldn’t cooperate. I peeled the dressing back. The wound was red and inflamed. Clear liquid ran out from the small spot that stubbornly refused to heal. I kept the salve in my bag with my clothes. There wasn’t much left. I’m sure if I asked Maester Culver he’d send me the recipe but I wasn’t sure how easy the ingredients would be to find. Once I rubbed the salve in the pain started to go away and I could get to my feet.

The herbs made a muddy brown sludge when mixed with the salt water. It took all I had to swallow it without vomiting. I forced myself to eat breakfast and went outside. I grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows before heading out. Theon was tending to the garden. I watched him pull weeds and water the struggling plants that needed it. The soil wasn’t very fertile. At times I wondered why he even bothered. When he saw me he stopped and got to his feet.

I walked over to him, trying not to let my pain show. "Did something happen last night?" he asked. "Why do you have that?"

I handed the bow to him. "You used to be the best archer I ever knew. I think you can be again."

He held the bow gingerly. "I’ve tried. It hasn’t worked."

"Well try again," I said. "It’ll come back." He didn’t looked any more convinced about it. "Besides I think you’ll still beat me."

That strengthened his resolve. He took the bow and the quiver and walked over to where the practice dummy was set up. I held the quiver as he pulled the bowstring back, trying to feel out its elasticity. Even I could tell there was something off with his form. Before he’d made it all look easy. Now there was hesitation. It was almost as if he was starting all over from the beginning.

I stood and watched as he notched an arrow and fired. It went wide, missing the target by at least a foot. The next arrow was closer, but still didn’t hit the target. The next few were still wide. Eventually he hit the dummy but it wasn’t anywhere near the target. He reached for another arrow but he’d used them all.

Theon had erased all emotion from his face. He handed the bow back to me and went to retrieve the arrows. I didn’t say anything. He put the arrows back in the quiver and took it from me. I held the bow respectfully. It had been a long time since I’d even touched one.

When I tried to pull the string back I could barely get it to move. I’d never been very good even when I was healthy. Now my arms wouldn’t move the same way. When I finally was able to pull it back it snapped out of my grip and almost took my eye out. I tried again and didn’t get much farther. It took almost ten tries before I managed to shoot an arrow. It fell to the ground a few feet in front of me. "Maybe it won’t take that much to be better than me," I said.

Theon watched me warily. I didn’t know if he thought I was faking it for his benefit. "Do you want me to help you?" he asked.

"You can try. I don’t think it’s going to work. My arms don’t work right anymore." He continued to look at me to see if I was lying. After a moment he handed me the quiver and walked back to the cabin. When he came back he was holding something. He held it out to me. A battered practice sword. We exchanged weapons. I took a few experimental swings. There was still a tightness there but I could at least pretend to do something. "Where did you get this?" I asked him.

Theon shrugged. "I think the old lighthouse keeper left it. He thought he needed to be prepared."

I watched him as he fired a few more arrows and then stopped. He didn’t get any better but for a brief moment I could see the Theon that was always locked deep inside. Once he had emptied the quiver he put his weapon down. "You need a dummy," he said. "I think there might be some straw in the lighthouse."

We spent the rest of the day making a dummy for me to practice on. There was just enough straw in the lighthouse to do it. My dummy was plain, with no extra embellishments. He didn’t offer any suggestions for improvement. Once it was done it was time to go back up into the lighthouse.

 

That night was cold and rainy. The rain was a fine mist that settled on my clothes and made everything seem damp and musty. Theon brought some arrows up to the lighthouse and once we’d got the fire going he spent time obsessively shaping them. He even took his gloves off which he did not do. I tried not to stare at the spot where his finger used to be but my eye was constantly drawn to it.

When he was working on the arrows there was hardly any of the same hesitation that was there when he did anything else. It was as if he had tapped into something deep inside. Some essential part of himself that hadn’t been touched by Ramsay. I was almost jealous. I couldn’t think of a piece of myself that came that easily, not after what had happened. I had thought I was good at leading and influencing people. Now that it was gone I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces and do something else.

Instead of thinking of what I could do I watched him slowly slide a missing piece of himself back into place. I hoped the more pieces he regained the more the old Theon would return.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

I thought all that was involved in being lighthouse keeper was setting the fire and making sure it didn’t go out. The more time I spent with Theon the more I realized it was more involved than that. He kept meticulous notes on all of the ships that passed by and what colors they flew. Most of them were Greyjoy, but every once in a while they were from other families and other ports of call. Why he did it was never clear as he never showed it to anyone else and he didn’t send the notes to Yara along with his weekly message. Somehow he managed to keep it all straight in his mind in order to write it down once the sun rose in the morning.

I was always ready to go to bed as soon as we put the fire out. It was taking longer than I’d thought to get used to being awake at night and sleeping during the day. Sometimes I caught myself sleeping while up by the fire. The warmth would ease me into a half sleeping half waking state. If Theon noticed he never said anything.

Theon was never anything other than watchful. He would always make a point of writing everything that had happened down before even pretending to go to sleep. I wasn’t sure how much sleep he even got. There was only the one bed and even though neither of us said whether or not we minded sharing I never saw him sleeping in it. He never woke me up climbing into it after I’d gotten in either. The only time I’d seen him sleeping it was on the floor. It felt like it was all tied up together with what had happened to him when he was held by the Boltons. It was something he would most likely never talk about, though I’d tried to bring it up a few times.

One night he was busy scribbling down notes on a piece of paper after I had gone to bed. For some reason that night the scratching of quill on paper wasn’t as easy to block out. I got out of bed and went over to the table. Instantly he put his hands over the paper so I couldn’t see. "What are you writing?" I asked.

Theon let his hands leave the paper so I could see. The handwriting was childish and awkward, not the same careful penmanship I remembered from classes with Maester Luwin. He’d written down a fairly detailed accounting of what the weather was like, which way the wind was blowing, and what ships had passed by. Once I’d read it I gave it back to him and he put it away in a cabinet by the table. The brief glimpse I had of what was inside was a pile of unorganized papers that threatened to fall out with a slight breeze. "The lighthouse keeper told me to keep record of what happened every night," he said defensively.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Theon wouldn’t look at me. "I’m going to bed. Are you coming?" I asked.

His eyes widened and I could tell he was struggling with the idea. "No, I think I forgot something in the lighthouse. You go ahead." He got to his feet and all but ran to leave the cabin. I was pretty sure he was lying but I wasn’t sure why.

Curiosity overwhelmed me. I opened the door to the cabinet and searched through some of the papers that I didn’t think he’d notice if I moved. They were much like what I’d just read, ship movements and things like that. It was only when I got to the middle of the pile that things turned twisted. Page after page of the same sentence over and over. "I am not Reek." Sometimes the writing was light, sometimes it was written so heavily it broke through the paper to the other side. Who or what Reek was wasn’t clear.

I put it all back where I’d found it and got back into bed. I wasn’t sure if there was any point asking Theon about it. There was a decent chance he’d refuse to speak about it at all.

 

I woke up during the night in the midst of a particularly vivid dream about drowning. I couldn’t catch my breath. The surface of the water was so close and yet my hands couldn’t pierce it. The blankets on the bed were all tangled and held me down. I was dripping with sweat. The fire had died down in the fireplace, letting the cabin fill with menacing shadows. They danced on the blank walls and stared down at me with distorted eyes.

There wasn’t anyone in bed with me. I looked over the side of the bed and found Theon sleeping huddled on the floor with only a threadbare fur covering him. He shivered with the cold. The cabin wasn’t protected from the weather very well. Wind blew in from gaps in the walls. I was barely able to stand it myself.

I leaned over from the bed and touched his shoulder. He started awake and awkwardly moved away from me. "Theon, it’s me!" I said. That fact didn’t reassure him, he still had his arms crossed over his chest. "Why are you sleeping on the floor?"

"It’s more comfortable," he said after a long pause. I could tell he was lying. He wouldn’t look at me. "Besides there’s not enough room."

I moved up against the wall. There was definitely room for more than one person."Why don’t we try it?" I could see him trying desperately to think of a reason to say no. He got to his feet slowly and came over next to the bed. I tried to make myself as small as possible. "There’s plenty of room."

He climbed into the bed and laid down next to me on his back. I took care not to get too close. Instead I joined him in looking up at the ceiling. Drying herbs and flowers were hanging from the beams. It made the space feel somewhat confined. His hands were clenched into fists. Too late I came to the realization that the problem most likely wasn’t the bed but sharing it.

"I can sleep in the chair if you want," I said. It was what I should have offered in the first place.

Theon shook his head. "This is fine." He pulled some of the furs up from the floor and pulled them over himself. I bristled as they brushed against me. "Are you okay?"

I moved myself a few inches over so that the fur didn’t touch me. It was still a visceral reaction after so much time had passed. I should have been over it by now. "I’ll be fine." It looked like he wanted to ask me about it but didn’t have the nerve. We still were hiding so much from each other. Eventually it was all going to come out, no matter whether or not either of us wanted to hear it. It didn’t have to happen today.

"I remember always wanting to do this but never wanting to risk it," he said finally. I watched him swallow deeply. "I thought sure your mother would walk in."

"She probably would have. She always had a knack for knowing when we were getting into trouble." Her face briefly flashed in front of my eyes. I hadn’t seen her outside of my dreams in so long. It was easy to remember what she’d looked like as she died, it was harder to see the woman that I’d grown up with.

"Do you think she knew about us?" he asked. His eyes were closed like he was trying to go to sleep.

"About us meeting in the stables at night? I don’t know." And yet I think deep down I did. Her telling me not to trust him had only really started in earnest after that first night. Maybe I should have listened to her. "She wanted me to send you away from the start. Said you were a bad influence and I shouldn’t trust you."

"How much did she gloat when I proved her right?’ he asked. I didn’t want to start down the long trail of regrets talking about it again would inevitably start.

"Let’s not talk about this anymore. You proved you were loyal when it really mattered. You helped save Sansa." I closed my eyes and tried to go to sleep.

"Sansa would have saved herself whether or not I was there." He pulled the furs up around himself and turned so his back was facing me. I didn’t have a good answer for that. Instead I focused on going to sleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

It took months but we eventually reached an unsteady understanding with each other. We slept in the same bed most nights. I slept up against the wall, barricaded in by his scrawny body. We’d tried it the other way a few times, hoping Theon would sleep better if he thought he was protected. It turned out to be an awful idea. He woke up in the middle of the night thrashing around, convinced he was back in the dog kennels again. In his desperation he wound up pushing me onto the floor before realizing where he was and who he was with. That was the last time we’d tried anything new.

After I’d gone back to Winterfell I had given up on ever getting close with anyone again. Munger had taken me to the brothel after I’d gotten back on my feet. The look the prostitute there had given me after I’d taken off my clothes was enough to put me off the idea forever. She’d acted like I was a monster. If she had screamed or cried I would have been able to accept it. Instead she looked at me with barely concealed disgust and pity before she tried to cover it up with a half-hearted smile. I left without doing anything with her. After that the idea of being naked and vulnerable with someone was too much to even think about. My body wasn’t my own anymore. The Freys had turned me into something else. The King of the North.

Right now all I needed was someone to be there with me. That seemed to be what Theon needed too. Things would probably never be the same as they had been before we left Winterfell. Still sometimes I wished we could touch the way we used to. A part of me craved human contact from someone who actually wanted to be around me.

Once I woke up from a deep sleep to find out that during the night I’d reached out and put my arm over him. Theon had his back to me so I couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep. I slowly tried to move my arm back to my side of the bed but he stopped me. He kept it tightly around himself. I left it there even though it was starting to go numb. It was the closest we’d been in a while.

This close to him it was hard to ignore the smell of dirt and sweat that clung to him. Most days I didn’t notice it. In a way I think I’d gotten used to it. Now that I was right up next to him I wondered if I smelled like that too. I remembered that he used to care about himself and how he looked. While we all complained loudly about having to shave and wash when visitors came I think he enjoyed it. He’d certainly use it to full effect when he wanted to show off. Now all of that pride was gone.

We laid like that until the sky started to lighten outside. Theon rolled over to face me. Instead of the wild-eyed desperation that usually showed on his face there was a glimpse of the way things used to be. I found myself smiling. His mouth lit up in a cautious smile, one that revealed a few teeth. He moved his arm so it was around me too. We were close like we had been before all of this had changed us. Sometimes in the stables we might have had a few minutes to look at each other without worrying about the outside world. Now there was nothing and no one to stop us.

Theon was staring at my lips intently. I leaned forward just enough that he would have to move the extra inch to kiss me. This had to be his idea too. I didn’t want to push him into something he didn’t want or wasn’t ready for. It took him a moment to gather up the nerve but he did. His lips were dry and so were mine. That didn’t matter. Once they met I didn’t want to do anything except kiss him again. He was hesitant as if he was sure things were going to go sour right away. I tried to go as slowly as possible to show him that it all up to him. I was fine with anything. We didn’t kiss in the wild over the top way we’d had to do before when there wasn’t any time, but more gently. I gave in to it readily. A part of me hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it. When we eventually pulled apart I felt such a sense of loss.

Theon suddenly started to sit up. I refused to move my arm. "It’s okay," I said softly. His eyes were scared, as if doing this was somehow wrong. As if everything between us might be ruined by a simple kiss. "We don’t have to stop." It took a moment but he laid back down next to me and we started kissing again. It didn’t go any further than that and that was all I really wanted. Maybe it was all he wanted too.

 

As days passed it was almost like something had broken the barrier between us. We could touch each other without pulling away or flinching. I had small glimpses of what living with him might have been like if we’d done it like we’d talked about so long ago. Some of the constant nervousness that plagued Theon started to disappear, at least between us. As soon as there was someone else around he was back to the man who would hide in corners and refuse to talk.

 

One day it all came together between us. We’d been lovers once, we’d been best friends, this couldn’t keep on. We couldn’t have secrets between us anymore. Ever since I’d seen him again I wanted to latch back on to one of the things that had kept me going through it all. Talisa was gone. Theon was the only other person I felt I could be myself with.

He wanted it too. His eyes darted over my clothes trying to catch a glimpse of what was underneath. But now he wouldn’t make the first move. The Theon who could coax the tavern girls to do pretty much anything he wanted was gone. This Theon didn’t believe that anyone could want him given how broken and depressed he was.

I moved first. I pushed him up against the wall of the cabin gently. Still a pot fell on the floor, making a loud noise that woke the raven sleeping in its cage in the corner. It squawked and beat its wings against the bars. We both laughed. I’d almost forgotten the raven was there.

His hands went to my lower back and held on. He waited to see if I was going to pull away. I held my breath. Theon pulled away a little bit, and leaned his forehead against mine. "It’s okay," I said. "I’m not going to break." I tried to give him a reassuring smile. It must have worked because he leaned in and kissed me. His right hand trailed its way up my back. I took a chance and put my arms around him too. I could feel all of the bones in his spine.

Kissing him was everything I remembered about him and more. It was something I thought I’d never get to do with anyone again. The inside of his mouth was warm, providing a contrast to the cold winds that blew in through the gaps in the walls. We lost ourselves there. A fire started to burn inside me that had been blown out by years of desolation.

His hands slid under my tunic. I shivered as they met my skin. My mind struggled to remember the last time anyone had touched me apart from a maester or Sansa. This time it wasn’t to see what part of me was broken. It was someone who loved me touching me like they wanted to be with me.

I let myself try to do the same for him. He continued kissing me even as I tried to get underneath the layers of rags that he wore. I only got a brief chance to touch his skin before he guided my hands above his clothes. His flesh was bumpy, like it was criss-crossed with scars. What I remembered from years ago was that he was remarkably unmarked. Something had happened between then and now. Something that probably had everything to do with Ramsay. If he wasn’t ready to do anything more than kiss right now that was fine. I was still in an awkward position of not knowing exactly what I wanted and what I was ready for.

Parts of my body that hadn’t done anything in quite some time suddenly started to move. My body felt like it was on fire. His hands slid up my chest. The sensation went deep down into my bones. I felt my cock getting hard. It was pressed up between us. Theon must have felt it too. But where I should have felt an answering echo from his body there was nothing. He was making all the right sounds, moving all the right ways, and yet it was almost like it was an act he was putting on just for me. I didn’t think he was capable of something like that. His eyes were closed, he was breathing hard, his heart thundered in his chest. It was all the way it should be except he wasn’t hard.

Theon’s hands started to go down lower. Once he grazed my cock I leaned in to him, wanting more. His hands went to my belt and pulled it open. His lips left mine and before I could say anything he was moving down my body. I wanted him to keep going but it felt like if he found out what had happened to me the awkward peace that had existed between us would disappear. And it didn’t even seem like he was enjoying himself. There was a vacant look in his eyes as if this was something he’d done a thousand times before. I had my suspicions about who he’d done it with.

I touched his shoulder gently, then forcefully. "Theon, you don’t have to do this." He didn’t stop. His gaze was far away. If he recognized me at all it didn’t show. "It’s me, Robb." I grabbed his hand as it touched my cock and moved it away. It took him a moment to come back to himself. Theon looked at me as if seeing me for the first time.

He shook his head and his eyes focused back on me. "I’m sorry, I was somewhere else." His voice was shaky.

"With Ramsay?" As soon as I said it I wanted to take it all back. He nodded. "You’re here now, he can’t get you."

"I can’t get him out of my head," he whispered. "He’s always there telling me I don’t deserve this and he’s going to take it all away."

I put my hand over his. "I won’t let that happen," I said, keeping my eyes level with his. "I won’t let him hurt you again." He let me wrap my arms around him and guide him to the bed. Right now this wasn’t about sex it was only about comfort. I pulled the blankets up around us and relished the feeling of him curled against my chest.

"What was your wife like?" he asked. I hadn’t expected him to have even thought about her. Maybe it was just a poor attempt at changing the subject.

"She cared about people. She wanted to help people no matter what house they followed. And she wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was wrong." I closed my eyes. If I concentrated sometimes I could see her face. I was never able to bring up more than a hazy outline. Her voice was gone too, only a vague recollection in the back of my mind. "I liked that about her, she kept me grounded."

"Did you tell her about me?" he asked.

I didn’t know how to respond. When I’d met Talisa it was weeks after he’d betrayed me and the wound was still fresh. At the time I was so excited about meeting her and getting to know her that thinking about what I had with a man who’d hurt me was the last thing I wanted to think about. I decided that the truth was best. "No, I didn’t."

I felt him hold his breath for a moment, then exhale. "That was probably for the best."

"Yes, I was angry with you then. I wouldn’t have told her anything good."

He had his eyes closed. "You must have been happy with her," he said.

"I was lucky. Most people don’t find happiness with one person, let alone two." His eyes snapped open and looked at me. "If you hadn’t gone to Pyke I’m not sure if I would have found her. I wouldn’t have needed to look anywhere else." Those days on campaign with him had been interesting ones. I’d trusted him more than some of my advisors, I’d trusted him almost as much as Mother. Before he’d gone I’d never thought he’d do anything that would hurt me. It was my fault for not recognizing all of the myriad ways that I’d pushed him away. I’d taken for granted the fact that he’d follow me anywhere.

"I’m sorry," he said softly. "I didn’t realize how good I had it." I tightened my grip around him.

"It’s okay. We both made mistakes," I said. "Yours didn’t get as many people killed as mine did."

He squeezed my hand. "They knew the risks for following you. They wouldn’t have done it otherwise."

"They weren’t following me so much as following the memory of Father. I don’t think any of them would have chosen me to lead if they’d had the choice. I was too inexperienced, too unaware of what the stakes actually were."

Theon didn’t say anything. I’m not sure that if he’d tried to comfort me I would have been able to accept it. We stayed curled around each other until we both fell asleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

My leg continued to get worse. Once the salve ran out the wound started to get bigger. If the herbs I’d bought had had any effect before they didn’t have any now. I hid all of this from Theon. At this point I wasn’t sure why anymore. A part of me didn’t want to admit how serious it was. I figured we were all entitled to our own secrets. I told myself it was getting better and soon it wouldn’t matter anymore. It would just be another scar on my body. Everything was fine.

One day I went to the village by myself. Theon barely reacted when I told him where I was going. I tried to make it obvious I was coming back. He didn’t say anything or act like it bothered him.

There was only one person in the village who was even comparable to a maester. He had been a ship’s surgeon at one time and now spent most of his days at the inn talking to whoever had time to waste.

I found him while he was in the middle of telling a long story about how he’d single-handedly fought off a bunch of raiders climbing aboard his ship. I sat down with the innkeeper and the one-eyed man and waited for him to finish. The surgeon had no visible signs of his profession. His story came to a close after what seemed like an eternity and the others drifted away. He turned his eyes to me. They were calculating and cruel.

"One of the shopkeepers said you used to be a ship’s surgeon," I said, after it became obvious all he was going to do was stare at me.

"I did," he said.

"They also said you might still be willing to help people like a maester would."

He took a deep drink of his ale. "I am. For a fee."

"I have a cut on my leg that isn’t healing." The way I said it made it almost sound like it was nothing.

The surgeon took another deep drink and then got to his feet. "Let’s go take a look at this cut then."

 

We wound up in the room he rented from one of the shopkeepers. His walls were decorated with the spoils of war from lands across the sea. He pointed to the bed. I took off my pants and sat on the edge watching him slowly unwind the bandages and reveal the source of most of my pain. He shook his head as he traced the healed parts with a finger. "How did it happen?"

I’d been practicing my story the whole way to the village. "I fell off a ship when we were pulling into port. Hit my leg on one of the posts on the way down."

"Why didn’t they cut it off?" he wondered, turning my leg in his hands.

"I wouldn’t let them."

The surgeon rolled his eyes at my hubris. "If they had it would have saved you this," he said. He opened his trunk and handed me a rag and a flask. "Drink that. I’ll try to do what I can. This is going to hurt."

 

When I came back to myself my hands wouldn’t unclench and the room was spinning. The surgeon was wiping his bloody hands off with a dirty rag. He took a drink out of the flask and then poked at the fire. Right then I couldn’t feel anything except a great pressure around my leg. The rag he’d given me fell out of my mouth. Drinking hadn’t helped anything once he’d started cutting. All I could taste was metal.

"You held on for longer than I thought," he said once he’d noticed me moving. "Most men turn to quaking babes once I start using the pincers."

For a moment I had a brief flash of what he’d done before I passed out. It took all I had to push myself to the edge of the table. When my foot touched the floor pain went right up through my bones. I hissed.

"Might not want to move yet." He handed me a mug with a foul smelling liquid in it. "Drink that."

I did. It burned all the way down. I thought I was going to vomit. Still I forced myself to keep it down. The burn spread through my body and took over for the pain.

Once he was satisfied I’d kept it down the surgeon visibly relaxed. "I cut out most of it," he said. "I sewed it up the best I could. It’s going to need time to heal." The way he emphasized time made it sound like it would be a long time. I shifted and tried to stand. This time I barely felt anything. My hands shook as I pulled my pants on and counted out the coins to pay him. He took them and gestured to the door.

"Thank you," I said.

He grabbed my arm and stopped me. "Where did you come from? Your accent is all wrong. You’ve never been near a ship-let alone worked on one. How did you end up here?" I took my arm back slowly, trying to figure out how to answer. He continued. "The way you talk, you must have been a lord."

I avoided looking at him. "Maybe I was. A long time ago. Now I’m an apprentice lighthouse keeper."

He shrugged. "So you say. I suppose everyone is entitled to a second chance at life."

 

It took all I had to walk all the way back to the cabin. Whatever the surgeon had given me to drink made it so everything was dulled. The world floated like I was on a cloud. My only thought was about getting to the cabin and back to Theon. Nothing else mattered. I was lucky that I didn’t fall into the sea.

I came up on him gardening when I got back from the village. We’d managed to get a few plants to start growing and had even gotten a few sad looking potatoes off of one of them. Theon wasn’t content to just let things grow by themselves, he had to constantly make sure that they were still alive. I often found myself pulling him away from them as he picked off every leaf that had even a trace of brown.

I made sure he could see me before I planted a kiss on his head and sat down next to him. He gave me one of his crooked smiles. He took one of his hands out of the dirt and handed me a scraggly potato.

"Look, there’s more of them," he said proudly.

I hugged him. He stiffened in my arms. "What’s wrong?" he asked.

I couldn’t force the words out. It didn’t feel like this was real. For once things were going okay. Things were going to get better. They had to. It felt like talking about any of it would ruin it. Eventually he relaxed and hugged me back. When we pulled apart he looked at me like he had no idea what was going on. I shook my head and went into the cabin. The drink had started to wear off. My leg hurt like hell. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep moving. I collapsed onto the bed and fell into a deep sleep. If Theon came in at all I didn’t notice.

 

When I woke up later he was holding on to me like he was afraid I was going to disappear. As soon as I moved his eyes opened and focused on me. They were worried and unsure. I tried to smile reassuringly at him. "I’m sorry I woke you up," I said.

"You didn’t," he said. "I wasn’t asleep." I started to get up. "If...if you want to stay in town you can." He let go of me. "You don’t have to come back here if there’s something keeping you there." It sounded like something he’d been practicing saying for a long time.

Right then all I wanted to do was tell him why I’d gone without him. Instead I found myself kissing him on the forehead and getting out of bed. "I went by myself because I wanted to get you a surprise." It took all I had to keep from screaming as I put my feet down on the floor. My leg flared up in pain. Deep down I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone.

I was glad I’d thought to get something for him. Luckily there had been something to get. I handed the book to him. The shopkeeper said one of the sailors traveling through had traded it for a night at the brothel. I didn’t remember Theon being much of a reader, but there were pictures that I thought would interest him. Theon stared at it as if he didn’t know what it was as I handed it to him. "It’s about sailing and ships," I said. Someone had taken a lot of time to illustrate it. "There are some ships in there I didn’t recognize. I thought you might like it."

He flipped through a few pages and looked at me. It was taking all of my energy to stay standing. My leg felt like it was going to give out at any moment. "Thank you," he said. He still looked like he wasn’t satisfied. "But you didn’t have to."

"I wanted to. I saw it by the docks and thought you’d like it." It had taken pretty much all of the coin I had left but I thought it was worth it.

"This is nice but it’s not why you went to the village," Theon said. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. Most of the time he tiptoed around me like he as afraid I was going to disappear or get angry with him. His gaze was impenetrable and serious. It was full of expectation. I couldn’t keep this from him any longer.

"Fine. Do you want to know why I went there without you?" Anger burst up through me. I was angry at myself for my own weakness. Every night I prayed that I would wake up and be miraculously healed-that this nightmare would be over and I could start to forget what had happened at the Twins.

Theon stared at me in concern as I got to my feet. Pain shot up through my leg but I was past feeling it. I undid my belt and pulled my pants down, baring my secret for all to see. It revealed the bandage wound around my thigh. The surgeon had soaked it in something that smelled alcoholic. It mingled with the lingering scent of decay that clung to me. I started to unwind the bandage. As it got closer to my skin the room filled with the mixed smells of alcohol and death. The bandage went from white to red. Finally all was exposed. The wound was larger now, stitched together carefully to make a jagged mess. Once it hit the air everything felt like it was on fire. What scared me most was the smell. It was like a rotting corpse. Even at his worst Theon never smelled like I did deep inside.

"When I tried to escape from the Twins I jumped into the river and hurt my leg. It’s not healing." I had to swallow hard to keep from crying in desperation. It still came out in my voice. "I’ve tried everything I can think of but nothing works." My hands clenched impotently. "Everyone always tells me how lucky I am that I survived. But I’m not. I can barely look at myself like this." I was sobbing now. My legs wobbled dangerously. "I should have died. I should have died with Mother and Talisa. This is just the Gods way of reminding me."

All control I had over myself slipped and I started to fall. Theon was there guiding me back onto the bed. He didn’t say anything as he took his gloves off and wrapped my leg carefully, his clean hands standing out against the rest of his body. Once my wound was covered he helped me put my pants on and lay back down in bed. Through it all I’d been crying quietly, trying to regain hold over my emotions. "I didn’t want you to worry about me." I choked out finally, avoiding his eyes.

Theon didn’t say anything for a while. I could feel his presence next to me. He took a deep breath. "You practically showed up out of nowhere and wanted to stay here with me. It’s been a long time since anyone’s wanted to have anything to do with me. And to have it be you. After all that I did to you." When I looked at him I felt like Theon was truly present in a way he hadn’t been in all these months of living with him. Tears ran down his cheeks. "So yes, I would have worried. But we would have gotten through it." He kept his eyes firmly locked with mine. "If anyone’s lucky it’s me. Most people never get a chance to make things right again."

 

Chapter Text

7.

We were gathering seaweed down by the beach. Every once in a while I’d find seashells washed out of the water. I started to collect the interesting looking ones. They shimmered in my hands. The more I collected the more it felt like there was an entire other world concealed beneath the waves. Perhaps somewhere down there the Drowned God was watching. I thought about putting holes in the shells and hanging some of them up in the lighthouse. It would be something to do at least. They were a spot of color in the middle of all the blue and grey.

Theon didn’t pick up any seashells. I showed him a few of the interesting looking ones I’d found. He muttered something under his breath to be polite but he didn’t really look at them so I stopped. Maybe he’d been around them so long he wasn’t able to see the beauty anymore.

He wasn’t paying much attention to what I was doing. All of his efforts were focused on sorting through the strands of green and brown that littered the beach. We’d dry the seaweed and use it later. As much as our diets consisted of bread and dried fish sometimes it had to be supplemented with what was around. Seaweed and the small assortment of plants that grew in the garden had to do for now. When Theon saw driftwood he’d pull it to the side to dry and use later. He was single-mindedly devoted to working. If he had any sentimentality left he kept it deeply hidden.

The water lapped at my feet. I’d taken my boots off and left them by the path up to the cabin. It was strange to feel the rocks underneath my skin. The water had worn them down until they were smooth. I let the water wash over me. It was cold and uninviting. I remembered better days swimming and relaxing in the water at Winterfell.

Theon was still wearing his boots. He’d never shown anything more than his bare hands and face around me. I knew something had to be wrong with his feet because he limped around but I never asked him about it. No matter how comfortable it felt between us there was always something lurking beneath the surface ready to pull us down.

A raven flew by overhead toward the cabin. Theon barely reacted. I went over to the path and put on my boots. We didn’t usually get ravens except for the weekly ones from Yara. She’d sent one a few days ago so it wasn’t likely to have been from her. The list of people who knew we were here and would have wanted to send us a raven was short.

I found the raven sitting on the garden fence squawking. I could never be quite sure it was the same one that came each time. They all looked much the same to me. It was waiting for a treat before it would give up its cargo. It hopped away from me as I got closer. I went into the cabin and got a piece of dried fish. The raven cawed happily as I gave it to him. The piece of fish disappeared almost in an instant. He didn’t fight me as I took the message out of the container strapped to his leg.

The red wax seal on the parchment was the Stark dire wolf. Sansa usually sent her letters with the supply ships that came by. Her letters were usually longer than could fit on a few lines. She never used the Stark seal on anything she sent me in an attempt to keep our promise to Yara. That she’d overlooked it now was worrying. My heart went up to my throat. I broke the seal and unrolled the strip of parchment.

"Ramsay Bolton is dead. Proof is coming with my next letter. -Sansa" I turned the parchment over but nothing was written on the other side.

Theon had made his way up the path. For a moment I wasn’t sure if I should tell him what Sansa’s note said. At times it felt like Ramsay was a third person living on the peninsula watching us. I think a part of Theon was always waiting for him to come and tell him he didn’t belong here and drag him back to the dog kennels. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t been able to move on.

He could tell something had changed as soon as he got close to me. We knew each other too well to not have an idea when something was wrong. I held out the parchment to him wordlessly. He took it and read it quickly. All of the color drained out of his face. I almost expected him to pass out.

"Theon?" I asked. As I watched he shrank down into himself and started shuddering. Right in front of me he was devolving back into the person I’d met months before. I’d thought we were getting past this. Apparently I was wrong.

He was shaking his head. "It’s a trick. He must have switched places with someone else. It can’t be him."

"She said she’s sending proof," I said.

"It’s not true," Theon repeated, pushing past me into the cabin. I followed him. He started to frantically pack all of his belongings into a ragged sack he’d pulled out from one of the cabinets.

"Where are you going?" I noticed he didn’t take the bow or the arrows. He didn’t put on his armor. Maybe he didn’t think they would make a difference.

"He knows where I am now. Sansa sent us the letter. He has to know where the raven went." Theon finished with whatever he was packing and went to the door. I didn’t follow. He grabbed my hand. "You need to come too. He’s probably already on his way here."

I pulled back on his arm. "Theon, if Sansa said he’s dead, he’s dead. She said she’s sending us proof. Why don’t you wait until we get it?"

Theon shook his head no violently. "He could have her again. He can make you do anything," he said. "It’s not safe here."

I wasn’t really sure how to calm him down and make him stay. "Theon, please just wait. I know Sansa, she’d never lie about something like that. Do you really think Brienne would let anything happen to her? And even if Ramsay did have her she’d find some way to let us know." I started to reach out for him and he pulled away, pushing past me and through the door until he was outside. I raced after him, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around. "Where are you going to go?" I asked.

Terror painted his features. "I don’t know," he said, his eyes darting back and forth. "Somewhere across the sea. Somewhere with crowds." He looked so utterly lost.

I had to make one last try. "Can you wait here with me until we find out what Sansa sent?" I asked. "I promise nothing will happen to you."

That touched something deep inside of him. "I told you, you can’t promise that!" he snapped. He pulled away from me violently and ran off toward the village. I ran after him as fast as I could, but even though my leg had healed over it still wasn’t what it had been. Once he reached the rocks he was able to pull farther ahead of me than I could reach. I watched him run off toward the village and tried my best to follow.

 

I found him later sitting at the edge of the pier watching a ship sail off toward the horizon. His sack of belongings sat sadly behind him. I think there wasn’t much in it besides the book I’d given him.

"Did you miss the boat?" I asked, sitting down next to him. My legs dangled over the edge above the water. I could see our reflections tinged blue beneath us. If I stared hard enough I could almost pretend I saw the bottom.

Theon shook his head. "No." His fingers tapped anxiously on the planks below him. He swallowed heavily. "I couldn’t leave you here." He put his arms around his legs and buried his face against his knees.

I didn’t say anything. A part of me was glad that even though he was terrified he wasn’t going to abandon me. I leaned up against him. We sat like that for a while. For once the weather was relatively good and the breeze didn’t cut through to the bone. The ships in the harbor were already unloaded and waiting for the sailors to come back. There weren’t very many people out on the street.

With an unspoken agreement we both got up. "Why don’t we get a drink?" I suggested. The thought of walking back to the cabin right now seemed overwhelming, like we’d be trapped with the pressure of waiting for Sansa’s letter to arrive. Theon uncharacteristically said yes.

While there had been no one out on the streets it seemed like everyone who was anyone was in the inn. As soon as I opened the door I thought this had been a mistake. There were too many people here who would ask questions or want to talk. Their eyes had already focused on us once they saw the door open. I started to feel the same anxiety I usually felt when I was the center of attention. Theon walked past me and found a spot to sit in one of the corners. After swallowing heavily I followed him.

The waitress was overly friendly as she came over. "Don’t see you much in here. What can I get you?" she said. I was aware that everyone was staring at us. The one eyed man had an almost obscene smile on his face. My eyes caught every twitch of movement as people reached for food on their plates. I braced for them to start throwing it at me.

"Just something to drink," I said. Theon was hunched down into himself. He’d picked a place where he could see the door and there was enough space between it and him to run if he had to. I almost wished I could switch places with him.

"Of course. I’ll be right back," the waitress said with a wink.

I could feel everyone’s eyes on us as she came back and put two cups in front of us. If it bothered Theon at all he didn’t let it show. Then again his normal state was one of constant vigilance. He was always ready for an outside attack. His hands grabbed the cup and he drained it with little preamble. I did the same. We drank until the nervousness that plagued us started to fade. The waitress refilled our cups with a smile and a nod.

"Thank you for staying," I said.

His face twitched. "I couldn’t leave you here alone." His hands were on either side of the cup in front of him. "I couldn’t abandon you again." Something twisted in my stomach.

"I’ll protect you." While I meant the words completely they came across as hollow.

Theon laughed sadly. "You don’t protect people from Ramsay. You hope he finds someone else more interesting." My eyes were instantly drawn to where his missing finger would have been.

I didn’t have much more to say to that. We continued drinking in silence. The room around us was buzzing with conversations at every table. I thought we’d gotten through being the center of attention. Then the innkeeper slid onto the bench next to me. "Don’t see you much in here. Haven’t seen you since the last time Yara was in town," he said, his body uncomfortably close to mine. He smelled like sour ale. "Old Man Munderson always came here when he went to town. Here and the brothel. Yet you never do."

My hands clenched on the cup. "We usually don’t have much extra coin." I said.

He smiled. "Greyjoys haven’t been paying very well since the pirates started attacking, have they? You’d think it’d be the other way round. Hazard pay."

"Have there been more attacks then?" I asked.

The innkeeper nodded. "Up and down the coast. There’s talk of increased patrols to try and ward them off."

"Does anyone know why they’re attacking?"

He shrugged. "Who knows? Some say it’s because they think the Iron Born have become weak since a woman’s been in charge. No more raiding has made the Iron Islands ripe for the picking." Theon bristled at this but said nothing. "Some say they want to send a message to King’s Landing that no one’s safe anymore."

"Are the soldiers here prepared?" I asked. I knew the answer before he gave it.

He smiled. His teeth were almost all black. "No one’s attacked here since before Balon Greyjoy was born. They don’t send their best soldiers out this way. But that’s the way it’s always been. No use complaining about it." He slapped my shoulder before standing up and walking away. "Have a nice night. I hope we’ll see more of you. It wouldn’t hurt for you to be more sociable. Maybe that’s how they do things in the North but on the Iron Islands all we have is each other."

Once he was far enough away I turned to Theon. "Is that true? I don’t remember anyone here being particularly friendly when I came."

Theon shook his head. "He just wants to have more to gossip about. There’s not much that goes on here he doesn’t know." He managed a weak smile. "Though he did have a point. You Northerners aren’t very friendly."

I reached out and touched his hand. "Some of us are. Or at least we try to be."

"I know. You always have been." He slowly moved his hand away from mine. "We should head back."

We both finished our drinks and started the long walk back to the cabin.

 

Sansa’s letter was waiting for us the next time we went to town. It came with a package, a box that was sturdily constructed and wrapped in cloth. The general store owner eyed me suspiciously as she handed it over. "Don’t get many things like this out this way. Must be something important," she said. I was probably supposed to indulge her curiosity at this point and open it up in front of her. Instead I gave her a few coins and took the box home.

 

Theon watched me put it on the table. After I removed the fabric and put it to the side I set it back down. The box was small and made with great care. It wasn’t very heavy but there was definitely something inside. It shifted as I moved the box.

"Do you want to open it?" I asked.

Theon shook his head. He was standing by the door watching me nervously. It took me a long time to get the nails out enough to open it. The inside was full of fabric. It smelled of blood and dirt, old blood and dirt. I pulled out the tattered fabric. It was a dark woolen tunic, covered in blood and mud. There was a knife wrapped in it. If there was anything special about either of them I couldn’t tell. A letter sat at the bottom of the box, the Stark seal in red holding it closed. There were flakes of dried blood on top of it. I held it out to Theon to read. He shook his head again, gesturing that I should read it aloud.

I opened the letter and skimmed through it quickly before I started to read. They’d found Ramsay living in a cave near the Wall pretending to be a wildling. They only found him by following stories they heard in inns and villages all along the way from Winterfell to the Wall. It had become dangerous to go outside alone at night, especially for women. Victims would go outside to check on their cows in their barn and their bodies would be found days later mutilated in the forest. Search parties either came back empty handed or didn’t come back at all.

Brienne and Sansa followed the trail of the dead to a dirty hovel up in the hills where Ramsay had made his home. When they saw him Sansa barely recognized him. He’d lost any pretense of pretending to be anything even remotely sane. Without the need to stay respectable for the other houses he had no compunction about giving in to his baser urges. His cave was decorated with human and animal body parts.

Ramsay tried to run. They caught him easily. After exchanging words they executed him. He died alone in the snow. His body was left out for the wolves and the wildlings. They took his tunic and a few things they’d found on his body as proof. That was all.

I trailed off as I read further ahead. Her nightmares hadn’t stopped. Even after Ramsay couldn’t reach her she still dreamed of him almost every night. Killing him hadn’t brought the peace she was hoping for. When I looked up the door to the cabin was open and Theon was gone. I dropped the letter on the table and ran outside.

I found him down by the beach on his hands and knees throwing up. Except he hadn’t eaten much of anything so it was mostly bile. I stopped a few feet away from him. Once he’d stopped he got to his feet and looked at me. Tears ran down his face. "You need to throw all of that away. Burn it. Throw it in the sea. I don’t care." he screamed. "I can’t look at it anymore."

"I will," I said, stepping closer.

He pushed past me and ran up the path. "I’m going to the lighthouse."

 

Theon was pacing up in the lighthouse when I climbed up the ladder later. I’d burned everything in the fire and thrown what wouldn’t burn into the sea. He stopped when he saw me. "I took care of it," I said. I hoped that would make him relax but he still acted like he was going to run at any moment.

"I can’t believe Ramsay’s gone," he said. "It’s felt like he’s been out there watching me for so long." He bit down on his lip. "He tortured me until I broke. I gave up my name. He called me Reek," he said, his voice devoid of all emotion. "The only thing that mattered was making sure he didn’t hurt me again. I did so many awful things just to keep him from hurting me."

I tried to think of what to say that wouldn’t upset him again. "But you got away. You were home with Yara."

He nodded sadly. "It was fine when we weren’t on Pyke. There were more important things to worry about. I tried being the way I used to be again. It felt like play-acting. The real me was buried so deep I couldn’t dig myself out. The dirt kept falling in. Yara tried to help me but she didn’t know what to do." He took a deep breath. "Once we got home and she was Queen she couldn’t be there all the time. And then everyone let me know they hadn’t forgotten what I’d done. That’s why I wanted to come out here. No one knows who I am. And as long as I don’t do anything stupid they never will."

"Why does it matter? Are you that famous?"

He smiled grimly. His face looked like a skull in the firelight. "Everyone knows Theon Greyjoy. Problem is I don’t know who he is anymore. I haven’t felt like him in a long time. The only thing I know how to be is Reek."

The air hung heavy between us. "Would it help if I told you I felt like that too? Sometimes it’s hard to tell who I am anymore." I asked. Theon was surprised. Maybe I’d been putting on a better act than I thought. "Everyone thought I’d died. Nothing was the same when I got back home. They’d all moved on. There wasn’t a place for me anymore."

"But you’re a Stark." He said it like I was one of the Seven. Someone to be revered. Perhaps for him I was.

"You say that like it still means something." I laughed bitterly. "I got back home and found out how much all the bannermen hated me for what happened. They made me renounce everything."

"Everything?"

"My title, my lands, everything." I turned and looked out over the water. "My siblings tried to make up for it but I didn’t belong there anymore. I was just holding them back." There weren’t any ships passing tonight. The sea was almost calm beneath us. "I can’t say I’ve found anywhere else to belong until I got here. Here it doesn’t matter what my family name is."

He smirked. "It is a good place to stay. Nobody cares as long as the ships keep coming in."

I readjusted my hands on the ledge of the lighthouse. "Do you want to try again? I can help you shave and cut your hair. I’ll get some water ready and you can take a bath." The idea had come to me almost without thinking. I’d spoken it without considering it completely. It was too soon to even think about it.

Theon looked at me quickly and then looked away angrily. He was warring with something deep inside himself.

"I’ll get the water ready and then come back up here. You can let me know when you’re done." He didn’t move. "And if you don’t want to you don’t have to. If all you want to do is look at the water it’s fine."

His hands clenched in his gloves. "Is this something you want me to do?" he asked finally. I felt like I had some measure of power over him and it scared me. That kind of power rarely led to anything good.

"It might make things better. It might not. But it’s not going to change how I feel about you," I said. I knew there was nothing I could do that would fix what had been done to him.

For once he met my eyes. I knew deep down he didn’t feel like he deserved it after what he’d done. But ever so slowly he nodded his head in assent.

"I’ll go heat the water up and come get you," I said. Part of me wanted to run down and do it right away. The other part wanted to make things as normal as possible.

As soon as I got to the cabin I took the cauldron we kept by the fire and scrubbed it out quickly with a rag. Then I filled it with water from the barrel in the corner and put it over the fire to heat. I found the last of the soap and put it on the table. It probably wasn’t enough to make up for years of neglect but it was a start.

While that was going on I went over to my trunk and dug through it quickly for what I wanted. Finally I found one of my spare tunics and a pair of pants I thought might be his size. Even if they only became part of his current outfit I thought they might serve him better in the cold.

The cabin had been warm, almost hot, so when I opened the door to the outside and the cold night air rushed in I couldn’t help shivering. Theon was watching up in the lighthouse. I waved at him and closed the door behind me. The few steps between the cabin and lighthouse were cold and wet. Of course it had started to rain. It did little else here.

Once I got back up to the fire he met me at the ladder. His face was blank again. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to do this. I would be happy with him whether or not he was clean or dirty, broken or whole. It had been a stupid idea. I only wanted to see him smile again. None of that came out. He walked past me and went down the ladder. I watched over the side of the lighthouse as he opened the door to the cabin and then was gone.

After that there was nothing to do but wait. The rain beat down on the roof of the lighthouse hard but then gradually stopped. Ships passed beneath me both large and small. The sailors scurried up and down the rigging trimming the sails. From time to time I could hear them singing. I wondered if the merchant Sansa and I had sailed here with was still alive. I tried to memorize the details of each ship so I could tell him later. How many sails they had, how many masts, what emblem they had on their flags, anything and everything. As time passed I was getting better at it but most of the time all I could manage was an educated guess.

The sun started to rise over the water and land, spreading rays of orange and yellow over everything. Once it lightened the sky I put out the fire and turned to look at the cabin. Smoke was still rising from the chimney. The door was still closed. There was no sign that anything had changed since last night. I sat down and tried to wait patiently. From time to time I would look over the edge at the village. Villagers walked to and fro carrying out their daily chores. The ships were unloaded fairly quickly, bringing goods from all over the seas to the storehouse where they would be divided up and sent all over the Iron Islands. Stalls with fish and other perishables lined the street in front of the ships hawking their wares.

When I looked at the cabin next the door was open. It was hard to resist the urge to leap down from the lighthouse and run to him. I forced myself to take things slowly. Each rung on the ladder was almost agony. I half-expected to go into the cabin and find nothing changed. In a way I might have preferred that.

Theon was sitting in front of the fire scrubbing out the cauldron with his back to the doorway. He was wearing the clothing I’d left out for him, though it must have either been too cold or too revealing because he’d covered it up with some of his rags. His hair was lighter than I remembered. I guessed that like mine long imprisonment had taken its toll. There were a few scars on his face that I didn’t quite remember from before. He had his eyes focused on the floor to the right of me. I’d expected him to be defensive. Instead he accepted what might come.

"Do you want me to cut your hair?" I asked. His was longer than I’d ever seen it before and unkept. Washing it had been a start but it needed more than that before it was anything like it used to be.

He thought about it for a moment, pausing as he held the cauldron. "Yes," he said finally. "But you need it too."

I smiled at that. "I suppose that’s fair."

 

It took longer than I thought to hack through the worst of it with the razor. I was not very adept at using it but it got the job done. Theon moved his head at my touch without any hesitation. It tipped back, baring his neck. His eyes were closed, they’d been closed the entire time. He trusted me to do this. I’m not sure if I would have been able to do the same. For a moment I thought back to the first time I’d seen him again. He’d bared his neck to me then too. He’d been ready to die. Once his hair was cropped closer to his head I stopped, stepping back. There was a circle of hair around him on the floor. It shifted around as the wind blew through the gaps in the walls.

Theon slowly opened his eyes and turned to me. He looked like I remembered he had a long time ago. Looking at him now it was almost as if no time had passed. We could pretend that none of the years that separated us had happened. He slowly moved his hand up to his head and ran it through what was left of his hair. It was shorter than it had been back at Winterfell. "Thank you," he said. There was a faint smile on his lips.

"Can you cut mine?" I asked. "Just...just be careful."

He got up and we switched positions. It took me a moment to slow my breathing as he put a hand on my shoulder. The closer it got to my neck the more I wanted to pull away. "If you don’t want to do this..." he said.

"I do, but my neck." I said. I’d taken off the band of cloth I usually tied around it just to be safe. Subconsciously it almost felt like my head would fall off if I didn’t wear it.

"I won’t go near it," he said. "I promise."

I took a moment to try and calm down by breathing deeply in and out. Theon’s hand was still on my shoulder, nowhere near my neck but close enough that I knew it was still there. When I thought I was ready I nodded. He slowly moved his hand to my head and then I felt the razor cut through my hair. It fell to the floor as he cut it. It mingled with his, black and brown and grey all together. I forced myself to close my eyes. In some ways this was more intimate than anything we’d ever done together. It was a matter of trust. That didn’t come easily anymore, even after all we’d done.

"It’s done," he said, stepping back later. I opened my eyes. The halo of hair on the floor was larger than I expected. Maybe I had become just as bad as he had. I hadn’t been taking care of myself the way I should have. When I moved my head it felt lighter somehow. I put my hand up to feel it. There were ragged patches but I could still feel the curls in my hair. The strip of cloth was still in my hands. I tied it around my neck tightly.

Sansa had given me a mirror before she left. I’d kept it wrapped in one of my old tunics down in the bottom of my trunk thinking that I’d never have cause to use it. Once I pulled it out I almost didn’t recognize the face that stared back at me. I didn’t look as old and browbeaten as I had before. The chunks of grey weren’t as noticeable now.

Theon didn’t take the mirror when I held it out to him. He seemed almost afraid of it. So I held it for him. He looked at his reflection for a long time with a pained look on his face. Finally he turned away and started gathering up the hair that was on the floor.

"Are you okay?" I asked, putting the mirror away.

"Yes," he said. "I haven’t seen myself like this in a long time." He opened the door to the cabin and tossed the hair outside. The wind caught it and blew it out to the sea. Out in the light even in his rags I almost thought he looked like he had the last time I saw him, so long ago.

"You’re Theon Greyjoy." I said. "Don’t let anyone take that away from you again."

"And you’re Robb Stark."

 


 

Sansa’s letters became few and far between. The ones that came were short and to the point. Bran was keeping her busy rebuilding Winterfell. There wasn’t much time to spend writing to a brother who would likely never return. It was no use describing what the Great Hall looked like if I’d never be able to see it. It was easy to feel as if right now I had no family. But sometimes I shared Theon’s. After she heard about Ramsay’s death every few weeks Yara would come by with part of her fleet, ostensibly to check out how things were going at the port but really to check up on Theon and me. Whenever she was around me she acted like I was going to hurt him somehow. She had stopped wearing her armor to visit us, but she always had either an axe or a knife within reach. Nobody took anything for granted anymore, even after everyone was at peace. I’m not sure how much it helped Theon to see her. I don’t know how much she got out of it either. I think she wanted to bring him back in the image of a brother she’d never truly known.

When Yara was visiting I’d leave them alone together and stay out of their way as much as I could. She would spend her nights up in the lighthouse with him. I’d stay down in the cabin waiting for them. Theon didn’t say I wasn’t welcome, but it was hard not to feel out of place. There was always an awkward silence that laid heavily on the air. I found I preferred staying on the ground.

Yara never stayed in the morning. She’d head back to her ships and come back as soon as it started getting dark. Theon, never one to talk, was even more closed off after her visits.

 

During one of Yara’s visits I was chopping lumber in the woods that separated us from the village. Most of the time the villagers provided us with what we needed but I always wanted to be prepared in case something happened. There was little enough to do to take up the time otherwise.

"I never thought you’d last this long out here. I didn’t think you’d give up your lords and ladies so easily," she said from behind me. I hadn’t heard her footsteps on the dried leaves.

Sweat dripped down my chest. My shirt was soaked with it. I didn’t like to take it off around strangers and let them see the scars. Even after all this time I’d never gotten used to them myself. I stopped what I was doing and turned to face her. Most of the time when she talked to me it was only as an afterthought or to give an order. I wondered what she wanted me to do now. "Someone had to take care of it."

"Perhaps." She walked around the pile of wood slowly. "I wasn’t sure how it was going to work with you here, but I think it’s helped him. When he first got back all he wanted was justice for what he did to those orphan boys at Winterfell. He wanted to die for that."

"He did?" She’d mentioned something vaguely about him trying to jump off the bridges at Pyke but I thought it was for some other reason. Theon had so many things that he could have felt guilty for. Killing Ser Rodrik. Betraying me. Taking the castle he’d once called home.

Yara nodded. "Even knowing everything that happened during the war he still thought the worst crime was killing those two boys." She took a few steps closer to me, her boots crunching on the fallen leaves. "Maybe he’s right." Standing closer to her I saw how tired she was. It couldn’t have been easy being the first Queen of the Iron Islands. Maybe this place was her escape too.

"He said he got talked into it by one of his men." I said. I spoke like I knew what had really happened, but in truth all I had was a version of events cobbled together by bits and pieces of things he’d told me over the months.

Yara watched me for a long time. "Maybe so. He still thinks it’s all his fault. That’s all he could talk about when we got back."

"Why are you telling me this?" I set another log on the chopping block. The axe cut through it with a satisfying thunk.

She sighed. "Because he hasn’t said anything about it since you’ve been here. I was hoping it meant he’d gotten over it. That he was moving on." She stepped closer to me. I could feel the handle of her axe poking against me."I think you’re good for him. Don’t mess it up."

 

"What did you talk about with her?" I asked him after she left. We were picking up the last of the wood that I’d chopped that day.

"She wants me to captain one of her ships," he said. A twinge of panic passed through me. If he said yes where would that leave me? The possibility of spending my time here alone tending the lighthouse with no contact with the outside world scared me. My world had narrowed enough already.

"What did you say?" I asked finally.

"No," he said, his face unreadable. He picked up some of the pieces of wood and started to take them up to the cabin. "Would you want to lead an army again?"

I grabbed a few branches and followed him. "I can’t say that I would." In a way coming out here was rejecting any possibility of that happening ever again.

"Then you understand." He was a few steps ahead of me.

I had to walk faster to catch up. "Is it selfish of me to be glad you don’t want to?" I asked.

Theon stopped and looked at me. "Because I make such good company?" There was a trace of amusement in his eyes.

I bumped my shoulder against his. "Of course. I couldn’t ask for a better person to be here with."

Theon didn’t reply but his cheeks colored slightly in embarrassment.

 

That night in the lighthouse he seemed distracted. It was a quiet night, there weren’t many ships to watch. I wound up leaning on the edge of the railing with my arms over the side. Theon came to join me after he made sure the fire was lit. He’d been acting almost happy all day. He didn’t move with the same sense of heaviness he usually did.

His hand sought mine on the railing. I held on to his tightly. We both looked out at the fires in the cozy little village across the water. I almost didn’t think to react when he reached over and turned my head to kiss me.

All of the stress and tension inside me felt like it released in an instant. We grabbed on to each other and for a moment we could let ourselves lose everything. Even though the night was dark and the air was cold up here with him was all that mattered. Our kisses started as chaste but the longer they lasted the more desperate they became. He pushed me up against the railing. I ran my hands down his back and held on.

In all the time since this had started between us again we’d never gone further than kissing. I was never sure if he wanted to. Sometimes he acted like he did, but any time there was a chance things could progress he’d pull away. My body constantly sparked with desire for him, and since my leg had finally started to heal over a part of me wanted more than anything to go further. But not if he couldn’t or didn’t want to enjoy it too.

When we moved apart it was only a few inches. I could still feel his breath on my skin as he looked at me. His eyes were clear and bright, as if whatever had been holding him back had gone.

I changed positions and pushed him against the railing. My eyes closed even though I wanted to drink in all of this. I put my hand on his cheek. Since he’d shaved it felt different. Since we’d cleaned ourselves up a lot of things were different. There was a small glimpse of who he used to be.

"What brought this on?" I asked. "You don’t usually..." I moved back a little, still keeping my arms around him.

Theon gave me an uneasy smile. "I want things to be the way they used to be between us again." He kissed my throat.

And for a moment we could pretend they were. Until I started to move my hand to his waist and then to his crotch. He moved it aside with an ease that spoke of having to do it many times before. Maybe things weren’t going to change as quickly as he thought.

 


 

The night everything fell apart started like any other. There were the normal number of ships sailing by beneath us. Maybe I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have. Maybe I drifted instead of watching carefully. Whatever happened Theon ran over to my side of the lighthouse and pointed out at a group of ships passing below. I didn’t recognize their flags or their configuration. I hoped he was going to tell me it was some secret fleet of Yara’s that she’d brought here to resupply. The way he was acting revealed that to not be the case. He kept low to the wall that ran along the outside. There was fear in his eyes.

"What’s wrong?" I asked, ducking down next to him.

"I don’t know where those ships came from."

I quickly glanced over the side. The ships were full of armed sailors holding torches and weapons. Thankfully the ships didn’t look like they had much in the way of weaponry on their own. Once they passed I got to my feet and watched them enter the port. "What should we do?" I asked Theon.

He was caught in the grips of a terror I couldn’t know. He still knelt next to the wall muttering to himself. I touched his shoulder. It took him a moment to drag himself out of whatever hell he’d imagined into the real world again. "We should put out the fire," he said finally. "Any captain who comes here will know something is wrong." We took the buckets of water that sat waiting next to the fire and put it out. Once the steam dissipated and the embers died we were in blackness. There were only a few stars out that night and they didn’t provide any light to see.

The ships reached the harbor. Fires started on the decks of some of the ships that were docked there. The strange ships launched boats that started to head for the shore. They had torches that burned brightly, there were almost too many to count. They floated off to the village. As Theon and I watched the buildings started to light up. Finally I couldn’t watch any more. "We have to go help them!" I said, rushing to the ladders.

Theon was still watching the fires as if he was in a trance. When I touched him he pulled away from me. He was whispering something to himself. I couldn’t make out the words.

"Please Theon, they need our help."

He turned to me. "I can’t do this."

I grabbed his shoulder. He shivered. "The villagers aren’t going to be able to fight them off by themselves. They need our help."

Fires were burning off in the distance. I could make out figures on the beach running around. I should have been scared. Instead I was excited. This was bringing something to life inside of me that had been dead for a long time. I wanted to help the village. I almost needed to.

I ran to the ladder again. "I’m going. If you want to stay here that’s fine."

By the time I got to the ground he’d started to follow me. I waited for him to catch up. "We’ll stick together, okay? If it’s too dangerous we can run away."

Theon looked at me like he knew I was lying but didn’t want to say anything.

We went into the cabin and started to put on our armor. When I’d brought mine with me it hadn’t been because I thought I’d ever need to use it. The pieces slid together just like they used to. It wasn’t the armor that I’d worn when I was on campaign. It was Stark armor that I’d found unclaimed in the armory. Once I put it on I almost felt the same confidence I used to.

Theon put his armor on with more reluctance. I didn’t know if it was his own armor. He had me help him tie some of the knots to hold everything together. His eyes were a thousand miles away. "You don’t have to come," I said. "I don’t want you to get hurt."

He went and picked up his bow and slung the quiver over his back. "I have to make sure you don’t do something stupid."

"I won’t. You’ll be right next to me."

 

We ran, well, walked as fast as we could to the village. The tide was going out as we made it to the rocks. We made our way through the water and muck trying not to fall into the sea below.

Once we got closer to the village the extent of the damage became apparent. Fire streaked through the sky. The storehouse was on fire and it was spreading. I could make out people running back and forth fighting in the street. Some of the villagers came racing past us, pushing us aside in order to escape into the trees beyond.

Theon and I exchanged a look. Right now was the last chance we’d have to change our minds and go back. Even if we did there was no telling if or when the attackers would turn their attention to the lighthouse.

One of the townspeople stopped when they saw us, unsure of two men in armor standing outside the village. It was the woman from the general store. "They’re burning everything! You have to stop them!" she said. Her face was covered with ash and blood.

"Who are they?" I asked. "We didn’t recognize the ships."

"Pirates," she said. Screams rose from the village and she ran off into the trees. More people pushed past us heading for higher ground. I’d thought some of them would stay and fight-that was the stereotype of the Iron Born after all. Fear was a powerful enemy though and I figured it had won out. I tried to remain prepared for anything. My heart thundered in my chest in anticipation.

I drew my sword and slowly walked forward. Theon was right behind me, his bow at the ready. Before I took another step he reached out and grabbed my arm. "Don’t take risks," he said.

"You’re acting like I’m going to run in there screaming. All we need to do is drive them back. Then we can go back home," I said. I never thought that I’d even think of the cabin as home, but now that I’d been here for months with him it was hard to think of it as anything else. All of it was in jeopardy. He was still staring at me. "I promise."

He let go of me. We ran into the village. There were dead bodies in the streets and the stench of burnt flesh in the air. The streets were deserted until we got to the storehouse. A few of the sailors and villagers were trying to fight off the pirates. There were a few more pirates than defenders. If we joined them it could turn the tide.

One of the pirates noticed me and started to run toward me, axe at the ready. I raised my sword, hoping my arms would remain steady. The pirate was wearing clothing I didn’t recognize and didn’t look like anyone from lands I knew. All I was concerned about right now was staying alive. When he got closer he howled in pain as an arrow jutted out of his arm. Theon. I didn’t have time to turn around and check on him. My sword deflected the attacker’s axe but it took most of my strength to raise my arms again.

After I’d started fighting something that had been sleeping deep within me awoke. The feeling of a sword in my hand again brought back so many memories of so many experiences. At that point it didn’t matter who I was fighting-it was like slipping back into a familiar role. I knew where I belonged.

We were slowly making our way to the storehouse and the Greyjoy outpost. The storehouse was ablaze. The flames licked the sky. The closer we got the more I was aware of sweat dripping down under my armor. Here was where the remaining soldiers were making their stand. Dead bodies laid all around.

I went back to the familiar motions of cutting and striking, driving back everyone in front of me. Theon followed. From time to time I’d see a pirate felled by an arrow. The Greyjoy soldiers were putting up a token defense but they were outnumbered and even with help from the townspeople they weren’t able to do much to turn back the invaders. From time to time a cry of "What is dead may never die!" rose from an injured and dying soldier. These calls were soon answered by the appropriate response. I didn’t join in. Neither did Theon.

I continued fighting, unable to make sure Theon was right behind me. As long as I kept seeing arrows in bodies I had to hope that was enough. This had been all my idea to begin with. I didn’t need it to hurt him.

There were a few soldiers still standing by the guardhouse fighting off the onslaught. One of them saw us and recognized that we were on their side. I concentrated on clearing a path to them, hacking left and right until I couldn’t feel my arms. For whatever reason the pirates had started focusing their energy on me. It took everything I had to meet them blow for blow. My ears were full of the sounds of metal on metal, metal on flesh, and the hundreds of sounds people made while fighting. There was something primal about the whole experience. For once I was equal to everyone in this fighting mass, just one person among many. I swung wildly trying to loosen my arms. Practicing with a sword was different than actually using it. Ser Rodrik’s lessons thundered in my head.

The pirate in front of me had no chance. He was distracted fighting a villager and so didn’t see me running at him until I’d slammed into him. I chopped his neck. Blood spurted everywhere and he fell to the ground boneless. The villager stared at me almost in wonder but there was no time to explain anything as more pirates surrounded us.

An arrow took out one of them. It stuck out of his eye socket like a cruel decoration. He made it a few steps before sinking to the ground dead.

There wasn’t enough time to think about anything else. Once I’d joined the fight I made a more attractive target than the villagers, who were a motley assortment of sailors, shopkeepers, and prostitutes. They were fighting as fiercely as I was, although most of them didn’t have the proper weapons or armor. The pirates weren’t well-trained either but they made up for it with a willingness to give their all, a ferociousness that couldn’t be matched.

I met the attackers blow for blow. Training that I hadn’t been able to use for years suddenly slid back into place. Countless exercises I’d done and experience I’d had in battle made it easier to fight back. I fought like I wanted to survive. The pirates fought like they had nothing to live for. Maybe it was stupid to try and stay alive. Still this was the place I’d decided to make my home for now so I had to defend it. No matter the cost.

I swung my sword with all my energy and tried to believe I was making a difference. The fire was almost impossibly hot. It had started to sap what little energy we had. The storehouse fire was spreading. The flames licked the roofs of the inn and a few other nearby buildings. If we didn’t start trying to put the fires out they’d overtake it all anyway.

"Drive them to the beach!" I screamed. My voice didn’t have the same authority it used to, there was doubt there. If anyone noticed they didn’t let it stop them.

Some of the others took up the cry. "The beach!" It was the rallying cry some of them needed. I could almost feel the tide turn as they pressed harder against the pirates. There wasn’t time to waste.

The more pirates we cut down the more fear shone in their eyes. They suddenly started to break off one by one, heading for their boats on the beach. Some of the others followed. I went with them to make sure they didn’t get overwhelmed. Once my feet hit the sand the light started to go. The fire behind us reflected in the water, but there was no light in front of us to speak of except for the dying ships smoldering in the harbor.

I joined the soldiers chasing the pirates into the waves. Once the salt water soaked through my pants and hit my legs I had to stop. The sharp sting of the cold water brought me to my knees. Even though my leg was healed it still wasn’t back to normal. Theon was right beside me trying to support me before the waves washed over us. My hand was curled around my sword reflexively. I couldn’t let it go. Theon had to help me up to the shore before we both collapsed onto the rocks that made up the beach. The pirates that were left made it to their boats and headed back to their ships.

Theon was still holding on to me like he was afraid something was going to happen. I wanted to tell him I was fine but all of the energy I’d had a few minutes before had left me as quickly as it came. It took some coaxing but he got me to let go of my sword and lay back.

"We made it," Theon said quietly.

"Yes, we did," I said. I clenched and unclenched my hands. The fingers still curled like they wanted to hold a sword. "Are they gone?"

"No, they’re on their ship." He was sitting next to me watching over me. "The storehouse is still on fire."

I started to get to my feet. The world spun but I stayed upright. There was a crowd standing by the storehouse watching it burn. It would soon be a complete loss but that didn’t matter as much as the fact that the fire was spreading to the buildings around it. A few people were throwing water on the fire without much effect. There was no organization. It was just the half hearted attempts of a defeated village to show that they hadn’t given up completely.

I stumbled forward with Theon’s help and made my way over to the dispirited villagers. The soldiers were still in the water watching the ships. "We need to get a bucket chain going. Start passing water up from the beach."

I expected some resistance but they were more than willing to follow orders. A ragged line of people stretched out to the beach passing buckets, pots, pans, anything that would hold water up and down the line of waiting villagers. There was barely any time to rest, as soon as an empty bucket passed it was replaced by a full one. Theon was at my back, ready to take over if it became too much.

I turned to one of the people near me and pointed to the hills. "Go and see if you can get some of them to come back and help put out the fires!" I ordered, hoping they’d listen to me. Thankfully they did-there was no reason not to.

The storehouse eventually collapsed under its own weight, condemning everything inside to the flames. The building’s fall suffocated some of the blaze, making the fire that much easier to fight. We redoubled our efforts to put the straggling flames out. Once the people who’d escaped to the hills started to come back the fires were brought somewhat under control, as much as any fire could be.

My whole focus became putting out the fires and keeping the water moving. We were making what I thought was good progress, the fires were running out of fuel and dwindling down to nothing. That’s when the darkness started to take over. The stars sparkled in the sky but they didn’t light up anything at all compared to the gap the fire had left. After being in the light for so long it was hard to remember what the dark was like. All of the energy I’d been using seemed like it all went away at once.

I stood in shock staring at everyone around me. Somehow we’d made it. It was only then that I noticed the nicks and cuts in my armor and the burns on my hands. There was a fine coating of black dust all over me. I wanted to tear my armor off and jump into the sea but there were more important things to worry about right now.

As people walked past they slapped me on the shoulder. There was a camaraderie that I hadn’t had in quite some time. We’d come through the battle relatively unscathed. I collapsed onto the street in exhaustion. Theon stood nearby, ever watchful. The pirate ships were still in the harbor but no one had moved on them in quite some time. My armor felt like it weighed a thousand pounds and had pinned me to the ground. My whole body was covered in ash. When I looked at Theon he looked like all he wanted to do was lie down next to me but he had to protect us.

"We need to get back to the lighthouse," he said quietly. "The tide’s coming in soon."

Right then the thought of walking all the way back to the lighthouse made me more tired than I’d ever been before. I propped myself up on my arms, hissing in pain as my right forearm started to sting. I hadn’t noticed it until now but one of the pirate’s axes must have cut me. There was a long shallow gash where my armor didn’t quite meet. I unfastened the gauntlet and dropped it to the ground.

Theon noticed. It would have been hard for him not to. He peeled back my sleeve slowly and carefully. The cut wasn’t bad but it was going to make swinging a sword difficult if I had to do it again. And judging by the way the ships hadn’t left the harbor we were going to be doing it again.

While he was doing that one of the soldiers from the beach walked up to us. As soon as Theon noticed him he tensed and let go of my arm. The soldier took no notice of him and instead looked at me. "Who are you?" he demanded. Theon stiffened beside me. He was desperately trying to hide the battered Kraken on his armor.

"Assistant lighthouse keeper," I said. I thought it was best to avoid volunteering anything. The soldier wasn’t one of the ones I’d seen around before. I guessed he was from one of the ships that lay submerged in the harbor.

"Not with that armor. Not with that accent." I didn’t like the way he was standing over me. My hand unconsciously started to reach for my sword. Theon shook his head slightly. "Where are you from?"

My mind went blank. I wasn’t sure he’d believe the story I’d told everyone in the village.

"Why are you harassing him? He’s the one who got them to put the fire out at my inn. Don’t you have anything better to do?" the innkeeper said, walking over. I hadn’t seen him until now and he looked just as tired and dirty as I felt. "Where’s your captain?"

"Dead." The soldier nodded to the sea.

"How many men do you have left?" the innkeeper asked.

"Between the ships that were here and the garrison? Not enough. Maybe twenty men but most are injured."

"Can any of the townspeople fight?" I asked. "The pirates are probably going to come back tonight."

The soldier and the innkeeper exchanged a glance. Theon had his eyes firmly on the ground and his hands clenched at his side. It was obvious he was afraid they were going to find out who we were. "We can see who we can round up."

"Did any of the captains survive?" I asked.

"No. It’s almost like the pirates knew who to kill first." The soldier spat on the ground. "I had no love for my captain but he got us through bad times and good."

The innkeeper looked at me. "You should help the soldiers get ready for tonight. They’re going to need all the help they can get."

Theon was shaking his head again. I wasn’t sure how much of it was his opposition to the idea or the fact that we were in this situation to begin with. I covered the gash on my arm and struggled to get to my feet. "We need to get everyone who can help together and see what we’re working with."

Maybe I wanted to be torn away from everyday life for this. It was like reconnecting with a part of myself that had been hidden for far too long. This really wasn’t my problem. I didn’t have to help. Theon and I could have stayed at the lighthouse and watched the village burn. But even after everything that had happened to me I couldn’t stand and watch while people got hurt. I wouldn’t have been able to face Father and Mother if I’d ignored it all.

 

The rest of the day was spent organizing the remaining people and weapons to best fight off the pirates that night. There had been no movement on the ships all day. There were no pirate survivors on the beach or in the village. Even if there were they were soon dispatched by one of the Greyjoy soldiers. It might have been a good idea to try questioning one of them or holding one for ransom but no one seemed to want to consider that. They were too angry.

In between all of this Theon forced me to get some sleep. For most of the day he’d followed me around trying to make sure no one took advantage of me and I didn’t get pulled in too deep. Everyone ignored him. I thought at least the soldiers would question him but I’m not sure if they even recognized him as one of their own. I’m sorry to say I didn’t pay as much attention to what he was doing. He’d been a big part of why the pirates had turned back too. Many of the corpses laying around had at least one of his arrows in them.

We wound up in a room at the inn upstairs and away from everyone else. The innkeeper said we deserved a bit of uninterrupted sleep. I think he’d thought we would sleep downstairs in the common room with everyone else. It had become a makeshift hospital. Theon had pushed past him into one of the rooms upstairs.

After the door was closed and locked Theon helped me take my armor off piece by piece. A great weight felt like it had lifted from my shoulders. I found myself stumbling to the bed. Theon followed, kneeling down in front of me so I could untie the straps that held his armor together. His hands didn’t work as well when detail work was needed.

When he was taking his armor off I got a brief glimpse of the skin underneath his rags before he pulled away. He’d taken off some of his layers of rags to make the armor fit better. What was left hung on him awkwardly. The bits of skin I could see were marked with scars. I only got a brief glimpse before he huddled down into himself and the only thing showing was his face.

It was cold in the room. There was no fire. Neither of us wanted to make one. I think we’d both seen quite enough of it for a while. Instead we huddled together on the bed for warmth. There were a few blankets and furs strewn about. I threw the furs on the floor. Theon watched but said nothing, like he usually did when I couldn’t control myself. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. I let exhaustion carry me away.

Chapter Text

8.

Grey Wind was back. He patrolled in a tight circle around me. All I could see was his looming figure, everything else was darkness. He was so large he blocked out all of the light. His eyes glimmered ferally. "Why are you in such a hurry to meet me?" he growled. His teeth were covered in blood. It dripped from the place his neck met his body. His breath was hot against my face and smelled of decay.

"I couldn’t just let them die." My voice sounded so small.

"Yes, you could. These aren’t your people." He circled closer, his mouth open and his teeth bared. "You’re making the same mistakes again. You’re trusting the wrong people and putting what everyone else wants in front of what you want." Grey Wind came so close I could feel his fur brush against my hand. His fur was covered in blood. It felt both soft and sticky all at once. It was impossible to move my hand away even though that’s all I wanted to do. "And I’m not there to help you."

"I’m not making the same mistakes. This is what I have to do. I have to protect the people I care about," I said, pulling back. "I didn’t break any promises." At least not any promises I’d made to him. What he was saying wasn’t true, this was what I really wanted. After so long feeling out of place and unsettled I’d finally found somewhere I could rest again. I couldn’t let that go.

Grey Wind snarled. "Then you will die. Again." He lunged forward and grabbed my arm in his mouth, biting down hard. I tried to pull away but I didn’t have any strength left. "You’re going to join us soon." He started to drag me off into the distance. I couldn’t fight him off. His jaw locked and there was no breaking his grip.

"Where are you taking me?" I yelled.

He stopped, pinning me underneath his body. Fur was all around me. A deep terror filled me and I fought against him with all I had. "I’m taking you where you belong. We’ve all been waiting for you there." I could see vague forms standing off against the horizon. I knew my parents and Talisa were standing there even if I couldn’t remember exactly what they looked like. I grabbed hold of the ground with my free hand. It didn’t make any difference. Grey Wind continued dragging me away. "You had your second chance. You’re wasting it." His mouth opened and he swallowed me whole.

 

I woke up to a room filled with light. No one had closed the shutters so the late afternoon sun was blinding. It came in through the window and landed right in my eyes. It took me a while to come back to myself and figure out where I was. Our armor and weapons were strewn about on the floor. They cast monstrous shadows on the walls. I laid back down and tried to close my eyes but the sun was too bright.

Theon stirred next to me. I moved over until my head was on his chest. He didn’t act like he noticed. For once I thought he might have actually been asleep. It never happened when we were at the cabin. He never crossed over into a deep sleep, it was always one that he could jump out of if he needed. Maybe what had happened today had made him so exhausted he had no choice but to let his guard down. His heart beat in his chest loud and firm. I closed my eyes and listened to it.

Yara had said that Theon was getting better, that she thought I was good for him. Even though it was a step forward toward her actually respecting me I wasn’t sure how much of that was actually true. After that night we’d cut each other’s hair he hadn’t really taken any steps to maintain the same level of cleanliness that he had before. Right now he was slowly lurching back to the way things had been, slipping back toward his former self each day. We hadn’t had another night where he reached for me first. Since the night in the lighthouse he hadn’t kissed me without me initiating it. Though we’d tried to keep that passion going in the days that followed there wasn’t that same sense that it was possible anymore. And I had no idea how to make it better. Maybe it would never change. But if we were all going to die tomorrow what did it matter?

There was noise from outside where the villagers and soldiers were building barricades and setting up defenses. The sound of screams and moans wafted up from downstairs. With a little concentration all of that faded into the background. Instead all I could hear was the steady beat of life through his body. It overtook it all. I could have listened to it forever.

 

I woke up later to Theon running his fingers through my hair. It was a strange sensation. His fingernails ran against my scalp. The feeling sent shivers all through my body. It was almost comforting at the same time that it irritated my skin. I leaned into it, greedy for more. As soon as Theon noticed I was awake he stopped moving his hand but left it on my head. It was comfortable here. The bed was big enough for two and for once we were warm and dry. I put my arm around him and tried to hold him tight.

I looked up at him. He had his eyes closed and almost looked relaxed. He didn’t have the energy to think or worry about the things that lurked in his past. This close to him I almost thought I could catch a trace of how things had been before. His face wasn’t crossed with worry lines and he wasn’t twitching. I could pretend that I didn’t notice the dirt creeping back up his neck.

"We should get up," he said. "It’s getting dark." There was no emotion in his voice.

I’d been feeling rested but the moment the looming danger of the pirates came up all the energy I had drained out of me. I raised my head to look at him and then buried it against his chest. He didn’t resist as my grip tightened around him. "I wish we could stay here like this forever," I said, not really meaning it. Once I’d been reminded of the danger outside there was no way to joke about it anymore.

I felt his laughter rather than heard it. "I don’t think you’d ever do that. You care too much about other people. You couldn’t walk away from this." Before I could protest he continued. "That’s not a bad thing."

"I told you, if we don’t help the villagers we’re as good as dead anyway."

When I looked at him there was a faint smile on his face. "I’m glad you still want to help people. They didn’t take that away from you." He started to carefully shift himself out from under me. I sat up and watched as he began to put his armor on. "It means I didn’t make a mistake when I promised to follow you."

I struggled to my feet and hugged him. For once he let me without any hesitation. I kissed him on the cheek and helped him tie his armor. He took my hands and made me stop. "You have to be careful."

A brief flash of the wedding at the Twins came to mind and I froze while holding on to the leather straps. He noticed and stared at me with compassion. The moment passed quickly and I let them fall. "I will. But you have to be careful too."

Theon gave me a crooked smile. "As long as we stick together."

 

Downstairs the inn was full of wounded. The tables had been pushed to one side of the room. A mixture of soldiers and villagers laid on the floor waiting for someone to take care of them. The innkeeper and the surgeon were doing the best they could with what they had available. Waitresses were busy running supplies back and forth. When they saw us they stopped what they were doing and stared. The one eyed man was sitting by the fire trying to make bandages out of bits of cloth. His monkey chirped on his back.

As soon as the innkeeper noticed we were up he put down what he was doing and came over. "Have the ships come back?" I asked.

The innkeeper shook his head. "They never left. They’re still out in the harbor. A while ago some of the soldiers tried to shoot arrows at them, but they’re too far out."

I looked at Theon quickly. He was staring at the floor. He stood a few feet behind me, blending into the shadows. The small pieces of himself that he showed when he was alone with me clearly didn’t extend further than that. "I’m going to check on the defenses," I said.

While we’d been sleeping the villagers and soldiers had been working in shifts to build barricades and obstacles all along the beach. I was glad they’d continued following my instructions after I’d left. It meant they trusted me on some level, despite the fact they didn’t know who I was. That was a new feeling for me. Most of my life people had only listened to me because I was a Stark. Now they were listening to me because I had proved myself capable. I had done something for them that they couldn’t do for themselves.

The soldier from last night, Osgood, came over. It looked like he’d had a chance to rest or if not that at least a moment to wipe the soot from his skin. The skepticism he’d shown yesterday was gone. Now he recognized us as fellow comrades in arms. I think a part of him was glad someone else had stepped up to take command of the situation. "We rounded up everyone who can fight. Gave them weapons."

I nodded. "Good. We’ll need archers up on higher ground to give us cover." I felt Theon stiffen beside me. When I turned to look at him he was shaking again.

"I can lead the archers," he said. As much as I wanted to object I couldn’t. We needed every bit of help we could get. No matter how much progress I thought he’d made I didn’t think he was ready for this. But I didn’t feel like I could say that. If he thought he could do it who was I to tell him differently? I nodded at him and swallowed the bile that was rising in my throat.

Osgood gave a nod that he understood. He slapped Theon on the back. "Who knew the lighthouse keeper had hidden talents? I saw what you did yesterday."

Theon was still shaking but he managed to keep himself together until the soldier walked by. "You can do this, Theon. I know you can," I said under my breath.

When he looked at me I could tell he wasn’t sure if he could do it. He was only doing this for me. Had I not been here he probably would have been back at the lighthouse hiding away. A part of me felt guilty for pushing him this far. "I want to keep you safe," he said finally. "You’ll do something heroic and stupid and I won’t be there to help you."

I took his hands. "But you will be. I expect you to watch my back." I squeezed his hands. "Once this is over we’re going back to the cabin. It’ll be just like it was. I’m going to see you there."

He nodded slowly, clenching his hands on mine.

"They’re launching boats!" Someone yelled from the beach. It was hard to see much of anything in the twilight. I could barely make out the blobs that were the boats they sent out from their ships. There were still so many of them. Theon’s eyes were worried. He took his hands out of mine and pulled his bow free.

"I’ll see you at the end of this," he said.

"I’ll be there."

 

I ran down to the beach by the barricades. The soldiers and villagers there were crouched behind the wooden walls we’d scraped together from the wreckage of the storehouse. I joined them, noticing some of them seemed almost relieved to have me there. It was a strange feeling to be pulled back into a role I hadn’t been in for years. A part of me wanted to run. That would have been smarter.

The boats started to hit the beach. I heard the splash as the pirates jumped into the water. My sword was in my hand before I even thought about it. The fires on the beach gave them an almost ghostly look. As they got closer a hail of arrows fell from the sky, knocking some of them down. Still they advanced.

"Don’t let them through!" I yelled. "Keep them on the beach!"

An answering call of acknowledgment met my cry. The woman crouching next to me had a determined look on her face. She had a firm grip on her axe. We exchanged a grim nod before standing and meeting the tide of pirates rushing toward us.

The moment I raised my sword what little energy I had left took over and I was transported somewhere else. For a moment all that mattered was making sure none of the fighters got past us. Everything else could wait.

The only way to tell that Theon was okay was watching the arrows flying through the air. As long as I saw them I had to believe he was fine. Otherwise I would get distracted. Right now I had to worry about fighting my way back to him.

My arm started to hurt again as soon as my sword made contact with one of theirs. I hoped the scab that had formed wouldn’t break. I fought my way through the crowd. They seemed like they had decided to focus on anyone who had any fighting ability. The villagers noticed and tried to help as best they could. It only made it harder to tell friend from foe.

Things got worse after one of the fires went out. The pirates must have dragged along some water. It created steam that obscured everything and made it even harder to see. It was almost impossible to tell friend from foe. I wound up using the flat of my sword to knock people aside.

"Drive them back to the boats!"I yelled, pressing forward.

Sweat and blood dripped into my eyes. Yet I kept on going. I tried to cut through them as best I could. All I could hear was a vague rushing of blood in my head. Even though it felt like the flood of pirates wouldn’t stop, for once I felt truly alive in a way I hadn’t in so long.

We fought and bled and struggled in the smoke and fire. It didn’t seem like we were making any progress. Suddenly the pirates called out to each other. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Their language was at once familiar and completely foreign. They started to pull back.

"Drive them to the beach!" I yelled, making one last thrust forward. The few villagers around me rallied to my cry. We ran after them onto the beach. I followed them out into the water. Arrows accompanied us. I moved forward until the water reached my hips and the sting of salt soaked the bandage on my arm. The waves threatened to knock me over. If they had I’m not sure I would have been able to get back up again.

I watched as they paddled away. Some of the soldiers tried to follow them but stopped when the water got too deep. Once the boats got back to their ships they slowly started to move out of the harbor. A ragged cry of victory came from the beach. Everything that had been keeping me moving suddenly felt like it slipped away. I dropped to my knees in the water with only enough sense to keep my sword up above the waves.

Before I knew it someone was helping me to my feet and dragging me back to shore. The moment I reached somewhat dry land I collapsed on the rocks. Theon knelt down next to me. Somehow he’d gotten hold of a sword and he held it up protectively next to me. There was soot on his face and a few scratches but he didn’t look hurt.

"Are you in a hurry to drown?" he asked.

I shook my head, gasping for air. All I wanted right then was to go to sleep and never have to move again.

That was not to be. "Are they gone?" a villager asked.

"No, they just went back on their ship," someone else answered.

"Everyone, stay ready. They might attack again," one of the soldiers called out.

The pirate ships sat in the harbor outside the reach of any arrows. Fires burned from torches on their deck but there was no sign of any movement. We resumed our places behind the barricades.

 

By the time it was light again there still wasn’t any sign of life on the ships. Theon dragged me to the inn. My legs had locked in place standing by the barricades. I had to lean on him to get any sort of movement.

Along the way villagers and soldiers alike came up and asked me questions. They wanted to know what to do with the bodies, how many people should keep watch, who should move the wounded. The answers came quickly to my tongue and must have made sense because they obeyed without question.

Theon pulled me up the stairs and back into the room from yesterday. My leg gave out completely and I collapsed on the bed. He started to help me take my armor off piece by piece. It made a sweaty pile on the floor. Soon his armor followed.

The bandage on my arm was sticky with blood. The scab must have burst while we were fighting. I unwound it and tossed it away. He found some relatively clean rags and wrapped it up again.

I was too tired to talk. Instead I curled up next to him. He was lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. I put my head on his chest again. Gradually he moved his hand up and onto my back. I was past thinking about anything more important. Maybe if I started out touching him I wouldn’t have any nightmares. It felt like things were only going to get harder and I needed all the energy I could get. It didn’t take very long before I drifted off to sleep.


 

In dreams my mind went back to a memory of the place I’d been happiest long ago. Winterfell. Or rather the rolling hills and mountains around it where I could ride my horse and Grey Wind could run after me. There weren’t any annoying siblings or nagging parents to worry about. It was just me and the air.

And then there were the ones who followed me no matter where I went. Jon and Theon. Jon followed me because I was one of the few people who didn’t treat him like he was a constant embarrassment. Theon followed me because I was person who was everything he wanted to be. He hated me and he wanted to be me. I could see that now.

Ghost and Grey Wind chased after each other far ahead of the horses. They played around together like the puppies they still were, their tongues hanging out and their tails up in the air.

Jon looked at the sky. I joined him. It was getting darker but there were still hours left before it was dark. "I need to head back," he said.

"Really?" I asked. "Nobody’s going to notice if we’re not at the midday meal."

He shook his head. "They might not notice if you’re not there, but your mother will notice if I’m not." I had to agree with him. She would notice. And make Jon’s life hell because of it. I felt a bit guilty but managed to brush it aside.

"I’ll see you later in the practice yard," I said. Jon nodded. He looked at Theon with a mixture of jealousy and hatred. Theon wasn’t even paying attention. His eyes were focused off at something in the distance.

Jon moved his horse a little closer to me. "You should come back too. They’re going to miss you." He leaned over and lowered his voice. "You shouldn’t spend so much time alone with him. Everyone’s starting to talk."

I was torn. Mother had said much the same thing to me. And there was sense in it. There was always someone giving a constant reminder that Theon wasn’t a Stark, no matter how much Father might have acted like he was. I couldn’t do that to him. In some ways Jon was in much the same situation. I found myself divided between the two. "I’ll be back later. There’s something I need to take care of first." Jon looked like he wanted to say something else but he thought better of it. He gestured to Ghost and they headed off together. Grey Wind perked to attention. He wanted to go too.

Instead I slid down off of my horse and stood on the grass. Jon and Ghost were far off in the distance now, only spots of black and white against the green. Grey Wind put his snout in my hand. It was wet and rough at the same time.

Theon moved his horse up beside where I was sitting. "Why didn’t you go back with him? He had a point. They’re probably going to be mad at you for running off."

I smiled at him. "I had something I wanted to do here first." I pulled my hand away from Grey Wind. He whined at the loss of contact. "But you have to be down here with me."

Theon’s smile got bigger. He slowly got to the ground. I pushed Grey Wind away. He looked at me almost angrily then went to sit down near the horses. If I hadn’t been there I almost think he would have bitten Theon. Maybe a part of him remembered when he’d been found and Theon suggested to Father that we kill them.

I walked further away from the horses. Theon followed. When I finally stopped and turned to face him the smile was gone from his face. Instead there was pure desire, an openness that he never showed with anyone else as far as I knew. His cloak was half undone already. My heart fluttered with possibilities. This would have to be quick because Jon was right, Mother would notice and she would have something to say about it.

When we kissed it was harsh and greedy. I tried to figure out the best place to put my hands. Nothing seemed to feel right. Theon was busy trying to get my cloak off. The air was full of the sound of our harsh breaths.

Theon started kissing my neck, forcing my head up so all I could see was the sky. His stubble scratched against the sensitive skin on my throat. The discomfort was almost enjoyable. My heart pounded so steadily and loudly I thought sure Theon could feel it too. His hands were not shy about what they wanted. He had me out of my cloak and my belt undone with an ease I almost admired. He was so distracted doing that he wasn’t prepared for me to push him over.

Theon fell on his back in the grass. I didn’t meet much resistance as I clambered on top of him, pinning him to the ground. It didn’t take much to loosen his belt and move his tunic to the side. He watched me with an amused expression on his face. If he’d wanted to he could have switched positions with me without any trouble. We were fairly evenly matched. Instead he kept his movements confined to his hands on my hips. His grip was tight, it would have been hard to break it.

I ground myself down into him, shifting so my cock rubbed against his through our clothing. His expression didn’t change. I felt his cock half hard beneath me. I was so hard I thought I would burst. I didn’t understand how he could maintain such control over himself. The only thing that changed was how tightly his fingers were digging into my thighs. I leaned down and kissed him. He barely reacted. His lips remained firmly closed. When I pulled back he was looking somewhere off in the distance.

"What’s wrong?" I asked. "Do you still want to do this?" Everything about him was pulling away from me.

Theon was still not looking at me, his eyes were focused on something behind me. I turned. Grey Wind was sitting there. "He’s been watching the whole time," he said. "Can’t you get him to go somewhere else?"

Grey Wind and I exchanged a glance. For a moment I saw Theon and I reflected in his eyes. Sometimes it felt like there was a strange connection between Grey Wind and I, as if he was part of me. At times I almost felt like I was watching myself from the outside. The moment soon passed. I waved Grey Wind off. "Go check on the horses," I said. He whined but slowly moved away out of sight.

Theon’s grip on me loosened and he let his hands fall to the ground. "It’s creepy how he follows you around."

"Haven’t you ever had an animal? A pet? If you treat them right they’ll follow you and look after you," I said.

Anger flashed in his eyes. "When exactly would I have had anything like that?" he asked. I could feel him starting to try to slide out from underneath me. A twinge of guilt pricked me. Sometimes I let myself forget that he wasn’t with us out of his own free will. While Mother treated him better than Jon he would not have been permitted to have as much as a mouse to call his own.

I grabbed his hands and pinned them above his head. Before he could struggle I leaned down and gave him a kiss that sucked everything out between us. When we finally pulled apart I said, "You have me."

The smile Theon gave me was unholy. "Then why am I always the one that follows you?" I wasn’t holding him very tightly. He could have broken free at any time. Instead he pushed himself up against me with a fervor I could hardly resist. Even with layers of clothes between us I couldn’t help getting hard again.

Still I had enough control left to put my lips next to his ear. "Maybe we should try it the other way," I whispered, my tongue running along the underside of his ear. He shuddered beneath me. "One day I’ll follow you."

I was still between his legs. He slowly moved his leg up behind me and pulled me down, holding me closer. I still had hold of his wrists but he acted like he didn’t care about that as he used his leg to pin me down. Even through the layers of clothing I could feel it when our cocks touched. He arched his back so they rubbed against each other. The friction was almost too much.

Theon took my moment of weakness and leaned up to kiss me. I wasn’t prepared for it. All control went away. I let him take the lead, rocking against me. At no point did he fight or try to free his hands. Instead he made the most of what little freedom he had. I was trapped too, he had me in his grasp and wouldn’t let go. That was a change. Usually he’d make me do most of the work when we started and then start to participate once passion took over.

Eventually kissing wasn’t enough. He wormed one of his hands free and put it on my face. I leaned into it. His mouth was warm and forbidden. My grip on his other hand faltered and he easily slid free. Suddenly I was the one with nothing to hold on to. It was all I could do to keep my balance on top of him as he grabbed my cheeks and pulled me down.

"You’re dangerous," I whispered against his lips.

Theon laughed and said nothing. He was breathing heavily and could barely keep his eyes open. His hands worked their way underneath my tunic and touched my cock. My arms wavered. I almost fell. Even though it was windy out here I couldn’t feel anything but the heat between us. It was something I could have drowned in without much effort.

I gave up all pretense of control and let go. There was a flurry of movement as we both tried to get as close together as we could. It was a struggle to get everything arranged so our cocks touched. His leg behind me pulled me closer. My cock was hard and only getting harder. Theon’s was too. It felt like at any moment everything it had all been building toward would collapse.

When the end came it was violent. It felt like all of the strength I had left in my body was gone in an instant. Theon’s came later and with much less fanfare. He wiped his hand off in the grass. We laid together for a little while afterward with me still on top. His leg was still behind me. It started to get uncomfortable so I slid off of him and laid next to him in the grass. I turned over onto my back and looked up into the sky.

"We should get back," I said after we’d been there for a while.

Theon slowly got to his feet and readjusted his clothes. Once we got back to the horses I could see Grey Wind watching both of us. His eyes glinted green in the light. He nipped at Theon’s cloak as he passed. After we got on horseback he took off running and made it back to the castle before Theon and I did.

 

Mother wasn’t happy when we returned. Grey Wind was standing at her side. She let Theon walk past her without comment. When I tried to do the same she stopped me with a look. "Where did you go? Jon’s been here all day. Usually you’re all together."

"I went out riding with Theon," I said. The more I told her the more she’d twist it against me."We lost track of the time."

She reached out and brushed a piece of grass from my cloak. At that point she didn’t have to say anything else. She started to walk away and then stopped. "If you must keep disappearing at least take Grey Wind with you so I know that you’re safe."


 

When I woke up later I was in the bed alone. A part of me was still caught up in the dream. Would it ever be like that again? Theon’s armor was gone. Mine was still where I’d left it on the floor, though someone had taken care to put it in some kind of order. There was a pitcher of water on the side table surrounded by a few pieces of burnt bread and fish scavenged from the storehouse. It wouldn’t have mattered what condition the food was in it would have tasted like ash regardless. I ate it because I had to in order to keep going, not out of any sense of enjoyment.

I got to my feet and put on my armor. It was starting to feel like a familiar weight again. I looked out the window. People were running back and forth with supplies. The beach was strewn with bodies. Villagers moved in between them setting up obstacles.

The inn was full of injured. The surgeon who had sewn up my leg was there trying to do the best he could. There was a pile of dead bodies over in one corner behind a few stacked tables and chairs. Once this was all over I wondered how the village would be able to continue. I didn’t think anyone would be in a hurry to move here and help rebuild. That was a problem for Yara to deal with.

"Have you seen the lighthouse keeper?" I asked.

The one-eyed man was still busy tearing up linen to make bandages. His monkey sat on his shoulder chittering pathetically. He pointed out to the beach. "He’s been out there most of the day helping them."

I nodded to him in thanks and went outside. The pirate ships were still at the mouth of the harbor, far enough away that none of our attacks could reach them. For a moment I almost thought there were more ships there than had been there the day before.

Theon was helping the innkeeper drag scraps of wood that had washed up on the beach from the sunken ships that littered the water. Once they saw me they stopped.

"There’s no sign of them out on the docks. A while ago they dropped some bodies over the side but nobody’s seen anything since," the innkeeper said.

"Have you heard anything about anyone coming to help us?" I asked. "We sent the raven a few days ago."

The innkeeper shook his head. "Nothing."

Theon tensed at that. "They’re coming. We just have to hold out until they get here," he said.

The innkeeper put his hands up. "Whatever you say. The Greyjoys have been paying more attention to us lately." The way he looked at both of us was somewhat worrying. At the end of all of this I knew there was no chance of going back to the anonymity we’d had before. Now I had to worry about if after all of this we could go back to the lighthouse again.

Thankfully at that moment one of villagers building barricades dropped the pile of wood they were carrying. The innkeeper rushed to help. Theon watched him go. I picked up the other end of the piece of wood they’d been carrying and helped him take it to the beach. "Did you have problems sleeping?" I asked.

He set the end of the plank down on the rocks. "I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about how to keep us safe." He risked a quick glance at me. “Sounded like you were having a good dream though.”

“It was more of an old memory.” A twinge of guilt pricked me. I put my end down. "We’re doing all we can here," I said. "I think we’ve been doing a good job so far."

Theon looked out to the sea, out to the ships that laid waiting in the harbor. "It can’t last forever."

I walked over to him. "Don’t start thinking like that, okay? Remember when we were fighting the Lannisters and how scared we were before each battle? We got through that." It was a bad example, one that I regretted making. It only brought back bad memories. "We’ve been doing okay so far. I haven’t seen you miss with your arrows."

He snorted. "Then you haven’t been watching. I hit about as many things as I miss."

"Why can’t you ever take a compliment?" It wasn’t always like that. I remembered him preening whenever anyone had a kind word to say about him, like he was dying for a word of praise. Now he always deflected anything that even approached being complimentary or that singled him out. I think I knew why things had changed. Being good at something meant attention and attention was dangerous. "Anyway all we have to do is hold out until your sister gets here."

He was looking at the ships again. "She’s coming," he muttered. I don’t know who he was trying to convince. I knew that Yara wouldn’t abandon him. They’d both gone through too much together for that.

"I know she is." I stepped next to him and put my hand on the small of his back. "Are you going to be okay tonight with the other archers?"

Theon nodded. "There’s not much danger there. None of the pirates have ever made it that far. I’m not sure how much help we actually are. Half of us can barely hold the bow straight, let alone aim at anything."

"That’s still something. I think that if we can hold out against them for a few more days they’ll leave us alone," I said, trying to convince myself as much as him.

It was quiet between us for a while. Watching the preparations going on all around me I tried to think about what to do next. There was always something else to do. It felt like it was all on me once again.

"Robb, thank you for staying," he said. "I’m not sure how much longer I could have held out if you hadn’t." He wasn’t looking at me.

We usually did not talk about any of the circumstances that had brought us back together or how they made us feel. It was an unspoken current between us that neither of us were on a good path before we reconnected. I was on course for being the crazy older brother no one ever talked about and he had almost given up on humanity entirely. The lighthouse had guided us together. "Theon, you don’t have to..."

He turned to face me. "I mean it."

"You were doing what you had to do to survive."

 

The sky was already starting to grow dark. We split up to check on each of the various groups of defenders and villagers to make sure that everyone was ready. There was only so much we could do. I made sure everyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to fight went to the woods. The inn was still full of wounded. I checked in to make sure that the surgeon and innkeeper didn’t need anything. The smell of death and the sounds of the dying and wounded filled the main floor.

By the time I’d finished that it was time to go back to the beach. The sun was almost completely set. The fires hadn’t been lit yet so everything had an almost ethereal glow. I went back to where I’d been the day before on the barricades. The woman who’d been there last night was there already. She smiled at me as I approached. "I was hoping you’d come back here tonight."

I vaguely remembered seeing her before. "You made it," I said almost happily. Someone else was still alive, maybe there was hope for us all.

"Lighthouse keeper, right?" she said. Then she stopped. "Or I mean assistant lighthouse keeper. I make nets down on the beach." She tapped her axe against my sword then gave me a grim smile and dug in deeper into the sand. I nodded at her and took up my old position. Looking around it seemed as if most of the soldiers and villagers had made it through the night. I glanced back to where Theon was waiting with the archers. I hoped they would be able to protect us once the darkness set in.

Soon it was dark. The only light came from the fires on the beach. My grip on my sword tightened. It almost hurt. My leg cramped. But I forced myself to wait. If I didn’t something worse might happen. I had to save as much strength as I could for when the pirates decided to come.

And come they did. Long after I’d started to wonder if they were even going to come out at all. It was almost impossible to keep everyone from moving, from showing the pirates exactly where they were. They might have been lucky the last few nights but that didn’t mean they could take chances now.

"Wish they would come already," she snarled, rubbing her back.

I tried to keep my eyes on the water and the ships. Right now I couldn’t afford to be distracted. The water started to churn as the boats dropped into the water. I tensed, waiting for the moment when it would all happen again.

There were more of them this time. I wished I knew what they were after. It might have been easier to just give whatever they wanted to them. Even after the past few days we weren’t any closer to knowing who they were and why they weren’t going away. Maybe it was like everyone said-maybe it was a desperate way to show that Yara’s hold on the Iron Islands wasn’t as complete as everyone thought. They were softening the islands up for someone or something else.

When the pirates hit the beach they were met by a volley of arrows. The arrows came up short. They were more for show than anything else. It slowed them a little, but not much. The soldiers up closest to the pirates stood and met them on the beach. Arrows started to fly with less precision, some barely making it to the beach.

I couldn’t stay hidden anymore. My leg almost gave out as I struggled to my feet. The woman next to me got to her feet as well. We had to work together if we wanted to survive this.

The pirates came in a wave, throwing themselves against us in a desperate attempt to gain ground on the beach. Some of them held torches. It made their faces grotesque in the light. I was caught up in the rhythm of slicing at one while defending against another. There was no end. And once they noticed where the cracks were in our line they pushed against them as hard as they could. After days of this kind of constant assault we weren’t as prepared to keep some from getting through and setting more buildings on fire.

I found myself running across the beach trying to catch the ones who got through. My feet sank into the sand. It felt like every step was a struggle. I couldn’t catch them all before they got past us. I had to hope the archers would get them.

Both sides were getting tired and sloppy. The only hope we had of success was driving them back before we were overrun. I pushed forward as much as I could, beating them back to the water.

"Drive them back!" I yelled, pushing the man in front of me away. A cry rose up along the beach, but it had less energy behind it than it had yesterday. Most of the soldiers were busy fighting down at the shoreline, almost on the verge of being overwhelmed. Once I was free I had to think of something to drive them all back. Right now putting out the fires on the beach seemed like the best option. The field would be more even then. The pirates holding torches would make a more attractive target.

We’d placed some water next to the fires we’d built on the beach. I fought my way to the closest one and put it out. Then I fought my way to the second. After I put that out a few of the others caught on to what I was doing and did the same.

Once it was dark the tides started to turn. We were able to push them back to the water. The water splashed up my legs and on my face. It was cold enough to suck most of my energy away. Still I forced myself to continue moving forward. My sword clashed against theirs. I used my arms to push them back.

Bodies floated in the water. They bumped against me. I couldn’t look to see if I recognized any of them. After we got the pirates back to the beach they broke off and started to head back to their ships. I tried to rally everyone forward to pull them out of their boats before they could get back. It didn’t work, most of them were able to escape. I almost collapsed in the water.

Someone shook my shoulder. "The general store’s on fire!" someone yelled. I dragged myself to my feet and ran back to shore. One of the pirates must have made it through with a torch. I forced myself to join the others in putting out the fire. Thankfully it was a small one and hadn’t gotten to the point where it was out of control. It was only after the fire was out that I realized that Theon wasn’t there. I thought I’d seen him earlier but all of the faces that looked back at me weren’t his.

Panic started to set in. I should have been paying more attention. Anything could have happened to him. I hadn’t been there to stop it. I thought I’d seen him at the beach. I ran there, pushing myself further than my body wanted to go. It was what I’d promised myself I would do. It was what I had to do.

When I ran to the beach I didn’t see him there. There were only a few villagers picking up the ragged pieces of flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on shore. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t know which way to turn or where to go. I ran down to where I’d last seen him hoping he was still there and hadn’t gone off looking for me. "Theon!" I called. But every face that passed wasn’t his. I thought I was going to have to start looking at the bodies that floated in the water. I didn’t have any other friends here to turn to. Sure the people had listened to me a few hours ago but now they had no need to do so once the danger has passed. They all looked at me as if I was crazy as I continued my search.

A feeling of rising terror went through me. I began flipping bodies over in the water, revealing pirate and villager alike. They were all dead, their tongues sticking out and sightless eyes staring at nothing. There was blood in the water and on my hands. My armor was dragging me down into the depths. The more bodies I moved the more frantic I became. At this point I was past calling out his name because no one here even knew it.

I sprinted to where I’d last seen the archers. The street was empty and blank stares met me when I asked them where he’d gone. It was only when I asked if they’d seen the lighthouse keeper that they realized who I was talking about. "He went off after some of the pirates that got through," one of them said. He pointed off into the area outside the village.

 

The darkness surrounded the entire village. It didn’t matter to me whether or not it was safe. I plunged into the unknown, fearing the worst. The sun had started to rise but none of the light had reached the hills and trees outside of town. I tripped over the uneven ground as I groped through the dim light.

There was a dead pirate lying on the ground near a ditch outside of the village. An arrow stuck out of his chest. I stepped on a bow that was on the ground. It only took a glance to recognize it was Theon’s even in the gloom. Further on there was another body, half in half out of the ditch. I tried to move the pirate’s body to see if there was anything underneath. The angle was off and the body was heavier than I thought. There were too many shadows to see much underneath.

"Theon?" I asked. There was a low moan in response. Somehow I found the strength to flip the pirate over and reveal the body underneath. Theon laid there staring up at me. The pirate must have fallen on top of him and pinned him down.

"Robb?" he asked weakly. His hand shakily reached for mine. I took it and tried to help him to his feet. That was when it became apparent exactly what had happened. His hand was sticky with blood. Once he was standing I figured out it wasn’t the pirate’s.

Theon got to his feet and immediately started to fall over. I put an arm around him and tried to keep him upright but it was a losing battle. "What’s wrong?" I asked. He couldn’t speak. His legs gave out and he fell back to the ground. As the light increased I saw that he was covered in blood. It darkened his pants and covered the hand he was using to hold his side.

I couldn’t pick him up by myself. Not for the first time did I curse what had happened to me. Before the Twins I could have carried him miles without breaking a sweat. Now I could barely move his arm. I didn’t know what to do. I touched his shoulder, shook his shoulder praying to see some flicker of awareness in his eyes. What little there was felt like it was slipping out in my hands. "I’ll be back," I said. "I’ll be back."

 

The eyes of the villagers and soldiers I ran into were all blank and dumbfounded when I ran through the street yelling for help. None of them seemed to understand that Theon didn’t have time to wait for them to clean up barrels that had fallen over in the street. Theon didn’t have time to wait for them to see how much of the food in the general store was ash. He needed help right now or I’d never see him open his eyes again.

I found an abandoned cart in the street that still had most of its wheels. It took all I had to get it to start moving on the uneven ground. Osgood, the soldier who had warmed up to us the most, took up the other side once it was going. "Where’re you going with this thing?" he asked.

"My friend, he’s out there, he’s hurt. I can’t do anything!" I said. It came out as one long word.

"The archer? I saw him run off after some of them. Guess I never saw him come back," he said as he helped me head off.

"He probably thought he was helping," I said without thinking. Right now the only thing running through my mind was how much farther we had to go to bring him back.

Theon had pushed himself into a sitting position leaning against the side of the ditch. His eyes were still half open when I got closer. "Robb," he hissed, his hands trying to reach out for mine but not working quite right. There was desperation in his eyes.

I forced myself to not let how scared I was show. That was the thing Mother and Father had always made clear. Even when things were at their worst a leader had to be strong. "Yes, it’s me. I came back, just like I said I would. We’re going to put you in a wagon and take you back to the inn." I nodded to Osgood. He took up a position on Theon’s other side. We lifted him into the cart with care. My arms were wet and sticky by the time we got him lying down. Still I kept all emotion off of my face. "It won’t be long and then you can rest."

Theon was doing a good job of keeping most of the pain off of his face. Almost too good. It felt like somewhere along the line he’d learned to hide all of the pain and suffering that he felt. Osgood and I moved the wagon as quickly and steadily as we could. The entire time I could feel every bump in the road and every rock we ran over. Theon made no sound.

It felt like it took forever to get him to the inn. No one else seemed to realize how important it was. I found myself yelling at people to get out of the way. Everything was moving too slow or seemed to conspire against us.

Osgood helped me get Theon out of the wagon once we finally reached the inn. Theon’s skin was cold and his face was almost pure white. His clothes were all dark and sodden with water and blood. My mind flashed to the last time I’d seen so much blood. I’d lost Mother and Talisa and Grey Wind. I’d lost myself. And standing here in the light of early morning trying to hold him together the thought wouldn’t leave me that I’d lost Theon too.

It was a struggle to get him through the door and into the inn. Since we’d been fighting the number of wounded had grown and the pile of bodies at one side of the room was higher than it had been before. The moans and screams of the dead and dying echoed in the room.

None of that mattered to me. "I need help!" I yelled, trying to find a relatively clear spot on the floor to lay Theon down. The surgeon had been looking at someone on the other side of the room. At my cry he came running over.

"You have to help him," I said desperately. "There’s so much blood." The surgeon pushed me aside and got to work removing the layers of armor and clothing that hid what had happened to Theon. There was so much red. There was too much.

Osgood took my arm. "You need to calm down," he said. "The surgeon can’t work with you acting like this."

Right now it felt almost exactly like that day at the Twins. Everyone I cared about was bleeding to death in front of me. There was nothing I could do to stop it. My throat was tight. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like something was slicing at my neck again. I couldn’t look in Theon’s direction without thinking of the last time I’d seen Talisa. I didn’t want to see her dead eyes looking out of his face.

 

Osgood steered me outside. I let him. There was little I could do to help inside and it felt like I was only in the way. I was a man possessed. The feeling of absolute powerlessness that had descended on me was driving me crazy. It was like when Father was killed all over again. All I had was an impotent rage and a strong need to do something. If my sword had been in my hand I would have used it, attacking the wagon until it was nothing more than timber. Instead I paced impatiently outside watching the ships in the harbor. Osgood watched me from where he leaned against the inn.

People walked up to us looking like they were going to ask for direction. If they had asked all I would have been able to do was scream in frustration. Thankfully once they saw me they backed away. I wouldn’t have been able to tell them to do anything more than what they had already been doing. I was full of nervous energy that needed an outlet. I would have done anything to help Theon. My body wanted me to do something, to run somewhere. If I hadn’t kept a thin control over myself I would have swum out to the ships and fought the pirates by myself.

"What is he to you?" Osgood asked. I stopped pacing.

"He’s a friend. We grew up together." The explanation was so inadequate.

"It’s more than that, isn’t it?" The question of how much, if anything, to tell him loomed large. At this point it seemed stupid to conceal something that was right in front of him. All I could do was nod. There was no way to express how much Theon meant to me and how much I would suffer if he was gone.

I started pacing again. The ache in my muscles started to come back. I embraced it. The sun was peeking over the horizon. It painted the whole village in shades of yellow and orange. Most of the buildings had the texture of charred wood and the air was full of ash. There were still people in the streets trying to gather supplies and clean up some of the damage. It would take months if not years to rebuild things to what they once were. I didn’t want to think about what was happening at the lighthouse. I could see it from here. It was impossible to tell if it had been attacked. At the very least it was still standing.

Osgood must have been thinking along the same lines. "Damn shame what happened to this place. After all the years I’ve been coming here there’s never been an attack this bad."

"Will they rebuild?" I asked.

He shrugged. "They’ll have to, this is where most everything comes or goes out of the Iron Islands." A villager walked by carrying yet another scorched beam from a collapsed building. "Still with all the work it’ll need here it might be better to build somewhere else."

The future started to stretch out in front of me in a vast web of possibilities. I’d been living here with Theon in a comfortable existence where everything was provided for us. While we still had responsibilities they were nothing like what had awaited us with our families. Now it was doubtful we’d ever get to go back to that again. I knew Yara would take care of Theon but after what had happened to him I didn’t think she would have the same concern for me.

The innkeeper burst outside. "You need to help with your friend. He won’t let the surgeon work on him." Instantly my heart went to my throat. My skin was ice. I pushed past everyone and back into the inn.

 

"Don’t touch me!" Theon screamed, pushing against the surgeon. "You can’t do this!" He was fighting against the surgeon with all that he had. His eyes were wild with terror. His armor and shirt had been removed, all that was left was his pants. "You took everything else!"

The surgeon looked up at me. "I can’t treat him like this. The wound on his leg is deep. He won’t let me near it."

Theon was trying to crawl away. He was cowering and crying. I knelt down next to him. Blood was all over the floor. Instinct lead me to reach out for him, but I stopped, knowing it would only make things worse. "Theon, it’s Robb," I said. "I’m here." The face that turned to look at me was almost one I didn’t recognize. It was twisted with fear and shame. "You have to calm down. We’re trying to help you."

He still kept trying to inch away, all the while holding his chest together. It looked like the surgeon might have been able to stitch up the wounds there. The cut on Theon’s leg was huge, much larger than mine had ever been. "No...please no..." he hissed through clenched teeth. "You can’t see me like this." Once he got to the wall he stopped moving and shifted himself so he could fight us off if we came closer.

The surgeon was frustrated and angry. "There are other patients who need my help. If he doesn’t want it he can take his chances."

Panic rushed through me. There was no doubt that he wasn’t telling the truth. A part of me wanted to hold Theon down and make him hold still but I knew that would make everything even worse. "Theon please. I promise you that no matter what happens nothing’s going to change between us."

Theon was still pulling away. "It will," he said sadly. "It will."

There was no way I was going to let it end like this. There had to be something that I could do. I looked at the surgeon quickly. "Do you have any milk of the poppy?" I asked. He nodded. I turned back to Theon. "If you drink this it will make it easier. I won’t look, okay? I’ll be right here with you."

He was running out of any energy to fight. He nodded slowly. The surgeon poured the medicine. I helped Theon drink it. He grabbed hold of my hand and looked into my eyes. I met his gaze. I tried not to look at the rest of him though I couldn’t help seeing glimpses.

Theon stopped resisting as the surgeon peeled back his pants. He started shivering that awful shudder that I thought he’d gotten over. He was biting back screams.

"I’m here, okay?" I said. "I’m not going anywhere."

The terror in his eyes stayed but he managed a nod before pain washed through him again. If the milk of the poppy had any effect it wasn’t showing yet. I kept my eyes firmly on his as the surgeon cut his pants away. Every part of me was telling me to look. It took all the willpower I had not to.

"It’s deeper than I thought," the surgeon said darkly. I saw him move his hands out of the corner of my eye and before I knew it Theon was fighting against me again, screaming in pain. I had to hold him down by his arms and almost lay on top of him.

"I know it hurts," I said. "Just focus on me." Theon’s grip on my hand felt like he would break my fingers. He stared at me with gritted teeth and eyes that didn’t waver. It made me want to be completely honest with him in a way that I might not have done before. Right now it felt like it could all change in an instant. "I love you," I said. "I’ll always love you." It felt like something in him twisted. His eyes clenched shut and he started sobbing.

Right then the eyes of everyone in the inn could have been upon us. I would have said and done the same thing. No matter what the consequences would be. I’d had to rebuild enough times, accept new circumstances often enough that if it all flipped upside down again there was only one thing I wanted, I needed, to have be constant.

Theon’s grip slowly loosened on my hand. His eyes went dim. I could feel the surgeon jerk his leg to get it into a better position. His breathing slowed. Once it became clear that Theon had passed out I loosened my hold on him and sat back up. I didn’t let go of his hand.

After what felt like forever the surgeon was done. He covered Theon haphazardly with a blanket and then wiped his hands off with a rag. He spat on the floor. "You didn’t tell me this was Theon Turncloak."

I looked at him in confusion. "What?"

He finished cleaning his hands off and threw the rag onto the floor. "Theon Greyjoy. Some still hold a grudge for what he did at Moat Cailin." It was unclear whether or not he was one of those people. He shook his head. "Anyway I’ve done what I can but that’s not much. I’ve got other patients to treat." He covered Theon sloppily with a blanket, stood up, and walked away.

I was left alone with Theon. His body was covered with blood. Even though I’d made a promise not to look I really couldn’t leave him like this. I found a bucket of water and tried to clean him off. As the blood washed away the scars slowly revealed themselves. I moved the part of the blanket that was haphazardly covering the part that hadn’t been hurt. That was when I noticed something that made a lot of things so much clearer. It explained why no matter how much he acted like he was still attracted to me there was never any physical sign.

He didn’t have a cock anymore. He didn’t have anything there anymore. There was only a vicious scar and smooth skin between his legs. While the scar was old and somewhat faded it looked pink and inflamed as if it was still in the process of healing. I knew now why Theon didn’t want me to see any of this. He thought if I discovered the truth I would leave him. If he knew I had seen it I wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t revert back to the way he’d been when I’d first found him again. And that was if he let me stay. He might be so ashamed that he’d push me away completely. The thought terrified me.

Words tumbled out of my mouth, words that had I been able to speak all those years ago I would have said. Anything to make things right again. "Please hold on. You’re all I have left." A part of me was conscious of other people in the room watching me while they were performing their other tasks. I pressed his hand to my face, hoping to feel some sign he was still in there. It was limp but warm. I had to hold on to the slim hope that he would make it out of this.

Once he was relatively clean I tucked the blanket in around him as gently as I could. Theon barely reacted to any of it. My exhaustion started to take over. I collapsed against the wall, too tired to even think about doing much more than loosening my armor. I pulled Theon’s head into my lap, hoping I wouldn’t miss it if he woke up.

The fear that had gripped me earlier had abated somewhat. I didn’t think Theon was as likely to die now, though it was still a possibility that frightened me. We’d only begun rebuilding our lives and I had no idea what I would do if he was gone.

Even though my mind was racing with what I’d learned I knew that if I didn’t try to eke out some kind of rest I’d be useless when the pirates attacked again. I had to protect Theon and the village. I put my head up against the wall and closed my eyes. I kept a hand on Theon so hopefully if he awoke I would too. I pulled part of the blanket over both of us. Theon was still breathing, thank all the gods. I drifted in a fitful sleep.

 

I was startled awake by someone shaking my shoulder. When I opened my eyes Osgood was standing there with his axe at the ready. "They’re coming again," he said. "Everyone’s heading to the beach."

Theon still laid unresponsive on my lap. It took me a while to figure out if he was even still breathing. It looked like most of the bleeding had stopped. There was nowhere else I felt I could be right now. I’d left him alone once. I wasn’t going to do it again.

Osgood wouldn’t let me. "Come on, they need our help." I hated that there was still a part of me that responded to that. No matter how much times it hurt me I still wanted to help other people. He gestured to Theon. "He’ll be fine here. I’ll get the innkeeper to watch him."

The innkeeper came over. The past few days had revealed him as more than the gruff man who delighted in the misfortune of others. After the attack I’d seen him throw himself into helping the surgeon with the injured. "I can watch him," he offered. "I think they’re going to need you out there." I could hear fighting starting outside. If I was going to help it had to be soon.

I knelt down and kissed Theon on the forehead. "I’ll be right back. Hang on," I said. There was no reaction. The innkeeper brought over a stool and took up a position sitting near him. I got to my feet with some difficulty. Osgood had found my sword somewhere and he handed it to me. I welcomed its familiar weight in my hands.

The further I walked away from Theon the more my anxiety grew. Now that a few people knew who Theon was I didn’t know if he was going to be safe here anymore. I wasn’t the only person who he’d hurt, intentionally or not. It wouldn’t take much for them to figure out who I was. This place wasn’t going to be somewhere we could live after all of this was over.

Osgood hit me on the shoulder. "They’re close. Get your sword ready." I pushed away the last things I’d been thinking about and tried to get back to the same mindset I’d had for the past few days. Distractions wouldn’t help anyone out here. They’d only get me killed.

The pirates had already reached the beach by the time we got there. The fighting had started. I brought my sword up and rushed forward. Osgood was right next to me. We both jumped into the fray. I fought as hard as I could. My sword arm was tired. It took longer than it usually would have to drive them back. All I wanted to do was get back to Theon

As if things weren’t bad enough it had started raining. My boots slowly filled with water. The mud grabbed hold of my feet, trying to pull my boots off with every step. Once I almost lost my footing and slid into the sword of one of the pirates. It was pure luck that I didn’t.

The lines at the beach were almost broken. There were only a few remaining defenders and they couldn’t hold back the tide. The pirates pushed further up the beach than they’d gotten before. Osgood and I tried our best but we were only two people.

It took all I had to deflect blows that would have killed me. Instead they glanced off my sword or put more dents in my armor. As I ducked I thought I should have worn a helmet. My swings had no force behind them.

A huge pirate ran at me, running into me so hard my legs went out from under me. I went face down in the mud. Dirt went into my mouth. I bit my tongue and blood mixed with the mud. It was only by the grace of quick reflexes that I was able to roll out of the way of the axe that he swung down to sever my head. I didn’t have time to contemplate my own mortality as I forced myself to my feet.

Everywhere I looked the villagers and soldiers were struggling to hold the pirates back. We had been under siege for days and none of us was really used to it. We didn’t have any castle walls to hide behind. Fatigue had set in. Everyone was sloppy and making mistakes.

The pirate was still coming at me. I met his axe with my sword, pushing him back. The next swing took everything that I had. It caught him in the chest. He fell to the ground. I stood over him, pushing the sword in until I was sure he wasn’t moving anymore. I screamed in rage and frustration, "We do not sow!" It almost felt like everything went silent before there was an answering cry. I didn’t have time to think about why I’d done it. I was busy trying to block the pirates from getting any further into town.

I had a vague sense that Osgood was near me. I didn’t know if it was because he thought I was helping him or hurting myself. There was only time to think about moving forward, even though all I wanted to do was give up.

The pirates who’d made it up off the beach seemed to come to a consensus all at once to focus on taking me out. They came running at me with no care for their own safety. Osgood tried to help me repel them but I still wound up on my back in the mud staring up at the sky. They’d come at me two at once, hitting my breastplate hard. All the breath I had in me was knocked out. It took a moment to fight back. They tried to hold me down. I worked an arm free and punched one of them in the face. He barely reacted. So I did it again, trying to free my other arm from where it was trapped by the other pirate. One of them punched me on the jaw. The sky sparkled overhead.

I could hear a rising noise all around me. It took a while to realize it was people cheering. I was able to get one of the pirates off of me but the other one wasn’t as easy to move. It took all I had to keep him from punching me more. Suddenly someone pulled his head back by the hair and slit his throat. The blood splashed on my face. My guard went down for a moment and in reflexive surprise his fist connected with my face again before he fell down on top of me. I barely had enough energy to push him off of me.

When I looked up Yara was there looking down at me. I scrambled to sit up.

Greyjoy soldiers were all around us. I could see the pirate ships out in the harbor on fire and sinking. Soldiers were in the village chasing the last remaining pirates.

Yara gave a few barked orders to the men standing near her. She had a few flecks of blood on her face and the rain had made her hair a sodden mess. She held an axe at the ready by her side. Blood dripped from it to the ground. Power and strength radiated from her. Yara had her axe at the ready. Anything I said to her was going to make her upset. I wasn’t sure how she was going to react. She turned to me. "Where is Theon?" she demanded.

Chapter Text

9.

"Where is Theon?" Yara repeated, adding a harsh edge to her voice. She had her axe pointed at me. It wouldn’t have taken much for her to add my corpse to the others lying on the beach.

I struggled to my feet. My sword was in a puddle and covered with mud. I picked it up, wiped it off as best I could, and sheathed it. I stood there speechless. It seemed impossible to put any of it into words. I suddenly had a deep and true understanding of Theon’s shudder. It came from being stuck in a situation that you had no way out of. This was it. There was no changing anything, there was nothing to fix. You had to live with it even though you hated every minute of it.

I couldn’t stop myself. Everything inside me had mixed into a hellish nightmare that I couldn’t escape from. Theon was hurt and I’d done all that I could for him but it wasn’t enough. The shudder swelled through me no matter how much I tried to keep it inside. I knew if Yara saw it she would understand what it meant immediately. This was the one time I really didn’t want to show any weakness in front of her or anyone else. Because without Theon the slim idea of safety that I had here was nothing more than an illusion. I was surrounded by people who had no reason to trust me if they found out who I was.

When the shudder finally hit it ran completely through me. I felt it in my bones. In some ways it might have been better to collapse in tears in front of her. At least then everything would have been out in the open. Instead of this awful shivering that felt like it wanted to tear my body apart. It seemed like every time I met Yara I was at a disadvantage. When words came they were shaky and jumbled. "He got hurt in the last attack. They’re taking care of him at the inn." My face hurt. Breathing hurt too. But it was nothing compared to what Theon was going through.

Yara looked at me with what could only be described as a mixture of contempt and pity. Either reaction would have made sense. Then she clenched her jaw. The axe in her hand twitched. I braced myself for her wrath. Had I been in her place I couldn’t say what I would have done. The way she looked at me was almost as if she was looking through me, as if I was beneath her notice. She turned away and pressed forward, pushing past me and into the village beyond.

My legs wobbled beneath me and the full extent of the weariness that had settled in my bones came to light. I could have dropped down into the mud on my knees and collapsed. Somehow I kept moving, running after Yara and her men as fast as I could, which wasn’t very.

As I ran I passed more Greyjoy soldiers searching the village for remaining pirates. They looked at me suspiciously. I really couldn’t blame them. I was the one standing there in armor from half a world away. The only thing that might have saved me was the villagers who called out to me as I hobbled past. I was glad to see so many had survived. It was almost heartwarming that they remembered me and still knew my name even after all of this. It was further evidence that it had been possible for Theon and I to build a life here.

When the other villagers saw her they bowed or showed small signs of respect. It wasn’t as over the top as it would have been back home or in King’s Landing. Yara acted like this was normal. Her stride was steady and firm.

Osgood was staring at me like I was a strange curiosity. His face was spotted with a mixture of blood and mud. There was no time to stop and talk. I’d thought that after what had happened with Theon at the inn everyone would have figured out there was more to us than there appeared to be. There was no chance to find out what they thought about it. I ran after Yara, my side aching. My feet slid on the muddy ground. Thankfully I didn’t fall again.

When I caught up to them Yara was standing in front of the inn directing villagers and soldiers alike to search for pirates and scavenge anything valuable. Everyone obeyed her without question. There was no evidence of any dissent in the ranks. It helped that Yara at least acted like she knew what she was doing. She didn’t waver as she told them what to do.

Yara noticed me standing at the edge of the soldiers and glared at me in irritation. I raced up to her side. "Show me where he is."

The inn was crowded with dead and dying, both new and old. Everything came to a stop when Yara entered. Everything, that is, except me. I ran over to Theon. I could hear her giving barked orders to the remaining soldiers to get all of the wounded that could be moved into the fastest ships.

Theon was still completely out of it. I kissed his forehead and knelt down next to him. He was still breathing but was otherwise unresponsive. "I’m back," I said. "Yara’s here too." For a moment I almost thought I imagined him moving in reaction.

Yara finally came over to where we were. I sat back instantly, unsure of what she was going to do. I’m sure by now it was obvious to everyone that Theon and I were two parts of a fractured whole. That didn’t mean she would be happy about it. She barely spared me a glance before she sat down next to him and gently stroked his cheek.

I had unconsciously grabbed Theon’s hand with my own. Even though it was completely limp I could almost pretend there was a response when I stroked it. I’d been able to put aside my fear earlier but now that the danger had passed all that I could think about was whether or not we would make it through this.

"What happened?" she demanded.

"I think he was chasing pirates that got past our barricade. Theon killed them but it was too late." I adjusted the blanket around him.

Yara muttered something under her breath. She wiped the seat from his brow. "You were supposed to be safe here," she said. I waited for her to glare at me. Instead her attention was focused on Theon. It was only after she came to the conclusion that there was nothing more she could do for him that she turned to me. I’d seen her look at his scars and realize I must have seen them too.

"Who else saw him like this?"

"The surgeon. The innkeeper. Some of the other patients." I swallowed heavily. "They figured out who he is." It felt like there was something that had gone on that no one had told me.

Yara’s face had no emotion, though I could see her gritting her teeth. She reached out and gently stroked his hair. "If you do nothing else don’t talk about it unless he brings it up."

"I hadn’t seen all that had happened to him until today. I didn’t know everything that Ramsay had done to him." It felt like she was the only person I could talk about it with who might have understood.

She sighed. "After it was over and we went back to Pyke that was all anyone could talk about when they saw him. I think he’d started to accept it while we were gone but once we came back no one would let him forget. There was only so much I could do. When he asked to leave it was almost a relief." She looked at me quickly. "I thought he was making a life here, one where he didn’t have to deal with being Theon Greyjoy. When you came he was starting to get better, back to the brother I used to know. Now everyone here knows about him."

I had no words of reassurance for her. The way the surgeon had been talking it was almost like he wished he hadn’t helped Theon at all. It felt like I’d been lucky to convince him that Theon had tried to redeem himself. Maybe our deeds would be enough to save us.

"I still want to go back to Pyke with you," I said. "I don’t want him to think I’ve abandoned him."

Soldiers came in with a makeshift stretcher. Yara nodded grimly and then stood. "Take them to my cabin. I’ll see what else needs to be done here and then join you."

The soldiers nodded and then got to work transferring Theon from the floor to the stretcher. I thought for sure the movement would knock him out of his faint but he didn’t act like he noticed. As we headed to the waiting boat in the harbor I watched Greyjoy forces taking control, slowly cleaning up the wreckage and searching for survivors. I trailed along behind them. Villagers stared at us. There was a sense of weariness about the whole thing that this was finally over. Osgood saw me. "Where are you going?" he asked.

"I’m going to Pyke with the wounded," I said. Part of me felt like I needed to justify why I wasn’t going to stay.

Osgood watched us go. There was a look of resentment on his face. He was left here while I got to leave. I wished that I had words of encouragement for him but I had no idea what happened to sailors who had lost both ship and captain. Instead I turned my attention back to Theon and getting him back to Yara’s ship alive.

It didn’t really hit me until we were out in the water rowing the boat to take us to Yara’s ship that I had left everything behind in our cabin by the lighthouse. The last pieces of Mother and Father, Sansa’s letters, every last trace of who I had been. All I had now was some battered Stark armor and a mud covered sword. I had to believe that Yara would provide for me, provide for us. I had to believe that someday we could go back.

 

The ride on the boat out to the ship was choppy. I had to hold on to the sides with both of my hands so I wouldn’t fall out. They’d put Theon down in the middle of the floor between us all. Water splashed up against my feet. I could see drops collecting on his face. I wanted to wipe it off but I couldn’t let go of the boat without falling out.

Yara’s ship rose out of the water ahead of us. I had no idea how we were going to get Theon up onto the deck. The sailors didn’t act like this was a concern at all. When we got close enough they threw a rope ladder over the side. A few of them climbed up and then threw a sort of sling over the side. I tried to help them load Theon onto it but I got in the way more than I helped. I was left helplessly watching them heave him up and onto the ship. It would have been easy for them to pull the ladder up and leave me here. Instead they held it steady so I could climb up.

The sailors that I met on deck weren’t any more hospitable than the ones I’d met on land. All their faces showed was distrust. I supposed after all of the problems they’d been having with pirates it made an odd sort of sense that they wouldn’t warm to a man wearing strange armor. Yara wasn’t here to protect me. They all watched me warily as I followed the sailors carrying Theon down into the bowels of the ship.

When we got to Yara’s cabin it was relatively spacious. She had two beds set up on either side inset into the sides of the ship. They actually looked comfortable. Being the Queen of the Iron Islands must have had its benefits. The walls were papered with maps and souvenirs of her conquests. The maps traced routes spanning the entire world. The center of the room was dominated by a massive desk and chairs. The surface of the desk held more papers and a giant map that appeared to be keeping track of everywhere the pirates had attacked. There were points all along the Iron Islands and up and down the coast of the Seven Kingdoms. The more I looked the more the sailors seemed to grow more suspicious of me. I stopped looking at anything but Theon. The sailors put Theon in one of the beds and then left slowly with a few glances back. I tried to act as innocent as I could. That seemed to satisfy them.

I grabbed the chair and pulled it over next to where Theon was. The water from the boat ride was still drying on his skin. The surgeon had given me some bandages and a small bottle of milk of the poppy for the trip. I used the bandages to try and dry him off as best as I could. There wasn’t any response from him, even when I used the cloth to wipe off around his eyes. Once that was done I sat back in the chair and tried not to think about what was happening on the island. The villagers hadn’t been in great shape when I’d left. I hoped that they wouldn’t resent that I had gone when they still needed help.

The ship started to rock as the waves grew higher outside. This seemed to start something stirring in him. His hand moved slightly and his eyes twitched. My hand lightly took hold of his. I could feel it as he slowly gained awareness, his fingers moving against mine. His skin was cold and clammy.

Theon’s eyes opened to slits. They were unfocused and hazy. "Robb?" he asked. His voice was nothing more than a croak. His hand clenched on mine. There was still strength there.

I tried to move closer so he could see me. "I’m here."

He managed a weak smile. "It’s over then?"

"Yes, it’s over." Right then I didn’t know if that was true but it seemed important to act like it was. It wasn’t like he was in a position to do anything about it.

He closed his eyes. "I’m glad. It hurt so much. I’ve wanted it to end for so long." I nodded in agreement without thinking. Then I realized what he was really saying.

"We’re not dead Theon," I said as firmly as I could. "We’re on Yara’s ship. She’s taking us to Pyke."

Theon frowned in confusion. "The Drowned God was taking me to live with him beneath the waves. He told me." I hadn’t thought he was particularly religious. After the incident on the beach where he’d tried to drown himself he hadn’t done anything that made me think he really believed all of that. When he looked at me his eyes were full of confusion. "Why else would you be here?" He started to try to get up. I tried to get him to lie back down again. It didn’t take much effort to convince him to stop moving.

"Why don’t you rest? Your sister will be back soon. Then the maester can look at you and make things better." He nodded weakly and closed his eyes. Inwardly I sighed in relief. I didn’t want to have to fight him on anything. There had been enough fighting today.

He didn’t resist as I moved the blanket so I could look at his bandages. It was a small miracle that he hadn’t bled more. I took a quick glance and put the blanket back over him. It felt like anything longer than that was violating his privacy. Had he been awake he never would have let me do it. Even now when he wasn’t conscious his body still flinched away from the air. In all the time that I’d been back with him he’d never let me see any more of himself than might have been revealed by accident. While I might have had the opportunity to try to see more when he wasn’t paying attention I didn’t take it. I knew how important privacy was.

Some of his scars had started to fade, like mine. It was impossible to think about what his life must have been like with Ramsay. I’d been held captive too but my hosts hadn’t felt the need to so utterly break me there was almost no coming back. Losing his finger was bad enough, but all the rest of it was taking things to an unthinkable level.

I felt the ship shift underneath my feet. Maybe we were leaving. A part of me was desperate to get Theon back to Pyke to make sure he’d survive. The fact that he already thought he was dead scared me. I didn’t want him to stop fighting and really die. I thought since I’d come back his life had slowly been getting better. I knew mine had. I didn’t want anything to ruin that.

Yara burst into the room with her usual vigor. She glared at me as if she had forgotten I would be here too. She was carrying Theon’s armor and she dumped it on the floor unceremoniously. I wasn’t sure why she’d even bothered bringing it with her. It wasn’t like he could wear it now. She tossed her cloak in the corner and made her way to the desk. I jumped out of her chair and she took it from me without acting like she even knew I was there. I awkwardly sat on the edge of Theon’s bed.

The ship was slowly starting to move. The ups and downs were more pronounced. Yara looked at me straight in the eyes. She put something on the table. I got up to take a look. The sigil was tattered and ragged at the edges like it had been ripped off of someone’s clothing. It was the Greyjoy sigil but something about it was different. There was a red flame behind it. The kraken was flipped vertically so its tentacles pointed down at the earth. I looked at Yara in confusion.

"I found this on their ship." she said. "Even after my uncle’s death he’s still trying to take over the Iron Islands."

"Is this his sign?" I asked. There were so many gaps in my knowledge from when I was at the Twins. I still didn’t have a clear picture of what had happened to end the war. No one seemed willing to revisit wounds that had only recently been closed.

Yara was looking at Theon as if just now realizing he was there. "How is he doing?" she asked. It was almost as if she had completely forgotten about the rest of the world.

"He woke up for a little bit but then fell unconscious again. I think for now that might be a good thing. That way at least he doesn’t have to think about what happened," I said.

She nodded in reluctant agreement. The sigil was in her hands. She rubbed it between her fingers. "Our uncle apparently left orders with the men he left behind across the sea that if he didn’t come back for them they were to come here and avenge him." She grimaced. "He thought if he couldn’t have the Iron Throne no one else could. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. He was a Greyjoy to the last." I didn’t know exactly what she meant by that. The only qualities the other houses seemed to agree on for the Greyjoys was their backstabbing nature and disloyalty. That their uncle had been able to inspire that kind of loyalty from people across the sea was somewhat surprising.

"How did you find that out?" I asked. "I was never able to find one of them your people left alive to ask anything." If she noticed my frustration at that she didn’t let it show.

"I boarded one of their ships that was attacking the island. The captain’s quarters had all that I needed to know." That didn’t sound like she had actually talked to any of them. The assumptions she was making didn’t necessarily line up. Had things been different I might have argued with her about it. Right now that didn’t really matter. My main priority was getting Theon to Pyke and any kind of help I could get for him.

"How long will it take to get to Pyke?" I asked.

"Two days. Three at the most. My ship is the fastest in the fleet." I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Of course the Queen of the Iron Islands would keep the best ship for herself. She continued to stare at me. "I need to get some rest. You can take one of the crew hammocks below decks." I started to try and protest. The look she gave me stopped that without any comment. "I’ll get you if he wakes up."

I knew it was pointless to argue with her. Instead I took a last look at Theon, making sure the blanket was up around him enough and that he was still breathing. Nothing seemed to have changed. I set the bottle of milk of the poppy on her desk. "The surgeon said to give this to him if he’s in pain," I said. Yara nodded. I took my leave.

 

Despite all that had happened today and how weary my body felt I knew there was no way I was going to be able to sleep on the ship. Once I’d gone out below decks all of the sailors were standing there glaring at me. Yara must not have had very many guests. It was cramped and dark compared to her cabin. The air felt stale, like it had been trapped down here for a long time. It didn’t help that the floor was a minefield of puddles both shallow and deep.

I knew I should eat something even though I didn’t really feel like it. One of us had to keep going. When I found what passed for rations on the ship it almost felt like I was taking food from people who were starving. Even though I only took a small piece of hardtack they all shot me dirty looks like I’d taken more than my fair share. There was no way I was going to stay down here in this situation if I had any other choice. I had to fight my way through the men standing, sitting, and sleeping down here to get to the ladder that led up to the light and air.

After I got up on deck it felt like I could breathe again. I wasn’t trapped between wood and water anymore. The moon was shining up above us. It reflected on the water, shimmering below the ship. There weren’t as many sailors up on deck so I was able to find a small corner to sit down and try to relax. Being on the ship with no purpose gave my body plenty of time to remember that it was still in pain from being knocked into the dirt. I realized for the first time that I was still wearing my armor and I was still covered in mud. No wonder everyone was acting like I didn’t belong here. I’m sure I must have looked like some crazed warrior Yara had picked up. The breeze was cool, which was a relief after the stuffiness that was below decks. I sat there and let the air wash over me. With food in my stomach and the steady rocking of the ship beneath me I leaned up against the side of the ship and tried to go to sleep.

 

"Maybe you Northerners have some sea legs after all," Yara said from above me. I looked up at her. It wasn’t easy to tell how much sleep I’d actually gotten. My muscles were tight and it took me a while to open my eyes to meet hers. She looked off into the distance. "At least the winds seems to be in our favor today. I hope we’ll make good time."

"Theon?" I croaked.

She continued looking off at the horizon. "He woke up for a little bit in the middle of the night. His stitches were hurting him so I gave him some medicine." She grabbed onto the railing and leaned on it. "He’s sleeping now, but if you want to go down and watch over him you can." She tapped my boot with her foot. "And maybe you can get rid of some of that dirt."

Moving hurt and it took a lot longer to finally get to my feet. I moved a lot slower now that I wasn’t under attack. Yara watched me as I went back down the ladder to go below decks. A part of me was still waiting for her to turn on me for not keeping Theon safe. She could have pushed me over the railing with ease and no one would have been the wiser. I’m sure none of the sailors on deck would have cared.

 

It didn’t look like Theon had moved much since I’d last seen him. The blanket covered him up to his neck. It wouldn’t have taken much to make it a burial shroud. I touched his shoulder gently and waited to see if there was any response. If there was any it wasn’t obvious enough to tell. I sighed. Right now I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.

The straps that held my armor on were almost sealed together with mud and grime. I had to fight with them to break through. Once they became loose I slowly took off each piece one by one. As the weight was lifted it almost felt like I was floating. I set the armor down in a pile on the floor. The bandage around my arm was crusty with mud and dried blood. I didn’t have anything to replace it with so I left it on. My chest hurt. When I lifted up my tunic to look at it I saw bruises in varying shades of purple all over. My face felt tender in spots too. One of my eyes wouldn’t open all the way. It wasn’t really anything I couldn’t handle. Maybe it would keep the sailors outside that didn’t trust me away if they thought I could handle myself in a fight.

There was a bucket of water and a cloth in the corner. My reflection in the water was haggard and pained. I used it to wipe off the worst of it, hoping that made somewhat of a difference. After I had cleaned off somewhat I started to feel a little more confident that we might get through this. At least we were away from the pirates. They wouldn’t pursue us all the way to Pyke. I took the bucket of dirty water out on deck and threw it over the side. No one paid any attention to me.

The cook wasn’t anywhere to be seen when I went down to the galley. I took advantage of this to grab a few pieces of hardtack, salted fish, and some water. If anyone saw me they didn’t say anything. I was afraid they might accuse me of stealing. I still remembered their accusatory glances from yesterday.

The cabin was quiet when I returned. I found a clear spot on Yara’s desk to set down my bounty. My stomach growled in hunger but I didn’t want to squander all the food now. I wasn’t sure when I’d get to eat next. Instead I tried to busy myself with other things.

Yara had left the sigil on her desk on top of some maps of the pirate attacks. I picked it up and examined it more closely. Whoever had made it had taken a lot of time to embroider it. For a brief moment I was reminded of Sansa sewing away on the last ship I’d been on. The kraken was lopsided and the stitches were coming out. It hadn’t been made for longevity, just for visibility. I tried to think if I remembered seeing any of the pirates wearing something like this. It was more likely that the majority of them were mercenaries, fighting for a small group who’d pledged to keep Euron’s memory and goals alive.

Theon started to move. His hand slid out from under the blanket and tried to grasp at something. I put the piece of fabric down and went to him. His eyes were unfocused and dim. He tried to move so he could prop himself up a little and grimaced in pain. I found another pillow and tried to put it behind him so he could sit up more. "How are you feeling?" I asked. He looked confused. I wasn’t sure how much milk of the poppy Yara had given him so I didn’t know how much of what was happening now he actually understood. "I’ll get you some water," I said. There was no coherent response.

I poured a little of it out into a cup I found on the desk and then tried to give it to him. Theon drank reluctantly, only managing a few sips before it began to just run out of his mouth without any resistance. He started to try to move again, stopping as soon as it started to hurt. Right then he looked so bewildered. He slowly lifted up the blanket to look underneath. "What happened?" he asked.

Watching him go through all of this I tried to remember what it had been like at the Twins after I’d woken up the first time. I hadn’t had anyone to explain things to me. I’d only had murky shapes who forced me to take medicine and hold still while they touched me. Then again I’m not sure how much I would have understood if they had told me. "I found you outside the village. It looked like you were trying to stop some of the pirates setting more of the buildings on fire."

Theon frowned like he was trying to put all the pieces together. "I thought the others were coming with me." Anger pricked at me. Why hadn’t anyone gone with him? Surely they understood what he was trying to do. He shifted again, like he was trying to find a comfortable spot.

"Does it hurt? Do you need more milk of the poppy?" I asked.

I could tell he was trying to push the pain aside like he had so many times before. After Ramsay had cut him to pieces I’m sure he hadn’t given him anything to deaden the pain. This time there was possible relief. He gritted his teeth and nodded. I found the bottle in one of the drawers on Yara’s desk and gave him a spoonful.

"I’m going to stay right here, okay?" He nodded. "Yara said we’ll be at Pyke in a day or so. Then the maester can look at you and help take the pain away."

"Feels like my stomach is going to burst," he hissed.

I moved the chair closer and took his hand. "Here, hold on to me. You can squeeze if the pain gets too bad. Maybe that’ll make things better." Instantly his grip tightened so hard I thought my bones might snap. I tried to laugh a little. "Maybe not that tight."

"Sorry," he whispered, coloring slightly. His eyes were sliding closed. They snapped back open again as if he’d suddenly realized something. "I wasn’t sure if you were going to find me. It felt like I was going to die all alone."

"I shouldn’t have sent you off by yourself," I said. "I should have kept a closer eye on you. I don’t want either of us to be alone again." He forced a slight smile on his lips like I’d confirmed something in his mind. His grip loosened. I took my hand out of his and arranged the blanket around him more tightly.

After watching him sleep for a while I moved the chair so I could lean up against the wall and tried to go to sleep. I had a few days worth to catch up on and right now I didn’t need to be doing anything else. Maybe the more I slept the faster the ship could go.

 

I slept for a while. My time spent on deck the last night hadn’t really counted as sleep. Here the gentle rocking and relative quiet made it very hard to keep my eyes open. The past few days I wasn’t sure if I’d ever really slept or if it was only a kind of unconsciousness my body dropped into when I had nothing left.

There were no dreams. If there had been I’m sure they would have been nightmares if I’d been able to recall them. I knew when I awoke it would be as if I’d never slept. The sense of unease and fear was all I knew. It was probably all I would know for a long time to come.

When I woke up Theon was struggling to get out of bed. It was hard to tell if he was sleeping or if he was awake. His hands moved cautiously on the sheets at first, then frantically as he realized where he was and what his circumstances were. His bandages were turning dark with blood. I leapt to my feet and tried to guide him back into bed. "I don’t think you should be walking yet," I said. "Do you need something? I can get it for you." I hoped if he saw me he would calm down. That only resulted in the opposite.

He frowned and shook his head, trying to push me out of the way so he could get to his feet. It was then that I noticed his left foot was scarred and twisted as well. No wonder he had developed the strange limping way he walked. It felt like there were a thousand things that he had kept to himself and they were slowly being revealed. I tried to keep the blanket around him as best I could. I’m not sure how much it actually helped but it was better than doing nothing.

"You should really lay back down," I said, pushing his chest gently so he might actually lie down. "You need more rest."

When Theon looked at me it was almost as if he was seeing someone he’d only just now realized was there. "Robb?" He looked like he was trying to figure out how everything fit back together. "What are you doing here?" He kept his arm around his side protectively. His fingers traced the edges of the bandage as if only just now realizing it was there.

"We’re sailing back to Pyke. You’ve been hurt and the maester needs to look at you," I said. I figured using small words and repeating the same thing over and over again couldn’t hurt. Right now it seemed like he had forgotten everything that had happened and needed to be reminded.

Theon’s eyes grew wide with terror. He pulled the blanket up around himself, bracing against the wall. "You said you wouldn’t look," he howled, clutching the fabric.

Here I could have made a choice. I could have lied and said I’d kept my promise. I hadn’t seen the full extent of what Ramsay had done to him. Maybe that would have been the better choice. But I couldn’t do that. "I know I promised. But you were hurt and I had to make sure you were okay."

"You should have let me die," he sobbed, hiding his head in his hands.

"Theon, don’t say that!" I said. "Please, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have looked unless I had to."

Maybe if there had been an infinite amount of time for him to consider his reaction he might have acted differently. Or if he hadn’t been in an extreme amount of pain. His face curled up in anger and betrayal. "Get out!" he screamed, trying to cover himself with the blankets. "Get out of here!"

"Theon, I only wanted to help!" I said, hoping something would get through to him. He was beyond that. I tried to slowly move closer to him. Theon picked up the pillow and threw it at me.

"Get out!" his face twisted in pain and he clutched at his side.

I didn’t want to leave but the way he was acting now it was only a matter of time before his stitches burst or worse. Maybe the only thing to do was get Yara.

There wasn’t time to think about any of it. I ran out into the crew quarters, pushing past the sailors sleeping in their hammocks until I could get to the stairs that led up on deck. The ship rocked back and forth underneath my feet. I ran faster on the slippery wooden boards that made up the ship.

Yara was up on deck giving orders. No one seemed to take any notice of me. The seas were choppy and the weather was poor. Whatever they had to do took up all of their attention. The crew blocked my way up to where she was standing. I forced my way through them once it seemed like things were back on course.

Yara noticed me almost immediately. Some of the other sailors tried to stop me from getting close to her. "What are you doing here?" she demanded. I think she knew but didn’t want to say.

None of that mattered now. "It’s Theon. He’s awake. He threw me out. I’m scared he might hurt himself." Yara nodded at who I assumed was her second in command and then rushed below decks. I followed her.

She went into her cabin. I was torn about whether or not I should follow. Worry won out and I went in behind her.

Theon was cowering in a corner of the bed with all of the blankets wrapped around him protectively. His eyes were wild and unfocused. When they looked at both of us there was no recognition there. I took a cautious step forward. He pulled back.

Yara glared at me. "Theon, I think it’s time you had more medicine," she said. She was speaking harshly, much harsher than I would have. I was surprised that he didn’t start yelling at her too. His eyes remained focused on me. Yara was busy pouring out more of the milk of the poppy but she noticed. "You remember him, don’t you?"

Theon nodded, then started that awful shudder again. "He lied to me," he whispered. I almost didn’t hear it. The words cut through to the bone.

Yara handed him the dose of medicine. A weariness had set in her face. She’d had to watch out for Theon for a long time. The time he’d spent on the island away from her might have been a brief respite from all of that. "Take this," she said. It almost looked like he was going to argue with her about it, but didn’t.

We both watched as he slowly slid into the dreamless sleep the drug provided. Yara helped him lie back down again and made sure the blankets were tucked in around him. When he was finally beyond knowing she turned to me. I wanted to make excuses and talk about it but her face was impassive. "We can talk about this once we’re on Pyke," she said. "Here and now isn’t the right place or time." She put the bottle of medicine back on her desk and left the room.

I was left watching Theon sleep. What I really wanted to do was check his bandages and make sure he hadn’t broken his stitches but I didn’t want to add on to the things that made him hate me. I was surprised Yara hadn’t kicked me out of her cabin altogether. Maybe she didn’t trust any of the members of her crew to watch over him.

Eventually I took up my familiar position leaning up against the side of the ship letting it rock me into an uneasy sleep.

 

I woke up to Yara standing above me with a lantern. She had kicked my feet to get me awake. I scrambled to stand up. She didn’t have to say anything. Theon was sleeping or unconscious on the bed next to me. I reached out for him but thought better of it. Instead I pulled the blanket up tightly around him. Yara nodded at me as I left the cabin. She shut the door behind me.

I was left out in the midst of the rest of the crew. Their hammocks swung on either side of me as I made my way to the ladder up to the deck. I had to pull away from a few roaming hands. Off in the distant darker areas I could hear the cries and moans of the injured.

Against my better judgement I stepped closer to the sound, hoping I wouldn’t recognize any of them. They’d put up a sail to divide the wounded villagers off from the sailors. There were hammocks here too, but there weren’t enough for all of them. Some of them were spread out on the floor. I was barely able to pick my way around them. A small table with a lantern on top of it sat in the middle of it all. It cast barely enough light to see.

There was a sailor slumped over the table. He must have been assigned to take care of them. Instinct was telling me to pull back. I already had enough to deal with. Something drew me closer, a sense of responsibility. They had gotten hurt under my watch. I owed them.

I recognized a few of the huddled figures from where I’d seen them manning their stalls by the beach. They were familiar but I didn’t know their names and they had little need to know mine. I almost felt a sense of relief. Their nameless faces would have little cause to haunt my dreams. Until one of them reached out from their hammock. I stepped closer. The woman from the beach laid there. A blanket was haphazardly spread over her. Blood had started to soak through. One of her arms was tied to her side with a bloody bandage. Her face was crossed with pain. "I waited for you," she said. Her arm moved slightly. "Guess I won’t be mending nets anymore."

"I tried to get to the beach," I said, moving closer to her.

She gave a pained smile. "I know. They snuck up on us that last attack. If Lady Yara hadn’t..." She trailed off.

"We would have been overrun," I finished.

She winced in pain. "Is it true what they say, Theon Turncloak is the lighthouse keeper?"

There was little point in lying to her now. I’m sure everyone on the ship had found out. I nodded.

"He’s not like I imagined then. Everyone said he was cowardly."

I thought of Theon cowering up in the lighthouse as the pirates had started to land. I wasn’t sure what would have happened if I hadn’t pushed him to come down with me and help. He probably would have stayed up in the lighthouse and watched the village burn. I really couldn’t blame him for that. "He’s one of the bravest people I know."

She didn’t say anything in response. When I looked closer her eyes had closed. Sometime during the time between her statement and my response she had passed out. I adjusted the blanket so it covered her better and then made my way up to the main deck.

Wind and rain battered against me. My clothes felt like they would never be dry again. The sailors up on deck seemed not to notice the damp. They walked around ignoring the weather. They pushed past me to get to their various stations.

I found a relatively quiet spot on deck and stood watching the ship make its way through the water. From time to time we passed islands off in the distance. I had no idea if we were anywhere near Pyke. I didn’t know what kind of reception we’d have once we got there.

I had barely any time to think about what had happened. If Theon lashed out at me again I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew why he was upset and I really couldn’t blame him. My hands clenched into fists at the thought that all we had been through could have been wiped away in an instant. It was hard for me to imagine where things could go from here. I wasn’t sure if Theon was going to be willing to try and trust me again.

Instead of doing anything else I stood and watched the sea pass beneath us. The rhythm of the ship’s crew buzzed behind me.

 

There were no more incidents. Theon spent the rest of the voyage barely aware of any of his surroundings. Yara and I managed to get him to drink a bit of water and eat a few spoonfuls of soup but that was it. Every time he moved I was afraid that he was going to wake up and kick me out again. I was worried the next time would be even worse.

Pyke rose off on the horizon. I’d never been so happy to see dry land. Yara took command easily and arranged for the injured villagers to be taken off the ship. I stayed with Theon, waiting to make sure he was stable enough to move. I wasn’t sure the stitches would hold all the way from the ship to the castle.

Somehow we made it up to the castle. I walked along behind the cart trying to make sure he wasn’t going to fall out of it. No one else seemed to be particularly concerned. Theon almost looked like a corpse as they pulled his unmoving blanket-wrapped body up the hills and trails that led to Pyke. I expected that he would wake after the cart hit some of the uneven ground along the road. Instead his eyes stayed closed, though I thought I could see his body tense under the blanket.

The weather on Pyke was just as windy and rainy as it had been on the sea. I’d put my armor back on before we had disembarked. While it was uncomfortable at least it kept the worst of the chill out. The more we walked the more my side started to hurt. The last time I’d looked at it bruises had started to form in a hundred shades of purple over my ribs. It was nothing compared to what I’d had to endure before so I ignored it.

Yara had ridden along ahead with a few of her crew. Most of the villagers were going to be treated in town. They’d hurriedly repurposed an empty storehouse along the docks. All the ship’s surgeons from the other ships in port were called to help. Once she’d given her orders she’d gotten on a horse to ride to Pyke to prepare things for Theon.

Strong armed servants waited for us behind the castle gates. They easily took Theon between them and carried him up the steps to the rooms Yara had prepared. I followed along behind. My armor clanked loudly in the narrow corridors and hallways. At any moment I expected someone to tell me that I’d gone far enough or to ask me who I was because I certainly didn’t belong here. That never happened.

The room they’d prepared was at the top of a high tower far away from the noise and excitement of the rooms below. It was relatively spacious. There was a bed set far away from the door and window. A table and chairs and a cabinet were spread out in the rest of the room.

The servants put Theon on the bed with little ceremony and left the room with barely a glance at me. I shuffled my way over to Theon. His face was creased in pain. I reached out to take his hand, hoping there might be some response there. A weak squeeze answered mine, but he didn’t open his eyes.

The next thing I knew a maester was coming into the room with a servant in tow. The servant carried a box full of supplies. The maester looked weather-beaten and it was hard to guess his age. Maybe he had spent years on ships before or afer completing his chain. The maester strode over to the bed and gently eased me to the side before he started to peel back the blankets.

The bandages were still tied tightly around Theon’s chest and leg. There were spots of dried blood on them that the maester lingered over before starting to unwind the dirty cloth.

I kept my position at the foot of the bed observing all of this. The wounds underneath the bandages were just as gruesome as they had been a few days ago. "Amateurs," the maester said under his breath as he gently felt around the stitches. It was only after he did this that the appeared to notice that I was still there. "Did you do this?" he demanded.

I was confused. "N...no. There was a ship’s surgeon on the island. He did what he could."

The maester shook his head. "It’s sloppy work. I’m going to have to redo some of it so it will heal."

My stomach dropped. I found myself grabbing hold of the front of the bed to support myself. A part of me still couldn’t forgive myself for holding Theon down so the surgeon could work on him. I wasn’t sure if I could stand up to it again.

The maester was watching me with a slight look of irritation on his face that soon softened. "I suppose I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Maester Quenton. And I know who he is. But Yara didn’t really say anything about you."

"I’m Robb," I said. "You said you know who he is...but what do you call him?" After what had happened at the inn I didn’t need to worry he would do more of the same.

The maester had turned to the servant who was arranging things on the table next to the bed. "Are you asking if I call him Turncloak?" He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. "I serve House Greyjoy. My loyalty is to them. And Theon is still a Greyjoy."

I still had a sense of unease about him but I had little choice but to trust him. "Do you think he’ll get better?"

The maester shrugged. "I’ll do what I can. But most of it will be up to him." He put a hand on Theon’s stomach near the worst of it. "You might want to wait in the hallway." The servant pushed me out. I found myself staring at a closed door almost thankful I wasn’t on the other side of it. At the same time all I could think of was what I would have given to be in there.

All of this was bringing up memories I tried to keep deeply buried. That day at the Twins loomed large. I hadn’t been able to help anyone that day. I hadn’t even been able to help myself. It seemed impossible to believe that this time I actually could do something and have it actually work out. Theon was going to live. I had to hold that in my heart as true or else I’d sink in despair.

The scar on my neck started to itch underneath the strip of cloth. I ignored it for as long as I could. Finally I had to give in, scratching along the line that had divided me from life and death all those years ago. Maybe it was a kind of penance for what was happening to Theon.

I couldn’t imagine going on without him. It almost physically hurt to even think of the possibility. If he was gone there would be no real home to go back to. Winterfell should have been that place for me, but after it was stripped of everything that made it home I knew it would only be going back to a place where I felt like I was just in the way. Maybe Yara would let me serve on one of her ships. Traveling around the world that way would be a welcome distraction from what had happened. I could disappear and become someone else.

I leaned up against the wall. As the noises inside the room started to increase in volume I found myself sliding down until I was huddled on the floor. Theon was moaning and at times screaming in pain. I wanted to be in there with him. My mind kept on telling me that would only make things worse. Instead I sat in the hallway listening, being a witness.

The noises grew in volume and then abruptly stopped. I pulled the cloth around my neck tight so it was harder to scratch. Finally the servant opened the door. When I walked in the maester was wiping his bloody hands off with a wet cloth. Theon laid on the bed wrapped in new bandages. When I touched his hand the skin was cold.

"I fixed what the butcher on the island did. It should help things heal correctly. Now all we can do is hope he doesn’t get a wound fever." Something was churning in my stomach. None of that seemed very reassuring at all. "I gave him something to help him sleep." He started to put the rest of his tools in his bag. "I did what I could for him," he said almost defensively. That didn’t make me feel any better about it.

They’d left the blankets down low on Theon’s chest. Scars of varying size and intensity covered the exposed skin. I could see where Ramsay had torn one of his nipples off. There was no way he’d want anyone to see him like this. I turned to the servant, who was gathering up the last of the supplies. "Can I get something for him to wear?" I asked. The servant looked at the maester, who paused for a moment and then nodded almost indulgently.

"Of course m’lord. I’ll be right back with something."

The maester was still watching me. "Lady Greyjoy said you had a cut on your arm. Would you like me to look at it?" I hadn’t even thought she’d noticed. Maybe with all the time we’d spent together in her cabin she’d had time to notice the torn part of my sleeve that was only just covered by my armor.

I unbuckled the various pieces of armor that covered it and rolled up my sleeve. I hadn’t really noticed it much these past few days, there had been other more important things to consider. The cut had scabbed over. The skin around it was tinged pink. The maester held my arm gently, turning it from side to side so he could see it from different angles. "Let me put something on it so it will heal faster. I don’t think it needs much more than that."

While he started to get his supplies together again all I could think about was how Theon and I could continue on from this. Or even if he’d want to. Maybe he would use it as an excuse to push me away. The maester rubbed something that smelled like fish and the sea over the cut and then wrapped it tightly with a bandage.

"I’ll come and check on him later," the maester said. He put a reassuring hand on my back. I had to stop myself from flinching.

The servant came back with a nightshirt that looked like it had just come out of storage. It smelled musty and damp. Theon didn’t react as we put it on him, though I hoped when he woke up he would appreciate it. Once we were done the servant gave me a quick little bow.

"Did you need anything else, m’lord?" he asked.

There were so many things I perhaps should have asked for but I couldn’t think about any of it now. Whatever the maester had put on my arm was starting to burn. At the onset of the pain exhaustion started to creep in and take over. "No, thank you," I said. He bowed again and left. I waited a few minutes before I dragged one of the chairs over next to the bed from the other side of the room. It felt like dragging the world.

I realized I was still wearing my armor. In all of the excitement I’d barely had time to think about much beside what was going to keep Theon alive and safe. The pieces of armor came off with great difficulty. My muscles had been tensed. Now they slowly started to relax. It felt like I was going to float away. Instead I dropped into the chair next to the bed. Right then I could have stayed there forever.

I hadn’t really taken much time to examine the room when we’d first gotten here. It had been dark. It was still dark. The only light came from a window set high up into the wall opposite the bed. It didn’t provide much possibility for light. Then again it didn’t feel like there was anywhere in all of Pyke that wasn’t dark and grey. There was a small fireplace but it hadn’t been taken care of in what seemed like a long time. Right now the room was cool but relatively comfortable. I could hear a little of the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks far down beneath us. The whole room felt like this was the first time anyone had been in it for years. There were piles of dust in the corners. The sheets on the bed were threadbare and full of holes.

Theon’s eyes slowly opened. I watched as he climbed up into consciousness. His hands ran over the blankets with trepidation. They settled on his abdomen. He hissed in pain, his hands clutching the fabric.

I wanted to reach out and touch him but I wasn’t sure if he was going to push me away again. There was no way I could take that right now. Something welled up deep inside of me. What good was carrying on if I was all alone?

"Robb?" he asked groggily. One of his hands shakily headed to the edge of the bed.

"Yes, I’m here," I said. My voice wavered. He was still looking at me, his eyes almost translucent. There wasn’t any malice there. Was it possible he didn’t remember what he’d said? "I’m sorry," I sobbed. Everything started to spill out. I tried to hold it back but that almost made it worse. "I was trying to help."

Something flickered over his face. His hand kept searching until I gave him mine. "I know," he said. His voice was hoarse and tired. As soon as he was touching me he closed his eyes.

I tried to get control over myself. All that there was to focus on was the window. It was raining outside. There were shifting clouds that made patterns on the floor. I tried to concentrate on that in an effort to stop crying.

The next thing I knew Theon was laboriously trying to move over on the bed. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"Come here," he said, tugging on my hand with as much force as he could muster.

"Are you sure? I don’t want to hurt you."

"I’m sure," he said with enough certainty I didn’t question it. I leaned down and took off my boots before crawling slowly into bed next to him. I watched his face carefully to see if I was causing him any pain and stopped if I thought I detected anything.

Theon had gotten good at hiding when things hurt him. I really didn’t want to think about his time with Ramsay and what Ramsay must have done to drive him to that point. He had his eyes closed and was breathing shallowly, almost as if breathing too deeply brought up something even more painful.

I laid down next to him close enough that I could feel him, not close enough to overwhelm him. With a shaking hand he started to hold the blanket up so it would cover me too. I helped him, pulling it around both of us so we could both get warm.

These simple actions seemed to have exhausted him. His eyes slid closed and didn’t open again. I watched long enough to make sure he was still breathing and then tried to relax. I really hadn’t had a chance to look at him this closely in a few days. Maybe I should have done it sooner. His skin was paler than the roughspun fabric of the nightshirt he was wearing. Sweat had beaded on his forehead. It started to slide down his neck. I hadn’t noticed but he must have been eating enough lately to actually have gained some weight. His cheeks weren’t as hollow as I remembered. It was hard to believe that he might have been able to take care of himself again. I looked away. It was hard to think that he’d changed so much without me noticing. It made me think about how much else I might have missed.

My arm started to throb. I pulled it out from underneath the blanket and looked at it in the dim light. The bandage was stained green by whatever the maester had put on it. I could feel my skin start to itch as it knitted itself back together.

I closed my eyes. Up here the regular castle noises seemed far away. All I could hear was the wind and the water outside. If I concentrated it was almost like we were back in the cabin again.

 

When I opened my eyes again Theon’s were clenched tightly shut. I could feel him shaking slightly beside me. Instantly I was fully awake. "What’s wrong? Do you need more medicine?"

He shook his head violently no. After a minute or so of tense waiting he relaxed a little. "It’s okay," he hissed. "It’s okay." If he was trying to convince himself it didn’t seem to be working.

"You don’t have to hide it. I don’t want you to feel like this."

Theon’s hands were so tense I almost thought the bones in his fingers might snap. When he turned to look at me there was fear mixed with the pain in his eyes. "I never wanted you to see me like that."

I knew he wasn’t talking about his injuries. "I didn’t want to hurt you. I was trying to make sure you were going to make it." I propped myself up on an elbow and tried to get him to meet my eyes. "Please, I’m sorry."

"I never wanted you to find out," he said, his voice small in the room. "I thought you’d leave and that would be one more thing Ramsay took from me."

The silence between us stretched out. His eyes grew wide and fearful. I knew I was going to have to choose my words carefully. Honestly I didn’t have any idea what to say. "I wish you could have told me," I said finally. "We could have figured something out." I reached out and put a hand on his cheek softly, fully expecting he would brush it away. "You wouldn’t have to go through it alone."

It took Theon a long time to respond. "After I got back to Pyke everyone knew. It was all they talked about when they saw me. It’s...it’s hard to believe anyone could overlook it."

I stroked his cheek. "I love you," I said. He started to shake his head and move my hand off of his cheek. I held firm. "I’m not going to leave you." I figured the plainer I made it the less likely it would be misinterpreted. "You should rest now and get better."

Theon said nothing. He slowly closed his eyes. I watched him fall asleep. Inwardly I was able to relax. There had been ample opportunity for him to lash out at me like he had on the boat and he hadn’t. Maybe that had been one time only thing. I brushed the sweat from his forehead. There was no reaction. I laid back down and closed my eyes. Sleep seemed like the best thing at the moment.

 

When I woke up next the servant was standing in the doorway. "Lady Yara is coming," he said. I got out of bed and put my boots back on. Theon was still sleeping. He’d barely moved since I’d gone to sleep. The servant came into the room and tidied things up a bit. He set a pitcher of water on the table and set a piece of cloth next to it.

Yara came in to the room with her usual vigor. The servant bowed deeply to her. I nodded. She paid no attention to either of us and went straight to the bed. She was wet. Her boots left soggy footprints as she crossed the room. Both of her gloved hands were clenched in fists. Rage and fatigue fought within her. She stopped at the edge of the bed and watched Theon sleep.

"How is he?" she asked. She did not look at me. Her whole demeanor was of someone who did not want to be here but who had no other choice. Had this been a battle or we been at sea she would have been in her element. This was something I don’t think either of us knew how to handle.

"He’s been resting. The maester changed his dressing and fixed what the surgeon couldn’t on the island," I said. Yara was only half-listening.

"Has he woken up? Has he said anything?"

"He was for a little while. I’m not sure he’s happy being here again."

That got me her attention, if only for a moment. "No, he wouldn’t be." She gestured to the servant. "Stay here and watch him." The servant jumped to attention. "You and I need to talk. And eat."

Food seemed like such an unnecessary luxury right then. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten. Yet my stomach felt full. I thought there would be more talking between us than anything else.

I leaned over Theon and adjusted the blankets around him. Yara watched with a blank expression on her face. I touched his shoulder gently before following her out of the room.

She set a fast pace as she went down the stairs. I couldn’t match her. My leg would never be what it once was. She was able to get so far ahead of me it was like we weren’t even going to the same place.

Yara led me to the Great Hall. It was fairly quiet. There were only a few other people there and they were sitting at the lower tables. Yara went to the table she’d sat at before. I stopped. She looked at me as if she couldn’t understand my reluctance to continue. "We can’t really talk if you sit down there."

I followed her to the head table and sat down where she pointed. A servant brought a plate of white fish and mashed white root vegetables for us. When they poured the ale to go along with the meal I half expected it to be white as well. The whole meal smelled of nothing.

I waited to see if Yara was going to eat anything. She seemed more intent on drinking. It was only after she’d finished one mug and gestured for more that she actually looked at me.

"You’re not eating?" she asked as she speared a chunk of flaky white meat with her knife.

"I don’t have much of an appetite."

Yara shrugged. "I don’t either, but when I don’t know when I’ll get to eat again I force myself."

I made myself take a few token bites. The fish was bland and tasteless, the mash even more so. "How are the villagers?" I asked.

"In good hands. Most of them were able to make it through the journey." She cut the fish into smaller pieces. "Once they’re healed we’ll send them back to the island to help."

"You’re going to rebuild?" I asked. After what had happened there really wasn’t much left. It would take years to get it back to the way it once was.

Yara started to chug the rest of her second mug. "It can’t be helped. That’s the best place to base our ships out of. It’s the closest to the mainland." She put her empty mug on the table with a thud. A servant rushed over to refill it. When she looked at me her eyes were tired. "I’m not going to let my uncle ruin this kingdom from beyond the grave."

I raised my mug to that and we clanked them together. Her determination reminded me of my own from years earlier. I knew how dangerous holding on to things like that could be. Sometimes it was better to walk way. "I’m glad you’re going to help them. They’re good people. They fought hard against the pirates."

She gave me a small smile. "You were there with them. And yelling our words, or so I’ve heard."

"It felt right at the time." And it had. In fact it had come easily to my tongue. Perhaps too easily.

"I also heard about something else you said. Something you said to my brother." Any trace of a smile on her lips was gone.

What little food I had eaten sat heavy in my chest. Yara wasn’t stupid. I’m sure she had it all figured out long ago. That was different than having it spoken. "I told him that I loved him." I said it firmly and looked her right in the eyes. "I would do it again."

She motioned to the servant to bring her another plate. "I’m glad someone loves him. Sometimes I question whether I love him or if I only protect him because I have to." I thought back to what I’d seen when she visited him on the island and what Theon had told me she’d done for him before. If it was only out of obligation she would have given up long ago. She wouldn’t have held him so tightly when she thought no one was watching.

I managed a few more bites now that I realized she wasn’t going to kill me. "What happens now?" I asked.

"I leave the day after tomorrow. There’s been some word of where the pirates will attack next." She scraped the last bits of fish off of the plate. "You can have the run of the castle. I will leave coin for you. The maester will attend to Theon. I’m not sure when I’ll be back."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. You need to watch him," she said. I wasn’t sure what she meant. Yara reached out and grabbed my hand tightly. "Promise me. If you leave him alone he’s going to try to jump again. Once I get back and he’s well we can figure out where to go from here."

I tried to put together what she was saying. The man I’d talked to last night seemed like he’d come to accept the fact that I knew what had happened to him and was willing to move on. "He didn’t act like..."

Yara shook her head vigorously. "I don’t care what he says or what you think he acts like. It’s going to happen. This place brings it out in him."

I struggled to think of a reply. I wanted to believe that all of our time on the island hadn’t been for nothing, that the small steps he’d taken toward reclaiming himself hadn’t been so easily undone. Finally I figured that in this she might know best. "I promise."

We ate for a little while longer in silence. My attention was drawn to the other people in the room. I noticed a few of the men at the lower tables pointing at us and laughing. "Do they know who I am?" I asked.

She barely looked up from her plate. "No. But they’re not stupid. It won’t take much for them to put the pieces together."

Instantly that feeling of being on display rushed over me. If I could have hidden myself away somewhere I would have. "What happens if you’re not here?"

Yara clenched her jaw. "My castellan will see to things. I doubt anyone would do anything out in the open. My most trusted servants will guard the tower and my personal servants will help you."

The unspoken sentiment beneath all of this was that if she wasn’t there she couldn’t protect us. She had earned the respect of her subjects but that loyalty didn’t extend further than her own person. It didn’t matter what Theon had done during the war, all they would ever remember was that he had been a disappointment. And they’d remember what Ramsay had done to him.

"I’m going to sit with him for a while," she said after the silence had stretched out. She got up from the bench and left the hall without a glance back. The few men still in the hall gave her the correct amount of respect as she passed.

I forced myself to eat the last few pieces of fish left on my plate. It had no flavor at all. Yet I knew I would need my strength for the time to come.

Chapter Text

10.

While Yara was with Theon I explored what little of the castle I could. There hadn’t been much chance the last time I’d been here. There were no walkways on top of the castle. There was no need for it. The towers ended at small rooms that looked out over the harbor, which wasn’t the same. I’d grown used to being able to look at the world from up above, be it at Winterfell or at the lighthouse. Once I reached the limits of what I could see from above I headed back down below. It seemed there was nowhere that wasn’t dark, dreary, and wet. Candles and firewood must have been far too precious to waste as there were hardly any fires lit. I stumbled around in the darkness. The lower passages had a thin coating of water that soon soaked through my boots.

I didn’t see very many other people in the hallways. What few there were had little interest in me. They pushed past me without a second glance. The further down I went the wetter things became. The walls had a line of salt from the last time they’d flooded. It smelled of mold and damp. I found a few closed doors that led down into the depths. Water splashed against the steps and lapped at the doorway.

Living here would be like living in a cave. It really wasn’t all that different than the crypts at Winterfell. My thoughts drifted to the statue of me that dwelled there in the darkness. A cold shudder raced through me. The thought still remained that I should have died all those years ago. This could all be nothing more than my mind’s last gasp before the soldier’s knife finished severing my head.

Panic spread. I had to get out of here and up to somewhere there was air and light. Energy I didn’t know I had flowed through my body. I ran up and down stairs that seemed to have no end. I had lost all sense of where I was and what I was doing there.

Eventually I burst out onto one of the many bridges that crossed the castle. I emerged into fresh air and the sea. I gasped for breath. The strip of cloth around my neck felt like it was tightening. I fell to my knees and tried to regain control over myself. I had to be strong before I went back to Theon. He would see any weakness as a sign that what I’d seen really had driven a wedge between us.

"M’lord are you alright?” A comforting feminine voice. A hand on my back. I forced myself to take a few shaky breaths before I let them help me to my feet. “It’s not safe out here when it’s raining.” A steadying arm went under mine and stayed there until I regained my footing. We moved until we were just inside the castle.

When I looked at her it was to see a servant girl, barely out of her teens. She tried to help me stand up straight again. It took longer than it used to for me to rise to my full height. I tried to keep as much of my weight off of her as I could. “Thank you,” I said.

She kept her arm around me. “Are you going to be alright?”

I gently pulled away. Now that there was a witness it was harder to sink into despair. One had to maintain appearances. My feet soon found their footing and I didn’t fear falling. “I’ll be fine. Thank you again.”

She looked at me doubtfully but had no reason to contradict me. She started to walk away. I realized I had no idea where I was. This could have been any of the hundreds of dimly lit hallways that made up the maze that was Pyke.

“Wait! Could you tell me how to get to the East Tower?”

Something like disgust slowly crossed her face. Instantly I figured out that word must have gotten out about who was up there and not everyone was happy about it. “Why do you need to go there? It’s off limits,” she demanded, all politeness gone.

“I’ll take him there,” the maester said from behind us. The servant’s face went white. She immediately bowed and moved out of the way. He waited until she had walked away before he took my arm firmly. “I wouldn’t talk about anything having to do with Theon with the servants,” he scolded. He continued holding my arm until we’d made it to a different area of the castle. I snatched it back as soon as I could.

He led me to the East Tower. It was only then that how alone we would be here became apparent. There were two guards standing by the stairway that led up to Theon’s room. It looked like the same guards that had first welcomed me to Pyke so long ago. They appeared to be in a constant state of readiness. Both of their eyes focused on me and the maester as we approached. The lighthouse was one thing. It was a safe harbor because no one knew who we were and no one cared. Here everyone knew Theon and few of them wished him well.

 

Yara had already gone by the time I got back. The servant was busy cleaning out the fireplace. As soon as I entered the room he gave me a short bow and then left. I wondered what instructions he’d been given. It was hard to avoid noticing that a small bed had been hastily set up in the corner near the window. I guessed that our prior sleeping arrangement had been noted.

Theon gave me a grim smile as I sat down in the chair next to him. There was a sheen of sweat covering his face. A half empty bowl of soup sat on the table next to him. It looked like he had only eaten the broth and none of the meat that came with it.

“Did you eat anything?” I asked.

His face twisted in a grimace. “I tried, but nothing tastes right.” He had his hand clamped over his abdomen. “It hurt too much.”

“Yara gave you something for that, right?” I couldn’t imagine her doing anything less.

He nodded and closed his eyes. The shallow breathing was back. Maybe the medicine hadn’t started to work yet. It was hard not to notice the way his hands tensed on the bed.

“What did you and Yara talk about?” I asked him. He was pale in the bed, his skin was almost white and sweat had settled in the hollow of his collarbone. Dark circles lay under his eyes. It seemed hard to believe that he would be able to pull himself through this, no matter how much he’d started to recover since we’d arrived.

“She told me she was leaving for a while,” he said. A weak smile crossed his lips. “She gave me this.” He pulled something out from underneath the covers with great difficulty. A knife. Not a fancy one, just a simple one that any of the fishmongers down at the beach might have used. Its handle was wooden and the blade was short. He held it shakily before it slipped out of his fingers and dropped on the bed. I picked it up carefully and put it on the table next to the bed out of his reach.

“What are you supposed to do with that?” It seemed ludicrous for her to have even given it to him. If she was worried that he was going to jump off of one of the bridges surely he could have slit his wrists with that knife just as easily.

“If the pirates come back she said I’d need something to protect myself.” His eyes filled with sadness. “But I think it’s in case anything happens to her. No one here likes me very much.” The way he said it was a statement of fact. And from what I’d seen so far I couldn’t argue with him.

I took his hand. Even if that might have been true there were other things he had to know. Maybe I had to speak them too. “Once you’re better we can leave. We don’t ever have to come back. Until then I’ll look after you.”

Theon’s smile was as lopsided as ever. “I know you will.” The words were laden with meaning. Maybe he couldn’t say he loved me, but he at least knew I loved him. And in the midst of all of this uncertainty that was as good as it could get. He closed his eyes and took another pained breath.

“You should rest,” I said.

Theon’s eyes half-opened. “You should rest too.”

I took another look at what had been left for me to sleep on. They’d probably dragged it up here from one of the water-logged rooms below. It was lumpy and the fabric they’d used to cover it was threadbare and threatened to burst when I sat down on it. There were a few hole-filled blankets but thankfully no furs. I laid down and tried to go to sleep.

This close to the window it was much harder to ignore the sounds outside. It wasn’t raining but all I could hear was water crashing against the rocks far below. That had been the case at the cabin by the lighthouse too, but the rhythm here was different just enough that I couldn’t relax completely.

 

Exhaustion finally won out. I drifted into a dreamless sleep. Or one that should have been. It felt like I’d barely closed my eyes before I was opening them again. Theon was screaming in terror, flailing around in the sheets.

I ran over to him, trying to get him to wake up. His thrashing around was uncontrollable. I tried to catch his hands before he hurt himself anymore.

“Theon, come on, wake up!” I said, trying to get him to come back to his senses.

Instead that only seemed to make him more upset. I didn’t want to have to hold him down but the way he was struggling made it almost certain he was going to hurt himself. It took most of my strength to get him to stop moving. Through it all he didn’t say anything, he only let out howls of pain that had no words. Before it was done he’d thrown all of the blankets on the floor and almost acted like he was going to tear his shirt off too.

After a few attempts to talk to him I realized there was no point. He was beyond the reach of words. It was easier to try and keep him still and calm until whatever was eating away at him from the inside grew tired.

His skin was hot to the touch. Sweat covered almost every inch of his body. I didn’t want to think about what that meant. Eventually his energy ran out and he stopped fighting me. It was almost as if none of it had happened. When it became clear there wouldn’t be anymore outbursts that night I gathered up the blankets from the floor and put them back on the bed. Then I grabbed the pitcher and cloth. I wet the cloth and patted his forehead with it. He seemed to lean into it so I continued.

The rest of the night was relatively quiet.

 

In the morning the servant came in with a fresh pitcher of water and a bowl of some kind of thin gruel. If he cared that I was still in bed with Theon he didn’t let it show on his face. He went over and tended the fireplace for a moment before taking the old pitcher and cloth and leaving the room. There was light coming in through the window. Perhaps the storm had passed.

I’d only managed to catch a few minutes of sleep in between wondering if any movement from Theon would herald a repeat of that nights events. Thankfully it never came to that point. I was still worried about him. It looked like he was still in the throes of the fever that had plagued him last night. His skin had turned an awful shade of grey and there were pronounced dark patches underneath his eyes. He barely stirred when I tried to wake him. It took coaxing but I was able to get him to open his mouth and swallow a few spoonfuls of gruel and a bit of water. I had to hope that if he was still able to eat and drink he would survive.

I ate a few bites of gruel myself. I didn’t relish the idea of going down to the Great Hall to get food myself and I was sure that the servants had only be instructed to take care of Theon. That same care would not have been applied to me.

The morning passed slowly. I was not used to inaction, to fighting enemies that had no shape or form. Mother had always been the nursemaid. Father had always been completely useless when we were sick, hovering ineffectually in the background providing no comfort. Talisa had been almost businesslike in her care for the wounded, but that made sense as there were so many and there was so little she could actually do. I wished I knew what to do. It seemed all I could do was sit by him and try to ease his pain.

Maester Quenton came bursting into the room in the late morning. He tried to appear nonchalant as he took in Theon’s form on the bed. He probably had had years of practice in minimizing crises to worried patients. Still the hurried way he touched Theon’s forehead and felt for his pulse gave him away.

“He woke up in the middle of the night screaming and burning with fever,” I said. “He threw all the blankets on the floor. I tried to cool him down with some water but I don’t know if it helped.”

The maester had brought his bag with him and he started to pull out vials and bandages and set them on the table. “Lady Yara wanted you to ride with her to her ship,” he said.

“I’m not leaving...” The idea of leaving him alone with the maester was unsettling.

“You won’t be any help here. I’ll stay with him until you get back,” he said. It took him stopping everything he was doing completely for me to follow his orders and go do as I was told.

 

Yara was waiting for me down in the courtyard. No one else was around. They must have gone off ahead of her. There were two horses equipped and ready to ride. She held their reins tightly. From down here I could see the East Tower off in the distance. I noticed that she was looking everywhere but at it. “Good, you’re here,” she said, handing me the reins for the closest horse. It looked at me doubtfully. I didn’t blame it. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a horse. The last time had been riding back to Winterfell from the Twins. My leg was better now but that didn’t mean that I still had the knack.

“I couldn’t refuse your summons, could I?” I mounted the horse with some trepidation. Everything felt wrong at first and I was sure I was going to fall. The only thing that kept me on my seat was the thought that Yara seeing me prove inadequate at something yet again would destroy me. She mounted her horse with ease and started to head for the gates. “Why didn’t you go to see him before you left?”

Her face hardened. “I said all I had to say to him yesterday. We can talk again when I get back.” She gently nudged her horse to go faster. I kept pace with her. This wasn’t going to be something I would let her run away from.

“The maester is with him, he has a fever. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.” I said. “He might not be there when you get back.”

She stopped and glared at me. “I’ve done what I can for him. I said my goodbyes yesterday. He understands how it is.”

“But what if he’s not here when you get back? Or if you don’t make it back?” I’m not sure what prompted me to talk like that to her. It wasn’t likely that she’d suddenly soften up and go to him.

“Then you had better pray whoever takes the Seastone Throne after me is sympathetic to your situation.” She started to ride off again.

“Who is next in line? Your child?” I asked. In my wanderings around the castle I’d seen little sign of it. Judging from how irritated she’d been at it’s mere existence the last time I’d been here it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d gotten rid of it.

At that she stared to laugh, a harsh bark that had no bite to it. “My child? You know our family’s words don’t you? That should answer that.”

“You mean it’s not yours?”

“I don’t have time to bother with marrying and having a child of my own. Not sure I’d even want to. My advisors said there needed to be someone to carry on the Greyjoy name. And since Theon isn’t really in the right shape for it anymore, I went down to the whorehouses and found a likely baby.” She gave me a sick smile. “There’s probably enough Greyjoy blood running through the veins of the bastard children down there that it’s related to us anyway.”

We rode on a little bit further. “If I don’t come back you’ll both need to leave,” she said. “I can’t guarantee who would win a King’s Moot, but I’m sure none of them would be happy to keep you around.”

We continued on in silence. I tried to think about what she had said. It appeared she led a tenuous existence here. If one thing changed it would be easy for someone else to take control and destroy everything she’d built. The people who were loyal to her were only loyal to her, not to her family, not to her name. She was an exception to a rule, not the standard. I supposed I hadn’t really fully believed Theon when he’d tried to explain it to me. It was different than the way it was back at home. There castles passed on to the presumed heirs, it didn’t go up for a vote after the previous leader died. I wondered who would have won after Father died if we’d followed that practice. I didn’t think it would have been me. If that had been the case maybe all of this could have been avoided.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I asked as we got nearer to the town.

“A few weeks perhaps. There are only a few ships left. Last sighting of them was up the coast by your lands. Maybe I can stop by your castle and meet your family.” If there was a joke there I didn’t see it. She hadn’t looked back at the castle once. I hadn’t been able to keep myself from looking back. The East Tower was so far away. It scared me that I might go back and find the maester washing off Theon’s corpse. “When I get back and Theon is better we can talk about what to do next.”

“I’ll keep him safe,” I said. I had to, there was no other choice.

She kept her face firmly ahead but I could see her jaw clench. “I know you will.”

 

Once we got to the outskirts of town she stopped again. “You can head back. I don’t think my sailors will be very happy to see you talking with me more than necessary.” I turned to leave. “Thank you for coming with me,” she said. When she looked at me there was some unnamed emotion held back behind her eyes. I knew in her own way she was thanking me for taking care of Theon. The burden had been hers for so long she must have been relieved to find someone willing to share it.

“Good luck on your voyage,” I said. “I’ll see you soon.”

 

The ride back up to the castle was chaotic and rushed. I made the horse run as fast as I dared. A part of me thought I should have waited by the outskirts of town to make sure Yara’s ship left port safely, but I weighed the chances of something bad happening to her and something bad happening to Theon and thought it much more likely Theon would founder.

The horse was breathing heavily and was covered with flecks of foam by the time I reentered the castle gates. I barely stopped in time to avoid hitting the stableboy who was standing in the courtyard. He gave me a reproachful glance as I handed him the reins. At that point I really didn’t care about what was going on outside of the events in the small room up in the tower. I could make it up to the servant later.

Everywhere I went in the castle there was someone standing in the way or blocking the hallway. My sense of direction had never been very keen so it took me longer than it should have to find the guards watching the staircase that led up to the tower. Neither of them looked very formidable. One of them was the one-eyed guard who I’d met at the front gates the first time I’d met Yara. I wondered where his twin was. If someone had been determined to attack Theon, to attack us, it wouldn’t have deterred them. I contemplated sleeping with my sword next to the bed.

Each of the steps up to the room pulled on my leg. Riding all the way down to town and back hadn’t really helped it much. It was still stiff and didn’t move quite right. I was painfully aware of each step and how many were left until I reached the top.

The maester was sitting with his back to the door by the fireplace surrounded by medical supplies when I opened the door to the room. For a moment my mind flashed back to a kaleidoscope of other nights long ago sitting with Talisa by the fireside as she went through her bag of supplies and packed everything away tightly. It made me falter in the doorway. She was the last person I had loved like this, unreservedly and with no concern for what others thought. I had to do whatever I could to make sure the same thing didn’t happen this time. I’d already brought down an army and my family with my hubris, I didn’t want to make the same mistakes.

From this position I couldn’t really see Theon in the bed. There were a few bloodied bandages on the floor in a pile. There was no movement from the huddled mass covered in blankets.

Maester Quenton must have drifted off to sleep while waiting for me to return. He all but leapt to his feet when I walked into the room. “You’re back,” he said, like he was expecting me to have left with Yara.

“I am,” I said. “How is he?”

Maester Quenton must have been accustomed to giving bad news. I supposed serving the Greyjoys for as long as he presumably had he must have gotten used to it by now. There was little happy news on Pyke. “He’s got a fever. The wound on his stomach is the culprit, I think. The surgeon on the island didn’t treat it right.” He stepped over to the bed and pulled the blanket down with little care to how Theon might have felt. It didn’t really matter as Theon wasn’t conscious. Still a part of him must have been aware because his body seemed to pull away from the air, preferring to curl back in its protective slumber.

When he pulled the nightshirt up I had to look away. Theon wouldn’t want me looking at him like this. Maester Quenton didn’t seem to care. Waiting for me to give in and look seemed to give him an almost perverse pleasure. He pointed to the growing red radiating out from underneath the bandages. I tried to keep my eyes focused on that, and not on the part down lower. My eyes didn’t obey, they were drawn to the scars and hurt that lingered there. I had to bite down hard on my lip to keep myself from crying out. “Here, you can see how it’s getting worse,” he said, his finger trailing along the boundaries of red flesh and white.

“Yes, I can,” I said. I roughly took Theon’s nightshirt from away from the maester and pulled it down so he was covered again. Had he been awake Theon would never have let either of us do this. I didn’t want to betray him like that. Anger burned deep in me. It was all that kept me from breaking down in front of Maester Quenton. It was all that let me ask the question I knew neither of us wanted the answer to. “Is he going to die?” It only occurred to me that maybe I should have phrased it the other way around, was he going to live?

Maester Quenton’s face didn’t betray anything. “I’ll tell you what I told Lady Yara. He’s obviously survived much worse. He’s capable of surviving this too.” He bent over with some difficulty and picked up his supplies and the dirty bandages. “I’ll be back in the afternoon to check on him.” Then he made his way out of the room. I followed him and closed the door before taking up his seat by the fire.

My hands went to my thighs and grabbed hold so tightly I thought my fingernails would tear holes in my pants. It was impossible to escape the thought that this was all my fault somehow. All of the gods had gotten together to try and correct that mistake they’d made all those nights ago when the knife to cut off my head had stopped before the deed was done. Except they kept missing, hitting other people who had nothing to do with my folly. The only thing that got me to stop was feeling the scab on my arm burst, bringing a warm flow of blood out onto my sleeve.

 

When the servant came in later he nearly dropped what he was carrying when he saw me sitting there. He put the tray on the table and left without turning his back to me once. I could smell something earthy and rich coming from the bowl on the tray. It took me a while to force myself to get up and investigate.

The bowl held a stew full of chunks of fish and bits of seaweed. I ventured a taste myself and found it relatively palatable, though it didn’t have any flavor other than that of salt. Theon was still unconscious. I debated whether or not to try and wake him. The decision came to a head when his eyes briefly flickered open and he stared around the room in confusion. I took the bowl and sat next to him in the bed. He wasn’t awake enough to protest as I tried to coax him to eat something, anything. He ate a few spoonfuls of broth and a bit of fish before slipping back into the darkness.

I wound up polishing off the rest of the plate. I threw it up a few moments later. Everything churned inside of me, making nothing feel quite right. The thought that this would be my existence for who knows how long loomed heavy in front of me. And there were no guarantees Theon would come back from this the same as when he’d left.

 

When Maester Quenton came back in the afternoon I took the opportunity to leave while he did the dressing change. He appeared to expect this. My feet took me to the one place here that I’d been able to find an escape from the sense that everything was wrong and it was all going to collapse in on us, taking everyone I knew and loved with it.

There were beaches near the castle. I’d seen them the few times that I’d ridden here. Waves splashed up against the craggy shore. If I closed my eyes I could pretend I was back on the lighthouse sitting down by the water with Theon. My worst moments had been on beaches like this, trying to drag him back into a life he didn’t want to live. My best moments had been there too. Such as the day I was finally able to get him to smile the way he used to. I’d found a spiky seashell with a pattern I’d never seen before. For once he actually accepted my gift with some interest instead of staring at me like he had no idea what I was doing. He held it in his hands with a reverence that gave it more significance than it probably deserved. The shell took up an almost hallowed space on top of one of the cabinets in the cabin. I had a vague idea I’d try to find him another one.

While I was walking along the beach I realized that there was someone already there. A man was standing in the water up to his chest near the shore. He let the waves wash over him without opening his eyes or faltering. I realized he must have been one of the priests of the Drowned God and gave him space. I had no idea what form their worship took but I didn’t want to get closer and find out they needed a human sacrifice. If he noticed me watching from the shore he gave no sign.

There was plenty of flotsam and jetsam strewn upon the beaches, but there was little in the way of seashells or items worthy of notice. I gave up the search as soon as it became clear I wasn’t going to find anything. It hadn’t all been for nothing. I’d been a
able to escape the oppressive feeling of hopelessness that being in the castle had given me. At least out here I could pretend that Theon was waiting in the cabin for me to bring back something we could eat for supper.

The priest was still in the water when I walked back. This time I thought I caught him looking at me. His robe was battered and worn and he was covered with seaweed. It had draped itself over his body and almost looked like tentacles in the water. There was something almost unearthly about him. I could feel his eyes watching me as I walked back up to the castle.

 

The next night the same thing happened again. I’d taken up my familiar position in the bed by the window without much hope of getting any sleep. At that point I wasn’t sure I wanted to. My mind was whirling with possibilities and plans. It didn’t feel like I could leave things up to chance. Every day had to be planned out carefully or else it would all fall apart.

When Theon started screaming I was ready. I jumped to my feet and ran across the room to him. This time there were words among the screams, garbled ones, but words all the same.

“I’m sorry!” he yelled, alternately grabbing hold of me and pushing me away. “I’m so sorry!” His eyes were so far away, maybe back in the dark where Ramsay had kept him so long ago. “Please stop! I’ll do anything!”

I tried to hold him still, ignoring his cries and rubbing circles on his back until it felt like the worst of it had passed. I leaned against the wall behind me and let him rest his head in my lap. He’d wrapped his arms around my bad leg loosely. I ran my hand over his forehead. It was still hot to the touch. He barely reacted as I wiped the worst of the sweat off of him. “I’m sorry,” he muttered one last time. I didn’t respond. There was nothing to say-I didn’t know what he was apologizing for or who he was apologizing to.

My hand went to his hair and gently ran through it, not caring that it was dirty. It reminded me of that night at the inn when he did the same for me. I hoped it would help keep him calm. It was the least I could do to keep him safe. I had no way to protect him from the war raging inside. All I could do was sit and wait.

 

I spent every day with Theon. His condition fluctuated between feverish rambling and unrestful sleep. I was not the best nursemaid, though I tried to do whatever I could to keep him comfortable. Cold compresses seemed to help for a time, but even with them he burned with fever. Half the time he had no idea who I was and seemed hellbent on fighting against anything I tried to do for him. It was hard to watch him like this. I didn’t have the right temperament for any of it. It was a struggle not to take all of it personally. My only respite came when Maester Quenton would come to change Theon’s dressings. Then I’d have a chance to go and escape for a while before jumping back into it again.

As I walked through the castle I heard muttered insults about Theon from everyone around me. From time to time I’d hear them whispering about me, but the insults they made up for me were never as biting as the ones they reserved for him. If it had been like this the entire time Theon had come back I couldn’t blame him for trying to throw himself off one of the bridges.

If the castellan ever heard any of it he swiftly took care of the offender with a few nights in the cells. But he couldn’t be everywhere and if there was one thing the Iron Born were good at it was being pleasant to someone’s face while stabbing them in the back.

 

As there was no relief to be found in the castle I found myself drawn back to the sea shore. The sea and the shore reminded me of the lighthouse. There was nothing more that I wanted to do but go back there with Theon and slip back into the way things used to be. It wasn’t the life I’d imagined I’d have when I was growing up, but at least there we’d been relatively safe up until now and it wasn’t a constant struggle for survival.

When I went down to the water sometimes there were priests there. Sometimes there weren’t. We had a tenuous unspoken agreement between ourselves. No one ever bothered me when I went out on the rocks.

I would take my boots off and roll my pant legs up before wading into the water. It was never any temperature other than freezing. The cold would swim up through my toes and settle in my bones. I could feel it spread out through my body before it painted itself over my old scars. In some ways it was like early winter mornings back at Winterfell. Those first few steps out of a warm bed onto the cold stone floor of my room had always been a struggle.

It was a way to let myself remember I was still alive.

Sometimes there would be storms and the seat would be choppy. I’d be pelted with rain and seaweed from the water. I never let that discourage me. The alternative to this was staying in a room that was increasingly smelling like death.

 

The other choice I had which I didn’t take as often was going to the village. The first time I’d done it I’d managed to beg for a ride with one of the fishmongers who had an agreement with the palace for first pick of the day’s catch. The fishmonger glared at me suspiciously before gesturing to the empty wagon. I settled into the back and tried to keep the contents of my stomach where they were on the rocky ride down to the town. He drove on like he was carrying fish back and forth, not a person who might have had preferences about how fast he was going. I managed to keep from throwing up by keeping my gaze firmly centered on the East Tower until it went out of view.

This far away from the castle I was struck with how foreboding and menacing it looked against the blue sky. Then again I really couldn’t say that any castle looked welcoming for someone who wasn’t wanted there. The Twins certainly hadn’t been. I tried to think of fond memories of coming back to Winterfell. There would always be a stablehand to take the horse and then a servant to take you to the Great Hall where someone would always be waiting to make you feel welcome. Pyke was nothing like that. It had no reason to be.

I hadn’t really had an opportunity to look around town much when I’d first come here before. The small glimpses I’d had of the inhabitants and their habits hadn’t been very friendly. They weren’t any friendlier as I came back down with the fishmonger. Once he’d pulled up to his stall he grew irritated that I hadn’t hopped out once we’d reached the town limits. I pushed myself off of the back of the wagon and tried to get my bearings.

A few cargo ships had just docked and the port was alive with hundreds of people working to unload and load them. They formed human chains to pass bags of flour and bolts of cloth to and from the creaking hulls. I watched this for a while, in awe of their organizational skills. I was also watching to see which storehouses they didn’t use, hoping that would give me a clue as to where the villagers were. As I narrowed my choices to ones that were further away from the center of port I started to make my way through the crowd.

The Iron Born weren’t very happy to have a Northerner in their midst. I had to duck a few elbows and spat curses. I still had no idea what marked me as someone different than them that they could tell just by looking at me. I wasn’t wearing my armor and I’d left my sword up at the castle. My clothing wasn’t very nice anymore, it was just as ratty and salt soaked as theirs.

Finally I came to a storehouse that had a few guards standing out in front of it. They didn’t appear to be paying all that much attention to any passers-by. When I went to open the door they didn’t stop me. What I found when I went inside was much like what I’d found in the bowels of Yara’s ship.

They’d set up crude pallets for each of the villagers to lie on and divided them off with pieces of sail. What I assumed was a mixture of ship’s surgeons and townsfolk who were willing to help wandered in between these tending to the injured’s needs. Carefully monitored lanterns were at a few key spots in the cavernous building. It was still too dark. The only audible sounds were moans and screams from the dead and dying. The smell of decay and dirt filled the whole storehouse, overpowering everything else. As I stepped further into the storehouse I passed a small pile of dead bodies. A quick glance gave me the momentary relief that none of them were anyone I knew.

The further I pressed in the more I realized that most of the villagers wouldn’t be making the journey back to the island. Some of them were missing limbs or had serious wounds that would take more time to heal than they probably had here. Yara had taken them here to make them comfortable.

I didn’t see the woman from the beach anywhere. Still it was hard to tell who anyone was in the dim light and with pieces of sail blowing this way and that. One of the men lying on a pallet reached out for me, his hand reaching out past the sail. When I looked at him most of his face was covered with a bandage. His other arm had been cut off at the elbow. The pieces of his face that I could see didn’t look familiar to me. “Robb...” he said. It was only after I heard his voice that I recognized him as the blacksmith.

I hadn’t realized how wonderful it was to hear someone say my name. I knelt down next to the man. He seemed to be happy to have the attention and caressed my hand like it was someone’s who actually meant something to him. “I’m here,” I said.

“We got those pirates good, didn’t we?” he said hopefully.

“Yes, yes we did.” I squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Yara’s going to get the rest of them now. They won’t bother us again.”

“Good. It felt good to pick up an axe again. Thought I’d given that all up. But I guess the Drowned God didn’t want me to die without taking our enemies with me.” He closed the one eye that I could see in what I assumed was happiness. “I can’t wait until I get to see him under the waves. I’m sure they’ve got such a feast prepared for us.”

At that I let go of his hand. I was sure he was probably right, he was going to die. But the matter of fact way that he accepted it was foreign to me. No matter how benevolent and loving the Seven appeared I never had the illusion that they would rejoice to see me after I died. And Father’s beliefs were even less sure. I’m sure the Old Ones would want to see me after I died but they wouldn’t want me to hasten my travel there.

The man was beyond caring that I’d let go of his hand. He had slumped back to where he was lying and wasn’t responsive anymore. I pulled the blanket up around him and walked through the rest of the storehouse. The woman from the beach wasn’t here. Or if she had been she wasn’t there anymore. I was struck with a twinge of regret. She’d been my companion at arms for a few days and I had failed her. I should have protected her no matter what. I would have liked to have seen her again, even if it was only her body so I could pay respects.

When I went outside it was later than I thought. Most of the crowd around the cargo ships was gone back to their own storehouses. The pubs around the outside of the port were full of drunken sailors. They spilled out onto the streets yelling at anyone who walked past. I’d hoped to get a ride back up to the castle with someone taking supplies there but it seemed like they had all already left.

I walked to the edge of town and looked at the long path up to the castle. A part of me would have liked to just stay at one of the inns in town and find a ride up to the castle later. But I couldn’t do that to Theon. No matter how disoriented he was I knew that he would notice if I wasn’t back by nightfall. I guessed if I headed out now I would be able to reach the castle gates before they closed for the night. My leg twitched in anticipation of the long climb.

As soon as I started to walk the road I started to regret it. The most walking I’d done recently was from the lighthouse to the village and while that was treacherous sometimes it didn’t have the added bonus of random changes in elevation to complicate things. The road was uneven and rocky. I was never certain that if I put my foot down it would land on solid ground. It was far more likely it would land on a pebble that would slip down to the rocks and water below. Still I forced myself to go forward, ever forward.

I got there just in time to watch Theon’s fever get worse again.

 

I didn’t have much time to think about how bad my legs felt after I got back to the room and found Maester Quenton trying to calm Theon down through one of his fits. Theon was fighting against him with all he had, which wasn’t much. His nightshirt was soaked with sweat and his eyes stared out without truly seeing.

I ran over to the bed. “Theon, calm down. You’re okay,” I said, for what felt like the hundredth time.

“I’m burning alive!” he screamed, pushing against me. “I’m sorry!’ I grabbed hold of his arms while Maester Quenton took his legs and tried to get him settled back in bed. “I’m sorry, I should have never left you,” he sobbed, closing his eyes.

I kept my grip firm and stopped listening. Over the past few days I’d lost count of how many times he’d apologized to me for leaving all those years ago. There was still a small part of me that rejoiced to hear that he realized how much of a mistake he’d made. But even that part would never have wanted him to suffer for it like this.

Eventually Theon weakened and stopped struggling against me. Maester Quenton slowly stepped back. I made a cold compress and put it on Theon’s forehead. “Is he getting any better?” I asked.

The maester appeared to consider the answer to this for longer than I thought was necessary. “It’s too early to tell,” he said. “A lot of it is up to him.”

Theon was still weakly trying to fight against me, but his arms had no strength and soon fell to the bed. The maester took this as his cue to leave, abandoning me to deal with whatever came next. I looked longingly at the bed underneath the window before I crawled into bed next to Theon. He slowly pressed up against me, his arms holding me close. It was stifling but I felt I had to endure it. At least he seemed to be calm.

 

Morning came. Real actual sunlight came in through the window. It bathed the bed I should have been sleeping in with light. The fire had gone out during the night. There were only faint embers in the fireplace. It didn’t matter, there was enough warmth in the room for both of us.

Theon didn’t feel as hot as he had before. At my touch his eyes slid half-open. It was hard to tell if they were twisted with fever. He slowly disentangled himself from me and rolled onto his back with difficulty. He closed his eyes. I shifted and he grimaced in pain. “Sorry,” I said. He didn’t respond. I’m sure he didn’t have the energy.

I sat up as slowly as I could to avoid jostling the bed more than I had to. The servant came in a few minutes later and set a bowl of gruel and a new pitcher of water on the table. He had a broom with him and he made a little show of sweeping ash out from in front of the fire.

I watched him with little interest. If he was hoping to catch me and Theon talking about anything he would be disappointed. At this point there was nothing to talk about. Once the servant was done with his busywork he gave a short bow to the bed and left.

I’d been sitting on the edge of the bed and realized I would have to move at some point. “Do you want to eat anything?” I asked. The gruel was no different today. It was a thick paste that stuck to the ribs and gummed up teeth. I liked to give him the illusion of choice and let him think he could refuse to eat if he really wanted to.

Theon didn’t react in a noticeable way. I took the bowl and held it in my lap. It was warm, but the heat was leaving it quickly. It was a long journey from the kitchens to the tower. I took an exploratory bite. It wasn’t bad, though the texture ruined any redeeming qualities it might have had. I swallowed heavily and held the bowl out to him.

He eased himself into a sitting position with great difficulty. His hands shook with the stress of suppressing pain. His nightshirt hung awkwardly about his chest. When he saw me looking at it he clutched it close around his neck.

I took another spoonful. The texture was slowly making me want to vomit. Still I forced a smile on my face before I held the bowl out to him. Theon took the bowl with trepidation. He ate a few scant spoonfuls and then put the bowl down between us.

I opened my mouth to start to argue with him but I didn’t feel like there was much point. “Maybe they’ll have soup for dinner. I don’t think they can make that as bad as this, do you?” He smiled politely but didn’t say anything. I picked up the bowl and set it on the table next to the bed. “How are you feeling?” I asked him.

“Tired,” was all he said. He rolled over on his side facing away from me and pulled the blanket up around himself so he was almost completely covered.

 

I’d dared to hope that this change in his health might lead to a return to the way things had been before. Instead he pulled away. Theon stopped talking to me. Any question I asked him was answered with a grunt or silence. He pulled away when I was close to him. He turned away from my gaze. When I was in the room he would flop over onto his side facing away from me. He pulled the blankets up around himself until he was completely covered. If I accidentally touched him he’d recoil as if he’d been burned.

I don’t know if he was conscious of it. I wasn’t sure if he was conscious of any of what had happened the last few days. For all I knew in his mind he was still lying in that ditch waiting for someone to find him. The knowledge that I had seen everything that he’d been hiding for years must have been a lot to take in all at once on top of being injured. Why else would he pull the blankets up around his neck and face the wall whenever I was in the room?

Now it felt like he purposely stayed up at night so he wouldn’t fall asleep and have nightmares. I spent every night on the bed next to the window. The weather was getting cooler so often I wound up waking up freezing. Water spilled in through the window and onto my face during the night. Eventually I wound up sitting up in the corner covered by a blanket trying to stay as warm as I could.

I could have dealt with living here if he’d continued to act like I existed. If he didn’t feel like talking that was fine, I could live with silence. If he didn’t want me to touch him, that was fine, I could live with loneliness. But he seemed to be trying to give me unspoken permission to forget about him. I didn’t want to think about how he would react if I told him I couldn’t take any more of this and wanted to leave. I almost imagined I would see him slowly uncurl from around himself, revealing the person within that I hadn’t seen in months. But the other alternative was worse, what if he told me to go? Then there would truly be no place to call my own.

I found myself completely alone with no one really to talk to. The servants avoided me because I was associated with Theon. The captains and sailors that congregated around the castle ignored me because I was of no consequence to them. If they knew what part I had played in fighting the pirates it obviously wasn’t important enough for them to take any action. The only place I got any kind of human contact was down in the town with the injured villagers. They knew what I had done and I knew that I couldn’t have done it without them. I would find a way to get a ride down to the town with one of the supply carts and leave and hopefully come back while Theon was having his dressings changed. There was one stablehand who eventually took pity on me the third time he had to let me in after I’d walked back to the castle from the village. As long as I slipped him a few of the coins Yara had left us before we left he’d find a horse capable of making the trek. A few times I wound up walking the horse back to the castle after it tired on the way home, but at least there was the option.

It was heart-breaking to watch the number of villagers who survived dwindle. Some of them got well enough to move around and walk out into the sunlight. But there was no talk of taking them back to the island. Talk in the pubs was that while Yara had sent supplies to rebuild everything was still far too damaged to even think about moving back there yet. I wondered if the cabin and our lighthouse were still standing. The pirates hadn’t seemed very interested in either of them.

 

Every day became an exercise in endurance. Whenever the maester came in the room Theon would look at me like he wanted me to leave. He didn’t say anything, which would have lessened the blow. It had been days since I’d heard him speak. I could have held out a lot longer if I at least knew that I had an ally. Now there was nothing.

I found myself returning to my old habit of writing to Sansa. There was little to do in the hours when Maester Quenton would tend to Theon and this was a way to escape all of what was happening to me at least for a little while. There weren’t that many ravens on Pyke, let alone ravens who could make the long journey. I had to write letters and hope that they made it to their destination.

It took days to get a response. And when the first one came it made me feel even worse about my situation than I had before. While everything had changed for me in a negative way, everything for Sansa had changed for the better. One of the lords of the Riverlands had come to visit Winterfell and she’d fallen in love with him. They were going to get married and move to his keep. It was far away from everything and everyone who would want to hurt her. She sounded more optimistic about it than I thought she had in quite some time.

The rest of her letter was about me. She wanted me to come back to Winterfell, with or without Theon. She said we’d always be welcome there, that Bran and Rickon had even suggested it themselves. And if I didn’t want to do that she would be honored if I would visit or even live with her and her new husband at their new keep. It was heart-warming that she still remembered me and wanted to have me around.

I even got a few letters from Rickon and Bran. They talked about what they’d been able to restore at the castle. Somehow part of Father’s remains had finally turned up. The Silent Sisters had arrived after all these years with what had remained. He was finally laid to rest where he belonged. They’d both taken up most of Sansa’s suggestions for rebuilding. Rickon included sketches of the improvements they’d made. Most of what had been destroyed in the fire had been rebuilt. They were also expanding, adding walls and towers around the village. It was impressive. Bran was taking over for his namesake. It only further impressed upon me that the place I’d once called home no longer existed.

 

A few days later I was walking back from the beach barefoot, my boots trailing from my hand. I’d stayed in the water so long I’d stopped feeling the cold, or much of anything. My feet slipped on the uneven rocks beneath them. A fine mist was in the air that soaked everything. My clothing clung to me in a soggy mess. I should have been more careful. I didn’t have an extra set of clothes to change into. There was a piece of seaweed stuck to my shoulder. It dragged down my arm and brushed against my hand.

When I got to the courtyard there was a cart holding sailors who must have just come in to port. They were carrying what I assumed were the fruits of their labors, bits and pieces of treasures taken from far away lands. They must have been required to give part of it to Yara. Even though the Iron Islands had been forced to give up reaving as a lifestyle they must have been able to search out distant lands far outside the reach of the Iron Throne to subdue and plunder. There was another cart behind the first piled high with gold and silver, along with exotic fruits and cages holding live animals I’d never seen before.

The castellan was busy directing an army of servants in unloading the cart while the captain and the first mate watched suspiciously. A few other crew members milled around joking with soldiers from the castle.

I watched for a moment, waiting for an opportunity to sneak past them. There was no point in attracting any attention now. The less people noticed me the better. However one of the crew members noticed me and stared a while before nudging his friend. They started to walk toward me.

Inwardly I braced myself for whatever they had in mind. Strangers, in my experience, never had anything good to offer and often only had bad. It was hard to look intimidating while my clothes were soaked. I wished I hadn’t left my sword up in the room. At this point I would have even been okay with the knife Yara had left for Theon.

“I didn’t know there were any new priests,” the man who’d noticed me first said, stepping closer. He hadn’t had any time to wash off the remnants of his travels at sea. His shaggy hair and unkempt beard framed a face that appeared to be actively looking for ways to cause mischief. His friend followed, almost mirroring his movements. No one was paying any attention to us.

“There aren’t,” I said, finding a way to duck past him and head for the East Tower. He yelled something after me but at that point all I could hear was the rushing of blood in my ears. All it would have taken was something being thrown at me and I would have been back in the courtyard at the Twins fighting back as I was sewed back into a wolf skin.

 

Maester Quenton stopped me coming back into the room when he came by to check Theon’s dressings the next day. Normally we did not speak to each other unless something had changed with Theon’s condition. There was no need to. I’d gone back to the beach, hoping that it would settle my mind. It hadn’t worked. Now all I wanted to do was sleep.

I looked down at the hand he’d placed on my arm. “There’s a feast in the Great Hall today. One of the raiding parties brought back a big haul from the other side of the sea.” The expression on his face was kind, so possibly he really didn’t have any ulterior motives. “As a guest of House Greyjoy it would be expected that you attend.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. Eating by large groups of people always put me on edge. Ever since the war it seemed that common courtesy wasn’t a guarantee. There was no need to expose myself to another situation I wasn’t prepared for. “Theon...” But Theon had covered himself with a blanket and didn’t appear to be paying any attention.

“I’ll watch Theon,” Maester Quenton said, gently guiding me to the doorway. “Go and enjoy yourself.”

 

I still remembered the feast from when Sansa and I had first arrived here. No one had really taken any notice of us. While the other diners had been rowdy they hadn’t let that escalate into anything against us. The part of me that still believed in the good in people wanted to think that this feast would be the same. Maybe I’d have to share a few war stories, but that would be it. If things got too uncomfortable I could leave. And it would be nice to not have to eat only liquids for once.

I took a seat at one of the lower tables with some of the older men. I hoped that they would be less likely to get caught up in whatever contests or pranks the younger sailors would get up to. None of them took any notice of me other than making space for me on the bench. I ate hunched over, my arms around my plate, hoping that I wouldn’t attract any notice.

The man from the courtyard the day before slid onto the bench across from me. Some of what I assumed were his friends followed. He kept to himself and ate what he had on his plate with the normal amount of vigor. They ate with their elbows spread wide on the table, almost pinning me in place. I finished what I was eating but found I couldn’t get up without bumping into one of them.

The man across from me looked up at me as if it was the first time he’d ever seen me. “It’s my friend the priest who isn’t a priest,” he said loudly, pretending to be surprised. “I asked around, they said you’re a guest from the North. Is that true?”

It took all I had to resist shrinking down in the bench in the hopes that no one would notice me. Everyone was staring at me. Right then it felt like their friendly demeanor could change in a moment. “Yes,” I said after a long silence. I put my hands underneath the table. I wished I’d brought along the knife Yara had given Theon. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t know who you are.” In the scheme of things knowing who he was really didn’t matter. At least if I knew his name I might have some sense of how important he actually was.

This seemed to delight and surprise him. I’m sure most of it was an act. “Lady Greyjoy didn’t mention me? Names Ivar. Third mate on the Morbid Cry.” He spat on the floor. “We used to be the best reaving ship in the fleet until she told us to stop. Now we have to make do with plundering lands across the sea.”

I nodded politely and tried to get up. The men sitting around me had made an almost living barrier that I couldn’t escape. I struggled for a moment before realizing I’d have to sit here and listen for a while longer.

“Anyway, I heard about you. They said you fought like a madman against those pirates.” Ivar kept cutting the fish on his plate with his knife. I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to respond. “Where did you learn to fight like that?” he asked.

“A knight at the castle where I grew up taught me,” I said.

Ivar speared a particularly large piece and shoved it into his mouth. He pointed the knife at me. “They say you know Theon from before all of this.” When I didn’t respond he continued, a small smile curling his lips. “So a few of us were thinking about who he would know from that long ago that would still be alive. And who would actually want to come all the way here to see him again.”

Instinct was telling me to get up and leave. No good could come from this conversation. No good but a lot of bad. Instead my legs felt like they were rooted to the floor. Even if I could have moved their bodies made a prison around me.

“You’re one of the Starks, aren’t you?” He continued smiling at me. “You’re too old to be Bran or Rickon. And Jon Snow would be too busy to spend any time here on the Iron Islands.”

I kept my hands underneath the table. Unconsciously I held onto my thighs. I hoped my face was as expressionless as a stone. I had no doubt he would pick up on any change and use them against me.

“They said that the one they all thought dead was really alive. Found him in one of Walder Frey’s dungeons. By the time he got back home they’d taken away his title and his land. Now what was his name?” Ivar asked, tapping his chin thoughtfully. If he wanted me to provide it for him he would be disappointed.

“Robb, wasn’t it?” one of his friends said. “One of my friends who went raiding with Yara saw the last bit of his rebellion. They were calling him the King in the North.” At the words my throat felt like it swelled shut. The cloth around my neck was impossibly tight. Sweat ran down my face.

“That’s you, isn’t it? Robb Stark. King in the North.” My mind was struggling not to give any sign that what he had said was true. My body wasn’t strong enough to resist. I nodded before I could stop myself. Ivar gave me a toothy grin. “Makes sense that he’d be here with Theon. Failures have to stick together, don’t they?”

I glared at him, the only thing keeping me from jumping up and attacking him was the knowledge that he’d probably win. I had no doubt his friends would jump in to help him. The older men at the table had slipped away while he was talking to me, leaving me alone with them.

Ivar took a big swig of his drink. “I didn’t realize we were in the presence of royalty, did you?” he asked his friends. They all laughed obediently. He leaned closer. “Where’s your crown? A king has to have a crown.”

My mind filled with visions of the crown I’d had so long ago. Grey Wind’s face superimposed itself over it, threatening to swallow me whole. Speech was beyond me. My mouth went dry. I don’t even know what I would have said. It took all I had to push free from their bodies and get to my feet. I could hear their mocking laughter behind me.

 

Maester Quenton was gone and Theon was asleep by the time I got back to the room. I had to wonder if the maester had had some idea of what was going to happen. It only reinforced the idea that there was no one here I could count on for support if I fought back. There was always the chance they could turn on me. I would have to be more vigilant from now on. Right then all I wanted was told hold on to something that I knew. But when I touched Theon’s shoulder he pulled away. Even in sleep he couldn’t let things be the way they had been before.

I went back to my bed underneath the window and tried to calm down enough to get some sleep. Sleep was always elusive, so any chance I had to get more of it was welcome. I only hoped it would be a restful sleep. Of course it wasn’t.

 

Grey Wind, it appeared, had not forgotten about me. He loomed above me, sitting on a pile of broken Greyjoy ships. He was massive, he was almost as large as a castle itself. For a moment I thought he had Father’s eyes. When he spoke, he had Father’s voice. It boomed and echoed, a pronouncement on high. “I told you they weren’t your people. They were never going to accept you.” He shifted, sending pieces of Greyjoy ships tumbling to the earth. I had to jump out of the way.

In my dreams I found the spirit to fight that I didn’t have when awake. “They don’t matter. Once Theon gets better we can go back to the village. It’ll be back to the way it used to be,” I protested. My voice wavered and all the strength was fighting to leave my body. Still I forced myself to stay standing. I knew if I wavered at all I would fall and he would devour me. “I love him.”

Grey Wind smiled indulgently, as if I was a child. His mouth opened wide, baring what looked like thousands of sharp teeth. “He’s not going to come back to you. Once he gets better he’s going to send you away. And there’s nowhere for you to go.”

Once the fear was spoken out loud it was almost as if it had become true. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew even if it was true there were a thousand places I could go. The only problem was I’d told myself all this before. And there were only so many times I could convince myself things would get better. Any fight I had left me and I sank to my knees. All I could hear was the sound of waves pounding against the shore. “What am I supposed to do?” I said. My voice was so quiet I barely even heard it.

“I’ll show you,” Grey Wind said. His voice was warm and kind. A massive paw reached out for me. With a delicacy I didn’t know it possessed it took hold of the bit of fabric around my neck and pulled.

Chapter Text

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.