Theon hated having to leave the wagon, but he and Alice had to make a quick, quiet exit. The wagon was loud and lumbering, and over the course of the trek out to the Bolton place, had developed a squeal in one of the axles that would’ve sounded like an eagle screaming in the night. He’d be expected to pay for the loss of the wagon out of his wages. That was fine. He was going to have to have a long talk with Ned Stark when they arrived home anyway - Ramsay and Roose were not like to overlook an assault on one of them, even if it was completely warranted. Ned would have questions, no doubt.
Truth be told he wasn’t the least bit surprised that Ramsay had tried to rape Alice. It didn’t make it any less appalling, but Ramsay had a reputation that stretched far and wide.
He glanced at Alice, methodically saddling up one of the huge draft horses they’d be riding back. He thought he was more upset by the act than she was. She’s not supposed to be this...calm. She’s supposed to be weeping and swooning and carrying on. Isn’t that what women do? Hell, she was the one who knocked him out, not me. He looked at her still, masklike face. “Why didn’t you scream?”
She paused in fastening the bridle. Her eyes were black pools in the darkness of the small, dingy Bolton barn. She gave him the kind of smile usually reserved for talking to someone who’s touched in the head. “I know better. If you scream it just makes it worse.”
Without another word she led her horse out of the barn, leaving Theon to stare mutely as a sudden realization washed over him.
That’s what she was running from.
He led his mount out of the barn, his brain trying to wrap itself around this sudden new fact. A bad marriage, maybe. Hell, it’s happened before, and what she did was smart. Run all the way to someplace where she’s surrounded by honorable men and mountains and wolves.
Alice was mounted by the time Theon got outside, waiting for him. “Are you sure you can ride?” he asked, keeping his voice low. Everyone on this homestead was passed out drunk or with a head wound, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“I’m fine,” Alice replied. “Really, Theon. He didn’t hurt me.”
The whole evening gnarled in Theon’s stomach, chewing and burning. What kind of husband had Alice had that she was so at ease about nearly being raped? What else had he done to her? Theon didn’t hold any illusions that he was a good man, or that he would be a good husband, but he’d never willingly harm Ellie. Not like that, at least. His own father had raised his hand to his mother plenty of times, but the Starks had drilled into him that that wasn’t right. It left a sour taste in his mouth, the whole thought.
They walked their mounts till they were well clear of the Bolton’s valley. Next to him Alice rode, quiet. She hadn’t braided her hair in their haste to leave, and it hung to the small of her back in a dark straight river, gleaming in the moonlight. Theon couldn’t stop staring at it. It was nothing like Ygritte’s hair - hers had been a fiery tangle that seemed to have a mind of its own. He’d tried to run his fingers through it on occasion, only to get his fingers stuck, much to Ygritte’s mirth. Alice’s would slip through his fingers, fine as Lyseni silk. He could tell just by looking, and suddenly he just wanted to touch it. To touch her. She was distant and cool as the Wolf Moon right now. It made him want to pull her close until she melted against him and laughed again. She would be soft, he decided. Soft and smooth. The glimpse of the well of her breasts hovered behind his eyes, and he wanted to bury his face there, to plant his lips over her heart and wrap his fingers in her long, dark hair. That, and the firmness of her waist as he’d lifted her from the wagon earlier that day, made his blood run suddenly hot.
Oh for the gods’ sake, Greyjoy. He gave himself a firm mental shake. Didn’t you learn your lesson? You just need to go get your rocks off in town when you get back. Have a whore work your poison out of you and leave Alice alone.
She was looking south, where black clouds blotted out the stars and purple-white lightning licked from cloud to cloud. “Is that coming our way?”
Theon shook his head. “Even ‘f it did it’s nothin’. Just heat lightning.” He squinted into the dark. “We won’t make it back to Winterfell tonight...we’ll have to sleep rough.”
“That’s fine,” Alice said softly. “Where do you want to stop?”
Theon thought. They were still far too close to the Boltons to stop, too close by half. “How far can you go on?”
“As far as we need to.” She looked at him, and he looked at her. In the space of a few heartbeats something passed between them, something intangible. Theon nodded, kicking his horse into a canter.
“Let’s put some distance between us and them, then.”
He felt safer once they’d left the rocky eastern lands and the road curved into a dense pine forest. The air felt quieter, and the breezes felt gentler, less probing. It smelled sweeter, too. The stench of the tannery had finally faded, replaced by the scent of pines, the faint, sharp bite of a clump of juniper bushes. It was a smell that made Theon crave a shot or two of gin, but that comfort was miles away.
They rode in silence for what felt like hours. When Theon next glanced at Alice he smiled a little. She was dozing in her saddle, swaying lightly, her lips slightly parted. Theon stopped his horse and dismounted, taking the reins of hers just under the beast’s bit.
“Easy there, boy.” The horse looked at him with large, liquid eyes. He was as tired as Theon. “We’re done for tonight.” He rested a hand on Alice’s knee, shaking it slightly. “Alice?” She started awake immediately, blinking owlishly. “We’re gonna stop for the night.”
“Here?” Alice slid off her horse, looking around warily.
“Here. There ain’t many hotels on the road in these parts. C’mon.” Theon took the reins of both horses and led them off the road a bit. “There’s a spot off the road a little.” She still looked dubious, but Theon couldn’t blame her. Other than the shelter of the enormous, old pines, there was little else to suggest that this was even a safe place. Theon knew it well, though. He and Robb had camped out in this area many a night growing up. He led Alice into the woods a quarter mile to where a great rock butte punched up from the ground. It loomed large and dark and to Theon, it was as comforting a sight as the lights of Winterfell. “We’re almost there.”
Ten feet up from the base of the butte, a large rock overhang was covered in moss, long tendrils of it nearly touching the ground. It was big enough for eight or nine men to lie comfortably, but it was too small to light a fire. He and Robb had tried it five or six years ago and had nearly set the entire forest aflame. Now, the moss was thick and heavy as he pushed it aside. “M’lady, our chamber for the evening.”
Alice raised her eyebrows, but her lips turned upward in a smile as she brushed past Theon, adopting a lofty tone and a certain sway to her hips. “I suppose this will suffice. Do be a good lad and tend to the horses.”
Theon smirked; he was finally feeling the exhaustion of this impossibly long day, and he was growing a little punch drunk. “Might I draw a hot bath for m’lady?”
Standing in the middle of their small shelter, Alice let out a small groan. “Don’t tease me, Theon. A hot bath sounds heavenly right now. A big copper tub with scented soaps from Lys…I can almost feel it.”
Theon could almost see it - the steam rising around her white shoulders, her head leaning back against the edge of a large gleaming tub that was in the center of some grandiose, fine hotel room. He blinked, and the image changed. Alice’s dark hair grew red and spiraled, the tub sank into the ground and became lined with rocks, and Ygritte’s smile mocked him from the steaming water. The little niche he’d brought Alice to suddenly felt small and cramped, and he swiped a hand in front of his eyes, wiping away the image of the lover he hated.
“Theon?” When he dropped his hand it was only Alice looking at him, her head tilted slightly. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’.” Theon shook his head, and grabbed the sleeping roll off the back of his horse. “Here, get some sleep. I’ll see to the horses.”
“Yes, boss.” Alice was quick to pull off her boots and within minutes she was curled up under the blanket, fast asleep. Theon watched her for a moment, shaking his head slightly. She’d shaken off Ramsay Bolton like he was nothing but an annoying fly, and he didn’t understand how.
Theon’s sleep was light, as it always was, so he was able to hear when Alice’s small cries started. He opened his eyes but didn’t move, just watching. She had brought her arms up in front of her face as if warding off something.
Or someone, Theon thought. The expression on her still-sleeping face was one of pain, fear, terror…
“No!” The word was loud in the small space, and Theon thought for a moment she would wake herself, but no. Alice was crying now, sobbing, pleading with some unknown enemy, and Theon finally reached out to grab her shoulders.
“Alice…” She was struggling in his grasp, stronger than she looked. Theon gripped harder, shaking lightly. “Alice, wake up. Alice!” Her eyes flew open finally, wide and terrified, and for a moment Theon knew she didn’t recognize him. She tried to push at him, to push him away, but he pulled her closer, holding her against his chest. “Alice, it’s me. It’s Theon. You’re alright. Wake up now.”
She blinked again, her eyes clearing, and in the next minute she had collapsed against his chest, sobbing openly. “Uh…” Unsure what to do, Theon let her cling to him, stroking her hair gently and murmuring quietly. Quiet words and a gentle touch usually worked when he had to calm a panicky horse, so why shouldn’t they work on a crying woman? “You’re alright now. I never should’ve brought you to the Bolton’s.”
Alice lifted her head then, her eyebrows knitting together as she gave a mighty sniffle. “The Boltons? Oh- no, that wasn’t it.” She shook her head, and a lock of hair fell over her shoulder. A leftover tear rolled down her cheek and hung from her jaw. “It was something else.”
Theon brushed his thumb along her jaw, wiping away that hanging tear, and the silver trails down her cheeks. Alice turned her cheek against the palm of his hand, her thin fingers wrapping around his wrist. It felt so natural for her to be so close, for him to be holding her like he was, and Theon wondered if he wasn’t getting himself into trouble. Am I, though?
Her eyes searched his face a moment longer, lingering on his lips while her own parted slightly, and she shook her head ruefully. “I’m sorry. You must think I’m crazy.”
“No.” Theon shook his head. “Arya is crazy. Sansa went crazy over a member of a circus troupe that came to town a few years back. You are not crazy.”
Alice eased away from him, her fingers trailing away from his wrist, and she tucked her long legs under her. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and gazed at the tendrils of moss, swaying gently in a night breeze. “How long till dawn?”
“Hours, most like.” Theon stretched out on his back and folded his arms behind his head. “Can you sleep, d’you think? I’ve got some whiskey in my saddlebags if it’ll help.”
“That’s not a good idea.” Alice stretched out on her side to face him. “I’m a loud drunk.”
“‘s that so?” Theon grinned. “I’d like to see that sometime.”
Despite her tiredness, despite the fact that her eyes were still red and wet, Alice laughed. “No, no you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t like me very much after.”
“Oh, I’d probably like you more,” Theon replied. “Go to sleep now, though. I’ll get you drunk some other time.”
The morning sun probed at Theon’s closed eyes, calling him to wakefulness. Ygritte was curled against his side, sleeping deeply. Her head was tucked beneath his chin, her arm slung across his stomach and a leg thrown over one of his. He shifted slightly, wrapping an arm around her and brushing his fingers through her smooth, silky hair-
Ygritte’s hair is always snarly when she wakes up. She’s damn near skewered you a dozen different times for pulling it. Ygritte’s gone, Greyjoy. You told her to go and for once in her godsdamned life she listened.
The ache that came with that thought wasn’t quite the punch to the gut it usually was, and for that Theon was thankful. He’d been throwing himself into whatever he did, working, drinking, whoring, to keep the image of her from his mind. It worked most of the time, but occasionally he’d see the sun catch Sansa or Catelyn’s hair in just a certain way, or he’d hear a bawdy, rough laugh in the saloons, and everything would come rushing back.
Not today, though. Today the only noise was birdsong, the quiet whisper of wind through the pines, the soft rush of Alice’s breath across his skin. For a long while Theon lay there, twining her black hair through his fingers, just listening to the morning. It was tranquil, this quiet. The solitude Theon was feeling was comfortable, with no one asking anything of him. Right now he could just...be.
There was a small stone cabin not far from Winterfell that Theon knew of. It had belonged to some Stark or another, years ago. Some younger brother who never married and instead took to solitude in the woods, and had died without issue. The only thing he’d left behind was this small stone cabin, a slightly larger stone barn, and maybe forty acres of land that had been left to fallow for decades. It was perfect - the cabin was sturdy and warm in the winter. The Stark who’d built it had been smart, stuffing the gap between the stone outside and in the interior walls with moss, wool, mud, horsehair and sawdust to keep out the winter cold. There was a large root cellar underneath the cabin, one that Theon, Robb, and Jon had explored at length when they were young. Before his engagement Theon had dreamed of buying the land from Ned Stark, working it with his own hands, under his own name, doing whatever he wanted with it. With each day that passed, though, that dream died a little more. He wondered if waking up there would be like waking up here - peaceful, quiet. If he ever did manage to buy the property, would he have this warm sense of...home?
One of the horses whickered and stamped a huge foot. Next to Theon, Alice jolted awake. She pushed a lock of hair out of her face, blinking blearily.. “‘s it morning so soon?”
“Nah.” Theon gave her a cocky grin, forcing thoughts of the little stone cabin to the back of his mind. “‘s just a very bright part of the night.”
Alice grinned and swatted at his chest. “Cheeky asshole.”
“Well, I never!” Theon pushed himself up on his elbows, mocking indignation. “Language, young lady!”
“Please,” Alice snorted. She rolled away from him and reached for her boots. Theon was pleased to see her shake them out before tugging them on. He’d mentioned the threat of spiders or the odd scorpion seeking shelter in boots once or twice, but seeing that it stuck made him happy. “Do I look like a proper lady to you?”
Theon took her in, the sleep lines on her face, her mussed, tangled hair, the clothes that could use a wash covering a body that could use one too…She looked beautiful. “Not in the least. A lady’d never find herself waking up next to a strange man. And she’d certainly never use such language.”
“You’re no strange man.” Alice stretched, giving a mighty yawn. “I’d much rather wake up by you than by Ramsay Bolton.”
“I should hope so.” Theon was up now, rolling up his bedroll and hers. “I’d rather wake up next to a pissed-off rattlesnake than Ramsay Bolton. C’mon, let’s head home. They’re not expectin’ us back at Winterfell, so we’re in no rush.”
“Good.” Alice was on her feet now too, tying her hair back. As Theon was saddling up his mount, she stepped close to him. “I...owe you. For yesterday. And last night.”
Theon straightened, their gazes catching and holding. Her eyes were so damn blue. Deeper and darker than anyone’s at Winterfell, that was for sure. “Wasn’t nothin’. I did what any other decent man’d do.”
“It was everything.” Alice placed a hand on his chest, her fingers curling slightly in the fabric. Theon realized with a jolt that she wanted him. That happened so rarely - he’d long since come to terms with having to pay for company when he went to the saloons, and he knew what kind of person he was, what kind of person he was seen as. He knew he was arrogant and cocky, sometimes downright mean, and most people gave him little more attention than an eyeroll. He even knew Ellie’s declarations of love were false; she didn't love him any more than he did her, but she was putting on such a show to convince herself and others that it was all legitimate.
The fact that Alice was looking at him the way she was was unnerving and upsetting. The prospect of a loveless, false face of a marriage was almost appealing right now. At least you know what you’re getting. You know how to guard yourself.
While his mind was racing his hand was acting on its own accord. Theon had covered her hand with his, realizing how fine the bones were under her skin. He wrapped his fingers around hers and, fighting back every urge he had, whether they be to run from Alice, or to pull her down on the ground and fuck her till she screamed, gave her a cocky grin. “Alright. You owe me, then.”
That night Theon approached Ned Stark in his study. It was a small, tidy room at the far back of the house, filled with ledgers and books and the history of both the Starks, and the North. The room was dominated by a large weirwood desk, the white wood polished to a high sheen, and the wall behind it displayed a large, detailed map of the North. Theon could see the small marker where the old stone cabin was, the borders of the land. It was a quiet, somber room that the rest of the Starks very rarely entered. In fact, the door was usually closed tight when Ned was out riding. Tonight, though, the door was open a crack and Theon could see Ned at the desk, going over some figures or another. He knocked perfunctorily, and at Ned’s call, entered.
“You ran into some trouble with the Boltons.” Ned shut the book in front of him and leaned back in his chair, his grey gaze steady.
“Yessir.” Theon sat in the chair across from him. “I’ll square up with the wagon. Keep my wages until it’s paid off. It’s what’s right.”
That answer seemed to please Ned. “Consider it done. Tell me why you had to leave it there.”
Theon recounted the tale of Ramsay’s attack on Alice, and by the time he was done Ned’s brow was furrowed. “You’re sure this is what happened?”
“I am.” Theon leaned forward. “I saw it with my own two eyes.”
“I know they have a bit of a reputation but I had hoped…” Ned shook his head. “I’ll do my best to smooth it over with Roose. If they decide to press charges against Alice, it doesn’t look good for her. The Boltons have been in these parts as long as the oldest families, and Alice...not many people would take the word of a...well, a shiftless, vagrant girl over that of a long-established family.”
“Will they take my word?” Theon asked, feeling suddenly prickly. “I’m the last son of a long-established family of thieves and highway robbers. Is my word better than that of a vagrant girl? He tried to rape her, Ned.”
“You’ve been living with us nearly longer than you were with your own blood. Your word would be taken the same as mine or my kin’s.” Ned folded his large hands on the smooth desktop, tan and rough against the red-veined white. “I’m sure Roose won’t want attention drawn to this incident. Wanderer or not, it was self-defense, her striking his boy. I’ll speak with him.”
The two men were silent with their thoughts for some time before Theon spoke again. “Once Robb’s healed...what’ll you do with her?”
“Alice?” Ned shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ll be leaving us soon, and if she knows the work, may as well keep her on. I know it’s unconventional, but she might be a good role model for Arya. Help rein her in a little. Why? What’s your concern with her?”
Theon shrugged. “I dunno. I just want to make sure she’s taken care of. She’s been through some things, I’d wager. More than a girl her age deserves to’ve gone through.”
Ned leaned forward. “What sort of things?”
“Dunno,” Theon replied. “I haven’t asked and she hasn’t said. But it’s just a gut feeling. Just promise me that after I’ve left here, she’ll be taken care of. If you send her away, give her some coin and a decent mount.” The image that came to mind, of Alice riding off to parts unknown with a purse full of coin and slumped shoulders, made Theon feel wretched. It was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling, and he fought off the urge to squirm.
Ned looked at him for a long time, and Theon wondered what thoughts were creaking to life in his mind. “I take it it would be a bad idea to suggest she go into town to find work there, at the general store, maybe. I imagine once you and Ellie start a family Ellie’ll want to be at home with your young ones.”
“No.” Theon replied immediately, his gorge rising at the thought of his children. “I mean yes. It’s a bad idea. She…” He had to pause and swallow and gather his thoughts. “She’s like me, I guess. Likes her space, and her freedom.” And she needs to be far from me. I’ve got no problem with fucking a whore, but she’s better than that. She deserves better than that.
“I’ll do what I can.” Ned pulled another ledger towards him and Theon knew to press the issue would be like poking a bear. “You have my word. Now, you had a long ride today. Best be off to bed.”
I’m twenty-three years old. I don’t need anyone tell me to go to bed, Theon groused to himself, but Ned was right. It didn’t seem real that just yesterday he’d been a day’s ride east, surrounded by the grim squalor that surrounded the Boltons. He rose to his feet, scrubbing a hand over his stubbly jaw. Once upstairs he fell across his bed, letting his boots drop to the floor and wincing at the thuds, praying they didn’t wake Rickon and Bran. Rolling over onto his back, Theon stared at the beam of moonlight spearing the ceiling. Whereas last night it had danced in Alice’s hair, tonight it was just white, blank.
It was bleak.