Chapter 12

Theon took a step back from Sansa, stunned. Glancing over at Alice, he saw she’d gone white as a sheet. Sansa gave a mighty sniffle, drawing his attention back to her. He scrubbed a hand across his jaw, trying to find words. Ellie’s dead. The words bounced around his skull, echoing interminably. “How?”

Sansa’s eyes welled up again. “She was crossing the street early this morning, goin’ to open up the store. A horse...broke loose from its wagon. It was dark, they think she didn’t see ran her down.” Her shoulders were trembling. “Doc Luwin just rode out to tell us.”

“Goddamn,” Theon breathed. It was all he could think to say. His mind was reeling. “The wedding…”

“Oh Theon, I know.” Sansa squeezed his arm, her eyes overflowing again. “Is there anything I can get you? Some water?”

He shook his head, glancing back at Alice. She was standing stock-still, her lips slightly parted. She’s lookin’ to pass out. “Nah, I’m fine. I’ll be right in. Just...uh... let me see to the horses. Then I”ll clean up and head in to see her folks.” He grabbed Smiler’s reins and jerked his head at Alice. “C’mon.”

In the barn Theon unsaddled Smiler methodically, trying to wrap his head around the last twenty-four hours. All we were s’posed to do was ride up and fix the fences. And now Ellie’s dead and you’re free. You’re free. A pang of guilt twisted through him at the thought. An innocent, by all accounts sweet girl, was dead and the only thing he could think of was how happy he was he didn’t have to marry her anymore. ‘S not your fault. You didn’t kill her. You didn’t release that horse. You were miles away root-deep in Alice.

Now that the numb shock was wearing off, Theon was being filled with a sweet relief unlike anything he’d ever known. He was free, free to do whatever he wanted. He could ride into town and move into that godsdamn brothel if he wanted. Taking a deep breath, he slipped Smiler’s bridle off and rubbed the stallion’s cheek in a way the horse liked. His large dark, liquid eyes gleamed in the low light of the barn, and if Theon could’ve whooped with a happy laugh, he would’ve. He was able to stand up straight without feeling like he had a weight around his neck.

Glancing into the stall next to Smiler’s, his smile faded. Alice was still white as a sheet. Her hands were trembling as she lifted Midnight’s saddle, and her cheeks were wet from crying. Their eyes met and held for a moment, and Theon felt his joy tamped down just a little. Patting Smiler on the rump, he slid the stall door shut and stepped into Midnight’s. He reached out and took the saddle from Alice before she dropped it, draping it over the stall door. Turning back to her, he brushed the tears off her cheek.

“You alright?” Of course she’s not, you ass. She liked Ellie. Everyone liked Ellie.

Alice’s face crumbled, and she buried her face against his chest. Her tears were warm through his shirt. When he wrapped his arms around her it felt...natural. She fit so well against him. He couldn't help to think of the night before. Hell, even that morning...the sun had filtered in through the admittedly grimy window, playing off her fair, smooth skin. It had even made the bruises from the hailstones dim somewhat, and something about their coupling...Theon couldn’t put his finger on it but it was good. Damn good. Better than the whores in town, anyway. He rested his chin in her hair and her arms went around his waist. She’d given him what he needed the night before, and he’d thought that would be that.

She was speaking, he realized suddenly, her words muffled. “We did this. It’s our fault.”

“What? No…” Theon pried her tear-stained face away from his chest. “Listen, Alice, we didn’t do this. This wasn’t us, y’hear?”

“But we spent the night together and you’re hers, not mine, and if I hadn’t-” her voice hitched. “If I hadn’t kissed you we never would’ve done that and she wouldn’t’ve died and-”

Theon didn’t know what to say, didn’t want to acknowledge the way Alice’s words were pricking holes in his relief and causing his gut to twist, so he shut her up the only way he knew how to shut a woman up, save slapping her: he kissed her. She was silenced with a small whimper, her hands brushing against his face, clasping around the back of his neck. He’d intended for it to be a quick peck, just to stop that flow of words, but his hands tightened around her waist of their own accord. Before he really knew what was happening he had her pressed against the side of the stall, their bodies flush against each other. He would’ve had her then and there had they not been interrupted by someone clearing their throat.

Alice jerked and pushed him away from her, her eyes wide as she stared over Theon’s shoulder. As soon as he let her go, she darted out of the stall, her head down as she brushed past Jon Snow. He stood outside the stall, arms crossed, his eyebrows cocked slightly. Theon wanted to punch him square in his smug face. Instead he straightened his trousers and lifted his chin. “What?”

“Nothin’.” Jon’s tone was as smug as his face. “I was just comin’ down here to see if you wanted me to look after your ride while you went into town to see the Tyrells. But it seems you’ve got your ride well in hand. Nice to see you and Alice getting on so well, too.”

Theon didn’t know how, but the next thing he knew he had slammed Jon up against the same stall wall he’d had Alice against, fisting one hand in Jon’s shirt, the other dropping to his holster.

“Whatever I do with her ain’t none of your business, understand?” His words were a snarl. Jon had always been a splinter under his fingernail. He knew the feeling was mutual. They’d only ever pretended to get along for Robb’s sake, and every time Jon rode out on the range or headed up to ride with the Wall Theon felt like he could breathe a little easier.

Jon had been caught unawares, Theon saw with satisfaction. Theon had never been this openly hostile towards him. Sure, they’d had their schoolyard scuffles when they were boys, but neither of them had ever drawn their gun on the other like Theon was about to do here. He held up both hands, his expression incredulous. “What the Hell-”

“You let her be, y’understand?” Theon didn’t honestly think Jon was interested in Alice. He’d never courted a girl, and the few times he’d gone to the brothel with Theon, Jon had spent his time dallying around with some giggly blonde girl with tits the size of his head on his lap. Never took her upstairs, though, did he. Alice simply wasn’t his type. What’s it to you if she is, anyway? Sure, she’d given him comfort for a night and kept his bed warm, but that’s all it was. Isn’t it?

“Fine, fine. Calm down, wouldjya? Gods’ sake…”

Theon released Jon and stepped back, stalking out of the stall and towards the door. Jon’s damn dog was in the aisle, white and red-eyed in the dim light. He bared his teeth but, as always, remained silent. He’d make a good winter coat if I ever got close enough to him. “Leave her alone. And don’t touch my horse.”

When Theon got to the house there was a quiet murmur of conversation in the sitting room, but it stopped dead as he entered. A handful of Stark heads, plus one Frey, swiveled around to gawp at him and he stopped short, wanting to back straight out of the room. Alice wasn’t among them, and he wondered briefly where she’d skittered off to. Ned was the first to speak, his voice rumbling low. “We’re all sorry, Theon. This is a tragedy.”

Theon jerked his head in something like a nod. Something about Ned’s tone suggested that he was reminding Theon that yes, this in fact was a tragedy and that whatever glee he’d felt was ill-placed. “I was ‘bout to get myself cleaned up and head into town...reckon her folks’ll want to see me.”

“Reckon so.” Ned nodded, his hand on Catelyn’s shoulder. “We’ll be along to see them as well, but likely not till this afternoon or t’morrow. We’re not family like you nearly were. Wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“I’ll go with you,” Robb offered to Theon. “We’ll have to take a wagon though. Doc Luwin’ll string me up if he catches me ridin’.”

“Fine,” Theon replied mechanically, weaving around Bran and Rickon and heading for the stairs. “Give me a few minutes.”

Eyes followed him as the wagon plodded into town, and conversation stopped. The road was thick mud from last night’s storms, and the only sounds were the creaking wheels and a wet sucking sound as the horses pulled their hooves up with every step. Theon hunched over in the driver’s seat, resolutely keeping his gaze ahead. He didn’t know if those eyes were full of pity or scorn or mere curiosity, but he wasn’t in any mood to find out. He twitched the reins, and the horses kept on.

The Tyrells lived in a modest two-story house that belied their wealth. It stood a few blocks from the general store. Theon left Robb to tend to the wagon while he climbed down. A flock of neighbors hovered around the front door, though they parted in somber silence to let him through. Someone had hung black bunting on the front door as a sign of the family’s mourning, and the curtains were all drawn.

The door opened at his knock, and Theon felt like he had weights tied around his ankles as he entered. Margaery closed the door behind him, her pretty face wet with tears. Without a word she led him into the parlor, where Ellie’s parents and brother were. Standing in the doorway, Theon could feel the grief coming off them in waves. Ellie’s father gazed unseeing into the cold fireplace, while her mother fiddled with a frothing heap of white lace and frills. Ellie’s younger brother was still as stone next to her. Ellie’s mother looked up, and Theon swallowed hard at the expression on her face. He’d never seen someone in so much pain, hadn’t even known it was possible.

“Her wedding dress,” she said tearfully, gesturing to the fabric in her lap. “She was almost done with it and I...I figured she ought to be buried in it…so she could wear it at least little girl...” Her words were choked off, and she doubled over on the couch, burying her face in her hands as her sobs renewed themselves.

Ellie’s father turned from the fireplace, kneeling briefly to embrace his wife and son when the boy also crumbled. The sad tableau held for a moment before he stood. His grief seemed to be beyond tears as he shook Theon’s hand. “It’s good of you to come. I’ve sent a telegram to your father and uncles, letting them know.

“I…” Theon didn’t know what to say. Being here, seeing this family so shattered, made him feel like a slab of rotted meat. Sure, Ellie’s death was a relief to him but these people had loved her. And now they’ll bury her. He knew his father and uncles wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about Ellie, and whatever words of sympathy they’d send wouldn’t be worth the telegram paper they’d arrive on. “Of course. I’m awful sorry.”

His words sounded trite, and when Margaery returned with Robb, Theon was relieved. Robb was able to make the quiet, appropriate small talk, and he was allowed to sit in one of the arm chairs and look somber. After too short a time, though, his mind began to wander back to that morning and the night before, and the small cries Alice had made while he was in her. He’d fucked his fair share of women to be sure, but they all seemed the same to him in the end. Except Ygritte…and Alice.

She was different than Ygritte had been. Ygritte had always wanted control, and had always wanted to tell him what to do, how to do it, and when. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Theon reflected, but he was a man, for the gods’ sake. And he certainly wasn’t the kind of man to be bossed around by a woman, Wildling or not.

Alice had been willing to let him have her however he wanted. At one point in the middle of the night she’d even whispered the question in his ear, coy and coquettish when she nibbled his earlobe. How do you want me? The memory of it made his body flush hot. That, and how she’d felt against him. Her skin was smooth over her ribs and stomach, soft and flawless. She’d known what she was doing, how to touch him, what he’d like. It was something he could get used to.

The thought left him feeling queasy. After the disaster with Ygritte he didn’t want to get tied up with another woman. He wanted quick and easy tumbles with no repercussions. While it waspossible Alice could be the woman for that, Theon had his doubts. It was easier to keep his trysts anonymous and disconnected, and women had a habit of getting attached to him.

The cabin. Theon sat up in his chair a little, trying not to let the relief flooding through him show on his face. He could buy that abandoned stone cabin from Ned, and the land around it. It’d need some work, but once some trees were cleared there’d be enough space to set up paddocks for training horses. Regardless of what people in town thought of him, everyone knew he was good at breaking and training even the most headstrong colt. The land wasn’t the best for crops, but he wasn’t planning on farming. He’d need more hands than just his to be successful at that. There’d be enough for him to sustain a few small crops, and there was an overgrown orchard. He wouldn’t be too far from Robb, either. And Hell, if Alice hung around Winterfell, she’d be more than welcome to warm his bed from time to time as well.

He was suddenly aware that everyone else in the room was staring at him expectantly. Shifting in his seat, he cleared his throat. “Pardon?”

Robb’s look was at once disapproving and amused. “Mr. Tyrell was asking if you would be a pallbearer for the funeral. Septon Chayle’s set to come by soon, but they’re hoping for Thursday.”

“Course I will.” Theon shifted in his chair, wanting nothing more than to be out of this grim room. “It’s the least I could do.”

“Thank you.” Ellie’s mother had risen from her seat and grasped his hand now. Her hand was shaking, and he found himself grasping it in both of his. Her voice was wispy when she looked at him. She had Ellie’s eyes, dark and warm at the same time. “Thank you,” she repeated, softer this time. Theon had a hard time pulling his gaze away from hers. She was looking for something in him, some sign that he was hurting as much as she was, and he just couldn’t give it to her.

There was another knock at the front door, and Robb stood. “That’ll probably be Septon Chayle,” he said. “We’ll leave you with him then.”

Alice was in the barn when Robb and Theon returned, methodically grooming Fatty. She’d been taking meticulous care of him since Theon had scolded her about the gelding’s state, and the old beast had improved. He wasn’t quite as overweight now, his roan coat was shining, and he’d only bitten the farrier once the last time he’d come to look after his hooves. He still had a penchant for rolling in the dirt, which Theon knew would give him colic someday, but he supposed that wasn’t Alice’s fault.

The Frey schoolmarm was with her too, sitting on a stack of haybales piled against the wall. Her feet didn’t even touch the floor, Theon noticed with some distant amusement. She was leaning forward, talking animatedly, but quietly about something while Alice listened, her small hands gesturing for emphasis. Alice opened her mouth to reply, but at the same time she saw Theon and Robb, and her mouth snapped shut. The expression on her face suggested that they had been discussing him, and Theon fought off a squirm. Alice was smart enough to know not to go blabbing to the schoolmarm about their tryst, right?

The shorter girl followed Alice’s gaze, and her cheeks blazed as she jumped off her bale. She batted at her skirt, knocking loose hay off in a small cloud. She always looked prim and proper, maybe a little too much so for living on a ranch in the unsettled North. Theon just shook his head as they approached the girls. The girl glanced from Alice to Robb again and again, anywhere but at Theon, her hands knotting nervously.

“I’m sorry about Ellie,” she said finally.

It was a refrain Theon was already tired of, and he just nodded. “You and everyone else. Listen, I’ve gotta talk to Alice ‘bout Senecca’s filly…”

Robb reached into a pail hanging on the wall, pulling out a few carrots. “C’mon, Miss Rosie, let’s go and spoil Midnight for a bit. I reckon she’s mad at me for not taking her out for so long, and she might need to talk to another girl ‘bout it.”

The schoolmarm smiled, taking a proffered carrot. “I’ll do my best to calm her down. Alice, don’t forget to ask Sansa about a dress…”

“I won’t.” Alice’s fingers were looped loosely through Fatty’s coarse mane. “What’s wrong with Whisper?”

Theon waited till Robb and the girl had left before he answered. “Nothin’. Just wanted them to leave...What were you and Roseanne talking about?”

Alice rolled her eyes and leaned against Fatty, urging the gelding to shift his weight so she could lift his front leg to clean the hoof. “Roslin. Honestly, Theon, she’s been here for a month. It’s high time you remember her name, at the very least. And we weren’t talking about anything that’d interest you.”

“You uh...didn’t tell her, did you? About last night?” Theon felt unaccountably nervous, then guilty when Alice’s hands stilled on the horse’s hoof, and she looked up at him. The expression on her face was hard to read, but if he had to try, he’d pick out incredulity and a small bit of annoyance. His nervousness was suddenly veined through with its own annoyance. What was this? He hadn’t been nervous around a female since he was eleven years old.

Alice continued plucking dirt out with the hoof pick for a solid minute or two before she straightened. “What kind of girl d’you think I am, Theon?”

Oh for the gods’s sake. Theon fought to keep from rolling his eyes. These damned women… “That’s not what I meant. Listen…” he scrubbed a hand over his face, suddenly weary. Slumping down on the same bale of hay Roslin had vacated, he gazed at her. “Don’t be mad at me. Everyone in this damned world is either mad at me or feels sorry for me and I’m fucking sick of it.”

Setting the hoofpick down, Alice sat next to him. Her long, lean thigh brushed against his as she turned to face him, and her blue eyes were clear and frank. “I’m not mad at you, Theon. And I certainly don’t feel sorry for you.”

He gave her a sideways glance. “No?”

“Of course not. You’re just a man who got caught up in some unfortunate circumstances.” She shrugged, and took his hand, playing with his fingers. It was bolder than most women Theon knew, and bolder than he would’ve even thought before yesterday, but it didn’t bother him. Her hands were so slender, the bones small and bird-like. She had the same callouses as he did though, and something about that roughness made his heart clench. “You’re resourceful, and you’re not near as dumb as Sansa and Arya said. I’m sure you’ll make the best of them, and you’ll come out on top.”

Theon gazed at her, the corner of his mouth ticking up in a wry smile. Their fingers had entwined, and again it felt perfectly natural. “You think so?”

“I do.” Alice leaned in suddenly, resting her head on his shoulder. Theon leaned his cheek against her warm hair, breathing in her already-familiar scent. Anyone could’ve walked in and caught them, but at that moment he didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, he felt content.

It rained the morning of Ellie’s funeral, a warm, soaking late-summer squall. Rain dripped off the eaves, soft and rhythmic. Theon leaned against the open loft doors in the barn, gazing out over the grey, wet country. In a month or so the trees would be ablaze in their autumn colors, and winter would be breathing down their necks. With some coin and a bit of luck, Theon hoped to be out on his own by then. He hadn’t spoken to Ned about purchasing the tract of land he wanted yet, but soon. After Robb’s wedding.

It’s supposed to be your wedding too. He was supposed to see his blushing bride all in white coming down the aisle towards him, presumably arm-in-arm with Jeyne Westerling. The image had always seemed saccharine to him, and had made his molars ache. Today, instead, he would help lay Ellie, with all her unrealized hopes and dreams, in the ground forever. It was a melancholy thought; one that wasn’t lost on him.

The household had risen early to accomplish their morning chores before having to head into town for the service, but for now Theon was alone with his thoughts. For the first time in a long time he found himself thinking of Ygritte. What was she doing? Did she ever venture over those craggy, dangerous mountains anymore? Did the thought of him still hurt her? What if he’d run away with her? What would they be doing? Would her tribe have accepted them, or would he have made her as much as an outsider to them as she would’ve been to his kind?

“Theon?” He jumped when Alice touched his arm. “What’re you doin’ up here?”

He shook his head. “Just thinkin’. I didn’t hear you climb up.”

She stood next to him quietly for some time while the rain came down and distantly, thunder mumbled. “We better head back to the house,” she said after awhile. “We’re going to have to get cleaned up and such…”

“I know,” Theon replied. He drew her close, her back pressed against his chest. He hadn’t had her since they’d returned to Winterfell. It had only been a matter of days, but he was craving the kind of release she could give him. He wanted to drive the memory of Ygritte as far away as he could, and wanted to send the image of his dead fiance’ with it. Letting his hands slip over Alice’s belly, he grasped her hips and pulled them back against him, gently but still hard enough that she could feel him. He tilted his head just slightly, planting a soft kiss just below her ear. She exhaled with a quiet whimper just as he’d hoped, melting against him, and he smiled to himself. She was what he needed, at least for now. “Let’s just stay up here awhile longer.”

The rain continued through the funeral service, and by the time Ellie’s casket was lowered into the ground Theon was drenched. He could barely keep his grasp on the wet rope the pine box was resting on, and for one horrifying moment he nearly dropped it. He gritted his teeth and tightened his grip though, and her descent continued. Once it was done he and the other pallbearers stood back while the septon lifted his hand over the gash in the mud and intoned a final prayer. Theon didn’t listen - he didn’t believe in these strange Southern gods the Tyrells worshipped.

On the other side of the grave the Tyrells stood en masse. A fleet of them had come up from the south, from Highgarden and Brightwater and a dozen other places with fancy names he couldn’t remember. He could see Alice through the crowd, and he had to bite back a smile. He was so used to seeing her in men’s clothing, with her hair messily braided and dirt streaked on her face, and there she was scrubbed shiny. Someone, Sansa or Roslin maybe, had wrestled her hair into a more proper style, pinned up with a few curls framing her face, and she was wearing a dark grey dress of Sansa’s that was too big in the bust. Despite the somber occasion he couldn’t help but give a small grin when she looked his way.

Why not? His thoughts broke through the sonorous droning of the septon suddenly. Ygritte played you wrong but Alice wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t just up and shoot Robb if he catches you and her fuckin’. You like her, Greyjoy, admit it. You care about her and she cares about you so why not? Be with someone you want to be with. Laying with her that morning in the hayloft, listening to the rain come down, feeling her breath soft on his had been the happiest he’d felt since...since Ygritte.

The rain slowed and stopped as the crowd started to shuffle away. The service was over. He shook a few hands, nodded his sympathies to the extended Tyrell clan, and retreated towards the cluster of Starks. Alice met him halfway, her hands clasped around a handkerchief. Close up, he could see her eyes were red - she’d obviously been crying. He had to stop himself from wiping the tears away - seeing Alice upset disturbed him far more than anything else that had happened this week, and that disturbed him more than he’d like. He’d made it a habit of caring about others as little as possible, and it left him feeling unmoored when someone did manage to worm their way into his affections.

Clearing his throat, he glanced over at where the Tyrells had gathered. Some of them were staring at him, not maliciously, just curious. They were going to be my family, he realized. Of course they want to know who I am. Turning back to Alice, his lips quirked in a quick, tight grin. “You ok there?”

“I will be.” Alice dabbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry, when everyone else is crying and upset I can’t help it.”

“‘course not, you’re a woman after all.” Some of the Tyrells were starting to approach Theon, and he swallowed. His stomach flip-flopped when she looked up at him through a dark fringe of lashes. She hesitated, and looked as though she wanted to say something. “What is it?”

Alice glanced around, her cheeks blazing pink, and lowered her voice. “This is the worst place to say this but...this morning was nice.”

They hadn’t had much time that morning, maybe five or ten minutes. There hadn’t been much conversation either - there hadn’t been a need for it. She seemed to be able to predict his every move, already knew what he liked, and melted into his every touch. Her small moans and cries were enough to drive him mad. Theon could have stayed there forever - to the hells with the Starks, the funeral, everything else. In those moments he was happy, hopeful. Complete. His lips twisted in a smile. “It was.”

“I’d never tell anyone, y’know. Not Rosie, or anything like that.” She glanced up at him before returning her gaze to the ground, and Theon’s stomach twisted instead of flip-flopping. “I’m not that kind of girl.”

“I know, Alice.” Theon rubbed the back of his neck. “I shouldn’t have snapped like I did. There’s just so much happening. But I know you wouldn’t. And don’t worry ‘bout Jon. He won’t talk.” ‘f he does I’ll see to it his jaw’s wired shut till the harvest is done. “The women’s society made up a dinner, right?”

Alice nodded. “It’s in the dance hall.” She linked and unlinked her fingers in a nervous gesture. “Do they hold a lot of dances there?”

Theon shrugged. “It’s more of a general term. I s’pose I’m expected to sit with the Tyrells during this…”

“I understand.” Alice knotted her fingers again, and Theon got the distinct impression she didn’t want to leave him. Gods bless ‘er. “Well…”

He nodded, and resisted the urge to tug on one of the curls framing her face. The cluster of Tyrells was starting to look impatient, and he resigned himself to an uncomfortable, unpleasant meal. “I’ll see you again. After.”

By that evening the rain had stopped. After supper Theon went out to the back porch, slinging himself into the swing. He was exhausted. The weight of the week had finally caught up with him. He felt guilty about his happiness, guilty about thinking of Alice before Ellie was even cold, guilty about not giving the poor girl some affection during their engagement. He supposed it didn’t help that he’d been forced to spend the afternoon nodding sympathetically while Ellie’s cousins, aunts, uncles, and her prickly old grandmother shared stories of the girl.

Leaning his head back against the back of the swing, he stared up at the clearing sky. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you died, but I’m not sorry I’m not marrying you. You were a sweet girl. You deserved better.

Theon didn’t know if Ellie could hear him, wherever she was now, but part of him hoped so. It would give him some peace of mind. The screen door opened and shut, but Theon didn’t even look. Weight settled on the swing next to him, and he knew it was Robb by his breathing.

“You alright?” Robb asked after a moment.

“ ‘m tired, is all.” Theon still hadn’t moved. The back of the swing was uncomfortable against the back of his neck, but he didn’t care.

“Don’t blame you.” Robb pushed off the porch with a toe, setting the swing in motion. “What’re you gonna do now?”

Still staring at the stars, Theon imagined the stone cabin. In his mind’s eye it was cleaned up. The window Robb had broken when they were kids was replaced. He could see a spiral of smoke coming out of the chimney, maybe a rocking chair on the front porch. If he imagined hard enough he thought he could see a slim, dark-haired figure moving through a window.

“Don’t you worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

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