The night before Robb’s wedding was long, dark, and sleepless. He’d never appreciated how loud the ranch could be at night. Crickets were starting to sing their rhythmic hymn to bring the end of summer, the wind rushed through the pines, and every so often he could hear the croak of frogs from the swimming hole his brothers and sisters flocked to so often. A breeze blew the curtains aside, a patch of moonlight gleaming on the foot of Bran and Rickon’s bed. From his own narrow bed Robb could see Summer and Shaggy sprawled on the floor, and wondered if he’d be able to sneak out without waking up the dogs. It was doubtful - the animals were as protective of his younger brothers as Grey Wind was of him, and Robb didn’t want to wake the entire house in the middle of the night.
He rolled onto his side, gazing around the room. It was strange to think that this was his last night here. Next time the sun set he’d be in his own house, albeit still on the ranch, with his wife. He and Jon had spent weeks fixing up the little house. Together they’d swept cobwebs out of the corners, dusted eaves, hung curtains, and scrubbed windows. It wasn’t perfect, and it definitely needed Jeyne’s feminine touch, but it was a very solid start.
So why wasn’t he more excited? Robb shifted in his bed again, his quilt tangling around his legs. He loved Jeyne and she loved him - that had been the story since they’d been seven years old. But now all he could think about were the fights they’d had. Robb couldn’t understand where her sudden urge to be a doctor had come from, but he did know it was ridiculous. Their life was planned out. They’d take over the ranch when his folks got too old and his siblings had moved on, taking care of it, raising their own family there. The future was concrete and secure. But she wanted to travel all the way down to Oldtown for years to pursue studies she’d never need to use. Winter’s Town already had a doctor; hell, it had two of ‘em.
Underneath Robb’s incredulity at Jeynie’s desires there was a gnawing doubt. What if he was holding her back from what she truly wanted to do? He looked across the room to where Theon slept, wedged against the wall in his own twin bed.
He’s been so much happier since Ellie died. It was a morbid thought, but an honest one. He’d tried to hide his relief after the funeral, but Robb could see it. He stood taller, smiled more, and was even nicer to Alice.
Nicer. Robb snorted quietly to himself. He’d watched their lingering gazes, their accidental touches, the blush that rose on Alice’s cheeks for months now. A man would have to be blind to not see that Theon and Alice had grown close. Fortunately, the ranch seemed full of blind men and preoccupied women, and no one seemed to take notice of the two of them disappearing every so often. And why would they? When Robb had been able to ride out with Theon they’d be gone for hours, sometimes even days. It’s different with a woman, though. If word got out that they weren’t always just herding cattle...Robb didn’t even want to think about how the hens in town would cluck. Theon might be able to brush it off, but he had his doubts about Alice.
His thoughts came back around to Jeyne, and how the hens would cluck at her if she pursued her doctor fantasy. Married women didn’t work. They stayed home and cooked and cleaned and looked after the children. Robb’s mother did it. Jeyne’s mother did it. She’d be the subject of gossip for years if she did this, so really, Robb reasoned, him talking her out of pursuing her studies was a favor. He rolled on his back, resting his hands on his stomach and smiling to himself. She’d understand when he explained it that way.
The morning came and was gone in a blur. Robb was never alone - his mother and siblings were hovering as he was washed, shaved, dressed, preened, and primped. His mother had sewn him a new coat, steel blue and lined with silk. It was folded over her arms when she found him in his room, surrounded by his brothers while he tried to shine his good boots.
She stepped into the room as if she’d never been there before. The expression on her face was curious when Robb looked up - she looked tremulous. Catelyn Stark, to the best of his recollection, had never looked tremulous. She had always been firm and strong, an unbending pillar. But today her eyes were a little brighter than they ought to be, and her lips were pressed together.
“Boys, go on downstairs now. See to it that the dogs are fed and shut away before we leave for the church, understand?” With a few ‘Yes ma’ams’, Rickon and Bran plodded out of the room, their hair still wet from where she had attacked it with a wet comb that morning, trying to make them look presentable.
Robb stood, setting his boots down as his mother crossed the room. She set the coat down on Robb’s bed and smoothed her hands over his shoulders, brushing off imaginary lint.
“You’ve gotten so tall and broad in the chest,” she said, picking up the coat again. “I hope this fits, and that you might wear it today. Every man should have a good dress coat for special occasions.”
“Of course. It’s perfect, Ma.” Robb slipped it on, and it fit perfectly. He glanced at his reflection in the small, smudged mirror over one of the dressers in the room and was pleased by what he saw. “Jeynie’ll really like this. Blue’s her favorite color.”
“It does bring out your eyes.” Catelyn tilted her head, her smile growing wistful. “I still can’t believe you’re getting married. Just yesterday you fit in the crook of my arm and cried when it thundered.”
“You’ve got Rickon for that now,” Robb grinned. Leaning over, he pecked his mother’s forehead. “Don’t go getting all weepy on me, understand?” Downstairs, he could hear the clock over the mantle bong the hour. “Theon’s going to take me down to the church a little early to make sure everything’s ready. We’ve got to get going.”
“Go on.” Catelyn smoothed Robb’s lapels one more time. “We’ll be there shortly, assuming your brothers haven’t gotten into any trouble.”
Outside, it was a fine day to get hitched. The air had that quiet, calm feeling that comes with the end of summer, and the sky was clear and blue. In front of the carriage house, the small wagonette was waiting. It hadn’t been used in years; not since the number of Starks grew to outnumber the number of seats it had.
“Thought you an’ me and Alice would take this one here.” Theon emerged from the barn across the way, wiping his hands on a rag. He was dressed in his best: pressed pinstriped black trousers and a grey vest with a starched white shirt underneath . A small sprig of blue flowers peeked out of his breast pocket. The sleeves were rolled up and the top button was open, giving Theon an entirely relaxed air that Robb hadn’t seen on him for the better part of a year. Now he was leaning against the wagon, sweeping his dark hair back. “You nervous?”
Robb shook his head. “Nah. Excited, sure. It’ll be nice for the whole thing to be over and done, and Jeynie and I can just settle down.”
“You and your domestic bliss.” Theon grinned and spat. “You were born wantin’ a ball an’ chain.”
Before Robb could respond the back door squealed open. Alice and Roslin tripped down the porch steps, laughing. Robb just gaped. He was used to seeing the girls in their day-to-day wear - sensible, conservative dresses for Roslin; worn trousers and shirts for Alice. Today both were dressed in their best, dresses with tight bodices that bared both their shoulders and the tops of their breasts, and full, swirling skirts. Roslin’s was a soft, rose pink that made her cheeks glow, where Alice’s was a sky blue. When she turned her head to whisper something to Roslin, Robb saw tiny specks of blue flowers in her hair. He smiled widely as Roslin and Alice approached. “You both look beautiful.”
Roslin blushed and Alice laughed. “‘s a wonder what a little soap will do. Sansa made these. She’s been stayin’ up late for weeks, making sure everything was just right. She wants your wedding to be perfect. Which it will be, of course. She made a dress for Arya too, and she’s been trying to get her into it all morning.” She turned to Theon. “Roslin wanted to ride with us into town. I told her it was fine.”
“Assumin’ we can fit all those skirts in here, sure.” Theon shrugged, leaning against the wagon and adopting a casual, devil-may-care attitude. Robb fought off the urge to roll his eyes. “Speaking of which, you girls better get a leg up. Fitting all of us plus all that crinoline or whatever you call it is fixin’ to be a feat of engineering.”
It did take some creativity to get both girls in the small wagon, but after a few minutes of pushing, folding this skirt that way and that skirt this way, they were both settled. Robb climbed up onto the driver’s bench next to Theon. They’d barely made it around the house when Jon waved them down from the front porch.
“I’m comin’ with you,” Jon said as he approached. “I’m pretty sure your ma would make me ride on the underside of the wagon if I went with her.”
“Fine, but you’ll have to ride with the cargo.” Theon stopped the wagon, jerking his thumb to where Alice and Roslin were sitting. “If they’ll let you. You’re not dressed near pretty enough.”
“Sansa must’ve run out of fabric,” Roslin giggled as she moved over on her seat. “Come sit down here, Jon. You can bask in Alice’s and my beauty.”
The church was still empty when the foursome reached it. Jon went off to make sure Septon Chayle was awake. Theon tied the horses to the hitching post outside, helping the girls down after. He shook his head, watching Alice and Roslin’s hips sway as they mounted the stairs. His grin sharp and crooked. “‘s a shame, y’know.”
“Hmm?” Robb glanced over.
“You gettin’ hitched and all.” Theon jerked his head. “Leavin’ those girls all to me.”
“Oh please.” Robb snorted. He leaned over and tweaked the delicate sprig of bluebells in Theon’s breast pocket, the same as the flowers Alice wore in her hair. “Alice stake her claim?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Theon swatted Robb’s hand away, scowling.
But not denying it, Robb thought.
“You’re s’posed to be in mourning, remember.” Robb grinned and started up the church steps. Aside from Roslin and Alice bustling about, adjusting hymnals and the occasional vase of flowers, the building was empty. Sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows, leaving pools of color on the old pine floor. It was quiet, calm.
“Are you nervous?”
Robb spun; Roslin was standing behind him, a small stack of hymnals in her hand. They were alone now. He sat in a pew, his hands dangling between his knees.
“Course not. Jeynie and I’ve known each other since we were both in the cradle, practically. Whole town’s known we’d get hitched since we were seven years old.” A thought popped into his head. Roslin and Jeyne had spent a lot of time talking over the summer. Maybe they’d talked about Jeyne’s wishes to go south. “Is she nervous?”
“Probably.” Roslin set her hymnals down and perched on the edge of a pew. “You show me a woman who isn’t nervous on her wedding day, though. I imagine when my day comes I’ll be too scared to spit.”
“There’s nothin’ to be scared of. ‘Less you’re marryin’ someone you’ve never met before.” Robb stretched his shoulders, tilting his neck until it popped. “That’s just askin’ for trouble.”
“Oh, I’ve no intention of marryin’ a stranger.” Roslin smiled softly and squeezed his hand. “C’mon. Looks like people are startin’ to show up. Pretty sure I just heard Rickon and Arya squalling outside. It’s almost time.”
The church filled quickly. From his vantage point at the altar, Robb could see his younger brothers fidgeting in their seats. Sansa snatched a slingshot out of Arya’s hands, and his father held a squirming Rickon on his lap. Bran was sitting quietly next to their mother. In the second row, Alice and Theon had their heads bent together, whispering quietly in the muted din of the church. He caught Theon’s eye and grinned widely; his best friend surreptitiously made a rather rude gesture. Roslin sat primly at the end of the pew offering a shy smile. Further back were Jory Cassel and Dacey, each holding a squirming twin.
The Tyrells were here too, all of them. They were a line of black mourning clothes in the otherwise bright and colorful crowd. Robb’s heart went out to them - today was supposed to be Ellie’s wedding day too, of course. He hoped none of them saw Theon canoodling with Alice. Judging by the way Margaery’s sharp eyes were latched onto them though, it was already too late for that.
Jon stood next to Robb. He’d asked his half-brother to be his best man almost the same time he asked Jeyne to marry him. It only seemed natural.
Robb, Jon, and Septon Chayle waited at the front of the church while the guests settled. In the corner the organist picked out a tune here and there - occasionally bits of it were recognizable. Eventually everyone was quiet, expectant, waiting. Robb kept his gaze focused on the doors at the back of the church, waiting for them to open and reveal his bride. Any minute now…
“Calm down,” Jon whispered at his back. “I can see your jaw clench from here.”
After several more long minutes, a quiet buzz started around the church and a drop of nervous sweat wormed down Robb’s back. Where was Jeyne? Had something happened? Surely she hadn’t fallen ill…
The church doors creaked open, sunlight spilling in. Robb straightened as a figure started towards him. Here she is. Everything’s fine, of course everything’s fine. There was never any doubt…
The figure coming down the aisle wasn’t his Jeynie. It was her father. He looked pale, his eyes on the ground in front of him. He was clutching a letter with white knuckles and stopped before the altar. When he looked up at Robb a bolt of realization went through his stomach and rooted his feet to the floor. Jon brushed past him, taking the letter from Doctor Westerling and scanning it quickly.
“Let me.” Robb finally found his voice. It sounded wooden and dull in his ears. Jon looked at him, his expression unreadable, but handed over the sheet of paper covered in Jeyne’s bold, loopy scrawl. While the church buzzed around him, Robb read.
By the time you get this I’ll be on a train heading south. I love you, I’ve always loved you, but I can’t marry you. I’m meant to be a doctor, not a rancher’s wife…
Robb crumpled the letter, not needing to read anymore. There was no anger, no pain. There was just a deep, dense numbness that seemed to spread from his stomach. He sat heavily on the steps leading up to the altar, seeing nothing.
“Tell everyone they can go,” he said quietly to no one in particular. “Ain’t gonna be a wedding today.”
The church seemed to clear in no time. Robb was distantly aware of Theon, Jon, Roslin, and Alice quietly shuffling the last guests out of the church. He was still sitting on his step, the crumpled letter next to him. Doctor Westerling had announced in a slightly wavering voice that while there wasn’t going to be a wedding, there was still plenty of food and music waiting in the dance hall. He and Robb’s parents had spoken at length in low voices as the crowd filtered out. Robb hadn’t heard what they spoke about. He hadn’t cared.
Finally he was alone in the church. He was perfectly content to stay there for the rest of the day, for the rest of his life, till the world stopped spinning. Leaving the church meant acknowledging that his Jeynie was gone, that she’d run away from him to start a new life somewhere far away. It didn’t seem real. He fully expected her to appear around the corner in her fancy white dress, laughing and announcing that this had all been some joke.
She’s gone. She always hated jokes and would never do this to you. She’s gone.
Robb was vaguely aware of a figure sweeping a pale pink skirt aside to sit next to him. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” Roslin said quietly.
It took a minute before Robb realized he should reply. Swallowing hard, he nodded. “You ‘n me both.” He was silent for a long moment while Roslin waited patiently. “When that Wildling shot me and I thought I was dyin’, y’know what my last thoughts were?”
“It was of Jeyne. How I was s’pposed to have supper with her and her family the next day and instead I was dyin’.” Robb shook his head. “It was all horseshit, wasn’t it.”
“You’re in a church. Mind your tongue.” Roslin’s tone was gently chiding. She laid a hand on his arm. “And it wasn’t. She loves you. She was by your side nearly every moment while you were sleeping. She wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t love you. Sometimes…” When Robb glanced at her she was searching for words. “Sometimes things just don’t work out how you expect them to. I know it hurts. It’s going to hurt for a bit, and you should let it. But it’ll hurt a little less every day and before you know it, it won’t hurt at all.”
“I’m going to be the butt of everyone’s jokes for years.”
“Not for years. A few weeks, at best. You just fake a smile and laugh along with them, even if all you want to do is knock their teeth down their throats.” Roslin stood and extended her hand. “The townsfolk’ll find something else to jaw about before long, I’d wager. C’mon. There’s plenty of good food and drink waiting.”
“ ‘m not hungry.”
“Of course you’re not. But the best thing you can do right now is show folks life goes on. Get up and come with me. ‘f you ask real nice I’ll let you dance with me too.” Roslin smiled.
Despite himself Robb took her hand and pulled himself up. The numbness was wearing off now, replaced with an even deeper ache. “Life goes on.”
The dance hall was crowded and filled with the scent of countless savory dishes and lively music, but it was all lost on Robb. All he wanted to do was slink out of the hall and head home with a bottle of rotgut whiskey, but before he could he was swarmed by townsfolk expressing their sympathies. He shook hands without seeing the owners, thanked them for their sentiments until the words tasted like bile in his mouth. Finally a firm hand gripped his arm and pulled him away from the throng. Theon tugged him towards a corner where Alice, Roslin, and Sansa were gathered.
“Here.” Theon pressed a flask into his hand. “I borrowed a bottle from the bartender down at Ros’s.”
Robb drank without question, feeling the alcohol burn all the way down to his stomach. “Thanks.”
“I’m so sorry, Robb.” Alice murmured as she pressed a light kiss to his cheek. “This whole thing is just awful.”
Robb could sense Roslin at his elbow and forced a smile. “Life goes on though. Have you seen my folks?”
“Doing damage control with the Westerlings.” Theon nodded towards the center of the hall. “Sounds like Jeyne’s folks didn’t even know she’d gone ‘till they went to wake her up this morning and found some letters. One for you, one for them.”
“What’re you gonna do if she comes back?” Sansa asked.
Robb gripped Theon’s flask. “Don’t even ask me that right now, Sansa. ‘m havin’ a hard enough time.”
Sansa bowed her copper head, her hands twisting together. “I’m sorry. Today was supposed to be so happy. I just wonder if…” She stood on her tiptoes, peering over the crowd towards the door.
Robb ignored her. Knowing Sansa she was probably looking to see which of the handsome Tyrell boys didn’t have a girl on their arm yet. Right now he didn’t know where to look; he didn’t want to see the way Alice’s slender fingers rested on Theon’s wrist as she whispered something to him, didn’t want to see the pity in Roslin’s eyes.
Sansa made some wordless exclamation or another and wove away through the crowd. Robb drained the flask and elbowed Theon. “You got anymore? It’s lookin’ to be a long night.”
“Pace yourself, my friend.” Theon’s eyes moved over the crowd, many of whom were now staring and whispering. Ned appeared suddenly at Robb’s side. The flask vanished out of Robb’s hand and back into Theon’s pocket as quickly as if he’d imagined it. His father rested a huge hand on Robb’s shoulder.
“Your mother and I, and the Westerlings, were wondering if you felt up for saying a few words.” Ned asked.
Robb laughed humorlessly. “What’m I supposed to say? She left me, Pa. Up and ran.”
“I know she did, son.” Ned’s hand tightened comfortingly.
For the first time in a long time, Robb felt like a child again, like his father would take him on his knee and explain the way the world worked. He almost wished that was the case;that this was all some sort of dream and he’d wake up, 8 years old again.
“You’ll know the right thing to say.”
Holding back a sigh, Robb nodded and made his way to the stage at the front of the hall. He’d never realized how big the room was until he was standing at the front of it. The entire town must be crammed in here. They were all falling silent, waiting for him to start speaking. He rubbed the back of his neck, unsure where to start.
“Afternoon, folks. This...uh…” Robb’s throat was dry. He would’ve killed for another go at Theon’s flask. “I know ya’ll got up today expectin’ a wedding, and...hells, I did too. It doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen. But…” Robb’s eyes sought out Roslin suddenly, and she was smiling in the crowd. “But life goes on, ain’t that right? And I’m not about to sit up here and grouse to ya’ll about this, so why don’t we all just have a good time today? There’s plenty of food, this band’s just itchin’ to start playin’. We’ve had a rough few weeks, so we deserve a bit of a break.”
The band struck up a lively reel and to Robb’s relief, couples began to form on the dancefloor. From his vantage point, Robb could see Margaery Tyrell make a beeline for Theon, much to his friend’s chagrin. He could only imagine the conversation they’d be having. Robb hopped down from the stage, trying to make his way back to his small group of friends. He was surrounded again by townsfolk, all handshakes and ‘Well dones’. Somewhat unexpectedly, he came face-to-face with Roose Bolton.
The older man smiled and touched Robb’s outstretched hand bloodlessly. “Inspiring words.”
“Uh- thank you, Mr. Bolton.” Robb was caught wrongfooted. He’d always been uneasy around any Bolton. “I’m surprised to see you and Ramsay here. I know you’ve come a long way.”
“Oh, we do love a good wedding.” Roose lifted his chin slightly. “Forgive me, I won’t keep you from your other guests.”
By the time he got there Rickon was tugging on Roslin’s skirt, bashfully asking if she’d dance with him.
“Why, of course I will!” Roslin leaned down to peck the boy’s ruddy cheek. She glanced up at Robb, smiling. “How can I resist such an offer?”
“You dance with her nice now, Rickon.” Robb ruffled his littlest brother’s hair. “No steppin’ on those fancy shoes of hers.”
Roslin let Rickon lead her onto the dance floor. Robb turned to Alice, extending his hand. “Care for a spin?”
“I’d be delighted.” Alice smiled. Robb took her waist as they eased comfortably into the dance. She was a surprisingly good dancer, following his lead at the slightest touch. “This isn’t a good year for weddings, is it.”
“‘pparently not. I ‘magine I’m going to be talking about my lack of spouse for some time. What d’you say we talk about something else?” Robb spun Alice and then pulled her back. Over her shoulder he saw Theon eyeing them, looking positively irate at whatever questions Margaery was peppering him with. He winked at his friend, feeling a small bit of glee at Theon’s expression. “Have I mentioned how beautiful you and Roslin look today?”
“Thank Sansa for that.” Alice said, glancing around the room. “Where is she, anyway?”
“Uh…” Robb craned his head slightly, and spotted his sister near the great double doors. She was standing with their mother, and a plump, dour-faced woman with a face that Robb hadn’t seen in years. Next to her was a slight man with a neat moustache and bowler hat. He was simpering at Catelyn, his hand on the shoulder of a pale, sickly looking boy who was half-hidden in the woman’s sky blue skirts. “Is that...naw, can’t be.”
“Who?” Alice followed his gaze and stiffed in his arms with a low moan. “Oh, no.”
“Alice?” Robb looked to her. Her face had gone the color of whey, her blue eyes wide and terrified. He motioned to Theon as he tried to steer Alice towards a chair. “Alice, honey, what’s wrong?”
“That woman.” She could barely get the words out. “That woman…”
“What?” Robb was nonplussed. “That’s just my aunt Lysa.”