Robb swiped his forearm across his face, wiping away sawdust and sweat. After the younger kids had told the household they were expecting one more guest, the new schoolteacher, Robb’s mother had put him and Theon to work, cleaning out what amounted to a storage closet at the end of the upstairs hall and sprucing it up to be a bedroom. The room was big enough for a pair of twin beds, barely, with a trunk between them. Robb’s mother had had him and Theon replace the walls, and the scent of fresh-cut pine filled the small, bright space. He wondered briefly what his father would think when he returned. He liked the privacy of Winterfell, and Robb knew he considered the home his sanctuary. How would he react to two new bodies, two strangers, in an already-crowded house?
“This looks lovely, Robb.” Sansa nudged her brother’s shoulder and handed him a glass of lemonade. Lady was sitting at her feet, her soft ears twitching this way and that. “Alice and the new teacher will just love it in here.”
“They’d better.” Robb took a long swallow of the tart lemonade. “You and Ma’re gonna make it look all nice and stuff, right?”
Sansa brushed past him and draped a small fabric runner over the trunk, and set a small rosebud vase on the dresser, complete with a small sprig of wildflowers. It was a small, homey touch, and pleasing. “Of course we are. Ma’s airing out extra quilts now, and Arya’s sewing curtains, which means I’ll be sewing curtains. When’s our guest get here again?”
“Train gets this afternoon. Jeyne might be on it too - she wrote last week and said she’d be getting back into town between yesterday and Thursday.” Robb couldn’t help but meet Sansa’s smile. His fiancee had been away visiting family for three months. Robb hadn't even been able to see her off; he had been on the range with his father, Jon, and Theon. They'd exchanged letters of course, but it wasn't the same as having her here, where he could see her and touch her. Robb felt a fluttering of something that could've been nerves in his stomach. It had been so long - would she even want to come back? He looked around the tiny, cramped room again, fresh sawdust glittering in the sunlight that streamed through the single, simple window. To this?
Of course she would. Her mother and father had lived in Winter's Town for years. She’d been here most of her life. Hell, her father was Doc Luwin’s partner and her mother was in charge of the Woman's Society at church. Jeyne Westerling had roots here. Robb gave himself a mental shake. Soon he'd have his Jeyne back, all graceful curves and honey-brown curls.
"That reminds me," Sansa's face lit up suddenly. "Take Alice with you. It's been two months since she got here, and Jeyne Poole said Doc Luwin said he wanted to take a look at her arm and maybe take the cast off. And also, stop by the general store. I ordered some fabric and Alla Tyrell told me it was supposed to come in today."
“Yes ma’am.” Robb chuckled to himself. Alice had proven to be a sweet girl, hard-working but skittish as a deer. One day, a week or two back, Jory had brought Dacey and their twins over for a visit and Robb had thought Alice was going to jump out of her skin. Her blue eyes had darted here and there nervously, and her pulse ticked in her throat every time Jory or Dacey asked her a question. He had no idea what had her so nervous, but knew it wasn't his place to ask.
Sansa was talking again, and Robb gave himself a shake. "Huh?"
"I asked if Theon was going with you." Sansa brushed a lock of hair out of her face as they started down the stairs. "Ellie's eager to see him again."
"'f I tell him that, it'll guarantee he never goes to town again." Robb replied, laughing.
"Oh hush." Sansa swatted at his arm. "I don't know why he's so against marrying her. She's a sweet girl."
Robb couldn't dispute that. Ellie Tyrell had a soft, gentle personality and quick wit, and was almost as pretty as her cousin Margaery. They had the same gleaming brown hair, the same doe eyes, and were frequently seen together. "She's a sweet girl alright, but you know Theon. He just doesn't like being told what to do. Never has. He only takes it from Ma 'cause she'll whup him and he knows it. Anyway, he's not goin' with me. Said he had to run out to the southern pasture and check a fence out there."
The story smelled a little off to Robb, but he didn't think much of it. He knew Theon sometimes just needed to go off on his own. His foster brother loved the open plains and mountains more than the confines of town, or even the confines of Winterfell sometimes. Just like it wasn't Robb's place to ask what Alice was so scared of, it wasn't his place to wheedle Theon about where he went, so long as he got his work done.
After hooking up two of the sturdy, lumbering plowhorses to the wagon, Robb was heading back into the house to find Alice when she trotted down the back porch steps, a carrot in hand. She smiled when she saw him, squinting slightly in the bright spring sun. She looked so much healthier than she had when she’d arrived, and a few months of Catelyn Stark’s cooking had put some much-needed meat on her bones. She was still fair, and would always be, Robb figured, but spending most of her day out in the sun had given her skin a healthy glow. “Headin’ into town?”
Robb nodded, stroking one of the horses’ muzzles. “Sure am, and you are too.”
Alice’s smile fled and she went pale. “No, I...I’ve got to check on-”
“Fatty’s fine.” Robb interrupted. After nearly a month Arya had taken the liberty of naming Alice’s creaky old roan, who, thanks to a steady diet of apples, carrots, and alfalfa, was living up to it. “Now I’ve got to go pick up this new schoolmarm. And Doc Luwin thinks it’s about time you get rid of that cast, so let’s skedaddle.”
Too late, Robb recognized the apprehension in Alice’s voice. She had promised to only stay on as long as she was laid up. Once the cast came off… Where’s she gonna go though? She’s got nowhere else. Ma has to let her stay, just a little while longer. He nodded towards the wagon with an encouraging smile. Grey Wind had already leaped into the back of it and was waiting with his enormous paws on the sideboards, his look expectant. “C’mon. It’ll do you good to see the town. There’s a lot more to this land than Winterfell and if you’re gonna live here, you oughta get to know it. ‘sides, you can’t let Grey Wind down.”
Alice looked baffled, and Robb took advantage of the moment to guide her to the wagon. “But I promised I’d leave. Your ma…”
“You let me handle her.” Robb settled on the seat next to her and took up the reins, clicking softly to the slow, plodding chestnuts. Alice glanced over at him, her face tense, and Robb reached over to pat her hand. “You’re home here, Alice. No need t’worry. Anyway, Theon and I just busted our humps getting your new room set up. He’ll be sore if you leave now.”
She didn’t look entirely convinced, and fell silent as Robb urged the horses into a trot.
As they arrived into town, Alice was watching everything, like a mouse trying not to be swallowed by a hawk. But Robb, who had seen the town a thousand times before, found himself watching her and her odd behavior. Her eyes were darting around, simultaneously wary and taking everything in. Winter’s Town was bustling today, the citizens brought out by a fine, clear day. The wide main street was slightly muddy from a recent rainstorm, and store windows were thrown open to let in the fresh spring air.
The church bell was bonging out the hour when Robb stopped the wagon in front of Doc Luwin’s practice and helped Alice down. “We can leave the wagon and horses here while we run into the general store. ‘s just there.” He nodded across the street. “Sansa’ll have my hide if I don’t get her her fabric bolts. They come in on the train, which is rare enough, and are gone within a few days.”
He tied the horses to an old, worn hitching post, inhaling deeply. Winter's Town was old, as old as Winterfell itself. The buildings were solid, stone structures with thick walls and sturdy roofs to keep the mountain cold out when the short summers ended. Now, though, windows were flung open, shutters unlatched, and the tall ancient pines that shrouded the city swayed gently back and forth. They cast shadows over the streets, straight dirt lanes overlayed with gravel to help drain the spring rains, and to keep horses and wagons from slipping when the roads iced over. At the far end of town the road curved off into the woods again, and beyond that it ran along the railroad for miles. Robb wasn't sure how many; he'd never ventured that far from home and really felt no need to. This was home to him. This was all he wanted, and all he ever would.
Alice hung behind Robb when he entered the cool shade of the general store, cupping her elbows. Ellie Tyrell stood behind the counter and greeted them both with a warm smile. It dimmed for half a second when she realized Theon wasn’t with them, but to her credit she hitched it right back up. “Mornin’, you two!”
“Mornin, Miss Ellie.” Robb leaned on the counter and glanced at Alice. She was looking around the store, taking in all the goods displayed on the wood plank walls and shelves. She seemed slightly overwhelmed, which struck Robb as odd. She said she was from King’s Landing. Surely she’s been in a bigger shop than this.“Sansa said you’d have some goods for her?”
“Let me check…” Ellie bit her lip, reaching under the counter to plop a large book on the counter, flipping through the pages. “Sure enough. You sit tight and I’ll get it from the back.” She brushed through the door to the storeroom, leaving Robb and Alice alone.
Robb glanced over at Alice. She was toying with a jar of beans, the edge of her cast clinking agains the glass jar. Her eyes darted to the door as footsteps approached, then passed. She exhaled softly and seemed to shrink a little. Robb nibbled a hangnail, watching her, wondering if he should offer some words of reassurance or comfort. No, that might make her even jumpier...what do I do with her, then?
Luckily, it was then that Ellie bustled out of the storeroom, four bolts of fabric in her arms. "Here you go! It's all on your account, and your mother can settle at the end of the month as per usual."
"These are lovely." Alice touched one of the fabrics, a soft green-on-green damask, gently. "Sansa's going to make some wonderful things out of this."
"I have no doubt. That girl's got some real talent." Ellie touched her hair nervously, twirling a light brown lock around a finger. "Can I ask a favor of you, Robb?"
"Anything you want." Robb replied, tucking the fabric under his arm, hoping the red plaid wasn’t going to wind up as a shirt for him.
"Can you ask Theon to come in to see me today? I- I know he's real busy, both of you are this time of year, but I wanted to talk to him about our wedding. Maybe set a date."
There's no date he'll agree to, not without four guns and a cannon aimed at him. "Sure thing, Miss Ellie. I'll ride out and send him in, but he might not get out here till late this afternoon."
"That's fine." The bell over the door jingled as a woman and her four young children came in, and Ellie smiled apologetically at Alice and Robb. "I'm sorry, you'll have to excuse me."
"Course." Robb winked at her and nodded at Alice as they headed out. "Let's go see the Doc, missy. And don't let me forget Ma wanted some liniment. She said Doctor Westerling and Doc Luwin mix it up better than anyone else."
"Yes, boss." Alice smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes, but her smiles never did.
As they walked across the street, a thought seemed to strike Alice. As Robb was putting the bolts of fabric into the back of the wagon, damn heavy things, she said, “Why would anyone put off marriage plans to that nice of a girl?”
Robb said nothing. He patted down the mare’s side, his fingers smoothing over leather leads along the way.
“Do they love each other?” Alice had moved a little closer to him. Her voice was oddly innocent, like she didn’t know that wasn’t something you could just ask someone.
His fingers stopped, and he sighed. He didn’t look at her. “No.”
“Then why do it?” She looked at him, her eyes piercing.
“I s’pose.” Her gaze grew distant. “I couldn’t pledge myself to someone forever without loving them, though. That’s too big.”
"Neither could I." Robb wrapped the chain of his pocket watch around his finger. "But they've got to." Alice looked at him but before she could ask any more questions, he hurried them along. “C’mon. Doc’ll be waiting.
Doc Luwin was struggling to cram a medical text onto a crooked, overstuffed bookcase when they entered, small spectacles resting neatly on his nose as he turned to greet Robb and Alice. "Young Stark and Miss Longmire. I had hoped I would see you two."
"Doc." Robb nodded and glanced around the small office. "Is Doctor Westerling not in today?"
"No sir. His daughter’s arriving on the first train from King's Landing this morning. I'm surprised she didn't write you." Luwin looked at Robb over his glasses. "That might be a fun new source of gossip for the girls across the road…”
"Last I checked, we’re still on. Wouldn’t Ma be mad if we weren’t! " Robb bobbed his head and tried not to blush, while Alice looked on. "I imagine she wrote, but you know how the mail is."
"All too well. I imagine you'll want to see her. Young love and such." Luwin swiped at his nose with an embroidered handkerchief. "Far too messy for me. Now, Miss Longmire, I imagine you're eager to get rid of that cast?"
Alice's smile was shy and made her look childlike. Ever since her arrival, she seemed surprised and wrong-footed when people spoke kindly to her, which only piqued Robb’s interest about what she was running from. "Yessir. Robb said you think my arm's healed?"
"One way to find out." Luwin patted the battered leather exam table. "Hop up on here and let's take a look." Robb watched as the old doctor withdrew a long, slender saw and a pair of pliers, chuckling at the way Alice's eyes widened. "Take a breath, young lady. It's just to cut the plaster and pull it off. Unless I'm worse at my job than everyone thinks, that'll be that."
At Alice's tense nod, he slid the saw between the slightly dingy cast and her arm and within minutes he was pulling the two halves of plaster away. "There now..." Doc Luwin's exam of the girl's arm was careful and thorough, and he nodded as he wiped her arm down with a damp cloth, pleased. "Good as the day you were born. The skin will be sensitive, and it will be dry for a bit. You've lost a lot of muscle here in the forearm, and it'll be sore as you start to use it again, so go slow. Young Stark, you make sure you and Greyjoy don't have this lady out roping cattle or nonsense like that, understand? Doctor's orders."
Once outside, Alice rubbed her arm, seeming to relish the feel of air on her skin. "It feels so good to be rid of that cast. I hope Sansa will let me use some of that fancy lotion she's got. Doctor Luwin was right - the skin feels...strange."
"Oh, I'm sure she will. She loves showing that stuff off. Saved up her chore money for three years before Ma was able to place an order for it." Robb scrubbed a hand across his face, suddenly wishing he'd taken the time to shave before leaving for town. He'd known there was a chance that he'd get to see Jeyne today, and she hated beards on men, as if she weren’t from the Northern lands at all. They looked messy, she said. He thought they made him look manly, so Theon took the opportunity to tease Robb mercilessly about tease him that it was just him she thought they looked messy on.
As they strolled to the wagon, he stroked his chin self-consciously. Ah well, there's nothing to be done for it now.
Returning to the wagon, he helped Alice up and took up the reins, chewing his lower lip, deep in thought. After a minute Alice coughed softly when a train whistle sounded in the distance. "Are you alright?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes. Fine. Just nervous, I suppose." Robb glanced down one of the dusty side streets. “Jeynie’s been gone for so many months…” The train whistle sounded again, much closer this time, and the sounds of clattering train wheels and hissing steam drifted down the wide main street as the engine wheezed and chugged into view. “I’ve missed her.”
“I’m sure she’s missed you too.” Alice tucked a lock of black hair behind her ear. “She’s going to keep missing you too, unless you get these horses moving.”
The train stop, more of a crooked little platform with a faded sign reading ‘Winter’s Town’ swinging from a splintery pole, wasn’t crowded. A handful of weary travellers milled around a pile of trunks and carpetbags, all slightly coated with soot. Robb jerked the reins gently, patting the larger of the horses on the rump as he hopped down. Steam still rushed out of the gleaming black locomotive, and a few porters bustled back and forth from the passenger cars.
“Why don’t you wait here?” He suggested to Alice. “I’ll just be a minute.” At her nod, he scanned the platform. It took him a mere minute to locate Jeyne’s familiar figure, perched neatly on her trunk and talking animatedly to a second girl. Robb smiled, running a hand through his hair.
Jeyne was as beautiful as the last time Robb had seen her - her brown hair was gleaming, done up in elaborate curls, brown eyes sparking. She was dressed in what Robb could only assume was the style down south - a deep purple dress with long sleeves, a tight bodice, and a ruffled, beaded skirt with a large bustle. Gods forbid Sansa catch wind of those bustles. She'll never be able to fit in the house again.
She turned toward him then, his Jeyne, and broke out into a wide smile as she stood. "Robb!"
"Jeynie..." He strode across the platform and took both her hands in his, fighting back the urge to pull her into his arms. "You look beautiful."
"Oh hush." Jeyne laughed and touched her hair. She looked up at him, and Robb's heart and stomach both rose fluttered when she reached up to touch his face. "Your beard..."
"I know." Robb caught her hand and kissed her palm. " I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to fix it for you.” He twined his fingers through hers. “I have to pick up another passenger, but let me give you a ride home. Or just drop off your things, and then come out to the ranch. Ma and Sansa've missed you, and Bran's grown about a foot."
"Oh..." Jeyne sounded disappointed. "Robb, I'd love to, you know I would, but I'm plumb exhausted from all the travel. And I'd sure love to see my brother and sister. Parents too." Her tone switched to a gentle teasing. "' Now, who else're you picking up here?"
"New schoolteacher. I don't even know her name-"
"Roslin!" Jeyne's eyes lit up, and she turned to the girl she'd been speaking with. "Roslin, I think this is who you're supposed to meet."
The second girl stood, and Robb was surprised to see she barely came up to Jeyne's chin. She had a square, expressive face with a small chin, and right now that face was full of trepidation and a hint of nervousness. Her eyes were dark and sparkling, her dark hair done up in a style like Jeyne's. Her dress was similar too, except where Jeyne's was a rich plum, hers was a dark burgundy. She clutched a ragged carpet bag in her hands and looked up at him. " I'm Roslin Frey. Are you from the school?"
"Uh." Robb cleared his throat and glanced over his shoulder at Alice, who was waiting patiently in the wagon, scratching Grey Wind’s ears. "Not...not quite, ma'am, but I am here for you. My name's Robb Stark. You'll be staying with my family out at our ranch. Here, let me..." Robb reached for her bag but she clutched it close.
"No no, please. I can carry this. It's old and the handle falls off if you don't carry it just so." Roslin stroked the bag idly as if it were a pet, and glanced at Jeyne. "Thank you for the company during the trip.It was so nice to have someone to talk to."
"Of course." Jeyne smiled and squeezed Roslin’s hand. "My father'll be here any minute. You go on with Robb. Come to church with the Starks on Sunday, and you can help my mother and the women's society plan the next town dance."
Roslin smiled. "I'd love to." She glanced at Robb again, then at Jeyne, and her cheeks tinged pink. "Is that your wagon over there? I'll go and let you say a proper goodbye. Mr. Stark, can you see to my trunks?" She gestured to three large, slightly battered trunks waiting on the platform. At Robb's nod, she gave Jeyne another smile and headed towards the wagon. Robb saw Alice toy with her braid nervously as Roslin climbed up. Jeyne touched his cheek, pulling his attention back to her.
"Tomorrow then? Come by for lunch if you can. Once I'm rested, I'll tell you all about my trip." Jeyne looked up at him through long, dark lashes, and Robb couldn't help himself. He leaned in and gave her a long, soft kiss. He heard two old women passing by the platform gasp and start whispering to each other, clucking like so many hens. When he pulled away from Jeyne he gave them a charming smile. "Ladies."
"Robb!" Jeyne hissed, nudging his side. "Will you behave? Now, you're coming for lunch tomorrow, right?"
"I'll come. I promise." Robb touched his forehead to hers. "We'll take a walk down by the swimming hole after."
"My brother and sister will want to come."
"Let them." Robb brushed a curl off Jeyne's shoulder and glanced back at the wagon. "I've got to get back home."
By the time the trio had returned to Winterfell and Roslin's things had been brought to the small room She and Alice would share, the sun was starting a long, slow slide towards the west. After he'd unhitched the draft horses from the wagon and seen them fed and watered, he saddled up his trusty black mare Midnight and tapped her sides with his heels. He knew Theon would find an excuse to not go see Ellie tomorrow, much like he always did, but Robb had to be able to say that he'd at least tried.
The ride out to the southern pasture was an easy one - all the hard land was to the north and west. The south and east were rolling pastures full of sweet grass, and dotted with sharecroppers' fields. The landscape was broken up with groves of trees, ash and giant, sprawling oaks, whisper-thin evergreens. When the wind was from the south, like it was today, Robb could smell a faint dampness - the smell of the marshlands that surrounded Moat Cailin, a once-prospering farm, miles away.
Midnight pounded across a wide, braided river, leaping easily over a fallen log. Robb gave the mare her head, feeling a thrill in his stomach at the way her strong legs churned through the spring grass. Soon enough he had to rein her in as he reached the pasture. Theon would be around here somewhere...Robb's eyes scanned the thick forest bordering the far side of the pasture and nudged Midnight forward, weaving through the cattle roaming the field.
The sun was starting to set when he entered the forest and the air was cool and purple in the falling dusk. Robb could smell woodsmoke the further he got in, and fought off a yawn. "Theon?" He called after some time. "Theon, quit hiding!"
There was no response, and Robb sighed as he urged Midnight further into the underbrush. To his right he heard a low voice, unintelligible, and a higher-pitched laugh. A woman's laugh.
He slowed Midnight to a stop and dismounted. "Easy girl,” he whispered, only half to his horse. “Hush there. Just follow me."
Robb was careful where he stepped, feeling slightly irritated. He knew about Theon's proclivities at the town's brothel but he'd never thought he would actually steal one of the girls away to go camping in the woods, or that any of them would let him. "That's rich, Greyjoy. A real lark," he muttered.
Midnight whickered and nudged his shoulder. There was a clearing just ahead, and Robb caught glimpses of movement. He slowed his steps, pushing a limb out of the way and the bottom fell out of his stomach.Theon had brought a woman out alright, but not one Robb had ever seen before. She had pale, freckled skin and blazing red hair. She was naked and sitting astride Theon, her head thrown back in pleasure as they made love. She's a Wildling, he realized dully. Her clothing was scattered around them, all buckskin and leather, all handmade. We're supposed to be fighting them and keeping them off this land, not...not this!
Robb would never know what made the redheaded Wildling look his way. Maybe he'd stepped on a branch or coughed. Maybe it was his driving desire to send a round of buckshot into her chest that somehow communicated itself to her. But she whipped around, her eyes cold as she took him in. Her nails dug in to Theon's chest, and when his eyes met Robb's there was shock there and...shame? He sat up half-way, his hands on the Wildling woman's hips even as she was sliding off him, grabbing her bow. Theon scrambled to his feet. “Robb-”
Robb had taken half a step forward when the first arrow hit him in the ribs on the left side, knocking the breath from him like the kick from a horse. Before he could react to that there was a second deep in his gut, a third in his right shoulder. By then he was on his knees, blood pounding in his ears. He struggled to draw a breath as Theon raced to his side, trying to hold him up. How... Theon was yelling something, he couldn't tell what...Robb blinked and coughed. Something warm spattered out of his throat and onto his face.
Theon looked down at him, his face contorted in panic as he struggled to keep a hold on Robb. "You just hang on, Robb. Just stay awake, you hear me?" He glanced away, his panic giving way to anger. “What the Hell are you thinking, Ygritte?”
Hard as Robb tried, he couldn't keep his eyes open. He let them close and felt like he was spinning, caught in a whirlpool. Was this it? Was he dying? He couldn’t be...Jeyne was expecting him tomorrow. They were getting married in a matter of months, and his ma... He said he’d be back for supper...
Robb was dimly aware that Theon couldn’t hold him anymore, was laying him down. The grass was softer than he’d thought it would be - new still, soft and cool and untouched by summer heat or winter frost. He was tired, so tired...he tried to draw another breath but it was so hard...Robb was numb, floating. Theon’s shouts and the Wildling woman’s shrill responses quieted, dimmed. Soon, all sound was lost underneath the white whine in his ears, and Robb sank.