Theon stormed out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind him. He felt sick; he was covered in blood, Robb’s blood, you idiot, and behind him he could hear Cat’s frantic questions, Doc Luwin barking commands to Doctor Westerling, Grey Wind’s whining. Somewhere over all that one of the younger kids was crying, a keening sound that went straight through him.
“Godsdammit. GodsDAMMIT.” Theon clenched a fist and slammed it into the rough-hewn side of the barn. The pain was dull, too dull, and he did it again and again until his knuckles were bloodied and swollen and even then it wasn’t enough.
The last few hours were a blur. One minute he’d been gripping Ygritte’s hips, lost in her feel, and the next he’d seen Robb’s face ghost pale in the cool woods as he gaped at them. Theon couldn’t remember if he’d said anything or not. Ygritte had been too fast - she’d leapt off him and had put three arrows into Robb before he could so much as blink. He’d screamed at her, but again the words escaped his memory. All that had mattered was Robb.
Theon didn’t remember pulling on his clothes but he did remember how limp Robb was when he pulled him onto Smiler. He had an arm wrapped around Robb’s torso, struggling to keep him upright. Robb was a dead weight, no better than a sack of grain, and his head lolled sickeningly. Without a glance back at Ygritte, who was standing in stunned silence, he’d seized Midnight’s reins as well as Smiler’s and had pounded west towards Winterfell.
He’d come across Jory Cassel’s wheat fields and had urged Smiler through them, heedless of the tender green shoots slapping against his shins. The farmer had glared when he’d seen Theon coming, but only for a moment. “Go into town!” Theon had barely slowed down. “Send the doc to the ranch!” Sending Jory would save him time - he was close enough to town that if he could get word to Doc Luwin fast enough, the doctor might be able to beat him back to Winterfell.
That had worked. Both of the town doctors were waiting, and Theon would never forget the way Cat screamed when she saw her son, limp and grey. Theon had seen Sansa and Alice on the stairs, pale and shocked, and had hurried towards them. “Keep the younger ones upstairs. Keep ‘em out of the way.”
Robb had been taken into the parlor, and Doctor Westerling, who was slated to become Robb’s father-in-law at the end of the summer, had pushed Theon back when he tried to follow. “Not you, Greyjoy. Just me and Doc Luwin.” Theon had tried to argue even as the door was shutting in his face, and now here he was, pummelling the side of the barn and sick with anger, betrayal and fear.
He’d trusted Ygritte, confided in her. She knew him better than anyone, even Robb. She knew he thought of the boy like a brother. And she killed him. Bile rose in Theon’s throat, and he doubled over, gripping the barn wall with one hand as he retched.
“Theon?” His head jerked up, his eyes streaming. Alice was standing a few feet away, her face white and still. She held a rolled up bit of cloth in her arms, hugging it to her chest.
“What.” His voice was hoarse and dull in the falling dusk, and he swiped a hand across his mouth. “He’s dead, ain’t he. Just tell me.”
Alice shook her head jerkily, some of her black hair escaping her messy braid. “N-no. I don’t think so, anyway. The doctors are still working. They haven’t said anything.”
Theon sat heavily on an old pine stump, resting his elbows on his thighs. He wished the stupid girl would just leave him alone. Girls were what had gotten him into this mess. Blasted women. He’d never had much luck attracting any good ones, especially in Robb’s shadow, and lately he was like shit and they were like flies. “What do you want, then?” he snapped.
He heard her footsteps, surprisingly soft. “I thought you might want this.”
Theon glanced up and saw what he first thought to be a handkerchief rag was actually one of his shirts. The fine bones of her hand, wrapped in pale, pearly skin, stood out against the red cloth. Red, like Ygritte’s hair. Red, like Robb’s blood.
For a minute he wanted to yell at her and push her away. Why the fuck would he care about what he was wearing? He stood abruptly, a hand flying up on its own accord to strike her, and his stomach quaked when he saw her flinch. After a moment, he let it fall and tried to take a breath, to calm down a little, forcing his gaze away from her.
The whole night was quiet and calm and it wasn’t right. The world should be raging, screaming at his stupidity and blindness. And yet here she was, just standing there, still as the night falling around them.
She’s just tryin’ to be nice. Ain’t her fault. He glanced at her through his bangs, full of anger and guilt, and swiped it from her. “Thanks.”
Alice was looking at him warily as he took it. “It’s nothin’. Just a shirt but…” She shrugged. Theon could see the questions on her lips: What happened? Who did this?...but to her credit, she held them back and for that he was thankful. She nodded back at the stump. “Sit down.”
Theon yanked his ruined, bloodstained shirt over his head and tossed it aside. It lay crumpled on the ground, the blood dried to a grotesque brown. He hadn’t realized how much blood had been on it, and the sight of it now nearly made him sick again. The night air felt cool on his hot skin, and he slumped on the stump again. He watched, expressionless, as Alice dipped her rag in the rain barrel and turned back to him. “Hold still. You’re covered in…” She swallowed hard. “You’re a real mess.”
She gently dabbed Robb’s blood off his face and neck, remaining quiet the whole time while Theon gritted his teeth. Rinsing the cloth and wringing it out, she sighed. “Let me see your hand.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my hand.” He flexed it, opening the many small cuts between his knuckles even more. Blood beaded up and dripped between his fingers and while it stung, he welcomed the pain. He deserved the pain.
When he looked at her, Alice’s expression was exasperated and one that Theon was used to getting from Sansa or Cat. When she saw him looking though, she glanced away quickly. She's still afraid I'll hit her. She knelt in front of him, sweeping the skirt of her lavender dress under her knees. Wrapping her fingers around his wrist, she wiped his own blood off his knuckles. She wasn’t as gentle when she started pulling splinters out, and Theon bit back a grunt when she pulled a particularly large shard out from between his ring and middle fingers. “Easy, girl.”
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t raise her eyes and looking at her - kneeling on the ground, her thin shoulders slumped and her head bowed - Theon had the sudden inkling that she had spent a lot of time apologizing for things that weren’t her fault. He shoved the thought aside roughly. There were more important things on his mind.
“ ‘s ok. You didn’t put them there.” Theon stood and raked a hand through his hair while Alice tied her handkerchief around his hand. Her touch was firm but timid at the same time, and Theon wondered if he was imagining the way her hands were shaking. “Go on back to the house. Tell Cat...tell Mrs. Stark I’ve got some things to take care of.”
Not bothering to wait for her response, he entered the barn and went straight to Smiler’s stall. The stallion had his muzzle buried in a grain bucket, and snorted when he saw Theon. “I don’t want to hear it,” he said shortly. “You and me gotta go back out.”
He tried to keep his mind focused purely on the ride back out to the pasture, praying to whoever was listening that Ygritte was still in the area while at the same time hoping she wasn't. Their campsite was easy to find. The fire was still smouldering, and the underbrush where he'd torn through on Smiler was still bent and broken. Theon dismounted and looked around the clearing for any sign of Ygritte, trying to remember what he was here for. His fists clenched and the skin over his knuckles broke again, started bleeding. It didn't seem real that he had been so happy just a few hours ago, so content. It seemed like a dream, and now he was in a nightmare.
A low, undulating birdcall disturbed the dusk: a whippoorwill. The sound speared through Theon, burning somewhere deep, and he had to force himself to breathe. It came again and her name came out in a hot rush. It had been one of their signals to each other. "Ygritte."
She emerged from a clump of bog birch and cliffrose, moving cautiously. "Y'came back. Wasn't sure you would." Ygritte looked him up and down, coming no closer. “And unarmed, y’lunkhead.”
Theon's eyes lingered on her throat, where a red suckmark still lingered. He'd put it there and now he wanted to cut it from her skin, to remove any hint that he’d touched her or loved her. It took him a long while before he could look at her face. He'd memorized every freckle, the soft curve of her cheek, the exact color of her eyes and the gap in her teeth and he felt like he was looking at a stranger. "Why'd you do it, Ygritte?"
"He saw us.”
“So? He was my brother, my-”
“He was one’a them. One a those people you go on about hating.”
“That doesn’t mean he should die!”
She straightened up, lips tight. “You’re not supposed to be seen with other women, right? He was gonna run back to your keepers and then they'd never let you out again. You'd be trapped."
“He’d have kept quiet, if you’d just let me talk to him! And now, thanks to you, he can’t speak at all!” Theon droped his face in his hands to push back the tears, break through the crack in his voice, and when he looked up, she was walking towards him.
"No." The word was thick in his throat, but he forced it out and forced himself to step away from her. "He's the closest thing to family I've got-"
"I'm the closest thing to family you've got. And you are mine." Barefoot and quiet as a doe, she stepped over brush and twig and her hand reached up to touch his face. It was cool, and he swatted it away.
Ygritte's voice was suddenly sharp as a knife. "I am your family, Theon, and you're mine, more than you know. So come with me like we talked about. We'll be miles away by sunrise."
"Theon, I did it for us. So we could be together. Just us, like we want to." She tilted her head, and he realized she honestly didn't think she'd done anything wrong.
Theon felt like he was being strangled. "I said no."
"You're saying that because you're upset." Ygritte’s hand returned, to trail down his shirt, and for a moment he wished he'd kept the bloodstained one on to show her what she'd done. "Stay with me tonight, and tomorrow we'll-"
"No." Theon gripped her wrist and pushed her away. Alice had washed the blood from him but he could still smell it, rising from him in a noxious cloud. Ygritte would kill again for him, kill everyone, and suddenly he wanted no part of her allure. She was a huntress, and she didn’t care who he loved, because he, and all of them, were her prey. "I'm going back to Winterfell. And mark my words - if I ever see you, or hear you, or so much as smell you again, I'll kill you."
Ygritte blinked, and her features hardened. Her eyes grew cold, welling up as her hands clenched into fists. Part of Theon expected her to fling her hunting knife into his chest. Part of him welcomed the thought.
" 's that how you want it, then?” she said bitterly. “Fine. I'll go. But you have no idea what you're giving up." She turned on her bare heel and disappeared back into the brush. After a rustling of leaves, Theon heard her mount her horse and gallop away.
Just like that, she was gone.
Theon stood in the empty clearing next to a dying fire for a long time after Ygritte fled, staring at a patch of bent-over, bloodstained grass, his mind numb and his chest feeling overly full and empty at the same time. The moon was swinging high by the time he mounted Smiler again, and he let the horse steer himself back to Winterfell. The stallion knew the way.
The sight of Winterfell lit up - all the windows blazing with light - didn't warm Theon the way he hoped it would. All that lay inside were questions that he'd have to answer, and which he didn't know if he could lie his way out of. And Robb. If Robb was dead, he'd never be able to live with himself; he certainly wouldn’t be able to live with the Starks any longer. They may as well dig Theon’s grave next to Robb’s.
But if he lived…
They would know what had happened, unequivocally, and run him out. Robb’s disappointment would be unbearable. Theon prickled at the thought, and suddenly, unexpectedly, a wave of pride swept through him, making him sit up straighter on his horse. Greyjoys were bred not to feel shame. That was something his father had drilled into him when Theon was a boy. No matter what they judged of him, he wouldn’t apologize. What good would it do, anyway?
You've been with the Starks more than half your life, though. You're as much a Stark as a Greyjoy. And Starks are honor and truth and loyalty. So what does that make you? Can you have honor with no shame, loyalty to blood that’s not yours?
Dragging his feet, Theon mounted the back steps and pulled the kitchen door open. The room was ominously empty, and he continued across the narrow hall to the main sitting room where the family had gathered. Sansa was on the davenport, her arms wrapped around a dozing Rickon, while Bran curled up against her side. His eyes were wide and dark, giving him a wizened look. Arya was squatting in front of the fire, throwing pinecones into it with a mechanical regularity. No one jumped when they popped, suggesting she’d been at it for sometime. Alice was curled up on one of the sitting chairs opposite Cat, and a short brown-haired girl, maybe Sansa’s age, maybe Alice’s, lurked near the mantle. They all stared at Theon expectantly, suspiciously, as he entered, and he felt as though he was about to be shot, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.
“Theon.” Cat spoke first, and she sounded as though she’d aged twenty years in a day. She stood rigidly, brushing her hands over her skirt. “What happened?” The room was silent save for another unnoticed pop in the fireplace, and Theon swallowed hard. He glanced at the younger kids, then back to their mother, and she nodded. “Roslin, Alice, would you mind…?”
Alice and the stranger by the mantle nodded and ushered the younger kids upstairs, with Arya protesting the entire way. Once silence had fallen again, Theon threw himself onto the davenport and rubbed his face. “How is he?”
“The doctors are staying with him.” Catelyn responded after a moment. “They’re not sure if…” She cleared her throat and sat again. The look she gave him was cold. “Theon, tell me what happened to my son.”
Theon’s mind raced to come up with a lie, and stopped on a partial truth instead. “Wildlings. Well. A Wildling. Ambushed him. Ambushed us.”
“Wildlings?” Sansa’s eyes were wide with fear. “But...you were south of here. They’re not supposed to be that far south.”
“It was just one.” Theon glanced at her, unable to hold her gaze. “And he’s taken care of.” He didn’t know why he hadn’t said ‘She’. If he even acknowledged Ygritte’s gender the entire story might come spilling out and then what?
“You killed him?” Cat leaned forward slightly, her hands clenched as if she expected a Wildling raiding party to burst into the room and scalp them all. “Are you sure? Are you sure there was only one?”
“Yes ma’am.” Theon couldn't look at any of them, and stared at the flames instead. They danced the way Ygritte’s hair would dance in the wind. Numb as he tried to keep himself, Theon felt like Smiler had kicked him in the gut. “He’s gone.”
Doc Luwin sent Doctor Westerling home at dawn for rest, and when Theon entered the kitchen after a sleepless night pacing the sitting room, the old man was dozing at the kitchen table, his bald head propped on one hand. The room was warm from the fireplace, as always, but not bright. Clouds filled the sky outside, and a cool, foggy mist drifted across the yard. A pot of coffee sat on the stove, and when Theon poured a mug for the doctor, it smelled burnt and acrid. “I’ll brew you up a fresh pot,” he mumbled.
“No need, son.” Doc Luwin sounded as tired as he looked, and he held out a hand. “I’ll take it. The worse it tastes, the quicker it’ll wake me up.” He took a sip and pulled a face as it went down. “Sit down.”
“Will Robb live?” Theon eased his weary frame into a chair.
The doc sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing a hand over the grey-white stubble on his jaw. “Maybe. Too soon to tell. One of the arrows hit his small intestine and...well, I’ll spare you the details but my hope is that won’t fester. The arrow in his chest punctured a lung. By the time you got him back here half his chest was filled with blood.”
“I was ridin’ as fast as I could, doc.” Theon could hear the plaintive tone in his voice.
“I know you did, son. No one’s blaming you here. He was lucky you were there.” Doc Luwin reached over and patted Theon’s arm. “If he makes it through till tomorrow morning, I’d wager money that he’ll live. He’ll be out of action for a long time, but he’ll live.”
Just then, the kitchen door swung open and the brunette girl from the night before stood framed in the doorway. She was dressed for sleep in a long, sleeveless white gown, her dark brown hair in a braid over her shoulder. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and upon seeing them, wrapped it tighter around herself. Her large, doe eyes darted back and forth between Theon and the doctor. "I'm sorry, I didn't know ya'll were up. I was going to fix some breakfast for Mrs. Stark."
The doctor stood, offering the girl his chair despite his obvious bone-weariness. "There's nothing to apologize for, child. I don't believe we've met...?"
"Oh, I'm sorry." Flustered, the girl twisted the end of her braid. "I'm Roslin Frey. I'm meant to be the schoolteacher. The Starks are puttin' me up for the time being. I just got here yesterday." She glanced quickly at Theon, then away. "This is all so awful. I feel so bad for Mrs. Stark. She was up all night." Her cheeks blazed red. "Though I suppose you know that."
Doc Luwin shook her small hand and guided her to the chair. "I do, Miss Frey. I'll fix Mrs. Stark some tea, and then with any luck, you can convince her to get some rest. She'll need it these next few weeks. Now...you're from the south, aren't you."
Roslin nodded and Theon stood abruptly. "Doc, I gotta see Robb..."
"You'll do no such thing, son." Luwin's tone was firm and paternal and it drove Theon crazy. "He's not awake yet, I told you. He needs rest right now. So do you."
Theon grit his teeth and fought off the urge to punch the old man. "What I need, Doc, is for people to quit tellin' me what to do, and to see my friend." He glanced at Roslin, who was staring at her hands, her ears red. "You sure picked the worst time to show up here, Miss Frey. Enjoy your stay, and tell Mrs. Stark I'm goin' into town."
The cold mist turned to a steady, driving rain by that afternoon, and it continued for four days straight. During that time, Theon would rise from his bed every grey morning, do the morning chores he and Robb had split up before, and as soon as he could he would make an excuse to go into town.
He always wound up at the brothel, getting drunk off bad whiskey and landing in bed with at least two of the whores. But none of them were good enough. None of them were Ygritte. None of them had her rough laugh, her passion, her heartbeat. None of them knew his body and soul the way she had. They were barely enough to take the edge off the tension that was coiling hot in his chest, barely enough to quiet the rage that threatened to burn him.
As soon as he was done with them, he'd make his way back to the ranch, and continue to do the work of two men. It proved to be impossible, and it was starting to show. He knew he reeked of whiskey, and saw how people were starting to stare. Word had spread of Robb’s injury, and the few townsfolk who had grown the stones to ask him about it had barely escaped with all their teeth.
“Let them stare,” he muttered to Smiler one wet evening. “Let them fucking stare all they want.”
Robb didn't wake up during those four days, but Doc Luwin didn't seem concerned. The more he slept, the more strength he could recover. He and Doctor Westerling made frequent trips out to check on him though, and the second day Doctor Westerling brought Jeyne. Theon normally didn't have a problem with Robb's fiancee, but the way her chin wibbled, and the way her eyes welled, started to drive him up the wall. She would sit with Robb and hold his hand, telling him all about the next big party the town was having, how he had to wake up so they could dance together. Like he would even care about a fucking dance. Infuriatingly, he had to watch as she took over the role of Robb’s nursemaid, often ushering people out when it was time for her father or Doc Luwin to change Robb’s bandages or bathe him. The only person she couldn’t ban from the room was Catelyn.
The only person they didn’t let in at all was Theon. Even Arya, Bran, and Rickon were allowed to see their older brother for a few minutes every other day, but as soon as Theon tried, Jeyne would materialize and bar his entrance.
And Jeyne was always there. Every single time Theon came home, she was there.
Theon couldn’t blame her, not really. She and Robb had been childhood sweethearts and were set to marry, so why wouldn’t she want to be here? But still...she’s not the only one who cares about him.
On the third day, Theon got five minutes alone with Robb when Jeyne had to step out to the outhouse. Sneaking in, Theon found the parlor, which had been converted to a sickroom, a hard place to be, and he was happy, for a split second, that Robb was unconscious. The air was stifling and thick, full of the smell of sickness and medicine. The drapes had been pulled shut, the windows latched, and it was all he could do to not throw them open and let some fresh air in.
He sat next to his best friend and brushed a hand across his clammy brow. Robb’s face was pale and drawn, his skin starting to look paperish as it stretched across his cheekbones. His beard was growing in, scraggly and red, and Theon knew Robb would hate it.
"I'm so sorry, pal. This is...this is all my fault." Robb's eyes flicked back and forth behind closed lids, and Theon pressed his lips together. "For fuck's sake, Robb. Just wake up and yell at me already."
Behind him there was a quiet cough and Theon just about leapt out of his skin. "I'm sorry, Theon, Mrs. Stark's looking for you." It was Alice again, her hands folded at her slender waist.
Theon cleared his throat, in turns angry and embarrassed at being caught talking to someone who would most likely never respond. He brushed past Alice brusquely, and she flinched away from him. "Next time, knock."
It was like they took away one man, and suddenly the house was fucking full of women. They haunted the place like ghosts; all pale and scared and silent. He couldn’t get away from the damn things, and they were always getting in his way.
Cat was waiting for him in the formal dining room, her hands resting on the back of Ned's chair. She wasted no time. "We need help around here, Theon. There's too much work for one man to do by himself, and the boys aren't old enough. T'morrow I want you to ride over to Jory Cassel's and see if Dacey can spare him for a time."
"He can't leave her and the twins. Not this time a' year." Theon shook his head. "I'll do better, Mrs. Stark. I'll get up earlier and see to-"
"Theon." Cat's voice was softer than he'd heard it in a long while. Softer than it had ever been when she spoke to him. "Theon, I know how torn up you are about Robb, but you're going to work yourself into the ground. And that’s not what we want. But…” She sighed, pressing her lips together. “You're right. Jory's got too much going on to leave his family, and I guess I can't ask him to. I'll have to write Jeor Mormont, see if he can track down Ned and Jon and send them back. It'll be next to impossible...but what else can we do?"
"I don't know." Theon shook his head. Behind him there was a quiet knock on the doorframe, and for the second time Alice nearly scared the wits out of him. He fought off the urge to throw up his hands. Odds were that’d send the girl fleeing in tears. "What now?"
"May I come in?" Alice was talking to Cat, not Theon. At Cat's nod, Alice slipped in and let the dining room door swing shut behind her. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, honestly, but I couldn't help but hear..." Theon sighed and made a 'Get on with it' gesture at Alice, ignoring Cat's scolding look. Alice knotted her hands together. "I want to help."
"I appreciate that, Alice, and I appreciate the help you've given with the younger kids, and around the house." Cat just looked tired now and Theon’s irritation grew. This isn’t the time. Couldn’t the damn dumb girl see that?
"No, I mean..." Here Alice glanced at Theon, those big blue eyes of hers wrought with nerves. "I want to help you, Theon. With what Robb did. With...riding out on the range. You’ve been so kind, letting me stay here while I healed, and I haven’t been able to pay you back.”
Theon and Cat stared at her for a moment, and then Theon laughed derisively. “Are you jokin’?”
“No.” Alice shook her head. “I mean it, I want to help.”
“What, you expect to just hop on Fatty and...I don’t know, go out to the pastures and pick wildflowers?” He snorted. “Don’t be stupid. It’s work out there. Hard work, not women’s work.”
“Theon.” Cat silenced him with a word and turned her attention back to Alice. “That’s kind of you to offer, Alice, but it’s a lot more work than you realize, and I can’t let you put yourself in that sort of position. And you don’t know the first thing about what Theon and Robb do.”
“Theon can teach me.” Alice turned to him with such hope and determination on her face that Theon didn’t know if he wanted to roll his eyes or punch her. “I’m a fast learner, and I can already ride. Sort of.”
“Can you shoot?” Theon turned to face her, his arms crossed. “Can you hunt? Start a fire? Round up cattle? You ever had to put a wounded animal out of its misery?”
She seemed to shrink before him, all except her eyes. Those remained on his face, hardening slightly. “No. But I can learn.”
“You wanna learn, go talk to the little teacher.” Theon jerked his head toward the door.
“That’s enough, Theon.” Cat’s voice had regained its familiar sharpness, and it was almost comforting, a hint of the normalcy that had been turned on its head. “Alice, dear, if you really want to help out with the outside chores while Robb is recovering I’d be glad to have you stay on. And,” her tone grew more pointed while Theon glowered, “I’m sure Theon will be glad to help you learn the ropes. Won’t you, Theon.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Theon replied shortly. “But if you get yourself killed, ‘s not my fault.”
Alice didn’t flinch away at his tone, staring at him evenly. It made Theon unaccountably uncomfortable and he was suddenly anxious to leave the room. “When do we start?”
Theon tried to figure out some way to get out of this, but he knew when he was cornered. “Be ready at dawn.”