Mya woke with a start. In the twin bed across the small room from her, Roslin lay sprawled on her back, snoring robustly, her hair flung over her face and fluttering with her breath. The room was barely lit, but a tall, lanky form stood next to her bed.
In a rush she remembered. She bolted upright, her blankets slipping down over her shoulder, along with one wide strap of her nightgown. “Oh heavens,” she said, both to herself and to the man.
Roslin, however, slept on, her snores uninterrupted.
“I said dawn.” Theon replied. He was wearing his longcoat and had his hat pulled down low over his eyes. What she could see of his face looked displeased. He spoke just loud enough for her to hear. “Now get dressed.”
Mya scrambled out of bed, her long nightgown tangling around her legs. “I’ll be right down. I’m sorry.”
Theon stared at her a moment, then waved a hand carelessly as he turned to go. “Don’t make me wait any longer.”
Mya scrambled for her clothes the second he shut the door behind him, digging in the trunk at the foot of her bed. Of course none of Sansa’s dresses would be practical but somewhere at the bottom...there. Quickly, quietly, she pulled out the too-big trousers, belt, and shirt she’d arrived in so many weeks ago, dressing quickly. Now that they'd been cleaned, they were surprisingly comfortable as she slipped them on over her bloomers and chemise. Hurriedly, she straightened the blankets on her bed and cast a small smile at the still-sleeping Roslin. She and the girl, both outsiders to this family and their trauma, were becoming fast friends. Mya had never been good at keeping friends, but for now, being able to confide in Roslin was nice.
The atmosphere at Winterfell had been tense and grim since Theon had brought Robb home, bleeding nearly to death. Mrs. Stark had spent nearly all her time in the parlor turned sickroom with him, and the few times Mya had peeked in she'd been holding Robb's hand, stroking his hair from his brow, spooning bits of weak broth between his lips. It twisted Mya's heart to see it, and all she wanted to do was to take the entire Stark clan in her arms and hold them, offer them what comfort she could. They seemed to be stern folk though, stoic. Sansa had stepped into her mother's place for the time being, delegating tasks and chores as best she could, but it was wearing on her. While Sansa wore her grief in her pale face and trembling hands, the younger children were unable to remain so composed. Arya became surly, Bran introspective, and Rickon...Oh, Rickon.
Already a wild, unruly boy, Rickon had gone nearly native. Sansa tried to bring him to heel, but she was unable to control the boy. Mya and Roslin tried, and each bore bruised shins as a result. Something about his impudent face and immature confusion broke Mya's heart even more than the rest of the Starks did. He was so young, and unable to understand he might be losing his biggest brother. Try as she might, Mya was reminded of another little boy, one who’d never drawn breath and whose face she’d never seen. He'd be four now, nearly. The unbidden thought struck her as she was pulling on a sock and it nearly brought her to her knees. No. It's over, it's done, you can't think about it. You can't think about it. You can't think about it.
Repeating the thought until her heart stopped pounding, she took a shaky breath. Roslin stirred, snorted, and rolled over, wedging herself against the wall and tugging the blankets over her head, and Mya stood. Buttoning the fly on her worn trousers, she squared her shoulders and left the bedroom.
The rest of the house, like Roslin, was sleeping. Peacefully, hopefully. They deserve it. Mya stepped over where Grey Wind lay stretched in front of the parlor door and out the kitchen door, fighting off a shiver at the damp morning air. Theon was waiting at the bottom of the porch stairs, leaning against the railing, arms crossed over his lean stomach. He didn’t say a word to Mya as she struggled to pull on her boots, and started for the barn as soon as she straightened. She trotted after him, hurriedly plaiting her hair.
“I’m sorry I overslept.”
“Said that already.” Theon hauled the barn door open and entered, glancing over his shoulder. “Now, first thing’s, we gotta let the horses out.” He stopped by the first stall, collecting a simple bridle and fitting it to the horse inside.
“Why do you even bring them in at night?” Mya stepped to the stall next to Theon and started undoing the latch. “It seems warm enough now.”
“Not that one.” Theon nodded at the horse inside, a large, plump pinto. “She’s due to foal any day now and we don’t want her out in the fields when that happens. And bringing them in at night cuts down on thieves. No smart thief is gonna strike during the day, right?”
“I s’pose not…” Mya chewed on her bottom lip. Theon had a gift, it seemed, of making her feel two inches tall most times he opened his mouth. He wasn’t the first person to do so, but for some reason whenever he did it it bothered Mya more. But she had another reason for her stomach knot. “You get a lot of that up here? Horse thieves?”
“Nah.” Theon led his horse down the barn aisle. “We hang the ones we get, though.”
Mya swallowed hard and tugged at the bridle on the fiery red horse she was now trying to cajole out of its stall. It was sleepy and stubborn, and determined to make itself a boulder. “Come on, you,” she muttered. Theon glanced over his shoulder and smirked, and Mya’s irritation with him started to bloom. “What?”
“You have to blindfold her.” Theon explained slowly, as if Mya was touched in the head. “Bitta doesn’t like to do what she’s told.” Patting his horse on the shoulder, he untied his kerchief from around his neck and handed it to her. “Here. Tie that on either side of the bridle over her eyes. It doesn’t have to go all the way ‘round her head. Make sure the knots are tight.”
“Bitta…” Mya repeated the name to herself as she bound the horse’s eyes, her fingers fumbling slightly under Theon’s scrutiny. “Odd name.”
“It’s short for Bittersweet.” Theon patted his horse on the rump. “Her dam died birthing her. She was a sweet old girl, too.”
There seemed to be a story behind each horse, and Theon knew them all. He rattled them off to Mya as each horse was led out, and for the first time since she’d met him Mya realized these creatures were something Theon actually cared about. It was heartening as she watched him talk about the horses, like she was seeing into some secret place Theon kept just for himself. She paused, wondering if he would keep talking.
He glanced over at her, dark hair hanging in his eyes. "What're you smiling at?" He asked suspiciously.
Mya touched her lips, unaware she'd been smiling at all. "I...nothing. It's just nice to hear you talk about the horses like that, is all. You sound happy when you do. Or not happy." She chewed her lower lip, thinking. "At ease." She wondered if he'd mock her or tease her for such a...well, a flowery thought. He seemed like the type of man who’d have nothing but scorn for most people.
But he didn’t, merely throwing his long frame into a knicked, old wooden chair by one of the stalls, crossing his legs at the ankles. When he spoke again his tone was closed off, curt as it always was. “Alright. Now, all those stalls need mucking out. Pitchfork’s on the wall in the tack room.”
Mya went to retrieve it, then hesitated. “There’s only one.”
“I know. I’m teachin’’.” Theon folded his arms and gave her a sharp smirk when she glared at him. “Now get to it. Ain’t got all day.”
By the time Mya finished mucking out the long row of stalls she was dripping with sweat, and her arm was throbbing. Swiping an arm across her forehead, she gripped the handles of her full wheelbarrow and tried to heft the waste outside, only to drop the wheels back to the ground as her arm again flared hot with pain. She clutched it, biting back a groan, and rubbed the thin, feeble limb. It was an annoyance, the weakness. It hurt to brush her hair, to clean her teeth, if she slept on it wrong...Mya knew Doc Luwin had said it would take time to build up strength again, but she had no time for patience.
At the end of the barn aisle Theon stood, stretching slightly, and ambled towards her. "What's wrong? Your arm still?"
Mya went to shake her head, but stopped. It'd be pointless to lie. " 's nothing. Just a little stiff, is all. Doc said it might be like that for a bit."
Theon sighed. “Fine, just leave the wheelbarrow there. I’ll take care of it. Gods know there ain’t like to be another homeless girl wanderin’ in to help me if you hurt yourself again too. C’mon. I want to see how you shoot.”
An hour later, it was determined that Mya shot poorly.
"No, here, watch me." Theon said irritably, snatching the .22 out of Mya's hands. "Now, you watching?" At her nod, he raised the butt of the gun to his shoulder, squinted at the line of tin cans he'd set up some 50 yards away as targets, and picked them off one by one. "There. See what you're doing wrong? I'm going to go set them up again and then you do it. But don’t you dare shoot that gun ‘less I’m standing right next t’you. Last thing I want is to get a rump full of buckshot. Understand?"
"No," Mya muttered, but only when Theon was out of earshot. Every time she aimed at the tin cans and missed, he scoffed and scowled and told her she was doing everything wrong, but not how to fix it. Mya may be a lousy shot, but Theon was a lousy teacher. He was short-tempered, rude, assuming...it just made Mya want to do better though. Or it made her want to give him that rump full of buckshot. She couldn’t decide, but she knew she wanted to please him. Watching him stride back to her in an impatient huff, she wondered if she’d be able to.
"You got that reloaded?" He jerked his head at the gun, and Mya started out of her thoughts.
Theon sighed and grabbed the gun away, loading it quickly and efficiently. "There. Now. There are five cans down on those fenceposts."
"I can count, y'know."
His flint eyes were sharp as he glared at her. "I don't need any of your sass, girl. You’ve been shooting like you can’t damn well see."
Mya withered instantly under his gaze. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I just...can you show me how to hold the gun, at least? This is the first time I've ever had to shoot anything."
Heaving another sigh, Theon pushed his hair off his forehead and nodded once. "Fine. Here...turn your shoulders like this..." Placing his hands on her shoulders, he turned her this way and that, lining up her shoulders, then her hips, gripping them lightly, but firmly. It sent a jolt through her to have someone’s hands on her, even though it had been mere weeks since she’d been for sale. This was different, though. Theon didn’t want her; he merely wanted to teach her. "There. Now. Put the butt of the gun against your shoulder like this, and hold it steady. You right or left-handed?"
"Left, but don't tell my old schoolmaster. Said left-handedness was the product of the Stranger."
Theon snorted under his breath and switched her hands around. "Stranger. Please. You’re ‘bout as dangerous as stale bread. There. Now, see that bead at the end of the barrel? Aim that right at the can and then just squeeze the trigger."
Mya tried to do as she was told, but her arm was trembling and the gun seemed so heavy. She took a deep, steadying breath, inhaling the scent of grass and leather, this morning's coffee and some unidentifiable musk, and squinted down the barrel. Her vision blurred for an instant, and when it cleared she squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked back against her shoulder, driving her back against Theon's chest. He stumbled and with a harsh curse grabbed her waist to keep them both from tumbling backwards .
Squinting down at the far end of the garden, Mya laughed delightedly. The can she’d aimed at was laying in a clump of Mrs. Stark’s tomato plants with a noticeable dent in the side. “I hit it!”
Theon released her waist slowly, not quite meeting her gaze. “Winged it, more like.”
The little bubble of excitement in Mya’s chest popped. “I got close, at least.”
“Close,” Theon agreed, and took the gun from her. “That’s enough of that though. You can practice more later. We’ve gotta ride out and get the herd from one field t’the next. Let’s go saddle up.”
He started towards the horse’s pasture and whistled sharply. At the far end of the field Mya saw the long, elegant head of a blood bay perk up, and his stallion cantered towards the fence. He really was a magnificent creature, Mya decided. Not that she knew that much about magnificent creatures or beauty, let alone how horses were supposed to look. But with his rippling chocolate coat and flowing black mane, he looked picture perfect to her.
Her old stolen gelding Fatty, on the other hand...Mya sighed. As far as she could tell, Fatty was supposed to be a strawberry roan, with a rich red and white flecked coat. The only problem was that he had a habit of rolling in the dusty patches of the field, every day. In addition to being swayback, dirty, and now overweight, he was knock-kneed, and he snapped at the farrier every time the man tried to file down his hooves. Right now, he was contentedly rubbing his rump on a fence post under one of the sprawling oaks that dotted the landscape. She cupped her hands around her mouth.
“Fatty! C’mere, you! C’mon!”
The horse, predictably, ignored her. Mya had known he would: he didn’t know his name, after all. She bit her lip again and glanced over at Theon, who was attaching a lead to Smiler’s bridle. He was watching and looked amused. When Mya went to call Fatty again he shook his head, leading his stallion instead to her.
“Forget taking that old heap. I checked his teeth - he’s gotta be twenty years old if he’s a day. Any more hard riding’ll do him in. Didn’t you know that?”
“I…” Mya swallowed. She didn’t know the first thing about Fatty other than the fact that he was the first horse she’d seen when she’d fled the brothel who was still saddled up. Feeling like she was edging into dangerous territory, she just shook her head. “I didn’t know.”
“You’re damn lucky your ride up from King’s Landing didn’t kill him. He was in terrible shape when he got up here-”
“So was I!” Mya interjected.
“Worse than you.” Theon was glowering now and Mya, again, withered. “Missing two shoes, a cracked hoof, his tail was so matted I damn near cut it off, he was wormy, dehydrated-”
“We had a hard ride up. You know that!”
“This wasn’t from a hard ride.” Theon took a step towards her, suddenly seeming much taller in his anger. “This was from years of neglect.”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded small. “I wasn’t...someone else was taking care of him. I guess they weren’t very good at it.” It wasn’t entirely a lie, but all it did was make Theon’s gaze sharpen with suspicion. She cleared her throat and tried to change the subject. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”
Theon looked away, still visibly angry, and spat on the ground. “Robb told me not to. Said you had enough to deal with. I told him it was bullshit but-” he shook his head abruptly, and they were silent for a moment while Mya thought.
“Now that my arm’s better, I’ll take better care of him. Can...can you show me how?” When he didn’t answer right away, she reached out and touched his arm. His skin was hotter than she expected and for a moment she didn’t want to let go. “I just want to make sure I do it right. He deserves better than what he’s gotten from me. And you know what you’re doing.”
Heaving a huge sigh, Theon scrubbed a hand over his face. “Godsdammit. Fine. I’ll show you when we get back.”
Mya beamed at him. “Thank you. I mean it.” Theon merely grunted. “So if I’m not riding him, who’m I using?”
Theon scanned the field, dotted with horses, shielding his eyes with a hand, and nodded to where a gleaming black horse was grazing. “That one there. Midnight. She’s Robb’s, so she knows the land. She’s sure-footed, and gentle enough for you.” He gave another whistle, a different one than the one that had called Smiler, and Midnight trotted smoothly towards them.
“Do they all have their own whistles?” Mya asked.
“All the ones I trained.” Theon handed her a second bridle and nodded towards Midnight. “Rope ‘er and bring ‘er in.”
Midnight was a taller horse than Fatty, and Theon glanced over at Mya as they mounted up outside the barn. He had a length of rope tied into a lasso at his hip, and was screwing the cap on a leather canteen that would be tucked into his saddlebag. Mya pretended not to notice as his eyes slid over her body, but her stomach gave a queasy, fluttery twist. She'd grown up with men staring at her, but Theon's gaze was different. It seemed to go straight through her. “Well, you don’t have the worst seat I’ve ever seen.”
“I’ll pretend that was a compliment,” Mya replied dryly. Of course he was looking for something to critique her on. “Who was the worst?”
“Sansa.” Theon wheeled Smiler around and nudged him into a trot, heading for a rutted path into the woods. “She was twelve before she could get on a horse without winding up backwards.”
The day had warmed considerably since the cool morning, and the ride through the open fields was easy and smooth. Midnight followed Smiler’s lead, easing into a canter and Mya gripped the reins hard, trying to look as comfortable in her saddle as Theon did. As they approached a small copse of trees, he slowed Smiler to a trot. “We’re nearly there. Just through the woods here-” A quiet bird call interrupted him, strong but soft at the same time. Theon spun in his seat, his jaw clenched. His eyes narrowed, sharpened and he rested a hand on the butt of his rifle. The call came again and this time Mya saw Theon’s pulse leap in his throat.
“It’s just a-” Mya started, but Theon silenced her with a glare. He opened his mouth to respond but before he could there was a crack, and a rustle, and a bush on the side of the narrow path exploded as a bird burst forth from it. Mya jumped, her heart in her throat, but Theon merely slumped a little, as if a fight had suddenly gone out of him. He scrubbed a hand over his face, and Mya was surprised to see it was shaking.
She maneuvered her horse over to his, her eyebrows knit together, and touched his arm. “Are you alright?”
He jerked his arm away, his eyes closed as he took a breath. “Fine. It was just a bird.” He exhaled and seemed to collect himself, nudging Smiler forward. “It was just a godsdamn bird.”
Mya stared as he continued down the trail, his shoulders slumped. What was that? Midnight snorted, tugging at the reins, and startled Mya out of her thoughts. “Go on.” She gave the horse a gentle kick and they were off again.
Theon kept Strider at a steady canter until they reached the pasture, the horse’s strong legs churning up the trail. Midnight kept up with the stallion easily, and didn’t seem to need Mya to steer her that much. The pasture was large and green, rolling hills rising up to meet the soft spring sky, the grass waving in the wind. Innumerable cattle dotted the field, all placidly grazing. A few calves romped here and there, none too far from their mothers. Theon reined Smiler to a halt and reached into his saddlebag, pulling out the canteen and taking a long pull on it before offering it to Mya. The water inside was warm, but she didn't realize how parched she'd gotten until it hit her throat.
"Easy." Theon reached over took it back from her after a moment. "That's gotta last us all day."
"Sorry." Mya swiped her sleeve across her lips, slightly abashed. She cleared her throat. "So...we're moving cows?"
"Herding cattle. And you just do what I tell you, understand?" Theon tucked the canteen away and patted Smiler's neck. "I'd wait until Robb was better before doing this, but he won't be able to ride for weeks. Months, maybe."
"So he's doing better?" The wind was tugging Mya's hair out of her braid, and she tried to tuck it behind her ear. It proved fruitless, though. She hadn't been allowed to see more than a peek of Robb since he'd been attacked, on Doc Luwin's orders. Instead she'd done what she could around the house, helping Roslin see to meals, taking care of Bran, Rickon and Arya while Mrs. Stark would sit with her eldest son.
"He's not dead," Theon replied shortly. "That's all I know. That’s all they’ll let me know. Now, what I want you to do is ride to the far end of the field and divide the herd in two..." Theon barked out a long string of complicated-sounding orders. Mya listened, or tried to. She saw his lips moving, heard his voice, but his words made no sense to her. Finally he stopped. "Understand all that?"
Mya swallowed hard. "I...uh...yes sir."
Theon blinked at the 'sir', but he sat a little straighter and Mya thought he may have liked it. "Then get to it."
Oh no. Biting her lower lip, Mya dug her heels into Midnight's side. By some miracle or another, the mare broke into her steady trot, and Mya headed for the far end of the field. She tried to remember what Theon's directions were, but they were all garbled in her head. She could see him waiting at the opposite end, and that he was impatient. He wasn't moving, and if he was talking she certainly could not hear him, but Theon had been irritated with her since that stormy night they'd met; why should that change now?
"Alright, cows," she muttered. "You've done this more than I have."
She and Midnight started forward, trying to divide the herd, but they were having none of it. Hundreds of liquid dark eyes stared balefully at her as she rode between them. Countless mouths chewed their cud, and occasionally a tail would flick a fly away. Other than that, she may as well have not even been there.
"C'mon, move!" Mya pleaded. She could see Theon gesturing angrily to her, and she sighed. "I hope you're all steaks by the year's end."
"What in the seven hells are you doing?" Theon barked at her when she got into earshot. "Weren't you listening at all?"
"I was but I've never done this before! You're giving me all these orders and I haven't a clue what you're saying!" Mya bit back, eyes welling with frustration. "I'm trying."
Theon rolled his eyes. "Then why don't you--" He stopped suddenly, cocking his head towards the woods behind them.
"What is it, another bird?" Mya groused, but she heard it now too. Approaching hoofbeats...
A shape moved through the woods, and as Theon reached for his gun it burst into the sunlight. It took Mya a moment to reconcile it -- it was young Bran, hunched over the neck of his pudgy dappled pony, which had been ridden to the point of frothing.
"Theon!" Bran's voice was shrill as he heeled his pony towards them.
"What is it, kid?" Theon tucked the gun away. "Your ma know you're out this far on your own?"
"Uh-huh." Bran's cheeks were red, his auburn hair a mess. "She sent me. Miss Ellie and Miss Margaery are back at the house and Ma wants you to come back."
"Hellfire..." Theon scowled at the cattle, then back at Bran. "Ellie can wait. Tell Sansa to keep her entertained."
"That's not why Ma wants you."
"Dammit, Bran, stop wastin' my time. Alice here's done plenty of that. Just tell me what your ma wants."
Mya looked back and forth between Theon and Brann, and the boy's eyes were so piercingly blue, his face suddenly so old. He sat up straighter on his pony. "Robb's awake."
For an instant Theon looked somewhere between overwhelming relief and fear. His mouth opened, then shut. He stared at Bran a moment longer, then without another word he drove his heels into Smiler's sides and wheeled in the direction of Winterfell.