The only light in the parlor was coming from the gas lamp on the table next to the davenport where Robb lay, and the air was still thick and sickly. The only thing that had changed was that Robb was awake, propped up on several pillows. Theon stood in the doorway, nervous. Robb was pale, obviously weak, but his eyes were still piercing and full of questions. Theon licked his chapped lips.
“C’mere.”Robb’s voice was dry. “Shut that door.”
Theon pulled the ottoman up next to the davenport. His stomach was twisting and he felt sick; he knew what was coming. “You look like shit.”
Robb gave him a look. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, and after a minute of silence he spoke again. “What were you doin’ out there, Theon?”
“I-” Theon’s voice cracked. He swallowed. Are you 12 again? Drowned God. “I think you know what I was doin’.”
“That was a Wildling, Theon. I thought you knew better.”
Robb’s tone was rife with disappointment.Theon had to look away. Any excuse he could come up with sounded feeble and juvenile. “I couldn’t help it.”
“Oh for the gods’ sake.” Robb turned his head, and Theon imagined if Robb had been stronger he would’ve thrown his hands up in frustration. “Do you have any idea how stupid you’ve been? You’ve put this entire homestead in danger, my entire family. Hells, the entire town. And for what, a few hours of sin with an outlaw Wildling?"
Theon stood abruptly, anger flaring white in him. "She's more than that! She-" His throat closed suddenly, and he had to force himself to take a breath. "She was more than that."
Robb slowly pushed himself up on an elbow, grimacing. "What're you sayin', Greyjoy? How long had you been carryin' on?"
The months bled together in Theon's head as he tried to count, and he slumped back onto the ottoman. "Six months. Seven. I lost count."
"Seven months?" Robb's expression was incredulous. "Son of a bitch, Theon. D'you know how much she could've learned about us, about our patterns? She could've gone back and told her entire tribe where and when and how to strike us. Do you-" He broke off into a fit of coughing, falling back on his pillows as sweat started to bead on his forehead. "Gods almighty."
Not knowing what else to do, Theon wiped his sleeve across Robb's forehead. "I know it was stupid. But she wouldn't come after the ranch, or the town. She-" He paused, thinking. Ygritte wouldn't have come after the ranch...before he'd cast her off. She'd been furious though, spurned and scorned and capable of anything. He shifted on the ottoman, his guts suddenly running hot. Theon didn't know how big Ygritte's tribe was, but he did know from the stories she'd told him that the man who raised her was a chieftain, and she was his only daughter. If she was mad enough, if she hurt as much as he did...Theon swallowed.
"She won't come after us." His words sounded feeble and strangled. Robb was quiet for a long time, long enough that Theon thought he may've fallen asleep. Finally, he sighed and gazed at Theon, and Theon couldn't stand the sympathy and pity there. He'd never been able to. "You gonna tell your ma?"
"Theon..." Robb raised a hand to his face and rubbed his fingers over his red and wiry beard. "I...I won't tell her. Not all of it. But I'll tell her to call my pa and Jon back from the Wall-"
"-she's already tried that."
"-and see if she can have some of the Sherrif's boys come out from town every so often. But you've gotta take care of this, Theon. I mean it. I don't care how. And..." Robb waved a hand vaguely in Theon's direction. "Do it with your britches on. You’re ‘bout to be a married man. It’s high time you reined yourself in.”
An authoritative knock on the door prevented Theon from responding. Doc Luwin poked his head in, smiling when he saw Robb was awake. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Jeyne was at his shoulder, practically pawing at the older man to move so she could get to her fiance. “Excellent. Theon, would you mind giving us the room?” said the doctor.
Theon hesitated. He’d managed to avoid Ellie by coming in the kitchen door, but he knew she had his scent by now. Especially if Margie’s with her…. Biting back a resigned sigh, he nodded. “You take care of him, Doc.”
Jeyne shut the door after she and Doc Luwin entered. For a moment Theon stood in the hallway, trying to gather himself. He could hear Ellie and Margaery in the sitting room, talking animatedly with Sansa. Just make an excuse and get out of there. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open. Ellie was on him in an instant, wrapping her arms around his neck. The smell of her perfume was overwhelming - strong and flowery enough that he could almost taste it. Over her shoulder, Theon saw Margaery smirk and resisted the urge to make a rude gesture at her.
“Oh, Theon, isn’t it wonderful that Robb’s awake?” she gushed. “Jeynie and I and Margie were talking and we had the most wonderful idea.” Pulling back, she looked up at him excitedly and pulled him further into the room. Her palms were sweaty. Not that Theon could complain, he supposed; he’d spent the day working in the barn and riding out on the range and probably smelled like the southbound end of a northbound donkey. Well. You were watching Alice work in the barn, anyway. He smirked, thinking about the irritated way her lips had pressed together as he'd ordered her around. He wondered if she always held her tongue when she was mad. He hoped so. It'd making working with her a lot more tolerable.
“Don’t you want to know?” Ellie’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“What? Oh. Sure.” Theon spied Sansa smiling behind her hand and he shot her a glare. I’m still the town joke. I’ll always be the town joke.
“A double wedding! You and me and Jeyne and Robb’ll all get married at once!” Ellie smiled widely, clearly euphoric at the thought.
A dull buzz started in Theon’s head. “That’s in 3 months.”
“That’s plenty of time,” Margaery replied from her armchair. Her smile was knowing and smug and Theon wanted to punch it straight off her pretty face. Everyone in the room, hells, everyone in the town knew Theon would rather lose a foot by his own hand rather than marry Ellie. “Septon Chayle already said he’d do it. We came straight from talkin’ to him. The entire town’ll already be invited to Robb and Jeyne’s wedding, may as well hop on their wagon.”
“It’ll be perfect.” Ellie’s expression was dreamy. Theon disentangled himself from her. “Just think of it - a double wedding, and of course we’ll start a family straight away. By this time next year you’ll be a father!”
The buzz grew louder. Theon took a step back. His legs felt strangely hollow, and he nearly stumbled. “That’s...uh...I...I gotta see to Smiler.”
Before Ellie could respond he backed out of the sitting room, leaning heavily on the wall. He braced his palms on his thighs, trying to force himself to breathe, to still the noise in his head. Inside the room, the girls were still talking and it was the sound of their voices that kept him from keeling over on the floor.
“Ellie, you’ve got to ease up on him a little,” Margaery was saying. “Did you see how grey he turned when you mentioned kids?”
“I know,” Ellie replied, “but I’m just excited to be married, I s’pose.”
“He’s not." Margaery sounded amused. "Is he, Sansa."
"Oh, I wouldn't-" Sansa stammered. "I mean, he's hard to...men are funny like that."
"They are." Theon could practically see Margaery's sage, cat-like grin. "I'd bet he's one of the funniest of them all." There was a rustle of fabric, one of the girls leaning forward maybe. "You're not worried about his...proclivities, are you?"
Theon knew at once what she was talking about. He'd spent his adolescent years and young adulthood so far with his chest puffed out, ignoring the reputation he had at the brothels in the area. Everyone knew how often he frequented them. It was just unmentioned, for the most part. He never acknowledged any of the girls when he saw them on the street, would never even give them the time of day. They were just whores, and frankly, he wasn't sure why he should have to stop. No one was getting hurt.
In the sitting room Ellie cleared her throat, a delicate little cough. "I'm not. He'll stop all that once we're married."
Margaery laughed again. "Oh, honey, how're you gonna get him to do that? Chain him to the bedpost? He's a man, and men like him have needs. More needs than you can handle. At first, anyway."
"I'll...I'll just tell him to stop." Ellie's voice sounded tremulous. "And if he won't listen to me, I'll have Papa go down and tell the brothel girls to not...not entertain him."
Theon had heard enough. He stormed down the hallway to the kitchen, not caring if the girls heard him or not. Bran was entering the kitchen from the porch, his cheeks flushed from his ride back from the fields. His smile faltered when he saw Theon's expression.
"Smiler's in the barn," he said at once. Bran had a knack for answering questions before they were asked. It had always spooked Theon, but right now he was too angry to notice the goosebumps rising on his arms. "Alice is lookin' after him. I figure you were in a hurry to see Robb, which is why you just sorta left him. Right?"
Theon just grunted and brushed past the boy. Smiler deserved better than to be ridden hard and put away wet like he had been. The thought of Alice's inexperienced hands on his stallion just made it worse. Pushing the barn door open roughly, he glowered at the sight presented to him. Alice had removed Smiler’s saddle, a fine piece of leatherwork Theon had paid for with his own wages, slung casually over a stall door. His bridle was hanging from a bent nail in the wall.
Smiler stood in the middle of the aisle, tail swishing, while Alice knelt on the dirt floor, poking through a grooming kit. Theon watched her for a moment, gritting his teeth when she pulled out a stiff-bristled brush and started sweeping it across Smiler’s broad back. She smiled to herself, clearly pleased, and didn’t hear him approach.
“What d’you think you’re doing?” Theon didn’t make any attempt to hide the irritation in his voice. He was pleased when Alice’s smile slid away.
“I was gonna groom him.” The brush in her hand hovered a few inches over his stallion’s back. She brushed a lock of black hair out of her face, whatever confidence she had faltering. “Him, then Midnight.”
“No.” Theon grabbed the brush from her, a protective hand on Smiler’s neck. “You don’t do that. You never touch another man’s horse.” That wasn’t entirely true - Theon had let Robb tend to Smiler dozens of times. But Alice wasn’t Robb. She wasn’t even close.
“I’m sorry.” Alice’s voice was small, and she backed away from him. “After what you said about Fatty this morning I was just trying to help.”
She’s still scared of me, Theon realized, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Although, could he really blame her? Every time he’d spoken to her practically since she’d arrived he’d been in a bad mood and his words had been harsh, if not worse. He tried to take a deep breath, tried to forget about Ygritte, Robb’s words, the increasingly heavy weight of Ellie and their marriage...it didn’t work. When he exhaled he was still hot with anger. Part of him wanted nothing more than to race into town and fuck a whore until she begged him to stop, and then some. If Ellie kept her promise his days with the town girls were numbered. The thought made him feel sick. Anyone who tried to exert their will over Theon made him feel sick, especially that empty-headed child he was to wed. He worked at the Stark ranch because he liked it, trained and broke their horses because he was good at it. Not because anyone told him to.
Alice was still staring mutely at him, a swipe of dirt across her cheek. Theon stared back, and wanted Robb to heal more than anything. They were sympatico and had been for years. Whether they were riding or working they were able to predict the other’s move every single time. Having to explain and talk to Alice was harder than Theon had thought it would be. He couldn't grasp why she didn’t just instinctively know what to do. She’s not Robb. She’ll never be Robb.
And now she was talking again. Theon blinked. “Huh?”
“I asked if I could watch, so I can learn how to do it,” she repeated patiently.
Theon sighed, shaking his head distractedly. “Nah. Here…” He stooped down and picked up a ratty old currycomb from the grooming kit. “You start with this one. Start at the top of his neck, in circles, like this.” He worked his way down Smiler’s neck. “He likes it if you go a little harder.”
Alice’s lips twitched in a small smile. “That so?”
As Theon groomed Smiler he felt some of his anger starting to dissipate, if only a little. Being here in the stables had that effect on him - the horses, at least, didn’t feel the need to order him around. Neither does Alice, for that matter. Maybe she ain’t that dumb.
Once Smiler’s neck was done, he handed the currycomb to Alice. “Here. Put it on your hand like this…” He took her thin hand and adjusted the worn strap on the currycomb. Her hands were long, he noticed, her fingers as long as his, but the bones were fine and delicate. Like birds. Ygritte’s were small...small and rough and strong. He cleared his throat. “How’s that feel? Not too tight?” Alice shook her head. “Good. Just like I told you, then.”
He leaned against another stall, watching as Alice groomed his horse and resisting the urge to correct her. She’s gotta learn. And she’s not doin’ half bad, really. Glancing into the stall he was leaning against, he frowned. Senecca, the heavily pregnant pinto, was pacing her stall, snorting, her large head occasionally swinging around so she could nuzzle at her flanks. “It’s that time, ain’t it, girl?”
“Hmm?” Alice glanced over Smiler’s back. “What’s wrong?”
Before Theon could answer, a bell started clanging loudly from outside the barn, hardly audible over a shrill voice. “Supper’s on!”
“Gods almighty, Arya…” Theon shook his head. The girl had a voice that could carry from the Last Hearth to Dorne. He looked again at Alice and realized with a small jolt neither of them had eaten today. He hadn’t thought to pack a dinner for himself, much less Alice. Food had fallen further and further in his list of priorities.
“Go on up to the house and eat,” he told her. “Senecca’s lookin’ to foal real soon now, and I want to stay with her since it’s her first.”
“You sure?” Alice was already setting the brush down, and Theon could nearly see her stomach rumbling. At his nod she practically ran out of the stable, leaving Theon in blessed silence once again. Senecca likely wouldn’t give birth till the early morning hours at this rate and the only thing stopping Theon from going up to the house and enjoying Cat Stark’s fried chicken was the presence of his fiancé and her damnable cousin.
Their wedding had seemed like a hazy grey eventuality, something that Theon had known would happen someday. Someday, not in 3 months’ time… The worst part was that after the wedding he’d be forced to leave the ranch, leave the open range. He was expected to be taken under the Tyrells’ collective wing and learn the shopkeeper trade, to live in town. The thought crashed over him as it had many times before, and Theon suddenly couldn’t breathe. Wrapping his fingers in Smiler’s mane, he buried his face in his horse’s neck and screwed his eyes shut. His heart was pounding, his stomach clenching. His fate had been yanked out of his hands - he had no control, he couldn’t make any choices, everything had been laid out for him. He was a godsdamned puppet.
There was no way out, and Theon knew it. He might’ve been able to flee with Ygritte, seek refuge with her people, but not now. He had burned that bridge, and thoroughly. If he stayed south of the Northern Range he’d be a coward, and his family would spurn him. Hells , they might even arrange for him to meet an accident somewhere along the way just to save themselves the shame. Maybe he should just do it himself, spare them the trouble. It’d be easy. Balon and your uncles could go on robbing the stagecoaches and trains and Ellie could marry a man who can stand the sight of her. You’ve got your gun. It’d be easy…
It’s the coward’s way out. The thought came in a voice that was an odd mix of Robb, Ned Stark, and Theon’s father. You gave your word and you’re going to see it through.
The vice in Theon’s chest loosened and gave way to a heavy deadness. I’ll see it through. His fingers tightened in Smiler’s mane, and the horse craned his head around to nudge his shoulder.
“Alright, boy,” Theon said quietly. “Alright.”
It was an easy task to finish grooming Smiler, then Midnight, and once it was done Theon turned his attention to his laboring mare. Slipping a soft bridle over her face, he took his time walking her up and down the aisle. It seemed to help calm both of them, and he patted her neck after some time. “You’ll be fine, girl. Once this is all said and done you’ll be a mother, and a good one at that.”
By this time next year you’ll be a father! Ellie’s voice rang in his head and Theon gripped Senecca’s lead with white knuckles.
They continued to walk as the sun started to set, the horse occasionally stopping to nuzzle at her side. When the barn door creaked open, Theon took a breath, expecting Ellie to have hunted him down to natter on about their wedding again. When the nattering didn't come, he glanced over his shoulder and felt an immediate rush of relief. It was just Alice, her face scrubbed shiny, her hair combed, and dressed in an old yellow dress of Sansa’s. It was a little blousy on top, but Sansa had a fuller bust than Alice did. The color looked far better on her than it ever had on Sansa. Her black hair contrasted nicely with it, and if Theon cared a whit about women’s clothes he would have approved. Alice held a tin bucket in her hand. She took a cautious step forward, clearly reading his dour expression. “I brought you supper…”
“Oh...thanks.” Theon led Senecca over and peeked in the bucket. It was filled with fried chicken, biscuits, bacon, a bowl of baked beans wrapped in a cloth, and several slices of Sansa’s homemade apple pie. His mouth began to water at the scent; he realized he was famished.
"I didn't know what you'd like," Alice was saying. Her voice was so much quieter than Ellie's, and not as rough as Ygritte’s. It made hearing it easier to bear. "I just grabbed what I could from Arya and Rickon."
That made Theon smile. "They're savages when it comes to supper. This is good though. Thank you."
Alice seemed pleased with this and nodded at Senecca. "Let me walk her. You sit. Eat."
Theon reclined against a hay bale, tearing into a chicken thigh and watching Alice walk the long aisle with Senecca. Wiping crumbs off his lips he nodded at her dress. “Why’d you change?”
Alice looked down at her dress somewhat sheepishly. “Mrs. Stark made me wash up before she’d let me eat.”
Theon chuckled. “She would. We’ll have to find you some more suitable clothes, though.”
“Oh, Arya sassed her sister so she’s washing mine tonight as punishment. Yours too, ‘f you give them to her.” She raised an eyebrow, amused as Theon devoured another plump chicken leg, then attacked the baked beans with a fresh biscuit, sopping up the sweet molasses they were soaked in. “Ellie and Margaery wanted to come down after we were done.”
The molasses turned sour in Theon’s mouth. “Are they?”
“No.” Alice shook her head. “I told them it was gettin’ real messy down here and they’d get their petticoats dirty.” She paused. “Not sure Margaery believed me, but it seemed to scare Ellie off well enough.”
“You lied to my fiancé?”
He saw her lips press together just a tiny bit as if she was bracing herself for another lecture from him. “I did. I’ve seen you two together. Every time you look at her you look like you want to throw yourself in front of a train.”
Theon leaned back and regarded her for a solid minute, crumbling bacon onto another biscuit without looking. He knew he should feel anger at her again but...she had a point. And she was doing him a favor. And she brought you supper. Plus, he was getting so tired of being angry. Heaving a sigh, he offered her the dinner pail. “‘spose it’s no big secret. Have some pie.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Looping Senecca’s lead around a stall post, Alice swept her skirt underneath her and perched on the bale of hay he was sitting against. Her leg brushed against his arm, and even through the fabric of her skirt and whatever petticoats Sansa had cajoled her into, he could feel its slenderness. For a fleeting moment it reminded him of the girls in town, how easily it was to get them to wrap their legs around him. For now. Those days’re numbered.
They ate in silence for a few minutes before she spoke again. “Why’re you marrying her? Robb said you-”
“You asked Robb?” Theon craned his head around to look up at her. “I hate when folks talk about me behind me back. Hate it.”
“We weren’t talking about you.” Alice sucked a bit of apple pie off her thumb. “I was just curious.”
“‘s none of your business.” Theon turned his attention back to his food.
“Fine. I’m sorry.” She just sounded weary now. “I asked him last week when we were in town. I just didn’t think about it till now.”
Theon didn’t want to hear any more about the day they were in town. “Alright, get back to walkin’ that mare. It helps the process along.” Hauling himself back to his feet, Theon stretched. “I’ll see to the rest of the horses. It’s almost dark.” He was almost to the barn door when she called his name. When he turned to look, she had paused in the middle of an aisle. Sunlight spilled in an open window, orange and blazing as it edged towards the horizon. It caught off her dark hair, playing up the glow in her cheeks and make her eyes light up. For half a second Theon could understand how Robb had at least temporarily gone all moon-eyed over her, and in the next heartbeat he was seeing Ygritte standing in their clearing, her hair sunlit fire, her laugh echoing. He had to swallow before he could speak. “What?”
Alice opened her mouth to speak, shut it, and tried again. “I am sorry.”
Her tone was sad, her words heavy with a deeper meaning. Theon’s throat closed, and in his mind’s eye he saw himself and Ygritte, riding free across the plains beyond the Northern range, coupling under the autumn moon. For an instant his skin flushed, remembering the heat of her body against his and it almost broke him.
“Yeah,” he replied tightly. “Me too.”