Mya glanced over at Theon, biting her lip to hide a smile at his sour expression. “Sorry. I guess I’m just in a good mood.”
“Be in a quieter one, then.” Theon rubbed his temples, and Mya’s smile grew. Theon had gone into town the evening before. Mya hadn’t been awake when he’d returned, but judging by Theon’s red eyes and boozy stench this morning, she guessed it hadn’t been an early night.
The sun was barely breaking over the horizon. They had harnessed two of the large draft horses to one of the Stark’s wagons, laden with fur pelts and other supplies. Ned Stark had told both of them they needed to take the supplies out to a far-laying homestead belonging to Roose Bolton, a tanner who lived far east of Winterfell. According to Ned, Roose’s elder son had recently passed away, leaving just Bolton and his younger son, a boy named Ramsay. Roose could turn the pelts into leather goods, Ned said, and he could get himself back on his feet. Mya and Theon were to take the wagon, stay the night at the Bolton’s homestead, and return in the morning.
So here they were, trundling along in a heavy, four-wheeled dray through orchards that were starting to bear their summer fruits. The morning was filled with birdsong trilling from the branches overhead.It was so peaceful.Next to her, gripping the horses’ reins with white knuckles, Theon looked as though he wanted to pluck and roast every bird that dared to open its beak.
She shifted on the hard bench seat, toying with the end of her braid. “I can steer for a while if you want to try and get some sleep.”
Theon’s eyes flicked over at her and for a moment she thought he was about to accept. “Nah,” he finally replied, twitching the reins. “You’ve never steered a team before.”
Mya eyed the large chestnut rumps ahead of them, placidly clomping along. The road stretched ahead in a straight line, identical to the one behind them. “I think I can handle it.”
He gave her another long, searching look, then nodded. "Fine. Keep 'em at this speed and wake me up when you come to a fork in the road with a pile of stones in it. They should follow the road pretty well on their own, I s'pose. Also, we’ll be comin’ up on a river soon. It’ll be running high this time of year and the bridge is old. If it looks rickety, wake me up then." Handing the reins over to her, Theon clambered into the wagon bed, tugged the brim of his hat down, and was asleep within minutes.
Mya glanced back at him, smiling to herself before giving the reins another twitch. The horses plodded along once more, and she leaned back a little in her seat.
She liked working with Theon. Sure, he was arrogant and moody and sometimes downright mean, and an impatient teacher, but she was used to ornery men, and she was learning under him. In the weeks she'd been working with Theon, her hands had formed first blisters, then when they had burst and healed, callouses that made Sansa's nose wrinkle when she saw them. Mya's shoulders and thighs no longer ached after a day riding, and most mornings she was awake before Theon was.
She was starting to love this land, too. There was a rugged beauty that was different than the Vale. Older. They were further away from the mountains now, and to her right the land spread out in a wide, vast plain. New grain was sprouting, and corn and crops Mya couldn’t even identify, wide swaths of green and gold and brown. She could see homesteads from here - houses, farms, groves of trees and occasionally a thin river or pond reflecting the sunlight.
It was so different than the Vale here. The Vale had fertile grounds, yes, but there were always jagged mountains looming over you like rugged sentinels. The mountains there were newer than they were here in the North and time hadn’t had a chance to wear them down or soften them. There was a sense of enclosure, unlike here.
Here, Mya thought, is freedom.
As happy as she was, though, Mya knew it was fleeting. Robb was healing, and Theon's wedding was coming up. After that, he'd be shipped off to live in town and learn how to run the general store, and then what? She couldn't ask the Starks to keep her on, but she didn't know where she could go. North of the mountains would mean a certain death at the hands of the Wildlings. Going back south wasn't an option. The further south she went, the higher the risk she'd run into Lysa or Petyr or one of their posses. She didn’t have the money to cross the Narrow Sea, either.
She liked being Alice, too. Being Alice Longmire meant she had a clean past; no thin, stained mattresses, no dirty looks on the streets, and no lost little boy, born into death. Alice Longmire had nothing to be ashamed of. It was a relief, really, to put all the ugliness that had been her life behind her. Mya Stone was dying the soft, easy death she deserved, and Alice Longmire was starting to live the life she'd always wanted.
When she reached the fork in the road, Mya glanced back at Theon again, and felt an odd little tugging in her chest. She'd miss him after the wedding, but she knew it wouldn't be proper for a married man to spend time alone with a woman.
She gave a gentle tug on the reins to stop the wagon. The wedding was still weeks away, and right now the groom was sprawled on his stomach, his face buried in the crook of one arm. There was a shock of dark hair falling across his temple, and she gently brushed it away. As she did, the unbidden thought came to her - what would he feel like looming over her, in her? No. You've been here before and it’s not a good place to be.
"You two hold right here." Mya said to the horses as she set the reins down and carefully maneuvered her way between two large barrels and a pile of fox pelts. She touched Theon's shoulder. "Theon?"
"Mmmph." Theon barely stirred.
Mya leaned closer, careful not to touch him. "Theon, c’mon, you need to wake up.”
Theon stirred again, wrapping an arm around Mya's waist and tugging her under him, all without opening his eyes. "Come warm me up some first."
He buried his face in the crook of her neck, and Mya's heart stopped. The feel of a man on top of her was nothing new, but this was different. Something about the way his body fit against hers...She realized she wanted to be here. It was a sensation she hadn’t felt in quite some time.
"That a new perfume?"
Mya squirmed, trying half-heartedly to push him off. "Theon, no, I-"
At the sound of her voice he jerked awake and scurried away from her, his eyes wide as he backed into a sloshing barrel. "Hellfire, Alice, what're you doin'?"
That's a damn good question. Mya shook her head, her cheeks blazing. "Just tryin' to wake you up, is all."
"Oh, I'm up alright." Theon sat up, rubbing a hand over his face. "I was havin' the best dream, too. Me an’ two of the girls from town were-”
“Stop.” Mya held up a hand. The image of Theon entwined with two whores made her chest tug again. “I don’t need to hear any of that, Theon. I’m not Robb. Gods above…”
“Fine, fine.” Theon stretched and stood, scratching his stomach. “I...uh...I guess I was sleeping heavier than I thought.”
“It’s alright.” Mya’s voice softened, somewhat against her will. It seemed no matter how hard she wanted to be irked at Theon, she couldn’t be. “You needed it.”
“I’d’ve woken up eventually.” Theon removed his hat, combed through his dark hair, and resettled it on his head. “You’re bonier than Daisy or Bessie.”
Mya shrugged. “You’re probably not the scrawniest thing I've laid under.”
The second the words left her lips Mya wanted to grab them back. Theon’s eyebrows rose nearly to the brim of his hat, and his lips quirked in a crooked smile. “That so?”
She was on her feet before she realized it, gripping the back of the wagon seat and feeling splinters prick her fingers. “I-...I didn’t mean- that came out wrong. I haven’t-” Theon was laughing now and it made anger and shame flare in her belly. “Stop that, it isn’t funny!”
“Yes it is!” Theon was still chuckling as he climbed over the side of the wagon and faced a plum tree to piss against it. “Calm down, Alice. Robb’s got his foot halfway down his throat half the time. I’m used to it.” He glanced over his shoulder as he shook his last few drops off. "You better make your water here while you can. Bushes get a lot more scarce from here on out. You remember what poison ivy looks like by now? "
Mya jumped off the wagon bed with as much dignity as she could muster, heading for the opposite side of the road to find a bush. "Of course I do," she replied stiffly. "I learned my lesson, thank you very much."
By the time the wagon crossed into Bolton land, the sun was setting behind them, stretching purple shadows far ahead of them. The orchards and fields had petered out shortly after noon, and the land had grown increasingly rugged. Craggy stacks of rock reached towards the dusk like twisted, gnarled fingers. The moon was starting to rise in the east, pale and fat and lazy.
Mya was struggling to keep her eyes open, and her rump was numb from hours of sitting on the hard bench seat. The winds in these parts were hot and stale, bringing a faint foul stench that seemed to grow stronger the further east they travelled. Despite the smell, her head dropped lower and lower…
At Theon’s voice Mya’s head jerked up from where it had fallen on his shoulder. “We’re almost there.”
“Oh…” Mya wiped a hand across her cheek, relieved she hadn’t been drooling. “I’m sorry, I was more tired than I thought.”
Theon just shrugged. “‘s a long ride. And boring.” He nodded ahead of them, where the road curved sharply. “Just around there’s the Bolton place.”
Mya nodded, her nose wrinkling slightly as the breeze kicked up that wretched smell again. “What is that?”
“A tannery.” Theon said matter-of-factly. “You’re from King’s Landing, ain’t you? Supposed to smell ten times worse there.”
Mya swallowed. “That city smells so bad it’s hard to pick out just one scent.” The Vale smelled cold. Cold and fresh. She shook her head. “What’re they like, the Boltons?”
“You don’t wanna know.” Theon spat over the edge of the wagon.“There’re stories, but I’m not about to tell you them when we’re on their goddamn doorstep.”
“Then why’re we helping them?”
Theon sighed. “Because Ned Stark is a decent man who takes care of those in need.” His mouth twisted slightly. “Whether they want it or not.”
They fell silent as Theon stopped the horses on the crest of a long ridge. Before them the land spread into a shallow valley, flanked by sparse, dry hills. A narrow, winding river parted the ground at the valley floor, and a small band of green spread from its banks. Next to the river a mile or so away down the road sat a copse of sprawling oak trees and pines, and a thin spiral of smoke curled into the dusk.
Mya glanced at Theon, who was staring ahead, tracing a circle in his cheek with his tongue. His gaze flicked to her and held for a minute before he shook the reins. “Let’s get this done. Roose Bolton will be waiting.”
Roose Bolton was waiting as they rode into the small oak grove, winding rope around an arm. He watched them with pale eyes, not saying a word until Theon climbed down from the wagon. The grove was dark, the air laced with the smell of pine and tannery. There was a handful of low buildings scattered around; a decent-sized cabin, a barn, barracks for the help.
“We expected you earlier.” His voice was quiet and even. There was something about his face that was unsettling to Mya, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
Theon rested a hand on the rump of one of the horses and climbed up on the rung of the wagon wheel. Wrapping his hands easily around Mya’s waist, he lifted her out of the wagon and set her down. “We left before dawn.”
The man’s eyes, the color of dirty ice, flicked over Mya. “Of course. I have to say, though, I expected Ned Stark to bring this load out himself, instead of sending the help and a girl in his place.” His words were polite enough, but even Mya couldn’t miss the underlying derision in his tone. Maybe it’s his eyes. They’re dead eyes.
Mya glanced at Theon, but his face was blank. “He’s been out with The Wall for months. ‘f you like, me and Alice here can take the wagon back and wait till he’s able to come out himself. Might be he won’t for a good few weeks though.”
There was a long silence, and Mya glanced back and forth between Roose and Theon, wanting nothing more than to turn the wagon right around and head for home.
“See to your horses.” Roose said. “Once you’re done come inside. Ramsay will see to the wagon and supplies when he returns from hunting.”
The barn wasn’t a barn at all, merely a shed with a handful of stalls and dim light leaking in from between the slats of the wall. Even still, there was room and feed enough for the two draft horses.
“Are we really staying here tonight?” Mya asked in a low voice as she filled a grain bin.
Theon nodded grimly. “Just tonight. It’s an ugly place with some ugly folks, but we’ll be ok. By this time tomorrow you’ll be snug in your closet with the schoolmarm.”
Mya laughed, startling the horses. “It’s not a closet! It’s very cozy. Very homey. And the schoolmarm has a name. She’s a nice girl. You should talk to her sometime.”
“Please.” Theon snorted as he left his stall. “I’ve had my fill of nice girls. Hurry up with that horse there. If we’re lucky Roose’ll feed us.”
The inside of the Bolton settlement was no more cheery than the outside. There was none of the warmth and hominess of Winterfell, none of the laughter. There was one main room with a large, heavy stone hearth dominating one wall. A narrow hallway led off to where Mya assumed people slept. The furniture was grim and old; when Mya sat at the butcher block serving as a dinner table her chair gave an alarming squawk and her heart stopped as she was nearly dumped to the dirty ground.
The food was as cheerless as the rest of the place. Roose set bowls of greyish-brown soup in front of Theon and Mya. Fatty, unrecognizable dumplings floated in it, along with chopped up vegetables and hunks of what Mya hoped was meat. Roose tore a loaf of brown bread into pieces, taking his seat at the head of the table. “You’ll have to forgive the fare. My elder son did most of the cooking before his death. He was much better at it.”
“We were all sorry to hear of that,” Mya offered. She hadn’t known him, of course, but it seemed like the right thing to say. Swallowing some of the broth, she bit back a cough when her stomach heaved at the saltiness. She cleared her throat; Theon lifted his eyebrows. “Losing a child is the greatest loss.”
“He was a good boy.” Roose replied in his quiet voice. “He was never well, though. Sickly, like his mother. He went hunting with my younger son several months back and fell ill.” He dipped his heel of bread into his soup. “He lasted mere days after they returned.”
Before Theon or Mya could respond, the dreary silence was broken by the braying of hounds outside, and several men’s voices laughing, calling to one another. Roose wiped his mouth on his napkin. “That’ll be Ramsay and his men now.” He made no move to rise or go out to greet his son. Mya glanced at Theon again, who merely shrugged.
The door to the cabin burst open, and when Mya looked up at the figure filling it she went cold. Him. It's him. Not him.
Several years ago, maybe two or three, a group of men had come stumbling into the brothel one spring night, already three sheets to the wind. Mya didn't remember how many of them there were, but it didn't really matter. All that mattered was him, and what he’d done to her. She'd wept for days after, and had shied away from mens' touches for weeks. She could still barely stand to remember that long, dark night. Sometimes in her worst nightmares she saw his eyes, those small, piggish flecks in his soft, cruel face. She remembered every inch of him, every second of their time together. He was a large man, but not muscular. His flesh had been hot and heavy against hers. When he was on top of her she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
Now, those dirty-ice colored eyes were locking on hers, and those thick, wet lips were turning up in a vile grin. Mya felt her chest seize, her breath freezing in her lungs.
“Why Pa,” he said. “You didn’t tell me you were expectin’ guests.” Ramsay pulled up a chair, spun it around, and straddled it, resting his arms along the back. All the while that grin never left his face. “Greyjoy, always nice to see you. Who’s your friend?”
“Alice.” Mya answered before Theon could, and for the second time that day, wanted to snatch the word out of the air. “My name is Alice.”
“Ah...Alice.” Ramsay pulled a hunk of bread towards himself and his grin only grew. “Lovely name. Always sounded...pure to me. All innocence.” He knows. He remembers me. Her heart, already pounding, doubled its efforts. She felt a drop of cold sweat worm down the back of her neck. The fatty dumplings were starting to bicker in her stomach. She tried to steady her breathing so she wouldn’t retch all over her host’s table. The sense of comfort that had wrapped around her these past few months now hung by a thread, and Ramsay held the scissors.
Roose’s quiet voice broke the silence that had fallen. “What kills did you get?”
“Two does.” Ramsay shrugged. “The dogs took a fawn, but there wasn’t enough to bring back. I saved the brains for tanning.”
Father and son fell into talk of the hunt, and while they were distracted Theon nudged Mya’s hand. “Are you alright?” he asked quietly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
She nodded. “Fine. Just tired. And the soup…”
“I know.” Theon’s grin was quick and sharp. “I’ve seen more appealing things in the pig slop. I’ve still got some biscuits in my bag. Once we’re bedded down you can have one a’ them. Two if you ask nice.”
After supper, it became apparent that sleeping arrangements would prove to be a problem. Roose had no problem sending Theon out to bed down with the rest of his help in their quarters, but he wouldn’t feel quite right submitting Mya to them.
“They’re just this side of feral,” he told her with a quick grimace. “There hasn’t been a woman here to keep them clean and in line for too many years. I don’t intend to have that be your responsibility, or your burden. You will stay here in the main house, with Ramsay and myself.”
“Oh no,” Mya took a step backwards instinctively, bumping into Theon. He rested a hand on her shoulder. The urge to duck behind him, to hide from those eyes, was overwhelming. “I couldn’t impose on you-”
“Please.” Roose smiled. It was terrifying. “I insist.”
Mya glanced behind her at Theon, who pressed his lips together slightly. Turning back to Roose and trying to ignore Ramsay, she pasted on what she hoped was a grateful smile. "I'd be happy to, then."
The sun set quickly in this valley, as if it was hiding from the sight of the grim copse. Roose showed Mya to the room she'd be staying in. "This was my older son’s room.”
It was sparse, having only a narrow bed, stiff, ladderback chair, and a bedside table bearing a dusty bowl and pitcher of water. A scratchy wool blanket was folded over the bed. There was one window, shuttered and barred, and the floor was bare. Mya shut the door, wishing it had a lock, a hundred locks, anything to keep Ramsay Bolton out. She sat on the edge of the hard bed and buried her face in her hands, pressing her fingers against her eyes and trying to blot out the image of him, to push out the cruel memory of his hands on her.
It didn’t work. Ramsay refused to budge, dancing behind her eyes, leering at her. She stood abruptly, pacing the length of the small room before pulling a small comb out of her pocket and undoing her long braid. She tried to work through the tangles as patiently as Sansa was able to, brushing the dust and dirt of the day’s travels out of her hair and trying to turn her mind to the simple, repetitive task rather than Ramsay. She had almost done it when he pushed her door open.
Mya gripped the comb hard enough to feel the teeth bite into her palm. “Get out.”
“Well, that’s hardly polite.” Ramsay stepped into the room and shut the door behind him, leaning his heavy frame against it. “I could have you sleeping in the kennels if I wanted. Maybe you’d feel more at home there?” Mya couldn’t respond, and Ramsay grinned. “I have to say, I’m surprised to see Theon riding with a whore, rather than just riding a whore. How do you keep him at bay, Mya?” Mya’s mouth open and closed again, and a cold fist gripped her insides. Ramsay chuckled now, looping a bit of her dark hair around a fat, white finger. He was close enough that she could smell him. He smelled sour. Her supper started to rise in her throat. “Oh, he doesn’t know, is that it? Is that why you’re suddenly Alice?”
Moving quicker than she’d thought he could he yanked her close by that lock of hair, his face close to hers. His breath reeked of meat and rotgut whiskey. When Mya tried to pull away he wrapped his entire fist in her hair, hissing “What do you say we go tell him, hmm? What do you think he’ll say?”
“N-no, please.” Mya was holding as still as she could, her head wrenched around and held firm. His arousal was hard against her back. That didn’t scare her half as much as the thought of Theon finding out about her past. Her body had been shamed and defiled before; she could handle that. But for her, her spirit and soul, to be scorned by Theon, ...No.... “Please, just let me go.”
“Ah, where’s the fun in that?” Ramsay’s free hand was snaking over her stomach, easily untucking her shirt and slipping up to cup a breast. “Tell me, Mya, does he get you wet?”
Ramsay’s fingers found a nipple and twisted. Mya had to bite back a scream. “Answer me.” When Mya still remained silent, he abandoned her breasts and instead slid his hand down her soft, worn trousers, stroking roughly. “You know what I can do to you. Go on and scream for your darling Theon. I want you to scream for him when I’m inside you.”
Mya’s eyes were streaming now, her breath coming in fast little hitches. She refused to make another sound. When Ramsay moved his hands to push her towards the bed she twisted free from his grasp, stumbling into the spindly bedside table. The pitcher and bowl shattered when they hit the floor. In a moment of desperation Mya snatched a jagged piece of porcelain off the floor, wielding it like a dagger. Her shirt had torn and hung open.The air felt cold against her bare flesh.
“You stay away from me,” she snarled. “Your father-”
“-doesn’t care what happens to a whore.” Ramsay seemed unperturbed. “Now, you have two options here.” He strolled casually towards Mya. When she tried to slip past him towards the door he simply grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the wall. “Are you going to listen?”
Mya tried to draw a breath, but he was crushing her windpipe. She slashed at him with the porcelain. He knocked it from her hand, sending it flying to the floor. His lips were a scant breath from her face. She tried to turn away from him but he held her fast. You’re going to die...
Ramsay spoke again, his question a command now. “You’re going to listen.”
Tears still streaming, she nodded mutely, gasping for breath when he released her. “Good girl. Now. Are we going to get along tonight, or do I need to call Theon in here so you and he can have a little chat? I imagine the almighty Starks won’t be impressed that you’ve been lying to them.”
Mya felt frozen with terror and at the same time, filled with molten shame. “Please,” she tried again. Her throat burned, and she swallowed. “Please don’t tell him. I’ll...whatever you want. I’ll do it.”
Ramsay dragged a finger along Mya’s jaw, forcing her to look at him. “There’s a good girl.” He tangled a hand in her hair again, holding her in place while his hand slid down her pants. He plunged a finger into her, hissing through his teeth at her pained cry. “Dry as a bone. I should get one of my hounds. You remember my hounds, don’t you? Baelish charged me extra to bring them into his whorehouse. They liked you, though. Liked your taste.”
The bedroom door creaked open without warning. “Alice, I forgot to give you-” Theon stood in the doorway, holding a wrapped bundle of biscuits. In one fluid move he dropped them and drew his six-shooter, aiming it steadily at Ramsay’s head. “Get away from her.” When Ramsay didn’t move, he drew back the hammer. “Now!”
Ramsay sighed, but stepped away from Mya. She clutched the remains of her shirt closed, hurrying away from him, while Theon circled closer, the gun still on Ramsay. He held up both hands. “You can have your turn when I’m done with her, Greyjoy. Or we could share her. She’s got more holes than I can reasonably fill.” Theon pulled back the hammer without a word, and Ramsay laughed. “Alright, fine, you can have her first. It’s all just another day’s work for a girl like-”
Mya flew at Ramsay, slamming her fist into his fleshy face. Ramsay, caught off-guard, stumbled. His heel caught on the corner of the spindly table, and when as he fell the back of his head cracked loudly on the bed frame. He landed heavily, and was still. Mya could only stare, a trembling hand over her mouth.
“Are you alright?” Theon tucked his pistol away and crossed the small room to her, gripping her shoulders lightly. “Alice?”
She was still staring at Ramsay’s unmoving form, but the feel of Theon’s hands on her shoulders jolted her out of her trance. Theon’s gaze had fallen to the valley between her breasts, and she swore he could see her heart pounding there. Fumbling with the shirt, she nodded. “He didn’t hurt me...did I...is he dead? Did I kill him?”
Theon’s eyes lingered on her face a moment longer before he knelt, touching his fingers to Ramsay’s throat. After a minute he stood, shaking his head. “He’s still alive. Broke his jaw though, I’d wager.”
Mya could only just stare. She felt oddly detached from herself, and when she closed her eyes she could see the scene as if from above. She saw Theon take a step towards her, reaching for her again, and her eyes flew open, and he was so close.
Theon swiped his thumb across her cheek. “There…”
“I’m sorry,” Mya replied automatically. She was suddenly aware of the heat coming off Theon, his scent. He looked so angry - the way his jaw was clenched, the straight line of his lips, how dark his eyes were. His pulse was racing in his throat. She wanted to throw her arms around him, to bury her face against his chest and pretend none of this had happened. He didn’t hurt you. He can’t hurt you. Eventually the fist gripping her stomach started to loosen, although Mya had no idea what she’d do when Ramsay woke up. “I didn’t want to cause trouble.”
Theon laughed humorlessly, nudging Ramsay’s still form with a booted foot. “Trust me, you’re not the one causin’ trouble. C’mon, get your things together. We’re not about to stay here tonight.”