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A Song of Bastards and Wards

Chapter Text

The Starks raised their ward as they raised their bastard, as one of their own.

Theon Greyjoy ate at their table and practised the sword with their heir and any notions of neglect or cruel captivity were mostly in his mind.

Mostly.

Occasionally there were harsh words from people around the castle, things like ‘squid’ and ‘traitor’, even though Theon had been too young to participate in his father’s rebellion.

The unspoken hardships took their toll too, warm family evenings by the fire that Theon was not invited to and a kindness in peoples’ eyes that was directed at Robb but was absent when they looked at Theon.

He spent so many evenings watching people care for each other that he became used to the bitter loneliness of it.

Then one evening a young girl joined him in his cold corner by the window. A girl that was called things like ‘bastard’ and ‘whore’s girl’. She was only ten, but she knew most of the hardships Theon was familiar with. She was not able to join the cosy-looking family either. They were only half hers. And maybe Joanna Snow had some things Theon did not – the love of a father, the warmth of half-siblings – but he had some things she did not – steel in his hand, a future.

Without really thinking, Theon took her delicate little hand in his own.

In that moment, and many more to come, they stood together apart from the rest.

The loneliness slept for a while.

Chapter Text

Theon always enjoyed the executions. The cold, crisp air of the morning held the promise of blood as they rode out of the castle. He assumed it was his Greyjoy legacy to enjoy watching other men die. They were bloodthirsty people, after all.

Little Bran Stark was riding out with them today. His first time watching justice be served. Theon amused himself by telling the lad terrible tales of blood splashes and catapulted eyes. Bran was only seven and was more squeamish than two of his sisters, though he tried to put a brave face on it.

“So you have to duck quick, else—“

“Theon!” Robb Stark snapped his name out like a master calling a dog. “Must you torment my brother so?”

“I have to torment someone,” Theon joked, “and Joanna’s not here.”

“An execution is no place for a lady,” Robb said, sitting tall and solemn on his steed. Trying so hard to be a perfect little lord. Bran was imitating his posture, but such a grand pose lacked the same effect when riding a little pony.

“Joanna’s not a lady,” Theon pointed out, then had to grab hard on his reins as Robb shoved him. “What? She’s not! She’s a bastard!”

“Enough!”

Lord Eddard Stark’s roar silenced them both. When he looked over his shoulder at them, the disappointment in his eyes left both Theon and Robb unable to meet his gaze. They mumbled their apologies and the party of twenty continued on their way to the execution.

The criminal was just a deserter of the Night’s Watch, a frostbitten old man in cracked leathers and sweaty wool. A shame, really. Theon had been hoping that Bran’s first outing would involve Lord Stark hacking the head off of a murderer or rapist. A deserter was barely worth the effort it took to swing the blade. Still, Theon knew his duties and he dutifully hopped down off of his horse to hand the greatsword Ice to Lord Stark.

Old words were spoken, swords were swung and a head rolled right up to Theon’s feet. When he kicked it, it bounced like a ball. Bran looked like he might faint, poor little sod.

Theon packed up after Lord Stark, who seemed to have something on his mind. Probably whatever serious thoughts a man needed to contemplate after putting a man to death. Still, Theon admired the man’s insistence on performing the kills himself.

Before Theon could spur his horse on ahead to catch up with Robb, Lord Stark called his name. Theon slowed his pace, wondering what his keeper could want from him now.

“My Lord?”

“How you spoke of my daughter earlier…”

“I meant nothing by it, my Lord,” Theon said hurriedly. “I only called her a bastard as I’d be called a ward. Just the truth as it is, nothing more.”

Lord Stark nodded, but he did not seem pleased. Nor did he seem angry, so perhaps his intention was not to rebuke Theon for his words.

“Do many call her such? When I ask her, she tells me it is nothing. Robb says the same.”

Of course they did. Neither daughter or son wished to upset their father. Even Lord Stark in his worst temper could do nothing to stop rumour or slander. Joanna was a bastard, so that was what people would call her. To threaten them over it would only make them despise her. As for Robb, well, if he was asked to divulge the identities of those who threw harsh words at his half-sister he would have to name his mother as the first and most prolific culprit.

“She knows what she is, my Lord. She rises above it.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, Theon.”

They were interrupted by a cry from up ahead. Bran had forced his little pony on as quickly as the animal could manage and had gained some distance on them. Now he called back for them all to hurry up. Apparently, Robb had found something interesting.

The find turned out to be a freakish wolf. A direwolf, in fact. The symbol of the Stark House. At first everyone was frightened, but the bitch turned out to be dead. Only her pups lived, sad little freaks gnawing on dry teats. Bran and Robb instantly started cooing over the pups like old washerwomen, but Theon knew there was no chance of the pups living. Jory, Hullen and Harwin all said the same. Direwolves could grow to a monstrous size, the dead one was proof enough of that. It was bigger than Bran’s pony.

In the end there was nothing for it but a swift mercy-killing. Robb and Bran argued with their father, but Lord Stark’s mind was made up. Robb was to be learning lordship soon, he had no time to be rearing pups. The others were far too young to care for such beasts. Sansa would surely have no interest in raising a wolf, little lady that she was. Still, Theon did feel a twinge of regret when he slid his blade across the wriggling creature’s throat. By the time he and the other men were done, Bran was openly sobbing and Robb was glaring at them like they had pillaged Winterfell and been indecent with his mother.

“It’s just as well,” Theon told Robb as they climbed back up the snowy bank to their horses. “There was one pup for each of you, but Joanna would have gone without.”

“Shut up, Greyjoy,” Robb said sullenly.

They were just climbing onto their horses when Theon saw it. Like a small pile of snow up against the tree, but it moved. He went over to it, ignoring Lord Stark’s question. It was another pup, somehow apart from the others. Maybe it crawled away because it was different, fur white as snow and eyes red as blood. Perhaps the mother shunned it as her last act of life.

“Another one?” Jory sighed. “Do the honours, Greyjoy.”

Bran cried out again and Robb made a sound of disgust. Theon looked at the red little eyes. It was the only one of the pups to open its eyes and look at him. It did not wriggle in his grip as the others had. It simply sat in his hands staring up at him. Mad as it sounded, it reminded him of someone.

“Can we not keep just one?” he asked Lord Stark boldly. “It’s littler than the others and weaker. Might not grow so large. I think Joanna would find great solace in such a creature.”

Lord Stark’s eyebrows rose and Jory made a sly comment under his breath to Hullen, who chuckled.

“You think it would cheer her?” Eddard Stark asked.

“I think it would,” Theon said.

“That’s not fair!” Bran cried out before Robb hushed him.

“Perhaps we can spare one. She will need to care for it,” Lord Stark said, a note of warning in his voice. “If she has no interest in rearing the pup, you will put it to rest. Understood?”

“Completely,” Theon said, nodding. He brought the pup back to his horse, nestled in his leathers against his chest. Bran and Robb were still cold towards him on the ride back to the castle, though Bran kept reaching out to pet the little direwolf pup.

“If Joanna doesn’t want it, I will care for it,” Bran said, over and over.

“She’ll want it,” Theon said with certainty. He did not know how he knew, but he did.

The problem with finding Joanna in Winterfell was that she hid like an animal to lick her wounds. Whenever she was slandered or abused or felt neglected, she would disappear for a while. Theon fancied he knew more of her hiding places than anyone, but he still had trouble finding her that morning. He carried the white little pup all around the castle, ignoring the puzzled stares of the people he passed.

Robb had wanted to give Joanna the pup, but Theon would not let him. He knew she would love it and wanted to see the look on her face. It would be his reward for saving the thing. Joanna Snow was not a girl of frequent smiles. Lady Catelyn Stark made sure of that. If Joanna had her way she would have attended the execution that morning, but Lady Catelyn had not allowed her to join the boys in outings for the last few months. Apparently it was suddenly of great importance that she learn womanly skills. Joanna now had to attend needlework and lessons in manners with Septa Mordane.

Theon had laughed at the thought of Joanna Snow becoming a lady but she took to the lessons much better than anyone expected. He could not find her in the needle-room though and he knew she was not with Sansa and Arya, who had gone to meet their father when he returned home.

Eventually, when he was growing tired of carrying the little wolf around the castle, Theon nipped into his small room to change into more relaxed clothes and found Joanna Snow leaning out of his window. She turned to see him when she heard the door and immediately fixed on the white wolf in his arms.

“What’s that?”

“A direwolf pup. An albino, the only survivor of the litter. I thought you might like it.”

Joanna’s full lips curved up in a slight smile. It was enough for Theon. He held the pup out to her.

“Here, hold him.”

Joanna took the tiny bundle of white fur into her arms. Little white hairs clung to her black dress immediately but she did not seem to mind, letting out a surprised laugh as the pup licked her cheek.

“Where did you say you found him?”

“He was in a litter of direwolf pups by the bridge, well… he’d crawled away from them. The mother had died and the other pups were put down. Seemed a shame to let this one die too.”

Watching Joanna pet the creature, Theon was suddenly incredibly glad he had not slaughtered the strange little wolf. Joanna sighed.

“Do you think I will be allowed to keep it?” She lifted the pup and inspected it. “Her?”

“Your lord father said it would be okay as long as you took responsibility for it. Your brothers and sisters will be jealous, mind.”

“My half-brothers and half-sisters,” Joanna murmured quietly.

“Huh?” Theon reached out and scratched behind the pup’s ear. “You don’t normally call them that.”

“I’ve been told by Lady Stark that it’s improper not to. She says it’s deceitful.”

“Deceitful,” Theon echoed disbelievingly. “They are your brothers and sisters.”

“It implies I’m trueborn, she said,” Joanna explained as she continued to stroke the little wolf.

“So?”

“So it could…” She hesitated awkwardly. “It could lead a man to make a proposal without knowing I’m a bastard.”

Theon’s first thought was to ridicule the idea of her talking about marriage so young, but it dawned on him that she was fourteen, almost a woman grown. He was not blind and had noticed the rapid changes Joanna had undergone, but he had not really considered what that might mean for her. Of course men would proposition her. One need only look at her to know that. Theon had known her for nearly ten years and even he sometimes lost his thoughts when he looked at her. She had been scrawny as a little girl but over the past year she had gained a more womanly shape. Nowhere was that more noticeable than her chest, which was wrestled into a plain black dress by struggling maids many mornings.

“Any man who proposes to you ought to love you no matter your status,” Theon said quietly.

Joanna huffed out a quiet laugh. She rarely showed more mirth than that. “That is precisely what I said to Lady Stark. She told me not to be childish.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Theon asked, angry on Joanna’s behalf.

But Joanna was used to her hardships in the same way Theon was used to his, so she simply sighed before she replied.

“Love is not for bastards.”

Chapter Text

She had always liked to watch the boys fight. When Joanna was younger they had let her play with practise swords and scuffle with Robb and Theon. Eventually though, Lady Stark and the septa had stepped in. Lord Eddard Stark was a master of many things, but he would always bow to his wife’s instruction in the matter of raising young ladies. Joanna had been forced to discard her leathers for a dress and her sword for a needle. She had to watch others fight instead of fighting herself. It was a metamorphosis they were trying to force onto Arya now, but being trueborn Arya was able to be more wilful about it than Joanna was.

In the yard, Robb defeated poor Theon for a third time. Although Theon was older Robb was the better swordsman. Theon was the better archer, but that never consoled him after a day of defeat. Joanna resigned herself to hearing once more this evening about the bias of the master-of-arms.

“Here you are!” Sansa exclaimed. She rushed over with her friend Jeyne Poole close behind. Jeyne was the steward’s daughter and Sansa’s shadow. Joanna doubted the girl had ever voiced a thought without Sansa’s reaction in mind. “What are you doing?”

“Watching the fight,” Joanna said, though she wished immediately that she had lied. She had an open book in her lap, so she might have pretended to be reading. It was too late now though, she had spoken the truth and had to face Sansa’s distaste.

“Sometimes I swear you are no better than Arya. Why would you want to watch two boys roll around in the dirt? They aren’t even fighting for a prize.”

Joanna held her tongue to avoid saying that she had asked herself exactly the same question and found the answer dissatisfying. The only pull that she could be certain of was the knowledge that Theon valued her support. She enjoyed watching the way he moved, even when he was not victorious. Sometimes he would look over and smile at her. Robb enjoyed her presence too, but that was different.

“Theon claims to fight better when I’m watching.”

Sansa pursed her lips at that and stepped closer so that she could see the boys in the yard without the stone arch obstructing her view. Joanna always sat far enough away from the fight that Catelyn and the Septa could not reprimand her. Hopefully Sansa would not tell them about her observation today.

“I would hate to see him fight without you, then. Robb barely lets him get a strike in.”

“Archery is more suited to Greyjoys,” Joanna agreed, “but Theon does win sometimes.”

Again Sansa looked at her as though she had done something disgusting. That had been happening more and more lately. They used to be rather close but the more Sansa devoted herself to ladylike perfection, the more she looked down at Joanna. Lady Catelyn was always very clear about the status of bastards and what they could expect from life. Joanna’s lessons with the Septa were a mercy, she often said. A mercy that would never truly be useful, as she would most likely be married off to a blacksmith or farmer as soon as one expressed an interest.

“You know you should cheer for Robb. He’s our brother. Theon is just a ward and a son of an old traitor.”

“The son of an old traitor, but not a traitor himself.”

“Why do you always defend him so much?” Sansa asked. She giggled as she said it and Jeyne giggled with her. They sounded like a pair of mindless little doves. “Are you in love with him, Joanna?”

“No!” She slammed her book shut and stood from the little stone step. She could feel her face burning with embarrassment, as it always did when people spoke of love. How could she be interested in love when it had so clearly ruined her poor, nameless mother? “You shouldn’t joke about that,” she said, her voice trembling more than she had intended. “You’ll get me in trouble.”

Immediately Sansa turned serious. She reached out and put her hands over Joan’s, encasing her book with sisterly affection. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to. I forgot.”

Joanna forgave her immediately and let her humiliation leave in a sigh. Sansa might sometimes feel spiteful towards Arya, but with Joanna she never truly meant any harm. Such teasing could become rumour though, which would in turn make its way to Lady Stark. She would react very badly to Joanna courting above her station, even if it were not true.

“I know. It’s alright.”

Sansa smiled again, bright as sunshine. She was beautiful. Their father said that they were both great beauties, but Joanna could not see how a man might love her pale face and cumbersome chest when she stood beside Sansa’s delicate frame and radiant glow. Even her hair was prettier, locks of Tully red cascading down in lovely little waves. Joanna’s hair was dark and so thick that once it had ripped the teeth from one of Sansa’s pretty little combs.

Jeyne gasped and stepped back, hiding behind Sansa from something nearby. Joanna turned to see that her direwolf Ghost had joined them, stumbling along on unsteady little legs. The little pup was unusual, but not enough to warrant Jeyne’s fear. Perhaps it was the red eyes that unsettled her, or the fact that the wolf moved without a sound.

“Oh honestly, Jeyne,” Sansa said with a roll of her eyes, “You know my father would not have allowed it into the castle if it was not harmless.”

Joanna knelt to pet the little pup, scratching behind her ears. She glanced up at Jeyne’s quivering lip and could not resist a little teasing of her own.

“It will be months at least before she is large enough to bite off a man’s leg.”

The girl let out a little cry of terror and continued to use Sansa as her shield, despite Ghost doing nothing but nuzzling Joanna’s hand.

“It’s a shame I couldn’t have one,” Sansa said thoughtfully. “I’m certain I could have trained her to be obedient.”

“You probably could have taught her needlework,” Joanna joked.

Sansa laughed, a musical little sound that put Joanna’s quiet huffs of mirth to shame. At the thought, she scolded herself. She never used to be troubled about things like that. She and Sansa were different, she had always known. Lately however, Joanna felt as though she had been put beside Sansa for judgement and had been found lacking. Her needlework was just as good, her manners too, yet the praises were bestowed on Sansa and never on her.

Joanna looked out into the yard again where Ser Rodrik Cassel was slapping Robb heartily on the back while Theon scowled. Yes, it was bias. She saw it and understood it, but that did not stop her from wishing it were not there. It was not her fault that she was a bastard, any more than it was Theon’s fault that his father was a traitor. Their parents had made mistakes, yet they paid for them. The way of the world. There was probably no sense in dwelling on it.

As if sensing her gaze, Theon looked over in their direction. He met her eyes and gave a small smile, which Joanna could not help returning. Then she remembered Sansa’s tease and looked away with a blush. There was no reason to give her sister more reason to say silly things.

“I should warn you that father is in a bad mood,” Sansa said.

Ghost slinked over to nose at her ankles, but Sansa stepped back neatly to avoid the pup. While she liked the look of the direwolf from a distance, she would not risk getting fur on her lovely clothes. Sansa’s gowns were always lovely. Joanna wore plain black without ornamentation. Lady Catelyn said that was due to the difficulties of Joanna’s size, but it was quite obvious that it was to draw less attention to her. Joanna had seen ladies of more sizeable chests than hers in beautiful gowns. Still, she had never placed any importance on that. Not out loud, anyway.

“He seemed well enough when he returned from the execution.”

Pensive, perhaps, but not angry. Killing a man was liable to make a man contemplative. Joanna had often wondered what it would be like to take a man’s life. She wondered if Sansa had ever pondered it, but knew better than to ask. Arya probably thought on it all the time.

“A raven arrived with some bad news and – Oh!” Sansa exclaimed suddenly, clasping her hands to her chest. “I haven’t told you! How could I forget! It’s expressly what I found you for and then I completely forgot! I’m so silly!”

“What?”

Beside her Jeyne was suddenly giddy too, her fear of Ghost forgotten as she squealed like a merry pig and said, “The King is visiting Winterfell!”

“I wanted to tell her, Jeyne,” Sansa said, crestfallen that she had been beaten to the special announcement.

“The King?” Joanna echoed, stunned. What could the King need in Winterfell? He and their father were old friends from the war, but he had not visited the North in years. Why now?

“King Robert and the Queen and the Princes and Princess…” Sansa looked like she might faint from exuberance. “Maybe even the Queen’s brother, Ser Jaime Lannister!”

“Queen Cersei has two brothers,” Joanna reminded her.

“Oh, I’m not excited about seeing the Imp,” Sansa said, “Though I will of course, be courteous to him.”

That was hardly a surprise. Sansa could be courteous to a dying mule. She had all the courtesy in the world for anyone who was not Arya.

“No wonder father is in a foul mood, if the King rides to Winterfell with a large party at such short notice. There will much to prepare.”

Sansa smiled so widely she looked almost mad. Still beautiful though, Joanna noted with a pang of envy that she quickly quashed.

“We need only prepare ourselves. We must be lovely, Joanna. I must be perfect. Prince Joffrey will be there. Imagine!”

Joanna found it surprisingly challenging to imagine the golden royals in Winterfell. She looked around the yard and at the grey stone walls of the castle. Snow was beginning to fall for the second time that week. It was hard to envision their home hosting the kind of celebration that King Robert was notorious for. It was no easier to picture Lannisters walking across the white and grey landscape, gold and shining like gilded lions on a white canvas. Joanna had heard that Jaime wore armour of gold to match his hair and was one of the most handsome men in Westeros. Although she was not prone to swooning over heroes like Sansa, she had to confess to a certain curiosity about the knight that had slain the Mad King.

“I don’t imagine your mother will want me to be seen by the royal family.”

As soon as she had said it Joanna wished she had held her tongue. Sansa looked so despondent at her words, as though Joanna had drained all of the excitement right out of her.

“I’m sure we could find you something pretty to wear. Perhaps we could go through some of my old things and cut them up to add some colour to one of your dresses?”

“It isn’t about the clothes, Sansa. I’m a bastard, remember?”

“Well yes, but…” For a moment Sansa floundered, torn between her love for her sister and the harsh rules that her mother taught her. The outcome did not surprise Joanna. “Oh, I suppose you’re right. It seems so bitterly unfair though, that you will not be able to meet the royal family.”

“I’ll have to amuse myself another way. Maybe I’ll go for a walk with Ghost.”

“Even with a wolf you shouldn’t walk alone,” Jeyne chided. “It isn’t proper.”

“You can still attend the feast,” Sansa pointed out. “You will simply have to observe from a distance. You like doing that.”

Joanna did not bother to explain that having to do it and enjoying it were very different things. She wondered if she would see much of her family when they were entertaining royalty. Would Theon be excluded too or would being the heir to the Iron Isles make him worthy of being in the royal presence? The sounds of steel rang out behind her and she was tempted to look over at his fight, but she restrained herself.

“You should show me what you plan to wear.”

Just like that, Joanna’s discomfort was forgotten. Grasping her hand, Sansa led Joanna away from the courtyard towards her room, where the afternoon would be spent cooing over fabrics and playing with different ways to wear their hair.

The strangest thing was that Jeyne and Sansa actually seemed to enjoy it, while Joanna felt it a sacrifice of time that could have been spent watching Theon spar with Robb.

But then, she was a bastard. Lady Stark told her bastards did not love the things they were supposed to.

Chapter Text

The whores were giddy about the royal visit. Robb was nervous, more than anything. Royal eyes would be upon him, judging him, trying to decide if he would be a good Lord of Winterfell some day. His father was known as an honourable man. It stood to reason that the King would want to know if the same could be said of the heir to Winterfell. Robb had spent days practising his manners and refreshing his memory of history, geography and politics with Maester Luwin. He had even had his hair cut and shaved what little beard he had managed to grow since becoming a man.

Now he was at a brothel. His father would be furious. Hopefully he would never find out.

It was not as though Robb was bedding a whore. He had only come to the brothel at Theon’s behest, because his ironborn friend wanted company. The whore Theon had chosen actually asked if Robb wanted to accompany them into her chamber, but the heir to Winterfell had quickly and politely refused that offer, much to Theon’s amusement. Robb suspected Theon only brought him here because he hoped one day that Robb would just cave into the pressure and pay for some pleasure.

He could not quite understand the appeal. Of course there was the physical satisfaction, but where was the emotional bond? There was none. Robb struggled to understand how the sating of sexual need outweighed the dishonour. When he said that to Theon though, his friend just laughed and called Robb ‘his father’s son’.

Robb thought about that as he nursed his drink at a table and spurned the advances of numerous whores. If his father was truly so honourable with regards to women, Joanna would never have been born. Robb loved his father and knew him as a great man, but that small detail had always troubled him. Probably not as much as it troubled his poor bastard half-sister. She could not bear to hear people speak of Lord Stark’s single dishonour. Joanna had lamented to him more than once her status as the only stain on their father’s otherwise immaculate reputation.

She had probably mentioned it to Theon even more, which was another thing that bothered Robb about this trip to the brothel. It was the most recent trip of many. Robb did not often agree to join Theon on these outings. How could Theon so frequently risk siring bastards when he knew of the torment they would go through? Joanna was like a sister to him, was she not? Robb could not imagine her reacting well to the knowledge that Theon was sowing his seed across all the whores of the North.

Shortly after Robb had finished his drink, when he was considering buying another, Theon strode out of the backroom and sauntered over to him like a man who had won a tourney and a war on the same day. He sank down into the seat opposite Robb and lounged there contentedly.

“Done?” Robb asked bluntly. He would like to go home. The longer he spent there, the more chance that someone would see him and spread the word.

“She was,” Theon said through a smirk, nodding towards the woman he had bought who was just now leaving the backroom.

Robb watched Theon’s whore as she moved about the room, not a thing in her appearance to suggest she had just been bedded. She had long, dark hair that looked as though it had refused to stay where she put it. Her grey eyes looked intelligent, but serious. Not that many men looked that high up. Her bosom was barely contained within her indecent little dress whenever she leant across a table to speak with lusty patrons. Robb could see her cleavage from here, skin pale as…

“Oi, Stark. Why are you staring at her?”

He realised with a start that Theon had paid to bed a woman that looked just like Joanna.

Chapter Text

Truthfully, the royal visit was a royal pain in the arse even before it was underway. Winterfell was like a marketplace or a battlefield with people running to and fro. It was impossible to move from one room to another without tripping over someone or something. Theon tried to stay out of the way, but as an able-bodied man he was often called upon to help carry things around the castle. The future Lord of the Iron Islands and he was shifting benches around the Great Hall with a butcher and the idiot stable-boy. Even then Lady Stark bustled through with her dresses all about her and complained that the benches were not straight.

It was not just the castle that had to be perfect, either. Lord Stark came by the courtyard one day while Theon and Robb were half-heartedly sparring and took Theon aside. He told him he expected the best behaviour, as befitted the heir to the Iron Islands. That meant treating people respectfully, not drinking too much and not whoring.

Theon had to bite his tongue to stop himself from arguing. He always treated people with respect when they deserved to be respected. He teased the Stark children sometimes, but that was just a bit of fun! He always stopped before they cried. In fact, he tried to steer clear of Sansa Stark entirely since she had run to her mother and complained about him. Gods knew Arya Stark gave as good as she got. Theon got along with little Rickon brilliantly when the brat was not having a tantrum. Bran Stark just ignored him, preferring to spend most of his time climbing over the castle walls and avoiding people altogether. Maybe it was just Robb that Lord Eddard was concerned for. The heir to Winterfell was growing into a proper young man but Theon was able to destroy all his put-on airs and graces with a few careless words. It was good for a laugh but probably not a good idea to goad Robb into any disgrace while the royal party visited.

“But there’s to be a feast, isn’t there? Are you telling me I can only have water at the greatest feast Winterfell’s ever hosted?”

“No, Theon. I am advising against drinking to excess. You don’t always carry yourself well when you have wine in your belly. Remember that any shame you bring upon yourself before the king will impact on your family’s reputation.”

His family’s reputation. Yes, because Lord Stark really cared about that when he crushed them under his foot and stole Theon from his home. Ten years and people in this castle still sneered at him for a rebellion he took no part in. What was his family’s reputation in the eyes of the king? Turncloaks and reavers. It was not Theon’s family name Lord Stark sought to guard, it was his own. He did not want it said that House Stark raised unruly wards.

“And why does it matter who I lay with? Everyone knows the queen’s brother spends half his life in a library, the other in a brothel. If the Imp is allowed, why not me?”

“The queen’s brother may do as he pleases. It’s one of the privileges he gains through being the queen’s brother. But I would have you prove to Robert’s court that you are a man of honour and discipline. People need to see that you aren’t…” Lord Stark hesitated before changing his words. “You represent your father here, Theon. People will look down on you for that. Your conduct will prove them either right or wrong.”

Lord Stark was called away then to discuss the plans for the guard. Theon was left scowling at the floor. He had to pretend to be a gentleman so that the royal court would forget the Greyjoys were reavers. All the while, the wealthiest and most respected lords would be whoring until their pricks came off and drinking until they drowned.

“Everything okay?”

Robb had returned to his side now that his father had left. He had not even asked any questions when Lord Stark took Theon aside. He had simply wandered off to occupy his time some other way like the obedient little lord he was training to be. Joanna might have asked her father what needed to be said, or stayed close enough that she could hear for herself. Would Robb have said anything even if Lord Stark had struck Theon for his behaviour instead? Or would he have just stood there and watched, telling himself that his father’s will was law? Luckily Lord Eddard Stark was not prone to such discipline in his House, so they would never know.

“Apparently I’m to behave like a sober eunuch when the king visits. Having fun is strictly forbidden.”

“Oh, you got that speech too?”

Theon looked at Robb with surprise. He had not expected the perfect little lord to get a similar talking-to. Robb rarely broke the ‘one cup’ rule of wine and did not even seem to like whores. The teasing though, Robb teased his siblings about as much as Theon did. He just did not get caught so often. The Starks forgave their own blood much easier.

“Did your father tell you not to whore?”

“Ha, no. Not quite. I don’t think he knows I’ve even seen a brothel and I’d like to keep it that way. No, he just gave me this talk about presenting myself properly as the heir of Winterfell. As if I didn’t already know the king is going to be watching me and waiting to see if I’m as good a man as my father.”

That was what it always came down to. Were they their fathers? Were they better men or worse? Sons were judged by the reputation of their fathers, then their fathers were judged by the conduct of their sons in some sort of vicious cycle. Theon had not even seen his father in nearly ten years. Secretly, he barely even remembered the man. He had been cold, like the sea. That was the lasting impression Theon had of him.

“You’ll be fine. You remember your manners and the banners and your history and all that shit. When you greet a girl you’re all courtesy, even when she’s ugly as sin. The Lannisters will probably want to smuggle you home with them.”

“Ugh, don’t even say that in jest. I’m not looking forward to meeting them at all. My father despises them, did you know that? He tries to be gracious about it, but I’ve heard him speak of them enough times to know they have no honour.”

As if the cool relationship between the Starks and Lannisters was a well-kept secret. The Lannisters had changed colours late in the war and nobody liked a turncloak. The only reason they were liked more than the Greyjoys was their clever scheme to marry the winning side. And the gold, of course.

“They have gold instead. That seems to make up for it, as far as most the kingdom’s concerned.”

“Northmen never forget their honour,” Robb said. “And gold doesn’t keep a man warm. Winter is coming.”

The words of House Stark. Robb sounded so much like his father in that moment that Theon wanted to shove him, just to see if Robb would stop this mimicry and scrap in the mud with him for a while like they had days before. Ned Stark’s children were still just that – children. They were born in summer at the end of a war that their families won. Nobody had snatched them from their home and slaughtered their brothers. They were not forced to grow as Theon was. Now the king visited and they would all play-pretend, just like when they were smaller and they had played Lords and Ladies. This time they would have to commit to the pretence, though. Arya and Bran and Rickon could go back to their games, but Sansa was becoming a fair maiden. Robb was almost a man in the eyes of his peers. Once they had taken off childhood, there would be no putting it back on.

“Did he mention Joanna to you?” Robb asked, staring across the courtyard and avoiding Theon’s gaze.

“What do you mean? No, he didn’t.”

Robb ran a hand back through his curly hair and scuffed his boots against the ground. He looked more uncomfortable than he had in the whorehouse and that was saying something. Last time they went he had looked tortured by the end of the night.

“I’d hoped he might talk to you about… you know.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Stark.”

Obviously Joanna would be in a tricky situation during the royal visit. As Lord Stark’s daughter she could not stay hidden away or people would think he was ashamed of her. Though Joanna suffered for her status, she did not have to bear that disdain. Lord Stark loved her dearly, anyone could see that. Unfortunately, such affection did not change the fact that she was a bastard. The royal family would probably scorn her, maybe even take her very presence as an insult. To think, Lord Stark had the nerve to warn him of indiscretions when he was still dealing with the consequences of his own.

“You and Joanna. There’s a problem there.”

“You’re still making no sense whatsoever. Stop beating about the bush and speak plain, Stark.”

If Joanna was angry with him, this was the first Theon had heard of it. Had Robb been a complete idiot and told her about the whores? Joanna was the only person who could hurt him with disapproval. There had been many nights where Theon had let thoughts of her opinion keep him from paying for fine company. Joanna would hate to think he was risking bastards of his own when her status was such a burden to her.

“Do you love her?” Robb asked bluntly, staring him straight in the eye.

“What? I… well… of course. She’s like a sister to me.”

A sister who had given him a hard-on the last time they scuffled in the wood. Joanna did not know that, of course. Theon had rolled away from her and started back for the castle before she could notice the bulge in his breeches. She probably would not have even seen it for what it was. Joanna was still an innocent when it came to that sort of thing.

“Right. So should I be concerned about you bedding a woman who looks just like your sister?”

“I didn’t even notice Gwin’s resemblance until after I’d fucked her!”

Robb frowned with confusion. It was true though, it was not until Theon woke up in the woman’s bed at the inn that the similarities had struck him like a hammer. For one startling (and blissful) moment, he thought he was in bed with Joanna. Then the woman had turned onto her back and the face was all wrong. Lips too thin, cheeks too red and a certain severity to her face that Joanna never managed in her darkest moods.

“Gwin? I thought her name was Tysha?”

“Oh, the whore. I thought you meant… never mind.”

But Robb did not look appeased. If anything, he looked even more incredulous.

“Are you telling me this is a habit? Do all the women you bed look like her? I mean I always knew you preferred dark-haired lovers but Theon, surely it must mean something that you keep going after women who could be Joanna’s twin!”

“So your sister is starting to look like my favourite type of wench. So what? It doesn’t mean anything. We’re friends. Gods, we’re practically family. There’s nothing between me and Joanna.”

Robb just stared at him for a while, trying to judge whether Theon was being truthful or not. Theon held his gaze unflinching. He had nothing to hide. Eventually Robb nodded.

“Okay. In that case it’s my duty as your friend to tell you that the way you act around my sister won’t go unnoticed. Clearly you haven’t realised.”

“What are you talking about?” Theon said, his voice growing loud with annoyance. “I haven’t done anything to her!”

“Theon, don’t be stupid. She sits and cheers you on during every one of your fights like you’re her favourite knight or something. You gave her a pup as a gift. She spends time in your room and you in hers. You can’t honestly tell me that people won’t begin to wonder if… you know.”

It was like having a pail of icy water poured over his head. Suddenly Theon was looking at the past years of his life and seeing a long, foolish courtship. He had never been trying to woo Joanna. They were friends, as he said. But people would talk. People always talked. It was amazing the rumours had not begun already. Maybe they had and Theon had just not heard them. Joanna’s reputation would be shattered if people thought she had lain with him.

“You’re right. I should have realised. It’s just… we’ve been close since she was just a little thing. I never even thought that people would be looking at her and me and thinking whatever they’re thinking.”

“I know you would never mean her any harm. But not everyone knows you both as well as I do. What must they be thinking when you two return to the castle covered in dirt and leaves? My mother was furious with Joanna for that, you know.”

Theon nodded solemnly, but he could not regret the day that Robb spoke of. With Joanna’s days being taken up more and more by ladylike pursuits it was a rarity for her to have time to venture out with Theon. They had ridden out early in search of an adventure. They had not found one, but the day had been none the worse for it. They had talked about everything under the sun, laughed until they could barely breathe and fought in the woods just as they used to before Joanna started wearing such pretty dresses. It was after he had pinned her to the ground that his body reacted to her heaving bosom and gasping lips in a way he had not expected. Despite his hasty decision to retreat from her back to the castle it was still one of the most pleasant days he could remember.

He could not reward her friendship by making her the subject of scandal.

“I’ll keep my distance from her. Thanks for pointing it out.”

“That’s not… you can’t do that. You’re too important to her.”

It was a sweet thing to say, but they both knew it was not true. Joanna would be fine with the girls. Even now as they spoke she was being measured for a new dress with Sansa and Arya. They would be laughing and giggling like proper little ladies. Probably at Arya, actually. Either way, it was where Joanna belonged. They were making her into a lady. Theon was getting in the way.

“She’ll be fine. Better, probably. Anyway, I’ve got some things to take care of so I’ll see you later at dinner.”

“Theon…”

But he did not stick around to hear Robb Stark try and argue himself out of the truth. Theon walked briskly back to his room and shut himself inside to think and brood on what Robb had said.

There were no two ways about it, Theon was too close to Joanna. They had been best friends for years but she was a woman now. Theon could not pretend to ignore that forever. Sooner or later he would do something stupid like kiss her or fondle her at dinner like he would any other maid in the castle. Then she would hate him as she hated the imaginary future husband that Lady Stark and Sansa often spoke of.

Being a bastard had left Joanna with some funny ideas about love and sex and marriage. While Sansa liked songs and tales of handsome knights and their fair maidens, Joanna always asked awkward questions about them that soured the stories and made Sansa hate her heroes. Joanna liked the same stories that Arya did, the ones about warrior queens and daring wild women. There had been a time when Theon thought Joanna would grow to be one of those fierce and fearless creatures, but she let Lady Stark take her sword with little more than a sigh.

A sudden fear gripped Theon and would not let go. There would be squires and lowborn men of court in the royal party. Men who could not aspire to marry noble ladies and might see Lord Stark’s pretty bastard as the next best thing. What if they took a liking to her? What if she took a liking to one of them? Catelyn Stark would be thrilled to be rid of Joanna and Eddard Stark could hardly object to such a match. Even Theon had to admit it would be better than seeing her married off to some stupid butcher or tanner around Winterfell.

He paced his room anxiously, his mind going in circles. If it did happen he had no way of stopping it. In fact, he had no right to stop it. He was not family, not really. He had no claim on her other than the claim of a friend, which amounted to the same as no claim at all.

Such fears and frustrations kept him uselessly occupied until dinner. Theon went into the Great Hall and found the tables had been moved again for the fifth time that week. Some guests had already arrived ahead of the king, though the majority would follow him when he arrived in the morning.

Theon joined the Starks at their table. He did not always eat with them, but when they had no guests it did not seem to matter either way. Lord Stark nodded to him if he sat with them but nobody questioned it when he chose to sit elsewhere. It was these little freedoms that made all the difference in life. If he were one of Lord Stark’s children, they would want to know where he was all of the time. Who needed that kind of smothering?

Joanna had saved him a seat so he took it, despite his earlier vow to stay distant. To refuse her would be suspect in itself. Theon sat beside her, an empty seat across from him. Across from Joanna sat Arya and on her other side, Sansa. Further down the table Robb glanced over and met Theon’s eye for a moment, then he looked at Joanna then back at his plate.

“How goes the dress?”

His question elicited a heavy sigh from Joanna that blew her dark hair away from her face. She glanced over at Sansa then poked at the food on her plate for a moment.

“I suppose it could be worse, though not by far. They swaddled us with all these lovely fabrics and every time I liked one they said it would not suit my face, or my hair, or my figure…”

Arya spoke up, her mouth full of food as she said, “They only did that because of Sansa.”

That caught the other sister’s attention. Sansa looked wide-eyed and scandalised but unlike Arya she waited until she had finished chewing before speaking.

“They only had enough of the blue material for a little dress and I’m thinner--“

Immediately she bit her lip, stopping herself and staring at Joanna in mortification. Something about Arya always managed to make Sansa say more than a lady ought to. Theon supposed that was why Sansa was so angry at her all the time. It was hard to be a lady while you were arguing with your little sister like a child.

“It’s okay, you are. There’s no denying it.”

Though Joanna’s tone was light, her face was flushed and she kept her gaze fixed on her plate, where she pushed some meat around with a fork.

Arya was apparently not content with the trouble she had caused already, as she went on talking.

“That’s not why though. I heard mother say the blue material had to go to Sansa because it was nicer. ‘Nothing too fancy for the bastard’, she said. Well, she whispered it, but I heard her. She’s just worried because Joanna’s prettier and they want to make sure the prince falls in love with Sansa so they have to dress her up as nice as possible.”

Both Joanna and Sansa exclaimed “Arya!” at the same time. Theon grinned at her. He did not doubt it was true for one moment. Lady Stark had hoped to make Joanna miserable by training her to be a lady, but that had backfired when Joanna proved herself more than capable of the task. Everything Sansa did, Joanna could do better. Not that anyone but Theon and Arya ever told her so. Joanna was beautiful, clever and skilled at all the things a proper lady ought to be skilled at. It really was no wonder Lady Stark dressed her in black and tried to hide her in the shadows.

Maybe if she stayed there she would not be wooed by some stupid fool from the royal court.

Theon reassured himself with such notions, but they all flew out of the window on the day of the royal visit. He was already out in the cold in his best furs rubbing his hands together to warm them when the girls ventured out to join the crowd. Both Sansa and Joanna had their hair arranged in pretty little twists around their faces, though the wind had whipped Joanna’s into a wild nest by the time she was stood with Theon. She huffed and tugged it all loose so that it tumbled around her face in dark curls. Then she blinked at Theon.

“What? You’re staring.”

“Sorry.”

Theon turned his face eyes-front again, staring at the gate that was due to admit the king any moment. He could not stop himself from glancing to the side, however. Joanna was wearing a lovely grey fur to keep the cold out. It matched the stormy grey of her eyes. He began to watch the gate with growing alarm. What sort of braggarts and low-born scum would be in the party? Would they see Joanna and want her? Theon and Joanna were stood behind the Stark family rather than out at the front, but that would just make it look as though Joanna was less protected. A man might be deterred from wooing Sansa Stark by the look in her father’s eye, but Joanna was out of Lord Stark’s sight.

He dug his bitten-down nails into his palms and told himself to stop being so foolish. It was Robb Stark who had put all these silly notions into his head. Joanna was just a friend. A comely friend. Just because there might be people who thought she meant more to him did not make it so. He ought to be happy that she might make a match with someone from the court. It was a better prospect than she would usually have in Winterfell, where the best she could hope for was a match with one of her father’s aged bannermen or one of their reluctant sons.

“We probably shouldn’t stand together,” he said, remembering his promise to Robb. “People might get the wrong idea.”

Joanna looked at him as though he had gone mad. She had done the same the night before, when after dinner he had refused to let her into his room on the grounds that it would not be proper.

“Who might get what idea?”

Theon did not have the heart to try and explain it to her. She was still so innocent. He did not want to make their friendship appear as strange to her as it now did to him. She could continue to see him as a silly boy, even though he now knew her as a woman.

In all honesty, he could not entirely blame Robb for that shift in perspective. He blamed Joanna herself for being a vision beneath him, laughing and panting on the muddy ground as they wrestled in the wood. He also blamed Catelyn Stark for the dresses. Those damned dresses. Joanna was probably wearing one under her furs right now. No pretty high-necked gowns for the bastard, oh no, Joanna’s dresses had to be plainer and cut low on the chest. A low neck for a low birth. Lady Stark probably hoped that such clothes – almost fit for a common maid – would draw a lower class of suitor. Any man could tell her that Joanna’s dresses would draw all manner of suitors when they adorned such a body.

His troubled silence seemed to irritate Joanna, who sighed and turned away from him to face the gate.

“If you don’t want to be seen with me just say so. Don’t be so bloody craven about it.”

Before Theon could think of a way to explain without actually explaining, a trumpet blasted by the gate. King Robert Baratheon had arrived. It looked like he had brought all of King’s Landing with him in a never-ending procession of horses, carriages and marching men. It was like an invasion. His eldest son, Joffrey Baratheon, rode in shortly after him on an impressive steed. Sansa turned her head to smile gleefully at Joanna before fixing her adoring gaze on the prince.

Theon turned to nudge Joanna and say something witty, but her eyes were wide as well. He followed her stare not to Joffrey, but to the boy’s uncle. Ser Jaime Lannister, the ‘Kingslayer’. The man who had slain the Mad King Aerys slid off his horse in a smooth motion and removed his helm to reveal hair more golden than any maid’s. Although he was not wearing his famed golden armour, which would have been foolish for the journey, his red cloak meant he wore at least one Lannister colour.

Joanna was staring at the knight with an awed expression that did not sit well with Theon one bit, but he forced his gaze back to the gate. It was none of his business who his friend swooned over.

Though Jaime Lannister lived up to his reputation, the king did not look at all like Theon had expected. They had all heard the stories of his battles and it seemed strange to think of this fat, red-faced man having those victories. He looked like he could swing a warhammer, to be sure, but he would probably need to sit down for a while afterwards. Even Lord Stark muttered something to his wife when he saw the man drop off of his horse and waddle towards them.

After a warm embrace between the King of Westeros and the Lord of Winterfell, Robert was introduced to the Stark family. He embraced Lady Catelyn as though she were his sister. He shook Robb’s hand while the heir tried to look as manly and serious as possible. He complimented Sansa’s beauty and joked with Arya. He patted Bran on the shoulder and ruffled Rickon’s hair.

On his return back down the line to Lord Stark, the king noticed Joanna. He stopped where he stood and stared at her over Sansa and Robb’s shoulders with all the subtlety of his legendary hammer.

“Who’s this, Ned?”

Lord Stark looked over his shoulder. When he saw that it was Joanna his expression grew serious, though Theon could not tell exactly why. Was he embarrassed to be called out on his bastard daughter? If so he could go hang, because nobody was more embarrassed in that moment than Joanna herself, who was staring at the ground with her cheeks flushed red. Theon wanted to take her hand, but that would have been a top example of the improper behaviour that Robb had warned him about.

“That’s my daughter from the war, Joanna Snow.”

Joanna curtsied respectfully. Lady Catelyn looked as though she had eaten a sour fruit. Joanna glanced up in the king’s direction but quickly averted her eyes to the snowy ground again when she realised he was still staring at her.

“Ah, I recall now. The bastard.”

Theon clenched his teeth together so hard his jaw hurt. Joanna just stared at the floor. Everyone was watching her. Only her siblings looked sympathetic to her plight. Sansa was biting her lip and trying not to look. Robb was frowning at the king’s feet as he was far too sensible to frown at his face. Theon stared straight ahead at the gate.

“You have a beautiful family, Ned.”

It would have been harmless flattery if the man had not still been staring right at Joanna.

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

Thank you, Your Grace, would you like me to fetch you a drink while you spread my daughter? Theon’s fists clenched uselessly by his sides. Oh, to be a king and have the mindless obedience of every father, brother and uncle in the land. All the pretty girls lined up like targets in an archery range, waiting without complaint to be pierced by his arrow.

“Now. Your crypts. I would pay my respects.”

By this point Queen Cersei had joined them, having left her carriage with a gaggle of attendants who helped drag her heavy red skirts across the snow. She was beautiful. Her hair was golden like her brother’s and her eyes were emerald green.

“Can’t it wait until we have settled?” She asked her husband coldly. “It’s been a long journey.”

When she noticed Theon was watching her, she wrinkled her nose at him and he hurriedly looked back at the gate.

“I’m not stopping you settling anywhere,” the king replied. “Do as you please. Me and Ned are going down to the crypts.”

That seemed to be the end of it. King Robert and Lord Stark strode off in the direction of the Stark family crypt, with Lord Stark hesitating to nod with awkward acknowledgement to the disgruntled queen. Theon wondered what was so important about dead Starks that it was worth irritating a woman that attractive. He turned to nudge Joanna and ask her what she made of the disharmony between king and queen but she was still hanging her head, staring down at the floor. Theon could not see her face through the dark curtains made by her hair. The king had embarrassed her. Of course, knowing Joanna, she was probably more upset that the king had used her to embarrass her family.

As Theon watched, a drop fell from her downturned face and landed on the snowy ground. He wondered if anyone else could see she was crying. There was no sound of sniffling or sobbing. Joanna always wept silently.

The royal party were still streaming in through the gate, the arrivals becoming less and less notable. Little Arya was still avidly looking around for the Queen’s little brother Tyrion, the dwarf, but he was nowhere to be seen. Lady Catelyn stepped forward to greet the queen and began instructing people to assist the visitors with their belongings. The crowd dispersed, moving to perform different tasks in order to contribute to the settling their guests. Robb and Sansa both turned to check on their sister.

“Don’t be upset,” Robb said gently. “It’s not your fault. The king was…tactless.”

Sansa reached out first, but as soon as her hand touched Joanna’s shoulder the girl shrugged it off and spun on her heel. She strode away from them as quickly as possible, her grey fur rippling in the wind.

Robb took two steps in the same direction before his mother caught his arm and began introducing him to the queen, who had a look on her face as though she had just been introduced to Hodor, the stable-dwelling idiot. When she smiled it was perfectly gracious, but too late to be natural.

Theon looked to Sansa, half-expecting her to take up Robb’s forgotten quest and go to soothe her sister. It seemed unlikely there would be any help from that quarter either though. Sansa had noticed Prince Joffrey making his way over to his mother and was now reluctant to go elsewhere.

With a sigh Theon dismissed Robb’s earlier advice and began traipsing after Joanna. She was most likely running off to the room she was sharing with Sansa to avoid further humiliation.

“Greyjoy! Give us a hand!”

He turned and saw Jory Cassel and a few servants trying to drag a heavy trunk down from the queen’s carriage. Whatever the queen had packed in there had made it quite the struggle for them.

“I was just going…” He trailed off, not wanting to explain but gesturing vaguely towards the keep with his thumb.

“Chasing snowflakes?” Jory asked.

Theon could have easily ignored him. After all, how many times had people made jokes like that? But then Robb’s words came back to him and he began to genuinely wonder. How many times had people made jokes like that? When would the questions start becoming more serious? Was that not exactly what Robb had warned him about? Nobody meant anything malicious by it, but such things said often enough could lead people to believe there really was something going on between him and Joanna. They had both been behaving in ways that would do their reputations no good.

He glanced towards the keep, imagining Joanna throwing herself onto a bed and sobbing into a pillow. He could stroke her hair and tell her how stupid this royal farce was. He could tell jokes about the fat king and make her laugh again.

Then he would find a reason to do it tomorrow and the next day, and the next, until everyone truly thought he was courting her.

“Okay, okay,” he grumbled, making his way over to help with the luggage.

Joanna had Ghost to keep her company, after all. She did not need Theon. She probably would not even want him there.

Even as he told himself that, he could not hope it was true.

Chapter Text

The sounds of feasting and merriment drifted in through the open window, taunting Joanna Snow with thoughts of fine food and good company. Still she lay on the bed she was going to share with Sansa that night, glaring at the ceiling and running her fingers idly through Ghost’s fur. Her direwolf pup had been the only one to check she was well. Ghost had leapt onto the bed as soon as Joanna threw herself onto it and nudged at her face until she stopped crying.

That had taken some time. Whenever Joanna thought she had calmed she would remember the look of disdain in the king’s eyes and the embarrassment in her father’s voice. She remembered Sansa and Robb trying to pretend they were complete strangers, looking anywhere but at her. All of Winterfell stood there watching as Lord Stark confessed to his past dishonour. A proud day ruined for the Starks by Joanna’s mere presence.

Even Theon had ignored the whole thing, staring ahead at the gate like she was not even there. Maybe that was to be expected. After all, he had asked her to stand further away. He had not wanted to be seen with her. It was just like the previous night, when she had called on him after dinner and found him unwilling to even let her into his room. He had never been that way with her before. Joanna understood why he was behaving like this now though. Who would want to be seen with a bastard while royalty was visiting?

When Joanna was upset, Theon usually sought her out and consoled her just as she did for him. It was the understanding that their entire friendship was based upon, but that evening it had broken down. She lay sobbing and waiting for hours yet Theon did not appear. No doubt he was too busy trying to get under the skirts of the queen’s attendants or some other poor girls. It was the part of him that Joanna loved least, but she knew it was in every man to toy with women. Perhaps one day soon Robb would begin to act as though the world were a brothel too. Even her father had not avoided that blow to his honour. She ought to be thankful for that she supposed, or she would not have been born. Certainly the whole of Winterfell might have preferred that today.

Sighing, Joanna climbed from the bed and went to the window. Drunken revellers stumbled out of the Great Hall. She could hear the music. Earlier, there had been cheering. She wondered how late the feast would go on and how late the royal family would be there. They were most likely tired after their long journey, but they could still be in attendance at that moment. If so, Joanna could go down and observe them from afar as Sansa had suggested. The king would probably not even see her in the midst of all the people feasting and drinking. She could take a seat in the corner, drink some wine and see her fill of the royal party. She wanted to see Ser Jaime Lannister again.

Joanna looked over her plain dress. It was crumpled up from her grief-stricken repose and covered in light hairs from Ghost. Even for a bastard, it would never do. She went to the wardrobe, only remembering when she opened it that she was in Sansa’s room. A row of pretty dresses greeted her eyes, each one more delicate than the last. Joanna rubbed the different materials between her fingers with a sigh. Sansa was wearing her most beautiful gown to the feast. Prince Joffrey would love her if he had any sense at all.

Then Joanna saw a gown she remembered, hanging at the back. Surprised to see it, she lifted out the dress that she and Sansa had made together many moons ago. Lady Catelyn had complained many times about Joanna’s persistence in outgrowing her clothing, so Sansa had come up with the idea of making her a dress all by themselves. They had begun with some cheap, thick, blue cloth and shaped it into a little shift that made them giggle at the indecency. Then Sansa managed to convince the septa to give her some lovely, thin blue fabric that seemed to shimmer when it moved. They fashioned that into a longer dress over the top. Not being skilled dressmakers, it had turned out shorter in the front than the back. As it happened, the dress looked all the better for it. Then Sansa had brought out the silver thread to stitch around the waist like a belt.

Joanna tried it on now for a lark more than anything, not expecting to fit into the old thing. She had worn it only once. Lady Stark had rebuked her for dressing like a southron courtesan, despite the fact that the thick underdress would have made it far too warm for the sunny south. Now that the royals were here though, perhaps it would be the fashionable choice. How sweet, that Sansa had kept it. Some of Joanna’s anger towards her sister ebbed away.

Much to her surprise, she was still able to wriggle into the dress. It was restricting in places and she could not pull the silver ribbons at the top very far, but she was able to lace them to a respectable level. She checked Sansa’s mirror and smiled at how lovely she looked. Even if she was noticed at the feast she would bring no dishonour on her family by being so well-presented. People might say that the Starks were so generous and rich that they dressed even their bastards in finery. Unless they saw the stitching up close, in which case people would not be so generous with their compliments. Joanna and Sansa had improved their sewing a lot since making this dress.

She tugged on a pair of Sansa’s boots that had a grey fur trim around the top. It was too cold for dainty slippers. Sansa would not mind her borrowing a pair of her boots. Hopefully Lady Stark would not notice.

Making her way down to the Great Hall, Joanna was hit by another wave of uncertainty. What if they did not want her there? What if that was the reason that her family had not sought her out? Maybe she had embarrassed them enough for one day. She stood outside the doors in the cold evening, wondering if she was making a mistake. Ghost sat down by her ankles.

“You’re Stark’s girl, aren’t you? The white pup gives it away.”

Joanna turned to see who had spoken and found she needed to lower her gaze. The man who addressed her was of small stature. He was not handsome, though his clothes were fine. Ghost trotted forward and sniffed at him curiously.

“And you are the queen’s brother, Lord Tyrion Lannister.”

The little man bowed slightly to her and said, “I suppose my reputation precedes me.”

“I saw Ser Jaime earlier today and you are wearing Lannister colours. It stood to reason that you would be the queen’s other brother.”

“The handsome one, that’s me,” Lord Tyrion said.

His smirk made it clear that he was joking. Joanna did not understand how he could bear to point out the differences between himself and his brother. The Gods had been cruel to give Lord Tyrion such a golden mirror, though she supposed it was kinder than putting him in a lowborn family where his stunted form might have scared superstitious parents into abandoning him, or worse.

“How are you finding the feast, my lord?”

“Stuffy. And slightly wobbly, though that could be due to the wine I’ve had. No, it’s a fine feast, the likes of which I had not expected from the north. But why are you asking me? You could be finding out for yourself. The king was asking after you earlier.”

Hearing that made Joanna’s stomach plummet. Had the king not embarrassed her family enough for one day? The next time they had guests at Winterfell she would hide herself away.

“Don’t let it deter you from going in and seeing your family. I’m sure the king won’t bother you if you stay near your father.”

“Is your brother still in attendance, my lord?”

There were a few guests she hoped to see at the feast. Her Uncle Benjen from the Night’s Watch might be there by this point and he always had some interesting stories from the Wall. It was even possible that Theon was still at the feast and had not yet found some silly maid to take to bed. Joanna would like to see him, even if he was not eager to see her. Most of all she wanted to see Ser Jaime Lannister again. The glimpse of him earlier that day had not been enough.

Lord Tyrion was smirking at her for some reason.

“He was still there when I left. In fact, he was the one who advised me to get some air.”

“I hope you feel better soon, my lord, but I have stood outside long enough. Besides, I think my pup is desperate for a taste of the feast.”

Ghost was salivating at the smells of different meats leaking out of the hall, but Joanna had trained her well enough that she would not run ahead. Training the direwolf had taken up nearly every moment that she had not spent sleeping or aiding preparations for the royal visit. People said that it was a dangerous creature, but Ghost was more docile than a normal dog’s pup when Lord Tyrion scratched behind her ears.

“It’s the unusual creatures that are the most fascinating, don’t you agree?”

She nodded, though honestly a part of her wondered if that was not just something Lord Tyrion told himself in order to make peace with a hard life. She could only imagine how terrible it had to be, looking as he did in a royal court where appearance and reputation were everything. It was worse than being Ned Stark’s bastard in Winterfell. Yet he had enjoyed himself at the feast while she lay in her room weeping. She could not stop herself from blurting out a question.

“How do you stand it?”

The little man looked up at her and abandoned his petting of Ghost. He drew himself up to his full height and folded his arms. For a moment, Joanna feared she had offended him. His mismatched eyes seem to look straight into her, right at her soul.

“By ‘it’, I assume you mean the way they stare and the things they say. But I don’t think you ask out of idle curiosity. No, I’ve heard the mutterings about you and the sly, back-handed compliments. You’re like me in a way.” He smiled wryly. “Sorry if that’s an upsetting thought. I mean it so far as people need only look at you to know what you are. You’re the very image of Northern beauty. Your trueborn siblings don’t have that, though your littlest sister may yet grow into it. So the people see you pass, all Stark, no Tully, and they stare. And they joke and they lie. Is that what you cannot stand?”

Joanna bit at her lip and looked away, stung by how obvious it was to an outsider that she too was an outsider. She could accept Theon knowing it, but to know that visitors to Winterfell saw her for what she was… She clung to the other thing Tyrion had said. She had the look of the North about her, more than her brothers and Sansa. That had to be worth something.

“They think all sorts of things about me, just because I don’t know my mother. My father loves me, but that doesn’t stop them. Nothing stops them.”

“Let me give you some counsel, bastard. Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

She thought on it, though she was not certain how wise his counsel was. She was a bastard and there was no possible way she could forget that. Not a day went by where someone did not remind her. But how did she make it a strength? What power was there in being a walking, talking stain on the Stark banner? She had heard of bastards who pandered to the expectations people held of them, bastard boys who committed terrible crimes at war and usurpation of their siblings’ rights. Bastard girls accepted their lot by usurping through marriage or becoming depraved whores to better embarrass the families that had shunned them. That was not who Joanna was. She could not glory in her father’s shame or spite the family that had raised her.

“I’m not what the world says I am,” she said quietly. “Bastard, yes. The rest of it, no.”

Tyrion chuckled and shrugged his uneven shoulders as he stooped to pet Ghost again.

“Remember that then.”

“Joanna?”

At the sound of her name, Joanna turned just in time to be enveloped in a hug from her Uncle Ben. She squeezed him back, unable to avoid the aroma of old leather and sweat. When she stepped back she took a good look at him. It had been some time since their Uncle Ben had visited and one never knew what could happen to a man up at the Wall. He seemed the same as when she had last seen him, so her smile stayed.

“Uncle Ben, it’s so good to see you.”

“And you, sweet niece. But why am I finding you out here in the cold speaking to the little Lord Lannister?”

The warmth in his eyes seemed to fade when he looked past her to the afore-mentioned Lord Tyrion. Tyrion seemed unperturbed, grinning up at the Ranger of the Watch as if Uncle Ben had simply wished him a good evening.

“Little Lady Snow was on her way to the feast when I asked to stroke her lovely wolf.”

Joanna thought that was a fair explanation, though Lady Snow was an unpleasant moniker, but when she checked her uncle’s expression she found him looking even more agitated than he had. He put a hand on Joanna’s shoulder and began to guide her towards the Great Hall.

“I’m afraid it is much too cold to expect my niece to dally out here with you all evening. By your leave, Lord Tyrion.”

“Of course. It was very nice meeting you, Joanna. I hope to speak with you again.”

She looked back past her uncle and nodded courteously to the small man. Ghost gave a final nuzzle to Lord Tyrion’s hand then dashed after them, following her and Uncle Ben into the hall.

The heat and noise of the Great Hall hit her like a slap in the face. The huge room was crowded, full to bursting with feasters and merry-makers. The music mixed with the cheers and roars of people to make an intolerable din. The candles overhead combined with the heat of so many bodies to turn the room into a furnace.

“No wonder Lord Tyrion needed some air,” Joanna said, raising her voice so that her Uncle Ben could hear her over the racket.

“You shouldn’t associate with that lecherous little imp,” her uncle replied sternly.

It startled her to receive such a firm rebuke when she had done nothing wrong. Sansa was always expected to be accompanied by a friend, relative or septa, but Joanna’s low-birth allowed her the freedom to come and go as she pleased. It was one of the few benefits of being a bastard.

“He was perfectly kind to me.”

“Oh, I’m sure.”

Her uncle still did not sound happy though. He walked her over to the table where some of the girls from the castle were seated, his hand on the small of Joanna’s back as though he were escorting her. Jeyne Poole and Beth Cassel were among the group sitting there and they all smiled sweetly at her when she joined them. Theirs was not the company she craved but at least she would not receive much attention in her current seat. A couple of the girls commented on her dress and as she thanked them, her Uncle Ben took his leave to go and greet her father. It seemed she would have to wait to hear stories of the Wall.

The Starks dined with royalty at a nearby table, set up on the raised platform to give them a full view of the room. At this late hour decorum had somewhat broken down. King Robert was no longer sat with them and was instead enjoying the company of a friendly serving girl down at the common benches. When Joanna noticed, she risked a glance at the queen and saw the woman watching her husband with a severe glare that surely would have frozen the king’s blood in his veins, had he noticed. Unfortunately Joanna was watching too long and the queen’s glare fell upon her next. Joanna looked back at her plate, flushed with nerves.

Usually the girls had an older man in attendance nearby to keep an eye on them, but that tradition seemed not to apply to the royal feast. Joanna had to assume that the sheer amount of guests made it impossible to spare a well-known guard just for the sake of ensuring some silly girls behaved. That or their chaperone had become distracted. Either way, it was an oversight. Surreptitiously, so as not to be seen from the royal table, a flask of strongwine was being passed around from girl to girl. Just the smell of it was enough to make Joanna dizzy and she knew she had more taste for wine than these girls. Still she took a couple of gulps before passing it on, eager for more than the one cup of wine she had on the table.

She tried not to look up at the family table and not just because she feared the queen. Joanna had always known that she was an intruder in their home, but never did she feel it more keenly than when she saw them all at a family occasion. They never looked as though they were missing someone.

Joanna took another gulp of the strongwine when it came her way and tried not to think morose thoughts. She had thought on sad things enough that evening. Instead she looked around to see if she could spy Ser Jaime Lannister. She had somewhat expected to see him at the high table, but of course he was with the Kingsguard that had travelled north with their duty. That made sense. Jaime had changed out of the clothes he was wearing upon his arrival and was now wearing the famous golden armour. He shone.

“Psst, Joanna. You want the rest?”

Millicent was nudging her with the strongwine flask so Joanna took it. She held it between her knees under the table when she was not drinking it. Jaime Lannister was so impressive to look at that she could not take her eyes away from him. Until he looked straight at her, of course. How did Lannisters seem to know when she was looking at them?

Why it was so mortifying she did not know, but she felt as though her face was on fire as she turned back to her table. It was more embarrassing than being noticed by the queen. Joanna scolded herself for being foolish. Jaime Lannister was just a knight. A famous member of the Kingsguard, yes, but still just a knight.

“He’s looking at you,” whispered Ayleth.

Joanna could not help herself. She turned her head and caught his eyes again. They glittered green like emeralds, like his twin sister’s. He smiled at her and she felt her lips turn up to mirror it back at him, feeling like every little fool in Sansa’s favourite stories.

She broke the moment and looked back at the table again. She scolded herself once more. He was just being polite. He was a knight, smiling at girls was what he was supposed to do. It did not mean anything.

Not long after that a shrill laugh drew her attention to the doors, where Theon was wandering out with his hands all over some Lannister servant girl. Joanna’s chest clenched but she knew there was no reason to be upset. Theon was a man full-grown with a man’s appetites. She could not expect him to dawdle around keeping her company just because she had been humiliated earlier. He had not even come to check on her, why would he speak to her when he could be with beautiful strangers?

Sneaking another swig of the strongwine, Joanna began looking around the hall out of sheer curiosity at the assembled company. She had not had much of a chance earlier before she fled. It was entirely possible that she would be matched with a man in this room, someone under the same roof as her at this very moment. It did not seem very important to anyone that she did not want that. It was not as though she could think of an alternative. What would she do, stay in Winterfell doing chores and looking after the children of other women like Old Nan?

She surveyed the room, but feasts were not the best times to get the measure of a man. All of them were drinking and shouting and gorging themselves. Over the next hour or so it only became worse. Fights broke out occasionally, stopped either by guards or the sharp shout of King Robert. One by one the other girls at the table were taken away by their fathers or brothers or, in Millicent’s case, a Lannister squire. Joanna bit her lip and said nothing about it, but she did wonder if the girl had truly thought it through. It would be a tragedy if the royal visit left more bastards in Winterfell.

The room became oppressively hot as the night went on. None of the servants seemed inclined to carry water to her almost-empty table so Joanna was forced to search the room for some refreshment. She was surprised to find herself unsteady on her feet when she rose. Perhaps there was a reason for the one cup rule. She had never felt so wobbly on the occasions she had partaken of wine secretly with Theon.

There was a jug of water on one of the common tables, so Joanna made her way deeper into the hustle and bustle to fetch some for herself. With all her concentration on walking as though she were sober, she did not notice the king until he called out to her.

“Snow! Ned’s girl! Ah, blast it, what’s her name?”

A man of the Stark guard leaned over the table to tell the flustered king.

“Joanna, Your Grace.”

“Ha! Joanna Snow! Pretty name. Come over here, girl. Your king wants to get the measure of his new Hand’s bastard.”

With a longing glance at the water almost within her reach, Joanna turned and walked over to the king’s table. King Robert was at the centre of the revelry in the hall, drinking every man under the table and calling out for more music, more food, more everything. It was only when she stood beside him that Joanna realised the entirety of what he had said.

“My father’s your new Hand, Your Grace?”

“He will be, if he knows what’s good for him. The South will warm that ice right out of his blood. Fine food, good wines and fantastic company. Though… your pretty face makes a good case for the women of the North.”

Joanna was staggered by the compliment. For a moment, all of her courtesies flew from her mind. This was the king and he had just called her pretty. Nobody had taught her how to respond to that. Not the Septa, Maester Luwin, her father, or Lady Stark. Eventually she just stared at the ground and stammered out a “thank you, Your Grace.”

“Now, now, enough of these formalities. I’m well aware of my grace at this point, yet everyone in this hall sees fit to mention it at the end of every bloody sentence!”

She worried she had offended him, but when Joanna looked up she could see he was grinning. Good. The last thing her family needed was for her to anger the king.

“Can I just go and fetch some water? I’m thirsty.”

“We’ve plenty to drink here! Come now, come sit here next to me. Shove over there, lad.”

The young man that had been sitting by the king was shooed from his seat to make room for her. She did not know him but he scowled at her while he went elsewhere with his wine. Joanna took the empty seat, feeling slightly better about the evening now that it was clear that the king did not resent her presence. Ghost trotted up to weave around her legs, done with whatever scraps she had been helping herself to.

“My word, is that a direwolf?”

“Yes, her name is Ghost. Theon found her in the forest. Um, Theon Grejoy is my father’s ward.”

Joanna found she could not help but smile with pride when Ghost allowed the king to pet her. People had said that direwolves could not be trained, but Joanna had proved them wrong!

“A pet direwolf. You truly are a Stark girl, aren’t you?”

He looked at her strangely when he said that. Joanna kept her smile in place and nodded. She hoped it was alright to admit the connection. Possessing a symbol of her father’s House did make her feel like more of a Stark. The king passed her a cup and she took it gratefully, only realising when she took a sip that it was more wine.

“Your Grace, is there any water?”

“Water? No daughter of Ned Stark is going to be given water at a feast of mine! No, girl, you enjoy that wine. I won’t tell your father.”

As he said that he nudged her and winked as though they were conspiring. Joanna did not dare tell him that she had already had far too much wine and sipped her drink reluctantly. It did little to calm the heat of the hall. She feared she might faint. Still, she focused all of her energy on listening to the king’s stories of the South. They were not the tales of death and daring that Joanna had hoped to hear from her uncle, but they painted a picture of a land she had never seen. She nodded and smiled and laughed when the story called for it. She would not have the king tell her father that she was poor company.

Joanna realised after a while that the king’s attention was entirely on her, despite the other people listening to his stories. It was as though he was speaking only to her. She kept sipping the wine so that she would not be expected to say anything. At one point the King Robert shifted down the bench so that he could put an arm around her while he told his tales. That was when Joanna started to feel the whole situation was slightly inappropriate. She should not have really even been speaking with the king in the first place. He had begun the conversation though, it was hardly her fault.

“…Such pretty dresses they wear, these lasses, though not quite as pretty as this lovely garment of yours. Did you make this yourself?”

“Me and my sister, Your Grace. Half-sister, I mean.”

His hand stroked the blue fabric where it lay across Joanna’s thigh. He carried on speaking about the ladies of the court, but his hand remained where it was. Joanna stared at it dumbly, the meaty, calloused hand of the king resting on her thigh. She shifted her leg away but the hand followed. She tried to edge away down the bench but King Robert kept his arm firm around her shoulders, his left hand firm on her thigh.

“No scurrying away from me now, little Lyanna.”

“Joanna, Your Grace.”

He paid her correction no mind and started talking about a hunt he had recently been on. Joanna looked around the table helplessly, knowing how she must have looked. Her father’s men, like Hullen, looked nervous and awkward. The men who had journeyed north with the king seemed completely unperturbed by their liege’s behaviour towards the host’s daughter. Perhaps it was because she was a bastard. Maybe it did not matter so much.

Joanna searched the room for a friendly face. Where was Ser Jaime, who had seemed so gallant? A man related to the queen might be able to say a word to the king without causing offence.

She spied Theon passing their table, having slunk back into the hall at some point after his illicit tryst. She stared at him, willing him to feel her gaze. Maybe it worked, as he looked over. He stopped where he stood, staring at the king’s arm around her shoulders. She raised her eyebrows. All he had to do was say he had been sent by Lord Stark to fetch her, anything…

Theon looked away and walked on. Joanna almost sobbed.

“Your Grace, please, I need to leave.”

“Really? Well, as it happens, so do I. Let me walk you to your chambers, little lady.”

As she stood she felt dizzy. Could she get away from the king as they walked? Perhaps if she ran once they were out of the Great Hall, the king might not take too much offence? But as they walked towards the doors she realised she was far too clumsy. Wine might have steadied her nerves for a time, but it had taken that steadiness from her legs.

“Not used to wine, are you, sweet girl?”

The king’s laughter made her feel sick. Still, maybe he would be good enough to leave her at her chamber…

“Robert, I need you to let go of my daughter.”

Both she and the king turned at the sound of Lord Stark’s voice. Joanna had never been happier to see her father.

Standing behind him was her dear saviour, Theon Greyjoy.

Chapter Text

Robb had to put two of his sisters to bed on the evening of the great royal feast.

First was Arya, his wildest sibling. Originally their parents were going to allow her to remain at the feast until she chose to leave, but a well-aimed apricot had ended that. She had flung the fruit at Sansa, staining her older sister’s gown. Robb had thought it hilarious… until he caught his mother’s outraged stare. She commanded him with a sharp nod and Robb had immediately straightened his expression and grabbed Arya from her seat.

Arya kicked him as he carried her out of the hall, a sharp strike to his shin that was sure to bruise. Robb put her down once they were outside and she punched him in the arm.

“Ow!”

“It’s not fair! I didn’t even do anything!”

The wounded injustice in her voice made Robb laugh all over again.

“I saw you!”

She could not help smirking then.

“Okay, I didn’t do anything bad.”

Robb ruffled her hair fondly and began to steer her back to the keep with a hand on her shoulder. Although he knew that Sansa was most likely upset by the stain on her dress, he could not find it in himself to be angry with Arya. She was mischievous, nothing more. They all were when they were younger. Even Sansa had done her fair share of teasing and thieving cakes from the kitchen. She just never got caught, which maybe made her the sneakiest of them all.

“You’ll have to apologise to Sansa in the morning.”

Arya rolled her eyes and shoved him.

“You sound like father. But squeakier.”

He tried not to blush. If even Arya could spot his attempt at mimicry he was clearly being too blatant. Robb decided to make a joke of it and forced a ridiculously low voice.

“You will have to apologise to Sansa in the morning.”

At least that got a laugh out of his littlest sister. She ran on ahead and scooped up some snow from where it had gathered against the fence. Even knowing what was coming Robb did not block the snowball fast enough and he spluttered as it hit him square in the face. Arya was an uncanny shot for a girl, with snowballs or arrows. Robb chased her into the keep and up the stairs, but she proved too fast to catch until they reached the bedroom. There he picked her up and spun her around in the air while she squealed, then dropped her onto the bed.

“Wild child. Your dress is all mucky from the snow. Mother won’t be pleased.”

“I don’t like wearing stupid dresses. You can’t play in a dress, or fight.”

Robb sighed and sat on the bed. After Arya had kicked her dirty boots across the room he put an arm around her shoulders.

“Sometimes you remind me so much of Joanna.”

Arya raised her eyebrows, unimpressed.

“Joanna’s boring.”

“That’s unkind. She’s dutiful.”

His words did not sway Arya, who shrugged with the same disinterest.

“Dutiful, boring, what’s the difference?”

“A few years ago she was as wild as you, don’t you remember?”

He could tell from Arya’s frown that she did not. Small surprise there. A few years was a lifetime to a child of nine. Eventually she nodded, though she looked uncertain.

“She used to play with me in the yard. I remember that.”

“That’s right. Father even let her fight with me and Theon. Whenever I was stuck in my lessons those two would be off in the woods having adventures without me. She came along to the executions and the hunts…”

“So why did she get so boring? She reads me good stories sometimes, but that’s all.”

Robb sighed again. He was not the person to be talking about all of this. It was up to his mother to explain the duties of a lady. Even Joanna would be able to explain to Arya exactly why she had chosen to behave as she did. Robb could only guess at what it was like.

“If a lady doesn’t act a certain way she can bring shame on her house.”

“But she already does, doesn’t she? Being a bastard? That’s why King Robert looked at her funny outside and why everyone was talking about it.”

His jaw clenched, his teeth grinding for a moment as he remembered King Robert’s undisguised lust for Joanna. One would expect the king to have a little more decorum.

“No. That wasn’t why. But you do have a sort of point. Joanna being a bastard is… slightly shameful for our father. It’s his fault, you see. It dishonours our mother.”

“It’s not her fault though, or Joanna’s.”

“That’s right. But Joanna doesn’t feel that way. She feels like she’s something to be ashamed of. So she won’t dare do anything that might risk her reputation further like say, throw an apricot at her sister’s gown in the middle of the royal feast.”

Arya folded her arms and scowled at the floor.

“I didn’t throw it, I fired it from a spoon catapult.”

“Be that as it may, you can get away with that sort of thing for now. You’re still a little brat. They won’t let you run away from needlework forever though. One of these days you’ll have to learn to be a lady too. Maybe sooner rather than later, if father becomes the King’s Hand.”

As he withdrew his arm from her shoulders, Arya flopped down onto the bed and huffed. Robb could tell from the way she stared at the ceiling that she was thinking about what he had said. He could only hope he had said the right thing, rather than something his father would scold him for days from now. Arya could get such strange ideas from the most innocuous comments.

“Was Joanna good with a sword?”

Robb struggled to think back to their scuffles in the yard. He could remember Ser Rodrik’s laughter, “The girl’s got one over on you, lads!”

“It was a while ago, but yes, I think she was.”

“She’s not bad at needlework, but swords are better. It’s a shame really.”

He had not really thought about it too much before. Joanna was a woman. Real women did not play with swords. Robb thought about the stories of the warrior queen and thought of Maege Mormont who had visited them before. It did seem slightly unfair that they could flaunt the rules while Joanna was bound by them.

“Maybe. But it’s the way of things. You’ll understand it too one day.”

“I hope I never do.”

With a final sigh, Robb ruffled her hair and told her to get ready for bed. Bran would surely be on his way to sleep soon. If Arya was awake when he came to bed they would keep one another up all night with excited talk and mischief. His parents would not be impressed.

Once he had wished Arya goodnight, Robb began his walk back to the hall. It hardly seemed fair that he should miss so much of the feast for Arya’s misdemeanour, but he wanted to prove to everyone that he was more responsible than his younger siblings. He wanted his parents to be proud of him. They always expressed their pride and gratitude after visitors left, but this was royalty. He had to be on his absolute best behaviour to make a good impression.

Robb was almost back at the hall when he heard a conversation nearby, over by the stables. Two familiar southron voices.

“—our sister he’s dishonouring. I mean, a bastard, right under her nose!”

“The girl is a beauty though.”

“Oh, to be sure, but you know how Cersei feels about bastards. When Robert’s not begetting them, he’s bedding them. Personally I hope the King’s new Hand balls up into a fist and strikes him down for this.”

“Yes, I’m sure that would go down a treat.”

“For us it would. Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on.”

“Brother, you wound me. You know how much I love my family.”

He walked quicker so as not to be caught eavesdropping on the Lannister brothers. Robb had only met them briefly at the feast but he had found no joy in the company of either.

From the sound of things they were anticipating a conflict between his father and the king. Well, let them. Their wish would come to nothing. Lord Stark was a man of honour and duty. Those were things Lannisters could not understand. It stood to reason that a man renowned for killing a king would think nothing of striking another.

Still, Robb could not help but dwell on their words. Why would his father want to intervene in a quarrel between King Robert and Queen Cersei? It was not his place and Robb could not imagine it would be of interest to him. His father was not known for interfering in the arguments between lovers. If one could even call the king and queen ‘lovers’. Certainly there had been no passion between them at dinner, unless one was calling hatred a passion. Robb wondered if their disdain for one another was why their children looked so sour. He would find it hard to be merry while his father so brazenly dishonoured his mother with greedy drinking and whoring.

He thanked the Gods that he was born to House Stark and pushed open the door to the Great Hall.

“-- dare to speak in such a way to your king!”

The king was red-faced, sweating and furious, swaying on his feet like a wounded mammoth about to crash down.

“What kind of a man would I be if I stood aside and said nothing?!”

Robb was horrified to see that the Lannister brothers had the right of it. His lord father stood opposing the roaring king in the middle of the hall. He looked equally irate but bore it better, cool in his fury like a true man of the north. Not that it mattered. However his father carried himself, an argument with the king would bring nothing but trouble to their family.

“Oh, come now, Ned, she wanted it!”

It was not difficult to figure out who King Robert referred to. Joanna was not far from him, hidden behind their father in Theon Greyjoy’s embrace. Robb scowled to see that. Had Theon not listened to a word he had said? People would surely think the two were lovers, seeing them like that.

At the king’s absurd claim, Theon cried out indignantly, without a care for propriety.

“She never did!”

Lord Stark turned his glare upon Theon, sparing the king a moment.

“Theon! Keep out of this! Take Joanna to…”

For a moment Robb’s father looked despairingly around the hall as if seeking out someone. Some trusted guard no doubt, who could be trusted to escort Joanna to her room without risking accusations of indecency.

Lady Stark made her way past the benches, lifting her skirts to make haste and to avoid the debris of food and wine on the floor. Gracefully she slid her hands under Theon’s arms and removed them from around Joanna, who had yet to look at anyone or move her face from Theon’s shoulder.

“Robb! Escort your sister to her bed. Septa Mordane has already taken Sansa.”

He rushed forward to obey his mother’s orders at his father’s nod. Joanna did not move from Theon when Robb first pulled at her arm, but Theon pushed her gently and she flinched away into Robb’s arms instead. Theon leaned in to whisper in his ear.

“She’s really drunk, Robb. Walk slow.”

“M’not.”

It was the only thing Joanna had said since Robb’s return to the hall and it was more of a mumble than a coherent sentence. She smelled of wine and there was a stain on her dress from the drink. He walked slowly towards the door and even then her feet seemed to always be in his way. Ghost emerged from nowhere and trailed silently behind them. They were almost out when the bitter queen said her piece.

“Leave the child alone, Robert. If it’s bastards you wanted we could have stayed in King’s Landing. You have plenty there.”

“Woman, you stay out of this! You only play the part of a wife when it’s to chide! Ned, don’t send the girl away, she was enjoying the feast!”

Robb only hoped the king would not follow them out. He would not risk Joanna’s safety or honour even if it were the Gods themselves requesting her company.

“You’re drunk Robert. I won’t have any man approach my daughter in such a state, even if he is my fondest friend. Come man, you have a daughter. I would lay down my life, but you must know this is one thing I cannot offer you!”

Even his father’s impassioned plea for sense did not appease the king, who merely laughed at him.

“Ned, if you asked for my daughter you would have her, though I feel she’s a little young for you!”

Queen Cersei shrieked with soundless rage and Robb’s mother cried out scoldingly.

“Fie, for shame, man!”

Theon pushed open the door and Robb ushered Joanna through. Theon pulled it shut again as they left, smothering the angry voices so that all they could hear was the howling of the wind. Robb pulled Joanna along in a hurry, eager to get her away from the king. Perhaps he was too hasty. She stumbled, saved from the snow only by Theon’s quick reflexes. Robb reached out to steady her, but Theon scooped her up into his arms as a knight might lift a fair maid.

“I’ve got her.”

“You shouldn’t—“

“Oh shut up, Stark.”

Robb traipsed after him. The snow was starting to fall thicker, but it was not settling yet. It gathered in corners of the yard, but did not hinder their progress towards the keep. He could not help glancing over towards the stables, where the Lannister brothers were watching them curiously.

“Don’t you think there’s enough scandal right now without you carrying my sister like that? The Lannisters are just over there. What will they think?”

“Since when have you cared what Lannisters think?”

Despite Theon’s scoff, Joanna craned her neck to see them over his shoulder. She waved at them to catch their attention, then batted at Theon’s shoulder.

“Theon, put me down. We’ve got to tell them.”

“Don’t, Theon. Let’s just get her to bed.”

The conversation Robb had overheard was still fresh in his mind. The Lannisters had seen what the king was doing and they had done nothing. In fact, they had kept their distance and waited for Robb’s father to fight with the king! No doubt they wanted to turn this sordid mess into some sort of political advantage.

“Please Theon, the queen is their sister, they have to know…”

Joanna hit his shoulder a few more times before Theon huffed and gave in. He set her down gently on her feet and she made her way swaying over to the stables. Theon and Robb followed. He noted that Theon’s gaze was constantly on Joanna, ready in case she stumbled once more.

Both Lannisters smiled as Joanna approached, but Robb did not trust the sincerity of either of them. He had heard too many stories of their wickedness. One an oathbreaker and murderer, the other lascivious and drunk and who knew what else.

“Lady Snow, to what do we owe this pleasure?”

Theon bristled at Jaime’s familiar and mocking greeting, finally turning his gaze from Robb’s sister to glare at the knight.

“Don’t call her that.”

Joanna put a hand on his arm, laying it there a few times as the wine affected the steadiness of her hand. It was as though she was patting him, as she would her direwolf.

“S’okay, they don’t mean anything by it. Ser Jaime, the king is… he’s speaking roughly to your sister, the queen. I thought you should know.”

Jaime stopped smiling. He shared a look with Tyrion, then cursed and strode away without another word to them. He was headed in the direction of the Great Hall. The little Lord Tyrion smiled apologetically.

“He would have thanked you if he had the time. It was a kindness for you to tell us.”

“You and Ser Jaime would surely have told my brother if you'd seen how the king was talking to me.”

Even though the slur in Joanna’s voice suggested she was currently beyond reason, Robb could not stop himself from arguing. His disdain for the Lannisters was too strong to let her assumption go unchecked.

“They didn’t though. They were stood out here talking about it.”

The Imp raised his eyebrows and his smile grew even more strained. He kept his eyes on Robb even as he addressed Joanna.

“Your brother does me a great disservice. As soon as Jaime told me how the King was behaving towards you we both set about searching for your brother, hoping to keep the scandal from your father’s knowledge. Unfortunately we couldn’t find him anywhere. Where were you, young Stark?”

“Looking after my other sister. Not that it’s any concern of yours.”

Lord Tyrion sighed and shook his head sadly.

“I understand you fear more for your trueborn sisters, but you really should find the time to look out for your bastard here too. She has less reputation to lose, it’s true, but a good brother would guard her honour regardless.”

“That’s not—I had to put Arya to bed! It was nothing to do with Joanna’s low birth! I love all of my sisters the same!”

Joanna turned and began walking away towards the keep. Her white direwolf pup trailed after her. Was she angry with him? Did she think Tyrion was telling the truth of it and that Robb had purposely avoided her?

“I’m going to bed.”

Theon put a hand on Robb’s arm and gave him a weak smile.

“Come on. Don’t let the Imp rile you up. Let’s get Joanna settled then forget this whole mess.”

It was rare for Theon to be the level-headed one. Robb took it as a sign that he had to calm down and walked with him after Joanna. As they took their leave, the Imp spoke as if thinking aloud, but his words were clear enough for them to hear easily.

“Two men to put one pretty bastard to bed. Yes, that will help her reputation.”

Robb clenched his fist and started to turn back, but Theon grabbed his arm and pulled him on.

“Come on. Don’t give him the satisfaction. Bad enough that your father’s quarrelling with the king, without you beating the court dwarf bloody in the yard.”

“He was implying… She’s my sister!”

The disgusting insinuation had made him so furious he could barely speak. Still he and Theon quickly caught up with Joanna as she trudged across the yard. They each took an arm to steady her and made a quicker pace to the keep. They walked in silence for a little while, but Joanna spoke up as they went inside. Her voice was still slurred from drink.

“I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?”

Theon was quick to reassure her as he helped her up the stairs. Robb trailed behind, the staircase better suited to two abreast.

“No you haven’t, don’t be silly. What could you possibly have ruined?”

“The king won’t want father as his Hand anymore. Not unless he…”

When she trailed off Theon looked at her with confusion, but Robb understood what she was suggesting right away.

“Father won’t change his mind. Not about this. King Robert isn’t getting anywhere near you. If father can’t stop him, I will.”

He had to start wearing a real sword. If father still went south, Robb would arm himself like a true lord. Then he would be able to deal with any threats to his family, no matter who they came from. If only he had been quicker putting Arya to bed, then perhaps he could have gone to Joanna’s rescue sooner.

“Sansa will hate me.”

“Arya will love you though.”

Theon’s joke did little to cheer Joanna. Arya would be delighted to stay in Winterfell but Sansa had been flushed with excitement since hearing of her possible betrothal. She was desperate to go to the southron court, to walk with the proper ladies and pray at their extravagant Septs. She would be miserable if the Starks had forever severed that connection.

They were almost at Sansa’s room when Joanna spoke up again.

“You don’t have to stay with me now, Theon. I know you don’t want to be seen with me.”

Theon stopped and stared at her as though she had slapped him. His stop made her stop and Robb came to a halt behind them.

“What are you talking about? You must be drunk. Why wouldn’t I want to be seen with you? You’re… You’re my friend.”

“Don’t. You’ve been avoiding me since we heard the royal family were coming. I’m not stupid, I did notice.”

She sounded close to tears and Robb felt a surge of guilt. He knew it was his advice that had led Theon to avoid her. Joanna did not have so many friends that she could afford to lose them. Theon seemed to blame him too, nodding in his direction when he replied.

“Blame your brother. He thought our friendship would give our royal visitors the wrong impression. I just didn’t want to put you in the middle of a scandal.”

Joanna looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then laughed.

“Yes. That’s worked so well. But thank you, Theon. You were a true knight for me this evening.”

The way they smiled at each other then made Robb feel distinctly uncomfortable. Upon opening the door to Sansa’s chamber they were bombarded with questions from the sister who was already in bed.

“Are they fighting? Is everyone okay? Did the king really touch you?”

Septa Mordane hushed Sansa and scolded her for being so indiscreet. Then she took hold of Joanna’s arm and pulled her away from the boys, ushering her over to the bed.

“Sansa, help your half-sister ready herself for bed. Thank you very much for your assistance young lords, but now Joanna and Sansa really must rest. I fear tomorrow will require strength from all of us.”

As she spoke she ushered them out into the corridor, closing the door behind them as soon as she had finished speaking. Both of them stood there in awkward silence for a moment, neither knowing what to do now. Theon soon spoke up though, his voice unusually hesitant.

“Robb… Lord Stark wouldn’t… there wouldn’t be a way for King Robert to convince him, would there? About Joanna? He won’t take her south or nothing. Will he?”

“No. After what happened this evening my father won’t put Joanna anywhere near that man. Even if my father still has the position of Hand, Joanna will stay here.”

He was absolutely certain of it. His father was an honourable man. He should not have even needed to put Theon’s mind at ease about it, but his words did bring a smile to the ironborn’s face.

“Good. I’d hate to have to go south.”

Chapter Text

Theon had not slept well after the feast. He lay awake long after Robb was snoring, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think of anything that had happened that night. He usually had no trouble steering his thoughts to calm waters. That night however his mind was full of hidden currents of thought, dragging him back to the dangerous ideas he wanted to avoid.

It seemed that as soon as Theon was able to close his eyes Robb was shaking him awake again, saying something about training in the yard and talking to Lord Stark about the night before. Already Theon could feel the effects of his restless night on his mood. He grunted his acknowledgement of everything that Robb said and mumbled that he would catch up with him later.

After Robb had gone Theon tugged the furs back up over his head and tried to return to the dream that had been wonderful, but he found he could no longer remember what it was. The sunlight streaming into the unfamiliar bedroom ensured he could not return to sleep so he swore and climbed out of bed to prepare for his day.

The proper thing to do would be to find Robb and hear with him what Lord Stark had to say about the consequences of refusing the king. Theon had more pressing concerns than questions about Stark fealty though. If the opinion of King Robert was his biggest worry he would not have brought Lord Stark’s attention to what the king was doing. Even now thinking on it made his blood boil. Joanna had looked like a cornered animal, terrified and powerless. A hall full of people and only Theon had thought to fetch her father to stop what was happening. What if he had dallied longer with Ellyn? Would anyone else have cared when the king took Lord Stark’s drunk bastard off for a fumble? Theon had never wanted to cut down another man so much in his life. Shame it was the king.

He made his way to Sansa’s chamber, where Joanna was sleeping for the duration of the royal visit. It was entirely possible that all the girls were at needlework with the septa, but Theon thought it worth checking. Joanna had consumed rather more wine than she was used to, after all. She might have been in a delicate state that morning. If so, he would fetch her water. He was not going to waste any more time listening to Robb’s advice against enjoying her company. Joanna needed him. The night before had proven that.

Theon rapped his knuckles against Sansa’s door. He hoped that Joanna would be the one to answer. Sansa had a tendency to act all silly when he tried to spend time with her sister. She had read so many romantic stories that she could not see a man speak to a woman without thinking it some great courtship.

Although he had fortified himself, he was not prepared for Lady Stark to open the door. She raised her eyebrows at him in question and Theon was forced to explain himself.

“I came to see Joanna. I wanted to check she was well.”

It was not as though he had done anything wrong, but Catelyn Stark never failed to make him feel he was guilty of something. She looked at him as if his every shameful dalliance had been reported back to her.

“She’s resting.”

When Lady Stark looked back into the room Theon craned his neck to try and see past her, hoping to catch a glimpse of Joanna. He could not. Then he had to quickly straighten his posture as Lady Catelyn turned back.

“I’ll come back later.”

To his surprise, Catelyn Stark stepped out into the hallway with him and pulled the door shut behind her quietly. She took his arm, which he allowed awkwardly.

“First we must have words, Theon. Walk with me.”

He was unable to refuse. Together they left the keep and began a sedate stroll around the building. Theon wondered if this would start rumours about an affair between him and Lord Stark’s wife, or if scandal was reserved for him and Joanna only.

“You know she is not for you.”

The words startled him, coming from nowhere as they did. His step faltered and he looked at Lady Catelyn with surprise. She wore the same expression as before, looking displeased with him.

“My lady, with all due respect, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me, Theon Greyjoy. You know I’m speaking of Joanna. This behaviour between the two of you has gone on long enough.”

Had Robb spoken to his mother about them? Theon almost hoped so. He would rather find one person was spreading rumour than know that all of Winterfell just presumed they were courting.

“What behaviour? Joanna is my best friend. Nothing more.”

“No man embraces his best friend the way that you embraced her at the feast. It was a shameful display. I have held my tongue this long, but no more. Do you think the king did not notice? How do you think it looked for my husband to tell him no while you stood there with Joanna in your arms?”

That was different though, was it not? Theon and Joanna were practically family. Something told him Lady Stark did not see it that way, though.

“I was looking after her.”

“You were clutching her to your chest like something out of one of Sansa’s stories. In full view of the hall, no less! You must realise what people are thinking!”

Theon released Lady Stark’s arm and took a few steps away from her, trying to remain calm as yet again his relationship with Joanna was questioned and slandered. It would do no good to argue with Lord Stark’s wife.

“Surely it doesn’t matter what a few commonfolk are thinking if we’re not actually doing anything wrong.”

“The queen advised I hurry along your wedding. She was under the impression you were betrothed to my husband’s daughter. I was forced to correct her.”

Theon’s stomach twisted at that. Such a strong assumption from such a high place could not be so easily ignored. He wondered how many of their guests had drawn the same conclusion just from the way he had held Joanna in his arms. Had his desire been so obvious? The scent of her hair had lingered in his nose long after he had left her for the night. He had thought of all manner of disturbing things in bed to avoid thinking of the press of her chest against his. Getting aroused over Joanna Snow would have been far too awkward while he shared a bed with her brother.

“She’s my friend. It doesn’t matter to me that she’s a woman.”

“Don’t think I believe that for one second. You think because you aren’t my children that I am blind to you? I’ve seen your eyes wander over her and linger in the most inappropriate places. I’ve seen the way she blushes when you smile at her in the yard. I’ve seen you bring her gifts and I’ve seen her help with your leathers. Whether you will admit it or not, you love her. It simply can’t continue.”

Lady Stark had her arms folded as she frowned at him. From the determined set of her jaw one could easily imagine she was the queen, with all the power of Westeros behind her to shape the world how she saw fit. For whatever reason there was no room in her vision for Theon and Joanna to go on as they were. He was feeling too irritable to let it pass without question.

“Why not? She’s my friend, but say she was more than that, what harm would it do? What possible objection could there be to me taking her as a wife?”

“Joanna is worthy of more than being your saltwife.”

Catelyn Stark said it as though the very word tasted foul. Of course she would have little respect for the Ironborn tradition of stealing wives. Most women in Winterfell found the concept distasteful, as did any men that followed the Stark ideals of honour. Theon had spoken to enough men that liked the sound of it though, some going so far as to say it was the only thing the Ironborn did right. He knew there was some merit in it. In this moment however, the word was like a punch to the gut.

“Saltwives are for one thing only. My lady, have you not heard a word I’ve said? Joanna’s dear to me. If I took her for my wife – I’ve no intention of it, mind – then she would be my rockwife. My one true wife.”

“And what would your father say to that?”

Theon had to suppress a shudder. He could not imagine Balon Greyjoy’s reaction. It was not even that Joanna was a bastard, though her low birth would ensure the marriage was seen as beneath him. No, it was more the idea of wedding his captor’s daughter that filled Theon’s mind with visions of his father’s fury. Perhaps if it were Sansa, then he would be stealing a daughter whose value was more easily seen. But only he saw Joanna’s worth. Well, him and apparently King Robert.

“It doesn’t matter. She’s my friend. Nothing more.”

“Perhaps she needs to be told. No doubt you’ve filled her head with silly fancies. She’s a clever girl, but lonely. The way she clings to you is unseemly at best. At worst it will mar her reputation to the point that we’ll be unable to make a match for her. If you are truly her friend you would do all that you can to avoid that.”

He heaved a sigh. It was Robb’s advice all over again.

“I tried to avoid her. Then I walked into the hall to find the king had his hands all over her! What was I supposed to do, walk away?”

“You were right to come to Lord Stark, but that was where your involvement ended. There was no need for you to follow him to the king and certainly no need for you to embrace her.”

Well, nobody else was going to do it. Theon bit his tongue to avoid saying that and let Lady Catelyn take his arm again. They began a slow walk back towards the yard.

“It was suggested that Joanna travel south with her sisters and Bran, should the king still desire my husband as his Hand.”

“But…”

Theon stopped himself, though the words had almost stopped his heart. It was not his place to question it. He could only hope that Lord Stark would let him follow. It was a slim hope, but all he had. Unless… maybe it would be right to let her go. Perhaps Joanna would make a fine match to some clever southron lord who could shower her in riches.

“The royal court is no place for a bastard. My husband said as much. Joanna will stay here in Winterfell, providing Robb with support and helping care for Rickon. Of course, Lord Stark will no longer be here to watch over her.”

“This is a warning, isn’t it?”

Almost back to the keep where they had started, Lady Stark withdrew her arm and turned her shrewd gaze onto him again.

“I’m certain I don’t need to warn you, Theon. I simply wanted to make it clear that Joanna is more susceptible than trueborn women to the dangers of scandal and rumour. When her father has left Winterfell she will no longer have his protection. As you are her dearest friend, it seemed only right that I make you aware of the situation. I doubt you will want to jeopardise her chances of a good marriage. You would come out of such a scandal without taint, going on to make some other poor woman your rockwife. Joanna would be left to ruin. I won’t have you disgrace this House. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

Septa Mordane came striding towards them. The determined expression on her face would not have been out of place on a soldier. She was panting for breath when she reached them.

“Excuse me young lord, I must speak with Lady Stark about her daughter.”

“Arya, I assume?”

Lady Stark’s question and sigh were met with a nod from the septa. It was always Arya causing mischief. Theon wondered what trouble the girl was up to today. He was not likely to find out soon though, as Lady Stark bid him farewell and walked away with the septa to discuss her daughter’s misdemeanours.

Theon decided it was the best time to pay Joanna a visit. Lady Stark’s warnings still rang in his ears as he entered the keep, but he could not bring himself to heed them. It was not as though he was courting Joanna. In time people would come to realise they were just friends. They had been friends this long, after all. It was only the fact that she had grown into a woman that made people suspect the worst. Maybe that was partially his own fault. He was known for enjoying the company of pretty women, after all. Along with some not-so-pretty ones.

Perhaps when another year had passed without Joanna getting a bastard in her belly, people would be willing to accept that Theon was not being untoward with her. If his presence somehow damaged her chance of a match, then maybe she could take the vows instead and become a septa. Then he would not have to worry about some other man putting his hands all over her.

It seemed like a terrible waste of a lovely girl though.

This time when Theon knocked on Sansa’s door nobody answered straight away. When he knocked again he heard movement within the chamber. He knocked a third time and the door opened to reveal Joanna. Her hair was wild, her face pale with dark rings under her eyes. She was still beautiful enough to make Theon’s heart ache.

When she saw Theon, she blinked with surprise.

“Oh, Theon. I’m not well, I can’t really…”

She began to close the door against him, but Theon put his foot between the door and its frame. It would be no good for him to stop avoiding her if she began avoiding him.

“I just came to check on you after what happened last night. I wanted to see if you needed anything. Can’t I come in?”

“I’m not really dressed for company.”

Theon scoffed. The two of them had never been bothered by stuff like that before. It was just embarrassment making her shy. The first time he had been drunk, Theon had been unable to look anyone in the eye the day after. Theon was not going to be driven away by weak excuses, though.

“You look fine. Come on, let me in before Lady Catelyn comes back.”

Although she looked reluctant, Joanna sighed and opened the door to let him into Sansa’s chamber. Theon had a look around. He had never been in Sansa’s room before. It was covered in fewer frilly things than he had expected. Ghost was curled up at the foot of the bed. Where had the stupid pup been last night, when her mistress had been in danger?

“I’m happy you’ve visited, but you really can’t stay. I’ve caused enough trouble for a lifetime, without entertaining men in my sister’s chamber while I’m in my nightclothes.”

“Does it still count if I don’t feel entertained?”

Usually his little jokes could bring a smile to her lips, but this time his question fell flat. Joanna sat down on the bed looking so weary she could well have climbed back under the furs and gone straight to sleep. She was probably still feeling the after-effects of drink.

“I think it would be best if I stay here for the remainder of the royal visit. Or in another room, maybe.”

“Don’t be foolish. You don’t need to be locked away. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Joanna’s response was delayed by a sudden yawn. Theon was struck by a sudden longing to hold her, but he kept himself in check. Joanna was not going to allow a repeat of their embrace the night before now that she was sober and miserable about her indiscretion. Thoughts of going beneath the furs with her and catching up on their sleep together would have to stay in his mind, unlived.

“I’ve embarrassed my family and made a spectacle of myself.”

“No, King Robert’s done that. You just had the misfortune of being pretty enough to catch his eye. It wasn’t your fault.”

She laughed, but it was not a merry sound. More of a huff of disbelief.

“There were plenty of prettier girls there. I was the silly one foolish enough to drink too much wine to stand.”

“That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much you drank or how short the front of your dress was, he had no right to touch you.”

The look she gave him seemed to cut right through to the core of him. It was difficult to believe she was not Lady Stark’s daughter in that moment. She looked at him like she saw all of his sins, like she knew every drunk wench he had gleefully dragged to bed. That was different though. They were not her.

“He’s the king and my father’s good friend.”

“Some friend, trying to bed you like that. If you ask me, the Starks are better off without friends like that.”

Instead of reassuring her though, his words only seemed to irritate her. She shook her head.

“Nobody asked you, Theon. I’m grateful for your help last night, truly, but you should go.”

“No token for your loyal knight?”

It was just a tease, but Joanna stared at him blankly. Her full lips parted as if she wanted to speak but did not know what to say.

Theon did not like this. He did not like feeling foolish in front of her. What use was a best friend who did not make you feel at ease?

“I’ll show myself out then.”

“Wait, Theon.”

The call came just as he reached the door and he turned back to her curiously. She still looked tired and unwell. It made him feel a little bad for expecting conversation from her.

“You saved my virtue last night. I don’t mean to be harsh with you this morning, it’s just… it’s all too much. My head is killing me and I feel like a total fool and… I’m just not fit for company. Not even yours. I’m sorry.”

Not even yours. That was what cheered him, those three little words that suggested Theon’s company was always her first choice, if she had to pick a companion. He knew that, of course, but recently he had begun to wonder. He mustered up his usual smile for her.

“It’s alright. I know you’re not feeling good at the moment. Get some rest and drink whatever the maester brings you. When you’re feeling better let me know and we’ll go out on a hunt, yeah? It might do you some good to get out of the castle for a day.”

“That does sound a good idea.”

She smiled warmly at him and pulled back the furs on her bed, sliding her pale feet under then drawing them back up carefully so as not to disturb Ghost. The furs caught on her nightdress and raised it up to her thigh before she covered herself with the warm blanket. It was a mere moment, but Theon found his mind preserved it perfectly. When he blinked he could see the flawless skin, the material of her nightdress only just about covering her secrets. He took a deep breath and tried to think of anything else.

He wished her pleasant rest and hurried away to find Robb. Perhaps it was time to hear what Lord Stark had to tell his son regarding their relationship with the king. He heard the clashing of blades in the yard, so that was where he went to look first.

“Look, dog, I think the little wolf wants to bite me!”

The prince’s grating voice was the first Theon heard. When he turned the corner he saw Joffrey sneering with great amusement at Robb, who was standing too close in a pose that did not bode well for the prince. Neither of them were watching the sham of a fight nearby, where Bran Stark was battering the over-padded Prince Tommen with a practise blade. The Starks were supposed to be peace-making after the night before, but Robb looked ready to kill. What had that royal prick said now to fire Robb’s blood?

“Robb?”

“Go on, wolf, your squid is calling.”

Kraken. But Theon bit his tongue. Joanna would never forgive him if he made matters even worse by starting a fight with Prince Joffrey. Knocking some of his teeth out would make that haughty sneer more bearable though.

“I’m not budging until you take back what you said about my sister.”

“Why would you want me to take back what I said about the Lady Sansa’s beauty?”

Joffrey was clearly enjoying his own wit. The Hound stood next to him impassively and Theon wondered what mistakes the man must have made to end up the hideously-scarred companion of this arrogant child.

“My other sister.”

“But I haven’t said anything about Lady Arya and you only have two sisters.”

Robb’s fingers tightened around the hilt of his practise blade. The weapon was blunted for the yard, but it would still make a dent in Joffrey’s golden-haired head. Then the Hound would probably cleave Robb in two.

“My sister Joanna.”

“Oh, I see, your half¬-sister. Why didn’t you say so? Hmm. I can’t even remember what I said now. She’s been kind enough to give us all so much to talk about. That indecent dress, the way she fawned over my uncle and father…”

Theon grabbed Robb’s arm. Beneath his hand the muscle was tensed, ready to launch the practise sword at Prince Joffrey’s skull. Theon completely understood why he would – the prince was a little shit – but it was a crime punishable by death. Such threats meant nothing to a Stark when family honour was questioned, though.

“I swear, one more word against her and it won’t matter whose son you are.”

The prince looked a little cowed by Robb’s display of intimidation. Theon did not know Robb had it in him to be so threatening. Unfortunately his implied warning had another effect. The Hound put his hand on his sword. Theon found himself checking his own sides, just in case he had the forethought to strap a blade to himself on his way from the keep. He had not. If it came to a fight, he was defenceless.

“Robb! Theon!”

Everyone turned in the direction of Lord Stark’s voice. He strode across the yard and with a wave of his hand, Ser Rodrik Cassel called a stop to the fight between Tommen and Bran. Lord Stark helped Tommen to his feet and congratulated both boys on their effort, though a ruffle of Bran’s hair showed where his praise really fell. After he ushered them off to remove their padded armour, the Lord of Winterfell made his way over to his eldest son. The Hound removed his hand from his sword and Robb took a deep breath.

“Father, what news?”

“The king is to issue an apology to Joanna for the events at the feast. I will journey to King’s Landing as planned, with the girls and Bran.”

Theon looked around to see Robb was as stunned as him. The Hound raised an eyebrow, which was probably as surprised as he could get. The prince was still sneering.

“My father will never agree to that. A king apologise to a bastard? I’ve never heard anything so strange.”

“I will be sure to tell him, my prince. It was his suggestion, after all.”

Robb met Theon’s gaze with the most stupid look on his face. Theon wondered if he looked similarly shocked. He felt it, though his mind was running quicker than ever. Joffrey was a shit, but he was right on this one. Royalty did not beg the pardons of bastards. The king had some other reason and for a terrifying moment, Theon thought he knew what it might be.

“M’lord, when you say you’re taking the girls, do you mean Joanna as well? I thought she’d be staying here.”

“I mean Sansa and Arya, Theon. Joanna will remain in Winterfell.”

The look from Lord Stark told Theon that the panic in his voice had not gone unnoticed. Yet another person who would lecture him on his inappropriate affection for the Bastard of Winterfell. In that moment though, Theon did not care. As long as Joanna stayed where she belonged.

Chapter Text

Disappointment was becoming a fast friend to Joanna. Theon had promised to take her on a hunt once she had recovered from her foolish night of excess and she had awaited it eagerly. Since they had first heard of the royal visit Joanna had scarcely been alone with him. Theon was different when they were alone. His usual carefree smirk lost its mocking edge and became a warmer smile. They could speak without him constantly looking around to check for eavesdroppers. He confided in her and she in him. When they rode out together there was nobody to tell them where they could and could not go.

But Theon had ridden without her. The hunt he had promised had come to pass, but she was not invited. The party had left not long after dawn, hoping to catch a wild boar for dinner as it was what the king desired. He was in the hunting party, along with his son Joffrey. As such, Joanna’s lord father was compelled to take Robb along on the hunt as well. Jory, Uncle Benjen, Lord Tyrion, Ser Rodrik, they had all gone along. Theon had joined them. Joanna had watched longingly from her window.

She could not honestly say that she blamed him. If she had the choice she would be riding out with them. Well, perhaps not. Even though King Robert had apologised to her the day before, she still felt uneasy in his company. Her father had made her aware that an apology would be made, but no one had told her how she ought to react when the King of the Seven Kingdoms kissed her hand and begged her forgiveness. Her father had scowled at the gesture, but made no comment. Joanna had awkwardly thanked him for being so gracious and the king had vowed to bring her back a flower in honour of their mended friendship.

Afterwards her father had praised her for being so composed, so clearly he had not noticed her hand trembling under the king’s attention. It had been so embarrassing. At least it had happened away from prying eyes. There would have been laughter in the hall at hearing such gallant words spoken by a king to a bastard girl. If it had been Ser Jaime, she might have enjoyed it more. Even if it had been Theon it might have made her laugh. As it was the whole scene had just made her think sadly on what a charming lord Robert must have been, back when he wooed her Aunt Lyanna. Her father said it most likely the loss that made him this way. That and the hardships of ruling.

Those hardships will all belong to my father now, Joanna thought sadly as she wandered the castle. Everyone knew that the Hand handled the worst part of ruling. It seemed a cruel sort of thanks for her father’s loyalty, but Joanna supposed the king needed a man he could trust by his side. The previous Hand, Jon Arryn, had been dear to her father and King Robert both. Taking her father as Jon Arryn’s replacement was clearly intended as the highest compliment.

It would not be long before they left. Winterfell would be so cold and empty without them. Sansa, Arya, Bran, father… The castle would be silent. Theon and Robb would remain, so there was that at least. It would be hard on Lady Catelyn to let her children go. Joanna had sensed the woman’s bad mood of late. At first she had blamed herself, thinking it was a result of her improper behaviour at the feast and the consequences of that. When the king apologised and confirmed that Lord Stark would still travel south, Lady Catelyn persisted in looking displeased. Joanna soon came to realise what was truly troubling the woman. She did not look forward to remaining at Winterfell with her, but it was only right that Robb have his mother near in his trying time as acting Lord of Winterfell.

She wondered if Robb would want Theon closer once he took over. While the three of them got along perfectly well, she and Theon had a connection that Robb could not understand. Theon and Joanna had never been Starks, but they had been raised at the edge of Stark lives. They were allowed to sit with the family at certain dinners and permitted to join them in certain hunts. When Robb ruled, he might demand more of Theon’s time and advice. Joanna loved Theon, but she was not sure of the quality of his council. Privately, she also resented the idea that Robb might steal him away from her.

“My lady.”

The sudden voice startled her and she turned quickly to see Ser Jaime Lannister had joined her walk. He wore no armour or white cloak today, but fine tan leathers that hugged his figure handsomely. She bowed her head in respect.

“Ser Jaime.”

“A fine day for a stroll. I hope you don’t mind if I join you a moment?”

Why would he want to? Gods, Joanna hoped she was not blushing as fiercely as she thought she was. Her face felt as though it were aflame.

“Not at all, ser. I would be happy for the company.”

The knight took her arm in his and they began a slow walk together. Joanna hoped Sansa would look out of the window and see her strolling with the most handsome and gifted knight in Westeros. She could keep her betrothal to Joffrey and her friendship with silly Princess Myrcella. Joanna would rather have this.

“It was very gracious of you to accept Robert’s apology after his brutish behaviour. My sister tells me he was quite ungallant to you.”

“I could hardly have done anything else.”

He was the king, after all. As a bastard she had no right to even expect an apology, let alone reject it. It was not fair, but it was the way of things. Only her father’s closeness with the man made him sorry for the way he had treated her.

“True, yours is a lamentable situation. Still, Lord and Lady Stark have done well to match you with the Ironborn boy.”

“His name is Theon, ser, but he isn’t my betrothed.”

“Oh, my apologies. That is unfortunate. Still, young love is often perilous. I wish you both happiness, but my wishes might not be enough.”

Joanna stared at him in puzzlement. Why were people so quick to assume courtship between her and Theon? If she were a boy no one would doubt their friendship.

“Ser, me and Theon have been friends since I was a little girl. He views me as a sister.”

But Ser Jaime only smiled at her in such a way that she felt she had been foolish, or that he knew something she did not.

“Sometimes as we grow, those lines can become less clear. Do you really know what he feels for you? Have you ever asked him?”

“I don’t need to.”

“If you say so. You know more of the situation than me, I’m sure.”

For a while after that they walked in silence. Joanna thought that perhaps she had been too abrupt. She was normally very good at speaking submissively and politely, but it did not come naturally to her as it did to Sansa. She had not learned to be a lady so young and despite her best intentions, she could not always keep her voice from sounding sullen and rude. Before long though, Jaime spoke to her again.

“Still, you did the right thing in accepting Robert’s apology. Your father will be the new Hand now. That must be rather exciting for you.”

“It will be… strange to see them go.”

Ser Jaime smiled down at her warmly, making Joanna’s stomach and chest feel all aflutter again. He unlinked his arm from hers and put it around her shoulders to give her a quick squeeze.

“Don’t you worry. I’ll take good care of them.”

“That comforts me, ser. You’re a good knight. Well, you’re a great knight of course, but what I meant was you’re a good man.”

He raised his eyebrows, obviously amused by her inability to string a sentence together. Gods, why did he make her so nervous? But then his smile grew almost embarrassed and he looked away.

“You’re kind to say so, sweet girl. I cannot imagine your family would share that sentiment.”

“You killed the Mad King. That alone took courage and it ended the war. I know some say that you broke a vow, but… vows should be there to protect the people, shouldn’t they?”

For some time Ser Jaime looked at her without saying a word in response. Joanna began to worry that she had grossly overstepped her bounds, until he began to laugh. It was a warm sound.

“Dear girl, you are the first person who has ever said that to me. Thank you. With all my heart, thank you.”

Joanna blushed and looked away. Jaime took her arm again and they continued their sedate walk around the grounds of Winterfell.

“Might I ask why you didn’t join the hunt today, ser?”

“Well, between you and me I enjoy the king’s company about as much as you do. I prefer to spend time with my sister when he is absent. I may be Kingsguard, but the Queen requires protection too. I tell you I don’t envy your father. The king hunts more than he rules. That will be Lord Stark’s responsibility now.”

She had expected as much. Her father made ruling Winterfell look almost simple, but taking the reins of the kingdom would be a different challenge altogether. She knew he would be up to it though.

“My father will bring the honour of the north to your court, ser.”

“You do remember the Arryn House words, don’t you?”

Joanna did, though she did not see their relevance.

“As high as honour.”

“Precisely. And look at how well it served poor Jon Arryn.”

The circumstances around the death of the former Hand were largely unknown to her, but something in the way Jaime spoke of it made her very uneasy. She glanced around to check there was nobody near them. There were some guards by the gate, but that was too far away for them to hear their conversation.

“Ser… are you suggesting Jon Arryn was killed?”

“All men are killed. Some by other men, some by old age or wild animals or falls…”

She was growing agitated now. He was being deliberately misleading. These Lannisters seemed to love their own voices.

“But none of those are caused by honour.”

“True. Honour is a paper shield, my girl. It provides little protection against anything and the royal court is a dangerous place.”

That would explain her father’s reluctance for going. He had never hidden his disdain for the royal court or the flatterers and deceivers who dwelled there. In all the drama of the royal visit Joanna had not spent as much time learning about King’s Landing as she had intended to. She had meant to speak with visitors of all stations to find out more about the place her family were going to. After all, stories from kings and queens were very different to stories from stable-boys and chambermaids.

“Ser, you aren’t putting me at ease.”

“My apologies, I didn’t realise you were in need of lies. Will you be joining your father on the journey south?”

As quickly as he had chided her he was questioning her politely. If this was how conversation went in a royal court, Joanna was glad that she was not going. Yet another reason to look forward to the departure of the royal family, but it made her sigh to think of the family she was losing with them.

“I won’t be, ser.”

“Probably for the best, given Robert’s interest in you. Still, try not to miss your father too terribly. I’m sure he’ll be back in no time. The court is no place for an honourable man.”

Again he slighted honour. Her father and Robb had spoken about odd Lannister attitudes towards noble traits, but Joanna had never thought to question the value of honour. Who could love a man without honour? Who could trust him? She had always thought it true of women as well, despite Theon’s insistence that a woman needed more beauty than honour.

“But ser, you reside at the court, don’t you?”

“I do.”

He grinned at her and once more Joanna felt she had misunderstood something or missed an element of their conversation entirely.

Joanna heard a scuffling sound nearby as she passed by the keep. She looked around for the source of it, but it was not until she glanced up that she saw Bran sneaking along a small stone ridge level with the lower windows.

“Bran, are you spying on us?”

“Just climbing. Don’t tell.”

Ser Jaime chuckled at the sight. Joanna wondered how the boys played in the Red Keep at King’s Landing. She could not imagine Prince Joffrey climbing around the castle or little Prince Tommen chasing him around for fun.

“You need not worry about us, little lordling. I was just about to take my leave. No doubt my sister has need of me. Lady Snow, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise, ser.”

She nodded courteously then watched him stride away. Although he had unnerved her in some ways she could not keep the small smile from her lips. It took a truly gallant knight to treat a bastard like a lady. Still she wondered if he had meant some mockery by it.

As she watched Jaime cross the yard, Bran pushed himself off of the low ledge. He stumbled as he landed in front of her, but was otherwise unharmed. Old Nan often said he had to be part monkey for all the climbing he managed so easily.

“He won’t tell, will he?”

“I’m sure he won’t. He’s a knight of the kingsguard and brother to the queen. He has more important things to worry about than the climbing of little boys.”

“You mustn’t even tell Sansa. She’ll tell mother, even if I ask her not to. Don’t tell anyone.”

Lady Catelyn objected to her son’s love of climbing. Although he had only been at the lower windows when Jaime and Joanna happened upon him, Bran often scaled the towers and crossed over wooden rafters so high that to fall would mean death. He never fell, though. He was more sure-footed than a mule trained for mountains. He seemed to know every nook and cranny in the stone walls and somehow he had learned every unsteady tile.

“Don’t worry, Sansa is hardly speaking to me at the moment.”

“Why? What did you do?”

After Bran had brushed all of the dirt off of his clothes, Joanna reached out and idly flattened his hair where it had grown wild. She wished it were so easy to calm her own. Boys were allowed unruly hair. It showed they lived active lives. When a girl’s hair was untidy it was a mark of disgrace. Noble ladies were not supposed to lead active lives, whether they wanted to or not. Often when Joanna passed through the town with Theon they saw women whose hair fell everywhere as hers did, women who worked and had no coin for pearled hairbrushes and no time to use them. Joanna thought that more worthy of respect than a lady who wiled away her hours in front of a mirror.

“I almost ruined her dream of King’s Landing.”

“Mother said King Robert has said sorry though. And we’re still all going. I’m going to be a knight! The best knight!”

She managed a smile for that. Bran was a determined child and awfully bright for his age. She did not doubt that if he set his heart to it he could one day be a brilliant champion.

“It will be very hard work.”

“I’ll train every day!”

Already Bran had grown weary of standing on the ground. He grabbed the wooden post of the stable and tugged himself up onto the fence. Then his little hands gripped the edge of the lower part of the roof and he tugged himself up. He made it look easy.

“Be careful, Bran.”

“You sound like my mother.”

He walked carefully over the thin stable roof. Joanna had seen him do it a dozen times, yet she still could not imagine doing it for herself without putting her foot through the roof.

“If I were your mother I’d be barking at you to get down.”

Bran just laughed. Before Joanna could say anything more, he had jumped from the roof of the stable to a window ledge of the keep nearby. He landed on one foot, nimbly as a bird might land on a roof. From there he began to move around the castle wall, pushing the tips of his little feet into the gaps between stones. Slowly but with complete confidence, Bran climbed up and away. Joanna watched until he was out of sight.

She knew she ought to make her way to needlework with her sisters and Septa Mordane, but Sansa’s silence was wearing her down. It was all the more notable while Princess Myrcella was around, as Sansa spoke to her constantly. Joanna thought the golden-haired little girl was insipid. She barely had a word to say of her own and she fawned over Robb like he was the one betrothed to a Baratheon. Still, it was probably fitting that Sansa befriend the girl that would one day be her sister. A royal sister was better than a bastard sister, after all.

Ghost leapt out noiselessly from around the wall, shortly followed by a shrieking and giggling Rickon. The little boy grabbed for the white she-wolf only to miss and fall onto his bottom, whereupon he began to laugh loudly again.

Joanna whistled and Ghost trotted over to her. Rickon began to imitate the sound, though it was more of a strange hoot than a whistle.

“Was that naughty wolf running away from you?”

Scooping up Ghost into her arms, Joanna carried her over to Rickon and sat down on the ground beside him. Ghost seemed to have almost doubled in size just in the time that Joanna had known her. Her research with Maester Luwin suggested that direwolves could grow phenomenally very quickly. She only hoped that nobody objected to her keeping a pet that could tear a man in two. She did not want Ghost to suffer the same fate as her packmates, not when she was so well-trained.

“Ghost!”

“Careful now, we need to be gentle.”

She coaxed Rickon’s hands out of their death-grip on the white fur and took hold of one of his little baby wrists. She moved his hand in a soft stroking motion over Ghost’s back. Ghost was a good girl, but Joanna did not want to test her with rough treatment. It was a valuable lesson for Rickon as well.

“Jo’s Ghost.”

“That’s right, but we can share her.”

Had her father not requested the slaying of the other pups, it might be that there would have been a pup for each of them. Not a day went by that Joanna did not think fondly of Theon for saving Ghost for her.

Rickon had picked up on her instruction already and was smoothing one palm clumsily over Ghost’s fur. His other hand was at his face, thumb in his mouth. Joanna put an arm around him, grateful that at least Lady Catelyn would keep this son in Winterfell. Between Rickon and Robb, there might be no time for her to criticise Joanna’s choices.

Not that she deserved such a reprieve. She had woken after the feast with an aching head and a sick feeling that something terrible had happened. Sansa had been wailing to her mother about the unfairness of it all while the Lady Catelyn tried to calm and quiet her. The unfairness, of course, was the possibility that the king would no longer want Lord Stark as the Hand of the King. Sansa was not raised to point blame at her betters, however. If there had been a problem involving Joanna and the king, it stood to reason in Sansa’s mind that the fault had to be Joanna’s. Upon seeing her half-sister had finally woken, Sansa cried out, “You’ve ruined everything” then fled the room in tears.

As Septa Mordane rushed after the weeping young lady, Catelyn Stark had stayed to speak with Joanna about the events of the previous evening. Joanna had been chastised for the dress, the cut of which had only served to confirm what people already suspected of bastards. She had been thoroughly chastised for her drunkenness. That rebuke was so well-deserved that Joanna had struggled not to cry. King Robert had fastened the last few cups upon her, but in truth she had been drunk by the time she was at his table. That was completely inexcusable. She knew that.

The subject of Lady Catelyn’s last admonishment was less expected. Once she had finished scolding Joanna for her foolish decision to drink so excessively, she began to speak about Theon. Joanna’s recollection of precise details was vague, but when Theon was mentioned she recalled him taking her from the hall and carrying her across the yard. The memory made her heart flutter as it had when Ser Jaime Lannister had first climbed down from his horse in Winterfell. Lady Catelyn had been less impressed. She thought it made them seem like lovers, an idea that made Joanna blush. Theon had been her friend for years and he had never been inappropriate. He did not see a woman when he looked at her. He saw the little girl who played out in the woods with him.

Still, in the wake of her poor conduct at the feast, Joanna was willing to promise that she would no longer spend any time alone with Theon. She had not managed to keep her promise for the length of the morning. Theon had barged in demanding to see her and Joanna had been too weak to refuse his company. Unfortunately she had felt too sick to enjoy it. How people managed to drink so much wine on a more regular basis she would never know. After that night she never wanted to touch another drop.

Ghost licked Rickon’s face, making the little lad squeal with delight. He grabbed for the wolf cub, only for Ghost to dash off. Rickon climbed up onto unsteady legs and began to chase her around the yard. Joanna could swear that Ghost was intentionally staying just out of his reach, but near enough to draw him on. She was a clever wolf, but could she really be that clever?

“Hodor.”

The large and simple stable hand, Hodor, came to a stop nearby to watch them play. He held a huge bale of hay in his arms as easily as any other man might hold a small bundle.

“Hello, Hodor. How are you today?”

“Hodor.”

Joanna knew she would have no conversation from him, but she always asked with a smile. Her father had taught all of his children that they needed to respect people of every station, as they all played their part in maintaining the North. That was why he had someone different to dine at his table every time – to hear their stories and so that his children might recognise the value of everyone. It was not just those with swords and titles that made Winterfell.

Hopefully Robb would remember all of his father’s lessons when he came to rule their land. It was difficult to believe that he would soon be left in charge of the North. True, their father would only be a raven away should anything happen, but still it seemed too much too soon to Joanna. Robb was fourteen though, almost a man grown. Perhaps this would be the better way of doing things, to try out ruling before the time came for him to truly become the Lord of Winterfell. With any luck Robb was impressing the king on the day’s hunt. Joanna hoped, though it was not of any benefit to the Starks, that Theon was making a good impression too.

When she looked up she could see Bran scaling the towers, though she had to shield her eyes from the sun. At least it was not snowing today. The light from the snow could be blinding when the sun was this high in the sky. Just thinking about the snow made her think of Uncle Benjen and how she still had not heard any new stories from the Wall. Her own fault for being too busy making a spectacle of herself, she supposed.

She wandered again towards the gates, wondering when the hunting group would return. Ser Jaime said that the king loved to hunt, but did that mean they would take longer than usual? Still, he was the king. If it was a hunt he wanted, it was a hunt he would have.

But he will not have me, she thought with pride. Her father had loved her enough to save her from the fate so many poor women must have shared. He had risked the love of his friend and the wrath of his king to keep her from harm. Whenever she felt neglected, she need only remember that.

Joanna crossed the training yard, Rickon’s joyful sounds of play still echoing in her ears. The common business went on as usual, but the familiar faces were not around. Ser Rodrik was not in the yard lecturing the boys on their stance or swing. Out hunting, the lot of them.

With a mind to mischief and a gentle curiosity as to whether she could get away with it, Joanna slipped into the armoury. The heat from the nearby forge was doing little to warm the room and when she picked up a sword it was so cold that she almost dropped it. She did not, though.

As nobody arrived to insist she put it down, Joanna lifted the blade and tried brandishing it in front of her body a few times. She imitated the poses of warrior queens as she imagined they would look. The sword was heavier than she remembered from her childhood, even though she had picked one that seemed like it would be light. She hoped her gift for Arya would be easier to wield. Arya was much smaller.

It felt as though her very figure fought against her as Joanna struggled to find a stance. Her dress tugged at her middle and tightened around her chest and she could not keep her balance. She wondered fearfully if Septa Mordane and Ser Rodrik had been correct all of these years and it truly was not in a woman’s nature to fight.

She rested the sword at her side and took some calming breaths, closing her eyes for a moment. It was not that her body was ill-suited to combat, only that it was different. Joanna had not learned the sword for many years now. She could not expect to pick it up as though she were an experienced master. Her body had changed since her youth and she had not learned to accommodate that in her swing. Unfortunately there was no room in the armoury to practise. Helms, mail and swords littered every surface and dwelled in every rack. If she wanted to grow used to having a blade in her hand she would need to go out into the yard where there was room. She knew however, that to do so would be inviting spectators and ridicule.

Perhaps Theon would teach her if she told him she wished to learn. They could take a couple of swords when they next rode out into the woods, provided he found the time to accompany her. He usually carried a dirk, but he had only taught her how to carve branches and skin animals with that. She had run from him the first time he took down a rabbit with his bow. She had grown since then, too.

Joanna placed the sword back into the rack and thought again about going to needlework. She could not face her sister, though. Sansa was never malicious, but when she was wronged she could be thoughtless. Joanna had endangered her chances of marrying the prince and Sansa refused to see it as an accident. She had introduced her to Princess Myrcella as ‘my bastard sister’. While Joanna could not be angry with her for speaking the truth, she could not help but see it as a sign of ill-temper. Until Sansa had calmed, Joanna would avoid her. She only hoped that would happen before her sisters were taken south to court.

She went back outside to check on Rickon. Although he would always be safe in the grounds of Winterfell she did not like to leave him unattended while he was so young. She wondered if Lady Catelyn had appointed a maid to watch him, some poor woman who was frantically running around the castle looking for the wild little boy. Like Bran, Rickon had a tendency to escape any situation he did not want to be in. Joanna wished she had that skill.

Rickon was curled up with Ghost by the stables, rubbing his face on the she-wolf’s fur. The few horses that remained in there had all gathered as far away from Ghost as they could without bolting from the stable. Joanna hitched up her dress and sat down beside him.

“Quiet time now?”

“Quiet time.”

Sometimes his words were clumsy, but everyone said Rickon spoke well for his age. He was so active that Joanna suspected he would be wilder than Robb or Bran. It would not be an uncommon disposition for a youngest son.

Joanna saw movement out of the corner of her eye and looked across towards the First Keep. Squinting against the sun, she could see a shadow moving from the tower down towards the ground at speed.

Ghost suddenly reared up, knocking Rickon aside. Before Joanna could grab her, the wolf was racing to the tower. Joanna ran after her, her eyes on the falling shadow that grew clearer as they approached.

Only when it hit the ground with a sickening crunch did Joanna realise it was Bran.

Chapter Text

There was no sleep to be had in the nights after Bran’s fall. Not for House Stark. They wandered Winterfell like ghosts, pale and pained. The king seemed to share in their woe, but the Lannisters had never seemed heartier. They walked around the castle smiling, painting sadness on only when it was socially required. Robb saw right through them. He hoped he was not the only one.

The girls had been weeping, every one of them. Arya wiped the tears away roughly as if she were angry with them. Sansa sobbed through her prayers. Their mother wailed, her body wracked with huge sobs as she sat at Bran’s bedside. Joanna’s tears were made silently, their paths left on her pale cheeks for all to see.

That had been the first thing Robb and Theon had noticed about her when she caught up with their hunting party. She must have ridden at a hard gallop indeed to reach them. As she drew up and flung herself down from her mare, King Robert had complimented her horsemanship. But Theon had asked her what was wrong, seeing the tears just as Robb did.

No one could have imagined she could bring such terrible tidings. She had walked straight to their lord father and told him in a shaken and sorrowful voice that Bran had fallen, almost to his death. As the words wet her eyes once more, their father had pulled her into a tight embrace. Robb had seen the devastation on his face.

“But Bran never falls.”

It was all Robb could say for the entire journey back, which he made with his father, Joanna and Theon. He was too stunned to say aught else. It did not make any sense. They almost broke their horses in their haste to get back to Winterfell. That was especially true of Theon’s steed, which had been made to carry Joanna as well after they left her mare with the king’s party. Their father decided his daughter was in no fit state to ride back and she had relented after a weak protest. That she had agreed after such little argument proved how exhausted she was.

At first their father had bombarded Joanna with questions as they rode. Where Bran had been climbing, how high, what had Maester Luwin said, how Lady Catelyn was handling the grief… But once Joanna had said all that needed to be said, there was no conversation at all aside from Robb’s occasional utterance of disbelief and Theon’s quiet reassurances to Joanna.

The castle had been in chaos and rumour was spreading like wildfire. The most popular suggestion was that the abandoned First Keep was haunted. Lord Tyrion had cheerfully said he would rather like to meet a ghost, which Robb considered a jape in the worst possible taste. He had to bite his tongue, lest he offer to send the Imp to meet one.

They were all devastated by Bran’s accident, but none more so than their mother. Robb had followed his father to Bran’s room when they returned to Winterfell, but found himself stopping just inside the door while his father went to Lady Stark’s side. Not only had Robb been shocked by the sight of Bran’s seemingly-lifeless body, but he had felt awkward and helpless in the face of his mother’s grief. Only his father had the strength to help her, to go to her side and hold her as she screamed out in anguish. Robb was so used to seeing his mother’s courage that her despair frightened him.

How could she not wail though, when Bran lay so still and pale upon the bed? Joanna’s white wolf lay on the floor on the opposite side from Lady Stark, almost like a guard dog. She had not been an efficient one so far. First the king had his hands all over Joanna and now Bran had fallen. This royal visit had cursed them.

That got him thinking, even as he ran his fingers gently through Bran’s hair. Not all of their royal visitors had accompanied them on the hunt.

Robb did not act on his suspicions immediately. The days following Bran’s fall were trying for all of them and he did not want to cause anymore distress. On top of that, his father still planned to journey south for the king and preparations were being made. Everyone was busy, mired in grief, or both.

“How can he still plan to leave us?”

His mother asked him in a weak and trembling voice as she clutched one of Bran’s hands, days after his fall. He looked like a frail doll, so different from the lively and happy boy that Robb knew.

“I don’t know, mother. I’m sure he has reasons.”

“Oh, I know his reasons. I was the one who gave them to him. Webs of treachery and intrigue being made at the highest level. They need an honest man like your father to cut through them. But that was before. None of that matters anymore. What matters now is Winterfell and his children!”

There was no denying that Robb was nervous about the times ahead of them. His entire four-and-ten years had been a preparation for lordship. Now that the time to lead was upon him, he wanted to grab his father’s arm and beg just a few more years of youth. He had watched every petition, attended every hunt and practised his sword every morning, yet Robb felt he could spend a lifetime observing his father and still not learn all there was to ruling.

“Perhaps when he’s dealt with the Southron troubles he’ll be at liberty to come home.”

“I’m sure Robert Arryn said the same to his mother.”

Robb flinched at the reminder of what had happened to the last Hand of the King. His mother saw it and seemed to realise she had spoken harshly. She sighed and squeezed Bran’s hand gently.

“I won’t keep the terror of the situation from you any longer, Robb. I can’t. Not if you’re to be Lord of Winterfell in your father’s stead. You must be strong and face the shadows.”

Since Bran’s fall, their mother saw shadows everywhere. She did not leave his side, so fearful was she of further danger to her son. She took all her meals in the room with him, had her chamberpot there and was attended in the room by her servants when she cared to change dresses.

“It wasn’t a shadow that pushed Bran from the tower, mother.”

“No, but he never falls. I just can’t… Gods, why would someone want to hurt my little boy? Bran could never bring harm to anyone!”

That was the part that perplexed Robb as well. In his mind he had cast every possible culprit in the role of Bran’s attacker, but their reason was never clear. There was animosity between House Stark and House Lannister, but nothing worthy of attempted murder. At first Robb had wondered if the queen were behind it, seeking vengeance against them after Joanna had embarrassed her at the feast. He soon realised that the queen sensibly blamed her husband for that spectacle rather than Lord Stark’s bastard daughter.

He sat with his mother and Bran for a time, but there was little more by way of conversation. The Lady Stark had no time for anyone other than Bran. Her gaze flitted between the gentle rise and fall of his chest to the stillness of his pale face. Now and again his eyelashes trembled with the faintest of twitches and his mother held her breath with anticipation every time.

When Robb could take no more of the sad scene he took his leave. His mother barely nodded as he left. Maester Luwin had claimed it was entirely possible that Bran would wake and live, but there was very little likelihood that he would move as he did before the fall. He might well wake a cripple. Whenever Robb thought on it his stomach twisted and his eyes watered. He could not imagine Bran living a still life. Not Bran who so loved to climb and run and ride. Bran who longed to be a knight.

Robb chanced a look out of the window as he descended the staircase and was treated to a sight that might have made him laugh in happier times. As it was, seeing the Imp slapping Prince Joffrey was a welcome distraction from his thoughts. After the prince said something more the Imp hit him again and this time a weak burst of laughter did break free from Robb’s throat. He wondered what the prince had said to receive such a rebuke from his uncle.

Wandering the castle in search of something to do or someone to speak to, Robb pondered on it more. What did Lannisters think worthy of punishment? In Winterfell, the Stark children could expect discipline for foolishness, cruelty or a lack of manners in front of distinguished guests. What could Joffrey have done to raise Lord Tyrion’s ire? Something that might have exposed them?

Even Robb knew he was grasping at straws for someone to accuse. Both Joffrey and the Imp had been with the rest of them on the hunt. The only people to remain behind with Bran, Rickon and the girls were Queen Cersei and the Kingslayer, Ser Jaime Lannister. Although neither held much love for House Stark, they really had no reason to hurt Bran. They would have known that to do so would bring suspicion upon them.

Still, Robb resolved to ask his sisters if they had seen anything. Rickon was too young to be of use in that regard. His father had already questioned all of the guardsmen and servants. If any of them had seen anything, nobody was willing to tell. Bran’s climbing was such a frequent sight in Winterfell that no one would have looked twice. There would have been no witness to say who he encountered at such a height.

He found Joanna sat on a low wall near the archery range, watching Theon practise the bow. Though many men could beat him with a blade, none could claim to best him at the bow. He claimed it was a skill inherent to all Ironborn and Robb did not know otherwise. Joanna sat twirling a blue rose idly in her right hand while her left was cushioned in Ghost’s white fur. Robb only realised then that the direwolf had not been at Bran’s side for the first time in days.

“That’s a pretty flower.”

She looked up at the sound of his voice but did not force a smile. She might be a Snow, but her heart was all Stark. Bran was her brother as much as he was Robb’s. She glanced at the flower in her hand and sighed as if it were the heaviest thing she had been asked to carry.

“It was a gift from King Robert.”

“He gave you a token?”

Robb could not keep the surprise and outrage out of his voice. It had been inappropriate enough before, but to act so unseemly while their brother lay injured…

“He said it formed part of his apology and he hoped it could console me in these dark times. As if an entire garden of roses could do a thing for my mood while Bran is—“

Joanna’s voice choked. She shook her head and looked back at the range. The next thunk of an arrow against a target left Theon with an empty quiver. He shrugged his bow onto his shoulder and went to retrieve his arrows from the target. Robb stood with his sister and watched him go.

“Do you know what happened?”

“Yes, I just thought it would be more fun not to tell.”

Her brows drew together in a scowl, her full lips pursed into a tight, angry pout. Of course, it had been a stupid question. Robb had heard her give their father a full account on their frantic ride back to Winterfell. Still he could not help but think there must have been some detail omitted, something that would make the whole thing clearer.

“I’m sorry, I just… I’m trying to puzzle it out. It still makes no sense to me.”

“I told him to be careful.”

“You can’t honestly think he just fell.”

Joanna shrugged, making the grey shawl slip from her shoulders. She usually wore black clothes, but since Bran’s fall she had worn more grey and pale blues. Robb wondered if she was deliberately avoiding colours of mourning.

“He would hardly be the first boy to fall while climbing.”

“How can you speak like that? You know Bran doesn’t fall. He’s been climbing since he could walk. He can clamber across the roofs of Winterfell quicker than you or I could walk around it!”

Again Joanna sighed. She inspected the blue flower in her hand as she pet Ghost with the other.

“What do you want me to say, Robb?”

“There must be something you’ve forgotten, something that could help us figure out who’s responsible for this.”

At that, Joanna set her flower aside on the wall and turned to face him better. Ghost shifted to make room, then nuzzled her woollen dress where her knees were. She looked confused at what he had said. Confused and a little annoyed.

“Robb, Bran fell.”

“He was pushed!”

Theon paused in the middle of collecting an arrow and looked around the yard. Robb and Joanna did the same. Luckily, no one nearby seemed to have heard him. He had to be more careful.

“Who would want to kill a harmless little boy?”

“I don’t know that yet, that’s why you need to tell me everything about that day. The queen and her brother were here, weren’t they? Did you see them?”

Joanna’s grey eyes widened. She looked over her shoulder as Theon walked back to his previous place and drew an arrow.

“Are you hearing this?”

“I’m trying to stay well out of it. If Lannisters are pushing babes out of windows I want to stay on their good side. If they’re not, I don’t want to be slinging dangerous accusations.”

It made Robb furious that the two of them could be so useless and nonchalant about a threat to Bran’s life. His fists clenched at his sides as he thought of their little brother laying broken in his bed while his attacker walked free.

“That’s easy for you to say Theon, it’s not your brother.”

“Starks killed my brothers.”

“Stop it.”

The command was a tired sigh from Joanna’s lips. She shook her head at the both of them, but Robb cared little for her exasperation.

“If Bran was truly your brother, you’d help me find out the truth.”

“I told the truth.”

She looked as though he had slapped her, shocked and outraged as she always was whenever someone doubted her family connections. It was a low blow Robb knew, but if she really loved Bran as his other siblings did then she would be more forthcoming. He would, if their roles were reversed.

“No, you said he fell. You know that can’t be true. Did you see any of the Lannisters while you were home that day?”

“I… yes, I walked with Ser Jaime.”

“You did?”

Theon was suddenly a part of the conversation again, lowering his bow to his side and walking over to the wall where Joanna sat.

“Why didn’t you mention that before?”

“I don’t see why it matters, Robb. All it means is that he couldn’t possibly have pushed Bran because he was with me.”

“What did you talk about?”

It became clear that Theon’s interest in the conversation was not of the same nature as Robb’s. While Robb wanted justice for Bran, Theon only cared about another man entertaining Joanna. Robb was not happy at the thought of his sister in the Kingslayer’s company, but there was far more at stake than that.

“Just… he just reassured me that he would take care of father and our sisters while they were in King’s Landing. He was being gallant, that’s all.”

“I bet he was.”

Theon sneered and stomped back over to the range. The next arrow he loosed hit the target dead in the centre. Robb wondered if he was imagining the Kingslayer’s face when he let it fly from the bow.

“So Jaime Lannister was with you the whole while?”

“Yes.”

“Right up until Bran fell?”

Joanna caught her lower lip in her teeth, then nodded slowly. Robb wondered what it was that made her hesitate.

“He couldn’t have done it, Robb.”

Robb sighed and scuffed his boots in the dirt. He would never say it aloud, but the revelation was somewhat disappointing. It would have felt good to know they had caught the man responsible for Bran’s injuries. Not only that, but they could have forced the Kingslayer himself to meet the king’s justice.

“If not him, then who?”

His bastard sister sighed and turned away to watch Theon again.

“He fell, Robb. He just bloody fell.”

Chapter Text

It was difficult for Theon to believe that the Starks were really leaving Winterfell. They had been planning it since the King’s arrival and despite all that had happened, those plans had not been discarded. Even with that prior warning, Theon still felt strange on the day of their departure. Lord Stark was known to make long journeys away from Winterfell, but always with expectations of returning.

The Hand of the King was not a title to be easily discarded. Mad King Aerys had gotten through a few, if Theon recalled his history correctly, but he did not think many of them were allowed to resign and go home. It was sort of a lifelong position. None of the Starks had mentioned it though, so Theon assumed they were lying to themselves to stay happy. Even Robb had a face like a slapped arse, sulking around Winterfell like he was preparing to withstand torture. Theon spent a while following him while he checked preparations for his family’s journey, but eventually he could not hold his tongue.

“If my father were leaving me in charge of his seat I’d have a bit more spring in my step. You look like a man sentenced to death.”

Robb glared at him as he shut the wooden lid of a crate down and moved on to check the next cart. Theon wondered if the heir even knew what he was looking at and how much was supposed to be in there. Was Robb just trying to seem helpful? He would definitely have to look like he knew what he was doing in the days to come. Lady Stark would be no help at all in her current state.

“I love my father. His place is here, in the North. What kind of son covets his own father’s titles?”

“Nothing wrong with a little ambition. It’s the way of the world. Fathers expect to leave everything to their sons. That’s why they have sons. If men could live forever, they wouldn’t bother having children. They’d be funnelling moon tea down their wives throats.”

The Heir to Winterfell shook his head and scoffed, the breath puffing from his lips visibly in the cold air. The king’s party had seen the weather as a sign that winter was coming, but Theon reckoned they had just forgotten the words of House Stark. Winter was always hovering around this far north. That was why the castle was named Winterfell.

“Not all families are like yours, Theon. I respect my father. I wish I could still have him here to guide me.”

“But if he stayed here he wouldn’t need to guide you. You wouldn’t be playing Lord.”

“I won’t be playing at all.”

Theon smirked as Robb continued to stomp around. Robb Stark was still a child. Idealistic and stupid. He would need to grow up quickly once his father was gone. Until then he would just be a boy in lord’s clothes.

“Take a leaf out of King Robert’s book. Hunting, whoring and feasting. He doesn’t do anything else and he’s got an entire kingdom out of it.”

“I’ll rule with honour in my father’s place. Don’t let me spoil your fun though.”

“Never do,” Theon replied cheerfully.

Perhaps with Lord Eddard Stark out of the picture Winterfell would lighten up a bit. Men of the North went on at great lengths about their honour, but always with a nod to Lord Stark. Without him around as some sort of paragon of virtue maybe people would not be so scared to do as they pleased. Robb would hardly instil the same caution in people. Many of the older generation in Winterfell had known him since he was a babe. They were not likely to be intimidated or impressed by him any time soon.

No wonder Robb was so nervous. The heir ran a hand back through his hair and sighed, looking around the yard for something else to busy himself with.

“I might just check everyone’s well-armed. I know they’re travelling with the king and his party, but you never know how daring bandits are going to be. The Wildlings have been getting worse lately as well. I’d like to be sure everyone’s got a sword.”

“Damn!”

Robb raised an eyebrow at his sudden curse. Theon looked around at the busy yard and wondered if he had left his errand too late. He had meant to sort it yesterday, but he had become… distracted.

“I’ve just remembered I’ve got to go see the smithy anyway. Want me to see what he’s got spare?”

“That’d be a great help, Theon. Thanks.”

Theon nodded and the two boys went their separate ways. Thankfully, despite Robb’s clear curiosity he did not ask what Theon needed to do. He jogged to the forge, angry at himself for forgetting his promise until now. Perhaps he should have avoided the brothel the day before. It had a tendency to lure him in for much longer than he meant to be there. He had needed the touch of a woman to calm his mind though, what with the way Joanna had been admiring the Kingslayer over the past weeks.

Ever since Ser Jaime Lannister swung down from his horse at the gates Joanna had been smitten with him. For her sake Theon had pretended not to notice, even when she spent the feast gazing at the gold-clad knight with lovesick eyes. His only reprieve then had been a woman too, some Lannister maid called… Ellie? Ella? Jaime Lannister had done nothing to save Joanna’s honour from King Robert. That had all been Theon, yet it was the Kingslayer that Joanna spent afternoons walking with. Ever since Bran fell the man had been constantly giving his condolences. Jory Cassel had said over dinner that Jaime invited her south to see King’s Landing and watch the next tourney. Theon had been so hasty to go and put a stop to those plans that Jory and Hullen had to yank him back to the bench by both arms and admit it was not true.

The Kingslayer was leaving. That was all Theon had to remember. Jaime was leaving and Theon was staying, so there would be no more courtly afternoon walks. Now he just had to make sure he had not left his errand too late. Joanna would be so disappointed if he had.

“What do you want, Greyjoy?”

Mikken was a large man, as befitted a blacksmith. He produced the majority of the weapons and armour for Winterfell. Theon could not remember ever seeing the man away from his forge. Although Theon had never done anything to cause the man any bother, Mikken was one of those who hated him for his family name. He was civil to his lord’s ward, but always with a look of distrust. Theon had stopped trying to be friendly to him a long time ago, but a promise was a promise. He only hoped Mikken’s dislike of him had not led him to purposely slow his work on the project.

“Is it ready?”

Sparks flew as Mikken brought his hammer down onto the metal plate he was working on. Mikken’s response came slowly, probably because he knew how important it was to Theon.

“Been busy getting things ready for the Hand. Your toy was hardly the first thing on my list.”

“I asked you weeks ago.”

What would he say to Joanna? She had trusted him with this. As soon as she had the idea Theon had offered to help her. There were places where a man’s voice held more weight than a woman’s. The forge was one of those places.

Mikken set his work aside and turned to look at Theon. He folded his huge arms over his gut and frowned.

“Is it some sort of love token?”

“Well… not exactly. Not in the way you’re thinking.”

When Mikken smirked and went over to one of the crates nearby, Theon realised he had been worrying over nothing. Of course it was ready. Mikken was teasing him.

The smith carried over the sword. It was a tiny thing, but it would be lethal in the right hands. For all Mikken’s bad temper, he made good weapons. Theon took it and the dark cloth it was in. It barely weighed anything. Whoever used it would be able to make the quickest stabs in Westeros.

“It’s for Snow, isn’t it?”

“No!”

He did not want to get her in any trouble. She had been in enough lately. There was a reason he was doing this instead of her. They could not count on Mikken to keep his mouth shut around Lord Stark.

“Tch, you’re a bad liar, Greyjoy. I’ve seen that girl sneak in here to test her sword arm. She’ll need something light as that if she’s to do any damage at all. I still reckon it’s too small for her, mind. I made it to the measurements you gave me, if she complains.”

Theon looked at the dainty blade again. It shone in the light of the forge, not yet touched by battle or wear. Given its intended owner, Theon hoped it never would be.

“There’ll be no complaints. This is fine.”

“Better than fine,” Mikken huffed. “But no telling where you got it, understand? For Snow’s sake I’ve done it, but I won’t be known for arming Lord Eddard’s daughters. Anyone asks, I’ll be telling them I made that pretty little knife for you. You hearing me, lad?”

“I won’t say anything. She’ll be so pleased with this, though. Thanks.”

Mikken shooed him out and Theon went willingly, making sure the sword was wrapped up in the cloth so it would not be spotted. He had to catch Joanna before she missed the opportunity to present her gift, but he was not sure where to find her.

He went to Bran’s chamber first. He did not enter the room, just peered carefully around the door to see if Joanna was in there. With all the commotion around the departure of the new Hand, the maids had been rushed off their feet. Joanna had taken on some of the duties that they were less inclined to do, such as seeing to Lady Stark’s needs. It was uncomfortable for her, she had told Theon that much, but she was not the sort of girl who could sit back and do nothing when her family needed her.

Luckily for Theon, Joanna was not in Bran’s room with Lady Stark. He would not have dared intrude, especially since Lady Stark wanted him to stay away from Joanna. Of course, in her current state she probably would not notice if he walked in and kissed Joanna right in front of her.

Theon walked down the corridor wondering where to try next. No doubt Joanna would be waiting for him before she said farewell to Arya. That meant she was probably saying goodbye to Sansa, gifting her with the scarf she had been painstakingly stitching in private over the past few weeks. That was one present Theon was not able to help with. He could not understand how women had the patience for needlework.

He was almost at Sansa’s chamber when he heard Joanna’s voice from inside.

“Would you at least look at me? We might not see one another until winter has been and gone!”

“By then I’ll be a princess and you’ll be wed to a stablehand.”

Harsh words. Sansa’s voice was as cold as it had been since the feast, when the king had tried it on with Joanna and caused animosity between their houses. Sansa had blamed Joanna for that. She was so besotted with shitty little Prince Joffrey that the threat of not going to King’s Landing with him had turned her into a brat. She had started to spend her time with Princess Myrcella on one arm and Jeyne Poole on the other, ignoring Joanna altogether.

“Yes, perhaps.”

“No perhaps about it. You haven’t changed anything. I’m still going to be a princess and queen one day. You couldn’t stop it.”

“Sans, I was never trying to stop it!”

“So you say, but everyone knows you’ve been walking with Ser Jaime. Another scandal like that would surely make father lock you, me and Arya away in a tower until he could choose us boring husbands!”

For a moment nothing was said. Theon stood with his ear to the door waiting. It was not long before Joanna spoke again, her voice strained.

“Well, if you think so little of me you clearly won’t miss me. I’ll just leave this here and let you pack in peace.”

“Take it with you. I’m only taking my best scarves south. I want to look perfect at court.”

Another long pause before Joanna found her voice. She spoke two words so softly Theon barely heard them.

“You will.”

Then the door swung open and Joanna strode out. She saw Theon just as the door slammed shut behind her and for a moment she just stared at him.

“Were you listening?”

He nodded, slightly embarrassed that she had caught him. Putting the sword down so it leant against the wall, he held his arms out.

“Come here.”

She moved towards him hesitantly. On the rare occasion that they embraced it happened naturally, without instruction. Theon would put a friendly arm around her shoulder or she would give him a quick squeeze around his middle to say farewell for the evening. Since the feast there had been a slight tension between them. Theon had wondered if he was the only one to notice it, but her shyness now told him that Joanna was not completely unaware of the awkwardness.

Still she came to him. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed against his neck as he wrapped his arms around her. Her bosom pressed against his chest.

“She’s still angry with me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you still angry with me?”

“I wasn’t angry with you. Why would you think I was?”

When he cast his eyes down he could see her looking up at him, grey eyes sad as they had been ever since Bran fell.

“You hated me walking with Ser Jaime.”

“If you knew that, why did you keep doing it?”

She shrugged against him. He could not be angry at her though. Not now, not while she stood in his arms. Joanna looked past him to where the sword rested against the wall.

“Is that—“

“Yeah. Mikken thinks it’s too small for you.”

Joanna breathed out a small laugh. She left Theon’s embrace, much to his disappointment, and went to unwrap the sword. She lifted it and watched the play of light on the blade.

“It would be too small for me.”

“Arya will love it though. She’ll be stabbing shadows all the way to King’s Landing.”

As she wrapped it back up in the cloth, Joanna smiled up at him warmly. At least he had been able to distract her from Sansa’s bad temper.

“Thank you for getting this for me, Theon. Mikken would never have risked angering my father by making it at my request. I suppose I’ll have to find Arya now. Could you throw this away for me?”

She handed him the scarf that she had made for Sansa. Theon had lost count of the nights she had spent in his room, stitching by candlelight. While the royal party visited she had shared a chamber with Sansa, so it was only by sneaking into his room that she was able to keep her labour of love a secret. It was pale cream linen, surprisingly soft. On one side Joanna had sewn a pretty bird in golden thread. At the other end there was a Stark direwolf, stitched in silver thread.

“I’ll find somewhere for it,” Theon promised.

Joanna nodded to him and walked away briskly. She probably wanted to see Arya before Sansa’s rejection brought her to tears. Theon scowled at the door to the stuck-up girl’s chamber. He knew she was only a child, but that was not a good enough excuse. He pushed the door open.

“Theon! Learn to knock!”

“Sorry, I just wanted to wish you goodbye.”

The young girl turned away as he had known she would, preferring to look at the dresses she was packing into her case. While her back was turned, Theon quickly lifted the lid of one of the full cases and shoved the scarf in. Just in time, as she turned back almost immediately with a yellow dress in her hands and a strange look on her face.

“Theon, um… You will take care of Joanna, won’t you?”

“Someone has to.”

“And it will be you, right? Robb will be so busy being lord and, oh, it will just be better if it’s you. Tell me you will.”

Girls were so bloody confusing. Hating each other one moment, loving each other the next. Theon nodded and folded his arms, feeling awkward.

“Yeah, of course. Don’t see why you’re asking me though.”

Sansa sighed and threw the dress aside into her case.

“Because she loves you, stupid.”

Chapter Text

There were no ladies left in Winterfell.

There were women, of course. Serving maids and cooks and needleworkers. There were even attendants that Sansa and Arya had not needed, who had been left behind in a castle with no lady to attend. They wandered the corridors looking for tasks, trying to stay out of sight and out of mind. Joanna knew that feeling. If she could stay away from Bran’s room she would. She could not though, not when Robb begged her to look after his mother.

Joanna had always felt uncomfortable around Lady Stark and her scowl. It was as though every time Lady Catelyn looked at her she saw her husband bedding another woman. Joanna wondered if they imagined similar faces for this mysterious woman, but knew better than to ask. Since Bran’s fall Lady Catelyn had no interest in speaking to anyone, least of all her husband’s bastard. She sat silent while Joanna switched her plates of uneaten food with fresh fare for her to ignore. Robb could not stand to see his mother this way, but for Joanna this silent treatment was nothing new. She willingly did her part, acting the serving maid to spare the other girls the hardship. Her wolf Ghost spent many nights curled up at the end of Bran’s bed. The direwolf bitch was such a quiet, docile creature that Lady Catelyn rarely bothered to shoo her away.

“I should have made you a match.”

The silence broke so suddenly one day that Joanna dropped the fresh sheets that she had been preparing to lay out on Lady Catelyn’s makeshift bed.

“M’lady?”

“While the royal party visited I intended to make you a match. I neglected my duty.”

Joanna gathered up the fallen sheets, shaking them to ensure they had not collected extra dust. She spread one out across the bed as she tried to figure out what she could say. She did not regret staying unmarried for now.

“It’s fine, m’lady. Sansa was betrothed, does it matter that I’m not?”

“Yes. You should have left with them. I never meant for you to stay here.”

For a long moment Joanna was stunned into silence. She understood the cool civility between them and the frequent criticism, but it was rare for Lady Catelyn to be so harsh. Perhaps this would be the way of it now that her father no longer remained in Winterfell. Years of resentment had stewed in preparation for this time.

“I’ll leave you to your grief,” Joanna said stiffly.

She gave a quick curtsey that Lady Catelyn most likely did not notice and fled the room still shaking. Ghost hopped off of the bed and followed her, sensing her mistress’ mood. Had Joanna not been dutiful and helpful? Had she not given way to Sansa and Arya every time they spoke? Even now in her rage she found the time to perfect some needlework that Sansa had left behind. She had gone out of her way to speak to the lower class of folk around the castle, knowing that Arya had been a great source of gossip and that people were missing her energy around the place.

The absence of her sisters was keenly felt by every person in Winterfell. Lady Catelyn might have been able to compensate for the loss of Sansa’s noble charm or Arya’s strength of spirit, but she too was absent. Bran’s room was a prison she had chosen for herself and no one could coax her out of there.

“My lady?”

Joanna could try as she might, but she could not replace any of the Stark women. She was too burdened with dark thoughts to emulate Sansa’s innocent grace and too withdrawn to speak freely to everyone in the way that Arya did. Perhaps if she cut off her hair she could pretend to be a boy and run away from Winterfell. She had discussed it with Theon before, but they had been children then. Maybe he would take her seriously now.

“Please, my Lady Snow!”

She stopped and looked over her shoulder. Was someone calling her? One of the chambermaids scurried to catch up with her. She had short, thin hair black as coals. Many of the guards spoke highly of her slender figure. Her name was Sybbyl and if Joanna was putting the right story to the right person, then she was one of the few Winterfell maids who had actually refused Theon. Joanna wanted to like her for that, but instead she simply found herself annoyed that Theon had wanted this girl. As if that were Sybbyl’s fault…

“I’m sorry, Sybbyl, I didn’t realise it was me you were calling.”

“It’s almost time for dinner, my lady.”

“Um…yes, I suppose it is.”

At least she was better at small talk than Sybbyl, apparently. Hesitantly, Joanna turned away with the intention of going to the hall for food. Sybbyl piped up again before she took a step.

“Me and the other girls are ready to help you dress for dinner, my lady. When you’re ready, of course.”

“What?”

It was not supposed to come out as a scoff, but Joanna was convinced she had misheard or misunderstood. She had never been attended to since she was old enough to pull on her own clothes, except on the occasions where she struggled to fit into something. Some of her dresses bound her too tightly around the chest. Generally speaking though, Lady Catelyn had shown her the essential knowledge of dressing and Joanna was never given such intricate clothes that assistance was necessary.

“Your brother asked us to wait on you, my lady.”

“I’m not a lady.”

Sybbyl shrugged with an awkward smile. She had clearly been given instructions that she was not going to question.

“And you’re certain he meant me?”

“He said his sister, Lady Snow.”

That made her smile. Robb always gave her the full title of sister, never denying her half as some people did. Sansa had a tendency to do that when her mood was sour.

“Well… if he insisted.”

She made a show of reluctance and followed Sybbyl with a sigh. Inside however, Joanna was rather curious to see what it would be like to be waited on. She remembered watching Sansa be dressed. Maids had whirled around her with wisps of silk and beautiful gowns as Joanna lay on the bed ignored. She thought that Sansa seemed very much like a pretty water-flower caught in a current, but she came out of it looking like a princess. Later that day Joanna had laughed as Theon mocked the frills on Sansa’s dainty dress but in her heart of hearts there had always been a speck of jealousy. It was not even the clothes and the art involved in her appearance that Joanna envied, rather the time and effort that was spent every day on making Sansa feel special.

When they reached Joanna’s chamber they found Millicent and Ayleth deep in conversation. Both girls seemed unusually serious, but they brightened when they saw Joanna.

“It’s a pleasure to be of service, Lady Snow,” said Millicent with a curtsey.

The last time Millicent had spoken to her was to sneak her strongwine under the table in the Great Hall. There had been none of this bobbing the head and speaking so formally. Joanna was not sure how she liked it. It was not as though the girls had ever been close friends, so perhaps she just ought to be thankful that they were speaking to her. Still, she tried to be friendly.

“What were you talking about before we turned up?”

A hunted look passed between Ayleth and Millicent. Whatever the story was, it was not for her. Millicent bobbed in another curtsey.

“Nothing that would interest you, m’lady.”

Before Joanna could say that she would judge her own interest, thank you, Millicent was tackling the laces of her dress. It was somewhat of a surprise, especially when Sybbyl moved up behind Joanna’s back and began assisting.

Joanna froze, almost overwhelmed by the desire to push them both away. On the occasions that maids had helped her into her dresses she had always been nearly clothed already. There had been little need for this attack on her person, only the arduous push and pull of fabric whenever one of her dresses was made too small. This presence of hands on all sides made her feel trapped, like being with King Robert at the feast again.

But this was what a Lady endured. Joanna took a deep breath and tried to stand straight as they nudged her this way and that. Her dress was tugged away from her and she held her tummy in, trying to ignore the urge to run and cover herself. The girls paid no mind to her nudity anyway, bustling around to gather up the dress and accessories while Joanna shivered in her smallclothes. The room was far from warm.

Ayleth scurried over with a long, grey underskirt. Joanna reached out to take it from her, only for Ayleth to duck from her hand and crouch to the floor.

“Leg, m’lady.”

“You don’t have to keep saying m’lady.”

The girl looked up at her with a gaze that could only be described as fearful, her hazel eyes wide as if she had been scolded.

“Leg m—“

She bit her lip to avoid saying it again. Joanna lifted her right foot so that the girl could slide the underskirt beneath her. She put it down and lifted the left. Then she stood still and awkward as Ayleth tugged it up her legs and over her thighs and waist.

“It’s soft.”

Joanna could not remember when she had last been given such a lavish, silken underskirt. New things must have been made for her; Sansa’s would not fit her waist. None of the girls responded to her comment. They were servants today, not friends. Joanna wondered if that had ever bothered Sansa. Probably not. She was, after all, a noble lady born.

Sybbyl brought over a black woollen gown. The collar was stitched with silver thread. After the three girls manhandled her into the garment, Joanna struggled to see her mirror. Unfortunately there were still laces to be tied and sleeves to be pulled, so she was unable to peer past her helpful maids. She wriggled an arm free and brought it up to touch the collar she could feel around her collarbone. It was a higher cut dress than she had worn in a long time.

The girls stepped back and looked her up and down critically. Joanna felt like a horse being inspected for sale.

“Jewels?”

At Ayleth’s suggestion, Sybbyl shook her head.

“Not for a normal dinner. When there’s company, maybe. Little pale ones in her hair. You got the furs and slippers, Millie?”

“Here!”

Millicent rushed forward with some silken black slippers in one hand and soft furs draped over her arm. This time Joanna was ready and raised each foot obediently to be shoed. Sybbyl took the furs and draped them over her, smiling warmly for the first time since they had all entered the room.

“That ought to keep you cosy, m’lady.”

“Thank you. All of you. This was…nice.”

They all curtsied to her, which almost made Joanna laugh aloud. If only Theon could see this. Or better yet, Sansa. Sybbyl’s smile turned almost shy.

“Always a pleasure to serve the Lady of Winterfell.”

Chapter Text

His father had only been absent for a few days, yet Robb already missed him more than he could bear. No one thought of Robb as the Lord of Winterfell. Everyone continued trying to manage their duties as if his lord father had simply borrowed half of the staff for a short while. People seemed more inclined to listen to his mother than to him, which would be fine if she were in any state to give commands.

Robb only half-listened to Theon’s ramblings as he sipped his wine. He did not know what to do about his mother. He had Joanna looking after her. It seemed proper to have a lady attending her needs and setting Joanna to the task gave his sister a way to feel useful. He wanted her to have some part in all this. Until she married, she was of House Stark. Robb had no intention of making her worry about her place amongst the upheaval left in wake of the king’s visit.

Gods, thinking of marriages, was it now his duty to arrange the matches? Honestly, Robb was not entirely sure which duties were his. He knew from his studies what he had to take note of and how to handle traditional lordly responsibilities, but his father was not dead. Thank the Gods, he was merely away. Perhaps Robb would leave it up to him to find some nice squire or lowborn tradesman to wed Joanna in King’s Landing. It was an area Robb would rather not meddle in.

“So… so, I was thinkin’. About the whole fallin’ business of Bran. Now the Lann’sters are gone—“

“Theon, you need to slow down. You’ve had nearly four cups of wine in the time I’ve spent on this one and they still haven’t even brought out the meat. If you’re going to be a drunk the whole time, I won’t be listening to any of your counsel.”

His friend looked affronted, comically so. Robb knew Theon was only taking advantage of their newfound freedom from Lord Stark’s disapproval, but he did not want such drinking to become a habit. He did not want to be the lord of lazy drunks.

“Y’sound more like your mother than your father, y’know.” Theon put a hand to his mouth to hold in a belch and looked out over the small hall that they were dining in with a selection of servants, guards and remaining guests from King’s Landing. “Where’s Joanna?”

“I sent some maids to help ready her for dinner. She should be…” Robb looked up as the doors opened and his sister walked in. “There she is.”

It was amazing how little it took to transform his sister into the perfect lady. Robb was not so attuned to women’s fashions that he could pinpoint exactly what made the difference, but the Joanna Snow who walked into the hall that evening could easily be mistaken for a trueborn lady of House Stark.

“Seven hells…”

When Robb heard the whisper under Theon’s breath he looked over to his friend curiously. Theon watched Joanna’s approach like he had never seen her before. As she reached the table he lurched up out of his seat and yanked a chair out for her. The heavy wooden chair clattered and screeched against the stone, making both Joanna and Robb wince. Then Joanna frowned bemusedly at the chair, then at Theon. It was an unusual show of gentlemanly manners from him. The most chivalry that Robb had seen from him before now was when he had carried Joanna from the Great Hall on the night of the royal feast.

“Um, thank you?”

“S’alright.”

Theon dropped back down into his own chair and reached for his wine. Joanna eyed the glass then raised her eyebrow at Robb. He shrugged back at her. Tracking Theon’s drinking was not an official responsibility of the Lord of Winterfell.

“Did you have these made for me?”

His sister nodded down to her new clothes. Robb wanted to claim responsibility for her happy smile, but it would not be honest.

“Father did. He only remembered just before he went, so he asked me to make sure you got them. He must have had more important things to discuss with you.”

“He did.”

If Joanna noticed his curiosity, she had no intention of indulging him. She simply nodded, the memory making her serious. She had wanted to ride out with their father towards the kingsroad, but Robb and Theon had advised against it. Best to keep her away from the king. Theon had said something about keeping her away from the Kingslayer as well. Her goodbyes to their lord father had to be as brief as Robb’s. Unbearably brief. Who knew when he would be returning to Winterfell?

“You look very beautiful.”

Theon’s slurred compliment came out of nowhere, startling Robb and Joanna both. Robb fancied she blushed more though. Joanna’s lips parted and closed a few times, as though she did not know what to say.

“Um…”

“Maybe you should retire for the evening, Theon.”

The firmness of his voice surprised him. Perhaps he would be able to channel his father’s authority after all.

Theon tossed the dregs in his wine glass into his mouth and pushed away from the table. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and nodded.

“Yeah. Night.”

Joanna watched him stagger away from the table. Her brow furrowed with concern.

“Is he okay?”

“He’s just over-celebrating his freedom to drink to excess. He’ll calm down, I’m sure. Unless there’s more entertainment in drinking yourself sick than I realise.”

His sister’s lips twisted at the reminder of her own recent misadventures with drink. Robb still could not quite believe she had been so foolish, but was not about to say anything so harsh.

“It’s not fun. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“I don’t plan on doing it. I’ve got Winterfell to run.”

“All grown up now,” she teased with a faint smile.

“We both are. We just need to make sure we act like it.”

Joanna’s big, storm-grey eyes blinked at him innocently. Robb could see her trying to decide if he was accusing her of bad behaviour. She was so sensitive to imagined slights. The smallest comment from Robb’s mother could send Joanna into fits of melancholy, even if it was advice meant for her own good.

Eventually she returned to cutting her dinner.

“No one could accuse you of taking your new role lightly, Robb. You’ve mastered the sombre look father always wore.”

“That’s something, I suppose. But wearing father’s furs doesn’t make me a lord any more than wearing that gown makes you a lady.”

Her fork clattered onto her plate and Joanna scooped it back up quickly. His remark had hit harder than he intended and he had not even struck with the point of it yet.

“There isn’t much that can make a lady,” Joanna said bitterly, still glaring at the meat on her plate rather than at him. “Unless your lady mother is so maddened by her grief that she adopts me as her own in a fit of insanity.”

“My mother’s grief isn’t funny,” Robb snapped. “Neither is your dallying with Theon and the Kingslayer.”

He needed to visit his mother again, he knew. He had not stopped by Bran’s room that day or the day before. It was not that he did not trust Joanna to care for her properly, but perhaps Joanna could not care for her sincerely. For all that his mother had tried to raise her properly, there had never been any affection between them. Joanna had always been a duty, never a daughter. It went both ways though. Joanna had never tried to see Lady Catelyn as a mother. She had always made her gratitude cold and civil.

“What dallying?” Joanna asked, reminding Robb of his point. She looked offended.

First Theon, now Joanna. Robb would not have anyone to dine with at this rate.

“You know what I’m talking about. You and Theon… it’s not proper now you’re a lady full-grown.”

“I’m not a lady. I never will be, no matter what finery you throw on me.”

Robb reached out and took her arm gently, trying to calm the anger he could see on her face.

“You’re my sister and the daughter of Lord Eddard Stark. Whatever the circumstances of your birth, we’re his children. He’s trusting us to behave as he would. We have to stop playing games now. Both of us have the reputation of House Stark to consider.”

“The incident at the feast was an accident! You talk like I do it all the time!”

He drew back his hand with a sigh. Why was this so difficult to explain? His father would make her see sense with a mere sentence.

“I know you didn’t mean to get drunk and pawed at by the king. You think I’d believe otherwise? But the closeness between you and Theon was there before that. You must see it’s getting inappropriate. Not to mention your walks with the Kingslayer.”

“His name is Ser Jaime Lannister. He’s a gallant knight, not a defiler of bastard girls.”

“You aren’t a girl,” Robb argued. “You’re a woman and women don’t get to wander around with men who aren’t family.” He held up a hand to still the argument he knew she would make. “I know it’s not fair, okay? I know. You don’t get silly around men like Sansa does and you don’t want to prove you’re better than them like Arya does. So you don’t see a problem in talking to them. I know there’s nothing more to it than that. But it isn’t what we know, don’t you see? It’s what other people want to believe. And we both know what they like to think of bastards.”

Her jaw tensed from the moment he said the word bastard. It always made her defensive and deaf to well-intentioned reason.

“So what instructions are you giving me, my lord? How would you have your bastard sister conduct herself?”

The tone of her voice was so brittle and sharp that Robb looked around to make sure no one else had heard her. That would amuse everyone, would it not, if their new lord could not even guide his own sister?

“I’d have you think a bit more about how others see you and act accordingly.”

Joanna’s gaze was cold as ice when it rested on him once more. She set down her knife and fork and pushed back her chair with more grace than Theon had managed. She took up her gown neatly and stepped back from the table.

“By your leave, my lord. I find my appetite’s gone. It’s probably best you aren’t seen dining with a bastard anyway.”

“Jo…”

“I don’t have a problem with it,” she went on, “but I’ve no control over what people might think. So I’ll leave you to it.” She curtseyed. “My lord.”

Robb sighed heavily as his sister strode away from their table and out of the hall. Men from Winterfell and King’s Landing alike all gazed curiously over at him. He adopted what he hoped was a calm expression and continued to finish his dinner, wishing all the while that his father sat beside him.