The sound of the ocean and the din of the upper deck form a roaring in Theon's ears. It forms the background noise, and Theon clings to it rather than the pain of his hands rubbed raw by the rope. Bodies move indiscriminately across the deck, shoving and pushing past Theon. They pay him no mind, the disgraced nephew of their captain. They do not care for the tremble of his hands, the anxious trail of his eyes darting every which way. He should not be here at all, many whisper, when they know he is within hearing distance. He is not worthy of a rescue.
It is a truth - bitter like salt, heavy like a stone - that Theon easily swallows. He had been young and cocksure, certain of his own strength, when he had been captured by Ramsay. It had only been the favor Asha had curried with her men - her's and Euron's, however that managed to work - that saw Theon freed from the dark cell he had been kept on. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the darkness of The Dreadfort. When he opened his eyes to the harsh daylight, he sent a silent prayer to the Drowned God that the darkness would take him once more.
The ship tilted underneath Theon's feet, and he watched men fall elsewhere on the deck. Mainlanders, picked up at ports, taken prisoner on the sea, made to join The Silence with no knowledge of the sea or how a ship worked. But Theon, for all of the darkness latched onto what was left of his soul, had been born of salt and sea. He had been born on the sturdy wood of a ship, offered to the Drowned God as sacrifice, only to prove himself fashioned of iron after all. Theon did not fall. He stood, tall and steady.
It was a summer storm, the very worst sort. He had not seen these men through a winter yet, though he heard the tales spun at night, of icy winds and frozen waters. These men imagined winter and its chill created the very worst sort of storms. Theon's eyes would sometimes drift naturally to Asha, when he heard such tales. Her lips would bend and flatten into an approximation of a smirk. They knew better. They were Greyjoys. Sea and salt and iron ran through their veins, and their mother had been lost to a summer storm, though her mind had been lost long before that. Summer storms were thick and heavy with heat, and the water churned and frothed dangerously beneath their ship. Electricity ran rife through the air, and the waves crashed down with greater ferocity than Theon had ever seen. If a boat was to capsize, it would be during a summer storm, or so the ancient saying went. The Silence would never capsize though. The Drowned God did not look upon Theon Greyjoy with kindness. The ship would remain standing, and so would Theon.
Greyjoys did not falter. They did not fall. We do not sow. Greyjoys were born of salt and stone and sea. To the sea they would someday return, but not by the mere slip in a summer storm. The spray of the ocean roared against the side of the ship, the waves threatening to knock him back. But Theon clung to the rope, ignoring his raw, bloodied hands. He was a Greyjoy. He did not falter. He did not fall. He was Theon, of House Greyjoy, with no other name. He had earned that back. He would die by the sea, but not in the heat of a summer storm. That was not the way of the Greyjoys, for they paid the iron price. The Drowned God may not have listened to him, but the sea was a god herself, and she had been kind to Theon Greyjoy.
And yet there was a sharp pain, and he was falling, toppling, soaring through the air, into the kind and unforgiving thrash of the waves below. Greyjoys did not falter. They did not fall. But Theon had fallen from the ship with a bruise shaped like fingers along his spine. He heard no screams or panic for a man fallen overboard. Aside from Asha, no one would mourn him on that ship, and perhaps not even her. His sister had already mourned the brother she lost, the moment he had stepped foot on The Dreadfort. That brother had never returned. Maybe this would be a blessing for Asha too. Euron would certainly help her see it in time. He heard no screams, no cries, nor even bellows of laughter, for the ocean swallowed every sound, dragging Theon's head under the waves and pushing him this way or that.
Burning lungs urged Theon to break the surface of the water, but he barely managed a wet, choking gasp of breath before he was tugged down once more, salt and sea filling his lungs. Salt and stone and sea and iron ran through Theon's blood, but in his lungs, they were poisonous. He could not escape the unyielding clutch of the ocean, tugging him with the intensity of her waves. Greyjoys were born of the sea, but the sea could take as easily as it gave. Theon's mother had been lost to the sea, condemned as something less than a Greyjoy, by the sneering expression of his father. The sea claimed all that belonged to it eventually, but there would be no drowning ceremony for Theon. Only a passing mention on the lips of a sister who had once held him so dear. Theon had fallen, like his mother, to the siren's song of a summer storm. Theon closed his eyes, and his limbs slowed their struggle. He felt the darkness creeping along the edge of his vision, the familiar darkness of The Dreadfort climbing from the oozing wound inside Theon's own body, spreading across his vision, reminding him of the cold, of the cruel eyes, of Reek, my name is Reek, it rhymes with weak.
Theon closed his eyes. He was born of salt and sea and stone and iron. He would die by it too.
Theon woke in darkness, splayed out on cold, wet stone.
His mind was slow to adjust, slow to reconcile life with what he had assumed was the certainty of death. Theon Greyjoy had faltered, he had fallen, he had been claimed by a summer storm. And yet he was alive. The two thoughts were difficult to hold in his mind at once, and so he instead surveyed his surroundings.
It was a cave, Theon realized. He had somehow wound up in a cave, despite The Silence being hundreds of leagues away from any land at the time of the storm. Theon had been certain of it. He had been in the crow's nest, before climbing down to fasten the sails. He should have drowned long before washing up in a cave. The hairs at the back of Theon's neck prickled, and he realized he was being watched. His head turned, and he found himself staring into a pair of the bluest eyes he had ever seen.
Theon gave no reaction, his limbs still heavy with salt and sea, his mind still struggling to make sense of what he saw, what he felt. It was a woman watching him from a pool of water in the center of the cave. A woman from the waist up. She wore no clothing, only her long, copper colored hair gave her any semblance of modesty, though it did little to hide the swell of her teats, the curve of her hips. Theon's eyes continued their downward trail - still a man, after all, Theon, not Reek, never again Reek - before widening. For the creature was only a woman from above the waist. Below, instead of legs, she had a tail, covered in shimmering gray scales.
He swallowed, the action painful with his throat rubbed raw by salt and sea. "You're a mermaid," Theon croaked out helplessly, unable to say anything else. He had heard stories of the merfolk before, every pirate had. Everyone spoke of the men and women of the sea, who devoured shipwrecked sailors, and seduced men away from their posts. They spoke of dark, feral creatures, beautiful and more terrible for it. They spoke of shark teeth hidden by pretty smiles, a ravenous appetite disguised by their naked beauty.
Theon had thought it certain that he would die by the sea. He had never imagined it might be one of its terrible children that brought about his end.
The mermaid's voice was soft, and unlike what Theon had expected, almost musical. He swallowed again, wishing to be brave, wishing to dispel the fear that had frozen his limbs in place.
"Do you mean to devour me then?"
The mermaid's eyebrows slanted downward, her lips tugging into a displeased expression. "No!" It was almost indignant, as if Theon had been the one to offend. "We don't eat humans. To do such a think is a sin in the eyes of the gods."
"The Drowned God won't care," Theon murmured softly. "He has forsaken me long ago."
She appraised Theon coolly. "I have no concern for your god, in his ugliness." Theon's eyebrows jumped, but he remained silent. Best not to convince the fearsome sea creature to eat him, when she seemed to think doing so would be some sort of abomination. "Our way is the old way. The way of the old gods. Of the sea, the sky, the earth. My brother is a god now. He flies in the air." She raised a hand in an upward gesture, and Theon's eyes followed, before pulling down once more, tracing the path of a droplet of water, as it slid down the pale length of her arm.
"'M Theon," he rasped out, inexplicably. The mermaid had claimed she would not eat him, but she had said nothing of keeping him alive. Though, if Theon were to guess, he would assume she had been the one responsible for Theon waking up in this cave, rather than dying in the sea's watery depths. "I was aboard The Silence. I've never heard of your gods. I've never heard of your brother." There were those that worshiped other gods, thralls picked up in ports, the occasional prisoner who offered prayers Theon had never heard before, but he paid them no mind. There was only the Drowned God, and he was silent. There was salt and sea and stone and iron in Theon's blood, but the Drowned God only cared about the darkness there too, The Dreadfort, and he had abandoned Theon for it.
He wondered if the mermaid's gods were as cruel.
"You cannot speak my name," the mermaid said, and Theon's eyebrows raised. There was enough life in him, enough Theon in him, to recognize a challenge. Here, on the wet stone, away from The Silence, it was a challenge he could accept.
"I've never met a woman who's name I couldn't say," he drawled, his old sultry headiness slipping back into his voice, still raspy from the harshness of the sea.
It seemed to be the answer the mermaid was looking for, since her eyes shined brighter, and her mouth curved into more of a smirk than a smile. Theon remembered when those had slid across his own mouth, as easily as water had traveled across skin.
"I am no woman." Theon pushed himself into a sitting position, and tilted his head slightly, examining the mermaid. Her tail was submerged, though Theon saw the casual flick of her fins every so often. She was splayed across the stone floor of the cave, propped up on her elbows. Her long hair was draped to one side, leaving one of her teats utterly exposed, uncaring about her state of nakedness. What need did a mermaid have of clothes? Theon did not let his eyes linger as long as he would have liked, more concerned with the sharpness of her teeth hidden in her mouth, than the beauty of her curves.
Suddenly, the mermaid stiffened, as if detecting a noise that Theon couldn’t possibly hear. Without a word or a glance at the charge she had rescued from the grasp of the sea, she dove back into the pool, rapidly swimming away, before Theon could say a word.
The mermaid came and went as she pleased, always making certain to visit at least once each day, by Theon's haphazard reckoning of the sun's movements outside of the cave. Sometimes she spoke with him for hours, and other times she just watched in silence, an unspoken sadness in her bright blue eyes, that reminded Theon of the darkness of The Dreadfort humming underneath his own skin, something ugly and deadly, and not worth the shape of the words on his lips.
She told him her name, eventually. She was right. Theon could not say it.
He called her Sansa instead, a woman from history. He wasn't certain why he had chosen that particular name - Sansa Stark had been a Northwoman, not a pirate. But he remembered something about her loving the sea, and it was a lovelier name than most of those given to the lady pirates who ravaged and raped and pillaged with the rest. Lovelier by far. Asha was a lovely name too, but Theon hardly wanted to call the mermaid his sister's name. The two could not be more different than night and day.
He told her of his life at sea, the ship he had grown up on, how his uncle had claimed it upon his father's death - a suspicious event to all around - the closeness he felt to his sister. His hands had skittered across the rocks as he drew closer to his time upon The Dreadfort, but Sansa had reached her arm across the rocky ground of the cave, and clutched his hand in her own, halting the story in its tracks. She didn't say a word, but neither did she have to. Theon understood what was not said, in the space between them.
In turn, Sansa told him about her life, about the merfolk. She had a sister, she said. Smaller than Sansa, and bright, and fierce, and deadly. The sort of mermaid that stories and songs were written about. The one that lured sailors to their deaths. Only the deserving ones, Sansa informed sternly. Only those who hurt and barbarized. Her fin had flicked in agitation as she explained this. Theon hadn't asked for more. He had seen the long, silvery scars along her bare skin, the knotted cicatrix along her gray scales. The stories and songs told tales of evil womanly creatures in the sea, who lured men to their deaths. They said nothing of the men who would surely drag such creatures aboard for their very own.
Sansa told him more about her sister, later. She was of the sea too, but she left often. A wanderer, Sansa claimed. She herself liked to stay close to this land, preferring the icy winters that froze blood and sea. Her sister though, loved a man who could create storms with his hammer. Sansa's eyes had shone so brightly, Theon's heart had ached in his chest. She loved stories, and her sister's stories were her favorites.
Her sister's stories were her favorite. Sansa liked the stories of love and happiness. Her brothers' made her sad. One of them was a raven now, a god in the sky. The other a wolf, wild and untamed, roaming the earth. Yet another was dead. Sansa talked about that brother the least. Theon wondered if Sansa was a goddess herself, if her brother could be a deity of the sky. He hadn't asked. He didn't think she would like the question, nor did he suppose he would receive an answer.
Instead, Theon told Sansa the songs and stories he knew, eschewing the bawdry drinking songs of iron and reaving for the scant romances he knew. There were many songs of dragons among the landwalkers, but Theon knew few of those. He told her the few stories he remembered, delivered in his mother's breathy whisper, tales of lovers separated by a vast expanse of ocean, only to be reunited again. A pirate king and his queen, meeting for stolen moments, secret kisses, a life lived in fragments. They were the happier stories, but they made Sansa said.
"What life worth living is made of only fleeting moments?" Sansa had asked him softly. Theon had struggled to reply.
"Isn't a moment, no matter how brief, better than none at all?"
Sansa's tail had flicked back and forth in the water.
"Not to the moments that follow."
She was lonely, Theon had come to realize. Heartbreakingly lonely. There was a sorrow within her that made his own body tremble with the force of it, a loneliness that seemed to stretch out to the sea itself. Theon wondered again, if she was not a goddess of the sea. He wondered what powers she had that his Drowned God did not. He never dared ask. He made her smile, and that was certainly enough. His uncle Euron spoke of vast treasures and riches he plundered from unsuspecting ships and villages. Theon wanted for none of that wealth, not when he had made Sansa of the sea, smile so brightly.
Sansa liked him, Theon could tell. She had rescued him because she was lonely, but he made her smile and he made her laugh, and her eyes shone brightly whenever she looked at him. She brought him fish, and sometimes even fruit, though she would only smile mysteriously when he asked how she had managed such a thing. She would look at him with long gazes, and she never flinched away from the darkness of The Dreadfort, the way even Asha had. Her gaze was often one of longing, and Theon wondered if she saw the same look in his own eyes.
He had not thought of The Silence and his fall in a long time. Instead he thought of the stories she loved, the stories she did not.
What could a life worth living be, comprised of a long moment, spread across eternity?
It is Asha who comes for him, for he is her little brother, and she will always come. From the time he was a babe, squalling and screaming at everyone but her, Asha was his blood, and he was hers. They were Greyjoys, born of salt and stone and sea and iron. She had come for him, and she brought her men. Euron's men.
Theon didn't have time to wonder how they had found him. He didn't have time to wonder how Asha had thought he was alive - unless born from sheer stubbornness, the refusal to ever believe that he could be lost to her, before she had allowed it herself, for if Sansa was a goddess of the sea, surely his sister was a goddess of salt, and Theon had not given her his tribute. Asha had come with her men and Euron's men, and she brought Theon back to The Silence. Her men brought back Sansa.
The cave had been awash with noise, shouts and splashes, a high pitched keening noise from Sansa that Theon had never heard before. The sound itself had brought him to his knees, and the men around him. They had grabbed at her, torn at her flesh, shoved her into some sort of cage with water. They had been watching, Theon realized. They had watched the cave. Perhaps it had been Asha's determination that Theon yet lived that brought them to the cave, but they had watched, and it was Euron's greed that sent them here. To him. To her.
Theon had roared in protest, but Asha had held him, her grip iron, her eyes steel, and Theon could never raise a hand to his sister. He could never harm her, not even to fight her off. She had held him still, and he had watched helplessly as the brightness in Sansa's eyes dulled with fear and dread. There was a darkness in Sansa too. She carried scars of her own. She carried memories. The Dreadfort seemed to swell around Theon, and the last thing he remembered of the cave was the pain in Sansa's eyes, as the lid to her cage was shut firmly.
The ship was alive as Theon had remembered it, with many disgruntled pirates miserable that he was too. Their less than welcoming spirits were lifted, however, with the arrival of Euron's prize, transferred into a cage of glass, specially made from the mainland. Theon had watched in horror as the sailors gathered around with greedy eyes.
"But where's 'er cunt?" One grumbled, and Asha's hand flew to Theon's, before he could even reach for his dagger.
"She'll make a beautiful sea wife, won't she? Never had one of those before?"
He watched, with terror and his heart in his throat, as Sansa sank to the very bottom of her glass cage, face turned away from her tormenters, her hair looking eerily like blood in the water. He felt Asha's eyes on him, her gaze penetrating and demanding, but Theon could not look away.
Sansa is never left alone. Euron is too fond of his prize to allow for such a thing. Nor is she approached by anymore of the sailors. One had tried climbing into the cage with her. She had torn the man's arm from its socket with her teeth. It was a great sin for a mermaid to devour a human, Sansa had told Theon. He prayed her gods looked down on her in kindness, for that had been no sin.
Theon hovered around her cage whenever he could, though he was never allowed close. He could not play at discretion, not when worry and desperation battled for dominance within him. Sometimes he would catch a glimpse of Sansa's eyes, which she almost always kept hidden. He could never read what emotion was hidden in their depths. He wondered if Sansa hated him. He should. It was his fault she was here. He had given her a moment, he liked to think. But it had been fleeting after all, and the moments that followed were his fault too.
"Everyone sees the way you watch her," Asha snarled out, her voice heavy with anger and frustration. "Euron will send you overboard himself this time, and I won't be able to do anything about it!"
Theon had known he had been pushed. He was a Greyjoy, Sansa had reminded him. Greyjoys did not falter, they did not fall. They did not sow. Greyjoys were sent to the sea, but they did not die by its hand. Theon had been pushed off of the ship, and he had known it. But Asha's confirmation made the darkness inside Theon twist painfully, wretchedly.
"We have to free her." Wild with recklessness, Theon spoke the words aloud, not caring that Asha had yanked him into her own private quarters in the very next moment. "It is my fault she's here. She saved me. We have to save her."
"You think I'll risk my life for some sea creature? You've heard the stories of what they do to our people, little brother!"
"And what of what our people are doing to her?" Theon demanded. "You've seen the scars. She had every opportunity to kill me, to eat me. She never did, and she never would. She - she -"
"Seven fucking hells," Asha swore, though it was without heat. "You've gone and fallen in love with her. A fish."
Theon clamped his mouth shut, unwilling to deny her, unwilling to confirm it. He didn't have much of a heart left. He was more darkness than he was man. But Sansa was more loneliness than she was mermaid, more sea than creature. They had only moments left to give to one another. This was not the moment Theon would give her, he was certain of it.
"We have to save her," Theon insisted stubbornly. "I'll do it without your help if I have to, but I won't let him destroy her."
Not the way The Dreadfort destroyed me.
Theon didn't say it, but they both heard the words. Asha swore again, and punched at the wall of her room.
“Fine,” she gritted out. “We’ll save your fish, little brother. But we’ll do things my way.”
Asha's way was the old way, as it turned out, the iron way. Simple and brutal. Stone and salt and sea and iron. Greyjoys were born of it. Theon wondered what Sansa would think of their plan. She was clever, smarter than anyone Theon had ever met. He wondered if she would have done it differently. He wondered if it could have been done differently. It was a long time coming, born of resentment and anger. Asha challenged Euron, in front of the entire crew, and no one noticed as Theon slipped away silently.
The guard chosen to stand in front of Sansa was young and arrogant. More interested in circling the glass box with hungry eyes and a taunting smirk. He didn't notice Theon creep up behind him. He didn't hear the hiss of a knife until blood gurgled from his throat, and he fell to the floor with a soft thump. Sansa still did not look up, and Theon felt his heart sink.
Her cage was kept in one of the rooms of the lower deck. It would be impossible to move the box itself above, where the crew was fixated on the challenge between Euron and Asha. It was dangerous, what Theon planned to do, and risky. But he carefully removed the lid of Sansa's cage, placing it quietly on the floor beside him.
"Sansa," he whispered, imploringly. "Sansa! It's me. It's Theon. Sansa, I need you to trust me. I'll get you back to the sea, but you must trust me."
She turned then, dull blue eyes fixed on him, absent of their spark.
"Theon," she murmured softly, and he felt the fragments of his heart clench in his chest. She sounded groggy and ill. She had been trapped in a cage for nearly a week now. He did not know how much longer she would survive. He did not know how much longer he had to act. Reaching into the watery cage, Theon wound his arms around her waist, around where her knees would be located, if she had legs rather than a tail. It was difficult, for her tail did not bend naturally, the way it needed for Theon to carry her.
"You need to flex your tail, love," Theon murmured, the endearment slipping out as he whispered against her ear. Sansa shivered against his body, and allowed her tail to bend, draping over Theon's arm, as her own reached up to wind around his neck, clinging to him. His shirt was soaked and sticking to his skin, but he paid it no mind as he began hurrying toward the upper deck, clinging to the shadows, and praying that Sansa could not feel how his heart raced underneath his chest. The roars of anger and battle grew louder - the challenge still raged on.
Theon quietly crept onto the upper deck, avoiding the thick circle that had formed around his sister and his uncle. He had faith in Asha. He knew she would emerge the victor. She only need fight a little longer.
He slips by, unnoticed, to the side of the deck where there are no crew members. The sea is churning violently underneath the ship, the wind whipping waves back and forth. Theon's heart is pounding, heavy in his chest.
"I'm going to let you go now, Sansa." His voice comes out as a croak, and Sansa buries her head deeper against his chest, her fingers tightening their hold on Theon's curly hair gathered at his neck. "I'm going to drop you into the water. You need to be free."
She says nothing, but clings on for a moment longer. There is silence between them, the quiet understanding that had sprung up in the cave. He does not want Sansa to go. She does not want to leave him. There is no other way.
"I was wrong," Sansa whispered, and Theon startles to realize this is the first he had heard her speak, since Asha had stormed the cave. "I was wrong about your stories and songs. The moments are worth it. No matter if....they're worth it."
Theon felt as if he had once agains swallowed sea and salt, for his lungs burned, and salt gathered in his eyes, though he refused to let any tears fall. He leaned closer over the edge, prepared to let Sansa fall into the water below, when a pain greater than stone or sea or salt or even iron sliced through his skin.
Sansa's face was a mask of horror, but Theon could not form another word, only gathered the strength to let her tumble out of his arms and straight into the sea, before slumping forward, gasping wetly as he managed to turn and face his attacker.
It was a crewman, a sailor Theon didn't recognize, his eyes bright with triumph, his sneer cruel and taunting. Theon was dizzy with the pain. So dizzy, he barely heard the cry of horror and anger his sister emitted. He did not see her own knife avenge him with the iron price. He did not feel her sink to the ground, gathering him in her arms. He did not feel his lips move, he did not hear his voice begging his sister bury him in the sea, as was the way of the Greyjoys. He did not feel the darkness of The Dreadfort, for he did not feel anything at all. He did not feel himself slipping away little by little, until there was nothing left at all. He did not feel his body placed gently in the waves below the ship. He did not feel his body sink into the sea.
Theon Greyjoy did not feel anything at all, until suddenly, he did.
He could say her name now, the one she had given him in the cave. It was beautiful and musical, and she shivered whenever he used it. He liked to see how she moved, but he did not often use it. He called her Sansa most often, for that was the name he had given her. She liked that too.
He met Sansa's sister, eventually. She was as fierce as Sansa had said, with dark hair and dark eyes, and a suspicion she wielded like a weapon, pointed at Theon. She didn't like him. That was alright. He had met her. He hadn't met Sansa's brothers yet, the wolf and the god. He wondered why the brother who had died was dead, and not like Theon. He knew he had died, but he had been given to the water, and now he was a part of the water itself. He knew better than to ask. Sansa told him he would meet the god next, and she seemed excited for it. Theon shared in her excitement.
Theon had been right, it seemed. His sister was a goddess of salt, and Sansa had been a goddess of the sea. Neither were content to let him perish, to let his moment end. Sansa had wanted the moments after too, and Theon meant to give her all of them. He was a Greyjoy, born of salt and sea and stone and iron. He had died by it too.
Now, he was simply the sea.