It takes Asha a good part of the night to figure out a suitable course of action. Before, she really had nothing to go with – after all, she highly doubts that her uncle would have ransomed her. She’s also quite sure that enough people in the camp know that she’s not as valuable a hostage as it might seem, and she’s positive that some people in the camp wouldn’t hesitate to burn her alive just because of what Theon did, not counting that she’s king’s blood.
Still, that was before a banker from Braavos dropped her brother in the snow in front of her, even though he looks almost nothing like the last time she saw him. The eyes are the same – she did recognize him after all – but the rest… she shudders, glancing at him. He’s lying down in the makeshift tent they kept her in, the girl who was with him not far. There are no guards around – they claimed that the stench was too much for them to stand. It isn’t a problem for the girl, though – Jeyne, Asha thinks, her name is Jeyne. Then again, from what little Asha heard from her (and from the whip and bite marks Asha could see for one second when she was rearranging her clothes), she has been through things worse than sleeping next to the source of the stench.
At least she has all of her fingers, Asha had thought. It’s also obvious that there’s no other place for the girl to go. Asha didn’t protest, realizing that she was basically following Theon wherever he went. Asha doesn’t have the whole story yet, but she’ll see to get it out of the both of them soon. For now, though, she’s letting them rest.
She sighs, trying to straighten this out. When Tris had told her about possibly invalidating the kingsmoot, it had seemed simple enough. Get to where Bolton is, free your brother, convince him to present his claim.
That was before the both of them ended up captive, though, and before she saw how exactly her brother ended up; and thing is, she feels guilty for even thinking about the kingsmoot. Sure, it’s not as if Theon hasn’t made one mistake after the other, and it’s not as if they weren’t huge mistakes, but the only thing she can think of is that he’s younger than she is and he could pass for her father. Won’t my mother be happy to hear the news, Asha thinks. Maybe if they had been a little less suspicious when he came back to Pyke, maybe this wouldn’t have happened – but she can’t waste time on this. She’s practical enough to realize it won’t bring anywhere, and also to realize that she’ll have to take decisions for everyone in here.
She considers her options. The only sensible one seems bending the knee to Stannis, but it would backfire if he lost the next battle; then again, it would maybe put her in a position where she doesn’t have to worry about being burned alive because her father was a king. Or because her brother had the grand idea to try and conquer Winterfell. Then she realizes that right now it’s two of them having king’s blood and that they don’t need to burn her when they have the original perpetrator of the crimes. Also, while the poor girl is definitely not Arya Stark (that part of the story she understood), she’s sure enough that some people in this camp wouldn’t think twice about adding her to the pyre, if they thought it’d help their cause. She can’t offer Stannis anything in return though – bending the knee wouldn’t benefit anyone, as things are right now.
Her train of thought stops when she hears Theon whisper under his breath.
It’s just one word, no, but the tone is chilling her to the bone, and then it becomes no and m’lord and I don’t need it and my name, I forgot, and before she knows she’s kneeling next to him and shaking him awake.
He wakes up at once – she tries not to notice that as soon as she touches his shoulder, dirt stains her fingers. But then his eyes widen and he looks at his surroundings as if he can’t place them, his frame shaking.
“You were dreaming,” she says, keeping her voice quiet. His eyes find hers, focusing, and yes, they’re his eyes, no doubt. He breathes out, nods.
“Sister,” he says, as if trying to reassure himself. “I’m – I didn’t mean to –”
“I wasn’t sleeping. Don’t concern yourself,” she answers. He’s shaking because of the cold now, but when she had found him some furs before he had refused them. Jeyne had tried to give him hers, too, but he had refused as well.
“Are you sure you don’t want that fur? You’re too cold,” Asha says. Theon flinches and shakes his head, refusing.
“No. I can’t – if he finds out –”
“This is not Winterfell,” she answers. “There’s only me. And her. No one’s going to find out.”
“I can’t,” he replies, looking down at his left hand, and Asha can’t find an answer. She has counted the fingers. He lost three. From the way he walks, he also lost some from his feet.
She thinks about what to say carefully – if anything, she doesn’t want him dead, but in his current state, she isn’t even sure that he’d survive a chill and they’re trapped in a blizzard.
“Do it for me then,” she settles on, hoping that he doesn’t remember how not close they’ve been all their lives. “I know you never wanted to believe it, but I can use a sword if needed.”
He looks at her and she tries not to break eye contact. Even if it’s tearing her apart to look at him like this, and she can barely stand the stench. It doesn’t matter now – she has stood through worse, she repeats to herself, but her voice doesn’t sound very convinced.
He gives her a small nod then, and before he can change his mind Asha grabs the fur and wraps it around his shoulders. He relaxes a bit into the newfound warmth, breathing out. She can see his missing teeth.
“How didn’t you get sick until now in this weather?” she asks, and then she bites her tongue. His mouth curls up, just barely.
“I – he made me sleep with the dogs.”
Asha thinks that she can understand why he doesn’t want to accept clothes right now.
She also would really like ten minutes alone with Ramsay Bolton.
“He – he sent me a piece of your skin,” she says, and wonders why she is even sharing it – if anything, he surely doesn’t need to think about it. Then again, Asha isn’t one to kid herself. It’s obvious that he’s thinking about it. Every second. Even when he sleeps.
“It sounds like him, yes,” Theon says, and his voice breaks as he tightens the fur around him. “It wasn’t the worst though.”
Asha isn’t sure she wants to know what’s the worst, but she wouldn’t be worthy of her name if she backed off now.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think you want to know,” he answers, his voice low, his eyes downcast.
She’s about to answer that she does want to know, and then takes a better look at him. He looks ashamed, no doubt about it. Why would he feel ashamed about something that he had no control on? She doesn’t think it’s about sleeping with the dogs.
Unless it means that –
She feels like retching as soon as the option comes to her, but she feels as if she doesn’t have the right. Not when it didn’t happen to her. Asha forces herself to look at him in the face; Theon meets her stare and gives her a barely there nod.
Asha’s hand aches for her dagger – and then she remembers how they met when he came back to Pyke. Back then she had figured a bit of harmless teasing would have put him down a notch or two, and well, he deserved that, but then she thinks about the person her brother was back then and about what he just implied.
It makes her sick, still.
“I don’t – if you don’t want anything to do with me, I won’t fault you,” Theon says, interrupting her train of thoughts. “I wouldn’t want that either.”
The worst thing is that he means it. She can hear it in his voice, and then she realizes that she hasn’t thought about the stench in a while. It’s irrelevant – as soon as they get near a place where you can actually bathe, they can worry about it. What she can’t ignore isn’t the stench.
“I know – I know I wasn’t what you expected,” she answers, moving closer. “And I know that we weren’t close even before you were taken hostage. But – we’re kin and I’m not our father. Do you really think me so wretched?” she asks, putting her hand on his fur-covered shoulder. She feels him stiffen for a second, but he doesn’t flinch away.
“No. But I might be,” he answers, blunt, and Asha doesn’t really think before moving forward. It’s the most awkward hug she has ever given to someone – there’s fur between them and he’s too surprised to even think about reciprocating, not to mention that it’s more one-armed than anything, but then she
feels him relax, slightly, and breathe out in relief.
“Let me be the judge of that,” she says when it’s over. He nods, then looks at Jeyne, then back at her.
“What – what happens now? I’m – I’m not sure that anyone from the North welcomes the sight of me. Even if –” he stops, not saying anything else.
Asha takes a breath herself.
“I might – I think I can convince Stannis to spare the both of us, but I need to know the whole story. Did you – did you kill the Stark children?”
“No. They were two commoners. They – the Stark children – escaped and – it was Ramsay’s idea,” Theon answers, his voice wrecked. “If I could do it again – if I could go back, I’d have died at the Twins, but who’s to believe me? And even if Stannis spares us, what about her? She was a steward’s daughter. And – I can’t – not after –”
That’s how Asha learns of the girl’s bedding.
When Theon is done, she can feel bile rising up to her throat. And she knows what she needs to do. “I’ll make sure she’s with us,” Asha says after what seemed like a way long silence. His eyes widen again. It’s obvious that he doesn’t expect her to have a good solution.
“I know some things you don’t.” She pauses, wondering about how much she should say. Then she decides that he deserves the truth. “Our uncle Euron is sitting on the Seastone chair. Our father died.”
“I heard,” Theon says, shuddering. “But I don’t recall him having the best claim. Even without me there.”
“You can thank uncle Aeron – he called a kingsmoot. I was this close to convincing them, and then he came promising people dragons. And he married me off.” She snorts before realizing that her being married off is nothing in comparison to him being maimed. “But as things are right now, he’s left so that he may bring what he promised. Along with our other uncle. There’s… what I’d call a convenient void of power. Anyway, there’s a precedent regarding kingsmoots. If someone that had a right to present his claim doesn’t attend, it can be invalidated. You had the better claim. You weren’t there.”
He shudders at that, already starting to shake his head, but Asha raises a hand, silencing him. “It’s the only leverage we have. If I tell Stannis that you’ll invalidate the kingsmoot, that’d gain him a threat less at worst and a new alliance at best. I’ll ask him for some time so at least you can put on some weight.”
“I’m not fit for –”
“I’m not done yet. If you don’t want to run, then the only thing I’ll ask of you is to invalidate it. I’ll deal with the rest. I know that you don’t want to hear any of this, and I wouldn’t either if I were you, but it’s the only way I can think of to make sure we’re all safe.”
Theon thinks about it for what seems like an eternity. Then he looks up at her again. “Swear that you won’t ask anything else of me when the time comes. I don’t want anything to do with it except calling it off.”
“I swear,” she answers. She’s not planning on double-crossing him here, but it’d be an improvement if she could stop worrying about the three of them possibly being burned alive any second.
“Very well.” He gives her a weary nod before laying down. Asha waits, and when she’s sure that he’s sleeping again, she grabs another fur and drapes it over him. She’s glad that he didn’t seem too disappointed in her for some reason, even if she shouldn’t care either way.
She walks up to the tent’s entrance. The guard doesn’t look too pleased with her.
“I wish to speak with the king,” Asha says. “But I’m not about to leave here.”
“No one will try to –”
“I’m not leaving here,” she answers. “You can tell your king that I can get him a fleet. But I need him to speak to me.”
The guard doesn’t look too pleased, but calls for another soldier and passes on the message.
“You were speaking about a fleet,” Stannis says, keeping his tone quiet. He looks at her suspiciously and he’s obviously not happy being here, not when the tent smells so bad, but at least he’s minding that there are two other people in the tent.
“Yes. And I have something to propose you. You have all to gain from it, Your Grace,” Asha answers, realizing that she can’t lie her way through this. She needs to be straightforward – for some reason, she’s sure that it would be appreciated. “You know that my uncle was crowned through a kingsmoot.”
“It can be invalidated.”
“If you ask my friend Tris, I think you’re holding him prisoner in the other tent, he’ll give you a detailed tale. I’ll be shorter. If someone who has a legal claim to participate in the kingsmoot doesn’t attend, it can be invalidated because they should have had the chance. Meaning, since my brother wasn’t there when he had the better claim to the throne, if he asks, it will have to be called again.”
“Your brother doesn’t look as if he could win your people over,” Stannis replies.
“It might not be needed. He’s the heir. If he had been there, there wouldn’t have been a pretext to call the kingsmoot at all. He could invalidate it without running, if he so wishes. But if he’s given enough time to recover, maybe he could win them over. You know our words.” Asha knows that this is pushing it a little too much, and enough time to recover in this case might as well mean years, but she can always worry about possible fallouts later. Right now, she needs Stannis to accept her offer, whatever it takes.
Stannis seems to consider, then nods cautiously. “None of my allies here will be happy about me letting him go off to claim his throne, though.”
“They won’t forbid you, when they know the whole story. Also – he has lived at Winterfell for ten years. If given a small guarantee that nothing will happen to him as long as he’s your prisoner, he could help you win it. He already told you that you have a traitor in your ranks.”
Asha hopes that Theon will agree to it, but she doesn’t see why he wouldn’t. He has agreed about the kingsmoot, after all; it’s nothing in comparison. She tells Stannis about the two boys not being the real Stark children, and she can see a glint in his eyes.
I’m almost there.
“So what do you propose?”
“If that banker lent you enough money and if you won Winterfell – which is possible, if my brother helps you – your situation would… improve enough, wouldn’t it. I ask you for a couple of months at Winterfell in order to… see if my brother can regain a bit of his former stance. We’d both bend the knee to you.”
“And then you want to invalidate your ridiculous kingsmoot and if either of you wins it –”
“You’d have our alliance. And our fleet. If we don’t… you won’t have to deal with the Ironborn for a long while, and the ones who supported me the first time would support you. I just ask you for a few things in return.”
“Name them first.”
“Those two months. Guarantee that no harm will come to us, the men who survived when you captured me and the girl who came with my brother. She isn’t Arya Stark, so if you have allies inside that castle, you might want to let them know.”
“I can give you that,” Stannis agrees. “But I’m not sure I can let him go without consequences. He still conquered Winterfell, or tried to. And even if he isn’t guilty of killing the Stark children, my allies wouldn’t accept it. He’s still the reason why Winterfell is no more right now. And we all know it.”
Asha breathes, realizing that this is the most delicate part of this entire conversation. She needs to make sure that they’re all safe – if it means bending the knee, so be it.
“You saw him.”
“I smelled him.”
“He has – he slept with the dogs. He’s – he doesn’t have three fingers on his hands. He lost half of his teeth. And Bolton sent me a piece of his skin. I’ve seen something – the clothes are too thin. His entire chest was flayed at some point.” She breathes, deciding not to share anything else. She has seen something close to disgust on Stannis’ face – it might be enough. “He’s younger than me and we could pass for father and daughter. And Bolton wasn’t kinder to the girl, who isn’t guilty of anything except of being scared into posing for someone she’s not. Your Grace, I know that you’re a just man. I heard that story about the Onion Knight.”
For a second she sees fondness on Stannis’ face – it’s gone just after, but she can’t help thinking, I have him.
“If you have to pay him back with suffering, I think Ramsay Bolton did the job for you. And about that – I wondered if Your Grace could be so kind to guarantee me a small gift.”
“What would you want more?”
“Thirty minutes with Ramsay Bolton, alone. After you win Winterfell.”
Stannis glances at the two sleeping forms and then at Asha. “So your terms are immunity, two months at Winterfell, safety for the girl and your men, and thirty minutes with Bolton. In exchange for your fleet or at least, a promise that no Ironborn would come after me.”
“Nothing less and nothing more,” Asha agrees. Stannis stares into her eyes, but after having kept eye contact with her brother before, she could stand anyone’s stare.
“Kneel, then. He can do it when he’s awake.”
Asha takes a deep breath. After all, with this, she has saved the lives of everyone who was under her command, hers, and Theon’s. And they could worse than ally with Stannis Baratheon; at least he’ll honor the terms.
What’s such a small act?
She bends her knee. It’s over in seconds.
As she had figured, Theon doesn’t complain when he finds out she told Stannis he’d share information about how to get into Winterfell, and doesn’t hesitate when having to bend the knee. She feels her stomach turn upside down when she realizes that thanks to his missing toes he needs Jeyne’s help to stand again, but Stannis doesn’t comment or remark about the stench or about anything else and that’s enough.
Tris and the others take it better than she hoped – then again maybe they had realized that surrendering was better than any other alternative. They offer to fight with Stannis, as well, and even if Asha doesn’t go with them when the assault starts (she’s too valuable a hostage, now), she can’t help feeling relieved that no one thought she had failed them.
It ends with both Boltons and the remaining Freys in the dungeons. Stannis tells her that she has her two months and then proceeds to negotiate with the northern lords that turned their alliances in the midst of the battle. Asha thinks that he looks very pleased when learning from Manderly that his Hand is in fact alive, but she can’t dwell on that right now.
She makes sure that a number of servants’ chambers are reserved for her, Theon, Jeyne and the others. After Stannis reassures her that no one except for him and her former turnkeys knows who actually is residing in there, she goes searching for Jeyne. She looks fairly better than the day they met, someone having tended to her nose – but she’s still quite skittish and she can’t stay next to a man that isn’t Theon. Asha won’t complain about that.
“Jeyne,” she says as soon as she’s in the girl’s room.
“M’lady. What can I do for you?” Jeyne’s voice is unsure, as if she’s expecting Asha to send her away. Which would make sense, probably.
“I just want to talk to you,” Asha answers earnestly. “First, don’t assume that I want to send you away. I’m not – I couldn’t do that.” Not when I know what happened on your wedding night and the gods know on all the others. Jeyne lets out a shaky breath of relief.
“I’m here because I need your help. But only if you feel up for it.”
“Gladly, if I can provide it, but – I’m not –”
“That’s fine. I – it’s my brother. I want him to get better. I’m under no illusions that he can go back to what he was in no time, or that he can go back to what he was at all, but I can’t do it if I don’t know what I’m dealing with. He told me – he told me enough. You were with him. And I need you to tell me what you know. But I understand that you might not want to, and if you don’t wish to speak about it then I won’t force you.”
Jeyne looks at her, takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, opens them again.
“I – I want to. He was – he saved me. Of course I will. But – m’lady, you won’t like it.”
“I said I needed to know. I never said that I wanted to.”
Jeyne smiles a bit, obviously finding the answer to her liking. It was the honest one; the girl has gone through too much for Asha not to give her the truth.
When she’s done, Asha thanks Jeyne and goes to search for Stannis.
“I’d like my thirty minutes as soon as you deem reasonable.”
She thinks that Stannis almost smiled at that.
“Ask the turnkey. I told him you would come at some point. I instructed him not to disturb the two of you whatever he hears, and I’m sure that he won’t complain if you take forty minutes instead of just thirty, but don’t kill him yet. I need him executed in public.”
“It’s not his life I want, Your Grace,” Asha replies, as courteous as it gets.
When she’s done, Ramsay Bolton has four fingers left on both his hands that aren’t broken, and he couldn’t hold a knife in his hand even if he wanted. The thirty minutes became fifty, but the turnkey stayed true to his orders and Asha left just when she couldn’t stomach the other’s presence anymore.
Asha isn’t exactly proud, but at the same time she doesn’t regret it. She wonders what it says about her, but then she thinks about what Jeyne told her before. She can taste bile in her mouth.
She thinks about how to act for a long while – she had figured that maybe the first thing should have been convincing her brother to take a long bath, but after realizing that he won’t sleep on a bed but rather on the floor, Asha figures she’ll have to rearrange the priorities. For a couple of days she just observes him – she feels awful because of it, but maybe it’ll make her understand what to do. The only thing she forces him to do is eating, but at least he doesn’t fight her on that. She also learns that Ramsay Bolton had asked for a trial by battle, but that no one would be his champion and he couldn’t do it himself because you can’t hold a sword with six broken fingers. Asha doesn’t feel guilty – she had planned to take just three, then he had started bragging about how he fucked Jeyne exactly, and she had taken three more. She can’t help feeling relieved when she learns that he’s to be executed in a week – if anything maybe it’ll convince Theon to switch his rags for proper clothes.
When Asha tells Jeyne, she breathes in relief.
“I would have never thought I’d be happy to be a widow,” Jeyne says then. Asha thinks she gets it.
“I think that marriage could have been invalidated anyway, but I won’t blame you for that. Do you – do you want to see it or would you prefer not to?”
Jeyne thinks about it, then shakes her head. “I – I don’t think I can even bear the thought of seeing him. I’ll be glad to know when it’s over, though.”
Asha nods – it’s understandable. If Jeyne has had something, it’s probably enough of Ramsay Bolton.
“Jeyne, since you’ve lived here, can I ask you if there’s some place to bathe properly?”
“I’m afraid not, m’lady. There isn’t a pool anywhere near here. And in this cold… I doubt you could make use of it. If you want to bathe, you’ll need someone to bring you a tub and hot water.”
“I’m afraid I’ll need a lot of tubs for the kind of bath I was planning to have then. A pool would have been more convenient.”
No one will buy that she needs two tubs at least, and she doesn’t want anyone to talk more than necessary. Or anyone to find out who is that needs that bath.
“If m’lady allows me…”
“Jeyne, if you have an idea, speak out.”
“You don’t need that bath for yourself. But you could have two tubs brought over here saying that you need them for you and for me. No one would need to go into your room, either. They’d still be better than just one.”
It’s a good idea, Asha thinks. There’s a door connecting her room and Jeyne’s; it will be easy not to be noticed.
“I like your thinking,” Asha says. “I think it’s time to put it into practice. Will you call me when they’re done?”
Jeyne gives her a nod; good. Asha stands up and gets back to her room, walking past the corner where her brother is currently sleeping (quite badly, from what it seems), and tells the guard outside that she and Jeyne would like to have a bath and if they can please send someone to fetch a couple of tubs and hot water. She’s sure that a couple of tubs won’t be enough, but at least it would be a start.
She wonders how she’s supposed to convince him; when she wakes him up, it takes him a minute to realize where he is and with whom.
“I have some news,” she says, keeping her tone as soft as she can.
“Bolton’s head is rolling a week from now.”
She sees him breathing out in relief while his shoulders tense at the same time. Does it go that deep?, she thinks before realizing she has the answer – of course it does.
“A week is a long time.”
“He can’t get anywhere. And even if he could, he’d… have some difficulties hurting anyone. But – if you want to watch it happen, I can arrange for it.”
His entire body freezes, his head still downcast. Asha waits. She can’t push it and she won’t.
“I don’t see why not. As long as we keep quiet.”
“I’m not – I’m not sure I want to see it,” he answers, his voice barely audible. “But if I don’t – I’ll never –”
I’ll never be rid of him, he doesn’t say.
“I’ll see, then. But before that… I’m having a bath brought over. In Jeyne’s room.”
He stiffens all over again – his entire body is so taut that Asha wonders if he might snap for real.
“I can’t,” he answers, repeating it all over. “I just – I can’t – he’ll know, I don’t –”
“He can’t know. Maybe he will… on the day he dies.”
Theon doesn’t seem too convinced; Asha wonders if she should come clean with him or not.
She decides that she should.
“And he couldn’t do anything to you. He doesn’t have enough functioning fingers left.”
Seeing Theon’s face turn from pained to utterly baffled is worth it. “He doesn’t have what?”
“It was part of my terms with Stannis. Having a bit of time alone with him. I hadn’t planned on taking six of them – I figured three would be acceptable. I got carried away.”
“You got carried away.”
“He only has a couple left on each hand. That works fine. I think he couldn’t even hold his own spoon.”
Theon swallows as he stands up – he’s still leaning against the wall, but better than before. “You cut off his fingers.”
“No. I broke them, but no one went to set them after. He was quite displeased about it. He didn’t think I could follow through with it.”
“He made the same mistake I made when I met you first then.” The corners of his mouth curl up, just slightly, and Asha can’t help grinning back.
“You got off a bit better than that. So, will you come?”
“Only if it’s just you.”
This strikes her as odd – why would he not want Jeyne there when they went through a lot worse together?
“All right. Is there a reason?”
Asha doesn’t push it – it’s enough that he agreed. When Jeyne opens the door and tells her it’s all ready, Asha thanks her before asking if she would switch rooms for the moment. Jeyne doesn’t refuse.
The tubs are large enough, and the water is hot enough. She feels as if someone clenched her heart in their fist when she notices the expression on Theon’s face – he’s terrified, his remaining fingers are gripping his clothes so hard that they’re literally falling apart.
“It’s fine,” she says, moving closer. “He can’t –”
“I can’t take them off.”
“I – I can’t,” he answers, his voice miserable.
“Will you let me then?”
He nods once, still petrified. Asha peels off his shirt and throws it in the corner – someone should burn it. There’s nothing else under it and she bites her tongue in order not to gasp out loud. His entire torso is covered in newly growing skin – Ramsay flayed most of it. There are patches everywhere of various degrees of pink, some almost bordering on red, and he’s really too thin on top of that. She can see his ribs.
“The breeches have to go.”
He nods again, once. His remaining fingers shake as he undoes his laces – the breeches fall down, fast, because he’s too thin for them to hold up, and he’s not wearing smallclothes.
And that’s when Asha realizes why he hadn’t wanted Jeyne to be in there. Ramsay hasn’t spared him even there – his manhood is there but it was obviously flayed, the outer skin torn away, and it’s not a pretty sight at all. Not when there are knife scars all over his groin, too.
“I don’t think I’ll father an heir anytime soon,” he whispers, and Asha pulls herself out of her stupor and puts her hands on his shoulders, steering him towards the tub. She can’t afford to be the one horrified in here.
“Don’t worry about heirs you don’t need. Think about yourself now.”
He gives her a shaky nod and gets into the first tub, lowering himself inside it slowly; the water turns from clear to gray to nearly brown in no more than a couple of minutes. Asha doesn’t fail to notice that his features relax slightly as soon as he’s settled – at least that. She hands him a rag and some soap wordlessly before grabbing a sharp knife she stole from the kitchens the previous evening. He doesn’t protest when she uses it for cutting as much of his hair as she can. She gets rid of the dirtiest chunks, wondering if it’ll ever grow back dark; she does the same with his beard. She feels a bit guilty when realizing that he stays completely still for the length of time it takes her to cut it off, but it had to go, too. It looked as dull and dead as his hair.
By the time she’s done, the water is gone from nearly brown to almost-black brown.
“You look better,” she lies. Saying he looked less like a broken man would have been more accurate, but sugarcoating the truth just a bit won’t hurt.
“I doubt it.” He doesn’t say anything else before standing, not too steadily, and stepping into the other tub. The water turns light brown – Asha figures it’s as good as it gets for now.
“Could I have that knife?” he asks, and almost smiles when Asha tightens her fingers around it. “Don’t worry, sister. I only want to get rid of the dirt under my nails.”
Asha gives it over but stays close, and takes it back when he’s done. She sees some blood seeping through the water when he pulls his hands back under it, but it was a given that there would be cuts. Better under his fingers than along his throat. When he starts scrubbing away dead skin Asha worries for a second that he’ll do it too hard and start bleeding all over again from where he’s been flayed more recently, but it doesn’t get to that. If at some point she’s sure he’s hurting himself, she doesn’t say anything. She moves into her room instead, where Jeyne hands her some of his old clothes that she has found in his old room. They’re good enough – there’s smallclothes and a cloak and gloves, and it’s good enough that they survived everything that has happened in Winterfell until this point. She thanks Jeyne and gets back where the tubs are. The rag is wet and dirty, thrown against the other tub’s side.
“Where’s the soap?” Asha asks.
“I finished it.”
“Whenever you think you’re done, you can put these on.”
His eyes widen when he sees the bundle in her arms. She hands him another rag to clean himself and turns her back as he puts on the clothes. She doesn’t want to look further if he doesn’t want her to.
“Can you –” he starts, and then he doesn’t speak anymore. She turns towards him; he managed the breeches, but his shirt (which is too large for him) is open and his hands are shaking.
“Yes,” she answers, lacing it up without commenting further. He looks as if he’s drowning in his clothes when it’s done, but he doesn’t smell anymore and without the beard he looks ten years younger, even if it doesn’t make him look any healthier. He needs food more than anything else, and won’t that be a problem. Winter is here – no one will spare him more food than a regular ration.
“These used to fit,” he mumbles, more to himself than to her.
“They will again.”
From the way he looks at her it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe it, but when he takes the cloak and puts it on she figures it was enough progress for now.
After a couple of days she starts switching her plate with his. The food they’re given looks the same, but it didn’t take Asha much to realize that her soup is less water than Theon’s or Jeyne’s, and that her portions of food are usually slightly larger. It makes sense – as far as everyone knows, she is the valuable hostage. At some point the truth will have to come out, but she hopes it happens after Bolton dies. Meanwhile, since the differences can be appreciated only if you actually eat the food, no one notices that she switches her plate with Theon’s – he needs it more than she does and he can’t afford to be as thin as he is now for much longer.
Three days before Ramsay Bolton is to be executed, she decides that it’s time to convince him to move from the floor to a bed. He insists that he doesn’t know how to sleep anywhere else anymore. She has let him be for now, and gathered enough clothes so that he doesn’t have the temptation not to change the ones he has on, but his body can take sleeping on the floor during winter only so long.
So she tries again.
“You can’t sleep on the floor forever.”
“I’m not – I shouldn’t – it’s your bed.”
“I can sleep with Jeyne, if you want it.” Suggesting that him and Jeyne share Asha’s larger bed would be useless; she tried that once and it took the both of them to stop his hands from shaking and stop him from saying he wouldn’t ever do that to her again.
Asha hadn’t asked what he meant with that. She knows enough and isn’t sure that she needs to know more, if there’s more at all.
He seems to consider it for a second, then shakes his head. “You shouldn’t concern yourself. The floor will be fine.”
She tries to follow his eyes, wondering if she can find out what’s the real issue. It isn’t fine – she heard him talking in his sleep enough. Why he won’t share with Jeyne is plain, but why refusing a bed if he could have it alone?
He glances at the door, then at the floor again, and suddenly Asha understands what’s the deal. If she’s in the room there’s virtually no danger.
“Would you share it with me?”
He meets her eyes, and he’s surprised – he hadn’t expected her to ask that. “I can’t impose,” he mutters, but the real answer is obvious.
“It’s large enough. And you aren’t imposing. I’m asking you.”
He seems torn for the next handful of seconds before he gives her a nod and takes off everything but his shirt and his breeches.
They start on opposite sides of the bed – he’s so near the edge that she’s worried he’ll fall off. She wakes up when she feels him turning restlessly; it takes a look to see that his shoulders are shaking and that he inched closer to her. She realizes that before he was taken hostage they had never shared a bed the way siblings often do. She doesn’t know where that came from, but it makes her feel somewhat sad.
Before she can dwell on that, she throws an arm around his waist and presses his back against her frame. Asha tries not to think too much about the fact that he’s thin enough for her arm to circle his waistline completely.
He wakes up a second later, turns on his side, looks at her as if he doesn’t get any of what’s going on.
“Go back to sleep.”
“But – what –”
“Nothing. Just do it. It’s fine.”
His hand touches her shoulder, almost gingerly, before he lets his head fall on the pillow. It’s a sorry fit – she can feel his bones through his clothes. For a second she thinks back of their first meeting back when he still didn’t know that she was his sister. She remembers muscle, and possessive hands; most definitely, there was nothing frail in the way he touched her. But as not ideal as this is, he doesn’t wake up again after that. Asha doesn’t know whether she should be glad or if she should cry.
The next evening, he says he’ll go back to the floor.
“No, you won’t. Yesterday wasn’t as bad as you think. You’re taking the bed.”
“I woke you up,” he protests. Quite feebly, to be entirely truthful – it’s obvious that getting decent sleep made a difference.
“I’ve been through a lot worse than being woken up by the likes of yours. We’re sharing and that’s the last I’ll hear about it.”
Maybe it’s her putting it as an order, but he doesn’t refuse.
As soon as he falls asleep, she puts her arm around his waist again. If he wakes up, she doesn’t realize it. The next day – the one before the execution – he doesn’t try to convince her not to share.
“Are you sure about this?” she asks as she hands him the heaviest cloak she could find.
“No, but I have to do it,” he says, putting the gloves on first and then the cloak itself.
They leave their rooms and Asha brings him in direction of the main hall. They don’t go there though; she heads for what she’s told used to be the room where Eddard Stark received private visits. It has a good view on the yard and they’ll be alone – Asha would bet that he’d rather stay here than with the lords waiting on the outside. Especially the ones who were at the wedding. He also probably doesn’t want to be seen by the person whose head will be cut in a short while.
He takes the cloak off, nodding at her. He’s holding himself a bit less stiff than usual.
When they bring Ramsay Bolton out, he’s walking gingerly. Almost as if he’s lacking some toes on his feet. His hands aren’t gloved. Theon gasps low, staring at the figure making its way towards Stannis and a piece of stone. Stannis has a sword in his hand.
“You didn’t say anything about his feet.”
“I think you were worried about what he could do with his hands,” Asha replies. He smiles for a second before it dies. It reminds her a bit of their first meeting – when he had smiled at her as if genuinely pleased. This isn’t exactly the same and it didn’t last, but she can’t help thinking that it was something.
She still wonders if their mother would recognize him.
Then Bolton is pushed down on his knees in front of Stannis, who starts listing all the reasons why he’s losing his head. There’s nothing specific said about her brother, but maybe it’s better like this.
Ramsay dies without last words. Everyone hears Stannis when he says that he has never felt his hands so dirty and so clean at the same time, just after the head rolls down on the ground, staining it in red.
Theon stares at it without saying anything.
Asha waits, not knowing what to say. Or if she should even speak at all.
“There’s something – there’s something I’ve realized lately.” Theon’s voice is barely audible. Asha has to come closer, but it’s hardly a problem now. The smell is almost all gone. “About you, I mean.”
“What’s that?” she asks, genuinely curious.
“Your name – it doesn’t rhyme with anything.”
Asha doesn’t exactly get it fully, but she’s heard enough of what he says in his sleep. Mostly about words rhyming with reek. It’s not a throwaway remark.
“Is that a good thing?” she asks.
“You don’t know how much.” He’s worrying his cloak with his gloved fingers. There’s something resigned about him and for some reason Asha doesn’t like it. Of all the things her brother was when they met after ten years, and not many of them were to her liking, at least he was determinate. And sure of himself – maybe too much, but it was miles better than this.
She can’t believe she’s actually thinking hard about it. It takes her five minutes to give up and figure that it was good enough of an effort.
“Theon doesn’t rhyme with anything that I can think of either.”
There’s something bittersweet in the way he smiles, without showing his teeth. “Sometimes I’m not sure I know that person anymore.” He says it slowly, almost as if he’s taking a weight off his shoulders by saying it.
“Well, I know someone with that name. He’s my brother. He used to be too full of himself for my tastes and he didn’t do a thing that wasn’t ill-advised, but maybe he deserved a better welcome than the one I gave him after years apart. I didn’t know him very well. But I’d like to get to know him now.”
Asha hadn’t really put that feeling into words until now and she had spoken without really thinking about it. She isn’t worrying about their mother (who would really deserve to see her son again before she dies, but in a better condition), she isn’t thinking about the kingdom or about the chance of a new kingsmoot, or about Stannis. His eyes widen, he wasn’t expecting to hear that, and for a bittersweet handful of seconds he looks his age again and not twice his years. His lips curl up, and not just for a second; Asha could bet that he’s keeping himself from showing his teeth.
He takes his gloves off, letting them fall to the ground; the nails on his remaining fingers are half-broken and the skin changes color in patches over his hands, too, but it’s the one part of him that visibly improved since they arrived here. The newer skin looks healthy and his fingers are still – a week ago, they used to shake at any given time. And they’re stark clean.
When he covers her wrist, she doesn’t move.
“I had a sister once, but… I never really knew her. We never spent much time together and I never considered her much. Then I came back and I didn’t want to admit to myself that she was nothing like I had imagined, and half of the things I shouldn’t have done, I did because I wanted to prove that I could measure up to her. I never thought she’d ever want something to do with me after, but I guess I was wrong all over again. I’d like to get to know her, too.”
Maybe the times when he used to speak a lot louder than just now are gone forever and maybe not, but it’s enough that he’s here at all.
She moves her hand up – he had used his left to touch her. When she covers it with her right, there are two fingers missing. Her thumb brushes against his palm once – she squeezes.
“Good. Then he needs to know that his sister has seen a lot worse than some broken teeth. If you want to smile just bloody do it – you won’t insult me.”
“Asha?” he asks, his voice sounding less shaky, but she doesn’t miss the way his shoulders lose tension.
“About the kingsmoot. I can’t say that I’ll be able to do more than calling it off in two months.”
“You could just give me a piece of paper, you know. Maybe you don’t need to be there yourself.”
“No. If anything, I’ll come with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I think I want to. I haven’t – I can’t think that my only option left is stay here and do nothing. Considering how well I was liked when I came back, I don’t want to know how it’d go now, but I can’t hide here forever. As much as I’d like it.”
Their father was wrong, Asha thinks; he has a lot more steel in him than they all thought. It’s enough that he’s willing to go with her at all.
“Good. See, you didn’t forget our words after all. Do you want to brave Stannis’s wrath and steal something from the kitchen? If you need to rise half as strong as you were it won’t be with the food you’re getting.”
“Do you think I don’t know that you switch it with yours? In – not now. I need a minute.”
“Sure. I’ll wait for you then.”
When his lips curl up, he doesn’t hide his teeth anymore.
The sight is objectively a sorry one, but Asha could swear that it’s the nicest smile she’s ever seen.