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winter lives in my bones

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The first time she saw him, he was pale and almost gray, clothes spotted with blood, his hair almost shockingly red against the white of the pillow. The bowl of water shook in her hands as his great wolf lifted his head and growled quietly. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.” His moon faced squire looked at her, startled, and she could see the wound in Stark’s arm, flesh laid open and messy and horrible. “I was told…”

His eyelashes were like dark stains in the hollows under his eyes, which flickered back and forth under the lids. He didn’t much look like a conqueror. His skin gleamed with sweat. She stood frozen in the doorway.

“Lady?” said the squire nervously.

She heard the men dying their terrible deaths, the howls of that great beast. She heard her little sister and brother trying not to cry too loudly, huddled together. Jeyne’s heart thudded, and some water slopped to the floor.

The squire drew himself up, seeming to gather his courage. “I will take the water.”

“Will he survive?” Jeyne said without meaning to. Her breath caught, and the squire tensed, trying to look indignant but managing fear.

“Of course he will.” He reached out, almost snatched the bowl from her hands. More water spilled to the floor. “I think you should go.”

She went. Crawled into her bed despite the early hour and when she closed her eyes the Young Wolf’s face, slack and pale, floated behind her eyelids.

It was strangely quiet in the castle, after the noise and chaos and blood of the siege and the battle. Elenya had crawled into bed with her sometime during the night, and was awake as well, watching her with wide eyes. “Are they going to kill us?” she asked in a small voice. Jeyne’s belly clenched.

“No,” she said, perhaps a little sharply. “Who told you that?”

Her sister shrugged. “One of the squires. He was ugly and awful and said that the Young Wolf was going to have his wolf kill all of us.”

Jeyne clenched her fists and then pulled her sister into a hug. “He was cruel and he was lying,” Jeyne said, firmly. “Lord Stark wouldn’t…do that.”

Elenya looked up at her, face tearstained. “How do you know?” Jeyne paused. How did she know? One glimpse of a wounded king who looked more boy than man, with sweet auburn curls and a small frown around his mouth?

“I just know,” Jeyne said, stubbornly, and then added, “They say the Starks value their honor. It’s just a boy trying to frighten you.”

“I am scared,” Elenya said quietly, and Jeyne pulled her sister into a hug, tucking her head under her chin.

“It’s all right to be scared,” she said. “But we’ll be fine. Mother says we just need to keep our heads high and be brave, but I think it’d be okay as long as you pretend.”

Elenya nodded, but Jeyne could feel her tears soaking into her shift.

She went back to the Young Wolf’s room with bandages without anyone telling her to do so, and wasn’t entirely sure why she did. There was a very tall, broad-shouldered young man sitting outside the door, and she stopped dead when she saw him. He was very big, and looked fierce and wild in the way she would have expected a Northman to look.

“Who’re you?” he asked, roughly, but he didn’t sound unkind. Jeyne tried not to look nervous.

“Jeyne Westerling,” she said, as clearly as she could. She held up the bandages, brandishing them like a weapon. “I thought…”

“Oh,” he said, “Right.” The Northman looked almost embarrassed. He glanced down the hall and then stepped aside. “I suppose that’s all right. Then.”

She lifted her chin, doing her best to look brave, or something other than what she was. “Thank you,” she said, and waited for him to open the door to sweep inside.

The Young Wolf was still asleep, or unconscious. She froze against the door, suddenly afraid. His wolf’s head lifted, looking at her with yellow eyes that seemed too intelligent for a beast. She clutched the bandages tighter and edged forward, only to freeze at the low rumble that seemed to issue from the beast’s very chest. She swallowed hard.

“I want to help,” Jeyne whispered. The wolf regarded her for a moment, and then laid its head back down on its paws. She wanted to turn and run from the room. She edged forward again instead, moving gingerly around the wolf.

Its eyes followed her, but it didn’t growl again.

She set the bandages down on the bedside table and looked down at the Young Wolf who’d been sweeping through the Lannister’s armies like a scythe through corn. Again, she thought that he didn’t look like a conqueror. He looked young. He was growing a bit of a beard, but it was not really much of one and mostly looked like he was trying to seem older. The little downward curve of his mouth made him look stubborn.

He is very handsome, a small voice at the back of her mind murmured, and Jeyne felt herself blush.

She blinked and his eyes were open and looking at her with something like puzzlement. “—your grace,” she said quickly, almost stumbling over the words, “Forgive me, I’ll-”

“Who are you?” His voice came out rasping and not nearly as deep as she’d expected.

“Jeyne Westerling, your grace,” she said, remembering belatedly to drop her eyes and curtsy. “I am-”

“This is your family’s keep,” he said, in recognition, and then frowned slightly. “This isn’t your chamber, I hope,” he started to say, cheeks pinking a little.

“No,” she said hastily. “No, no, not at all, I merely came to…you did not look well when last I was here.” She dropped her eyes to the stones. “I am no maester, but I thought perhaps there might be some small thing I could do…”

You sound like a foolish girl-child, said a voice in her head that sounded suspiciously like her mother. Or a cheap camp follower. Jeyne felt her face warm.

“I am well looked after,” Lord Stark – King Robb? It was tempting to just think of him as Robb – said, looking slightly puzzled. “You need not…worry yourself.”

“I’m sorry,” Jeyne said quickly. “I don’t want to presume. I’ll…I’ll go.” She set the things she’d brought down on the table and turned for the door.

“Wait,” he said, suddenly, and she turned to look at him, startled. “I am…thank you. You are gracious.”

Jeyne felt her cheeks heat and quickly turned away. Gracious? She did not think she had ever been ‘gracious’ before. “Thank you, my l- your grace. I will pray to the Seven that you recover quickly.”

She could not stay away.

When she went back, however, they turned her aside. There was a smell in the air outside the open door where a knot of men was huddled, like sickness. She overheard the low, solemn voice of the maester say something about infection. She retreated, feeling a nervous little clench of worry.

Elenya wanted to brush her hair. Jeyne sat down on the floor and let her younger sister run the brush in long, smooth strokes. It should have been soothing.

“You’re worrying,” Elenya said, after a bit. “I can tell.”

“I’m not worrying,” Jeyne said, sitting up a little taller. “Big sisters are never worried.”

Elenya was quiet for a few minutes. “The Northmen are scary. I saw a big man today. They called him the Greatjon. He laughed and it was like a thunderstorm. Do you really think that Lord Stark won’t let his wolf eat us all up?”

“I’m sure of it,” Jeyne said, though the thought flickered across her mind, if he dies, and there was a chill down her spine. She hesitated, then said, “I talked to him. He specifically promised. And really his wolf is like a big dog. You could probably ride him like a pony.”

Jeyne felt Elenya shake her head. “I wouldn’t want to. You really talked to him?”

“I really did.” Jeyne thought of the smell outside his room. Maybe mother, she thought, and closed her fists on her dress. “He didn’t seem bad at all.”

Elenya was silent for a moment, still stroking the brush through Jeyne’s hair. “Is he handsome?” Elenya asked in a small voice, and Jeyne could hear her trying very hard to be brave. Jeyne thought of the dark smudge of his eyelashes on pale skin and looked down at her hands. They were trembling, very slightly.

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t know. I suppose.”

Her mother was worried. She would not say so, but Jeyne could feel it in the way she was braiding Jeyne’s hair, her hands pulling a little too hard. Jeyne kept her lips pressed together so she didn’t make a sound.

“Mother?” she asked, finally. “What are we going to do?”

“Do about what?” Her mother said, unconvincingly lightly. Jeyne shifted to glance over her shoulder and frown.

“I’m not such a child anymore.”

“It is nothing you need to worry about,” her mother said, and paused. “Nothing. We can do nothing, for the moment, until their king recovers or dies.”

“Our king, now,” Jeyne corrected, without thinking about it, and her mother caught and yanked on her hair. “Ow!”

“Don’t say that,” Sybell said, hissed. “We may have been taken, but the tides of war may change. Lord Tywin does not look kindly on traitors. Think of your sister. Think of your little brother.”

“I am,” Jeyne said, stung. “I do. Elenya’s scared. I want to know what to tell her. Robb says-”

“Robb?” her mother said, sharply, fingers stopping altogether, and Jeyne felt her face heat. “You are so familiar with him?”

“I spoke with him,” Jeyne said boldly, “Yes, I did not see the harm-”

“Jeyne,” her mother said, voice tight, and then she just sighed. “Please…be careful. I know you will do what you will, but…you do not know how dangerous our situation is. You tell me you are not a child, but you are still my child. I will not let any harm come to you. I will keep you and your siblings safe, no matter what I must do.”

“I brought you a visitor,” Jeyne said, when the maesters were allowing her into the Young Wolf’s room again. She hovered by the doorway, trying very hard not to look at the great wolf regarding her from near the window. Elenya was clinging to her hand and staring, wide eyed, the grip of her fingers almost painful.

“A visitor?” Lord Stark said, propped up on his pillows. He still looked pale, and sweaty, and exhausted, but better than he had, she thought. The color in his face was improved, at any rate, a faint healthy flush spread across his cheekbones.

She realized too late that she was staring like her sister and ducked her head. “Yes,” she said, and took a step forward, bravely, giving Elenya a little tug. “This is my little sister Elenya. Elenya, this is His Grace Robb Stark, the King in the North.”

“Your grace,” said Elenya in a small voice, and did a little curtsey. Jeyne watched Robb, and noticed his face brighten, and a little smile start around the corners of his mouth. It made him look younger, lighter.

“My lady,” he said, gravely. “I would bow, but unfortunately…”

Elenya glanced up at Jeyne, still wide-eyed and fearful. Jeyne smiled encouragingly at her. “Your wolf is very big,” she said solemnly. Robb looked over at him, and Jeyne tried not to, afraid that the beast could smell her fear and would take it for bad intentions.

“He is,” Robb agreed. “But he wasn’t when I found him. He was small enough you could have carried him.”

Elenya’s eyes got even bigger. “Really?”

“Really,” Robb said. “My little sisters could. Even my younger brother, and he’s only eight. That’s younger than you, isn’t it?”

“You have younger siblings?” Jeyne said, cutting in.

“A few,” Robb said, with a smile somewhere between happy and wistful. “My brothers, Jon and Bran and Rickon, and two sisters, Arya and Sansa. And Theon, he's like my brother.” She could see the affection in his eyes when he talked about his siblings, and it made her want to smile back.

“Are they here?” Elenya asked, and Robb shook his head.

“No, they’re…they’re not.” His eyes dropped, and Jeyne suddenly remembered hearing about the betrothal of a Stark to King Joffrey, and realized that must be one of his sisters. Likely still in King’s Landing, as good as a prisoner of war. Her heart hurt.

“I have a younger brother,” Elenya said, growing a little bolder. “He’s nine. And there’s our older brother, Raynald.” She took a couple more bold steps forward. “You don’t have a wolf’s teeth at all,” she said, and Robb made a startled laugh.

“No,” he said, “No, I don’t. Is that what they’re saying about me?”

Elenya nodded solemnly. “I was scared,” she said, “But Jeyne told me to be brave, and you seem nice.” Jeyne felt her face heat.

“Elenya,” she said, a little more sharply than she meant to. “We should let His Grace get some rest.”

“Oh,” said Elenya, seeming faintly disappointed. “Okay.”

“Wait,” said Robb, as she started to turn. She looked back and he sat up a little straighter. “You don’t need to be scared. No harm will come to you or your family. I swear it.” Jeyne hurried out of the room.

“I like him,” Elenya said, after the door had closed, though she was still clinging a little too tightly to Jeyne’s hand. “You should marry him. Then you’d be a queen.”

Jeyne made a face at her. “I wouldn’t make a very good queen,” she said. Elenya frowned at her.

“I think you’d make a wonderful queen.”

She dreamed, that night, that a crown was sitting heavy on her head, and when she looked to her right Robb Stark was standing next to her, his hand warm in hers, and the weight of a fur cloak was around her shoulders. Snow was falling, and for some reason she couldn’t have voiced she was terribly afraid.

Jeyne went back alone. He was standing when she got there and was let in by the same heavyset Northman guard as before, if leaning heavily on the windowsill as he looked out. She did not close the door behind her, mindful of listening ears but also of propriety. Though she didn’t think-

Even just starting to imagine made her want to blush.

“Your grace,” she said, and he turned. He looked very tired, she noticed. Worried. As though he was trying to think of too much at once. “You are…you look better.”

“I am,” he said, all politeness. “Thank you. And…for bringing your sister. She made for pleasanter company than my other visitors.”

“Including me?” Jeyne said, before she could blush, and Robb let out a startled laugh. (Robb. The name came easier to her mind than the young wolf or Lord Stark. And seemed to fit him better, too.)

“No,” he said. “You are a pleasant visitor too, Lady Westerling. Please…stay. Speak with me. If you don’t,” and here he flushed, “have other duties to attend to.”

Jeyne found a chair and settled on it. “I do not, and would gladly stay, if you will it.”

Robb smiled at her, a little crookedly. “I would like that.”

“You’ve been spending a fair amount of time with the Young Wolf lately,” said Raynald. Jeyne, startled, stabbed herself in the finger with her needle.

“I suppose I have,” she said, carefully. “He was wounded. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something. I don’t like feeling useless.”

“Nobody likes feeling useless,” Raynald said. “And you’re not useless. I was just…mentioning. I heard Elenya telling Rollam that she went to see him the other day and he didn’t look like a wolf at all.” Jeyne flicked her hair back out of her face.

“Are you going to scold me?” Jeyne asked, a little cripsly, and Raynald frowned at her.

“No. Do I need to?”

“No,” Jeyne said firmly, and sucked on her finger. “You do not. We just…talk. About little things. Nothing important.” She looked up at him, not quite warily. “Do you think I’m being disloyal?”

“Disloyal to who?” Raynald asked. “Tywin Lannister? Maybe in name, but I do not see him rushing to defend us. I like the Northmen. I am afraid of no lions.” He paused, and then smirked at her. “Do you think he’s handsome?”

Jeyne flushed. “Why does everyone want to know if I think he’s handsome?”she demanded, and Raynald hooted.

“So you do,” he said eagerly, and she balled up her sewing and threw it at him.

Robb was quiet the next time she visited. Something melancholy in his face. “It’s Rickon’s nameday today,” he said, as she hovered awkwardly in the doorway. “I almost forgot. He’s growing up without any of us there.”

Jeyne swallowed. She tried to imagine being away from her little siblings. Knowing that they were alone and not knowing when she would see them again. “Tell me about Winterfell,” she said, and rushed on when his breath hitched. “About your home. I’ve never been north of the Neck. I’ve never been far from the Crag.”

Robb looked away from her. “I…it feels like it’s been a long time. But it hasn’t really. It’s – it’s very beautiful. When I was leaving the snow was just starting to fall but it’s been summer there as long as I can remember, and…everything is green. And the castle isn’t so cold, because there are hot springs to heat the water, but even when it was colder sometimes we would all – me and my siblings, I mean – climb into one bed and huddle together…”

He missed it. Missed them. She could hear it, clear as day in his voice. “It sounds like you were very happy,” she said softly. Robb sat down on the edge of the bed, after a moment, and looked at his hands. His right arm was still bound, the wound covered by white bandages.

“We were,” he said, after a moment. “We were happy. I sometimes…” he trailed off. Jeyne crossed the room and reached out to take his hands. They were warm, as they had been in her dream, his palms slightly rough.

“I am sorry,” she said. “I don’t…I hope when this war is over, you get to go home, and be with your brothers and sisters again. I don’t know much about wars, but I can pray for that.”

His eyes lifted to hers, and for just a moment she felt her heart leap. Something not quite fear and not quite joy twisting her stomach into a knot. Then they both looked away at once.

“Thank you, Lady Westerling,” he said, to his knees, and a moment later withdrew his hands from hers. “I hope…I hope that this war does not cause you and your family too much harm.”

She stood there for a while, quietly, and then left, thoughts and feelings a blur.

Elenya crawled into bed with her again that night.

“Are you scared?” Jeyne asked, sleepily, shifting so her little sister could curl up next to her. “Bad dreams?”

“No,” whispered Elenya. “I was just thinking about if you were a queen. Would you get a crown? What would it look like?”

“I’m not going to be a queen,” Jeyne whispered back, though she wondered what it would. She hadn’t seen Robb’s crown, but she imagined it would be simple. “I’m not going to be anything except your sister. Pretty soon this army will leave and it’ll just be us and Rollam and Raynald again.”

She felt a pang, thinking of it. Thinking of Robb Stark out on a battlefield somewhere, spattered in blood, wounded, dying. She pushed the thoughts away.

“But if you were,” Elenya persisted. “I think he likes you. I’m sure he would marry you. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t marry you.”

“He’s probably promised to some other woman,” Jeyne said. “Some northern woman, or a bride to make sure an alliance…besides, you haven’t even asked if I want to marry him.

“You do, though, don’t you?” Elenya said, looking up at her with round bright eyes. Jeyne opened her mouth to say no, and closed it.

“Maybe,” she said, after a moment. “But that doesn’t matter. You know that. And it would be…it would be disloyal. Put our house in danger.” The words had sounded more convincing inside her head. She shook herself. Don’t be foolish.

“I like the Young Wolf better than Lord Lannister,” said Elenya, boldly, and Jeyne winced and hushed her.

“You’ve never met Lord Lannister,” she chided. “Tywin is…” Wise, she was about to say. Strong. Has done well for his liege lords. But her mind wandered to Robb talking about Winterfell, and to the word she’d overheard of the devastation in the Riverlands, and Robb’s sister in King’s Landing betrothed to the king he was fighting.

It all seemed so big, so great, and she felt horribly out of place, as though she’d stumbled into a hole and found it deeper than expected.

“I still think you should marry him,” said Elenya, firmly, and Jeyne closed her eyes. “I think you would make a very good queen.”

“I think you would make a better queen,” Jeyne said, and Elenya made a face at her.

“Don’t make fun.”

“I wasn’t,” Jeyne said. “You would be a good queen. I’ll make you a crown when I get the chance. Queen of the Crag. You can give Rollam and Raynald orders and they’ll have to obey.”

Elenya giggled and reached up to tug on Jeyne’s hair. “And you too,” she said sternly.

“Not me,” Jeyne said. “I’d be your Hand. The Hand of the Queen. And advise you on all the important matters.”

“Oh,” said Elenya. “All right. You can be my Hand. But only if we wear matching dresses.”

“When you’re queen,” Jeyne said, and pushed all thoughts of Robb out of her mind, “we can wear whatever dresses you want.”

There was no guard at the door when Jeyne next visited. She hesitated for a moment, and knocked carefully. There was no answer, and a moment later she opened the door herself. “Hello?” she said cautiously, and for a moment didn’t see him.

Then she did. He was sitting on the bed, head down, clutching a piece of paper crumpled in one hand. She stopped. It was very quiet, and she could hear him breathing; it sounded strange, almost ragged.

“Your grace?” Jeyne said, carefully. “I do not…should I leave?”

“No,” he said, to the floor, and she had to struggle to understand it. “No, don’t…please don’t leave.”

She took a cautious step nearer. “Has something – has something happened, did you receive some word of-”

“They’re dead,” he choked, and lifted his head. She blinked. His eyes were red rimmed and his hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists.

“Who is…”

“Bran, Rickon. My little brothers. Rickon was three – no, four, now, just barely four. Winterfell’s been sacked and they’re-” Jeyne’s stomach plummeted. Her breath caught in her throat and she couldn’t speak. Robb looked away from her, his voice shaking slightly. “Theon Greyjoy killed them. Theon was like a brother to me and he killed – they were supposed to be safe!

She thought of him saying we all huddled into one bed. Of him saying we were happy. Oh, she thought. Oh no. Oh no.

“Oh, your grace,” she said, finally managing to find her words, and then amended to, “Oh, Robb,” and reached out to him. His shoulders shook in her embrace, heaving with sobs, and she wasn’t really thinking about it when she kissed him, fumbling and desperate, his tears warm on her cheeks. Or was only thinking, he’s so young. They made him a king, but he’s no older than me.

He was clumsy, but not ungentle. And not unkind.

“I am sorry,” Robb said, after, stumbling over the words. “I should not have…I have…dishonored you.”

Mother will be so angry, she thought. It didn’t seem to matter much, not just then. His body was warm. His skin soft. “I could have refused you,” she said, after a moment. “I don’t feel dishonored.” She didn’t. She’d always expected it to hurt. It had, for a moment, she could remember that, but not so long, not so bad.

His hands found the sides of her face and drew her eyes up to meet his. He looked troubled. “Do not…if I have wronged you…”

“I don’t feel wronged either,” Jeyne said. Robb closed his eyes and shook his head a little bit. His thumbs caressed her cheeks.

“Marry me,” he said, softly, suddenly, his forehead resting against hers. Jeyne took a deep breath. Her chest felt too tight. This is not who you are, she thought, dazedly. This is all too much for you, you silly girl.

“Oh,” she said, and, “Yes. Yes.”