It was late on a bitterly cold night in Winterfell. The snow had been falling all day in deep relentless drifts, but now all was still, deep, and dark. In this cold darkness, a poor old man was wandering the grounds of the ruined castle. He was bareheaded and barefoot. He had, of course, had boots but they had been stolen from him as a jape by some inhabitants of the castle. They had pushed him into the snow, spit on him and called him “Turncloack, Traitor… Reek..” He had made no protest. He knew he had earned those vile names.
So the poor man limped on through the snow with naked feet, which were missing toes and turning first red then blue with the cold. He kept his head bowed as he walked, his frail form shaking harshly. The poor creature had the body of an old man but in truth he was not much over twenty. Yet, with his shock of white hair and skeletal face, perishing with cold, he looked the picture of misery.
Lights were shining from every window in the castle and candles had even been lit in the old abandoned sept for, though this was the North, it was still the Eve of The Smith’s Day and during such bleak times, praying to a God who could rebuild, restore and create was comforting to some. The man stood outside the small sept, mournfully muttering something to himself before moving on towards the Godswood.
The snow was caked against his filthy rags and it was becoming increasingly difficult to walk as he could hardly feel his feet which were numb with cold. Yet, he pushed on with quiet determination. He had made up his mind.
When he finally arrived in the Godswood he felt a shiver go down his spine. He moved timidly to where the heart tree stared accusingly down at him with bloody eyes that reminded him of a wolf he had once known as a boy. He crouched beside the tree, drawing his mangled feet up underneath him with some effort.
Everything hurt and he was colder than he could have ever imagined. But he did not dare return to the kennels. He had betrayed his Master. He had lit a candle in the Broken Tower that aided his Master’s wife’s escape from the castle.. When the Master returned he would kill him- but not before taking his remaining fingers and toes and flaying the rest of his body until his heart gives out.
In the pocket of his rags there were a cluster of lightbringing sticks (or red priests as they are called farther south) that his Master had mercifully allowed him in order to light the fires. The maesters of the north had always made the lightbringers by dipping soldier pine sticks in sulfur and then drying and storing them. When rubbed together or against a suitable surface it ignited in a burst of flame, much faster than striking flint…
He took one of the lightbringers out of his pocket and wondered briefly if he should light it and pray to The Smith. The Smith, after all, repairs broken things. And what was he if not a broken thing? But he was in the Godswood. The Smith was the wrong God for the Godswood. None of these strange Gods, old or new, were truly his. For he had once belonged to a seafaring people who worshiped a sea god. A drowned god that could never die but only rise again and again. He doubted the drowned god would even know his name now that he was submerged in a sea of weirwoods and snow.
But oh, a lightbringer could bring him a world of comfort if he only dared to strike it against the heart tree. He drew it against the tree- ritcshhhh! How it blazed and burned, illuminating the dark Godswood. It was beautiful. A warm bright flame, like a candle. And He felt a merciful warmth spread through his remaining fingers as he cupped his ruined hand over it.
As he stared into the dancing flame it began to seem to him that he was not in the Godswood at all but in the practice yard with two other boys. One with red hair, the other black. And it seemed, yes, it truly seemed that it was not a lightbringing stick he held in his hand but the end of an arrow as he drew back his bow and let it fly.
"Well done, Theon,” exclaimed a deep, strong voice behind him as he looked up to see the broad smiling face of his old teacher, Ser Rodrik. “The best archer of your age that I have ever seen.” Theon felt pride surge through him as Ser Rodrik clamped a fatherly hand on his shoulder and the red haired boy broke into a smile that lit up the whole world. But then the master of arms said in his stern but kindly voice, “Even so, if you are to be a true warrior, you must also train with the sword.“
Ser Rodrik then drew forth a long broadsword and held it out to Theon. As the boy took the sword from him with trembling hands, he suddenly noticed the blood trickling from Ser Rodrik’s neck and spilling out of his mouth. The sword dropped to the ground with a sickening clatter as the red haired boy’s mouth opened in a soundless scream. Theon reached his hand out toward his teacher as the lightbringer went out and he was left alone, holding the burnt end between two of his remaining fingers.
Now trembling violently, and colder than ever, the wretched man attempted to light another pine stick, frantic to go back and fix what had happened. This time it was harder. His remaining fingers were painfully frozen. Finally the sulfur tip of one of the lightbringers ignited in a burst of holy light and the man gaped in wonder at the vision that rose from the flame before him.
A fierce, strong woman with laughing eyes, radiating more warmth than a roaring fire. She was looking down on him, smiling as though he were the one that was beautiful- as if he were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She knelt down with her arms outstretched and said in a voice filled with unbelieving joy, etched with too many shattered hopes, “Did they allow you to come back home? Theon, my baby, come to mother!”
He didn’t know where he found the strength, but he rushed into her arms and was soon clasped in an embrace so emphatically accepting and loving that he felt overwhelmed with feelings of unworthiness. A wretched sob escaped his throat and she let him cry against her, holding him, protecting him, and singing catches of songs he remembered from his childhood…. but he wasn’t a child… he was a disgrace… filthy and ugly.. he was dirtying her beautiful gown with his foul nastiness. Why had she allowed him to touch her? He began to back away from her, appalled at what he had done. Would she beat him for ruining her dress? She held her hand out and whispered, “Hush now, my baby, it’s alright.” Slowly he realized that she… truly… loved him. In spite of how filthy and broken he was, she loved him. All he had to do was accept that love. He timidly reached his hand out to hers.
But as soon as his ruined hand made contact with hers, he felt the paper thin skin of an old woman and saw his own frantic madness reflected in her eyes and face which was now suddenly framed with a shock of brittle white hair. Her eyes stared passed him, filled with horror. “My sons!” She screamed “What have you done to my two boys!”
Theon turned around to face the charred corpses suspended in the air behind him. Tears filled his eyes as he beheld his work. He couldn’t help these children. He couldn’t give them their lives back. What is dead is dead. He turned back toward his mother wringing his hands. “Please..” he said, reaching out to comfort her but she shrank violently from his touch as the flame went out.
He frantically struck lightbringers against the tree, trying to make his way back to her. “Please,” he repeated over and over. “Please I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please take my life instead. Please. I know I should be dead. I know.. I should. I should have died with him.
One of the lightbringers caught fire and the red headed boy was standing before him once more. Older now, but still so very young… with eyes bluer than winter roses. The boy smiled and breathed out a sigh of relief as if he had been holding his breath for years. “Theon!” he exclaimed as his eyes filled with grateful tears. “I knew you’d come. I knew it.”
“Robb,” said Theon as he moved toward him…“I’m sorry… my father… he burned your letter and I-”
“It’s alright. It doesn’t matter. We’ll think of something else. All that matters is you’re here now.”
“I should have been…”
“Shhhhh…. it’s alright,”
Robb’s lips were soft and tasted like long delayed dreams. Theon pulled away in fear. “What are you doing?” He asked in wonder.
“What I should have done before you left. What I should have done so many times… that day in the woods.” His eyes fell, “I’m sorry I lashed out. I’m sorry for the way I’ve been treating you lately. Just… please let’s not separate again. Everything falls apart when you are gone.”
Theon nodded and they stood there for a moment, looking at each other with smiling eyes as the snow began to fall around them.
The sickening sound of an unleashed arrow…. Theon heard it before he saw Robb lurch and fall forward. Robb turned toward him, his blue eyes questioning “Why?”
As the light began to fade, Theon cried out, “No!” He rushed over to where Robb had staggered as another arrow flew past his head, narrowly missing him “I know that you will vanish when the flame goes out- like Ser Rodrik and my Mother and… the two boys…. please.”
Another arrow hit Robb and blood flowed from his mouth bathing his lips in red. He crashed to his knees. Theon desperately grasped at the remaining lightbringers in his pocket. As soon as the rest of the pine sticks came into contact with the struggling flame, they all burst into a radiant blaze.
Robb raised his face to look at Theon, bewildered. Theon held the flaming lightbringers up as he faced Robb. “I should have been with you. I should have always been with you. Please. Take me with you. Let me die with you… Will you allow it?”
In spite of the pain and the chaos around them, Robb’s winter rose eyes were shining with a strange joy. It was as if they were the only two people in the room. He nodded once and Theon rushed toward him as the arrows shot into their bodies, ripping away at their flesh. Theon lifted Robb from his knees and held him close as the light overtook them.
The cold morning light found the poor broken man leaning against the heart tree with a radiant smile on his face. He was dead- frozen to death in the night. The dawn of The Smith’s Day broke on his frail little body, revealing the burnt out lightbringing sticks still clasped in his destroyed, stiff hands. “He must have tried to warm himself” the people of Winterfell said. Nobody knew what beautiful visions he had seen or in what a glorious halo of light he had been made whole.