I am not in love with you.
I am in love with the idea of you.
And frankly, that is the worst way to love someone.
The loop had been slipped and all that was left was to knot the cord tight and let the noose do its work.
Dawn was just breaking over the flat plains of the Crownlands but Robb had been up for hours. Mist rose off the river and he drew the hood of his cloak over his shaved head, both to ward off the morning chill and for concealment. He heard snatches of song as the laundresses and camp-wives straggling back to their tents, pots of water balanced on their hips and barefoot children clinging to their skirts.
In the winter town when his father was lord, there had been no barefoot children nor poxed mothers. At least these ones still have feet to carry them, he thought, with a pang. The krakens had set Winterfell to torch and murdered and maimed its people - they would not have spared the smallfolk in the winter town. The smell of fresh bread baking mixed pleasantly with woodsmoke and the sounds of the camp coming to life - men stretching and gossiping as they polished their scales and weapons or waited in line at the communal hearths for their breakfasts.
It was a wise king who listened to his people and so Robb had been doing for the past few days, whenever he had the chance. As usual, he waited in line for his own bread and broth but today he took his meal with a pack of southerners. It was always like this - northerners with northerners, the southron with other southrons. They were openly hostile against eachother, he had quickly come to realize. That was not how it should have been. The Targaryens forged a kingdom out of seven and it held for three hundred years, he thought. If they could do it, so must I. His wife and mother were southerners, in looks he favored the Tullys of the Riverlands over his northern father but it seemed that when the men of the Reach saw him, they could look no further past than his wolf.
It was a rabble pack he joined - a nobly-born young squire of House Ambrose, a Blackbar guardsman, a wide-eyed farmhand who had no doubt been conscripted in the general run, a hearth-knight who served House Graceford and a bored sellsword with skin as black as pitch.
The talk lingered much on the previous night's assault on the Mud Gate, which had been badly damaged in the Battle of the Blackwater. Unhappily for the Starks and Tyrells who now laid siege to the city, the gate had not fallen.
"Well," stuttered the farmhand, tripping over his words but eager to force them out all the same, "it-tit twouldn't ha' bin gl-glorious now, woulda it? Mud Gate an' all. Th-the Dragon Gate, now th-that woulda bin grand."
The sellsword regarded him with tolerant amusement, much as he would a flea that was not worth the killing. "Humfrey Waters holds the Dragon Gate, boy," he said and for all that he looked as though he could have been from the Summer Islands, he spoke like a Highgardener born and bred. "Damn bastard he is, damnedest bastard of all. Can't reason with a bastard with sweet talk or steel, too damn pig-headed. I'd know, being one."
Flowers, Robb thought.
"Ever been in battle, boy?" the squire asked the bumpkin. He was younger than him by a good many years and clearly relished his superiority.
"Y-yes m'lord," the farmhand said meekly, spooning broth into his mouth. "Twas something fierce!"
"So have I," the squire said proudly. "I took out a Myrish crossbowman myself and-" The sellsword raised his eyebrows delicately and the hearth-knight chortled. "I have!" the fair-haired boy insisted, clearly wounded. He was around Robb's age but he looked so very much younger. Sometimes when he glanced into a pool of still water or his wife's looking glass, he could hardly recognize his face - the fine lines fanning from eyes and mouth, the hard line of the lips, the shaved brow and forehead on which a crown rested so snugly.
"A game?" the hearth-knight suggested to the sellsword. He plucked a pair of well-worn ivory dice out of a pocket but the sellsword shook his head.
"I never play with fortune," he said, with a flash of white teeth, "except in war."
"Suit yourself." The hearth-knight shrugged and turned to Robb. "And you, good ser? You'll play?" He must have taken Robb to be many years older than his real age. No grizzled knight worth his salt would have spoken so civilly to a shaven stripling.
"I'm no ser," Robb grunted, "but I'll play." His mother's gods and septons preached against dicing and gaming - and lewd music and dancing and painted women as well, for good measure. The trees in the godswood said nothing on the subject but his father would surely have frowned to see him play at games of chance. But you are dead, my lord father, Robb thought bitterly. And you have left me all alone.
Eddard Stark had left his son when he was only fourteen, before he had ever held a steel sword in his hand or felled a man for justice or in battle or lived through a second winter. He had left with so many things unsaid, so many questions unanswered. You left me Winterfell and my brothers and you never told me what to do. Why father?
"Not bad for a boy," the hearth-knight said, after a few throws. "What parts are you from, now?"
"North," Robb said evasively. "And I'm not a boy."
"Can't be more than five-and-twenty, if that," the knight said dismissively. "That's a boy to me. And the north's a big place, I've heard so speak up. Where are you from then?"
"The place with the prettiest girls," he said.
"Are there pretty girls up north?" the sellsword asked reflectively. "I heard the wolves suckle you and you fuck bears."
"You heard wrong," he said pleasantly. Robb Stark had not lived in a war-camp for a year without learning a thing or two. "It's our members that are longer than a bear's. Our women are without peer."
The sellsword chortled good-naturedly. "Mayhap I'll go there one day," he said. "I've heard there's land for the taking. Might take a peerless woman if I can catch one. Never had much luck with wives."
"Lots of land," Robb agreed. But poor land and barren.
"King Robb's going to measure out land to anyone who wants it," the squire said, "I heard so myself. Land and titles up north."
"Anyone who proves himself worthy," Robb corrected him.
"Meaning anyone who pays for it," the hearth-knight said grumpily, "tis not for the likes of us."
"Do the southrons like the sound of it?" Robb asked cautiously. He had been rather proud of the idea - after all, had not his father intended to settle the Gift with men who could tend the land? "For sure, the northmen won't be best pleased."
"Oh aye, the great ones do," the hearth-knight said, waving his hand in dismissal. "Why shouldn't they? Seems to me the boy king could spare us folk a thought when he's siphoning off his land."
"Maybe he will," Robb suggested evasively, "I've heard he's fair and noble-"
"He's a pup," the hearth-knight said rudely. "Suckling at his mother's teat but a year ago. It's the Blackfish and Lord Tyrell that rule him, mark my words."
"H-he coulda bin worse," the farmer's boy suggested. "Coulda bin like Joff-Joffrey. The Bastard."
"I heard he nailed antlers onto men's heads and broiled 'em alive in wildfire," the squire said with relish. "Sounds a proper cunt."
Oh he was, Robb thought grimly and wondered yet again what had happened to the Lannister queen and her children. Were they dead, and the news kept secret by Stannis, or had they truly managed to flee the city? Yet another thing for him to take care of if - no, when - the walls of King's Landing yielded. We have the greater number, he reminded himself wearily. But they have armored themselves behind stout walls.
He had won the game but courteously he refused the coins the hearth-knight would have counted out sullenly into his palm. The older man looked at him with new respect as he took his leave and he could hear him speculating to the others behind his back - "soft fine wool his cloak was, d'you think he was some young lord from the north..."
He found his great-uncle reading while he ate in his tent. "You look fresh," Ser Brynden observed dryly.
"I've been up hours." He pulled out a stool for himself and helped himself to a handful of nuts from the bowl on the table.
"Ah, to be young again." Meticulously, the Blackfish folded a corner of the page he was reading and set the book aside.
"What was it?"
"A dull history of a dull time. Nothing to concern you."
Robb did not press him further - books had never held much interest for him or his siblings. "Someone has to speak to Mace Tyrell," he said wearily. "I thinks he plans to starve King's Landing out like he almost did Dragonstone."
"You'd grow grey before then and the rest of us would all be moldering in our graves. Not," the Blackfish reflected, "that it would trouble Mace Tyrell."
"His lady mother would most likely still be alive then. Battering her son's skull with a wooden skillet, for being a blockhead."
"Yes, I can see Olenna Redwyne doing that." Ser Brynden allowed himself a quiet chuckle. "You are his king and he is your good-father. By rights, you should speak to him."
"If I must, I must," Robb said, with a grimace. "And I thought Walder Frey was stubborn and self-important. Margaery and her grandmother are twice the men he is. If Willas Tyrell is as bad, I'll go mad."
"Take Tarly with you," Ser Brynden suggested. "He's raring for a fight and as frustrated as the rest of us with Mace's pussyfooting. Brace him up, tell him about all the glory that will be his-"
"Sweet talk him, you mean."
"If a horse won't be led to water," Ser Brynden said, with a shrug. "We have King's Landing tied up quite nicely. Now all that's left-"
"-is to tighten the noose. Yes, I was thinking the same myself." He rose and stretched. "It was good speaking to you, uncle. It always is."
"And you are the only nephew I have left that I can be proud of," Ser Brynden sighed. "The rest are blockheads, well and truly."
The only nephew... "Someday I will have to approach my Aunt Lysa," he said, "she cannot hold herself aloof from the world forever. I'll have to take her boy from her keeping."
"If he lives that long," the Blackfish grunted. "Milk off the breast and sweetsleep never nourished a man for long. Else you'll have to deal with Harry Hardyng and that's all to the good I say, though he's no kin of mine. You'd like him. Chatters too much, a little wild at times but a pleasant boy all the same-"
He never finished his sentence. A hassled-looking guardsman entered the tent and said, "Your Grace, there's a-a lady for you."
"A lady?" Robb asked bewildered.
The guardsman twisted at the fringe of his tunic fretfully. "I don't know, Your Grace," he said, "a lady and her escort and them poorly. She was asking for you, said you owed her, caused quite a state when they arrived... Lord Tarly has 'em in his keeping now, to keep them quiet he says. Rabble he says-"
Robb frowned. That did not sound like good news. "Have them sent here," he said grimly, "tell Lord Tarly that I command it."
"Of course, Your Grace. At once."
Robb drummed his knuckles against the table restlessly. "A lady," he said uneasily and glanced at the Blackfish.
"Some... woman of yours perhaps?" the Blackfish asked smoothly. "Perhaps with a child?"
There had been women, Robb could not deny. But they had all been camp-followers and he had not lain with any woman save his wife after his marriage. "He said a lady," he insisted defensively. "And he made no mention of a child."
It seemed a long time before a pair of different guardsmen, in the Tarly livery, drew back the tent flaps and brought the woman with them. She was willowy, her long brown hair tangled and falling over her face and shoulders. Her shapeless dark cloak was drawn tightly over her body and beneath it, her naked feet were scratched and bruised. The two men behind her were likewise a sorry sight.
Before he could say a word, she fell to her knees before him. "Your Grace," she said, her voice high and cracked, "you promised that you would repay me." She pushed back her hair from her face but he did not see it to remember her voice. Her voice had haunted his dreams for months.
"Jeyne," he whispered and before he could stop himself, before he remembered where he was or in front of who, he slid to his knees and pulled her into his arms. Her face was wet with tears and he kissed her eyelids, her nose, her bruised lips. "Shh, sweetling. I'm here. I'm here now."
The northern girl had a wild beauty, as he recalled, though however bright a torch might burn it could never match the rising sun.
The Westerling girl was as lovely and lissome as a woodland doe. Women had never aroused him, but he could appreciate their beauty nonetheless. Jeyne Westerling was a rare one, for sure. Where Mace Tyrell's daughter had charm and grace, Jeyne had the soft beauty of her face. Bathed and gowned in a manner suited to her rank, she took her seat at the table, eyes lowered demurely. Even in the commander's tent, where she was the only woman present and all were lords and knights, they all craned to have a look at her as though she was some wild animal escaped from a menagerie.
It made Brynden feel strangely protective of her, he wanted to throw his cloak over her shoulders and cover her from those cruel eyes. She should have dined alone, he thought but he knew it were best that she were shown to them all at the beginning. There would be worse rumors about her if Robb kept her secreted away - that she was his western whore and dared not show her face in good company.
Robb rose from the head of the table and taking her by the hand, led her to her seat. "My good lords," he said, "this is Lady Jeyne Westerling, who did me kind service when I was mortally wounded in the westerlands. She was the daughter of an enemy but she tended my wounds and sent me safely on my way, without her family's knowledge and for that and fear of Lannister retribution, she has been thrown out from her own home. Were it not for the goodness of her heart, I would surely have been dead by now." He bowed to her. "Lady Jeyne, you have my greatest thanks and I promise that I will do whatever is in my power to see that you never want."
The girl's voice was barely louder than a whisper. "I thank you, Your Grace." The smile Robb gave her was more tender than any he had ever given his bride.
This could lead to trouble, Brynden thought darkly. He would have to have a word with the boy. Whores were one thing but he doubted that Margaery Tyrell would stand for a nobly-born mistress - especially if Robb sent Jeyne to attend her as a lady-in-waiting, as he said he meant to. He's got a good head on his shoulders, Brynden thought. He won't make an ass over himself over a chit of a girl. He glanced at Mace Tyrell to see if he had taken offense but the stout southron lord was completely indifferent to the girl's presence. Less indifferent was Lord Tarly who studied the girl carefully over the rim of his wine-cup - no doubt the guardsmen, who were his creatures after all, had told him of what had transpired in those unguarded moments in the tent.
He's promised to hold his tongue though. For now at least.
He would have to mention the girl to Cat, see that she was married off as quickly as possible. Or see to it myself, he thought. It was a woman's work but Cat was in no fit state to attend to such matters and he would never entrust Jeyne Westerling to the tender mercies of the Tyrell women. Better that the scandal passed by before they ever heard of it. Better that there was no scandal to hear of at all.
The mead was plentiful and the meat tender and well-spiced, but Brynden's supper soured in his stomach when he caught the looks Robb and Jeyne gave each other. Like a pair of mooncalves, he thought in irritation. The lass fairly glowed under his attention and Brynden had never seen Robb look so much the boy as he did that night, laughing and jesting with Jeyne. She sang at the end of the meal and she had a sweet voice, Brynden had to admit.
"You'll never lack for suitors now, lass," Brynden told her dryly when she finished, flushed and happy at the generous encore she received. "I'll wager you've broken a few hearts tonight."
Robb scowled at that but forced himself to say lightly, "Seen anyone who caught your fancy, Jeyne?"
She had turned pink from the tips of her ears at Brynden's compliment but when Robb spoke to her, she threw him a melting look with her whole clean, innocent heart in her eyes. I'll wager Margaery Tyrell never once looked at him like that. And really that's all he ever wanted, wasn't it? That's all a boy ever wants - to be looked at like he's her man. "Only you, Your Grace," she said shyly and Brynden thought that Robb would have kissed her then and there if they were alone. Fucked her too when he'd gotten over his high-handedness too, Brynden thought darkly. Convinced himself he was Florian and she his Jonquil and that it was all holy and sainted and meant to be. Oh he knew the way it was with boys of sixteen. Idiots the lot of them.
"My lady," he said, offering the girl his arm before cocksore young Robb could. "May I escort you to your tent?"
Robb, who had been about to open his mouth to suggest the same thing, fell back realizing the impropriety of what he was about to do.
Jeyne smiled timidly at him and rested her hand on Brynden's arm. "Thank you, Ser Brynden," she said, "I would be very pleased." She smelled incongruously like violets and Brynden wondered where Robb had managed to cull the gowns and serving maids and scents for her, in the middle of an army.
He voiced his disapproval. "A war camp is no place for a gently-born lady."
"It was the only place I had left in the world, ser," she said quietly. "I have no kin or friends left to turn to but His Grace."
"Of course," he said quickly. "I did not mean to suggest otherwise. But I am sure you will rest easier when you are far away from here."
She only nodded at that. "What is Queen Margaery like?" she asked abruptly.
"Gracious and charming," Brynden said promptly. "Kind and fair to look upon and wise beyond her young years. Indeed, in all manner of things she is as a queen should be." As tart a gooseberry as ever there was, he thought. This one is a sugared plum, gone in one bite and there's nothing left of her.
"I shall be pleased to serve her then."
They had reached her tent and Brynden bowed to her. "Sleep gently, my lady," he said, "if there is anything you need-"
She turned her smooth, girlish face up to him and he had to wonder whether she was truly as innocent as she looked. She had grit, that much had to be said of her if she could travel the breadth of the westerlands with only two men to look after her. She had the courage of her convictions if she had dared defy her family for the sake of a man she did not know, her sworn enemy. She might be soft but that did not make her stupid, he thought. Well maybe not a sugared plum then. "I shall ask you or His Grace," she said, "thank you, you are very kind."
He would have left for his tent to make immediate arrangements to have her sent to Harrenhal and all might have been well for a time, but for the shouts they heard just then. Jeyne grabbed his arm, eyes wide in fear. "What's happening?" she breathed.
As gently as he could, he prised her off him. "Nothing to concern you, my lady. Stay here." She didn't of course - women never listened, did they? Like a shellshocked puppy, she trailed after him as he strode purposefully through the camp.
"What's happening?" he barked, thrusting himself roughly past the press of men that crowded towards the commander's tent. But the flaps were being rolled up and he saw that he was a fool to ask. Against the starlit expanse of the night and the dark walls of King's Landing in the distance, fumes of smoke began to rise and then they saw the faint red-gold glow of flames. What in the name of Seven Hells...
"The city's burning," Jeyne whispered redundantly. Somehow she had wormed her way to Robb's side and she clung to his arm like a child. He squeezed her arm but at least he made no move to hold her as he had in the morning. "Sweet gods."
"Yes," Robb said, studying the sky. He turned, his eyes gleaming not unlike his wolf's Brynden thought. The light of battle was in them. "We attack."
Gentle Mother, strength of women,
Help our daughters through this fray.
Soothe the wrath and tame the fury,
Teach us all a kinder way.
Jeyne hunkered down next to the cooling ashes and warm embers of the small fire the women had stoked up. In one hand she held a heel of bread and with the other she cradled a bowl of stew against her chest. The heat was pleasant against her bare hands and besides, her woolen mantle kept her warm - far warmer than the other poor women who had little by way of covering or protection. They eyed her uneasily but made no move to turn her away so Jeyne sat with them. Laundresses, they called themselves. Her mother would have called them whores and soldiers' doxies, would have warned her that a Westerling of the Crag, a lady gently-raised should not be seen near them. She should spit on them.
Look at me now, mother, she thought fiercely, dunking her bread in the stew. I'm all but a whore now myself. Well she wasn't but she could have been, if the gods had not smiled on her and led her to Robb in safety. A kindness for a kindness.
She could have tossed sleepless on her pallet in her tent for hours more, as she had all night ever since the men had left but she had decided to put her things on and look about the camp. For hours the fire had raged fiercely behind the city walls but then it had begun to die down. The smoke hung thick and acrid in the air as before, though and Jeyne wondered whether now the city, only a league away, was being sacked.
The women spoke in low, fearful murmurs - snatches of gossip they had heard from their men when they'd been arming themselves before the battle. Nothing clear, nothing certain. Their children played close at hand, ready to be plucked up at a moment's notice and carried away if the time came to flee. A few held swaddled babe to the breast, gowns slipping easily off their shoulders as though it was the most natural thing in the world. A strange new world that Jeyne had never seen before. Even their voices were in a ragtag of accents she had never heard before - but then she had never left the westerlands before, never been farther home than Lannisport.
"Should be Lord Stannis-" another woman interjected. "King Robb's our only king."
"Lord Stannis then, he has a fire priestess. She might'a set up a great fire. Accidentally."
"She's his eastern whore," another said, licking her lips with satisfaction at the sordid tale, "pleases him in all sorts of unnatural ways that no decent woman ever would-"
"Well we're not decent women are we?" a girl with limp yellow hair said, laughing. "We're all whores, Talia. So tell us all about them unnatural ways."
Jeyne sat quietly and listened to the tales that flew over her head. She was naturally shy and in any case, she had nothing concrete to contribute - nor could she imagine up a tale as lively as some the women were spinning. It made her feel bold and daring and wicked just to listen.
"-so you put one leg up bout halfway and let him put his-"
She blushed cherry-red to hear them but nevertheless, it was fascinating. I wonder if Robb-
"Have you had any word, my lady?" a woman asked her very civilly.
Jeyne almost dropped her bowl in surprise. "I-I? No I haven't. No. I'm sorry."
The woman nodded at her. "I hope you're settled comfortable?"
"Yes," she said, pink with embarrassment. "You are very good to ask."
The woman smiled at her. "And you're a sweet young lady. Poor thing," she said, "but never fear, King Robb will do right by you."
"Aye," the woman said. "He's a good king. A good man and I've known precious few of them. Kind to children and gentle with women - how hard is that, you'd think? But there's so many that aren't, so very many." She sighed wearily. "I hope you never know a man like that, my lady."
I don't know any men at all. "I've known women like that," Jeyne mumbled. "They can be worse." The woman cackled in amusement and nodded her head vehemently in agreement. "Excuse me," she said, "I think I've seen someone I know." She'd seen the page boy at supper the night before - Lord Tarly's son though she could not for the life of her remember his name.
"Excuse me," she said awkwardly and the boy stopped in his tracks and dropped her a hasty bow. "But do you know what has been happening? We've had no news at all-"
He was clearly impatient to be on his way but courtesy had no doubt been drilled into him with a stick. The gods knew that was how her mother went about it - with a birch rod or a whip. "Lord Stannis burned the High Septon in front of Baelor's Sept," he said, tapping his feet restlessly. "His priestess made him do it. And then the people set the city on fire. Or she did. I don't know. There was a great fire and some opened the gates and my lady, may I please be on my way? I have messages to deliver."
"Of course, of course. I'm sorry to detain you-" but he was already on his way before she could finish her sentence. She was still holding the bowl she realized, her numb fingers trembling. She wished he had stayed so she could have asked him more.
The woman she had been speaking to slipped up behind her. "What now, dearie?"
"I-I don't understand," she said feebly. Her mother would have called her stupid, Sybell would have pieced together the story and what it meant at once from fragments. She would have marched through the camp, asking everyone and anyone what they knew or guessed or thought - she was the last thing from shy. "I think I should pray." Yes, that was what she would do - pray that the fire was all ashes by the time Robb entered the city that he was now safe and secure and the wicked Lord Stannis and his priestess dead in the conflagration of their own making. Please don't let him be hurt. I don't think I could bear it.
The woman must have noticed the tumult in her face for she nodded sagely and taking Jeyne's arm, led her gently away. "Always the sensible thing to do, poor thing," she agreed. "Praying helps. Is there a man out there you're praying for in particular? I've one of my own. 'Course we never traded words before a septon but it hurts just as fierce to know he's there in the thick of it."
"Yes," Jeyne whispered. "There is a man." But he's not mine. He's Margaery Tyrell's.
The woman led her beyond the camp and Jeyne was glad for the supple calfskin boots that had been provided for her - her old leather slippers had been worn to shreds on the ride to the Crownlands and at the hand she had been barefoot. A serving-woman had salved her cuts and bruises the night before and it did not hurt very much to walk now. They walked up a grassy knoll, to the single solitary tree that stood on it. A face had been scratched crudely on it, not carved and Jeyne was bewildered.
"But I thought you were a southron-"
"Oh I am, dearie," the woman said cheerfully, plopping to her knees. "I grew up in Blackbuckle where we keep to the Old Gods - that's a way's off from Raventree Hall where Blackwoods have been ruling since the Age of Heroes."
"You mentioned that you hadn't been married in a sept."
"Oh my man's sworn to the Seven. Doesn't make our love any less true." The woman beckoned to her. "The gods are the same everywhere. They listen in the sept and they listen from the trees. 'Sides, there's no sept any parts nearby nor any true heart-tree - Andals burnt 'em all thousands of years ago - so we make do with what we can. Even His Grace comes here when he's in a black mood." The woman gave her a knowing smile.
Jeyne sighed and knelt. Hours rolled by and Jeyne's stomach had just begun to grumble again when she heard the horse clopping slowly up the hill. An angry red scar had been slashed across the man's face, the color scarcely dulled by the salve that had been set to it, and there were spots of blood on his tunic - else for that he was unharmed. She leaped to her feet and the other woman, who had fallen into a light doze leaning against the tree, woke up with a start.
"Robb," she whispered, picking up her skirts and running to him. She was weary to the bone but he looked like he could have fought for a day and a night more. Like the Warrior in all his fierceness. He dismounted easily and his hard arms encircled her waist. The woman bobbed a discreet courtesy but Jeyne hardly noticed her leave. "I was so frightened for you."
He rested his forehead against hers, a smile tugging at his lips. "Did you pray for me?"
"I did." She put her arms around his neck, standing up on tip-toe so that her body was straight against him. Without thinking, she pressed her lips against his. "I'm sorry," she was about to say awkwardly but the words never left her lips. He drew her against the tree and the last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was his smile, as bright as victory.