Disclaimer: I do not own Robb Stark or any of the other characters created by George R. R. Martin. Neither do I have any claim over his work in A Song of Ice and Fire. I do not earn any profit from this.
Author's Note: Hello, hello everyone! Finally, here is the long-awaited, five-months-tardy Chapter 9! I would like to apologize again for the delay. As mentioned in my profile, my laptop of four years just surrendered in mid-January and I had to rewrite so many things for work before I could get back to this. I was already late for my personal deadline then, but being the nitpicky person I am, I wanted more time to polish before I published. It was a difficult lesson to learn, especially since this is the second time this has happened to me, but I am now committing to just publishing, even if I'm not completely happy with it. It's better than having to write from scratch and hate yourself for not posting your pretty, twenty-nine page chapter when you had the chance. (Also, I am also committing to backing up my files religiously and I hope everyone does the same!) On to some other things!
I get quite a few reviews and private messages about how horrible Robb is, and a frequent question is whether I intended to write him that way. Just for the record, yes, this is really how I am choosing to present him. He's definitely the half of this relationship that has a lot more maturing and making up to do (not to mention suffering) before this story ends—which isn't very far off now. I know I've made some promises to a number of you about that (the maturing and making up—and suffering), and I hope that this chapter will go a ways to keeping those promises.
So without further ado, on to the chapter!
I had never had trouble sleeping before that winter. Even during my first march south, to free my father, I had been so overwhelmed by my duties that sleep was a valuable respite to the constant barrage of fighting, strategizing, waiting, and worrying. By the time I would be lowering my head onto a pillow, all thoughts would have gone and a welcoming blackness would swoop in to give me a few hours of peace. I had been afraid many times in the War of Five Kings, but fear had never chased off my sleep or haunted my dreams.
It was not so in the nights before the march to the Wall. As the days drew by, sleep began to evade me, and each night it gained a measure of more success. At times I found being awake became preferable to sleep, though it often meant a blanket of fatigue lay over my mind throughout the day that followed. Too many disquieting dreams came in the darker hours, lingering even after I had rubbed the slumber from my eyes.
The path before me was, on the surface, a simple one: march to the Wall, confront the Others and slay the Night King. The first step was what I knew how to accomplish. Already my bannermen were assembled, with more than half of them experienced in traveling—and fighting—in winter. We had all of us laid down contingencies in case the worst happened.
The second step of the plan had yet to present itself clearly, but I kept the panic at bay by reminding myself that we would form that step at the Wall, and the weight of that set of decisions would not fall only on my shoulders.
As for the third step . . . even if I knew how to do that, whether we could actually accomplish it was the more critical question.
Despite constantly reminding myself to focus on the first step of the plan, however, as the time of the march drew near my mind turned constantly to those that followed. Killing Others was not a mystery to us any longer. Jon had told us all about dragonglass, but knowing what killed White Walkers was of little help when there was so little of the weapon to go around. We knew fire killed the wights that followed the Others in hordes, but no man was at ease with the notion of bearing a torch rather than a sword into battle. Even if the Dragon Queen's children spouted their fiery breath onto the Night King's armies, the reports we were given told us of wights in numbers that might overwhelm even dragons. Then there was the matter of the Night King himself, whom none of us—not even Jon, who had fought and lost to him in Hardhome—understood. Try as I might, I could not see beyond what would surely be overwhelming losses to any form of victory.
I knew I was not alone in bearing such thoughts. None of us spoke much about what was to come beyond the practicalities and strategies, but each man I encountered who was to march bore the same shadow over his face: the strain of one who is confronting impending death.
It was ironic, considering the state of our relationship at the time, but one source of comfort from the gnawing uncertainty and creeping resignation was Jon. We never spoke about matters other than the coming fight, and it was apparent to both of us that were it not for that fight we would be at each other's throats, but each time I saw him it was a small reminder that we were not without hope. He had lost to the Night King in Hardhome, but he had not fallen. Whatever the gods' purpose in allowing the Night King and his forces a victory there, surely if we were destined for failure then none would have survived that encounter.
It was another strange development that came that winter, the way my soul turned more and more frequently to the gods. I had never been overly religious, my mind too often preoccupied with the matters of the physical realm to contemplate the workings of the divine. My father had never imposed his beliefs on us, content to let my mother instruct us. His religion was centered on the trees and earth and stones in the godswood, in communing with the spirits through quiet contemplation. I had tried several times to understand the connection. Now and again I understood the solace that could be found in the silence that wreathed those ancient groves, the feeling of the world receding as the trees crowded in. I had stood in the godswood enough times to know the sense of being watched, of being in the presence of powers so old and omniscient that the extent of what they comprehended unnerved me. But perhaps my mother's influence had taken root in my soul, Stark though I was, for it was to the Seven that I found myself praying that winter, whenever a spare moment was to be had.
It was undeniably selfish—and perhaps ultimately foolish—but at the heart of my prayers was not a grand victory or the welfare of all of those who marched with me. Each time I found my heart reaching for the gods, it was for my wife and child that I pleaded. It was to the Mother that I prayed more than to the Warrior.
I had accepted in my heart something that, upon reflection, had long been true: blood had to be spilled for anything important. No peace or safety had ever been won without that cost, and if it meant defeating the White Walkers for thousands of years more, I was ready to pay it. And after all, people had begun to whisper that the battle to come had been prophesied, that whatever the outcome was to be, it had been set in the stars. No amount of prayer would alter that.
Thus, each time I lit a candle in the sept, my prayers were not for the result of that one great battle, but for the fate of Morgan and our child, whatever happened. Surely, even if we lost, she would have time to flee and time enough to raise our child, even if it meant doing so across the Narrow Sea.
That my wife would bear our child without consequence to her health was another matter on which my prayers centered. Morgan was weathering her pregnancy well, all things considered. Maester Osmund, my mother, and Morgan herself were quick to reassure me about the state of her health and the babe she carried. She certainly looked healthy, her curves ripe and her skin glowing though her body continued to change in order to accommodate my child.
It was for Morgan's state of mind that I worried as the days went by. I knew that she was as afraid as I was, and I flattered myself into believing that it was not just for herself and our child that she feared. She did not weep often, and her lack of tears should have set me at ease. However, she had taken up a new habit of late; instead of crying she would sit quietly in one corner, lost in her thoughts, her breathing changing into such uneven patterns that her terrified maid would come running for me, the maester, or my mother. We would arrive to find her composed and apologetic, sometimes annoyed that such a fuss was being made. I had seen enough during the war to know that not everyone who wept was frail, and not all who forbore from weeping were strong.
It was on account of Morgans "moods", as my mother put them, that I made it a point to seek her out whenever I had a free moment. If I was honest, there was also the fact that something inside me settled whenever I set my eyes on her. I never stayed long—Beric very helpfully and very annoyingly would inevitably come to drag me off to something or other—but I stored up the few moments we had more carefully than we had stored up provisions for winter.
It became apparent to me then what little time we had, and often I found myself wondering if I had been a fool to delay the wedding for so long. If I had discovered and married Morgan before crossing the Twins, she might have already borne my children. There might have been more time to hold her hand through the ordeal, to share in the wonder without the specter of death hanging over us all. I knew I was being foolish in indulging such thoughts, particularly since our future in the war had also been uncertain, but at least our chances had been better against men. I had thrown myself into that conflict without reserve, confident despite the odds. What we faced now made the War of the Five Kings seem like a training bout, and yet unlike the war it was a conflict that none of us could avoid. And still my mind lingered on the nights Morgan and I had lost, the conversations we had missed.
I would have wallowed in the strange grief—for grief was what it felt like—in the bitter unfairness of it all, were in not for the ruthless practicality that had often carried me through the chaos and madness that had been my life during and shortly before the war. There was not enough time, and yet there was time, and I resolved to make the most of it –in every respect. And so I made my plans, gave my commands, and spent what time that remained in Morgan's arms.
It was on the day that Lord Ryswell arrived that I went looking for my wife to tell her that we were marching before the week ended. I had been informed that she was in the solar, assisting in the mending, but upon my arrival my mother explained that my wife had pleaded fatigue and retired to our chamber.
"Did you send for the maester?" I asked as alarm shot through me, well-acquainted with the sight of my wife swaying on her feet as she was overcome by one of her dizzy spells.
"There was no need," my mother replied with a firmness that was comforting. Around us the other ladies were setting the mended things into order, seemingly paying our hushed conversation little heed. "Her Grace merely needs some time to rest and some calm. Pregnant women can be very excitable. With so much happening around her, it's to be expected that she needs to retire early now and again in order to cope."
"I should go see her," I said absently, more to myself than my mother. "She needs me when she feels overwhelmed."
My mother's lips thinned in a thoughtful expression. "If I might suggest it, Your Grace, perhaps you should see her later. She's likely abed and needs her sleep. When women are with child, they sometimes begin to keep odd hours."
It was the first time since I had arrived that my mother had attempted to dissuade me from seeing my wife. Suppressing a frown, I looked hard at her face—had something happened? Despite my rising alarm, I could see nothing in her closed expression other than a hint of stern disapproval. It occurred to me then, why she might not want me to see Morgan.
"I won't pounce on her, mother," I said with a grin. "And I daresay my wife can fend me off without your help."
The disapproval became a degree more pronounced, though my mother's expression otherwise remained calm. "Pregnant women often have moods, Your Grace. Sometimes it's best that they deal with them alone."
"She'll have plenty of time to deal with her moods alone once I'm gone," I said shortly, immediately regretting it as a spasm of feeling swept over my mother's face. I reached for her hand with as much impulse as my callous, careless remark, pressing my lips to it briefly. "I just need to see that she's all right, mother. I promise I'll let her be after."
My mother recovered her composure with a swiftness that made me smile, inclining her head regally as she gave her permission. As I left her, it occurred to me that her protectiveness of Morgan—even against me—boded well. My mother would do whatever was in her power to protect Morgan and my child when the worst happened.
If the worst happened.
It was becoming more difficult to check myself in the privacy of my own thoughts, but I did it for my wife's sake. I knew Morgan was not reconciled to the possibility of loss and defeat, and it was important to let her hope. She and our child were my only hopes left, and I would not weigh her down.
I nodded at Morgan's guards as I entered our chamber, forestalling the need to remind them, for what was surely the thousandth time, to do their duty by my wife. I had ceased to pull them aside for private conversations about her safety when Morgan herself had twitted me about it and accused me of behaving like a nagging woman. The comparison had sparked a furious argument and I still considered the insult ill-deserved, but I had grudgingly conceded that I had done enough to impress upon them the need to keep her safe.
The room was mostly pitch-dark, the fire at the grate wavering feebly against the chill of the winter. A few candles created small spheres of yellow light around which the shadows crouched.
My wife stood before her mirror, a portrait of composed stillness. The rich furs that swathed her should have overwhelmed her small body, the dark colors unflattering and draining. Instead she looked very much like a queen, her bearing proud and almost defiant, the paleness of her skin a striking contrast against the darkness of her clothing.
It became apparent after but a few moments that I had indeed come upon my wife while she was in one of her moods. Morgan's eyes were on her reflection, but it was clear that she was not really seeing herself. Wherever her thoughts were, they were in a dark place, and I understood why Lyla would panic at the sight of her. Her breathing was still even, but her fingers were clenched white in the folds of her dress as she restrained whatever feeling or thought was tormenting her. Her eyes closed as I approached, but it became clear that she remained oblivious of me when I slid my arms around her and she gasped.
"Easy," I whispered against her ear, holding her still when she made to twist against me. "It's just me."
"Robb!" Morgan's breath gushed out in a hiss. Her shoulders arched upwards as she tried to turn her head. Then her eyes met mine in the mirror and for a moment I saw what I thought was fear flash across her face. "I mean, Your Grace. I didn't hear you."
"I noticed." I smiled to reassure her, wondering why the odd, hunted look in her eyes did not fade. "Is all well, my queen?"
"I didn't hear you," Morgan was repeating distractedly, her hand brushing over her face self-consciously. The gesture amused me, for it appeared as though she thought that doing so could scrub her expression off.
"How are you?" I asked, nuzzling the side of her throat. There was something about her scent that went straight to my blood and I reminded myself that I needed to be gentle. There had been a mark on her shoulder the night before, and while she had smiled at me then and laughed it off, I had seen her wince as she'd dressed. The reminder seemed timely—she was stiff in my arms, her body taut with tension.
"As well as I can be, Your Grace." Her face formed a curious expression as she replied, her lips curving and pulling at the corners in what should have been a smile. There was something about the way she held her eyes, however, that had me pulling her closer. Perhaps it was also her use—twice now—of the honorific that usually annoyed me.
"What is it, sweet?"
Her fingers fluttered over my hands as she tried to step away, but I kept my grip on her firm. Morgan was uneasy with feelings, unhappy with how the intensity of her emotions undermined her dignity. Perhaps it was strange, but it was one of the qualities that I found most endearing in her, though it frustrated me to no end when she closed herself away even from me. I had learned that if I persisted, if I made clear that there was no escaping me, she would cave and I would enjoy the glorious rush of her unfettered self.
I had never realized, prior to my marriage, how important it was that I have even that. I had never been raised with romantic notions about marriage. My parents had made clear to me at an early age that marriage was entered into for advantage, as theirs had been. If more blossomed out of the union than children and power, then the gods were generous. If any thought to marrying for more than advantage had lingered in my mind, my mother had cut it down swiftly the day she brought Walder Frey's bargain to me at the onset of the war. It was the reason that my relations with Jeyne were not only foolish, but shameful—I had known, every time I had taken her into my arms, that nothing would come of it.
I had never expected that I would come to care for Morgan. Not with my heart in Jeyne's hands. Not when Morgan, too, had appeared so determined that we remain friendly strangers. Yet sometime in the months we had been married, she had crept under my skin. I thought about it at length, but the precise moment I knew I carried her inside me remained unclear. The more I considered it, the more it felt like the she had always been there—revealed slowly by time, unearthed by every kiss as surely as with every word.
I wondered if she knew how strong her hold was on me. It was a hold that I found difficult to countenance, at times. I had thought my relationship with Jeyne to have spanned the depths and heights of all feeling, yet it seemed a pale, colorless thing now. As beset by difficulties as our relationship had been, it had been easy to fall in love and stay in love with Jeyne. It was love as I imagined it was—instant and simple, not needing an explanation. It was untouched by suspicion or irritation, impatience or reproach. It lingered inside me like a small, quiet torch, burning steadily, if not brightly.
I didn't know what I had with Morgan yet, but I was not ready to call it love. What else it could be, however, I could not guess. All I did know was that it eclipsed my feelings for Jeyne like dragonfire set against that one little torch.
"Has anyone or anything upset you?" I asked patiently, sliding my arm more securely around her by moving my palm up to the bone of her breast. Her heart was thudding erratically beneath my touch.
This time her hands came over my own and she wedged her fingers beneath mine. Perhaps my grip was uncomfortable. "No, of course not. I just felt tired, that's all."
I loosened my hold only so that I could turn her. She immediately wedged her hands between us, pushing them firmly against my chest and turning her face away.
"Look at me, sweet," I pleaded, knowing she wouldn't be able to keep it from me for long if she looked at me.
It seemed she was determined to try. Morgan took a deep breath before she turned her gaze to meet mine.
She wanted to weep. It was a curious thing, how familiar her face was to me now so that even the smallest changes were apparent. Now I knew that whenever Morgan was about to cry her face became drawn, an eerily unruffled mask that fell apart within moments of my holding her. So I held her, wanting to ease the strain even if it meant enduring her tears.
She was stiff in my arms even as I did my best to soothe her, stroking my hands from her nape to the base of her spine. She quivered against me and I knew that she was wavering, so I pressed my lips against her ear.
"Tell me," I coaxed with the ragged tenderness that had attended my every interaction with her of late. "Tell me, sweeting, and I'll do what I can to make it better."
Morgan tensed further, if it was possible, and to my surprise she tried to shrug out of my hold.
"Please, just leave me alone!" she cried, the desperation in her voice slicing through my confusion and worry. Upon reflection, it was surprise more than anything that made me comply. I lifted my arms away and stepped back slowly, holding my hands up as I did so.
"All right," I said softly. "All right, I'll let you rest. I'll let you be. Please, Morgan, calm yourself."
"I'm sorry," she whispered, smoothing a trembling hand over her face. For a moment I wondered if she was wiping away a tear.
"No, I'm sorry," I soothed, reaching carefully for her free hand. She didn't pull back as I took it and pressed my lips fervently against her knuckles. Her hand was icy in mine. "I should let you rest. My mother told me you were tired, but I wanted to see you. Forgive me."
It seemed that Morgan was not going to reply. She kept her gaze lowered and I released her hand gently, taking another step back. I turned to leave, rubbing a hand absently over the ache in my chest.
Whatever the cause for Morgan's mood, it held sway over her throughout the course of the days that followed. In public she was calm and unruffled, very much the Queen in the North and apparently at ease in the heart of winter while the men around her prepared for war. She was courteous to me and deferential, and every bit the woman she had been before I had breached the walls that had once been between us.
It was difficult not to be angry with her. I was not a fool. Something had brought this on, and for some reason my wife had decided not to tell me about it. I did not like being kept ignorant when it was obviously a matter of enough importance to worry her.
If the truth were told, however, her secret would not have disturbed me as much if it did not also have the effect of separating Morgan from me. Perhaps she feared that I would continue to pry, and push her to reveal what had occurred, but after that strange afternoon my wife was hardly in my company. And when she was—on the rare occasion that I caught her alone or when we retired in the evenings—she wrapped herself tightly in a shroud of polite indifference that was bewildering and . . . well, painful. As decorous as she was with others about, Morgan had always been unreservedly affectionate in private. There had been afternoons, not very long before, when she would huddle in my arms in a silence that spoke volumes. I would wake to the touch of her fingers on my face as she traced its contours, fall asleep to the rhythm of her breathing and the steady drum of her heart against mine. I had imagined us perfectly aligned in those moments, content simply to be with one another, and I could not reconcile the memories of that sweet, vital woman to the one who had resumed her place.
Matters came to a head on the night before we were to march to the Wall. The air was thick with dread, and every face in the great hall that night was somber. Supper was a quiet, mirthless affair. I looked around the room, wondering at how long ago it felt that a minstrel had been singing bawdy odes to my wife when in truth it had only been months. Morgan had experienced another one of her dizzy spells and my mother had tucked her into bed. My mother had assured me that Morgan was fine and only needed rest, and this time I heeded her and let Morgan be.
It had occurred to me more than once that my mother might know of the cause of Morgan's sudden coldness. They had formed a bond that had been surprising to me, given my mother's initial partiality towards Kyra, and it was clear to any who were around them that my mother considered Morgan a daughter as surely as if she had sprung from my mother's own flesh.
Did I dare to test that bond? Surely my mother would reveal what she knew if I spoke to her about our recent troubles. After all, I wasn't asking out of idle curiosity, but for the sake of peace in my marriage. Whatever confidences she would have to break would be out of necessity.
Stubborn pride turned me from that course of action each time. As close as we were, I had a notion then that men did not simply speak to their mothers about women. I never had, even growing up. I hadn't spoken to my father much about them either, but that was because no girl before Jeyne had ever been of consequence, and by then my father had been gone.
Still, I was aggravated and worried enough not to give my pride much thought after it became clear that the cloud that hung over us would not lift on its own. And Morgan was resisting all my subtle efforts to dispel it. I resolved that evening to speak to my mother after supper. I would not ride to the Wall without at least understanding, if I could, what was underfoot.
Fate did not grant me the opportunity. Halfway through our meal my mother excused herself, pleading a headache, though she promised to be up early to see us off. I stifled my frustration, seeing how drawn and tired she did look. I would not pester her later, when she clearly intended to retire, and risk a quarrel with another important woman in my life.
She was not the only one to leave early for her bed. Despite our steward's valiant attempts to prepare a good meal, it seemed no one had much of an appetite. One of the others who rose from his chair soon after my mother was Jon.
He was seated near the end of the great hall, with his brothers from the Night Watch, but I marked his departure without really intending to. He seemed to feel it as well, his eyes meeting mine before he tilted into a shallow bow. I realized as he left the hall that it was still hostility that kept us conscious of one another—he and I watched each other as suspiciously as any sworn adversaries would. We had not quarreled again since he had arrived, but it seemed that the mantle of brotherhood which had always covered us had been cast off.
Perhaps in the end it mattered little. Both of us were marching to the Wall. Even if the worst did not happen, and by some miracle we turned the tide against the Night King, it was likely that neither of us would survive. Whatever relationship we did or did not have would be of no consequence once the end came.
"Where is Grey Wind?" I asked Merrell absently. I had finished my meal and found I had left more scraps than what I had eaten. My dire wolf was usually at the table during meals—he had taken up the habit the last time we had been home. When we had begun settling in again after returning from Riverrun, Grey Wind also resumed following me to our chamber. I was accustomed to him doing so, but when I caught him making to climb onto our bed and settle himself on top of my wife—to guard her, it seemed—I drew the line. It was behavior I would have had no qualms with if Morgan was not pregnant, but since she was I no longer permitted Grey Wind into our room. He had stopped following me up from the great hall afterwards, and I wondered occasionally if it was in a dire wolf to sulk.
My steward stepped forward to reply, bending low in order to do so. "He was seen in the godswood, Your Grace. He spends much of his time there when he isn't here or with you."
A man would enjoy the comforts of a warm hearth and a roof over his head before a long march. I didn't know why I expected my dire wolf to think like a man, but his behavior struck me as curious. I was not fanciful enough to imagine that a dire wolf could pray, but perhaps Grey Wind was taking solace in the only safe woods he would find in the North. Once we left Winterfell, every thicket or small cluster of trees could harbor some danger. Surely even a dire wolf could embrace the irreplaceable contentment offered by security.
Perhaps it would be better for Grey Wind to stay in Winterfell.
As soon as the idea came into my head, I discarded it. Grey Wind was mine—the other half of my soul, if Old Nan's superstitious ramblings were to be believed—and he belonged wherever I went. We had never been separated since he had come into my care, and it did not seem fitting that we should be so parted now, when I was going surely to my doom.
Though as I entered our chamber later that night, passing Morgan's capable guards, it occurred to me that it wouldn't hurt to give her one more. A guard with keener senses than any man, who would not balk even at the sight of a fearful wight or menacing White Walker. One more guard to watch over my queen and the child she was to bear. If the worst happened, Morgan would still have my dire wolf and it would be as though a part of me was still protecting her.
Torn, I resolved to ask Morgan about it. That is, if tonight proved to be different.
Morgan was a small bundle under the furs, her dark hair limned red by the fire. I sensed rather than saw her start as I entered the room. She couldn't be asleep—the gods knew that sleep had proven difficult for both of us of late, and the sudden divide between us was of no help. It had occurred to me that I should drink to find some peace, but I did not care for the thought of riding after an evening of overindulgence. I had learned that lesson sharply after the ride from Riverrun.
This was the way it had been for the last few nights. She would retire before me and feign sleep when I arrived. And every night I undressed and lay beside her, fighting the impulse to press her about what was wrong, until exhaustion claimed me. I would wake to find her gone and simply pray that by the next night things would be different.
Not tonight. There was no next night for us after this.
So when I slid into the covers beside her, I summoned my courage—who would ever think a man would need courage to reach out to his wife?—and spoke.
"How are you feeling?" I asked in a neutral tone, staring at the dark ceiling. My room was not a tall one, but without further illumination it seemed to stretch upwards into the sky. As I waited for her response, a dozen inane thoughts filtered through my mind. I would be under the actual sky soon enough, and I knew it would be as dark as what my eyes beheld just then. It was likely fancy, but it seemed even the stars had disappeared during this winter.
For several long moments it seemed that Morgan would not answer. I turned towards her, wondering if I had been wrong about her being awake.
"I'm fine, Your Grace." Her voice was muffled against the bedclothes, but her words were clear enough. She took a deep breath. "Just tired, is all."
"Did you manage to get some food here?"
The brief silence seemed to vibrate with her impatience. "Yes, Your Grace. Lyla made sure to bring me some." She stiffened beneath the hand I had laid gently over her arm and her next words came much quicker. "I'm very tired, Your Grace."
"I leave on the morrow, Morgan," I said softly. I would have taken another arrow in my shoulder rather than suffer the sting of the rejection that was radiating from my wife's tense, curled posture.
"I know, Your Grace." She didn't even turn her head. She did shift though, and my hand fell away from her as she curled further against herself. "Perhaps you should rest."
I sat up slowly, feeling my temper going into a boil.
It's all right, a desperately calm, soothing voice was saying over the roar in my ears. Maybe she thinks you just want to pounce on her. A woman may not want that all the time. Just reassure her that you don't want to do that.
It would be a lie, of course, but I was willing to take what I could get. Perhaps lovemaking was not as enjoyable when a woman was pregnant. Considering how often we did it, it had not occurred to me until just then that Morgan might think that was what I always wanted. It was, but it wasn't the only thing. My heartbeat steadied with these rationalizations, and I tried again.
"I won't make love with you tonight, Morgan," I said gently, though the words seemed to scrape the insides of my throat as I pushed them out. "I want to, but I won't do it if you don't want me to."
Again the silence was loaded, broken only by a deep exhalation. "Thank you, Your Grace."
I shook off the hurt, forced myself to reap satisfaction in the fact that she had taken me at my word. It still felt like there was a yawning chasm between us, but perhaps she would permit me to bridge it now.
"Will you let me hold you close?" I coaxed, reaching carefully for her arm. "I just want to hold you."
It was if my touch burned her. Morgan sprang upwards, wincing as undoubtedly the abrupt movement taxed her pregnant body, and the look in her bright eyes was as cutting as a blade.
"Don't touch me," she hissed in a terrible voice, the disgust in it a venomous sting. "I can't bear it!"
There was no getting a hold of my temper this time. I was on my feet as well, the flame of outrage ensuring that I didn't feel the chill.
"What in the seven hells is wrong with you?!"
"You! You are what's wrong with me!" Morgan yelled right back, and the for the second time in days the force of her anger surprised me so much that I did not know how to respond.
As I stared at her in momentary silence, bafflement managing to take the wind out of my indignation, a strange expression came over her face. It was as if something inside her was pulling her back and she swallowed hard, a shaking hand coming over her face. When she lowered it a moment later her face was calm even though her eyes kept their telling sheen.
"I don't know why I said that," she said tightly. "It's just the baby, I'm sure."
My derailed fury quickly found its momentum. "If pigs fell out of the sky, you'd blame our baby," I snapped unfairly. I didn't see it as unfair just then, of course, but I would be made to pay for that particular remark in years to come until I acknowledged that it was neither the kindest nor the wisest thing to say to the mother of my child. "We both know that it isn't your pregnancy to blame for this. What has happened to you?"
The question was met with stony silence. My wife had pulled herself up to every single inch of her height, her chin tilted upwards while she appeared to stare me down. It was a superior, condescending stance, and it usually had the effect of both chastening and amusing me. Before we had been married, it had felt like incredible insolence. Highborn though she was, the Freys were so far beneath us that for her to match her pride to mine felt like an insult. But she was a Frey no longer, and that particular look on her face was so fitting of a queen that ordinarily it would have made me proud. Just then it was simply infuriating. I bit down on the need to start shouting again—shouting would never get through to Morgan when she was determined to be dignified. All it would accomplish was to make me feel like a churl.
So when I spoke, my voice was low-pitched, but there was no helping the ice in my tone. "You won't let me be around you, you refuse me your bed, and now you're saying that you can't even stand to let me touch you. I think you will agree, Your Grace, that a truthful explanation would not be unreasonable." I wanted to throw her sudden refusal to use my name into the mix, but I knew it would be petty. Gods save me if Morgan latched onto that little issue—though it had nagged at me like a sore tooth over the last few days—and fail to answer the more important ones.
"You're implying that I'm lying," Morgan said coldly. As on the afternoon when everything had gone awry, it seemed she was going to try to avoid answering. I was determined that she would not succeed this time.
Still, it didn't keep me from seething as I redirected her. "And you're not answering the question again. Tell me what's wrong, Morgan."
One of Morgan's brows arched upwards and for the first time in our lives together I heard her voice—that low, sweet, beautiful voice—dip into a jeer. "Is it so difficult for you to fathom that I may not want you anymore?"
That particular arrow found its mark, and the pain of it was as complete as if it had pierced my heart. I stood, stunned by the blow, struck dumb as my head swam with the imputations of what she had said. For the truth was, it had never occurred to me that Morgan no longer wanted me. We still had much to discover about one another, and we had our differences and misunderstandings—as our current circumstances made very clear to me—but I had never doubted our passion for one another. Though unlooked for and unexpected, I had accepted the need to be close to her, to please and pamper her. She had never given me cause to believe—after that first glorious night when we had truly made love—that the feeling was not mutual.
There was a savage, gloating look on Morgan's face and it became plain to me that I was unable to hide what I was feeling just then. She had taken me too much by surprise—and in any event, I was certain there was no way for me to defend against such a blow. But it came to me as I looked at her, unable to mask my suffering, that there was a reason she was enjoying my pain so much.
"We both know," I said with some difficulty, my voice hoarse to my own ears, "that you still want me. If you learned to scorn my touch, it wouldn't be a lesson you would learn in a day. And you wouldn't fight so hard to keep me away from you if you were truly indifferent."
I felt a little more breath enter my lungs as the vicious pleasure disappeared from Morgan's expression. "Well, if it flatters your vanity to think so."
I started towards her, looking forward to proving her a liar, and I was gratified by how quickly she dropped the farce, scurrying away from me so that the heavy table where we sometimes took our meals stood between us. Fury mottled her pale cheeks as she comprehended what she had done and I forestalled the insane urge to laugh at the rush of satisfaction. Oh, she wanted me all right. Why she was pushing me away was still a mystery, but she wanted me. The ill-timed humor faded away as I recalled that she had still not shed light on the cause of her behavior.
"Please, Morgan," I said quietly. "No more games. Just tell me what's wrong."
She wavered as clearly as if she were on the edge of a precipice, her eyes bright with tears and her breath clogged in her throat. Her lips trembled and my own breath caught as I waited for whatever it was.
"I just . . ." She sighed and her eyes closed. "I don't want you to touch me yet."
"Why?" My own breath rushed out of me in an exasperated bark.
She was keeping her eyes closed and I knew she was reinforcing her defenses against me. It was there, in the flat tone of her voice. "Do I really need a reason?"
"Yes, gods damn it!" My palm slammed mindlessly into the table between us.
Morgan gasped, but it wasn't the sound that arrested me. Her arms were thrown up in front of her, one in front of her face while the other appeared to have been raised in attempt to shield her belly. Her torso was tucked inwards as though she was bracing for a blow. Her face was averted, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, her small body frozen with tension.
I absorbed what I was seeing in an instant and just as suddenly felt violently ill. I had never been a queasy person, but I felt my gorge rise as I understood what had just happened.
"Morgan." My voice came out in a whisper. "Gods, did you think I was going to hit you?"
She had. She did. Even as her eyes opened and her arms lowered, her fear was there, filling my lungs and making me ashamed.
The words that I might have said hovered in the back of my mind.
I would never hurt you. How could you think I could raise a hand to you?
Except they would ring false if I said them. Because I had hurt her before, and though she had forgiven me for it, it was clear that she had not forgotten it. Perhaps she never would.
"I'm sorry," I said, my voice rough. I cleared my throat, trying to free it of the feeling that it was being squeezed. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
It was difficult to look at her, so I turned away. How had we gotten here? All I had wanted when I had come to her that night was to be with her one last time, to give her what assurances I could and to dream about our child and a future where we could raise him—or her—together. Instead I had pushed her into an argument and terrified her. Feeling wearier than I had been after my very first battle, I decided there was no point in going further. Perhaps the gods had contrived that our parting be so. I would find it in me to leave her side, and she would mourn me less when I was gone.
"Let's just go to bed," I said at length. The offer to sleep elsewhere hovered over my lips, but I refused to make it. I could not. She would have plenty of nights without me to look forward to. Instead, to help her with her apparent revulsion to me, I added, "Tomorrow will come soon enough."
The low, earnest voice stopped me. I turned back and recognized her for the first time in days. Morgan's hands were knotted tightly together beneath her breasts and I saw that my surrender, by some cruel irony, had finally made her yield.
"I just didn't know how to feel or act," she confessed in that same tone. "I should have expected but . . . that is, I knew when we were married that you . . ." She lost the battle with her tears then, and she dashed them away impatiently. I must have made some movement, because she held her hand up as if to stop me. "I don't know how to be with you anymore."
I opened my mouth and shut it just as quickly when a grim, mirthless chuckle gurgled out of her. Wiping her nose, Morgan grimaced in a parody of a smile.
"I'm not making sense to you, am I? It's just . . . " she swallowed thickly, her expression conveying how painful it was for her to speak freely. "I heard . . . " She took a deep breath, her tears spilling freely onto her cheeks this time. "I heard about her."
My continued confusion must have shown on my face—and it provoked my wife soundly. Before I could ask, Morgan's voice rose with a sharp snap.
"Don't look at me like that, please! You know whom I mean. I won't say her name."
Stupidly, I wanted to press the issue—no, woman, I don't know whom you mean. "She" could be any female other than yourself—and then clarity hit me like a slap in the face.
Gods, was this what Morgan had felt like when I had confronted her about Jon? My jealousy then had been warranted, of course, but no wonder she was so maddened by it. I wanted to kiss her and shake her all at once, but I understood her well enough by now to know that the only way to ease her would be to reason the tangle out with her.
"I thought you knew about my past," I said quietly, trying to gauge what had brought this on. Morgan had always known about Jeyne and it had never been a cause for a quarrel between us. Why it was at issue now, when I had put Jeyne firmly behind me, was still eluding me.
"I knew about your past with her," Morgan acceded readily, though the fury in her tone belied that she was making a concession. "But I never learned about the current state of your affairs until recently."
"My what? What are you saying? That you think I'm still carrying on with her?" The contempt on Morgan's face was enough answer. "Morgan—"
"Don't you dare say that I'm being ridiculous!" she shouted, tearing the word from my tongue before I could speak it. "Where is Jeyne Westerling now, Robb? Where has she been in all the months since you married me?"
It was as if someone had struck another match in the dimly lit room. Understanding flooded me and the relief was as palpable as a drink of water after a day spent in battle.
"This is about Jeyne being Sansa's handmaiden," I said aloud, sighing and again fighting the urge to groan with laughter.
"Oh, is that what Jeyne is there for?"
The insinuation was not lost on me and I felt myself bristling. "Before you cast aspersions on Lady Westerling," I said as calmly as I could, checking myself because I had just confirmed that what name I called someone was indeed going to be used against me, "perhaps you should tell me what you've heard."
If Morgan possessed the ability to burst into flame on the spot, she might have done it just then. I realized just as her expression became livid that I had sounded utterly patronizing—and perhaps I had meant to be, without fully realizing it.
"It has come to my attention," she said icily, "that you installed your mistress as your sister's handmaiden in King's Landing. You rode to King's Landing yourself, right after our wedding, to see her and ensure that her position there was secure. And of course, she was at Riverrun when you were there last, because the King in the South apparently felt the need to bring his queen and all her ladies with him north in the middle of winter. Do I have the right of it?"
I had once thought that the ugliest of rumors were only so because once heard they festered unspoken in the dark, fueled by our own perverse imaginations and twisted into the worst possible form. As my wife laid out her accusations, I realized that they were just as ugly when spoken aloud.
"There are several points that require clarification," I answered levelly, the notion that I was partly to blame for this helping keep my temper in check. Perhaps I should have spoken to Morgan about Jeyne before, and explained—though when and how, I could not imagine just then. "First, Lady Westerling is not my mistress. As you know, she was my lover once, but our relations ended when I married you. Second, I asked Sansa to take her in because her mother was punishing her for our relationship. Lady Spicer tolerated it when she thought that I might marry her daughter, but once it became clear that I would not, things became very difficult for Je—Lady Westerling. And as to her presence at King's Landing and Riverrun when I visited those places, that was out of my control and could not be helped. I did not ride for weeks and weeks to dally with her, despite what you've been told."
How could Morgan believe that, after what we had been to one another? How could she believe that I would leave her in the middle of winter in order to see another woman? Morgan and I had quarreled before I left, true, but the decision to leave had been made long before and without a thought for Jeyne. And I had not welcomed the sight of Jeyne at Riverrun any more than I had when I had ridden to King's Landing after my wedding. Yet Morgan believed that I had fashioned some intricate scheme in order to greedily satisfy my need for both of them. She still believed it, despite what I had told her. It was there, in the furrow between her brows and the unhappy twist of her usually soft mouth.
"Why don't you believe me?" I demanded, grasping at straws as to how to make her. I knew that the circumstances could be twisted to suit the malicious narrative of any wagging tongue, but it was a bitter pill that my wife appeared to give them greater credence than the truth I had revealed to her. "Who told you about all this that you would doubt my account of it?"
It was strange, how the answer came to me. I would never have guessed so quickly, otherwise. Morgan did not reply, but a guilty, defensive look flashed over her face, and when no answer came I arrived at it on my own.
"It was Jon," I concluded, surprising myself when the realization was accompanied by only the slightest of twinges in my chest. Mostly I felt hollow—and filled with a grim sense of vindication.
Morgan didn't bother with pretense in this regard, perhaps because she was aware that she'd given herself away. "Jon cares about me. He told me because he doesn't want me to make a fool of myself."
"Over your husband?" This time I did laugh, and even I heard the scorn in my voice. "Have you ever bothered to ask yourself why Jon Snow takes such an interest in our marriage? Have you never wondered why he takes it upon himself to malign me before my own wife?"
"Jon didn't really malign you," Morgan protested fiercely. "He just told me to be careful not to . . . well, not to be so open with you that I let myself get hurt. He just told me what he knew—events, not what he thought of them—and I came to my own conclusions. And can you really blame me for thinking what I do? Do you truly not realize how it appears to me?"
"I know how it looks," I said shortly. "I've told you why I did those things and yet you would put greater store in the word of some—"
"Leave Jon out of this!" Morgan snapped and I ground my teeth together. Why couldn't she see what he was doing to us? Instead her mind veered towards old ground. "Why did you even bother with her placement if things truly were at an end between you?"
"I've told you: it was an act of kindness towards a woman I had wronged," I repeated slowly, frustration cutting away at my control. It was ridiculous that we were having this conversation now, when I was to leave her side perhaps forever. Why couldn't she see the folly of this?
"Oh, but she was much more to you than that," Morgan pressed ruthlessly. "She wasn't just any woman whose honor you had slighted, was she? If you had not given your promise to my father, she would have been in my place, would she not?"
Why did it feel like I was losing? Likely because there was no way to answer that question and emerge the victor in this argument. Honor compelled me to admit the truth—that if I had not given my promise to Walder Frey, I would have married Jeyne. And yet the words would not come, because the truth also was that I could not imagine any other woman but Morgan as my wife.
"But I did make a promise to your father, didn't I?" I pointed out, trying to find footing on dangerous ground. "Why must we deal in the abstract? It's you I married, not Jey—Lady Westerling. That I tried to be good to her after using her so foully does not change what happened between you and me."
It is still difficult for me to describe the sound that Morgan made at my reply. She raked her hands through her hair in clear aggravation, the feminine growl raising the hairs on the back of my arms.
"Morgan, for gods' sakes, you have nothing to fear from her!"
"This isn't about Jeyne!"
I gaped at that incredible statement. "Then what in gods' name are we quarreling about?"
"Do you still love her?"
The sharp question hit me like a bullet from a sling. Perhaps that was why I could give no real answer. Morgan was watching me like a cat waiting to pounce, her dark eyes slitted and her body strung tight like a bow as she waited for my response.
"Why does that signify?" I asked instead, clinging to the first feeling after panic: irritation. "You've said that she has nothing to do with you and me."
"So you do still love her?" Morgan demanded, her voice raised in an undeniable shout.
"What does it matter if I do or don't?" I snarled, barely restraining myself from another violent outburst. It didn't matter that I was not striking at her. I had seen the way Morgan had looked at me when I had vented my frustration on the table. She saw me as a monster, a savage that was a slave to his temper. I never wanted her to look at me like that again. "What do you want from me, Morgan?"
Her answer was in the silence that filled the room following that question, but the gods only knew why I was unable to divine it. Perhaps it eluded me because I was too overcome by my feelings just then, trying to hold myself together as they washed over me.
I wanted to drink. I wanted to find my good-for-nothing brother and beat him into the snow. I wanted to shake my wife until she stopped asking me infuriating questions. Instead I braced my hands onto the wood of the unfortunate table, taking a deep breath. The red edges of my vision cleared and I saw Morgan's stricken face. I tried again, praying to anyone who could hear that she heard me and understood. "Morgan, listen to us. We've just been arguing for the sake of arguing. You are my wife. You're to be the mother of my child. I would never dishonor myself, you, or Lady Westerling by dallying with her after making my vows to you."
The words filled the space between us as I silently willed her to believe me. I did not know how else to restore peace between us if she didn't. My actions with regard to Jeyne could be interpreted many ways, and a part of me understood that any person with a modicum of wit might reach conclusions which were reasonable, though actually far from the truth. So I prayed that Morgan's faith in me was enough, that she would trust my words though they had next to nothing to rest on.
Morgan's eyes closed and she drew a ragged breath. For a moment it seemed that she would not release it, her figure trembling as she contained it, then it left her in a soft sigh.
"I would never accuse you of dishonor, Your Grace," she said quietly. Her eyes opened and I saw that they were dry. I felt a moment of piercing relief as the anger slid from her face. Then the relief was supplanted by disquiet. Somehow my wife had disappeared in the space of a few heartbeats, and standing before me was a stranger who was now blotting carefully at her face with the sleeve of her gown. "Please forgive the outburst. I wasn't thinking clearly. It's part of the pregnancy, I'm told."
I stared, the even tones of her voice more jarring to my ears than her shouting had been. I cleared my throat, trying to force the lump that seemed to have lodged in it. "Do you mean you understand?"
Morgan's mouth curved into a small smile, and she chuckled ruefully. "Yes, of course. You've never been unfaithful to me. I know that now. I've been silly. So silly."
But she didn't seem silly at all. It was too surreal, this sudden, tranquil peace. Yet she didn't seem to be lying or speaking sarcastically. She believed me, which is what I had wanted. She turned away, moving around the table towards me.
"We should rest," she said in a tone that would have been normal had its lightness not come on the heels of our thunderous argument. "You have a long march ahead of you and I should be mindful of the baby."
She tilted her face up and I bent as I recognized the gesture, my entire being sighing with relief as her lips pressed softly against mine. Then she stepped away and I resisted the impulse to grab at her.
"Come," she said with a small smile. Her lashes were still wet with tears, but her hand was in mine and she was tugging me towards the bed.
I stumbled after her, grappling with the unnerving sense that all was not as well as it seemed. I stared at her as we climbed into bed, looking for tension or any other sign that she was still concealing something that was amiss. All I saw was that the fire and the fury had gone out of her, like a great conflagration doused by rain.
I shook myself inwardly when the worry persisted. We had just quarreled, after all. It was normal to feel as if something had fractured between us. We had quarreled before, and we had always made up. In many ways, our arguments had always served to bring us closer together.
When I reached for her, her willingness was a balm to the unease that was scraping at my insides. As I tasted and touched, took and gave, the delights of her body assured me that all was well.
Yet I lay awake all that night, holding her tightly against me, certain that if I closed my eyes I would wake to find that she had slipped away.
Author's Note #2: I'm quite nervous about this chapter, speaking honestly. It was part of the reason it took me so long to write it out (apart from the fact that I needed to reconstruct it). I'm certain neither of our main characters was very likeable here, and I worry that it will put some of you off. I considered revising the plot points of this story just so that I could avoid having to write this one out, but every attempt to do so was a failure. So I'm sticking to the original story plan and just crossing my fingers that you guys sit tight. The last time I felt this way was when I was writing out Chapter 5 (and I know some of you who stayed with me are still upset about what happened there), but my muses must be twisted, intractable women, because they refuse to allow rewrites.
Now for a quick word of thanks to everyone I haven't been able to reply to via PM:
Christine Rose: Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm well chuffed to hear that you check for updates every month—and very sorry that I disappoint you more frequently than I please you. I hope that what I do write makes up for it. Thank you again for leaving me such supportive reviews, I truly appreciate it! (P.S. I'm curious to see whom you favor more after this chapter, haha.)
Ara: Yes, I did! Haha, so sorry it took me so long between Chapters 7 and 8. And so sorry again for missing my December deadline. Thank you so much for understanding though! I hope this chapter is enjoyable for you—even if it isn't as lovey-dovey as the last. And I'm quite glad you like this version of Jon, haha! And thank you—I am doing better in terms of health, or at least coping better with so much work. Emma: Robb's not the most insightful of people in terms of personal relationships, haha, as I'm sure I've made clear in this portrayal. But he's growing! At least I think he is, haha. Let me know how you see it! Cool dude 1: Oh my God, when I first read your review I ended up coughing up my coffee in the middle of a client meeting, hahaha. (Long story as to why I was reading reviews during a client meeting, but still!) Thank you for reading and letting me know what you think! If I'm honest, there are times when even I think Morgan should pick Jon. Elle: I'm kind of worried about how mad you are since I missed my December deadline, but I hope this will convince you to feel better about me. And I'm not mad at all—I'm rather touched that you would worry, so thank you! mrk010585: Hahaha, I think of Robb, too, every time I see Richard Madden in other things! Then I cringe because I remember that I haven't updated. So sorry about that! I hope this chapter helped satisfy you even a little bit, and thank you for your continued support! Guest 1: Thank you so much! The update is a little late, but I hope you still want it! Guest 2: I know, I'm so sorry! Thank you for bearing with me, and I hope you liked the update! ASDFGHJKL1234: Nooo, hahaha, huuug! I'm sorry, I'm a sucker for punishment in my preferred love stories, and that's pretty much what I like to inflict on my readers. Bear with me! I'm curious about who you ship after this chapter though—though I'm sure that this chapter won't really help Robb find favor with you. Still, I'll wait for you to tell me. Thank you so much for continuing to read and letting me know what you think!
If I missed anyone, please do let me know!
I can't give a timeline as to when the next chapter will be up. As I told some of you in response to your reviews, however, there are only two more chapters after this one. There were originally four more chapters planned, but I think I can condense them into two. In any case, I do see the finish line for this story and I'm certain we'll get there. I know you guys worry about whether you'll get a resolution for this story (I get monthly PMs from a number of you about whether I'm alive and/or if I've abandoned this story), and I know there is precedent for me abandoning my fics, but I assure you that this is one I will finish. I'd show you guys the outline I wrote up sometime around Chapter 3, but you guys know I can't do that. But do trust me, please, when I say that this fic will be completed.
Thank you so much for reading and (hopefully) your continued support! Truly, you guys, since I can't make money off of this writing, knowing that you're reading and enjoying my story is 99.9% what I get out of all this. The 0.01% is my own personal satisfaction in writing and getting some of the things that build up in my head out of it. So from me to you, LOTS OF BIG HUGS AND KISSES! I'd give you more, but I'm paying loans and other grown-up things, so that's about all I can give (apart from this story).
If you do like this story and are interested in reading unrelated spin-offs/AUs, I've begun posting some one-shots in between updates of this story. The werewolf-Robb one-shot I promised (I think in the first spin-off) is almost done. Please keep an eye out for it in the meantime. (No pressure though! I'm just informing you in case you want something else to read which is somewhat similar to this.) Again, hugs, kisses, and love to all of you!
Next Chapter: A great battle is fought.