Theon felt many things as the wind whipped through his hair and the salt spray chafed his cheeks. He was watching his sister's ships sail back from someplace north of Pyke, probably returning from a village raid or some kind of disciplinary action that had to be taken with an island offshoot. The waters looked fierce today, thrashing about in the wide blue oblivion. The ocean was like a surrogate mother to him-it birthed him, only to be raised by wolves, far from the sand and high rocky shores of his home.
At first, he hated the Starks. Hated them for taking him from home, for sinking his brother's beautiful ships, for snatching him from the lap of his father and the arms of his sister. For ending the bravest rebellion Westeros had ever seen. But Lord Stark was kind to him, no matter how many times Theon cried and screamed and kicked. He taught him how to aim a bow, kill a stag, draw a sword, all alongside his own, true children. And when he excelled with the bow, far surpassing Robb or Jon, Ned Stark clamped a solid hand to his shoulder and told him his father, Lord Balon, would be proud. Theon was young and impressionable enough to believe him then, but he knew now: nothing he did would ever please his father again. Not when he was forced to relive his defeat every time Theon opened his ocean-blue eyes.
Theon still remembered his first night in Winterfell.
A boy of seven, Theon knew of the world only what his sister, Yara, and his nursemaids had taught him. But when he was forcibly taken from his chambers and tossed unceremoniously onto a ship headed north, his world expanded in the worst of ways. When they arrived, Yoren had thrown him into a cell outside the hold, and he remembered how ungodly cold it was in his islander tunic. Only savages would live in a place this cold. He thought they meant to let him freeze to death as punishment for his father's crimes, but after a while, a boy's face appeared in the snow, peering at him through the bars of his embarrassing cage.
"Why are you sleeping out here?" The boy couldn't have been much older than himself, and his curious brown eyes burrowed deep into Theon.
Still a little fire left in him, Theon jumped up, rattling the bars and frightening Robb, who took a few steps back. "You have to let me out of here, they're going to kill me!"
Robb regained his composure and then stepped closer to the freezing boy. "Why are they going to kill you? Did you run away from the Night's Watch?"
"Night's Watch? I'm Theon Greyjoy, Prince of the Iron Islands, and my father says that the Starks are heathens who bow down to a tyrant. They are cowards who kill their enemies empty-handed instead of arming them and fighting to the death."
Theon was simply repeating things he had overheard his father saying, but young Robb angrily jumped to the defense of his family. "Theon Greyjoy is no prince-he's nothing more than a rebel's son! My father and the King's army defeated Greyjoy in battle twelve nights ago."
This was the first he had heard of his father's defeat. Surely it wasn't true. This boy must be lying to him-how could his brothers and their ships lose a battle on the water? Their waters? His heroes couldn't have failed him. "It's a lie! The Iron Islands are free!"
Theon distinctly remembered Robb Stark's next words: "Then why are you in a cage like a dog, Iron Prince?" And then he turned and disappeared into the white.
Robb must have run to his father after that because soon Lord Stark came to his cage and quickly unlocked the door. He dusted the snow off of Theon and put a cloak around his shoulders, keeping a firm grip on the young lad so he wouldn't run away, but not hard enough to hurt.
"You should have brought him directly to me, Yoren. He's not a common prisoner, he's Lord Balon's only living son." The words, spoken so plainly, fell like anvils into Theon's young ears. "Are you hurt, Theon?" But Theon couldn't answer, he could only cry. He cried for days on end, refusing food and kicking and biting anyone who tried to come too close. Every night, Ned would come into the room they had provided for him in the barracks to bring food and water.
"You have to eat." And finally, after a week of refusing solid food, Theon ate. He ate roast goat, cabbage stew, boiled potatos, sliced ham. Days later, he began talking again. Mostly crude, hateful things, but Stark was just glad to see that the boy wasn't mute. At first, Theon had to be under guard at all hours. He tried several times to escape his captors, always with plans to stowaway aboard some ship and sail home. After each attempt, he was brought back in chains. How humiliating it had been to stand there and apologize in front of the entire family while shackled and sniffling like a slave girl. Yoren had him beaten on occasion to keep him in line, but the other boys were not immune to these punishments by virtue of being free. Eventually, he stopped dreaming of a castle in the sea. There were even days when he felt like a Stark himself, but it was never a long-lived dream. Someone would always say or do something to remind him of his true position in their home: an outsider.
Soon after his arrival, Theon overheard a heated conversation outside his door between Lady and Lord Stark as he tried to fall asleep in a strange bed in a foreign land. Her voice bit like the icy wind:
"...bringing a Greyjoy into our home, Ned? Are you mad?"
"What else was I to do? Robert would have had him killed like his brothers otherwise."
"So now it's our responsibility to raise a traitor? To let him eat at the table alongside our own children? First you bring home that woman's bastard, and now you expect me to raise the son of our enemies?"
"He's only a child, Cat. He's not to be blamed for the sins of his father."
"But he will always have the blood of a Greyjoy boiling inside of him. They're not like us, Ned. The Greyjoys have no honor and know no duty. As soon as he's able, he will betray us. And if not us, then our children. Do you want to put that burden on yourself? On me?"
There was a long pause. "I will raise him myself, and he will learn, or he won't eat. He's not like Balon. He will be a shark raised among wolves, and he will learn."
"I cannot possibly-"
"Quiet. We will not speak of this again. He is under my protection and anyone who disrespects him, disrespects me."
Even now, the memory stung. It seemed that every time Theon began to feel at home somewhere, someone would come along to put him back in his place: outside looking in. Even the Lannister imp looked down on him, mocked him through the bars of his cage. Loyalty to his captors? This very phrase sent him reeling. Sometimes, he prided himself on his loyalty to the Starks. Other times, it shamed him so deeply he could barely stand to look at himself. And that was something he generally enjoyed.
Years of being talked about as though he were not in the room had developed in Theon an excellent memory for every harsh word against him, and praises were few and far between. Lady Stark and Tyrion Lannister's voices were among those that would roll about in his head whenever his insecurities caught up with his pride. However, the words that had meant the most over the years, both harsh and kind, had been from a boy not much older than Theon.
From that first angry conversation, to the last words Robb had written him: Be safe, my brother. Together, we will win this war. Every word from his mouth elicited volumes of unspoken emotion from the young ward. Theon harbored a wildly burning jealousy for the eldest Stark. At times, he hated him. Wanted to be him. Wanted to beat him.
He could convince himself of his superiority to the other Starks: there were the girls, who posed no threat of course, and Bran and Rickon were still children hiding behind their mother's skirts. The bastard would inevitably fade into oblivion serving that nonsensical Night's Watch, but Robb? He was beloved by the Northern people. He was good at most everything he tried his hand at, handsome and charming to boot. Then there was that damnable Stark honor to speak of. And if Robb's war was successful, he wouldn't just be the lord of Winterfell anymore. He would be a fucking King.
How many times had Theon prayed to the gods of Ned Stark to reverse their positions? He pleaded with whatever gods would listen to let him take Robb away from his family to a strange land he was not suited for. To make Robb carry his father's sword around and pledge fealty to his house. To make Robb feel unwelcome everywhere but with him.
He wanted so badly to impress Robb, to best him at anything and everything, and as he jolted awkwardly into puberty, that desire evolved into something even more unsettling.
Though out of place among the honor-bound Starks, animalistic lust was not unknown to the hot-blooded Greyjoys, and Theon took out his many frustrations in the company of whores and handmaidens. He even accompanied Robb and the bastard to the brothels outside of Winterfell on occasion. But no matter how many women bared their bodies before him, in the moments before orgasm he could only think of one thing: Robb Stark. Sometimes, they were boys, daring each other to jump in the river naked and coming up gasping for breath. Other times, they were hunting, crashing through the woods on horseback in hot pursuit of some strong, winter-hardened stag. But it was always Robb, filtering his dreams and waking life like sheet music to be followed.
It was because of this desire that Theon had chosen to stay on the Iron Islands instead of returning North with news of an alliance his father had refused. He thought that he could thaw the ice that had grown in his veins, that the sea salt in the wind would help him forget, to write a new song for himself. But months of raiding and ships and ocean couldn't drown out the songs the Stark family had taught him. His real father had no interest in him and his crew had little respect for an outsider. Even his new god seemed vicious and hollow. These months away had only taught Theon one thing, though he didn't dare speak it aloud: he was an outsider everywhere except by Robb's side.
It hurt when Ned Stark left him behind to go to King's Landing, but Ned knew what Theon refused to acknowledge: his rightful place was at Robb's side, not Ned's. All that time, Lord Eddard Stark had been training him to serve as ward and housecarl to his eldest son. He knew the importance of having trustworthy companions, and he believed Theon to be someone his son could ride into battle with, pass around a bottle of mead with, confide in. Theon prayed now that Ned would never know of his betrayal in the afterworld, if there was such a thing.
Now, he watched his sister sail back into port, all the harsh words coming back to him, fueling his confusion. She and his father had excluded him from their counsel, choosing instead to send him off fighting fishmongers and pirates. And now, as the trumpets blasted news of her glorious return, Theon had a terrible thought: those were far too many ships to take on a simple islander dispute. He had no idea how long Yara had been gone, as he had only returned to Pyke a few days ago, but the ships were outfitted with sails and crews meant for longer journeys, colder journeys...
Theon took off running down the cliffside path. Surely his fears were unfounded.