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The Stranger sat in the chair, so it was cold that afternoon. It was early enough that the sun had not set yet, but the air was still chilly, not that the company gathered in the weirwood could have cared less. None of the attendees at that particular meeting could be concerned with trivial things such as weather. A pale sun shone in the small clearing, while a fire was lit in the middle.

A man wearing armor was the only one standing – the other eleven were sitting on the heart trees’ stumps (in one case, perching on one of them) – and was proceeding to roast various pieces of meat hooked on a long, thin steel stick.

“That smells nice,” the Smith said in a low, deep voice from the tree stump he was sharing with the Crone.

“Surely better than the fish he insisted on last time,” the Maiden agreed as she smoothed her skirts.

“What do you have against my fish?” the Drowned God replied harshly.

“It was pitiful, and you burned it in the first place.”

“Well, fire is not my favorite thing, if you hadn’t understood it in the last… hundreds of millennia.”

Quiet,” the Father interrupted from his place at the right of the chair, “we’re not here to argue about the food.”

No one contradicted him and a short while later the man wearing the armor declared the meat cooked and proceeded to move his spear in front of everyone so that they could grab a piece. Everyone took one with their own hands, except for the Maiden, who used a small handerkerchief so that the grease wouldn’t stain her fingers, and for the three-eyed crow, who looked at the man expectantly.

“There you go,” the man said as he tossed the crow the second-to-last piece after tearing it in half.

“Thank you, prince.”

“I’m no prince.”

“You’re the prince that was promised, of course I shall call you like that.”

“Brother, there’s no hope that he’ll ever call you differently. You’re one of us now, you can’t keep on think you’re some kind of mere mortal still. Just deal with it,” the Warrior said around a mouthful of meat.

“You eat like a pig,” said the Maiden reproachfully as she took a small, neat bite from her piece.

“Manners,” the Mother replied from her side. “There’s always a nicer way to say things.”

“Enough, everyone!” The Crone’s voice boomed through the trees. “Why do we always end arguing about such silly things? You’re giving me a headache.”

“We can’t get headaches,” R’hollor said as the fire rose higher in the air, “but he has a bloody point. You’re making me want to roast all of you.”

“I’d like to see you try,” the Drowned God hissed.

“All right, all right,” the Stranger interrupted. “I think it’s time to begin. Who wishes to go first?”

“I vote for the Smith,” the Father answered.

“But of course,” the Smith said.

“Wait a moment,” the Drowned God interrupted, “that’s not the way it goes. Unless the Stranger agrees with it. You don’t go against the protocol without approval.”

“That’s all right with me,” the Stranger replied from his chair, his thin, pale fingers running across the black cloth of his tunic.

“All right. So, there once was this young boy, who used to work as a smith’s apprentice in King’s Landing. He was also a darned good one, but that’s not all there is to it. Because you see, he was also the king’s bastard son. He didn’t know that, obviously, at least not until –”

“Wait a moment,” R’hollor interrupted, putting his elbows on his knees and moving his head so that a strand of his long, red hair wouldn’t be in front of his eyes. He was all dressed in red as well, and the snow was melting around him. “Is that the one about the king’s bastard who meets the lord’s daughter who behaves like a boy and who knows how to swordfight, then they go through months of misadventures together, then he finds her in Braavos while she’s training to become an assassin and makes her change her mind about it and then they spend the next twenty years being hedge knights? Because if it’s that one, sorry, but we heard that already. At least twice. Not that it’s a bad story, but three times? Please. And imagine if we had to hear it for the rest of our little eternity.”

The Smith glared at him and sat back on the tree’s stump. “Obviously, none of you can appreciate a good love story these day.”

“Not the point,” the Great Other said. “While I loathe to agreeing with him, and you know how much I do, he’s right. The story should be new. That said, that was a rude way of putting it.”

“Says the one who keeps on trying to destroy the world and got slain by him twice,” R’hollor replies before looking at Azor Ahai, who sent him a murderous glare before going back to stare at the fire.

“Quiet,” the Stranger said. “Is there someone else who has a story to tell?”

“I have one,” the crow croaked. “It’s about a great swordsman who belongs to a noble family, but loses his sword hand in… an unfortunate circumstance. His family starts to put distance between him and themselves and he can’t fight anymore, so he spends his time attending tourneys and melees from the crowd, until one day he sees one knight with a blue armor who’s just better than all the others, and that knight wins. Our knight spends the entire tourney thinking that it’s the finest swordsmanship he’s ever seen and that this knight is one he’d have liked to fight against, and then when the knight takes off his helm everyone sees that it’s a woman, and a very ugly one at that. But he doesn’t care, because who cares about ugliness when you’re such a great fighter, and he’s the only one in the audience who smiles at her instead of looking disgusted, and she’s supposed to pick a queen of love and beauty and she ends up giving the crown to him.”

“All right,” the Stranger said, “it sounds like a good story. Tell it.”

“I just did,” the crow replied before taking the last piece of meat into his beak.

“Very well. So, shall we proceed? I have a story.”

“That’s out of order,” the Drowned God protested.

“Oh, won’t you just stop spoiling everything?” the Warrior mumbled.

“Well, it’s protocol! The person in the chair tells the story when the rest is through.”

“You and your protocol,” Azor Ahai sighed. “It can’t be worse than the story about the king’s bastard. Rules aren’t set in stone. We should put this to vote. Who is in favor?”

Everyone was in favor except for the Drowned God and the Great Other, but the latter voted against mostly because R’hollor voted for, and everyone knew that.

“It’s settled then,” the Stranger replied. He leaned back on his chair and threw his last piece of meat into the fire. The earth around the stone chair was devoid of snow or grass – nothing was growing around it.

--

There was a son of a king, the Stranger said, who might as well have not been born a prince, for all the good it did to him. His father ruled the Iron Islands, and Theon – that’s the boy’s name – was his fourth and last son. Theon had two brothers and a sister, and while his sister never paid attention to him either way, his brothers looked down at him because he used to be frail and their mother’s favorite and because he liked archery better than sword fighting. For what concerns his father, well, he already had two male heirs he was proud of, and he never paid attention to his last son either way, except to remind him that he somehow always was inadequate to his standards. Theon hated sword fighting, and he never won whenever he trained with his brothers – and after his mother died when he was seven, no one he trained with spared much of a thought for leaving him with bruises after.

Look at yourself, they’d tell him, and his sister would not care either way though sometimes she would look at him in sympathy. His brothers seemed to never do any wrong, and his sister never seemed to do it either, and so until he was twelve he spent his time on his own, practicing archery at odd times to make sure he wouldn’t be seen, losing at swordplay and being constantly reminded that he was too frail or too weak or useless.

When he was thirteen, his father decided to send him to foster in the North, in hopes that he’d come back at least a bit tougher than this. Which is how Theon found himself living at the Dreadfort, a fortress in the North ruled by a lord named Roose Bolton. When Theon arrived there the first time, there was a skinned corpse hanging from one of the towers – that was when he learned that Boltons skin their enemies. Sometimes to death.

Lord Bolton never paid much attention to him either, and Theon couldn’t bring himself to trust him – something always felt wrong with him. And then there were Lord Bolton’s bastard son, Ramsay, and some servant of his named Reek who outright scared him. Ramsay Snow had a look in his eyes that made Theon want to run as far as possible from him, especially when he looked at him, and you couldn’t stand near Reek for more than five minutes before fainting, since the man kept on putting perfume on himself trying to cover a nauseating smell coming from his skin. It just made everything worse, but it’s not as if Theon could have told him.

After one year of Dreadfort, Theon decided to run away.

He couldn’t have told exactly when he took that decision, but the Dreadfort was cold and harsh and you’d hear people screaming if you walked too close to the dungeons and there were prisoners caught recently, and Ramsay always looked at him as if he’d have liked to – Theon doesn’t know what he’d have liked to do with him but he didn’t like that staring at all. Reek was the only one who tried to instigate conversation with him regularly, and he’d always touch him somewhere (arm, neck, knee) and it made Theon feel revolted, and that was it. No one else to talk to (obviously), nothing else to do, and he really missed the sea. He also missed his mother, but she’d never come back and he knew that.

Still, he could try to get back to the sea, couldn’t he?

One night, he packed a bit of food and four skins of water and some clothes, then he grabbed his bow and when everyone was asleep he walked away.

He wasn’t too sure about what he’d find, and he knew that he could meet someone who’d bring him back. But songs were also full of hedge knights who meant good, so it could go either way, and he was tired of the Dreadfort, so he left, wondering if maybe if he could get back home on his own there could be a chance that his father changed his mind about him. Or about his worthlessness.

He left the castle behind and started walking. He walked for the entire night, adrenaline keeping him from feeling tired, and slept a couple of hours in a clearing on a path that went south. Then, after waking up and eating some of his food, he stood and kept on walking. He had no idea of where he was going, but he would find an inn or a village, and he could decide where to go next.

He really wanted to see the sea again. He drank half of his water, and when he found a river, he tried to remember the name – he had studied some of the maps before leaving. He supposed that it was the Weeping Water, and if he followed it he would get to the sea – it was no small torrent. He smiled to himself and kept on walking after refilling his water skins. He wondered if they were searching for him – probably, his father was still a king, they couldn’t just let him disappear – and resolved that he wouldn’t let himself be found. He followed the river until his legs wouldn’t hold up anymore, and he realized that along the path there was another small clearing. He figured that he could rest a bit before going forward.

He lay against a tree and drank more of his water. He told himself that most surely Lord Bolton had sent a raven by that point, and that maybe when it arrived his family would miss him or worry about him. He imagined himself going back on his own, walking throughout the North all by himself and making it, and then boarding a ship to Pyke. His father would look proud instead of disappointed – after all if he made it then he would have to admit that he was no weakling. His brothers would apologize, and his sister would pay attention to him, finally

He woke up way past sunset, cursing himself for having lost precious hours. He wasn’t supposed to sleep yet. At least the moon was high and full – he would have enough light to walk on by.

And then a voice asked, “Who are you?”

He jerked on his feet, looking frantically around. He couldn’t see anyone.

“Who’s that?” He asked, his voice not entirely steady.

And then someone moved from the trees surrounding the clearing.

It was a boy his age or maybe a year or so younger. When he walked closer, Theon saw that he had red hair and two wide blue eyes, and from his clothes it was plenty obvious that he must have been from an important house – he wore a fine gray tunic with a direwolf sewn on the front. But he wasn’t – his skin was not flesh. It seemed – not transparent. But it didn’t seem solid either.

“Hello,” the boy said. “I suppose I should introduce myself first. Since I spoke first and all. I’m Robb.”

“I’m – I’m Theon.”

“What are you doing here on your own?”

Theon could have asked the same question, but he was starting to guess why Robb would be doing the same.

“I – I ran away from… well, not home. I was being fostered there. But it was horrible and – I figured I could just go back home on my own.”

“That’s very brave of you,” Robb said very seriously, and Theon felt himself grinning at the praise. He also had no idea of what to do with it – he couldn’t remember the last time someone told him something nice.

“Do you want to take a walk?” asked Robb hesitantly.

“Yes,” Theon answered, not really overthinking it. He couldn’t believe that he actually was talking to someone who wanted to do something with him in the first place. So, he followed Robb through the wood until they came out in a much larger clearing, full of stones, obviously a graveyard. Theon looked around it, but other than the stones there was just a small, decaying hut in the distance.

“That’s – that’s where you’re buried?” Theon asked cautiously. He had seen Robb put a hand against a tree and the hand disappear inside the trunk – there wasn’t really much doubt about why his skin seemed strange.

“Not exactly,” Robb said. “They just threw my bones in there, but they never buried them. They’re long gone, by now.”

“What – why?”

Robb shrugged. “I don’t – I don’t remember everything from before. But I remember how it went. My father was the lord of an important house.” His voice turned almost proud at that. “Then some war happened – I can’t remember why. It was a long time ago. My father died at the beginning, and my mother had to act in his place since I wasn’t old enough. I only remember that she told me that I had to go with her to – I think it was to the Twins. It was the name of the castle. She had been trying to ally with the lord of that castle, and he had invited her over to discuss it, and she brought me along because I needed to learn. But it was a trap – they had already struck a secret deal with the other side. They killed us all after dinner on the first day. I don’t really know why I’m here and not down there. My mother wasn’t buried here either, though. So, it’s just me. I mean, there are others buried here, but they sleep most of the time. No one is ever bothered to do anything. Or bothered with me.”

“That – that’s horrible,” Theon answers sincerely. “I – I guess I get it.”

“How so?”

“My family… well, they really couldn’t be bothered with me either.” He told Robb about them shortly, trying not to make it sound as if he was looking for sympathy. He wasn’t. And when they saw him again, they would be bothered, he knew.

When he was done, there was a moment of silence.

Then Robb spoke again. “That’s – that’s too bad. Maybe – maybe we could take your mind off it?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you walk for a bit, after the graveyard, there’s a village. Well, it used to be since no one lives there anymore. We could play hide and seek? Or whatever you want.”

Theon should have said no. He had a long way to go, yet. But – he never played hide and seek or any other game with anyone. He used to watch the servants’ children do it on Pyke, but he never was allowed to join them. And he could afford to take a few hours.

“Well, that sounds fine. Lead the way then.”

Robb gave him a grin showing most of his teeth and then grabbed his hand – and Theon found out that apparently you could touch a ghost, since Robb’s hand felt warm and real next to his – and then ran towards the other side of the cemetery.

So, they got to the abandoned village, which wasn’t really a scary place to be in since it was empty in the first place. They did play hide and seek (Robb won eight times on ten and Theon declared that he most probably was cheating, at which Robb replied that of course he wasn’t, he knew that he could but it wasn’t the honorable thing to do), they walked through some of the houses when they got tired of it and after that they ended up climbing one of the trees just outside the village – it was pretty high, but nothing that someone who had climbed enough trees on his own couldn’t manage.

When they arrived at the top, Theon realized that the sky was becoming slightly purple.

The night was almost over, then. Robb sent him a slightly saddened look, and Theon could recognize it even too well.

“How is it?” he asked then. “Being dead, I mean.”

“Dying was worse,” Robb replied. “The worst thing is that there’s no one else. I used to have three brothers and two sisters, I think. I forgot their names. But I remember how it was being around other people. It feels lonely. And – well, this isn’t… like being dead. We’re never going away, I think. It’s… more like being immortal, I guess. But on your own, it’s just… sad.”

Theon could recognize that feeling, too.

“You know,” he replied, “I never – I have no idea how it is. Having brothers that spend time with you, I mean. And – I think this was the nicest time I ever had in my entire life.” His voice was low as he said it, and he didn’t look straight at Robb.

“Mine, too,” Robb replied, appearing next to him on the branch. “At least since I died, but it’s been a long time. So, what are you going to do now?”

“I wish I knew,” Theon answered.

He imagined himself getting to the sea and then all the way back to White Harbor, he imagined himself boarding a ship to Pyke, maybe even hiding himself on it. He imagined himself walking back home with a straight back, taller than he was when he left, and maybe looking less scrawny – after all, he already was looking less scrawny than he was a year ago. He imagined his brothers, his father, his sister and his uncles looking at him with surprise on their faces because they would have never imagined that he could go through such a journey on his own. They would apologize for having thought badly of him, and they would look at him proudly.

It sounded like some kind of song, except that Theon, deep down, knew that life is not a song. In reality, he knew that Lord Bolton would find him before three days passed – or worse, Ramsay would – and at best they would keep on ignoring him. At worst – he wasn’t sure he wanted to even think about it. And no one had sent him a single raven since arriving at the Dreadfort – most probably no one related to him would have cared. Maybe his father would have thought that it was a good riddance, when receiving the news that he had disappeared.

Robb silently started to climb down and Theon followed him as the sky cleared. When he was back on the ground, Robb looked slightly older and a lot wearier.

They went back towards the graveyard – by the time they were there, the sky was way past pink and the sun was peeking from the horizon line.

“I can’t stay much longer,” Robb said. “But – thank you. It was the nicest time I’ve had.”

“I know. I know.”

And then – he didn’t know where the urge to ask came from, but Theon found himself asking a question.

“If I wanted to stay with you, I’d have to be dead, wouldn’t I?”

Robb looked back at him, his eyes going slightly wider. “Well… I suppose you would. But – why would you want to?”

“It’s just my luck that the one person I’ve ever met who wanted to spend time with me happens to be dead,” Theon replied, his voice not entirely steady. “I know that I’m never going to make it home on my own before someone finds me.” He doesn’t tell Robb that they might have known each other for just one night but that in that time Robb had been more of a brother to him than his real ones.

“Is that – is that what you would really want? You do realize that it’s – that it’s a now and always deal, don’t you?”

“Now and always? Doesn’t sound too bad,” Theon replied, trying to force himself to keep smiling instead of showing how terrified he was feeling. An eternity of being with someone you actually like beat his current situation without even a question.

Then Robb’s hand wrapped around his again.

“I can’t – I can’t really do it. But – well. Some of the others live in there.” He nodded towards the decaying hut that Theon had barely spared a glance for, before. “They might. But – it’s not – you don’t have to.”

“Wasn’t it empty?”

“I said no one lives there. It’s not the same thing,” Robb replied.

“All right,” Theon whispered. “I get it.”

“You’re – you’re thinking about it.”

“Would it be so bad if I stayed?”

Robb shook his head. “The gods know it wouldn’t,” he whispered. “Listen, I have to go now, but – if you decide that you don’t want to, it’s all right, too. Thank you.”

He squeezed Theon’s hand and then he was gone.

Theon went back to the tree he had slept against the previous afternoon – his food and water and clothes and bow were still there. He finished the food and the water, and then went back towards the graveyard after grabbing the bow, not that it’d do much good to him. He stared at the hut in the distance – even if there was light now, you couldn’t see a thing. The darkness that he could see past the windows wasn’t letting the light penetrate it.

Did he really want to – to go inside? A part of him screamed no. But another – the other thought that after all it would mean suffering for a bit and then he’d get to stay with Robb, forever and they could be friends (no, maybe even brothers), and he’d be someone who actually liked him, now and always, and it felt a lot nicer than his alternative prospects. He didn’t ever want to go to the Dreadfort again, and why should he even bother with relatives who never cared about him in the first place?

He took a breath and opened his bag again. Inside, there was the only good piece of clothing he brought with him. He took off his worn-out, old tunic and put on the black and gold one he had brought with him from the Iron Islands – it still fit him fine. He smoothed it on his front and then took another deep breath and left the bag and the first tunic on the ground, the bow clutched between his fingers.

He walked closer to the hut. When he was right outside it, he thought he heard a noise coming from the inside, but he couldn’t imagine what it could be. It smelled horrible – damp, and maybe a bit like a rotting body (he’d know how those smelled, after a year at the Dreadfort).

He thought about the way Robb had smiled at him when he accepted to go with him before.

He closed his eyes and walked in.

--

No one said a word as the Stranger picked a cup from one of the chair’s arms. It filled up with water and he drank it, and then he put it back where he took it.

He didn’t say anything else.

“Well,” the Warrior declared, breaking the silence, “that was quite a story.”

“What?” the Maiden protested. “That’s not – it can’t end like that! What happened after he went into the hut?”

“I think that it’s better if he doesn’t answer that question,” the Father declared, his voice strangely thin.

“Well, that was bloody depressing. But it was good. So, anyone else has a story?” R’hollor asked.

No one answered.

“Seems to me that we’re done for this time,” he said then.

“We need to vote on it!”

The Stranger looked at the Drowned God and nodded. “Are we all in favor?”

Everyone said yes.

“Then we shall meet thirty days from now. This meeting is adjourned,” the Stranger declared.

The fire died the moment R’hollor stood up, the snow melting behind him. Everyone left eventually, except for Azor Ahai.

“It’s your turn next time, isn’t it?” the Stranger asked as he brushed snow away from his tunic.

“Don’t remind me,” Azor Ahai answered. “You’re a lot better at this than me. I don’t know any good stories – just human songs.”

“Oh, I just have an unfair advantage,” the Stranger replied. “After all, I’m the only one that every person meets, at some point. That’s why I never run out of stories.”

“Can I ask you something about that last one?”

“Is that personal?”

Azor Ahai shrugged, raising his gray eyes to meet the Stranger’s. “It might be and it might not. And it depends on how you would define personal.”

“Fair enough. Ask.”

“It was fairly obvious that he died. But – did it work? I mean, the others were assuming that it didn’t, but you didn’t imply that it went like that.”

“That’s why I like you – you don’t jump to the worst conclusions. Well, well, I can tell you that sometimes dying isn’t necessarily the end of all things. But after all, you used to be like them. And now you’re not. So… you’d know that, wouldn’t you?”

Azor Ahai nodded once before turning his back to the Stranger and walking out of the clearing, looking as if a small weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

The Stranger spared a last look to the long dead fire and disappeared along with his stories.


End.


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