“You plan to leave soon.”
“Yes,” says Sansa. She folds her arms behind her back and stands straighter, not so much stiff as coiled. Ready, she thinks, though Sansa isn’t certain at all what she’s readying herself for. “A fortnight, I think, when the tuber crops come in- the supplies ought to help us on the trip back.”
“Indeed,” says Brynden Rivers neutrally. “A good plan.” She steps back, ready to return to her rooms, when he continues: “A pity it will not work.”
Years of training have taught her- panic is not good. Not even when it threatens to swamp you whole. Sansa is stronger than the waves, than the turn of the world beneath her feet. She has to be.
“What do you mean?” she asks, forcing out the words.
“I mean,” says Brynden, easily, like he hasn’t just upended all of her plans- “that there is an army coming, and if you are here when they arrive- the consequences will be... unpleasant.”
“An army of the dead?” asks Sansa.
He inclines his head. “They should arrive before next dawn.”
“Bran,” she whispers. “If you’d told us earlier- have you realized what you’ve done? He will- he cannot move- I must- you’ve killed him!”
“Your brother will understand that there is more to life than integrity of the flesh,” says Brynden slowly. Sansa draws herself up to hiss, rage melding with fear and grief, the depths of which Brynden Rivers and Visenya Targaryen and every dead ghost she’s ever met could not ever imagine. But Brynden continues: “And anyhow, it does not matter. He will leave with the Children as soon as they are ready.” Amusement brightens his red eye. “They are quite accomplished in evading the dead, Lady Sansa, after millennia of practice.”
“Bran will leave?” Sansa asks flatly. “And go where? Why?”
“To Skagos, because he will be safe there.”
Because the dead cannot pass over running water. Because if Sansa fails, then there will be nothing left in all of Westeros, and they need someone to carry their traditions onward. Because the Targaryens have always survived, and Brynden Rivers is nothing if not a Targaryen.
“What do you want?” she asks tightly. Brynden lifts an eyebrow, and she continues: “For saving him. I know how this works; a debt for a debt.” Sometimes the world is made of gifts, Sansa knows, but not often. Not with people like this. She doesn’t grit her teeth, because that would be visible; only widens her stance, gazes up at Brynden and doesn’t flinch. “So tell me, what do you want?”
“A formidable opponent,” says Brynden, soft as a feather’s fall. “A formidable death. You understand, of course, that I was never a Targaryen. Life as one was- impossible. But death? That is what left to me, now. And it is what I will have.”
“You want a Targaryen’s death.”
“When Rhaella died, her funeral pyre burned so high and so fierce that it masked her children’s escape from Dragonstone.” Brynden reaches out and grips the arm of his throne, face blazing with more life than Sansa’s ever seen it. “Death can serve two objectives, and I intend for mine to be one such. My conscious can disappear into the weirwoods of this cave and delay the army for long enough to let you escape.”
“I won’t kill you,” warns Sansa.
Brynden smiles, slow and flickering. “I would not ask it of you. But your brother would be more than glad to see me die, would he not?”
She stiffens. “You cannot ask this of him.”
“Oh, I can. I will.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Would you prefer I call him cousin?”
“He is a Stark,” bites Sansa. “And that is all that is there to it. What happened- what was done to him- doesn’t matter. Never mattered. My father raised him, and we all loved him. There’s nothing more to it.”
“All of you?” asks Brynden softly.
Sansa flushes, deep and dark. She feels- something terrible, surge up from the watery depths of her guts.
“He will not kill you,” she whispers fiercely. “I will not- I will not- I will not- have him become a kinslayer. Not for all the advantages in all the world.”
Brynden draws back, before he says, “Then he will light the funeral pyre. I will no longer be in this body, by then, and so he will be no kinslayer; but only an heir.”
“An heir to you?” asks Sansa suspiciously.
“You cannot protect all those you love from harm,” says Brynden, as if that could have ever been an answer. “That is my price, Lady Sansa, and no more bargaining. You have come to my home and you have learned what you wished, and in return for your lives I ask for one pyre. And this, this, you shall give.”
A man who dreams only of death. Sansa closes her eyes, then opens them, and the world has not changed at all; it’s just as large, just as cold. She thinks- she could weep for him, for this man who’s kindnesses are measured in drops, as if they would be snatched away if present in larger quantity. She thinks that there is a hole in these people who have lived for too long to forget everything but to hold on, or to let go. I pity you, I who have lived a piteous life myself.
Only not, because Sansa’s known love. She’s feared one thing, for all the years that she has ever lived: to see her family become ghosts, all while she lives on and on and on-
“Very well,” she says quietly. Then she straightens her spine. “And when shall you tell me where Rhaenys lies?”
“Ah.” Brynden relaxes onto his throne. “That was- quite the tale, once I’d pieced it together. But in the end, this is what you must know: Rhaenys lies in the house of traitors and oathbreakers and thieves, and it is not her bones that you must set flame to- that has been done, many times over. By me, and by Daeron, and by half a hundred others, I’d wager.”
“Visenya swore a vow to remain until the one she loved the most could move on.” Brynden smiles, ghastly as moonlight on blood. “Rhaenys was never lesser than her. Oh, everyone forgets that part, but if you ever speak to her you’ll know it. Stubborn, and prideful, and stupid beyond measure.”
“So what should I burn?”
“Meraxes,” says Brynden. “That which she loved above all others, in a life full of love. That which set her apart from any other queen to come before her. For Rhaenys had all the beauty of previous queens; but she also had a dragon. And there have never been any who could gainsay that single fact.”
Sansa remembers the dragon skulls hidden in the dungeons of the Red Keep. She feels a flare of- something, probably something approaching perhaps-I-can-do-this-
And then Brynden says, warningly: “It will not be an easy task. There is only one known bone left of Meraxes.”
“The carved goblet of Lord Wyl. One of their most cherished objects.”
“A goblet?” Sansa demands sharply. “A goblet? Of all the things in the world a-”
Brynden inclines his head. “Stupid beyond measure, yes?”
Slowly, Sansa bows back. Starts to turn to leave, when Brynden calls to her back, surprisingly mocking: “Let us hope you are not so bad!”
Sansa flees, as quickly as she can manage without bursting into a run.
Their goodbyes are swift; Sansa wishes for more time, but she doesn’t tell Bran any of that. Instead, she watches the Children stack the wood high around Brynden Rivers’ slender body. She has her belongings- scarce though they are- wrapped in a knapsack at her feet. Jon stands beside her, fingers white on Bran’s chair.
“It is finished,” says one of the Children, with white dots spreading across its features like freckles and eyes larger than Sansa’s fists. “The Crow assures me you know what to do.”
Sansa closes her eyes. “I do,” she whispers. Bran’s hand wraps around her own, cold but comforting. She turns to Jon. “You’ll have to light the fire,” Sansa tells him quietly. “Just- follow my lead.”
It had been Alysanne who’d told Sansa the ancient Valyrian traditions. Now, she recalls the words. She feels the sickness in her belly, low, twisting. The secrets of her father, of too many people to name- it will come out now, and there is nothing Sansa can do to silence it, not with all that rests on the truth.
Bran’s other hand rests on the weirwood roots spiralling around them. He makes a rattling sound, like a smothered cough, and slumps in his chair. Sansa bows her head and waits for the signal. The other Children, all around them, are silent. The only sound is that of wind, howling above them.
Then Bran rocks backward, inhaling.
“He’s gone,” he says bleakly.
Oh, Bran. Sansa tightens her hand on his, fingers lacing together. I’m so sorry.
She hands Jon an oak branch instead, and two pieces of flint.
“Hold it steady with your feet,” Sansa tells him, nodding to the branch. “And aim your sparks to the branch.”
“You- want me to light it?” Jon asks slowly. “It won’t work.”
It shouldn’t. To light a fire, one needs shavings and small pieces of wood; even if Jon had dipped the branch in oil, it might have been difficult to set it. But there are things at work here beyond what Jon knows.
“It will,” she says. “Just keep doing it, and repeat after me.”
He looks at her dubiously, but starts striking the flint together anyhow. As he’d predicted, the first sparks peter out on the wood. Sansa waits for him to get into a rhythm before speaking.
“An inheritance of flame,” Sansa says softly, “a lifetime of duty, an eternity of peace.”
“An inheritance of flame, a lifetime of duty, an eternity of peace,” repeats Jon.
“Such was given, and such was taken, and such is wished.”
“Such was given, and such was taken, and such is wished.”
“Of Targaryen was he born. Of Targaryen did he live. Of Targaryen he shall die.”
“Of Targaryen was he born. Of Targaryen did he live. Of Targaryen he shall die.”
And so it goes- Sansa speaks, and Jon repeats.
“His blade was of Valyrian steel, and dearly did he use it. His cloak was black as his family’s colors, and long did he wear it. His eyes were red as the stone of his birth, and far did he see with them. From flame was he born, and to flame shall he return.
“From dragonfire was he born,” she says, breathing forced steady. “And to dragonfire does he return.”
“From dragonfire was he born, and to dragonfire does he return.” Jon rubs the flint together to produce one last spark. But this time, when it lands on the oak, it doesn’t fizzle out. Jon doesn’t react too terribly, Sansa thinks, especially considering she hasn’t warned him; but he does back away from the branch rapidly. “Fucking hells!”
The fire is black, as Alysanne had warned Sansa it would be.
Red wreaths it, dancing and scarlet, but the heart of this flame is Targaryen black. As black as the cloak Brynden once wore. As red as the rubies of Aegon the Conqueror’s crown.
“Pick up the branch, Jon,” says Sansa softly.
He jerks his head up to her. His pupils are blown wide. “What is that?”
“Targaryen fire,” says one of the Children impatiently. “Targaryen flame, as lit by Targaryen hands. Now get on with it, boy! We haven’t the time!”
Jon bristles. He hasn’t had a good relationship with any of the Children- they treat Bran with care, and Sansa with neutrality as well as a wary sort of respect; but they’ve constantly acted like Jon’s done some unforgivable crime. It irritates Jon to no end. But now, at the end of it all- Sansa just barely holds in a sigh. She steps forwards to catch Jon’s shoulder before he can retort. But then Bran speaks, almost conciliatory in his tone.
“That’s how the Targaryens were laid to rest, in Valyria. Brynden asked it of Sansa, in exchange for information.” He pauses, then lifts a bony shoulder. “Now, Jon: we don’t have time.”
Thank the Stranger someone understands that, thinks Sansa grimly. If we move fast enough...
They just might survive.
“Quickly,” she says, and her voice sounds far calmer than she truly feels. “Take it to the pyre. Burn it. And say these words, when you do: from Targaryen have you come, son of Aegon, son of Melissa; and as a Targaryen do I release you.”
Jon’s face furrows mightily, but he’s far too much a soldier to question Sansa now. He only nods and turns, and sets the torch to light on the edge of the pyre. Whatever he says is swallowed by the roar of the eldritch flames.
Even as the flames rise, they lick at the weirwood roots and start eating through them. Sansa feels Bran’s hand clench down on hers, bruisingly tight, before he lets go. Meera stands behind him- Sansa hasn’t spoken to her at all, really, not with everything else going on, but she does nod to her. Take care of him, she would say, if she could be heard.
But she cannot.
She takes Jon’s hand instead, and slides her knapsack over her shoulder, and runs.
“As a Targaryen?” Jon demands, when they finally take a short break in the hollow of a mound of snow. He’s not angry, though he doesn’t know enough to be angry; he’s puzzled more than anything.
But that means little.
Jon’s rages are quick to flare, like an ember lying in wait for the perfect breeze. But when they flare- they are indeed a sight to see.
“Yes,” says Sansa, blowing on her fingers. “As a Targaryen.” Breathing in air that feels like knives shredding her lungs, Sansa goes on recklessly. “Did you never wonder why Father refused to tell you your mother’s name?”
Jon stills. “My mother?”
“Father, who is honorable and just beyond reason, being responsible for a bastard? There are some lies which beggar belief, but this- this was always one that left me surprised.” Sansa quirks a smile at Jon. “People see what they wish to see, and in you they saw Ned Stark reborn. And that was all that mattered.”
“You’re not making sense,” says Jon, settling back on his heels. His voice is perfectly reasonable, but his eyes betray him- they flick, side to side, too fast to be calm.
Sansa considers: quickly, or slowly? Then she sees the brewing storm on the horizon- the cold wind that already shears through her bundled layers of fur; the promise of snow and sleet and hail- and Sansa knows that she could not break this news gently to him, not even if she wished it.
“Your mother’s Lyanna Stark,” she says, overloud into the silent forest around them. “And your father’s Rhaegar Targaryen.”
Jon’s face goes white as the snow around them. Sansa realizes, abruptly: he’s but a boy, not yet tipped over into the cusp of manhood. His beard and broad shoulders don’t mean that he’s grown. And under that beard lie eyes that shine like dull stones, in two parts horror and one part grief.
“Rhaegar,” he whispers. “That fire was Targaryen- black, and red. Because I’m a-”
Sansa rises to press her hand to his shoulder. Jon pulls away explosively, falling backward onto the snow. Ghost yelps behind him, startled. Jon’s eyes, when they lift to meet hers, are brilliant as any star.
“Don’t touch me!” he snarls, and turns away.
Jon paces, to the edge of their camp and back. Sansa retreats to let him; she tangles her fingers in Lady’s fur and leans into the warmth. An interminable amount of time later, he asks, voice thick, “When’d you find out?”
“A long time ago.”
“And you couldn’t tell me?” he demands, voice spinning from challenging to ugly is quick as the turn of a copper. “Oh, you thought it would be easy- a jape, perhaps?- to do this, to pull the wool over my eyes, to know more than all others around you! You stood there and called me a bastard and only half your brother when you knew- you knew!”
“Yes,” says Sansa quietly, folding her hands together. “I knew.”
“Did I not merit your trust, then?” Jon asks bitterly. “Or was it that I simply did not matter at all to you?”
“Then why didn’t you tell me!”
It’s not a question. Jon punctuates it with a well-aimed kick at a stone half-buried in the ground- too well-aimed, thinks Sansa, even as she ducks the stone. But had she not been looking, she knows- and so does Jon- where that would have struck. Lady’s growl only serves to further the point.
“I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have believed me,” she says, striving to keep her voice even. “Because the truth would have gotten out, and Father would have asked me how I knew, and I knew- know- well how the North treats those with other powers.”
“None of us have ever known anyone with anything like this!”
“And I was a child,” Sansa replies, and her voice is unsteady despite all her efforts. “I was a child, and those I trusted told me to be wary, and I was. There are half a hundred other truths and secrets I know, that I cannot speak to anyone- that I will not speak to anyone.” She rises to her feet and braces the knapsack on her shoulders. “I once told you: I don’t know if I can trust anyone, any longer. I don’t know if I ever could, or if it was trained out of me, or if it withered away as a muscle disused. Do you remember how you responded?”
“If I’d known then what I know now,” says Jon darkly, “I don’t know what I would’ve said.”
Sansa goes cold. You are a child, she thinks, but doesn’t say aloud. She wonders at Jon’s reaction- surely he must have experienced betrayal before, and surely he must have learned to brace himself for the impact of a blade between his back. To do otherwise would be foolish in a normal man, but folly of the highest magnitude in one of their stature. But even now, there’s no regret on Jon’s face. Only hurt and fury like twin blades, scored into his eyes, and just as ugly for it.
“Very well,” says Sansa, and her voice flows out of her like a stream in the midst of winter- bordered with ice, terribly cold, and still flowing. The hurt is there; but it flows, smoothly, and what is left behind is weariness, and even deeper: resolve. “We must continue on. There’s a storm coming. I’ve no wish to be caught in it- we need shelter.”
Jon’s mouth tightens, but he doesn’t speak. He too picks up his bag and clicks his tongue for Ghost. They set off silently, heads bowed against the wind, and don’t speak.
They have to stop in a small hollow, and wait out the storm. At first, Sansa tries to match Jon’s sullen silence; she’s patient, and they’ve enough worry sitting in their bellies already, but the stinging tension that surrounds Jon just makes her- so angry. So tiredly, wearily furious.
Finally, Sansa pauses, one night- she’s cold to the bone and impatient with it, and says, hoarsely, “You said you would try to understand.”
Jon’s eyes flick up to her, then settle back on the fire. He too looks stripped and exhausted; the pace they’ve both set for the past day has been high, but also necessary. They must cross the Wall quickly- before the Walkers catch them. Already they’ve been delayed too long; they can little afford such setbacks. And the cold digs into their bones. There’s little enough food to replace what they’re expending. Sansa can only hope-
“I did,” he says, voice catching and rough. But the anger is damped, at least. “I thought- I thought it would be easier. But no matter how I try to think on it- it doesn’t make sense. How could you?”
“It is easy not to speak of such things,” says Sansa. “To think of other things- happier things. You’ve done it yourself, or else you’d have gone mad. Or do you place all such blame on myself, and none on our father, who was the perpetrator of the lie?”
“I think there’s enough blame to go around.”
“And I think you’re foolish,” she says tiredly. “But I’m not putting it on you, am I? A king’s son is what you are, Jon, and a Stark besides. Targaryen and Stark- there hasn’t been another like you in all of history, not one that has ever been known. Born to flame and born to ice, with death a-wing on both sides. It is dangerous. Why do you think the Children did not like you? They are loathe to change; and you hold that change in your very blood.”
Sansa leans forwards and catches Jon’s forearm in her own. Grips it tight. “And if we are to speak of another aspect- had you known, Father would’ve had such a hard time protecting you. What mattered to Robert Baratheon was Targaryens- if you ever heard him speak of them- it was terrifying. He hated them. You. Do you think you’d have survived his warhammer? His armies?”
“No,” says Jon after a long pause. He laughs, low and bitter. “One bastard against six kingdoms? You’d be mad to ask it of me.”
“And yet you’re a Targaryen. A Stark. We have stood before worse odds and survived. It would’ve been cruel to ask it of you- but if they had, you’d have lived. I’m certain of it.” Sansa catches it, then- a subtle stiffening of Jon’s shoulderblade; the knotted tension in his palms. “Oh,” she says softly. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“You’re-” she lets her eyes half-close, so she can only see a blur of Jon’s face. The white oval of his skull; the slant and set of his neck; the splay of his boots over the rough ground. Studies it, as Berena had once shown her: to see the things which of themselves mean nothing, but all add up to a larger picture. “-afraid. Why?”
Jon stares at her. “What?”
“No, not why,” says Sansa slowly. “That isn’t the right question, is it- no, it’s... what you’re afraid of that’s important. So what are you afraid of? Yourself? Father? The King?” A pause; and then, deliberately steady: “Our family?”
For a long moment, Jon doesn’t speak, only stares at the fire and stirs it like soup. “Your family,” he says, almost soundless.
Oh, Jon. Her heart cramps in on itself. I’m so sorry.
“Our family,” she says firmly. “For while you are yet Targaryen- half of you is Stark, and it is that half that matters. Targaryen blood runs in your veins but it is the Stark look that you bear, and the Stark honor, and the Stark history as well. Don’t you dare think that any of us will feel otherwise. Don’t insult us in such a manner.”
Jon’s head drops onto her arm, and Sansa tips forwards so she’s braced comfortably near him, so they can lean on each other.
Sansa’s almost asleep- the fire has dwindled to faint embers, but she’s too stiff to add some more fuel to it, and too tired as well. Then, in a low, rough voice, Jon says, “Thank you.”
For telling you? she thinks distantly, behind the film of sleep. Or for promising you? Or for being here, beside you, and offering you this silence and the knowledge of who we Starks are, who your family is?
“Of course,” says Sansa instead, and closes her eyes, and surrenders to sleep.
The next morning, Jon thinks the storm has lessened.
“It should break soon,” he tells her, checking the straps on his bag compulsively. “We ought to be ready to go by then.”
“Yes,” Sansa replies. Then, unable to help herself: “How much have the Others gained?”
“We’ve been delayed three days,” says Jon thoughtfully. “And they would have been as well- less because of the cold and more because there are things even the dead can’t get through. The wind and ice would’ve buried them whole if they tried to bear through it.” He frowns. “But still. I’d say- they’ve gained a day. Perhaps a day and a half.”
“Enough for us to reach the Wall?”
Jon looks up at Sansa, and his eyes are level and unflinching. “Let’s hope so,” he says grimly.
The storm does lessen. They head out as soon as they can; they sleep for short hours; they rise; they walk. The direwolves tend to forage ahead. There’s little enough food, though more than enough kindling; at least when they stop in the night, they’re warm.
It’s when Ghost starts yipping low in his throat that Jon sways to a halt.
“Listen,” he breathes, holding up a hand.
Sansa cocks her head to the side. She hears only wind. But then- like a thin, reedy flute: something that catches in her throat. Something that makes the skin across her arms shiver and prickle.
“That’s the sound of Others,” says Jon quietly, looking as if he’s scarcely breathing. “It’s possible this is an advance scout troop, but if they’ve found us- if we’re surrounded-”
And why would the dead send scouts ahead? They have nothing to be wary of. They aren’t human. They will not act as humans act, as human armies act. She and Jon cannot rely on such tenuous hope. Remember that, Sansa commands herself, and breathes, in and out, steady as she can control.
“There’s a river,” says Sansa, eyes closing to remember the map that Brynden had shown her, that Jon had opened and read just that morning. “Due east. Should only take a few minutes to reach.”
They’ve used the river as a marker of their own passage. It’s not much of a river, all told; in summer it’d likely be more of a stream than anything else. But it’s been widened and deepened by winter snows, and there’s not a person that can cross it now without being swept away by the flow of the water, no matter whether they’re alive or not.
“If you’re wrong...”
Eyes bright, Jon nods. His hand is still up- he lets each finger curl downward and Sansa takes the time to tighten the straps of her knapsack and grip Lady’s ruff with numb, mittened fingers.
Then he drops his hand, and they sprint.
Almost immediately, there’s a stitch in her side. Sansa can feel herself falling behind Jon- she’s not as fast as him, nor so naturally light on her feet. But she holds to the pace she’s set at the start, and even manages to speed a little when she hears some large beast crashing through the undergrowth behind her.
She bursts through the bushes onto the icy banks of the river, Lady snarling beside her, and manages to slip to a halt before slipping into the water. Hands shaking, Sansa unsheathes her sword.
Jon nods to her. “Back to back,” he says lowly. “Let the direwolves flank us. Chin up. We’ll get through this.”
“Oh,” chatters Sansa. She’s furious with herself, but can’t quite will that emotion into her hands or jaw. She just feels cold and terrified. “Will we?”
“We have so far,” murmurs Jon, but he’s not really paying attention to her- he’s focused on the trees, trying to find some portent of what’s to come.
It’s very different to rolling and stabbing and leaning away from bruises in King’s Landing. Sansa hiccups, a little, before she closes her eyes. Thinks: I am not ready to die yet. Thinks: If I will not die today, I must ensure it myself. I must fight for my life today, and that means-
Standing tall, and fierce, and relying on what her forebears have taught her so well. She has Dark Sister in her hand. Visenya- for all her other faults- never once hinted that Sansa wasn’t worthy of it, and she wouldn’t have had any compunctions about doing so if given half a chance. She has Lady, who’s got teeth and claws and viciousness like a true predator. She has Jon and Ghost and a river at her back, and she is alive, and she will not let that be taken from her without making the Others pay dearly for it.
Three corpses fling themselves out of the brush on Sansa’s left, and she steps forwards into the motion-
Never let your opponent dictate the speed of the match.
-cuts up, ducks the first wight’s fist-
Act. Don’t react.
-slices across a dark-haired corpse’s chest-
You always have more than the edge of a blade.
-and uses her elbow to shove the second wight headfirst into the rushing river behind her.
“Keep that up!” shouts Jon, before he lops another wight’s head clean off his shoulders. “Don’t let ‘em through!”
Confidence surges through her.
These aren’t Others, not proper ones; these are just wights, who are faster and stronger than Sansa can ever be, but they’re also just plain stupid. She’s smarter than them.
With that confidence, the battle becomes less thought, and more instinct. Chaos. There are flashes of remembrance: Lady ripping one wight limb from limb. Jon’s hisses and grunts. The shine of light off the snow and the wights’ pale, unnatural skin. The glitter of silver, irritating in the corners of her eyes. The roar of the river as Sansa keeps going, even when she tires, even when the flood of the dead seems unending.
Then one of them breaks through- smashes into her chest, a battering ram that, even as it impales itself on her blade, throws her backward.
Sansa has just enough thought to twist her body so she doesn’t throw Jon down as well- if she does, they’re both surely dead- and instead lands, floundering, into the river.
She yanks the sharp little dagger she’d stolen from an apple farmer in the Riverlands out of its sheath on her thigh and turns with the current to stab into the ice and provide a hold. The water’s so cold it hurts.
But Sansa must rise-
Jon is there, and he’ll die if-
She’s brought him here and she’s killed him and-
Color flickers across her vision. Not the white and blue and black of the world around them- something red. Something like sunset, or flame, or the blood now dribbling down her left arm from a shallow slice across her shoulder. Sansa focuses through the life-draining cold, eyes narrowing. She must pay attention.
It’s fire, but not any fire of the normal realm. Spirit fire, singing around Longclaw in black and red. All the wights it touches reel away, dying with a rapidity that makes hope rise in Sansa’s throat like a hawk surging through the skies.
Sansa closes her eyes.
I am not ready to die, she thinks fiercely, and kicks out so the wight attached to Dark Sister flows away. She’s now exactly behind Jon, and that’s why she hasn’t had to fight off more wight attacks. But now there’s silver gleaming again at the corner of her eyes, and it’s so annoying-
Sansa looks, again, widens her focus to everything in their surroundings, and almost inhales the river-water with her shock.
There’s a man next to Jon, hovering oppressively over his shoulder, shining like silver beaten thin enough to be translucent. He’s tall and slender; he wears a thick coat of a style that Sansa hasn’t seen ever before.
“Help,” she cries out, and sees him turn, sees his eyes widen when he realizes who Sansa’s speaking to. “Please, help us!”
“You can see me,” he whispers, swooping over to her.
Sansa grits her teeth against the renewed chill in her fingers. She’s holding on with everything she can, but her grip on the hilt of the knife is slipping.
“Can you help us?” she asks.
“Oh, sweetling,” says the man, a smile transforming his face from lean and sallow to a shining beacon, “I might be the only man to be able to. You get out of the river, and I’ll get you out of this mess.”
Sansa watches Jon take a blow across his face and stumble backwards, before growling and returning with even more strength. She hisses out and uses that expulsion of energy to throw herself out of the water.
She drives Dark Sister into the snow a foot beyond her dagger.
Uses that leverage to remove the dagger, and stab that into the ice a foot above the sword.
So on, until she’s out of the water and able to breathe. Sansa takes a moment to catch her breath, and then she swings herself up and shouts, through gasping lungs: “Jon!”
“What!” he retorts, cleaving one wight in half before turning to her.
“Follow me,” Sansa says, and, wincing, whistles for Lady and Ghost before plunging on and following the ghost.
Her clothes are waterlogged and heavy. There’s a shallow cut on her left shoulder, and she’d hit her head when she fell into the river so she keeps feeling intermittent bouts of dizziness. Sansa doesn’t dare look away from the ghost in front of her- he’s looks too similar to the snow, and she’s certain that if she lets her focus slip even a little, she won’t be able to see him again.
Jon’s limping right behind her; he’s keeping the pace, though she thinks he looks faintly mutinous as well. To him it must look as if she’s following thin air.
But the wights are dropping away behind them.
There’s fewer and fewer following Sansa and Jon. And the further they go, the fainter that chilling sound gets. As the fear fades, her aches make themselves known: bruises, and sprains, and a wrenching pain in her neck from where she’d had to yank her hair from a wight’s grip. She exchanges a weary glance with Jon- Sansa weary, Jon glaring- before she calls to the ghost: “Wait!”
He pauses and floats back to her, looking impatient. “Is something the matter?”
“How much further?” asks Sansa, and she sounds so desperate to even herself that she winces. “I don’t know how much further I can- we can- go. Those wights... there were so many of them.”
Jon steps forward and braces her, his shoulder holding her up where she hasn’t even realized she’s been swaying. Longclaw, still unsheathed in his free hand, gleams in even the fading afternoon light.
“You’re bleeding,” he says lowly. “And you look like- you don’t look good.”
“If you stop now, you will not get up again,” says the ghost. “It won’t be the wights that get you. It will be the cold. You must keep moving until you reach safety.”
“And where is safety?” Sansa asks.
“Not much further.” The ghost looks up, then around, before nodding again, even firmer. “We shall reach before sundown.”
Sundown! Sansa wants to cry, but she swallows hard instead and nods.
“We’d better,” says Jon, when Sansa tells him what the ghost has said, so quietly that Sansa knows it to be a promise and not a threat. “Or I’ll make him regret becoming a ghost.”
There’s such exhaustion in Sansa’s eyes that it feels like she’s grinding ice into them- once, she actually does it, in an attempt to keep herself awake. It leaves her face damp and shivering, and she doesn’t try it again. Her steps become so heavy they jar her knees as she walks; the pain keeps her awake even as the rest of the world starts to fade away.
Finally, they reach a cave that’s nothing more than a tree trunk expanded and hollowed out until it provides a decent shelter. Sansa’s so tired she can scarcely keep her eyes open- she just staggers in and slumps against the dirt-packed floor.
“Where is this?” she asks, eyes still closed, head tipped back.
“Questions later,” Jon bites out, before shoving a roll of bandages into her hands. “We need to fix you up first. Take that coat off.” Then he sees how absolutely soaked and dirty it’s become, and his face tightens. “Take it all off. There’s a blanket- everything but your smallclothes, yes. Quickly! Sansa, if you catch a chill-”
“You’ll die,” says the ghost, looking at Jon with a definite light of approval. “The boy’s got the right idea. Set up your camp before anything else. I swear to you, lass, you’re safe here.”
Groaning, Sansa levers herself up and starts to tug the clothes off. The blanket Jon gives her is scratchy but thick, and the fire he starts is even more welcome. Her fingers and toes tingle unpleasantly as blood starts to rush back into them. By the time they’re settled with snow melting in a makeshift pot of leaves balanced ingeniously over the fire and strips of rabbit hide, Sansa almost feels normal once more.
“Tea?” she murmurs to Jon, waving a sprig of pine needles that had gotten caught in the weave of her damp cloak.
Jon tips a shoulder indifferently, before offering, “I’ll make some cups if you want.”
“Tea it is then.”
It turns out very faintly bitter and mostly tasteless, though it does leave her feeling scoured and clean. Huddling further into the blanket, Sansa turns to the ghost.
“May we speak now?”
The ghost lifts an eyebrow. “Certainly.”
“There’s no way for me to be a part of this conversation?” asks Jon, looking sulky.
Sansa frowns. Remembers Brandon, in King’s Landing; the chill of death swallowing her whole. Remembers seeing the dead through her father’s eyes when she dreamed him out of the Red Keep.
“There might be a way,” she says slowly. “Come here.”
Jon approaches her and settles so he’s close enough to touch. Takes her hand. Sansa lets her eyes close and reaches out with those muscles that Rickard had made her flex until she cried tears of blood. Theon Stark had used these abilities to make his enemies scream. She won’t ever be so cruel. And it’s so easy here, with only Jon in front of her; his mind is like a flame in a dark room.
See, she commands him, holding onto what she knows and forcing him to see the same. See this, my world, wreathed in the life after death.
Jon’s eyes widen. His entire face tips upward and he stares, barely breathing, at the ghost. He looks suffused with something so hot it blazes from his skin- something greedy and so desperately ravenous that it makes Sansa throb with pity.
“I can’t hold it for too long,” she warns him, but Jon doesn’t seem to hear her.
“Do you know who I am?” asks the ghost, ignoring Jon.
Sansa shakes her head.
The ghost quirks a smile. “I was once a King-Beyond-the-Wall.”
“There were many such kings,” says Sansa neutrally.
“Forgive me- I was once a King-Beyond-the-Wall, yes.” The ghost folds his hands together. “I was, once, the first King-Beyond-the-Wall.”
Jon makes a noise in his throat like something’s scratched it. “Joramun?” He whirls on Sansa. “You trusted Joramun to get us to safety?”
“It wasn’t like I’d a choice,” Sansa reminds him. She turns to Joramun. “And I didn’t know who you were. But... you know who we are.”
“Starks,” says Joramun simply. “How could I not? Your very blood- it sings through. Your eyes say even more.”
“Joramun hates Starks- he- it’s so known-”
“I am not a monster,” says Joramun sharply, rising a foot into the air as if held upright by his outrage. “I have never raised a hand to children, and I would not start now even if I’d had a blood feud with your family. I am many things, boy- a fool is not one of them.”
Sansa inhales slowly, through a chest that aches and aches. “You don’t have a blood feud with the Starks?”
“I’ve every right to bear one,” says Joramun, before twitching a hand. “But no. I never had any desire to kill anyone, Lady Stark, not for all the years of my life. The only man I might have wished to slay killed me, and my death served to keep my lands safe. I’ve few regrets.”
“But you have them,” challenges Jon, eyes over-bright in the dim light of the fire. “Don’t you?”
Sansa sighs. “Jon,” she says, just as sharp back, “if he’s willing to help us, perhaps you might fare better in not trying to provoke him into
Joramun crooks a wry smile- he doesn’t look angry or offended. “I lived for a very long time, in a time when no one expected it of me. I have many regrets; of course I do. But I won’t hurt you because I have been here for far too long. Because I would’ve given my life to save my people, and I did. Because if you can save them- there is no debt more profoundly given than mine.”
A gift, thinks Sansa, shivering. And not a deal.
“Your people?” she asks aloud.
Joramun stills. “Yes,” he says finally. “My people. The freefolk. Wildlings. What I gave ensured they remained free and kingless, and there is nothing I have ever regretted less.”
“And what of those beneath the Wall?” demands Jon.
“Brandon Breaker- have you met him, lass?”
“No,” admits Sansa reluctantly.
“Ah. Well, if you had, you might’ve known: he was a man unrivaled in blade and speed, but also a man unrivaled in viciousness. Once his temper took him... there was none that could sway him from his course. A man made for war, and not peace.” He lifts one shoulder easily. “I worked beside with him for long years to destroy the Night’s King. I then had to bear his greed when he turned his eyes onto us, beyond the Wall. All that I lost to that battle- it was almost more than against the Night’s King. And still it went on, and on, and on, until the end.”
Sansa feels something catch in her chest like a thorned branch. “And what was that end?”
“We were so old by then,” murmurs Joramun. “So old and so tired. He placed his blade between my ribs one morning, but not before I’d poisoned him. We fell together.”
Joramun closes his eyes. He looks old, now; old and weary and shrunken. “The things you Starks do, to save the world. You never know the full consequences; you are never ready to accept them once made aware. Brandon Builder raised the Wall against the Others and didn’t care when he trapped half his own people on the wrong side of it. Brandon Breaker gave me the tools to break the Wall and swore to me that if I, or any of my line, used it, our souls would be shredded into oblivion.”
“To break the Wall?” asked Jon, sounding stunned.
“Aye, lad. Joramun’s horn.” Joramun nods to a knotted hollow behind them. “Crafted with my hands and Brandon’s magic. I’ve never known another man who could craft things so queer and lovely and dangerous, all at once. Southerners always used to say the Builder’s blood ran true in him.” He pauses for a brief moment. “It’s there, behind you, if you’d like to see it.”
Jon chokes on air. “It’s here?”
“It was lost,” interposes Sansa.
“Lost?” Joramun laughs. “No, lass, it was stolen. By me. Why do you think Brandon Builder followed me all the way past the Wall? I stole something he had- the Horn. I taunted him with that which he feared the most, and for his terror and fear he lost his life.”
Jon turns away, moving to the corner that Joramun had indicated. He digs through the loose dirt and roots- seven thousand years is a long time- and unearths a leather bag that’s rotted through. Jon hisses through his teeth and shakes it until the leather flakes off; a neat package of leaves all bundled together is revealed.
“Blessed by Children,” says Joramun satisfiedly. “Those leaves’ll protect anything you put in ‘em for longer than you can imagine.”
Slowly, Jon slides his knife into the slender ropes binding it together and saws outward. The wrappings fall away to reveal a small, dark horn banded with obsidian stamped with strange symbols.
“Don’t you dare put your mouth on that, lad,” Joramun orders loudly, when Jon leans forward. Then, slightly calmer: “Not if you don’t wish for the Wall to fall, that is.”
Sansa tightens her fist until she can feel her bones creak.
“No,” says Jon, quiet as a panther. “I don’t.” His eyes flick, briefly, to Sansa, before he says, “Not yet, at least.”
“Well,” says Joramun, before he twists his lips in a curve that looks so- so sad. His eyes trace over the horn slowly, reverently, but he doesn’t move from where he’s seated himself. “Now you see: what I gave my life for. What Brandon lost his life to. Everything I’ve lost is there, in that little horn.”
Sansa imagines it, all these histories laid over the legends she knows: Brandon Breaker, young and lost, fleeing Winterfell once the Long Night began. Joramun, uniting a people that had been lost and shattered since Brandon Builder abandoned them to the Others. Two leaders of two desperate peoples, uniting for long years and crafting a tool that would finally break the hold of darkness.
But not well enough, for Brandon returned to Winterfell and saw it broken. Saw his entire family coming for his blood. Saw betrayal.
Winter fell at Winterfell, and what was left was a man with absolutely nothing.
So Brandon turned on the wildlings, tried to conquer those who had grown used to being leaderless; and Sansa knows, now, how furiously people will fight against such yokes. How some will rather die than bend. And Joramun must have had to fight back- must have tried, and failed, over and over again. Until he stole a horn that Brandon hid away, and in the ensuing battle, gave his life to ensure Brandon Breaker could not break his people.
Those muscles of dreamspeaking are twitching, over-stretched and pulled taut, but Sansa holds on. Jon must be able to see Joramun for what she’s going to say.
“You have said it is not a debt that we are expected to pay,” she says carefully. “But an injustice was committed, and if there is anything I can do- tell me.” She lifts her eyes to Joramun’s slanted ones, dark and unending. “I will try.”
“It was seven thousand years before your time, lass,” says Joramun gently.
Sansa lifts her head proudly.
Her father, warping his life to fit around a lie for a baby. Her brother, accepting the crown of ancient kings because war calls him to do so. Her uncle, curling around her and defying the edicts of his father, a man he loves and fears in equal quantity. Her grandfather, standing before Visenya, just as strong, just as proud. Willam, broad and glittering and kind beyond measure. Brandon Snow, youthful, grieving. And back and back and back, until Brandon Breaker, who’d broken the Long Night but also broken himself in the same moment.
Hers is not a blood of honor or love or kindness.
But even if honor and love and kindness is not running in her veins, Sansa chooses those things, chooses them with the indelible greed of Brandon Breaker, who would not sway from a path he chose.
“Nevertheless,” she says. “What do you wish for, Joramun King?”
She feels Jon rise and come to stand right behind her, one hand warm on her shoulder. He doesn’t speak, but his face is fierce and his eyes are like storms beginning to blot out the sun.
“When the time comes,” says Joramun, creakingly ancient, hope like seeds under ten feet of snow in his voice, those seeds that never die and wait, endlessly, for land to grow from, “blow that horn. Bring down the Wall. Let my people have more, for once, than what they scrabble for amid stone and ice and dust.”
Jon’s hand spasms, almost makes her flinch, but Sansa feels like a bird- light, free, falling with the knowledge of wings to make her fly when she wishes it.
“The Others will come,” she says softly. “There are so many people there, beneath the Wall.”
“And to save them, you would sacrifice mine?” Joramun asks. “You are not Brandon to be so callous, I think.”
“You know something else.”
“I do,” he says, and the fire Jon set has faded; all that lights the cavern is Joramun’s body, opalescent, shimmering. “For there is what Brandon did, in his fury against the Night’s Queen, at Winterfell- where he slayed her physical form, but not what made her as she was; and there is another, which we had planned for before we heard that Others had crept through the Wall- to end her as one, entirely, so the darkness shall never again return to our world.”
Sansa bows her head. “And you think us capable of doing the latter?”
“I think,” says Joramun ponderously, “you are capable of more than any of us can imagine. Yes, Lady Stark: you are capable. But it will not be so easy as you think, for it must be done at a very specific place. You must let the Night Queen be there, where it all began.”
“And where is that?” asks Jon.
Joramun doesn’t look away from Sansa. “You know,” he says.
She does. The place where it began; the oldest place she knows. Sansa has lost so much else, but this knowledge sits in her like a flower in the moments before unfurling.
“Winter fell at Winterfell,” she says. “And the place where it began would be the oldest place in all of Winterfell.” One breath, to push air into her muscles, to survive. “The crypts.”
Jon sinks down on himself like a black-edged shadow. “To let the Others in- to break down the Wall- we’d risk losing-”
“Everything,” says Sansa. Her heart aches, twists, curdles. “To gain everything, we must chance everything, isn’t it? To ensure darkness is gone, we must allow darkness the chance to have it all.”
“Even if we accept such a prospect,” says Jon, slowly, “it would be impossible. How could we reach Winterfell? The dead will be swarming the Wall far before we ever manage it. And even if we reached Winterfell, the Greyjoys hold it. They won’t be happy to see me or Sansa.”
“The latter won’t be an issue to a dreamspeaker of the strength of lady Sansa,” says Joramun. “And for the first- did you not wonder how I could say you were safe here? There is a path that will let you bypass the Wall without need of a boat, lad; that will keep you safe.”
“Look around you,” Joramun orders.
Sansa does, and thinks: white. What she’d assumed to be simply a reflection of Joramun’s glow is white, like bleached bone. But the tree is alive. Which means...
“A weirwood,” she breathes.
“Weirwood roots,” says Joramun, nodding once. “Sown with dragonglass where we could get it, and Valyrian steel when we could not, and the charmed blood of Children when even that was impossible. We called it the Bloodpath. It’s a path that we carved, Brandon and I, as a way to escape the Others when all else seemed lost.” He smiles thinly. “It runs through the land, straight to the Bay of Seals, and through that marshy ground between Skagos and Westeros, all the way to the Wall.”
Jon’s brows pull together. “Those swamps are why we can’t run ships between Skagos- we always have to go around, if we’re trying to reach Hardholm.”
“Aye,” says Joramun. “Not an easy path, no, but Brandon Builder ran it in less than three days when he heard Winterfell was in danger. We lured the Night’s King past the Wall, see, and it was Brandon who slayed him; but then Brandon learned that it was not the king we ought to have feared- it was his wife, the Night’s Queen. He took a horse and ran this path, and didn’t sleep for days on end- just went on, and on, and on, until he reached Winterfell and had to kill his very own blood.” Joramun breathes in slowly. “He was a broken man ever after.”
Sansa closes her eyes. How grievous, she thinks, and remembers Brynden, red-eyed and weary. Visenya, pale-haired, bitter. A thousand stars whirling above Elia, cold and cruel and caring all at once. How would it feel to lose everything you’ve ever cared about? How would you fill the hollow parts of your soul after that?
There are things that cannot be undone, she thinks, and it hurts like the sting of a blade across her skin.
But this is a war, and Sansa shall have time for mourning once it’s over. The tragedy of Brandon Breaker’s life is not something she can contemplate now.
“A path past the Wall?” she asks, loud in the cold silence around them.
Joramun spreads his fingers. “The swamps between Skagos and true land are treacherous, but not so terrible if you know them well. And the charms Brandon laid... they have ensured the path remains, even seven thousand years later. I will take you there, Lady Stark, if that is your wish.”
Sansa thinks: can she do this? Can she? Does she dare? Brandon Builder did not manage it, and surely she is not greater than him, he of the Age of Heroes. Joramun did not manage it, and not a one of the other Stark Lords, all of whom have had thousands more horses and men and abilities.
But what are the consequences if she does not?
For how long can the Wall hold?
Sansa looks up, searches for Jon, and catches his wrist. Presses her fingers until she feels his pulse, slow and weighty and even as the tides. She does not know what she is doing; she does not know if she can.
But this Sansa knows: she must, at least, try.
“Yes,” says Sansa, before she lets the dreamspeaking she’d shrouded around Jon collapse in on itself. “It is my wish.”
There is no other, she thinks, and so I must; and so I shall.
They set out the next day. The path that Joramun leads them through is disgusting: swampy, shallow waters that are freezing and muddy in equal amounts. Sansa aches and aches and aches, and she doesn’t let a single word of complaint pass her lips.
“You know what you’re doing?” asks Jon, so quiet as to be soundless.
“No,” whispers Sansa.
“Ah,” he says, and then he chucks his chin over her scalp. “You do. Don’t go being modest now.”
There are ghosts, but none that Sansa knows; none that Sansa does not fear. They stare at her with hollow eyes and carved cheeks and look terrifying. She closes her eyes, weaves her hand in Jon’s, and trusts in Lady’s balance to lead her forward.
In the shadow of Eastwatch, Sansa pulls at her knapsack before turning to Joramun.
“Thank you,” she pronounces deliberately, bowing. “For what was taken- for what was stolen from you- I shall do my best to repay it.”
Joramun presses a cold hand to her shoulder. The cloth’s been cut away by a slash of the wight’s nails; she hasn’t gotten around to sewing it yet. Right now, her skin feels like it might just chip off if turned any colder. It aches, but she does not turn away from it.
“There are things that cannot be repaid, nor undone,” he says quietly, but his eyes are burning, blazing, searing. Joramun’s a tall man, lean like a shadow; but not small. Not any smaller than any other king Sansa has ever met in her life. “That you would even try is a grander gift than any other, Lady Stark. You have my gratitude, and my loyalty.”
And Joramun- first King-Beyond-the-Wall, leader, legend, hero- bows to Sansa.
“If ever you meet Brandon,” he says, rising with a grace that’s not often found in such long limbs, “tell him- tell him that he made mistakes, and I did as well, and seven thousand years is too long a time for grief to grip us.”
“Very well,” whispers Sansa, backing away, watching him slowly fade into nothing more than the sunlight on moving water.
She feels like crying. She doesn’t know why, but she does.
“You can leave.”
Jon lifts an eyebrow at Sansa. “What?”
“You can return to the Wall, if you want,” Sansa tells him. “If you think you’ll be of more use in ensuring the Night’s Watch survive this- then go. I’ll make sure Ghost and Lady don’t stop you.”
“Those people who wanted to kill me’ll still be there,” says Jon, not even faltering in his stride. “And I left my post, Sansa. I walk back, and they’ll string me up before I can tell ‘em anything.”
He nudges her with one shoulder, lightly, before swinging back with a stronger shove. Sansa squeaks as she tries to balance- but Ghost is there, too close, and she tumbles over his back onto the snow.
“Jon,” she growls, sitting up and spitting slush out of her mouth.
Jon grins at her, hands up. “Not my fault,” he says. “It’s not like I told Ghost to be there.”
“I’m going to drown you alive,” hisses Sansa, getting to her feet and sprinting after him.
They pass the Wall, but Sansa doesn’t attempt to speak to any ghosts along the way. She only curls tighten into herself, breathes, tries to forget what she must do and also pay attention to what she cannot let go. Her heart feels swollen to burst, as a river in winter; it feels shattered, like the ice floes that begin to melt. The people Jon speaks to and receives clothing and food from- they treat them both with wariness and fear in equal measure. Sansa barely lets go of Lady’s fur after they pass Last Hearth.
She knows that Jon worries about her, though he doesn’t say anything.
It’s only that she must take this decision upon her shoulders- slender shoulders, fit for slipping into gowns and weaving flower crowns, not for wielding Valyrian steel. Who is she to decide to tear down the Wall? She is only the second daughter of the Lord of Winterfell, and even that has been stripped from her. She is only a girl who speaks to the dead. And now she must decide if she can end the risk of darkness. Now, she must decide if she will beat the darkness back, or if she will kill the darkness.
It makes her shudder straight down to her bones.
I am only a girl, she thinks, and I have Visenya’s steel sword, and Torrhen Stark’s blessing, and the gratitude of Joramun King. I am only a girl who is not ready to die, and who is not ready to lose.
Hers is not a blood of honor or love or kindness.
Hers is a blood of pride. Hers is a blood of ferocity. Hers is a blood of triumph.
Triumph against all the odds, triumph against everyone’s belief. Had any ghost in the Red Keep ever truly thought she could return to the North? Hope is one thing, but trust is another.
Brandon, perhaps, and Elia; but not many. Certainly not Rickard. Not Visenya. They sent her off and said goodbye and that was the limit of their concern, because girls like her don’t live for very long in their world. Girls like Sansa shatter.
But that is your mistake, she thinks, watching as Winterfell’s walls swim into view like a heat haze. You taught me to bend before I broke, and to cry instead of relying on others, and to wield a sword with skill and fierceness.
It is not my fault that I learned it.
She is home now. Sansa has walked away from the Red Keep and Riverrun, has walked away from her family and from her reputation. She has walked past Winterfell as well, all to save the world, but now there is no larger world to save: there is only this, Winterfell, char-walled and still impressive; grey stoned and shining. Her home.
I learned all your tricks. I learned all your faults. I learned, and I learned, and I learned.
And now, I will save it all.
She and Jon walk around Winterfell four times.
“Once for those who taught us- our teachers,” says Sansa, voice melodic and dancing. “Once for those who guide us from above- our gods. Once for those who bore us- our parents. And once, finally, for ourselves.”
Dreamspeaking is difficult.
But Sansa does not need to hold the people within Winterfell to any half-sleep, half-wake state. She must only send them so deep that the arrival of the dead will not wake them. There are ghosts that watch her, ghosts that she’d once adored, but Sansa doesn’t call out to them. She does not need guidance now. All she needs is peace and silence and the thread of a tale so grand none will wish to leave.
It will work, of course. Sansa knows many grand tales. Knows many grand tales that are true, and so will ring with the pulse of the world beneath her feet, and increase the strength of the spell.
“It’s different from what I did with you,” she explains to Jon, one night in the wolfswood, back against a rough-barked tree and hood pushed back to catch late afternoon sunlight. Their lunch sits, devoured, before them. “With you, it was like trying to pull an unconscious man up a hill, and the hill lasted the entire time you could see the ghosts. But now- I plan to do it so I push a stone up the hill instead. Let the stone sit at the top, and sing praises to all below it; I will have done all the work already.”
“This is going to work, Sansa,” says Jon.
His voice soothes parts of her that feel jagged; it calms the part of her that leaves her voice high and rambling.
“Yes,” says Sansa. “It is.”
She will not let herself think on the consequences of what will happen if she’s wrong.
It is a beautiful dream that Sansa weaves into being: it has bits of Brandon Builder’s story, and bits of Joramun’s, and bits of Lyanna’s as well. Heroes and tragedies and romance, with sprinkles of battles and triumph and the fury of grief as well. There are songs; dances; glittering cups of wine that sits on the tongue long past the swallowing. If she could let herself live in such a dream, Sansa thinks ruefully, she would.
Instead, she ties off the edges of the spell onto moonflowers- those that blossom only once a moon’s turn, when the moon turns bright and round as the curve of an apple. The spell will last, then, for long enough to blow the Horn and let the Others ride down to Winterfell. Just long enough for Sansa to defeat them, before the Greyjoys waken.
And if you fail? whispers the wind into her ear.
I will not, Sansa returns, and walks into the forest unafraid.
Dawn touches the tops of the trees, and Sansa pulls on Jon’s sleeve, goes to stand at the crest of the hill. She can feel her dream plucking at her mind, impatient and itchy, but holds it. For the dream to work, there must be one emotion singing through the minds of the people inside Winterfell, and Sansa’s chosen terror. Only the horn can inspire that kind of bone-deep terror, and Joramun’s told Jon how to get it to work- how to breathe; when to use it; what to expect.
Red spills down until finally it alights on the mussed curls atop Jon’s head.
“Now,” whispers Sansa.
Jon inhales, inhales, inhales. Sansa thinks his lungs must be ten times- a hundred times- larger than hers, because his breath seems unending. Then he pushes it out into the horn, obsidian glittering devil-black, and a noise erupts from it.
If asked to describe it, Sansa would say it was low. But she doesn’t have words for it then: it’s so deep it vibrates in her gut, and inspires a terror in her that feels nameless and bone-deep. The fear of the dark, the fear of death, the fear of falling; the fear of starvation and cold and flame and war and heights and creatures and steel and-
It is the fear of everything that anyone could ever have felt fear of, turned into a sound, made into a call.
Sansa realizes, distantly, that Jon looks far taller than he should. Then she realizes that she’s dropped to her knees, and she’s shivering. Through the miasma, there are faint sounds coming from Winterfell- shouts, alarms, people readying to ride out.
She feels a hand brush against her neck.
Jon, whose face looks grim and determined. “Your turn,” he says.
My turn. Sansa closes her eyes. Slowly, she clambers to her feet. Inhales. Opens her eyes. My turn.
Dawn sweeps its crimson rays over Winterfell, hiding all the destruction dealt to it by the Greyjoys. Sansa can almost imagine it’s her home once more, with her father in the godswood and her mother in her study, Robb and Jon in the training grounds, Bran and Arya listening to Old Nan’s tales.
“Once upon a time,” whispers Sansa, letting the dream spring into reality, singing it forth like a waltz made of words, “there was a hero, who was so afraid it hurt.”
The shouts inside of Winterfell slowly, slowly- go silent. The movement stills. Sansa closes her eyes and leaps forth, flits from mind to mind so she can see if there’s anyone left out of her trap. There is one mind- in the dungeons- but she only needs to push a little, exert muscles that he’s never used in his life, and he, too, folds.
“It’s safe,” says Sansa, lifting out of it. Her eyes meet Jon’s, and she blinks, wipes at it. Her palm comes back stained red. “They’re all asleep.”
Halfway to Winterfell, Lyarra comes swirling out of the castle to meet them. There are others behind her, but she’s moving faster than them all. Before she can speak, there’s a sound that comes from the north: a cracking sound, like bone, but deeper. It goes on and on and on, groaning, endless.
And then it’s silenced.
“The Wall,” breathes Lyarra, horrified, before turning on Sansa. “Oh, Sansa, what have you done?”
Sansa enters Winterfell, grips Jon’s wrist, and tips her chin up. Flexes her muscles. Wills him to see.
“This is our grandmother,” she says levelly, not looking away from Lyarra. “Grandmother, this is your grandson through your daughter- Jon Snow, of House Targaryen.”
“Sansa,” both of them say at once, warning in both voices that sounds like an echo through time.
She turns her shoulders to meet them both. “Enough secrets,” says Sansa, letting all pretense of calm drip away from her voice to leave it bare-faced stone. “Enough lies. It matters not if it was for protection or for love or for a hatred so deep you cannot imagine your life without it. The world is changing, Grandmother, and I am bringing that change.”
Anger runs hot in her veins, but it runs beneath layers of hurt and betrayal and grief. What did you hope I could do beyond the Wall, with nobody beside me and no idea of where to go? Sansa would ask, if not for the stone sitting in her throat. Instead, she forces out other words.
“The Wall has fallen,” she says. “The Night’s Queen comes. I need help, Grandmother, and not guidance. Will you give it?”
There is a long pause, in which no leaf rustles, no ghost cries out, nobody even dares breathe. Lyarra stares at Sansa, and her eyes are wide with equal parts rage and grief, and she looks like ice made into the likeness of a woman. But then she softens, melts, crumples in on herself, and she says, soft as a summer breeze: “Sansa, Sansa- yes, yes, of course, I shall give it.”
“I don’t know if I do the right thing,” Sansa whispers to the weirwood tree. Her trousers are stained at the knees and have ripped entirely near one calf, but Sansa doesn’t have time to darn it. She has less than half a week before the Night’s Queen shall come; she must be ready for it. And still she finds herself kneeling before the hearttree, fear thick in her throat. “I don’t know. I’m so afraid. If I fail, what shall we lose? Am I being too prideful? I’m just a girl. Just a girl. How can I do this?”
“When I did it, I was just a boy.”
Sansa whirls around, knife leaping to her fingers almost by itself. Her eyes make out a silver figure- something gleaming, something soft. It coalesces into a man, of average height and a long face, with hair cut raggedly around him and eyes that could belong to Jon.
“Ah, lass, no dagger can cut me now,” he says, sinking to sit on a stone beside her.
“When you did what?” asks Sansa, but she thinks she knows.
A Stark face. That particular style of coat. The soft blur of silver at the edges, that must have come from seven thousand years of death.
“When I slayed the Night’s King,” says Brandon Breaker quietly. “And later, when I killed the Night’s Queen. I was but a boy, and one who’d spent half his life knowing only the Long Night. As you are a girl, and still- so often, the world sits on such young shoulders.”
Sansa curls in on herself. She can scarcely breathe.
“You call me a hero. But ah, lass- hope is so difficult to hold in the darkness. And without hope, we do terrible things.” He shakes his head, and the air in the godswood stills as if forced calm. “Grand things, great things, but terrible as well. And there I was, but a boy with a world to save.”
“It must have been difficult,” whispers Sansa.
“The most difficult thing I ever did.” He doesn’t smile like Joramun did- Sansa thinks he’s more solemn, perhaps more likely to feel the weight of his sins. “There were nights after, when I wished I died with it- so I would be remembered as a hero, and nothing more. But even that, I did not finish! Thirteen generations since Brandon Builder did the Long Night fall, did the Night’s Queen rise once more, and I could have ended her for all eternity. And all I did was bind her so deep to winter that it took a winter the likes of which the world hasn’t experienced in seven thousand years to waken. Had I not been blinded with grief... the world would be a very different place.”
“But you survived,” Sansa points out. “You lived. You taught your sons, and they taught theirs, enough for the stories to survive seven thousand years.”
“Is that what they told you? I did not teach my sons, lass- I erased it all. Books, bindings, magic. For magic stole from me my mother and my sisters and my brothers, and from magic did I steal its practice, its knowledge, its art.” Brandon says it calmly enough, but Sansa can see- there is fury there, old, tired rage. “And before I burned the book that could have saved you now, I bound us to death, for I did not think I could bear seeing those that I had failed so grievously.”
Sansa tips her head up, looks at the bark, the scraping growth of the trees around her; the red face carved into the weirwood in front of her, the stone before it, worn smooth from thousands of years of supplicants.
“There is always another way,” she says.
Or so do I hope. So do I hope, until that, too, is stricken from me.
“Ah,” says Brandon, blurring further until Sansa can’t make out any parts of his face. “Hope. ‘Tis easy to forget, when you exist for as long as I have. You’ll have to make sure you don’t rely on that alone, lass, if you wish to survive.”
Sansa swallows. Gathers her courage, and her voice. “But, my lord,” she dares, soft as a falling feather, “what would survival mean, if hope did not matter?”
Brandon stares at her. “Nothing,” he says, after a pause. “Nothing at all. Remember that, then, if you would rather your heart be broken than your life colorless: remember that you are not alone. Remember that, because death makes us all feel so empty and lonely, but it is not true. You are surrounded, always, by those who love you. A Stark in Winterfell is never alone. That is truth.”
What do I have?
I have myself, and Jon, and a sword of Valyrian steel, and seven thousand years of ghosts. And the Night’s Queen is of Stark blood, borne of Brandon the Builder, who is my ancestor a thousand generations back.
“So you think I can do it?” Sansa asks.
Something flickers in Brandon’s eyes. What would have been a smile in another man lightens his face.
“Close your eyes,” he says. “Imagine a world where the Others win. Imagine your mother bloodless and blue-skinned, your father with rotten holes in his hands. Your sister sobbing. The sky black as pitch, and no sun to lighten it. An army of shattered men and women, cold to the bone, ragged and held together with nothing more than a dream of dawn. Could you live in such a world, Sansa Stark?”
You know my name, Sansa thinks, wondering. You know my name, you who have been known for millennia.
“Could you live in such a world, knowing you did not do all that you could to stop it?”
“No,” whispers Sansa.
“Would you fight against all reason, beyond all desire, to ensure such a world does not arise?”
“Do you believe you can win?”
Sansa bows her head. “Yes.”
“How fiercely do you want it?”
“Terribly.” Sansa lifts her chin, meets Brandon Breaker’s gaze, and doesn’t look away. “Endlessly. Infinitely.”
“Then it matters not what I think,” Brandon tells her, a twist to his lips like a bird’s sweeping wing on his face, “for you shall be triumphant.”
Hidden deep in Sansa knapsack is a slink of flowers that has been there since she threatened her grandfather. Dried sword lily, tied together with white wool stained red from Sansa’s own blood. It’s the matter of only a few minutes to unwind the wool and crush the dried flowers to a powder.
Sansa lights a pile of kindling and balances a pot of snow from it. She tosses the powdered lily into the pot, then retreats to the entrance to see the sun. It might very well be her last time seeing it- she’s released Ghost and Lady to go south and meet up with Bran and the Children in Skagos, and it’s only Jon awake, alive, now, sitting on Winterfell’s highest tower and sharpening his sword.
A cold wind touches Sansa’s cheeks, stirs the short ends of her hairs against her forehead, and she closes her eyes.
“Do you know what you are doing?” asks Lyarra.
“I think so,” murmurs Sansa. “I hope so.”
“The Night’s Queen shall be here by dawn,” says Lyarra calmly. She isn’t looking at Sansa- she, too, is looking up at the sky bruised purple. “But there are no rumors of the dead ruining Last Hearth. Perhaps you were right, when you said you knew what you were doing.”
“And perhaps I was wrong,” says Sansa. “A slender hope, that is what you think. Too slender to carry the fate of the world.”
“Am I wrong?”
“No.” Sansa breathes in. Godswood, dust, horses. And under it all, the clean scent of winter. She is Winterfell’s daughter, and winter has come, and she will not let morning fall. “But fear has never won wars either, Grandmother.”
Lyarra turns and runs her fingers over Sansa’s jaw, light, shivering-cold. “I don’t like this,” she whispers, face drawn tight and shadowed. “But I have always loved you, Sansa, and I will continue to love you long past any measure of time. That you believed me to wish harm to you- for any reason at all- there can be no greater pain. I don’t like this, my darling, my dearest, but I will stand by you. Remember that. Fear the Night’s Queen, and the dead, and what your failure might mean. But never doubt, not for a single breath, that I will not stand beside you.
“You are my granddaughter,” she says, so blisteringly forceful that Sansa cannot help but break out into goose-bumps. “And we ghosts of Winterfell, we ghosts of House Stark, have loved you for longer than you can know. When you have need of us, call. Call, and we shall answer.”
“I cannot control you,” Sansa says, almost soundless. “All I can do is-”
“Love us,” says Lyarra. “All you can do is love us. Did you think your love unreturned? We have loved you, and that love means trust, and that trust means that when you call, we shall answer. You cannot control us, Sansa, sweetling girl: but oh, love, you can ask.”
Gifts. Sansa wants to shake out of her skin. Not debts. How do you survive death? You craft a legacy longer than anything you could do yourself. How do you gain allies? You open your heart, and allow those that don’t plunge knives into the depths to take shelter.
“I love you,” whispers Sansa, bending forward, wishing desperately for something to embrace, something solid to hold onto. “I love you, Grandmother. I- thank you.”
“You are a Stark,” says Lyarra.
She looks glorious. Cut diamond, stars on white snow, silk draped over flawless skin- nothing could match how Lyarra looks now, as glorious as Elia had ever looked on the beach. Lyarra has no need to call for her family from above for guidance: she holds that glory within herself.
“You are a Stark,” Lyarra says again. “You will do what must be done, Stark-daughter, wolf-girl, death-speaker. And you will be triumphant. I know it, and I would swear on it, if blood remained in my veins. Do you understand me?”
Sansa looks up at her, where Lyarra’s risen to catch the moonlight shining down on them. The last silver light she might ever see in her life, perhaps her last night on earth. Maybe tomorrow, she will be another wight in the Night’s Queen’s army, blue-skinned and rotting through. But she has tonight.
She has tonight.
“Yes,” says Sansa. Then louder, and louder, and louder still: “Yes. Yes. Yes!”
For all that she has lost, and all that she might yet lose, but still: for all that she yet has, all these innumerable gifts given to her for the simple sake of love by silent ghosts. People long dead, who believe in her, the last in their long line. The last scion of an ancient house, with a duty and the ability to act.
Yes, thinks Sansa, face tipped back, tears blurring all the colors of the night sky so all she sees is blackness and silver, the stars above her and her grandmother, dead for decades but right next to her nevertheless. Yes, I can do this.
Jon comes to her a few hours later, almost midnight, and says, in a voice strained tight, “I can see them.”
Sansa inhales sharply. “It’s time, then,” she says, and walks into the crypts.
Within, the kindling has turned to ash. Jon stands at the entrance. The water has stained a dull red, and Sansa lifts the pot with a hand carefully covered in two layers of cloth before pouring the hot liquid over Dark Sister.
Faith, thinks Sansa, moving as easily as she knows to. Remembrance. Family. Integrity. I will never give up, and that is what this means.
“I am Sansa of House Stark,” she says, voice breaking a little before she inhales, before she remembers the touch of Lyarra’s fingers, cold and soft against her cheeks. She lifts the sword. Grips it tight. “Eldest daughter of the Lord of Winterfell. I am a dreamspeaker and a wolfsinger. I am as what you see: your daughter, your heir. You know me. You have known me since I was a child, and you have protected me for all those long years. And now there is a darkness coming, a darkness that shall end us all, birthed from Stark blood, crafted on this very soil. I ask you, all of you who share my blood, all of you who desire it, all of you who can: will you aid me?”
There is such silence for so long that Sansa starts to quail.
Perhaps Lyarra lied.
But no, no, because Sansa knows her grandmother, and she knows Lyarra would not lie to her. Not about this. Not with that look in her eyes, hot love and hotter pride.
Then silver light speeds from the entrance, small and compact, and wraps around Dark Sister. Sansa, holding onto the hilt, nearly drops the sword- memories come to her, the taste of sun, dry sand, sweet rose. Lyanna, thinks Sansa, distantly, stunned. Lyanna has come from Dorne. Sansa’s call has pierced so far as to-
Another blur of light comes, seals over Lyanna’s, and Sansa has less than a heartbeat to recognize Brandon before Rickard overlays him. Lyarra wraps over Rickard’s ghost, and it becomes a haze after that: seven thousand years of ghosts, weighting the sword but remaining weightless; one after the other, until all Sansa knows is silver light, faint impressions, warmth like open flame in that part of her that feels like she can swallow the world whole with the love she holds for her family now.
“I hope you’re ready,” Jon calls back to her.
Sansa jerks her head up to see him rotate Longclaw and sink into a battle stance. But there’s more ghosts coming, an almost endless surge, and Sansa feels her heart start to race.
If I’m not ready-
I will be.
She sees the Night’s King enter- just the sight of him, Sansa’s first sight- leaves her feeling as weak as a newborn lamb. He’s tall, skin flawless, with eyes that blaze blue as a cloudless sky. Atop his brow sits a crown of ice, formed into nine jagged swords. Sansa hisses out through her teeth before she can stop herself. It’s a mockery of the crowns of ancient Stark kings.
How dare you, she thinks, and it sits in her breast like a clawing beast.
But then: behind the Night’s King comes the Night’s Queen.
She’s not taller than the King; but she is slender, and her skin might have just been any human’s- it’s very faintly blue, but only enough to highlight the cracking blue of her eyes. Her face looks like how Arya might look in ten years’ time: beautiful, untouchable, sharp as a hatchet.
Into the silence of her approach, Jon gives a cry and charges the Night’s King, but he cannot keep the Queen at bay; once he’s occupied, the Queen starts forwards with such implacable force that it seems impossible to stop her.
Sansa grits her teeth. There are still ghosts coming, though she doesn’t know how many more are to come- but when they do, all she can think of is them, her family, this Stark family that both she and the Night’s Queen are daughters of. She wants to bow against the terrible weight of that knowledge. She straightens instead and meets the Queen, eye to eye, height to height.
“I died here,” she says.
For a moment, Sansa isn’t certain who spoke. She’d expected silence- in her wildest dreams, she’d imagined an old, croaking voice. But the Night’s Queen sounds more like a young woman than anything; like Jeyne, before she’d died; like Arya, like Sansa herself.
It is the stuff of nightmares.
“The dead are here,” the child-Queen continues, turning terrible eyes upon Sansa, the color of silver and steel and death. “I can feel them. My father. My brothers.”
“Their sons,” whispers Sansa. “And all the rest, for eight thousand years.”
“Will you stop me?” the Queen cocks her head to the side, studying Sansa closely. “I have been here before. But I was driven back before I could touch my father and brothers. That man wielded steel better than even the man behind me does.”
Sansa bites her lip. Deflect, she thinks. Until this is over. Until you know. Until you can act.
“Why do you want to touch your father and brothers?” she asks.
“Because I am hungry, and whenever I am hungry I go to my father,” says the Queen serenely. “He is-” her brow furrows a little, before clearing. “-it matters not. I know he is here. Shall you stop me?”
A child, thinks Sansa, horrified. The Night’s Queen is beautiful and lovely and dangerous beyond all doubt; but she is also a child: young, and she wants her father to save her, and instead of attempting to help her, all those who have come before Sansa have simply hurt her, banished her, killed her.
She feels the hilt of Dark Sister go cold as ice under her fingers. White fire springs into being around the blade, and Sansa swallows hard. Do what must be done, for there is none else who can do it.
I am so sorry, thinks Sansa.
“You are a daughter of my family,” she says, flexing her wrist and lifting the sword, sinking into the opening stance for a duel. “And it is my duty to save the world from you. Yes. I shall stop you.”
The Night’s Queen flicks her wrist and snow coalesces into a sword around her hand. Sansa spins to meet the Queen’s terrible strength with her own.
She’s much stronger than Sansa, and in a fair battle, Sansa would’ve died easily. But this is Winterfell, and Sansa bears a sword that needs only stab the Queen a little, and Sansa has spent long months being trained by a woman who tamed dragons and entire kingdoms.
Remember, thinks Sansa, cutting against one of the Queen’s blows and deflecting another, you always have more than the edge of a blade.
The Queen throws her across the cavern, and Sansa crashes into the crypt of some king. She rises, blinking white spots out of her eyes, and comes forward to meet the Queen once more. One breath, and Sansa feels her ankle snap as the Queen turns into a blur of blue and white and cutting snow. She has to concentrate to even hold onto Dark Sister.
Beyond the Queen’s shoulder she can see Jon pushing the King backwards. Blood flows freely from Jon’s side, but he’s not flinching.
She is not faster than the Queen. She is not stronger than the Queen. She might very well not be smarter than the Queen.
But Sansa has her family beside her.
And she has never wanted anything more.
The desire subsumes her, turns all of her skin to ash, makes her a creature of little more than flame and steel and want.
Sansa breathes deep and steps forward, into one of the Queen’s furious movements. Sometimes, the only way to beat people is not to be smarter than them. Sometimes, the only way is to be stupid enough to trust in a blade of fire and family and seven thousand years of ghosts.
I am a Stark. I am a wolfsinger and a dreamspeaker and a hopebringer, and triumph runs in my veins as red as blood.
The trusty dagger that she’d stolen from an apple farmer, that had let her drag herself out of a river, that remained sharp and unrusted, meets the Queen’s blade of ice and holds briefly before shattering.
For just long enough for Sansa to thrust Dark Sister between the Night’s Queen’s ribs.
She always has more than the edge of a blade.
She always has the point, as well.
“A blade of integrity and remembrance,” whispers Sansa, dragging the words out of herself. “A blade of family and death. Your death comes from Valyrian steel and Stark flame. May you feel peace in the afterlife.”
The Queen holds onto Dark Sister, mouth open. Her eyes, blue and beautiful, are wide. She looks impossibly young. Regret sits, sour-sweet, on Sansa’s tongue. Slowly, she drops to her knees, and even slower, her body starts to turn to- not dust, but flakes of snow.
Before all of her fades, she reaches up. Grips Sansa’s forearm, and yanks her forward, and holds onto her face.
“I am death,” she whispers, breath like fresh wind on Sansa’s face. “I know death. And- your eyes are dead.”
One hand claws up, painful, so powerful, and Sansa couldn’t move even if she wished it. A single one of the Queen’s fingers touches her eye, and a pain the likes of which Sansa’s never known sweeps through her body.
And then: darkness.
Through the darkness, Sansa sees silver.
Then color. There are ghosts around her, ghosts that brush against her and touch her wrists, her throat. For the first time in her life, they feel solid.
“Oh, Sansa,” breathes a voice Sansa’s known for almost her whole life. “Oh, my sweetling, what have you done to yourself?” Lyarra’s arms are so warm around her that Sansa wants to shiver apart. Wants to weep. Wants to never emerge.
“Am I dead?” Sansa asks, trembling.
“No,” says one man- Torrhen Stark, watching Sansa with eyes of lightest brown, that she’d always imagined grey before. “You are alive. But you have not much time to do what must be done.”
“Let her be,” snaps Lyarra, backing away just enough to glare at Torrhen and still remain warm around Sansa’s body. “She’s just been through the battle of her life.”
“If we’d the time I would,” says Jocelyn quietly. “But she must act before the Queen returns to the world of the living. A blade of familial responsibility and regret and our lives killed her- I’ve no idea how long it will chain her here.”
Aching, Sansa levers herself upright. “And where is here?”
“The in-between,” says another woman, with a hawk-like nose and a severe expression. “Starks have not passed beyond for seven thousand years.” Her face is pale, drawn tight, and she speaks like she’s spitting the words out. “The world has forgotten, I think, the natural state of things.”
“Not the world,” disputes Brandon Builder, stepping out of the throng and nodding lazily to the blade that Sansa hadn’t noticed still sits in her hand. He bears, in his arms, a shrunken Queen- some blue-edged bundle that looks too sharp to be cradled so easily. “That blade. We anchored ourselves to it; so long as Sansa holds us to our task, we shall be held here. If she lets us go, it becomes a choice- to stay, as I bound you, or to leave, as she allows.”
Sansa shakes her head, trying to get the fuzziness out. “Go?” she says, frowning. “Go where?”
“To the beyond,” says Lyarra, brushing over Sansa’s hair, face averted. “Where other families go. Where people of peace go.”
Elia, thinks Sansa, remembering how she had opened the veil of life and death to see her blood, to ask for advice, to rescind an oath of vengeance. But we are not Martells. We are Starks, and-
And it is unfair.
“I don’t want to,” whispers Sansa.
Lyarra closes her eyes. “I know,” she says sadly. “I know, my love. But you must, if you are to survive. If any of the world is to survive.”
Aching, bruised, ankle a mass of screaming pain, Sansa rises to her feet. Turns. Searches for one specific person- and sees her.
She’s so small, and so slender; her hair is a thick fall of lustrous of darkness behind her. She looks like Arya and the Queen and Lyarra and still- like herself, unique, smaller and slier and with an upturn to her lips that leaves her looking amused at the entire world.
“Do you want to go?” Sansa asks, hands clenching.
Lyanna blinks. “It's going to be an adventure,” she says. “And it will be better than living in a desert in the middle of Dorne, I’m sure.”
“Jon would want to see you,” Sansa tells her, trying not to let her voice shake.
“I know.” Something softens in her face, and she looks older for it. “I love him. Please tell him that. I’m so proud of him, and I love him, and he is my life’s dearest achievement. I have never loved anyone so well as I loved him for those three days before I died. Tell him that.”
“But- are you afraid?”
“I am,” agrees Lyanna, and her eyes look like Jon’s- unafraid, terrifying, beautiful. “But fear has never won anything.”
Sansa expels a breath that feels like a sob. Letting go of all of these people- everyone that has ever made her feel less lonely, all of these people that have loved her as she hasn’t been loved by her own brothers and sisters- how can Sansa live in a world like that? How can Sansa be so alone?
I will do what must be done.
Her heart breaks as she drops the sword.
It clatters against the floor. As the blade hits the floor, a doorway appears: glowing white and silver and the grey of Stark banners.
Lyanna gives Sansa a faint, quicksilver smile, and steps into the doorway.
Brandon hugs her, claps a hand to Lyarra’s shoulder, and strolls through the door like he’s off on a hunt. Rickard goes next, after a sad quirk of his lips to Sansa.
Lyarra closes her eyes. She embraces Sansa, so tightly that Sansa cries out, then pulls away. She is crying for the first time that Sansa has seen, and she is not beautiful with it- her face is blotchy, her nose running, her hair in disarray. But Lyarra doesn’t flinch or try to fix her appearance; she just stares, stares, stares at Sansa, hands warm and solid for the first time that Sansa’s ever felt, as if she is trying to memorize what Sansa is, how she looks.
“Remember this,” she whispers, pressing her hand over Sansa’s breast, over her heart. “Remember who you are, Sansa, now that I am not there. You will have to carry our memories within you, now, and I-” she falters, before picking up again. “And I could not do such a thing, but you- oh, dear heart, you can manage whatever you put your mind to.” She brushes away the first of Sansa’s tears. “I have loved you with a depth deeper than the bowels of the earth, and a light steadier than any star. You hold a strength within you that can conquer mountains, my sweetling girl. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t ever let anyone take that from you.”
She walks backwards, straight into the doorway, and disappears into a shower of silver. The last thing to disappear of Lyarra are her eyes- those Stark eyes, which are mournful and brilliant and beautiful, all at once.
Sansa stands there, hands outstretched, as if she could feel Lyarra once more. As if someone of cold wind and warm words will emerge again, and hold her, and promise her: it will be alright.
But no one appears.
Her hand aches, and Sansa lets it drop. She stares, blankly, and watches as the others go through- she doesn’t look away. Scarcely blinks, or breathes. Just watches her family fade away before her eyes.
Finally, it is only Brandon Builder before her, bearing the shriveled bundle of the Night’s Queen, tall and handsome and still sad.
“You might follow us, you know,” he says, eyes sharp on Sansa.
Sansa shakes her head. Scrabbles for words. “I’m not dead.”
“That is easily fixed.” Brandon hefts the Queen. “It is the dead that cannot return to life, but the living turning to death? What is that but the turn of time?” He shakes his head a little. “Tell me, what do you have in the world now, Sansa?”
“My family,” she says, a little wildly. “My parents. My brothers. My sister. I can still lead a-”
“-a normal life? I think not. What man can understand you, who has held the power of thousands of people in your hand, who has defeated the very dead? Who will you tell these tales to? Who would believe you? None, surely.”
Sansa remembers how she ran from Riverrun: the shame, the hot anger, the fear. Her parents would disapprove of everything she’s done. Her brothers, her sister- she wonders how she’ll survive it, being this proud of her blood now and having to hide it all when she meets them.
Once I’d been easy to love, thinks Sansa, and her chest aches with a pain far deeper than her ankle. They hadn’t loved me much then. Now, it will be so much more difficult.
“I can step through that door?” she asks softly.
Brandon nods. “If you wish it. The door will forever be open, now, with the Queen gone. Any of Stark blood can walk through it.”
Slowly, shambling, Sansa makes her way to the door. She grips the outside and sways, and turns back to Brandon. Before she can forget, before she can lose all her nerve, she says, “Joramun wished for me to tell you- seven thousand years is too long to hold a grudge.”
For the first time, a smile leavens Brandon’s face, like bread slowly rising. “It is,” he says. “It is too long indeed.”
Then Sansa throws herself forward.
Silver light, white light, spins past her. Sansa chokes. Tries to breathe. Thinks- it shouldn’t hurt this much. Something catches in her chest, and she cries out. She twists and sees- something’s holding her to the door, tethered, a rope wound around her chest in that hollow that comes when she wishes to weep.
Not a rope, realizes Sansa. A vine.
Minisa, who taught her to weep, who carved that hollow into Sansa’s body. Who attached a vine there, and what had she said?
If you ever find yourself on the verge of breaking- promise me that you will follow the flowers. Promise me that you shall return, if ever you find yourself too worn to go on.
And had not Sansa promised to return? But, oh, she is so tired; she wishes for nothing more than to rest. Perhaps this is a promise that ought to be broken. She closes her eyes and readies herself to cut the vine, but then a flower blossoms around her wrists, large and bright as her hair had once been.
With it comes a memory: Jon, sitting on a log, cold wind all around them. We would have tried our best, he says, and means it.
And there’s a bloom right above it- so pretty, all brilliant blue like a shining sky- and Sansa pulls herself up, just a little, to run her fingers over it, to see Arya on a boat, sobbing like she can’t breathe, as she watches Sansa get captured by the Lannister soldiers in King’s Landing’s harbor.
Then a purple one, small, made of ten tiny flowers all clustered together, just a few inches further, so all Sansa must do is lift her hand, stretch, and see it, wonder. Her father stumbling, dreaming of Sansa, moving swifter than any man with a lame leg should be able to, spurred on by memories of a daughter who saved him.
More memories, one after the other, luring Sansa higher.
Her mother lighting candles in the sept of Riverrun and the dead godswood at Raventree Hall despite not believing in the old gods. Robb’s face twisting to a fury darker than any thunderstorm when he hears of Joffrey’s crimes against her. Arya again, wearing a gown softer than baby skin and remembering Sansa for the full night. Her mother promising vengeance on all Lannisters when her father tells her how he escaped. Robb huddled in his rooms, crown discarded, a boy of sixteen years and weeping because he can’t save Sansa.
More. More. More.
Until Sansa feels swollen with it, raw with it.
She hadn’t realized she was crying until wind tugs at her face, and all she knows is the bursting love she holds for her family, whom she has doubted for too long, whom she has loved for so, so much longer. The vine ends, and Sansa feels hard stone under her fingers. She clutches onto the doorway. But she must pull herself up, now, and she is tired, so tired.
Rickon, she remembers. Three years old, curled over Shaggydog, cold and hungry in Skagos, chanting their names to keep warm. He remembers them. He remembers her.
Creakingly slowly, aching in parts of her that Sansa’s never known to ache before, she drags herself through the doorway.
“You’re... back?” she hears Brandon ask, looking taken aback.
Sansa searches for her voice. How to explain what she’s learned? How to explain the love of her family, which is enough to sustain her for the rest of her days?
“I changed my mind,” she says slowly.
Brandon smiles, swift, there and gone, and he nods. “A word of advice,” he tells her. “When you go back, make sure you keep an escape route handy.”
“Just advice,” he says, and backs away to the doorway. “From a man who once had to return to normalcy, when the world ought to have felt changed.”
Then, in a voice deeper and kinder than any he’d ever spoken to her before, he says, “It was an honor to meet you, Lady Sansa. May you have wings at your feet, and the wind at your back, and may the wolves sing songs of your triumphs.” He steps closer to the door and lifts his head. “Until we meet again. I expect you shall have many grander stories to tell by then.”
He disappears then, falling backward, easy, and Sansa inhales to speak. But between one blink and the next, the in-between room disappears to reveal the crypts of Winterfell once more. It’s so much darker, and her head hurts where the Queen had held onto it, and Jon is hovering over her, pale-faced and frightened.
“You’re alive,” he breathes, and slumps backward.
“I- yes,” says Sansa. She can feel the dried tracks of tears on her face, and there are aches all over her body. Her left shoulder is a bleeding mass from the shattered blade; her ankle is just a mess; her fingers can’t actually work right. “I’m- alright.” She lifts a hand, just to see the movement, and can’t believe it works. “I thought- but- I wasn’t, for a minute.”
“I know,” says Jon, pressing a hand to his face. “You weren’t breathing.”
“Can you walk?”
Sansa thinks about it. But the world is starting to spin around her, and she really is so tired now; she doesn’t know. She starts to say that, then changes her mind. “No,” she says, in a small voice. “I don’t think so.”
But no annoyance shades Jon’s face. He lifts her, and it is relief painting his features, making him look nothing like a Stark- or at least, not like Brandon or Torrhen or Rickard. Perhaps this shall be her legacy: relief and love and kindness, and not fear. Not grief. Not pain.
Let this end with me, thinks Sansa. Please, let this pain end with me. Let none of my children and none of my children’s children know anything like this. That is all that I ask for. She thinks there ought to be a word for a girl like her, a girl with a broken heart and a steady beat and eyes that only ever see brightness, in even the darkest places. Fool, she thinks, eyes drifting shut, exhaustion almost swallowing her. I am a fool.
But then, as she sees sunrise from within Winterfell, a Winterfell slowly waking from her dream, Sansa thinks: No. I am a protector.
A protector of what? she’d wondered, once, ages previous, bruised and weary in front of Visenya.
Now she knows the answer: Life itself.
Sansa sleeps, for the days after.
One day, then two, then three. She doesn’t know when she wakes and when she sleeps, but she also cannot find it in herself to care. She’s mourning all that she has lost and loving all that she has learned, and her heart is a mess from the contradictions. She’s so tired that her only response is to sleep.
But on the third day, she rises from the rushes Jon had scattered over the cave’s floor and heads for the entrance. Her throat is parched and her head feels dizzy, slightly, as if she’s drunk so much wine there’s an effect even the morning after. It takes some effort. Sansa’s body has weakened over the past days.
Jon’s seated not far from the entrance- in plain sight, sharpening his sword with the slow, steady movements that come from years of practice. Sansa picks her way over to him, gritting her teeth when the world sways.
“You’re up,” he says, without looking up.
Sansa sinks down to the moss. Here in the mountains, it feels softer; the world, the ground, the clouds. Perhaps in winter it will become worse, but for now it feels like those weeks before spring fully come in: chilly, but softened by the promise of warmth. It is a strange thought when she compares this world to Lyarra, who’d been born here, who’d loved this land with everything inside of her, who’d always seemed so hardened.
“Yes,” she replies through the rasp in her throat. “I’m not sure if I’m happy about that yet.”
“The Greyjoys will come looking here, too, soon enough.” One hand balances the sword hilt. The other uses a whetstone to sharpen the edges. At his feet are Dark Sister and three other knives, each having been sharpened already. “If you don’t tell me where to go, I’ll take you further into the mountains. But it will be harder to return to the lowlands, the further we go.”
I don’t want to leave.
And on the heels of that thought, biting like a stray dog: I don’t want to stay here.
I want to go home, to see everyone. To hold them. To tell them that I love them.
“South, I think,” says Sansa, clearing her throat. “To Father, and Robb, and the others.”
“You want to tell them what you’ve done?” asks Jon, eyes widening fractionally.
Sansa leans backward. “No,” she admits. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea. But I think we should tell them- that we're alive. Alright.”
Very carefully, Jon sets aside his sword. “I won’t be able to do that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sansa tells him. “What’ll they say to you? That you ought to return to the Wall? That you ought to take up the mantle of Lord Commander once more? The Wall doesn’t exist any longer.” She reaches out, nudges his shoulder. “The world’s changed, Jon, and it’s changed in ways we probably don’t know ourselves. The Wall is gone. We’re here, and the Others won’t ever rise again. I think it’s time we accepted that change.”
“That’ll only work if they realize the Wall’s fallen,” mutters Jon.
Sansa rolls her eyes. “Oh, I see the issue now. You’re thinking the lot of them are idiots, and you’re worried they’ll kill you before you can open your mouth.” She tangles her fingers in his hair and yanks hard at it until Jon bats her hand away, cursing. “You’re thinking Robb’s going to stab you before you say a single word- you think he’s that good at swords, is it, that you’ll just roll over and die?”
Jon pauses. “No,” he says, sighing. “But. You’re certain? This’s what you want?”
“Yes,” says Sansa, eyes drifting shut, letting the air settle on her skin. “Yes, I’m certain.”
Three weeks after she’s returned to Riverrun, to her parents, to Arya and Robb, and Sansa is ready to scratch her skin off. She is tired of people whispering about her hair- a tragedy, they say, all of them; and Sansa had agreed with the first few to say it, but now she feels a perverse sort of joy in the short, shining strands. She is impatient with her parents, who believe her deepest desire is to leave behind her travels and return to life as their daughter. She is furious at Robb and his stupid betrothals, which he’s already been talking about arranging between her and some Frey.
She’d enjoyed the soft bed and the clean clothes and how it felt to take a bath after months of grime- but those creature comforts are now outweighed by other things.
“It isn’t easy,” she tells Arya, leaning back against the tree trunk. “To know the world, to see it- the good and the bad- and then to have it taken from you. As if we aren’t old enough!”
“They’re worried about you,” says Arya, pelting some far-off target with acorns. “You and Jon, to be fair. At least they can marry you off. They have no idea what to do with him.”
“And if I don’t want to marry the eightieth Frey named Walder?” Sansa grouses, hefting one acorn in her hand, then flicking it out to rap against a knot on a nearby trunk. “If all I want to do is go to King’s Landing and watch as Jaime Lannister dies slowly, for hurting Bran, and Joffrey even slower, for all his crimes?” She pauses, then continues without letting Arya speak. “What if I’ve no wish to wed, Arya? What if I cannot see myself married to a man who cannot understand me, who will not understand me- how can I do it? It would be a shackle. It would be a prison!”
Arya’s not listening to her. She’s staring at the knot that Sansa’d struck with the acorn. Sansa can’t think of why. When she finally turns to Sansa, her eyes are shining like twin suns.
“Oh,” she breathes, a wicked smile curving her lips. “You’ve changed.”
Yes, thinks Sansa, and remembers her promise to Lyarra. It feels like something broken, but also- something growing. A bone healing right, this time. I have changed. Maybe that means...
A germ of an idea takes root in her mind, and no matter how she knocks at it, it won’t go away.
Jon is halfway to drinking away one more evening of absolute shit when something clangs against his arm. He tips his head up and stares, and sees a tall figure wearing a thick cloak, hair bright as the candles lighting the inn.
“What,” he grumps.
“Get up,” hisses Robb, dragging him upright and lurching with him awkwardly to the door.
He dumps Jon on his arse right after they step outside, flicking his cloak out of the way, and Jon makes the connection.
“Sansa?” he demands, surging to his feet. The world spins, and Jon glares at her through it. “What’re you doing out here alone?”
“Getting you sober,” she says crisply. Then she smiles, and it looks like- the sun rising, or the goddess of mischief, or perhaps just Sansa, young and impish and frightening in her joy. “I’ve got some things to do, and you don’t have any places to be, so I thought... why not?”
“Why not what?”
“Why not go on an adventure,” she says.
Jon looks down and sees- Dark Sister, belted at her waist again, in a black scabbard. Good quality boots. A neat cloak. Sansa’s not skimping on the travel costs this time. He swallows hard.
“Fine.” Jon clears his throat. “Do they know?”
“What do you think?”
He closes his eyes. “They’ll kill me. What do you have to do?”
“I swore a vow to Visenya,” says Sansa easily. “I think- I think it’s past time I held it.”
“Sansa,” says Jon, acutely aware that he’s being herded into shrubbery tall enough to conceal some horses, “what, exactly, does that vow entail?”
She grins at him. Hands him some reins.
“Burning some bones,” she says. “Making some enemies. At least it’ll be warm in Dorne!”
No, says one part of Jon’s gut.
But he’s already mounting the horse, and he’s already slipping Longclaw’s scabbard onto his waist, and he’s already thinking about how fucked he’s going to be when they do get to the desert and he has to deal with the heat.
Ah, Dorne, he thinks, watching lamps flicker off Sansa’s hair, turning it to liquid light for the briefest of moments, I hope you’re ready for us.
I hope you’re ready for her.