Chapter 1: you are not his princess; you are your own queen
When Sansa is three years old, she sneaks away from her nurse’s watchful eyes and into the godswood. Her father had taken Robb there, not quite a week previous, and Sansa had felt furious at being left out.
And though she’s now in the godswood, there’s nothing special here; only cold air and a tree with leaves as large as her face, as bright as her hair.
Sansa is cold, and hungry. After some finagling, she curls into a hollow beneath the base of the white tree, huddled for warmth. She doesn’t cry, exactly, but she wants to- her mother and father likely won’t find her, not here, and even if they did they’d start yelling, and she hates that, hates it deeply.
Then she hears a voice.
“Come out, little one,” says a woman, her dark hair plaited back in a fashion that Sansa’s never seen before. Her eyes find Sansa unerringly, and she waits for her to clamber out of the roots with an expression that’s both disappointed and loving. “Your parents are looking for you,” she says, and her hands brush over the godswood leaves resting on Sansa’s shoulders light enough that she can’t feel it. “Now clean yourself up, sweetling. I’ll take you home, don’t you fear.”
The woman does. Sansa is in her chambers, wrapped up warm and toasty in her blankets, when she asks the woman her name.
“Lyarra,” says the woman.
She steps out of the room, and when her parents ask her where she was, who brought her back- well. There’s nobody named Lyarra in Winterfell, according to her father; the last person who bore that name was his mother, and she was buried decades ago.
Sansa speaks to her the next week.
“Father says your name can’t be Lyarra.”
“Your father,” says the woman, “does not know everything.”
Sansa bites her lip. “He says his mother’s name was Lyarra.”
“His mother’s name is Lyarra,” says the woman sharply. “It always will be. Death does not take away names.”
“Are you her?” She asks softly. “Are you my grandmother?”
The woman- Lyarra- steps closer, and her stardust hand rests light on Sansa’s brow.
“Yes,” she whispers.
Sansa is three years old when she realizes that she sees ghosts.
Ghosts of starlight and dust, pale as the full moon. Lovely and shadowed and real, as nobody else would believe. She might have whispered her secret to someone, but Lyarra stops her.
Those who choose not to see cannot be forced, she says, eyes large and sad and as cold as Sansa’s father’s. They will envy your powers, sweetling, and they will break what they envy. Promise me, Sansa: you will not tell anyone about your powers.
It takes Sansa more than a decade to understand that her grandmother only ever tried to protect her.
There are other ghosts: long-haired Cregan; her own namesake, Sansa; warm-eyed Beron; sharp-tongued Alysanne. They are loud, sometimes, and angry at others. Sansa tiptoes around Artos and Donnor whenever the year turns- they both blame each other for Errold’s death, and Errold died the night before the year turned new. Melantha and Marna scream at each other during the solstices, but they only do so during the night.
There are other ghosts, but the one Sansa’s closest to is her grandmother. Lyarra is unfailingly patient, and breathtakingly witty. When Sansa bores of sitting quietly, she tells her stories of her travels through the south, her days in the mountains, her years as Lady of Winterfell.
The hardest thing for Sansa then is to keep her face blank, to bite back her questions until night.
(But even as Sansa is closest to Lyarra, she charms the ghosts of Winterfell, one by one. You see: no matter the universe, she’s always been the charming one.)
But for all Sansa’s happiness, there is grief eating away behind it like a cancer.
There are no ghosts inside Winterfell that Sansa can name aunt or uncle or grandfather. And for all that Lyarra never weeps, she looks the saddest the day Sansa asks after them.
“They went south,” she tells Sansa, once, kneeling, her hands resting on Sansa’s shoulders, weightless as light. “They died there. Lyanna died in Dorne, and Brandon and Rickard in King’s Landing. They were killed, sweetling.”
“Who killed them?”
Lyarra rises, and looks past Sansa, straight to the knot of furs that is Robb and Jon, wrestling in the snow.
“The Targaryens,” she says. Then, firmly, “When you’re older, I shall tell you everything.”
The ghosts are kind, after a fashion. They tell her stories, sometimes, and sing when Sansa asks particularly charmingly. Sansa cannot control them, cannot force anything of them; they are of another realm, and all she can do is bear silent witness.
Sansa cannot control them, but she can love them.
When Lyarra tells her how the Starks died, Sansa does not shiver. She bends her head forwards, lets the red strands slip over her face like a shroud, and then looks back at Lyarra.
“How do you know?” She asks, and does not think at all of burned flesh or screams.
“We ghosts speak to each other,” murmurs Lyarra, eyes wide and pale as a snow-drift. “We gossip, for the afterlife is rather boring. And news of a Targaryen monarch burning a Lord of a Great House alive is interesting, indeed- word came quickly. But that wasn’t the biggest secret, sweetling, of the war.”
Sansa frowns. “What was?”
“Lyanna died in Dorne,” says Lyarra. “My wolf-daughter, my ice-daughter, she died in those ugly desert sands. But all of her did not die there. Ned brought back a little child, with a face as Stark as they come.”
“I have a cousin?” Sansa asks, eyes lighting up.
Lyarra smiles, small and bitter. “You can never tell.”
“Never,” vows Sansa.
After a moment, Lyarra winds around Sansa and presses cold, weightless lips to her ear.
“Jon,” she breathes, and Sansa never looks at her father the same again.
Years pass. Sansa laughs and loves and lives.
When the castle sleeps she slips out of bed and listens to the stories of her ancestors. She complains about Arya to Sarra. She begs Torrhen for stories of the dragons and learns what the North looked like, under the old Kings of Winter. She dances, sometimes, under the full moon, and the ghosts converge around her like wings of pearl and silvered dust.
When the King comes, Sansa is flawless in her courtesies.
She flushes a brilliant red when Prince Joffrey smiles at her, something budding inside her like a blossom. Her mother’s lips curl upwards at the sight, and Sansa makes sure to braid her hair as neatly as she can over a soft new dress.
The King announces their betrothal that night, in the feasting hall. Sansa smiles prettily, elegantly, as southron-lovely as the queen; she wears a gown of starlit-silver, grey and warm and shining as all the ghosts that crowd the halls of her home.
Do not leave the North, Lyarra had told her, quietly, that morning. Do not go south. I have lost- so much to it. My husband, my son, my daughter, my sister- I do not wish to lose you as well. Please, Sansa-
But Sansa is not a Stark alone.
She is a Tully, half, born and bred; she has a grandmother who was a Whent and another who was a Flint, and she will be as unyielding as all of them. She will be her mother’s daughter and her father’s heir and the North’s pride, and she will return someday- she will return, with a crown on her head or not; but she will walk back.
I will survive, Sansa had promised her, hands freezing in Lyarra’s grasp. I will see you again.
“Be careful,” Lyarra tells her, softly. “That one- he’ll love himself far more than he ever loves you.”
“Sansa tells me that he reminds her of her husband.” Sansa lifts her head, watches Lyarra closely. Sansa- who married her uncle, who had her inheritance stolen from her through Jonnel Stark’s greed- rarely names any man like her husband. It’s not a compliment when she does. “But- a prince, Grandmother! He’d certainly be kinder than Jonnel.”
“That’s not difficult,” Lyarra snorts. Then, voice dark and sharp, “And princes can be just as cruel as other men. Do not forget that, Sansa. They are still men. They are still as flawed, and terrible, and unkind.”
It’s Serena that shrieks her name, and Sansa pauses for all of a heartbeat before she picks up her skirts and runs, towards Serena, towards the crowding ghosts.
She freezes when she sees the small, broken body on the grass.
(The blood- for a long, terrible moment, Sansa’s sure Bran is dead.)
“Who pushed him?” Sansa demands, as soon as she slams the door shut.
She turns, and there in front of her stands Lyarra. Her hair is unbound, now, and the dark strands whip over her face as if stirred by a wind. The grief on her grandmother’s face makes something deep in Sansa’s chest clench.
“Bran doesn’t fall,” says Sansa. “He hasn’t. Not once. Tell me, tell me truly: who pushed him?”
“I don’t know,” says Lyarra.
Sansa inhales slowly. “You’re lying,” she says coldly.
“I’m not,” she repeats, holding up a hand. “But I know who does. Tell me, do you know of Brandon Snow?”
“The very same.”
“I- yes,” says Sansa. “But I’ve never spoken to him.”
Lyarra looks grimly amused. “Follow me. I’ll take you to him.”
Sansa follows her past the hallways, slipping through the shadows with the careless ease of a girl long used to it; the nights that she has spent alone save for ghosts of starlight are countless. Her feet are soundless against the cold stone.
Lyarra leads her to the godswood and bids her to stand still. Sansa obeys, and as promised, a ghost appears after a few minutes- young, with dark hair that curls at the edges like Robb’s. His eyes are even paler than her father’s.
“Lyarra said you wished to speak to me.”
Sansa raises her chin. “Yes,” she says. “She told me that you know who pushed Bran. That you were the only one to see what happened.”
“I was,” he says, and she’s never before heard such disdain poured into two syllables. “But why should I tell you?”
“Because I’m his sister,” she says.
Brandon arches an eyebrow. “And what will you do with this information? You will tell no one; you will simply turn your face and look away. Why should I tell you something that won’t do anything?”
Sansa looks away, tears filling her eyes. But it is only the truth, what he says; and though she wants to deny it, she can’t. It is hard, and cold, like a cut of silver and steel. She is only a girl, and even more than that- she will never tell anyone the truth. That secret is stamped into her heart.
But she is still Bran’s sister.
“If Torrhen had fought,” she says, suddenly, and Brandon looks back at her. “If he had fought, and if he had fallen, do you think you would have knelt easily? Do you think that if Aegon had destroyed your forces, you would have bent the knee? Do you think that if you did- you would have meant any of it?” She lifts her eyes to meet his, as steady as she can make them. “Bran is my brother, and he might die, and I want to know why.”
He looks at her, and then away, and then back again. For just a moment, he looks more grieved than she’s ever seen a boy that age look, more than she’s ever seen even Lyarra look, and she’s the saddest person Sansa knows.
“It was a Lannister,” he says abruptly. “Looks right similar to Loren Lannister- I’ll never forget that smug fool’s golden hair. Probably his descendant.”
Sansa breathes in, slowly. “Was he- how old was he?”
“Seen thirty namedays, or close enough.”
A golden-haired Lannister, middle-aged. There is only one man who can be that in all the kingdoms. Sansa wants to panic, and feels her breaths shorten slightly; but everything seems very far away at the moment, and numb.
“Thank you,” she says, and walks back into the keep, stiffly.
The last thing Sansa wants is to leave Winterfell.
And she does her best to avoid it: she claims illness, and then fear for Bran, and then fear of the south- but nothing sways her father.
“You can rest in the queen’s own wheelhouse,” he told her. “There is nothing you can do for Bran, sweetling; and there is nothing to fear in King’s Landing. I shall be there, I swear it.”
Sansa watches the curtains fall shut and then turns to face Cersei Lannister. The bitterness across her tongue is sharp and acrid, and she cannot name it to be anger or hatred. In response, she averts her eyes and ducks her head, and when she chances a look up, she realizes what it’s been taken as: fear.
No matter, she thinks, then, hands tightening around each other silently. She remembers the strength that comes from silence, the strength that Berena insisted she never discount; Sansa will hold to her silence, and she will not let the sister of a kingslaying brother-killer frighten her. No matter, I shall survive.
And Jaime Lannister shall pay the price.
When she leaves, the ghosts gather around her as a thousand sheets of silver, sparking through the cold winter air. Serena spins a thread of silver through the air, and Eddara kisses her with frozen, yielding lips; Beron embraces her, arms cold, eyes warm.
It’s Lyarra who holds her after they leave.
“Listen to me,” she says, quietly. “Listen to me, girl. You are going south, to marry a boy who will only ever look at you as a piece of chattel bought and paid for with a crown.”
“I am going to marry a prince,” Sansa replies, sharply.
Only for Lyarra to smile, bitter and cold. Only for the wind to chill, frost creeping in whorls over her hair.
“And he is a man,” she says. “He is still as flawed, and terrible, and unkind as the rest of them.”
Sansa’s heard this before, she remembers it well; she doesn’t want to listen to a repeat of-
“He is a man,” says Lyarra, “and he can yet bleed.”
“I-” Sansa falters. “What?”
“He is a man,” she bites out. “He may be a prince, and he may become a king, but he has blood in his veins and if he hurts you- if he lays a single hand on you- you will pay it back to him tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold. You are my granddaughter. You are Sansa Stark of Winterfell, of the blood of the North, and you will not break there.”
Lyarra wrenches her chin up, fingers frozen and biting. “You will come back to me,” she says, and it sounds like a truth-telling, like a dream-seeing, like a fortune-whisper.
“Yes,” says Sansa.
The heartwood’s leaves rustle, though there’s no wind, and as Sansa looks up- she sees it. A single tear, the first she’s ever seen Lyarra shed, falling down her cheek. When it lands on the snow it disappears.
Goodbye, Sansa thinks, and when she leaves it aches in her chest like a roasted chestnut.
Cersei is to be her goodmother. Sansa does her best to avoid her, and mostly succeeds; it is only inside the wheelhouse that she is forced to be in close contact with her, and after a few days of awkward silence, Cersei utterly ignores her for even that period.
Sansa is homesick, and she wants Lyarra with a yearning that almost makes her feverish. She hasn’t been away from her for longer than a few days at the most, and even then there were other ghosts to keep her company. Now there’s nobody beside her in this wooden box save for the living.
And Lady is in Winterfell, still, because Sansa refused to bring her wolf along while she was certain her father would send her back; now, of course, she wishes she hadn’t been so foolish- but she had been, and must bear the consequences.
(Her shoulders still tremble, every time she enters the litter. Her glares at the Kingslayer are mistaken, thankfully, for the besotted looks of a lovelorn girl.
Joffrey doesn’t like it, but Sansa has more important things on her mind than his happiness.)
When they land in the Red Keep, the cacophony of ghosts almost makes her cringe.
Sansa straightens stiffly, and bears through the roar. She has kept this secret for years now; she won’t give it up so quickly. Anyhow, it only sounds as loud as it does because she is unused to it. Winterfell had even more ghosts, and Sansa’d learned to tune them out easily enough.
That afternoon, she is alone for the first time.
Sansa runs a hand down the soft wool of her gown and swallows through a dry throat before summoning a smile and turning to the pearly figure standing before the window.
“Hello,” she says. The ghost doesn’t turn, assuming she isn’t speaking to her. Sansa firms her voice and says, steadily, “I can see you.”
By that night, the entire city knows she can see ghosts.
It takes three days for the news to truly percolate through the ranks, or perhaps three days for him to work up the nerve; whatever the reason, Brandon comes to see her on her fourth day in King’s Landing.
Sansa doesn’t know who he is- but he is tall, and the curve of his jaw is similar to her father’s, and the tilt to his hair is startlingly reminiscent of Robb’s and Brandon Snow’s. She offers him a small smile.
“My lord,” she greets. “My name is Sansa Stark, eld-”
“-eldest daughter of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell.” He studies her, closely, and doesn’t seem to care for either his rudeness or that the silence between them has become awkward. “Yes, I know,” he tells her after a long minute.
“But I do not know you,” she reminds him, trying hard not to let her tone get arch or impertinent.
He smiles, like a flash of sunlight in a blizzard: blinding.
“Brandon Stark,” he says, sweeping a courtly bow. “And let me assure you, my lady, it is a relief to speak to someone whose heart still beats.” When he looks up at her, through his lashes, it is a look so obviously Lyarra’s that Sansa gets a lump in her throat.
“The honor is mine,” she says, speaking through the lump. Then, unable to stop herself, she continues: “Your mother misses you.” Brandon stills, but the flood of words goes on as if it were truly a torrent, unstoppable. “She was very close to me, in Winterfell. She doesn’t cry much, but she looks saddest when talking about you, and she never forgot you. You or your father or your sister. Lyarra-” Sansa falters, slightly, finally, but finishes the sentence. “Lyarra loves you.”
After another long silence, Brandon’s face breaks into a smile. It doesn’t look truly honest, but the effort is there, and his voice is warm when he says, “You must tell me everything about her.”
Her grandfather doesn’t come to her, and Sansa doesn’t ask.
There are other ghosts, of course, and over time Sansa learns the places they haunt, the places to avoid, the places to visit. She laughs with some, and begs stories of others, and for a time it is- nice.
Or if it isn’t nice, then it is a close enough facsimile.
With Sansa refusing to bring her wolf, Arya had not had a leg to stand on when their father refused. She’d huffed and glared and fought, but it hadn’t made an ounce of difference. That unfairness had left Arya furious at Sansa.
But the rage still prickles at her skin, and she starts to avoid Arya as well, soon after that.
It is a warm day when three ghosts materialize, one after the other, each looking wild and terrified with it- Sansa is happy, content, right up until they tell her to run, and not look behind her.
“Lannisters,” one snaps, and Sansa pales.
“They’ve arrested your father,” another says. “Wait, don’t go now-” Sansa skids to a halt before she turns the corner, and hears the clank of armor; after a moment, the ghost nods.
Barring the door is difficult, but the ghosts help her, tell her what to do. Sansa hides, there, with Betha Blackwood and Shaera Targaryen. Fear pounds in time to her heart, and she trembles; she is a child, after all.
But she is not alone, and ghosts flow through the door slowly, in a long, winding chain, bringing her news. After a few hours, Brandon enters and seats himself beside her.
“Ned’s leg is badly injured,” he tells her. “Worse than before, I mean. He’s in the Black Cells. Arya’s escaped into the city, though; I was with her, making sure she’s fine. She’ll survive.”
Sansa swallows and looks away. “I don’t- what does it matter, telling me anything? I can do nothing. I am a fool-”
“You aren’t the first Stark to speak to ghosts,” Brandon says, looking at her as if surprised. “You are young, yes, but this is a blessing from the old gods. They have given you the power to touch dreams, don’t you see?”
“No,” says Sansa, frowning. “No, I don’t. Dreams?”
Betha’s eyes are narrowed thoughtfully, but her daughter only shakes her head.
“It is a Northerner custom,” Shaera says. “I’ve not heard of it.”
A voice says, from the doorway- “It is a legend told by the First Men.” A man steps in, and when he comes to stand beside Brandon, the similarity is unmistakable. “Sarra was the first, and then Arrana after her; Cregard had a touch of it, and Beron did as well, but none so strong as Jocelyn.” Rickard Stark nods to her. “And after her, there is you.”
“What can I do?” Sansa asks, not looking away from him.
Rickard shifts, slightly. “They called it dreamwords: a way to walk in dreams and change the landscape. It is difficult, Sansa, make no mistake. Difficult and dangerous. You must not treat this lightly.”
“I will not,” she says slowly. “But- just- why does Father not know this?”
“Ned’s always been more trusting of his own own eyes than anything else,” says Brandon. “And it wasn’t anything Father thought important."
“But my father is imprisoned, is he not? And I have seen what mercy Lannisters are capable of. If the King is truly dead, then they will not show kindness to my father. Not if his accusations of bastardy are true. And if Father is in danger, then I am alone; and then, I must do something. I could never live with myself if I let him die because I was afraid.”
Rickard doesn’t respond immediately. When he does, his eyes lighten with some form of amusement.
“You look nothing like a Stark,” he tells her, grimly, amusedly. “But there is a wolf in you, child, and a dreamspeaker yet. Come, let us do this.”
It takes her some tries- these are muscles that Sansa has never used before, and so they are atrophied; aching with disuse. But she flexes, and then she tries more, and before she knows it she is standing outside of a door, decorated with scrolls of gold and dark, pinkish-red marble.
You will falter, Rickard had told her, hands resting lightly on her shoulders, eyes as undying-brilliant as if he had never been burned alive. You will fail. But you must try again, and again, and again. Walk in dreams, dreamspeaker, and craft the stories you will.
Sansa flinches, now, at the smell: rank meat, and sweat. She takes one step forwards and knocks on the door, and the sound echoes like a gong. The guardsman’s dream she is inside shatters like a stained glass window, and Sansa finds herself back in her own body, trembling.
“A sleeping guard,” she says, to the room. “He’s- close by. But I think I woke him.”
Rickard nods. “It does not matter, how careless you were. There is no time for delicacy, not if you are to save your father. Now, try again.”
Sansa’s head aches, but she doesn’t let that stop her.
They break the door down hours later. Sansa meets the guards with a shaking, red-scrubbed face, and doesn’t once ask about Arya. The next morning, she goes to the sept with a sack of food and cloth, which she distributes amongst the poor. After, she goes to the godswood.
Two nights later, she feels confident enough in her skills. Rickard looks faintly dubious, but Brandon nods.
Sansa pinches out the candles and lets her eyes slip shut. Her mind flutters, leaping from one person to the next, spiralling further and further, deeper into the bowels of the castle. She lands, finally, in a mind that had faint echoes of her own- older, more worn, but with something similar all the same.
He was asleep, but Sansa hasn’t the subtlety to maintain that yet. She places one foot directly in the land of living, and maintains the other in the land of dreams, and she yanks- or something close enough to the action that it has no other name.
Then she turns, and- in this half-dream state, she cannot control her father’s body. Instead, she leaps into the mind of the man who is guarding her father, and reforms his dream so that he is facing thirty Ironborn soldiers, and watches him scramble into the cell in a desperate attempt to stop it; she shoves him deeper into sleep and leaps back into her father’s mind, slotting what she can into place, frantically-
-he inhales sharply when the ghosts shimmer into view, but still doesn’t wake. Sansa holds tight to the dream-world, hoping Brandon understands what she is doing as her father reaches for the keys and unlocks himself.
So long as Sansa remains in his mind, her father can see the ghosts. Sansa can only remain in his mind while he sleeps- and so she keeps his thoughts fuzzy, forces herself to maintain her calm.
Brandon and various other ghosts help them- they form an honor guard, and an advance guard as well. They scout ahead and tell Sansa in her father’s body where to go, when to go.
They end up in the godswood, and Sansa leads her father to the sack of food and clothes she managed to scurry away. There is nothing more she can offer, not even a knife; but her father is smart. He is smart and quick and strong- and there is nothing more Sansa could do, even if she wanted to.
“I love you,” she says, letting the words echo in his mind, letting the words fade. Then, louder, so that this time he’ll remember, so that he’ll wake: “I love you, Father.”
He wakes with a gasp, and Sansa is thrown back into her own mind, trembling. Rickard looks at her sadly, and Naerys gestures towards a cloth. Her head is aching, and the tears that drip down her face are of blood.
But her father is gone from these monsters, and that leaves her limbs quivering with relief.
Rickard disappears, after that. Sansa asks after him, and Brandon purses his lips; sighs.
“Father loved my mother,” he says, quietly. “And he’s- he’s spent too long in the North. He can’t bear this castle, this… life. He hates it. Even speaking to you took too much effort.” He shrugs, and Sansa can see sadness lining the shadowed curve of his throat; she wonders, at it. Surely, surely, pain ought to stop at death- but, clearly, there are some things that are eternal.
Grief chief amongst them: for even with everything taken from them, humanity has mourning carved into their bones, engraved into their souls.
The Lannisters still don’t take Sansa seriously.
Sansa expresses only fear when they tell her that her father has abandoned her- she cringes, weeps, babbles. The ghosts circle her, offer her comfort, and Sansa learns to look through her lashes, learns to bend her head and still look prideful.
Brandon spends his days with Sansa, but his nights with Arya. It is meager protection- one ghost against a deadly world- but it is a relief for Sansa, one that tells her that her sister is at least alive and surviving.
It isn’t enough, however: the Lannisters will find Arya, sooner or later, if she remains in the city. Sansa doesn’t have the strength yet to pick her sister’s mind out of an entire city- she has to do something before Arya becomes just as much of a glorified prisoner as Sansa herself.
Brandon helps. He goes hunting for a boat, because the Lannisters likely wouldn’t search the seas as closely as they’d look over land. Two weeks later, he enters and nods, and hope lights up her stomach, her throat.
Two weeks later, she wraps herself in brown wool and takes a bag stuffed full of bread and preserves, a few clothes, some small bits of money that the ghosts helped find in the shadows of the keep- her boots are sensible, and her cloak is sturdy.
The ghosts tell her where to go, when to walk forwards, when to stay silent. Sansa keeps her head down and makes her way as quickly as possible into the twisted, narrow streets of Flea Bottom.
Brandon leads her to Arya fairly easily, but her sister has decided to spend the night wedged between two buildings, hidden behind two large clay pots; Sansa can’t reach her without climbing the wall, and she’s not about to do that-
It takes her a full hour, three thrown stones, and two close calls with the City’s Guard before Arya comes down irritably.
Her narrowed eyes widen when she recognizes Sansa.
“What’re you doing here?”
“We have to leave,” whispers Sansa, stepping forwards, embracing Arya tightly. There is a sort of unspeakable relief in having someone’s actual physical body in her arms, and Sansa almost weeps at the feeling. “The Lannisters… they pushed Bran, Arya. The Kingslayer. And they would’ve killed Father, I know it. If we aren’t careful, they’ll kill us too.”
“What’re you saying?” Arya asks, but she’s already lacing her boots up, already belting her thin sword to her waist. “What are you saying, Sansa?”
“That we have to leave.”
Arya shakes her head. “We aren’t going to be able to get anywhere. They-”
“If you’re going to continue talking,” Brandon snaps from behind Sansa, “get behind some cover and do it quietly. And hurry! We don’t have much time.”
“I know of a way,” Sansa says, grabbing Arya’s wrist and dragging her towards the shadows of a nearby tree. Arya’s face bulges with her indignance, but Sansa wrestles her behind it, using her greater height to her advantage; a moment later, three guardsmen canter through the street, and Arya relaxes minutely. “Now, come on.”
They slip between buildings, silently. Sansa doesn’t let Arya’s hand go the entire time.
But they’re too late.
The fisherman’s boat that Brandon had spied out is cut from the moors by the time they arrive at the dock- the owner must have decided to get some early fishing done. Sansa pales at the sight and turns an accusing look on her uncle.
He leaps into action, trying to find something else that can take them that won’t be missed quickly; Sansa communicates this to Arya, quietly, and is climbing over ropes when Betha appears in front of her. Her eyes are wide, and her black hair whips about her in an agitated wind.
“King’s men,” she says. “They know you’re missing.”
Sansa feels her nails cut into the meat of her palm. “We can’t- we can’t take a boat.”
Arya turns and looks at her sharply. Sansa ignores her.
“Not fast enough,” she stresses. “They’ll be on us as soon as we land. We have to…” Slowly, she turns towards Arya. “Oh,” Sansa says softly.
“What?” Arya snaps.
“Not we,” Sansa replies, reaching for the sack of food and cloth she’s held so tightly. She shoves it towards her sister. “You.”
Arya takes it, clutches it. “What do you mean?”
“The Lannisters are coming,” Sansa tells her, ducking under ropes and sweeping her hair behind her, loosening the hood so the sun catches the brilliant red of her hair. “Don’t take a boat, Arya. Stick to the shoreline for another day, and then follow the Kingsroad- you know the way. And don’t stop, alright? Just go- go north. To Riverrun. Mother’s family will keep us safe, I promise.”
“Not without you,” says Arya, eyes narrowing. “I’m not going anywhere without you, Sansa-”
“I’ll be fine.” Sansa smiles wanly at her. “But keep that sword handy, alright? And keep your head down. I’ll see you soon.”
“You are,” says Sansa, and feels tears well up, swallows them. “Tell Father that I love him, alright? And the same thing to the others. Robb, Bran, Rickon, Mother- tell them that I miss them. And that I’ll see them soon.”
The dawnlight illuminates Arya’s face, a rictus of horror. Sansa breathes out and stumbles off the mooring, and avoids the knowing pity on Betha’s face, in Alysanne’s eyes. She can hear Arya trying to follow her.
No. Sansa looks around her, and there- right there- there’s a pile of rigging- There will be only one Stark left in King’s Landing by tonight.
Sansa shoves the rigging as hard as she can. The splash is loud enough to draw attention of the entire pier. Then she’s running.
It’s hard work in a skirt, no matter how loose it is. Her boots pinch, and she very purposely flees towards the troops, not away. Her heart is pounding. She can see, from the corner of her eye, the silvered outlines of the ghosts- they’re keeping time with her. Sansa stumbles to a halt at the opposite edge of the pier, still ignored by half the people on it, and realizes that there’s nothing she can do to gain the men’s attention without either taking a boat and setting sail- or yelling loudly.
Saying “look at me” might have been suspicious, but wordless screams sounded hysterical enough to forgive. And with her head uncovered, the delicate dragonfly necklace she wears- Sansa is easily found, easily recognized.
Their hands are not gentle when they drag her back, but neither are they particularly rough. The tears that drip down her cheeks are not entirely unfeigned.
(The smile is harder to conceal.)
“Courage,” Naerys tells her, face pale and thin in the darkness. “You must have courage, Lady Stark.”
Betha laughs, harshly. “She has far more courage than any of us ever will. Intelligence, too. No- you must have faith, Sansa: faith in yourself.”
“They will kill me,” Sansa murmurs, hands curving away from each other. There is relief, on the one hand, that Arya is safe; on the other, there is fear for herself. “How can I stop them?”
“They call you a traitor’s daughter,” says Brandon, materializing into the cell. His eyes are narrowed, and it is anger that thrums inside of him, hot and bright as liquid silver. “The Lannister Queen wants you skinned, but the Imp is talking her down from it. With only one hostage left to them, they can’t hurt you. But- be careful, Sansa.”
She nods, and that is that.
“Traitor,” Joffrey hisses, and Sansa says nothing.
The court seethes, twisting and roiling, waiting eagerly to see the disgrace of one of their own; Sansa simply lifts her chin high and meets Joffrey’s gaze. A heartbeat too late, she recognizes that pride was an incorrect path to take- Joffrey’s mouth twists, and his eyes go flat, and she can see her death echoing in them.
“Treason shall never go unpunished,” he bites out, raw in his fury.
Meryn Trant’s sword lights a line of fire down her spine, and Sansa shrinks away, stumbling. She doesn’t bother to beg. Over the roar of her heartbeat, she hears Brandon howling, screaming curses and threats, and yet: useless. Her knees fall to the floor, echoing vibrations up through her body, and she bows her head, spine curving like a vase’s arch into the ground.
“I think my lady is overdressed,” Joffrey sneers, and Sansa feels her blood freeze, hears the room go silent, stiff- even Brandon is silent, now. She cannot bear to look at him- Sansa feels her lower lip wobble. Her jaw aches from clenching it.
“Do not cry,” says another voice, so close that Sansa flinches even as Meryn Trant shreds her gown. She looks up and sees a woman, slim and small, looking so coldly, dignifiedly disdainful that the very room feels chillier at the sight. “Do not cry,” the woman repeats. “They are not worth your tears, Lady Stark.”
Tyrion Lannister enters and then Sandor Clegane hands her his cloak. Sansa feels the cool brush of Betha’s hands along her shoulders, the quiet grief in Naerys’ eyes, the rage in Alysanne’s- and the other woman, the strange woman, who stands beside her, unmoving as a heart tree’s trunk. She stands, and Tyrion says, quietly, “Do you want an end to this engagement?”
Alysanne snarls something, and Betha’s unembodied hair flutters through the air in her outrage, and Naerys looks away. It is the strange woman who says, glacial and magnificent in her contempt, “Do not trust him.”
Sansa keeps her back straight, her spine unbent.
“I am loyal to King Joffrey,” she says, running her tongue across the back of bloodied teeth, “my one true love.”
Back in her own rooms, Brandon stands vigil, and beside him stands a tall, strong-boned woman. It is only when she flips her pale braid over her shoulder and shifts, revealing the slender sword belted to her waist, that Sansa recognizes her, and stops dead in the hallway.
“Visenya,” she says.
Her maids flitter about her, anxiously. Sansa already knows them to be Lannister spies- Shaera had told her as much weeks ago- and now she ignores them, instead staring straight at the ghost she never imagined to see.
“Step inside your rooms,” says Visenya. “Dismiss your servants. We can speak after that.”
Sansa does, and once she’s closed the door behind the last of the maids, she turns, meeting Visenya’s eyes steadily.
“I heard of you,” Visenya says, quietly. “The Northerner who speaks to the dead. Who listens to the dead.”
“You didn’t die in the Red Keep.”
“I did,” Visenya murmurs, eyes lighting with something that’s equal parts amusement and scorn. “But that is another story- I am here for yours. The girl who plays with men’s minds and recruits an army of the dead for herself.” She leans forwards, graceful and sinuous as a snake’s uncoiling, as a dragon’s flame. “You are helpless in the face of the Lannister boy’s rage- and you shall remain so. But you can learn to move with attacks so that the bruises are softer, and looks worse than it actually is. I can teach you.”
Sansa stands very straight, very still. “And what would you like in return?”
No gift comes freely. Not ones this great.
“I shall teach you to wield a sword.” Visenya smiles, small and pale and deadly. “And when this is over, I shall give you one of Valyrian steel. And after that, you will go and find my sister’s bones, and you will give her the burial she deserves.”
Slowly, Sansa nods.
Visenya returns to standing outside the door, a stiff, immovable guard. Betha and Alysanne help Sansa tend to her back- tell her to go a little left, right, lower; brush the cloth a little harder, there’s still some wool strands caught on the blood.
When it is done, they leave. Sansa gazes outside the window and tries not to weep.
Arya is gone, and it is a good thing- but Sansa feels so alone. Arya is safe, but Sansa has paid the price for that in blood.
“They do not deserve your tears.”
Sansa looks up and sees the strange woman- she studies her closer, now, and identifies the tassels, the floating silk, the edges that drip to the floor as insubstantial as clouds. Her eyes are bright and intelligent, and underneath the glitter of kindness there is something that speaks of empathy.
It softens Sansa’s voice.
“No?” She asks. “They have stripped me. They can still kill me. I do not deserve to cry for that?”
“Your father is not dead,” the woman says. “Your sister is gone. Your family is safe in Winterfell. What cause is there to weep?”
“Then I am selfish,” says Sansa. “Selfish and tired, and afraid, and I will weep tears of blood if I so wish. I cry for myself, and-”
“-and you are a more powerful dreamspeaker than any in the past seven thousand years. Your tears are-”
“Magic?” Sansa asks, derisive and exhausted, unknowing whom she loathes more: herself, for her failures, or the Lannisters, for placing her in such a position, or her parents, whose gifts flowed into her along with her blood.
“No more magic than the magic of a powerless woman,” says the woman, and it is gentler than Sansa might have expected. “A woman who is thrown into the deepest ocean and not only learns to float- but to swim. You are stronger than them, Lady Stark, and I will not watch another woman die in these walls soundlessly. There has been enough injustice.”
For a long moment, Sansa looks at the woman. She is insubstantial, translucent; but for just a moment, she shines so bright that Sansa has to avert her eyes. For just a moment, she shines brighter than any star in the sky, as bright as the sun.
“It is an honor,” Sansa says, inclining her head and letting a small smile emerge from her lips, “to see the Princess Elia Martell.”
“Move faster,” Visenya orders, and Sansa drops, rolls, freezes her muscles.
She aches. Both in heart and body, but body more so these days; and not wholly against her will. Visenya is a hard mistress, but she gets results. Sansa learns to roll with the Kingsguard’s blows, learns to bite the inside of her cheek and let the blood paint her lips, learns to shrink in on herself and never once cry.
“If you are ever to bear a sword, you must do better,” says Visenya.
Sansa levels a glare at her. “My brothers bore swords when they were three,” she tells her. “They had none of this training.”
“They didn’t spend almost a decade and a half learning bad habits,” Visenya replies, acidic. “You have. Now: move.”
Elia walks beside Sansa, sometimes, when the days are particularly bad, when Sansa can scarcely move without breaking open the scabs across her back. She is a sad woman, and more than that she is an angry woman, and there are few days in which she can bear to look at the daughter of one of the men who fought a battle opposing her and hers- but Sansa is an innocent, as Elia agrees, and they both strive to find common ground.
(There’s quite a lot of it.
Elia, after all, knows exactly what a highborn woman’s all-but-imprisonment is like. And after that, everything else seems- paltry.)
They speak very rarely, but the hatred in Elia’s eyes and her frigid dignity almost makes up for it.
Finally, one morning, Visenya wakes Sansa.
It is just before dawn, and the darkness almost makes Sansa trip over her own two feet; but Visenya floats, implacable, impatient, and takes Sansa into dark hallways under the castle. They end up in a small, airless cell.
“There’s a stone,” Visenya tells her, waving at the back of it. “Count three up from the bottom and pull, it’ll come out. You ought to find a sword inside.”
The wall is damp, and there is mold where Sansa scrabbles at the stone; the stone gives way, though, easily enough. When she places her hand inside, she meets only cold stone- and then, reaching a little further, her fingers curl over something hard, even colder.
Sansa pulls it out.
The steel is wrapped in a scabbard of stiff leather. It’s quite small, slender; when Sansa unsheathes it, it glitters brighter than anything else in the darkness.
“Dark Sister,” says Visenya, quietly. Her eyes are over-bright as they trace her old sword. “The first sword I ever held properly. My father handed it to me the night that Vhagar hatched. He told me that my first duty was to protect my brother, and then our blood, and then our people.” She exhales sharply and turns away; gestures to the door. “We ought to head back.”
Sansa stuffs the sword into the deepest part of her skirts and walks out. Back in her rooms, she is careful to hide it in the safest place she knows of. That afternoon, when she goes to the godswood, she takes it with her.
Visenya awaits her there, arms folded, back straight. She cannot provide an opponent to Sansa, but she can get Sansa to move, to shift, to learn and accept the weight of a sword in her hands.
Sansa grits her teeth, swallows, and moves through the ache of her bruises, of her scars.
“Traitor,” Joffrey sneers, and drags Sansa to the battlements. “That’s your septa,” he tells her. “That’s your friend, over there. Look.”
Sansa can scarcely hear him over the pounding of her heart, of her sudden fury. She bites her lip and looks away, and feels all the breath rush out of her as Meryn Trant grabs her shoulders bruisingly. Her eyes flick up to see the dead-eyed skull of her septa, the fly-ridden corpse of Jeyne Poole. Sansa cannot feel herself breathe.
“Look at her!”
“They weren’t traitors,” she whispers. “Not once. Not ever. Septa Mordane never once so much as called you by name.” She doesn’t look at Joffrey, doesn’t let her eyes waver from those who died in her name, those she couldn’t protect. This is what happens when you fail. Look at them, and don’t ever forget it. “Jeyne loved you. Why did you kill innocents?”
“You’re as stupid as Mother says,” Joffrey spits, and Sansa doesn’t flinch. “Ser Meryn-” he waves his hand.
Sansa feels the slap as if from a distance.
“I will kill him,” a voice growls, and Sansa leans on it: with her eyes closed, Brandon sounds just like her father, and she needs that strength. “One day, I will take his soul and tear him to shreds, I swear it.”
Joffrey is still talking. Sansa still feels sun-hot anger, but it is distant, swallowed by the pain and sting of grief. She forces herself to focus on what he’s saying.
“I’ll give you a present,” he says. “I’ll give you your father’s head as well. It shouldn’t be long before my men find him, after all.”
“Or,” Sansa says, “he’ll give me yours.”
Joffrey blinks, taken aback, and she can see the exact moment when he decides to ignore her words. He cocks his head to the side, bluntly cruel, unsubtle in his attempts to wound her. “He left you here, didn’t he? Perhaps you don’t love him very much- I’m sure a proper daughter would have cried at least a little, wouldn’t you?”
My father will give me your head. I will kill you with Visenya Targaryen’s sword, and bring it dripping to my family. You will decorate Winterfell’s walls for as long as I wish it.
“My father is a traitor,” Sansa tells him. Her voice is steadier than Joffrey will ever be with a sword. “I am not.”
Brandon’s arm is freezing next to hers, numbing her shoulder. Sansa can feel Meryn Trant’s bruising fingers, can taste the blood blotted across her lip. She keeps her gaze fierce on Joffrey.
The first of them to look away is the one with a crown.
Brandon avoids her, at first, and then takes to hovering about her, more protective than even Robb at his worst. Sansa can see the fruitless rage in his eyes as he bears silent witness to her beatings, to her humiliation- they don’t speak of it, ever, but he shimmers brighter in the moments that he sees Joffrey than anytime else.
The bruises ringing her wrists blaze with pain as Sansa whirls, twists, lifts the sword-
Visenya tells her to turn, and Sansa does, she does- but she also cries out, once, sharp and high, and drops the sword. Her hands ache. Her eyes burn. She wants to curl inwards, wants to weep, but her eyes are dry as bone and her muscles are too stiff, too cold, to relax. Sansa feels as if the chill of the North has snuck inside her when she didn’t know it.
On the worst days, she even welcomes it.
“Sansa,” says Visenya. Her face is blank as ever, but her eyes are kind. Her arm, when it brushes at Sansa’s cheek, isn’t cold to make her feel as if the bone underneath will shatter. “You said you could do it today.”
“I can,” Sansa replies, but her traitorous hand won’t reach for the hilt.
“You are no good to anyone if you kill yourself,” Visenya says.
“No?” Sansa tilts her head to the side, feels dirt give way under her fingers as they claw. “I just…”
“You are tired,” says Visenya, rising to her feet. “Well, I tell you this: this life is nothing but exhausting. You will sleep on your feet, and then you will learn not to do even that. You will weep until your tears run dry, and then you will wish you had more to offer. Protectors can do nothing else.” She lifts her chin, lifts her sword, and Sansa can see the girl in Visenya’s bones for just a heartbeat, the girl who’d held a newly-hatched dragon in one hand and a sword in the other, the girl who’d loved her brother enough to conquer a kingdom beside him, the girl who’d desired power and seized it as she needed. “And, Sansa Stark, you are nothing but a protector. Do you understand?”
Sansa feels her muscles twitch. She slowly uncurls her fingers, reaches for the hilt of Dark Sister, and closes her hand about it. She is colder than the Wall, than Winterfell in the dead of winter, than death itself. She is as hot as the sun’s own fire.
“I will protect,” Sansa says, and lifts her sword, clenches her teeth and rides through the wave of pain. Visenya’s eyes gleam with satisfaction.
But for hours, one question echoes in Sansa’s mind: Protect what?
Visenya watches Sansa cut through the air, fast and deadly.
“You’ll never be perfect,” Visenya tells her. “There will always be people better than you, smarter than you- you will not ever be perfect. But you will survive, and that is what matters.”
Sansa keeps her head high the entire time.
People sneer, whisper behind painted lips and raised hands, mock her for her helplessness. Were she alone, Sansa doesn’t know if she could have stood against them.
But she isn’t.
Not even when Joffrey laughs, tells her about Bran’s and Rickon’s deaths. Naerys flares white, bright as a full moon, and is the one to wrap Sansa in her arms in the godswood, the one to cry silently beside her.
Not even when Joffrey forces her to kiss a sword that leaves her lips bleeding, a sword that belongs rightfully to Sansa and her house. Shaera presses her freezing fingers to Sansa’s lips, and the stinging pain goes numb.
Not even when Cersei mocks her for her stupidity, or the courtiers laugh derisively, or the commonfolk avert their eyes. If people look closely, they can see the glow of something ethereal fanning out from Sansa’s skirts, pale and pearlescent. Even through the worst of their rage, Sansa remains coldly calm. There is nothing Joffrey can do to hurt her, and even if he does she won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing it.
The ghosts cradle her, sing to her, place a sword in her hand and only ever look at her with pride.
(Later, Sansa learns of the ghosts that wished to hurt her, the ones that she was protected from. She learns that when Visenya tried to speak to her, in the very beginning, Rickard Stark stood tall against the woman who conquered Westeros and refused her. That Aerys the Mad and Maegor the Cruel were chained and fought off by women who once held nothing to their name but silence.)
She doesn’t know that yet, however, and trusts even less. The week that Sansa wields Dark Sister well enough to silence even Visenya’s unrelenting criticism, she feels something rise in her gullet, too ugly to be a laugh, too soft to be a cry.
“You are ready,” Visenya murmurs, and Sansa smiles, plaits her hair back into a banner as bright as blood, bares her teeth too wide to call a smile, lifts a sword that shimmers like moonlight.
Chapter 2: only the brave and broken are kind in this world
Sansa wonders, briefly, if he knows who last smiled like this.
(Not Visenya, who smiles like a dragon. Not Rickard, whose smiles are more elusive than a wolf in the midst of winter. Not Brandon, who smiles like the cut of a broken blade.)
(It’s a smile Sansa has seen only once before, a smile she yet has carved into the curve of her heart: Elia’s smile, when she saw her brother come to King’s Landing, when she heard his bitterness against the Lannisters.
It is a terrifying smile.)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The Tyrells come and go, pity in their eyes as they stare at the pale red-haired girl who drifts through the Red Keep, bruises rimming her arms and face, as stern and proud as the North itself. Sansa braids the flowers Margaery offers her in the mornings, fingers as nimble as ever; during the nights, she burns them and uses the ashes to craft spells of protection around herself, around her family.
Sansa’s life changes slowly, in bits and pieces: the hours Visenya spends training her lessen, gradually, leaving her with time that she hadn’t realized she had.
It’s a gruesome sort of a schedule, but a schedule nevertheless- her mornings are spent dodging Cersei, praying in the godswood, practicing swords when she feels safe enough for it; her afternoons are spent at court with Joffrey’s threats and the Kingsguard’s fists; her evenings are spent embroidering and other tasks Cersei finds acceptable for Sansa to do. But before she’d trained under Visenya, Sansa’d snuck away on evenings as well as nights, and sleep had felt far less important than fighting against the Lannisters.
Now, Sansa has both sleep and knowledge. It makes the muscles along her lower back spasm sometimes, as the slow-burning desire to do something flares.
Which is why, when Visenya stands before her in the dark-lit corridor where Bloodraven had once hidden Dark Sister, Sansa doesn’t flinch away. There’s a light in Visenya’s eyes that’s frightening, but there’s a rage in Sansa’s heart that’s just as terrifying, and if she’s learned anything in all these months it’s that swords are not as intimidating as they’re made out to be, for all that they’re more dangerous.
“Did you never wonder?”
Sansa frowns up at Visenya. “Wonder?”
“I can teach you to fight,” Visenya announces. “I can teach you to be strong. But I cannot teach you to look at the world. That is something that you must decide on your own.” Her eyes narrow. “Thousands have died inside the walls of the Red Keep. Millions inside the city. And yet you don’t wonder why this city isn’t crawling with ghosts.”
“I thought most slept,” Sansa says carefully. “Like my grandfather.”
“That many? Impossible.” Visenya smiles- though it looks to be more a sneer, cold and bladed. “What have I taught you of assumptions?”
Sansa pulls herself back. “To ask before making them.”
“So ask,” she orders.
Foolish curiosity, perhaps, but Sansa’s always loved the old stories and Visenya’s always refused to speak of her own experiences. And what can a few harmless tales do, in the end?
Sansa learns, then.
(Visenya is many things, warrior and queen and sister; she is loved, she loved, she is loathed; she is cold, and terrible, and wrathful as the son she’d once borne.
Here is one thing she is not: harmless.)
“Daenys saw the dead,” Visenya tells her, the next day. They sit in the gardens; or, Sansa sits, and Visenya stands beside her, sunlight catching on the silver planes of her hair to shimmer gold. “Daenys, and then Daenerys, and then Viserys, and then Daeron, and then Aelora, and then- Brynden.” Her lips twist, cool disdain in the arch of them. “Three women after me, and all of them fools lost in their minds. Viserys did the best he could, but- he was only one. And Brynden!”
There is no Brynden in House Targaryen. Not unless-
“A bastard and a fool and a failure,” Visenya spits. “I ought to have slit his mother’s throat myself, I ought to have saved that blood for someone better suited for these deathful things.”
Sansa weaves the roses between her fingers. The petals are soft but the stems are hard, fibrous from being cut too late. It’s late summer. She can feel it: the air is different from only a few months previous, a bite accompanying the mornings, a tooth to the wind’s chill. Winter is coming, but few seem to know it.
“He did not do what you wished?” she asks mildly.
“He was strong,” Visenya says. “He had the blood stronger than all the rest. But he had ambition as well, ambition enough to swallow the world whole. And for that ambition was he banished by Aegon. I was close- so close- to allowing Rhaenys’ bones to sleep. I gave him Dark Sister, I gave him everything he ever wanted. Had he only gone to Dorne-” she slashes her hand down, and Sansa feels the wave of ice follow in its wake. “-but he did not, and he went to the Wall, and I had to wait for another hundred years.”
Her eyes are bright, Sansa thinks idly. Fever-bright. Star-bright.
“You’ve still not explained what going to sleep is,” Sansa says, dropping the rose. The thorns catch on her slippers, tear the edging of lace, but she cannot bend to lift it. There are cuts on her lower back that will open if she lets her posture soften a little. “The dead are dead, are they not?”
Visenya pauses. “They’ve not told you?”
“Who’s not told me?”
“Your uncle,” she says, flatly. “Your uncle and your grandfather. This is…” she trails off, staring at Sansa. Then she smiles, and she looks- frightening, as if a dragon were just leashed under her skin. “Unexpected.”
“Why would they have-” Sansa begins, but Visenya speaks over her.
“The Stark inheritance is not just a meaningless crown, nor a castle old enough to make dragons quail, nor a land cold and dead and hard,” says Visenya. “It is your blood, and the tales that every heir has been told, from Brandon the Builder down to your own father.” Her lip curls, faintly, and the air thrums with a chill that cracks in Sansa’s bones. “Perhaps- your father- has not been told. But that does not mean they can shirk their duties.” She straightens, proud and stern, more terrifying in one motion than Cersei could hope to be in a thousand. “You have power to make the seas shatter and the stars shake, and I am not one to hope that you will learn to tame it by accident. I will not make their mistakes.”
Sansa shivers, just a little, and the pain that follows down her back makes her teeth clatter like dice in a cup.
“The dead are dead,” Visenya tells her. “They will always be that, once their life drains from them. But some do not rest, if they are angry, or if they are strong, or if they are scared- it matters little, the reason. All that matters is that moment, between life and between death, when the soul is stretched between two realms.”
She flashes her teeth, glinting points that shimmer like so many crystals, and Sansa remembers the tales she’d once read in Winterfell’s library: of men and women who’d not ridden dragons but become dragons, who’d learned to take all of a dragon’s viciousness and flame and strength inside them and master it until one couldn’t tell when they would be human and when they would be dragon and when they would be a strange, terrible mix of both.
If ever there was a woman suited for such a thing, it would be Visenya.
Visenya, who smiles a smile too fanged to be anything called reassuring, and says, “Death is painful. It is a sundering of the soul from the body. It is more painful than stripping the flesh from your bones, than burning you alive, than making a thousand cuts upon your body. It is cold, to some: the cold that goes straight to your soul, and aches worse than you can breathe. It is heat, or stabs, or something else altogether.” Gold strands spread behind her, dancing in a wind that doesn’t exist in the living world; it looks, Sansa thinks, as if they’re caught in the wind of a dragon’s wings, fierce and buffeting, rolling. “And in that moment of all-consuming pain, when our life slips from us, we must want, desperately, yearningly; we must want something more than we want the pain to end. And if you want it badly enough, you will have it.
“It is a terrible gift,” she murmurs, calming a little, enough for the pale glow surrounding her to dim, enough for Sansa to look at her without spots dimming her vision. “There are so few times that we are given what we want in life, and we are trained to hone that wanting for so many years, and the one time we are offered a chance- we take it, without knowing the consequences, and we must wait for others to release us of that which tethers us to life after.”
Wanting, Sansa thinks. You must want something more than you want to live, more than the pain, more than all else.
The Targaryens are- or were- known for it- for being mad, and being great, and being something the world could not quite hold in its seams. But those were the kings, who spent their lives in the sunlight and the glare of the world; not the women, who played games of twisting, moonlit webs instead, who were offered little, who were given even less.
You learn to want, Sansa thinks, her hand clenching in her lap. That’s what you learn, for years and years, and then you die, and you want something even then- and of course you stay.
Of course you do.
Life is never easy, she knows, she’s learned, back under Winterfell’s steady, untrembling eaves. She’s listened to Sansa’s stories of Jonnel, and Lyarra’s stories of her mother, and Donnor’s stories of his father- she’s learned all of them, all of the older, harsher stories, all of the sharper, terrible tales.
Life is never easy, but death- Sansa’s always expected death to be simpler, somehow. Death is death, and it is terrifying, and it is inevitable, and it is beautiful, sometimes, but it is simple, too, or so she’d thought.
But maybe it isn’t.
Maybe it’s killing that’s easy, but death itself isn’t.
Sansa breathes, in and out, air in her lungs that freezes and aches.
“And the wanting,” she asks, “that’s enough?”
Visenya’s eyes narrow. “Those of Old Valyria have different rituals for when we die. From flame have we come, and to flame shall we return.” She says the last differently, as if she were reciting a song, or a catechism. “If our bones are not touched by flame, we remain. One can stay back by wanting- that is what happened with Rhaella, to hear her tell it- but the lack of flame chains us here just as much. It is why I know Rhaenys to be here still, and not beyond. And that- that is why I have stayed.”
For a long moment, Sansa cannot respond. Her muscles hurt, and she bleeds in rippling scars across her back, but there is another ache unfolding inside her, now: a kind that makes her chest quiver with a strange emotion, a kind that makes her eyes sting with tears she’s not shed in months.
“You could have left,” she says, quietly. Of course Visenya could have left- she’s met six people who could have passed her over, but she’s refused them all. She’s stayed, for centuries, helpless and aching and hurting, all for the slender hope of saving a sister a half a continent away.
“Of course,” says Visenya. “But Rhaenys remains here. Aegon has passed into peace, but she has not, and I am the eldest of us. If I do not care for them, there is none else who would, and so I will.”
Fierce enough to burn the world, thinks Sansa, lips pressed together until they’re bloodless thin. Not just madness, or greatness. Love, fierce enough to last through death.
“And you’re certain of it,” she murmurs. “Rhaenys- she is here. Not gone.”
“Of course,” Visenya repeats, but her eyes are sharper now, and colder. “We cared for her, both Aegon and I, since the moment she was born. Even Meraxes loved her as I’ve never seen a dragon love a human, before or after. No flame ever touched her. And none of us knew what would happen if flame did not touch us- a simple burn would have been enough- before death, but Aegon read it in one of our father’s books- they called it a deathless life- and he told it to me in passing. And I told it to Rhaenys, and Rhaenys told it to one of her lovers, and her lover betrayed her to Dorne.
“And then they fell, both of them- Meraxes and Rhaenys.” Her voice is clipped and toneless, but Sansa thinks there is a rage there, right beneath the control. It is always there, with Visenya. “And the Ullers tortured her for years. It was only- only after Nymor assumed the princedom that he sent a peace treaty. He told Aegon that he would end Rhaenys’ suffering with flame, and so ensure that she passed peacefully.”
Sansa tips her head to the side. If there is one thing clear in history, it’s that- “He took the peace.”
“He was a fool,” snarls Visenya. “I told him, I begged- but no, he took it, and the Ullers consigned her to death with poison, and Aegon had not the strength to remain here even after we knew the truth.”
“I- I don’t-” Sansa shakes her head, dislodging the rage that Visenya seems to blaze with, seems to infect everyone around her with. “Is that it, then? Flame, and you’ll pass over?”
But before Visenya can answer, another voice interrupts.
“I’ll thank you not to teach your blasphemies to my granddaughter.”
Visenya looks over Sansa’s shoulder and tosses her head as Lady had once done, right before she leapt at Grey Wind and bore him to the ground.
“Stark,” she sneers.
“Lady Targaryen,” says Rickard, and emerges out of thin air, beside Sansa’s left shoulder.
“What nonsense are you talking of now?”
Rickard moves one hand over the flat of the other, sharply, as if he were honing a blade- and light winks around his wrists for the briefest heartbeat, silver and bladed. “You have overstepped. She does not know her own histories, and she will not be taught them from a Valyrian conqueror. They are a Stark inheritance, and they are a sacred inheritance, and we shall not-”
“It is your duty, and you have neglected it,” Visenya murmurs.
She rests her hands against the smooth lines of her gown, but Sansa isn’t fooled- she knows how fast Visenya can be when she wants to be. The air had been cold with only Visenya present, but now there’s an electric tang there, one that makes her back ache and ache and ache.
“She is but a child.” Rickard flexes his shoulders, and Visenya’s face twists in disgust. “I will not have your quest for peace mar another child’s innocence, much less one of mine own blood.”
Another child? Sansa frowns.
“I am teaching her,” Visenya hisses. “She owes me two debts now, Stark, and both are heavy ones. You cannot deny that.”
Rickard remains calm, for all that Sansa can feel the blaze of power that Visenya’s wielding, for all that it must affect him even more. “I deny one debt,” he says, levelly. “You named the price of your teaching when you first met her, and knowledge imparted is not confined to one sphere alone. You cannot name a debt of death-knowledge, Lady Targaryen.” He smiles, then, and even Visenya swallows at the promise there, at the cold implacability of it. “I am not Torrhen, and I am not either of my sons, and I have told you once before: I care nothing if you wish to pass your sister on, but my protection is upon my blood and you shall not manipulate them to your ends again.”
He lifts one hand, and rests the other on Sansa’s shoulder, light and cold as the first breeze of spring after winter. “Begone, I say, for one sennight. That ought to impress upon you the strength of vows sworn.”
“Starks,” spits Visenya, looking as if she might just breathe out venom. “I told Aegon he ought to have taken your swords, but the fool didn’t listen. If he’d only taken Torrhen’s head…”
“Then you would not have Sansa, the first hope you’ve had in near a century,” says Rickard. “We are contrary creatures, we Starks, but when winter comes we are the only hope in all the world. And winter is coming, Lady Targaryen, no matter how much your dragons breathe flame.”
He bows, an incline that looks as severe as a mountain’s own silhouette, and waits. Visenya snarls again, though this time it’s soundless- and then she fades out of sight in the same manner that Rickard had appeared.
“Targaryens,” says Rickard, and it sounds amused, now, as opposed to the unyielding solemnity of before. “They have the pride to swear vows, and the temper to cross them, and the pride yet again to accept their missteps. A strange house, altogether.”
Strange, Sansa thinks, staring. You- you just- you just sent her away for no reason, and you don’t-
“I don’t understand,” Sansa says, finally, voice high and piercing. “I thought I did, but there’s- there’s vows, and debts, and she’s telling me about death, and-”
“-and, there has been enough talk of this for today.” Rickard gestures for her to rise. “Lady Targaryen is impatient- she has been forced to wait for so long- but she forgets that you are a child still. There is a reason our ancestors placed safeguards, granddaughter: until you have reached adulthood, you cannot be compelled to listen. And that shall not happen for some time yet.”
Sansa clenches her fists. “I want to listen.”
“You shall,” he promises, gently. There’s a howling sadness, though, in his eyes, when he says the words. “I have been remiss to trust in Brandon’s care. I have been even more remiss in avoiding you.” Rickard pauses, and waits for just long enough that Sansa starts to rise. It makes her hiss through her teeth as the simple motion pulls at the scars of her back, but she rides through the pain instead of surrendering to it. “This is a good lesson to you: grief is a potent drug, and you shall only lose more if you lose yourself to it. It feels so very good to surrender to it, but you must fight, fight as you do against the pain, and for your pride.
“We shall speak on the morrow,” he tells her, and disappears.
No one accompanies Sansa back into the castle.
“I do not know the whole story,” Rickard says, when he meets with her the next day- this time, they’re in the godswood, and Sansa has a bruise over her cheekbone, reddening into a deep purple. “Do you remember the story of Rickon? The Stark who died in Dorne?”
Slowly, Sansa nods.
Rickon had died in Dorne, fighting in Daeron’s Conquest, but he’d not left his daughters, Serena and Sansa, defenseless; he’d named his own half-brothers their champions before he’d left Winterfell. He’d not expected those self-same champions to seize his daughters’ rights, however, and certainly not expected them to name themselves Lord. Serena hadn’t lived in Winterfell when she died, but her sister had.
Sansa’s named for her.
And she knows all of her stories.
“The stories were lost with him,” Rickard says. “I shall tell you as my father told me- Eddard does not know what he lost, when he lost Brandon and I in one day- and he never will.” It’s a dull shock in her belly to realize that it’s her father Rickard’s referring to. “You are lucky you can listen, Sansa, so that you can tell your brother’s children, and pass on the knowledge.”
“I still don’t know the knowledge,” she points out.
“That will come,” Rickard replies, with more patience than seems fair, particularly with the sharpness of her own tone. “First I shall tell you the sundering, and then I shall tell you the beginning, and then I shall tell you of another half-a-hundred tales I once believed false, and now know to be truth.” He leans forwards. “The year has not yet turned- we are just past two of its thirds. By the time we reach the turning, you shall know all that I know. That is as far as my protection shall carry.”
“Your protection against other ghosts,” she says, quietly. “Like Visenya.”
“I am a Stark,” he says, proudly, simply. “We do not fear death and we do not fear dying. It is our legacy. And you are a daughter of my son, blood of my blood. There are protections that I can offer you, simply because of that. But even more: I did not let Visenya meet with you until I was certain of her control- she swore a vow to me, to not kill you as she did Daeron. And so I could send her away.”
“I,” says Sansa. “I do not understand.”
He nods. “You need not know everything to understand this. All you need understand is that we are not Targaryens to search for peace in unknown lands. We are Starks, and we are descendants of Brandon the Builder, and we stay on forever. There are rituals you can do, to make it easier- Lady Targaryen spoke truly, when she said it was painful beyond imagining- but in the end it is your own will.” He doesn’t smile, not exactly, but Sansa’s seen the way her father’s face shifts when he’s satisfied with something. “And we have never lacked in that. Sense, yes, and honor, often- but not will.”
Sansa lifts her head, flattens her shoulders, imagines her bones to be as long and lithe as a wolf’s. “And when you lack that will?” she demands. “When you must do something you dislike, as you are doing now.”
What then, grandfather? Do not think that your reluctance has gone unnoticed. You hate this, but you are still doing it. And you are not doing it properly, either.
Rickard looks at her- just looks- and that’s enough to silence Sansa. He looks like Lyarra, a little, and like her father too, but more than anyone else he looks like Brandon Snow, Torrhen’s bastard brother. He looks sad, and angry, and sad that he’s angry.
“It is my duty,” he says. “I ought to have protected my family better. My ambitions and my loves outweighed the duties Brandon gave us, and I let both Stark lord and heir die together, for the sake of a vengeance I have not yet found. And you are too young for this, far too young, but there are ghosts waiting to teach you falsehoods, and there are whispers of terrible things from the North, and I am afraid you have not the time to learn slowly.”
“The duties,” Sansa says, as a question.
A smile, small and bright as a flash of moonlight on waves, darts across Rickard’s face. “That is the beginning.” His voice deepens, shifting into the same cadence with which Visenya had spoken the day before. “We shall begin with the sundering, which was Rickon, Rickon son of Cregan- who died in Dorne and would have let the hopes of the world die with him had he not loved his sister so dearly.
“He told her the truth of our heritage, though not the whole of it, and so when he died she could preserve it- she was also a speaker, and so knew the truth- away from Jonnel, and away from Edric, but alive for the next of the Stark line. From Sarra it passed to Serena, and from Serena to Arrana when she had the gift of the sight; from Arrana to Arsa, who bore the burden of telling it to her brother Beron when he showed his gift; from Beron to Donnor, eldest and dearest child of Beron; from Donnor to Willam when he lost his breath of a wasting sickness; from Willam to Rodrik, when they were captured at Long Lake and Artos negotiated the release of one of them; from Rodrik to Edwyle, who took up the Lordship of his father; from Edwyle to Rickard, who did not believe in the tales; and from Rickard to you, dearest: across death and across generations.”
He reaches out, and catches her hand. Her palm blazes with the cold of it, but Sansa holds still, keeps her eyes fixed to Rickard’s.
“Eight thousand years,” he says, with the inexorable weight of the ending of a story, “this tale has been carried, from one Stark to another. We have lost pieces, and added pieces, but we are the hopebringers and the dreamspeakers and the wolfsingers, and we shall not falter, not through war, not through death, not through the greatest pain, not through the oldest hurts.”
He shudders to a halt, and reaches out to brush against her wrist.
Then he fades.
The next day, he tells her of Brandon the Builder, who had founded their house, and of Brandon the Breaker, who had defeated the Night’s King all those millennia ago.
The day after that, he tells her of the wolfsingers, people who could become wolves when they wished it, people who sang songs in their wolf form of such ferocious beauty the Starks had managed to conquer the Vale and half of Essos before being turned back.
The day after that, he tells her of the history of the title hopebringer, for when all of Westeros faltered in the winter, when both wildlings and Northmen were on the verge of dying in snows higher than mountains and colder than death, it was the Starks who stepped forwards, and the Starks who fought it back, and the Starks who slayed the Night’s King when all the rest could not.
He’s already taught her dreamspeaking, but not of Cregard’s penchant for making his enemies scream the night before a battle, nor Jocelyn’s iron ambition that had ensured highborn marriages for all three of her daughters by twisting their desired husbands to the same cause.
(“But it’s wrong,” Sansa says, when he tells her of how Cregard had made Dagon Greyjoy scream for a fortnight before Beron truly confronted him. Rickard flickers when he sees the horror on her face, in and out of sight, before he says, fiercely, “Dagon would have slit half the North’s throats in their sleep if he thought he’d get away with it. In battle- you do not let honor dictate your motions. It might be wrong, or it might be right; what matters is the tools, and whether you use them.”
He says, “It is the truth. Shall you turn from it?”
Yes, thinks Sansa.)
She folds her hands over one another, parchment pale, and bears through it, breathes through it, through the instinctive horror and the twisting pain. She is a Stark yet, and the first princess of the North in more than three centuries, and she has survived both swords and words sharper than swords.
Sansa will survive this too.
Visenya approaches Sansa a sennight later, when Rickard’s order ends, but Rickard transposes himself between them before she can speak.
“I am not Torrhen,” he says warningly, and Sansa remembers what he’d said before, in the gardens- I am not Torrhen, and I am not my sons. She wonders what the words mean. “Do not forget that, Lady Targaryen.”
“I could never,” she says, baring her teeth. “Now move, you old fool. I must speak to the girl. I am her tutor yet, and there are things I must teach her that you have no right to hear.”
Again, Rickard bows, but this time he’s the one to fade from view. Visenya spends the rest of the afternoon training her on the way of swords, of turning and twisting and dancing to the music of steel and death.
It’s at the year’s turning that Joffrey strikes her.
It’s the first time that he does it himself- it’s fast, two slaps that sting more than hurt, that surprise more than ache- but Elia appears at it, and she makes a noise that hurts Sansa’s throat to think of, all high and scornful.
“When we wed,” he says, wrenching her chin up to meet his mad green gaze, “you will scream. I will present your brother’s head and your father’s head and Winterfell’s cornerstone at the feast, and you will drink wine made from your bitch mother’s blood, and you will thank me for putting a crown on your head.”
For months now, Sansa’s been silent.
She wonders if anyone has noticed it, but she’s quite certain that nobody has. The ghosts whom she’d once been close to had stopped spending so much time with her after Visenya started teaching her swords, and both Rickard and Visenya- the ghosts she spends most of her time with- are too lost in their own minds to pay much attention to how quiet she’s been. Brandon’s the one who might have realized, but he’s been sulking off in a corner after Rickard shouted at him.
But Sansa’s been quietly shifting her mind for months now, learning movements from Visenya that would kill a man without much more than the scrape of a nail, learning truths from her grandfather that would leave Joffrey’s mind broken more cleanly than the Mountain crushing it- she’s changed, and she feels something flare up within her to match that change, through the cracks of her mind where she’s grown up.
She has a mountain’s steadiness in her. But she also has a wolf’s ability to smell when tides are turning, when duty calls her elsewhere, and Sansa lifts her lips to smile at Joffrey.
Sansa wonders, briefly, if he knows who last smiled like this.
(Not Visenya, who smiles like a dragon. Not Rickard, whose smiles are more elusive than a wolf in the midst of winter. Not Brandon, who smiles like the cut of a broken blade.)
(It’s a smile Sansa has seen only once before, a smile she yet has carved into the curve of her heart: Elia’s smile, when she saw her brother come to King’s Landing, when she heard his bitterness against the Lannisters.
It is a terrifying smile.)
It doesn’t matter. Joffrey will know of her rage, and he will fear her soon, but the time for that has not yet come.
“Yes,” she says, because she is a girl who can be hurt.
Within, she says, in a swirl of cold that echoes of a vow: I am a Stark. I am a princess. And when my brother comes to King’s Landing, he will take your head, and my father shall take the Kingslayer’s head, and I will drink of your mother’s blood and then- and then, my vengeance shall be satisfied.
Septa Mordane’s head is a husk, now, little more than a skull. Jeyne’s has more hair stuck to it, but there’s nothing of the girl that had once sat beside her and loved her. Sansa stares at them when Joffrey brings her up here, and every single time she has thought of her grief and her fruitless rage.
Rickard’s protection would last her until the turn of the year. A fortnight to plot, and plan, and fight her way out- it’s not enough, but it will have to be. Sansa’s been making do with cobbled-together hopes and hastily-considered plans for a long time now, and she has little hope her escape will be any better.
She tilts her head back, eyes affixed to her first friend and oldest mentor. If she’d been born before Aegon’s conquest, Sansa would have bowed and called Septa Mordane her second mother- but her Septa would have hated to be remembered in such a manner anyhow, so she only nods and whispers, “Goodbye.”
Joffrey, as always, doesn’t hear.
Elia, beside her, does. There’s a longdrawn inhale, like a choked-off cry. Sansa waits for her to speak but Elia doesn’t. There’s only silence, and then she winks out of sight.
It doesn’t matter. Sansa has done what she has to, and when she leaves she will not leave regrets behind her to fester.
Goodbye. Her footsteps echo in the red-stone hallways. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Sansa will not leave anything of herself behind.
That night, for the first time in months, Betha appears to her.
“You shall leave soon,” she says carefully.
Sansa nods. “My grandfather’s protection shall fade at the turn of the year. I’ve learned all that I can, and I’ve spent long enough here, I think.”
More than a year and a half. Sansa wonders if anyone has ever ached as much as she has, in these past months; the pain has sunk into the weave of her skin, right up until she cannot imagine life without it.
“Not only your grandfather’s protection,” Betha replies softly. “Ours as well.”
“Yours.” Sansa frowns. “I don’t understand.”
“Rickard Stark bound Visenya Targaryen in chains borne of blood and debt,” Betha murmurs, before she lets one hand lift up, slowly, as if she were unzipping the fabric of the world. “But they are not the only cages possible, and they are not half so powerful as chains of blood thrown by blood.” She smiles, almost confiding, but there’s a nasty edge to it that makes Sansa’s want to flinch. “Naerys rather enjoyed hearing Aegon’s screams.”
Sansa can feel herself pale. “He hasn’t passed on?”
“Not him, nor Aerys, nor Maegor. It takes a strong soul to stay on, Lady Stark- strength that comes from pain, or madness.” Betha smiles again. This time, the very air chills at the bitterness in it. “The Targaryens have always had overmuch of both.”
“I thought myself safe,” Sansa replies faintly. “I thought myself safe.”
“And so you are,” says Betha, briskly. “For another fortnight. Our chains are strong, but they shall last for the period of a year alone. When it shifts from old to new, so too do the bindings, and if any of them evade us then, they shall likely attempt to hunt you down.” She reaches forwards and cups Sansa’s cheek, frozen fingers blazing pain down her neck. “We cannot allow it.”
“So you wish me to leave?”
“I wish you to be safe,” Betha says. “It matters little how.”
Naerys comes to her next, and Alysanne is supposed to come to Sansa after, but it’s no woman who appears to her on the third night.
It’s Brandon, instead, and it’s a Brandon with a set to his face that leaves Sansa wary.
“I shall have to be quick,” is what he tells her, before anything else. Sansa straightens further, painfully stiff. “We have little time before we’ll be identified. If we’re found-”
Even as he speaks, Sansa sees a faint silver curtain float away from his body. It creeps forwards until it envelops her, filmy and insubstantial. Sansa’s experienced many types of cold in her life; the cold of winter, the chill of ghosts, but never before the emptiness of death. The cold that it slices into her muscles is worse than anything she has ever known before.
“-it won’t be good,” Brandon finishes, before he notices her wincing. “I will leave it soon enough. This takes far too much energy for me to maintain the shield for overlong. But this assures privacy in a manner that none other can.”
She tilts her head to the side, watching him. “Why?”
Brandon, bless him, understands immediately.
“Because Father believes you a child,” he says, voice low and fast. “I would not have interfered, but there are rumors from the North of- eldritch things. Terrible things. Our blood has defended the realms of mankind for millennia, and we cannot falter now, not for all that you are a child.” His face twists. “Sansa, I am very sorry for this. But there is no room for pity, or compassion, or whatever- whatever my father believes, here. You must go North.”
So my grandfather is still hiding things from me. She shakes her head, lets the irritation drop away from her as water off a dragonflower’s leaves. I will have to look, and see, and take note of even more, then.
“I don’t want your pity,” Sansa retorts sharply. “I want to understand. But even if I did understand what you want- and I don’t, not at all- I can’t listen to you. I’ve promised Visenya to burn Rhaenys, and Rhaenys is in Dorne.”
“Yes,” says Brandon, “but you must know where she is, first.”
“She’s in Dorne,” Sansa repeats slowly, exaggerating the syllables.
“Where in Dorne?” Brandon demands. “Hellholt? Sunspear? Is she lost in one of the half-a-hundred deserts the fuckers live in? You’ll never find her if she is. No.” He leans forwards, places his palms on his knees and swings close to her face up until her eyes sting from the sheer pain. “What you must do is find the last person who found her.”
And in that moment, Sansa sees it: the plan, unfolded in front of her, gleaming as a sword the heartbeat before battle. Brandon’s always been brasher than he’s smart, but that’s saying little; he’s bolder than most any other man Sansa’s seen. And when he puts his mind to it…
“Oh,” she says.
“You go North.” Brandon smiles, feral and triumphant. “You fight whatever is worrying the ghosts of Winterfell. And then you speak to Bloodraven, find out where the Targaryen’s bones are buried, and burn the ashes to dust. Your debts will be paid thrice over, and none shall ever speak against it.”
“Oh,” she says, again, but this time the surprise is tempered with disquiet. “The ghosts are worried?”
Brandon tips his head forwards. “Terrified might be a better term. They’re not saying why, though, and that’s even worse.” He taps his lips. “Means it’s a Stark secret, and gods only know how dangerous it’ll be. Mother hasn’t sent a message in almost half a year.”
Sansa stills. If Lyarra is afraid… “She sends them more often than that?”
“Once a month,” he affirms. “For more than ten years, now. It’s how I counted time before-” Brandon shakes his head. “Before.”
“We certainly tend to attract dangerous secrets,” Sansa murmurs, smiling weakly.
“The cold,” Brandon replies, but doesn’t smile. Of all Rickard’s children, Brandon looks the most like Lyarra; he has her flatter features, as opposed to Rickard’s hatchet-like face. But in that moment, he looks the same as Rickard had, in facing against Visenya. Stern and terrifying, made of an old, proud wrath. “Death. It is coming for us all. Father has still not told you the truth of our burials, has he?”
“No,” Sansa says, but before she can say anything more Brandon drops the silver veil. Heat rushes back to her, painful in its suddenness, and Sansa bites back the reflexive urge to hiss. Brandon’s face is shadowed with sympathy, but there’s a grim undertone to it that’s more eloquent than any of his words could be: he’s frightened, and Sansa feels her own stomach tighten to match.
A moment later, he fades out of view, and Alysanne enters.
She doesn’t speak to Brandon alone after that.
Sansa doesn’t tell anyone else what she knows, either.
Four days later, she breaks enough to ask Rickard what the Starks’ death rituals consist of.
“Brandon,” Rickard says, instead of answering. His face darkens rapidly, as if thunderstorms were scuttling across the bridge of his nose.
“No,” replies Sansa. “Only- the Targaryens burned their dead, and they all seem to want to go beyond. But every Stark who died with the death rituals has remained here, and none seem ready or willing to go either.” She tilts her head up and looks at Rickard, steadily, calmly. “Why?”
“You are too young-”
“I’m old enough,” she snaps. “I’m old enough, Grandfather. Rodrik the Crusader led his men at the age of thirteen, and none spoke against him despite his youth. I am only a year younger, and I am not asking to lead armies- only for information! What is so dangerous in words?”
What is so harmful in tales?
Her own thoughts come back to her, and Sansa represses them with a shudder. Visenya might have spurred her grandfather to teach her, but there has still been nothing truly dangerous in what she’s been told.
“You ought have been older,” Rickard says wearily. “This burden is too terrible.”
“But I am not.” Sansa remembers the way her mother had once set her jaw, when her father wished to go out riding in the middle of a snowstorm; Catelyn had set her jaw and given Ned a look, and that was all it took for all of Winterfell to know that no such ride would take place. She does her best to emulate that tilt of the head, that mocking smile, now. “I am not, but I am enough. And you will have to tell me anyhow.”
Rickard pauses. Then he says, in the same practiced rhythm of a memorized tale: “Brandon the Breaker defeated the Night’s King, all those millennia ago. The Night’s King, whose Queen was of the Others- it was a bitter battle, and at the last Brandon slew him. It was too late, however. When he returned to Winterfell, it was to a slaughter: of daughters and sons and wives and husbands, all by the Night’s Queen’s hand. He killed her after he cut up the corpses of his sons she sent after him.” His eyes shadow. “She cursed him, Sansa, before he killed her. For slaying blood of his blood, she cursed him with a prophecy: that the Others would rise again, and the Night’s King with them, and all Brandon had lost would be in vain. So he answered by using her power and binding his line as close to death as the living can walk. When he died, he became the first ghost in the North.”
“She cursed him,” Sansa says, quietly. “For what?” Because she heard, but no, it can’t be true-
“For slaying blood of his blood.” Rickard smiles, sweet and bitter. Sansa thinks she knows, now; or Brandon slew his sons and daughters, his own blood. But Rickard isn’t finished; he continues: “For the Night’s King was Brandon’s brother, trueborn and of his own heart.”
Sansa imagines it: seeing Robb at the other end of Dark Sister, pale and blue-veined, hollowed. She imagines driving that sword forwards, and she sees the pain that erupts in Robb’s eyes, feels the horror that erupts in her own stomach.
And then Brandon returned to Winterfell to see it broken, blood running down to the White Knife in a river, and he faced the specters of his sons, his daughters-
“That’s why it’s called Winterfell,” she says, abruptly assured of it.
“Yes,” says Rickard. “For winter fell at Winterfell, and the man who let it fall was thereby named its King. We have been called Kings of Winter ever since.”
“If Brandon was the first ghost-”
“-most other ghosts are his descendants.” Rickard smiles, barely. “The Targaryens come by the ability separately, yes, but the ghosts that remain without Targaryen blood have some measure of Stark-blood in their veins. Either that, or a will to overcome a pain more overwhelming than any you can imagine. They might not be direct descendants, but- enough. By spirit, at the least.”
Sansa leans back. “That’s not what Visenya told me.”
“Lady Targaryen knows far fewer secrets than she believes herself possessing,” Rickard says quietly. “And knows even less what she pretends. Stark secrets shall remain secrets, granddaughter, never fear.”
“There are so many ghosts,” she says, then, remembering: silver flashes have lit up her eyes for so long, the corners of her vision shimmering strands of gossamer; Sansa can only imagine how many people she has met, how many people of Brandon Breaker’s line she has met over her scant years.
“Eight millennia is a long time,” he replies. “The Targaryens have not been here for even a half of a tenth of that time, and they’ve wreaked havoc on the continent. Imagine- eight thousand years.” The smile fades. “But that is not why I hesitated to tell you, Sansa. There have been whispers from the North of terrible things. The usual channels of information are hesitating, and those ghosts who are communicating are speaking less- as if there were little to say, or they were afraid to say it.
“There is only one reason for it. Can you think of one?”
What would the dead fear? Sansa frowns into the distance. Why would the dead be silent? Brandon said it would be a Stark secret. If Brandon Breaker did bind us so close to death, then…
“I can’t be right.”
“Say it,” Rickard orders.
“I cannot be right,” Sansa repeats. “It’s impossible. It-”
“The dead are afraid,” says Rickard. “Lyarra has not spoken to me in months, and there has not been a Stark in Winterfell for just as long. The dead are terrified, and Winterfell has scarcely spoken more than a few words on this subject. If you hide behind your fears and call them impossible, all your training shall have been for naught.”
I can be brave, yes. As my grandmother before me, and my namesake before her. I will be brave.
“Someone is reanimating the dead,” Sansa says flatly.
Rickard inclines his head.
“The Others are reanimating the dead.”
“The question is how,” he says. “And how to stop them. There is one last tale I have not told you, Sansa, and then you shall know all that I do of our stories- all that is worth knowing, anyhow.”
“Tell me,” she demands.
Slowly, Rickard shakes his head. “This is a tale that another shall tell you. It is not my place. But when you reach Winterfell, tell Lyarra that you’ve heard all the tales but one- she shall know what to do.” He reaches out and brushes a hand over her face, gentle for all its pain. “You look so much like my daughter, for all that you are so different. May the gods guide you well, when you leave.”
“Who said that I was-”
“-the ghosts have known of your decision to leave since you told Elia,” Rickard says, the same faint smile on his face.
“I didn’t know Elia spoke so much with others.”
“She doesn’t. But this was more important than her resentments.”
Sansa juts her jaw out. “If Lyarra is afraid, then it is something to be afraid of. I must go North.”
“You must go south,” Rickard says evenly. He flickers, slightly, in and out of view.
“First the North,” she says. “To see my home, and my-”
“-and your oaths?”
She hesitates for all of a breath. Rickard’s mouth purses. Even as she opens her mouth to speak, Sansa feels the temperature drop, so quickly her blood feels as if it might crack in her veins. When she turns around, she sees Visenya.
A Visenya blazing brighter than all the stars in the night sky, causing frost to creep down the room’s walls from her sheer wrath. Had it been any colder- had Sansa been in the North; had winter been any stronger; had the sun been any lower- she’d likely have frozen alive before any action could be taken. As it is, there’s just enough warmth for her to bear through the initial pain and slip to her knees, teeth chattering wildly.
“Traitor,” snarls Visenya. “Oathbreaker, I name you, Sansa of House Stark. Oathbreaker and traitor and fool, all in one. Did you think you could rescind your oaths to me and live through the consequences? I will have your head for this.” She starts forwards. “And when you die, I will spend the rest of eternity shredding your soul to tatters.”
She swoops down, and Sansa rolls away, face turning towards the window just in time to feel a warm breeze enter. It feels like a slap across her face, turning all her bones brittle; warmth warring against the unnatural drop in temperature. She coughs, and feels the slickness of blood across the back of her throat.
Sansa speaks through it.
“If you kill me, you condemn Rhaenys.”
“I do not care,” Visenya spits. “I have waited almost three centuries; what is another? I shall wait for another, and they shall come. I have an eternity to wait!”
“An eternity of suffering for your sister, and an eternity indeed: for the dead come, and the Others with them, and there is little you can do for it at all.” Sansa twists her neck and spits on the floor, blood bright against the red stone. She remembers an old saying, one that Torrhen’s eldest son had been very fond of: Aegon built a castle of blood on the site of his triumphs. Her palms ache.
“I am not your tame pet,” Visenya whispers, seemingly so far beyond rage her voice cannot get louder. “I am not a person to let you walk away from broken vows. I am the first queen of these realms, and the strongest of them all, and the cruelest.” She bares her teeth. “And you, little girl, are soon going to be dead.”
Gods above, Sansa thinks, scrabbling backwards- she cries out, and falls, when Visenya slashes her hands down, but the expected wave of cold doesn’t come.
Had it touched her, Sansa’s sure she would have died from the inside out. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she does: her blood would have cracked in her veins and turned to blocks of ice; her heart would have burst from the water’s expansion; her muscles would have torn apart in a singular moment of pain-
But it doesn’t happen.
Rickard flashes between them, and he absorbs the cold that Visenya sent at her without even flinching. He straightens, instead, and says in a voice that rolls around them like thunder: “I have warned you twice now, and this is the third, Lady Targaryen. You have overstepped your duties, and your rights.”
“She overstepped,” Visenya cries. “It is your granddaughter who has broken her vows, Stark, not I! And you heard it with your own ears: she said it, promised to go North instead of south, stated a desire to see her blood before she ever saw her oaths through. You tried to convince her otherwise, and now-”
“-and I have not heard her finish,” he says, level as he’d been with Sansa. “If I thought her an oathbreaker, then I would not have stepped in.”
Sansa stares at him, horrified. Her grandfather needs her to convince him, and the only possible reason she might have to go North instead of south has been given to her by a person who does not deserve to be revealed in such a manner. But between Brandon’s desire for secrecy and her own desire for survival, Sansa knows well which she’ll choose.
“I swore to save her,” she croaks. “But she might be anywhere in Dorne, and I cannot spend overlong searching for her. So I must find the person who saw her last.” Sansa slowly, achingly, draws herself up. She doesn’t once look at her grandfather, not even when he frowns thunderously. “Brynden Waters, if you were wondering. And then I shall search for Rhaenys in all the deserts you wish of me.”
She turns and leaves slowly.
Neither of them curse her, but she half-expects them to do so- curse her in the back with waves of ice that tear her apart. Perhaps for all of Joffrey’s attempts, he’ll find her a red-ribboned corpse within her own chambers, slain by Westeros’ first queen and Sansa’s own grandfather, both of whom have been dead for decades.
Nothing happens, but Sansa only relaxes when she is in the sunlight. Her teeth still feel cold, and she shudders at it.
I will return, Lyarra. She stares into the sun and does not blink. I swore that to you before I ever swore anything else, and I shall hold to it.
I will return.
“I am not Torrhen,” Rickard says, days later, and it sounds like an apology.
Sansa’s throat is rawer than she’s ever screamed in front of Joffrey, and her hair feels like a weight along her spine.
“It took Visenya all of a breath to decide that I’d broken my vows,” she says softly. Out of the corner of her eye, she thinks she sees him stiffen. “Either someone alerted her to what was going on in the room, or she has been following me all this time.” For the first time in two days, she looks at her grandfather. Her voice is mocking when she quotes his words back at him: “Stark secrets shall remain secrets, granddaughter, never fear.”
You either told her yourself that I was going to break my vows, or you let her follow me without my knowledge. But Rickard would not have given away Stark secrets, not the kind that came through the lineage. Sansa knows which one will leave her heart in fewer pieces, but she also knows that she cannot flinch from the truth. You must have told her, when you touched me- you looked so soft, then.
“I am not Torrhen,” says Rickard, again. “I am not my sons. I am a hard man, Lady Stark, and-”
“-and I am your granddaughter,” Sansa hisses, fury surging up her throat, rawer than any blood. “You might not be Torrhen, but at least Torrhen knew when to kneel. Knew when lives were worth more than honor. And at least your sons know what it is to love, for I am certain you’ve forgotten all traces of it.” She turns to the window, lets the breeze warm her face as she’d done when she laid on the floor helpless.
When Rickard stood by silently.
“You disgust me,” she finishes, and it tolls in her soul as a ringing bell.
Oh, Lyarra, I am sorry for this. But your husband is not a good man, and I cannot forgive him for choosing his honor over my life, when he knew himself to be all the family I had within a hundred miles of this city.
I am sorry, but I cannot forget this.
When she looks away from the sunlight, the spots are so bright in her vision that she cannot see whether ghosts are present or not. There is silence around her, and the sun feels very warm along her skin. It takes her a moment, and then Sansa realizes- Rickard’s left. This is likely the first time that she has been alone all her life, without any ghosts around her. This is how the truly living feel, every moment of their lives.
Sobs do not shudder through her shoulders, and there are no tears in her eyes, but she sinks to her knees anyhow. There is only silence around her: long and unfettered and terrible for it.
Her palms ache, as they’ve done since Joffrey struck her.
Her palms ache, but they do not shake at all.
She says goodbye to the ghosts she has met, over the months. There are more than she thought there would be: enough to make her wonder when she met them all. It is not so long a farewell as in Winterfell, but there are fewer ghosts in the Red Keep, and Sansa has not been so friendly either.
There are two ghosts she does not speak to, however, and Sansa has no intention of going to look for them either. Visenya and Rickard are far too capable of turning her words back on herself, of twisting her up until she’s uncertain of everything she’s ever done all her life.
Sansa’d decided to not go looking for them, but if there’s one thing that Visenya is incapable of, it’s taking a hint when she’s set her mind on something.
The night that Sansa plans to leave, she flickers into view, and Brandon- who hasn’t left Sansa’s side for almost a full sennight- growls low in his throat at the sight.
“You’ve some nerve showing your face here,” he says.
“I’ve more nerve in one finger than you’ve muscle, boy,” Visenya sneers back, before lifting a brow. “Though- that’s not saying much, I suppose.”
Brandon snarls low in his throat, but before he can answer, Sansa steps forwards.
“Why are you here?” she asks evenly.
Visenya keeps the eyebrow arched. “Has no one ever told you that leaving your tutor without any notice is the height of rudeness? I came to rectify the situation, as soon as it was confirmed to me.”
Which means that she didn’t know at all, and the other ghosts only told her recently.
“You have no right,” Brandon begins, but Sansa cuts him off again.
“There was one thing that I was wondering about.”
Sansa’s palms feel damp; she wipes the sweat against the inside of her sleeves. “When Daeron died, he died without finding Rhaenys. According to you- he searched in Hellholt, and it was on his way to Skyreach that he was killed.”
Visenya inclines her head.
“Did you mourn him?”
“He died a great man,” Visenya replies. “He died a better death than any I could have offered him, in pursuit of a goal he came closer to than any other king in all of my dynasty. Of course I did not mourn him.”
I will not have your quest for peace mar another child’s innocence, Rickard had said, all those months previous. Sansa hadn’t known then, hadn’t known until now, how true Rickard’s fears had been. Had Sansa been more biddable, she’d likely be on her way to Dorne by now; she’d likely be half dead under the Dornish desert sun, and no one would be the wiser for it.
“He was eight and ten when he died,” Sansa murmurs. “Far too young.”
To die? To know his enemies so clearly? I think not. Not unless you told him those truths, whispered them in his ear until you had him more pliant than any cow raised for the slaughter.
“So,” is all she says, lip curling just slightly: “You fed his hatred.”
“I ensured he knew his enemies.”
“He died,” Sansa bites out.
“Yes,” says Visenya, eyes wide and flat as pools of still water. “He died, as we all do. He died trying to do what he felt was right, and was good. It was a noble death.”
She swore a vow to me to not kill you as she did Daeron.
I trusted you, Sansa thinks, and curls her nails into her palms, straightens with all the fluid grace that Visenya has drilled into her over their practices. She feels Brandon hunch downwards, just a little, behind her left shoulder, and it feels like a second shield, a living protector, a net to fall back on. I trusted you once, but no longer.
“You killed him,” she says, and for all that she whispers, it is an accusation that hurts her throat from the fierceness of her delivery. “You told him whom to hate, and how to hate, and then you set him free. And if he’d truly burned Rhaenys- you wouldn’t have wept, would you? You wouldn’t have cared at all.”
It’s a secret that Alysanne had given her, one that she remembers from a childhood spent with her mother. Visenya had always hated many people, but the rage she’d set aside for Alyssa Velaryon was remarkable in its intensity. Alyssa had always returned it, and she’d won the best of their bitter rivalry in Visenya’s death: it was Alyssa’s line on the Iron Throne now, not Visenya’s.
And every day of her life, Alyssa had called Visenya a heartless shrew.
One of Visenya’s oldest wounds, but one of the most effective nevertheless. Sansa faces Visenya and bites her tongue before she rubs more salt in an already-stinging wound.
“You little bitch,” Visenya whispers. “I am your-”
“-you are nothing to me,” Sansa says, quietly. “I shall pay the debt you have named for knowledge rendered, but nothing more. When Rhaenys’ bones burn, there shall be nothing between us.”
Visenya’s mouth opens in a gaping maw, rage flickering over her face. But Sansa’s ready for this, has been ready for this, ever since Visenya covered a room in frost and left her on her knees for nothing but her rage. Even as Visenya swoops forwards, Brandon dodges in front of Sansa. They flicker in and out of sight, but Brandon’s not strong enough to hold her back properly.
It little matters. Sansa reaches for the cloth she’s braided over the past few weeks, made of the flowers she’d requested of Margaery. It’s clumsily made, but it will do the job.
Bonds of blood are the strongest, but there are other kinds. And you bound yourself to me when you named yourself my tutor. These aren’t bonds of blood, Visenya. These are bonds of unforgiveness and unexpected betrayal.
Soaked in her tears and the melted frost of Visenya’s temper, bound with the cloth that had once been wrapped around Dark Sister, made of rosemary flowers for remembrance. The physical aspect won’t affect Visenya, but the rage it was made with will surely burn her.
Just before she readies herself to throw it, Rickard appears beside her.
“That will not work,” he says conversationally.
“It will,” Sansa replies, before she lashes out; where it touches Visenya, the silvery edges darken, turning almost opaque where they’d once been translucent. Visenya throws her head back to howl, twisting to glare at Sansa, before she fades entirely out of view, taking Brandon with her.
“Those must have been well-made,” Rickard murmurs. “To hurt a ghost so strong as Visenya- strong indeed.” He frowns. “Not that it shall do you much good. You shall not be able to trap her half so easily, now that she knows what to expect.”
Sansa shoulders her pack and tightens the crude scabbard she’s tied around her waist. “It doesn’t need to," she says firmly. “It only needs to keep her away from me for tonight. By morning I shall be far from here, and Visenya’s power shall be faded.”
Rickard pauses. “You used rosemary for this. But you asked the Lady Tyrell for both rosemary and-”
“Lilies.” Sansa smiles blandly back at Rickard. “Sword lilies.”
He pales, staring at her, when Sansa pulls a thin slink of brilliant red flower. Sword lily meant strength of character and honor, and paired with the blood she’d coughed up from when Rickard had refused to protect her, bound with cloth the grey and white of their house, it’s all but an accusation of familial infidelity.
“Then I believe it is time for you to leave, granddaughter,” he tells her, and smiles, sadly. His eyes flick away, and then back to her. “If you can find it in yourself- tell your grandmother that I miss her, very much.” He hesitates, briefly, before continuing, “And that she has raised a wonderful granddaughter, with enough iron in her spine to forge a half-hand sword.”
Then Rickard starts to move towards where Visenya disappeared, but doesn’t stop speaking. “And worry not of Visenya. She shall not trouble you any longer, that much I swear to you.”
Then he disappears, and Sansa doesn’t pause to see the end of it; she turns and flees, slippers slapping against the stone floor.
When Sansa leaves King’s Landing, she leaves behind this: a doll of straw and wool, fitted for smaller hands than hers have been for near a decade; a cloak of white offered to her by a fire-scarred man, the bloodstains washed fastidiously away and hemmed with near-invisible stitches in a pattern that suggests a wolf’s teeth; and a braid, thick and red and tossed in a roaring flame before anyone could see it.
There are old sewage drains, leading out into the sea. According to Alysanne, they began as a method for emptying the castle’s waste out of the city, but the impact the drains had on fishing quickly stopped their usage. They’re small drains, all of them, but Sansa’s just slim enough to fit through the larger ones, and once she’s outside she can trace the shoreline until she reaches the Kingswood.
Sansa shoves her palms outward at the grate covering the exit. The metal grate is rusted almost fully-through and bends for the first two shoves, but it breaks across the middle after that. The pieces clatter down the hillside, a little louder than Sansa had thought they’d be.
It’s the turn of the year, though.
Anyone on guard will be drunk by now, and anyone who isn’t knows that this night is for eldritch things. Ghosts can break free of their bonds, or monsters of moonlight and stone can appear out of thin air, or tears in reality can become abruptly wider, more visible. One ragged-haired urchin will not draw anyone’s attention.
She pauses, though, before she drops onto the beach- Sansa’s never been alone before, and now the ghosts she thought would walk beside her for a few hours at least are caught up keeping more terrible ghosts from catching her. When she flees the city, Sansa flees all alone. It’s more difficult than she’d ever considered.
Except- even as she pulls herself out of the drain, even as she finds some purchase on the soft hills- Elia appears before her.
Elia, who looks weary, and triumphant, and dangerous, all at once. Sansa’s seen even less of her over the past few weeks, as Elia’s been trailing her brother around the city, but there’s a solidity to her now that Sansa’s not seen in any ghost save Visenya at her angriest.
“Princess Stark,” she says, quietly, hovering over the open air. “You are leaving, now.”
“You are afraid.”
Sansa breathes in slowly. “Yes.”
“You have no cause for it,” says Elia firmly. “You are a girl after my own heart, Sansa of House Stark: a girl whom the world hates, and whom the world cannot forget. I have a brother to carry my banner yet, but I think you- you shall not have need of any such thing. You shall carry your own banners, and when you fall, the world shall carry it for centuries to come.”
“Lady Elia-” I don’t want that, Sansa thinks, wildly. I don’t- I don’t know what I want. I just- I wish I was back in Winterfell with Mother and Father and Robb and Lyarra and-
I wouldn’t mind being forgotten if I was happy.
Elia smiles at her, terrible and true, as if she knows Sansa’s mind, as if she knows the epiphany Sansa has just had. “You have grown. You have grown in ways that none of us expected, I think, painfully and regrettably; but grown nevertheless.”
Rickard’s words echo in her ears, then, and Sansa finds herself staring: The ghosts that remain without Targaryen blood have some measure of Stark-blood in their veins, Rickard had said, either that, or a will to overcome a pain more overwhelming than any you can imagine.
Sansa cannot imagine that a Stark married into the Martells, not with the distance between the two realms, not when the Starks never managed to wed into the Targaryens. Which means Elia faced a pain truly unearthly in its immensity, and retained her mind through it.
“Yes,” Sansa says cautiously.
“For your strength, then, with all the tears you’ve never shed over months of terrible pain, I offer one knowledge to you: Joffrey shall not live out the next year.” Elia reaches up and casts something away, and a scrap of silver floats down to the sand below before winking out. She glows a little brighter yet. “And for your kindness, with all the courtesy you’ve offered me over months of captivity, I offer one advice: do not return to your family until you have done what you wish to do, not if you wish to keep the vows you have sworn.”
She turns, and throws her arms upwards, and the beach is flooded with a pale, beautiful light, as if Elia’s taken all the moonlight off the ocean and crystallized it on them.
“And for your humility,” she says, voice echoing, a strange after-beat that sounds like a hundred voices speaking through her own- “with your determination to send your family away despite losing your own freedom, I offer one vow: the House of Martell has no issue with the House of Stark. The oath of vengeance I swore when your aunt ran away with my husband is rescinded.”
Elia holds the position. And above them- far above them, growing out of one of the stars shining in the sky, Sansa sees a silvery tunnel, one which brightens the beach further and leaves Elia looking almost solid. There is no wind that Sansa can see, but Elia’s silks whip about her with more and more fervor, until she looks as if she were being buffeted by a typhoon.
Do you accept?
The voice comes not from Elia, but from the silver tunnel above her. If Sansa squints into the light, she thinks she can see other ghosts, a hundred-hundred of them, all with dark hair and tanned skin. The voice thunders up her bones and shakes in her mind, so powerful it hurts.
“Accept-” her own voice shrivels, but Sansa beats down the dryness with all of Visenya’s training. “Accept what?”
One of our blood has rescinded her oath of vengeance. Daughter-Elia has offered the price of false vengeance. Shall you accept the price, or do you require more?
Oath of vengeance.
Rickard had mentioned it, once, to Sansa. The oath of vengeance called for equality- from what Rickard had said, Sarra had sworn one against Jonnel when he wed Robyn Ryswell only a moon’s turn after Sansa’s death; Sarra had taken the oath in the name of all the children Jonnel had ensured Sansa could not bear, and in return Robyn Ryswell had borne none either. It’s why Barthogan became Lord after Jonnel, not any of Jonnel’s get.
Sansa doesn’t know what the price of rescinding the vow can be, but she thinks she has a fair idea now: the agreement of the oathsworn party. If she agrees, the oath is dissolved. If she doesn’t…
But dissolving the oath is not a singular issue.
Elia must have needed a reason to stay back through that terrible pain, and now Sansa thinks she knows what it is: hatred, of her husband and of Lyanna Stark. If she lets go of that hatred, then she can move on. Which means that if Sansa refuses to accept her offer, then Elia shall remain in the city where she was raped and murdered for- eternity.
In the end, there’s only one answer she can give.
“I accept,” she says, before correcting herself, “we accept. House Stark accepts.”
Despite the stutter, the ceremony seems to be concluded. Elia lowers her hands, and when she looks at Sansa, there is a deep satisfaction suffusing her face. She shines so brightly she looks as if the very sun were contained within her bones.
“Thank you,” she says, simply. “I shall have my vengeance on the Lannisters through my brother, Lady Stark, and peace through you, before this new year is finished. And in the next turning, I shall return to the light of my ancestors.” She flicks her fingers, and the silvery light fades away, replaced with the normal light of the stars. It feels so much darker now- Sansa exhales through her teeth. “Thank you, Lady Stark. May you find kindness in the world around you, and may the gods guide you to your destiny without grief. From one princess to another: may you live a long, fruitful life.”
Sansa scrapes for words, but before she can find them, Elia disappears.
Goodbye, Sansa thinks, and I hope you find peace, and may the gods guide you well.
But even as she slides down the hill and across the beach, footprints fading beneath the rolling tide- Sansa cannot help but remember the silver tunnel above her, showing countless Martells all looking down on their daughter.
She’s never seen anything of that for the Starks.
All the Starks have remained in Winterfell, bound to stone and to a half-life, all for the grief of their ancestor.
Unfair, Sansa thinks, and cannot shake it for all the time she heads North.
The road is hard, but not harder than the Kingsguards’ mailed fists. Sansa binds her breasts as Betha had taught her, smears mud over her arms and eyes and hair, learns to shift her center of gravity lower, rooted. She is slender, still, painfully so; the gentle swells of her breasts and hips are easily disguised in clothes a few sizes too large.
Ghosts help her on her travels- they tell her where old berry-copses are, or knives they’d hidden for centuries, or cloth that won’t be missed for weeks. Sansa learns to steal into a town and out of it without anyone knowing the better. Dark Sister presses bruises into her thighs when she sleeps with it strapped to her waist, but she cannot find it in herself to leave it anywhere else.
Finally, finally- weeks later, months later, Sansa crests a hill and sees Riverrun.
It shines blue and red. There are rivers roaring around her, ghosts whispering behind her, and her parents, her brother, they’re almost within sight. Sansa steps forwards, out of the shadows, into the light-
“Sansa,” a woman calls.
A woman steps out of the darkness, smiling up at her. Shining down her back is dark, gleaming hair. Her eyes are light, but not lighter than Lyarra’s. She looks exactly like Sansa remembers her mother to look, only less substantial, only older, only- frailer.
“Hello, Sansa,” she says, and her voice sounds like Sansa’s mother as well, but- but there are differences. “It is good to see you, child. Catelyn spoke true when she said you’ve her look about you, albeit lovelier by far.”
“Grandmother,” breathes Sansa.
She smiles warmly. “Eddard did mention your sharp mind.”
“Why are you here?”
Minisa’s face grows more solemn.
“Because,” she says, “I am here to tell you: you cannot see your family.”
Next chapter will have more familial angst than any teenager should ever have to deal with. It's all quasi-canonical angst though, so........
Chapter 3: girls who try to save wolves instead of running away
Sansa doesn’t look over her shoulder until she reaches the sea, and then she pauses to splash salt water over her face.
She cries, then, and calls it seawater.
"You have sworn vows,” Minisa tells her gently. “Vows to find Rhaenys, and other, older vows. Your parents will not allow you to leave once you see them, Sansa. If you stay…”
She trails off. Sansa takes the pause to look at her properly, studying the grandmother she knows so little about. Neither of her parents ever spoke about theirs; her father was a reticent man by nature, and Sansa’s mother had taken her cues from him, it seemed, at least in matters of loss and grief.
And Sansa knows one grandmother, knows her very well indeed.
Lyarra is like a knife, she thinks, blinking. Hard and shining and hidden, until the last moment. Rickard- he’d be a sword, I think, just as hard as Lyarra, yet not half so useful in anything other than the duty envisioned at the making.
And you, Minisa?
What are you?
Minisa Whent is not so thin as Lyarra, though she is likely just as tall; and where Lyarra had always been the sort of pretty of a gimlet stare and cut-diamond, Minisa’s of a softer look altogether: all large eyes and dark hair and rounded cheeks. She hasn’t braided her hair back as Lyarra had with her mountain-braids, nor even as Sansa’s own mother had favored, nor as the fashion in the south tended to favor, instead letting it hang around her in loose curtains.
The only decoration on both her clothes and her hair are flowers, in fact. There’s flowers embroidered along her skirts and sleeves, and small blossoms woven into her hair with all the neatness of a crown.
“I’m so close,” Sansa tries, watching Minisa closely. “All I need to do is speak to them, and then-”
“And then, they shan’t allow you to get away.” Minisa purses her lips. “They shall hide you away, and you’ll have to run away again, and that’s not half so likely to be a success if you reveal your disguise to them.”
I dreamed my father out of the Red Keep. I dragged my sister out of King’s Landing as it crawled with Lannister soldiers. I walked out of the Crownlands on my own two feet despite being hunted by everyone, and I did it with only the dead on my side.
“But of more importance,” Minisa continues blithely, “is that even if you are able, you’d likely not wish to. When my first son died- I fled Riverrun, did you know? All the way to Harrenhal, and never once looked back for half a year.” She doesn’t look at Sansa, choosing to focus on her hands instead. “It would be far more painful to force you away after the shortest glimpse and taste of them, I’m sure.”
“Are you.” It’s not a question, but that’s mostly because Sansa recognizes another person’s fingerprints over all of this- the secrecy, the silence, the insistence of reducing her burden- all of her grandfather’s favorite tricks. The surge of rage inside of her frightens Sansa in its intensity, but she doesn’t attempt to dampen it.
She advances instead, a step closer to her grandmother. “Are these your ideas, or my grandfather’s? For he surely thought the same of me. It was foolishness then, and foolishness now, to think that I will not be able to bear these burdens. Not when far greater have rested on my shoulders.”
Do not think me a child, not when I have spent a lifetime dancing with death.
Minisa doesn’t answer for a long moment. Then she lifts a hand and holds it aloft, palm upturned; one of the flowers ringing her wrists detaches itself, and it flickers away, shining brighter and brighter as it goes.
“House Whent is young,” she says, turning her eyes back to Sansa. “But my mother’s family is not. You’ve heard of House Blackwood, I trust?”
Sansa inclines her head slowly, anger still stiffening her joints.
“My mother was Lord Blackwood’s second daughter. And the Blackwoods have always been able to see things others cannot.” She shakes her head, thick hair sliding as she does. “I was never so strong in the gift, not enough to prophesize, but I can sense.”
“And what do you sense?”
“A girl of courage and life,” Minisa says. “With kindness bred deep inside of her. But that same kindness will be your undoing, for the people you shall find when you walk inside of Riverrun are people who hold your heart in their hands. For your own sake, you may be able to walk outside; but not when you see their grief, nor their pain.
“My mother was a Blackwood,” she repeats. Her hand flicks to the side, and the flower that flew away shines, brilliantly, in the center of her palm. “I have some gifts yet, granddaughter, and love enough to help you. But you cannot return. Not if you wish to keep the vows you have sworn.”
All of a sudden, Sansa remembers Elia: dark-skinned, sun-eyed Elia, who’d told her in a voice of thunder those same words.
“Fine,” she says, and struggles to keep her voice even, to ensure it doesn’t wobble from the strain of what she’s sacrificing. “Fine, I won’t go there. I’ll stay away.”
Minisa doesn’t answer her. She holds her hand out, instead, the one with a thin-stemmed, silvery flower on it.
“Look,” she orders. Her voice is deeper than before, deeper and richer. “You are my blood, of House Blackwood through me, with a hundred Blackwood wedding peaces through your father’s father’s father’s mother. Blackwoods, of the wolfswood and the Unnamed and the old weirwood- descendants of Benedict Blackwood, who led us south of the Neck when the North became unsafe; sons of Brynden, who saved our line from extinction when the Unnamed Castle tried to strike down our line; daughters of Agnes, who cursed the Hoares to ever be blind to loyalty, when she saw Lord Bracken’s betrayal.”
The flower seems to be shining brighter, but Sansa can’t be sure; the sun’s so bright, the air-
“Look closely, granddaughter,” says Minisa, “for Agnes paid a price to blind the Hoares. Our women see what is not to be seen, and you have that blood twice over.”
She whistles, high and clear, and even as Sansa jumps the flower twists, melting in on itself before rising to hang in the air like a slender, shining jewel. A jewel, thinks Sansa, or a mirror. And as she stares, the flat surface of the mirror darkens into red stone; then resolves into a- a sort of window.
“Shh,” whispers Minisa. “See. Think on it later.”
A window showing two women and three men. Two of the men and one of the women have russet hair, and the other man and woman have black hair; they’re all seated around a table, and the tapestries around them are rich and thick.
Then Sansa sees their faces, and she cries out.
It’s her mother- her mother, and her father, and Robb and Arya; and another man, one she thinks must be her uncle. They all look good, too: there’s a livid scar running down her father’s face, and Arya’s hair is shorn shorter than Sansa’s ever seen on a girl; but they’re alive, and there’s a brightness to their eyes and a fullness to their cheeks that leaves her own chest tight with relief.
“Your family,” says Minisa. “My family. As they are right now, as my flower sees them.” Her blue eyes flicker from Sansa to the scene, and she softens. “They are well. All of them.”
Arya says something, and Robb laughs at it. Their parents look a mix between appalled and amused, and her uncle looks like he’s just hiding his own laughter, and Sansa can feel tears that have no right to come prickle at the corners of her eyes.
“They’re- they’re happy?” Sansa asks, swallowing hard enough to make her throat ache something fierce. “Content?”
“They are worried.” She flicks a piece of hair behind her, but her eyes are still affixed to Sansa; steady as any blade. “But there was a time when the worry was greater, and the possibility of failure higher, and that time was not too long ago.”
She does some motion with her wrists, and the window rises, hovering in the air now instead of balanced on her palm. Then Minisa reaches out and touches the side of Sansa’s face.
It is gentler than Visenya’s ever been. It’s gentler than Rickard at his softest. It’s gentler than Lyarra, too, the coolness nothing but the chill of an early summer morning, and it’s that same gentleness that makes her gasp, feeding the crushing pain inside of Sansa instead of lessening it.
“Cry, granddaughter,” Minisa murmurs, stepping closer, hands enfolding her. “If there is one thing you can do, here, now, it is weep.”
“Tears are- useless.” She scrabbles for a modicum of control, but Minisa is as pitiless in this as she was kind before, her hands smoothing down Sansa’s dress, rustling over Sansa’s rough-shorn hair. “That’s what- what Visenya said, and Elia, and Rickard, and Brandon as well. I must-”
“Not all tears are so,” Minisa says quietly. “You are so young- it’s easy to forget that, but we mustn’t, I think. Not if you are to survive this battle. Not all tears are useless, sweetling, and not all griefs are equal. Did you never think why they stopped you from weeping?”
“If I began, I would never stop.”
Minisa looks sad, in the fractured pieces that Sansa can see through her pooling tears. “For the pain was not at an end, not unless you walked out. And you couldn’t walk out if you were not trained, and you could not train if you were crying. But now: you cannot put this grief aside. Face it, accept it, and move on.” She reaches out and lifts Sansa’s chin. “Or do not. Those are your only choices.”
But I swore to you.
I do not think you have ever known what it is to not touch another person for more than a year, grandmother. I do not think you have ever gone so long without a person’s love, and their arms, and their warmth.
And I am so close, and you ask me to walk away, when I could forget my vows and fall asleep tonight besides my sister and mother.
“I swore to you,” Sansa whispers.
“One does not ask a bleeding man to cut out his heart.” Minisa steps away, slowly. “If I’d known how cruel they’d been- I would never have asked this of you.”
Sansa bows her head, the tears still resting in her chest, heavy, smothering. She thinks about how easy it would be to walk away. She thinks about Elia, and a whirling cyclone of silver-studded Martells above her. She thinks about Rickard, and how angry, how breathtakingly furious she still is at him.
She thinks about her father, cradling his sister in his arms, giving his entire life to a terrible lie.
She thinks about Robb, who’s carrying a crown on his Tully-red hair and slender shoulders.
She thinks about legacies.
I asked you not to treat me a child, she thinks, looking at Minisa through her lashes. But you’re right: I could not have walked away after seeing them. Not after knowing the pain of separation.
“Starks were not always honorable,” Sansa says, keeping her voice low so it doesn’t crack. “But my grandfather was, and my father after him, and my brother after him, and the same blood is in me.”
It’s not a real answer, but it’s enough of one.
Minisa nods and says nothing more on the subject, for which Sansa is grateful. “Then I shall guide you until you cross the Trident. There’s a copse on the way that you can rest in for tonight- it has enough apples for your dinner, and grass soft enough for a restful sleep.”
The copse is, indeed, comfortable.
Minisa sits beside her, and when she stares up at the stars, she starts to talk.
“Did your mother tell you of the Blackwoods?”
“No,” Sansa replies.
“We were of the North first,” Minisa murmurs, voice lilting like a bird. “In the wolfswood we stayed, wielding swords of silver and weirwood. Until a Stark grew greedy and forced us to flee; and then we fled south, past the Neck, all the way to a castle ruled by a house called Mudd.”
“River Kings,” says Sansa.
She feels sleepy, exhausted despite having more food in her belly and better rest than she’s had in weeks. There hasn’t been any game to catch, nor fire to light, nor water to fetch; Sansa’s likely safer here than she has been since she left King’s Landing. Perhaps it’s that which makes her eyes droop, her mind slow.
“They allied with us, helped us build a home of our own, gave us weirwood seeds and offered us a kingship. We named the Mudds High Kings and knelt to them honestly.” Minisa sweeps her hand along the ground and little bursts of light follow her path, forming faint, shimmering ghost-flowers. “For seven-seven generations it was a true peace. And then a fool of a Mudd raised the Brackens from horse breeders to nobility, after they’d betrayed us; and the Blackwoods rebelled.”
She clenches her fist. The flowers blink out of sight.
“We were slain,” Minisa says, “down to the last child. The Mudds were unforgiving of treachery, and the Blackwoods were unstinting in their pride; and so the stones of our home ran red with blood, and when it was over the Mudds tore down the castle and sowed the land with salt, so things would never grow again.”
“But not everyone,” says Sansa. “For you are here, and other Blackwoods as well.”
Minisa smiles, secretive. “All were slain,” she repeats, “except for Brynden Blackwood, whom his Bracken mother stole away to Stone Hedge.” She flutters her fingers, and silver light gleams between them like a thousand miniature daggers. “Brynden returned, when he was grown, and saw how the home he’d been born in was ruined. He took an oath of vengeance, and House Mudd saw its end not a few years later, when the Andals came.” The smile grows into something vaguely unholy, on Minisa’s soft features. “The castle is called Oldstones by others. But we Blackwoods know, and we remember that the castle’s true name is lost to us because of our own’s oath.”
It takes Sansa an embarrassingly long time to make the connections.
“That’s why you call it the Unnamed, not Oldstones,” she says slowly. “Because-”
“Because it is unnamed, under my- our- ancestor’s curse. Its lands are sown with salt, and all that remains of it is the tomb of their last king.”
“I would like to see it, I think.” Sansa closes her eyes and imagines that rage, that despair. She wonders what the air would feel like, in a place so steeped in death. “It would be different to-”
Minisa’s long hair flutters around her, and she reaches out with one hand, trailing long, dripping rivers of silver across the grass. “If you ever go there,” she says, voice solemner than Sansa’s ever heard it, “you will die, and it shall be more painful than any death you have heard of.”
And, abruptly, the sleep flees from Sansa’s mind, replaced by the same terror that’s dodged her footsteps for over a year. Death, she thinks. Death and all its implications.
I’m not ready to become a ghost. Not yet.
“To see us, you need one eye on the other side,” Minisa says. “To see the dead you need to be dead; and that is what you are: one eye, dead in spirit though not in reality. It happened so young to you-” she clicks her tongue sympathetically, “-did you know that the cold can damage one’s eyes? Particularly the young. You recovered, of course; but a dead thing remembers being dead. And so you saw your grandmother, and saw the other ghosts. But being dead means being affected by the dead.”
“There are ghosts in Oldstones,” she breathes.
“Ghosts who would like to spill as much of your Blackwood blood as possible.”
Sansa breathes in and out, slowly, before she says, “If I go straight to the shoreline-”
“The Greyjoys are watchful, and the Mallisters are fools.” Minisa sighs. “And it is still your best bet. I cannot go past the Trident, but I know of others who can help you.” She nods, satisfied. “You will reach Winterfell, my dear, never fear for that.”
The night air is cold, and Minisa’s fingers are just slightly colder. She gleams in the darkness, like a silvered lamp. Sansa closes her eyes and falls asleep to that, to bursts of light behind her eyes.
She dreams of sunlight, of an endless field stretching out before her, flowers of a thousand different breeds, shades shimmering. Minisa stands in the middle, and she looks brighter than she’d ever looked as a ghost.
Dance with me, she says. Dance with me!
They dance, in large, curving arcs that are far too graceful for human motion. After a time, Minisa sings as well; she sounds like a bird, her voice high and sharp. It feels like syrup, and Arya’s face when she eats lemoncakes on Sansa’s nameday despite hating the taste, and all the grief she felt to walk away from King’s Landing alone.
When they stop, the sky is more golden than blue, and some of the flowers have wilted.
You must leave, Minisa whispers, arms warm along Sansa’s sides, hair thick and dark around her face. She looks sad, but fierce as well, and triumphant. I cannot keep you safe forever. But you are my eldest daughter’s eldest daughter, dearest: you will always have a home here. And 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.
Why? Sansa asks, because she knows ghosts, and she knows humans, and she knows that those who do good and ask for nothing in return are often the most dangerous people of all.
A wind builds up around Minisa, so heavy it tugs at Sansa’s clothes and almost makes her stumble.
Everyone deserves safe harbor, she says. If you cannot find that in others, I shall be that for you.
She smiles, and then she flicks her fingers, and all the warmth that had sunk into Sansa’s bones vanishes like a smothered candle.
Sansa jerks awake.
Minisa hovers a few feet away.
“That’s it,” says Sansa, staring. “You- when I first saw you, I thought there was something strange- something different. I thought you couldn’t-”
Be trusted. She bites that back at the last moment, though Minisa seems to have understood her anyhow.
“-but you’re happy. That’s the difference between you and- and the others. You’re happy.”
“It isn’t worth the time to be unhappy,” Minisa replies, arching a brow. “It was not always easy, perhaps, but- what have I to gain from being miserable? You find the pieces of life that give you joy and you hold tight to it.”
Visenya had never been happy, Sansa realizes, suddenly, abruptly assured of it. Not for a single day in her life. She’d wanted to swallow the world, wanted to conquer it, and she had- but she was never happy.
“That’s not how others do it.”
“No? How foolish of them.”
People remembered Visenya. They remembered Elia and her terrible wrath. They remembered Lyarra, too, with her frozen sort of grief. Very few people ever remembered Minisa Tully. Even fewer remembered Minisa Whent. Sansa had never even heard her grandmother’s mother’s family until she’d met her.
“Between greatness and happiness,” Sansa says slowly, “which would you choose?”
“I have a garden of all the flowers I’ve ever wanted,” Minisa replies, looking down demurely. Then she looks at Sansa, through her lashes, dark as the night around them, and her eyes are shining. “I am great, here, greater than any other gardener in all the world. And I am happy to be so. If you are happy, dearest, then you shall be great. There is not one without the other.”
Well, Sansa thinks, that is certainly one way to think on it.
At the Trident, before she crosses, Sansa turns back to Minisa.
She wonders what she looks like, now; her hair is cropped close to her skull, and the clothes she wears are baggy to hide her figure. Sansa makes a tall, rail-thin boy, but with her face smudged with mud and circles beneath her eyes, she passes muster. She has none of the loveliness that her parents had so carefully tended.
Sansa’d been easy to love, once. Now she is… harder, and harsher, and bitter besides. She’s not-
Arya had fought bitterly with everyone, but they’d all loved her. Robb and Jon would have all chosen Arya over Sansa in a heartbeat, and her father too, like as not. And their mother would be the most horrified of all to see Sansa as she is now. It’s not quite cowardice that spurs Sansa away from Riverrun, but it’s not too different, either.
She’d once been easy to love, and they hadn’t loved her much then.
What is to change now?
“I’ll miss you,” she says, quietly, to Minisa.
“And I you.” Minisa reaches forwards and brushes a hand over Sansa’s cheek, soft enough that she can barely feel it. “I look forward to hearing of your adventures, granddaughter. And to seeing you without terror in your eyes.” She tips her head to the side. “You are already so beautiful, but then- oh, sweetling, you’ll be radiant then.”
If nothing else, I have the ghosts.
That’s a prickly thought. If the ghosts, too, had a choice- but they don’t.
They are all prickly thoughts, in truth. Love is something that Sansa’s wanted for so long, and now she’s sacrificing it in favor of the vows she’s sworn and the tasks she’s shouldered. She wonders when she grew up, but she’s pretty sure she won’t like the answer.
“I hope so,” she says, through the lump in her throat, and doesn’t look behind her as she crosses the river.
Sansa doesn’t look over her shoulder until she reaches the sea, and then she pauses to splash salt water over her face.
She cries, then, and calls it seawater.
(Of all the things Minisa’s done in the scarce day they’ve known each other- these tears are the most and least painful. Sansa doesn’t understand it, but if she were in the business of understanding things she’d have been a septa.
She’s a princess instead, a princess and a daughter and a Stark, and if there’s one thing all those three have in common it’s sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness.
Sansa cannot afford to forget that.)
When she sees Winterfell, Sansa’s hard-pressed to keep silent. It rises in front of her, shining and larger than she remembers it to be- there’s smoke and char marring its outer walls but it yet has more majesty to it than any other castle Sansa’s seen over the past year.
When I return, I will scrub the ash from your walls, she promises. I will wash away the scars and patch up the broken pieces and then- then I will bring a king home. The North shall reign freely soon, soon enough.
But right now, Greyjoy colors fly from its walls, dark and terrible against the pale stone. Sansa cannot leave the safety of the trees, doesn’t dare to go any closer to the castle, even with her disguise; the ghosts that are accompanying her now- a woodsman who’d died along the Kingsroad years before Torrhen knelt, and a boy with Stark-dark eyes and hair who’d slipped and drowned in a well even before that- are strong enough to walk the distance instead.
So she waits.
Sansa waits, right up until she’s bowled over by a wolf that almost matches her height- pale, with gold eyes and two tattered ribbons hanging from its fur.
“Lady!” Sansa shouts, before biting the sound back.
But she doesn’t hesitate to throw her arms around Lady’s neck, nor to snuggle closer to her; it’s been more than a year since Sansa saw her last, and where she’d left a stumbling pup, she now has a wolf that looks just as deadly as its mother had ever been. There’s no fear in her, though: only happiness, and warmth, despite all the snows, despite her own ragged clothes.
“Oh, I’ve missed you,” she mumbles into Lady’s fur. “It’s- it’s been a very long time.”
A long time, with only ghosts for comfort and whispers for assistance. Even longer since they’ve seen each other; Sansa’d left her behind before they went south at the first.
And here they stand: Lady, twice as tall, teeth sharpened, broad as a bear; Sansa, hair slashed to the scalp, a sword strapped to her waist, a cloak of homespun wool wrapped around barely-patched clothes.
Sansa reaches for the ribbons and unwinds them, slowly, from Lady’s back. They’re dark, with burrs caught on one side and mud spotting the other. But the silk is still smooth. It feels like a sort of benediction, to rub her fingers along the softness- how long has it been since she touched something like this?
Her head jerks up, and sees Lyarra.
(Sansa has experienced a lifetime’s worth of emotion in the past year.
Fear, and love, and hate, and courage- in a thousand minute ways different to itself each time.
But never something like this.
It feels like wings of fire, sweeping up her chest and throat; like the beauty of Elia’s family, watching over her even through death; like the vision she’d seen of her parents and brother and sister, sitting around a table and laughing in broad daylight.)
She lunges forwards, back’s arch almost matching Lady’s only a few moments earlier, and even when she doesn’t feel anything but a cold that blisters her cheeks- Sansa cries, and laughs, and embraces Lyarra as best she can through the veil of death.
“It’s been far too long,” Lyarra whispers. Her fingers dance over Sansa’s neck, and then across to the back of her spine, where a scar from a Kingsguard’s sword still lingers. “Oh, darling child, sweetling- I heard the stories- I was so angry-”
“I didn’t,” she whispers back. “I saw them, Lyarra- Brandon and- and Rickard- and they told me that you weren’t talking. That no one was talking, and they were so worried, and I was so worried- and then I came back and it was-”
“Not worth it,” Lyarra whispers, and she looks sad, and she looks steady, and she looks beautiful. In the long, pale lines of her face, Sansa feels like she’s home again.
“No,” she says, and neither of them cry, neither of them can so much as touch as one another- but something deep within Sansa’s soul eases anyhow.
“Rickard was- unhappy.”
“He always was,” says Lyarra, wryly. “Even at his happiest- he was never the kind to be uncomplicatedly happy.”
“I don’t like him,” Sansa murmurs. She’s thought about what she’ll say to Lyarra for such a long time- but here, now, there’s only the truth in her mouth, hard and unvarnished and indelicate. There have never been lies between them, and she won’t begin now. “He was bitter, and cruel with it.”
Lyarra measures her. “Rickard was never cruel when I knew him. Cold, yes, and bitter often; but never cruel. Death must have been harsh on him.”
“Your absence was harsh on him.”
She bows her head. “Yes. I can see that happening, certainly.” A breath, and then her eyes, piercing and too-knowledgeable, meet Sansa’s again. “What did he do to you?”
He took my trust, and he ruined it.
“I loved him,” says Sansa, quietly. “But he did not love me. Only the vision he had of me. And when I did not measure up to that vision- he did not change, only tried to change me to fit.” Her lips twist, slightly, in humor that’s not truly humorous. “It was… it isn’t an experience I’d like to have again.”
“I suppose not.” Lyarra reaches forwards and brushes a hand over Sansa’s wrist. “Sansa- such lessons- oh, I wish you’d not have needed to learn them. But you are harder for it, and you would not have been taught them in Winterfell. You would not have the strength to do what you must, now.”
“And what must I do now?”
Lyarra hesitates. “How much has Rickard told you?”
“Enough.” Sansa feels her heart start to race. “Lyarra, please. If there’s something to be done-”
“There are many things to be done,” says Lyarra, gently. “There are always things to be done. But that does not mean that it is your responsibility. Others weren’t even told of their duties until they were past their first blood- or had gained their first swords- and you’ve started learning the tales far before that.”
“But it’s important.”
“Yes,” she acknowledges. “Very.”
“Oh, my dearest daughter,” whispers Lyarra, reaching up to cup Sansa’s cheeks, her hands freezing, tears shining in her pale, pale eyes, “descendant of my blood, child of my heart: I must send you to your death today-” Sansa’s heart skips a beat, but she cannot move, “-and I cannot tell you how much this pains me, but when the dead come…” She bows her head over Sansa’s face. They are almost of a height, now, where Sansa’d been half a head shorter before leaving Winterfell. “When the dead come, you either fight them or you join them. There is nothing between. And the risk of death is better than sure death.”
“Lyarra,” says Sansa, almost voiceless, in a voice that would have been trembling on any other person, “where do you want me to go?”
“North of the Wall,” says Lyarra.
Sansa does not ask Lyarra why would I go. Lyarra hears the question anyhow, and her hands come up to rest on Sansa's shoulders.
The last I knew, she says, hesitantly, slowly, your brothers were alive. And where Bran went is where you go: to the three-eyed crow, whose name is Brynden Rivers.
For a long, breathless moment, Sansa cannot breathe from the knowledge.
She thinks of her mother’s face, and her father’s eyes, and Robb’s gentle strength. She thinks of Arya and Jon and Theon and all the other people she’s not loved half so much as they deserved. She thinks of the dead, and how desperate one must be to ask a granddaughter to walk into their midst.
She remembers Bran’s laughter and Rickon’s giggles.
Then, some old courage fueling her voice, she whispers, Yes.
That night, Sansa is ready.
There’s a pack of food on her shoulders, a knife stolen from the kitchens that’s freshly sharpened, a heavier cloak and boots to shield her from the cold. With some deft needlework she’ll be able to cut her old cloak to use for pockets; with luck, she’ll have enough game on the way to pad the lining a bit as well.
“Remember,” says Lyarra. “You will need help to scale the Wall. Pretend to be a wildling, or threaten some villagers into helping you- but do not go to the Night’s Watch. They watch their doors with ever-greater vigilance. Once you’re past the Wall…”
“I know what to do,” says Sansa. She tests the straps of the pack before deciding they’ll hold for one night’s trekking. She’ll need to tie it off again later, but it’s manageable, she hopes. “I’ll get there, Lyarra. But will they help?”
“Our death is their death,” Lyarra replies firmly. “They’ll help if they have any minds left to them.”
Which is precisely what Sansa’s doubting the existence of, but if this is their only hope then it won’t do to snuff it out so simply. So slender a ray, she thinks, strapping Dark Sister to her waist. To hold back the darkness of death. Let us pray it will last through the night.
“You’ll follow me?”
Lyarra does not touch her; Sansa is glad of it.
She feels battle-ready in these clothes, ill-fitting though they are, and it is a fragile feeling. If Lyarra touches her she feels as if she might break apart. Hopefully this bravado can last her through the trek North.
“Yes,” says Lyarra. “For as long as I can. And then I will find another to accompany you, and then another, and then another. You shall not be alone, Sansa, I promise you.”
Sansa’s hands dig into the warmth of Lady’s fur and then into the chill of Lyarra’s palms.
I trust you, she thinks, and walks onwards.
Three days later: Sansa bids goodbye to Lyarra.
There’s a ghost there, waiting for her. He’s taller than her by nearly three heads. His hair is cut so short she can see his scalp, and there’s a flash of a weapon anytime he moves. It’s like being next to a very large, very dangerous porcupine.
“Which gate’re we gettin’ to?” he asks.
Stay away from the Night’s Watch, Lyarra had told her. They watch the gates with ever increasing vigilance.
I trust you, Sansa thinks, and feels the warmth of Lady by her side, feels the air in her lungs increase as she breathes in. But I do not trust you enough, Grandmother.
“Castle Black’s,” she tells the ghost. “I need help.”
The ghost’s name is Willam. It takes Sansa some time to reconcile this Willam- giant, prickly-edged, warm-hearted- with the Willam in Artos’ stories.
When she realizes, Willam laughs.
“Oh, yes, Artos always took care of me. Twins we were; but he was the better with his sword, and me with my tongue.” He taps his chest and winks at Sansa. “See, little daughter: size matters little, in the larger scheme of things. ‘Tis skill that matters most of all, and I’ve never had any in war.”
“He made you sound-” Sansa searches for the words. Indestructible. Indefatigable. Insane. “Like the best man he knew.”
It’s the truth. Artos and Donnor hate each other; they refuse to talk through the year and shout on the solstice over Errold’s death. But Donnor has Berena, and Artos- he’s always been alone, isolated from even his wife and children.
Sansa thinks she understands now.
“Little daughter,” says Willam, kneeling to match her now, his eyes warm on her face, all laughter gone. “Artos and I- we were closer than brothers. My death ruined him, according to Lyarra, because he couldn’t ever recover that. And he died inside Winterfell; he can’t leave it- and I cannot enter. We are separated forever.” He sighs. “I died to save him. He thinks he can never repay that debt, and does not realize it wasn’t a debt at all.”
“Do not be sorry,” he says, suddenly, fiercely. “Understand. There are debts between people, yes, often, but the world is not all of that. There is love as well. There are things which are offered freely, and to name a price to that kind of gift is an insult of itself. The paths you tread are lined with debts, little daughter, but you must never forget the gifts as well.”
Sansa, watching her father and sister flee into the distance. Sansa, forgiving Elia for nothing but the rightness of that forgival. Sansa, walking away from Riverrun and Winterfell and all the homes that have ever been hers.
Where are my gifts? She wants to scream, suddenly, with the horrible wrongness of it all. She has been given debts and she has given gifts, but never the other way. How dare the world be weighted against her so much? How dare-
Willam rises to his feet, and the silvery light of the sun makes a thousand rainbows dance over her skin.
And she remembers Brandon.
Brandon, watching over her even when he could do nothing. Betha and Alysanne and Rhaella, chaining their tormentors, fighting them off so Sansa could flee in peace. Minisa, pressing flowers into Sansa’s hands and dancing with her through the night.
Do not forget your gifts.
She reaches out and hugs Lady close, before rising to her own feet. They’ve another half day’s walk to go, and it looks to snow soon.
Every step of the way, she feels hollowed out.
Hollowed and filled with light, all at once.
When they reach the Wall, Sansa pauses to smear mud and snow over her face and- most importantly- her hair. It’s too light; it’s too vibrant; it’s too noticeable. Willam tells her where to add it so she looks more grungy than in a disguise, and respectable enough not to make people wonder why an orphan’s sneaking into Castle Black.
“Good luck,” he says. “This is far’s I go- can’t go within castles. M’head’s weird that way.” A moment’s pause, and then Willam continues: “I’ll be here if you need me after.”
“Yes,” says Sansa, slowly, trying to find a way to show Willam how thankful she is for his presence. He’s fading away, almost disappeared, when she says, “Thank you.”
Two words. They aren’t worth anything much.
But Willam would know the weight of words, best of all his brothers, better than most of her ancestors. He’d used them to beat back armies. He’d used them to create armies.
When he was captured by wildlings and held at the Long Lake with his brother- it was his words that allowed his brother to escape. His lack of skill in arms meant Willam didn’t leave alive; but his skill in words meant the wildlings didn’t kill his brother. Sansa looks at him, this giant of a man with steel on every part of his body, this man who died because his life didn’t mean half so much to him as other’s happiness, and she hopes he knows how deep her gratitude goes, deeper than the marrow of her bones.
Unconditional. So easy to forget its meaning, but she cannot. Sansa refuses to forget. Not anymore.
“Thank you,” she says, again, because she cannot put a price to her gratitude, because she will not cheapen it that way. “Thank you.”
Willam smiles. “It has been long since a shieldbrother walked beside me. I enjoyed the company, little daughter, never fear. And- do not fear. Not for all the years you live. You will never be alone. That much I can swear to you.” He nods and disappears, leaving Sansa in the woods a few minutes’ walk from Castle Black.
Slowly, she picks her way towards the castle.
Once inside- it’s dark and cold, and a perpetual sort of dampness that makes her skin prickle uncomfortably. The mud in her hair cakes against her scalp. She can feel the part of it along the back of her neck slide down her spine.
At one hallway, she pauses. She must keep to the shadows; that much is true no matter where she goes. But she can go down or forwards at this juncture, and she has little idea where Jon is. Either might be accurate. Forwards means a higher likelihood of people, but down- Sansa’s no idea where down will go.
A breath, then two, and she squares her shoulders before stepping onto the stairs.
One hall, then another; down and down into earth that’s been frozen for longer than Winterfell’s walls have stood. She doesn’t know where she’s going, precisely, but she has- a feeling. Not a premonition, nor even the aid of ghosts; Sansa doesn’t trust these ghosts, who have sharp teeth and sharper eyes. But there is some deep weight guiding her here, as a dissonant sound in an orchestra would yet be audible- some old thing, a lodestone keeping her silent and steady on her feet.
“I’ve no desire to-”
“-they’ll get the desire if I shove enough swords up-”
Three voices, a burst of noise like sunbursts in darkness, and then silence. Sansa goes still and presses her fingers to the hard-packed earth behind her, grounding herself in the darkness.
Who would hide in darkened tunnels? One foot to the side, body flush against the wall. They won’t be able to find her here. People with things to hide.
“There’ll be consequences to doin’ this,” says the first man, who has a slow, deep voice. “People like him. Ain’t going to be easy to keep rumors down, not with his friends poking about.”
“Which is why we must plan it,” the third man says flatly. “This must be done carefully. Removing the Lord Commander is a dangerous task in and of itself, but the wildlings shall be a bigger threat than any of Lord Snow’s friends.”
Removing? Sansa thinks. Then, slow and thick, panic threaded through it: Snow?
“A fucking army is what it is.” Disgust curdles the second man’s voice. “Ready-made for him to do whatever he wants.”
“Aye. If we can get him-”
“Snow’s not an idiot,” says the third man. “He’ll guess if one of us try anything.”
“Then, what?” asks the second man. “We’ll have to take out his steward if you want to put somethin’ in his drink. He’s too watchful to let such a thing slip.”
There’s a shuffling sound, before the first man says, “The whore’s not the problem. What would we do after putting it in his drink?”
“I know you aren’t the sharpest person here,” drawls the third man, “but this is ridiculous, Yarwyck.”
Silence, and then a yelp sounds; Sansa digs her nails into her hands to keep from reacting.
“We can decide after that,” says the second man, sounding impatient with the entire situation. “Cut his throat, stab him in the-”
Sansa doesn’t hear anything more. There’s a river roaring in her ears, crashing through her veins. A man is going to die soon and Sansa has to- she has to save him, she has information that could save him- but she cannot be seen either, and she has another task ahead of her, one infinitely more important, and-
Sansa steps out into the hallway and spins neatly into a boy’s shoulders, driving them both into the floor. He swears under his breath before seeing her, still huddled against the far wall; then he rises and brushes off his knees, extending a hand.
“Sorry for the-” he pauses, looking at her. “Is something the matter? You look as if you’ve seen a-”
She can walk away. She has a world to save, and a brother to find, and one Lord Commander of a Watch that hasn’t done much of its duty for as long as she’s known it- he shouldn’t tip the balance.
I’m not ready to die, thinks Sansa, before reaching out and grasping the boy’s hand. I do not get to decide that anyone else is.
“The Lord Commander,” says Sansa, remembering only at the last moment to pitch her voice as low as she can make it. “Do you know where he is?”
There’s a pause, before the boy says, slowly: “Yes.” There’s a note to his voice that’s suddenly uncomfortable, that’s abruptly wary.
Sansa draws herself up, straight as she can make her spine. She knows, intimately, how ridiculous she looks; and still she can do nothing but hope she looks impressive enough to intimidate the boy into taking her to the Lord Commander.
“I need you to take me to him.”
“Because.” She leans her weight against the wall, testing the bruises along her knees before deciding her legs can hold her up. “It’s important.” There’s a burn along the boy’s wrist, and Sansa recognizes it as done by dripping candle wax as used for stamping letters. Two ideas snap together in her mind as so many matchsticks. “M’master wants to sell candles. She sent me to get a buyer.”
“She,” says the boy, folding his arms over his front. “You telling me that she goes by the title master?”
The curl to his hair, the soft brown tint that she’s seen on only one another family- Sansa makes a wild guess that she can only hope bears through.
“You’re not from the North, are you?” A girl would scoff, but a boy would twist his lips derisively. Sansa does a strange mix of both, instincts warring with each other. “A master’s got a mastery in a craft. Doesn’t matter if they’re man or woman. And mine asked me for buyers.”
“At Castle Black?” asks the boy incredulously.
“I don’t think there’s a darker castle around,” answers Sansa, solemn as she can manage. “If anyone needs candles here, it’ll be you lot.” A smile tugs at her lips, and she doesn’t bother to control it to say: “Winter’s coming, you know? You’ll need the light.”
Slowly, the boy smiles. “Very well, then. You’re amusing enough, I suppose. It’ll make a good distraction for Jon.”
Her heart skips a beat.
“Well.” He rubs at the back of his neck, half-sheepish. “Lord Commander. Lord Commander Snow, if we’re being accurate, but he- doesn’t like that title much. So if you want to sell your candles don’t call him that.”
“I think,” says Sansa, faintly, “I ought to re-negotiate terms with my master. I’ll come back on the morrow.”
Hiding in the woods, she presses her hands to the snow and then her hands to her head.
Lady whines behind her. Sansa feels like she’s on the verge of tearing her hair out, caught as she is between frustration, worry, and fear.
It dovetails quite nicely, protecting the Lord Commander and getting Jon to help her cross the Wall, but Sansa’s quite certain that leaving Jon with just a warning won’t have much of an effect. If a warning won’t be enough that means she has to take action, and threatening isn’t much her style.
Taking action can go both ways. There are two groups here, not just the people trying to kill Jon- there’s Jon, too.
And I need help.
Ghosts can help her south of the Wall. North of it- Sansa doesn’t know anyone there. Lyarra had been deliberately vague on instructions past getting to the cave of the three-eyed crow, though Sansa isn’t certain if that’s because she doesn’t know or because she doesn’t want Sansa to know.
“I’ll need help out there,” she tells Lady. “It’s going to be dangerous. I’m going to need help, with hunting and hiding- the dead are out there, in greater numbers. And Jon’s a thousand times better than me with a sword.”
One beat, then two, then three.
“So we bring Jon with us.” She tests the sentence out into the air, before dropping back to her knees. “But how?”
One direwolf and one girl. She can disguise herself as a boy and, with a little luck, sneak Lady inside. But there’s still little chance of getting Jon by himself for long enough that Sansa can explain everything, not that and get him to believe it.
Who would believe that their sister can speak to ghosts?
Lady growls low in her throat, nudging Sansa’s shoulder. I don’t want to fail, Sansa thinks, letting her forehead fall to the fur. But there isn’t time enough for me to go to one of the other gates, and Jon will be too wary of a strange direwolf to follow it. I don’t want to fail, I don’t- I can’t think about the consequences- but-
She thinks about Lyarra and Visenya and Minisa and her own parents, all of whom have loved her for so long, with such depth. She imagines them gone, mindless, and Sansa wants to weep with everything she has inside of herself.
Lady growls again, a different sort of noise, and Sansa snuggles closer. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “But my best plan was just- I’m so-”
Sansa doesn’t get to finish the sentence, for there’s a louder growl. Sighing, she sits up to figure out what’s wrong with Lady- when she stops, a flash of white in the corner of her eye. Slowly, she turns.
“Oh,” whispers Sansa. Then, louder, and louder still: “Yes. Yes. Yes!”
Standing in front of her is an answer to every prayer she’s been sending for hours:
Chapter 4: she wears fire for skin but a storm lives in her soul
Sansa reaches forwards, to the hands that Jon’s unbound- if she had nails they might have dug into his skin, but she’s bitten them to the quick instead- and looks into his eyes, dark and honest and sharp as her father’s. I don’t trust anyone, she thinks fiercely, but Jon’s hands are warm and alive and she can’t keep herself from gripping them too tightly.
This has been a long time in the making! *NOT A YEAR WHY WOULD YOU ACCUSE ME SO TERRIBLY**flings chapter into the void and self into the sun*
In honor of the one year anniversary of posting this fic, have bickering siblings and terrible decisions and a Stark family reunion? That's not halfway angsty? I'm SURPRISED at myself.......
Snow is seeping into Sansa’s clothes.
She refuses to move, however, and even less to give away her position. There can be no mistakes made now: Sansa must succeed, for the price of failure is too great to contemplate, much less allow.
Lady- Sansa can sense her, vaguely, off behind the small bush she’s hidden behind. She’d yipped some time previous, but the silence now makes her feel wary. Their prey approaches, and Sansa must be fast enough to strike, quick enough to do so without letting him attack her in return.
And then she hears, distantly, the snap of a twig.
Dark Sister is perfectly balanced in one hand. Sansa shifts her weight from one leg to another, then back, ensuring she’s ready to jump out. She breathes in, slowly, and Ghost bounds into the clearing.
Not a few minutes later, so does Jon.
Her breath catches.
He’s older than she remembers; his hair is raggeder, and there’s a stiffness to his shoulders that Sansa hasn’t seen before. If anything, Jon’s grown to look even more like their father.
My father. The truth tastes like ashes in her mouth. Jon’s uncle.
“What was so important, boy?” Jon demands of Ghost, pressing his hands to his knees and panting. “That you had to-” he straightens, abruptly, and half-draws his sword out of the scabbard, turning to the shadows exactly opposite to Sansa, from which a soft noise has come. “If anyone’s there…” His voice sounds menacing.
Lady pads out of the darkness, and Sansa makes full use of Jon’s momentary distraction to start moving forwards.
“Lady?” asks Jon, almost reaching out to touch her. “You survived? I didn’t-” he swallows, hard. “I thought you’d died.”
She should keep silent, according to the very plan that she’d hashed out last night- hit Jon over the head, and let him wake up after that, bound so he’s forced to listen to her words. But seeing the way Jon’s hands tremble, as if a strong wind had blown between the spaces of his fingers- Sansa cannot. The weight of a hundred worlds could have borne down on her tongue, and it would not have mattered.
“She didn’t,” says Sansa, softly. He goes stiff about the shoulders. “And neither did I.”
Jon whirls around, and Sansa has all of a heartbeat to realize that he’s not been calmed by seeing Lady; he’s palmed a knife instead, one that he uses to slash at Sansa’s arm. She stumbles back, sleeve ripping, and Jon uses the moment to draw his sword.
“Who’re you?” he asks, eyes narrowing on her.
Sansa smiles tremulously. “You mean you don’t remember?”
“If you want to talk, you’ll drop that sword.” He doesn’t soften, not even a little, and Sansa feels her heart stumble a little. Her mother, her father- they wouldn’t have recognized her, would they? She’s changed so much that-
“Jon,” she says, struggling to keep her voice even, “I don’t know who you think-”
Her words are cut off when Jon releases a flurry of blows at her, half of which she catches as a matter of habit and the other half of which she deflects by sheer chance. His hands tighten further on his sword’s hilt and Sansa takes two large steps backwards, her lungs aching.
“It’s Sansa,” she snaps breathlessly. “You absolute moron, it’s me, stop fighting-”
Jon laughs. Then he says, “My sister’s in King’s Landing. If you want to lie to me, try to do better than that.”
I don’t want to do this. Listen to me, you utter buffoon!
“I’m not lying,” says Sansa, fright and irritation melding together into a strange amalgam in her chest to produce an even stranger voice. “Listen, I need you to listen-”
“I think not,” replies Jon, and spins neatly to catch her across her underarm.
Sansa ducks away, a shriek caught in her throat.
(Sansa’s always prepared.
This is one thing that everyone seems to forget about her: she’s never had as native a skill at sewing as everyone seems to assume, but once she realized how important it was for ladies- Sansa’d spent nights and mornings and every spare moment of her time sawing that needle through the cloth until it resembled the primers they’d been given.
Everyone always forgets that.
Jon Snow is not an exception.)
(Now, here’s a tale that hasn’t been told:
When Sansa forgave Elia, there was a scrap of silver that Elia let fall into the sand, far below them both. Elia, Elia, Elia Martell: of Nymeria and Mors, daughter of Arianne, with the sun’s sparks sunk deep into her bones. That silver that fell- it burned and blistered the sand, and when Sansa ran over it hours later it remained hot to the touch, blazing even through the soles of her sandals.
Sansa wrapped it up in cloth soaked in saltwater and remembered grief, and took it with her North.)
Sansa ducks away, a shriek building in her throat, and when Jon finishes the spin, turning to meet her, she throws one fistful of sand-embers straight into his face. He backs away, clawing at his eyes. She doesn’t hesitate at that- if there’s one thing she’s learned from Visenya it’s do not pause. Not for pain, not for love, not once you’ve set upon a course.
With all the grace of a barreling ox, Sansa brings Dark Sister’s hilt down on the side of Jon’s head.
She goes to get some of the melted snow from her camp, a ways away from where she’d decided to confront Jon. There’s little chance of Jon escaping, but Sansa’s bound his hands and removed both his sword and the visible daggers anyhow. Lugging the water back leaves red marks along her palms- Sansa grits her teeth and bears through the pain.
He’s awake and half-escaped the ropes Sansa’d tied him up with when she returns.
“Gods above,” Sansa says, driving the bucket into the snow with one sharp motion. “If you continue to do that, I’ll- I’ll dump this water on you, see if I don’t.”
Jon freezes, before slowly relaxing. “This is a dream,” he mutters to himself. The confusion on his face softens Sansa’s ire, just enough for her to seat herself in front of him.
“You dream of me often?”
“No,” he says. “Which is why this is so- surprising.”
“Jon.” He looks up at the tone of her voice, at the abrupt intensity. “This isn’t a dream. There are things I must tell you- necessary things. Dangerous things. Important things. You have to listen, not run away, not ignore me.”
“And what is so important?” asks Jon, lifting one brow.
“To start out with-” Sansa shifts uneasily, “-you’re in danger. People want to kill you.”
Her hand spasms around her knee. “You don’t believe me.”
Jon shrugs his shoulders. “I’ve been in danger ever since I left Winterfell. I don’t need any apparition from the gods to remind me of that.”
“I’m not an apparition from any god!” Sansa springs to her feet, the surge of emotion in her belly making it impossible to remain seated.
She sucks on her teeth in a vain attempt to stop looking at the melted water. It’s supposed to be used to wash the mud from her hair and prove, finally, unequivocally, that she is who she says she is. But it would feel so good to just throw it on Jon and his stupid, stubborn face.
“Give me one good reason, then,” says Jon, “why Sansa Stark would be here at the Wall. Start with how- how she left King’s Landing, and then with how she survived the trek all the way here, and then with how she came to have- is that mud on your hair?- short hair, and- and a fucking sword!” He pauses, breathing heavily, before continuing even louder: “A sword! That she knows how to use! You tell me who’d have taught her, and then how she got Ghost to bring me out of the castle, and why, out of all the bloody castles in all the world, she’d choose this one! Answer that and yes, then I might believe you!”
“I don’t look like her?” Sansa asks. She’s aiming for levity, but it falls flat; it sounds too strained, and she has to hide her flinch at both the wound she’s revealed as well as the thin sound of her voice.
“No,” says Jon, scornfully. “If she ever dressed up as an urchin it’d not last longer than one afternoon. The mud would be too much for Sansa, I think, more than even the hunger.”
What a terrible thing, Sansa thinks distantly, to hear the truth.
But she has her pride, now, along with her love and fear and anger. So she only lifts her chin and smiles and makes sure- with enough ferocity to make even a Targaryen quail- that the smile doesn’t wobble.
“I left King’s Landing through the kitchens.” One breath to keep her voice even, and a second to keep her eyes level, and the third is for no reason other than that she wants it. “I cut my hair and burned it before I left. It wasn’t so difficult, in all honesty: nobody expected that I’d escape on my own, and less that I’d escape disguised as a boy.” Not even you, brother mine. “I stole some food, and some clothes, but not from people who couldn’t afford it.”
“And the sword?”
“Well. That comes to who taught me, and you’d not believe that if you don’t believe the rest of it.”
Jon leans forwards. “Let’s say I believe you, then.”
“Jon-” Sansa says, slowly.
“You want to tell me the story.” His eyes are glittering, hard and unyielding. This is not the brother Sansa knows; this is the Lord Commander that the Night’s Watch has elected. “So tell it.”
“It’s name is Dark Sister.”
There’s a moment’s pause, and then Jon realizes where he’s heard that name. His eyes dip to the sword, and then rise to meet hers, incredulous.
“Made of Valyrian steel,” Sansa continues, when he keeps silent. “Its first owner gave it to me. And she was the one to teach me swordfighting.”
“The first owner was-”
“Visenya.” She inclines her head. “Of House Targaryen.”
Jon’s jaw is slack. He keeps staring at the sword and then back to her. After a moment- he hisses out through his teeth, a sound so derisive it catches in her chest.
“I can see ghosts,” Sansa tells him, the syllables stretching out her throat, thick and glutinous. “Ever since I was three namedays old- I’ve been able to.”
“I’ve had strange dreams,” Jon mumbles, “but never this strange.”
And, abruptly, the frustration fades, replaced instead by exhaustion. “I would be much happier if it were truly a jape,” Sansa says flatly. “Or a dream, or anything but the truth. But it is not. I have lived with this secret for more than a decade, Jon. And I left the Red Keep, I left Riverrun, I left Winterfell- more than a dozen castles I’ve passed, each one happier than the other to house me and protect me, and I’ve left it all behind to come here.” I’ve left behind more than that, as well. “You can keep thinking it’s a dream if you want, but you’ll have to help me nevertheless.”
He tips his head to the side. “Help- how?”
“There’s a gate.” Sansa reaches forwards, to the hands that Jon’s unbound- if she had nails they might have dug into his skin, but she’s bitten them to the quick instead- and looks into his eyes, dark and honest and sharp as her father’s. I don’t trust anyone, she thinks fiercely, but Jon’s hands are warm and alive and she can’t keep herself from gripping them too tightly. “In Castle Black. You have to get me through it, to the other side of the Wall.”
When Jon goes to pick up the keys, Willam appears to her once more. Sansa sighs and seats herself, quietly, wishing her hair were longer- braiding it would give her something to do with her hands. She feels strained and worn instead. Like licorice pulled thin enough that it was transparent.
Her parents don’t know where she is. Her brother didn’t recognize her, and doesn’t trust her even when she tells him the truth. Sansa Stark, for all that she is alive, might as well not exist.
Does it matter where a person is, she wants to ask Willam- wants to ask Lyarra, wants to ask Minisa- if there is no one else in all the world who knows where they are?
She doesn’t. She leans back and shrugs under Willam’s piercing stare.
“What?” asks Sansa, in the place of all the other things on the tip of her tongue. “I got him to do what needed to be done.”
“He thinks you some creature borne out of the old tales,” Willam responds. “Some prophet, perhaps, or a Child. Anything but his sister.”
“-because it is so unbelievable.”
“Because-” and here, Willam’s tone gentles, just a little, “-you are showing him sides of yourself you have kept shrouded in darkness all your life. It is as if a glass merchant spent all his life selling glass, and then shifted to selling diamond. Will there not be people who come to you, expecting glass wares? Will they not be surprised, startled, when that is not offered to them?”
“Constancy is comfort,” Sansa says, quietly.
Willam smiles at her. “Just so. Change is difficult for people to accept. You should not have approached him as an adversary in the beginning.” He shifts, and shines like snow in the pale sunlight. “You will have to change that, later. It will be more difficult now.”
It is the truth. Shall you turn from it?
Months ago, Sansa had sat in the Red Keep and looked at her grandfather, and she’d thought, yes.
No, she thinks now, and she doesn’t know what has changed, knows only that there is cold in her lungs and ice along her scalp and she has stiffened with it instead of freezing alive, knows only that she is stronger within her family’s lands for reasons she cannot explain to anyone, reasons that still exist. No, I will not turn away. I will face the worst fears. I swear it.
“My grandfather,” she says, mouth dry. She doesn’t want to continue talking about truths that ache like this. “When I was in the Red Keep, he told me that there was one secret that ought to be told, one secret that wasn’t his place to tell me. He told me to tell Lyarra.” But I don’t trust Lyarra. She’s not telling me everything. “What was it?”
Willam looks a little paler at her words. “Lyarra told me that Rickard’s told you everything.”
“Everything but the first secret.” That had been what Rickard called it, once, casually thrown into their conversations those last few weeks. “The one that began the Stark line.”
Again, there’s hesitation. Slowly, Willam nods; and then he says, softly, “ It is the first secret, and always the last told. Brandon the Builder forbade his sons from ever speaking it, and Brandon the Breaker did the same, but the knowledge has lasted nevertheless.” He frowns. “I never understood it, truth be told- perhaps it shall make more sense to you?”
“What is it?”
“There was a daughter.”
After a pause, Sansa realizes that it’s it; those four words are the secret that Rickard knew, that last bit of Stark knowledge that has been whispered for years, from heir to lord to heir again. She wants to claw at her skin, just a little, with sheer frustration.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says, quietly. “Who had a daughter? Why was she- why is she so important? That knowledge of her remains past years and years of loss?”
Willam smiles at her sadly. “‘Tis a mark of growth, to ask questions that your elders cannot answer. Perhaps you shall solve this secret, little daughter. A thing to put your name to, when this is all over.”
If I do as Lyarra wishes, Sansa thinks, ugliness lining her throat, terror and desire hot in her gut, I will put my name on this entire world.
They will never forget me, not after all I have lost.
The air is cold and her gloves are thin and her eyes itch. Sansa feels the wind along her thin, thin hair and she imagines a sweep of red down her back, long and beautiful as a hawk’s wings. She is exhausted, bitter, alone. She has never felt fiercer than she has in that moment, the wind billowing her from the back, sunlight shining on that skin, alive against all odds.
If I cannot be happy, then I will be remembered.
Jon doesn’t trust her.
Sansa does, eventually, wash the mud from her hair, but it does little to lessen the suspicion on his face. Even with Lady obeying her commands, docile as a dog, he doesn’t think she is- Sansa Stark- Jon seems to think she’s something else altogether, and not a benign entity at that.
But he smuggles her through the castle quietly; and when they reach the tunnel, Jon doesn’t hesitate to plunge into the darkness.
For a long moment, Sansa hesitates. Then she starts walking, Lady and Ghost keeping time behind her. They pause at one of the iron gates as Jon fumbles at the lock with a key. When the tunnel doesn’t lighten at all, she coughs.
“Where’s- how many gates are there?”
“Three,” Jon answers brusquely. “Two more.”
Three. Sansa can feel her palms growing clammy, but she doesn’t dare loosen her grip on Dark Sister’s hilt to wipe it. In two more gates, she has to be ready to… It isn’t kidnapping. It’s saving a life.
And she has both Ghost and Lady on her side.
One more gate, then the last one.
Jon slides the key in, shoulders the slatted steel through, and Sansa emerges into the cold winter light of the world beyond the Wall. His eyes- dark and wary- are fixed on her, not on the snows around them. Sansa feels the pull of that beauty, the desire to see that and admire it, but she puts it aside to focus on her brother.
I will not let you die, she thinks, and smiles thinly at him.
“Thank you.” Jon relaxes just a little at her words, but Sansa’s not done, not close. She steps forwards and catches his hand. “Come with me,” she whispers. “Your life isn’t safe here, Jon. Even if they don’t do something immediately- people are trying to kill you, and it is always easier to take a life than it is to keep one. And… and it will be better if you were with me.”
“I have sworn vows,” Jon replies, but it’s gentler than he’s sounded in some time. “I have no choice.”
Sansa steps away. The leather of her boots feels like it might creak- it is so old, and her feet are curling with her impatience- but this must be done properly. She hasn’t felt this regretful of something in a long time; even when she left Riverrun, the only pain she bartered with was her own. Now, it is Jon’s she is toying with. His pain, his honor, his life.
If her stay in the south has taught her anything, it is that honor is worth only that value that the person places in it; and that a little pain is preferable to the loss of a life. This is necessary, she reminds herself.
“You’re right,” Sansa responds, and sees how he softens further at her tone. “I’m very sorry about that, if you must know.”
“I wish-” he breaks off the words abruptly, shaking his head. “Goodbye, then. The debt I owed you for losing to the duel is through. Good travels to you, and-”
“I never loved you as I ought,” Sansa muses, letting one hand fall open to her side. The direwolves are far more intelligent than many people assume, which is to their detriment. But Sansa hadn’t ever thought that even Jon would ignore Ghost’s intellect, which is far beyond that of any common wolf’s or other pet. When she’d explained, the previous night, to him, Ghost had understood her. Sansa’s sure of it. “But that does not mean I would be glad to see you dead. And if, at the end of all of this, you’d like to go back- I would not stop you. But only after Father has come and taken care of these men who wish to kill you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, well,” says Sansa, before Ghost leaps at Jon and bears him down to the ground, before Lady gnaws through Jon’s scabbard and divests him of half his weaponry, “I don’t actually believe that.”
While he’s still disoriented, Sansa tosses the keys he’d used to unlock the gates past the first one and then cuts the weight holding the winching gears back. Jon goes rigid when he hears the thunk of the heavy steel door.
“What do you-” he spits, when he gets Lady’s tail whipping straight into his face, “-what- what’re you do-”
“I’m saving your life,” Sansa replies, evenly.
She belts his scabbard over her own waist. It settles easily enough, but is too tight for a second loop and too loose for just one. After a shrug, she slides it over her head so it rests at a diagonal: one part of the strap at her shoulder, another at her hip. It digs into her skin, but it’s the best compromise she currently has.
“Stop,” Jon hisses. “You don’t get to-” One of the direwolves barrels into him; Jon grunts and stumbles forwards. “Our deal is finished. You cannot demand more of me.”
“This is not a deal,” Sansa says. “I never thought of it as one. This is not a debt you are paying me, nor a deal we struck with swords in the woods.”
“Then what is this?” he demands.
She thinks of Willam, sitting beside her, silvered and shining. She thinks of his words: There are debts between people, yes, often, but the world is not all of that. There is love as well. She swallows. “Call it whatever you want. But I am your sister, and I will not let you die for the foolishness of your pride.”
He bristles. “My honor is-”
Sansa reaches forwards and catches his hand, blindly, because she’s looking into his eyes, because she knows Jon will believe this, even if he doesn’t believe that she is real.
“I need help,” she says. “The dead are coming, and I can defeat them, and I ca- I will- do it alone but- could you live with yourself?” Jon stares at her. “If I defeated them and you could have been beside me but weren’t, because you were afraid?” Sansa remembers Lyarra’s cold, cold hands on the back of her neck, the chill that’s offered her more comfort than almost anything else in her life. “They say that Bran and Rickon are alive, Jon. That they’re beyond the Wall, and alive, and safe.” A moment to catch her breath, and then she adds the last sentence, soft and gentle and all-shaking as an avalanche. “Honor is important, yes, but the world is more important than one man’s honor.”
Jon tears his hands away from her and stumbles away. “These are vows I’ve sworn.”
“There are people relying on me.”
Sansa doesn’t move. “I know.”
“Father would want me to honor what I’ve sworn.”
“Father would want you to honor your duties to your family,” Sansa says, harsher than she’d expected the words to sound. The lie still tastes bitter on her tongue: father, father, father. “And I swear to you, your familial duties lie here, not behind that Wall.”
There’s a pause, not for very long at all; Jon bows his head and Sansa presses her hands together to keep from picking at her nails. Then he lifts his head and-
And he looks like an old, old hero, from one of those old tales. Not a Targaryen knight. Not a King of Winter. There’s a tapestry hidden beside one of the crypts that Torrhen had shown her, once, parchment-thin and crumbly as old leaf, with a man’s profile sketched in large, broad swathes.
That’s what Jon looks like, Sansa thinks. Old worries on a young face, beauty on bones that weren’t built to carry them, strength dug up out of salt and snow and somehow still rooted deep. She wants to shrink away from the depths of the emotions she feels upon seeing his face; she wants to reach out and embrace it, let it burn her until she is nothing but ashes.
Targaryen, a voice breathes into her ear, and she realizes- Visenya. He is Visenya, but younger, but tempered, but more loved than Visenya has ever known in centuries of either life or death. Stark, too, as Stark as Arya, who’d been loved and adored for all she’d never obeyed anyone’s orders, but brighter, but uglier.
“Give me my sword,” says Jon, and the spell shatters as if someone had struck it with a hammer.
Sansa shudders back to life. “Yes,” she says, a little numbly. “Yes, I will- do that.”
Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. She cannot breathe for the weight of the lies, none of them hers. There are tears in her eyes, and Sansa bites them back until her throat aches. You have brought something into this world that is more terrible than you could have ever thought.
Jon hesitates, and then he firms his shoulders. “Which direction are we going?”
They walk for hours.
It is strange, to be with someone whose needs must be met- Sansa has gotten used to the dead, who are tireless and limited only by the boundaries they can cross. But Jon must eat and drink and sleep, so they trade watches, and divide the food as evenly as they can.
Sansa doesn’t realize that Jon doesn’t believe her.
He doesn’t, though- not until almost a sennight after they set out.
They’re pitching their camp, and Sansa’s stirring the fire with a knobbly stick while Jon returns with enough wood to keep the fire going through the night. There’s dried berries and the remains of a snow hare for dinner; Sansa feels nausea dig into her, so she hums a little ditty to herself.
It isn’t much. Just a little girl’s rendition of the sea shanties that Theon Stark had taught her, which were two octaves lower than her own voice. Barely audible, even to herself.
Jon, across the camp, hearing her over the crackle of the fire, stills. He mumbles something into the wood.
“Pardon?” asks Sansa.
He turns to her. And Jon’s eyes- Sansa hasn’t ever seen them like that before, liquid-bright and hot with something that could have been either horror or ecstasy. “Do that again,” he whispers, “that- song. The humming.”
One up, three down, each note sharper than any sea shanty would ever be, but carrying its same rhythm. Sansa eyes Jon suspiciously but sings nevertheless.
Jon’s face can’t seem to decide what it feels. He pales further, until he looks like a half-ghost. Then he says, “Sa-” his voice breaks, picking up momentum a breath later, “Sansa?”
“Yes?” She flattens her hands on the fabric covering her knees.
“It’s you,” he says. “I thought- I’d forgotten that- oh, gods.” He sits down on the ground, right there, looking sick and joyous all at once.
“Yes,” Sansa says slowly. “I am myself. Is something the-”
“I hadn’t-” Jon looks as white as a ghost. “I thought you were some- something else. A- a story Old Nan hadn’t remembered to tell us.”
Sansa lifts an eyebrow. “And that was more believable to you than me being myself.”
“You aren’t-” he gestures violently, before reaching up to scrub through his hair. “You aren’t supposed to be like this.”
“Dirty.” His eyes narrow on her, and Sansa feels her amusement rise to match his annoyance. “What changed?”
She keeps her face as blank as she can make it, though her lips certainly twitch. “Being trained by a woman who conquered an entire continent has the ability to change a lot of things.”
“You were not trained by Visenya Targaryen.”
“Was so.” Sansa leans back, eyes wide and innocent. “Did you know that she hates our grandfather?”
Jon sputters. “You did not speak to our grandfather.”
“He was a tall man.” She gnaws on the inside of her cheek to still her smile, though she can’t quite hide it entirely. “Grumpy, too. I see where you get it from.”
“Sansa,” he sighs.
“Jon,” she mimics, before dropping the amusement. “I know it’s difficult to imagine. But you’ve seen the dead- the actual dead- and the Night’s King. Do you think me being able to see ghosts is so very different?”
“Yes,” he says plainly. “It’s one thing to think the old stories are true. It’s another to think that my sister’s been lying to me for her entire life. Lying to everyone.”
Sansa folds her hands over her lap. “I didn’t lie.”
“You didn’t tell us.”
“Yes, because that would have gone over so well with Mother and Father,” Sansa says flatly. “Oh, yes, I’ve sown all the samplers you want, Mother, I’ve done the letters you want, Father, and, by the way, I had a fascinating conversation with Torrhen Stark on how his daughter planted the first blue roses in Winterfell, that’s why I didn’t fall asleep the way Arya did this afternoon!”
She’s shouting by the end. Her eyes burn, just a little, but she pushes it away in favor of gripping her wrists tightly.
“Father would have-” Jon exhales, whistling it out through his teeth, “-I don’t know. I don’t know what he’d have done, because this is- this is- so strange.”
“So you understand,” Sansa says.
Jon moves closer to her, slowly, hesitantly- he raises his hand as if he means to draw her into an embrace, and then he drops it to cuff her shoulder instead. “I know that they love you. Your mother might not have…” he trails off, awkwardly, before settling against the log, back against her shins. “Liked me, all that much. But she’s always loved you, all of you. Arya at her brattiest. Robb at his angriest. You remember how much she yelled at Bran?”
For weeks on end. Sansa remembers: her mother rigid with anger and worry, Bran limber and long-limbed. Every morning for two years, they’d been woken by Catelyn yelling at Bran for climbing; so much it had become a routine, and still Bran had never thought she didn’t love him.
Even in King’s Landing- nobody, not a single soul, had ever doubted in Catelyn Stark’s love for her children.
“Yes,” says Sansa, soundless.
“We would have understood.” He huffs a laugh. “Or tried. We would have tried our best, at the least.”
Sansa curls over her hands, hunching against the cold. “Perhaps,” she says.
I don’t trust you, thinks Sansa, hands cold, heart colder. I don’t believe you.
“How did you realize it was me?”
“Those songs. Nobody else ever liked them enough to remember.”
“So you knew I was myself because I sang a sea shanty?”
“I knew you were yourself because nobody else could have sung it that badly.”
A week later, Sansa wakes to find a third wolf in their midst.
“Summer,” breathes Jon.
Sansa snaps her head towards him. “They’re alive. Bran and Rickon.”
“You didn’t believe them?” Jon asks. “Your ghosts-”
“I wasn’t certain.” She runs her fingers down Summer’s dark fur. “I couldn’t be certain. There’s been so many lies, you know- secrets, forgotten truths- I haven’t trusted anyone. In a long time.”
“Except for me,” says Jon.
Then he seems to understand what Sansa’s averted face means: Jon flinches as if she’s struck him, and he steps forwards to look at her closer.
“Sansa,” he says.
She tilts her head up to meet his gaze. “It isn’t anyone else’s fault,” she says quietly. “I don’t know if I can, anymore. Or if I ever could. I never really even considered telling anyone about how I could see ghosts, and that was before Rickard and Visenya… drove that point home.”
Jon looks horrified for a long minute, but then he scoffs- scoffs and drops to sit next to her, looking vaguely irritated.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “Trust isn’t something that’s- that’s like hair color, or your height, or anything like that. It’s not something you’re born with. It- it certainly isn’t your fault, Sansa, if people thought the truth was too dangerous to tell others.” He turns, and eyes- Father’s eyes- pierce through all of Sansa’s shields, leave her open and bare and armorless. “It isn’t your fault that people gave you secrets to hold.”
This, Sansa thinks contemplatively, is the happiest I’ve felt in years.
She’s hungry, cold, lonely. She’s never even imagined that her family might try to accept her for who she is- never even allowed that hope to materialize. Sansa swallows, and rises to her feet, and when she turns to help Jon to his feet, she pulls him into a hug as well.
He’s so warm.
(Sansa’s tears are soft things, born of Minisa and the giving, fertile loam of the Riverlands. But now- her tears are cold, sharp; they burn down her face like ice cracking the earth open. Sansa doesn’t regret the pain at all.
They’re tears of joy.)
Summer leads them.
Sansa can’t find it in herself to breathe, but somehow she manages. Somehow, she keeps herself moving: one foot after the other, one breath in after another, hope and fear swirling in her wake like footprints embedded in snow.
Bran’s alive, and Sansa’s near him- so close- they’ll be together again.
Them. Their family. In a snow-ridden wasteland, hurt, so close to being cleaved apart.
The pack survives. Sansa keeps walking, Jon beside her, head up as if scenting the wind. They are not wolves, not truly; but right then, Sansa thinks she’ll shred anyone who tries to keep her from Bran to pieces. Right then, she cannot imagine that she is fangless, clawless. I have been alone for too long.
They emerge, three direwolves and two fur-bundled humans, into the middle of a dark clearing.
There are numerous people there.
There is only one person that Sansa cares about. She rises to her toes, straining for a glimpse of-
“Bran,” whispers Sansa, at the shine of his red hair.
It’s strange: Sansa is the slower of them, between her, and the direwolves, and Jon.
Perhaps there are wings that grow on her feet. Perhaps the wind aids her. Perhaps it’s love, that gives her the speed to move so quickly. She feels something similar to it, at least: like solid flesh and blood has been replaced, for just a breath, with wind and ice.
Because she reaches Bran before Jon.
Bran, who is alive under her arms, who is warm and grown larger than the comatose figure she’d last seen, who is alive, as she hasn’t dreamt possible for months.
Then Jon is there, and he’s holding onto Bran just as tightly, likely leaving bruises on both of their shoulders- but Sansa doesn’t care. She couldn’t possibly care about anything, not with her brothers beside her, safe and alive and in her arms.
They finally settle in a cave a little distant from the clearing Summer had led them to. It’s large and dark, but dry; and when one of the others lights a match, Sansa realizes that they aren’t wildlings at all.
Jon starts swearing when he finally sees the same thing.
“They aren’t enemies,” says Bran quietly, when he finally deciphers what both of their sputtering means. “They’re- they saved my life. We were running, Meera and Jojen and I, and would’ve been caught without Leaf’s help. She brought us here.”
Sansa looks at them- the crowd that had allowed Bran to so much as meet them outside, for they’d been the ones to wheel him out, certainly- and tries to pick out what, exactly, is leaving her so unnerved. Perhaps it’s the features, which are so similar to her own and yet alien; perhaps it’s the eyes, which are large and slitted as a cat. Perhaps it’s the grace with which they move, too swift and curving for any human.
But Sansa’s known ghosts for long enough to push past the initial terror, to search for the ground on which a bond can grow, so she tilts her head back at Bran.
“You’re certain?” she asks, just as lowly.
There’s no hesitation there at all, and it’s that which makes her mind up, more than anything else.
“Jon,” she says. “Calm down.”
He jerks his head irritably at her. Sansa ignores him, and gets up, moving slowly towards the crowd.
“I’m Sansa,” she says, when she’s close enough for them to know that she’s addressing them, when it’s unmistakable. “Bran’s sister. And this is Jon- he’s our brother. We… we’re here to help. Jon’s spent years fighting the dead. He’ll be invaluable to you.”
One of the Children steps forwards slowly. “We have not the numbers for fighting,” they say, in a voice that rolls over Sansa’s skin like thunder. “And less of the will. What use have we for a commander with no forces to command?”
“Speak not for others,” advises another of the Children, “only for yourself.”
A third one, with a voice that’s high and sweet, says, “I see you, sister of Bran.”
Everyone falls silent at that. Behind her, Sansa can hear Bran inhale sharply. But nobody seems willing to elaborate on the statement, not until a child steps out of the crowd. It’s too dark to make out much of their face.
“You shine almost as bright as the Crow,” she says slowly, deliberately. “Your brother has the potential to, and it shines as sparks off a stone in his chest. But you? Oh, you shed the light in your wake. His potential is realized in you, all without a weirwood to ground it.”
“I don’t understand,” says Sansa. She watches, numbly, as the child raises one hand to almost brush over her chest.
Then she feels someone dragging her backwards, and before she can blink, she’s set behind Jon- who’s standing in front of her with his shoulders thrown back, his legs spread as if to take a blow. “Stay back,” he growls.
Bran reaches up and grips Sansa’s wrist, dragging her attention back to him. “She’s blind,” he whispers. “She can see magic. Only magic. She’s very old, and-”
Sansa looks up, and sees the child tilt her head at Jon. Sees her say, “Oh, fire and ice. Alone they are common enough, but together? There are things that ought not to be in this world. You are one of them.”
“That’s enough,” says Bran, and it’s authoritative enough that they all fall silent. Even Jon stops bristling enough to be surprised that he’s listening to Bran; Sansa’s surprised enough, because she remembers how quiet he’d been. Those months of watching Robb lead must have affected him in some manner though, and if this is it, she’ll take it and be glad. “Perhaps we can-”
“The Crow will wish to see her,” says the child. “And him, I suppose, if for nothing more than the fire.”
Bran nods as if her words make sense.
“Let’s go, then,” he says.
They arrive at a weirwood tree. The hall is well-lit, which is why Sansa can see the man sitting atop a seat made of the weirwood roots- he’s pale and gaunt, save for a patchy rash running from the side of his neck up to his cheekbone. Fine, thin strands of silvery hair are in disarray around him.
“Who are you?” Sansa asks carefully.
He tilts his head to her, but doesn’t speak for a long minute. Sansa wonders if he’s even going to answer- but then he does.
“I am the three-eyed Crow,” he says, voice hoarse and rasping. It makes Sansa want to shiver out of her skin, the unearthly scrape of it. “But I was not always this. Perhaps you have heard of a lord named Brynden?”
“Brynden Waters,” breathes Sansa.
“Yes,” says the man- Brynden, Brynden Waters, the person she’s been charged with meeting by her grandmother and Visenya, two people who’d likely never agree on anything else from this to the end of time. “You know of me, then.”
Hands shaking, Sansa undoes her scabbard and removes Dark Sister.
“You would know this blade,” she says.
He laughs. “I would know that blade even if I’d not seen it in half a thousand dreams. How came a Stark by Dark Sister?”
“By Visenya’s own tutelage.”
“She does not tutor often,” says Brynden, voice turning even slower, ponderous. “Those she takes an interest in are great, always, no matter whether they are terrible or wonderful. It is a gift that she has, my many-times grandmother. To find the best and know them, even when they do not know it themselves. Tell me, daughter of House Stark: what would drive a girl with Visenya’s stamp to come this far north?”
“The dead,” says Sansa, swallowing. “As it drove you, once.”
“I came to the Wall because I did not wish to die.”
“And you crossed it because there was something happening, and you wished to know what it was.” Sansa juts her chin upwards. “I know that the dead are there. My brother- Jon- has fought against armies of them. Legions. Ghosts that have never feared for anything in their entire existence are shivering, timorous beings. And I know that I can help against them.”
“Do you?” asks Brynden, slowly shifting forwards, like a tree bending in a strong gale. “Tell me what you will do.”
Sansa stares into his lone, red eye. “I don’t know,” she says. Jon makes an aborted sound behind her; she ignores him. “But you do.”
Again, there’s silence. This time, it doesn’t stay silent, not for Sansa. Her heartbeat echoes and echoes against her ears, thundering like a drum. She’s gambled so much on three words. If she’s wrong- if her grandmother, if her grandfather- are wrong-
Death will be the least of her worries.
But then, Brynden Waters nods. Short, shaky; but a nod nevertheless.
“I do,” he says. “But it is a long tale. And to appreciate it properly, you shall need- need to know more.”
“More of what?” asks Sansa sharply.
“What is the final secret of your house, Sansa Stark?”
“How would you-”
“Tell him,” says Bran, who’s seated beside her. His eyes are glowing, in the dim light. It looks so strange. “He knows it already, Sansa.”
Reluctantly, Sansa says, “There was a daughter.”
“Yes,” says Brynden, softly. “There was.” Then, a little more briskly: “Take rest for now. Sleep, eat; the Children shall help you. And tonight, they shall tell you a story. It will answer some of your questions, I’m certain.”
He doesn’t speak again.
That night, Sansa’s seated besides Jon in an enormous cavern. She’s eaten some sort of a stew; it’s not very filling, but is very warm, so she’s rather grateful for it anyhow. Then the quiet movements around her still- people seat themselves, settle in as always for stories, the same way people would do in Winterfell’s Great Hall.
The Children whisper amongst each other, a gentle susurration of sound. Sansa waits.
Finally, a woman steps forward- or, Sansa thinks it’s a woman; she has more delicate features than some of the others, and a slightly higher voice- and she speaks, words accented strangely.
“I remember a time millennia past,” she says, “that you cannot possibly imagine. Things of wonder and horror and magic.” She pauses, and her green eyes glow brighter. “You have said that you know of the Pact. For years after signing it, we had peace. Many of our number did not think it possible- that your people could ever honor something when they loved its opposite so dearly, for not a single year went by without war of some sort. But you managed to hold the treaty for centuries. And then you came for our forests.”
Another child says something, cutting her off. They sound irritable, or perhaps reprimanding; the one who’d spoken responds sharply and they fall into an argument that slithers around Sansa’s ears as so many snakes.
“Are you certain-”
“Yes,” Sansa replies, hissing, into Jon’s ear. Yes, she is certain this is necessary. Not a good idea, perhaps. Not a safe idea, perhaps. But these people haven’t hurt Bran in the weeks that he’s been with them, and she also knows full well how it feels to have a person- a real, live person, with even the slightest bit of power- ask for an explanation without ulterior motives. They want to tell her this story. It might not be easy, but- she can feel its importance already, in the way the words trip up her spine like so many warmed stones.
Finally, the child who’d spoken returns her attention to them. “My- companion-” she says, in a voice that lets Sansa know how this admission galls her, “-wishes you to know that your people’s greed was not all of it. There were offerings given, and treaties struck, and we responded to a few cases of greed with overmuch zeal.”
“Offerings?” Jon inquires.
He could sound more polite, but he could also sound far less. Sansa decides to cut her losses instead of snapping at him.
“Of wool, and silks, and meat that dwells in flatlands that we hadn’t access to for years.” The child shrugs. “You wished for wood, and we offered that in return for all of those things. But some men took more than they gave. When we went to your kings… they did not hear us. They did not listen.” She lowers her voice, until it sounds like the wind’s rasp through a tree’s leaves. “One of the proudest, one of the greatest, was Brandon Builder. We do not have kings, did not have them even when our numbers rivalled your own- but we saw through the trees and realized you would not listen if we sent one of us alone to you. So we sang a child out of the mud, each one of us giving him a gift of our own. And we sent him to your king, this child of the Children.”
“Do you know what he said?” another child asks. This one has a rounder face, sharper cheekbones; he looks younger than the first one. “Brandon Builder, your thousand-times forefather- he refused to hear us. And when our child returned, he called us together for war.”
The first one continues: “The child was not the proper answer to our problems. We had wished to ready him for kings, and in doing so we made him too proud. Too vengeful. He led us into a war we were not ready for, for reasons none of us knew save for injured pride and revenge.” She snorts. “The first act of the war was our last.”
One act, Sansa thinks, fingers drumming against her thigh. One act, so terrible it destroyed an entire race.
“Brandon Builder had one daughter,” says the second child.
Jon shakes his head almost immediately. “He had only sons,” he challenges. “Three sons, and no daughters. If there’s one thing everyone agrees upon-”
The first truth, Sansa thinks, a chill gripping her bones. The oldest Stark truth: there was a daughter.
“Jon,” she says, reaching out to grip his elbow, eyes affixed to the children. “Just- listen.”
“He had five sons,” whispers the first child. “I know it well, Stark-son. I was there for it all. He had five sons: one heir and another with arrows sharp as dragonglass and another with a tongue even sharper and another with eyes bright as a sunrise and another with a gift for crafting that even his father did not have; and one daughter: her name was-” she says something, a long, liquid stream of syllables that makes Sansa shiver; it slips out of her mind almost immediately, however, and for all that she tries, she cannot remember it.
She smiles thinly. “You will not remember her name. Only those who knew her before she- she became what she is now, can know it. We sacrificed that in the name of our vengeance.”
Jon turns his head towards Sansa, creakingly slowly. There’s an old terror in his eyes, and she finds herself reaching forwards, slotting her fingers through his.
“How?” Sansa asks, quietly. How do you unmake a name? How is that possible?
“The child that we made- he was made, you see. Until him- Children appeared. We are of the trees and the streams, and when the magic is enough we are formed, whole. That is how I came, from a poplar tree; that is how-” another string of syllables that Sansa could not pronounce, though this one stays in her mind, “-came, from a stone rounded at the bend of a river. It is how we all come. Until we made him, and though he looked and spoke and sang as if one of us, he did not have what we have.”
“And what is that?”
“Contentment.” She reaches forwards and the trees before her burst into flowers- greenish rim, with a scarlet middle. Poplar flowers. “When the land has enough, it is contented. It is not greedy. But he did not have that in him, though he had enough to know what he did not have.”
Jon lifts one eyebrow. “Humans can be greedy.”
“Not this kind of greedy. The kind where you have nothing inside of you, where there is a coldness within in the place of a soul. He wanted. And so he took, and named it vengeance so we would follow him.”
“He formed the Others, then,” Sansa says, with certainty. Horror is there, yes, but the world seems to thrum above that, a drum-beat in echo with her heart. This is important, and a history that ought to be known. “He cut souls out of other- people, didn’t he?”
The first child closes her hand into a fist, and the poplar flowers shrivel. “We stole Brandon Builder’s daughter. And we watched as he did it- as he transferred her soul into his body. But souls are not meant to be cut out like that, nor to be touched by mortal hands. It was not a good job- he left pieces behind in her, of her soul, could not do enough. He was vaporized- the world caved in around us. We all nearly died. And the Night’s Queen was formed.”
“Brandon Builder raged.” The other child’s voice rustles, like water, like waves. She sounds empty. “She was beautiful and terrible and there was nothing that we could do against her. So we went to him, and Brandon Builder killed our envoys, led an army of a hundred thousand into our forests and cut us down where we slept.”
“The Night’s Queen killed us for the emptiness of her soul, and Brandon Builder killed us for our cruelty. At first she fed on Children alone; but when humans came too close, she had few compunctions about killing them as well.”
“She killed two of her brothers,” says the second child. “The heir, and the crafter. They who had tried to bring back their sister died before even uttering a word, and finally, still mourning, Brandon Builder called his people together and built a monument that still lasts to this day.”
What in the world-
“The Wall,” whispers Jon.
The Children hiss angrily at the word. It takes Sansa a moment to understand, because- well, they’ve not understood anything Sansa and Jon have said in the entire conversation; or at least they’ve pretended not to- but this word, this single word- it’s not in the Old Tongue, but the children know it.
Wall, thinks Sansa. The word they use now recalls the structure that Brandon built. It is, perhaps, the oldest word in their language.
The first child inclines her head slowly. “Eight thousand years later, and we still cannot approach it. The magic woven into it- it’s something that repels us. We cannot cross it.”
“And so,” Jon says flatly, “you died out.”
The second folds her hands together. “Even so. The last great thing we did was to erase her from history. Her name is gone. No longer can it remain in memory or writing, save for those who were alive and knew it before the spell was cast. And year by year, that number lessens. Until all those left are those before you now, whittled down to tens that once numbered millions.”
“Why?” whispers Sansa.
“Because,” says the first child, “you asked.”
“A name gives power,” says the second child. “Quiet power. Still power. But power nonetheless. Why do you think you name your sons Brandon? Because there is a power to it, one that you know but cannot understand. The Night’s Queen’s father knew this, and didn’t wish for it to happen. He had lost almost everything to us. Two sons, his sole daughter; the peace he’d fought for all his life. And he came to us and asked us for one boon.”
“A hollow boon, perhaps, but a boon nevertheless.” The first child smiles, ghastly. “We gave it to him. You know what we called it, when we did? The highest kindness. The best apology we could make.”
“Was it enough?” asks Jon.
Sansa knows the answer before ever the Children speak. How can it ever be enough? Life for a life is unequal, always. One life can never be matched by another. Hundreds? Thousands? It is like asking which is more devastating: the tides, or the floods. Each, in its own way.
“No,” says the first child. “But we tried.”
There’s a scraping sound from the weirwood throne- Sansa jerks her head up and looks at Brynden Waters, whom she’d forgotten existed, while listening to the story.
“You asked what you can do, Sansa Stark,” he says, scrapingly slowly. “And this is your answer: you are the latest descendant of this house, which has scarred this land immeasurably. It is your burden. To stand; to fight. What can you do? You are a protector. Stripped bare, carved hollow, bleeding and weeping to death- you are a protector.” He smiles, and it carves into his face like a weirwood’s tears. “What can you do? You can protect.”
“She’s-” Jon begins.
But Brynden speaks over him, like he isn’t even there.
“Your brother will keep greenseeing alive. Those are older traditions than those of House Stark. But for this war? You will need to fight its most vital battle. You will need to be unfaltering. Stronger than any other. Stronger than even you can imagine.”
Jon’s shaking his head. Bran looks pale, strained. The other Children are shifting uneasily.
Sansa lifts her head, meets Brynden Waters’ lone, red eye.
“Where do I fight it?” she asks.
Chapter 5: women made of terrible tempests, savage storms, and the untamed unwanted
“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.”
Just a reminder for everyone out there: Brandon Builder built the Wall. Thirteen generations later, the Night's King came, and Brandon Breaker broke the Long Night with the help of Joramun, who was the first King-Beyond-the-Wall. These are three different people, y'all. Let's get together and egg GRRM's house for naming 'em all the same thing!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.
And here we are, at the end of a lovely journey. Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, given kudos, bookmarked, etc. I love all of you very, very much!