For the first time since arriving at Winterfell, Sansa sleeps all the way through the night, waking to find pale beams slanting across the stone walls of her chamber. The decision to go riding has already taken a weight off her mind. When her maid arrives to help her wash and dress, she asks for a light breakfast, so she can nibble on toast and tea as her hair is braided tightly and pinned at the back of her neck.
Dressed in her warmest wools beneath her cloak, Sansa slips down the corridor toward her mother’s rooms. Inside, Septa Mordane is sorting skeins of yarn from a messy pile into separate baskets.
“Is my mother still in bed?”
“Lady Catelyn has risen and takes breakfast in the Great Hall, with your father. As is her custom.”
The Septa glances over Sansa’s outfit and sniffs. She doesn’t need to comment to make her disapproval clear.
“I’m glad to hear she’s feeling better.”
“I didn’t say that,” she replies, her tone dark. “Why should she find any joy here? Cut off from all good society. Forced to give up her position at court, all because of some—“
Sansa waits for a reason, but the Septa’s mouth tightens as she sucks in her cheeks. Her loyalty to the Lady of Winterfell dates back to her time as the woman’s own tutor in the Riverlands after her mother Minisa died. From the quiver of her chins as she bends over a knot of dark strands, Sansa can tell she’s finished speaking on the matter.
Avoiding the crowded hallways that lead to the morning meal, she reaches the stables without seeing any of her siblings. A knight waits there with two mounts, a heavy charger and a more delicate mare, a beautiful dappled grey. Sansa thinks of the copper mare at Riverrun whose mane she used to plait to match her own hair, but the memory pricks at the corners of her eyes. If the point of riding is to forget her unhappiness, she cannot dwell on the past.
“All ready, Ser Mathwell?” She tries to keep her voice light.
“Aye, my lady.” He finishes adjusting his sword belt and unties her horse’s bridle from the nearest stall to lead her to the mounting block. His hand hovers close by as she fits her boots into the stirrups, and she grabs for it just as she feels a wobble in her ankle. Once she has her balance, he lets go immediately, turning to spring atop his own horse.
His chivalry is one of the reasons she always asks him to accompany her on rides. Arya prefers the Northern guards because they’re willing to race her, but Sansa appreciates that the knight from the Riverlands always treats her like a lady.
It takes her a moment to arrange her skirts so they drape correctly, and then she catches his eye.
“Let’s be off.”
As they exit through the East gate, Sansa lifts her chin, imagining she can feel some degree of warmth from the sun on her face. There are clouds in the way, of course, but she tells herself the sky is less dim than it has been. At least outside the walls, there are fewer shadows to block the feeble light.
She and Ser Mathwell keep their horses at a walk, cautious not to startle any smallfolk near the keep. As before, she feels eyes fix on her from all sides, and it is all she can do not to stare back, to twist in her saddle and return their considering looks as she passes.
When they reach the kingsroad, she can bear their scrutiny no longer. Signaling to the guard to follow, Sansa turns north, against the magnet-force of her soul, and leaves all evidence of Winterfell behind.
The road is even and well-kept, littered only by fragrant needles from the pines that tower overhead. Her mare prances a little, almost as if she expects to be urged forward, and Sansa is eager to oblige. One squeeze of her heels, one click of her tongue, and they fly.
Like a ship reaching the crest of a wave, she feels her heart buoyed up and over the tightness in her chest. Above the echo of hoofbeats, the creak of leather, the anguished wail of wind through the trees and past her ears, she cannot hear the doubts and worries that have followed her from King’s Landing.
Unburdened, euphoric, she imagines the dark trees streaming past her like arrows, their straight trunks pointing her up and away from her troubles. In each breathe mingles the sharp clarity of cold earth and the distant spice of sap, oozing more slowly with each passing day.
It’s exactly what she needs.
They ride deeper into the Wolfswood, but even the waning light cannot keep her from smiling. She ignores, for the moment, the evidence of snow along the edges of the road. It’s not so refined as hawking in King’s Landing or so elegant as a riverside picnic, and yet she feels a sliver of confidence that she could find joy in being Northern lady this way.
The moment, however lovely, cannot last. The prickle at the back of her throat begins to taste like iron as the chill at the edges of her ears becomes a dull throb. Reluctantly, she asks her horse to slow.
“Alright, my lady?” Ser Mathwell asks politely.
She notices his breath is still well under control, his pink cheeks the only hint he’s been riding at all.
“Just a short break, I think,” she says. “Is there water nearby, for the horses?”
“There’s a stream along the King’s road not far to the west. Perhaps you should follow, my lady.”
Obediently, Sansa guides her horse through the trees behind him. No longer deafened by the wind in both ears, she finds the woods too silent. Twigs snap and splinter, but she misses the constant bustle of the harbor and the bells of the septs of the city, echoing across the Blackwater. The North, more than anything, feels empty.
When they are close enough to hear the burble of running water, her guard dismounts first. Just as his feet hit the ground, she hears a faint whistle.
The arrow’s impact sends a shudder through her as it buries itself in her horse’s flank. Suddenly, the forest is alive with shouts and the stamp of boots. Sansa cries out as her horse tries to bolt, only to stumble from its injury.
“Stay down!” Ser Mathwell shouts, but she has no control; she can feel herself slipping out of the saddle as her horse shies to one side. Men in dark cloaks run toward them from the water. Sansa sees at least two with bows.
Ser Mathwell finds his seat again just as the first man reaches him. The clash of swords sets her horse off in another panic. She tries to hold on with her knees, her hands grasping at the reins, but it’s no use; her mare rears to avoid an attacker and Sansa tumbles down, hitting the ground as he pulls back another arrow.
She closes her eyes against the terrible scream that follows. Her skirts and heavy cloak pad her fall, but they tangle around her legs as she struggles to stand. The man turns away from the thrashing animal and she realizes he’s wrapped in a tattered cloak of the Night’s Watch.
“Stop! I am Sansa Stark, of Winterfell! These are my father’s lands!”
There are three men gathered around the knight now, but his horse’s hooves and his longsword keep them at a careful distance. Her attacker pays them no minds as he steps forward and grabs her by the arm, dragging her upwards as her feet twist, useless, underneath her. Despite his gaunt frame, his grip is strong.
“Put down yer sword,” the man growls at her guard, dropping his bow to reach for something at his waist. Sansa sees Ser Mathwell look up from his own attackers, and in a moment one of them has crept close enough to stab his thigh. He howls in pain as Sansa finally manages to stand and pull away from her captor.
For a second she opens up the distance between them, but he kicks out and she’s falling again, and now she can see the knife in his other hand. A wave of despair floods her chest and she cries out, without words this time.
A shadow passes over her and her cry becomes a scream.
She’s pitched forward by the impact as something leaps upon him. It’s not a horse— it’s tearing at his flesh, the sound wet and sickening, and suddenly she is free.
There’s no use trying to run now. Even if her legs weren’t limp and shaking beneath her, she could not escape such a beast. She rolls away instead, putting the flash of white fur behind her so she might escape the sight of her death, at least. She presses her face tight against the earth and holds her breath. Then she feels the thunder of more hoofbeats, and she realizes faintly that someone is yelling at her.
Once again, she is hauled to her feet by a man in black, this one much younger than the first. Eyes dark and angry, he frowns as his gaze sweeps over her body.
“Are you hurt?”
Sansa can’t speak. She’s been attacked, her horse brought down beneath her, and now the second stranger in as many minutes has caught hold of her. If he lets go, her shock will send her right back to the ground.
The man looks past her then, and she realizes the whimpers behind her have gone silent.
“Ghost,” he says.
Sansa flinches, bracing herself for another attack, but none comes. Instead he shifts his grip around her shoulders and ducks to lift her behind her knees.
He carries her four steps before she remembers who she is and begins to struggle. He doesn’t seem to notice, grunting as he hoists her up onto his horse. Then she sees the blanket underneath his saddle— it’s the same grey and white that her own mount wore.
“Are you from Winterfell?”
“How did you know—?”
He ignores her question, waving down another man as he rides by. Sansa realizes there are more men and horses now, but none from the Night’s Watch that she can see. She sways, clutching at the horse’s mane.
His frown gets even deeper. “Can you ride?” he asks, impatient.
She tries to make her voice sound stronger. “Yes, I can.”
He hands the reins of her horse to the other rider, a grizzled older man with a long beard.
“Take her to the kingsroad and wait for me. Keep on guard.”
The stream can’t be more than a few hundred yards from the kingsroad, but it seems to take them forever to reach the opening in the trees. Sansa knows she can breathe easier now that she is surrounded by her father’s men, but her stomach feels sick. At the sight of a familiar face, she smiles weakly, careful not to let go of her new mount.
“Lady Sansa! Are you alright?”
“Better for seeing you, Ed Poole.”
The young cousin of her father’s steward hurries to her side. “Are you hurt, my lady?”
Sansa pauses for a moment before she replies. “Not badly. I took a fall, and my horse…”
She remembers the awful sound of the arrow piercing its hide and chokes on a sob.
“Here, have some water.”
Grateful, she accepts the flask he holds up to her. When she’s finished, she looks around at the rest of the men gathered on the side of the road. There are half a dozen or so, all mounted, and two carts pulled by heavier horses.
“We’ve been hunting three days north of Winterfell,” Ed explains, catching the meaning of her look. “You’re fortunate we happened to be returning this way.”
“Fortunate,” a voice snorts.
Her rescuer steps out of the trees carrying a saddle and bridle. Her saddle and bridle, she realizes with a jolt.
“Pardon me, Ed, but her horse is dead, her guard badly wounded, and we have three faithless brothers in black to bring to Winterfell in chains.”
“And Lady Sansa is alive.”
Sansa hopes she hears a note of reproach in Ed’s voice, but the man doesn’t react. A boy scurries forward to take the tack and carry it to one of the carts. His hands now free, he pushes his curls back off his forehead.
“Where is Ser Mathwell?”
“They’re tying up his leg so he can ride.”
“If he can still ride, he’s not badly off,” Ed reassures her.
“Not as bad off as whatever fool sent Lord Eddard’s daughter to the Wolfswood with only one guard.”
“I did.” Sansa sees heads snap around to look at her, but she doesn’t care. “He may be one man, but Ser Mathwell is a skilled knight. I’ve seen him unseat men from all seven kingdoms, and he won a melee in King’s Landing against a field of thirty-two the year after the Greyjoy rebellion was put down.”
“And he couldn’t protect you.” She looks around angrily for someone to object, but none of the men will meet her eyes.
They agree with him, she realizes. They think her a fool.
“If it weren’t for Ghost, you’d be dead or a hostage.”
At the sound of his name, the great white beast slinks out of the forest, snout and chest stained dark red. His eyes are red too, his gaze locked on her as he approaches. Some of the horses snort, but hers stays calm.
For the first time since he pulled her off the ground, the dark-haired man smiles. In the change of his expression, she sees something familiar, but it’s lost in her revulsion as he bends to bury a hand between the beast’s ears. He says something quietly— a word of praise, she thinks— and it bounds off in the direction of the keep.
A direwolf. She hadn’t realized they still existed.
When the wolf’s tail disappears around a curve in the road, she turns to see Ser Mathwell, supported on both sides by men-at-arms. The older man raises his chin in greeting.
“Lady Sansa, I’m so sorry…I’m so happy you’re safe.”
“Don’t be alarmed, ser. I’m unhurt.”
The men help him into one of the carts as more soldiers emerge, the deserters bound together between them. They look—where else—to the stern man in black for instructions.
“Ed, Hollis, Rickard and Willfred, you ride next to me. The rest of you, split between the carts, and extra men can ride with the prisoners. Torrhen, you’ve taken care of the horse?”
A tall man nods as he cleans his knife, and Sansa feels sick again.
“Right. We move quickly and we don’t stop. Eyes sharp”
They hurry to mount up, putting away their flasks and adjusting saddles. The man in charge walks over to her, his expression grim again.
“Scoot up. I’ll try not to sit on your skirts.”
Sansa nearly gapes at his presumption. “I told you I can ride!”
“Aye, but you’re on my horse. Unless you’d prefer to go in the cart with the prisoners?” One corner of his mouth twitches upwards. “Or the meat?”
“Fine,” she huffs, embarrassed.
She shifts her skirts forward as best she can, slipping her feet out of the stirrups so he can use them to mount. He swings astride with no small amount of grace and takes the reins, one elbow tucked against either side of her.
Ed and the grizzled man— Rickard, she thinks— lead the party as they set off to the south. She’d planned their route this way so she could spend her return imagining she was riding to Riverrun and her grandfather’s lush fields. That daydream is impossible now, so she does her best to steady her breathing and take in the open sky instead. For the first time since the attack began, she stops feeling dizzy.
“I didn’t mean to call you a fool.”
The voice in her ear makes her sit up straighter, fighting off a shiver.
“And yet you did. In front of my father’s men.”
His sigh brushes against her cheek. “You left Winterfell with one guard and not a single care for the dangers of this land. Fighting in the North isn’t like fighting in a tourney.”
Sansa has to bite her tongue. Ladies don’t let their tempers get the best of them, even if they are insulted by upstart guards with no manners.
Of course, he takes her silence as an invitation to continue. “If something happened to you, your brother would never forgive himself.”
“I’m sure my brother will thank you for your concern,” she replies, gritting her teeth against a less ladylike answer. “As I might thank you, if I knew who you were.”
He jerks back. She remembers the twitch of his mouth and wonders if he’s laughing at her.
She waits, but he’s apparently finished with the introduction. “Jon who?”
He’s a bastard.
At least that explains his utter lack of propriety.
Now Sansa is the one to let the silence linger too long. She can see his knuckles tense around the reins. She thinks about what her mother would do, or say, or not say.
“Well. Thank you, Jon.”
“My pleasure,” he drawls. It’s the first polite thing he’s said to her, and Sansa is certain he doesn’t mean it in the slightest.
They spend the rest of their journey in a silence that is mutual, if not comfortable. Sansa breathes deeply, trying to relocate the sweet scent of pine forest, but now the air is soured by unwashed wool and drying sweat. The trees hide dangers that were invisible to her as she rode north, their branches menacing where before they beckoned. Even the warmth at her back is difficult to appreciate without thinking about Jon’s broad frame blocking the wind, and the less she thinks about Jon, the better.
Nearing Winterfell, her composure begins to fail her. She is the eldest sister, the responsible one, her mother’s right hand; Sansa hasn’t been in trouble in years, unless you count petty arguments with Arya that got out of hand. They enter the gates without fanfare, but as soon as they reach the training yards outside the stables she catches a glimpse of Robb, his face pale.
“Sansa! What’s happened?”
She puts on her sweetest smile. “I’m just fine, Robb. Completely alright.”
Jon, the traitor, undercuts her right away. “She and her guard were attacked by deserters from the Night’s Watch. They both need maesters.”
“I’m not hurt,” she insists as Robb lifts her down, though she can’t hide the tremble in her knees, “but Ser Mathwell is. And my horse was killed.”
He tucks her against his chest and holds her, one hand cradling the back of her neck.
“Shhhh, you’re alright. You’re home now.” His voice goes cold as he lifts his eyes to Jon. “What happened to the brothers that did this?”
“Three are already being transferred to the cells. Ghost took care of the fourth.”
There’s a note of satisfaction in his voice that makes her stomach recoil. Sansa remembers the crunch of bone against bone, and the stench of blood, and flashing red eyes in a savage face.
I’ve seen hell, she thinks. I believe I’ve seen hell, and it’s a white wolf.