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The Iron in our Blood

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There is no occasion better suited for extravagance than a royal wedding, and no setting lends itself to adornment more naturally than the walled courtyards of Highgarden.

The stones, the trellises, the very sept itself: Every surface seems not so much covered with roses as constructed from them. Unlike the famous briars that guard the keep, the varietals chosen to line the passageways to the feast droop with heavy blossoms, each fat and round as the bells that still ring out from the countryside.

The rose of Highgarden has finally wed, and her husband is brother to the King.

Aesthetically, the match is a triumph. Some roses draped along the walls are pale as new cheese, some bright as brass, others rich as honey— but every rose is gold. Sansa has never seen so much gold in one place, and she’s spent half her life in the court of a Lannister queen. It’s just as well that Cersei has remained in King’s Landing, whatever her reasons. King Robert announced her regrets at the wedding breakfast, claiming preparations for Prince Joffrey’s nameday kept her from attending, but Arya told another story.

“The Tyrells already have a guard on the wedding chamber door.” She crashed down into the seat beside Sansa just as a serving maid was bringing in trays for tea. “Everyone is saying she stayed away because at Stannis’s wedding, King Robert fathered a bastard in his own brother’s bed.“

“Edric Storm. He’s being raised at Storm’s End by Lord Renly’s castellan.” Sansa lifted her teacup and sipped. Arya followed suit and sputtered.

“You could have warned me it was too hot!”

Sansa passed the milk with a lifted eyebrow. “How do you know about the guard?”

Arya wrinkled her nose. “They’re guarding the labyrinth too. It doesn’t even make sense. Why keep people out who are already inside the keep?” She added a drop of milk, frowned as the tea reached the brim, and poured some out into her saucer.

Arya.

“What? There wasn’t enough room.”

You didn’t leave enough room.” Sansa sipped even more daintily this time, exaggerating her own manners to compensate. She could have asked why her sister wanted to explore a famously dangerous maze of thorns, but she already knew the answer. Arya was impossible.

For that reason, she walks to the feast arm and arm with Bran. If she doesn’t sit next to her sister, she’ll have no reason to spend the evening aghast as Arya disregards every basic principle of polite behavior.

Her brother is nearly twelve, old enough to spend his days training with her father’s men, but he still retains the sweetness of youth. He presents her seat with a flourish when they reach the great hall.

“My lady.”

“I thank you, kind sir,” Sansa replies, matching his formality.

Course after course appears on gleaming chargers with barely an interval between them. Their table is one of many that line the walls of the enormous room, leaving space in the center for entertainments. The musicians, Sansa and Bran agree, are just as fine as those at court, and the jesters and actors are better dressed and less crude. From their position near the high table Sansa can see the King, already in his cups though the dinner is not half over.

Perhaps it’s best that her father stayed behind in King’s Landing as well.  The more the King drinks, the more his Hand frowns.

To the King’s right sits Mace Tyrell, jovial next to his two eldest sons. On his left, Margaery and Renly eat off the same plate, feeding each other the choicest bites between smiles.

At her own side, Rickon is equally selective. “Sansa, do direwolves eat potatoes?”

Sansa smiles. “I don’t think so.”

“Then I’m not eating mine.” Rickon drops his fork against his plate.

She catches Catelyn’s sharp look too late and corrects her advice. “But they do eat beets. Find the red ones, sweetling.” He picks up his fork and gamely hunts through his roasted root vegetables, punctuating each stab with a low growl. The soup courses he won’t touch. When his mother suggests a direwolf might steal mushroom turnovers cooling on a windowsill while the cook wasn’t looking, Rickon looks at her with disdain.

“You don’t know anything about direwolves. You told me they eat broccoli.”

Mother and daughter nod approvingly when the next course is pork chops smothered in a sweet onion glaze, but the youngest Stark pushes it away.

“You can eat this one, Rickon. Direwolves love to eat fat piggies,” Sansa reminds him.

His eyes go wide and serious. “But it has sauce on it. Direwolves only eat meat with blood.”

It’s a relief when the dancing begins.

A Fossaway is her first partner, then an Oldwyne, then a younger Royce son. The servers bring out tiny glasses of icewine, aged since the previous winter, and the dancers press on, refreshed. Three dark-haired lordlings from the Stormlands request her hand in a row, until she begs the last to escort her to her family so Bran may have a turn. They circle palm to palm, trading partners to both sides only to return to each other once more at the end of each figure. Sansa calls to him over the applause when the musicians finish.

“You are my only partner so far who hasn’t tread on my gown.” She straightens her pale lilac skirt where it falls away from her hips in soft silken folks. The fine fabric is made heavier than her usual dresses by the intricate patterns worked in seed pearls that climb up from the hem to the bodice.

Bran bows deeply. “It was my honor.”

“May I beg the next dance, sweet lady?” Sansa turns to find Ser Loras Tyrell at her shoulder.

“My lord,” she curtsies.

“My sister may wish to rest, Ser Loras. She has danced every set.”

Sansa ducks to hide her smile at Bran’s protectiveness, but Loras takes his words seriously. “Lady Sansa’s hand is fiercely sought.” He lifts her knuckles to his lips as if to demonstrate his point. “Your brotherly concern speaks highly of you.”

He beams. “Sansa?”

“I am well, Bran. Ser Loras, I would gladly accept.”

The dance is a stately promenade, little more than walking with their hands clasped over each other as they sink and rise to recognize each of the couples they meet. The steps will eventually take them past the high table, where Margaery and Renly are stationed to visit with their guests, but until then there is time for conversation.

“Your kind words to my brother will be long remembered. He has wanted to be a knight almost since he was born.”

“An unusual path for a Northman, is it not?” Loras asks.

“And rarer still for a Stark.” Sansa admits. “He rode along with Lord Renly’s men on our journey from King’s Landing and found them very impressive.”

He smiles. “Indeed. Will he join in the tourney for Prince Joffrey?”

“I don’t think so.” Sansa chooses her next words carefully. “The Prince intends the competition to draw the very greatest knights.”

Ser Loras has spent enough time in the Red Keep to understand her meaning. Joffrey is quick to take offense at any potential slight, even one so minor as a novice who wishes to ride in his tourney.

“However,” she continues “I know he wishes to become a squire. My father is close to allowing him, though my mother would prefer he stays near to her.”

“Ah, but that is the way of mothers.” Loras smiles, glancing up at Lady Tyrell. “If he is serious about squiring, let me give you a recommendation. There is a master smith in the Street of Steel—Tobho Mott is his name. All the finest knights and lords go to him for their armor.”

“Even Lord Renly?” Sansa asks, teasing him gently.

“Even myself!” he declares. Loras can never resist a boast. As a young girl, she had been infatuated with the Knight of Flowers, but years spent meeting him in company with Margaery have cured her of her former hero worship. Ser Loras is charming and gallant, and a truly skilled horseman, but he is not without his faults after all.

They have only a few moments to greet the newly wedded couple as the dance nears its end. Loras lets go of her hands so she can embrace Margaery. The new Lady Baratheon kisses both her cheeks.

“We will come visit you soon, Sansa. My lord husband—“ here she glances at Renly, the picture of love, “has promised his brother to return in time for the Prince’s celebrations.”

For years, she and Margaery have conspired to spend the same weeks of each year in King’s Landing. Ravens fly thick and fast between Highgarden and Riverrun, where Lady Catelyn prefers to raise her family. Now, her friend will travel at the pleasure of Lord Renly, and Sansa must brave the Red Keep without her dearest age mate. The prospect is bittersweet, lightened only by the genuine happiness Sansa can see in her friend’s shining eyes.

“I shall count the days,” Sansa says. “My best wishes to you both, Margaery, Lord Renly.”

“And now, you must meet my brother,” says Loras as he leads her away from the dancers. “I have strict instructions from my grandmother.”

Lady Olenna Tyrell sits three places away from the heir to Highgarden, but Sansa has the sense that she can hear every word spoken at the high table. She’s learned her lesson long ago from time spent with Margaery: never underestimate the Lady of Thorns.

Of Lord Willas, however, she remains ignorant. He rises easily to greet her, the elegant golden cane in his left hand utterly unremarkable amidst the wedding finery. His injuries are still whispered about in King’s Landing by those who witnessed his first and final joust, but Sansa sees a slim athletic man, still young, whose face lacks the haughty pride of Ser Loras and the open grin of their second brother, Garlan.

“Lady Sansa, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. I hope you and your family are enjoying your time at Highgarden,” Willas begins as Loras passes him her hand to kiss.

“The honor is ours, my lord, to be invited to share such a joyous occasion with your family.” She leans forward so that she might lower her voice. “I have never seen Margaery so happy. I must admit I shed a tear or two in your sept during her vows.”

He is not as handsome as his brothers, but his smile is kind. “It was a beautiful ceremony, just as my sister intended it. I understand that the people of the North make their marriages in a godswood—tell me, how does it compare?”

“My father does worship the Old Gods, my lord, but I have never seen a Northern wedding.” At his surprised look, she explains, “Since my father was named his Hand at King Robert’s ascension, my family has lived south of the Neck.”

“It is a great distance from Winterfell to the Crownlands. Does he ever wish to return?”

It is not a question Sansa has ever considered. “He was fostered in the Vale with King Robert when they were boys, my lord. His allegiance is to the king. And my brother Robb has lived in the north these past nine years in order to learn his duties under my Uncle Benjen. Winterfell is in safe hands.”

“I see, “ he says, thoughtful. “And when you are married, Lady Sansa, shall it be in the sept of Baelor or under the canopy of a heart tree?”

“Neither, I think.” The sept in King’s Landing is a spectacle of architecture, but its scope and its history overwhelm her. “Though I’ve spent time at court, I find the city rather stifling. I have always imagined I will marry in the sept at Riverrun, as my mother did.”

Something about this declaration makes his smile widen. “It must be a very special place.”

“It is the most beautiful place in the world,” Sansa answers without hesitation. “The sept is built near the shade of the tall redwoods that fill the godswood, but the largest windows look south onto the Red Fork. The banks there are bordered with silver willows and all the fields are full of wildflowers, every color you could imagine swaying together in the breeze. It’s nothing like the gardens here.”

Swept away by thoughts of her home, she realizes too late that the comparison must give offense. “But Highgarden is beautiful, of course. I didn’t mean…”

Willas lifts his brows in surprise as his mouth twists with amusement. “No! Do not dampen your praise, my lady. I can hardly censure you for loving your home so. Instead, I shall take it as a challenge. You must ride out with me and view our gardens with a proper guide.”

“You think to change my mind, Lord Willas?”

“My pride demands it.” He presses her hand between his as if to reassure her of his good humor. A rather desperate howl from the room behind her forces Sansa to pull away.

“Then I shall look forward to our excursion. If you will excuse me, my lord, my lady mother needs me.”

Catelyn greets her daughter with relief when she returns to their seats. “It’s time our littlest direwolf goes to bed. Bran, are you sure you won’t join him?”

“Let him stay and enjoy the feast, Mama. I’ll rest from dancing a while.”

Arya scowls as their mother drags Rickon out of the hall by his collar. “How can you need a rest? All you do is walk around in circles and let men kiss your hand.”

“And yet you always end up stepping out of rhythm.” Sansa knows she should have outgrown this kind of bickering, but her patience isn’t endless.

“It’s because the musicians are too slow. Rodjer says in the North, all the ladies are swung around through the air, and they jump up and down so hard the floor shakes.”

Sansa thinks this sounds more like brawling than dancing, and better suited for a groom in her father’s stables. “Has Rodjer ever been to a dance?”

“He was at Brandon Tallhart’s wedding. He drank so much ale he fell asleep with his face in a damson pie.” The awe in Arya’s voice makes it clear she finds this an accomplishment.

Sansa watches her take a gulp of wine. Arya has no more experience of the North than she does, but something has convinced her she would belong there as she never has at court. After the Greyjoy uprising, when her father had sent his heir north to his family seat, he promised his wife she could keep her other children close. Arya’s pleas to join Robb in the North have been summarily denied.

Sansa turns back to the dancers, graceful and glittering as they weave past one another. The movements are sedate—her sister isn’t entirely wrong— but the weight of her gown and the crowded heat of the room have tired her regardless. She wishes she could unpin a few of the heaviest coils from the crown of her head. When at last the bride is carried off to her bedding, she catches Arya in a yawn and seizes her chance.

“Time to retire, I think.” To her surprise, neither sibling protests. Sleepy and tipsy, they trip across the flagstones back to their rooms, the garden passages empty now except for golden petals beginning to glisten with midnight dew.

Chapter Text

The letter arrived a week ago yesterday. Sansa had given herself seven days to make a plan, to form some kind of reply, but the time has come and gone with no response on her part. She sits by the window in her mother’s sewing room, a volume of poetry on her lap in case she is disturbed. Once more, she unfolds the outer parchment.

Darling Sansa,

I hope this letter finds you well, dearest, as I have never been so well in my life. Renly is an even more perfect husband than he was a suitor. We simply exhausted ourselves in adventures during our trip to the east, and now that the summer grows late I had to visit my family before the season turns. My husband goes to Storm’s End to ensure it is prepared for my arrival, and Loras accompanies him to aid in his arrangements. 

Though we could not attend the celebrations for Prince Joffrey, I am confident that I will see you very soon indeed- though not, as my grandmother informs me, in the Sept of Baelor. She says you make Riverrun sound like a very pretty picture indeed. I’m sure we’ll all find it charming.

Naturally I’ve given my brother the strictest of instructions for his letter to you, but he wouldn’t let me read it before he tucked it in with mine. Do tell me everything he says! I know he awaits your answer with great anticipation.

Yours in sisterly affection,

Margaery Baratheon

There can be no question what the note from Willas contains, and yet Sansa cannot bring herself to open it; once she reads his actual words, the proposal will be too real to continue to delay. Better to wallow a few more moments in ignorant bliss.

How did they part with such a difference in understandings? Willas had taken her on a ride through the gardens as promised. She’d admired his matching chestnut trotters and the fine chaise that let them sit side-by-side as he pointed out various landmarks. The flowers were beautiful, the grounds exquisitely well-maintained, but they were all forgotten in a moment. Despite his confidence in his home’s appeal, her heart remained untouched. If she were asked to describe the afternoon, she might call it pleasant.

Yet he wants to marry her. Expects it, even, or at least Margaery does. Worst of all is the mention of his grandmother. If Lady Olenna’s wishes go unrealized, there will be a great deal of trouble.

With trembling hands, Sansa once again picks up the second letter. A single rose, stamped into golden wax, looks back at her.

A sharp knock sounds at the door.

In a flurry, Sansa stuffs both letters between two pages and snaps the book closed. “Come in!”

“Sansa.” Catelyn grasps the doorway in both hands, knuckles white. “Your father needs to speak to you. To all of us. I can’t find Arya.”

“Have you checked the stables? The yard?” Even as she asks, she knows the answer. Those are the first places her mother would have looked. “Never mind, I think I know where she might be. Let me go look for her.”

“Is it outside the Keep?”

“Yes, but not so far. The Street of Steel.”

“You will take guards. At least four.”

Sansa tries to protest, but Catelyn insists. “Come straight back to the Tower of the Hand, understand?”

“Of course, mama.”

 

 

Whatever has happened to worry her mother, it has the men anxious too. Her mare can feel the tension in the air. She jerks her head to the side and balks at the gate of the Keep until Sansa gets control of herself and settles into her seat.

The bustle of the city streets reassures her. There are children chasing dogs and dogs chasing rats and carts unloading their wares, all going about their business as normal. Even the sight of Gold Cloaks spitting into the gutters makes her breathe more easily. No one gives the daughter of the Hand any extra attention as she passes, so that by the time they reach Tobho Mott’s shop she is almost calm. Arya’s favorite mount is tied up outside.

One of her guards, Jorrick, helps her dismount. “Ready my sister’s horse and wait here. I won’t be a moment.”

She’s only been inside the once, but Mott recognizes her immediately. “Lady Sansa, how do you do. May I offer you some small ale? Or perhaps you’d like to examine another piece for your brother.”

Sansa shakes her head kindly but firmly. “Bran treasures his dagger, but I’m afraid I can’t stay. I’m here to inquire after my sister.”

He grins. “She’s in back, of course. Follow me.”

The master armorer leads her around the gleaming counter toward his forge. In the far corner, Arya stands with her hands on her hips, talking with a smith. Ever since Sansa brought her along to order a gift for their brother, Arya has been consumed by dreams of working steel. On a shelf beside her rests a helmet set with two curved horns.

“Arya!” Sansa wraps her sister in an embrace she doesn’t return. In her ear, she whispers, “You have to come back with me right away. Something’s wrong.”

Arya shrugs her off. “What?”

Sansa gives her space, but keeps her voice low. “I don’t know, but Mama says it’s serious.” At her sister’s skeptical look she presses on. “She made me bring extra guards. Father wants to see us right away.”

“Fine.”

As they turn to leave, Sansa realizes the smith at her shoulder has frozen in a sort of half-bow, his hammer held uncertainly at his waist. “My lady,” he mumbles, and Arya laughs.

“Her name’s Sansa. Sansa, this is Gendry. He’s teaching me how to make swords even though he doesn’t know anything about using them.”

The man straightens, and Sansa gets a closer look at his face. He’s younger than he seemed at first glance, with clear blue eyes and dark hair. He scowls at Arya before remembering himself and forcing his expression back to something more neutral. “I know how to use a hammer, my lady.”

“I’m sure my sister thanks you for your…instruction,” Sansa says, knowing Arya is rolling her eyes. “I’m afraid we must leave you.” 

She takes one last glance at the menacing helmet and the handsome smith before leading her sister back to their horses.

They return to the Red Keep and reach her father’s solar without incident. The boys sit quietly on either side of Catelyn as she strokes their hair. Many in King’s Landing call Eddard Stark a stern man, but Sansa has never seen her father’s face so cold.

She goes to kiss his cheek.  “What is it, papa?” Up close, his eyes are lined with worry.

“Sit, please.”

Even Arya looks shaken as they take the remaining chairs.

“As long as Robert has been king, it has been my job to advise him.” He pauses to rub his beard. “He has not always agreed with my advice. I have not always agreed with his choices. We have now disagreed on an issue for which there is no compromise. I have resigned from my position as his Hand.”

Sansa hears one of her brothers whimper, but she keeps her eyes on her father.

“He will make the announcement to the court tomorrow, and we must be ready to leave the morn after.”

“Are we riding to Riverrun, father?” Bran asks.

“We will take a ship to White Harbor.”

“And then to Winterfell,” Sansa realizes out loud. “We’re going to the North.”

Her father almost smiles. “Aye. We’re going home.”

Catelyn begins to object, but Sansa can hardly listen, her mind a blur. There is tea on the table between them, though no one has touched their cups. She pours, needing something to do with her hands.

“We cannot wait,” her father is saying. “When Robert is angry, he cannot be reasoned with, and he is dangerously angry.”

“You have been at his side for nearly thirty years, Eddard. Surely he will forgive you an argument?”

Sansa slips a teacup into her mother’s hands. She takes a sip automatically.

“It is a matter of conscience, Catelyn. By disagreeing, I accuse him of lacking honor. If he can forgive me the insult, it will only happen when I am far away and out of sight. He will ask Jon Arryn to come down from the Vale and Jon Arryn will serve him well.” He accepts a cup from Sansa as well. “Perhaps he should have been Hand from the beginning.”

Catelyn looks as though she has more to say, but holds her peace. “We shall have to pack everything we can and leave behind what we cannot. Lysa will deal with what remains, if she decides to accompany him.”

Eddard nods. “My men are already loading up carts as we speak. Until we leave, everyone stays in the Tower. I don’t want any trouble finding you.”

Arya and Bran both shift in their seats. “Yes, papa.”

 

 

 

It’s Sansa who dares to slip out of her father’s rooms that evening. When a guard objects, she allows him to accompany her, though it makes her feel like a little girl again to be trailed down a familiar corridor. The sight of men in Highgarden green at the edge of the godswood is an unexpected relief.

She starts down the path toward the heart tree, careful not to trip on the spindly roots that reach for her thin slippers. The night creatures begin to murmur and croak from the shadows as the sun retreats behind the high walls of the keep. Around the first bend in the path sits a hunched figure in a pale blue wimple.

“Sansa, my dear. I’m so glad you could join me so quickly.”

“Lady Olenna.” Sansa curtsies before taking her seat. The invitation had been hidden under a plate of lemoncakes delivered by a servant after supper.

“I’m equally disappointed that your letters are answered so slowly.”

It’s only the first prick of many. Lacking such thorns, her courtesy must defend her.

Sansa begins in a measured voice, “I am fully conscious of the great honor it would be for any lady to receive an offer of marriage from Lord Willas. The seat of Highgarden, the Tyrell name…these are not privileges that could be taken lightly.”

“I should hope not,” Olenna murmurs.

“Therefore, I must regret to inform you that no such offer has been made. When you see Margaery next, I hope you will tell her that I have received no letters since she returned from her travels.”

“I know for a fact that is a lie. What are you getting at, girl?”

“She will soon learn, as will Lord Willas, that my father is no longer Hand of the King. To escape King Robert’s anger, we must leave so quickly that it is possible a letter might be lost.” Sansa takes a deep breath. “If this were the case, I trust you might convince Lord Willas that the Stark name is out of favor. That it would make for a poor alliance.”

The Queen of Thorns barks out a laugh. “Your father is a fool and you are a fool in his image.”

Sansa weathers the insults without flinching.

The old woman’s eyes trace her high cheekbones, her full lips, as if looking for some sign of infirmity. “So you’ve come to offend my grandson to my face. Tell me this: Why shouldn’t I ruin you?”

Her voice is suddenly low and hard. Sansa fights to hide a shiver.

“The future lord of Highgarden, as I’ve said, is a highly desirable match. But Lord Willas has two younger siblings already wed, and he is not. I cannot imagine he wishes it widely known that his suit has been denied.”

“Who do you think you can catch by this maneuver? You think Prince Joffrey will have you now that his father throws your family out on its ear? Willas will be a Lord Paramount, by the gods!”

Sansa cannot avoid injuring her pride, so she tries softening the blow. “Prince Joffrey is out of my reach and my aim, Lady Olenna. I must go north with my family. Whomever I marry, I cannot hope to make him happy if I feel nothing for him but respect for his position.”

“What else should a wife feel for her husband? Love? I was married longer than you’ve been alive. Respect is better than you can expect, I assure you.”

“I cannot accept him. But I can offer you this.” Sansa takes his letter from her cloak. “No one has seen it. No one knows it exists.”

Olenna stares at the outstretched parchment. Her lips wobble.

“If your concern is for your grandson’s feelings, or for his pride, spare him my rejection. Tell Lady Margaery the letter was lost, and convince Lord Willas yourself not to renew his proposal.”

“I most certainly will.” The letter is snatched away, and all at once Sansa is alone in the godswood.

Reentering the keep, she shivers. Without the noise of insects and breezes, the halls feel too silent; if anyone happens across her, there will be nowhere to hide. They pass the heavy doors that lead to the cells, then the central corridor where the Greyjoy ward drinks late into the night with his companions, locked in as insurance against future rebellions. Across from the throne room, the great tapestry depicting King Robert’s triumph at the Trident catches her eye, and she almost stops— it’s something about the angle of his shoulders as he lifts the hammer, or the wrinkle in his brow as he glowers at the fallen prince— but the silence urges her on.

Within yelling distance of the Tower of the Hand, Sansa hears the telltale clink of armor. The crown prince turns the corner followed by two of his Kingsguard. Her stomach, already tight with nerves, threatens to upend itself.

She keeps walking, willing herself forward, hoping he will decide this time to let her pass without harassment.

“Your grace,” she murmurs, eyes downcast as they draw nearer and then—

He stops directly in front of her. “Lady Sansa.”

She can hear her guard behind her and motions for him to stop as well. There must be no trouble between them with his father in a rage and her father out of power, her family just as easily imprisoned as protected in the Tower. Joffrey will do what he wishes and when he is done, when he has seen her humiliated, she will be free to go.

“How fortunate we are, my lady, to be able to take our leave in private,” he smirks, stepping closer.

“Farewell, your grace.”

He laughs without humor, malice-green eyes glinting. “Have you forgotten your lessons, Lady Sansa? All the fair words you used to teach me when we were children?”

When we were almost betrothed, he means to say, the presence of witnesses stopping his tongue. There had been a time, growing up together, when it was their fathers’ dearest wish to see Joffrey and Sansa wed. She had spoken to him the way ladies did in songs, and he had repaid her in torment. Both of their mothers had eventually put an end to the match, though, Sansa suspected, on very different grounds.

But Joffrey likes to remind her of her youthful fantasies. She knows how he wants her to respond. Her eyelashes flutter—she is determined, at least, to hold back tears.

“Sweet prince, I beg of you, let me take my leave.”

He’s so close now that she can feel his warm breath against her face. “Am I your sweet prince, Sansa? Show me.”

He means a kiss, though he won’t say it. Failing that, he means to provoke her guard, to stir an excuse for his men to draw their weapons. She cannot give him that satisfaction.

Although she is tall for a woman, she must tilt her head and raise herself on tiptoes to reach his cheek. Six racing heartbeats, long enough to prove her courage but not longer than she can stand. Then she retreats, slipping past his shoulder as he calls to her back:

“Safe travels, my lady. You’ll be sorely missed.”

Chapter Text

Sansa’s mount stamps the frozen ground twice, his shoe clinking against stone. Though equally impatient, Sansa remains still—shoulders back, neck long—even as the wind bites her skin with icy teeth. It howls around the corner of the outer walls, harmonizing mournfully with the creak of the King’s Gate. The dark wood studded with iron bars takes an eternity to open.

The welcome bodes ill for her new home.

In truth, everything about the North bodes ill. Riding up the road from White Harbor, it seemed to Sansa that every color had seeped from the world. Gone were the flowers and the rolling green fields. Gone, even, were blue skies. Here in the heart of the North, beneath the shadow of the Wolfswood, the world is shrouded in grey and brown.

The people of Wintertown who brave the cold autumn air have taken on the muted tones of their surroundings. Dark eyes in thin faces peer out from beneath mud-stained cloaks that match the sooty chimneys of the village.

Against this dreary scene, Sansa glitters, uncomfortable as a diamond set in iron. Her snowy cloak is set off by the sapphire of her riding outfit. In King’s Landing, trotting through the gardens with Margaery, she’d thought the blue very elegant, if somewhat plain besides her friend’s cloth-of-gold roses. Here, it attracts the eyes of every woman in the village, and half of the guard sent from Winterfell, too.

Or perhaps they stare at her hair. Lady Catelyn has never cared for the overly elaborate styles made fashionable by Queen Cersei. Her auburn locks form a tumbling curtain down her back beneath the twin braids twisted away from her face. Taking advantage of the freedom afforded by the journey north, Arya has chopped hers just below her chin, adding rough bangs to keep it out of her eyes. Had Sansa realized the attention she would draw, she would have forgone the complicated coronet with all its twists and pins, but here she is.

Lord Manderly’s daughters each wore a single braid down their backs, but one of them had dyed it bright green, and besides, they were originally a Southron family. Sansa hadn’t thought to ask them for advice on Northern customs.

With a clanging thud, the gates finally open for the Starks. Hailed by an army of shouts that echo across the ancient battlements, they enter Winterfell in a stately formation.

Inside, a row of men in heavy armor stands at attention, their faces just as long and unreadable as the crowds outside. Sansa searches the party for the familiar face of her brother, but the man who approaches her father’s horse looks very little like the boy of ten years who went north with the troops that put down the Greyjoy Rebellion. 

Eddard dismounts, and father and son clasp arms, their words too quiet for the crowd to hear. Sansa would swear that her father leans on his heir for a moment, the deep lines in his forehead betraying how the sight of his son relieves him. The men behind Robb keep their heads bowed in respect.

When they finally separate, stable boys hurry forward to help the rest of the party. Robb himself appears at her side, offering his hand with a flourish. “Welcome home, sister.”

Once her feet touch the ground, Sansa is glad they are hidden among the crowd of horses and pack animals. She throws away her careful manners at the sight of her brother’s grin, swaying forward into his embrace. He growls into the fur at her collar before pulling back and kissing her cheeks. His curls have darkened to a russet brown, and his voice has deepened, too, but Robb’s eyes still match her own.

“I do hope you’ve brought the latest fashions from King’s Landing with you, Sansa. Tell me, will all the knights be carrying muffs this winter? Or will their delicate hands go unguarded, as you have apparently ordered the slaughter of every white rabbit in existence for your cloak?”

“Don’t tease!” Sansa hisses. “No one told me the North would be so grey.”

He tugs at a copper curl at the back of her neck in punishment. “Liar. Think of our house colors.” Then, suddenly serious, he tilts back her head to better meet her eyes. “The people here are different than in the Crownlands. They take tremendous pride in their home.”

Chastened, Sansa takes her brother’s arm and lets him lead her across the yard through the crowds of men who greet her family. Her uncle she recognizes instantly, though he has more humor in his face than Eddard. He is a stranger to her despite their close connection, and Sansa relies on the words her mother has taught her to bridge their lack of intimacy.

“Lord Benjen, it is an honor to finally meet my father’s beloved brother.”

Before she can curtsy he has swept her into his arms. “Sansa, I haven’t been greeted so formally since your father married little Catelyn Tully. Call me Lord Benjen again and all my men will burst their sides laughing at me.” By the time he sets her down, he is grinning and she is confused. “You are twice as beautiful as your brother described you. Welcome home, my girl.”

The rest of the introductions go much faster. Her father’s most trusted men have all spent some time in King’s Landing, though he preferred to keep his household small. His men, he always said, belonged in the North, even if he was away serving the king. Off to the side of the men-at-arms and master craftsmen stands a trio of men in solemn black, guardians of the Wall at the edge of the Seven Kingdoms. Sansa is careful to greet them with respect. Though treated as figures of pity at court, men from the Night’s Watch had always been welcome at the Tower of the Hand while her father held the position.

Near the doors into the castle Rodrick Cassel, Master-at-Arms, gives her a solemn bow. His young daughter tucks herself into his side, eyes bobbing from the tips of her polished riding boots to the gossamer threads that wind through her braids.

“Beth’s been chattering about the return of her cousin Jory for weeks on end,” Robb murmurs in her ear. “He’ll be put out now that he’s proven less interesting than your riding outfit; perhaps you should send him a rabbit muff as an apology.”

On their way to the family chambers, her older brother points down corridors and names their functions—the guard hall, the library, the kitchens, —but Sansa has no real sense of their location in the castle. The floors are swept clean and the passages are wide, but the stone walls seem bare and cold to her after the luxurious fixtures of the Red Keep. Here everything is simple, from the torches burning in round iron sconces to the long aprons worn by the servants.

Robb directs the men carrying her trunks to a door near the end of the corridor on the third floor. “Our mother’s rooms will be just across from yours, and Arya’s around the corner,” he explains. “Benjen had everything aired out, but there are plenty of extra quilts and tapestries in storage should you prefer…something else.”

“Thank you, Robb.” When he hesitates to leave, she teases, “Don’t hover unless you mean to help me unpack my gowns.”

Thanks to Robb’s words, the tapestries draw her attention first. She runs her fingers along the booted calf of a hunter, tracing the threads up to the belt at his waist. He lifts a spear, poised to deal the final blow to a hoary elk already pierced by arrows. A scene of slaughter to decorate a lady’s bedchamber. She has the sudden sick feeling that if she were to examine all the tapestries in Winterfell, in all the bedchambers, they would be just the same. Long pale faces sternly fighting wild beasts, or other Northmen, or perhaps even creatures out of myth and song.

As she explores the rest of the room, her spirits continue to sink. The cavernous four-poster bed, the cold stone fireplace, the ancient black wardrobe that looms in one corner—everything seem designed to impose, to intimidate, to remind her of the inevitable turn of the seasons. Winter is coming. The future here is bleak as the view from her single, narrow window.

During her first week at Winterfell, Sansa’s outlook does not improve. Riverrun, at the junction of two rivers, always bustled with travelers and merchants and their stories. Life at court could be oppressive, but there was never a shortage of dinners and tea parties and people to talk to. At Winterfell, there is the family of Starks and there are men. Most of the servants live outside the gates in Wintertown, and as for the closest noble family…

“You could reach the Hornwoods in a week, I think?” Robb replies. “Depends on how you’re traveling. And really, it depends on the snow. Could be months.”

“You’re joking.”

“Aye,” he laughs. “You don’t travel for months in the snow to get anywhere. You stay at home in your cozy keep and wait for it to melt.”

Some of Winterfell’s guards have wives and daughters who live at the keep. Desperate for company, Sansa begins sewing with them in the afternoons, and although the names that fill their gossip mean little to her, their conversation is kind enough. When she asks them about their work, they show her woolen stockings and knitted shawls.

Her own project is rather dainty in comparison.

“It’s a seat cover for one of the chairs in my room,” Sansa explains to the girl seated beside her, spreading the pale green fabric across her lap.

“Are the chairs uncomfortable?” she asks.

“No,” Sansa says, bending closer to a flower stitched in gold. “But I wanted to add some more color to the furnishings. So I have a soft place to rest my eyes.”

“It’s not my eyes I rest on a seat,” one woman remarks, and the whole room bursts into laughter.

At the end of their gathering, Sansa seeks out her mother. Her solar is empty, though the fire burns merrily and there is a jug of spiced wine open on a low table.

“Mama?” she calls cautiously.

Septa Mordane shuffles out of the bedchamber, basin in hand. “Lady Catelyn is poorly, Sansa. Could you sit with her a moment while I fetch more water?”

Wordlessly, Sansa approaches the doorway as she leaves. Her mother is propped up against the pillows, her face turned away from the windows. Tendrils of damp hair stick to her cheeks and still her blankets are pulled to her chin. She’d suffered seasickness worse than any of the family on the journey to White Harbor, but seemed revived once they disembarked.

Sansa goes to her side and stretches out a palm to feel her forehead. Catelyn’s skin is cool yet she moans at the touch.

“My head,” she mumbles.

“Shh, mama. Septa is fetching you more water.” Under her hand, her mother’s brow creases.

“Please, no more light, Sansa.”

There is a single candle at her bedside and the windows are shrouded in curtains. “It’s already dark, mama, be still.”

Though there is no sign of fever, Sansa cannot help but worry. Her children’s antics may tire her, but Catelyn is not one to shrink to her bedroom in the middle of an afternoon. When the Septa returns, Sansa’s questions tumble out of her.

“How long has she been unwell? Has the maester seen her?”

Septa Mordane shakes her head. “He says all is well in her throat and her stomach, and her pulse is strong. It’s a dreadful headache, but it will pass. Come, sit with her a while and hold this over her eyes.”

The compress provides enough relief to let her mother settle into a more restful sleep. Sansa asks for tea in her solar so she can remain close. If they were at Riverrun, it might still be fine enough to eat outside, where the breeze from the roaring Tumblestone keeps gnats away. Here, there is already snow on the ground. 

The thought of her home between the rivers reopens the wound in her heart. At a given moment, it only throbs in the background, quiet enough to disappear if she distracts her mind. But with a stab, a single memory— butterflies among bluebells or the misty rainbows formed in the spray of racing water— is enough lay her low. To indulge in real reminiscence would destroy her.

She must find a way to shake off the gloom of the castle, or else take to her own bed in despair. She cannot find comfort in the company of her ladies, as she did in the South, but surely she can ride. Tomorrow, when her mother is recovered, Sansa promises herself she will saddle her horse.  If there is a piece of blue sky somewhere in the wild Northern landscape, tomorrow she will find it.

Chapter Text

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.

Thwack.

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.

“Get up!

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?”

“Aye.”

“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.

“Jon.”

She waits, but he’s apparently finished with the introduction. “Jon who?”

“Jon Snow.”

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.