Actions

Work Header

Everything We've Done (Is There On Our Faces)

Chapter Text

It started, once upon a time, with Ned Stark finding a litter of orphaned dire wolf cubs, with Robert Baratheon riding for Winterfell, with Ned becoming Hand of the King in the viper’s pit that was King’s Landing.

It restarted like this:

Sansa bolted upright in her bed, hand flying to her throat as she gasped for breath. There had been cold hands around her throat only seconds ago, closing tight –

Sister, a voice whispered.

“Bran?” she gasped, staring around the almost familiar room wildly.

It took all the magic that I possess to do this; to fling you back to the beginning. There will not be another chance. Westeros must face the Others united. I know that you are capable of this. Good luck, sister.

“Bran,” she whispered. He did not respond. “Bran!” Only silence met her.

Sansa threw the covers back and ran to the hallways. It was Winterfell, she realised that now – Winterfell, that had burnt under the Golden Company’s torches, as Jon and Daenerys fought to stop the wights’ advance on Winterfell just north of the castle.

She flew into her chambers, slamming the door behind her. She leant against it and gulped in a few desperate breaths of air.

In the bed, a figure bolted upright. Ramsay, she thought, hysterically. It’s Ramsay, he’s come for me, he’s come –

“Sansa?” asked her father, as Catelyn sat up next to him. “What’s wrong?”

Sansa stared at them, shaking her head slightly. It couldn’t be them. How could it be them?

Before she could even begin to conjure a response, she was knocked aside as the door slammed open again and Arya barrelled into the room.

“Sansa, I need you!” cried Arya, before stopping abruptly at the sight in the bed.

“Arya?” asked Catelyn.

Sansa, I need you. Arya had been looking for her. This, Sansa could handle. “Arya?”

“I just heard…” Arya’s voice stumbled as she continued to stare, thunderstruck, at their parents. “I heard Bran. In my head. I need your help. He told me -”

“That Westeros needs to stand united and that this was our last chance,” finished Sansa. Arya jerked her head around to look at Sansa. “I heard him. He must have been talking to both of us.”

“He only called me sister,” whispered Arya.

“Girls!” interrupted Catelyn. “What is going on?”

“Do you think this is real?” asked Sansa. “Do you think he’s really capable of pushing us back?”

Slowly, Arya nodded. “He said that he was the one to make Hodor, Hodor,” she said. “He told me when I asked him what the Three Eyed Raven could do. He skinchanged into Hodor in the past.”

Sansa turned to look at her parents, who were watching her and Arya worriedly. “Mother,” she said, her voice breaking. “Father.

Arya moved first, throwing herself on to the bed and her arms around Ned. Sansa picked up her skirts and ran to the other side of the bed, flinging herself into her mother’s arms.

Catelyn stroked Sansa’s hair carefully, and Sansa felt a sob well up inside her. “Mother,” she whispered, snuggling deeper into Catelyn’s hug.

“Girls,” said Ned. “What on earth is going on?”

Sansa squeezed her eyes shut to keep the tears from leaking out, not knowing how to begin answering that question. “Nightmare,” mumbled Arya after a long, silent moment.

Sansa felt her breath slowly evening out. She could tell that her parents were trading worried looks above her and Arya’s heads. Sansa met Arya’s eyes from across the bed. As she watched, Arya’s eyes wet eyes slowly solidified into steely determination. Sansa nodded slightly, minutely enough that Catelyn wouldn’t notice.

They were going to fix everything.

-

Sansa woke, more peacefully than she had the night before, slowly blinking her bleary eyes open. Arya was curled up next to her, the both of them cocooned between their parents. Sansa reached out and touched her sister’s shoulder gently, who jerked awake instantly at the touch. Sansa had only a moment to register the panic in Arya’s grey eyes before Arya’s eyes settled on Sansa and she relaxed.

“We need to talk,” whispered Sansa. Arya nodded in response and picked herself up, silently and smoothly, and crept off the bed. Sansa couldn’t help feeling like a clumsy horse as she followed Arya out into the hallway.

As Sansa eased the door closed behind them, Arya demanded, “What exactly did Bran say to you?”

Sansa glanced both ways down the hall to check there was no one around to overhear. Arya rolled her eyes at Sansa and crossed her arms impatiently. “He said that he used all of his magic to give us one last chance, and that he knew I was capable of keeping Westeros strong and united,” answered Sansa. “Was it the same to you? The exact same?”

Arya pushed her hair – so much longer than she had worn it only last night – out of her face and nodded. “The exact same.” She looked up at Sansa. “We can save Father and Mother and Robb and Rickon.”

“We can save everyone,” agreed Sansa. “They’re alive, now. They’re all alive…” She trailed off, her breath quickening. Joffrey. Ramsay. Petyr.

“We can win the war before it even begins!” said Arya, her voice sounding tinny and distant. Joffrey. Ramsay. Petyr. Ramsay. Joffrey. Gods, oh Gods.

I need to be brave. I need to be brave like my lady mother. Like Robb. Like Arya. Ramsay, Joffrey, Petyr. Ramsay Joffrey Petyr -

“Sansa? Sansa, can you hear me?” Arya’s voice broke through to Sansa. Sansa blinked, and Arya was suddenly right in front of her, hovering anxiously. As Sansa focused on her, Arya’s face grew hard. “We’ll kill them, Sansa. We’ll kill each and everyone of them. Joffrey, Cersei, Illyn Payne -”

Ramsay, Joffrey, Petyr.

“Ramsay,” whispered Sansa, her voice strangely hoarse. “Ramsay Bolton. We kill him first.”

Arya grabbed Sansa’s shoulders and squeezed them. “Ramsay Bolton,” she repeated. “He’ll be at the top of my list.”

Sansa grasped for a way to pull herself out of the spiral. “The war,” she remembered. “We need to stop the war. We need to stop Littlefinger before he can start it.”

Arya nodded. “I can take care of that.”

“No!” Sansa’s voice rang through the hallway, and she desperately tried to reign her runaway emotions back in. “He’ll already have his fingers in so many pies. We can’t risk the power vacuum just killing him will create.”

Footsteps sounded from further down the corridor and Arya grabbed Sansa by the wrist roughly and pulled her down the hall. “We need to go somewhere we won’t be disturbed,” Arya said through gritted teeth.

“You never know who’s a little bird,” Sansa agreed faintly. She realised where Arya was taking her within only a few turns, and soon enough they spilled into the Godswood. Sansa nestled herself in the roots of the heart tree. There was a slight chill in the air, but Sansa barely noticed it; it was nothing compared to the bone-chilling cold she had felt in the crypts, the kind of cold that made you want to lie down and never get up again. Like a million pinpricks of ice forcing their way under her skin, so cold they burned. And then there had been the hands wrapping around her throat…

Sansa shivered, and pulled her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders.

Arya knelt in front of Sansa. “We can’t leave Littlefinger alive,” she said, breaking the silence they had kept since they fled from the servant’s footsteps. “He caused everything. He’s the reason Father died. Why are you protecting him?” She hurled the words at Sansa like an accusation.

Sansa took a deep breath and counted to three. She dug her fingers into the earth, relishing the grass tickling at her palms and the cool, damp earth getting under her nails. When she felt her breathing return to some semblance of normal, she replied, “He’s been building towards this for years. He’s manipulated Aunt Lysa; he’s wormed himself into the Small Council and has the whole economy of the Seven Kingdoms ready to collapse. His aim is chaos: he wants to use it as a ladder for himself, but what he’s created won’t disappear just because he has.”

“So we just leave him there?” asked Arya incredulously.

“I can handle Petyr,” said Sansa, firmly. Her voice didn’t shake, and she kept her hands resting in her lap so that they couldn’t give her away.

Arya shook her head. “You’re playing with fire,” she warned.

Sansa lifted her chin. “Winter is coming. Maybe we need a little fire.” Arya glared at her, crossing her arms across her chest. Sansa softened slightly, and said, “We don’t even know how far back we are. We can plan. We know what Joffrey’s like better than maybe anybody else; we know what Littlefinger is; we even know about how the Lannisters will wage the war, if it comes to that. We know Daenerys Targaryen will hatch three dragons in the Dothraki Sea and raise them to be the Black Dread come again.” Sansa leaned forwards and took Arya’s hands in hers. “We know about the things that no one else will be able to see coming. I know who Littlefinger is, but as far as he knows, I’m a sheltered little dove who knows nothing of the world. I can handle him.”

Arya still looked doubtful, but she rose, dragging Sansa up with her. “We should tell Father,” she said. “Mother, too. They can help.”

“They won’t believe us,” said Sansa flatly, dropping Arya’s hands.

“They will if we can prove it,” insisted Arya. “You spent time in the Eyrie; you can tell Father all about the castle. I’ve ridden through the Riverlands. We know people who we’ve never met. We both know things about dragons and about the Others that Old Nan won’t have told us.”

“What happened to us is impossible, Arya,” said Sansa. “They don’t know anything of magic, not really. Just the old stories that Old Nan tells us, and Mother thinks they’re nursery tales made to scare children, and Father thinks they’re about things that died out years and years and years ago.”

“Then we can send ravens to Uncle Benjen,” said Arya. “It can’t be that long, from the look of you, until that deserter came through talking about the Others. If we can at least convince him to investigate, he can tell Mother and Father that we’re right about the Others and they won’t be able to ignore us any longer.”

Sansa pursed her lips, unconvinced. She couldn’t see anyway to convince her father – let alone her mother, who thought that the Others were as real as grumpkins – of the Others, not when she had barely believed a castle full of the Night’s Watch and wildlings telling her, not when she had struggled to believe in magic even after she saw the scars cutting across Jon’s chest. There had been a part of her that was expecting the dragons to be overgrown curiosities until they had soared over the walls of Winterfell, and the Others to still be a fairy story until they had assembled outside Winterfell right before the end.

And even if they believed that – would they believe in the people their childhood friends had become? Would Ned believe how the Demon of the Trident was dead already, with Robert having given himself over to all of his flaws? Would Catelyn believe the evil that Littlefinger was capable of, or would Catelyn try to find ways of rationalising or justifying his actions so that he could still be the little boy in Riverrun?

“It’ll be safer to work in the shadows,” she said, instead, because she doubted that she could sway Arya on the matter of their parents’ belief. “If people like Cersei or Varys or Littlefinger can track any interference back to us, then we’re in danger.”

Arya rolled her eyes. “Sansa, look at us. You aren’t the Lady of Winterfell anymore. How are you planning on affecting what’s happening in King’s Landing as what looks like -” Arya quickly swept her gaze over Sansa critically – “a twelve year old girl in Winterfell?”

“Father tried playing the game, and he died for it,” snapped Sansa. “If we get him involved, we can’t protect him.”

Arya worried her lower lip thoughtfully. “We can’t protect him from Joffrey,” said Arya, eventually. “Joffrey is mad; he’ll break any script we set for him eventually. If we tell Mother and Father, then they have warning of what we’ll be dealing with.”

Sansa set her jaw and looked behind her at the face of the heart tree. Is this what you wanted? she wondered. Were we only meant to be the three blasts of the horn, nothing more?

She closed her eyes and turned her head back to Arya. “Forewarned is forearmed,” she murmured to herself.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Arya. Sansa opened her eyes to see Arya turning away, ready to move inside. Sansa grabbed at her hand again and pulled her back.

“Arya,” she said, not certain where to begin. “Can we… Can we just have this morning? Just a regular morning with our brothers. We can see Robb and Rickon and Bran again.” She almost regretted including Bran – he had still been alive – but he hadn’t been Bran, had he? Bran had said as much multiple times.

Arya stared at her for a long moment before nodding slowly. “We can tell Father that we need to talk to him at breakfast,” said Arya. “But he won’t have time to talk to us for a little while at least, anyway.”

Sansa followed Arya back into the castle. Nervous excitement ate at her stomach, and she couldn’t help glancing into every room, down every hallway, soaking in the Winterfell of their youth. She trailed her hands over the stone walls, rough and cool under her hands. They passed Ser Rodrik in the training yard, setting up for the morning in the training yard, and Maester Luwin in the corridors by the Great Hall. Sansa’s heart was hammering furiously in her chest by the time they reached the doors to the Great Hall.

“Ready?” whispered Arya.

Robb was behind those doors. Bran and Rickon were behind those doors. Their parents were behind those doors. They would be talking and laughing and they wouldn’t know anything about what was coming for them all, but they would be alive.

“I think so,” said Sansa, squaring her shoulders.

Arya grabbed the dark steel handle and hesitated. “I’m not – I’m not what they remember, Sansa.”

“I know,” said Sansa. “You terrified me, coming home and talking about your list of people to kill. You were so different to when we were small.” Arya blinked and looked down at the floor, so Sansa hurried on, “But you’re still Arya, and just as I’m still Sansa even after everything they did to us. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met, remember?”

Arya looked up and gave a tiny, jerky nod. With a deep breath, she pushed the doors open. Sansa slipped in behind Arya and looked, instinctively, for Robb, thinking You were going to bring me his head –

She stopped short when she found Robb. He was standing between the High Table and all the others, looking down at his feet in confusion and exasperation – because at his feet was Theon Greyjoy, sobbing and rocking back and forth ever so slightly. Sansa picked up her skirts and ran to Robb’s side.

“Reek, reek,” garbled Theon between broken sobs. “Rhymes with freak. Reek, reek…”

“Sansa, you should probably go back to your room,” said Robb, trying to shift between her and Theon. “Septa Mordane can bring you – and Arya – your breakfast there.”

Sansa ignored him, slipping past him and kneeling next to Theon. He hadn’t noticed her yet, his hands covering his face. “Theon,” she said, as calmly as she could, loud enough for him to hear.

He jerked his head back and forth, insisting “Reek, reek, my name is Reek.”

“Your name is Theon Greyjoy,” she said more forcefully. “Can you hear me, Theon? Ramsay isn’t here. It’s only me. It’s only Sansa. Ramsay’s gone.”

Theon had stopped whispering to himself, but sobs were still racking at his shoulders.

“We ran, do you remember?” she said, keeping her voice soothing. “You told me that you would die to get me to the Wall, but you didn’t have to. I fed Ramsay to his own dogs, and you came back to me in Winterfell.”

Theon peeked at her through the fingers, shoulders slumping as he saw her. “Sansa?” he whispered.

“Look at me, Theon, only at me,” she told him, gently taking his hand in hers. “We’ve got another chance, you and me. Can you feel your fingers?” She ran her hands over them lightly, soft as the first breath of snow.

Theon grasped her hands. “How, Sansa? The Night King was there – there was no one left. I was ready to die for Bran, I was.”

Sansa swallowed thickly. “I think you did, Theon. Did you hear a voice, when you woke up? Did you hear Bran?”

Theon nodded slowly. “He told me to fulfil my oaths.”

“I died, too,” she said. “The dead rose in the crypts, and then I woke up in my own bed, and Bran was telling me that I had to keep Westeros safe. We have a second chance at everything, Theon. Ramsay won’t ever touch either of us, not this time.”

“Don’t think that I’ll forget.” Sansa glanced up to see Arya behind her, glaring down at Theon. He cringed into Sansa’s side.

“Not now, Arya,” hissed Sansa.

“No,” snapped Arya. “He still did it. He made those choices. I won’t forget it.”

Sansa squeezed Theon’s hands comfortingly, and said, “He did make those choices, just like I still made those choices to go to Cersei back in King’s Landing. I lived with that every day of my life, just as Theon lived with what he did and what was done to him.” She brushed her fingers over Theon’s, a gentle reminder that he was here with her, not in the dungeons of the Dreadfort. “We have a second chance to make better decisions, Arya, all three of us. It was Bran he did wrong, not you or me, and evidently Bran thought he was worth saving.”

Arya hissed, air escaping between her gritted teeth. She knelt down to be level with Theon, forcing him to meet her eyes. “I trust my brother,” she said. “But if you do a single thing to hurt anybody in this castle, I will gut you. Do you hear me? There won’t be anywhere you can run from me.”

“That’s enough,” snapped Sansa. “We’re going to have to work together, Arya. We can’t be at each other’s throats the whole time.”

Arya looked back to Theon. “Just so long as we understand each other,” she said with false calmness, and stood up in a fluid motion. Then, in shock, Arya exclaimed, “Father!”

Sansa looked up. Ned Stark was standing over them, his expression dark. She had been so wrapped up in Theon that she hadn’t even noticed him approach, and she had no idea how much he had heard. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her father, though, was Robb – and he certainly had heard every word. Sansa bit back several choice, uncharacteristic curse words; Gods knew that Robb – good, decent, honourable, impulsive Robb – was the last person they needed to hear about their situation right now. But it was all her fault: in her rush to comfort Theon, to pull him out of the dark place she had barely escaped entering only an hour earlier, she had forgotten her brother entirely. At the High Table, though still close enough to overhear them, was Catelyn, who was watching all three as if she didn’t recognise any of them.

Sansa let go of one of Theon’s hands so that they could stand, but held the other fast, keeping him anchored in the here and now with her. He tried to let go as Robb’s eyes latched on to their joined hands, but she held on stubbornly, lifting her chin defiantly at her brother. She had no need for his protection.

Ned looked between the three of them, taking in each of their expressions, before he said, “I believe that we need to talk.”

Chapter Text

When Arya was little, she hadn’t spent a lot of time in her father’s solar. She had spent time with him at meals in the Great Hall, watching the boys train, sometimes even him telling her and Sansa stories to lull them to sleep. Ned’s solar had seemed the domain of Lord Stark, rather than her father.

She had spent a lot of time in it when it was Sansa’s solar, arguing over Littlefinger or deciding a course of action for when Jon came home with a new queen or helping to draw up battle plans against the oncoming army of the dead. It still hadn’t been a place to relax.

Still, shuffling into the solar behind Sansa and Theon, her father leading the way and Robb and Catelyn taking up the read guard was a new experience. Her stomach had sunk the moment she had stood up to find Ned hovering over her, and hadn’t risen from its pit since. She had wanted to tell her parents about what was coming, to warn them of every enemy facing their family, but she hadn’t wanted them to know. Know who she’d become. Not really.

Why had she been so quick to threaten Theon? She could have waited. She could have cornered him when no one else was looking. Arya was capable of being patient, she was. It had taken her weeks to infiltrate the Twins deeply enough to for her to get undisturbed access to the eldest Frey sons and the oven.

It was Theon, though. He might have helped Sansa, once, but he had still attacked Winterfell and almost murdered Bran and Rickon. Seeing Sansa embrace him, like he had never done anything to hurt them…

It was too much. Somebody needed to remind Theon how thin the ice under his feet was.

Arya slid into a free chair across the desk from Ned. Sansa sat primly in the chair next to her, and Theon stood behind Sansa, who still hadn’t let go of his hand. Catelyn seated herself next to Ned and behind them stood Robb, glowering at Theon and Sansa’s joined hands.

Ned leant forwards, resting his hands on the table in front of him. “Girls,” he said. “Theon. I don’t know what caused that conversation in the Great Hall, but we will be needing an explanation.”

“We’re from the future,” Arya blurted out before Sansa or Theon had a chance to formulate a response.

Ned sat back, staring between the three of them in confusion and disbelief.

Catelyn narrowed her eyes at Arya. “I’m not sure what has gotten into you today -”

“In the Eyrie, the wind howls like a wolf, large as mountains,” said Sansa suddenly. She was staring directly at Ned. “It howls so long and so wild that it feels like it will pierce your soul, and when someone falls from the Moon Door, it feels like their screams will last for a thousand years. But that’s still better than the Red Keep. There, all you can smell is piss and shit and the perfumes that the courtiers were to cover it up burn your nose. It’s so crowded in King’s Landing you can hardly breathe and every person there is more venomous than a viper.”

Ned was staring back at Sansa, entranced by her words. Even Arya could not help but watch her sister as she painted images in the air.

“When you ride for Castle Black, though, you almost miss them both. I thought it was so cold in Castle Black, cold enough that I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe again, until I saw Jon. With him, the Wall was bearable, but until then all I could think of was how cold it was, the way it ate its way into my bones. I was never warm again, not truly, not even when we were home and safe in Winterfell again.

“Winter came, Father. Winter came like you always promised it would and the dead came with it,” said Sansa. The room was utterly silent besides Sansa’s voice. Arya squeezed her eyes shut, feeling ghost hands grabbing at her legs again, ready to drag her down and devour her. “We had half of the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Folk and the Unsullied and Dothraki from Essos to defend us at Winterfell, but there was no stopping the Night King. It was too late for us, so the Old Gods brought us back to now, to build up the North’s defences against the oncoming storm.”

“Sansa,” whispered Catelyn, her face white.

“It’s true, Lady Stark,” said Theon. “I saw the Night King. I was all that was left between him and Bran, and he killed me for it. He was… He was ice made flesh, my lady.”

“I almost died a hundred times over in the Long Night,” said Arya. “But there was no escaping the dead, not forever. They might be dumb as a brick, but they’re patient, and their numbers are endless.”

“Old Nan’s tales,” said Robb, his voice quiet. “They’re true? All of them?”

“All the ones about the White Walkers are,” said Arya. “They never died out; they were just waiting, all this time. Waiting for us to tear ourselves apart.”

“And didn’t we do that well,” murmured Sansa, quietly enough that it had to have been to herself.

“Girls, Robb, Theon, I need some time to speak with my lady wife,” said Ned.

“But -” protested Arya, but Sansa grabbed her by the shoulder as she stood up and dragged her out of the room. As they stepped out into the hallway, Arya hissed, “We haven’t convinced them yet!”

“We need to give them time to process everything,” said Sansa. “We just told them the apocalypse is coming. Their whole world has just collapsed around them. They need time to process what we’ve told them or we won’t get anything done.”

Robb leant against the stone wall, face pale. “How is this possible?” he wondered aloud. “They’re meant to be stories, or long gone at least.”

Sansa turned to Robb and said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, Robb, it’s that very little in life is like a song, no matter how hard we try. The White Walkers are coming for us all, and though they might sing about us in the great halls one day, it’ll be of little comfort when the white winds begin to blow.”

“But when the white winds blow, the pack can survive,” said Arya. “The lone wolf dies, but not the pack.”

“We were all lone wolves, last time,” said Sansa. “Jon was on the Wall, Bran beyond it, you in the Riverlands or Braavos and me in King’s Landing then the Eyrie. Maybe if we can stay together this time, we’ll be better prepared for what’s to come.”

“Wait – Bran went beyond the Wall? When the White Walkers were on the march?” demanded Robb.

Arya couldn’t help but glance at Theon, who had shrunk back at Robb’s exclamation. Sansa squeezed his hand. “Winterfell was sacked by the Boltons,” said Sansa. “Bran and Rickon fled north, and Bran ended up beyond the Wall. We’ll explain more later.”

Arya’s head whipped round to stare at Sansa. The Boltons? Theon had gotten there first. Bran and Rickon had fled Theon, not the Boltons.

Theon was staring at Sansa too, and he had opened his mouth to say something when Robb cut him off.

“The Boltons?” asked Robb, aghast.

“Roose and Ramsay Bolton cannot be trusted,” said Sansa. “Roose will do whatever it takes to usurp us as rulers of the North, and Ramsay…” She faltered.

“He’s a monster,” said Theon, almost inaudibly.

“The butcher of the Dreadfort,” agreed Sansa.

“You said that you fed him to his own dogs,” said Robb, looking at Sansa.

Sansa crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “Perhaps if he hadn’t starved them for weeks so he could feed Jon and Rickon to them, they wouldn’t have been so quick to feast on him.”

Robb glanced helplessly to Arya and Theon. “He deserved every bit of it and more,” said Arya, moving slightly closer to her sister so that their shoulders brushed against each other. “I only wish I could have seen it.”

Robb looked between the three of him and whispered, “What happened to you all?”

“You died, Robb, and so did Mother and Father, so we did what we had to do to survive,” said Sansa. “I am still Sansa. I am still your sister. I just don’t believe in songs anymore.”

-

“Do you believe them?” asked Catelyn as Ned finished herding the children out into the hall and closed the door behind them.

Ned turned back to her, fighting back a sigh. Every part of him felt weighed down, Sansa’s words pressing down on his shoulders and making it hard to even speak.

“Yes,” he said honestly. “The way she described the Eyrie… If she had only read about the castle in books, she would have talked about the layout of the castle, but she didn’t.” Catelyn pursed her lips but Ned forged onwards. “And her description of King’s Landing – did that sound like our Sansa?”

Catelyn bit her lip and admitted, “No.”

“The way she and Arya and Theon have been behaving – it wasn’t them, or not the Sansa and Arya and Theon we knew yesterday,” said Ned. “When they came to our bed last night, Arya and Sansa were wondering if someone was really capable of ‘something’. Maybe this was it.”

“They were talking about Bran, though,” pointed out Catelyn. “This morning, they’re talking about the Old Gods. Bran’s only a boy; a human boy.”

“I know,” sighed Ned. “I don’t understand it either.”

Catelyn stood up and turned away from him. “If it’s true,” she said, her voice wavering, “what have our girls been through? What happened to them, Ned, for Arya to threaten Theon with murder so calmly and Sansa to feed someone to their own dogs?”

Ned wrapped his arms around her from behind, and she reached up to rest her trembling hand over his clasped ones. Ned rested his face in her hair. “I don’t know,” he murmured. The apocalypse was one thing, but for Sansa and Arya to speak so comfortably of murdering another person – not a wight or an Other, but a person

Ned couldn’t even begin to comprehend what could have happened to his girls; what happened to Sansa, a lady at three who had made her brothers play the knights rescuing her from a lonely tower, or to Arya, who picked him flowers and ruined Sansa’s games by insisting on playing the monster. Not even Lyanna, at the end, had been so…

Promise me, Ned.

How had he failed his daughters so entirely that they had been forced to murder and violence?

Promise me…

“If all of this is true, where do we go now?” asked Catelyn. “If the end is truly coming, I almost wish to close up Winterfell – to spend our last years alone here with our children and each other. I know Sansa said they had been sent back to give us a second chance, but what can we do, truly, against an enemy that can raise our own dead against us?”

“The White Walkers have been defeated once before,” he reminded her. “It was the first of the Starks who withstood them and built the Wall as the world finally dawned again.”

“Brandon the Builder,” said Catelyn, turning around in his arms. “I remember.”

“Right now, we have two options,” he said. “Our girls and Theon have gone mad and are sharing the exact same delusion, or they are telling the truth and the world is about to fall apart around us.”

Catelyn squeezed her eyes shut. At last, she said, “They don’t seem mad.”

“No, they don’t,” agreed Ned. “I’ll send a raven to Lord Commander Mormont to keep a closer eye on what’s happening north of the Wall. We might have confirmation soon enough.”

“And until then?” asked Catelyn. “Do we start preparations now and look mad to our bannermen and to the south, or do we sit and wait?”

“I don’t know,” said Ned. The future stretched out before his eyes, the road endless and shadowed to his eyes. “Even if we wait for Mormont to confirm the Others have returned, there will still be men who insist we are mad, and will keep insisting it until the dead rise in their own keeps.”

Catelyn frowned, her eyebrows crinkling together. “Last night, Sansa said that she – and Arya – were told that they needed Westeros to be united to withstand the Others.”

“The realm is united under King Robert,” said Ned.

“Will is stay that way?” asked Catelyn. “It sounds as if the Seven Kingdoms descended into turmoil and weren’t able to put up a defence. Sansa said that only half the kingdoms mounted a defence against the Others, and the Dothraki and Unsullied.”

“From Essos,” said Ned. “Why were there Essosi armies in the North?”

Catelyn’s eyes widened. “The Targaryen children.”

Ned resisted cursing under his breath. He had hoped that the Targaryen children would live out their days in Essos – in peace, far from Robert’s vengeful grasp.

“We should bring the children back in,” said Catelyn. “We need to know more about what will happen. We can’t make plans with so little information.”

Ned hesitated. “Are you ready to hear what they have to say?”

Catelyn looked down. “We have to hear it,” she said, her voice barely audible.

Ned pulled her closer, and she rested her head against his shoulder, her hands against his chest. They stood unmoving for several moments. Ned breathed in the smell of her hair, trying to fill his lungs with it.

“We’ll do better,” he promised her quietly.

“We have to,” she hissed in response.

“We have to,” he agreed.

-

There were dried tears on her mother’s cheeks. Arya hated them, hated that there was nothing she could do to wipe them away, and hated that it was only going to get worse from here.

“We have discussed it, and we have decided that we believe you,” said Catelyn, her voice brittle. “If war is brewing, in the south or the north, we need to be prepared.”

“You implied there was turmoil coming,” said Ned to Sansa, his voice gentle.

Sansa nodded jerkily. She was sitting across from Arya and had finally released Theon’s hand. “First there was the War of the Five Kings -”

“Five?” cut in Catelyn.

“Joffrey Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Balon Greyjoy,” said Sansa. He eyes slid across to Robb. “And Robb Stark, the first King in the North in three hundred years.”

Catelyn and Ned both turned to look at Robb, who was as surprised as they were. “I seceded from the Seven Kingdoms?”

“The Greatjon started it, if that helps,” offered Theon. Sansa glanced at him, giving him a minute smile.

“Renly and Stannis both rebelled against Robert’s son?” asked Ned.

Sansa shook her head. “Joffrey’s a bastard. Stannis knew, and Renly did too. I don’t know why Renly didn’t support Stannis, besides his own ambitions.”

“Jon knew Stannis,” said Arya. “He helped rout the Wildlings when they attacked the Wall.”

“He came south from there to attack Winterfell,” said Sansa. “He lost, but Theon and I used the confusion to escape. We still wouldn’t have gotten far, if not for Brienne.”

Arya shifted in her seat, surprised at how much she missed Brienne. She felt less secure without their sworn sword at their backs. She couldn’t imagine how Sansa felt, who had known Brienne so much longer and had none of Arya’s training.

“Why did you have to escape Winterfell?” asked Catelyn.

Sansa’s jaw worked for a long moment, and Theon seemed frozen in place.

“Why don’t we start at the beginning?” asked Arya. They could come to Ramsay later.

Sansa shot Arya a grateful look. “There was a Night’s Watch deserter,” she said. “Before anything else, there was a Night’s Watch deserter who said he saw the Others. You executed him and we didn’t think about him twice until they came.”

Ned noted this down and asked, “Do you remember his name?”

“No,” said Sansa, and glanced at Theon and Arya, who both shook their heads.

“I can still tell Mormont to keep a close eye on his rangers,” said Ned. “How long was it between the deserter being caught and the Others getting through the Wall?”

“Seven years,” said Arya. Ned nodded and noted this down.

“What year is it?” asked Theon. Catelyn, Ned and Robb all turned to look at him, and he explained, “If we know that, we can give you a better timeframe.”

“297 After Conquest,” said Ned, nodding in approval. “Late 297.”

“Eight years, then,” said Theon. “We have almost eight years.”

Robb swore under his breath, and Ned took Catelyn’s hand, who squeezed it. After a moment, she asked, “What happened after the deserter was executed?”

“Maybe a few days later, we received word that Jon Arryn had died,” said Sansa. “The King rode north to make you his Hand and have me betrothed to Joffrey. While he was here, Bran was pushed from the Broken Tower and never walked again.”

Catelyn made a low, keening sound in the back of her throat. Ned set his quill down and squeezed his eyes shut painfully.

“Who pushed him?” demanded Robb.

Sansa hesitated.

“Jaime Lannister,” said Arya. “The Kingslayer himself, because Bran saw him fucking his own sister.”

“That’s quite the accusation,” said Catelyn, her voice cautious.

“It’s true,” said Sansa. “Look at Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella when the king rides north. There’s not a drop of Baratheon in them.”

“Everybody knew it, from the reavers in Pyke to whores in Volantis,” said Theon.

“They knew about Bran?” asked Catelyn, aghast. “They were so brazen that they got away with trying to kill a boy?”

“Not about Bran,” said Sansa. “At least, I didn’t until he arrived in Winterfell to fight against the dead alongside us. But about Jaime and Cersei, yes. Stannis made sure everyone knew of it.”

“How did Robert react?” asked Ned.

“Robert was already dead,” said Sansa. “The Lannisters claimed that it was just propaganda so that Stannis could usurp the throne.” Ned nodded; he looked pained, rubbing his forehead.

“Father, Sansa and I rode south not long after,” said Arya. “You were Hand. Robert died in a hunting accident, and you had already worked out Joffrey was not Robert’s son, so they arrested you for treason and executed you.”

Catelyn gasped, clinging to Ned’s hand. Robb staggered under the weight of her words.

“It gets worse,” said Sansa, grimly.

“I managed to get out of the city. There was a recruiter for the Night’s Watch who recognised me – he cut my hair and told the others I was a boy named Arry. Sansa…” Arya looked across at Sansa. She was digging her hands into the chair so hard that her knuckles were almost white.

“I was caught in the Red Keep when Robb raised the banners and was declared King in the North,” said Sansa, her voice taut. “I was still Joffrey’s betrothed, for a time, until the Tyrrells aligned with the Lannisters and I was replaced by Margaery. They married me off to Tyrion so they still controlled my claim to the North when Robb fell.”

Arya couldn’t help glancing at Theon at that. His jaw was tight and he stood stiffly, unable to look at Robb.

“Renly’s army fell apart early on,” said Sansa. “Stannis attacked King’s Landing but lost when Tywin and the Tyrrells arrived to reinforce the city. From there he went North, I think, to reinforce the Wall. The Wildlings were trying to escape south of the Wall. Jon eventually let them through, when he became Lord Commander, but first there was a war.”

“That’s the first thing you need to do,” broke in Arya. “Bring the Wildlings south. It’ll cut the Night King off from building an army.”

Ned looked up from the parchment he had been noting the story down on. “The other lords won’t like that,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what they want,” said Arya. “If they’re going to survive the Long Night, the Wildlings need to be settled south of the Wall.”

“We’ll discuss this later,” said Sansa. “Father can treat with Lord Commander Mormont and the King Beyond the Wall -”

“Mance Rayder,” supplied Theon.

“ – later,” finished Sansa. “After Stannis went North, there was only the Ironborn raiding the coast and the North to worry about for the Lannisters, and the Ironborn were mainly focused on the North, anyway.”

Theon bowed his head. “I -”

“Tywin Lannister treated with the Freys and with the Boltons,” said Sansa, loudly, cutting off Theon. Arya cocked her head, staring at her sister. What was Sansa playing at? This was the second time she had dismissed or lied about Theon.

Theon, to his credit, looked as startled as Arya did.

“They betrayed the North at Uncle Edmure’s wedding,” continued Sansa. “They massacred the Northern army and Mother and Robb, all under guest right, so that the Freys could be made Lords Paramount of the Riverlands and the Boltons the Warden of the North.”

Ned, Robb and Catelyn sat in mute horror, staring at Sansa with pale faces.

I killed them, Arya wanted to say. I killed the Freys for you and Sansa and Jon killed Ramsay. We avenged you, we reclaimed our home, we never forgot you. But her mouth couldn’t open, and the words stuck in her chest. Her heart hammered in her chest as she looked at Catelyn, tears stinging at her eyes. Would her mother understand? Would any of them?

“I should have died with you,” said Theon, staring at Robb. Desperation and grief was written stark across his face. “I should have, I should have been there, I should have…”

Sansa touched his hand gently. “You saved me, and Yara, and you died for Bran,” she reminded him softly. “You couldn’t have helped any of us if you’d died at the Twins.”

Theon tore his gaze away from Robb to look at Sansa. He looked wild in his grief, a cornered animal before the crossbow. “If I had died with Robb, maybe Bran wouldn’t have needed anyone to die for him.”

Sansa turned to look back at the others. “Joffrey was poisoned not long after the Red Wedding. I was able to flee King’s Landing when he died, and I sought shelter with Aunt Lysa in the Vale.”

Catelyn closed her eyes, letting out a deep breath. Her look of relief dug painfully at Arya’s heart.

“She married me to Ramsay Bolton,” said Sansa, flatly. Arya whipped her head around to stare at Sansa again. Arya could understand Sansa protecting Theon, no matter how much she hated it – Sansa clearly still adored him. But Littlefinger?

We’re going to have words after this, Arya thought grimly. She would give Sansa the benefit of the doubt for now, but if she didn’t have a decent explanation, Arya would go straight to their parents and explain everything Sansa had left out.

“I found Theon here, at Winterfell,” went on Sansa. “Ramsay had held him hostage for years. We escaped, eventually. We were found by Brienne of Tarth and her squire, Podrick. Brienne and Podrick escorted me the rest of the way to the Wall – to Jon – and Theon went to Pyke.”

“My father was dead by then,” said Theon. “I supported my sister in the Kingsmoot, but my uncle, Euron, won and was crowned king. Yara and I fled east with her other supporters.”

“I found Jon at the Wall,” said Sansa. “He… I don’t know how to explain it, Father, but he didn’t desert when he came with me to retake Winterfell. He had fulfilled all of his vows. We gathered the Wildlings and the Northern Houses still loyal to us, and we retook Winterfell from the Boltons.” Her eyes shifted to Catelyn, and she spoke the next words like a challenge. “We named him the new King in the North.”

Catelyn’s jaw worked. “That bastard stole your birthright?” she demanded.

Arya jutted her chin up. “We both supported him as king!” she exclaimed. “We both supported him, Rickon was dead, and Bran didn’t want it. Sansa was still Lady of Winterfell, but we supported him as our king.”

“I knelt to Jon, because he was good and he protected me,” said Sansa. “He was a good king, Mother. I said that he would be my king until my last day, and he was. I have no regrets.”

Catelyn pursed her lips, pressing them together so hard they went almost white.

“Enough,” said Ned. “Whatever happened in Sansa and Arya’s past, it is unlikely to come again.”

“Jon went south to treat with the Dragon Queen,” said Sansa. “Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains. He bent the knee in return for her aid in the war against the Others.”

“We aren’t just being poetic when we call her the Dragon Queen,” said Arya. “She hatched three dragons from stone. They were almost fully grown by the time they reached us, by all accounts.”

“Dragons,” whispered Robb.

“Dragons,” confirmed Arya. “Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion.”

“I’ll need to tell Robert,” said Ned, staring down at his notes.

“No!” exclaimed Sansa, Arya and Theon all at once. “No,” continued Arya. “We have no weapon against the wights like the dragons. Robert will have her killed and you know it, Father.”

“I have no wish to live under a Targaryen ruler, but we need her dragons,” said Sansa.

We have no wish to live under any ruler, lion or stag or dragon, thought Arya. Only the wolf. Only us. But that wasn’t an option right now. Bran had said it: Westeros needed to be united when the Others ventured south of the Wall. It was going to be difficult enough, managing that with Daenerys Stormborn building her armies and raising her dragons across the Narrow Sea, without seriously pursuing Northern independence before the Others arrived.

If we survive this, we’ll be independent, Arya promised herself. Father will be the first King in the North this time round, and Robb after him.

“What about you?” Robb asked Arya. “You’ve been quiet.”

“I hid with Yoren until I couldn’t anymore,” said Arya. “After the Red Wedding, I sailed to Essos. It was only after I had heard that Jon and Sansa had retaken Winterfell that I felt safe enough to come home.” The lie flowed off her lips, more easily than she thought it would. Neither of her parents called her on the lie. Now she was like Sansa; now she was lying to them. But how could she explain the list of names to her parents and Robb? That didn’t know; they wouldn’t understand it, not like Sansa did.

“What happened after Jon went to treat with Daenerys?” pressed Ned.

“Daenerys agreed to help after the Night King killed one of her dragons and raised him again as a wight,” said Arya, relieved for the change in topic. “It was only days after they arrived back at Winterfell that the Army of the Dead attacked, and we all woke up here, eight years earlier.”

“A second chance,” said Sansa. “For all of us.”

-

Jon had slept in one morning and he has missed everything.

Rumours had been flying around Winterfell all morning. The first that he had heard was that Arya had attacked Theon in the Great Hall with naught but a butter knife, and that had been one of the milder stories he had heard going around. Jon doubted Arya had gone so far as to attack Theon with a butter knife, but the one consistency in all the stories he had heard so far was conflict between Arya and Theon, and Sansa trying to get in between them.

Lord Stark was clearly taking whatever happened seriously; him, the three of them, Lady Stark and Robb had been locked away in his solar all morning. Left without his training partners, Jon had spent the morning helping Ser Rodrik put Bran through his paces.

“Were you there?” asked Jon as they took a short break.

Bran shook his head. “I sneaked out to climb the Broken Tower.”

Jon couldn’t help but smile, ruffling Bran’s hair with fond exasperation. Bran ducked away from him, laughing. “Of course you did.”

“D’you really think Arya went at Theon with a butter knife?” asked Bran.

It wasn’t that Jon didn’t think Arya was capable of attacking someone with a butter knife, given enough provocation. It was more that he just didn’t see how Theon was capable of riling her up that much in such a short space of time. It was Theon; when he was being a brat, you called him a dick and you ignored him.

Jon shook his head. “Theon would be a waste of energy.” Bran snorted as Rodrik called them back over. “Remember to keep your shield up,” warned Jon, “or I’ll ring your head like a bell.”

After Jon and Bran finished with Ser Rodrik, Jon found himself wandering towards the Godswood. He didn’t want to go back into the castle, not yet, when Robb and Arya were probably both still cloistered away in Ned’s solar. The Godswood was peaceful, and quiet.

Or at least, it should have been.

“What if Mother doesn’t believe us?” hissed Sansa, standing next to Arya under the heart tree. “What if she thinks I’ve got it wrong, that I misunderstood somehow and he’s still just innocent Petyr?”

“She won’t,” insisted Arya. “She loves you; she trusts you. She hasn’t seen Littlefinger since before Robert’s Rebellion, probably. She’ll trust you more than him.”

“Can we risk it?” asked Sansa. “Can we risk her writing to him or to Aunt Lysa, and him being tipped off?”

Through the trees, Jon saw Arya cross her arms across her chest, staring at Sansa defiantly. He moved through the trees, ready to let them know he was there, when Arya spoke again. “Fine. I understand Littlefinger. I don’t agree with you, but I understand. But why are you protecting Theon?”

Jon stopped in his tracks. There had been poison in Arya’s voice, a level of hatred he hadn’t ever heard from her before – a level of hatred he hadn’t even realised she was capable of.

“He saved me from Ramsay,” said Sansa. “You don’t understand what happened to him, Arya. It changed him forever.”

“He tried to kill Bran and Rickon!” exclaimed Arya, her voice ringing through the Godswood.

“He did,” said Sansa, and that was all the confirmation Jon needed to turn on his heels and sprint back towards the castle.

Behind him, he heard Sansa and Arya, shouting out for him to wait, but he ran on, flying out of the Godswood and into the rest of the castle, searching the buildings until he found Theon, with Robb in the Library Tower.

Robb looked up, startled at his sudden arrival. “Jon, you -”

Jon stalked over to Theon. Theon had time to meet his eyes apprehensively before Jon slammed his fist into Theon’s face.

“Jon!” shouted Robb, crouching down beside a collapsed Theon.

“Tell him what you did,” snarled Jon.

“Jon, what are you talking about?” asked Robb.

“I heard Arya and Sansa,” growled Jon. “Tell Robb what you did to Bran and Rickon!”

Theon shrank back in on himself. “It wasn’t the Boltons,” he whispered. “They came later. It was me.”

“You?” echoed Robb, before slow realisation washed over him. “You were the one who sacked Winterfell. You’re why Bran and Rickon went North!”

“Wait, what?” said Jon, confusion mixing with his fury. Robb and Theon both ignored him, too caught up in each other.

“You sent me to treat with my father,” said Theon. “I didn’t have his respect anymore, so I…”

“So you betrayed me, attacked my home and tried to murder my brothers,” said Robb shortly when Theon trailed off.

Theon nodded, curling himself into a ball. “Reek,” he murmured. “Reek, reek…”

“Theon!” Sansa’s voice sounded from the door. She hurried inside and kneeled beside Theon and shot Jon a glare. “What did you do to him?” she demanded, touching Theon’s reddened jaw gently.

“Sansa, get away from him,” said Robb, grabbing at her arm, but she tore her arm away from him with a glare.

“Your name is Theon Greyjoy,” she told Theon firmly. “Brother of Yara, ward of House Stark. Ramsay isn’t here. You’re safe with me, with Sansa.”

Arya stalked into the room and came to stand by Jon. She crossed her arms as she looked down at Theon with disgust in her eyes.

“He tried to kill Bran and Rickon!” exclaimed Robb. Theon cringed away from the anger in Robb’s voice.

“Stay with me, Theon,” murmured Sansa, before looking back up at Robb. “He tried to kill Bran and Rickon, but he saved me from Ramsay Bolton while you never even tried to save me from the Lannisters.”

Her cold words hit with pin-point precision. Robb wheeled back as if she had slapped him.

“Sansa,” said Arya, softly.

“Bran and Rickon are fine,” said Sansa. “He hasn’t hurt them this time around, and he never will.”

“He deserves to be punished,” said Jon.

“Perhaps,” said Sansa. “He didn’t get a just sentence, though. He got Ramsay. That’s more than punishment enough, and you can trust me on that.” She turned her head back to Theon, murmuring quiet words to him that Jon couldn’t hear.

“Ramsay?” he asked Arya and Robb. Instead of answering, Robb turned around and stalked out of the room, fury radiating from every inch of him.

“Come on,” said Arya. “We need to be there in case Robb tries to do something stupid.”

“I can’t,” he told her. “What if Theon tries to hurt Sansa?”

Arya pointedly looked down at Theon, his face buried in Sansa’s shoulder as the two sat together in silence. “She’ll be fine.” Jon hesitated, and Arya rolled her eyes. “I hate Theon as much as anyone else, but he won’t hurt Sansa.” Arya spun on her heels and ran out of the room in pursuit of Robb, and with one last look at Sansa and Theon, Jon followed.

He and Arya found Robb back in the training grounds. Robb was taking his anger out on a training dummy, and despite the wooden sword he was using, tufts of straw still flew out of it with each strike.

“Robb!” called Arya.

Robb didn’t answer, redoubling his efforts on the dummy.

“Robb,” said Jon, more calmly. “Robb.

Robb threw the wooden sword to the ground and turned to face them, his eyes glittering with tears. “How could this have all happened?” he asked Arya. “Theon, Father, Mother, Sansa going from one monster to another… How did I abandon her, Arya? How could I have left her to that?”

Arya stepped closer. “They married her to the Imp,” she replied. “She was a political liability. Sansa understands why you did it. Truly, she does.” Her voice was comforting, but even without context, Jon could hear what Arya was leaving unsaid: but that didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt.

Liability,” muttered Robb, disgust layering his voice. “Was there anyone? Anyone who actually helped you both, I mean, who didn’t almost destroy our family.” There was a hint of a snarl in his voice at the reference to Theon.

“There was,” said Arya. “For me, there was Gendry and Hot Pie and an actress in Braavos called Lady Crane. Gendry and Hot Pie travelled with me when I was hidden with Yoren. For Sansa – her name was Brienne. She was every bit the kind of knight that we all thought knights should be. She swore to Mother that she would find Sansa and I and protect us, and she did. She saved Sansa from the Boltons. And…” Arya glanced over at Jon. “There was Jon.”

“Me?” asked Jon.

Arya ignored him. “Brienne took Sansa all the way to Jon on the Wall, and he helped her to rally the North and retake Winterfell. She was always so distant with him when we were children, but when I came back to Winterfell you would almost think that he’d hung the stars, the way she talked about him. They argued about anything and everything political, but she adored him for saving her.”

Robb looked to Jon, his eyes heavy with tears, and caught him up in a hug. “Thank you for doing what I didn’t,” he said into Jon’s ears. Jon raised his eyebrows at Arya, hoping for some kind of explanation, but she just smiled indulgently at him like she knew something he didn’t – which, apparently, she did.

“Alright,” said Jon, when Robb at last let go. “Is someone going to explain what’s going on now?”

Chapter Text

“Maester Luwin,” said Ned gravely. “What are your thoughts on the Others?”

“That they didn’t exist, my lord,” said Luwin simply. “There was one work that suggested that the Others might be some mythicised memory of a tribe of First Men, living so far north to almost be in the Lands of Always Winter. The work itself has been discredited, but I have always thought it to be more likely than a race of ice-men.”

Ned tapped his fingers against his desk and asked, “And what would you say if I told you I have proof that not only they existed, but that they still do?”

Maester Luwin hesitated. “Do you have proof, my lord?”

“I may,” said Ned. “I am still waiting for confirmation, but I’m willing to trust the information for the moment.”

“Then…” Maester Luwin paused, recollected himself, then went on. “Then I would have to begin doing research, my lord. I never payed much mind to the stories of the Long Night.”

“Perhaps it is time to change that,” suggested Ned.

“Perhaps it is, yes,” agreed Luwin. “Are you quite confident in your evidence, my lord?”

The far-away look in Arya’s eyes, the cynicism in Sansa, the way Theon’s hands shook… They were not the same children they had been only a day ago. “I think so, yes.”

“It has been a long summer,” noted Luwin.” “The Citadel believes it will be a long winter, too. Even without interference from… the Others -” Luwin tugged at his chain nervously – “it will still be a long and difficult winter. Perhaps the first thing you should do in preparation is to increase the stockpiling of grain. It will be useful even if your – information – proves untrue.”

“Thank you, Maester Luwin,” said Ned. “I will send word to the lords of the North today, and write to the King. There is a good chance we will need to be resupplied from the South, regardless of how well we stockpile and ration ourselves.” As Luwin bowed his head in agreement, there was a knock on the door. “Who is it?” he called.

“It’s Robb, Father,” replied his son, voice muffled through the thick door. “There’s more you should know.”

Ned dismissed Luwin with a nod. Robb, Arya and Jon bundled into the room as Luwin left. Arya stood stick straight, while Jon radiated fury from every pore of his body. Robb had furious tears in his eyes, fists clenching and unclenching unconsciously.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Sansa wasn’t entirely honest with you,” said Arya bluntly. “It wasn’t the Boltons who first sacked Winterfell and made Bran and Rickon flee.” Ned glanced over at Jon as she spoke, but the boy didn’t react to her words; he must have been filled in by his siblings.

“It was Theon!” burst out Robb, furious betrayal ringing through his voice.

“It was Theon,” echoed Arya. “Robb sent him to treat with Balon Greyjoy, but Theon turned cloak and helped to take Winterfell instead.”

Theon… Ned leant back in his chair, trying to take in the new information. He could still remember the boy, tiny but spitting in rage, as he was taken from his home. Perhaps he should have expected this from the moment Sansa had said the Greyjoys had rebelled once more.

“Why did Sansa lie?” he asked, keeping his voice as even as he could.

“Because she wanted to protect him,” said Arya. “He helped her, once, and she’s forgiven him for what he did because of it.” Arya’s lips curled as she spoke, unable to hide her disgust.

“Fetch Theon,” he told Jon.

“And Sansa?” asked Jon. “She was with him, the last time I saw.”

“If she’s still with him, bring her, too,” said Ned. “I want to hear every side of this before I pass judgement.”

Robb stilled and Jon paused by the door at his words. Arya met his eyes without flinching, flinty and unaffected. After another moment, Jon pulled the door open and slipped out.

“Father, are you certain?” asked Robb as the door swung closed.

“I don’t even know what my judgement will be yet,” said Ned. “But rest assured that no matter what decision I come to, Theon will not be executed.”

“What if he deserves to be?” asked Arya. “He tried to murder Bran and Rickon. Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik weren’t at Winterfell when I came home, so chances are he did murder them.”

“Because no crimes have been committed,” said Ned. “Bran and Rickon are safe in their rooms; Ser Rodrik is in the training yards, and you just saw Maester Luwin now. Can he be executed for a victimless crime?”

“It wasn’t victimless!” cried Arya. “He did it. Just because the slate has been wiped clean, doesn’t mean that it never happened.”

“If Theon is executed, Balon Greyjoy will rebel,” said Robb. “Theon’s not just a ward, he’s a hostage. If Father kills him, the Iron Islands will rebel.”

Arya narrowed her eyes at her brother. “You were ready to hit him just a half hour ago. You would have, if Sansa hadn’t arrived.”

Robb swallowed visibly, his shoulders hunching slightly. “I don’t want him dead, Arya.”

“Because it’s not real to you,” said Arya hotly. “It isn’t real to either of you! But it was, and he did it, and I’m not forgetting it.”

“No one is asking you to forget it,” cut in Ned. “Nor is anyone asking to forgive. Theon will be punished for his actions, but Robb is right. Theon cannot be executed. You and Sansa said yourselves that Westeros had to be united to face the Others.”

Arya’s jaw worked, staring at him defiantly.

“Sansa said in the Great Hall that Bran must have thought that he was saving,” went on Ned. “Neither Jon, Sansa nor Bran in your future, the three who had authority over him, passed the sentence. Tell me, do you think that any of them would have avoided doing their duty?”

Arya pressed her lips together before shaking her head.

Good, thought Ned. Even if he had failed to protect his children in Arya’s past, then at least he had done enough that they were still living by his principles. He must have done something right, somewhere along the line.

“I would like to hear a fuller story before I pass judgement, but Theon will still face justice for his actions, even if they are not as serious as we might like,” said Ned gently.

When Jon at last led Sansa and Theon back into the room, Arya glared at Theon from her spot in the corner of the room. Theon’s shoulders were hunched, eyes darting around the room nervously. Sansa held his hand, rubbing circles into the back of his hand with her thumb. She let go as Theon came to stand in front of Ned’s desk, stepping back to stand by Arya. Arya shot her sister a look, but Sansa ignored her, instead focusing her gaze on Ned.

“Theon,” said Ned.

“Yes, my lord,” said Theon, bowing his head.

“I am told that it is you who sacked Winterfell and forced Bran and Rickon to flee,” said Ned.

“Yes, my lord,” said Theon. “I didn’t sack Winterfell, but I did take it. Robb sent me to treat with my family. He was hoping that he could use the Iron Fleet. But when I returned to the Iron Islands…” Theon broke off, turning to Robb. “I should have stayed, I should have died with you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“Theon,” said Sansa, her voice gentle. Theon started at the sound of her voice and quieted.

“Go on, Theon,” prompted Ned.

“When I returned to the Iron Islands, my father told me that he didn’t want to treat with anyone. He was going to raid the North in revenge, and he didn’t need any Green Landers – even me. I wanted to prove myself to him,” said Theon. “So I took Winterfell. Bran and Rickon got away with Hodor. My sister wanted me to abandon Winterfell. She said that it was useless for an Ironborn to hold a castle so far in land… I should have listened.” Theon’s hands had begun shaking.

“Winterfell was reclaimed by Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s son,” said Theon. “He was the one to sack Winterfell. He held me hostage for years. I thought I was going to die with him, until Sansa came home to Winterfell to marry him, and I had to keep her safe, I had to.”

“You did keep me safe, Theon,” said Sansa. She looked over to Ned. “He gave himself back up to Bolton men to give me more time to escape. If Brienne hadn’t arrived, he would have been dragged back to Ramsay, and he did that willingly to keep me safe.”

Ramsay… That name had come up many times. He had heard Sansa say that she had fed him to his own dogs. What sort of person Ramsay, to bring Sansa to such a point? Sansa, a lady at three, who had dreamed of marrying a prince and who had sighed over stories of Florian and Jonquil – what had happened to that happy child?

“I went back to the Iron Islands,” said Theon. “My father was dead, so I supported Yara in the Kingsmoot, but my uncle, Euron, won. Yara and I sailed east and allied with the Dragon Queen, but when Yara went to retake the Iron Islands from Euron, I went North to fight for House Stark.” He hesitated and glanced behind him. “For Sansa. Bran was in the Godswood during the onslaught, and I protected him there until the end.”

Ned leant back in his chair. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” he asked the others, looking at Sansa and Arya.

“I do,” said Sansa. She swallowed hard, and looked at her siblings. “Can we speak alone, Father?”

“Sansa…” started Arya uncertainly.

“You don’t need to know this, Arya. Neither does Robb, and Theon doesn’t need to hear it,” said Sansa tightly.

Ned nodded at Robb, who bundled Arya out of the room. Theon followed, glancing back at Sansa worriedly. Sansa shut the door behind them before turning back to Ned. She smoothed her skirt down before running her hands through her hair. Her movements were jerky and agitated, and her hands were shaking.

At last, she took a deep breath and began to speak. “When I was wedded to Ramsay Bolton, I was told that Stannis was coming south from the Wall. If he won, I was already there to be restored as Lady of Winterfell, and if he lost, I was inside the castle to do what needed to be done.”

Ned opened his mouth, even though he couldn’t think of what to possibly say. A deep, distant horror ran through him, thrumming through his veins. Sansa spoke almost like she had been an assassin, ready to murder a husband in the dark.

“It was a mistake. It was a mistake on all of our parts, except Ramsay’s. When I arrived in Winterfell, I despised Theon the same as Arya does now. But he was broken, Father. He barely even responded to the name Theon, because Ramsay had tortured him into being Reek, instead. And Ramsay set out to break me, too.”

Bile rose abruptly in Ned’s throat. He forced it back. If nothing else, he owed Sansa this: to listen, to hear her story. To hear what he hadn’t protected her from.

“Joffrey had the King’s Guard beat me every time Robb won a battle,” said Sansa calmly. “That ultimately didn’t leave any scars. Ramsay did. He left my face, because he needed the face of Ned Stark’s daughter, but everywhere else… Well, he did what he liked with that, and he had a predilection for blood.”

Even though her voice was deadly calm, Sansa’s hands were shaking, and her bottom lip was trembling as she spoke. He couldn’t help but remember the placid way Sansa had spoken about what was to happen in the future. She hadn’t faltered once. Now, she shook in the face of her memories.

“I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty,” said Sansa. “I’m saying this to tell you what kind of person Ramsay Bolton was – is.” Sansa’s voice stumbled at last. She paused for a moment, pressing the back of her hand against her mouth as she breathed deeply through her nose. Eventually, she said, “Theon was with him for far longer than I was, but when it came to it, Theon saved me. He defied Ramsay to keep me safe, and he gave himself up to the Bolton men searching for us to give me a little more time. He came back to me in Winterfell and he protected Bran with his life.

“I’m not saying he never did anything wrong, Father,” said Sansa. “He did terrible things, and I understand why Arya has not forgiven him. But I believe that what Ramsay did to him outweighs anything you can possibly do. You might take his life, but Ramsay almost took his very soul.”

Ned stood up, walked around the table, and pulled Sansa into his arms. She went stiff for a moment, holding her breath, but then her arms wrapped around him and held tight. He pressed a kiss to her hair. “Never again,” he murmured. “It won’t happen again, Sansa. I promise you that.” Promise me, Ned.

He had kept his sister’s secret for fourteen years, at the cost of his reputation and the full trust of his wife. He would do what it took to keep his daughters safe now.

“I need time to make my decision,” he said, releasing Sansa. “Go to your sister and brothers.” Sansa nodded and slipped out the door.

Ned sighed to the empty room. What could he possibly do to Theon that hadn’t already been done?

His gaze drifted to where he kept past letters from his bannermen. Rifling through them, he found the letter informing him of Domeric Bolton’s death. It was still recent. Theon and Sansa had both referred to Ramsay as a Bolton, but Roose had only had one trueborn son – Ramsay must have been a legitimised bastard. There was still time, then, before Ramsay could gain any kind of power.

He sat back down at his desk, reading the letter again. And what can I do to prevent Ramsay Bolton from ever harming anyone else?

-

The silence in the hall outside Ned’s solar was deafening. Arya couldn’t help but glare at Theon from across the corridor. Theon was staring at the ground, unable to make eye contact with any of the Starks in the hallway with him.

Sansa slipped out of the solar and leant against the door, squeezing her eyes shut and pressing her lips together, breathing heavily.

“You told him about Ramsay, didn’t you?” asked Theon. Sansa nodded and furiously brushed away a tear rolling down her cheek. He stepped towards her, but a death glare from Jon stopped him in his tracks. “It’s okay, Sansa. He isn’t here. You’re safe.”

“But he’s alive!” burst out Sansa. “He’s probably in the Dreadfort right now, training his dogs and gathering the Bastard’s Boys. He’ll come for us, Theon.”

“He doesn’t know who you are,” reminded Robb.

“He knows I’m the oldest Stark daughter,” said Sansa. “He’ll want me for that alone. He won’t stop until he has every part of the North under his grip, his to torment as he wants.”

Arya grabbed Sansa’s hand. “Come with me,” she ordered, dragging her sister down the hall.

“Arya -” protested Sansa, but Arya cut her off with a withering look.

“We have plans to make, stupid,” said Arya, glancing back at their brothers and Theon meaningfully. Sansa fell silent until Arya they arrived at Arya’s chambers. Sansa sat down primly on the edge of Arya’s bed, and Arya sat cross-legged next to her.

“You said you wanted Ramsay Bolton dead first,” she said to Sansa. Sansa nodded. “Then let’s make a plan.”

“He’s in the Dreadfort,” said Sansa dully. “How do you plan to get to the Dreadfort to kill him?”

Arya worried her bottom lip. “Father needs to meet with his bannermen sometimes,” said Arya. “If we can arrange for Father to ride to the Dreadfort, I can go with him.”

“Arya…” said Sansa. “If you don’t manage it, if he catches you in the act – you’re not going to get out of there. He’ll kill you – and that’s the best case scenario.”

Arya scoffed. “He won’t catch me.” She was Arya Underfoot, the Cat of the Canals, trained by Faceless Men – some Bolton bastard wasn’t going to catch her.

“He might,” insisted Sansa. “I can’t let you. I won’t let you fall into his hands. I won’t.

“He won’t catch me,” repeated Arya. “He won’t even have a reason to suspect me, because I’ll just be a little girl as far as he knows. He won’t know anything else until it’s too late.”

“He killed Rickon!” cried Sansa. “If anyone should have been safe from him, it was Rickon, because no one even knew where he was, but he found Rickon and he murdered him right in front of Jon. I can’t lose you, too, not to Ramsay.”

“Listen to me,” said Arya, pulling Sansa’s face around so that Sansa was looking straight at her. “You are Sansa of House Stark, Lady of Winterfell and Princess in the North. You survived Joffrey and Cersei. You retook Winterfell and you fed Ramsay Bolton to his own dogs. You outplayed Littlefinger and sentenced him to die.” Sansa’s eyes were teary as she stared back at Arya. “I’m Arya Stark. I escaped King’s Landing when every gold cloak in the city was searching for me. I survived Harrenhal and served Tywin Lannister as his cupbearer without him realising a thing. I trained with the Faceless Men and I escaped them. If anyone can kill Ramsay before he can kill us, we can. Do you hear me, Sansa? We can do this.”

“I’m so scared, Arya,” whispered Sansa. “I think of everything we have to do, and I think of Petyr and Ramsay and Joffrey being out there right now, and it’s like I can’t breathe. There’s so much to do.”

“We have help,” said Arya. “We have Mother and Father, Robb and Jon. We even have Theon, however much use he is. It isn’t just you, Sansa.”

Sansa closed her eyes and whispered to herself, “I am Sansa of House Stark, the blood of Winterfell. I can be brave.”

“You are brave,” corrected Arya.

Sansa opened her eyes. “Not like you.”

“You could have fled to Essos and been shot of everything after you fled from Ramsay,” said Arya. “I talked to Jon; I know he considered it when he first woke up. But you didn’t. You went right back to Winterfell and you dragged Jon with you and you took it back for us. That was brave, Sansa. That’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard of.”

Sansa looked away. “We need to talk about what we’re going to do about Jon Arryn.”

Arya narrowed her eyes at the abrupt subject change, but let the subject drop. “We need to warn him,” she said.

Sansa took a deep breath. “Do we?”

Arya frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Everything we know about the political situation in the future stems from Jon Arryn dying,” said Sansa. “Father becoming Hand, the War of the Five Kings – it wouldn’t have happened without Jon Arryn dying.”

“So we let him die?” asked Arya, aghast.

“I -” Sansa paused, then said, “I’m scared of what will happen if we save him. Stannis and Renly will likely go to war when Robert dies either way, but who does Jon Arryn support? If he supports Stannis, do more Houses side with Stannis? What if he supports Joffrey? We don’t know what kind of effect he’ll have.”

“Then we’ll work it out,” said Arya. “Gods, Sansa, you’re one of the most experienced people I know. If anyone can manoeuvre around Jon Arryn, it’s you. It’s not like he’s a second Littlefinger.”

“But that’s another thing,” said Sansa. “If we warn him, and Littlefinger gets wind of it, then he knows someone knows his plans and is interfering with them.”

“He’ll have to know it at some point, unless you’re planning on letting things go unchanged right up until I cut his throat,” said Arya.

Sansa looked down at her hands. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. I’m just…”

“We don’t have to sign the letter,” offered Arya. “If you’re worried, we can even make a seal with Littlefinger’s emblem on it and use that to seal it. Now that will throw Littlefinger off.”

Sansa barked out a surprised laugh, then leaned over and hugged Arya. “Don’t let me be too cautious,” she murmured into Arya’s ear. “We need to be careful, but we need to change some things. Keep me remembering that.”

Arya sighed and said, “You’ll have to remind me to be more careful, then.”

“I will,” promised Sansa.

“The first time round, in King’s Landing, Father told me that we needed each other, even though we were different as the sun and the moon,” said Arya. “I didn’t really believe him. I never would have even dreamed of – this.” She held her arms out wide to gesture around the room.

“We’ll do better this time,” vowed Sansa. “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

When the time came for them to hear Theon’s sentence, Arya stood next to Sansa. Theon was fidgeting anxiously as he waited, and Arya noticed Sansa had knitted her fingers together like she was keeping herself from reaching out to comfort him.

“After what Sansa told me, I knew there was little I could do to punish Theon,” said Ned. “Even execution would not be the first time he experienced death – he has already died, and in service of Bran, at that. There is little to nothing that I could to Theon that he has not already experienced, and I have no wish to be like Ramsay Snow.

“Theon does need to make amends, however. He did serious harm to people, even if they will never know the true extent of the harm. It is for that reason I am commanding Theon to act as Ser Rodrik’s squire.”

“That’s a boy’s job,” said Robb, not quite as a protest.

“It is,” replied Ned blandly. “He will also aid Maester Luwin in educating Bran and Rickon. You harmed people, Theon. Now is your time to make up for it by making their lives better and easier than they were in your last life.”

Arya bit her lip. It didn’t feel like enough, somehow. But she couldn’t help thinking of Sansa’s fear of Ramsay – maybe that same fear would have to be enough punishment for Theon.

Sansa let out a happy, high-pitched squeak, throwing herself forwards to wrap Theon in a hug. He caught her at the last moment, holding her fast.

“There is one other thing,” said Ned. Sansa and Theon let go of each other to look at Ned. “I want you to tell me everything you know about Ramsay Snow.”

Arya smiled. Now that was something she could work with.

-

The candles were burning low in Sansa’s chambers when she heard the knock at the door.

“Mother,” greeted Sansa when she opened the door. Catelyn was standing in the hall outside, hairbrush in her hand.

“We haven’t had much of a chance to talk,” said Catelyn. “I thought…” She lifted the hairbrush in her hand.

Sansa felt the smile spread across the face before she could even think about it. Tears stung at her eyes. She opened the door further. “I would like that, Mother.”

Catelyn smiled, surprisingly shy. Sansa led her back to the mirror, where she sat in the chair. Catelyn stood behind her, carefully unravelling the braids in Sansa’s hair.

“Your father told me a little of what you said to him today,” said Catelyn. “Not enough to betray your confidence, but enough for me to understand – for me to understand what you did to him.”

Sansa closed her eyes, letting out a deep breath. She opened them again and met her mother’s eyes in the mirror. “He was a monster.”

Catelyn began to run the brush through Sansa’s hair, gentle and slow. “I never wanted that for you,” she said. “I hoped that you would have a marriage like mine and your father’s. We may not have loved each other to begin with, but we were able to build it over the years, stone by stone.”

“Ramsay would rather have torn it down and ground each stone into a dust,” said Sansa.

Catelyn stopped and placed the hairbrush on the dresser. She knelt down beside Sansa and said, very seriously, “He will never touch you again. I promise you that.”

Sansa swallowed hard. If Ramsay did ever come near her, Arya would murder him. Arya had already promised as much. (She wasn’t so sure that Arya would go to as much trouble to rescue Theon, but at least for now if Ramsay went near Theon, he would be going near Sansa, thus incurring Arya’s wrath.) It had hardly helped when Arya promised it, and neither did Catelyn’s.

“I know,” said Sansa, because none of her thoughts would help. Catelyn nodded, took her hand and squeezed it before standing back up and taking up the hairbrush again.

“I can’t believe that my sister married you to him,” said Catelyn, the hairbrush flowing through Sansa’s hair once again.

Sansa’s heart seized in her chest. She could tell Catelyn. She could tell her mother the truth about Petyr. It would be so, so easy to open her mouth and tell Catelyn what Littlefinger was. But she couldn’t quite get the words out.

“It was a mistake,” said Sansa. “I don’t think she knew how – what he was. We thought that Stannis would retake Winterfell. We thought that I would be there for when Stannis came, ready to be made Lady of Winterfell. We didn’t know. No one did.”

“We do, now,” said Catelyn. Sansa offered her a tiny smile in the mirror.

Sansa sat in silence for several moments before she said, “You shouldn’t be so hard on Jon.”

The steady movement of the brush in Sansa’s hair faltered. “He took your birth right,” said Catelyn, a hard edge to her voice. “I warned Ned time and time again. He always ignored me, but he did it. He’ll do it again, in this timeline.”

“He saved me,” said Sansa, twisting around in her chair to look at Catelyn. “If he was what you think, he could have tossed me back out of Castle Black and handed me right back to Ramsay. He stayed with me, though, and he helped me to rally the North.”

“And why was he able to leave Castle Black with you?” asked Catelyn. “He deserted. He should have been executed for it, not crowned king.”

“He died,” said Sansa flatly. “He was stabbed in the chest by his own men for letting the Wildlings south of the Wall, and a Red Priestess raised him from the dead. He gave his life. He fulfilled his vows, and then he came south and helped me to retake Winterfell.”

“Sansa…”

“I spent years as a hostage in King’s Landing, then when I escaped, I was sold to Ramsay Bolton,” said Sansa, blinking back tears. “Jon was the first family member I had seen since Father was executed. I asked him where he was going to go when he left Castle Black and he insisted the right question was where we would go. He protected me when nobody else did, besides Brienne. He’s a good man, Mother.”

“Boy,” said Catelyn, more automatically than anything. “He’s a boy.”

“Not for long,” whispered Sansa, leaning back in her chair. She closed her eyes, letting Catelyn run the brush through her long, auburn hair. The future was rushing in on them. There was no hiding from the White Walkers, not even here.

Chapter Text

“Shouldn’t we have heard something by now?” asked Arya.

Sansa suppressed a smile and turned to face her sister. They were in the grass gardens, and Arya was gloomily sniffing at a blue winter rose.

“We only heard about Jon Arryn after we got the dire wolves,” she pointed out. “There’s still time.”

“It’ll be soon, though, won’t it?” asked Arya. “I feel like I’m going mad. We’ve come back and we’ve spent all these months doing nothing.

“It hasn’t been nothing,” said Sansa. They had organised for increased shipments of wheat to come in from all of the keeps across the North. Already, Sansa knew that they would have far more food come winter than they had had last time, even everything else stayed the same. Arya and Robb had taken to organising the rebuilding of the Broken Tower. When the day came, it would be able to house more refugees from throughout the North when they took shelter in Winterfell – and it would be too busy when – if, she supposed – the King came for Bran to stumble on Cersei and Jaime Lannister risking a tryst there. Letters had gone to Lord Commander Mormont, asking if he had any odd reports. Sansa and Arya had sent an anonymous letter to Jon Arryn, warning him to always test his food. There wasn’t much that they could do to influence southron politics from Winterfell.

Arya huffed. “I know, I know. But Gods, I feel like there’s so much more we could be doing. I could have killed Ramsay Snow by now, or ridden south and slit the throats of some Freys and Lannisters.”

They had already had this conversation a hundred times over. Sansa knew that Arya didn’t truly desire to ride out and assassinate anyone who might be a problem for them, only that the inactivity and lack of news was driving her mad. It didn’t stop Sansa’s anxiety from racketing up every time Arya mentioned riding to the Dreadfort and taking Ramsay Snow out herself.

“Soon,” soothed Sansa. “It can’t be long now.” The moon had waxed and waned twice since Sansa and Arya had woken up, children again. They had passed into the next year. The Ranger from the Night’s Watch had to be riding south from the Wall any day now.

“Sansa! Arya!” Sansa looked over at the sound of Bran calling their names. He was waving them over urgently. “Mother said that I needed to get you both,” said Bran. Sansa exchanged a look with Arya. They had finished with the Septa for the morning, and weren’t expected anywhere until the afternoon.

“What’s wrong?” asked Sansa, hurrying over to Bran with Arya on her heels.

Bran shrugged. “There was a lady at the gates who wanted to see you.”

“A lady?” repeated Sansa.

“A lady all in armour!” exclaimed Bran.

“Brienne,” realised Arya, and took off running.

“Are they in the Great Hall?” Sansa checked, and when Bran nodded, she picked up her skirts and ran after Arya. Bran kept pace with her as they ran – he might have been shorter, but he didn’t have any skirts to get in his way. Arya, who after several weeks of stubborn refusal to wear anything else had won the right to wear leggings for day-to-day tasks, streaked ahead of both of them. As they ran into the courtyard, Sansa saw Theon, polishing a sword for Ser Rodrik. He looked up, startled, as Sansa sprinted past.

“Theon, come on!” she shouted. He hesitated for a moment, glancing down at the sword in his hands, before putting it aside and running after her.

“What’s going on?” he asked, as he drew level with her.

“Brienne is here,” she panted out. “It isn’t just us, Theon!”

Arya was holding the door for them when they arrived. She pointedly ignored Theon, but when Sansa stepped through the doorway, Arya went with her. Their parents were seated at the High Table. Brienne was standing in the centre of the room, and at the sound of them entering, she turned to look.

“Lady Sansa, Lady Arya,” she said. “I know that this will seem strange to you -”

Sansa burst into a beaming smile, running the last few steps and throwing her arms around Brienne. Brienne caught her, tentatively accepting her hug.

“I should have known,” said Sansa. “I should have known there was no where we’d go where you wouldn’t follow.”

“My lady?” said Brienne.

“We came back, too, Brienne,” said Arya, coming to stand next to Sansa when Sansa let Brienne go.

“Theon, too,” added Sansa, because she knew Arya wouldn’t.

“Lady Brienne,” said Ned, standing, “with my daughters’ decidedly warm reaction to you, I will be honoured to accept you into my household as my daughter’s sword shields. I hope that you will be able to protect them as well as you did in their last lives.”

Arya let out a delighted whoop, and Sansa knew that she couldn’t suppress her smile if she tried.

“They know everything,” said Sansa. Almost everything, anyway, she thought to herself, but didn’t say – she still didn’t know how to tell their mother about Littlefinger.

“Then – if you don’t mind, my lord – it should be Ser Brienne,” said Brienne. Her voice started out quiet, but it grew in strength as she spoke.

“You were knighted!” gasped Sansa.

“Just before the battle, my lady,” confirmed Brienne. “Any knight of the Seven Kingdoms may anoint another, so Ser Jaime knighted me.”

There were a thousand things that Sansa could hold against the Kingslayer, starting with Bran being thrown from the Broken Tower and ending with him serving as the Lord Commander of Cersei’s Queen’s Guard, but knighting Brienne was not something she could fault him for. If there was anyone in Westeros who lived up to the ideals of a knight of the Seven Kingdoms, it was Brienne of Tarth.

“He may have been an Oathbreaker, but it was the right and honourable thing to do,” said Sansa. “If anyone is a true knight, it is you, Ser Brienne.” A slow, shy smile spread across Brienne’s face at Sansa’s words.

At the High Table, Ned nodded slowly. “Aye, Ser Brienne it is,” he said.

Beside him, Catelyn stood. “Although I am grateful for all that you have done for my daughters, Ser Brienne,” she started. Brienne ducked her head at Catelyn’s words, and Sansa could see her smile widen. “… All knights have been dubbed by another Knight, and I doubt that the Jaime Lannister of this time will back your knighthood.” Brienne’s smile dropped off her face, and Sansa shot a glare at her mother. “You are a Knight, Ser Brienne,” added Catelyn, her voice more gentle. “No one can take that from you. But here in Winterfell, we have agreed to keep the girls’ situation – quiet, as it were, so that Lord Varys and the Lannisters cannot use it unscrupulously. The decision is yours, Ser, but it will look unusual.”

“That isn’t fair,” protested Arya. “Brienne’s a knight. She’s more than earned it.”

Sansa grimaced and stepped backwards, away from Brienne. “But Mother’s right,” said Sansa. “At best, people will think you a liar or mad. At worst, it will bring attention to us that we don’t need, Arya. Even as it is, if Varys finds reason to look into the North, he’ll be able to tell we’re preparing for war. We need to prevent any attention.”

“The Wildlings are gathering to march on the Wall,” countered Arya. “Robert loves Father; if we tell him that we’re preparing for the Wildlings, he’ll believe us.”

“Lady Sansa and Lady Catelyn are right,” said Brienne, her voice flat. “It is my duty to protect you both. If not acknowledging my knighthood publicly is needed to keep you both safe, then that is what I will do.”

“I’m sorry, Brienne,” said Sansa. “I wish…”

“People might not have believed me even if we had lived past the battle, and Ser Jaime and the others were there to say that it happened,” said Brienne, dully.

“Brienne,” whispered Sansa, stricken. She shouldn’t have said anything. People would have thought Brienne a bit mad or presumptuous, but what did that matter?

No. They needed to remain inconspicuous where possible. That would be difficult enough as it was, as daughters of Ned and Catelyn Stark, fourth and fifth in line for Winterfell, and having Brienne in their household would cause a stir even without her going by Ser.

Catelyn left the High Table, approaching Brienne in the centre in the room. “I am told that it was because of an oath you made to me that you protected my daughters.”

Brienne nodded. “I was your sworn shield first, my lady. You sent me to retrieve your daughters with Jaime Lannister, in exchange for his release.”

Sansa exchanged a quick glance with Arya. They hadn’t mentioned that part of Brienne’s story before. Beyond blinking, though, Catelyn didn’t falter. She reached out and took Brienne’s hand in hers. “Thank you,” said Catelyn, gratitude flowing through her voice. “I don’t know exactly what it would have been to be the Catelyn of your time, separated from all but one of my children, but I can imagine. You searched for them when all else had given them up, and you rescued Sansa from a monster. Although most people, today, would not believe it, you have proven yourself a true knight.”

Brienne’s eyes filled with tears and she blinked them back. “Lady Catelyn, it was my honour to serve you and your daughters. I only wish I could have done more to protect you.”

Catelyn’s jaw tightened slightly at the reminder of her brother’s wedding, but she said, “From what I’ve been told, there was not much you could have done. Better that you survived to serve and protect Sansa and Arya.” She patted Brienne’s hand gently before releasing it and stepping back.

“That isn’t all,” said Ned, drawing Sansa’s attention back to the High Table. “I received a raven from Jeor Mormont. One of his rangers seems to have deserted immediately after arriving back from a long ranging. I have sent word out to keep an eye out for him.”

Sansa turned to look at Arya and Theon. “It’s beginning.”

-

Arya stood on the battlements of Winterfell, the breeze rushing through her hair. It was a little chilly, standing in the breeze, but Arya barely registered it.

Sansa was still inside the castle. She had whipped herself into a frenzy over the past two weeks, writing down every piece of information that she could think of and making sure that their parents, Robb and Jon memorised them. Arya knew why she was so anxious – if Jon Arryn hadn’t heeded their warning, the letter about his death would arrive in a matter of days, at most. Sansa wasn’t just preparing for the future; she was preparing for Joffrey, trying to build up every defence she could against him.

Well, all except one. Sansa still hadn’t told anyone the truth about her treatment in King’s Landing. Arya hadn’t told anyone the entirety of what had happened to her, either, so she couldn’t really argue with Sansa on that front.

Still, Arya had no doubt Sansa would be out soon. Ned and their brothers had ridden out to collect the Night’s Watch deserter, and that meant one thing: the dire wolves. Nymeria was so, so close.

A horn sounded in the distance and Arya looked up. She could see them, riding back towards Winterfell, one member all in black and the others carrying something they hadn’t set out with. Arya grinned and ran for the stairs.

The gates were opening and the party clattered through. Arya darted from her spot as they dismounted. “Nymeria!” she called. In Jon’s arms, the grey direwolf cub started to wriggle. With a yelp, Jon dropped her, shaking his hand. Nymeria charged across the courtyard and Arya scooped her up into her arms.

“Oh, girl, I’ve missed you,” she whispered into Nymeria’s fur. Nymeria burrowed further into Arya’s arms. “You know your name, don’t you? You came back with me. Of course you did.” As soon as she realised, it felt obvious. Of course Lady and Nymeria had come back with Sansa and Arya – anything else would have been wrong.

Sansa appeared at the door of the Library Tower. She darted over to Robb and very gently took the small, grey cub from his arms and cuddled the pup close to her chest. As Arya watched, Lady stretched up to lick Sansa’s chin repeatedly. Sansa giggled, clutching Lady closer.

“So those two are yours, then,” said Jon. He had Ghost still in his arms, while Bran and Robb had Summer and Grey Wind, respectively. Theon held Shaggydog in his arms. Arya couldn’t help a moment of spiteful glee at the sight; Shaggydog was as wild now as he had ever been, and Theon was struggling to keep him contained.

“This is Lady,” said Sansa, her voice quavering. Lady rested her head on Sansa’s shoulder, and Sansa brushed her cheek against her. Tears were leaking down her cheeks, but Sansa was smiling so wide that Arya almost worried her face was going to split in two.

“And that little monster?” asked Jon, humour in his voice.

“This little monster is Nymeria,” said Arya proudly. “Once, last time round, she bit Joffrey and made him bleed.” Sansa tried to shush Arya, but it was lost amongst the loud, boisterous laughter of Robb and Jon. “You were such a good girl,” crooned Arya, shifting Nymeria so that she could look the direwolf in the eyes.

“Any word from the Red Keep?” asked Ned, more seriously.

Sansa shook her head. “It’ll be any day now, Father.”

“If it comes at all,” said Arya, cuddling Nymeria back to her chest. “He might have listened to us, you know.”

Sansa bit her lip. “We need to consider what we’ll do if Robert never comes North. The Lannisters, Stannis and Renly will go to war, no matter what Jon Arryn does.”

“Inside,” said Ned, gesturing towards the Great Keep. Arya couldn’t help but clutch Nymeria a little closer, unwilling to put her down so soon. Sansa did the same with Lady. Ned half-rolled his eyes and added, “You can bring the direwolves.”

“Excuse me, Lord Stark,” said Theon. “I should take this direwolf to Lord Rickon.” Theon had taken to being exceedingly polite to all of the Starks, aside from Sansa, who had rolled her eyes at him the first time he tried to call her ‘Lady Sansa’, and Arya, who had told him not to talk to her at all.

“I’ll go with him,” said Jon, immediately, with an edge to his voice.

Sansa stepped closer to Arya and murmured, “Maybe we should ask Brienne to stay with Bran and Rickon for now. At least then Jon and Robb won’t spend every other second hovering over Theon’s shoulder.”

“But then they won’t talk to him at all,” said Arya, with exaggerated disappointment. Sansa shot her a look, and Arya dropped the act. “Honestly, Sansa. I don’t know what you expect.”

Sansa sighed. “I expect nothing, but he’s not that man anymore, Arya. You’d all see that if you gave him space to be anything.”

Arya shrugged. “I’m not best known for my forgiveness,” she said. “If you want Robb and Jon to treat him differently, you’ll have to take it up with them.”

Sansa pursed her lips and turned to Ned. He was finishing giving instructions to Ser Rodrik as they turned to look. Ser Rodrik took the Night’s Watch deserter by the arm and led him towards the Guard’s Hall. “Come on,” she said, leading Arya into the Great Keep.

Catelyn was waiting for them at the entrance to Ned’s solar. She eyed the direwolves in their arms nervously. “I thought your lord father was retrieving the deserter,” she said.

“He did,” said Arya glibly. “He also found our direwolves. This is Nymeria, and that’s Lady.” Nymeria shifted slightly in Arya’s arms at the sound of her name, and lifted her head to butt against Arya’s jaw. “Nymeria!” exclaimed Arya, although the scolding was made immediately ineffectual by Arya’s giggling.

“We had them last time,” said Sansa. “Grey Wind used to ride into battle beside Robb, you know, and Summer sacrificed himself for Bran.” She heaved Lady up higher and brushed the top of Lady’s head against her chin. Lady leaned into the touch, her tail wagging. “You couldn’t ask for better protectors for us, except for maybe Brienne.”

Robb came up behind them, Grey Wind trotting at his heels. Ned walked beside him. “I’ve told Ser Rodrik to place Gared into the holding cells,” said Ned. “We will question him tomorrow. Hopefully, a night in a safe place and a good meal will return some of his wits to him and we’ll get more information on the Others soon enough.”

Arya nodded, her heart beating fast. It hadn’t been long ago that she had been complaining to Sansa that things were moving too slowly, but now the deserter had arrived and Nymeria was in her arms, she could see the future before her again, each date between now and the Long Night standing clear in her memories. It wasn’t far away, now. It had never been far away, but she had let herself get carried away in the blissful dream that was the Winterfell of her youth.

At least we’ll know, she thought to herself. We’ll know how far south the White Walkers are by now.

“Did he not say anything?” asked Catelyn.

“He said that he knew he should have warned the Night’s Watch, but that he had to warn his family,” said Ned, grimly, as he let them into his solar.

“Write to Jeor Mormont,” said Sansa. “Perhaps if you are taking this seriously, he will, too.”

“If we can convince the Night’s Watch – or at least Lord Commander Mormont – it’ll be easier to start treating with the Wildlings, too,” said Robb.

“Send Jon,” said Sansa. “When the time comes to treat with the Wildlings, send Jon. They respected him, last time. They knelt to him. If anyone can help to treat with the Free Folk, it will be Jon.”

Catelyn pursed her lips, but did not say anything.

“When I get something out of the deserter, I will summon Mormont to Winterfell,” said Ned. “We will discuss the matter when he arrives.”

“Why not go to the Wall to discuss it?” asked Robb. “We may be able to treat with the Wildlings while we’re there.”

“We may yet have the King riding for Winterfell soon,” said Ned, his eyes shifting to Arya and Sansa. “He will be more likely to believe me than you, Robb, or your mother. When Mormont returns the Wall, I will send representatives with him to treat with Mance Rayder on my behalf. Jon will be one of them, though perhaps there will be more.”

Catelyn cleared her throat. “We need to discuss what we’ll do if Robert doesn’t come North.”

“We need to expose Joffrey as a bastard,” said Arya. “Stannis will go to war if Joffrey is crowned king. He thinks that he is the rightful king.”

“He will be the rightful king,” corrected Ned. “You are right, although I would prefer to find some way to keep the children safe when the truth comes out.”

“Cersei will murder you if you give them any warning,” said Arya.

Sansa held Lady tightly and said, “You need to send me south.”

“What?” demanded Arya, rounding on her sister. “You’re not going south alone!”

“I won’t be alone. I’ll have Brienne,” replied Sansa. She turned back to Ned and Catelyn. “I am not a tactician or a warrior or a general. I can do little about the Others that you cannot. I am a lady, though, and I know how to play the game of thrones. I can climb the ladder – and not a single person in the Red Keep knows that. Send me south.”

“We can’t send you into danger,” said Catelyn, her voice tight. “This isn’t a discussion.”

“If you go south, I’m going with you,” said Arya.

“Absolutely not,” hissed Catelyn.

“You might be the politician, but I’m Arya Underfoot,” continued Arya, as if Catelyn hadn’t interrupted. “You’ll work the lords and ladies, while I’ll spy and keep you safe. You’re not going south alone.”

“Can you do it?” asked Sansa. “Can you stand beside Cersei and Joffrey and not do anything?”

“Can you?” asked Arya. “Robert will want you betrothed to Joffrey. Are you sure you can endure being betrothed to him?”

“We’ll out him as a bastard soon enough,” said Sansa, but there was a hint of nerves in her voice. She joined her hands together. Arya watched them closely, noticing the almost-controlled shivers racing through them.

“You’ll still be betrothed to him for a time,” persisted Arya. “And once Robert knows what Cersei has been up to, he’ll need a new queen. Who’s to say he won’t be looking for a second Lyanna?”

“Arya!” exclaimed Ned, horrified.

Sansa stared at her, her breathing heavy. She opened her mouth then closed it again. After another moment, a slow smile stole across her face. Arya tilted her head in confusion at the sight as Sansa said, “I might be able to do something about that.”

-

Sansa found Theon in the armoury, like she usually did, these days. He was cleaning the swords, running the polish along the blade in slow, careful movements. She leant against the doorframe, watching him, watching his hands and the fingers he hadn’t had only months ago. She needed time to find the right words.

“I need your help,” she said at last.

Theon looked up. He hadn’t realised she was there until she spoke, but he hadn’t startled at the sound of her voice. It was progress.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

She entered the room and pulled up a stool across from him, perching on the edge of it. “I can’t be available for marriage when Robert Baratheon comes North,” she said. She hesitated, then said the true reason – “When Joffrey comes North.”

“Jon Arryn’s dead?” he said. “Your warning didn’t work?”

Sansa shook her head. “No, there’s been no word from King’s Landing – but Littlefinger wants a war between the Starks and Lannisters. He’ll find a way, and pinning the death of Jon Arryn on the Lannisters is the easiest way to cause tension.”

“So you think it’s still coming,” said Theon.

“It’s just a question of when,” said Sansa, “and whether it comes before the Night King.”

“You don’t need to marry me, then,” said Theon, beginning to polish the sword again.

Sansa reached out and grabbed his hand, the polish staining her fingers. “If Jon Arryn lives, I still need to go to south if I have any hope of preventing war, and soon,” she said. “Before Cersei can have Robert killed. I need to get Cersei exposed, and Littlefinger, too, if I can. Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen will be disinherited and Stannis made heir to the Iron Throne. The Seven Kingdoms will remain stable – well, at least until Daenerys Stormborn crosses the Narrow Sea.”

“And why do you need to be betrothed for all of that?” asked Theon.

“So Robert doesn’t try to marry me off to Joffrey,” said Sansa. “I will not be party to his fantasies of Robert and Lyanna come again. If I am betrothed to you, then the deed is already done.”

Theon dropped his gaze, freeing his hands from hers. “You don’t need me for that.”

“Of course I need you,” said Sansa, her voice forceful enough that Theon peeked back up at her. “Who else can I trust, outside my family? You won’t hurt me, Theon. You’re the only man outside my family I can say that about with absolute certainty. And…” She bit her lip, then said all in a rush, “You’re the only one who understands. You’re the only one who ever will.”

Theon licked his lip before he stood up, placing the sword back into its place and picking up another one. “You always dreamt of marrying a prince,” he said. “I’m just a squire, Sansa. For a time, I was barely better than a dog.”

Sansa surged to her feet and grabbed his wrist. “You were always better than a dog,” she said. “Don’t ever say that again, Theon. You were always better than what Ramsay tried to make you. If all you were was Reek, you would never have saved me.”

“I’m still not the prince you dreamed of, Sansa,” he said, looking down.

“And what prince should I marry?” she asked. “Joffrey? Renly? Or should I cast my net further and marry Viserys Targaryen? No, Theon. The songs are just that: songs. I was a child then. Now I know better. No one will ever marry me for love. All I can hope for is to marry a man who is better than Joffrey or Ramsay, and you can be that man. You will be that man.”

Theon closed his eyes and leant closer, so that his forehead rested against hers. “Gods, Sansa. You deserve better than just a husband who’s better than Ramsay Bolton.”

“I deserved better than being beaten by the King’s Guard for my brother’s victories, or being sold to the family who murdered my mother and brother,” said Sansa. “But that still happened. Nothing will change that. Maybe I deserve to marry for love, but it will never happen, Theon. What can happen is for me to marry someone I trust; for me to marry you.”

“I’m not a good man,” said Theon. “You deserve that, at least.”

Sansa slid her hand down his wrist to wrap around his hand. “You aren’t a good man,” she agreed. “You have done terrible things, Theon. But you also saved my life and helped me escape Ramsay. You supported your sister in the Kingsmoot and rescued her from Euron. You came back to me and swore to fight for Winterfell. You sacrificed yourself to give Bran a little more time. You may not be a good man, Theon, but you are capable of doing good things. Do this one more good thing for me. Help to protect me from Joffrey.”

Theon groaned, letting her lace her fingers through his. “Your brothers are going to murder me for this. You know that, right?”

Sansa couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “I can handle Robb and Jon.”

-

Gared was ushered into the Great Hall by Ser Rodrick and Jory and seated across from Ned. Robb and Jon sat on either side of Ned, while Rodrik and Jory turned to take up positions by the wall.

“Gared, you are aware of the consequences of deserting the Night’s Watch, do you not?” began Ned. Across the table, Gared nodded jerkily. “You will not be pardoned for desertion; you have committed a crime and you will be punished accordingly for it.”

Gared swallowed hard and looked down at his feet. “I knew what I was doing, my lord.”

“You claimed yesterday that you wished to warn your family,” stated Ned. “While you won’t be warning them personally, by answering our questions honestly, you will be helping them by helping us to properly prepare the North for the coming winter. Do you understand?”

Gared’s lips parted and he nodded hurriedly.

“Good,” said Ned. “You claim to have encountered the Others. Where and when did this occur?”

“I was -” Gared’s voice stumbled. He cleared his throat and started again. “I was on a ranging with Will and Ser Waymar Royce. We were meant to be pursuing Wildling raiders. We came across a village. I knew there was something wrong, but we went in anyway… There was no one there, but no bodies, either. Then the Others came. They killed Royce, and then raised him again as a wight to kill Will. I escaped. Gods, I escaped, but for how long?”

“Where did this happen?” prompted Robb, although his voice was gentle.

“We were nine days north of the Wall,” said Gared. “In the haunted forest.”

Nine days, thought Ned, leaning back in his chair. The White Walkers were only nine days from the Wall, but it had taken them another seven years to breach it. What were they waiting for?

“Can you describe the Others?” asked Jon.

“They were…” Gared trailed off, his eyes glazing over for a moment. He started and came back to himself. “They were cold. I barely know what else to tell you. Their skin was white as ice, their eyes like the coldest stars overhead. They had swords made out of ice that shattered Royce’s sword as soon as they touched. They even sounded like cracking ice when they spoke.”

“They spoke?” repeated Ned. Sansa and Arya hadn’t mentioned anything about communication. In hindsight, though, it felt obvious; how else would the Others be capable of organising an army? They likely didn’t have to issue commands to the wights, but surely they would have to organise with each other on how to continue their campaign.

But how far did their communication go? Sansa and Arya had called their leader the Night King. Did they have noble houses and laws like the Seven Kingdoms? Did they marry and have children? Ned couldn’t help but remember Old Nan’s story of the Night’s King’s bride, with skin like ice and eyes like blue stars.

Does it even matter? he wondered. It didn’t change the fact that the White Walkers were coming for them all, and that in Sansa and Arya’s future, they had laid waste to the North.

“I don’t know what they said,” said Gared. “It sounded… mocking, though.”

Mocking. Ned supposed it made sense. A race coming to wipe out all of humanity was hardly going to be empathetic towards the humans tasked with protecting the realms of men. Still, something about the revelation stung, made Ned feel somehow more powerless than ever in the face of the oncoming apocalypse.

“Did you inform anyone in the Night’s Watch before you deserted?” asked Ned.

Gared shook his head. “I couldn’t stay. I had to warn my family. I had to.”

“I will send for Lord Commander Mormont,” said Ned. “Your execution is stayed until you can make a full report to him of what you have seen.”

Gared slumped in his chair before peeking back up at Ned nervously. “My family, though -”

“If your information is found to be valid, the whole realm will know of it well before the Others reach the Wall,” said Ned. He nodded to Ser Rodrik, who took Gared by the arm and escorted him out of the hall. Jory lingered.

“Do you truly believe this, my lord?” asked Jory.

“Jory, you must not speak of what I am about to tell you to anyone,” commanded Ned.

“I swear it by the Old Gods and the New,” said Jory, immediately.

“This isn’t the only information we have about the Others coming south,” said Ned. “I cannot explain to you or to anyone the source, but it is trustworthy. The White Walkers live, and they are marching for the Wall.”

Jory mouthed the last few words to himself then asked, “If you cannot tell anyone else of the source, is that why you are questioning the deserter? To convince others?”

“Exactly,” said Ned. “I cannot stress enough how sensitive this source is. You must never speak of it again, on pain of death.”

Jory’s eyebrows rose and his mouth opened slightly. He knew that Ned would not make such a threat lightly. “I won’t, my lord. Not ever.”

“Summon Maester Luwin for me,” said Ned. “I need to send a raven to the Wall.”

-

It took another three weeks for the letter to arrive, but it came, as Sansa always knew it would.

Jon Arryn, once Hand of the King, has been found guilty of high treason. He has been stripped of all titles and has been sent to serve on the Wall for the remainder of his days.

Chapter Text

“Jon Arryn is never going to make it to Winterfell alive,” said Sansa. She, Arya and Brienne were assembled in the Godswood, standing together under the Heart Tree. Sansa wasn’t sure when or why they had decided to hold their private discussions, the ones they had away from the rest of the family, under the Heart Tree, but somehow they always seemed to end up there when making plans. Making plans before the Old Gods, she thought. Before Bran. “It would be one thing if Joffrey was king, because he would never believe or entertain what Jon Arryn says. But Robert’s still alive, and they might have convinced him for now that Jon Arryn was lying, but if he ever decides he wants to hear his old friend out, then that risks everything for Cersei. I can see Cersei organising a bandit or two to attack the Night’s Watch party on its way north. After all, the Vale can’t declare war over a bandit, can they? And even if she decides it’s too risky…”

“Littlefinger wants that risk,” finished Arya. “He’ll do it so that we suspect the Lannisters, if nothing else.”

Sansa nodded. “I suppose if it’s Littlefinger who has him killed, he might wait until after Jon Arryn’s passed Winterfell, to make sure we’ll suspect the Lannisters because of what Jon Arryn tells us, but he might not – Lysa can do that well enough.”

“I know that Littlefinger was responsible entirely in the last time, but are we certain this was not the Lannisters at fault this time?” asked Brienne.

“Jon Arryn was the first to realise about Cersei’s children, wasn’t he?” said Arya. “Cersei would want him gone and discredited, Littlefinger be damned.”

 “Aunt Lysa testified against her husband,” said Sansa. “That’ll be Littlefinger’s doing, I know it. He probably told her it was the only way to keep Sweetrobin from being fostered, if nothing else. And she probably realised it would be the only way she could ever marry Littlefinger.”

“Are you going to tell Mother now?” asked Arya. “It’s going the same way as last time. Surely you don’t still think she won’t believe you.”

Sansa resisted gritting her teeth. She knew, logically, that Catelyn would probably believe her. It was a long time since Catelyn had seen Petyr, and when she had it had been just after Brandon Stark had almost killed him. It wasn’t hard to see how that could spin a man into someone as destructive and vicious as Littlefinger, and talking politics with her over the past few months, Sansa had seen how cynical Catelyn was when it came to politics. And Catelyn had believed everything else Sansa had told her about the future, even if she still hadn’t come around to Jon yet.

And yet.

Sansa wasn’t even sure what it was that kept her lips wired shut whenever it came up. She just couldn’t quite tell her mother. Maybe it was because every time she went to, all she could think was If it hadn’t been for you, he never would have come after me –

It wasn’t fair of Sansa to think that, let alone say it, so she kept her mouth shut.

“If you did not tell your mother about Baelish, then what did you tell them about Jon Arryn’s death?” asked Brienne.

“We told her and Father that we weren’t sure who murdered Jon Arryn,” explained Sansa. “We said there were so many people in King’s Landing who would be interested in seeing Jon Arryn dead, whether to make sure their secrets died with him or so they had a chance at gaining more power, that it was impossible to say who it was. It keeps them distrustful of everyone in King’s Landing – which they should be, because Littlefinger is far from the only threat in that viper’s pit.”

“Except, maybe, Mother’s childhood friend,” said Arya, pointedly.

You don’t understand, Sansa wanted to scream. There had been so many people whose duty it was to protect her and hadn’t. Cersei and Joffrey, Ned for not breaking the betrothal earlier, Dontos and Baelish and Ramsay, Robb. Even Jon, in the end. Who was to say Catelyn wasn’t going to do the exact same?

“We need to be in the courtyard soon,” Brienne reminded them. Sansa nodded, grateful for the distraction.

“Perhaps you’ll be allowed to sit in on the meeting,” Arya said to Brienne, cautious hope in her voice. “We might just be girls -” Arya sneered the word – “but you’re a woman grown. Surely Mormont can’t protest you.”

“We’ll see,” said Brienne. “Your lord father and brother know enough, though.”

“It would still be better to have one of us in there,” said Arya.

“I know of one person who no black brother would protest sitting in on the meeting,” said Sansa casually.

“What, Theon?” demanded Arya.

“He’s heir to the Iron Islands,” said Sansa loftily. “It makes sense for him to observe Lord Stark dealing with the Night’s Watch in preparation for when he takes lordship in Pyke. And he knows as well as you or I about what happened.”

“I think Lady Sansa is right,” said Brienne, earning herself a betrayed glare from Arya. “Theon Greyjoy might not be the most honourable of men, but has no more desire than any of us for the Seven Kingdoms to be overrun.”

“And I trust him,” added Sansa, her voice firm. “I trust that he will tell us what happened in the meeting and I trust him to steer the conversation the way we need it to go.”

Arya stared at the two of them mutinously before huffing out a sigh. “Fine. Fine. At least Robb and Father will both be there, so he can’t get up to anything.”

“He’s not going to get up the anything,” said Sansa, exasperation working its way into her voice. “He came back to fight for us, Arya. He could have gone and hid on the Iron Islands but he came back to Winterfell to fight. That’s not what someone does when they’re still ‘up to something’.”

Arya muttered under her breath, but nodded.

“Now that that’s decided, we really do need to get to the courtyard,” said Brienne, glancing through the trees towards the courtyard.

“I’ll come in a minute,” said Sansa. “Go on without me.”

She waited until Brienne and Arya were clear of the Godswood before she turned to face the gnarled weirwood. She drew her fingers over the face carved into the tree. “Are you still watching us?” she wondered aloud. “Are we doing the right thing, Bran?”

Almost in response, a sparrow landed on the branch before her head, dislodging three leaves. They floated down, landing at her feet. She picked them up and held them in front of her.

“Three blows of the horn, right,” she said. “Night gathers, and now my watch begins.” The words felt sacred on her tongue. “I’m no good with a sword or shield, but I think I can still wake the sleepers.” Sleepers like Catelyn, who still trusted Littlefinger. Like the Lannisters and the Baratheons and the Tyrrells, squabbling over who sat on the Iron Throne.

I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, she thought. That much, she could do.

-

Before Ned began the meeting with Jeor Mormont, he met with Benjen in his solar. His little brother greeted him with a broad smile and a hug, but Ned’s heart only ached. The Night’s Watch wasn’t an easy life, but Benjen had joined to protect the Wall from Wildlings, not White Walkers. Ned hated that he had to burden him with this.

“What’s wrong?” asked Benjen, noticing his mood quickly.

“I need you to sit down, Benjen,” said Ned, his voice grave. Benjen gave him one more worried glance, but sat. Ned turned to stand by the fire, watching the leaping flames in the grate. “What I’m about to tell you cannot leave this room,” said Ned. “Not even to Mormont. No one outside of our family can ever know.”

Benjen’s lips parted as he stared up at Ned. “You’re starting to scare me, Ned.”

You should be scared, Ned couldn’t help but think. “Promise me, Ben.”

Benjen stared at him for another moment before nodding. “Aye, alright then. I swear I won’t tell anyone.”

“Late last year, Sansa and Arya awoke with memories of the next several years,” said Ned. “They weren’t the only ones – Theon Greyjoy woke up with the same memories, and only a few weeks ago, Brienne of Tarth arrived here in Winterfell, wanting to fulfil the oaths she made to my daughters years in the future.”

Benjen nodded slowly to himself, before asking, “What happened in the future?”

Ned walked back to his desk and sat down across from Benjen. “The Others are coming, Benjen. They attacked Winterfell and killed the girls, Theon and Lady Brienne.”

Benjen swallowed visibly. “You believe in this?”

“I do,” said Ned. “Sansa, Arya and Theon are not the same children that they were before. They’re older, and…” He struggled to find the words. Eventually, he gave up, and continued, “They know things that they shouldn’t – about the world, about the past, about everything.”

“Do they know about -”

Promise me, Ned. “No.”

Benjen leant forwards, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “The White Walkers are coming. Gods, Ned. We’ve had Rangers not come back, but we thought…”

“The Wildlings are coming south,” said Ned. “But they aren’t coming to raid. They want to have the Wall between them and the Others. A King Beyond the Wall is leading them – Mance Rayder, I believe he’s called.”

“Rayder was a Ranger, but deserted to join the Wildlings years ago,” said Benjen.

“I wish to treat with him,” said Ned placidly.

Benjen jerked his head up. “Treat with the Wildlings?”

“If we leave them north of the Wall, they will simply become members of the Night King’s army,” explained Ned. “If we can settle them south of the Wall, peaceably, then we have a better chance.”

“They won’t settle with the Northmen,” said Benjen, shaking his head. “They’re wild, Ned. They’ll keep raiding. They won’t follow our laws.”

“Maybe not,” said Ned. “Sansa and Arya tell me that the surviving Wildling’s bent the knee to Jon.”

“Jon as in Jon Snow?” asked Benjen.

“He was made King in the North after Robb and Rickon were killed, and while Bran was missing,” Ned explained shortly. “The Wildlings bent the knee to him. Perhaps they can be convinced to bend the knee to Robert.”

Benjen snorted. “Jon may be just a boy now, but even I can tell you he would be a better king for the Wildlings to kneel to than Robert.” As soon as he finished speaking, he realised what he was implying and his eyes snapped up to meet Ned’s nervously. “I didn’t mean -”

“I know,” said Ned, holding up his hands. “Jon is a Northman. Even with all of our differences, he and the Wildlings still have the blood of the First Men flowing through our veins. Robert does, too, but the Baratheons have more in common with their Andal cousins than the First Men.”

Benjen nodded. “The Wildlings don’t kneel to just anyone,” he warned Ned. “Maybe they kneeled to Jon once, but that doesn’t mean they’ll kneel to him again.”

“I’ll have to speak to Sansa,” Ned muttered to himself. When Benjen cocked his head, he explained, “Sansa was Lady of Winterfell when Jon had to treat with a southern queen. She would have ruled the Wildlings in Jon’s name; she’ll be able to tell us more.”

“Little Sansa, ruling over Wildlings,” said Benjen, shaking his head. “Who would have thought it?”

You haven’t seen her yet, Ned thought grimly. Before, he would have shared Benjen’s response, but the hardened Sansa who talked politics and logistics with him each night would be more than capable of staring down an unruly bannerman. But Benjen would learn, in time.

“I need you to help me convince Jeor Mormont,” said Ned. “Both about the Wildlings and the Others. The Wildlings need to come south of the Wall, but the Night’s Watch will never accept that if they don’t believe in the Others.” And with your reaction, even then it will still be a hard fight.

“Without telling him of – of everything?” asked Benjen, sweeping his hands around the room to indicate the everything. “He’s a good man, and he’s a hard man, but he’s also a rational man, and the Others’ existence isn’t exactly rational, brother.”

“We have a deserter here, who claims to have seen the White Walkers,” said Ned. “Gared, his name is. I have stayed his execution until he can make a full report to Lord Commander Mormont.”

“I don’t know if one deserter’s word will be enough,” said Benjen doubtfully.

“Benjen, if we can’t meet this threat properly, then the entirety of Westeros is at risk,” said Ned. “Your brothers on the Wall, your nieces and nephews here in Winterfell… Each and every one of them will die if we don’t act. Sansa and Arya have already seen it. They don’t need to see it again.”

Benjen looked to the ceiling. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll do what I can. But you’re going to need a plan on how to settle the Wildlings south of the Wall if you’re going to convince Mormont.”

-

“Lord Stark, you know that I have always respected your judgement, and that I rely on Benjen greatly as my First Ranger, but what the two of you are suggesting -”

Across the room, Theon huffed. Jon shot him a glare, even though he shared the sentiments. They had been talking in circles for what felt like hours.

It would be so much easier if they could just bring Arya or Sansa in here to tell the Lord Commander everything they knew, or if Theon stood up and told his story. Jon knew why they weren’t, though – any word of what the girls had been through getting out put them at risk. If Jaime and Cersei Lannister had been willing to push an eight year old boy out of a window to avoid being discovered, the Gods only knew what they would to Sansa and Arya. Anyone outside their immediate family was not to be trusted.

“Commander Mormont, I am aware what this sounds like,” interrupted Ned. “I am perfectly aware that the White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years, and how unlikely it is that they have returned. But the fact remains that we have eye witnesses of the Others movements, and it needs to be investigated immediately.”

“The Others were vanquished for good in the Battle for the Dawn,” argued Commander Mormont.

“If it was for good, then why build a great big wall?” asked Robb. “You don’t need a Wall seven hundred feet tall just to keep other people out, Lord Commander. All the keeps of the Seven Kingdoms prove that well enough.”

“Perhaps at the time, they feared a second invasion by the Others, Lord Robb, but it never came,” said Mormont.

“There was the Night’s Queen,” said Jon. Ned, Robb and Mormont all turned to look at Jon. It was the first time he had spoken. “That’s what she was meant to have been, wasn’t she? Her skin was white and cold, and she had eyes as blue as the coldest stars, and she took the Night’s King soul. That’s what Old Nan always said. That sounds like the Others to me.”

“He’s right,” said Benjen. “That or a wight. The stories could have been twisted over the years, I suppose, but it is evidence that the Others never left for good.”

“But why come back now?” asked Mormont. “It’s been thousands of years. What could have made them come back now?”

“Maester Luwin has told me it is going to be the longest winter in hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” said Ned.

“Or it could be as simple as an Other being born that was a bit more ambitious than the rest,” said Robb. When Ned, Benjen and Mormont looked at him, he shrugged and said, “Surely they can’t be the same White Walkers that attacked in the Long Night. Like you said, Commander, it’s been thousands of years.”

“It doesn’t matter what their motivations are,” said Ned. “What matters is that we see the Wall properly fortified before they strike. We need to have more men on the Wall, and good men, at that – trained knights and soldiers if possible – and to have the Night’s Watch properly supplied for winter.”

Mormont sighed. “I suppose I can’t protest having more men and food brought to the Wall. There are many castles we simply haven’t had the men to man.”

“Exactly,” said Benjen, sharing a look with Ned. “Even if Ned and I turn out to be wrong, it will be no skin off the Watch’s nose to accept more help from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms.”

Except… Jon turned to watch Mormont as Ned said, “We also need to discuss the matter of the Wildlings.”

“They have been getting bolder as of late,” said Mormont. “Any help you may provide to repel them will be most welcome.”

“This isn’t a discussion about routing the Wildlings,” said Ned calmly. “It is about bringing them south of the Wall.”

Mormont blanched and looked at Benjen. “You agree with this?”

“Under any other circumstance, I would not,” said Benjen. His tone was very careful, and Jon knew he had to have been planning his answer for a long time. “We have been at war with the Wildlings for thousands of years. Under normal circumstances, I would find it inconceivable to settle them here in the North – but these are not normal circumstances, Commander. The Others are on the march, and marching with them are the dead. If we leave the Wildlings north of the Wall, vulnerable to the Others, then we will only be letting the Others’ army grow stronger.”

Mormont looked between Ned and Benjen. “The lords of the North will not agree with this.”

“If you support this, we will have a chance of convincing them,” said Ned. “Obviously, we will not be able to tell the North the full conditions of allowing the Wildlings south of the Wall – that will only come once we treat with them – but I have been discussing this matter with Benjen, and we have drawn up a plan that we think will be acceptable, or at least tolerable, for both Northmen and the Wildlings.”

Mormont looked wary, but said, “Let’s hear it, then.”

-

“Sansa?”

Sansa looked up at the sound of Theon’s voice. Edging forward, she peered out from her hiding place to see him walking around the battlements, looking around worriedly.

“I’m here,” she said softly.

He came to kneel down in front of her. “Your family is looking for you,” he said. “They’re worried sick.”

Sansa hugged her knees and asked, “Where were you?”

Theon looked down and admitted, “The Godswood.”

Sansa nodded. “I wanted to go there. I feel closer to Bran, somehow, and everyone who we left behind, but I just… couldn’t.”

“So you came here instead,” said Theon, and offered her his hand. After a moment of hesitation, she took it. He led her to the edge of the battlements so that they could look over the Wolfswood, and beyond that, north and north again. The trees were still green at the feet of Winterfell’s walls.

“We couldn’t jump now,” she whispered to Theon. She squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment to stop the tears that were threatening spill out. She turned to him and hurriedly said, “We could still go. Father and Mother could come up with a reason. We don’t have to be here.”

Theon pulled her into a hug and she sunk into it, pressing her head into his shoulder. “Yes, we do,” said Theon. “I know you’re not going to leave your family – and I can’t leave Robb. Not when none of them know how bad it can get.”

“Gods, Theon, you’re not meant to be the reasonable one,” complained Sansa, hitting him lightly on the shoulder.

Theon smiled faintly at her, amused but not enough to crack through the weight bearing down on him. “I left Yara to Euron,” he said. “He had her for months because I couldn’t face it. I swore to Robb once that I would be his brother for now and for always. I can’t fail family again, not like that.”

“Theon…” said Sansa. “You don’t have to prove yourself. This isn’t going to be like with Euron. You can still get out of here.”

“If you can’t, I can’t,” said Theon. “We’ll face him together, Sansa.” His voice cracked as he said it, fear plaintive in his voice.

She threw her arms around him again. “I won’t let him hurt you again,” she promised. “Not either of us. It’ll end this week, and we’ll never have to fear him again.”

Theon buried his face in her hair, and they stood together, wrapped up in each other’s arms, remembering a leap of faith that they had taken together in a snow that hadn’t fallen. Eventually, Theon’s arms loosened around her waist, and he offered her his hand once more. She took it and let him lead her back to the castle.

The lords of the North were meant to be arriving over the next few days, ready to hear from Ned and Jeor Mormont. They only barely had time to host the bannermen before they had to start preparing for Robert Baratheon’s ride on Winterfell, but Sansa and Catelyn had forced the timing and logistics to work. And since the bannermen were converging on Winterfell, Ned had taken the opportunity to deal with one other potential problem.

“We’ll keep him as far away from the both of you as possibly,” Ned was saying. “We’ve allocated the Boltons the rooms furthest from the both of yours, and you can pretend to have fallen ill, if you wish, to avoid him entirely.”

Sansa nodded, not able to meet her father’s gaze. Catelyn stood up and came to sit next to Sansa, taking her hand and squeezing it gently.

“It’ll be done quickly,” added Ned. “A few days, at most. I promise you that. You’ll be safe again.”

It’s never safe, Sansa thought but did not say. Dealing with Ramsay didn’t mean that Joffrey wasn’t out there, or Petyr, or even the bloody White Walkers. They could minimise risks, deal with threats at they came – but safety was an empty promise. It always had been. It was as much a fairytale as Florian and Jonquil.

“I remember Roose Bolton saying, when I was first married to – just after the wedding, he mentioned that he had hoped to marry me to Domeric Bolton, and that he was glad that I had finally been able to join the Bolton family at last,” said Sansa. It wasn’t entirely a lie, but she was still exaggerating the story. “He might want to negotiate a betrothal.”

“I will find a way to say no,” reassured Ned instantly.

“I have a way to say no,” said Sansa, not looking at Theon. “I need to be betrothed before they arrive.”

Ned went still, and Catelyn turned her head sharply to look at Sansa.

“We’ve already discussed it,” said Sansa. “It makes sense from an outside perspective. You would continue your influence over Theon after her takes up lordship of the Iron Islands. Becoming the lady of one of the kingdoms is a worthy marriage for me, even if it isn’t as prestigious as marrying the prince. It’s a good match.”

“You want to marry Theon?” exclaimed Catelyn.

“I trust him more than any other man you could offer me,” said Sansa, lifting her chin up and crossing her arms.

Ned cast a look at Theon. “I’m not sure about this, Sansa.”

“If you refuse, I can always force the issue,” said Sansa, her voice deceptively calm.

“Sansa!” chastised Catelyn.

“I’ll do it, Mother. I won’t be available for Ramsay or Joffrey,” said Sansa. Bran sent me back to reforge the future. I can build my own destiny, too. I won’t be sold to anyone again.

Ned pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright, alright. I will announce your betrothal at the welcoming feast.”

“Ned!” hissed Catelyn. He shot her a quelling look that made Sansa tilt her head to the side. He had a reason for allowing their betrothal, then; one that he probably thought Catelyn would agree with. She wasn’t certain what that reason was, just yet. Still, she’d take her victories where she could.

“Thank you, Father,” she said politely. Arya, Robb and Jon were going to be livid, as Catelyn was now. She could handle them, though, and a few days spent arguing with her siblings was more than worth not having to worry about being betrothed to Ramsay or Joffrey.

The feast was another two days later. Sansa and Theon waited together outside the door. They stood facing each other, holding each other’s hands loosely.

“Don’t look for him,” she said. “When we get in there, just look at me or straight ahead. We’ll do only as many dances as we have to in order to be polite, and otherwise we can stay at the High Table, out of his reach.”

Theon swallowed hard. “I won’t look,” he promised.

Sansa squeezed his hand comfortingly. “It won’t be long now.” The doors started to open. Sansa took a deep breath, trying to calm her thudding heart, and took Theon’s arm. His fingers tangled with hers and he clung so tightly it was almost painful. “You and me, Theon, just you and me,” she whispered as the doors opened fully.

Sansa stared ahead as she entered the Great Hall, letting her eyes skate over the assembled lords, not taking in any faces. She counted each breath, forcing herself into a rhythm: one, two, one, two, one, two. Theon’s breathing was rough beside her. Sansa couldn’t help but clutch his hand a little tighter.

The crowd’s cheering sounded only like a distant roar. Robb ushered them up to the table, his eyes too bright and his demeanour too cheerful. He was only pretending to be pleased with the betrothal, Sansa knew that, but something about it made Sansa want to scream.

She didn’t know how either she or Theon made it through the meal. They barely looked up from the food in front of them. Sansa responded to Arya’s conversation mechanically, but if she was ever asked what it was about, for the life of her she wouldn’t be able to answer.

Sansa jumped as the music started. Too loud, too loud, she thought, hysteria eating at her spine. Why is it so loud?

Theon laid his hand over hers. “One dance,” he reminded her. His face was pale and clammy. Unable to swallow past lump in her throat, Sansa nodded and stood. Beside her, Robb was offering Arya his hand, and Arya took it, laughing – Robb must have made some kind of jape, Sansa thought distantly.

They arranged themselves on the dance floor. Sansa rested one hand in Theon’s and the other on his shoulder. “Look at me,” Theon reminded her.

“Only at you,” she promised, and with that, the music felt a little less claustrophobic. Her feet began to move with the sound, and she counted the beats out under her breath for Theon. He didn’t need them, not really – he’d been through all the same dancing lessons she had – but he started counting with her all the same.

“It’s Florian and Jonquil,” she realised after another moment.

“I can’t believe it took you so long to work out,” said Theon, his lips turning up ever so slightly.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard this song,” she told him. For so long, there simply hadn’t been time for singing. He turned her in a spin in time with the music, and something in her eased. “Six maids there were in a spring-fed pool,” she sang quietly.

“I thought you would have had each and every song about Florian and Jonquil memorised until the end of days,” teased Theon.

She swayed in his arms, smiled and said, “Well, I’ve been past the end of days, and I still remember the words.”

The song wound down and the band promptly started a second, Brave Danny Flint. She hummed the first few bars, but the quick, fleeting joy she had just experienced had evaporated with the last strains of Six Maids in a Pool, replaced with a terrible foreboding.

“May I cut in?” asked a voice. Theon’s fingers went tight around her waist, and Sansa pressed closer to his side, trying to melt away from the intruder. She turned her head, already knowing who was there.

Ramsay Snow.

Chapter Text

Oh, fuck all of Father’s plans. I’m going to kill that fucker, and I’m going to do it tonight.

Arya glowered at the figure offering his hand to her sister over Robb’s shoulder. He was dressed in Bolton pink, and (for now, at least) he looked the part of heir to the Dreadfort – that is, not a monster. But Arya knew a little of the beast that lurked under Ramsay Snow’s skin, and she could see the way that Sansa and Theon were cringing into each other.

Arya risked a glance over her shoulder – only for half a second, because any longer would give Ramsay the chance to act. Roose Bolton was watching his son with Sansa, and when Arya looked back, she could see Sansa looking in the direction of Roose Bolton and shrink in on herself slightly when she realised he was watching.

She’s going to accept, realised Arya. She doesn’t want to upset Bolton and upset all their plans. Good, sensible Sansa was going to let the monster of her nightmares take her hand and lead her in a dance, just so that they could have him killed the proper way.

Fuck that.

“Robb,” hissed Arya. “You need to cut in with Sansa.”

Robb looked over his shoulder and blanched when he was Sansa reaching out to take the hand of a man in pink. He didn’t know about Ramsay, not truly, but he knew enough. “You take Theon,” he ordered.

“What? I’m here for Sansa -

“And no matter what Theon did, she cares for him and he’s terrified right now, Arya,” said Robb. “Look at him.”

Arya looked. Theon was cringing away from Ramsay, his shoulders hunched and he stooped ever so slightly, unable to meet Ramsay’s eyes. Nonetheless, he still had hold of Sansa’s free hand, not quite willing to let her go. Sansa was saying something to him, trying to untangle her fingers.

“Fine,” grumbled Arya.

“Thank you,” said Robb, then turned and called out, “Sansa! We had a promise!”

Ramsay looked over, irritation brushing over his face. Sansa’s face shone with relief that she was unable to conceal.

“I’m sorry, Lord – Ramsay, isn’t it? – but my sister promised me her second dance of the night,” said Robb. He had unobtrusively drawn himself up as he drew closer to Ramsay – Arya hadn’t seen him stand taller, but it was obvious now that he was taller than Ramsay. Arya grabbed Theon wrist and pulled him away.

Jon caught her by her other wrist as she tried to lead Theon away. “Is everything alright?”

“That’s Ramsay,” she told him quickly. Jon’s face darkened and he slid closer to Sansa and Robb. He found a pretty, brown-haired girl nearby who accepted his offer to dance at once, and the two swayed to the music. Jon’s eyes remained firmly on the bastard of Bolton, only an arm’s reach away from Sansa if he was needed.

“Robb’s just made him angry,” murmured Theon, barely able to be heard over the music and talking.

Arya let out a sharp hiss of air and pulled Theon into a dancing position. “Pull it together,” she snapped. “You want to keep Sansa and Robb safe? Then we need to keep suspicion off you and Sansa. Now dance.

Theon’s lips were still quivering, but his feet started to move in time and he nodded.

What had Ramsay done to him? It was the first time Arya had allowed herself to wonder it. The Theon Greyjoy she had left behind in Winterfell, all those years ago, had been an arrogant little shit. Even at his absolute worst, Arya couldn’t imagine him cringing and quivering while taking Winterfell.

“It’s going to be over soon,” she found herself telling him.

“Arya -”

“I can handle it, Greyjoy,” Arya said shortly.

“Be careful,” said Theon. “Don’t underestimate him.”

“It’s too late for you to start worrying about my family,” said Arya. She let him spin her under his arm and when she came back to face him, she made sure to step slightly too far forwards and on to his foot. “Just because Sansa’s gotten herself betrothed to you doesn’t mean you’re forgiven, and it’s certainly not forgotten.”

“I don’t expect you to forget,” said Theon, his voice quiet. “I never will.”

“Good,” said Arya. The time was coming to change partners, and Arya twirled away from Theon.

“Arya!” exclaimed Sansa. Robb was letting go of her and she grabbed on to Arya’s arm, giggling. “Dance with me.”

“Sansa, what -” started Arya.

“Dance with me,” she said, her tone more pointed. Arya took her hand and they twirled together. Arya used the opportunity to survey the room. Ramsay wasn’t watching them anymore, instead dancing with some dark-haired girl Arya didn’t know. Arya pitied her, but she couldn’t help the relief surging through her that he was away from Sansa.

“You can’t do anything,” Sansa said quietly between giggles. “He has guest right now.”

“If we leave him, he might hurt someone,” Arya said back, punctuating the sentence with loud laughter.

“Do you want to be like the Freys?” asked Sansa. “He has guest right. Killing him now will be an offence to the gods, and we need the gods on our side if we’re to have any hope. We need to do this right, Arya. All of it.”

It was surprisingly easy for Arya to go through the motions of the dance beside Sansa. She had always resisted the lessons with Septa Mordane when they were children, but some part of it must have burned into her mind all the same. Maybe the skills she had learned in her last life were helping – she had trained in waterdancing, after all, and any Faceless Man needed to be lithe and co-ordinated. Why is this all I can do with my training? Arya thought bitterly. I can’t even avenge my sister. What use is all that time with the Faceless Men if I can’t even kill a monster?

-

“Arya?” called Jon, looking up the stairs of the Broken Tower. Construction work had stopped for now, with everyone in Winterfell and Winter Town busy accommodating the northern lords and selling any wares they could while the castle was filled to the brim, so the tower stood empty.

Jon started to turn around, ready to move on to search another part of the castle, but just before he could move out the door, he heard Arya’s tentative voice: “Jon?”

He found her at the very top of the stairs, sitting with her knees drawn up against her chest by the window. She was watching the courtyard below, busy with activity.

“You and your sister need to keep disappearing on us,” he said. “Your lady mother is frantic, what with…”

“What, with Ramsay in the castle?” asked Arya when Jon trailed off.

“With all of the strangers in the castle,” amended Jon.

“Ramsay’s the only one we need to be worried about,” said Arya, leaning her head against the wall. “Well, him and his father, I suppose.”

Jon went and sat down across from her. “What’s wrong, little sister?”

Arya stared out the window, refusing to meet his eyes. “Nothing’s wrong, Jon. Nothing other than the end of the world is coming, and our home is filled with men who would murder our family and take Winterfell without even blinking.”

Jon leant forwards and placed his hand on her knee. “Arya.”

Arya jerked her leg away from him and leapt to her feet. “I should be able to protect her, Jon! I should be able to protect all of you. What was the point of it all if I can’t even do that?”

Jon hurriedly stood up. “We can protect ourselves,” he reminded her.

“Bran said that I was needed to help unite Westeros,” said Arya, her bottom lip quivering. “Sansa’s good; she can manoeuvre her way through the Red Keep. She knows how to handle Littlefinger and Cersei and all of them, and what can I do? I can’t even kill Ramsay fucking Snow or Roose Bolton, even after everything!” Arya ran her hand through her hair, untangling the bun that had undoubtedly taken the Septa or Sansa a long time to tame. “What was the point of it all, if I can’t even use what skills I do have? What was the fucking point of Bran sending me back?” Arya’s breathing was heavy and her eyes brimmed with tears as she finished speaking.

Kill? thought Jon. She had threatened to kill Theon all those weeks ago, so maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Still, the thought of his little sister killing anybody made Jon’s heartache, even if it was the Boltons.

“Bran knew what he was doing,” said Jon. “Have faith in that. Have faith in Bran.”

Arya shook her head. “What if he only sent me back to save me? What if I don’t have a place saving Westeros with Sansa?”

“Sansa’s… Sansa,” said Jon. She was, actually, considerably warmer to him that she had been before everything had changed. She had defended him from Catelyn and treated him the same as she treated Robb. But that wasn’t what was important right now; Arya was. “She has her skills, and so do you. You can use them as well as she can to help.”

Arya closed her eyes, looking pained, before she turned away from him. “And what if that’s all I was sent back for?” she whispered, so that Jon could barely hear her. “What if that’s all I’m meant to be? A killer?”

Jon’s heart seized in his chest. He hadn’t meant that. He hadn’t even realised that her skillset was death. “Arya, no,” he said.

“But that’s all I did, Jon!” cried Arya, spinning to face him again. “You and Sansa took back Winterfell. You led the fight against the White Walkers. You were Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch; you convinced Daenerys Targaryen to come North and fight them alongside us; you rallied the North. Sansa ruled the North in your stead; she made sure that Winterfell was well-supplied and that we had enough weapons forged and armour made. Bran was the Three-Eyed Raven; we never would have known the Night King’s movements if not for him. And what did I do?” Arya looked down at herself, voice bitter. “I killed the Freys. That’s it. That’s all I did for our family and for the North.”

Jon gave in, and stepped forward to wrap Arya up in a hug. She struggled against him for a moment before sagging against his chest. “It doesn’t have to be,” he murmured into her hair. “If that’s not all you want to be, it doesn’t have to be.”

“What else can I do?” whispered Arya.

“You can ask Sansa to help you learn about politics,” said Jon. “Or – she’s still useless at numbers, you know. I’ve heard her asking Robb to help her with them. I know you’ve always been good at them, so you can take over helping Father with the logistics.” He could feel some of the tension bleeding out of her shoulders, so he kept talking. “And when you learn to fight, a lot of those skills can be used for other things, too.”

“Like spying,” said Arya. “I told Sansa that if she went south, I’d go with her and I’d spy on the lords and ladies at court to make sure she knew what she needed to know.”

“That’s a good one,” agreed Jon. “Little sister, I know you’ve been through a lot, but what happened in the other time doesn’t have to define you. You can choose who you will be in this time.”

Arya snuggled her face into the crook of his neck. “You know I’m actually older than you?”

Jon let go of Arya and ruffled her hair. The bun was well and truly destroyed now; her hair stuck up at all angles, but she didn’t care as she smirked up at him. “You’re always going to be little to me.”

-

Arya was already over an hour late to her sewing lesson, and any other day, she wouldn’t have particularly cared. Now, she came to a stop in front of the door, took a deep breath, and went inside.

“Lady Arya,” greeted the Septa, disapproval tinging her voice. “I’m glad you’ve finally seen fit to grace us with your presence.”

Sansa looked up from her conversation and raised her eyebrows at Arya. Rather than answering her directly, Arya said, “I’m sorry, Septa, but I need to speak with my sister.” Sansa’s eyebrows shot upwards at the show of politeness.

 “Forgive me, Lady Wynafryd, Lady Wylla,” Sansa said to the girls seated beside her before the Septa could respond. “We will have to continue our conversation later.”

“Go,” said the brown-haired girl. “Your sister needs you.” Sansa smiled at her politely as she stood and followed Arya into the hallways.

“Where have you been?” hissed Sansa in a low voice when the door swung closed. “You can’t just disappear on us like that. Not when…”

“I know,” soothed Arya. “Jon was with me. I didn’t see Ramsay even once. It was fine.” Sansa pursed her lips but Arya soldiered on. “I need you to help me.”

“With what?” asked Sansa, cautiously.

“I was talking to Jon about how I could help you when we’re in King’s Landing,” explained Arya. “You’re going to be the political face, I know that. I said that I’d help you by spying, remember?” When Sansa nodded, Arya said, “Well, I want to be as unremarkable as possible, then. I want, for as much as they can see, to be the most ordinary, boring noble girl you can think of.”

“What are you saying?” asked Sansa.

“Well, if you’re going to be Father’s hand in King’s Landing, then I want to be his ears,” said Arya. “I don’t have a whole network of spies like Varys does. I need to work with what I have, and all I have is myself. I want to be the most average girl you can think of.”

Sansa nodded slowly. “I’m going to pretend to be the same as I was the first time around,” she said. “Silly and sheltered and believing that life is a song, so none of them will even realise I’m pulling any strings until it’s too late. Like that?”

Exactly like that,” said Arya. “I have my own skills, Sansa, but they’re not the sorts of skills that would go unremarked in King’s Landing. So I need you to teach me – how to sew, how to giggle and dance and act like that.”

Sansa met her eyes and said seriously, “You’re already going to have a hard enough time not murdering Cersei – are you sure you want to give up your swords and your trousers while we’re in the south?”

Arya lifted her chin. “I’ll do what it takes.”

“If you’re certain,” said Sansa, her own voice unsure.

“When I was – in Braavos, I had to do it for a time going after an actor,” said Arya. “I can do this, when I need to. The Faceless Men taught me. Let me use those skills to help.”

“Fine,” agreed Sansa. “But you don’t have to. Remember that, okay? You can still be yourself if and when you want to be.”

“I am still being myself,” said Arya. “I’m protecting my family; what’s more Arya Stark than that?”

-

“Lady Dustin,” greeted Ned, ushering the woman in question into his solar. “It’s been a long time, my lady. I trust that the Barrowlands have been well?”

“They are, Lord Stark,” said Barbrey. She held her head high and her shoulders back, her face cold and haughty. Barbrey Dustin was not shy about her distaste for him. Ned knew that she had never forgiven him for bringing her husband’s corpse back to her, leaving it buried under the Dornish sands. Ned had regretted it himself, for a long time – he had once suffered from night terrors, visions of Lyanna and his men and even the three King’s Guard they had killed, lurching from the lonely outcrop where Lyanna had spent her final days, reaching for him. “You promised,” they had said. “You promised.

It was a long time ago. Ned had not suffered that nightmare in years. The world spun on, and even if the absence of his sister and the loss of those companions continued to ache, Ned had to move forward. He had had to keep his eyes fixed on the present.

Now, he had to keep them fixed on the future.

“I was glad that you agreed to ride for Winterfell,” said Ned. “You have missed several of the harvest feasts over the years.”

Barbrey gave him a cold smile. “Without any other Dustins to oversee the harvest feast at Barrowton, I could not afford to leave the keep too frequently.”

A reasonable excuse, but still an excuse nonetheless. “Of course,” said Ned. “Still, if there was ever a time for you to ride for Winterfell, it was for the meeting tomorrow. It will change the course of the North for good.”

“I did assume that it wasn’t just to announce your daughter’s betrothal to the Greyjoy boy,” said Barbrey. Ned offered her a glass of wine, and she took it, taking a tiny, thoughtful sip. “The North has been wondering for years when you would finally arrange a marriage for your children. I almost thought that you might marry Lady Sansa to my nephew, before.”

There. An opening. Ned set his own cup of wine down, full though it was, and said, “The issue of Domeric is potentially the most important reason for you to have come to Winterfell, Lady Dustin.”

Something in Barbrey’s face hardened, and she tilted her head slightly, inspecting him. “Why?” she demanded.

“I have reason to believe Domeric Bolton did not die of natural causes,” said Ned. Barbrey’s lips moved, pressing together ever so slightly, before her face smoothed out again. This wasn’t new information he was offering her.

“The Dreadfort’s Maester declared it a sickness of the bowels,” said Lady Dustin. “What right have you to question the Maester’s judgement?”

“Several,” said Ned. “My own Maester, Luwin, disagrees with Maester Uthor’s findings. It occurred immediately after the arrival of his bastard brother, Ramsay, who is now directly in line to inherit the Dreadfort. I have also been told that even within the Dreadfort, there are some that believe Domeric was poisoned.”

Barbrey took another slow sip from her glass. When she had finished, she asked, “What is it that you want from me?”

“I know that we have had our differences, Lady Dustin,” said Ned. “I wish to amend them. Ramsay Snow is a murderer. The rumours I have heard about him have made me concerned about what would happen to the North should he take the Dreadfort, as it should make the entirety of the North. Unfortunately, Domeric’s murder means that Ramsay is the only heir available to Lord Bolton.”

Barbrey nodded to herself. “And as Lord Roose’s good-sister, you would have me soothe things over, the best I can.”

“Your nephew was murdered,” pressed Ned, though he kept his voice gentle. “None of my siblings were able to raise children, but if I had only one piece of them left, and that child was ripped from me – I would do what I had to in order to pursue justice, Lady Dustin. Surely, we can agree on that.”

Barbrey pressed her glass to her lips, half-hiding her expression. “Reminding me of the things I have lost may not be your best strategy, Lord Stark.”

“I should have done more to bring your husband’s body home to you,” agreed Ned. Confronted with the knowledge that he, his wife and his eldest son would have faced their death far from Winterfell, and their bodies likely never having been returned home to rest, Ned knew that he should have done more. But he and Howland had been faced with a squalling baby and nine bodies, and they’d been forced to make decisions. He had given the dead the honours that he could, and left the tower with a babe in arms and his sister’s corpse in tow.

If Catelyn had died, far from his side, and her body never returned to him or to the Riverlands, Ned would not be able to rest. He could understand Barbrey’s pain.

“You should have,” said Barbrey, her voice icy. “House Stark uses its bannermen and the people of the North and tosses us aside like trash when they no longer have need of us. Why, precisely, should I help you to deprive my good-brother of his only heir? Why should I trust that your intentions are honourable?”

“Because Ramsay Snow is a monster,” said Ned. “He murdered your nephew, Lady Dustin, but that is not where his crimes began or where they have ended. If he remains as the Bolton heir, the Dreadfort will not have a lord after the death of Lord Roose, but a butcher. Winterfell stands between the Dreadfort, and Barrowton and the Rills, and should it come to it, we will continue to stand between them. But your relative isolation from the Dreadfort will not prevent either from the effects of war.”

“If you are so interested in war, you would not be provoking Roose Bolton,” said Barbrey.

“I know that provoking Lord Bolton will inflame tensions in the North,” said Ned. In the end, it didn’t really matter what Ned did; he knew Roose Bolton was already planning on breaking faith with House Stark if he ever was given the opportunity. He could not win Roose Bolton to his side, but he could prevent the havoc Ramsay might wreck on the North. “I also believe that allowing Ramsay Snow to ascend to lord of the Dreadfort is more likely still to cause war in the North. We have both lost family members to war, Lady Dustin. Must we lose more?”

Barbrey narrowed her eyes at him. She turned to face the fire and took a long, deep sip from her wine. “I’ll not interfere,” said Barbrey. “I will not tell Lord Roose and I will not encourage him in any notions of revenge. Similarly, I will prevent both House Dustin and House Ryswell from siding with him if he wishes to avenge Ramsay. Judge Domeric’s murderer and find him guilty; I shall be grateful for that. But I will also not throw in my lot with House Stark. Your family has taken too much from me to ally with you so closely against my sister’s husband. That is the most you can expect from me, Lord Stark.”

It wasn’t as much as he would have liked, but it was better than it might have been. As it was now, if Roose Bolton wished to act, it would be House Bolton against the North, with no allies or friends. Roose Bolton was a patient man, Ned knew; he would bide his time rather than provoke open warfare. With Sansa and Theon’s knowledge of the inner workings of House Bolton, Ned hoped that they could avoid whatever Roose cooked up for House Stark.

“Thank you, Lady Dustin,” said Ned, inclining his head. “I will see you shown to your rooms now.” Lady Dustin nodded at him stiffly as he summoned a maid into the solar. Barbrey followed the maid out and to her chambers. Ned watched her go before he slumped into his chair.

The Starks were as safe as they could be to move against Ramsay. Now, he only had to convince the Northern lords that the Others existed and were assembling north of the Wall. This has probably been the easiest meeting of the day, reflected Ned wryly, before he bent back over his desk and got to work.

-

“Grey Wind, Shaggydog, sit!” exclaimed Arya, trying to balance the pieces of meat she had brought out for the direwolves in one hand and push her brothers’ wolves down with the other. Nymeria nudged at her littermates with a barely-formed growl deep in her throat and the two direwolves slid back down into standing on all fours.

Smiling proudly, Arya threw the first piece of meat for Nymeria, who snapped it out of the air nimbly. She fed the next piece to Lady as the best behaved of the direwolves, to the silent and patient Ghost, and then to the as-yet-unnamed Summer, before finally turning to look severely at Grey Wind and Shaggydog. The two looked up at her eagerly and she relented, throwing the last two bits of meat for them.

She slid her hands through Nymeria’s rough fur. “Did I tell you that I’m going to learn how to sew?” she told Nymeria quietly. “Properly, at least. Needle hasn’t been made yet, so I have to learn to use some needle. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.” Nymeria bumped her head against Arya’s side and she couldn’t help but smile. Arya looked over at Lady, and said, “I think I’m going to teach Sansa how to use a dagger in exchange, you know. Only a little one because she’s never going to be a warrior, but something she can stick Ramsay or Joffrey with if she needs to.”

Maybe I should talk to Robb and Jon about upping Bran and Rickon’s training, Arya thought. Bran and Rickon shouldn’t be in danger, safe in Winterfell, but – well. Arya had learnt well enough last time round that safety was never guaranteed. “At least we have you,” she whispered to Nymeria and the other direwolf cubs surrounding her.

Footsteps sounded outside the kennels. Lady shuffled towards the door, her tail wagging.

Then, the voice muffled and clearly coming from a distance away, someone called, “Reek!”

Arya froze, and so did the footsteps outside. Lady’s tail stopped wagging, baring her teeth and a low, rumbling growl sounding in her throat. The other direwolves crowded behind her, hostility radiating from them.

“I knew you remembered me,” continued the voice, sounding closer now. “You and my lovely wife, both. No wonder I found you by the kennels, Reek.”

Arya crept towards the door and peered round. Ramsay Snow was standing right in front of Theon by now. He took Theon’s wrist roughly, holding up Theon’s hand to inspect it. “So much work to redo, Reek,” tutted Ramsay.

Say something! Arya wanted to yell. Theon was shuddering in Ramsay’s grip, his face clammy and white. She suddenly remembered the way deer sometimes froze before the crossbow. Everything about Theon seemed frozen, utterly paralysed in his fear.

“It’s almost fitting that Stark wants to marry you and my dear Sansa together,” continued Ramsay. “Two broken things, as it were. But I can’t allow you to marry her, Reek. After all, Sansa is already married, and I can’t allow her to continue her insolence.”

Arya grabbed the lock and pulled it open, so hard that it broke in her hand. Shoving the door to the kennels open, she allowed the direwolves to stream out in front of her. Lady leapt for Ramsay, slamming him to the ground.

“Lady,” called Arya sharply. As much as she would love to see the Bolton bastard’s throat torn out, he deserved to see justice served, best they could when only five people alive knew the full extent of his crimes. Lady did not retreat from where she loomed over Ramsay, but she did not go for his neck. Arya strolled over to kneel beside Ramsay, glaring down at him. “My name is Arya Stark,” she told him, her voice deadly calm. “If you lay a hand on my sister, or anyone in this castle, I will – well, what was it that Sansa did to you? Fed you to your own dogs, wasn’t it?” She smiled coldly at him, and beckoned Nymeria to her side. Nymeria took her place by Ramsay’s head, snarling down at the Bolton bastard. Between the two sister direwolves, wet patches dropped on to Ramsay’s face. “She did that with only Jon to back her up. Now she has an entire pack, and if you touch her, any one of us would feed you to our direwolves.” Arya stood up. “I think you’ll find any one of them more savage then your dogs were, if you so much as dare to lay a finger on someone under our protection.”

“Bitch,” spat Ramsay.

Arya cocked her head. “Not terribly imaginative, are you?” she asked, before he could continue. She turned to Theon and took his arm. “Let’s go, Theon.”

Theon’s arm shook under her grip as she led him away from the kennels. Ghost and Grey Wind peeled off from the rest of the pack to accompany them, but the other direwolves continued to circle Ramsay, snarling and growling. Shaggydog snapped at Ramsay’s face, and he only barely flinched out of the way.

“I was looking for Sansa,” said Theon, his voice rough and hoarse. “I thought that she might have been with Lady…”

Arya shook her head. “I expect she’ll be with Mother or with the Manderly girls.” It gave Ramsay less chance to approach her, when she was surrounded by other people. Arya was almost surprised that Theon hadn’t taken the same approach, but –

Well, there weren’t many people for Theon to spend any of his spare time with, these days. Robb barely looked at him, and Jon only glared and hovered ominously whenever any of his younger siblings were around. Bran and Rickon were too young. Sansa was the only one who spent time with him, these days.

Arya bit her lip. “I’ll talk to Robb.”

“What?” asked Theon.

“I’ll make sure you’ve got someone around you until Ramsay’s dealt with,” said Arya. “You won’t have to deal with him alone.”

“Arya,” said Theon, his voice thick. Arya glanced back at him and immediately regretted it; his eyes were filled with tears. Fuck’s sake. She didn’t need to pity him even more than she already did. He still attacked Winterfell, she reminded herself.

“Come on,” said Arya shortly. “We’re going to find Sansa. She needs to know.”

-

Sansa was not with Catelyn, or with Wynafryd and Wylla. She was in her chambers, with Brienne seated by the door, knife in hand – just in case. She had fled back to them as soon as her session with Septa Mordane had finished, and couldn’t imagine a reason she was going to leave anytime soon.

“Wynafryd was angling for a betrothal to Robb,” Sansa said. “I’m not sure what I should tell Mother and Father.”

“The Manderlys are a rich House, aren’t they?” asked Brienne.

Sansa nodded. “The richest in the North. It’s only that I’ve been wondering if I should organise to betroth Robb to a daughter of a powerful southern House, to give us more allies in the south, should the worst happen. Margaery Tyrell, perhaps. The Manderlys will be loyal to House Stark, no matter what.”

Brienne nodded thoughtfully. “Lady Margaery married only kings, in our last life.”

“That’s the problem,” said Sansa. “I don’t know if the Tyrells would betroth Margaery to Robb when Renly and Joffrey are both still unmarried. A Baratheon is better than a Stark. And the North might not be pleased with Robb marrying a southern maid, when Father did the same. Perhaps Bran or Rickon, or even Arya – though the only person I can imagine her marrying willingly is that Baratheon bastard blacksmith. Perhaps we could see about getting him legitimised after we expose Cersei…” Sansa shook her head, getting herself back on task. “If the Boltons had a daughter, I might try to marry Robb to her, just so we have something to hold over Roose Bolton.”

“Do any of the Houses that supported the Boltons have daughters?” asked Brienne.

“The Ryswells, Dustins and Umbers don’t,” said Sansa, ticking them off on her fingers. “Alys Karstark is already betrothed to a Hornwood. For the other Northern Houses, there’s Meera Reed and Dacey Mormont, but since Dacey Mormont hasn’t married yet, I expect she’s planning on going unmarried like her mother, and Wynafryd will be a more advantageous match either way. Except, of course, the Manderlys follow the Seven, not the Old Gods, so the other Northern Houses might not be any happier with that match than if Robb had married a Southerner.” Sansa groaned and flopped back on to her bed. “No wonder Mother and Father took so long to betroth him. It’s a nightmare, Brienne.”

“Perhaps a southern House that holds to the Old Gods?” suggested Brienne. Sansa sat up, tapping at her chin thoughtfully, but before they could discuss it further, there was a knock at the door. Brienne tightened her grip on her knife. At Sansa’s nod, she stood and opened the door.

Arya tugged Theon through the doorway, Ghost and Grey Wind pushing in behind her. She grabbed the door from Brienne, slamming it shut behind her and locking it. Theon staggered into the room, hunched over and tracks of tears running down his pale face. Sansa stood up, her heart hammering.

“Don’t say it,” she blurted out. “Oh, Gods, don’t say it.”

“He’s back,” whispered Theon. “He’s back, Sansa. He’s here for us.” A sob ripped through his body. Sansa pressed her tremoring fingers against her lips, sinking to the floor.

The candlelight chased across everyone’s faces. Their faces were garish, monstrous in the flickering light. Maybe that was Ramsay’s true face, that night. The snow had bit at her skin as it fell on her face. Theon trembled beside her, and she couldn’t be sure if it was contempt or apprehension she felt at the sight.

“Why?” she asked. She wasn’t sure who she was addressing – someone in the room, or the Bran from their future, the one who’s voice had sounded in her head that night. “Why send Ramsay back? Out of every person in the world, why did it have to be him?” You said that you were sorry that it happened to me. You said you that you were sorry it happened here in Winterfell. Why, Bran? Why?

Someone wrapped their arms around her, and Sansa tried to shrug them off until she realised it was Theon, who had collapsed next to her. She couldn’t quite stifle the tears gathering in her eyes. Beside her, Theon’s breath was quickening, coming in short, desperate gasps. Grey Wind brushed around them in a circle, before settling down in front of them, his muzzle wresting on Sansa’s knee. Ghost took up position by the door, watching it carefully.

Arya knelt down in front of Sansa. “Can you hear me?” she asked. “Your names are Sansa, of House Stark, and Theon, of House Greyjoy. You are here in Winterfell, with me – with Arya – and Brienne. We swore to protect you, remember?”

Brienne knelt beside Arya. “I will shield your back, keep your counsel, and give my life for yours if need be,” she recited. “I swear it by the Old Gods and the New.” The words washed over Sansa. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus on the words, anything other than Ramsay’s here, Ramsay’s here –

“Breathe with me,” said Arya. “In, out, in, out, in, out.”

Sansa leant against Theon, and he rested his head on hers. His breathing was slowing back to a normal pace and Sansa tangled her fingers with his.

“We left him surrounded by the direwolves,” offered Arya. “If he comes near you – either of you, probably – they’ll tear his throat out.”

Sansa closed her eyes, burying her free hand in Grey Wind’s warm fur. Her eyes still stung with tears, but they no longer felt like a tidal wave, threatening to wash her away. “Until he’s dealt with, neither of us will be without a direwolf,” she decided. “I’ll stay with you and Nymeria, Arya, and Lady can stay with Theon.”

“I can’t,” mumbled Theon.

“What?” asked Sansa.

“I can’t take your direwolf,” explained Theon, his voice a little stronger. “Lady’s yours.”

“You’re my betrothed,” said Sansa. “She’ll protect you like she’d protect me. I can stay with Arya and Nymeria without a problem, and I have Brienne. You have no one. You’ll take Lady.”

“I can go get Lady and Nymeria now,” offered Brienne, holding up the knife in her hand. “I can protect myself, and you have Ghost and Grey Wind with you right now. He won’t be able to get past two direwolves.”

Sansa nodded, not trusting her voice.

“We’ll keep you safe,” said Arya, her voice soft and gentle. Slightly reluctantly, but still resolutely, she added, “Both of you.”

Sansa sat up straighter, an idea striking her. “How did you find out Ramsay came back?” she asked Theon.

“He called me Reek,” replied Theon. His voice trembling, he continued, “He said that he would have to redo all of his work.”

Sansa closed her eyes. She could do this. She could. “Tell Father not to arrest Ramsay at the feast tonight,” she told Brienne. “I know how to catch Ramsay in a way not even Roose Bolton can argue with.”

Chapter Text

“Thank you all for riding for Winterfell at such short notice,” began Ned. The Great Hall stretching out before them was filled to the brim with representatives from Houses throughout the North. Sansa didn’t let herself pick out any faces in the crowd – didn’t let herself pick out Ramsay’s face, wherever he was lurking.

She was seated at the High Table between Theon and Arya. Lady lay at her feet, Nymeria slumped next to her. The only direwolf not in attendance was Shaggydog; he and Rickon were in the nursery. There was no way either of them would have been able to sit through the entire meeting. The five direwolves, even not fully grown, still had to be quite the sight, laying at the feet of House Stark. That effect was intentional; with the news they were about to impart on the North, they needed to send the strongest message possible.

“We have had word from the Night’s Watch,” continued Ned. There were whispers through the crowd. “The Wall needs to be reinforced as soon as possible.”

A man stood up in the crowd. Sansa had never been formally introduced, but she had danced with his son two nights ago at the feast. Greatjon Umber cleared his throat and said, “Lord Stark is right. The Wildlings have become far bolder over recent years. We need to put an end to this once and for all, before they decide to declare themselves a king and march on the Wall.”

Ned held up his hand to head off the conversations before they could begin. “I appreciate your eagerness, Lord Umber, but it is not the Wildlings that threaten us today,” said Ned. Across the Great Hall, heads began to turn, looking at their neighbours in confusion. “Lord Commander Mormont?”

Mormont stood. He was seated by his sister and her eldest daughter, Dacey. “I never dreamed I would one day have to stand before the North and tell you all of white shadows accosting our Rangers north of the Wall, or of dead men rising up to attack their former comrades.” The Great Hall burst into a cacophony of noise.

Ned slammed his cup against the High Table, but when the noise didn’t make any effect, he called, “My lords! My ladies!” Some – mostly those closest to the High Table – quieted, but not enough for Ned or for Mormont to continue. At the other end of the table, Grey Wind got to his feet and howled. The mass below them quietened, turning to stare at the direwolves. “Lord Commander, continue.”

“The Others never died out,” declared Mormont. “They retreated into the Lands of Always Winter, licking at their wounds, but now they have come again to avenge their last defeat. We, the North and all of Westeros must be ready.”

“Lord Stark, surely you cannot expect us to believe this,” said a calm voice from across the room. Sansa didn’t want to look, but she had to: Roose Bolton had stood, his bastard son beside him. Several other lords yelled out their support. Ramsay didn’t seem to have a care in the world, lounging in his chair and watching the High Table with interest. Sansa had to look away.

Arya dug her fingers into the arms of her chair. “This is pointless,” she hissed.

“My lords!” appealed Catelyn, rising to her feet. “My ladies. I was not born in the North, nor am I of the First Men. Only weeks ago, I believed that the White Walkers were nothing more than a nursery story to scare children with.” She stared around the room, and lords grew quiet as her gaze swept over them. “But I have been forced to see that I was wrong. The Others are marching on the Wall. Lord Commander Mormont and First Ranger Stark can attest to that. House Stark stands with the Night’s Watch, as it has done for millenia.”

“So does House Umber!” shouted the Greatjon, standing once more and holding his glass up to the High Table.

“The Wildlings will be dealt with,” said Ned. “My bastard son, Jon Snow, will ride north with Lord Commander Mormont and Fire Ranger Stark when they return to the Wall. He will be House Stark’s representative on the Wall as the Wildling threat is ended. Any Houses who remain unsure of the threat facing all of us can send representatives alongside him.”

“Should you not be facing this yourself?” called someone in the crowd – there were so many voices that it was hard to pick who.

Ned bent his head in acknowledgement. “In other circumstances, I would ride for the Wall myself. But the King rides for Winterfell as we speak. I will remain in Winterfell to greet him, and speak to him personally of the threat.” Murmurs broke out once more.

“He’s an Andal!” cried someone in the back of the room.

Wyman Manderly stood. “I, too, am an Andal, and I have always held to the Seven – but the Manderlys are Stark men, through and through. We will stand against the Others, alongside House Stark.”

“His Grace will do the same,” assured Ned. Aye, thought Sansa, wryly. A never-ending enemy. What more could Robert want?

“Why now?” asked Roose Bolton. “North of the Wall has been quiet for thousands of years. Why would the White Walkers march south now?”

The Dreadfort has been quiet for thousands of years, but that didn’t stop you, did it? Sansa thought. Beside her, Arya hissed under her breath, and Lady nudged Arya’s foot with her nose.

Maester Luwin rose to his feet. “I have been in contact with the Citadel,” he announced. “We are coming to the end of a long summer, one of the longest in memory. Winter, too, will be long. Like Lady Stark, I believed – as did many others of the Citadel – that the Others did not exist. I see now that I, and the Citadel, was wrong. Winter is coming, and the Others come with it. We may yet be looking at a winter so long that it will be a second Long Night.”

The whispering in the room still sounded uncertain and unconvinced. You don’t have to believe it, she thought, wanting to shout it to the room. You just have to trust us for long enough to see it.

Sansa leaned across to Arya and whispered, “Tell Mother to tell them that preparations for the war will be preparations for the winter.” Arya nodded and turned to whisper the message to Catelyn.

Catelyn stood. “My lords, I know better than anyone that this news is hard to accept. We are faced with a threat that we believed belonged to history tomes at most, or was only a way to scare children at the least. As my lord husband stated, when the Lord Commander and First Ranger return to the Wall, you can send representatives, if you wish.” She paused and looked out across the room, moving her eyes from bannerman to bannerman. “Regardless of the Others, this will be a long, difficult winter. Even the Wildling raids are difficulties that the Houses of the North should not need to bear in such a time of hardship. Reinforcing the Wall will make the winter easier for all of us, as will beginning to stockpile food where possible.” The whispers now sounded more approving.

“Maester Luwin has begun a correspondence with Maester Aemon at the Wall, collating all information available to us about what a second Long Night may mean for the North, regardless if the Others march on us or not,” said Ned. “After so many years, however, our records are limited. Any assistance that the Maesters of your keeps could provide would be invaluable.”

Dacey Mormont stood. “I will go to the Wall on behalf of House Mormont. The Maesters of Bear Island will send what information they can to Winterfell. We stand with House Stark and with the Night’s Watch, as we have for millenia. If the Lord Commander and Lord Stark say that the White Walkers have returned to menace the North once more, then House Mormont believes them.”

 “Aye! My son and heir, Smalljon, will accompany your bastard to the Wall, Lord Stark,” said the Greatjon, quickly.

“As will my son, Ser Wyllis,” agreed Wyman Manderly. “We shall send a force to rout the Wildlings.”

Across the room, more and more Houses swore to take part in reinforcing the Wall. Not every family sounded certain of the threat, but as more families swore the support, the more the remainder felt compelled. It reminded her of Jon being sworn as King in the North – it had only taken one girl to shame a hall full of Northmen into declaring a Stark king once more, where she and Jon had failed. One Mormont girl, she thought, half-smiling, though it was difficult to think of Dacey Mormont as anything other than a woman grown.

There was one House that had not been present for declaring Jon king, though. Roose Bolton was watching the room with calculating eyes. A little over half of the hall had declared their support when he stood once more. “House Bolton will send forces to the Wall,” he declared. “They will be led by my son, Ramsay, after he has been legitimised as my son and heir.”

Sansa’s grip on the arms of her chair grew tight. Ramsay had risen to stand beside his father. He smiled and nodded at the crowded room. When he turned to look at the High Table, he bowed slightly – only just enough to look appropriate – and his smile widened when he looked at Sansa, taunting.

One more day, she promised herself. One more day and he’s gone for good. As Ramsay sat back down, she turned to look out over the Great Hall. Another House was swearing to send aid to the Wall.

We’re going to make it, Sansa thought. We’re going to do this.

­-

The next morning, the summer snows had begun again. Standing alone before the Heart Tree, she couldn’t help but remember the snowy night that had been her wedding night. It was cool and grey, fog blanketing the Godswood. She longed for Lady, but the direwolves had been publicly taken out into the Wolfswood to hunt by her brothers and Brienne. She was vulnerable to exposure, more than she ever had been since returning to the past.

But that was exactly the point.

“Reliving it, are you?” said a voice behind her.

Sansa turned. Ramsay Bolton stood behind her. “I’m saying my prayers before the Old Gods,” she said calmly. “What brings you to the Godswood, Lord Ramsay?” He wasn’t technically a lord yet, but she had to play her role.

“I have so looked forward to having you back in my bed,” said Ramsay. That taunting smile was back on his face. “I suppose I simply couldn’t wait to see my lady wife again.”

Sansa stepped back. She pressed her lips together, swallowing hard. “My apologies, Lord Ramsay,” she said. She let a hint of nerves enter her voice as she continued. “I’m not sure I understand your meaning. We have never met before, and I am betrothed to Theon Greyjoy.”

“Come now, Sansa,” said Ramsay, stepping forward. He reached out and grabbed her right wrist before she could stop it. She tensed, trying to jerk her hand free. The sound of her name in his voice was enough to make Sansa’s skin crawl, but his hand on her arm, even separated by her dress and his gloves, felt like a brand. “I know that Reek would have told you.”

“Reek?” asked Sansa innocently. “I only know Theon, my betrothed and protector.” Those last few words were forceful, a challenge. Ramsay’s jaw set. He knew as well as she did what she was referencing.

“A few days back in my kennels and he’ll remember his place,” growled Ramsay, face dark. “And you – for your defiance, perhaps you deserve some time in the kennels, too.”

Sansa let herself flinch at the anger in his voice. Her iron control was beginning to slip, but at least she was meant to be playing at fear right now. “To do what?” she asked, her voice only barely trembling.

“Bitches are only the proper mate for a dog,” said Ramsay simply, a smirk cutting across his face.

“And you’re the only proper meal for them,” taunted Sansa, dropping her voice low so only he could hear it. The smirk dropped off his face, reshaping into a snarl. He jerked his arm and Sansa cried out, pain shooting through her wrist. Tears stung at her eyes and she tried to pull her arm free of his grip, but she only succeeded in worsening the agony.

“Unhand my sister, Snow,” snarled Robb, emerging from the fog. Ramsay went to drop her wrist, trying to turn to face the new threat, but Sansa grabbed hold of his arm with her uninjured hand and reeled him back in, squashing down her pain to get one last word in.

“A footnote to history,” she said mockingly, voice too low for anyone other than Ramsay to hear. “That’s all you’ll be. The bastard who was almost legitimised before he was caught and faced justice for his crimes. It’s a long fall from the Butcher of the Dreadfort, isn’t it, Snow?” With that, she let his arm drop. He snatched a knife from his belt and Sansa staggered back, trying to stay out of his reach. Hurry up, hurry up, end this.

Arya was at her side in another moment, slipping out from the fog and trees to Sansa’s side. She had a dagger in hand, and Nymeria and Lady at her heels. Ramsay was slammed to the ground by Lady, who stood over him, snarling.

Sansa looked up, cradling her wrist. Robb and Jon were emerging from the trees, swords in hand. Behind them, Brienne, Dacey Mormont, and Smalljon Umber followed. To Sansa’s surprise, Lady Dustin was also with them.

Under her breath, Arya explained, “Father said that she agreed to stand aside and not help the Boltons if Ramsay was punished. Brienne and I thought since she’s a Bolton ally, it would look good to have her here as a witness, too.”

“Good thinking,” Sansa breathed back. Her hands were shaking, and Arya wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“It’s over, now,” Arya said gently.

Jon was binding Ramsay’s hands, so Robb left him to it and approached Sansa. “How are you?” he asked.

“Better, now that it’s over,” said Sansa. It wasn’t a lie, but only barely.

“What Ramsay said about the kennels…” Robb trailed off, looking ill. “Did he ever -?”

“Not with me,” said Sansa. She made sure her voice was too quiet to be overheard by any of the others. “But with Theon, yes.” Robb nodded, face dark, and went to haul Ramsay to his feet, more roughly than was strictly necessary.

“Come on,” said Arya, taking Sansa by the arm carefully and leading her out of the Godswood. Lady paced behind them, while Nymeria stayed with Robb and Jon, snarling at Ramsay’s feet. “We need to get your wrist looked at. We should have interfered sooner. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Sansa. “Roose Bolton can’t argue with arresting the bastard who laid hands on the oldest Stark girl, can he?”

“No, he can’t,” agreed Arya. “But Sansa…”

“I’m fine,” said Sansa tightly. “It’s over, Arya. That’s all there is to it.”

Arya pressed her lips together, clearly not convinced, but she didn’t press. Sansa followed her into the library tower and up to where Maester Luwin spent his days. Luwin was going through some old manuscripts, as he so often was these days, but he looked up as Sansa and Arya approached. He clucked his tongue as he took in Sansa’s wrist, already swelling.

“Whatever have you been up to, Lady Sansa?” he asked, shuffling over to look over her wrist.

“The Bolton bastard attacked her in the Godswood,” exclaimed Arya. “I’ve never seen anything like it, Maester. He said he was going to rape her then he broke her wrist before Robb and Jon and I got to him.”

Maester Luwin’s eyes widened but he didn’t look away from Sansa’s injury. After another moment, he said, “I’m afraid Arya’s right, my lady. It’s broken. You’ll have to wear a splint until it’s healed.”

“Will I be able to write, ride or sew in the meantime?” asked Sansa.

“I’m afraid not,” said Maester Luwin. “It’ll take well over a month to heal, my lady. I’ll have to keep examining it throughout. If you aggravate it by moving it too much, it will take longer to heal.”

Sansa shared a look with Arya. That meant she couldn’t write any more information out for her mother and brothers before they went south. It meant she couldn’t ride south, either – she would have to sit in the wheelhouse every day, hours and hours locked up with Cersei. Sansa dreaded it already. And no sewing…

“Come,” said Luwin, beckoning her. “We need to bind your wrist.”

“I’ll be back in a moment,” promised Arya, walking out before Sansa had the chance to protest or question her. Sansa watched after her for a moment before turning back to Luwin. He led her to the corner of the Tower where he kept his supplies. She slid into the seat across from his and held her wrist out to be bandaged. Maester Luwin kept his touch gentle as he arranged a splint against her wrist and began to bind her arm.

“Your lord father won’t let this go unpunished,” Luwin told her kindly. “You won’t have to fear the Bolton boy.”

Sansa nodded. “I know.” Ramsay was lucky he hadn’t had face pummelled into a mush already by Jon or Robb, like he had the last time round. He wouldn’t escape punishment, though he would probably face a kinder one than he had before. Luwin carefully set her wrist against a splint and began to wind the bandage around the break. Sansa chewed at her lip to keep herself from otherwise reacting from the pain.

“I’m sorry that this had to happen to you, my lady,” said Luwin. “I’m afraid that the world is not always a kind place, and neither are the people in it. I wish you had not had to discover it in such a violent way.”

“I knew there are monsters in the world, Maester,” Sansa said softly. “That there are rapists and murderers and people who will crush anyone they have to so they can make it to the top.”

Luwin looked up, watching her for a moment before he dropped his eyes back down to his work. “Quite right; you’ve grown up on stories of what happened to your aunt, uncle and grandfather. Still, you should not have had to face it so young.”

“I’m afraid the world doesn’t care what’s right, Maester,” she said. “You have studied the histories of Westeros. I’m sure you know better than most.”

“Lady Sansa,” said Maester Luwin. He hesitated for another moment before saying, “If this is about the Others -”

“No, Maester,” said Sansa, shaking her head. “The White Walkers are simple. They want to end us all. It’s humans are complicated, and that makes them dangerous, because you can’t predict what they’ll do next.” Chaos is a ladder. She had lured Ramsay into a trap, but could she do just as well with Cersei? With Littlefinger? Ramsay was easy to manipulate, in a lot of ways. He delighted in cruelty, and that meant he often didn’t think too far ahead. He was insecure about his low birth, and that made him easy to needle.

But Littlefinger? Cersei? Sansa knew the chinks in their armour, or at least some of them, but they also had lived and thrived in King’s Landing for years. They were prepared for manipulation in a way that Ramsay wasn’t.

Reliving it, are you?

She couldn’t think about what had happened in Winterfell. She couldn’t. If she did, she’d crack into a million tiny pieces, and she wasn’t sure if Arya and Theon would be able to gather her back together before Robert Baratheon arrived.

Reliving it, are you?

It had been so still that night, except for the firelight flickering on Ramsay’s face, so she couldn’t quite see his face properly...

Reliving it…

The door opened again. Sansa almost jumped, but stopped herself by digging her nails of her unharmed hand into her thigh. She turned to face who was coming in: Arya came through the door, and then –

Theon.

“You’re done,” said Maester Luwin, setting her hand back down.

“Thank you, Maester,” she said breathlessly.

Theon crossed the room, and she stood to meet him. He carefully took her hand to look at her bandaged wrist. “You should have told me it was happening today.”

“Only one of us had to face him, Theon, and it had to be me,” said Sansa. “You were safe. That was better.”

“Gods, Sansa,” said Theon, his voice cracking. “I’m your betrothed. I should be there to protect you from him.”

“I did fine by myself,” said Sansa, her voice stiff.

“Sansa…” said Theon, taking her free hand and cradling it in his. “You don’t have to do it by yourself. Fulfil your oaths, that’s what Bran told me. What oaths was he talking about, if not the one to fight for you and Winterfell?”

Sansa felt her lip quivering. “And I made an oath to protect the people of the North. You’re one of them, Theon. I had to protect you from him.”

Theon swallowed hard. He pulled her into his arms, making sure to gently move her wrist out of harm’s way. She burrowed into Theon’s arms, sliding her arms around his waist. His arms were warm around her. She took a shuddering breath.

“The worst thing is that I can’t even sew,” continued Sansa. “Is that stupid? After I went to Jon, the first thing I did was sew myself a new dress with a direwolf across the chest. It was like I was reclaiming myself, and now I can’t even do that.”

“It isn’t stupid,” promised Theon. “When I went back to Pyke, and wore a tunic with a kraken on it for the first time since Ramsay…” Theon paused, then repeated, “It isn’t stupid.”

That was what it took: she cracked, a sob bursting out and wracking her body. Theon pressed a long kiss to her forehead and let her cry.

-

“Jon Snow,” said Ramsay. “Does your father know, I wonder? Does he know about you abandoned your watch? What is it they do to deserters, again?”

Jon ignored him. He and Robb had made an agreement – one of them would stay in the Guards’ Tower whenever possible, to keep an eye on Ramsay and make sure he didn’t tell any stories to someone who didn’t need to hear them. It mainly fell on Jon; Robb was heir to Winterfell and the North, and Winterfell was filled to the brim with the lords of the North. Across the room, Jory Cassel raised his eyebrows. Jon shrugged back at him.

Ramsay, meanwhile, was lying in his cell, far too relaxed. He had hardly shut up since Jon had shoved him in there.

“Aren’t you meant to be encased in the Wall, so you can never leave your post?” continued Ramsay. “I’ll have to make sure it’s done when I control the North.”

Jon couldn’t help it: he snorted derisively. “You’ll be lucky to control an anthill, by the time Lord Stark is done with you.”

“Ah, yes, Lord Stark,” said Ramsay, sneering the name. “Give him a month or two in the capital, and he’ll be dead soon enough. Your brothers aren’t exactly capable of holding the North.” Ramsay cocked his head and smirked. “Did my lady wife ever tell you what happened to your brother’s body?”

Jory’s eyes turned to Ramsay, his gaze sharpening. Jon couldn’t help but sit a little straighter.

“He didn’t even realise,” continued Ramsay, his voice gleeful. “Your Lady Stark did. I’m told she screamed when Robb’s throat was cut.” Nausea swirled in Jon’s stomach. He didn’t want to listen to this, but he couldn’t find his voice to shut Ramsay up. “Our men killed his direwolf, too. Mutt took a while to go down, but we got him. We took the wolf’s head and sewed it -”

Realising where the story was going, Jon stood up abruptly and snapped, “Shut your damn mouth, Snow. No one wants to hear it.”

“I thought you’d be happy to hear it,” said Ramsay, insufferably smug. “It gave you a clear line to Winterfell – well, it would have if you weren’t already sworn to the Night’s Watch, and House Bolton hadn’t claimed it for our own.”

“What, like you did to Domeric Bolton?” demanded Jon. Ramsay’s mouth snapped shut and he glared up at Jon. “Ah,” said Jon. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re still expecting your father to save you from the sword, but you know that Roose Bolton won’t help you if he knows for certain what you did to his trueborn son.” Ramsay’s jaw tightened as Jon emphasized the word ‘trueborn’.

“If Roose Bolton has any honour at all, he won’t help the man who threatened the honour and safety of Lady Sansa,” rumbled Jory, staring down at Ramsay.

Roose Bolton has no honour, Jon thought but didn’t say.

The door opened, and Jon glanced over, half-expecting Robb or Ned to enter. Instead, Theon walked through. He was trembling slightly, but he walked to Ramsay’s cell all the same.

Ramsay stood up, delight written across his face. “Reek!” he greeted. Theon’s hands clenched at the name.

“Theon,” Jon found himself saying. “His name is Theon Greyjoy, and don’t you forget it, Snow.”

Theon glanced over at Jon, his hands slowly unclenching. He nodded. “That’s right,” he whispered, before clearing his throat. “My name is Theon Greyjoy.”

Ramsay stared at Theon, his nostrils flaring. Although his hands were still bound, and he was separated from Theon by the bars of his cell, Jon placed his hand on the hilt of the knife in his belt, stepping closer to the pair. After a long moment, Ramsay said, “Is that what you were calling yourself when you watched what I did to Sansa? When you stood by as I raped her, and brought my knives to bed -”

Shut up!” shouted Jon. “If you breathe another word about my sister, I swear to every fucking god -”

“Swear what?” sneered Ramsay. “That you’ll kill me? I doubt it. You think I don’t know what’s happening here? My bitch of wife is trying to get my killed in a way my father won’t start a war over. I should have seen it coming from the beginning. You kill me before your father can give me a trial, then you’ve fucked up your precious sister’s plans.”

“Lady Sansa is not your wife,” said Jory sharply.

“I don’t know this one,” said Ramsay. He looked back to Theon. “Is he one of the ones you and your men murdered when you took Winterfell?”

“What?” asked Jory.

“No,” said Theon, his voice tight and brittle. “I never hurt Jory Cassel.”

“But you killed his father, didn’t you?” asked Ramsay. “Rickard, Rodney -”

Rodrik,” ground out Theon. “Ser Rodrik Cassel.”

Ramsay snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. Beheaded him, isn’t that right? And you did it right in front of Bran Stark. An impressively cold move for you, Reek.”

“Theon!” shouted Theon. “My name is Theon Greyjoy!”

“Your name is Reek,” hissed Ramsay. “You will always be Reek, even after I’m dead and gone.”

Theon swallowed hard. “You were gone,” he managed. “Sansa had you killed, and I went on. I supported my sister in the Kingsmoot. I rescued her from my uncle. I protected Bran Stark at Winterfell. I kept being Theon Greyjoy anyway.”

“You protected Bran Stark?” repeated Ramsay. “Oh, gods, don’t tell me. That’s how you died, isn’t it? Protecting poor, little Bran Stark after the one who first put him in danger. How sickeningly sweet.”

“Get out of here, Theon,” Jon said, his voice tight. “You’ve said your piece. Don’t let him get at you anymore.” Theon hesitated for a moment before nodding.

“You’re nothing anymore,” he told Ramsay. “Nothing. Just a raving madman who thinks he has a claim to the daughter of Winterfell.” His voice trembled as he said it. With that, he turned away.

“Well said,” whispered Jon as Theon passed.

Ramsay rolled his eyes and settled back down on the floor. “You’re all pathetic, you know that? He took your home and killed your men. He stood by while your sister was forced into my bed. And you’re forgiving him.”

Jon sat back down. “What else would you have me do, Snow? Hurt him? Torture him? I’m not you.”

-

The Great Hall was silent as Ramsay was dragged in between Ser Rodrik and Jory. Ramsay was unceremoniously dropped to the ground before the High Table. Sansa dug her fingers into the arms of the chair, trying not to remember another man on his knees before the High Table in Winterfell.

“Ramsay Snow,” began Ned, his voice grave. “You stand accused of conspiring against your liege lord, the abuse of my daughter, Lady Sansa, and threatening to harm both Lady Sansa and Theon Greyjoy, both my ward and heir to the Iron Islands. How do you plead?”

Ramsay jutted his chin up. “Not guilty.”

Sansa let her eyes skate across to Roose Bolton. The man’s face was blank, his icy eyes fixed on the back of his son’s head.

Ned nodded. “Then in the name of our King, Robert Baratheon, I call our first witness to the stand. Lady Sansa?”

Ramsay narrowed his eyes at her, but she did not meet them as she stood and made her way out from behind the High Table to stand before the lords of the North. “My lord,” she said, when she had taken her place.

“Can you tell us what happened in the Godswood?” asked Ned. His voice was gentle. He hadn’t wanted Sansa to testify; he hadn’t wanted her to have to confront Ramsay in front of all the Northern lords, but she had insisted. She had fed him to his own dogs. She could see him brought to justice, too.

“I was praying in the Godswood,” explained Sansa. “I have taken to doing it frequently, since we first received reports of the Others from the Night’s Watch. While I was there, Ramsay Snow approached me. He called me his wife and my betrothed, Theon, Reek – I don’t understand the name, but that’s what Ramsay called him.” Sansa took a deep breath. “He took me by the arm and said that Theon must have told me something. I don’t know what it was he thought Theon would have told me. When I said as much, he said that Theon and I would have to spend time in his kennels for our insolence, and…” Sansa let her voice trail off, swallowing visibly. She swept her hand across her forehead, like she was tucking away some stray piece of hair, even though Catelyn had carefully pinned it all back earlier. “He said that he would give me to the dogs, and -”

Sansa broke off, like she couldn’t go on. Arya jumped to her feet and hurried to her side. She rubbed Sansa’s arm softly, and Sansa gave her a watery smile in return.

“Lady Arya, I’m afraid you have to return to your seat,” said Ned, reluctantly.

“But Father -” protested Arya.

“Go,” Sansa urged her. “But thank you, sister.” She took a deep breath and turned back to the lords. They had softened at Arya’s display. Good, thought Sansa. She wasn’t sure if Arya had done it just to comfort her, but it had helped, whatever the case.

“My brother, Robb, half-brother, Jon, and my sister were in the Godswood at the time with Lady Dacey, Lady Brienne, Lord Jon Umber, and Lady Dustin accompanying them, as well as mine and Arya’s dire wolves,” continued Sansa. “When I reprimanded Ramsay for his language, he broke my arm.” She lifted her arm, still bound and in a sling, so that the rest of the Hall could see. Someone gasped, but Sansa didn’t see who. “The others overheard my cries and came to confront Ramsay and help me. My dire wolf, Lady, was able to knock Ramsay away from me, and Jon – my brother, Jon – was able to bind him.”

“Thank you, Lady Sansa,” said Ned. “You may sit down.” Sansa nodded, gave the crowd a quick curtsey, and returned to her seat. “Lord Robb?”

Robb stood and made his way to stand before the lords. He glared down at Ramsay with undisguised fury.

“What did you see in the Godswood?” prompted Ned.

“Jon and I were showing the Godswood to Lady Dacey and Lord Jon,” began Robb. “We hadn’t been there long when we heard Sansa. When we got to the heart tree, Ramsay Snow had already broken my sister’s arm, and when I demanded that he unhand my sister, he pulled out his knife. It was only because the dire wolves were there that my sister was able to escape him unharmed.”

“This is ridiculous,” cut in Ramsay. “The only witnesses have been Starks. Everyone in this castle knows the bad blood between the Starks and Boltons. How can anyone believe this is a fair trial?”

Under the table, Sansa clenched her firsts. As if Ramsay knew anything about ‘fair’.

“You aren’t a Bolton yet, Snow,” growled Robb.

“Very well,” said Ned, leaning back in his chair. “If no one has any further questions for Lord Robb -” Ned paused for a moment, but no one spoke – “then I call our third witness to the stand. Lady Dustin?”

Roose finally looked away from Ramsay, turning to stare at Lady Dustin as she passed by him. She didn’t look at him as she walked to the front of the Hall.

“Lord Stark,” she said evenly. “My lords. Many of you will know that I am close with House Bolton. My sister was Lord Bolton’s wife before she passed on, may the gods bless her soul, and I loved her son, the heir to House Bolton. I would not do anything to harm my good-brother’s House lightly.

But Lady Sansa is right; I was in the Godswood, and I saw what happened. I saw that bastard break her wrist and I heard him threaten her with his dogs. I will not see my nephew’s House defiled by that creature. Domeric would not have stood for it, and neither will I.”

Ramsay was glaring at Lady Dustin. Sansa almost expected him to snap at her, probably insult Domeric Bolton somehow, but he kept his mouth shut.

The testimonies continued: Dacey Mormont, Smalljon Umber, Brienne, Jon, Arya until, finally –

“Lord Theon,” said Ned. Theon rose to his feet. Sansa took his hand quickly and squeezed it as he passed.

“You can do this,” whispered Robb.

“Give him hell,” added Arya.

When Theon took his place before the lords, Ned said, “Lord Theon, you were not present in the Godswood, but it is clear from the testimony of others that Ramsay Snow believes himself to have a connection to you. Do you know what he means by this?”

Theon shook his head. “I haven’t met Ramsay Snow before he arrived in Winterfell.”

Ramsay snorted, shaking his head.

“You will be quiet unless spoken to,” Ned said severely, before he turned back to Theon. “Have you had any interactions with Ramsay Snow since he arrived in Winterfell?”

“He approached me by the kennels,” said Theon. “He threatened me. The dire wolves got between him and me – they didn’t like him much, even before he hurt Sansa. I thought that the wolves scared him enough that I didn’t report it. I was wrong, Lord Stark.” Theon swallowed and turned to Sansa. “My lady, I’m sorry that you had to go through this. If I had acted sooner…”

“It isn’t your fault, Theon,” said Sansa, her voice firm. “You have never done me wrong, and I don’t believe you will start now.”

Ramsay began to laugh, low and deep. “Quiet,” ordered Ned, but Ramsay wasn’t interested in listening.

“Never did you wrong?” repeated Ramsay. “Never did you wrong as he watched while I made you a woman, never did you wrong as -” Ramsay was cut off as he was shoved to the ground. He gaped up at his assailant – Theon.

“Don’t ever speak about her like that,” hissed Theon.

“I’ll talk about her as I like, Reek,” snapped back Ramsay, pushing himself back to his knees.

Sansa rose to her feet. “Theon!” she cried.

“Touch me again and you’ll see what happens,” threatened Ramsay.

Ned rose to his feet. “I have heard enough!” he exclaimed. “Jory, Ser Rodrik, take him outside.” Jory and Rodrik nodded, hauling Ramsay to his feet and dragging him back out of the Great Hall. “My lords, my ladies. You have heard from multiple witnesses, and you have heard for yourselves how Ramsay Snow has threatened my ward. Does anyone object to his guilt?”

There was silence in the Great Hall. Sansa looked to Roose Bolton, but he only stared at Ned, his eyes hard and flinty. He wasn’t happy, Sansa knew, but he could hardly argue with the evidence, and he wasn’t stupid enough to start a fight he couldn’t win.

“Very well,” said Ned, standing and unsheathing Ice. He made his way out from behind the High Table. Sansa followed him, rushing to Theon’s side and throwing her arms around him.

“Oh, gods, Theon,” she said, burying her face in his shoulder. Her eyes stung with tears. “I can’t believe you did that.”

I can’t believe I did that,” whispered Theon.

Sansa pulled back and cradled his face in her hands. “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Are you two coming?” asked Arya from behind Sansa. Reluctantly, Sansa dropped her hands and took Theon’s arm in hers. They clung to each other as they followed Arya out into the courtyard. In front of the Great Hall, Ramsay was on his knees before Ned. As Sansa and Theon exited, his eyes flit up and locked on to them.

“In the name of our King, Robert Baratheon, the first of his name, King of the Andals and First Men, Protector of the Realm, I, Eddard of House Stark, do find you guilty,” pronounced Ned. “Have you any final words?” Sansa’s heart skipped a beat, suddenly knowing that her father had made a misstep.

“Don’t forget,” said Ramsay, directly to Sansa and Theon. “I’m a part of you, now. I always will be.” He smiled, savage and awful. “I will always be the one who took you first, wife, and you will always be my Reek.”

Ned brought Ice down. Ramsay’s head fell to the ground with a slight thud.

He was dead. He was dead, once and for all. Ramsay Snow would never menace her again.

“Sansa?” whispered Arya, touching Sansa’s free arm. Sansa started, jerking her gaze away from Ramsay’s head. “You’re crying.” Sansa wiped at her eyes, surprised to find her face wet.

“He’s gone,” said Theon, his voice full of dull surprise. “He’s…”

“Gone,” finished Robb. “We told you both that you would be safe.”

Sansa turned back to Theon. His face was crumpling, and Sansa grabbed him into a hug before his knees could crumple as well. Theon rested his head on hers, whispering soundlessly into her hair.

They were safe – from Ramsay, at least. But as Sansa looked over Theon’s shoulders, she could see lords whispering to each other and casting glances in their direction. Ramsay was gone, but his influence was going to haunt them for a long time to come.

-

It took until late that night for Arya to catch Catelyn alone. Catelyn had spent most of the day with Sansa, practically glued to her old daughter’s side after everything that had happened. Now, though, Catelyn was back in her and Ned’s chambers, while Ned himself was still entertaining lords in his soldiers.

“Arya?” asked Catelyn when she saw Arya standing outside her door. “What’s the matter, sweetling?”

“I wanted to talk to you,” said Arya. “Privately, so I had to wait until now. I hope that you weren’t asleep.”

“Even if I was, you can still talk to me if you need to,” said Catelyn, ushering Arya into her chambers. “Now, what is it you wanted to talk about?”

“I was talking to Sansa yesterday,” said Arya. “I asked her to teach me to sew properly. I want to learn, Mother, but Septa Mordane thinks I’m a lost cause. Sansa agreed to help, though, but then Ramsay Snow broke her arm…” Her words came out all in a nervous rush, to the point Arya half-expected Catelyn to ask her to repeat herself.

“You want to learn?” repeated Catelyn, hope sprouting in her eyes.

Arya bit her lip. “Not really. It’s not me, Mother. But I want to be able to help Sansa and Father in King’s Landing, and this is the best way to do it.”

Catelyn dropped her eyes, but nodded. “What do you want to do now, then?”

“Well, I was wondering if you could help me,” said Arya. Catelyn’s eyes shot back up to meet Arya’s. Arya shrugged. “I mean, Septa Mordane already thinks I’m useless, and Sansa can’t, and I don’t want to go to Jeyne Poole or Beth Cassel.”

“Of course I’ll help you,” said Catelyn. “We don’t have much time, but I can teach you the basics, and perhaps if anyone asks, you can say that you stopped lessons for a time because you were ill.”

“I just want to make sure Sansa and Father are safe,” said Arya. “I couldn’t, last time. I don’t want to make any mistakes again.”

“Oh, Arya,” said Catelyn, pulling her close. “Sometimes you and Sansa seem so grown up, and sometimes…” Catelyn closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. “You won’t fail your father or me. Trust me.”

“But I was there,” blurted out Arya. “If I’d gotten there sooner -” A lump blocked up Arya’s throat.

“Where?” asked Catelyn.

“At the Twins,” whispered Arya. “The Hound was going to ransom me to you and Robb, but we got there and they were killing you all.” Tears stung at Arya’s eyes and she brushed at them furiously. “I saw what they did to you. They dumped your body in the river, just like that. And Robb -”

“You listen to me, Arya,” said Catelyn fiercely. “That wasn’t your fault. That was the fault of the Freys, and the Boltons, and the Lannisters. It did not have a single thing to do with you, and I can swear that on the old gods and the new.”

“You don’t know that,” protested Arya. “You don’t remember it, so you can’t.”

“I do know it,” said Catelyn. “I know that we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but trust me on this, if nothing else – you could never fail me, and it was not your fault, and I would not have wanted to see you in the Twins that night. I’m glad you got away.” Catelyn gave her a tremulous smile. “If you hadn’t, you would never have grown into the strong woman you are now.”

Arya closed her eyes to suppress her tears, snuggling deeper into Catelyn’s embrace. She wasn’t sure if she believed Catelyn, but the hug was nice, all the same.

Chapter Text

“It’s a terrible thing, what happened,” said Wyman Manderly. “I can’t imagine it would have been easy, for the two of you.”

Ned exchanged a glance with Benjen. “It wasn’t,” agreed Ned. “But it’s over, now, and Sansa can look forward to her marriage with Theon Greyjoy.”

“And good riddance with the Bolton bastard!” exclaimed the Greatjon. “The Gods know we don’t need someone like that as Lord of the Dreadfort, especially with the Long Night coming.”

“He might even have brought back flaying,” agreed Manderly.

It was almost amusing to see the two bannermen who were the most separate culturally agreeing with each other. Perhaps if it hadn’t been over Ramsay Snow, Ned would have found it truly amusing. But with Roose Bolton having already left for the Dreadfort, well before any of the other lords had departed, Ned couldn’t help the coil of worry in his chest.

Roose Bolton was always going to be a threat, regardless of whether they had left Ramsay alone. He had conspired with the Lannisters to murder Robb and Catelyn, and take the other lords of the North hostage, to become Warden of the North, without any provocation. Ned kept reminding himself of it, but it still didn’t sit any easier in his chest.

Howland Reed sat straighter. “Speaking of the Long Night,” he said, “it seems to me that if any castles still have records of the first, then it would be the one built by Brandon the Builder himself.”

“We’ve searched the libraries already,” said Ned. “Maester Luwin just about turned the entire tower upside down, looking for information. There’s nothing.”

“But the Library Tower isn’t the oldest part of Winterfell, is it?” pressed Howland. “Winterfell must have been built and rebuilt a hundred times over, over the centuries. Perhaps it’s only in the oldest parts of the castle that the truth remains.”

Benjen met Ned’s eyes. “The crypts.”

“The oldest parts are collapsed,” said Ned. “It will take time to access them fully. But – we can try.” Something like a cross between anticipation and dread settled in the pit of Ned’s stomach. It was the best lead they had, one that they had never had before – but the idea of venturing into the depths of the crypts unsettled him. And he would have to take the girls with him, because if anyone knew what was relevant, it would be them, even though every instinct in him rebelled against it.

“Winterfell isn’t the only castle that dates back to the first Long Night,” said the Greatjon. “Last Hearth does, as well.” The Dreadfort, too, thought Ned, though he expected that Roose Bolton would be of little help.

“The Nightfort is the oldest castle on the Wall,” said Benjen. “It’s been abandoned for a long time, though, and it was rebuilt many times – I don’t know if there would be any writings left.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Ned. “Perhaps you should look at manning it again, with the fresh men coming to the Wall.”

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to man more of the castles than just that,” said Benjen. “If we’re to have any chance, we’ll need to man them all.”

“The King will be in Winterfell soon,” said Ned. “When he hears of the situation, he’ll send more men north to man the Wall. All of Westeros will be ready to fight the Walkers when they come.”

“The Age of Heroes come again,” said Catelyn. Ned turned to see her standing in the doorway. She entered to sit by his side. “I never much wanted heroes, but it seems I’ve no choice in the matter.” A peaceful life, raising their children and ruling the North; that was all he and Catelyn had wanted since they had married, so long ago now.

“My lady,” greeted Manderly, inclining his head slightly. “You spoke very well at the meeting.”

“She always speaks well,” interjected Ned.

Catelyn gave him a small, pleased smile. “It is an important issue, my lord,” she told Manderly. “I knew that it would be difficult for anyone to believe, but I hoped that my word – that of an Andal – might sway more people.”

“It certainly did that,” rumbled the Greatjon.

“We were discussing searching the crypts and having the Nightfort searched for information about the Others,” Ned told her.

“They were both built by Bran the Builder,” explained the Greatjon.

“I’m aware, my lord,” said Catelyn. “Was Storm’s End not also built by Bran the Builder, according to legend? I know that most maesters do not believe it was, but most maesters also believe that the Nightfort and Winterfell weren’t built by the same man.”

“Another thing to speak with the King about,” said Ned, nodding. “If Bran the Builder truly had a hand in Storm’s End, it’s possible he left something behind there.”

Catelyn turned to Benjen, Manderly and the Greatjon. “If you will excuse us, my lords, I would like to speak with my lord husband.” She waited for the three men to shuffle out of the room before she turned back to Ned. “I think that you should send someone else to the Wall.”

“Sansa and Arya both say that Jon is our best chance of treating with the Wildlings,” said Ned, his shoulders tensing.

“I mean in addition to the boy,” said Catelyn. “I won’t lie and say that it will not ease my mind, having another of our children on the Wall while Jon Snow treats with the Wildlings – but I trust Sansa and Arya’s judgement. I have to. So no, Ned, that is not the only reason I have for sending someone else.”

“What else?” asked Ned, his tone still wary.

“Sending one of our trueborn sons to the Wall shows that we are serious about the White Walker threat,” explained Catelyn. “While you and I know why you can’t go yourself, there will be some who see your absence as Winterfell not taking the threat seriously. If we send one of our trueborn sons, then it demonstrates that we are.”

“Robb, then?” asked Ned. “Bran?”

Catelyn hesitated. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “Bran is so young, but if things go wrong while you’re in King’s Landing, we need Robb here.”

“Things won’t go wrong,” promised Ned. “I am as prepared as I can be, Cat. I won’t wait for Robert to die to break the news. Sansa and Arya will be both be there to advise me.”

“Cersei Lannister is still the daughter of one of the most powerful men in Westeros,” said Catelyn. “We cannot underestimate that family, Ned. It’s one mistake that we made the other time, and half our family died for it.”

“I won’t,” said Ned. “Like you said, we have to trust Sansa and Arya’s judgement, and I will. I promise.” Catelyn pressed her lips together, not meeting his eyes. “Cat. I swear to you, on the old gods and the new, that I will not make the same mistakes that I did the other time.”

Catelyn almost smiled, and said, “That oath still means you can make new ones.”

“I have no way of knowing what those mistakes will be, so I can’t promise you that,” said Ned. “I would if I could, though. You know that I would; that I wouldn’t do anything to harm you or our children.”

Catelyn’s eyes squeezed shut, and she turned her back to him. After a long moment, she whispered, “Then why have you not acted about Jon Snow?”

Ned’s heart skipped a beat. All he could think was she knows, she knows – but that was impossible, he realised as his rational brain caught up with the rest of him. “Jon wouldn’t do anything to harm our children.”

“Oh?” asked Catelyn, her voice icy. “He took our children’s birth right when he allowed himself to be crowned King in the North. It was Bran’s by right, and even if they didn’t know about Bran’s survival, then the crown should have fallen to Sansa. It was her birthright and he took it, just like I always warned you.”

“Sansa and Arya both say that they supported him,” said Ned. “You said that you trust their judgement.”

“They shouldn’t have needed to support him!” cried Catelyn. “It should never even have been a question. The lords should have never seen him as an option when he had a trueborn sister sitting right next to him.”

Ned’s breath caught. He didn’t know how to argue that; she wasn’t wrong in her assessment, even if Ned struggled to imagine Jon actively setting out to steal his sibling’s seat. More likely, he thought, that one of the Northern lords had named him and he hadn’t protested when Sansa hadn’t. But Catelyn was right in that, too; by all rights, Jon shouldn’t have been an option.

Before he even had a chance to formulate a response, Catelyn continued, “The only reason I have not asked you to remove him from Winterfell is because I know that we will need his help, no matter what my feelings are. But something has to be done, my lord.”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked. “Do you wish for me to punish him for something he hasn’t done? Even Theon, who remembers what he did in the other time, I only sentenced to squire for Ser Rodrik and to help Bran and Rickon with their studies. What would you have me do to Jon?”

Catelyn deflated. “I don’t know,” she whispered. More clearly, she said, “I don’t know, my lord. But can we risk him taking my children’s rightful place?”

-

The fire in Sansa’s chambers was roaring wonderfully warm. Sansa was crammed into her bed with Bran on one side, Arya on the other, and Rickon at her feet, because he had seen the other two lying in bed with her and refused to be left out. Jon and Robb were on the few chairs she had in her room, and the direwolves had all crowded into the room, and were lying half on top of each other by the fire. Sansa wasn’t sure she had ever seen her chambers so full, but she also couldn’t remember the last time she had felt this safe and warm.

“They were magnificent,” Arya was saying. “We couldn’t have fit them into the courtyard. I was so jealous that Jon could ride on one.”

“Rhaegal,” remembered Sansa. “He rode Rhaegal, named after Rhaegar Targaryen.”

“Little ironic, isn’t it?” said Robb wryly. “Riding the dragon named after the man who kidnapped our aunt.”

“The other options were riding a dragon named after Viserys Targaryen or a Dothraki warlord,” said Sansa, her voice dry. “Daenerys told me a little of her brother, while we tried to find an accord. I don’t think he was any better a namesake.”

“I’m more caught on the fact I rode a dragon at all,” said Jon.

“Oh, you did more than that,” jeered Arya. Robb choked on air at the innuendo while Jon gaped at her openly.

“More than ride?” asked Rickon, peeping up at them with wide, innocent eyes.

“He helped look after them,” said Sansa quickly. “Like how Theon has to help take care of the horses.” Arya opened her mouth, a smirk still on her face, so Sansa cut her off. “And you can’t talk, or did you not spend our last few hours with a certain blacksmith?” Arya’s mouth snapped shut.

“She did what?” demanded Robb, as Jon crossed his arms as if he was ready to threaten the blacksmith here and now.

Arya buried her face in her hands. “Oh, gods, Sansa, you really had to go right for the throat, didn’t you?”

“What blacksmith?” pressed Jon. “Is he here in Winterfell?”

“No,” groaned Arya. “He’s in King’s Landing, far from your reach.” Jon and Robb both huffed, sharing a look. “Oh, for the love of – I was a woman grown! I thought I only had a few hours left and I started it, you bloody idiots.” Jon looked faintly ill at the thought of Arya starting anything of the sort.

“Maybe I’ll have to join you when you go to King’s Landing,” grumbled Robb, though only half-heartedly.

“If there’s one thing you should know about Arya,” said Sansa, “it’s that trying to forbid her of anything will only make her want it more.”

“He’s not an it!” said Arya hotly, at the same time as Robb conceded, “That’s true.”

“What about you, Sansa?” asked Bran, snuggling closer. “Did you find anyone?”

Sansa swallowed, looking down. “No,” she said, softly. “I’m afraid I didn’t, Bran. But that’s okay, because I found you again, and Arya and Jon and Theon. I wasn’t alone.” There was silence for a moment, as Arya laid her hand against Sansa’s shoulder. Sansa let herself smile as she leant her head against Arya’s.

Robb broke the silence, saying, “But back to the blacksmith. I need to know his name, at least.”

“What, so you can tell Father?” scoffed Arya. “I’m not an idiot, Robb.”

“I didn’t say you were,” said Robb, looking put out.

“You married a girl from Volantis,” intervened Sansa, taking pity on Arya and Robb both. “It was a love match. Talisa, her name was.”

“Talisa Maegyr,” supplied Arya. “They say she was kind. She was a nurse, I think.” Robb whispered the name to himself with something like wonder in his voice. Arya smiled. “Left a comfortable life in Volantis to become a nurse. I think I would have liked her.”

“I think I would have, too,” said Sansa.

“Then I hope I’ll meet her again,” declared Robb. Sansa couldn’t quite meet his eyes, so she looked down at her hands. She wasn’t sure how to tell him she already had other plans for him. But the girls I’ve picked out for him are good people, too, she reminded herself. Meera protected Bran, Wynafryd seems to be decent, and Margaery – unlikely a match as she is – was always kind to me and to the smallfolk. He can be happy with them.

“What about me?” asked Bran. “Did I have anybody?”

“And me!” exclaimed Rickon, though Sansa thought it was more because he didn’t want to be left out than any actual interest in girls.

“You were too young, Rickon,” said Arya, “and no, Bran.”

“But we can fix that,” Sansa added quickly. “Shireen Baratheon’s about your age, isn’t she?” It was a good match to make, since it tied them more closely to a powerful Southern House, should the worst happen. Bran would be betrothed to the second in line to the Iron Throne when Cersei’s infidelity was exposed. It might even discourage Robert from seeking any other betrothals between House Baratheon and House Stark, or at least pacify him when he discovered that he couldn’t marry Sansa off to Joffrey.

Bran made a face. “I don’t have to marry her anytime soon, do I?”

Arya snorted, not even bothering to pretend to cover it with a cough. Sansa shot her a look and said, “Of course not. You’re both still too young to be married.”

“Good,” said Bran, slumping back down in the bed.

“I remember wanting to name my children -” started Sansa, but was cut off.

“Oh no,” stage-whispered Arya. Sansa drove her elbow into Arya’s side, and Arya half-groaned, half-laughed.

“I wanted to name them after all of you,” said Sansa. “When the Tyrrells tried to marry me to Loras, I used to dream about having children that were like having you back.” She spotted Robb hiding a smile, and she cocked her head. “What?”

“Nothing,” said Robb, shaking his head. “It’s just – that’s the most Sansa thing I’ve heard you say in months, dreaming of marriage and children.” Sansa ducked her head. “I hadn’t realised that I’d missed it.”

“I still want them,” she said, quietly. “It’s just that I can’t see how I can bring children into the world, knowing what’s coming, and still be a good mother.”

Robb’s eyes widened slightly, and he looked down to the floor. “Then I shouldn’t meet Talisa Maegyr,” he said. “Or if I do, I should tell her to go home to Volantis while she still can.” Sansa’s heart squeezed painfully in her chest at the thought: Robb giving up a chance at happiness to keep his happiness safe. It was stupidly noble, but oh so Robb.

“Come here,” ordered Sansa, holding out her hand. He looked ready to protest, so Sansa repeated more forcefully, “Come here.” Robb reluctantly stood up from the chair and took her hand, looking unsurprised when she tugged him down so he collapsed on top of the bed. Bran let out an ‘oof!’ as Robb landed partly on his legs, and Arya laughed with delight.

Jon was watching them indulgently, but with a closely guarded jealousy that Sansa would never have recognised the first time around. “What are you still doing there?” she asked pointedly.

Jon started. “I couldn’t -”

“Yes, you bloody well can,” said Arya, as Bran and Rickon started to call out their own encouragements.

“Arguing with our sisters in very unwise, Snow,” said Robb, who was still rearranging himself in an attempt not to crush any of his younger siblings. “Gods know how you’re going to find a spot, though.”

Jon perched on the very edge of Sansa’s bed. Arya rolled her eyes, pulling him down so that he was half-lying across her lap, head bumping next to Robb’s. Bran pulled his legs out from under Robb as Rickon gleefully collapsed on top of Robb, aiming all of his weight for Robb’s stomach.

“Good gods, Rickon, when did you get so heavy?” Robb complained half-heartedly, but his arms encircled Rickon automatically.

“You know that the only reason we have any chance at all is because of the two of you,” said Jon, looking up at Sansa and Arya. “I mean, we all died in your time, but now we know what’s coming. We can still win this. You can still have your children, Sansa, and Robb can still meet Talisa Maegyr if he wants.”

“And I can still become a knight!” said Bran.

“And me!” added Rickon, again unwilling to be left out.

“And you, Arya?” asked Sansa. “What are you going to be doing?”

Arya hummed for a moment, thinking. “I don’t know, yet. I just want to make it through, right now.”

“We’ll do it,” said Sansa. “We’ll do it, and my children will have to have names all of their own, because you’ll all be here with me.”

-

“Are we all ready?” asked Ned, glancing down and into the darkness of the crypts.

“Should your daughters be coming?” asked the Greatjon, his voice blunt.

“We’re daughters of House Stark,” said Arya tartly. “Those our ancestors in those crypts. What’s your reasoning for entering Winterfell’s crypts, again?” The Greatjon looked startled enough that Jon had to swallow back laughter.

“Let them come,” advised Ned. “No doubt they’ll follow us down if we tried to leave them behind.”

“No doubt,” agreed Sansa frostily.

“Then we should move on,” said Ned. Jon gripped his torch tighter and followed Ned into the crypts. Arya walked beside him, Robb and Sansa only a step or two behind, and Benjen, the Greatjon and Howland Reed taking up the rear. The air chilled as soon as they stepped into the crypts. Jon resisted pulling his cloak tighter around himself, knowing that it would only grow colder as they descended deeper.

“It’s been a long time since I was in here,” murmured Sansa. Jon glanced back. Her face was pale, and she clutched at her torch so tightly her knuckles were white. He had forgotten, until this moment, that Sansa had died in the crypts, but it was obvious Sansa hadn’t. She glanced nervously into the shadowy corners of the crypt, walking slightly closer to Robb than was necessary.

“They’re all in the tombs,” promised Robb. Sansa’s lips puckered, and Jon knew what she was thinking as clearly as if she had said it aloud: For how long?

Jon glanced at Arya. Although she gripped her torch tightly, she otherwise seemed unbothered by being surrounded by dead men, even after everything she had seen.

“We need to keep moving,” said Ned. “The tombs go deep, and I don’t think any of us want to be in here any longer than we have to be.”

“Of course, Father,” said Sansa, her voice subdued.

They had descended another two levels when Arya spoke up. “Why do all the tombs have swords across their laps?”

“Old Nan always said it was to keep their spirits sealed in,” said Jon. “Though I’ve got no idea why they thought that would work.”

“No, but…” Arya trailed off as she approached an old tomb, peering up at it. “Placing a sword across your knees shows that you aren’t offering guest right. Why are our ancestors refusing guest right?”

Jon’s mouth opened, though he didn’t have an answer. He exchanged a glance with Robb. Around them, Ned, Benjen and the lords looked around at the statues, more apprehensively than they had before. Suddenly, the faces carved into stone did not look as familiar as they had done, all of his life. They seemed to take on a new dimension, not like a Stark in their features, but something distinctly alien.

Even if Arya’s right, these men would have lived too long after the Long Night to remember what happened, Jon told himself. They’re Starks, like Robb or Arya or Sansa. They won’t show us harm.

Who are they denying guest right?” asked Sansa. “They couldn’t deny us guest right, could they? We aren’t guests in Winterfell.”

“Maybe the Others?” suggested Robb.

“We might not be guests to Winterfell, but we’re guests to the crypts,” said Ned, his voice dark. “We have to be more careful, going forwards.”

“There aren’t any White Walkers hiding in the crypts,” pointed out the Greatjon. “No matter who they’re rejecting, they can’t do anything about it.” Jon saw Sansa and Arya looking at each other out of the corner of his eye; neither of them seemed reassured by the Greatjon’s words.

The ground seemed to creek beneath under Jon’s feet as they made their way further down, dust kicking up at his feet with every step he took. With each level, the dust grew thicker, until Jon thought that he could choke on it if he breathed too deeply.

“We’ll be seeing the cave-ins soon,” warned Ned, not bothering to look over his shoulder. “It’s going to be dangerous. If anyone wants to turn back, this is the time.”

“Couldn’t find my way back even if I wanted to,” grunted the Greatjon, to which Howland Reed made an agreeing sound.

“We should keep moving,” said Arya, and Jon nodded in agreement. Ned cast a worried glance at Sansa, but in spite of her pale face and uneven breathing, she stepped forwards to stand in line with Jon and Arya.

“We’ll all go on,” she told Ned. A flicker of pride flashed through Ned’s eyes before he nodded solemnly.

They picked their way carefully through the remainder of the tombs. This far deep, the features had been weathered away, leaving only faceless statues watching their progression with brittle, broken swords across their knees. Somehow, this felt worse than statues at the top of the crypts; the statues no longer felt like Stark ancestors, but an ancient, unknowable force. The broken swords were the only comfort; even if they somehow got loose, they wouldn’t be difficult to repel.

Jon turned back to help Sansa over rubble, the partially collapsed remains of the roof. Arya scrambled behind Sansa, her breeches looking beaten and her hair a mess. Lady Stark might have a heart attack when she sees Arya, thought Jon, amused. Up ahead, Ned, the Greatjon, Reed and Robb were working to clear the path.

“Do you think we’ll find anything?” asked Jon. He hated to think that they’d ventured so far down when there was nothing to find. The dirt above their heads seemed ominous, as if it would fall in any second.

Arya shrugged. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Lord Reed is right, though,” said Sansa. “If anything remains, it’ll be in the depths of the crypts, and we need all the information we can get.”

“Girls, Jon!” called Ned. He and the others had managed to clear a small hole at the top of the cave-in. Howland Reed was already scrambling through it. It looked hardly large enough for the Greatjon to fit through, but he managed to cram his way through. Jon sent Sansa and Arya ahead of him, before making his was through the last of all.

“There’s something up there,” said Sansa, brushing dirt off of her skirt. “All boarded up, by the look of it.”

Sansa was right; it was hard to see it in the low light, but someone had made an effort to place wood and earth across a narrow entranceway between two tombs, just as the crypts turned a corner. They were on one of the lowest levels, now, although not quite at the bottom – they were far enough down that they were in the levels Brandon the Builder himself had probably walked the halls of, building tombs and burying his family members.

Arya slipped away from the others before anyone could stop her, approaching the door. “I think it’s newer,” she said, surprise colouring her voice. “All this wood, I mean. It hasn’t rotten away as much as the supports, and it’s definitely been hammered in over the top of the door.”

Silence met her report. Jon didn’t want to think it, but he couldn’t help but wonder: what had been hidden in there?

Silently, without any discussion, Reed and the Greatjon withdrew the daggers from their belts. It hadn’t been easy to find enough dragonglass around Winterfell to create any daggers – there weren’t even enough to go round. Ned took his dragonglass dagger from its sheath, motioning for Arya and Sansa to get behind the others. Arya made a face, but obeyed. Jon and Robb got to work tearing the wood from the door, the other men hovering behind them with daggers at the ready. The wood came free easily enough. It may not have been as rotten as the rest at this level, but it was still thousands of years old, old enough that it made Jon dizzy to think about.

When the wood was cleared away, Robb tried the door. It didn’t move. Gritting his teeth, Robb backed up a few steps before throwing his whole weight against the door. It gave way and Robb stumbled into the room, Ned rushing in after him. Jon followed.

It was clear that the room hadn’t seen life in generations: everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, and the air felt stale and still. Against one wall was shelves full of books, still in tact even after all these years, and most remarkable of all was a sword, resting against the wall opposite Jon, held up in what seemed to be a position of honour.

“Ice,” breathed Ned, because there was nothing else that the sword could be. This had to be the original Ice, the one that had been replaced by the Valyrian steel sword somewhere above their heads. With a sudden rush of horrified understanding, Jon realised exactly where the name had come from.

Arya crossed the room and stared up at the sword with wide, flinty eyes. “This is the kind of sword the White Walkers used,” she whispered. “The kind of sword that killed me.”

“Why do we have a sword of the Others?” asked Robb, even though there was no one living who could provide him an answer.

“They sealed this away,” said Sansa. “I always thought that the original Ice must have broken, but it wasn’t. One of our ancestors purposefully sealed it away and hid the truth from the rest of us.”

Howland Reed alone had moved to the bookshelf. Gingerly, he took down a stack of parchments. They had been discoloured by age, but otherwise seemed unharmed. “If there are answers anywhere, it will be in these.”

“Be careful with them,” cautioned Ned.

“Being sealed in this room must have preserved them,” went on Reed. “The air is so still – water couldn’t have gotten in and the temperature probably didn’t change much in here. Your ancestor might be the one reason we have any records at all.”

But why do we have an ice sword? Jon thought, but didn’t bother saying, because no answers were forthcoming.

Sansa handed her torch to Robb and took some parchment from Howland Reed. With Robb holding the fire close to the documents, Sansa skimmed through the first few pages, murmuring to herself.

Jon went to stand before Ice. A chill seemed to emanate from it. It must be magic, he thought to himself. How else could it have survived all these years, rather than melting away with the summer? It was larger than a great sword, although not by much. Jon wondered if it was heavier or lighter than the Valyrian steel sword. Valyrian steel was already lighter than ordinary steel – was ice lighter again?

“Arya.”

Sansa’s voice cut through the still room, short and brittle. Jon realised that he had been reaching for Ice, and snatched his hand back and away from it. Arya was hurrying to Sansa’s side.

“The Three-Eyed Raven watches us all,” Sansa read aloud. “We cannot hide from him. We don’t know how to escape him.”

Arya stared at Sansa. “They’re talking like -”

“Like they’re scared of the Three-Eyed Raven,” finished Sansa. “But Bran was the Three-Eyed Raven, wasn’t he? He couldn’t have been back in the first Long Night.”

“He wasn’t the first,” said Arya. “That’s why he went north, to learn from the one before him. They must stretch all the way back to the Long Night. But Bran was on our side. Why are they scared of him?”

Sansa scanned the rest of the piece of parchment. “A thousand eyes and one,” she read. “Stay inside the keeps. The Heart Tree can no longer be trusted. He controls the Godswoods.” She looked up. “It’s a letter from an Umber to Winterfell. A warning, apparently.”

“But Bran was trying to stop the Others!” protested Arya, desperation in her voice. “Why would we hide from Bran? Why would they hide from the Three-Eyed Raven?”

Sansa stared around the room with wild eyes. “What if he wasn’t?” she whispered.

“What are you saying, Sansa?” asked Arya, her voice low and dangerous.

“He told us a hundred times over that he wasn’t Brandon Stark anymore, just the Three-Eyed Raven,” said Sansa. “The first time I spoke with him after I came home, do you know what he said to me? He said that I looked beautiful, the first night Ramsay - ” Sansa broke off with a shudder. She wiped a tear furiously from her eyes before she continued. “He didn’t hug me at all. He barely hugged you. Does that sound like Bran to you?”

“Who else would it be?”

“What if…” Sansa licked her lips nervously. “Bran called us ‘sister’ when he sent us back, but he never called us that after he became the Three-Eye Raven. So what if it was Bran, or whatever was left of him, that sent us back, not the Three-Eyed Raven? What if Bran overpowered the rest of the Three-Eyed Raven to send us all back? What if that’s why Ramsay came, too? Because Bran couldn’t control it enough, because he wasn’t truly in control, and he accidentally sent Ramsay with us, because he had technically sworn an oath to me, even if he’d never had any plans of fulfilling it.”

“But then what was the Three-Eyed Raven planning?” asked Arya.

“I don’t know,” said Sansa. “I don’t… But we have an ice sword, here in the crypts, sealed away.”

“It could be a trophy,” said Ned. “The first of the Starks may have taken it from the Others as a prize.”

“Then why seal it away?” fired back Sansa. “We’ve been telling the world winter is coming for thousands of years. If there was any proof that the White Walkers had existed, it was that sword. So why would one of our ancestors be ashamed of a trophy?”

“You’re saying that we got it from – what? A trade?” asked Robb.

“I don’t know!” exclaimed Sansa. “I don’t know. But I think the story is a lot more complicated than what the Three-Eyed Raven told us. I think there’s more to the Others than wanting to destroy the world’s stories.”

“You think the Three-Eyed Raven lied to you all,” said Ned. “What motive could he have for that? Assuming that there is a way to communicate with the Others – because how else could we have made a trade? – why would the Three-Eyed Raven lie to you all? What’s his motive for all of this?”

“The answers, if there are any, will be in these,” said Sansa, holding up her stack of parchments. “We need to read them all before we do anything else.”

Arya gasped, sinking to her knees.

“What?” asked Jon, dropping to his knees beside her. “What is it?”

“If the Three-Eyed Raven is evil…” said Arya. She looked up to meet Sansa’s eyes. “We’ve been meeting in front of the Heart Tree. He knows. He knows everything.”

-

Arya threw the door to the library tower open and sprinted up the stairs. She could hear voices calling for her, and footsteps following her, but she didn’t pause until she reached the top of the stairs, scanning the room for only half a second.

Maester Luwin was at the front of the room, lecturing from a book, while Bran and Rickon sat next to him. Theon was kneeling next to Bran, saying something to him quietly. Arya ran to Bran’s side, knocking Theon aside in her haste.

“What the fu -” started Theon, before cutting himself off at a look from Luwin.

“Are you okay?” demanded Arya, looking over him for any signs of the Three-Eyed Raven’s influence, like it would be visible.

Bran looked at her, curious but a bit bemused. Good; that was good. Emotions meant that the Three-Eyed Raven hadn’t gotten to him yet. “I’m fine, Arya.”

The footsteps pursuing her stopped at the entranceway. Arya glanced up; Ned was in the doorway, with Robb, Jon and Sansa crowding behind him.

“You’d tell me if you had any strange dreams, wouldn’t you?” pressed Arya. “If you had any dreams about ravens, for instance?”

“Not one,” said Bran. “What’s going on?”

Arya slumped, dragging Bran into a bear hug. “Tell me or Sansa the second you wake up from one, alright? Promise me.”

“I promise,” said Bran, even though it was clear from his voice he had no idea what he was promising.

“Maester Luwin, could you take Rickon to finish his lesson elsewhere?” asked Sansa. “And send Mother and Lady Brienne here, while you’re at it.”

Maester Luwin bowed his head. “Of course, Lady Sansa. Come along, Rickon.”

“What’s going on?” asked Theon, his voice weary. “I thought you were all just going down into the crypts.”

“We were,” said Sansa. “We found documents, and…” Sansa shook her head in disbelief. “A sword made of ice.”

“Like -?” started Theon, unable to say it aloud.

“Like the ones the Others used,” confirmed Sansa. “Uncle Benjen, Lord Umber and Lord Reed are bringing some of them up now, but we’ll have to make return trips – especially since we had to chase after Arya instead of bringing some up for ourselves.”

Arya jutted her chin up, unrepentant. “I had to see Bran.”

Sansa sighed, coming to kneel by Bran herself. “Are you sure, Bran? Sure that you haven’t dreamt of any three-eyed ravens?”

“I swear it,” insisted Bran.

“Wait – Three-Eyed Raven as in Bran?” asked Theon. “I mean, the other Bran.”

“No, not Bran,” said Sansa. “There’s been one more of the Three-Eyed Raven, and – well, let’s wait for Mother and Brienne to arrive, so we don’t have to explain it twice.”

“It is very important that you tell us, Bran,” said Ned, his voice solemn. Bran nodded, wide-eyed, his face beginning to pale. Robb sunk into the chair Rickon had just left, rubbing his face tiredly.

“I can’t believe we might have cocked this all up,” he said, voice muffled by his hands.

“We?” repeated Sansa. “No, this is on Arya and me. You knew nothing. We should have guessed.”

“How could we have guessed?” asked Arya. “He was helping us; he sent us back. How were we to know?”

“But he told us a dozen times -” started Sansa, but was interrupted as the door opened again. Catelyn and Brienne entered, surveying the room quickly.

“Something’s wrong,” stated Catelyn.

“Very wrong,” said Sansa. “Gods, Mother, we might have doomed us all.”

Brienne blanched at Sansa’s words, but Catelyn held firm, her eyes widening only a little. She strode across the room and took up Maester Luwin’s old seat, looking more like a queen in it than Cersei or Daenerys ever had. “Tell me everything.”

“We found documents,” said Ned. “They mentioned the Three-Eyed Raven.”

“What Bran was, in the other time?” checked Catelyn.

“It’s what we thought he was,” said Arya.

“There is more than one Three-Eyed Raven,” explained Sansa. “Bran was taught how to become the Three-Eyed Raven. The line stretches all the way back to the first Long Night.”

“Except that what we read in that parchment didn’t match up with what Bran – or what we thought was Bran – told us,” said Arya. “Whoever it was writing that record, they were scared of the Three-Eyed Raven, as scared of him as they were of the Others.”

“I’m going to be as evil as the Others?” whispered Bran, pulling away from Arya.

“No!” exclaimed Arya. “No. You still saved us, remember? It was you who sent us back.”

“I think that the Three-Eyed Raven is like…” Sansa hesitated. “It’s like a castle, that’s been added to a hundred times over. Maybe more has been added to it than what it began as, but it’s still a castle, you see?” To Bran, she said, “It’s like if they added a Maester’s wing to a castle that had never had one before. You’re the Maester’s wing; you’re the good part.” To the rest of the room, she said, “I think that when we were dying, Bran managed to take what was left of him, inside the Three-Eyed Raven, and sent us back. So it wasn’t the Three-Eyed Raven that sent us back, it was Bran, using the Three-Eyed Raven’s abilities, and he tried to send people back to help us. That’s why Arya and I were told to stop everything, and Brienne and Theon were only told to fulfil their oaths – their oaths to us, to help and protect us.” Sansa paced back and forth across the room. “Except Bran couldn’t fully control it, or maybe the other parts of the Three-Eyed Raven tried to sabotage him, and that’s why Ramsay was sent back, because he did swear an oath to me, even if he never had any intention of fulfilling it.”

“We’ll stop this,” promised Arya. “You’re never going to become part of the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran. I’ll die before it happens.”

“I don’t understand,” cut in Catelyn. “How does this make us doomed?”

“The Three-Eyed Raven can see through the faces of the Heart Trees,” said Arya, “and Sansa and I have been talking in front of the Heart Tree since the first time we woke up back here. The Three-Eyed Raven knows everything.”

“That still doesn’t mean we’re doomed,” said Brienne. “The Three-Eyed Raven, regardless of whether it was Bran or not, was helping us against the Others.”

“Was he?” asked Sansa.

“I’m sorry?” said Brienne.

“What did he do against the Others?” asked Sansa. “He told us that he was what the Others were pursuing, but we don’t have any proof of that. He didn’t tell us much about their movements; he didn’t help Arya or me when we were – he didn’t tell us any information that could have persuaded Daenerys Targaryen sooner or Cersei Lannister at all. What did he do to help us?”

Theon and Brienne sat silent at that, dumbfounded.

“A monster stole our brother’s body,” hissed Arya. “He stole Bran’s body and he’s been spying on us all this time.”

“But none of this means that he was working against us,” pointed out Catelyn.

“What more proof do you need?” demanded Arya.

Catelyn held her hand up. “I believe you,” she said. “But you’re missing several puzzle pieces, such as: what was the Three-Eyed Raven doing, if not helping you? And why do you think he was lying about the Others’ motivation? Why did the First Men go back to using the Godswoods, if they were so scared of the Three-Eyed Raven watching them?”

“We found a sword in the crypts,” said Ned. “It must have been the original Ice, because… because it was made of ice, like the weapons of the White Walkers.” He glanced at Sansa. “I’m still not convinced, but Sansa has suggested it is evidence of a trade.”

“Why hide it?” asked Sansa. “Father says it may be a trophy, but why would our ancestors have hid a trophy? No, I think they had to have been ashamed of it, and that only makes sense if we won it peacefully, somehow – as part of a trade, or as part of a peace agreement, or something. We’ve been warning people of the coming winter for thousands of years, and why would we hide away the proof of the White Walkers’ existence if there wasn’t some kind of shame attached to it?”

“None of that means that we traded with the White Walkers, or that we had any kind of agreement with them,” pointed out Robb. “How would we, anyway?”

“The Night’s Watch deserter said that they spoke to each other,” said Jon. “Maybe our ancestors learnt it, same as we could learn any language.”

“What kind of agreement would we have made?” asked Ned. “There are holes in your theory.”

“But not the inescapable kind,” said Arya. “We might be able to find answers in the crypts.”

“Do you believe Sansa?” asked Catelyn, looking directly at Arya.

“I’m not sure,” said Arya. “All I know is that the Three Eyed Raven isn’t who he said he was, so we can’t trust anything he said. But the Night King didn’t offer any parley…” Nothing fits together, thought Arya in frustration. If the Three-Eyed Raven was a threat, was he the same threat as the Others? Was he a separate threat altogether?

The Old Gods were meant to be the ones living in the weirwoods. Where did they fit into all of this? Did they exist at all, or had it always been the Three-Eyed Raven rustling in the trees, leading people to exactly where he wanted them?

For all of that, though, some things fit far too well for Arya to dismiss them. Sansa’s theory made sense: why else would Ramsay have been sent back? There was no way Ramsay Bolton would have ever even considering helping to stop the Others. If it had been the mistake of a boy who couldn’t fully control his powers, or the deliberate sabotage by someone who could, then the puzzle pieces began to slot together.

“Robb said, once, that the White Walkers now probably aren’t the same as in the Long Night,” said Jon. “Perhaps this Night King is more ruthless than the last.”

“Perhaps,” sighed Ned. “We need more information.”

“But we have enough information to say this: we must be careful in what we say before the Heart Tree,” declared Catelyn. “Avoid it whenever you can.”

“We can’t,” whispered Sansa. She cleared her throat and repeated herself. “We can’t. If we suddenly stop discussing things before the Heart Tree, then he’ll suspect that we know.”

“So we keep feeding him information?” scoffed Arya in disbelief.

“Some,” said Sansa. “Not our most important plans and our secrets, of course. Sometimes we might even deliberately mislead him. But if the Three-Eyed Raven is a threat, we need to keep him unaware that we’re on to him for as long as we can, so he has less time to outmanoeuvre us.”

“Sansa…” Ned shook his head, his forehead creased with worry. “I know that you have played the game of thrones and that you have won, but if all of this is true, than the Three-Eyed Raven will be far beyond anybody else in Westeros. He will have had millennia to plan. It might be best for us to remove ourselves from his game altogether.”

“But we can’t remove ourselves from his game,” argued Sansa, jutting her chin up defiantly. “Don’t you see? Whatever his game is, it has to do with the Others. So long as the Others are marching on us, we are a part of his game. The only option we have is to outplay him.”

Chapter Text

“D’you believe it?” asked Robb, holding his torch out in front of him. “That we traded with the White Walkers?”

“Not a single clue,” said Jon, ducking under a spiderweb. The crypts were full of the stuff. “But I agree with Sansa and Arya; something doesn’t add up with the stories.”

“It’s just so hard to imagine Bran being evil,” sighed Robb.

“But it wasn’t Bran,” replied Jon. “Just a parasite using his body as a puppet.” He spat the last word.

Robb licked his lips nervously. “You know, when you put it like that, it almost sounds like the wights.”

“I’m sorry?” said Jon.

“The wights,” repeated Robb. “Raising a body to use it as a puppet.”

Jon stopped in his tracks. “What if that’s it?” Robb glanced back at Jon, quirking an eyebrow upwards. “What if the Three-Eyed Raven really was using Bran’s body the same way as the wights? Arya said, once, that when Bran skinchanged, he could even skinchange into Hodor’s body. What if the White Walkers are just skinchanging into dead bodies?”

“So some really fucked up version of a skinchanger?” asked Robb.

“The Children could do skinchange, and so can humans, apparently,” said Jon. “Why not White Walkers?”

“Skinchanging into a dead body might be even easier than skinchanging into an animal,” mused Robb as they began walking again. “There’s nothing there to fight for control with.”

Jon readjusted the stack of scrolls and fragile books in his arms. “Maybe,” said Jon. Neither of them knew enough about skinchanging to do anything more than speculate.

They were only a few levels from the entrance when Jon stopped again. “There’s a chest,” he said, nudging Robb and pointing to it. It was hidden behind a tomb, but Jon was wary enough in the crypts that he examined every tomb he passed.

“It could have more documents,” suggested Robb, approaching the chest.

“It can’t,” said Jon. “These levels aren’t that old -  a few hundred years old, if that.” He settled his stack of documents next to the chest. Robb held the torch over the chest and nodded at him. Jon took a deep breath and pulled it open.

At the top of the chest was a cloak, dirty white with a grey dire wolf emblazoned on it. Jon glanced back up at the tomb reflexively, but it – like every other tomb in the Stark crypts besides Aunt Lyanna’s – belonged to a lord, not a lady. And yet, unmistakably, a wedding cloak.

Jon lifted the cloak out carefully and rested it beside the chest. A silver harp rested beneath it. Jon couldn’t resist plucking at one of the strings as he picked it up, but the string snapped at the tension.

“It can’t be that old, if the strings hadn’t rotted away altogether,” pointed out Robb.

“So why leave it so far down?” wondered Jon. The chest wasn’t going to be important to the White Walkers, he knew. But his curiosity was getting the better of him, and he kept digging into the chest. Underneath the harp, he found small, wooden toys: a dragon, a dire wolf, even the lizard lion of the Neck. At the bottom of the chest was another piece of black fabric, and Jon lifted it out with bated breath, wondering if it would provide answers.

It provided the opposite. It was another wedding cloak, but Jon knew that no Stark had ever married into this House, or the other way around. A red dragon was embroidered on to the cloak, the symbol of House Targaryen.

“There’s a note,” whispered Robb. Jon glanced down. Robb was right; the parchment had been hidden underneath the Targaryen cloak. Jon held it up to the torchlight and began to read.

My wonderful Lyanna,

I do not know where I will be when you read this – if I will be meeting Robert Baratheon in battle or if I will be riding back to you and to our Visenya. I can only hope that this will bring you comfort in the days to come.

I will never forget when I first found you in Harrenhal’s Godswood, or the moment that I crowned you Queen of Love and Beauty. You were the most beautiful women I had ever seen, and your actions at the joust only proved that you, and you alone, were the one woman that I needed.

By the time I return to you, our Visenya will likely have been born. I hope that you will have already told her of her father. I hope that your words will be kind.

Your dearest husband

Jon sat the letter back into the chest with shaking hands. “Rhaegar married Aunt Lyanna,” he murmured to himself. It was so very different to the story he had been told about Lyanna.

Rhaegar’s words were fond – kinder than he expected a rapist to use – but that last line made him wonder how far the truth really differed from the story he had always been told. I hope that your words will be kind. How delusional did the prince have to be, to expect the woman he had kidnapped to speak of him kindly?

Jon looked up to Robb, but Robb was staring at him with wide eyes, his face pale even in the torchlight. “What?”

“Lyanna was having a child,” said Robb. “Nobody ever mentioned it. Nobody.

“She must have died with Aunt Lyanna,” said Jon, beginning to place the cloaks and harp back into the chest. “We should move the chest to be by her tomb.”

Jon,” said Robb. Jon stopped, looking back up at Robb. “Why would nobody have mentioned it? It would make for a great song. Why isn’t her chest by her tomb already? Nobody mentioned it because nobody knows.

“Why would anyone bother to hide it?” asked Jon. He felt like he was at the edge of a great precipice, clinging on to it with only the very tips of his fingers.

“Because Father came back with a child,” said Robb. “He came back with you.

Jon clung tighter to the precipice. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. I am Ned Stark’s son, nobody else. “Rhaegar called the child Visenya – a daughter.

“How would Rhaegar know?” said Robb. “He said himself the child hadn’t been born yet. The child could easily have been a son.”

Jon’s jaw worked. I am Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark. That is all I am. He shoved the Targaryen cloak into the chest, letting go abruptly as if it was made of fire. He wasn’t a dragon; he was a dire wolf, through and through. He even had Ghost to prove it.

He rode Rhaegal, named after Rhaegar Targaryen, Sansa had said.

“Oh, gods,” said Jon, crawling away from the chest. “I rode a dragon. I rode a dragon. The only other person who could do that -”

“- was Daenerys Targaryen,” finished Robb.

“And the Night King,” said Jon, feebly. He couldn’t look into Robb’s eyes, knowing there would be pity there.

“The Night King only rode a wight dragon,” said Robb.

Jon buried his face in his hands. “I can’t be. I can’t be, Robb. I’m Jon Snow, that’s all.”

He heard shuffling, then a hand rested on his shoulder. Jon opened his eyes to see Robb kneeling before him. “You are my brother,” he said firmly. “No matter what Father says, you are my brother, now and always.”

“Now and always,” echoed Jon in a whisper.

-

“Meet me in the Broken Tower,” Theon had told her as they had all left Bran and Rickon to their lessons with Maester Luwin.

Sansa knew that Maester Luwin had to have finished with Bran and Rickon by now. She’d heard Bran shout only a few minutes earlier, laughter in his voice – not at all the kind of yell one used in lessons. Theon had to have made his way to the Broken Tower by now.

The Broken Tower was still empty, work having been discontinued until the lords left. She didn’t find him on ground level, so she took the stairs up one level and then the next. It was there, on the third floor, that she found Theon. This floor was the highest that had been completely redone, and as it stood at the moment, it was a long, empty room. It didn’t quite match up to the Great Hall, but Sansa knew it would be used as such, when the time came.

Theon was standing in the centre of the room. She walked over to him. She still didn’t know what he wanted; there wasn’t much to be done in a room as empty as this.

“What are we doing?” asked Sansa.

“The most I’ve seen you smile since we came back was when we were dancing,” said Theon. “Ramsay was in the room, but Florian and Jonquil’s song was playing, and you were smiling. So we’re going to dance.” He held out his hand and half-bowed. “Will you do me the honour of dancing with me, Lady Sansa?”

Sansa couldn’t help the smile stealing across her face as she reached out and took Theon’s hand. “It would be my pleasure, Lord Theon.” He straightened, taking her right hand in his left and resting his other hand against her waist. Quietly, she began to sing. “Six maidens in a pool…”

As she sang, they began to move, feet in time across the open space. Alone in the hall, they didn’t need to mind other dancers, so Theon twirled her out into wide spins. Her skirts spun outwards as she twirled, and she cackled as Theon stumbled on the fabric. He righted himself, a sheepish grin on himself, and brought her back in close to him. They kept moving, feet timed to her heartbeat, movement becoming more grandiose but less polished with every passing moment. They had stopped dancing to anything Septa Mordane had ever taught them. In fact, as Sansa found herself tucked against Theon once more, she suspected that the Septa would have a heart attack if she ever saw the two of them dancing like that.

Theon was more fluid in his movements than he had been since she had left him for the first time in Winterfell, years and years ago. Sansa, who had largely lost her love for dancing in the Red Keep, forced to dance with Joffrey or Tyrion or whoever Joffrey had wanted to embarrass her with that night, found herself laughing from the exuberance as twirled and pirouetted to the music. Dancing with Theon was like being a child again, stumbling on her partner’s feet as she pretended that they were a prince. For a few brief, shining moments, all that existed was Sansa and Theon, dancing in an empty room, all her anxieties and traumas put aside, at least for now.

As she sang the last notes of the song, Theon and Sansa slowed almost to a stop, rocking together in the middle of the hall. Her head was nestled into the crook of his neck, and Theon rested his chin against the top of her head. The last note faded out of existence and she pulled back.

“I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun,” she whispered.

“That was the idea,” said Theon, his smile cocky. Sansa’s own smile widened to match his. She hadn’t realised, until now, how much she had missed that expression, but something eased in her chest at the sight. Ramsay hadn’t taken it from him.

Sansa moved her hand to rest on the back of his neck. “Thank you,” she told him, and stretched up to press her lips to his. She kissed him gently, long enough to give Septa Mordane a conniption. Theon’s shoulders softened under her hand, and he pulled her slightly closer.

Sansa Stark had been kissed before, but she had never kissed anyone of her own choosing. Kissing Theon was nothing like any other kiss she had received. It was not violent, not stiff or a demand. It was soft and kind and felt more like coming home than it did a battle. Theon’s lips were chapped and his hands were rough and calloused from use – not exactly the perfumed prince she had once dreamed of, but he certainly treated her more gently than Joffrey ever would have.

After a long moment, standing kissing in the centre of the empty room, Sansa finally pulled away. Theon followed her for half a heartbeat before he let her go. There was no cockiness on his face now, but neither was there any of the fear or agony that had once been his constant companion. Sansa couldn’t help it, taking in his tender green eyes behind long lashes; she pressed another quick kiss to his lips, too fast for Theon to even react.

“Come on,” she said. “I know what we should do next.”

She pulled him gently by the hand towards the door. He let her tug him along, following down the stairs and out into the courtyard. She let go of his hand, a mischievous grin forming on her face. She dashed away from him and ducked down, where she carefully – on account of her wrist – packed together a snowball. Before Theon even realised what was happening, a snowball smacked him straight in the face.

Theon spluttered as the snow dripped from his face. Sansa let out a loud cackle, dropping back down to start packing together a new snowball. Theon had an advantage over her, though, in having two functioning wrists. Before she could finish her own snowball, cold snow slapped against the side of her face. Sansa couldn’t stop herself from laughing, determinedly packing together the snow. She turned and threw it, but Theon was already advancing on her, snow in hand. He picked her up with one arm, spinning her round, and rubbing snow into her hair with the other.

“Let me down!” she squealed, squirming in his arms. Theon was laughing too hard to listen, though, so Sansa tried to toss her hair free of the snow – and maybe to get him in the face with it, too. Nothing was out of bounds in a snowball fight.

The gates to crypt slammed open and Theon and Sansa stopped in their struggles. Theon dropped Sansa back to the ground as they both turned to look. Jon was marching out, a chest Sansa couldn’t remember seeing in his arms. He didn’t so much as look in Sansa and Theon’s direction as he stormed towards the keep. Behind him, Robb doused his torch in the snow and ran after Jon, casting a worried look in Sansa and Theon’s direction, but not stopping to chastise them.

“Shall I get Arya?” asked Theon.

Sansa nodded. “Quick as you can,” she said over her shoulder as she took off after her brothers.

She caught up with them in Ned’s solar. Ned and Catelyn were already there, seated by the desk. There was parchment scattered across Ned’s desk, but he wasn’t looking at it anymore, because Jon had dropped the chest in front of it and swung it open.

Ned stared at the chest, his jaw clenched. “You were never meant to find this,” he whispered.

“So it’s true?” demanded Jon. “I’m -” He broke off, unable to say it.

“I should have gotten rid of it,” went on Ned. “I should have burnt it. But I couldn’t destroy all that was left of Lya. I left it as close to her tomb as I dared.” Ned squeezed his eyes shut, looking pained. “I should have known it wouldn’t stay hidden, not when we were traipsing up and down through the crypts.”

“What’s going on?” interrupted Sansa. “Is that not from the room we found?”

Jon wheeled on her. “Did you know?” he demanded. “You and Arya, did you know and not tell me?”

“Know what?” asked Sansa, refusing to let Jon’s tone bother her.

“That I’m Lyanna’s son, not Father’s! That I’m a Targaryen.

Sansa almost staggered under the shock of the revelation. She turned to look at Ned, waiting for him to deny it, but Ned only looked down at his desk, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Catelyn was staring at Ned as if she had never see him before.

“Rhaegar’s son,” she whispered. “The boy is Rhaegar’s son?”

“There’s a letter and everything,” said Jon, rifling through the chest and pulling out the offending piece of parchment. “Wedding cloaks, toys, everything.”

Ned stood up. “Close the door, Robb.” He waited until Robb had done as he had asked then continued. “Lyanna met Rhaegar for the first time at the Tourney of Harrenhal. In truth, I don’t know what happened between them there, but I know how it ended: Lyanna went with him, and went with him willingly. I don’t know if she stayed willingly, but I know that leaving was her decision.”

Ned took a deep breath. “Ben warned me, but I didn’t fully believe him until I arrived at her side. She was dying of fever, but she lived long enough to make me promise her one thing: that I keep you safe. That I never tell anyone of who you were, because if Robert ever discovered your parentage – well, I don’t know he would react. He loved Lyanna, and to this day he believes that she was kidnapped and raped. If he discovered that Rhaegar had gotten her with child…” Ned pressed his lips together, then said, “Well, I told him and everybody that you were -”

The door opened, and Ned broke off, but only Arya entered. “Theon said I was needed,” she said, glancing around the room. She could obviously sense the tension in the air, and she slid to stand by Jon.

“Go on,” said Jon, his voice rough.

“I told the world that you were my bastard,” said Ned. “Only Benjen and Howland Reed – he was with me, that day, when I found you and Lya – know the truth.” Arya’s eyebrows shot up and she looked at Sansa. ‘Later,’ Sansa mouthed back at her.

“Did you know?” Jon asked her and Arya again.

Sansa shook her head. “No, Jon. Father died and the secret died with him. I would never have guessed.”

“But you said I rode a dragon,” protested Jon. “Did none of you guess? Not one person realised?”

“Daenerys Stormborn loved you,” said Sansa. “That’s all it was. That’s all we thought it was, at least, that the dragons let you ride them because their mother loved you. I would never have thought…” She blinked, tears stinging at her eyes abruptly. “You were my brother. I never questioned it, Jon, not once.”

“He still is our brother,” snapped Arya.

“You still are,” amended Sansa. “I didn’t mean to say that you weren’t. You’re my brother, Jon, and you are a Stark.”

“But I’m not,” said Jon. “Don’t you see? I’m not a Stark, and I never was. I was a Snow and now I’m a – a Targaryen.” He stumbled over the words. “Fire and blood, isn’t it? Gods know why Ghost even wants me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” hissed Arya. “He wants you because you’re a Stark of Winterfell, same as any of us. There wouldn’t be six dire wolves if there wasn’t six Stark children.”

Jon looked away from her, not letting her meet his eyes. He turned to face Ned. “I was so proud, to be your son,” he whispered. “Even just your bastard. I was so proud.

“Oh, Jon,” said Ned. He left the table and caught Jon up in a hug. Sansa saw Jon tense, knew that he wanted to fight it – but he relented the moment Ned put his arms around him, burrowing into the hug like he was still a little boy. “I was proud to call you my son. You have grown into a good man, one that Lyanna would have been proud of.”

The chair screeched as Catelyn stood abruptly. She pushed her way out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Sansa stared after her mother, wondering if she should go after Catelyn, but couldn’t bear to tear herself away from what was unfolding.

“She named you,” said Ned. “I couldn’t call you it, not without raising suspicion, but she did name you.”

“What did she call me?” whispered Jon, his voice cracking. Ned released him.

“Jaehaerys,” said Ned. “You had a brother and a sister, named Aegon and Rhaenys, but they both died before you were born.”

“The letter called Jon Visenya,” said Robb.

Ned nodded. “Aye, I remember,” he said. “Evidently, Rhaegar had chosen a theme for his children’s names, but he did not even stop to think he might have two sons instead of two daughters.”

“I already have brothers,” said Jon. “And sisters. I don’t want…” He shook his head like he was trying to rid himself of a fly. “I don’t want any of this.” With that, he wrenched himself away from Ned and stormed out of the room.

-

“I thought that I’d find you here.”

Jon didn’t turn his gaze away from the statue in front of him at Arya’s words. She walked into his line of sight and kneeled before Lyanna’s tomb, carefully placing a handful of flowers at its feet.

“I asked Father,” said Arya. She came and sat by him, across the hall from Lyanna’s tomb, knees drawn up to her chest. “He said that winter roses were her favourite flower.”

“Do you know what Lady Stark’s favourite flower is?” asked Jon suddenly.

Arya blinked in surprise. “The poppy flower. It grows in the Riverlands – turns whole fields red, she says.”

Jon leant his head back against the wall. “You knew that. You barely even thought about it. I never even had the chance to know that kind of thing about my mother.”

“You know some things, though,” said Arya. “You know that she loved you. That’s more than some people can say.”

Jon sighed. He had been trying to imagine Lyanna, the whole time he had been sitting there, staring up at her statue. Everyone had always said that she looked like Arya, but the statue didn’t look much like her – was the statue accurate or not? Did Lyanna look like Arya, or like the statue, or something in between?

What had she looked like, with a crown of winter roses on her brow? Had she smiled when she’d been crowned Queen of Love and Beauty? He imagined someone like Arya, sitting in the tills at a tourney, smiling as a handsome prince lowered crown of flowers on to her head – but that’s where it always fell apart, because he couldn’t imagine someone like Arya smiling at that. Sansa, maybe, but the Sansa of before, not the one now who would think first of the political implications of the prince crowning someone who was not his wife. He couldn’t imagine any version of Arya being pleased at such a public romantic declaration, not at a prince abandoning his lady wife.

So who was Lyanna Stark? Arya was right; he knew that she’d loved him. But very little else about her added up: people who knew her said that she was like Arya, and perhaps she was as impulsive as Arya, fleeing a betrothal she didn’t want for the man she did. But other parts of her story didn’t sound like Arya at all, and only a little like Sansa.

Even knowing her name, his mother remained a mystery to him.

“Do you think she regretted it?” he asked. “Running away with Rhaegar. Do you know think she ever wished she’d just married Robert Baratheon after all?”

“I don’t know,” said Arya. “I don’t think there’s any way of knowing. Whoever she was, and whatever she wished, died with her. All that we have left now is stories of her.” She reached out and grasped his hand. “But I also think it’d be hard for anyone to regret you, Jon.”

Jon couldn’t help but snort. “Do you really think that?” he asked. “Do you think the North would ever have knelt to me if they’d known that I was -” The words stuck in his throat. “You think they wouldn’t have regretted it, if they’d ever known?”

“I think that they crowned you because you were you, Jon, not because of your family name,” said Arya.

“They crowned Ned Stark’s son,” said Jon, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Now, I’m not even that.”

“Do you think that the Wildlings cared whose son you were?” demanded Arya. “Or that the Night’s Watch made you Lord Commander because of the father that you disowned when you made your vows? And if the Northern lords had really cared so much for inheritance, they would have crowned Sansa before you or – if a cock was really that important – they would have taken the crown back and given it to Bran when he came home. They chose you, Jon, not Ned Stark’s son. You.”

-

“Yoren!” called Mormont as the wandering crow and the rest of the party spilled into the Great Hall. Winterfell had always been a typical stop for new recruits heading north to the Wall, for a warm meal and a night of decent rest. Yoren rubbed his hands together to warm them as he approached Mormont and Ned and Benjen.

“Lord Stark,” he acknowledged with a quick bow of his head before he turned to Mormont. “Commander. Ranger Stark. I didn’t expect to see you both here.”

Benjen exchanged a glance with Ned as Mormont replied, “We were called to Winterfell on urgent business. We’ll join you riding north to the Wall.”

“Of course, Commander,” said Yoren, flicking his eyes curiously to Ned.

“We’ll have to brief the entire Watch upon returning to Castle Black,” said Benjen. “You’ll hear what’s happened then.” Yoren nodded.

“Is Jon Arryn with you?” asked Ned, craning his neck to inspect the rabble that had accompanied Yoren. He hadn’t seen Jon among them, but perhaps…

“I’m sorry, Lord Stark,” said Yoren, bowing his head. “We were set upon in the Riverlands. Jon Arryn was killed in the struggle, along with two other recruits.”

Ned squeezed his eyes shut. Sansa had warned him. She’d told him from the start that one of the forces in the Red Keep would ensure Jon was killed, that saving him would be nigh impossible when his death was the easiest way to push the Seven Kingdoms into instability and, eventually, into war. He thought he had prepared himself for it.

A hand grasped his arm and squeezed gently. Ned opened his eyes to see Benjen watching him with worried eyes.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m fine. You’ll just need to excuse me for a moment.”

He left the Great Hall and leant against the entrance, breathing in the frigid, northern air. The door opened only a half-moment after Ned had let it close, but it was only Benjen.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked.

“I knew it was coming,” admitted Ned. “I knew that the chances of him making it to the Wall alive were slim. I just hoped that we had saved him.”

“I’m sorry, Ned,” said Benjen quietly.

“Jon knows,” said Ned abruptly. “Our Jon. He knows about Lyanna, and so does Cat, Robb, Sansa and Arya, since he confronted me about it in front of all of them.”

Benjen stilled. “Is he still safe?”

“I think so, yes,” said Ned, then, more certainly, “Yes. Robb and the girls wouldn’t do a thing to harm their brother, and Catelyn…” He knew that Catelyn and Jon’s relationship had always been non-existent at best, and rocky at worst.

But Catelyn also only wanted to protect her family. She didn’t consider Jon family in the same way the rest of them, but exposing Jon would only endanger the rest of them. Maybe, in time, now that Jon was no longer the living evidence of Ned’s betrayal, she might come to view him better. But in the meantime, her children’s safety would outweigh any potential spite. “Catelyn won’t say anything,” he finished.

“How did he find out?” asked Benjen.

“He and Robb found her chest in the crypts,” said Ned. “I should have thought it the moment we decided to search the crypts. I can’t believe I forgot.” What if Robert had wanted to see what they found in the crypts, and spotted it on their way back up? Ned could have destroyed everything with his lapse.

“You’ve had a lot on your plate,” said Benjen, shifting so that he leant against the wall next to Ned, arms crossed.

Ned shook his head in disgust. “My daughters and my ward woke up with memories in their heads of their own deaths, and told me that an ancient evil had awoken again, but somehow, Jon Arryn dying and our Jon finding out about Lya almost had made me feel more off-balance than ever.”

“You’ve lived up to your promise, Ned,” said Benjen, his voice soft. “You’ve done more than Lya asked. You don’t have to keep torturing yourself.”

Ned speared him with a withering look. “You swore yourself to the Night’s Watch because of what happened.”

“And mine was a lifelong oath,” said Benjen. “Yours wasn’t. You’ve protected Jon all of these years, but he’s almost a man grown, and none of the people who know will expose him. You’ve done well. Lyanna couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

“I still could have done more for Jon Arryn,” said Ned. “I should have sent a warning myself, told him there was a price on his head. He would have listened to me more than an anonymous note.”

“And if that person had intercepted your letter, then you would have told all of our enemies about Sansa and Arya,” said Benjen. “The world’s full of hard choices, Ned. Sometimes all the choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose.”

-

Jon knew that he was going to be the last of the party to reach the courtyard, but there was one thing he had to do first.

Arya welcomed him into her room with a broad smile on her face. She looked far too excited for just a farewell, and Jon stopped in his tracks.

“You already know what this is, don’t you?” he asked.

Arya nodded eagerly. “Needle.”

“Is that what you named it?” asked Jon, unwrapping the small sword from its covering. Arya watched reverently.

“It’s the only thing I was able to keep,” she said. “Through everything, through the Riverlands and across the Narrow Sea to Braavos, when I was barely Arya Stark at all – I always had Needle.”

“Then I’m glad I chose well,” said Jon. He hesitated as Arya took Needle from him, holding it carefully. It was clear as soon as it was in her hands that Arya knew how to handle it; he had heard some of her stories, but he had never seen her with a weapon in hand before. Any doubt he might have had would have vanished at the sight. “I don’t know when we’ll see each other next…”

“But we will,” interrupted Arya. “If I could get through all of my last life and come home to Winterfell and see you again, then we can do it again, so you mustn’t talk as if we’ll never see each other again.”

“Thank you,” he said firmly, “for everything.”

Arya placed the sword on to her bed before leaping on to him in a hug. Jon laughed as he staggered back, spinning her around in a circle. “Be careful up north,” said Arya. “Don’t start any fights you can’t win, and for gods’ sake, don’t try to capture any wights.”

“I won’t do anything stupid,” promised Jon.

Arya harrumphed. “We’ll see about that.”

Benjen and Mormont were both already waiting by the gates, having said any of their goodbyes. Sons and daughters of the North were spread across the courtyard, farewelling any family that still remained in Winterfell.

Sansa was the first one to reach him. She fell into step with him as they walked across the courtyard. “Remember that the Wildlings don’t bow to anyone because of their family,” she said. “If Tormund or one of the others by some miracle remembers, then use them, but you can’t rely on having their respect like you did in my future.”

“I remember, Sansa,” said Jon. Sansa had talked him through the Wildlings at least twice before. He knew that she was just scared for him – for everyone – but he couldn’t help but wish that she had something else to say, before he rode off and didn’t see her or anyone in their family for who knew how long.

Sansa hesitated. “Stay away from Alliser Thorne.”

Jon’s eyebrows rose at that. She’d never mentioned that to him before. “I will,” he promised, knowing there wasn’t enough time to get a full story out of her.

She stopped, reaching out to grab his wrist so he stopped as well. “Be careful,” she said. “Don’t do anything stupid. If you see a White Walker, then run. If you see a wight, don’t try to fight it, or capture it. Just get the fuck out. Promise me.”

Jon’s eyebrows climbed higher. He’d never heard Sansa curse before, but her face was deadly serious. “I won’t put myself in any unnecessary danger, Sansa.”

“That’s not the same thing, Jon,” she said, a little impatiently.

“I promise that I’ll get out if I see a White Walker or a wight,” said Jon. Sansa breathed a sigh of relief until he put his hand up – “if it’s feasible.” Sansa glared at him for a long moment before groaning.

“I suppose that’s the best promise I’m going to get out of you, isn’t it?” she sighed.

“I’m afraid so,” he said, offering her a tentative smile. To his surprise, she threw her arms around him so quickly and so forcefully it almost knocked him to the ground. Feeling Sansa bury her face into his neck, he hugged her back.

“Just come back alive,” she whispered into his ear.

“Of course I will,” he said. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.” Sansa pulled back and gave him a tremulous smile.

“Go,” she said. “Uncle Benjen and Commander Mormont are waiting for you.” She withdrew to where Theon was standing across the courtyard.

Robb reached him next. “I presume that Sansa just lectured you on being careful,” he said.

“Of course she did,” said Jon.

“Don’t go taking the black behind my back, alright?” said Robb. “I’m going to need your help before all this is over.”

“Well, it’s not like I stuck with them last time,” said Jon. “If I didn’t then, without knowing all that I do now – well, I guess it’s not for me.”

Robb watched him out of the corner of his eye. “How are you doing with all of that?”

Jon shrugged. “Well as can be expected, I suppose.”

“You’re a Stark of Winterfell,” said Robb. “You’ve got the dire wolf to prove it. Now just make sure that you come home, and that you don’t do anything stupid.”

Jon sighed. “Why does everyone keep saying that to me?”

“Because we know you,” said Robb, a mischievous grin on his face.

Ned was walking towards them from where he’d been talking with Benjen. As he reached them, he said, “Are you ready, Jon?”

Jon nodded. “I am, F – Lord Stark,” he said, stumbling over his words. Ned looked pained.

“You can still call me Father, if you want,” he said quietly. A lump formed in Jon’s throat and he nodded quickly. “When you get back, we’ll talk more about your mother,” promised Ned. “I wish I had more time to tell you now.”

“Will Uncle Benjen tell me anything?” asked Jon.

“Probably,” said Ned, nodding. “I told him that you know.” More and more people were starting to assemble by the gates, and Ned cleared his throat. “Be safe,” said Ned. “I know that Arya and Sansa have told you all that they can, but listen to Benjen and to the other men of the Night’s Watch. They’ve been north of the Wall. Sansa and Arya can tell you about the Wildlings, but not about the land. Listen to them.”

“I will,” said Jon. He rushed out the next few words. “Be careful in King’s Landing. Please don’t -”

“I won’t,” reassured Ned before Jon could will himself to say die. Then, surprising Jon even more than Sansa’s embrace, Ned hugged him fiercely, before all of the lords in the courtyard. “I’ve been proud to call you my son, Jon. Don’t forget that.”

When Jon finally mounted his horse, he felt exhausted, as wrung out as an old rag. He nudged his horse ahead so that he rode next to Benjen underneath the gates of Winterfell, facing north, towards the place Jon had once believed would be his home.

Chapter Text

The courtyard was quiet yet loud as the royal party first began to ride through Winterfell’s gates. No one dared to talk about a whisper, yet everybody seemed to be whispering, passing rumours and half-truths to their neighbours about the Baratheons and Lannisters.

Everybody except for the Starks, that was.

The tension in the family was almost overwhelming. Sansa was staring straight ahead and barely managed a response anytime she was spoken to; Ned was preparing himself for what was to come; Catelyn was sending anxious looks at her daughters and Robb and Bran seemed to be trying to close ranks around Sansa and Arya the best that they could without it being completely obvious to onlookers. It would have irritated Arya – and did irritate her, a little, but only in so much as there was not much point for them to try to protect her when she probably had more experience than either of them – but Sansa, she knew, had to appreciate it. It wasn’t exactly much, but it was something, and that was more than she had ever had before when dealing with Joffrey Baratheon.

As the riders began to pour through into the courtyard, Arya reached out and grabbed Sansa’s hand. Sansa flinched at the touch and Arya was about to open her mouth to apologise when Sansa tangled her fingers with Arya’s and clung on tightly enough to hurt.

“Showtime,” whispered Sansa.

“If anyone can do this, it’s you,” Arya whispered back. “You already caught Ramsay.” Sansa looked at her for the first time since they had come out to the courtyard, giving Arya a smile so tight-lipped it looked more like a grimace.

Joffrey rode through the gates, sitting tall on his horse. It surprised Arya how – well, how princely he looked. Somewhere along the way, she had exaggerated him in her memory until he looked more monster than person. Unconsciously, she tightened her grip on Sansa’s hand. Mycah, Father, every person that died in the War of the Five Kings, she remembered.

I’m coming for you, Waters.

Sansa’s face had smoothed out and she was staring at Joffrey with wide, doe-like eyes, a shy smile crossing her face. Reflexively, Arya couldn’t help but feel irritated at the sight. She’s acting, she reminded herself angrily. This was no time to be falling back into old habits. There were more important things to be doing, like building up her role as spy. Arya focused on making her own expression as vacantly adoring as Sansa’s was.

Bran nudged her. “Why are you cross-eyed?” he whispered.

Arya huffed. Think about anything else. Horse riding, Needle, Jon –

Gendry. Gendry would look better on a horse than Joffrey ever had. Gendry had been too rough to ever be a prince. He’d never been pampered once in his life. Gendry would probably laugh at all of Joffrey’s airs and graces, though he’d be gentle with Tommen and Myrcella, both of them too little to be cruel.

She wondered if she would ever see Gendry again. There had been years when she had accepted that she never would, but he would be right there in King’s Landing, not across the Narrow Sea. It would draw too much attention to him, though, Lady Arya of House Stark going out of her way to visit a blacksmith. Maybe I can pretend to be commission a gift for Father, she thought. Then I can see him. Only once or twice, but it wouldn’t be too suspicious, would it?

The carriage wheeled into the courtyard. One of the King’s Guard took his helmet off, shaking out his blond locks, and opened the door for his sister. Cersei Lannister took her brother’s hand and gracefully descended the stairs.

Gendry. Gendry’s lips on hers, his hands warm on her back, Gendry hiding from the Goldcloaks –

Fuck. Even Gendry was too attached to her hate for Cersei. She frantically cycled through what friends she had made over the years: Hot Pie, Lady Crane –

Jaime Lannister was staring into the crowd, his eyes roving across the mass of people. Arya’s gaze fastened on him. He was looking for someone, but who for? Everyone he could be interested in was already assembled at the front of the household, waiting patiently for Robert. Ned, Catelyn, the Stark children – the direwolves, maybe? They were all locked away in the kennels.

She couldn’t pay as much attention to the Kingslayer as she would have liked, because Robert Baratheon, first of his name, had entered the courtyard and was dismounting from his horse. Arya worked to keep the disgust off her face as she knelt. Jon might not have been there to compare him to, but Robb was, and the Stag King did not look even half as kingly than the boy of eighteen did. Even kneeling, his face was solemn and his back straight, while Robert shambled toward Ned with hardly a shred of gravitas.

Arya let her father and Robert’s conversation wash over her; it was all the same as last time round, anyway. She stood when she was expected to and gave Robert the response he expected while she inspected the rest of the visitors. Cersei was inspecting Winterfell with barely concealed disdain, while Tommen and Myrcella huddled behind her, staring around in awe. Joffrey had taken to watching Sansa, earning himself a glare from Robb and Theon both. Jaime Lannister’s attention had caught on someone in the crowd, someone only a person or two behind Arya and Sansa. Arya risked craning her head around to check.

Brienne was behind Arya and Sansa, and she was staring back at the Kingslayer, enraptured. Arya would have expected her to be watching Robert or Joffrey. But no, she remembered now: she had spoken up for the Kingslayer when Daenerys Stormborn had wanted him dead. That still didn’t explain why Jaime was staring at her, though, unless…

But Jaime Lannister didn’t fit their theory, did he? What oaths had he sworn to Arya or Sansa? None, that was what. He was from a family that had destroyed theirs and had crippled their brother. Fighting the Others – a common enemy for all of humanity, not just the Starks – wasn’t enough to overcome everything else.

“You’ve been riding for a month, my love,” said Cersei, startling Arya out of her wondering. There was an edge to her voice. “Surely the dead can wait.”

Robert ignored her and beckoned to Ned. Ned took the lead, leading him towards the crypts. A moment of silence echoed through the courtyard as Arya took in Cersei’s expression, a frozen anger seething just behind her eyes.

“May I show her grace to her chambers, Mother?” asked Sansa brightly, cutting through the silence. Cersei turned to study Sansa, interest sharpening her gaze.

“If her grace wills it,” said Catelyn.

“Of course, little dove,” said Cersei. “It has been a long ride.”

“Robb can show the princes to their chambers,” said Catelyn. “And perhaps Arya can accompany Princess Myrcella.”

Arya looked over to Myrcella. She had never had much to do with her, even during their time together in King’s Landing, but she remembered a girl that didn’t seem to have inherited her mother’s cruelty. Myrcella smiled at her shyly and Arya smiled back.

There was an opportunity, here.

-

“I hope that the North isn’t too boring for you, your grace,” chattered Sansa, making sure that there was a spring in her step as she led Cersei Lannister through the hallways of Winterfell. She would have preferred to be just about anywhere else in the castle than here, with Cersei: conspiring with Arya in the godswood, helping Bran pelt Robb with snowballs, sewing with Jeyne and Beth, stealing kisses from Theon in the Broken Tower. But it wasn’t possible, not now. She had a role to play.

Cersei had told her once that when it came to the people one loved, you will act the fool to keep them happy, to keep them safe. It was perhaps the one piece of advice that Cersei had ever given her that Sansa had taken to heart. She would do what it took to keep her family safe, and if that meant playing little dove to Cersei Lannister, then she would do it.

“It’s charming,” said Cersei, her voice kind. It had been so long since she had heard Cersei Lannister sound kind that Sansa almost tripped, even though she had been expecting it. Sansa knew that Cersei would want her to be a useful idiot, sheltered and naïve, and that Cersei would want to cultivate her into an asset against her father in whatever small way she could.

“Yes, well,” said Sansa, glancing around with embarrassment. “I’m sure it can’t compare to the Red Keep, your grace, or Casterly Rock.”

“Would you like to see King’s Landing, little dove?” asked Cersei. “It is a shame that your father hasn’t sent you and your sister to spend time at court. I’m sure you would cause quite the stir.”

Sansa gave Cersei a flustered smile at the compliment, doing her best to blush. “I’m afraid I can’t, your grace,” she said. “I am already betrothed to Lord Theon Greyjoy and will become Lady of the Iron Islands one day. It would be unseemly for me to go south without my betrothed or any chaperones.”

“A pity,” said Cersei. “You would shine at court. You’re far too pretty to be outcast to those Seven-forsaken islands.”

Sorry, Theon. Sansa fidgeted, glancing down at her feet. She kept her voice subdued as she responded. “It is my duty, your grace.”

“Ah, yes. Family, duty, honour, isn’t it?” said Cersei. “You’re certainly living up to your Tully heritage.”

“Thank you, your grace,” said Sansa. She hesitated. She wasn’t meant to know that Ned was likely being offered the role of Hand of the King right now, just below her feet. “Perhaps – perhaps if I could arrange for someone to take me south. I know that Lord Theon is my father’s hostage, but surely the King would do just as good a job at watching over him, or perhaps my brother, Robb, could come south with me -”

“Don’t get too far ahead of yourself,” advised Cersei, amused, but with a hint of smugness lurking behind her green eyes. “But yes, sweetling. It is certainly something we can look into.”

-

The wind buffeted across the open plain, a wild and lonely place that seemed to be miles away from any sign of civilisation. Jon dismounted his horse, looking around at what was to be his home for the night with distaste.

“Jon,” called Benjen. “We’re to get water.”

There was a stream not far off – it was why they had chosen to make camp here, even though it was still a few hours until dusk. Jon grabbed up some waterbags and followed Benjen out of the beginnings the camp. It was a small creek, but cool and clear. Jon leant down at its edge and splashed the icy water on to his face, letting the bite shock him back to alertness.

As he placed the first of the waterbags into the stream, Benjen said, “Your father told me what you found in the crypts.”

Jon jerked abruptly, splashing water and almost losing his grip on the bag. “You knew?” he asked incredulously. “For how long?”

Benjen’s face was bitter. “Since the beginning. I was the one who helped her leave Winterfell.” Jon’s legs gave out under him and he collapsed on to the bank, staring across at Benjen. “She loved him, then,” continued Benjen. “I don’t know if she did by the end – I think not, because I can’t imagine Lya staying there of her own will when Father and Brandon were murdered, and the Mad King was demanding Ned’s head.”

“Is there anything she could have done?” asked Jon.

“Likely not,” said Benjen. “At the end of the day, the rebellion began because Aerys ordered Jon Arryn to execute Ned and Robert, not because Lyanna was kidnapped, or even because Father and Brandon were executed. But I believe she would have tried, but Rhaegar didn’t give her that choice.” Benjen shook his head. “I still wonder what would have happened if I had tried to stop her from going.”

Jon remained silent. Would his mother still be alive, the queen or the lady of Storm’s End? Had her death paid for his life?

“But then you would never have been born, and I know that she would have taken anything it took for you to be born,” said Benjen. “I know that, and so does Ned. We never risked you, because at first we needed to protect what was left of Lyanna, and later because we needed to protect you for your sake.”

“Was I born out of –?” Jon couldn’t bring himself to say the last word.

“I don’t know, Jon,” sighed Benjen. “But I hope it was out of love.”

By the time they finished talking and made it back to where they were making camp, most of the work was done, and the Night’s Watch recruits were shooting the two of them dirty looks for escaping it. The sun had dipped further towards the horizon, though it still wasn’t quite setting yet.

“Stark! Snow!” called Mormont sharply. “With me.”

Jon followed Benjen into Mormont’s tent, already set up. The Greatjon and Smalljon were already seated inside, having joined the Night’s Watch party riding north until their paths split, as was Dacey Mormont.

“It’s still well over a week’s ride to Castle Black, but we don’t have the luxury of time,” said Mormont. “Treating with the Wildlings will be difficult enough, and we don’t have enough information about the White Walkers.”

“I sent word ahead to Maester Aemon,” said Benjen, leaning forward where he had seated himself. “He will have gone through all of Castle Black’s library, at the very least, by the time we return to the Wall.”

It still wouldn’t be enough, of course. If it had been, perhaps they wouldn’t have been defeated so utterly in Sansa and Arya’s time. Only Benjen knew that, though, and Jon kept his mouth shut.

“I’m not going to pretend I understood what happened in the crypts,” said the Greatjon. “But I trust it meant something to the two of you.” He nodded at Benjen and Jon. Jon sent a look at Benjen, who nodded at him. He took a deep breath.

“The Others aren’t our only concern north of the Wall,” said Jon. “In Winterfell’s crypts, we found evidence of a being called the Three Eyed Raven. He appears to have been a skinchanger. We don’t believe he was working with the Others, but he wasn’t helping us, either.”

Dacey blew a hiss of air out between her teeth.

“How is he not part of the stories?” asked the Smalljon. “We have stories passed down to us about the White Walkers and the early men of the Night’s Watch, even if we have forgotten things. Why not the Three Eyed – Raven, was it?”

“Raven, yes,” said Jon. “I’m not sure what to tell you. Maester Luwin and the rest of my family is going through the manuscripts back in Winterfell. They’ll tell us anything they can.”

Benjen cleared his throat. “The Three-Eyed Raven is also said to be able to see through the faces in the Weirwood trees,” he explained.

“In the Weirwoods -?” spluttered the Smalljon.

“It’s possible he has a connection with the Children of the Forest, at the very least,” said Jon. “We don’t know where the Old Gods fit into all of this, if at all. We need to be careful what we discuss in front of the Heart Trees.”

“And what about making a pact with the Wildlings?” asked Mormont. “Will they not expect to agree to a truce before the Heart Tree?”

“It’s possible,” agreed Jon. “Likely, probably. But if the Three-Eyed Raven is still active north of the Wall, then he’s likely already heard my family discussing treating with the Wildlings, and I have no doubt someone will mention the truce before a Heart Tree eventually. If we break tradition, then it’ll only make him suspicious. We do as expected.”

“And of the Wildlings?” asked Dacey Mormont. “How do you expect to win them over?”

“The Wildlings don’t work like we do,” said Jon. “They chose Mance Rayder as king. They can also un-choose him. We need to offer them something good enough that the majority, at the very least, will go along. Once the majority agree, hopefully some will go with the crowd, and we’ll only have to persuade the hold-outs.”

“Surviving the Long Night should be offer enough,” snorted the Smalljon.

“It should be, yes,” said Jon. “But we don’t know how many of the Wildlings have come in contact with the Others. They’ll all have heard of what’s coming for them, that’s for sure, but it’s one thing to have never experienced it for themselves and then use it to take the Wall – something they’ve been trying to do for generations – and actually having experienced the White Walkers hunting them. We don’t know how desperate they’ll be, so we don’t know what terms they will be willing to take.”

It was something that Sansa had drilled into him: the Free Folk had been desperate by the time they came south of the Wall. There had only been a few tens of thousands of them, at best. The Wildlings at this point in time would be different: much larger in force, and therefore better able to leverage demands.

“It’s something we’ll deal with when we come to it,” said Jon. “I’ve discussed this with Lord Stark many times. I know what he is willing to offer to the Wildlings. The more urgent matter, I think, is whether the Night’s Watch and the people of the North will accept them coming south.”

The Greatjon sighed. “It’s not an easy sell, boy. The Wildlings have been harrying our lands for years beyond remembering. Our people will not be happy to have them amongst us.”

Jon inclined his head in understanding. “We plan to disperse the Wildlings across the entire North, and even further south if the King permits it. What Wildlings come to the Last Hearth will be a minority amongst your people, I assure you. We’re also planning on separating clans that have warred with each other where possible, to minimise warfare as they settle into the North and our ways.”

Mormont had pursed his lips. “I’ll do what I can with the Watch,” he said. “For much of our history, we’ve believed the Wildlings to be our only enemy left. The men won’t be happy to let them through peacefully when we’ve had to defend ourselves from them so many times.”

There was a shout from outside. Benjen sighed. “We should get back out there. Yoren’s spent long enough dealing with the recruits as it is.” Mormont nodded and the party stood. Jon waited by Benjen as the others filed outside. Benjen clapped him by the shoulder when they were alone in the tent. “You spoke well,” he said. “You get it from your father.”

Jon’s heart lurched. “Lord Stark or -” He dropped his voice low. “Or Rhaegar?”

Benjen quirked an eyebrow at him. “Ned, of course. You’ve not got a drop of dragon in you.”

But I rode one, Jon wanted to scream. I rode a dragon named for Rhaegar. I fucked my own aunt just like the Targaryens did and I abandoned my kingdom on the brink of war, just like Rhaegar did.

The words stuck in his throat, and he looked away.

-

“Tell me about Jon Arryn,” said Ned. “When I first received your raven, I had to read it three times over. Jon, betray you?”

Robert’s face was grim. “I don’t know what to tell you, Ned,” said Robert. “Years and years we worked together, and for years before that he’d raised me, and then next thing I know his wife is before me and telling me that he was plotting against me.”

Lysa. His good sister, betraying her husband? It made no sense. Family, duty, honour were the Tully words, and betraying Jon did not align with any of them. “Is there no chance she was mistaken?” asked Ned desperately.

“She was pretty damn convincing,” said Robert. “He threatened my children, Ned. Tell me, if Jory Cassel’s wife came before you, begging for mercy because of her husband’s plots, what would you do?”

“I would investigate,” said Ned.

“So I did,” said Robert, nodding. “He’d been meeting with armorers in the city and looking for any evidence that my children were not my children. Cersei wanted his head, threatened to have her father call in his debts. Sending him to the Watch was the best I could do.”

“He’s dead,” said Ned. He almost continued that Cersei got what she wanted after all, but insulting Robert’s wife – no matter what Robert felt about her – might be pushing a bit far.

Robert stopped in his tracks, turning to look at Ned. “What?”

“They were set upon by bandits not long before they reached Winterfell,” said Ned. “He didn’t make it to the Wall.”

Robert closed his eyes painfully before his face slowly solidified into a grim certainty. “He was a traitor, Ned.”

No, he wasn’t! Ned wanted to yell. You know he isn’t, but you won’t admit it, because if you admitted you sentenced him wrongly – even if you were trying to save his life – then you admit that you had a role in his death.

“I need you,” continued Robert. “The Seven know that Cersei fought me over it the entire way here. She thought that you would have been influenced by Jon, and that her father was a safer option. Prove her wrong. Lord Eddard Stark, I would make you Hand of the King.”

And if I make a misstep, is this how you’ll treat me? thought Ned. Will you throw me aside and call me a traitor for the rest of your life to avoid facing what you have done?

But he didn’t have a choice. The Others were coming. The realm had to be ready.

“Your grace,” said Ned, trailing off. He collected himself. “You know that I would always be honoured to serve you.”

Robert’s face relaxed into a smile. “It’s not an honour, Ned. I want you to rule my bloody kingdom for me while I drink and hunt and whore myself into an early grave.”

“You can’t, your grace,” said Ned. “Only days ago, Lord Commander Mormont and my brother rode back to the Wall with my son, Jon Snow, and with half the heirs to the North at their back. They have reason to believe there’s war coming.”

“With the Wildlings?” said Robert. “Good. I’ve been itching for a fight.”

“Not the Wildlings,” said Ned. “The Others.”

Robert barked out a laugh. “The White Walkers? You really expect me to believe in that, Ned?”

“I know, your grace. It was a struggle for me to accept, too,” said Ned. “But I trust my brother, and if he says that the White Walkers have risen again and are marching on the Wall, then I believe him.”

“They’re a fairy story,” insisted Robert, his face paling in the torchlight.

“We’ve found proof,” said Ned. “Deep in the crypts, we’ve found a room locked away by one of my ancestors, well before the Conquest – perhaps even before the North was unified. There are records in there, and…” Ned envisioned it again, the ice sword hanging on the wall, cold emanating from it like a furnace. “A sword made of ice. It must have been in there over a thousand years and it’s never melted.”

“Fuck me, Ned,” said Robert, drawing to a halt and reaching out a hand to balance against the wall. “This was meant to be a simple visit. I make you Hand of the King, I try to tempt you into breaking your daughter’s betrothal, we all ride back to the shithole that is my capital together.”

“I’m sorry, your grace,” said Ned. “But there’s nothing to be done other than to fight.”

“What’s your boy doing at the Wall?” asked Robert. “Half the North’s heirs can’t be there just to reinforce the Wall.”

“He’s treating with the Wildlings,” said Ned, letting relief flow over him once again that Jon was safely out of reach while Robert was in Winterfell. Robert might not have any idea about Jon’s parentage, but Ned still appreciated the physical distance between them more than he could say. “We look to settle them throughout the North. If the Others are moving again, then we need to empty the lands beyond the Wall of as many people as we can so they cannot build themselves an army.”

Robert’s face paled further. “Gods, I’d forgotten about the – wights, isn’t it?” He pushed himself off the wall and began pacing further down the crypts. “Show me Lyanna,” he ordered.

Ned hurried to fall back into step with Robert. “Do you believe me?” he asked.

“Not yet,” said Robert grimly. “But I think I will.”

They came to Lyanna’s tomb. There was fresh flowers at her feet, a handful of winter roses. They were too fresh to have been left by Jon; Sansa or Arya must have crept down to leave them. Something deep inside Ned warmed at the thought of his daughters reaching out to his sister, even if it had to be in such a tiny way.

Robert stepped close to the tomb, reaching out to brush his fingers against Lyanna’s stone cheek. “Will she be raised by the Others, if they get this far?” he asked. “Turned into a puppet?”

Sansa had died in these crypts, with countless women and children alongside her. Even the Starks would show no mercy if the White Walkers reached Winterfell. “Yes.”

Robert closed his eyes. “I still dream of killing him,” said Robert. “Every night, I cave his chest in. But for her to be brought back…”

“It won’t be her,” cut in Ned.

I know that,” snapped Robert. “If she can’t be with me, then she should be at peace. Those fuckers won’t take it from her.”

“You’ll stand with us?” asked Ned, hope stirring in his chest.

Robert let his hand fall back to his side, straightening his back. There was a gleam to his eyes that Ned remembered from their youth. “Show me what you’ve found.”

-

As the courtyard began to empty, Brienne met Jaime’s eyes and began to draw away from the crowd. She had been in Winterfell long enough – both times – that she knew the quiet places, where to go when one didn’t want to be disturbed. She didn’t watch over her shoulder to make sure that Jaime was following; she knew that he was.

She led him across the castle, down through the covered walkways. The stables, the First Keep and the Library Tower would all be busy, right now, and the Bell Tower was still ringing bells in celebration of Robert’s arrival.

Eventually, she entered the Glass Gardens. There was no one tending to them, not now when there was so much to be done with the royals’ visit. It was not the Godswood, either. She understood Sansa’s logic, why they had to keep meeting before the Heart Tree, but she couldn’t do this in the sight of the Three-Eyed Raven.

In the far, dark corners of the Glass Gardens, Brienne finally came to a stop, turning to watch Jaime approach. He had stopped by the entrance, taking off his white cloak and laying it down by the door before he approached.

“Wench,” he greeted.

Brienne surprised them both by flinging her arms around him. She had been dreading it for months, riding south with Sansa and Arya with a version of Jaime that had never known her, who had never thrown himself into the bearpit, never lost his hand or been stripped of his role as King’s Guard.

Who had never knighted her.

“Did you hear him?” asked Brienne. “Bran Stark?”

“He told me to fulfil my oaths,” said Jaime, hugging her back gently before letting her go. “Is this a common thing?”

“You, me, Theon Greyjoy and Ramsay Bolton so far,” said Brienne.

Jaime wrinkled his nose. “A Bolton?”

“He’s dead,” said Brienne flatly. “We’ve taken care of him. Lady Sansa and Lady Arya woke up with a different message, to unite Westeros before the White Walkers come. We’ve been fortifying the North and the Night’s Watch is treating with the Wildlings.”

“I’ve tried to keep the peace in King’s Landing,” said Jaime. He winced. “Not very successfully. I’ve had Tyrion helping me.”

Brienne nodded. That was good; Sansa trusted Tyrion (or at least, trusted him as much as she trusted anyone outside the Stark household) and would be able to work with him in King’s Landing. If the two joined forces and shared knowledge, they would be able to get a lot done that they wouldn’t be able to do alone. “You and he will have to meet with Sansa and Arya, let them know what you’ve done so far.”

“Did you lot warn Jon Arryn?” asked Jaime. “I tried, but he didn’t seem to trust me much until all of a sudden, he did.”

“Sansa and Arya sent an anonymous letter,” said Brienne. “What happened there?”

Jaime grimaced. “It’s a long story. Best we wait till we can meet with the Stark girls so I don’t have to tell it twice.”

“The Broken Tower,” decided Brienne. “We’ll all make our excuses at the feast and meet there tonight.”

Jaime’s jaw set, his eyes going hard and distant. “Must it be the Broken Tower?”

“It’s the quietest place,” said Brienne. “We’re least likely to be disturbed there.” Well, besides for in the Godswood, but she wasn’t sure how much of Jaime’s story the Three-Eyed Raven should hear. Something seized in Brienne’s chest every time she entered the Godswood now, knowing what she did.

“Is there anything they need to know?” asked Brienne. “Anything I should tell them without waiting for tonight?”

“No,” said Jaime. “Wait, yes. There is one thing. There’s someone else.”